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NBA Title Contenders: Ranking the Warriors' challengers in the Western Conference

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We take a look at the rest of the best teams in the western conference, because I think we know who number one is...

Jennifer Stewart-USA TODAY Sports

Since the Warriors will likely enjoy the top spot in power rankings around the league for the foreseeable future, we fans can relax a bit, and take a look at the competition. Today, let's put a new twist on a classic Power Ranking formula: let's look at the left-coast challengers most likely to give these Warriors trouble.

In a recurring series, we'll look outside of Golden State to find the teams fans should be keeping in back-of-mind.


Top Challenger: San Antonio Spurs

Record: 10-3

SRS: 6.78 (2nd)

Key Stat: 91.5 points allowed per game (best in the NBA)

Trending: Steady

There was some reason to be skeptical of the Aldridge-Duncan-Leonard lineup in preseason. In today's NBA, it's tough to create a workable lineup with three guys who can't shoot threes. But just because San Antonio had to adjust doesn't mean they got worse. In fact, their defense is better than ever. The Spurs may not look like the free-wheeling, high scoring 2014 Spurs again (that's the good news!), but they may just go back to looking like the 1999 twin towers Spurs team instead (and that's the bad news!).

Styles make fights, as they say, and the Spurs' rapid conversion from Warrior-ball to Grizzlies-mud wrestling could make their match-up with the Dubs more unpredictable than ever. The Spurs are no longer equipped to outscore an elite team in a shootout, and their reliance on big men should make them susceptible to the Warriors long range, quick-passing attack. So then why are the Spurs holding opponents to .328 from three point range? This may be a small sample size quirk. For example, the Spurs have allowed the second fewest three point attempts in the league (which itself owes to their slow pace). Additionally, Spurs' opponents are shooting just .339 on corner treys, against a league average of .372 from either hot corner. The Warriors, for comparison, see opponents shooting .429 from the corner.

Still, the Warriors can score points in the paint, and the Spurs defense, which is second in 2-point field goal percentage defense, should give them problems. Add to that a couple of very good, long wing defenders, and the Spurs have some pieces to give the Warriors a lot of trouble. Despite their age, they easily qualify as the Warriors' top challenger in the west, and they're arguably the Dubs' biggest obstacle in the entire NBA.


Next Challenger: Oklahoma City Thunder

Record: 7-6

SRS: 3.81 (9th)

Key Stat: 30% of three pointers attempted from the corner (3rd highest in the NBA)

Trending: Dropping by the day

The Thunder have lost three of four, with the lone win coming against the 1-11 New Orleans Pelicans. What's worse is that they allowed the New York Knicks to beat them in Oklahoma. And up next, the team has a back-to-back with the surprisingly impressive Dallas Mavericks and a very good Utah Jazz team. This pre-season contender could easily find itself below .500 fifteen games into the season.

So why are they second in our rankings? Because the west is that disappointing right now.

The Thunder are a great offensive team (second to the Warriors in efficiency) that fuels itself with offensive rebounding (they're the best in the league, grabbing north of 32% of available rebounds on offense). Unfortunately, they don't have the same success on the defensive end, and the problem is largely due to personnel. They just don't have many good defenders on the roster, and as a result, they're 24th against the three pointer by percentage, and they're 29th in the percentage of shots allowed in the restricted area.

In fairness to the Thunder, they've missed Kevin Durant for five games already this season. However, the team is just 5-3 with him in the lineup - a 62.5% win percentage. That's good, but only 51-wins good...hardly the mark of a great team. And certainly not a team that should expect to contend for a Championship.

Short of a significant trade, it's tough to expect this Thunder team to get too much better. But they have surrounded rookie head coach Billy Donovan with an impressive staff (featuring Monty Williams and Maurice Cheeks). And they do feature two all-world talents in Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, either of whom can take a game over. Still, there is nothing in their play to suggest that they're a serious contender one month into the season. Right now, they're a second (or first) round speed bump for the Warriors or Spurs, the only two western conference teams who look like true contenders in the early going.


Next Challenger: Phoenix Suns

Record: 7-5

SRS: 3.98 (7th)

Key Stat: One of just three teams (Spurs, Warriors) to rank top-10 in offensive and defensive efficiency

Trending: Rising Fast

This spot was originally earmarked for the Los Angeles Clippers, who have since lost three straight to fall to 6-6. Regardless of what the pundits will tell you, the west has not been very good this season. Teams like Utah and Phoenix are outplaying so-called contenders badly, and even they're essentially .500 teams. The west has exactly one overachiever, by won-loss record: the 9-4 Dallas Mavericks. But their success is betrayed by their advanced metrics, which strongly indicate that they're a mediocre team.

The Suns, however, have quietly put together a resume that is impressive by anyone's standards -- especially considering their expectations. They have yet to lose to a bad team, and they have a fringe MVP candidate (it may be unrealistic to expect him to get the recognition he deserves, but Eric Bledsoe is that good on both ends of the floor). The Tyson Chandler acquisition hasn't really paid dividends, but Alex Len has been just fine in relief (and as soon as the Suns staff realizes that, the team might get even better).

It's scary to definitively proclaim that the Suns are for real so early into the season. But this isn't a postseason prediction guide -- it's an in-the-moment power ranking. And right now, the Suns are playing very good basketball. The fact is the Suns can sic a terrific defender on Stephen Curry (Bledsoe), they can match the Warriors' pace (2nd with more than 100 possessions per game), and they're fourth in the NBA in three point shooting (at a mighty 38.6%). Today, the question isn't whether or not the Suns deserve to be listed, but rather, if we have them listed too low.


Next three out: Utah Jazz, Los Angeles Clippers, Dallas Mavericks