While every NBA game is important, it is necessary to not overreact to a single win or loss. This is especially true when ranking teams over the course of a regular season.
Through seven weeks of basketball, there are a number of squads exceeding expectations, proving they could be legitimate playoff contenders. On the other hand, there are just as many struggling immensely to this point.
Still, talent usually finds a way to come through in this sport, especially with so much time remaining in the season.
That being said, each team has its own strengths and weaknesses to improve upon heading into 2014. Here is a look at how each stacks up through the early part of the year.
1. Indiana Pacers
No matter what happens in the next game against the Miami Heat, the Pacers have proven that they are legitimate contenders.
Indiana might have the best starting five in the NBA with elite talent at every position on the floor. Although it lacks depth, the squad has what it takes to continue this strong start to the year and possibly earn the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
After coming within one game of the conference title a year ago, gaining home-court advantage against the Heat might be all that is necessary to upset the two-time defending champions.
No matter what, the Pacers certainly have the confidence to get this done.
2. Miami Heat
The Heat's worst fear is coming true, as LeBron James is now dealing with an injured ankle, according to SportsCenter:
LeBron James (ankle) did not practice with Heat today. He is questionable for game vs. Pacers tomorrow.— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) December 17, 2013
On the other hand, Miami has proven that all it needs is to reach the playoffs before doing damage. In a terrible Eastern Conference, the squad should be able to cruise through most of the season, even without James for some time.
3. Portland Trail Blazers
It seems like just yesterday there was talk about LaMarcus Aldridge possibly being traded away from Portland. All of a sudden, he is part of a great inside-outside combo with Damian Lillard that should be around for years.
Which team is the best in the Western Conference?
The top-scoring team in the NBA, the Trail Blazers have the ability to stay near the top of the standings all season long.
4. Oklahoma City Thunder
After a less-than-stellar start to the season, the Thunder have showcased their talent with a long winning streak led by great performances on both sides of the ball.
5. San Antonio Spurs
Despite getting up there in age, Tony Parker is still performing as well as he has at any point in his career. If he can keep it up, this would be the first time in his career he topped 40 percent from behind the arc.
Scoring might be a problem in the fast-paced Western Conference, but the Spurs make opponents play their game. With elite defense every time out, San Antonio will remain high in the standings.
6. Los Angeles Clippers
Doc Rivers came into town looking to lead the Clippers in becoming one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. Unfortunately, the squad has dropped from fourth in points allowed per game a year ago to 12th in the league.
DeAndre Jordan has performed well, but everyone on the team must start buying in to stay competitive.
7. Houston Rockets
The big story going forward is what will happen with Omer Asik. According to Sam Amico of Fox Sports, the center will be traded by Thursday and multiple teams in the East are possible landing spots.
Gaining draft picks as a return would help; Houston certainly will want a power forward that can fit in well next to Dwight Howard in the frontcourt.
If the Rockets can grab a stretch 4 who can make shots from the outside and open up the middle of the court, this offense could be unstoppable.
8. Phoenix Suns
Few could have expected the Suns to perform this well to start the year, especially as they were a top candidate to tank for a good lottery pick. However, Eric Bledsoe has been as good as the team hoped when they traded for him over the summer.
If first-round pick Alex Len can contribute anything this season, Phoenix will have a bright future.
9. Denver Nuggets
Ty Lawson is having a great season, but he cannot do it all himself. While the Nuggets have a deep roster full of players who contribute a little bit of everything, they need someone to step up as a legitimate secondary scorer on this offense.
Until that happens, Denver will have a hard time consistently competing with the best in the conference.
10. Dallas Mavericks
The Mavericks are among the worst rebounding teams in the NBA, ranking 25th with a -3.1 margin per game. Hopefully, Brandan Wright can contribute in the frontcourt after finishing with 19 points and six rebounds in his first game of the year.
Dirk Nowitzki certainly thinks Wright will be a nice complement in the low post, via Ed Sefko of the Dallas Morning News:
Dirk Nowitzki on pairing with Brandan Wright for the first time this season Wednesday: "He’s good at the stuff I stink at."— Ed Sefko (@ESefko) December 16, 2013
11. Golden State Warriors
With the way they can shoot the ball, the Warriors can beat anyone. They lead the NBA with a 41.6 percent mark from three-point range, thanks mostly to the combination of Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
Unfortunately, a poor shooting game can ruin any chance of victory. The squad needs to learn how to score in other ways when this happens.
12. Atlanta Hawks
The problem with the Hawks to this point is inconsistency. Every time it appears that they will gain momentum from a win, they come back the next night with a poor loss.
After alternating wins and losses for the last five games, Atlanta has to hope to string together something of a winning streak in order to stay up there in the East standings.
13. Minnesota Timberwolves
Kevin Love has been red-hot in December, averaging 27.8 points and 13.3 rebounds in six games. Unfortunately, the team is 3-3 in those contests.
Obviously, a difficult schedule has a lot to do with it, but the Timberwolves have not shown they can beat the best. This could keep them out of the playoffs yet again.
14. Detroit Pistons
The Pistons earned an impressive 101-96 win on the road over the Pacers, which shows how good they can be when everyone is playing well. Of course, ESPN's Ethan Sherwood Strauss has a different theory:
Theory: Pistons are getting better because they now know where Josh Smith's misses clank off to.— Ethan Strauss (@SherwoodStrauss) December 17, 2013
Josh Smith has scored over 30 points in two straight games, but his efficiency is still lacking. He and Brandon Jennings have a lot of talent, but they each have to learn how to pass up shots to help out the team.
Young frontcourt players Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe are as good a duo as there is in the league, and they need the opportunity to get more looks inside on a daily basis.
15. New Orleans Pelicans
With Anthony Davis on the sideline, the Pelicans have had a hard time stopping teams in the lane. They now rank 26th in the league in points allowed per game, and this does not seem to be improving without much of a defensive presence.
This will remain a problem throughout the season in a deep Western Conference.
16. Boston Celtics
Boston was supposed to be rebuilding this season, and no one would have blamed first-year head coach Brad Stevens if the team was in last place at this point. However, the Celtics continue to win games and could legitimately grab a high seed in a weak conference.
Amazingly, this could end up hurting the team in the long term.
17. Washington Wizards
The Wizards have done a terrible job at finishing games, with only one win in the last five. The only victory was over the New York Knicks when Carmelo Anthony inexplicably chucked the ball nowhere near the basket instead of calling a timeout.
Fortunately, this is a young team that will learn to improve in this regard. In a terrible conference, the Wizards can play their way up to a top-four seed.
18. Memphis Grizzlies
Only four teams score fewer points per game than the Grizzlies, despite the fact that Mike Conley is playing the best basketball of his career. There are simply not enough scorers on the roster to put up 100 points consistently.
It seems like a trade might be the only way to heal these problems going forward.
19. Los Angeles Lakers
While Kobe Bryant was supposed to be a savior, the Lakers lost four of the first five games he played in. It is understandable that his shooting is inconsistent after so much time off, but it is certainly not helping the team.
Add to this the struggles of Pau Gasol and it is hard to imagine the Lakers turning things around anytime soon.
20. Charlotte Bobcats
If the playoffs started today, the Bobcats would be in the playoffs. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go, and they are certain to drop in the standings.
With an inconsistent roster full of young players, Charlotte has a lot of pieces to add before it is competitive on a nightly basis.
21. Brooklyn Nets
Things are finally starting to turn around in Brooklyn. Although a 9-15 record is not what the Nets were expecting coming into the year, four wins in five games gets them on the right track.
Mike Mazzeo of ESPN quotes Kevin Garnett on one big change:
KG says Kidd has simplified defense #Nets— Mike Mazzeo (@MazzESPN) December 11, 2013
For the amount of veteran leadership on this roster, head coach Jason Kidd is still a rookie in his new role. He will continue to learn how to coach his team, and the Nets will be competitive before you know it.
With 60 games left, there is plenty of time to move up in the standings.
22. Toronto Raptors
Toronto has won its last two games without Rudy Gay, which seems to be the recipe for success for NBA teams. Either way, it was clear he was not part of the team's future, and his absence will give younger players a chance to improve.
As DeMar DeRozan continues to play at an All-Star level, Gay will not be missed anytime soon.
23. Cleveland Cavaliers
Jared Zwerling of Bleacher Report reported that Dion Waiters is asking for a trade out of Cleveland:
If this happens, it would be a huge setback in the rebuilding process, especially with No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett providing very little to start his career.
24. Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have been dealing with injuries, but there were still three All-Stars on the court when they lost at home to the Orlando Magic on Monday. The combination of Joakim Noah, Carlos Boozer and Luol Deng should have too much pride to play this poorly.
25. Orlando Magic
Although the Magic are unlikely to be competitive this season, they are building the pieces in order to do well in the future. Victor Oladipo is playing as well as any rookie in the NBA, while plenty other young players have shown they belong.
If they continue to improve, Orlando will be back in the playoffs in no time.
26. New York Knicks
After falling to 7-17 on the year, head coach Mike Woodson is squarely on the hot seat. However, ESPN's Marc Stein provides a look as to why he still has a job:
Two factors that have helped Mike Woodson hang on: Tyson Chandler has only played four games and Knicks' limited options for interim coach— Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) December 17, 2013
Of course, New York is not patient enough for more losses. If this poor play continues, you can expect the coach to be on the unemployment line soon enough.
27. Sacramento Kings
The Kings showed how good they can be with a win over the Rockets behind 26 points by Rudy Gay. However, the entire roster seems to be filled with inconsistent players capable of providing a terrible showing on an off night.
Only time will tell if the Gay trade turns out to be more than just a way of selling tickets in Sacramento.
Which team will finish with the worst record in the NBA?
28. Philadelphia 76ers
Remember when the 76ers started 3-0, including a win over the Heat? That seems like ages ago now that they have lost seven in a row to drop to 7-19.
This team has by far the league's worst defense, and Philadelphia will end the year in contention for the top pick in the lottery.
29. Utah Jazz
Gordon Hayward has improved his scoring numbers and is leading the Jazz in points per game. Unfortunately, he is still not ready to be a go-to option on a good team.
The good news is that the team still has a lot of talented pieces, all capable of being secondary options at this level. If they can find a way to add a superstar, the Jazz can become a quality squad.
30. Milwaukee Bucks
After losing both Monta Ellis and Brandon Jennings this past offseason, the Bucks have struggled immensely on the offensive end, averaging a league-worst 89.8 points per game.
Without much youth on the roster either, this could be a long season in Milwaukee.
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