By Ben Fisher
As has been the case over the past few years, the Southwest division will be decided this season by the Dallas Mavericks, San Antonio Spurs and Houston Rockets. All three boast the talent to be among the Western Conference elite, but face questions pertaining to the age and durability of some of their key players.
The New Orleans Hornets and Memphis Grizzlies each have play-off aspirations of their own but don’t have the depth or experience to contend with the trio of in-state rivals.
The Mavericks can be viewed through an optimistic or pessimistic lens. The good news is they return much of the same roster that won 55 games a season ago and earned the No. 2 seed in the West. The bad news is that Dallas also happens to return the same aging core that couldn’t push them through a first round series with the Spurs.
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If the Mavs’ title window hasn’t closed yet, it’s pretty darn narrow. Adding Tyson Chandler and getting full seasons from Brendan Haywood and DeShawn Stevenson will help, but it’s hard to ignore a projected starting five (Jason Kidd, Jason Terry, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Haywood) that average 33 years of age. This could be the most talented Mavs team yet, not to mention the most desperate.
They aren’t the only squad getting older and looking for one last shot at a title. The Spurs, of course, already have their share of trophies, claiming four NBA championships between 1999 and 2007. Franchise anchor Tim Duncan, however, finds himself on Fade Watch, as basketball analysts clamour to be the first to identify the 34-year old as being over the hill.
If and when he does reach the downside of his career, Manu Ginobli and Tony Parker will only be able to do so much to hold the club afloat, even with Greg Popovich on the bench. Brazilian import Tiago Splitter could breathe some new life into the franchise, but the season will hinge on the Big Fundamental’s ability to get his mates back to the promise land.
Should one or both of the veteran-laden franchises fade, Houston has the personnel to step right in and reign in the Southwest. All of Aaron Brooks, Kevin Martin, Shane Battier and Luis Scola are ripe with talent and high basketball IQ’s, but little of it will matter if Yao Ming is not back at full health. Yao enters the season as the most important player in the division, the difference between the Rockets’ status as a contender or an also-ran.
Speaking of teams relying on critical players, this season in New Orleans will bring about a `tread carefully` approach intent on making sure Chris Paul sees the team heading in the right direction.
The Hornets managed to tame the original fire that was Paul’s trade demand and even add a complementary scorer in Trevor Ariza. Ariza is a nice piece, but hardly the push they need to return to contention (Marco Belielli doesn’t count, either). Transforming this team into a perennial contender will require a quick and aggressive rebuild around Paul and David West with the aim of collecting young talent that can play alongside them. If, that is, New Orleans can hold onto their face of the franchise for long enough.
Finally, I may have the Grizzlies listed last here, but they have been known to surprise of late. They surprised last season in going a respectable 40-42, they surprised this off-season by retaining the thought-to-be-gone Rudy Gay (regardless of your thoughts on his five-year, $82 million contract) and have kept the surprises coming this preseason by jetting out to a 7-0 record.
It isn’t that Memphis lacks the talent to compete for a play-off spot, but they are a young team with a few character questions thought to need a few more years. After all, their core features Gay (24), O.J. Mayo (22) and Marc Gasol (25), with Mike Conley (23), Sam Young (25) and rookie Xavier Henry (19) among the supporting pieces. Even the volatile Zach Randolph has been productive and on his best behaviour