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With the streaking Spurs going up against the Grizzlies (ESPN, 8 p.m. ET) and the Lakers hosting the Warriors (ESPN, 10:30 ET), we take a closer look at the always wild West.
Henry Abbott, TrueHoop: Fact. They are the best team in the world this season. They are beating teams by 10 points almost every time out, their defense is second only to Indiana, and on offense Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, Kawhi Leonard and Boris Diaw still have yet to get it going from 3, which you know is coming.
J.A. Adande, ESPN.com: Fact. They were the best team in the West in last season's playoffs, they are at the start of this season, and they will be until further notice. After getting by with above-average defense the past couple of seasons, they're back to top-notch. San Antonio is one of three NBA teams holding opponents below 90 points per game. So it doesn't even matter that the Spurs don't have anyone among the league's top 25 individual scorers.
Andrew Lynch, Daily Dime Live: Fact. That comes with the caveat that it's an "at this moment" kind of answer, but San Antonio is outscoring its opponents by 11.3 points per 100 possessions, which leads the league and is 2.6 points better than the Warriors, the closest team out West. And that's with Kawhi Leonard still attempting to find his way under a bigger offensive load and Tim Duncan struggling pretty mightily.
J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Fact. An argument could be made that the Spurs are the best team in the league at the moment. They own the second-best scoring differential and boast a top-10 offense and defense. They just always find ways to sit atop the standings.
Matthew Tynan, 48 Minutes of Hell: Fact. Even with Duncan struggling -- shooting 37.5 percent overall, 22.4 percent from midrange -- the Spurs still lead the league with a net rating differential of 11.3 points per 100 possessions. The defense is already locked in, Boris Diaw (yes, Boris Diaw) is playing impactful basketball, and Tony Parker hasn't dropped off a bit. And I haven't even mentioned Kawhi Leonard.
Abbott: Fiction. Anyone who tells you otherwise, make them put money on the Grizzlies in a game against the Spurs, Clippers or Thunder. They may end the season in the West's upper crust, but in the early going, the big wins have come from long minutes for the stars. That can't last.
Adande: Fact. After their weeklong sweep of California, the Grizzlies are back to who they were: a grind-down team that gets just enough execution offensively. They have a formula that works and a familiar cast of characters, which gives them an edge over teams that are still trying to figure everything out.
Lynch: Fiction. If we're defining upper echelon in the most basic sense -- that is, the top four teams -- then Memphis isn't quite on that level. The Grizzlies have looked much better of late, but I'm still taking the Spurs, Warriors, Thunder, Rockets and Clippers ahead of them at the very least. And the Trail Blazers have made a strong case to be considered ahead of the Grizzlies as well, not to mention the Wolves.
Poulard: Fiction. The Grizzlies have the same core as last season but have lost some of their defensive identity. Although they seem to be regaining it, until they completely rediscover their form on that end it's difficult to envision them being anything better than a mediocre team.
Tynan: Fact. They've had a nice resurgence after a messy start to the season, and maybe the effects of the coaching transition have passed. They've gone back to their roots with an incredibly slow pace and, during their four-game winning streak, put up the defensive and offensive numbers to which we're accustomed. As of right now, only San Antonio, Golden State and Oklahoma City are better. Wait, do we trust Portland yet?
Abbott: Fact. The Pacers, Clippers and Timberwolves also create fascinating high-energy contests on the regular (and everything Kyrie Irving does is exciting), but all in all, the Warriors top the "viewing pleasure" list.
Adande: Fiction. Golden State's long-distance flurries are fun, but they can't generate the GIFs like the high-flying Clippers when they enter Lob City mode. The Warriors play better defense than the Clippers, meaning Los Angeles has to get the offensive fireworks going in order to win.
Lynch: Fact. We all know and love their high-octane offense, which comes fully loaded with a bevy of shooters, nice sets and a coach who can draw up some pretty plays out of a timeout. While most will consider the offense when answering this question, defense can be pretty exciting too. Golden State has plenty to offer on that end as well -- with the fourth-best defense in the league on a per-possession basis.
Poulard: Fact. The Warriors bomb away from 3-point range with impunity and play at a fast, entertaining pace. Even defensively, they are fun to watch because they do a great job of going from that side of the ball to offense for quick scores. Mind you, this is all conditional with Stephen Curry being in the lineup. When he sits, they lose some of their luster.
Tynan: Fact. There isn't a team in the league that brings you to the edge of your seat more quickly than the Warriors. The second Steph Curry moves into the coaching box area, he's a threat to shoot. And there's nothing more exciting in basketball than a player who's a legitimate threat to score from anywhere on the floor. With Klay Thompson shooting 48.8 percent from 3 and Andre Iguodala now in tow, no other team makes you hold your breath more often.
Abbott: Fiction. The team is decent now at 5-7 and will be adding Steve Nash and Kobe Bryant, so the Lakers will get better. The problem is the surplus of good West teams. Look at the standings. To make the top eight, the Lakers need not one or two but about five teams to cool way off.
Adande: Fact. The mission was to stay within striking distance without Kobe Bryant, and they're only two games out of the final playoff spot right now. If Kobe can provide that most critical superstar quality, the ability to take over games in the fourth quarter, then it will be enough of a difference for the Lakers to sneak into the eighth spot.
Lynch: Fiction. I'm fully willing to entertain the idea that Kobe Bryant's ensuing return might make the Lakers better. But even if he's 80 percent of last season's version of himself, it won't be enough to put Los Angeles in the postseason. The fight for the West's last few playoff spots is going to be fierce, with the Mavericks and Pelicans duking it out alongside the eight teams named in Question 2.
Poulard: Straight fiction. The Lakers are somewhat fun to watch and look a little more like a Mike D'Antoni team this season. Yet they are a bottom-third offense and an average defense at best. D'Antoni teams have traditionally won with an elite offense, something this team does not come close to sniffing.
Tynan: Fiction. They're just not good enough defensively, even if Bryant's return eventually brings the offense back to a playoff-caliber level. There are too many teams out West that are just better than the Lakers.
Abbott: Fiction. It takes more than a road game to make me pick against the Spurs or Warriors at the moment.
Adande: Faction. Look for the Grizzlies to keep their winning streak alive against the Spurs, but if Curry plays for the Warriors, they'll win in Los Angeles. The Lakers are so reliant on the 3-point shot, and the Warriors are the one team in the NBA that makes more 3s per game than them.
Lynch: Fiction. The two home teams would have to be considered underdogs, at least on a neutral court, with the Lakers pretty strongly so. The Grizzlies can gum up San Antonio's 10th-ranked offense and keep it close, and the Lakers can fire up enough 3s to put a scare into Golden State if the Warriors' attempts from deep aren't falling. But counting on both home teams to win against such stiff competition seems a bit much.
Poulard: Fiction. I'm inclined to take the Spurs over the Grizzlies because Gregg Popovich's team has continuity going for it and is already playing good basketball whereas Memphis is still figuring things out. The Lakers are a bit trickier because everything hinges on Curry's ability to suit up. With that said, I will go with the Purple and Gold given that they have historically owned the Dubs.
Tynan: Fiction. The Spurs have the Grizzlies' number and are on an eight-game win streak despite their mediocre offense. At some point, it's going to break out, and the Griz bring out the best in them. In the other game, the Warriors are just way too good for the Lakers if Curry plays. If he doesn't dress, Los Angeles has a chance. But even then, the Lakers are going to have to be better than usual. But if Kobe plays … ah, he won't play. Will he?