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2006 NBA Southwest Division Preview

by Drew Magione of Doc's Sports Picks

The Eastern Conference player haters have only one valid argument to keep claiming the conferences have not reached some semblance of parity: the Southwest Division. The East has caught up to the once mighty West. However, despite the Heat win last year, it's hard to ignore the fact that this division had the league's two best records and this year, a third team may be in the mix.

Everyone knows that the Mavericks and the Spurs are good, but don't sleep on Houston. This team is a transfusion of Red Bull in Yao's blood stream and a little consistent play away from making some serious noise. Jeff Van Gundy understands the value of a post offense, having instituted a double-post offense for Alan Houston and Latrell Sprewell that got the Knicks to the Finals. He has a lot more to work with in Houston, but he's also got a lot more in his way.

The Spurs may be the oddsmakers' favorites, but an aging roster and diminishing superstar may clear the way for the Mavericks to reach the Finals again. Dallas saw Dirk step up to true superstar status last year and don't be surprised if Josh Howard follows suit this year. Memphis is a team in transition with Pau Gasol out for most of the year, but if they hang around the playoffs for his comeback, they might make a late run. The Hornets are a hodgepodge of talent that may have a hard time coming together.

SAN ANTONIO SPURS
2005 Record: 63-19 (1st Division, 1st Conference)
2006 Title odds: 11/2
2006 Wins O/U: 56
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Matt Bonner, PF; Eric Williams, G/F; Francisco Elson, C; Jackie Butler, C; Jacque Vaughn, PG
Key Losses: Rasho Nesterovic, C; Nazr Mohammed, C; Sean Marks, C
Outlook: For good reason, the experts never say anything bad about Duncan. He's a great player, but he's on the downside of his career a little bit early. He's got to get back down low. That's where his FG percentage will go up along with the team's wins. However, he's got to have some serious questions about his support down low: Elson? Butler? Bonner? Jared Reiner? Fabricio Oberto? The backcourt is good and should again provide a lot of support for the superstar big man, but the cast is getting old. Brent Barry and Michael Finley are entering their 12th year. Bruce Bowen is entering 11 and this will be Duncan's 10th.
Bottom line: Gregg Popovich cannot stand on Tim Duncan's shoulders much longer without giving him some big man support. The weight of an average coach and an aging roster may make this team a disappointment.

DALLAS MAVERICKS
2005 Record: 60-22 (2nd Division, 2nd Conference)
2006 Title odds: 4/1
2006 Wins O/U: 56
2006 Wins Projection: Over
Key Additions: Maurice Ager (r), SG; Darius Washington (r), PG; Austin Croshere, PF; Devean George, SF; Anthony Johnson, PG; Greg Buckner, G/F
Key Losses: Adrian Griffin, G/F; Marquis Daniels, G; Josh Powell, F; Darrel Armstrong, PG
Outlook: With Avery Johnson signed for five years, the commitment to defense in Big D seems real. Howard is a monster and alongside Dirk and DeSagana Diop makes this a formidable frontline that I can't see too many teams handling. Devin Harris and Jason Terry should provide the necessary guard play to win games in the regular season. The bench looks good on paper, but I question how Erick Dampier, Jerry Stackhouse and Croshere will hold up toward the end of the season.
Bottom line: This team will make noise in the regular season, but I'm not sure they've got the depth come playoff time to survive the bangs and bruises. They did it last year though.

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MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
2005 Record: 49-33 (3rd Division, 4th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 75/1
2006 Wins O/U: 40
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Stromile Swift, F/C; Rudy Gay (r), SF; Kyle Lowry (r), PG
Key Losses: Shane Battier, SF; Bobby Jackson, PG; Lorenzen Wright, C
Outlook: The injury to Gasol could keep him out past the All-Star break and that will devastate this team. They've lost their defensive sparkplug, but the future is partly sunny. Gay, Lowry, Lawrence Roberts, and Hakim Warrick all have ability. It's not ridiculous to think they might step up, but if the team is forced to rely on Swift, Damon Stoudamire, Mike Miller and an aging Eddie Jones, uh oh. Wait, Christian Laettner says he's going to play for these guys. There's the championship piece! (Say it Borat: NOT!)
Bottom line: Laettner's NBA career started out well, but the luck he had in college ran out with a series of injuries. He's reunited with Brian Davis, but with Gasol down and Jerry West set to retire, he'll need all the luck he can get.

NEW ORLEANS/OKLAHOMA HORNETS
2005 Record: 38-44 (4th Division, 10th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 90/1
2006 Wins O/U: 40.5
2006 Wins Projection: Under
Key Additions: Peja Stojakovic, SF; Tyson Chandler, C; Bobby Jackson, PG; Hilton Armstrong (r), C; Cedric Simmons (r), F/C; Marcus Vinicius, SF
Key Losses: J.R. Smith, SG; P.J. Brown, PF; Speedy Claxton, PG; Kirk Snyder, SG; Marcus Fizer, PF; Aaron Williams, F/C
Outlook: This may be the last shot for Byron Scott. He's got his point guard, but I'm not so sure the defensive-minded coach who had high rise leapers in New Jersey is going to get it done here. Chris Paul is great, but last year he had to do it all himself as a rookie knifing into the lane. Penetrating point guards are good at keeping bad teams from looking too awful, but for this team to be a playoff contender, David West and Tyson Chandler have to show up so Peja can get some open shots.
Bottom line: This team should be entertaining with Paul and Desmond Mason racing down the floor, but unless the post game opens up for the shooters, don't expect a N.O. Saints-like surprise. They'll be .500 at best.

HOUSTON ROCKETS
2005 Record: 34-48 (5th Division, 13th Conference)
2006 Title odds: 23/1
2006 Wins O/U: 45.5
2006 Wins Projection: Over
Key Additions: Shane Battier, F; Bonzi Wells, G/F; Steve Novak (r), F; Scott Padgett, F
Key Losses: Stromile Swift, F/C; Keith Bogans, SG; David Wesley, G
Outlook: Jeff Van Gundy is one of the most underrated coaches in the NBA, but he's got to get it done this year. Assistant coach Patrick Ewing left and Yao Ming is still softer than my feather bed. However, McGrady appears healthy and now has some backup in Bonzi Wells. Battier adds defensive toughness, while Bobby Sura and rookie Steve Novak are solid shooters. The question mark may be point guard where street baller Rafer Alston showed some signs last year, but keep an eye on John Lucas III coming out of no where.
Bottom line: This team has taken steps to avoid another embarrassing season, should McGrady miss time. If Yao gets aggressive and the small guards step up, this team could challenge for the division title.

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