By Chris Mannix
October 15, 2010
2010-11 NBA Preview: Southwest Division
How They'll Finish
Houston Rockets
2009-10 Record: 42-40
Top Addition: Courtney Lee | Biggest Loss: Trevor Ariza
Yao Ming will be coddled as he comes back from foot surgery -- a 24-minute-per-game restriction and no back-to-backs will likely last all season -- but a little Yao will do Houston a lot of good. Aaron Brooks leads an explosive, up-tempo team, Kevin Martin and Luis Scola should benefit from the attention Yao draws in the half-court, and Chase Budinger steps in to fill the hole left by Ariza. Can Yao's foot withstand the pounding from his 7-foot-6, 310-pound frame all season? That's the million-dollar question.
Dallas Mavericks
2009-10 Record: 55-27; lost to Spurs in first round
Top Addition: Tyson Chandler | Biggest Loss: Erick Dampier
The Mavericks once again have the horses -- Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Caron Butler, Jason Terry and Shawn Marion -- to light up a scoreboard. But defense will determine whether the Mavericks can finally make the jump to championship team. Incumbent Brendan Haywood and offseason acquisition Chandler form the most formidable center combination of the Nowitzki era and give Dallas a chance -- repeat: a chance -- to improve last season's middle-of-the-pack defensive unit.
San Antonio Spurs
2009-10 Record: 50-32; lost to Suns in second round
Top Addition: Tiago Splitter | Biggest Loss: Roger Mason
The Spurs spent the summer on South Beach. The South Beach diet, that is. Tim Duncan, Richard Jefferson and DeJuan Blair slimmed down, while the uber-active Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili took much-needed summer breaks. San Antonio isn't getting any younger and the Spurs will once again pace themselves during the regular season. But if it's healthy come April, this group looks like it will still have enough left in the tank for one more playoff run.
New Orleans Hornets
2009-10 Record: 37-45
Top Addition: Trevor Ariza | Biggest Loss: Darren Collison
The Hornets gave themselves a makeover after last year's ugly season. New GM Dell Demps has stocked the roster with shooters (Ariza, Marco Belinelli and Willie Green join holdovers Peja Stojakovic and Marcus Thornton) in hopes of opening up driving lanes for franchise cornerstone Chris Paul and creating breathing room for power forward David West, who posted three-year lows in scoring and rebounding last season. Rookie coach Monty Williams has promised to shore up the defense, too, urging West and Emeka Okafor to be more aggressive contesting shots. With Paul's future in the Bayou potentially hanging in the balance, the Hornets need a strong season.
Memphis Grizzlies
2009-10 Record: 40-42
Top Addition: Xavier Henry | Biggest Loss: Ronnie Brewer
The young Grizzlies are talking playoffs -- owner Michael Heisley has all but demanded it -- after last year's surprising season, but many pieces will have to fall into place for that to happen. Zach Randolph will need to duplicate his 2009-2010 All-Star form, second-year center Hasheem Thabeet must bolster a porous interior defense and Tony Allen, Sam Young and Henry have to give Memphis a reliable second unit. Will they be good? Yes. Playoff good? That's far less certain.
Players To Watch
Tiago Splitter
2009-10 Euroleague Stats: 13.0 PPG, 5.4 RPG, 1.8 APG
Career Euroleague Stats: 10.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 1.0 APG
Gregg Popovich's ability to keep Duncan's minutes low -- an annual priority in San Antonio -- and keep the Spurs in the hunt for home-court advantage could hinge on the play of Splitter. A back-to-the-basket banger, Splitter has been among the best players in Europe the past three years and should be able to contribute right away. If Splitter follows the same path of San Antonio's other international imports (Ginobili, Parker), he will give the Spurs a physical dimension that they lacked last season.
Rodrigue Beaubois
2009-10 Stats: 7.1 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 RPG
Career Stats: 7.1 PPG, 1.3 APG, 1.4 RPG
Beaubois looked like a star-in-training last March when he averaged 14.5 points and dropped 40 on Golden State. Of course, of his 15 double-figure scoring games, 11 came against lottery teams. This season, Dallas expects more. With Kidd inching closer to 40 -- and his defense declining with him every day -- the Mavericks would like Beaubois to play a little more point guard in addition to his instant-offense role off the bench.
Mike Conley
2009-10 Stats: 12.0 PPG, 5.3 APG, 2.4 RPG
Career Stats: 10.9 PPG, 4.7 APG, 2.8 RPG
Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins is a firm believer in Conley. For Memphis to crack the top-eight teams in the West, Conley will have to reward that faith with a solid season. The Grizzlies aren't deep to begin with, and if Conley struggles they have only journeyman Acie Law or combo guards O.J. Mayo and Tony Allen to turn to. Those aren't appealing options for a team with big goals this season.
Burning Questions
Will Yao's surgically repaired foot hold up? The recovery of Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- who has been one of the NBA's most durable players after undergoing an identical procedure on his left foot in 2000 -- has the Rockets believing Yao will be OK. But there is very little precedence for this type of procedure for a man Yao's size besides Ilgauskas, which is why Houston added Brad Miller and has an offer out to Erick Dampier. Yao's health this season will affect the Rockets' future. If Yao stays healthy, Houston will likely stay the course and continue to build around him. If not, the Rockets could be headed for an overhaul.
Does Richard Jefferson "get it"? Much was made about Jefferson's discomfort and lack of understanding of San Antonio's read-and-react offense last season. But after opting out of his contract and re-signing with the Spurs last summer, Jefferson came to camp in top shape and claims he is much more in tune with what Popovich expects from him. Jefferson isn't the 20-point scorer he was in Milwaukee, and he is a step slower than the up-tempo swingman he was in New Jersey. But a smarter, slimmer Richard Jefferson is a key cog in the Spurs' lineup.
Will Monty Williams be in over his head? It may have been a preseason game, but the Hornets' 54-point loss to Orlando isn't something a first-year coach wants to see. Williams is well-respected and has an excellent basketball mind, but he is in a tough spot. With every loss will come questions about Paul's future, and Williams will be hard-pressed to find a way to keep the team focused amid the inevitable media circus.
By The Numbers
8.0 Body-fat percentage of San Antonio's Blair, down from 15 percent at the start of last season. Blair also added a jump shot that the Spurs expect to be a big part of his repertoire all season.
1 Years remaining on Randolph's contract, which looms as a potential distraction for the Grizzlies this season.
96 Number of games Dallas' Chandler has played out of a possible 164 in the last two seasons. Chandler says the ankle and toe problems that bothered him the last two years are healed and that he is as healthy as he has been since his last full season in New Orleans.
Bold Prediction
After looking like a first-round bust in his rookie season, the Grizzlies' Thabeet will ... continue to look like a first-round bust.

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