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NBA offseason grades: Southwest division

Offseason Grades: Southwest Division
 

The more things change in the Southwest Division, the more they remain the same. Dallas owner Mark Cuban is still spending gobs of money and the magicians in the San Antonio front office have upgraded the roster without a luxury-tax hit. Houston's Yao Ming continues to gauge the strength and pain of the NBA's most put-upon feet, and the Hornets' fate still rests on the whims, wiles and fitness of Chris Paul. And in Memphis, the Grizzlies remain long shots to make the playoffs.

BDallas Mavericks

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Dirk didn't bolt
Dirk Nowitzki (pictured) caused at least a little bit of anxiety in Dallas when, after the Mavericks' third first-round playoff exit in four years, he opted out of the final year of his contract to become a free agent. But he didn't spend a lot of time exploring the market, re-signing for less than max money to enable another retooling in Big D.

Taller in the saddle
The Lakers have shown that length looms large in a championship chase. Counting Nowitzki, the Mavs brought back or otherwise obtained four 7-footers this offseason, scouring Cuban's deep pockets to re-sign Brendan Haywood to six years and $55 million, and trade for Tyson Chandler and Alexis Ajinca from Charlotte. And don't forget the two-year deal for 6-11 Ian Mahinmi, a former Spur. The wings are 6-7 (Shawn Marion and Caron Butler) and the point guard is 6-4 (Jason Kidd). If they buy into coach Rick Carlisle's preference for a defensive identity, they could present an imposing challenge to the reigning champs.

WHAT WENT WRONG

Consolation prizes
Chandler is a nice piece, especially at the defensive end, but the Mavs had hopes of using Erick Dampier's expiring contract and some of their other assets to secure a big star or a more valuable secondary name such as Al Jefferson or Udonis Haslem. Didn't happen.

Juggling of minutes and egos will continue
There was a sour tang in the air on the Dallas sidelines as the Spurs eliminated the Mavs from the playoffs last season. Marion and Butler weren't hiding their displeasure with Carlisle's substitutions, and second-guessers wondered why the coach wasn't riding the red-hot Roddy Beaubois. The job doesn't get easier for the coach this season, as he'll have to navigate more competition for frontcourt minutes; Butler's hopes for a big season in the last year of his deal; Jason Terry's need of 1,500 minutes (or an average of 18.3 over 82 games) to guarantee the full salary in the last year of his deal in 2011-12; and the prospect of having Marion (who previously grumbled his way out of a great situation in Phoenix) on the books through at least 2013.

The window is closing, and fresh air is in short supply
Six of the top seven players in the Mavs' rotation -- Kidd, Terry, Nowitzki, Marion, Butler and Haywood -- are at least 30. The exception is the 28-year-old Chandler, whose contract expires at the end of the year. Even if Dallas doesn't re-sign him or any of the others with expiring deals -- including Butler, J.J. Barea and DeShawn Stevenson -- the Mavs are unlikely to have cap flexibility in 2011-12 and will be staring at monster deals for Nowitzki and Haywood that may look even worse in a post-lockout environment.

BOTTOM LINE

Whatever you think of Cuban, he puts his money where his mouth is and tries to win at all costs. The talent is there for a championship run. But what about the chemistry?

 
C+Houston Rockets

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

Yao's progress: Slow but steady
Yao (pictured) chose the slowest news period of the NBA year to say that he'd retire if his surgically repaired foot regressed again this season, stirring more publicity than the ultimately benign statement warranted. Yes, any base supporting a 7-6, 310-pound center is subject to stress and scrutiny. But as of now, his rehab continues to move forward, one ginger step at a time.

Scola and Lowry back in the fold
Along with undersized center Chuck Hayes and defensive swingman Shane Battier, power forward Luis Scola and backup point guard Kyle Lowry provide Houston with a blue-collar identity characterized by grit and perseverance, which is why the Rockets sought to keep both restricted free agents. General manager Daryl Morey matched Cleveland's four-year, $23.5 million offer sheet for Lowry and negotiated a five-year, $47 million payout to retain Scola. It was an expensive but necessary step if Houston is to make the playoffs this season.

A solid draft pick
Patrick Patterson is a Rockets prototype: undersized (he's a 6-9, 235-pound power forward out of Kentucky) but unselfish with a high motor and realistic appraisal of his skill set. Capable of playing up-tempo but willing to bang in the half court, he's mature enough to help right away and is an excellent value with the No. 14 pick.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The unwelcome lap of luxury
Even after shedding Tracy McGrady's albatross contract, the new deals for Scola and Lowry put Houston into luxury-tax territory, uncomfortable terrain for a club that hasn't added any significant pieces -- aside from a (hopefully) healthy Yao -- to a roster that missed the playoffs last year.

Betting on a big man past his prime
The Bulls really needed Brad Miller to fill the void when center Joakim Noah went down last year. But every aspect of Miller's game -- shooting, rebounding, assists -- took a precipitous drop, and at 34 with more than 23,000 minutes on his meter, future seasons of reliable production are in doubt. But Morey and the Rockets had enough faith to pony up $15 million over three years (though the last year is only partially guaranteed), a deal that could prove even more costly if Houston ends up being a tax team.

BOTTOM LINE

For better or worse, the coming year is all about Yao, whose contract expires at the end of the season. His health is the difference between a formidable contender and a scrappy little team on the fringe of the playoffs.

 
B+Memphis Grizzlies

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WHAT WENT RIGHT

A renewed committment from ownership
When Memphis set up the Lakers to win back-to-back titles by trading Pau Gasol in 2008, it unfairly tarred franchise owner Michael Heisley as a mere salary-dumping cheapskate. (Heisley had paid the luxury tax when Jerry West was GM and got Pau's younger brother, Marc, an emerging big man, in the Lakers deal.) In that sense, the whopping five-year, $82 million deal given to restricted free agent Rudy Gay (pictured) -- the Grizzlies' second- or third-best player last season -- sent the message that Heisley will (over)pay to keep his young core together.

Building a bench with the right role player
Last year's encouraging 16-game improvement (to 40-42) still unearthed a couple of glaring flaws: The Grizzlies had the NBA's least productive bench and few players on the roster committed to defense. Signing Tony Allen, a former Celtics swingman and LeBron playoff pest, to a reasonable three-year, $9.7 million contract is a savvy attempt to remedy both problems.

No Thabeets = a productive draft
The 19-year-old Xavier Henry, the 12th pick in the draft, can afford to be brought along slowly (and might not need to be) as a 6-6 shooting guard behind O.J. Mayo. Another first-round pick was spent on 6-6 Greivis Vasquez, a 23-year-old point guard out of Maryland who might offer immediate help at a position of need for Memphis.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The potential fallout from Gay's deal
The strong, immediate commitment to Gay sent a positive message about supportive ownership. But how will Heisley's overpayment affect the pecking order, especially with respect to Gay and Mayo, who both want alpha status (ditto Zach Randolph, a potential free agent after the season) at crunch time? And if Mayo continues to improve, isn't Gay's contract the starting point for his negotiations?

Xavier Henry is still unsigned
The dispute between Henry's high-profile agent, Arn Tellem, and Grizzlies management is over whether a portion of his rookie-scale salary should be earned through incentives or be guaranteed. It is a relatively small amount of money (about $300,000) with increasingly large consequences if the rookie remains in street clothes come training camp.

Summer League disappointments
The salary spat prevented Henry from suiting up for any of the summer action in Vegas. Meanwhile, Mayo's attempt to add spot point guard duties to his résumé was victimized by a blizzard of turnovers.

BOTTOM LINE

As the Grizzlies enter the season with a heretofore rare combination of optimism and momentum, every one of the top 10 players in their rotation is under 30.

 
DNew Orleans Hornets

Greg Nelson/SI
WHAT WENT RIGHT

A new front office with a patient, winning pedigree
The Hornets made an unsuccessful run at Tom Thibodeau before settling on Portland assistant Monty Williams to replace interim coach Jeff Bower, who also lost his GM job. To fill the front-office vacancy, they tapped Spurs vice president Dell Demps, who turned down a similar offer in Phoenix to come to New Orleans. Both the Trail Blazers and Spurs have eschewed quick fixes and built their rosters via comprehensive scouting and advanced statistics. It is a wise strategy for the small-market Hornets.

NBA's best 25-and-under backcourt is at full force
Chris Paul (pictured) is recovered from last season's injuries, and, at 25, is ready to re-establish himself as the best point guard in the game. Last year's stellar draft choices, Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, both 23, have a year's experience and will be a crucial part of the regular rotation from the opening tap this season.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The CP3 soap opera
Perhaps it is a temporary bout of frustration. After a phenomenal start to the 2009-10 season, injuries shelved Paul enough that pundits were deposing him as the NBA's best point guard in favor of Deron Williams or Rajon Rondo during the playoffs. Then a bunch of his friends from the 2008 Olympic team rocked the league with their move to Miami. Now, according to various reports, Paul has openly pined to leave New Orleans for a better chance at relevancy through winning. With two years before Paul can become a free agent, the new brain trust has to prove it can build a contender or reap a king's ransom to let him depart.

Still no financial room to maneuver
Paul's $14.9 million for this season is worth every penny, but the same can't be said for Peja Stojakovic's $14.3 million (thankfully off the books after this season) and Emeka Okafor's $11.5 million (plus another $41 million through 2014). That hamstrings efforts to get Paul excited about New Orleans again. And another potentially productive draft (forward Craig Brackins and swingman Quincy Pondexter) isn't likely to pay the immediate dividends of the 2009 draft bonanza.

BOTTOM LINE

Anytime your franchise cornerstone makes noises about leaving, it qualifies as a wretched offseason.

 
A-San Antonio Spurs

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
WHAT WENT RIGHT

The Jefferson-Splitter parlay
After his disappointing first year in San Antonio, Richard Jefferson (pictured) caught many off guard by declining a $15.2 million option to become a free agent. The Spurs then surprised observers in re-signing the 30-year-old small forward to a four-year, $39 million deal. But with less money on the front end than they would have paid if Jefferson exercised the option, the Spurs were able to get under the luxury tax even with the signing of star Euroleague center Tiago Splitter to a three-year, $11 million contract, a huge bargain according to those who have followed the 2007 first-round pick. The two moves led to speculation that San Antonio had a handshake deal with Jefferson. What's clear is that Jefferson now has financial security through the potential lockout and the Spurs have an improved roster for 2010-11.

Another draft, another likely coup for R.C. Buford & Co.
The Spurs landed a proven scorer and pick-and-roll fiend from a major college program when it took 6-6 swingman James Anderson of Oklahoma State with the 20th pick. Solid three-point shooting has been a Spurs signature, but they fell out of the top 10 in that category last year. Don't be surprised if Anderson quickly finds his way into the rotation.

Manu in the fold early
It wasn't technically the offseason yet, but San Antonio made sure that one of the game's most ingenious and clutch crunch-time scorers would not become part of the free-agent madness when it signed Manu Ginobili to a three-year, $39 million extension in April. Despite Ginobili's age (33) and recent injury history, he is a special player and the Spurs couldn't compete for a ring without him.

WHAT WENT WRONG

The impending Spurs-Tony Parker divorce
Gregg Popovich is justifiably regarded as one of the game's best coaches. But his inclination to be bluntly honest with his players may soon lead to a blowback in San Antonio. Put simply, he has ridden Parker's tail as much or more than any other player, and lavished a corresponding amount of love on the point guard's heir apparent, George Hill. Now, Parker, who has one year left on his contract, reportedly doesn't want to discuss an extension, and his status will be a rare distraction for the franchise until the situation is resolved.

Tim Duncan aged another year
The only active low-post players with more combined regular-season and playoff minutes than the 34-year-old Duncan are Shaquille O'Neal and Kevin Garnett. And while the Big Fundamental's overall play has been less compromised than Garnett's or O'Neal's, decline was apparent last season, especially coming down the stretch in March.

BOTTOM LINE

Getting Splitter on the cheap provides a competent 7-footer to both spell Duncan and allow him to slide to power forward in a big lineup. Although last season was a letdown for the Spurs, it's a good bet that Parker will be healthier (he missed a career-high 26 games) and Jefferson won't look as lost. If Duncan can be Duncan at least one more year, the Spurs are primed for another title run.

 
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