The Southwest Division should be one of the more interesting in the NBA this season. While they may not all be the best teams in the league, they could all make the argument that they belong in the postseason (some more than others).
The Dallas Mavericks and Memphis Grizzlies found themselves at the bottom of last season’s standings, but both should see major improvements this season, whether that be because of health or otherwise. The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and New Orleans Pelicans should all once again compete for a playoff spot as well.
But which players could step up for their team and make a real difference?
Luka Dončić – Dallas Mavericks
Luka Dončić has received an incredible amount of hype up to this point, and for good reason. The Slovenian 19-year-old had impressed on the basketball world’s second biggest stage, winning a Euro-League Most Valuable Player award and championship before he decided to make the transition to the NBA.
Now, Dončić has the opportunity to show the rest of the basketball world what he can do.
Dončić, from the jump, should get plenty of run on the floor and control of the Mavericks offense. There will be a learning curve as he goes up against stronger and faster players than he saw in Europe, but Dončić should be better equipped than many, if not all, of his peers to face that challenge and improve.
Marquese Chriss – Houston Rockets
The Phoenix Suns gave up on Marquese Chriss much too early.
Chriss was playable, if not unspectacular, in his first two seasons in Arizona. Last season, he averaged 7.7 points, 5.5 rebounds and 1.2 assists and one block per game; not superstar numbers by any means, but promising enough for a young man that just turned 21 in July.
Chriss has been a late bloomer since his basketball career began – he didn’t start playing till he was 14-years-old – so his development has lagged behind some of his peers. But, he should benefit massively from the move to a competent offense. James Harden and or Chris Paul present a major upgrade at the guard positions. The Rockets won’t ask him to do much, either: rebound, rim-run and play solid defense. That’s it.
If Chriss can just get the fundamentals down, he should be able to play a big role off the bench for a championship-or-bust Houston squad. While he isn’t the player Clint Capela is, a similar ascension could be in order for Chriss, in time, if he works on his game and uses his athletic frame to his advantage.
Derrick White – San Antonio Spurs
The Spurs took Derrick White with the No. 29 pick back in 2017, with the expectation that he would play a secondary role to Dejounte Murray and others. A year later, the Spurs took Lonnie Walker IV to further solidify their backcourt.
Of course, things don’t always go as planned.
With Murray and Walker both out for an extended period of time, White will be thrust into the spotlight. While DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge will still do most of the heavy lifting on offense, White is a capable contributor; he routinely looked like one of the best players on the floor during the Spurs’ Summer League run.
If he can replicate that success, the Spurs figure to be in good hands while Murray and Walker recover.
Jakob Poeltl – San Antonio Spurs
The oft-forgotten piece in the swap between the Spurs and Toronto Raptors this summer, Jakob Poeltl came over with DeRozan in the trade that sent Kawhi Leonard to Toronto. Poeltl didn’t spend much time on the floor in Toronto – he averaged 18.6 minutes per game last season and just 15.6 across two seasons with the team – but that should change in San Antonio.
The Spurs have a serious lack of quality front-court depth behind Aldridge and an aging Pau Gasol, and Poeltl is more than capable of remedying the situation. While he isn’t necessary elite when it comes to any one skill, Poeltl can do many things well and is exceptional when it comes to the small things. He sets good screens, is a capable passer and can finish near the basket. He just works hard, and that alone should endear him to Greg Popovich and the San Antonio fanbase.
But Poeltl, when given the opportunity, has shown the ability to produce quality counting stats as well. He had multiple games last season where he recorded at least 15 points, five rebounds, one steal and one block. If he gets an extended look in San Antonio, he could do big things.
Dillon Brooks – Memphis Grizzlies
Dillon Brooks, a former second-round pick, was one of the lone bright spots in a lost season for the Grizzlies. Now, Brooks has the chance to create a major role for himself as the Grizzlies look to bounce back.
Heading into the 2018 season, Chandler Parsons is still a major question mark. Regardless of whether or not they believe Parsons can contribute this season, Memphis will need someone to fill in those minutes.
Brooks, a twitchy, switchable defender, is the perfect candidate.
His defensive chops make Brooks an invaluable member of any modern NBA defense – he can guard smaller forwards on the perimeter and hold up against larger forwards – while he has shown he is a capable shooter. Brooks shot 35.6 percent from three last season and should expect an uptick of touches on the offensive side of the court. That, combined with the general improvements most players make from year-one to year-two – conditioning, strength, etc. – and Brooks seems like a logical choice to breakout this season.
Julius Randle – New Orleans Pelicans
This is a make-or-break season for Julius Randle. And he just may be in the perfect situation to capitalize.
Randle made the move from the Los Angeles Lakers to the Pelicans this offseason, and there may have not been a better place for him to land. Randle will have the opportunity to learn from arguably the best big in the game, Anthony Davis, as the Pelicans give him plenty of minutes to show what he can do on the court.
New Orleans had grown accustomed to running offensive sets based on their monster Davis-DeMarcus Cousins duo in the frontcourt. While Randle isn’t as skilled as Cousins was pre-Achilles injury, he should flourish in an offense built for the big man and line himself up for a nice pay-day as the Pelicans compete for a playoff spot. Last season, Randle averaged 16.1 points, eight rebounds and 2.6 assists while playing off the bench for about half the season. He should easily top those numbers as a starter in New Orleans.
Again, the Southwest may not boast the best teams in the NBA, but every team here should be competitive next season. If they want to make that jump, however, these players, and others, will need to step up for their team and be difference makers.