Jim Eichenhofer from the New Orleans Hornets website organized a roundtable with writers from around the Southwest division. Yours truly was included. Check it out below and add your thoughts on the topics discussed.
In terms of the team you cover, what is the biggest story to watch this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Will the Mavericks’ offseason moves pay dividends? The Mavs added Shawn Marion, Drew Gooden, Quinton Ross, Kris Humphries and Tim Thomas and subtracted little from the core of a team that won 50 games and advanced to the second round. Their most notable losses were Brandon Bass and Antoine Wright who were seventh and eighth in total minutes played. All of those players added help upgrade the talent level and versatility of the team in theory but how will it actually come together in reality? I am an optimist so my guess is very well but until you start for real you can never be sure.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: When the topic is Rockets’ basketball, all roads eventually lead back to Tracy McGrady. He’s not just an X-factor, he is THE X-factor. Right now, there is no definite timetable for his return, though I’d put money on him coming back sooner rather than later. And though it’s a fool’s errand to attempt to predict the caliber of play he’ll display upon returning to action, all reports of his progress have been positively glowing thus far. There’s little doubt that a healthy and motivated T-Mac could potentially transform the Rockets from scrappy overachievers to Western Conference force – think ’07-’08 Rockets once Yao went down, only better – but is that the McGrady the Rockets are going to get? Houston fans can’t wait to find out.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The biggest thing to watch this season for the Grizzlies will be to see how all of the offseason moves that the team made fit together with a group that started to come together during the final month of last season under Lionel Hollins. Adding Allen Iverson and Zach Randolph to a solid young core of Rudy Gay, O.J. Mayo, Mike Conley and Marc Gasol unquestionably ups the talent level for the Grizzlies this season. On paper, the added firepower on offense will make the Grizzlies tough to stop.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: How much of an impact will the Hornets’ six new players make? New Orleans is headlined by a pair of two-time All-Stars in Chris Paul and David West, but those two players have had to shoulder too big of a load at times in recent seasons. The Hornets hope the additions of Emeka Okafor, Ike Diogu, Darius Songaila, Bobby Brown and rookies Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton will increase depth and provide more support for Paul and West. The bench was a major weakness in 2008-09, but Paul said recently that this is the deepest team the Hornets have had since he debuted in 2005.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: The faces might have changed more this year than in the past but the biggest story, health, has not. Year in and year out the biggest story is whether Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili can play the majority of the season and enter the playoffs healthy. Even if Richard Jefferson, Antonio McDyess and DeJuan Blair are the successes the fans hope for, the Spurs’ fortunes rest upon Duncan’s knees and Ginobili’s ankles. Ginobili is supposedly 100 percent healthy and Duncan lost weight to decrease the wear and tear on his chronic knee problems, so Spurs fans are hopeful.
What is the biggest reason to be optimistic about your team’s chances this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Shawn Marion and Josh Howard. The Mavs finally have an athletic tandem at the wings that can complement Jason Kidd’s open floor game. Howard was a huge factor in beating San Antonio in the playoffs and offseason ankle surgery has the Mavs hoping he is as healthy as he’s been in some time. Marion is ready to prove his drop in stats in Miami and Toronto were more about their systems than his talent eroding. The Mavs need to get better athletically and defensively and Marion fits that bill.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: All one has to do is think back to the playoffs when the Rockets managed to break even over the final four games against the mighty Lakers despite the absence of Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady. Granted, there’s a big difference between playing without two superstars for four games as opposed to 82, but it speaks to the fact that the players on this club will never be outworked. Those who choose to discount the Rockets this season do so at their own peril.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: Many critics question whether the offensive talents of Iverson, Randolph, Gay and Mayo will be able to coexist, but ultimately, having multiple scoring options is a good problem to have. Last year the Grizzlies relied too heavily on Gay and Mayo to carry the load on offense, but with the additions of Randolph and Iverson, teams will have to pick their poison against the Grizzlies.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The Hornets have the best point guard in the league in Chris Paul, who continues to make noticeable improvements to his game each season. They’ve surrounded him with several players who also still have not reached their prime. That combination makes it very possible that this team will improve upon its 49 wins in 2008-09 and remain competitive in the West for the foreseeable future.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: The Spurs had arguably the strongest summer of any team, addressing all of their major weaknesses. Fourth scorer? Check. Improved frontcourt depth to help Duncan? Check. Backup point guard? Check. With Jefferson, McDyess, Blair and George Hill’s improvement, the Spurs are better than last year in almost all regards.
What is the biggest concern for your team entering the season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Are the Mavs strong enough in the middle? Obviously Dallas was looking to improve at center when they signed Marcin Gortat to an offer sheet that was matched by Orlando. Afterwards, they turned to Drew Gooden. The, in my opinion, underrated Gooden gives Dallas a very skilled 5 on the offensive end. Of course at some point to win at the highest levels you have to protect the paint and can the Mavs get enough of that from a rotation of Gooden, Erick Dampier, Kris Humphries and any number of other unconventional options at center?
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: For many Rockets observers I’m sure the answer would be offense, given the fact Houston will be missing the nightly 20 and 10 it’s accustomed to receiving from Yao Ming. However, the All-Star center’s presence might be missed even more at the defensive end. Yao has been one of the game’s best rim defenders over the years and the Rockets’ lack of size in his stead will surely prompt opponents to feel far more courageous when making forays to the hoop.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: If the different dynamics of this team work, there will be a big payoff in the end. But if things don’t click early with this group, the memory of the consecutive losing seasons could creep into everyone’s minds. Iverson missing the preseason with a hamstring injury won’t help in this department.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: The competition in the Western Conference. Of the seven West teams (Lakers, Nuggets, Spurs, Blazers, Mavericks, Hornets, Jazz) that virtually every analyst is projecting to make the playoffs, it’s possible that all seven will be as good as they were in 2008-09 – or better. As always, the race for a top seed and homecourt advantage will be fierce in the West.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: Duncan can lose all the weight he wants but it will not make his knee problems go away. They are chronically painful and we do not know how it will affect him this season. We got a small taste at the end of last season and he definitely was not the same dominant player. Ginobili has also injured his ankles more than once. Is this a recurring problem that will rear its head again?
Not including your team, which Southwest Division club are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: San Antonio. It will be fascinating to see how loading up for one last run works. No doubt Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess help them, but for the Spurs it all boils down to the knees of Tim Duncan and the return of a healthy Manu Ginobili.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Have to go with San Antonio here. Give the Spurs credit: they recognized they’re approaching the end of an era and therefore did everything in their power to load up for another run to try to coax another title or two out of the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili triumvirate which has served them so well through the better part of this decade. However their story unfolds, it’s going to be must-see TV this season.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: I’m most looking forward to seeing what the Spurs do this season with the additions of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess. Coach Popovich and R.C. Buford took advantage of the market at a perfect time and added talent when there were no guarantees of using their available cap space during the free agent bonanza that is coming up next summer. I expect the Spurs to push the Lakers for the Western Conference title.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Based on the tremendous pickups of Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess, I’ll go with the Spurs. By adding Jefferson and McDyess to Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, San Antonio has added to what already was an extremely formidable core.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: With the addition of Shawn Marion, the Mavericks appear ready to run up and down the court and create mismatches for almost every team. They have not been talked about as much as some other teams this offseason but they should be an exciting team and potential contender.
Among the other 10 teams in the Western Conference, which club are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Denver. The Nuggets are about to learn what New Orleans did last year and that is when you win well over 50 games and advance deep into the playoffs, you all of the sudden have a target on your back. They won’t sneak up on anyone and will have to learn how to cope with playing opponents who are looking to measure themselves against you night in, night out. It’s not easy...
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: Such a tough choice. Oklahoma City is on the precipice of being a playoff team, though probably a year away. The Clippers could rise to relevance or plumb the deepest depths of oblivion once more. But ultimately, the answer to this question has to be the Lakers. They are, after all, the defending champs and, befitting a Hollywood team, they are a walking, talking reality show with the likes of Artest and Khloe Kardashian now in tow.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: The Oklahoma City Thunder are a lot of people’s favorite to make a big jump this season for very good reason. Kevin Durant looks like a surefire All-Star and could end up being one of the top 10 players in the league this season. The Thunder are just as high on Russell Westbrook, who has the talent to complement Durant as the team’s one-two punch. The question will be whether they have enough depth up front. Either way, they’ll be exciting to watch.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Oklahoma City. Kevin Durant is on the verge of megastardom and they have several other promising building blocks in Russell Westbrook, Jeff Green and first-round pick James Harden. The Thunder improved so much late in 2008-09 that I wonder if they might be surprisingly competitive.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: Unfortunately the team I’m most looking forward to watching, the Oklahoma City Thunder, will be difficult to find on TV. They’ve assembled an exciting, energetic, youthful team with a budding superstar in Kevin Durant.
Also not including your team, which Southwest Division rookie are you most looking forward to watching play this season?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: Not many marquee choices but I’ll say DeJuan Blair in San Antonio. Can his knees hold up? Will Gregg Popovich give a rookie a ton of minutes? Can he overcome his perceived deficiencies through his relentless style of play? If he does, a lot of GMs will be kicking themselves.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: There’s no one who has me more intrigued than DeJuan Blair. I’m still having a difficult time figuring out how he fell so far in this summer’s draft and his preseason performances have done absolutely nothing to diminish my bewilderment.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: DeJuan Blair has had a huge preseason, and it will be interesting to see where he fits in with a very seasoned Spurs frontline. Coach Popovich is notorious for resting his core group during the regular season, so Blair should have ample opportunity to showcase his skills.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: DeJuan Blair’s precipitous drop to the second round was one of the biggest stories of the 2009 draft. Many NBA teams passed on selecting him, including essentially every other club in this division. Will Blair prove to everyone that it was a mistake?
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: DeMarre Carroll is not the most talented player on the Grizzlies but you will not find a player who works harder. The Junkyard Dog plays every minute to the max and Memphis fans should fall in love with him. I’m interested to see if that intensity can rub off on some of his teammates.
In your opinion, who is most likely to be the division’s 2009-10 “breakthrough” player from another team?
Mark Followill, Mavericks TV broadcaster: My only reluctance in selecting O.J. Mayo of Memphis is how Allen Iverson’s presence might limit his minutes. Purely based on skill though, he is a stud and if the Grizzlies are smart they give him every opportunity to blossom.
Jason Friedman, Rockets.com: I’m choosing Julian Wright, a player with all the tools and ample opportunity to use them. Now entering his third year, I’m betting on Wright to start realizing his potential and begin playing a pivotal role on a Hornets squad anxious for him to step up.
Matt Tumbleson, grizzlies.com: DeJuan Blair has caught the attention of a lot of people this preseason, but many forget that his Pitt teammate, Sam Young is in a similar position. Young fell into the Grizzlies’ lap in the second round and the Grizzlies couldn’t be happier, as the swingman has chipped in a pair of 20-plus scoring performances off the bench this preseason.
Jim Eichenhofer, Hornets.com: Houston’s Aaron Brooks showed during the 2009 playoffs that he has the talent to become an excellent starting point guard. With the Rockets’ roster depleted by injuries and departures, Brooks will have a golden opportunity to take another big step in his development.
David Thiessen, Projectspurs.com: Julian Wright took a step back in his second season, but the Hornets appear ready to start the athletic forward. His game is still raw but the increase in playing time should allow his game to develop, and playing more minutes with Chris Paul should help as well.
Thanks to Jim Eichenhofer for inviting David to the roundtable. Please leave us your comments on the Spurs competition in the Southwest Division.