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Southwestern Salad: A Preview of the NBA's Tastiest Division

Plenty of talented players entered the Southwest Division during the summer. A few major upgrades were made and some small, unheralded tweaks were executed, but one thing went unchanged; the best division in the NBA remains the same.

Derick E. Hingle-USA TODAY Sports

Every team in the Southwest Division went to the playoffs last season. From the two seeded Houston Rockets led by James Harden, Dwight Howard, and Kevin McHale to the eighth seeded New Orleans Unibrow's (excuse me, my editor tells me they go by the Pelicans) who exceeded expectations by landing the final playoff spot out West after winning the tiebreaker over Oklahoma City.

Even that wasn't enough to save Monty Williams his job. Alvin Gentry, who patrolled the sidelines as the top assistant to Steve Kerr and the NBA champion Golden State Warriors last season, is taking over the coaching duties in New Orleans.

Critical questions extend across the entire division ... how will the Mavericks respond to the DeAndre Jordan fiasco, and more importantly, how many wins will the departures of Monta Ellis and Tyson Chandler cost them? Can the Rockets take the next step and make their first Finals appearance since 1994-95 when they swept Orlando, or was last season's Conference Finals visit the pinnacle? Will Ty Lawson get his life in order? Anthony Davis is planning to take the Pelicans to new heights with coach Alvin Gentry's fast-paced system. Will that come to fruition in the rugged West?

Memphis retained Marc Gasol on a max contract, avoiding an apocalyptic collapse at the Forum, but largely remain the same. Then there's San Antonio, who sacrificed depth this off-season but landed the biggest name in free agency, LaMarcus Aldridge. Can Aldridge help keep the championship window open for another 6-8 years with his arrival, or will his transition be more difficult than expected?

Plenty of talented players entered the Southwest Division over the summer. A few major upgrades were made and some small, unheralded tweaks were executed, but one thing remained the same: this will continue to be the best division in the Association.

Like a Southwestern style salad, this division is packed with interesting flavors and textures; unique and sometimes hard to describe due to its mouthwatering depth. Perhaps the only way to do the division justice is taking an inside, team-by-team look at the moves each organization made during the offseason, and what we can expect in the new year.

Houston Rockets

2014-15: 56-26, No. 2 seed

Lost 4-1 in the Western Conference Finals to Warriors

Coach: Kevin McHale

Key Arrivals: Ty Lawson (Trade), K.J. McDaniels (FA signing), Sam Dekker (First round pick: No. 18), Montrezl Harrell (Second round pick No. 31)

Key Departures: None, unless you still believe Josh Smith (signed with Clippers) is good. Over the last two seasons (160 total games) Smith has posted a 14.4 PER with the following shooting splits: .419/.288/.516 ... Houston improves with his departure, opening up additional minutes for Terrence Jones and Donatas Motiejunas.

Expectations: Last month at Summer League, Rockets coach Kevin McHale was asked what his team needed to do to improve in 2015-16. "Everybody has to get 10 percent better on our team that's not named James Harden," McHale said. If those improvements do happen, expect Houston to be in the NBA Finals.

Adding Lawson, who could potentially come off the bench as the Rockets sixth man, while Patrick Beverley brings his stout defense to the starting unit, might be enough to push them over the top.

Houston was the second seed last season and only improved during the off-season. They had no major departures and made a big splash by adding the dynamic Ty Lawson, who Denver was motivated to trade with rookie Emanuel Mudiay in the picture and after Lawson was charged with his second DUI in a seven-month period; the first coming in Denver in January, then Los Angeles in July. He was traded to the Rockets for scraps: the Nuggets received a lottery protected first-round pick in 2016 and cash considerations along with Nick Johnson, Kostas Papanikolaou, Pablo Prigioni, and Joey Dorsey.

Harden was an MVP talent last year. There's no reason to believe that won't continue. Dwight Howard will need to stay on the court after playing only 41 games in 2014-15. The good news: D12 came back strong in the NBA playoffs – averaging 16.4 points, 14 rebounds, 2.3 blocks, and 1.4 steals on 57 percent shooting.

Expect Houston to win 55 or more games again, grab a top seed in the West, and be a major player in the league's quest to dethrone Golden State.

Don't sleep on...

Terrence Jones.

The former Kentucky Wildcats forward had trouble staying on the court last season (33 games) due to injuries, but he can produce when called upon. Watch out for Jones, 23, who is entering his fourth NBA season and draws comparisons to David West and Lamar Odom via basketball references' Similarity Scores.

Jones has expanded his game out to the three-point line, has the luxury of being ignored by opposing defenses devoting their attention to stopping Harden and Howard, and cleans up near the rim (.691 FG% on shots from 0-3 feet). Looking for more? He swats 2.4 shots per 36 minutes at $2,489,530 for his services in 2015-16.

Memphis Grizzlies

2014-15: 55-27, No. 5 seed

Lost 2-4 in Conference Semi Finals to the Warriors

Coach: Dave Joerger

Key Arrivals: Matt Barnes (Trade), Brandan Wright (FA signing), Jarell Martin (First round pick: No. 25)

Key Departures: Kosta Koufos (Kings)

Expectations: Marc Gasol is one of the best centers in the NBA right now. Gun to my head, I'd rank him No. 1 because of how dominant he can be on the defensive end without sacrificing anything offensively. Anthony Davis logged 94 percent of his minutes at power forward last season, so it doesn't feel right to count him, though he would be the best small-ball center in the league if New Orleans wanted to use him like that.

DeMarcus Cousins is an absolute force offensively, certainly worthy of being mentioned when talking about the top five's in the league, but he's not as efficient. DMC can be a turnover machine and doesn't provide the same defense. DeAndre Jordan can't make free throws, which we saw play out in the NBA playoffs, and offensively his game is limited to alley-oops, pick-and-roll dunks, and rim running in transition; though he does these things incredibly well. That leaves Gasol, my choice as the league's best center, the anchor of Memphis' stout defense, and one of the most unique players in the game. With him in the fold, you have to take their squad seriously.

Gasol is tasked with carrying the Grizzlies on his shoulders, alongside Mike Conley, and two other usual suspects: Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. Then there's a collection of wings looking to prove they're more than recognizable names. Jeff Green, Courtney Lee, and Matt Barnes need to produce if Memphis wants to be considered a real title contender. Longtime analytics darling Brandan Wright was the biggest off-season addition, joining second-year big man Jarnell Stokes and rookie Jarell Martin as Joerger's main options off the bench to supplement Big Spain and Z-Bo.

The biggest challenge for the Grizzlies in 2015-16 will be taking the next step with an aging core. They added Wright, who every team would love to have off the bench, but also lost Kosta Koufos to the Kings in free agency. While I personally favor Wright, it's only by a hair. So, the question becomes how much better did the Grizzlies actually get heading into the new season? Can their current group make the Western Conference Finals if everything breaks right for them? Count me as a skeptic. Conley, who will be an unrestricted free agent after the season, will need to have a career year at age 28. The same goes for Green, also an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2016.

Joerger has them playing their signature tough, gritty style that most teams hate facing. Memphis loves to beat up the opposition in the half-court game, but the old-school approach might only take you so far in today's ever-evolving, 3-point oriented, small-ball focused game. For comparisons sake, since this happens to be a Wolves blog, Memphis plays very similarly to the Wolves on the offensive end. The main difference is fairly simple: one team can dominate defensively (Memphis posted the fourth best defensive rating last year at 102.2) and the other is a train wreck (Minnesota: 112.2).

Expect the Grizzlies to win 50 plus games again. There's no doubt they will make the playoffs. Unfortunately, the Conference Finals feels like the absolute best they can possibly do.

Don't sleep on...

Jordan Adams.

If you're a devoted reader here at Canis Hoopus, or you bleed Beale Street Blue, you're not likely to be sleeping on Adams, who was an analytical phenom coming out of UCLA. If you're not, than you should know that Memphis might have a real sleeper in their second-year guard. The No. 22 pick in 2014 played only 30 games for the Grizzlies last season, logging only 248 minutes in his rookie season, and nothing about his statistical profile jumps off the screen and smacks you in the face. However, if you combine Adams' D-League and NBA three-point shooting numbers, according to chipwilliamsjr of Grizzly Bear Blues, he shot 39.7 percent from deep last season and it's officially time for Joerger to #FreeJordanAdams.

Memphis needs another guard to extend defenses with the threat of the three-ball, making teams pay for clogging the paint to stop Gasol and Randolph. Adams appears capable of playing both guard spots off the bench and do exactly that. Only our beloved Timberwolves made, and attempted, less three-pointers in 2014-15.

Note: Adams underwent minor right knee surgery this summer, though he's expected back by training camp.

San Antonio Spurs

2014-15: 55-27, No. 6 seed

Lost 3-4 in First Round to the Clippers

Coach: Gregg Popovich

Key Arrivals: LaMarcus Aldridge (FA signing), David West (FA signing), Ray McCallum (Trade with Kings)

Key Departures: Marco Belinelli (Kings), Cory Joseph (Raptors), Tiago Splitter (Hawks)

Expectations: Stealing LaMarcus Aldridge away from Portland was the most eye-opening move of the free agency period. A frontcourt of Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge, and Tim Duncan makes the Spurs one of the biggest threats to win the Larry O'Brien trophy. Leonard is among the best wings in the game; a true two-way player that can guard anybody and fill up the stat sheet. Aldridge, Duncan, and David West are probably the best big man trio in the league, capable of dominating the paint on both ends.

While the Spurs lost some depth over the summer Belinelli, Joseph, and Splitter it's highly unlikely they take a step back. Out of all the teams in the West, they should make the biggest leap in playoff seedings from a year ago. Only one game separated them and Houston last year, and while both teams improved, Aldridge swings the pendulum in favor of San Antonio, in my eyes. Golden State should remain the favorite until seeing how easily Aldridge integrates himself into his new situation, which is always easier said than done.

If there's one reason to doubt the Spurs ability to win it all, or keep them from going to the Finals, smart money is on it being average guard play and an inability to match-up with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, or Ty Lawson and James Harden. Tony Parker had the worst season of his 14-year career in 2014-15, posting his lowest PER (15.9) and assist percentage (28.7) since 2003-04. Parker can still be effective, but there's no denying the fact that he took several steps back last season. He hasn't played in more than 68 games over the last four seasons (68, 68, 66, 60). His best days are clearly in the rearview mirror, and his regression will increase the pressure on Patty Mills and newly-acquired Ray McCallum to perform.

Looking for more damning numbers? Parker finished 67th among point guards in ESPN's RPM (Real Plus-Minus) statistic last season (-3.15). Only Zach LaVine, the 19-year-old catch-and-shoot off-guard who Flip Saunders forced into running point guard for a Wolves team decimated by injury, finished with a worse DRPM (defensive real plus-minus) among point guards. Parker finished at -3.33, LaVine at -4.34. In other words, defense is an issue with Parker, and banking on Patty Mills, Ray MacCallum, or Manu Ginobili to stop opposing guards from lighting them up could be a major issue once the playoffs get underway. Defense from the guards in San Antonio is the real question, outside of Danny Green, who has become one of the top shooting guards in the NBA.

On a positive note, the Spurs do possess Kawhi Leonard, Aldridge, Duncan, and Popovich – the mastermind who always seems to design flawless team defensive schemes –  to go with Green. With that in mind, perhaps the defensive guard play might not be as large of a problem as it seems on the surface. It's certainly something to keep an eye on, but either way, expect the Spurs to compete with Houston and Golden State for the honor of representing the Western Conference (against the Cleveland Cavaliers!).

Don't sleep on...

Patty Mills.

I'm betting on Mills to bounce back after struggling last season. He missed the first 31 games while rehabbing from surgery the summer before to repair the rotator cuff in his right shoulder, and didn't start to look comfortable until the playoffs. Cory Joseph is out of the picture after signing with his hometown Raptors for $30 million over four years.

Mills is primed for a larger role in San Antonio given Parker's regression and Joseph's departure. He re-upped for 3-years, $13 million ($10M guaranteed) during the summer, showing the organizations faith in him. Mills, 25, saw his scoring average dip to 6.9 points per game last season while shooting 34.1 percent from three-point range (42.5 percent the year before). He posted the lowest true shooting percentage (.496) and PER (13.0) since his rookie season. Nevertheless, his role is set to increase, and most importantly he won't have to deal with coming back from major surgery during the season.

Dallas Mavericks

2014-15: 50-32, No. 7 seed

Lost 1-4 in First Round to the Rockets

Coach: Rick Carlisle

Key Arrivals: Wes Matthews (FA signing), Deron Williams (FA signing), DeAndre Jord... (oops, never mind), Zaza Pachulia (Trade), Justin Anderson (First round pick: No. 21)

Key Departures: Rajon Rondo (Sacramento), Monta Ellis (Indiana), Tyson Chandler (Phoenix), Al-Farouq Aminu (Portland)

Expectations: Dallas didn't make the playoffs in 2012-13. That season, Dirk Nowitzki was limited to 53 games, O.J. Mayo led the team in minutes played (2913) and total points (1255), and Vince Carter was the leader in Win Shares (6.0). Those Mavericks finished 41-41, good for fourth in the Southwest Division, breaking a 12-year streak of playoff appearances. The loss of Tyson Chandler is going to sting very badly in 2015-16, and the Mavericks will more than likely finish closer to that 2012-13 record.

The organization has to move forward, but to make the situation worse, the whole DeAndre Jordan fiasco will likely remain in the back of their minds as well. I doubt you forgot, but here's a quick refresher: Jordan flip-flopped on the Mavericks, agreeing to verbal terms during the moratorium period only to back out and flee back to Los Angeles once Doc, Blake, and CP3 came crawling back to him, begging for his return.

Losing their leading scorer, Monta Ellis, certainly hurts. Is his departure as influential as some might make it out to be? I doubt it. Rondo's departure, on the other hand, should help the team. From an analytics standpoint, neither player appears to be a major loss. Ellis can score 20 points, and Carlisle has discussed his importance in the past, but what's the real cost of Ellis' style of play? He didn't rank in the top 50 shooting guards in true shooting percentage (.509) last season. If your two-guard is launching almost 16 shots per game (3.6 3PA and 3.8 FTA) you unquestionably want him posting a stronger true shooting percentage (TS%).

For comparison, the Mavericks new shooting guard, Wesley Matthews, finished seventh in TS% last season with Portland at .586. Matthews is also known as a gritty, capable wing defender, whereas Ellis is not, but his first season in Dallas might not go smoothly as he recovers from his ruptured Achilles' tendon. That four-year, $70 million max deal seems like a major risk at this point. The speed at which Matthews can return to his old form will likely dictate how the Mavs season goes.

In terms of Rondo, well, he was awful with Dallas last year. His play for the Mavericks makes Deron Williams look like an upgrade, which didn't seem possible. That feels odd to write, but the truth can be odd sometimes. So ... Rick Carlisle nabbed his brand new backcourt which should help Dallas stay relevant. Of course, that's far from guaranteed. Chandler's absence in the middle will hurt the most, though Al-Farouq Aminu quietly became a nice weapon defensively, capable of creating in transition for them last season off turnovers, and should not be ignored either. He's out of the picture now, taking his talents to Portland in free agency. Of course, he's more easily replaceable. Players like Chandler are terribly difficult to replace.

Zaza Pachulia, Samuel Dalembert, and JaVale McGee might be the most underwhelming group of centers in the league, though Pachulia has been capable in the past. You simply cannot ignore the substantial downgrade at the center spot for Dallas. Then there's Dirk, who turned 37 this summer. How much longer can he keep leading the charge? They're in an awkward position. Carlisle is one of the league's better coaches who can squeeze out the most from his players, but plenty will have to break right for them to make it back to the postseason.

With Oklahoma City getting Durant back, you have to pencil the Thunder into the playoffs, while Portland will almost assuredly drop out. That leaves Dallas competing with Phoenix and Utah for the eight seed in the West. If one team is going to miss the playoffs in the Southwest my money is on the Mavericks. We'll see if Chandler Parsons can take the next step, becoming the alpha-scorer and new all-star centerpiece capable of carrying the team on his back. He absolutely needs to have his best year in the league if Dallas wants another playoff birth. And even if they sneak into the playoffs, expect them to get bounced in the first round.

How the Mavericks can finish with a winning record and more.

Don't sleep on...

Justin Anderson.

The Mavericks first round pick out of Virginia impressed in Summer League. Anderson will be asked to produce immediately in Dallas with all of the changes, and has the potential to be a solid 3-and-D wing off the bench in his rookie season.

Kirk Henderson of Mavs Moneyball seemed to like what he saw in Las Vegas.

New Orleans Pelicans

2014-15: 45-37, No. 8 seed

Lost 0-4 in First Round to the Warriors

Coach: Alvin Gentry

Key Arrivals: Alvin Gentry (hired)

Key Departures: Monty Williams (fired)

Expectations: New Orleans made two major moves during the offseason. First, the organization fired head coach Monty Williams and replaced him with Alvin Gentry. That seemed smart. Hell, stealing any asset perceived as valuable away from the NBA champion Golden State Warriors seems like the savvy play. Gentry was Steve Kerr's top assistant, known for his uptempo style and offensive creativity, something that proved attractive to general manager Dell Demps, who wanted New Orleans to play faster. Hard to blame Demps when they have ANTHONY DAVIS.

Last season, the Pelicans finished 27th in pace under Williams' leadership. Williams was rumored to be on the chopping blocks for months beforehand, making the move fairly unsurprising when hitting the interwebs. Two thumbs up for the coaching change.

Next up ... the Pelicans re-signed Anthony Davis to the richest contract in league history (5-years, $145 million). That contract will kick in during the 2016-17 season. AD is worth every single penny. The organization had to give him whatever he desired, even as the contract will make Demps' job exceedingly more difficult down the road (i.e. finding hidden gems on cheap rookie deals, as well as rolling the dice, and hitting, on players with unrealized potential like Miami's Hassan Whiteside).

The Pelicans other (key?) moves came in the form of resigning their own free agents: Omer Asik, Alexis Ajinca, and Dante Cunningham. None of these players instill the wow factor, and Asik's fresh 5-year, $58 million contract seems destined to be toxic sooner than later, but perhaps continuity was the foremost goal, which they achieved.

When looking at the Pelicans, nothing really changed outside of the Williams/Gentry exchange. Since Dallas and Portland look poised to lose more often in 2015-16, New Orleans can probably play at the same level as last year and still make the playoffs. Having one of the best players in the NBA makes the postseason attainable regardless of the supporting cast. Expect the Pelicans to join the postseason party once again, behind the Unibrow's incredible all-around talent. If they want to make any noise, Jrue Holiday (74 games over the past two seasons) and Eric Gordon (125 games) need to stay healthy.

Tyreke Evans is entering his seventh NBA season. Is he ready for a breakthrough campaign at age 26, or will he continue to perform at essentially the same level he has since age 20 (17/5/5)? Can Evans add any new facets to his game to push New Orleans to the next level?

More than likely the Pelicans will experience more injuries, rely even more heavily on Davis, simply hope for the best when the playoffs roll around, and get ousted by one of the Western Conference heavyweights in the first round.

Don't sleep on...

Jrue Holiday.

Yes, I'm well aware, Jrue can't seem to stay healthy. In the past two seasons, Holiday has missed 90 games due to recurring problems with his right leg, including 42 games this past season due to a stress reaction injury. Still, one of these years might be the year that everything works out.

Holiday ranked 10th in RPM in 2014-15 (3.22), one slot ahead of Ricky Rubio (2.71) and the talent is there. With Holiday, everything comes down to health. Optimistic me says: MAYBE 2015 IS THE YEAR. And if it is, perhaps the Pelicans will exceed expectations.