2012-13 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division
For the past few seasons, the Southwest Division featured pretty much the same few contending teams, all with proven veteran leadership and a supporting cast that was slightly tweaked from one season to another. This season, however, promises a wild and unpredictable race.
The New Orleans Hornets, with their young, mercurial rookies and completely retooled squad, look like an experiment that will surprise and entertain on a nightly basis. Likewise, the Houston Rockets have undergone a major transformation into another fresh, youthful team that poses more questions than answers. The Mavericks lost half of their lethal pick-and-roll tandem but brought in a curious mix of players that are looking to prove their relevance and are hungry for a fresh start.
The San Antonio Spurs and Memphis Grizzlies are the two teams that, for better or for worse, have decided to stick with what they have. Given the volatility of some of the teams in the division, the Spurs should take the division with their predictable steadiness. Beyond that is anybody’s game.
1st- San Antonio Spurs
What do you do when you share the ball effortlessly and win 20 consecutive games, only to watch your NBA Finals chances crumble in four straight losses? You bring the band back together for another tour, of course. In the wake of what Coach Gregg Popovich termed “identity theft” in last season’s sweep at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, the San Antonio Spurs are relying on internal “corporate knowledge” to improve their squad this season.
They resigned free agents Danny Green and Boris Diaw, and brought over their now-customary stashed-away draft pick, Nando De Colo. The Frenchman has impressed many with his court vision and creative flair on the ball.
At its pinnacle last season, the Spurs offense was baffling and beautiful– a blurry whirl of constant passing, habitual motion and corner threes.
But for all their offensive exploits, they’ve yet to solve their big man conundrum. Ever since their championship-winning season in 2007, the Spurs have yet to find a complementary big to patrol the interior alongside Tim Duncan. DeJuan Blair is undersized and doesn’t play defense, Tiago Splitter hasn’t fully gained Coach Pop’s trust, and Matt Bonner is, well, Matt Bonner. At six foot, nine inches Boris Diaw – whose instinct and skillset is a perfect fit on offense – isn’t able to lighten Duncan’s rim-protecting duties either.
The Spurs, like the Celtics, have a fine margin for error. Much of what they can achieve is predicated on a healthy roster and hoping that none of their Big 3’s production falls off dramatically. Barring any significant injuries, their fluid motion offense will be enough to beat most teams, but until they figure out their defensive identity, they are still dark-horse contenders for the Western Conference.
Who could make the difference?
Offensively, Kawhi Leonard has been entrusted by the coaching with ball-handling duties and will be more involved initiating pick-and-roll sets – a far cry from last season where his game was based on instinct and catch-and-shoot opportunities. Defensively, he has the prototypical size and length to become an unyielding defender much like former Spurs’ favorite Bruce Bowen. His work ethic and unflappable attitude has also been likened to The Big Fundamental himself. If Leonard lives up to the expectations of his teammates and coaches, the dinosaur Spurs may have another run left in them.
The Dallas Mavericks’ impending season could be summed up in a phrase: cautious optimism. The situation could have been far worse than it is now, but the Mavericks front office managed to salvage their offseason, turning multiple disappointments into an eclectic mix of new and old.
They missed out on premier free agent targets Deron Williams and Dwight Howard, and lost perennial fan-favorite Jason Terry. Plus, Jason Kidd ditched them at the very last moment for the Big Apple. But the Mavericks rolled with the punches and responded, signing proven veteran big men Elton Brand and Chris Kaman. In O.J Mayo and Darren Collison, they’ve also found a talented role player looking to break out and a lightning-quick youngster in need of a fresh start, all while retaining flexibility and cap space for 2013.
They continue to enjoy great depth – a hallmark of recent Dallas teams – and Dirk Nowitzki’s one-legged fadeaway is still as unblockable as ever. However, their defensive frailties still remain, as Mark Cuban and company have still been unable to find an elite defensive anchor quite like Tyson Chandler. Chemistry will be an issue to watch with this many new faces, but the predictable greatness of Dirk Nowitzki ensures that the Mavericks will not slip too far behind the Western Conference’s elite.
Who could make the difference?
It really depends on which Darren Collison will show up in this upcoming season. Pre-Indiana Collison was a one-man blitz on offense, darting around defenses – especially in transition – and scoring a ton of points. He simply was not the same player for the Pacers, though part of it could be blamed on the team’s shift from the drive-and-kick game to a more methodical post-oriented offense. Nevertheless, the return of 2011 Collison will add another dimension to the Mavericks offense.
3rd- Memphis Grizzlies
Merely two seasons ago, they were the talk of the town after upsetting the top-seeded Spurs in the first round of the 2011 playoffs. Now, they’ve lost the savvy Shane Battier and, more recently, sixth man O.J. Mayo to division rival Dallas. But the core of that Grizzlies team has remained intact. In fact, ignoring Rudy Gay’s season-ending injury in 2011, not much has changed for this team. The Marc Gasol-Zach Randolph high-low post game is still a viable threat, although they would be wise to let Gasol initiate the offense from the high post more often. Gay continues to be their main off-the-dribble creator, Tony Allen still hounds opposing scorers with unconscious verve and Mike Conley Jr. has maintained his improving pick-and-roll efficiency.
Unfortunately, their spacing issues are still present. They simply are unable to maximize their inside-out offense due to their lack of reliable shooters. They’ve lost Mayo’s semi-reliable 3-point shot (36.4%) and new recruits, Jerryd Bayless and first round pick Tony Wroten, will have to pick up the slack. Bayless had a career year last season from downtown (42.3%) and will have to replicate that sweet stroke to supplement the team’s twin-post offense.
The Grizzlies’ calling card, as it has been in recent times, is defense. They were 7th in the league last season in defensive rating, and until they find themselves an elite shooter who can spread the floor, they will have to maintain a concerted effort on the defensive end in order to challenge the Western Conference’s elite.
Rudy Gay, in most eyes, has never quite justified his monstrous five-year, $82 million contract. He was paid to be the team’s go-to scorer, but his scoring output and efficiency has, more or less, remained the same. He has not progressed into an effective distributor and playmaker either, averaging just over two assists per game. With few new faces, the Grizzlies need internal improvement from their best player. He could start by working on that decidedly average 3-point stroke (31 percent in 2011) and become the elite shooter his team is seeking.
4th- New Orleans Hornets
Last year, the New Orleans Hornets were an abysmally slow team that couldn’t score. They trailed the entire league in pace, and they were an admittedly-unsurprising 26th in the league in offensive rating. All of that will change this season, as they have completely retooled their squad by replacing aging, past-their-prime players with youth, athleticism and hope.
The Hornets lucked out and added two Top 10 draft picks in Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers. No. 1 pick Davis is questionably the centerpiece addition and despite his lack of offensive polish, the big man is a major threat running the floor. Austin Rivers is a livewire waiting to explode on offense, and will form a formidable scoring backcourt together with former Clipper Eric Gordon. Gordon, who has averaged 20 points per game in the last two seasons, will continue to be the focal point of the offense. But this time, he will have more help in the form of sharpshooting Ryan Anderson, the reigning Most Improved Player and last season’s league leader in three-point field goals made. The addition of Robin Lopez will also bolster the depth of the Hornets’ frontline.
They are a work in progress and their youth will be an obstacle (every member of their starting lineup is under 25 years old), but expect coach Monty Williams to coax more than a few unexpected wins out of these Hornets over the course of the season.
Who could make the difference?
If his stellar off-the-dribble game translates well to the NBA, Austin Rivers could potentially be a key secondary playmaker for the Hornets, which would ease the considerable burden on Gordon’s shoulders. The speed in which Rivers is able to develop the requisite court vision and pick up the subtle nuances of point guard play will also be extremely beneficial for the Hornets, who intend to eventually start him at the 1.
Here is a foreboding stat for all Rockets fans: out of the entire roster, only three players started more than 30 games last season. One of whom became a league-wide phenomenon, dazzled with all-world scoring displays, got injured, had knee surgery, and then signed with the Rockets for a three-year, $25 million offer sheet. Yes, Linsanity has arrived (back) in Houston, but will he live up to the promise of last season’s abbreviated heroics?
Also, much of the Rockets’ offseason was centered on acquiring Dwight Howard. They stockpiled young assets while sending out quality veterans like Luis Scola, Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby. They failed to get the Orlando superstar, and then lost, amongst others, emerging leader and tenacious bulldog Kyle Lowry. Finally, they committed considerable cap space to a role player – Omer Asik – who has only seen limited minutes in his short NBA career.
This Rockets team is a bunch of spare parts and talented role players assembled in haste, and they are almost certainly favorites for last place in their division. This offseason has been an unmitigated disaster for the Rockets, but there is a silver lining: they may be able to rebuild through the lottery next offseason.
Who could make the difference?
One of the few Rockets who have remained amidst the reshuffling: Chandler Parsons. The second-year swingman showed a great deal of promise in his rookie season, displaying all the desired qualities of a starting caliber small forward. He makes hard cuts, finishes at a decent clip at the rim, skies for the occasional offensive rebound, and can spread the floor and make three-pointers. With Kevin Martin the only established scorer on the team, this could be the perfect storm for Parsons to have a breakout year.