First Quarter Grades: Southwest Division

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Moving right along in the division breakdowns here at Basketball Insiders, next up on the slate is the Southwest Division.

Check out our installments for the Central, Pacific, and Atlantic divisions as well.

Dallas Mavericks 7-18

Long gone are the days when Dirk Nowitzki could put the Dallas Mavericks on his back and carry them through the gauntlet of the Western Conference. Now, the Mavs are a team more focused on lottery position than playoff position.

Bright Spot: While it’s mostly been a struggle for Dallas so far this season, there are some positives to the product they’ve put out on the floor this season, as well as some positives for their futures. First, at quick glance, their defense is fairly decent. The Mavericks allow 103.5 points per game, good for ninth in the league, and their defensive rating ranks at 14th with a 107.3 clip.

Along with their defense, young guys Harrison Barnes and Dennis Smith Jr. are showing that they can be serious contributors to the next phase of competitive basketball in Dallas. Barnes is showing that when he’s not on a team with the likes of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green, he’s more than capable of shouldering the load offensively. Smith Jr., just 19 years old, is showing flashes that warrant his top 10 draft selection.

Areas to Improve: Moving forward, however, the Mavericks have a lot to improve on. Most importantly, efficiency. Dallas doesn’t rank in the top half of the league in any category that pertains to shooting percentage. Players in Dallas have no trouble chucking up shots, as the Mavs are top 10 in attempts from the field and from beyond the arc. However, they have more than their fair share of trouble getting those shots to fall.

Some of that could be personnel; the Mavs aren’t exactly flooded with talent, but Dallas needs to work on getting the ball actually in the hoop for the rest of the season if they even want to be somewhat competitive.

First Quarter Grade: D+

Memphis Grizzlies 8-16

After seven straight seasons of postseason play, it finally looks like the Memphis Grizzlies are going to miss the cut.

Over the offseason, the Grizzlies lost some Tennessee household names in Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Mike Conley is injured at the moment, and there isn’t any eye-popping talent on the roster outside of Marc Gasol.

Bright Spot: While the team has a whole started off the season with what could be considered a below-average performance, Memphis is currently the recipient of a Tyreke Evans resurgence, and that is definitely something to be excited about. Evans is enjoying the best season of his career since his rookie campaign. Averaging 17.7 points, 4.8 rebounds, and four assists per game, Evans is also producing a career-high effective field percentage with a 54.6 clip.

Areas to Improve: After Evans, the good news stops about there for the Grizzlies. Their poor effort across the board, culminating with one of the league’s worst offenses and the slowest pace, led to David Fizdale losing his job after just 19 games this season.

Moving forward, the Grizzlies’ biggest problem may be reshaping their identity completely. The rock fight style of play may not fly in this league anymore, especially if a team doesn’t have the pieces in place to pull off that kind of play.

Barring a magical turnaround upon Conley’s return, it’s going to be the first long season in quite some time for the Memphis Grizzlies.

First Quarter Grade: D

New Orleans Pelicans 13-12

Down in the Big Easy, the New Orleans Pelicans are doing their best to make a modern-day twin towers system work. Through the first quarter of play this season, it’s got them in the playoff picture.

Bright Spot: DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are tearing it up for the Pelicans. Each averaging a hefty double-double, Cousins (25.9 points, 12.6 rebounds) and Davis (25.2 points and 11 rebounds) have been absolute terrors for opposing frontcourts.

Along with the big men duo, Jrue Holiday is churning out a decent season as well for New Orleans. Cousins, Anthony, Holiday, and a few solid role players look like they could be enough to hang around all season in the playoff race. New Orleans currently has the league’s sixth highest scoring offense. The West is no joke, but through the first leg of the year (and their first full season together), the big man experiment looks to be doing its job at first glance.

Areas to Improve: What the Pelicans do need to focus on, and this will be fairly difficult given their current personnel, is spacing the floor with shooters to surround their paint-clogging behemoths down low. New Orleans ranks 18th in the league at 36.2 percent from downtown. It’s not a terrible clip, but when an offense runs through post players their best complement is shooting.

As the trade deadline nears, if the Pelicans are in serious playoff contention, maybe adding another shooter is in the realm of possibility. But in order to unlock the team’s full potential, they’ll need to start knocking down some more shots on the outside. Cousins’ and Davis’ attention in the paint will surely provide their teammates on the perimeter with more than a few open looks.

Whatever the case may be, New Orleans is winning games, and they have star power. Usually, that’s a recipe for playoff success. Time will tell if the Pelicans can put it together for an entire season.

First Quarter Grade: B

San Antonio Spurs 17-8

Leave it to Gregg Popovich to have the San Antonio Spurs as one of the elite teams in the West… without Kawhi Leonard.

Leonard hasn’t played a minute yet this season and still, the Spurs are their same old selves. Who’s surprised?

Bright Spot: The resurgence of LaMarcus Aldridge has allowed San Antonio to not miss a beat without their star player, making the concept of Leonard’s return that much more frightening for Western Conference opponents. Even more frightening? The Spurs are allowing the second fewest points and have the fourth best defensive rating in all of basketball, all without a perennial Defensive Player of the Year candidate in their lineup.

San Antonio’s defense has been absolutely stifling this season, and once Leonard returns it’s only going to get better.

Areas to Improve: While the defense is more than impressive, the offense is feeling the loss of Leonard more than anything. Outside of Aldridge, just Pau Gasol and Rudy Gay are averaging double-figures in scoring. And they’re both barely breaking the threshold.

Although the lack of diversified scoring hasn’t killed the Spurs so far this season, it would be reasonable to suspect that eventually not having someone else besides Aldridge to go to would be problematic, especially come playoff time given the teams San Antonio could potentially be playing.

No worries for the Spurs, though. Leonard is on his way back, making this already elite team that much better.

Just another day at the office for Popovich.

First Quarter Grade: A

Houston Rockets 18-4

Maybe the most impressive all-around team effort this season outside of the Boston Celtics is the Houston Rockets.

While keeping their same incredibly impressive offensive prowess from a year ago, the Rockets have improved their defensive rating by nearly six points from last season during the first leg of this campaign.

Bright Spot: A team that already boasts MVP candidate James Harden and arguably the best point guard over the last decade in Chris Paul focused on their one weakness — and completely turned it around, on a Mike D’Antoni-coached team nonetheless.

Harden and Paul’s efforts are expected. The two alpha-dog players are responsible for nearly 20 assists per night between themselves. Harden continues his ascent as one of, if not the best, scorers in the NBA, and Paul is doing just fine adjusting to playing alongside another ball-dominant guard.

With a retooled defense, the Rockets could be legitimate threats to Golden State’s throne.

Areas to Improve: But with all of the chucking that goes on inside a Rockets offense, chances for rebounds — and capitalizing on those chances — are incredibly crucial. Outside of Clint Capela, no other Houston Rocket averages more than six rebounds per game. As a team, they rank 25th in total boards.

Getting into a shootout with the Warriors seems like the most likely outcome for the Rockets, should both teams advance to the conference finals this season. And if that’s the case, seeing as how no player shoots 100 percent from the field, grabbing those missed shots could be a deciding factor.

If the Rockets want to become more than just a threat, they need to tighten up their effort on the boards.

First Quarter Grade: A+