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Ranking Full-Strength Lakers with NBA's Elite

Zach BuckleyNational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 26, 2012

Ranking Full-Strength Lakers with NBA's Elite

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    Now that the NBA's stranglehold on Christmas Day has passed, the league will once again battle for relevancy during that oft-overlooked hoops period between the BCS bowl games and the Super Bowl.

    Despite another impressive December 25 showing, commissioner David Stern's like will once again be relegated to second-tier status in the professional sports specter.

    It's an unfortunate reality given that the 2012-13 season has already been chocked full of exciting headline stories.

    And none of those stories has garnered more media attention or more passionate debate among basketball purists than that of the Los Angeles Lakers.

    The Lakers dominated offseason headlines with their acquisitions of future Hall of Famers Steve Nash and Dwight Howard. Their early-season struggles (which cost former head coach Mike Brown his job just five games into the season) reigned as the most compelling basketball story out of the gate.

    And now that the team has returned a healthy Nash and Pau Gasol to its lineup, L.A.'s front-page tyranny continues. With a five-game winning streak in tow, the Lakers have started appearing as the championship contenders that scouts, analysts and fans anticipated following their offseason heist.

    But just how strong are their title chances? And now that their near full strength, where exactly does this team rank among the greatest in the game?

    *All statistics used in this article are accurate as of 12/25/2012.

10. Houston Rockets

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    The Rockets' path to the postseason won't be easy in a deep Western Conference.

    But coach Kevin McHale's group has been hotter than any team outside of Los Angeles.

    Winners in six of their past seven games, the Rockets (15-12) are knocking off the NBA's elite like they were $400 basketball shoes. Their current four-game winning streak has seen victories over the New York Knicks, Memphis Grizzlies and Chicago Bulls.

    Analysts abound said that the pairing of James Harden and Jeremy Lin could never work. They said that there weren't enough offensive touches to go around.

    But McHale solved that problem by generating even more touches for the tandem atop the NBA's most potent offense (106.0 points per game).

    Harden has cemented his standing in the league's scoring race (25.7 points per game). He and Lin have built their impressive assist numbers (11.8 per game combined) thanks in large part to the wealth of shooters on the roster (six players are shooting at least 34.5 percent from three-point land).

9. Atlanta Hawks

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    New Hawks GM Danny Ferry put his club in a position to be successful over the coming seasons by cutting ties with expensive holdovers Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams over the offseason.

    But even he could not have imagined that Atlanta's good fortunes would come to fruition this quickly.

    Through their first 25 games of the season, the Hawks have faced the 11th-toughest schedule in the NBA (according to ESPN.com). And they've handled that adversity to the tune of 16 wins and just nine losses.

    Atlanta may not have a single superstar performer in terms of statistics, but it's found a competitive trio in bigs Josh Smith and Al Horford, along with supersub turned recent starter Lou Williams (who have scored a combined 46.2 points per game).

    But what's really kept the Hawks entrenched in the Eastern Conference playoff picture is the way that the rest of the roster has supported their big three. This team has speed (Jeff Teague and Devin Harris), toughness (Ivan Johnson and Zaza Puchlia) and shooters galore (Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and Anthony Morrow).

8. Golden State Warriors

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    The main caveat to any 2012-13 success for the Warriors was thought to be their ability to stay healthy. With oft-injured stars Stephen Curry and Andrew Bogut rounding out the top of their rotation, the concerns were legitimate.

    But Bogut managed just 73 minutes of action spread across four games before giving way to ankle injury that still has the big man sidelined indefinitely. And that's 48 more minutes than the club has received from potential Sixth Man of the Year candidate Brandon Rush, who was lost for the season after tearing his ACL in the team's second game.

    Yet here stand the Warriors with the fifth-best record in the Western Conference (18-10).

    Those valid health concerns had much more to do with the availability of Curry than they ever had to do with Bogut. The fourth-year point guard has churned out his best season to date (20.2 points and 6.4 assists per game).

    Coach Mark Jackson's rotation might feature a bevy of inexperienced youth, but he's balanced those young stars with a trio of veterans that have helped this club look ready to cash in the postseason promises from the new Warriors regime (even if it came a year later than they said it would, via CBSSports.com).

    Carl Landry and Jarrett Jack have given this second unit the legitimacy that was lacking in recent Warrior teams. And David Lee (20.0 points and 11.3 rebounds per game) is putting forth yet another All-Star offering, and his team's performance may be enough to punch his All-Star ticket.

7. Memphis Grizzlies

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    When conjuring up visions of coach Lionel Hollins team, two words jump to the forefront: resiliency and toughness.

    To date, the Grizzlies haven't needed to call on that resiliency in the 2012-13 season. They have avoided the big-name injuries that have decimated their rotations in recent seasons.

    But that toughness has been evident in each of the team's 18 wins.

    The Grizzlies have battled on the glass, posting the league's sixth-best rebounding differential (plus-3.7). Their formidable frontcourt duo of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol have accounted for 20.4 rebounds per game.

    The steady hand of point guard Mike Conley (6.3 assists and 2.9 turnovers per game) has afforded the Grizzlies enough productive offensive trips in Hollins' controlled-tempo offensive system.

    What makes this Memphis team even more scary than its already impressive resume makes it is the fact that Rudy Gay has yet to play his best basketball. After shooting above 45 percent from the field in each of his past five seasons, Gay has converted just 41.8 percent of his field-goal attempts in 2012-13.

6. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Coach Mike D'Antoni stressed the importance of patience over the early course of his Lakers career.

    He promised that the team's jumbled offensive flow would work itself out with the return of two-time MVP Steve Nash.

    If Nash's first two games back are any indication, D'Antoni knew what he was talking about.

    The team hasn't performed at the efficient level that its coach anticipated, but still has wins over the Warriors and New York Knicks to show for its efforts.

    Kobe Bryant has increased the intensity of his scoring title campaign (he's the leading the league with 29.9 points per game). The fact that he's converting his plentiful looks at the rate of 47.5 percent from the field has cemented his running in another race: NBA MVP.

    With Metta World Peace seemingly loving life as an NBA sixth man (he's averaged 19 points per game since his December 18 move to the second unit) and Dwight Howard and Pau Gasol still working their way toward 100 percent, the Lakers should only improve as the season continues.

5. San Antonio Spurs

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    Depending on your viewpoint of this ranking, this could be looking as a slight to the always-overlooked Spurs.

    They have amassed the fourth-best winning percentage in the league (.724) and already defeated the Oklahoma City Thunder, Denver Nuggets, Rockets (twice) and Celtics (twice).

    The 36-year-old Tim Duncan has found that always elusive fountain of youth, pouring in 17.4 points, 10.2 rebounds and 2.5 blocks on a nightly basis. Tony Parker has thrown his name in the MVP race with 19.0 points and 7.2 assists per game.

    A lot of credit for the Spurs success goes, as always, to coach Gregg Popovich. He's transformed this franchise from a grind-it-out defensive force into the league's second-most potent offensive attack (105.0 points per game).

    But San Antonio has shown a bit more vulnerability than in recent years, particularly when matched up against the league's elites. It's traded home wins with the Thunder and Nuggets, and remain winless against the Knicks and Los Angeles Clippers.

4. New York Knicks

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    Despite their recent skid (the Knicks have lost three of their past five), the Knicks remain one of the few legitimate championship hopeful teams in the NBA.

    Coach Mike Woodson has done a masterful job of balancing a new-found post attack from Carmelo Anthony with the league's third-best perimeter attack (39.3 percent).

    The Knicks aren't just equipped with prolific shooters, they're overflowing with them. Five different players have shot at least 42.9 percent from deep. Three others have topped the 35 percent mark.

    But this isn't your typical run-and-gun offensive attack. Sure, New York averages the sixth-most points in the NBA (102.3 points per game). But it's also held opponents to just 96.6 points per game (13th-fewest in the league).

    To simply the math (and further display New York's dominance), that leaves the Knicks with a plus-5.7 scoring differential (fifth-best in the NBA).

    Thanks to better shot selection and becoming a more willing passer, Anthony is enjoying the best season of his nine-year career. His 26.0 player efficiency rating his him on pace to shatter his career best, while six of his teammates have posted PERs above the 15.0 average.

3. Los Angeles Clippers

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    No team is playing better basketball right now than coach Vinny Del Negro's group.

    Its 112-100 win over the Denver Nuggets on Christmas night extended its current winning streak to a franchise-best 14 games. During that stretch, it has failed to win by double-digits just four times.

    The Clippers do just about everything well.

    They rank in the top 10 in both points scored (ninth with 101.6 per game) and points allowed (third with 91.9 per game). They lead the NBA with a plus-9.7 scoring differential. The rebounding (plus-1.7) and turnover (minus-2.9) battles have both fallen in their favor.

    A lot has been said about the caliber of opponents they've faced during this run. And for good reason; they're not exactly squaring off with league's best lately.

    On the season, though, they have faced the 10th-toughest schedule in the league. And they've dismantled that opposition with league's best winning percentage (.786).

    But they're still searching for depth, particularly on the frontcourt. Now, they might already have enough to make a title run. Until that time, though, it's tough to rank them ahead of the top two teams on this list.

2. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    Anything that this Thunder team can accomplish in 2012-13 can no longer be considered a surprise.

    With a 2011-12 Western Conference championship under their belt and a strong contingency of youthful returners (albeit absent of one James Harden), coach Scott Brooks and company look well on their way to another lengthy postseason run.

    Kevin Durant (the reigning three-time scoring champion) has somehow gotten even better on the offensive end. He's a legitimate threat to join the league's exclusive 50-40-90 club, posting field-goal, three-point and free-throw averages of 52.1, 43.0 and 90.0, respectively. All three categories either break or match his previous career-bests.

    He has also taken on a greater distributor role with Harden removed from the equation. Although still not what one would call a point-forward, his 4.2 assists per game has him on pace for yet another career high.

    But the Thunder (21-6) might have their best title hopes coming this season thanks to the maturation of point guard Russell Westbrook. The four-year veteran is on pace for his own career high in assists (8.6 per game) while matching a career low in turnovers per-36-minutes (3.4).

1. Miami Heat

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    If there was an argument to be made for the Thunder to occupy this spot, it's one whose bubble was burst during Miami's 103-97 win over Oklahoma City on Christmas Day.

    The defensive leaks that the Heat showed during the early portions of the season have been plugged. After allowing 100.6 points per game over their first 17 contests, Miami has given up just 90.5 in its past eight games.

    Dwyane Wade has battled some nagging injuries along with the omnipresent race with Father Time. Yet he's answered those challenges with a career-best 51.2 field-goal percentage (just the second time in his nine-year career that he's shot better than 50 percent from the field).

    Chris Bosh has occupied the role of third option brilliantly. His 17.9 points, 7.8 rebounds and 1.3 blocks per game have breathed new life into Miami's post.

    But the main argument for Miami holding this spot (and the NBA's best chance at a championship) is the fact that it still has the best player on the planet, LeBron James.

    The King has once again removed the threat of his talented teammates and implanted himself atop the MVP race. He leads the team in scoring (25.5), rebounding (8.5), assists (6.9), minutes (37.7) and player efficiency rating (29.3).

    His 2011-12 campaign was one of the finest ever put forth in the game's history. The 2012-13 season is far from over, but he's on pace for an even better performance this time around.

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