As we approach the opening tip of the 2016-17 NBA regular season, The Shadow League looks at every one of the league’s six divisions and the players who will make this year an unforgettable one. Today, we examine the division with a team that could provide the Golden State Warriors with their stiffest competition for the Western Conference crown.
Predicted order of finish:
1. San Antonio Spurs – Everything seems to work out favorably for the Spurs.
In 1997, just when franchise cornerstone David Robinson was hitting his 30s and injuries were becoming a factor, the Lottery balls allowed the Spurs to land Tim Duncan, their next (and ultimately their greatest) franchise cornerstone.
And even though the team hasn’t had a draft pick inside the top 20 since then, the Spurs still managed to bring in Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Kawhi Leonard as rookies and mold them into superstars. Add some savvy trades, smart free-agent signings, and the coaching talents of Gregg Popovich, and you get five NBA championship trophies currently residing in San Antonio.
So it was in typical Spurs fashion that by the time Duncan announced his retirement this summer, the franchise not only had his long-term replacement already on the roster – that being All-Star PF LaMarcus Aldridge – but they had also secured an immediate fill-in for Duncan with the addition of future Hall of Fame PF/C Pau Gasol.
Is this not a perfect fit? If you were developing a video game and could hire anyone on the planet other than Tim Duncan to do the motion-capture for late-career Tim Duncan, who would be a better pick than Pau Gasol? The 36-year-old averaged 16.5 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.0 blocks for the Bulls last season, playing the same cerebral low-post style that Duncan mastered in San Antonio.
With Gasol, the Spurs (again) have the NBA’s best frontcourt, featuring Aldridge (18.0 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Leonard (21.2 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 1.8 spg). The frontcourt is so deep that veteran PF David Lee – just three years removed from being an All-Star -- was a mostly overlooked offseason acquisition.
Leonard is the new face of the franchise. The 25-year-old is the reigning two-time Defensive Player of the Year, he finished second in league MVP voting last season, and the 2014 Finals MVP is one of the few men walking the planet who can claim he outplayed LeBron James in a playoff series.
Parker (34) and Ginobili (39) still run the backcourt, with sniper Danny Green, versatile Kyle Anderson and rookie Dejounte Murray being groomed to assume bigger roles.
The names may change, but Popovich’s system and the Spurs’ culture remains the same. The Warriors may have the most star-studded roster in the league, but San Antonio is the deepest team. They are a legit championship contender.
2. Memphis Grizzlies – The gears are going to be moving a little bit faster at The Grindhouse this season. First-year head coach David Fizdale wants more running and gunning from a team whose core has been successful playing a ground-and-pound style.
That means 35-year-old PF Zach Randolph (15.3 ppg, 7.8 rpg) is moving to the bench, and 26-year-old PF JaMychal Green is the new starter. That means Memphis was willing to drop $94 million on SF Chandler Parsons, who averaged 13.7 points with the Mavericks last season and gives the Grizzlies an automatic upgrade in athleticism and outside shooting.
Another newly wealthy man in Memphis is PG Mike Conley, who signed a 5-year, $153 million contract – the biggest in NBA history – this summer. Conley (15.3 ppg, 6.1 apg) is one of the league’s better point guards, but with the kind of coin he’s making now, he’ll be expected to be one of the league’s best point guards.
Even with all the changes of pace and personnel, the focal point of the Grizzlies remains All-Star center Marc Gasol, who was forced to miss the playoffs last season and sit out the Olympics due to injuries.
Gasol (16.6 ppg, 7.0 rpg) did not get any younger over the summer, he presumably did not get any faster, and the ninth-year vet probably has not changed his game much. The 2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year is still one of the best at stopping opponents from scoring, and while the new-look Grizzlies are trying to light up the scoreboard more than before, defense will be what keeps this team among the best in the West.
3. Houston Rockets – James Harden being named Houston’s starting point guard isn’t going to change the way he plays. Even when he was labeled a shooting guard, Harden was Houston’s primary ball-handler, top offensive facilitator, best passer and most skilled playmaker.
What is going to change Harden’s game is that he’s playing point guard under the tutelage of new Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni, the man who helped Steve Nash win back-to-back league MVPs in Phoenix and briefly made Ray Felton look like an All-Star PG in New York.
Harden (29.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 7.5 apg, 1.7 spg) is still going to score about 30 points a night, but now he could average nine or 10 assists. If his team was better, Harden would again be a serious MVP candidate.
The Rockets are less talented after losing Dwight Howard in free agency, but their current roster might be a better fit for Harden’s particular set of skills.
Houston has shooters, from deadeye newcomers Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson to streaky incumbents Trevor Ariza and Patrick Beverly. They have athletic wing finishers like SF Corey Brewer and SG K.J. McDaniels. Replacing Howard at center is Clint Capela, a rebounder and defender who has a knack for getting into spaces where Harden can find him, and Nene, who is still an effective scorer going into his 15th NBA season.
The Rockets will score. They’ll score a lot. But what about defense?
Houston ranked 25th in the league in points allowed last season, and that was with Howard, a three-time Defensive Player of the Year and one of the best shot-blockers in NBA history. Beverly, Ariza and Brewer are known as good defenders, and rookie Gary Payton II is an apple that didn’t fall far from the family tree.
But will the D’Antoni system and its notorious de-emphasis on D set them up for failure? And will the Harden-led offense be so explosive that it doesn’t matter?
4. Dallas Mavericks – Now that Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett have retired, Dirk Nowitzki is the NBA’s elder statesman of superstars. (No disrespect to Ginobili and Paul Pierce, but they’re not playing at that level anymore.) While Dirk isn’t going to go out on a team as bad as Kobe’s last Lake Show or KG’s last Wolf pack, he’s also not going to be contending for a championship like Duncan was at the end.
The Mavs are, once again, looking like first-round fodder for one of the Western Conference’s real title contenders.
Although Dirk’s shooting percentages were down last season, his scoring (18.3 ppg) was up from the previous year. Head coach Rick Carlisle, one of the best basketball minds in the business, will continue to find ways to take advantage of Dirk’s strengths and mask his weaknesses. Dirk will do what Dirk usually does.
What about the rest of the team?
Deron Williams and Wesley Matthews are a solid veteran backcourt. Free-agent pickup Harrison Barnes will replace the departed Chandler Parsons at small forward, and appears to be an upgrade. Barnes’ teammate on the Warriors, C Andrew Bogut, will bring toughness and interior defense to the table, and he can score a little bit.
The Mavericks aren’t bad, but they aren’t very good. And that’s not good enough to be considered a serious threat in the West.
5. New Orleans Pelicans – By the time the calendar turns from 2016 to 2017, the Pelicans should be on their way to putting an inevitably rough opening chapter of the season behind them.
Point guard Jrue Holiday, three injury-plagued years removed from being an All-Star, is currently taking a leave of absence to care for his cancer-stricken wife. Tyreke Evans, who can play all three perimeter positions, and Quincy Pondexter, who could complete for NOLA’s starting small forward job, will both be out until at least December thanks to knee problems.
Versatile newcomers Lance Stephenson and Terrence Jones and rookie SG Buddy Hield could do a lot to fill those gaps for head coach Alvin Gentry, but they might need time to get acclimated.
As it stands, the Pelicans actually took the floor for a recent preseason game with a starting lineup of E’Twaun Moore, Tim Frazier, Solomon Hill and Omer Asik surrounding PF Anthony Davis, looking like some random St. Lunatics flanking Nelly during his platinum-selling heyday.
But even when the Pelicans are at full strength, Davis (24.3 ppg, 10.3 rpg, 2.0 bpg) is unquestionably the main event.
If you find yourself missing KG already, Davis is the next best thing. A seven-footer who isn’t listed as one, he is just as likely to cross you up at the top of the key as he is to block your shot above the rim. Davis’ 59-point, 20-rebound effort against the Pistons last February was arguably the NBA’s most impressive single-game performance last season.
Davis has the talent to be one of the league’s five best players, but he needs to stay healthy (he has yet to play 70 games in a season) and he needs to win more games (he has zero playoff victories) if he’s going to get that kind of recognition.
Southwest Division Extras
Possible MVPs – LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Whichever one of these two leads the Spurs in scoring will be a top-five MVP candidate. Leonard put up more points last season, but Aldridge looked every bit like The Man when he had back-to-back games of 38 and 41 points in the playoffs.
Impact Rookie – Buddy Hield, Pelicans
Before the NBA Draft, I wrote that Hield could quickly become one of the best shooting guards in a league that was looking thin at the position following Kobe’s retirement. It’s even thinner now that Harden has moved to point guard.
Playing for the Pelicans gives Hield a good chance to start, or at least be an impact player off the bench right away. And with Anthony Davis drawing the attention of defenses, Hield should get plenty of open looks to unleash the jumper that made him college basketball’s national player of the year.
Breakout Player – Harrison Barnes, Mavericks
Remember when Barnes was widely considered the No. 1 high school player in the country and had “Future NBA Star” written all over him? Is it too late for Barnes to fulfill that potential? No longer playing the No. 4 role for Golden State, Barnes (11.7 ppg) was given a $94 million deal in Dallas and has a wide-open opportunity to become Dirk’s successor to as the Mavs’ go-to guy.
Division’s Defender – Kawhi Leonard, Spurs
Eight men have won the NBA’s Defensive Player of the Year award twice in a row. Ben Wallace did it twice. But only one, Dwight Howard, copped DPOY three times in a row. Leonard will be going for the three-peat this season. But will Kawhi’s new leadership and offensive responsibilities in the Spurs’ post-Duncan era take away from his defense?
League Pass Alert – Houston Rockets
The most talented offensive player in the league (Harden) surrounded by a motley crew of three-point shooters and dunkers, playing for a coach who is giving everybody a green light and doesn’t seem too concerned with defense. The purists won’t like it, but it’ll be entertaining.
Catch him before he’s gone – Vince Carter, Grizzlies
He’ll turn 40 this season, which is also the last year on his contract. Retirement seems like the logical thing to do for Vince Carter in 2017. Half-Man can still dunk, he can still shoot, he can still produce some crunch-time magic, and the future Hall of Famer is on a team that can make some noise in the playoffs.
The New Joe Johnson? – Mike Conley, Grizzlies
Joe Johnson didn’t get any worse in the first few years after he signed a $123 million contract in 2010 that made him the NBA’s highest-paid player. He made the All-Star Game four times before the deal, and three times after. But the money seemed to be all anybody could talk about, and Johnson started to be viewed as an overpaid underachiever when his ranking among the league’s best players didn’t match his ranking among the league’s richest.
Will that be Conley’s fate? His $153 million deal is the biggest in NBA history. Conley has never been an All-Star or an All-NBA pick. (He did make the All-Defensive Second Team a few years back.) Already 29 years old, Conley will have to make the leap from “pretty good” to “great” to even begin to justify his contract in the eyes of critics.
Most Predictable Disappointment – Dallas Mavericks
Speaking of underachievers …
Now, Dirk Nowitzki is a certified legend. Hall of Fame lock. His clutch-ness is not in doubt, thanks in large part to his 2011 NBA championship and Finals MVP.
But have the Dallas Mavericks really gotten all they could out of the Dirk era?
This franchise has had a loyal and consistent superstar (Dirk) for the better part of two decades. It has an owner (Mark Cuban) who is willing to pay whatever it costs to bring in the best talent. It has employed one Hall of Fame coach (Don Nelson) and two highly successful, well-respected coaches (Rick Carlisle, Avery Johnson). It is located in a major media market that should be attractive for any player interested in brand-building.
Yet all the Mavs have to show for these abundant resources is one championship, one near-miss in the Finals, and EIGHT first-round playoff losses.
And so far, the evidence doesn’t do much to show that this season won’t end with a ninth early exit.