For years, the Southwest division was one of the toughest divisions in the NBA. The strength of the division was largely based on the “Texas triangle” of the San Antonio Spurs, Dallas Mavericks and Houston Rockets.
The Spurs are no longer the power they once were, and the Rockets are clearly rebuilding after the James Harden trade. The New Orleans Pelicans and Memphis Grizzlies join the Texas teams in what has become a less than stellar division. However, teams should enjoy the respite while they can. This division features some fantastic young players in Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, Ja Morant and Jalen Green who should help the division return to its former glory.
Tier 1: The class of the division
Dallas Mavericks Over/Under 48.5 wins.
The Mavericks should beat the over fairly easily. Despite some unease about Jason Kidd’s coaching history, the Mavericks appear to all be happy and energetic through early preseason games and practices. Luka looks to be in great shape and full command of the offense. Kristaps Porzingis is moving better than he has at any time in Dallas. The remainder of Dallas role players appear to be enjoying the new found freedom to stretch themselves offensively.
Reserve big man Maxi Kleber appears to be fully recovered from Covid-19 and is moving very well. Given all of these factors, barring an injury to Luka, anything short of a division title for the Mavericks would be a cataclysmic failure.
Tier 2: The middle class
Memphis Grizzlies: Over/Under 41.5 wins
The Grizzlies took a step back this offseason in the hopes of taking a step forward in the future. Ja Morant is the bigger name and has a brighter future, but Jonas Valanciunas was the Grizzlies best player last season. Valanciunas provided 17.1 points, 12.5 rebounds and surprising spacing with a 36.8 three point percentage on extremely limited attempts. Stephen Adams will look to replace him, but he is a clear downgrade, as there will be no offense run through him in the post.
Still, Morant and Dillon Brooks return to lead an extremely deep and feisty team that should have enough to make it into the play in tournament once again. If they do, they will prove a tough out as Golden State discovered last season when Morant and company sent Stephen Curry and company home.
New Orleans Pelicans: Over/Under 39.5 wins
The Pelicans have to be concerned about Zion Williamson’s health. He quietly underwent offseason foot surgery and has missed the entire preseason. Missing the preseason is unimportant, but it is another sign that perhaps Zion’s body cannot hold up to the strain of his incredible gifts.
To put it simply, people that huge should not be that explosive. The laws of thermodynamics are incontrovertible and for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. The explosive force necessary to move Zion’s huge body is extreme and his lower half has to absorb all of that force. It is going to be very difficult for him to stay healthy.
Surrounding him, the Pelicans lost Lonzo Ball but gained Valancunias, who should help carry the load while Zion is injured. They do not appear to make much sense together, though. Once Zion is healthy, the Pelicans should be exciting offensively, but their lack of defense and spacing should cause them to fall short of the playoffs once again.
Tier 3: The bottom of the barrel
San Antonio Spurs: Over/Under 28.5 wins
The Spurs have perhaps the bleakest future in the division. They should have enough good will built up after an eternity of success, but they are the only team in the division without a superstar or potential superstar on the roster. They do have promising two way players in Dejounte Murray, Devin Vassel and Lonnie Walker IV but none of those players project to truly move the needle. A team coached by Gregg Popovich can never be counted out, but the team would probably be better off watching him ride off into the sunset. The Spurs have finally made their way to the treadmill of mediocrity, and until Popovich leaves, they do not appear to have a way off.
Houston Rockets: Over/Under 27.5 wins
The Rockets are projected for fewer wins than the Spurs, but they undoubtedly have a brighter future. Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood provide a level of young talent that the team can get excited about. They also possess essentially all of the Nets’ draft capital for nearly a decade.
The Nets should run rough shod over the league this year, but those picks can get better much quicker than teams expect when built around players as old (Kevin Durant, James Harden) and unreliable (Kyrie Irving) as the Nets. The Rockets are actually a microcosm of the division as a whole. They have been incredibly successful recently, are going through a short lull now and appear to have a large amount of talent for the future.
Players to Watch
1. Kristaps Porzingis - Much ink has been spilled about the big Latvian, but there is a reason for that. The Mavericks’ ceiling — and as such the ceiling of the division — hinges on his health and performance. He looks up to it.
2. Brandon Ingram - The Pelicans also have a lanky forward of undeniable talent but questionable fit around their young superstar. Ingram is a very good basketball player and theoretically should be complementary to Zion. However, given both stars’ defensive issues, it is questionable whether or not they can stay together long term. Do not be surprised if he finishes the season in another uniform.
3. Jaren Jackson Jr. - Jackson was selected between Luka and Trae Young, and he has not lived up to that pedigree. He has not been the defender people expected him to be because he cannot stay on the court due to injuries and foul trouble. In addition, he has not rebounded well enough for his position as he has averaged just 6.3 rebounds per game despite being a power forward/center. He expects a near max contract, and as of yet he has not shown a reason why the Grizzlies should give it to him. He is an extreme talent, though, and in what is essentially a contract year, he should produce.
The Mavericks will win this division without much competition. They should have the division clinched with a couple of weeks left in the season. No other team should make the top six that guarantees a spot in the playoffs. The Grizzlies should grind their way into a play in spot and make life incredibly difficult for whomever they face there. The Pelicans, Spurs and Rockets should all fail to make the play in, giving the Southwest Division 60 percent of the non playoff teams in the conference.
Division Award Winners
Divisions do not award these; however, it is interesting to view who would win each of the major post season awards if they were boiled down to just this division.
Most Valuable Player - Luka Doncic. Luka is one of the front runners for the league as a whole, so clearly he is the front runner for the division.
Defensive Player of the Year - Dillon Brooks. Brooks does a fantastic job of making life difficult on opposing stars. He is the most likely player to make an all defensive team from this division. Honorable Mention- Kristaps Porzingis. Porzingis is moving well and appears to be back to the form of his younger years. This should lead him to have the type of more impactful rim protection which would qualify him for this award.
Sixth Man of the Year - Jalen Brunson. Brunson should be even better this season and there is no danger of him starting too many games to qualify for the award. Brunson could very well win this award for the entire league.
Most Improved Player - Devin Vassell. The Spurs will have a large number of shots and possessions to fill with the departures of Demar Derozan and Patty Mills. Vassell should step up and have a much better sophomore season.
Rookie of the Year - Jalen Green. Sometimes the obvious answer is the right answer, and this one is incredibly obvious.