Wednesday October 21st, 2015

All five Southwest Division teams made the playoffs last season and, if everything breaks just right, could do so again this year. No other division could say the same, nor boast anywhere near the same kind of top-to-bottom talent that resides in the toughest group within the toughest conference. Whichever team best survives it (and the four regular season matchups against every other Southwest Division team) will be battle tested in their own way and ready for whatever the postseason brings.

The best team in the league could easily be among them and the NBA's best player, too, might come from within this division. For Houston, San Antonio, and Memphis, those season-long prospects could yield a chance at a title. All are well worthy—stacked with proven talent employed in smart ways by veteran coaches. New Orleans and Dallas are competing on a different scale, though the former is stepping forward and the latter, when healthy, is capable enough to dig in and lock up a playoff spot. There are no pushovers. There are no schedule wins. To win the Southwest Division means something, no matter the structural irrelevance of divisions, on the grounds of competition alone. Let the battle royal commence. 

• More Division previews: Atlantic | Central | NorthwestSoutheast

1. Houston Rockets

2014–15 results: 56–26 | Lost in conference finals

Houston is a team of luxury. The presence of James Harden alone denotes great fortune; only a few teams could claim to have a player so impactful, much less one who takes well to dominating the ball and playing off of it. Of those teams lucky enough to have a superstar, even fewer boast a power-finishing, rim-protecting, bulk-rebounding big of Dwight Howard's caliber. And then, from that very select group, none at all could match Houston's depth. While some teams scrap for one point guard worthy to start, the Rockets have two. Their wings are stocked with complementary talent ideal for the way Houston wants to play. Behind Howard, too, is all kinds of insurance against injury: A quality post threat in Donatas Motiejunas and an energetic, rotation-ready roll man in Clint Capela.

The rest of the roster is populated by athletes who do more than play into Houston's preferred style—they feed it. Corey Brewer and K.J. McDaniels make the kinds of transition-triggering defensive plays that will get the Rockets out on the break. Trevor Ariza denies an opponent its best option and nudges them toward desperation—the kind which can be seized upon with a forced turnover or rushed shot. All of the pieces seem to fit together just so in a way that appears quite formidable, assuming all involved are willing to play their part in making this the best Rockets team possible.

Best case: Houston runs even the best teams in the West ragged, wearing them down with their relentless energy. A Finals berth (or more) could be in the cards. 

Worst case: Lawson doesn’t get a handle on a very real, very concerning problem. The ripples disrupt the Rockets from within, compromising the structural unity that acts as the team’s strength.

Christian Petersen/Getty Images

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2. San Antonio Spurs

2014–15 results: 55–27 | Lost in conference quarterfinals

The Spurs sacrificed to clear the space necessary to sign LaMarcus Aldridge, as one does when bracing for the possibility of adding an All-NBA-caliber big man outright. That in itself will force San Antonio to adapt. Gone are Tiago Splitter and Cory Joseph, both integral to Spurs teams past. In their place are the likes of Aldridge and David West—neither an outright replacement but both very useful to the Spurs in their own distinct way. Gregg Popovich will again need to adapt his designs, just as he's done through the last several iterations of Spurs basketball.

It helps to have so many balanced, effective weapons at his disposal. The best player on the roster might be Kawhi Leonard, though on the right night some would stump for Aldridge or even 39-year-old Tim Duncan. Danny Green plays off of Leonard perfectly as a lockdown collaborator and ace shooter—together forming one of the most potent wing combinations in the league. Popovich has this and more with which to build lineups and tailor strategies. Once all involved are acclimated to the necessary adjustments, the rest of the league will be faced with a loaded, intelligent team capable of making full use of its terrifying resources.

Best case: San Antonio assimilates its new pieces without issue, finds way to compensate for its losses, and executes to precision.

Worst case: Deviation from their previous model leaves the Spurs lacking—and vulnerable—in certain key areas. A run through the Western Conference playoffs exposes them.

3. Memphis Grizzlies

2014–15 record: 55–27 | Lost in conference semifinals

The Grizzlies, as usual, are the quietest of the West's championship contenders. They made no Aldridge-like addition, opting instead for the more moderate improvements of Brandan Wright and Matt Barnes. They don't make the fuss that teams like the Clippers and Warriors are prone to, preferring to focus on their own game. The result is a sturdy, impressive case for title contention—the kind that could overcome the challenge of higher-seeded teams over the course of a playoff run.

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Dave Joerger has done a fine job of giving Memphis's offense some needed flavor over the past few years, though the Grizzlies again enter the season without the most reliable engine for floor spacing. They'll get by in the regular season well enough; Memphis's roster is too talented to get bogged down on a nightly basis. In the playoffs, however, the Grizzlies will need to strike a delicate balance in their execution while finding ways to keep Tony Allen (an outstanding defender but destructively limited offensive player) in the mix. 

That's easier said than done, though the combination of Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph make Memphis a tough opponent and give the Grizz a fighting chance to work out their tactical kinks.

Best case: A healthier Memphis team builds on its success of last season while incorporating young talent and getting just enough shooting from its wings to make a deep playoff run.

Worst case: The same problems—Allen’s one-way play, inconsistent spot-up options, stylistic inflexibility—cost a stagnant Grizzlies team its shot at the title.

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4. New Orleans Pelicans

2014–15 results: 45–37 | Lost in conference quarterfinals

From a macro level, the Pelicans push in pursuit of two goals: 1) to reinvent the offense in a faster, more fluid style, and 2) reform and refine the defense as to yield a top-10 standing in points allowed per possession. Both are very much possible in theory but undercut by the fact that the Pelicans can never seem to stay healthy. With Jrue Holiday already on a minutes limit, New Orleans has added Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, Quincy Pondexter, and Norris Cole to the list of the current wounded. All should recover and come to contribute for the Pelicans, though building chemistry within Alvin Gentry's new systems will require that key contributors be healthy enough to actually share the floor.

Their saving grace is Anthony Davis, who is already challenging to be more than the league's heir apparent. Davis is an explosive contributor on both sides of the ball—almost unguardable, excellent in a variety of defensive roles, and only getting better. The weight of the team's expectations and the inconvenience of his injuries are largely his to bear. Gentry will figure out ways to piece together a rotation from ailing parts. Players like Eric Gordon will step into far bigger roles than they had a season ago. Yet so much falls back on the need for Davis to not only be great but transcendent. We have every reason to expect him to deliver.

Best case: Even a banged-up Pelicans team has enough to push its defense well into the top 10, rounding out its competitive résumé. That fully functional team bests one of the conference’s contenders in a striking upset.

Worst case: New Orleans’s early-season injuries put the Pelicans at a significant disadvantage almost immediately, from which the Pelicans never recover. A season of high hopes is dashed by a trip to the lottery.

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5. Dallas Mavericks

2014–15 results: 50–32 | Lost in conference quarterfinals

These are tricky days for the Mavericks, a team without both a title case and much in the way of forward momentum. Dallas doesn't have prospects being brought along slowly or role players set to break out. And, of the Mavs' best players, many are injured; Chandler Parsons's knee, Wesley Matthews's achilles, and—to a lesser extent—​Deron Williams's calf have created glaring holes in Dallas's projected starting lineup. To whatever extent Parsons and Matthews can contribute this season remains to be seen given the conflicting interests involved. Both are crucial to Dallas competing this season and yet important enough in the grander scheme as to warrant the utmost patience in their recovery.

But so long as Rick Carlisle is coaching a Mavs team featuring Dirk Nowitzki, there's a chance for a sort of stubborn capability. Those two work magic together; the threat of Nowitzki's shooting still helps to create so much for Dallas's offense, in which Carlisle can stretch relatively limited players to suitability. The center position beyond Zaza Pachulia is a bit of a mess. Nowitzki still has no suitable backup and behind Parsons and Matthews are largely untested alternatives. Nothing will come easy for the Mavericks this season, and yet those at the team's center will keep its baseline performance respectable.

Best case: Dallas gets healthy enough to edge out various playoff challengers through savvy, coordination, and experience.

Worst case: Parsons and Matthews’s injuries give reason for long-term concern while Nowitzki’s flaws become all the more apparent.  

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Breakout player

Patty Mills, Spurs. Breakouts are relative. In some cases, that word connotes a jump to stardom. For Mills it could mean mere stabilizationthe kind of step that turns a bench scorer into a trustworthy, starting-caliber contributor. Mills is on the verge of that distinction and could be put to the test if Parker’s decline is as sharp as it seems, leaving Gregg Popovich without his preferred initiator of the offense. Mills has it in him to thrive in that role provided he can calm his game while preserving the spark that makes him unique.

Rookie to watch 

Justin Anderson, Mavericks. Even if Matthews and Parsons were fully healthy and ready to play big minutes from day one, Dallas would still have a need for a physical defender like Anderson to fill out its rotation. With the health of those starters a bit more uncertain, Anderson becomes near essential. He’ll play through rookie struggles and all—​because the Mavs don’t have many other options. How he fares is a story worth tracking, particularly for what a rookie success story could mean to a team that could use a silver lining.

Coach with most to prove

Kevin McHale, Rockets. No coach in the Southwest is on any kind of hot seat. McHale, though, does need to show that he can build a sustainable, diverse offense now that the Rockets have options beyond operating through Harden. With new toys comes new pressure; Houston has more to work with on its roster than ever before in the franchise’s current era, and with that comes a need to balance minutes, maximize talent, and manage egos. McHale seems game for the task.

Potential trade target 

Donatas Motiejunas or Terrence Jones, Rockets. Houston could technically pay both of its up-and-coming bigs—​via extension or a fresh contract next summer—​should it choose to. But in doing so, the Rockets would commit a considerable sum to a frontcourt rotation that might not be quite good enough to weather the best in the West. An extension by the Nov. 2 deadline would put pressure on the other; if forced to pick and choose, the Rockets could play the two against one another in negotiations for the best deal possible and look to deal the other during the season. Or, if the Rockets flat-out prefer one of Jones or Motiejunas as a building block, the other could be moved preemptively even without an extension in place. 

Bold prediction

Anthony Davis will win both the MVP and Defensive Player of the Year award, making him the first player to do so since Hakeem Olajuwon in 1994.

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