The Spurs made it to the NBA Finals and had the Miami Heat on the ropes, but were unable to prevent LeBron James and Co. from winning their second straight title.
This year, San Antonio should still be the class of the Southwest Division, but the gap is narrowing. The rest of the division is improving and it may not be long before the Spurs are in full rebuild mode.
But, as long as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and The Nose (aka Manu Ginobili) are in the Alamo City, the Spurs rule the Southwest.
OneManFastBreak.net examines the teams in the Southwest Division and where they’ll finish:
1-SAN ANTONIO SPURS
The Spurs didn’t go out and tinker with their success by making a ton of changes. It looks like they are going with the tried and true concept they have had for over a decade.
They lost guard Gary Neal to free agency when he signed with the Bucks and DeJuan Blair when he left for the Mavs. However, they added veteran but injury-prone swingman Corey Maggette, who is trying to revive his once promising career. At 33, it’s possible Maggette could have a little something left in the tank like Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson did when the Spurs acquired them.
San Antonio also brought in guard Marco Belinelli, who played for the Bulls last year. He’ll fill in Neal’s role as instant offense off the bench. Belinelli is a good passer and shooter, so should fit right in Gregg Popovich’s system. They also re-signed Tiago Splitter to be their starting center.
But, are the Spurs still a serious NBA title contender? It all depends on how Duncan holds up. If he can continue to defy Father Time, yes. If not, the Spurs are in trouble because Duncan is the heart of this team. And as good as Parker has become, he can’t carry the team by himself.
Kawhi Leonard is the wild card. If he can continue to improve, the Spurs will be set for a long time. Leonard has serious superstar potential.
As good as they are, the Spurs have some questions entering this season that may determine just how far they can go in the Western Conference postseason, but Oklahoma City also has some questions after Kevin Martin bolted as a free agent for Minnesota a year after they traded away James Harden. Not to mention, Russell Westbrook is rehabbing from a serious injury after a second knee surgery. So, it’s all there for the Spurs to repeat as conference champs if they can turn back the clock.
The Rockets did everything they could to unload salary and landed the biggest free agent prize in center Dwight Howard. They added a very good defensive player and a rebounder extraordinaire, but he doesn’t have the offensive game to be a dominant player on offense. However, he’s such a huge upgrade over Omer Asik, who may be moved to power forward.
Houston is better, but they still lack a true power forward to take a little pressure off Howard. D-12 will be expected to carry the load on defense and clean up other players’ defensive mistakes. They better hope DH is happy (he certainly wasn’t in Orlando or L.A.) because he’s known to be very moody.
The offense the Rockets run is very similar to the Lakers offense. Houston averaged 106 points per game (second most in the NBA) in comparison to L.A.’s 102.2 (sixth best). So is Kevin McHale suddenly going to slow the game down and pound the ball inside to Howard? While with the Lakers, Howard made several comments about everybody getting involved. In case he wasn’t paying attention, James Harden likes to shoot the ball; he averaged 17.1 field goal attempts last season.
Point guard Jeremy Lin and small forward Chandler Parsons also need shots. So, yes, the Rockets got better but they aren’t a top-three team in the West.
The Grizzlies opted to let their head coach Lionel Hollins walk after the most successful season in franchise history. Memphis replaced him with Dave Joerger and while he may be a good coach one day, he is an unknown at this point. The best thing that can be said is they stayed within the organization to find Hollins’ replacement.
Zach Randolph has been a beast for the Grizzlies, but he’s 32 and starting to show some signs that he isn’t the same player he once was. He came into the NBA after his freshman year at Michigan State and is now entering his 13th season. Ed Davis was acquired from the Toronto Raptors in the Rudy Gay trade and he’ll need to show he can take some of Zach’s minutes while not losing much in the way of performance on the court.
Memphis relies on the 1-2 punch of Marc Gasol and Randolph. Kosta Koufos was acquired from Utah to back up Gasol and give them some depth at center. They will go with veteran Tayshaun Prince and Quincy Pondexter at small forward, but it’s Pondexter’s job sooner than later. Prince’s tank is almost on empty (he averaged just seven points in the playoffs on 35.5% shooting) and he’ll probably finish his career on the bench.
Mike Miller was brought back to back up Tony Allen and help their outside shooting, a major weakness last year. Miller converted 41.7% of his 3-pointers last season (44.4% in the postseason) and will give them a little offense while Allen provides his lockdown defense.
Conley is a steadily improving point guard (17 points and seven assists in the playoffs), and he’s backed up by Jerryd Bayless.
The Grizzlies will try and compete in an ever-improving Southwest Division, but they seem to have taken a minor step back with the new coach — especially if they decide to trade Randolph at some point to save more cash. The new ownership seems to be quite frugal and while Randolph is past his prime, he is still a quality player and his replacement, Davis, may not be ready to assume a bigger role. As it is, the Grizzlies should be good enough to finish third and compete for a playoff spot.
The Mavs made every attempt to sign Dwight Howard, letting O.J. Mayo, Darren Collison, Chris Kaman and Elton Brand leave Dallas as free agents. Dallas ultimately failed and settled for Samuel Dalembert as its new starting center.
Dallas’ 2012-13 season was very forgettable as they finished 41-41 and missed the postseason. They tried to make a big splash in free agency, but was left with second-tier players (and some may say third tier) in Dalembert, point guard Jose Calderon, shooting guard Monta Ellis, point guard Devin Harris, and reserve forward DeJuan Blair.
Calderon is a better point than Collison (who is better suited to backing up Chris Paul with the Clippers) and provides them with a veteran floor general, but he doesn’t provide much offense. Hence, the reason they went out and signed Ellis to do the heavy lifting on offense and help Dirk Nowitzki.
Ellis should benefit from having a pass-first PG in Calderon after seemingly butting heads with Brandon Jennings in Milwaukee. Vince Carter gives the Mavs an excellent backup option at shooting guard who can also provide some minutes as a backup small forward. If they can limit VC’s minutes to around 23-25, that would be ideal.
Harris will likely back up Calderon, but he was an unusual signing after they used their first-round pick on Shane Larkin. Larkin may see some time in the NBDL with two good players ahead of him on the depth chart. Dallas may try to trade Larkin if a decent offer surfaces.
In the frontcourt, Nowitzki will be the primary focal point of the offense. He started slow last season, but eventually showed the old Dirk (17 points on 47% shooting and 41% on threes). He’s still the best player for the Mavs, and he’ll enjoy having Ellis as a running mate.
The question is who will be the third scoring option?
Small forward Shawn Marion’s skills have declined to the point they may just try and trade his expiring contract before the season is over. Marion can still play a little defense, but offensively he is barely a double-digit scorer. Jae Crowder may be the eventual starter at the position.
Crowder may be just 6-5, but he plays defense and is an energy guy. He may be OK for 20-23 minutes as a defensive specialist. He reminds me a little of former Detroit Piston Michael Curry.
Brandan Wright was re-signed to be a backup power forward and center. Dalembert provides defense, but his offense is virtually nonexistent. Bernard James is a 28-year-old, second-year player who is a little more than just a roster filler.
Dallas isn’t much better than last season, but they made some good moves to try and appease their fans and show that they are trying. But Dirk’s odometer is almost on empty and you have to wonder if they actually have a plan.
5-NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
The newly renamed Pelicans may have one of the most interesting teams in the entire league this season after general manager Dell Demps remodeled their roster after the 2012 season ended. And the city is anticipating this season more than any other in recent memory. Or at least since Chris Paul was in town.
Demps may have scored one of the best offseason acquisitions when they traded center Nerlens Noel and a conditional 2014 draft pick to the Philadelphia 76ers for first time Eastern Conference All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday (17.7 points, eight assists, 4.2 rebounds). The move seemed to signal that the Sixers are interested in tanking their season in effort to get a top pick in next year’s loaded NBA draft that has as many as four or five possible franchise players.
Holiday will help in one key area, close games. The Pelicans were just 7-14 last year in games decided by four points or less and he should help change that. Holiday gives them a thriving young talent probably the most important position in the NBA nowadays, the point guard position.
The biggest issue will be playing Holiday, newly acquired Tyreke Evans (who was involved in a three-way trade that sent Robin Lopez to the Portland Trail Blazers and Greivis Vasquez to the Sacramento Kings) and Eric Gordon together. All three are used to dominating the ball. Holiday has always been considered more of a combo type PG so it’ll fall on his shoulders to get Gordon and Evans the ball. Not to mention, power forward Ryan Anderson and center Anthony Davis.
New Orleans management made the trade for Evans when he said he wouldn’t mind coming off the bench. So it’s a possibility they could play him off the bench as a super sub, sixth man. He signed a four-year, $44 million contract. Gordon makes $14.2 million with Holiday is owed $9.2 million. That’s a lot of money to pay that trio. If Gordon fails to live up to expectations he could be the odd man out.
The playoffs seem a bit of a longshot for a team that is competing in a loaded division, but the Pelicans have a talented roster and just need a season together to work together and develop some chemistry. Just shy of two years after trading Chris Paul, New Orleans is rebuilding much faster than expected.
Darren Jacks is a regular contributor to OneManFastBreak.net. Send him an email at email@example.com.