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John Schuhmann

Kevin Durant
Yeah, Kevin Durant and the Thunder can score. But can they stop the other guys?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

In wild West, hard to tell title contenders from pretenders

Posted Mar 22 2012 11:27AM

The Eastern Conference hierarchy is simple. There's the Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat, and then there's everyone else. If those two teams are healthy in May, it's near impossible to make an argument for any other team to make the conference finals.

The Western Conference is another story. Through Wednesday's games, just two games separate fourth-place Memphis from ninth-place Utah. For any of six teams, a short winning streak could get them home-court advantage in the first round, while a few losses could send them to the lottery.

So how do you look at the West? Are the Oklahoma City Thunder the clear favorites? Are the San Antonio Spurs right there with them, or just a regular-season team? Maybe the Lakers are OKC's biggest threat. Or Memphis, who gave the Thunder a great series last year. And how can we count out the defending champion Mavs?

Here's a breakdown of the top five contenders in the West, along with some notes on the other five teams competing for a shot at the postseason. Good luck figuring out where to draw the line between title contenders and teams that can win a round or two.

Pace = Possessions per 48 minutes
OffRtg = Points scored per 100 possessions
DefRtg = Points allowed per 100 possessions
NetRtg = Point differential per 100 possessions
(League rank in parentheses)

Oklahoma City (35-12)

Pace: 95.8 (6), OffRtg: 107.2 (1), DefRtg: 99.9 (12), NetRtg: +7.3 (4)

Believe in them because the trio of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook is near-impossible to stop. In 898 minutes with the three on the floor, the Thunder have scored more than 115 points per 100 possessions. Ridiculous.

Doubt them because they don't defend at a championship level. Of the last 20 NBA champions, only three weren't a top-10 defensive team in the regular season. They were the 1994-95 Rockets, the 2000-01 Lakers, and the 2005-06 Heat. Two of those teams were defending champs, and all three were able to flip the switch in the postseason.

Noteworthy: The Thunder starters (with Thabo Sefolosha healthy) have been excellent defensively, allowing fewer than 89 points per 100 possessions. It's when they go to their bench that the defense really falls off. Harden gives them a huge lift offensively, but also hurts them on the other end.

San Antonio (30-14)

Pace: 94.4 (13), OffRtg: 106.0 (3), DefRtg: 101.8 (17), NetRtg: +4.1 (5)

Believe in them because last year's early first-round exit may have been a fluke. They shot just 29 percent from 3-point range in six games against the Grizzlies, after leading the league at 40 percent in the regular season. This season, they again lead the league at 40 percent, and have shot 27-for-73 (37 percent) in three wins over Memphis.

Doubt them because their defense is worse than the Thunder's defense and slightly worse than the league average (101.4). In the last 20 years, only two of the 40 teams that made The Finals were below average defensively in the regular season (the 1997-98 Jazz and the 2000-01 Lakers).

Noteworthy: The Spurs, who have the No. 1 offense since the All-Star break, have the easiest remaining schedule of the top 10 teams in the West, with 12 games against teams currently under .500.

L.A. Lakers (29-18)

Pace: 92.8 (20), OffRtg: 102.1 (12), DefRtg: 98.9 (10), NetRtg: +3.2 (6)

Believe in them because Ramon Sessions may be just what they needed. The Lakers have had a Top 10 defense all season but have been mediocre offensively. Sessions gives the offense a boost. It's a small sample size, but the Lakers have scored 114 points per 100 possessions in Session's 100 minutes thus far.

Doubt them because they can't shoot threes. L.A. ranks 28th in 3-point percentage at 31.2 percent. Sessions' play-making should help them some, and they're 20-for-41 from 3-point range with him on the floor through four games. But they still lack shooters to spread the floor.

Noteworthy: The Lakers still have five games left against the top two teams in the conference. They've yet to play the Spurs, and will face them three times in a 10-day span in April. And they have two more games against the Thunder, including Derek Fisher's return to L.A. next Thursday.

Memphis (25-19)

Pace: 94.5 (11), OffRtg: 99.8 (23), DefRtg: 98.5 (8), NetRtg: +1.3 (13)

Believe in them because they went 23-14 without their best offensive player. The Grizzlies were a much better offensive team last season with Zach Randolph on the court, and his return should give them a boost over the last five weeks of the season.

Doubt them because they're 0-8 against the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers, having scored fewer than 92 points per 100 possessions in the eight games. They play them each once more, all on the road.

Noteworthy: Though the Mavs have the best overall defense in the West, both the Lakers (99.3) and Grizzlies (99.5) are allowing fewer points per 100 possessions than Dallas (99.8) in games played within the conference.

Dallas (27-21)

Pace: 94.1 (15), OffRtg: 100.3 (18), DefRtg: 98.2 (6), NetRtg: +2.0 (11)

Believe in them because they're the best defensive team in the West, despite the departure of Tyson Chandler. Their starting lineup -- Jason Kidd, Vince Carter, Shawn Marion, Dirk Nowitzki and Brendan Haywood -- has been the best defensive unit in the league (minimum 125 minutes), allowing fewer than 85 points per 100 possessions in 154 minutes together.

Doubt them because the season is three months old and we're still waiting for them to start making shots. They ranked 19th in offensive efficiency before the All-Star break, and rank 21st since the break. Last season, the Mavs led the league by shooting 45 percent from mid-range. This year, they rank 10th at 40 percent.

Noteworthy: The Mavs are 3-9 against the four teams listed above after Wednesday's loss to the Lakers, including 1-3 against Oklahoma City and 0-3 against L.A. Also, they have the toughest remaining schedule (.557 opponent winning percentage) of the top 10 teams in the West.

L.A. Clippers (26-20)

Pace: 91.8 (27), OffRtg: 104.1 (6), DefRtg: 103.5 (22), NetRtg: +0.6 (17)

Believe in them because they take care of the ball and have a star who knows how to win close games.

Doubt them because their defense is poor and has allowed more than 112 points per 100 possessions in seven games against the Thunder, Spurs and Lakers.

Denver (26-21)

Pace: 97.0 (1), OffRtg: 105.1 (5), DefRtg: 103.0 (21), NetRtg: +2.1 (10)

Believe in them because they're a better team than their record indicates, with the fourth-best point differential in the conference.

Doubt them because only the Nets do a worse job of defending the 3-point line.

Houston (25-22)

Pace: 94.5 (9), OffRtg: 102.9 (8), DefRtg: 101.8 (16), NetRtg: +1.0 (15)

Believe in them because they're hanging on to a playoff spot despite the absence of Kyle Lowry.

Doubt them because they're getting outscored by 2.1 points per 100 possessions since the All-Star break.

Utah (24-22)

Pace: 94.0 (16), OffRtg: 102.6 (9), DefRtg: 103.6 (23), NetRtg: -1.0 (22)

Believe in them because they have a relatively easy schedule the rest of the way.

Doubt them because they have the worst defense of any team with a shot at the playoffs.

Phoenix (23-24)

Pace: 94.5 (10), OffRtg: 102.0 (14), DefRtg: 103.0 (19), NetRtg: -1.0 (21)

Believe in them because they're 9-4 since the All-Star break, with the West's fifth-best post-break point differential.

Doubt them because only five of their remaining 19 games are against teams under .500.

What's left in the West
Remaining schedule for West's Top 10
Team Opp. W% vs. <.500 vs. .500+ Home Away
Oklahoma City 0.536 9 10 9 10
San Antonio 0.477 12 10 11 11
L.A. Lakers 0.511 9 10 11 8
Memphis 0.502 11 11 10 12
L.A. Clippers 0.488 11 9 10 10
Dallas 0.557 5 13 7 11
Denver 0.506 10 9 6 13
Houston 0.510 8 11 10 9
Utah 0.497 10 10 9 11
Phoenix 0.542 5 14 8 11

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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