The Western Conference could have much more relative parity than expected next season, and the Southwest Division is a perfect microcosm.
Each team in the division has a real case for offseason improvement, save perhaps the 67-win juggernaut that still retains two All-Stars on the court and Gregg Popovich behind the bench. Even the most pessimistic observer would have a hard time arguing more than a minor drop-off at the very worst for teams like New Orleans and Dallas, and it’s even tougher to look at Houston or especially Memphis and see anything but more talent and better roster fits. The division saw four teams in the playoffs last season; it’s no stretch to imagine a repeat.
In reality, health and a few bounces here or there could determine the eventual order in the Southwest. Let’s attempt to parse significant roster turnover and see which teams are best positioned to succeed.
5. New Orleans Pelicans
It’s moderately difficult to even figure out whether the Pelicans improved over the summer.
Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway and draftee Buddy Hield all add talent, and at least two of the first three should provide more reliable two-way play than major departures Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon.
At the same time, though, it feels a bit like trading quarters for a slightly shinier collection of nickels and dimes. Two-way play only gets you so far when the guys in question have pretty limited skill sets. Hill was a hot item this summer, but his track record as much more than a solid bench piece who does most things well but few things at an elite level doesn’t really exist. Moore has some craftiness to his game and has done well defensively in limited time, but his 45 percent explosion from three last year (on just 104 attempts) is hard to trust after four years in the mid-30s prior to it.
Galloway plateaued after a nice rookie year in New York; he’s too small to check non-point guards or play much of a versatile role, and at 25 just a month into next season it’s unlikely he’ll develop much more skill-wise. Hield has a long way to go to prove he’s anything but a spot-up shooter with a lot to learn defensively.
Even if Hill and Moore offer more versatility and defensive prowess, replacing Anderson and Gordon – half the team’s above-average offensive talent – seems like a very tall ask.
No, this team’s improvement will come through renewed health for principals already on the roster. It was never clear if Anthony Davis was 100 percent in the 61 games he did play last year; an end-of-year shutdown and surgery suggest he wasn’t. Jrue Holiday was quietly excellent until he, too, was shut down late in the year, and his productivity when healthy was muted by a curious decision from Alvin Gentry to bring him off the bench for a big chunk of the year even after his minutes restriction was lifted. Tyreke Evans shouldn’t have much trouble topping the 25 games in which he suited up last year.
Whether better injury luck would be enough to get them back on track is the big question, and Davis is likely the crux point here. If last year’s leap to among the game’s two or three best players never came as a result of poor health and a revolving door of players around him, his impact alone alongside a steadier supporting cast could put them back in the playoff picture in a hurry. If his defensive regression and a few cracks around the edges persist, or if injuries rear their heads again, it could be a very different story.
There are a lot of ifs here. This could very easily be a playoff team, but it feels like the group in the Southwest with the most questions to answer before that happens.
4. Dallas Mavericks
Forecasting that true bottom-out from the Mavs has made countless talking heads look dumb over the years, and this isn’t that. At the same time, though, it’s never been so easy to take a glass-half-empty view in Dallas.
Their projected starting five has a ton of name value – and nearly just as many question marks. Deron Williams has declined over the years, settling in as roughly a league average point guard who seems to lose one or two small parts of his game with each passing season and is a lock to miss 10 or 15 games a year. Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut are our first chance to see key Warriors cogs outside the Bay; Barnes has often struggled in his expected secondary ball-handler role, and while Bogut has been a revelation for Australia in Rio these last couple weeks, the rigors of the NBA schedule have taken their toll on his ability to bring that level every night. Wesley Matthews is the surest thing on this roster outside of Dirk Nowitzki, and even the big German has shown cracks around the edges the last couple years.
Even if one is willing to take a semi-risky bet on that group outplaying most other sets of starters, depth is a major concern. A big leap from Justin Anderson seems like the only thing standing in the way of Dwight Powell, J.J. Barea and Devin Harris functioning as Dallas’ primary bench pieces. Any Bogut absence leaves them completely devoid of rim protection unless they’re comfortable trusting Salah Mejri or draftee A.J. Hammons, and it would force a ton of pressure onto Anderson and Harris if Barnes or Matthews missed any time.
Rick Carlisle could make a ham sandwich into a half-decent rotation player, though, and Dirk has forced us to assume he’ll stay Dirk until he proves otherwise. This group gets a pass as expected contenders in the back half of the West playoffs, even if a few worrying warning lights are present.
3. Houston Rockets
Has any presumed contender ever overloaded this transparently on one side of the ball? A group that narrowly missed out on a bottom-10 defense last season added Mike D’Antoni behind the bench, doubled down by jettisoning Dwight Howard (not his former self, but still their best defensive player), then pushed all their chips plus their wallet and keys onto the felt by acquiring Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon as presumed rotation pieces.
Patrick Beverley and Trevor Ariza are still around to absorb a lot of the damage, but the real pressure is on Clint Capela. Entering his third season and first as a primary starter at center, Capela offers the only rim protection on this roster (sorry, Nene) and will be called upon to erase plenty on the interior. He played just 47 percent of his minutes last season against starter-heavy lineups, per Nylon Calculus, and whether his production can sustain with a much larger share could be the largest individual factor in how well this team defends. Last year proved pretty emphatically that Ariza and Beverley alone aren’t enough, and the cast around them got even worse defensively in the offseason.
There’s no doubting the Rockets will be an offensive powerhouse with D’Antoni at the helm, but his ability to balance lineups and emphasize both sides of the ball could determine their overall ceiling. There are lots of cooks in this kitchen now: D’Antoni will have to weed through Gordon, Ariza, Corey Brewer, K.J. McDaniels, Michael Beasley and even possibly Sam Dekker on the wing behind (or alongside) James Harden, plus figure out whether Nene and Capela can play together.
Anderson needs at least two plus defenders on the court to keep the Rockets from drowning – and remember, they only have three on the roster. D’Antoni, an offensive savant never known for attention to detail or high levels of in-game prowess, will have to make the right choices.
More than anything, though, he’ll have to reach Harden. The Rockets’ star returned to his embarrassing defensive ways last year after a brief spat of respectable effort, and on the surface, nothing has happened in Houston this summer to suggest he’ll bounce back. Could a renewed culture and Howard’s absence be enough to get his mind in the right place? He’ll thrive in D’Antoni’s offensive system, of course, but so will several key guys on this team – the bigger questions are all on the other end, both for the team and their superstar.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Everyone rightfully remembers the awful injury luck that hit the Grizzlies in the back half of the season last year, but fewer recall that they were historically lucky to even be in position for such a big letdown in the first place. Memphis nearly blew a massive cushion for a playoff spot out West, one they only had by virtue of ridiculous success in close games that drowned out negative indicators typically reserved for lottery teams. By year’s end, the Grizz were one of just three teams in league history to finish with an SRS rating (a measure of point differential with a strength of schedule factor included) so low and still win at least half their games.
It’s easy to blame the injuries, but these realities were present before Mike Conley or even Marc Gasol went down.
Of course, the Grizzlies didn’t sit still over the summer. Chandler Parsons was the biggest talent-need match in free agency outside Golden State, the wing scorer this franchise seems to have lacked for a half decade consecutively. He brings knockdown shooting and enough playmaking from the perimeter to lessen the burden on Conley and Gasol, with the size to maintain Grit and Grind’s defensive philosophy.
Incoming coach David Fizdale replaces Dave Joerger after a couple years of offseason weirdness, and the pressure is on from the jump. One could pretty easily argue Joerger was at the heart of the team’s defensive identity, as well as their consistent success in high-leverage minutes down the stretch of close games. Does Fizdale, a highly-touted assistant from Erik Spoelstra’s staff in Miami, have the same impact?
This group sets their own baseline at this point, though. The larger questions surround depth and, quite honestly, the true talent level of the team. Conley is a borderline All-Star still in his prime years, but Gasol and fellow franchise anchor Zach Randolph have both shown serious signs of decline. Brandan Wright and Tony Allen are solid depth pieces, but is anyone confident in saying the same about Vince Carter, Troy Daniels and James Ennis at this point?
If they can keep the primaries healthy, this is a playoff team with a reasonable ceiling pending Parsons’ fit and Fizdale’s job on the sideline. The margin for error might be smaller than some think, though.
1. San Antonio Spurs
There are real reasons to expect a regression from the Spurs, even beyond the fact that just two teams who won 67 games did so again the following season. But even still, there just isn’t quite enough here to knock them from their perch atop the Southwest.
They still have the most talented core in the division, and they still have Pop. They still have excellent depth, even if there are justifiable questions about fit for offseason acquisitions Pau Gasol and David Lee. They still have Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge, the two best players in the division outside Davis in New Orleans.
Whether they still have a culture that laps the league is ostensibly up for debate with cornerstone Tim Duncan gone, but it’d be a weaker culture than we assumed if that single loss dismantled it entirely. Leonard has been ready for this mantle for at least a couple years, and Aldridge is well overqualified as a number-two option talent-wise. Pop is… well, Pop. Frankly, it’s a safe bet Duncan’s absence will cost them more on the court than in any intangible area.
None of this is a hedge on last week’s prediction that we’ll see more of a decline than expected from San Antonio. Really, it’s more of a nod to the question marks that dot the other four teams in the division. The Spurs have so much cushion that even a 10- or 12-game fall might not be enough to keep them out of first in the Southwest, even if it would put them closer to the West’s middle than the top.
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