Season Preview: Western Conference - Southwest Division
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Editor’s Note: Timberwolves.com will break down each of the NBA’s six divisions leading into training camp, highlighting the moves each team made and what to watch for during the 2012-13 campaign. Part III features the Southwest Division, where San Antonio looks to repeat as the Western Conference’s top regular season club.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS
2011-12 Season record: 50-16, 1st in division, 1st in Western Conference, lost Western Conference finals to Oklahoma City Thunder (4-2)
Boris Diaw (re-signed), Tim Duncan (re-signed), Daniel Green (re-signed), Patrick Mills (re-signed), Marcus Denmon (via Draft), Nandu de Colo (via 2009 Draft)
James Anderson (to Hawks), Derrick Byars
As it’s been for more than a decade, what you see is what you get with the San Antonio Spurs. Each year it seems like the speculation looms how much longer the team can be elite with its aging core, led by Tim Duncan, but each year coach Gregg Popovich finds a way to produce a title contender. Last year was no different, as San Antonio earned the top seed in the West and rallied off a 20-game winning streak before falling the Oklahoma City Thunder in the conference finals.
But the question again looms for San Antonio: Will this be the season the Spurs make that descent? Duncan will turn 37 during the playoffs, and Manu Ginobili turned 35 in July. Yet while Duncan registered his second lowest points and rebounding averages (15.4, 9.0) of his career last season, point guard Tony Parker took control. He became the team’s go-to offensive threat and a legitimate MVP contender, putting up a career-high 7.7 assists per game and registering 18.3 points a night. Popovich seemingly gave Parker more authority on the court, and he didn’t disappoint.
With no major additions this offseason, the Spurs will look very similar to a year ago. They’ll mix and match Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson at the small forward spot and depend on a rotation of Duncan and DeJuan Blair with Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter. And you can bet Popovich’s crew will be one of the most technically sound units in basketball as they’ve been for his entire 17 year career at the helm—the Spurs had the second highest offensive points per game total in the NBA a year ago. But if San Antonio doesn’t win it all this year, it will be six seasons since their last championship. Which begs a familiar question: Is this the Spurs’ last go-around?
2011-12 Season record: 41-25, 2nd in division, 4th in Western Conference, lost Western Conference quarterfinals to L.A. Clippers (4-3)
Wayne Ellington (from Wolves), J.J. Kennedy (from Cavs), Darrell Arthur (re-signed), Marreese Speights (re-signed), Harned Haddadi (re-signed), Jarryd Bayless (from Raptors), Tony Wroten (via Draft)
O.J. Mayo (to Mavs), Dante Cunningham (to Wolves), Jeremy Pargo (to Cavs)
After posting the franchise’s best winning percentage (.621) in its 17-year history, the Memphis Grizzlies lost a back-and-forth, seven-game series to the L.A. Clippers to open up the Western Conference playoffs last April. This year’s squad returns with its primary starters in place and expectations heightened after two straight playoff appearances. But a pair of key reserves left this offseason, meaning Memphis will need to find a new spark off the bench this winter.
Returning is an effective and athletic starting five headlined by its front court. Center Marc Gasol was an All-Star a year ago, and despite battling injury for much of the season power forward Zach Randolph still averaged 11.6 points and 8.0 rebounds per game. Marreese Speights started 54 games at power forward last year in Randolph’s absence and added 8.8 points and 6.2 boards a night. Small forward Rudy Gay is a dynamic presence on the court, able to score in volumes and can be a factor on the boards. In the back court, Mike Conley averaged 6.5 assists and 2.2 steals a night, and Tony Allen is also one of the team’s most active defenders.
The biggest holes heading into this season are on the bench, where Memphis lost guard O.J. Mayo to Dallas and Dante Cunningham to Minnesota. Mayo was the team’s spark off the bench, averaging 1.7 points a game and connecting on 36.4 percent of his 3-point shots—second best on the team. Cunningham was a defensive presence, a nice option off the bench that helped the Grizzlies hold opponents to 93.0 points per game. Incoming is former Wolves guard Wayne Ellington who could gain more minutes in Memphis particularly with Mayo’s departure. But with expectations raised and a talented, athletic group across the board returning, look for Memphis to again be a difficult team to face in 2012-13.
2011-12 Season record: 36-30, 3rd in division, 7th in Western Conference, lost Western Conference quarterfinals to Oklahoma City Thunder (4-0)
Delonte West (re-signed), Chris Kaman (from Hornets), O.J. Mayo (from Grizzlies), Darren Collison (from Pacers), Dahntay Jones (from Pacers), Elton Brand (from 76ers), Jared Cunningham (via Draft), Bernard Jones (via Draft), Jae Crowder (via Draft)
Jason Kidd (to Knicks), Jason Terry (to Celtics), Lamar Odom (to Clippers), Kelenna Azubuike (to Cavs), Ian Mahinmi (to Pacers), Brendan Haywood (to Bobcats)
Coming off an NBA championship, the Dallas Mavericks never quite found their rhythm last season and quickly bowed out of the Western Conference playoffs as the seventh seed against Oklahoma City. But with their roster revamped, the Mavericks might have gotten themselves back on track. Newcomers Elton Brand and Chris Kaman headline a new-look front court that will complement perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki and sharpshooter Shawn Marion. Kaman, a center, had an effective year with the struggling Hornets a year ago, averaging 13.1 points and 7.8 rebounds. Brand, a 13-year veteran, brings a big frame to the Mavs’ front court.
The key to Dallas’ success always runs through Dirk Nowitzki, who is coming off his 11th straight All-Star Game selection. Nowitzki’s production dipped a year ago down from 51.7 percent shooting in 2010-11 to 45.7 percent in 2011-12, and his 21.6 points per game were his lowest since the 1999-2000 season. Still, Nowitzki is a threat near the rim and from behind the arc with his seamless fadeaway shot.
For the second straight year the Mavs lost a point guard in the offseason—JJ Barea a year ago and veteran Jason Kidd this summer. Dallas landed both Darren Collison and re-signed Delonte West at that position, then added O.J. Mayo at shooting guard to make up for the loss of Jason Terry, who spent eight seasons with the Mavs.
2011-12 Season record: 34-32, 4th in division, 9th in Western Conference, missed playoffs
Jeremy Lin (from Knicks), Omer Asik (from Bulls), Carlos Delfino (from Bucks), Jon Brockman (from Bucks), Jon Diebler (from Blazers), Toney Douglas (from Knicks), Gary Forbes (from Raptors), JaJuan Johnson (from Celtics), Shaun Livingston (from Bucks), Jeremy Lamb (via Draft), Royce White (via Draft), Terrence Jones (via Draft), Furkan Aldemir (via Draft), Donatas Motiejunas (via 2011 Draft), Scott Machado
Goran Dragic (to Suns), Kyle Lowry (to Raptors), Chase Budinger (to Wolves), Marcus Camby (to Knicks), Samuel Dalembert (to Bucks), Courtney Lee (to Celtics), Luis Scola
Few teams have revamped their rosters more than the Houston Rockets this offseason, essentially trading away, waiving or not re-signing seven of their top 10 performers from a year ago. In fact, of their three most used starting lineups from last year—spanning a combined 51 of their 66 games and mixing a combination of eight players—only Kevin Martin and Chandler Parsons remain on the club.
Gone are guards Goran Dragic, Kyle Lowry and Courtney Lee, forwards Chase Budinger and Luis Scola and centers Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby. Coming in are guards Jeremy Lin and Toney Douglas from New York, center Omer Asik from Chicago and four first-round draft picks ranging from Minnesota-native Royce White to Kentucky standout Terrence Jones. One thing is certain: Whether or not Houston matches its 34-32 record a year ago, Kevin McHale’s crew will look drastically different come November.
One returning player to watch will be shooting guard Kevin Martin, who at 6-foot-7 has the size to play aggressive defense on the wing and also has been a sound scorer in his career. He and Lin should give Houston a dynamic scoring punch from its guard play. The key to the Rockets’ success will be how well its youthful roster adjusts to the NBA game and to one another, particularly in an experienced division that houses San Antonio, Dallas and Memphis.
NEW ORLEANS HORNETS
2011-12 Season record: 21-45, 5th in division, 15th in Western Conference, missed playoffs
Eric Gordon (re-signed), Roger Mason, Brian Roberts, Ryan Anderson (from Magic), Edin Bavcic (from 76ers, Robin Lopez (from Suns), Hakim Warrick (from Suns), Anthony Davis (via Draft), Austin Rivers (via Draft), Darius Miller (via Draft)
Marco Belinelli (to Bulls), Chris Kaman (to Mavs), Carl Landry (to Warriors), Trevor Ariza (to Wizards), Gustavo Ayon (to Magic), Jerome Dyson (to Suns), Jarrett Jack (to Warriors), Emeka Okafor (to Wizards), Darryl Watkins (to 76ers)
New Orleans cleaned house similar to Houston this offseason, but after battling through a 21-45 year a season ago the Hornets’ fanbase can’t help but be optimistic about their team’s moves. New Orleans snagged highly anticipated first overall pick Anthony Davis out of Kentucky, then nabbed Duke guard Austin Rivers with the 10th overall pick in the Draft. They cut ties with Chris Kaman, Marco Belinelli, Carl Landry and Trevor Ariza, but they should have a healthy Eric Gordon this season and have added 3-point threat Ryan Anderson from Orlando and center Robin Lopez from Phoenix.
The key to New Orleans making strides this year reside in Davis, the consensus No. 1 pick in last June’s Draft that carries a lot of expectation into his rookie season. The 19-year-old was named the 2012 Naismith & AP National Player of the Year, a First Team All-America selection and an NCAA champion with the Wildcats. He finished the year averaging 14.2 points, 10.4 rebounds and 4.7 blocks per game while connecting on 62.3 percent of his field goal attempts. If he brings that dominant presence to both ends of the floor, the Hornets will be well on their way to revitalizing their squad.
It wouldn’t hurt having Eric Gordon healthy all season, either. Gordon played in only nine games last year after being traded from the Clippers in the Chris Paul deal. But when he was on the floor, he averaged 20.6 points. He and point guard Greivis Vasquez, who averaged 12.4 points and 7.6 assists per 36 minutes last year, could greatly improve New Orleans’ back court if they stay healthy and get minutes this year.