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Biggest Sleepers in the NBA's Western Conference

Greg SwartzCleveland Cavaliers Lead WriterNovember 20, 2012

Biggest Sleepers in the NBA's Western Conference

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    The NBA playoff picture is already beginning to take shape, even if the season remains in its infancy stage.

    The Western Conference has been the dominant side of the NBA for some time now, and 2012-13 looks to be no different.

    While some teams like the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are enjoying expected success, there are some lesser known teams making some noise in the West.

    Here are five teams off to better-than-expected starts that could challenge for a playoff spot or even a deep playoff run in the loaded Western Conference.

     

    *Note: All records and stats are accurate as of Nov. 20, 2012.

Golden State Warriors

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    Record: 6-5

    Key Wins: At Los Angeles Clippers, at Minnesota Timberwolves

    Key Rankings: 5th in Rebounding, 3rd in Pace of Play 

     

    The Warriors were a trendy pick to make the playoffs this season and are currently sixth in the conference, half a game ahead of four teams including the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    Golden State's record is particularly impressive due to the fact that center Andrew Bogut has appeared in only four games, making no real impact while working his way back from an ankle injury.

    The Dubs desperately need his defense inside, as they allow over 100 points per game, coming in at 26th in the league.

    If Bogut can return to the form we saw glimpses of in Milwaukee, the Warriors will be an even tougher team to deal with out West.

Houston Rockets

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    Record: 4-7

    Key Wins: At Atlanta Hawks, New Orleans Hornets

    Key Rankings: 6th in Rebounding, 9th in Assists

     

    Houston's roster to begin the preseason was more confusing than Cloud Atlas, but it has begun to take shape since the blockbuster trade for James Harden.

    Harden is thriving in his new starting role, averaging 24.2 points and 4.7 assists in his first 11 games as a Rocket. 

    Jeremy Lin got all the offseason hype, but it's Omer Asik who's proven to be the most important offseason signing. The career 3.4 points-per-game scorer has put up averages of 10.0 points and 12.3 rebounds. His rebounding total is good for third in the league behind Zach Randolph and Anderson Varejao.

    The Rockets now possess one of the NBA's most talented backcourts and a dominant rebounder in the middle to go along with dynamic forwards like Chandler Parsons, Marcus Morris and Patrick Patterson.

    Houston's goal coming in to the season initially looked like the development of young talent. If the team continues to develop chemistry, a playoff berth for the upstart Rockets looks like a real possibility.

Minnesota Timberwolves

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    Record: 5-4

    Key Wins: At Brooklyn Nets, at Dallas Mavericks

    Key Rankings: 4th in Defense, 8th in Assists 

     

    It's not that a 5-4 record is that surprising for Minnesota, a team that was widely believed to make the playoffs this season. It's the fact that the team's two best players, Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio, have yet to step on the court.

    Led by Nikola Pekovic (15.3 points, 6.0 rebounds), who has also sat out a couple of games, and Andrei Kirilenko (14.1 points, 8.3 rebounds), the Wolves have taken a defensive approach in winning early without their stars.

    While they don't score a lot (91.8 points, 25th overall), their defense has been nasty in only allowing 90.4 points per game, good for fourth overall in the NBA.

    With Love and Rubio back at practice, the Wolves should be a sleeper not just for the playoffs, but for a top four seed in the West.

Utah Jazz

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    Record: 6-6

    Key Wins: Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks

    Key Rankings: 3rd in Rebounding 

     

    Only a few games behind the Oklahoma City Thunder for the division lead, Utah has been a nice surprise this season with wins over some good teams.

    The Jazz let few rebounds get away on defense, and have been terrifically balanced on the offensive end. Seven players are averaging 9.3 points per game or more, with Mo Williams, Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap all between 14.9-15.4 points per contest.

    With that kind of balance and size down low, the Jazz could be a force to be reckoned with in the playoffs.

Portland Trail Blazers

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    Record: 5-5

    Key Wins: Los Angeles Lakers, Chicago Bulls

    Key Rankings: 9th in Points Per Game

     

    After a train wreck of a season last year, the Blazers weren't expected to go much of anywhere in 2012-13.

    Then a funny thing happened, this kid from Weber State decided to take over.

    Rookie Damian Lillard is averaging an impressive 19.0 points and 6.0 assists per game while teammates LaMarcus Aldridge and Nicolas Batum are both over 20 points a game.

    J.J. Hickson, back on a one-year deal in Portland, is a walking double-double so far while Wesley Matthews is enjoying a bounce back year with 16.4 points a game.

    The main concern should be depth, as four of the Blazers starters are averaging 37.5 minutes per game or more, which will make for some tired legs come April.

    With a .500 record at this point in the season, teams can no longer sleep on the Blazers.

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