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December 20, 2011
Western Conference
A First Look

by Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle

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It was only a preseason game, but Monday night's matchup between the Los Angeles Clippers and Los Angeles Lakers was a microcosm of what is likely to play out all season in the Western Conference: an upheaval of traditional powers. In Chris Paul's debut, the upstart Clippers ran and lobbed all over the Lakers in a 114-95 victory. If Basketball Prospectus' SCHOENE projection system is to be believed, the Clippers might continue to get the better of the Lakers when the games count.

Here's how SCHOENE, as detailed in Pro Basketball Prospectus 2011-12, predicts things will shake out this season in the Western Conference. We've broken it down by tiers of the new pecking order out West.

The favorite: Oklahoma City Thunder

After the Thunder's unexpected trip to the Western Conference finals this past spring, the team's time appears to have come. The gap between Oklahoma City and the conference's top teams was relatively small last season. Although other teams have lost key contributors and suffered the effects of age, the rising Thunder kept its roster entirely intact before trading center Byron Mullens to Charlotte. (His 85 minutes played in 2010-11 will be missed.)

Although Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook rightfully draw most of the attention, it's the youthful duo of third-year players James Harden and Serge Ibaka, both 22, that could make the difference for the Thunder as they continue to grow in the key roles they took over after Oklahoma City traded Jeff Green to the Boston Celtics. The Thunder also gets the benefit of a full season with a healthy, skinny Kendrick Perkins in the middle. Look out.

The contenders: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs

Within the next tier, rising West powers meet the conference's aging dynasties. The Clippers are most obviously on the ascent after adding Paul and Chauncey Billups to a promising young core. The roster still has major holes with little talent of note behind frontcourt starters Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan, and any free agents the Clippers might sign to add depth would be stopgap solutions.

Paul and Billups have to figure out how to coexist in the backcourt after both dominated the ball in the past, and Vinny Del Negro is in charge of making this mix work. Still, the Clippers have so much dynamic talent that they likely will find their way into the battle for home-court advantage. In fact, SCHOENE pegs them as the conference's second-best team after Oklahoma City.

Even as defending champions, the Mavericks will undergo a season of transition, biding their time until they can get under the cap next summer. In the meantime, adding Lamar Odom, Vince Carter and Delonte West was a terrific save after Tyson Chandler decided to leave for a lucrative, long-term offer from the New York Knicks.

Dallas might be as good in the 2011-12 regular season as in 2010-11, but the kind of unexpected postseason dominance the Mavericks enjoyed last season is unlikely because they are short on quality size in the middle. The Spurs have one title run left in them. Should veterans Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker hold up during the compact season, San Antonio could play with anyone in the conference. A key injury might take the Spurs out of the running, however.

Last in this group is Portland. Once on the same track as Oklahoma City, the Blazers' young core was derailed by injuries to Greg Oden and Brandon Roy. That shouldn't overshadow the quality talent Portland still has available. The Blazers' top seven of guards Raymond Felton, Wesley Matthews and Jamal Crawford, forwards LaMarcus Aldridge, Nicolas Batum and Gerald Wallace and center Marcus Camby goes as deep as any other in the league. Nate McMillan got more support in the frontcourt with the additions of Craig Smith and Kurt Thomas and will have tremendous lineup flexibility.

The other playoff teams: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers

Whither the Lakers? Age has battered the Lakers' supporting cast, which is entirely too thin for a team with a payroll north of $80 million. Long before trading Odom, the Lakers had slipped from the role of favorites into the crowded group of aspirants to the West title. Without their super-sixth man, the Lakers would have a tough time surviving any serious injury to center Andrew Bynum, who is hardly known for his reliability. As it is, the Lakers are counting on getting contributions from newcomers like Jason Kapono and Troy Murphy, who were buried on their respective benches this past postseason. After the trio of Bynum, Kobe Bryant and Pau Gasol, the Lakers just can't compare to the conference's top teams.

Denver's superb second-half run has been all but forgotten after the Nuggets had the misfortune of facing the Thunder in the opening round of the playoffs, then saw free agency take a toll on their depth. Still, Denver GM Masai Ujiri brought back the team's most important free agents (guard Arron Afflalo and center Nene) and replaced the others by trading for Corey Brewer, Rudy Fernandez and Andre Miller. Watch out for first-round pick Kenneth Faried. When adjusted for strength of schedule, Faried's translated NCAA statistics suggest he's as ready to contribute as any other rookie in the league.

Fighting for a playoff spot: Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves

In some corners, the Grizzlies are seen as part of the second tier in the West. SCHOENE was more skeptical of their chances of maintaining the momentum of this past spring's playoff run even before they lost reserve forward Darrell Arthur for the season with a ruptured Achilles tendon. Indeed, the Grizzlies were able to knock off San Antonio and take Oklahoma City the distance without injured forward Rudy Gay, now back in the lineup. However, that required an unexpected breakout from guard Tony Allen, whose history indicates he's likely to regress this season. Memphis' lack of depth behind starting posts Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph also could spell doom.

Who might usurp the Grizzlies' spot if they do fall out of the playoffs? The Rockets have been lurking the past two seasons and again figure to finish right around .500. If Houston stays in the hunt, a trade deadline deal for a 7-footer who could fill the Rockets' gaping hole in the middle might make the difference.

SCHOENE's most surprising projection is that the Timberwolves will go all the way from the West cellar to the playoff race. Not only was Minnesota's point differential better than last season's record would indicate, the Timberwolves have improved substantially by adding point guard phenom Ricky Rubio and No. 2 overall pick Derrick Williams. The biggest upgrade might be on the sideline, where new coach Rick Adelman replaces the overmatched Kurt Rambis.

Headed for the lottery: Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz

It's easier to pick out the top team than the bottom one in the West. With a healthy Tyreke Evans and a full season of Marcus Thornton, Sacramento should be much more competitive than last season, putting the Kings closer to the conference's other growing young teams.

The Hornets almost assuredly will surrender their playoff spot after trading Paul, but don't peg them for last place, either. New Orleans still boasts a solid, veteran starting five built around budding star Eric Gordon. Only the Hornets' poor bench will keep them from seriously competing for a playoff spot.

After failing to land Chandler or DeAndre Jordan in free agency, Golden State brings back a similar cast. Newcomer Kwame Brown and rookie Klay Thompson aren't difference-makers, and that indicates another season below .500. Utah is one of the conference's most interesting teams. Amid a transition between contending and rebuilding, the Jazz's frontcourt reflects both eras. Utah still has veterans Al Jefferson, Mehmet Okur and Paul Millsap, but recent top-five picks Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter will force their way into playing time.

As their core players age, the Suns might be closer to the bottom of the conference than to contending for a playoff spot. Signing Shannon Brown to a one-year deal injected additional youth into Phoenix's creaky starting five but not enough to arrest the Suns' rapid slide backward since reaching the 2010 Western Conference finals. By the deadline, trading Steve Nash might be Phoenix's best option.

A version of this article originally appeared at ESPN Insider Insider.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.
Bradford Doolittle is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Bradford by clicking here or click here to see Bradford's other articles.

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