NBA preview: Southwest

NBA preview: Southwest
by Steve Kerr, Yahoo Sports
October 27, 2004

Steve Kerr
Yahoo Sports
When Don Nelson took over the Knicks in 1994, he vowed to turn the Patrick Ewing-led team into an entertaining, up-tempo unit. Ewing, however, wasn't so enthralled with the plan, and he never felt comfortable playing Nellie's style. He wanted to do what he'd always done – slow the game down, get the ball on the low post and dominate the action.

The two butted heads. Gone after just 34 games into the season, Nellie was replaced by Jeff Van Gundy.

I raise the issue because while Nellie always has longed for a big man, he never has felt totally comfortable coaching one. He always has loved to play "small ball," and the Mavericks have thrived as a running team for the past five seasons.

But with Steve Nash gone and Erick Dampier wearing a Dallas uniform, Nelson is confronted with a dilemma: Change the up-tempo style that he loves and instead play a defensive, plodding game, or get Dampier to adapt and get out and run.

Neither style sounds like it will come naturally. But if the Mavericks are to compete in the NBA's toughest division – the Southwest – Nelson and Dampier will have to be comfortable together.

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    1. San Antonio Spurs
    Tim Duncan is the best player in the game. Kevin Garnett may be more versatile and definitely deserved the MVP last season, but Duncan is much stronger and dominates games on the low post, forcing teams to alter their defensive strategies.

    With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in the backcourt, the Spurs have two daring, athletic guards who attack the basket. Bruce Bowen sets the tone for the defense with his lockdown, aggressive style. Brent Barry gives the Spurs great versatility and outside shooting in the backcourt, and he'll see a lot of open shots playing with Duncan.

    2. Houston Rockets
    The Rockets spent a week this month in China, where Yao Ming is more popular than Michael Jordan. If Yao continues to improve at such a rapid rate, he might eventually enjoy similar success to MJ as well.

    The Rockets are a team on the rise, and with Yao teaming with Tracy McGrady, Jeff Van Gundy has the half-court weapons he needs in his patient (read: slow) attack. The big question for Houston is who will step in at point guard. Charlie Ward? Tyronn Lue? Bobby Sura?

    3. Memphis Grizzlies
    What a fantastic season the Grizzlies had last season. Now the expectations are high, of course, and the Grizzlies must respond. With Hubie Brown running the show, it's tough to see this team not succeeding.

    Memphis added tough shooter Brian Cardinal to an already deep rotation, and they'll rely on defense, running and hard work to wear the opposition down. Pau Gasol is the big gun for the Grizzlies, and if he can dominate in the low post, they won't have as difficult of a time scoring against the better defenses as they did last season.

    4. Dallas Mavericks
    Dirk Nowitzki and Michael Finley return, but their former running mate Steve Nash is not there to lead them.

    Can this team continue to thrive on running and sharing the ball with the new additions of Jason Terry and Jerry Stackhouse? Both would much rather shoot than pass, and when you throw Dampier into the mix, you wonder how this group will blend together. Nellie has his hands full.

    5. New Orleans Hornets
    Realignment was not kind to the Hornets. Last season, they were a popular pick to win the Eastern Conference. Now they're a unanimous pick for last place in the Southwest Division.

    With Jamal Mashburn out for the season with a knee injury, it figures to be a tough season for New Orleans. Baron Davis will run the offense, and he and David Wesley will cast away from the perimeter. Rookie J.R. Smith also has deep range, and he has scored in bunches in the preseason. P.J. Brown anchors the defense and provides veteran leadership.

    The Hornets aren't that bad, but they're in the wrong division.

    Steve Kerr is Yahoo! Sports' NBA analyst. Send Steve a question or comment for potential use in a future column or webcast.

    Updated on Thursday, Oct 28, 2004 12:18 am, EDT

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