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Six Things To Know: NBA’s Southwest Division

Six of the underrated story lines to pay attention to in the Southwest Division this season.

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The cream of the Southwest Division is the defending champion San Antonio Spurs. They will enter the season with expectations of another title run as the Tim Duncan era nears conclusion. The Spurs will be tested all year long in what figures to be a very tightly contested division. Chandler Parsons relocated from one Southwest division contender in the Rockets, to another in Dallas, signing with a veteran Mavericks team. The Rockets brought in Trevor Ariza, who is coming off a fantastic season with the Wizards, to replace the departed Parsons. Both the Rockets and Mavericks anticipate being right back in the thick of the playoff hunt. Parsons wasn’t the only player in the Southwest division to find a new home in the division; Omer Asik went from the Rockets to the Pelicans and Vince Carter bolted from Dallas and signed with the Grizzlies. The addition of Carter should help bolster a sometimes lackluster offensive attack in Memphis. The Grizzlies are coming off a 50-win season, and like the Rockets and Mavs, will be another tough opponent in the division.

Those changes are a few of the more discussed topics throughout the Southwest Division, now let’s take a look six other talking points inside the division that you should be aware of before the season kicks off.

Dallas will open the season with Jameer Nelson as their starting point guard

The Mavericks have three capable veteran point guards on their roster in Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton and Devin Harris. All three have been starters during their time in the NBA and have proven that they can succeed in that role. The talent level is relatively similar among each player, with no one really jumping off the page as that much better than the next. Unless Coach Rick Carlisle changes his tune in the next few weeks it looks like Nelson will get the first crack at the starting gig. Carlisle shared what he hopes to see from his new point guard earlier this week.

“Get comfortable and give us the right balance of penetration, scoring off pick-and-rolls, scoring off spot-ups and he’s got to give us tough defense,” Carlisle told Tim MacMahon of ESPNDallas.com. “He’s very capable of all those things.”

One of the challenges for Nelson will be adjusting to a new system. Having another veteran point guard who is familiar with the schemes Coach Carlisle runs, in Devin Harris, should make his transition from Orlando a bit easier. Nelson will be under considerably more pressure than he has been in the past few years playing on a rebuilding Magic team. His ability to pick up the offense quickly will be crucial in the deep Western Conference, where the Mavs just can’t afford to dig themselves an early season hole.

Donatas Motiejunas will be counted on off the Rockets’ bench

The 24 year old Lithuanian will have the chance to be important piece for the Rockets off the bench this season. With Omer Asik off to New Orleans, the Rockets lost their best big men off the bench. This season they will rely on Motiejunas to take the next step. He will need to be a consistent contributor and key member of the second unit. In his first two years with the Rockets Motiejunas has been limited to smaller role, playing, on average, just 14.1 minutes per game. The combination of his inexperience and the talent in front of him made it difficult for Motiejunas to break into the Rockets’ regular rotation.

One aspect of his game that will be counted on is his shooting. He has struggled to knock the three ball with regularity and was only a 26.9 percent shooter from distance in his first two NBA seasons. Despite his lack of success from deep thus far Motiejunas is a more than capable shooter from deep. He excelled playing for the Rockets’ summer league team this past July. Motiejunas averaged 16.8 points per game while shooting a very impressive 59.3 percent from the field in eight games. The Rockets will need Motiejunas build off his solid summer league; his shooting and ability to score will be important off the bench

Five players are battling for two starting wing spots in Memphis

The Grizzlies have a nice mix of wing players with a variety of skills. Tayshaun Prince and Tony Allen are both elite defenders but really struggle to score ball. Courtney Lee, Quincy Pondexter and Vince Carter, on the other hand, are players that excel on the offensive end but aren’t as gifted defenders as Allen and Prince. The challenge for coach Dave Joerger will be to find the right combination between the five players at his disposal, that together, can make an impact on both ends of the floor. This preseason Joerger has started Lee, Pondexter, Allen and Prince on separate occasions to get a feel of who works best together. The Grizzlies will rely on the rest of their starting line-up, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol to lead the team, but will need production from the their wings.

Prince still feels that he can play extended minutes.

“I just have to be more of an offensive threat on the floor,” Prince said to Ronald Tillery of the Memphis Commercial Appeal. “I can’t be an offensive threat just spacing out and waiting for jump shots. That’s not really what I’ve done in this league before. I just want to be more creative.”

If Joerger and the Grizzlies can get consistent play from his two starting wings it will go a long way in helping the Grizzlies get back to the playoffs. It will be interesting to see which players step up and take command of those roles as the season progresses.

Points in the paint will be tough to come by against the Pelicans

The Pelicans were able to acquire one of the more underrated centers in the league this summer when they added Omer Asik. Asik comes to New Orleans from the Rockets where he spent the majority of last season backing up Dwight Howard. Asik was eager to get another chance to start, and he will get that chance in New Orleans. He will be paired alongside a budding superstar, Anthony Davis, to form potentially, one of the top defensive duos in the NBA.

The pair should complement each other very nicely as each brings a different set of skills to the table. Asik is a strong and physical player who does a great job using his body to get in position defensively and haul in rebounds. In the one season where Asik started in all 82 games (2012-13 with the Rockets) he averaged 11.7 rebounds and 1.1 blocks per game. Davis is still developing physically, though he has made great strides since entering the league, and uses on his incredible length and mobility to send shots back. Davis led the league blocks per game this past season swatting away an average of 2.8 shots per game. The two will give the Pelicans the ability to match up with just about any opposing big men they may face. If they can stay out of foul trouble, and more importantly stay healthy, Davis and Asik will give the Pelicans two outstanding defenders down low.

Gregg Popovich is excited to add Ettore Messina to his staff

It’s hard to imagine the Spurs coaching staff getting much better than it already is, however, this summer they managed to add another top basketball mind to the group in Coach Ettore Messina. Messina joins the Spurs after a long and extraordinarily successful coaching career in Europe. During his time in Europe Messina won four Euroleague titles, was a seven time Italian Cup champion, a five time Russian League Champion and twice named Euroleague Coach of the Year. His long list of accomplishments speaks for itself. The Spurs and Coach Popovich showing they are never content, despite their great run of success.

“That’s just Pop,” Spurs general manager R.C. Buford said to Fran Blinbury of NBA.com. “He’s open and he’s always hungry and searching for new things to discover about the game and different ways to coach it.”

Messina will offer the Spurs a different perspective on the game, a perspective Popovich will surely try to glean elements from to help improve the defending champs. The Spurs, who already utilize more of a European style of play than most NBA teams, will look to add wrinkles from the knowledge that Messina brings. Popovich has a great respect for Messina and what he has done throughout his career.

“He’s a smart guy, a helluva good coach and a very interesting man,” Popovich said. “Why wouldn’t you want somebody like Ettore to be around your team?”

There is strong frontcourt play throughout the division

The Southwest  boasts some of the top frontcourt pairings in the entire league. Memphis will again be one of the most physical teams in the paint behind Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph. The two have been dominant together and been the driving forces behind Grizzlies’ success in recent years. In San Antonio, you have future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan, who seems to be only be getting better with age, and Tiago Splitter, who has developed into a tough defender and has continued to improve his touch around the rim. Dwight Howard leads the way in Houston, but Terrance Jones can’t be overlooked. He played great last season, averaging 12.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game. The Mavs have a future Hall of Famer of their own in Dirk Nowitzki, who like Duncan, hasn’t slowed down much in the latter stages of his career, and Tyson Chandler, who will be a physical defensive presence at center. The Pelicans, as we touched on earlier, will pair a Defensive Player of the Year candidate in Anthony Davis, with the big bodied Omer Asik. With so many talented big men in the division there will be battles in the paint on a nightly basis. Whichever frontcourt can consistently win those battles will greatly improve their team’s chances to win games within the division.

The Southwest is loaded with talent and is one of the few divisions where every team has a chance to be competitive this season. At the top you have the Spurs, who will look to make another title run, all the way down to the Pelicans, who continue to make strides behind one of the best young players in the game in Davis. No division win will come easy, expect to see each team jockeying for playoff position right up until the final game of the season.

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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