NBA Power Rankings: Pretenders and Contenders Heading into All-Star Break

Brian Mazique@@UniqueMaziqueCorrespondent IIIFebruary 12, 2013

We're heading into the NBA All-Star break and teams are jockeying for position in the standings, and there is a good amount of trade talk surrounding key names. There is no consensus favorite for the NBA title this season, but there are only seven or eight teams with a realistic shot at reaching the NBA Finals.

Obviously, those chances vary depending on the team, and there is some uncertainty in almost every case. There is always the injury factor to consider as well.

If a key player goes down for the top teams, it could drastically alter their chances of winning a title.

Just look at what happened to the Chicago Bulls last season. After Derrick Rose went down in the opening round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs, their title hopes went down the drain.

These power rankings will spotlight the top 12 teams, with each labeled as a pretender or contender.


1. San Antonio Spurs 41-12 - CONTENDER

The Spurs still wouldn't be my choice as favorite to win the NBA championship, but it is impossible to ignore their magnificent season. They are a dominating 21-2 at home, and they have won nine of their last 10 games.

They have accomplished these things despite the fact that their top three players have missed a combined 26 games.

Because of this, they have to top the power rankings at this point. 

So why aren't they my picks to win the NBA championship?

Because we've seen excellent regular seasons from the Spurs the last two seasons (111-37 over the last two full seasons), but it hasn't produced a title. The core has only gotten older, and in the playoffs it's about stars rising to the occasion.

I don't see the Spurs' stars shining brightest when it is all said and done, but they are still contenders.


2. Miami Heat 34-14 - CONTENDER

The South Beach Big Three is still my pick as NBA champion.

There is no question they have the best threesome in the NBA. LeBron James continues to prove he is from another planet. He is currently on a run of five straight 30-point performances.

In that span, James is averaging 31 points, he's made 55 of his 77 shots from the field, and nine of 15 three-point attempts. He's also averaging 6.8 rebounds and 6.1 assists per game during this stretch. It is hard to get more dominating than that.

The Heat have had their tough stretches, but they have won five games in a row, and the addition of Chris Andersen has proven to be beneficial. The Birdman has appeared in eight games, and the Heat are 7-1 in those contests.

This is still the team to beat when the money is on the line.


3. Oklahoma City Thunder 39-12 - CONTENDER

Despite how well James Harden has played in Houston, I still believe the Thunder got the best of the trade with the Houston Rockets. Kevin Martin—though injured recently—is a great fit as a sixth man, and his contract ends at the end of the season, which offers more flexibility for the future.

Kevin Durant is second in the NBA in scoring at 28.9 points per game, and Russell Westbrook is having an excellent all-around season (22.5 points, 8.5 assists and 5.2 assists).

The key to how far the Thunder can advance is the growth of Serge Ibaka. If he can step up as an offensive weapon in the postseason, this team can beat anyone in the league.


4. Los Angeles Clippers 37-17 - CONTENDER

The Clippers validated their spot amongst the NBA's elite with their 15-game win streak. Staying afloat through injuries to Blake Griffin and Chris Paul further affirmed that they are for real.

With Grant Hill now coming through as a glue guy off the bench, and the newly returned Chauncey Billups serving as a veteran stabilizing force, the Clippers are looking extremely strong. 

The talent is there for this team at every position. The only questions surrounding them is the long-term health of Griffin and Paul, and if the team can step up during the postseason.


5. New York Knicks 32-17 - CONTENDER

There is a much better balance of offense and defense in New York this season. Carmelo Anthony is leading the league in scoring at 29 points per game, and the Knicks' role players are at peace playing secondary options.

Tyson Chandler is leading the defense, and the Knicks are not only the second-highest scoring team in the Eastern Conference, but they are allowing the sixth-fewest points per game as well.

They are one of the most deadly shooting teams in the league. But when the shots aren't falling, they can be a little too easy to defend. Their dependence on the three-point shot is troubling.

In their 32 wins, the Knicks have connected on 40 percent of their shots from deep. In the 17 losses, they have made only 33 percent of their three-point attempts.


6. Denver Nuggets 33-19 - PRETENDER

George Karl has his team playing extremely well, and that is especially the case when they are at home in the Pepsi Center. The Nuggets are 22-3 in Denver's rare air, but just 11-16 away from home.

It takes just one loss at home in the playoffs to lose the advantage in a series.

The Nuggets haven't proven that they can win away from home consistently, and that is primarily because they lack the type of go-to scorer to take over down the stretch. Ensemble teams can win in the regular season, but they almost never win championships.


7. Memphis Grizzlies 32-18 - PRETENDER

Before the Rudy Gay trade, the Grizzlies were missing an element to make them one of the league's elite. After the trade, they are less athletic and less effective on the perimeter than they were. 

Defensively, they are one of the best teams in the league, but they will struggle to score from the outside in the playoffs.

Over the last eight months, the Grizzlies have seen O.J. Mayo and Gay change uniforms; they were the team's best scoring options to complement Zach Randolph's post game. 

The Grizz are now prone to scoring droughts that will doom them in close games against top teams. They are only 3-3 since Gay was traded away, and they have scored 100 or more points just once in that span.


8. Indiana Pacers 31-21 - CONTENDER

Paul George is on the cusp of stardom, but the Pacers need another scorer to take pressure off him. That help could be on the way when the team can get Danny Granger back from injury.

According to Fox Sports, Granger could be back as early as Wednesday.

Fans shouldn't forget how effective Granger has been as a scorer. He averaged 18.7 points per game last season, and he's an 18-point per game scorer for his career. You can't underestimate the impact of bringing a player like that back to the lineup.

The Pacers have been near unbeatable at Conseco Fieldhouse, but only 11-16 away from home. The difference between them and a team like the Nuggets is the presence of George, and now Granger.

This team's best days are ahead.


9. Golden State Warriors 30-21 - PRETENDER

Mark Jackson deserves consideration for Coach of the Year. He has transformed a previously defensively challenged group into a solid team.

They aren't exactly the Chicago Bulls on defense, as they are still allowing 100.9 points per game, but it is the lowest scoring-against average the Warriors have had since the 2005-2006 season.

That said, the team has lost four games in a row, and the group has no real playoff experience. They will make the postseason, but their stay will be short.


10. Chicago Bulls 30-21 - CONTENDER/PRETENDER

Sitting nine games over .500 without Rose is a feat in itself, but if you consider Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng have missed a combined 12 games, it explains why Tom Thibodeau should be considered the favorite for another Coach of the Year award.

The Bulls are a solid team without Rose, but with him, they are one of the best teams in the NBA.

The emergence of second-year swingman Jimmy Butler can't be underestimated. He has scored double figures in 10 of his last 14 games and has given the Bulls another scoring option.

It remains to be seen if Butler can continue this in the postseason, but with Rose possibly returning after the All-Star break, you have to be excited about the Bulls' immediate future.

Those chances could be hurting with Rose's latest comments about his recovery. Per CBS Sports, Rose says he is "far, far away" from returning, and could sit out the entire season.

His return will obviously dictate if the Bulls are real contenders.


11. Brooklyn Nets 30-22 PRETENDER/CONTENDER

The Nets have certainly improved, but they are still a player away from being a true contender. If the rumored deal for Ben Gordon comes to fruition (New Jersey Star-Telegram), that could change things.

The Nets' bench has been a weakness all season. The teams' reserves are ranked just 22nd in the NBA in scoring.

Gordon's instant offense and long-range shooting could give the team an immediate boost. They aren't far away from becoming truly dangerous.


12. Houston Rockets 28-25 - PRETENDER

Harden is a legitimate MVP candidate—or at least worthy of finishing in the top five of the voting. He's scoring 26.1 points per game and has asserted himself as the unquestioned leader of the team. Omer Asik has shocked me with how solid he's been in the middle.

The big man is fourth in the NBA in rebounding, and he's averaging a double-double. Not many people are laughing at the contract he signed this past offseason now.

Even with those two players having career years, they are a ways away from being elite.

Jeremy Lin has been average at the point, and defensively, the team hasn't been able to shut teams down. They are allowing 103 points per game, and they won't be contenders until they improve on that end of the floor.


13. Utah Jazz 28-24

There are talks of trades surrounding Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap. Per ESPN's Ric Bucher, the team is more likely to part ways with Millsap.

Before or after a trade, the team will be fortunate to hold on to one of the last two playoff spots.

Utah is a very good defensive team, and they have a ton of depth in the frontcourt, but their backcourt is a weakness. Per Hoop Stats, the Jazz backcourt has registered an efficiency rating of just 35.5 while opposing backcourts have compiled a 41.7 rating.

Faced with the prospects of playing teams like the Thunder and the Clippers in the first round, they're weaknesses will be exposed.


14. Atlanta Hawks 28-22

Every year, the Hawks are mildly entertaining and respectable, but not serious contenders. This season is no exception to that rule.


15. Boston Celtics 27-24

The Celtics are 7-1 since Rajon Rondo went down with a season-ending injury. This run proves they are as good with Rondo, or better, but I'm not ready to say that makes them worthy of being called contenders.


16. Portland Trail Blazers 25-26

Damian Lillard has all but run away to hide with the Rookie of the Year race, but the team is terrible on the road at 8-18. They have lost three in a row, and they are currently the ninth seed in the Western Conference.

They will have a hard time catching the Jazz, or holding off the Dallas Mavericks and Los Angeles Lakers in the hunt for a playoff spot.

This team could be headed for another lottery selection


17. Milwaukee Bucks 25-25

The Bucks are still a sound defensive team, but their smallish backcourt and limited scoring from the frontcourt positions keeps them down.


18. Los Angeles Lakers 24-28

Just when I thought the Lakers may be ready to make a move up the standings, Pau Gasol gets injured, and the Dwight Howard-Kobe Bryant relationship has seemingly decayed even further (Yahoo! Sports).

I'm sticking to my prediction that they will make the playoffs, but my confidence in that prediction is waning.


19. Philadelphia 76ers 22-28

If the 76ers could let another five players run on the floor every time they switched to offense, they could be a championship-level team. Defensively, they can compete with anyone, but offensively they look like they should be preparing for March Madness.

They had two games in the past week that saw them score 76 points or lower.


20. Dallas Mavericks 22-29

The team has vowed not shave until they reach .500 (Dallas News). I admire the passion, but right now, I think their beards may block the names on the front of their jerseys before they even up their record.


21. Toronto Raptors 19-32

Rudy Gay has looked great in Toronto. He's scoring 23.4 points per game as a Raptor. He and DeMar DeRozan make a dynamic set of wing players, but his arrival is a little too late for the team to make the playoffs.


22. Minnesota Timberwolves 19-30

Ricky Rubio is finally starting to get extended minutes, and it is showing in his production. He's played an average of 34 minutes per game in the last five games, and he's averaging a double-double in that span (14.4 points and 10 assists).

When Kevin Love returns, the team will improve, but they may be too far back to make a realistic run at the playoffs.


23. Detroit Pistons 20-33

The future of the Pistons is bright, but it was disappointing seeing rookie Andre Drummond go down with a back injury (Detroit Free Press).

He and Greg Monroe could be a deadly combination in the next few years.


24. Sacramento Kings 19-33

This team is a mess from relocation talks (Sports Illustrated) to DeMarcus Cousins' drama (USA Today). Keith Smart may be a nice guy, but he isn't the right man to coach this group.


25. New Orleans Hornets 18-34

Anthony Davis is having a disappointing season, and Eric Gordon hasn't had the type of impact the team hoped for. Perhaps the Pelicans logo will serve the team better.


26. Phoenix Suns 17-35

This team needs a complete overhaul, and they apparently know it. They have fired head coach Alvin Gentry, and have been linked to talks for players like Al Jefferson and Gordon Hayward, per CBS Sports.

The biggest thrill for Suns fans this season has to be Steve Nash's return in a Lakers uniform. Yippee!


27. Cleveland Cavaliers 16-36

Kyrie Irving has been amazing this season averaging 24 points per game, but I laugh at the notion that he's the MVP in any way, shape or form (Cleveland Plain Dealer). How can a guy leading a team 20 games under .500 be MVP?


28. Washington Wizards 15-35

It was great to see John Wall return to the lineup in January. The team has won four in a row, and they are 10-7 since Wall returned. Again, another too-little-too-late scenario in regards to the playoffs.


29. Orlando Magic 15-36

The Magic have played hard all season, but the talent to produce anything better than a 15-36 record just isn't there. Nikola Vucevic has had a surprising season replacing Howard. He's averaging 12.5 points and 11.6 rebounds per game as a bright spot.


30. Charlotte Bobcats 12-39

At one point, the Bobcats looked like they were heading in the right direction, but their 18-game losing streak killed their confidence and their season.


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