Exhibition games have begun and the regular season is fast approaching. The staff here at Hickory-High is previewing the entire league, taking a stab at answering the big questions, division by division. We’ve already looked at the Northwest, the Atlantic, the Pacific and the Central. Today we’re talking Spurs, Mavericks, Rockets and Hornets in the NBA’s Southwest Division.
1. What is the most intriguing storyline in the Southwest Division?
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Reshuffling the deck in Dallas. I’ll admit that in looking at the Mavs’ roster, I have a really hard time picturing how things will look this season, both offensively and defensively. Even more murky is an imagination of what the Mavs’ identity might be next season; and then three and five seasons down the road. Only in retrospect can a franchise’s seasons be split into eras. Mark Cuban and Dirk Nowitzki would sure like this season to be a continuation of their championship epoch, but it feels like something new has begun. What it is, I’m not exactly sure.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Can Daryl Morey turn a seemingly random roster into something? The Rocket’s roster is well…..interesting. As of now there are a whole lot of seemingly valuable young pieces that could possibly be trade bait at some point. Or they could be players that form a core for the Rockets future, even if many of them (Terrence Jones, Royce White, Donatas Motiejunas, Patrick Patterson and Marcus Morris) play the same position. Houston probably won’t contend at all this season but there will be a whole lot of fun lineup combinations, including a 5 forward lineup the NBA twitterverse is craving. Combine the youth, positional logjams with the probable trade of Kevin Martin and the Rockets will again be very active around the trade deadline. Can Morey land his superstar or will this roster become even crazier as he builds up more and more assets. Only time will tell.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Jeremy Lin. The Rockets spent big money to acquire the most intriguing player of the last season. It’s a risk. Lin played very well for the Knicks, but his incredible run lasted only 35 games. He’s in a completely different situation now. Houston is a rebuilding team in a smaller market. There is no Carmelo Anthony to take the ball away. If Lin is for real, he’ll have every opportunity to show it. Hopefully, there will be fewer racist headlines along the way.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - The Hornets. They’ve got four players (Anthony Davis, Austin Rivers, Eric Gordon, and Ryan Anderson) that we’re unsure of. Gordon has shown flashes of being an efficent scorer (averaged over 22 points just a season ago) but his health and motivation have been question marks. Anderson had himself a break-out 2011 season, setting career highs in almost every statistical category, but how will he react to no longer flying under the radar? Then you’ve got the pair of top 10 picks in Davis and Rivers who are going to be thrown into the fire on day one. Davis’ defensive skills made him a valuable commoditiy, but will they translate quickly against the bigger bodies that the NBA offers? Rivers is a solid shooter, but a guard that requires the ball be in his hands. Sound a little bit like Gordon’s MO? I’ll be watching to see if this back-court combo can work together, or if their egos get in the way and create a divide.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Is the Spurs reign of dominance over? I’m going to quickly answer the question with a no. They play great defense and play as a team. They are a joy to watch especially due to top-five point guard Tony Parker. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili have maintained productivity despite getting older. I expect them both to maintain their averages, and more of the younger guys like Tiago Splitter and Kawhi Leonard to take on a bigger role for this Spurs team. Dallas is the only team that has a shot to beat the Spurs but personally I think they completely downgraded their team this summer (Jason Terry> O.J. Mayo, and they lost Jason Kidd). The Spurs will continue to dominate this division.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Anthony Davis and a Southwestern Transition. I sat here contemplating the southwest: home of dustbowls, border controversies, George W. Bush, Tom DeLay, Tom DeLay’s grotesque smile and five NBA teams. While technically only the three Texas teams are southwesterly, a division defined by two first-ballot Hall of Famers and southwest stalwarts (Dirk and Duncan) is most fascinating because of a New Orleans newcomer: Anthony Davis. I’d rather not be swept up in conspiracy theories (although JFK was a great movie and coincidentally stretched across New Orleans and Texas, so perhaps the seeds of conspiracy were already sewn back in 1963), but the Chris Paul trade and the subsequent winning of the draft lottery by an NBA-owned team are enough to raise an eyebrow of the least skeptical fan. Speaking of eyebrows, Anthony Davis looks to me like a new-age version of Kevin Garnett. When we see the Celtics version of KG, it’s easy to forget he wasn’t always the polished defensive floor general he’s evolved into. Davis’s mid range jumper, his height and build, his ability to impact the game without having the ball in his hands are reminiscent of early KG. The arc of Davis’s pro career has to begin somewhere and while 2012-13 won’t be anything more than an introduction, it will provide glimpses of what’s to come.
2. Who will be the top newcomer in the Southwest Division?
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Anthony Davis. The brow can play. There is no doubt in my mind that Davis will be rookie of the year barring any injuries and it will be well deserved. While he is a bit raw offensively he does have the ability to stretch the floor a bit and will finish almost any ball he gets his hands on close to the rim. Defensively though is where Davis will shine. I saw Davis play in person last season in Athens and I have never seen one player impact the game so much in my life. Even if he wasn’t that close to the play every Georgia player was worried about where he and his extendo-arms were. When he was able to get close he changed almost any shot. His instincts are second to none and while the game may be faster, Davis will catch up. Once he does the NBA will have another elite defender.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Ryan Anderson. The Hornets traded Gustavo Ayon, a talented, more traditional big man for one of the most efficient shooters and best rebounders in the league. It wil be interesting to see whether Anderson’s strong play continues in New Orleans, or whether his success was a product of playing with Dwight Howard. Robin Lopez and Anthony Davis won’t draw as many double teams, so Anderson won’t see as many open looks. But I think he’s too talented and has too good of an understanding of how to get shots to see a big dropoff in his numbers.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Anthony Davis. The Hornets winning the lottery was a blessing for Davis, as there will be less pressure on him in New Orleans than with the other bottom feeders in the NBA. Eric Gordon’s return and the addition of Ryan Anderson give the Hornets decent options other than Davis, allowing the rookie to not be overwhelmed with the reponsibility of carrying a franchise. Other than Memphis, I’m not all that scared of the big men in this division, and it is reasonable to assume Davis can hold his own. Playing for Team USA this offseason will pay BIG dividends for Davis, as the impact of time spent practicing with the game’s best cannot be over stated. Those who say he is the next Bill Russell are insane, but there is no doubt in my mind that he’ll have the greatest impact of the newcomers in the Southwest.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Anthony Davis. This guy can truly be something special and it will be interesting to see how he progresses throughout the season. The Hornets can be a top team in the west in a few years with Davis at the core. I have not been this excited to see a rookie debut since LeBron James. I know that was a stretch, but still “Fear the Brow”
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Anthony Davis. Davis is my top newcomer; which is as much about his potential as it is about other teams shopping selectively this summer. The Mavs, Hornets and Rockets made major changes, but no single move involved an all-star level player. The presence of veteran stability in Dallas, San Antonio and Memphis reduced the need for major moves there, although Dallas did revamp its starting lineup: Darren Collison to replace Jason Kidd, Chris Kaman at center and my favorite move; adding O.J. Mayo. Houston pulled some curious moves to, but I’ll save Darryl Morey for below. All this movement, but it’s 90% starters, role players, rookies … and Anthony Davis who’s doing his own thing or so it would seem.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Anthony Davis. There are plenty of impact newcomers in this division, but Davis is the cream of the crop. Athleticism and defensive prowess will let allow him to change the game from minute one, while giving him time to develop his offensive tools. With a significant roster overhaul the Hornets are definitely on an upward trajectory. Davis’ development will determine how steep that upward trajectory turns out to be.
3. Who has the most to prove in the Southwest Division?
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - The San Antonio Spurs. R.C. Buford opted to stand pat this summer, making no big moves, unless you count the signing of Eddy Curry. The Spurs have been one of the best teams in the league since drafting Tim Duncan. Last year, they tied for the best record in the league. But they are more than five years removed from their last title. And yet this summer, Duncan signed a three-year deal, in what will likely be the last contract of his career. I don’t think the Spurs are merely trying to challenge the notion that it’s better to burn out than to fade away. They got the band back together this season, and they think they can rule the West.
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Jeremy Lin. He’s got one question to answer: is he worth the money ($25.1 million)? The Rockets made him the PG of their present and future with a big pay day, and while I love the financial strategy the Rockets used to back the Knicks into a corner, Lin has to prove he is more than a nice story. He burst on the scene last year as he led the Knicks through Linsanity, but an injury and lowered production followed the historic run. Not only does Lin have a lot to prove to the Rockets, Houston has their pride to defend with their fan base. They cut Lin roughly one year ago, and are now touting him as the future of the Rockets. Miss twice on the same player, and the fans will begin to question management’s ability to identify and develop talent. No player is going to come into this season with higher expectations based on a smaller sample size than the newest Rocket.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Royce White. Many people would think Jeremy Lin has the most to prove, but he really doesn’t. The amount of revenue he brings to the team in my opinion can potentially be more substantial than his ability to play basketball. The player with the most to prove in my opinion is Royce White. I want to see if this guy was worth a high pick. It will be interesting to see if he can overcome the challenges of his anxiety disorder and utilize his considerable basketball talent on the court.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - The Rockets and Daryl Morey: It’s hard to assess Morey’s time in Houston. The team has had terrible luck over the past few years: Yao and McGrady mishaps and the league throwing the veto on the CP deal that would’ve given them Pau Gasol. But aside from those breaks, things feel intentional, like they’re going along just like Morey thought they would. That is why this whole thing in Houston is strange, because it’s not how we would expect it to go. Morey signed Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik in the off-season and made some great picks in Royce White (assuming he can work with McHale and the organization to find a way to manage that merciless anxiety), Terrence Jones and Jeremy Lamb. I can’t imagine anyone would plan on spending $30 million on Asik and Lin in 2015, but if either of those guys exceed expectations (even more so than Lin has already exceeded expectations), they’ll be accompanied by the three aforementioned rookies who will combine to make less than $6 million in 2015. That’s quite a bit of flexibility and an even bigger gamble—that a bunch of rookies and a couple of starters can either find a way to win or act as assets to get someone who can). This salary cap stuff is kind of tiring, but sadly it’s the ugly ingredients in the glue factory of the NBA … so you can see what kind of shit Morey’s gotten himself into.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - O.J. Mayo and Darren Collison. Both players find themselves moving to a new phase of their careers. Both players have struggled to provide consistent production, struggling with outlandish expectations inflated by periods of sublimely brilliant play. Finally, both players have reached the point where circumstance will no longer be used to apologize for potential unmet. What each does with the Dallas Mavericks this season, for good or bad, could define them for the rest of their careers. If either is going to be a great NBA player, now is the time to make it happen.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Jeremy Lin. Lin received a huge contract from Houston this off season, leaving the Knicks and adding a lot more pressure than he had on him to replicate his success last season. Since he left the Knicks some New York media outlets, have done everything they can to tarnish the season that Lin had and question his talent. I think Lin can play and the Knicks made a mistake, as do many Knicks bloggers I respect. But Lin will have to prove it with a full season of great play. I hope he does and forces the Knicks to admit their error.
4. Who is the most likely to be moved in the Southwest Division?
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - Eddy Curry. Remember when Keith Van Horn‘s contract was dealt a handful of times, even after he was done playing? That is the track Curry is on, as he has struggled to find a landing place over the last few years, a trend I expect to continue. For whatever reason, NBA teams are willing to take a chance on him because of his size (7′ 300 pounds) and his two solid seasons in the league. Since averaging nearly 20 points per game for the Knicks in the 2006-2007 season, Curry has fallen on rough times. He has averaged less than 2.5 points per game in 24 appearnces since 2008, and isn’t capable of playing more than a handful of minutes at a time. No matter where he is, Eddy Curry will be my player most likely to move, and the fact that he is with the Spurs only makes me that much more confident that he won’t end this season where he starts it.
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - Rudy Gay. He is a very skilled player, but not worth his 82 million dollar contract. I see Memphis jumping at the first offer they see for him. Most likely Memphis will recieve draft picks and a solid role player, and still maintain the core of Randolph, Gasol, and Conley.
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - Kevin Martin. Speaking of Morey’s top-secret plans, there’s no way Kevin Martin is included as anything more than a trade piece. He’s making close to $13 million this year and sadly he’s delicate in a way that makes me want to cover him in bubble wrap and shield him from dudes like Andrew Bynum or Jerry Stackhouse. With the exception of 2011, he’s missed a discouraging (for him and his employers) amount of games and with him just a few months short of 30 and an at-times reckless style that both results in getting a ton of free points (he led the league in free throws made in 2011) and increasing the odds he’s going to get hurt … again. Given the Rockets current state of evolution, Martin becomes the most likely player in all the Southwest to be moved.
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - Kevin Martin. The barring a miraculously successful start to the season, the Rockets are going to be working their tails off to re-shape this roster. They have draft picks and young, moldable forwards to offer, but Martin is the only established NBA commodity. It’s hard to imagine the Rockets pulling in a star with picks and potential alone, which means Martin is likely to be a piece in any deal that they put together.
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - Kevin Martin. Someone on this Rocket’s roster will move at some point during the season. The current makeup just doesn’t make a ton of sense as it is built. Martin seems the most logical to move as plenty of contending teams would love the efficient scoring he brings, as long as he stays healthy and would agree to come off the bench. If he does so I assume the Rockets would be able to find a deal and shed one of the older players on a roster that is going through a rebuild. One other team to watch though is Memphis. If they struggle early I would not be surprised to see the Grizzlies start shopping Rudy Gay or Zach Randolph to try and retool the team in a new way to try and compete with the West elite.
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - Rudy Gay. Gay has the second-biggest contract on the Grizzlies, but with the ascendance of Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, I don’t think he’s the second-best player on the team. He’s been pretty good, nothing more, since signing an $82 million contract in 2010. However, there are plenty of people who see him as a max contract player. The Grizzlies weren’t too active this summer, but I think they will spend the season shopping Gay for someone who spaces the floor a little better for Gasol and Zach Randolph.
5. What will be the order of finish in the Southwest Division?
Matt Swiman - @MSwiman - 1. SAS 2. DAL 3. MEM 4. HOU 5. NOH
Kris Fenrich - @DancingWithNoah - 1. SAS 2. MEM 3. DAL 4. HOU 5. NOH
Ian Levy - @HickoryHigh - 1. SAS 2. MEM 3. DAL 4. NOH 5. HOU
Matt Cianfrone - @Matt_Cianfrone - 1. SAS 2. MEM 3. DAL 4. NOH 5. HOU
Myles Ma - @mylesmanj - 1. SAS 2. MEM 3. DAL 4. NOH 5. HOU
Kyle Soppe - @unSOPable23 - 1. MEM 2. SAS 3. DAL 4. NOH 5. HOU