Ranking the NBA’s Southwest Division

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Continuing with our Basketball Insiders NBA division rankings this week, here’s a look at the Southwest Division.

The Western Conference got even stronger this offseason with the migration of several of the East’s top players via trade or free agency. The Southwest Division, in particular, was home to probably the biggest free agent move of the summer when Chris Paul made his move to the Houston Rockets. The Golden State Warriors are still the team to beat in the West until proven otherwise, but the Southwest presents perhaps the best group of challengers to their throne outside of Cleveland (last season’s record next to team name).

San Antonio Spurs – 61-21

The model of consistency in the NBA the past several years, each time it looks like the Spurs might start to decline a bit, they surprise everyone and keep themselves among the league’s elite. Kawhi Leonard has emerged as a perennial MVP candidate and as long as a team has one of those, their chances of winning a title get a whole lot better.

The Spurs may have lost Jonathon Simmons to the Orlando Magic, but there are a couple of younger guys on the roster who might be able to fill that void. Simmons was one of the top feel good stories of the league and emerged as a dependable reserve who turned his game up a notch when Leonard was injured in the playoffs. Looking to take Simmons’ place will be one of Kyle Anderson and Bryn Forbes.

Anderson saw his minutes decrease last season (16 to 14.2), but he did improve his three-point shooting with a career best 37.5 percent. He’s a long, versatile wing who does have some point guard ability. Forbes on the other hand, rode the bench most of the season as a rookie. He exploded this summer in Las Vegas, however, showing a deadly three-point shot and an ability to get to the rim. He’s a little undersized for a wing, but with bigger guys like Leonard, Anderson, and Danny Green behind him, it could work.

Veterans Manu Ginobili, Pau Gasol, and Patty Mills are back in the fold and despite a few trade rumors, LaMarcus Aldridge is back too. From top to bottom, the Spurs still have an elite roster. The Warriors are still atop the conference, but if anyone in the West can give them a run for their money, it’s the Spurs.

Projected wins: 56-61

Houston Rockets – 55-27

It’s quite possible that the Houston Rockets end up with the top spot in the division. They finished only a few games behind the Spurs last season and they have an improved roster. They too have a perennial MVP in James Harden, but as their playoff series against the Spurs wore on, it was evident that Harden needed a bit more help. Enter Chris Paul.

Paul has remained one of the best point guards in the NBA. While players such as Russell Westbrook and Steph Curry might be better scorers, Paul’s playmaking ability is what separates him from other top point guards. It just so happens, however, that Harden thrived at the point last season, and both he and Paul are much more dangerous with the ball in their hands. But if there’s any coach in the league that can get two ball dominant guys to work, it’s Mike D’Antoni. In any case, Paul takes some much-needed pressure off Harden in terms of opposing defenses.

The Rockets loaded up on shooters last summer, bringing in Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, both of whom had resurgent seasons, in order to spread the floor well for Harden’s drives. This summer, they loaded up on defensive guys who can also shoot the three. P.J. Tucker and Luc Richard Mbah A Moute are both tough perimeter defenders and they give the Rockets some options against the Warriors.

Despite their new additions, the Rockets are still lacking when it comes to taking on the Warriors. They’ve been rumored to be in the running for Carmelo Anthony, and he’d go a long way to allowing the Rockets to truly compete with Golden State. Unless that happens though, the Rockets still appear to fall short in a potential matchup with the defending champs.

Projected wins: 56-60

Memphis Grizzlies – 43-39

One of the toughest teams in the league the past several years, the Grizzlies have adopted a “Grit and Grind” mentality that’s allowed them to remain one of the better teams in a loaded conference. They did suffer a bit of a blow this summer. Zach Randolph took his talents to the Sacramento Kings and Tony Allen’s status is still up in the air. Vince Carter, a key contributor and part-time starter, also left to the Kings.

The Grizzlies still should have enough talent, however, to remain competitive in the West. Marc Gasol is still patrolling the paint. Mike Conley is still one of the most underrated point guards in the league. The Grizzlies will look to a couple of new acquisitions, as well as a couple of developing young players, to help replace what they lost.

Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore were decent signings. Evans, a former Rookie of the Year, and McLemore, a lottery pick himself, are both looking to reestablish their value in the league. Evans has always been a slasher, but he shot a career-high 43.8 percent from the three-point line in 14 games with the Kings. McLemore has been wildly inconsistent thus far, but he’ll get the opportunity to turn things around in Memphis.

Memphis may have found a gem in undrafted guard Wayne Selden. Last year, after getting a call-up while playing in the NBA’s G-League, he became part of the Grizzlies rotation into the playoffs. He then set the Las Vegas Summer League on fire. He’ll be asked to take on a bigger role in the rotation, as will second-year big man Deyonta Davis. Davis was one of the best big men in Las Vegas and he could emerge as a dependable backup to Gasol.

The biggest question mark for the Grizzlies, however, and what will really determine how good this team can be, is Chandler Parsons. Parsons played in only 34 games last season due to injury after signing one of the biggest contracts of last summer. If he’s healthy, and that’s a big if, the Grizzlies will benefit tremendously from his wing scoring and playmaking ability. With the West getting much stronger overall, the Grizzlies are a team that could make the playoffs, but it also wouldn’t be all that surprising if they didn’t.

Projected wins: 39-43

New Orleans Pelicans – 34-38

Speaking of teams who could go either way, the New Orleans Pelicans have the talent — it’s just a question as to whether the pieces can fit together or not. They made their big splash over All-Star Weekend when they traded for DeMarcus Cousins. During the last half of the season, Cousins and Anthony Davis weren’t always in complete sync with one another. Perhaps with a full training camp and season together, they can become the monstrous frontcourt duo they have the potential to be.

The Pelicans also have some question marks in the backcourt. They re-signed Jrue Holiday, whom they couldn’t really afford to lose. Then they went out and got Rajon Rondo, whom they plan to play alongside Holiday in the starting lineup. In the playoffs, Rondo showed the value he still has as a deadly playmaker and scorer when need be. It will be interesting to see how he and Holiday mesh together.

Provided that the starting lineup works itself out, the Pelicans bench is a bit murky. E’Twaun Moore is a solid option off the bench, but they’ll need a few more guys to make some contributions if they want to be in the playoff picture.

If Rondo and Holiday do indeed work together as starters, or if one or both go down with an injury as they have in the not so distant past, they’ll need another point capable of providing quality minutes. Tim Frazier was that guy, but they traded him to the Washington Wizards. That role will likely fall on either Quinn Cook or possibly rookie Frank Jackson, assuming he’s ready to play right away. They’ll also need some production from Cheick Diallo, who should be a better option in the frontcourt than either Alexis Ajinca or Omer Asik.

The Pelicans could stand to use some more outside shooting, and that could possibly come from one of Jordan Crawford, Quincy Pondexter, or Solomon Hill. Hill was a bit of a disappointment after signing his big contract, and Pondexter hasn’t been able to stay healthy. Crawford was a nice surprise towards the end of last season. The talent is definitely there, and it just remains to be seen if all the pieces fit properly.

Projected wins: 37-41

Dallas Mavericks – 33-49

Rounding out the division is the Dallas Mavericks. The Mavericks are a team in a state of transition. They’ve tried to maintain a level of competitiveness as long as Dirk Nowitzki has been on the roster, but now appear to be doing the right thing and thinking about the future.

The Mavericks just might have found their point guard of the future in Dennis Smith Jr. He had an impressive summer league, showing his ability to score as well as be a playmaker. He could very well be a Rookie of the Year candidate. Sharing minutes with him in the backcourt will be Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry, two hidden gems unearthed by the Mavericks.

It will be interesting to see the continued development of Harrison Barnes as he gets more comfortable with a leading role offensively. His numbers weren’t bad, (19.2 points, 5.0 rebounds, 46.8 percent shooting) and after struggling to start the season, he settled into to his new role a bit better. He definitely is a key piece in the Mavericks’ rebuilding efforts.

While the status of restricted free agent Nerlens Noel is still up in the air, it’s probably safe to assume he’ll be back in a Dallas uniform. The Mavericks can match any offer he receives and most of the money has already dried up. It’s possible he could decide to play for the qualifying offer and test free agency again next summer. It would be in the Mavericks best interest, however, to have him back in the fold. If Smith is the point guard of the future, Noel is their center. Athletic big men with elite defensive potential don’t just grow on trees.

While the Mavericks have tried to stay afloat, the West is just too tough, especially with all the influx of talent from the East. Another rebuilding year for Dallas will yield another top draft pick to add to their budding collection of young talent.

Projected wins: 25-30