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Early NBA Championship Contenders: Stacked Out West

Written by Tom Mullins, TRST NBA columnist. Follow him on Twitter @tomullins

Now that we’ve seen plenty of basketball this season, teams can be separated more easily, the good from the bad, and then there’s the Wizards.

While it’s slim pickings in the Eastern Conference, out West there are several championship contenders. As usual the Spurs and Thunder are the teams to beat, with the Clippers and Grizzlies close behind. As we all know the Lakers are struggling early, and young teams such as Golden State can seize the opportunity.

Other than Miami and New York, yes that’s right, the Knicks are a championship caliber team, the Eastern Conference lacks the ‘elite’ teams. Atlanta and Chicago have played well to date without a true star, while Boston, Brooklyn and Indiana are barely over .500.

Right now you can’t look past Oklahoma City, despite their loss to the Timberwolves last night. Durant’s continuing his brilliant play from last season, looking like a serious MVP candidate. Russell Westbrook has kept improving, now distributing the ball better to his teammates. Losing Harden hasn’t impacted the Thunder, with Kevin Martin fitting in perfectly to the offense and giving them a dangerous weapon from beyond the arc. Serge Ibaka is playing like a borderline All-Star, making consistent mid-range baskets, it almost seems unfair. OKC will probably finish with the top seed in the West, and don’t be surprised if they’re in the Finals for a second consecutive year.

Defending champions the Miami Heat haven’t looked quite as good just yet, especially defensively, though they are still playing at a level greater than most other teams around the league. LeBron James is unstoppable as usual and Chris Bosh is playing efficiently on offense, however Dwyane Wade needs to recover from a slow start in order for this Miami team to be successful down the track.¬†They should be able to escape the East for the third season in a row and defend their title, though the Knicks could challenge them in the playoffs.

Who would have thought the Knicks would be on top of the East only days away from Christmas? Carmelo Anthony has led this new look outfit to the second best record in the league. If their threes keep falling and Amar’e Stoudemire can play effectively with Melo, this New York team could be very dangerous.

Tim Duncan has turned back the clock so far this season and is playing at an extremely high level. The Spurs have cooled down a bit recently, but are still an elite team with guards such as Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, along with a solid bench. They’re not going to let young teams such as the Thunder, Clippers and Grizzlies take over the West without a fight.

The Clippers are the best team in LA right now, thanks to the best point guard in the league, Chris Paul. It’s scary to think how good they could be, as they’re arguably the deepest team in the league with role players still on the sideline (Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups). Expect a deep playoff run from them, with a WCF’s berth in sight.

After a disappointing exit to the playoffs earlier this year, the Memphis Grizzlies look to go much further this season, and with the best frontcourt in the NBA, they have a great chance to succeed. It’ll be tough to get out of the West, though if their key players in Gay, Gasol and Randolph play efficient basketball, along with Conley and production from the bench, Memphis could definitely make some noise.

Look out for teams like the Bulls (if Rose is back healthy), Hawks and Warriors come the playoffs, who have played well early and won’t get the same amount of hype as the true contenders.

Teams who will improve as the season wears on include the Lakers, Celtics, Nets and Pacers. The Mavericks and Sixers should also step up their level of play when their star players return, if Bynum ever plays in Philly.