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NBA power rankings: Breaking down the Western Conference

The Mavs are going to have to dig themselves out of a hole whenever Dirk comes back. A look at which teams they'll need to jump in the process.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Well, as y'all know, it doesn't exactly matter what the standings are like at this particular moment so much as it does when the season draws to its ponderous close. The accompanying question that we can't know the answer to is "how are the Mavericks going to do, when it's all said and done?"

This week we're going to skip all that. It's going to get ugly. Dallas has a murderous schedule coming up and Dirk's not just going to magically appear as a fully grown savior, but rather will need some time to get integrated.

But what about everyone else?

There can be little question that the Thunder and the Spurs are going to be in the playoffs. Because the newfound thing the media likes to do is know everything before the season starts (how's that Lakers thing turning out for y'all, so far?) we know the Heat, Thunder or Lakers are going to win the chip, but the Spurs actually won 10 straight games in last year's playoffs. And if you're discounting the Spurs because they're not young and sexy enough (or Kobe enough) that's a mistake. They're as strong a contender as anyone.

After them, though, is where the Mavs have some cause for hope.

Right now, third place in the West is held by the LA Clippers at 17-6. They're doing this with a combined offensive and defensive effort (6th overall in points per and points allowed) that is more or less unparalleled in the league, and with the kind of superb passing that only comes from a healthy Chris Paul (their 23.1 dimes a game are 3rd overall).

It'd be silly to disregard them, as well as they're playing right now. And yet, I'm not a 100% buy here. One of the reasons is that their major offseason addition, Jamal Crawford is having, at 32, a career renaissance. He's scoring 2.6 points more a game than last year, shooting 38% from three. Can he do that? Of course, and Paul is obviously helping. He's unlikely to keep up those percentages though. That will be a problem.

The Clips have no one scoring more than 18 a game and only 2 other people scoring over 10. Strangely, for a team with Griffin and Jordan, they don't rebound very well.

All of that could change in an instant, of course, if Paul really tries to assert himself offensively. We'll see.

The Grizzlies, just behind them, have a lot of similar problems. They're huge up front and their defense is tough (90.9 ppg allowed, good for 2nd overall), but they don't have a lot of guys who create their own shot. Randolph and Gasol are a load in the post and Gay is a very talented scorer, but the odds are against a team without a 20-point scorer winning a championship. The Celtics did it in '08, the Pistons in '04. If this team's defensive moxie holds up, they could follow that path, but is it a Celtics or Pistons defense? Time will tell. I think they're, in some ways, a more dangerous team than the Clips. They may miss OJ Mayo, though.

It's the Warriors and the Wolves that have really been surprising this season. Marc Jackson really has the Warriors playing up-tempo and passing the ball a lot, and the inside outside combo of Steph Curry and David Lee, mirrored by Klay Thompson and Carl Landry, is dangerous. It also goes to show (hey, Mavericks!) how much good one dominant rebounder can do, as the Warriors are 3rd in the NBA in boards a game, with only Lee above 7 per game.

The fact that the Wolves have stayed above water so well without their best playmaker and their best scorer for long stretches of the season is what should really scare NBA fans. It also shows (hey, Mavericks!) what canny offseason pick-ups like Andrei Kirilenko can do for a team that's not too busy dreaming of signing Michael Jordan and its prime to try to win each year.

Still, looking at these two teams you'd have to say there are a lot of question marks. Everyone loves Rubio, but he's played in 42 NBA games. Everyone loves Kevin Love, but he's not exactly an efficient scorer. And I don't think anyone looks at Curry and Lee and sees Shaq and Kobe, as impressive as they've been.

Denver, Utah, Portland and Houston are close enough to the Mavericks in record without lacking any important pieces that I'm not worried about them competing with the Mavericks. I am, however, worried about them keeping Dallas out of the playoffs given that things are going to get worse before they get better. But we're not talking about that.

It is hard to see the Mavericks competing with the class of the West. It's hard to see them competing with the middle of the West, the Grizz and Clips. If the season started when Dirk came back, I feel comfortable that the Mavs are better than the other teams.

That might not matter, but it's got a fighting chance to, depending on how the next two weeks go. Some people might say that's not worth it, to be as good as 5th-7th in the West. But to them I say, enjoy your basketball team, guys. Dirk ain't gonna be around forever.

Hope he's around soon.

Photographs by jamesbrandon, jdtornow, phlezk, flygraphix, mcdlttx, tomasland, and literalbarrage used in background montage under Creative Commons. Thank you.