We’re just over a week into the NBA’s 75th regular season and, already, we’ve seen some significant developments. From the new direction teams that made an offseason coaching change have taken, to the impact of some of the more critical offseason acquisitions with their new teams or even the development of the rookie class as they continue to transition to the game’s highest level, almost all of them have played a part in the trajectory of the young season.
And, here at Basketball Insiders, we’re taking stock of those developments and more to provide a comprehensive ranking of how each team stacks up within their division. We’ve already discussed the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, and Pacific Divisions earlier this week and, today, we’ll look over the Southwest.
Houston Rockets, 0-2
We’ll start in Houston, where the Rockets are a franchise in transition. With Daryl Morey gone to Philadelphia, long-time front office assistant Rafael Stone took up the mantle as the team’s GM while Stephen Silas replaced Mike D’Antoni as the team’s head coach. And, as for Houston’s roster, an offseason makeover that included a John Wall-Russell Westbrook swap (among other additions) has left the team in flux as they continue to search for a trade partner to move James Harden.
As of this writing, Harden is still a Rocket, but that could change in an instant. Meanwhile, the team’s asking price for him — a host of young players and a package of draft pick — could leave them within a range of different as to their immediate future, should a team meet that request or Houston make a compromise as to what they want in a return. Pending that return, the Rockets could find themselves competing for a spot in the NBA’s new play-in tournament just as easily as they could find themselves far and away from any postseason basketball. If Harden doesn’t get traded (a big if at this point), the Rockets should be a playoff team, barring injury, COVID-19 or a toxic locker room derailing their season.
For Stone, a point of emphasis will be to restock their draft assets. Morey, before last season, emptied the war chest to maintain the Rockets’ status as a contender but, ultimately, it blew up in his face. Stone has already done a good job of replenishing that chest, however, as he’s added multiple picks — one from the Washington Wizards in the Wall-Westbrook trade and another two from the Portland Trail Blazers in a deal for Robert Covington. Christian Wood, acquired via a sign-and-trade with the Detroit Pistons, has also proven a strong addition and should prove a cornerstone in the Rockets’ new era.
That said, barring something drastic, don’t expect Houston to hold their spot at the top of the Southwest’s hierarchy.
Memphis Grizzlies, 1-3
Zach Kleiman, the Grizzlies’ Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations, has wisely remained patient with Memphis’ rebuild. They already have a strong base in cornerstones Ja Morant and Jaren Jackson Jr and, in fact, nearly made the postseason year ago. Even so, while clinging to that eighth and final playoff spot, Kleiman and the Grizzlies made a deal for their future, as they dealt starting forward Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala for Justise Winslow at the trade deadline. While Winslow has yet to play for the franchise, at 24-years-old, he’s a much better fit for the franchise’s timeline than the veteran Crowder, fits their timeline much better than the veteran crowded.
The Grizzlies aren’t going to be rushed in this rebuild — their priority has always been the long-term growth and development core. That said, their current roster features plenty of intriguing young talent who will receive ample playing time to prove they’re a part of the future. Brandon Clarke has the look of a promising young big man, while the team retained De’Anthony Melton and drafted Desmond Bane, both of whom should contribute to Memphis’ bench for a long time.
The team has yet to provide a return timetable for Jackson Jr., who tore his left meniscus in early August while playing in the bubble, or for Winslow, who suffered a hip injury in July. Meanwhile, Morant has since sustained a Grade 2 left ankle sprain and is expected to miss three-to-five weeks. If those three can surprise and return earlier than expected, the Grizzlies may have a shot but, if not, it may be time to wave the white flag on the 2020-21 season.
Dallas Mavericks, 1-3
The Mavericks are coming off a campaign that produced the most efficient offensive season in NBA history. That said, even on that end of the floor, this team faces a number of questions which could determine their ceiling.
Thanks in large part to their defensive struggles, the Mavericks often found themselves in close contests that were within five points in the final five minutes. In those situations, per NBA.com, as defenses tightened up, Dallas’ record-breaking offense reduced to scoring at a below league average rate.
It’s easy to write off the Mavericks’ season-opening 106-102 loss to the Phoenix Suns, especially after a shortened offseason and the absence of Kristaps Porzingis. However, in the game’s final five minutes, Dallas missed all three of its attempts from beyond the arc, Luka Doncic missed a free throw and, down three with less than 10 seconds left, the Mavericks gave up a rebound that led to a back-breaking free throw from Devin Booker.
Trading Seth Curry for Josh Richardson should help the Mavericks’ defensive and, to an extent, he should alleviate some of the burden on Doncic to create his own offense. And yes, while Doncic is an MVP candidate, it may end up being Porzingis’ durability, Richardson’s productivity and how the Mavericks close out games as a team that determines their place in the Western Conference and the Southwest Division pecking order.
New Orleans Pelicans, 2-2
David Griffin brought Stan Van Gundy in to replace Alvin Gentry as the Pelicans’ head coach, believing young, talented players such as Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram, and Lonzo Ball would benefit from his tutelage. The other part of Griffin’s calculus was Van Gundy, who coached the Orlando Magic to the 2009 NBA Finals, is plenty qualified to have at the helm if this trio proves they’re ready to compete at a high level this season.
The Pelicans opened this season with an impressive 113-99 win over the Toronto Raptors. Ingram poured in 24 points to go along with 11 assists and nine rebounds, while Williamson registered a double-double of 15 points and 10 rebounds. Ball showed off his improved shooting form, splashing four of his eight three-point attempts en route to a 16-point, five rebound performance.
Since then, New Orleans suffered a 111-98 loss to the Miami Heat on Christmas, squeaked by the Spurs, 98-95 and were then blown out by the Phoenix Suns, 111-86.
Though Ball’s shooting form is the best it’s ever looked, it hasn’t exactly translated to success on the court: he’s shot just at a 28.6% clip from deep on seven attempts per game, markedly worse than the 37.6% he shot from beyond that arc last season. Perhaps it’s just a case of small sample size, but Ball’s shot will prove critical to the Pelicans. With Jrue Holiday gone, the space Ball’s shot could create is vital to the success of Williamson and Ingram down low.
Defensively, New Orleans is still adapting to Van Gundy’s system, which emphasizes rim protection above all else. The early returns are encouraging as the Pelicans are surrendering the second-fewest points in the paint per game, per NBA.com. In fact, the most pressing issue they currently face is that they’re tied for the third-most turnovers per game this season. When combined with their poor transition defense, those turnovers have provided teams with easy buckets on the fast break. They also need to tighten up their perimeter defense, as opponents have shot 36.1% from beyond the arc against them.
If they can manage that, the Pelicans should easily carve out a place in the play-in tournament for one of the final two playoff spots in the Western Conference.
San Antonio Spurs, 2-2
Gone are the days of being a perennial title contender. However, this iteration of the Spurs has an intriguing blend of promising young talent and savvy veterans.
Gregg Popovich has reconfigured San Antonio’s starting lineup, which now features LaMarcus Aldridge flanked by four perimeter players, DeMar DeRozan, Keldon Johnson, Lonnie Walker IV, and Dejounte Murray, who are under 6-foot-7. DeRozan is the tallest member of that quartet at 6-foot-6.
And the early return has been promising: improved ball movement, an increase in three-point attempts per game from a season ago and, as you’d expect, a faster pace of play. Defensively, the Spurs have proven far better on the perimeter than they were a season ago.
Of course, there’s always a price to pay for playing with a smaller group. In San Antonio’s season opener, the Grizzlies managed to post 66 points from the painted area. In their second contest, the Toronto Raptors managed 50, Zion Williamson and the Pelicans 44 in their third. They’ll need to shore up the inside if they want to stay competitive in the Western Conference.
Derrick White’s return should help in that regard, as well. White, who averaged nearly 19 points per game in the NBA Bubble down in Orlando and recently signed a four-year, $73 million extension, should provide an immediate spark on offense. There’s also the case for Devin Vassell, the Spurs’ first round selection in the 2020 NBA Draft, who’s seen a quiet start to his rookie campaign but, with time, should provide San Antonio with the strong shooting ability and defensive prowess he displayed as a Florida State Seminole.
Should they falter, there should be plenty of interest in the Spurs at trade deadline. Patty Mills and Rudy Gay should certainly generate some buzz while Aldridge and DeRozan, both on expiring contracts, should interest many a contender.
Still, for now, the Spurs would appear to be in the division driver seat. And, after they missed the postseason for the first time in 22 seasons, don’t be shocked to see San Antonio right back in the thick of the postseason hunt or securing a spot in the play-in tournament.
The door to the Southwest Division title would seem to be wide open. At the very least, the Spurs, Pelicans, Mavericks, Grizzlies and Rockets (should they retain Harden) are all capable of competing for a spot in the NBA’s expanded postseason. And, with that in mind, the Southwest should be one of the more interesting divisions to keep an eye on this season.