Saturday, October 07, 2006

NBA Preview: Southwest Division

How would you like to be in this division? To say it’s loaded would be quite an understatement. You have to feel for Memphis, because when you lose Pau Gasol in this division, you’re staring at a very long year.

DALLAS MAVERICKS (2005-2006 record: 60-22. Lost in NBA Finals to Miami)

Predicted division finish: 1st

They came up just short in their bid for a championship last year, but I think they’ve become the team to beat in this division and maybe in the Conference for the foreseeable future.

Dirk Nowitzki showed in the postseason that he can carry a team, and while his Finals series wasn’t the best, Dirk is still a guy you’d want to build your franchise around. I expect him to be ultra-motivated to get back to the Finals.

Josh Howard also emerged as a superstar in the making during the postseason. He’s looking for a new contract and at some point he’ll get one since he makes a perfect second scoring option for Nowitzki.

This is an unbelievably deep team. Devon Harris, Jason Terry, Anthony Johnson, Jerry Stackhouse, rookie Maurice Ager and newcomer Greg Buckner make up the backcourt. Up front, DeSagana Diop, Erick Dampier, Austin Croshere and Devean George join Nowitzki and Howard. That’s a heck of a lot of talent for Avery Johnson to use in his rotations.

The big key for Dallas is their switch from run-and-gun offensive team to a team with a defensive attitude. They come into this season hungry to get back to the Finals. There is a newfound nastiness to this club, and that’s what the Mavs needed all along.

I think Dallas will prove that last year’s Finals run was no fluke.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS (2005-2006 record: 63-19. Lost in round 2 to Dallas)

Predicted division finish: 2nd

The Spurs were stunned at home by Dallas to end a grueling seven game series last season, and everything changed with that one loss.

Now, you can’t simply pencil the Spurs into the Finals to start the year because they’ve been joined - if not passed - by other teams at the top of the Conference.

Tim Duncan remains arguably the game’s best big man, but he’s been plagued by injuries for the last two seasons. If Duncan isn’t right, then the Spurs aren’t right. He’s come into camp as healthy as he’s been in years, but remember, this is a team that’s played deep into the postseason most years, which means a lot of wear and tear on his body. All that said if Duncan is healthy, the Spurs could beat anyone.

Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili comprise one of the game’s best backcourts. Parker became a much larger offensive threat last year when he made his first All-Star team, and Ginobili is a force on both ends of the floor.

The Spurs rebuilt themselves up-front by adding Jackie Butler and Francisco Elston to replace Rasho Nesterovic and Nazr Mohammed. To me, that seems to be a wash.

My main concern for San Antonio is how old the bench has suddenly gotten. Brent Barry, Michael Finley, Jacque Vaughn, the great Robert Horry and even Bruce Bowen have all seen their best days come and go. On a team with some injury questions, the last thing the Spurs need is an old, broken down bench.

The Spurs are built on defense and the trio of Duncan, Parker and Ginobili. If they’re healthy, it’ll be another successful year in San Antonio. There’s no reason to think the Spurs won’t be right there at the top of the West, but I think they’ve taken a step back to the pack.

HOUSTON ROCKETS (2005-2006 record: 34-48. Missed playoffs)

Predicted division finish: 3rd

Here we go again for another season of Yao and T-Mac.

Since McGrady was dealt to Houston, the discussion about the Rockets has been the same: This is the best 1-2 punch in the league and the Rockets will be Western Conference championship contenders.

However, we’re all still waiting for it to happen and it’s all on Tracy McGrady’s back…literally.

T-Mac’s back continues to give him problems. He played in only 47 games last season and was never the real Tracy McGrady. For the Rockets to succeed, he must be healthy. If he’s not, this team has no chance. It’s that simple for Houston.

Yao, too, found himself with some injury problems last year that limited him to 57 games. Jeff Van Gundy is blaming shoes for Yao’s toe issues that are lingering into the start of training camp. The good news for Rockets fans is that when Yao played last season, he was phenomenal, averaging a double-double for the first time in his career.

Houston has added some depth around Yao and McGrady that could help. Bonzi Wells came aboard for virtually nothing, and will help with scoring. Shane Battier was acquired to do the little things, rebound and play solid defense.

Ultimately, how successful Houston is depends upon the health of their stars. Van Gundy builds his teams around defense, but if Yao and McGrady can’t get on the floor for the whole season, the Rockets are going to lose a lot of low-scoring games. If healthy, the Rockets seem to be a pretty good bet to make the playoffs. If not, they’re looking at a repeat trip to the lottery.

NO/OK HORNETS (2005-2006 record: 38-44. Missed playoffs)

Predicted division finish: 4th

The Hornets were a big surprise under Byron Scott a year ago, and they look poised to perhaps make a serious playoff run thanks to an off-season of wheeling and dealing.

Chris Paul had one of the best rookie seasons ever, taking the league by storm and re-energizing an entire franchise along the way. He almost carried the Hornets to the postseason a year ago, and this year he has a lot more scoring options to feed.

The biggest is Peja Stojakovic, who arrives with a big, new contract and a desire to quiet some critics. Stojakovic should be a perfect fit for the Hornets up-tempo offense since he will likely find himself with a lot of open looks from the outside.

Another addition that should fit in well is Tyson Chandler. Chandler is a pretty good shot-blocker and rebounder, but he was never able to get his offensive game on track in Chicago. I expect Chandler to fit much better in a running attack, and he’ll find himself with plenty of dunks thanks to Paul.

Bobby Jackson can also be a perfect fit on this squad, but he’s had a tough history with injuries. If he’s healthy, this may end up being the biggest of all the off-season moves.

David West, Desmond Mason, Marc Jackson and Rasual Butler give the Hornets a pretty athletic and offensive-minded eight-man veteran rotation. Add in rookies Hilton Armstrong and Cedric Simmons, and there’s more talent than some people realize on this roster.

I like the Hornets a lot, and I think they’ll have a legitimate shot at the 8th seed in the West this season if all the newcomers prove to be a good fit.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (2005-2006 record: 49-33. Lost in first round to Dallas)

Predicted division finish: Last

It feels strange to put the Grizzlies last in the division, but when Pau Gasol went down at the World Championships, Memphis gasped and still hasn’t recovered (assuming they care about the Grizzlies).

This is not a roster that can bounce back from losing its best player. They’ll turn to Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire, Hakim Warrick and Mike Miller to get them through the tough months before Gasol is healthy, but I just don’t see how they can keep it together.

Rudy Gay is the star of the future for the franchise, but motivation has always been the knock on Gay, so it will be interesting to see if Mike Fratello and Jerry West can get through to him.

Stromile Swift finds himself back with a team he desperately wanted to get away from. That should be fun to follow, as Swift has never lived up to being the 2nd overall pick in the draft.

Memphis needs a healthy Pau Gasol to win, and since they won’t have that until at least the beginning of 2007, I can’t see any way they finish higher than last in this tough division.

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