features what was probably the strongest division in the league last year, the Southwest. The Hornets, Spurs and Rockets finished within a game of each other, the Mavs also won 50+. Who took a step forward this offseason, who will take a step back?
Check after the jump for my take on the division. Also, check out the rest of my previews
1. New Orleans Hornets (58-24)
Yes, I think the addition of James Posey will help this team. Yes, I think Chris Paul is a top five player in the league easy. No, I don't really think the Hornets are championship contenders this year, but yes, I do believe they will have a better record than last season.
The main reason I have them improving upon their improbable record from last year is the moves made, or not made, by the rest of the division. I think a small step back for the other teams will translate into a couple more wins for New Orleans. The thing I love about New Orleans is that they have a dynamic playmaker at the point in Paul, a guy who can do just about everything, and they've surrounded him with specialists: Chandler can be a defensive force and clean the boards, Peja knocks down threes like no one's business, West can play that pick-and-pop game with Paul and now Posey can lock down the other team's best wing scorer.
I don't think they have the depth to hang with the Lakers, or a couple of other teams, in the playoffs, but this is a very, very good team and they should win their division comfortably. Team blog worth checking out: Big Easy Buzz Blog
2. San Antonio Spurs (51-31)
Seemingly every year you overlook the Spurs, they win the title. Honestly, that trend wouldn't shock me this season for one simple reason, Manu Ginobli's injury. This team is getting older, especially Tim Duncan. He's still a force down low, but I don't think the Spurs can ride him, in fact, they haven't really done it for a couple of years now. Their engine has been Manu, and he's out until mid-December, at least.
My predicted record for the Spurs is only 51 games because I have serious questions about where their offense will come from without Manu in there wreaking havoc. He's their best option for creating his own offense, he sparks offense with his defense, and he's relentess when he's going to the hole and getting to the line. I think the Spurs will finish strong if/when Manu comes back healthy, but his absence is going to cause them to dig a hole and I just don't see them climbing out of it to take the division. Bruce Bowen has to be 50 years-old at this point, one year older than Michael Finley. With Manu out, the Spurs will need more from those two guys than either can provide.Team blog worth checking out: Project Spurs
3. Dallas Mavericks (49-33)
Has any team gone from dominant to completely boring and not even really mentioned in the same sentence as the word contender any quicker than the Mavs? It's almost like their epic loss to the Warriors in the playoffs two years ago set the franchise back ten years. The shocking thing about their fall from favor is that they really hadn't changed their personnel much until the big Jason Kidd trade last season. The problem with the trade is that it made a young-ish team suddenly old and it didn't really make them much better.
Kidd is still a threat for an ugly triple-double every single night, Dirk is still a stud by just about any standard, and I still don't think it's enough. They fired Avery Johnson and brought in Rick Carlisle, who has gotten a raw deal a couple of times now from different teams, but I just don't think it makes a difference. The Mavs made a smart move a couple of season ago when they began to focus on defense, then they brought in a point who doesn't have a prayer of guarding most of the points in the league these days, negating any advantage they may have gained. I'll be shocked by anything more than a first-round exit from the playoffs again this season.Team blog worth checking out: Mavs Moneyball
4. Houston Rockets (48-32)
A team with a starting lineup of Rafer Alston, Tracy McGrady, Shane Battier, Ron Artest and Yao Ming is pretty stout. I firmly believe that starting lineup will put up at least a .600 winning percentage. That's awesome for you Rockets fans out there because you can put about 6-12 wins in the bank right away. The 60 or so games when one or more of that group is out due to injuries and/or psychological breakdowns, well, who knows what to expect.
You absolutely cannot count on Yao nor McGrady to stay healthy, just as you absolutely cannot count on Ron Artest to stay out of jail. The Rockets were a decent team who went on an ubelievable run to finish within a game of the top spot in the division last season, I don't think you can expect a run like that from a Ron Artest team, and make no mistake, this is a Ron Artest team now. If the sociopath can keep his act under wraps the Rockets have a chance to do something exceptional (getting out of the first round counts as exceptional for this team, by the way), but that isn't going to happen. This guy isn't just a spoiled athlete who's going to grow out of it, he's a legitimate psycho who probably belongs behind bars right now and will most likely wind up there when he retires. Talent-wise, Houston won that trade, but they'll still regret making it.Team blog worth checking out: The Dream Shake
5. Memphis Grizzlies (15-67)
Start counting the ping pong balls right now. This Memphis team is headed in the wrong direction, and they're headed their quickly. Rudy Gay is a perfect example of a guy you'd love to have on your fantasy team, hate to have on your real team. He's an efficient-enough scorer, for a bad team, but even though he'll get you the steals and blocks you crave, he does so without playing a lick of actual defense. He gambles, doesn't stay in front of his man and generally gets eaten alive by the wings he covers.
When Hakim Warrick is your best option down low, you know you have problems. The Griz traded Mike Miller and Kevin Love for OJ Mayo, essentially, on draft night. I will eat my socks if Mayo is ever as good of a player as Miller is right now, and I'll be equally shocked if Kevin Love doesn't have a better career than Mayo as well. They do have the lesser Gasol coming in, though, so they've got that going for them. Team blog worth checking out: 3 Shades Of Blue
Up next, the Central Division.