Southwest Division Preview
HOUSTON - With the NBA regular season tipping off tonight, Rockets.com joined forces with writers who cover each of the other Southwest Division teams to get together and discuss the 2012-13 campaign. Among the subjects they tackled: Breakthrough players, must-watch teams and the season's biggest storylines. Read below for their answers to those topics and more.
In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Assuming Dirk Nowitzki recovers on or ahead of schedule from his knee scope and gets back in November, the story to watch will be how a team of new faces on one-year deals will gel. The Mavs brought in five rotation players on short-term deals. At least three will start in Collison, Mayo and Kaman and maybe a fourth while Dirk is on the mend in Elton Brand. If the new faces come together with Dirk and they bring out the best in each other, the Mavs could compete for a top-four spot in the West. If it goes the other way, missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years is in the discussion.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: From a purely global interest perspective, it simply has to be the progression, development and overall growth of Jeremy Lin, right? Fans far and wide will be watching closely to see how the next chapter of this story unfolds after seeing him burst into the spotlight during last season’s incredible six-week run on Broadway. But here’s the thing: The Rockets don’t need that version of Jeremy Lin; in fact, it’s unfair and likely unrealistic to expect such historically great numbers from him night-in and night-out over the course of an 82-game season. And with James Harden now added to the mix, Houston’s need for that sort of mind-boggling production from Lin has been further lessened. So long as Jeremy keeps bringing his high-value arsenal of quality assists, foul-drawing, rebounds and steals to the table, the Rockets will be more than happy with their investment.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: The biggest story will be the Grizzlies’ collective health. The last two seasons the Grizzlies have made the playoffs despite losing Rudy Gay and Zach Randolph for significant chunks of time. In a similar vein, the Grizzlies will hope that Marc Gasol’s participation in the Olympics won't result in him wearing down late in the season. Everyone who follows the Grizzlies is eager to see what this mature and cohesive group can accomplish with a full season of health.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: In many ways, it feels like a new beginning in the Crescent City, with New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson taking over and bringing an end to the uncertainty that had plagued the franchise for several years. Basketball-wise, many around the NBA have opined that the Hornets possess considerable potential to be a force in the West at some point in the future. How much of that talent and promise will we see show up on the court in 2012-13? It’s difficult to say – national predictions for this team have been all over the map – but that’s what I’ll be watching most closely.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: All Kawhi Leonard, all the time. We know how the song and dance for the Spurs goes: Win 50-plus games and make the playoffs. How Leonard develops in his second NBA season is not only the most interesting thing to watch during the regular season, but it might also be the biggest factor in how far the Spurs can go in the playoffs.
What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Dallas’ projected opening day roster will be their youngest in four years so that is the biggest reason for optimism. They’re excited about the youth and speed at guard in Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo. Chris Kaman gives Dallas its best offensive center in a long time. Second-round draft pick Jae Crowder appears to be ready to step in and help as a role player. Rodrigue Beaubois, when healthy, has improved in preseason. And of course a soon-to-be healthy Dirk, who hopes he is no longer plagued by knee issues that limited him last year at times.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Houston’s starting lineup is significantly better than most people think it is. Simply put, the pieces fit. The frontline of Omer Asik, Patrick Patterson and Chandler Parsons should form the foundation of this club’s defensive backbone and the backcourt boasts scoring and playmaking punch aplenty with James Harden and Jeremy Lin in the fold. If the Rockets are to exceed expectations this season – and I truly believe they will (cue the "homer" chants, but whatever) – they will almost certainly do so on the strength of an underrated and very complementary starting five.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: The Grizzlies had two glaring weaknesses last season: help for Mike Conley at the point guard position and perimeter shooting. GM Chris Wallace addressed both with the addition of Jerryd Bayless. He can play either guard position but will primarily be Conley's backup. Bayless shot a career-best percentage from three last season which could help the Grizzlies’ heretofore anemic three-point shooting. Wayne Ellington was acquired for the same reason. Also, Zach Randolph has returned in fabulous shape and the team is hungry to avenge last season's first round exit.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The 2011-12 Hornets were praised for being one of the hardest-working teams in the NBA, but they needed more talent. The addition of the No. 1 pick in the draft, as well as one of the summer’s most underrated acquisitions (Ryan Anderson) give New Orleans a much better chance to translate maximum effort into victories.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Corporate knowledge. It's one of Gregg Popovich’s favorite phrases and also one of the major reasons so many players perform better in their second season with the Spurs. The Spurs had a lot of players in their first season with the team last year and still came two games away from the NBA Finals.
What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: The lack of size. Dallas had only two 7-footers in Dirk and Kaman. With Kaman already banged up and their other center options undersized in Elton Brand and Brandan Wright, the Mavs are taking a last-minute flyer on Eddy Curry… a guy who has lost 100 pounds, did look OK in camp with the Spurs but didn't stick. But as they say desperate times call for desperate measures. The Mavs have even played Vince Carter at power forward this preseason, hoping his ability to spread the floor on offense can compensate for his being vertically challenged at least for the PF position. Not to mention an undersized starting backcourt. Effort will be a premium to hold their own on the glass night in and night out.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Injuries, but that’s the case for all 30 teams. In particular, the Rockets absolutely, positively cannot afford to have Omer Asik miss any significant amount of time – he’ll be that indispensable to this club’s success. Putting aside the issue of health, however, the Rockets’ biggest challenge will be one of experience and familiarity. This roster is filled with new faces and ranks among the league’s youngest. Historically, that sort of combo is a strong indicator that fans are in for a bit of a roller coaster ride. How Houston negotiates and navigates those ups and downs will go a long way in determining its success this season.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: In scanning the Western Conference, it seems like most teams got markedly stronger. The night-in, night-out grind against playoff caliber teams can take a toll in the long run. Also, who will take a leadership role in the locker room? Who will demand accountability from his teammates? It also remains to be seen if the weight of expectations might become onerous.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Inexperience. Entering the regular season, Ryan Anderson is the third-most experienced Hornets player (254 career NBA games) despite being only 24 years old. It’s been reported that New Orleans is the second-youngest team in the league, making the teaching and mentoring of third-year coach Monty Williams a key aspect of the Hornets’ efforts to make tangible strides this season.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Defense. Obviously, injury is a concern, but it’s a concern for every other team in the league as well. The Spurs had a mediocre defense last season and it wasn’t good enough to get the Spurs over the top in the Western Conference finals when the offense slowed some. If they can get closer to a top-10 or top-8 defense, they will have a better shot at a fifth ring
Not including your team, which Southwest Division clubs are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: San Antonio. They were a great example of team basketball last year. They magnificently blended young and old. They won 20 straight games and were rolling through the playoffs and then it went up in a smoke in a week. Can they hit on all cylinders and their youth get better, or does father time catch up to key contributors? It should be fascinating.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: The Spurs. It’s always the Spurs. Though the aging process has removed Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili from their athletic primes, there’s still no team in the NBA that consistently plays the game with the same sort of telepathic flair that San Antonio’s players have mastered under the tutelage of Coach Popovich.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: I had the chance to see Jeremy Lin's pre-draft workout in Memphis and came away impressed and felt he'd have a place in the NBA in the right situation. Houston became extremely intriguing over the summer when they added him. Now with the acquisition of James Harden, they're even more intriguing (and dangerous). The Rockets are very much a new team without stalwarts Kyle Lowry and Luis Scola, two guys who feasted on the Grizzlies. On the one hand, the Grizzlies are probably happy to see Grizz-killer Kevin Martin out of the division, but facing James Harden four times a year won't be a picnic either.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Houston, partly to see how Jeremy Lin fares with his new team, but also to monitor the impact of James Harden. There has been debate about how much Harden benefited from playing with Kevin Durant or Russell Westbrook, or whether he’d be even more effective as a team’s No. 1 option. We’ll find out the answer to that soon.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: New Orleans. Anthony Davis is going to be a stud and Monty Williams might be one of the league's top coaches. Throw in Eric Gordon and Austin Rivers and you have a team with some intriguing pieces. Honorable mention goes to the Rockets and their 11 small forwards.
Among the other 10 teams in the Western Conference, which clubs are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Who isn’t eagerly anticipating how the Lakers’ star-studded new look comes together? I think Phoenix may surprise some people. Denver is even deeper than before and the Clippers will be intriguing to see if they can build on their success or does just being the Clippers bring them back down a notch.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: While plenty of eyeballs will be locked onto the Lakers’ every move – and, admittedly, mine will as well – the Denver Nuggets may very well prove to be even more entertaining for basketball buffs excited to see what George Karl can do with a roster filled with a seemingly inexhaustible supply of players who should thrive in the Nuggets’ uber up-tempo system. Difficult to project how that depth will serve Denver in the playoffs, but during the regular season the Nuggets have the potential to be an absolute buzz saw.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: For years, it seems that Golden State is annually poised to be a breakout team, only to fall short of expectations due to injuries. Adding Andrew Bogut to pair with David Lee is a huge move as is adding Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack. Klay Thompson can spread the floor with his shooting and if Steph Curry remains healthy, the Warriors will be a fun watch, but probably not too much fun to play against. This is their best roster in years.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: If they’re healthy – and unfortunately for them, that’s been a big if – the Warriors have an impressive starting five and quality rotation that appears two-deep at almost every position. Minnesota, Denver, Oklahoma City and both Los Angeles teams also should be regulars on NBA LeaguePass this season.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: If Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio weren't both hurt for an extended stretch, I'd go Timberwolves here, so instead I'm going to say the Golden State Warriors. Andrew Bogut is criminally-underrated when it comes to fun-to-watch-players and Stephen Curry (when healthy) is awesome. Golden State also has some of the better jerseys in the league, which helps their cause.
Also not including your team, which Southwest Division rookies are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: I've seen Anthony Davis of the Hornets in the preseason and am impressed with his size, skill and shot-blocking ability. He’s the No. 1 pick so he will generate buzz. Houston has some impressive rookies. I’m intrigued by the versatility of Terrence Jones. Royce White has amazing all-around skills, but how will this traveling by bus to a lot of games work out over the long haul?
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Like his draft selection spot, Anthony Davis is No. 1 with a bullet. Though nothing is ever guaranteed when it comes to rookies, it’s hard to see how Davis can possibly disappoint. In fact, I believe he’ll ascend to top-10-player-in-the-league status within the first five years of his career. He’s just that talented. And as for off-the-radar rookies, I’m also looking forward to following the development of Dallas’ Jae Crowder. I enjoyed his work at Marquette and he definitely did nothing to dissuade that affinity during the preseason.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: I'm most curious about Austin Rivers in New Orleans. While most are looking at Anthony Davis, I'll be interested to see how Rivers can lead this young team and fit in with Eric Gordon. Rivers won’t be the prime scoring option in New Orleans and the onus will be on him to make his teammates better. I frankly thought Rivers struggled in summer league so I'll be interested to see how Monty Williams, one of the best young coaches in the NBA, gets Rivers to produce.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Houston’s pair of remaining first-round picks. Royce White seems like such a unique, versatile player. I watched Terrence Jones play in person in both the 2012 SEC tournament and Final Four and was impressed by his all-around skills.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Davis is the obvious answer, but it's the one I have to give. Few rookies are expected to have the impact on both sides of the ball that he is. His growth in the NBA will be amazing to watch and I'd like to start from the beginning
In your opinion, who is most likely to be the division’s 2012-13 “breakthrough” player from another team?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Kawhi Leonard of San Antonio. He was a first-team all-rookie who reminds me of the Mavs’ Shawn Marion. A guy with smaller guard skills, the athleticism of an explosive wing, and the strength to do some big-man dirty work. If he moves a couple of rungs up the ladder this year the Spurs are really going to have something cooking for the present and the future.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Ho-hum, it appears as if the Spurs have unearthed yet another draft day steal. Kawhi Leonard surpassed everyone’s expectations during his eye-opening rookie season and now seems poised to take on an even bigger role in San Antonio as he prepares to embark upon his sophomore campaign.
Pete Pranica, Grizzlies TV broadcaster: Omer Asik will have a huge role for Houston and will give the Rockets length at the center position they haven't had since Yao Ming's retirement. Without Luis Scola, there will be shots and rebounds available for Asik to get. Kevin McHale is one of the very best big men ever to play in the NBA and it's a sure thing that McHale's expertise will help Asik to have a huge year.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Dallas point guard Darren Collison, who began his NBA career here in New Orleans, is now the starter for what promises to be a potent attack, especially when Dirk Nowitzki returns from injury. He has an array of offensive-minded options even without Dirk, such as Chris Kaman, O.J. Mayo and Elton Brand.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Ryan Anderson. I think most fans assume Anderson’s numbers are a direct result of playing alongside Dwight Howard in Orlando. That’s only partially true. Actually, Anderson is pretty good and playing next to a not-yet-polished Anthony Davis will help Anderson shine and prove a few doubters wrong.