Sorting out the Western Conference

5-on-5: Best team in the West? Most disappointing team? Dangerous dark horse?

Updated: January 5, 2012, 3:19 AM ET
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network

Kobe Bryant AP Photo/Chris SchneiderKobe Bryant's Lakers are already working up quite a sweat in the early going. Can they win the West?

The Lakers, Mavs, Grizzlies and new-look Clippers are struggling, the Thunder are feuding, and the Spurs are hurting.

What's up with the West's would-be contenders? Here are 25 takes:

1. Which is the best team in the Western Conference so far?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Oklahoma City, warts and all. A 35-foot buzzer-beater is the perfect spectacle to remind NBA fans why this game is so infectious, but the Thunder have to find easier ways to get Kevin Durant the ball in good spots. Meanwhile, the defense continues to struggle -- especially in pick-and-roll situations. All that said, the West is a collection of flawed teams, and the Thunder have the best chance to overcome their shortcomings.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: The OKC Thunder. They have defeated playoff teams from last season (the Magic, Grizzlies and Mavericks) and beat Phoenix and a solid Timberwolves team. Between the young legs and the talent on the roster, it would be awfully hard to pick another team.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Even after their struggles in Dallas on Monday night, I'd vote for the Thunder. The majority of the Western Conference hierarchy is in flux, but OKC's spot at the top isn't exactly in jeopardy; the Thunder have two true superstars, a deep roster of well-fitting parts, a prolific offense and a potentially dangerous defense. No team in the West is better poised for success this season, and that's as true today as it was on opening day.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Oklahoma City. Kids grow up so quickly these days. The 20-something core of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden is the best scoring trio in basketball. The team goes deeper than that with coach Scott Brooks boasting a strong nine-man rotation. Forget the overhyped Durant versus Westbrook feud, the pair is a far bigger threat to opponents than it is to each other.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: OKC is the class so far. I don't buy that it's "the best team for this schedule." I just think it's the best team. Serge Ibaka's evolution into a pick-and-pop threat bodes so well for this offense. Now if only Durant and Westbrook could halt the most repressed feud outside of British marriages.


2. Which is the most dangerous dark horse in the Western Conference?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: Portland. It delivered a stinker at the Clippers the other night, but there's a lot to like about the simple, refined game the Blazers run in the half court. Everyone on that team understands his role. LaMarcus Aldridge is mastering the art of finding his shot. Gerald Wallace and Nic Batum are cutting machines. And the team comes out with a workable defensive game plan every night.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: At some point the Clippers will solve their issues on defense and will execute better down the stretch of games on offense. Despite not being able to run a good offense late in games, they have been bailed out by Chris Paul twice. It's promising that he was able to win games for them without any semblance of offense.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The Trail Blazers. They are a fun, versatile squad with all kinds of intriguing lineup possibilities, and they finally have the defensive efficacy to match their typically efficient offense. The Blazers were considered a dangerous team coming into last season's playoffs, and with even more time to grow together, a fully integrated Gerald Wallace and the addition of Jamal Crawford, Portland will be even more formidable this time around.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: New Orleans. Look at the top five players on its roster. Eric Gordon has all the makings of the game's next great shooting guard. Jarrett Jack looks primed for a career year. Carl Landry and Trevor Ariza are the types of do-everything guys who can have just as big an impact on defense as they do on offense. And the duo of Emeka Okafor and Chris Kaman makes the Hornets deeper at the center position than just about any team in the West. If Monty Williams is as good a coach as we all think he is, the PCP Hornets (post-Chris Paul) will still have some sting.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Denver is my favorite League Pass team, an experience far more exhilarating than embryonic Lob City. Between Ty, Nene, Gallo and Andre, this is some "sum of the parts." Many people dismiss them on account of lacking a superstar, but many thought they'd be worse without Melo. Giddyup, Denver.


3. Which is the most disappointing team so far in the West?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: This is a Frankenstein team: The Mavericks' offense paired with the Clippers' defense. Both are nearly certain to improve -- and both are incorporating a bunch of new parts -- but so far it hasn't been pretty to watch. The good news? The Mavs made better reads on Monday night versus OKC, while the Clippers employed a coherent plan against Portland for three quarters on Sunday.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: The 2-4 Mavericks are as good an answer as any, but I'll take the underwhelming and dinged-up Grizzlies, who are fresh off a 40-point loss to the Bulls. Memphis has played a tough schedule to date and has been coping without Mike Conley and Darrell Arthur in the lineup, but I still expected better than the 29th-ranked offense and the 16th-ranked defense.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Memphis. The Grizzlies have stumbled out of the gate by starting 1-3 including in-conference losses to the Spurs and Thunder as well as suffering a 40-point drubbing by Chicago. Rudy Gay hasn't fit back in as seamlessly as hoped, averaging just 13.3 points on 35.4 percent shooting in the early going. There's been a drop-off since their surprise playoff run last spring, but it's too soon to say they won't be near the top of the West when it's all settled.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: This was supposed to be the season that the Memphis Grizzlies took a huge step forward much like OKC did last season. Many predicted they would be a top-four team out of the West but they have not looked like it so far. Granted it's still early, but the Grizzlies need to play better.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: The Mavericks are a functional disappointment while the Clippers are an aesthetic downer. I'll settle on that sneaky Memphis disappointment, though. Poor guys can't seem to prompt any handwringing despite an important injury, minus-9 point differential and lead-foot offense.


4. Do the Mavs and Lakers, with the last four WC titles, have a shot?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: You bet. Any team that can throw a lineup of Kidd-Terry-Marion-Dirk-Lamar during closing stretches puts itself in position to win a ton of games. And the Lakers still feature the best front line in the game. Early hiccups are just that -- anomalous, a little annoying, but entirely curable.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Both certainly have a chance, but Dallas and L.A. have a lot of work to do in every facet of the game before we consider their prospects with any seriousness. There are plenty of questions left for both teams to answer before the season is through, and an early, five-game sample hasn't shown either club in a very favorable light.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Yes. The 2-4 Mavs and 3-3 Lakers will be closer to the top of the West than they are to the bottom of it come playoff time and each will be a tough out in a seven-game series as long as they're healthy. Rudy Tomjanovich would be disgusted in the notion of counting them out just yet.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: Absolutely. The 2010 Celtics looked old for much of the 2009-10 season and were the trendy pick to get eliminated in the second round, yet managed to make the Finals. These veteran teams may have started out a little slow but they still possess the talent as well as the collective experience to win big games late.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: The Lakers do, the Mavs don't. Dallas lost its second-best player this offseason and replaced him with someone who plays the same position as the Mavs' best player. Also, they're just too old to repeat -- which is ironic because the old often repeat themselves.


5. Which team will win the West?



Kevin Arnovitz, ESPN.com: The Thunder are still the pick. In any recent season that wouldn't be the case, but there isn't a juggernaut in the conference this season. Barring injury or unlikely implosion, they're the deepest team with the most talented scorer.

Rob Mahoney, The Two Man Game: Oklahoma City. There's no need to overthink this. OKC is the best two-way club in the conference and should have most of the kinks worked out by regular season's end. The Western Conference playoffs should still be a fun ride, but the Thunder are the easy pick for the conference crown.

Dave McMenamin, ESPN Los Angeles: Oklahoma City. The Thunder have made strides in the last two postseasons, going from a first-round loss in a tough series against the eventual-champion Lakers to a conference finals loss to the eventual-champion Mavericks. This is the season they make the next step.

J.M. Poulard, Warriors World: They may not look like a Finals team right now, but the Lakers still have arguably the best Big Three in the West and their size still promises to be tough to deal with in May. If Mike Brown can get Kobe Bryant to accept running the offense through Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum and ride him late, watch out.

Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: I'm picking OKC, though my heart pumps powder blue blood every time I watch the Nuggs.