With roughly a quarter of the 2012-13 NBA season already in the books, we're beginning to see some of the league's better squads distancing themselves from the pack.
That doesn't mean that a fall from grace isn't in the cards for some of these teams, however. There are many franchises who raced out of the blocks this season at an incredible pace—a pace that they simply can't maintain for another 60-65 games.
A weak early-season schedule—or a slate loaded with home games—has buoyed a number of teams so far. Once the seas get rougher and the intensity kicks up a notch over the next several weeks, quite a few clubs will see their now-stellar records take a serious hit.
The Atlanta Hawks are the surprise of the NBA this season, and perhaps no one is more stunned than the team's leading scorer.
"I'm shocked," said Hawks forward Josh Smith in an interview with Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "When teams have a lot of new faces like we do, it usually takes until about December or January to click and gel."
After just 17 games, Atlanta looks like a well-oiled machine that has been together for years. Only five players on the Hawks' roster were with the team last season, yet everyone has embraced the principles of head coach Larry Drew, who has guided the team to a 12-5 start.
With a road-heavy stretch on the horizon (13 of the team's next 22 games are away from the "Highlight Factory"), the Hawks will soon begin to make their descent. That said, don't sell them short: Atlanta will be a tough out in the Eastern Conference playoffs next spring.
The fact that the Golden State Warriors are actually in the hunt for a division title defies all sorts of logic.
After all, the prevailing sentiment was that the two inhabitants of L.A.'s Staples Center—the Clippers and the Lakers—would be the big dogs in the Pacific Division yard. But as the Lake Show has struggled to find their identity, a young, upstart team from the Bay Area is making some noise in the Western Conference for the first time in five seasons.
That will end soon.
The Warriors are a feel-good, underdog story, but they turn the ball far too much to maintain their current standing (15.9 TOs per game—25th in the NBA). A return to normalcy will come, far before Andrew Bogut returns from offseason microfracture surgery.
The Memphis Grizzlies have used suffocating defense to get out to a 14-4 start this season. That puts them on pace for a staggering 64 wins—a figure that is virtually impossible to achieve in a loaded Western Conference.
Making the Grizzlies' job that much more difficult is the team's pedestrian shooting (44.3 percent—17th in the NBA). Defense wins championships, but at some point, Memphis needs to gain a bit more consistency before they can be considered in the same class as the San Antonio Spurs or the Oklahoma City Thunder.
An eventual regression to the mean doesn't mean that the Grizzlies aren't title contenders, however—they just need a bit more seasoning before they're ready to make their way up the NBA hierarchy.
Naysayers be damned: The New York Knicks are a very good team. Good enough that they can actually be considered a contender for the Eastern Conference title. But there's no way that the team can continue its torrid pace.
To expect the Knicks to play this well over the course of an entire season is foolish. A group that relies heavily on three-pointers will falter on the nights when those shots simply aren't falling.
Furthermore, integrating the currently-injured Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert—two former starters—into the Knicks' delicate chemistry will prove to be a challenge for head coach Mike Woodson. Even if both players are fine with taking a reserve role, the team dynamics are all but certain to take a negative hit.
With everyone on the roster seemingly buying into Woodson's system, chances that New York completely implodes are relatively slim. But there will be a cooling-down period at some point, an inevitable by-product after such a scorching-hot start.
The Philadelphia 76ers are currently 11-9, but with a strength of schedule currently ranked 29th in the NBA, the smart money says that they'll take a step back at some point.
That point will probably come some time around the start of the new year. Starting on December 23, the 76ers will embark on a brutal eight-game road trip that includes matchups against some of the league's better teams (Brooklyn, Memphis, Oklahoma City, San Antonio). It would be nothing short of a miracle if Philadelphia were to go at least .500 on that trip, but a 3-5 mark seems far more likely.
With an offense that only manages to score 92.3 points per game, the 76ers have been winning with a lot of smoke and mirrors to this point. At some point however, the magic will run out. Philadelphia's only hope at making a run at the Atlantic Division crown this season rests on the balky knees of one Andrew Bynum.