Now that we’ve reached the midway point, the NBA season is still a nebulous blob of strange. Who could have foreseen that the biggest story of the first half would have involved an undrafted free agent from Harvard who was cut twice and possibly on his way out for a third time? We have seen the rise of the Clippers and the fall of the Celtics , as well as the emergence — and disappearance — of the Nuggets and Blazers. The East remains status quo, with everyone chasing the Bulls and Heat. The West is a tangled mess of very good teams with no clear front-runner.
1. Miami (27-7): Here’s the deal for the Heat and LeBron James . When you have the best player in the league on the best team in the league, you have to win the championship. It doesn’t matter if LeBron winds up passing to Eddy Curry  for the winning shot in the final minutes — if he and Miami wins, he’ll be exonerated. Not beloved, not even liked, but the only way LeBron will finally be set free is if he wins a championship.
2. Chicago (27-8): Pity the Bulls. They are as merciless in their approach as star guard Derrick Rose  is apparently mirthless in his. They take you apart on defense and have more than enough offense and depth to run roughshod over teams in the regular season. But do they have enough firepower for the Heat? LeBron and Dwyane Wade  will no doubt take turns smothering Rose. What then?
3. Oklahoma City (27-7): Windows are strange things in the NBA and while the Thunder’s is in no way closing, it is wide open right now. The West is a jumble; any of five other teams could legitimately make a claim on winning the conference crown this season. But in that confusion lies Oklahoma City’s opportunity. The pieces are in place. Kevin Durant  is in his prime. Russell Westbrook  is a star and James Harden  isn’t far behind. A Heat-Thunder finals would capture the nation’s imagination and re-write the rules on big/small markets.
4. San Antonio (24-10): There was a good chance that at least one of the veteran crews from the august would emerge this season, and at the mid-way point it seems to be the Spurs. This is a totally different San Antonio team than we’re used to seeing. The offense ranks fifth in points per 100 possessions and the defense sits right at league average. After all these years,. Tony Parker  has emerged their best player and if Tim Duncan  and Manu Ginobli stay healthy, they will be a team no one wants to play in the postseason.
5. Dallas (21-13): Conventional wisdom held that the Mavericks were just marking time until they launched a full-scale assault for Deron Williams and maybe Dwight Howard . (A lot of things have to happen for that to be even possible.) But here they are, back in contention with a veteran team that knows how to play together and the single, best offensive threat in the playoffs in Dirk Nowitzki .
6. L.A. Clippers (20-11): If you wanted to know why Danny Ainge went all-out to try and get Chris Paul , behold what he’s done in a half-season in Los Angeles. Paul has made the Clippers a functioning basketball team and a legitimate contender with no practices. With new additions Kenyon Martin  and Reggie Evans , they have the right amount of nasty to go with high-flyers Blake Griffin  and DeAndre Jordan. The questions are on the perimeter and whether Griffin can emerge in the postseason as a truly great player.
7. Philadelphia (20-14): The 76ers have hit a rough patch, which is to be expected after their home-aided hot start. The rough reality for the Sixers is they may be hitting their heads on their ceiling. They don’t appear ready to seriously challenge Miami or Chicago and unless Elton Brand opts out of the last year of his contract, they won’t have the cap space to seriously address their shortcomings until after next season. With new ownership and a serious basketball man like Rod Thorn in control, Philly is headed in the right direction. It’s just a question of where the journey takes them.
8. L.A. Lakers (20-14): They have serious problems. The point guard position is a mess and the small forward spot may be even worse. They are capped out for the long-term and in order to get better, they’d have to trade Pau Gasol , who is only one of the best big men in the world and a franchise cornerstone. Still, any team with Gasol and Andrew Bynum  up front and Kobe Bryant  has to be taken seriously.
9. Memphis (19-15): You could take any of the next four teams in the West and place them in any order you like. The bet here is on the Grizzlies , provided Zach Randolph  is able to return and be productive. With Z-Bo and Marc Gasol up front, the Grizz have a frontline to challenge anyone and their backcourt is strong and balanced. The biggest question — after Randolph — is depth.
10. Orlando (22-13): The Magic still have Howard and they can’t be dismissed until the day when they don’t have the best center in basketball. Still, after Howard and Ryan Anderson , things start to grim in a hurry. The Howard sweepstakes will dominate the next three weeks heading into the March 15 trade deadline and depending on where he goes, a whole host of dominoes may fall.
11. Denver (18-17): The Nuggets are banged up and reeling, having lost 12 of their final 15 games heading into the All-Star break. If the season ended today, they’d be out of the playoffs. But, there is so much potential for this team. They can score in a number of different ways and while they’re not the best defensive team around, they hold their own on the glass. This is a boom or bust type of team and if they’re rolling come May, watch out.
12. Indiana (21-12): Like the Nuggets, the Pacers started off well and then hit the skids, losing six out of seven. The Pacers rebounded against the dregs of the East and this still feels like a team with the potential to improve.
13. Houston (20-14): The Rockets are good. More than that, they’re also sitting on a pile of good, but not great players with a wide array of contracts perfect for injecting themselves into a blockbuster trade. As the deadline approaches, they’re a team to watch.
14. Atlanta (20-14): The Hawks continue to stay afloat without Al Horford and with a bench that includes such long-lost luminaries as Tracy McGrady , Vlad Radmanovic and Jerry Stackhouse. Unless something drastic happens, this still feels like the same-old Hawks.
15. Portland (18-16): Things are never as easy as they seem in Rip City, so while the peripherals look good — they rank eight in offense, sixth in defense, until they get the backcourt figured out, the Blazers will continue to tread water. Still, Portland has lost a ton of close games and that tends to even out as the season progresses. It wouldn’t be a shock to see it emerge in the second half.
16. Minnesota (17-17): The most watchable team in the league has made extraordinary progress this season. A good deal of the credit should go to coach Rick Adelman, who is proof positive that coaching does matter in this league. Making the initial step is hard, but making the next jump is tricky. Your move, David Kahn.
17. New York (17-18): Lost in the Jeremy Lin  mania is the fact that the Knicks rank sixth in defensive efficiency. Sixth! Why, hello there Tyson Chandler . This team deserves a chance to figure it out on the court, but will the notoriously impatient Knicks melt under the pressure?
18. Boston (15-17): The rest of the Celtics season really comes down to one thing: Will Ainge trade Rajon Rondo , or will he begin constructing a team around the enigmatic point guard? It would be nice to see what would happen if everyone was healthy at the same time, but that’s been said around these parts for the last four seasons. The schedule gets tougher in the second half and that doesn’t bode well for short-term health.
19. Utah (15-17): he Jazz  have a handful of interesting big men in Paul Millsap, Derrick Favors  and rookie Enes Kanter. They also need a point guard desperately. There will be Rondo rumors. Lots and lots of rumors.
20. Golden State (13-17): The Warriors are an offensive-minded team with scoring talent to spare. Coach Mark Jackson  wants to emphasize defense, but the personnel doesn’t fit. They’ll win a handful of games they shouldn’t because of their firepower, but until they address their roster any improvement is pyrrhic.
22. Milwaukee (13-20): Here lies the best reason why the Celtics will likely sneak into the playoffs no matter how bad things get. The Bucks and Cavaliers  just aren’t good enough. Brandon Jennings  has made noises about wanting out, but does anyone want a point guard who shoots 40 percent?
23. Cleveland (13-18): The Cavs are doing their rebuilding the right way. They have an absolute centerpiece in Kyrie Irving and they’re content to fill out the roster with low-priced role players. Antawn Jamison ‘s contract finally comes off the books this summer and the Cavs will have a ton of cap space. Will they use it wisely?
24. Sacramento (11-22): With a new arena deal seemingly in place, the Kings desperately need a front office overhaul. DeMarcus Cousins  is a superstar in the making, but the rest of the roster needs work. This is an important moment in the Kings’ franchise. They need to get their house in order to move forward.
25. Detroit (11-24): The Pistons have played better over the last month or so — as the Celtics found out the hard way. Center Greg Monroe is a keeper, but there are still too many similarly-skilled players dotting the perimeter. Lawrence Frank  has been able to win games with his veterans, but the real key is developing some of the youth.
26. Toronto (10-23): Things are going to get better. Center Jonas Valanciunas is on the way, along with another lottery pick. Dwane Casey has been able to get his team to buy into his defensive concepts. If they can just stay patient, the Raptors can continue to rebuild the right way.
28. New Orleans (8-25): How’s that trade working out? Eric Gordon  has played two games. Chris Kaman  was sent home in an effort to trade him, then asked back when things got too rough. The pick from the Clippers, via Minnesota, doesn’t look so hot right now either. Maybe leagues shouldn’t play GM.
29. Washington (7-26): When you cut through the clutter of the Wizards  tangled season, the only thing that really matters is saving John Wall . Still just 21 years old, Wall hasn’t regressed, but he hasn’t improved either. Saving Wall should be the top priority, even if that means taking one step back and cutting ties with players like Nick Young  and JaVale McGee.
30. Charlotte (4-28): There is nothing good that can be said about the Bobcats’ roster except that Boris Diaw  finally comes off the cap after next season.