Southwest Division Review

For the past year I have corresponded with Jim Eichenhofer from Hornets.com, answering questions for the website before the Spurs play in New Orleans and on occasional divisional roundtables. I answered some questions recently with other writers from around the division and thought I would share the results. Once again, thanks to Jim. I hope you enjoy.




During preseason,
you each selected one critical topic specific to your team that fans should
follow closely this season. Update us on that issue halfway through the
campaign.

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: The obvious thing all
Dallas fans were curious to see coming into the season was the result of the
coaching change from Avery Johnson to Rick Carlisle. A little past
the midpoint of the season, and just likeCarlisle’s coaching strategy, no
conclusions have been made. 
Despite
being relatively healthy, the Mavs have used more starting lineups
than I can count on both hands. Lineups, rotations and individual roles
have varied from week to week and game to game. Antoine Wright has gone
from starter, to end of the bench, and back to starter. Gerald Green has
gone from bench, to starter, to inactive. And the list goes on. Carlisle’s most
recent turnaround has been giving the reigns of the offense over to Jason Kidd. As Mavs fans
have tried to figure Carlisle out, he’s been trying to figure the
team out. He’s admitted mistakes and been open to change along the way, and I
suppose that alone is a welcome change from prior seasons.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: The Rockets faced two
key questions coming into the season: 1.) Could they stay healthy and 2.) How
would Ron Artest fit? Much to Houston’s chagrin, the answer to the first query
has been a resounding “No” thus far, while Artest’s integration receives an
incomplete grade since he’s been among the Rockets’ walking wounded. As a
result, Houston has been maddeningly inconsistent this season; beating teams
like Boston one night, then falling (multiple times) to the likes of Memphis
and Indiana. There’s still time for everything to come together, of course, but
that will require a prolonged period of good health. That subtle rustling you
hear in the background is the anxious sound an entire city crossing its
fingers.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: The jury is still out
as to whether the Grizzlies trade of Pau Gasol last season was a case of taking
a step back to take two steps forward. The Grizzlies have shown signs of
improvement, especially under new Head Coach Lionel Hollins, but still have big
steps to make before they can be considered a threat to make the postseason. As
predicted O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay have combined to make a formidable pair on the
perimeter, and with the improved play of Mike Conley under Hollins, the future
looks bright for the Grizzlies.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: Excitement and
expectations in New Orleans were at an all-time high for this team during
preseason. That may sound like an exaggeration, but consider that prior to
spring 2008, the Hornets had yet to win a postseason series since their move to
the Big Easy in ’02. In fact, they went from 2005-07 without qualifying for the
playoffs. So far, there have been glimpses that New Orleans was deserving of
its lofty preseason praise, such as when the Hornets beat the Lakers at Staples
Center on Jan. 6, but at the moment the focus is on short-term goals, including
getting everyone healthy. James Posey was expected to provide a big boost for
the bench, and he has been excellent overall, despite a recent shooting slump.

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: The biggest question the
Spurs faced concerned the usual question of age. Could the Spurs battle through
Manu Ginobili’s absence and still have their legs underneath them to contend?
The answer has been a resounding yes.

It didn’t look good
at first. The Spurs started 1-4 and then lost Tony Parker to an ankle injury.
However, they are 33-11 since then and look completely healthy, or at least
very close to it, now. The loss of Ginobili and Parker even gave others, like
Roger Mason Jr. and George Hill, a chance to learn the system and gain
confidence. By developing the bench, Pop has made the age question not as
important. Hill and Mason bring youthful energy and give the Spurs an extra
scoring punch that did not exist last year. While some fans might have been
quick to jump ship after the slow start, the early-season injuries were
actually a blessing in disguise.

 

What’s been the
most pleasant surprise of 2008-09 so far for the team you cover?

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: At 32, Jason Terry is
having the best season of his career. In 33 minutes per game, he is
averaging just over 20 points. And he’s doing it off the bench, which has
been a huge boost to a team that has depth but not in terms of points. The
Dallas bench averages 38 ppg, but without Terry it’s hard to see how the
bench could produce enough firepower to keep up with even the most mediocre
teams.  Unfortunately, Dallas is about to find out if that’s the case as
Terry broke a bone in his non-shooting hand just before the All-Star break.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: None other than
Vakeaton Quamar Wafer, though fans probably know him better as “Von.” The
mohawked one has been nothing short of a revelation for the Rockets in 2009,
going from a preseason longshot to make the roster, to scoring machine in the
month of January while Houston went without the services of Tracy McGrady. In
fact, Von’s emergence has presented an interesting dilemma for Rick Adelman:
Now that Artest and McGrady are back and (relatively) healthy, where does Wafer
fit into the rotation? Think about that for a minute. McGrady, Artest… Wafer?
Who thought that would be an issue?

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: The Grizzlies knew
that O.J. Mayo was going to be good when they orchestrated a draft night trade
to acquire him from the Minnesota Timberwolves, but they had no idea that he
was going to be this good. Mayo has led all rookies in scoring for pretty
much the entire season, and has shown an ability to win a game by himself,
which everyone knows is a key ingredient to becoming a superstar in this
league. He is primarily a scorer for the Grizzlies now, but as his career
evolves it will be interesting to watch his playmaking skills, which are
currently vastly underrated. 

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: That the Hornets have
remained competitive despite injuries to multiple key players. Everyone here
took notice when many national media experts predicted that New Orleans would
collapse after Chris Paul went down with an injury. Instead, role players such
as Rasual Butler, Devin Brown, Ryan Bowen and Sean Marks have helped the
Hornets avoid a breakdown. New Orleans recently beat an improved Minnesota club
on Feb. 8 despite not having Paul, Tyson Chandler, Morris Peterson or David
West. That’s four-fifths of the starting lineup from last season.

David Thiessen, Spurs
blogger
: This is a tough one. Is it
Matt Bonner as a reliable starting center? Or how about Roger Mason’s clutch
shooting? I’ll go with George Hill’s emergence as a solid backup point guard.
Hill struggled mightily during the summer leagues, making many fans question
him. When Parker went down, Hill stepped in nicely, displaying the ability to
get to the rim and a strong defensive presence. The Spurs have lacked a
reliable backup point, and nobody really expected Hill to be that player in his
first season.

What’s been the
biggest disappointment?

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: Coming into the season
there was one hole in the starting lineup, and that was the starting shooting
guard. Out of training camp it was Antoine Wright’s to lose and after two
games he had done just that. Rick Carlisle then tried Gerald
Green, JJ Barea and Devean George in that role before
ending up back where he started. The good news is that Wright’s recent
play may finally be locking his name in the starting lineup for the rest of the
season.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: Definitely Houston’s
inability to stay healthy. With so many injuries, it’s been impossible for the
Rockets to establish any sort of chemistry and continuity, and the resulting
inconsistency has manifested itself on the court time and time again in the
form of disappointing losses to inferior competition and too many blown fourth
quarter leads.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: The Grizzlies’ 1-13
record in January mired them in a rut that had many wondering if they would
ever escape. A recent surge has put the Grizzlies back on track, but for a team
as young as Memphis, you would like to see them improving each and every game,
but in the context of a long season, the Grizzlies did not take the proper
steps forward in January. Their struggles led to a shakeup at the top, as
the Grizzlies brought in Lionel Hollins to take over for Marc Iavaroni. The
move has paid dividends thus far, with the Grizzlies playing with a renewed
focus on both sides of the ball that should carry them in the second half of
the season.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: The team’s most recent
top draft picks, Julian Wright and Hilton Armstrong, have not progressed as
quickly as hoped in their second and third seasons, respectively. Wright has
spent lengthy portions of the season out of the rotation, though a preseason
injury he sustained in Europe definitely did not help his cause. Meanwhile,
Armstrong was presented with a golden opportunity to fill a larger role -
starting center Tyson Chandler has been sidelined for 18 games by injury – but
Armstrong’s inconsistency led to him losing his spot in the Hornets’
reconfigured starting lineup.

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: The slow start
was definitely disappointing, and it took the Spurs longer than normal to find
their groove, but it’s understandable with the injuries to Manu Ginobili and
Tony Parker. For me the biggest disappointment has been the decline of Bruce
Bowen and disappearance of Ime Udoka. Old age has finally caught up with Bowen
and he is no longer the stopper he once was, and it has hurt the Spurs defense.
Udoka has seen a significant drop in minutes and performance, and he has lost
his place in the rotation after a promising season last year.

Who’s been your
team’s MVP in the first half of the season?

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: Dirk’s numbers this season
(26 ppg, 8.3 ppg, 2.4 apg) aren’t far off his league MVP
campaign, and his scoring total is the highest it’s been since the Don Nelson
years. The Mavs’ dependence on him has probably only increased. 
With Josh Howard unable to stay healthy and Jason Terry now the sixth man, Dirk
has often been the only real scoring threat in the starting lineup. It
hasn’t mattered. Dirk will be Dirk.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: Given the injuries to
Tracy McGrady and Ron Artest, it almost has to be Yao Ming by default. But that
should in no way detract from what Yao has done this season while coming back
from a broken foot. Houston’s All-Star center remains one of the most
devastatingly efficient offensive players in the game and is his team’s
unquestioned focal point on that end of the court in the fourth quarter. It’s
true: The Rockets have not yet lived up to the lofty preseason expectations
placed upon them by many in the basketball community. But that can hardly be
blamed on Yao. In fact, he should be given credit for helping his club survive
the rash of injuries while still remaining a viable threat to make a
second-half run and claim one of the Western Conference’s top seeds.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: While Rudy Gay might
be the Grizzlies most talented player, their MVP this season has been the
rookie out of USC, O.J. Mayo. At the beginning of the year Mayo too often
settled for jumpers, but as the season has gone on he’s made more of an effort
to go to the basket and create more opportunities for himself and his teammates
at the rim. He plays hard on both sides of the ball on every possession
and leads by example, which this young team is desperately in need of.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: Obviously, it’s Chris
Paul, who should be on the short list of MVP candidates for the entire league,
along with LeBron, Kobe and Dwyane Wade. Paul continues to get better every
season, which is sometimes difficult to fathom, given what he’s already
accomplished over just 3 1/2 NBA seasons. After finishing as a runner-up to
Kobe in the MVP vote last season, CP3 has increased his scoring, shooting
percentage and rebounding. Oh by the way, he’s also leading the league in
assists, steals and triple-doubles (a career-high 5).

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: It has to be Tim
Duncan, without a question. Then again, Duncan has always been the Spurs’ MVP.
This year it has been more noticeable perhaps compared to the past two years.
He is having his best season in five years, and he carried the Spurs while
playing without his partners in the Big Three. How Duncan carried a team with
so many fresh faces is a testament to his leadership skills. He did not just
dominate on the court but off it by helping the new players adjust and keep the
Spurs afloat.

 

Who’s been the
biggest “unsung hero?”

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: It may seem strange to pick
a future Hall of Famer as ”unsung,” but Jason Kidd’s season can be easily
overlooked when you look at his stats and see the lowest scoring average of his
career. Kidd really is a player that brings more than the box score
indicates. His defense has been better than last season and shown he still
has something left in that regard. Most important to the team is his
leadership and ability to run the offense. Carlislerecently gave Kidd more
play-calling responsibility and the early results of that have been fantastic.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: The chronically
overlooked and underappreciated Luis Scola. He’s not fast, nor does he leap
tall buildings in a single bound. What he does, though, is help his team win
basketball games with his non-stop motor and on-court savvy. Few players in the
world maximize their talent to the extent Scola has and his pairing with Carl
Landry has provided the Rockets with one of the top power forward combos in the
NBA.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: Hakim Warrick came
into this season expecting to start for a rebuilding team, but knew shortly
into training camp that he would lead the second unit for the Grizzlies. Warrick
wasn’t thrilled at first, but after a few 18- and 19-point games started
building up, he realized how important his scoring punch off the bench was to
the Grizzlies chances. Warrick provides a hybrid set of skills off the
bench that is invaluable to the Grizzlies attack.   

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: After an extended
stretch of poor shooting and ineffective play last season, swingman Rasual
Butler drifted so far out of the rotation that he did not appear in a game
after March 3. He’s looked like a completely different player in 2008-09,
replacing last season’s starter, Morris Peterson, as the first-string shooting
guard. Butler says he’s playing the best basketball of his seven-year NBA
career, and he was the only New Orleans player who appeared in all of the team’s
games prior to the All-Star break. His production has been one overlooked key
to the team’s success.

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: Roger Mason Jr.
and George Hill both deserve mention here for how they stepped up early in the
season, but Matt Bonner deserves this honor. He shook off confidence issues and
is now a reliable center. While he does not fit the traditional role of a
center, Bonner’s 49 percent shooting on threes and 52.6 percent shooting
overall have been a pleasant surprise. He has produced consistently since
entering the starting lineup early in the season, stretching the floor and
throwing in a few rebounds.

 

What is your team’s
primary objective in the second half of the regular season?

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: Dallas has been horribly
inconsistent. The defense will go from fantastic to nonexistent without
explanation, and the team’s effort even seems to be unreliable. One day
they are losing to Milwaukee by 34 and the next they are winning in Detroit by
21. Should Dallas make the postseason, and I believe they will, they have
to learn to avoid the shocking no-shows.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: Stay healthy and start
climbing the Western Conference ladder. Obviously, nothing is more important
than the first part of that equation, but there’s also no denying the fact it
would greatly behoove the Rockets to snag a top seed, thereby (theoretically)
improving their chances of putting an end to those ignominious first round
blues.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: Just as it was coming
into the season, the Grizzlies primary objective in the second half of the
season is to continue to improve on all fronts.  The Grizzlies have pieces
in place to compete in the near future, but they won’t get there unless they
realize that every time they step on the floor gives them a chance to improve
individually and collectively. They have shown flashes of improvement at
different points, but a consistent effort over a two- to three-week period
would be a major step forward for this Grizzlies team.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: Securing one of the top
four seeds in the Western Conference playoffs, to ensure homecourt advantage in
the first round. Certainly it is too early to concede the Southwest Division
race, but based on the way San Antonio has played lately, it might take awhile
to make up that gap in the standings. Plus, the two teams don’t play each other
head-to-head again until late March. Other than that, it’s imperative that the
Hornets are close to 100 percent healthy at least a few weeks before the
postseason arrives, so that there will be time to establish a set rotation and
additional cohesiveness.

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: Like usual, the
Spurs must focus on finding their playoff form while maintaining their health.
They are currently in the midst of the Rodeo Road Trip, which plays a
significant part in their first task. This is the time when Pop solidifies the
rotation and determines who he can count on. Maybe more importantly, however,
they must make sure none of the Big Three get hurt. With so much experience,
their health is the most important factor come playoff time.

 

Turning to
division-wide questions, who has been the Southwest Division’s MVP so far (not
including the team you cover)?

Wes Cox,
Mavericks blogger
: Chris Paul. Chris
Paul. Chris Paul. Dallas has only played the Hornets once this season and
Chris Paul put up numbers that would have looked good for two games combined -
33 points, 11 assists, 10 rebounds, seven steals. He’s a freak and sadly a
Mav killer too.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: Have to hand this to
Chris Paul, with a tip of the cap to San Antonio’s perennial MVP candidate Tim
Duncan. No one this side of Harry Potter is more magical than CP3 and it’s
frightening to think what the Hornets would be without the use of his wizardry
on a nightly basis. Here’s a fun game to play at home: After LeBron James,
which current player would you choose to build a franchise around (taking into
account age, injury history, etc.) if you were starting a team from scratch?
Give me Paul and I’ll happily take my chances against anyone for the next
decade.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: Tim Duncan has not
only been the division’s MVP, but should also be considered for MVP of the
entire league, along with the leaders in the clubhouse, LeBron James and Kobe
Bryant. Take away Pau Gasol and Lamar Odom from Kobe or Mo Williams and
any of an assortment of Cavs from James for an extended period of time and see
if they would be able to keep their teams afloat like Duncan did when Parker
and Ginobili were down. With the Spurs riding high and Duncan leading the
way, don’t be surprised if another trip down the riverwalk is in the Larry O’Brien
trophy’s future.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: Since I can’t say CP3,
it has to be Tim Duncan, without question. San Antonio played portions of the
early schedule without two-thirds of its “Big Three,” yet managed to get
through it virtually unscathed. The Big Fundamental was the biggest reason, as
he has been in the Alamo City for a dozen years and counting.

David Thiessen,
Spurs blogger
: If not for
LeBron James, Chris Paul could very well be the NBA MVP. Paul is the league’s
best point guard and the Hornets simply don’t function smoothly without him. It’s
telling how the Hornets blew a 17-point lead against Portland after losing Paul
to a groin injury. He is 
the
Hornets.

 

Most improved
player or the player who has been the most pleasant surprise (again, not
including your team)?

Wes Cox, Mavericks
blogger
: Anytime a Spur is doing
well it’s not “pleasant,” but Roger Mason has been one of the best offseason acquisitions
in the Southwest Division.  Three years ago he was playing in Israel, and
now he’s starting for the number two team in the West.

Jason Friedman,
Rockets.com
: I wouldn’t call him a
surprise since I picked him as my “breakthrough” player in the preseason (had
to get a self-congratulatory back-tap in somewhere), but Roger Mason Jr. has
been everything San Antonio could have hoped for and more. And if the Spurs
continue their bizarre odd-year domination, you better believe Mason Jr. will
be smack dab in the middle of it.

Matt Tumbleson,
grizzlies.com
: I’m going to have to
agree with Wes and Jason on this one and go with Roger Mason Jr. The Spurs
have talked for years about the need to get younger and more athletic on the
perimeter but it wasn’t until last year’s ousting in the playoffs by the Lakers
that they actually acted and shook up the Spurs supporting cast. By
bringing in players like Mason Jr. and George Hill the Spurs have provided San
Antonio’s big three with the proper players to make a run at another NBA title. Mason
Jr. has already shown in the regular season that he’s not afraid of taking the
big shots, which could end up playing a major factor this postseason.

Jim Eichenhofer,
Hornets.com
: Based on the mostly
unforeseen impact he’s made on the Spurs, I’ll go with Matt Bonner. I knew his
shooting ability could make him a quality role player, but he’s quietly been
huge as a starter. Bonner’s 49 percent accuracy from three-point range is
frightening on a San Antonio team that always gets plenty of open shots based
on the attention Tim Duncan draws. This is the same Bonner who appeared in only
two of the Spurs’ 17 playoff games last spring.

David Thiessen, Spurs
blogger
: Von Wafer is the
second-lowest paid player on the Rockets and had never started a game in the
NBA before joining the Rockets. This year he is averaging near 10 points and 40
percent shooting on threes. In 11 games as a starter, Wafer has averaged 16.4
points. If someone had told me before the season that Wafer would fill in
nicely for an injured Tracy McGrady, I would not have believed them.


About Michael A. De Leon

Michael founded Project Spurs in 2004. He started The Spurscast, the first Spurs podcast on the Internet, in 2005. Michael has been interviewed by the BBC, SportTalk, the Sports Reporters Radio Show, MemphisSportLive, OKC Sports Wrap and ESPN radio among others. He is a credentialed member of the media for the San Antonio Spurs and Austin Toros. He is also the founder of Project Spurs' sister sites, Toros Nation and Stars Hoops.

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