Last year, the Southwest Division was, by far, the deepest division in the NBA, with four of the five teams winning at least 49 games. This year, the division should still be deep but not quite so. Moreover, all four playoff teams are at some key points. Dallas and San Antonio are trying to squeeze another run out of veteran cores, Houston is hoping to overcome injuries to stay competitive, and New Orleans has the best player in the division and is teetering on the edge of playoff participant and bona fide contender. Should be interesting to watch…
1. San Antonio Spurs: The numbers and the performance have shown the Spurs to be a team in decline the last two seasons. In particular, the Spurs have have had some slippage defensively. After a great defensive year in 2003-04 (94.1) the defensive has declined each season:
Year Defensive Rating
2003-04 94.1 (1st)
2004-05 98.8 (1st)
2005-06 99.6 (1st)
2006-07 99.9 (2nd)
2007-08 101.8 (3rd)
2008-09 104.3 (5th)
The ratings have been respectable the last two years but well below the great numbers they put up previously. Having determined that the defensive specialists (Bruce Bowen, Fabricio Oberto) weren’t carrying their weight, the Spurs have totally re-tooled their team, signing Antonio McDyess and trading for Richard Jefferson in hopes of contending with the Lakers. While it’s not clear whether McDyess and RJ will help fix the defense, they are both huge offensive upgrades over Bowen and Oberto, which is worth, at least, a few wins.
But McDyess and RJ are only half the battle. The Spurs are built around the core of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Tim Duncan. Parker had his best season and Duncan is in the midst of a slow decline. He did have some knee problems but the final numbers (19.3 ppg, .504 FG%, 10.7 rpg, 24.4 PER) are basically in line with what one would expect from a 32-year old Hall of Famer. All of the inner circle centers were quite good until their late 30s and we have no reason to think TD will be any different.
The real question mark is Ginobili. While his rate stats were the same as in years past, he missed half the season with injuries and this killed the Spurs. Ginobili has missed time in the base (usually about 10 games a year) but he is such a key that the Spurs ability to seriously contend rests on his health. This is never a great thing when a player is 32 but he is young enough that it is not unreasonable to expect 65-70 games this season. If he does play that much, the Spurs will contend and should be the second best team in the West and have a decent shot of beating the Lakers.
-PG, Tony Parker 2008-09: 22.0 ppg, .506 FG%, 3.1 rpg, 6.9 apg, 23.4 PER
-SG, Manu Ginobili 2007-08: 19.5 ppg, .460 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 4.5 apg, 24.3 PER
-SF, Derek Anderson 2000-01: 15.5 ppg, .416 FG%, 4.4 rpg, 3.7 apg, 17.1 PER
-PF, Tim Duncan 2003-04: 22.3 ppg, .501 FG%, 12.4 rpg, 3.1 apg, 27.1 PER
-C, David Robinson 1999-00: 17.8 ppg, .512 FG%, 9.6 rpg, 1.8 apg, 24.6 PER
2. New Orleans Hornets: The Hornets are team the could be coming or going. On the bright side, the Hornets have Chris Paul, the best point guard in the NBA. On the minus side, the Hornets have not yet excelled offensively or defensively as a team. Instead, we have a pretty good 50-win team and we can’t really tell if the Hornets are a real contender. Part of the problem last year was that the Hornets were a two-man team. Paul was incredible (30.0 PER) and David West was his usual reliable self. After that, however, things were not great. Tyson Chandler struggled with injury and the triumvirate of overpaid small forwards (Peja Stojakovic, James Posey, Morris Peterson) were average at best.
Fortunately, the Hornets have taken steps to improve by acquiring Emeka Okafor for Chandler. So, the Hornets have a core now of Paul, West, and Okafor. This is enough to get the Hornets to the 50-win level. Can they get any higher? Well, a normal Okafor season should be worth a few wins. The only other upside on the roster belongs to a Julian Wright, who looks like he could be okay if given a chance. Paul is also young and is at an age where players generally improve. Understanding this fact, you do have to wonder how the hell Paul could improve off of his season (21.4 ppg, .503 FG%, 5.2 rpg, 10.3 apg)? We looked at other young point guards but none of them ever scored as high as Paul did this year. Paul had the 15th best single season PER ever and the best for a point guard and his 2007-08 was the second best season (Magic Johnson’s 1986-87 peak of 27.03 is third best and 73rd overall). Paul is uncharted territory at this point and the sky is the limit.
In case you are curious, here are the top point-guard PER seasons (we’re not counting Jerry West, Oscar Robertson, or Allen Iverson as points):
1. Chris Paul 2008-09, 29.96
2. Chris Paul 2007-08, 28.31
3. Magic Johnson 1986-87, 27.03
4. Magic Johnson 1988-89, 26.92
5. Magic Johnson 1989-90, 26.60
6. Terrell Brandon 1995-96, 25.24
7. Tiny Archibald 1972-73, 25.19
8. Magic Johnson 1990-91, 25.05
9. Magic Johnson 1985-86, 23.96
10. John Stockton 1989-90, 23.87
-PG: Chris Paul 2008-09: 22.8 ppg, .503 FG%, 5.5 rpg, 11.0 apg, 30.0 PER
-SG: Eddie Jones 1999-00: 20.1 ppg, .427 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 4.2 apg, 19.9 PER
-SF: Jamal Mashburn 2002-03: 21.6 ppg, .422 FG%, 6.1 rpg, 5.6 apg, 18.0 PER
-PF: David West 2007-08: 20.6 ppg, .482 FG%, 8.9 rpg, 2.3 apg, 19.9 PER
-C: Elden Campbell 2001-02: 13.9 ppg, .484 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 1.3 apg, 19.5 PER
3. Dallas Mavericks: Like the Spurs, the Mavs are trying to squeeze a few more contending teams out of a nice core of Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, and Josh Howard. Unlike the Spurs, the Mavs don’t have a multiple titles (or even one title) to hang their hats on. Rather, the Mavs harken back to the some of the teams of the 1990s who were very good for a decade but couldn’t quite get over the hump (the Ewing Knicks, the Mourning Heat, the Miller Pacers, the Payton/Kemp Sonics, the Barkley Suns, the Drexler Blazers, and the Malone/Stockton Jazz). Back then, the hump was Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon. Now, the hump has been the Spurs and the Lakers (and, of course, the Dwyane Wade for one series). Dallas was a decent team last year but the nature of this team has changed. The Mavs had gradually changed from an offense first squad under Don Nelson to a very good, slow paced offense (though they still were efficient), and with a great defense under Avery Johnson.
In Rick Carlisle’s first season Dallas was a good offensive team (5th in efficiency) but dipped to 17th in defensive efficiency, their lowest ratings since the Nellie years. Squeezing more contention out of Dirk and his supporting players is absolutely the right move. Dirk is 31 and still a great player. The Mavs are also willing to double down on older players, as they signed Shawn Marion, who is also in his early 30s (though declining more rapidly than Dirk). The key question here is whether spending the cash on Marion was the best way to go for it. I tend to think the current roster is solid but not an improvement over the last few years. Outside of Dirk, Marion and Kidd should slip a little more and the Mavs will have to figure out how to use Howard and Marion together (or it is likely that Howard will be traded). This all adds up to another 50-win team and an outside shot at the second round. Again. The real hope for Dallas fans is that a great player becomes available and Mark Cuban’s willingness to spend converts them from a good team to a title contender, sort of like the Pau Gasol did in L.A.
-PG: Steve Nash 2002-03: 17.7 ppg, .465 FG%, 2.9 rpg, 7.3 apg, 22.6 PER
-SG: Michael Finley 1999-00: 22.6 ppg, .401 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 5.3 apg, 19.2 PER
-SF: Antawn Jamison 2003-04: 14.8 ppg, .535 FG%, 6.3 rpg, 0.9 apg, 21.2 PER
-PF: Dirk Nowitzki 2005-06: 26.6 ppg, .480 FG%, 9.0 rpg, 2.8 apg, 28.1 PER
-C: Raef LaFrentz 2002-03: 9.3 ppg, .518 FG%, 4.8 rpg, 0.8 apg, 16.5 PER
4. Houston Rockets: 2008-09 was a great year for the Rockets on the court. With new coach Rick Adelman, the Rockets finally broke through to the second round and they continued the great defense that they demonstrated under Jeff Van Gundy. But the success did not come in ways we all expected. The Rockets had been based around Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming for years. After struggling with injury (and apathy), T-Mac decided to undergo knee surgery without actually telling the team, which just happened to squelch pending trade talk. This left the Rockets with a core of Yao, Ron Artest, and a bunch of useful role players like Kyle Lowry, Von Wafer, Carl Landry, Luis Scola, Shane Battier, and Aaron Brooks. It worked pretty well and Houston gave the Lakers a pretty good run in the playoffs.
Now T-Mac and Yao are out and Artest is gone. They’ve added Trevor Ariza and some role players like David Andersen and Chase Budinger and they have a good coach and a creative GM. But the problem is that there isn’t near enough scoring to offset the loss of Yao & Company. The Rockets will play hard and play smart but the West is deep and they just don’t have the horses to get back to the playoffs this year. The Rockets will hopefully have Yao back in 2010-11 and a ton of cap room. So, the future could be bright but 2009-10 will be a lottery season.
-PG, Steve Francis 2000-01: 19.9 ppg, .451 FG%, 6.9 rpg, 6.5 apg, 20.6 PER
-SG, Cuttino Mobley 2000-01: 19.5 ppg, .434 FG%, 5.0 rpg, 2.5 apg, 17.7 PER
-SF, Tracy McGrady 2006-07: 24.6 ppg, .431 FG%< 5.3 rpg, 6.5 apg, 23.2 PER
-PF, Kenny Thomas 2001-02: 14.1 ppg, .478 FG%, 7.2 rpg, 1.9 apg, 16.4 PER
-C, Yao Ming 2004-05: 18.3 ppg, .552 FG%, 8.4 rpg, 0.8 apg, 23.2 PER
5. Memphis Grizzlies: We reviewed the Grizz a bit in the transactions section this summer and the conclusions seem clear: this is bad scoring team, a horrible passing team, a team with a ton of chuckers like O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay, and the team with the lowest attendance in the NBA. Memphis’ answer was to obtain Zach Randolph and Allen Iverson and you have to wonder what the real plan is for the Grizz. Randolph can score but is a defensive liability and is neither cheap nor a good soldier (and, yes, we all understand that the Grizz effectively traded Pau Gasol for him). AI is a quick guard entering his mid-30s, who is also not usually a happy camper. The team could actual improve because they do have more scorers and there is a shot that Hasheem Thabeet can help the shot blocking. Despite all this, It’s hard to envision a scenario where the Grizz are even decent or even at the outskirts of the playoff race and Memphis will be forced to re-evaluate yet again next year.
PG, Jason Williams 2002-03: 12.1 ppg, .388 FG%, 2.8 rpg, 8.3 apg, 17.1 PER
SG, O.J. Mayo 2008-09: 18.5 ppg, .438 FG%, 3.8 rpg, 3.2 apg, 14.2 PER
SF, James Posey 2003-04: 13.7 ppg, .478 FG%, 4.9 rpg, 1.5 apg, 18.8 PER
PF, Shareef Abdur-Rahim 1999-00: 20.3 ppg, .465 FG%, 10.1 rpg, 3.3 apg, 20.2 PER
C, Pau Gasol 2005-06: 20.4 ppg, .503 FG%, 8.9 rpg, 4.6 apg, 22.6 PER