To survive the blistering West, a lot of teams figured out a few ways to keep pace with the current champs out in the Bay Area. Some of those teams happened to be in the Southwest Division, which is home to a few rivals that Golden State cannot overlook come playoff time. Let's check out the best and worst case scenarios for each team in this division.
Last season: 33-49, 11th in the West, no playoffs
Best case: Dirk Nowitzki continues to fend off father time, showing why he'll be a Hall of Famer when he retires. Harrison Barnes will learn how to become the new face of the franchise as Nowitzki teaches him the Mavericks' ways, becoming more in tune with how to produce his best self. Besides Nowitzki and Barnes establishing their rhythm early, Nerlens Noel finds new life as a Mav, as does newly drafted Dennis Smith Jr.
Together with Barnes, they are building the foundation for a new big three in Dallas, one that will be primed and ready to challenge the older rosters of Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston down the road. Veterans Wesley Matthews, J.J. Barea and Josh McRoberts all find flashes of their younger selves, and a playoff berth as the seventh or eighth seed eventuates.
Worst Case: This team doesn't find the chemistry it thought it had after several of the core guys from last year's club return. Smith Jr. doesn't develop as expected in his rookie year, Noel continues to struggle, and Barnes fails to pick up the wisdom that Nowitzki is putting down. What could have been a potential playoff run has crumbled into another farewell tour for one of the last players left from another era in Nowitzki. A few other role players step up from time to time, but it isn't enough to win the close games a team needs to make a playoff push.
Prediction: In between, but leaning towards best case
Last Season: 55-27, third in West, lost in Western Conference semi-finals to the Spurs 4-2
Best Case: Chris Paul quickly figures out his role as more of a catch and shoot guy, often starting with the other starters before being benched strategically to run the second team offense and provide constant scoring. This tactic will lead to Houston scoring ridiculously high totals, but the defensive side of things may cause trouble. This won't be too concerning as James Harden will show his MVP-caliber self, finally winning the hardware after just missing out in previous years.
Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Trevor Ariza, and Clint Capela will all shine in contributing roles, making the Rockets one of the toughest teams in the league to guard, which will help come postseason time. Houston finally reach the Western Conference finals.
Worst Case: Paul needs to handle the ball more, and Harden isn't sharing. This lack of chemistry becomes detrimental on and off the court as the two extremely talented players don't mesh. This lack of chemistry infiltrates the rest of the team as other players come up short in what's expected of them. Not only do the conference finals seem like a pipedream, but even securing a playoff spot becomes rocky. A first-round playoff exit leads to the Rockets looking for help to join the two superstars together.
Prediction: Best Case
Last season: 43-39, seventh in the West, lost in first round to San Antonio, 4-2
Best Case: The responsibility of this squad has transferred firmly onto the shoulders of Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. The two experienced veterans will handle that load equally, putting together their best statistical season and becoming a one-two punch the rest of the league will be ill-prepared to handle. Both will likely compete for starting spots on this season's All-Star squads, with Conley receiving minor MVP consideration towards the end of the year.
Chandler Parsons will win the Sixth Man of the Year award for coming off of the bench and providing a spark to the Grizzlies' offense. That second unit will see several unproven newcomers like Ben McLemore, Tyreke Evans and this past summer's draft picks step up. Making the playoffs should be more than doable, and Memphis even earn coveted home-court advantage as a fourth seed.
Worst Case: Losing Zach Randolph, Vince Carter and the "Grindmaster" himself Tony Allen puts unexpected pressure on the younger talent in this squad. Mario Chalmers and JaMychal Green will contribute what they can, but the pressure on Conley and Gasol becomes too much.
Prediction: Exactly in between best and worst case
New Orleans Pelicans
Last season: 34-48, tenth in the West, no playoffs
Best Case: Rajon Rondo plays like his early days in Boston, Allen brings his heart and hustle, and these two compliment DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis unexpectedly well to turn the Pelicans into an unexpected contender in the West. Davis and Cousins know each other better after an offseason of training, and it shows instantly on the court. Somehow, the two bigs make things harder than expected for everyone out there trying to mimic the small-ball scheme taking NBA offenses by storm.
Other guys like Ian Clark and Jordan Crawford will also provide production that will make Jrue Holiday's job easier than it's ever been. Holiday will split floor general duties with Rondo, and both guys are efficient beyond belief.
Worst Case: Rondo makes things difficult, leading to team chemistry issues that negate all the work Davis and Cousins have done leading into the start of the season. Allen is under-utilized, ultimately going back to Memphis right before the trade deadline. Another year of chasing the playoffs leads to yet more heartbreak as the Pelicans finish at ninth or tenth in the West. Trade and free agency talks start after the All-Star break.
Prediction: Closer to the worst case, minus the trade rumors.
San Antonio Spurs
Last season: 61-21, finished second in the West, lost to Golden State Warriors 4-0 in Western Conference finals
Best Case: Kawhi Leonard is all systems go, playing the best basketball of his career. He is joined by LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay, who both have career years after working all summer to figure out how to take that next step. Patty Mills is worth every penny of his new contract, leading the squad on both ends of the court; the new floor general becomes one of the better point guards of 2017.
Dejounte Murray shows glimpses of the future as he steps up on the second team and takes over floor general duties when Mills and Gay are not on the floor. Pau Gasol shows glimpses of his Memphis and Los Angeles days while Manu Ginobili turns back the hands of time. The two veterans provide unexpected spark, hitting game-winning shots in surprising fashion. The Spurs eye the best record in the Western Conference.
Worst Case: Aldridge's promising preseason results prove futile as he fails to back it up when the real business starts. Leonard takes longer than expected to return from injury, and the Spurs' results suffer as a result. Ginobili finally shows his age as do Parker and Gasol. Meanwhile, Gay is too inconsistent to run the offense. The team makes the playoffs but looks like a shadow of its former self.
Prediction: Best Case
How do you think each of these five teams will fare this season? Have a different opinion? Share your ideas with us below!