The Southwest division had 4 50-win teams, which is probably some kind of record. I'm not going to look it up, though, that's what interns are for. Also, please contact us if you'd like to join our team and become one of our interns...we've got several openings.
Back to basketball, though, you've got two legitimate powerhouse teams from last year in New Orleans and San Antonio, and two wild card teams with a ton of talent in Houston and Dallas. Also Memphis has a basketball team...sort of. So let's preview this son of a bitch.
Remember when Dallas was the team to beat in the West? It wasn't so long ago that Dirk Nowitzki and the boys were the class of the conference, but this isn't the same Mavericks team. They got bounced 4 games to 1 in the first round last year against the Hornets in Jason Kidd's first playoff series in Dallas. I do think they'll be better this year than they were last year after acquiring Kidd, but that still only makes them as good as they were last year before the Kidd trade.
They've still got the offensive firepower that they've had for a decade, but when they acquired Kidd, they traded Devin Harris, the only guy they had that could slow down the elite point guards in the West like Chris Paul, Deron Williams, and Steve Nash. Kidd can't really defend any starting point guards at this point in his career. That's going to be trouble, and it's not like Kidd will get faster over the course of the season. I still like Dirk as an NBA superstar, and I think, despite all of the off-the-court distractions, Josh Howard is developing into a great Robin to Nowitzki's Batman. They'll be a good team, but not good enough to do any damage in the playoffs.
Projected record: 46-36
Houston had one of the most exciting stretches in recent memory last season, and while they got bounced by Utah in the first round of last year's playoffs, they had the whole town (and a few people here on the east coast) excited about what they might be able to do. Now this year, with Yao Ming (hopefully) healthy, Ron Artest added to an already pretty strong defensive team, and the core essentially intact from last year's 22-game winning streak, it's not crazy to think they could be even better. You're probably not looking at an NBA championship team in the Rockets, but you're definitely looking at a team that should give Tracy McGrady his first career playoff series victory.
Projected record: 53-29
Oh boy. The Grizzlies projected starters averaged a mere 56.5 total points last year. Thankfully, Mike Conley is one of them, and he's going to be a lot better this year. He's an exciting young player, and partnering him with O.J. Mayo could give Memphis one of the most dynamic young backcourts in the league, and soon.
But not now. This will be a bad team.
Projected record: 23-59 (one game better than last year)
New Orleans Hornets
Man, did this team come out of nowhere or what? They went from a .500 team to the class of the Western Conference, and one of the best stories in sports this year. They won't sneak up on anyone this year, but they won't need to. Chris Paul is obviously one of the best young players to come around in years, and he's already as important to his team as LeBron James is to the Cavaliers.
But Paul is only one part of the puzzle in New Orleans. David West has become a legitimate inside presence, averaging 20 points and 9 boards a game last year. Tyson Chandler cleans the class and picks up 12 points worth of put-backs every game. And Peja Stojakovic was reborn last year, hitting 3 triples a game and shooting 44% from beyond the arc. They were also one of only three teams to average less than 12 turnovers a game, a testament to the fact that they were always on the same page. I look for this team to get even better, taking control of the strongest division in the NBA.
Projected record: 61-21
San Antonio Spurs
When will the window close for the Spurs? Many say this is the year, but many have also said that the past 3 years, and the Spurs have been among the best teams in basketball each of those seasons. Still, the ride has to end at some point, and I'm figuring it's sooner than later. Metaphorically, I think this is the year the torch gets passed to the Hornets, and the Spurs will slide back into the pack.
Manu Ginobili is out until mid-December, and a slow start will be harder to recover from with a 32-year-old Tim Duncan than it's been in the past. Improved teams in Houston and New Orleans will make division wins more difficult, and the Spurs will be looking at more of a #5 or #6 seed, giving them imposing matchups throughout the playoffs (or at least for as long as they last). You can't count them out until the last horn has sounded, but don't expect the Spurs to be raising any more banners for a couple years.
Projected record: 47-35
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