Zion Williamson vs. Houston Rockets

Southwest Division roundtable: 2020-21 season preview, part 1

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

A year after the Southwest Division saw a major talent infusion by selecting twice at the top of the 2019 NBA Draft, the five-team group remains competitive across the board, with every squad in the conversation for a playoff berth or more. In Part 1 of Pelicans.com’s roundtable season preview, writers discuss some of the most noteworthy 2020-21 storylines for their clubs. Each Southwest team will debut in the 2020-21 regular season Wednesday, with Memphis hosting San Antonio in an intradivision matchup; Dallas at Phoenix; Houston hosting Oklahoma City; and New Orleans facing Toronto in Tampa, Fla.

Coming Wednesday: Part 2, a look around the division and Western Conference.

In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

The easy answer is Luka Doncic. He’s at the top of the list to be MVP in a year where he will turn 22 years old and be playing just his third season. That sort of a meteoric rise is unheard of in the league. These are extraordinary times around here to have a player this young and this good and it all has happened in a very short amount of time in NBA terms. I can’t wait to see what sort of show Luka puts on this season.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

It is clearly whether or not James Harden is with this team. It’s frankly the biggest story of the NBA season. The chemistry so far with his current teammates has been good, but most people put little stock in anything you see in the preseason. Will Harden be his normal 35-point, eight-rebound, six-assist guy once the season begins? Will his mind be elsewhere? I like the potential deep rotation that Coach Silas would have with the squad as currently constructed but everything is subject to change based on if and when James Harden is traded.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

How much of a leap will New Orleans make under new head coach Stan Van Gundy? The Pelicans have so much rising talent that for a second year in a row, NBA general managers voted them as the team that has the “most promising young core,” this time garnering 41 percent of ballots. First-time All-Star Brandon Ingram earned the NBA’s Most Improved Player award last season; the Pelicans would love to be the league’s most improved team this season. Ranked 21st in efficiency last season, the defense must tighten up for that to happen.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

San Antonio’s new uptempo, almost positionless style. We’ve watched Spurs coach Gregg Popovich take his teams through various incarnations from the Twin Towers era of David Robinson and Tim Duncan, all the way through the Beautiful Game style that captured the franchise its last championship. Now, we’ll see something new from the Spurs borne from the NBA bubble experience. San Antonio has a couple of early injuries, namely guard Derrick White, which means it might take a little while for the Spurs to fully implement the new style. Look for power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to shoot a lot more 3’s.

What are the biggest reasons to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

They identified a weakness and went out and tried to address it. The weakness was defense, ranking 18th in the league in defensive rating last season. The Mavs traded for good defenders in Josh Richardson and James Johnson and drafted Josh Green in the first round. The return of Dwight Powell and Jalen Brunson after season-ending injuries in January and February respectively should help them on that end of the floor as well. The Mavs understood that the combination of the top-rated offense and the 18th-rated defense while fun is not going to win at the highest level.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

The free agent signings of Christian Wood and DeMarcus Cousins along with the trade of Robert Covington signaled the end of the Rockets’ “small ball.” Wood was a nice free agent pickup and has shown signs that he can a perimeter threat as well as a nice pick-and-roll option. John Wall looks like he’s enjoying the ability to run and compete on a 94-foot court again. A healthy and confident Eric Gordon will be a tremendous third or fourth scoring option (again depending on if James Harden is the first).

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

After adding proven veterans Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe during the abbreviated offseason – both were members of perennial winning teams in Oklahoma City and Milwaukee, respectively – New Orleans has no holes in its starting lineup. The bench features one of the NBA’s all-time great shooters in JJ Redick, as well as hard-nosed catalyst Josh Hart. Then there are a handful of Pelicans in their early 20s who figure to keep improving as they mature and continue to gain NBA experience, including the ultra-talented forward duo of Ingram, 23, and Zion Williamson, 20.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

A postseason berth might be too lofty a goal given the composition of the roster, but that won’t temper expectations locally, as there’s an entire generation of Spurs fans that saw this team miss the playoffs last year for the first time in their entire lives. Popovich automatically gives the team a fighting chance. Fans should be excited and optimistic about the Spurs’ young nucleus of talent, which features White, Dejounte Murray, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson and rookie Devin Vassell. Couple that with the fact the Spurs will have plenty of cap room headed into next offseason.

What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

Two of them for me. One is getting healthy; Kristaps Porzingis won’t play until sometime in January as he recovers from meniscus surgery in October. He averaged 30 points and 10 rebounds a game in the bubble, so the Mavs clearly need a player of that caliber back on the floor sooner rather than later. Also closing out games, the Mavs were 10-19 in games that were within three points at some stage in the last two minutes. If you are going to be a really good team in the NBA, you have to be healthy and win more close games than you lose.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Will James Harden be on this team for some/all/none of the season? The franchise is currently stuck in neutral trying to figure out if James can have a change of heart or whether it is time to move on and really explore trading him? Also, can John Wall be an effective NBA player after not playing in two seasons? Lastly, will Stephen Silas be able to gain the respect of a veteran locker room? It will be interesting to see he runs a team that he thought was going to feature a Harden/Westbrook combo. One is already gone and one may be on his way out.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

The aforementioned defensive end bears watching, starting with Game 1 of the 72-game schedule. New Orleans has shown some encouraging signs in training camp and preseason, but needs to carry that over into real games. Secondly, health was one of the biggest factors last season behind the Pelicans falling shy of their goal of reaching the Western Conference playoffs. Like every team, they’ll need to avoid key injuries and absences. It’s possible some of the team’s youngest players (Jaxson Hayes, Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Kira Lewis) will be able to step into larger roles if necessary.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

San Antonio’s youth is a concern, as it will take its lumps advancing through growing pains under a demanding coach. That youth paired with older established veterans Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and Patty Mills could potentially complicate San Antonio’s attempt at playing a much faster free-flowing style. As you all know, Aldridge and DeRozan are masters of the mid-range game, and both will be asked to shoot more 3’s this season. Will they be comfortable with that? Suffocating defense will also be at a premium, and outside of Aldridge, none of the veterans have proven capable of that consistently.

What are some of the biggest plusses and minuses of the 2020-21 schedule format for your team?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

A larger percentage of games against the East is always good. Usually, you play 30 of 82 against the East, but this year it will be 30 of 72 against the East, so the Mavs like every other Western Conference team will be looking to capitalize on that. A minus is the same one that everyone is dealing with and that is travel is risky right now. The Mavs have a fantastic medical staff that has been meticulous in everything they have done to have the best chance possible to stay COVID-free, but as we all know there are risks with this.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Biggest plus, very few back-to-backs – tied with others for fewest in the NBA. Biggest minus, it’s a rigorous schedule with games almost every other day. There are few days for the team to practice in between games.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

I don’t recall ever seeing so many long homestands in the first half of a Pelicans season. New Orleans has four-, six-, four and three-game stretches in the Smoothie King Center. On the negative side, for some reason it seems like the Pelicans always begin the schedule facing very formidable competition (a factor behind several poor starts in recent years). This time is no different, starting with games at Toronto (in Tampa) and at defending Eastern Conference champion Miami.

Michael C. Wright

NBA.com

This season’s schedule format pretty much provides the best of both worlds. In the past, the Spurs didn’t conduct many practices because the rosters were always full of experienced veterans and the staff wanted to preserve the players. Now, with so much youth on the roster and a new style of play, San Antonio will likely hold more workouts, which will now be easier with the new format. This year’s format also didn’t delete the team’s annual Rodeo Road Trip, and that’s huge because Popovich and the staff believe that trip goes a long way towards developing team bonds.

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