How The (South)West Will Be Won
Southwest Divison writers team up to tackle another year in the league's toughest division
With Yao Ming returning to action, the Rockets hope to be able to eclipse Tim Duncan and the Spurs this season.
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HOUSTON - With the NBA regular season opening Tuesday, Oct. 26, Rockets.com teamed up with the writers who cover each of the other Southwest Division clubs to discuss the 2010-11 campaign. Joining us again this season are Mavericks television play-by-play announcer Mark Followill, Hornets.com writer Jim Eichenhofer, Grizzlies.com scribe Matt Tumbleson, as well as new Spurs correspondent Andrew McNeill, who writes for the website www.48minutesofhell.com:
In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Can the Mavericks manage an older roster? The Mavs will have six rotation players 30 or better this year. You need veterans to win in the playoffs but they can’t be worn down by the regular season grind. Far too often, the Mavs had to extend their vets big minutes to win regular season games last year. Notably, Jason Kidd averaged 36 minutes a game in a season where he turned 37. That heavy workload appeared to catch up with him in the disappointing playoff loss to the Spurs and the Mavs would love to see his minutes in the low 30’s this year while still posting a high win total.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: It doesn’t take 100 words to answer this question – just two: Yao Ming. Everyone knows what he means to this team and everyone knows the concern. The good news is that the seven-time All-Star has made steady progress throughout the preseason as he works his way toward the 24 minute per game allotment team doctors have put in place in order to best ensure his continued good health. If all goes well, Yao’s return gives the Rockets a real chance to be factors in the Western Conference hierarchy. If not, it will be a bitter pill to swallow for both the team and a humble, hardworking player who deserves far better.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: The biggest story to watch this season for the Grizzlies is whether or not the bench can support what turned out to be one of the best starting fives in all of basketball during the 2009-10 campaign. If Hasheem Thabeet, Sam Young and Darrell Arthur can take their individual games one or two steps forward, the addition of a proven Tony Allen to the bench group could make the Grizzlies considerably deeper than they were last season.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: There’s a new front office in place, a new coaching staff and a roster that includes more newcomers than familiar faces – only six players are back from the 2009-10 squad. How will GM Dell Demps and head coach Monty Williams fare as they debut in their roles? How will a slew of offseason player acquisitions (most prominently, starting small forward Trevor Ariza) provide support for franchise stalwarts Chris Paul and David West? During preseason, the Hornets were attempting to quickly develop chemistry and establish a rotation.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Can San Antonio guard the pick-and-roll? It was their downfall in the playoffs against Phoenix last year and is the bread and butter play in the NBA. Tim Duncan doesn’t have the lateral quickness to defend guards coming off of picks anymore. He can only hang back and hope opposing guards take and miss jump shots. Luckily for the Spurs, new addition Tiago Splitter comes from Spain with the knowledge and skill set to guard the pick-and-roll. If Splitter is as good as advertised in this area, San Antonio can get back to being a top-tier defensive team.
What is the biggest reason to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?
Mark Followill, Magvericks TV broadcaster: Promising youth and motivated veterans. When he returns from injury Roddy Beaubois should have a larger role after displaying dynamic scoring ability as a rookie. Rookie Dominique Jones can slash and defend so he might play some too. Former Hornet Tyson Chandler is healthy and he, Caron Butler and Jason Terry should get an extra push from being at or near the end of contracts. Re-signed superstar Dirk Nowitzki remains incredibly driven in pursuit of his first ring.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: The Rockets’ slogan this season is “Red Rising” but it might as well be “Strength in Numbers.” Houston has roster depth that is the envy of nearly every team in the league – something which should serve the club well when the inevitable injuries strike. The Rockets also want to run – a lot – and the talent pool on hand should mean a stable of fresh legs will be able to push the pace anytime.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: The Grizzlies starting group is the strength of their team and the key to last season’s turnaround, and there is still room for improvement amongst this group. Mike Conley has shown at the end of each of the past two regular seasons that he can play at a very high level, Rudy Gay still has upside despite being a proven scorer, and O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol are only entering their third season in the league.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The new starting five (Paul, Marco Belinelli, Ariza, West, Emeka Okafor) should be one of New Orleans’ biggest strengths. Those five didn’t get a lot of time together in preseason partly due to a West wrist injury, but fared well when they were on the floor. Belinelli was excellent in preseason, while backup big Jason Smith took advantage of additional playing time as a result of West’s five-game absence.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Health. This is the first season in several the Spurs start with everyone healthy and rested. Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili stayed home instead of playing international ball. Tim Duncan did very little court work to lessen the strain on his knees this summer. Having those three fresh and injury-free is key for San Antonio.
What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Getting off to better starts. The Mavs came out of the gate slow time and time again last year. While they can hang their hat on a league leading 18 wins when trailing at half they know they can’t continue to chase games night after night and hope to be successful. It’s been a talking point for head coach Rick Carlisle this pre-season as he tinkers with the starting lineup in an effort to rectify the problem.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: It probably seems like a cop-out to go with something as generic as good health, but the injury bug simply can’t be ignored when discussing the Rockets. Both Yao Ming and Kevin Martin have missed significant time the last few years – a trend that will have to be reversed if Houston is to meet its goal of being a top-4 team in the West.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: Health is the No. 1 concern for this team. The Grizzlies have been relatively healthy in each of the past two seasons, but an injury to one of the starters would put a lot of pressure on a still unproven reserve group to produce results.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The combination of integrating so many new players, along with a very difficult early schedule (10 of the first 11 games are against teams that finished above .500 last season), make for a very challenging start to the season. In the West, there’s obviously little wiggle room to begin the 82-game slate slowly.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Also health. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are somewhat fragile at this point in their careers. Tony Parker was hampered with several injuries last year including a broken hand and plantar fasciitis. Tiago Splitter picked up a strained plantaris muscle in preseason and had a habit of missing games in Spain with nagging injuries.
Not including your team, which Southwest Division club are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Give me Houston. I know Rick Adelman will get them to play hard every night. I’ve always had an immense respect for Yao and will be hopeful he can bounce back from injury. Their backcourt should prove to be entertaining if Aaron Brooks continues to develop and if high-scoring Kevin Martin remains healthy.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: So long as Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker are sporting the silver and black, and Coach Popovich is pacing the sidelines, it will always be the Spurs for me. Some find San Antonio’s style boring. I call it beautiful basketball.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: It will be interesting to see if Tim Duncan and the Spurs have one final run in them before Duncan’s game starts to slip. Although it seems that basketball pundits have been predicting the fall of the Spurs for some time now, they still have the guns to make a run at the Lakers this spring.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Houston, partly because the predictions I’ve seen on the Rockets seem to range anywhere from division champ to non-playoff team. I’m interested to see a full Houston season with Kevin Martin and how the carefully planned usage of Yao Ming impacts their success.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Not to suck up or anything, but the New Orleans Hornets. Chris Paul is a favorite of mine to watch. With him being healthy this season, I’ll be tuning in plenty – assuming he doesn’t get traded, that is.
Among the other 10 teams in the Western Conference, which club are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Definitely Oklahoma City. The exciting, young, Thunder gave the Lakers a real fight in the first round. How can you not like Kevin Durant’s humility off the court and his MVP caliber game on it? Their biggest challenge is like many teams who jump up in one year… they won’t sneak up on anyone now and must adjust to having a bit of a target on their back
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: It has to be Oklahoma City, right? While LeBron James stole all the headlines off the court this summer, Kevin Durant owned them on it. He’s simply a joy to watch and makes every Thunder game a must-see event.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: The Clippers have an interesting mix of players, starting with their rookie of the year candidate, Blake Griffin. The talent is there for the Clippers to make a run at one of the final postseason spots, but they will have to overcome their own franchise’s history to do so.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Oklahoma City came within one defensive rebound from taking the Lakers to a Game 7 in the playoffs. Behind the duo of Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, it should be fascinating to see if the Thunder can make another big step as the newest force in the West.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: It was down to the Milwaukee Bucks and Los Angeles Clippers to be my League Pass mistress this season, and since this is about the West, I’ll have to say Clips. Blake Griffin looks every bit like a monster.
Also not including your team, which Southwest Division rookie are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: I gotta go with Tiago Splitter of the Spurs. You would think a rookie is not likely to be a big factor on a vet-laden title hopeful but of course he is no ordinary rookie. The Brazilian was the MVP of the Spanish League last year and has the size and experience that should help the Spurs immediately. Despite an already long career in Spain he is only 25 as well.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: It seems as if we’ve been hearing about Tiago Splitter’s NBA potential for nearly a decade. Now that the Brazilian big man is finally here, I’m eager to see how his talents translate for a Spurs team that desperately needs him to blossom quickly.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: The Spurs basketball community has been awaiting the arrival of international big man Tiago Splitter for quite some time, and now that he has arrived, he will be expected to be the big body on the blocks that protects Tim Duncan. If Splitter can produce, the Spurs could surprise some people.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: San Antonio’s Tiago Splitter. There has been so much discussion about him and many believe he’ll easily make the largest impact of any first-year Southwest player. I’m also curious to see the impact of Xavier Henry on a rising Memphis team that needed a perimeter shooter.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: It’s kind of an uninspiring rookie crop in the Southwest this year. I’ll go with the Houston Rockets’ Patrick Patterson. I’m not totally excited about watching him, but I thought he was a solid pick for Houston.
In your opinion, who is most likely to be the division’s 2010-11 “breakthrough” player from another team?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: I’m not saying this since I’m writing for the good folks of New Orleans, but I like the Hornets’ Marcus Thornton The makeup of the roster puts him as one of the clear top 4 options on offense. As a rookie he averaged 14.5 points a game and there is no reason he can’t do that and more this year for a Hornets team that could be better thus putting him on the league’s radar.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: It might take him a month or more to do so, but I’m betting on Dallas’ mercurial Rodrigue Beaubois to break out once he recovers from a broken foot. Look for Roddy Buckets to bring speed and scoring to an aging Mavs team in need of both.
Matt Tumbleson, Grizzlies.com: Watch out for Rodrique Beaubois this season for the Mavericks. His youth, quickness and athleticism perfectly offsets the experience of Jason Kidd and Jason Terry in the Mavericks backcourt. He could get significant minutes if Kidd has proven to have lost a step at all this summer.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: I don’t know if any of these guys will get enough playing time to deliver a breakthrough, but second-year players I’m keeping an eye on include Dallas’ Rodrigue Beaubois, Houston’s Chase Budinger, Memphis’ Sam Young and San Antonio’s DeJuan Blair.
Andrew McNeill, Spurs blogger: Chris Paul. Not a breakthrough, per se, but people seem to forget that he’s the best point guard in the NBA and one of the top four players in the league. Out of sight, out of mind, I guess.