• Alec Liebsch

Burning Questions: Southwest Division

It’s crazy to think the 2020-21 season is right around the corner. Rosters are mostly set as the dust settles in free agency, and the league just released its schedule for the first half of the season.

With the new season comes a flurry of new stories to be written. Star power didn’t change hands as drastically this offseason as it did last, but plenty of teams reshaped themselves in preparation for the new year. They all have questions that need to be answered, either early in the season or at some point in their playoff pursuits.

You can find my previews of the Atlantic, Central, Southeast, Northwest and Pacific divisions here. Now it's time to look at the Southwest, which has an interesting middle pack to parse through.

Dallas Mavericks: Is another star on the way?

A superstar is one of the biggest competitive advantages in the league. A superstar on a rookie contract is a goldmine. Not only are you a legit team thanks to that youngster, but you're also paying a fraction of what you should be for that production, thereby opening up room to add players elsewhere. Luka Doncic is well on his way to MVP contention, and he's criminally underpaid for two more years.

In other words, the time to add another huge cap hit is now. Kristaps Porzingis is the only Maverick guaranteed to make more than $11 million next year, and many of the cheaper salaries can be mixed and matched for another star. A second-tier contender in the West can approach $40 million in cap space in two years. There's a rare opportunity here.

Houston Rockets: What is life like after James Harden?

The Rockets have the longest active playoff streak in the league, and much of it can be credited to Harden. He showed up basically every night, played through injuries, changed roles several times, and through it all has been the face of the franchise. Every success and failure has been tied to him, and a lot more has been the former than the latter.

But it seems that time is coming to an end. Harden's camp has not budged on its trade request, even as Houston fields a pretty solid team around him. He's even opened up his list of preferred destinations in order to accelerate a trade.

Unless the Philadelphia 76ers are willing to trade Ben Simmons, the likely package is not going to be ideal. Most teams willing to trade for Harden don't have anyone near Simmons' caliber, neither in success nor age. The most realistic return package is a young, upside-laden player on his rookie deal and a bunch of picks.

A framework that the Miami Heat could put together, for example, centers around Tyler Herro, Duncan Robinson, Kendrick Nunn, expendable salaries, and whatever they have in the asset cupboard. It's not pretty, but Houston will have to take what it can get for Harden—especially if a young cornerstone isn't coming their way.

The aftermath will be especially interesting. John Wall, Christian Wood and Eric Gordon isn't bad if healthy, and at least some of the Harden return package should help them win games in the present. Which will be necessary since tanking is not an option.

Memphis Grizzlies: Did they overperform last year?

Memphis was fun as hell last season. Led by Rookie of the Year Ja Morant and little other star power, the Grizzlies had to be scrappy and creative to win games. They did just that, earning a berth in the NBA's first ever play-in game. They lost to a more experienced Portland Trail Blazers team, but their overall body of work was impressive.

Unfortunately, we've seen this story before. A young team overperforms one year, is expected to continue on that trajectory, and then falls back down to Earth in a "disappointing" encore year. Last year's Kings were a prime example; they fought for a playoff spot until late in the 2018-19 season, spent in free agency, and regressed to the mean in 2019-20.

The West got better this offseason, and many of the big winners were either in or behind Memphis' range last year. The Blazers, Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns all improved while the Grizzlies stood pat, with only the Rockets (probably) and Oklahoma City Thunder getting substantially worse from the playoff bracket. This ragtag group will have a tough time simply treading water.

New Orleans Pelicans: What does a full season of Zion Williamson entail?

Like many NBA newbies, Williamson has yet to play an entire season's worth of games in one year. AAU circuits are a different animal, the most college games you can play is around 40 (he got to 33), and his rookie season was split up several different ways.

In his first 19 games before the shutdown, he was a distinct net positive and a catalyst for several Pelicans wins. In The Bubble, however, he was a strong negative for five games before being shut down with an injury. 103 bad minutes after a four-month layoff, when he barely had his feet underneath him before the shutdown, is not the most legitimate sample. Nor are those dominant minutes when he was just getting his feet wet (565, to be exact). There's a middle ground here, and we'll have 72 games (hopefully) to see what that is.

Alvin Gentry's free-flowing offense allowed Williamson to attack at will, but it also probably put too much on his plate early on. New head coach Stan Van Gundy expects to make things more structured, simplifying the sophomore's shot diet and thereby catering to his very specific strengths. NOLA's offseason suggests exactly that, with the additions of ball handlers Eric Bledsoe and Kira Lewis Jr. and paint enforcer Steven Adams.

San Antonio Spurs: Who's sticking around for the next era?

The Spurs have defied the odds before, but they're beginning to stack a little too high for even the strongest organizations to withstand. A revamp of the roster is coming whether they like it or not. The organization missed the playoffs for the first time in two decades this year, and the oldest player locked up past the 2020-21 season is 25 year-old Jakob Poeltl.

And as quickly as the old is out, the new gets expensive. Derrick White is a restricted free agent next summer. Lonnie Walker IV is set for the same fate if he and the Spurs can't agree to an extension before the start of 2021-22. With Dejounte Murray already on his second contract, can San Antonio really justify paying all three of them? Even with the hometown discount on their side, the organization would be expected to pay over $40 million to that trio starting in 2022-23. That's not a good enough foundation.

So how do the Spurs go star-hunting now? Maybe Devin Vassell is the next man up. He's looked great in preseason, and we've seen this franchise make the most out of two-way wings before. Maybe Walker puts it all together and becomes a legitimate scorer, thereby validating that expensive guard trio. Maybe they tank to enter the sweepstakes of a loaded draft class, headlined by Cade Cunningham.

Whatever they do, it has to happen soon. They've put off the rebuild for too long.