A Hello and an Extremely Premature Preview of the NBA Southwest's Off-Season

The first thing you should know about me is that I was nearly named Hakeem.

No, really, but that is a story for another time. Anyway, I'm Patrick, the newest writer here at The Dream Shake. I'm a huge Rockets fan and very passionate about the teams and all the other stuff that writers are supposed to say when they introduce themselves.

I must say though that I'm extremely excited for the opportunity here and a huge thank you is in order to Tom. Those of you who know me probably know this, but I've written for Bleacher Report for about the last two years. I have no complaints with Bleacher Report, it provided me with tremendous exposure and a great platform for my writing. Still, I'm thrilled to get the chance to join SBNation and The Dream Shake and share what I have with you all.

Since I'm apparently supposed to write about basketball, let me get on to it. Today, we're going to get into the division and how the off-season may look when this lockout is resolved. Most of this may be a moot point if the union decides to decertify and end the season in the next week, but we'll go through the exercise anyway.

On one level, this off-season is shaping up like every other off-season in recent memory for the Southwest. The Mavericks don't necessarily have the cap room to make moves but are looking to wheel and deal, the Grizzlies still have big money to spend if they want to, the Rockets are looking to land a star ("everyone on the roster is available"), Chris Paul trade rumors are swirling in New Orleans, and the Spurs are coming off another terrific draft and are looking to fill the roster with more role players to take pressure off the "Big Three."

However, on many levels, this year could be completely different. For once, the Grizzlies are coming off a wildly successful campaign and have legitimate free agents to re-sign, the Rockets, armed with big cap room, finally have money to spend on their desired star, and the Hornets are finally dealing with a sense of urgency as Chris Paul's contract is set to expire. 

Now, let's go team by team to quickly assess their needs and look at what they might look to do this off-season.

San Antonio Spurs:

Needs: Backup PG, depth in front court

On draft night, the Spurs swapped George Hill for Kawhi Leonard in a move that was widely regarded as one of the smartest of the night. While the Spurs found a potential heir apparent to the small forward spot (as Richard Jefferson will likely find himself being amnestied), they opened up a gaping hole at the backup point guard position. 

On a team with injury-prone Tony Parker as the starter, having a solid backup at the spot is a must. Part of the reason the Hill-Parker duo functioned so well was that Hill could step in and start at any point without the Spurs losing a huge amount of production. If they do in fact decide to rid themselves of Jefferson's contract, they will still be above the cap, but will have enough room below the luxury tax line to sign a Ronnie Price-type player to a small contract.

In the front court, the issues are not as severe but they remain worrisome. If Antonio McDyess retires as many expect, the Spurs will be just an injury away from plugging Steve Novak into the rotation and hoping for the best. There is little they can do at this point other than hope that Duncan stays healthy and that Kawhi Leonard can prove himself worthy at the four, but they may look to make a minor move to nab Troy Murphy or another veteran of his ilk.

For a team that won more games than any other in the conference last season, the Spurs certainly have a lot of holes. Still, if Duncan, Parker, and Ginobili stay healthy, you can pencil them in for yet another 50+ win season (or its equivalent). 

Dallas Mavericks

Needs: Front court depth, backup PG

Just like the Spurs, the Mavericks are in desperate need of help in both the front court and the back court. If economics force the Mavs to amnesty Brendan Haywood and his sizable contract, they will need to find someone to replace him as I doubt they will be comfortable with Ian Mahinmi or Brian Cardinal as the first big men off the bench. Look for them to sign Kenyon Martin (if he's let out of his contract in China) or even Samuel Dalembert if they can land them to bolster a rickety front court.

With Rodrigue Beaubois likely coming back completely healthy, the backup point guard position is less of a glaring hole, but remains an issue if Dallas can't re-sign J.J. Barea. Mark Cuban is known for remaining loyal and rewarding players who play well for him, but the new CBA might keep him from being able to give Barea the contract that other teams might offer.

The other issue with Beaubois and Barea is that neither are true point guards.  A guy like T.J. Ford isn't really either, but he might provide some nice depth at a spot with an aging starter. Still, the big men have to be the priority this year.

New Orleans Hornets:

Needs: Hope, propaganda, a dribbling coach for Trevor Ariza

This year will revolve around one thing for the Hornets: getting Chris Paul on board and keeping him away from the Knicks. To do that, they simply have to win a lot of games (it's worth noting that the Hornets have won more games than the Knicks every year Paul's been in the league).

Whatever they do, whether it is bringing in more of his friends, signing some better bench players (re-signing Carl Landry would be a start), or getting Trevor Ariza to learn how to shoot and dribble, they have to win now and win a lot.

If Paul can keep up his amazing stretch of basketball, David West can get healthy, and Trevor Ariza can learn that he doesn't have to shoot ten times per game to be successful, the Hornets have the makings of a solid team. Still, as Aaron Gray, David Andersen, and Jason Smith could be the first big men off the bench, their ceiling is not that high. Is solid going to be enough for Chris Paul? That is the million dollar question.

Memphis Grizzlies:

Needs: Backup C, backup PG 

Every year, there is that team that is counted out early but sticks around despite injuries to make the playoffs and outperform expectations. Last year, that was the Grizzlies. Though Rudy Gay was lost for the season, Zach Randolph managed to keep his head screwed on, Tony Allen finally tapped into the potential that Celtics fans had been lusting over for years, and Mike Conley emerged as a legitimate NBA point guard. 

With a host of young talent across the board, things are looking up for the Grizzlies. Still, things are starting to get expensive. In a one year span, Memphis gave sizable extensions to Rudy Gay, Mike Conley, and Zach Randolph, and will have to pay Marc Gasol this year (O.J. Mayo the next). While the rest of the roster remains cheap enough that they will have the resources to retain Gasol, they also must find a competent backup center, and that will prove to be difficult. 

If Mehmet Okur is amnestied as expected, the Grizzlies will likely go after him to round out an impressive front court. With Gay coming back to full strength, the Grizzlies have as much potential as anyone in the Western Conference to put it all together. As we've seen with the Thunder and Trailblazers, that's often easier said than done.

Houston Rockets

Needs: Any impact talent, starting C

For the first time in recent memory, the Rockets have solid cap room to offer any prospective free agent. However, as has been a common theme, the team needs somebody to come in willing to take the money. As they transition to the post-Yao era, who will that be?

Certainly, it's obvious that the biggest weakness right now is at the center position. Jordan Hill and Hasheem Thabeet have the tools to be NBA centers, but they're both unlikely to reach that level. It was said that the last trading deadline was the start of a new period in Rockets history, a time for rebuilding retooling. This off-season will continue to define the Rockets' direction. Will they chase after veterans like Tyson Chandler, Nene, or Samuel Dalembert with their sights on immediate gratification or will they seek to trade for younger prospects in DeAndre Jordan or Marcin Gortat?

Or, in the ever-present possibility that they don't sign anyone, will they try a full season with just Hasheem Thabeet, Jordan Hill, and Donatas Motiejunas (ha) at the center position? Let's just say that if that happens, Kevin McHale better buckle up for a bumpy ride.

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