Since the NBA went to its current alignment at the start of the 2004-05 season, the Southwest Division has churned out more playoff teams than any other in the league:
Two seasons ago, the San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks and New Orleans Pelicans all made the postseason; last year, only the Pelicans (who were decimated by injuries) missed out. San Antonio’s run of consistency is the stuff of legend - Pop’s going for his 18th consecutive 50-win season in 2016-17 - but they’re not the only team in the division that can boast sustained goodness.
Dallas has missed the playoffs once since 2000-01, and this will be the 19th season of Dirk Nowitzki’s remarkably consistent career. The Memphis Grizzlies are entering the eighth year of the Gasol-Randolph-Conley triumvirate, and all but the first resulted in a playoff berth. The Houston Rockets employ one of the game’s best guards (James Harden) and haven’t missed the postseason since he was acquired prior to 2012. New Orleans hasn’t been as successful as their divisional counterparts, but they’ve still got one of the best big men in the league (Anthony Davis) and have to hope for better injury luck than they’ve had in seasons past, especially last year.
But how will things shake out in 2016-17, exactly? It’s been an offseason of change throughout (most of) the division. Tim Duncan retired, and while he wasn’t as dominant toward the end as he was in his prime, his departure leaves a hole in San Antonio, both on and off the court. Dallas continued their yearly tradition of hunting big name free agents, only to strike out and settle for a second or third option (this time, Harrison Barnes); how will they put it all together around an aging Dirk? Memphis has a new coach, a new system, and a new three-point threat (Chandler Parsons) who can give their aforementioned top three a welcome boost, as long as he can stay healthy. And the New Orleans Pelicans spent a bit in free agency (Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore) to give them some depth, which they’ll need, because Tyreke Hill, Jrue Holiday and Quincy Pondexter will all miss the start of the season. The unwelcome injury bug making its home in the Big Easy is one thing that hasn’t changed.
But where will they all finish? Let’s count them down...
5. New Orleans Pelicans
Sigh. Sigh. Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh.
Anthony Davis doesn’t deserve this. He has tools to be a perennial All-NBA player and help re-define what you want out of your big man in the modern era: rim protection and three point shooting. Last season, he averaged 24 points, 10 rebounds, 2 blocks, and made 35 threes. Know how many other players have done that? Zero. He’s a unique talent whose teammates have either been mediocre, injured, or mediocre and injured throughout his career.
Last season’s spate of injuries resembled a biblical plague. The Pelicans used 21 different players, and all but one of them started at least one game. (The lone exception? Jimmer.) By April, they were playing James Ennis, Toney Douglas and Jordan Hamilton 30 minutes per night, and over $53 million in salary (Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and A.D.) were sitting in street clothes.
To begin 2016-17, both ‘Reke (blood clots) and Jrue (a truly horrific medical situation concerning his wife) are expected to miss time. Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson left via free agency. Swingman Quincy Pondexter is still dealing with knee pain and is out until mid-November, and even that’s not a given. What’s left is a mishmash collection of players, all thrown together in a jumble, and the team hoping a picture is formed around their young star. Tim Frazier, E’Twaun Moore, Solomon Hill and Omer Asik appear to be the starters around Davis, with Alexis Ajinca, Lance Stephenson, Terrence Jones, Dante Cunningham and Langston Galloway coming off the bench. Buddy Hield is one potential bright spot, as the rookie from Oklahoma has shot the ball very well this preseason, and should have the opportunity to earn a place in the regular rotation.
But it’s difficult to be too optimistic, here. The Pelicans are a group of unproven starters, overpaid role players, reclamation projects, and Anthony Davis, one of the preeminent big men in all of basketball, holding it all together.
Siiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiiigh. They’ll be lucky to get to 35 victories. Another season of prime Anthony Davis is going down the drain.
4. Houston Rockets
What an interesting roster they’ve put together. James Harden is shifting from shooting guard to point guard this season, which may be distinction without a difference; he’s one of the best scorers, ballhandlers and playmakers in the game no matter what “position” he’s playing. Dwight Howard departed via free agency, and will be replaced by up-and-coming young big man Clint Capela in the starting lineup, with Nené coming off the bench. The ever-steady Trevor Ariza returns at small forward. The other two starting spots are occupied by former New Orleans Pelicans teammates acquired in July’s shopping spree: Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson.
That’s where things get very interesting. The good: both guys are exceptional three-point shooters, and should get plenty of looks in Houston’s perimeter-oriented offense, spotting up and providing spacing around James Harden. Gordon hit 41% of his more than 5 threes per game over the past three seasons. Anderson is a career 38% three point shooter, and boasts a career rate of more than 7 threes attempted per-36 minutes. The bad: they’re injury-prone and defensive liabilities. (And they came with high price tags: $20 million annually for Anderson, $13.25 million annually for Gordon.)
There are a few fine defenders on the team, led by reserve guard Patrick Beverley and the aforementioned Capela, who profiles as a rim protector, but it’s hard to envision the Rockets getting many stops with their current rotation of players. Add Mike D’Antoni’s offense-first philosophy into the mix, and Houston may have to play a ton of 125-121 games this season.
It just doesn’t seem to make a ton of sense, but the offensive talent is so great, they’re likely about a .500 team.
3. Dallas Mavericks
The winner of the “Someone Has to Pay Harrison Barnes a Max Deal, I Guess, Because Everyone Just Sort of Assumes He Is Worth It, I Guess, I Dunno, Whatever” sweepstakes was Mark Cuban and the Dallas Mavericks, who entered another summer free agency buffet hoping for filet mignon before settling for a decent burger.
At any rate, the Wes Matthews-Harrison Barnes pairing is interesting, and solidly above-average as far as starting wing combos go, but neither is the type to put a team on his back as a scorer. The power forward-center combination is also intriguing, as Dirk Nowitzki and Andrew Bogut theoretically complement one another very well; the problem, of course, will be health and stamina. The point guard rotation is still Deron Williams, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris, a smorgasbord of meh.
Dwight Powell will look to take a major step forward in 2016-17 after landing a sizable contract extension, and ought to have plenty of opportunities while Dirk and Bogut rest. Justin Anderson, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy and Salah Mejri round out the rotation players on the bench, which makes the Mavs sound really thin and probably overrated at the 3rd spot in these division rankings, until you remember...
... Rick Carlisle. He’s one of the two or three best coaches in the league. He’ll figure it out. I’m done betting against him. They’ll get to about 44 wins and sneak into the playoffs.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
The Grizz decided the Grit-and-Grind core of Marc Gasol, Z-Bo, and Mike Conley ought to be kept together, and gave the youngest member of the trio (Conley) a lucrative extension to ensure that would happen. As mentioned above, the three of them are entering their eighth season together, a pretty remarkable run considering all the roster turnover from year-to-year in the NBA.
For 2016-17, they’ve added Chandler Parsons to the mix to (hopefully) address their three point shooting deficiencies (so long as his surgically-repaired knee holds up). Rounding out the starting lineup are Tony Allen and JaMychal Green, who replaces Zach Randolph, who will come off the bench this season. How well Randolph adjusts to anchoring the second unit is key; there’s a whole lot of youth (rookie Wade Baldwin is the team’s likely backup point guard) and inexperience (James Ennis and Troy Daniels have shown flashes, but are unproven as regular rotation guys) mixed with age (Vince Carter and Brandan Wright) in that group.
But the fact remains Gasol and Conley are marquee talents, two of the finest players at their respective positions in the entire league. There’s enough here to win 47 games and be a pest in the first couple of rounds in the playoffs.
1. San Antonio Spurs
I nearly broke down and put the Grizzlies higher than the Spurs, but I’m a coward, so here they are in the top spot. There were two main things that swayed me to stick with the status quo at the top of the Southwest Division:
b) Kawhi, who may be ready to take a leap even further into superstardom.
That said, I still have concerns.
For one thing, Tony Parker is 34 years old, and seems to be slowing down significantly. Last season, he averaged 11.9 points per game, his lowest mark since his rookie season, and the team posted a better Net Rating when he was off the court than when he was on it. He’s dealt with ankle and foot injuries in recent seasons; can he stay healthy enough to be the playmaker the Spurs need?
For another, Tim Duncan is gone, and beyond what he meant off the court, he was still a very good player when he was out there last season, particularly on defense. The Spurs signed Pau Gasol to effectively replace Duncan and the also-departed Boris Diaw. While it’s certainly an offensive upgrade, a Pau-LaMarcus Aldridge front line isn’t exactly imposing for opponents who want to attack the rim. The Spurs will need to get an awful lot out of Dewayne Dedmon, who could be the interior defender they lack.
Rounding out the rotation is the familiar cast of characters: Manu, Danny Green, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson, and Jonathan Simmons. David Lee is on the team, too,
for some reason. It’s a solid group that knows exactly what Pop wants and expects, and what Pop tends to get out of all of his teams, from what feels like time immemorial, is excellence.
So how about the Spurs win 57 games, we all root for them to take down that other team out West, and the Cavs meet them in the Finals? Sound alright?