It has been true of the NBA for a while now that the top 8-10 teams in the Western Conference are usually interesting, competitive teams. It should be no surprise, then, that the league’s arguably most competitive division from top to bottom, the Southwest Division, finds its home in the West. This has been the case since the Memphis Grizzlies became a playoff mainstay and the New Orleans Pelicans drafted Anthony Davis. In fact, in 2015 all five Southwest Division teams made the playoffs. While that doesn’t seem likely this season, each team has something to keep an eye on, whether that’s championship aspirations, playoff pushes, or exciting young players.
Previous Record: 33-49
Trending: Upwards. While it’s true that 38 year-old Dirk Nowitzki’s performance will continue to decline as he draws nearer to retirement, the Mavericks have other important players that should improve over last season. Notably, this will be Harrison Barnes’ second season as the primary offensive option, a role he should be even more confident in this season, and Nerlens Noel’s first full season with the Mavs. While Seth Curry missing the start of the season will undoubtedly hurt the team, they should still expect to see a better record than last season, even if it will almost certainly not be enough to make the playoffs.
Summary: The Mavericks didn’t make many off-season moves this summer. They re-signed Noel, brought over German power-forward Maxi Kleber, and added a couple of two-way contracts. Their most important new addition, however, came in the selection of Dennis Smith Jr., the ninth overall pick in the 2017 draft. Not only is Smith Jr. potentially this season’s rookie of the year, but he looks as if he may be the Mavs’ next franchise player. After a strong summer league and preseason, Coach Rick Carlisle, historically stingy when giving rookies playing time, has designated Smith Jr. as the Mavs’ starting point guard.
The Mavs have a solid starting frontcourt in Wesley Matthews, Barnes, and Dirk. Starting a rookie point guard will certainly stifle the offense at times, but the Mavs have plenty of scoring ability from other positions. There is a good chance they end up as the 12th seed or so, but if everything clicks right for this team, they may find themselves fighting for a playoff spot in March and April.
Previous Record: 55-27
Trending: Upwards. This past summer was an eventful one for the Rockets. They added Chris Paul, PJ Tucker, and Luc Mbah a Moute while losing Patrick Beverly, Lou Williams, and Sam Dekker. While Beverly, Williams, and Dekker were all good fits in Coach Mike D’Antoni’s system, the Rockets are undoubtedly more talented now than they were when their previous season ended in May.
Summary: This Rockets’ roster is so well-rounded. When the Rockets hired D’Antoni as their head coach last year and signed Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, the general consensus was that their defense would doom them. They ended up being average on defense (ranked 18th in the league in defensive rating), historically good on offense (they scored only 0.9 points per 100 possessions less than the Golden State Warriors did), and a threat in the Western Conference. Then, the Rockets had an incredible off-season in which they addressed almost all of their weaknesses without sacrificing any of their strengths.
The Rockets did lose Patrick Beverley, whose defense and energy has been important to Houston for years. There are very few point guards in the league who are noted for their strong defensive abilities, which almost instantly makes Beverley a key piece to any roster he is a part of. Normally, this would be a bigger blow for the Rockets, but they’ll probably survive since they traded Beverley for not only another high-quality point guard defender, but also a Hall of Fame lock in Chris Paul.
While there will be an adjustment period for the Rockets as Paul and James Harden learn how to coexist on a basketball court and as Paul acclimates to the Rocket’s pace and style of play, the other additions to the team should fit right in. Tucker and Mbah a Moute are both defensive specialists who can hit 3’s. Last season Mbah a Moute shot 39.1% from behind the arc on 1.4 attempts per game, and Tucker hit 40.0% of his shots from 3 point range on 2.5 attempts per game in his 31 game stint with the Toronto Raptors. Both of their percentages will probably drop this season as their attempts will undoubtedly go up, but they have proven that they fit into Houston’s scheme offensively and they both, along with Paul, bring a defensive ability and versatility that could make the Rockets elite.
Previous Record: 43-39
Trending: Downwards. The Grizzlies have long been known for their mantra “Grit ‘N Grind”, which encapsulated both their style of play and their team identity. The exits of Tony Allen and Zach Randolph, however, signals a shift away from that identity and towards a more modern style of play. This transition will make the Grizzlies more flexible in the long term, but will probably cost them games this season.
Summary: This offseason, the Grizzlies lost not only Allen and Randolph, but Vince Carter as well. While Vince Carter is almost 41 years old, he was still a contributor for the Grizzlies. Losing those 3 players means that this year’s Grizzlies’ team is younger than last season’s, which is both a blessing and a curse. A younger team hopefully equates to a higher ceiling in the long run, but will almost certainly mean taking a step back in the present. As both Conley and Gasol are in the latter half of their primes, having a single down season is not ideal. Last season, Chandler Parson, the Grizzlies’ big 2016 offseason acquisition, played only 31 games. His performance this year may be something to monitor. If he can perform closer to how he did in Houston or Dallas, his contributions could push the Grizzlies over the top if they find themselves battling for a playoff spot late in the season.
The Grizzlies’ run of success has been projected to end for seasons now. They just somehow find a way to keep staying relevant, though. While it’s hard to imagine them making the playoffs in a stacked Western Conference, for the past several seasons being successful despite the odds is what the Grizzlies do.
New Orleans Pelicans
Previous Record: 34-48
Trending: Upwards. The Pelicans desperately needed to sign shooters to play alongside Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins. So, of course, they signed Tony Allen and Rajon Rondo, two notable non-shooters. Simply allowing the core of Davis, Cousins, and Jrue Holiday to go through training camp and play a whole season together means they will probably have a better record than last season, though.
Summary: Davis and Cousins together form not only the best big man duo in the league, but also one of the strongest frontcourts across the league defensively. Each player is a highly-skilled, versatile offensive threat who can (as each player has had to at different times over the past couple seasons) carry a team on both ends of the court almost singlehandedly.
The Pelicans’ cap situation last off-season was tight, but it’s still frustrating to see the team not surround Davis and Cousins with more shooters to space the floor and give them room to operate inside. Regardless, the Pelicans should be great defensively and have an outside shot at making the playoffs.
San Antonio Spurs
Previous Record: 61-21
Trending: Downwards, in terms of record at least. This Spurs’ squad seemingly has a higher ceiling than last season’s did, but with Kawhi Leonard missing the start of the season, with uncertainty as to how much time exactly he will miss and the integration of several new key rotation players, hitting the 60-win benchmark for a third straight season may prove difficult.
Summary: The Spurs will not only be missing Leonard early on, but Tony Parker as well. This gives Dejounte Murray a chance to be the Spurs’ starting point guard until at least late November. While Murray has incredible upside, he is still a young player who will have some big responsibilities on both ends of the court. There will be games where he struggles, but this experience should put him in a position to take the next step in his career. The common thought is that the Spurs’ believe Murray is their point guard of the future, and the next few weeks may help lay the foundation.
LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay are two other players to watch as well early on this season for the Spurs. Much has been made about Aldridge’s summer meeting with Coach Gregg Popovich, in which Aldridge expressed his frustrations and the two worked on solutions going forward. Throughout the pre-season and one regular season game, these changes are allowing Aldridge to play comfortably again, with the Spurs often running the offense through him. Aldridge has been particularly adept at finding an open player on the perimeter when the defense sends a double team at him in the post. If Gay can return to pre-injury form, which is looking likely over a small sample size, he will give an offensive boost to the already high-powered bench, and will add another lengthy playmaker to the Spurs’ smallball lineup.
Division Standings Prediction
- Houston Rockets (62-20)
- San Antonio Spurs (57-25)
- Memphis Grizzlies (39-43)
- New Orleans Pelicans (37-45)
- Dallas Mavericks (35-47)
Stats obtained from basketball-reference.com. Lineup information from rotoworld.com.