What the Heck Happened in the Southwest Division?

Detroit Bad Boys

There are three teams in the Southwest Divison with NBA Title hopes, and you can’t blame any of the three — Dallas, Memphis or New Orleans — for thinking big. There are the Warriors and then there is everyone else, and you never know when Golden State might be vulnerable.

There are much worse things to invest your money and your confidence in than Luka Doncic, Ja Morant and Zion Williamson. After that three-headed juggernaut, you have a frisky but still rebuilding Houston Rockets team — aka a chance to see Tari Eason earn raves for doing awesomely weird stuff on the basketball court — and then you have the Spurs. Sigh … the Spurs. They have fallen so far from their perennial contending days. At least you can take respite in the fact that this year, at least, the team is trying to lose. They’ve shedding skill and salary all in a quest to be named the victors of the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes.

Let’s take a closer look at the last division in our offseason recap series.

Dallas Mavericks v Utah Jazz

Photo by Alex Goodlett/Getty Images

Offseason in 5 words or less

Brunson is a big loss

Big Changes

When you have a player as good as Luka Doncic, it’s easy to not sweat the small stuff. Doncic is one of the most talented players of the NBA right now, and he is only 23 years old. He’s the primary ball handler, an exceptional scorer, and he can see things on the court nobody else can. The perfect player to build around, and the Mavericks have built a decently formidable team around him in a few short years. Most crucially, they were able to take a mulligan on the awful decision to invest in Kristaps Porzingis, bringing in Spencer Dinwddie and Davis Bertans from Washington in a mega-trade last season. This year, though, there is a big question mark at the guard position after Jalen Brunson took his talents to Madison Square Garden.

Replacing him will be no easy feat. Spencer Dinwiddie can take some of the ball-handling burden, but he can’t score like Brunson. And Reggie Bullock can shoot from deep, but he can’t attack the paint. Tim Hardaway Jr. is a good all-around player, but the offense is just a little weaker in Dallas, and that means more of the burden will be on Doncic to do it all. Hopefully, he can hold up.

The other big change was trading for former Piston Christian Wood. I’ve long said Wood’s perimeter shooting and touch around the basket make him just about the perfect plug-and-play player as there is in the NBA. Well, he got plugged into Houston and wore out his welcome quickly in a rebuilding situation. Can he play nicely in Dallas, where he will feast on a ton of open looks? Or is he going to be a problem again?

Better or Worse?

Worse. They lost a key contributor at guard, and that is the kind of player you need to help Doncic last for an entire season. I love the wing rotation in Dallas, and they have enough serviceable big men to last the entire season. Something just feels off to me.

Playoff Contender?

The Mavericks are bound for the playoffs, even in a pretty tough Western Conference. But they could also lose in the first round for the third time in four years.

Houston Rockets v Indiana Pacers

Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images

Houston Rockets

Offseason in 5 words or less

Feel bad for Eric Gordon

Big Changes

The Houston Rockets grabbed Jabari Smith Jr and Jalen Green with top-3 picks in consecutive drafts. I’m high on both, don’t get me wrong, but I think it’s lower in the draft where the Houston Rockets are really showing off their scouting acumen. I was a huge Tari Eason believer during the draft process, and he’s showed quite a bit in his limited preseason action. I also really like the long-term potential of Alperen Sengun and Jae-Sean Tate. Unfortunately, all of that is undone by investing in Kevin Porter Jr, who just signed a four-year deal to stick in Houston (maybe — only the first year is guaranteed).

Porter, rookie Green and Christian Wood was bad vibes knucklehead central last season. But Wood is now gone, Green definitely figured things out in the second half of last season, and Porter, at least by now, has to understand that this is Green’s team and he needs to defer accordingly.

And while those two are putting up ridiculous shots (and making more than you’d think), Eason, Tate, and Smith will do all the running up and down the floor, rebounding, defending and blocking shots. Smith will hit some 3s for good measure along with veteran Eric Gordon. Speaking of Gordon, can someone please trade for this man? He deserves better than wasting away in Houston.

Better or Worse?

Definitely better. Green got his sea legs under him, and that will go a long way to providing a gravitational pull for Houston’s offense. Things will start making sense and the little Rockets will attempt to do their best young Memphis Grizzlies impersonation over the next couple of years.

Playoff Contender?

Not this year. Probably not next year. But it’s coming.

Memphis Grizzlies v Detroit Pistons

Photo by Nic Antaya/Getty Images

Memphis Grizzlies

Offseason in 5 words or less

The team of Basketball Twitter

Big Changes

The Memphis Grizzlies are the model of consistency. Their only big loss from a season ago is Kyle Anderson, and they have plenty of young forward waiting in the wings willing to fill those minutes. A bit of consistency the Grizzlies probably wish wouldn’t be repeating itself is the health status of Jaren Jackson Jr. — still injured, still very good when he plays, which is not often enough.

Better or Worse?

The Grizzlies are better because everyone is a year older. For this team, it is all about ]the upward momentum and development of a murder’s row of young players headlined by Ja Morant. This could be the year you hear Ja in the MVP discussion. Desmond Bane continues to be better Saddiq Bey (from the same draft class) and Tyus Jones is pretty easily the most talented backup point guard in the NBA at this point? This is an easy team to love, and the only question is whether they feel like they keep building slowly and steadily and risk plateauing or if they feel like they are one seismic move away from true title contention.

Playoff Contender?

They will be in the playoffs, and they will be feisty. If you have any hope of beating them, you need to figure out a way to exploit Morant’s weaknesses on defense and somehow keep up with him on offense.

New Orleans Pelicans v San Antonio Spurs

Photos by Michael Gonzales/NBAE via Getty Images

Offseason in 5 words or less

Zion is healthy again

Big Changes

Zion is healthy again. What bigger change do you need? CJ McCollum is in the lineup for the entire year, Herb Jones emerged instantly as one of the game’s top defenders and the steal of the draft, and they took Dyson Daniels at No. 8 who is also pegged as a potentially elite defender. Those are the kind of players you want alongside Zion and the slithery offensive game of Brandon Ingram.

Better or Worse?

Zion is healthy again, of course they are better. Can he stay healthy? Will it all jell together? I don’t know, but I’m rooting for it. When this team is optimized, there might not be a better brand of basketball worth watching.

Playoff Contender?

Pelicans are going to the second round, book it.

Paris Saint-Germain v Olympique Marseille - Ligue 1

Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images

Offseason in 5 words or less

If they get Victor, I …

Big Changes

The Spurs are in full-on tank mode. They traded budding star Dejounte Murray to the Hawks. They didn’t even extend a qualifying offer to Lonnie Walker (those two examples are of wildly different degrees of importance). They have veterans who, if they aren’t washed, will be on the first plane to a team willing to part with a future draft pick. Whether anyone wants Josh Richardson, Doug McDermott or Zach Collins remains to be seen.

This is all in the name of choosing the best year to be a terrible team — the year of Victor Wembanyama. The last time the Spurs pulled out all the stops to lose as much as possible they drafted Tim Duncan. Can’t blame them for trying again.

We’ll know just how serious they are in their tanking quest if they trade young upside guys close to the Murray mold in Keldon Johnson and Devin Vassell. If those two go, all bets are off.

Better or Worse?

They were already bad and somehow they got significantly worse.

Playoff Contender?

They are a contender for the only things that matters — standing at the podium on Draft Lottery night with a big smile on their face.

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