The 2012-13 NBA regular season only has a few weeks remaining, and it's starting to become clear which teams are legitimate and which are not. Once the playoffs roll around, it's anybody's guess as to who will advance.
The fact of the matter is, that the balances of power in the league finally appear to be set in stone. The top teams are there for a reason, and those at the bottom of the barrel have not risen up for reasons well known to them.
These power rankings will have a look at the league's landscape as the final stretch of the season is set to go down, as well as analyze which teams have some work to do over these final weeks.
*- Rankings are based on NBA standings as of Thursday, March 14, 2013 at 4:23 p.m. ET
1. Miami Heat
At long last, the defending champions have found their sense of urgency on defense and have ridden that to a 20-game winning streak. This team has definitely earned the top spot, despite still being the worst rebounding team in the league, and all signs point to the Heat getting back to the NBA Finals to defend their title.
2. San Antonio Spurs
Say what you want about the Spurs being old. This team knows how to win.
They have managed to go 3-2 over their last five games despite losing star point man Tony Parker to a sprained ankle, and it just goes to show that San Antonio is like a fine wine. They just get better with age.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder
This team continues to be as electrifying as ever, and Kevin Durant is on his way to winning a fourth straight scoring title with 28.3 points per game. Combined with a fine scoring point guard in Russell Westbrook and a great defender in Serge Ibaka, Oklahoma City is a team on a mission: get back to the NBA Finals and come away as the winner this time.
With an offense that ranks second in points scored and a deep roster that has continued to play well despite the loss of James Harden via a trade, it's hard to see the Thunder collapsing or suffering an early playoff exit.
4. Memphis Grizzlies
Even without Rudy Gay, Memphis continues to be great and has won six-in-a-row. The Grizzlies' defense ranks first in points allowed, and while their offensive attack may not be the strongest, the frontcourt tandem of Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol is incredibly strong.
Thus, when the playoffs start, don't be surprised if the defense goes into overdrive and shuts down the opposition en route to a long run.
5. Los Angeles Clippers
Lob City is in full swing as the Clips are set to get back to the postseason . Jamal Crawford signing on as the sixth man last summer made the team complete, and now the Clippers' overall offense is all the more dangerous.
But wait, there's more. Not only does LA rank eighth in points scored, but it is also fifth in points allowed. As a run-and-gun team that can also lock it down on defense when called upon, it's going to be great to see the Clippers continue to grow and go far in this year's playoffs.
6. Denver Nuggets
What 'Melo trade? That's right, fans, the Nuggets have finally gotten the formula right and have rocketed up to this position in the standings thanks to a 10-game winning streak.
Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari have done excellent work on offense, and Kenneth Faried continues to be an absolute beast on both sides of the floor. This team is young, but don't count it out just yet.
Head coach George Karl has the Nuggets playing some great ball, and it's going to be interesting to see how the team matches up against more experienced rosters in the playoffs.
7. Indiana Pacers
Defense has been the name of the game in Indianapolis, and the Pacers rank first in rebounding and second in points allowed. The best part is that they have been able to succeed without star forward Danny Granger, who has appeared in all but five games this season due to knee surgery and ensuing soreness since his return on Feb. 23.
In his absence, Paul George has done a great job of stepping up as a star and even played in the All-Star Game this year. With or without Granger, Indiana could be bound for a long playoff run, depending on matchups.
8. New York Knicks
The Knicks are still a top team, but have a lot of work to do over the final stretch of the regular season. Star forward Carmelo Anthony's knee could very well be an issue the rest of the way, and it doesn't help that New York will also be without Amar'e Stoudemire as he has undergone yet another knee surgery. Even Tyson Chandler's knee has recently become a concern.
This means that now is the time for the Knicks to truly come together and recapture some of the fire they exhibited earlier this season. Let's not forget that they defeated Miami by 20 points twice, on Nov. 2 and Dec. 6, and one of those games was without Anthony and both were without Stoudemire.
This team knows how to win and can definitely go far in the playoffs. It's just a matter of everyone coming together and buying into the idea that they can indeed accomplish that much.
9. Brooklyn Nets
Head across the East River, and we have the Brooklyn Nets. This team has continued to play fine basketball under interim coach P.J. Carlesimo, going 24-13 since he took over after Avery Johnson was fired.
Deron Williams has finally found the fire he had been lacking all season long and has posted 25.4 points and nine assists per contest over his last five games, and has also shot 51 percent from the field and 49 percent from long range over that stretch. Throw in a solid supporting cast in Joe Johnson and Brook Lopez, and the Nets are a squad with the brightest of futures.
They won't win a championship this season, but will surely make enough noise so that people know to watch out for them in the coming years.
10. Golden State Warriors
Run-and-gun teams are incredibly fun to watch, and the Warriors are no exception. Stephen Curry continues to be electrifyingly smooth with his scoring, be it in the key or from beyond the arc. Meanwhile, David Lee is a double-double machine who can defeat virtually anyone on the boards.
This is a young team that still has a lot to learn on defense, but the fact that they have managed to compete and maintain pace in the competitive Western Conference is very telling. I don't expect them to go far in the playoffs this season, but they'll definitely make some noise.
11. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls are one of the most interesting teams in the league in that they have a great defense that ranks third in points allowed, but their offense is the second worst in the league. This can be attributed to Chicago not having Derrick Rose all season long, as the star point guard has been recovering from a torn ACL suffered in last year's playoffs.
That said, while Bulls' defense could certainly help them in the playoffs, they're only going to go as far as their offense takes them. With or without Rose, it's hard to see them going far without a consistent playmaker or go-to guy down the stretch.
12. Boston Celtics
The Celtics are a far cry from the team that came within one win of the NBA Finals last season, but have still performed well enough as of late that they need to be taken seriously in the playoffs, even without star point man Rajon Rondo, who tore his ACL in January.
The fact is, that early in the season, this is a team that looked old and in danger of missing the postseason. Today, barring a massive collapse, they could easily get there and even advance past the first round. Boston ranks seventh in points allowed and finally appears to have gotten the scoring formula right.
Throw in a great head coach in Doc Rivers, and this is a team that is not to be taken lightly.
13. Atlanta Hawks
At long last, Atlanta is feeling the loss of bench guard Lou Williams. The team ranks third in assists and 12th in points allowed.
The fact is that while Josh Smith and Al Horford can carry the team to a certain degree, with point guard Jeff Teague helping as necessary, the Hawks can only go so far without a pure scorer. They'll make the playoffs, but seeing them get past the first round is highly unlikely.
14. Houston Rockets
The Rockets are a young team still trying to get the formula right, but they have proved one thing true this year. With the right players, head coach Kevin McHale's run-and-gun offense works with the right players in the lineup.
James Harden has been a godsend since being acquired from the Oklahoma City Thunder before the start of the season, and Chandler Parsons has proven to be an excellent scorer alongside him. Even Jeremy Lin has been impressive, though Linsanity has not been the story of Houston's season.
That said, all signs point to Houston making the playoffs this year. How far they get, however, is up to them and fate.
15. Los Angeles Lakers
It took them until the second half of the season, but the Lakers are finally performing up to expectations under head coach Mike D'Antoni. Kobe Bryant has found the balance of scoring and creating plays for his teammates, and Dwight Howard is finally becoming the explosive five that his teammates need him to be, sore shoulder be damned.
The team currently ranks eighth in the West, and while it could easily rise up in the standings, depending on certain chips falling into place, it's hard to see the Lakers getting past the first round this year. Nothing against the team, but this recent surge may be no match for tougher squads like San Antonio and OKC.
The Lakers do indeed have some potential entering the final stretch, but they still have a lot of work to do before they can be considered more than just an über-dark horse.
16. Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks finally have a consistent shooting guard in J.J. Redick, but it doesn't take away from the fact that the team as a whole is kind of a mess. The mix of role players and those with star potential makes picking matchups and drawing up plays difficult, and the inconsistencies of Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings have shone bright all year long.
This team is going to make the playoffs, but will almost definitely face Miami in the first round. If they can even win a game, let alone keep games close from start to finish, that will be nothing short of a miracle.
17. Utah Jazz
Utah has two solid bigs in Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson manning the paint, but it's almost shocking how much the team is lacking at guard. Mo Williams is a solid scoring point guard, but the lack of a consistent go-to scorer outside of the team's twin towers is one of the main reasons the Jazz have lost eight of 10 and fallen out of the playoff picture.
A long run will be needed to get back into it, but that's not going to happen so long as both the Lakers and Rockets continue to play well. Thus, all that the fans can do is prepare for the next chapter of team history, which begins with Millsap and Jefferson almost definitely leaving via free agency this summer.
18. Dallas Mavericks
Not even two full seasons removed from a championship season, the Mavericks are set to enter a rebuilding phase. Save for Dirk Nowitzki and O.J. Mayo, the team's offense has no consistency and the lack of a solid center in the paint and playmaker at the point does not help matters.
As much as some may hate to say it, playoff games are not going to be happening in the Big D this season. Instead, fans should look forward to the millions that are set to come off the books this summer, which could easily mean a free agency shopping spree.
19. Portland Trail Blazers
As expected, young Portland has come back down to earth after showing flashes of potential this season. The team does indeed have the eventual Rookie of the Year in point guard Damian Lillard, and a solid supporting cast featuring Nicolas Batum and LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Blazers have almost got the formula right, but it's going to be at least another year before they can be playoff contenders. Over the season's final weeks, all they can do is play their best game and hope for positive results.
20. Toronto Raptors
Even with the acquisition of Rudy Gay, the Raptors still have a long way to go before getting back into playoff contention. Head coach Dwane Casey has them headed in the right direction, but letting poor fits like Andrea Bargnani take up space both on the roster and the payroll does not make any sense moving forward.
Now that Bargnani is out for the season with an injury, this is the chance for Casey to see which lineups work the best over the course of the regular season. Should one work particularly well, general manager Bryan Colangelo could perhaps start making some moves so that in the future, the Raptors can be back on the attack and not on the outside looking in.
21. Philadelphia 76ers
The Sixers showed potential early in the season, but the lack of Andrew Bynum at center has come back to hurt them badly. The man has still not suited up this season due to balky knees, and the young tandem of Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner has only been able to do so much without a reliable presence in the middle.
All that team management can do right now is take a Mulligan on this season and hope to be back in action in 2013-14.
22. Minnesota Timberwolves
Were it not for a plethora of injuries, chances are the 'Wolves would be contending for a playoff spot right now, if not already a lock for one. Instead, the roster has essentially been put together with Scotch tape, with Ricky Rubio being the sole bright spot.
This season is a Mulligan in the worst way, and all that the team can hope for is that next season proves to provide better luck.
23. Sacramento Kings
Fortunately players, new ownership is on the way in, be it a group from Seattle or a local group. Whoever ends up with the winning bid, it will be a giant step in the right direction for the franchise.
24. Cleveland Cavaliers
You know there's a problem when your best player is the great, but oft-injured Kyrie Irving, and his supporting cast is a bunch of youngsters still learning how to compete on the NBA level.
That said, Irving's durability issues aside, Cleveland does have a bright future depending on which pieces are added via the draft or free agency. They have a star in Irving, and it's just a matter of building a solid supporting cast around him.
Once that is accomplished, then the next chapter of Cleveland contention can begin. Right now, all that the players can do is finish out the season and hope for a successful draft night.
25. Detroit Pistons
Detroit's greatest problem is its youth. Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond can definitely be a deadly frontcourt tandem, but the lack of a solid veteran who can lead them definitely hurts. This can be fixed if Jose Calderon re-signs in free agency, but having a true star aboard definitely would not hurt.
The future looks bright, but all that this lottery-bound squad can do right now is hope to close out the season with a bang.
26. Phoenix Suns
It's no secret that this season has been a complete disappointment for the Suns. Free agent acquisitions Goran Dragic and Michael Beasley have not lived up to the hype, and the defense has been just plain terrible.
Decisions need to be made during the offseason, with both the roster and the team's identity. Otherwise, the seasons in the desert are going to be longer than usual.
27. New Orleans Hornets
New Orleans is headed in the right direction with young forward Anthony Davis, but still needs a great deal of help in the scoring department. Fortunately, they will begin next season with a new look and identity as the New Orleans Pelicans, and that should attract some key free agents.
GM Dell Demps should also be sure to build the team through the draft, as solid youth is key to ushering in the new era of potential success in the Big Easy. Combined with some work in the free agency department, New Orleans can definitely be back in action soon.
28. Washington Wizards
The Wizards have two great guards in John Wall and Bradley Beal, but no reliable young big man to help in the middle. Nothing against Emeka Okafor or Nene, but they aren't exactly the best men for the team's future.
Thus, GM Ernie Grunfeld picking the right man in this year's draft is key. The Wizards need help in every way, shape and form, and a young big man who can contribute on both sides of the floor would be a giant step in the right direction.
Until then, the team can only hope that the season ends on a positive note.
29. Orlando Magic
This team is a complete and utter mess, and it's becoming more and more clear that the transition out of the Dwight Howard era is going to be a long one. Nikola Vucevic has talent in the middle, but the same can't be said for the rest of the team.
General manager Rob Hennigan, thus, must use the draft to continue rebuilding, and Orlando should prepare for the long road back to the playoffs.
30. Charlotte Bobcats
No surprises here, folks. The Bobcats continue to be a young and inexperienced squad with a great deal of work to do in terms of both development and identity.
Kemba Walker has what it takes to be a leader at the point, but needs both a reliable go-to scorer as well as for Michael Kidd-Gilchrist to be more than just a slasher. The 'Cats are a young squad with so much potential to do well, but that starts and stops with the players buying into the system and coming together as a unit.
As of now, they are little more than a group of youngsters just playing without a plan. Hopefully, this year's draft can yield some big dividends so that the future will be brighter.