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Camp preview: Southwest division

Burning camp questions for the NBA's top division

Posted: Wednesday September 27, 2006 12:26PM; Updated: Monday October 2, 2006 9:13AM
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Last season, the Southwest division featured the two top teams in the West, the Spurs and Mavs, battling it out for the No. 1 seed in the playoffs. The Spurs eventually won out, sending Dallas tumbling to the No. 4 seed (behind the three Western division winners).

The Mavs, of course, overcame the injustice to beat the Spurs in the semifinals. Meanwhile, the NBA revamped its playoff seeding formula to make sure the top four teams (the three division winners plus the team with the next-best record) get their corresponding seeds.

The NBA was wise to act quickly, since the Southwest could see a similar battle this season. The division is loaded from top to bottom, with the Mavs, Spurs, Grizzlies, Hornets and Rockets all harboring legitimate hopes for the playoffs. Here's a look at the burning questions each teams faces heading into the start of training camp next week (Teams listed in order of last season's finish).

Tomorrow's camp preview: Central
Previous camp preview: Southeast

San Antonio Spurs (63-19)
1. Who will play center?
The Spurs signed Francisco Elson (Nuggets) and Jackie Butler (Knicks) as free agents, hoping they could replace the departed Rasho Nesterovic (Raptors) and Nazr Mohammed (Pistons). The 6-11 Elson is penciled in as the starter, but the 6-10 Butler could surprise.
2. How's Tim Duncan's foot?
The two-time MVP battled a sore foot most of last season, a big reason his numbers dropped off in several key categories. But he opted not to play in international competition, and with a summer of rest he should be 100 percent.
3. Parlez vous Francais?
It might help, since the team will be holding training camp in France. They leave on Sept. 29 and will stay in Lyon for five days, ending the trip with an exhibition against the local pro team. At least they have Tony Parker to show them around.
Dallas Mavericks (60-22)
1. Who brings the Bloody Marys?
After blowing a 2-0 lead in the NBA Finals, there is bound to be a hangover. Avery Johnson will have to find a way to get his team to put the disappointment aside and get mentally ready for what's sure to be a grueling defense of their Western Conference crown.
2. Can they crank up the D another notch?
Though they made great strides defensively, Dirk Nowitzki & Co. showed in the Finals they're not exactly stoppers yet. Newcomers Devean George, Greg Buckner and Anthony Johnson should help, but they will need to get acclimated in a hurry.
3. Will Mark Cuban suit up?
Hey, you never know. During last year's Finals, the controversial Mavs owner was as much a part of the scene as the players and coaches. It wouldn't be a total shock if he put on a uniform and tried to run a few layup lines during practice one of these years, would it?
Memphis Grizzlies (49-33)
1. Who fills in for Pau Gasol?
With the All-Star power forward expected to miss three months with a foot injury, the Grizzlies have a huge hole at the 4 spot. Stromile Swift and Hakim Warrick will get the first shot at filling the void, but neither provides Gasol's low-post scoring dimension and ability to draw double teams.
2. Is Damon Stoudamire back?
Memphis suffered a bad blow last season when the veteran point guard went down in January with a season-ending knee injury. Stoudamire is reportedly now fully healthy and ready for camp. Memphis is praying Mighty Mouse can regain his form, and training camp will be the first chance to find out.
3. Can the Czar change his stripes?
Memphis coach Mike Fratello has become known in his most recent coaching stints for playing a slow-down, half-court game. But with Gasol on the shelf, he might have to use camp to implement a more up-tempo style in an effort to create easier baskets.
N.O./Okla. City Hornets (38-44)
1. How fast can they gel?
Despite a 20-win improvement from the previous season, the Hornets made major changes in the offseason. Peja Stojakovic, Tyson Chandler and Bobby Jackson will have to develop chemistry quickly with the likes of Chris Paul, Desmond Mason and David West in order to avoid a slow start.
2. Which Chandler will show up?
Two years ago, Chandler was a high-energy rebounding machine for the Bulls, but he tapered off last year in Chicago after signing a big-money contract. The Hornets hope a change of scenery can help Chandler regain his form and provide a much-needed defensive interior presence.
3. Will CP3 be tired?
After a long 82-game season and a summer spent playing with the U.S. national team, second-year point guard Chris Paul could be a little tired. Hornets coach Byron Scott says he isn't worried about his young star's stamina, but he and the Hornets brass will be watching closely.
Houston Rockets (34-48)
1. Are T-Mac and Yao back?
Tracy McGrady (back) and Yao Ming (foot) played together in just 31 games last season. Without their two All-Stars, the Rockets never got off the launching pad. McGrady and Yao are now both reportedly healthy and ready to go, but it remains to be seen whether they can hold up.
2. Who will play shooting guard?
With David Wesley having left as a free agent (Cavs), Houston has a hole at the 2 spot. The Rockets are hoping Kirk Snyder, obtained in a trade with the Hornets, can fill the void. He will battle second-year player Luther Head for the spot in training camp.
3. Is Bob Sura finished?
Sura, the 6-5 veteran guard, hopes to give it one final go after missing the past 16 months with a string of knee and back injuries. The 33-year-old was a sparkplug with his hustle and versatility before getting hurt, and his return would add greatly to Houston's backcourt depth.