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Most Important Player: Southwest Division

David Yapkowitz looks at the most important player for each team in the Southwest Division.

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The NBA’s Southwest Division is an interesting one. As it stands in the Western Conference, the Northwest Division is looking like the strongest and the Pacific Division probably has the most rebuilding teams. The Southwest, however, has a couple surefire powerhouses in the Houston Rockets and the San Antonio Spurs, but the rest of the pack could go either way. The Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, and New Orleans Pelicans all possess enough talent to make the playoffs, but it’s no sure thing.

Each team does possess a key player or two who will be instrumental to achieving whatever regular season and, ultimately, postseason aspirations each team has. Here’s a look at the most important player for each team in the Southwest Division.

Dallas Mavericks – Harrison Barnes

The Mavericks made quite an investment in Harrison Barnes when they acquired him from the Golden State Warriors a year ago. Often the forgotten man in the Warriors’ starting lineup, Barnes had a poor showing against Cleveland in the 2016 Finals. Once the Warriors agreed to terms with Kevin Durant, it was evident that Barnes was the odd man out.

During his time with the Warriors, however, Barnes often displayed flashes of brilliance and the reason why he was a lottery pick in the 2012 NBA Draft. It was thought that he still had untapped potential that wasn’t going to be realized playing alongside the Warriors star players. Barnes started off last season a bit slow, but he picked it up as the season went on and ended up having a very successful first season in Dallas. He led the team in scoring with 19.2 points per game. He shot a very respectable 46.8 percent from the field, including 35.1 percent from three-point range.

Dirk Nowitzki has long been the face of the franchise for the Mavericks, but as he approaches the twilight of his career, Barnes is next in line. For the Mavericks to turn their fortunes around from last season and contend for the playoffs, they’ll need Barnes to take an even greater leap this upcoming season.

Houston Rockets – Chris Paul

The Rockets have a perennial MVP candidate in James Harden, but this season their fortunes will rest in the hands of newly acquired Chris Paul. Long considered one of the best point guards in the league in seasons past, Paul has seen his status atop that plateau shrink with the emergence of point guards such as Stephen Curry and Russell Westbrook. That’s not to say that the old veteran doesn’t have anything left in his tank.

Last season was Paul’s first in the past ten that he was left off the All-Star team. He still put up All-Star numbers, however. His 18.1 points per game were right at his career average of 18.7. His 9.2 assists per game were good enough for fourth in the league behind only Harden, John Wall, and Westbrook. He still shot 47.6 percent from the field and 41.1 percent from three-point range. He remains one of the best playmakers in the NBA and will no doubt take much of the pressure off of Harden.

With the start of the season rapidly approaching, it remains to be seen whether or not the Rockets new additions are enough to seriously challenge the Warriors. For them to have a chance at doing that, though, the Rockets will need Paul to be at his best. He’s faced playoff disappointment after disappointment with the Clippers. This season he gets a chance at redemption.

Memphis Grizzlies – Mike Conley

Mike Conley is probably the best player in the league who’s never made an All-Star team. The Grizzlies needed to keep Conley in the fold when he was a free agent a year ago. They did so by giving him, at the time, the richest deal in NBA history. Conley responded by having the best season of his career.

His 20.5 points per game, 46 percent shooting from the field, and 40.8 percent from the three-point line were all career highs. His 6.3 assists per game were right with his career-high of 6.5. He also is one of the better defensive point guards in the league. It was only two years ago when the Grizzlies had a 2-1 lead on the Warriors in the playoffs with Conley helping lead the way.

The Grizzlies are a much, much different team now than the one who put a brief scare into the Warriors. Gone are the gritty veterans such as Tony Allen, Vince Carter, and Zach Randolph. But the Grizzlies still have a pretty talented roster and the last couple of playoff spots in the West could be a toss-up. If the Grizzlies hope to claim a playoff spot in the West, they’ll need Conley to reproduce his numbers from last season.

New Orleans Pelicans – DeMarcus Cousins

The Pelicans shocked the NBA world when they acquired DeMarcus Cousins at last season’s All-Star break. On paper, Cousins and Anthony Davis formed what appeared to be a dominant front court. The pairing hit some rough spots and the team didn’t quite gel right away. The Pelicans will have a full training camp this time around to work out the kinks.

Cousins is perhaps the most talented and skilled offensive center in the league. Few bigs possess his offensive capabilities, such as his ability to put the ball on the floor and attack the rim as a big man and his unlimited range out to the three-point line. He is also one of the better passing big men in the league. Before the trade to the Pelicans, he was averaging a career-high 27 points per game. In New Orleans, his scoring numbers dropped a bit to 24.4 but his three-point percentage of 37.5 percent was a career high.

Only time will tell how the Cousins/Davis pairing will work out. Defensively, Davis is a much better player, but offensively, Cousins still has the advantage. Perhaps an offense centered more around Cousins and his strengths would benefit the team as they try to make the playoffs for only the second time since trading Chris Paul.

San Antonio Spurs – Kawhi Leonard

A mid-first round pick, Leonard has emerged into one of the best players in the league. Few possess his combination of offensive efficiency and tenacious perimeter defense. Although the outcome may not have been any different, it’s a shame that Leonard’s injury in last season’s playoffs prevented a fully healthy Warriors/Spurs series.

Leonard’s numbers have improved every year he’s been in the league. His 25.5 points per game were a career-high. He’s a career 49.5 percent shooter from the field, amazing efficiency for a perimeter player, and he shot 48.5 percent last season. He’s also become one of the best long-range marksmen in the NBA, shooting 38 percent last year and 38.8 percent for his career.

Each year the Spurs continue to stay among the NBA’s elite. In recent years, Leonard has been the reason why. At age 26, it’s safe to say that Leonard probably still has another level he can get to. The Warriors are still the Warriors, and teams like the Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder have greatly improved. For the Spurs to remain among those teams and contend for a title, they’ll need Leonard to get to that level.

While the Western Conference has gotten stronger overall, it remains to be seen where the teams in the Southwest Division will fall. If the Spurs and Rockets want to seriously contend for a championship, and if the Mavericks, Grizzlies, and Pelicans want to sneak into the playoffs, it will be these players who lead the way.

David Yapkowitz has been a staff writer for Basketball Insiders since 2017. Based in Los Angeles, he focuses on the Pacific Division as well as the NBA at large.

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