Derrick Rose and Lebron James
Now that Super Bowl XLVI has come to a close and the football season is over, America's attention turns towards the NBA and college basketball. March Madness will soon be upon us and the NBA Playoffs are not far behind.
NBA teams have already started jockeying for playoff position and it will be a race to the finish. The Chicago Bulls and the Miami Heat are in a slug-fest for first place and they are already setting themselves up for an Eastern Conference Championship to be remembered.
That is, unless Boston has one more left in the tank—or perhaps Indiana, Atlanta or Philadelphia can surprise.
Will the Durantula finally have his time? Will the upstart Clippers continue soaring towards the NBA Finals? Or will the San Antonio Spurs win another Championship, sending Tim Duncan and Greg Popovich out with a bang?
Only time will tell, but it's never to early to establish a pecking order.
The Atlanta Hawks sit at the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference, somewhere we are used to seeing them. In fact, it's exactly where the Hawks finished last year before entering into the playoffs.
With the injury to Al Horford earlier in the season (torn pectoral, via SI.com), it was hard to see the Hawks continuing with the same success they had early.
Then Jeff Teague (pictured) burst onto the scene.
While averaging 12.6 points and five assists per game, Teague has provided in Horford's absence. It helps that the Hawks don't turn the ball over very often either (third best in the NBA)
Currently riding a three-game skid, the Hawks need to keep themselves from falling too far until Horford returns in March.
The Boston Celtics have quickly gone from their championship form to what many feel is a slow and aging team.
They trail the Philadelphia 76ers by three-and-a-half games in their own division—the Philadelphia 76ers!
Although quickly aging, the Celtics have maintained one of the best scoring defenses in the league, allowing the second fewest points per game. Though the defense has been a highlight, the offense has struggled at times, and the Celtics are continuously out-rebounded.
The Boston Celtics fall short of the younger and more athletic teams. The window is shut, the doors locked and the clock is chiming.
It's the hour of retirement.
The Denver Nuggets may not have the star power that the New York Knicks have, but it's pretty obvious that they got the better end of the Carmelo Anthony deal. The Nuggets are dangerous, simply because they are filled with team players.
No longer is Carmelo demanding the ball on offense and jogging back on defense. The Nuggets have talent across the floor and have shown their ability to contend in the West.
Danilo Gallinari is the Nuggets new go-to man for points now that Melo is a Knick. Gallinari's sprained ankle, which will keep him out for about a month, is not the news George Karl needed to hear (via the Denver Post).
If the Nuggets cannot produce scoring in Gallinari's absence over the next month, they could quickly fall from their lofty fourth place in the West. The Nuggets have a tough schedule coming up and they must find a way to win.
The Clippers may finally be the better team in Los Angeles. With the addition of Chris Paul, the Clippers are flying higher than ever before.
Some may see this ranking a bit low after such a great start and being ranked second in the west, but the Clippers lost a key dimension to their offense when Chauncey Billups tore his Achilles (via NY Times).
Griffin will still be dunking the ball and Paul will still be assisting Griffin, but points will be at a premium when the Clippers enter the second half of the season and the playoffs.
It is hard to see the Clippers trying to accomplish any trades before the deadline after such a monumental trade in the offseason, but Billups left a hole that must be filled.
The responsibility will likely fall to Mo Williams and Randy Foye, who will both see extra minutes.
The Indiana Pacers are a young team, and aggressive on defense. Larry Bird has taken the necessary steps to build what will be a successful program going forward.
Roy Hibbert has continued to develop and Paul George has come on nicely in recent weeks. With the addition of veteran David West to provide leadership in the locker room, this Pacers team is looking better than it has during the past decade.
The Pacers currently sit at fourth in the east and are benefiting from the Hawks and Magic enduring rough spots in their schedules.
Much like the Indiana Pacers, the young and athletic 76ers are playing great defense. The solid defense combined with the fewest turnovers in the league have the 76ers sitting only two games behind the Chicago Bulls atop the Eastern Conference.
In their last five games, the 76ers have played the Magic, Bulls, Heat, Hawks and Lakers.
They won four of those games, and the only loss came to the Miami Heat on Feb. 3rd.
The 76ers are playing great basketball right now, and the schedule after the All-Star break does appear to get somewhat easier. A top spot in the East is not out of their grasps as long as they continue to play tough defense while taking care of the ball.
Nobody doubts the Thunder's ability to score. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook average 48.9 points per game together.
They also average 7.8 turnovers per game.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have gone deeper into the playoffs each year, but have always been a step away from the NBA Finals. They have the inside presence, the defensive players and the scoring ability.
So, what seems to be the problem? Turnovers.
Durant and Westbrook contribute their fair share, but the other teammates haven't helped the issue. The team leads the NBA in turnovers with 16.8 per game.
If the Thunder cut down on the turnovers, they could very well be the best team in the NBA.
It is the same old story. The Spurs look great until something goes wrong, specifically with Manu Ginobili.
The Spurs had the best record in the Western Conference last year, and then Manu broke his arm.
Perhaps Ginobili is getting it out of the way early this year.
He broke his finger, which required surgery, back in early January (via AP). After missing five weeks, he is expected to return soon. Surprisingly the Spurs have not collapsed without him. In fact, the Spurs have won seven of their last 10 games and are tied for second in the Western Conference.
Much of this continued success in the absence of Ginobili is attributed to the play of Tony Parker and the San Antonio bench.
Greg Popovich has 10 different players averaging over 20 minutes per game.
The San Antonio Spurs have seemingly struck a balance between the old and new. With Manu Ginobili expected to return within a week, the Spurs could easily enter the 2012 NBA Playoffs as the top seed once again.
The Miami Heat's identity will never change as long as Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are in South Beach. Create turnovers, get on the fast break and choke late in games seems to be the recipe.
Well, the Miami Heat are effectively continuing the recipe thus far.
They lead the league in field goal percentage, are second in the league in scoring and force the third most turnovers.
One major difference: We haven't seen as many late-game collapses thus far. The Heat are running people out of the building with their athleticism, and are looking toward an Eastern Conference Finals showdown with the Chicago Bulls.
The only reason why the Heat don't top the charts is the fact that they don't flex their muscles enough. They struggle against teams they should not struggle against and have a hard time finding consistency down the stretch.
As with many of the other teams that made it into the top ten, the Chicago Bulls' success begins with their defense. Tom Thibodeau has molded a championship team on defense, but the offense falls too heavily on the shoulders of Derrick Rose at times.
Luol Deng has missed some time with a torn ligament in his wrist, adding to the pressure on Rose (via Chicago Tribune). However, the Bulls have still managed to fend off the Heat and maintain the top overall record in the NBA.
Seven of the Bulls' next 11 games come against teams with losing records.
Going forward from the All-Star break, it looks as though the Bulls and Heat will earn the top two seeds. That will likely leading to a rematch of last year's Eastern Conference Finals.