May 31, 2014; Oklahoma City, OK, USA; San Antonio Spurs guard Manu Ginobili (20) and team chairman Peter Holt hold the NBA Western Conference championship trophy after defeating the Oklahoma City Thunder in game six of the Western Conference Finals of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Chesapeake Energy Arena. San Antonio won 112-107. Sue Ogrocki-Pool Photo via USA TODAY Sports
The Western Conference is seemingly as deep as the Mariana trench, but perhaps no other division offers the five-deep roster quality of the Southwest Division.
From the 2011 champion re-vamped Dallas Mavericks, to the reigning champion San Antonio Spurs, to consistent stalwart Memphis, to the youthful promise of the New Orleans Pelicans, the Southwest is rather stacked.
Comparatively, the Northwest features three squads that could miss the postseason (Denver, Utah and Minnesota), two of which most certainly will (Denver is the exception).
The Pacific division features potential cell-dwelling Sacramento and an L.A. Lakers team that could miss the postseason, even if Kobe Bryant is playing his absolute best.
Predicting the order of finish in the Southwest is dicey. But it is certainly within the realms that the entire division makes the postseason.
New Orleans is likely the huge wildcard in this, but if Anthony Davis continues to break records, such as being the first player under 22 to average 22 points, 10 rebounds and 2.5 blocks…then the Pelicans could be very dangerous.
It’s a team already sporting a lot of talent with one-time All Star Jrue Holiday running the point and Omer Asik stringing double-double performances consistently. If Eric Gordon and/or Tyreke Evans return to their former production, this is potentially a 46-48 win team. Ryan Anderson is also as good a marksman as any power forward in the league. Even all these things so, the Pelicans are going to have a tough task finishing ahead of the other four teams, if only because they sorely lack the experience of Houston, Dallas, Memphis and San Antonio.
Memphis is the team everyone tends to sleep on, but the roster has continued to remain intact and equally as dangerous as when the team featured an overpaid and overrated Rudy Gay. The Grizzlies have an understated defensive backcourt with Mike Conley and Tony Allen that helps set the tone on the perimeter for a perimeter defense that features former Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol.
Gasol is a free agent next summer, and the adage about contract years may prove to be true. Gasol may continue to get even better, that is.
Zach Randolph production picked up last year after a down 2012-13, but he is unlikely to reach the 20-plus point per game averages, a mark he achieved four seasons straight, three of which were in Memphis. He’s 33 now, and that is about the age when players tend to fall off precipitously. For the Grizzlies to remain playoff threats, Randolph must remain healthy and continue posting a PER at least three points above league average, as he did last season.
San Antonio is looking for its first back-to-back championship, and there seems to be good reason to expect it to happen. One of the Spurs’ key cogs is only getting better in Kawhi Leonard. He earned the Finals MVP award, and his two-way play is key in San Antonio continuing to get even better, while Tim Duncan edges towards retirement.
But, oh, about that, Tim Duncan is still one of the best power forwards in the league.
Gregg Popovich has been carefully managing Timmy’s minutes over the last three to four seasons (he’s been 30 minutes or less since 2010-11), and the result is that Duncan has avoided aging badly. Moreover, the most productive big men usually remain fairly effective until their late 30s. Last season, he averaged 15.1 points and 9.7 rebounds a game while blocking about two shots a game.
Even with the 38 year old entering his 18th NBA season, Duncan remains a threat at all times. What’s even better for Pop is that Duncan and Tiago Splitter function about as well as any 4/5 tandem along the baselines.
Splitter sees 21.5 minutes per game, but his per-36 numbers round out to 13.7 points, 10.3 rebounds and nearly a block and steal. It’s not his numbers but his speed that helps San Antonio defensively. Add in the passing skills of Boris Diaw (who now has huge contract incentives to remain in shape) and the continued brilliance of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili and this is a team that will continue to contend, perhaps indefinitely.
Dallas made some interesting changes to its roster over the offseason. The Mavs brought back former DPOY Tyson Chandler while also bringing in Jameer Nelson, Raymond Felton, Rashard Lewis and Al-Farouq Aminu. The Mavs will suffer the loss of Jose Calderon and Vince Carter, but should be able to more than compensate. Monta Ellis still is a premier scorer and Nelson has a decade-plus experience running the show for a consistently competitive Orlando Magic team.
The biggest addition may be the free agent signing of Chandler Parsons, who could eventually make Rockets GM Daryl Morey regret his decision not to re-sign the former Florida Gator SEC Player of the Year. Parsons grew quickly in his three seasons in Houston, showing a nice learning curve and statistical progression that is sure to continue in the Big D. Parsons’ addition alone keeps Dallas on the track towards re-contention.
Lastly, the Houston Rockets really took a step backwards with the losses of Omer Asik and Jeremy Lin, punctuated by not landing a free agent heist and losing Parsons.
The Rockets will have to count on a ton of internal growth from a group of youngsters and that Dwight Howard returns to the level of play he demonstrated when he won three consecutive DPOYs with the Magic.
Morey is still searching for a third star to inject with James Harden and Howard, but has yet to land the guy he feels could fill that role. He also seems insistent on replacing Patrick Beverley at point guard. The most crucial factor for this team will be whether Terrence Jones can take the next steps. Jones needs a more consistent jumper, better defense and a better knowledge of when to be where on the court.
Harden will have to continue the preseasons efforts to intensify his defense, while Trevor Ariza figures to be an upgrade from Parsons, at least defensively. The Rockets may not take a step back, but to expect the team to enter the top-4 in the West seems like a stretch.