5 Burning NBA Questions: The Southwest Division

Who are these old guys, anyway? Shouldn’t San Antonio’s core of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker be content with riding out their careers with rings and memories in hand?

Think again. The Southwest Division this year has been up for grabs dating back to Memphis’ playoff upset and Dallas’ offseason moves that made its title defense a question. This division used to be the Spurs and Mavericks’ personal playground every year. Only the Hornets in 2007-08 broke the hold of those two teams’ titles going back to 2004.

It very well may be just another race between those two in the end, but the second half’s infancy begins with Dallas, Houston and Memphis within a half-game of each other to decide second to fourth places.

There’s been a bit of a rodeo feel to this division for a while. Could this be the year the usual suspects get bucked off? Here are this division’s five major question marks heading towards the regular season’s finish line.

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There’s no question they’ve been better than expected, and Gregg Popovich is a leading candidate for Coach of the Year for getting them to this point. Legs would be the only worry, as it always is with a team that relies heavily on its aforementioned older Big Three.

However, their biggest test is already behind them. The way the Spurs sustained their pre-All-Star break winning streak despite their 18-day Rodeo Road Trip, they have to be given the benefit of the doubt they’ll continue to mow down opponents in the second half. By the same benefit, don’t read much into their fourth-quarter collapse against Chicago in the first game back. Yes, it was their second loss in 19 games after leading entering the fourth, but they didn’t have Manu Ginobili (who has since returned) and superb rookie Kawhi Leonard (calf) was also missing.

With Ginobili out, the question became his replacement, but Gary Neal is showing signs of last year’s form right now, helped no doubt by the extra minutes he’s getting. In his last 10 games, he’s shooting 40 percent from three and giving 9.7 points off the bench.

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The champs took a while to get back in the race, following the lead of Dirk Nowitzki. So what is their ceiling? While he took time off to get back in shape, the Mavs survived. Now in his last 10 games, he’s going for 19.1 points per (dead-on his scoring average this year) on 45 percent shooting, with 8.2 boards (two more than his average).

Lamar Odom has played so sparingly and so poorly with the Mavericks that even if he’s bought out or traded, it wouldn’t be much of a hit to their ceiling. The flip side is if he wants to compete like he did as a Laker, in which case Dallas’ ceiling rises dramatically. He’s chided for his attitude, and homesickness for Los Angeles’ warm blanket, but this guy averaged 14.4 points and 8.7 boards last year. He also was the third-most efficient shooter in the clutch last season, allowing doubt to creep into opponents minds that only Dirk will get the ball late. I seriously doubt he will be in the shape necessary to make that kind of a difference even if he mentally wants to.

Is Kyle Lowry going to have to do this by himself? He’s averaging a career-best 15.8 points, 7.3 assists and 5.3 rebounds, and his 42 percent shooting is dead on his career average. Bet you didn’t know he’s eighth in league assists, ahead of guys like Chris Paul and Derrick Rose, and third in steals. However, only three players average double figures in points and even their top man, Kevin Martin (18.2 points per) has been up and down this year. Even since the All-Star break, Martin had 20 points combined in his first two games back, and then exploded for 60 in the next two.

Kudos go to Kevin McHale in his first year for coaching up a team that is in the middle of nearly every team statistic this season. Here’s the hard part: stealing a few on the road. According to the Houston Chronicle, the Rockets have a .789 winning percentage at home and a .353 winning percentage on the road — the the third-largest disparity in those measures, behind only the Lakers and Jazz. Someone, anyone, needs to step up and help out Lowry if Houston wants to finish top-two in this division. They’re a nice surprise so far, but a fade to the mean seems closer than a shot to the top right now.

Lionel Hollins had everyone looking at his team in awe last postseason as they ran San Antonio out of the playoffs. Will it take the return of Zach Randolph to flip the switch or something else? Remember, this wasn’t a team people were calling as the upset special, instead looking for Portland to beat Dallas. Then, out of nowhere, they rolled the Spurs even without Rudy Gay. Gay is back and playing a huge level this year at 18.9 points, while Marc Gasol was an All-Star. Mike Conley is back, and Tony Allen has the best Twitter feed in the NBA.

Instead it’s Randolph who’s now gone after playing just four games (out the past eight weeks), and they’re missing his double-doubles. The team says it isn’t seeking out trades to complement who is healthy, but Hollins has to be responsible for this team’s wild swings — they score a whopping 16 points fewer in losses than wins. One hallmark of the playoff run was its stunning win over San Antonio on the road. This year, their assists go down by four and turnovers go up by four once they’re away. Find a way to tweak those even a little bit, and we could see a switch flipped again.

[RELATED: 5 Burning NBA Questions – The Central Division]

Chaos reigns in the Big Easy, where nothing is right this season. Even though David Stern says negotiations with a new team owner are behind schedule, that shouldn’t distract the players. But like it or not, that ownership uncertainty led the Hornets to where they are now, by letting David West get away and then shipping out Chris Paul. Without CP3, coach Monty Williams has been given a patchwork team. Can they get over the hump to finish games? The Hornets were up 95-91 on Chicago last Wednesday, then lost by four. Against Toronto the next night, they were sluggish and lost late.

The team that won four of six entering the All-Star break and snapped Linsanity at MSG should be able to knock down some games. It has to start within their own division, where they’re 0-7 and allowing the second-most points, 95.7, to division foes. Gustavo Ayon and Greivis Vasquez have been pleasant surprises buried among the rubble.

Who do you think wins this division?

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