Westworld #1: Spurs lead pack of early West contenders

Despite some struggles, the Spurs lead a competitive Western Conference. - Anthony Gruppuso-USA TODAY Sport

In this semi-regular look at the Western Conference, we check in with five teams that are separating themselves from the pack as legitimate title contenders.

Today marks the first installment in a regular roundup of Western Conference contenders. I'll be using this space throughout the season to look at teams out West that are maintaining realistic championship aspirations. I'll be taking a look at key struggles or new developments that impact the development of these contenders as the season moves to its chaotic end. (Stats via Basketball-Reference.com and NBA.com/stats.)Westworld_logo
It's early. Let's get that out of the way up front.

With just a handful of games crossed off of each team's schedule, this NBA season is still in its infancy. But for fans that have waited months to see their teams in action, it's difficult to look at what's happened without excitedly pulling out a jump-to-conclusions mat.

As we acknowledge this strong temptation to make bold statements from tiny sample sizes, I will cautiously proceed, taking what we've seen and using it to identify some burgeoning storylines for each of the teams under review in this space.

Each team here has a realistic shot at making a late season title push. Some teams, you'll notice, are riding waves from last season, and some will need to make big strides now to stay on this list. As teams evolve and adapt as the calendar changes, this space will reflect the shifting power structure of the Western Conference.

San Antonio Spurs [7-1]

Offensive Rating: 105.5 (8th in the NBA)
Defensive Rating: 96.1 (2nd in the NBA)

I highlighted some reasons to be optimistic about the Spurs' chances in my season preview a few weeks ago. With the same core that finished last year with a 7th ranked offense and a 3rd ranked defense, the Spurs are looking to maintain the kind of success that put them - *excuses self from room... comes back hours later* - mere seconds from a fifth title.

The biggest obstacle to the Spurs' ability to pick up where they left off has been on the offensive end, as the defense has kept to last year's standard, even with a significant league-wide pace increase. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, and (until recently) Danny Green all struggled a bit out of the gate with finding their shots, but each has started to show signs of recovery. That trend will need to continue if the typical Splitter/ Duncan/ Leonard/ Green/ Parker starting lineup hopes to improve on its net rating (the difference between offensive and defensive ratings), which is currently a -2.0.

In the mean time, a suddenly trigger-happy Boris Diaw has found himself in and out of the starting lineup to kick-start the team's offense. For the most part, this has been a boost to the team, but I don't see it as a long-term development. The starting five will need Splitter's defense once the playoff matchups are cemented, and although Diaw's launching field goals at near career-high levels, there's no telling if he decides to holster his guns.

So even though the Spurs should be thanking Diaw for his newfound aggressiveness, they shouldn't be depending on it. The offense will have to improve from within as players work through slumps and fit expanded roles in the offense. And with Patty Mills and Marco Belinelli taking the Cory Joseph and Gary Neal minutes from last season, the offense figures to continue improving. The next three games - against the Wizards, Jazz, and Celtics - should only accelerate the process.

The Spurs are still an injury to the Big Three (Parker, Duncan, and Kawhi or Ginobili, depending on who you ask) away from a lost season, but for now, the pieces are in place to compete at last year's level. If the defense can hold as the offense improves, the team will be in contention once again come playoffs.

Golden State Warriors [5-3]

Offensive Rating: 104.8 (10th)
Defensive Rating: 96.9 (3rd)

If last year's playoffs were your introduction to this incarnation of the Warriors, you'd be forgiven for thinking that the team ranked among the league's best offenses. While they did score a lot of points, they were hardly efficient in the process. Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson are, of course, always clad in gasoline-soaked uniforms, capable of igniting at a moment's notice. But behind them was a team that struggled to foster their scoring outbreaks and defend well enough to let those outbreaks put away games.

Though the sample size here is infinitesimally small, we're seeing some interesting changes for this Warriors team. The biggest change should be obvious. With a healthy (well, sort of) Andrew Bogut and the addition of Andre Iguodala, the Warriors have become one of the best defensive teams in the league. That's pretty amazing when you consider that last year they finished with a defensive rating of 105.5, 14th in the league.

At the moment their offense is still struggling to maintain a level of efficiency worthy of championship aspirations. Part of that - again, as you'd expect - has to do with health. (Curry didn't play in Friday's game against San Antonio -- but to be fair, Matt Bonner didn't either. Draw?) The offense has slowed down a bit as the team's focus adapts to a new identity. But there's nothing we've seen now that would indicate things won't turn around on that end. Harrison Barnes' return from injury will likely provide an additional boost.

Right now, the Warriors best and most utilized lineup - Bogut/ Lee/ Iguodala/ Thompson/ Curry - boasts a stellar 24.7 net rating, which would indicate that this is a team to fear as the playoffs approach.

Los Angeles Clippers [5-3]

Defensive Rating: 108.9 (29th)
Offensive Rating: 112.5 (3rd)

When Doc Rivers was brought in to coach the Los Angeles Clippers, most of us assumed two things: the Clippers will win a ton of regular season games, and they will learn how to play defense. Right now, it's clear that while the first prediction still carries a degree of plausibility, our visions of a Thibodeau-styled Clippers defense were awfully (and hilariously) misguided.

The Clippers are the only team in the Western Conference maintaining a Top-5 offense and a Bottom-5 defense. In retrospect, this shouldn't be too surprising. Doc Rivers' Celtics teams defended at an elite level in part because he puts such a big emphasis on making stops, but those teams also had the talent to defend with speed, tenacity, and intelligence. It's easy to inflate a coach's importance in establishing a great defense.

Our infatuation with the Clippers this season centered on the change at the top, but few people considered the ramifications of the changes on the periphery. Shockingly, under a coach widely known for his emphasis on defensive effort, the Clippers' defensive rating has dropped to 29th in the NBA. Last year, they finished 4th in the league. That's a massive change.

There's no denying the offense has improved significantly. Doc Rivers brings a level of imagination and directorial prowess to the Clippers that Vinny Del Negro couldn't match in his dream journal. But Rivers can't do much to change his personnel. Jared Dudley and JJ Reddick try hard, but there's nobody left on this team to hound a point guard the way Eric Bledsoe did. Heck, right now this defense misses Caron Butler. It's that bad.

As the season continues, so will the scoring explosions of this Clippers team, but don't be surprised when the playoffs come around and this team struggles to get stops.

Oklahoma City Thunder [5-1]

Offensive Rating: 104.3 (11th)
Defensive Rating: 101.7 (8th)

Of all the teams on this list, the Thunder are the hardest to read. A team that features Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook is capable of competing with any team in the league. But beyond its two stars, the Thunder find themselves facing some interesting questions.

In one of the season's earliest surprises, Westbrook returned from his injury last season, and though his explosive athleticism returned with him, his shot has not. This trend is unlikely to continue all season, but while it does, the Thunder find themselves in a curious position, manning a middle-of-the-pack offense.

Yes, it's early. Like very, very early, but as long as Westbrook keeps missing shots and Kevin Martin keeps shooting in a Timberwolves jersey, the court around the Thunder basket will continue to feel suffocatingly small. The Thunder are 28th in the league in three-point percentage, which would imply that, while many of Martin's points last season came in "garbage time," his presence on the court was valuable to the team. Martin's spacing forced defenders to be honest, and right now, his replacement(s) aren't drawing the same respect. With Westbrook struggling and Martin gone, opponents aren't fearing the Thunder the way they did last year. (The Wizards, for example, were carving up the Thunder Sunday night, at least until they Wizarded all over the place.)

The Thunder seem to surprise us every year. Right now though, the biggest surprise is that they are not a great basketball team. I'd be shocked if it stayed that way for long.

Houston Rockets [5-3]

Offensive Rating: 106.2 (7th)
Defensive Rating: 103.7 (13th)

It's easy to poke fun at James Harden's hilarious lack of effort on defense, but in some ways, the increasingly familiar image of him getting lost on the perimeter is a good representation of the Rockets defense.

Stop me if this scenario sounds familiar. Dwight Howard was brought in to revamp his new team's defense, under the assumption that his presence and shot-blocking acumen could take a middle-of-the-pack defense into a top-10 position. Last year, the Rockets finished the season with a 106.1 Defensive Rating, "good" enough for 16th in the league. They surrendered an abysmal 102.5 points per game and had to rely every night on their scorching offense (106 points per game, 2nd in the league), operating at the league's quickest pace.

This season, the Rockets' Defensive Rating is 103.7, good for 13th in the league. This is difficult to imagine, given that Howard has looked much better this season than he did last year in Los Angeles. But the problem, as we're seeing, isn't that the defense is porous in the middle. The Rockets defend the paint as good as any of the best teams in the West. The problem is that the defense is absolutely awful on the wings.

As you can imagine this causes a lot of problems. The Rockets' most used lineup, featuring two centers down low in Omer Asik and Howard, is currently maintaining a negative net rating (-11.6).  For comparison's sake, that's the worst net rating of the main lineups of the other four teams on this list. The defense isn't totally to blame, though. This Howard/ Asik/ Parsons/ Harden/ Lin lineup is also having trouble scoring. And to make matters worse, they can't seem to hold on to the ball when they're trying to score, posting a 27.3 turnover ratio. Yeesh.

I suppose some of this can be chalked up to growing pains and, to be fair, the Rockets have had a tough schedule. But what we've been seeing from this team has less to do with fatigue and more to do with effort and cohesion. Sure, Harden is a sieve, but the Rockets' problems are legion. If this team wants to contend by season's end, they have a lot of work to do.

TEAMS TO WATCH: Minnesota Timberwolves [5-3], Phoenix Suns (seriously) [5-2]

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