Do LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and the Heat have the inside track to the NBA Finals?
What does 2013 have in store for your favorite NBA team?
The start of a new year is always a reason to be hopeful.
Title contenders enter 2013 with visions of glory, of playing deep into June, and of hoisting the Larry O'Brien Trophy. Meanwhile, the new year is a natural time to reevaluate things, allowing fans of cellar dwellers to focus on the bright spots and, worst-case scenario, to look towards the lottery.
Let's take a look at which teams are going to have a happy new year and which will struggle through 2013.
All stats in this article are accurate as of Dec. 31, 2012.
The Hawks are gelling and Josh Smith is pumped.
Expectations were measured before the season, but the Atlanta Hawks must be optimistic now.
Josh Smith and Al Horford are as strong in the post as ever. The backcourt-by-committee has coalesced into an efficient unit, raining threes and playing solid defense.
Without Joe Johnson in town, Atlanta can't call anyone a star, yet the Hawks are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency and improbably third in the Eastern Conference.
The Hawks are playing team basketball as well as anyone in the league. There's no reason to expect that to stop. What looked last summer to be a rebuilding team is well on its way to hosting a series in the first round of the playoff.
Atlanta is likely to run into one of the beasts of the East in the conference semis. That's likely when the Hawks' season will end. Considering how few mistakes they make, however, they might have what it takes to stun a stronger team.
There's some extra incentive for the Hawks to make a deep run; Smith's contract expires after this season, and he could be persuaded to sign elsewhere.
The Hawks are playing too well to trade him now. Considering how Smith has emerged as a leader of this tight-knit team, expect him to come back to Atlanta after this season.
Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett need some help in Boston.
The Boston Celtics need to get some help for their aging stars.
Paul Pierce is getting by as Boston's primary scorer with 20.2 points per game, but Kevin Garnett cannot control the paint by himself. Boston has looked absolutely lost defensively when KG leaves the floor; Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger just don't cut it as post defenders.
Even at 36 years old, Garnett can still disrupt opposing offenses, but he needs another interior presence to bolster the defense. With the Celtics 12th in the league in points allowed per 100 possessions, they'll need to make an acquisition to lift their defense back to elite status.
Avery Bradley's return will help, as will the inevitable trade for a post defender. That should be enough to get Boston from the postseason bubble to the middle of the playoff pack.
Hopefully Pierce, Garnett, Rajon Rondo, and Doc Rivers have enough leftover ubuntu to win a playoff series, but that's the peak of what this Celtics team can achieve. What you're watching right now is the slow but sure end of an era in Boston.
Deron Williams and P.J. Carlesimo will have to fix this team on the fly.
No team enters 2013 with less stability than the Brooklyn Nets.
The NBA's hottest relocated franchise finds itself with two slumping stars and an interim head coach.
Deron Williams and Joe Johnson are both playing subpar basketball for guys on max contracts, and even worse, they look disheartened and disinterested while doing it. Now that the Nets have fired Avery Johnson, it's up to notorious screamer P.J. Carlesimo to inspire his guards and reignite his team.
On the bright side, Brooklyn just has too much going for it to miss the playoffs.
As mediocre as Williams and Johnson have been, Brook Lopez is having a career year. Andray Blatche and Reggie Evans have been effective off the bench. Gerald Wallace is a bloodhound of a forward whose work ethic could potentially spread to his more lackadaisical teammates.
That said, don't expect much more from Williams and Johnson. Billy King will probably shop Kris Humphries for a scoring guard off the bench, which should help things.
The Nets have fallen from the ranks of the great to the pretty good. That will be enough to get them into the back end of the playoff picture, but they have first-round exit written all over them.
The Bobcats are wasting a big improvement from Kemba Walker.
Good news, Bobcats fans: it's not going to be this bad forever.
Charlotte followed up its surprising 7-5 start with an 18-game (and counting) losing streak. When your team is sixth-worst in the league in offensive efficiency and dead last in defensive efficiency, that sort of thing is bound to happen.
In the midst of the carnage, however, there have been a couple signs of progress in Charlotte.
Kemba Walker has improved just about every facet of his game, with 18.2 points and 5.9 assists per game in his sophomore campaign. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is already an effective two-way player and is a good bet to appear on an NBA All-Defensive Team someday.
While Gerald Henderson, Ramon Sessions and Ben Gordon have all been relatively useful players, any or all of them will likely be traded to a contender.
The Bobcats have shown glimpses of what they can someday be, but the fast start was a fluke. They're destined for a top 10 draft pick at the very least.
The Bulls future rests on the surgically-repaired knee of Derrick Rose.
Chicago Bulls fans enter 2013 with high morale and crossed fingers.
Tom Thibodeau has assembled yet another top-five defense, as Chicago is allowing just 98.6 points per 100 possessions.
Joakim Noah and Taj Gibson have made up for the loss of Ömer Aşık on the defensive end. Luol Deng has been an absolute workhorse, leading the league by playing 40.5 minutes per game. Kirk Hinrich and Nate Robinson have been able to hold down the fort at point guard.
Therein lies the trepidation; until Derrick Rose gets back on the floor, there's no way to tell what this Bulls team is capable of.
They've worked their way to the top of the Central division without one of the best players in the league, but the Bulls won't go far in the playoffs without him.
If Rose is still a half-step slow come playoff time, Chicago might bully their way through one round, but not two. If Rose resembles his MVP-caliber self, though, the Bulls can push anyone in a seven-game series.
Right now, all we know is that Thibodeau says he's "doing great." That's reassuring, but Bulls fans will just have to keep holding their breath until Rose returns.
Aside from Varejao, Kyrie Irving has no support in Cleveland.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have two guys who look right and 13 others who don't.
Kyrie Irving and Anderson Varejão are both generating some All-Star buzz with their stellar play. Irving's 23.6 points per game would rank sixth in the NBA if he were qualified yet, while Varejão is putting up 14.1 points to go along with his league-leading 14.4 boards.
Unfortunately, Irving only has 5.5 assists because of the lack of firepower around him.
Of Cleveland's leading shooters, Dion Waiters and C.J. Miles are both shooting below .400 from the field, while Alonzo Gee is just a tick over. When you look at the Cavs' player efficiency ratings, Irving and Varejão both have PERs over 21.0; their next closest teammate is Tristan Thompson with 13.0.
Cleveland's roster gambles are busting left and right, at least for this season. Teams are going to blow up the Cavs' phones trying to trade for Varejão. Outside of Irving, Waiters, and probably Thompson, anyone could get thrown into a potential deal.
The Cavaliers are squandering great performances from their best players, and that's only going to continue. Irving will still be fun to watch, as will Varejão, while he's there. Other than that, there's not much to look forward to until the NBA Draft.
Dirk's recovery is key if the Mavs want to make the playoffs.
If the Dallas Mavericks want to make the postseason, they need a fully healthy Dirk Nowitzki.
O.J. Mayo's breakout year has kept Dallas afloat, leading the team with 18.7 points per game. The Mavs have also gotten solid contributions from Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Vince Carter, and Shawn Marion, as well as some efficient play from Brandon Wright.
Unfortunately, that core has not been up to snuff for the unforgiving Western Conference, and Dallas has stumbled to a 12-19 record.
Nowitzki has only played in four of those games, coming off the bench in each of them, but he is clearly not himself yet. His shot has been faulty since returning from knee surgery, and his defense is worsening with age and injury.
Even if Dirk does round into his old form, he and Mayo have an uphill battle ahead. Odds are that Dallas is going to miss the playoffs for the first time since the 1999-2000 season. On top of that, if Dirk and the Mavs are still struggling in February, expect Dallas to shop guys like Kaman, Carter, and even Mayo.
The Manimal is making good on his nickname this season.
The Denver Nuggets are ready for a dogfight for one of the final playoff spots in the West.
True to George Karl's usual system, these Nuggets are running, and they're winning without a star. Denver ranks third in the league in pace, and six different players are averaging double-digit points per game.
While Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson have plateaued this season, the Nuggets have seen improvements from their two athletic big men.
Kenneth Faried has truly been the Manimal this season, averaging 12.2 points and 10.3 boards. He has been a physically disruptive force at both ends, as has JaVale McGee, who's putting up 10.7 points and 1.94 blocks in less than 20 minutes per game.
Knowing the Nuggets' style, there's no flashy midseason acquisition coming to push this team over the top. Even if Denver does swing a trade, it won't disrupt Karl's main rotation.
Karl knows how to coach a group as raw as this one, and he has his guys playing tough at both ends. They might not clinch until the final game of the season, but Karl and company will play on into the postseason.
Greg Monroe is in the minority as a productive Detroit Piston.
The Detroit Pistons have some nice pieces for the future and too many from their past.
Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond are going to make a really nice frontcourt someday.
Monroe is a fundamentally sound post scorer, putting up 15.1 points and 8.8 rebounds per game with opposing teams keying on him. However, he is also a defensive liability, though Drummond's massive frame and surprising nimbleness allow him to cover up some of his teammate's mistakes.
Unfortunately, Brandon Knight is struggling as a starting point guard, dishing out just 4.7 assists per game with a 1.5 assist/turnover ratio in his second season. The Pistons need him to become the player they drafted him to be; outside of the big men, he's the only future cog in place.
Detroit may end up dealing a Jason Maxiell or a Will Bynum at the deadline, but there's not much to like here from a trade perspective. But with two talented big men, the Pistons have an interesting foundation to build around in the coming draft.
David Lee and the Warriors are taking the league by surprise this season.
Don't wait for the Golden State Warriors to revert to playing subpar basketball. It's not going to happen this year.
Mark Jackson has inspired real change in Bay Area basketball, and his Warriors are off to a shocking 21-10 start.
Did you ever expect that Golden State, a team synonymous with porous defense, would be just outside the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions? Or that David Lee would be the only player in the NBA averaging at least 20 points and 10 rebounds per game?
Lee and company are playing the way Jackson once played—with a bulldog mentality and constant intensity at both ends.
Combine their rededication to defense with the three-point prowess of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Jarrett Jack, and the Warriors aren't going to drop off anytime soon.
They're not likely to host a playoff series, but they'll certainly make the postseason. With Jackson's steady leadership, Golden State has what it takes to spoil a Western Conference power's season.
James Harden has exploded with the Houston Rockets.
The Houston Rockets are riding their offseason acquisitions to playoff contention.
Finally in a situation where he's the go-to guy, James Harden has come through in a big way. His 26.1 points per game rank fourth in the NBA and are 9.3 more than he averaged last year in Oklahoma City. The Rockets gave him an opportunity and Harden has delivered, breaking out as a bona fide superstar.
Ömer Aşık has also upheld his reputation as a defensive stud. Not only has he been a force inside, he has parlayed his playing time into 10.6 points and 11.8 rebounds per game, a surprising double-double average for a guy who rarely scored in Chicago.
With additional contributors like Chandler Parsons, Patrick Patterson, and some guy named Jeremy Lin, the Rockets have surprisingly put themselves right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff race.
In order to stay there, however, the Rockets must make a deal. They have plenty of young talent that would be attractive to potential sellers, and Houston could pull the trigger if it brings in a post scorer.
Even so, the postseason is no guarantee for this upstart team. The pieces are in place for the Rockets to be dangerous for years to come, but 2013 ultimately seems like just a bit too soon for this group.
The Pacers need more from their franchise center.
Even with Danny Granger out and Roy Hibbert underperforming, the Indiana Pacers soldier on.
Much like the Bulls, Frank Vogel's group is keeping up its staunch defense, even without its best player. In fact, the Pacers are currently the stingiest team in the league, allowing just 95.9 points per 100 possessions.
David West, Paul George, and George Hill have picked up the scoring load in Granger's absence, each averaging more than 15 points per game.
However, Hibbert has been uncharacteristically ineffective this season, putting up just 9.8 points and 8.4 boards per game while shooting .402 from the field. The Pacers are getting by so far without a productive Hibbert, but they'll need more from him in the playoffs.
The way the Pacers are playing, Granger's return shouldn't cause much of a spike in production. His scoring will correspond with dips from Indiana's other scorers, and the defense is about as good as it's going to get.
The Pacers are playing very well right now, but they'll still likely end up in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. They're going to be a very tough out in the postseason, but without an effective Hibbert, the Pacers will likely fall in a long first-round series.
Paul has played MVP-caliber point guard this season.
Hard as it is to believe, we might as well put it out there—heading into 2013, the Los Angeles Clippers look like the front-runners for the NBA title.
Lob City is supposed to light up the scoreboard. What no one expected was for the Clippers to become a shutdown defensive team.
No grand development led to this improvement. Everyone has just stepped their game up a little bit on the defensive end. Griffin had been a liability, but is now serviceable, while very good defenders like Eric Bledsoe have become aces.
Though they basically came out of nowhere, the lockdown Los Angeles Clippers are here to stay. Now they can defend about as well as they score, and that's going to get them to the Western Conference Finals.
Given how tough the West is, it's tough to predict where the Clippers go from there, but they have as good of a chance as anybody to make the NBA Finals. Once there, they have what it takes to exorcise the franchise's demons.
Kobe Bryant will not allow his team to miss the postseason.
Let's just get this out of the way up front: The Los Angeles Lakers are making the playoffs.
Now that Steve Nash is running Mike D'Antoni's offense instead of Darius Morris or Chris Duhon, the Lakers have looked like a different team. As dysfunctional as Los Angeles was in Nash's absence, with his stabilizing point guard play, this team simply has too many stars to be denied.
Imagine how dire the situation would have been if not for Kobe Bryant's surprisingly efficient season. Kobe leads the league with 30.1 points per game, but his .478 shooting percentage is the highest of his legendary career.
Meanwhile, Dwight Howard is coping with lingering back issues by averaging a double-double as quietly as anyone ever has. As for Pau Gasol, despite his struggles this season, he has seemed more comfortable now that Nash is running the point.
The Lakers' bench play is putrid and their elite piece don't fit together perfectly, but that's not going to stop them from playing on into the postseason.
However, the top teams in the West are much more cohesive units than the Lakers. Not even Nash can get these guys to gel like Chris Paul's Clippers in the middle of the season.
They can make the playoffs on talent alone, but that's where the Lakers' run will end.
Memphis' three-point shooting is their X-factor this season.
Once again, the Memphis Grizzlies are playing suffocating defense and dominating in the post.
As usual, Zach Randolph is averaging 17.1 points and 12.6 rebounds per game at power forward, while Marc Gasol is putting up 14.6 points, 7.7 rebounds and an impressive 4.1 assists from the center position.
So Lionel Hollins' team ranks second in defensive efficiency and has one of the best frontcourt tandems in the league. Nothing new there.
Yet an unexpected wrinkle in the Grizzlies offense has made them great; Memphis figured out how to shoot threes.
Mike Conley, Jr. and Quincy Pondexter are each shooting better than .400 from beyond the arc this season, while Wayne Ellington is hitting at a .373 clip.
Memphis has never had the outside shooting to complement their interior strength. That added bit of firepower is the difference between the Grizzlies being Goliaths rather than the Davids trying to topple them.
Hollins' crew has always been a tough playoff out because of defense alone. Now that the Grizzlies have upped their three-point shooting, they're a virtual lock to make it out of the first round of the playoffs.
In this year's Western Conference, however, you need more than a pretty good offense to survive. Pitted against another Western power, the Grizzlies will probably take the series to six or seven games, but they'll fall nonetheless.
Regardless of who wins the MVP, LeBron is still the best in the league.
The defending NBA champs have been nothing short of superb so far.
The Miami Heat have rode their title-winning formula back to the top of the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James has made the permanent move to super-versatile power forward this season, while Chris Bosh is looking like his old self again at center. With Dwyane Wade as a second scorer and a plethora of three-point shooters (Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis, Shane Battier, etc.), the Heat are the juggernaut offense everyone expected them to be.
The one concern in Miami has to be perimeter defense. In the Heat's eight losses so far this season, opponents have torched them from beyond the arc. That weakness has caused Miami to drop from fourth in defensive efficiency last year all the way to 14th this season.
Miami doesn't really have any pieces to trade, so Erik Spoelstra will have to solve his team's issues with the guys at his disposal.
Fortunately for Spoelstra, he's working with the same guys that just won him an NBA title, plus a few other contributors. The Heat's porous perimeter D may come back to bite them in the end, but they won't face a team that can exploit it in a seven-game series; at least until the Eastern Conference Finals.
Brandon Jennings is as talented and as flawed as any point guard.
The Milwaukee Bucks' volume-shooting guard duo has been a blessing and a curse.
Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis have combined to form the fastest backcourt in the league, combining for 37.2 points and 3.92 steals per game. At the same time, they're shooting .402 and .399 from the field, respectively. As dangerous as these two can be when they're hot, they can sink the Bucks' chances when they're cold.
Those speedy guards are pushing the pace in Milwaukee, but the frontcourt is struggling to keep up on the offensive end.
Guys like Larry Sanders and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute are tough, physical players who are assets to the team, yet they're only playing about half of the game. In fact, while Jennings and Ellis are both playing over 36 minutes per game, no other Buck is playing more than 27.
Milwaukee is going to have to look to the trade market to sort out its team's identity. The Bucks can either look for a forward who can run with the guards or ship out Ellis and try to pigeonhole Jennings into a half-court offense.
Neither option is a perfect fix. This is destined to be an uneven, if exciting, team for the duration of the season. That style might allow them to steal a game or two in the playoffs, but a series win is unlikely.
Kevin Love is working to regain his shooting stroke.
Considering that Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio are still recovering, the Minnesota Timberwolves are only going to get better.
At first glance, Love's 19.1 points and 14.1 rebounds per game make it seem like he's over his broken hand. However, his field goal percentages indicate that he's having difficulties finding his shot again. Though he's rebounding at his usual rate, he's hitting .358 from the field and .233 from three-point range.
Rubio has even further to go in his recovery from a torn ACL. Like Love, Rubio hasn't lost his signature skill, dishing out 4.0 assists in just 18.4 minutes per game as he works his way back. His .238 shooting percentage is too much of a liability to warrant playing him any more than that.
With Nikola Peković and Andrei Kirilenko playing effectively at both ends of the court and the T'wolves already in postseason contention, this is one of the strongest teams in the Western Conference playoff madness.
Love's shot is surely going to come around sooner or later. With Rubio coming off major knee surgery, his full recovery this season isn't quite so certain.
Therefore, neither is the Timberwolves' ceiling this season. They're a pretty safe bet to lock down a playoff berth with just Love, but they'll need Rubio to even have a chance to make it out of the first round.
Anthony Davis and the young Hornets are showing signs of future success.
The New Orleans Hornets' season is already shot, but you can see the foundation in place for a very good team.
It all starts with the interior, where Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, and Robin Lopez are all off to great starts. Each of them has a PER above 20 on the season, with Anderson and Lopez having the best seasons of their careers and Davis just scratching the surface of his ability.
Entering 2013, though, the biggest story for the future Pelicans has to be Eric Gordon.
Gordon made his arthroscopic knee surgery an afterthought when he returned to the court, though it's uncertain how much longer he'll be in New Orleans.
When he was a restricted free agent last summer, he was vocal in his desire for the Hornets to let him go to the Suns rather than match his offer sheet. Of course, Gordon is back in New Orleans now, but if he's unhappy, he'll be one of the hottest players on the trade market.
That's about where the relevancy of the Hornets' season ends. The young talent is there, but there is still room for improvement across the board.
Heading into the offseason, an interesting guy to watch will be Greivis Vasquez. He's been surprisingly effective at point guard this season, but look for the Hornets to select a better athlete in the draft. If that happens, Vasquez could still be useful as a combo guard, but New Orleans might consider him expendable.
Carmelo Anthony and the Knicks are raining threes this season.
You can boil the New York Knicks' meteoric rise down to two things—ball movement and three-point shooting.
Credit Mike Woodson's work in the offseason, credit Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd finding the open man, credit whatever you'd like. The Knicks are whipping the ball around the perimeter this season; even isolation fiends like Carmelo Anthony and J.R. Smith have gotten in on the action.
That pass-heavy offense has led to a ton of three-point opportunities, and the Knicks are nailing them. Anthony, Kidd, Chris Copeland, and Steve Novak are all hitting at least .430 from beyond the arc, a big reason why New York is second in the league in offensive efficiency.
The Knicks will have to survive without Felton early in 2013. Kidd and Pablo Prigioni will be stretched thin at point guard without Felton, but all should be right in New York when he's healthy again.
Injuries are the cost of doing business for the oldest team in the NBA. New York has parlayed that veteran savvy into unanticipated success, with no signs of returning to mediocrity anytime soon.
This team is one of the true beasts of the East, and they're ready to win now. Barring injury to a major contributor, the Knicks seem destined for a playoff rematch with the Heat in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Kevin Durant and the Thunder are still rolling without Harden.
A little better defensively, a little more mature, the Oklahoma City Thunder are as great as they've ever been.
Kevin Durant is following LeBron's lead and playing a more well-rounded game, putting up career highs in rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals. Russell Westbrook is following suit with a personal-best 8.7 assists per game, while Serge Ibaka is now scoring 14.2 points per game and playing more fundamentally-sound defense.
The biggest question heading into the season was how OKC would make up for the loss of James Harden.
Ibaka's improved offense certainly helps, but the key has been Kevin Martin. The key return of the Harden trade has scored 15.9 points per game on .466 shooting, effectively filling the vacant sixth man role.
This Thunder team is perhaps even better than the one that fell to Miami in the 2012 Finals. They do miss Harden's star power, but they've made up for it with defense and depth.
Unfortunately, the top of the Western Conference is also as strong as ever. Oklahoma City has what it takes to make a run at the title, but the Thunder are just as likely to fall to another power in the second round.
Big Baby Davis has been Orlando's unlikely go-to guy.
It's difficult to interpret this Orlando Magic season; it's better than anybody expected and better than anybody wants it to be at the same time.
Once upon a time, the Magic were 12-13 with the quintessential patchwork lineup.
Since Dwight Howard left town, there was no logical option to build the team around. Jacque Vaughn eventually made Glen Davis the focal point of the offense, and he responded with 16.0 points and 7.9 rebounds per game, both career highs.
The Magic have looked utterly lost since Big Baby went down with a sprained shoulder. They've fallen to 12-18, and with Davis out for at least the beginning of 2013, the losing should continue in Orlando.
It's difficult to say which players the Magic expect to be around for the long haul. Considering how much Orlando will rebuild through the draft, they have to at least consider offers for guys like Davis, Arron Afflalo, and especially J.J. Redick, whose contract expires at the end of the season.
Orlando hung around longer than anyone expected in 2012. Expect uncertainty and futility to reign in the new year.
Jrue Holiday is much improved, but is he enough for Philly?
The Philadelphia 76ers have seen nice progress from their young talent, but they'll need something more to make the playoffs.
After waiting three seasons for Jrue Holiday to make a leap, the young point guard has delivered for the Sixers this season. He's putting up 18.6 points and 8.9 assists per game, personal bests by a wide margin and numbers that should get Holiday his first ever All-Star appearance.
Philly has also gotten some versatile play from Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner.
Young has been playing as a small-ball power forward this season, and he has come through with 15.2 points and 7.2 rebounds per game. Turner has been active on both ends of the floor, averaging 14.3 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists from the wing positions.
As well as those three have played, however, this team needs a healthy Andrew Bynum to ensure a spot in postseason play.
Though their marquee center has vowed to return this season, there is no timetable for his return from bone bruises in both knees. Bynum is in the last year of his current contract.
If he returns healthy, the Sixers will push Boston, Brooklyn, and Milwaukee at the bottom of the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Anything less than that, and the Sixers will get left out, not to mention that Bynum will cost himself a ton of money in free agency.
The Sixers have an intriguing core in place, but they need a star to make it all work. Bynum's return will dictate whether he is that guy for Philly for years to come.
Goran Dragic has one of just a couple of bright spots on the Suns.
Like the Magic, the Phoenix Suns have an uninspiring team producing below average results.
The only attractive pieces on this team are Goran Dragić and Marcin Gortat. Both of these guys have been useful on the offensive end, but their greatest impact comes on defense.
Gortat is the anchor of Phoenix's defense, deterring opposing guards from driving the lane with his 1.94 blocks per game. Dragić is a plus defender on the perimeter, hounding opponents with 1.62 steals per game.
You could throw Jared Dudley into the conversation as a defensive asset, but he really ought to be coming off the bench for a playoff team. Instead, Phoenix relies on him for significant minutes at wing, and he's not good enough to make it work.
Looking at the Suns' roster, there's a big hole at shooting guard where Eric Gordon could have been. Without a great scorer like him, they're forced to turn to guys like Luis Scola and Michael Beasley, who are just atrocious defensively.
The Suns' saving grace is cap space. They have the ability to make a run at another max free agent this coming offseason.
Until then, the Dragić/Gortat tandem is not much to get excited about.
LaMarcus Aldridge is not making the leap Portland thought he would.
The Portland Trail Blazers are a collection of good players, but they have no great ones. That will be their undoing.
LaMarcus Aldridge looks great on paper with 21.8 points and 8.0 rebounds per game, but he does not seem like a star from a circumstantial perspective. His game is quiet and unimposing, never making it feel imperative for the opposing team to contain him. Whether the Blazers win or lose, his stats are nearly identical.
Nicolas Batum, Wesley Matthews, and J.J. Hickson have all been effective two-way players this season, but Damian Lillard's stellar rookie year has put Portland in playoff contention.
That said, a rookie playing 37.9 minutes per game is bound to wear out over the course of an 82-game season. Lillard might still be the top Rookie of the Year candidate when the season ends, but expect his production to decline as 2013 drags on.
Without the explosiveness of their young point guard and with no bench production to speak of, Portland is due for an unpleasantly mediocre year. The Blazers just aren't deep enough to hang with the rest of the postseason hopefuls.
Their one saving grace would be a Hickson trade. The young center is in the final year of his contract and could bring back some wing scoring. On the other hand, Meyers Leonard just went down with a sprained ankle, and he might not be capable of carrying that load even if healthy.
Portland has one of the better starting lineups around, but it's not going to be enough. Sometime in late March or early April, the focus is going to shift to the offseason. That's when Portland must pursue some depth, a star, or both.
DeMarcus Cousins is among the most disappointing players in the league.
What a mess the Sacramento Kings are.
There is only one logical place to start with this team—DeMarcus Cousins, a guy who has squandered more talent than most players even have.
His 16.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game are just a fraction of what he can produce with his terrifying athleticism. Boogie has to be smarter in order to do so, though. If you're prone to chucking up off-balanced jumpers and if you get suspended three times in two months, you're not going to accomplish much in the NBA.
Surprisingly, the Kings do have a saving grace; five different players are shooting at least .350 from three-point range, while Aaron Brooks, Jimmer Fredette, and Francisco Garcia are all over .400.
So Sacramento can shoot, and Tyreke Evans and Marcus Thornton have been occasionally effective as combo guards. What the Kings lack is a point guard, as Evans leads the team with a laughable 3.3 assists per game.
Since his contract is expiring, Evans is Sacramento's best piece of trade bait. The Kings won't be able to get a franchise point guard for him, but if they can get a draft pick or two, it would be worthwhile.
Other than that, there's little to look forward to for the Kings. They'll lose some more games, Boogie will pull another dumb stunt or two, and Sacramento will look towards bringing some worthwhile talent in during the offseason.
Like the Spurs, Tim Duncan is sustaining his greatness for another year.
Another year, another great San Antonio Spurs team.
Every piece in San Antonio is operating exactly how it's supposed to, a testament to the well-oiled machine Gregg Popovich has constructed and maintained over the years.
Tony Parker is leading the offense from point guard and Tim Duncan is playing much younger than you'd expect a 36-year-old to. Manu Ginobili is still a crafty, efficient sixth man, and the rest of the roster is loaded with role players to support that foundation.
Though the Spurs might not be the best team in the league, they are largely without flaws. That is, it's difficult to say what San Antonio can improve, because so much of Popovich's system is a chemistry-based operation based on players' fitting niches, and every role is currently occupied.
So don't expect to see the Spurs making moves at the trade deadline; it's not worth it when the system is working and San Antonio has one of the best records in the league.
The rest of the season will play out like clockwork for Pop and company.
They'll place near the top of the Western Conference, and they'll breeze through the first round of the playoffs. That's when things will get more difficult for the Spurs, as they will face teams that are technically sound and supremely athletic.
As the Thunder showed last spring, great talent in the right scheme can best San Antonio. The West has multiple teams like that this season, and a predictably strong Spurs team is likely going to fall in the second round.
Kyle Lowry is Toronto's saving grace this season.
The guards are producing for the Toronto Raptors, but the big men have been a mystery.
First, the good.
Kyle Lowry has been exactly the point guard Toronto thought it was getting last summer. He has set the tone for the Raptors at both ends of the floor, averaging 15.4 points, 5.9 assists and 5.4 rebounds per game.
DeMar DeRozan and Jose Calderon have also both been useful, though they haven't been as multifaceted. DeRozan is scoring 18.2 points per game and is one of the few Raptors who can create his own shot, and Calderon is dishing out 7.6 assists per game while spelling Lowry and playing alongside him.
What is undoing the solid guard play is just how bad the frontcourt has been, particularly Andrea Bargnani.
The 2006 first overall pick has never been a strong post player. He's a defensive liability who makes up for it with his shooting range, except his shot isn't falling this season. Bargnani's 16.0 points are coming on .398 shooting, and the seven-footer is pulling in just 4.3 rebounds per game.
Ed Davis, Jonas Valanciunas, and Amir Johnson have actually been decent in limited minutes, but playing with Bargnani drags down their productivity, too.
Fortunately for Toronto fans, NBC Sports reports that Bargnani is "a lock to be moved" in 2013, ending this failed experiment and allowing the younger, more productive big men to get more playing time.
After 2012, the rest of this season is a lost cause for Toronto, but the Raptors do have some intriguing players. They'll look for a post scorer in the offseason, and if they get one, the Raptors could be a playoff-caliber team by the end of the year.
Paul Millsap may be expendable in Utah.
Alas, it's finally time for the Utah Jazz to break up the big men.
Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap form one of the most potent post scoring duos in the league, combining for 30.1 points and 18.0 rebounds per game this season. They're also limiting Derrick Favors' and Enes Kanter's minutes, keeping Utah's two biggest prospects from reaching their potential.
Tyrone Corbin has gotten creative trying to solve this problem, occasionally deploying Millsap as an enormous small forward to play three big men at once.
However, with Mo Williams out indefinitely with a right thumb injury, the Jazz are not going to be in the playoff picture for too much of 2013. It will be better for Utah to foster the players that will be there rather than play the ones who won't.
Jefferson and Millsap are both in the final year of their respective deals, so at least one of them has to get shipped out. Though he lacks Jefferson's size, Millsap is a better defender; he'll be more valuable on the trade market, which means he won't be in Utah for much longer.
As for Jefferson, expect him to stick around for the duration of the season. The Jazz will look to sign-and-trade him during the offseason, when they will look to pick up a big wing scorer to support their young frontcourt.
Bradley Beal has not produced for Washington early on.
Last but not least... well, the Washington Wizards just might be the least.
It's no surprise that they find themselves in the NBA cellar at the beginning of the new year.
The team has a combined .406 field-goal percentage, easily the worst in the league. Grasping for whatever might work, Randy Wittman is playing everyone on the roster, hoping someone might start hitting shots.
Outside of Nene's .519 mark, no one on the team is shooting efficiently. Bradley Beal is down at a .353 clip, struggling to adjust to the professional game. Chris Singleton and especially Jan Vesely look like they're going to end up busting in Washington.
Of course, it would definitely help this team to have their point guard and their only All-Star-caliber player back.
Fortunately, John Wall should return to the court sometime in January. Even if he's not at full strength, Wall should be a step up from A.J. Price running the point, and hopefully he'll milk a few more wins out of this sorry group.
Jordan Crawford won't be part of that group for long. The volume-shooting guard has a tradable contract and is averaging 16.0 points per game, so he's not going to be in town for much longer.
That will leave Washington with Wall, Beal, Nene, and a whole lot of subpar players. Once again, the Wizards will look to the summer, when they will try to cut their dead weight loose and bring in cost-effective guys to shake things up.
Maybe Wall, Beal, and Nene will gel with another offseason and some fresh blood around them. Maybe not. Looking forward from the end of 2012, it seems like 2013 will only bring the Wizards more of the same.