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Around the NBA: Who is gaining ground on the Warriors in the West?

This week, we look at the Western standings after 20+ games. Which teams are rising as challengers to the Warriors?

NBA: San Antonio Spurs at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

The NBA season is reaching its quarter mark — roughly 20 games for most teams. (Did you know the Cavs have played fewer games than any other team at this point?) We have said every week that the longer the season goes, the clearer it becomes which teams are pretenders and which teams are for real, and with our new sample size, we can start to see how the playoff races are starting to shake out.

Which teams have taken their stand?

There seems to be a clearer divide in the West when it comes to potential playoff teams, as two games separate the 8th-spot Blazers and the 9th-spot Lakers at this point. Out East, two games separate 6th-seed Chicago and the 11th-seed Magic. The West also holds five teams with better records than the 2nd seed in the East — the Raptors — with three teams holding higher places in the standings than the Cavs. The NBA seems to feature a common divide that we have seen in recent years — the East has more teams in contention but the overall quality of the Western conference seems to be higher from a records and statistics standpoint.

This week, we will look specifically at the Western Conference, where your Golden State Warriors have risen out of their early-season doubt to the top of the charts (and the top of the NBA). Who stands as the Warriors’ best competition? Which teams have dropped out of contention already? LET’S GO TO THE STANDINGS!

Western Conference Records (as of Dec. 9th, 2016)

1. Golden State Warriors (20-3)
The Warriors have obviously found their chemistry after their opening night loss to the Spurs (and embarrassment down in LA to the Lakers) on their way to a 12-game winning streak and the best record in the NBA. The loss to the Rockets at Oracle did more to give credit to Houston than it did to show weakness by the Warriors. But the current Golden State squad does show a bit more weakness than last year’s 73-win team. When they are on, they are unstoppable. So the question is: how many nights will they be on (and how many nights will Kerr rest starters as the season goes on)?

2. San Antonio Spurs (18-5)
I am not sure this Spurs’ team even knows who they are right now. That is hard to say for a team that has gone 18-5 to start the season, and just lost their first road game of the year to the Bulls in Chicago. San Antonio has already lost four games at home, after dominating teams down in Texas in 2015. Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich said it right after the game Thursday: this team has a tendency to coast through games. When they do, they can lose to the Magic at home while putting up only 83 points. But when they are on, they can blow out the Warriors in Oakland by 30. While I am not worried about a Pop-driven team, it’s time for them to shape up and embrace the learning experience.

3. Los Angeles Clippers (16-7)
Oh, Doc ... When Mo Speights criticizes you and your squad by pointing out what the rest of the league has been saying for years — that the Clippers complain too much — it’s time to take inventory. Los Angeles was streaking early to start the season because of a great bench. But as the season has advanced, they have shown no passion. Lucky for them, they head into a pretty easy stretch of games coming up (Pelicans, Blazers, @Magic, @Heat, @Wizards) that could serve well for righting the ship. But, note: they did lose to the Nets in Brooklyn. A Chris Paul-led team will never completely give up. But for a team needing focus while being labeled a big-game bust, this does not serve well. Could a trade be coming to mix up the roster?

4. Houston Rockets (15-7)
James Harden is good at basketball. His surrounding roster is better than it has been in years. That combination has made the Rockets serious contenders again. If they hit shots (which they need to do because they don’t play much defense), they can beat any team on a given night. But are they for real? Can they outscore an opponent for four out of seven games in a playoff series? For now, they are fun to watch and Harden’s MVP candidacy is real. If the Rockets end up in the top four seeds, it would be hard to give the award to anyone but Harden (even over Triple-Double Russ).

5. Memphis Grizzlies (16-8)
Speaking of MVP candidates, how is Marc Gasol not getting more consideration? He is single-handedly keeping Memphis relevant as his stars go down around him (poor Mike Conley). Surrounded by a rag-tag roster of role players and veterans (Vince Carter keeps getting those checks), Memphis keeps winning using their same formula as usual. Did you know Zach Randolph is a sixth man on this team? Kind of brilliant if you ask me to separate out the ball-dominant post players. Great call, new coach David Fizdale. The Grizz have won five in a row heading into the match-up with the Warriors Saturday night in Memphis. Note: Although these five games were not against a team in the top-four in their division, five wins in a row stands for itself.

6. Oklahoma City Russell Westbrooks (14-8)
Yeah, okay — Westbrook has been amazing. He is making his surrounding squad even better with his passing and play-making. Friend of the Bay Anthony Morrow is playing significant minutes, and the Thunder might have a functional star in Victor Oladipo. What worries me about the Thunder is that if Russell misses ANY time, this team is done. He literally must play at a historical pace to keep this team fighting for the playoffs. Not many of the top teams we have seen so far say the same thing. The Grizz are already losing big stars but they are still winning, Houston could possibly outscore you without Harden, and the Clippers still feature their own Big Three. The Thunder are Westbrook ... and some guys who play well while watching Westbrook go. They have won six in a row, but will soon face some tough competition with the Rockets coming to town followed by the healthy Celtics.

7. Utah Jazz (14-10)
The popular thing to say with the Jazz is: Wait until they are healthy. The question is — will they ever be fully healthy? Derrick Favors is dealing with a knee injury that could hamper him all season. Gordon Haywood is a shooter with a broken finger. George Hill has had issues staying healthy in his career. I’d love to see the Jazz at full strength, but maybe fate never aligns for this roster. Either way, even with just Rudy Gobert coming into his prime, this team will still be a playoff team, and a huge challenge for a top Western Conference seed. Maybe we see Clippers-Jazz first round? That would be fantastic.

8. Portland Trail Blazers (12-12)
What is wrong with Portland? Playoff darlings last year (honestly, I feared them) have turned a bit lame to start the season. They got healthier with Meyers Leonard returning but have somehow have become worse. They have lost two in a row, and have not dominated teams at home like they did last year. They seem to beat the teams they should beat, but have struggled to get past the NBA elite so far this season. They are giving up way too many points (111.5 PPG, 28th in the league) and have the worse Defensive Rating out of all 30 teams. Where do they go from here? Will they be on the short list of squads looking to turn their pieces into a superstar? How about Portland and Sacramento hook up for a Boogie trade? I’d go for something — anything — to shake up this squad into more wins. You can’t be mediocre in the West, and Portland is stuck in neutral.

The rest of the pack
The 10-14 Lakers’ revival was shorted by injuries. But their talent might put them back in the race when their stars return. Sacramento and Denver both have moments, but both lack consistency to be in serious consideration. The Pelicans are fun and they are better with Jrue Holiday on the floor. But they still have a lot of ground to make up. And Minnesota is a pile of good intentions with bad results.

Who is out?
Poor Mavericks ... Harrison Barnes should be given due credit for coming into his own over in Dallas as a scorer. When Wes Matthews makes shots and Deron Williams makes crossovers, you are reminded of this team’s potential. But then you see the injury report: Andrew Bogut making his yearly DL stint, Dirk Nowitzki can’t get on the floor ... Team owner Mark Cuban thinks this team shouldn’t tank, and he is right — because his team is already tanking by default.

Final thoughts

The Warriors will be paced all season by the Spurs, just like in 2015. But, this time, the top four teams behind Golden State will all be a bit more mediocre.

The Warriors only need to look in the mirror to see the best example for not burning yourself out during the regular season only to fizzle when it counts. This is a marathon, not a sprint, and even Steve Kerr should consider that while on these long road trips. Other teams are resting their stars already, and Kerr should consider doing the same — especially guys like Draymond Green who keep rolling ankles.

Traditionally, the standings after a quarter of the year match closely to the end-of-season results. If the year ended now, the teams would be right where we would have expected them to be when the year started.

It should be interesting to see if any teams buck expectations and make the leap in the coming weeks.

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