This past December, Jason Concepcion published the Grantland article, “A Brief History of Utter Ineptitude: The Past 10 Years of the NBA’s Atlantic Division.”
According to Concepcion, the worst divisional winning percentage (WP) in NBA history belongs to the 2009-10 Atlantic Division, as the five teams “boasted” a .385 WP while ringing in the current decade. As of Tuesday, the division’s combined WP this season stands at .378. As Concepcion painfully, but accurately, notes, “We’re one Kyle Lowry slip in the shower away from making NBA history.”
After starting the first 58 games of Toronto’s season, Lowry has sat out the Raptor’s past three games, due to a stew of calf, hamstring and finger injuries. It is not known whether any of the occurred while bathing, but, nonetheless, neither Lowry nor any of his teammates up north can save the incompetence that is the Atlantic Division.
Meanwhile, the best of the best are lacing up every night and bringing honor to the league’s Southwest Division. The Memphis Grizzlies, New Orleans Pelicans and a trio of Texas teams, the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Dallas Mavericks, all have records above .500. Four of the five Southwest teams currently hold a playoff spot in the extremely competitive Western Conference. The Pelicans are just one game out.
Without further ado, I present to you: A Brief History and Analysis of Basketball Greatness: The Past, Present and Future of the Southwest Division.
Less than five years removed from an NBA Championship, the Mavs are currently right in the middle of the divisional race, less than four games out of first. The show is still run by 2011 Finals MVP Dirk Nowitzki, who, at age 36, is putting up over 17 points a night. Dallas, though, is far from a one-man show; four out of five starters are averaging double digits in points. The fifth, well, is Rajon Rondo. While his points have been down overall, this year he is also averaging just six assists with the Mavs this season, after averaging double-digits in that category with the Celtics earlier this season. No stranger to controversy, he and Coach Rick Carlisle have also butted heads on, off, and on the side of the court. While Dirk has two years remaining on his contract, it is likely that Rondo will walk at the end of the season. However, the Southwest is loaded top to bottom with quality big men who are becoming harder and harder to find. Resigning Chandler Parsons should be a priority for the Mavs this off-season.
San Antonio Spurs
The gold standard by which all sports teams should be measured, the Spurs simply refuse to go away. After winning championships in 1999, 2003, 2005 and 2007, another O’ Brien Trophy was added to the case in San Antonio last year. However, at 36-23, could this be the first year since 2011 that the Spurs fail to make the finals, the beginning of the end? With their contracts expiring at the end of the season and both men pushing 40, it is highly likely that two of the original “Big Three,” Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, will retire this year. Even so, the Spurs will be fine. One man that is not leaving is Gregg Popovich. Pop, one of the greatest coaches of all time, signed a multi-year extension last summer. Aside from having A+ coaching, the Spurs have one of the best front offices in sports. With just over $33 million owed next year, San Antonio should be an attractive destination for most free agents. They also draft remarkably well and have a keen eye for young talent. Remember, it was not Duncan, Parker or Ginobili who was named Finals MVP last year, but instead Kawhi Leonard.
The Grizzlies are currently holding onto first place in the Southwest and second place in the conference. It is highly possible that they will face one of their division rivals in the first round of the playoffs whether it be New Orleans, San Antonio or Dallas. After losing to San Antonio in the 2013 Western Conference Finals, the Grizzlies had a sour first-round playoff exit last season at the hands of Oklahoma City, another rematch that we may see this postseason. Regardless of the opponent, the Grizzlies will be ready. With a core of Zach Randolph, Tony Allen, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, who have now played together for five seasons, Memphis is hungrier than ever. Long over the days of Rudy Gay, whenever the Grizz play, they do so as a team, as a well-oiled machine. The Grizzlies are not flashy, and none of their players repeatedly stuff stat sheets. However, collectively, they hold teams to 95 points per game, the fewest OPPG in the league. The Grizzlies also force almost 15 turnovers per contest. They grit, they grind, and, more importantly, they win. No matter what team faces Memphis in the playoffs, I hope that team is ready.
Conversely, the Rockets employ the league’s leading scorer, James Harden, who averages over 27 per game. Coming off back-to-back first round exits in April, the most recent at the hands of a memorable shot by Damian Lillard, this year’s Rockets have their eyes set on the ultimate prize. Like any team, however, the main obstacle for the Rockets may be injuries. Dwight Howard, who has played in just 32 games this season, is still very limited while recovering from a knee procedure. However, the Rockets have gone 11-4 since Dwight’s latest ailment. The Rockets do not lack talent and Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate. However, even with Howard healthy, are the Rockets a legitimate championship contender? I hesitate to say yes. With Harden and Ariza both signed for several years, the future looks bright for the Rockets. However, they have failed to show up on the big stage and, barring a sudden move to the Eastern Conference, I don’t see them going past the second round. Maybe next year.
New Orleans Pelicans
While the Spurs have, arguably, the best power forward of all-time, the Pelicans have, not only the future of the Southwest, but the future of the NBA, in Anthony Davis. After a messy divorce with guard Chris Paul in 2011, the then-Hornets drafted Davis just months later. The 21-year-old often yields comparisons with Duncan, Nowitzki and Hakeem Olajuwon, all of whom suited up for a current Southwest team. However, to not appreciate the uniqueness of Davis is to do a great disservice to the big man. In a downsized league, the already two-time All-Star (and Olympic gold-medalist) can effortlessly put up commanding double-doubles night after night. His long limbs constantly threaten both blocks and steals and he is steadily improving his range. While Davis is the most notable, New Orleans actually has a plethora of young talent, including Eric Gordon, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson and Tyreke Evans, all of whom have contracts through at least next year (though, Gordon has a 2015-16 player option). With many other contracts expiring, including that of Omer Asik, who has stepped up as Davis and Anderson nurse injuries, expect the Pelicans to add at least one more key piece in the off-season, which may very well begin a little bit later this year.
With less than a couple dozen games left on each team’s regular season schedule, now is the time that casual fans start to tune in. Houston’s ABC-televised win over the Cavaliers this past weekend undoubtedly, already had a playoff feel to it. Playoff quality basketball, however, can be found each and every night in the Southwest, home of the league’s leading scorer, the current NBA Champions and five 2015 All-Stars (one from each team). Madness is good and all, but if you’re looking greatness in March, look no further than the NBA’s Southwest Division.