NBA

Southwest preview: Spurs still jingle

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Charley Rosen

Charley Rosen is FOXSports.com's NBA analyst and author of 17 sports books, the current ones being Bullpen Diaries: Mariano Rivera, Bronx Dreams, Pinstripe Legends, and the Future of the New York Yankees and Crazy Basketball: A Life In and Out of Bounds.

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The Southwest could easily evolve into the most competitive division in the league. Or just as easily, it could turn out to be totally dominated by the Spurs, with the Hornets and Mavs in limbo and the Rockets and Grizzlies struggling to avoid falling into the NBA's underworld.

Dallas Mavericks

Strengths: The point-making of Dirk Nowitzki, enhanced by his increased willingness to post up and attack the rim. Jason Terry's pull-up jumpers going right, as well as his awesome spot-shooting.
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If Jason Kidd can no longer adequately defend fleet-footed point guards, he can still contain most shooting guards. And, despite losing a step, J-Kidd retains his unselfishness, his remarkable court vision and his newfound ability to drain treys. Shawn Marion's versatility and athleticism. The baseline quickness of Josh Howard. J.J. Barea's sparkplug energy off the bench. Even though he's not supremely talented, Drew Gooden gets the most out of his limited abilities. Don't underestimate the roughhouse, albeit part-time, defense of Erick Dampier. Newcomer Matt Carroll's immaculate set-shooting. Weaknesses: Since Dampier is always in foul trouble, there's an embarrassing lack of depth behind him. Since Barea is too small to consistently get his shot off, there's no creative scorer off the bench. A suspect defense, particularly since Marion appears to already be worn out at age 31. Indeed, Quintin Ross is the only dependable defender. The inability of Marion to pass the ball with any consistent degree of precision. The team has been historically poor in clutch situations — namely Nowitzki, Terry and Howard. Prognosis: Since they're incapable of overcoming San Antonio, the L.A. Lakers, Portland or Denver in a playoff series, the Mavs are doomed to an early exit.

Houston Rockets

Strengths: Shane Battier's defense, spot-shooting and quiet leadership. The amazing quickness and streaky long-range shooting of Aaron Brooks. Although he's always been an effective blue-collar worker in the low post, Luis Scola's mid-range shooting has also become a deadly weapon.
Trevor Ariza's overall quickness and sniping defense. Carl Landry's developing game from baseline to baseline. Even though Chuck Hayes is only 6-foot-6, he plays extra-large interior defense. Kyle Lowry is a top-notch insurance policy if Brooks can't make the grade. The resourcefulness of Rick Adelman. Weaknesses: Brooks is the only guard/wing who can create his own shots. The difficulty Brooks will have while learning to be a distributor instead of a finisher. A bench that lacks reliable scorers. Without Yao Ming and Ron Artest, Houston's roster is incredibly thin and will remain so until Tracy McGrady returns. Because their half-court offense is so limited, the Rockets are forced to play an up-tempo game, which means that they'll be on the receiving end of many blowouts. A paucity of scorers and defenders. Prognosis: It will take a miracle for Houston to qualify for the playoffs.

Memphis Grizzlies

Strengths: Allen Iverson can score in bunches. O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are budding stars and constitute a dynamic 1-2 scoring punch. Marc Gasol won't be bullied in the paint. Zach Randolph is excellent with the ball in his hands. Mike Conley is vastly underrated. There'll be lots of playing time for the two heralded rookies — Sam Young and DeMarre Carroll — to learn the pro game. Weaknesses: Hasheem Thabeet is a stiff and will continue to be one for the foreseeable future. The veteran bigs are slow and defenseless. Everybody else is just plain defenseless. Every ill-advised shot that A.I. unleashes is one less shot available for Mayo and Gay. Prognosis: Some small steps in the right direction, but making the playoffs is still years away.

New Orleans Hornets

Strengths: Chris Paul's blinding speed and stellar use of high screen-and-rolls. The multiple offensive tools possessed by David West. The clutch 3-pointers and suffocating defense that James Posey is capable of bringing to the mix. Peja Stojakovic's bull's-eye bombs. The arrival of Darius Songaila, one of the league's best role players. The physical presence of Emeka Okafor in the paint. Weaknesses: Posey's habitual lack of focus. Okafor's limited quickness and limited skills will greatly diminish the effectiveness of the Hornets' signature screen-and-roll offense. CP3 and West are the only reliable creators. A half-court offense that's much too predictable. Prognosis: The best they can hope for is to achieve a fifth seed, which means the Hornets will be fishing come May.

San Antonio Spurs

Strengths: The reliable excellence of Tim Duncan in all aspects of the game. Manu Ginobili scores, hustles and routinely makes big plays. Tony Parker's warp-speed to the rim. In Roger Mason, the Spurs have a clutch scorer coming off the bench. Ditto for Michael Finley. The long-range shooting of Matt Bonner stretches the defense. George Hill has rapidly become a high-quality backup at the point. Antonio McDyess can still work hard, bang, and bury both turn-around and mid-range jumpers. Richard Jefferson is the most complete player on the team. Gregg Popovich's genius. The depth of their bench. The precision with which they operate at both ends of the court. Weaknesses: Ginobili is increasingly injury-prone. With no hefty center behind him, Duncan will be forced to play too many minutes with his back to the basket. This could wear him down by the playoffs. The leansome Theo Ratliff is the only true center on the roster. With five key players aged 32 and older — Duncan, Ratliff, Finley, Ginobili and McDyess — the Spurs are particularly vulnerable to injuries and collective exhaustion. Prognosis: San Antonio is the only team in the West that can mount a serious challenge to the Lakers.
Tagged: Tracy McGrady, Matt Carroll, Yao Ming, Drew Gooden, Darius Songaila, James Posey, Chris Paul, Theo Ratliff, Dirk Nowitzki, Grizzlies, Jason Kidd, Chuck Hayes, Pelicans, Emeka Okafor, Mavericks, Rudy Gay, Shane Battier, Spurs, Matt Bonner, Tim Duncan, Luis Scola, Rockets, Metta World Peace, Roger Mason Jr., Lakers

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