NBA Preview: Southwest Division
The 2012-13 NBA season produced many great games and many young teams emerged as possible championship contenders. But the story of the Southwest Division was the fundamentally consistent San Antonio Spurs.
Gregg Popovich coached his San Antonio Spurs to the top of the Southwest, but it was not without some tight competition. Emerging star Marc Gasol and the Memphis Grizzlies finished two wins behind the Spurs, a record good enough for second in the division, and they earned the number five seed in the West. James Harden fueled the Rockets to third place divisional finish and propelled his team into the playoffs earning the eighth and final Western Conference playoff seed. The Dallas Mavericks and the New Orleans Hornets took the fourth and fifth spots in the division, respectively.
San Antonio Spurs
The season ended with the San Antonio Spurs failing to win the NBA Finals… twice. The Miami Heat rallied to defeat the Spurs after falling behind in the series 3-2. Tim Duncan missed a key layup in game seven that would have tied the game at 90 with one minute remaining, a miss that all but sealed the victory for LeBron James and the Heat.
The key for the Spurs will be the play of aging centerpieces Tim Duncan (37), Tony Parker (31), and Manu Ginobili (36). Duncan and Parker showed that they can still play at a high level in the playoffs, but Ginobili’s demotion to the bench raises question marks about the age of the team. The Spurs will have to rely on the young talent of swingmen, Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard, to give them the spark they need to return to the Finals. In a division and league that is seeing more and more young stars carry teams, the Spurs seem to be defying the mold, by leaning on their wisdom and experience.
The Spurs finished last season with the best home record in the Western Conference at 35-6, and there is no indication that they will show any large regression from this trend. Head coach, Gregg Popovich is accustomed to winning, but in a division that is getting closer by the day, his team may not be able to repeat as Southwest Division Champions.
After finishing second in the division behind the Spurs, the Grizzlies are looking to build off of last season’s success. With all of last season’s starting lineup returning, headlined by defensive standout Marc Gasol, and the addition of Mike Miller, Memphis hopes to overtake San Antonio in the standings.
Consistency is the key for the Grizzlies. Point guard Mike Conley is a steady and sure producer for the Grizzlies on both ends of the court leading the team with six assists per game and two steals per, last season. Conley’s job is simply to set up his bigs for scoring opportunities, and he does his job well.
The glaring question mark for Memphis is their lack of depth. Mike Miller is the best scoring option off of the bench, and there is a major drop-off in scoring ability after Miller. Gasol will continue to improve down low and lead the defense with his shot altering ability, while the offense will rely on Zach Randolph to put up points.
One of the biggest offseason storylines was the Dwight Howard Saga. After spending a season with the Los Angeles Lakers, Howard declared that he would test free agency, and the rat race began. The Atlanta Hawks, Dallas Mavericks, Golden State Warriors, Houston Rockets and Lakers all threw themselves at Howard in an attempt to entice the seven time all-star and three time NBA Defensive Player of the Year to play for their team.
In the end, the former number one overall pick of the 2004 NBA Draft chose to take his talents to Houston.
The Rockets slid into the 2013 NBA playoffs, grabbing the number eight seed and went on to a first round exit, at the hands of Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder in six games. Led by prolific scorer James Harden, who averaged 25 points per game, and the addition of Howard, the Rockets hope to leapfrog to the top of the division.
The question will be if Jeremy Lin will be able to run an offense that involves Harden and Howard, as well as Chandler Parsons. As long as Lin can provide opportunities for the various weapons that surround him, scoring will not be a problem for the Rockets.
Omer Asik who led the team in both rebounds per game and blocks per game last season will join Howard on the defensive end. The physical presence of those two could create some serious problems for other teams in the division, who lack the size to match up. Houston has set themselves up well to win and as long as all of the pieces can come together, there is no reason that they cannot challenge for the division title.
The fourth place team in the Southwest won their final game to finish the season at 41-41. For years, the Mavericks lived and died by Dirk Nowitzki, but after a solid offseason, the pressure to carry the team will no longer fall solely on Nowitzki.
Dallas has brought in Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon, Devin Harris, and Wayne Ellington to lift the offense to another level. Nowitzki led the team in scoring last season, averaging 17 points per game, but now the Mavericks will look to spread the attack out more in order to hang with the high-powered offenses within the division. Ellis will be the focal point of the offense, while Calderon and Harris will split time at the point guard distributing the ball to the many weapons at their disposal.
The Mavericks have the advantage of both young talent and experienced veterans. Both Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion are 35 years old, and Vince Carter is 36, and the team will look to these proven players to lead the team in the locker room and on the floor. If the Mavericks can develop into a more reliable defense, they should be able to finish above .500 and make some noise in a loaded division.
New Orleans Pelicans
The team formerly known as the Hornets rounds out one of the most talented divisions in the NBA. Coming off a 27-55 campaign, the Pelicans have quietly assembled a very formidable squad. Second year player Anthony Davis will look to improve on his rookie performance in which he averaged eight rebounds and 1 block per game.
Additions such as Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans give the offense immediate lifts, but it may not be enough to take the team to the next level. Holiday and Evans averaged 17 and 15 points per game respectively last season, and they will be tasked to continue this production in New Orleans. Alongside shooting guard Eric Gordon, (17 points per game), the young Pelicans have the potential to put up a lot of points. The question will be with the defense.
Other than Davis, the Pelicans do not currently have another legitimate defensive option to cope with the types of offenses that they will face night in and night out. Jeff Withey, the Kansas Jayhawk shot blocker, is listed third on the depth chart heading into the season. Expect improvement in New Orleans, but unless someone can emerge as a real defensive presence, it may be a long season for the Pelicans.