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This is not a division. It is a gauntlet. A spiked, imperial gauntlet inhabited by minotaurs, pterodactyls, stone giants, warrior pygmy tribes, and other things that go bump in the night. There is no sense of "If we can just make it to .500" in this division. .500 means nothing. .500 is for the Central division.
The Southwest Division hosts two former MVPs, the MVP runner-up from last season, the reigning Sixth Man of the Year, the reigning Coach of the Year, a bazillion All-Stars, elite shooters, elite defenders, elite scorers, and Ron freaking Artest. Yeesh.
There are not headlines here. There are omens, prophecies, and obituaries.
We begin with where the buck still stops: 'Spurs Continue Aging, Keep Pointy Knives.'
We keep waiting and waiting for the Spurs' age to reach the other side of veteran. You know, where it turns from savvy to weakness? And yet, they keep plodding along. This time, knocking off a Hornets team that looked very much like the better team throughout the series and yet found itself headed home while San Antonio ran out of energy against LA. So the question revolves back one more year. Is this the year that age catches up with the Spurs?
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The only significant addition the Spurs made was Roger Mason. They lost Brent Barry. Michael Finley is back. Bruce Bowen. And Tim Duncan isn't losing rings in the trunk. And yet. Tim Duncan is still the greatest power forward to ever play the game; Tony Parker is an elite point guard who somehow finds ways to improve his game, recently working on his mid-range jumper. And if, somehow, the veterans can find a way to squeeze another year out of their perimeter shooting and defense, this team knows how to win.
Yes, the progress of D-League long-term prospect Ian Mahinmi could help. Yes, Mason could add some of the things that Robert Horry's limited capacities are now void of. And yes, there's always the chance that Greg Popovich can coach his way into anything he pleases. But in reality, the Spurs season will hinge on two things. How good the rest of the West has gotten, and how healthy Manu Ginobili's ankle is. Every year we count the Spurs out, we assume their clock will have run out. Funny thing how often that clock strikes in an odd year.
If the Spurs are tenuous, the Mavs are downright Chicken-Little-ish: 'Mavs Are No Longer Hunted, But Do They Any Bullets Left in the Chamber?'
Whoops. Jason Kidd was ... um ... something. He wasn't necessarily harmful, he wasn't necessarily helpful, he was just ... Kidd. The question now becomes whether the lack of explosives last year was a result of not having enough time with this unit together or if the chemical formula that guided this team to legitimate championship aspirations has been irreparably transformed into something wholly benign. Throw in the loss of Devin Harris, a new head coach that will supposedly fix everything that Avery Johnson did wrong his playoff-ridden tenure, no new significant additions and the fact that Josh Howard has had himself a rather flamboyant off-season of headlines, none of them good, and you have a rather volatile situation.
All off-season we've been prepared to talk about how this team's going to decline, how it missed its window, and how this can't end well. But of course, to do that ignores a few primary elements we always tend to gloss over. Dirk Nowitzki is still an elite player. If you get past the comparisons to Kobe Bryant, or anyone else and just examine his intensely elite ability to play basketball, you come to the conclusion that Dirk is still an amazing asset. And after the disaster of the last six months, we tend to forget that in the beginning of the season, we argued that Josh Howard was the best player on the Mavericks. Jason Terry still has speed, range, and a cool nickname. Throw in the emerging Brandon Bass, the reliable Erick Dampier, and Jerry Stackhouse and it's hard to bet against this team.
But Jason Kidd has been handed the keys to Mark Cuban's prized sports car. And it's not clear at this point if Kidd has the abilities to keep the engine tuned. He's got issues on defense, shooting, and he showed severe issues with fitting into a rhythm with the Mavs in transition. Kidd's got zero margin of error this season. If he struggles, the team struggles, and the Mavs jeopardized their future for naught. If he succeeds, this team could surprise everyone and end up at the top, with Mark Cuban grinning smugly. Try and go to sleep with that image .
This next one's easy: 'Crazy Pills Rides into the Lonestar State.'
Only Ron Artest could be the biggest story on a team with the biggest international star in the game who's recovering from a major injury, a team that won twenty two games in a row last year, a team that already features a capable defender at his position. But then, that's why he's Crazy Pills.
Artest joins a squad that somehow withstood the loss of their franchise all-world big man Yao Ming and an injury plagued season (okay, another injury plagued season) from Tracy McGrady to rise to the top spot in the West late in the season before drifting back to reality in a crushing first round loss to the Jazz (okay, another crushing first round loss to the Jazz).
But with the addition of another consistent offensive and defensive threat to go along with the returning weapons, there's a lot of talk about the Rockets finally making the jump. Of course, McGrady's not 100% still. And we have no idea how they're going to fit both Battier and Artest into the rotation along with Luis Scola, but hey! There's a guy that's afraid of snake eggs, a guy that's scared of New Orleans, a guy that sells XXX, a guy named Skip 2 My Lou, and a seven foot tall Chinese guy on this team. You tell me you don't want to watch them.
But in a sign of how quickly things can change, the top of the Division is heralded by this one: 'Studies Show Chris Paul Better than You at Everything.'
There are parties, there are coming out parties, and there's the pistol-whipping the Hornets gave the rest of the league last year. While most media was freaking out about Boston managing to turn things around with three potential Hall of Famers and the Lakers suddenly being good with the best coach and player in the league, the Hornets were quietly taking everyone out back and roughing them up, then dusting their hands off on the way back in before taking their opponents' dates home with them.
And Chris Paul was the ringleader of the motley crew. Everyone was ready for Chris Paul to become the best point guard in the league in a few years. No one was ready for him to do it last season. Paul went from very good to amazing to absolutely transcendent in the span of a few months, punctuated by his prominent role as host of the All-Star Weekend in New Orleans. It's not just Paul's skills, it's his ability to make everyone else not just better, but phenomenally better. You remember the old Tyson Chandler, right? You know, the giant walking stick with no coordination or basketball IQ? Yeah, he's a machine now. And to be certain, Tyson's made the most of his progress.
But then what about David West becoming one of the premier power forwards in the game? What about Mo Peterson? The Hornets showed last season that they were ready for primetime when they came out and smacked the Spurs in the mouth before not being able to land the last punch at home in the best playoff series of last season. This year, the Hornets are a year wiser, more developed, and they've added James Posey. So with Peja Stojakovic, and the reigning Coach of the Year Byron Scott? If the Hornets can get any consistent production from their bench at all and avoid the injury bug that paralyzed them in 2006-2007, you can expect the Hornets to be in contention for the NBA Title. The future is now.
Speaking of the future, as far as Memphis goes? 'Caution: Team Construction in Progress.'
Here's the thing. Sometimes when I try and explain the Pau Gasol trade last year, I end up sounding like one of those guys that keeps trying to convince you that time will tell on New Coke, or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones. But the longer that the Lakers go without a championship (which could very well be about, oh, 8 months from now), the more pieces the Grizzlies seem to acquire.
And while the team the Grizzlies will put on the floor this season will undoubtedly not win many games and certainly not go to the playoffs, they will at least be more fun to watch and will show some flashes. The Grizzlies were a league worst 3-11 last year in games decided by 3 points or less. While that shows a great amount of immaturity and mental weakness, it also shows a lot of potential to make a significant improvement.
The Grizzlies are going to run, with their full complement of point guards, Gay, and Hakim Warrick. With another year for Rudy Gay and Mike Conley, along with a tougher front line with the addition of Marc Gasol and Hamed Haddadi, and dynamic rookie scorer OJ Mayo, the Grizzlies could end up not half-bad. And for a team like this, in this division, that's good enough. It's a marathon, not a sprint for the Grizzlies, and at least they're on track. Maybe. Can you pass me my copy of soon-to-be-critically-acclaimed Snakes On A Plane?
Other Headlines from the Southwest:
*Javaris On the Block: Will the Grizzlies make a significant trade with Javaris Crittenton, Kyle Lowry, Marko Jaric, Hakim Warrick, or Darko Milicic, all of whom have been on the block for the better part of three months?
*Mono a Manu: How long will Manu Ginobili be out and how will the Spurs three-headed monster survive without one of its heads for an extended period of time? Reports have Ginobili out until possibly December.
*Can We Play Six Players?: The Rockets either have to bench Luis Scola and put Ron Artest at the power forward position where he's undersized, or bench Shane Battier, which is kind of insane. You can try benching Ron Artest, but, um, he might protest. Loudly.
*A Swift Kick In The Bass: Avery Johnson took Brandon Bass from a D-League retread into an offensive spark and consistent rotation player, but had a hard time motivating him during streaks. Can Rick Carlisle get the same improvement from the undersized power-forward, or will he regress on the bench?
*Spur Of The Moment:Robert Horry is still lurking. If none of the young guys or projects that the Spurs have brought in pan out, will Popovich turn to the (pickled) devil he knows?
*Where There's Smoke, There's Fire: Will Josh Howard fail to make good on his promise to clean up his act and keep making off the court distractions? Will he end up as a scapegoat if the Mavericks struggle out of the gate?
*Trade Possibilities: Mo Peterson, Peja Stojakovic, Ime Udoka, Hilton Armstrong, Josh Howard, Jose Juan Barrea, Chuck Hayes, Rafer Alston, Shane Battier (?), The Entire Grizzlies Team Except For Rudy Gay and OJ Mayo.