NBA Southwest Division Improvement

NBA Southwest Division Improvement
DENVER, CO - NOVEMBER 13: James Harden (13) of the Houston Rockets sets up the offense against the Denver Nuggets during the second half of the Rockets' 109-99 win on Monday, November 13, 2018. The Denver Nuggets hosted the Houston Rockets at the Pepsi Center. (Photo by AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post via Getty Images)

After the nonstop player movement of summer ’19, the NBA is finally settling down as fans await the next season. During the slow NBA news days of August, this is the ideal time to realize what NBA teams need to do to showcase an improvement from the past year. The Southwest division is full of intriguing teams, many of which are playoff hopefuls.

Southwest Division’s Room for Improvement

Once upon a time, the Southwest division was one of the premier tiers in the NBA. Even if most of the teams included aren’t the championship contenders of years past, the franchises still hold relevancy.  In the last five seasons, the division represents the NBA proudly with 12 playoff appearances.

Among the five teams, there is a championship contender, two franchises on the cusp of a playoff berth, a wildcard playoff roster, and a sure-fire, first-class ticket to the lottery, of a team.

Dallas Mavericks’ Key Improvement

Despite the Dallas Mavericks coming off a solid offseason, there is still a glaring void in the roster. Dallas must improve its rebounding. In the conclusion of free agency, there still isn’t a definite answer if Dallas filled any rebounding needs. The re-signings of the three frontcourt players (Dwight Powell, Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber) and the sole free agent signing of Boban Marjanovic aren’t exactly moving the needle.

Last season, the Dallas Mavericks ranked 16th in the NBA in rebounds per game. Even worse, 19th in the league in contested rebounds, which showcases the lack of absolute strength in the paint. Dwight Powell, the projected starting center, ranked 116th in the NBA in rebound percentage. Not exactly an encouraging stat.

Perhaps Kristaps Porzingis at the four-spot will narrow rebounding opportunities for the opposing team. Kleber is an active defender, but even with the ultra effort, isn’t the answer to Dallas’ rebounding woes. Marjonovic is a legitimate rebounder despite the few minutes allotted to the 7’3” center. In the 11.7 minutes played per game last season, he grabbed a whopping 20.6 rebound percentage.

Although none of the current frontcourt players have a reputation as “board men,” the rebound by committee approach is likely what to expect from Dallas.

Memphis Grizzlies’ Key Improvement

Rest in peace to the Grit and Grind era.

With Mike Conley officially out of the picture, the Memphis Grizzlies are now free to develop the young players on the roster. With all due respect, there is no chance the Grizzlies even sniff a playoff bracket. Memphis’ timeline doesn’t foresee a playoff berth anytime soon. Ironically, the most significant improvement would be to fall lower in the standings.

Jaren Jackson and Ja Morant are the present and future. Andre Iguodala is either trade bait or a buyout candidate. Jae Crowder is another player who makes sense as a trade chip. Pretty much, this team is looked at in two ways:  the two young prospects or a trading block of players.

Memphis has no incentive to win. The franchise has gifted its fans with throwback jerseys and a court theme for the season, and that kind gesture might be an apology for the horrendous team the season ticket holders are going to witness. The Grizzlies’ 2020 first-round pick is top-six protected if the pick doesn’t convey the Boston Celtics keep the pick.

New Orleans Pelicans’ Key Improvement

For the second time in franchise history, the New Orleans Pelicans hit the lottery, literally.

Years from now, the 2019 NBA draft will be deemed as the day of Zion Williamson. Pelicans’ GM David Griffin, added a 19-year-old phenomenon hyped as much as LeBron James coming out of Akron St Vincent-St Mary High School. Even after trading superstar Anthony Davis, Five-Thirty-Eight sees the Pelicans as a bubble team for the postseason.

On a team with so many new pieces, it’s imperative the longest-tenured Pelican, Jrue Holiday is the loudest voice, at least in action. JJ Redick is another veteran voice in the locker room, but this is Holiday’s team until Williamson takes the wheel. Holiday averaged a career-high 21 points, although, despite the uptick in points, his shooting percentages weren’t praiseworthy.

For the Pelicans to even act as if they are playoff ready, Holiday must sustain the scoring load with the efficiency to match. Brandon Ingram has the potential of a good scorer, but at this point in his career, he isn’t a player you can depend on to improve your team.

In addition to Holiday’s on-court performance, the man himself is the ideal player to guide Zion Williamson through his rookie campaign.

San Antonio Spurs’ Key Improvement

Every year Greg Popovich and the San Antonio Spurs make a fool of someone who dares doubt one of the most consistent franchises in sports history.

Despite losing Dejounte Murray to a torn ACL last October, the Spurs managed to push the two-seed Denver Nuggets to a seven-game series. Shooting improvements are next on the docket for the defensive guard. In his rookie year, his true shooting percentage (48) left a lot to desire.

Cue the eye-rolling reactions after watching the video. Videos of players shooting in the gym don’t guarantee equal success during an NBA game. However, it’s relieving to see the promising point guard active after suffering a grueling injury.

If Murray adds even the slightest jumper, the Spurs will once again be a playoff competitor. Add the pleasant surprises of Bryn Forbes and Derrick White, and the Spurs are riddled with a deep backcourt.

Not to mention, DeMar DeRozan is on the team, although last season wasn’t a sound victory for the once-proud Toronto Raptor. Either way, Murray’s competition will keep the young guard on his toes. However, if DeRozan is in the starting lineup, one of them must shoot a three.

Houston Rockets’ Key Improvement

Daryl Morey isn’t one for complacency.

The previous claim is evident in the blockbuster trade which swapped aging Chris Paul for the younger Russell Westbrook. Despite critics and fans alike questioning whether the reunion makes sense in current time, Morey needed an explosive star-player to push the envelope, something the cerebral guard Paul can’t do at this stage in his career.

Westbrook is at a career-defining crossroads, either he becomes an efficient player or he continues to be a black hole on offense. If Westbrook plays well next to James Harden the Rockets finally winning its third NBA Finals is a realistic goal. Unfortunately, Westbrook has a lot to improve upon.

Westbrook finished the 2019-2020 season with a 50 percent true shooting percentage; the lowest mark since his sophomore season. At least with Paul George, he had a defensive player to cover his blemishes. Unfortunately, James Harden isn’t an elite defender. Even with the apparent void on defense in the backcourt, there is something Westbrook does bring.

Westbrook will put pressure on the defense with his explosive play, ultimately putting the Houston Rockets in the bonus. James Harden’s eyes are lighting up visualizing the free throws his new teammate creates.

If Westbrook can become a second-option once again, and tone down the zany shot attempts, the Rockets are prime for an NBA Finals berth.

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