The 66-game schedule will have a different impact on every team. Old teams will worry about being overtaxed on short rest. Young teams will worry about a lack of practice time. Contenders will worry about one injury derailing a season. (Can you say "Paul Pierce"?) Rebuilding clubs will worry about getting a good look at the core talent playing together.
But in the Southwest Division, there's another concern: this division is deep, and the combatants in it must battle each other more than they'll battle any other team. Consider this: the L.A. Lakers get to face the Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, L.A. Clippers and Golden State Warriors -- that's one good team, and three lottery clubs -- in 16 of their 66 games (24 percent of the schedule). The San Antonio Spurs' division line-up is the Dallas Mavericks, Memphis Grizzlies, Houston Rockets and New Orleans Hornets -- three good teams, and one lottery club. The Lakers will also face the Southwest teams and vice versa, but not as frequently. The easy nights in the Southwest are fewer and farther between.
But hey. At least the Southwest will have the Hornets to beat up on, right?
FEATS OF STRENGTH
Championship winners don't typically actively try to get worse in the offseason, but the Mavericks did just that. With an eye on 2012, Dallas let Tyson Chandler, Caron Butler and J.J. Barea walk without a fight. But the NBA's Chris Paul disaster resulted in the most lopsided trade in years as the Mavericks grabbed Lamar Odom from the Lakers for literally nothing. Instantly, everyone forgot all about Chandler, Butler and Barea. Odom was the Sixth Man of the Year last year and had legit support for an All-Star reserve spot. He's on a more than fair contract, one which isn't fully guaranteed for 2012-13. Basically, he's in a perfect situation for any team: productive as hell, affordable and relatively risk-free. Teams beat down doors for players like that. And the Mavericks got him for ... nothing. Literally nothing. How many lotto tickets did Donnie Nelson buy the night he pulled off this trade?
The Spurs finished with the West's top record last season, but an injury to Manu Ginobili and a bad match-up with the Grizzlies in the first round knocked them out of the first round. The good news: that entire roster, minus a retired Antonio McDyess and a hilarious Steve Novak, returns and appears healthy; Tim Duncan, the white beard, was working out with the team's youngsters under the hot Texas sun this offseason, and Manu resisted the urge to play in Europe during the lockout. If that wasn't enough, we're reminded that Tiago Splitter is still in the pipeline, ready to make everyone forget about that rookie season. The Spurs also added Kawhi Leonard -- who probably needed to be a top-10 pick -- in the draft by swapping out supersub George Hill, whose minutes will be soaked up by the brilliant Gary Neal and young James Anderson. You want to know why the Spurs have been so good for so long? Because their stars are incredible and the rotating supporting cast is always refreshed with talent.
"Supporting cast" is a bad word in Memphis these days. The Grizzlies lost two of the team's top three subs (Shane Battier to free agency, Darrell Arthur to injury) and, for the third straight season, will rely heavily on the starting five plus top guard reserve O.J. Mayo. Needless to say, with the breakneck speed of the season to come, that's dangerous. The team made no upgrades in the offseason except to see Rudy Gay get healthy; he missed the last couple months of the 2010-11 season and the playoffs with a separated shoulder. A Mike Conley-Tony-Allen-Gay perimeter line-up is strong, and the Zach Randolph-Marc Gasol frontline is among the best in the NBA. But is that enough?
The Rockets lost out on Pau Gasol when the CP3 deal fell apart, and lost out on Nene as a result. Houston ended up with a solid defender in Samuel Dalembert, one who will clean up messes on the glass and help cover for his teammates' largely shaky defense. (Starting point guard Kyle Lowry will be the only other defensive stud in the starting five.) Houston has plenty of tradable pieces, and the belief is that they'll make a splash at some point. We'll see.
The Hornets lost their two best players (CP3 and David West), added a new best player (Eric Gordon) and have been set up to fail this season, but fail with a purpose. The NBA, which owns the Hornets, has essentially admitted the best way to be competitive is to not be competitive for at least a year, thus belying the NBA's argument that the goal of the lockout was to ensure that fans in every city could feel that their team had a chance to win a championship. The playoffs aren't even in view in New Orleans, never mind a title.
AIRING OF GRIEVANCES
The Hornets, and by extension the NBA, not only endorsed the Scorched Earth rebuild strategy, but also became the first club to adopt the NHL's Salary Cap Mule paradigm. The Hornets didn't need help reaching the salary floor -- Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman made sure of that -- but they had cap space to burn and a huge frontcourt scoring hole. Ergo: the team spent $9 million for a season of Carl Landry. NBA cap mules will be used less to reach the salary floor -- though don't rule that out; the Kings need to spend another $3-4 million, and could end up signing a veteran on a bloated one-year deal to get there. The real use of NBA cap mules will be to carry over cap space to the following season without totally pissing off fans. Look at the Nets, who brought Kris Humphries back on a one-year, $8 million deal, or the Rockets' deal with Dalembert, which is only guaranteed up to $1.5 million in Year 2. The NBA may have ended the Eddy Curry contract, but get ready for plenty of Carl Landry deals going forward.
The Rockets dropped one of the best coaches in the game (Rick Adelman) because he wouldn't groom a successor -- imagine that! The pain on offense could be debilitating if Kevin McHale can't match RA's success. If nothing else, Houston can always trot out its Lineup Of Misfit Draft Busts late if the season goes off of the rails. Hasheem Thabeet at center, Jordan Hill at power forward, Terrence Williams at shooting guard and Jonny Flynn at point guard -- this team desperately needs to trade for Corey Brewer to complete the line-up.
The Grizzlies are so desperate for reserve help up front that they offered Dante Cunningham a three-year deal, and thought that would solve the issue. Cunningham's just fine, but something tells me Memphis is not yet aware of the severity of the problem. Regardless, it seems clear that the rumors that Michael Heisley has in fact told GM Chris Wallace not to exceed the tax line are true, despite what the franchise officially says.
The Spurs tried to upgrade small forward before the amnesty deadline so they could waive Richard Jefferson, who they had signed a year prior. Josh Howard (...) and Caron Butler (...) were the leading candidates. For an owner in Peter Holt who just wants to make a few bucks, this seems like an amazing way to waste a lot of money. Alas, R-Jeff remains, ensuring that Spurs fans will remain furious for much of the year, no matter how good the team is.
Los Mavs are on clouds, no matter how iffy the offseason has been. It would take missing the playoffs -- which isn't going to happen -- to ruin the championship afterglow, so the front office is quite honestly brilliant for all but tanking the offseason in an attempt to bridge the eras with a coup in 2012. But ... when Andrew Bynum, Blake Griffin and Nene are destroying Brendan Haywood this season, it sure isn't going to look pretty. (Free Ian Mahinmi. Free Ian Mahinmi.)
It will be miraculous if ...
Mark Cuban doesn't do something kinda crazy very early in the season to make up for his postseason silence. (Note: his championship celebration was pretty crazy.)
Everyone doesn't fall in love with Kevin McHale, coach.
Chris Kaman looks happy at any point this season, assuming that he isn't traded.
Gregg Popovich doesn't 'tank' at least three games to rest his stars.
Anyone remembers that golden boy R.C. Buford, the Spurs GM, was popped for DUI this fall.
Trevor Ariza doesn't have an 0-15 night.
Anyone anywhere at any point says of the Mavericks, "Tyson who?"
Snarky bloggers and Tweeters who claim they could not care less about the Kardashians do not rush to make jokes about Khloe, Lamar Odom and Kris Humphries when the Mavs and Nets meet.
Tony Allen tweets something that anyone can make sense of.
THE HUMAN FUND
Let's get sincere.
Projected order of finish (asterisks indicate playoff berths):
1. San Antonio Spurs*
2. Dallas Mavericks*
3. Memphis Grizzlies*
4. Houston Rockets
5. New Orleans Hornets
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