The NBA preseason is dismissed by many, but it is extremely vital to a team's development. Rookies use the time to adjust to the speed of the pro game, while head coaches both new and old establish the philosophies that will carry their respective squads throughout the season.
This year, many teams have used the exhibition schedule to their full advantage, either building off of the success of the previous campaign or integrating new players into their system. In both conferences, teams that aren't considered among the league's elite have surprised so far this preseason.
Whether those teams will be able to ride that wave of solid play into the regular season remains to be seen, but if so, then the perennial contenders will have a new batch of playoff party crashers to worry about in 2012-13.
If teams are supposed to sleepwalk through the preseason, then no one told the Golden State Warriors, who finished the campaign with a 6-2 mark.
Stephen Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson have been solid as usual, but some of the team's new faces are the ones making the biggest impact. Lottery pick Harrison Barnes (10.4 PPG, 48% 3PT) is garnering most of the headlines, but forward Carl Landry (12.4 PPG, 5.6 RPG) has wasted little time in showing that he was one of the more underrated free-agent signings from this past summer.
Center Festus Ezeli has also stepped up in the absence of Andrew Bogut, giving the Warriors even more viable options in the frontcourt heading into this season.
For the second straight year, Golden State's fortunes rest on the ankles of Curry and Bogut. If both are healthy this season, the Western Conference playoff race will be very interesting by the time April rolls around.
With 12 players averaging at least seven points per game, balance has been the key so far for Atlanta in the preseason, and that will likely drive the Hawks' success once the games count for real next week.
Josh Smith and Al Horford are the team's two best players, but Atlanta will need the backcourt trio of Lou Williams, Jeff Teague and Devin Harris to fill it up if they have any shot of making the playoffs in the post-Joe Johnson era.
To this point at least, offense hasn't been a problem for the Hawks; they've outscored their opponents by more than seven points per game. And while there may be a different brand of basketball played in Atlanta this season, there will still be plenty of excitement down at the Highlight Factory.
With much of the attention in the Eastern Conference focused on the Miami Heat and the Boston Celtics, the Sixers have reeled off six wins during the preseason, all without prized offseason acquisition Andrew Bynum.
Point guard Jrue Holiday has appeared to take the next step in his development as one of the league's best young point guards (although part of his motivation may revolve around his desire for a new deal).
Nick Young has fully established himself as the team's primary scorer off of the bench, and forward/center Spencer Hawes is playing with a renewed energy on the defensive end of the court. Add a healthy Bynum to the mix, and you have a team that has legitimate aspirations of an Eastern Conference finals berth.
With the exception of the Portland Trail Blazers, every other team in the Northwest Division is "sexier" than the Utah Jazz. But even with a roster full of players unrecognizable by most NBA fans, the Utah Jazz have quietly put together a decent run this preseason.
The Jazz almost have too much talent in their frontcourt: Each of the top four players in Utah's power forward/center rotation (Paul Millsap, Al Jefferson, Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter) can start for more than a dozen teams throughout the league.
Jefferson and Millsap are one of the league's better interior duos, and the performance of their backups so far will give Jazz head coach Tyrone Corbin a great deal of lineup flexibility in 2012-13. Kanter dropped 51 pounds during the offseason, and his slimmed-down physique has translated into great numbers through the first seven exhibition games (12.0 PPG, 9.0 RPG). Favors, meanwhile, has been busy filling up the stat sheet (7.5 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 1.8 BPG, 1.2 SPG) as he continues to push for a starting role.
That quartet, along with the steady Marvin Williams and a solid backcourt of Mo Williams and the ever-improving Gordon Hayward, should vault the Jazz to great heights this season.
Whenever talk of the best young teams in the Western Conference is sparked up, the Denver Nuggets and Los Angeles Clippers are among the first teams named. So far this preseason, Utah has proven that it belongs in the conversation as well.
Adding Andrei Kirilenko, Brandon Roy and Alexey Shved to an already talented Minnesota Timberwolves team has transformed the club from "the most interesting team to watch on NBA League Pass" to "legitimate playoff contenders."
Offseason acquisition Chase Budinger has wasted little time settling into his role as the Wolves' designated long-range threat (10.4 PPG, 42.1% 3PT), and Roy's performance so far this preseason (11.4 PPG) makes his two-year, $10.4 million contract look like a relative bargain.
But with optimism also comes reality: The Timberwolves will be hard-pressed to carry their momentum into the regular season with both Ricky Rubio and Kevin Love sidelined with injuries.
However, if Derrick Williams (who should see a bump in playing time with Love out) performs to his full potential, Shved quickly adjusts to the NBA game and center Nikola Pekovic continues to rack up double-doubles, Minnesota may be able to hold down the fort until its two stars return later this year.