The Spurs appear on the verge of a dynasty, having already won three titles in seven years and showing no signs of weakening. But if things go south for Gregg Popovich's team, he may find that his team isn't even the best in the state, never mind the NBA.
The Rockets appear close to emerging as a real force now that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have played a season together, and Dallas is loaded as usual. Even the Grizzlies figure to be tough to beat in the Western Conference's toughest division. All four clubs will take turns beating up on the lowly Hornets, for whom it looks like another long season.
Here's a look at the Southwest Division.San Antonio Spurs
Best-case scenario: The Spurs pick up where they left off in June. Tim Duncan dominates the lane, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili slice up opponents with their penetration and Bruce Bowen shuts down the best perimeter players in the game. Nick Van Exel and Michael Finley add scoring off the bench, and San Antonio waltzes to the division title.
Worst-case scenario: The Spurs suddenly have too much talent, if that's possible, and the chemistry suffers. A crowded bench leads to unhappiness, and Van Exel and Finley don't fit in. The Spurs still win a lot of games, but they allow Houston to pass them for the Southwest crown.
Outlook: Popovich is a master at handling egos, and the winning culture is already in place in the Alamo City. If chemistry is an issue, Pop will fix it one way or another. The Spurs will win the division and be the favorites to win the NBA title.Houston Rockets
Best-case scenario: Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady form the league's best inside-out combination, Stromile Swift gives the Rockets consistent defense and rebounding at power forward and the Houston backcourt complements the frontline with solid shooting and strong defense. The Rockets break through and win the division.
Worst-case scenario: Yao and T-Mac don't quite click and Swift displays the mercurial nature that made him expendable in Memphis. The backcourt defends poorly and Houston's defense slips. The Rockets fade toward the .500 mark.
Outlook: This is an emerging, well-coached team. The Big Two will be great, and Swift is the kind of athletic "four man" the Rockets desperately needed last season. If Houston gets solid play from newcomers Derek Anderson, Rafer Alston and Luther Head in the backcourt, watch out.Dallas Mavericks
Best-case scenario: Dirk Nowitzki has an MVP-type season, and he is perfectly complemented by the wing corps of Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Marquis Daniels. Erick Dampier emerges as a defensive force and the Mavs shrug off the loss of Michael Finley to remain one of the West's best teams.
Worst-case scenario: Nowitzki's production suffers now that both Steve Nash and Finley are gone, and the team becomes too one-dimensional. Avery Johnson's efforts to make the club more defensive-minded don't pan out, as Dampier can't fit in with the up-tempo pace his teammates prefer. Dallas falls out of the playoffs for the first time in six years.
Outlook: The Mavericks have the potential to be very good – they just have to put the pieces together. Johnson's defensive approach will be helped by the arrival of Doug Christie, but Dampier is the key. He must fit in and be a force. Dallas will enjoy another 50-plus win season, which is no small feat in this division.Memphis Grizzlies
Best-case scenario: The addition by subtraction theory works. Without Bonzi Wells and Jason Williams, the Grizzlies have great chemistry and defend the way Mike Fratello likes. Also, Pau Gasol emerges as a star working the low post. Memphis finds a way back to the playoffs for the third straight season.
Worst-case scenario: Gasol still displays inconsistency, rookie Hakim Warrick isn't ready to produce, and the new acquisitions – Eddie Jones, Damon Stoudamire and Bobby Jackson – begin to show signs of age. Memphis fades quickly and misses the postseason.
Outlook: Rumor has it that Jerry West really likes this club. The Grizzlies will be very competitive under Fratello, and if Warrick is ready to play they could surprise some people. Still, it's tough to see Memphis making the playoffs in a ridiculously deep Western Conference.New Orleans Hornets
Best-case scenario: Chris Paul is the second coming of Isiah Thomas, J.R. Smith is the next Joe Dumars, and the Hornets become the Bad Boys of the new millennium and storm to the division title. (Just checking to see if you were paying attention). Actually, if all goes perfectly, they might win 22 games. Anything more than that would be a miracle.
Worst-case scenario: The front line breaks down and P.J. Brown gets hurt, leaving the Hornets defenseless. Paul isn't ready to start, and the lack of talent on the roster is exposed. The Hornets barely avoid the all-time NBA record for losses – 73 – while playing their home games in Oklahoma City and Baton Rouge.
Outlook: Paul will help, as will Lithuanian rookie Arvydas Macijauskas. But without a true scorer, the Hornets will have a difficult time putting points on the board. And in the toughest division in the West, that's a problem. Finishing anywhere but fifth is out of the question.
- Southwest Division