The Southwest Division has five potential playoff teams including the defending NBA champions. I will start with the team I think has the worst chance of making the playoffs, but honestly, I wouldn't be surprised if they all did.
The Grizzlies had an interesting offseason, sticking mostly to the same roster as last season with just a few tweaks. The draft was a strong one for the Grizzlies, drafting advanced stat favorite Jordan Adams and local big man Jarnell Stokes. Free agency wasn't as kind: Mike Miller departed to tail-coat for another ring with King James in Cleveland, and fellow wing James Johnson signed with the Raptors. To replace these holes on the perimeter Memphis signed the rejuvenated Vince Carter, now a 6th man extraordinaire. They then gave franchise big man Zach Randolph a two year extension, re-signed Beno Udrih for a couple years, and allowed backup big Ed Davis to leave for the Lakers.
I am predicting that the Grizzlies miss the playoffs for the first time since 2010, though they very well could slip in, and they are still a tough team. The main reason I see them falling is that they have a severe lack of youth, meaning little internal improvement over the offseason. Their starting lineup is still potent, especially with underrated point guard Mike Conley leading the squad. He is good at just about everything but is a particularly strong defender, setting the tone for this rough-and-tumble Grizzlies team.
The starting spot at shooting guard will probably be manned by Courtney Lee, a stereotypical 3 and D guy. He is solid enough, but probably a below average starter, even at the thin shooting guard position. Quincy Pondexter will be returning from a stress fracture that cost him most of last season, and is hoping to return to the play that gave him a new deal in the 2013 playoffs. Up front, the duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is one of the strongest in the league, combining post scoring, mid-range shooting, and good passing. Gasol is also one of the best paint protectors in the league, but Zach is slow on the defensive end and isn't getting any younger.
The Grizzlies bench is pretty middle of the road — not a weakness, not a strength. Vince Carter will be the 6th man, filling the role he played on the Mavericks to good success. Tony Allen remains one of the best perimeter defenders in the league and will get 20 or more minutes a game depending on the situation, though his offense leaves much to be desired. Tayshaun Prince finally fell off the cliff last year, with terrible shooting and mediocre defense making him one of the worst starters in the NBA. He is probably out of the rotation.
Udrih and Nick Calathes are dependable backups at point guard as is Kosta Koufos at center. Jon Leuer has developed into a nice stretch forward and is the reason Ed Davis was allowed to leave. Stokes and Adams probably won't get minutes this year, but Adams was a terrific scorer in college and should be able to overcome his limited athleticism to similar results if called upon. Dave Joerger was a good coach last year after a rocky start, but he needs excellent health from his veterans as well as continued production. Even that might not be enough in this beast of a conference.
Projected Record: 47-35
Players to watch: Quincy Pondexter, Jon Leuer, Jordan Adams
Check out Grizzly Bear Blues for their preview.
The New Orleans Pelicans were quiet this summer, mostly just hoping to get healthy. They did bring in Omer Asik for nothing but cap space and a future 1st round pick, one of the best moves of the offseason. Outside of that, they mostly just let some of their guys from last year leave. Anthony Morrow, Brian Roberts, Al-Farouq Aminu, and Jason Smith all left, and each played fairly significant roles last year. The only other players brought in to replace them in free agency were Jimmer Fredette and John Salmons. Darius Miller was re-signed, and Patric Young and Russ Smith were brought in during the draft.
There is one reason I have the Pelicans in the playoffs this year. The Unibrow. Anthony Davis made the jump from star prospect to flat out All Star last year, and is primed to make the leap to superstardom this season after dominating the FIBA World Championships this summer. He is a stud offensively and now he's looking to add a three pointer to his repertoire. His defense has actually lagged behind his offense, but his potential has no ceiling, and he is already a force inside.
Joining him in the frontcourt are two very different but very good players: Asik and Ryan Anderson. Asik is a big beast in paint on defense: one of the best rim protectors in the league and a monster on the boards. He provides little on offense outside of put-backs however. Anderson is the premier stretch four in the NBA when healthy, an absolute sniper from outside. He is also a good post defender and offensive rebounder, but doesn't provide defensive rebounding or help defense.
The shooting guard spot will be manned by old friend Eric Gordon, who was healthy last year but not very effective. Most of his promise as the league's best young shooting guard is gone, though he is still decent and has time to make a comeback.
Small forward is a contentious spot, with as many as four players fighting for the starting role. Tyreke Evans is probably the best player, but is a poor fit as a ball dominant wing who doesn't shoot well from outside. He does bring playmaking, slashing, and rebounding in spades, which might be enough to mitigate the lack of shooting. Finally, Jrue Holiday is hoping for a healthy campaign after an injury-marred 2014. When healthy, he is a solid overall player who brings outside shooting, playmaking, and defense to the court. Just 24, he could still improve on what are already borderline All Star numbers.
The Pelicans' bench is probably not going to be very good. It could be strengthened by moving Tyreke to the bench, but that means starting one of the Salmons/Miller/Luke Babbitt trio. Miller is probably the best bet as he is the top overall player of the three, and the youngest as well. Babbitt is unable to do anything but shoot threes, and Salmons can't do much outside of moving the ball and playing mediocre defense.
Their backup point guard situation might be even worse: Jimmer Fredette, a borderline 2nd round draft player in Russ Smith, and gunner Austin Rivers are competing for minutes. Fredette is useless outside of spot-up shooting, Rivers does nothing but shoot, and Smith is completely unproven. The backup big situation is better, since one of Asik or Anderson will come off the bench, and will be joined by the solid Jeff Withey. Monty Williams was an assistant on FIBA and seems to be a good coach, but this is the year for him to prove himself. If healthy, I see this team in the playoffs, carried on the back of a Unibrow.
Projected Record: 51-31
Players to watch: Anthony Davis, Darius Miller, Jrue Holiday
Look at The Bird Writes for the Pelicans perspective.
The Rockets had a tumultuous summer to say the least. General Manager Daryl Morey tried to hit a homer and instead hit into a double play, as he cleared away cap space by trading away useful players for nothing. Chris Bosh and Carmelo Anthony went elsewhere, and in the meantime, hard partier and third best player on last seasons' 4th seed team Chandler Parsons signed in Dallas.
Omer Asik was traded to the Pelicans for a future 1st rounder, and Jeremy Lin was given to the Lakers along with a first round pick. The loss of Parsons will be offset somewhat by the addition of top-tier 3-and-D prototype Trevor Ariza, but the rest of their acquisitions were underwhelming. Ish Smith, Joey Dorsey, Jeff Adrien and Kostas Papanikolaou is not an inspiring group of names. Francisco Garcia and Troy Daniels were also re-signed, while Omri Casspi was shipped to Sacramento. The Rockets drafted Clint Capela and Nick Johnson.
Despite the losses they took this summer, the Rockets have the talent to be a 50 win playoff team, even in the Western Conference. James Harden remains the premier offensive shooting guard in the league, and while his defense is abhorrent, he more than makes up for it on the other end. Dwight Howard is no longer the dominant defensive force he was a few years ago in Orlando, but he is still a very good defensive player who can carry a team offensively as well. Trevor Ariza was absolutely terrific last year for the Wizards: one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, a knockdown three point shooter, and an above average rebounder. Patrick Beverly is also a plus defender at point as well as a good outside shooter. Finally, Terrence Jones had a breakout campaign in his sophomore season as a versatile forward capable of filling several roles. At 23, he is still youthful enough to improve significantly as well.
The Rockets bench is mostly unimpressive. It is filled with youngish veterans as well as a couple greybeards in Francisco Garcia and Jason Terry, who has fallen off substantially since his championship days in Dallas. Isaiah Canaan and Ish Smith are fighting for the backup point guard spot, but both are more suited to be the third point rather than in the rotation. Troy Daniels was signed late last year and impressed with his three point shooting, but his sample size in the NBA is tiny. He might get unseated by 2nd rounder Nick Johnson, who strongly showed off his top tier athleticism in summer league, and has more upside.
Donatas Motiejunas had a lot of hype a few years ago and had a couple flashes of strong play last year, but he will be counted on as the 3rd big man with Asik gone, and bangers Joey Dorsey and Jeff Adrien might sneak in some minutes if he fails to prove himself. Kevin McHale is a mediocre coach all around, though some would argue him a bit one way or another. He will hope to ride his very good starting lineup to a decent playoff seed, but one serious injury to any of them would be a near death blow due to the poor depth.
Projected Record: 52-30
Players to watch: Terrence Jones, Nick Johnson, Donatas Motiejunas
Here are the Rockets fans' take on their upcoming season: The Dream Shake Preview
The Dallas Mavericks almost completely remade their roster this past offseason, churning out trades and free agent signings seemingly every few days. Before the draft they traded Samuel Dalembert, Jose Calderon, Shane Larkin, and Wayne Ellington to the Knicks for Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton. Then, they re-signed Dirk Nowitzki to a criminally cheap contract (contrast with Kobe Bryant). When Chandler Parsons was teetering on the edge in Houston, Mark Cuban pounced, locking him up for three years, and earning the eternal hatred of Daryl Morey. Then they re-signed Devin Harris, and brought in Jameer Nelson to supplement him. Vince Carter and Shawn Marion left in free agency, but they were replaced with Al-Farouq Aminu, Richard Jefferson, and the terrifying Ivan (the Great) Johnson. Finally, they traded DeJuan Blair to the Wizards for a trade exception.
The Mavericks are starting one of the most potent offensive lineups in the NBA, especially at the 2-4 positions. Monta Ellis had a comeback season last year, attacking the basket rather than settling for three pointers, and developing a nice rapport with Nowitzki in the pick and pop game. Dirk himself had a strong season last year after a down 2012 following injury. He remains as deadly as ever as a shooter, though his rebounding and defense continue to slip.
They are joined by Parsons, who is one of the better all-around wings in the league, capable of shooting the three, attacking off the dribble, and playmaking for others. Nelson will probably start at point guard, and his role will mostly just be to spot up and shoot, though he will probably run pick and roll with Dirk and the Mavs other new addition, Tyson Chandler. Chandler doesn't do much on offense outside of an occasional roll to the rim and putbacks, but he sets nasty screens and is powerful at the basket. He is also a step up on defense from Dalembert, which is good because Nelson, Ellis, and Dirk are all below average defenders.
The Mavericks bench is not quite as high quality as the starting lineup comparatively, but still packs a punch. Devin Harris is not the borderline star player he was in his Nets days, but he is still a very good backup, and Raymond Felton was a solid starter as recently as two years ago. Together they make excellent insurance at the point guard position. The shooting guard spot is weak, with only little used 2nd year player Ricky Ledo on the depth chart, but Felton and Harris can both slide over if need be.
The small forward position is very strong and deep, with Aminu, Jefferson, and Jae Crowder all borderline starting quality, and all bringing different aspects to the team. The power forward and center spots on the bench are mostly weak with one big exception: Brandan Wright is consistently an advanced stats favorite, and his production is obvious by the eye test. Heading the Mavericks is tactician and top tier coach Rick Carlisle, who I consider to be the second best coach in the league behind one Greg Popovich. They are going to be good this year, though they are pretty old and could fall off or have injury issues. If that doesn't happen, expect playoffs.
Projected Record: 54-28
Players to watch: Al Farouq Aminu, Ricky Ledo, Chandler Parsons
Here is the Mavs Moneyball Preview.
The defending NBA champions had a typically uneventful offseason. They drafted Kyle Anderson from UCLA at 30, who was possibly the most "Spursian" player in the entire draft. Outside of that, their roster is almost entirely unchanged. Tim Duncan picked up his player option (of course), and they re-signed Boris Diaw, Patty Mills, and Matt Bonnner. Tony Parker signed a 3 year extension and said he wanted to be a Spur for life (of course).
The last time we saw the Spurs they were busy demolishing the two-time defending champion Miami Heat in the NBA finals and lifting the O'Brien trophy. Tim Duncan remains undefeated by father time, putting up Per 36 statistics similar to what he did 10 years ago. He is still an excellent defensive player and looked spritely for a 37 year-old big man last year. While no longer capable of putting up 20 points nightly, he still consistently scores in the mid-teens.
Tony Parker will join him in the starting lineup, as he has for the last 12 years. Parker declined a little from an incredible 2013 last year, but is still All-NBA quality. Danny Green has become a premier 3-and-D player in the league, while Kawhi Leonard has moved on to become so much more. The 2014 Finals MVP is a terrific rebounder with a burgeoning offensive game, and the sky is the limit for the robot from SDSU. The final piece is Tiago Splitter, a solid defensive big man who can finish at the rim. He won't win many games but himself, but he fits in perfectly with everyone else.
The bench remains the same one that could seemingly not be stopped by anyone in last year's playoffs. Patty Mills is a gunner at point guard, but he is a knockdown shooter and plays good defense. He is out until January, but Cory Joseph is more than capable of filling his shoes, especially on defense. Manu Ginobili came back from a horrible showing in the 2013 Finals to be his usual stellar and awesome self as 6th man. In case of injury, the Spurs have a poor man's version of him in Marco Bellinelli.
Diaw is the last essential member of the bench, and the man that Manu affectionately calls "Dora the Explorer" was my candidate for Finals MVP last year. The Heat outscored the Spurs by four when he was not in, but were outscored by 74 points when Diaw was playing! Anderson's best case comparison in the NBA is Diaw — a point forward who can make tons of plays and hit open shots while not being too badly abused on defense. He will learn from the master.
Finally, there is the man known only as "Pop", one of the best coaches in NBA history (the absolute best in my humble opinion). Seemingly every player who joins the Spurs gets better (Diaw, Green), and worsens upon departure (Gary Neal, George Hill). The system of team play and responsibility he has created is deeply rooted and supported by all the players on the team. Nobody does it better. The Spurs were my favorite team to watch in the NBA on a pure entertainment status (not hard to guess that), and should be again this year.
Projected Record: 60-22
Players to watch: Kawhi Leonard, Kyle Anderson, Cory Joseph
The Pounding the Rock preview can be found Here.
The Western Conference is finally done, so now it's on to the East! I will start out with the Atlantic Division, a sharp contrast with the Southwest. As usual, feedback is welcome. Feel free to hammer away, so long as a good conversation can result!