Spurs point guard Tony Parker hopes to sip championship champagne again after the 2014-15 season (Photo Credit: AP Photo/David J. Phillip).
NBA Preview 2014-15
Predicted order of finish
1) San Antonio
4) New Orleans
San Antonio Spurs
2013-14 season: 62-20, 1st in Southwest
Playoff result: Won fifth NBA Championship defeating Miami in six games.
Coach: Gregg Poppovich (967-443, 19th season)
Strengths: The core of the Spurs remains in place with point guard Tony Parker (16.7 ppg), Manu Ginobli (12.3 ppg), and Tim Duncan (15.1 ppg.). There are some emerging pieces like NBA Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (12.8 ppg.) and Tiago Splitter (8.2 ppg.) at two critical spots of small forward and center as both gained one more year of experience in the Spurs system. San Antonio got some great play from their bench in point guard Patrick Mills (10.2 ppg) and shooting guard Marco Belinelli (11.4 ppg.) Belinelli made 126 3-pointers and shot 43 percent from behind the arc. Kyle Anderson, a first round pick from UCLA, could be a steal for San Antonio and could help contribute right away for the Spurs.
Weakness: Entering this season Tony Parker enters his 13th season, Manu Ginobli his 12th year and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan will be in his 17th season so the veterans are getting long in the tooth, and how much longer can they play together at a high level? Poppovich did a great job of playing his starters throughout the season, however, can they do it again. San Antonio needs youth to come off the bench as forward Matt Bonner (3.2 ppg.) enters his 10th season and is one of the elder statesmen coming off the bench. Forward Boris Diaw (9.1 ppg.), who came up big during the Finals vs. the Heat, can either be a starter or reserve. Diaw gives San Antonio the defense they need at small forward, however the Spurs can use his scoring as a starter.
Outlook: As long as Poppovich and Duncan are in San Antonio, you can count on the Spurs winning 50 games a year at minimum. Despite having five NBA championships, San Antonio wants a sixth championship. Poppovich will manage the Big Three’s minutes and games as he always does, saving them for the playoffs. Kawhi Leonard is the Spurs’ next superstar replacing Tim Duncan at some point. Now, we need to see how much of a jump towards being “the guy” Leonard takes. We do know Leonard is a solid defensive stopper at small forward, however the Spurs will expect his scoring production to increase year-by-year. Tim Duncan is in the final year for his contract; will he ride off into the sunset with his sixth championship?
Prediction: 58-24, 1st in Southwest Division, Western Conference Champions.
2013-14 season: 54-28, 2nd in Southwest
Playoff result: Lost to Portland in seven games in the first round.
Coach: Kevin McHale (172-152, 6th season, 4th season with Houston)
Strengths: The duo of James Harden and Dwight Howard remains the team’s core. Harden (25.4 ppg) continues to emerge as one of the best pure scorers in the game while Howard continues to dominate inside averaging a double-double (18.3 ppg. 12.2 reb.) Houston added Trevor Ariza to play the small forward position. Not known as a scorer, Ariza did average 14 points per game last season for the Washington Wizards, but Ariza is better known for his defense. Ariza did make 180 3-points last season and played in 77 games last season. The Rockets have some nice young players in Terrence Jones who had a nice season (12.1 ppg, 6.9 reb.) at power forward.
Weakness: Losing Omer Asik to New Orleans in a trade takes away the depth along the Rockets frontline. In addition, trading away Jeremy Lin to the Lakers adds a need for a point guard. Patrick Beverley is the starting point guard and Jason Terry comes over from Sacramento to give Houston some much needed shooting from the point guard spot, but who can run the team the way Coach Kevin McHale likes? Offensively, Houston can score with anyone in the league, but can they come up with defensive stops to end the game, which they couldn’t do last season to close out the Portland series.
Outlook: Houston has the talent to compete with the best in the league and yes they should win 50-plus games. But the questions about defense specifically about defense from guards James Harden and Patrick Beverley will be the question. Last season, Houston scored an average of 107.7 points per game, which was 2nd in the league, while the Rockets gave up 103.1 points per game, which was 22nd in the league. Has Harden’s experience with the USA World Cup team this summer helped him develop the tenacity to play defense when it counts? Kevin McHale won three championships with the Celtics in his playing career and part of his calling card was playing defense. If he can get Houston to play defense this season in close and critical games down the stretch, the Rockets could go beyond losing in the first round on a last-second jumper.
Prediction: 56-26, 2nd in Southwest Division, Western Conference Semifinals.
2013-14 season: 50-32, 3rd in Southwest
Playoff result: Lost to Los Angeles Clippers in Western Conference Semifinals.
Coach: Dave Joerger (50-32, 2nd season)
Strengths: Memphis was one of the elite defensive teams in the NBA last year, holding teams to only 94.6 points per game (third-best in the NBA). The Grizzlies’ defensive rating of 104.6 and opponent’s points per game of 94.6 are some of the best in the NBA, ranking seventh and third respectively. One of the players the Grizzles can fully count on to score is veteran forward Zach Randolph. Throughout the course of his 13-year career, Randolph has consistently put up 20 and 10, and he held close to that mark last year by averaging 17.4 points and 10 rebounds. Randolph is the go-to player for the Grizzlies when in search of points thanks to his variety of post moves and great ability to draw fouls. Randolph has also steadily improved his mid-range jump shot. This is key to stretching defenses and giving his teammate Marc Gasol space to operate in the post. An expert at establishing great post position, Randolph also relies on strong box-out position to track down his own misses and capitalize on second-chance points.
Weakness: While the Grizzlies’ experience is one of their strengths, the NBA is becoming increasingly more athletic and younger, which the Grizzlies are not. The team has been able to use their veteran defense to slow down young, athletic teams like the Thunder and the Clippers in the past, but it’s a major question if they can keep this up and overcome injuries. The lack of transition scoring and limited three-point shooting adds to the Grizzlies’ inability to score and may keep them from staying with the strong offensive teams in the West, even if their defense is on point. Depth has also been an issue for the Grizzlies, especially if the injury bug bites again like it did last year. The Grizzlies have taken steps to address these weaknesses this offseason, but these are still issues that could keep the Grizzlies from reaching elite status.
Outlook: This was a nice summer for the Grizzlies, re-signing Zach Randolph and adding talented players like Vince Carter, Jordan Adams and Jarnell Stokes among others. Memphis should be better than last year for a few reasons. Marc Gasol missed time last season and he’s extremely important for the Grizzlies. Now, he is healthy and looked good in the FIBA World Cup. Also, the Grizzlies will be more comfortable playing for head coach Dave Joerger since they have a year of experience under him. Carter should help the Grizzlies’ offense if he plays as well as he did last year with the Dallas Mavericks, giving Memphis some points off of the bench. I like what Memphis did this offseason and they could be back in contention this season.
Prediction: 51-31, 3rd in Southwest, Western Conference Semifinals.
New Orleans Pelicans
2013-14 season: 34-48, 5th in Southwest
Playoff result: Did not make playoffs last season.
Coach: Monty Williams (128-184, 5th season)
Strengths: Even though they were ranked just 18th overall in terms of scoring last season, the offensive side of the ball should definitely be considered a strength as the Peilicans move forward. The front office should really be commended for putting together a well-rounded roster complete with shooters and guys who can score from the low post, in transition and in the half-court set. They should also be a better defensive team this season with the addition of Omer Asik. Davis and Asik form a pretty formidable front line, and it isn’t like they have any glaring weaknesses around the perimeter defensively. Jrue Holiday is also one of the league’s best defensive point guards when healthy, so one would imagine this squad has the makings of a top unit on that end.
Weakness: The top six players of Davis, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Jason Smith, Jrue Holiday, and Tyreke Evans missed over 200 games combined last season due to injuries. New Orleans has built some depth at all five positions, but injuries to key players like Ryan Anderson, and Jason Smith coming off the bench really hurt the Pelicans’ chances of coming close to the playoff picture. They have to be a better rebounding team in 2014-15. Asik should help, but it will be everyone’s responsibility to rebound as a team and limit opponents to fewer attempts per possession. They could also stand to work through the offense a bit more and limit their one-on-one scoring attempts. With as many weapons as they have and a very willing playmaker in Holiday, they really have no excuse to be in the bottom-third in assists per game as they were last season (19th overall).
Outlook: Momentum is building down in the “Crescent City.” There is a genuine belief that this team can make a run at their first Western Conference playoff berth since All-Stars Chris Paul and David West left town a few years back. The excitement is primarily driven by emerging forward Anthony Davis, who began putting the world on notice last season. Davis is the real deal. But for the Pelicans to truly reach the land of the playoffs, royally paid veterans Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon must stay healthy and produce at a high level. There’s talent on the roster in New Orleans capable of making noise, but their margin for error doesn’t allow much room for slippage.
Prediction: 46-36, 4th in Southwest, Western Conference first round.
2013-14 season: 49-33, 4th in Southwest
Playoff result: Lost to San Antonio in seven games in the first round.
Coach: Rick Carlisle (569-399, 13th season, 7th season with Dallas)
Strengths: Shooting: On any given night Dallas will have Dirk Nowitzki, Chandler Parsons and Monta Ellis available. The options the Mavericks can hurt teams with in one possession is staggering. And with those pick and rolls could lead to even more options, such as Ellis spotting up, Brandan Wright hovering near the rim when Dirk's setting a pick, Dirk hovering in his sweet spot when Wright's setting a pick and the possible weak side shooting or the threat of a post-up. However, with the defense they have they need it to make it enough if they want to have a prayer against a very tough Western Conference.
Weakness: Center, and especially center depth. Samuel Dalembert, Brendan Wright and DeJuan Blair are not names that exactly light the world on fire, and that group is an injury away from being potentially tragic. They do bring back Tyson Chandler, who was a part of the Mavericks championship team a few years ago. Perimeter defense: Dallas has had a lot of injuries at guard, and the few healthy bodies they do have at the moment were lit up by dribble penetration last season. Much like last year with Devin Harris, expect Monta Ellis to take some lumps. Even though Ellis has had a reputation as a scorer, his defense has been less than desired. Carlisle will have to decide what he can live with and without.
Outlook: The Mavericks were better last season than everyone this side of Mark Cuban thought they’d be, and the Dallas front office did a nice job this offseason making the appropriate moves to ensure that positive momentum continues along in the right direction. Chandler Parsons was expensive, but he’ll be a great fit on that roster, while Tyson Chandler brings back a defensive component the team has been missing since they first allowed him to walk away in free agency a few summers ago. Jameer Nelson came at a bargain this summer, and there are actually quite a few young players on this roster with breakout potential. Dirk Nowitzki may be past his prime, but his “budget” contract allowed for Donnie Nelson to go out and make some big moves to improve the team. It looks like they’ve succeeded, though it doesn’t seem likely that they’ll be winning a championship this year considering how stiff the competition is out West.
Prediction: 44-38, 5th in Southwest, misses playoffs.