Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Southwest Division: Youth gone wild, & the Harden wild card

Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Southwest Division: Youth gone wild, & the Harden wild card

Illustration for article titled Deadspin's 2020-21 NBA Preview — Southwest Division: Youth gone wild, & the Harden wild card
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One of my biggest pet peeves in sports is when divisions are broken down by geography but don’t follow geographic rules. Dallas in the NFC East? Minnesota Timberwolves in the Northwest? All the teams in the Southwest are in the American south. That’s a start. But why are teams on the Mississippi River considered “west?” Has anyone looked at a map?

Does anyone share my outrage?

Probably not. But it’s OK because, as my colleague Jesse Spector notes, NBA divisions don’t matter much besides scheduling purposes and divvying up division preview assignments for sportswriters.

Luckily, I got a fun one.

The Houston Rockets have won the Southwest division four years in a row. James Harden could stay or go [he’ll probably go]. Still, with or without Harden, the Southwest will have a little more room for parity this season.

This is a division stacked with young talent and must-see stars like Luka Doncic, Zion Williamson, and Ja Morant. And for the first time in a long time, the Spurs may not be as relevant as they’ve been in previous seasons.

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Houston Rockets

Houston Rockets

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COVID Response: In May, the Rockets hosted a blood drive at their arena to help respond to COVID-19. Team employees and community members who donated blood were also given free tacos from owner Tilman Fertitta’s food truck. The team also provided free tacos to essential workers, homeless shelters, and others in the Houston area.

Come On In (soon, maybe): The Rockets have not officially announced whether or not the Toyota Center will host fans this season. But the organization hopes to have fans for their home opener on Wednesday.

Oh, He’s Here Now? John Wall, heard of him? He’s a Rocket now. But he may not get to play with another All-Star guard (see above). Houston also signed Boogie Cousins and Sterling Brown in free agency.

Where’d He Go?: HE (you know who) hasn’t gone anywhere … yet. But you know who has? A few guys you might remember. Let’s start with former league MVP, Russell Westbrook, two time coach of the year, Mike D’Antoni, and Daryl Morey — who finally addressed his Hong Kong tweet. Houston also traded Robert Covington last month.

What To Expect: It’s hard to expect anything with Harden’s future up in the air. But, as of now, he’s on the team. So you can still expect a show and perhaps another year of playoff fireworks. But anything beyond the first, maybe second, round of the playoffs does not seem likely for Houston.

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Dallas Mavericks

Dallas Mavericks

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COVID Response: When COVID halted the sports world (and world world, tbh), Mavericks owner Mark Cuban told CNN that he would continue to pay the salaries of hourly stadium workers. Cuban, Luka Doncic, and Dwight Powell also donated $500,000 “to support childcare for healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 response effort.”

Stay Away (for now): The Mavs haven’t had any fans at their preseason games and that trend could continue into the regular season. Since Dallas won’t play at home until December 30, the team will wait to announce plans until later this month.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Josh Richardson, fresh off a season in Philadelphia, was traded to the Mavs last month. Dallas also acquired James Johnson in free agency. Both moves could help improve Dallas on the defensive side of the ball.

Where’d He Go? Who was Josh Richardson traded for? Seth Curry. He’s no Steph, but this sharpshooting Curry beats both his brother and dad in one stat. Seth is second all-time in three point percentage, behind only Steve Kerr.

What To Expect: Mark Cuban tweeted “this is just the beginning” after the Mavs lost to the Clippers in six during the first round of the bubble playoffs. He’s not wrong. Luka Doncic is entering his third season in the NBA and is the betting favorite to win league MVP. Kristaps Porzingis will be back early in the new year, and this young team could be poised for a playoff run in 2021.

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Memphis Grizzlies

Memphis Grizzlies

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COVID Response: The day before training camp Ja Morant attended a large maskeless party that, in the words of one local health expert, “should’ve been shut down.” Morant confirmed he was at the party, without a mask, and admitted he should’ve been better. “I have to be more aware of the situation, of what I do,” he said. “I should’ve had a mask on.”

Come On In (soon): The Grizzlies will not have fans in attendance to begin the season, but they are one of the few NBA teams that seem adamant on bringing fans into the stadium as soon as they can. Memphis is one of the smallest markets in the league. And small market teams, in particular, rely on the gate to bring in revenue.

Oh, He’s Here Now? Memphis was pretty quiet this offseason. They drafted Desmond Bane (via the Celtics) and Xavier Tillman Sr. last month. Hopefully, the two can contribute to the young squad.

Where’d He Go? After getting Mario Hezonja via trade, the Grizzlies waived the former No. 5 pick. Josh Jackson also signed with the Detroit Pistons on December 1.

What To Expect: A few months ago, Memphis lost the first ever NBA play-in tournament in league history. Don’t expect the Griz to get that close this year. They’ll be a fun team with young stars like Ja Morant, and Jaren Jackson once he returns. Still, this team is a few seasons away from being able to win the division.

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San Antonio Spurs

San Antonio Spurs

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COVID Response: You know Gregg Popovich has something to say about COVID, politics, masks, and all that fun stuff. During a recent media availability zoom conference, he told reporters, “It’s just beyond my comprehension how somebody can talk about not wearing a mask shows that you’re for freedom and you’re for America and you’re for personal choice, when it has nothing to do with that,” the masked Popovich said into his screen. “Intellectually, philosophically, emotionally, we’re all in this together. We’re all in the mud. We’re trying to save each other’s ass. But a large group of people can’t project and go beyond themselves.”

Come On In (soon): San Antonio will not host fans in December. Cool. What about...the rest of the season? Oh, yeah, the Spurs are targeting January 1 for their home fan opener. That means the Spurs will play [checks notes] TWO entire home games without fans! Everyone knows COVID ends on January 1, right?

Oh, He’s Here Now? The team will look fairly similar to last season (with healthy faces this time). But the Spurs did draft Devin Vassell at No. 11 and Tre Jones in the second round. Young guys don’t usually get much playing time under Pop. But this team is mostly young. Don’t be surprised if the rookies contribute sooner rather than later.

Where’d He Go? After 13 years in the NBA, Marco Belinelli has returned to Italy. The 34-year-old signed a three-year deal with Virtus Bologna. Bryn Forbes also signed a two year deal with the Bucks.

What To Expect: If the Spurs don’t make the playoffs this year, it will be the first time in franchise history that they miss the postseason in back-to-back years. We know this won’t be a contending team in the west but, like last year, they’ll probably be well coached throughout the season and perhaps compete for a 7 or 8 seed. LaMarcus Aldridge is back and healthy. He and DeMar DeRozan can lead this young team. But how much help will surround them?

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New Orleans Pelicans

New Orleans Pelicans

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COVID Response: When NBA players returned to their home markets to gear up for the bubble season, New Orleans recorded three positive tests. Multiple teams also revealed positives within their organization. At the time, we were a month away from the bubble … and skeptical that it would be successful.

Come On In (some of you): Only 800 fans will be allowed to enter Smoothie King Center when the Pelicans open their season against the Spurs. Both the Smoothie King Center and neighboring Superdome will operate at around 4 percent capacity for the foreseeable future.

Oh, He’s Here Now? The Pelicans have a new coach in Stan Van Gundy, whose teams have historically been solid defensively. You know who else will help New Orleans team defense? Eric Bledsoe, and Steven Adams. Both were traded to the Pelicans in the offseason and will round out an exciting starting five.

Where’d He Go? After 8 seasons in New Orleans, Jrue Holiday was part of a four-team deal that sent him to Milwaukee.

What To Expect: A better defensive team? You can expect that with Stan Van Gundy at the helm. This will be a young, fun team that could… maaaybe do some damage in the playoffs? I just mean to say don’t sleep on these Pelicans. Zion Williamson is healthy entering his second season and he’ll actually get the chance to play more than 24 games this year. Plus, last year Lonzo Ball was close to averaging a double double and Brandon Ingram led the team in scoring and points per game (23.8). Oh, and don’t forget about Josh Hart and J.J. Redick on the bench.

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