Southwest preview: Title contenders collide in NBA's toughest division
Divisions are largely an irrelevant the NBA, save for an influence on scheduling and playoff seeding. Yet the Southwest distinguishes itself through grueling competition. It is, if nothing else, a crucible. Four of its five teams qualified for the postseason, including the champion Spurs. All four of those teams make for conceivable title contenders. The runt of the group (the New Orleans Pelicans) is inferior in only relative terms, as it boasts the best young player in the NBA and a growing roster that could return a playoff berth as soon as this season. It's against one another that these teams – through matchup familiarity and budding rivalry – steel themselves.
1. San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 record: 62-20 | Won NBA Finals (4-1) against Heat
Best addition: Kyle Anderson, essentially by default. The rookie – selected with the final pick in the first round of the draft – is the only new Spur playing on a guaranteed contract.
Outlook: San Antonio has long been a champion of continuity. The pillars of the team – Tim Duncan and coach Gregg Popovich – have spanned three U.S. presidencies together, endured dramatic changes to the league and supported five title runs. It's only natural that out of a victorious season the Spurs would look to pick up where they left off, beginning with the roster that got them to the summit.
And really, there's no compelling reason why San Antonio can't get back to the top yet again. Any course through the Western Conference playoff bracket will be fraught with upset potential. Yet the Spurs are among the more resilient teams when it comes to matchup disadvantage. Some are better able to counter their offense or poke holes in their defense than others. Generally speaking, though, San Antonio has an upper hand on most every potential opponent in terms of both depth and quality of execution. The Spurs are immaculately managed. Popovich knows when to push his veterans and when to hold them back, a give-and-take that positions his powerhouse team for success through a drawn-out regular season and deep playoff run.
Frankly, the Spurs expect nothing less than that. The players themselves have established such lofty standards, as few teams boast so much talent so perfectly tailored to scheme. Duncan himself is a marvel, still one of the best two-way players in the NBA at 38 years old. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili still give San Antonio's offense its inciting energy – so much of the team's fabled ball movement begins with one of their drives, cuts or kicks. Kawhi Leonard somehow still gets fourth billing, even after winning the Finals MVP back in June. His game seems to swell to fit ths Spurs' needs and could flourish further this season. Beyond that core is a well-stocked toolbox of role players, each skillful in a particular craft: pick-and-roll defense, offensive facilitation, long-range shooting, burst scoring. Such a supply was more than enough to earn the title last season. It may yet be again.
Best case: The Spurs fend off the Thunder, Clippers, Cavaliers and age-related decline to win a second straight title. Better yet: They do so with Kawhi Leonard taking ownership of the offense on a more consistent basis.
Worst case: The bell finally tolls. Duncan and Ginobili show their age and San Antonio, accordingly, falls behind in a competitive conference.
2. Dallas Mavericks
2013-14 record: 49-33 | Lost in first round (4-3) to Spurs
Outlook: From a management standpoint the Mavericks are light on their feet – empowered by ingenuity and never afraid to chase down a potential deal. As a result, some 42 players have put on a Maverick uniform in the past three seasons and this year at least seven more will do the same. Turnover has been the only constant in Dallas since the Mavs won the title in 2011, as roster after roster has been shuffled in the name of better opportunity.
This latest refurbishing is the most promising yet. A deep, versatile roster with the chance to maintain its elite offense while improving on its disappointing defense. Dirk Nowitzki returns as the team’s anchor and Monta Ellis as its counterpunch. Any upward mobility, though, is predicated on the arrival of players like Parsons and Tyson Chandler. Those two bring added capability to two positions of need, widening Dallas’ range of execution on both ends of the floor. There’s still much to be determined in sussing out exactly what the Mavs are capable of in the long run, though for now Dallas trusts in coach Rick Carlisle to best orient a roster rich in well-fitting talent.
Best case: Dallas solidifies defensively to the point of becoming a legitimate title contender.
Worst case: Chandler never regains his full form and the point guard rotation withers. Those compounding positional issues nudge a talented Dallas team beyond the playoff cut.
3. Houston Rockets
2013-14 record: 54-28 | Lost in first round (4-2) to Blazers
Biggest loss: Chandler Parsons. In the strictest sense, the Rockets downgraded in overall talent by letting Parsons walk as a free agent. Twice they had the opportunity to keep Parsons – first through a cut-rate team option and later through the opportunity to match Dallas' offer sheet – and chose not to.
Outlook: It cannot be spun or avoided: Houston’s offseason was a dud. The team that courted Carmelo Anthony and almost landed Chris Bosh ended up with neither, instead signing Ariza and losing Parsons in the process. That’s an unfortunate turn for a team that gave up quality players to clear the requisite cap room, and it leaves Houston with a somewhat diminished roster in the face of a conference that keeps improving. The Rockets’ hopes, at this point, draw on fit as an adequate substitute for raw talent.
Ariza, for instance, can’t do all that Parsons does with the ball but might be better suited playing alongside Harden and Dwight Howard. He’s the kind of flexible, lanky defender that Parsons was not, which helps to balance Houston’s perimeter defense. His superior spot-up shooting also makes Ariza a more fitting target for kick-out passes from either star, provided he maintains the accuracy he displayed in Washington last season.
Yet for as much as Ariza matters, Houston’s season will largely be determined by what Howard and Harden can accomplish as a duo in year two. Their immediate chemistry was productive, if stilted. A learned balance between them could go a long way in stabilizing Houston as a championship contender.
Best case: The Rockets emerge as a real threat to the Spurs. Not only does Houston push toward greater offensive and defensive efficiency, but Kevin McHale helps the team alleviate its half-court woes, leading to improved playoff solvency as a result.
Worst case: An operation wholly dependent on Harden and Howard grows stale without adequate support. Houston feels not only the loss of Parsons' versatility, but also the absence of Jeremy Lin's improvisational playmaking and Omer Asik's top-notch defense in reserve.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
2013-14 record: 50-32 | Lost in first round (4-3) to Thunder
Best addition: Vince Carter, whose signing fills the need for both complementary shooting and off-the-dribble spice.
Biggest loss: Mike Miller, whose return to Memphis – a city where he had played more than five seasons previously – proved short and sweet.
Outlook: Oh, how easily we disregard the Grizzlies, who just last season pushed through major injuries to both of their stars to finish with 50 wins. Then in the postseason Memphis pushed Oklahoma City to seven games only to be undone in the finale while Zach Randolph sat suspended. They’re not on par with the Thunder, Spurs or Clippers in terms of their contending outlook. Yet this Memphis team projects to be a tough out yet again on the basis of their irksome defense and gradually improving offense.
The latter is a credit to coach Dave Joerger, who last season pressed for his team to get into their offense more quickly and built his operation around the synergy of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and Randolph. If those three can get more capable wing support this season – as seems possible with the addition of Carter and the return of Quincy Pondexter from injury – then Memphis could be a genuine menace. Already this team is stylistically suited (through post-up play and grind-it-out coverage) to challenge high-level teams in a way that others can’t. Even a little more offense brought on by slightly improved spacing could tip other matchups in Memphis’ favor come playoff time.
Best case: Memphis catches the basketball world by surprise, pushing deep into the playoffs while unseating several contenders along the way.
Worst case: An aging roster slows down just enough to fall out of the Western Conference playoff race. Randolph is over primary concern here, but the Grizz also lean on the play of Carter and Tony Allen – either of whom could lose a step in the near future.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 record: 34-48 | Missed playoffs
Best addition: Omer Asik. One of the very worst defensive teams in the NBA last season gets a huge interior upgrade.
Biggest loss: Anthony Morrow. New Orleans ached for shooting last season and lost Morrow, its single best long-range threat, to free agency. Spacing could be a consistent worry.
Outlook: New Orleans never got a fair shake last season, as injuries to Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon prevented the Pelicans’ young core from gaining much traction. No single lineup logged more than 200 minutes in total over the course of the season as a result of those rampant injuries, and the team’s five best players (the aforementioned four along with Tyreke Evans) played just 91 minutes together. That New Orleans turned out to be a decent offensive team is remarkable in itself under those circumstances, and attributable primarily to the ahead-of-schedule development of Davis’ offensive game.
While playing off of backup-quality point guards (or worse) for much of the year, Davis averaged 20.8 points per game on 51.9 percent shooting from the field. His praises have been sung. His best is yet to come, though, and if Davis can come along defensively, his contributions on both ends – while flanked by a healthy supporting cast – might be enough for the Pelicans to challenge for a playoff spot. Asik will be a big part of that effort, as any postseason candidacy would need begin with elevating New Orleans from its bottom-five defensive standing last season. Between Asik’s help, Davis’ rim protection and Holiday’s perimeter work, defensive respectability and overall solvency are within reach.
Best case: Behind better health and Davis' uncanny ascent, New Orleans breaks through to the postseason.
Worst case: The Pelicans' young core reveals itself to be lacking in its first extended tour. New Orleans is confronted with the need to change its roster on a fundamental level.
X-Factor: Southwest division
Tyson Chandler, Mavericks. Dallas rolled the dice in acquiring Chandler, a 32-year-old, injury-prone center coming off a less-than-inspiring season. Their calculated risk is understandable, though; much of Chandler’s struggles in the last year can be tied to the Knicks’ mitigating circumstances, which ranged from a damaging defensive scheme to a poorly constructed roster to a disconnect with the head coach. None of those issues will be in play in Dallas, giving Chandler a chance to rekindle his energy and restate his defensive influence.
Dark horse team
Grizzlies. It’s easy to pencil in Memphis as one of the lower playoff seeds in the West, but a healthy Grizzlies team with further offensive development could challenge for 55 wins or so. Beyond that, their physical, aggressive style makes for a great playoff counterbalance. So many things – players, sets, individual actions – simply don’t work as well against Memphis defense. With that comes the potential to unseat some other championship hopefuls.
The Pelicans' starting five will rate among the best high-usage lineups in the league. This is assuming that Evans eventually gets the nod in favor of players like John Salmons and Darius Miller. New Orleans' core might look like an odd mix, but the synergies involved – the way Holiday and Evans play off of one another, how Asik frees up Davis defensively – make some good sense.