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Everything’s Abnormal in Texas

The Mavs, Rockets, and Spurs are used to being on top, but the Texas trio is currently on the outside of the West playoff picture. Here’s a look at the early returns for each, and how it will impact their short- and long-term futures.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The Mavericks, Rockets, and Spurs have all been good for as long as I can remember. Since 2000, they have the three best franchise records in the NBA. Combined, they’ve had only four seasons under .500 over that span. We expect them to be competitive, if not contenders. But so far this season, none of them are among the top eight teams in the West. Basketball is getting weird in Texas.

Dallas was the clear betting favorite to win the Southwest Division, yet it has lost five straight to drop to 8-12, the worst record of the bunch. Instead, San Antonio, at 11-9, is the only Texas team over .500 despite being projected to have the worst record of the three. Meanwhile, Houston traded James Harden and finds itself smack in the middle with a 9-9 record and a five-game winning streak, including a 25-point win over Dallas. Could anyone have seen all of this coming?

We’re only one quarter into the 2020-21 season, and San Antonio, Houston, and Dallas are separated by just three games in the standings. It’s early, and things could very well end the same way most people expected it to. But what we’re seeing today tells us a lot about the roads ahead for each team, both for this season and into the future. Here are some thoughts on the state of the Spurs, Mavericks, and Rockets, and the potential leaguewide implications.

Are the Spurs here to stay?

Gregg Popovich is at it again, adapting his system to better fit the talents of his young, energetic roster. The Spurs don’t have a clear-cut rising star on their roster like Southwest opponents Dallas, Memphis, and New Orleans. But they’ve done a tremendous job of bringing in lots of young talent. Dejounte Murray is arguably their most promising player under 25 years old. This season, in consecutive games, he stole the ball from both Kemba Walker and Jamal Murray in the final minutes.

Dejounte Murray is one of the best defensive guards in the league, and he’s playing a more seasoned style offensively, averaging a career-high 5.3 assists and only 1.8 turnovers. If he ever develops a good jump shot, he’ll vault from a solid starting point guard to one of the league’s elite.

Guard Derrick White, 26, is also an excellent defender and a reliable offensive player. Rookie point guard Tre Jones, 21, also has the upside to be a steady two-way presence.

The Spurs have a plethora of wings, too. Lonnie Walker IV, 22, is inconsistent but shows impressive flashes on both ends of the court. Their first-round pick, Devin Vassell, who’s 20, has already made impactful plays on defense and is hitting nearly 40 percent of his 3s. But I’ve been most impressed by second-year player Keldon Johnson, who attacks the rim with the same energy that Oh Dae-su does as he barges through the hallway in Oldboy.

I love watching this guy. He plays with a contagious enthusiasm and effort any time he’s on the court. And his offensive skill level has come a long way since his freshman season at Kentucky in 2018-19. Even if he always remains a secondary scorer, he’s a reliable playmaker (2.2 assists per game), an elite rebounder for his position (7.4 per game), and a hard-nosed defender.

The Spurs just keep on finding guys. And Popovich, even at 72 years old, has shown adaptability with his roster. Last season, Popovich played a hybrid system that featured a throwback midrange style when DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge were in the game and a more modern style when the bench unit checked in. This season, the Spurs are leaning more into the future. Even DeRozan and Aldridge are shooting more 3s!

As a team, San Antonio isn’t shooting much more than it did last season. But the spacing has produced a marked difference at the rim. Per Cleaning the Glass, the Spurs ranked 30th in at-rim shooting frequency last season and have now risen to 16th this season. Johnson, Murray, Jakob Poeltl, and DeRozan are the key figures in the surge.

DeRozan is getting to the basket more than he has since his first two years in the league, and drawing fouls at one of the highest rates of his career. At age 31, DeRozan has struck a balance between scoring and playmaking. He shoots less, and distributes those extra possessions toward making smart passes. DeRozan isn’t an offensive savant, but he’s become a good shot-creator for his teammates. He averages 6.7 assists and only 1.7 turnovers, which is one of the league’s top ratios. DeRozan once had a reputation for being an anti-analytics player, but he’s found a way to become one of the league’s most efficient offensive players.

People around the league still wonder what the Spurs will do with DeRozan, 31, and with Aldridge, 35, who will both be unrestricted free agents this coming offseason. Aldridge has been fine offensively but a total liability on defense. His effort on closeouts is abysmal:

If Poeltl could shoot jumpers, or at least free throws, he’d be the superior choice to start. Rival executives have a tough time getting a read on the Spurs, which is why they’re seldom involved in trade rumblings. Aldridge’s value is declining quickly, but any team in need of a championship boost should at least think about exploring deals for DeRozan. If the Spurs are willing to dangle DeRozan in trades, he could end up the best player available on the market.

Along with DeRozan and Aldridge, Rudy Gay, 34, and Patty Mills, 32, are the only other rotation players older than 26. Both Gay and Mills can be unrestricted free agents too. Regardless of their place in the standings, this is a transitional season for the Spurs, a time to build and gain experience, and to figure out who they’ll be in the years to come.

The Spurs are 5-5 this season in games that were close in the final minutes. This team will not stop competing. It’s an organization-driven mindset, which I couldn’t help but think about after reading what Popovich said over the weekend when asked about his drive to keep coaching.

“I think at the base of it, the competitiveness in game situations is thrilling. That’s always there. If that diminished or disappeared then I wouldn’t be doing this,” Popovich told reporters. “Beyond that, watching a new generation of players that are 19, 20, 21, 22 years old is both a challenge and it’s extremely satisfying to watch them develop. Not just their basketball skills, but their awareness on the court, what’s going on in their world, what’s going on off the court, learning about the world they live in beyond basketball. That still is a big satisfaction for me. I think I would miss that. Those two factors more than anything keep me in it.”

As long as the Spurs keep developing young talent, and as long as Popovich keeps on coaching, it seems the Spurs will stay competitive too.

Will Houston blow it up?

After Houston traded James Harden, executives around the league wondered what was next for the Rockets. Could they flip Victor Oladipo to a contender? Who would bid the most to add P.J. Tucker for a playoff run? A lot of that talk has simmered down this past week as the Rockets have rattled off victories. Now some executives are wondering: Could Houston actually be a buyer?

I’m on the record saying that I thought Houston could be a great team if Harden just bought in and showed up to training camp in shape. So I’m buying how good they look now. John Wall, Oladipo, and Christian Wood (or WOW as some Rockets fans are calling them) are shining offensively and setting a strong defensive tone. Oladipo and Wall are both playing like they have something to prove after returning from major injuries, and the entire team is playing hard. Since trading Harden, the Rockets have the no. 1 defensive rating. Houston’s collective effort is best explained by watching this play by Jae’Sean Tate:

This is inspiring stuff, folks. I wanna be better. I wanna try harder. All because Tate, who’s 6-foot-4 and played last season with the Sydney Kings, just stopped Brandon Ingram and Zion Williamson on the same play with perfect help defense and then scored on the other end of the court. Tate makes motivational plays seemingly every game—but it’s not just him. David Nwaba and Sterling Brown always bring it. I’ve never seen Eric Gordon grind harder in man-to-man situations. Wood is playing like he’s determined to be named an All-Star, and he should be in strong consideration. Credit to new head coach Stephen Silas for steadying the ship through the Harden drama, and installing a culture that has promoted this positive style of play. Without Harden, Houston is no longer a title contender, but it has a brand-new identity that will keep it competitive.

The Rockets will keep their 2021 first-rounder if it falls in the top four, so there is incentive for them to miss the playoffs (especially since this draft class has strong top prospects like Oklahoma State point guard Cade Cunningham and USC center Evan Mobley). If their pick falls out of the top four, they’ll receive the worst first-round pick among their own, Oklahoma City’s, and Miami’s. Looking ahead, the Rockets have their own firsts in 2022 and 2023, and thanks to the Harden and Russell Westbrook trades this season, they’ve recouped draft picks lost in the original Chris Paul–for–Westbrook deal. But the Rockets are too good to try to be bad this season. The market for Oladipo is limited since he can become a free agent this offseason, and at most they’d get two or three second-round picks for Tucker, who’s 35 and also about to hit free agency. Wood could be an All-Star and Tate impacts winning; even if Wall were the team’s lone veteran, this squad would still compete nightly.

We may have to recalibrate expectations and view Houston as a team that can play the middle. The Rockets can entertain any opportunities that may arise, whether it’s buying or selling. There will be teams that call for Oladipo and Tucker, but there should be no urgency. The NBA’s new-ish draft lottery system flattens the odds much more than past drafts, so teams don’t need to totally suck to have a good chance to move up. In 2019 and 2020, five teams with seventh-or-worse odds vaulted into the top four of the draft. In the loaded Western Conference, there will be multiple teams who compete hard but miss out on a spot in the play-in tournament. The Rockets could end up one of them, and with some lottery luck, that could be their best-case scenario. But they’re in a good position either way.

Should the Mavericks Be Concerned?

Sunday was the two-year anniversary of New York trading Kristaps Porzingis to Dallas for a deal built around first-round picks in 2021 and 2023. It was a brutal day for Knicks fans, but today’s a new day. As of now, the pick New York would receive from Dallas would have the eighth-best lottery odds. You could argue that the Knicks still have a chance to win the deal, especially if Porzingis doesn’t return to form.

The Mavs have lacked any continuity, with players in and out of the lineup due to the league’s health and safety protocols and injury. Porzingis has missed 11 games this season while recovering from surgery on a torn lateral meniscus suffered in his right knee during the playoffs. Thus far, KP has looked like a shell of the player who averaged 26.7 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.1 blocks over a 21-game stretch to close last season. That version of Porzingis was a dominant force, but then he disappeared just like he has in almost every other season of his career. Right now, the 25-year-old lacks explosiveness on offense, is shooting only 28.6 percent from 3, and moves defensively like he’s walking on stilts.

The injury Porzingis is recovering from marks the 13th to his lower body since entering the league in 2015. That’s terrifying for a 7-foot-3 big man, especially given the extensive injury history for players as tall as Porzingis. He’s already missed 170 games in his career, or 40 percent of all possible appearances. Can we really expect him to be any healthier in the future? And should we expect Luka to have much tolerance for KP’s absences and diminishing play?

After the Mavs got slugged by the Jazz last Friday, Doncic said his team’s play and effort was terrible. “I’ve never felt like this. We’ve got to do something, because this is not looking good. We’ve got to step up and just talk to each other and play way better than this. It’s mostly effort,” Doncic told reporters. On Saturday, their effort did improve in a loss against the Suns in which Porzingis wasn’t available due to a planned rest day. But their 3-point shooting didn’t, another major concern.

The Mavs are hitting 32.8 percent of their 3s this season, good for last in the NBA. Their top-ranked offense from last season has plummeted to 19th. Percentages from 3 could improve, but maybe 2019-20 will stand as an outlier for Dorian Finney-Smith, who’s now shooting his career average. Maybe Josh Richardson’s offensive decline that started in Philadelphia is continuing in Dallas. And there’s reason to doubt Porzingis returning to form and staying healthy enough to serve as Luka’s oversized sniper.

The early struggles do have me playing GM in my head: What if this continues? What can the Mavs do about it? As of late, some Mavs fans have questioned whether KP should be moved. I’m not all the way there. As I wrote last season, Porzingis should be viewed more as a luxury piece than a necessity given his lack of availability. If he can be healthy in the postseason, he dramatically raises their ceiling. But the Mavs should be aggressive in finding someone even better. The problem is Dallas can’t trade a first-round pick until 2027 unless the top-10 protections are removed from the 2023 first being sent to New York. If that happens, then NBA rules would allow Dallas to trade firsts in 2025 and 2027, plus pick swaps in 2022, 2024, and 2026. With the ability to trade their picks and a number of talented young players on the roster, the Mavericks could put together a strong trade package for any star who might become available, such as Wizards guard Bradley Beal. In the coming years, Dallas will also inevitably make moves around the edges to add better shooting at the wing position using its existing picks and younger players; it will have both loads of cap space in 2021, which will have a weaker free-agent class than anticipated following a flurry of re-signings, as well as the ability to create space in 2022, the final year before Doncic’s next deal kicks in. The Mavs aren’t without options, and they still have one of the league’s brightest futures because of Doncic.

Luka is having another ridiculous season, averaging 27.4 points on strong scoring efficiency with 9.4 assists and 9.2 rebounds, and is playing the best individual defense of his career. The fact that he’s doing this at age 21 shouldn’t be taken for granted. He’s already an MVP-caliber talent, and he still has room to grow as a shooting threat and as a team leader. That could all come with maturity. The Mavs shouldn’t make any panic moves. But they should be aggressive in making good ones to maximize Doncic’s chances of competing annually for championships.

That’s easier said than done, which made San Antonio’s extended run so special. That the Spurs are still winning games despite all their past stars being long gone is a testament to their ability to continue to find and develop talent and Popovich’s ability to adapt. The Spurs aren’t going anywhere, and neither are the Mavericks or the Rockets despite their current obstacles. Texas is a football state, but the NBA has been home to the state’s winningest pro franchises over the past 20 years.

A previous version of this article misstated the protections on the Rockets’ 2021 first-round draft pick.