Now that we are in the new year, some NBA teams have taken turns for the better. In the blink of an eye, their identities have returned and the players appear to have remembered how to play the game.
As a die-hard fan of the game, I can say that it's refreshing to see this new competitive edge. Races that once appeared to be open-and-shut are now completely up for grabs, especially in the NBA Atlantic Division. The Boston Celtics and Brooklyn Nets are back, and they won't stop until the rest of the league knows not to mess with them.
Out West, teams that had no identity for years finally have one, and the standings show it accordingly.
The fact of the matter is that although everyday fans may not discuss it regularly, an NBA team having an identity is critical to its success and future. Without one, on-court chaos persists to the fans' chagrin.
With one, however, teams are a complete and competitive unit to the fans' absolute delight. In the case of a small handful of teams, finding their identities again can only mean good things for the future, and for their fans as well.
*All stats current through Jan. 14.
The Rockets are an interesting case, as they've had their identity all season long. They just had issues executing it.
Following the signing of point-man Jeremy Lin and acquisition of shooting guard James Harden, head coach Kevin McHale said that the team would not move away from its run-and-gun offense. This was the right decision, as Lin flourished in that type of system playing under head coach Mike D'Antoni with the New York Knicks.
However, Lin got off to a slow start. His passing and defense were there, but his offense deserted him. Over the first month of the season, he shot just 37 percent from the field.
That has all changed over the last month. Lin has found his stroke again, and his field-goal efficiency is up to 43 percent for the season. As a result, the Rockets have seen a pair of five-game winning streaks since mid-December.
Don't let the team's current four-game losing streak fool you. Houston is a talented offensive squad that, when running on all cylinders, can be dangerous. It has defeated the New York Knicks twice already and, most important of all, the players seem to enjoy playing this type of game.
The Nuggets are coached by veteran NBA coach George Karl, whose teams are usually a lock to be a decent-scoring squad that also plays tough defense in the paint. That has certainly been the case this season, as Denver currently ranks sixth in points scored and first in rebounding. At the moment, the team is on a five-game winning streak and climbing up the tough Western Conference ladder.
However, it took a while for the Nuggets to get to where they are now. Despite playing a game that relies on a strong offense, their two best assets in that department have struggled. Andre Iguodala is still adjusting to playing shooting guard, and Ty Lawson has struggled with his shot all season.
Even sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari (pictured) has been off his game. He shot just 40 percent from the field over the season's first two months, but has turned on the afterburners in 2013. In the month of January, he has shot an astounding 47 percent from the floor and 41 percent from long range.
Throw in that the Nuggets have excellent rebounders in Javale McGee, Kosta Koufos and Kenneth Faried, and this is a team that will ride its current winning streak out, and not take a step back once it is over. Their game is being played the way it needs to be played right now, and the players will fully embrace it for the rest of the season.
To the Nets' credit, their identity crisis didn't happen until December. After an 11-4 start under former coach Avery Johnson, the wheels fell off and the team became better known for Deron Williams criticizing Johnson's system.
Thus, after a loss that put the team's record at 14-14, Johnson was fired and replaced by assistant P.J. Carlesimo. Though his career NBA head-coaching record coming in was an unimpressive 204-296, Carlesimo has actually done a great job with the Nets.
The team is 9-1 ever since he took over and is currently on a seven-game winning streak. Williams is still struggling to find his shooting touch, but has managed to get his field-goal efficiency up to 41 percent.
More importantly, he has given Carlesimo his seal of approval. There's still a lot of the season left to go, but one thing is clear: The Nets are back on track, and they aren't going away quietly.
Last season, the Indiana Pacers surprised everyone by becoming the young and scrappy defensive team that turned a lot of heads in the playoffs. In doing so, Indiana rocketed up the Eastern Conference standings en route to becoming the No. 3 seed before losing to the Miami Heat in the second round. Even in defeat, fans became excited about the Pacers' future.
Then, Danny Granger injured his knee and was ruled out for three months.
Indiana struggled over the first month of the season, going 8-8, but has turned things around since then. The absence of Granger has only motivated Paul George into becoming a more reliable go-to guy, and Roy Hibbert has been a dominant defensive force in the middle despite struggling on offense and shooting just 40 percent from the field.
As a result, the Pacers are first in points allowed and second in rebounding. Once Granger and his offense are back, there's no telling how far this team can go.
The Golden State Warriors' problem over the past few years was simple. They were an offensive team that had zero in the defensive department. That seemed to change last season when team management traded star guard Monta Ellis to the Milwaukee Bucks for center Andrew Bogut, but the Australian seven-footer has only appeared in four games for the team due to injury.
The Warriors have been great this season in spite of Bogut's absence. Head coach Mark Jackson has his young players utilizing a high-scoring offense while also ranking fifth in rebounding. Granted, Golden State also ranks 22nd in points allowed, but the differences in this year's team compared to ones of years past are notable.
This year's squad has no interest in waiting to win as the team rebuilds. It wants to win now. It has already defeated the defending-champion Miami Heat once this season and is ready to compete with anyone up to the challenge.
Don't be so quick to count out this team's youth. The Warriors finally have an identity, and are eager to show it off.
The Celtics knew that this year would be an adjustment, as star guard Ray Allen left to join the Miami Heat. GM Danny Ainge brought in Courtney Lee and Jason Terry to man the 2, but neither one has been much of a factor. Lee is little more than a sharpshooting role player, and Terry is on the wrong side of 35.
Throw in disappointing performances from Brandon Bass and Kevin Garnett slowing down with age, and the Celtics' defense was far from the tough unit long established by head coach Doc Rivers. Entering the month of January, Boston was just 14-16.
But then, nothing short of basketball magic happened. Following a loss, Boston went on a winning streak that now numbers six games. They look like the Celtics of old and are priming themselves for a run to the playoffs, at which point their collective experience could become incredibly dangerous.
Fans know that there are no Celtics like the tough-defensive Celtics, and that makes us all the more happy to have them back.