Rockets look to join division elite Spurs, Thunder

Dallas Mavericks

Last year: Highlighted — or, lowlighted, given the Mavericks decade-plus run of contention — by a bushel of one-year contracts and without Dirk Nowitzki for the first 29 games of the season, the Mavericks found themselves in decidedly unfamiliar territory. After falling as low as 10 games below .500, the Mavs finally got back to even in the 80th game of the season and finished at 41-41. Aside from Nowitzki missing significant time, the team was assembled with a dubious purpose: compete while also leaving cap room the following offseason in the hopes of landing Dwight Howard or Chris Paul. The one-year experiment proved to be a failed one both on the court and off, ending a 12-year playoff run for Dallas. All in all, the 2012-13 Mavs — two seasons removed from an NBA title — were a team of ill-fitting parts that never had much of a chance to jell after starting the season without their superstar.

This year: With many new faces, a healthy Nowitzki and an upgraded roster, optimism abounds for the Mavericks this season. But is it the fool’s gold that creates optimism for everybody when they are 0-0? Stability has returned in the way of Jose Calderon, a veteran point guard who not only can take care of the ball but also led the NBA in 3-point percentage at an impressive 46 percent clip last season. Devin Harris has returned this season as well, which has Mavs owner Mark Cuban gushing at the possibility of “having the fastest backcourt in the NBA.” Dallas also signed guard Monta Ellis to help Nowitzki shoulder the scoring load and drafted Shane Larkin to come in and push transition tempo. There’s little doubt inside Mavs HQ that this year’s version will be much improved, benefiting from not only upgrades in talent, but also from having a capable coach like Rick Carlisle at the helm.

Reliable: Shawn Marion. Even at the age of 35, Marion has continued to show why he’s one of the most valuable assets to this Mavericks team. Often underappreciated due to lack of “style points,” Marion is a crafty scorer with a knack for rebounding as well. Coming off 12.1 points and 7.8 rebounds per game in 2012-13, he quietly remains a consistent and productive veteran who typically draws the less-than-appealing assignment of guarding the opposing team’s best offensive player. His ability to handle this type of defensive load proves complementary to a team whose best players’ are more known for their offensive skill sets.

Liable: Dirk Nowitzki. Regardless of any new talent or potential upgrades, this season will inevitably go as Dirk goes. Many feel after dealing with unexpected knee injuries over the past two seasons, Nowitzki will rebound nicely this year and return to the form we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from him. Even last year, despite not finding the consistency he’s been so used to over his Hall-of-Fame-caliber career, he was still able to score 17.3 points per game. There were days last season he resembled his MVP self, but he also struggled to play at or around that level for extended periods of time. Without Nowitzki in the lineup, the Mavericks went 13-16. When he played, they were 28-25 and able to climb all the way back to an even record by season’s end. With the momentum of a full offseason bereft of any setbacks and the motivation to prove doubters wrong, Nowitzki is primed to return to the nightmare matchup he’s been for over a decade and carry this team to yet another playoff run.

Forecast: With the combination of a healthy Nowitzki and the upgrade in talent on this roster, Dallas is looking at returning to the playoffs despite facing a loaded Western Conference. That’s a lower-bar goal than was once the case in DFW, but it’s a reality that can be a positive one. The Mavs believe Calderon, Ellis and Nowitzki will make chaos for defenses by creating all kinds of space for one another while also executing pick-and-roll setups on both sides of the offensive floor. Vince Carter will be first off the bench and could be up for sixth man of the year. Dallas needs backcourt shooting and defense from Wayne Ellington and front-court muscle from DeJuan Blair, both part of a club that has long prided itself on depth. If they can stay healthy, the Mavericks are capable of pushing for the West’s sixth seed. Their offense will carry the heaviest load, and if that works, some optimism and excitement in Dallas will be merited. And the highlights can once again overshadow the lowlights.

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Houston Rockets 

Last year: Fresh off a blockbuster trade that brought James Harden to town, the Rockets were able to ride his newfound role of being “the man” to their first playoff appearance since 2009. With the emergence of Omer Asik and Chandler Parsons, pressure was taken off of Jeremy Lin to live up to the three-year, $25 million deal he signed going into the season. The Rockets excelled in an up-tempo offense that led them to a 45-37 record. Houston finished second in the league in points per game at 106 and more than made up for any deficiencies encountered on the defensive end. Its record was good for third in the Southwest Division and a respectable eight seed in a conference annually stacked with quality teams from top to bottom. Despite their first-round exit to Oklahoma City in six games, the season was ultimately a success and provided more than enough reason for optimism moving forward.

This year: As adding Harden wasn’t a big enough splash, Houston decided that one-upping itself this summer was clearly the way to go, signing the most dominant (and yet maligned) center in the game today: Dwight Howard. After a bad Lakers marriage that littered the front page of newspapers across America for much of last season, Howard decided it was best to leave the bright lights of L.A. for a fresh start in the Texas humidity. Despite the cap hit, the pairing of Howard and Harden creates matchup nightmares that most teams in the West will have trouble handling. With Harden, 24, and Howard, 27, the Rockets are primed to cause headaches not only this season, but for many to come. Houston will be making a bid to finish near the top of the Western Conference with such immense talent on its side.

Reliable: James Harden. After leaving Oklahoma City, many questioned his ability to carry a team on his own. He played the third wheel with the Thunder, benefiting from facing defenses with the deflating task of slowing down not only Russell Westbrook but also the leading scorer in the NBA, Kevin Durant. As good as Harden was off the dribble, the case could be made that the looks he got playing alongside two superstars were just as credit-worthy as his own talent seemed to be. Last season served as duct tape for the mouths of any doubters who were brave or naïve enough to question his resolve; he averaged 25.9 points, 5.8 assists and 4.9 rebounds, proving he was every bit the superstar Houston had hoped for.

Liable: Dwight Howard. When a team is willing to give up the farm for one man, it’s safe to say the season will sink or swim based on his production. After a failed experiment in Laker Land, the Rockets are hoping to avoid some of the drama and chemistry problems that doomed Howard and Los Angeles’ awkward arrangement from the start. Whether it was Kobe Bryant, the offense, the coach or his teammates, Howard eventually made one thing very clear: it wasn’t going to work. Houston hopes a change of scenery and a well-respected coach like Kevin McHale can cover any blemishes that might lead to breakouts down the road. There’s no question that a focused Dwight Howard is the best center in the game today; on a down year last season, he posted 17.1 points per game, 12.4 rebounds and 2.4 blocks. If fully engaged and rejuvenated, Howard could return to the form that led the Orlando Magic all the way to the 2009 NBA Finals.

Forecast: With the additions of Howard, Francisco Garcia, Reggie Williams and Omri Casspi, the Rockets are poised to make a lot of noise in this year’s playoffs. Lin should be even better this year with the added focus on the Howard and Harden combo. Parsons will be seeing outside looks that leave him so open as to seem lonely. If Asik is dealt at some point this season because of the surplus in the post, Houston could look to remedy any personnel deficiencies that pop up. If he stays, the Rockets boast substantial frontcourt depth. With two top-12 players and a quality team around them, anything short of the Western Conference Finals could be deemed disappointing for this squad. Look for them to finish in the top three in the West and make a serious run at their first NBA championship in nearly 20 years.

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Memphis Grizzlies

Last year: 2012-13 was a banner year for the Grizzlies, who broke a franchise record for wins with their 56-26 mark then rolled over the Clippers and Thunder in the playoffs. The frightening frontcourt tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol teamed up with a deep but underrated guard core to hold opponents to a league-best 89.3 points per game. Coach Lionel Hollins kept a locker room full of varying personalities working cohesively, and until a sweep against red-hot San Antonio in the Western Conference Finals, fifth-seeded Memphis looked like a very real championship contender — quite a feat for a franchise that previously made it past the conference semis once in its 19-year history.

This year: The Grizzlies stood mostly pat in the offseason, hoping continuity can help replicate their success of a year ago. The glaring exception, of course, is the firing of Hollins and the promotion of Dave Joerger to replace him. Joerger won’t do much different than Hollins, save for pushing the tempo a bit more. That means plenty more of Randolph and Gasol banging down low, Tony Allen locking things down on the wing, and Mike Conley continuing to make a name for himself as perhaps the best NBA guard no one’s talking about. Returning to the cusp of the Finals won’t be as easy this time around, though; Memphis now will try to shut down a deeper, more talented West than it faced a year ago. 

Reliable: Tony Allen. Try naming five shooting guards that are the best scorers on their respective teams. Easy, right? Now name one two-guard besides Allen that defends nearly as well as he does. Not as simple, because there just aren’t any in the NBA right now.  Consistently locking down, or at least limiting, opposing teams’ top scorers earned him first-team all-defensive team honors last year, and while Gasol and Randolph aren’t exactly a welcome sight down low, Allen is the glue that holds a defensive-minded team together.

Liable: Dave Joerger. All eyes are on Memphis’ new head man, whose only other head coaching experience came at the International Basketball Association and NBA Development League levels. Hollins wasn’t easy to get along with — part of the reason his contract wasn’t renewed even after the best year in club history — but managed to corral a cast of characters and maximize their talent levels. Can Joerger, previously a Grizzlies assistant since 2007, do the same?

Forecast: The biggest knock on Memphis entering the season is that its front office was too passive during the summer while the rest of the West increased its firepower. To be sure, the Grizzlies’ way of doing things will certainly be tested against the likes of the Clippers, Thunder, Warriors, Rockets, Timberwolves and other offensively-loaded bunches. But improving doesn’t necessarily mean adding. If Joerger and company can find ways to allow even fewer prime scoring opportunities and get a little more offensive production from Randolph, Conley and Gasol, another favorable seed and postseason run is possible.

***

New Orleans Pelicans 

Last year: Still known as the New Orleans Hornets, this franchise was only slightly improved from a rough, lockout-shortened 2011-12 campaign. New Orleans’ 27-55 overall mark was the second worst in the Western Conference, but last year was never going to be about racking up victories. Instead, the Hornets focused on developing their young but green talent, particularly shooting guard Eric Gordon and power forward Ryan Anderson. Gordon led the way with 17 points per game, while Anderson added 16.2 points and 6.4 boards an outing. 

This year: The franchise’s new image fits quite congruently with its on-the-court product. Young and flashy, the Pelicans boast a projected starting lineup that’s an average of 22.6 years old. But there’s talent present, particularly in the form of Gordon, Evans and offseason acquisitions Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. By trading for both guards this summer, general manager Dell Demps made it clear he’s after a playoff push now, rather than later. Depth may become an issue; behind its top seven six players, New Orleans appears rather thin in its current personnel state.

Reliable: Jrue Holiday. The 2012-13 All-Star’s playmaking stock should only improve with a better supporting cast than he had in Philadelphia the past four seasons. Even with very limited talent around him, he notched eight assists and 17.7 points per game last year on the way to his first All-Star selection. Demps gave up a lot to obtain him, trading first-round draft pick Nerlens Noel and a 2014 first-round pick for Holiday and Pierre Jackson. Now, Holiday has the benefit of working alongside Evans, Gordon and Anderson on a team of full of youngsters with serious upside.

Liable: Greg Stiemsma. The Pelicans are paying the former Wisconsin big man $2.6 million to serve as an effective post option off the bench. Through two NBA seasons, the 6-foot-11, 260-pound center has yet to fulfill expectations he can be a reliable reserve. Last year in Minnesota, he played big minutes after several of the Timberwolves’ central pieces went down with injuries. If he can parlay that experience into more consistent shooting and defense this year, Stiemsma could be the down-low depth provider New Orleans needs.

Forecast: A jump from near the bottom of the Western Conference to somewhere near playoff contention is a sizable leap, but it’s one New Orleans appears poised to make this year. The additions of Evans and Holiday to a returning nucleus with another year of experience form, at the very least, a pesky lineup that may sneak up on a championship contender now and again. If the Pelicans can stay healthy — remember, they’re not very deep — they’ll battle with Minnesota, Portland and Dallas for one of the West’s final two postseason slots. Even if they’re squeezed out this time, the future looks pretty bright on the Bayou.

***

San Antonio Spurs 

Last year: Just when it appeared San Antonio’s magnificent, 15-year run may finally have been coming to a close, 37-year-old Tim Duncan and 12-year veteran Tony Parker proved every preseason detractor wrong. Again. An age-laden core fused with a set of role players — harvested and cultivated at an effectiveness level no other NBA team has yet to replicate — came within 30 seconds of its fifth NBA title since 1999. The Spurs went 58-24 overall, finishing second in the Western Conference behind the Thunder before sweeping the Lakers, outlasting the Warriors and earning another sweep, against Memphis, in the conference finals.

This year: If it’s working, stick with it. That’s been personnel guru R.C. Buford and coach Gregg Popovich’s main mantra, and the pair didn’t see any reason to stray from it this offseason. Replacing departed Gary Neal with Marco Belinelli was their only notable external move. Even after Manu Ginobili struggled in the Finals, San Antonio signed him to a two-year, $14 million extension and also re-upped with big man Tiago Splitter. With Duncan, Parker and burgeoning star Kawhi Leonard all returning, the Spurs look almost exactly the same as they did a year ago — only with one more year of wear and tear that culminated in a gut-wrenching 4-3 Finals loss to Miami.

Reliable: Kawhi Leonard. At age 22, Leonard’s awfully spry and offers San Antonio an entire menu of encouraging facets. Not only can he score, but his athleticism within his 6-foot-7, 225-pound frame allows him to defend almost every position on the floor. His production didn’t suffer on the big stage last year, as he scored 11.5 points in 26.7 minutes per game during the playoffs. There are some that say he’s on the road to becoming even better than Ginobili — quite the lofty sentiment.

Liable: San Antonio’s senior core. Is this the year Duncan, Ginobili and Parker’s collective age — 104 — catches up to them? It’s been asked for the past several years, and the answer has been no. But Duncan’s 17.8-point, 9.9-rebound campaign last year registered fairly high on the shock meter. Ginobili broke down physically and mentally in the playoffs. And Parker, for all of his MVP candidacy assets, took a physical beating in the Finals. The trio isn’t getting any younger, but then again, they haven’t been for some time now.

Forecast: Oklahoma City, Golden State, the Los Angeles Clippers and even Houston all have legitimate chances at coming out of the West this year. But as long as Duncan, Parker, Ginobili, Pops and the gang are putting off retirement, it seems foolish to count the Spurs out. (If you remember reading the same words last year, or the year before, or the year before, apologies. Spurs-like consistency doesn’t make for much of a unique take on the observer’s part.) The tightrope they must traverse is getting thinner and thinner, though; if the older guys can maintain the same health and efficiency levels they did last year, they’ll likely be back in the title series. Suffer even a small dropoff, and this dynasty could finally begin fizzling out.

FoxSportsSouthwest.com’s Mike Fisher also contributed to this story with the entries for the Mavericks and Rockets.

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