Lakers poised to challenge OKC

The Lakers project as the West's best team the rest of the way. Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

The NBA's annual in-season shuffling came a little late this year, and while there weren't any aces dealt, plenty of hole-plugging moves will affect the rest of the season. Thursday is the league's deadline for buying out veterans under contract, so there may yet be some player movement. By and large, however, we now have a pretty good idea of how the teams are going to look over the course of the regular season and the playoffs.

With that in mind, we loaded the revamped rosters into SCHOENE, our trusty projection system, and simulated the final third of the regular season 10,000 times to see what, if any, shifts have occurred in the Western Conference's pecking order.

The results of this exercise contained some surprises and plenty of what you'd expect. With teams having an average of 23 games remaining, there isn't much time for the standings to undergo any kind of drastic change, but if these new projections represent the true strengths of teams going forward, they may have some ramifications heading to the playoffs.

Here are some highlights from SCHOENE's crystal ball:

1. The Lakers will challenge the Thunder and Spurs for the top spot
The West is more tightly packed than the East and feels more wide open, so it's not surprising there was a lot more trade activity from that conference this week. And guess what? A new challenger has emerged: the Los Angeles Lakers. Yeah, same as the old challenger.