When you look up at the banner in the New Orleans Arena that commemorates the Hornets’ first-ever division title, it’s easy to forget how narrow their margin was last season. Only one game separated the top three teams in the ultra-competitive Southwest Division. New Orleans and San Antonio won 56 games, while Houston notched 55 victories.
Through the first two months of this season, the division standings have an extremely familiar look. The Hornets are technically in first place at 19-9, but the Spurs (20-11) and Rockets (21-12) are only a half game behind. Even the Mavericks (19-12), who started the season in ominous fashion, are just 1 1/2 games out of the top spot.
Here’s a brief look at the rest of the Southwest:
SAN ANTONIO (20-11)
Season series: Hornets lead 1-0. Games remaining: Jan. 31 in San Antonio, March 29 in New Orleans, April 15 in San Antonio.
The Spurs went 11-4 in December, but experienced a puzzling end to the month. They lost at home to the Bucks on Tuesday, their first defeat at the AT&T Center to a sub-.500 opponent all season. Three days before that, San Antonio needed double overtime to escape a Memphis upset, also on the Spurs’ home floor. Of course, this is often the NBA’s best second-half team under Gregg Popovich, so I doubt anyone’s concerned.
You have to like what Roger Mason (48 percent three-point shooting) has brought to the Spurs and rookie George Hill has been a surprise after his dreadful summer-league outing. Not sure whether it’s partly by design or because some of their older veterans simply aren’t performing well, but it’s interesting to note significant playing-time decreases for grizzled role guys such as Bruce Bowen (averaged 30 minutes per game last season, 21 now), Kurt Thomas (8 starts in 2008 playoffs, 2 so far this season) and Jacque Vaughn (16 appearances in 31 games).
Season series: Tied 1-1. Games remaining: March 16 in New Orleans, April 13 in Houston.
Like San Antonio, Houston had a solid December, going 10-5. The Rockets seemed to be gaining momentum until their schedule got tougher late in the month, and they also dropped a home game to the Wizards on Monday. Given his frequent injury history, the Rockets are accustomed to playing without Tracy McGrady or with him at less than 100 percent, but Ron Artest’s injuries have been more damaging. He is shooting a career-low 37.3 percent from the field. In a way though, the fact that Houston is so close to the top of the standings despite Artest’s struggles may be a good sign for the stretch run.
The Rockets’ biggest advantage over the Hornets continues to be depth, particularly in the frontcourt, where they trot out Luis Scola, Carl Landry and Chuck Hayes to help Yao with the dirty work.
Season series: 0-0. Games remaining: Jan. 14 in Dallas, March 5 in New Orleans, April 10 in Dallas, April 12 in New Orleans.
After their 2-7 start, it seems like everyone pretty much wrote off and forgot about the Mavericks. I’m sure many people who don’t closely follow the Mavs or this division would be surprised to see that Dallas is within striking distance of the other contenders. No one is talking about these guys or the fact that Dallas is 17-5 since mid-November, but after close examination of its recent schedule, you can somewhat understand why. If it doesn’t seem like they’ve had many “statement” victories lately, there’s a reason for that: Of the 17 wins, only four were against teams that currently boast winning records (at Houston, vs. Phoenix, vs. Atlanta, at Portland). Then again, for comparison’s sake, the Hornets also only have four such triumphs during the same time period (at Denver, vs. Phoenix, vs. San Antonio, vs. Houston)
Season series: Hornets lead 2-0. Games remaining: Feb. 9 in Memphis, March 20 in New Orleans.
The Grizzlies entered this season with no illusions of being a playoff team, publicly stating that they have a three-year plan in place. But of the handful of clubs that are out of contention in the Western Conference, they’ve done as good a job as anyone of setting themselves up for the future. I’m impressed and surprised by O.J. Mayo’s efficiency on offense – many high-scoring rookies are volume gunners who shoot low percentages, but the USC product is excellent overall (45 percent) and from three-point range (39 percent).
What’s also a bit surprising to me about the Grizzlies so far is that they’ve been more competitive this season than several of the conference’s other rebuilding teams, such as the more veteran-laden Timberwolves (6-25) and Kings (8-24).