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Grades at 20 Games: Southwest Division

A closer look at the highly competitive Southwest Division.

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This week Basketball Insiders has been evaluating each division, team by team, on how they have performed through the first 20 games or so of the season. Today we check in on arguably the most competitive division in the league, the Southwest. The Southwest division is the only division in the NBA where every team has a positive point differential on the year. After the Pelicans knocked off the Cavs last night to get back to .500, no team in the division has a losing record as well. It’s hard to argue that any division has more depth than the Southwest.

Now lets take a closer look at each team in the division and why they have been so successful through their first 20+ games.

1. Memphis Grizzlies (18-4)

The Grizzlies have been one of the most impressive teams in the NBA early on this season. They continue to play their physical brand of basketball anchored by Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph down low. Led by Gasol and Randolph, coupled with strong play on the perimeter from Mike Conley and Tony Allen, the Grizzlies have been able to hold opponents to a league low 94.6 points per game. Their performance on that end of the floor should come as no surprise as the Grizzlies have always been one of top defensive units in league over the last few seasons.

What has been a bit surprising has been the Grizzlies’ improvement on the offensive end. In the past their recipe for wins was always to keep the game low-scoring by playing a deliberate pace and tough as nails defense. That hasn’t changed, but they have made significant strides on  the offensive end. The Grizzlies are currently sixth in the league in offensive rating and have proven to be more than capable of winning a shootout type of game. Two of their most impressive wins on the season have come against division foes Dallas and Houston. In both games the Grizzlies outpaced elite offenses on their way to victory, beating the Rockets 119-103 and the Mavs 114-105. Through 22 games the Grizzlies have looked as good as any team in the West.

Grade: A

2. Houston Rockets (17-5)

Despite Dwight Howard playing in only 10 of the teams’ first 22 games the Rockets have jumped out to a terrific start. During Howard’s absence the Rockets have needed some of their lesser known frontcourt players to step up and fill the void. The player that has seen the biggest increase in minutes has been rookie Tarik Black. After going undrafted out of Kansas, Black has settled into the starting rotation while Howard recovers. Black is a bit undersized, but is able to use his strong frame to hold his own against bigger opponents. He certainly isn’t the same caliber of player as Howard, but has done an admirable job in replacing the Rockets’ star center, averaging 5.8 points and 6.8 rebounds in the 12 games he has started.

Going into this season the common perception was that the Rockets would be one of the better offensive units in the league. However, like the Grizzlies, they have improved on what many thought would be an area of weakness. After allowing 103.1 points per last season the Rockets have shaved nearly eight points off the number, allowing 95.2 this season. Their defense is only going to get better upon the return of Howard.

Grade: A-

3. Dallas Mavericks (17-7)

Early on this season you could argue that no team has had a more high powered offense than the Mavericks. They lead the in offensive rating (116.3) and points per game (110.5). Monta Ellis has continued to thrive playing in the Mavericks’ up-tempo system. He is one of three Mavs starters averaging over 15 points per game. With their ability score so easily the Mavs put a ton of pressure on opposing teams to keep up. They have been able to bury teams once they fall behind; through their first 24 games the Mavericks already have five wins where their margin of victory was over 20 points.

While the offseason acquisition of Chandler Parsons may have drawn the most attention it has been the addition of a another Chandler, Tyson Chandler, which has proven to be just as important. Tyson is off to a fantastic start in his second tour of duty with the Mavs. He is averaging a double-double, scoring 10.7 points and hauling in 11.7 rebounds per game while shooting an ultra efficient 68.9 percent from the field. He has given the team a defensive presence in the paint and brings energy ever night. The Mavs have talented veteran group that looks hungry for a championship run.

Grade: B+

4. San Antonio Spurs (16-7)

Amazingly at 16-7 the defending champs sit at a mere fourth in the Southwest and seventh in the Western Conference. To put that into perspective, if the Spurs were in the East their 16-7 record would have them only a game behind the conference leading Toronto Raptors. The Spurs are off to a steady start behind their veteran leaders. Despite being 38 years old, Tim Duncan continues to play at an All-Star level. Still playing over 30 minutes per night, Duncan is the Spurs leading rebounder (10.9) and third leading scorer (14.7).

It’s important to remember that nearly all of the Spurs key players have missed games early on this season. Coach Popovich hasn’t wavered in his in philosophy of resting his most important players from time to time to keep them fresh as the season progresses. Expect the Spurs to really round into form and have all their top weapons playing their best as we get deeper into the season.

Grade: B

5. New Orleans Pelicans (11-11)

The Pelicans haven’t necessarily played poorly this season, but even so find themselves in last place in the Southwest, four and a half games behind the fourth place Spurs. Unfortunately, the reality for Pelicans is that they will almost certainly finish the season at the bottom of the division. However, that doesn’t mean they don’t have a chance to compete for a playoff spot.

If the Pelicans have any hope of sneaking into the playoffs it will be behind the play of their budding superstar Anthony Davis. Davis has really blossomed in his third NBA season and has many mentioning him behind only LeBron James and Kevin Durant when discussing the top players in the game today. Davis is putting up MVP type stats, averaging 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game while shooting 57.4 percent from the field. Although Davis has been a beast on both ends of the floor, he is going to need more consistent play from his supporting cast for the Pelicans to keep up with the rest of the West.

The biggest concern for the Pelicans is the lack of production from their second unit. Their bench ranks 22nd in the league in points scored and 25th in the field percentage. Outside of Ryan Anderson, there hasn’t been much consistency. They recently signed veteran forward Dante Cunningham hoping he can give that group a lift.

Grade: C

As you can see, the Southwest Division grades out pretty well. There are numerous teams in the division that have the talent to make a deep playoff run. The race for the division crown will be one of the more hotly contested around the league and is definitely one worth keeping an eye on as season goes on.

This is John's second year with Basketball Insiders, after spending last season working as an intern. Based out of Milwaukee, he covers the NBA with a focus on the Milwaukee Bucks and the Central Division.

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