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Can the Rockets Ascend to the Throne? - NBA Southwest Division Preview

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We’re in the midst of the NBA preseason, so there’s no better time to look at what to expect from the upcoming season. The draft and free agency are both behind us at this point. Teams are getting ready to figure out their rotations and prepping for the regular season, which gets underway on Tuesday, October 16. The Golden State Warriors are the two-time defending champions as they wiped out the Cavaliers in what was the fourth straight meeting between the teams in the NBA Finals. Golden State took three of those four meetings: can they continue their run of success this season or will someone else step up and knock them off their throne?

Today, we take a look at the Southwest Division. The division had a clear delineation between the haves and the have-nots in 2017-18. Three teams made the playoffs, led by Houston, who finished with the league’s best record. The problem was, the other two teams were 13th and 14th, respectively in the Western Conference. Will someone step up and challenge the Rockets in the division or is this Houston’s title to lose? We’ll take a look at the teams in order of last season’s standings. Let’s take a look without further ado.

Houston Rockets

2017-18 Record: 65-17, 1st in Southwest Division

Playoff Status: Beat Minnesota 4-1 in Western Conference first round, beat Utah 4-1 in Western Conference semifinals, lost 4-3 to Golden State in Western Conference Finals

Houston put together a terrific season in 2017-18, posting the best regular season mark in the league. The Rockets had Golden State on the ropes in the Western Conference Finals, leading both Game 6 and Game 7 at the half before going ice cold from the perimeter in those games to go down in defeat. One has to wonder if Chris Paul had been healthy to play in either of those final two games if the Rockets would have been able to dethrone the Warriors. There are some changes in the Rockets’ rotation this season as Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Luc Mbah a Moute, along with draft pick DeAnthony Melton, are gone. In their place are Carmelo Anthony, Michael Carter-Williams, Marquese Chriss, James Ennis III, and Brandon Knight. Last season, the Rockets were 41-40-1 ATS while the under was the safer call in their games. On the year, the under was 48-33-1 during the regular season when Houston was on the floor.

The Rockets were above average offensively: they were 2nd in the league with 112.4 points per game. Houston was tied for 18th in rebounding with 43.5 boards per game and tied for 26th with 21.5 assists a night. The Rockets were tied for 6th in scoring defense as they allowed 103.9 points per game. James Harden led the team with 30.4 points per game while grabbing 5.4 boards and dishing out 8.8 assists a night en route to winning MVP honors for the first time. Eric Gordon put up 18 points per contest while Clint Capela averaged 13.9 points plus 10.8 rebounds a night. PJ Tucker will be a key secondary option on the wing along with Anthony this season. Nene Hilario, Gerald Green and Chris Paul (18.6 points, 7.9 assists, 1.66 steals) are key pieces in the rotation as well. The Rockets were 15th in the league in field goal percentage, shooting 46 percent as a team. Houston was 1st in the league with 15.3 threes a night while the team was tied for 13th by shooting 36.2 percent from long range this season.

For Houston to have success, they’re going to have to have better production from their remaining bench group. Anthony is going to have to prove that last season’s struggles with Oklahoma City were an aberration. Carter-Williams and Knight are going to have to stay healthy after injury-plagued campaigns. Also, the Rockets are going to have to find some length: losing Ariza and Mbah a Moute took away two of their primary 3 and D guys that make them dangerous. It would be no surprise to see GM Daryl Morey make some deals before the trade deadline to address the holes left on the wing. Still, given that Houston finished 17 games ahead of everyone else in the division last season, the Rockets are the prohibitive favorite to lap the field again in 2018-19. After all, the Rockets were 26-1 in February and March last season.

New Orleans Pelicans

2017-18 Record: 48-34, 2nd in Southwest Division

Playoff Status: Beat Portland 4-0 in Western Conference first round, lost 4-1 to Golden State in Western Conference semifinals

New Orleans seemed that they were in trouble when franchise center DeMarcus Cousins went down with a torn Achilles in February. Instead, the Pelicans swung a deal to get Nikola Mirotic from the Bulls and went on a roll. New Orleans was 17-8 after the All-Star break and won five of their six games in April to end up clinching the sixth seed in the tight Western Conference. The Pelicans won just the second playoff series in franchise history and first since the 2007-08 season by wiping out Portland in the first round before bowing out against Golden State. There are changes in the flock for the Pelicans this season as Cousins, and Rajon Rondo left via free agency, signing with the Warriors and Lakers, respectively. New Orleans brought in Elfrid Payton, Julius Randle, and Jahlil Okafor via free agency to try and add some depth to their rotation.

One thing we know is that this is still Anthony Davis’ team. The Pelicans had the best ATS record in the division last season with a 45-36-1 mark, and they were also the only team to have the over be the better bet last season. The over was 47-35 in New Orleans’ contests last season. The Pelicans were excellent ATS on the road last season (26-15 vs. 19-21-1 at home) while the over was dominant in their home games (27-14 vs. 20-21 on the road) in 2017-18.

The Pelicans were 3rd in the league in scoring offense with 111.7 points per game. The Pelicans were 10th in rebounding with 44.3 boards per game while ranking 3rd with 26.8 assists per contest. New Orleans is 29th in scoring defense as they gave up 110.4 points per contest. Anthony Davis led the Pelicans in scoring with 28.1 points to go with 11.1 rebounds and 2.57 blocks per game. That means Jrue Holiday (19 points, six assists), Ian Clark, Okafor, Randle, Payton, Nikola Mirotic (15.6 points, 7.4 rebounds) and E’Twaun Moore (12.5 points) all have to contribute offensively and put the ball in the hole as Davis can’t do it alone. Solomon Hill hopes to rebound after a lost season last year to return to form and be a contributor. New Orleans was 2nd in field goal percentage shooting 48.3 percent from the floor. The Pelicans were 18th with 10.2 made threes per game and stood tied for 13th in the league by converting 36.2 percent from long range this season.

Losing Cousins and Rondo is going to hurt New Orleans. Cousins was a solid wingman for Davis, providing the team with a tremendous 1-2 punch offensively and in the low block. Rondo, while he was limited offensively due to his poor shooting, is a good floor general who provided leadership and experience. Going to Payton, who hasn’t proven much in his tenure in the league, and Randle, who seems reticent to share the ball while failing to create much in the way of spacing, is going to test the Pelicans this season. Can New Orleans find the shooting to help free Davis of potential double or triple teams by opposing defenses?

San Antonio Spurs

2017-18 Record: 47-35, 3rd in Southwest Division

Playoff Status: Lost 4-1 to Golden State in Western Conference First Round

San Antonio managed to make the postseason for the 21st consecutive year under the leadership of head coach Gregg Popovich, but most seem to think that the window of contending is pretty much closed for the Spurs, especially with the tough Western Conference. As it stood, San Antonio had to claw to earn their spot in the postseason as their 47-35 mark was good for seventh in the Western Conference. It marked the fewest wins the Spurs have had in a non-strike season under Popovich. Injuries and age took a toll: after starting the year 25-12, San Antonio was only 22-23 from January 1 on.

There are several longtime members of the organization that are gone now, leading to new blood with the team. Kawhi Leonard, who played only nine games last season, was dealt to Toronto, as was Danny Green. Tony Parker signed with Charlotte; Kyle Anderson inked a deal with Memphis while Manu Ginobili announced his retirement last month. Throw in injuries to Dejounte Murray (torn ACL, out for the season), Rudy Gay (inflamed bursa in his heel), Derrick White (torn plantar fascia in his foot, out four to eight weeks) and rookie Lonnie Walker IV (torn right meniscus, out six to eight weeks) and the Spurs are dealing with attrition before the season even gets underway.

The Spurs brought in DeMar DeRozan and Jakob Poeltl in the Leonard trade, which helps their depth. San Antonio also signed free agents Dante Cunningham, Quincy Pondexter, and Marco Belinelli. If Belinelli can shoot the way he did with Atlanta and Philadelphia last season, he can add a capable scoring option off the bench, especially from the perimeter. The Spurs are going to try and reach the postseason again, this time riding LaMarcus Aldridge and DeRozan: will it be enough with all the other injuries?

The Spurs were below average offensively last season, ranking 27th in scoring offense with 102.7 points per game. San Antonio was 11th in rebounding with 44.2 boards a contest while the team was tied for 15th in assists with 22.8 dimes per game. San Antonio was tied for 1st in the league in scoring defense as they allow 99.8 points a game. LaMarcus Aldridge contributed a team-leading 23.1 points plus 8.5 rebounds a night. DeRozan put up 23 points and 5.2 assists per game last season with Toronto: he might be tasked with more point guard duties thanks to Murray’s injury. Pau Gasol averaged 10.1 points and eight rebounds in his second year with the team. Rudy Gay (11.5 points), Patty Mills, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Poeltl all are going to be looked at to contribute for coach Gregg Popovich’s team. The Spurs were 16th in the league by shooting 45.7 percent from the field. San Antonio was 28th in three-point field goals per game with 8.5 per contest. The Spurs were tied for 25th in the league by knocking down 35.2 percent of their long-range attempts.

San Antonio was 42-38-2 ATS last season while the under was a slightly better bet in their games last season. The under was 44-38 when the Spurs took the floor in 2017-18. San Antonio was better ATS by far at home (26-14-1 vs. 16-24-1) last year while they stayed under the total more on the road (23-18) than at home (21-20) during the regular season a year ago.

Dallas Mavericks

2017-18 Record: 24-58, 4th in Southwest Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

Dallas continued to trend in the wrong direction last season as their win total declined for the third straight season. The Mavericks dropped from 50 wins in 2014-15 to 42 in 2015-16 to 33 in 2016-17 before the bottom fell out last year. Dallas finished just 24-58 and ended up with the league’s third-worst record. It’s a trying time for the organization, who had 16 straight seasons with a .500 or better record along with 15 playoff appearances in that span between 2000-01 and 2015-16. Will the youth movement the team is taking on lead to another era of success for Mark Cuban’s team?

There was a lot of personnel shuffling in the organization in the offseason. Kyle Collinsworth, Seth Curry, Yogi Ferrell, Doug McDermott, Johnathan Motley, and Nerlens Noel are all gone from the team. The Mavericks brought back Dirk Nowitzki on another one year deal while making a big splash by bringing in DeAndre Jordan from the Clippers to play center. Devin Harris is also back with Dallas to add a veteran to the backcourt. Dallas added some quality youth in the draft as Luka Doncic, the third overall pick, is expected to slot in at the starting shooting guard. Jalen Brunson, Ray Spalding, and Kostas Antetokounmpo should help contribute to the rebuilding process as well.

The Mavericks struggled on the offensive end of the floor last season. Dallas was 28th in the league in scoring with 102.3 points per game. The Mavericks were 27th in rebounding with 41.3 boards per contest and were 19th in the league with 22.7 assists per game. Dallas was slightly above average on the defensive end, ranking 12th in scoring defense by allowing 105.4 points per game. Harrison Barnes leads the Mavericks with 18.9 points plus 6.1 rebounds per game. Dennis Smith Jr. (15.2 points, 5.2 assists) is the point guard of the future and was solid as a rookie. J.J. Barea (11.6 points, 6.3 assists) is a solid veteran presence in the backcourt. Salah Mejri, Wesley Matthews (12.7 points), Dwight Powell and the ageless Dirk Nowitzki are all cogs in the Mavericks’ rotation. Jordan (12 points, 15.2 rebounds with the Clippers) is going to be a nice addition in the middle and should help with their rebounding woes. Dallas was 26th in the league in field goal percentage as they shoot 44.4 percent as a team. The Mavericks were 5th in threes with 11.8 per game but were 17th in three-point shooting by hitting 36 percent from beyond the arc.

Dallas was just over the .500 mark ATS last season, going 41-40-1 on the year. The under was the better bet when they took the floor as it was 44-37-1 in the Mavericks’ contests last season. Dallas was slightly better ATS on the road (21-19-1) than at home (20-21) last year. The Mavericks were pretty much the same as far as staying under the total at home (22-18-1) as they were on the road (22-19) last year, so there was at least some consistency there.

Memphis Grizzlies

2017-18 Record: 22-60, 5th in Southwest Division

Playoff Status: Did Not Qualify

It was a horrific season for the Grizzlies, who put up their worst record since the 2008-09 team finished 24-58. Last season snapped a seven-year run where Memphis posted a winning record and made the postseason in each season. The Grizzlies are going to have to do some massive retooling to try and contend in the crowded Western Conference. After finishing just one game ahead of Phoenix to avoid having the league’s worst record, one has to wonder if Memphis has the firepower to regroup or if the team is going to end up having to undertake another major rebuilding process to become a viable playoff contender again.

Memphis dealt away some role players in the offseason as Deyonta Davis and Ben McLemore were moved to Sacramento while Jarell Martin went to Orlando. Perhaps the most significant blow to the Grizzlies was the loss of Tyreke Evans via free agency to Indiana. Memphis tried dealing him before the trade deadline last season but couldn’t get their asking price met: instead, they held on to him and lost him for nothing in the offseason. The Grizzlies brought in Garrett Temple from Sacramento via trade while signing Shelvin Mack, Omri Casspi, and Kyle Anderson in free agency. Memphis also drafted Jaren Jackson Jr. with the fourth overall pick and Jevon Carter with the 32nd overall selection to add some young talent to the mix.

The Grizzlies finished last season ranked 29th in scoring offense in the league as they averaged 99.3 points per game. Memphis was in the bottom third of the pack in the league on the glass, ranking 29th with 40.5 boards a night. The Grizzlies were 26th in the league in assists with 21.5 per game. Memphis stood 13th in the league in scoring defense as they allow 105.5 points per game. Marc Gasol was second on the team with 17.2 points and 8.1 rebounds plus 4.2 assists per game. Mike Conley added 17.1 points plus 4.1 assists a night, and rookie Dillon Brooks contributed 11 points a game. JaMychal Green (10.3 points, 8.4 boards), Chandler Parsons, Mack, Temple, Jackson Jr., Carter, Wayne Selden, and Andrew Harrison are key pieces in the rotation for Memphis. The Grizzlies were 27th in the league in field goal percentage as the team shoots 44.4 percent from the floor. Memphis was 24th in the league with 9.2 threes per game and 25th in the league as they shot 35.2 percent from beyond the arc.

Memphis was a sub-.500 team ATS last season, going 36-44-2 on the year. The under was a slight favorite the previous season when the Grizzlies played, posting a 42-39-1 mark on the season. Memphis posted the same record ATS at home as on the road last season, going 18-22-1 in both instances. When it came to staying under the total, the Grizzlies were much better at falling under the number at home (25-16) than on the road (17-23-1) last season. If Conley, who played just 12 games last season before missing the rest of the season with a heel injury, and Gasol can stay healthy, the Grizzlies should improve on last season’s numbers.

Outlook

The outlook for the division doesn’t look a whole lot different than it did a year ago. Houston is the cream of the crop in the division and is a virtual lock to win the division crown and make a run in the playoffs. It’s tough to argue with the trio of Capela, Paul, and Harden: when the three of them played together in the regular season last year, the Rockets were 42-3 in games where those three all played. In those contests, Houston outscored the opposition by an average of 11.5 points per game. While Morey is going to be chasing down some wing depth, the fact remains that it’s tough to argue with that kind of winning percentage.

Question marks are surrounding the rest of the division. New Orleans lost their second-best scoring option in Cousins and a veteran point guard in Rondo. In their place are lesser pieces as Payton hasn’t proven that he can handle a workload on a good team while Randle has his own question marks at this point of his career. San Antonio lost the rest of the core of the team that won a title in 2014 and now has injuries that have decimated their backcourt. That will put a lot of pressure on DeRozan and Aldridge to try and carry the load. As for Dallas and Memphis, there is an uphill climb for both teams to get back to relevance in the division.

According to oddsmakers, Houston is the ridiculously heavy favorite to win the division, going off at 2/9 odds at the moment. San Antonio is next in line at 7/1, though that could change with all the injuries. New Orleans is 8/1, Memphis is 40/1 and Dallas is going off at 50/1 in the Southwest Division. Seeing that Houston has the second-best odds to win the Western Conference (4/1) and third best to win an NBA title (9/1), it’s safe to say that the Rockets are your likely division winner. As far as other playoff teams, New Orleans and San Antonio will be in the mix, but it’s entirely possible that only one of them makes the postseason with the improved Western Conference. Memphis should be better than last season if they can stay healthy, which leaves the Mavericks as the basement dweller this season.

How do you see the Southwest Division shaking out this season? Can anyone get in the way of the Rockets’ ascension?

 

 

 

 

Chris Kubala

Christopher Kubala has been crunching stats and following sports for over 30 years. His in depth analysis and passion for sports have led him to writing books about sports, regularly being featured on sports talk radio and as the go-to person for any obscure trivia. He keeps an eye on transactions and statistics like a hawk, especially when it comes to football, both the NFL and college, the NHL, the NBA and college basketball and MLB.

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