By Chris Mannix
December 17, 2011
2011-12 NBA Preview: Southwest Division
How They'll Finish
Memphis Grizzlies
2010-11 Record: 46-36; lost to Thunder in conference semifinals
Top Addition: Josh Selby (draft pick) | Biggest Loss: Shane Battier
Rudy Gay's return from a shoulder injury gives a Grizzlies team that was middle-of-the-pack offensively (107.6 points per 100 possessions, 16th in the NBA) a much-needed boost. Owner Michael Heisley opened the checkbook to keep Marc Gasol, and a healthy, motivated (contract year!) O.J. Mayo is a big plus. They won't win the conference, but their size will make them a team everyone wants to avoid in the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
2010-11 Record: 61-21; lost to Grizzlies in first round
Top Addition: T.J. Ford | Biggest Loss: George Hill
San Antonio rattled off its best record in five years last season, but the team's flaws (age, size) were exposed in a first-round loss to Memphis. After striking out with free-agent forwards Caron Butler, Shane Battier and Josh Howard, the Spurs return largely the same cast from last season, with an emerging James Anderson and rookie Kawhi Leonard the only potential newcomers to the rotation. Gregg Popovich will once again lean on veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. But will it be enough to make one more run at a title?
Dallas Mavericks
2010-11 Record: 57-25; beat Heat in NBA Finals
Top Addition: Lamar Odom | Biggest Loss: Tyson Chandler
The backbone of the Mavericks' defense (Chandler) is gone, as is the coach (Dwane Casey) who devised the schemes for it. The addition of Odom and Vince Carter will bolster the offense and a Odom/Dirk Nowitzki/Shawn Marion front line is a matchup nightmare. But offense, historically, has never been the Mavericks' problem. The pressure will be on Brendan Haywood to become a consistent, 30-35-minute starter to enable Dallas to match up with big teams like the Lakers and Thunder in the playoffs.
Houston Rockets
2010-11 Record: 43-39
Top Addition: Jonny Flynn | Biggest Loss: Chuck Hayes
When David Stern scuttled the Rockets' deal for Pau Gasol (and, by extension, any shot they had of landing free-agent center Nene), he torpedoed any chance for Houston to do damage this season. A Hasheem Thabeet/Jordan Hill center tandem won't hold up in a rugged conference, and while the Rockets are loaded with scorers, they will have a tough time stopping anyone. Best-case scenario is that gunslinging GM Daryl Morey brokers a deal by midseason that lands Houston the center it craves.
New Orleans Hornets
2010-11 Record: 46-36; lost to Lakers in first round
Top Addition: Eric Gordon | Biggest Loss: Chris Paul
With Paul gone, the Hornets will lean heavily on their size (Chris Kaman, Emeka Okafor, Carl Landry) to keep them in games and newcomer Gordon to win them at the end. But New Orleans' bench is paper thin and the focus of on ownership (read: NBA) seems to be on preserving cap space, not making significant, short-term upgrades. If the Hornets can slow games down, they might win a few more than expected. But not many.
Players To Watch
James Anderson
2010-11 Season Stats: 3.6 PPG, 0.7 APG, 0.9 RPG
Career Stats: 3.6 PPG, 0.7 APG, 0.9 RPG
Anderson was a stud in college -- Big 12 Player of the Year, firs-team All-American -- and showed flashes of an NBA three-point shot (10-for-20 in the first six games) last season before injuries derailed him. With Richard Jefferson out of favor and the coaching staff's desire to keep Ginobili rested, Anderson could see key minutes this season. Said Spurs coach Popovich: "We want to watch him play."
Rudy Gay
2010-11 Stats: 19.8 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 2.8 APG
Career Stats: 17.8 PPG, 5.6 RPG, 1.9 APG
Gay recently tweeted, "I feel like a rookie again," which is good news for a Memphis team looking to take the next step. The Grizzlies won with power last season, but the return of Gay -- fully healthy after missing the final two months of the season following left-shoulder surgery -- gives them a prolific wing scorer who can create his own shot. Assuming Gay doesn't disrupt team chemistry, his return could push Memphis deep into the playoffs.
Brendan Haywood
2010-11 Stats: 4.4 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 1.0 BPG
Career Stats: 7.4 PPG, 6.2 RPG, 1.5 BPG
In his prime (see, Washington), Haywood was a fairly consistent 10-point, nine-rebound, two-block threat. He will need to be that again, as the size-starved Mavs will have no choice but to stick him in the starting lineup now that Chandler's gone. Without a solid season from Haywood -- who averaged career lows in minutes (18.5), points (4.4) and free-throw percentage (36.2) in 2010-11 -- Dallas has no shot at getting back to the Finals.
Burning Questions
Will Houston make a move? Morey has never shied away from shaking up the roster. The Rockets have some marketable pieces (Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic), and owner Les Alexander is unafraid to swallow a big contract. Houston is desperate for a pivot man to play alongside Kyle Lowry and will be aggressively pursuing one right up until the trade deadline.
Can the Grizzlies carry over their postseason success? With Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol back and anchoring the offense, Memphis has the pieces to maintain its momentum. Gay should help and early word is often-disgruntled guard Mayo has returned with a new, positive attitude. The key could be the continued development of Mike Conley, who will again have to hold his own in a conference loaded with top-flight point guards.
Could Dwight Howard wind up in Dallas? Howard has made it clear the Mavs are one of three teams on his wish list. Dallas doesn't have an Andrew Bynum or a Brook Lopez to dangle, but it's loaded with big, expiring contracts (Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Odom, whose final year is a team option) and a willingness to offer anyone on the roster not named Dirk Nowitzki. It's a longshot, but an uber-aggressive Mark Cuban can't be counted out.
By The Numbers
$20 million The Hornets' projected payroll (with Gordon's $5.1 million qualifying offer) next summer if they choose to amnesty Okafor and his $13.5 million salary off the books. Flexibility is a valuable commodity in a team looking for an owner.
$58 million Total amount Memphis committed to Marc Gasol, who signed a new four-year deal. The 7-foot-1 center averaged 15 points, 11.2 rebounds and 2.15 blocks last postseason. Losing Gasol was not an option.
10,000 Season tickets sold by the Hornets for this season, many of which were to fans looking to see Paul in the Hornets' lineup. It's a number the team might have trouble duplicating next season: One team official called it "a Herculean effort" to reach the 10,000 mark.
Bold Prediction
The Grizzlies will steal the division from the Texas teams and advance to the conference finals.
Southwest Video Preview
Mavericks 2011-12 season preview
Source: SI's Chris Mannix says that while the addition of Lamar Odom helps Dallas, their chances of back-to-back championships will be derailed on the defensive end.

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