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2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

2021-22 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

With the regular season set to tip off on Oct. 19, let’s take a look at where each team in the Pacific Division stands. We’ll break down what’s to like and dislike, a lineup to watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.

If you've missed them, read our previews on the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Pacific Divisions.

Dallas Mavericks

WHAT TO LIKE: LUKA DONCIC

To call Luka Doncic a top-10 player in the NBA is both a tremendous honor this early in his career, and also a moniker that seems to undersell him. He's an offense onto himself in a way that few players can be. Outside of LeBron James, there's no player that provides the blend of size, scoring and playmaking chops that Luka does.

While there was somewhat of a plateau statistically, Luka grew around the margins last season. Most notably, he showcased newfound comfort in the intermediate areas. We saw him go to his floater more, and he started roasting dudes — like-sized and smaller — on the block. Per Synergy, Luka ranked in the 88th percentile as a post-scorer.

Good luck dealing with that.

OTHER LIKES

- I'm down for the resurgence of Kristaps Porzingis, provided he's utilized correctly. I think a full offseason will be good for him. 

- The early rumblings out of camp indicate that we'll be seeing more of the Dwight Powell-Porzingis frontcourt pairing. That isn't a bad thing; the Mavs have outscored their opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions over the past three seasons with that combo, per PBP Stats.

- They didn't make the big splash, but I appreciate the wing depth they added. Reggie Bullock should provide some legit (movement) shooting, while Sterling Brown adds much needed athleticism and shooting on the perimeter.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: SECONDARY CREATION

It may end up mattering less because Luka is that good, but I have questions about their non-Luka creators. 

Even if you're projecting a bounce-back year for Porzingis, he's been an underwhelming post threat for most of his career due to his inability to establish deep positioning. Tim Hardaway Jr. is more of a close-out attacker than someone that can break down the defense. A leap from Jalen Brunson would be nice, but does he have a "second option, third best player on a title contender" leap in him?

That's a lot to ask for.

OTHER DISLIKES

Jason Kidd. We'll just have to see.

- It's the Royce O'Neale thing for me in Dallas. I like Dorian Finney-Smith — he's a good defender — but I worry about a team's title aspirations if he's your best perimeter defender.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Luka-Hardaway-Bullock-DFS-Porzingis

I don't think a lineup featuring a 7-foot-3 man can be dubbed a small-ball unit. I do think this is the best lone-big lineup the Mavs can trot out. It gives Luka plenty of space on the offensive end, and three other like-sized bodies that can switch 1-through-4 while Porzingis works in a drop.

BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed

We're barely a calendar year removed from the Mavs posting the best offensive rating in NBA history behind the brilliance of Luka (and the Luka-Porzingis pick-and-roll). Those guys are back, and flanked by more shooting. Another MVP-caliber season from Luka and reasonable health around him could be enough to put this team in the home-court race.

WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament

It's hard to make the case for this to be a good defensive unit. Another injury-riddled year for Porzingis, and stagnation from Hardaway and Brunson as creators, could drop the Mavs a tier. They'd be closer to a No. 7 seed than a 10th seed for me, but the overall point is that they wouldn't be entirely safe.

Houston Rockets

WHAT TO LIKE: BACKCOURT UPSIDE

The Rockets may have found their backcourt of the future in a matter of months.

After some #mishaps found him on the outs in Cleveland, the Rockets were able to snag Kevin Porter Jr. for virtually nothing last season. Porter found his footing in Houston, showcasing legitimate initiator chops. Time will tell if he's ready for point guard duties, but Porter can boogie with the best of them.

Jalen Green, this year's second overall pick, is also a space-creating savant. There should be a natural fit between Porter's pick-and-roll ability and Green's off-ball prowess; it'll be fun to watch those two score in bunches together. 

OTHER LIKES

Christian Wood is really freaking good on the offensive end. Dynamic roller, solid popper, has some ball-skills as well. He'll be a fun pick-and-roll partner for Green and Porter.

This is a Jae'Sean Tate fan account. I hope the jumper comes around becasue everything else — interior scoring, chain-moving passes, multipositional defense — is there already.

- Keep an eye on KJ Martin. He can attack a close-out, and the jumper seems to be coming around (42% on 5.6 attempts in May to finish the season). He can also swat your favorite big man.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: THE JOHN WALL SWEEPSTAKES

Last year, it was the James Harden situation hovering over the Rockets' season until he was dealt to Brooklyn. There should be less fireworks around John Wall — by all accounts, he and the Rockets have agreed to play nice while they figure out next steps — but it is weird to have someone with Wall's pedigree burning a roster spot.

He was overtasked as a lead guy last year, but there's enough there as a rim pressure and kick-out guy to help a good team.

OTHER DISLIKES

Who's the rim-protector with size on this roster? I'm having trouble seeing it.

Honestly, I'm worried about the defense at large. Green or Porter at the point of attack seems problematic, which puts even more strain on the frontcourt. 

- I'm all for the plan to feed the Green/Porter combo on-ball reps, but that should lead to some stagnation and turnover woes early on. For whatever worth you want to put into preseason numbers, the Rockets were 28th in turnover rate (18.9%).

LINEUP TO WATCH: Porter-Green-Tate-Garuba-Wood

I want to see what the Usman Garuba-Wood pairing looks like. In theory, Garuba should cover for some of Wood's shortcomings defensively, while Wood's scoring gravity should allow Garuba to mooch points by hovering around the dunker spot. 

I'd worry about the shooting in this group — Porter and Tate have to prove it as spacers, and Garuba is a non-shooter right now — but there may be enough individual creativity to make the offense work.

BEST CASE: Bottom of the West (Trending Upward)

This isn't going to be a good team; they're too young, and some of the vets they have (Wall, Eric Gordon, Daniel Theis, D.J. Augustin) will probably be moved by the deadline. Getting a Rookie-of-the-Year-caliber season from Green and a leap from Porter should be enough to call this season a success.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West (Cluttered Mess)

Head coach Stephen Silas is going to have his work cut out for him. Striking the balance between handing the young-core reps, and putting lineups together that make sense, is going to be a challenge. A failure to pull it off could lead to a lot of losses without much to show for it.

Memphis Grizzlies

WHAT TO LIKE: JA MORANT

Ja Morant has something for everybody. 

He's the rare star that appeals to anyone: eye-popping (and stress-inducing) dunks for the casual viewer, well-beyond-his-years craft in pick-and-roll. You're just as likely to see a 360 in transition as you are to see a ball-screen end like this.

Morant lit it up during his first postseason appearance — 30.2 points, 8.2 assists per game — despite being dared to shoot pull-ups for the majority of the series. Any leap from him as a pull-up shooter should scare the rest of the league.

OTHER LIKES

I'm a big believer in Jaren Jackson Jr. Clearly the Grizzlies are as well, as they just gave him a four-year $105 million extension. How well he's able to hold up at the 5 will go a long way towards determining the ceiling of this team.

- Kyle Anderson has long been one of the funkier players in the league. I'm interested in seeing if the three-ball (36% on 3.8 attempts last season) is real.

- This is also a De'Anthony Melton Fan Account. With Grayson Allen now in Milwaukee, there should be even more minutes for him to grab. Sneaky Sixth Man of the Year candidate.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: HALF-COURT SCORING

Removing Jonas Valanciunas from the equation will put a lot more strain on Morant in the half-court. Between the playoffs and the preseason, Morant did look more comfortable against "under" coverage. The results have to be there, though.

The bigger issue is the drop-off from Morant. Dillon Brooks, currently out with a broken hand, doesn't mind taking on the secondary scoring role. He just... isn't equipped for it.

Ideally, Jackson Jr. takes the helm as that second creator. He's a walking mismatch — a ridiculously skilled shooter and ball-handler for a guy his size — but he must remain healthy. A self-creation leap from Desmond Bane would help matters, but I'm not sure how likely that is.

OTHER DISLIKES

- With the frontcourt healthy, I'm curious to see how the rotation shakes out. That's the objective and boring way of saying "I really like Brandon Clarke and hope he isn't the odd man out of the rotation." Pretend you didn't read that, though.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Morant-Bane-Brooks-Anderson-JJJ

If the Grizzlies are going to close games with Jackson at the 5, this will probably be their best group. This unit only saw three (3) minutes together last season, but there's enough two-way viability here to explore it.

I'm not sure how you deal with a Morant-Jackson pick-and-roll with a spread floor. There's also enough size 2-through-4 to take pressure off of those two.

BEST CASE: No. 6 Seed

The defensive infrastructure of this group should be pretty strong. A leap from Morant and a healthy campaign from Jackson could put the Grizzlies in legitimate playoff territory.

WORST CASE: Back End of the Play-In Tournament

There are question marks to be had about the half-court scoring of this group. The team-wide three-point shooting should improve from last year (35.6%, 20th), but this isn't an elite cast by any stretch. If the offense doesn't take a step up, it's hard to envision the Grizzlies taking the next step. They're still deep and coached well enough to be in the 8-to-10-seed range.

New Orleans Pelicans

WHAT TO LIKE: ZION WILLIAMSON

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the most dominant interior presence the NBA has.

Zion Williamson, with 85 career games (and multiple injuries at this point) under his belt, is a close second.

It is amazing to me that Zion was able to average a casual 27-7-4 despite a questionable-at-best context to work with. Despite a cramped floor and a revolving door of teammates, Zion drove, posted and initiated pick-and-rolls en route to one of the most efficient scoring seasons we've seen from a guy his age.

There's no real way to slow him down with single coverage. He's also picking out open teammates with more regularity, which should frankly terrify folks.

Please get, and stay, healthy. The streets need it.

OTHER LIKES

- The Pelicans weren't a bad offense last year, but I respect them leaning into making life easier for their two offensive stars. Between Devonte' Graham's pull-up shooting and the near-virtuosic post play of Jonas Valanciunas, things should flow a bit smoother. 

- Lost in ZionMania was Brandon Ingram growing around the margins. We know what he provides as a three-level scorer. He quietly became a more effective passer last season; having a more spaced floor should further simplify things for him.

- This is also a Naji Marshall Fan Account. He's a gap-filler on the wing, able to make attack scrambling defenses, make sleek passes when necessary and make quality reads defensively. He quietly averaged 12-6-3 in 10 starts last season. I would expect him to have more of a role this season.

- You have to be careful about taking too much stock in Summer League and/or preseason play, but I've seen enough. The Pelicans need to find time for Trey Murphy III. 

WHAT TO DISLIKE: DEFENSE

Ah, yes, we're here again.

The Pelicans are in a weird spot in which they have individual defenders that I like, but no true needle-mover. 

Swapping out Steven Adams for Valanciunas may be a net positive overall, but it should hurt on the defensive end. Graham's shooting and playmaking should help Zion and others, but having him at the point-of-attack is... less than good, in my opinion. Zion is still a bit of a mess, though he looked more comfortable after a wholesale scheme change midway through last season. He's also hurt. Again. 

Fun times ahead.

OTHER DISLIKES

To the defense point, I'm not sure how much scheme versatility exists with this group. Valanciunas is purely a drop guy, and Jaxson Hayes is still trying to figure space navigation. Do they have the horses to go small against good teams? I have my doubts right now.

- I'm not sure how appropriate it is at this stage of his career, but man, #FreeKira.

- The jury is out on new head coach Willie Green, but boy is he going to have fun trying to figure out the rotation with this group. Best of luck to him.

LINEUP TO WATCH: NAW-Ingram-Murphy III-Marshall-Zion

If we're going to see Zion at 5 minutes (we should), putting as much length around him as possible should be the move. 

Zion and Ingram should handle the creation duties, with Nickeil Alexander-Walker (keep an eye on him as a mini-breakout candidate) chipping in. Murphy can shoot the leather off the ball. Marshall can't, though he's a heady enough cutter to make things work.

The real intrigue comes defensively. This is a group that would have to switch 1-through-4, if not 1-through-5. I wouldn't expect this to be a good defensive rating group, but the offense may be absurd enough to make it matter less.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament 

There is legitimate star power here, provided that star power can stay on the court. Zion and Ingram are the foundation of a top-10 offense; heck, the Pelicans nearly crossed that threshold last season with worse offensive talent around them.

There's top-6 upside with this group; that could be enough to put them in the 8-to-10-seed hunt... if the defense isn't god-awful.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West

Zion is already slated to miss the beginning of the season as he recovers from a right foot injury. Continued injury misfortune from him and a bad defense would be pretty tough to overcome.

San Antonio Spurs

WHAT TO LIKE: THE GUARD ROOM

Dejounte Murray is one of the best perimeter defenders on the planet. He can get to and finish at the rim effectively. Last season, he showcased more comfort pulling up for elbow-area twos.

Derrick White can play (and defend) either guard spot. Lonnie Walker IV is a ball of energy with some interesting flashes on his tape.

The most intriguing guy of all may be Devin Vassell, a talented shooter and wise off-ball defender with on-ball chops worth exploring.

OTHER LIKES

- This is also a Keldon Johnson Fan Account. The list of players that drive as aggressively (and pass the ball as infrequently) as Johnson does is incredibly short. Just a wildly fun dude to watch play. 

We'll see what the application looks like, but the Spurs at least attempted to add movement shooting with Doug McDermott and Bryn Forbes. They'll still miss Patty Mills.

- Jakob Poeltl is the best rim-protector your friends don't know about.

- To add yet another guard to the list: I'm starting to warm up some on the Josh Primo pick. He's a smooth operator with the ball in his hands, able to get to his pull-up in a multitude of ways. I just wish he had a little more burst.

WHAT TO DISLIKE: HALF-COURT OFFENSE

The Spurs are going to miss DeMar DeRozan in this regard.

DeRozan carried a massive creation burden as a scorer and playmaker. His absence may lead to a faster pace offensively; I'm not sure it'll lead to more of a flow.

Who is the tip of the spear for this offense? Who is the "we have to send two to the ball" guy that defenses are afraid of? Without a leap from Murray or an unforeseen jump from somewhere else, it's hard to believe that guy is on the roster.

OTHER DISLIKES

- The Spurs may have crossed the "too many guards" threshold. Consolidation may be in order at some point. It doesn't have to be a Ben Simmons move in particular (unless...), but it would be nice if the roster had a little more balance.

I'm still a bit confused on the Zach Collins contract, but I genuinely wish him the best of luck. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Murray-White-Vassell-Johnson-Young

This is a unit that could create havoc defensively. The offense is more of a mixed bag; one of the Murray/Johnson/Young triumvirate has to knock down enough jumpers to keep defenders honest. If they're able to get stops and run, they may be okay.

BEST CASE: Play-In Tournament 

There's a lot of young talent on the roster that could pop, and quality veterans to fill out the rotation. In theory, the Spurs could go 10 deep without having a bad player taking up minutes. You can carve out regular-season wins with that sort of formula, especially if you get an actual leap from someone in the core.

WORST CASE: Bottom of the West

The Spurs are going to rely a lot on transition buckets, and movement in the half-court. I worry about teams deciding "hey, we're just going to switch everything" and the Spurs not being able to score enough to force a play-in push.

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