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NBA Power Rankings Week 7: Have the Miami Heat Surpassed the L.A. Lakers?

Patrick HarrelCorrespondent IIOctober 21, 2016

NBA Power Rankings Week 7: Have the Miami Heat Surpassed the L.A. Lakers?

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    It has been an interesting week in the NBA to say the least. After being bought by the NBA, speculation has been growing that the Hornets could be playing elsewhere next year despite the NBA's insistence otherwise. And they are not the only ones expected to be moving.

    After a source told Chris Sheridan that Carmelo Anthony would only sign an extension with the Knicks, the frenzy surrounding his trade rumors only grew, adding to the already crazy media circus in New York.

    Meanwhile, some teams actually played basketball in the last week and it was a great week of play. In a week of streaks, the unlikely New York Knicks have won eight in a row, the Mavericks had won 12 in a row before losing last night, Boston and Miami have won 10 and nine in a row respectively, and the Spurs have put together a solid five-game streak.

    It is that time of year where the contenders begin to distance themselves from the pack and it appears that this movement is beginning to happen.

     

    The Bleacher Report NBA Power Rankings are done by averaging individual featured columnists' tallies. This week's contributors were Allen Kim (NBA), John Friel (Heat), Patrick Harrel (Rockets), Brian Chappatta (Bulls) and Bryan Toporek (NBA Team Leader).

30. Los Angeles Clippers

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    While the Clippers have unfortunately taken their place as Bleacher Report's worst team in the league, their season has to be regarded as somewhat of a success in the early going. While Baron Davis and Chris Kaman have seen an extremely sharp decline from their former All-Star selves, youngsters Eric Bledsoe, Al-Farouq Aminu, DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and Eric Gordon have all asserted themselves as very solid performers early on in their careers.

    Griffin and Gordon's play especially has to give Clippers fans hope as they appear to be the cornerstones of the future for a franchise that finally appears to have one. Gordon, coming off an impressive showing with Team USA, has developed into a 25-point per game scorer despite a tough shooting slump. Griffin, perhaps the most impressive rookie the league has seen since Tim Duncan, has wowed NBA fans across the country with his near-daily assaults on opposing defenses. 

    Despite these impressive youngsters, the Clippers still find themselves at the bottom of the pile. Just as former free-agent signing Baron Davis is struggling, the Clippers' two headline signings of Ryan Gomes and Randy Foye have been complete disasters. Both are shooting horribly and have fit the team as well as the glove fit OJ.

    Until Donald Sterling and his staff stop giving out inordinate sums of money to free agents and trust the juniors, the team is in for a long haul, even with Griffin and Gordon at the helm.

29. Sacramento Kings

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    It's a rough time to be a Sacramento fan. The team is playing horribly, the tickets are overpriced, and nearly all of the prized young players are playing at well below their potential this season. 

    The fifth pick in the draft, the talented and troubled DeMarcus Cousins, has seemed more troubled than talented in the early going, butting heads with Paul Westphal, the head coach, and not delivering on the court. He had a brief nice stretch of games earlier this week, but has struggled in adapting to the NBA despite a reputation as one of the most NBA-ready prospects in the draft.

    He's not alone. Tyreke Evans and Carl Landry, arguably the team's two best players, have both endured excruciating slumps and have failed to meet expectations in their first full year together. Landry, one of the league's most efficient and underrated post scorers over the last couple of years, has looked like a completely different player and his team's record reflects that.

    Evans, like Landry, has been unable to replicate past success. Whether it was other teams watching tape and seeing that he always finishes with his right hand, or a simple case of a good player resting on his laurels in the offseason, Evans has flopped in his encore appearance after a Rookie of the Year campaign. 

    The Kings are not as bad as their record indicates—their young players will likely rebound—but this horrible stretch of basketball is rough on the fanbase.

28. New Jersey Nets

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    An absolutely horrible team last year, the Nets were expected to improve dramatically with the additions of Derrick Favors, Travis Outlaw and Jordan Farmar, and the improvement of Devin Harris. While they are not losing at a record pace anymore, the same problems are still there for the Nets.

    There have been some bright spots—Derrick Favors has played decently in limited minutes and Kris Humphries is developing into one of the league's more underrated power forwards—but the team as a whole is in disarray.

    After never losing more than four consecutive games in Dallas, Avery Johnson and his Nets have now lost seven in a row, falling to 6-18. 

    Key to this horrible record has been Travis Outlaw's complete inability to mesh with the offense. Always a player with weak shot selection, Outlaw's outrageous choices to shoot have been destroying the offense. Often he is forced to put up a bad shot at the shot clock buzzer, but at other times, he simply holds the ball for 10 seconds or more before putting up a contested jump shot. For a player of his caliber, that simply will not work.

    The Nets are one of the more puzzling teams because they clearly have the talent to be a respectable team in the East, yet they consistently fail to do so, puzzling experts and fans alike. Until there is a change in mentality among the players, they will likely be stuck in that rut for a while.

27. Washington Wizards

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    With news that Josh Howard could be returning soon, the Wizards are optimistic that they could take off on a winning streak bolstered by the former All-Star swingman. Even with impressive rookie John Wall running the point, that optimism appears to be ill-placed.

    After getting the getting the first overall pick in the draft, the Wizards were eager to see Wall on the floor to see what he could do. While he's been impressive when he has played, his foot and knee injuries have to be troublesome for a team which is looking to turn around after a nightmarish season. 

    Wall's injuries are not the only concerns for the Wizards early on. While Gilbert Arenas has kept control over his emotions early on, he has neither been able to score efficiently nor has he been able to limit his turnovers. Additionally, the duo that the Wizards were counting on to man the power forward position, Yi Jianlian and Andray Blatche, have been huge disappointments. 

    The Wizards have a nice young piece in John Wall and some other decent players, but until they complete the rebuilding process they started last year by trading Gilbert Arenas, they are going to struggle to do better than 30 or 40 wins. 

26. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    After consistently being placed at either last or second-to-last in preseason rankings, a pair of young forwards have endeavored to return the Timberwolves to respectability in the monster Western Conference. 

    After two years in an environment where he simply didn't fit in Miami, the freedom afforded to Michael Beasley in Minnesota has allowed him to blossom under Kurt Rambis. While many claim that Beasley is simply another player putting up numbers on a bad team, Beasley has undergone a veritable transformation.

    His effort has been noticeably better on the defensive end, the change to the small forward position has complemented his perimeter-oriented game well, and his demeanor on the court has been far improved. He's no Shane Battier or Pau Gasol, but his basketball IQ has appeared to be much higher.

    Kevin Love's play has been equally impressive for the Timberwolves. His 31-point, 31-rebound game brought back memories of Moses Malone, and his ability to rebound despite mediocre athleticism has given the Timberwolves hope that they could one day return to decency. 

25. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The nightmarish loss against the Heat appears to have broken the spirits of the Cavaliers, preceding ugly losses to Minnesota, Detroit and Philadelphia and sparking an eight-game losing streak. 

    The fact is that the Cavaliers were put together with LeBron James at the helm and, without him, they have struggled to put together any consistent offense. With terrific shooters in Daniel Gibson, Anthony Parker and Mo Williams, the Cavaliers would be a terrific team if they had an offensive creator who could find shots for others.

    However, without LeBron James in the fold, Mo Williams and Antawn Jamison have been miscast as featured scorers in the early season. While nice offensive weapons, those two are not up to carrying an offense on their own.

    Unfortunately, because of the hole the Cavaliers dug for themselves with big contracts, they have no choice other than to count on them.

24. Detroit Pistons

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    Another former superstar made his return to his former city last week, only this time it was to significantly less fanfare. After leaving Houston in disgrace, Tracy McGrady faced the boos that once were cheers of applause in the Toyota Center. Unfortunately for the Pistons, it was a result they have become used to—a loss.

    Just like the Cavaliers, the Pistons have painted themselves into a corner with the oversized paydays they've handed out in recent years. From Ben Gordon's $55 million to Richard Hamilton's $30-plus million, the lack of fiscal responsibility by the Pistons has hamstrung them moving forward.

    Because of this lack of funds, the Pistons have been unable to remedy their glaring lack of size in the middle. While Ben Wallace, Jason Maxiell and Chris Wilcox bring toughness to the frontcourt, the Pistons need a long, tough big man if they want to be a good defensive team.

    While Greg Monroe is a promising rookie, he is at least a year away from consistent contribution and, until he realizes his potential, the Pistons are going to be a weak team.

23. Philadelphia 76ers

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    The Philadelphia 76ers had two young guards who were predicted by many to make huge steps forward in their NBA careers this year. Neither of them were Jodie Meeks.

    After being acquired for a mere penny before the trade deadline last year, Jodie Meeks has emerged onto the scene, shooting his way into the starting lineup with incredible performances. After dropping 25 in a breakout game earlier in the season, Meeks kept up the impressive play with a 19- and a 16-point performance this week against the Celtics and Cavaliers, huge boons to 76er success.

    Unfortunately, the downside to Meeks' promotion to the starting lineup is that it takes away minutes from the second overall pick, Evan Turner. While Turner has certainly been a disappointment early on, the 76ers should give him enough playing time for him to work his way out of his slump and forge his career with the 76ers.

    Considering he could be the heir apparent to Andre Iguodala's role, the 76ers should give him every chance they can.

22. Golden State Warriors

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    After another year of tremendous offense with little defense, the Warriors were hoping that this would be the year that the team would finally be able to field a defense capable of stopping opponents enough that they could not keep up with the Warriors' offense.

    Unfortunately, in the early going, the Warriors' defense has been as porous as usual and the offense is lagging behind.

    However, help is coming for the Warriors in the form of David Lee. While he is not going to help at all on defense, putting Lee back into the lineup will help solidify the rebounding and give Stephen Curry his favorite pick-and-roll partner back.

    After finally finding financial flexibility by ridding themselves of the committments to Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette, the Warriors appear to be on the way up in the West. All they need is one solid, defensive big man.

21. Charlotte Bobcats

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    After making the playoffs for the first time in franchise history, the Bobcats were hoping to make another step forward with another year. Let's just say that things haven't exactly gone according to plan.

    After an owner-mandated liquidation left the Bobcats without their starting center or point guard from the previous year, the team has looked completely lost in the early going. On the other hand, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton, now with the Mavericks and Knicks, are looking extremely good with their new teams.

    While still strong, the Bobcats defense has slipped noticeably as defensive stalwart Tyson Chandler has been replaced by Nazr Mohammed, who struggles significantly with stronger centers.

    Still, there have been some bright spots for the Bobcats, like Tyrus Thomas' incredible play. He's appeared more motivated and stronger on the court in the early going. If only his work ethic could rub off on slackers like Boris Diaw, the Bobcats could be a pretty good team.

20. Houston Rockets

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    After being picked by many to have a chance at the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, the Rockets have unilaterally disappointed, falling to a 9-14 record. Perhaps no team has been hit as hard by injuries as these Rockets in recent years, as the duo of Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming never made it out of the first round because of injuries.

    Unfortunately for Houston fans, this year is no different. After losing Yao to an ankle injury, Aaron Brooks sprained his ankle in a freak play after Manu Ginobili stepped in front of him after the end of the half. While an easy scapegoat, these injuries are not the sole reason the Rockets are off to such a rough start.

    Without a true closer, the Rockets have struggled mightily in close games, losing heartbreakers against Chicago and San Antonio on late three-pointers that forced overtime.

    The Rockets are not as bad as their record might indicate, but perhaps expectations should be tempered a bit for the year.

19. Toronto Raptors

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    Coming into the year, many thought it to be a fait accompli that the Raptors would sink to the bottom of the Eastern Conference without a fight after the loss of Chris Bosh to the Miami Heat. While it's unclear whether they will be a good team or not, one thing is clear: the Raptors are not an easy victory.

    After huge victories against the Celtics and Orlando, the Raptors have demonstrated that they can hang with anyone for 48 minutes. While they may have taken on too much money in signing Amir Johnson to an extension and acquiring Leandro Barbosa, the Raptors have to be pleased with where they are now.

    Still, the Raptors are far from a complete team. They have struggled to beat even the worst in their conference. While Jerryd Bayless has proven to be a tremendous scorer, he has been porous on defense and lacks the passing skills of a point guard.

    The Raptors are one team that refused to stay down after seemingly getting knocked out and their future is much better for it.

18. Milwaukee Bucks

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    After a hugely successful season that saw them as the fifth seed in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks were generally consdered to be the most likely team that could upstage the Eastern elite of the Bulls, Celtics, Heat, and Magic.

    After adding Corey Maggette, Chris Douglas-Roberts and Drew Gooden, hopes were high for the Bucks that they could win 50 games and advance in the playoffs. While advancing in the playoffs is not out of reach, 50 wins is looking more and more unlikely by the day.

    Just like the Rockets, the Bucks have been crippled by injuries, Ersan Ilyasova, Drew Gooden, and others have been limited by injuries. The most serious of all, Andrew Bogut's elbow injury suffered last spring, has been the most troublesome, as his entire right arm does not function completely properly.

    While he generally utilizes a left-handed hook shot, a complete lack of a right hand has precluded him from being nearly as effective on the low post this year. As a result, he's scoring less efficiently and less often, and the Bucks are suffering.

    While the Bucks will likely rebound as shooters recover from slumps and the big men get healthy, their record indicates that perhaps they were not as good as initially expected.

17. Memphis Grizzlies

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    After nearly bringing their record back to .500 after years toiling in the upper lottery, the Grizzlies hoped that this year would be the year when they would reach the playoffs for the first time in years. Everyone is a year older and more experienced and this young team would hopefully be far improved.

    Through 24 games, although their record may not indicate it, the Grizzlies look far better in the early going. Simply put, the Grizzlies are finding out what is working. After O.J. Mayo struggled in the early going, the Grizzlies slid him over to the second unit and moved Xavier Henry to the starting lineup, adding a solid defender who does not need the ball to a unit full of selfish ball-hogs while moving another ball-hog to a unit full of inadequate scorers.

    People seem to forget that the Grizzlies have beaten Dallas, Miami, and Boston and that they are a dangerous team in the West.

    As one of the youngest and most talented teams in the Western Conference, they are going to be good for the long haul.

16. Phoenix Suns

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    After losing star power forward Amar'e Stoudemire to the Knicks in free agency, the Suns used their newfound cash to attempt to shore up the position he vacated, signing and trading for Josh Childress, Hedo Turkoglu, and Hakim Warrick.

    While each of those players are nice in their own right, the void left by Stoudemire has left the Suns with a disappointing record of 11-12. Because he is such a physical specimen, Stoudemire was adept at sneaking in and dominating the inside. Now lacking an inside presence, the Suns are struggling on offense.

    Because they replaced a dominant inside weapon with a host of shooters and a couple of slashers, the Suns offense is now predicated on jump shots falling. When Jason Richardson, Steve Nash, Channing Frye, and others are not hitting their shots, the offense falls apart. Until they find a dominant inside force, they are going to struggle to be a great team.

    One thing to keep in mind is that Steve Nash has not led a team to a record worse than .500 for a season since the 1999-2000 season with Dallas. A smart man would not bet against him this year.

15. Indiana Pacers

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    Even after finishing the year on a stellar pace, little was expected of the Pacers this year. Many expected the loss of Troy Murphy to destroy whatever semblance of a rebounding presence the Pacers had and cripple them on the inside.

    However, the reaction has been quite the opposite. Two young players, Darren Collison and Roy Hibbert, have proved to complement Danny Granger perfectly and the two are finally providing some talent for the Pacers to build around.

    While Hibbert has flashed potential in the past, this year he appears to have finally put it all together, establishing himself as one of the league's top centers. While this comparison will violate the unwritten code that you don't compare to players of other races, Hibbert is slowly becoming a slightly more athletic version of Zydrunas Ilgauskas.

    Finally with a great big man behind him, Danny Granger looks poised to lead the Pacers on a playoff run. Can he make it?

14. Portland Traiblazers

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    After losing Greg Oden for the season and seeing that Brandon Roy's leg may never be the same, the Blazers almost seemed resigned for a while to the fact that they were cursed by injuries. They lost six in a row and simply did not have the urgency that great teams have in big games.

    However, this week the Blazers finally started to look like a team playing for something. Wesley Matthews, a free agent signed to play defense and shoot from the outside, has proven to be a far more skilled scorer than expected and has helped take the pressure off of Roy's bad knee.

    While the Blazers ended the week on a sour note by falling to the Grizzlies and Spurs, their effort level was still there in each of those games.

    If the Blazers want to make the playoffs, they better make sure that that does not change.

13. Denver Nuggets

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    After the rumors ramped up about Carmelo Anthony potentially leaving Denver, the Nuggets played like a team possessed, losing three out of four to Charlotte, Boston, Toronto and New York. While Carmelo is playing at a fairly high rate, he needs some help if the Nuggets want to win.

    While Al Harrington has had some big games, he has taken a big step back from his years in New York, especially defensively, and he is not alone. Chauncey Billups is currently enduring the worst season of his career and some are claiming that it is his demise.

    The fact is that if the Nuggets do not consider themselves championship contenders and don't believe Carmelo will be a Nugget next year, they should seek to trade him. If not, they could look a lot like the Cavaliers in a year or two, because outside of Ty Lawson, they have little young talent to grow.

12. New Orleans Hornets

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    This year has been a tale of two seasons for the Hornets team. After jumping out to an 11-1 start on the back of Emeka Okafor and Chris Paul's strong play, some were quick to label them championship contenders despite being in the lottery last year. Since then, they have not been the same.

    After a horrible loss to the Clippers that seemed to kill the Hornets momentum, it has been a very quick decline. They have endured a stretch in which they have lost nine of 12 and much of it has to do with Emeka Okafor's play.

    After getting off to a furious start by looking for his shot more and scoring more, Okafor's activity and aggressiveness is gone. He is no longer looking to pin his defender under the rim and hit a hook shot as often, but seems to content to skate by on a few dunks every game. If the Hornets want to start winning again, Okafor must start playing better.

    The clock could be ticking for the Hornets as the rumors swirl about their potential new home, and a nice season could be the difference between seeing them in Kansas City and New Orleans.

11. New York Knicks

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    After LeBron followed Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade to the Heat, who would've guessed that the pair of free agents having the biggest impact on their new team would be on the Knicks?

    As preposterous as it may have sounded a few months ago, Raymond Felton and Amar'e Stoudemire are both enjoying career years in New York, and Amar'e may have played his way into the MVP discussion. Coming into the year, the criticisms were numerous. People wondered how successful Stoudemire would be without Nash, if Felton could become a good pick-and-roll point guard, or if the two could develop chemistry.

    Thus far, the combo has been a huge success. The more and more that he plays, the more and more it seems like Amar'e Stoudemire makes point guards better instead of being made better himself by other point guards. His athleticism and full offensive arsenal have been on display as he has led the Knicks to a 16-9 record.

    Are they likely to sustain the record? Probably not, but Knicks fans have optimism for the first time in a long time.

10. Atlanta Hawks

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    The many who thought that losing Joe Johnson to surgery would kill Atlanta have certainly been forced to bite their tongue in the last week, and the Hawks look to be as deep as ever with the play of their front court.

    Blending young and old, inexperienced and veteran, athletic and crafty, the Hawks have managed to put together a truly cohesive unit that is greater than the sum of its parts and they are playing good basketball. Al Horford is playing the best basketball of his career and leaves some wondering if he, not Joe Johnson or Josh Smith, is the team's best player.

    Regardless of who the best player is, the fact is that they are winning even without Joe Johnson playing. If they can play at this high of a level without him, the Eastern Conference better watch out for when Johnson returns because the Hawks look fairly strong.

9. Utah Jazz

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    After losing Carlos Boozer in free agency, the Jazz did what all smart teams would do and quickly filled his hole with a substitute. On the face, the Jazz made a heist, stealing Al Jefferson away for what amounted to two draft picks and a third-string center.

    However, early on, Al Jefferson's play was disappointing to say the least for the Jazz. His defense was lackluster, his scoring was not as strong as it had been in the past, and he simply struggled adapting to the new team concept.

    His play has rebounded recently and that has been crucial. Still, one has to wonder how long Deron Williams can continue to carry his team on his back. Williams is playing long minutes and handling the ball for nearly the entire time he's on the court, and that has to be worrisome for the Jazz.

    He has established himself as one of the league's toughest players and best point guards and this year we'll see how truly tough he is.

8. Chicago Bulls

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    It's amazing how much one victory can spur on a team. After losing two in a row to Orlando and Boston, Derrick Rose did not want to lose a third to Houston. With the clock running down and the Bulls down three, Rose hit an incredible three to force overtime and eventually beat Houston.

    After that game, the Bulls have taken off, beating the Lakers and Thunder on their way to a six-game winning streak. While the addition of Carlos Boozer has certainly helped, most of their success can be traced to a far improved team chemistry.

    It appears that in his third year in the league, Derrick Rose is establishing himself as a leader for the Bulls. As the floor general and undoubtedly the team's best player, this is a good sign for the future.

7. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    After taking the Lakers to six games in the playoffs last year, some were premature to label them the next great team in the Western Conference. While undoubtedly a talented team, the labels may have been a little presumptuous for a team that has one 50-win season under its belt as currently constituted.

    That they are standing today at 17-8 speaks to how far they have come from just a couple of years ago. Before Russell Westbrook and Serge Ibaka's emergence, the Thunder would have cracked under the strain of a Kevin Durant slump this bad. However, this deep and impressive team sojourns on.

    When Kevin Durant re-emerges from this slump, the Thunder are going to be absolutely frightening. With so many weapons, the offense will put fear in any defensive coach in the league. Let's all just hope that he never comes back, because that appears to be the only way that the Thunder are beatable right now.

6. Orlando Magic

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    The stomach virus that hit the team these last few weeks hit the team particularly hard last week, as they endured a four-game losing streak that saw them fall down in the standings. While the stomach virus has certainly hurt, it is not the only thing to blame for the Magic's struggles.

    While they are certainly well-paid, Dwight Howard's supporting cast needs to start carrying their weight if the Magic want to go anywhere. The Blazers allowed Dwight Howard to do whatever he wanted to inside, but stopped the rest of the team, leading to a predictable Magic loss.

    With Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Brandon Bass and Rashard Lewis spacing the floor for him, the Magic ought to be a much better shooting team, but a team-wide slump as well as poor offensive execution has kept the Magic from scoring consistently.

    While the team will rebound as it gets fully healthy, the trend of dependence on Dwight Howard is troublesome to say the least.

5. Miami Heat

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    There is little that can be said about the Heat that has not been written countless times. With round-the-clock coverage from nearly every media outlet in the nation, this Heat team has faced tremendous amounts of pressure and is starting to deliver in a big way.

    The nine-game winning streak that the Heat find themselves in right now is simply this team fulfilling its potential. After a nightmarish start, Chris Bosh is finally hitting his stride with the team and raking in the rebounds and points.

    The third of the "Big 3," Bosh was perhaps the most important because he is the team's only consistent big man. When LeBron or Dwyane Wade play poorly, the other is always there to potentially lift the other back up, but Bosh has no such comrade on the front line.

    If the Heat continue playing like this, they will be on top of these rankings in no time.

4. Los Angeles Lakers

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    After losing both Andrew Bynum and Theo Ratliff to injury, the Lakers' frontcourt has been predictably thin, and they are struggling like they have rarely done. Despite playing the league's easiest schedule thus far, they have lost seven early games, including losses to Memphis, Houston and Indiana, decent teams but teams that should be no match for the high-powered Laker squad.

    Much of these struggles can be traced to a lack of size. With Derrick Caracter as the only healthy reserve big man, the Lakers have been forced to improvise with different lineups to see what works. Unfortunately, little has worked so far. Caracter has been horrible defensively and Phil Jackson surely has to be looking at his watch hoping that Bynum makes it back quickly.

    While the big man struggles have been worrying, the Lakers still find themselves atop their division and in perfect position to win the Western Conference once again, as they appear to have the most talented team in the league.

3. Dallas Mavericks

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    Coming into the season, the talk about the Mavericks was nearly all the same, but none of it predicted that they could be the best team in the league. They were praised for having a deep bench, for an improved defense, but were criticized for just throwing money at the center problem and hoping it would resolve itself.

    As it turns out, throwing money at a problem has had success for the Mavericks. Tyson Chandler is enjoying a tremendous bounce-back year at center and Dirk has enjoyed having a shot-blocking defensive stalwart who can also score behind him. While visibly unhappy with his role, Brendan Haywood is one of the league's best backup centers and could start for many teams.

    The glue holding this team together is the duo of Dirk and Jason Kidd. Even at the age of 37, Kidd has managed to stay atop his game and remain one of the league's best point guards. Dirk once again has managed to have a very efficient season despite seemingly shooting nothing but contested mid-range jump shots, historically the hardest shot in basketball.

    Through 23 games, this much is clear: The Dallas Mavericks are definite contenders.

2. Boston Celtics

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    While the Celtics' offseason strategy of signing many injury-riddled big men with the hope that at least one would be healthy at all times has certainly backfired, the Celtics still find themselves atop the Eastern Conference and in control. With rookie Semih Erden starting at the center for part of the way, the Celtics have quietly reeled off 10 straight wins and look as strong as ever.

    The Celtics' success can largely be traced to one man, the oft-criticized Rajon Rondo. While he can't shoot, Rondo's leadership and incredible passing ability have helped this Celtics squad win despite its injury problems. He leads the league with an incredible 14 assists per game and he doesn't appear to be slowing down.

    Once the host of big men returns, the Celtics are going to be one of the most intimidating teams in the league. They're good enough with Semih Erden in the middle, but once Jermaine O'Neal, Shaquille O'Neal and Kendrick Perkins return, watch out.

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    The Spurs are quickly becoming the most underrated team in the NBA right now with the number of big-market teams like the Lakers, Heat and Knicks playing well in the early going. However, while the media coverage might indicate otherwise, it is the Spurs that have both the best record and probably the best team in the early going.

    While Tim Duncan's slow decline is continuing, Manu Ginobili is playing some of the best basketball of his career and Tony Parker has been able to put his personal issues aside and play some strong basketball.

    An underrated part of their success this year has been Richard Jefferson's play. After a nightmare of a season with the Spurs last year, Jefferson has appeared energized and is playing very well. He has not played as well as he did at the very start of the year, but he is a completely different player.

    With probably the smartest front office in the league, the Spurs just continue to be contenders each and every year. In such a small market, the team truly is a spectacle.

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