Some good ball being played out in the Southwest. You’ve got the reigning champs, a team nobody wanted to face in last year’s playoffs, the team that will never die, etc. The division is somewhat representative of the Western Conference as a whole, in that even the worst team isn’t that bad (well, at least when compared with the Eastern Conference bottom-feeders). However, with questions concerning the chance for a repeat from the Mavericks are obvious, one also might wonder if they’ll even win the division race (not that it matters too much). Might as well start there…
THE DALLAS MAVERICKS
It all finally came together for Cuban’s boys last year. The heavy fan-favorites taught Miami a thing or two about team basketball and finishing things decisively to cap off one of the more memorable NBA seasons in quite some time. Interestingly, rather than do everything they could to keep all the pieces in place for another run, the Mavs have gone in a slightly different direction and shaken things up a little. Core pieces are gone, and fresh faces have arrived. It’s both good and bad, depending on your frame of mind.
The Best Case: Obviously, a second consecutive championship would be nice. With additions like a freshly motivated Lamar Odom, the still-hungry Vince Carter, and Delonte West, Dallas will be able to throw some perplexing looks at opposing teams. Look… I know Vince isn’t what he used to be and all that, but playing alongside Kidd and in that Carlisle-zone might truly be his personal best-case scenario. Anyway, the Mavs will also have a healthy Rodrigue Beaubois, who I watched basically not miss everything he shot in Portland last March. Combine all of this with the Matrix, Jet, that German guy, and a core that now knows what it takes, and you could see another solid press towards a ring.
The Worst Case
: Keep this in mind: not only is Brendan Haywood your starting center, he’s your only center. The loss of Tyson Chandler hurts for that reason alone, but it’s probably more of a factor because he brought a toughness and a leadership that Dirk basically credited as one of the main reasons the Mavs were able to do what they did. Also, J.J Barea brought some kind of something last year, and he’s gone, too. Both guys were key contributors and a major part of the squad’s chemistry, so any time you mess with that, you’re asking for it (for what it’s worth, I don’t give a damn about the loss of Caron Butler). If you also consider that there might be a natural letdown, you could see a season where the Mavs coast into the playoffs on the backs of their talent, only to find themselves overwhelmed by matchup issues and teams with more complimentary units in the postseason. The group has their fair share of age, for sure, so the back-to-back-to-backs might have guys spending serious time with their loony ice treatments
or whatever the hell.
The Bottom Line: I actually like what Dallas is doing… but not for the upcoming season. If a team is going to pay Barea what Minnesota did, then yes, let him go. Furthermore, it all appears to be part of a master plan to free up space for a run at a huge free agent or two next summer. This year, however, might see them take a step back. They’re too good to fall too far, but they could fall short. I’m intrigued by the prospect of Nowitzki-Odom offenses, and they’ve still got a lot of savvy out there. Still, I can’t get over that Haywood thing.
THE SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Forget it. It seems like I’ve been spitting the same old line about the Spurs finally getting old for years. Fact is, they have gotten old. Fortunately for them, it doesn’t seem to matter that much. I’m tired of predicting the end of an era and talking about Tiago Splitter like I did last year. The Spurs are, for all intents and purposes, back again and ready to compete.
The Best Case: Well, considering that this group is basically the definition of consistency over the past 80 years or whatever, it’s not unfathomable to think that they could be right in the thick of it come playoff time. All the pieces are back, and Tony Parker is now divorced (so it’s not “fucking around on your wife” anymore, Tony!), so the focus should be strong. If you pair the upper-level play of the San Antonio version of the “Big 3” with the Splitters, Gary Neals, and Kawhi Leonards (a cool draft pick) of the world, then you’ll get something good. It’s nothing new. Last I checked, Popovich was still the coach. In fact, the solidarity of the system could definitely work to their advantage in the face of the abbreviated season. On the other hand…
The Worst Case: … everyone could break down. You can’t tell me that Tim Duncan is looking forward to 7 games in 9 days, can you? The Spurs are smart enough to recognize that they’ll have to rest guys strategically, but they could also find out that their supporting cast isn’t as good as they might have hoped. Threat of injury/fatigue is definitely the main thing to be concerned about.
The Bottom Line: A sure-fire playoff team. San Antonio can beat anybody on any given night. Depending on the matchups, they might be able to advance in the playoffs, but I ultimately believe that the rising teams in the West will prove to be too much for them (see: Memphis). I never put anything past the Spurs, though, so if they end up the Western Conference Finals, I won’t be surprised.
THE HOUSTON ROCKETS
Here’s the team that got the shaft from David Stern.
Nevermind whether or not you thought they were benefitting from gaining Pau Gasol while losing a host of players (how, exactly, would that trade have been bad again?). The bottom line is that they had a move made to land a pretty major player – a trade they wanted and had worked to make – and it got ripped away. Along with the Lakers losing Odom for nothing, this team was damaged by what went down last week. You can’t tell me otherwise, UNLESS…
The Best Case: … Kevin McHale works some magic. Perhaps McHale can convince the nearly-traded to look past it and play with enthusiasm (for the record, I rarely buy the “I understand that it’s a business” line from the players, knowing full well that the vast majority of them are ego-maniacs and take it personal when involved in trade scenarios). Luis Scola will probably be fine. The others? Who knows. Regardless, the Rockets are, yet again, a team loaded with a lot of interesting parts. There’s definitely some depth there, and a lot of youth (exactly one player over 30 [Scola, 31]). They even have two “might-as-well-try” projects in the form of the Motiejunas selection and the Thabeet project! Houston can throw a lot of athleticism at teams, and have some scoring. Maybe enough to get into the playoffs.
The Worst Case: Mediocrity. Not good enough to compete, but not bad enough to hit the lottery. Houston, on paper, basically looks like a really awesome college team. The problem in that is that there’s no clear direction or emphasis. Additionally, if McHale doesn’t work there for some reason, it could be hell because the team isn’t full of leaders of anything like that. In this conference, that won’t cut it.
The Bottom Line: I am convinced that this team could have been really fucking nice. They nearly had Gasol. In turn, they apparently had a really good shot at Nene. That’s a pretty arousing frontcourt combo, if you ask me. If you would have had those two, with guys like Lowry and a host of young roleplayers that can get out and run with anybody, then you would have been talking. Instead, you’re looking at a team similar to last year’s, which is okay but not really going anywhere.
The good news is that Houston doesn’t sit still for too long. That means that they’re probably working on making a move as we speak. They need to rebuild in some way, which might mean shedding some weight and sucking for a year to get a good pick in the draft. They need to go one way or the other, and they already tried to go big. Unfortunately, they found out what happens when a conflict of interest like the league owning a team is allowed to take place. “Oh, but the Clippers and Hornets are good now.” Like Houston fucking cares. If it’s any consolation, Rockets fans, I know how it feels when the old man sticks it to you,
so feel free to tweet me
if you just want to talk about it.
THE MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
The Grizz were one of the young, Western Conference teams that made everyone pause for a second and take some notice during last year’s playoffs. With a KO of the Spurs and a valiant effort against OKC, Memphis gave everyone a taste of what is possibly to come in the future. This year, they’re on everybody’s radar, and it’s no longer a matter of if they can make noise, but how loud it will be. Memphis had a down and dirty feel to it last year, and the only thing different this year is Rudy Gay should be healthy and Shane Battier is gone. That’s right – the cleaniest, smiley, all-class dude was allowed to walk with little to no resistance. It’s fitting, really. Now, the Grizzlies can focus on tough, physical play, scoring, sneering, selling weed, and beating the shit out of people with pool sticks.
The Best Case: You likely saw how imposing this group can be last year, and if everybody keeps there heads on straight, they could be a force. Zach Randolph established himself as scoring machine, hitting big shots and carving out a niche as that dude that you probably wouldn’t ever want to guard. Ya know… kind of a load, all sweaty, body-banging, ugly, and close to unstoppable. Memphis resigned Marc Gasol, as well, so there’s your nasty post combo. All of the guards are back and, as mentioned, they get the return of arguably the best player on the team. If everybody continues to excel, they could make life hell for virtually anyone and go on a very deep playoff run.
The Worst Case: Perhaps unfairly, I can’t look past the past, so to speak. Between Z-Bo and Tony Allen, you’ve got some mental shit just waiting to happen. Also, depth is somewhat of a concern, in my opinion. The point guard position is particularly concerning, as the atheltic but incomplete Mike Conley is backed up by the one and only Greivis Vasquez (and then Jeremy Pargo of Gonzaga fame). Finally, it’s probably just me, but there was a little bit of a “lightning in a bottle” feel to last year’s playoff run. Maybe this year, Memphis gets really inconsistent, sloppy, or derailed by external circumstances. It’s not that hard to imagine.
The Bottom Line: Fortunately, I think Memphis is here to stay. Their degree of success is tough for me to predict, though. They have a frontcourt that will beat you up and a bunch of runners. However, I also think they have holes that can be exploited be craftier, more skilled teams. Gay is an x-factor to me. If he can step in without affecting chemistry while bringing his high-level of play, then Memphis will be in serious business. If not, they’ll have to find some sort of balance that appeases. Ultimately, I think the Grizzlies are good enough to legitimately contend in the West, but not good enough to do it all.
THE NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
The Hornets made a few offseason moves. Not a big deal.
The Best Case: First and foremost, somebody needs to buy this team so they can do what they do without restriction. Even if the moves are terrible, I’d rather have an indepedent owner than a team where the league’s fingerprints are all over things. Basketball-wise, it’s safe to say that the group needs to establish a new identity and determine just exactly where they’re going. Maybe they simply start with establishing a good core (led by Eric Gordon), and learning what they should keep long-term and what to let go.
The Worst Case: Well, I can’t imagine anybody actually being excited about moving from Los Angeles to New Orleans, where the team can barely even be considered legitimate and probably won’t even be there in a few years. And, yeah, they got younger and added more players, but the roster is pretty sketchy. Losing those few players will probably kinda hurt, I’m guessing.
The Bottom Line: Probably the worst team in the conference, and definitely the worst team in the division. To be fair, I really like Demps and his GM work, and I love Monty Williams as a coach. It’s not like I look at this team with the same type of disgust that I’ve shown Charlotte or Toronto or something, but this year could be a little rough.
THE FINAL WORD:
This is a tough pick because I really don’t know how the truncated season is going to affect these squads. It should be a fight at the top between Dallas, San Antonio, and Memphis… all of which are playoff teams and have a good chance of meeting one another in the postseason. However, as for the division title, I’ll just say that we’ll see the Mavs and the Spurs focus on getting to May as a healthy as they possibly can be, allowing the young Grizz to claim the division title. All they do is win.
– Wes Lilliman