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NBA season preview: Southwest Division

Johnny Ludden
Yahoo Sports

Mavericks coach Avery Johnson couldn't resist taking one more playful dig at his longtime mentor.

When the Spurs recently made their annual preseason trip to Dallas, Johnson summed up his rivals by saying, "The players are great."

But the coach?

"Average."

Gregg Popovich didn't need long to explain his mediocrity.

"Everything I learned, I learned from (Johnson)," Popovich deadpanned. "So he didn't teach me very much."

All joking aside, the Mavericks learned one very important lesson this summer that the Spurs realized long ago: No one remembers what you did during the regular season.

The Mavs' much-expected ride to the championship took a sharp detour off the map when Golden State bounced them out of the first round of the playoffs. After finishing nine games behind Dallas in the Southwest Division – a sometimes rocky trek through the regular season that had many questioning whether their championship window had closed – the Spurs took home their third NBA title in five seasons.

Look for Johnson to take a cue from Popovich and (somewhat) soften his approach during the first half of the schedule. The Mavericks get the nod right now for the Southwest title, but all three Texas teams are capable of winning the NBA's toughest division.

Come May no one will care anyway.

Here's the predicted order of finish for the Southwest:

1. Dallas Mavericks

Allow us to introduce: Trenton Hassell and Eddie Jones.

Dearly departed: Austin Croshere and Greg Buckner.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Mavericks won 67 games last season before their first-round flop against Golden State. They have the reigning MVP (Dirk Nowitzki), an All-Star swingman (Josh Howard), one of the quickest point guards (Devin Harris) and a tough, productive veteran (Jerry Stackhouse) who just might be in line for a starting job this season. What's not to like?

How's Cancun in June? That makes two disappointing playoff collapses in two years. Fluke or trend?

In the crosshairs: Not since David Robinson watched Hakeem Olajuwon spin by him has an MVP endured the heavy criticism Nowitzki weathered this summer following his weak performance against the Warriors. This stings almost as bad: Nowitzki still has to wait another six months to prove it wasn't deserved.

2. San Antonio Spurs

Allow us to introduce: Ime Udoka, Ian Mahinmi and Marcus Williams.

Dearly departed: Jackie Butler, James White and Melvin Ely.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Spurs bring back all 12 players from last season's championship roster, and that experience and depth should again serve them well. Coach Gregg Popovich doesn't mind sacrificing games in the regular season if it means keeping his veterans healthy and primed for the playoffs. If Tim Duncan plays close to last season's level, San Antonio will be ready to begin another title push come spring.

How's Cancun in June? Popovich summed up his team's state on the opening day of camp with this blunt assessment: "We're older than hell." Everyone also knows the Spurs don't win in even-numbered years.

In the crosshairs: After enduring an up-and-down postseason ride for much of his first five years, Tony Parker quieted some doubters when he walked away with the finals MVP trophy. A few weeks later, he was at an altar in Paris marrying actress Eva Longoria. By the end of the summer, he was playing on the French national team. The Spurs hope he hasn't lost his hunger or his focus. With Duncan and Manu Ginobili on the back end of their careers, the Spurs need their point guard to help carry them though the regular season.

3. Houston Rockets

Allow us to introduce: Steve Francis, Luis Scola, Mike James and Aaron Brooks.

Dearly departed: Juwan Howard and Vassilis Spanoulis.

Is that confetti in your hair? The Rockets made the somewhat surprising decision to fire Jeff Van Gundy and replace him with Rick Adelman. Not wanting Adelman to be short on talent, they then traded for James and Scola and signed Francis to a low-end contract. If Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady can stay healthy, Houston could be in the mix for much more than a division title.

How's Cancun in June? The Rockets will need a while to settle into Adelman's offense. Francis and James won't help matters if they revert to their ball-chucking ways. And as much criticism as Van Gundy received about his teams' grind-it-out style, the Kings let Adelman go a year earlier, in part, because they thought he didn't prioritize defense.

In the crosshairs: McGrady has been slowed by back trouble in recent seasons. But that doesn't hurt as much as this: Ten years into his career, he still hasn't won a playoff series.

4. New Orleans Hornets

Allow us to introduce: Morris Peterson, Julian Wright, Ryan Bowen and Melvin Ely.

Dearly departed: Desmond Mason, Devin Brown, Marc Jackson and Cedric Simmons.

Is that confetti in your hair? What better way for the Hornets to celebrate their return to New Orleans than with a playoff berth? Injuries to each of their three best players (Chris Paul, David West and Peja Stojakovic) may have been the only thing keeping the Hornets out of the playoffs last season. Center Tyson Chandler appears to have benefited greatly from his stay with Team USA this summer – enough so that more than a few teams in the West are miffed Chicago didn't keep him.

How's Cancun in June? Stojakovic has returned after missing 69 games last season because of back surgery, but he proclaims himself no better than "day-to-day." With coach Byron Scott already lamenting the team's defensive struggles, the Hornets will probably find themselves battling the Warriors, Lakers, Grizzlies and Blazers for one of the final two playoff berths.

In the crosshairs: Stojakovic played just 13 games last season, but New Orleans went 8-5 in those games, a possible indicator of the sharpshooter's value to the team. He scored 42 points in one victory over Charlotte, including New Orleans' first 20. Suffice to say, that was the type of return the Hornets were banking on when they handed Stojakovic $64 million 15 months ago.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

Allow us to introduce: Darko Milicic, Mike Conley, Juan Carlos Navarro and Casey Jacobsen.

Dearly departed: Chucky Atkins, Dahntay Jones and Alexander Johnson.

Is that confetti in your hair? One year after requesting to be traded, Pau Gasol seems to be all smiles. He has a new coach (Marc Iavaroni) and a new general manager (Chris Wallace), and Memphis even added one of his best friends (Navarro) to the roster. If Rudy Gay continues to progress and Milicic develops into more than a YouTube star (his vicious rant on FIBA officials this summer received serious play online), the Grizzlies could be in the playoff hunt.

How's Cancun in June? The uptempo style Iavaroni plans to employ worked well when he was an assistant on Mike D'Antoni's staff in Phoenix. But the Suns also had Steve Nash directing their offense. Memphis might begin the season with Damon Stoudamire as its starting point guard until either Conley or Kyle Lowry looks capable of taking over the job. The Grizzlies' defense, one of the league's worst last season, also is in need of a serious makeover.

In the crosshairs: Though he missed 23 games, Gasol had, in many ways, his best individual season, recording career highs in scoring (20.8), rebounding (9.9) and field-goal percentage (.539). With Memphis using the summer to upgrade his supporting cast, Gasol won't have nearly as many excuses if he can't guide the Grizzlies back into the playoffs.