Oct 30 2013 4:01PM

Southwest Preview

DALLAS MAVERICKS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 41-41, 10th place in Western Conference
For the first time since 2001, the Mavericks did not qualify for the postseason. Outside of his rookie campaign, Dirk Nowitzki played in a career-low 47 games, thanks to a bum knee. Without him, the new pieces could never quite coagulate together. Though the "Beard" trend was a cool look (the Mavericks rallied to finish .500 and vowed not to shave until they did), last year's team will be remembered largely as a disappointment.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The 2012-13 the Mavericks looked good on paper, but didn't quite mesh their new pieces well with the existing system. Gone are one-year stopgaps Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, and OJ Mayo with…well, what seem like stopgaps in Monta Ellis, Jose Calderon and Samuel Dalembert. With Dirk entering the final stages of his career, it's unclear if the Mavs will make one more push or if they are just treading water until life post-Dirk arrives. They could challenge for one of the final playoff spots, but a contender they are not.

3 POINTS

Monta Ellis left Milwaukee in search of max contract money. If the chips fell the way the Mavericks had planned, their key free agent singing would've been about eight inches taller and 80 pounds heavier (instead, Dwight Howard became a division foe in Houston). In the end, the two parties settled for each other, shaping up a dynamic 1-2 scoring punch between Dirk and Ellis. But Ellis will need to step his game up in all areas if the Mavs are to return to the postseason. In an injury-plagued season last year, Nowitzki averaged a 13-year low 17.8 ppg. At 35, Herr Nowitzki only has a few seasons left in the tank and can no longer be counted upon for a full slate. Dallas will need to learn early on if Dirk can get enough rest to make a late season push, or his final years in Big D will show little in terms of gains. After striking out on Dwight Howard, the Mavericks settled for Dalembert to be their force in the paint. At this stage in his career, the days when fans expected Big Sam to make the jump to All-Star caliber center are likely over. All the Mavs can ask for is Dalembert to be a tough presence on defense and take some of the burden off Dirk in the paint.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Mark Cuban has to have a trick up his sleeve, right? The free-spending billionaire isn't one to stand pat, but the Mavericks have had more trouble than usual building a team in recent years. The new players don't exactly signal a change towards the future, so Dallas, we guess, thinks they are playing for the present. If they are to get back to the playoffs and pose any kind of threat to the Western Conference elite, first, and foremost, they need an aging Nowitzki to find the fountain of youth one more time. His career average of 22 ppg would be a nice place to start, but moreso, if he can ignite a fire under his fellow veterans and convince them that they have something to play for, the experience of this team could pose problems for more talented squads. There's no young forward hybrid currently on the roster whom Dirk can mentor, but the Mavs do have Jae Crowder, a scrappy slasher from Marquette, along with veterans Renaldo Balkman, and DeJuan Blair that can bring energy and toughness to the frontcourt and give their star a rest from a pounding in the paint. Another key will be the play of (and age) of Vince Carter and Shawn Marion. A decade ago, the thought of having VC and Matrix running the break would be a point guard's dream come true these days, both guys have adjusted their games to be solid, perimeter players. If their legs (literally) still have some kick, they could be amenable secondary scoring options. The Mavericks do have a few intriguing options at center, a position they've been looking to solidify since Tyson Chandler left for New York. The aforementioned Blair fell out of favor in San Antonio, trying to do what reserve Brandon Wright has done and resurrect his career in Dallas. If Dalembert can provide Chandler-like stats on defense to help Dallas in the halfcourt sets and youngin' Fab Melo can get some playing time, they may have a solid rotation of guys clogging the middle. We should learn a lot about these Mavericks by the execution of their coach, Rick Carlisle and owner, Mark Cuban. The former proved his mettle three years ago, guiding this team to an NBA title. A lot will be placed on his shoulders to make this team a winner and it will be up to him to push the right buttons with limited resources compared to years past. Of course, if things do go downhill in the D, does Cuban press the red button and blow it all up? On the other hand, we know he has the means and moxie to go all out if this team surprises and is farther up the standings than we believe come February. Don't be surprised if the Mavericks at the end of this season, look far different than they do now.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
After falling out of favor in Toronto, Calderon played the second half of 2013 in Detroit, where his shooting numbers went up dramatically--45.7 field-goal percent to 52.7 and 37.1 three-point percentage to 52.0. Now, Calderon heads to Texas to stabilize a Dallas backcourt that struggled last season. At 32, you likely know what you'll get from the crafty Spaniard, about 10 ppg and seven dimes a night. But he did put up some of his best numbers playing with Chris Bosh, so maybe having Dirk by his side will produce similar results. Backing him up will be Devin Harris, who was on the cusp of a breakout early in his career in Big D. If Harris falls back into a comfort zone playing with the Mavericks, he is a player who can produce on All-Star levels.

HOUSTON ROCKETS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 45-37, eighth place in Western Conference, lost to Oklahoma City in first round
Last year's Rockets were quite the enigma. James Harden emerged as a bonafide stud, while free agent signing Jeremy Lin couldn't recapture his Broadway magic. Meanwhile, guys like Chandler Parsons and Omer Asik overachieved and the Rockets scrapped their way to the playoffs, giving the Thunder a fight before succumbing in the first round. However, it became evident they were lacking a superstar to pair with Harden to be a truly dynamic force…

2013-14 OUTLOOK
…which leads us to the present. After a maligned stay in Hollywood, Dwight Howard arrives in H-town. This team has a great balance of power, scoring ability, youth and seasoned vets, key ingredients to land a seat at the table of champions. But Houston has seen this story before--it worked with Hakeem and Drexler, but did not live up to expectations with Yao and McGrady (and Francis). This is Dwight's team, with a cast ready to support him on the way to glory. In other words, the sky is the limit and Houston is ready for lift off.

3 POINTS

Outside of New York's freewheeling offense, Lin struggled at times last season trying to prove he could run the Rockets. Many of the Rockets have something to prove this year, perhaps none more than Lin. If he solidifies the point guard spot and regains his hot-handed shooting touch, it could be the difference in Houston being contenders or merely pretenders this season. Harden is perhaps the only sure thing in the Rockets lineup, something we couldn't have guessed before last year. The bearded wonder passed every test with flying colors last season, catapulting himself into the upper echelon of stars in the League. If there's any way he can take it up another notch, an MVP trophy could be in store for the 24-year-old. In the scripted world of professional wrestling, one of the famed "shoot" (or real life) speeches was when champion Shawn Michaels described how he had "lost his smile," and needed to find it again to get back on top. Howard, a big wrestling fan himself, looked as if a permanent frown was attached to his normally jovial mug last season. If Dwight finds his smile, that means the Rockets will be among the best in the West and maybe beyond.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Harden established himself as a franchise player last season and along comes a guy who for his entire career has relished the chance be the man. During the offseason, rumors surfaced that Howard didn't want to stay with the Lakers unless Kobe Bryant relinquished the spotlight (uhh, seriously Dwight?) Harden has said all the right things so far and had no problems playing third fiddle to Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant in OKC. But he worked like hell to prove the world wrong last season and may not want to give up as many shots"”especially in crunch time"”now that he's earned his spot. The emergence of Patrick Beverly, especially on the defensive side of the ball, pushes Lin at the 1 spot, as does the return of 2010 Most Improved Player, Aaron Brooks. This is still Lin's job (for now, despite Beverly starting the season as the starter) and Lin needs to step up and show he can run the show and facilitate touches for the vast amount of scoring options. If not, Beverly or Brooks will be given the shot and Houston's front office will rue the big money they spent on Lin. Now, the Rockets are also one of a few teams loaded with talent at several positions. The one weakness on paper as of now is an upgrade at power forward. Plus, contenders can always use a three-point marksman off the bench or defensive stopper come playoff time, and the Rockets have the pieces to swing a deal to complete the roster. The lineup in its current carnation is stacked, and the front office won't be afraid to upgrade. Perhaps the only person in all of Houston unhappy with the acquisition of Dwight Howard, Omer Asik remains on the roster primarily as a backup and could be the centerpiece of any big trade. The team could tinker with a revamped Twin Towers lineup at times and if there's one coach who knows big men, it would be Kevin McHale. If he still gets his touches and stays in Houston, the Rockets will dominate the paint. But trade discussions and distractions could become their downfall if they linger for too long"”just ask D-12. Speaking of Dwight, despite his love/hate relationship with the Lakers, Howard was recuperating from a major back surgery for much of 2012. Later in the year, he would suffer a torn labrum and an injured shoulder. Of course, perhaps his greatest injury was a bruised ego. Howard was repeatedly criticized for his toughness by press, fans and even teammates. The mental blocks should be gone this year, but recently Superman has shown to be susceptible to injuries. After watching their last franchise center succumb to injuries, the last thing the Rockets need is for Howard to be unhealthy.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Before last season, most fans would've thought Chandler Parsons was a cast member of a WB drama featuring beautiful people, not a second round sleeper who would be second on the team in points and rebounds. Was last year an aberration? The Rockets sure don't think so and they will now count on him to play a major role in their quest for a title. While much of the attention surrounded Howard and Harden, champions are built around three great players these days (see Boston, Miami). Lin could be that guy, but if Parsons continues his ascent, his effectiveness as a weapon on both ends of the floors could make Houston unstoppable.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 56-26, fifth in Western Conference, lost to San Antonio in Conference Finals
One of the most fun teams to watch last season, the Grizzlies' success was built on hard-nosed defense. Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol (Defensive Player of the Year) solidified their spot as one of the most formidable low-post duos in the game and Mike Conley established himself as a top point guard. The Grizz were one step away from their first trip to the Finals, but were derailed by the Spurs.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The Grizzlies kept the core of their roster in tact; their biggest change came on the bench, where head coach Lionel Hollins was replaced by Dave Joerger. This team has a bunch of players now at their prime in their careers, and despite the big moves by Houston and other teams, they are primed for another big playoff run. The Southwest may be among the deepest divisions in the League, but Memphis has the talent to come out on top. A return trip to the Western Conference Finals is not out of the question. In a way, they are the X-factor to the sexy picks like the Clippers and Rockets: a team that no one wants to face come playoff time.

3 POINTS

When the Grizzlies shipped Rudy Gay up north, the key component, aside from clearing some cap space, was the acquisition of the veteran leader Prince. In fact, Tayshaun had a bit of a renaissance last season playing once again for a contender, and showed the kind of grit and defense that made him such a key cog for those great Pistons teams. Trading away a star for a glue guy like Prince is not always the most fan-friendly of moves, but Tayshaun has quickly become a fan favorite at FedEx Forum. There is no better NBA than one that embraces Z-Bo as a star. Who would've thought five years ago, Randolph would be such a transcending player--in a good way--and recognized as such across the League. All-Star bids and awards are becoming the norm, but he wants a ring more than anything else. He's become the heart and soul of this tough-nosed team, and matured into one of the best stories in all of basketball. Remember that trade? You know, the one that had GMs and coaches around the League screaming highway robbery? Well, who would you rather have on your team now? Big Brother Pau or Little Giant Marc? Gasol's work ethic has maid him a top center in the League and the rock of Memphis's resurgence. Paired with Z-Bo, the Grizzlies perhaps have the best frontcourt in the game. He's now in the peak years of his career and has become an indispensible piece that Memphis fans wouldn't give up for nearly anything.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Normally, franchises don't change coaches after having their best season ever. Dave Joerger walks into a comfy situation--the roster is stacked with talent--but he may be the person with the most to prove. Fans (and players) will expect him not to tinker too much with a successful formula, but if he doesn't get his team to the Finals, people may soon begin questioning his hiring. Small changes will have to be done to get better, although if he disturbs the balance too much, it may affect team chemistry. Memphis's blueprint to success is built on defense, but they don't have many players--if any--who can take a game over offensively on a regular basis. Last year, when they traded Rudy Gay to the Raptors, they largely lost that ability. Z-Bo and Gasol can always be counted on for a good 20 points per game or so, but the Grizzlies lack that one guy that every other team in the division has who can just take over and be counted on night in and night out to give you an offensive punch when needed. There don't appear to be any such scorers in the making on the roster, so if the offense hits a snag during the season, would they consider trading one of their bigs for buckets? One of the reasons the Grizz could envision such a scenario is thanks to one of the more interesting, under the radar transactions last summer; the trade for Kosta Koufos. The former first round pick started to find his stride last season with Denver, averaging 8 ppg and nearly 7 rpg in just over 20 minutes a night. Koufos also began to assert himself more in the paint, becoming a tough play on the defensive end. He won't challenge Gasol or Randolph for a starting role, but Memphis will gladly take his contributions off the bench. If he continues to learn under both of their bigs, perhaps he could slip into a more prominent role further down the road, if by chance one of them is dangled in trade negotiations for a scorer. Continuing on the theme of offense, one wonders who gets the ball in crunch time for Memphis. Randolph has the beastly offensive game and midrange touch, but what about when you need a trey in the waning seconds? They signed Mike Miller in the offseason, but if Mike Conley can continue to develop his outside shot, one would think Memphis would be more confident with the ball in his hands at the end of the game, where he can hit the open 3-pointer or even create to find another guy on the wing. Conley's outside shooting is one of the few areas of his game that could use improvement. The young Buckeye known for being a staunch defender and facilitator has gotten better each season and has vastly improved on offense. It would be nice to see him cut down on the turnovers (his career assist-to-turnover ratio is 3:1), but the Grizzlies no longer have to look for a franchise point guard. He may not get the numbers the other guys do, but there are few players better fit for their team schemes than Conley is at running Memphis. If Conley is somehow able to take it up one more notch, he would enter the conversation of elite point guards and could be that extra spark Memphis needs to surpass last season. At this point, we know the goods we're getting from Zach and Marc and company. Conley is the young bright star who could take his game even further.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
If Allen was walking down a street, you'd be hard pressed to find 9 out of 10 people who knew who he was. But ask any other team in the League about Allen and they would tell you 30 out of 30 franchises would love to have him on their roster. A premier defender--he's made back-to-back All-Defensive First Teams-- Allen can also drop a few buckets and has become essential to the Grizzlies success. The team didn't make any splashy acquisitions this summer, but their smartest move was re-upping--The Grindfather--to a multi-year deal. This team may look very different in a year or so, but their heart will always be defense. Allen is the pulse on D and his presence is as much of a barometer as the play of Memphis's more well-known stars.

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 27-55, 14th in Western Conference
We only got a sample of the new look Hornets in 2012, as the team's best young players were beset by injuries. This team finished at 27-55 and struggled to find consistent scoring and despite the surprising emergence of Greivis Vasquez, could not put together many winning streaks. By mid-December, they had gone through separate seven and 11-game losing streaks and the playoffs were only a pipe dream.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
With a new nickname, logo and colors, the Pelicans are ready to fly in New Orleans. This team may be one of the real sleepers in the League--in terms of entertainment value. Not one player will enter the year over 29, so they have a lot of youngsters hungry to get into the rotation. If they stay healthy, a core of Eric Gordon, Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans could be fun to watch and be the building blocks for bigger things to come. Size may be a problem, but if this team chooses to play uptempo, they could provide fits for many in the west.

3 POINTS

Fifteen years from now, we may look back at the 2009 Draft as one of the best of the aughts. The prized jewel of the crop was initially Evans, the 2010 Rookie of the Year. However, after never hitting that second gear in Sacramento, Evans was unceremoniously shipped off to New Orleans. Now, with a fresh start, we will see if Tyreke can live up to that potential. Last year in Philadelphia, Holiday was selected for his first All-Star team. His reward? Being sent off to the Bayou in a draft day swap for Nerlens Noel. With a chip on his shoulder, Holiday can be the spark that finally gets this dormant New Orleans franchise back on the upswing. After leaving Los Angeles, it took Gordon a while to embrace his new home in Nawlins. Since then, fans have also been cautious to embrace their budding superstar, who has been oft-injured. If he can stay healthy, Gordon is an offensive beast, something Pelicans fans would like to see for a full 82 games this season.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
Damian Lillard ran away with ROY honors last season, but Anthony Davis had a heckuva rookie campaign as well. He missed 18 games due to injury, but he showed the talent to be a franchise center. This year, with some added bulk on his bones, the Pelicans need Davis to be the shored up force who can defend outside on the perimeter as well as down on the block. The eight boards and nearly two blocks per game are nice stats, but in the west, going up against many multi-faceted bigs, the kid needs to learn how to use that wingspan to get in the face of shooters as well. Now, New Orleans didn't exactly provide Davis a lot of frontcourt help in the offseason, as they enter 2013-14 with Jason Smith and Greg Steimsma as two of the top options to spell him. Ryan Anderson is definitely better known for his scoring than his rebounding or defense, so a lot will be asked from Davis in all aspects of defense. Of course, when you're the former No. 1 overall pick, you need to embrace those heightened expectations. Don't be fooled by the 27 wins last season and 25th ranked offense--this team can get buckets. Leading the way will be Gordon, a silky smooth two-guard that has all the skills to be an All-Star. He's yet to play a full NBA season though and only has 51 games under his belt in two seasons with New Orleans. Keeping Gordon on the floor will be a key; per 36 minutes, he averages about 20 points and can throw in four dimes to boot. If Gordon does miss some time, the Pelicans do have some solid backup options. Evans can play numerous positions, but he's yet to show improvement from his stellar rookie campaign. In fact, his stats show he's regressed in ppg, rpg, and apg every season since his rookie year. Also at shooting guard, the Pelicans have Austin Rivers, a dynamic talent that can create his own shot on go off for 25, but has yet to show the consistent ability to do so as a pro. Perhaps the logjam in the backcourt will create some healthy competition and motivate these two to turn it up a notch. Though pundits may be down on them now, Evans and Rivers have the ability to turn the Pelicans into an offensive dynamo. Lastly, the Pelicans players, coaches, staff--anyone associated with the team, needs to come in with a fresh state of mind. Rarely do franchises get a new start in the League. And this isn't an expansion team. This squad has talent. They must do their best, both on and off the court, to win over fans and prove they belong in the city. By the time All-Star rolls into the Big Easy in February, locals should be wearing Pelicans colors loud and proud, repping their team like pro basketball should be down south.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
The swaggeriffic Rivers quickly got a dose of reality upon entering the League last season, often falling out of the rotation. Hopefully, a season of learning and an offseason of workouts--and maybe some scholarly advice from Pops (Clippers coach Doc Rivers) will have Rivers ready to bust out in his second season. Completing the Puzzle Flying Under the Radar Austin Rivers The swaggeriffic Rivers quickly got a dose of reality upon entering the League last season, often falling out of the rotation. Hopefully, a season of learning and an offseason of workouts (and maybe some scholarly advice from his pops) will have Rivers ready to bust out in his second season. There are early glimmers of hope--in the preseason, playing primarily as the backup point guard, Rivers had games leading the team in assists while still being able to drop 20-plus on opponents. The talent is there, now it's time for the maturity and knowledge to come along as well. He appears to be content in his role as New Orleans' sixth man, but could soon find himself in a Manu Ginobili/Jamal Crawford/J.R. Smith role, playing big minutes at the end of games. A productive season from Rivers can help these young Pelicans grow up much more quickly than most expect.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS

WHERE THEY LEFT OFF
2012-13 record: 58-24, second in Western Conference, lost to Miami in Finals
Forgive the Spurs if they happened to hire a spy to keep tabs on Ray Allen all summer long. One mistake San Antonio will never make again is leaving Ray uncovered by more than three guys, even if that means he's walking to grab a Big Gulp at 7-Eleven. Game 6 was in San Antonio's grasp, title number five for Tim Duncan and the long-awaited ring for Tracy McGrady, who was too afraid to even look up during the waning seconds. But there was Ray. Sweet, smooth, silky-shot Ray. If T-Mac knew better, he might've hopped off the bench to tackle him personally. But the rest was history, one the Spurs would like to, but will never forget.

2013-14 OUTLOOK
The pillars are still there, but time is ticking on how longer they can hold up the Spurs empire. If you think Pop, Timmy, Manu and Tony aren't hungry for redemption, you'd be dead wrong. The will is there, but are the bodies? This is still a playoff team and like always, a good bet to challenge for the conference title. But with OKC healthy and young teams like the Rockets, Clippers and Warriors on the rise, has the window closed for good in San Antonio?

3 POINTS

What is there left to say about Duncan? No, seriously. At 37, having missed 13 games during the season, he still scored the most points and grabbed the most rebounds in any season since 2010, was named an All-Star and All-NBA First Team. Maybe he really is a robot. There were times last season when it looked as if the Monstars had landed back on earth and taken over Ginobili's body, sucking his otherworldly basketball skill dry from his body. Routine passes became turnovers and sometimes he laid more bricks than a freemason. At 35, for the first time really in his whole career, the Spurs don't know what they can expect from a player that can make or break a title run. The man who coach Gregg Popovich anointed"the future face of the franchise" is primed to take that next step, possibly to All-Star levels. Kawhi Leonard is in that crucial third-year of his career, and a breakout year could make the Spurs feel a lot more comfortable heading into the years A.D. (After Duncan). With quick speed, lockdown defense and a developing offensive game, this could be the year Kawhi becomes the name synonymous with San Antonio basketball.

COMPLETING THE PUZZLE
At a combined age of 72 years old, San Antonio cornerstones Duncan and Ginobili are likely singing their swan songs. Parker, who will be 32 by the playoffs, showed no signs of slowing down last season, but spent all summer balling in Europe for France, so his durability may also be in question this year. These guys made it to the Finals last year, when a lot of pundits thought they were past their prime, but doing it two years in a row is a lot to ask. Of course, general manager R.C. Buford is too smart to let the cupboards go bare. The roster is stocked of young internationals ready for their time, led by Tiago Splitter (Brazil), who posted more than 10 points and six rebounds last season in just over 24 minutes per game. Hoping for the same kind of breakout are Australians Aron Baynes and Patty Mills, and Nando De Colo (France). If these foreigners breakout like their predecessors, GMs league-wide will be scrambling to confiscate Buford's passport. The original foreign import star, Manu Ginobili, showed the most regression of the Spurs' "Big Three" last season"”so what does his role become if Leonard supplants him in the rotation? While a rested Manu may allow him to save his legs come playoff time, he is a player that has always thrived when going full throttle. A reduced role for Manu could bring negatives and positives for the Spurs, and it's also unknown how Leonard would thrive or slump in a more permanent prominent role. Up until now, we've been speaking as if it's a given that the Spurs make the playoffs. Even with their age, it's hard to see them missing the playoffs for the first time in the Duncan era. But in a seven-game series, can they handle the Clippers or Thunder? They have the experience, but do they have the legs? If CP3, Blake and company are clicking on all cylinders, it's hard to imagine them falling in the West. On the other side, if Russell comes back healthy, the Thunder could easily make a return trip to the Finals. The traditional rivals of the Lakers and Mavericks are on the downswing, and this could be the year the old fellas have to defend their ground against the new kids on the block. Lastly, there is always the possibility Duncan's back falls apart, Parker's knees blow up and last of Ginobili the Great expired two years ago. If everything finally breaks against San Antonio and the writing is on the wall come February, what do they do then? Do they dare consider dealing Duncan to a team in the East looking for that final piece? Do they go full Boston mode after the season and leave the keys to Kawhi and company? It's hard to envision Duncan, Parker and Ginobili (and maybe Pop) not riding off into the sunset together, but in the breakneck pace of the NBA, anything is possible.

FLYING UNDER THE RADAR
Apparently, Green is a huge fan of snakes, the pet most humans instinctively try to avoid on a regular basis. By the improvements Green showed last season, players around the League may soon fear going up against the fourth-year swingman out of North Carolina as much as his slithery friends. Green averaged career-highs in numerous categories last season and provides a much-needed injection of youth to the aging Spurs. Throughout his career, he's proven to be a guy who can get better with experience. At North Carolina, Green didn't live up to the hype at first, but by his senior year, became an essential cog on a national championship winner. He started off slow in Cleveland, too, and he put in his time in the D-League. Patience has paid off once again in the pros and Green is on the cusp of becoming a major player on a championship-caliber team.