Sizing up the competition: Seven and down

August, 27, 2012
8/27/12
11:54
AM CT
Two weeks ago I shared my 2012-2013 Western Conference rankings, in which I put the Dallas Mavericks sixth. Last week I analyzed what's changed with the five teams ranked ahead of them and how the new-look Mavs match up.

The most push back I received was slipping the Memphis Grizzlies to the eight-hole after they finished fourth last season. Those who disagreed mostly suggested that the Grizz will be the sixth seed, finishing ahead of the Mavs and my No. 7 pick, the Minnesota Timberwolves, and could even push into the top five.

[+] EnlargeZach Randolph
AP Photo/Tim SharpGrizzlies big man Zach Randolph's size has posed problems for the Mavericks.
The argument revolves mainly around a healthy Zach Randolph, who missed all but the final 28 games last season with a knee injury and was never the force we're accustomed to throughout the first-round playoff loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, my No. 3 pick for the coming season. Ultimately, I dropped Memphis to No. 8 to hold it accountable for the horrific home playoff losses in Games 1 and 7 against the Clips, and returning this season without their best 3-point threat and new Mavs starting shooting guard, O.J. Mayo.

Is the sixth seed a bit generous for a totally re-tooled Mavs team? Perhaps. But, with a rested Dirk Nowitzki, youth and speed in the backcourt, a scoring center in Chris Kaman, two-thirds of the roster in a contract year and coach Rick Carlisle at the controls, Dallas is an intriguing outfit with upside.

Still, it doesn't guarantee Dallas will improve upon last season's disappointing seventh seed. This should be a hotly contested race for the top eight spots with enough good teams, including my sleeper team, the Utah Jazz, to shove the Mavs or the Wolves, or any team in the bottom four that has a misstep, out of the playoffs.

The last time Dallas wasn't in the postseason: 1999-2000.

Here's a quick glance at how the Mavs match up against the teams I've ranked behind them:

No. 7 Minnesota Timberwolves
Last season's results (Wolves won, 2-1): @Wolves 99, Mavs 82; Wolves 105, @Mavs 90; Mavs 104, @Wolves 97
This season's games: Nov. 12 vs Wolves; Dec. 15 @ Wolves; Jan. 14 vs. Wolves; March 10 @ Wolves
What's changed: A lot under Rick Adelman, starting with malcontent Michael Beasley being shipped off and Chase Budinger and Andrei Kirilenko coming in. The Brandon Roy experiment will be interesting to watch. The Wolves expect center Nikola Pekovic to continue to emerge and Kevin Love to continue to be a scoring and rebounding force, but all hope for a playoff berth rests on the recovery and return date of point guard Ricky Rubio coming off the ACL injury. Rubio's status makes this a tricky, if not an overly ambitious, pick.
How the Mavs match up: The Wolves turned the tables on Dallas last season after years of dominance. Like with most teams in the West, Dallas' backcourt youth movement should allow it to compete better defensively against clubs with top point guards. The Wolves should be an excellent rebounding team, which has to be one of the big concerns for Dallas and its 30-something frontcourt.

No. 8 Memphis Grizzlies
Last season's results (Grizzlies won, 2-1): @Grizzlies 96, Mavs 85; @Mavs 95, Grizzlies 85; @Grizzlies 84, Mavs 89
This season's games: Dec. 21 @Grizzlies; Jan. 12 vs. Grizzlies; Feb. 27 @ Grizzlies; April 15 vs. Grizzlies
What's changed: The Grizzlies' best 3-point shooter, Mayo, now plays for the Mavs. Memphis brought in guards Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington, but they have no sure-fire shooting guard behind defensive-minded Tony Allen. Memphis ranked 27th in 3s made last season and remain a non-threat from beyond the arc.
How the Mavs match up: The sheer size of 260-pound Randolph and 7-foot-1 Marc Gasol are going to again cause massive paint problems. Behind center Chris Kaman, the Mavs turn to undersized power forward Elton Brand and underweight Brandan Wright. On the perimeter, Darren Collison and Mayo should be fun to watch against Mike Conley and Allen with Shawn Marion and Rudy Gay going at it on the wing.

No. 9 Utah Jazz
Last season's results (Mavs won, 2-1): Mavs 94, @Jazz 91; @Mavs 102, Jazz 96; @Jazz 123, Mavs 121 (3OT)
This season's games: Oct. 31 @ Jazz; Jan. 7 @ Jazz; March 24 vs. Jazz
What's changed: Devin Harris is no longer running the point and that's probably a good thing for Utah. Mo Williams and Randy Foye join Earl Watson and should provide more energy and much better perimeter shooting as the Jazz finally possess 3-point threats to go with a strong interior of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap, up-and-comers Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter and newcomer Marvin Williams.
How the Mavs match up: Up front, the Jazz hold a significant edge and should be able to do damage on the boards. They ranked No. 3 in the league in rebound differential last season and could be even better. Perimeter defense will be key as Utah can now bomb from the outside with Williams, Foye and Gordon Hayward. The great equalizer remains Dirk Nowitzki, who averaged 30.7 points on 54.2 percent shooting last season against Utah.

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TEAM LEADERS

POINTS
Dirk Nowitzki
PTS AST STL MIN
21.7 2.7 0.9 32.9
OTHER LEADERS
ReboundsS. Dalembert 6.8
AssistsM. Ellis 5.7
StealsM. Ellis 1.7
BlocksS. Dalembert 1.2