Previous division previews below
Alright we only have a few more division previews to get to before the regular season kicks off on the 22nd, so let's keep it moving with today's choice: The Southwest Division.
If every division were to have a theme, I'd say a pretty obvious one for the Southwest would be promise. This division is LOADED with elite young talent who showed a whole bunch of promise last sesaon. There are some title contenders mixed in as well, so based off what we saw last season and how teams have improved this offseason, there is reason to be excited if you're a fan of any of the five teams in this division. Let's dive in
2019-20 record: 44-28
Key Offseason Additions: John Wall, DeMarcus Cousins, Christan Wood, Sterling Brown
Key Offseason Departures: Robert Covington, Russell Westbrook, Tyson Chandler, Austin Rivers, Jeff Green
Playoff Performance: Lost in 5 in the second round
We may as well begin with the most dramatic team in the entire division. I mean, no other team in the league is being held hostage by their MVP and franchise player. I almost put James Harden in the departures list but as of this blog he's still on the team so we'll pretend he's actually going to play for the Rockets this season. There's reason to think that with Harden in the mix and John Wall/Boogie both looking great this preseason that the Rockets should absolutely still contend this season. That's why this Harden bullshit is so confusing. His team is still good! Last year's version had a top 10 offense, a top 13 defense, and a top 10 net rating while winning close to 50 games. He's acting like this is a lottery team which is certainly not the case.
I'll be curious to see how different they look under a new coach, but as long as Harden is on the roster you can assume the Rockets will run isolation more than any other team. Last season they led the league in running iso at a 19.6% frequency. They ranked in the 100th percentile, so I'd argue it's a pretty good strategy for them. We know they'll continue to jack up threes at an insane rate, but there is one area of offense where I'm thinking they can get a whole lot better.
After signing Christian Wood, we can assume the days of only playing guys who are 6'7 and under are done. When it came to running the P&R, the old Rockets stunk out loud, especially when it came to the roll man. They ranked in the 24th percentile in roll man P&R. We saw flashes of that be effective with a legit rim runner in Clint Capela in the past, well guess who ranked in the 95th percentile as a roll man last year?
You now have a point guard in Wall who is a plus passer and is at best in the P&R, you have the same thing with Harden, and now they have a young center who can thrive in this rim running role. Back in the day Capela ran that shit with a 32% frequency, so if the Rockets offense is going to be anything like it was pre-Capela trade, I would imagine Wood slides right into that spot.
The one thing that is a little questionable is if the Rockets aren't blowing it up, why the hell did they trade Robert Covington? Feels like he could help considering the biggest question outside of James Harden's future is this team's defense. It's not like they added a bunch of legit defenders this offseason, and with the West only getting stronger I do wonder how they'll be able to contend if they can't stop anybody.
If the Rockets struggle, they would classify as a team that could be sellers at the deadline with some pretty valuable pieces. PJ Tucker is in the last year of his deal and only makes like $7M, maybe Eric Gordon could be flipped for assets. The last few years have been a tough mix of playoff underachievement and injuries, so I'm at least hoping everyone on this roster stays healthy. I really want to see how Wall/Harden look together because I do think it can work. Especially with how John Wall has looked this preseason. There's no reason to think this team can't once again be a top 4 seed if Harden plays nice, but there for sure won't be a lack of drama as the year goes on.
2019-20 record: 43-32
Key Offseason Additions: Josh Green (rookie), James Johnson, Josh Richardson, Tyrell Terry (rookie), Tyler Bey (rookie), Wes Iwundu
Key Offseason Departures: Seth Curry, JJ Barea, Justin Jackson, Delon Wright
Playoff Performance: Lost in 6 in the first round
You want to talk about a team getting a ton of hype this season? Look no further than the Mavs. There are people who are talking about this team being a legit Finals contender THIS season. I mean I get it, Luka is a fucking god and is only going to get better. I'm not sure what that even looks like considering he just put up like 30/9/8 in Year 2. Maybe that means the numbers won't be different but his efficiency will be much better. He did have a jump from 42% to 46% from the floor last year, so maybe his 3P% will jump from like 31% to like 35-37% this season. Imagine how devastating he'll be to defend if he can shoot league average from three? That's one of the remaining areas of his game that should only improve as he gets older.
The Mavs showed a lot of good signs last season and were a surprise 7 seed, and really they were right there with the HOU/OKC/UTA's of the world. Those teams won 44 to the Mavs 43 games. You would think that they are poised to make another leap, but there are certainly questions that will ultimately decide their fate.
The most important question is obviously the health of Porzingis. He's already dealing with a knee issue, and if the Mavs are going to reach their ceiling and make a Finals like people think, it all comes down to what version of Porzingis they get and if he can stay healthy. When he's right, he's a monster next to Luka. Someone who can play inside/outside and protect the rim, he's a huge reason why this team is tough to defend. Remember, the Mavs had the #1 offense in the ENTIRE league last season. This team knows how to score and has the talent to put up points when healthy. But if Porzingis is banged up, that certainly changes things.
The second question is how impactful will their rookies be. Losing the shooting of Seth Curry hurts, but not if Tyrell Terry can come in right away and be a consistent shooter. Their second unit will have to rely a bunch on both Terry and Josh Green to produce, and that's not always a given. The Mavs bench was a little better than league average last season, so I would imagine the hope is the return of Dwight Powell and the development of Jalen Brunson will take some pressure off the rookies.
The third question has to do with their achilles heel, which is defense. As great as their offense was last year, they did themselves no favors on the defensive end. It's never a great sign when you give up the same amount of points per game as the Kings. Out of the 16 teams last year in the playoffs, the Mavs had the 15th ranked defense. When you're talking about contending for a Finals spot in the West, you have to be able to defend.
I can understand the hype surrounding the Mavs because of their franchise player, but until they can show some real improvement on the defensive end and Porinzgis can show that he's 100% healthy, maybe pump the brakes.
2019-20 record: 34-39
Key Offseason Additions: Desmond Bane (rookie)
Key Offseason Departures: Josh Jackson
Playoff Performance: missed the playoffs
I would say the Grizzlies surprised a lot of people last season. Despite relying on mostly young talent, they won waaaaay more games than people thought. Sure they ultimately blew their spot in the playoffs, but that's OK. This is a young team learning on the fly. Their core of Ja Morant/Jaren Jackson Jr/Dillon Brooks/Brandon Clarke showed a lot of promise and there is plenty of reason to be excited about this group heading into the year.
In terms of team ranks, this was a 21st ranked offense, 14th ranked defense, and 17th ranked net rating squad. I don't think it's a stretch to think there should be an improvement in all three of those areas now that their young guys have another year under their belt. The next hurdle for them to overcome is being way better against the good teams in the league. The Grizzlies were just 10-23 against teams .500 or better last year, and obviously playing in the West where every team is good, that has to improve. I feel like it's always an easier jump to make offensively than defensively for young players, so if the Grizzlies can have close to a top 10 defense and a league average offense, why couldn't they make the playoffs? Even if you think their contention last year was mostly due to teams being injured, there's something to be said about young players getting that experience. Ja Morant is a STUD. Jackson and Clarke look like hits in terms of the front court. If this team can stop blowing double digit leads (18-21 in 10 point games), why couldn't they take a leap?
The fear I would have as a Grizzlies fan is this might be a Sacramento Kings 2.0 season. Remember two years ago when the Kings came out of nowhere and were actually pretty good, winning close to 40 games (39)? Well, that didn't transition to the next season where they only won 31. Obviously, you could argue the Grizzlies have better talent, but that would be my fear. That last year was maybe too early for the team to truly make a jump, and with everyone else healthy they'll be right where many thought they would end up last year. Good, but still a high lottery team.
On the flip side, maybe their young talent proves to truly be special. That's what makes this Grizzlies season so exciting for me. You could tell me they'll end up a 7-8 seed or you could tell me they'll be an 11th seed. I think everything is on the table.
San Antonio Spurs
2019-20 record: 32-39
Key Offseason Additions: Tre Jones (rookie), Keita Bates-Diop, Devin Vassell (rookie)
Key Offseason Departures: Marco Belinelli, Bryn Forbes
Playoff Performance: missed the playoffs
The Spurs are rebuilding after missing the playoffs for the first time in many stoolies' lives. They are in a weird transition spot where they are starting to move towards a youth movement but also employ DeMar DeRozan, Rudy Gay and LaMarcus Aldridge. That pairing put up numbers last year, but it did not translate to wins. It was one of the more fascinating storylines of their season. You have DeRozan putting up 22/5/5 on over 50% shooting and LMA being his old self, yet they couldn't win. Did you know the Spurs also had a top 10 offense last year? I bet you didn't.
But like many other teams that missed the playoffs, the issue was the defensive end. When was the last time we saw a Coach Pop team rank 24th defensively and have a negative net rating. They were baaaaddddd on that end. There is reason for optimism though. Guys like Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker are legit young players with tons of potential. Jakob Poeltl is probably the best young center you never hear about. Who knows, maybe they are able to flip some of their aging veterans for pieces at the deadline. Vassell and Jones could be classic late picks that turn out to be awesome players for the Spurs. I wouldn't rule that out, it happens every goddamn year.
To me the Spurs feel like the type of team that will always play you tough, but aren't good enough to actually pull out wins. The issue is they need to pick a direction. Living in NBA purgatory certainly is no way to live. I think we've seen they've decided to go young, so their roster doesn't really make a whole lot of sense as it stands now. The issue is their salary, but we've seen big number salaries get traded just this offseason. I would imagine contenders might want their vets heading into the playoffs if Pop is willing to sell.
In terms of their season goals, since they're rebuilding it's not about wins and losses. It's all about developing their young talent. When you're core players are now 26, 24, 25, 21, and 20, it's all about getting them experience and real game development. That probably goes against what their vets want, but this isn't a playoff team and you have to commit to your future at this point.
New Orleans Pelicans
2019-20 record: 30-42
Key Offseason Additions: Eric Bledsoe, Steven Adams, Willy Hernangomez, Wenyen Gabriel, Kira Lewis (rookie).
Key Offseason Departures: Derrick Favors, Jrue Holiday, Frank Jackson, Jahlil Okafor, E'Twaun Moore
Playoff Performance: missed the playoffs
Zion. That's the biggest story for the Pelicans. Finally, he'll be able to play this year with zero restrictions which is music to everyone's ears. In terms of a rebuild, it's hard to not like what David Griffin has done since trading AD, and now bringing in some established veterans should only help. For a team that ranked 21st in defense, I don't hate adding Bledsoe and Steven Adams. They should help there. I do have questions about the fit of Adams playing next to Zion, but I'm sure that'll work itself out.
The Pelicans gave Brandon Ingram a max extension this offseason so it's time for him to make another leap. The one he took last year was legit as hell, especially when it came to his outside shooting. That's a real weapon now after not really being a factor while he was on the Lakers. Even outside of Zion and Ingram this team is loaded with intriguing young talent. I think Jaxson Hayes and Nickeil Alexander-Walker should be much better this season, and then you sprinkle in Lewis Jr as a second unit point guard and the future does look bright in NO.
There are also questions though. Lonzo Ball did not get a rookie extension like Ingram did. We know he's legit as a passer and a defender, but that shot is broken as fuck. It was a disaster in the bubble. With Bledsoe/Lewis in the mix, this is a big prove it year for Lonzo before he becomes a RFA this summer. If he takes a leap, he could be very expensive to keep. If he stinks, maybe they don't even offer the 14M qualifying offer he's owed.
If you're telling me that Zion will stay healthy and will finally be without his training wheels, and the defense improves to league average based on their offseason additions, this could absolutely be a team that competes for a 8-9 seed. The NBA is making every effort they can to make Zion a star, they are on TV all the goddamn time, so at some point they're going to have to put it all together. I do wonder if maybe they try and flip JJ Redick or Adams/Bledsoe at the deadline, but there's no denying that Ingram/Zion are as legit a young duo as you'll find in the league. I just want to see what it looks like when they take the kid gloves off everyone.
All in all, I'd say there are two guaranteed playoff locks in this division with HOU/DAL. Both are hoping to be contenders. There is a chance if the young guys take a leap that we see one of NO/MEM also sneak their way into at least the play in game. This is a division that may be a little ahead of their time to shine, but they'll for sure give us some entertaining basketball and truly that's all I care about.