Spurs Season Preview: A look at the Southwest Division

Project Spurs continues its San Antonio Spurs 2013-14 season preview with an article from Michael De Leon previewing the Southwest Division.

San Antonio Spurs

Key Additions: Marco Belinelli, Jeff Ayres
Key Subtractions: Gary Neal, DeJuan Blair

While I won’t go into great detail considering you’ll get a more in-depth breakdown of the Spurs this week on Project Spurs, the Spurs remain largely unchanged after taking the Heat to Game 7 of the NBA Finals. Their additions of Belinelli and Ayres are improvements over Neal and Blair, but the biggest key for the Spurs this season will be Kawhi Leonard, as he will be asked to take a bigger role offensively.

The big three will now become the big four with Leonard, as Spurs coach Gregg Popovich mentioned during training camp. The Spurs also made the smart move of locking up Tiago Splitter over the offseason and he should continue to improve this season.

While an aging core just got older, Duncan proved age is just a number, Manu Ginobili looks revitalized and I expect Tony Parker to be in the MVP conversation yet again. While this may come across as a bit of a homer statement, aside from the statements above, with Leonard looking like he’s nowhere near his ceiling, and Danny Green working to improve his weaknesses and become less of a one-dimensional offensive player, the Spurs should have no problem being in the mix of things come playoff time, assuming health isn’t a big issue.

Prediction: 1st Southwest Division. NBA Finals.

Houston Rockets

Key Additions: Dwight Howard, Omri Casspi, Ronnie Brewer, Marcus Camby, Reggie Williams, Isaiah Canaan.
Key Subtractions: Thomas Robinson, Royce White, Carlos Delfino, James Anderson.

After trading for James Harden last season, the Rockets proved that they can be an entertaining bunch, but Daryl Morey and co. want to be a lot more than entertaining, so they made a huge gamble on the Dwight Howard sweepstakes this summer and now have the services of #12.

The biggest question facing the Rockets this season is how seamlessly Howards blends in within the Rockets’ system. There’s no doubting the talent, but Howard made life miserable for Stan Van Gundy and the Magic, and just was unable of co-existing with Kobe Bryant.

Adding Howard to a top shooting guard in Harden and a rising star in Chandler Parsons makes the Rockets an instant contender in the Western Conference and a favorite in the Southwest Division. While Harden is plenty competitive, he’s likely not as demanding as Kobe Bryant, so I expect the young duo to flourish together, at least until they are in the weeds in a tough playoff series.

Another big question is the role of Omer Asik. Asik became a bit expendable with the addition of Howard, and that may have Asik wondering about his role. The Rockets elected to keep Asik, which makes for a solid, if not crowded, frontcourt along with newcomer Marcus Camby.

Jeremy Lin is also a bit of a question mark for the Rockets. With a frontcourt of two players that like to work down low, a penetrating point guard may not fit the Rockets’ style best. The emergence of Patrick Beverly, the return of Aaron Brooks and the drafting of rookie Isaiah Canaan could spell the end of Lin’s time in Houston. With Harden becoming the primary ball-handler in the Rockets’ lineup last season and Lin seemingly losing a bit of his sizzle from his Knicks days, it seems he may be the odd man out, giving Morey another trade chip.

Aside from the addition of Howard, Morey also made several other strong offseason moves to make for a solid rotation that could go 11 deep.

Prediction: 2nd Southwest Division, Western Conference Semifinals.

Memphis Grizzlies

Key Additions: Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Jamaal Franklin.
Key Subtractions: Marreese Speights, Darrell Arthur, Keyon Dooling, Austin Daye, Tony Wroten, Lionel Hollins.

After being swept by the Spurs in the Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies return the same starting five and improved in some key areas in attempt of reaching their goal of the NBA Finals.

The Grizzlies still have a steady hand in playmaking guard Mike Conley, defensive ace Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph and Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.

The Grizzlies added sharpshooter Mike Miller in hopes of improving their offense and the addition of Koufos gives the Grizzlies a reliable backup big man. They could also have an absolute steal with the second round selection of rookie Jamaal Franklin. Franklin fits in seamlessly with the defensive-minded Grizzlies and having a defender and big rebounder at the shooting guard position coming off the bench for Tony Allen could be a major benefit…and curse to opposing guards.

Of all of the losses over the offseason in Memphis, the biggest could be on the sidelines, where Lionel Hollins was replaced with assistant David Joerger. Hollins was not a perfect coach, but he did so much to turn the Grizzlies into what they are now, never lost his players and got everyone to buy in. While Joerger while likely continue to run the same systems implemented in the Hollins regime, execution is everything and he’ll have to get a mostly unchanged team to believe that he is the right man to lead them.

While they improved a bit offensively, it likely won’t be enough to get them to the NBA Finals. The Grizzlies, though, will be a nightmare for any Western Conference team.

Prediction: 3rd Southwest Division. Western Conference Finals.

Dallas Mavericks

Key Additions: Monta Ellis, Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin, DeJuan Blair, Devin Harris, Ricky Ledo.
Key Subtractions: Darren Collison, Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo, Elton Brand, Roddy Beaubois, Mike James, Jared Cunningham, Anthony Morrow.

For the second consecutive summer, the Mavericks entered the Dwight Howard sweepstakes and lost. They were able to bounce back signing a DH of their own in Devin Harris, but that's not quite the impact they were hoping to make.

For the second straight season, the Mavs look like a hodgepodge group put together around Dirk Nowitzki and expected to win. While they kept notable holdovers Vince Carter, Shawn Marion and Brandan Wright, the Mavs made wholesale changes, throwing caution, and team chemistry, to the wind.

The addition of Monta Ellis is a nice consolation prize after losing out on Howard, but any Mavs’ success hinges on Ellis and Nowitzki co-existing and sharing the ball. The addition of Ellis does absolutely nothing for the Mavs’ defense, so they are gambling on the additions of Dalembert and Blair to help defend in the post.

As Spurs fans know, Blair has always had a ton of potential, but never really lived up to it in San Antonio. His insistence on being a malcontent also did more harm than he could make up for in any good he did on the court.

While they did bring in some good pieces, this overhaul will come with its growing pains and in an already tough division, the Mavs could be on the outside looking in at the end of the season.

Prediction: 4th Southwest Division.

New Orleans Pelicans

Key Additions: Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Anthony Morrow, Greg Stiemsma.
Key Subtractions: Robin Lopez. Greivis Vasquez, Xavier Henry, Hornets.

I have to give former Spurs executive and current Pelicans GM Dell Demps credit for making a run at this thing and not just throwing his hands up and tanking for the Andrew Wiggins sweepstakes.

After drafting Nerlens Noel, as much as the name was a perfect fit for the city/team, he was shipped to Philadelphia in exchange for all-star point guard Jrue Holiday. They also finished shoring up their backcourt in a multi-team deal that landed former Kings guard Tyreke Evans in the French Quarter.

Evans will likely have to come off the bench with Holiday and Eric Gordon likely getting the start at one and two, unless he gets the nod over Al-Farouq Aminu at small forward.

With Austin Rivers not having quite the rookie season expected, the Pelicans enlisted more backcourt help in sharpshooter Anthony Morrow. In the frontcourt, the Pelicans have a solid tandem in Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis. Jason Smith and new addition Greg Stiemsma provide some depth.

While the overhaul and adding an all-star playmaker in Holiday will make for an improved Pelicans team and a fun team to watch, they’ll be a bubble team at best, but continue to improve after losing Chris Paul two summers ago.

Prediction: 5th Southwest Division.

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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