Oct 29 2012 3:05AM

NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

SAN ANTONIO SPURS


D. Clarke Evans/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: Yes, the Thunder beat them in the playoffs and, yes, the Lakers added two All-Stars, but do you honestly believe anyone in the West is going to win more regular-season games than San Antonio, who has jogged to 75-percent winning seasons the past two years while playing its starters limited minutes? Of course not, especially when San Antonio returns 13 Spurs from last year’s second-consecutive best-record team. And especially when the too-young crew of 21-year-old Kawhi Leonard, 25-year-old Danny Green and 27-year-old Tiago Splitter now have another year of experience playing alongside veteran winners Tim Duncan, 36, Manu Ginobili, 35, and Tony Parker, 30. Also be mindful of the fact that Ginobili played in only 34 regular-season contests last season. Remember how San Antonio rolled off 20 straight victories by a 15-point average margin when Ginobili returned with new additions Boris Diaw and Stephen Jackson in the lineup? Yeah, that's right. Just pencil these guys in for 58-to-62 wins, with the league’s best coach Gregg Popovich playing 11-deep lineups like nobody has done in NBA history. I am really surprised more teams haven’t followed Pop’s blueprint to regular-season success. This newfound everybody-plays chemistry has allowed the Spurs to become the NBA’s No. 1 offensive team. And if Duncan, who posts the best defensive Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus scores, can teach the young guys to play old-school Spurs D, San Antonio will have enough to defeat OKC and L.A. in the playoffs. Last year, the Spurs ranked 11th in defensive efficiency.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 58-24

SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 1st

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS … Victory Value projection

C Tim Duncan9.24
SG Manu Ginobili8.73
PG Tony Parker8.62
SF Kawhi Leonard6.42
PF Matt Bonner6.24
C Tiago Splitter4.38
SG Danny Green4.28
PF Boris Diaw3.59
SF Stephen Jackson2.80
PG Gary Neal2.74
PG Patty Mills0.88
PF DeJuan Blair0.85
SG Nando De Colo*0.70
PG Cory Joseph0.22

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES


Joe Murphy/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: Memphis is one player away from becoming a great NBA team. We already know the scrappy Grizzlies have a Fab 5 in Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay, Tony Allen and Mike Conley. That quintet could go down in 2012-13 as the best unit there is. So if one or more players off the bench can produce, the Grizz can step up with the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers as a true championship contender. Is that player 24-year-old Jerryd Bayless, who posted an impressive 17.80 Player Efficiency Rating in limited minutes in Toronto? Is it fellow 24-year-old Darrell Arthur, coming off a torn Achilles last season and broken leg two months ago? As of now, Memphis does not look like it has the depth that can compete with the West best. But it’s only November. If Bayless and Arthur can provide the offensive spark as the season moves along, the Grizzlies may become more than a 50-win team. The five starters, Arthur and Haddadi remember that feeling all too well when those seven men helped take out the No. 1-seeded Spurs in the 2011 NBA Playoffs. That crew was led by stellar play from Arthur, O.J. Mayo and Greivis Vasquez off the bench, which ultimately led to Memphis' great upset. A similar contribution from these subs is what's needed for Memphis to go far. I know the Grizzllies will be a Top 10 defensive and rebounding team in 2012-13. That’s what Grizzlies do. Team efficiency from everyone on offense—that’s the key.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 51-31

SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 2nd

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS … Victory Value projection

PG Mike Conley11.50
C Marc Gasol10.99
PF Zach Randolph9.12
SG Tony Allen6.21
SF Rudy Gay5.23
PF Darrell Arthur2.72
SG Quincy Pondexter2.28
PG Jerryd Bayless*1.56
SG Wayne Ellington*1.43
C Hamed Haddadi0.96
PG Josh Selby0.26
PG Tony Wroten Jr.*0.20
PF Marreese Speights0.12

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

DALLAS MAVERICKS


Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: I love Mark Cuban. I love Dirk Nowitzki. I love what Cuban is building with his latest Dirk-led Dallas squad, managing fiscal constraints so that when the 2013-14 penalty-heavy luxury taxes are imposed, Dallas will be in position to become a free-agent player once again. That said, the 2012-13 Mavericks are nowhere near being a championship contender this season … and that’s not a bad thing. It would have been bad—I believe—to lock up All-Star Deron Williams to a max contract, preventing Dallas from landing better bargains in the future. It was not a mistake to go discount shopping this past summer at the Dollar Store and come away with Elton Brand for $2 million, O.J. Mayo for $4 million and Chris Kaman for $8 million. That’s $14 million much better spent on winning players than buying one Deron Williams for $18 million this year and giving him annual raises the next five years that eventually reach $22 million. Brand, Kaman and Mayo could be off the books next year, while still leading Dallas to a playoff spot this year. Yes, the Mavs are a .500 team now, and yes, they won an NBA championship only two seasons ago. But owner Cuban and GM Donn Nelson’s approach to cap management should be a lesson to one and all that you set your team up with good salaries first before you make the big free-agent splash later. Look for Dallas to re-join the elite by Summer 2013.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 40-42

SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 3rd

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS … Victory Value projection

PF Dirk Nowitzki11.94
SG Vince Carter7.92
PF Elton Brand*7.51
SG O.J. Mayo*3.64
C Chris Kaman*3.42
PG Darren Collison*2.29
SF Shawn Marion1.53
PF Brandan Wright1.51
PG Rodrigue Beaubois1.15
PG Delonte West0.31
SG Dahntay Jones*0.30
SG Jared Cunningham*0.20
SG Dominique Jones0.06

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: I have covered the NBA for 21 years now and there are only four rookies who I have called future Hall-of-Famers before their pro careers actually began: Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, LeBron James … and Anthony Davis. The 19-year-old power forward-center is a 21st Century hybrid of Duncan and Kevin Garnett. He will change the game defensively, protecting the paint like a Tyrannosaurus while also terrorizing three-point shooters like no other with his Pterodactyl-like wingspan. Offensively, Davis does not have Duncan's post-up game, but he does have amazing athleticism and a surprising outside shooting touch that will also have impact in this league. The addition of Davis, stretch power forward Ryan Anderson and oft-injured Eric Gordon, who has only played six games as a Hornet, should make the .318 Hornets a near .500 team and a legit playoff contender. Yes, they have questions. Can Greivis Vasquez hold down the point guard position and play heavy minutes? I believe so. Can Al-Farouq Aminu continue to elevate his game and become a good starting small forward? I think the 22 year old has already shown he's more than capable in the limited time he has received so far. Robin Lopez gives them some size off the bench. Austin Rivers gives them some guard help down the road when he develops. This Hornets team is definitely on the rise. Defensively, they should be a Top 10 team because of Davis, not to mention Coach Monty Williams demands dominant D from all of his players. Last season, with a weak roster, New Orleans managed to rank 16th in defensive efficiency. Just think how good they can become on D now with Mr. Davis patrolling that side of the court. It's going to be a fun year in New Orleans. And if my 2020 foresight has anything to say about it, expect this team to grow really strong together over the rest of this decade.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 40-42

SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 4th

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS … Victory Value projection

C Anthony Davis*10.17
PF Ryan Anderson*8.62
SG Eric Gordon5.47
SF Al-Farouq Aminu4.23
PG Greivis Vasquez3.94
PF Jason Smith2.71
SG Roger Mason Jr.*2.22
C Robin Lopez*1.62
SG Xavier Henry1.19
PG Austin Rivers*0.80
SF Hakim Warrick*0.06

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)

HOUSTON ROCKETS


Bill Baptist/NBAE/Getty Images

2012-13 ANALYSIS: It's not rocket science, but I still do not know what Houston's big rebuilding plan is. In the previous two seasons, the big-money contracts of former All-Stars Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady ran out, enabling Houston to begin again. Genius GM Daryl Morey originally planned to build his Rockets around postmen Pau Gasol and Nene, but when the famous Chris Paul-to-the-Lakers trade fell through, the Rockets lost out on both players. In the months to come, Houston unloaded most of its starters for trade assets in hopes of landing either Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum in multi-player deals, albeit without giving up the farm to do so. Well, those proposed deals didn't work either. So Morey now has a roster full of potential, future talent and many first-round picks--enough ammo to pull off a blockbuster trade this season. Will they do it? Who knows? As for now, bargain big-money free agents Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik are the new offensive and defensive faces of the franchise, respectively. They most likely will be complemented by veteran shooter Kevin Martin and ultimate teammate Chandler Parsons in the lineup. Outside of that, you are going to see a team-wide battle for minutes, because this is one of the rare teams where the 12th man may be better than the 6th man in the rotation. Lineups are most definitely fluid in Houston. Because of that, it is going to be tough for the Rockets to establish much chemistry on this squad until some abundance is shipped out. The Rockets do not have a playoff team today. But keep in mind, they are one blockbuster move away from relevance again.

UPDATE: Well, now we know what Morey's plan was. The big October 27 trade that sent James Harden, Daequan Cook, Cole Aldrich and Lazar Hayward to Houston let us know the Rockets' rebuilding process has accelerated. A Jeremy Lin/James Harden pairing has to be the best backcourt in the NBA, outside of L.A., San Antonio and possibly Brooklyn. If Harden and Lin can teach these young power forwards how to pick-and-roll, Houston may win a few more games than the 30 projected here.

2012-13 PROJECTED RECORD: 26-56 … [UPDATED PROJECTION: 30-52]

SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTION: 5th

2012-13 TOP CONTRIBUTORS … Victory Value projection

SF James Harden*UPDATE: 8.41
PG Jeremy Lin*6.23 … UPDATE: 5.54
C Omer Asik*4.96 … UPDATE: 4.73
SF Chandler Parsons4.79 … UPDATE: 4.57
PF Terrence Jones*1.91
PG Shaun Livingston*1.34 … UPDATE: 1.24
PF Patrick Patterson1.29 … UPDATE: 1.09
SF Daequan Cook1.01
SF Gary Forbes*0.88
SG Toney Douglas*0.79 … UPDATE: 0.71
PF Donatas Motiejunas*0.60 … UPDATE: 0.32
SG Carlos Delfino*0.42 … UPDATE: 0.25
PF Marcus Morris0.26
PF Cole Aldrich*UPDATE: 0.26
PF Royce White*0.12

* denotes new acquisition

(Note: Victory Value projection is a wins-contributed metric based on plus-minus and playing-time projections)