X-San Antonio Spurs 61-21 (2)
There is consistency and then there is what the San Antonio Spurs have been able to accomplish. Since the Spurs joined the NBA in 1976, only four seasons have gone by where they have not reached the playoffs, and in each of the last 20 campaigns they’ve been postseason bound. Last season saw the Spurs win 61 games in the regular season as another deep run in the playoffs appeared to be in the works. The Spurs would advance to the Western Conference Finals where they were seeking to unseat the Golden State Warriors. The Spurs were able to build a 25-point lead on the Warriors in the third quarter of Game One on the road, however the series would change when small forward Kawhi Leonard was lost for the remainder of the series after he re-aggravated an ankle injury that he initially sustained during the Western Conference Semifinals versus the Houston Rockets. The Spurs would go on to get swept by the Warriors who went on to claim their second NBA Championship in the last three years as we’re only left to ponder what could have been for San Antonio.
Gregg Popovich is set to begin his 21st full season as the head coach of the Spurs and he is not showing any signs of slowing down. When watching the Spurs it is quite clear who is the boss and that is Popovich. With Popovich it is always about the team and not the individual as they are the New England Patriots of the NBA. And Pop’s philosophy means that anyone on the Spurs roster can get 20 points on any given night.
But Leonard is the engine of this squad as he makes this team go. In each of Leonard’s six seasons with the Spurs, his production has increased. Leonard is a two-time NBA Defensive Player of the Year, as well as being a two-time NBA All-Star. And aside from Cleveland Cavaliers small forward LeBron James, Leonard is the best two-way player in the game as there are not that many flaws in his game which will keep him in the discussion to be the NBA’s MVP this season.
However as good as Leonard is, he cannot carry the Spurs team by himself. The summer of 2016 saw the Spurs sign power forward LaMarcus Aldridge to a four-year deal for $80 million. But in two seasons with the Spurs, Aldridge has underachieved which includes him failing to provide San Antonio with a consistent post presence. Aldridge was able to average 17.3 points and 7.3 rebounds last season for the Spurs, but he has been too inconsistent which has not won him over that many fans in San Antonio. And if Aldridge continues to fail to meet Popovich’s expectations, don’t be surprised to see him traded.
Throughout the 11-year NBA career of small forward Rudy Gay, he has continued to put up quality numbers. The Spurs will be the fourth different NBA team that Gay has played for as he has gone on to average 18.4 points per contest. I don’t expect to consistently see Gay in the starting lineup for San Antonio, but what he can provide San Antonio with is a quality veteran scorer off of the bench who will be instant offense, while providing San Antonio with length that can be utilized at each end of the floor.
San Antonio continues to employ a selfish cast of veterans which includes point guard Tony Parker, shooting guard Manu Ginobili, and center Pau Gasol. Parker and Giniboli are legends within the Spurs organization, and although that each player is in the twilight of his respective Hall of Fame career, they know how to use craftiness in order to get the best of players who are least 10 years their junior.
Like Ginobili and Parker, Gasol will be headed for Springfield when his playing career is over, and at the age of 37 he is showing absolutely no signs of slowing down. Popovich has been one of the best in regards to keeping his veteran players fresh for the stretch run. Gasol is still a player that can average at least 15 points per game, while also providing the Spurs with 7 or 8 rebounds per game as well the ability to pass and consistently block shots.
The Spurs are a team that could get off to a slow start, but this is a team that typically doesn’t get its stride until March which should once again be the case this season as San Antonio will once again be a force to be reckoned with in the Western Conference.
Y-Houston Rockets 50-32 (6)
Each of the last five NBA seasons have seen the Houston Rockets reach the playoffs, but they’ve been unable to break through and get back to the NBA Finals since their last championship in 1995. By the time that the Western Conference Semifinals rolled around last spring, the Rockets were decimated by injuries as they would eventually succumb to the San Antonio Spurs. And after the Rockets fell to the Spurs, you had to expect that Houston would make a few tweaks to their roster, but not a mega trade.
Over the summer the Rockets were able to acquire All-Star point guard Chris Paul from the Los Angeles Clippers. However the acquisition of Paul was a costly one as Houston sent eight players as well as a first-round pick to Los Angeles. But what the Rockets now have is a back court that will help them keep up with the top teams in the Western Conference.
Paul will team with guard James Harden who is coming off of his best season in the NBA as he averaged 29.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, while his 11.2 assists per contests led the league. Harden was able to accomplish this in his first season as a point guard, bur now the acquisition of Paul will not see him as Houston’s primary ball handler. However regardless if Harden is the Rockets primary ball handler or not, it does not take away from the fact that he is one of the game’s best scorers. For Harden’s eight-year NBA career he has averaged 22.1 points per game, while in five seasons with the Rockets that number is 27.4. Last season Harden scored at least 40 in 11 games and he should continue to flourish by playing alongside Paul in the offense of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni.
The Rockets will become the third different NBA team that Paul has played for and at the age of 32, he is still one of the top points guards in the league. Paul has led the NBA in assists on four separate occasions and he has a solid chance of doing so once again this season due to his ability to penetrate the lane as well as playing alongside Harden.
Two key players who were not traded to the Clippers were power forward Ryan Anderson and small forward Trevor Ariza who will once again be important to what the Rockets want to do. D’Antoni’s uptempo offense is all about spacing the floor and finding open shooters which is right up Anderson’s alley. For Anderson’s nine-year NBA career he has made more than 42% of his three-point shots, and that trend should continue now that he is playing alongside both Harden and Paul.
Ariza will once again be important to the Rockets due to his perimeter defense which will be important versus the top wing players that the Western Conference has to offer; especially since Houston was 26th in the NBA in points allowed last season.
With the Rockets losing their depth to acquire Paul, while also missing out on acquiring small forward Carmelo Anthony, as well as D’Antoni’s not being known for defense, they will come up short of being a championship team. The Rockets will be exciting, but the struggles of Paul when he faces Oklahoma City Thunder point guard Russell Westbrook and Golden State Warriors point guard Steph Curry will once again be exposed as the furthest that this team will be able to advance in the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
Dallas Mavericks 41-41
After being one of the top teams in the Western Conference since 2000, the Dallas Mavericks took a huge step backwards last season as they lost 49 games for the first time since 1998. The Mavericks lost their first five games of the season and they were never able recover in the Western Conference Playoff race. And for Mavericks head coach Rick Carlisle, will he be able to reverse the fortunes of this franchise heading into a new season?
For the Mavs, power forward Dirk Nowitzki has been the face of this franchise for nearly two decades. Hands down Nowitzki is the most prolific player in franchise history, but as he is 39-years of age, he isn’t the player that he once was. However Carlisle has done a solid job in recent years in regards to managing Nowitxki’s minutes which should once again be the case for the upcoming season. And it would not surprise me to see Carlisle utilize Nowitzki off of the bench at some point this season. But as Nowitzki is on the downside of his Hall of Fame career, the Mavs have begun the process of building towards to future.
Last year saw the Mavericks acquire small forward Harrison Barnes from the Golden State Warriors. Barnes was a member of the Warriors team that won the NBA Championship in 2015, but his skills at the offensive end of the floor were never going to be fully recognized as he was playing in the shadow of Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green. However Barnes’ first season would begin to see his potential recognized as he was able to average 19.2 points which led the club. And the good thing for the Mavericks is that Barnes has the potential to get better.
Barnes gives the Mavs a solid perimeter scorer, while he also knows how to get to the basket. And as Barnes and Carlisle are getting to get more acquainted with one another, the results will only be good for Dallas.
The Mavericks are high on point guard Dennis Smith Jr. who was their first-round choice this year. Throughout the NBA’s Summer League as well as training camp, Smith has shown that he has what it takes to be a solid floor general for Dallas as he has the ability to get his own shot, while also making the people around him better.
Shooting guard Wesley Matthews continues to be a solid perimeter defender, while both center Nerlens Noel who can clean up on the boards as well as being a rim protector and shooting guard Seth Curry who continues to improve as a three-point shooter could each be in the running to be the NBA’s Most Improved Player this season which fits into the Mavericks identity of being underdogs this season. However Curry’s season debut will be delayed after he suffered a stress reaction in his left tibia during the preseason. It will be important for Noel to remain healthy as he is a big part of what Dallas wants to do on defense as they were fourth in the NBA in points allowed last season and he can be an anchor on their back line.
Five of the Mavericks first six games this season will be against teams that made that playoffs last season. And the last thing that Dallas needs is another slow start as it would derail their season before it even starts.
Memphis Grizzlies 40-42
Each of the last seven NBA seasons have seen the Memphis Grizzlies qualify for the postseason which is the third longest current playoff streak in the league behind the San Antonio Spurs and Atlanta Hawks. But unlike the Spurs who have gone on to win five NBA Championships during their postseason streak, the Grizzlies have only been able to advance to the Western Conference Finals once, while they were eliminated in the first round in each of the last two seasons. David Fizdale led the Grizzlies to a winning record as well as a playoff berth in his first season with Memphis. Fizdale did this with a veteran team that he inherited as it was vital for him to manage the minutes of the Grizzlies as the season progressed. But as Fizdale is set to begin his second season with the Grizzlies, his team will have a different feel to it as they look to make it eight consecutive trips to the postseason.
Power forward Zach Randolph spent the last eight seasons with the Grizzlies and in the process he became one of the best players in franchise history. Randolph averaged 16.8 and 10.2 rebound during his Grizzlies career. Randolph also became the franchise’s all-time leader in rebounds, while being third in points. Randolph turned 36-years of age this past July and he decided to join the Sacramento Kings on a two-year deal that is worth $24 million.
During Randolph’s time with the Grizzlies, his tag-team partner in the frontcourt has been center Marc Gasol. At the age of 32, Gasol is still one of the best all-around big men in the NBA as he it the total package due his ability to score, pass, facilitate, block shots, rebound, and defend. When Gasol is on the floor, the Grizzlies have the benefit of another point guard, while his blocked shots in the paint tend to lead to fast break opportunities on offense. And with Randolph no longer will the Grizzlies, Gasol will be more important that ever to what Memphis wants to do.
The summer of 2016 saw point guard Mike Conley Jr. cash in as he and the Grizzlies came to an agreement on a five-year that is worth $153 million. Conley did his part to live up to his inflated contract as he averaged a career-high 20.5 points to go along with 6.3 assists. Conley began to take more ownership on offense for the Grizzlies as he connected on 46% of his field goals which was a career-high, while he shot more than 40% from downtown for just the second time of his NBA career. But whereas that Conley is not considered a top-tier point guard in the NBA, will he be able to elevate his game once more in order to make Memphis a threat in the Western Conference?
In 2010, swingman Tyreke Evans was the NBA’s Rookie of the Year as he was able to do a little bit of everything for the Kings. That season Evans was able to average 20.1 points per game, however he has never been able to match the production that he had as a rookie. Since then Evans has bounced around with several teams, each time he has found himself that did not properly suit his skill set which is him playing in the point forward role. But Evans has an opportunity to do something special with the Grizzlies due to his ability to get to the basket, facilitate, and rebound as he should be able to play off of both Gasol and Conley.
Times have changed in the NBA as scoring is up. The Grizzlies were third in the NBA in points allowed last season in spite of the fact that they surrendered 100 points per game, and they should once again be one of the top defensive teams in the NBA due to the mindset of Fizdale, as well as having players such as Gasol leading the way.
The Grizzlies will be an up and down team this season, but they will continue to be a tough for their opponents.
New Orleans Pelicans 37-45
Five of the last six NBA seasons have resulted in the New Orleans Pelicans failing to make the playoffs. And ever before the start of a new campaign, the Pelicans find themselves at the crossroads.
Last season saw the Pelicans acquire All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings with part of the compensation seeing New Orleans part with both of their draft picks in the 2017 NBA Draft. Cousins’ arrival in New Orleans saw him team with power forward Anthony Davis to give the Pelicans one of the top front courts in the NBA, but their presence wasn’t enough to get to the postseason.
However heading into a new NBA season, Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry has a tough task ahead of him which includes being able to utilize both Cousins and Davis, while keeping the other players involved.
What the Pelicans have in Davis is the best big man in the NBA as well as a player who will be an MVP candidate this season. There is not anything that Davis cannot do on the basketball court as he is the total package at both ends of the floor. The ability of Davis to score in the paint as well as on the perimeter will now be magnified as he is playing alongside Cousins which means that opponents of the Pelicans can no longer solely focus on trying to stop him.
Like Davis, Cousins is one of the better big men in the NBA, but he just does not have the perimeter game of that his fellow former Kentucky Wildcat possesses. Cousins is at his best when he plays angry as you can pencil him in for 25 points and 15 rebounds when that is the case. At the conclusion of the 2017-2018 NBA season, Cousins will be a free agent which means that he should have a big season as he is looking to get paid by the Pelicans or another team.
The Pelicans do have a pair of quality ball handlers in veteran point guard Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday. The Pelicans will mark the fifth different NBA team that Rondo has suited up for which is a reflection on his attitude. Rondo has led the NBA in assists on four separate occasions, however he been known to clash with his head coaches which has made him expendable. Rondo is 31-years of age and the Pelicans need him to be a leader for this team as opposed to being a combustible element like he has been in the past.
For Holiday, his passing ability should be magnified alongside both Davis and Cousins. Rondo will miss the beginning of the season due to sports hernia surgery. However when Holiday and Rondo are each healthy and with both players projected to be in the Pelicans starting lineup, who will be the primary ball handler for this club?
Veteran guard Tony Allen comes to New Orleans and he can provide the club with some much needed toughness. The upcoming NBA season will mark Allen’s 14th year in the league which has been highlighted by him being a three-time All-Defensive First-team member as well as winning a championship with the Boston Celtics in 2008. At the age of 35, Allen still has the ability to slow down and frustrate perimeter scorers, and his experience in the NBA should benefit New Orleans.
Last season saw the Pelicans give up 106.4 points per game which was 17th in the NBA. However New Orleans needs to have a change to philosophy in order to maximize the ability of their personnel. With Davis and Cousins in the front court, New Orleans needs to run more half-court sets with their two All-Star big men in the paint as much as possible. And if done properly, Davis and Cousins could have a huge impact for the Pelicans. Defensively the Pelicans need to take more pride being that both Cousins and Davis are shot blockers as well as possessing the ability to clean up on the boards.
However the Pelicans have too many combustible elements on this team, while Gentry is not the right head coach to reign everyone in which means that the upcoming NBA season will be a train wreck on the Bayou.