If someone had told you one year ago that the pride of the NBA's Southwest Division would soon be the New Orleans Hornets, you would have had a thousand questions. The Spurs, Mavericks, and Rockets are struggling to return to form so far in the 2008-09 season.
Let's go team by team to break down the slow starts.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs haven't had a start this bad in the Tim Duncan era. In fact, this feels eerily like the Rockets of the last few years. Injuries plague an elite defensive team, leaving them looking desperately for an offensive weapon. But that's not all.
The bench depth has become suspect for the Spurs. San Antonio once had a magnificent second unit of veterans who still had a quick step (Finley, Horry, Barry, Vaughn). The young players on the team, Parker, Ginobili, and Oberto have the demeanor of long-time veterans. That's the culture that has won them four titles.
This time around, the Spurs will surely rebound like always, especially when their two leading scorers return to the lineup. However, even then, you wonder whether their depth can compete with that of the Lakers and Celtics—who now have the experience and energetic role players the Spurs once did.
The Spurs started out with respectable losses to the Suns and Blazers. But then, they needed two overtimes and 55 points from Parker to beat the Wolves. They got burned at home by a more talented Heat team. Jeff Van Gundy, who usually drools over San Antonio, said during the game that the Spurs just do not have the talent on the floor to match the Heat and other teams.
One of the primary lineups the Spurs used in that game was Anthony Tolliver, George Hill, Ime Udoka, Roger Mason, and Desmond Farmer. Read that again. Where were Bruce Bowen and Kurt Thomas to thwart Wade and Beasley? If the Spurs want to make it through the season, those players will need to be on the court more.
These Spurs are still championship worthy. A lineup of Duncan, Ginobili, Parker, Finley, Oberto, Bowen, and Thomas can win. These guys are cohesive and tested. They just need a spark.
The next month will definitely be ugly for the Spurs, but they will rebound, grab a spot in the playoffs, and compete like always. But the slow start has unearthed some shortcomings in San Antonio's depth.
Maybe these young players will come into their own, like for so many Spurs teams in the past. Maybe not. Either way, the young legs of Ginobili and Parker are going to be carrying the offensive load for this team when they get back.
Many people predicted that this season that the Mavs were going to fall out of championship contention. But right now, they're hurting badly. They can't hold a lead on their home court.
The Clippers drubbed them to get their first win of the season.
Dallas' starting lineup looks solid on paper. Their core has been intact for the last few years, but they've taken an obvious turn for the worse. Is it Jason Kidd? He's holding his own this year, distributing the ball well, running the floor, and giving the Mavs a semblance of energy they didn't have last season. Is it age? Those core players seem to be as quick as ever.
The best explanations are depth and heart. The bench consists of Brandon Bass, Jerry Stackhouse, and Dasagna Diop. Stackhouse has been lifeless, and Diop is no scorer. Bass is always solid, but beyond that, there is very little to be comforted by.
Their playoff exits in 2006 to the Heat and in 2007 to the Warriors can be modestly described as demoralizing. Nowitzki has shown flashes of passion since then, but he also renders himself dead when it counts.
The Mavs had the Rockets and Lakers in their grasp at home going into the final period, but in the fourth quarter of those games, Nowitzki scored one point and zero points. These are the teams he has to light up in the fourth quarter.
If the Mavs are going to turn it around at all, it has to start with Nowitzki actually making field goals when the Mavs need it most. He is by far their primary scorer. The next most reliable scorer is Josh Howard.
Nowitzki has played well, otherwise, but until he starts doing something for his team in those desperate and nail-biting moments, not much more can be said about the plight of the Mavericks.
Except for this: Rick Carlisle and Jason Kidd can get it done for these Mavs. They can change the culture, give the team energy on defense and offense, and make them winners again. It might take some time, but these Mavs might be a dark horse in the spring.
Or, they could be in the lottery.
They're 4-3, losing only to the Celtics, Lakers, and Blazers. It might not be great, but is it really that bad? Ah, well, you have not watched them play. A sign of great teams is that they can win even when they play ugly. The Rockets definitely know how to do that.
They have done it for four years. Bad starts are also typical for these Rockets. Two of their 50-win seasons in the last four years started out 15-15. This core knows how to step it up late in the season (see: 22-game winning streak). However, this time around, the Rockets are not supposed to look so bad. What do I mean by "bad"? Let me describe it to you.
Against the Lakers, the Rockets played a solid first half. Their young, but energetic role players, Aaron Brooks and Carl Landry have been a blessing. Luis Scola is on fire. Chuck Hayes has played phenomenal defense.
But then, after 10 beautiful minutes against the best team in basketball, it all turned to hell. What do the Rockets do during these stretches? Almost every offensive play is a ridiculous jump shot without any effort to get to the basket. Everything else is a botched layup, or something worse altogether...Yao without his shooting touch. It goes bad, all around.
Tracy McGrady has been two-faced. He has had two 27+ point nights followed by two single-digit duds. Artest started the season on fire, but since has resorted to shooting threes instead of using his body to get in the lane. Yao is just off with his shot, which will probably fix itself pretty quickly.
However, as the season is so young, shooting slumps and rust are not out of the ordinary. That's what this boils down to. It looks like it will only get better for the Rockets, barring injury. Three All-Stars don't stay cold for long (McGrady almost always turns it up about 20 games into the season).
They have depth, and their defense comes to play every night. This team has a habit of starting badly and then getting it together later on. They are a cohesive unit, and as of now, Artest isn't the problem. And the team's rock, their beacon of consistency and character, Shane Battier, has yet to play a minute.
Nevertheless, four of their five starters are in shooting slumps, and when that happens, you know you still need to sweep the dust off from the offseason.
All three of these Texas teams hope it's that simple.