Each NBA team is a chemistry experiment. Talent alone does not win championships. General managers must put together the right mix of skills, experience and personalities in order to create a winning formula.
Elite teams typically have star power as well as a deep rotation of complementary players. They support one another, work as cohesive units on the court, are well-coached, have strong leadership and are playoff battle-tested.
The Miami Heat came together to win the NBA championship last season, and the San Antonio Spurs are perennial contenders behind the leadership of Tim Duncan. During the first two months of the 2012-13 season, a few other teams have proven themselves to be threats to dethrone the Heat.
Here are four teams that have arrived as title contenders.
The Los Angeles Clippers are currently riding a 14-game winning streak and have the best record in the league at 22-6.
They took a giant leap forward last year after the acquisition of Chris Paul. Additional punch off the bench and more aggressive team defense have elevated the Clippers to elite status.
L.A. leads the NBA in steals with 10.56 per game and is surrendering just 91.9 points per game. Big men Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan in particular have been more assertive in their defensive rotations.
Jamal Crawford is averaging 16.5 points in under 30 minutes of play and is in the running for his second Sixth Man of the Year Award. Matt Barnes and Ronny Turiaf have brought energy and toughness to the Clippers' second unit, and guard Eric Bledsoe is averaging 17.9 points, 5.0 rebounds, 5.3 assists and 2.9 steals per 36 minutes.
The Clippers will be even deeper once Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill return from injury. Lamar Odom could also become a valuable contributor off the bench if he works his way back into shape.
This team is deeper and more experienced than the Clippers squad that was swept by San Antonio in the playoffs last year. With the one-two punch of Paul and Griffin and a commitment to team defense, they can compete with any team in the Western Conference.
The Memphis Grizzlies followed a memorable playoff run in 2011 with a disappointing first-round exit in the 2012 playoffs at the hands of the Los Angeles Clippers.
Management made few changes during the offseason. Memphis returned the same starting five, and the stability appears to have paid off. The Grizzlies are currently 18-8 and the No. 4 seed in the Western Conference.
At a time when most coaches are playing smaller lineups, the Grizzlies are beating teams the old-fashioned way. They pound the ball inside, control the backboards and pressure the basketball.
The offense runs through their two big men, Zach Randolph, who is second in the league with 12.8 rebounds per game, and Marc Gasol. Gasol's ability to pass out of the high post allows them to space the floor and work together effectively and creates a matchup nightmare for opposing coaches.
The Grizzlies' major weakness is a lack of bench production. Quincy Pondexter is their leading scorer off the bench with just 6.6 points per game.
Amar'e Stoudemire's knee injury during training camp was a blessing in disguise for the New York Knicks. It freed up Coach Mike Woodson to move Carmelo Anthony to the 4 spot where the Knicks' star has flourished.
Defenses are forced to double-team Anthony while accounting for Tyson Chandler in the pick-and-roll, which has created open shots for the Knicks' perimeter players. New York is currently on pace to set the record for most three-pointers attempted and made in a season.
The other key to the Knicks' success has been ball protection. The addition of veteran guards Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd have stabilized the offense. Last season the Knicks averaged 16 turnovers per game, second most in the league. This year they are averaging the fewest at 10.8.
The most crucial stretch of the season for the Knicks will be when Stoudemire returns. Amar'e can give the Knicks a huge lift off the bench, but if his pride gets in the way, the six-time All-Star could disrupt the chemistry of this tight-knit team.
After Miami, the Eastern Conference is wide open. The Knicks blew out the Heat in each of their two meetings this season. Whether they can beat them in a best-of-seven playoff series is another story.
James Harden was the Oklahoma City Thunder's primary ball handler in the fourth quarter and well-liked in the locker room. It came as a shock to his teammates when he was traded to the Houston Rockets days before the start of the season, and it was not clear how the move would affect the team's chemistry on and off the court.
Through 27 games, OKC has shown no ill effects from the trade or losing in the NBA Finals. This new version of the Thunder has been as dominant as last year's team. At 21-6, they are just a half a game behind the Los Angeles Clippers for the league's best record.
Kevin Martin, who OKC acquired in the Harden trade, has filled in nicely as the Thunder's new sixth man. Martin plays a different type of game than Harden did, preferring to score off of jump shots rather than running the pick-and-roll. He is averaging 15.7 points per game—compared to Harden's 16.8 last season—and is shooting 45 percent from behind the arc.
Kevin Durant has continued to round out his game. The three-time scoring champion is averaging careers highs in rebounds, assists, steals and three-point percentage. Serge Ibaka has improved his mid-range jump shot, and Russell Westbrook can use his athleticism to take over a game at any time.
OKC remains the favorite to come out of the Western Conference this season, which could result in the opportunity to avenge their loss to the Heat. However, they may still be one scorer away from a championship.