Every NBA fan enters a new season with preconceived notions about most of the teams. There are the teams that dominate per usual, like the Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, and then there are the Charlotte Bobcats and Sacramento Kings who are lottery-bound from the start.
Then there are the teams that everybody overlooks, and we are thus forced to pay for our ignorance. As a New York Knicks fan, I have twice had to feel the wrath of the Houston Rockets this season. Their offense is finally clicking, and they could mean business down the stretch.
The Golden State Warriors have also been one of these teams, coming out of nowhere to be a force in the Western Conference this season. Their offense and defense have finally formed a strong, cohesive unit, and they could definitely make a statement come the playoffs.
That said, as the year 2013 approaches, it's safe to say that a small handful of teams will no longer be underestimated for the rest of the season. The elite now know that these scrappy squads are not to be tangled with, lest they want a major upset on their hands.
The Milwaukee Bucks are an interesting team. Head coach Scott Skiles runs a defensive system, but his two best players are offensive masterminds Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis.
Just the same, Milwaukee has played some fine ball this season, and this is in spite of Ersan Ilyasova getting off to a slow start after signing a contract extension over the summer. Ellis, Jennings and Mike Dunleavy, Jr. carry the offense, and defense comes in the form of a great diamond in the rough: Larry Sanders.
A third-year player out of VCU, Sanders is currently second in the NBA in blocks, averaging just under three per game. Combined with a resurgent Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, the Bucks' frontcourt looks as solid as it has been in years.
If everyone can stay consistent, Milwaukee will definitely be a team to watch come playoff time.
The Timberwolves definitely could have made the playoffs last year, but Ricky Rubio tearing his ACL put that dream to rest quickly. The team has struggled this season, primarily due to injuries once again.
Star scorer, rebounder and double-double machine Kevin Love missed the first month of the season with a broken hand and has struggled to find his consistency since coming back. Rubio has returned to the court but has only seen limited action as head coach Rick Adelman has him on a short leash.
Minnesota has still managed to compete thanks to a breakout season from big man Nikola Pekovic, consistency from Andrei Kirilenko and an underrated rookie in Alexey Shved. Once Love gets out of his funk and Rubio is back at full form, the team is bound to do some great work.
The Timberwolves may have been hiding in the woods in recent years, but they are definitely on their way back, with both bark and bite.
The Pacers were dealt a rough hand at the start of the season. Star forward and scorer Danny Granger's knee kept acting up, and it was announced that he would be out for three months.
This left the brunt of the work on the shoulders of center Roy Hibbert and guard/forward Paul George, neither of whom has really achieved star status just yet. Regardless, both men have done a fine job of stepping up in Granger's absence.
Hibbert is shooting just under 40 percent from the field, unacceptable for a center, but his defense has been top-notch. He is averaging 8.2 rebounds and 2.7 blocks per game.
George has posted 7.3 rebounds but has also chipped in 16.3 points on offense and is shooting 39 percent from long range. He has shown an uncanny ability to stretch the floor and has provided a solid scoring punch alongside point guard George Hill, who has posted 15.2 points go to with his 5.1 assists.
Indiana is currently locked in a battle for first place with the Chicago Bulls, but the race doesn't necessarily belong to the Bulls once Derrick Rose is back. The Pacers are a tough defensive team and will not let go of the Central Division crown so easily.
After a sluggish period, the Rockets' offense is finally starting to click. Jeremy Lin and James Harden are finally showing that they can work together, and Lin's breaking out of his shooting funk says it all. Over his last five games, the Harvard grad has shot 49 percent from the field and has raised his field goal percentage for the season up to 43.
Harden has been everything the Rockets hoped he would be and more when they traded for him prior to the season. He is currently fourth in the league in scoring with 26 points per game and has continued to be an excellent playmaker in his new role as starter and team star.
Best of all is that Houston has gotten top production out of second-year forward and budding leader Chandler Parsons, and Omer Asik has proven to be a fine option at the 5.
The team is young and still has a long way to go before achieving elite status, but one thing is certain: the Rockets are not going away in 2013, so teams set to play them had better prepare accordingly and not take them lightly.
Even as center Andrew Bogut recovers from microfracture surgery, the Warriors refuse to give up hope. Rookie Festus Ezeli has been a good low-post presence in Bogut's absence, and the rest of the team is learning how to play together with excellent results.
Stephen Curry is back to his old self after an ankle injury limited him to 26 games last season, and Klay Thompson is turning into a reliable shooting guard after stepping in to take over for Monta Ellis, who was traded for Bogut last season.
Even David Lee has done an excellent job stepping up on defense. He has been a complete and utter double-double machine in Bogut's absence and has a great on-court relationship with Curry. When he is on the bench, rookie Draymond Green brings his rough-and-tumble approach on defense and thus keeps the Warriors in each and every game.
As a result, Golden State is second in the Pacific Division and just four games behind the red-hot Los Angeles Clippers. The team has everything required to go on a run, and that will keep them on everyone's radar after the All-Star break.
The Hawks traded star scorer Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets over the summer, and it was assumed that Atlanta was headed toward a rebuilding phase given how much salary was dumped. Instead, the team has looked even better without him.
Josh Smith and Al Horford have emerged as the team's top dogs, and both Jeff Teague and Lou Williams have provided excellent sparks on both sides of the floor. Atlanta is currently on a four-game winning streak and sits just one game behind the Miami Heat in the Southeast Division.
Yes, the Hawks are still without a reliable 2-guard, as Williams does most of his damage off the bench and does not have the size at 6'1", 175 pounds to constantly go toe-to-toe with bigger men at his position. GM Danny Ferry may look to acquire another player at the 2, but he really doesn't need to do such a thing.
The Hawks' tandem of Smith and Horford does a perfect job establishing head coach Larry Drew's isolation game and commitment to tough defense, and all teams are starting to feel the power of Atlanta. Keep in mind that this is the same team that defeated the Los Angeles Clippers on November 24 and also the Oklahoma City Thunder on November 4, so they are not to be taken lightly.
Any team that does so in 2013 will regret doing so, and greatly.