NBA Preview: Southwest Division

Mon, 10/20/2008 - 8:24pm

By Jon Pastuszek

(Teams listed in projected order of finish)


Chris Paul
1. New Orleans Hornets
Head Coach: Byron Scott
2007-2008 Record: 56-26 (Lost in Western Semis to San Antonio)
Key Additions: James Posey (FA from Boston), Devin Brown (FA from Cleveland)
Key Losses: Janerro Pargo (FA to Europe), Bonzi Wells (released), Chris Andersen (FA to Denver)

The feel-good story of last year, the New Orleans Hornets started off as an afterthought in New Orleans, and ended as a team that stood for the city’s spirit and determination in wake of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation upon the city.

Playing in front of sparse crowds, New Orleans still managed to compile victories. This was in no small part due to the amazing season of Chris Paul, whose outstanding play eventually earned him runner-up in MVP voting. The lack of attention at home didn’t bother the squad one bit, as they continued to win ballgames against the very best teams in the league, even standing on top of the Western Conference for a short period.

Then New Orleans finally realized what they had on their hands – a really great, fun to watch team-- and fans started flocking to see the Hornets play their excellent brand of basketball. The transformation was so rapid and so dramatic, that New Orleans Arena became known for its raucous, loud atmosphere. By playoff time, the fans gave the team a bonefied home-court advantage.

Unfortunately for the Hornets, the party ended in the Western Semis at the hands of the San Antonio Spurs. Though they had a great season, something, whether it was experience, perimeter defense or veteran savvy, was missing. The makeup of the squad needed to be slightly changed.

That change came with the arrival of James Posey. The hope is that Posey is the last piece to the championship puzzle. The team pried him away from the Celtics, signing him to a four year, $22 dollar deal. His clutch shooting, defensive savvy and veteran leadership are all being relied upon to bring a championship to New Orleans. They overpaid for him, but with Kobe Bryant and Manu Ginobili bound to matchup against them come playoff time, Posey’s defense will be invaluable. If he indeed proves to be that missing link, it will be money very well spent.

Clearly, the thing that makes the Hornets so great is Paul. He rarely makes mistakes, knowing when to dish it to the open man or when call his own number. It’s no coincidence that Tyson Chandler and David West have both enjoyed career years while playing with CP3. He’s overtaken Steve Nash as the best point guard in the league and will be a favorite for the MVP award this year.

Though he had a career year last season, West is still a guy who doesn’t get much attention. He’s not flashy, but he is one of the most efficient forwards in the league, with his ability to both face up from the foul-line extended to knock down shots and to punish defenders down low with his strength. He is a perfect match with Paul and you can bank on a lot of pick and pops between the two this year.

Tyson Chandler provides a different look for opposing defenses. Chandler’s length and athleticism make him a danger to throw down anything off of a lob. After setting a pick, Chandler dives towards the hoop and converts alley-oops with ease if defenses don’t rotate. West and Chandler do opposite things when screening for Paul, and that is what makes them so effective. Throw in Morris Peterson, Peja Stojakovic, Paul and Posey, and you also have a team that can nail threes when defenses collapse the lane.

The obvious potential problem with the Hornets is their complete lack of frontcourt depth. Chandler and West are a fantastic duo up front, but both have had injury problems in the past. If one, or both, goes down for an extended period of time, the Hornets will need to rely on Melvin Ely and Hilton Armstrong, two extremely below-average players. You can bet that this team will be calling Posey’s Celtic teammate last year, Lousiania native P.J. Brown, around the All-Star game.

Backup point-guard is also a slight concern. Jannero Pargo opted to go the European route this season, and it leaves the Hornets with Mike James and Devin Brown to backup the prolific Paul. James and Brown can be decent at times, but the Hornets might need to pick up somebody else for their playoff push.

Something that’s not getting too much attention – yet – is New Orleans’ potential crunch time lineup situation. Posey, the team’s best perimeter defender, plays the same position as Stojakovic, the team’s best perimeter shooter. Unless Big Game James wakes up one day a step faster with handles, then there is no way that the grizzled veteran will be able to slide over to the 2. Common sense would suggest that Posey, the clutch two-time NBA Champion, would be playing small forward in the fourth quarter, which may potentially upset Peja.

The Hornets, along with the Lakers, are considered the favorites to represent the Western Conference in the NBA Finals. As long as Paul continues to play at his all-world level, and Chandler and West stay healthy, the Lakers and the Hornets will be clashing head-to-head in the Western Conference Finals.

Top Rookie: N/A
New Orleans sold their draft pick to Portland, and will no have no rookies on their roster.

Bold Prediction: The Hornets will not see any let down after their break out season of a year ago, going deep into the playoffs once again.

Projected Record: 56-26 (2nd in Western Conference)

2. Houston Rockets
Head Coach: Rick Adelman
2007-2008 Record: 55-27 (Lost in 1st Round to Utah)
Key Additions: Ron Artest (Traded from Houston), Brent Barry (FA from San Antonio), Joey Dorsey (draft)
Key Losses: Bobby Jackson (traded to Sacramento), Steve Novak (FA to LA Clippers)

A trendy pick among statisticians last year (maybe that’s because their GM, Daryl Morey, is a stat geek himself…), the Houston Rockets were considered favorites by some to finish first in the Western Conference.

It was all starting to come together for the Rockets at midseason, but then their star center, Yao Ming went out for the year with a broken foot. Not fazed at all, Houston rattled off 22 straight wins, the second longest streak in NBA history, amassing 55 wins in total. But in the playoffs, their magic ran out, and they lost to the Utah Jazz in round one of the Western Conference finals.

The foundation of Yao and T-Mac was there, a supporting cast was there, but something else needed to be added to the equation. Enter Ron Artest, who was traded at minimal cost to the Rockets from Sacramento. Artest, who brings toughness, scoring and defense to the Toyota Center, is seen as the third piece that’s been absent from this team.

There’s a reason why the Rockets were able to win 22 games, most of which were won without Yao: Houston is a very deep squad. And the bench is only going to get stronger. The Artest trade moves defensive stopper and three point assassin, Shane Battier, to the bench and he will be an excellent sixth man. Carl Landry is Houston’s best big off the pine, providing scoring, rebounding and defense all in one undersized package. Luis Scola and Chuck Hayes provide even more rebounding, defense and toughness, while new addition Brent Barry will be scoring from outside. When McGrady and Yao go down at some point, they’ll be plenty of cover.

Houston is definitely taking a chance on the volatile Artest. But, the Rockets had to roll the dice on Artest in order to become serious contenders. This was a team that was too dependent on McGrady to make things happen on offense, and he often looked tired by the end of games. Artest gives them a second perimeter option and he will take pressure off of everybody to score.

Some wonder what is going to happen to Shane Battier now that Artest has arrived. To me, it’s almost a non-issue. A small lineup of Alston, McGrady, Battier, Artest and Yao would be a very good lineup on both sides of the ball, and Adelman should take a page out of Don Nelson’s book by implementing it for extended minutes.

Houston was already a good team, and won 55 games last year in spite of a season ending injury to Yao. The additions of Artest and Barry should make this team a much better one in the postseason and T-Mac and Yao should be able to get out of the first round for the first time in their careers.

Top Rookie: Joey Dorsey (Memphis)
Yao Ming summed up Joey Dorsey’s chances of playing this year. After being accused of scraping Yao’s bicep in an early October practice, Joey had this to offer:

“I think it might have been Chuck Hayes,” Dorsey said. “I’ll take the blame, but I ain’t got no nails.

“I blocked (Yao’s) shot a couple of times today. He dunked on Mike Harris. I ain’t got dunked on yet, so I’m good. ”
When told of Dorsey’s crowing, Yao grinned broadly.
“That’s OK, it’s practice,” he said. “When the season starts, he won’t be playing.”
From the Houston Chronicle. Link

Bold Prediction: Houston makes a deal to replace their shoot-first point guard, Rafer Alston sometime before the trade deadline.

To me, Alston is the weak link on this team. He had a very fine season last year, but the fact is that he is a gunning point-guard who has consistently shot around 40% from the field in his career. The Rockets would do better with a distributing point guard – one who doesn’t shoot that much and one who works to find teammates. This team already has three scorers in Yao, McGrady and Artest… the last thing this team needs is its point-guard jacking up shots. A trade will be made to fix this problem.

Projected Record: 53-31 (4th in the Western Conference)

3. San Antonio Spurs
Head Coach: Gregg Popovich
2007-2008 Record: 56-26 (Lost in Western Finals to LA Lakers)
Key Additions: Roger Mason Jr. (FA from Washington), Salim Stoudemire (FA fro Atlanta), Ian Mahinmi (signed from France), George Hill (Draft), Salim Stoudamire (FA from Atlanta)
Key Losses: Brent Barry (FA to Houston), Robert Horry (released), Damon Stoudamire (released)

Spurs fans, if you feel aggrieved by last year’s Western Conference exit via Kobe and the Lake Show, you have every right to.

Due to an ankle injury, Manu Ginobili was a fraction of his usual playoff self, unable to really get going at all. The Lakers took advantage of that while also riding some poor refereeing (even the NBA big wigs acknowledged Brent Barry was fouled in game four), on their way to the NBA Finals. As a basketball fan, I felt a little cheated that we didn’t get to see the Spurs at full strength versus Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and the rest of the Lakers crew.

The scary thing is that even in a “down” year for the Spurs, they very well could have won another NBA title if Manu was healthy. This should be a lesson for all of us: no matter how old we think their players are, no matter how rusty we think they look in the regular season, the Spurs will always be contending at the end of the year.

So, when the Spurs inevitably play .500 ball for the first portion of the season, understand that they’ll be back fine as ever once Ginobili gets back from his ankle injury. Losing Manu for sure hurts in terms of playoff seeding, but the Spurs have a championship proven system in place and Tim Duncan. Really – they’ll be fine.

Before writing off the Spurs, consider the small moves they made in free agency this year. The Spurs made the bargain basement deal of the year by signing Washington’s Roger Mason Jr. to a two year $7 million dollar deal. Mason, who is seen as the replacement for Brent Barry, shot 40% from three last year in 21 minutes per game. In nine games as a starter, he averaged 17.4 points on 43% from downtown. Mason is going to be a great Spur and I think GM R.C. Buford did a great job in signing him. Also, Atlanta’s streak shooting Salim Stoudemire was signed away cheaply and he may provide some instant offense off the bench if he buys into playing defense.

Yes, the Spurs are old. Yes, the Spurs are not healthy. But, at the end of the day, the Spurs are still the Spurs. Even without Ginobili for an indefinite period, Duncan, Parker and the rest of the gang should keep San Antonio afloat in the West. Though they’ll be seeded lower than usual, this will still be a team that nobody will want to face come playoff time.

Top Rookie: George Hill (IUPUI)
The Spurs haven’t selected an American college player in the NBA since the ABA merger (OK, maybe not that long), but bucked the trend by selecting IUPUI’s George Hill with the 26th pick. Hill is a projected point guard, but lacks athleticism as well as good ball handling skills. However, he is a solid all around player who can shoot from long range, and that is why the Spurs drafted him. Popovic has a history of being tough with rookie guards, but Hill may press backup Jacque Vaughn for PT as the season advances.

Bold Prediction: Popovic keeps the beard/San Antonio wins less than 55 games
Head coach Greg Popovic has been growing a summertime beard that rivals Kimbo Slice for best facial hair in sports. Link

Popovic has said that Tim Duncan has the final word on the future of the beard. The beard is simply amazing and I think there is no way that Duncan, a guy with a sense of humor, would make Pop shave it.

Beard or no beard, the Popovic and the Spurs won’t be extending their streak of 55+ win seasons to nine. Even with Ginobili, this team struggled to score points at times last year. Without him for a while, the aging Spurs will find offensive more challenging than ever. Like always, The Spurs will be there at the end of the year… this year they’ll just be there as a fifth or six seed.

Projected Record: 50-32 (5th in Western Conference)

4. Dallas Mavericks
Head Coach: Rick Carlisle
2007-2008 Record: 51-31 (Lost in 1st Round to New Orleans)
Key Additions: DeSagana Diop (FA from Nets), Gerald Green (FA)
Key Losses: Tyronn Lue (FA to Milwaukee)

In the NBA, windows are rickety things that can slam shut rather quickly.

In 2006, the Maverics were two games away from lifting their first every Larry O’Brien trophy, but were stopped in their tracks by Dwyane Wade’s legendary performance.

In 2007, the squad amassed 67 wins in the regular season and looked like they would roll over their competition. Instead, Dallas simply rolled over, losing to the eighth seeded Golden State Warriors in six games in the first round of the Western Conference playoffs.

In 2008, in response to the Lakers’ acquisition of Pau Gasol, Dallas hit the panic button and traded a budding star, Devin Harris, for an aging Jason Kidd. Critics and fans both criticized the deal, projecting that Kidd would struggle in Avery Johnson’s highly organized, tightly controlled system.

Not surprisingly, Kidd played poorly as a weak-side spot up shooter and Dallas sputtered into the playoffs before losing convincingly to New Orleans. Johnson lost his job, but it was too late. In a span of three years, Dallas went from near NBA champs, to first-round exit chumps.

Now, Rick Carlisle takes over for Johnson and inherits some of the same obstacles that halted the former coach from playoff success.

The Harris for Kidd trade made this team very old very quickly. Nowitzki, Kidd, Erick Dampier, Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse are all key players over the age of 30. Kidd has declined severely over the last year and there are doubts as to whether he will regain his old abilities. The best way to give Kidd the chance of playing well, is to put him in a situation that makes him comfortable.

Dallas needs to remake itself if they are to have success. Under Avery Johnson’s direction, this was a team predicated on half-court isolation. Fast-breaking was discouraged, and defense was the main concern. Now with Kidd, one of the best transition point-guards of his generation, starting a point, Dallas should do itself the favor by pushing tempo and getting out in transition.

I remember watching Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley on Inside the NBA last year talking about playing basketball “east to west” vs. “north and south.” The two of them agreed that the less cutting and the less changing of direction are better for old legs. In other words, more running baseline to baseline would be more conducive to keeping and old guy’s (Kidd) veteran legs fresh, while also playing to his strengths. In fact, it wouldn’t just help Kidd, it would help the other veterans on the team who are slowing down and becoming less effective in the half-court.

Undoubtedly, last year’s slow it down approach didn’t work. So that’s why I was surprised by the Carlisle hiring because he has a reputation as an old-school, half-court coach. I think that this is a team that beckons for Mike D’Antoni. With Kidd running the show, Josh Howard, Terry and Stack running beside him and the matchup nightmare of Nowitzki would have made for an exciting, entertaining and effective team.

Now, we’ll probably be seeing more of the same, just with a new glossy cover on it. Dallas’ window is shut and though they will make the playoffs, they’ll be hitting the links with the rest of the first-round losers.

Top Rookie: None
The Mavericks had no draft picks in last year’s June draft.

Bold Prediction: Bored with sitting on the bench all the time, Gerald Green does “the birthday cake” in garbage time, delighting fans and enraging owner Mark Cuban. Green is then cut.

Take this from a person who witnessed the Gerald Green era in Boston first-hand: There is no bigger waste of talent in the league right now than Gerald Green. Green may be the only guy in history who takes the dunk contest more seriously than his NBA career. If he had any trace of hard-work inside of him, Green would be a dangerous scoring weapon off any team’s bench. For a Dallas team that’s looking to get younger and more athletic, Green looks tantalizing, but Carlisle and the rest of the coaching staff will learn very quickly that this guy simply doesn’t have the work ethic and/or the desire to be an NBA player.

Projected Record: 48-34 (6th in Western Conference)

5. Memphis Grizzlies
Head Coach:
Marc Ivaroni
2007-2008 Record: 22-60
Key Additions: Marc Gasol (signed from Spain), O.J. Mayo (acquired in draft day trade with Memphis), Marko Jaric and Antoine Walker (both traded from Memphis), Quinton Ross (FA from LA Clippers)
Key Losses: Mike Miller (traded to Minnesota), Juan Carlos Navarro (signed in Europe), Kwame Brown (FA to Detroit)

The Memphis Grizzlies earned more attention last year for what they did in the front office than what they did on the court. Why? Because GM Chris Wallace thought that Pau Gasol was getting played out, so he sent him to the Lakers for his younger, newer, hipper, fresher brother, Marc, as well as Javaris Crittenton.

Though the trade was completely indefensible and adds to his long resume as a terrible GM, Wallace did enjoy a very nice draft day, making two trades for a pair of players with an incredibly bright NBA future, O.J. Mayo and Darrell Arthur. Mayo, a freak athlete with a good all-around game, has superstar potential and Arthur is a smooth forward who slipped way too far due to false health concerns. The two of them are seen as major pieces in Memphis’ future.

Second year point-guard, Mike Conley, played sparingly last season, but will open up as the Grizzlies’ starter at the point. He’ll be teaming up with Mayo and Rudy Gay to make one of the better young backcourt trio’s in the league. Gay had a monster sophomore season in 07-08, increasing his stats dramatically across the board. He’s a player still oozing with upside, and another year of improvement is highly probable, which is excellent news for the 17 Grizzlies fans out there.

Last season, the Grizzlies were seventh in the NBA in pace factor, which was actually a littler lower than I anticipated for a team that was coached by a Mike D’Antoni disciple. Still, Memphis developed a personality as a team that liked to get up and down.

For this season, however, Memphis may have an identity crisis on their hands.

Memphis has the horses to run. Conley, Mayo, Gay, Arthur, Crittenton, Hakim Warrick and Kyle Lowry are all very athletic and Ivaroni, a former Suns assistant under Mike D’Antoni, would be wise to let the youngsters run and implement a high-tempo attack.

However, Ivaroni has said that he plans to use his two stiffest, slowest players, Gasol and Darko Milicic, in the same frontcourt. Unlike Memphis’ youth majority, the two 7-footers are much more comfortable and effective in a slower-paced environment. If Ivaroni is true to his word, I see Memphis as a team that will be bogging itself down while being caught in between two completely different styles of offense.

The future of this team is intriguing because Conley, Mayo and Gay have the potential to be one of the most exciting, explosive backcourts in the NBA. Those days are still years away, however. For this season, the Grizz will be piling up the losses in an empty stadium located in a city that could care less about the NBA.

Top Rookie: O.J. Mayo (USC)
Mayo arrived at USC with impossible expectations and subsequently disappointed NBA GMs with a good, not spectacular, freshman year. He rebounded with a good showing in the NCAA Tournament, impressing scouts with his decision making, court vision and passing. Mayo has great range on his jumper, a quick dribble and the strength needed to finish at the hoop. Mayo will have some nights where he looks lights out, and other nights where he goes 2-14. For a 19 year old rookie shooting guard who’s expected to be a scorer on a bad team, that’s totally fine. The Grizzlies made the right choice in trading for Mayo, who is going to be a very good player in an increasingly up-tempo NBA.

Honorable Mention: Darrell Arthur (Kansas)
Arthur is a player we at really like. Concerns over his kidney arose on draft day when his health report came back questionable, causing him to slip down to 27. He’s a terrific leaper and is a threat to catch alley-oops and lobs off of screen and rolls. He’s got a nice turnaround jumper that he compliments with a solid face-up game. He needs to put on some muscle, but Memphis was smart to acquire him and his lottery-level talent for a low price.

Bold Prediction: Chris Wallace trades Rudy Gay to Chicago for Thabo Sefolosha, Aaron Gray and Benny the Bull.

After announcing the trade, Wallace states the logic “Benny is one of the best mascots in the league, and I really liked what he could bring to the table. I think Grizz, our current mascot, needs some help and I think putting Benny in with our mascot lineup is going to give us one of the best halftime shows in the NBA.”

Wallace goes on further, saying he liked Sefolosha because “he had a cool name,” and Gray fit in with the “tall, big, and slow white center-oriented team I’m trying to build here.”

After the Gasol giveaway, nothing Wallace does will surprise me now. With Elgin Baylor out in Clipperland, C.W. may just be the worst GM in the NBA.

Projected Record: 22-60 (14th in Western Conference)

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