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NBA Power Rankings, 2011-12

12.24.11 at 9:49 am ET
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Let’s be honest here. No one really knows how this NBA season is going to turn out. It will take weeks, if not months, for teams to figure out who they are how they want to play and it’s a question of when (not if) injuries will begin to mount in this jam-packed schedule.

With that in mind, we’ve divided the initial Power Rankings into tiers beginning with the true contenders all the way down to the lottery-bound cellar dwellers. There will be an immense amount of change in the Power Rankings once the games begin for real and teams begin to separate themselves. Last year’s record are in parenthesis.

THE CONTENDERS

Miami Heat Miami (58-24): The Heat have had a year to play together and there are no more excuses for a team with two of the top five players in the league, an All-Star big man and a stronger supporting cast with the addition of Shane Battier. The road to the finals in he East runs through Biscayne Bay Blvd and the West is in the midst of a major reorganization. This is the year for LeBron James to finally break through and bury his demons.

Oklahoma City ThunderOklahoma City (55-27): During the playoffs, Thunder guard Russell Westbrook experienced what Rajon Rondo has been dealing with his entire career. When he’s great, they’re practically unbeatable and when he’s off he gets most of the blame. This is also a big year for Kevin Durant, who quietly took a minor step back last season. The Thunder are the anti-Heat and now that they have their playoff legs underneath them, they seem almost predestined to meet in the finals.

Chicago Bulls Chicago (62-20): The Bulls are just hanging out, quietly bringing back their entire rotation and adding Rip Hamilton to take some of the scoring load of Derrick Rose. The key in this short season is their young and athletic frontline including unheralded Omer Asik and Taj Gibson. The problem is they don’t matchup well with Miami.

OLD AND IN THE WAY

Dallas MavericksDallas (57-25): Rather than keep their championship team together to try and squeeze one more title out of their aging core, the Mavericks let Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson and JJ Barea walk and added Lamar Odom for a bag of magic salary cap beans. The Mavs are dangerous as long as Dirk Nowitzki still breathes, but they are also eying next summer when they will have tons of cap space to reload for another run.

Los Angeles LakersLA Lakers (57-25): Speaking of Odom, he’s looking more and more like a straight salary dump, which is curious for a team that almost landed Chris Paul. It’s hard to see what the end game is for a franchise that hired Jason Kapono and Josh McRoberts to play meaningful minutes. Still, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are enough of a foundation to at least make them dangerous.

Boston CelticsBoston (56-26): The Celtics are clearly in a transition stage as they added useful complimentary players, but didn’t change the team’s core or address their future. Everyone knows the deal: If Rondo and the Big Three are healthy and happy when May comes around, the Celtics will be the proverbial playoff team that no one wants to play. Beyond that is anyone’s guess.

San Antonio SpursSan Antonio (61-21): No one is talking about the Spurs, which is totally fine with Tim Duncan and company. It’s not like they’ll fall completely off the map, but they’re not likely to be any better this season, either. The Spurs are in a strange kind of limbo: Their potential for disaster isn’t as great as Boston or the Lakers, but their days as a contender are likely over.

Orlando MagicOrlando (52-30): As long as Dwight Howard remains, the Magic have to be taken seriously, but if he leaves their roster has disaster written all over it with commitments to players no one else wants. Orlando didn’t address any of its major needs and it’s hard to see how this ends well.

THE CHALLENGERS, WEST

Los Angeles ClippersLA Clippers (32-50): Look at what we have here. With Paul throwing lobs to Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan and veterans Chauncey Billups, Mo Williams and Caron Butler around to pick up the scoring slack, the Clippers have become the darlings of the league. If there is a Basketball God, the divine deity of roundball will gives us a Clippers-Lakers playoff series. This must happen.

Denver NuggetsDenver (50-32): The Nuggets are everyone’s sleeper team, which just shows you how quickly things can change in the NBA right now. A week ago they had a half-dozen players under contract and now they have an athletic team with shooters everywhere around underrated center Nene. Enjoy first round pick Kenneth Faried who fittingly is the sleeper pick for Rookie of the Year.

Portland Trail Blazers Portland (48-34): The Blazers have turned the page from the Brandon Roy-Greg Oden superteam that never was and replaced it with a versatile team that figures to catch more than a few tired squads on their heels. LaMarcus Aldridge is the best player no one talks about and forward Gerald Wallace will be a Portland cult hero a la Jerome Kersey by season’s end.

Memphis Grizzles Memphis (46-36): It happens every year. One team emerges out of nowhere during the playoffs and raises expectations beyond the point of natural progression. The Grizzlies had an amazing postseason run and they could continue to build on that success with a healthy Rudy Gay back in the lineup, but can they handle it?

THE CHALLENGERS, EAST

New York KnicksNew York (42-40): Tyson Chandler was the league’s best addition — non Chris Paul edition — because he immediately upgrades what was the Knicks’ biggest weakness, their lack of any kind of a defensive identity. The problem, as the writer Bethlehem Shoals put it, is that Mike D’Antoni’s system, “is a carnival act without the proper guard.” If the coach can hold on long enough to reunite with Steve Nash next summer, the Knicks may actually live up to the immense hype that is building. Until then they’re relying on Mike Bibby and Baron Davis to run the show.

Philadelphia 76ersPhiladelphia (41-41): The Sixers were one of the league’s feel-good stories last season as cantankerous coach Doug Collins embraced his grandfatherly side and pulled together a loose collection of weirdly athletic young parts into an oddly compelling team. They’ll get their share of schedule wins against tired teams because they are disciplined as well as young, but their ceiling may be no higher than middle of the road.

Indiana Pacers Indiana (37-45): It’s a measure of much luster has been lost from the Celtics’ Big Three that David West would willingly play for the Pacers, rather than sign on to chase a ring. The Pacers have assembled an intriguing roster with talent in both the backcourt and frontcourt and expectations are rising. Big man Roy Hibbert needs to take several steps for them to make a serious move up the standings, but the Pacers are a team to watch.

Atlanta HawksAtlanta (44-38): It’s the same old Hawks, which either means a reasonable regular season showing or a complete tailspin. There’s too much talent from them to tank totally, but Atlanta’s long-term prospects are bleaker than Joe Johnson‘s contract numbers.

SO CLOSE, YET SO FAR

Houston RocketsHouston (43-39): No team got screwed by the Paul affair more than Houston who planned to pair Gasol and Nene together in the frontcourt. Instead, the Rockets still have a ton of good, but hardly great, young players and good, but hardly great, frontline talent in Luis Scola and Kevin Martin. They’ll contend for a playoff spot, but that’s about it.

Milwaukee Bucks Milwaukee (35-47): The Bucks can’t possibly be as bad offensively as they were last season and Stephen Jackson will at least make for a more interesting Wisconsin winter. Milwaukee could sneak into the bottom half of the playoff picture, provided Andrew Bogut has a healthy, breakout season.

Utah JazzUtah (39-43): The Jazz may be closer than people think and GM Kevin O’Connor has proven himself to be a savvy front office man. He needs another piece or two to return to contention, but there’s a reason the Jazz have been good more years than not and no amount of collective bargaining agreement tweaks can replace competent decisions makers when it comes to achieving competitive balance.

LEAGUE PASS FAVORITES

Minnesota TimberwolvesMinnesota (17-65): Ricky Rubio! Kevin Love! Derrick Williams! All that and Darko too. Wait, that last part isn’t good. Still, there’s actual reason for optimism for the T-Pups this season and while the roster looks more like a fantasy team that a coherent collection of basketball talent, new coach Rick Adelman has a lot to work with.

Sacramento Kings Sacramento (24-58): Tyreke Evans and DeMarcus Cousins are talented enough to be the cornerstones of a long-term foundation, or a complete catastrophe. Either way they’ll be entertaining as hell to watch and that’s before we’ve discussed Jimmer.

Washington WizardsWashington (23-59): There doesn’t appear to be a league rule that mandates that the Wizards have to be goofier than the rest of the league, but thankfully the great Michael Lee is around to chronicle this collection of oddballs for the Washington Post. When JaVale McGee isn’t dunking or trying to block every shot in sight, he has a Twitter alter-ego named Pierre and Andray Blatche makes McGee seem grounded by comparison.But the real reason to watch the Wizards this year is John Wall, who is primed for a breakout season.

STUCK IN LIMBO

Phoenix SunsPhoenix (40-42): The roster makes no sense and will require a complete teardown before the Suns can ever hope to rise again. #FreeSteveNash.

Detroit PistonsDetroit (30-52): The Pistons may not be as bad as initial appearances suggest, considering new coach Lawrence Frank will be a huge upgrade over departed John Kuester. There won’t be as many team mutinies, for example, and young center Greg Monroe has a chance to be really good. But the roster is still a bit of a mess. Unless they get lucky in the lottery, the rebuilding will take years.

New Jersey NetsNew Jersey (24-58): The Nets had a bold plan: Acquire Howard and pair him with Deron Williams for their move to Brooklyn where they would shoot to the top of the standings and compete with the Knicks for Gotham supremacy. It still might work, but losing Brook Lopez to a broken foot took them out of the Howard chase for now and there doesn’t appear to be a Plan B.

Golden State WarriorsGolden State (36-46): From dreams of Chris Paul and DeAndre Jordan to the reality of Kwame Brown and Monta Ellissexual harassment lawsuit, the Warriors are no better than they were last season and probably worse in the long run.

LOOK OUT BELOW

New Orleans HornetsNew Orleans (46-36): What happened with Chris Paul will be a case study for years to come. Most observers feel the long-term benefits of the Clipper trade — Eric Gordon, Al-Farouq Aminu, eventual cap space and a likely high lottery pick — will work out better than the veteran-laden haul of Martin, Scola and Odom. But that will take years to sort out and the Hornets may not have years left in New Orleans. The league handed them a long-term rebuilding project and if they don’t stand by their word to keep the team in town, the stain will remain.

Toronto RaptorsToronto (22-60): After years of tinkering around the margins, the Raptors are finally taking the plunge to the basement. They will have to wait a year for center Jonas Valanciunas to arrive and it will take more draft luck to even approach competency. They made a savvy coaching hire in defensive specialist Dwane Casey, but patience is the hardest part in any rebuilding project.

Cleveland CavaliersCleveland (19-63): At least there is optimism with rookies Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson, but the Cavs are years away from being competitive.

Charlotte BobcatsCharlotte (34-48): Like Toronto, the Bobcats finally are ready to embrace the joys of long-term rebuilding. While they wait for Bismack Biyombo to develop, they have Corey Maggette around to try and take every shot.

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