);
Golden State Warriors

The race for the second-best team in the Western Conference

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Who will be the Warriors biggest challenger? (NBA Getty Images)

By Christmas last season, the top of the West was well established. The Houston Rockets got off to a flying start and asserted themselves as the primary rival to Golden State's Western Conference hegemony.

This season, we don't have that defined pecking order.

The Warriors are still assumed to be at the top until someone dethrones them, but the hoard of teams behind them hasn't thinned out at all. There are still 14 West teams with legitimate paths to the playoffs and the end of this year's regular season might be even crazier than last season's.

With so many teams bundled together, that second spot in the West is incredibly contested. You could make a real case for several teams, but four have distanced themselves just enough to be acknowledged.

While they all have some similarities, each of the four has their own unique path to establishing themselves as the second-best team in the West.

Oklahoma City Thunder - The Defensive Juggernaut

The Thunder check a major box by having two bonafide stars in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, but their elite defence is what gives them a true leg-up on the competition.

OKC has a built an ideal modern defence with the length, quickness and switchability to counter any offensive style. They hold opponents to the league's lowest offensive rating and force the most turnovers. By sticking with a traditional centre in Steven Adams, they also have a solid interior anchor and one of the league's elite offensive rebounders with 5.1 per game.

Even without the still injured Andre Roberson, they have counters at every position for the opposition's offensive star.

The key to Oklahoma City's season, though, remains the effectiveness and, more importantly, the efficiency of Westbrook. In the games Westbrook has taken fewer than 20 shots this season, the Thunder are 12-3. In the games he's taken 20 or more, they're just 3-5.

The Thunder held their own without Westbrook early this season and have continued that momentum through his return. Their defence is built to hold up down the stretch, but whether they maintain this balanced offensive attack remains to be seen. They have found a path to become Golden State's primary challenger, it's just a question of if they stick to it.

Los Angeles Lakers - The LeBron Factor

LA's path to the top of the West is pretty simple: LeBron James continues to be the best player in the world and the youth learns on the fly over the latter two-thirds of the season.

While they're not a finished product yet, even to be where they are now is pretty impressive. After missing out on a big name star to pair with LeBron this past offseason, this was seen as a bridge year into next summer. Yes, this team still has its flaws, but the vacuum at the top of the West has allowed the Lakers to accelerate the process and thrust themselves into the conversation.

Brandon Ingram's stagnation and his imperfect fit alongside LeBron remains the biggest immediate concern, but Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball have all made impressive second-year strides. Tyson Chandler's arrival has helped steady the second unit, and the initial spacing concerns seem overblown as the Lakers have built themselves into a perfectly adequate 3-point shooting team.

They aren't the second-best team in the West yet but, until proven otherwise, we have to assume LeBron will raise his game to another level at the end of the season. For the Lakers to compete with the other teams on this list, however, the young stars will have to follow suit.

Houston Rockets - The Track Record

Houston's resurgence after inserting Eric Gordon into the starting lineup last week has been promising, but their spot on this list is mostly due to James Harden and Chris Paul earning the benefit of the doubt. Right now Houston isn't a championship team, it's barely a playoff one. In fact, they're just hoping to avoid becoming the first team in league history to avoid following up a 65+ win season with one in which they fail to win at least 50.

The impetus for Houston's stumbles has been well-documented, but the loss of Trevor Ariza shouldn't be this devastating. Their defensive identity has changed, but maybe more damaging has been their regression from the 11th-best regular season offence of all time to simply a very good one this year.

As currently constructed, Houston can get close to what they were last season, but they might still be looking for that final piece. (With Jimmy Butler in Philadelphia and Ariza in Washington, that 3-and-D wing cupboard is getting barer and barer by the day).

With that said, Houston's single-game offensive ceiling is still virtually non-existent. Harden, Paul and Eric Gordon can outshoot just about anyone - as they re-established with 26 3s against the Wizards - and that might be all the Rockets need to get out of the first round.

All it will take is another week of Houston playing like they have these past few games for us to look foolish for doubting them, but they still have a ways to go to re-establish themselves as the West's number two.

Denver Nuggets - The Wildcard

Even with their volatility, we have a pretty good idea of what the Rockets, Lakers and Thunder can achieve. Comparatively, the Nuggets are a complete unknown.

Featuring seven players in their rotation under the age of 25 - including four of their ideal starting five - the Nuggets have incredible upside. They've gone 11-6 since the start of 2017-18 against the Warriors, Lakers and Thunder, yet Paul Millsap is their only rotation player with any meaningful playoff experience.

The catalyst behind this team and the man who will determine just how viable the Nuggets are as a contender is Nikola Jokic. The analytic darling turned superstar triple-double machine, Jokic is one of the most unique players in the league and is the leader of an offence just a couple steps behind Golden State and Houston's.

Denver's biggest concern right now is health. With Millsap, Will Barton, Gary Harris and Isaiah Thomas all on the mend from a medley of injuries, we still have to wait a few months before (hopefully) seeing an actualized Nuggets rotation.

Even with those injury woes, though, the Nuggets are still the best two-way team on this list. They have built on last season's sixth-best offence and tweaked the defensive system enough to become the West's only team with both a top-ten offence and defence.

If they can get healthy and overcome the traditional woes of first-time playoff teams, then Denver will have a real shot at the Western Conference Finals.

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