Inside the Numbers: Southwest Division

By: Kevin LaFrancis
Thinking about the teams and players in the Southwest division reminds me of college classes. San Antonio aces chemistry. Tony Parker is a masterful engineer. Houston enjoys the theatre while James Harden excels at pogonology (the study of beards). Dallas likes recent history, but is not transitioning well to current events. Memphis, like a tough professor, does not allow people to pass. The Hornets, like a struggling new student, fails at subjects due to its lack of experience. Looking at these analogies, I can’t think of a better way to assess the franchises’ early progress than with my last set of report cards. Here’s my take on the teams in the Southwest division.

Dallas Mavericks (Record: 8-9)


O.J. Mayo has been one of the few bright spots for the Mavs. (AP/Tony Gutierrez)

O.J. didn’t do it. Dallas has played sub-.500 basketball with one of the easiest schedules to start the season, but guard O.J. Mayo didn’t cause the collapse. He has put up almost 20 points per game in the absence of franchise player Dirk Nowitzki. Nowitzki’s knee, which has kept him out of every game this season, will not fully heal until at least late December. The 2011 NBA championship winner is now in jeopardy of missing the playoffs for the 1st time in 13 years. The problem starts with rebounding. The squad is last in the league in rebounds allowed (46.5 rpg), giving up both the most offensive and most defensive rebounds. Also, Dallas is 9th to last in the league in team defense, allowing 100.1 points per game. Although Dallas plays an up tempo style, the squad still only scores 98.8 points an outing. Teams that play transition heavy basketball need to average at least 100 points to win often. Last, the team gives up the most steals in the NBA, as opponents average 9.4 swipes per contest. A high percentage of those steals leads to easy layups for the other team.

In the classroom, knowing history requires looking into the past to help decide the future. On the court, Dallas is hoping that it can use players in the past to breed the players of the franchise’s future. The team hopes that 38 year old point guard Derrick Fisher can mentor Darren Collison. It also looks forward to having Jae Crowder learn from Nowitzki. The schedule only gets harder for the Mavericks moving forward. The vast majority of the team’s opponents are playoff competitors. A 3 game losing streak at the end of November will most likely be the start of a dreadful holiday season for the Mavericks. Hopefully, veteran leadership will help transform Dallas’s newest players from current mediocrity into championship contenders.
*Before Season Grade: B-
*Current Grade: C-
End of Regular Season Projection: 4th in Division, 13th in Conference

Houston Rockets (Record: 8-8)

Linsanity has gotten a little more sane this season. (Daniel Shirley/US Presswire)

The speculation coming into this year was whether the Rockets’ point guard was going to have that another good seaslin. Seemingly everybody in America knows the Harvard alum that had to live in and out of apartments while playing garbage minutes for the Warriors. They know the man who was traded to New York and started to thrive under the bright lights of Madison Square Garden. Jeremy Lin’s performances for the Knicks last year were phenomenal. But how is he doing now? He’s average. I never thought or expected that Jeremy Lin would be a star when he moved to Houston. However, he is no longer an extraordinary player on a struggling Rockets team. Some of his numbers (10.9 ppg, 6.6 apg, 4.4 rpg) are promising, but only 21 players turn the ball over (2.9 tpg) more than Lin. Also, he converts on just 39% of his field goals.He’s no longer as linfallible as he was in New York. His ability to take over games has since been compromised by better opposing scouting and preparation.

But as Lin takes on a diminished role, James Harden’s role has expanded. With Oklahoma City last year, James Harden came off the bench. He scored about 13 points per game over three seasons with the Thunder. After the offseason trade, Harden has embraced the attention and spotlight of the lead role. He is 5th in the league in scoring (24.1 ppg). I have never been a huge fan of Harden’s shot selection, but I have to concede that his play this year has been fantastic. He has done a better job getting his team involved leading to several different players that score. In the most recent win over the Jazz, the Rockets had 7 players score at least 13 points. Moving forward, the defense (29th in league, 102.4 points allowed) will hinder the team’s success and lead to a fight for a playoff spot.
*Before Season Grade: B+
*Current Grade: B-
End of Regular Season Projection: 3rd in Division, 8th in Conference

Memphis Grizzlies (Record: 12-3)

Z-Bo has continued to pace the league-leading Grizz. (Ron Chenoy/US Presswire)

As good as Memphis has been, there is one fact of recent history that leads me to believe that it will not be a contender late in the playoffs: it’s extremely unlikely that a highly competitive team without playoff experience wins the title in the 1st year. When the Celtics got the big 3, the team needed a year to win. Miami did not win the championship in its 1st year with LeBron, Wade, and Bosh. Now, Memphis seems to follow in the footsteps. Its big 3 (Rudy Gay, Marc Gasol, and Zach Randolph) have dominated competition thus far this year. Rudy Gay’s versatility makes him great. He is a sneaky quick player for his size. He aggressively seeks offensive rebounds. He has better range than a sniper rifle. Marc Gasol (15.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg) methodically cleans up on the glass and converts on over 50% of his field goals.

Zach Randolph presents a unique matchup for tall, quick, and strong power forwards. He protects the basketball and always creates space for a clean look at the basket. Defensively, the team denies extremely well and rotates quickly on skip passes. Memphis allows the fewest assists of any team (18.7 apg). The style also forces a lot of outside jump shots. Mike Conley Jr. has provided a spark on both sides. He averages 2.5 steals per game as well as 15.3 points and 6.7 assists. Although he has turned the ball over 3 times a contest, Conley Jr.’s turnover numbers will surely improve over the course of the season. In his 5 other seasons with the Grizzlies, Conley Jr. has never averaged more than 2.2 turnovers, and most of those years he received the same amount of playing time. Although I do not expect this team to go deep into the postseason this year, I will probably consider them a serious contender for the championship next season.

*Before Season Grade: B-
*Current Grade: A-
End of Regular Season Projection: 2nd in Division, 4th in Conference

New Orleans Hornets (Record: 4-11)

Greivis Vazquez has been a nice surprise for the Pelicans---er--Hornets this season. (Getty Images)

New Orleans made the most noise in this year’s NBA draft. With the selections of both Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers, the team appears to have found answers to fill its massive needs at the guard and forward positions. Discouragement has filled the front office because ankle injuries have limited the minutes of both of these players. Early in the season, Rivers sprained his ankle and has not fully recovered. Known as a shooter, Rivers has made less than 1/3 of his opportunities. After playing in 6 games, Davis (16.0 ppg, 8.3 rpg) was injured and still has not returned. More young talent has emerged in the absence of both of these players. Ryan Anderson, a California graduate, has averaged 17.2 points and 8.0 rebounds. Anderson’s face up game outside the paint is excellent. He possesses a consistent outside shot that extends behind the 3-point line. He lacks the explosiveness to be a prolific inside scorer, but he uses his touch to find some success in the paint.

Grievis Vasquez, the 25 year old Maryland alum, has perhaps been the most surprising player to step up. Previously criticized for being too conservative with the basketball, Vasquez has shattered stereotypes about his play. Vasquez (13.1 ppg, 8.7 apg) ranks tied for 5th in the league in assists. However, his change in mentality comes with a price. He has the 7th most turnovers on average of any player in the league (3.4 tpg). Another player that has filled a void is Robin Lopez, who has greatly improved. Recently acquired after 5 seasons with the Suns, Lopez has almost doubled his scoring and rebounding totals (11.2 ppg, 5.7 rpg) with increased playing time and responsibilities. The abundance of young talent does have its drawbacks. The team can not consistently succeed scoring, defending, or rebounding, and as a result the record suffers.

*Before Season Grade: D
*Current Grade: C-
End of Regular Season Projection: 5th in Division, 14th in Conference

San Antonio Spurs (Record: 14-4)

Tim Duncan just keeps on winning. (Amy Sancetta/AP)

The best, saved for last. I believe the San Antonio Spurs will win the Western Conference. The Spurs recently became involved in a controversy with the league. Commissioner David Stern recently fined the Spurs $250,000 because Popovich sent his four best players home instead of playing them in a nationally televised game.  Cognizant of his aging talent, Popovich wants to keep his players rested and healthy throughout the season. Popovich, a 4-time championship winner, is the best coach in the league. Although I believe the fine was just because it aims to ensure the integrity of the league’s economic interests, the controversy proves that Popovich always puts his team in the best position to win titles.

This team quietly and reliably wins games without attracting attention. The Spurs won a league high 50 games in the lockout shortened season last year and has made the playoffs each of the past 16 years. The most amazing concept to fathom is that San Antonio is even better than before. Tim Duncan (18.9 ppg, 10.1 rpg) is as good as ever offensively, knocking down 53.8% of his field goals. Tony Parker (18.1 ppg, 7.1 apg) has mastered the art of creating easy baskets for himself and others in transition. He aggressively draws defenders and does not give the ball away (2.0 turnovers per game). Manu Ginobili continues to succeed off the bench. San Antonio’s role players have developed more this year. Tiago Splitter is savvy and fits right into the system. He slyly finds openings in the defense away from the ball that lead to easy baskets assisted by Parker. DeJuan Blair deserves much more credit for his role as a protector of the hoop on defense. Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green have fresh legs that match the Spurs’ up tempo mindset. Talent wins games, but high percentage shots and fundamental defense win championships.

*Before Season Grade: A-
*Current Grade: A-
End of Regular Season Projection: 1st in Division, 1st in Conference

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