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Power Rankings

After preseason, Heat are on top

By John Schuhmann, NBA.com
Posted Dec 21 2011 11:13AM

We really don't know how this season, with an unbalanced and condensed schedule, is going to go. But one thing we can safely assume is that depth will be important. With teams playing one more game than usual every two weeks, injuries and fatigue are inevitable.

So as we rank the 30 NBA teams just four days before the Knicks and Celtics tip off the five-game Christmas Day slate, we favor those teams than can go nine or 10 deep without much drop-off.

Depth is what gives the Dallas Mavericks a fighting chance at a second straight championship. It's what propelled the Chicago Bulls and San Antonio Spurs to the league's best records last season, and what should keep them both in the mix this season. A lack of depth, though, is what could hurt top-heavy teams like the Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers and New York Knicks.

The Miami Heat are a special case. They're certainly top-heavy, but they're in a better position for regular season success than they were last season, when they finished four games behind the Bulls and had the best point differential in the league.

The Heat stand atop our preseason rankings, but the slate will be wiped clean when the season tips off on Sunday.

The NBA.com Power Rankings will return to their normal Monday schedule with the first rankings of the regular season on Jan. 2.

• Post-lockout rankings: Post-lockout, Heat start out on top

• This time last year: Christmas matchups could shake up the rankings -- The Celtics and Spurs were a combined 45-7 and the Heat had won 12 straight. The Bulls lost Joakim Noah to a thumb injury and then lost to the Clippers when Derrick Rose missed a free throw with one second left. Otis Smith pulled off two big trades on a Saturday and the Knicks lost to the Cavs for the first of three times.

High jumps of the preseason: L.A. Clippers (+8), Minnesota (+5), Denver (+4)
Free falls of the preseason: New Orleans (-11), Atlanta (-4), Utah (-4)

Pace: Possessions per 48 minutes (League Rank)
Off: Points scored per 100 possessions (League Rank)
Def: Points allowed per 100 possessions (League Rank)
The league averaged 94.6 possessions (per team) per 48 minutes and 104.5 points scored per 100 possessions last season.

NBA.com's Power Rankings are just one man's opinion and are released every Monday during the season. If you've got an issue with the rankings, or have a question or comment for John Schuhmann, send him an e-mail. You can also follow him on twitter.

1 Miami (58-24)
Pace: 93.2 (21), Off: 109.3 (3), Def: 100.7 (5)
The Heat have a year of chemistry-building under their belt. Their best player is virtually indestructible. Their three stars all looked pretty sharp in their preseason opener. And a healthy Udonis Haslem with the addition of Shane Battier give them added depth. This team is going to win a lot of games.
Previous: 1

2 Dallas (57-25)
Pace: 93.4 (19), Off: 107.6 (8), Def: 102.3 (7)
By dealing their trade exception for Lamar Odom, the Mavs recovered pretty well from losing Tyson Chandler. Signing Vince Carter and Delonte West restored their terrific depth, which is huge in a condensed season. But the question of how well they'll defend without Chandler remains.
Previous: 2

3 Oklahoma City (55-27)
Pace: 95.3 (13), Off: 108.6 (4), Def: 104.0 (13)
It looks like James Harden will continue to come off the bench, making him the early favorite for the Sixth Man of the Year award. The Thunder's back-to-back against Memphis (away) and Dallas (home) next week should help us see where those teams stand in the early-season Western Conference hierarchy.
Previous: 3

4 Chicago (62-20)
Pace: 92.9 (22), Off: 105.5 (12), Def: 97.4 (1)
Rip Hamilton is an upgrade over Keith Bogans and got the start Tuesday night, but Ronnie Brewer could still play more minutes off the bench. It will be against the good defensive teams where Hamilton can make a difference. With 20 of their first 30 games on the road, the Bulls will be a second-half team again.
Previous: 4

5 San Antonio (61-21)
Pace: 94.6 (14), Off: 109.4 (2), Def: 102.8 (11)
Tim Duncan has looked fresh thus far in the preseason, but the question will be just how fresh he is in late April. With nine of their first 13 games at home and eight of the 13 against last season's lottery teams, the Spurs could get off to another hot start. Last season, they started 13-1 and 29-4.
Previous: 8

6 L.A. Lakers (57-25)
Pace: 93.4 (20), Off: 107.9 (7), Def: 101.3 (6)
Even if you disregard the first preseason game, it's tough not to be down on the Lakers right now. There's no getting around just how valuable Lamar Odom was to their success over the last four seasons. He was also a valuable insurance policy for the oft-injured Andrew Bynum. It's going to be a fascinating season in L.A.
Previous: 5

7 Memphis (46-36)
Pace: 94.5 (15), Off: 104.4 (16), Def: 102.5 (8)
Darrell Arthur was probably the least-known guy in the Grizzlies' rotation, but his loss (torn Achilles) is significant. Arthur was one of the team's best defenders and one of the league's most improved players last season. They're looking to replace him with Dante Cunningham, whom they've signed to an offer sheet.
Previous: 7

8 New York (42-40)
Pace: 98.1 (2), Off: 108.3 (5), Def: 106.9 (21)
Do Tyson Chandler and (eventually) Baron Davis make the Knicks the best team in the Atlantic? We might get a good idea early, when they host the Celtics in their first game of the season. New York lost all eight meetings to Boston last season. Both teams have stars, but neither has much depth.
Previous: 10

9 Boston (56-26)
Pace: 92.5 (23), Off: 104.0 (18), Def: 97.8 (2)
The season hasn't even started yet and Paul Pierce is already banged up, with his primary backup (Jeff Green) out for the season. The Celtics' big three needs more rest than any other group in the league, but the team's offense falls off a cliff whenever their four All-Stars leave the floor. Conclusion: This could get ugly.
Previous: 6

10 L.A. Clippers (32-50)
Pace: 95.5 (11), Off: 101.8 (23), Def: 106.3 (19)
The Clippers were a must-watch last season for Blake Griffin alone. Now, they have Chris Paul and he clearly wants to push the ball up the floor. We know they'll be endlessly entertaining, but just how good will the Clippers be? It will depend on their defense, anchored by Griffin and DeAndre Jordan.
Previous: 18

11 Orlando (52-30)
Pace: 93.5 (18), Off: 105.7 (10), Def: 99.1 (3)
The Magic are about to go through the same circus that the Nuggets went through last season, which the Jazz and Hornets were able to avoid by striking deals early. Dwight Howard is probably worth it, unless he continues to play like he did on Sunday against the Heat (five points on 2-for-9 shooting).
Previous: 9

12 Portland (48-34)
Pace: 90.5 (30), Off: 105.6 (11), Def: 104.2 (14)
One of the more interesting boxscore tidbits of the preseason thus far? Jamal Crawford's seven assists in just 22 minutes on Monday. The Blazers have a strong top-eight in their rotation, but unless rookie Nolan Smith is ready to run the show, Crawford could be asked to handle the ball quite a bit.
Previous: 11

13 Denver (50-32)
Pace: 97.9 (3), Off: 109.5 (1), Def: 104.8 (16)
Despite the departures of three free agents to China, the Nuggets will once again be one of the deepest teams in the league. The question is whether or not they can replicate the defense they played after the Carmelo Anthony trade last season. It may all depend on Timofey Mozgov's ability to protect the rim.
Previous: 17

14 Indiana (37-45)
Pace: 97.2 (6), Off: 101.9 (22), Def: 103.4 (12)
Two preseason games against the Bulls' defense make it difficult to see, but the Pacers are improved. The one big question mark is perimeter shooting. It's great that Danny Granger is attacking the basket more under Frank Vogel, but with Mike Dunleavy and Brandon Rush gone, they lack another perimeter threat.
Previous: 13

15 Philadelphia (41-41)
Pace: 93.9 (16), Off: 104.0 (17), Def: 102.5 (10)
Evan Turner is a huge X-factor for the Sixers, who have to be happy with how much more comfortable he has looked in their two preseason games. Turner's ability to create his own shot and make plays can give the Philly offense a big boost, especially in close games, where they were awful last season.
Previous: 15

16 Houston (43-39)
Pace: 96.9 (7), Off: 108.0 (6), Def: 106.2 (18)
With no Pau Gasol coming their way, the Rockets' plan is apparently to start Jordan Hill (career averages of 5.5 points and 4.0 rebounds) at center. The alternative is the other 2009 lottery pick they acquired via trade, Hasheem Thabeet. Hill dropped 17 and 13 on the Spurs in the preseason opener.
Previous: 16

17 Milwaukee (35-47)
Pace: 92.1 (x), Off: 99.0 (30), Def: 99.9 (4)
Andrew Bogut's 3-for-9 performance in the Bucks' preseason opener was more about rust than elbow issues. Stephen Jackson, out with hamstring and back pain, is now more of a health concern. Milwaukee starts the season with three very winnable games before hitting the road for 11 of their next 15.
Previous: 19

18 Atlanta (44-38)
Pace: 91.6 (27), Off: 103.2 (21), Def: 104.6 (15)
The Atlanta offense regressed tremendously last season, and it may get even worse. After the All-Star break, the Hawks barely scored a point per possession. When Jamal Crawford (who's now a Blazer) was on the bench, they were far worse, scoring a putrid 93 points per 100 possessions after the break.
Previous: 14

19 Golden State (36-46)
Pace: 97.4 (5), Off: 105.5 (13), Def: 107.6 (26)
Stephen Curry's troublesome right ankle turned on him again. Even if he doesn't miss much time, it hurts to have an injury issue with your best player in a season where every game counts more. With Reggie Williams in Charlotte, rookie Klay Thompson will need to be ready to contribute sooner.
Previous: 21

20 New Jersey (24-58)
Pace: 92.4 (24), Off: 100.2 (27), Def: 107.0 (22)
The Nets are all-in on Dwight Howard, but bringing back Kris Humphries gives them a decent shot at the playoffs as is. Deron Williams is healthy and Brook Lopez isn't as "lazy" as he was last season. Still, they're going to have to fight past the first few weeks of the season, when their schedule is toughest.
Previous: 22

21 Phoenix (40-42)
Pace: 96.8 (8), Off: 107.0 (9), Def: 107.4 (25)
Just to prove that all is back to normal in the NBA, the Suns gave up 127 points (including 36 fast-break points) in their first preseason game on Tuesday in Denver. Grant Hill, who missed the game with a sore knee, will help the Phoenix defense, but he's no miracle worker.
Previous: 20

22 Minnesota (17-65)
Pace: 99.2 (1), Off: 101.1 (24), Def: 108.3 (27)
Kevin Love's 42 percent from 3-point range went under the radar last season, what with him recording 53 straight double-doubles and all. Love clearly digs the long ball, taking seven of his 13 shots from downtown on Saturday. With the Wolves shooting 15-for-24 on threes as a team, the Bucks had no chance.
Previous: 27

23 New Orleans (46-36)
Pace: 90.9 (29), Off: 103.8 (19), Def: 102.5 (9)
The Timberwolves' unprotected pick was an important part of the Chris Paul trade. But it's very possible that the Hornets' own pick will have more lottery combinations than the Minny pick come May ... unless Jarrett Jack can consistently play out of his mind, like he did in Friday's preseason opener.
Previous: 12

24 Detroit (30-52)
Pace: 91.5 (28), Off: 104.6 (15), Def: 109.0 (28)
If you want to see a young group of players develop under the fire of a condensed season, the Pistons are the team to watch. Austin Daye, who averaged 18.5 points in their two preseason games, may be poised for a breakout season. The 6-foot-11 Daye started at shooting guard in Tuesday's win.
Previous: 25

25 Washington (23-59)
Pace: 96.5 (9), Off: 99.6 (28), Def: 107.2 (23)
If the preseason is any indication, watching the Wizards will once again be a tantalizing (but ultimately frustrating) experience. This team desperately needs John Wall to take the reins and take a giant leap forward this season. Wall had six assists and 10 turnovers in 54 preseason minutes.
Previous: 26

26 Sacramento (24-58)
Pace: 97.8 (4), Off: 100.6 (26), Def: 106.3 (20)
Nothing against Samuel Dalembert, but it would have been great to see what kind of impact Chuck Hayes could have had on the Kings' young frontline. This team might shoot itself in and out of games this season. Marcus Thornton and Jimmer Fredette shot a combined 13-for-20 from 3-point range in the preseason.
Previous: 24

27 Utah (39-43)
Pace: 93.6 (17), Off: 104.9 (14), Def: 107.3 (24)
Is Derrick Favors, still just 20 years old, ready to break out? He put up 25 and 12 in Utah's first preseason game. Enes Kanter, the other young big the Jazz got for Deron Williams, also grabbed double-digit boards in less than 20 minutes. This could be a beastly combination in a couple of years.
Previous: 23

28 Toronto (22-60)
Pace: 95.4 (12), Off: 103.3 (20), Def: 110.0 (30)
Yes, it was the first game after an abbreviated training camp, but the Raptors holding the Celtics to 39 percent shooting on Sunday had to be the most encouraging sign of the preseason thus far. And DeMar DeRozan (5-for-52 from 3-point rangelast season) hit both of his threes! Must be coach Dwane Casey.
Previous: 28

29 Cleveland (19-63)
Pace: 95.5 (10), Off: 99.5 (29), Def: 109.1 (29)
As should have been expected, No. 1 pick Kyrie Irving had a pair of mixed performances in the preseason. If the Cavs aren't too terrible, they have a chance to pick up some wins early. They have Toronto twice, Detroit, New Jersey, Charlotte and Minnesota in their first seven games.
Previous: 29

30 Charlotte (34-48)
Pace: 92.1 (26), Off: 100.8 (25), Def: 104.8 (17)
Since last we ranked them, the Bobcats have added Derrick Brown, Byron Mullens and Reggie Williams. Hmmm. ... yep, we'll keep 'em right here at No. 30. But that doesn't mean they won't be worth watching. Kemba Walker should entertain as he makes a serious bid for Rookie of the Year.
Previous: 30

John Schuhmann is a staff writer for NBA.com. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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