The NBA Southwest Division Preview is dripping in some of the league’s premier young talent. Who will rule the Southwest Division?
Aside from the Central Division, the Southwest Division was one of the weakest in 2020-21. They fielded three playoff teams (compared to two for the Central), but two of those, the Memphis Grizzlies and San Antonio Spurs, faced each other in a play-in game. Once in the full playoff bracket, the Dallas Mavericks and Grizzlies were bounced in the first round. Home to last season’s worst overall team, the Houston Rockets, there is a ton of exciting young talent in this division. You can name drop potential road game sellouts with Luka Dončić, Ja Morant, Zion Williamson, and now Jalen Green. Despite this abundance of electrifying young talent, it is highly doubtful the Southwest Division is home to a title contender.
In order of 2020-2021 season finish within the division, let’s ponder how this might pan out in the 2021-22 season! First, a quick refresher of last season’s records (and don’t forget, the NBA is returning to an 82-game schedule this season).
- Dallas Mavericks 42-30
- Memphis Grizzlies 38-34
- San Antonio Spurs 33-39
- New Orleans Pelicans 31-41
- Houston Rockets 17-55
1. Dallas Mavericks
They didn’t have any draft picks, due to trading them away for Porzingis, Hardaway Jr., and JJ Reddick. And Reddick has retired.
Dallas won the division with 42-30 record, relying very heavily on Dončić for more than the bulk of primary ballhandling. Hardaway is a secondary ballhandler at best. His .560 Effective Field Goal % (eFG%) last year was a career high, but he’s become increasingly one dimensional taking more and more of his shots in spot up situations.
Luka Doncic still Luka Doncic 👏
Mavs lead 82-71 over the Jazz with 19 points from Luka at American Airlines Arena late in the third #MFFL
— SportzStew Ⓥ (@sportzstewcom) October 7, 2021
Porzingis doesn’t create his own shot with high efficiency. That said, he’s clearly super talented and scores well (20.1 PPG last season) when he’s on the floor. It’s his injury history and slight frame that worry me about his durability and ability to dominate. Per Basketball Index, he is categorized as a “stretch big.” This means he has low post up rates and higher perimeter shot rates. This seems about right, when 38% of his shots are from behind the arc. The Index grades him at a B+ spotting up and a dreary F posting up. Dallas is not built with a beefy inside presence in mind.
Their weakness might be in the lack of additions.
Point being, their lack of additions and draft picks could sap Dončić’s superstar scoring abilities if he’s having to be the sole creator for everyone else. I’m just not seeing a totally complete team built to support a generational talent.
Prediction: 2nd in division; 43-39 record
2. Memphis Grizzlies
Ja Morant will take another step as a superstar.
JA MORANT RISE UP. 🔥😤
— Hoop Central (@TheHoopCentral) October 6, 2021
The replacement of Jonas Valanciunas with Steven Adams might be kinda brilliant, as Adams is a rebounding and defense-first big. Adams was 4th in the league in offensive rebounding (3.7 per game) and for his career averages basically a block and a steal per game. Aquaman isn’t any kind of offensive option, which hones the offensive focus to Morant, Dillon Brooks, Kyle Anderson, and Jaren Jackson Jr. in the first five. Granted Anderson might be a main cog in the secondary unit.
Ziaire Williams could be a really nice draft addition (acquired from Pelicans in draft day trade), but the main worry is where to get him minutes and opportunities. He’s behind Brooks at the small forward slot, so maybe he can slide over to SG for some more looks and time on the floor to develop.
Prediction: win division; 49-33 record
3. San Antonio Spurs
The loss of DeMar DeRozan might be a bigger knockout blow than initially thought. Sure, he’s 31 and bound to be on the decline side of his athletic career, but he’s a big time shot maker and primary offensive weapon. But he’s off to Chicago to help the Bulls reclaim their glory.
Not sure what the rebuild trajectory is for the Spurs. Ranked in the bottom third of the league in opponent points (112.8 ppg), opponent total rebounds (47.4 rpg), and opp 3P% (.377). Not seeing a lot of impact additions via draft or otherwise. Might be climbing uphill with a seemingly soft defense.
Does Bryn Forbes step up in his return to San Antonio?
Bryn Forbes, who is returning to the Spurs via free agency, might also have a chance to become a primary offensive option. However, that will be as a screen-and-shoot or catch-and-shoot type, since he’s not a primary ballhandler or playmaker. I see him as a much more athletic Craig Hodges kind of player. He hit on a career-high 45.2% of his three-point attempts.
Dejounte Murray's space creation and comfort as a midrange pull-up shooter are impressive. The hope should be that he soon extends it beyond the arc pic.twitter.com/j9bgfXcMvf
— Jackson Frank (@jackfrank_jjf) October 8, 2021
It’s Dejounte Murray’s team, but he doesn’t seem to have enough help to get the Spurs back to their familiar winning ways. At least not in the Southwest Division. Last season he averaged 15.7 points, 7.1 rebounds, and 5.4 assists per game. He’s only the 14th player to have season averages of 15, 7, and 5 or better since his rookie season. He’s highly skilled and well-rounded (5 triple-doubles last season), but he needs more help bailing water on a sinking Spurs’ ship. Maybe Lonnie Walker can step it up? Last season he averaged double figure points (11.2) for the first time and took almost twice as many shots than his previous career mark (10.2 FGA to 5.9 the year before).
Prediction: last in division; 24-58 record
4. New Orleans Pelicans
One of the biggest problems facing first-time coach Willie Green will be a plethora of offensive options. Brandon Ingram, Zion Williamson, Devonte’ Graham, and Jonas Valanciunas will all be looking for shots. Between the four of them last season, that is 59.2 field goal attempts per game. That would be about 66% of the team’s total attempts per game. I don’t see this as an embarrassment of riches creating a problem, but the lack of a true point guard to facilitate might be where it could fall apart. The hope is that rookie Herbert Jones could fill that role. He’s big for a point guard, but he was Alabama’s point forward, so it’s not a stretch for him to try and fill that role.
The addition of Valanciunas.
I love the addition of Valanciunas, because defenses can’t simply focus on double- or triple-teaming Zion with a center presenting more of an offensive threat than Adams did. The post game for the Pels is going to be rough on opposing defenses. Due to this addition and spreading of wealth to take some weight off of Zion’s impressive shoulders, I think Zion can make the leap to full-on MVP candidate.
Third in the league in rebounding last season (47.4) and that shouldn’t shift much, but they’ll need to step up their defensive intensity (114.9 opp ppg 24th in league and .550 opp eFG% 25th in league).
Prediction: 3rd in division; 40-42 record
5. Houston Rockets
Granted, it’s a small sample size and more of the “eye test,” but Jalen Green looked like a certified stud in Summer League play. He scored 20.3 points per game on 51.4% shooting. Using a variety of moves going into the paint with a stutter step and draining the outside shot, he got his buckets. He will undoubtedly be tasked with sharing the main scoring duties with Christian Wood; we’ll get to Wood in a moment.
Jalen green treating Kyle kuzma like a drew league bench player lmaoo pic.twitter.com/qCTqzxS9PI
— jw (@iam_johnw2) October 6, 2021
Ballhandling and distribution will be a concern for the young Rockets, as the only point guard currently on the roster is 13-year veteran D.J. Augustin (3.9 AST/G). If the ball is going to be in Green’s hands a lot, he’ll need to quickly develop an eye for his teammates that I think he currently lacks. It’s not a knock on him, he’s very young and a talented scorer, but he’ll need to focus on possessions trying to get Wood his touches.
Will Christian Wood take another step this year?
The 2020-21 season was Christian Wood’s coming out party. Wood set career highs in points, total rebounds, and blocks (21.0, 9.6, and 1.2). Those numbers cracked the top 20 in rebounding and top 40 in scoring. As a stretch big, he does take 5.0 threes per game, but has a much louder presence in the middle. Aside from top-of-the-arc threes, everywhere on his shot chart he shoots above league average. That communicates a smart player who knows his game.
Who’s in charge of the ball?
Back to my concern with the lack of primary ballhandlers in their prime. Usually, this is algebra for a team that coughs the ball up a lot. Sure enough, Houston was 23rd in the league in turnovers (14.7/G) in 20-21. They only team that turned the ball over more and had a winning record were the Los Angeles Lakers (15.2/G). Turnovers, obviously, create free offense for your opponents. Houston was worst in the league with 14.7 opponent fast break points and 25th with 17.5 opponent points off turnovers. Those are not ingredients in the recipe for success, but they’re a young team very recently gutted of a bunch of big stars, so we can cut them a touch of slack. I still think the Rockets can climb out of the Southwest Division basement.
Prediction: 4th in division; 27-55 record