Down The Stretch They Come
Southwest Divison writers team up to tackle current state of the league's toughest divison
Luis Scola (left) and Chuck Hayes have been two of the bright spots amid a rocky 2010-11 campaign for the Rockets to date.
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Southwest Division Writers
Special to Rockets.com
HOUSTON - At the unofficial midway point of the 2010-11 regular season, Rockets.com teamed up with writers who cover each of the other Southwest Division teams to get together and discuss what’s taken place in the league’s most competitive division thus far. Joining us once again are Dallas television play-by-play broadcaster Mark Followill, Hornets.com writer Jim Eichenhofer, grizzlies.com writer Matt Tumbleson and writer Andrew McNeill, of the independent Spurs website “48 Minutes of Hell.”
To read what each writer discussed during our 2010-11 season preview, click here:
During the preseason, you each selected one critical topic specific to your team that fans should follow closely this season. Update us on that issue halfway through the campaign.
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: The biggest issue for the Mavs was managing an older roster and I would say results have been mixed. Unfortunately one over-30 player was lost due to injury in Caron Butler. The one that matters most though is Jason Kidd who is playing a little over 33 minutes a game. The target was 32-33 so I guess they are doing OK in that regard. No one else appears to be getting worn down at this point but it is still something that bears watching.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Coming into the season, everyone knew the biggest variable in determining the Rockets’ success hinged upon the health of Yao Ming. Unfortunately for the Rockets and their fans, the team’s All-Star center lasted a mere five games before being sidelined for the season with a left ankle injury. His absence has left a huge hole in the middle of Houston’s lineup once more – on both ends of the floor – and as a result the Rockets have frequently found themselves undersized and overmatched against bigger, stronger and more athletic opponents.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: During the preseason I identified the bench as the key to the season, and I would say that this was proven correct by the decision of Grizzlies Head Coach Lionel Hollins to move O.J. Mayo to the bench to provide scoring punch. While Mayo’s ups and downs this season have been well documented, his time on the bench has helped to solidify what was once a glaring weakness for this team. The emergence of Darrell Arthur and the play of Tony Allen has also helped to shore up the deficiencies that the team experienced last season from their reserve unit.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The challenge back in October was for a team with a completely overhauled front office and coaching staff to integrate an array of new players, while trying to return to the playoffs in the always-formidable Western Conference. A franchise-best 8-0 start quickly erased concern that on-floor chemistry might be a problem; the Hornets later tacked on a 10-game winning streak in January. After being projected to miss the 2011 postseason by virtually every NBA analyst, the Hornets have exceeded all outside expectations, though they’ve dipped recently amid injuries to defensive cogs Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Well, the pick-and-roll defense isn’t terrible. The Spurs are a Top-5 team in the NBA when the ball handler on the pick-and-roll shoots, only allowing about .76 points per possession. But when the roll man takes the shot, San Antonio is still a middle-of-the-road team. Tim Duncan is still slow laterally, possibly more so than last season, and Tiago Splitter hasn’t played enough to make an impact on that statistic. But the team’s defense is still good and the offense has made up for defensive deficiencies in the regular season. We’ll see come playoff time.
What’s been the most pleasant surprise of 2010-11 so far for the team you cover?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: By a mile it’s former Hornet Tyson Chandler. He has been healthy and has been an emotional and spiritual leader in the locker room and a game changer on the floor because of his defensive ability and his tremendous energy and passion night in and night out. Dirk says he is as important to Dallas as Garnett was to Boston. Chandler has been embraced by the fans and has given the Mavs far more than they could have truly hoped for when acquiring him in a July trade.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: The most pleasant surprise of the Rockets season thus far for me has been the 3-point shooting of Kyle Lowry. A career 26.4 percent marksman from behind the arc coming into this campaign, Lowry has knocked down 35 percent of his shots from downtown this season, all while taking nearly twice as many per game as he has at any other point in his career. His dramatically improved accuracy has been huge for Houston this season, especially with Aaron Brooks missing so much time due to injury and struggling to find his form since his return as well.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The most pleasant surprise thus far in 2011-12 has definitely been the play of Darrell Arthur. Arthur missed a big chunk of last season, but has rebounded to be the player that the Grizzlies expected him to be when he came out of Kansas. Arthur provides athleticism and energy to the lineup and has proven to be a more than reliable backup to either of the power positions. If the Grizzlies hope to make the postseason, Arthur’s continued growth as a go-to player on the bench will be one of the keys.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Perhaps we should’ve seen it coming given Monty Williams’ background in San Antonio and Portland, but I’ve been impressed with how he’s been able to rapidly transform New Orleans from a porous defensive team to one of the stingiest in the league. The Hornets were just 21st in defensive efficiency last season, but have moved all the way up to sixth. Williams has instilled a defense-first mentality in his players, who acknowledge that success on that end of the floor is the only way the Hornets can compete with the elite teams of the West.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Do I have to pick just one? No one (myself included) had any idea the Spurs had a season like this in them. I was working on their obituary back in August. But it all comes down to one thing: health. The Spurs have been fortunate to have minor injuries to players like James Anderson, Matt Bonner and Tiago Splitter. Although the injury to Splitter in training camp effectively rendered him useless this season because he never learned the system. But still, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker have played every game so far this season.
What’s been the biggest disappointment?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: The fact the exciting youngster Roddy Beaubois still hasn’t seen the floor now two weeks into February. In October, Beaubois had a setback from a fracture in his left foot and because of his bright future the Mavs have exercised extreme caution. He is very close to coming back and the Mavs have won a ton without him but he has missed valuable developmental time that may or may not hinder his ability to contribute come playoff time.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: No doubt the biggest disappointment has to be the Rockets’ season-long struggle to prevail in close games. Houston actually has a positive, albeit slight, point differential this season, indicating their record should be right around the .500 mark. But because they are just 10-18 in games decided by 7 points or fewer, the Rockets currently find themselves in the unenviable position of having to climb over several teams in order to qualify for postseason play.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The biggest disappointment thus far was the team’s inability to defeat teams with sub .500 records earlier in the season. Losses to Washington without John Wall, the Cavaliers after holding a double-digit lead in the second half and a pair of losses to the Nets hurt the Grizzlies earlier in the season. They’ve rebounded and shown more consistency against lesser teams in both conferences as of late, but if they hope to meet owner Michael Heisley’s playoff promise they will have to find consistency the rest of the way out against these types of teams.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Speaking from the perspective of someone who’s covered the Hornets throughout their post-Hurricane Katrina era, it’s a frustrating and unfortunate reality that the conversation about this franchise continues to often revolve around non-basketball topics (ownership, attendance benchmarks, lease agreements) instead of the Hornets being arguably the NBA’s biggest surprise on the floor. I’ve written several times that the Hornets will know they’ve met their objectives in New Orleans when the focus is on basketball, not business. I’m hopeful and optimistic that the NBA’s December purchase of the Hornets will lead to the long-term stability that this franchise has been searching for since the devastation of Katrina six years ago.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: It has to be Mr. Splitter. After the San Antonio front office used their first round draft pick on him in 2007, Spurs fans waited patiently for three seasons for Tiago to join the team. But then he picked up an injury in training camp that forced him to sit out all of the preseason and he never got valuable practice time that NBA teams don’t have in the regular season. Instead, he’s trying to pick up the San Antonio system on the fly and it’s just not happening. He probably won’t have a real impact until next season.
Who’s been your team’s MVP in the first half of the season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Although Dirk might try to defer to Tyson Chandler it is clearly Nowitzki. No player has a bigger impact on his team’s production when you compare his on-court and off-court numbers. The team went 2-7 in games without him while he was on the mend from a knee injury. As Rick Carlisle has said “his mere presence on the floor is a game changer.” He draws attention and he helps the comfort level of teammates when he is on the floor. He is unquestionably still one of the league’s elite talents.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: If you’re talking best player, that honor almost certainly has to go to Kevin Martin or Luis Scola. Both have been exceptional and are certainly deserving of MVP consideration in their own right. But I made the case for Chuck Hayes as team MVP a couple weeks ago and I’m going to stick with it. He’s been the club’s rock in the middle ever since Yao got hurt and his improvement on the offensive end means he’s no longer just a one dimensional defensive stopper. He gives Houston something no one else on the roster can, so while the Chuckwagon might not be the team’s best player, he’s almost certainly the most irreplaceable.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The MVP of the first half of the season is without question Zach Randolph. Last season Randolph had the best individual campaign in Grizzlies history, setting 16 different franchise records, and for an encore he’s surpassed that level of play this season. He is currently the only player the last two seasons to average at least 20 points and 10 rebounds, and his brilliance can get lost sometimes because of his consistency. Randolph is also a steady presence in the locker room and has helped guide the second youngest roster in the league from another slow start into the heart of a playoff hunt.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The relatively easy choice is Chris Paul, who many believe is a bona fide league MVP candidate and is making his fourth consecutive All-Star appearance. But there are a few others who deserve mention as Most Valuable People during New Orleans’ stellar first half of 2010-11. First-year GM Dell Demps made several key offseason trades, including acquiring Trevor Ariza and finding helpful role players that improved the team’s depth. Monty Williams has been mentioned as a Coach of the Year candidate in his debut season. David West, who made All-Star appearances in 2008 and 2009, may be having the best all-around season of his eight-year career.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan have taken turns carrying the Spurs this season, but with a gun to my head I have to go with Ginobili. He’s probably had the best mix of offensive impact (leading scorer, averaging almost five assists per game), defensive impact and clutch play. If Duncan is the engine or the backbone of this team, Ginobili is the heart and soul. He makes the Spurs go.
Who’s been the biggest “unsung hero?”
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Give me DeShawn Stevenson. After barely playing in the first five games Rick Carlisle put him in the starting lineup as a SG and the Mavs are 30-10 when he starts at that spot. He gives them defensive toughness, unexpectedly good three-point shooting and has the respect of his teammates who went to bat for him to start to begin with. He also has solidified the lineup/rotation allowing Carlisle to stick with his preference of Jason Terry and Shawn Marion providing great punch for the Mavs off the bench.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Chuck Hayes is the obvious choice here but since I’ve already sung his praises I’ll opt to shine the spotlight instead on the strong, steady play of the Rockets’ Mr. Consistency, Luis Scola. He’s a double-double waiting to happen, mesmerizing fans and opponents alike with his never-ending array of moves in the low post. And though he’s as reliable as the sun rising in the east, don’t mistake such consistency for a player who’s plateaued; Scola’s player efficiency rating has improved every year he’s been in the league, and as of this writing he’s sporting a very impressive 18.91 PER.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The biggest unsung hero this season for the Grizzlies has been Tony Allen. Allen’s shot selection might make Grizzlies Head Coach Lionel Hollins cringe at times, but his hustle, effort and enthusiasm has been contagious for this young team. One of the most outwardly competitive players on the team, Allen’s fire and passion for the game brings a lot to the Grizzlies reserve group.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: There are multiple candidates, including Emeka Okafor, who has bounced back with a tremendous season after his disappointing 2009-10 debut with the Hornets. Trevor Ariza has helped spearhead New Orleans’ impressive defensive improvement. Jason Smith’s hustle and shooting were invaluable during the team’s 8-0 start. If I had to pick one though, I’d go with Okafor, who hasn’t got much publicity nationally, but everyone here has taken note of his drastic improvement from a year ago. Okafor is hopeful that it will help result in his NBA playoff debut in April.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Surprisingly, Tim Duncan has been the biggest unsung hero. On a national landscape it’s easy to say that Duncan has declined, averaging only about 13 points per game. But his per-36 minute numbers are practically the same, he’s simply averaging fewer minutes. Duncan still quarterbacks the defense and his rebounding and outlet passing has been the foundation of a quicker, more efficient Spurs offense. And he can still dominate in the post if the team needs it. Instead, the Spurs use Tim Duncan’s offense to calm the team down when it gets out of control.
What is your team’s primary objective in the second half of the regular season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Very simply, stay healthy, integrate Peja Stojakovic and Roddy Beaubois into the rotation, be opportunistic if a good trade proposal comes along, hold down a top-four seed in the West, and ramp up to playing great ball when the playoffs roll around in April. This group has set the bar high and it’s a locker room of vets who believe in each other and their ability to make some noise in the postseason – they just need to set themselves up to do so in the remainder of the regular season.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: For the Rockets it’s all about adding more talent and making the playoffs. The former is expected to take place at the trade deadline as Houston General Manager Daryl Morey has made deadline day moves to improve his club every single season since he assumed the reins in 2007. As for qualifying for postseason play, the Rockets certainly have their work cut out for them thanks to the club’s rocky start but with a friendly schedule featuring a host of home games, Houston can get right back into the mix with a well-timed winning streak.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The Grizzlies objective for the second half of the season is the same one they had coming into the 2010-11 campaign, and that is to make good on Michael Heisley’s playoff promise. The Grizzlies took a major step forward last season and flirted with a playoff appearance, and now in the third year of Heisley’s three-year plan to make the playoffs, it appears that the Grizzlies have a chance of crashing the postseason party. To do so they’ll need to stay healthy. If they can keep their core players from missing any extended time the Grizzlies should be in great position to make the postseason.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: There has been very little specific discussion here by coaches and players about trying to win a specific number of games, or trying to attain a certain seed in the Western Conference. Monty Williams has preached taking care of the small details all season, an approach that has benefited the Hornets greatly. In terms of concrete goals, New Orleans needs to remain one of the top six or so defensive teams in the league. The Hornets also would like to play more consistently on the road, having lost to a handful of struggling opponents.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Barring a bit of a collapse, the Spurs should have home court advantage throughout the playoffs. So their primary goal, as it has been much of the season, is to simply keep everyone healthy and rested. Gregg Popovich hasn’t overworked his players yet this season en route to the league’s best record, so it should be an easily attainable goal. There’s no gas pedal for San Antonio to let up on because they’ve been on cruise control all year. As long as everybody is healthy come playoff time, Coach Pop is satisfied.
Turning to division-wide questions, who has been the Southwest Division’s MVP so far (not including the team you cover)?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: I’d bet Ginobili gets a lot of support but give me Chris Paul. A lot was expected out of the Spurs, a lot wasn’t out of the Hornets. Paul’s talent, leadership and tenacity hold it together for New Orleans and instead of talking about where Paul or the Hornets might be moving to, we can talk about a team that appears bound for the playoffs and being a tough out when they get there.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: In my opinion this is a three-horse race between Chris Paul, Dirk Nowitzki and Manu Ginobili. All three players have been exceptional and vital to their respective club’s lofty success this season. But Paul stands atop the mountain in my mind for his ability to drag a largely nondescript Hornets team into the top-5 of the Western Conference standings – all while doing so with only one good leg. He may not make the highlight reels on a regular basis, but Paul almost always makes the right play and that’s why he remains one of the very few franchise-changing talents in the game today.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: While many pundits agree that the torch has been passed to Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker, Tim Duncan is still the anchor for the Spurs franchise, and so even though his light is fading, I’m going to go with him as the Southwest Division MVP. His willingness to turn the keys to the castle over to Ginobili and Parker was classic Duncan. The best power forward in the history of the NBA had every right to be hesitant to dial back his output, but his unselfishness has helped reopen the Spurs championship window and illustrate why the Spurs franchise is considered by many to be the best in sports year after year.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: San Antonio compiled one of the best first halves in NBA history, but it’s somewhat difficult to give the bulk of the credit for that to one player, when the Spurs still rely heavily on the trio of Ginobili, Parker and Duncan. That’s not the case in Dallas, where Dirk Nowitzki’s impact has never been more evident to the rest of the league. The Mavericks might still be right on the heels of the Spurs in the standings if not for Nowitzki’s nine-game injury absence. Dallas was 35-9 in the first 44 games Nowitzki played, but 2-7 when he was sidelined. That’s the epitome of an MVP.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: I’d have to say Chris Paul. If anyone told me at the beginning of the season that they thought the Hornets would be in position for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, I would have laughed at them. But there they are. And Chris Paul is a big reason why, helping Monty Williams turn the Hornets into a defensive powerhouse, while also being one of the best executing teams in the clutch. And Paul might be doing it on just one leg. Phenomenal.
Most improved player or the player who has been the most pleasant surprise (again, not including your team)?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: How is it not Gary Neal of the Spurs? It is considering we are talking about an unheralded rookie being a significant part of the rotation for the team with the best record in the league. He has been a dangerous shooter and upgraded their athleticism. Honorable mention goes to Marco Bellinelli of the Hornets. While the Grizzlies are having a really nice year I don’t know if anyone there fits this category.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: This honor goes to the Mavericks’ Tyson Chandler and, in my opinion, no one else even comes close. We always knew Chandler could be a game-changer when healthy, but this year he’s been better than ever – on both ends of the floor. It remains to be seen whether Dallas truly has what it takes to compete with the likes of the Lakers and Spurs in the West, but they can at least realistically dream of doing so thanks to the tremendous boost Chandler has given them this season.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The most surprising player in the Southwest Division that doesn’t play on Beale Street nightly would probably be Kevin Martin. While Martin has always been a prolific scorer, he has assumed the mantle as the leader of this Rockets team for good, taking a major step forward as an individual and a leader. Martin has helped the Rockets stay in the playoff picture despite injuries to Yao Ming and Aaron Brooks that likely would have crippled any other franchise.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: At the unusual rookie age of 26, Gary Neal is San Antonio’s sixth-leading scorer and one of the Spurs’ many dangerous three-point threats. It’s doubtful that any of the five of us had ever even heard of the Towson product prior to October. In today’s basketball world, where we start reading about the exploits of many future pros during their freshman year of high school, Neal’s rise from overseas journeyman to key Spurs contributor has truly been unique.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: I’m going to go with Tyson Chandler. I figured Chandler was on the downside of his career because of injuries and his addition to the Mavericks was minimal. And then they put him on the back line of that defense. When you play a zone defense as much as Dallas does, you need someone in the back who can communicate and cover a lot of ground when rebounding. Chandler does both and he’s helped turn the Mavs from a soft, offense-first team into a scrappy team that defends well; both traits of good playoff teams.