The Southwest division has always been a tough group. For almost two decades the Dallas Mavericks and San Antonio Spurs battled for supremacy, with the Houston Rockets and Memphis Grizzlies occasionally popping up as contenders. Even the New Orleans Pelicans have fielded some plucky rosters from time to time.
Now the Rockets and the Spurs are rebuilding, the Mavericks and Grizzlies have ascended to the role of contenders, and the Pelicans are lurking. One thing is clear—whichever team wins the Southwest division will have certainly earned it. There are no easy games here.
Tier 1: The contenders
Dallas Mavericks Over/Under 47.5 wins
The Mavericks lost their second or third best player (depending on who you ask) in Jalen Brunson, but they added an athletic big man who can score in Christian Wood. They’ll have the advantage of continuity. Jason Kidd won’t have to experiment with lineups at the beginning of the season. The Mavericks know what works now—suffocating defense and shooting around Luka Doncic.
Dallas will have to rely on their superstar more than ever this season. They don’t have anyone who can reliably create their own offense if Doncic isn’t on the court, unless Spencer Dinwiddie can return to his pre-injury form. If they get almost perfect health from Doncic and the rest of the lineup, the Mavericks can easily win the Southwest division. But if key players miss too many games, they’ll struggle to win games.
Memphis Grizzlies Over/Under 51.5 wins
Last season the Grizzlies surprised everyone, winning the Southwest division and earning the number two seed in the Western Conference. Buoyed by their depth, Memphis was able to win with or without their electric point guard Ja Morant. The Grizzlies went 20-5 without Morant last season.
The reason they can survive without him? He makes them average on defense. Sports Illustrated’s Chris Herring hit on it in April last season: “The Grizzlies surrender 111.2 points per 100 possessions with Morant on the court—about a league-average rate, which would rank 16th—but just 104.1 points per 100 when Morant is off the floor; a rate that would lead the NBA.”
The Grizzlies lost Kyle Anderson and De’Anthony Melton in free agency. They did re-sign Tyus Jones and acquired Danny Green. They’ll be waiting on Jaren Jackson Jr. to recover from offseason foot surgery. If they can avoid a bad start, they’ll battle the Mavericks all season for the division.
Tier 2: Intriguing but will have to prove it
New Orleans Pelicans Over/Under 43.5 wins
The Pelicans were stumbling along last season, not making much noise, missing their superstar Zion Williamson. But in February they swung a trade for C.J. McCollum and started lighting up the league to the tune of 115 points per game, up from 105 per game before the trade. They’ll add Williamson to that offense, and if they can improve a defense that was middle of the pack last season (18th in defensive rating), they’ll be a threat to win the Southwest division.
Tier 3: Not good but not bad either
San Antonio Spurs Over/Under 23.5 wins
The San Antonio Spurs have a bunch of good players, but no one that can really carry a team. But as long as Gregg Popovich is coaching them, there’ll be no tear down or tank job. Keldon Johnson, Devin Vassell, and Josh Primo are all nice young players. Jakob Poetl is a grinder. Their ceiling is the play-in tournament.
Tier 4: Still rebuilding
Houston Rockets Over/Under 27.5 wins
The Houston Rockets have more talent than the Spurs, but they’re just a bit too raw. Stephen Silas is a good coach, but he’s not on Pop’s level. Jalen Green, Kevin Porter Jr., and Jabari Smith will be fighting for shots. Not in a bad way, mind you, but there’s just one basketball and the three of them need it. They might be more dangerous in the second half of the year than at the beginning.
Players to watch
Zion Williamson. After missing a year, Williamson will return to bolster the lineup of a Pelicans squad that was already dangerous. Just ask the Phoenix Suns.
Ja Morant. Morant took the leap from good player to star last season. Now he’ll have to show he can alter the geometry of the court and win games on his own like a superstar. That’s possibly the hardest jump to make.
Christian Wood. Is Wood the type of player that just puts up good stats on bad teams, or is he the front court piece the Mavericks have been missing the last couple of years? It shouldn’t take long to find out.
Alperen Sengun. The rest of the Rockets’ young roster is intriguing, and they’re definitely worth watching. But Sengun plays with such a unique style and confidence that he’s impossible to ignore.
The Grizzlies are simply deeper than the Mavericks, and should walk away with the division title again. There’s always the chance that Doncic goes supernova for an entire season and somehow lifts the Mavericks above Memphis. He’s surrounded by quality players, after all. Just fewer than the Grizzlies have around Morant. But to start the season, the Mavericks just don’t have the firepower to compete with the Grizzlies yet.
Division Award Winners
MVP. It’s got to be Doncic. He’ll put up big numbers and drag the Mavericks to victories they have no business winning. That’s the definition of an MVP.
Defensive Player of the Year. It’s easily Jaren Jackson Jr.—if the Grizzlies big man can stay healthy. That’s a huge if. Jackson had surgery on his foot this summer, and the timeline for his return is 4-6 months. The earliest return is late October. If he misses just a couple weeks of the season, he should continue to dominate the interior for the Grizzlies and terrorize the rest of the Southwest division.
Sixth Man of the Year. Jose Alvarado is a menace off the bench for the Pelicans. If he can find his shot over the summer, he’ll be a candidate.
Most Improved Player. Christian Wood should take advantage of all the easy looks he’ll get from Doncic and put up the best numbers of his career. Jason Kidd might even get him to play some defense. There’s a chance Jalen Green could win this, too, but he’ll have a tougher time in Houston.
Rookie of the Year. Number three overall pick Jabari Smith will be an electric addition to the already plucky Rockets. He’ll put up some good shooting numbers for them.