- After losing key role players over the summer—but also acquiring some new ones—how will Houston follow up one of only 20 65-win seasons in NBA history?
2017-18 was a truly exceptional campaign for the teams in the Southwest Division: record-setting offense in Houston, a post-Boogie surge in New Orleans, uncharacteristic tanking in Memphis and Dallas and some truly bizarre drama in San Antonio. Which of those five squads will excel in 2018-19, and which will disappoint?
2017-18 Record: 65-17
2018 Win Total: 55.5
The Rockets won 65 games last season, but they were somehow still underappreciated. This is a team that took the top seed in the West and held a 3-2 lead on the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals—but nobody ever took that completely seriously. The fact that star Chris Paul missed the final two games of the series was downplayed with the idea that the Warriors were going to win anyway. The reality is that we have no idea what would have happened, and Houston needs to start being treated like the legitimate title contender they are.
Gone from last year’s team is 3-and-D wing Trevor Ariza. His departure is a tough pill to swallow for coach Mike D’Antoni, as “defensive coordinator” Jeff Bzdelik retired just a month before the season. With James Harden the leader of the team and newly acquired Carmelo Anthony likely to play heavy rotation minutes, Houston might struggle to find a defensive identity early on. Luckily for them, Paul, P.J. Tucker and Clint Capela are all excellent defenders. And free agent signee James Ennis should be able to step in and provide a little bit of what Ariza brought on the wing.
Of course, Rockets will be winning their games mostly because of what they do on offense. D’Antoni’s offense was a little more iso-centric than people expected last season, but Houston still valued the three-ball more than anybody in the league. And with Paul, Harden, Eric Gordon and Anthony, that isn’t going to change. Gordon is an absolute flamethrower off the bench, and this year’s version of Anthony should be the closest we’ve seen to “Olympic Melo." Many expected the Thunder offense to provide an abundance of open looks for the ex-superstar last season, which didn’t exactly work out. But playing off of both Harden and Paul will provide Anthony with the cleanest looks he’s seen since playing with Team USA. And it can’t be overlooked that from the last man on the bench all the way up to general manager Daryl Morey, the Rockets know the importance of getting home-court advantage for the postseason. That means they’ll be treating the regular season a bit more seriously than everybody else—or at least the Warriors.
Bet: Over 55.5
New Orleans Pelicans
2017-18 Record: 48-34
2018 Win Total: 45.0
Say what you want about Rajon Rondo, but his absence from the Pelicans roster is going to hurt the team. New Orleans brought in Elfrid Payton as his replacement, but Payton is a reclamation project who isn't nearly as good of a passer. And despite the fact that the team played better with Nikola Mirotic than DeMarcus Cousins late in the year, losing a player of Boogie’s caliber certainly doesn't help the Pelicans' chances of racking up regular-season wins.
The good news for New Orleans is that it still has star Anthony Davis (for now, at least). There are people out there that will tell you that Davis is the best player in the NBA right now, and it’s a legitimate take. But his supporting cast is not going to be good enough for the Pelicans to win 46 games. Jrue Holiday is a phenomenal two-way player and general manager Dell Demps got great value in signing Julius Randle this summer, but there are real concerns throughout the rest of the rotation. The primary issue is that this Pelicans team doesn’t have enough shooting around Davis. There are shooters on the roster—Holiday, Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore, Ian Clark and Solomon Hill are all competent from three—but finding the right five-man units will require a lot of give and take. Sitting Payton and Randle for shooters would take away the team’s most creative passer and second-best scorer, respectively. But playing those two together would take away a lot of the team’s floor spacing. So while this team has a decent assemblage of talent, there are questions about how well the roster will mesh. Even the units that played so well toward the end of last season will experience a bit of a letdown. There will be more film on that group, and it’s hard to imagine Mirotic continuing to play at such a high level defensively.
Bet: Under 45.0
San Antonio Spurs
2017-18 Record: 47-35
2018 Win Total: 43.5
Let’s quickly summarize what happened to the Spurs this summer: Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl, Manu Ginobili retired, Tony Parker signed with the Charlotte Hornets and starting point guard Dejounte Murray tore his ACL during the preseason. It’s a lot of turnover, but the team that won 47 games without Leonard last season essentially traded Green, Ginobili, Parker and Murray for DeRozan and Poeltl. San Antonio makes that trade 10 times out of 10, even if two of those players were Spurs legends and the other two were some of the league’s best defenders.
In DeRozan, the Spurs added a perennial All-Star that should be a lock to average over 20 points per game. The two-man game between he and LaMarcus Aldridge should be a beauty to watch. And San Antonio still has plenty of other notable contributors in Rudy Gay, Pau Gasol, Patty Mills and Davis Bertans—in addition to youngsters Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, who should both play a role when they return from injuries this season. Overall, this team is far too talented and well-coached not to match last year's results. Even with a slew of injuries in the backcourt and playing in a loaded Western Conference, you can’t bet against Popovich to at least hit the 45-win mark—especially with how tough it is to beat the Spurs at the AT&T Center.
Bet: Over 43.4
2017-18 Record: 22-60
2018 Win Total: 34.5
There’s no denying that Memphis got better this summer, as the team added the versatile Kyle Anderson and drafted what appears to be a two-way stud in Jaren Jackson Jr. Plus, with stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol now healthy—in addition to Chandler Parsons, who is in “the best shape of his life”—one might be tempted to back this team to make the playoffs, as this core has been in the postseason far more often than not. The problem is that you can’t trust these guys to stay healthy, and the supporting cast just isn’t good enough to win games on a nightly basis in the Western Conference.
Conley’s health is the biggest concern. When healthy, Conley is one of the most well-rounded point guards in the game and is capable of holding his own against everybody at his position. But Conley has also been dealing with Achilles issues over the past few seasons. It’s possible he would have played through it if the Grizzlies were more competitive a year ago, but he’s no youngster and that’s not an area of the body that you want to mess around with. Gasol isn’t getting any younger, either. The big man was one of the best defenders in basketball a few seasons ago, but the game is moving away from the true center and it wouldn’t be surprising if Gasol’s slow feet end up keeping him off the floor late in games this season. And guys like JaMychal Green, Dillon Brooks and Wayne Selden deserve some props for how they played last season, but they were mostly putting up empty stats in big losses. It’s not going to be as easy for them to get theirs as secondary players on a team that is actually trying to win games.
Bet: Under 34.5
2017-18 Record: 24-58
2018 Win Total: 34.5
The Mavericks struck gold when they landed European star Luka Doncic in the draft this past summer. Doncic is a maestro with the ball in his hands and he’ll be ready to be a main contributor on this team right away. Look for him to contend for the Rookie of the Year award and also make Dennis Smith Jr.—who flashed his talent last season, but also struggled with bouts of inconsistency—a lot better. Doncic will take pressure off of Smith as a primary playmaker, and his presence will allow the high flyer to focus on getting buckets.
In Wes Matthews, Harrison Barnes and the newly acquired DeAndre Jordan, Dallas has quite a few impact defenders set to play big minutes. Both Matthews and Barnes will love playing with Doncic, who will get them more open looks from the outside than they are used to. And Jordan, who is one of the best roll guys in the league, should be prepared to catch a couple of perfectly placed lobs per game. The Mavericks also have one of the best minds in the game in coach Rick Carlisle. He’s going to get every ounce out of this team—which still has future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki ready to come off the bench for some instant offense. The Mavericks might not steal a playoff spot, but the over represents some real value here.
Bet: Over 34.5