We don't often think of parity in the NBA and for good reason. This has always been a top-heavy league and the best teams, filled as they are with the best players, will almost always find a way to win in the playoffs. More than anything the regular season serves as confirmation for what we already knew anyway.
Let's say there are six squads with realistic championship aspirations at this point and about twice as many who don't even harbor the faintest of playoff hopes. That leaves a vast middle where there are a dozen teams within three games either way of the .500 mark heading into the week.
That's not terribly unusual, but here's the twist: many of them were considered preseason contenders, including Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago, Indiana, Denver, Minnesota, Dallas, Philadelphia and Brooklyn. Injuries have certainly played a large part, which is why it's impossible to write them off even a quarter of the way through the season.
This week is all about the middle, a place no NBA team wants to be but one that has made the league far more unpredictable than usual. Embrace the chaos people. Here's what we'll be watching. All times Eastern.
What We'll Be Watching: Atlanta at Miami (7:30 p.m.)
I know we're all supposed to be worried and antsy about the Heat, but count me out of that particular conversation. That's not to dismiss Miami's obvious defensive woes, but if many of its issues are related to effort as they appear to be, then it's fair to assume the Heat will get their act together when the time is right.
Instead, let's talk about the Hawks, who have ascended into the realm just below the upper echelon with a somewhat ragged assortment of players who are just stopping through on their way to somewhere else. Eight of their top 11 players will be free agents after this season and Jeff Teague will be a highly-valued restricted free agent. They are playing for their future -- their own, not the franchise's -- and in an unexpected twist, they are playing quite well. The Hawks are the answer to the question: what if almost everyone was in a contract year?
The Hawks rank sixth in defensive efficiency and are good enough offensively to make them, well, what exactly does that make them? Atlanta's ceiling -- 50 wins, second round, etc. -- is such that it makes no sense to continue their current incarnation beyond this season. The Hawks have perfected that kind of team over the years and there is little incentive to continue traveling down that path. That's an incredibly depressing thought, but a realistic one.
In the interim they have adopted a why not us ethos, which makes them just scary enough to take seriously, but not too seriously.
What we'll be watching: Chicago at Clippers (9:30 p.m.)
We've been purposefully ignoring the Bulls so far this season because absent Derrick Rose, no one knows exactly what one will get. They will play fantastic defense and soul-crushing offense, which is the kind of thing that is interesting only to true believers. It is with grudging admiration that they have put themselves in position to be the ultimate spoilers this spring, provided Rose is Rose again.
Does anyone want to play the Bulls with a healthy Derrick Rose? No, no one wants that because they will make your life miserable on the defensive end and pound you on the glass. Of all the pseudo contenders in the East, that may be the best compliment that can be paid.
What We'll Be Watching: Denver at Minnesota (8 p.m.)
Who would you rather be right now: the Nuggets or the Timberwolves? Both teams have underperformed relative to expectations, but both have legitimate reasons. Denver will play 17 of its first 23 games away from home, while the Wolves have been decimated by injuries. The Nuggets' problems -- defense, free throw and three-point shooting -- are far more troubling than Minnesota's own offensive ineptitude, which logically should improve once Ricky Rubio returns.
The Nuggets remain a hot mess of intriguing wackiness with no clear central authority on the court. The Wolves have survived thanks to a soft schedule and a commitment to defense. They are reinventing themselves on the fly, which is different than figuring out what they're going to do once they're airborne. The former opens up a host of opportunity, while the latter yields an unending supply of JaVale McGee gifs.
What We'll Be Watching: Lakers at New York (8 p.m.)
There are all sorts of reasons why Mike D'Antoni didn't succeed in the big city, but chief among them was his stubborn adherence to the system. It's not that D'Antoni's approach doesn't work, it obviously does when surrounded with the right personnel, but he seemed unable to bring himself to coach the players he did have, rather than the ones he wanted.
This pattern is repeating itself yet again in Los Angeles where he has managed to make Pau Gasol a highly-paid spectator. We're all waiting to see what happens when Steve Nash returns and if we're being fair, that's the only way to judge D'Antoni's effect on the Lakers. Still, it's not as if Nash will help shore up their obvious defensive issues on the perimeter. The Lakers can score, but we knew that already.
Meanwhile, Mike Woodson has effectively turned Carmelo Anthony into a devastating four-man while surrounding the court with shooters and maximizing the strengths of talents like Ray Felton, Jason Kidd, Steve Novak and J.R. Smith. That's coaching.
What We'll Be Watching: Philadelphia at Indiana (7 p.m.)
Who would you rather be right now, Part II: Philly or Indy? Without Andrew Bynum, the Sixers are exactly what they have been in years past, a good although hardly scary team that will make you work but lacks the firepower to truly make a run. Without Danny Granger, the Pacers are a dreadful offensive team that still plays defense at a high enough level to keep the games competitive.
In a one-for-one talent evaluation, Bynum is the obvious choice, injury history and bowling prowess included. Still, Bynum's impact on Philly is the great unknown. Granger, on the other hand, is a known commodity. With him in the lineup the Pacers were at worst the third-best team in the East last season. It's a riddle without an answer, which more or less sums up Bynum's career.
What We'll Be Watching: Boston at San Antonio (8:30 p.m.)
Since losing to the Spurs on Thanksgiving eve, the Celtics have won five of eight and begun to creep back toward respectability on the defensive end. Doc Rivers noted after their win over Philly on Saturday that he thought his team was trending in the right direction and he has a point.
The Celtics have held their last five opponents under 97 points per 100 possessions and that's without Avery Bradley, who may be a week or two away from returning. The C's still are in desperate need of another tall person to defend the rim when Kevin Garnett sits his allotted 18 minutes a night, but they are starting to resemble the coherent group we all remember. Count them out if you want, but you can't say you haven't been warned.
What We'll Be Watching: Lakers at Philadelphia (6 p.m.)
It's a weak slate of games so we'll end up here with Kobe Bryant's homecoming to a place that doesn't love him back and a Bynum reunion that won't happen. All of which is oddly fitting for a season that hasn't revealed its true intentions yet.