With the regular season almost here, theScore basketball writers Joseph Casciaro, William Lou, Alex Wong, and Joe Wolfond sat down to chat about the major storylines impacting the Southwest Division.
Moderator: The Houston Rockets are one of the most divisive teams going into the season. How would you assess their chances of beating Golden State and getting to the NBA Finals?
Joseph Casciaro: I think they blew their chance last season. It was also bad luck, with Chris Paul getting hurt with them up 3-2. And you get two chances to get it done with Chris Paul in the lineup, I like those chances. I don't want to make it seem like they completely crapped the bed, but they had the Warriors on the ropes, and they couldn't get it done. They missed how many threes (in Game 7)?
Alex Wong: 37.
JC: They missed 37 threes in that game. That's going to haunt them forever. And, I think losing Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute ... we've said it a bunch of times, but what made them so dangerous against the Warriors was their versatility, and the way they could defend and switch across all positions while also being able to throw the same type of rangy defenders at the Warriors. They lost two of them, and those minutes need to be soaked up. You're not replacing them with Carmelo Anthony; he doesn't even do his job that well anymore because he doesn't accept the role he should have on the offensive end. Forget the defense; he doesn't even do that one thing exceptionally well. I don't see how they're going to replace the defensive versatility those two guys brought them. I think their shot at hanging with the Warriors has passed them by.
William Lou: And they lost (associate head coach) Jeff Bzdelik, who got a ton of credit for building that defense. He saw Carmelo Anthony in training camp and said, "I'm retiring." (laughs)
AW: Having said all that, the Rockets can still win 60 games.
WL: They should. James Harden is a great player.
JC: I was obviously all-in on them last year.
Joe Wolfond: They won 65 games last year, and on paper, as a regular-season team, I really don't think they got that much worse. I would pick them to win between 55 and 60 games.
AW: It's just the matchup against the Warriors.
JC: To me, they went from having a legit shot at beating them to not being able to compete with them. I don't think it would even be a series if they played them again.
JW: I still think they make the conference finals, though.
WL: Okay ... out of all the new guys they added this year - Michael Carter-Williams, Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, Bruno Caboclo, Carmelo, James Ennis, those six guys - which of those guys are actually gonna be playable in the playoffs? And which of those guys specifically plays against the Warriors?
JW: James Ennis. And that's literally it. Maybe Marquese Chriss, if he proves he can be an effective dive man who can defend in space a little bit, then maybe he can get 10 to 12 minutes.
WL: He's very effective and very mobile. He just hasn't put it together.
JW: And that's the thing. If he just sort of figures out where to be, they can basically plug him into that Clint Capela role off the bench. And I feel like he could be fine for 10 or 12 minutes. But that's pretty much it.
JC: This, to me, is the team that should find a way to trade for Jimmy Butler. It would take a crazy amount of asset gymnastics, but (Rockets general manager) Daryl Morey's pulled off this kind of thing before. I think this is the team that needs to do it. We've talked about Portland, for example, needing to do it for whatever reason. Houston needs to do it because, if they do, they're right there, ready to win a championship and take down the Warriors. And if they don't, they're just watching this potentially glorious era fade into the rearview.
WL: They're paying Chris Paul $40 million per year and he's 32 years old.
WL: If they somehow manage to pull it off without giving up P.J. Tucker, then yes. But otherwise ... not so much. Because Eric Gordon and P.J. are both very valuable players.
JW: And the fact that P.J. Tucker can basically guard any position one through five, they can play him as a small-ball center, he rebounds like a maniac ... against the Warriors, he was probably their third-most important player, right? The fact that P.J. shot over 40 percent on spot-up threes last season makes him incredibly valuable. And the fact that Jimmy Butler can do so many things that P.J. Tucker can't is less important on a team that already has two of the best one-on-one creators in basketball. So I feel like his skill set would almost go to waste a little bit on that team. What they really need are guys who can defend and hit catch-and-shoot threes - which P.J. Tucker does about as well as anybody. And then with Eric Gordon ... I don't think that would be too much of a loss, but I think his contributions were also pretty undervalued last year. Just the fact that he can basically stretch the floor out to 28, 29 feet. They would have him spot up four feet behind the 3-point line just to give him that extra bit of space, and Jimmy Butler can't really do that. His 3-point shot isn't going to offer the same kind of threat that Eric Gordon's would. So I don't even know if it would make them that much better
AW: Gordon was really good, too, after Paul got hurt.
Moderator: It has been 21 years since the San Antonio Spurs missed the playoffs. Is that streak in jeopardy this season?
AW: It might be.
WL: I just think it's going to be difficult. I mean, look at who the Spurs are starting. Because (head coach Gregg Popovich) likes two bigs ... Pau Gasol, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, and Rudy Gay. None of those players can consistently hit a three. Their best 3-point shooter in that group is Pau Gasol. LaMarcus has improved defensively, but he's average to slightly below average as a power forward; as a center, he's a little bit better. DeMar DeRozan is a really poor defender. Rudy Gay is not a good defender. And they lost Dejounte Murray, who is a nice defender. There's just not enough shooting in that group, and every player wants to shoot a long two. You can't win in the NBA just by shooting a lot of long twos. What are you going to do with this offense? It's tricky. And even in terms of their best shooters ... coming off the bench, it's Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli. But those guys are such big defensive liabilities, you can never play them with DeRozan. Like, are you kidding me? You're gonna go into the Western Conference with Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, and DeMar DeRozan against guys like Damian Lillard or James Harden? They're gonna get roasted!
JC: I think everything you outlined, though, is why they won't be a factor in the playoffs. But if you're talking about getting to the playoffs, and the shooting thing being an issue ... okay, Danny Green? Legit 3-point shooter. That's the only 3-point shooter they lost. Manu Ginobili shot 33 percent last year; Tony Parker shot 27 percent last year. They didn't exactly lose 3-point shooting. They were already a bad 3-point shooting team last year, and they made it work. And yeah, they're gonna cramp the spacing a little more with DeRozan, but they're also adding a heck of a talent.
WL: You're right. He goes to the rim a lot more.
JC: He'll get to the line, and that's a form of efficiency in itself. I just think that, when you look at how they made it work last year, and I know they did barely make it, they were one (game) ahead of (the) ninth (seed) ... but they still got in, in a crazy race. They won 47 games. I think they are more talented this season. And while they're not going to be a good shooting team and there are a number of other reasons why they aren't going to do anything in the playoffs, I still think there's enough talent here for Popovich to win between 45 and 48, 49, 50 games, maybe, and still at least be in the playoffs.
JW: They won 47 last year with Kawhi Leonard playing nine games. Pop will figure out how to make it work. And as for the mid-range jumper thing ... I think it's a little bit overstated. Yeah, it's not the ideal way that you want to build out your offense, but I also think you want to just maximize the strengths of the personnel you have on your team. And one thing you can say is, there's a bit of a market inefficiency for guys who can reliably knock down mid-range shots. Defenses are geared toward allowing you to take those shots. If you can make them at a particularly high clip, it kind of works to your advantage a little bit. Three years ago, the Spurs won 67 games and were second in the league in mid-range jump shot attempts. The year after that, they won 61 games and were second in the league in mid-range jump shot attempts. So they can make it work. The defensive personnel would worry me more than how their offense is going to function.
WL: Okay, but their offense was terrible last year. It was 17th. That's not good.
JW: But DeRozan will help their offense a lot. As much as is made of his anachronistic tendencies as an offensive player, he's been part of a top-10 offense for the past five years in a row and has been the highest-usage player on all of those teams. So the idea that you can't build a healthy, functional offense around DeRozan is totally overstated.
JC: In terms of the big picture, obviously losing Kawhi Leonard is huge. But when you look at what they've lost from last year ... Kawhi doesn't count. He played nine games. Really, they lost Danny Green's 3-and-D ability. That's it.
WL: They lost Kyle Anderson, too.
JC: Yeah, that's true. But from a shooting and defense perspective ... Belinelli is a terrible defender. DeRozan is not a good defender. But Jakob Poeltl is a solid defender. And they lost Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, nine games of Kawhi Leonard ... while it doesn't necessarily fit when you look at what they lost and what they replaced it with, they're definitely not worse.
JW: I think they'll win as many games as they won last year.
WL: So you think they could still be the third-best defensive team in the league? Because that's why they won 47 games.
JW: I think they'll be worse defensively and better offensively.
JC: And I think that'll help them settle into a slightly above-average spot.
JW: Somewhere around 47, 48 wins.
WL: Is there going to be any drop-off in culture, losing guys like Manu and Tony Parker?
JW: DeRozan's a good culture guy.
JC: I think DeMar and Poeltl are solid culture guys. DeMar especially. Belinelli has been in that culture before.
JW: Yo, Poeltl's gonna have an incredible year.
WL: Yeah, an incredible eight (points) and six (rebounds).
JC: They're not bringing in any disruptors. I think the culture will be fine.
Moderator: Of the other three teams, which one interests you the most?
JC: It's gotta be the Pelicans. First of all, they have Anthony Davis, and who the hell doesn't love watching him play? And although they lost (DeMarcus Cousins), they brought in Julius Randle, who's very good, and fits with what they want to do. I think a three-man big combination of Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic - if he is what he was last year - and Julius Randle is perfect for what Alvin Gentry wants to do, and the way this team wants to play. Throw in Jrue Holiday, who is one of the more underrated stars in the league ... I think this team's gonna be really good, and really, really fun to watch. Also, they were the fastest team in the league without Boogie last year.
JW: As far as who I'm most interested in, it's probably Dallas, because of Luka Doncic, for the most part. But I'm also curious to see what Dennis Smith looks like in Year 2, and probably playing off the ball a little bit more. I feel like that could help him settle into his game a lot better than being thrown into his rookie season as a lead ball handler, which produced some occasionally disastrous results. I feel like he could have a big year. They're just a weird team, and I don't know how all the parts are going to fit together, like how it's going to work with DeAndre Jordan, or what Harrison Barnes is. It's a really weird team, but I'm super interested in seeing how they look.
WL: Here's the thing with the Dallas Mavericks: Last year they won 24 games. And the reason they only won 24 games is that they kept making games close and then intentionally stabbing themselves in the foot
JW: They played more crunch-time games than any other team, right?
WL: Yep. So crunch time is defined as any game within five points in the last five minutes. They lost 38 games in crunch time last season.
JC: That had to be half-intentional, because Rick Carlisle doesn't lose those games.
WL: It was completely intentional. They would say, "Oh, we're about to win this game? Dirk, play point guard. Let's put in Dorian Finney-Smith and Salah Mejri." They were tanking. So this is a better team than it appears on paper. And you add Doncic ... I'm a big believer in what Doncic can do. He's already played a lot of pro (basketball), and that cuts off the transition time you usually need coming into the NBA. College guys come in and they're inexperienced, they're not used to working out this much. Doncic already worked out way more at Real Madrid then he will in Dallas. And the rest of this roster is actually not that bad. There's enough talent on this team to push for a playoff spot. I don't think they'll get in, but if this team was in the East, it would be in the playoffs.
Moderator: Let's wrap this up with your Southwest Division predictions.
JC: By the end of the season, Luka Doncic cracks the top-15 most popular jerseys in the league.
AW: It's not that bold: Anthony Davis wins MVP.
JW: The Grizzlies surprise everybody and finish above .500.
WL: The Spurs miss the playoffs.
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