NBA Southwest Division
1. San Antonio Spurs
After falling to the Miami Heat in the 2013 NBA Finals, the San Antonio Spurs enter this upcoming season with much of the same team. Stalwarts Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all return to try and win yet another title before their seemingly endless window of opportunity finally closes.
Duncan, at age 37, is still arguably the best PF in the NBA and should have another solid season this year as he has shown no signs of slowing down. Parker had one of his best seasons last year, averaging 20 ppg and 7.6 apg. He continues to demonstrate that he has the star power to lead this Spurs team to victory even in Duncan’s slowly declining production. Ginobili had a very rough post season in which many wondered what all he had left in the tank. This year, with a new contract, Ginobili will set out to prove that he can still play basketball at a star level. The last couple of seasons, he has been plagued with injuries, so look for this season to be no different.
Coach Gregg Popovich has been masterful in his management of Duncan and Ginobili, so no matter Manu’s injury situation, know that Pop will make sure he is at his healthiest come playoff time. Popovich is the true reason for the Spurs great success. He runs a flawless system in which each and every player is held responsible for his actions, and manages minutes so that no single player is too fatigued come season’s end. The results are obvious: the Spurs have been the single most dominant team this decade and should continue to dominate this season as well.
2. Houston Rockets
The Houston Rockets easily had the most exciting offseason with the signing of superstar Dwight Howard. Paired with All-NBA SG James Harden, the Rockets will have one of the most exciting pick-and-roll duos in the NBA. Howard had a disappointing season last year with the Los Angeles Lakers, a season in which he was still suffering the effects of an offseason back surgery and yet still led the league in rebounding at 12.4 rpg. This season, Howard says he is completely recovered from back surgery and should return to the All-NBA First Team form that he displayed with his numerous years in Orlando.
Sadly, the acquisition of Howard has left C Omer Asik in a rough spot. Last season, as the starting center for the Rockets, Asik broke out to average 10 ppg and 11.7 rpg, good for third in the league. However now with Howard coming in, Asik will be moved to the bench, a move that Asik has already stated will not be welcomed by him. It will be interesting to see how this situation is resolved; will Asik accept the role off the bench or will the Rockets be forced to move him to another team?
It will also be interesting to watch how PG Jeremy Lin plays this season. Last season he started out strong, but steadily lost touches and minutes as the season went along, due in part to Harden’s emergence as a dribble-heavy superstar and also due to the emergence of backup PG Patrick Beverly. Beverly will definitely command more minutes this season, so is this the year that Lin gets shipped out as well?
3. Memphis Grizzlies
In an improving division, the Memphis Grizzles did not make any substantial improvements to their squad this offseason. A decline might be coming soon if changes are not made. Last year the Grizzles solved their inside-outside hybrid offensive mess by sending SF Rudy Gay to Toronto, setting their offense to now be completely post-centric. Bigmen Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph form the most formidable post duo in the league. They play rough, they play well, and they can each score from a wide variety of moves. Along with SG Tony Allen, these three form the backbone to the best defense in the league, which allowed only 89.3 ppg last season, a league best. The rest of the starting five is solid with SF Tayshaun Prince and PG Mike Conley, but the bench leaves a bit to be desired, especially in a division that is quickly becoming one of the best in the league. Three players who have the potential to make an impact are G Jerryd Bayless, F Ed Davis, and F Quincy Pondexter. Bayless is an explosive scorer who struggled with decision-making early in his career, yet is now maturing into a solid backup point guard. Davis, initially drafted by Toronto to replace PF Chris Bosh when he left for Miami, hasn’t lived up to such high expectations yet still displays a nose for rebounding and a knack for finishing down low efficiently. Pondexter is a shooter who can get hot in a hurry. His shooting percentages have steadily risen each season since he came into the league, so there is no reason to believe that trend won’t continue. How well these three players have improved this offseason will determine how strong of a bench Memphis has, and a strong bench can only mean good things to a team with a as solid a starting five as the Memphis Grizzles.
4. New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans are the team that I am personally most excited to watch this season. This offseason signed swingman Tyreke Evans from Sacramento and also traded away draft pick Nerlens Noel to the Philadelphia 76ers for All-Star PG Jrue Holiday.
Evans, although he is easily a starting level talent, will most likely come off the bench in a 6th man role to provide a spark for the Pelicans’ second unit. Against other teams secondaries, look for Evans to put up very efficient scoring numbers as his sole purpose will be to punish lesser talented players, something Evans does very well.
Holiday comes in as the starter and will run the offense. He will have less of a scoring role than he did in Philadelphia now that he has prolific scorer Eric Gordon with him in the backcourt and young star Anthony Davis in the frontcourt.
Many have Davis pegged for a breakout season, and I must agree. Last season as a rookie, Davis averaged 13 and 8 along with 1.8 bpg in only 28 mpg. Now playing around 35 minutes each game, look for those stats to reach around 18 and 10 with 2+ blocks a game.
Gordon, the last few seasons, has been a major injury concern, but he came back at the end of last season to play 42 games and average 17ppg. When healthy, Gordon is one of the top shooting guards in the league. He can score, he can defend, he can hit the three and he can drive it strong to the bucket, yet so many times he is inactive due to injury. This preseason he has looked healthy, so expect him to be good to go for the start of the season, yet I still expect only around 60 games from him this year simply due to his history with injuries.
This Pelicans team improved a lot this offseason, maybe the most of any team, so look for them to be suddenly competitive in the very strong Western Conference.
5. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks simply refuse to go into rebuilding mode. This season, instead of dumping some of their multiple aging veterans for young players, the Mavs signed more aging veteran players, apparently hoping to squeeze every ounce of talent out of these ancient men to win one more championship before Dirk finally retires. Still here are veterans Nowitzki, Vince Carter, and Shawn Marion, each one far from the players they once were.
Nowitzki still has a little bit to bring to the table, since it’s well known that jump shooters age gracefully. Dirk took a while to get going last season after he came back from injury, which brought up many questions about his future as a team centerpiece. This season, Dirk wants to prove that he can still lead a team to success, and with Mark Cuban going out and signing talent in a win-now mindset, it’s obvious that Cuban still believes that Dirk can be the centerpiece of a championship team.
New this year are guards Jose Calderon, Monta Ellis, Devon Harris and center Samuel Dalembert. Calderon is a pass-first point guard with an excellent shooting touch who will be an immediate upgrade over Darren Collison, who struggled mightily last season. Harris and Dalembert are both veterans who have seen better days, and will be looking to use this season to show the league that they are not washed up yet. Ellis is a prolific scorer brought in to replace OJ Mayo, who signed with the Bucks this offseason. The Mavs hope to pair Ellis’ outside slashing ability with Dirk’s still unstoppable post game along with Carter and Calderon around the perimeter to hit some outside jumpers.
Five years ago, this roster would win the Championship, but with the league steadily transitioning to a higher paced game, a younger man’s game, more age is not the best recipe for success. Despite Cuban’s high hopes, this team will not make the playoffs for the second straight year.