As the NBA heads into the 2014-15 season, it seems rather clear that the Southwest Division stands head and shoulders above all others. With the Spurs entering the season as defending NBA Champions, the Southwest appears poised to make a major impact once again.
San Antonio Spurs
The San Antonio Spurs were indisputably the best team in the league last year. After dominating the regular season, they defeated the Miami Heat in one of the most lopsided NBA Finals ever. Gregg Popovich has had years to mold this group into a cohesive unit under his system, and it has clearly yielded dividends.
The prospects are once again good for San Antonio. The Spurs have proven time and time again that, as long as they have Tim Duncan and Gregg Popovich, they are a lock for 50 wins. This year should be no different. San Antonio retained all of their major contributors from last year while adding Kyle Anderson in the draft. He projects to be a younger, slightly less athletic clone of Boris Diaw, who was a revelation last year.
That being said, San Antonio still has a lot of work left to do. Even if they have the remarkable advantage of continuity, the core players for the Spurs have accrued quite a bit of miles in the last few years. Although it would not be smart to bet against the Spurs, it is worthwhile to be concerned about wear and tear.
The Houston Rockets came excruciatingly close to adding Chris Bosh and becoming one of the strongest teams in the league. Instead, the Rockets had to settle for a very disappointing offseason that saw the team lose strength, in aggregate.
After an early exit in the first round of the playoffs, the Rockets set off on an ambitious plan to improve dramatically. Their strategy was to allow Chandler Parsons to become a restricted free agent, then sign Chris Bosh and match whatever contract another team gave Parsons. Unfortunately, they failed to sign Bosh, and then lost Chandler Parsons when Dallas made a better offer.
Now, with locker room conflict over a perceived lack of cohesiveness, the Rockets appear poised for an unexpected step back. Even if offseason acquisition Trevor Ariza is a decent replacement for Parsons, it’s hard to imagine the Rockets being much better than they were last year.
After a surprisingly impressive season that saw Dallas nearly eliminate the Spurs in the first round, the Mavericks improved this offseason by swapping Jose Calderon for Ray Felton and Tyson Chandler, while adding Parsons and Jameer Nelson.
Individually, the pieces that Dallas brings to the table don’t look too impressive, but with Rick Carlisle at the helm, Dallas looks to be a dangerous team. If Chandler can get back to anywhere near his peak performance, Dallas will be able to boast a dramatically improved defensive unit. Finally, Nelson and Parsons will provide much needed shooting and offensive stability.
There are still a lot of questions surrounding the Mavs cohesion, but there are still good reasons for optimism. With such a strong head coach and supporting cast, one could easily imagine another very strong season for Dallas.
Despite the Grizzlies’ remarkable successes over the last couple of years, Memphis has reached only one conference finals. When Marc Gasol was healthy last year, the Grizzlies were one of the strongest teams in the league. However, their weaknesses would be exposed in the playoffs, as they lost to the Oklahoma City Thunder in the first round.
The biggest threat to the Grizzlies seems to be internal conflict between the front office and the coaching staff. After the brief firing, and then un-firing the coaching staff, the stability within the organization appears to be seriously in question. This does not mean that the Grizzlies are going to be any worse, but it does warrant a good deal of concern.
Even though Memphis lost Mike Miller to Cleveland, it would be reasonable to expect an improved team this year, at least on paper. Vince Carter is well past his prime, but he provides firepower at the wing that the Grizzlies have lacked since trading Rudy Gay. If they can get past their organizational instabilities, expect the Grizzlies to be a formidable unit this season.
New Orleans Pelicans
The New Orleans Pelicans might be the most high-variance team in the Western Conference right now. On one hand, their ambitious attempts to trade draft picks for Jrue Holiday and maneuver their way into the acquisition of Tyreke Evans had limited effectiveness. The ambitious plans the Pelicans pursued were almost universal failures.
Actions this offseason hopefully offset some of these weaknesses. The trade for Omer Asik seems like a smart move—Asik is a good player who is one of the premier rim protectors in the league. He should be a fixture at center for at least this season.
At the same time, it might simply be that none of these actions really matter much at all. Anthony Davis is already one of the best players in the league, and it’s probably only a matter of time before he is a truly dominating force who contends for multiple MVPs. With Davis around, it might not matter if the front office makes a number of mistakes. New Orleans will, sooner or later, become a fixture in the playoff scene.