Friday, October 24, 2008

The Big NBA Season Preview, Round I, Part VI - Southwest Division

We finish these division by division previews with what should be, once again, the most competitive division in the league (last year, there were more 50 win teams in the Southwest Division than in the entire Eastern Conference).

WEST

Southwest Division

New Orleans Hornets
It's easy to look at this team's record from last year, and their starting lineup, and immediately conclude that they are a favorite to win the championship. But look a little bit farther -- notice that Chris Paul and David West played in more games than they ever have in their careers, and that a 30 year old Peja Stojakovic played more minutes than he has in all but two years of his career. And then, take a look at the bench. Posey looks like a nice addition, but otherwise you're looking at names such as Rasaul Butler, Melvin Ely, and Hilton Armstrong.

Now, a big part of not getting injured is luck, and the Hornets very well might get lucky and have everyone stay pretty healthy all year again. But if they don't? The dropoff for them when they go to the bench is quite a bit greater than it is for any of the other contenders.

Outlook: All of that said, this team plays solid defense, even when the scrubs are in there. That should keep them in things if and when any of the starters go down. So, while they might not capture one of the top two seeds that everyone seems to expect them to, they could win around 52 games and hopefully be healthy for the playoffs, where the lack of depth won't hurt them.

Players to keep tabs on: Julian Wright could make everything I just wrote about depth moot, by becoming the star of the second unit. He had a decent rookie year and looked spectacular at times in the playoffs. Here's hoping he can build on that.

Reasons to watch: Chris Paul and Tyson Chandler have perfected the art of the alley-oop, and it is lovely to see. Also, Julian Wright can do some things.

San Antonio Spurs
They're not too old, they're not dead yet. The finals will be in an odd-numbered year, so it's hard to bet against them. Plus, they finally added some youth to that bench with Roger Mason Jr. and Salim Stoudamire, two excellent spot-up shooters who might hopefully be able to replace some of the skills that have deteriorated in the form of Robert Horry and Michael Finley. Mostly, though, just don't take for granted how good a team built around Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, and Tony Parker, all still right around their primes, can be.

Outlook: Everyone will ignore them through 3/4 of the season while they go on sneaky little 5 or 6 game win streaks, and then we'll all scratch our head at the end of the season when they've won 55+ games and are at the top of the Southwest Division.

Players to keep tabs on: You know most of these dudes. But Ime Udoka and Ian Mahinmi are the players who will probably need to step up this year. Bruce Bowen isn't what he used to be, and the hope here is that Ime Udoka can pick up where Bowen's been leaving off as a perimeter defender. On the plus side, Udoka's added size gives him the ability to pick up bigger players like Joe Johnson, Carmelo Anthony, or Dirk Nowitzki who would have given Bowen problems. Mahinmi, meanwhile, comes up from the D-League and might be the next great nameless banger to play alongside Tim Duncan (Oberto, Nesterovic, Mohammed, and so on and so forth).

Reasons to watch: Manu Ginobili Euro-Step. Manu Ginobili step-back jumper. And so on, and so forth. He has a unique style.

Houston Rockets
I discussed this team in detail in response to the Artest trade. One thing to take away is in terms of team-building, this is the anti-Hornets in many ways. The Hornets have a team that, when healthy, has well-defined roles and players who are perfect for those roles. They then hope for health, so that the whole house of cards doesn't collapse. The Rockets, meanwhile, seem to plan for injuries more than any other team, with a roster stacked with seemingly redundant parts who can fill in for one another without much dropoff. And for good reason: the team is built around two players (Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming) who are expected to miss around 20 games per season. So, the team is deep in the frontcourt, and with Battier able to play minutes at the two they have depth at the swing position. Note again that not only do they sport redundancy, but also versatility -- most of the players on the team can play two or three positions, and the Artest acquisition fits right into that model. The one question mark, as it was last year, is point guard, where there is quite a dropoff behind Rafer Alston, who himself won't be confused for an all-star anytime. As long as the team is healthy by playoff-time, they'll be fine, but watch to see if anyone can take over as the backup point, or if the Rockets are forced to make a midseason trade to shore up that position.

Outlook: 55-60 wins.

Players to keep tabs on: The rotation at the 4-spot. With Carl Landry, Luis Scola, and Chuck Hayes, the team was already stocked with similar style power forwards. Now they've added Joey Dorsey to the mix, not to mention the fact that Ron Artest will surely spend some time at the 4. There's no real center on the roster behind Yao, so expect to see Scola/Landry/Dorsey (maybe also Hayes?) to spend some time at the 5, but that's still a lot of redundancy. Even if Yao is out with injury, they'll have 3-4 players who can contribute at center and 5 at power forward.

Reasons to watch: "I love it when a plan comes together."

Dallas Mavericks
The recent kind of odd decisions (trading for Jason Kidd, firing Avery Johnson) have covered up the fact that this is still a very good team. Rick Carlisle's been making noise about having a motion-offense with more ball- and player-movement, which would be a clear change for a team that has been isolation heavy for several years now and a roster full of players who are great at creating for themselves. In theory, this sounds like a good idea -- a more fluid offense and easier shots for everyone. I'm not so certain, though. First off, Carlisle's never had an offense that relied on a lot of passing and off-ball movement, so it's hard to believe without evidence that he'll be suddenly changing his preferred style. Also, there's a little bit of concern for me: even if they can change their offensive style, would they be better off for it?

Dallas is consistently one of the most efficient offenses in the league. Among other things, one of the reasons they're so efficient is their ability to avoid turnovers (5th in the league last year, 6th in '06-'07, 8th in '05-06 . . .). With a team full of efficient jumpshooters who (a) don't make regular forays to the hoop and (b) don't make many passes to set up their shots, there just haven't been a lot of opportunities for Dallas to turn the ball over. If they change this style, it might (maybe?) be less of a physical strain on players, but there's a chance they lose efficiency due to increased turnovers (which might be coming anyways, with Jason Kidd aboard. I guess we'll see).

Outlook: First round playoff exit. They're an excellent team still, but the rest of the West has improved too much, while the Mavs' lack of backcourt depth (check out the roster -- Jose Barea is the backup point right now) might be too much to overcome.

Players to keep tabs on: One of the underrated aspects of the Jason Kidd trade has been that it allowed Jason Terry to return full-time to the shooting guard position, where he is much more effective. At this point in his career, he's not going to have any sort of breakout year or anything, but watch for his three-point shooting percentage to bounce back into the 40's.

Brandon Bass had a surprisingly solid year last year with his ability to rebound and hit mid-range jumpers. He may see less time now that Diop is back, but if he gets some minutes look for him to continue to improve. He's playing for a contract this year, also.

Gerald Green is the type of player who seems like he should be way better than he is. He is an excellent shooter, and has more hops than anyone else in the league, leading to occasional gorgeous finishes. He's has the ability to be a very good rebounder, and he's improved in that area, and he has the athleticism to be an excellent defender. He can break his man down off the dribble and finish at the rim or pull up and use his strong jumpshot. Unfortunately, all of that hasn't added up to a decent player on the court yet. Off the ball, he sometimes seems to stop paying attention if he's not part of the play, and defensively he's been streaky. Because of his skills, he'll still be given a chance here, and he's saying all the right things, but I have no idea if he'll become the elite-level wing that he seems capable of being. Keep an eye on him, though, if he can get it together, he'll be a very exciting player. He is still only 22 years old, as young as a lot of rookies, so all hope isn't yet lost.

Reasons to watch: This will never happen in a game, but last year Gerald Green performed one of the greatest (and most under-appreciated, due to the presence of a big dude wearing a cape) dunks every seen in a dunk contest:




Memphis Grizzlies
Out of curiosity, is Marko Jaric over-compensating? See the list of recent girlfriends, including current squeeze Adriana Lima.

Anyways:

This team exists as a tribute to aesthetic absurdity. There is unproven but extremely promising talent all along the perimeter, and a series of slightly intriguing but low-ceiling question marks inside. Some of the most interesting lineup possibilities are of the 3-guard variety with Rudy Gay as the only forward. I guess this is the positive spin -- you could also look at it as a lot of talent at too few positions. Whatever. Let's start outside: Mike Conley appears to have the skills to be the point guard of the future for this team, and while Kyle Lowry doesn't project to be in the team's long-term plans, he can fill in effectively and is good at crashing towards the basket like a bowling ball. Meanwhile, O.J. Mayo and Javaris Crittenton are both super-talented combo-guard types who will probably spend time at both guard spots. Rudy Gay is a budding all-star at the 3. Then the questions really begin. Hakim Warrick is extremely athletic and fun to watch, but not exactly an established star at the power forward spot. He's joined in the frontcourt by the international trio of Marc Gasol, Darko Milicic, and Hamed Haddadi. Haddadi might be too raw to play much this year, but Gasol and Milicic should do a solid job of defense and rebounding in support of the perimeter scorers on the team.

If Conley can really control the offense and utilize the athleticism of this team, they might be incredibly fun to watch -- Warrick and Gay are fantastic finishers, while Mayo and Crittenton can provide some highlights as well. Given the lack of post scoring on the team, they should once again be one of the fastest paced teams in the league, and provide plenty of high-scoring games.

On an odd note, is this the bizarro Rockets? The Rockets have invested in low-risk redundant but productive (and low-usage) frontcourt players. The Grizzlies have invested in high-risk redundant (possibly productive, but we don't know yet) high-usage perimeter players.

Outlook: The most watchable 20-win team in recent memory.

Players to keep tabs on: Aside from Gay, none of these players has yet proved much of anything in the league. Big things are expected from many of them, and Conley and Crittenton have shown flashes already, but basically they're all unknowns at this point. It seems like the reasoning for the Grizzlies here is that one of these perimeter players will develop into the type of transcendent star that an organization can build around, both on the court and off the court in terms of marketing. It's unclear which (if any) of the players will develop into that, but it should be fun to watch. In a way it is similar to the Lakers acquiring Kwame Brown and Andrew Bynum in the same offseason a few years ago -- they were gambling that one of the two could blossom into a star, and if so it would justify both acquisitions. The Lakers ended up with far more than they could have hoped for when Bynum blossomed and Brown somehow got turned into Pau Gasol. Let's see if a similar scenario might ensue for the Crittenton/Mayo backcourt.

Reasons to watch: As I said above, this will be one of the most watchable 20-win teams in a long time. Conley can dribble circles around people and make great passes, Gay, Mayo, Warrick, and Crittenton can fly, and the possibility of seeing any combination of Milicic, Haddadi, Gasol, and Darrel Arthur on the floor at the same time is curious enough to tune in for by itself.

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