Division-by-division we go, with the emphasis of this edition placed on the Southwest Division, one of the most competitive in the league. Will the Big Fundamental tutor Kawhi Leonard in the nuances of the Spurs’ culture of excellence? James Harden’s development will continue, but how will Houston gel following the Dwightmare? Is Dirk finished (and what will Mark Cuban do now, if that is the case)? Will Anthony Davis ever manscape his trademarked unibrow? Is Marc Gasol finally – finally – the BEST Gasol? TwH addresses these questions and more.
1. San Antonio Spurs
2012-’13 regular season record: 52-24, 1st in the Southwest Division
Key additions: G Marco Belinelli, F/C Jeff Ayers (Pendergraph)
Key losses: G Gary Neal, C DeJuan Blair
2013-’14 Linchpin: F/G Kawhi Leonard. The eternally stoic Tim Duncan has finally found the one who will carry the Spurs torch to the next generation of team-oriented, highly skilled players under Gregg Popovich. Leonard has had a solid first two seasons in the league, and his shot of youth to the Spurs’ starting lineup revitalized a team which many thought might have been too old to run with the Thunders and Grizzlies of the world. Leonard is coming off a sophomore campaign in which he averaged about 12 points and 6 rebounds per game and carried the team in the injury-related absences of Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, and he made significant strides in the playoffs. Leonard kicked up his averages to almost a double-double in the playoffs and improved his 3-point shooting, and he did manage the double-double in the Finals against the Heat, when he spent the majority of his time on defense frustrating and disrupting LeBron. It will be up to Leonard to keep this ship steady during Duncan’s increasingly copious bench minutes during the regular season and then to lock down the opposing team’s best scorers during the postseason.
Overall: The Spurs were one historically-bad blemish in the otherwise near-perfect career of Tim Duncan away from winning a fifth NBA championship since 1999. There is really no reason to believe they can’t be right back there against the Heat (or the Bulls, or whomever you think can beat either of those teams in the East) come next June. The only questions which could arise would involve the health of San Antonio’s core, Duncan, Ginobili and Parker, particularly given the ages of the first two (37 and 36, respectively). Gregg Popovich addresses that issue directly, however, by giving his stars time to sit during the regular season so that they may be fresh for the playoffs. This practice is not conducive to Sternball, apparently, but it has paid dividends in the postseason in recent years. If those three can remain healthy, the Spurs always have a solid chance to, at the very least, win their conference. The loss of Gary Neal seems much worse than it actually is, and Marco Belinelli is a great replacement who can provide a lot of the same skills that Neal did. DeJuan Blair’s departure to Dallas takes away some of the paint presence the Spurs have had, but Jeff Ayers will be able to step into those garbage time minutes, and Blair never really fit the Spurs ethos anyway. He will be better off elsewhere. Pop will not take any chances: he will rest his stars, the league and its broadcasting partners will be upset, Pop DGAF. The Spurs will come out swinging in the playoffs, rested and ready. Do NOT expect Tim Duncan to miss this time.
2. Houston Rockets
2012-’13 regular season record: 45-37, 3rd in the Southwest Division
Key additions: C Dwightmare
Key losses: F Thomas Robinson, G Carlos Delfino, F Royce White
2013-’14 Linchpin: G James Harden. In the year since he left the Thunder in what might end up being referred to by historians as the “worst trade of all-time,” Harden has made a strong case for himself as the best 2-guard this side of a healthy Kobe Bryant. He finished fifth in the league in scoring, averaging over 25 points per game for the league’s second-best offense. At 24, Harden is due only to get better for the distant foreseeable future. His uptick in minutes from the OKC days resulted directly in the points increase, of course, but he managed an around-career average three-point percentage. If he can get that to a shade under 40% (mark him as an extremely distant contender for the 40-50-90 club sometime in the next five years, given his 85% free throw shooting as well), Harden will create even more problems for Houston opponents than he already does, which is seemingly unfathomable. For The Beard, however, the sky truly is the limit on a team allowing him to take full advantage of his skill set.
Overall: The Rockets were top ten in the league in many offensive categories, including the aforementioned points, rebounds and assists per game. Harden was a huge part of that, with his unique all-around scoring ability allowing for the tandem of Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik to at least drive through the double-double neighborhood in every game and take some pressure of The Artist Formerly Known As Linsanity. Jeremy Lin’s turnover numbers came down in year two, but he still did not rank in the top 40 in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio, one of the most important statistics for point guards. Dwight Howard’s presence should help Lin cut down on turnovers, and if he can do that, the Rockets will have the slick offense they so desire. Speaking of the Dwightmare, Kevin McHale will task him with providing help in the one area with which the Rockets most struggled a season ago: defense. Once a three-peat winner of the Defensive Player of the Year, Howard’s one-off performance in Los Angeles a season ago was less-than-stellar. Mamba was unimpressed, at the very least. The Rockets finished 28th in the league in points allowed last year, and Howard’s rim protection, historically, should put a bandage on that. Which Howard the Rockets will get, however, remains a mystery, and it is the central question of the Western Conference.
BONUS: Look for the Rockets to deal Omer Asik if Howard plays even semi-competently. His skills are too similar to Howard’s for the Rockets to hold onto him, particularly with him being due $14 million next season. The only reason Houston keeps him is if Howard’s health becomes an issue.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
2012-’13 regular season record: 56-26, 2nd in the Southwest Division
Key additions: F Mike Miller, C Kosta Koufos, G Jamaal Franklin
Key losses: F Darrell Arthur
2013-’14 Linchpin: C Marc Gasol. The NBA’s reigning DPOY, Gasol anchored the league’s best defense in 2012-’13, a Grizzlies team which allowed fewer than 90 points per game. Perhaps slightly overshadowed given Zach Randolph’s offensive prowess was the fact that Gasol was also the second-leading scorer on that team in the postseason, averaging over 17 points per game after barely getting to 14 in the regular season. Coach David Joerger (be honest, how many of you even knew who Memphis’ head coach was?) will be looking for Gasol to contribute even more on the offensive side of the ball, as that is where the Grizz lacked and what ultimately led to their downfall. Well, that, and the San Antonio’s overarching brilliance in all things basketball. For now, Marc Gasol has shed the image of fat Marc and is playing at All-NBA levels, having surpassed his two-time NBA champion older brother.
Overall: People love the Memphis Grizzlies. Why not? This team is the rare defense-based team that is always fun to watch, and the players never stop moving. Memphis could just as easily have been ranked first in this division as it is third, and I could be sorely mistaken about the progress Gasol & Co. made in the offseason. I hope I am, honestly. The Rudy Gay trade took away a lot of what Memphis was able to do on offense – Gay had been the team’s leading scorer up to that point – but it allowed them to buckle down on D and force opponents into aggravating situations. That Memphis could dismantle the high-flying Clippers so thoroughly for four straight games after losing the first two was a testament to the character of the team and its ambition, and although the Spurs swept the Grizzlies in the Western Conference Finals, make no mistake: this team has every right to believe it can return, even in an impressively top-heavy West. Tony Allen and Mike Conley return to anchor the backcourt, and Gasol and Randolph will set the tone around the paint. Kosta Koufos was a smart pickup, as his rebounding and ball recovery awareness will allow either of the low frontcourt starters to rest comfortably down the stretch. Randolph should hit double-double territory again, and the team will be able to rely on 3-pointers from Conley, Tayshaun Prince and the newly-arrived Mike Miller, if he is healthy. Miller also brings valuable big-time playoff experience, and he just becomes a different human being altogether come May and June. Look for his crunch-time minutes to push the Grizzlies through key stretches in which they aren’t getting jump shots from anywhere else. Quite simply, Grizzlies gonna Grizz.
4. Dallas Mavericks
2012-’13 regular season record: 41-41 (Appropriately), 4th in the Southwest Division
Key additions: G Monta Ellis, G Jose Calderon, F/C DeJuan Blair, C Samuel Dalembert, G Wayne Ellington
Key losses: G O.J. Mayo, F Elton Brand, C Chris Kaman, G Darren Collison
2013-’14 Linchpin: F Dirk Nowitzki. Always. This team runs through Dirk. Although he missed almost half the season with injuries in 2012-’13, Nowitzki still led the team in points per game and shot over 40% from long distance. Ellis and Calderon will take some of the weight off of his burden as the quasi-point forward in much the same way Jason Terry once did. He is 35, but his skill set does not rely on physicality or any of the blessings associated with youth. At his size, Nowitzki can play like this, with all the back-to-the-basket turnaround gusto and sharpshooting included, for another couple of years. The Mavericks will need him to do just that if he expects to finish his career in Dallas. He is entering the final year of his contract, and though Mark Cuban insists he will not trade his Übermensch, Cuban is a business man, and if the right deal comes along, and Dallas is floundering in the Western Conference at the trade deadline, it is not impossible to envision a world in which Dirk is traded to a contender as a favor for a chance at one more ring. Until and unless that happens, Nowitzki is the clock by which the Dallas Mavericks set their time.
Overall: Here’s the deal: as is often the case with the Mavericks, this team is very much in a whole-greater-than-the-sum-of-its-parts situation. Dirk Nowitzki is older, but he still plays at elite level when healthy and can shoot from anywhere on the court. He appears to be driven this year, finally having come off the high of being on the last team to beat LeBron James for a championship. He is focused, and, according to him, he is not finished. I have learned never to question Dirk Nowitzki; just pass him the ball, and he will take care of the rest. As for non-Dirk Mavericks, Monta Ellis brings mercurial scoring ability and a bit of what Grantland terms “irrational confidence,” but he can play basketball at a very high level when he feels like it. He did once average over 25 points a game for Golden State. Take a moment to imagine Monta Ellis on the Golden State Warriors right now, and then take a moment to kill any brain cells which contain that thought. We move on. Jose Calderon is one of the best playmakers in the game right now, but he is hardly worth the $28 million over four years for which Dallas signed him. DeJuan Blair did not fit the Spurs ethos and so was banished, a rare Popovich prodigal son. Samuel Dalembert can still play very good rim protection defense, and Vince Carter played very well mostly off the bench last season. Shawn Marion has put up fairly consistent numbers in all areas of his offensive game since 2008, and there is no reason to believe he will level off significantly this year. Basically, the Mavericks have a lot of spare parts surrounding Dirk who probably spent their better days with other teams. Missing out on Dwight Howard was a drag, but he wouldn’t have been the end-all solution anyway. The Mavericks will score in the top ten of the NBA and defend kind of marginally but just enough to keep things interesting. No one expects them to win the title this year, and they probably won’t. One of the great facets of this game, however, is its knack for turning expectations on their heads. And this team has a not-so-distant history of defying the odds. The Mavericks could easily go 41-41 again to almost certainly miss the postseason, but if they make the playoffs, they have all the weapons to beat anyone in the West, and it starts with Nowitzki. For Mark Cuban, for as long as he can: In Dirk We Trust.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
2012-’13 regular season record: 27-55, 5th in the Southwest Division
Key additions: G Jrue Holiday, G Tyreke Evans, C Greg Stiemsma, G Anthony Morrow
Key losses: C Robin Lopez, G Greivis Vazquez, G Roger Mason, Jr.
2013-’14 Linchpin: C Anthony Davis. He turned in a slick 13 points and 8 rebounds per game clip during his rookie campaign, and if his preseason is any indication, he is well on the way to becoming elite. The Brow was, of course, the first overall pick in the 2012 NBA Draft, and expectations are high anyway, but his skill level might just match that eventually. He will hope not to hit a sophomore slump as his offense improves, and his post play should get better as he gets stronger and more confident. Expect double-doubles from Davis a lot this season, perhaps sneaking in with season averages exceeding double digits in points and rebounds. His presence will dictate how the Pelicans can use Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans as well as open up for some 3-point opportunities for Anthony Morrow. Robin Lopez’s departure only spells increased minutes and responsibility for Davis in his second year, and he seems more than willing to answer the call.
Overall: The New Orleans Hornets finished their final season with that name as the second-worst team in the Western Conference. Although there is reason to believe they will not do that again, it could be possible. Unless projections for Davis’ improvement are extremely underestimating what he can do now, the Pelicans would have to rely on a world-shattering combination of key injuries to other teams if they were to have any hope of making the playoffs this season. This is a team built for the future, and the future is extremely bright. The Pelicans will miss Vazquez’s passing, but All-Star Jrue Holiday proved last season that he could do that at a better-than-average level. Tyreke Evans is even capable of replacing some of the assists, and his 3-point shooting improved dramatically in 2012-’13 from years prior. Ryan Anderson will give Davis offensive help down low, and Greg Stiemsma will rebound efficiently and block some shots. The only real cause for concern in terms of the future lies in the length and salaries of the Evans and Holiday contracts, which each run through 2016-’17 and pay both over $10 million a season. It will create some stability around Davis, however, and if this unit gels, all the better for his development. The Pelicans are too inexperienced to cause serious damage this season, but it won’t be too long before they return New Orleans to circa-CP3 relevance. With a better young supporting cast surrounding Davis than Chris Paul ever had, the Pelicans are not far from consistent league prominence, but their time has not yet come in 2013.