Season Preview: Western Conference - Southwest Division
WESTERN CONFERENCE – SOUTHWEST DIVISIONMark Remme
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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 2013-14 campaign. Part III features the Southwest Division. The Spurs look to find a way back to the NBA Finals after narrowly missing out on their fifth title last year, while the Grizzlies look to get over the hump and Houston hopes Dwight Howard will deliver its first title since 1995.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS 2012-13 Record: 58-24 (1st Southwest Division, 2nd Western Conference—Lost NBA Finals to Heat 4-3)
2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-2
Additions: Marco Belinelli (free agent), Jeff Pendergraph (free agent), Manu Ginobili (re-signed), Tiago Splitter (re-signed)
Losses: Tracy McGrady (retired), DeJuan Blair, Gary Neal
The ageless wonders in San Antonio have been so good at continuing their success, we’re well past the point where we’re surprised they continue to do what they do. Conventional wisdom would suggest a decline was imminent two or three years ago. Not so fast. Gregg Popovich’s club has won at least 50 games in 15 of the last 16 seasons, with the lone exception being the lockout-shortened year of 1998-99 when the club went 37-13 and won the NBA title. This past year, San Antonio raised the ante once again by reaching their first NBA Finals since 2007 and narrowly missing out on the franchise’s fifth championship. Had it not been for a miracle finish by the Heat in Game 6, San Antonio would be raising another banner this autumn.
So forgive us if we’re expecting another ageless season out of the Spurs in 2013-14. The core three of Tim Duncan (17.8 ppg, 9.9 rpg), Tony Parker (20.3 ppg, 7.6 apg) and Manu Ginobili (11.8 ppg, 4.6 apg) are still intact, and the re-signing of Tiago Splitter at the 5 was a major offseason priority (10.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Kawhi Leonard put up 11.9 points and shot 49.4 percent from the field last year, and at 22 years old during the Finals he showed incredible poise and maturity beyond his years (11.8 ppg & 8.9 rpg against Miami). San Antonio lost sharpshooter Gary Neal in the offseason but added Marco Belinelli to fill that role, and in the starting lineup Danny Green will add that long-range punch on a nightly basis. While a return to the NBA Finals will be a tough road, this squad continues to find a way to win. Expect them to be in West’s top four when we enter the postseason.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES 2012-13 Record: 56-26 (2nd Southwest Division, 5th Western Conference—Lost Western Conference Finals to Spurs 4-0)
2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 3-0
Additions: Kosta Koufos (trade), Josh Akognon (waivers), Mike Miller (free agent), Tony Allen (re-signed), Jon Leuer (re-signed), Jamaal Franklin (draft), Janis Timma (draft)
Losses: Darrell Arthur (trade), Donte Greene (trade), Tony Wroten (trade), Fab Melo, Austin Daye
The Grizzlies came up one series short of the NBA Finals last year, and their entire group is back to try and take that next step. With another year of experience under its belt, this squad certainly has an opportunity to do just that. Their starting five is as solid as any around the league, led by a bruising pair of bigs up front in Marc Gasol (14/1 ppg, 7.8 rpg), the reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, and Zach Randolph (15.4 ppg, 11.2 rpg). At the point, Mike Conley not only scored 14.6 points per night last year but also added 6.1 assists and 2.17 steals. Tony Allen at shooting guard is one of the most well-respected defensive wings in the league, and the veteran Tayshaun Prince added a little extra defensive zeal at the 3 after he was traded at the deadline from Detroit last year. The result was Memphis holding its opponents to a league-best 90.0 points per game last year.
This year’s group has new leadership as David Joerger takes over for Lionel Hollins, and on the bench they’ve added center Kosta Koufos from Denver, sharp-shooter and two-time NBA champion Mike Miller from Miami and swingman Jamaal Franklin through the draft. If Miller is able to provide the 3-point punch he did for the Heat and Koufos can follow up on career highs in points, rebounds and blocks from a year ago, that will go a long way in bolstering the Grizzlies’ bench. Depth will be the main component in keeping Memphis on the right track toward getting out of the West and into the finals. Their defense should lead the way.
HOUSTON ROCKETS 2012-13 Record: 45-37 (3rd Southwest Division, 8th Western Conference—Lost Western Conference Quarterfinals to Thunder 4-2)
2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-1
Additions: Dwight Howard (free agent), Aaron Brooks (free agent), B.J. Young (free agent), Ronnie Brewer (free agent), Marcus Camby (free agent), Omri Casspi (free agent), Francisco Garcia (re-signed), Isaiah Canaan (draft)
Losses: Thomas Robinson (trade), Royce White (trade), James Anderson, Carlos Delfino, Tim Ohlbrecht
Houston generated incredible buzz this offseason by winning the Dwight Howard sweepstakes, as the seven-time All-Star and three-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year opted to try and revitalize Clutch City. But adding one Superman does not a season make—just ask the Lakers last year. It’s still to be determined how this group will mesh together and whether or not they have enough fire power—even with Howard and shooting guard James Harden in the starting five—to leap into the top four spots in the West. Howard and Kobe weren’t able to make it happen last year, so until we’ve got a sample size it’s hard to make claims the Rockets will meteorically rise to the top of the conference.
That being said, Howard is unquestionably the most coveted center in the league when it comes to talent. He averaged 17.1 points and 12.4 boards last season in a down year. Add in James Harden’s 25.9 points and 5.8 assists per game, and this is a dynamic and frightening pick-and-roll combo. Howard already seems to feel at home with coach Kevin McHale’s wisdom leading the way—particularly because of his Hall of Fame career in the Celtics’ front court—and small forward Chandler Parson (15.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) was vocal about how his friendship with Howard helped lure him to Houston. Houston added Aaron Brooks to help add depth behind Jeremy Lin. They also added Marcus Camby as a backup center. The biggest question is how Houston will use Omer Asik (10.1 ppg, 11.7 rpg) with Howard now on the roster. If either Howard or Asik moves over to the 4 (Howard is reportedly open to experimenting at power forward) and the transition is successful, Houston would now have a 4-5 punch similar to Memphis in terms of size, physicality and rebounding. Putting a Lin-Harden-Parsons-Howard-Asik lineup together is an intriguing proposition.
DALLAS MAVERICKS 2012-13 Record: 41-41 (4th Southwest Division, 10th Western Conference—missed playoffs)
2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 2-2
Additions: Jose Calderon (free agent), Wayne Ellington (free agent), Monta Ellis (free agent), Devin Harris (free agent), DeJuan Blair (free agent), Samuel Dalembert (free agent), Bernard James (re-signed), Brandan Wright (re-signed), Shane Larkin (draft), Ricky Ledo (draft)
Losses: Jared Cunningham (trade), Elton Brand, O.J. Mayo, Chris Kaman, Anthony Morrow, Darren Collison
The turnover continued in Dallas this offseason, and aside from Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion (12.1 ppg, 7.8 rpg last year) it’s tough to identify this Mavericks team when compared to years past. Those are the lone two holdovers from the 2011 title run, and in the subsequent three offseasons this Mavs team has changed its roster time and time again. This year, there are six new free agents and two draft picks currently on the roster.
Who are these new faces? Spanish point guard Jose Calderon (11.6 ppg, 6.6 apg) moved from Detroit and will take over the starting duties. Monta Ellis (19.2 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and former Wolves guard Wayne Ellington (7.9 ppg) will get the majority of the time at the 2, Brandan Wright will back up Nowitzki at power forward and Samuel Dalembert (6.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg) will get the starting nod at center. But as they have for the past 14 seasons, the Mavs hopes begin and end with Nowitzki. Coming off 17.3 points and 6.8 boards last season, he failed to average 20-plus points for the first time since 1999-00 and was not selected to the All-Star Game for the first time since 2001 (part of that was because he missed all of November and most of December recovering from knee surgery). But he’s still Dirk, and he’s still incredibly effective. He hit 41.4 percent of his 3-point attempts last year and still shot 47.1 percent from the field. He’s an imposing force that remains clutch at the end of games, and when you put a Hall of Famer together with a sharp coach like Rick Carlisle, and there’s always a chance for success.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS 2012-13 Record: 27-55 (5th Southwest Division, 14th Western Conference—missed playoffs)
2012-13 Record vs. Timberwolves: 1-3
Additions: Tyreke Evans (trade), Jrue Holiday (trade), Greg Stiemsma (free agent), Anthony Morrow (free agent), Al-Farouq Aminu (re-signed), Lance Thomas (re-signed), Jeff Withey (draft), Pierre Jackson (draft)
Losses: Robin Lopez (trade), Terrel Harris (trade), Greivis Vasquez (trade), Lou Amundson, Xavier Henry, Roger Mason, Jr.
New name, new results? We’ll see. New Orleans replaced its Hornets mascot with the Pelicans this offseason, but if this squad has better fortunes than the Hornets of the past few years it will have far more to do with their offseason activity. Coach Monty Williams has worked through back-to-back sub-30 win seasons, but there is reason for optimism in the Big Easy heading into 2013-14. While it won’t likely be enough to elevate this team into the postseason, it will put the franchise headed in the right direction.
Let’s start with the pieces already in place. Shooting guard Eric Gordon (17.0 ppg) was the team’s leading scorer a year ago, and he is the team’s most dynamic athlete. Even standing at 6-foot-3 and playing the 2, Gordon gets his every night. Anthony Davis (13.5 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 1.9 bpg) provides some scoring and rim protection, and Al-Farouq Aminu provided 7.3 points and 7.7 boards while starting 71 games last year. This offseason, New Orleans sent their lottery pick to Philadelphia for All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday and added Greg Stiemsma and rookie Jeff Withey to pair with Jason Smith at center. The Hornets also sent Greivis Vasquez to Sacramento and Robin Lopez to Portland in a trade that brought Tyreke Evans (15.2 ppg, 4.4 rbg, 3.5 apg) to the bayou. The combination of Holiday, Gordon, Evans and Davis in the starting lineup presents some intrigue. But they’re young and they don’t have an incredibly deep roster, so there will be some growing pains involved along the way for the new-look Pelicans.