The NBA Southwest Division will feature many newcomers in the 2016-17 season. The Dallas Mavericks, Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans, and San Antonio Spurs were active in the off-season. Each team added high-end talent, but also lost key contributors. With that said, for the most part, the steady cores in the Southwest Division remained intact. The division will be competitive, as each team looks to contend for the playoffs. Whichever team can best integrate its new players and recover from its departures will have the greatest chance to dethrone the Spurs.
In addition to this article, be sure to check out Last Word on Pro Basketball‘s podcast previewing the Southwest Division.
2016-17 NBA Southwest Division Preview
The Dallas Mavericks’ steady core remains intact. Rick Carlisle is still one of the best coaches in the NBA. Dirk Nowitzki will be in Dallas for at least another two years, and Deron Williams re-signed for one year.
However, looking to build on their playoff appearance, the Mavericks picked up some key players from the Golden State Warriors. They signed Harrison Barnes and traded for Andrew Bogut, both of whom are upgrades at their respective positions.
Barnes’ durability will be a big boost, as Dallas’ former small forward, Chandler Parsons, missed 37 games over two seasons with the Mavs. Barnes has played in at least 78 games in three of his four NBA seasons. Although he had a weak playoff run, expect Barnes to benefit from having a larger role in the offense, now that he isn’t playing alongside the likes of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
If Barnes can play in at least 75 games and chip in 15 points per game (or more) with good defense, his signing will pay dividends.
Bogut is a veteran with playoff experience. A strong, defensive-minded center, he will be a good compliment for Nowitzki in the frontcourt. Although Bogut is aging, the Mavericks have quality frontcourt depth behind him.
Dwight Powell provided Carlisle with good hustle minutes last season, so he was rewarded with a new contract. Salah Mejri also played quality minutes in last year’s playoffs, so expect him to build on his experience.
Dallas also has solid depth in the backcourt. Devin Harris and J.J. Barea are still around, and Seth Curry looks to continue his strong preseason play into the regular season. Swingman Justin Anderson had an up-and-down rookie season, but he emerged in the playoffs; he averaged 9.4 points in just 19.4 minutes per game. He will likely continue to improve and play a key role off the bench.
The Mavericks have a solid starting lineup and quality depth. They have a top coach and a great blend of youth and experience. However, there are still injury concerns, and as players age, their production declines. The Western Conference is still strong, so expect to see Dallas finish in the 7-10 range.
The Houston Rockets had a busy off-season. They hired offensive-minded Mike D’Antoni as head coach. D’Antoni has bounced around the NBA throughout the last decade; he spent time with the Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, and Philadelphia 76ers. He will incorporate a fast-paced, high-scoring system in Houston.
D’Antoni’s first move was to name James Harden the team’s new point guard, moving him over from shooting guard. In six preseason games, Harden averaged 21.8 points and 10.7 assists per game. Despite a small sample size, the move seems to be paying off.
The Rockets’ signings of Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon accurately portray D’Antoni’s idea of a dynamic offense. A career 37.7 percent three-point shooter, Anderson will create a spacing nightmare for opposing bigs.
Gordon is a career 38.3 percent three-point shooter, but he hasn’t played in more than 65 games since his rookie season. If Gordon can play in at least 65 games, he will be a dangerous weapon in the backcourt.
However, there are more aspects to the game than offense. Houston’s front office refused to address its bottom-feeding defense. Last season, the Rockets finished 25th in the NBA in points allowed per game at 106.4, and 22nd in defensive rating at 109.1.
They ignored their glaring weakness by bringing in a coach whose teams have a history of struggling defensively. They also let their defensive anchor and top rebounder, Dwight Howard, leave for the Atlanta Hawks.
Now, Houston is banking on Clint Capela to fill Howard’s role, but Capela can’t pick up his teammates’ slack. Harden, Gordon, and Anderson are all minus defenders. Trevor Ariza is the only other quality defender in the starting lineup.
The Rockets also have depth uncertainty. Patrick Beverley, who was supposed to start alongside Harden, might need knee surgery. Now, the injury-prone Gordon will start, which forces K.J. McDaniels, who played in only 37 games last year, into a greater role off the bench.
The Rockets will have an electric offense. However, their defense and bench won’t be good enough to make a deep playoff run. Expect to see Harden and company fighting for a seventh or eighth seed in April.
The Memphis Grizzlies seek to make the playoffs for the seventh consecutive season in 2016-17. They go into the season with the same core — Tony Allen, Mike Conley Jr., Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph. However, they made big moves over the summer, naming David Fizdale head coach and signing the aforementioned Parsons to a max contract.
The Grizzlies were 30-21 and the fifth seed last season before Gasol got injured. After that, their season imploded. Conley went down, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green were traded, and their entire team changed. Memphis played with 28 different players last year, and by the playoffs, they looked like a D-League team.
Instead of blowing up the core, the front office believes that the Grit ‘N Grind Grizzlies have another playoff run in store.
Thus far, the team has had nothing but positive things to say about their new coach, as the former Miami Heat assistant employs a new system.
Parsons gives the Grizzlies something they haven’t had with the current core: a scoring wing who can be a secondary ball-handler for Conley. Parsons gives Memphis another dimension of offense. He will open up the floor for Conley, Gasol, and Randolph. Instead of solely being viewed as a defensive team, the Grizzlies now have the potential to be a top-10 offensive team.
However, much of their success hinges on health. Parsons hasn’t played in 70 games since 2013-14. Gasol is coming off a foot injury. Conley is recovering from an Achilles injury.
The bench is another area of concern. Rookie Wade Baldwin is likely to be Conley’s backup; Vince Carter is entering his age-40 season; Brandan Wright was injured for the majority of last season; none of the backup wings have played meaningful NBA minutes before.
If everything goes right for the Grizzlies — Parsons, Gasol and Conley stay healthy, and the young players excel in their bench roles — they will contend for the fourth or fifth seed in the West.
With that said, it’s easy to see one of those conditions not happening. If that’s the case, Memphis will be in the same position as Dallas and Houston.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans look to get back on track following a disappointing 2015-16 season.
Anthony Davis hopes to cement his place in the NBA hierarchy after a shoulder injury ended his 2015-16 season. In the preseason, he averaged 16.6 points and 5.4 rebounds per game in just 19.4 minutes per game. However, the former Kentucky Wildcats star shot just 39 percent from the field in those five games.
Yes, the preseason isn’t often a good indicator of how the regular season will play out, and Davis is still recovering from shoulder surgery. Even then, Davis’ shooting struggles point to the lack of a supporting cast around him. A career 52 percent shooter’s production doesn’t drop that far unless he’s the only player the defense has to worry about.
Now that the proven contributors are gone or away from the team, the Pelicans are banking on players stepping into roles in which they aren’t accustomed to playing.
The area of concern for the Pelicans is the backcourt.
Tim Frazier is the starting point guard, but he played in just 16 games for New Orleans last season. He did perform well in those games (13 points, 7.5 assists in 29 minutes per game), but it’s hard to predict an inexperienced third-year player.
E’Twaun Moore had a solid season with the Chicago Bulls last year. He played in 59 games and started 22 of them. Playing consistent, starting minutes is new territory for the young shooting guard. He is capable of succeeding in the role if he continues to improve and stays healthy.
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Pelicans. They have a solid roster, but they lack a secondary scorer alongside Davis. Injuries and inexperience are also big question marks.
If the young guns develop and everyone stays healthy, New Orleans will be back in the playoff race.
San Antonio Spurs
Everyone knows what to expect out of this team. The San Antonio Spurs have made the playoffs every year since 1998. As long as Gregg Popovich is in charge, they won’t slow down.
After a disappointing second-round exit at the hands of the Oklahoma City Thunder, the Spurs hope to get back to the top of the NBA.
Although Tim Duncan’s retirement hurts, the addition of Pau Gasol will be a huge boost. He will fit right into their system as a shooting and passing big. The Gasol-LaMarcus Aldridge frontcourt will be a nightmare for opponents.
Kawhi Leonard will continue to build on his already-impressive NBA resume. He made the All-NBA and All-Defensive first teams last season and won Defensive Player of the Year. Leonard is now a top-five player in the league.
The Spurs have size, which is a big advantage over the Warriors. To go along with the best starting frontcourt in the league, they have a solid bench. Their main backups are Dewayne Dedmon, David Lee, and Kyle Anderson. The determinant factor is the backcourt.
A lot of the Spurs’ success hinges on Danny Green. He had a down year last season, shooting just 33.2 percent from deep. If he can regain his form as a 41 percent three-point shooter and a lockdown defender, the Spurs will be in good shape.
San Antonio should win the division and be a top-three seed. However, the team’s playoff success depends on its backcourt. If Parker and Ginobili show that they can still compete with younger players, and if Green gets back on track, the sky’s the limit.
November 20, 2015: San Antonio Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge (12) drives against New Orleans Pelicans forward Anthony Davis (23) during the game between San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans, LA. New Orleans Pelicans defeat San Antonio Spurs 104-90. (Photograph by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire) (Photo by Stephen Lew/Icon Sportswire/Corbis via Getty Images)