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2016-17 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

Blazer’s Edge continues its trip throughout the NBA, previewing every team’s 2016-17 season. Today, we focus on the Southwest Division.

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at New Orleans Pelicans Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

In keeping with time-honored tradition, Blazer’s Edge once again will be looking across the entire NBA and offering season previews for all 30 teams. Today we examine the Southwest Division, where the Mavericks, Grizzlies, Rockets and Pelicans hope for better health this year and a chance to finally de-throne the Spurs after Tim Duncan announced his retirement this past offseason.

San Antonio Spurs

2015-16 Record: 67-15 (No. 2 in Western Conference)
ORtg: 111.04 (No. 5); DRtg: 99.55 (No. 1)
Roster Additions: Dejounte Murray (Rookie, No. 29), David Lee, Pau Gasol, Dewayne Dedmon, Davis Bertans, Livio Jean-Charles
Roster Subtractions: Tim Duncan, Boris Diaw, David West, Boban Marjanovic, Matt Bonner
Coach: Gregg Popovich; SBN Affiliate: Pounding the Rock

After 19 years there’s now something missing down at AT&T Center, but I can’t quite pick it out…something fundamental, I know, I know … I just can’t put my finger on it.

...Ok, so Tim Duncan is gone and now this team officially belongs to two-time reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year, Kawhi Leonard.

(There’s also that other guy Blazer fans might remember, playing at power forward).

Pau Gasol signed a two-year, $30-million contract shortly after rebuffing Portland’s reported advances. Spurs GM RC Buford and coach Gregg Popovich will surely hope Gasol can somehow replace even a portion of Tim Duncan’s production, leadership and experience. The Spurs also picked up what some have labelled one of the biggest steals of the draft in Dejounte Murray, as well as replacing David West with David Lee.

Former Magician Dewayne Dedmon has also been brought in to provide another big body following the departures of Boris Diaw, Boban Marjanovic and long-term long-shooting Spur Matt Bonner.

Last year’s division champions won all but one game at home in 2015-16 and were poised to take on the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals before Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook took the semifinal series in six games.

The Spurs are again predicted to finish second in the west, but with Durant’s defection to Oakland, the gap between one and two has quickly become a chasm.

And with Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili another year older, the Spurs will need to rely on the leadership of Leonard and Aldridge, as well as improved production from the likes of Danny Green, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson and Jonathon Simmons.

It would be foolish to underestimate the Spurs, again suggesting they’re too old and not the same without Duncan. To be clear, those are two totally valid arguments. But when Pop is on the sidelines, anything is possible, and the Spurs will be disappointed this spring if they lane anywhere short of the Western Conference Finals.

Dallas Mavericks

2015-16 Record: 42-40 (No. 6 in Western Conference)
ORtg: 107.29 (No. 11); DRtg: 107.48 (No. 16)
Roster Additions: Andrew Bogut, Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry, Quincy Acy
Roster Subtractions: Zaza Pachulia, Chandler Parsons, Raymond “Cupcake” Felton, David Lee, JaVale McGee
Coach: Rick Carlisle; SBN Affiliate: Mavs Moneyball

Wait, what? Dirk Nowitzki is still playing?

Aside from the Warriors, the Mavericks seemed to be the biggest beneficiaries of Kevin Durant’s free agency surprise. Dallas essentially swapped starting centers (Zaza Pachulia for Andrew Bogut) with Golden State while signing Dubs small forward Harrison Barnes to a massive deal this summer.

They brought in S. Curry – but unfortunately it was Seth and not Steph. They also lost Chandler Parsons to Memphis, David Lee to the Spurs and, oh yeah, don’t forget JaVale McGee to the Warriors.

Now 18 months removed from his achilles injury – somewhat ironically suffered against Dallas in late-2015 – Wes Matthews will hopefully be back to his former glory. And if backcourt colleague Deron Williams can stay on the court, the Mavs may stay in the playoff hunt.

Close attention will be paid to Barnes, who up until now has been the fourth option on offense playing for an historically successful team. It’ll be curious to see how he performs in a more prominent role.

Second-year wing Justin Anderson should see a rise in playing time as well as big man Salah Mejri who displayed a strong showing in last year’s playoffs against Oklahoma City.

The backcourt bench brigade of Devin Harris and J.J. Barea should also provide good deal of respite for Williams and Matthews.

Mark Cuban’s crew will again straddle the line between the playoffs and the NBA Lottery, given the logjam of teams jostling for positions No. 4 – 8 in the West.

If injuries and luck go the right way, Carlisle’s men might by vying for home court advantage this spring, giving Nowitzki one last chance for a deep playoff run. However, a more reasonable and more likely result will see an aging and injury-prone roster battling just for playoff survival.

If Nowitzki does pull the pin in 2017, Mr. Cuban may have to think seriously about rebuilding in the wake of the big German’s departure. For now, though, the Mavs will once again surround the surefire first-ballot NBA Hall of Famer — now at 38 years old — with just enough talent around the margins to make the playoffs and hope for another miracle run like the Mavs experienced in 2011. Only this time around, Dirk is another year older and the competition in the West is much stiffer.

Memphis Grizzlies

2015-16 Record: 42-40 (No. 7 in Western Conference)
ORtg: 106.36 (No. 17); DRtg: 108.69 (No. 20)
Roster Additions: Chandler Parsons, James Ennis, Tory Daniels, Wade Baldwin IV (Rookie, No. 17)
Roster Subtractions: Matt Barnes, Lance Stephenson, Mario Chalmers
Coach: David Fizdale; SBN Affiliate: Grizzly Bear Blues

The Fiz coaching the Griz. I can see producers and subeditors across Tennessee licking their lips when planning the puns they plan to trot out this season.

Back in July, Memphis wrote the team’s name in the history books for handing out the biggest contract (five-years, $153-million) in NBA history for the sake of holding on to Mike Conley – considered by many to only be the eighth or ninth best PG in the league.

They also paid through the nose (four-years, $94 million) after *winning the Chandler Parsons sweepstakes.

(*winning constitutes Parsons actually getting on the floor and returning to something resembling the basketball he played in Houston.)

Memphis could remain in the playoffs pending the fitness of its aging stalwarts, including Marc Gasol (who went down with a minor injury this week) and Zach Randolph.

This injury-plagued frontcourt has only one suitable reserve, the injury-plagued Brandan Wright, while the wings will be manned by Vince Carter and Tony Allen who boast a combined age of 73 (before the season starts).

Yes, they do have a series of young players coming through, namely JaMychal Green and Jarell Green, but, as the latter’s name suggests, they need more court time to hone their skills and develop experience.

If any team in the NBA deserves some good luck, it’s Memphis. Last season the Grizz used almost 30 different players and still managed to finish No. 7 in a competitive West, before San Antonio easily dispatched them in the playoffs.

This team is one serious injury away from NBA Lottery hell and further mediocrity as it continues to be tied down by exorbitant contracts.

Like Dallas, the Grizzlies will be struggling and scraping for a playoff spot. Let’s hope Fizdale has something planned for the next eight months. Memphis fans are also hoping Conley lives up to that lofty salary.

Houston Rockets

2015-16 Record:41-41 (No. 8 in Western Conference)
ORtg: 109.23 (No. 7); DRtg: 109.10 (No. 22)
Roster Additions: Ryan Anderson, Nene Hilario, Eric Gordon, Tyler Ennis, Chinanu Onuaku (Rookie, No. 27), Pable Prigioni
Roster Subtractions: Dwight Howard, Terrence Jones, Jason Terry, Michael Beasley, Josh Smith
Coach: Mike D’Antoni; SBN Affiliate: The Dream Shake

If you’re looking for offense, you’ve come to the right place. However, if you’re looking for defense, it’s probably lost somewhere in James Harden’s beard.

Coach Mike D’Antoni’s track record would indicate that the Rockets will look to score a million points every night and hope their opponents score 999,999 or fewer. Houston shouldn’t have any trouble getting to the basket, and if new acquisitions Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon can stay fit, then the Rockets could be a pretty fun League Pass team.

Almost certainly the most polarizing team in this division, Houston is led by one of the most polarizing players in the league. We’re all told that James Harden will play point guard this year. (Maybe I’m confused, but he seemed to be the primary ball handler for the past three years.)

Gordon would not have agreed to come to Texas if he wasn’t assured playing time, which suggests that while Patrick Beverley may start, Houston fans will be seeing lots of Harden and Gordon together.

D’Antoni has also said that almost-forgotten swingman KJ McDaniels will see court time this year, which means Corey Brewer will most likely see less. Thank goodness. I’m not sure that there is a player in a more trapped situation in this league than KJ — he has supreme athletic and defensive gifts but is unfortunately bereft of a decent shooting stroke.

GM Daryl Morey surely brought Nene in to mentor young and raw big man Clint Capela, whom many Rockets fans believe will step in and fill the void left by Dwight Howard.

Forever reliable but aging Trevor Ariza will mostly likely start at small forward, while second-year forwards Sam Dekkar and Montrezl Harrell may also get spot minutes.

The Rockets could just as likely finish fourth or ninth in the West this year. I’m not sure if there’s any in-between, especially given that we are yet to see how the chemistry will play out with Harden as the sole leader in town.

New Orleans Pelicans

2015-16 Record: 30-52 (No. 12 in Western Conference)
ORtg: 106.27 (No. 18); DRtg: 110.17 (No. 27)
Roster Additions: Terrence Jones, Buddy Hield (Rookie, No. 6), Solomon Hill, E’Twaun Moore, Langston Galloway, Cheick Diallo, Lance Stephenson
Roster Subtractions: Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Luke Babbitt, Norris Cole, Toney Douglas, Kendrick Perkins, Bryce Dejean-Jones
Coach: Alvin Gentry; SBN Affiliate: The Bird Writes

If a player could win an NBA title just on potential and hype, Anthony Davis may have had two or three rings by now. But as we read this week, Davis is again injured; oh boy.

And with the unfortunate news of Jrue Holiday’s family situation, the Pelicans may again by mired in mediocrity. Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter are two others with talent who have been held back by injury.

Rookie and No. 6 overall pick Buddy Hield has come to the Pelicans with hype and may be able to provide some stability at shooting guard, with Evans likely to take over much of the ball handling duties.

A trio of ex-Blazers (Tim Frazier, Dante Cunningham and Alonzo Gee) may also get spot minutes to fill holes and relieve the starters.

Solomon Hill signed a modest 4-year, $48-million contract to strengthen up the wings and big Alex Ajinca will be there to man the middle, because Omer Asik definitely won’t be called on much.

The Pelicans have thrown what is surely a last lifeline at Lance Stephenson, who will suit up for his fourth team in three years – yep, that’s what happens when you blow in LeBron’s ear.

Finally, the team has brought in rotation players Langston Galloway and E’Twaun Moore to strengthen its backcourt reserves while former Rocket Terrence Jones has been given another chance at reserve power forward.

The question will again be whether Davis can stay on the court because if he can suit up for at least 70 games, he has a poor-to-fair chance of leading this rag-tag band of basketball players to the eighth spot. However, they will have a lot of competition, battling Minnesota, Memphis, Dallas, Houston and maybe even Sacramento for an outside shot at the postseason.

Most likely, though, the Pelicans will be intently looking at ping pong balls come May.