-- Do the Los Angeles Clippers have the firepower to take down the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs out West? Can Kawhi Leonard surpass Stephen Curry in the MVP race? And are the New Orleans Pelicans and Phoenix Suns destined for the lottery?
Our experts break it all down ahead of Friday night's NBA doubleheader (Clippers at Spurs, 8 p.m. ET; Pelicans at Suns, 10:30 p.m. ET).
<strong>1. </strong>Buy or Sell: The Clippers are title contenders.
J.A. Adande: Sell. Let's get past all of the numbers that could mislead you, such as the Clippers' 16-10 record or their fourth-place standing in the Western Conference, and get to the only number that matters: point differential. Championship teams usually come from the top four teams in the league in point differential. The Clippers and their plus-2.1 differential are tied for 10th. Next question.
Amin Elhassan: Sell. The bench is too questionable, the defense is too inconsistent, and oh yeah, they play in the same conference as the Golden State Demoralizers. Beyond the obvious basketball shortcomings (after all, this is a team that plays Austin Rivers 23 minutes a game, almost half of which with noted basketball savant Lance Stephenson), this team doesn't even exhibit the mental fortitude to overachieve (let Doc Rivers correct us -- incorrectly -- on who the league leader in technical fouls is).
Kevin Pelton: Sell. Even if the Clippers get back to the level of the last few seasons, that's not close to good enough to beat the Spurs and Warriors the way they have played so far this season. The Clippers sit a distant fourth in the West pecking order.
Marc Stein: Sell. They're not healthy enough or together enough. The various nick-knack injury stuff plaguing Chris Paul lately is worrisome, as is the Clips' general underachievement as a group -- and ongoing bench woes -- despite such a headline-grabbing summer. The Warriors and Spurs are in a class by themselves in the West until further notice.
Brian Windhorst: Hold. It doesn't look good and championship contenders usually aren't looking to make significant trades in December (though the Cavs were looking last year). But I think it is a mistake to sell this early on a team with this sort of talent.
<strong>2. </strong>Buy or Sell: Kawhi Leonard is an MVP candidate.
Adande: Buy. The fact he leads the Spurs in scoring and steals indicates his value at both ends of the court to a team that has a chance to surpass the Warriors by the All-Star break. The fact Leonard, not one of the splash siblings, leads the NBA in 3-point shooting percentage would be the most surprising stat in the league -- if not for the fact Jared Dudley ranks second.
Elhassan: Buy, as long as we keep the terminology to "candidate". In a normal year, he might even have had a shot. But this MVP race has been sewn up by Wardell Stephen Curry II, and everyone else is just jockeying for an "honorable mention."
Pelton: Buy. Assuming we mean candidate as in "to get on the ballot" rather than "win the award" in a year where Steph Curry is an obvious choice, Leonard surely belongs. By pretty much any value metric you consider, Leonard has been one of the league's five most valuable players.
Stein: Buy. If by candidate you're referring to someone with the potential to snag one of the five open slots on official year-end MVP ballots, then yes. Leonard has essentially been one of the league's five best players in the season's opening quarter. I'm not exactly sure, though, how much of an MVP race we can claim to have at the minute given what Steph Curry and his Warriors are doing.
Windhorst: Strong buy. It's a tall climb to scale Mt. Curry, but the Spurs are going to have the resume and I think Gregg Popovich would tell you he's pretty valuable.
<strong>3. </strong>Buy or Sell: The Pelicans are one of the NBA's five worst teams.
Adande: Buy, for now. You'd get no dispute if you asked this question about the Brooklyn Nets, and the Pelicans have an identical record. But the Pelicans have dealt with the second-most games missed because of injury in the league so far this season, so if they can keep their guys on the court perhaps they can rise in the standings.
Elhassan: Sell, albeit with the slimmest of margins. The Pelicans have had one of the toughest schedules in the league and dealt with widespread injury, but they're getting healthy right as their schedule starts to let up. They still have issues, with a pace that's not fast enough and a sieve-like defense that hemorrhages points faster than the Pelicans' offense can generate them, but this team is also better than the sort of riffraff that occupy the bottom of the standings.
Pelton: Sell. It might be too late for New Orleans to get back in the playoff race, but the Pelicans are 3-5 with a minus-3.0 differential since Tyreke Evans returned. That's about the floor for their play going forward.
Stein: Sell. Injuries alone can't excuse everything that's gone wrong for the Pels, who shouldn't be 7-18 under any circumstances. But when you see them beat the Cavs in a stirring OT game at home or win in Utah -- which is a tough place to play even if Rudy Gobert is out -- you understand this is not a squad that should be lumped into the Sixers/Lakers/Nets zip code.
Windhorst: Sell. They haven't had their roster for any representative time. They are a disappointment but this is not who they are. It would be a mistake to give up on them this early in the season considering they have a top-five player.
<strong>4. </strong>Buy or Sell: The Suns are a playoff team in 2015-16.
Adande: Sell. It's hard to make the playoffs when the two best players on your team have never been one of the two best players on a playoff team. It's cruelly ironic the franchise that helped usher in the era of perimeter-oriented basketball is unable to partake in the party now when it's the prevalent style. At least they're trying to make the playoffs, unlike another NBA city that starts with 'P.' They are karmically due to win the draft lottery.
Elhassan: Sell. There's a lot more internal turmoil than this team would like to let on, beyond the uncertain status of Markieff Morris, who has played a total of seven minutes in the last seven games. While the Eric Bledsoe- Brandon Knight pairing has been very good as individual offensive talents, the players have struggled to keep their teammates engaged, and defensively have left a lot to be desired. Barring a home run deal involving Morris, it looks as if Phoenix will follow the same blueprint from the last two seasons: hang around the playoff picture before ending up in one of the last two seats at the dais in Secaucus, New Jersey in May.
Pelton: Sell. Even though the bar in the West doesn't figure to be very high this season, I still think Phoenix is less than a 50-50 bet to make it. There are too many other teams in contention, including more talented ones that have struggled so far.
Stein: Sell. This is another group lacking sufficient togetherness to be regarded as top-eight material, even in a supposedly weakened West. I saw it with my own eyes Wednesday night in the visitors locker room in Oakland; Phoenix has a lot of growing and meshing to do as a group on top finding better balance throughout the roster.
Windhorst: Sell. They don't seem as if they have much of an identity and they're active in trade talks. They may not even know what they want to be at this point. I think it's more likely the Rockets and Pelicans rebound and get back in than the Suns.
<strong>5. </strong>Buy or Sell: The West is no longer better than the East.
Adande: Sell. Even though the East has become better all around, and is less likely than the West to have a team with a losing record make the playoffs this season, the West is still better at the top. Three of the four best teams are in the West. Put it this way: Would you rather have Cleveland's path to the NBA Finals, or Golden State's?
Elhassan: Sell. Admittedly, the West is off to a rough start, with teams like Houston, New Orleans and the Clippers massively underachieving, and seven of the top 10 teams in net rating residing in the East. Still, the top three teams in the league in net rating reside out West (Golden State, San Antonio, Oklahoma City), with the Clippers closing in the last month. The gap is smaller between the two conferences, but we're still looking at a West-dominated NBA.
Pelton: Sell. Over the course of the season the two conferences were dead even entering Thursday's action, but the West has been slightly better in the month of December and is more likely to benefit from regression to the mean than the East. The gap has narrowed considerably, but the West is still best.
Stein: Sell. Big-time sell. The Clippers, Rockets, Grizzlies and Pelicans are all underachieving, after all four of those teams came into the season generating high expectations, but there's still plenty of time for one or two clubs in that quartet to rebound. The fact we also still have no idea which team in the East ranks as the most credible threat to keeping LeBron James' Cavs out of the Finals has me feeling as though the whole "East is back!" storyline making the rounds for the past month-plus is overstated.
Windhorst: Sell. The West still has three of the best four teams in the league. And perhaps four of the best five depending on how you feel about the Clippers. The East, finally, has some depth but the West still has a majority of the cream.