Ranking The Southwest
With the 2011 NBA Draft now in the rear view mirror (and an impending lockout ominously looming) it’s time to start taking a look at how things are panning out for teams around the NBA with free agency (hopefully) just ahead — starting with the Southwest Division.
The Southwest Division, the toughest division in basketball over the last hand full of seasons, looks to be even more powerful going into the 2011-2012 season. The division that now features the current NBA Title holder, two teams that haven’t won less than 50 games in a season in over a decade and three young and hungry squads has already retooled quite a bit in this young off season.
Let’s take a look at how things stack up in the rugged Southwest:
1. Dallas Mavericks
The reigning NBA Champions made a splash at the draft in trading the 26th overall pick (Texas’ forward Jordan Hamilton) to the Portland Trail Blazers for reserve guard Rudy Fernandez. This gives the Mavericks flexibility should J.J. Barea bolt in free agency, along with adding another veteran presence and solid player to an already stout Dallas core.
The number one priority for the Mavericks this off season will be making sure that center Tyson Chandler is the starting center for Dallas for years to come. However, doing this could handcuff the Mavericks in terms of who else they can bring back. Core players Caron Butler, DeShawn Stevenson and the aforementioned Barea are all free agents and it’s unlikely Dallas will be able to bring all of them back.
Regardless, with Dirk Nowitzki playing the best basketball of his career and Chandler wreaking havoc in the middle, the Mavs are in position to contend for at least the next few seasons as presently constructed. At the very least, if Dallas can resign both Chandler and Butler, your looking at a team that could be even better next season and will compete for an NBA Title once again come June.
2. Memphis Grizzlies
The young Grizzlies took it to the next level in the NBA playoffs this past season, getting some valuable experience that will help this team to grow leaps and bounds come next year. The team that took Kevin Durant and the Oklahoma City Thunder to the brink in the second round of the 2011 NBA Playoffs looks to be just getting started.
Signing starting center Marc Gasol, a force to be reckoned with on both ends of the floor for the Grizz, must be the first priority for a Memphis team that bullies opponents with their size down low. With the core of Gasol, Zach Randolph, Rudy Gay and Mike Conley; this team is poised to surpass the Spurs as the second best team in the Southwest division next season and looks to compete in the brutal Western Conference for years to come.
3. San Antonio Spurs
After winning 61 games during the regular season, the Spurs were shocked in the first round of the playoffs by a younger and better Memphis Grizzlies team. San Antonio looked old and slow in getting knocked out in six games and it seems it’s time for the team to retool going into next year.
The first order of business this off season for San Antonio was trading reserve guard George Hill in order to draft 6-7 forward Kawhi Leonard. The newest Spur will be looked upon to inject some youth while supplying some rugged defense and rebounding and looks to play a large role for the team next season.
Barring a major trade, San Antonio will go into next season with the same three-head monster of Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan. If healthy, this trio still makes the Spurs a title contender but, as we’ve seen over the past few seasons, both Parker and Ginobili have issues staying on the court.
4. New Orleans Hornets
With Chris Paul in the lineup and healthy, the Hornets are a threat to make the playoffs year-in, year out. However, it’s become apparent over the last few seasons that Paul hasn’t had a good enough supporting cast for New Orleans to truly be a title-contender. That could change this off season as eight Hornets players will be eligible for free agency with David West, coming off a season-ending injury, stating recently that he wants to test the free agent market.
New Orleans must choose whether West is the guy for them at the power forward position or if Carl Landry, possibly a cheaper option, can man that spot for the duration. Each player has his strengths, Landry being the better rebounder and defender while West has the more polished offensive game, but the Hornets have to go with one or the other.
Either way, this team remains a good but not great team that succeeds in the regular season due to the overwhelming talent of Paul but flounder in the playoffs because of the lack of talent around him. However, this team is in position to seriously alter their squad this off season and if they can bring in some more talent around Paul, watch out for this team in 2011-2012.
5. Houston Rockets
A new head coach, point guard and a couple of first round picks have the Rockets cautiously optimistic as the calendar edges closer towards July. With Kevin McHale at the helm, Houston drafted forward Marcus Morris with the 14th overall pick and center Donatas Motiejunas at number 20 in the first round of the draft and traded for Minnesota Timberwolves’ guard Johnny Flynn. These moves don’t make the Rockets dramatically better on paper, but they do provide some key assets should Houston decide to become a player in the trade market this off season.
Losing Yao Ming to a possible career-ending injury drastically reduced the title chances for this team, but with young guns Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin in the back court this team still has the talent to compete for a playoff spot next season. Unfortunately for Houston, they play in the toughest division in basketball which makes it that much more difficult to get into the postseason in an already crowded Western Conference.
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