The Spurs are one of the few teams that can be content with more of the same, even if their season didn't end as Tim Duncan and Co. might have hoped. Gregg Popovich succeeded magnificently in yet again redefining his team's approach last year, and the Spurs rocketed their way to the best record in the West by virtue of leading the NBA in points scored per possession. San Antonio may not have made any notable acquisitions over the last few months, but it's also preserved every bit of the league's deepest rotation, and thereby protected the roots of its unpredictably dynamic offense.
The Grizzlies did a fine job of making minor offseason adjustments to maintain their position as an elite defense with a make-do offense -- all of which secures their place in the thick of the Western Conference race, but does little to promise any better result than last season's first-round exit. This is a familiar team for better or worse, and though Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace did well in replacing O.J. Mayo with a promising shot creator in Jerryd Bayless, Memphis is sure to demonstrate some familiar offensive flaws. Nonetheless, the high-low post play of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is both balanced and dependable, and point guard Mike Conley's growth has afforded the Grizz a slightly better margin for error.
This marks the second consecutive season that the Mavs have opted to avoid any long-term financial commitments in their reloading efforts, and -- not coincidentally -- the second consecutive season that they'll field a fascinating makeshift roster. It's tough to know exactly what to expect other than that they'll be dramatically unlike anything we've seen in years past. Donnie Nelson and Mark Cuban swapped out experience for youth, chemistry for promise and familiar faces for the best available players on short-term contracts. That may not make for the most cohesive rotation, but Rick Carlisle has the savvy to flank Dirk Nowitzki with versatile lineups that will give Dallas a chance to compete. All of that said, one particular concern looms. If Nowitzki winds up undergoing a serious surgical procedure on his right knee, Dallas' entire season is forfeit. No amount of depth or coaching wizardry could compensate for Nowitzki's absence, and Dallas would likely fall to the lottery for the first time since 2000.
Last year, coach Monty Williams pulled off the impossible feat of holding a lottery team's full attention and commitment for an entire season. This year he'll again do the same, but with two borderline All-Stars (Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson), a franchise-changing talent (No. 1 pick Anthony Davis) and a high-scoring prospect (No. 10 pick Austin Rivers) as his core. That won't be enough to seriously contend for a playoff spot in a conference as deep as the West, but it puts these Hornets -- in the first year of their renaissance -- in a position to surprise.
The Rockets may have a roster full of consolation prizes after their failed pursuit of Dwight Howard, but there's a lot to like and a lot to watch for. Even without the requisite experience and star power that would make this roster anything more than the sum of its raw, untested parts, there are more than a half-dozen prospects worthy of attention and consideration. It won't be pretty and it surely won't be all that effective, but the individual case studies alone -- including, but hardly limited to, the renewal of "Linsanity" -- should make the Rockets a League Pass favorite.
Players To Watch
2011-12 Season Stats: 12.6 PPG, 2.6 APG, 1.1 SPG
Career Stats: 15.2 PPG, 2.7 APG, 1.1 SPG
Every step in Mayo's basketball career has been overwhelmed by a preceding wave of hype, but a move to a very different organization and far more flexible offensive system could give the fifth-year guard the reboot he clearly needs. Playing alongside Nowitzki has a way of making one's offense far more efficient by extension, and if Mayo is able to function as some facsimile of former longtime Mav Jason Terry, he could give his own stalled development an invaluable jump-start.
2011-12 Stats: 16.1 PPG, 7.7 RPG, 2.7 3PM
Career Stats: 10.4 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 1.8 3PM
While the last few seasons have provided only an occasional sampling of Anderson's play without the gravitational pull that Howard has on opposing defenses, this coming year finally moves the Anderson experiment out of a controlled laboratory setting. Anderson is a dead-eye shooter and a highly valuable player in the right context, but given the lack of teammate diversity in his career (he's spent two of his three seasons in Orlando), we don't yet know the limitations of his game. An evolution may be in order, or perhaps only a slight adjustment. Regardless, Anderson's change of scenery means a separation from the system and star that so often created his shot attempts, and it presents an interesting challenge for a remarkably efficient scorer.
San Antonio's highly anticipated Brazilian import has established strong per-minute numbers over his first two seasons (16.0 ppg, 9.8 rpg and 1.2 blocks per 36 minutes). That said, the Spurs -- and basketball fans at large -- are nonetheless still waiting for Splitter to emerge as something more than a merely useful reserve big man. Splitter may never fully live up to his intended purpose as a versatile frontcourt counterpart to Duncan (the lineup data accumulated to date certainly doesn't speak well of their specific chemistry), but his instincts and mobility should soon beget a far more instrumental player.
What's next for the Mavericks and Grizzlies? As teams around the league evolve and renovate, two Western Conference powers are more or less stuck in a competitive glut. Memphis and Dallas both promise to be interesting teams this season, but with neither club ready to vault into the upper tiers of contention either now or in the future, where do they go from here? The Mavs will experiment with a fresh roster and some younger pieces, but the superstar heir to Nowitzki's kingdom has yet to be named. The Grizz, meanwhile, have the unfortunate distinction of being discounted by a matter of degrees; their biggest flaw is being good but not good enough, all of which leaves plenty of questions for a largely unchanged core.
What can we expect from Houston's platoon of young players? With the potential of the Rockets' trade assets unfulfilled, Kevin McHale will have the distinct pleasure of incorporating four rookies into his rotation while also relying on relatively green second- and third-year "veterans." Instruction and repetition are sure to be the order of the season, but no amount of tutelage could smooth out what's sure to be a rotational roller coaster. The lack of definition and intriguing mix of talent should give McHale plenty of options, even if it's tough to peg how each individual prospect might pan out.
Where is Kawhi Leonard's ceiling? Few Spurs (if any) have been afforded the unequivocal praise that Gregg Popovich has heaped on second-year forward Leonard, and understandably so; not only is Leonard a remarkably advanced defender for his age and experience level, but his personality and instincts also make him a perfect on-court extension of Popovich's strategic ideals. Leonard became a defensive difference-maker and offensive cog as a rookie, but what more can we expect from the young Spur going forward?
Did You Know?
The Rockets have just one player in his 30s (Carlos Delfino, 30), and 10 players on their projected roster who are 25 or younger.
The Southwest Division is home to both the most recent first pick in the draft (Anthony Davis) and the oldest active player selected in that slot (Tim Duncan).
Every player on the Hornets' roster attended college in the United States.
Good health permitting, the Spurs will beat out the Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Lakers for the Western Conference's best regular-season record.
Southwest Video Preview
Chris Mannix's Fast Breaks: New Orleans Hornets
SI.com's Chris Mannix previews the 2012-13 NBA season for the New Orleans Hornets.
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