- If everything clicks (including the defense), the Rockets could emerge as a legit challenger to the Warriors. Also, that sound you're hearing in the background is everyone forgetting the Spurs once again.
The Southwest has long been one of the NBA’s most competitive divisions, and while the Northwest may be the West’s new bloodbath du jour, there’s still a lot to see in Texas (and Memphis and New Orleans). The retooled Rockets enter as the top dog on paper, the Spurs and Grizzlies are still the Spurs and Grizzlies, the Pelicans have high ambitions and the Mavericks, well, they’re improving.
Here, we have two of the teams that might actually sort of be capable of giving the Warriors a fight when it matters, and they contrast nicely. Houston wants in on the superteam conversation, surrounding James Harden and Chris Paul with an terrific crop of specialists that can play big, small, fast or slow. As always, San Antonio wins with continuity and cohesion, returning all the principal figures while adding new wrinkles year to year. Though it’s less a race for the division as it is a race for optimal playoff position, it’ll be captivating nonetheless. Let's break down the Southwest Division.
It always sort of felt like Chris Paul was leaving Los Angeles, but his surprising choice of this specific area code was one of the first major dominoes of the NBA’s feverish offseason. James Harden and Daryl Morey’s big recruiting job has big implications in the West (by which I mean the shortlist of teams lining up to give the Warriors their best hail mary). Assuming Paul and Harden can share the ball a bit while their minutes are otherwise staggered intelligently, the outlook here is rosy for an already-strong offensive team that stands to take a step forward
On the other end. Adding P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to an already-deep rotation gives the Rockets plenty of matchup options, and Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson should continue to provide elite floor-spacing. This could be Golden State’s primary threat.
Best Case: Everything clicks, the Rockets’ defense catches up to a high-powered attack, and they take their best shot at the Warriors in the West finals.
Worst Case: Despite best intentions, Paul and Harden can’t quite share the ball and the Rockets sputter out early in the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
Is that the sound of everyone forgetting the Spurs again? Amid all the Rockets hype, it’s good to remember that San Antonio has won the division nine times in 13 years, that Kawhi Leonard has upped his scoring average in each of his six seasons, and that consistency goes a very long way over the course of 82 games. LaMarcus Aldridge is a definite bounce-back candidate after the worst statistical season of his career. Rudy Gay adds scoring punch and should help the Spurs play smaller and faster in the frontcourt. In the absence of injured Tony Parker, the development of 21-year-old Dejounte Murray will be fun to track. The talented cast of characters that has defined this team largely returns, and other than a preseason injury to Kawhi Leonard, this team is on track for another characteristically solid season. Doubts about their playoff ceiling reflect on a much-improved Western Conference more than anything.
Best Case: San Antonio’s defense remains among the league’s best and Gregg Popovich rides a deep roster to a top-three seed, avoiding the Warriors until the conference finals.
Worst Case: An aging group of role players gets exposed, neither Murray nor Patty Mills fully solves the point guard problem, and the Spurs make an surprisingly early playoff exit.
The Grizzlies are dealing with some major locker-room changes after the departures of Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, veterans synonymous with the franchise and its on-court identity. While it may not greatly alter the outlook for Memphis—Mike Conley and Marc Gasol remain among the league’s best—there are some additional minutes to go around and some interesting faces to fill them. Summer League standout Wayne Selden has been starting at shooting guard in the preseason, and Tyreke Evans gives Memphis another playmaker. JaMychal Green is coming off the best year of his career and should assume a starting role.. Chandler Parsons is apparently healthy. There are questions as to who fills what role, but given the Grizzlies’ past successes plugging holes, it feels like more of a curiosity than a huge concern at this stage.
Best Case: Conley and Gasol comfortably pilot the Grizz to the playoffs for an eighth straight season, and Memphis pushes a less-experienced first-round opponent to the brink.
Worst Case: A third scoring option fails to emerge in Randolph’s absence the defense isn’t sharp enough to compensate, and Memphis narrowly misses the playoffs in a crowded race.
New Orleans Pelicans
It’s hard not to get sucked into a full season of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, but this situation comes with plenty of asterisks. The Pelicans made some strides toward the end of last season and have had an entire summer to figure this out, and in theory two bigs that talented should put New Orleans in the conversation for one of the West’s final playoff spots. Keeping Jrue Holiday in place was a major win, but the roster has many warts—Rajon Rondo has never been the solution for a team trying to get over the hump, and a slew of miscellaneous wing players will have to provide enough shooting and defense to bridge the gap. As good as Davis and free-agent-to-be Cousins are, the franchise’s direction hangs on them clicking quickly this time around.
Best Case: The inside-out skillsets of the two big men make the Pelicans tough to handle, and Alvin Gentry scares up enough production from the supporting cast to nab the eighth seed.
Worst Case: Cousins gets frustrated early on and the debate about whether to trade him becomes a league-wide point of discussion (again). After the Pelicans stay put, he walks in July.
After what in hindsight felt like a necessary step backward, the Mavs come back with a Rookie of the Year candidate to groom, a few developmental success stories on the roster and of course, good ol’ Dirk. It’s unclear whether Dallas has enough to improve on 33 wins given the West field, but they’ll hope Dennis Smith Jr. will show enough to put them on a clear upward trajectory. Harrison Barnes has proved to be a fine investment, Seth Curry and Yogi Ferrell look like viable rotation players, and Nerlens Noel can do himself some favors by embracing his role before hitting free agency. Still, sneaking into the realm of 40-ish wins with this roster would be a legendary Rick Carlisle magic trick.
Best Case: Smith looks like a future star, Dirk doesn’t retire and the Mavs become a player in free agency next summer.
Worst Case: A glut of guards make minutes tough to figure out and Smith struggles to adjust while Dallas wins just enough to miss out on the top group of prospects in next year’s draft.
Breakout player: Clint Capela, Rockets
There’s a lot going on with the Rockets right now, and there’s a lot hinging on the 23-year-old Swiss center’s continued improvement on both ends of the floor (read: their other center is 35-year-old Nene). Entering his fourth NBA season, Capela—who shot 64% from the floor and averaged 12.6 points and 8.1 rebounds last year—has exceeded most people’s expectations already. Chris Paul could be massive in helping unlock him offensively, and it’s not out of the question Capela could inch closer to a double-double guy given his role. He’ll also need to be competent defensively with Houston’s lack of options in the middle. Coming off a quietly stellar season, he just might get the attention he deserves this time around.
Rookie to watch: Dennis Smith Jr., Mavericks
Falling to the No. 9 selection in a strong lottery was no indictment of Smith’s talent. He’ll have the opportunity to hit the ground running as a central part of Dallas’s short and long-term plans. Smith was one of the most accomplished isolation scorers in college basketball last year and should be able to inject some life into an offense that was just 23rd in efficiency (while operating at the second-slowest pace in the league). If Lonzo Ball falters and Markelle Fultz and Ben Simmons split votes, Smith has a shot to be this season’s top rookie.
Coach on the hot seat: Alvin Gentry, Pelicans
Gentry has been squarely on a warm-ish seat for a minute now, and Year Three might be where the buck stops if the Pelicans don’t show real progress. Winning now is paramount with DeMarcus Cousins hitting free agency and Anthony Davis’s patience presumably starting to wane. In Gentry’s defense, he’s been given a hefty task, but the urgency involved makes it hard to see New Orleans keeping things in place without some dividends. For someone who’s only been to the playoffs twice in 14 seasons as a head coach, the pressure is on.
Random bold prediction
After a short stint in France and a couple frontcourt injuries in San Antonio, Boris Diaw makes a triumphant mid-season return to the Spurs.