Make no mistake about it, this is one of the most intriguing divisions in basketball.
Last year, the 65-win Rockets team were the toast of the division, and will like their chances of finishing top again. However, both the Spurs and Pelicans had over 45 wins last year, and will have their eyes set firmly on another trip to the playoffs. Meanwhile, Dallas and Memphis both have quality in their ranks, and players to watch for the future.
This division is pretty good, and it’s going to be a very interesting season for all these teams.
Coming off last season, Dallas had a top 5 pick to look forward to and some salary cap space. Both are precious commodities in the current NBA landscape, where player movement is at an all-time high; yet Dallas have struggled in recent years to attract the top tier of free agents. This, of course, was highlighted by their failed attempts to lure DeAndre Jordan from LA back in 2015. Three years on, and they finally got their guy.
This could well be the biggest upgrade in the NBA, as Dallas really had nobody at the centre spot last year, and relied on a rotation of role-players like Maxi Kleber and Dwight Powell to fill the void. Now they have legitimate rim-protection and rebounding capabilities to slot in beside the ageless Dirk Nowitzki.
Media day pictures are the best pictures ? pic.twitter.com/cLgD9tdGPb
— Franchise Sports ???? (@FranchiseSprts) September 27, 2018
They traded up from the 5th pick in the draft to #3, to select Luka Doncic. Doncic looks like he’ll be a great pro based on talent and accomplishments alone (he won the MVP and Championship for Real Madrid in the Euroleague last year) but also is in the perfect spot. He and Dennis Smith Jr will share ball-handling duties and are both brimming with potential. Add in a 26-year-old Harrison Barnes, and the starting 5 looks like a truly special unit, certainly one of the most well balanced in the league today.
Whether they can make the jump this year, or whether the crowded West will force them to wait a bit longer, this team looks good, and they’re here to stay.
Adding to that, they managed to re-sign Chris Capela, and one of the league’s most dangerous trios will be looking to build on their success from last year. Offensive genius Mike D’Antoni proved he can win when it matters most, and stand up with the best coaches in the league. All in all, this team looks pretty stacked, and another 60+ win season is well within their capabilities.
However, one has to wonder if we’ve seen the best of this Houston team already. Last year, they proved the biggest challenge the Warriors have had in years, if not their entire run, yet still came up one game short of knocking off the champs.
Sure, Harden, Paul and Capela are still there, Eric Gordon will still be giving instant scoring off the bench, but this team have suffered losses. Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute are both gone, and whilst they might not sound like big names, they provided this squad with a defensive identity last year. Replacing them with an over-the-hill Carmelo Anthony is an obvious downgrade, and he will add yet another ball-dominant player to this roster, whilst contributing nothing defensively. Chris Paul is another year older, and will still be at his peak, but remains an injury concern, and without him, this squad cannot hang with the top of the NBA.
I wonder what kind of world we’d be living in if you swapped Mike D’Antoni and Pop’s teams from 2005-2010.
— Phillip Barnett (@regularbarnett) September 27, 2018
They are heavily invested in Paul, along with Harden and Capela, and those are the three names this team will be built around for the next four years. It’s a great core and for the regular season will be among the top teams once more. But there just seems to be a feeling with this Rockets team that they went for the knockout punch last year and ended up flat on their back. Can they knock off Golden State this year? Sure, there’s a chance, but few would call them favourites.
The Grizzlies will once again be led by Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, for the 11th year in a row. These two are great players, both for Memphis and the league, but they are quite clearly on the downside of their careers. The Memphis “grit’n’grind” style is still there, but it does not quite have the same ferocity as it used to. A perfect season for this squad, assuming full health would have them scraping into the playoffs, but it’s hard to envision them going much further than that.
However, after last year was derailed with Conley’s absence due to various injury concerns, they obtained the 4th pick in the draft and selected Jaren Jackson Jr, out of Michigan State. He won the Big 10 Defensive Player of the Year in 2017-18 and will look to learn from Gasol, perhaps the perfect teacher after his own NBA DPOY award back in 2013. He looks very promising, and the Grizzlies will hope to develop him into something special.
The current trio of Conley, Gasol and Parsons are locked in for another two years and take up around $80m combined each year. This team is locked into these deals until 2020, and until that time they will have to be building for the future, whilst also attempting to win games with this current core. They’ll have to fight for every win, but that’s sort of the Memphis way.
Just how good is Anthony Davis? We know that he’s a generational talent, who’s name belongs with the top-tier of NBA players, yet the Pelicans have struggled to surround him with the talent he deserves, and as such, they have made success a near-impossible feat for Davis for the first 6 years of his career. Honestly, anyone who felt LeBron was carrying a squad of poor talent last season, has not seen what AD has had to work with since entering the league.
This year, he is paired with Nikola Mirotic. The pair developed a strong rapport last season, after Mirotic’s trade from Chicago in February. He provides a nice blend of scoring, and has good ball-handling skills for a forward, yet on any contender, he would likely have to be the 4th option, at best. For New Orleans, he is the clear #2, with only Jrue Holiday to really contend with.
Mirotic and Holiday will have to step up in a big way if New Orleans are to make noise in the playoffs again, as Davis simply cannot do everything. Julius Randle is a good addition but provides another body at the 4, that cannot really play the 5, something that AD has been reluctant to embrace in the past.
This team could sneak into the playoffs again, but it would likely take Davis dragging them there. It really is such a sad waste of a premier talent like Davis, and he could well be moving on after the year, with his contract expiring in 2020. You’d have to fancy him as a true MVP candidate, and I believe he will win the award this season, but the complete lack of talent around him relegates the Pelicans out of true contention in the stacked West.
Kawhi is gone. Finally, the Spurs can put distractions out of their mind, and get back to what they do best: winning basketball games. I like to think of DeMar DeRozan as a free agent addition, as they really only gave up Danny Green to get him, considering how Leonard refused to play last season. He and Dejounte Murray are a great back-court pairing and provide a nice combination of scoring, playmaking and defense.
LaMarcus Aldridge will look to build on his best year yet as a Spur. He and DeRozan have the ability to be a devastating 1-2 punch. Rudy Gay and Pau Gasol are both veteran guys who will slot in well to this starting 5. The real weakness of this team is interior defense, but Greg Popovich always finds a way to address any concerns and correct them, you have to have faith he’ll do so again.
This team won 47 games last year, and basically swapped Danny Green for DeRozan. That’s a huge upgrade, and this Spurs team will be improved. Anything less than 50 wins would be a surprise, and this Spurs team has the talent and coaching to go far in the playoffs. Knocking off Golden State would be a shock, but beating the Lakers or Rockets could well be within Popovich’s reach, especially the latter if Chris Paul was to go down. Give Popovich an average team, and he’ll make them great, this squad looks great to start with. The Spurs are back in the picture. Did they ever really leave?