With the NBA regular season set to tip off on Oct.18, let’s take
a look at where each team in the Southwest Division stands. We’ll
break down what to like, what to be concerned about, a lineup to
watch and a reasonable range for them to finish in the standings.
(If you missed them, read our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, and Southeast Division.)
And for deeper thoughts on the Southwest Division, you can
listen to the latest episode of The Dunker
WHAT TO LIKE: LUKA DONCIC
The man is barely old enough to drink legally and he's arguably
a top-five player in the league already.
There are maybe a handful of players in NBA history with Luka
Doncic's intersection of size, playmaking and shot creation. The
"offense-unto-himself" moniker is starting to get passed out too
loosely, but it legitimately applies to Doncic.
(Don't read this next part, Phoenix fans.)
I'm ready to watch him dissect elite defenses again.
- I'm excited to see Christian Wood and Doncic
operate in ball screens together. Doncic hasn't had a partner this
good at rolling and popping. The fact that Wood
can mash switches should, in theory, take the easy option
(switching) off the table — or at least teams won't feel good about
- Dorian Finney-Smith is the second-best
player on this team. You can view that as a problem within the "are
the Mavs contenders?" lens if you'd like, but it should mostly
serve as a testament to how much Finney-Smith has improved
during his stint in Dallas. He is a borderline elite defender,
has shot 39% from three on roughly five attempts over the past
three seasons, and has made strides as a driver and connective
passer last season. He's good, man.
- I can't say I'm comfortable with the
idea of Frank Ntilikina or Josh Green as third
ball-handlers on a good team, but, man, am I endlessly intrigued
with both of them. That's a lot of juice on the perimeter
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: CHRISTIAN WOOD'S DEFENSIVE
I'm not sure anyone had the Mavericks as an elite defensive team
on their bingo cards last year. They did so with an almost annoying brand of
competence: pinch in early, help each other on the back end,
close out hard and under control and force teams to take middies
Enter Wood, who has struggled — or outright refused — to do
those things consistently.
There's no question about his talent offensively. And quietly,
he's mobile enough to work as a cog in a switch system. But he's
had some ugly lapses off the ball, and even uglier examples of
no-show effort throughout his NBA career.
The Mavericks are gambling that those issues are 1) correctable
and 2) have been the product of Wood's non-winning environments to
We'll just have to see.
- Spencer Dinwiddie isn't an overqualified
bonus to the guard room; he has to serve as the
secondary playmaker on this team. He shot the ball incredibly well
with the Mavs last season, but his previous history points to him
being shaky in that regard. The burst and rim pressure has to be
fully back in order for this to work.
- I'm a little concerned about the overall
shooting talent on the roster. For a team that creates and takes a
lot of threes, they're likely to rely on a good bit of
LINEUP TO WATCH:
The Doncic-Dinwiddie-DFS-Kleber quartet outscored opponents by
50 points in their 219 minutes together last season. Adding Wood as
a fifth should boost the offense tremendously. There's enough size
across the board that they could lean into more switching while
shrinking the floor. Finding that balance defensively will be key
to making that lineup work.
BEST CASE: No. 3 Seed
It's an easy case to make. Luka is MVP-good again, Dinwiddie
replicates most of the production from Jalen Brunson and the
defense remains solid.
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
I'd keep an eye on the defense slipping. They were a surprise
top-10 unit that quietly ranked in the bottom-10 in field goal
percentage allowed at the rim. If Wood can't fit in, that number
may wind up worse. With the strength of the conference, I'm not
sure the Mavs can afford the annual slow start from Luka.
WHAT TO LIKE: JALEN GREEN'S ASCENSION
Jalen Green is violently smooth.
He'll give you Anthony Edwards vibes with sudden changes of
direction, capped off with aggressive drives.
He'll give you Zach LaVine vibes with the way he can drift
across the court and flow into an array of off-the-dribble
Ultimately, though: he'll give you buckets.
Green exploded after the Rockets finally stopped starting two
centers. As the game slowed down for him, he got more comfortable
making decisions in the half-court. You always have to be cautious
with post-All-Star-break samples, but his 22-4-3 on roughly 59%
True Shooting felt pretty sustainable.
- Can't talk about fun bucket-getting without
talking about Kevin Porter Jr. Filthy isolation package, filthy
handle. He's a joy to watch when he gets rolling.
- This is, and likely always will be, a
Jae'Sean Tate fan account. Dude gets after it defensively and fills
in every non-shooting gap you can think of. He's a winning player,
- I've seen enough: I'm all in on Tari
Eason. He's "the-ball-finds-energy" personified with enough ball
skills to keep an eye on if the Rockets indulge him in any way. I'm
preemptively annoyed by him being snubbed on the All-Rookie Second
Team this year.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: DEFENSIVE
It's easy to see how the trio of Porter Jr., Green and Alperen
Sengun can be successful moving forward. There's enough
shot-making, driving, pull-up equity and overall playmaking for the
three to be used in tandem.
How that works defensively? We shall see.
The Rockets bled points — 120.6 DRTG in nearly 400 minutes —
with that trio on the floor. To my surprise, the number was
actually slightly worse (121.9) in the minutes they played without Christian Wood,
who looked like a First Team All-Bledsoe member
for much of the year.
If Sengun is your five, he'll likely be at the level of the
screen. That's going to take real connectivity on the back end, and
I'll just say the early returns of Porter Jr. and Green off the
ball have been uneven. Having Tate and Jabari Smith Jr. on the
floor will help; I'm just curious to see how much.
- It's not a bad thing that the Rockets
have a bunch of talented guards, but I do feel like they're going
to be pigeonholed into some three-guard lineups until they make a
consolidation move or two. I'm not sure what that does for the
- It's not a push-the-button issue yet,
but it's worth monitoring Sengun's usage offensively. There was a
lot less high post and elbow usage throughout the preseason. He'll
have to show more juice as a roller, but I hope the Rockets don't
prioritize that growth at the expense of what makes him
- The forward room is pretty deep too, which makes me feel a
little queasy about Eason's minutes early on. He should play early
LINEUP TO WATCH: Porter
I almost went with the All-Core group, swapping Eason in for
Tate, but I'm not sure how often we'll actually see that group.
At any rate, I do wonder how Smith can help this group on both
ends. Last year's sample was unkind, as the Rockets were blasted in the
Porter Jr.-Green-Tate-Sengun minutes last season
Smith's shooting and shot-making should provide valuable relief
to the backcourt and Sengun. His defensive versatility and overall
length should complement Tate and help cover for some of Sengun's
BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, trending
I'd be pleasantly surprised if the Rockets made a play-in push —
probably a year early for that — but it's easy to see their core
taking steps forward. Continued growth from the Porter Jr.-Green
backcourt, Smith slotting in nicely, and more comfort on both ends
shown from Sengun would make this a successful campaign.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the West, jumbled
There are a lot of mouths to feed, and we do
have a recent example (last season) of head coach Stephen Silas
taking a while to find his optimal rotation. Any stagnation from
the core would be frustrating, though it's important to remember
that progress isn't always linear.
WHAT TO LIKE: JA MORANT
I don't know what he's better at: attacking the basket, or
clapping back at people.
I'll opt with the former for now: leading the NBA in paint
points at 6-foot-3 is almost unheard of. There isn't an individual
defender that can consistently keep him out of the painted area.
There's only one scheme — putting two on the ball — that can come
close to pulling it off, but he's such a high-level passer that it
doesn't make much sense to run it in heavy doses.
Morant is one of the best — and most entertaining — players we
have in the league.
- I was confused at Desmond Bane sliding
the way he did during his draft. After last season, I'm even more
confused. He's an absolute stud — one of the best shooters in the
league, and someone who grew tremendously as a self-creator last
season. He looks even stronger, which I honestly didn't think was
- Kudos to Brandon Clarke for getting the
bag. Yet another guy who shouldn't have slid on draft night, but
his screening, finishing, offensive rebounding and switchability
have all proven immensely valuable to this team. He's a sneaky
Sixth-Man-of-the-Year candidate in my humble opinion.
- Ziaire Williams popped early for me
during the regular season when the Grizzlies had him chasing Steph
Curry around. That he didn't look helpless — and actually did a
decent job — spoke volumes to me. He's a wiry, rangy defender who
quietly crushed it on pull-up middies last year. It's telling the
Grizzlies gave him a bunch of on-ball reps this summer. Keep an eye
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: BENCH DEPTH
Losing De'Anthony Melton (Philadelphia) and Kyle Anderson
(Minnesota) are blows. Of course, the beauty of the Grizzlies is
that they tend to have young guys in the chamber ready to step up
when called upon.
We may very well get good enough minutes from guys like Santi
Aldama, John Konchar and Jake LaRavia to make those subtractions
moot. I just want to see it.
- Replacing what Jaren Jackson Jr. does
defensively will be difficult. If Aldama continues to start
alongside Steven Adams, I wonder just what coverages the Grizzlies
will run with them.
- On the defense front, I really, really,
really hope Morant takes a step this year. He's too talented to die
on screens or give up dribble penetration the way he does. He
doesn't have to turn into an All-Defense guy — and he won't,
considering his offensive workload — but it can't be what it was
LINEUP TO WATCH: Morant-Bane-Brooks-Clarke-Jackson
Between absences from Morant, Jackson Jr. and Brooks, this group
only played 47 minutes together
last year. This may shock you, but they were really freaking good
together; winning a 47-minute sample by 38 points is freaking
This should be the closing unit if everyone's healthy. There's
enough shooting, creation and switchability to give just about any
closing lineup in the league fits.
BEST CASE: No. 2 Seed
Morant seems ready for an MVP push. Bane looks ready for
yet another leap offensively. This is a young,
deep, feisty and
well-coached group. If they're able to patch up the defense enough
in Jackson Jr.'s absence, they should still be able to rack up
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
Losing Jackson Jr. hurts their interior defensively, and it
limits their scheme versatility a bit. If they get off to a subpar
start while he's out, that could be the difference between
finishing fourth and seventh in a conference this tough.
WHAT TO LIKE: ZION WILLIAMSON'S RETURN
We've heard so much about Zion Williamson (and his camp, I
guess) over the past year. Rumors about extension talks. Murmurs
about him looking for greener pastures. Whispers about his
conditioning, or lack thereof.
It felt like we were getting further and further away from the
plot: this is a generational athlete who can
finish through people, over people and break defenses with ball
screens as the handler.
The one semi-healthy campaign Zion has put together was a 27-7-4
year where he also converted 62.2% of his two-pointers. Do you know
how freaking absurd that is?
- I'll be brief: Herb Jones is already one of
the best defenders in basketball, and should turn into a legitimate
two-way force as his jumper and driving craft continues to
- Brandon Ingram took important steps as a
playmaker last season, making quicker decisions and flashing a
little more manipulation in the half-court. I'd love to see that
- I'm just kinda in on the Pelicans' young
bench mob. Jose Alvarado's screen navigation (and RKO-steals),
Trey Murphy III's bucket-getting
(PLAY HIM ALL THE MINUTES YOU CAN) and Larry Nance Jr.'s
versatility all resonate with me.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: THE DEFENSE
The last time we saw Zion, he mostly looked like a fish out of
water when asked to navigate help responsibilities or execute
controlled closeouts. The early, limited preseason results weren't
great, though that's to be expected as he works himself back.
Ultimately, though, he'll need to bring it. Jonas Valanciunas is
stout in a drop, but I do still have questions with him in more
aggressive coverages. Jones is incredible, but he can't
- It's boring, but I'm always going to
worry about Zion's availability until he proves I don't have to
- On a similar note, are we approaching
"too-many-heads" territory with the Pelicans' frontcourt room? If
we do get a healthy Zion, how often will we see Murphy III at the
4? How often will we see Jaxson Hayes, period? Do they become trade
pieces? This is more curiosity than concern.
LINEUP TO WATCH: McCollum-Jones-Ingram-Murphy
If Zion can hold up at the 5 even a little bit defensively, I'm
just not sure how you'll be able to defend this unit. The
McCollum-Ingram-Zion trio should be a supernova offensively, with
any two-man combination having plenty of space to work with. The
only player on the floor teams aren't scared of on the perimeter is
Jones, but he's proven capable of countering that with timely
BEST CASE: No. 4 Seed
All the Pelicans need to do is defend at a
slightly-below-average level. Willie Green will certainly require
the buy-in and energy. If they can get there, the offense should be
able to carry them to regular-season wins. Homecourt isn't out of
WORST CASE: Play-In Tournament
You have to keep an eye on the health of Zion and Ingram. Beyond
that, it's easy to envision this team struggling to defend well
enough to secure a top-six seed. It'd take disaster-level injury
luck to fall out of the top-10 though.
WHAT TO LIKE: KELDON JOHNSON'S AGGRESSION
It was easy to miss among the relative quiet of San Antonio, but
Keldon Johnson took pretty big strides offensively last
He introduced himself to the league as a human bowling ball
during the 2020-21 season, just bouncing into and off of poor
defenders trying to keep him from the rim. He didn't pass much — he
passed on a meme-able 21.2% of his drives — but
sometimes it felt like he didn't have to.
Last season, Johnson became a more willing passer, upping that
pass rate to 26.2%. Still low, but better. The bigger surprise was his comfort as a
shooter. He more than doubled his three-point volume from the
2020-21 season (from 2.6 attempts to 5.3 last season) while
draining nearly 40% of his threes.
He'll have more freedom with Dejounte Murray gone. I'm excited
to see how well he handles it, and what he prioritizes with those
- I'm in on Devin Vassell as a funky
secondary option. You can't block (or really contest) his pull-up
middy, and he's flashed enough as a passer to pique my
- For however long he's there, Jakob Poeltl will remain the best
center that almost nobody talks about. In addition to his rim
protection, he made strides as a finisher and passer. Don't ask
about the free-throw shooting, please.
- Broadly speaking, I'm just excited to
learn about the young guys who haven't gotten much burn yet. More
Tre Jones, more Josh Primo, and the introduction of all that is
Jeremy Sochan should lead to some fun.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: GENERATING PAINT
Entering last season, my biggest concern was how they'd be able
to get defenses in rotation due to the departure of DeMar DeRozan.
We're rolling that concern into this year with Dejounte Murray in
There simply isn't a star-caliber player on the roster as things
stand. Until proven otherwise, is there reason for teams not to
duck under or switch most screening actions against the Spurs?
Somebody has to pop.
- I pondered this on the preview pod, but
I wonder if the Spurs consider going a little more conservative
with their defensive scheme. They had Poeltl more at the level (or
slightly below) last year, and I just don't know how much I trust
Johnson making the rotations behind him right now.
- What kind of lineups will Sochan be used
in? I'm already in on his defensive potential, but I just don't
know what the Spurs are going to prioritize with him offensively.
This doesn't seem like a great context for him in terms of the
talent around him.
- Surely Doug McDermott can't be the only guy who draws two to
the ball on this roster, right?
LINEUP TO WATCH:
This group only saw 49 minutes together last season, but there's
plenty of creation potential here. Jones can jitterbug around with
Primo, Vassell and Johnson spacing. Ditto can be said for the other
wings getting ball-handling reps.
Ultimately, it's important we see how fruitful the
"we-care-about-the-youth" group can be. Get them reps, let 'em grow
and have some fun.
BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, trending
The losses will pile up, but you take that if you get downhill
progress from Vassell, continued shooting process from Johnson and
decision-making leaps from Primo.
WORST CASE: Bottom of the West, jumbled
It's hard to call it a worst case, but it would be disappointing
if the lack of spacing hurts the development environment. Spurs
fans can take the losses if you're getting positive flashes from
guys like Vassell or Johnson; if a majority of their looks are
contested, this could become a slog pretty quickly.
Check out our season previews for the Atlantic Division, Northwest Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, and Southeast Division.