This edition of NBA power rankings focuses on teams whose stock is peaking as the season's midway point approaches.
It is right around this juncture that the true contenders start to reveal themselves, while other teams that got off to hot starts begin to fall by the wayside.
Here is a brief breakdown of where all 30 squads stand as the new year begins, with an emphasis on recent risers.
30. Washington Wizards (4-28)
John Wall returned to practice on Sunday (h/t The Washington Post), and that is really the only rallying point for the Wizards at this juncture. Top pick Bradley Beal has struggled immensely on a bad team without Wall at his side, and Washington just hasn't gelled all year.
Perhaps Wall's return will spark a major turnaround in D.C. But no one is holding their breath on that one—especially with Jordan Crawford as the team's leading scorer.
29. Charlotte Bobcats (9-24)
The start of the season was somewhat promising. Then an 18-game losing streak happened, and the Bobcats continued to look like the historically bad team it was a season ago.
On the bright side, Charlotte has already won two more games than it did all of last season, and No. 2 overall pick Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is showing promise, along with second-year guard Kemba Walker. The problem is, this team can't play a lick of defense, ranking dead-last in the NBA in giving up 103.8 points per game.
28. Cleveland Cavaliers (8-27)
Kyrie Irving is amazing, and continues to show that he is one of the game's emerging stars. The Cavs are still a season away from being competitive, as evidenced by their record.
Second-year power forward Tristan Thompson has shown promise with Anderson Varejao out of the lineup.
Both Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller were selected in the first round of the 2012 draft, but like much of the rookie class, they have struggled to have a significantly positive impact to make the team competitive.
27. New Orleans Hornets (8-25)
No. 1 overall pick Anthony Davis missed 11 games early on, which threw this team off-kilter from the start.
They haven't really improved since his return. However, high-scoring guard Eric Gordon just returned to the starting lineup, and could form a suddenly formidable backcourt alongside the surprisingly explosive Greivis Vasquez.
It's a big hole for the Hornets to fly out of, but Gordon brings some much needed scoring help.
26. Phoenix Suns (12-23)
This team doesn't have the offensive firepower to play up-tempo basketball effectively. Marcin Gortat and Luis Scola form an athletic backcourt that can score, but they have trouble defending.
There isn't much depth on the Suns roster, either, and 13th overall pick Kendall Marshall has failed to crack the rotation.
25. Orlando Magic (12-21)
Eight consecutive losses have the Magic reeling, and struggling on both ends. Dwight Howard could certainly help out that defense.
Typically reliant on the three-point shot, Orlando is only shooting .344 from long distance and simply doesn't have much to count on offensively outside of Arron Afflalo and Jameer Nelson in the backcourt.
24. Sacramento Kings (13-21)
John Salmons and Tyreke Evans lead the Kings with 3.3 assists per game, which shows the lack of ball movement on offense and the cluttered, perimeter-oriented roster that is plaguing this team from being better.
It seems as though DeMarcus Cousins may finally be rounding into form in his third year. In a loss to Toronto, Cousins recently put up 31 points and 20 rebounds. If he can continue to play well, the Kings may be able to somehow succeed despite the unconventional personnel in Sacramento.
23. Detroit Pistons (13-23)
One of the most questioned, raw rookie prospects, C Andrew Drummond has been very impressive in his rookie campaign. The future of the front court is Drummond and leading scorer and rebounder Greg Monroe, which gives Detroit some hope.
It is still likely a year before this squad can be a factor in the postseason picture, but there is reason to be encouraged, as the Pistons have admirably climbed out of a nightmare 0-8 start.
22. Dallas Mavericks (13-21)
Dirk Nowitzki returned to the lineup only to have his team lose to the New Orleans Hornets on Saturday. This Mavs team is a bad mix of older players past their prime and young talent that isn't quite good enough to complement the veterans.
21. Toronto Raptors (12-22)
Holy Terrance Ross! The former Washington Huskies guard has waded his way into the Raptors rotation, and has provided some electricity for a team that needs a headliner.
But that's not all to be excited about in Toronto. DeMar DeRozan continues to develop into a strong 2-guard, and the Raptors have overcome injuries to Andrea Bargnani and Kyle Lowry to actually play better than at the start of the season.
If any under the radar team can make a second half playoff push, the Raptors are a strong candidate thanks to a slew of versatile offensive weapons and improving chemistry under Sam Mitchell.
20. Philadelphia 76ers (15-20)
According to the Philadelphia Inquirer, center Andrew Bynum has recently made progress with his knee injury. Bynum has yet to suit up for the Sixers, and his presence will be critical in determining where this team goes.
Head coach Doug Collins has done an admirable job holding the team together, but they are 3-7 in their last 10 games.
19. Los Angeles Lakers (15-18)
This has been a totally backwards season in LA. Now the problems seem to be compounding, with Dwight Howard suffering a torn shoulder labrum and Pau Gasol sustaining a concussion (h/t USA TODAY).
It remains to be seen if Kobe Bryant can continue leading the NBA in scoring and willing this Lakers team to stay relevant as they teeter on the brink of collapse.
18. Utah Jazz (17-18)
The frontcourt of Al Jefferson and Paul Milsap continues to impress, as does Mo Williams at point guard, who is in his second stint with the team that drafted him and is making the most of it.
A slight improvement on defense would go a long way for this Jazz team, though, particularly out on the perimeter. Williams is a bit of a liability in that regard
17. Milwaukee Bucks (16-16)
Defense has dropped off significantly for the Bucks recently, and they are in the midst of a four-game losing streak.
It remains to be seen how long the backcourt of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings can work. The dynamic, shoot-first point guards are playing frequently together and are the two leading scorers, but are only shooting 40 percent from the field apiece.
16. Minnesota Timberwolves (15-15)
There has frankly been too much inconsistency in the rotation to truly gauge this team's stock right now. All that's certain is that head coach Rick Adelman has done an outstanding job keeping the Wolves in the thick of the playoff picture to this point.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (18-15)
Point guard Damian Lillard is running away with the Rookie of the Year Award. He has led the Blazers on an 8-3 run in their last 11 games to emerge as the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference at the moment.
But another big storyline for this team is the play of the frontcourt. LaMarcus Aldridge leads the team with more than 20 points per game, and former Cleveland Cavalier first-round pick J.J. Hickson has really come into his own in his third year as a pro.
Hickson is averaging 12.2 points and 10.8 rebounds—including four offensive boards—in his 32 starts.
As long as Lillard continues to play at the high level he's currently at and Wesley Matthews continues his hot shooting to start the new year, the Blazers figure to be in pretty good shape moving forward.
14. Boston Celtics (16-17)
Since the return of shooting guard Avery Bradley, who is one of the best perimeter defenders in the league, the Celtics have won two of three games while giving up just 81 and 75 points in two consecutive games.
Head coach Doc Rivers discussed the impact of Bradley after Saturday's victory in Atlanta, where the Celtics held the Hawks to just nine points in the third quarter (h/t ESPN):
We worked the set. The first play went from one side to the other on offense. On defense they were late in the shot clock because Avery (Bradley) and Rondo both were up ball pressuring. And it changed the game for us.
If the Celtics can just hit the boards a little harder—which should be made easier without Boston's bigs rotating over to help out on guards—they have a great chance to make a run at home-court advantage for the opening round of the playoffs.
13. Denver Nuggets (20-16)
Six players average in double figures for this squad, which is a testament to the incredible depth the Nuggets have. Head coach George Karl just needs to keep the pedal to the metal in coaching up on the defensive end of the floor.
Karl has recently, and it has led to significant improvement on that end.
In the Nuggets' past six games, they have only allowed an opponent to score more than 100 points once. That stretch was highlighted by an impressive, 91-78 victory over the Los Angeles Clippers, which snapped their opponent's 17-game winning streak.
Watch out for Denver thanks to their team-oriented style and luxury of having multiple players stepping up to shoulder the scoring load.
12. Brooklyn Nets (19-15)
The firing of Avery Johnson as head coach stirred some serious controversy, especially after he had won Coach of the Month multiple times this season alone.
Interim coach P.J. Carlesimo has guided the star-studded Nets to six wins in their past seven contests, which would perceptibly have their stock on the rise. But there are still plenty of questions with this team, since only one of those wins came against a winning team.
11. Chicago Bulls (18-13)
Even without Derrick Rose, the Bulls continue to push on and impress.
Tom Thibodeau's defensive tactics remain the fabric this Chicago team is built on, and it has helped them stay afloat despite scoring just 92.5 points per game—fourth-worst in the NBA. Until they add more offense, it's hard to believe this team can keep up with the league's elite.
10. Indiana Pacers (20-14)
There is a big reason the Pacers are 12-3 at home, and that reason is 2010 top-10 pick Paul George. He is shooting over 48 percent at home this season, including 50 percent from beyond the arc on six attempts per game.
Roy Hibbert continues to dominate the paint, averaging 2.7 blocks per game, and he has keyed the Pacers to giving up the second-fewest points in the league. The big uncertainty is how Danny Granger's eventual return will affect team chemistry.
9. Atlanta Hawks (20-12)
An outstanding combination of guard play has the Hawks flying high in the Eastern Conference, sitting in third position.
They get knocked back a little bit, though, after blowing a 19-point lead to the Boston Celtics at home in their most recent outing. That game exposed the fact that they don't have one go-to option on offense, which could be problematic as the playoffs approach.
8. Golden State Warriors (22-11)
This has been the surprise team of the NBA, it's safe to say. The question is whether Jarrett Jack can continue to be the outstanding scorer off the bench that he has been, and if the Warriors can continue to play defense well enough.
Stephen Curry is finally healthy and at his natural position of point guard—which he had to relinquish even in his college days at Davidson. With the mentorship of Mark Jackson guiding him, he should continue developing into a star.
7. Houston Rockets (20-14)
The addition of James Harden has been a raging success, and newly acquired PG Jeremy Lin weathered early criticism and has now come into his own.
The Rockets are the highest-scoring team in the NBA and are riding a league-best four-game winning streak. Chandler Parsons' exceptional play has been the most pleasing development, and gives Houston a great player that also provides cap flexibility.
Translation: GM Daryl Morey could add another star player at the trade deadline if he can get a facilitator. A nucleus of Harden, Lin, Parsons, standout big man Omer Asik and another would be outstanding.
Everything is coming together for a team that is among the hottest in the NBA and can put up 120 any given night.
6. Memphis Grizzlies (21-10)
Still have to give big ups to the Grizzlies, who rock the league's No. 1 scoring defense and have such a formidable post tandem in Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol. Between their efforts, Rudy Gay's length, Tony Allen's savvy and Mike Conley Jr.'s quickness, it's hard to score on this team.
Memphis is definitely missing the presence of O.J. Mayo on the offensive end, though, and Gay must improve his shooting percentage for this team to ultimately succeed as they stand.
5. New York Knicks (23-10)
Credit Mike Woodson for the job he has done at the helm of this surprisingly consistent Knicks team without Amar'e Stoudemire and Jeremy Lin around.
New York is playing very tidy basketball, but can the Knicks keep that up and overcome the recent injury to starting point guard Raymond Felton? Stoudemire's return is also going to be a key development to watch.
4. San Antonio Spurs (27-9)
Traditionally known as a defensive team that doesn't have much flash, the Spurs have reinvented themselves under Gregg Popovich in the past two seasons. Now San Antonio has a ton of scoring options, and lead the league with 25.3 assists per game.
The foundation of Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker will keep this team's stock high, and the Spurs should maintain their status as a perennial contender to come out of the West.
3. Miami Heat (23-9)
A sore lack of rebounding and defense has hampered the Heat all season long, but this team has weathered its fair share of struggles and criticism.
LeBron James leads Miami in points, rebounds and assists. He may be playing the best basketball of his career, and he is shooting .411 percent from three-point land, essentially making him unstoppable.
If the Heat can just get a little bit of help on the inside—as they're trying to do with former Denver Nuggets center Chris Andersen (h/t Yahoo!)—they should put up a strong defense of their NBA championship crown.
2. Oklahoma City Thunder (26-7)
Sixth man Kevin Martin has filled the void left by James Harden, as that trade seems to have been for the best for both sides. But Russell Westbrook's shot selection is still frightening at times, and it may ultimately undermine the Thunder's chances at an NBA Finals.
Kevin Durant is playing the best basketball of his career, and Serge Ibaka's improvement on the offensive end is another reason to get excited about this team. Their stock has been high all year, so it's not necessarily rising.
1. Los Angeles Clippers (27-8)
A perfect month of December boosted the Clippers to the best team in the league. One off night against the talented Brooklyn Nets is nothing to fault them for.
Head coach Vinny Del Negro is no longer being questioned about his job status, and has done a great job of pushing the right buttons and capitalizing on the much improved bench at his disposal.
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