By: Louis PreJean
The NBA season is almost among us. Every player, coach, and team is looking for a fresh start and to improve upon the 2014-2015 season. However, one element will remain the same. The NBA’s Southwest division has the best and most talented teams. They are clearly the most competitive set of teams in the entire NBA. All five teams in the division made the playoffs last season. That was the first time since 2006 an entire division marked their place into the NBA postseason.
The Southwest has it all. From the New Orleans Pelicans’ young, promising core to the San Antonio Spurs’ experienced and well-coached team under the helm of Gregg Popovich. Don’t forget the hungry Houston Rockets and the intrepid Memphis Grizzlies. Also, with Rick Carlisle coaching the Dallas Mavericks, who knows what that team is capable of?
So how will these teams perform when the NBA season rolls around? Will the Southwest division retain their dominance among the rest of the league?
Let’s take a look at the NBA’s best division.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans were the not-so-surprising 8th seed in the Western Conference last season, if you followed what was going on in New Orleans. The Pelicans have a solid, young core of players with the NBA’s next superstar in Anthony Davis as the nucleus. Former Rookie of the Year, Tyreke Evans, and NBA All-Star point guard, Jrue Holiday, have the sharp shooting of Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson at their assistance. Heading into the 2015-2016 season, the Pelicans have only made improvements by getting their whole roster to return and build on their experiences from last season. New Orleans faced a plethora of injuries throughout the course of last season and learned lessons by playing playoff basketball. The Pelicans did get swept by the eventual NBA champions, Golden State Warriors, in the first round. They did remain competitive. They held a 20-point lead in the second half of Game 3, but took their foot off the gas. The Warriors came back to win that game, but the Pelicans proved to themselves that they do belong amongst the NBA’s best.
The biggest question marks for the New Orleans Pelicans coming into the 2015-2016 season are injuries and how they will play under their new coach, Alvin Gentry.
Injuries have been problematic to the success of this team. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, and Jrue Holiday missed 20 games each last season. Anthony Davis has not even played in 70 games of a NBA season in his career. Injuries play a part in every NBA team’s season, but the Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug more than they’d like. Nothing is seeming to change this season either. Their starting center, Omer Asik is expected to miss 3 weeks due to a calf injury and their backup center Alexis Ajinca is out for 4-6 weeks with a injured hamstring. The Pelicans faced more news by learning one of their spark plugs off the bench, Norris Cole, suffered a high-ankle sprain. Hopefully, a coaching change and faster pace of play does not raise the number of injuries this season.
The other question mark for New Orleans is how Anthony Davis and the rest of the Pels will perform under the new style Alvin Gentry will introduce this season. Gentry has spoken openly about how he wants this team to play much faster than they did last season. The Pelicans ranked 27th in pace out of 30 NBA teams. Expect Anthony Davis to thrive under this new system with easier fast break opportunities and more confidence in his overall game. Watch out for this team because they could fly under the radar and up the playoff rankings.
2015-2016 Season Projection: 7th seed
The Dallas Mavericks might have had the most dramatic offseason of any NBA team. Now they face the toughest climb back to the playoffs of any team in the Southwest division. The Mavericks thought they added the perfect center to put along the side of their future Hall-of-Famer, Dirk Nowitzki. DeAndre Jordan originally gave the Mavs a verbal agreement to join Dallas, but through a hostage-like situation conducted by the Clippers, he later changed his mind and returned to Los Angeles. The Mavericks spent all of their time and effort into acquiring DeAndre Jordan that they lost sight of the rest of the free agency class. The organization scrambled at the last second and picked up Wesley Matthews, Deron Williams, and JaVale McGee. Not bad, but Matthews is currently recovering from a torn achilles and Deron Williams’ glory days are behind him. The Mavericks are now forced to gel together in a division with teams that already have cohesiveness.
But if there is anyone that can take a random group of players and have them play at a high level it is the Dallas Mavericks’ head coach, Rick Carlisle. Every year it seems he makes the most out of whatever roster is given to him at the start of a NBA season. This is a list of some of the players that were with the Mavs last season that are no longer with the team. The list consists of: Monta Ellis, Tyson Chandler, Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson, Richard Jefferson, and Al-Farouq Aminu. A lot of talent has left, but some remains. Dirk Nowitzki can still score against any defense, as he averaged 17.3 points per game last season. Also, look to Chandler Parsons to find his place in Dallas because he did struggle in his first season with the Mavs. Parsons posted averages of 15.7 points, 4.9 rebounds, and 2.4 assists per game last year. That is great considering that was an “off year” for the small forward.
As much as the Mavericks have lost in the off season, they will still continue to share the ball and play at a high pace to keep defenses on their heels. However, they have lost more than they gained ,therefore, Dallas may slip out of the playoffs and post less wins than their 49 win total last season.
2015-2016 Projection: Out of Playoffs
Not a lot changes within the Memphis franchise. The Grizzlies bring the same toughness they possess every year and even if it boring to the fans, it gets the job done. A lot of people were confused when Memphis fired Lionel Hollins after reaching the Western Conference, but it turns out Dave Joerger, the current head coach, brings the same grit-and-grind mentality. The Grizzlies are looking to make every game as ugly as possible with their unpopular style of play and the same core they have had. The only players they lost in the offseason were Kostas Koufos, Jon Leuer, and Luke Ridnour. The Memphis Grizzlies did the opposite of the Mavericks and replaced the talent lost with fresher players in Jarnell Stokes, Andrew Harrison, and Brandan Wright.
The only thing stopping the Memphis Grizzlies from being title contenders is age. Marc Gasol has a lot of basketball miles ,NBA and internationally, on his body at the age of 30. Zach Randolph is getting up there in age at 34. Those two are the anchors of this team and establish the system. On the other hand, Mike Conley is entering his prime and Jeff Green is looking to find his stride in Memphis. This team is surrounded by veteran players who know this game and how to keep pace during a grueling, 82-game NBA season. Do not expect injuries to play a big role with the Grizzlies as the minutes will be managed properly. The Grizzlies will make every team uncomfortable by playing their brand of basketball and once again make the playoffs. Just how far will they get once they are there?
2015-2016 Season Projection: 5th seed
The Houston Rockets have something to prove after last season. Their team faced as many injuries as a team could, yet still finished at the top of the Southwest Division and the 2nd seed in the Western Conference. Dwight Howard only played half the season, Terrence Jones only played 33 games, and Patrick Beverley missed the playoffs. The Rockets were also without their crafty big man, Donatas Motiejunas. During the Rockets’ playoff run, the 37-year old Jason Terry was their starting point guard. Not an ideal situation for a team looking to win the title? So what did the Rockets do? Go out and get one the top passing point guards in the league in Ty Lawson to play with James Harden in the backcourt.
With an improved backcourt and a healthy team, the Rockets can compete with the Golden State Warriors after losing to them 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals. There is also one personal accolade one player wants to achieve. James Harden wants to be the MVP of the league. Harden felt as if he deserved that honor when he finished second to Stephen Curry last season. He will lead his team with his focus on being the best because he can he can get his team going by scoring or passing. The Rockets bench will be one of the best with Corey Brewer, Motiejunas/Terrence Jones, Patrick Beverley, and the emergence of Clint Capela.
The Houston Rockets will come into this season with a vengeance that some teams will not be ready to match. Another year of experience under their belt never hurts a group of players trying to build championship continuity.
2015-2016 Season Projection: 3rd seed
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs had the best offseason in the NBA. Hands down. They signed a franchise centerpiece in LaMarcus Aldridge and another starting-caliber forward in Davis West. They also re-signed Kawhi Leonard to a new contract, so they retained the Defensive Player of the Year. As always, the organization maintained their core group of players and will continue to showcase their team basketball movement.
The only question people have about the Spurs heading into a NBA season is, “Are they too old?” No one should say Tony Parker, Tim Duncan, or Manu Ginobili are too old because they have proved time after time that they can beat anyone on any given night. Gregg Popovich will out-coach any coach in the league and this franchise will continue to develop unknown talent into solid NBA players. The next player developing into a respectable player is Kyle Anderson. He is one player to watch out for in the 2015-16 season. Another concern within the team is LaMarcus Aldridge is still not quite that comfortable with the Spurs. However, this is natural because he hasn’t been with the team for long.
Can the San Antonio Spurs find a balance in minutes for Tim Duncan and LaMarcus Aldridge? Can those two coincide? Do not worry about the San Antonio Spurs. They will figure everything out and post another 50-win season.
2015-2016 Season Projection: 2nd seed, winner of Southwest division