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2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

2022-23 NBA Season Preview: Southwest Division

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 DivisionNorthwest 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 Spot:

Dallas Mavericks

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. 

OTHER LIKES

- 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 it.

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 defensively.

BIGGEST QUESTION MARK: CHRISTIAN WOOD'S DEFENSIVE FIT

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 over length. 

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 this point. 

We'll just have to see. 

OTHER CONCERNS

- 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 high-variance shooters. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Doncic-Dinwiddie-DFS-Wood-Kleber

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.

Houston Rockets

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 jumpers.

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.

OTHER LIKES

- 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, frankly.

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 INFRASTRUCTURE

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.

OTHER CONCERNS

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 defense.

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 special.

- The forward room is pretty deep too, which makes me feel a little queasy about Eason's minutes early on. He should play early and often. 

LINEUP TO WATCH: Porter Jr.-Green-Tate-Smith-Sengun

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 weaknesses.

BEST CASE: Bottom of the West, trending upward

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 mess

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.

Memphis Grizzlies

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.

OTHER LIKES

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 possible.

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 on him.

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. 

OTHER CONCERNS

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 last year.

LINEUP TO WATCH: Morant-Bane-Brooks-Clarke-Jackson Jr.

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 ridiculous.

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 regular-season wins.

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.

New Orleans Pelicans

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? 

OTHER LIKES

- 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 improve.

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 continue.

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 do everything. 

OTHER CONCERNS

It's boring, but I'm always going to worry about Zion's availability until he proves I don't have to anymore. 

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 III-Williamson

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 cuts.

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 the question.

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.

San Antonio Spurs

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 year. 

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 opportunities.

OTHER LIKES

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 interest.

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 TOUCHES

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 Atlanta.

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. 

OTHER CONCERNS

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: Jones-Primo-Vassell-Johnson-Poeltl

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 upward

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 mess

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 DivisionNorthwest Division, Central Division, Pacific Division, and Southeast Division.

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