Updated: November 20, 2012, 12:27 PM ET

1. Best Team In The West? Take Your Pick

By Justin Verrier
ESPN.com

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.

1. Los Angeles Clippers


Record: 8-2

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.


2. Memphis Grizzlies


Record: 8-2

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.

Dwight Howard's goofy grin juxtaposed with Zach Randolph's snarl would at least make for a perfect fight poster in a potential title bout.

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.


3. Los Angeles Lakers


Record: 5-5

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.


4. San Antonio Spurs


Record: 8-3

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.


5. Oklahoma City Thunder


Record: 8-3

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.


Best of the rest: 6. Minnesota Timberwolves, 7. Dallas Mavericks, 8. Denver Nuggets.

Justin Verrier is an NBA editor for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter, @JustinVerrier.

Dimes past: Nov. 1 | 2-3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9-10 | 11 | 12 | 13 | 14 | 15 | 16-17 | 18

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