The San Antonio Spurs made a flying start to their season with a victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, a sexy sleeper pick to contend for the Western Conference crown. Opening the season with a win is a positive against any opponent, but of even greater importance, the victory came within the division.
In 2010-2011, the Spurs finished with a 10-6 record against the Hornets, Grizzlies, Mavericks and Rockets, the top mark in the division, springing them to a Southwest Division title. In fact, every other division champion had the top in-division record as well. Clearly, taking care of business against your closest rivals is a recipe for success.
Division record will be of even greater importance in 2011-12. The NBA lockout resulted in 16 games being cut, though no divisional matchups were sacrificed. As a result, each team will play almost 25 percent of their games against their division opponents, as opposed to the normal 20 percent.
I wouldn't be surprised to see Spurs coach Gregg Popovich, after seeing the effects of fatigue on Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their first-round upset, rest his stars through quite a few games this year. However, San Antonio will undoubtedly be at full strength for their divisional matchups.
Here's a look at how San Antonio stacks up against their Southwest Division foes.
The New Orleans Hornets enter this season working on establishing a new identity. After years of relying on the two-man game of Chris Paul and David West, both have moved on, and the previously complementary players must step into more pivotal roles.
The pain of losing their two stars will be eased by the acquisition of Eric Gordon, Chris Kaman and Al-Faroug Aminu, but the Hornets are now undeniably in rebuilding mode.
Gordon, who scored 22 points per game against the Spurs last season, will be the biggest concern for the San Antonio defense. He is an elite 2-guard who has posted high shooting percentages throughout his career.The Spurs will likely use a rotation of defenders against Gordon, most notably Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard, in an effort to force him into contested shots and keep him out of the lane.
Inside, Tim Duncan and Tiago Splitter should have little trouble containing the offensively-challenged center duo of Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman, while DeJuan Blair and Carl Landry will trade blows in a battle of energetic, but under-sized post players.
Duncan may not have his top offensive outputs against the Hornets, as the previously mentioned offensively-challenged center position excels on the defensive end. However, the Hornets will struggle to check the diverse perimeter options San Antonio possesses.
Trevor Ariza is a quality perimeter defender, but Ginobili's creativity with the ball in his hands makes him virtually match up proof. Tony Parker should be able to find space in the lane as well, which will leave sharpshooters Richard Jefferson, Matt Bonner and James Anderson with open trey opportunities all game long.
Expect the Spurs to ride their perimeter advantage to a sweep of the Hornets.
Despite the Spurs' resounding victory on opening night, Memphis should be San Antonio's toughest division opponent. Not taking care of the basketball was the Grizzlies' problem in the first game, giving away possession an incredible 25 times. For a team that averaged only 14 a game over the last campaign, I consider last night's performance to simply be an anomaly.
The Spurs showed admirably on the defensive interior against Memphis, completely shutting down Zach Randolph with high pressure and physical play, but I don't expect him to be so passive in their remaining matchups. Furthermore, the disparity in athleticism on the perimeter will be a problem for the Spurs.
Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo can get to the basket against most defenders, and without a true rim protector outside of Duncan, the Grizzlies' wings will have big performances.
To be successful in the three remaining matchups, San Antonio needs to keep the same intensity while forcing Memphis to become a jump-shooting team. After hitting just 33 percent of their three-pointers last year (while attempting the fewest of any team), the Grizzlies offense should be out of sorts if the Spurs decide to simply pack in the half-court defense.
San Antonio's offensive blueprint against Memphis was revealed last night: Take care of the ball, allow Ginobili to make plays off the dribble and hit open threes. If the Spurs can be as offensively efficient as they were last night, you can expect San Antonio to split the season series with Memphis.
Dirk Nowitzki: "We look old and slow and out of shape — a bad combination."
Couldn't have said it better myself. The Mavericks will surely get out of their funk sooner rather than later, but this team has serious personnel problems.
Dirk was so successful in the playoffs partly because the presence of Tyson Chandler enabled him to focus on his elite offensive game. With Brendan Haywood replacing the departed rim protector, Nowitzki defensive and rebounding responsibilities have increased, enabling him less freedom to focus on dominating the game with his post moves and deadly shot.
The perimeter players are another year older, and look like they spent the entire offseason shunning their workouts.
When the Mavs meet the Spurs, scoring will be a challenge. I assume Nowitzki will get his points, and Jason Terry can score in bunches, but the other options are underwhelming.
Shawn Marion and Vince Carter don't have the same burst they once did, and will struggle to find their shot. Unless the Mavericks have an especially strong day from Carter or Marion, points will be at a premium.
On the other hand, I see San Antonio scoring with ease. Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker should get to the rim at will, and they'll be able to find Tim Duncan and the outside shooters in favorable positions, resulting in a high number of open looks.
I don't think a team with a weapon like Dirk Nowitzki will be swept, but expect a repeat of last season's series, with the Spurs winning 3-1.
The Rockets enter the season as one of the most underrated teams in the league. They hit a speed bump in regards to the Stern trade veto, but as long as Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic can remain professional, I think the Rockets will be challenging for a playoff spot come April.
One knock against San Antonio is their lack of quality depth, and Houston has the deep, athletic roster to exploit it. There are no bona fide stars on the perimeter for the Rockets, but Martin, Dragic, Kyle Lowry, Chase Budinger, Courtney Lee and Terrance Williams will rotate efficiently, causing problems for an older team whose legs will be shot by the fourth quarter.
Martin, in particular, should have success against the Spurs' guards. He's a deadly three-point shooter, but is also adept at getting to the rim and drawing contact. In the frontcourt, Scola is point forward with an athletic advantage over the Spurs bigs.
Down low, the Spurs may struggle to put up points against an underrated defender in Scola, and the shot-blocking specialist Dalembert. However, the Rockets' perimeter defense will do little to contain Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who took turns lighting up Houston last season.
Expect these contests to come down to scoring battles between the backcourts, with the teams splitting the season series.
Last season the Southwest Division was an example of parity, as they finished as the only division with four playoff representatives. Despite the fact that many are writing off the Hornets and Rockets, I expect the Southwest to again be one of the most competitive in basketball.
If the Spurs perform to my predictions, they'll finish with an 11-5 division record, putting themselves in a great position to take the division crown and enter the playoffs with a precious home-court advantage in the opening round.