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February 21, 2012
Pecking Order in the West

by Bradford Doolittle


Jeremy Lin and the New York Knicks may be the hottest story in basketball, but when it comes to intrigue, the West is still the best.

Before the season, we said that the hierarchy in the Eastern Conference could be summed up as the Miami Heat, Chicago Bulls and everybody else. That's pretty much how things have shaken out. The Heat and Bulls have raced out in front of the competition despite both playing road-heavy schedules and missing key players for long stretches. Not just any key players -- Dwyane Wade and Derrick Rose, two of the five-best performers in the league.

So while the post-All-Star East promises to become increasingly top heavy, the West is as much of a hodgepodge as ever. Before the season, we used our SCHOENE projection system to group teams into a general pecking order. With the conference seemingly wide open, let's revisit those projections and look for teams that have shown upward mobility and teams that have moved closer to skid row.

Here were our preseason groupings:

The favorite: Oklahoma City Thunder
The contenders: Dallas Mavericks, Los Angeles Clippers, Portland Trail Blazers, San Antonio Spurs
The other playoff teams: Denver Nuggets, Los Angeles Lakers
Fighting for a playoff spot: Houston Rockets, Memphis Grizzlies, Minnesota Timberwolves
Headed for the lottery: Golden State Warriors, New Orleans Hornets, Phoenix Suns, Sacramento Kings, Utah Jazz

How do they shake out now?

The favorites: Oklahoma City, San Antonio

Within each group, teams are listed in order of strength, which in this case could be defined as likelihood to reach the Finals. So while we've moved the Spurs up to "favorites" status, we're still looking at Oklahoma City as top dog in the West.

The Thunder have exceeded our expectations, but then again so have most of the teams in their conference, because the balance between the two circuits has really swung left. After several years of Western dominance, the East managed to win more interconference games in 2008-09, but it turned out to be a blip. The trend has since flipped and this year, the West is 87-60 (59.2 percent) against the East, the largest disparity since 2004-05. Since we didn't see that level of dominance coming, 10 Western teams are on pace to win more games than we expected.

Oklahoma City has been perched atop the conference all season thanks to the league's second-best offense, led by top-five scorers Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. That's no surprise -- we projected the Thunder as the league's top offensive team. The defense is middle-of-the-pack, as expected, despite the fact that the Thunder have had Kendrick Perkins all season and Serge Ibaka has made blocking double-digit shots a regular occurrence.

The Thunder have outplayed their sterling point differential by a significant amount, which is part of the reason why they've come back to the pack a little bit in recent days. Based on points scored and allowed, Oklahoma City rates as a 58-win team (in 82 games) but sports the winning percentage of a 63-win team. A gap like that tends to close, so either the Thunder are going to start blowing out more opponents, or they're going to be in a dogfight with the Spurs for the West's top seed. Neither outcome would be a surprise.

San Antonio moves up largely on the strength of its current 11-game winning streak. The Spurs have outperformed their point differential by what would amount to a couple of games during a normal season. Based on that, the difference between the Thunder and Spurs isn't that significant. But make no mistake: There is a gap, and the Thunder are the frontrunner in this race. Nevertheless, the Spurs are two wins from sweeping all nine games of their dreaded annual Rodeo Trip. That's scary stuff for Thunder fans, especially since Manu Ginobili had yet to regain top form since coming back from his hand injury before going down again with an oblique injury on Saturday that will sideline him for at least two weeks.

The contenders: Dallas, Clippers, Portland

The Spurs moved out of this group, which is otherwise unchanged from the preseason. In fact, we'll spoil the drama for you: San Antonio and Memphis are the only teams that have changed groups. While the West has been tightly packed and entertaining, SCHOENE did a pretty remarkable job of slotting these teams accurately. We shuffled the teams within groups a bit, but not drastically.

We're putting the Mavericks at the top of this group based on continuity and track record. After a dreadful start, the defending champs have improved their point differential to that of a 53-win team, and all trends are pointing upward. Most remarkable is that despite the loss of defensive anchor Tyson Chandler and defensive architect Dwane Casey, the Mavericks are currently third in the league in defensive efficiency and easily the top defensive team in the Western Conference.

The Clippers looked good on paper before the season and have turned out to be every bit as solid as the numbers suggested. You have to like the ceiling of this team better than any team in the West except for Oklahoma City. We projected the new Chris Paul-led attack to be the third-best offensive team in the league; the Clippers currently rank fourth in offensive efficiency, so score another one for SCHOENE. However, the Clippers rank just 20th in defensive efficiency. There really isn't a perimeter stopper on the roster, and while DeAndre Jordan has emerged as something more than a highlight-reel shot blocker, the rest of the defensive cast is iffy. Based on that, it's tough to move the Clippers in front of the West's top three teams.

In the standings, Portland currently is sitting outside of the playoff picture. Nevertheless, the Trail Blazers have the point differential of a 54-win team. No team has underperformed against its points more than Portland, and it really isn't close. The discrepancy stems from the simple fact that Portland loses the close ones and wins the blowout. The Blazers are just 1-7 in games decided by three points or less, but are 11-4 in contests decided by at least 10 points. You would expect that gap to close, but the fear is that Portland is too reliant on the streaky Jamal Crawford to close out tight games.

The other playoff teams: Denver, Memphis, Lakers

The Nuggets were on target to jump up a couple of notches but have struggled through an injury-marred February. Denver is another squad that has struggled in close games. Returns to health and form from Nene and Danilo Gallinari would certainly help. The Nuggets can still move up.

Memphis again leads the league in forcing turnovers, a trait that has helped the Grizzlies overcome the injuries to Zach Randolph and Darrell Arthur. With Randolph due to return in March, the Grizzlies are well-positioned for a run at a top-four seed in the West.

The Lakers have done a bit better than we expected but not enough to move up in the groupings. With Mitch Kupchak seemingly intent on gutting the roster and Mike Brown leaning on Kobe Bryant like he's 25 years old, we're not particularly bullish on L.A.'s prospects in the second half.

Fighting for a playoff spot: Minnesota, Houston

We saw Minnesota as one of the league's most-improved teams, and that has proven to be the case. If the Timberwolves had pulled out Monday's overtime loss in Denver, they would sit in a three-way tie for eighth in the West. Minnesota's winning percentage is that of a 40-win team, but their point differential reflects that of a 45-win squad. Before you assume that means a better pace going forward, consider the schedule. The Timberwolves have played 19 of their 33 games at the Target Center, so they'll be on the road a lot the rest of the season.

Kevin McHale hasn't gotten a lot of credit so far for his job in Houston, but the Rockets have been one of the most-improved defensive teams in the league. McHale has gone to more of a pressure scheme, and the Rockets have jumped from last in forced turnover percentage to 11th and have seen a similar improvement on the defensive glass. The Rockets seem like a team unlikely to explode or to collapse, so we'll have to see if their current 44-win differential will be enough to get them into the postseason.

Headed for the lottery: Utah, Phoenix, Golden State, New Orleans, Sacramento

The dregs of the West have turned out to be just that, though the Jazz have surprised at times with a nice first-half run. Utah's poor defense has been catching up with it of late. Despite all of their frontcourt depth, the Jazz can't protect the basket with Al Jefferson getting most of the minutes at center. Utah also can't defend without fouling, something that was true even before Jerry Sloan retired last season. Even though the Jazz are a pretty good foul-drawing team, they've been outscored at the line in 10 straight games.

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

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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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