The NBA’s Western Conference has become akin to the wild cowboy towns of yore. Gunslingers like Stephen Curry and Damian Lillard duel along the three-point line each night, while enforcers like Demarcus Cousins and Serge Ibaka patrol the paint mercilessly. Similar to the way the pioneers of the past made their East Coast counterparts look weak and sheltered, the records show that the Western Conference is indeed a harder place to succeed than the Eastern Conference. Of the teams with the best eight records in the NBA, seven are from the Western Conference, all of them vying for the chance to take on a considerably weaker Eastern Conference representative in the NBA Finals.

In such a loaded conference, can any one team rise above the rest? Although it is hard to predict which teams will be in the NBA Finals six months down the road, there are two intriguing squads lurking in the Western Conference: the number one statistical defensive team, as well as the number one statistical offensive team.

Every season, we see teams bestowed with the “blue-collar” moniker for their style of play — teams that find success playing gritty, hard-nosed basketball primarily on the defensive end. The Memphis Grizzlies have firmly cemented themselves as the hardest working team in the league this season. With an elite defensive core comprised of former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol, Tony Allen (a man who Kobe Bryant has “never heard call for help” when defending him) and Mike Conley, the Grizzlies have managed to hold their opponents to a league-best average of 92.4 points per game.

Their defensive prowess shows through several of their team statistics.Their assist-to-turnover ratio and average steals per game both rank in the top ten teams of the league, although they rank among the lowest in the league in average blocks per game. This shows that the Grizzlies achieve their defensive dominance by taking care of the basketball and valuing every possession, as shown by the pace of their offense, which is the fifth-slowest in the league.

What has elevated the Grizzlies this season to their 15-3 record, however, has been their ability to succeed on the offensive end. With Courtney Lee and Conley each sinking three three-pointers per game, the Grizzlies have been able to spread the floor, giving Gasol and Zach Randolph more room to work in the post.
On the other hand, there is the Dallas Mavericks. With a roster that has eight players over thirty years old, they were hardly expected to be as successful as they have been. From a statistical point of view, the Mavericks rank among the best in the league in several categories: top three in effective field goal percentage, top ten in offensive pace and number one in assist-to-turnover ratio, all of which contribute to their league-best scoring average of 110 points per game.

While free-agent acquisition Chandler Parsons has struggled, other players are enjoying career-revitalizing seasons. Tyson Chandler has become a double-double machine, averaging 10 points and 11 rebounds to go with his 1.5 blocks per game, while Jameer Nelson and Devin Harris are having career seasons in terms of efficiency.

The team has been held afloat by a timeless Dirk Nowitzki and a rebranded Monta Ellis––the OG Splash Brother––who have combined to score 41 points per game. Ellis has proven to be especially clutch in late-game situations so far, scoring 30 points or more in four games in just a month and a half. Having earned close wins in a few overtime thrillers, the Mavericks now boast a 14-5 record.

It is natural to wonder which of these teams will continue their success throughout the rest of the season. My best bet would be that the Dallas Mavericks keep up their high-octane offense and remain in contention for a top three seed in the Western conference.

The Grizzlies lack depth and have very few bench players, outside of Vince Carter and Tayshaun Prince, who can make much of an impact. If one of their stars gets injured, their prospects would be grim; Jon Leuer and Kostas Koufos could hardly compensate for either Gasol’s or Randolph’s scoring, while Beno Udrih and Quincy Pondexter lack the quickness and sharpshooting ability of Conley and Lee.

The Mavericks are far deeper, with a cast of Raymond Felton, J.J. Barea, Devin Harris, Jay Crowder, Al-Farouq Aminu and Brandan Wright coming off the bench as a second platoon. Barring any major injuries, the Mavericks should be able to continue their momentum with a roster that outclasses much of the rest of the Western Conference.

Max Fiege is a freshman in the SFS. OUT OF OUR LEAGUE appears every other Friday.

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