The 2011-12 NBA regular season is more than a quarter complete, and the landscape of NBA contenders is starting to take form. Sort of. The Chicago Bulls and Miami Heat are fulfilling their promises and rising to the top of the Eastern Conference standings despite injuries to key players, but the New York Knicks are fading fast and the Orlando Magic are loaded with complex issues. That has paved the way for the surprise team of the season, the Philadelphia 76ers to fill the void. Philly has feasted on a light schedule -- their .436 opponent mark is the easiest in the NBA to-date -- but there is something to be said for dominating lesser opponents. Their next seven games should reveal quite a bit about their contender status.
In the Western Conference, the Oklahoma City Thunder (16-3) and the Denver Nuggets (14-5) are the class of the conference, and from there it gets very murky. Does Kobe have enough to get the Los Angeles Lakers back on track? Will Dirk Nowitzki and the Dallas Mavericks make another run? In all honesty the west feels more wide open than ever before.
Bulls Holding Strong Despite Injuries: The early season has been a showcase for Tom Thibodeau's elite coaching ability, quite honestly. Derrick Rose, Richard Hamilton, Taj Gibson and Luol Deng have all missed time, but that hasn't prevented the Bulls from jumping out to a 17-5 start and maintaining the No. 2 efficiency differential in the NBA. Painful losses to the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat notwithstanding, Thibs has kept the team humming along at the summit of the Eastern Conference standings throughout the twisted game of musical (bench) chairs with key players.
There are still legitimate questions about his rotations at times, but the recent mix between Carlos Boozer, Joakim Noah, Omer Asik and Taj Gibson has worked well in the front-court and has kept the energy level high on the back end of the defense throughout games. Short-handed wins against bad teams are still wins, and if the Bulls keep piling them up they can earn home-court advantage in the playoffs. If that's the end game of the regular season, there is no sense in complaining about the less-than-stellar competition the Bulls have beaten lately. A cushion in the standings might also give Rose the opportunity to rest his turf toe heading into the playoffs. Again, it's all good right now, unless of course you really want to be upset about something. Then I can't help you.
Boston Celtics (+11 spots) - Last week the Celtics had dropped all the way down to No. 20 after dropping six of seven games and falling to 5-9 overall. General Manager Danny Ainge openly discussed trading off pieces and entering a rebuild, while fans wondered if Rondo should be at the center of the core. Even the panic button was scared. Since then they have won four in a row, including two statement games against the Orlando Magic and a hard-fought win over the upstart Indiana Pacers. Don't pull the cord on the Celtics quite yet, as they have moved back up to No. 9 in efficiency differential.
Houston Rockets (+7 spots) - Suddenly the Rockets are playing some good defense to go with a potent offensive attack led by Kyle Lowry and Kevin Martin. Two weeks ago they ranked 20th overall in efficiency differential (-2.1), and just a fortnight later they are the No. 8 team in the NBA (+3.58). What has been the reason for the team winning 9 of their last 10 games. Samuel Dalembert has been strong in the interior of the defense and on the glass, but part of the surge might have to do with the quality of opponents. The only teams with winning record the Rockets beat during that span were the Portland Trail Blazers and the San Antonio Spurs (who have been terrible on the road). Not sure they are for real just yet. Stay tuned.
Cleveland Cavaliers (-6 spots) - Kyrie Irving has been spectacular -- 17.6 points, 4.8 assists and 3.4 rebounds per game on 59.1% TS for a 22.25 PER -- but everyone else on the roster is fungible. It was bound to catch up with them sooner or later. A 39-point loss to the Bulls and a 27-point loss to the Atlanta Hawks in their last five games says a lot more about their team than does their 10-point win over the reeling New York Knicks. Still, Irving is worth tuning in for on his own merits.
Orlando Magic (-5 spots) - The signs have been there ever since Dwight Howard started to murmur about getting out of Orlando early in the season, but now the Magic are teetering on the edge of a full-blown disaster. They are still 12-7, but in the last week they: (1) set franchise record lows for FG%,fewest points scored in a game and fewest made field goals in a game during an 87-56 loss to the Celtics, (2) blown a 27-point lead in another loss to the Celtics, and (3) dropped a complete turd of a performance in a 93-67 road loss to the 4-15 New Orleans Hornets. Oh yeah, and now the D Howard rumor mill is heating up again.
Here is a complete look at the NBA: