The Southwest Division of the NBA has some of the youngest but most hopeful teams in the league. The Dallas Mavericks are led by a young generational point guard in Luka Doncic. The New Orleans Pelicans are led by Zion Williamson, CJ McCollum, and Brandon Ingram. Memphis shocked many last season as their young star Ja Morant led the Grizzlies to 56 wins. After 20 years of success, the San Antonio Spurs are looking for their next big star. Not too far away from San Antonio, the Houston Rockets have several young and promising stars that will flourish in the future. While the future is bright for all these teams, they will all face obstacles during the 2022-23 NBA season. For some of these teams, the end goal is playing in June while for others, the goal is to take the next step in the rebuilding process.
Dallas Mavericks: Is this Luka’s season?
Since being drafted in 2018, Luka Doncic has been one of the best players in the NBA. Having only been in the league for four seasons, Luka has been a three-time All-Star and three-time All-NBA First Team. Last season, Luka had a strong season averaging 28.4 PPG, 9.1 RPG, and 8.7 APG in 65 games. Although the team started slow, he led the Mavericks to a 52-30 record, fourth in the West. Doncic would end his season strong, finishing fifth in MVP voting. Luka would continue to shine in the NBA playoffs, helping the Mavs eliminate the Jazz and upset the Suns averaging over 30 PPG.
The team would end up losing the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors but surpassed the expectations many had for them. Looking to this season, this might be Luka’s year in Dallas. Not even 24 years old yet, he is only going to get better. He has proven to be one of the best guards in the league. With a solid team behind him, there is no doubt the Mavericks will not only be good this season, but Doncic will be in the MVP conversation. If Luka can compete at the level he’s been playing at and the team around him can remain healthy, the Mavericks will be a dark horse championship contender when April comes around.
New Orleans Pelicans: What impact will Zion’s return have?
Last year, the New Orleans Pelicans had a decent season. The CJ McCollum trade brought New Orleans a dependable guard who can put up 20 PPG. Brandon Ingram showed once again why he is an underrated player in this league while Jonas Valanciunas shocked everyone with his great season. The team would finish as the eighth seed and would end up losing in six games to the Phoenix Suns in the first round. The Pelicans did this without Zion Williamson. Zion missed the entire 2021-22 season due to a foot injury. The story looked bad when it appeared the team was withholding information, Zion’s family was not happy with New Orleans and the fans were turning on Zion on social media.
During the offseason, Zion signed a five-year rookie extension that could be worth over $200 Million. When he suits up for the 2022-23 NBA season, Zion will be joining a team that has serious playoff potential. Much like the end of the last season, the Pelicans will be a must-watch team this season. Having not played since the 2020-21 season, many have forgotten what exactly Zion is capable of. In 61 games, Zion averaged 27.0 PPG, 7.2 RPG, and 3.7 APG. Finishing top 10 in scoring, Zion proved he is more than just a big-time dunker. If Zion can stay healthy, the Pelicans could surprise many this season.
Memphis Grizzlies: Will they improve or take a step back?
The jump the Grizzlies made between the 2020-21 and 2021-22 seasons can only be described as incredible. The Grizz finished 38-44, the eighth-best record in the West. The team would be eliminated in the first round. This past season, the Grizzlies jumped to 56-26, the second-best record in the league. Several different things played into the quick jump. Ja Morant looked like an MVP contender throughout the season and ended up winning Most Improved Player in his third season, an award that could have easily been given to his teammate Desmond Bane. Jackson Jr. had a solid season while only missing a few games. Dillion Brooks did not play most of the season but was a great contributor when he did.
The chemistry of the team was off the charts, reminding many of the Grit and Grind Grizzlies of years ago. In free agency, the team made a few moves but also lost a few players. The most important move was signing Ja to a five-year rookie max extension. The team also re-signed Tyus Jones and extended John Konchar. Both had solid roles with the team. Memphis would let forward Kyle Anderson walk in free agency. On the injury front, Jaren Jackson Jr. had off-season surgery that could have him out through the end of 2022. In addition, Danny Green (who was acquired in a draft night trade for De’Anthony Melton) will likely miss the entire season due to a torn ACL. The Grizzlies will be looking a little different compared to last season, but the core remains. With several teams in the West improving, can the Grizzlies remain one of the West’s top teams, or will they drop in the standings?
San Antonio Spurs: Will they go all-in for Victor Wembanyama?
After sitting outside the playoffs for the last few seasons following the Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard eras, the Spurs are looking to embrace, something they haven’t done since the late 1990s. In the last three seasons, the Spurs have won less than 35 games a season, something that hasn’t been seen since the 1996-97 season. This offseason, the Spurs made several moves embracing the rebuild. First, they traded away All-Star Dejounte Murray, who was without a doubt the best player on the team. Second, they signed forward Keldon Johnson to a four-year extension as he took a big jump from the previous season.
While most teams are looking to the 2022-23 NBA season, the Spurs are looking past that to the 2023 draft. More specifically, they are looking at French big man Victor Wembanyama. He’s already been seen as one of the top draft prospects for the 2023 draft. With the Spurs history of drafting international players and turning them into stars, as well as the center position starting to heat up in the league once more, Wembanyama would be a perfect fit for the rebuild. It’s possible he could give the Spurs their next big era of basketball. With several Western Conference rivals expected to improve, the Spurs could quietly lean into the tank in hopes of landing the #1 pick come the 2023 draft lottery.
Houston Rockets: What can we expect this season?
Last season was bad for the Rockets. The team finished with a 20-62 record, the worst in the league, although it was a slight improvement from the 2020-21 season. Rookie Jalen Green had a solid season, averaging 17.3 PPG, 3.4 RPG, and 2.6 APG. Fellow rookie Alperen Sengun had a decent season, averaging just under 10.0 PPG in 72 games. Kevin Porter Jr. had a nice season as well, averaging over 15.0 PPG in 61 games. Big man Christian Wood would lead the Rockets in scoring, rebounds, and blocks per game, but was traded on draft night to the Dallas Mavericks after drafting forward Jabari Smith Jr. earlier in the night.
In free agency, the Rockets have been quiet. The team only made one move, re-signing Jae’Sean Tate to a three-year deal. While the Rockets now have a promising young core in Green, Smith, and Porter, they are still years away from being a contender. With expectations not being too high for the team, the Rockets can focus on developing their young stars while looking to take a jump during the 2023-24 season. If a realistic goal could be set for the Rockets, winning 25 games would be a step in the right direction for the team.