By Paul Forrester
October 18, 2013
Will the arrival of Dwight Howard turn James Harden and the Rockets into contenders in the West?
Greg Nelson/SI
Southwest Division: How They'll Finish

The Spurs' script is likely to remain the same this season, albeit with more Kawhi Leonard and a sprinkling of Marco Belinelli, who replaces Gary Neal and serves as insurance in case Manu Ginobili struggles or misses time with injuries. The unknown part about the Spurs' future is the rest of the Western Conference's contenders, many of whom made moves to bolster their rosters (Rockets, Warriors, Clippers) or their strategies (Clippers, Grizzlies). Will another season of strategic caution with Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili reserve enough energy for another deep postseason run? Will Danny Green continue to spruce up the offense with accurate three-point shooting? Will the matchups break so advantageously for the Spurs again in the postseason? The answers haven’t always been the same over the past 17 years under Gregg Popovich, but they’ve always been intriguing.

The skinny: Another 50-win season is almost a given. The challenge is to find enough ways to win those games so that the Spurs are prepared for the different styles of play they will have to conquer in the playoffs.

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  • Memphis Grizzlies
  • Memphis Grizzlies
  • 2012-13 Record: 56-26
  • Top Addition: Mike Miler | Biggest Loss: Lionel Hollins

How do you follow up on the best season in franchise history? By parting ways with your coach, apparently. With Lionel Hollins out, new coach Dave Joerger offers as smooth of a transition as could be hoped after working as a Grizzlies assistant for the past six seasons. And after winning five titles in a handful of minor leagues, the 39-year-old understands the pacing and psychology of guiding a team deep into the postseason. The plan for improvement is subtle, calling for a moderately faster pace in an attempt to ease the burden on Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph (who averaged a combined 29.5 points and 19 rebounds last season) in the low post. Still, with size inside (which got a boost with the acquisition of promising big man Kosta Koufos) and the quickness of Tony Allen and Mike Conley hounding the perimeter, the Grizzlies’ calling card will remain defense. Only Indiana finished ahead of Memphis in points allowed per possession last season. Assuming Memphis doesn’t become much more charitable, the tweak on the bench and in the offense might make the front office look very smart.

The skinny: If Joerger can squeeze more offense out of his lineup, assuming the cost isn’t a slide on defense, the Grizzlies may not want to rent out the FedEx Forum to anyone else in late May or early June.

After years of stockpiling assets and cap space in the wake of Yao Ming's retirement, GM Daryl Morey scored the superstar he has longed for when Dwight Howard fled the Lakers for the welcoming embrace of James Harden and Kevin McHale. On paper, the pieces fit well. Howard provides a steady offensive option inside and an elite pick-and-roll partner as well as a back-line eraser when Harden or Jeremy Lin is beaten defensively. As he showed after arriving from the Thunder last season, Harden is one of the game’s most dynamic scorers and has the playmaking abilities to keep Howard engaged. But before penciling in Houston for the Finals, know that, much like the Heat found after gathering the Big Three, big moves at the top of the roster often leave a bench a little thin. Omer Asik and Patrick Beverley will help keep second units off the scoreboard, but regular contributions from Omri Casspi, Ronnie Brewer and Francisco Garcia may be asking for a bit too much.

The skinny: The West’s other contenders are deeper, but the Rockets have arguably the conference’s best-fitting duo in Howard and Harden. Their chemistry alone should be good enough to reach the second round of the playoffs.

Looking for a not-so-quiet sleeper for the free agent shopping spree of 2014? May we present, the Dallas Mavericks. Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter all come off the books at the end of this year, leaving the Mavericks with only about $32 million committed for 2014-15. And though it’s difficult to imagine owner Mark Cuban not keeping Nowitzki, it’s equally tough to fathom a team as forward-thinking as the Mavs choosing to build around three players who will be at least 36 by the start of next season. In the meantime, Nowitzki’s sublime shooting, Marion’s ageless defense and Carter’s transformation into an elite sixth man will keep the Mavericks in the playoff hunt, as will Monta Ellis' volume scoring and Jose Calderon's playmaking. But the new additions don’t offer much promise to improve a defense that finished 20th in efficiency last season. Rick Carlisle is masterful at maximizing his roster, and with the bottom of the West bracket in flux, that may be enough to sneak into the playoffs.

The skinny: In lieu of bottoming out, the Mavs appear dedicated to trying to eke out a playoff spot and roll the dice in free agency next summer. This franchise has some defining decisions ahead.

New nickname. New uniforms. New pace. The former Hornets were the league’s slowest team last season. They were also one of the worst defensive teams, finishing 28th in efficiency at 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions. Combined, those two factors left New Orleans with 55 losses and in search of pieces to build around Anthony Davis. Trades for Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans promise to speed things up and add two rangy defenders in front of the 2012 No. 1 pick. The two new additions struggled with the unreliable options around them in Philadelphia and Sacramento, respectively, but both are capable playmakers and aggressive scorers. A healthy Eric Gordon (which is a big assumption, to be sure) wouldn’t hurt, but the sixth-year shooting guard struggled mightily even when he was in the lineup for New Orleans last season.

The skinny: How will Evans, Gordon and Holiday mesh? The talent is here for playoff contention, but the experience is not.

Players To Watch
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  • San Antonio Spurs
  • Kawhi Leonard
  • 2012-13 Stats: 11.9 PPG, 6.0 RPG, 1.7 SPG
  • Career Stats: 9.8 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 1.5 SPG

No one played more minutes for the Spurs in last year's playoffs than Leonard, a reflection of the multiple uses the third-year forward serves for Popovich. Leonard does a little bit of everything, from defending the opponent's top wing scorer to shooting three-pointers at a 37.5 percent clip to rebounding. His ability to expand his game even further will take pressure off the Spurs' veteran core and preserve it for the playoffs.

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  • Houston Rockets
  • Chandler Parsons
  • 2012-13 Stats: 15.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 2.0 3PM
  • Career Stats: 12.8 PPG, 5.1 RPG, 1.5 3PM

As much as the Howard-Harden pairing promises to be mutually beneficial, Parsons is likely to provide the grease that keeps the partnership fluid. Parsons, a career 37 percent three-point shooter, will force defenses into choosing from a host of unpalatable coverage options, inside and out. In transition, Parsons is quick enough to keep up with Houston’s breakneck attack and possesses the length to maneuver over opposing forwards. And on defense, Parsons’ size and quickness allow him to track perimeter threats effectively, softening them up for Howard’s shot-blocking near the rim. Working off Howard and Harden has helped others become stars, and it could do the same for Parsons.

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  • New Orleans Pelicans
  • Tyreke Evans
  • 2012-13 Stats: 15.2 PPG, 4.4 RPG, 3.5 APG
  • Career Stats: 17.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.8 APG

It’s not often a former Rookie of the Year becomes available three years after winning the award, but with a new administration in Sacramento focused on building around DeMarcus Cousins, Evans was deemed expendable. The Pelicans didn’t come by him cheaply, giving Evans a four-year, $44 million contract as part of a sign-and-trade with the Kings, but the potential is still there for a lucrative return on investment. The raw numbers alone are impressive: 17.5 points, 4.8 assists, 4.8 rebounds 1.5 steals per game for his career. With better talent and Monty Williams’ more disciplined approach than anything he had in Sacramento, Evans could make the Pelicans one of the league’s bigger surprises.

Burning Questions
  • Did Memphis improve? As successful as last season was, the Grizzlies were still swept in the conference finals by the Spurs when their offense sputtered. A new coach promising a new pace may help jumps-tart an attack that ranked 18th in points per possession in 2012-13. The roster, though, remains largely unchanged but for the addition of Mike Miller, who has averaged 5.5 points the past three seasons. Memphis will need the likes of Miller, Quincy Pondexter and Jerryd Bayless to make threes to complement Memphis' inside attack.
  • Is Dwight happy now? After two seasons of requests for trades, firings and amnesties, Howard finally will play for a team of his choosing. The pressure won’t be the same as what LeBron James felt after he left Cleveland for Miami, but Howard’s move to Houston leaves him without excuses now. If Howard believes he is Superman, the Rockets are his Daily Planet, and it’s time to go to work if he wants to save his reputation.
  • What does Tim Duncan have left? The future Hall of Famer parlayed a new fitness regimen into his best season in three years, reversing what was a gradual, but clear decline in production. Given Popovich’s careful limiting of his players’ minutes, a repeat performance wouldn’t be a surprise. But playing at age 37 every night carries risks and a need for rest. We wouldn’t bet against Duncan yet, but the odds are getting worse.
Bold Prediction

The Rockets will finish third in the division as they adjust to Howard. By playoff time, though, with Howard fully integrated and anchoring an improved defense, Houston will barge into the conference finals.

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