NBA Power Rankings: Teams Built for Playoff Success

Matt Fitzgerald@@MattFitz_geraldCorrespondent IIIDecember 21, 2012

The Thunder's winning streak just ended, but they are still the class of the NBA in this edition of power rankings.
The Thunder's winning streak just ended, but they are still the class of the NBA in this edition of power rankings.Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

NBA standings can be deceiving this early in the year, with the final playoff spots in each conference so log-jammed. But power rankings can be too and are made all the more tricky by the early-season parity in records.

Some teams like to pace themselves before making a big second-half push, while other upstarts may provide surprise storylines only to flame out as the regular season comes to a close.

Here is a look at the latest NBA power rankings through Thursday evening's action, taking into account the viability of the teams' current rosters in a playoff context as well as early season success—or lack there of as the rankings get lower, of course.

1. Oklahoma City Thunder (21-5)

Thanks to a quad injury, the OKC's new sixth man extraordinaire Kevin Martin couldn't play on Thursday night. That led to a big scoring void that Russell Westbrook primarily tried to fill in Minnesota, and it resulted in the team's first loss in 12 games.

The Timberwolves have a constantly unpredictable lineup that's difficult to prepare for. Without Martin, it was difficult for the Thunder to find their groove. It should only be a minor bump in the road.

Since the James Harden trade, the Thunder have been dominant, leading the league in scoring with just over 105 points per game.

Westbrook's shooting percentage is still a concern considering how much scoring he does, but the Thunder have to keep sticking with him thanks to his immense athleticism. Then there's Kevin Durant, whose production is up in every major statistical category. He has also improved on the defensive end, as he continues to fulfill his seemingly limitless potential.

Better offensive efficiency from Serge Ibaka has given OKC even more options on that end of the floor. All of these factors have to have the Thunder thinking about a return trip to the NBA Finals.

2.  Los Angeles Clippers (19-6)

Vinny Del Negro sure got a lot of flack in Chicago and endured heavy criticism with the Clippers in his first year. Now there aren't many complaints, as LA is undefeated in December in the midst of an 11-game winning streak.

With the return of veteran SG Chauncey Billups, things should only improve for what is currently the city's best NBA team. Chris Paul hasn't had to take on as much of a scoring role, thanks to the play of Jamal Crawford who has poured in 16.6 points per game off the bench.

Also not to neglect is second-year PG Eric Bledsoe, Paul's backup, who is an explosive scorer and has provided a spark on both ends of the floor with his athleticism. Matt Barnes is even chipping in 10 points and valuable help on defense.

Lob City is in full effect with No. 1 overall pick Blake Griffin, who continues to blossom in his second year on the court as a pro.

With more balanced scoring than a year ago, a much better bench and improvement on the defensive end, there is no telling how far the Clippers can go in the 2012-13 postseason. But it will be exciting to see what happens.

3. San Antonio Spurs (17-6)

It's same old Spurs, and I mean that quite literally. Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker form the most experienced, championship-winning trio in the game, but how much is left in the tank for them to power San Antonio to another title push?

Against the athletically superior, higher-scoring teams in the deep Western Conference, it's hard to see the Spurs getting it done. They will get past the first round of the playoffs for sure but probably no further.

4. New York Knicks (19-6)

The East is still the weaker conference, but it's hard to ignore what the Knicks have done. That said, is this really a title-contending team? Carmelo Anthony is having a monster year and has vastly improved from the three-point line. It's hard to believe that offense might be the problem considering recent Knicks teams' defensive shortcomings.

Yet, when considering that Raymond Felton and J.R. Smith average the second- and third-most shots on this New York squad, it starts to get a little concerning.

If Melo goes cold during the postseason, the Knicks will have to really lock down on defense and continue their outstanding ball security (averaging an NBA-low 10.7 turnovers per game) to have a chance. That may be too tall of an order to move past Round 2.

5. Memphis Grizzlies (17-6)

This is the No. 1 defensive team in basketball. Two formidable post presences occupy the paint in the steady and finesse: versatile Marc Gasol and the methodical, physical Zach Randolph.

The rest of the starting five consists of max contract man Rudy Gay, stalwart defender Tony Allen and Mike Conley, who may be the most underrated point guard in the association. Conley routinely makes the right decision with the basketball, is an efficient scorer and is second only to Chris Paul with an average of 2.36 steals per game.

A recent three-game losing streak was countered by a road victory in Milwaukee, and an intriguing Saturday matchup in Houston against the high-scoring Rockets should provide a strong test for the Grizzlies' defense.

Memphis could definitely use one more scorer, and departed shooting guard O.J. Mayo is definitely missed in that regard. But otherwise, this team is built for a deep playoff run.

6. Miami Heat (17-6)

The defending champs have struggled against elite competition in 2012-13. Let's be real, though: this is a squad starring LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh. They made it work last year, and they'll eventually make ti work again.

Especially in the very precarious Eastern Conference, the Heat should finish no worse than No. 2 behind the Knicks. With Miami's offensive firepower featuring the addition of legendary sharpshooter Ray Allen, who could stop them when they get rolling?

Much can be made about the Heat's loss to the Wizards. It shouldn't be a red flag. Two losses to the Knicks, and one apiece to the Clippers and Warriors shouldn't be either.

7. Golden State Warriors (17-9)

One of the biggest surprises in the early going no doubt. The Warriors are thriving under second-year coach Mark Jackson, who should get strong consideration for coach of the year if this keeps up.

As impressive as Golden State has been, though, the team is still probably one prominent player away from being a true force in the playoffs. The West is simply too deep, but this team will gain valuable experience with a winning 2012-13 campaign.

8. Atlanta Hawks (15-8)

Yet another surprise storyline. The Hawks parted ways with longtime standout shooting guard Joe Johnson, and it's working out so far. Al Horford's return has definitely helped, as he is a virtual double-double machine with a strong paint presence that Atlanta needs.

The emergence of Josh Smith as more of a leader has justified the Hawks' extended investment in him despite his talent often exceeding his on-court production.

But the Hawks aren't ready to contend just yet. There simply isn't quite enough firepower to this team despite strong play from its myriad of versatile guards. Their typical fate of bowing out in Round 2 sounds about right.

9. Chicago Bulls (14-10)

Tom Thibodeau's defensive scheme continues to work wonders in Chicago, but this team's playoff success will obviously be determined by the return of Derrick Rose.

When that occurs, the Bulls can be better evaluated. For now, it's impressive that this squad is holding together despite the absence of their best player, and his return should give them the offense they need to make a deep run.

The biggest problem is depth, and whether Rose can handle so many minutes at such a high level by the time the postseason rolls around.

10. Denver Nuggets (14-13)

Playing 19 of the first 27 games on the road is extremely difficult, but the Nuggets have weathered the storm and now sport a better than .500 record. That is in spite of a loss in Portland, where Denver was 0-for-22 from beyond the arc and still only fell short by eight points.

Top scorers Danilo Galinari (16.6 PPG, .395 FG%) and Ty Lawson (14.5 PPG, .418 FG%) should improve upon their shooting efficiency as the season progresses, and even now the Nuggets can score with almost any team in the league.

The biggest issue will be their defense, which currently allows over 100 points per game. That falls on head coach George Karl, who is known for getting his good teams to lock down.

With the Nuggets' depth, coaching and explosiveness, they could emerge as a dangerous out in the Western Conference playoffs. As tight as that playoff race is at the moment, it's hard to rule Denver out.

11. Brooklyn Nets (13-12)

With a starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Brook Lopez, the Nets are not to be taken lightly no matter what their record is.

After a strong start, Brooklyn has hit a rough patch, losing eight of their last 10 contests against a very tough slate of competition. The Nets do need to prove themselves against the NBA's elite before being considered a viable playoff team.

If the stars can all figure out how to play together—which they should—the Nets will be dangerous once the postseason rolls around.

12. Minnesota Timberwolves (13-11)

Rick Adelman has had to shift around the lineup all season long and will now have to juggle point guards Alexey Shved, Jose Juan Barea, Luke Ridnour and the recently returned Ricky Rubio.

It worked out in the team's huge home win against the Thunder, with Barea catching fire and scoring 12 straight points to reopen the Timberwolves' big lead from earlier in the game.

This is a frisky, resilient bunch, but until the rotation is solidified, it's hard to make a case for the Wolves to make any kind of postseason run.

13. Indiana Pacers (14-12)

Small forward Paul George is coming on strong for the Pacers, recently winning Player of the Week honors (h/t Frank Vogel's team has won four of its past five games to get back inside the top eight in the Eastern Conference.

Considering how tough Indy played the Miami Heat in the conference semifinals last year and will return the same nucleus of players, they could make a decent run if they continue playing at this level.

This is all without top scorer Danny Granger, who won't return until roughly February (h/t ESPN).

His absence will allow role players to step up to fill the scoring load, although it is worth noting that Granger's numbers have declined over the past four seasons. If he can return healthy and rejuvenated without having to shoulder the majority of the offensive burden, the Pacers could surprise again in the playoffs.

14. Houston Rockets (13-12)

The addition of James Harden has been a raging success, and Jeremy Lin continues to blossom in learning to play alongside his dynamic teammate. Omer Asik has been an outstanding free agent pickup by GM Daryl Morey, too.

While the Rockets do score the second-most points in the NBA, they have serious issues on defense. Until they step up on that front, they won't be able to have extended playoff success.

15. Los Angeles Lakers (12-14)

Don't give up on the Lakers just yet, as they have won three straight and just welcomed Pau Gasol back. Kobe Bryant continues to amaze, too, leading the league in scoring.

The success will be determined by Steve Nash's return and how he orchestrates the Mike D'Antoni offense that keyed him to winning two NBA MVP awards.

It's too much of a wild card to say that the Lakers can make it out of the first round given their lackluster defense and questionable depth, but it's clearly not time to hit the panic button in LA just yet.

16. Boston Celtics (13-12)

The Celtics may be the No. 8 seed, but we've seen this routine before. With several new players in the fold, Doc Rivers is molding his team and figuring out how the pieces fit together.

Ray Allen's departure has given way to a committee of shooting guards to play more significant minutes: Jason Terry, Courtney Lee and Leandro Barbosa. The problem is, they aren't all that great on defense.

Good news though, because third-year player Avery Bradley is returning soon and will provide the Celtics with a lift on that end. He came on strong down the stretch of the 2011-12 season but suffered an injury in the postseason that ultimately cut the Celtics' run short.

Oklahoma City head coach Scott Brooks raves about Bradley (h/t

Avery’s one of the best perimeter defenders in the league. He showed that last season. Even when he was hurt, he still battled out there and did some amazing things. You respect guys that play with toughness...You need them. You’re not going to win in this league if you don’t have toughness at the defensive end.

It may not be pretty in Boston right now, but the uglier and lower scoring it gets with Bradley's return, the better it will be for the Celtics' chances to make another run with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett.

17. Utah Jazz (14-13)

Mo Williams is having a career renaissance as a starter in his second stint with the team that drafted him. Combine that with the formidable duo of C Al Jefferson and PF Paul Millsap and the Jazz look pretty good on paper.

But if that's the team's version of a "Big Three," the Jazz will have a hard time getting out of the opening round in the West.

18. Milwaukee Bucks (13-11)

Something about two overconfident point guards who don't shoot very well but are leading the team in shot attempts is severely discouraging. 

Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings form a dangerous, dynamic backcourt, but neither have shot the ball at better than 40 percent from the floor. Nothing about this team is strong enough to put them past the first round.

19. Philadelphia 76ers (12-14)

How long can Doug Collins keep this team afloat? There is a serious void in scoring without Andre Iguodala, and the Sixers could definitely use Andrew Bynum at both ends of the floor.

Bynum recently said that it would be another month in the worst case scenario (h/t Delaware County Daily Times), and Philadelphia has to hope that is the case in the midst of a five-game slide. Perhaps the Sixers could emerge into a contender, but Bynum is too much of a wild card right now to go that far.

20. Portland Trail Blazers (12-12)

Point guard Damian Lillard is the front-runner for Rookie of the Year at this point, putting to rest notions that his college competition at Weber State would hurt him in his transition to the pros.

There are pieces in place in Portland for the Blazers to be successful in the future, but this won't be the year it all comes together.

21. Dallas Mavericks (12-14)

Dirk Nowitzki has yet to play, but the outstanding play of newly acquired SG O.J. Mayo has helped keep the team relevant.

Defense is a serious problem in Dallas, and the Mavs will be in trouble unless they can shore it up. There aren't enough pieces on this team to make a deep run in the playoffs. Most valuable contributors are aging significantly, and Vince Carter is prominently involved.

22. Orlando Magic (12-13)

This is a transition year for the Magic. They have a chance to possibly make it to the second round of the playoffs, but it isn't likely. Orlando needs a new star player—specifically, a scorer—to take the team to the next level.

An encouraging sign is that despite the departure of Dwight Howard, the Magic are sixth in scoring defense, giving up just 94.2 points per game.

23. Phoenix Suns (11-15)

Four straight wins will temporarily cure a lot of problems. The first two of those were impressive—against Memphis and Utah, respectively.

But the Suns don't have the depth, size or the consistency defensively to hang with the best in the West.

24. Toronto Raptors (8-19)

If any team can rally back from the edge of obscurity and make a surprising playoff push, it's the Raptors. After an ugly stretch in which they lost 12 of 13, this squad decided to get off the mat.

Four straight wins later, the battle for the playoffs doesn't seem so unrealistic. Shooting guard Alan Anderson has come out of nowhere to provide scoring help off the bench.

All of these wins have come without the injured former No. 1 pick Andrea Bargnani, which could make him a valuable trade chip at the deadline. Who knows what kind of assets the Raptors could get in the versatile seven-footer?

25. Sacramento Kings (8-17)

A disastrous cluster of isolation-based players plagues the Kings' backcourt. The future largely depends on the development of the mercurial but talented power forward DeMarcus Cousins, who has no business shooting under 42 percent from his position.

Cousins leads the Kings in scoring, though, which explains a lot about the team's current record. Tyreke Evans' team-leading 3.3 assists is also telling.

26. Detroit Pistons (7-21)

Andre Drummond was one of the most intriguing—but questioned—prospects in this year's draft class. However, he has shown plenty of promise and could form a strong front line alongside Greg Monroe for years to come.

The problem with the Pistons is their general lack of offense and allegiance to Rodney Stuckey, who simply hasn't worked out. This team needs two more stellar players to be involved in the playoff discussion.

27. Cleveland Cavaliers (5-22)

Kyrie Irving is an absolute stud, and Anderson Varejao is leading the NBA in rebounding.

There are two pieces, but what about the rest of the Cavs team? GM Chris Grant made some bold picks in Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller in the most recent draft. If they don't pan out, Cleveland is in serious trouble.

28. Charlotte Bobcats (7-18)

A semi-promising start has once again turned ugly for what has to now be considered the NBA's worst franchise. Michael Jordan's prolific career on the court continues not to translate to the front office.

Michael Kidd-Gilchrist was a solid choice in the draft, but the rest of the team just seems like a bunch of misfit perimeter-oriented players, with the likes of Byron Mullens, Brendan Haywood and Bismack Biyombo manning the post.


29. New Orleans Hornets (5-20)

No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis has unfortunately only made eight starts, and the Hornets were counting on a monster year from him to have any sort of chance at the postseason.

Fellow first-round pick Austin Rivers has been a colossal disaster thus far, and there just isn't much else on this roster other than Greivis Vasquez that looks particularly promising.

30. Washington Wizards (3-20)

Where is John Wall? The Wizards sure could use their injured star.

Lottery pick Bradley Beal is struggling mightily as a rookie without Wall in the fold, and trigger-happy Jordan Crawford leads the Wizards in scoring.

That says it all right there. Solid players Trevor Ariza, Emeka Okafor and Nene aren't doing much to help the cause, either. It's been an uninspiring year in D.C. hoops, that's for sure.


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