Grading the NBA’s Southwest Division
Early on in the 2012-13 NBA season, the Western Conference’s Southwest Division looks like a contender to wreak havoc on the league throughout the year. Despite flying under the radar with teams like the Los Angeles Lakers and Oklahoma City Thunder receiving the most headlines in the West, the Southwest is thriving as one of the best divisions in basketball.
Four of the West’s top 10 teams (record-wise) currently reside in the Southwest, including two teams in Memphis and San Antonio that sport a combined 32-8 record. Even though it’s still early, it’s tough to argue against the Southwest being the best division in basketball as we creep closer to the beginning of the new year.
Without further ado, let’s grade the Southwest Division:
Dallas Mavericks (11-10) – B-
Featuring an almost entirely new squad and despite missing one of the best basketball players on the planet, the Mavericks have played solid basketball to start the season. Free agent signing O.J. Mayo has been spectacular, while other offseason acquisitions like Chris Kaman and Darren Collison have played key roles.
Yes, former NBA and NBA Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki hasn’t played one minute this season, but the Mavs would still find themselves in the postseason in the brutal West if the season ended today. However, even though they’ve survived, things haven’t been perfect in Mavs land.
Among current playoff teams in both conferences, the Mavericks allow the most points per contest (100.6) of any team and are the only playoff team in the West with a negative point differential this season. Rebounding has also been an issue as Dallas has found itself consistently beaten and bullied on the boards, currently ranking dead last in the NBA in rebounding differential (-4.7) per game.
Nowitzki’s return will give fans a better idea of just how good this Mavs team can be but, right now, it’s clear Dallas has overachieved without its superstar to start the year.
Conclusion: Staying in playoff contention in the West without Nowitzki has to be a considered a win for Dallas, but it might not be a cure-all for a mediocre defense and awful rebounding team so far this year.
Houston Rockets (9-11) – C-
With not much in terms of expectations coming into the season, Houston has played decent basketball to this point of the year. A top-five NBA offense that features top-five scorer in James Harden leading the way, Houston hasn’t been a pushover by any means through Dec. 10.
Three straight losses have muffled what was a nice 9-8 start for the Rockets as the team’s defense, currently ranked dead-last in the NBA in points per game, has been miserable. In those three losses to division rivals San Antonio and Dallas over the past week, Houston has allowed an average of a whopping 121 points per contest.
Even with their defensive shortcomings, it’s difficult not to see the Rockets in the mix for a playoff spot in the West come April.
Conclusion: The backcourt of Harden and a slow-starting Jeremy Lin is still a work in progress, and defensively this team is a mess right now, but there’s still hope in Houston. Even in the loaded West, the Rockets possess the talent to be a factor down the stretch.
Memphis Grizzlies (14-4) – A+
Another team that wasn’t a hot topic this offseason, Memphis has been arguably the best team in basketball over their first 18 games of the season. With wins over conference stalwarts in both the East and the West like the Miami HEAT and Oklahoma City already this year, Memphis has proved difficult to beat early on in 2012.
One key culprit behind the Grizzlies’ early success has been a suffocating defense that has made life miserable for opposing offenses. Allowing just over 91 points a game on the season, Memphis features the best scoring defense in basketball, which has anchored the team’s excellent start.
Another major factor has been the ability of the Grizz’s two best players – Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay – to stay on the court together. Finally healthy at the same time, Memphis’ two top scorers have started all 18 games alongside one another. As a result, the Grizzlies have been hitting on all cylinders early on in 2012 as both players seem to be finding great chemistry together on the court.
Conclusion: If both Gay and Randolph can continue to stay healthy, this team is going to make some serious noise in the Western Conference playoffs.
New Orleans Hornets (5-14) – F
The banged-up Hornets have had a rough go of it so far in the 2012-13 NBA season. With number one overall pick Anthony Davis having already missed much of the season due to a myriad of injures, New Orleans has struggled to the worst record in the Western Conference. Fellow-lottery pick Austin Rivers has proved to need some seasoning as well, while max-contract recipient Eric Gordon still hasn’t played a game this year.
Even with former Orlando Magic forward Ryan Andersen playing at a high level, without Gordon and Davis in the lineup the Hornets have been a discombobulated mess. The hope is that New Orleans can get both of their beat-up, budding stars back in the fold by the new year but there’s no guarantee.
Conclusion: A top lottery pick is definitely in the cards for New Orleans as the Hornets continue to try to rebuild in life after Chris Paul.
San Antonio Spurs (18-4) – A+
Last but certainly not least, the Spurs continue to be a dominant regular season team even as their superstars continue into the twilight of their careers. Seemingly every season the Spurs find themselves right in the thick of things in the brutal West. The team with the NBA’s best record has lost just one of its last 11 contests overall and said loss was in Miami with Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Daniel Green back home in San Antonio.
The key to the Spurs consistency is how head coach Gregg Popovich keenly gets his entire team on the same page and playing as a cohesive unit. One of the best offensive teams in the game and the best in the business in dishing out assists, San Antonio averages the second most points per game (105.9) to go along with the most team assists per (25.8) in the NBA.
Featuring one of the deepest teams in the NBA to go along with a gracefully aging core, the Spurs continue to sport one of the best squads in the game today.
Conclusion: It’s difficult to argue against the Spurs being the best team in basketball right now. As usual, San Antonio looks like they will finish as a top seed in the West and leave a deep imprint on the 2013 NBA postseason.
Both the Spurs and Grizzlies look like early contenders in the West, while the Mavericks and Rockets both have realistic expectations of securing playoff berths by season’s end. Always one of the toughest divisions in the NBA, when healthy, the Southwest Division continues to feature solid teams from top to bottom.
This is the second in a six part series from HOOPSWORLD grading each division in the NBA. Check out Monday’s Central Division analysis from senior NBA Writer Joel Brigham here.