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Division preview: Southwest

by | Special to

This summer in the NBA was all about superstar realignment, but the story in the league's Southwest Division was same old stars, same old places.

Dallas Mavericks forward Dirk Nowitzki and Memphis Grizzlies forward Rudy Gay signed extensions; Houston Rockets center Yao Ming returned from a foot injury; San Antonio Spurs big man Tim Duncan continued on in his human/robot form; and New Orleans Hornets guard Chris Paul, despite some late-summer commotion over a perceived trade demand, stayed put -- at least for now. While rosters were reshaped, the centerpieces for all five teams remained intact.

For a decade now, the Southwest race has been a titanic clash for superiority between the Mavericks and Spurs. Over the past 10 seasons, the teams have combined for an absurd 1,107 regular-season victories, and both teams have topped 50 regular-season wins every season since 2000-2001.

Assessing the landscape this year, it's difficult to see why things should be any different. Sure, Dallas and San Antonio have their concerns, starting with aging point guards Jason Kidd and Tony Parker. But Dirk is still Dirk and Duncan, although he has slowed down a touch, is still one of the game's best. Importantly, both front offices have made enough moves over the past 12 months to surround their centerpiece stars with sufficient talent.

In Dallas, Tyson Chandler and Brendan Haywood bring defense and rebounding, while versatile forward Caron Butler can shoulder some scoring burden and should be a better overall asset now that he has had some time to get comfortable with the team's system. A pair of explosive young guards -- Rodrigue Beaubois and Dominique Jones -- gives Rick Carlisle all the athleticism he can handle coming off the bench.

In San Antonio, Manu Ginobili was locked in to an extension last spring and international import Tiago Splitter could be the talk of the league in a few months. A rotating cast of wing players fills the defined floor-spacing and defense roles that coach Gregg Popovich values so highly, while second-year big man DeJuan Blair vacuums the boards.

The race for the Southwest Division title will likely come down to who has better luck with injuries. Dallas is slightly deeper and San Antonio has shown in the recent past a preference for coasting into the playoffs, so look for the Mavericks to repeat as division champion.

Predicted order of finish (2009-2010 records):

1. Dallas (55-27)
2. San Antonio (50-32)
3. Houston (42-40)
4. Memphis (40-42)
5. New Orleans (37-45)

Dallas Mavericks

Rodrigue Beaubois' push for playing time last season may increase his role. (Getty Images)  
Rodrigue Beaubois' push for playing time last season may increase his role. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: The Mavericks made a number of moves last season and this summer, bringing in Butler, Chandler and Haywood. These new pieces must fit together with Nowitzki, Kidd and Jason Terry. Forward Shawn Marion needs to find his second wind, as his all-around production slipped last season. Mainly, though, Nowitzki needs to remain the steady, healthy presence he always has been. Going back to the 1999-2000 season, Dirk has played at least 76 regular-season games, a run of 11 seasons without missing more than six games because of injury, an incredible feat for a player of his size and mileage. If he continues that streak, Dallas is a lock to win 50-plus.

What could go wrong: The biggest bugaboos involve chemistry and fit, and their relationship to age. If Kidd slips and the young guards behind him continue to come on, how will Carlisle handle it? If one of the older forwards -- Butler and Marion -- can't settle in mentally, how does the group react? Given the stability in the front office, coaching staff and with Nowitzki's rock-solid presence, a total meltdown is unlikely.

X-factor: Second-year guard Rodrigue Beaubois is Dallas's X-Factor because his potential and athleticism is X-rated, as in obscene. Despite a ridiculous wingspan, a great first step and a nice shooting stroke, calls for Beaubois to receive more playing time last season went mostly unheeded. This year, assuming he recovers fully and quickly -- as is expected -- from an offseason foot injury that kept him out of the world championships, he has breakout potential.

San Antonio Spurs

Questions surround Tony Parker during a contract year in San Antonio. (Getty Images)  
Questions surround Tony Parker during a contract year in San Antonio. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: The same things that have been going right since Timmy D. was drafted out of Wake Forest: defense, rebounding, smart play and teamwork. These are Duncan's strengths and make up the identity of the Popovich era. There's no reason to believe they will go missing this season. In an ideal world, forward Richard Jefferson found his game over the summer and comes back this season contributing in a productive manner befitting his large contract. Also, Parker plays like he's in a contract year -- which he is -- taking the pressure off some of San Antonio's more anonymous wings on the offensive end.

What could go wrong: Injuries. Ginobili is 33 years old, Duncan is 34 years old and Parker is 28 years old, although he has logged a ton of miles thanks to all the deep postseason runs over the years. Losing one of the big three to injury wouldn't be crippling; losing two for an extended period of time could mean draft lottery time.

X-factor: The biggest question around this Spurs team: How good, exactly, is rookie center Tiago Splitter? He hails from Argentina and comes to San Antonio at the age of 25 after being named MVP of the best professional league in the world aside from the NBA, Spain's ACB league. His size (6-feet-11) is impressive, but he missed the preseason because of a calf injury so he largely remains a question mark. If he plugs nicely into the gaping hole next to Duncan in San Antonio's frontcourt, watch out.

Houston Rockets

Kevin Martin (12) puts the ball in the hole and will get ample opportunity. (Getty Images)  
Kevin Martin (12) puts the ball in the hole and will get ample opportunity. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Dynamite point guard Aaron Brooks had a breakout season in 2009-10. Another step forward in his development would go a long way toward making the Rockets a playoff team, although fellow point guard Kyle Lowry can be as important on a given night. Kevin Martin, acquired in a deadline deal with Sacramento, has had some time to acclimate and get healthy, and he shot the ball very well during the preseason. Martin should receive plenty of touches because center Yao Ming will be on a strict minutes limit all season. Success for the Rockets will boil down to whether the backcourt can get Houston's offense back on track after finishing 18th in offensive efficiency last year.

What could go wrong: A lot went wrong for the Rockets last season, and the struggles could mostly be traced to Yao's health and a disappointing season from free agent Trevor Ariza, who couldn't hit the broad side of a barn. Ariza is somebody else's problem now, having been dumped on New Orleans this summer, and Rick Adelman should have more frontcourt options this season, with Luis Scola extended to a new deal, underrated and undersized Chuck Hayes chugging along, big man Brad Miller now in the fold and second-year forward Jordan Hill brought over from New York. But no combination of those players, nor versatile rookie Patrick Patterson, can replace Yao's dominant, enormous presence.

X-factor: Former Magic and Nets guard Courtney Lee, acquired in the trade that sent Ariza to the Hornets, has tasted both winning and losing in his two-year career. That rollercoaster ride can be rough on a young player, but the promise and smarts he showed during Orlando's 2009 run to the NBA Finals shouldn't be forgotten. While this Houston team isn't as deep and talented as that Magic team, there are a lot more quality pieces than New Jersey had last year. Look for Lee to find success in an auxiliary role.

Memphis Grizzlies

With a big deal in hand the onus is on Rudy Gay to head to the rim. (Getty Images)  
With a big deal in hand the onus is on Rudy Gay to head to the rim. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Forward Rudy Gay, who showed well for Team USA at the world championships after receiving a mini-max contract extension, needs to prove he's worth the money. To take that leap, Gay needs to improve both his commitment to rebounding and fearlessly attack the basket more often rather than settle for jumpers. If that happens, Memphis could have a legit shot at the playoffs and, perhaps, sneaking up and competing for a division title, as young studs like O.J. Mayo and Marc Gasol come of age. Gasol, especially, has All-Star potential now that he has fully transitioned to the NBA game and slimmed down significantly.

What could go wrong: Zach Randolph could get arrested or project big man Hasheem Thabeet could admit that he's not cut out for professional basketball. In all seriousness, Randolph and Thabeet are the two biggest question marks on the roster. Randolph is coming off a scintillating 2009-10 campaign in which he averaged 20.8 points and 11.7 rebounds. Can he do it again, especially with Gay sure to receive more touches? Thabeet, the 2009 No. 2 overall pick, struggled so badly as a rookie that he was sent down to the D-League. Has he developed at all? A step back from Randolph and no progress from Thabeet would negatively impact Memphis's balance, placing too much pressure on players like Gay and Gasol who have yet to prove they can handle it.

X-factor: Who else could the X-factor be except rookie Xavier Henry, a one-and-done scorer out of Kansas? Henry was embroiled in an extended contract negotiation this summer before owner Michael Heisley finally relented in his demand for unusual incentive language. Given Memphis's crowded, talented backcourt, it will be a fight for Henry to get on the court, but he should develop into an instant-offense bench scorer for Grizzlies coach Lionel Hollins, either this year or next.

New Orleans Hornets

The health and happiness of CP3 in the Big Easy are central to success. (Getty Images)  
The health and happiness of CP3 in the Big Easy are central to success. (Getty Images)  
What has to go right: Chris Paul has to average (close to) a triple-double, David West needs to return to his All-Star form, Trevor Ariza needs to find a 3-point stroke, Peja Stojakovic needs to find a fountain of youth, Emeka Okafor needs to stay healthy for 82 games for the fourth year in a row, and guards Marcus Thornton and Jerryd Bayless need to expand their games past scoring. Other than that, it should be a walk in the park.

What could go wrong: Paul could get fed up with his supporting cast or experience another extended absence because of injury. West could continue his statistical decline now that he's 30 years old. Stojakovic could be completely done. Promising first-year head coach Monty Williams could find that some of his reserves aren't up to his workaholic standards. The team's ownership situation could remain in flux. The list goes on and on.

X-factor: The Hornets acquired Bayless from the Trail Blazers days before regular season. Bayless, a third-year combo guard who was one and done at Arizona, has shown promise but could not carve out a solid role in Portland. His ability to attack the rim and draw fouls is great for offensive efficiency, although his playmaking leaves a lot to be desired and he has trouble defending on the perimeter without fouling. Nevertheless, he's a key acquisition for the Hornets, who needed backcourt depth after shipping promising young point guard Darren Collison to Indiana in the trade that netted Ariza. The fact that Williams was an assistant in Portland and is familiar with Bayless' game should help smooth the transition.


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