Thunder, Clippers rise to the top

In the Western Conference's new pecking order, OKC and L.A. lead the way

Updated: December 23, 2011, 4:35 PM ET
By Kevin Pelton and Bradford Doolittle | Basketball Prospectus

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 the forthcoming "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, their 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 their roster entirely intact before trading center Byron Mullens to Charlotte. (His 85 minutes played in 2010-11 will be missed.)