I think most basketball fans can agree that the Southwest Division has been the toughest in basketball for the last few years. Four of the last ten NBA champions have come from the SW, and every team on it has made the playoffs multiple times. Last season, 4 of 5 teams had an above .500 record and three made the playoffs. And just when it seems it couldn't get any harder, next season could present an even more brutal 16 division games for the Spurs.
The Memphis Grizzlies, the Dallas Mavericks and the San Antonio Spurs made the playoffs this season, but only the Silver and Black advanced to the second round. The Mavs are in a rebuilding-reloading process, the Grizzlies could ship out Rudy Gay, and the Rockets, who came just a few games away from the playoffs, still have the same fundamental flaws. So why am I saying things could get tougher? All those teams could likely come back stronger, plus the New Orleans
Hornets Angels/Spirit could become an even more pesky team than they were last season.
Let's start with New Orleans. As you probably know, the Hornets sent out Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza to the Washington Wizards for Rashard Lewis. That might seem like a long term move, salary-motivated move and it is, since the Hornets can waive Lewis and save around $10 million. But the thing is, the new CBA demands teams to spend no less than 90% of the salary cap, which might prompt Dell Demps to keep Lewis for the season. The Hornets also own the 1st and 10th pick in the draft. The undisputed 1st pick is Anthony Davis, a game-changing defensive big man. With the 10th pick, they will have a choice to make between an assortment of talented players, but for the time being let's assume they go with a PG, like Damian Lillard. If they retain Eric Gordon (almost a certainty) and Chris Kaman (possible but not likely), they could have a starting lineup of Jarret Jack-Eric Gordon-Rashard Lewis-Anthony Davis-Chris Kaman with Lillard, Vazquez, Henry, Aminu and Ayon coming off the bench. That's an interesting squad that won't make the playoffs, but could pose a danger every single night. And that's only one scenario.They have enough assets and cap flexibility to make a lot of different things happen.
Then you have the Rockets, who also missed the playoffs but could come back a new team. There are rumors that the Rockets are looking to trade with either the Kings or the Raptors and get in the top ten. There are also rumors that they plan on flipping one of those pick plus one of their own for Dwight Howard. Either way, they would be dangerous. If they get Howard, they'll still have enough depth to make some noise in the West at least for a year. If they get a top five pick, they could shore up their big depth by going with Drummond or their wing depth by picking someone like MKG or Harrison Barnes. If Houston keeps their two first round picks and bring over 2011's first rounder Donatas Motiejunas, they'll get a huge infusion of young talent that would free up assets like Scola or Martin to be traded to fill more pressing needs. And if they just stay the course, they'll have a team that was a few wins away from the 8th seed, plus some quality youngsters. One final, scary scenario is that if they do nothing more than re-sign Goran Dragic, they would have a fantastic trade piece in Kyle Lowry, a disgruntled, borderline all-star on a great contract. No matter what they do (and they have a lot of options, as you can see), the Rockets are going to at least be in the playoff race next season.
The Memphis Grizzlies were a few lucky bounces away from meeting the Spurs in the West Semis, and they'll have most of those players back. Zach Randolph will be healthy, Marc Gasol will continue being an underrated beast, Rudy Gay will continue to be an overrated but consistent scorer, Tony Allen will still be one of the best defensive wings out there, and Mike Conley will be there to keep things copacetic. The only thing they need is a better bench, and with the return of a healthy Darrel Arthur, Marreese Speights and possibly O.J. Mayo, they are only one playmaker away from having it. If Mayo goes, things get trickier but with a new, wealthy owner in place, the often frugal Bears might choose to keep him and even add someone else. That's one scary team. If the new ownership disagrees with Heisley and looks to trade Gay, they will get at least a couple of good players in return and we've seen what that team can do (even without Gay) in the 2011 playoffs. If they can get some quality role players for him, Memphis would continue to be the team nobody wants to face in the playoffs.
Then we have Mark Cuban and his Ponies. After finally winning the championship, they went for a radical rebuilding approach, letting defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler leave in free agency. They cleared their books and went all in on getting Deron Williams for next season. And it might work. If they pull it off, Dallas will only need a few more players to shore up their adequate supporting cast to be right back to contention. A motivated Dirk plus Williams are that good. If they strike out on Deron, they will still have amazing cap flexibility, especially now that Brendan Haywood's contract doesn't look so unmovable. They will be in the midst of every trade talk, and every free agent looking to contend and get paid might choose the Mavs to join the big German and an ownership and front office that has showed commitment to wining. The benefit of a clean slate is that the possibilities are endless. Of all the names flying around in trade and free agency talks, the Mavs could sign or trade for virtually anyone and still have Dirk plus a couple solid role players. At the very least, Dallas will be good next season. How good depends on who they can get.
So where does that leave the Spurs?
With a schedule from hell. 16 of their 82 games will be against tough teams and that's only counting the Southwest. Most other divisions have at least two teams below .500 every year and at least one truly awful team. The closest the Spurs might get to that is the Hornets, which will probably be a match up nightmare for our guys anyway with all that athleticism.
Fortunately, the Spurs should still be the best of the bunch in their division and, barring catastrophic developments, one of the best in the league. They have a combination of attributes that no other team in the Southwest can match. The Grizzlies have "corporate knowledge", but their pieces don't fit as seamlessly. The Rockets are deep but they don't have the Spurs' star power. The Hornets are athletic and young but they lack experience. The Mavs have no idea what they will looks like next season, while the Spurs have their core in place.
As has been the case for a few years now, the Southwest Division will be really tough, and like it has been for a few years now, the Spurs will probably be at or near the top.