The 2023-24 NBA season is just around the corner, so now is a perfect time to start making predictions and taking stock of what’s to come. So what better way to do that than to take an eagle-eye view of each division to see where teams will stack up when the games start to count on Oct. 24. While NBA divisions don’t mean as much in the grand scheme of things as they do in the NFL, winning those divisional matchups are still incredibly important as those teams appear the most on their schedules. And when it comes down to it, that divisional record could mean the difference between a playoff spot or having to go through the play-in.
First division up is the Southwest, which in a few years could be the most competitive division given the amount of talent filling all five teams. Each of these teams harbors All-Star talent, or talent that has the potential to reach that benchmark. Between Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Victor Wembanyama, Zion Williamson and the core of young players on the Rockets, this division is like a who’s who of under-25 talent.
While the Memphis Grizzlies were clearly the superior team in this division a season ago, winning 51 games, each of these squads improved in the offseason, either through the draft, free agency or just getting injured players back. We’ll have to see if the retooling done by all these teams will equate to wins, but for now, here’s a preview of all the teams in the Southwest division.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
Last season: 51-31
Top storyline: With Morant missing the first 25 games of the regular season, it’s imperative that the Grizzlies don’t get themselves into an early hole at the start of the season. In the 21 games that Morant missed last season, the Grizzlies only went 11-10, and while it didn’t impact them significantly last season, with a retooled Western Conference, hovering around .500 won’t cut it this year. Memphis will need Smart, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Desmond Bane to step up to account for Morant’s absence, because if they don’t then they could be spending the rest of the season playing catch up.
Player to watch: Morant’s absence gives Bane an opportunity to take another leap. We saw him average career highs across the board last season, which included 21.5 points a game. If he elevates his game to another level with Morant out, it’ll make the Grizzlies that much harder to beat when their All-Star guard returns.
Ceiling: The Grizzlies survive Morant’s absence, secure a top-3 seed and make a conference finals appearance.
Floor: Memphis gets into a hole early without Morant, and gets bounced in the first round of the playoffs.
Last season: 42-40
Top storyline: Is this the year that we get a fully healthy Williamson again? We’re two seasons removed from when the former No. 1 overall pick played 61 games while averaging 27 points, 7.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists and shot 61.1% from the floor. Even in the 29 games we got from him last season Williamson once again proved to be a dominant presence on offense with improved effort on defense. His health is going to be the main storyline for New Orleans all season, and if he’s 100% then the Pelicans should be considered a dark horse to make some noise in the West.
Player to watch: In his first two years Herbert Jones has already proven to be a stout defender. He ranked in the top 10 in total steals a season ago, and seventh in total deflections. He’s a major reason why New Orleans ranked sixth in defense last year, and he’ll only grow on that end of the floor into an All-Defensive type of player. While his offense isn’t as talked about, he’s shown steady improvement through two years, and given his development he’s primed for that “third-year leap” that’s always talked about with young players.
Ceiling: If health isn’t as big of a factor as it was a year ago, the Pelicans could secure a top-6 seed and be a tough matchup in the postseason.
Floor: Another injury-plagued season results in New Orleans seriously contemplating trading some key players.
Last season: 38-44
Top storyline: The Mavericks bet big on the pairing of Doncic and Irving, and they need for it to work immediately. Dallas went just 5-11 in the 16 games this duo played together last season, but it wasn’t for lack of scoring out of Doncic and Irving. When they shared the floor, Dallas had a 119.2 offensive rating, which would’ve ranked first in the league last season. Irving’s scoring and playmaking take some responsibility off Doncic’s shoulders, and we may even get to see some off-ball offensive sets from the superstar guard now that he won’t have to do literally everything on offense. If Doncic and Irving can build chemistry quickly, then Dallas has the potential to have the best offense in the league.
Player to watch: There are a lot of candidates for this category, but I’ll go with fourth-year guard Josh Green, who showed some significant improvement last season. Green could get starter-level minutes this season, and he’s shown flashes of being a valuable 3-and-D threat. His development this season is important to the Mavericks’ success, especially on the defensive side of the ball. With all the roster turnover over the last season, Green is one of only a few capable defenders on Dallas’ roster. If he’s able to make an impact on both ends of the floor, then the Mavericks should be in a far better position than they were a year ago.
Ceiling: A top-6 playoff spot with the potential to make it past the first round of the postseason.
Floor: Fighting for a play-in spot in a crowded West where “Luka needs better help” remains a constant refrain.
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4. Houston Rockets
Last season: 22-60
Top storyline: With a new head coach at the helm, it will be interesting to see how the young players adapt under Ime Udoka’s tutelage. The Rockets struggled in each of the last two seasons to build any sort of team culture geared toward developing young players, and it’s hindered guys like Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr. and Alperen Sengun. With the offseason roster moves Houston made, it appears it’s serious about trying to develop its players and get closer to competing, we’ll just have to see what that looks like when the season starts.
Player to watch: The Rockets’ young core is filled with intriguing young talent, but Alperen Sengun stands out a bit more. The Turkish big man averaged nearly a double-double a season ago (14.8 points, 9.0 rebounds), taking a huge step in his game after averaging 9.6 points his rookie year. He’s not the most dominant big man, but he’s shown Jokic-esque flashes as a passer, and his effort is unmatched. In what Houston hopes to be a better-structured environment this season, Sengun should flourish if given the opportunity.
Ceiling: With the additions of VanVleet and Brooks, the Rockets will surely be more competitive on a nightly basis, perhaps even being in the mix for a play-in spot.
Floor: It’s still a young roster, and while VanVleet and Brooks will raise the competitiveness, Houston may still be bound for the lottery.
Last season: 22-60
Key additions: Victor Wembanyama, Cedi Osman
Key departures: Keita Bates-Diop
Top storyline: It’s the Wemby show. There hasn’t been a more anticipated prospect since LeBron James, and everyone will be watching on a nightly basis to see if he actually lives up to all the hype that’s followed him. Wembanyama will surely be the favorite to win Rookie of the Year, and while there won’t be any pressure to succeed immediately in San Antonio, it will be intriguing to see if Wemby can make enough of an impact to make the Spurs a competitive team this season.
Player to watch: Before a knee injury cut his season short, Devin Vassell was in the midst of a breakout season last year, averaging 18.5 points, four rebounds and 3.6 assists. With a new contract extension in tow, as well as a shiny new teammate to play off of in Wembanyama, seeing how Vassell makes his return after injury will be worthwhile to watch.
Ceiling: Wembanyama wins Rookie of the Year en route to San Antonio fighting for the last play-in spot.
Floor: A promising development year, with a high lottery pick on the horizon.