The NBA thrives as a star-oriented league, and it's always captivating to stack the best players on each team against each other.
Who's the best player on the Indiana Pacers, and where does he rank against the other top performers? Where is Houston's best player ranked? Who is the highest-ranked non-playoff team representative?
The 2012-13 season will be riveting as the NBA's emerging young stars mix it up with the current megastars.
The usual suspects are at the top, but the rest of the power rankings are a tight call.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Field-goal percentage (career-high 46 percent in 2011-12)
Choosing the best Charlotte Bobcats player for this entry is sort of like a young child picking which vegetable to eat. Not all of them are terrible, but none of them are too impressive.
Gerald Henderson has improved markedly every year in his first three NBA campaigns. His wingspan and explosiveness have allowed him to be a playmaker on both ends of the floor. He's a slasher and finisher on one end and an undersized rim guardian on the other.
Even though Charlotte has welcomed some new talent, including the much-anticipated Michael-Kidd-Gilchrist, Henderson's attack and consistency will go a long way in determining how much the Bobcats will improve on their seven-win disaster of 2011-12.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Blocks (career-high 1.5 in 2011-12)
Luis Scola and Goran Dragic are good candidates for "top Suns player" honors, but Marcin Gortat's production in the paint is too much to ignore.
Much of his success can be attributed to Steve Nash, but the double-digit rebounding and improved jump shot are his own achievements. The Polish center will still thrive in Phoenix because Goran Dragic has played with him before and knows how to get him the ball.
Gortat's shot selection is impressively consistent, and that's something the Suns will need in this year of transition.
The club's roster is vastly different than it was in 2011-12, so it's nice to have a rebounding big man who is focused on both offense and defense. He's got great court awareness, is willing to collaborate with teammates and can work one-on-one in the paint.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Free-throw percentage (Improved from 62 to 74 percent from 2010-11 to 2011-12)
Few 6'11", 250-pound post players are as ambidextrous or nimble as Detroit's Greg Monroe. How exactly was this underrated second-year player able to notch more than 15 points per game in 2011-12?
Three key reasons:
1. He can score on baby-hooks and running hooks with either hand.
2. He runs the floor and fills the lanes, ready to receive passes.
3. He's an excellent rebounder.
Bonus reason: He turned into a reliable free-throw shooter, improving his free-throw percentage by 12 percent in 2012.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Assists (career-high 2.4 per game each of the past two seasons)
A couple years ago, I would have tabbed Hedo Turkoglu or Jameer Nelson as Orlando's best non-Howard player, but their time is over.
Arron Afflalo is a mid-summer shipment from the Dwight Howard trade, and he brings energy and some scoring punch to central Florida. It took him a couple of years to get acclimated to the NBA, but the UCLA product eventually excelled under George Karl.
Will Afflalo get off to a good start in Orlando, or will it be another long, gradual process until he finds his niche?
He's a team-oriented type of competitor with a great outside shot, so his shooting contributions should be above-average from the start, and the passing numbers will gradually follow.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Rebounds (5.5 in 2011-12)
The former No. 1 draft pick has turned into a capable scorer for Toronto; Andrea Bargnani is a classic European sharpshooter.
Scoring 18 to 22 points per game looks great in a box score, and it validates the Raptors' selection and retention of him. But is he the centerpiece that can take them into the upper-half or upper-third of the Eastern Conference? Probably not.
Luckily for Bargnani, Toronto got some extra help in the form of Kyle Lowry, Jonas Valanciunas and Landry Fields.
He's not off the hook, though. An increase in rebounding production and better three-point shot selection are necessary for Bargnani's improvement.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Free-throw attempts (4.6 per game in 2011-12, lowest since 2005-06)
Until Jeremy Lin or Royce White prove otherwise, Kevin Martin is the best player on the Houston Rockets' bloated roster.
The 6'7" wing has made a decent living in the NBA because he can fill up the hoop in a variety of ways from a variety of angles. He's a career 38 percent three-point shooter and has averaged more than 20 points per game in six different seasons.
Martin had a down year offensively in 2011-12, and one crucial aspect of his game can bring him back to form: drawing fouls. Throughout his career, he usually draws at least three or four fouls per game, but last year he was only getting a couple.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Assist-to-turnover ratio (5.4 assists, 3.1 turnovers in 2011-12)
Duke's one-year product lived up to the hype and expectations that are always attached to the No. 1 pick in the NBA draft. He's shown the moxie and the capability to be a cornerstone for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
He showed some things you don't normally see out of rookies or even top picks:
- 40 percent three-point shooting
- 14.6 field-goal attempts per game
- 21.4 PER
- 47 percent field-goal shooting
Cleveland is in good hands if it can keep him around for the next five to 10 years.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Assists (career-high 6.6 in 2011-12)
The good news for Ty Lawson in 2011-12 is that he once again has the keys to the Nuggets' car, a roster full of quality role players and borderline stars.
The bad news is that none of them are legitimate franchise leaders. Thus, he's often forced to carry the offense himself, even though his size and speed are better suited to create for others.
For the fans, it's an exciting brand of basketball to watch because Lawson can accelerate, stop on a dime and score from almost any spot on the court.
His outside shooting has been splendid since he entered the league, and his fast break facilitation and decision-making is making him an all-around threat. He's gone from backup floor general to one of the top 10 or 15 point guards in the league.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Playoff PER (12.9 in 2012)
It was a close call between Danny Granger and Roy Hibbert for Indiana's top spot, but I decided to give the nod to the player with a longer career and well-established status.
2011-12 wasn't a display of Danny Granger's best handiwork, but that doesn't mean he can't bounce back and be the Granger of 2007-10.
He's still a superb three-point shooter who also has the ability to create inside the arc.
Does he have what it takes to lead Indiana past the elite clubs in the NBA? Not really, but that's why Hibbert is there to help him.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Turnovers (NBA-worst 3.9 per game in 2011-12)
The Washington Wizards started their rebuilding process two years ago by picking John Wall, and they're finally getting to the next phase of rebuilding by assembling the right pieces around him.
He's one of the most electrifying players in the game, and he's already shouldering a great deal of Washington's offensive responsibilities. His growing pains are part of the reason why the Wizards won just 23 games his rookie year and 20 in the lockout-condensed 2011-12 season.
Wall is aggressive enough to make several big plays every night and average 16 points and eight assists. But rashes of turnovers and atrocious outside shooting somewhat nullify the good work he does.
With patience and a couple more roster pieces, the Wall-led Wizards could become a winner.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Three-point percentage (31 percent in 2011-12)
Monta Ellis is just 26, yet he's entering his eighth NBA season.
The Milwaukee Bucks hope that the high-flying guard's first full season with the franchise is more reminiscent of his golden days with Golden State. Ellis' acrobatics are his advantage but also his downfall.
He can get up and down the floor as swiftly as anyone in the league, but he's inefficient compared to other stars at his level. Shot selection, three-point shooting aptitude and drawing fouls need to become a priority for him.
Hopefully a full training camp will give Ellis the time to strike the right pass-shot balance with his teammates.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Fouls (4.1 per game in career)
Tyreke Evans was the best player on the Sacramento Kings the last three years, but from this point moving forward, DeMarcus Cousins is the main man in Sac-town.
After a praiseworthy rookie year in 2010-11, Cousins took things a step further in his sophomore season. He hauled in 11 boards per contest to go with 18 points in just 30 minutes of playing time.
If he can stay even-keeled and focused, he could be a fixture at All-Star games, playoff matchups and Team USA tournaments for the next decade or more.
The first step to building on his early success is upgrading his shot selection and discipline on defense. He can't be a star if he's always benched with foul trouble.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Defensive rating (career-best 103 last season)
While his athleticism isn't striking and his ball-handling is basic, Utah Jazz power forward/center Al Jefferson continues to be one of the most potent big men in the NBA because of his mastery of positioning, pivoting and timing.
On offense, he has a knack for getting in a good spot deep in the post and then burying his defender with a simple, yet effective series of moves.
When Jefferson doesn't get great position, it's not a huge deal, because he has an effective one-handed flip shot and a nice mid-range jump shot.
Defensively, he protects Utah's turf with patience, good timing and excellent usage of his length.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Field Goal Attempts (career-high 16.2 in 2011-12)
Inconsistencies in Golden State's backcourt, most notably trades and injuries, have made David Lee the most important player on the team.
The left-handed power forward is proficient in pick-and-roll, pick-and-pop and isolation scenarios. The quick release on his shot makes him tough to defend, and his penchant for offensive rebounding makes him even more valuable.
A full season with Andrew Bogut, a healthy Stephen Curry and the additions of Carl Landry, Harrison Barnes and Jarrett Jack should help cut down Lee's workload a little bit. But his rebounding and skill level will still impact the game more than any other Warriors player.
Stat to track in 2012-13: $13.7 million
Budding star Eric Gordon signed the Phoenix Suns' offer sheet during the 2012 free agent frenzy, but the Hornets matched it because they desperately need a top-tier shooting guard.
The Hornets have such a young squad (10 players who are 25 or younger), so even though Gordon is just 23, he must become a vocal and exemplary leader for the club.
His signing of the Suns' offer sheet shows that he was quite interested in leaving New Orleans, but he hasn't really had a chance to see if the bayou marriage will work. He has yet to play a full season in the Big Easy.
Rookies Anthony Davis and Austin Rivers have the potential to bring out the best in Gordon, and within the next couple years, the core of the Hornets squad could bring the franchise back to the playoffs.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Free-throw attempts (4.1 per game in career)
Besting the Memphis Grizzlies is a difficult task, even for the best NBA squads. They have an effective point guard, a strong inside-outside presence and Rudy Gay.
The swingman enters his seventh NBA season as one of the premier small forwards in the game.
It's not just the fact that he can fill up the hoop via drive or jumper. A lot of small forwards can do that. Gay stands out because he contributes in the other facets: He's all over the place on defense, he rebounds well for his frame, and he keeps his teammates involved.
Seeking out contact and attacking physically should be an area of focus for him, as he could use a few more trips to the charity stripe.
Stat to track in 2012-13: FG attempts (career-high 13.3 per game in 2011-12)
New Philadelphia 76ers center Andrew Bynum put up a career-high 13.3 field goals per game in 2011-12, but that number might go up even more now that he doesn't have a guy named Kobe on his team.
Instead of battling the likes of LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan and Marcin Gortat every night, Bynum is going to see a different diet of bigs like Tyson Chandler, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert.
It's safe to say Bynum is the second-best center in basketball, which means he should dominate in the low-post against everyone in the Eastern Conference.
He's got a solid collection of shooters and playmakers around him, and the results for the Sixers could be fantastic.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Free-throw percentage (career-high 81 percent in 2011-12)
Hip surgery shortened his 2011-12 campaign and kept him out of the Olympics, but LaMarcus Aldridge will return to All-Star status this fall and show why he was a shoe-in to play for Team USA.
Aldridge is a strong post player who can battle in the paint and also drain mid-range jump shots consistently. Aldridge had a career-high PER of 22.7 in 2011-12 to go along with stellar points-per-minute efficiency.
As productive as he is, he still has work to do. Aldridge and the rest of the Trail Blazers squad could use improvement on defense. Upgrading on that end of the floor alone could account for five to 10 more wins in 2012-13.
Also, he's 6'11" and has never hit double-digits in rebounding. There's something wrong with that.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Points per game (career-high 18.8 in 2011-12)
2012-13 is a contract year for Atlanta's dynamic forward. Will Josh Smith take his game to another gear and become a 20-point, 10-rebound type of player?
The Hawks have enjoyed Smith's outstanding athleticism and southpaw dunks since day one, but the aspect of his game that's improved over the last two or three years is his defense.
He's always had good hands and a nose for the ball, and now that his understanding of NBA defense has expanded, he's become a highly valuable stopper. Smith led the association in defensive win shares in 2011-12.
Considering how useful he is on both sides of the ball, Atlanta could get a boatload of talent in return if they shop him this winter. Otherwise, the Hawks will be handing over a gargantuan sum next summer to keep him.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Minutes per game (33.5 in 2011-12, lowest since rookie year)
Until the day he retires, Dirk Nowitzki will be a tough cover because of his height and smooth shooting stroke.
The 34-year-old veteran is on the decline, but don't sleep on him. He can still drop 20 every night and stretch defenses with his long-range game.
It's a long shot for Dallas to contend this season, but Mavericks fans know they can count on Nowitzki to maximize the team's potential. He's a durable star who gives the Mavs 100 percent every night, and his only focus is winning.
Can he hang onto his greatness long enough to keep Mark Cuban's franchise in the mix?
Stat to track in 2012-13: Assists (career-high 7.7 in 2011-12)
As the youngest member of the San Antonio Spurs' Big Three, Tony Parker shoulders the greatest responsibility on a night-in, night-out basis.
Gregg Popovich's squad is a well-constructed unit that runs like clockwork, but the tough truth is that Spurs will only go as far as Parker takes them. The tempo of the offense and the shot-selection trends of the entire team are dictated by his play.
In 2011-12, he elevated his game, became a better facilitator and entered the MVP conversation. The Spurs need him to duplicate those efforts to secure a high seed in the Western Conference.
Stat to track in 2012-13: FG attempts (career-high 17.5 per game in 2011-12)
After deciding to return to the Nets, Deron Williams acquired a new teammate who will help him thrive in the backcourt.
D-Will and Joe Johnson will be a daunting pair for opposing teams to guard. Johnson gives Williams a chance to be a more effective point guard. Williams won't have to worry about forcing up shots just because he's the only playmaker on the squad.
The move to Brooklyn gives Williams a new stage, and the improved roster gives him the opportunity to rival Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks.
Whether that actually happens depends on how Williams and Johnson collaborate.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Free-throw percentage (sub-60 percent for last two seasons)
Tossing Rajon Rondo into the discussion of "best point guard in basketball" is always an interesting endeavor because he's the worst shooter of the group but the best dime-dropper.
Not only did he have a career year in assists in 2011-12, but he kept it up in the playoffs and helped Boston push Miami to seven games in the conference finals.
Rondo should make it a priority to get the new talent rolling. Jason Terry, Jared Sullinger and Courtney Lee could give the team a tremendous boost if he gets them involved and comfortable with the Celtics' system.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Three-point percentage (34 percent in 2011-12)
The tools are in place for Carmelo Anthony, so it's up to him to take his talent and New York's strong lineup to the top of the Atlantic Division.
The Knicks finished just three games back of Boston last season, and if Anthony can stay healthy this year, they have a great chance to make up that ground.
'Melo gets knocked for his defense because it pales in comparison to Tyson Chandler's or LeBron's, but he's actually a better stopper than he gets credit for.
Offensively, if he can get his shooting efficiency back to where it was from 2007-11, he'll exceed 25 points per game without compromising the rest of the team's rhythm.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Player Efficiency Rating (career-high 25.4 in 2011-12)
With its offseason acquisitions of Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved, Minnesota has become a popular choice to become a team that makes the jump to the postseason.
But a postseason push is nowhere near attainable without another monster year from Kevin Love. Over the last couple of years, the 6'10" power forward has gobbled up rebounds in his sleep and lit up opposing defenses.
A summer with Team USA only made Love better. He was essential to America's attack and provided reinforcement for Coach K in all phases of the game.
Love is 24, and the absolute peak of his career is right in front of him. Don't be surprised if he leads the Timberwolves to 40 wins or more.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Playoff assists (career-low 7.9 per game in 2011-12)
In an effort to become much more than an entertaining side-show, the Los Angeles Clippers brought in some solid veterans for Chris Paul to work with.
Players like Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom will give Paul the chance to focus on distributing the ball more instead of scoring. CP3 has always been an efficient point, but his playoff efficiency has been inconsistent and must improve if Los Angeles wants to contend.
CP3 is in a pivotal year in his career. Will he move on to a better franchise after this season, thereby crippling the Clippers, or will he call Los Angeles home for the remainder of his prime?
Stat to track in 2012-13: Games played (ACL recovery)
Chicago's golden boy Derrick Rose will be sidelined for the first few months of the 2012-13 campaign while he gets his knee back to top form.
Considering his work ethic, youth and dedication to the Bulls franchise, I expect him to come back strong and terrorize NBA backcourts again. There aren't many players in the league who have his triple threat of driving, shooting or passing on any given possession.
Even though he's earned superhero status in the Windy City, he can't carry them to a title alone.
Can Rose click with Carlos Boozer and get enough help from Luol Deng to challenge the Heat? The Bulls must score more consistently next year. They were in the bottom-half of the NBA in scoring in 2011-12.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Three-point percentage (30 percent in 2011-12)
On a team well-stocked with future Hall of Famers, Kobe Bryant is still the alpha male.
Newcomer Steve Nash will wheel and deal, and Dwight Howard will crank out the highlight-reel plays, but the Black Mamba is still the best shot-creator and clutch performer by a mile. He'll be sure to remind everyone that he's not fading into retirement anytime soon.
Will Kobe see an increase in room to operate due to the presence of other Lakers stars? Defenses will be hurting if that's the case.
The alternative isn't any prettier for opponents. If they overcommit to Kobe, he's smart enough to dish it to the perfect spot and make the defense pay.
Stat to track in 2012-13: Turnovers (Career-worst 3.8 per game in 2011-12)
Kevin Durant succumbed to LeBron James on the big stage in the 2012 NBA Finals, but that doesn't make him any less impressive.
The young star's scoring consistency and reliability will keep Oklahoma City dominant in the Western Conference.
When he encounters the Los Angeles Lakers, he can take solace in the fact that he's the best player on the floor. The Lakers have a handful of superstars, but he's a matchup problem for all of them.
Durant's defense is improving, and his playmaking will only get better, but the one area that he needs to clean up is turnovers. He averaged 3.5 assists and 3.8 turnovers per game, an unacceptable ratio.
Stat to track in 2012-13: PER (30.7 in 2011-12)
This fall, we all get to see what LeBron James looks like after he's won it all.
Many champions enter the following season with every intention of exerting the same effort as the previous season, but it's extremely difficult to attack the campaign with the same vigor.
James alone makes the Heat nearly untouchable in the Southeast Division, and an upgraded bench makes them even more dangerous. If they reach their potential, they should average more than 100 points per game and possibly lead the league in scoring.
The major variable for LeBron is how healthy and how strong Dwyane Wade will be throughout the season.
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