The 2021-22 NBA regular season is set to tip-off on Oct. 19 and in the weeks leading up to Opening Night, we’re previewing each division in the NBA.
Here, you can find projected win totals, predictions on the best player and best rookie, under-the-radar storylines to follow and a bold prediction among the five teams.
Today, the focus shifts to the Southwest Division.
2021-22 NBA season preview: Southwest Division
Projected win totals
|New Orleans Pelicans||39.5|
|San Antonio Spurs||28.5|
Over/under win totals courtesy of Action Network.
Best player: Luka Doncic
For the second season in a row, the Slovenian is the favourite to be named Most Valuable Player and is coming off an All-NBA First Team selection and All-Star season.
Doncic helped the Mavericks push the Clippers to seven games in the first round of the 2021 NBA Playoffs, putting up 35.7 points, 10.3 assists and 7.9 rebounds per contest. As he enters the fourth season of his career, he has a real chance to elevate himself into the conversation for the best player in the league.
Despite being 22 years old, Doncic moves like a veteran. While the individual accolades have come his way, meaningful team success still eludes him with two straight first-round exits in the playoffs. With a new head coach in Jason Kidd at the helm in Dallas, expect Doncic’s game to go to another level this season as the Mavs look to join the elite teams in the Western Conference.
Best rookie: Jalen Green
The No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft, Green is widely regarded as the best scorer in his class and has landed in a situation that perfectly fits his skillset.
Green, who starred for the G League ignite last season before being drafted by the Rockets, has all the intangibles to succeed at the NBA level with his ability to create for himself, get to the rim with ease and knock down shots from the perimeter. But most of all, head coach Stephen Silas will likely give him the green light from the jump.
In the annual GM survey, 47 percent of the votes went to Green for Rookie of the Year over Cade Cunningham (40 percent) of the Pistons, and the early signs in Houston look promising for his chances.
Alongside Kevin Porter Jr. and Christian Wood, the Rockets have an exciting young core, and Green’s offensive ability will be central to their plans this season. They won’t win a ton of games, but they’ll be a League Pass darling.
Under the radar storyline: Jaren Jackson Jr.’s breakout season
In the annual GM Survey, 17 percent of the votes went to Jackson Jr. to have a breakout season. If he stays healthy, that could well vault the Grizzlies beyond a first-round appearance.
The 22-year-old spent the majority of last season sidelined while recovering from a torn meniscus in his left knee, but he showed he was well on the way to blossoming into one of the league’s best young two-way big men in his sophomore season in 2019-20, averaging 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game.
The Grizzlies, led by Ja Morant and Dillon Brooks, were electrifying in their first-round series against the Jazz in the 2021 NBA Playoffs but eventually ran out of steam. With Jackson Jr. back, alongside Steven Adams in the frontcourt, plus the continued growth of Desmond Bane, Brandon Clarke and Kyle Anderson, the Grizzlies have all the ingredients to make some noise in the west, but a lot of that will come down to Jackson Jr. staying healthy.
Bold prediction: Pelicans will be in the Play-In Tournament
The Pelicans lost their final four games last season, costing them a shot at the Play-In Tournament, finishing 2.0 games back of the Spurs for the final spot.
It was an opportunity missed to capitalise on Zion Williamson’s impressive regular season, but in Year 3, the All-Star forward says the days of missing the postseason are over for New Orleans. He described not being in the playoffs as “a sickening feeling” and vowed that the Pelicans missing out is “not happening no more.”
In a competitive Western Conference, the race for playoff spots will be tight through the first six seeds, however, the Pelicans have a real shot at making it in via the Play-In Tournament.
With Lonzo Ball, Steven Adams and Eric Bledsoe moving on, they have some new faces in town in the form of Devonte’ Graham, Jonas Valanciunas and No. 17 draft pick Trey Murphy III to fill the void. But did they actually get better from last season?
Valanciunas is coming off a career season in Memphis and his fit next to Williamson in the frontcourt should be much more seamless than it was for Adams. Plus, they’ll be hoping for a lot of internal development from Nickeil Alexander-Walker, Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart and another leap from Williamson, who is coming off of averaging 27.0 points and 7.2 rebounds in his second NBA season.
First-year head coach Willie Green will have his work cut out for him to get them into the playoffs, but looking at the landscape in the West, a spot in the Play-In Tournament could be a best-case scenario in his first season.