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10 Questions For The Western Conference Playoff Contenders

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The Blazers tonight play host to the Memphis Grizzlies in a matchup of two of the Western Conference's best teams. With that in mind, let's look at the state of the West a month into the season.

Two West titans go head to head.
Two West titans go head to head.
Craig Mitchelldyer-USA TODAY Sports

When we began the 2014-15 NBA season only a month ago (side note - doesn't it feel like longer?), conventional wisdom held that the Western Conference playoff contenders could be divided into two distinct tiers. San Antonio, Oklahoma City and the L.A. Clippers were decidedly the West's three best teams in some order, and everyone else was fighting for fourth place in the preseason rankings.

The Spurs were the defending champs; the Thunder were coming off of four straight deep playoff runs. The Clips had been steadily improving throughout Chris Paul and Blake Griffin's three seasons together. No one else had the proven track record to argue for a spot in the top three. Everyone else - most notably Memphis, Golden State, Houston and your Portland Trail Blazers - was relegated to their own caste of West also-rans.

Fast forward a month, and you'll find that the two tiers do indeed exist, only one thing - they've been flip-flopped. The also-rans are now the elites. The aforementioned group of the Grizzlies, Warriors, Rockets and Blazers are dominating the West, while the three former titans are chasing from behind. The Spurs are in fifth place, the Clippers are seventh and OKC is looking dreadful with its Kevin Durant/Russell Westbrook duo injured.

What's going on here?

One injury or one hot streak can change matters quite a bit over the course of one month, but what we're looking at here appears bigger than that. It's a wholesale changing of the guard, with an entire group of four teams leapfrogging three elite franchises. Obviously the OKC injured list explains matters partly, but there's more meat on that bone beyond the Thunder's November swoon.

The Blazers play host to the Grizzlies tonight, and depending on how much you trust the Warriors' health, you could argue that this is a showdown of the West's two strongest contenders. So there's no better time than the present to delve into the state of the West. Let's explore the conference, team by team, and try to get a handle on what's caused the dramatic shakeup in the standings this November. Without further ado, your 10 questions for the Western Conference:

1. Can the Grizzlies keep it up against a tougher schedule?
Right now Memphis is 13-2, tied with Toronto for the best record in the NBA, and looks just about unstoppable. Marc Gasol is spearheading the effort on both ends - he's the anchor of a Grizzlies team that's top-five in the league in defensive efficiency, and his dynamic passing game has fueled the offense all the while. The Griz are great.

At the same time, you wonder about their competition. Those first 13 wins this year were against a slate that included Minnesota, Indiana, OKC, Boston and the Lakers. This next month will be far tougher, starting with a brutal three-game road swing right now against the Blazers, Kings and Rockets. According to Basketball Reference's strength of schedule index, Memphis' season has been the 13th hardest out of the 15 teams in the West. Will they still be No. 1 in the conference when the going gets tougher?

2. Can the Warriors' defense remain this good?
Golden State is currently the best defensive team in the NBA. At 97.7 points allowed per 100 possessions this season, the Dubs are looking tough to beat. Their dominance also appears fairly precarious, though. It's predicated on one guy - Andrew Bogut - with a history of ankle and foot injuries that's left him unable to make it through a full 82 games since 2005-06, his rookie season. The Warriors are dominant right now, but what happens if another Bogut injury strikes? Can a big man rotation of Festus Ezeli, David Lee and Draymond Green hold down the fort?

The perimeter defensive effort is also highly dependent on Andre Iguodala. Another iffy situation where all of Steve Kerr's eggs are in one basket.

3. Have the Blazers built themselves a real rotation?
The knock against Portland going into this season was fairly simple - they had five solid guys, but they needed extraordinarily good injury luck to keep the quintet together, and their bench depth was nil. Now, that might not be the case. Chris Kaman has proven to be an extremely productive first big man off the bench, at least offensively, and Steve Blake is a capable ball-handler to spell Damian Lillard. Allen Crabbe has been an impressive wing guy in the brief absence of Nicolas Batum.

If the Blazers tap into another level of depth that they didn't have last season, that's going to make them even scarier than they were already. Look out.

4. Can the Rockets get it together offensively?
Here's an alarming stat for you - Houston was fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency last season. This year, it's 22nd. What's going on there?

Part of it is the team's depleted personnel from last year - not having Chandler Parsons or Jeremy Lin around is obviously a significant blow offensively. But that's not all. The Rockets are also getting far less production out of their stars - Dwight Howard is battling knee injuries and unable to give them anything right now, and James Harden is in a titanic slump. His effective field goal percentage is at a career low mark by far, 45.6 percent, as he's suffering from just about every spot on the floor.

It's tough to diagnose what exactly is going on with the Rockets offensively. But against this fiercely competitive West, they had better figure it out, and fast.

5. Are the Spurs just messing with us?
The Spurs are so good that even when they're dominant - which they are so far this season, at 10-4 - I have a sneaking suspicion that they're sandbagging us and could be performing even better. None of their four losses are bad ones. One was to the Rockets in a national TV game when they rested Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili, as the Spurs are wont to do; the other three were against potential West playoff teams and came by 5, 1 and 3 points. It's ridiculous how close the Spurs are to 14-0.

We could spend months this season speculating about whether the Spurs have lost a step - and if four West teams continue to lord over them in the standings, we just might. But at this point, it's really, really, really hard to doubt a team that's got Duncan and Gregg Popovich. The Spurs will be fine.

6. Can the Mavericks fully integrate their new guys?
The Mavs had high hopes for this season given their summer acquisitions of Parsons and Tyson Chandler. So far, though, the new guys haven't exactly taken Dallas to the next level. Parsons is putting up his typical 14 points a game, but he needs 12 shots to do it. He's shooting 40.8 percent from the field and 31.9 percent from deep. As for Chandler, he was expected to turn the Mavs into an elite defensive team overnight, just as he did in his last stint in Dallas. So far, he's been good but not great, and the Mavs remain an average defensive team. As of this writing, they're 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions.

It's never easy to work multiple major guys into the fold right away, and even the most talented teams need to take their time with it (see: Cleveland Cavaliers). The Mavs might be scary good come March, but right now there are plenty of question marks.

7. Can the Clippers figure out their issues?
The Clips are still respectable at 9-5, but Doc Rivers seems unable to find a rotation that he's satisfied with. He began the season with Matt Barnes starting at the three; then it became worrisome that Barnes couldn't shoot the broad side of a barn. Barnes went from starting, to DNP, to out with an apparent calf strain. Rivers doesn't know whether to start Barnes or Jamal Crawford or Reggie Bullock. He can't decide whether to play Hedo Turkoglu 2 minutes or 20.

Rivers' team has a supremely talented three-man nucleus with Paul, Griffin and DeAndre Jordan. But whether a deep playoff run awaits may depend on whether the rest of the rotation can work out the kinks. The jury's still out.

8. Can the Thunder recover in time for a playoff run?
OKC's struggling at 4-12 right now with both of its stars on the injured list, and that puts them in a deep hole against a competitive conference slate. But there's little doubt in my mind that once Westbrook or Durant returns, the Thunder will recover quick. I've harped on this stat before, but it bears repeating: OKC was 34-12 with Westbrook in the lineup last season and 25-11 without him, meaning they played .694 ball even without an All-Star point guard. All they need is to get Durant back, and they'll be on their way.

OKC is 4-12. Phoenix is eighth in the West at 10-6. Do you think the Thunder can make up a six-game deficit with 66 games still to play? When you put it that way, it doesn't sound far-fetched in the slightest. You'd be a fool to count OKC out.

9. Which fringe playoff team is for real?
Phoenix. Sacramento. New Orleans. All have winning records right now, and all are young teams that would love to secure a playoff berth this season and prove they're here to stay. Imagine Eric Bledsoe, DeMarcus Cousins or Anthony Davis with a year of playoff experience under his belt.

Sadly, I think it's unrealistic to expect more than one of these three squads to be playing in late April. All eight teams mentioned above - yes, even the 4-12 Thunder - have a very strong chance of making the playoffs. It's going to take a serious prolonged run to break into the West's top eight. If you ask me, I'm picking the Suns to have the best shot out of the three, since they're balanced and deep and have come close before. But all three teams have the potential for a "fun first five months, melt down in April" type of season. Don't say I didn't warn you.

10. Which deadline seller shakes things up?
At the bottom of the West standings, you've got a few teams that aren't likely to be playoff bound, and they may decide in February to be sellers at the trade deadline and start casting away key pieces. As in, veteran guys who can be a real help to a playoff team. Specifically, I'm looking at Denver, Minnesota and the Lakers.

The West playoff race is already thrilling enough. But imagine if a key player from a West seller joins a contender and makes them even better. Picture the Rockets with Ty Lawson, the Suns with Kenneth Faried or the Thunder with Kevin Martin (again). Not that any of these scenarios is likely, but the mere fact that they're possible means the West playoff race this season is only going to get more dynamic with time.

We're blessed as Western Conference basketball fans. So, so many teams right now are disgustingly good, and even the ones who aren't have something to offer in the way of drama and intrigue this season. The Blazers, to their credit, are right in the thick of it, and games like tonight's offer a priceless glimpse at how the team looks right now against another one of the conference's elites. Let's savor this.