By Fran Blinebury, NBA.com
Posted Nov 30 2011 10:26AM - Updated Dec 2 2011 9:43AM
After all those years and all those attempts at climbing the mountain, it only makes sense that the Dallas Mavericks should have to wait a bit longer than normal to defend their first NBA championship in franchise history. But with a Christmas Day unwrapping of the banner and the presentation of those long-sought rings, what could make for a better celebration?
How about doing it again?
As the Southwest Division gears up for another growling, snarling fight, Dirk Nowitzki and the Mavs' breakthrough in winning it all last season has to make them top dogs at the opening tip. That is, assuming that Jason Kidd will be able to coax his 38-year-old body into going the distance through a compacted, grueling schedule and that club owner Mark Cuban finds the money to keep key free agents Tyson Chandler and Caron Butler in the mix.
The San Antonio Spurs' grip on elite status may be slipping, and three-games-in-three-nights will be especially tough on the aging Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili. The New Orleans Hornets will play with one eye on the basketball and the other on Chris Paul's impending free agency. The Memphis Grizzlies, assuming Marc Gasol stays in the middle, will make a case that they are finally here to stay as a playoff factor. The Houston Rockets will welcome Kevin McHale to a star-less roster that desperately needs direction and leadership.
2010-11 record: 57-25
Finish: Second in Southwest Division
Playoffs: Won NBA Championship. Defeated Portland in Western Conference first round (4-2), defeated L.A. Lakers in Western Conference semifinals (4-0), defeated Oklahoma City in Western Conference finals (4-1), defeated Miami in NBA Finals (4-2)
Strengths: The Mavs are surging with balance and confidence after winning the first championship in franchise history. Nowitzki shows no signs of slowing down and even 38-year-old Kidd looks like he can keep on going in a harmonious locker room and on a roster that has many contributors and virtually no holes. The swagger that comes from winning it all will only make the Mavs tougher.
Challenges: The old adage is that it's even harder to stay at the top than to get there in the first place. Now the Mavs will have to deal with having the target on their backs. Their first post-lockout priorities will be to get free agents Chandler, J.J. Barea and Butler re-signed so that Chandler can continue to protect the basket and rebound and that a healthy Butler returns from a knee injury to his dependable scoring ways. Barea was a key cog in Dallas' playoff run and would only help the repeat cause. The next will be to keep them as hungry and driven when they get new deals. Eventually age will catch up to the veteran Kidd, so a youngster behind him -- Rodrigue Beaubois -- must continue to bloom.
Outlook: On one hand, an extended lockout would have enabled the Mavs to reign as champions longer. But this is a team that practically can't wait to get back onto the court to run and shoot and strut while wearing their crowns. Being the defending champions should finally allow Dallas to play without the burden of prior unfulfillment and it would not be a surprise to see the Mavs back in The Finals next June.
This could make a difference: After years of searching for the man who could anchor the middle of their lineup and allow the likes of Nowitzki and Jason Terry to do their thing, the Mavs must go to any lengths and meet any price under the new labor rules to keep Chandler guarding the paint. If Chandler leaves, they go back to being the old, soft Mavs without a backbone.
2010-11 record: 61-21
Finish: First in Southwest Division
Playoffs: Lost to Memphis in Western Conference first round (4-2)
Strengths: Institutional knowledge is the term that coach Gregg Popovich likes to use. The Spurs have it in spades. The core of Duncan, Ginobili and Tony Parker has won more games than any other NBA team over the past decade and knows what it takes to play at a high level. Meanwhile Pop will keep the focus on the details, especially at the defensive end. The Big Three is aging, but still effective when healthy.
Challenges: After two seasons, it's pretty clear the Richard Jefferson experiment is a flop, but they're stuck owing him $31 million for three more seasons. It's a huge hole that has to be filled and that's where rookie Kawhi Leonard could be needed to contribute immediately. They'll also need more at both ends from Tiago Splitter in his second season.
Outlook: More than four years removed from their last championship (2007), the veteran Spurs (Duncan, 35; Ginobili, 34; Parker, 29) looked worn down and worn out in the stunning upset playoff loss to the Grizzlies. The Big Three still have the ability and punch to get the Spurs into the upper half of the playoff bracket, but they can no longer be expected to do it all every night. Unless the supporting cast can carry more of the weight, the elite contending days are over and the curtain falls on an era of greatness in San Antonio.
This could make a difference: Popovich often said no player he's coached ever made the improvement of George Hill in his first two NBA seasons. Yet the Spurs traded Hill to Indiana on draft night for the rights to Leonard. Yes, they were that desperate. At No. 15, Leonard is the highest draft pick since Duncan in 1997 and it might not be overstating the case too much to say the direction of the season is in his hands. If he can hit the corner jumper, rebound, defend and somehow force his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation, the Spurs could challenge the Mavs, Lakers and Thunder in the West again.
2010-11 record: 46-36
Finish: Third in Southwest division
Playoffs: Lost to L.A. Lakers in Western Conference first round (4-2)
Strengths: Paul is still the eye of the hurricane around which everything turns and now he's healthy again and returned to top form. The key is to keep him happy next summer when he can become a free agent. The team had a hugely successful offseason, setting a record for season ticket sales and sponsorships, which could solidify the franchise in New Orleans and convince CP3 to stay.
Challenges: Getting the long-term commitment from Paul is job No. 1. But before that happens the Hornets will have to figure out what to do with free agent forward David West, who tore up his knee late last season and also opted out of his contract. If West moves on, the Hornets will need more than Carl Landry -- who is also a free agent -- at power forward. They are also still lacking in depth, especially at the wing positions.
Outlook: In first year as a coach, Monty Williams got the Hornets buying into his philosophy at the defensive end and the result was giving up nine fewer points a game. That style will keep them in more games and allow Paul to work his magic late. The Hornets have enough to battle their way into a low playoff berth, but not enough punch to advance out of the first round.
This could make a difference: If West doesn't commit to New Orleans and re-sign with the team, it could have a domino effect on the decision Paul will face next summer. He'll have to listen to all of the speculation on free agency from opening night and if there are too many early struggles with a thin roster, he could have one eye on the door and a season could go down the drain.
2010-11 record: 46-36
Finish: Fourth in Southwest division
Playoffs: Defeated San Antonio in Western Conference first round (4-2), lost to Oklahoma City in Western Conference semifinals (4-3)
Strengths: A decade in the making since relocating to Memphis, the Grizzlies have finally carved out an identity as a grit-and-grind bunch that can hang with -- and beat -- the big boys. Their upset of the Spurs -- No. 8 seed over No. 1 seed -- was one of the biggest in history. Zach Randolph and Gasol are two tough hombres up front, Mike Conley is steadily growing into a solid point guard and coach Lionel Hollins has the snarl and the drive to keep them wanting more.
Challenges: The top priority has to be getting free agent Gasol re-signed so that he and Randolph can continue bludgeoning opponents up front with their bruising style. The second task is figuring out how small forward Rudy Gay fits back into the picture after he sat out the playoffs with a shoulder injury. Will his return mess with the chemistry?
Outlook: The Grizzlies can be tough, smart and take one very big bite out of opponents with an in-your-face style that doesn't back down. But they can also be fragile mentally. If they can work the offensive punch of Gay back into a ferocious mix, Memphis will be a team solidly in middle of the playoffs that nobody wants to play.
This could make a difference: The Grind House. That's the name Tony Allen gave to the FedEx Forum and it perfectly described the hard-nosed style of play that nearly got them one win away from the Western Conference finals. If the spark can stay lit, loud, wild crowds could give them a lift in their spirits and the standings and finally put the stamp on Memphis as an NBA town and even take them deep into the postseason.
2010-11 record: 43-39
Finish: Fifth in Southwest division
Strengths: Youth, youth and youth. Did we mention youth? The Rockets have only one player (Luis Scola) on their roster that is older than 28 and that means they can get up and down the floor and run all night. First-year coach Kevin McHale has a group that is willing to share the ball, take direction and usually doesn't quit.
Challenges: For the first time in more than three decades, the Rockets do not have a franchise type player to anchor the roster in a league that's driven by stars. With Yao Ming retired, they are a locker room full of swing men who desperately need size up front and somebody to step forward and seize the mantle of leadership.
Outlook: Rick Adelman used smoke and mirrors to keep the Rockets in the thick of the playoff race until the final week last season. Now it will be up to McHale to pull a rabbit out of his hat to keep their heads above water in a Western Conference that has gotten deeper. The Rockets have the young horses to stay in the race, but getting to the playoff finish line will take all they've got.
This could make a difference: If the Rockets can't reel in a free agent or trade for a legitimate big man to play in the middle, it will be up to McHale to tap into his "inner Celtic" to work magic with young rookie Donatas Motiejunas or an underachieving Hasheem Thabett. Without a significant addition of size to the lineup, a running, shooting bunch of young athletes could sprint toward oblivion and a very high spot in the 2012 draft lottery.
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