Southwest remains NBA's toughest division after Rockets retool roster

Thursday September 20, 2007 1:56 PM

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Southwest remains NBA's toughest division after Rockets retool roster


Damien Pierce Staff Writer

HOUSTON -- The San Antonio Spurs won an NBA title last season and essentially have their entire roster back for another championship run.

So why aren't the Spurs a sure-thing to at least finish first in their own division? That's life in the Southwest.

With four of the past five Western Conference champions coming straight out of the Southwest, the NBA's toughest division won't be any easier this season.

Three teams -- the Rockets, Mavericks and Spurs -- are boasting hopes of competing for a Western Conference crown and the Hornets have enough talent to end their three-year playoff drought. On top of all that, the Grizzlies even got better this summer by adding a talented international star and a promising rookie point guard.

In other words, winning the division won't be easy for any team -- even the defending champs. Here's a closer look at how the Southwest looks heading into the 2007-08 season:

Houston Rockets

Coach: Rick Adelman
Last season’s record:
Last Playoff Appearance: 2007
Quick Take: The Rockets have the potential to be a legitimate contender in the Western Conference thanks to a productive offseason. Rick Adelman's offensive background should make life easier for Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming, while the addition of Steve Francis and Mike James will make it more difficult for opponents to turn the Rockets into a jump-shooting team. The most significant addition, however, is Luis Scola. The Argentine star brings an active presence and sound offensive game to the power forward spot. Will those arrivals blend in and be enough for the Rockets to overtake the Spurs and Mavericks in the Southwest? We'll see.
Player to Watch: Luis Scola. On a team that needed a do-everything power forward, Scola fits the profile. He could be the one piece that was missing last season.
Additions: G Aaron Brooks, C Jackie Butler, G Steve Francis, F Mike Harris, G Mike James, F Carl Landry, F Justin Reed and F Luis Scola.
Losses: F Juwan Howard, G Vassilis Spanoulis and C Jake Tsakalidis.

Dallas Mavericks

Coach: Avery Johnson
Last season’s record:
Last Playoff Appearance: 2007
Quick Take: They're deep. They're talented. And they've got the league's reigning MVP. In other words, anything less than a championship would be a disappointment for this team. Sort of like last season. The Mavs were easily the NBA's best team during the 2006-07 regular season, but their first-round playoff exit against Golden State tarnished their 67-win campaign. Because of that setback, there will be a lot of pressure on the Mavs this season -- especially on Dirk Nowitzki. The MVP was heavily criticized for his lackluster playoff showing, but he'll get a chance to make amends.
Player to Watch: Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki was named the NBA's MVP after guiding the Mavs to the league's best record. But his impressive regular season was overshadowed by the team's first-round playoff flop. Can he make up for it?
Additions: F Brandon Bass, F Nick Fazekas, G/F Eddie Jones and G Reyshawn Terry.
Losses: F Austin Croshere and F Kevin Willis.

San Antonio Spurs

Coach: Gregg Popovich
Last season’s record:
Last Playoff Appearance: 2007
Quick Take: One for the thumb? The Spurs collected their fourth championship ring in nine seasons last year and it's not too far-fetched to think that San Antonio could pick up a fifth. Everyone is back and Ime Udoka is a nice addition to the bench. The key is health. The Spurs have six players with 10-plus years experience, including Tim Duncan and Bruce Bowen. But if those veterans handle the grind of another season and still don't have trouble keeping pace with quicker lineups, the Spurs could have another celebration on the Riverwalk.
Player to Watch: Tony Parker. The best point guard in the NBA? He made his case last season by leading the Spurs to another title and garnering MVP of the Finals.
Additions: G/F Ime Udoka and F Marcus Williams.
Losses: C Jackie Butler and F/C Melvin Ely.

New Orleans Hornets

Coach: Byron Scott
Last season’s record:
Last Playoff Appearance: 2004
Quick Take: Can this team stay healthy enough to make a playoff run? The Hornets' top three scorers -- Chris Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic -- missed a grant total of 117 games last season. But even with that being the case, New Orleans only finished three games behind Golden State for the final playoff spot. Translation? This is a playoff team if it can stay healthy. The Hornets did add Morris Peterson to boost their perimeter scoring, but the health of their leading scorers will determine their playoff fate.
Player to Watch: Peja Stojakovic. The sharpshooter was supposed to help guide the Hornets into the postseason during the 2006-07 season, but he ended up playing only 13 games. He's reportedly recovering well from back surgery. But another injury-plagued season for Stojakovic could be the Hornets' downfall.
Additions: C/F Melvin Ely, G Adam Haluska, F Morris Peterson and F Julian Wright.
Losses: F Brandon Bass and F Desmond Mason.

Memphis Grizzlies

Coach: Marc Iavaroni
Last season’s record:
Last Playoff Appearance: 2006
Quick Take: Pau Gasol got some help. After finishing last season with the NBA's worst record, the Grizzlies vastly improved their supporting cast. Darko Milicic gives the Grizzlies someone who can team up inside with Gasol, while Juan Carlos Navarro is a seasoned veteran who should boost Memphis' offense with his shooting and passing. But in order for Memphis to make the leap from the lottery to the NBA playoffs in one season, the Grizzlies need some of their young stars to grow up fast. Their first-round pick, Mike Conley, is a promising point guard, but he'll be running an NBA offense for the first time. Rudy Gay must also raise his play in his second season.
Player to Watch: Juan Carlos Navarro. Pau Gasol's close friend from Spain will make his NBA debut this season. He'll bring some much-needed scoring and passing.
Additions: F Andre Brown, G Mike Conley, G/F Casey Jacobsen, F Darko Milicic and G Juan Carlos Navarro.
Losses: G Chucky Atkins, F Alexander Johnson and F Scott Padgett.