Zion Williamson battles with Memphis forward Josh Jackson for a rebound

Southwest Division roundtable: Return to play overview

by Jim Eichenhofer
@Jim_Eichenhofer

All five Southwest Division teams have been invited to the 22-team format in Orlando, but they will enter the competition facing varying circumstances related to their positioning in the Western Conference standings. Houston is a playoff lock; Dallas is extremely close to wrapping up a spot; Memphis has the inside track at the No. 8 seed; New Orleans and San Antonio must perform well to have a chance at earning a berth in the play-in round. To find out more on the specifics for the division’s clubs, we again checked in with our Southwest Division panel.

What was your initial reaction to the impact of the details of the NBA’s return on your team?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

I felt the details were very positive for Dallas. I was concerned about the possibility of a play-in tournament involving the seventh seed and given that the Mavs are so far in front of the 8-9-10 etc. teams it would have been disappointing to face a potential one- or two-game playoff and possibly get bumped from a spot. Now the Mavs go into Orlando with a magic number of two to clinch an outright playoff spot and avoid any chance of the 8-9 play-in tournament. Also with the news that winning percentage will obviously be used to determine standings since teams will not have the same number of games, the deficit of three games that the Mavs have in the loss column to Houston and OKC isn’t as formidable. The Mavs could move out of 7 and a potential first-round series with the Clippers by being just two games better than either OKC or Houston in the eight seeding games. So very positive from a basketball standpoint. From a health standpoint, the league has done the best they can so let’s hope things improve in Florida and everything will come off as smoothly as possible.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Needless to say, I miss the NBA. In my current capacity as public address announcer and road radio play-by-play, I get two unique looks at the game I love. When I’m at the scorer’s table, I feel the pulse of the Toyota Center home crowd directly. When I’m on the road, you see what a homecourt advantage can do, especially with teams that may not be as good as you are on paper. The Orlando campus at Walt Disney World intrigues me. For the players, it will be a mentally and physically survival of the fittest. I think this will help veteran teams with players still chasing a title. That’s why I think a lot of people in the NBA believe this type of environment could actually help the Rockets.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

All things considered under the circumstances, the NBA got it right. The Grizzlies, based on the return-to-play format, are able to maintain their current spot in the Western Conference standings with an inside track to the playoffs. And, they should benefit from the 3 1/2-games lead they built over the teams bunched up behind them in the battle for that final playoff spot in the West. Now, there’s still work to do. But the Grizzlies are eager to prove through these eight “seeding” games that what they’ve done through the first 65 games of the season was no fluke.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

By far the biggest initial response was excitement, to learn that the Pelicans would be able to continue their season, especially after speculation that the NBA might proceed directly to a 16-team playoffs without them. I understand the reasoning behind it, but it was a bit surprising that the play-in format includes only a maximum two-game “series” between eighth and ninth place. With New Orleans trailing current No. 8 Memphis by 3.5 games, the eight seeding games are not a lot of time to make up that ground; even if the Pelicans finish ninth, they’ll have to beat the Grizzlies twice, which is no easy task. New Orleans also was supposed to have the NBA’s easiest remaining schedule on paper, but lost weaker potential opponents when the field in Orlando was cut from 30 teams to 22.

What does your team hope to accomplish during the eight seeding games? Also, what is the overall goal?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

I think the goals are pretty simple and clear. Clinch a playoff spot ASAP and try to re-establish rhythm and cohesion under these unusual circumstances before the playoffs start. Stay healthy of course and that means the typical injuries any NBA player faces and obviously COVID-19. Moving up in the standings would be a plus. The Western Conference is so tough (again) but the Lakers and Clippers seem to be a level above the competition. It looks like the Lakers will be 1 and the Clippers have the inside track on 2. Any opponent will be tough and I just want the Mavs back in the playoffs after missing the previous three seasons but ideally you would like to avoid those teams.

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

The Rockets see these eight seeding games as a chance to potentially move up the standings. If they win and get a little help, they could go from a 6 seed to as high as a 3. Utah with the Bogdanovic injury seems the most vulnerable, as we don’t know how the Mitchell/Gobert relationship will play out in Orlando.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

The Grizzlies finally get to integrate Justise Winslow into the system these eight games. Winslow was limited to just 11 games this season because of a back injury that kept him sidelined after he was acquired at the February trade deadline. The versatile forward was on the verge of making his debut March 12 at Portland, but the NBA suspended the season the previous night amid the COVID-19 outbreak. On top of that, fighting to maintain a playoff spot and potentially advancing to the first round will make every game Memphis plays in Orlando feel like something major is at stake.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

From Day 1, David Griffin stated that a primary goal for ’19-20 was for a mostly inexperienced New Orleans team to get the chance to play in meaningful games, whether that was in the race for a postseason berth, or actually competing in the playoffs. Given how tight the West 8/9 standings are, these eight contests will be the most pressure-filled NBA games that early-career starters Brandon Ingram, Lonzo Ball and Zion Williamson (and reserves like Josh Hart and Nicolo Melli) will have played so far. The most realistic goal team-wise is to earn the No. 9 seed and a spot in the play-in round. Overtaking Memphis at No. 8 also should be on the radar, but only if New Orleans can make some early progress in reducing a 3.5-game deficit. Other than fans of teams like Portland, Sacramento, San Antonio and Phoenix, who wouldn’t want to see a Pelicans-Grizzlies play-in matchup, featuring the NBA’s two most exciting rookies?

What impact, if any, did the extended hiatus have on your team’s health?

Mark Followill

Mavericks TV

The best news is Luka Doncic was really banged up from a heavy workload and nagging thumb and ankle issues. So those are much better now. Unfortunately Dwight Powell (Achilles) and Jalen Brunson (torn labrum) are still out with injuries suffered in January and February, respectively. We learned this week Courtney Lee suffered a bad calf injury during the hiatus and will be out. That is most unfortunate as he had carved out a spot in the rotation in late February and early March providing solid 3-and-D minutes. He's a very well-liked and respected veteran voice in the locker room who will be missed on the floor.

 

Matt Thomas

Rockets Radio

Houston indirectly has benefited from the time away. James Harden and Eric Gordon look leaner in social media posts. PJ Tucker, who’s always in the top 10 in minutes played, is totally refreshed. Russell Westbrook has remained healthy most of the season. Not playing in back-to-back games has had a positive effect on his play since the turn of the calendar year.

Michael Wallace

Grind City Media

Few teams have actually benefited from the hiatus as much as the Grizzlies. At the time the season was suspended in March, Memphis was down four rotation players because of injuries to Winslow (back), Jaren Jackson Jr. (knee), Brandon Clarke (quad) and Grayson Allen (hip). Winslow, Jackson and Clarke overcame varying injuries during the break and were ready to go when players returned to their markets. Allen’s status remains in question. The challenge now is to fit all of the pieces together again. Assuming health, coach Taylor Jenkins could easily go 12-deep in a rotation anchored by Jackson, Morant and Jonas Valancuinas.

Jim Eichenhofer

Pelicans.com

New Orleans was actually far healthier by mid-March than it had been early in the season, when two frontcourt starters (Williamson and Derrick Favors) were sidelined for lengthy stretches. Shooting guard JJ Redick and combo forward Kenrich Williams were close to returning to action when the NBA suspended play on March 11, so it was a plus that neither had to miss any additional games. Due to ongoing injury/rehab efforts, Williamson and Williams were granted exemptions to continue working out in the team’s practice facility during the hiatus. A key reserve on the ’18 playoff team, Darius Miller is now 10 months removed from an Achilles injury. By all indications, he’s focused on preparing for ’20-21.

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