What is it exactly that has made the Los Angeles Lakers, Oklahoma City Thunder and San Antonio Spurs into perennial contenders in the Western Conference?
Star power, deep benches and seasoned coaches have all been primary factors that have made these clubs competitive over the years, and they will undoubtedly have them staring at prime playoff position once again this spring.
However, the days of the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs all chumming around in their clubhouse of Western Conference elites appear to be numbered.
While the Thunder's championship window is far bigger than that of the Lakers and Spurs, new contenders have proven their legitimacy early on this season.
The first foe looking to infiltrate the Western Conference club of exclusivity is the Memphis Grizzlies, whose early-season performance has been nothing short of spectacular.
Convincing victories over the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder and New York Knicks have been impressive resumé builders, propelling them into the elite conversation in the West with a record of 8-2.
Memphis has found a formula that works, with Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol holding down the fort on the interior while Rudy Gay has shined out on the perimeter to the tune of 19.8 points per game.
Gasol has emerged as a perfect offensive centerpiece, as he can adapt his game to both the high and low post. In addition to his expansive shooting range, Gasol's passing ability has evolved to the point where defenses must respect not only his shot, but his court vision.
Mike Conley may bring the ball up the floor, but Gasol is the player who keeps the offense flowing at the appropriate pace. As long as the Spanish big man is on the floor, the ball will move through him as he situates himself in the middle of the league's most fundamentally sound offense.
The Grizz proved their legitimacy in 2011 with a dramatic playoff series victory over the Spurs before losing a hard-fought seven-game series to the Thunder the following round. All elite contenders should be put on notice.
Should Lionel Hollins' bunch continue to keep their aggressive style of play alive throughout the season, they will be a difficult draw come playoff time.
Los Angeles Clippers
One of the Grizzlies' few losses this season came at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers, the squad who's making the battle for superiority in Tinseltown a legitimate one.
There's a general reluctance to credit head coach Vinny Del Negro for the Clippers' recent success, but he has done a good job with a stable of veteran bench players who have looked particularly strong up to this point.
While the Lakers struggle with depth at several key positions, the Clippers have plenty to go around at all five spots. Eric Bledsoe and Jamal Crawford have given the Clippers an added dimension on offense, as Crawford currently leads the team in scoring with 20.7 points per game.
Bledsoe's stingy defense has helped give the Clippers' second unit a spark, and his play has really set the tone thus far.
The Lob City trio of Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan have all been their usual selves, although Jordan has looked particularly good in the early going. The knock on Jordan in the past has been that his offensive repertoire was too limited, but his play so far has indicated an improved range of post moves.
According to NBA.com, Jordan is converting on 72 percent of his shots in the restricted area and 60 percent on shots in the paint. Jordan's jump-hook has looked clean, and his assertive nature on the offensive end has been a welcome sight for the Clippers.
Aside from the Clippers and Grizzlies, there were considerable arguments made in the preseason for the Denver Nuggets as the biggest threat to the Lakers, Thunder and Spurs.
What makes the Nuggets so intriguing is that they're comprised of several top-tier role players (Andre Iguodala, Danilo Gallinari, Kenneth Faried, JaVale McGee), yet they have not played with the polish many expected they would.
A big reason for the Nuggets' early-season ineffectiveness may have to do with the play of point guard Ty Lawson, who has struggled mightily to find his shooting stroke. Converting on just 38.3 percent of his field-goal attempts (24 percent from three), Lawson has not looked at all comfortable since signing a lucrative contract extension.
Currently ranking 12th in the NBA in points scored (98.6), the Nuggets have not been able to get out and run as much as they would have preferred. Once Lawson finds a groove, the Nuggets will soar.
There could be an argument made for the Minnesota Timberwolves as the next team up in the Western Conference behind the Nuggets, but we simply won't have a good idea of where they are as a complete unit until they get both Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio back healthy.
The T'Wolves early-season performances have been encouraging, but they have a litany of injuries (Chase Budinger, Brandon Roy, J.J. Barea and Nikola Pekovic) that make them a risk to fall off in the coming weeks.
Perhaps a more interesting squad to dissect would be the Dallas Mavericks, who nobody seemed to pinpoint as a possible sleeper in the West during the preseason.
The Mavs currently rank sixth in the NBA in points per game (100.7), as newcomers Darren Collison and O.J. Mayo have been integral parts of Rick Carlisle's offense.
Mayo's scoring abilities were never questioned in Memphis, but his role off of the bench curbed his effectiveness to some degree. Now slotted in as the starting 2-guard for Dallas, Mayo has been lights out, averaging 21.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting.
With the freedom to operate, Mayo's numbers have spiked, and his efficiency has as well. In three seasons in Memphis, Mayo's PER never topped 15, but it is currently over 20 (20.18) through 11 games.
Dallas' offense has flourished with new faces playing in expanded roles, but their defense has not been up to par. Unfortunately, most of what Mayo and Collison have to offer on the offensive end is negated by their performance on the defensive end, as Dallas is giving up a shade under 100 points per game (99.3) through 11 games.
Carlisle certainly has some adjustments to make, but his underrated Dallas team is trending in the right direction. The Mavs are sitting in a tier below the Grizzlies and Clippers, but they should not be taken lightly.
Note: Stats used in this article are accurate as of Monday, November 19th.
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