Nov 21 2012 11:58AM

Standout Seven


Nathaniel S. Butler; Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Seven NBA teams have stood out thus far in the 2012-13 NBA season.

All seven have Simple Rating System scores of +5.00 or better, while none of the league’s 23 other teams rank above the +2.50 mark.

All seven standout squads appear in nearly everybody’s power rankings, so let’s talk about each contender’s start out the gate.

1. NEW YORK KNICKS (8-1; +12.20) … You would never know the Knicks would be missing Amare Stoudemire and Iman Shumpert for at least another month if you were to check out the demeanor and dominance of this current crew. It’s amazing how well New York is playing with MVP candidate Carmelo Anthony averaging 36 minutes a night at his natural power forward position. But it’s not just Melo. The Knicks have become a Top 5 operation on both offense and defense, thanks to overall leadership on both ends of the floor by veterans Tyson Chandler and Jason Kidd. Their example is paving the way for J.R. Smith, Raymond Felton and Steve Novak on offense, along with Ronnie Brewer, Rasheed Wallace, Kurt Thomas and Marcus Camby on defense. What is especially amazing is that they have assembled all this talent with only $80 million. Sure, it ranks as the league’s sixth-highest payroll and goes $10 million over the luxury tax. But the proof is in the pudding: not many teams are getting as much bang-for-buck as the big-spending-turned-spend-thrifty Knicks … Super Win: Heat by 20 … Losses: at Grizzlies by 10.

2. LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (8-2; +12.17) … The name Lob City no longer is the perfect description for this team that has become the NBA’s most fun bunch to watch. Sure, there is Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan’s athleticism that has you jumping out of your seat as they jump out of arenas for electrifying dunks. But there is also the cerebral play of MVP candidate Chris Paul, who is now starting to make a case as NBA’s greatest point guard ever in the house that Magic built. The leadership of Paul and growth of his peers is what has transformed the Clips into a Top 5 team on both O and D, similar to the Knicks. Paul and Griffin lead the show, supplying great offense along with tenacious D, while also allowing other teammates to shine at their given times on both ends of the floor (NBA Sixth Man candidate Jamal Crawford as an elite scorer; NBA All-Defense candidate DeAndre Jordan as the middle linebacker on D). Lest we forget, the NBA’s next great talent is also emerging from the Clippers’ side of Staples Center in the super-athletic Eric Bledsoe. The 22-year-old point guard has not only already earned the nickname Mini-LeBron for his chase-down, shot-blocking ways, but also has emerged as the favorite for the 2012-13 NBA Most Improved award. It shouldn’t surprise folks that Bledsoe is realizing his potential, learning from the feet of all the great teachers in this organization (Paul, injured Chauncey Billups and Grant Hill, along with vets Caron Butler and Matt Barnes too) … Super Wins: Grizzlies by 9; at Lakers by 10; Spurs by 18; Heat by 7; at Spurs by 5 … Losses: Warriors by 4; Cavs by 7.

3. MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (8-2; +10.89) … You’re not going to find five men on any team as well-balanced on both ends of the floor as Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph, Mike Conley, Rudy Gay and Tony Allen. This veteran Fab 5 may just be the best quintet in the NBA, leading the Grizzlies to No. 7 offensive and defensive efficiency scores this year. Gasol is the big man who doesn’t get enough credit for his dominance in the paint on D. He truly is a wall and deserves Defensive Player of the Year consideration. Conley is the straw that stirs the drink on the offensive end. If newcomers Jerryd Bayless and Wayne Ellington can continue to give the Griz stellar guard play off the bench, Memphis will make some noise, like it did in the 2011 NBA Playoffs when it knocked off No. 1 San Antonio in the first round … Super Wins: Heat by 18; at Thunder by 10; Knicks by 10 … Losses: at Clippers by 9; Nuggets by 5.

4. SAN ANTONIO SPURS (8-3; +7.72) …. The Spurs’ machine isn’t up-and-running like last season’s 20-win-streaking squad, but they are playing well enough to win eight of their first 11, despite missing games from Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard. The most recent losses to injury—Leonard for one more week and Stephen Jackson for one month—will hurt San Antonio on their six-game road trip. But that being said, all should be fine in the San Antonio camp, especially with Tim Duncan playing like an MVP candidate with his +6.00 Regularized Adjusted Plus Minus and 27.53 Player Efficiency Rating (LeBron James is the only one to top Timmy in both categories). With Duncan leading the defense (a league-best +5.12 defensive RAPM), as Ginobili and Parker run the offense (+5.82 and +3.05 offensive RAPMs, respectively), the Spurs are putting up good, but not great, results on a nightly basis. If all-around threats Danny Green, Leonard, Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter continue to grow together and provide all-around contributions, the Spurs should return to that peak level of last April and May … Super Wins: Thunder by 2; at Lakers by 2 … Losses: at Clippers by 22; Knicks by 4; Clippers by 5.

5. MIAMI HEAT (8-3; +6.42) … Somewhere between June’s NBA championship and today’s regular-season action, the Heat forgot how to play defense. Miami ranks 25th in defense with 103.6 points per 100 possessions allowed. It’s not much of a problem now because Miami still has three-time MVP LeBron James and All-NBA sidekick Dwyane Wade to cover all wounds, leading the offense to a league-best 110.2 points-per-100-possessions. Nonetheless, it’s a concern. Fellow starters Chris Bosh, Shane Battier and Mario Chalmers have the trademark D running tight, but the bench defense has not been up to par, thus far. No need to worry. Things will most likely be fine once SuperSonic teammates Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis are brought up to speed with Norris Cole, Udonis Haslem, Mike Miller and Joel Anthony. It’s a long season, and as we all now know, these Heat are in it for the long haul … Super Wins: None … Losses: at Knicks by 20; at Grizzlies by 18; at Clippers by 7.

6. OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (8-3; +6.23) … So how’s Kevin Martin doing? Glad you asked—just fine, thank you. He’s lighting it up on O and figuring things out on D. Kind of as expected. It somewhat mirrors the Thunder’s November. Oklahoma City ranks third in offense, thanks to spectacular MVP candidate Kevin Durant, All-NBA sidekick Russell Westbrook and Martin, as well. Meanwhile, the defense ranks 10th, with big contributions coming from Serge Ibaka, Kendrick Perkins and Thabo Sefolosha. It appears OKC is going to be just fine, without Harden this year. But if the Thunder wants to return to the NBA Finals, Coach Scotty Brooks will have to tend to his starting lineup problem. The core group of Westbrook, Sefolosha, Durant, Ibaka and Perkins is just not working out again (99 offensive versus 98 defensive points per 100 possessions) in 181 minutes of play this season. It’s similar to that same underachieving core unit from a season ago that continually got bailed out with James Harden’s play off the bench and Harden’s play with Durant and Westbrook at the end of halves and games. Simply put, still has a mediocre starting crew. And without Harden there to bail the team out, it could become a liability against other top contenders … Super Wins: None … Losses: at Spurs by 2; Hawks by 9; Grizzlies by 10.

7. LOS ANGELES LAKERS (6-5; +5.06) … Normally a 6-5 team wouldn’t register here with a +5 SRS, but this supremely-talented Lakers’ squad is not your typical team, winning its six games by a margin of +94 points. Future Hall of Famers Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard have been able to put up a dominant offensive front already—ranking fourth in offensive efficiency--without its All-Star point guard Steve Nash, without having its current head coach Mike D’Antoni until Tuesday, while also enduring a failure of the Princeton offense and the firing of its original head coach Mike Brown five games into the 2012-13 season. Ranking seventh overall despite all the obstacles is really quite impressive. We shall now see how D’Antoni sparks these legendary Lakers to life. Can Dwight Howard win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award playing for a Mike D squad? Can Bryant give up the ball to the best point guard he has ever played with? If so, and the Lakers get better play from a unproductive bench thus far, Mike D will have done what is expected of him. If however, the Lakers are still playing .500 during the holidays, I guarantee you the “We Want Phil” chants will decorate the Christmas game versus good, old saint Knicks … Super Wins: None … Losses: Dallas by 8; at Portland by 10; Clippers by 10; at Jazz by 9; Spurs by 2.