The Memphis Grizzlies didn't make big offseason moves like other Southwest Division teams did. However, the division and the conference aren't won through the players added or subtracted during the summer.
While these teams added players who they hope will catapult them up the standings, the Grizz, along with the San Antonio Spurs, only adjusted on the edges. Memphis essentially stood pat, but didn't hurt itself in the process.
Howard and Evans are major upgrades at their respective positions and help their teams improve, but the Grizz won't find themselves at a loss because they didn't adjust accordingly.
At that, this small-market team remains in the same position as last season, with a strong chance to win the Western Conference. Memphis retains a few key advantages that could help them outlast their divisional foes.
Their defense is as stout as ever. Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph are still one of the best frontcourt duos in the league, and they have better depth behind them. Also, they sweep the boards like no other team.
No other team in the division defends as well throughout the lineup as the Grizzlies do. Last season, they were not only second in defensive rating and opponent turnover percentage, but also had four players in the top 16 in defensive rating.
The fifth starter, Tayshaun Prince, allowed 103 points per 100 possessions in his 37 games in the "Grindhouse." No player who entered at least 35 games for the Grizzlies allowed more than 104.
Gasol and Tony Allen are two of the toughest defenders to overcome. Both boasted top-five defensive ratings.
They also sacrificed classic defensive stats to improve their overall defense. Allen went from 2.5 steals per 36 minutes in 2011-12 to two in 2012-13 while earning 4.1 defensive win shares, 1.6 more than the year before. Gasol blocked 1.84 shots per 36 minutes in 2011-12 before swatting 1.79 last season while going from four defensive win shares to 5.4.
The Spurs are solid defensively, ranking third in defensive rating, but aren't deadly throughout their lineup like the Grizzlies are. Tim Duncan and Kawhi Leonard were first and 12th, respectively, in defensive rating.
Four of their five starters allowed 102 or fewer points per 100 possessions. Tony Parker allowed 105. Even then, he often rested on defense while shying away from ball-handlers. He leaves a weak defensive spot for the Spurs, while the Grizz don't have one.
The Rockets are also capable on defense. When he's willing, Howard can be the best defender in the game. Omer Asik is a fearsome rim defender who can block shots and allowed 103 points per 100 possessions. Jeremy Lin is a willing defender who goes after steals.
But beyond Asik and Howard, the only other rotation players who allowed less than 105 per 100 were Marcus Camby and Terrence Jones. One can hardly tell whether either will earn more than 17 minutes per game.
Houston also was 22nd at defending the three last year. Howard and Camby can't fix that problem.
The Mavericks and Pelicans are poor on that end. The Pelicans were 28th in defensive rating last year with Anthony Davis as the only player pulling his weight. He allowed 104 points per 100 possessions and had 1.2 steals and 1.8 blocks per game.
Holiday, who allowed 107 point per 100 possessions last year after giving up 101 in 2011-12, could be pushed by Monty Williams to recover his defensive prowess.
But the two are surrounded by woeful defensive performers, such as Evans, Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson, each of whom allowed more than 110 points per 100 possessions last season.
Shawn Marion, Monta Ellis and Brandan Wright are the only players the Mavs roster who allowed 105 points per 100 possessions. However, Ellis likely won't keep up after setting a career best.
The Grizzlies are one of the best all-around rebounding teams. They have no peers on the offensive glass. After placing second in offensive rebound percentage, they acquired Kosta Koufos, who was fifth in the league; Randolph was fourth.
Defensively, they were ninth, six spots behind the Spurs. However, San Antonio's imbalanced on the boards, placing next to last in offensive rebounding percentage.
New Orleans was sixth in offensive rebounding percentage and eighth in defensive rebounding percentage. They lose a significant amount of offensive rebounding with the losses of Robin Lopez and Lou Amundson.
The Rockets have the two best rebounders in Omer Asik and Dwight Howard, with one more good rebounder in Greg Smith.
While one might believe the discussion is over with Asik, the leader in total rebounds, and Howard, the leader in rebounding average, fans must consider whether Howard would fight hard enough to beat the more aggressive Randolph.
Not only did Randolph beat Howard on the boards in both meetings, but three other Grizzlies did in the first meeting. In the second match, several did, but Howard only saw 14 minutes of action.
As is the case in other areas, Howard can easily be chalked up as the best rebounder in the game, but when faced with physical, well-positioned competitors, he can easily lose.
All-Around Interior Play
As mentioned above, the combination of Asik and Howard will give the Rockets the best frontcourt in the league. However, one wouldn't want to get excited about their partnership. Besides, Asik had asked for a trade after Howard joined Houston, according to ESPN.
Also consider that the Rockets frontcourt will be anything but extraordinary offensively. Asik drifts on offense and struggles to handle passes. Howard is a talented scorer, but doesn't do what makes him successful.
Meanwhile, Gasol and Randolph understand and play to their strengths. Gasol successfully shoots from mid-range, while Randolph hits short jumpers.
Both shoot better at the line than Asik and Howard. Gasol and Randolph shot 84.8 and 75 percent, respectively, while Asik and Howard shot 56.2 and 49.2 percent, respectively.
Randolph and Gasol are also good passers. Gasol averaged 4.1 assists per game, and Randolph passes effectively from the post.
Howard can't pass from the post and doesn't try to.
Duncan and Splitter form a strong frontcourt duo, but while Memphis' pair are on the same level, Duncan is a world-beater while Splitter is just good enough.
Splitter shoots well, hitting 56 percent last season, is solid defensively, allowing 100 points per 100 possessions, and does well on the defensive boards with a 20.3 percent rate, but doesn't do well enough on the offensive boards (8.8 percent) for a team that struggles in that area. Also, unlike Duncan, Splitter takes almost all his shots from inside eight feet.
The Mavericks and Pelicans have exciting frontcourt pairs that are bound to disappoint. If Dirk Nowitzki stays healthy, he'll continue to play his age, shooting and rebounding below his career averages; Samuel Dalembert is a great defender, but he drifts.
Davis and Anderson complement each other well, but Anderson's great on offense but poor defensively while Davis is great defensively and a work in progress offensively.
Some instantly assumed the Rockets to be hurtling into title contention. CBSSports.com's Matt Moore placed them atop his division power rankings, saying, "Dwight Howard. Seriously, 'nuff said."
But that isn't enough, especially since he destroyed the Los Angeles Lakers last season. No Rockets fan should wholeheartedly buy in, believing that he'll be a different person from the past two years.
Therefore, the status quo prevails in this division, with the Spurs and Grizzlies leading the pack, even while the others blossom.
For the Grizzlies, the "grit 'n' grind" defense still dominates while Randolph and Gasol are still a force among frontcourt stars.
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