5 Teams That Will Challenge NBA's Elite as Season Heats Up
The dividing line between the haves and the have-nots of the NBA is blurring by the day.
The San Antonio Spurs have stumbled through four of their last five outings. The Miami Heat lost to the Washington Wizards in D.C. and have struggled to rebound and defend with any consistency from night to night. The Los Angeles Lakers can hardly be considered elite after a dismal start to the season, though things are looking up with Steve Nash due back soon.
The Oklahoma City Thunder seem to be the only reliable team among the league's preseason upper echelon at the moment. They have strung together wins in their last 11 outings and currently own the best record in the Association at 20-4.
But even the Thunder lack the air of invincibility that has defined some of the greatest teams of all-time—the Chicago Bulls of the '90s, the Los Angeles Lakers of the Showtime and Kobe-Shaq eras, the Bill Russell and then Bird-McHale-Parish-led Boston Celtics and so on.
Parity, it seems, is the order of the day in the NBA, and these five surprising squads appear best suited to make it so during the 2012-13 season.
5. Golden State Warriors
At 17-8, the Golden State Warriors are off to their best start in decades, and yet they've barely registered on the national radar. A comeback win over the defending-champion Heat—the highlight of a 6-1 Eastern Conference road swing—earned the Dubs an edgewise word at most.
Nonetheless, there's every reason to believe that Golden State is for real. The team is still scoring at a top-10 efficiency despite slow starts from Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, among others. Those two shooting stars are only now rounding into form.
Better yet, they are finally defending. The Warriors currently rank 11th in the league in defensive efficiency despite Andrew Bogut—their presumed anchor on that end of the floor—in uniform for just four games on account of ongoing ankle troubles.
That sort of effort will go a long way towards building a sustainable winner, especially on those nights when the long ball just isn't falling.
The "We Believe" Warriors were a fun, if fleeting, outfit, but may be blown out of the water by the Golden State team of 2012-13.
4. Chicago Bulls
The only real surprise from the Chicago Bulls' 14-10 start is that their record is good enough to stand atop the Central Division. The Indiana Pacers were supposed to be the cream of the crop until Derrick Rose's return, but Danny Granger's extended absence put a crimp in those plans.
Meanwhile, the Bulls continue to plug along, even while their players drop like flies. Kirk Hinrich has been inconsistent while battling through a bruised knee and Rip Hamilton is back on the training table with a torn plantar fascia in his left foot.
The "Bench Mob" that held the team together so well last season is no more, replaced by cheaper, more cap-friendly spare parts. But the new crew has filled in admirably, though the bulk of the credit for Chicago's sustenance belongs to the front-court core of Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and even Carlos Boozer.
Noah and Deng have played massive minutes (both over 40 minutes per game), while the heavily criticized Boozer remains productive, albeit at a level below his pay grade.
Tom Thibodeau may be grinding his players to a pulp, but they have yet to show any signs of revolt or fatigue, and Rose is expected back around the All-Star break in mid-February.
If the Bulls can hang on until then, they may well snag some semblance of home court advantage in the Eastern Conference.
3. Los Angeles Clippers
The Los Angeles Clippers are one win away from extending their current streak to a franchise-record-tying 11 games.
No, the Clippers have never won 11 in a row. And yes, that streak dates back to their days as the Buffalo Braves.
In any case, these Clipps have come by their 18-6 record in hard-working fashion. They've already beaten the Memphis Grizzlies, the Heat, the Bulls and the Spurs (twice).
Their bench is the second-most productive in the NBA—thanks in no small part to Jamal Crawford's campaign for Sixth Man of the Year—and boasts 12-man depth even with Grant Hill sidelined.
There are drawbacks to having such a deep rotation, though. So many valuable bodies can help during the regular season, when the grind of an 82-game schedule takes its toll. But come playoff time, Vinny Del Negro will likely have to shorten his bench, and tread carefully while doing so.
That aside, Los Angeles looks like a legitimate threat in the Western Conference. Blake Griffin and Lamar Odom are both rounding into form, the former from nagging injuries and the latter from being out of shape for almost a year and a half. Chris Paul has been as steady as ever, with Eric Bledsoe coming along swimmingly as his backup and Chauncey Billups still on the mend to some extent.
And, at long last, DeAndre Jordan is repaying the Clippers for their $43 million in kindness with more than just blocks and lob dunks.
Best of all, the "Clipper Curse" seems to have latched onto penny-pinching owner Donald Sterling, whose legal troubles could expedite a transfer of power out of his money-grubbing hands.
2. New York Knicks
The New York Knicks' grip on the top spot in the Eastern Conference appears to be slipping. They nearly succumbed to Kyrie Irving's Batman routine against the Cleveland Cavaliers and were just trounced a second time by the Houston Rockets.
Granted, these recent lackluster efforts have come without Carmelo Anthony, who may or may not be the NBA MVP if the season were to end today. He missed both of those games on account of an ankle injury.
Melo's not alone in that regard, though. Marcus Camby and Rasheed Wallace are day-to-day, while Amar'e Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert have yet to play this season thanks to more serious maladies.
All the while, the Knicks are beginning to cool off from three-point range, and their defensive rating has slipped considerably—down to 18th, per Basketball Reference—as Tyson Chandler has started to show his age.
Why, then, is there any hope that New York can contend with the NBA's best going forward?
For one, the Knicks have already done it, topping the Spurs and the Heat twice apiece—the latter by 20 points both times out. And that's without their full complement.
Stoudemire won't reverse New York's defensive slippage, but he will provide a scoring presence in the paint when Melo and Chandler sit and the three-ball just isn't cutting it. Especially if he's as willing to come off the bench as he says he is.
The team's perimeter defense should also tighten up a bit once Shumpert returns from his knee injury (and his budding rap career) to spell Jason Kidd at the off-guard spot.
In other words, the Knicks are a work in progress, albeit one with an impressive 18-6 record.
1. Memphis Grizzlies
The NBA is a copycat league, but don't accuse the Memphis Grizzlies of plagiarism. While most of the league is trending toward floor-spreading and fast-paced small ball, the Grizzlies have stuck stubbornly to playing slow, deliberate, inside-out basketball.
And have done quite well with it to date. They're 16-6—good for third in the Western Conference–with wins over the Thunder, the Lakers, the Heat and the Knicks already on their resume.
Lionel Hollins' squad plays at the fifth-slowest pace in basketball and ranks a mere 13th in offensive efficiency, but has flourished by playing a tough, hard-nosed style of basketball on both ends of the floor.
Pairing two earthbound bigs in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol has been a recipe for success in the Music City. They have anchored the middle of the offense beautifully, with Rudy Gay slashing off the wing and Mike Conley, Jr. blossoming into a bona fide floor general up top.
The Grizz don't take many threes (29th in attempts), but they convert the ones they attempt at a top-10 mark. Their bench (28th in scoring) has fallen off from its hot start, but sports enough valuable contributors to get by.
More importantly, this team has a clear defensive identity and plenty of experience to boot. The Grizzlies are tops in the NBA in defensive efficiency and play the sort of grind-it-out, tight-rotation basketball that has so often won out in the postseason.
What's more, they have beaten the Spurs and challenged the Thunder in the playoffs before, and may well have made a run this past spring if not for Z-Bo's slow recovery from a regular season injury.
Memphis may not play the prettiest brand of basketball, but it knows full well how to impose its will on the league's more glamorous entities.
Which is far more important to ultimate success than aesthetics.
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