Western Conference Southwest Division Preview

By: Evan

The Southwest division will be one of the most intriguing divisions in the NBA with the potential for three different teams to win the division. The San Antonio Spurs, Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies all have talented teams that made significant runs in the playoffs last season and will look to make even deeper runs this season. The most significant change for the Rockets is the addition of Dwight Howard, who signed a four year $88 million dollar deal with the potential opt-out after year two. With a core of James Harden, Dwight Howard and Chandler Parsons, the Rockets are looking to win a title.  But they need to best the Spurs and Grizzlies, two experienced teams with elite players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol.  It should be an exciting season, now let’s look at some predictions. *Denotes playoff team

1.) *Houston Rockets

The Rockets have a formidable starting lineup, one that can shoot and score inside.                    Courtesy of Bleacherreport.com

Dwight Howard is a tremendous addition to an already talented Rockets starting lineup, providing a low post presence that will take some pressure off of James Harden and Chandler Parsons on the perimeter. The main issue for the Rockets will be establishing a pace as last year they averaged 106 points per game, good for second in the league, but D12 likes to body his defender in the post and slow the game down. If Kevin McHale can set the tone and find a balance, the Rockets will be tough to beat.  Another key will be Jeremy Lin’s growth from last season as the media world focused on him and his play regressed from his days in New York. If he can eliminate some turnovers and improve his 34% 3-PT shooting, the Rockets will have a scoring threat from almost every position. As Jon mentioned before, James Harden has seized the opportunity to lead a franchise as he posted a ridiculous stat line of 26 ppg 5.8 rpg and 4.9 apg, all career highs. Look for him to better his assist numbers as well as efficiency since Dwight Howard will draw some double-teams in the post. This team is dangerous and when they make the playoffs, they have a shot at knocking off the Heat.

2.) *San Antonio Spurs

Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich were one rebound away from a fifth NBA championship.                                                                                                               Courtesy of Yahoo Sports

The only reason why the Spurs are not the top team in this division is their age.  Popovich likes to rest his older players during meaningless regular season games, which lowers their seeding.  After the disappointment of losing in the Finals last year, it will be tough for the Spurs to get back as so many other teams improved.  Last year might have been the last chance for this current Spurs’ core to win a championship, but that has been said for a few years now, and the Spurs have continued to excel.  This year the plan will be similar for Pop — give Kawhi Leonard more of Tim’s minutes and hope Tony and Manu stay healthy.   It will be interesting to see the growth of Kawhi Leonard, a player who was considered a role player, now being called on to take the reigns from one of the greatest big men of all-time, TIm Duncan.  Kawhi has emerged as a tremendous two way player with terrific athleticism, defensive intensity and an underrated 3-PT shot. The other player to watch is Tony Parker, who made a solid case for MVP last season, putting up 20.3 ppg 7.8 apg and shooting an insane 52% from the field. If he can replicate his play then Houston and San Antonio could switch spots come May. For Spurs’ fans, its all about the playoffs.  If the Spurs stay healthy, they might have another run left in them.

3.) *Memphis Grizzlies

Can Gasol and Z-Bo lead the Grizz to a title?                                                               Courtesy of Grantland.com

The Grizzlies are another interesting team that had a shot at the NBA finals last year when the Thunder’s Russell Westbrook was injured.  The Grizzlies needed an elite 3PT shooter last year so they added Mike Miller, a stud shooter who is prone to injury and is also a liability defensively. I don’t think he is enough to make the Grizzlies true contenders to represent the West in the Finals.  But now let’s look at the positives, they have Z-Bo and Gasol, two elite post players who compliment each other’s game very well as both are good passers and can make a 15 foot jumpshot. They also have Tony Allen, probably the best perimeter defender in all of basketball, but he can’t score, making him a non-entity on the offensive side of the ball.  The other player worth noting is Mike Conley Jr, a solid point guard who played well last season, but was eventually overwhelmed by the elite point guard play of Tony Parker in the Western Conference Finals. This Memphis team might need to make a mid-season trade for a perimeter scorer if they have any hopes of making a long run in the West. The Grizzlies are good but not good enough to be a top four seed.

4.) *New Orleans Pelicans

This core of Pelicans should give the Big Easy something to be excited about.                                                                          Courtesy of Bleacherreport.com

The newly named Pelicans are young, and a sleeper team.  The team has a terrific young core with Jrue Holiday 23, Eric Gordon 24, Tyreke Evans 24, Ryan Anderson 25 and Anthony Davis 20.  New Orleans’ biggest move was trading away next year’s first round pick to Philly for Jrue Holiday, a surprising move for some as the first round pick in 2014 could be a star, but New Orleans opted for a proven All-Star in Jrue Holiday. NOLA also signed Tyreke Evans, who was in a dreadful situation in Sacramento and although he has regressed since his standout rookie season, with more shooters and playmakers, he should be able to find more ways to score. The key will be Eric Gordon, an oft injured shooting guard who has past history of being a 20 point scorer and could improve the Pelicans’ playoff hopes if he stays healthy. The other integral member of this squad is last year’s #1 overall pick Anthony Davis, who was the most efficient rookie last year with a PER of 21.86 good for 15th in the entire NBA. He is a menace on the defensive side and his offensive game has clearly improved since his Kentucky season and Davis could be an All-star. The main problem with this team is the lack of girth up front as Davis isn’t your ideal big man with size and strength.   Davis is more finesse and quickness than power.  If  NOLA  trades one of their shooters like Ryan Anderson for a defensive big man, the Pelicans would have a solid team at all positions. The Pelicans should improve greatly from last season, and develop nicely as these young, talented players mesh well.

5.) Dallas Mavericks

Should the Mavs trade Dirk? Courtesy of ESPN

The Dallas Mavericks have gone from NBA champions in 2011 to the edge of irrelevance in 2013-2014. Most of this is due to the missed opportunities in free agency including the Deron Williams, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard sweepstakes. Now the Mavericks have constructed a team with Dirk at the helm and Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis as secondary players, a team that will be lackluster defensively to say the least. Mark Cuban won’t settle for medicority and that is why I posed the question, should the Mavs trade Dirk? The team publicly has said they want Dirk to retire a Maverick but if a borderline-championship team offers valuable picks for an aging veteran, the Mavs would be unwise to pass on the opportunity.    Dallas is not a serious contender, and they are in a rebuilding mode whether they know or accept the fact.   If this is Dirk’s last season as a Maverick, he will probably land with a contender by Christmas, and Dallas will look to get some new talent in the stacked 2014 draft.

Stats from ESPN

2013-2014 NBA Northwest Division Preview

By: Jon

The Northwest division looks to be very competitive this season, after Oklahoma City. Potentially, all five teams will be competing for playoff spots this year in a difficult Western Conference. Portland and Minnesota are looking to take the next step and make the playoffs. Utah is in a rebuilding stage, but has a lot of talent, especially in the front court. After a great season last year, the Nuggets will probably take a step back, but they also have a lot of young talent and a new bright head coach.

1) Oklahoma City Thunder*

Can Serge become a reliable number three for the OKC Thunder Courtesy of ESPN
Can Serge become a reliable number three for the OKC Thunder Courtesy of ESPN

The Oklahoma City Thunder are major contenders this year to reach the NBA Finals and dethrone the Heat. However, there are a lot of questions with the Thunder as they are very young and attempting to ingrate new players into their rotation. The Thunder will have a great chance to succeed this season because of their star power. Led by All-NBA players Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, the Thunder can defeat anyone in the league. However, Russell Westbrook needs to be able to return and play at a high level, if the Thunder are going to meet expectations. As seen last year in the postseason, the Thunder are not the same team without Russell Westbrook on the floor. Another X-Factor for Oklahoma City will be Serge Ibaka. The man they call Dr. Nasty must step up and perform at an All-Star level, if the Thunder are going to dethrone the Heat. There is a lot of pressure on Ibaka because the Thunder decided to keep him, instead of James Harden. Although Sam Presi does not make many mistakes, the James Harden trade will go down as one of the biggest blunders in NBA history, unless Jeremy Lamb or Steven Adams become major contributors in the next few years. Although Russell will be missing a majority of the first two months of the season, the Thunder will definitely win the division. This year, none of the other teams pose any true threat to the team. However, the Thunder need to remain a quality record without Westbrook. As seen in the past few postseasons, home court advantage is incredibly important and necessary for teams with title aspirations. Although the Thunder are a small market franchise, I would make an attempt to acquire a top player during the trade deadline. In my opinion, the Thunder are still one player away from winning the Larry O Brian trophy, even with the addition of Westbrook. If I was Sam Presi, I would attempt to make a deal for either LaMarcus Aldridge or Kevin Love. Although neither are able to lead their teams to a title, they are both All-Star players and have the ability to put the Thunder over the top. Both player could probably be had for a combination of Ibaka/Lamb/Jackson/First round pick.

2) Portland Trailblazers*

Can LaMarcus lead the talented Blazers to the playoffs Courtesy of ESPN
Can LaMarcus lead the talented Blazers to the playoffs Courtesy of ESPN

After a poor year last season, which ended with a 33-49 record, the TrailBlazers look like they have the talent to surprise a few experts this season. Although the Trailblazers had a horrible 49 wins last season, the number is a little skewed. Last year, Portland ended the year on a 13 game losing streak because they lost many of their starters to injury. The Trailblazers have one of the most talented starting fives in the league, which should lead them to at least a 500 record. If healthy, the starting five of Damian Lillard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Wesley Mathews, and Robin Lopez should strike fear into many of their opponents because they all can score the ball and play solid defense. After recording a great rookie season, Lillard looks like he can become a true star in the league. If Lillard can learn to effectively play with LaMarcus Aldridge, the dual should become devastating on offense because they each should put up 20 points per game. On defense, the team will become better and more efficient. The addition of Robin Lopez and the return of Nicolas Batum and Wes Mathews from injury will greatly improve the team’s overall defense. Lopez is a stalwart on the inside, while Batum and Mathews can shut guards down on the perimeter. However, the major improvement this season will be on Portland’s bench. The additions of Dorell Wright, Mo Williams, CJ McCollum, and Thomas Robinson should improve a bench that was horrible and frequently lost gams for Portland. Unfortunately for the Trailblazers, Aldridge, Batum, and Mathews are injury prone and frequently miss games due to nagging injuries. If the Trailblazers can stay, they will exceed expectations and have a great opportunity at making the playoffs. However, if Portland starts the season badly, they should look to trade Aldridge from their roster. Although he is an All-Star player, he could net a good return for the Trailblazers, who need picks and players to return their success of the early 2000s.

3) Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets need to possess a high powered offensive to win games Courtesy of ESPN
The Nuggets need to possess a high powered offensive to win games Courtesy of ESPN

After a great season where the Nuggets finished 3rd in the West and claimed the best home record in the league and one of the best all-time, the Nuggets inexplicably lost in the first round, fired their coach George Karl, and did not re-sign star shooting guard Andre Iguodala. Also, toward the end of the season, the Nuggets suffered the loss of Danilo Gallinari, one of their best players and best scorer on the team. Unfortunately, the Nuggets will be without Gallinari for much of the 2013-2014 season because of his torn ACL. The Nuggets will be forced to rely on a bunch of role players to buy into a new system and achieve immediate success, in order to make the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Nuggets, they do not have a star that can generate offense or provide open looks for teammates. Although Ty Lawson, Wilson Chandler, and Kenneth Faried are nice players, they do not have the talent to lead a team to the playoffs in a difficult Western Conference. Although Iguodala did not have a great season last year, his absence will be felt by the Nuggets this season. Iggy’s ability and success is not shown by the number of points he scores in a game. Even during his days with the 76ers, in his prime, Iguodala was never a great scorer, career high of 19.9 points per game. However, Iguodala could do a little of everything on a basket court. Iggy could garner assists, rebounds, points, steals, and blocks, all things necessary for a team to achieve success in the NBA. Also, Iguodala was a stalwart on defense. His physicality and athleticism allowed him to matchup with the opposing team’s best scorer and limit his points. Although it did not show on the box score, it was vital for a Nuggets team that has trouble playing defense. Although ex-coach George Karl was not a great postseason coach, he was great at leading his club during the regular season, although they did not have the same talent as other teams. The loss of Karl and Iguodala will be felt this season, as the Nuggets are probably not going to make the playoffs in the star studded Western Conference.

4) Minnesota Timberwolves

Will Love stay for the whole season and lead them to the playoff Courtesy of ESPN
Will Love stay for the whole season and lead them to the playoff Courtesy of ESPN

The Minnesota Timberwolves have a lot more talent than their records have indicated the last few seasons. If the Timberwolves can stay healthy this season, they will be competing for the final playoff position in the Western Conference. Although trade rumors and injuries have diminished Kevin Love’s reputation, he is one of the best players in the game and posts some of the best numbers in the league for a big man. Love is the epitome of the new stretch forward because he can play inside and outside while grabbing rebounds and defending opposing power forwards. The Timberwolves must rely on Love to score and rebound the basketball, if they are going to compete. For the first time since the Kevin Garnett era, the Timberwolves have a complete basketball team. Along with Love, the Wolves have quality players such as Rubio, Pekovic, Martin, and Williams. Rubio has improved his game during each of his two seasons in the league. Although Rubio is not a threat to score 20 points a night, he has some of the best hands and vision in the NBA. Similar to Rondo, Rubio has the ability to improve his team without putting the ball in the basket. Pekovic and Martin will be important for the Wolves this season. Martin has shown in the past that he can score over 20 points per game. Along with Martin, Pekovic has displayed the ability to be a productive center in the NBA. Pekovic is strong and adept around the basket, which allowed him to score 15 and grab 8 rebounds last season. If Williams and Muhammed become competent bench scorers this season, the Wolves will surely be a top 15 scoring team in the NBA. However, their defense will be the x-factor this season. None of the Wolves players are known as shut down defensive players. Thus, they must learn to play as a team since they will not be able to individually defend their man. Although the Wolves will improve from last season, they will probably not make the playoffs.

5) Utah Jazz

The future looks bright for the Jazz, but this season could be a struggle Courtesy of ESPN
The future looks bright for the Jazz, but this season could be a struggle Courtesy of ESPN

After finishing 9th in the West and barely missing the playoffs by only two games, the Jazz underwent a major overhaul this offseason. The Jazz are undergoing a major youth movement and looking to build for the future. This offseason, the Jazz made a great trade, which netted them 2 first round picks and only lost cap space for the coming season. If Trey Burke did not injure himself, the Jazz would have the youngest starting five in the NBA, Burke, 20, Burks, 22, Hayward, 23, Favors, 22, and Kanter, 21. This offseason, the Jazz lost two of their best players to free agency, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. However, they were willing to not re-sign the duo because of their confidence in Favors and Kanter. Favors, the main part of the Deron Williams trade, and Kanter were both the third overall picks during the 2011 and 2012 drafts. Unlike the previous duo, Kanter and Favors have a greater upside and potential because of the defense they provide to the Jazz. While Millsap and Jefferson were quality offensive big men, Jefferson showed little effort on defense and could not protect the rim. Millsap was an undersized power forward and was routinely bullied by the other power forwards in the Western Conference. Although raw, the Jazz should rely and lean on the big men to carry them this season and in the future. Along with Favors and Kanter, they have 21 year old rookie Rudy Golpert out of France. Although he is extremely raw, he has the potential to be a great rim protector and defensive stopper because of his size and wingspan, largest in NBA combine history. Although the back court does not have the same promise as the front court, Burke and Burks have shown that they have the ability to score in succeed in the league. Although this season may be difficult for the Jazz, in terms of wins, the team will be fun to watch because they have a lot of talent and should improve throughout the season. The Jazz executives and fans should be excited for the future of the club because they have good young players, future first round picks, and they will have money to sign free agents after they lose Jefferson, Biedrins, and Williams after the season.

stats from espn.com