This division is a little nuts. For years, it has been the class of the NBA, the toughest battle of any division. The average wins per season for all teams in the Southwest is 44. And that's not all top-heavy San Antonio. The Hornets, who dealt with massive injury woes and the departure of Chris Paul over that stretch, still won 36 games per season.
And after this offseason, don't expect much slippage. In fact, you could see some gains. You can make a realistic argument that the Southwest Division could send five teams to the playoffs next season.
The Spurs are the Spurs, and while we'll all wonder if this is the year that age finally takes its toll on them, I've given up this pursuit. On the eve of the apocalypse, the Spurs will still win 55 games or more. The Spurs made no big moves, but they never do. They tweaked, they adjusted, they overpaid to bring back Tiago Splitter. But their success is built upon continuity, not upgrades.
Memphis had specific needs of depth and someone who can hit a jump shot. They addressed both. While they didn't hit a big home run, they undeniably improved upon last season's team that won the most games in franchise history.
Houston got Dwight Howard. 'Nuff said.
The Mavericks made some seriously questionably moves, but they spent a lot of money for upgrades, and they did get better ... we think. There are a lot of gambles, but this is no Milwaukee Bucks or Toronto Raptors ... despite their starting backcourt being made up of players from those clubs.
Finally, the Pelicans are intriguing. Teams like this either live up to the highest expectations and make the playoffs as a surprise, or they fail miserably -- which prompts the departure of the GM and coach. But there is a legitimate chance that this team makes a postseason run.
This division is going to be brutal and forcing these five teams to play their opponents four times just seems mean. The hierarchy looks very similar to last season's. It may also be the most fascinating division to watch. Did the Spurs do enough to keep pace as age takes its toll? Will the Grizzlies' chemistry come apart without Lionel Hollins? Can Howard and James Harden click immediately? Does Monta Ellis have it all?
The Southwest Division is still the strongest. The scary part is that it only got stronger.
Here it is, team by team:
|New Orleans Pelicans|
This could be an A+, it could be an F. Thats true for all NBA teams offseasons, but it's even more pronounced with New Orleans. The (Jrue) Holiday trade was a big gamble. The (Tyreke) Evans signing, gamble. Trading (Greivis) Vasquez and (Robin) Lopez? Gamble and gamble. They're banking everything on a very unorthodox lineup and hoping to find lightning in a bottle. If they can defend, it'll look like a great summer. If they can't, then it's a logjammed mess.
So instead well go B. The Pelicans got talent. Does it fit? It can, but it's going to take bold vision and dedication from both the coaching staff and the young players developing.
The Pelicans' defense is really going to be the thing to watch. Holiday, Gordon and Evans should be good for somewhere between 40 and 50 points per game by themselves. Health is a worry, but not as much as the defense, which was dreadful last year. Holiday is regaded as an elite perimeter defender, Gordon is fine, and Evans could be very good in a better system. Can the rest of a young roster catch up? That's going to go farther than anything else, even their positional uncertainty, in determining whether they make the playoffs.
However, the Mavericks still managed to maintain cap flexibility down the road. They have Dirk Nowitzki coming off the books next summer and possibly willing to take a pay cut if it brings in other star quality players to help him out. (Shawn) Marion comes off the books along with (Vince) Carter next summer as well. (Brandan) Wright, (Samuel) Dalembert, and (Wayne) Ellington all received two-year deals. The Mavericks have managed to reload their roster while still having some decent options to keep their roster evolving.
The Mavs struck out once again in free agency, but they managed to improve their team. It wasn't what they hoped to do, but it also isn't the end of the world.
If we're just judging an offseason by the next year, then no, the Mavericks probably didn't do very well. But if we look at them from a higher altitude, and see the multiyear plans, it looks a little better. That Ellis contract is either going to be Mark Cuban's ultimate last laugh or a period Mavericks fans refer to in infamy. Their short-term work was not very impressive, but they're still set up for a big move in the future.
The only complication is that the sand is running out of Nowitzki's hourglass. He's not getting any younger and the Mavericks need to make another run while he's got legs or they're going to be starting from scratch. And then these Band-Aids on bullet holes look a lot worse.
So their need? Their need was Dwight Howard. They were all-in on him from the beginning and were willing to completely sell out to get him. If that meant dealing draft picks to clear cap space, if it meant waiving players, if it meant anything related in their hunt for Howard, they were willing.
Rockets general manager Daryl Morey takes a very analytical approach to roster building, but he hasn't been shy about one thing: To win in the NBA, you need stars. Grabbing Harden was the first one he really had, a true building block kind of player. But to get to an elite level in the NBA, one star is just a start. So Howard was everything to the Rockets.
Not to say if they didn't get him that everything would've been terrible. They still have a solid core of Harden, Lin and Parsons with premier defender Omer Asik inside and some good role players around.
Still, their need was Howard. He was Plan A, B and C this offseason. Fail there, and it was going to be back to the drawing board.
That's really the only way to judge the Rockets' offseason. You can't for years say, "Sure the Rockets get OK players, but they can't get a star," and then judge them on anything but the acquisition of a player like Howard. I'm actually relatively unimpressed with their surrounding pieces. (I would have preferred convincing Carlos Delfino to come back on the cheap vs. Francisco Garcia, for example, but maybe that wasn't possible.) But they got Howard. Everyone wanted him, the Lakers were the incumbent, and the Rockets landed him. It's a massive turning point in their franchise history.
The "big" signing of the Memphis offseason didn't come until later in the summer, after the Heat used their amnesty provision on Mike Miller. Miller danced with the Thunder, among other teams, but eventually wound up signing with the Grizzlies, returning "home" in what is likely the end of the career. The deal works for all sides, as Miller stays with a team in contention for a title, and the Grizzlies finally get someone to stretch the floor.
Should the Grizzlies get only limited regular season production, if Miller's able to contribute during the playoffs as he did with Miami, it's a win for the Grizzlies. It brings back a player popular with the franchise and the fans, and lets Miller shoot for however longer he wants to continue his career.
Memphis worked out a trade to acquire Nick Calathes from the Mavericks to work as backup point guard. They needed a backup point guard with pure point capabilities and Calathes is a good fit and only 24. It was a sneaky good signing for the Grizz.
Maybe the most underrated move of the summer for Memphis happened early when the Grizzlies traded Darrell Arthur to the Nuggets for Kosta Koufos, giving Denver the ability to focus on JaVale McGee. Koufos was a plus/minus monster for the Nuggets last season and instantly becomes the best backup center Memphis has had in years.
Part of what I discovered doing these offseason reports is that it's not reasonable to expect contending teams to make big signings. They don't have the money, because they've already spent it on being a contender. Sure, it would have been great if the Grizzlies had gotten Mike Dunleavy on a deal like the Bulls did, but it's very rare for a team to pull off something like that, and the Grizzlies' cap situation was a bit more dire short and long term.
Memphis got better in smart, small ways, and that's all they really need in the immediate.
|San Antonio Spurs|
What the Spurs have is trust. They've accomplished so much and done things so well that no matter what, we all trust that they're making good moves. And while (Tiago) Splitter seems like he got too much money and (Manu) Ginobili at $14 million feels like a lot, especially with how washed up he looked at times during the Finals, the Spurs have equity with us. They've rarely been wrong, so they get the benefit of the doubt.
It essentially comes down to this: How much are you willing to pay to keep a good thing going? I think Splitter was massively overpaid, but were they going to realistically get an upgrade at that price? Maybe, but maybe not. However, they know that this team made the Finals last year, they know these players fit their system, they know they can trust these players.
Sometimes the best thing you can do is stay the course.
Offseason Power Rankings
1. Rockets: Dwight Howard. Seriously, 'nuff said.
2. Pelicans: They added two quality starters and upgraded at nearly every position. They landed an All-Star, talked Eric Gordon into buying in, and signed Greg Stiemsma. That's a damn good haul for a small market team with a stupid name.
3. Spurs: They are still the best team, they just didn't do much.
4. Grizzlies: They upgraded at every position of need and they're still fourth. That's how good this division is and how good their offseasons were.
5. Mavericks: Hey, they could wind up second when all is said and done. But you have to evaluate on what you know, and what we know is that Monta Ellis have it all.