NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division (10/14/16)
In traditional fashion, the Southwest Division was the only division to send four teams to the playoffs last season. In untraditional fashion, three of those teams – Houston, Dallas, and Memphis – were only a combined four games over .500 and took uninspired first round exits. However, even in a “down” year, the Southwest Division collectively had the best win percentage of all the division last season – an achievement largely attributable to the Spurs. Setting a franchise record with 67 wins, marking a 17th consecutive season with at least 50 wins, the re-tooled San Antonio Spurs captured their 8th division crown in Tim Duncan's last season. At the bottom of the division, New Orleans spent the season on IR, never having the full strength squad that had everyone excited coming into last season.
Perhaps no division in the NBA saw as much roster shakeup this offseason as this one. Each team replaced at least one high-priced starter with multiple intra-division moves that should provide plenty of intriguing revenge game potential – Chandler Parsons left Dallas for Memphis, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon jumped from New Orleans to Houston. New rosters mean new questions, but not new objectives – each team has legitimate playoff potential. The Southwest Division should remain the most talented, competitive division in all of basketball this season. Let's prognosticate.
G – James Harden | Houston Rockets
Much has been made about Coach Mike D'Antoni declaring James Harden will be the Rockets starting point guard this season. Specifically, Harden's former head coach, Kevin McHale, questioned whether or not Harden could be a ‘facilitator first.' However, that presumes that the role of a point guard is to be a pass-first type player and not a ‘scorer at heart,' as McHale calls Harden. Funny thing is, Harden, without even being declared a point guard, averaged more assists per 36 minutes than many traditional point guards who handled similar offensive loads last season like Steph Curry, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, and Damian Lillard. But I guess the facilitator-first rules don't apply to them, they're real point guards. It seems the issue is less about whether Harden is a capable point guard, but rather about what a point guard is.
In the most practical sense, thanks to typically superior ball-handling, penetration and passing skills, the point guard is asked to play the role of offense initiator beyond just being a facilitator – leading transition breaks and operating pick and rolls. As it happens, Harden was amongst the league leaders in both transition and pick and roll opportunities last year, according to NBA.com. It appears that, at least on offense, Harden has been the Rockets' acting point guard. He is just now being formally recognized for his services.
At the intangible level, traditionally speaking, the role of the point guard is to be the leader – the “coach on the floor” – inspiring confidence in his teammates. It is here that criticism of Harden as point guard is perhaps more substantial. With Dwight Howard now in Atlanta, the lingering questions about compatibility and animosity between the two are gone, but also gone is the other star player to share the burden of leadership. The Rockets are now unequivocally Harden's team and it remains to be seen whether he has the intangible skills to fill the role he is now officially being asked to take. Personally, I believe that more inspired and consistent effort on the defensive side of the ball from Harden is the place to start and set the tone for the team. Everyone knows what he is capable of on offense, but in order to ensure another playoff berth, the Rockets will have to grow on defense, starting with their leader.
G – Mike Conley | Memphis Grizzlies
Speaking of point guards, the Grizzlies facilitator is now the owner of the single largest contract in NBA history at $153 million over five years. That is quite the haul for a guy who has never made an All-Star team let alone an All-NBA team. But his unheralded career is what makes him such a great fit in Memphis. Quietly, the Grizzlies have made six consecutive trips to the playoffs, led in each of those seasons by the former Ohio State Buckeye. There is not a whole lot of flash to the grit and grind philosophy in Memphis and Conley follows suit. Consistently one of the best at taking care of the ball, Conley led starting point guards in assist-to-turnover ratio last season. Perhaps the flashiest part of Conley's game is his unorthodox penchant for shooting off-hand floaters.
Conley is as solid as it comes at the point guard position. He may not be an exceptional playmaker like Chris Paul, an explosive scorer like Russell Westbrook, or a dead eye shooter like Steph Curry, but he is no slouch either. On a per 36-minute basis, Conley has averaged 15 points, 6.2 assists, 3.2 rebounds, and 1.7 steals for his career – very comparable numbers to his divisional counterpart Tony Parker. Add a career 37.3 % from three-point range and elite defense at the position, Conley is the most complete two-way point guard in the division. The only major weakness for Conley is his health – he seems to find himself battling through a myriad of injuries when the playoffs role around. The Achilles' heel of the Memphis Grizzlies this season could be Conley's Achilles' heel, literally.
F – Kawhi Leonard | San Antonio Spurs
If you're anything like me, you've grown tired of the whole “Pop told him when they run plays for him, it's not for him to score, but for the Spurs to score” line before every single nationally televised Spurs game. The fact of the matter is, Kawhi scoring and the Spurs scoring has become more and more equivalent every year. In each season, Kawhi has upped both his usage rate and his points per game, crossing the 20 point per game mark this past season on his way to his first All-Star game and a second place finish in the MVP voting. The undersold Coach Popovich line for Kawhi is “what makes great players great is consistency.” Responding appropriately, in 44 of the 72 games Leonard played last season Kawhi scored at least 20 points, a number we should expect him to boost again this season.
Is there a more terrifying proposition for opponents than a multiple time defensive player of the year at small forward capable of scoring 20 plus points a night? Perhaps only if said player was only 25 years old. Kawhi Leonard happens to be all those things and just finished a season where he shot 44.3 % from three-point range. His scoring repertoire is expansive and growing. Perhaps because he has a sort of mechanical looking jump shot, engineered for efficiency by the San Antonio shooting scientists, Kawhi's incredible array of face-up, post-up, and pull-up shots go largely unnoticed – just as he and the Spurs like it I presume.
The scariest part: there is still room to grow. I hate to harken back to the “Spurs to score” line, but Kawhi is still not the passer the Spurs need him to be. Amongst his peers at the top of the small forward position, Kawhi is at the bottom in terms of assists per 36 minutes, by a full assist. Additionally, he had the lowest ratio of free throws to field goals amongst the elite – a shame because he is an excellent free throw shooter. On the other end, while it is hard to imagine weaknesses from a two-time defensive player of the year, he can still make strides as an off-ball defender and a rebounder. Against OKC in the playoffs last season, Kawhi spent a lot of time guarding Andre Roberson, giving him more freedom to roam off ball – perhaps a premature defensive strategy as Kawhi has not completely mastered that skill yet. And although his defensive rebounding numbers are in line with his peers, the Spurs are at a deficit in the frontcourt replacing Duncan with Pau Gasol, putting more responsibility on Kawhi to finish possessions on defense. For all he's given them already as a defender, the Spurs may need a little more with Duncan now retired.
F – Anthony Davis | New Orleans Pelicans
Ah Anthony Davis, a fellow Illinois class of 2011 member. It was but a year ago at this time that Mr. Davis was the Cinderella of the preseason, some predicting an MVP season at age 22 in just his fourth season. Lo and behold the slipper did not fit – it was beaten and broken like the bones and muscles of his teammates – leaving him out of the MVP picture by year's end. However, as the Pelicans fell in the standings and fell out of the public consciousness, Davis put up a near identical statistical line from the year prior, with added three-point range to boot. If you dig in a little deeper though, you see he took a step back finishing and shooting from midrange last season, while also having a lower defensive impact in terms of blocks, steals, and field goal percentage disruption. This season is particularly intriguing to see whether he can fully return to his 2015 self that finished 5th in MVP voting and whether his statistical achievements can translate into wins on the court.
The biggest lingering question mark for Davis, unfortunately, is his health. The full rundown of injuries that have cost Davis 68 games through his first four seasons is staggering, not only in variety but also volume. As fate would have it, Davis is once again sidelined, this time with an ankle sprain that could keep him out of the opener. It may not be time to sound the alarms yet on his career, especially considering he was a late bloomer with his growth spurt and his injury history doesn't suggest any calamitous chronic conditions, but, I look at Davis and how he is built and I worry. He has filled out his upper body, particularly his shoulders, to such a degree that his frame almost looks disproportionate – keep in mind that I am not a trainer so accept my opinions with caution. The pressure from the media and thus fans is on to see Davis be the universe-changing small-ball center that melts minds with his “rim protection” and “floor spacing” (note the quotation marks for the generic words I find grossly misunderstood and overuse by the public). However, consideration must be given to the toll such a style of play has on a man his size, from running the floor, setting screens, and the physicality of rebounding as a center. No one wants to see his career derailed by injuries before it really gets going.
C – Marc Gasol | Memphis Grizzlies
What a joy it will be this season to have both Gasol brothers in the same division. Choosing one over the other is a bit like choosing from Wilson Fisk's wardrobe, the difference is subtle. They are both exceptional passers for the center position; Pau takes care of the ball a bit better though. Both of them are capable of impacting shots at the rim, with Marc using his feet and positioning and Pau having more success blocking shots. Marc has shown more affection to the free throw line, on both ends – getting there more frequently but also sending opponents there more frequently. Looking more specifically at last season, both brothers were heavily involved in post-ups and pick-and-rolls. Marc proved a slightly more efficient scorer in both areas, including using over 100 more post-ups than his brother.
Ultimately, the decision came down to two things for me. First, Marc is younger by four years. Pau is a Hall of Famer and is not done by any stretch, but at 36, his best years are behind him. Finding a reduced role on a Spurs team with Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge should do wonders for Pau, but that does not help his case in this here decision. Second, the chatter on the schoolyard is that Marc not only is recovered from his foot injury that cut his 2016 season short, but he is also looking in great shape and spirits. Last year's version of Marc Gasol was not the guy capable of beating out his brother for top center in the division. These rumblings give me confidence in the resurrection of 2015 All-Star Marc Gasol as the two-way engine for the Grizzlies, poised for another dangerous playoff appearance.
Best of the Rest
6th Man – Manu Ginobili | San Antonio Spurs
If you have not read Zach Lowe's piece on Manu Ginobili and his journey to NBA and Olympic glory, find time to do so, it is truly excellent as opposed to however you classify what you are currently reading. Ginobili is not just my favorite NBA bench player, he is my favorite NBA player period. I truly regret not being a bigger NBA fan/follower when I was younger, when Ginobili was really in his prime. I am glad that I was able to closely follow his last few seasons of wizardry off the San Antonio bench. The Zach Lowe story encapsulates Manu with the words of those who know him best, much better than I can here – so again go read it. I will just leave this video below as my ode to Manu and his fearless, sometimes careless, always creative mindset on the court (the moment of truth occurs around the midway point).
Player to Watch – Wesley Matthews | Dallas Mavericks
Somehow, someway, Wesley Matthews started game one last season on his way to 2644 minutes in 78 games. In just seven months, Matthews went from torn Achilles tendon to playing in real life competitive NBA games. As amazing as his return was, his performance was a bit underwhelming. He posted his lowest points per 36 minutes total of his career and didn't look to be himself all season. While known for his sweet three-point stroke, Matthews mixed in post-ups and got to the free throw line a bit more in Portland than he showed in his first season in Dallas. His overall three-point percentage also dipped, but that may have been due to shot selection. Matthews actually shot better on catch and shoot threes last year than the season before. He took a nose dive on pull-up three point shots, down to 24 % from 39.4 % the year before. The addition of Harrison Barnes should lighten his burden on the defensive end, hopefully freeing his offensive game to return to pre-injury levels. Dallas is certainly counting on a bounce back year from Matthews.
Key Acquisition – Chandler Parsons | Memphis Grizzlies
I've covered Conley and Gasol already, Parsons completes the big three in Memphis. I wrote about Parsons as my favorite free agent signing in the Western Conference last month and the only thing that has changed is his potential availability. Parsons has still not been cleared for full contact and may miss the start of the regular season, which, while a bit disconcerting, is only a speed bump on what I believe to be a very competitive ride for the new-look Memphis Grizzlies. Parsons is the missing puzzle piece for this Grizzlies team. I believe I've mentioned that I am no doctor, so I will not speculate on the health status of players in the distant future, but a healthy Grizzlies team is not only capable of grabbing the fourth seed in the West, but also giving the Warriors their toughest test in the playoffs, thanks to the addition of the complete offensive package in Chandler Parsons.
Most Missed Player – Boris Diaw | San Antonio Spurs
A plethora of viable options here with so much player movement, but I'm tentatively going with Boris Diaw because I'm biased, and he might be my second favorite player in the NBA (you're getting a clear picture into my basketball soul here). I rightfully admit at age 34, Diaw may be past the point where he can be in the top eight rotation for a team with championship aspirations. However, he is the ultimate team player often critical to the success of the Spurs in the past. You might ask, how could the Spurs miss Diaw more than Duncan? The answer is simple, the Spurs adequately attempted to replace Duncan with Pau Gasol, while I do not see any of the other additions as adequate replacements for Diaw. Essentially, Diaw was the sacrificial lamb to pave the way to bring in Gasol. Deep in my heart I hope Diaw comes back to haunt the Spurs in some fashion this season.
Elsewhere, you could argue that Dwight Howard was perhaps grossly underrated during his time in Houston, but the Rockets have totally overhauled their roster to play a style that is incompatible with Howard's increasingly rickety frame and grumpy demeanor. Whether the Rockets will be better off with this new style remains to be seen.
Parsons will definitely be missed in Dallas, but they brought in Harrison Barnes who provides a different set of skills, on defense specifically. Plus, I already used Parsons once, no double-dipping. An under-the-radar departure for Dallas is Raymond Felton. The Parsons loss compounds the Felton loss because they didn't really replace either guy with a playmaker, leaving Dallas one down and dependent on some old, fragile legs to pick up the slack.
I thought about Eric Gordon, but the Pelicans are enthusiastic about Buddy Hield and seem confident in their free agent signings to hold the fort with Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans set to miss time. Finally, Memphis is in bad need of a back-up point guard, which is why they will miss Mario Chalmers and the juice he brought off the bench briefly last season. However, there is a legitimate possibility he returns, assuming he can recover from that Achilles tear.
Favorite Play – San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs are the best in the game at exploiting opponent aggression in denial or overplaying, most notably with the lead at the end of close games. They are fantastic at anticipating overextended defense and capitalizing for easy baskets. This play here is my favorite because it is so simple, yet so brilliant.
In the clip below, you will see the Spurs setting up for a typical action in their offense, especially when Manu is in the game. Watch as Manu circles underneath Duncan and begins to cut straight up the middle of the floor to receive a pass from Tony Parker. This is called a “zipper” cut, a staple of many NBA offenses – the idea being to get a playmaker the ball in the middle of the floor, usually a good thing, always a good thing when you have Manu. However, notice how Duncan doesn't really set a screen for Manu and begins establishing post position almost immediately as Manu begins to cut – he is creating separation for what is coming next. Timing is critical on this play. As Manu is selling like he's cutting up to the top, Parker enters the ball to Duncan. Synching his cut with the pass, Manu takes an aggressive step away from the hoop as part of a “V-cut” backdoor for a layup. Notice how Duncan passes the ball almost immediately upon catching it. That is the kind of timing that takes time to master as a group but pays dividends when everyone is on the same page.
The Spurs used the Celtics over-aggressive defense against them for an easy bucket. Evan Turner is thinking denial all the way, except the pass he should be worried about is coming from below him, so he's screwed. Amir Johnson is applying ball pressure on Duncan as teams do when down late in the game. However, by closing in to apply pressure, he gives Duncan a window to make the pass – whereas if Johnson was laying off, the pass would have been much more difficult. I should not forget to mention the subtle exchange on the weakside. The Spurs are masters of weakside movement. By simply exchanging with a half-hearted screen, Patty Mills and Kawhi Leonard force their defenders to shift focus away from the money action, just momentarily, enough to get a wide open layup. Magic!
Stat of the Division – 7
I touched on this earlier, but the Southwest Division truly is the best division in the NBA. In the 12 seasons since the league expanded to the six divisions we have today, the Southwest Division has sent four teams to the playoffs seven times, more than the rest of the divisions combined. It is amazing to see how stability is possible in a league seemingly predicated on chaos in roster construction. Of course it is just happenstance that two generational big men ended up in the same division, but it is special that they remained with the same organization and those organizations grew perennial contenders around them. When it comes to high-level basketball in the NBA, it doesn't get any more competitive than in the Southwest Division, most notably within the state of Texas.
Bold Prediction – Kawhi Leonard will win the MVP Award
Thanks to the star power love fest up in the Bay area, the MVP race may have suddenly opened up in a dramatic way. It seems implausible that anyone on the Warriors will win the MVP because they have two former winners on the same team. Let us not forget the Spurs won 67 games last season and Kawhi Leonard is only 25 years old. Every season, Kawhi has improved hand over fist, adding new dimensions and layers to his game. He is already the most heralded defensive player in the league and has already earned the respect of the voters with a 2nd place finish last season. I'm expecting another level of improvement from Kawhi, potentially in creating for others, and lots of first place MVP votes available. If the Spurs come close to replicating what they did last season (see below) Kawhi has a great shot.
Division Winner – San Antonio Spurs
Who else? This is the Spurs division. Sure they lost Diaw (and Duncan) but they've added the long-coveted Spaniard, Pau Gasol. All the other major players are back from a team that won 67 games and captured the division title easily. It is so ridiculous I will say it again: San Antonio won at least 50 games in each of the last 17 seasons. 17! A lot would have to break wrong for the Spurs to win less than 50 games. A lot would have to break right for any of the other teams to crack 50 wins. I'm optimistic Memphis will bounce back from the injury apocalypse last season, but their lack of depth is an issue when it comes to the regular season. Houston is very intriguing now that they have guys that can actually make three point shots (Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon) and not just take them, defense be damned. We all know, as long as Dirk stands, Dallas has a fighting chance - at the playoffs. Finally, New Orleans is facing déjà vu with all these early season injuries and unfortunate circumstances surrounding their top eight rotation. The opportunity is ripe for the Spurs to repeat as champions in the Southwest and maybe get some revenge on the Clippers in the playoffs.