Don’t mess with Texas

By By Tom Quinn

By Tom Quinn

Judas Priest, is there a more boring division in the NBA than the Southwest? Tracy McGrady is too inconsistent, Tim Duncan is too quiet and Dirk Nowitzki is, well, too European to play truly entertaining basketball.

This division has no LeBron James or Dwyane Wade. Hell, this group of blue-collar wonders doesn’t even have a Ron Artest.

Back in the day, fans with enough time on their hands to follow the Spurs could at least count on a few shots of Eva Longoria cheering on her former flame, San Antonio guard Tony Parker. These days, however, all we have to look forward to are jump shots-lots and lots of jump shots.

Although the play in the Southwest doesn’t exactly lend itself to highlight reels, the good news is that this division should produce at least two, and possibly three, title contenders. The bad news? They’re all from Texas.

1. San Antonio Spurs

The San Antonio Spurs, armed with the three-headed scoring monster of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Parker, will once again be the class of the division. In addition to packing plenty of offensive punch, the Spurs are fundamentally sound on defense and boast the deepest bench in the NBA.

San Antonio’s top offseason acquisition was center/forward Matt Bonner. Although his name will doubtlessly subject him to countless off-color jokes from Dallas fans, Bonner can be a presence in the paint and could fill in for Duncan if his lingering foot injury acts up again.

The Spurs’ top priority should be keeping Duncan healthy for a playoff run. If he’s not 100 percent, all bets are off.

2. Houston Rockets

Trading for Shane Battier on draft day was the best move the Rockets have made since taking Yao Ming with the first overall pick four years ago. Battier is an underrated forward with the versatility to make things happen in the Rockets’ offense.

As much as the Battier trade will help the Rockets, this franchise will still live and die with the performance of its two stars, Ming and McGrady. Houston was a shell of its former self while Ming was out with a broken foot last season, a fact that makes his health a priority.

If T-Mac and Co. can find a way to play, well, consistently, they just might be good enough to challenge the Spurs for the division title. If not, they could be looking at another lottery pick come July.

3. Dallas Mavericks

Dallas fans aren’t going to like this much, but I think the Mavericks’ appearance in the finals last spring was this team’s high-water mark. Here’s why:

Nowitzki may be an absolute monster, but the performance of his supporting cast is hardly guaranteed. Erick Dampier, for example, was phenomenal during last year’s playoffs, but is he for real or was he just another one-hit-wonder? Heaven knows he wouldn’t be the first.

I could be wrong, but something tells me that Mark Cuban’s traveling circus is on its last leg.

4. New Orleans/Oklahoma City Hornets

The Hornets’ offseason to-do list probably looked something like this:

1. Pick a city and stick with it.

2. Find a big man who can complement ber-talented point guard Chris Paul.

3. Choose a mascot with a higher intimidation factor than an insect.

Although the Hornets didn’t accomplish much over the summer, they did make a move to address the second item on the aforementioned list by trading for Chicago center/chronic underachiever Tyson Chandler. Apparently the Hornets’ brass believe all Chandler needs is a change of scenery and a little tough love. I’m not convinced.

Paul is phenomenal, but the rest of the team is of garage-band quality. The Hornets are still at least a year away from competing.

5. Memphis Grizzlies

Until the Grizzlies start playing like a real NBA franchise, they will be known throughout the country as the team that brought Canadian mediocrity to the Deep South.

Power forward Pau Gasol is one of the best in the business, but his busted foot could keep him out of the lineup for as long as two months. Without him, the Grizz are a ragtag bunch of journeymen who would probably look right at home in the ABA.

The X factor, of course, is rookie Rudy Gay. Can he have the same kind of immediate impact that Chris Paul brought to the Hornets?