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NBA Power Rankings: Are Celtics, Spurs or Heat Best Heading Into Christmas?

Lance PaukerCorrespondent IDecember 21, 2010

NBA Power Rankings: Are Celtics, Spurs or Heat Best Heading Into Christmas?

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    This past week was undoubtedly one of the most exciting yet, both on and off the court.

    Between multiple blockbuster trades involving a major contender, an instant classic at the finally relevant Madison Square Garden and some buzzer-beating heroics, there was plenty of drama to go around the league this week.

    Heading into the new year, the early season feeling-out process is coming to a close, as teams are falling into place.

    At this point of the season, coaches and players are beginning to find themselves on (or off) the same page, as contenders and pretenders continue to distinguish themselves more and more.

    What teams are burning up the holiday season? Who's looking for a Christmas miracle? What coaches are on the hot seat? Which players need fashion advice from Craig Sager?

    As always, the B/R basketball warlords are here to help answer all of these burning questions, presenting you with the Week 8 power rankings. I could end with a "it's cold outside, but the NBA is as hot as ever" cliche, but nobody wants to hear that.

    Besides, there's no point repeating what's already tacitly understood.

     

    The Bleacher Report NBA Power Rankings are done by averaging individual featured columnists' tallies. This week's contributors were Mario Gonzalez (NBA), Lance Pauker (NBA), Allen Kim (NBA), Eric Felkey (NBA/Cavaliers), James Schmidt (Rockets), John Friel (Heat), Patrick Harrel (Rockets), Brian Chappatta (Bulls), Brett Roberts (Magic), Preston DeGarmo (Blazers) and Bryan Toporek (NBA Team Leader).

30. Sacramento Kings

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    As of now, the free-falling Kings are playing like anything but royalty. 

    With a measly 5-20 record, Sacramento is the proud owners of the league's worst record. Coach Paul Westphal's seat is hotter than the temperature at which all LeBron jerseys were burned over the summer, and nearly every single player on the team is slumping.

    The team is young and full of potential, but the players certainly aren't showing it. Tyreke Evans, who was supposed to lead the team out of its recent cellar-dwelling funk, has digressed from his impressive rookie season.

    DeMarcus Cousins, who has been in and out of the starting lineup, has demonstrated exactly why teams were hesitant to select him in this year's draft, as he has proven to be not the most coachable player out there. 

    Despite the miserable start, the Kings could begin to turn it around in the near future, as their next four games (all of which are at home) feature opponents under .500. After tonight's battle against Golden State, the Kings will face Milwaukee, the Clippers, and Memphis before kicking off the new year at Denver. 

    If the Kings are going to salvage their season at all, the time is now.  

29. Washington Wizards

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    With Gilbert Arenas out the door, this is officially John Wall's team. 

    This week wasn't the brightest for Washington, which lost all three of its games, extending its losing streak to six. After falling to the Lakers, the Wizards lost a winnable game against the Nets before falling admirably in a one-point loss to the surging Miami Heat. 

    The addition of Rashard Lewis should bolster Washington on the rebounding front. However, the key for this team, like any other team, is to stay healthy.

    Wall has been prolific while on the court, but he's been in and out of the lineup with foot problems and the team has also been missing the presence of former All-Star Josh Howard.

    With all of their the pieces in place, this team doesn't look half bad and may be able to improve upon a season that has thus far proven to be a major disappointment. 

    With the mounting losses, Washington may need some inspiration. Luckily, rap group Troop 41 has got that covered. Their hit "Do the John Wall," a musical masterpiece in every sense of the phrase, will likely motivate Wall and Co. to at least five extra wins.

28. Minnesota Timberwolves

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    The T-Wolves have talent, that's for sure. At this point, it's just about learning how to channel that talent into on-the-court success. 

    Kevin Love's 31-rebound performance has proven to be no fluke. Averaging 15.7 rebounds per game, Love is undoubtedly the best rebounder in the league.

    It's important to note that Dwight Howard, who is currently ranked second in rebounds per game, is averaging over three fewer rebounds per contest. The former Bruin's nose for the ball is downright freakish, and he should help Minnesota emerge from obscurity sooner rather than later. 

    Michael Beasley has proven he could score (21.3 ppg), and his defense and overall effort has been markedly better under Kurt Rambis' more liberal system. Only time will tell, but it seems like the once-struggling Beasley has finally found his niche.

    Jonny Flynn is slowly returning back to full strength and when he does, expect the T-Wolves to become a much more explosive team.

    The Wolves could get back on track this week, as their schedule isn't too demanding. After last night's bout against the Clippers, Minnesota will host Utah before heading to Cleveland to face the Cavs, who seem to be on life support these days. 

27. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Speaking of the Cavs, their recent woes have caused them to drop two spots from their previous standing.

    After a not-so-terrible start, the LeBron-less Cavaliers seem to be losing steam. Before this past Saturday, Byron Scott's team looked to be in runaway train-wreck mode, but managed to right the ship against a suddenly resurgent Knicks squad with a gutty come-from-behind overtime victory.

    The win may have had more to do with a fatigued Knicks team than anything, but a win's a win.

    It would be nice to say that things will get better for this still heartbroken squad, but it doesn't seem likely. Expect one of the team's better players, Mo Williams, Anderson Varejao, or Antawn Jamison, to be traded before the deadline, as the Cavs need to get rid of cap space so that they can make good on Dan Gilbert's vow to win an NBA title before the Heat.

    At this point, however, that guarantee seems less likely than someone not liking the way they look in a Men's Wearhouse tuxedo. 

    After hosting Utah last night, Cleveland will travel to Atlanta on Wednesday and then return home to face Minnesota on Sunday. Not the toughest of schedules, but certainly no cakewalk. Going two for three this week would be a major step in the right direction for this franchise. 

26. New Jersey Nets

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    For the New Jersey faithful, the mantra looks to be new owner, new coach, but same old story. 

    The most exciting piece of news out of Newark this season has had to do with the Carmelo sweepstakes, but it seems like New Jersey is falling further out of the running.

    Between Carmelo reportedly only wanting to play in New York and Denver asking for Brook Lopez in return, a deal between the two sides seems doubtful.

    Lopez is emerging nicely as one of the league's top centers and Derrick Favors has had some flashes of brilliance in limited minutes. Kris Humphries is developing nicely and Devin Harris remains an above-average point guard.

    Perhaps this week was a step in the right direction for New Jersey. After a loss to a suddenly-surging Philadelphia squad, the Nets managed to beat the ailing Wizards and collected an impressive win against a much better Atlanta Hawks team.

    A loss against Toronto was sandwiched between the two victories, but a .500 week is certainly an improvement for Avery Johnson's ragtag bunch, especially over last year.

    Upcoming games against two middle of the road teams, Memphis and New Orleans, could really help clear the air as to how much the Nets can actually improve over the course of this year. 

25. LA Clippers

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    Don't look now, but the Clippers are...not the worst team in the NBA anymore! Donald Sterling FTW!

    This praise may be a bit too premature, but it looks as if the other LA team is finally starting to put the pieces together. Their loss earlier in the week against Philadelphia was far from encouraging, but they exhibited some tremendous resiliency later in the week with a shellacking of the Pistons on the road and a one-point win against a very good Bulls team in Chicago. 

    Blake Griffin is playing like the next Blake Griffin, his 20.7, 12.3 stat-line making him the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year. Eric Gordon is showing the league just how dangerous of a scorer he can be, averaging 23.4 points per contest.

    Kentucky guard Eric Bledsoe, a later round gem, is making the Clipper faithful forget that Baron Davis is on the roster, and Chris Kaman no longer has his dreadful caveman hairstyle, a major plus for the entire team. 

    Los Angeles is far from being a contender, but the Clippers certainly have some great, young pieces. Don't be surprised if they step up their game big time later in the season as they continue to gel. 

24. Detroit Pistons

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    Unfortunately, this is no longer 2004. 

    Detroit is loaded with players who would have compiled arguably the best team in the league half-a-decade ago, but times have certainly changed. The Pistons are a shell of their former selves, as demonstrated by their 9-19 record. 

    Tayshaun Prince, once the beacon of everything that was good about the Detroit Pistons (stingy defense and one-notch below superstardom) may not make it through the entire year as a Piston. Prince is in his contract year and Detroit may attempt to get rid of him in order to clear space/acquire some youth. 

    The fatal flaw of this team is the fact that it has no star player. Rodney Stuckey is a good player but his 16.5 points per game are not going to cut it as the go-to guy.

    Detroit may have gotten away with this same strategy during its glory days, but the roster is much older, more injury prone, and simply not as good as it once was. 

    Rebuilding may be a long an arduous process for the Pistons, but they can prove their worth this week against two Eastern Conference foes, Charlotte and Chicago.

    Two victories here would be huge for coach John Kuester and Co., but such a goal may be classified along the lines of "wishful thinking."

     

     

23. Charlotte Bobcats

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    Everyone's regression pick has seemed to pan out thus far, so it's safe to say that the Bobcats have lived up to expectations. 

    Michael Jordan has to be kicking himself after every Knicks game, as Raymond Felton is seemingly getting better every night.

    New point guard DJ Augustin hasn't been a complete nightmare, but he simply doesn't provide the skill set of the former Tar Heel. 

    Charlotte started off the week well with a win against Toronto, but all that was negated after the team traveled to Memphis, where they were completely embarrassed in a 33-point loss.

    Stephen Jackson and Co. were unable to bounce back in their next game, coming up short against the Atlanta Hawks. 

    The road doesn't get any easier for the Bobcats, who will face the Thunder tonight. Following this game, Charlotte has a week off, which will give the team some much-needed rest. 

22. Golden State Warriors

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    After a relatively hot start, the Warriors have cooled off big time. 

    Golden State was able to snap a seven-game skid against the T-Wolves last week, but this team is certainly slumping. 

    The team has also been battling injuries, as both Stephen Curry and new acquisition David Lee have had to sit out of more than a few games in this young season.

    Monta Ellis and his 24.5 points per game appear to be going strong, but the Warriors are far from a one-man show. 

    Once completely healthy, expect the Warriors to turn into one of those teams who nobody really wants to play despite their less-than-stellar record.

    Last night's game against Houston, tonight's at Sacramento, and Saturday's at Portland, are all winnable, and the Warriors should aim to take at least two out of those three contests. 

21. Toronto Raptors

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    You've gotta give this team some credit. After losing both Bosh and Turkoglu, the Raptors easily could have been the worst team in the league. 

    Their 10-18 record isn't something anyone should really aspire to, but at this point in the season, it could have been much worse for the Raptors.

    Andrea Bargiani and his 21.4, 5.8 stat line continues to show glimpses as to why he was selected first overall a few years ago, and Jerryd Bayless seems to has been a great acquisition, as he is currently averaging 11.9 points and 4.1 assists per game as a Raptor. 

    This team will likely make a bunch of moves as the season wears on in order to clear cap space/try to become good, so there is a good chance that Toronto will be all over the place power rankings-wise during the rest of the season. 

    Toronto is missing the services of Reggie Evans who, in case you haven't noticed, gets rebounds. He is not expected to return anytime soon, but his absence should make Raptors fans feel better about themselves, because he is an integral piece to the Toronto puzzle, and gaining victories without his presence is quite an accomplishment. 

20. Milwaukee Bucks

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    The Bucks are arguably the biggest disappointment of this young season. After a resurgent 2009-2010, Milwaukee has taken a great leap backward. 

    John Salmons is slumping and Brandon Jennings hasn't met his sophomore expectations. At 10-15, the Bucks are still very much in the Eastern Conference playoff hunt, but getting an eighth seed will mean that likely they'll have to play Boston or Miami. Judging by both of those teams' recent performances, the Bucks shouldn't even bother to show up to that series. 

    The team failed miserably in a "let's prove we can compete" matchup against Portland last night, and the road won't get any easier. Next they will face a major test tonight at the Staples Center against the Lakers and will conclude their West Coast swing on Thursday against the Kings.

    The Bucks will need to play well during this stretch, as it is followed by a brutal six-game stretch against Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Miami, Orlando, and another matchup against Miami.

    Wins will likely be hard to come by during that span, so its important for Milwaukee to make the best out of right now, especially in that game against the Kings. 

19. Memphis Grizzlies

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    The Griz have a talented core in Zach Randolph and Rudy Gay. OJ Mayo, however, who has recently been replaced in the starting lineup by rookie Xavier Henry, appears to be on his way out. 

    Memphis may be a few games under .500, but they are far from pushovers and could easily contend for the final playoff seed in the Western Conference. The team already has wins against the likes of Dallas, Miami, and Boston, which demonstrates their ability to contend with anyone game in and game out. 

    After defeating the Blazers and Bobcats earlier in the week, the Grizzlies were beaten by an improving Rockets roster and a very good Spurs team.

    Look for Memphis to bounce back this week, as their schedule is relatively soft. After tonight's matchup against the Nets, Memphis has a few days off before returning to action at Indiana on Sunday and at home against Toronto next Monday. 

18. Philadelphia 76ers

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    Make no mistake about it; the Sixers are one of the league's hottest teams. 

    A mere few weeks ago, Philadelphia were at the very bottom of these rankings. After an action-packed week however, Philadelphia has more or less caught fire. The Sixers have won four out their last five (and six of eight), with their one loss coming against the Lakers. 

    Spencer Hawes, who has replaced skilled rebounder Samuel Dalembert, seems to finally be coming into his own following an 18-point, 13-rebound performance in the loss against the Lakers.

    Andre Iguodala, who is averaging 14.5 points on the year, has been hot as of late, putting up 20, 18, and 21 in his last three contests.

    Unfortunately for those drunk off recent Philadelphia sporting triumphs (and fortunately for everyone else), the Sixers' recent success may not last.

    Their upcoming slate of games looks to be extremely tough, as it will be immensely difficult to win their next three contests (Chicago, Boston, and Denver), all of which are on the road. 

17. Houston Rockets

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    The Rockets, after a horrific 3-9 start, are another team on the upswing. 

    Their 12-15 record isn't too impressive, but it is certainly a vast improvement over what could have been an early-season mutiny against coach Rick Adelman. Winners in 7 of their last 10, the Rockets are finally playing some good, fundamental basketball, something they weren't doing too well earlier in the year. 

    Kyle Lowry is proving that he could play, and the scoring combination of Kevin Martin and Luis Scola, both of whom are averaging over 20 points a game, has proven effective during the month of December. The ferocious Scola is also averaging 8.9 rebounds per contest, making him a dual threat. 

    Injuries to arguably the team's two best players, Yao and Brooks, hasn't made this season easier. However, with Yao's career in question, the Rockets can neither dwell nor depend on the return of the big fella. 

    The Rockets can build upon their current momentum this week. After last night's game against Golden State, Houston will finish the week at the Clippers before heading home to host Washington on Monday. 

16. Indiana Pacers

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    A blowout win against the Miami Heat earlier this season was exceedingly impressive, but the Pacers have significantly cooled off since then. 

    Roy Hibbert has emerged as an early favorite for MIP, and Danny Granger continues to carry the scoring load for this young team. This team looks fully poised to make the playoffs, and barring any injuries, appears well on their way to doing so. 

    Indiana just pulled off a dramatic buzzer-beating win over the New Orleans Hornets to improve their record to 13-14, only one game under .500. In the Eastern Conference, such a record may be good for a solid seventh seed this season. 

    The Pacers have a number of days to rest before facing Memphis this Sunday. This recuperation could make or break this team heading into the New Year.

    The Pacers have exceeded expectations thus far, so it will be interesting to see if they could keep up their better-than-expected play. 

15. Portland Trail Blazers

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    The Blazers represent one of the more interesting scenarios in all the league. 

    Portland had extremely high expectations coming into this season. As usual, however, the injury bug has hit the Blazers head on, the most notable of which pertaining to Greg Oden, who is now out for the season yet again.

    A .500 ball club, there has recently been talk of Portland gutting their roster. Although only a rumor, the talk alone is something worth noting, as Portland has been building up their Brandon Roy-centric core for quite awhile now. 

    The Blazers earned a nice win over a struggling Milwaukee squad last night, and will look to build upon that momentum later in the week, when they play Golden State on Christmas Day. 

    Portland is at a very fragile stage, and their unpredictable nature could cause them to climb tremendously up or fall tremendously down the power rankings in the next few weeks. From a fan's standpoint, the Blazers season may end up being one of the more intriguing storylines to follow. 

14. Phoenix Suns

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    The Suns are nowhere near the same team as they were last week. Literally. 

    This weekend, the Suns dealt Jason Richardson, Hedo Turkoglu, and Earl Clark for Vince Carter, Mickael Pietrus, and Marcin Gortat. This week will be an interesting one for the Suns, but also may not prove to be totally indicative of what's to come, largely because it may be a feeling out process for the new players.

    Was this a move to get Phoenix back in contention, or is it the beginning of a drawn-out rebuilding process? The answer to this question may hinge on the subsequent success (or lack thereof) of the team, but Vince Carter, although a shell of his former self, may end up gelling extremely well with Nash.

    Pietrus adds defense and Gortat is a reliable big man, so the trade could bode well for Phoenix overall. At the end of the day, however, it'd be tough to imagine Phoenix resigning Carter, so this very well be a last gasp strategy for Robert Sarver and Co.

    The Suns (13-14) fell to the Spurs last night, but they did not have their new players. Their next game, a Thursday match against the Miami Heat, will be an interesting one to say the least.  

13. New York Knicks

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    The Knicks, riding an eight game winning streak coming into last week, had something to prove. As the majority of their wins on their 13-1 torching of the rest of league came primarily against teams with records under .500, back-to-back games against the Celtics and the Heat were supposed barometers of the Knicks progress as a franchise. 

    Unfortunately, New York fell short this week. Not for lack of trying, however. 

    Last Wednesday's game against the Boston Celtics was arguably the best game of this young season. A back-and-forth contest during which teams traded baskets more frequently than Shaquille O'Neal switches teams, the game ended up being tied with 10 seconds remaining.

    The Knicks had been carried by Amar'e Stoudemire and his 39 points, which was his ninth consecutive 30+ point game. Clearly no big thang.

    A Knicks triumph wasn't meant to be however, as Paul Pierce, who earlier debunked notions of an existing Celts Knicks rivalry, took matters into his own hands by drilling a jumper with .4 seconds on the clock.

    Amar'e responded with a miraculous three-pointer, but it was proven to be milliseconds after the buzzer sounded, thus preserving the Celtics victory. 

    Despite the loss, the game proved that the Knicks could hang with anyone. They were officially back.

    Friday, D'Antoni's bunch welcomed the Heat to the Garden. With Miami riding a double-digit winning streak of their own, the Knicks and Heat were even throughout the entire first half. Amar'e had a lackluster first half, but Danilo Gallinari backed up his big man with an explosion of his own, going for 21 in the first two periods.

    In the second half however, some guy named LeBron James took over. The Knicks were blown out.

    The following day, the Knicks traveled to Cleveland to face the Cavs. What was supposed to be an easy win turned out to be anything but, as the palpably fatigued squad was outlasted by the Cavs in overtime.

    Although there is clearly work to be done, the Knicks have proven that they are indeed a playoff caliber team. Perhaps not a title contender, but definitely a team worthy of playing in May.

    With Raymond Felton playing at an All-Star level, the offense has been running smoother than Skippy peanut butter.

    Landry Fields, a name nobody outside of the Pac 10 even heard of prior to last year, has emerged as arguably the Eastern Conference's best rookie.

    Now, if only they could learn to play defense.... 

12. New Orleans Hornets

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    The Hornets check in at No. 12 this week. At the rate they are going however, they'll be out of the top 15 faster than you can say Drew Brees. 

    After starting the season 8-0, it seems like New Orleans has lost nearly every game they have played. Of course, they've won some here and there, but the Hornets boast a less than stellar 8-12 record since their red hot start. 

    Overall, things are not looking good for this franchise. They are still well in the playoff hunt, but the Western Conference is full of teams lurking in the shadows (Phoenix, Houston, Memphis, Portland), ready to pounce on any New Orleans misstep.

    Rumors of Chris Paul leaving haven't reached their boiling point let, but with the recent NBA buyout of this franchise, stability is not exactly the most fitting adjective for this franchise. 

11. Atlanta Hawks

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    The Hawks have toed the line of contender for the past two seasons. This season, it looks like Atlanta will get another crack at the tightrope. 

    At 18-12, Atlanta seemingly cannot decide whether or not they want to be good enough to be in the same conversations as the Bostons and Miamis of the East.

    Last night's victory against the Magic was undoubtedly a step in the right direction, especially considering their intra-division rivalry. However, one must take the win with a grain of salt, as it was the Magic's first game with their new-look roster. 

    Horford and Smith make up one of the best 1-2 big men punches in the league, and Joe Johnson is able to take care of the scoring.

    With Jamal Crawford off the bench, this team has all the pieces to make a deep playoff run. Now, its just a matter of getting over that "are we actually an elite team?" hump. 

    Look for the Hawks to move up the ladder this week, as their next three games are against Cleveland, New Orleans, and Milwaukee, all floundering teams. 

10. Denver Nuggets

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    The Nuggets position in these power rankings depends on one player and one player only. So that you can feel infinitely smarter about yourself, I will not mention this said player.

    Denver had a solid week overall, knocking off Orlando and Minnesota. If it weren't for Manu Ginobili's late-game heroics, the Nuggets would've garnered a victory over the Spurs as well.

    Regardless of whether they want to be there, the Nuggets have all the tools to compete. An extremely deep and versatile team led by superstar Carmelo Anthony, the Nuggets are definitely talented enough to vie for the top spot in the West. 

    Denver's next two games, at San Antonio and at Oklahoma City, will reveal how much of a contender this team really is. 

9. Orlando Magic

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    For a team with title aspirations, this is not the most wonderful time of the year. 

    Having lost seven out of their last eight games, its safe to say that the Magic are floundering. So much so, that the franchise opted to shake things up big time, sending a number of their core players packing. 

    Vince Carter, Rashard Lewis, Marcin Gortat, and Mickael Pietrus, all heavy contributors to the title contenders, are no longer a part of Stan's Van.

    Instead, the team is now loaded with the likes of Hedo "welcome back" Turkoglu, Jason Richardson, Earl Clark and last but not least, Gilbert Arenas. 

    Orlando still maintained their two primary weapons in Dwight Howard and Jameer Nelson, but a shakeup as major as this one is certain to alter team chemistry and flow. Whether the move was one of pure genius remains to be seen, but it will definitely be interesting to see how the new-look Magic fare.

    Their inaugural game resulted in a loss against the Hawks, but it's difficult to judge a long-term impact by a game likely filled with new player confusion and uncertainty. 

    The Magic won't have any time to reflect on their recent struggles, as they'll begin a brutal three-game stretch tonight against Dallas, which will be followed by home games against San Antonio and Boston. Talk about a rude awakening. 

    Dwight Howard can still rebound the rubber out of the ball, Jameer Nelson could still handle with ease, JJ Redick can still shoot, and Quentin Richardson is still Quentin Richardson. Nearly everything else, however, remains to be seen. 

8. Chicago Bulls

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    Michael Jordan or Scottie Pippen may not be walking through that door, but it doesn't seem to matter. At least for now. 

    Joakim Noah's injury doesn't do this team any favors, but the Bulls are still playing terrific basketball as of late. Derrick Rose has also been a bit banged up at times, but it hasn't seemed to slow down his torrid pace.

    Rose, who is on the verge of solidifying himself as a true superstar, is having an MVP caliber year this season, averaging 24.3 ppg and 8.4 assists per. In last Saturday's loss against the Clippers, Rose went off for 34 points. 

    Excluding the loss to the Clippers, the Bulls have looked like a true contender. The Clipper loss was the end of a seven-game winning streak, during which Chicago beat both the Lakers and Thunder, while also manhandling weaker teams such as Minnesota, Indiana, and Toronto, beating each squad by over 15 points. 

    This week, the Bulls have the opportunity to keep rolling. Tonight's matchup against the surging Sixers could prove to be tough, but Tom Thibodeau's squad follow that one up with a cupcake at Washington.

    Finally, on Christmas Day, the Bulls will match up against the Knicks in a game that all of a sudden matters. 

    With Noah out for two months, the addition of Boozer looks to be infinitely more crucial. 

7. Utah Jazz

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    Earlier in the year, the Jazz were dubbed the cardiac kids. Now, they're just plain good. 

    Losing a nice chunk of their team to the Bulls hasn't seem to slow down Jerry "ol reliable" Sloan too much, as his 20th Utah Jazz team looks to be one of his best.

    At 20-9, Utah is leading the loaded Northwest division, currently beating out the likes of Oklahoma City, Denver, and Portland. 

    Deron Williams' 22.3, 9.7 apg makes him yet again one of the most consistent point guards in the league, and his steady play is a major reason for his team's success.

    Paul Millsap, in a number of games to remember, has demonstrated his explosive scoring ability, and CJ Miles has been a solid scoring presence off the bench. 

    Utah has the chance to keep rolling this week, as their schedule remains relatively easy. A trip to Minnesota is followed by a home date against Portland next Monday, giving the team some much-needed rest. 

6. Oklahoma City Thunder

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    The Anti-Miami Heat, suddenly the darlings of the league, are not decimating the competition as many would have hoped. There is no doubt, however, that the Thunder are a serious title contender. 

    Kevin Durant has been Kevin Durant, but it the play of his partner in crime, Russell Westbrook, has been far more impressive this season.

    Sure, the Durantula is leading the NBA in scoring at 27.4 ppg, but his average is down from last year and he has not quite dominated as some expected him to. Westbrook, on the other hand, has emerged into this freakish, arguably more talented offshoot of Jason Kidd. 

    Despite constantly feeding the ball to Durant, Westbrook is currently 12th in the league in scoring at 23.1 points per game. His 8.5 apg and 5.0 rpg aren't too shabby either, and demonstrate that Westbrook is truly a triple threat.

    In only his third year in the league, he is squarely in the elite company of Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Rajon Rondo and Derrick Rose.  

    Oklahoma City didn't get off to a red-hot start, but at 19-9, the Thunder are definitely proving their worth.

    Their upcoming date against the Knicks at the Garden will be somewhat of a test for the young squad, as it will be interesting to see how they handle playing in the finally relevant World's Most Famous Arena. 

5. Los Angeles Lakers

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    Checking in at No. 5, the Lakers are not where they want to be at this point in the season. For Kobe's squad, we all know that anything less than first is completely unacceptable. 

    Sure, the Lakers haven't been completely dominant, but at 21-7, they are well within striking distance for top seed in the west and appear to be a lock for the Pacific Division title. It is also important to keep in mind that this team is not a surging young powerhouse.

    The "slow and steady wins the race" credo may be the most prudent option here, and it certainly seems like the Lake Show are pacing themselves for the long haul. 

    Matt Barnes and Steve Blake, two new additions to the bench, haven't necessarily exceeded expectations, but they have more or less done their jobs.

    With Artest's production significantly down from last season, expect Barnes to garner more and more minutes as the year goes on. The return of Andrew Bynum will provide a significant boost to the frontline, which has more or less been glued together by one man, Pau Gasol. 

    Gasol is having a career year, and his 19.8, 11.1 statline has been a major reason that the Lakers were able to survive their early season struggles. Remember, earlier this year, this team experienced their first four game losing streak in the twitter era. 

    Meanwhile, Kobe Bryant is quietly having another Hall of Fame season. Expect him to emerge as a league focal point later in the year, a time where his competitive fire only heightens. 

    Tonight's game against the Bucks is more or less an appetizer for the highly anticipated Christmas Day showdown against the Miami Heat. If you think the Lakers won't get up for that one, I sincerely hope you did not major in psychology. 

4. Miami Heat

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    Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

    It took long enough, but the Miami Heat are finally assuming the role of league's worst nightmare.

    Although surpassing the Bulls' 72-10 record is virtually out of the question, the Heat are in the process of making a bold statement on the league. Their 12-game win streak may finally be over, but make no mistake about it--the Heat are here to play. 

    Early in the streak, it was Wade doing the heavy lifting. Friday at the Garden, it was LeBron who captained the ship, going off for a triple-double. Bosh is still alive and kicking as well, giving substantial life to the team's tremendously feared three-headed monster.  

    The Heat's recent success may be a harbinger of a string of future championships, but this squad also has a tremendous amount of work to do.

    Miami can't win forever, and when they finally start to lose again, they'll have to find a way to get back on course without nearly forcing Erik Spoelstra out of his job. 

    The return of Mike Miller will give Miami some added versatility, and will likely bolster LeBron's assist totals by about two per game.

    Miller will force teams to spread their defense out to the exterior, giving LeWade increased room to drive to the basket and dunk on scared and sorry big men. 

    Miami will host Phoenix on Thursday before their Christmas Day showdown against the Lakers. You'll hear about it all week, so I'll spare you the hype. 

3. Dallas Mavericks

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    Michael Buckner/Getty Images

    And for the umpteenth year in a row, the Dallas Mavericks are contenders. 

    Last night, Dallas assumed the role of long-time NBA bully, putting the Heat back into their place. 

    The two-headed point-guard monster named Jason (Kidd and Terry) is as potent as ever, and Nowitzki isn't letting anybody know that he is in fact getting old. Dirk's 26 points last night led all scorers, and doesn't seem to feel like slowing down anytime soon. 

    The Heat, Celtics, and Knicks may have stolen their thunder in recent weeks, but the Mavs are actually one of the league's hottest teams, winning 15 out of their last 16 contests.

    Of course, their perennial regular season success is just that, regular season success, but could this be the year that the Mavericks finally attain that elusive title? Only time will tell.  

    Only one thing's for certain. This year, it's crowded at the top. However, the Mavs are undoubtedly on of the teams causing that logjam. 

    Dallas doesn't have the easiest of schedules this week, facing Magic on Thursday and Oklahoma City next Monday. The Magic are struggling, but their new look could prove to be very dangerous, and there isn't really a reliable scouting report on Van Gundy's new cast of characters as of yet. 

    In other news, Mark Cuban continues to retain his title of coolest owner in the league, as he appears to be attempting to finance a college football playoff. 

2. Boston Celtics

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    Elsa/Getty Images

    "Age can't slow me down" sounds like a song lyric. In fact, I Googled the phrase to find out what song it came from, so I could make a corny reference. Turns out, the lyric is actually songless. Go figure. 

    No matter. If there were in fact a song to match the lyric, the Celtics would certainly be singing that tune. 

    The thrilling come-from-behind win at a rocking Madison square Garden last week showed the league just how good this team really is.

    Rajon Rondo, the team's star, is expected to be out a few games, but his absence may very well prove to go unnoticed; the Celtics are just that good. And in case you haven't heard, backup point guard Nate Robinson isn't exactly the worst of players. 

    At 22-4, Boston has a stranglehold on the Eastern conference. By the way, they're also on a thirteen game winning streak. 

    This week, the Celtics look to continue their winning ways against Sixers before traveling to Orlando on Christmas Day.

    The highly anticipated rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals, which is supposed to be Dwight Howard and Stan Van Gundy's big chance for revenge, is increasingly looking less appealing by the day, as the teams continue to go in opposite directions. 

    Immense skill, depth, and versatility makes this team the Eastern Conference favorite thus far. Sure, Doc's squad could experience a repeat of last season's second half swoon. At this point, however, the song "Ain't No Stopping Us Now" is highly applicable for this title-hungry bunch.  

1. San Antonio Spurs

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    This season, the Spurs were supposed to take a step backward. With the entire roster a little bit older, slower, and not expected to be as talented as they have proven, the Spurs were supposed to be nowhere near a league-best 23-3 record. 

    Currently on a nine-game winning streak, San Antonio is getting help from nearly every player on the roster.

    Tim Duncan, who was unhappy for sitting out during long stretches in the fourth quarter, has come alive this week, as his 28-point, 16-rebound performance in the team's one-point victory against Denver proved to be instrumental. 

    George Hill is playing admirably behind Tony Parker, who seems to be completely unaffected by all the negative press surrounding him. In fact, Parker's 18.0 ppg and 7.1 apg are both well above his career averages. 

    Manu Ginobili continues to be one of the league's most underrated players, as he had the most clutch week of perhaps any player this season.

    After nailing a game winning shot against the Milwaukee Bucks at the buzzer (he can thank NBA ref's inability to call traveling for that one), Ginobili came up huge yet again two days leader, hitting a running bank shot in the closing seconds, only to outdo his own brilliance by drawing a charge on Carmelo Anthony during the Nuggets final possession. 

    Simply put, this team knows how to win. Their upcoming schedule (vs. Denver, at Orlando, vs. Washington) isn't exactly a cakewalk, but San Antonio has managed to do pretty well for themselves against the rest of the league.

    Barring significant injuries, it's tough to imagine this team going through a major slump. They're simply too good, too experienced, and too well-coached for that kind of nonsense. 

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