Who are these old guys, anyway? Shouldn’t San Antonio’s core of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker be content with riding out their careers with rings and memories in hand?
Think again. The Southwest Division this year has been up for grabs dating back to Memphis’ playoff upset and Dallas’ offseason moves that made its title defense a question. This division used to be the Spurs and Mavericks’ personal playground every year. Only the Hornets in 2007-08 broke the hold of those two teams’ titles going back to 2004.
It very well may be just another race between those two in the end, but the second half’s infancy begins with Dallas, Houston and Memphis within a half-game of each other to decide second to fourth places.
There’s been a bit of a rodeo feel to this division for a while. Could this be the year the usual suspects get bucked off? Here are this division’s five major question marks heading towards the regular season’s finish line.
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SAN ANTONIO SPURS
There’s no question they’ve been better than expected, and Gregg Popovich is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year for getting them to this point. Legs would be the only worry, as it always is with a team that relies heavily on its aforementioned older Big Three.
However, their biggest test is already behind them. The way the Spurs sustained their pre-All-Star break winning streak despite their 18-day Rodeo Road Trip, they have to be given the benefit of the doubt they’ll continue to mow down opponents in the second half. By the same benefit, don’t read much into their fourth-quarter collapse against Chicago in the first game back. Yes, it was their second loss in 19 games after leading entering the fourth, but they didn’t have Manu Ginobili (who has since returned) and superb rookie Kawhi Leonard (calf) was also missing.
With Ginobili out, the question became his replacement, but Gary Neal is showing signs of last year’s form right now, helped no doubt by the extra minutes he’s getting. In his last 10 games, he’s shooting 40 percent from three and giving 9.7 points off the bench.
The champs took a while to get back in the race, following the lead of Dirk Nowitzki. So what is their ceiling? While he took time off to get back in shape, the Mavs survived. Now in his last 10 games, he’s going for 19.1 points per (dead-on his scoring average this year) on 45 percent shooting, with 8.2 boards (two more than his average).
Lamar Odom has played so sparingly and so poorly with the Mavericks that even if he’s bought out or traded, it wouldn’t be much of a hit to their ceiling. The flip side is if he wants to compete like he did as a Laker, in which case Dallas’ ceiling rises dramatically. He’s chided for his attitude, and homesickness for Los Angeles’ warm blanket, but this guy averaged 14.4 points and 8.7 boards last year. He also was the third-most efficient shooter in the clutch last season, allowing doubt to creep into opponents minds that only Dirk will get the ball late. I seriously doubt he will be in the shape necessary to make that kind of a difference even if he mentally wants to.