Friday, October 20, 2006

'06-07 Season Preview--Southwest Division

Arguably one of the best divisions alongside the Central Division, although the Pacific is gaining fast. You have two of the best teams in the NBA, the Spurs & Dallas, who had to slug it out in a legendary playoff series one round too early because of a flawed seeding system. They also have another team in Houston, who if they can avoid the injury bug, has to be considered a legit title contender as well. The Hornets also were a huge surprise last year (I thought they would win 15 games at the most), nearly making it to the playoffs with not much apparent talent on their roster. Right now, things don't look so rosy in Memphis with Gasol's foot injury, which should eliminate them from playoff consideration.
*-Last year's record in parenthesis.

DALLAS MAVERICKS--(60-22; 2nd in SW; 4th in West)
Key additions: Greg Buckner; Moe Ager; Devean George; Austin Croshere
Key losses: Adrian Griffin; Keith Van Horn; Marquis Daniels

Should have no problem repeating the success of last year, one of the elite teams in the league. Stayed strong by having a productive off-season. Re-signed Jason Terry. Lost Van Horn, but basically neutralized it with a trade for Croshere, who actually plays a modicum of defense in the post & is tougher. Anthony Johnson gives them a savvy, back-up point. It will be interesting to see if Avery starts Dev Harris with Terry in the backcourt or starts Stack, Buckner or Dev George at the 2. George gives them a solid battle-tested vet who can provide some outside shooting. I like the pick-up of Moe Ager which just deepens the backcourt furthur. If they can get Diop to keep developing on his natural progression, they should be fine at the center. Basically, the Mavs are in great shape.

The one minor thing this team is missing is someone who can be a reliable low-post option. The one significant flaw of this team is they get too jumpshot-happy. Dirk will go down on the block here & there, but its seems like he has to be coaxed to go down there. Even though, this team still has a knack for getting to the free-throw line with all their emphasis on jumpshots, which is slightly surprising.

Should fight for the West crown with SA, Phoenix, & Houston and have an excellent chance to get back to the finals.

HOUSTON ROCKETS--(34-48; 5th in SW; T-12th in West)
Key additions: Bonzi Wells; Kirk Snyder; Shane Battier; Vassilis Spanoulis
Key losses: Stro Swift; David Wesley

Health is the buzz word in Houston. Most importantly, how is the health of McGrady's back? If he can keep his missed games to a minimum, this team has the ability to challenge for a West crown. Yao has to stay free of the injury bug as well, (he still seems to have lingering foot problems, but he did lead the Worlds in scoring in the prelims).

The Rockets stayed busy in the off-season trying to compliment the Big Two. Shane Battier provides the team with a great spot-shooter who can relieve pressure off Yao & Tracy. Rookie S.Novak is Matt Bullard Jr.--he does not do anything but shoot, but he does that very well. Not really sure why they needed Bonzi, with the acquistion of K. Snyder & V. Spanoulis, but they did get Bonzi at a bargain-basement price, so why not.

Their backcourt situation looks pretty good, really good compared to their frontcourt situation. They are severely hurting for depth & athleticism upfront. Mutombo's playing on fumes, at this point Juwan Howard should be a back-up or at least have his minutes limited to 30 mins or below. Who else do they have, Ryan Bowen? Chuck Hayes? I don't care what his rebound rate was last year--he's 6-6 & is only good for a max of 15 minutes.

They need to use one or two of their surplus of backcourt players to make a deal for a big, preferably someone athletic. Why not a guy like Kel Cato? He's nothing special, but he played pretty well next to Yao a few years back, and he's available & better than any bench guy they have now.

Defense is not an issue--Houston had one of the top defensive teams in the NBA despite throwing out a NBDL-level lineup by the end of the season. So I am not sure they needed Battier as bad as everyone thinks they did. Sure, his shooting is wonderful next to Tracy & Yao, but they had to part with Swift, and they still have a gaping hole in frontcourt where he left. Battier can play some 4 and they plan to do that, since they might have no other choice after Juwan.

PG spot is a minor question mark as well. What can they get from R. Alston? Not sure and I still don't think Van Gundy totally loves having Alston as his point. Spanoulis is nothing more than back-up, who's not much of a shooter & his playmaking skills are questionable, but he is intense & a scrappy defender, which Van Gundy should love.

Outside shooting was something that needed to be improved--new additions Battier & Novak help alot, although none of their backcourt additions Wells, Spanoulis, or Snyder are known for their shooting and Novak can only play limited minutes.

If McGrady & Yao stay relatively healthy, this team can be put in the same echelon as the Spurs, Suns, & the Mavs. But their frontcourt depth could eventually cost them in the playoffs when they will face off vs. one or two of these teams.

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES--(49-33; 3rd in SW; 5th in West)
Key additions: Stro Swift; Rudy Gay; Kyle Lowry
Key losses: Shane Battier; Lo Wright

For a team that would have been fighting for one of the bottom playoff slots out West even with a healthy Gasol, losing him for a month or two ruins their playoff chances. So Spain's gold medal run pretty much flushed Memphis' season down the toilet.

Not really sure where this team is going to get scoring from with Pau out. I thought this was a flaw last year in my playoff previews: they don't have dynamic secondary scoring around Gasol. Possibly in the future Rudy Gay can be that guy, but he's not ready for that this year. But like it or not, I think Fratello needs to give Gay more minutes & touches than anticipated because the Grizz desparately need his scoring acumen--right now he's probably their best scoring option.

Their point guard situation is not helping things either. They are counting on a 33-year-old Damon Stoudamire, who's trying to recover from a bad knee, & his back-ups are barely 6-feet themselves & both are back-up caliber at best.

Even if Gasol was healthy, the Grizz were in need of some size after Lo Wright left in free agency. Stro Swift does not want to be there, plus they already tried that experiment before & it did not work. When some people thought Laettner coming back was a joke, I was not laughing because he could probably start for this team right now. I'll take Laettner over Big Jake anyday. As you can see this team was in disarray regardless of Gasol's health, I understand why Jerry West is in a hurry to retire.

The Grizz were not a very good rebounding team last year, and failing to bring another center in after Wright's departure does not help things. Hopefully, Rudy Gay can use his length to help on the boards from the SF slot.

Really can't see them making the playoffs, especially with Gasol out for an extended period of time. But I do expect this team to play tough & keep games closer than expected because of Fratello's staunch leadership.

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS--(38-44; 4th in SW; 10th in West)
Key additions: Peja Stokaovic; Tyson Chandler; Hilton Armstrong; Ced Simmons; Bob Jackson
Key losses: PJ Brown; JR Smith; Kirk Snyder

Somewhat of a surprise last year, with Byron Scott being the Coach-o-Year in my estimation. Promising young core to build around, especially on the bookends of PG & Center.

Thought the front office did a great job this off-season. Needed a back-up PG--got a solid vet in Bob Jackson. Needed a SF & outside shooting--killed two birds with Peja, somewhat expensive, but was one of the best F.A. available this summer. T. Chandler & Hilton Armstrong gives them two young, athletic centers who can come in handy detering all the penetrating guards that are in vogue because of the new rules. But the Hornets do have a hole at SG, where Des Mason is better suited as back-up wing, and there is basically no one of substance behind him.

Think they can challenge for one of the last playoff seeds, but think they will get bumped off by either the Lakers, Kings or Jazz, who are slightly superior in my mind. The Hornets are just a little too green outside of Peja, especially their frontcourt.

SAN ANTONIO--(63-19; 1st in SW; 1st in West)
Key additions: Francisco Elson; Jackie Butler; Jacque Vaughan; Eric Williams; Matt Bonner
Key losses: Nazr Mohammed; Rasho Nestorvic; Nick Van Exel

By no means is this team washed-up as some people would make you believe. If Manu does not commit that haphazard foul on Dirk, the Spurs are in the finals vs. the Heat. Having a healthy Duncan, makes a significant difference & Manu never could get into a rhythm last year either because of his own injuries.

Although, some trepidation is warranted. Bruce Bowen is still a top-notch defender, but he is at that age where you are in danger of getting old overnite almost literally--it can happen fast. His main back-up is M. Finley, who's still valuable, but he's 33/34, to go along with mid-30s Brent Barry & Eric Williams on the wings. This team definitely needs an infusion of youth on the wings around Manu.

Another issue is the frontcourt slot opposite Timmy. Robert Horry looked like he used up all his good karma with the b-ball gods last spring & he should not be starting at this point, and no one else on the roster is really starting caliber. New pick-ups Jack Butler & Fran Elson are nice solid reserves, but back-ups at best. I like the things that F. Oberto brings to the table, but I don't really think he's starter-caliber either. Although, Nazr Mohammed was nothing special himself & playing next to Duncan does take off alot of pressure, so maybe it will not be that big of an issue.

What does all this mean? The Spurs should once again be in the thick of things, and should be considered one of the top 5 teams in the NBA. This team won 63 games last year with a gimpy Duncan & Manu scuffling with injuries all year, so by no means are they now playing second fiddle to the Mavs-- their pretty equal in my mind.


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