The NBA hierarchy isn't officially set in stone, but the balance of power grows more apparent by the day.
There's a clear-cut line separating the haves from the have nots, but also a group of teams floating amid a gray cloud in between. Those destinies are not yet determined, but making the right call between now and the Feb. 20 trade deadline could be the difference between crashing the championship party or making early vacation plans.
With a reportedly stacked draft class waiting in the wings, there will be no shortage of motivated sellers. There's impactful talent to be had if teams are willing to sacrifice a piece of the future to improve their present outlook.
For some teams, the decision to move or not is a delicate balancing act. For these six, though, it's a no-brainer.
The motives differ considerably, as do the degrees of the potential payoffs. No matter what the end result entails, the means of reaching that goal is the same.
This is the time of year when fortunes can change. They will, too, if these six teams realize there's never been a better time for them to buy.
While the Charlotte Bobcats would love to follow in owner Michael Jordan's championship footsteps, they understand there's a process in climbing to the game's ultimate goal.
The first rung on that ladder is securing a playoff spot, which seemed unimaginable as this team stumbled into a .189 winning percentage over the last two seasons.
Thanks to offseason import Al Jefferson (20.1 points and 10.5 rebounds) and first-year coach Steve Clifford, that goal is suddenly well within reach. The Bobcats enter the All-Star break at 23-30, good for eighth best in the East.
Mediocrity isn't often celebrated in hoops circles, but Charlotte's a bit unique. With one postseason appearance in the franchise's history, mediocrity—if it comes with a playoff ticket attached—feels like something far sweeter.
Given the sorry state of the conference, mediocrity may well be enough to make some legitimate noise. If the 'Cats can avoid a first-round matchup with the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat, they'll have at least an outside shot at securing the organization's first playoff series win.
They realize what's at stake. ESPN.com's Marc Stein heard from league executives that the Bobcats are one of the "teams to watch" as the league approaches the deadline.
With a playoff-ready defense (101.2 defensive rating, seventh) and a lottery-bound offense (43.7 field-goal percentage, 23rd), the Bobcats need to search for scoring help, either at the 4, on the wing or both.
Remember when the Golden State Warriors only had to worry about the health of Stephen Curry's ankles?
There wasn't much winning going on then, but the frustration level seemed lower.
After tasting some success last season (a playoff series victory) and eating at the big kid's table last summer (landing prized free agent Andre Iguodala), the Dubs had big dreams at the start of the 2013-14 campaign. Those dreams haven't changed.
"We're not that far off," co-owner Joe Lacob told Tim Kawakami of the San Jose Mercury News. "We’re still within spitting distance and still have some time to achieve our goal, which is to get to fourth in the West."
Something doesn't jibe here.
The Warriors didn't gamble on Andrew Bogut, throw $48 million at Iguodala and trade away two first-round picks and five second-round selections to get "within spitting distance" of the No. 4 seed. Not to mention they're a lot closer to falling to ninth (1.5 games) than climbing to fourth (five games).
The second unit is in dire need of an upgrade. The reserves are 29th in scoring (24.1 points per game) and 30th in field-goal percentage (39.1), via HoopsStats.com.
Adding some bench pieces alone may not cure what ails this team—at least not to the degree the dream-big front office would like.
The Dubs need to aim higher—Carmelo Anthony, perhaps, as Bleacher Report's Dan Favale suggested—even if that means cutting ties with Klay Thompson or Harrison Barnes.
It takes win-now talent to, well, win now.
The Houston Rockets did more than make the summer's biggest splash when they pried Dwight Howard away from the Los Angeles Lakers in the offseason.
They officially threw their hats into the championship race.
Between Howard and fellow All-Star James Harden, the Rockets had built one of the league's most lethal twosomes. Turning that pair into something resembling a contender figured to take some time, but the 36-17 Rockets apparently have no interest in the waiting game.
This team is ready to compete now. Well, almost ready.
The individual roster pieces look about as good as any, but they don't yet complete the picture that general manager Daryl Morey is trying to paint.
Sophomore Terrence Jones has enjoyed a relative breakout campaign (11.7 points, 7.3 rebounds), but he's not the stretch 4 (29.0 three-point percentage) Morey had envisioned pairing with Howard. According to Steve Kyler of BasketballInsiders.com, Philadelphia 76ers forward Thaddeus Young remains a "target."
Houston might also be searching for an upgrade in the backcourt. Point guards Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley and Aaron Brooks are all serviceable, but they play a position that is littered with elite talents.
The Rockets have been on the hunt for one of those elite players for a while. CBS Sports' Ken Berger said Houston kicked the tires on Brooklyn Nets point guard Deron Williams, while BasketballInsiders.com's Bill Ingram said the Rockets are the one team that is "consistently brought up" in trade talks surrounding Boston Celtics floor general Rajon Rondo.
Houston hasn't found a deal yet, but it's on the hunt for the difference-making player who can push it over the hump.
This is what I get for leaving my computer unattended with New York Knicks owner James Dolan nearby.
I mean, don't the Knicks need to have trade chips to be considered buyers?
That's a valid point. Believe it or not, though, a few intriguing pieces are simmering underneath this dumpster fire.
No, Carmelo Anthony doesn't appear to be one of them.
At least, the Knicks won't let him be. A source told Marc J. Spears of Yahoo! Sports there's "no chance" New York will move Melo, even with the possibility of him seeking greener pastures over the summer.
Rookie Tim Hardaway Jr. (9.2 points on .451/.385/.800 shooting) would be a welcome addition to a team in need of a cheap gunner. Iman Shumpert is 23 years old and loaded with athleticism. His season has been a disappointment (7.0 points, 38.2 field-goal percentage), but a rival executive could see him as a player in desperate need of a scenery change.
Granted, they aren't the biggest names on the market. Still, they're a starting point for potential trade talks.
According to Basketball Insiders' Bill Ingram, the Knicks are "working the phones in an attempt to add another star-caliber player" to pair with Anthony. That search has reportedly led them anywhere from Toronto Raptors point guard Kyle Lowry, via Frank Isola of the New York Daily News, to Denver Nuggets power forward Kenneth Faried, via ESPN's Marc Stein, to Rondo, via Basketball Insiders' Lang Greene.
It's hard to say just how the Knicks will get something done. However, the need to make a move is obvious.
Perhaps the only thing more remarkable than the Phoenix Suns' rapid rise this season has been their front office's willingness to accept a new reality.
Short on expectations and high on hope for the future, the Suns weren't expected to compete for anything of significance for quite some time. But as the wins have continued to pile up—Phoenix carries a 30-21 record into the break—the brass has looked to beef up this team's ranks for an unexpected playoff run.
Suns GM Ryan McDonough has actually been wearing his win-now goggles for a while. In mid-December he told NBA.com's Scott Howard-Cooper his team was already thinking of packing "a few" of its upcoming picks in pursuit of "a star."
The Suns could have as many as four first-round picks in the 2014 NBA draft and could be willing to give them up.
Between Goran Dragic (20.3 points, 6.2 assists) and Eric Bledsoe (18.0 points, 5.8 assists), Phoenix may already have its backcourt of the future in place. This roster could use help in other areas, including finding a scoring punch on the wing or the low block.
BasketballInsiders.com's Alex Kennedy mentioned Cleveland Cavaliers forward Luol Deng as an option, while Mitch Lawrence of the New York Daily News reports the Suns "are expected to resume talks" with the Los Angeles Lakers regarding center Pau Gasol.
The Suns are young enough that they can afford to sacrifice some future assets. With an insurance policy set to cover 80 percent of Emeka Okafor's expiring contract, the Suns have perhaps the best trade chips of any buyer.
The important thing now is putting them to good use.
The Washington Wizards entered this season with playoff aspirations and are sitting in good shape of realizing that goal.
At 25-27, the Wizards have the sixth-best record in the East and sit just three games behind the third-seeded Toronto Raptors.
In a sense, this season has been a success. Still, this team seems capable of doing so much more.
John Wall has cemented his status as a top-shelf point guard (19.8 points, 8.5 assists). Bradley Beal is an ideal backcourt mate for Wall, providing a steady scoring touch (17.1 points) and consistently shredding nets from distance (43.0 three-point percentage).
With Trevor Ariza on the wing, Nene in the post and Marcin Gortat in the middle, this group should be wreaking havoc in the watered-down East. With a couple of shrewd deadline maneuvers, it very well could.
The second unit has largely been a mess, outside of sharpshooter Martell Webster (39.9 three-point percentage) and forward Trevor Booker (6.3 points on 54.2 percent shooting). Eric Maynor has been a major disappointment (2.3 points, 29.2 percent shooting), and Garrett Temple is a non-contributor at the offensive end (36.3 percent shooting).
The Wizards could stand pat and still feel they've accomplished what they set out to do. With so much potential for this group, though, why not raise the bar and try to make a run?