As with anything, the cream of the NBA will ultimately rise to the top once the playoffs begin in April. But along with the teams who we know will make deep postseason runs will be a few clubs who exceeded expectations in the 2012-13 season.
Thanks to a number of factors, the Eastern Conference is a bit more wide open than it has been in years. Several franchises who haven't spent much time in the playoffs in recent memory now have a viable shot at extending their seasons a few more weeks while some perennial contenders could miss out on the festivities entirely.
As exciting as the postseason race was at the end of last year's compressed schedule, the battle of playoff positioning in the Eastern Conference will be marked by a few sleeper teams who will be looking to upset the proverbial apple cart.
(Note: Stats are accurate as of Nov. 17)
Back in August, there was little possibility that the Philadelphia 76ers would be considered a sleeper team in the Eastern Conference in 2012-13.
At the time, most believed that Andrew Bynum would be back on the court by now after an offseason knee procedure. But because of a bone bruise and an affinity for bowling, the Sixers' big man appears to be several weeks away from resuming basketball activities.
Even without Bynum, Philadelphia will likely nail down a playoff spot thanks to a stifling defense that ranks third in the NBA in points allowed per game (91.3). Point guard Jrue Holiday has assumed the team's leadership mantle in the absence of Bynum, and once the 7" center dons a Sixers' uniform, Philadelphia will be a formidable unit come playoff time.
Rare is the person who thought back in October that the Milwaukee Bucks would be leading the Central Division at this point in the season.
It's too soon to deem the Brandon Jennings/Monta Ellis experiment a success, but the two have combined for more than 38 points per game in 2012-13. With such quick guards, the smart move would be to play at a high tempo and Bucks' coach Scott Skiles has instructed his squad to do just that (Milwaukee leads the NBA in pace at 95.9 possessions per game).
Now is the perfect time for the Bucks to capitalize on the early season struggles of the Indiana Pacers and create some room at the top of the Central Division table. It's been three years since Milwaukee made an appearance in the postseason, but that streak may come to an end by the time April rolls around.
With their top four players guaranteed to be in the fold for at least the next two years, the Cleveland Cavaliers have the nucleus of one of the best young teams in the NBA.
Point guard Kyrie Irving is obviously the engine that makes the machine go, but Dion Waiters, Tristan Thompson and Anderson Varejao are all solid complementary players who will help the Cavs make a run at a postseason berth sooner rather than later. While they have their fair share of doubters, the players themselves have pushed their chips to the center of the table.
"Whether or not anyone else believes it doesn't matter," said Irving in an interview with the News-Herald prior to the season. "I believe that we are a playoff team, and I'm sticking with it."
Their record so far this season may be somewhat of a disappointment, but there's plenty of time left for Cleveland to sneak into playoffs as an No. 8 seed. Defensively, there's much to be desired (104.6 PPG allowed—last in the NBA), yet with the wide open nature of the Eastern Conference, the Cavs should be in the hunt well past the All-Star break.
Even with six players averaging at least 10 points per game this season, scoring will be an issue for the Orlando Magic all year long. So if the Magic have any desire to make a spirited run at the playoffs, it'll be a renewed approach to defense that will spur their success.
Orlando lacks a defined star, but we've seen teams with no go-to guy make deep postseason runs in recent years (the 2011-12 Philadelphia 76ers are the perfect example of this). Aaron Afflalo, Glen Davis and J.J. Redick aren't talented enough to be the best player on a team that makes serious noise, but they are good enough to be the key figures on a team that is in the midst of a rebuilding process.
"I think they arguably have as good a team as they did last year going into the playoffs when Howard was out," said ESPN's Jeff Van Gundy when asked by the Orlando Sentinel about the Magic's postseason prospects. "I thought they competed hard in that series and I think you'll see Orlando play exceptionally hard."
Don't look now, but the Charlotte Bobcats are right in the mix for an Eastern Conference playoff spot. Head coach Mike Dunlap may not have been the popular choice when he was tapped to be the fifth bench boss in Bobcats' history, but he's convinced his (mostly) young team to quickly buy into his principles with surprising results.
Kemba Walker's work on his jump shot this offseason is paying early dividends (18.8 PPG), and first-year forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is making a strong case for All-Rookie honors (11.3 PPG, 7.0 RPG, 1.6 BPG). Charlotte still doesn't shoot well enough as a team to strike fear in the hearts of many, but they're no longer the doormat that they were during the 2011-12 season.