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2016-17 NBA Preview: Southwest Division

1. San Antonio Spurs –

Projected Starting 5: PG Tony Parker SG Danny Green SF Kawhi Leonard PF LaMarcus Aldridge C Pau Gasol

Projected Record: 61-21

Last Season’s Thoughts –

It’s fair to say that the NBA was suffering from Warriors fever last season, because the San Antonio Spurs made franchise history, winning 67 games, and yet their accomplishment largely went unrecognized because of the Warriors excellence.

And while every player and all the fans want to be like the players on the Warriors, teams have long coveted the way the Spurs run their organization, from the owner all the way down to their social media intern (#millenialreference). Gregg Popovich has rightly become synonymous with coaching excellence, and he has provided the league with a blueprint as to how to sustain success for years and years.

My favorite “number” to pull out about Gregg Popovich is that the last time he coached a loosing team in the NBA, that is a team that finished with more losses than wins, was the year he was appointed interim coach of San Antonio, back in 1996. When was the last time his team won fewer than 50 games? The 1998-99 season, when there was a lockout and the league only played 50 games that year.

Honestly, this guy is unbelievably great. Think about all the teams in the past 20 years that would have loved to have that kind of consistency. Forget a team doing that well, the fact that one coach has done that, that he wasn’t fired or that he didn’t move on, is pretty unheard of in today’s NBA. Last season was no different for the Spurs.

Their biggest task was to incorporate their big off-season signing, LaMarcus Aldridge, into a team that won 55 games the previous season. And while the transition wasn’t seamless, the Spurs still won a franchise record 67 games. Popovich had seemingly found the perfect balance between their experienced veterans, Parker, Ginobli and Duncan, and their new core in Leonard and Aldridge.

The Spurs keep their own expectations very high, and they lived up to them for the most part last season. For all of the other teams, it is easy to identify whether they are rising or falling, and what aspect of their organization they need to work on. For the Spurs, they already know what they need to accomplish, and it is mostly finding the right pieces that will help them accomplish their goals.

This Season’s Prediction –

While it was pointless to explore the previous season for several teams because their rosters changed so dramatically, it is almost pointless to discuss what the Spurs will do this season. Not because it is unimportant, but more because the truly important events for this organization are still to come in the future.

This season the Spurs will be where they always are, at the top of the West. While a lot of their pieces left in the off-season, like Boris Diaw, Andre Miller, and most importantly Matt Bonner (jk lol), their biggest loss in the off-season was “the Big Fundamental”, Mr. Timmy Duncan. I think it was time for him to move on, but they will definitely miss him, especially in this era of unskilled bigmen.

But honestly, the Spurs are going to keep kicking butt this season, so it’s not very interesting to explore how they are going to do it with their new addition in Pau Gasol (rest and team play, there you go, simple). It’s more interesting to ponder what the Spurs will look like in, let’s say, 5 years.

The most glaring difference will be the absence of Gregg Popovich. He said that he would probably give up coaching when Tim Duncan walked away, but Timmy slipped out the back door in a vintage Duncan move, so Popovich has returned for this season, but you’d have to believe that he will walk away from the game sooner rather than later. Will this organization be able to keep its discipline after he’s gone? Surely their next coach will be from the Popovich coaching tree, but replacements rarely live up to their predecessor’s level.

And besides Popovich, the rest of their old big three will be retiring soon. I think Ginobli will call it quits after this season, and I think Parker will only have one season left in him after this year. One of the many gifts that Popovich has given this team is the ability to see what sort of team they will be without their aging stars. Parker is the only remaining starter of that 3, but he plays reduced minutes, so even he isn’t a true starter in the sense that he is holding down that position for the Spurs.

Obviously, the Spurs will build around Kawhi Leonard in the future, but beyond him, their youth isn’t very promising. Aldridge is at the end of his peak, and he will be an “aging” player pretty soon, and the same goes for their other role players in Danny Green and Patty Mills. Pretty much the only downside to their continued success over the past 20 years is that they cannot really stockpile talented youth players because they don’t have very valuable draft picks.

Their ability to scout talents is extremely good, which makes up for those poor draft picks, but they are about to have greater needs up and down their roster, instead of a role player on their bench every other year. One player that I expect to make some waves this year is Kyle Anderson, who I think is going to become a pretty good player off their bench. But in the future, they are going to need a new franchise PG, and they will have to find a good replacement for Aldridge and Gasol down low.

The dominance of the Spurs may be coming to an end in the near future, but you can bet that they will go out on top. Spurs fans should feel confident in their team’s ability to negotiate the upcoming period of change and turnover.

2. Memphis Grizzlies –

Projected Starting 5: PG Mike Conley SG Tony Allen SF Chandler Parsons PF Zach Randolph C Marc Gasol

Projected Record: 53-29

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Oof where to start? The Memphis Grizzlies had a disaster of a year last season, but it was through no fault of their own. They suffered from terrible luck with injuries, with not one of the 28 players that were on their roster last season playing 82 games. Somehow though, they managed not only to have a winning record, but also make the playoffs, which is certainly a good accomplishment considering what they went through.

Besides last season, Memphis has been up and down for the past couple of years. Pretty much every year they have enough defense to compete with the great teams in the NBA, but their offense has always been a little suspect, and they haven’t been very healthy over the years either. They are a bigmen orientated team, with the force of Z-bo and Gasol down low, and their effectiveness has also fluctuated over the years.

Because of the inconsistency, this team is another perfect example of getting stuck in the “middle.” They neither contend for the title every year, nor do they stink it up and end up in the lottery. Since 2009, they have won between 40-55 games, and they have made the playoffs every year since 2010. It’s almost a shame that they salvaged their season last year, because no one would have blamed them for packing it up and tanking for a good pick.

And while I don’t endorse loosing on purpose, they really could have used the infusion of some youthful talent on this team. Their best players are all at the peaks of their careers, and their best bench players are all past their prime, so it is win now or never with this team as it is currently constructed.

This Season’s Prediction –

The Grizzlies would benefit from some Sam Presti aggressiveness in the GM’s office. They will certainly make the playoffs in the upcoming season if they stay healthy for the most part. Their starting 5 is great defensively as always, and they have enough on their bench to help them win games. I only have them over 50 wins because on paper you have to give defense the edge, so they might not win that many games, but they definitely will have a good year.

But what does the future hold for the Grizzlies? Unfortunately, I see a slow and somewhat painful decline for them in the near future. While there is a slight chance that it could come as early as this season, I think that it is more likely to happen in 2017 or 2018. Gasol is 31, Randolph is 35, Conley is 29, Vince Carter is 39, Tony Allen is 34 and Chandler Parsons is 28. This team has to be blown up very soon, or else they will hit rock bottom and stay there for awhile.

There are two kinds of “in the middle” teams. Those which are on the rise, where they have young talent, and they are on the verge of having to pay a bucket load of money to their young stars to keep them together. Then there are the teams like the Grizzlies, who are already paying the stars they have, but they aren’t getting any closer to a championship.

With his new contract, Mike Conley was the highest paid player in the league for a hot sec (before LeBron and his new deal rightly eclipsed him), where he earns $26+ million for the next 5 years, and they are paying Marc Gasol $20+ million for the next 4 seasons. Plus, they also signed Chandler Parsons to a deal, which will have him earning $22+ million for the next 4 years. Even after Z-bo’s contract of $10 million comes off the books after this season, they won’t have a ton of financial flexibility in the near future.

So building through free-agency won’t be very likely for the Grizz, and they will still have enough talent to compete, which could hurt their prospects of getting a top draft pick. So where do they go from here? Again, they need to channel their inner Sam Presti. Blow this team up, please! They need to trade Z-bo this year in order to get this process underway, and I’ll explain why.

At 35, I can’t see Z-bo lasting much longer from either an effectiveness stand point or a health stand point. This is the last year on his contract, which means if he does decide to play after this season, teams will be asking him to take a much smaller salary. So, my thinking is this: if you aren’t going to win a championship this year, then you should take your destiny into your own hands. At the trade deadline, a contender would definitely enjoy the services of Z-bo, and that would be the perfect time to let him go. For the sake of your fans, you fight hard for half the season, then you wave the white flag. Try and get as much for Z-bo as you can, either a draft pick or two, or some younger talent.

Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons will be effective for the next couple of seasons, so the Grizz should either target youth through the draft that will support those guys, or players at the same stage of their careers, which can come in and be effective right away. If the Grizz had young prospects right now, I would say that they should sell of their other pieces, like Tony Allen and Vince Carter, and just plug the young guns in their and build their experience, but unfortunately they don’t have any real up-and-coming talents.

That’s where I think the Chandler Parsons signing really hurts them. Is he good? Ehh, I guess. He gets the job done. But he isn’t bringing them a ring anytime soon. While we all know they won’t, they really ought to trade him for some youth. Same goes for Marc Gasol. I love Gasol, again because of my thing for skilled bigmen, but at 31, you never know when he’s going to start breaking down. I think they should hold onto him until the off-season, show the rest of the league that he can stay healthy and remain effective, and then try to make a trade with him.

Andrew Harrison is pretty much the only bright spot for the future of the Grizz, but even he isn’t predicted to become a superstar, so it isn’t saying too much. Again, the Presti way of doing things isn’t always popular, and it may backfire for the Grizz in the short term, but I think it’s what they really need if they don’t want to end up being a team paying aging stars and not being able to restart their franchise.

Good luck Grizzlies fans, it looks like it’s going to get worse before it gets better for this franchise. But then again, realistically, this team will ride out with Conley, Parsons and Gasol for the time being, and they will still be competitive for this season, so enjoy it while you can.

3. Dallas Mavericks –

Projected Starting 5: PG Deron Williams SG Wesley Matthews SF Harrison Barnes PF Dirk Nowitzki C Andrew Bogut

Projected Record: 44-38

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Okay, I might actually have to add another kind of “in the middle” team to the list. There are the young and up-and-coming, the old and declining, and then there is the Dallas Mavericks. I’ve never been so conflicted about how I feel about an owner as I have been with Mark Cuban for the past few years, since they won a championship.

Some owners are great, George Steinbrenner and whoever the owner of the Spurs is, and then there are the knuckleheads, like James Dolan and Jerry Jones. Mark Cuban has seemingly sat himself on the fence between the two sides, and he can’t make up his mind on who he wants to be. On the one hand, he desperately wants to win championships, and unlike James Dolan, he trusts in his front office and head coach to get the job done. But even though he has the right motivations, he somehow also believes that if he shouts his goals from the rooftops, that players will just magically be attracted to his franchise, and he’ll have the money there for when they arrive.

Seriously, this guy has kept, actively kept, his team in the terrible “middle” zone for the past couple of years. His thinking, that having the pieces in place to fully support a superstar, will attract said superstar, and they will be overnight contenders. And while that logic isn’t that screwed up, in the amount of time that he’s been organizing this grand scheme, he could have tanked for several seasons and have a team stacked with young talent, and still have Dirk on his roster.

Just for fun, let’s list the major free-agents that they have missed out on since they last won a championship in 2011. It’s a pretty long list: Marc Gasol (2011), DeAndre Jordan (back in 2011, lol), Deron Williams (2012) [Yes, they have him now, but they wish they had him back in 2012], Roy Hibbert (Yeah, he was good in 2012), technically KG and Tim Duncan, although to be fair they never had a chance (2012), Dwight Howard (2013), Chris Paul (2013), Andre Iguodala (2013), Paul Millsap (2013), Al Jefferson (2013), LeBron and D-Wade, again no chance (2014), Chris Bosh (2014), Carmelo Anthony (2014), Kyle Lowry (2014), Pau Gasol (2014), LeBron, still no chance (2015), Marc Gasol again (2015), LaMarcus Aldridge (2015), Kevin Love (2015), DeAndre Jordon, lol (2015), Brook Lopez (2015), Tim Duncan and D-Wade, nooo chance (2015), Goran Dragic (2015), Greg Monroe (2015), Paul Millsap again (2015), and of course those from this off-season, Kevin Durant (2016), LeBron again (2016), Mike Conley (2016), Al Horford (2016), DeMar DeRozan (2016), Hasan Whiteside (2016), and Dwight Howard again (2016).

Now, there are a few conditions to that list. Obviously, those are players that I have judged to be at least “stars” in the league during those respective years, and some may have worked out chemistry wise, and others would not have. There’s also the stars they never had a chance at, like LeBron, even though Cuban once boasted that he could lure LeBron to Dallas. Also, I didn’t list any restricted free-agents because they rarely move teams, but there are plenty of other high-profile names in that list as well.

So what is the point of such an exercise? It’s merely supposed to point out to Mark Cuban that this plan of “waiting for a star” clearly isn’t working!!! They couldn’t even keep a star once they got one in DeAndre Jordan, and even he wasn’t the player that was going to return them to playoff glory. This team honestly needs to tank for a couple years to return to prominence, but once again Cuban has got enough pieces to be a decent team, and they clearly aren’t winning the title this upcoming season.

This Season’s Prediction –

I have to laugh to myself when I see the Mavericks line-up for this season. A very old Dirk, supported by a very old Deron Williams, two very solid wing players in Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes, and a decent center in Andrew Bogut. So another team that will compete for the bottom 3 seeds out West, but not a team that has a real chance at the title.

At some point Dirk is going to loose his efficiency. Either he will succumb to the little injuries that eventually end careers, or his legs won’t be able to last the whole season. Same goes for Deron Williams at this point, and he’s not even trying to recapture his playing form from Utah. He is an older version of the player that was in Brooklyn, so he doesn’t have a whole lot to offer in today’s NBA, full of elite PGs.

Matthews has struggled to stay fully healthy during his time in the NBA, but he has shown that he is an effective SG. Harrison Barnes is similar, in that he hasn’t played to his full potential because he was the 5th or 6th option on a stacked Warriors team. I expect him to have a “breakout” kind of year, but I don’t think it will be to any crazy level, probably very similar to the production that Matthews provides. On a team with a superstar, Matthews and Barnes are great supporting cast members, but on a team with old stars, they will be just enough to keep the team afloat.

This team definitely has enough defense to help steer them through the Western Conference. It isn’t a “lock-down” kind of defense, but they will be able to easily deal with sub-.500 teams, compete with the other middle of the pack teams, and steal the occasional game from the best teams. Health will be very important for this team, especially because they have a terrible bench.

J.J. Barea and Devin Harris combined equal a decent back-up PG, Seth Curry can technically put the ball in the basket, and Quicy Acy is a somewhat big body that can stand near the hoop. Besides those pretty average dudes, I honestly have no idea who the rest of their bench players are. Staggering that Cuban can’t lure a star to Dallas, and he still doesn’t build a good bench with the money he didn’t spend…

I’m not sure what it will take to change Mark Cuban’s mind about his strategy. Removing his influence for a second, they have a decent foundation in place for the future, and they have a great coach for the long term haul in Rick Carlisle. They have a lot of salary cap space, by design, and their aging stars will be gone very soon. I think that once Dirk is gone, this team should be aggressive. Either go straight to the bottom and tank for a top 5 pick, or build a good team through free-agency so that if a star does eventually choose you, you don’t have a bench full of rookies with expiring contracts.

Harrison Barnes is young enough that if you tank for a season or two, he will still be around once you have rebuilt, and he won’t be past his prime yet. Same goes for if you build through free-agency, but they need to change their priorities. Lock up some young players that have the potential to be good role players or effective bench players. That way, they become a “young team on the rise,” instead of this crazy strategy that they follow now.

4. New Orleans Pelicans –

Projected Starting 5: PG Jrue Holiday SG Lance Stephenson/Buddy Hield SF Tyreke Evans PF Anthony Davis C Omer Asik

Projected Record: 38-44

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Last season was a struggle for the Pelicans. Injuries pulled this team down, and we never really got to see their full potential. Widely deemed an “up-and-coming” team, Anthony Davis was set to have a crazy year and lead his team to the playoffs. I think this team was a deceptively “good” team, in the sense that they had a lot of talent on their roster, and if they had stayed healthy, most people assumed they would do well. However, I’m not sure that this team had the right on-court chemistry to actually thrive last season.

Let’s ignore the health issues that many of their players have for the moment. Jrue Holiday is a solid PG. If I had to compare him to others in the league, I would say he is similar to Jeff Teague in the sense that he is effective in the flow of an offense, but he is more like a Kyle Lowery, who is effective most nights, whereas Teague can disappear for stretches of time. That’s the opposite end of the spectrum compared to Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul and Damian Lillard, who can all create their own shot and demand most of the focus of the opposing team’s defense.

I think Holiday and Davis are a solid fit together, but then you have to insert the Tyreke Evans factor. Tyreke Evans is one of those “good” players that puts up numbers consistently, but I think he is a terrible chemistry piece on the court for the rest of the team, similar to a Rudy Gay. Evans is a slasher who dominates the ball and has a vacuum effect on the rest of the team, taking shots and opportunities away from others. If Jrue Holiday would thrive in a structured type of offense, Evans is the player that nullifies that effectiveness.

Pretty much the rest of the Pelicans team was like Holiday, in the sense that they needed to play in a system with a distributing player, instead of relying on Evans. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Norris Cole and Omer Asik are all solid players, but when the dominant force on a team is selfish rather than selfless, their games suffer.

Now, in reality, Tyreke Evans only played 25 games last season, so he cannot shoulder all the blame for this team. Injuries were the real reason why this team struggled. They had decent players before injuries, so their reserves were definitely not good enough to help this team survive. But my point about Evans is more a warning for the future, should he stay healthy for a season, more than a reason why they have struggled.

This Season’s Prediction –

This was another team I wish I could give more wins to. I would really love to have Anthony Davis dominating the league, I think that would be really exciting. But unfortunately things have come full circle in a really strange way in the NBA. Bigmen like Patrick Ewing, Hakeem Olajuwon, Bill Russell, Wilt Chamberlain, Shaquille O’Neal and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar used to dominate the league because of their skills up and around the basket. Now bigmen are being re-discovered, with Davis and Kristaps Porzingis, but instead of valuing the post game, these bigs are essentially just 7-foot guards, hitting step-backs and 3s.

That’s why I worry about Davis’ future with how this team is currently constructed. The biggest obstacle for bigmen is the fact that they do not start with the ball in their hands, it has to be brought to them. If Evans is on the court, he’s the one pounding the ball, trying to break down defenses, and that means less touches for Davis. If the Pelicans ran a true inside-out offense, I think Davis would continue to put up stellar numbers, and it would help the rest of the team out.

Let’s not forget Dwight Howard took the likes of Hedo Turkoglu, Mickael Pietrus, Rashard Lewis and Jameer Nelson to the Finals, so Davis could definitely take Jrue Holiday and Buddy Hield to the Finals. But that means they need to jettison Tyreke Evans as soon as possible. If any team will take him, trade him for some good bench pieces or a draft pick.

Personally, I would also get rid of Jrue Holiday, only because injuries are too much of an issue for the guy. Getting Buddy Hield I think is a great pick-up for this team because it gives them some more youthful talent for the future. The most aggravating move made this off-season might be the fact that the Pelicans signed Lance Stevenson, who has become a mediocre bench version of Tyreke Evans. And while I think Evans is a bad influence on the court, we all know Lance is just crazy, so he may hurt that locker-room.

Besides Buddy Hield and Anthony Davis, there’s not much I like about this team. Unfortunately, I think Anthony Davis will struggle to keep this team relevant over the next few years if they don’t overhaul their roster, and while he should be commended for extending his deal in a small market like New Orleans, he may regret it sooner rather than later.

In the overall scheme of the NBA, the Pelicans aren’t a great defensive team, and Anthony Davis the heart of their offense, so they can’t afford to loose him to injuries. 38 wins might actually be too high for this team, especially if the injuries do come back. If this team struggles, I think it’s worth getting another good draft pick, and stockpile more young talent around Davis. Hopefully they will move on from Evans before he ruins this team’s short term chance, but unfortunately teams in the NBA have a record of sticking with a guy that isn’t good for their team for way too long.

5. Houston Rockets –

Projected Starting 5: PG Patrick Beverley SG James Harden SF Trevor Ariza PF Ryan Anderson C Clint Capela

Projected Record: 31-51

Last Season’s Thoughts –

Probably the best reality TV the NBA had to offer last season. It’s not very often that we see team chemistry disintegrate right in front of our eyes, but it was painful at times to watch Dwight Howard and James Harden play at the same time last season. How did this team deteriorate so quickly?

After the Rockets traded for Harden, and realized just how good he was going to become, it seemed like they were going to compete for a title very soon when Dwight Howard chose them as his post-LA destination. Everything was set up for this team to thrive: they had one star, and had plenty of room to welcome another onto the team, Harden and Howard’s games seemed to fit perfectly together, and they were both at the top of their games.

It’s almost been frustrating to see this team flop so badly, but hey I’m a Knicks fan, so I don’t sympathize often. There were two big problems that eventually led to the Rockets’ downfall: Harden’s ego and Howard’s health problems. The first snuck up on just about everyone, and the second was just plain old unfortunate.

When Harden was traded to Houston, he was a great 6th man, coming off the bench and providing a great scoring punch. He had a good upside, but I’m not sure anyone predicted that he would be this potent on the offensive end. I think that the Rockets were so excited that they lucked out and got an even better player than they thought, they decided to give Harden free-reign over their franchise. And in 2016, we saw the final result of that decision.

I’ve got to vent about James Harden for a little bit. He has become a very frustrating player to root for, even though he shows glimpses of being unstoppable and can take over games in a flash. I’ve never thought of him as a bad person, but the attitude that he demonstrates on the court now makes me want to reconsider that judgment. His selfishness is unbearable to me, and I’m not even a Rockets fan.

Sadly, I think that Harden was praised and pampered either too early or too often as he was becoming a star, because I can’t explain how a player becomes so selfish, so early. In the NBA, there are the Kobe Bryant type of players, who through their ultra-competitiveness become the sole focus of a team. Then there are the superstars that teammates naturally submit to because they trust them to guide their team, like LeBron James. But Harden basically knows that he is the best thing to happen to this franchise in a while, and he is going to demand things his way.

Okay, so Harden is a ball dominant scorer, who just gets buckets at will. What sort of pieces compliment that kind of player? Well, the Rockets have a perfect PG in Patrick Beverley, who will defend the other team’s PG and not ask for a whole lot on the offensive end. Trevor Ariza, while he is slightly past his prime, is a good shooter on the wing, after Harden has broken down the defense and kicked it to him, and he isn’t bad at creating his own shot as well. The PF just needs to be a stretch 4 to give Harden more room, and Terrence jones is decent in that position.

Then there was Dwight Howard. He came in wanting to be a force on the offensive end, and it would seemingly make sense to set up him up on that end to make Harden’s life easier. Harden demands all of the focus from opposing defenses, so either putting him in a pick and roll with Howard would help free him up, or simply dumping it down to Howard in the post would make the defense have to respect someone else. This season it was hard to watch as Howard worked his ass off on the offensive end, and be rewarded so little.

The Rockets fired Kevin McHale after they had a rough start, and it just seemed as though the Rockets wanted to do whatever it took to make Harden happy, even if it meant spurning Howard. Harden’s defense has also regressed over the past several years, and last season it was tough to watch when he would fall asleep, like almost literally fall asleep, on the defensive end, and his teammates would just be standing there with their hands in the air. That’s why I feel for Howard. He does deserve some criticism, but he worked so hard on the defensive end last season to make up for Harden, and with no incentive on the offensive end, it was hard for him to stay motivated.

When the superstar on your team isn’t held accountable because he is the best player, it dooms the team’s chemistry. No one on the Rockets stood up to Harden, not even the coach, so no one told him to actually exert energy on the defensive end. Harden is a worse version of my boy Carmelo Anthony on the defensive end. Harden will actually run into screens, just so that he can take himself out of the play, leaving the other defender totally stranded. And when your superstar gets away with so little effort, no one else on the team feels like listening to the coach or their fellow teammates either.

This team clearly had to break up after last season, and I think because Harden is such a hard player to play with, it will be difficult for this team to build a contender around him. Again, they had the right kind of pieces around him, but because of his attitude, they couldn’t work together.

This Season’s Prediction –

I know I’ve said a few times that I wish I could give other teams more wins, but with this Rockets team, I wish I could give them even fewer wins. This team has enough talent to beat up on the bottom feeders in the league, but honestly I think they will struggle to defend against pretty much every team.

Together, Beverley and Ariza are good defenders. But add Harden’s negative defense to that team, and they aren’t good enough to make up for his poor individual defense, let alone having a huge hole in their team’s defense. Last season, they at least had Howard at the rim to deter slashing players, but they no longer have that luxury. Ryan Anderson, a poor defender in his own right, is not a rim protector, and while Clint Capela is a good young talent, he definitely cannot defend the rim like Howard.

So their starting 5 is going to be terrible defensively, all because of Harden (yes, I said it), and they may get by on offense, even though teams can now just load their defenses up to guard against Harden. Their bench is definitely not going to help them win games either. Pablo Prigioni, K.J. McDaniels, Cory Brewer, Nene (he’s baaaack) and Eric Gordon aren’t going to have teams shaking in their boots. Besides Brewer, their bench isn’t good on defense either, and Brewer almost nullifies his own effectiveness by being so bad on the offensive end.

But like I said, if they score enough, this team will outlast teams coming off long road trips, or the other teams at the bottom of the league that also can’t play defense. It will be interesting though, once they begin to struggle, if the media will point the blame at Harden, or if he will even accept any of the blame. If they don’t change the culture on this team, it won’t matter who they pair with Harden.

Harden renegotiated his deal this summer to get the new max, earning upwards of $26 million for the next 4 seasons, so he’s not going anywhere any time soon. For the Rockets, they don’t have many options. Whatever they choose to do, they will probably need to spend a season or two struggling in order to rebuild. Either they trade the salvageable pieces they have for some youth, and wait for them to develop, or they build through the draft, which involves waiting too. Their biggest challenge will be working with Harden. If he comes to his senses sooner than later, and like Melo, realizes that in order to win anything significant in this league, he has to be accountable to his teammates, and contribute on both ends, then the Rockets stand a chance, but if he continues down this path of selfishness, the Rockets will struggle for a while to come.

That's it for the Southwest Division preview! Check back next Friday (Oct. 21) for the Pacific Division preview!

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