A case can be made that the Southwest is the best top-to-bottom division in the NBA. And with no super-large-scale media market in the division, there are some under-hyped gems on these rosters.
Like Lindsey Lohan in a drug store dumpster, let's pick through the Southwest position battles and discover some fantasy finds.
If presented this limp squad on Shark Tank, I'm pretty sure Mark Cuban wouldn't invest. Cuban's failed attempts to bring in free agents Deron Williams (last summer) and Dwight Howard (this summer) have resulted in an awkward roster. The starting backcourt includes two new defensively-challenged guards in Jose Calderon and Monta Ellis. The frontcourt has 35-year-olds Dirk Nowitzki and Shawn Marion plus former Sixer-King-Rocket-Buck enigma Samuel Dalembert. That mix of old age and questionable talent should face playing time challenges, but the bench is weak. So the real battle is for the productive-first-guy-off the bench spot.
Sixth Man: Vince Carter, Devin Harris, DeJuan Blair
Yep, that's the kind of depth that made GM (now President of Basketball Operations) Donnie Nelson say, essentially, "Ugh, OK…I guess we gotta sign Dalembert." (New GM Gersson Rosas was signed five days after Dalembert and can't be blamed for the current roster.) The 36-year-old Carter played a surprising 81 games last year at an alarmingly high 26 minutes per game. He's the sixth-man incumbent. Coach Rick Carlisle should be commended for squeezing a decent year out of Carter, whose 3-point shooting last year was north of 40-percent for the first time since 2004-05. But with all those NBA miles on Carter's odometer, is it really wise to expect another 13.4 points a game from him? And with a defensive rating of 110 (per Basketball-Reference), he's an even worse defender than Ellis (109).
So that leaves us Harris and Blair. Harris is expected to backup both guard spots, especially with first-round pick Shane Larkin out roughly two months with a broken right ankle. But Harris has his own injury (toe) and won't start playing until late-December or January. Blair started 62 games in 2011-12, but only 16 in 2012-13, eventually finding himself at the end of the bench. With Dallas' bench being so weak, Blair will get every opportunity to prove himself. If your squad needs cheap rebounds and solid FG-percentage (53 percent career rate), Blair could be a surprisingly helpful late round flier. Brandan Wright is still in Dallas, but we pretty much saw his ceiling last season, and he proved that even when he's at his best, he's inconsistent.
But let's get back to Dalembert. Maybe he should follow legend Gheorghe Muresan and release his own cologne?
The winner of the Dwight Howard sweepstakes now needs to decide on a proper supporting cast for Howard and James Harden. We have faith that GM Daryl Morey (Northwestern graduate) will continue making dynamic changes. (OK, maybe signing Ronnie Brewer wasn't "dynamic".) For instance, I'm still not sold that Omer Asik will end the year with Houston. The biggest question mark might be who is going to help Howard down low.
Power Forward: Greg Smith, Omer Asik, Donatas Motiejunas, Terrence Jones
Something tells me that Rockets coach Kevin McHale will work harder than Lakers coach Mike D'Antoni did to keep Howard happy. And that means finding a four who plays well with D12. Expect McHale to experiment often and early. Many consider the 6-10 Greg Smith the incumbent, despite that he only started 10 games last year. When he did start, he often still played fewer minutes than D-Mo (Motiejunas). D-Mo's outside shooting ability makes the 23-year-old Lithuanian a better match for playing with Harden and Howard. There was talk this summer from McHale that Houston might start a twin-tower lineup of Howard and Asik, but I think that's just a ploy to bolster Asik's trade value. The Dream and Ralph Sampson shouldn't worry about being overshadowed, that's for sure. Terrence Jones, he of the horrible abusing-a-homeless-person story, is really more of a small forward and should only see minimal minutes. D-Mo is the late-round gamble who might really pay off over the second half of the season. (Plus you get to yell "D-MO!" during SportsCenter highlights.)
The starting five is tight with Mike Conley, Tony Allen, Tayshaun Prince, Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Mike Miller was a late July addition you may have missed. He returns to the franchise he called home for six years, but he is way too fragile to get major minutes, even with a drowsy Prince in front of him.
There are really no big position battles in Memphis. One has to admire how they've turned into a steady, consistent winner (.620 winning-percentage over the last three years). Expect that winning to continue with this stable, complimentary lineup and a stronger bench. Former Nuggets starter Kosta Koufos will see fewer minutes this year, backing up Marc Gasol. Ed Davis should see more time as backup power forward now that Darrell Arthur is gone. For deep leagues, Davis is a big with upside. He could average close to 8.0 points and 8.0 rebounds, with a strong field-goal-percentage and a block per game.
New Orleans Pelicans
Pelican fans must be excited, and I'm not just talking about the awesome new team name. There is tremendous upside in this young lineup, led by Jrue Holiday and Anthony Davis. But where are the battles? Out on the wings.
Wings: Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Al-Farouq Aminu, Austin Rivers
Does anyone still believe that Gordon will play 70-plus games in a season? When you think about Gordon's 42 games-played-per-season average over the past four years, you start to understand why they overpaid for Evans. Aminu went from opening day starter to out-of-the-rotation in December and then eventually back to being a starter. He may be the best rebounder on the team (a surprising 7.7 per game average last year), but he struggles with his mid-range jumper. Aminu will only be 23 years old when the season starts, so there is still plenty of time for him to develop his potential. Is it too early to call Rivers a bust? Would the Pelicans have offered Evans four years and $44 million if they thought Rivers was ready? (Answer: NO.) For what's it's worth, Rivers did play well in summer league, averaging 18.2 points a game.
Expect the inevitable Gordon injury, leading to Evans and Aminu getting monster minutes. Evans has 17.0 points and 1.5 steals a game with a solid field-goal-percentage well within his reach. Aminu will be a sneaky source of cheap rebounds.
What, you don't "get" the Pelicans name change? Go here. Sure, the new uniforms are a little dull. Maybe they should have gone with these.
San Antonio Spurs
Not much changes for the Western Conference Champions. Was I the only person yelling, "Get the rebound!" at the end of Game 6? But I digress. Gary Neal (Milwaukee) and DeJuan Blair (Dallas) are the only departures. Spurs management had already given up on Blair, but Neal's points off the bench will be hard to replace. When does the inevitable breakdown occur for Manu? The points won't come from the 36-year-old Argentine, whose 11.8 points per game last year were his lowest since his 2002-03 rookie season. Expect Popovich and company to make a crafty mid-season trade for a scorer. Until then, there are no significant position battles to debate.
A Cuddly Crites Conclusion
The Southwest division should be extremely competitive, yet under the radar. Grab some fantasy gems like D-Mo, Evans and Blair. And, heck, if you've got some spare time, watch this awesome footage from the 1986 Western Conference Game 6 of Houston versus LA. The Twin Towers versus Kareem, baby.