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Sports: NBA Western Conference Tiers: Warriors, Suns in a league of their own; Lakers playing catch up

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Before the start of the season, three members of our staff went through the Western Conference team by team to separate the contenders from the pretenders.

Quite a lot has changed since then.

With around 20 games under each team's belt, we're starting to get a better sense of where everyone stands. Some have surpassed preseason expectations while others have been as expected. And then there are the teams that have, shall we say, underwhelmed through a month and a half of the season.

Since the Warriors and Suns meet twice this week, it only feels right to parse through the Western Conference first. We'll do the Eastern Conference at a later date.

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From which teams are looking like real contenders to which teams are destined for the lottery, here's one person's opinion on how the Western Conference is shaping up as the calendar shifts to December.

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NBA Western Conference tiers

Warriors star Stephen Curry © Provided by Sporting News Warriors star Stephen Curry

Tier 1: Warriors and Suns

No surprises here.

The Warriors and Suns have been the two best teams in the league to start this season. The Warriors are 18-2 through 20 games, which is among the best starts in NBA history. The Suns got off to a disappointing 1-3 start but have quickly worked their way back up the Western Conference standings with a 16-game (and counting!) winning streak.

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Both teams are getting it done on both ends of the court. Whereas the Warriors rank second in offensive efficiency and first in defensive efficiency, the Suns rank seventh and third, respectively. Being top 10 in both categories is usually a good sign of a contender.

The Warriors and Suns are well-oiled machines with a proven track record. They've wasted little time establishing themselves as the teams to beat out west.

MORE: Stephen Curry is breaking teams before he even touches the ball

Tier 2: Jazz

There's no questioning the Jazz as a regular-season team. They finished last season with the best record in the league and are off to a strong start this season on the strength of the No. 1 ranked offense. (They haven't been quite as sharp defensively, which is something to watch the rest of the way, but as long as they have Rudy Gobert, they're going to be hard to score against.)

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It's the playoffs where this team has come up shorter than expected.

Time will tell if the Jazz can overcome some of the issues that have plagued them in the past, but we know this team is going to continue to rack up wins. As long as they can stay healthy, they should finish with one of the top four seeds in the conference.

LeBron James and Anthony Davis are spending time at the five for the Los Angeles Lakers © Provided by Sporting News LeBron James and Anthony Davis are spending time at the five for the Los Angeles Lakers

Tier 3: Mavericks, Clippers, Trail Blazers, Lakers

If the Warriors, Suns and Jazz hold strong at the top, one of these teams will find themselves in the Play-In Tournament.

Safe to assume that not a single one of them would be happy about that.

The Mavericks have a high floor on the strength of Luka Doncic alone. What will determine their ceiling is how much they get out of Kristaps Porzingis, who has been much better lately, and the rest of the supporting cast. As for the others, it's hard to know what to make of the Clippers until Kawhi Leonard returns and the Trail Blazers are counting on improvements around the margins helping them take the next step.

Suns win 17th straight by beating Warriors 104-96

  Suns win 17th straight by beating Warriors 104-96 PHOENIX (AP) — Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton were all smiles at the postgame podium, reminiscing about a four-year turnaround for the Phoenix Suns that's in some ways still hard to believe. The Suns won just 19 games during their rookie seasons. Now, they've tied a franchise record with 17 wins — in a row. Ayton scored 24 points, Chris Paul added 15 points and 11 assists, and the Suns won their 17th straight by beating the Golden State Warriors 104-96 on Tuesday night in an early showdown between the NBA’s top teams. “It’s just a lot of work, a lot of mental toughness, staying with it,” Bridges said. “We knew when we first got here that we wanted to turn it around.

We assumed the Mavericks, Clippers and Trail Blazers would be around this range entering the season. The Lakers? Not so much.

It's been a rough start to the season for the Lakers, who have been hovering around .500, but it's still too soon to count any team featuring LeBron James and Anthony Davis out ... right? In saying that, it's a little concerning that LeBron has already said that this season ranks "right at the top of any other challenge" he's had in his career.

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Tier 4: Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Nuggets, Kings

The Nuggets are the outlier here. They'd be much higher if it weren't for injuries. They came into this season knowing Jamal Murray would be out for a while, but they're now down two more rotational players in Michael Porter Jr., who will undergo back surgery, and P.J. Dozier, who recently went down with a torn ACL in his left knee.

As incredible as Nikola Jokic is, there's only so much he can do. (Also, he's dealing with an injury of his own right now. It doesn't seem too serious, but Jokic is Denver's only hope of making the Play-In Tournament at this point.)

The Timberwolves, Grizzlies and Kings, meanwhile, have their eyes on the Play-In Tournament.

Zion-Williamson-11042021-Getty-FTR © Provided by Sporting News Zion-Williamson-11042021-Getty-FTR

Tier 5: Pelicans

The reason the Pelicans aren't in a tier with the Thunder, Spurs and Rockets is because of Zion Williamson. It's still early enough that if he returns soon and is anything close to the player we saw last season, maybe, just maybe, this team can make a push for the Play-In Tournament.

MORE: How long is Zion Williamson out?

Tier 6: Thunder, Spurs, Rockets

The Thunder and Spurs have been more competitive than the Rockets so far, but they're each in a similar position — rebuilding teams that are destined for the lottery.

Still, it's been fun to watch Lugentz Dort spread his wings, Dejounte Murray take another leap and the youngsters on the Rockets figure stuff out on the fly. There can be beauty in the struggle.

Warriors defeat Knicks in Stephen Curry's record-breaking night at Madison Square Garden .
Stephen Curry has passed Ray Allen as the NBA's all-time 3-point leader.Warriors star Stephen Curry passed Ray Allen as the NBA's all-time 3-point leader in the Golden State Warriors' win over the New York Knicks at Madison Square Garden on Tuesday, Dec. 14.

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