The Spurs continue their championship legacy, the Mavericks and Rockets play catch-up, the Grizzlies bear down, and a Pelican is on the cusp of greatness
Don’t forget to tune in to Place To Be Nation’s NBA-Team Podcast as Andrew Riche and Adam Murray break down every division for the upcoming season. Click here for the Southwest Division preview.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (Last season: 62-20, 1st in Southwest, 1st in Conference)
IN: Boris Diaw (re-signed), Patty Mills (re-signed), Matt Bonner (re-signed), JaMychal Green, Josh Davis, Bryce Cotton, Kyle Anderson (draft)
OUT: Damion James
After a seven-year absence from the throne, the San Antonio Spurs are back on top as the defending world champions with a lineup that blends old with new in a lot of ways. Sure, the throwback Hall of Fame quartet of head coach Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili remain as the leaders of the team, and Boris Diaw and Marco Bellinello are not exactly spring chickens themselves. But the Spurs also include a nice infusion of young talent like up-and-coming small forward Kawhi Leonard, Brazilian center Thiago Splitter, and Aussie mighty mite Patty Mills (quite the international flavor they have). While the first four rings the Spurs won relied mostly on defense and rebounding, this championship also had a blessed blending of selflessness, grace, and exquisitely run multiple-action offense that became nearly impossible to stop when it was clicking right. The team stats are almost stupefying. They were 6th in scoring, 6th in defense, 1st in assists, 4th in defensive rebounding, 2nd in overall FG percentage, and set a record for 3-point FG percentage at 39.7%. The scary part was that they played even better in the playoffs! The Spurs also had a major axe to grind because of their first-ever Finals failure in 2013 against the Miami Heat.
Duncan swore redemption was his after the Spurs took out the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals, and they did exactly that as they wiped out the Heat in all but one of the five-game NBA Finals series. Duncan and Pop won their fifth rings and the old hats wore down the NBA’s best, but Leonard was the one who won Finals MVP after nearly matching LeBron one-on-one. He is likely to receive a nice extension from the Spurs before free agency next summer, but the beauty in the Spurs lineup also comes in the fact that no one plays more than 30 minutes per game, including pups like Leonard and Danny Green. That will be helpful for Duncan at age 38 and Ginobili at age 37 because both players are in the last year of their deals and no one is certain whether or not they will retire. Parker is still the statistical leader of the team, and R.C. Buford was smart to get his contract extension done now while the team stayed virtually the same. Mills will be out for four months due to shoulder surgery, so they picked up undrafted guard Bryce Cotton just in case they need a scoring PG off the bench. I still see Cory Joseph taking on that role, though. Marco Bellinelli was a solid contributor in the regular season, but did little in the playoffs, so we won’t know about his true value to the team until June. Diaw, in contrast, was great in the playoffs and got rewarded with a new contract as a point forward after leading France to a bronze medal in the FIBA World Cup. Then in the draft, the Spurs snatched a Diaw clone in UCLA’s Kyle Anderson.
PREDICTION: On paper, it seems like it will be smooth sailing once more for the world champion Spurs after having the best record in the league and then tying a bow around it with the Larry O’Brien Trophy. But I do have some small reservations. The Spurs are still bad at getting to the free throw line and are not physical when it comes to snagging offensive rebounds. Hence, the reinforcements by signing Josh Davis and Jamychal Green to see if it makes any difference. Defensively, they were also tops in the league at preventing three-point attempts, but they do have nights where they get blown through by more athletic teams. The Spurs were on a quest to redeem what they let slip away the previous season, and a hungry Popovich team was obviously the most magnificent kind. But will they get leaped by the next challenger now that the Spurs hold the gold? In Pop’s history as a coach, the Spurs have never won back-to-back titles. They might rewrite history by doing so, but this might be their toughest challenge as Duncan and Ginobili fight the twilight. (1st in Southwest, 2nd in Conference)
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (Last season: 50-32, 3rd in Souwest, 7th in Conference)
IN: Vince Carter, Beno Udrih (re-signed), Jordan Adams (draft), Jarnell Stokes (draft), Hassan Whiteside, Kalin Lucas
OUT: Mike Miller, James Johnson, Ed Davis, Jamaal Franklin
When a team gets the stigma of “another year…” attached to their resume, those two words are usually followed by some not-so-nice things. But in the case of the Memphis Grizzlies, it was another year, another good regular season record and healthy playoff performance, so Grizz fans need not worry. There was some worry, however, at the start of the regular season under new head coach Dave Joerger, who had been promoted after Lionel Hollins was let go. After a knee injury to Marc Gasol, the team was 10-15 by Christmas time, and there were rumors that Robert Pera, an up-and-comer in the meddlesome owner department, wanted to fire Joerger, but the players and coaches got on the same page, went back to their old Grint ‘N Grind ways, and the team bounced back in a big way, finishing the season 42-17. Their presence was felt even more when they had two-seeded Oklahoma City’s backs against the proverbial wall and pushed them to seven games, including four that went to overtime.
Just as the success story stayed the same for the Grizzlies, the roster did, too. Zach Randolph got a front-loaded three-year contract and is still a load down low alongside Marc Gasol. The younger Gasol is an All Star in his own right and will be in the last year of his deal, so Pera will likely need to open his pocket books and pay some luxury tax money to keep him. That will be relieved next summer when Tayshaun Prince’s $7 million salary is off the board. Mike Conley is a well above average point guard who will never take over a game at the position but is highly consistent and can make plays for others without much help. Courtney Lee had one of his best seasons, but I expect his production to go down as well as that of defensive stalwart/illogical glue guy Tony Allen. Mike Miller signed with Cleveland, so the GM Chris Wallace made a smart move by signing another veteran small forward in Vince Carter. Carter is a great three-point shooter, something the Grizzlies were dead last in, so that will be a help. I have never been a fan of the Grizzlies’ draft history, but I thought they hit big with big man Jarnell Stokes and sneaky guard Jordan Adams. I bet we will see a lot of Stokes and Kosta Kuofos together in relief of Marc and Z-Bo. Joerger almost bailed Memphis to go with the Timberwolves, but Pera and he patched things up, and I am glad they did because the players responded to Joerger and he will make sure the defensive emphasis stays intact.
PREDICTION: It’s weird to say that the Memphis Grizzlies are “middling” because that middle is right in the thick of the playoff race in a loaded Western Conference where every team is taking wild chances while Memphis stoically goes about their business and stays in contention. They are the closest remnant we have to the dominant teams from the “clank-ball” era in the previous decade when teams coveted size in the middle and commitment on the defensive end, where the Grizzlies rank highly in almost every category. That alone cannot win a title for the Grizzlies in this age, but a playoffs spot is always in the vicinity for a starting roster with such a solid base and so much experience. Tony Allen is losing his fastball on defense, but he is a team leader, and he will help Vince Carter buy in just like did with Mike MIller. I keep saying the offense needs to improve, but Joerger’s team is so set in their ways, when will that ever happen? (4th in Southwest, 9th in Conference)
HOUSTON ROCKETS (Last season: 54-28, 2nd in Southwest, T-4th in Conference)
IN: Trevor Ariza, Jason Terry (trade), Troy Daniels (re-signed), Francisco Garcia (re-signed), Jeff Adrien, Ish Smith, Joey Dorsey, Tarik Black, Kostas Papnikolau, Josh Powell, Clint Capela (draft), Nick Johnson (draft)
OUT: Chandler Parsons, Jeremy Lin, Omer Asik, Omri Casspi, Josh Powell, Jordan Hamilton
My, my, what a tangled web Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has weaved for himself this past offseason. Morey set himself up for weighted expectations when he put the finishing touches on his “Moneyball”-inspired roster with two All Star names in guard James Harden via trade and then center Dwight Howard in free agency. No one was really sure how Houston’s various role players would do alongside Harden and Howard (or how they would do together), but the regular season results, on paper, were highly successful. With a threeball-happy offense under head coach Kevin McHale, the Rockets were consistently good all season long, winning 54 games and finishing top five in a multitude of categories, from three’s made to points to rebounds to free throw attempts to blocks. The rebounds and blocks were thanks large part to Dwight’s presence, but in many ways, it was a stat-geeky case of smoke and mirrors. The defense was still bad and the team lacked in offensive flow late in games because Harden is a selfish ball handler and Howard still lacks assertiveness. That showed in the playoffs when the Rockets lost a tight series with another offensively blessed team. the Portland Trail Blazers.
But the real intrigue for this team came when Morey, who had previously been a champion for compiling smaller assets that may grow into good players, got greedy with the star gazing. While Morey busied himself trying to convince big free agent names like Carmelo Anthony and Chris Bosh to come in as the “missing piece” in Houston and build his own Big Three, he let Chandler Parsons, a player who represented Morey’s diamond-in-the-rough philosophy more than anyone else, go through the back door and sign with the Dallas Mavericks. He even traded Jeremy Lin to the Lakers and Omer Asik to the Pelicans for practically nothing with the idea in mind that Bosh was ready to sign on the dotted line before he decided to re-up with Miami. Morey got desperate for a small forward to replace Parsons and took the next best one left in Trevor Ariza. Ariza has played in Houston before, and didn’t win a lot of fans over, but he is now wiser and a lot more efficient on the offensive end. For Morey, it is almost a reset in some ways because he has Howard and Harden locked in but has to use his GM smarts to find good prospects now that three of his best pieces (Lin, Asik, and Parson) are out. They swung a late trade for Jason Terry, but if he has to start at point guard, it could be a disaster. Patrick Beverley is in the last year of a minimum deal, but he is the team’s best defensive guard and a bulldog of a player, so keeping him will be vital. Terrence Jones has gotten better, but this year is the one where he really steps up alongside Howard. Two players you might see a lot of in the paint are Greek import Kostas Papanikolau and undrafted rookie Tarik Black.
PREDICTION: Morey has done more than enough to keep his job security in Houston although the miscalculated moves this past summer might be the hill he winds up dying on. But the one who might really have to look over his shoulder is McHale, who was seemingly a great fit because he could tutor Howard in big man wisdom. Howard, however, seemed to go through the same motions in the playoffs and he and Harden are needed to play big now more than ever. If they don’t and the new acquisitions cannot bring along the same record last year’s team did, I see some slippage, and a possible change in the coaching seat. I’d still be surprised if the Rockets missed the playoffs, though, because Howard and Harden are such mismatches. (3rd in Southwest, 6th in Conference)
DALLAS MAVERICKS (Last season: 49-33, 4th in Southwest, 8th in Conference)
IN: Dirk Nowitzki (re-signed), Devin Harris (re-signed), Bernard James (re-signed), Chandler Parsons, Tyson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Jameer Nelson, Al-Farouq Aminu, Richard Jefferson, Charlie Villanueva, Ivan Johnson, Doron Lamb, Eric Griffin
OUT: Jose Calderon, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Samuel Dalembert, DeJuan Blair, Wayne Ellington, Shane Larkin
Last season, for the first time since 2000, the Dallas Mavericks were trying to get the bitter taste of missing the postseason out of their mouths. Owner Mark Cuban is renowned for his determination to put a winning team on the court every year, but it was excusable for the Mavs to have at least one mulligan for a season. The team under Rick Carlisle bounced back with a eight-game improvement at 49-33 thanks to several additions like Monta Ellis, Devin Harris, Jose Calderon, Samuel Dalembert, and DeJuan Blair. The Mavericks tried out a similarly retooled roster in 2013 and it failed, but this one was just good enough to get the last playoff spot in the Western Conference, and they made the most of it. Although they were outclassed in the seventh game, Dallas was the only team that pushed San Antonio to an elimination game in the entire playoffs, throwing defensive assignments that stymied the Spurs offense and gave Popovich fits. Carlisle is already known as a great basketball mind from the team’s championship victory in 2011, and this team, daresay, has just the right mojo to remind people of that memorable squad.
One big reminder of that 2011 title run is Tyson Chandler, who is now back as the Mavs’ starting center after a major trade that also brought in Raymond Felton and unloaded Calderon, Dalembert, Wayne Ellington, and Shane Larkin. Two of their most reliable veterans at small forward, Vince Carter and Shawn Marion, left in free agency, and a refreshment was needed at that spot, and Cuban didn’t play around. He signed Chandler Parsons (in controversial manner, according to Rockets GM Daryl Morey) to a 3-year, $46 million deal. Many would argue Parsons got overpaid, but that means Parsons is the third banana on a team with Dirk Nowitzki and Monta Ellis, and I would sign up for that any day of the week. Ellis was shockingly efficient under Carlisle while still scoring 19 PPG as an attacking point guard. He might need to scale that back and be even more selfless in the same manner that Jason Kidd was in that vaunted ’11 season in order to put Dallas over the top. They re-signed Harris and Nowitzki (who took a dramatic pay cut to help put this team together) and gathered a nice mix of veterans and intriguing role players with guys like Jameer Nelson, Richard Jefferson, Greg Smith, Ivan Johnson, Doron Lamb, and Charlie Villanueva. Nowitzki is still a great scorer on most nights, but at this point that is all he can really do, so expect him to be in the background a bit more for this team like Duncan is for the recent Spurs teams. I liked the Nelson signing because it allows Ellis is roam as a shooter if Carlisle wants to more punch at shooting guard by using small ball. They will miss Blair, though, and Brandan Wright is a gaping weakness in the paint.
PREDICTION: The last three seasons since 2012 have felt like one rebooted roster after another for the Dallas Mavericks. Last year, I compared this team to the early 90s Rockets when Hakeem Olajuwon was the centrifugal force and they mixed and matched all kinds of players in key roles year after year with varying results. Dirk is still a 20 PPG scorer but is merely a finisher instead of a constant dominant figure at this stage of his career. I do feel, however, that Mark Cuban and GM Donnie Nelson throw in just the right ingredients to form not only their best team since 2011, but a team that is designed to take down the rival Spurs. We might get a gander at that early on since the Mavs play in San Antonio on opening night. Don’t expect the Mavs to go away when the regular season is over, either. (2nd in Southwest, 5th in Conference)
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (Last season: 34-48, 5th in Southwest, 12th in Conference)
IN: Omer Asik (trade), John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Dionte Christmas, Vernon Macklin, Darius Miller (re-signed), Patric Young, Russ Smith (draft)
OUT: Al-Farouq Aminu, Anthony Morrow, Jason Smith, Brian Roberts, Melvin Ely, Greg Steimsma, James Southerland
I have to ring my homer bell right now for advance notice because I am a New Orleans Pelicans fan and some of these observations may dwell into some combination of overhype, sadness, rage, annoyance, and puzzlement. Coming off of last season, there was only one thing that did not puzzle me about the Pelicans: Anthony Davis is really friggin’ good and is on his way to becoming great. After finishing runner-up to Damian Lillard for Rookie of the Year in 2013, he and Lillard were the first two players from that draft class to make the All Star Game, and there were plenty of reasons why. Davis averaged a double-double in his sophomore season along with 20.8 PPG while shooting 51.9% from the field. He is also quickly turning into the defensive power many foresaw when he was at Kentucky, already leading the league in blocks last year with 2.8 per game along with 1.33 steals per game (The only other big man who averaged more steals than him was DeMarcus Cousins). With all that said, Davis’ ascent was a lot more rapid than the glacial and frustrating ascent of the New Orleans ball club coached by Monty Williams.
Despite the name change from the Hornets to the state bird Pelicans starting last season, Monty himself was the perfect definition of how the more things change, the more they stay the same. GM Dell Demps, under the supervision of new owner Tom Benson, went for the kill in the summer of ’13 by picking up Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday on meaty contracts to go with an albatross of a deal in the back court in Eric Gordon. The team was tortured by injuries that cost 48 games for Holiday, 60 games for stretch four Ryan Anderson, 18 games for Gordon, and even 15 games for Davis. Even with a healthy lineup, though, I still imagine the Pelicans would have missed the playoffs thanks to a rash of unwise coaching moves by Williams like starting Gordon, making Evans (a much better guard) come off the bench, and finishing second to last in three point attempts despite the fact that they were 6th in the league in three point shooting percentage. The offense got a tad better, but the defense (Monty’s calling card) left a lot to be desired. Davis needed a true center inside so that he can play his natural power forward position, and Demps had one fall into his lap in Omer Asik. Asik is on the last year of a $14 million salary, but the interior D is going to be fierce along with young back-ups Jeff Withy and Patric Young. The Pels did lose a lot of role players that contributed last season like Brian Roberts, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Anthony Morrow, and the offseson acquisitions after Asik (John Salmons, Jimmer Fredette, Luke Babbitt) did not win me over. Darius Miller is back and might be a starting SF by default unless Monty goes small and plays Gordon, Holiday, and Tyreke at the same time. While Jimmer is looking to resurrect his career in New Orleans, Austin Rivers needs to simply get his going or he might be out the door.
PREDICTION: Monty Williams is the fourth-most tenured coach in the Western Conference behind Gregg Popovich, Rick Carlisle, and Scotty Brooks. All three of those coaches ahead of him have either been to the NBA Finals or won an NBA Championship. Obviously, Williams has not had as many weapons in his New Orleans arsenal as those three have, but patience has officially run very thin in the Crescent City despite Benson’s classy approach to running a team. He is in Year Three of the AD era, and Monty got to coach Davis in Spain when he shined for Team USA on their way to a FIBA World Cup gold medal. I don’t see trophies for the New Orleans Pelicans this upcoming season, but I think you will see slowly inching improvement. Since 2012, after Chris Paul was traded, Monty’s teams have gone from 21 wins to 27 wins to 34. That pace indicates close to or at .500 this season, but that is still not good enough to make the playoffs in the West, and that might be all the reason Benson needs to fire Monty and Demps. (5th in Southwest, 11th in Conference)