(SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREVIEW)
In-Depth analysis of the Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Dallas Mavericks, and New Orleans Pelicans. Western Conference Southwest Division Preview.
Daryl Morey of the Houston rockets was the first general manager went out and publicly proclaimed his team wouldn’t stand by idly and watch the Golden State Warriors treat the 2017-2018 season as a victory lap and a cakewalk to another Western Conference championship.
Two weeks after making that declaration, Morey “put his money where his
mouth is,” landing star point guard Chris Paul in a sign-and-trade before July’s free agency period began, kicking off what turned out to be a frenetic league-wide arms race to try to find a way to catch up to Golden State.
So begins one of the more interesting story-lines of this season: how will Paul and James Harden, the runner-up for the league’s Most Valuable Player Award for the second time in three seasons, co-exist as back-court mates? Or, more specifically: who is going to be the team’s primary ball-handler? That’s been Paul’s job ever since he arrived in the NBA, but Harden is coming off the best season of his career orchestrating head coach Mike D’antoni’s fast-paced offense.
Paul and Harden have to get on the same page. That’s a process Harden said is ongoing, both through hanging out off the court and getting used to being teammates on it. Videos seemed to surface daily of the two guards playing together in Los Angeles all summer — something Harden said they hadn’t done before they were paired up.
If it works, there’s little reason to think that a team that already finished with the third-most wins in the NBA last year wouldn’t be even better this year.
Projected Record: 57-25
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
In a league where stars have teamed up to try to take down the Golden State Warriors, fans of the San Antonio Spurs have to be wondering: are Kawhi Leonard and Lamarcus Aldridge, coached by the incomparable Gregg Popovich, enough to still consider themselves true contenders out West?
Aldridge’s future in San Antonio seemed uncertain this spring, when his name was floated in trade rumors after a sub-par playoff run amid whispers of Aldridge’s unhappiness with the Spurs. But on the morning of the start of the NBA season, the Spurs not only picked up his 2018-19 player option, but added two additional years to his contract for approximately $50 million in new money. In other words: this team is locked into Leonard and Aldridge for the foreseeable future.
The starting five of Patty Mills (presumably the starter while Tony Parker recovers from the ruptured quad tendon he suffered in the playoffs), Danny Green, Pau Gasol, Aldridge, and Leonard seems more than sufficient to get this team back into the playoffs. But that’s not why the Spurs play basketball; their entire focus is about playing basketball deep into May and June.
Will a bench of Parker and Manu Ginobili, both of whom are another year older, as well as Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, and Rudy Gay (whenever he recovers from his torn Achilles tendon) enough to compete with the new heavyweights atop the Western Conference?
Projected Record: 54-28
The Grit-and-Grind era, which officially put the Memphis Grizzlies in the mainstream discussion among NBA fans, officially came to an end after Memphis lost in the first round of last year’s playoffs to the San Antonio Spurs.
After grinding things out with a low post focused offense for nearly a decade and never getting to the head of the Western Conference class, the Grizzlies make a commitment to play at a faster pace and score more and now must deliver. That meant parting ways with franchise stalwarts like Zach Randolph and Tony Allen depart and the page is turned, who defined the Grit-and-Grind era.
In an attempt to get with the “modern” NBA, they swapped those guys for shoot-first players like Tyreke Evans and Ben McLemore. It still remains to be seen whether those changes were made for the better, or were made for change’s sake.
If the can keep the defending at a high level, then a shift to a more efficient offensive approach could be monumental for the Grizzlies. It’s not clear that he has the right mix of players to make either of those realities (efficient offense and high level defense) come into existence, but this year should go a long way toward resolving how far the team has to go.
If the team finds itself on the outs of the Western Conference playoffs, then one story-line worth watching is whether the team will attempt to deal away point guard Mike Conley, who is still one of the more respected floor generals in the NBA.
Projected Record: 37-45
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS
Leave it to the New Orleans Pelicans to be the team that “zags” while every other team in the NBA “zigs.” As the league moves towards the small-ball modus operandi of spreading the floor with smaller wing players, the Pelicans doubled-down on the idea of “big men still win basketball games,” placing all their chips on the idea that the team can turn itself into a real threat thanks to the incredible talents of Anthony Davis and Demarcus Cousins.
Of course, the question remains: can those two actually play together? Is having two guys at seven-feet tall too redundant and too much like overkill? There were some growing pains having two bigs like Davis and Cousins both on the same team, which led to the Pelicans ending last season with a 34-48 record.
It has to be considered a do or die season for several people within the Pelicans organization. If this team misses the playoffs, it means that head coach Alvin Gentry and General Manager Dell Demps should be fired from their respective positions.
The Pelicans have a lot of elements on this team that can turn this into a playoff team and you have to like a lot of what they have. However, it’s all about the guys in the front court that could be the difference between an eight seed in the postseason or on the outside looking in. And if the team does find itself in the latter scenario sooner rather than later, then expect there to be a lot of discussion as to whether it’s time to pull the plug on this thought experiment, and investigate the idea of trading away Cousins before he can leave town as a free agent.
PROJECTED RECORD: 35-47
Coming off their worst season since Mark Cuban bought the team in 2000, the Dallas Mavericks find themselves in a transitional period, where they’re trying to still put together a winner in the twilight of the Dirk Nowitzki era, while orchestrating a total rebuild. That’s why the team has made moves like signing Harrison Barnes to a large free agent contract, adding young center Nerlens Noel, and possibly turning the team over to high-flying point guard Dennis Smith Jr., the team’s top pick in the 2017 NBA Draft.
With lots of big name free agents coming onto the market in the summer of 2018, the Mavericks need to weather a stormy season and keep their cap flexibility. This is still an organization that takes great care of its players, and remains an active player in free agency. Also, if things do happen to break right for them, and they can secure another pick high up in the 2018 NBA Draft lottery, that could do wonders for the future of this team.
As far as right now, it might be time for Barnes to emerge as the new leader of the Mavericks. There are murmurs of optimism around him for team observers, given what they’ve seen from him in the preseason and during stretches of last season.
PROJECTED RECORD: 33-49
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