Southwest Division 2016-17 NBA Season Preview

Kawhi Leonard is looking to keep the Spurs within striking distance of the Warriors.
Kawhi Leonard is looking to keep the Spurs within striking distance of the Warriors.

The Southwest Division is a deep division with the distinction of having five teams all that have made the postseason in the past two years.

While the New Orleans Pelicans have gone the rebuilding route and are seemingly the least likely to repeat the feat, this is a division that could still yield four playoff teams. Even New Orleans cannot be entirely written off if Anthony Davis returns to form and stays healthy.

The best of those, of course, is the dynasty that is the San Antonio Spurs. Even with Hall of Fame lock Tim Duncan retiring, the Spurs added veteran All-Star Pau Gasol and still have LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard there at the 3/4 to form one of the league’s toughest frontcourts, guided by the legendary Gregg Popovich.

With an aging backcourt, the Spurs bigs are going to be relied upon to make some plays this year, but that is a role Gasol has excelled at in the past. Pop will find a way to make it work.

The Memphis Grizzlies and Dallas Mavericks have aging core players, but both teams are still tested and strong enough to crash the postseason and even do damage once there. Dirk Nowitzki still has not announced any sort of retirement tour, and the Mavs will likely remain a playoff-relevant team until he hangs it up. Memphis has consistently been good for a decade, and its tough defensive style of play will always render it a postseason threat, even if not a real contender.

Odds and Futures h/t

Farewell, Timmy.
Farewell, Timmy.

(1) San Antonio Spurs

Odds to win Southwest Division: -750
Odds to win NBA Title: +900
Over/Under 58.5 wins

San Antonio has been a playoff team for over 20 years. There is nothing slowing San Antonio now, either, even with Tim Duncan ending his celebrated and legendary career. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are the next to go, and both are winding down their respective careers, but the Spurs have stocked the shelves with some young talent and Kawhi Leonard is still continuing his ascent towards being one of the best players in the game.

Leonard could be primed for an MVP season, even. The Spurs’ reliance on his talents will be greater than ever, and with Tony Parker showing all the signs of a real decline, Leonard will be called upon to make a number of plays this year. The point guard issue is most pressing for the Spurs defensively, as Parker clearly no longer as the lift in his sneakers to stick with the premier floor generals in the West.

Australian Patty Mills is a good scorer, but he is no upgrade defensively. Fortunately, the Spurs team defense is strong enough that most of these problems can be mitigated, perhaps even relegated to being not much of a factor. It is difficult to fathom a team with a handicap at the 1-spot being a top defensive team, but Gregg Popovich has done some incredible things in his coaching career. Last year’s great success was one of them, and one that went virtually ignored with the smashing season put together by the Bay Area bombers in Golden State. Dejounte Murray could help some with the issues if the rookie matures quickly and earns Pop’s trust.

But does San Antonio have the horses to defeat the Warriors?

That is a tough proposition. Ostensibly, the Spurs team play and overall defensive concepts makes the series at least interesting. The Warriors, though, may have a field day exploiting San Antonio’s weak defensive backcourt.

San Antonio simply does not have enough strong individual defenders to counter what the Warriors have in Curry, Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant. That said, no one is really expecting a sweep either. San Antonio is the Warriors’ biggest threat in the Western Conference, and though Parker’s defensive issues cast a huge cloud over this team’s overall picture, people seem to try to write off San Antonio without considering just what this team has sustained over two decades.

Prediction: 56 wins (under)

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James Harden has already been playing point guard, but now he "really is," for whatever that even means.
James Harden has already been playing point guard, but now he “really is,” for whatever that even means.

(2) Houston Rockets

Odds to win Southwest Division: +1200
Odds to win NBA Title: +10000
Over/Under 44 wins

The Houston Rockets could be one of the teams with the biggest disparity between regular season success and postseason failure this season. Is it premature to say that? Perhaps, but not really with Mike D’Antoni coaching the team. The first-year coach is known to be an offensive guru whose attention to defense is hardly worth mentioning. With James Harden as the Rockets’ leader, D’Antoni may be the right coach, but can this team play anywhere near enough defense to be taken seriously when the games slow down and become tougher?

It is not difficult to envision the Rockets winning 55-games and being bounced in the first round. Harden has shown precious little attention to defense, though the problems may not be quite as bad as stated in some NBA circles. With Dwight Howard gone, the Rockets will rely on Clint Capela to make a quantum leap as a defender and rebounder.

Capela is capable of that, and he has looked good in the minutes he has received, but the Rockets are banking a lot on a guy whose experience hardly matches up to what the team had in Howard. Though Dwight struggled to find any sort of real chemistry with Harden, he is still a better 5 than Capela at this point in their respective careers.

The Rockets also hoping for a lot of progression from second-year forward Montrezl Harrell. Harrell was a second round pick in 2015, and the only detractor is that he is a bit undersized at power forward. Even so, Harrell’s energy and athleticism are what count and he should become a viable starting power forward this season.

That said, he will be starting next to Trevor Ariza, who has drawn plenty of ire from Rockets fans being the downgrade he was from Chandler Parsons. Daryl Morey has made his fair share of questionable moves, and outfitting this team with D’Antoni certainly ranks up there in that realm. Harden is one of the league’s most gifted scorers and can practically will his way to 25 easy points a night, but beyond scoring it is difficult to see this Rockets team posing any legitimate threat to the true contenders in the West. Even with Harden really running the point, it may not equate to much more than a lot of gaudy and empty numbers.

The Rockets’ regular season win total will likely exceed the Vegas’ over/unders, but it is wise to stay away from venturing the team will have postseason success.

Prediction: 49 wins (over)

Status Quo, kind of describes the Grizzlies.
Status Quo, kind of describes the Grizzlies.

(3) Memphis Grizzlies

Odds to win Southwest Division: +1200
Odds to win NBA Title: +6600
Over/Under 42.5 wins

The Memphis Grizzlies are back with basically the same iteration that has rendered it half-successful for the last decade.

Changes? The team moves Zach Randolph to the bench and adds free agent acquisition Chandler Parsons. Not much else.

Yes, most things will be the same in Memphis, and the fanbase will continue to rally around a team just competitive enough not to entirely rebuild the roster. “Grit and Grind” may not equate to much more than a tough playoff-caliber team, but Grizzlies fans are not ready to give up the ghost on a roster still featuring a number of consistent veterans.

So, the Grizzlies likely will not just “fall off.” They will fight and claw their way to a respectable 40-plus win season and even scratch a low playoff berth. But Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley are not getting any better, nor younger.

Conley just received one of the biggest paydays in NBA history due to the increase in the salary cap, and though he is a tough NBA guard whose effort warrants the deal, does his play? Is anyone on Memphis’ roster standout enough that other teams would be throwing max money at them (Gasol probably, but who else?).

The x-factor for Memphis may be if Parsons found a way to continue the ascent that was making him one of the most intriguing young players in the league. He has more or less stalled out since leaving Houston, but is a guy whose offensive game is versatile enough to be a No. 2 option even on a contending team. He is not there yet.

The Grizzlies will still ride Randolph and Gasol in the post, but if this team is to turn the corner and enter a new era it is going to have to do it with new, young blood. Parsons is the closest thing the Grizzlies have to that. Right now he is recovering from a knee injury with no time-table on his return. So, perhaps the future will still have to wait in Memphis, and calling Chandler Parsons “the future” is a bit of a reach at any rate, to be sure.

Prediction: 44 wins (over)

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The Brow is ready to reclaim his place as the NBA's best big man.
The Brow is ready to reclaim his place as the NBA’s best big man.

(4) New Orleans Pelicans

Odds to win Southwest Division: +2500
Odds to win NBA Title: +10000
Over/Under 37 wins

The New Orleans Pelicans moved away from the injury-riddled roster that had held it back the last two seasons. Gone is Eric Gordon, soon to be gone is Tyreke Evans—and the face of the franchise now firmly once again belongs to Anthony Davis. And a rookie. Buddy Hield was selected out of Oklahoma to become the No. 2 scoring option alongside Davis, and the Pelicans future is bright, even if it is a team still desperately lacking depth and in need of a healthy backcourt.

That is because the team will start the season without Evans and Jrue Holiday. Holiday’s wife Lauren will be having brain surgery, and he will miss extended time. As said, the Pelicans are short on depth, so that will leave the team hurting for a floor general and playmaker. However, if there is not too much confusion, it could really end up paying benefits for the development of Hield.

First off, Hield is a seasoned 22-year old rookie who will be ready to make an immediate impact. He is a proven scorer and he has few problems both getting and hitting quality shots. He may not be a model of efficiency this year, but he should provide enough scoring behind Davis to keep the Pelicans oddly competitive for a team whose roster has pretty much been upended in an attempt to put the right pieces around Davis.

The hope is that Hield is one such piece, and that when the 2017 draft rolls around the Pels can position itself to land one of the premier swingmen in the draft. With Solomon Hill the best small forward on the team, getting one of the three franchise 3s in the draft next year could give New Orleans the nucleus needed to finish a quality team around a franchise big man like Davis.

Prediction: 35 wins (under)

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(5) Dallas Mavericks

Odds to win Southwest Division: +4000
Odds to win NBA Title: +20000
Over/Under 38.5 wins

The Dallas Mavericks have an old team, but with that age comes experience. Deron Williams, Devin Harris and Andrew Bogut were once all top players in their draft classes, but time has come early for the trio and all have declined to the point of merely being good NBA starters now. Williams, in particular, went from being a 20/10 stalwart to a guy whose talents only shine at infrequent times, harrowing reminders to Dallas fans of what he once was as an NBA guard, namely a guy whose talents were nearly on par with Chris Paul early in their careers.

That said, the Mavs did land Harrison Barnes in the offseason as a young up and comer who could become the face of the franchise. What has Barnes done to suggest he is that good so far? Not much. But this is a guy who was once billed No. 1 in his draft class, and his talents alone dictate that he was worth taking a chance on. He never really got the opportunity to shine nor expand his game on a loaded Golden State roster, but in Dallas he should become the No. 2 option pretty much from opening night. If he is good enough, quick enough, Dirk Nowitzki may even cede larger responsibilities to the small forward.

But outside Barnes’ development, there are not a lot of stories worth monitoring on this team. The Mavs experience alone will keep them in postseason discussions, but their aging and mediocre backcourt options will also keep them from having much of a chance at a playoff series victory.

Teams will still dread drawing a Rick Carlisle coached club with so many proven performers, but Dallas won 40 games last season and is only marginally better with Bogut and Barnes coming into its frontcourt. Nowitzki still is a high performer, but his defense and rebounding have noticeably fallen off and the next thing to go will be his silky smooth jumper. No one is quite ready to see that happen.

Prediction: 35 wins (under)

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