It’s game face time for the Houston Rockets, who have a particularly tough year ahead of them. After flying under the radar for years, the Rockets are not targets in a super stacked west. No division in that Western Conference is quite as stacked as the Southwest Division, and the Rockets now have to learn how to swim in the deep end.
San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs, until further notice, remain the crown prince oh the Southwest Division. Their dynasty seems endless, and their system is the key. With head coach Gregg Popovich and general manager R. C. Buford working together, the Spurs remain competitive even with their starting lineup missing. Their offseason was quiet, primarily featuring the loss of Gary Neal and the signing of Marco Bellinelli.. DeJuan Blair also left for greener pastures after a disappointing year.San Antonio needed little in the way of change after a Finals run last year, and they focused instead on keeping their core together.
The Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard rank among the deadliest lineups in the league, Manu’s decline notwithstanding. Every game between these teams will be an absolute slugfest, and a showdown at each position. Parker is one of the best point guards in the league and the focal point of San Antonio’s offense now. Beverley’s defense is sure to be important for Houston’s well-being. Chandler Parsons will have to drape himself on Kawhi Leonard, who’s sure to do the same to him. Dwight Howard is sure to have a bone to pick with Tim Duncan after Duncan manhandled the Lakers in last year’s playoffs. Dwight’s ability will determine the matchup inside, and if Duncan gets going the Spurs are nearly unstoppable. As always with these teams, expect all four games to come right down to the wire. If Houston can go at Manu, somehow their point of weakness, they have a realistic shot to at least split this series.
The Memphis Grizzlies are a very good team. With a sudden head coaching change, we don’t know how good they are just yet. Mike Miller and Kosta Koufos joined the club, adding needed depth to a team that often leans on starters. Apart from the question mark that is new head coach Dave Joerger, the Grizzlies seem to be in a similar place to last year. The downside for them is that the rest of the West improved as well.
Memphis may be one of the few teams that Houston can trot out a twin towers style lineup, putting Asik on Marc Gasol, while Howard, a more athletic player, may be suited to guard Zach Randolph, a player who is at home shooting anywhere on the court. Mike Conley will be a real concern for Houston as well. Conley has emerged as one of the most competent point guards in the league, and is one of the few grizzlies with a three point shot. If Houston can take away the three from Memphis, they’ll have an easier time packing the paint and helping on defense, something which could mean a two-center lineup. No matter where they fall in the standings, there’s no reason to ever take this team lightly, and will be ready for them.
Are the Mavericks the worst team in the Southwest Division? That’s a strange question to ask of a team that won a championship in 2011, but happenstance and planning have conspired to bring us this strange team. Monta Ellis marks the biggest acquisition this summer, Ellis and Jose Calderon make up the starting backcourt for Dallas, a lineup that shouts three pointers, but has little to say about defense. With these players plus Dirk, the Mavs might be fun, fast and high scoring. They also might turn out to be the same as last year.
The key to beating the Mavs is Dirk, as always. If Nowitzki gets in his zone, little on earth can stop him. The question wiill be if he can drag the rest of the team with him. It’s likely that Dalembert becomes a target for Dwight Howard. Dwight’s iffy shots in the post notwithstanding, he can overpower most big men in the league with his athleticism, making Samuel Dalembert worrk even harder on defense. Calderon and Ellis are likely to let players in regularly, making Dalembert’s job even harder. The Mavs might find some diamonds in the rough, but right now there’s just too much rough there. It’s hard to see the Mavs keeping up with the top teams in the conference.
New Orleans Pelicans
In the one year with no Hornets in the league, the Pelicans present a strange situation. Nobody knows exactly how good they’ll be just yet due to some serious upheaval. Greivis Vasquez was traded to Sacramento, where he may be able to continue his improvement. He’s been replaced by Jrue Holiday, a young all star who still has a high ceiling. The Pelicans also acquired Tyreke Evans, former rookie of the year and potential star. Along with Eric Gordon and Anthony Davis, the Pelicans are a team hoping to bank on ceiling as early as this year.
The Pelicans eked out a win against the Rockets during the preseason, a fact which is cause for only minor concern. Houston’s starters looked superior all game long, and are likely to dominate in the regular season as well. The Pelicans, however, have players like Evans and Gordon who are happy to let fly from deep and push it right down a defense’s throat. As long as Parsons and Howard can remain committed on defense, the game should become very much about Anthony Davis, something New Orleans will be happy to allow. Davis is the future of their franchise, and the sooner he gets to establish himself, the better. Houston needs to go in and get wins against this team while their players are still developing, because they may be a much harder out next season.