The 2012-13 NBA season is still in its early stages, but there are pleasant surprises that have already emerged.
A few of the traditional powers from the past few seasons have not fared well, with the Los Angeles Lakers, Boston Celtics and Dallas Mavericks all hovering around .500.
This has opened the door for newcomers to make headlines, and a few teams have seized this opportunity.
Here are my NBA Power Rankings, with highlights on all of this year’s surprising successes that will keep rolling.
1. Oklahoma City Thunder (17-4)
The James Harden trade does not appear to be affecting the Thunder’s regular-season play, and they are currently tied with the San Antonio Spurs for the best winning percentage in the NBA. The team has gelled with its new pieces quickly and will be ready for another deep playoff run in spring.
2. San Antonio Spurs (17-4)
Well, it isn't too early to conclusively state that this will not be the year that San Antonio’s core becomes too old to compete. Greg Popovich has the Spurs playing at the same level they were last year and the team looks set to challenge for the league’s best record once again.
3. Miami Heat (13-5)
While it is tempting to drop Miami down after recent losses to the Washington Wizards and the New York Knicks, the defending champs are still one of the dominant forces in the league. LeBron James is still the best player in the NBA, and there is nothing to cause serious doubt about the Heat’s ability to return to the finals.
4. New York Knicks (15-5)
While the Knicks’ roster makeover created high expectations for this season, few expected the team to be this successful.
Carmelo Anthony is off to an exceptional start and will certainly be an MVP candidate if he continues playing at the same level. He has spent significant time playing off position at power forward due to Amare Stoudemire’s absence, and he has done so incredibly effectively.
The Knicks have depth, experience and balance. The team has offensive specialists like Tyson Chandler and Ronnie Brewer to complement scoring threats like J.R. Smith and Steve Novak.
With Anthony’s play pulling everything together, the Knicks will continue winning throughout the regular season.
5. Memphis Grizzlies (14-4)
The Grizzlies are another team that were expected to compete, but not to excel.
Memphis has a core of players who have grown accustomed to each other, and the team has a starting five that can rival any group in the league. With surprising contribution from the bench players, the Grizzlies have been extremely tough to beat this season.
Lionel Hollins is an early favorite for coach of the year, and he has his team tied with the Chicago Bulls for the best defensive efficiency mark in the NBA.
This an extremely dangerous team that must be taken seriously as a championship contender this season.
6. Los Angeles Clippers (14-6)
Chauncey Billups is clearly a difference-maker for this team, and if he can stay healthy, the Clippers have a chance to become a major player in the West. But it still seems likely that, come playoff time, the team will not be able to contend with the heavyweights in its conference.
7. Atlanta Hawks (12-5)
The Hawks are providing Grantland’s Bill Simmons with another case study to add to his “Ewing Theory,” which states that an underachieving team will play better if it loses a superstar who receives too much attention. This has been the case following Joe Johnson’s departure, and the Hawks have five players averaging over 10 points per game.
8. Chicago Bulls (11-8)
The Bulls defense has not trailed off without Derrick Rose, and Chicago remains the most difficult team in the league to score against. When the Bulls have their star point guard back, they will start rapidly climbing up power rankings.
9. Golden State Warriors (13-7)
Warriors fans are starting to get a taste of what life will be like when Andrew Bogut and David Lee are in the starting frontcourt, and they must be pleased.
Stephen Curry is playing extremely well now that he is healthy, and Klay Thompson is continuing to be a reliable backcourt partner. If Harrison Barnes comes around, this team could shake up the West’s playoff picture.
With talented young players across all positions, Golden State has a chance to build on its early-season success.
Lionel Hollins' chances to win coach of the year will take a hit if Mark Jackson keep his team playing this well.
10. Brooklyn Nets (11-8)
Injuries have hurt the Nets, and the primary focus for Avery Johnson will be ensuring that his team is healthy for a postseason run. There is a frightening amount of talent in Brooklyn’s starting five, but questions will remain if the team keeps playing at a mediocre level.
11. Los Angeles Lakers (9-12)
With Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard putting up impressive numbers, the Lakers deserve the benefit of the doubt. When Steve Nash comes back from injury, coach Mike D’Antoni’s plans for the team will start to take form and L.A. will steadily improve.
12. Boston Celtics (11-9)
With several offseason signings to help replace Ray Allen, the Celtics still have a roster capable of carrying them back to the Eastern Conference finals. The team had a slow start to last season and turned it on in the playoffs; expect the same this year.
13. Milwaukee Bucks (10-9)
Last season’s trade between Golden State and Milwaukee appears to be working out well for both teams, and the Bucks have a chance to continue surprising teams this season.
There are certainly flaws with Milwaukee’s roster, but having Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt provides the team with a potent one-two scoring punch.
The Bucks do not have the balance to become one of the East’s top teams, but their ability to push the pace and get points from their guards makes them dangerous.
If Milwaukee sneaks into the playoff, expect Ellis and Jennings to impersonate the 2008-09 Bulls and make life difficult for a high seed, just as Derrick Rose and Ben Gordon did against the Celtics four seasons ago.
14. Utah Jazz (12-10)
With plenty of talent in the frontcourt, Utah has excellent depth. There are several players who could explode for a big night on this roster, and the Jazz will certainly contend for a playoff spot this season.
15. Minnesota Timberwolves (9-9)
The Timberwolves currently rank third in the NBA in defensive efficiency this year. That is an excellent sign for this team as the offense is bound to improve when Ricky Rubio returns to the court and Kevin Love continues to work towards returning to 100 percent.
16. Denver Nuggets (10-11)
The Nuggets are still an offensively potent team with the potential to surprise teams late in the year, but they will have to start performing better against the teams ranked above them on this list.
17. Indiana Pacers (10-11)
The Pacers certainly have not looked like a playoff team this year, despite many experts picking them to return to the postseason. Indiana has been sloppy and disorganized, and it will need to make a drastic turnaround going forward.
18. Philadelphia 76ers (11-9)
Jrue Holiday is putting up All-Star numbers, but this team isn’t going anywhere without Andrew Bynum. Due to the center’s injury and character concerns, he is a risky player to pin a franchise’s hopes on.
19. Dallas Mavericks (10-10)
O.J. Mayo is proving how productive he can be in a starting role, and when Dirk Nowitzki returns, the Mavericks’ roster will all of a sudden look pretty decent. Expect Dallas to start a steady climb up the standings when its star gets back on the floor.
20. Houston Rockets (9-10)
James Harden is continuing to prove that he is an elite scorer, but he is not a player who can lead a group of role players on a playoff run. Right now, that is all Houston has around him.
21. Portland Trail Blazers (8-12)
Damian Lillard is living up to expectations, and along with LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers had a nice core to build around. However, the team has too many unproven players on the roster to really make an impact this season.
22. Orlando Magic (8-12)
The Magic are getting closer to the approximate win total many expected them to have for the entire season. While Orlando is not as terrible as it was originally though to be, it is still not going to accomplish much this season.
23. Charlotte Bobcats (7-12)
The Bobcats are also surprisingly not so terrible. The backcourt is certainly crowded in Charlotte, but all of the talented young guards have found a way to score in the double digits with Kemba Walker leading the way.
24. Sacramento Kings (7-12)
The Kings have been getting adequate production from DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans again this year, but are continuing to tread water instead of improving. Another mediocre season seems inevitable.
25. Detroit Pistons (7-15)
The Pistons have a few young players who could one day turn into something special, but the roster is still clearly missing several pieces.
26. Phoenix Suns (7-15)
Nothing against Goran Dragic, but when a team’s leading scorer spent the majority of last season as a backup on a team that didn’t make the playoffs, that team likely isn’t going anywhere. This appears to be the case for Phoenix.
27. New Orleans Hornets (5-14)
Anthony Davis’ return will be a massive boost for this team, but the Hornets will likely continue recording the occasional surprising win in the midst of a sea of losses.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (4-17)
The Cavaliers are putting together the type of season Cleveland sports fans are used to, but Kyrie Irving’s return may just turn the team’s fortunes around.
29. Toronto Raptors (4-17)
There’s little hope for the league’s lone Canadian team, and Bryan Colangelo will continue to try to deal with a roster that has significantly more questions than answers.
30. Washington Wizards (2-15)
The Wizards' excitement over their victory against the Heat shows how rare wins are (and will continue to be) this season.
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