Realistically, the Spurs are the only team with a true hope of winning a title this year, though. The Grizzlies are a piece away still and the Mavs are a team on the decline. In three to five years, the Rockets could be the new toast of the Southwest, but the same applies to the New Orleans Hornets. Both teams are young and rebuilding. Both teams are doing a good job of it — on paper.
When it comes down to the Southwest’s leaders though, the reoccurring theme is age. Dirk Nowitkzi, Tim Duncan, and Manu Ginobili are all aging superstars. The time for the Mavs and Spurs, respectively, to start replacing those players is now, but the best talent in the league usually doesn’t go to top-feeders. The Spurs need to snag another value pick in the late first round as they have in the past to remain a top tier team post-Duncan/Ginobili. Truly, the time is now for the Spurs, while the window has more or less closed on the Mavs.
1) San Antonio Spurs
2011-12 Record: 50-16, 1st Place in Southwest
2011-12 Playoffs: Won First round vs Utah 4-0; won Semis 4-0 vs L.A. Clippers; Lost in Western Conference Finals to Oklahoma City 4-2
2012-13 Projected Record: 56-16
Projected Starters: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw, Tim Duncan
Sixth / Seventh Men: DeJuan Blair / Gary Neal
The Spurs rolled through the first two rounds of the Playoffs and looked to be the odds-on favorite to win the title, both according to Vegas oddsmakers and NBA analysts alike. Few expected the Oklahoma City Thunder to handle the Spurs the way they did, and it was a black mark on an otherwise brilliant season once again by Gregg Popovich and crew.
Tim Duncan is not getting any younger, nor is Manu Ginobili. Tony Parker is in the heart of his prime, and they have a host of youngsters that will mature into good NBA players with him: DeJuan Blair, Tiago Splitter, Kawhi Leonard, Gary Neal, Patty Mills, and Daniel Green. All six will eventually form the core of the post Duncan/Ginobili-era. The Spurs will remain competitive for a very long time, but the days of immediate contention may be coming to a close.
That is what makes this season so crucial. If the Spurs strike out again and fail to reach the Finals, the Spurs may blow it up and start looking towards the future. A lot of it hinges on Duncan’s plans though, as no one doubts he will retire a Spur. A lot of veterans become rentals for other teams late in their career, but I just don’t see that happening with Duncan.
I expect the Spurs to win the Division again this year, and they will likely advance past the first round, but I don’t think the steam is there to roll to the NBA Finals. The trade I proposed yesterday (LINK) gives them the opportunity to. Gaining Paul Pierce while sacrificing the future could bring one last ring in for the Spurs dynasty, and sometimes you just have to live in the present, at least when it comes to winning NBA championships.
2) Memphis Grizzlies
2011-12 Record: 41-25
2011-12 Playoff Series: Lost to L.A. Clippers 4-3 in First round
2012-13 Projected Record: 50-32
Projected Starters: Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol
Sixth Man: Darrell Arthur
Mike Conley is as good as he is underrated. Tony Allen is possibly the best defender in the entire league. Rudy Gay is as athletic as they come and a rising superstar, while Randolph has already made an All-Star team and finally calmed down as a player. Lastly, Marc Gasol is nearly as good as his older brother Pau now, and just made his first All-Star appearance in 2012, as well.
The Grizzlies really are a team with a Big Three, but no one gives them their due. The Grizz frontline of Gay/Z Bo/Gasol is nearly as good as any other frontline in the NBA. They have three high scoring guys who all play at an All-Star level. Is it as good as Westbrook/Harden/Durant, Kobe/Howard/Nash/Gasol, LeBron/Wade/Bosh? No, but it isn’t far down once you get past those elite teams.
The Grizzlies still need another piece or two to get it done though. The tricky part, for GM Chris Wallace will be determining just what or who that piece is. The Grizzlies could use a high scorer off the bench, but O.J. Mayo was supposed to fill that role. Darrell Arthur can only do so much for the second unit. It’s either find someone else, or hope that Jarryd Bayless can play more consistently.
All things considered, the Grizzlies are a team that could either go as far as the Conference Finals or be bounced in the first round. They were one game away from reaching the WCF in 2011, but lost in game seven to the Thunder. Ah, the Thunder. The Lakers. The Spurs. This Grizzlies team just isn’t there on that level yet.
3) Houston Rockets
2011-12 Record: 34-32
2011-12 Playoff Series: n/a
2012-13 Projected Record: 44-38
Projected Starters: Jeremy Lin, Kevin Martin, Chandler Persons, Patrick Patterson / Royce White, Omer Asik
Sixth / Seventh men: Donetas Motiejunas / Toney Douglas
The question will be whether Motiejunas brings enough, fast enough, and whether Toney Douglas can assume his usual fill it up roll off the bench. The Rockets still have plenty of other talent, though, including their other two first round picks, Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lamb. The youth will go a lot further than most people think, and I think the Rockets make a push for the 8th seed in the West. Many have called me crazy, but I espoused the idea on the Dig N Shot podcast (LINK), a show I co-host with Fully Clips editor Brandon LaChance (LINK).
The huge X factor, which to me is not an unknown at all, is how good Lin will be. He exploded in New York and the same will happen again playing WITHOUT Carmelo Anthony. Lin has all the makings of a true All-Star, not someone who will get in just on fan votes, as he inevitably will being Chinese in heritage and the Chinese faction of NBA All-Star voters being so heavily in his favor. Lin is the real deal, and he’ll continue to show it in Houston.
4) Dallas Mavericks
2011-12 Record: 36-30
2011-12 Playoff Series: 4-0 loss in First Round to Oklahoma City
2012-13 Projected Record: 38-44
Projected Starters: Darren Collison, O.J. Mayo, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki, Chris Kaman
Sixth man: Elton Brand
Beyond that, the Mavs are starting to rebuild. They now have a young backcourt, with former Pacer and Hornet Darren Collison starting at the point and USC product O.J. Mayo at shooting guard. The front court is old, Marion-Dirk-Kaman, but the trio is still very solid and will keep the Mavs in games.
It’s just that they’ll lose far too many of them. Their bench is OK, but unless Elton Brand and Vince Carter start partying like it’s 1999, the Mavs aren’t going to be much better than .500, and as you saw, I project worse. I think this is the year owner Mark Cuban decides to finally blow it up.
If the Mavericks are struggling by the trade deadline, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the entire team other than Dirk hit the trading block. As to what they would attempt to do in a rebuild is anyone’s guess.
5) New Orleans Hornets
2011-12 Record: 21-45
2011-12 Playoff Series: n/a
2012-13 Projected Record: 33-49
Projected Starters: Greivis Vasquez (or Austin Rivers), Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, Ryan Anderson, Anthony Davis
Sixth Man: Hakim Warrick
Adding Ryan Anderson for the low cost of Gustavo Ayon was brilliant. The Hornets had to give Anderson a $10 million per year contract, but Anderson is arguably the best volume three point shooter in the league, and led the league in both threes made and threes attempted last season, while winning the NBA’s Most Improved Player award. Anderson should be a staple for the future.
It will be interesting to see if Monty Williams decides to start Vasquez or develop Rivers from day one as the starter. It would be a pretty big slap in the face to Vasquez to have a rookie start at point in front of him, but everyone knows Rivers is the long-term answer. So, maybe it has to be done.
Davis is the odds-on favorite for the NBA Rookie of the Year award, and the number one pick of the 2012 NBA Draft has the potential to be a franchise cornerstone. He has a lot to learn, as all young big men do, but his promise is every bit as high as Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum’s, so the Hornets have the makings of something special, most especially if Eric Gordon can stay healthy and have a long and productive career. Gordon has the makings of a perennial All-Star; again, if he stays on the court.
All things said, the Hornets had a lot of promise, and some are predicting them to shock and astound, to make the 8th seed of the playoffs. Don’t bank on that, but by the end of next season, they may be playing spoiler to a high ranked team in the playoffs, because the pieces are in place.
This division is the Spurs’ to lose. Yes, Memphis could surprise, as they do have a lot of talent, and Dallas was just recently an NBA Champion team, but the Spurs are the only team in this division with title hopes.
Houston and New Orleans are both rebuilding. Houston will likely surprise quite a few people, and New Orleans will be good in time, but the era of impact is still afar for both these teams.
The face of this division is slowly changing, and in the next few years, it may be close to a reverse order of finish…