We're more than a month into the season, and we're seeing early returns on offseason maneuvers and healthy people coming back (unless you're the Spurs), so this seems like a good time to break down how the league is looking at this point.
Right now, there look to be four teams that can easily make a case that they can win the title this year. There are other teams that have a chance, but if I were a gambling man, I would put money on one of those four.
On the other end, we have teams that are professional basketball players in the sense that they get paid, but they are neither pleasurable not desirable to watch.
And in between you've got the usual ragtag group of first round fodder, teams that are just painful to watch, and pleasant surprises.
Without further ado:
1. Los Angeles Lakers - The Lakers are certainly holding up their end of the bargain as defending champs. They've been a little banged up with Gasol, Bynum and now Kobe a bit, and they've dropped a few they shouldn't have, but who hasn't by this point?
Assuming Artest doesn't tear them apart, they look like they'll be back in the Finals. They haven't been tested all that much, given that they've played 15 of 19 games at home, so we'll see how they fare on the open road.
2. Orlando Magic - Could a Finals rematch be on the horizon? It's possible, and the outcome might even be different this time. Vince Carter has given them a go-to scorer, they can still shoot the three-ball, and Dwight Howard is doing his thing.
They're not missing Turkoglu very much at this point, and they might even be better off without him.
3. Boston Celtics - It all depends on how healthy they can stay, but they're doing well without Garnett putting up his usual brilliant numbers. He's been great on the court, but they've got to tread gently with him.
The good news is that they're still able to lock other teams down defensively, and even if someone like Allen or Pierce isn't scoring, they can still beat good teams.
4. Denver Nuggets - With Carmelo Anthony playing the best hoops of his career, the Nuggets are looking pretty good this year, especially for a team that didn't make any ground breaking moves.
They lost Dahntay Jones, but picked up Aaron Afflalo and Ty Lawson, and that seems to be a good move for them, as they've added more flexibility on offense without losing much on D. If they can get out of their own way (and their coach's) on occasion, they could surprise some people.
Close, but not quite there
5. Atlanta Hawks - The Hawks are a great team to watch, and they certainly have the talent to make some waves in the East. After a hot start that has cooled a little bit, the Hawks are still in a great position.
If they can feast on the lesser opponents in the East and steal some games against the Western Conference, they'll be in great position come the playoffs.
6. Cleveland Cavaliers - Their biggest offseason acquisition might turn out to be Jamario Moon, as Shaq has been a relative non-factor, and the team seems much better with Ilgauskas on the floor.
LeBron has had some pretty pedestrian numbers as of late, but they are winning, and doing it over some good teams.
7. Dallas Mavericks - I think the Mavericks have more talent than both the Cavs and Hawks, but since they've lost to both in the past week, they can't be higher.
Dallas has done a great job of starting well despite injuries, and if they can avoid any losing streaks like the one last weekend, they could battle with the Nuggets for the No. 2 seed in the West.
There's still a chance, but it's not looking so good
8. Portland Trailblazers - Losing Oden is chief among their concerns, but a general tendency towards losing to good teams (especially Western teams) makes me worry about their chances in the playoffs.
The win total might look good, but they just don't seem to have it against the better teams in the league.
9. Phoenix Suns - They too have cooled off after a hot start, but their flaws are the same ones as the Suns teams of the past—if they don't score 100, they aren't winning. In three of their last four, they've been under 100, while their opponents went over.
The Run and Gun Suns are back, but it doesn't look like it will get them any further than it has before. They've had a really tough schedule, playing each division leader except the Mavs (who they play tomorrow night).
10. San Antonio Spurs - Richard Jefferson has been terrible this season, absolutely terrible. You figured the Spurs might be okay with Ginobili or Duncan missing time, since Jefferson could ostensibly pick up the slack, but he has proven himself utterly incapable of doing so.
DeJuan Blair has been great for them, but he isn't getting minutes, and McDyess is hot and cold. They're in major trouble if they can't pick it up to close out this month.
11. Utah Jazz - They are the same team they've been for the last few years, solid but unremarkable, and barring a major move for Boozer, they don't seem likely to get over any sort of hump this season.
Williams has been good, not great, Boozer is marshmallow-soft down low on defense, and Andrei Kirilenko might as well be a corpse out there. Eric Maynor is their most promising young player, except he's a pure point guard, which they already have.
12. Houston Rockets - I'm very impressed with what they've been able to do with so much talent out, but they don't have a center, so it remains to be seen how far they can go.
I think they'll make a strong push for Marcin Gortat at the end of the month, who might just be the big, low-post presence they need to start making splashes in the West, since the three and four seeds seem to be ripe for the taking. Otherwise it will be the six, seven, or eight seed and out.
13. Miami Heat - I like the balance they've struck between tough defense and Dwyane Wade's scoring outbursts, but they don't seem to have the talent to win games like that against better teams. They put up a great fight against the Nuggets last week, only to have it blow up in their faces in the second half.
Wade is still pretty much their only offensive option, because Michael Beasley and Jermaine O'Neal can't be counted on for any long stretch.
14. Toronto Raptors - They don't play any defense, and Chris Bosh has all but put a for sale sign in front of his house. While Bosh has had a great year, it remains to be seen if he can be the best player on a great team, because he hasn't done it yet.
He wants a max deal, but I think most teams want their max player to be capable of more than Bosh. Toronto tried to get some talent, but it's not panning out thus far.
15. New Orleans Hornets - If it wasn't for Chris Paul playing out of his mind for the first few weeks, the Hornets might not be in the playoff discussion. Their frontcourt is terrible, David West has regressed, and Emeka Okafor just isn't getting it done.
They have no scoring threat other than Paul. I would have loved to see them roll the dice with Iverson, but they didn't, and without a major move, they'll be battling it out with the Thunder for the eighth seed.
Teams on the rise
16. Oklahoma City Thunder - A lot of young talent on display, which can work wonders if they catch that lightning in a bottle, but sometimes they just can't get it all working. I think they'll get better as they grow as teammates, because they certainly have all the ability they need.
Thabo Sefalosha has been a welcome surprise for them, and if they can be a little more consistent, they should really turn some heads as the season goes on.
17. Milwaukee Bucks - Brandon Jennings has been the one grabbing the headlines, but Andrew Bogut and Ersan Ilyasova have been quietly getting it done too. Bogut is a legit center, and Ilyasova shoots the three well, rebounds, and is a good passer for a forward.
If they can get more consistency out of Charlie Bell and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute on the offensive and defensive end respectively, they could do pretty well in the Eastern playoffs, particularly with homecourt advantage.
Fun to watch, but they can go ahead and make other plans for April
18. Memphis Grizzlies - After the Iverson experiment failed, what was left is a pretty good collection of dynamic scorers. Marc Gasol is a great center, O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are a poor man's Joe Johnson and Josh Smith (with a very high ceiling), and Mike Conley Jr. has been doing a decent job of holding it together.
If they can find a defensive identity, they could be a very entertaining team to watch.
19. Washington Wizards - They've got the same collection of talent they had during their playoff runs, but that's also the problem. For a forward, Antawn Jamison has little or no low-post game, instead he likes to jack up terrible threes.
Haywood and McGee are a good center tandem, Randy Foye is good when he's on the court, and Caron Butler is as solid as ever. Earl Boykins has really been their spark as of late, which makes them a good team to watch, but doesn't really say much about their championship hopes.
20. Sacramento Kings - They've done a lot of good with Kevin Martin out, and one would think that with his infusion of 20-25 points per game, maybe the Kings can make some headway in the wins column.
Tyreke Evans has been everything they needed and more, and it will be interesting to see him and Martin on the court together in the backcourt.
21. Indiana Pacers - Danny Granger is always capable of putting on a show, and I really like the way Tyler Hansbrough has adapted his game to that of an NBA role player, but they just don't have the talent to really go at it with the big boys.
Roy Hibbert needs to do more for them, as a low-post banger would go well with their strong outside shooting.
No heart, no soul, no playoffs
22. Chicago Bulls - They lost Ben Gordon (who I am not fond of), and now they look nothing like that young, upstart team that pushed the Celtics to the brink last year.
Derrick Rose has been hampered by an ankle injury, and while Joakim Noah has been a beast, the Bulls just don't seem to care much about how the game turns out, and it's pretty ugly to watch.
23. Detroit Pistons - I bet the rest of the East is grateful that the Pistons blew their cap space on two one-dimensional players like Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva over the summer.
Since none of those dimensions is defense, things aren't looking good in the Motor City. Will Bynum and Rodney Stuckey are an exciting backcourt duo, but that's about all that's worth watching.
24. Philadelphia 76ers - I wish Iverson had gone to New Orleans, but I'm curious to see him back in Philly. They have nothing else going for them right now, now at least people care about what they are doing.
I'm not sure what is worse, the fact that the Sixers are aggressively shopping all of their big men, or that no one seems to be interested.
25. Charlotte Bobcats - The addition of Stephen Jackson was a good one, and I think Chandler and Boris Diaw are good players, but the Bobcats just really don't have any one thing that they do better than anybody, and that really hurts them.
26. Los Angeles Clippers - They've got a nice collection of talent there, and I can't help but wonder when the coach gets blamed for their underachievement. I guess he has received a little blame, if by little blame you mean a "big contract extension."
Eric Gordon is a lights-out shooter who needs to get healthy, Baron Davis needs to stop taking threes, and depending on when Griffin comes in, they might be in a position to move Camby or Chris Kaman.
That really only leaves a hole at small forward, and what do you know, there's a pretty good one coming on the market this summer...
27. Golden State Warriors - What a train wreck. Their coach is alienating his young stars, their star player turns the ball over more than he passes, and the run and gun isn't very good if you can barely run or gun.
The two Anthonys, Morrow and Randolph, look good, but who knows what the Warriors will do with Ellis. Whatever it is, you can bet it won't be a smart move.
Scraping the bottom of the barrel
28. New York Knicks - If this is how they're hoping to attract LeBron, then good luck. Not only are they terrible, they have no first round pick this year, and they can't afford the two max contracts that they said they could.
They're pulling out some wins (mostly over the Nets), but they don't have a shot to be good for the next few years.
29. New Jersey Nets - They have talent, just not the right kind. They can score, just not enough. They can run, but not well. They can defend, unless you're a really good player.
They're not unpleasant to watch, and I think the core of Devin Harris, Chris Douglas-Roberts, and Brook Lopez is a nice group, but it remains to be seen what they can get out of it. Probably just a No. 1 pick.
30. Minnesota Timberwolves - I'm putting them here just because of how badly they botched the offseason. They had two top-six picks in what is turning into quite a draft, and they won't see one of them for three years, if ever.
Imagine if they had taken someone like DeMar Derozan at No. 5, they'd have a young backcourt tandem to team with Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. Much better than losing Mike Miller and Randy Foye for basically nothing.
It's funny, because I would take the players on the Nets and Timberwolves over the Bobcats, Knicks, and even the Warriors, but here we are.
To read more of my work on the NBA's Southwest Division, click here .