The Western Conference’s Southwest Division is a monster, with three teams harboring realistic title aspirations, and a fourth always a capable regular-season team. No division in sports matches the Southwest Division’s firepower.
1) New Orleans Hornets
An emerging powerhouse, the Hornets may very well be the very best the West has to offer. Everyone knows about Chris Paul’s exploits—his supreme quickness, his spectacular right handed handle, his precision lob passes—but whereas CP3 gives the Hornets style, their interior defense give them substance.
Tyson Chandler has developed into the best defensive big man in the league, while David West is simply a superb two-way player. Plus, they’re both sprightly and athletic, allowing them to not only start, but often finish, the Hornets’ fearsome fast break.
James Posey’s had a habit of following up successful seasons by showing up out of shape and not working as hard the year after. Plus he’s already lost a half a step. If he shows up energized from day one, he’ll give the Hornets a defensive physicality and swagger that could rival Boston’s, Detroit’s, San Antonio’s, and Houston’s. Just as important, he’ll make the money shots after Peja Stojakovic waves his magic wand and disappears in the postseason.
Depth is a major concern. Hilton Armstrong and Melvin Ely are career mediocrities. Does Julian Wright have the experience to refine his remarkable athletic traits into a consistent performer off the bench? Are Rasual Butler and Devin Brown good enough to provide quality minutes? Do the Hornets have the goods to acquire a veteran backup point guard once Mike James’ habit of force-feeding his own offense banishes him from Byron Scott’s rotation?
How much Posey has left and who the Hornets can pick up at the trade deadline will determine their ultimate fate.
2) San Antonio Spurs
Reports of San Antonio’s demise have been greatly exaggerated. Even last year, despite the usual chorus of “too old,” and “too slow,” the Spurs stayed the course and persevered into the Western Conference Finals despite their most dynamic playmaker playing with one foot.
Still, while the ship is strong and sturdy, and the captain and crew are wise, the hull is creaking and leaks are springing up.
While Tim Duncan remains the gold standard for NBA big men, and Tony Parker is unstoppable from getting into the paint, the team’s role players are full of question marks.
Michael Finley is bullseye late in the fourth quarter, but can he make a shot anytime before then? Can Bruce Bowen fend off Father Time, or will this be a second consecutive year Bowen loses a step? Is Ime Udoka going to stop making so many mistakes, and start evolving into Bruce Bowen part two? Has Matt Bonner’s defense evolved to the point where Gregg Popovich trusts him in big moments? Is Roger Mason Jr. hardwired to playing alert help defense, and to making correct decisions on offense?
Here’s what we do know about the Spurs:
Manu Ginobili will come back from ankle surgery in mid-December, sparking the team through the January-through-All-Star Break doldrums. The team prepares so well, and is so alert, that opposing offenses will still have trouble executing their favorite plays. Salim Stoudamire will bring more to the table than Damon Stoudamire did. The majority of San Antonio’s difficult road games take place the end of January and later. And Tim Duncan always delivers his finest performances when the Spurs need them the most.
Expect the Spurs to peak in the second half and travel deep into the postseason.
3) Houston Rockets
No team in the NBA walks such a fine line between possible disaster and potential glory as the Houston Rockets do.
If everything breaks the right way, the Rockets will have a number of potential championship features. Namely:
- A formidable defensive frontcourt anchored by Ron Artest, Shane Battier, and Yao Ming, with Artest and Battier forming the most physical forward tandem in the league.
- The best pure center in the league—until Dwight Howard develops defensive recognition and moves in the post.
- If Artest’s hard-edged persona rubs off on Yao, a tougher, more forceful behemoth down low.
- With Artest able to create his own shot, Tracy McGrady won’t have to be counted on to create all of Houston’s offense.
- If Artest’s hard-edged persona rubs off on T-Mac, a tougher, more-forceful penetrator more inclined to initiate contact rather than avoid it.
- A slew of hard-working power forwards who get more out of their effort than out of their talent.
However, the potential plusses are mitigated by the potential minuses. To wit:
- The potential for chronic and/or serious injuries which could wipe out most of Houston’s offense. Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming have each missed significant chunks of seasons in recent memory, and even Ron Artest hasn’t played more than 70 games since 2004.
- If Artest’s insistence of forcing his hard-edged persona on his teammates isn’t universally accepted, the entire locker room might fracture, and the trust and confidence required to play even mediocre basketball will severely dissipate.
- In Artest and McGrady, the Rockets have two players who take a long time to make decisions and inhibit complicated offenses from being run. Can either adapt to one other, and can Rick Adelman come up with an offense that integrates each star?
- The collection of power forwards try hard—but each is undersized, and only marginally athletic.
- Rafer Alston has demonstrated an inadequacy to defend bigger guards, to make tough decisions under pressure, and to shoot consistently from game to game.
- Can the collection of Brent Barry, Luther Head, Steve Francis, Aaron Brooks, and D.J. Strawberry provide acceptable backup point guard minutes? Due to Barry’s ability to add ball movement and three-point shooting to an offense, and Strawberry’s length and defensive toughness, they should be given the inside track to back up Alston.
Assuming Ron Artest plays nice and the team stays healthy, the Rockets do have the talent and the toughness to leave their imprint on the Western Conference, and they should be resourceful enough to compensate for their flaws. Of course, haphazardly making those assumptions requires one to believe in the Easter Bunny, Santa Clause, the Tooth Fairy, etc.
4) Dallas Mavericks
With the competition so vastly improved, the Mavericks are no longer title contenders—or even playoff locks as of now. Still, Rick Carlisle gives the Mavericks a final shot at making a run at a championship.
Avery Johnson’s uptempo, isolation-oriented offense will be scrapped for a slower, more cohesive attack. That will mean more off-ball movement, and more of Jason Kidd making decisions—plusses for everyone. However, does Kidd have anything left in the tank? He can’t penetrate like he used to, his post game has disappeared, and his always been a spotty shooter. Everything Kidd does will come from his brain, not his body.
Dirk Nowitzki showed heart for the first time in his career late last season—until he was punked by Tyson Chandler and David West in the first round of the playoffs. Is Dirk destined to flop around, avoid attacking the rim, fail to finish with contact, and metaphorically—and in last year’s case, literally—fail to respond when an opponent slaps him in the face?
Can Erick Dampier avoid the chronic foul trouble that leaves him bench-ridden most of games? Is Jerry Stackhouse still in the league? Is Josh Howard ready to play mature basketball on the court, despite his irresponsible antics off the court? Will Carlisle give Dasagana Diop the playing time he deserves?
Of all the flaws the Mavs suffer from, the most profound one is a lack of competitive edge. A coach and a fading superstar can’t transform a lack of heart. After this year’s inevitable first-round exit, will Dallas finally do the sensible thing and blow things up?
5) Memphis Grizzlies
The $100,000 question is, “will the Grizzlies finish with a better or worse record than the Thunder?” Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, and Mike Conley give the Grizzlies a nice stockpile of young talent that may or may not develop four to five years down the road.
The big men are horrific. Marc Gasol is young and inexperienced. Darko Milicic is slow and stiff Hakim Warrick is a toothpick, and Antoine Walker should’ve retired after collecting his 2006 championship ring. Marc Iavaroni hasn’t been able to convince Warrick and Milicic to be earnest role players—to be physically strong, to box out diligently, to set solid screens, and to defend—and the legit players on the roster have suffered because of it.
Nobody on the roster knows or want to play acceptable halfcourt defense, except the misplaced Greg Buckner. Nobody has been developed into an acceptable supporting cast member. There’s no structure to the offense, just isolations and ineffective screen/rolls.
For the mercy of the Grizzlies, Marc Iavaroni needs to be fired and replaced with a teacher and a nurturer, unless Memphis wants to preside over a team permanently in basketball adolescence.