1. Miami Heat -- Last season, the Heat gave 73 starts to Erick Dampier and Zydrunas Ilgauskas and 52 to Mike Bibby and Carlos Arroyo. This year, Mario Chalmers, Joel Anthony, Mike Miller, Udonis Haslem, Shane Battier and Norris Cole are players 4-9 in their rotation. With LeBron James playing the best basketball of his career, averaging 27.7 points, 8.1 rebounds and 6.8 assists on 55% shooting (!!) from the field, Miami looks like a team capable of winning multiple titles.
2. Chicago Bulls -- The Bulls have the league’s reigning MVP, three elite defensive-minded big men and three more players (Carlos Boozer, Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton) capable of scoring 20 points on a given night. They have a 27-8 record and a +9.5 point differential, the best in the NBA. There’s only thing between them and a title: an answer for when Miami puts LeBron on Derrick Rose.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder -- The Thunder have taken another step forward this season, improving their point differential from +3.4 to +6.2. They were undone by a lack of frontcourt shooting last year; Scott Brooks will need to figure out whether Oklahoma City is better closing out games with Kevin Durant at the 3 or at the 4.
4. Dallas Mavericks -- Thanks to some smart offseason pickups (Lamar Odom, Vince Carter, Delonte West and Brandan Wright) and a coaching stuff capable of adjusting their rotation on the fly, the Mavericks have been able to bounce back from an ugly 1-4 start. However, Tyson Chandler had Brendan Haywood’s ability to defend the low post, Ian Mahinmi’s athleticism and lateral quickness and Wright’s offensive efficiency in one package. When he left in free agency, he took any realistic chance of repeating with him.
5. Los Angeles Clippers -- Adding Kenyon Martin as a third big man filled the biggest hole on the Clippers roster, while losing Chauncey Billups, and his 11 shots a game, is addition by subtraction. However, until Blake Griffin adds a low-post game and a jump-shot, they’ll only go as far as Chris Paul can take them. They could be active at the trading deadline, as they need an athletic 6’4+ perimeter defender to match-up with players like James Harden.
6. New York Knicks -- Jeremy Lin turned their season around, but Tyson Chandler’s ability to dominate defensively at 7’1, 240 is the reason New York is a legitimate contender. With Lin, Landry Fields, Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and Chandler in the starting-five and Baron Davis, J.R. Smith, Iman Shumpert, Steve Novak and Jared Jeffries off the bench, New York has all the pieces to challenge Miami and Chicago. Phil Jackson is likely watching closely.
7. San Antonio Spurs -- Before Gregg Poppovich’s annual waive the white flag game in Portland, San Antonio was on a 10-game winning streak. But like the Mavericks of the early 2000’s, another offensive-minded team with an unathletic front-court, the Spurs regular season success is a mirage. San Antonio hasn’t won a second-round playoff game since 2008, and with Tim Duncan in the twilight of his career, they aren’t a title contender unless they improve their interior defense at the trade deadline.
8. Los Angeles Lakers -- Derek Fisher and the artist formerly known as Ron Artest are two of only five NBA rotation players with a PER of less than 9.0 this season. With two first-round picks in a loaded draft, the Lakers should be able to reload on the fly around Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum. However, Mike Brown, a defensive-minded coach, was dogged by whispers that he left LeBron to his own devices offensively in Cleveland. It’s a good thing a similar situation isn’t developing in LA ...
9. Philadelphia 76ers -- The biggest surprise of the first half of the season; their +6.5 point differential trails only Chicago and Miami. But with Elton Brand a shadow of himself, the 76ers are only going as far as Spencer Hawes and Nikola Vucevic take them. Passing on Greg Monroe, DeMarcus Cousins and Derrick Favors to take a 6’7 wing who is behind four other perimeter players in their rotation in Evan Turner may not have been the best idea.
10. Indiana Pacers -- The Pacers start games at 7’2, 6’9, 6’9 and 6’10, and all four can pass, shoot and defend. However, without an elite shot-creator or interior defender, it’s hard to see Indiana getting out of the second-round. Eric Gordon, an Indianapolis native who will be a restricted free agent this off-season, makes a lot of sense here.
11. Portland Trail Blazers -- I still think the Trail Blazers are the best long-shot bet to make a title run, but Raymond Felton’s struggles have left them without a reliable dribble-drive threat. With Linsanity in full effect in New York, Portland is the obvious destination if Phoenix puts Steve Nash on the trade block.
12. Atlanta Hawks -- Josh Smith, averaging 16.0 points, 9.5 rebounds, 3.7 assists and 2.1 blocks on 46% shooting this year, has been an All-Star caliber player for awhile, but with Al Horford out, his 2012 snub is particularly egregious. Either way, this Hawks team has lost in the second round three consecutive years, and that’s unlikely to change if they don’t shake things up.
13. Orlando Magic -- Asking Dwight Howard to sign over the prime of his career to a front-office that never paired him with another All-Star isn’t much of a plan. He won’t stay for the money either; he’ll make more in endorsements playing for a big-market contender than a small-market team going nowhere.
The Playoff Chase
14. Memphis Grizzlies -- If the Grizzlies get Zach Randolph at 100% by the time the playoffs start, they’re capable of beating anyone in the West. Even without Randolph or Darrell Arthur, no one is going to want to play Marc Gasol, Rudy Gay and Tony Allen in the first round.
15. Denver Nuggets -- The Nuggets have been devastated by a massive wave of injuries, but even when healthy they don’t have a legitimate All-Star who can consistently dominate on either side of the floor. If the Lakers make Pau Gasol available, a package built around Ty Lawson, Al Harrington, Jordan Hamilton, Kenneth Faried and two first-round picks makes sense for both teams.
16. Houston Rockets -- Kyle Lowry’s emergence has made up for slippage from Kevin Martin and Luis Scola while Sam Dalembert has been one of the NBA’s best free agent pickups. The Rockets still don’t have the necessary pieces to contend long-term, but injuries in Denver and Memphis could let Houston slip into the top-8 this year.
17. Boston Celtics -- After the boorish way the Celtics (particularly KG) have acted since winning it all in 2008, their 2012 comeuppance has been well deserved. They might not be down too long though. Danny Ainge has displayed an excellent eye for talent in the draft, and he’ll enter the offseason with two All-Stars in Paul Pierce and Rajon Rondo, two first round picks and a ton of cap space.
18. Minnesota Timberwolves -- For the first time since Kevin Garnett’s departure, there is hope in the Twin Cities. However, the Timberwolves still need a defensive-minded center and shooting guard to become a legitimate playoff threat, and a missed opportunity with the No. 2 pick (Jonas Valanciunas) may end up haunting them in the same way going with the consensus No. 2 choice did in Atlanta (2005) and Philadelphia (2010).
19. Utah Jazz -- By pilfering two 6’10+ top-3 picks (Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter) from the New Jersey Nets, the Jazz have positioned themselves masterfully, grabbing the core of a great team without having to become an awful one first. If Kevin O’Connor can find a two-way point guard and an elite perimeter shot-creator with Utah and Golden State’s (top-7 protected) 2012 lottery picks, there will be an Executive of the Year award in his future.
20. Milwaukee Bucks -- There doesn’t seem to be any rhyme or reason to Andrew Bogut’s inability to stay healthy, but the Bucks are spinning their wheels until they can keep their 7’0 center on the floor. Stephen Jackson’s “veteran leadership” and Brandon Jennings’ musings about his impending free agency haven’t helped.
21. Cleveland Cavaliers -- Kyrie Irving, the runaway Rookie of the Year favorite, has an exciting future. Unfortunately, the Cavaliers are making the same mistakes they made with LeBron, surrounding Irving with veteran role players instead of more top-5 picks. The 2012 lottery will have a much bigger impact on Cleveland’s future than anything that happens this season.
22. Golden State Warriors -- Mark Jackson has walked into an extremely difficult situation. The core of Monta Ellis, Stephen Curry and David Lee isn’t good enough to contend, and while their competitors will be picking from the deepest draft pool since 2008, the Warriors owe the Jazz their first round pick if it’s not in the top-7.
23. Phoenix Suns -- One possible reason for owner Robert Sarver’s refusal to deal Steve Nash is that it’s merely a stall to lock in as many home games as possible with the soon-to-be free agent before flipping him at the deadline. Another is that he has no idea what he’s doing.
24. New Jersey Nets -- Trading Deron Williams after mortgaging the farm for him last year would be embarrassing, but unless they can land Dwight Howard, Williams has no reason to stay. On another note, if you think Mikhail Prokhorov isn’t attempting to split the anti-Putin vote in the Russian elections, he probably has a bridge in Brooklyn he could sell you.
25. Sacramento Kings -- DeMarcus Cousins has played significantly better since Paul Westphal’s firing but Tyreke Evans has remained an enigma while Jimmer Fredette has underperformed on pretty low expectations. Willingly choosing to pay John Salmons and Travis Outlaw a combined $11.5 million doesn’t exactly inspire much confidence either.
26. New Orleans Hornets -- The Hornets are taking their lumps, but those two 2012 lottery picks are looking awfully nice. Jarrett Jack, Trevor Ariza, Chris Kaman and Carl Landry don’t have a future in New Orleans; they should be shopped for pennies on the dollar at the deadline. The biggest question for whoever is actually running this team is what to do about Eric Gordon, a restricted free agent who has only played in two games this season.
27. Detroit Pistons -- The Ben Gordon, Charlie Villanueva and Tayshaun Prince contracts remain as baffling as ever. Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Brandon Knight are a good start, but Joe Dumars is making the rebuilding process more difficult than it has to be.
28. Toronto Raptors -- With DeMar DeRozan and Jerryd Bayless both shooting less than 41% from the floor and Ed Davis averaging only 9.3 points per-36 minutes of floor time, the Raptors can’t count on any of the young players on their roster. Drafting Valanciunas was the first defensible roster move Bryan Colangelo has made in a long time.
29. Washington Wizards -- Does anyone else take a morbid pleasure in watching JaVale McGee? No one in the NBA underachieves with as much style and panache. The lack of improvement in John Wall’s per-36 minute averages is troubling, but the first order of business should be cutting ties with Andray Blatche, even if it means eating his salary.
30. Charlotte Bobcats -- To quote Dave Chappelle, “what can I say about the Bobcats that hasn’t already been said about Afghanistan?” There’s nothing deceiving about their 4-28 record and -14.2 point differential; they really are that bad. New GM Rich Cho, a disciple of Oklahoma City’s Sam Presti, understands the importance of building from the ground up. Charlotte fans should enjoy March Madness; there’s no reason to subject themselves to watching this team on a nightly basis.