The City of Los Angeles is full of surprises.
The Clippers are playing some of the best basketball in the league this year while the long-dominant Lakers are floundering without a sense of direction. There will be more surprises in store in Los Angeles, though, and fans shouldn’t expect the Clippers to be the only team in Los Angeles in the playoffs at season’s end.
The NBA season is less than half over, and the playoff picture hasn’t yet taken shape. But considering how dominant some teams have looked this season, don’t expect the top seeds to shift all that much. The Thunder and Heat look as good as ever, and both are poised for a run at the top seed this year.
San Antonio, Golden State, Memphis and New York round out the power rankings at this point in the season. San Antonio is as fresh as any team in the league, but the same cannot be said for the Grizzlies.
Here’s a look at eight of the top teams in the NBA and a breakdown of where they may end up by the end of the year.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (27-8)
The Clippers have emerged as the best team in Los Angeles, and it’s not much of a secret why.
Los Angeles has the deepest bench in the league and also one of the most dominant power forwards on the court in Blake Griffin. Chris Paul, Jamal Crawford and Griffin are all averaging better than 16 points per game this season.
The Clippers are No. 8 in the league in points per game and No. 4 in points allowed. Barring major injury issues, the Clippers have a great chance to enter the playoffs as the best team in the NBA.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (26-7)
It’s never a good idea to count out a Kevin Durant-led team.
Oklahoma City boasts one of the best offensive attacks in the NBA and is No. 2 in the league in points per game. Durant is averaging 28.2 points per game this year, while Russell Westbrook has added 21.9 per contest.
The Thunder came up short last season, but Durant’s team will build on its failed championship run this year. By the end of the season, Oklahoma City will be a top seed in the playoffs en route to another appearance in the Finals.
3. Miami Heat (23-9)
Miami sits atop the Eastern Conference standings, but the Heat have allowed a higher opponent scoring average than all but three teams in the conference.
Past experiences have taught us not to put much stock in what Miami does early in the year. By the end of the season, Miami will be rolling into the playoffs with a full head of steam.
4. San Antonio Spurs (27-9)
The Spurs seem to have found the fountain of youth.
No matter how old San Antonio’s roster gets, it continues to roll. Tim Duncan is averaging 17.7 points and 9.6 rebounds per game, and Tony Parker and Manu Ginobiili are the two main reasons the Spurs lead the NBA in assists per game (25.3)
Gregg Popovich is one of the best coaches in the league at keeping his players fresh and ready to go, and if the Spurs continue playing as well as they have thus far, they will once again be a scary team to face in the playoffs.
5. Golden State Warriors (22-11)
Golden State has somehow snuck into the conversation as one of the best teams in the NBA in the first half.
After missing the playoffs last season, the Warriors have rebounded with an exceptional first half, and their 101.4 scoring average is good for No. 9 in the NBA. Stephen Curry, David Lee and Klay Thompson are all playing fantastic basketball, and all three are averaging at least 15.8 points per game.
The Warriors are No. 21 in the league in points allowed, but they’ve held three of their last five opponents under 90 points. Defense will be the key to a Golden State run this year.
While the Warriors are playing well right now, Memphis and Houston are directly behind them in the standings. Golden State will make the playoffs, but probably not as a top-four seed in the West.
6. New York Knicks (23-10)
There are a lot of question marks surrounding the Knicks right now.
Amar’e Stoudemire is back on the floor after missing more than two months, but he’s not yet playing up to old form. Still, Stoudemire’s presence was felt on the court, and the Knicks have won each of their last two games.
New York’s biggest issue will be cultivating chemistry. Lack of chemistry between Stoudemire and Carmelo Anthony was a big problem for New York at the end of last season, but if Stoudemire can stay healthy, the Knicks will have an opportunity to create some continuity on the court.
With Stoudemire back, the Knicks will have a good chance of making a run at the No. 1 seed in the East. Don’t be surprised to see New York challenge Miami for that spot late in the season.
7. Memphis Grizzlies (21-10)
Memphis has fallen off since starting the season 12-2. The Grizzlies have lost three of their last six, but that stretch could have been worse.
Memphis is the best defensive team in the league, holding opponents to 89.4 points per game this season. While defense goes a long way in winning games, Memphis’ offense needs to liven up.
Memphis’ starters have seen a lot of minutes thus far, and the Grizzlies’ success very well may boil down to how much Memphis can rest them during the regular season.
The Grizzlies currently sit at No. 4 in the West, but several teams aren’t far behind. Now is the time for Memphis to get it in gear.
8. Los Angeles Lakers (15-18)
Los Angeles is an enigma. The Lakers roster boasts so much talent, but has so little to show for it.
Kobe Bryant is having a career year, but he’s had to play that well with Steve Nash on the shelf and several other players not performing up to standards.
Nash is back, but the Lakers are still floundering, having lost their last three at the hands of the 76ers, Clippers and Nuggets. If the Lakers are to make a push for the playoffs, they will have to find some chemistry.
Los Angeles can’t be counted out just yet, but a lot will have to go right moving forward. Still, the Lakers have arguably the most talented roster in the NBA, and they’ll be hanging around in the middle of the playoff picture by the end of the year.
9. Atlanta Hawks (20-12)
The Hawks have four 13-plus point scorers and two players who are also averaging eight or more rebounds per game (Josh Smith and Al Horford).
Atlanta also boasts the No. 6 defense in the NBA, allowing an average of just 95.1 points per contest.
The Hawks have lost three of their last four, though, including a 19-point blowout loss to Houston on New Year’s Eve.
Fortunately for the Hawks, their next four games are against the Timberwolves, Cavs, Jazz and Wizards.
10. Chicago Bulls (18-13)
As long as Derrick Rose is out, the Bulls will need to just stay afloat in the East.
Rose is the focal point of Chicago’s offense, but several experienced players have stepped up to make up for Rose’s absence.
Joakim Noah is averaging a double-double, and Carlos Boozer is close to doing the same. The Bulls have the talent to remain relevant with Rose out, and when he returns, Chicago will again be one of the most dangerous squads in the league.
11. Denver Nuggets (20-16)
Denver is the beneficiary of one of the easiest schedules in the NBA to start the new year with 15 of its first 18 2013 games being at home.
While the Nuggets haven’t received the kind of contributions they may have hoped for from Andre Iguodala and JaVale McGee, they’re still playing pretty good basketball.
Denver’s next stretch will be paramount for playoff positioning, and if they can play well in the next month of the year, Denver could secure one of the higher seeds in the West.
12. Houston Rockets (20-14)
James Harden has played exceptionally well, but the Rockets don’t look like a serious contender this year.
Houston beat New Orleans, Cleveland and Milwaukee recently, and all three were solid wins for the Rockets, but they were crushed by the Thunder last week and lost to San Antonio the night before.
Houston seems to be missing one more piece, and until they figure out what piece that is, Houston looks to be another fringe playoff contender will seventh or eighth-seed potential.
13. Indiana Pacers (20-14)
Indiana is one of the top defensive teams in the league, and the Pacers also boast the third-most rebounds per game.
That said, the Pacers need serious help on the offensive end of the board. They are averaging just 91.4 points per game, and if the defense doesn’t hold up all year, the Pacers could fall off pretty quickly.
While defense may win championships, there needs to be an offensive element present as well.
14. Portland Trailblazers (18-15)
Portland is getting strong contributions from almost every player who has seen significant minutes this year.
Four of the Trailblazers’ starters are averaging more than 34 minutes per game, though, including LaMarcus Aldridge, who is averaging 37.5 per contest.
Given the high miles Portland is putting on its starters, it wouldn’t be a surprise for injury concerns to creep up and derail a team playing pretty good basketball right now.
15. Milwaukee Bucks (16-16)
The Bucks have really fallen off as of late after dropping their last four games, including a tough loss to Detroit on December 30.
Milwaukee’s inconsistency and lack of scoring from everyone but Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings means a potential collapse in the second half. It may be hard for the Bucks to sneak into the playoffs by the end of the year.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-15)
Kevin Love is back on the shelf, and it’s a huge blow for a young Timberwolves team.
Love is averaging 18.3 points and 14 rebounds per game this year, and his injury leaves a big hole in the heart of the Timberwolves lineup.
If Love misses significant time, Minnesota could experience a sharp decline heading into the second half.
17. Brooklyn Nets (19-15)
Brooklyn has played well in the last week with wins over Oklahoma City, Washington and Sacramento, and the Nets seem to be a team on the rise.
Brook Lopez, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams are all averaging at least 16.6 points per contest, and that core needs to continue to play well to keep the Nets in playoff conversations.
After an atrocious stretch in December, Brooklyn is making a surge. If the Nets can build on their momentum moving forward, they could be a fringe playoff contender by the end of the season.
18. Utah Jazz (17-18)
Wins over Minnesota and Phoenix to start the month were nice, but they came at the heels of a 5-6 stretch prior.
Utah just doesn’t look like a team that can establish any kind of continuity, and if they can’t string together some wins in January, February will be a tough month.
19. Boston Celtics (16-17)
The Celtics need another presence in the paint. Boston is only averaging 38.6 rebounds per game.
Kevin Garnett leads the team with just seven rebounds per game. Between rebounding issues and the No. 21 offense in the league, Boston isn’t in the best shape.
There is still a lot of retooling to be done to bring the Celtics to contender status, but it probably won’t happen during the season.
20. Sacramento Kings (13-21)
The Kings can score some points, but only DeMarcus Cousins is even close to averaging double-digit rebounds. Sacramento is also No. 27 in the league in points allowed and assists.
Sacramento has some depth, but they haven’t gotten much consistency this year from any one player. Consistency is king, and the Kings don’t look like a team with enough of it to make the playoffs this season.
21. Toronto Raptors (12-22)
The Raptors’ record doesn’t tell the whole story. Toronto has won eight of its last 11 games and is finally working on a nice stretch of basketball.
There isn’t anything particularly troubling about Toronto’s upcoming schedule. Their next three games are at home against Philadelphia, Charlotte and Milwaukee.
DeMar DeRozan is having a nice season, but the Raptors need more scoring from the paint to keep up with some of the better teams in the conference.
22. Philadelphia 76ers (15-20)
All of Philadelphia’s production has come from its backcourt, and until the 76ers address their need in the paint, Philadelphia is going to keep losing to teams that can score in the paint.
Philadelphia has lost five of its last six games, and there’s not much of a silver lining for their season. Jrue Holiday, Thaddeus Young and Evan Turner are players around which the 76ers can build, but it’s going to take a lot for those three to keep Philadelphia relevant all season long.
23. Dallas Mavericks (13-21)
Dallas has lost eight of its last nine games, which pretty much tells the story of their season. The Mavericks are in danger of missing the playoffs for the first time in 13 years.
Dallas started the season playing pretty good basketball, but if the Mavericks can’t turn around what has turned out to be a terrible stretch of basketball, the second half of their schedule could be an uphill battle for a No. 8 seed.
24. Detroit Pistons (13-23)
Detroit has been one of the better defensive teams in the league this year, and the Pistons have done a good job rebounding as well. The same cannot be said for Detroit’s offense, though.
Greg Monroe leads all Pistons scorers with 15.3 per game, and only three other players are scoring in the double digits.
Recent wins over Miami, Sacramento, Atlanta and Milwaukee were a good way to create some momentum, but the Pistons can’t maintain a stretch like that without more scoring.
25. Phoenix Suns (12-23)
After winning four in a row in the middle of December, Phoenix hit a bad stretch of basketball. The Suns have lost seven of their last eight, with their only win over the 76ers on Wednesday.
Phoenix’s schedule won’t get any easier in January, either. The Suns are scheduled to face Oklahoma City, San Antonio and both Los Angeles teams before the month’s end.
26. Orlando Magic (12-21)
Of all the teams slumping right now, Orlando may be going through the roughest stretch.
The Magic went on a 5-1 stretch in the middle of December, but have since lost eight in a row, including losses to Washington and New Orleans.
This is arguably the toughest stretch of the schedule for Orlando, which with face the Trail Blazers, Nuggets and Clippers in its next three games.
27. New Orleans Hornets (8-25)
Eric Gordon’s return was much needed, but New Orleans will need a lot more to finish the season ahead of a handful of other teams in the league.
The Hornets beat Dallas on Saturday, but that win is really the only positive in the last month. Since December 5, New Orleans is 3-14.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-27)
Cleveland has had a propensity for falling off late in games. The Cavs have a young squad, and they will continue to run into trouble with Anderson Varejao on the shelf.
If there’s one bright spot for the Cavs, Kyrie Irving has been exceptional this year, and with what will likely be a high draft pick again this year, the Cavs will be able to put some more help around the budding superstar.
29. Washington Wizards (4-28)
There’s not much to be said for the Wizards this year. They’ve won two games in the last month.
Jordan Crawford has played well, and John Wall’s eventual return will be a big boost, but for now, Washington is not in very good shape.
30. Charlotte Bobcats (9-24)
There isn’t a team in the league that has had a worse couple months.
Two wins since November 26 says it all about Charlotte’s season, and they should be preparing to add some help at the top of the draft this year.
On the brighter side, Charlotte has used this year as an opportunity to spread around the minutes and give some experience to a young roster. Nine players are averaging at least 20 minutes on the floor this year.