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NBA Power Rankings, 1/3

01.03.12 at 10:54 pm ET
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With the Celtics, Lakers, Mavericks and Spurs all hovering around .500 through the first two weeks of this shortened season, has the balance of NBA power officially shifted? The way I see it, a team can own any of three distinct advantages after an abbreviated training camp and during a season in which they’re playing every other night: 1) an experienced core; 2) young, athletic talent; and 3) depth. The Celtics own one of those advantages.

In the early going, the power picture remains blurry, so I’m taking a new approach to the rankings: Who would win a seven-game series if they played right now? For example, I’m of the opinion the C’s would lose a playoff series to any of the five teams ranked higher than them and defeat any of the 24 teams ranked lower. Got it? Good.

Miami Heat1. Miami (5-1): The Heat returned an experienced core, possess a ton of talented young athletes and got deeper with the additions of free agent Shane Battier and rookie Norris Cole. There’s a reason Dwyane Wade & Co. are better than 2-to-1 favorites to win the NBA title. This season is so short, LeBron James might not even have time to figure out a new way to choke.

Oklahoma City Thunder2. Oklahoma City (5-1): The Thunder won five of their first six games, and Russell Westbrook (38.0 FG%, 10.0 3P%) hasn’t even hit his stride yet. They’re incredibly young, incredibly talented and incredibly deep. And they also have Kendrick Perkins. I kid. I kid.

Chicago Bulls3. Chicago (4-1): Good news: Derrick Rose is still pretty good. Bad news: Rip Hamilton is still pretty old.

Dallas Mavericks4. Dallas (2-4): Without Tyson Chandler holding down the paint, the Mavericks rank 27th in the league in both rebounding and points allowed. Meanwhile, Lamar Odom‘s field goal percentage (19.5%) is almost as bad as his success rate in getting Khloe Kardashian pregnant (too soon?). Yet, the Larry O’Brien trophy remains in Dallas — probably on Mark Cuban‘s pillow, but still.

Los Angeles Lakers5. L.A. Lakers (3-3): Even after Andrew Bynum‘s four-game suspension combined with Kobe Bryant‘s wrist injury and a back-to-back-to-back to start the season, the Lakers emerged 3-3. It could be worse. Don’t forget: It’s never a good think when Black Mamba has a chip on his shoulder, and he might lose a cool $75 million for allegedly cheating on his wife Vanessa (who woulda thunk it?).

Boston Celtics6. Boston (3-3): Move over Bill Russell. If Greg Stiemsma‘s meteoric rise to superstardom continues, who knows what might happen next? 12 titles in 14 years? In all seriousness, maybe the Celtics’ second unit is better than we thought. The Stiemer is averaging 6.2 blocks per 36 minutes, Brandon Bass is scoring 13.8 points per game and Keyon Dooling is shooting 44.4 percent from 3-point range. If Mickael Pietrus returns to form, that’s a solid group.

Los Angeles Clippers7. L.A. Clippers (2-2): Unlike the teams above — but a lot like RoboCop — the Clippers have an entirely reconfigured core. Lost in the Chris Paul saga was the addition of Caron Butler, who is quietly enjoying a stellar start to his season. If Chauncey Billups can remain healthy and DeAndre Jordan or Blake Griffin can continue to dunk once every 0.3 seconds, the RoboClippers could be scary good this year.

San Antonio Spurs8. San Antonio (3-2): Here’s a shocker: Nobody is talking about the Spurs … again. But which San Antonio squad will show up? The one that beats the Clips by 25 one night and can compete with anybody, or the one that loses to the Rockets by 20 the next night and should be issued its own wing at the Shady Acres Retirement Home?

Portland Trail Blazers9. Portland (3-1): As crazy as it sounds, the reliability of Jamal Crawford (don’t laugh: he’s averaged 69 games over 11 seasons) probably benefits the Blazers more than the constant “What will they get from Brandon Roy?” discussion of the past few years. Nate McMillan might finally build a consistent rotation. And just wait until Greg Oden gets back (now you can laugh).

New York Knicks10. New York (2-3): Carmelo Anthony and Amare Stoudemire can carry the Knicks on any given night, and Tyson Chandler should shore up some of the team’s defensive woes, but their supporting cast is woeful. The key in all of this could be Baron Davis, but that’s a pretty big (literally) key.

Indiana Pacers11. Indiana (4-1): Despite Ray Allen‘s suggestion to the contrary, David West told Adrian Wojnarowski he actually picked the Pacers over the Celtics because he thought Indiana presented a better chance to win over the next two years. If his decision turns out to be prophetic, we here in Boston are in for a long winter.

Orlando Magic12. Orlando (4-2): If Ryan Anderson continues to score 19.2 points per game, then I might be wrong about my projection of the Magic as a team in serious decline. But the odds of Anderson scoring at that pace are about as good as Eddy Curry making a successful comeback.

Memphis Grizzles13. Memphis (1-3): After the Grizzlies nearly toppled the Thunder to reach the Western Conference finals, conventional wisdom suggests they would take the next step this season — especially with the addition of a healthy Rudy Gay. But that team caught lightning in a bottle, and their 1-3 start indicates it won’t strike twice.

Atlanta Hawks14. Atlanta (4-1): The Hawks should be one of those teams that benefits from having young legs throughout the roster (save for Tracy McGrady), as evidenced by their defeat of the Heat. Still, they replaced Jamal Crawford‘s bench production with McGrady’s knees.

Philadelphia 76ers15. Philadelphia (2-2): The Sixers not only brought their core back, they brought their entire team back. After a .500 season a year ago, there’s no reason to believe this young group won’t improve upon that a bit this year (more if Evan Turner taps his potential).

Houston Rockets16. Houston (2-2): Our own Villanova alum Mike Petraglia loves him some Kyle Lowry. And now the whole city of Houston knows why. The Rockets point guard is averaging a Rajon Rondo-esque 13.3 points, 11.5 assists and 6.3 rebounds in his first four games.

Denver Nuggets17. Denver (4-2): After the Nuggets surprised down the stretch after the Melo trade last season, Denver fans adamantly argued, “Why isn’t George Karl‘s squad ranked higher?” The Thunder proceeded to oust the Nugs in five games during the first round of the playoffs, and everyone was reminded that having a lot of good players can win games during the regular season — but you need that alpha dog when buckets are harder to come by.

Golden State Warriors18. Golden State (2-3): I thought the Warriors were a serious sleeper last season. The problem? They slept through the whole season. With Monta Ellis, David Lee and Stephen Curry, the talent is there to at least compete for a low playoff seed, and maybe Mark Jackson can motivate them.

Phoenix Suns19. Phoenix (2-3): Did you ever think you’d see the day Steve Nash was the point guard of a team that scored 91.8 points per game and ranked in the lower third of the league in scoring? When journeyman Hakim Warrick is the Suns leading scorer through five games, you know they’re in trouble. It’s #freestevenash 2.0 time.

Milwaukee Bucks20. Milwaukee (2-2): When you’re watching Bucks-Nuggets on the free NBA League Pass, and after a minute your fiancé asks, “Is this even basketball?” it’s not a good sign.

Utah Jazz21. Utah (2-3): The Jazz are allowing 10 more points per game than they’re scoring. They won’t win a lot of games that way. Still, they’ve got a talented frontcourt led by old friend Al Jefferson, and they’ll be tough to beat in Salt Lake City (2-0 to begin the season).

Detroit Pistons22. Detroit (2-3): The Pistons have 10 players who have played at least 10 minutes a night through the first two weeks, so they’ve got the depth. Greg Monroe, Jonas Jerebko and Brandon Knight are a quality budding young core. That’s all well and good, until you remember Ben Gordon is their most established player.

Minnesota Timberwolves23. Minnesota (2-3): Kevin Love is establishing himself as a legit superstar. You don’t put up 25 and 15 for a couple weeks by accident. At times, Ricky Rubio has played as advertised. Michael Beasley is, well, Michael Beasley — for better or worse. I’d buy longterm Timberwolves stock if I didn’t think David Kahn would trade Love for eight point guards and a Pop-A-Shot machine.

Sacramento Kings24. Sacramento (2-3): I once had a prep sports reporter from Alabama tell me DeMarcus Cousins was “everything that’s wrong with high school sports” when the Kings forward was a high school senior, so headlines like “Kings banish Cousins after trade request” come as no surprise — but headlines like “Danny Ainge called about Cousins” do raise an eyebrow.

New Jersey Nets25. New Jersey (1-5): If you’re hoping Deron Williams will re-sign with the Nets, this isn’t the way to do it, although MarShon Brooks (13.7 PPG) — who was traded for Celtics rookie power forward JaJuan Johnson on draft day — has been a pleasant surprise. At least the Kris Humphries boo-fest tour is fun to watch.

Washington Wizards26. Washington (0-5): The Wizards are the only winless team in the NBA, so why are they ranked ahead of four other teams? With the possible exception of Andray Blatche — whose name is like an onomatopoeia of his game (damn, he Blatched it!) — they have a pretty solid starting lineup. If John Wall can take a step forward, not everybody will beat the Wiz.

Cleveland Cavaliers27. Cleveland (2-2): If you thought Ben Gordon as your team’s best player was bad, try selling Antawn Jamison‘s mug on your game-day programs. By the way, where are all the Ohioans who thought the Cavs were still a playoff team after LBJ left? If I were a Cleveland sports fan, I think I’d just watch “Major League” every night rather than live sports action.

New Orleans Hornets28. New Orleans (2-3): No Chris Paul. No David West. Problem. The only bright side for Hornets fans is getting to watch Eric Gordon take 20 shots a night. Now that Chris Kaman cut his Tom Petty hair, Gordon’s shooting stroke is the prettiest thing going for this team.

Toronto Raptors29. Toronto (2-3): The Raptors are quietly acquiring every foreign born player in the NBA, except for the good ones. I’m still holding out hope for Solomon Alabi, just to maximize the number of times Tommy Heinsohn has to say his name during Celtics broadcasts.

Charlotte Bobcats30. Charlotte (1-3): Michael Jordan, player > Michael Jordan, owner. And actual Bobcats > the Charlotte Bobcats.

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