2020-2021 Southwest Division Preview

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Believe it or not, the NBA season is finally here. Sure, it feels like it just wrapped up, which is true for the Los Angeles Lakers and the Miami Heat who played in the Finals just over two months ago.

Even the playoff teams might even feel the effects of the turnaround. It’s strange to say, but the San Antonio Spurs didn’t make the playoffs, and the team is surely ready to make up for it.

In the NBA Bubble, we got an early look at what the young roster could do against teams in the Western Conference, and more specifically, the Southwest Division. In their eight games in The Bubble, three of them were division games, and the Spurs won all three of them, even without LaMarcus Aldridge or Trey Lyles. San Antonio of course went 5-3 in Orlando, nearly qualifying for the playoffs to keep the 22 year postseason streak alive.

With a new league year, the Spurs hope to finish better in the standings, and hopefully get back to the playoffs. While it would be easy to look at the rest of the Western and Conference and get a bit intimidated, it may be better for the team to start with focusing on the teams in the Southwest Division first.

At that, let’s look at how the Southwest Division is looking after some shakeup this offseason and what that means for the Spurs’ climb back to the postseason. For order, we’re going to use the Week 1 Power Rankings from NBA.com:

  1. Dallas Mavericks (9th OVR)
  2. Houston Rockets (14th OVR)
  3. Memphis Grizzlies (17th OVR)
  4. New Orleans Pelicans (18th OVR)
  5. San Antonio Spurs (22nd OVR)

Dallas Mavericks (2nd in the SW Division in 19-20)

The Mavericks had much higher hopes for their 2019-2020 season than the way it ended. Luka Doncic sustained an ankle injury in Game 3 of the first round of the playoffs in Orlando, and wasn’t 100% as the team fell to the Los Angeles Clippers in six games. Even hobbled, Doncic still went on to lead his team in scoring, rebounds and assists in the final three games after the injury, including a 43-point triple-double in Game 4. It further didn’t help matters for the team to lose Kristaps Porzinigs for those final three games due to a meniscus tear in his knee.

For the most part, the Mavericks are returning the same roster, which could worry Mavericks fans given the result of last season. The biggest loss for Dallas could be the draft-night trade of Seth Curry to Philadelphia for SG Josh Richardson and the 36th overall pick in November’s draft that turned into power forward Tyler Bey out of Colorado.

Seth Curry shot 45.2% from three-point range last year in his return to Dallas. In the postseason, he shot 47% from deep and had a 22-point performance in Game 3 when Luka left the game early. In Richardson, the team received a less deadly shooter, but a more complete player in terms of overall contribution across the stat sheet. The Mavericks also added another shooting guard through the draft in Josh Green out of Arizona.

The Mavericks were a good team last season, and in a tight Western Conference, the second seed was still a possibility going into The Bubble, though they finished with the seventh. How far can this team go with a healthy Porzingis and Doncic? We know they have the offensive ability after setting a new rating record last season. They were able to keep with the Clippers game for game in the postseason, and have the size and talent to compete with the Lakers on paper, but went just 1-3 against the reigning champions last season.

Dallas was 2-1 in this preseason, and will open their season Wednesday night in Phoenix against the Suns.

Houston Rockets (SW Division Champions 19-20)

The Houston Rockets have enjoyed three straight seasons on top of the Southwest Division, but would have a hard time making it four if they can’t solve the James Harden situation. Harden has been vocal about wanting to be traded, even after the Rockets acquired John Wall and a first-round pick from the Washington Wizards for Russell Westbrook, and signing DeMarcus Cousins in the offseason.

Wall and Cousins are recognizable names that have been among the NBA’s elite, but both come with injury concerns. Three or four years ago, they would provide a dynamic force for Houston, and the team could be okay without Harden, though he likely would be content with those versions of the new additions.

Speaking of additions, one of the biggest moves for the Rockets this offseason was the firing of GM Daryl Morey shortly after Mike D’Antoni announced he wouldn’t return to Houston upon the conclusion of their postseason. Houston made it to the Western Conference Semi-Finals after beating the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round, but fell to the Lakers 3-1.

With D’Antoni’s exit, the Rockets hired Stephen Silas, an assistant for the Mavericks, to take over the team in his first shot as a head coach. Along with John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, Houston added center Christian Wood who had a standout game against the Spurs in both teams’ preseason finale last week.

The Rockets can have a decent year without Harden, but not as good of one as they’d have with him on this roster. Should they add a solid threat on the perimeter, John Wall should be able to assume Harden’s on-ball responsibilities, provided he can stay on the court. Houston will remain interesting to watch this season, even after the Harden drama is over.

Houston was 2-2 in this preseason, and will begin their season at home on Wednesday against the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Memphis Grizzlies (3rd in the SW Division in 19-20)

The Memphis Grizzlies are a team on the rise, led by last season’s Rookie of the Year, Ja Morant. All looked set for the team to make it to the playoffs, but struggles in The Bubble saw the Grizzlies end up in the play-in game against Portland where they were unable to qualify for a shot at a title run.

Morant generates his own highlight-reel in every game he plays, whether he’s scoring or distributing. The key for him and the Grizzlies will be to increase his production. Ja averaged 14 shots per game, but connected on 47.7% of them, good enough to average 17.8 points per game. Should Morant create more opportunities for himself to score, he’d be able to help elevate those around him, which is a decent cast of players with potential.

The Grizzlies are basically running it back, which should come with familiarity with one another and bolster team chemistry. The top five scorers from last year’s team return, all of whom averaged double-digits in points, including Jonas Valanciunas who averaged double-figures in rebounds as well. Depth will be a question, but the team is young and constructed to shoot and run well under second-year head coach Taylor Jenkins.

Memphis finished the preseason 3-1, sweeping the Timberwolves and splitting a series with the Hawks. The Grizzlies will open their season at home against the Spurs on Wednesday night.

New Orleans Pelicans (5th in the SW Division in 2019)

The New Orleans Pelicans made it to the NBA Bubble, but came short of making the playoffs in Zion Williamson’s rookie season. There’s a chance their season could’ve gone differently had the first overall pick in the 2019 NBA Draft not gotten hurt in the preseason and had his debut delayed until last January, but the world will never know.

The Pelicans weren’t very busy during the offseason, but they did participate in one of the most impactful transactions outside of the Chris Paul trade. On the 24th of November, New Orleans was one quarter of the parties involved in a deal that netted them Eric Bledsoe from Milwaukee and Steven Adams from Oklahoma City. According to the team’s website, the Pelicans’ involvement also landed them “two future first round draft picks from Milwaukee and the right two swap two additional first round picks with the Bucks. In exchange, Milwaukee has acquired Jrue Holiday and the draft rights to Sam Merrill, the 60th pick in the 2020 NBA Draft (via New Orleans).” New Orleans also had to send two second round draft picks to Oklahoma City, which are detailed in the link cited.

Acquiring Adams will allow Zion to focus on playing at the forward positions, while giving the team a veteran around the rim and could pair well with second-year big-man Jaxon Hayes. New Orleans also signed another notable post player in Willy Hernangomez from the Bobcats, who will go to add depth. Combined with still having Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball, Josh Hart and JJ Redick who all averaged double-digits and shot above 40% from three-point range… Just wow.

It’s one thing to have talent, and another thing to make it all fit together, and up to the challenge will be veteran head coach, Stan Van Gundy. Van Gundy last coached Andre Drummond and the Detroit Pistons in 2018.

New Orleans played two games this preseason, one each against the Heat and the Bucks, winning them both. The Pelicans start their season on the road on Wednesday in Toronto against the Raptors.

San Antonio Spurs (4th in the SW Division in 19-20)

After a couple of seasons of major additions to the roster, including eight new faces in an overhaul in 2018, the San Antonio Spurs seem to have settled on a roster composition that has a lot of youth, while retaining most of the same veteran experience.

It is well documented that the San Antonio Spurs ended an historic postseason run when they failed to qualify for the playoffs when competing in the NBA Bubble. There were a number of bright spots in that experience, however, that should give fans hope moving forward. The team was able to notch a 5-3 record against other teams that needed to win as well, whether to qualify for the playoffs themselves, or for seed positioning.

The Spurs’ notable additions in the offseason came in the form of the draft, picking up Devin Vassell at number 11, their highest draft selection since 1997, and grabbing Tre Jones in the second round. Vassell has already performed well in the preseason and looks to pick up regular minutes as a rookie. In addition to the draft selections, the Spurs brought back Jakob Poeltl and former two-way contract player Drew Eubanks, which brings back two bigs who are already succeeding in the system.

One area of concern for San Antonio could be three-point production, as neither Bryn Forbes or Marco Belinelli were brought back. The two made up the majority of the team’s perimeter game, accounting for over 25% of the team’s overall attempts from deep on the season, while shooting better than 37%. The absence of those two players, however, may lead to some of the more versatile scorers like Derrick White or Lonnie Walker IV increasing their output from outside.

The success of the Spurs this season will largely be determined by whether the youth can find consistency in the fundamentals that Coach Gregg Popovich has preached for two decades. There’s enough young talent to keep pace with the rest of the NBA up and down the court, but execution on both ends will be the key.

The Spurs played three preseason games, and went 0-3 in two games against Houston and one game against the Thunder. San Antonio will open their season on the road against Memphis.

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For the last ten years, the Southwest Division has been one of the best in the NBA, with three of the five teams qualifying for the playoffs each year on average, including the 2014-2015 season when all five teams made the postseason. Over that stretch, only the Spurs and the Rockets have won the division, with San Antonio having won six to Houston’s four. Houston, however, has won the last three division titles.

The Western Conference has been considered the toughest conference when compared to the Eastern Conference, and the Southwest Division has been the cream of the crop. While four of the five teams continue to move forward with new looks, with Dallas as the exception, the division appears to be the Mavericks’ to lose. That’s not to say that the other teams don’t have a shot at an upset, but before any of those teams really start scouting the standings for playoff placement, looking inward at their own division as a benchmark may be a better place to start.

2019-2020 Final Southwest Division Standings:

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