1. Best Team In The West? Take Your Pick
The NBA season isn't even a month old and the Western Conference picture has already had more looks than a funhouse hall of mirrors.
While the East so far seems filled with also-rans outside the reigning champion Miami Heat and the (possibly) revitalized New York Knicks, at least five teams on the other side of the conference look to be legitimate title contenders.
So, in the wake of two marquee West matchups on Monday (Clippers-Spurs, Nuggets-Grizzlies) we do our best to sort out how the regular-season standings will look at the end of April.
The Good: Wins vs. Memphis, San Antonio, Miami; at San Antonio.
The Bad: Back-to-back losses vs. Golden State, Cleveland.
The Case: Lob City has officially graduated from boarding school.
The Clippers have had the top-flight talent to be involved in the West championship conversation ever since they imported Chris Paul two offseasons ago, and they only added to it this past summer by acquiring a '90s all-NBA team to fill out their bench. But what they lacked was refinement. Sure, they could hang with some of the league's best, but it was mostly a result of their natural abilities or Paul's sheer will or, on occasion, their bench goons mucking up the game. Never was this more evident than when they were swept out of last postseason by the Spurs, who then-Clipper Randy Foye likened to a machine because of San Antonio's precision.
There's a maturity to this club now, and two early season wins against that same San Antonio team proves it. Blake Griffin's numbers are down slightly, but his outside game has never been better. DeAndre Jordan's improved offense has also kept him engaged defensively. Eric "Mini-LeBron" Bledsoe is a .Gif waiting to happen. And, most important, their defense now ranks as highly as their offense.
And with Jamal Crawford around to create shots when they need a bucket late, Paul is allowed to roam the court like a Roomba and fall back into the on-court managerial role he so prefers.
There's still room to grow -- for instance, missed free throws nearly caught up to them Monday night against the Spurs. But these Clippers have passed each major test so far this season with flying colors.Long-term outlook: Upcoming stops in Oklahoma City, Brooklyn and Atlanta will tell a lot, but their deep bench -- with even more to come -- will make them a terror to take down in the regular season.
The Good: Wins vs. Miami, at Oklahoma City.
The Bad: None.
The Case: The Grizzlies are beginning to loosely form a villainous counterpart to the Lakers' superteam.
Their frontcourt is thick, skilled and Gasol-y. Their highest-paid player is an athletic wing who prefers to pull up. They have a nasty guard regarded as one of the league's top stoppers. And their point guard is zippy and measured, with an effective outside stroke.
Only, instead the flash and shine brought on by a proximity to Tinseltown and a splashy offseason, Memphis is gritty team from a small market built largely through the draft and minor trades. And while the Lakers are trying to put the pieces together, the Griz keep grinded out wins with a formula that's been perfected over two seasons.
The teams aren't perfect foils, of course; some advancement around the fringes from their traditional game -- Mike Conley's improved shooting and control of the offense, the team's more deadly long-range game -- have actually proven the difference. But either way, the Grizzlies look just as mighty as the Lakers can be in the early going, and figure to be just as tough an out when April rolls around.
Long-term outlook: Injuries have derailed them before, and it remains to be seen if their improved outside stroke is more small-sample than substantial. But if healthy, a top-two seed is likely.
The Good: Scoring 110-plus in past two wins.
The Bad: Almost everything before this weekend.
The Case: While a star-studded Lakers team has to be good for business, part of David Stern must loathe their 2012-13 campaign thus far.
Want to know why the regular season doesn't matter much in the NBA? Meet this season's Lakers, who canned their coach five games in instead of doing so in the offseason, installed a new one who has already missed two games because of knee surgery ... and will likely still be at least a final four playoff team in the West. But this pre-Christmas schedule has filled my nights nicely, Dave, so thanks.
There are still legitimate questions surrounding this club, particularly on the defensive end; those two 110-plus-point performances since Mike D'Antoni's arrival -- just not on the bench -- were encouraging, but you can't say the same for allowing over 100 points and almost 50 percent shooting on the defensive end.
But it's exhausting constantly complaining about a team so geared toward the inevitable. The Lakers have four top-25, top-30 talents. And while nuances will begin to matter more in a crowded West field, such star power should be enough to roll over a majority of the league until then.
Once they join the rest of the league in the regular season, that is.
Long-term outlook: Too good to fall flat. Put that top-four seed in ink.
The Good: A top-five point differential.
The Bad: No bad losses, but each game against an elite team has resulted in a loss or narrow win.
The Case: It's consistency that has truly defined the Spurs' post-championship era. Their arc these past two seasons have been particularly "Groundhogs Day"-like: We undersell them each preseason, only to watch them stomp the rest of the league like a relentless zombie horde. Even through 11 games in 2012-13, their numbers look remarkably similar to last season.
But a more top-heavy West could lead to a sixth straight stall before getting out of the conference side of the playoffs. A possibility that only looks more likely after watching the Thunder overwhelm the veteran club with their athleticism and sheer talent in last season's West finals. San Antonio's offense is still humming, but the defense remains quite average. And losing athletic small forwards Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson won't help matters in the early going, either.
The Spurs will continue to be in the title mix because Gregg Popovich orchestrates like Bach on offense, and even questioning a club so wired for success will likely look silly pretty soon. But against nimble and overwhelmingly athletic teams like the Clippers -- who are able to deftly freestyle like powerful Jazz trumpeters -- San Antonio may finally be a bit out of date.
Long-term outlook: Probably a title team because of my dubiety, but injury concerns will likely result in a middle seed.
The Good: They've won every game they should.
The Bad: They've lost their only games against sure-fire playoff opponents.
The Case: It's hard to doubt the reigning conference champions when the second-best player in the league is still blooming amid the chaos that has settled over Oklahoma City since late October. But not even a reenergized Kevin Durant (career-highs in PER, rebounds per 40 and TS%) can paper over the foundation-shaking trade the Thunder made just before their season opener.
The Thunder have indeed looked a bit shaky, and a tempered start only furthers the idea that the peppy, boy-scout image of this club is long gone. But subtracting a core member from a team whose stars' personalities are so baked into the culture is going to cause such problems; if you thrive in small part because of chemistry, you're going to struggle a bit when you alter it.
This spot probably represents the floor, as OKC has still cobbled together a top-10 offense and defense in the wake of swapping James Harden for the less-defense-inclined Kevin Martin (and other goodies), but given how deep the West now is, even a slight step backward could set you back considerably in seeding.
Long-term outlook: Still a force come playoff time, but a slow start could end with a lower regular-season output than initially expected.
Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JustinVerrier.
2. Around The Association
Recap | Box score
MVP: Stephen Curry absolutely decimated the Mavericks down the stretch. He made big play after big play and racked up 20 points and four assists in the fourth quarter and overtime.
LVP: You have to feel bad for Klay Thompson. He played hard but was repeatedly torched by O.J. Mayo and finished the night 2-for-14 from the field with four turnovers. But at least his defensive lapses didn't cost the Warriors a win.
X factor Dallas' inability to keep the Warriors off the glass is what kept Golden State alive early when their offense was struggling. They finished the game with 19 offensive rebounds, including seven for Festus Ezeli.
Recap | Box score
MVP: This was Danilo Gallinari's night. With five rebounds and three assists for his troubles, everyone's favorite rooster dropped 26 points on just 15 shots. But no points were more key than the six he scored in the last two minutes, carrying the Nuggets from a three-point deficit to a five-point win.
X factor: The Grizzlies are well-noted for dominating the glass, but the Nuggets decided to flip the script tonight. The Nuggets played super-big lineups all night long, outrebounding the Grizzlies 47-33. This included a ridiculous fourth quarter explosion, where the Nuggets managed to rebound 10 of their 14 missed shots.
That was ... stirring: This game represents Denver's most complete performance of the young season. The Nuggets didn't thoroughly outclass an excellent Grizzlies team, but they went blow for blow with a strong front-line and showed off promising perimeter defense. It was great work by a Nuggets team still finding its sea legs.
Recap | Box score
MVP: Matt Barnes. Barnes was the hero this game deserved. Small forwards were dropping like flies (Stephen Jackson and Caron Butler both left the game with injuries), but Barnes stepped up and was half ironman, half garbage man in a game-changing 35 minutes of action.
X factor: San Antonio's perimeter scoring. The Spurs shot 35 percent from the field, hit only six 3-pointers and got a combined 13-for-46 outing from their backcourt players. Tim Duncan was great (20 points, 14 boards), but he's not a miracle worker.
That was ... a statement: The Clippers have won at home, but to hit the road and completely shut down the offense that carved them up in last year's playoffs screams out "we're for real."
3. Monday's Best
Stephen Curry, Warriors: Curry took charge late in Dallas, scoring 20 of his season-high 31 points in the fourth quarter and overtime of Golden State's 105-101 win. Outdueling the Mavericks' O.J. Mayo all the way, Curry added six rebounds and nine assists.
4. Monday's Worst
Washington Wizards: Dropping to a franchise-worst 0-9 record gets Washington the nod here. The Wizards got down early -- 15 points after the first quarter -- and couldn't overcome the Pacers' duo of David West and Roy Hibbert, which combined for 50 points and 20 rebounds.
5. NBA Video Channel
6. Tweet Of The Night
7. Quote Of The Night
"I come in here every day, thinking this is the night. I feel good. ... I might be dumb."
--Wizards head coach Randy Wittman , on his team's 0-9 start to the season.
8. Early To Rise
9. Stat Check
Jamaal Tinsley handed out 11 assists in just over 21 minutes on the court of the Jazz's 102-91 home win over the Rockets. The last Utah player to record more than 10 assists while playing less than 25 minutes was John Stockton (12 in 22 minutes) on March 22, 2003.
10. Dunk Of The Night
Horford, Hawks Hang On
MVP: Al Horford. The Atlanta big man led all scorers with 15 points and also had nine boards and three dimes. With Andrew Bynum out for the time being, Horford could sneak into that third frontcourt spot on the East All-Star roster if he continues to play well.
LVP: The Orlando Magic. Am I allowed to put a whole team as the LVP? Glen Davis was the only player in double-figure scoring, and he only had 11 points on 13 shots. Orlando had 19 turnovers and was only in this game at the end because Atlanta had the absolute end of its rotation playing in the fourth quarter. Simply put, the Magic is a very, very bad basketball team.
That was ... putrid: This was a terrible game of basketball. With Orlando playing about as bad as it possibly could, Atlanta found a way for it to be close for a significant portion of the game. The NBA should just burn this tape and try to forget that this game took place.
School's In Sessions
MVP: Ramon Sessions had 23 points off the bench, including a 3-pointer to tie the score after the Bobcats had trailed by 11 points minutes earlier. Sessions was a perfect 10-for-10 from the free-throw line, including two crucial makes at the end to give Charlotte a two-possession lead.
X-Factor: The Bobcats turned the ball over more (17 giveaways to the Bucks' 14), but they scored 22 points off Milwaukee's turnovers, while the Bucks were only able to convert Charlotte's mistakes into 12 points.
Defining moment: A missed attempt on a contested 3-pointer with seconds remaining pretty much defined this game (and career) for Monta Ellis. He finished with 31 points, but they came on 28 shots, and a couple of late-game mistakes cost the Bucks in this one.
Winless In Washington
MVP: David West. Grown man takeover. On a night when most of the Pacers' perimeter players were doing their best to blow a 20-point lead, West decided he was not about to let that happen. Four of Indiana's last five field goals were mid-range jumpers from West as he scored 13 of his game-high 30 points in the fourth quarter.
X-Factor: Roy Hibbert. He had his breakout offensive performance (scoring 20 on just 10 shots) after 10 straight clunkers, but it was his defensive presence down low that left the Wizards completely lost on offense. He blocked four shots, altered many more and made several penetrators reconsider even entering the paint.
That was so ... surprisingly exciting: When the two worst offenses in the NBA match up, the expectations are for unwatchable basketball. We got plenty of that -- from both sides -- at times, but the Wizards' 18-2 run to close the third quarter made this a game worth watching late. West's heroics were the cherry on top of a less-than-horrible-game in the nation's capital.
Jazz Roll At Home
MVP: Gordon Hayward? In one of the stranger performances of the season, the Jazz dominated this game without any strong indivudual performances. Hayward gets the nod here, though, with a game-high +24 in just over 18 minutes of action. He was also super aggressive, scoring a team-high 15 points.
X-Factor: Tonight we got an extended look at what the Houston Rockets would be without James Harden, and in no known universe would it qualify as pretty. Harden played just 17 first half minutes because of flu-like symptoms. He scored six points and went 1-of-6 from the field. For the sake of Houston basketball, please get well soon, James.
That was ... just how they drew it up: Less than a minute into the game, Jazz forward Derrick Favors picked up his second foul, forcing Ty Corbin to replace him with Marvin Williams. By the end of the first quarter, Williams would have nine points on 2-of-2 shooting from beyond the arc. The rout was on.
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