Despite a pair of losses, the Spurs remain the class of the NBA. The blow-out loss to the Lakers stings, but it isn't as if the Spurs think it'll be an easy run to the NBA Finals. The Mavericks continue to excel, as do the Bulls and Celtics. The Heat? Well, not so much ...
1. San Antonio Spurs (51-12, Previous: #1) -- The best-case scenario for the Spurs is that Tony Parker's calf really is OK (as it has looked in two games since his return), and that no one else gets hurt. For a team this old, the margin of error is slim. It's a machine, and one loose cog could send the whole thing out of whack. The worst-case scenario is that Tim Duncan's evident troubles against the long, multi-faceted Lakers are an indiction of Big Fun's wearing tread, and that a potential series with the champs might go poorly.
2. Los Angeles Lakers (45-19, Prev: #5) -- The best-case scenario for the Lakers is that this run by Andrew Bynum is the real deal. That's what makes this a dynasty -- a rising star the caliber of Bynum transitioning the team past Kobe Bryant's run as a top-five player.
3. Boston Celtics (46-15, Prev: #3) -- The Celtics might get Shaquille O'Neal back next week, but Delonte West's progress is more important. Carlos Arroyo provides shooting and ball-handling, but West is a solid defender in addition to that, and knows the Celtics' likely postseason opponents well.
4. Chicago Bulls (44-18, Prev: #6) -- Can the Bulls keep cooking with Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer on the court together? It looks good, and consider that the Bulls are in position to make some serious tweaks this offseason. The Heat still won the offseason, but Chicago might be in a solid second place.
5. Dallas Mavericks (46-17, Prev: #4) -- The Mavericks are on the right track, but this might be the end of Dallas' championship window. Too many players are too close to losing their physical abilities that make them special. Nothing would be more satisfying, I think, than taking out the Lakers, Spurs and Heat for a ring.
6. Miami Heat (43-20, Prev: #2) -- The next time the Heat are blowing out the Bobcats or Wizards, they should play their third unit until the opponent ties the game, and then LeBron James and Dwyane Wade should come in and clutch the game to death. That wouldn't shut all of the critics up, but it would at least make a point.
7. Orlando Magic (40-24, Prev: #7) -- The best-case scenario for Orlando is that Dwight Howard never says another word to an official. He'd still probably pick up a tech every third game -- it's habit for the zebras -- but at least he would have put in the effort.
9. Denver Nuggets (37-27, Prev: #8) -- It's going to take a bit of convincing on these Nuggets. I'm not one to depend on star power -- if a team of good players has it, they have it. But I'm not convinced the defense will hold up, despite the excellence of big men Nene and Kenyon Martin on that end. The wings -- minus Arron Afflalo -- are porous enough that some of these shoot-outs are going to turn the other way.
10. New York Knicks (33-29, Prev: #15) -- OK, I'm sold that New York's crazy offense can win enough games despite the glaring defensive issues. If nothing else, this will be a fun, fun ride to the apocalypse.
11. Memphis Grizzlies (36-29, Prev: #11) -- The Grizzlies have certainly survived without Rudy Gay, and a playoff bid looks something like destiny. But what of next season? Will Memphis have the financial will to keep Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol? If it comes down to it, will production outweigh promise?
12. New Orleans Hornets (37-29, Prev: #10) -- New Orleans might be the ultimate half-full or half-empty team. Obviously, the Hornets are much, much better than a year ago. But none of Dell Demps' trades look like sure winners (so long as Marcus Thornton plays like a champ in Sacramento while Carl Landry struggles to find consistency) and the offense is just ... bad, despite the best point guard on the planet.
13. Philadelphia 76ers (32-30, Prev: #12) -- With a frontcourt upgrade -- looking at you, Spencer Hawes -- Philadelphia could be a legitimately dangerous team in the next couple years, provided that Elton Brand maintains his production. The sad thing is that with Samuel Dalembert, who Philly traded for Hawes and Andres Nocioni, Philly could be dangerous this season.
14. Houston Rockets (33-32, Prev: #13) -- The best-case scenario in Houston is that Hasheem Thabeet finds a magic potion that allows him to become the second coming of Dikembe, because the Rockets desperately need defensive help in the middle.
15. Portland Trail Blazers (36-27, Prev: #14) -- The Blazers still haven't figured out just how to handle the glut of starting quality wings, and that's probably a task for next season, when the playoffs aren't at stake. Playing Gerald Wallace at power forward with LaMarcus Aldridge at center works over stretches, but the postseason could push that tactic to the limit.