Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson

NBA Southwest Division roundtable: 2021-22 season preview, part 1

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

One of the NBA’s most competitive divisions since its inception in 2004-05, the Southwest is currently undergoing a bit of a transformation. Dallas and New Orleans brought in new head coaches this summer, while Houston and San Antonio have bid farewell to many of the veteran players who made them perennial playoff teams. As young as the Rockets and Spurs have become roster-wise, Memphis is another Southwest squad now relying heavily on a group of players still early in their pro careers. To preview the upcoming season around the Southwest, Pelicans.com gathered together our familiar panel, including Dallas TV play-by-play broadcaster Mark Followill, Houston radio play-by-play broadcaster Matt Thomas, Memphis website writer Michael Wallace, New Orleans website writer Jim Eichenhofer and NBA.com writer Michael Wright (covering San Antonio for us here):

2021-22 NBA SOUTHWEST DIVISION PREDICTIONS In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

It’s hard to answer what the biggest story is for the Mavs. The organization underwent major changes, the likes of which have not been seen around here for over a decade, with Rick Carlisle out after 13 years and Donnie Nelson after 21 seasons as GM. So it goes without saying a lot of eyes will be on Jason Kidd as head coach, returning to the team he won an NBA championship with in 2011. Also, the organization is certainly excited to have longtime Nike executive and fantastic relationship builder Nico Harrison as GM. But it’s hard to sort of measure what a GM is doing when you watch things on a game-to-game basis, that is a longer-term, bigger-picture evaluation. On the floor, Kristaps Porzingis looks healthy and energized and ready to return to the form of February and March 2020 (when he was a 25/10 type of player) and a lot of eyeballs will be on his play this season too.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

How will all these young players mesh together as this team starts from scratch? There is lots of talent on this team but growing pains are a given. There are a lot of guys that want to live up to the hype. This backcourt of Porter and Green could combine for 40 points and 10 assists a night. But can they back it up on the defensive end of the floor? Meanwhile Christian Wood will want his looks too as he’d like to be a double-double guy every night. If he can stay healthy, that is certainly a good possibility.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The biggest story for the Grizzlies is the re-integration of Jaren Jackson Jr. into the lineup as a focal point alongside franchise catalyst Ja Morant. The tandem has been together for two years, but have limited experience together because of Jackson’s injury history. If Jackson can blossom into the All-NBA type talent he’s projected to be, look out for these young Grizzlies.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

Can New Orleans improve defensively and reach the Western Conference playoffs under new head coach Willie Green? Zion Williamson is now sidelined by a foot injury to open the regular season, but New Orleans made key veteran additions (Jonas Valanciunas, Devonte’ Graham) that could put it in better position than last season to compete while the 2021 All-Star is unable to play. The Pelicans also believe they’ve upgraded their perimeter shooting and can greatly improve their performance in clutch time (17-22 record in 2020-21, via NBA.com). A few excruciating late-game losses last season dealt a severe blow to the Pels’ pursuit of a play-in berth.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

How the young Spurs handle more significant roles. Over the past couple of seasons, San Antonio played through DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge, which in a small way, probably stunted the growth of some of the youngsters. Those vets are gone. So, San Antonio will lean on players like Keldon Johnson, Dejounte Murray, Jakob Poeltl, Derrick White and Devin Vassell; perhaps even rookie Josh Primo, who will be 18 years old when the season opens. Gregg Popovich is energized by the youth infusion, and you can expect a more up-tempo style to go with the mistakes that come with youth.

2021-22 NBA Southwest Division Predictions What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

The biggest reason for optimism will be an easy one to answer for years to come and that is Luka Doncic. When you have a 22-year-old who already has two first-team All-NBA selections and the biggest rookie contract extension in league history and will be in the MVP conversation at the start of every season, then that always fuels optimism. Luka had a tremendous run in the Olympics, then took a couple of weeks off but returned to camp in good physical condition and ready to take the next step in his career. He’s the first to say that next step is team success in the playoffs and not MVP chatter, so that’s his laser-like focus this season.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Kevin Porter Jr could be a 20-point-a-night scorer. Jalen Green and Alperen Sengun want to be Rookie of the Year candidates. Christian Wood can make baskets from any spot on the floor. The Rockets have designed a clear path to a future success. Go with youth. Daniel Theis was a sneaky good acquisition during the offseason and should be a lead-by-example type guy. This team is full of athletes who won’t be afraid to try to run opponents out of the gym.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The Grizzlies carried the league’s youngest playing rotation into the playoffs last season, and are looking to build on their first postseason appearance in four years. Taylor Jenkins enters Year 3 as coach with his system in place and his roster molded to fit his system almost perfectly. And Ja Morant is determined to run the show, with sights set on an All-Star nod.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

New Orleans boasts one of the most talented and productive starting forward combinations in basketball in Williamson and Brandon Ingram, who’ve made one All-Star appearance apiece over the last two seasons. There is a ton of young talent on this roster, including five first-round picks since 2019 (Williamson, Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis Jr., Trey Murphy III). The No. 17 pick in this year’s draft, Murphy has been beyond impressive in summer league and preseason. It will be fascinating to see which Pelicans among the team’s large stable of young prospects makes a big second- and third-year leap.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

It’s been mentioned before, but for the Spurs it’s their youth, which will translate into a faster, more intense style of play, not to mention all the youthful mistakes that are likely to come with it. Luckily, Gregg Popovich is the guy running the show. Popovich’s leadership and coaching acumen should soften the learning curve for all the young players, while helping the squad steal a few wins that nobody will be expecting.

2021-22 NBA Southwest Division Predictions What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

I guess for any team you are always concerned about things outside of your control like health. Fortunately, this year’s schedule won’t be flooded with back-to-backs like last season so it should allow for more key players to be available for the Mavs. Second, and I’m not sure this is a concern as much as it is an unknown, but the Mavs are really talking improvement on the defensive end of the floor under Jason Kidd. They’ve been 18th and 21st the last two seasons in defensive rating. So, can they make the jump on defense to couple with their potent offense, and create the recipe for a team that can advance out of the first round for the first time since winning the league’s championship in 2011? I’m excited to see if they can do it, as it is very much the focus organizationally.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

This team is so young. Most of them are accustomed to winning. Can these guys grow and begin building chemistry even if the team doesn’t have a lot of wins this season to show for it? Also, Theis and Sengun are the team’s only true centers (Wood can play both 4 and 5)… Will larger teams try to own the paint and/or try to get Rockets big men in foul trouble?

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Staying healthy is the biggest concern for every team. But that’s especially the case, given the Grizzlies’ recent history. We think Jaren Jackson Jr. can be a star in this league. But through three seasons, he’s yet to get through an entire year relatively healthy. His health and availability unlocks the upside hovering slightly above this squad, but definitely within reach.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

New Orleans has continually placed in the bottom 10 of defensive efficiency statistics over the past decade, one reason why the Pelicans have not been a consistent playoff team, despite having at least one All-Star every season since 2013-14. Generating offense has rarely been the problem in the Crescent City; if Green can transform New Orleans into a stingier defensive squad, the Pelicans will be able to take further advantage of Williamson and Ingram in transition and potentially jump ahead of some of the West teams they’re expected to vie with in the standings.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

Now, this is getting repetitive. But again, it’s San Antonio’s youth. Yes, the Spurs used the offseason to add established vets such as Dough McDermott, Thaddeus Young, Zach Collins, Bryn Forbes and Al-Farouq Aminu. But just two players (Farouq and Young) on the roster are in their 30s, while 13 are age 25 or younger. The Popovich factor should help, but ultimately, this is the youngest team he’s coached.

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