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Heat, Bulls, OKC off to strong starts

It was a particularly dramatic Monday night in the land of the Power Rankings, as the NBA's last two undefeated teams -- conference favorites Miami and Oklahoma City -- were toppled and the Spurs lost Manu Ginobili indefinitely to a broken hand.

While the rest of the action in the first nine days of this lockout-shortened season hasn't been quite as turbulent, the abbreviated training camp, packed schedule and compelling mixture of aging traditional powers and emerging young contenders figure to create more dynamic changes in the week-to-week ordering of teams than occurred in previous years.

Last season's Eastern Conference finalists lead the first regular-season Power Rankings of 2011-12, followed by the Thunder and a tightly bunched handful of teams that could easily contend for the top spot -- or plunge toward the middle of the pack -- in the next week or two. It's going to be that kind of season.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Jan. 2 unless otherwise noted.)

NBA Power Rankings
1Miami Heat
The gleeful yet cold-blooded flair of Miami's Christmas annihilation of the defending champion Mavericks still lingers in the memory, a performance ceiling that earns the Heat top billing. Coach Erik Spoelstra understands that opportunism -- pushing the pace whenever possible on offense and jumping the passing lanes on defense -- is less risky than a more deliberate style when you have marauders like LeBron James and Dwyane Wade running the show. Other improvements over last year include the ability to eke out crunch-time wins (as has already happened against Charlotte and Minnesota), more post-ups for James, the addition of Shane Battier (who nevertheless needs more time to assimilate), a healthy Udonis Haslem and rookie point guard Norris Cole's providing competition for Mario Chalmers.
 
2Chicago Bulls
Even before Rip Hamilton was forced to miss Sunday's home opener against Memphis with a groin injury, it was apparent that Ronnie Brewer was making a serious bid for the starting shooting guard position by supplementing his customarily stellar defense with deadeye shooting. Brewer's role in Chicago's suffocating second-team defensive unit has obscured the fact that he is a career 51.5 percent shooter, albeit without the long-range prowess of Hamilton, Kyle Korver or last year's starter, the recently departed Keith Bogans. Given that Brewer is a solid 6-foot-7, 220 pounds, maybe he can pair with Hamilton and lighten the load on small forward Luol Deng, who averaged more than 40 minutes during the four-game road trip to open the season, and was still playing late into the third quarter of Chicago's 40-point rout of the Grizzlies.
 
3Oklahoma City Thunder
It's not "hating" on Russell Westbrook to point out that the Thunder are 5-1 despite, not because of, his play, which has been unnecessarily selfish. Westbrook is leading the NBA in turnovers again, but where his assist-to-turnover ratio was still 2.1 to 1 last year (8.2 assists and 3.9 turnovers), the dimes (way down) and miscues (up) are coming at an equal rate early this season (4.8 in each category). Meanwhile, Westbrook is taking more shots per minute than anyone (including two-time scoring champ Kevin Durant) in the 10-man rotation yet is ninth in accuracy. One reason is terrible shot selection: He's attempting fewer shots in the paint and more from mid-range and three-point territory, which has also resulted in his getting to the line less frequently. There's no doubting Westbrook's talent and long-term value. But smarter play, rather than his stubborn response to the criticism he received during last season's playoffs, would improve the championship hopes of a team with a legitimate shot to win it all.
 
4Denver Nuggets
As promised, Denver is deep, resilient and tailor-made for the post-lockout grind. After stumbling with consecutive road losses to Portland and the Lakers, the Nuggets came back to beat Los Angeles in the rematch, then outlasted Andrew Bogut and the physical Bucks without their starting center, Nene (bruised heel), while playing their third night in a row and fifth game in six days. Those predicting a breakout year for point guard Ty Lawson seem prescient so far, as he's been the Nuggets' best player and is developing a synergy alongside Andre Miller when the latter subs in during crunch time. The news isn't all good; the lack of a go-to scorer was a notable factor in Denver's two defeats, and its other breakout candidate, swingman Danilo Gallinari, is intermittently struggling with his shot. But if you're looking for a dark-horse contender to root for, George Karl's team still seems like the most enjoyable choice.
 
5Atlanta Hawks
After beating up on patsies New Jersey (twice) and Washington to start the season, the Hawks demonstrated how they might be able to finally rise out of the second tier this year as they won at Miami on Monday. Third-year point guard Jeff Teague had another strong game with 7-of-11 shooting (including 4-of-7 penetrating to the rim) and four steals. Former scoring champ Tracy McGrady continued to brighten the twilight of his career and mitigate the loss of former sixth man Jamal Crawford by erupting for 13 points in the fourth quarter. And Atlanta's much-improved defense combined its athleticism with discipline to control the pace, limiting Miami to just 10 fast-break points, less than half of the Heat's NBA-best average. Next up are the host Bulls on Tuesday and a rematch with Miami on Thursday.
 
6Los Angeles Lakers
These Lakers may be less talented than in the previous three or four seasons, but new coach Mike Brown's defensive schemes and priorities have re-emphasized their length and toughness while limiting opponents to 39.8 percent shooting (including 28.6 percent from beyond the arc). After splitting their first six games, the main obstacle seems to be in persuading Kobe Bryant to share the ball, especially now that Andrew Bynum is back from a four-game suspension. In thrilling back-to-back games against the Nuggets, it was clear that Denver couldn't stop the tandem of Bynum and Pau Gasol, who combined to shoot 35-of-55 (63.6 percent). Meanwhile, Kobe was 12-for-46 (26.1 percent) and sealed Sunday's loss with a 3-of-10 performance (with one assist) in the final 8:27. His 127 field-goal attempts are more than 50 ahead of any teammate (Gasol has 74), even as his 40.2 percent accuracy drags his team's total down to 44.6 percent.
 
7Portland Trail Blazers
Perhaps the most surprising early-season development is Portland's operating at a top-three pace, after ranking as the league's slowest offense the previous three seasons and no better than 28th during coach Nate McMillan's six-year tenure. McMillan is simply accommodating the preference of newly acquired point guard Raymond Felton -- something he wouldn't do for Andre Miller the past two seasons. In any case, Portland was leading the NBA in scoring while winning its first three games. But its first road game, Sunday against the Clippers, rudely interrupted the offensive fireworks, especially for Gerald Wallace. The forward started the night with more finishes per game at the rim (6.3) than anyone but Dwight Howard, but he was held scoreless in nearly 30 minutes by DeAndre Jordan, Blake Griffin and company in a 93-88 loss.
 
8Los Angeles Clippers
The short-term schedule is exceedingly kind to the Clippers, who play only two games -- both at home, against Houston on Wednesday and Milwaukee on Saturday - between Jan. 1-10. That gives coach Vinny Del Negro precious time to implement an offense -- and more important, a defense, which ranks 29th in efficiency -- that exploits the team's exciting mix of athleticism and experience. Chauncey Billups doesn't have to rush back from his groin injury, and the coaches can figure out a role that keeps combo guard Mo Williams happy and productive. After an uneven start that included a blowout loss in San Antonio and an impressive win over then-undefeated Portland, Del Negro and his staff need to make this home-focused lull in the action count, because it means a brutal gauntlet later in the season -- including six-game road trips in both February and March, and four of their final five games away from the Staples Center.
 
9Philadelphia 76ers
Going 2-2 on a four-game road trip to start the season qualifies as positive news, especially given the inspired play of center Spencer Hawes, a weak-link starter in 2010-11. Hawes, just 23 and in his fourth season, not only leads the team in rebounds (12.5), blocks (1.75) and shooting percentage (67.6), but he's also second in assists on the strength of his nine-assist performance against Portland in the opener. On the down side, this year's expected improvement from youngsters Jrue Holiday and Evan Turner has yet to materialize, which is more concerning to Turner, the second pick in 2010, after his disappointing rookie season.
 
10Indiana Pacers
The Pacers have played such a cushy schedule that it is difficult to gauge them -- they have yet to face a team that won more than 30 games last season. They rank among the top five in most of the major defensive categories, and have the curious distinction of shooting more accurately from three-point territory (44.2 percent, second best in the NBA) than from the field overall (41.1 percent, 26th). The personnel has been admirably assembled. The power forwards are Tyler Hansbrough, a high-motor grinder, and David West, who always plays with an edge, neatly complementing Roy Hibbert, the relatively docile 7-2 center. The 6-8 swingmen specialize in offense (Danny Granger) and defense (Paul George), and quick point guard Darren Collison is backed up by the calm and collected George Hill. It's a roster that has stumbled only once, at Detroit, but with the Heat and Celtics on tap this week, we'll soon know a lot more about its competitive rigor.
 
11San Antonio Spurs
Manu Ginobili's injury is rough news for the Spurs, who had already weakened their backcourt rotation by trading George Hill to Indiana for rookie forward Kawhi Leonard on draft night. Ginobili tweeted that he would miss "a few weeks," though the Spurs have yet to announce a timetable for his return. Promising second-year sharpshooter James Anderson will move into the starting lineup to replace Ginobili, whose nonpareil resourcefulness and late-game heroics will be missed. San Antonio will need small forward Richard Jefferson to finally justify his hefty paycheck to help make up for Ginobili's absence.
 
12Houston Rockets
The signing of center Samuel Dalembert just before the season opener filled a void in an otherwise deep rotation. Dalembert is splitting time with current starter Jordan Hill, who is undersized at 6-10 and 235 pounds, and still raw despite being in his third year. Hill does have more upside on offense and perhaps from a chemistry standpoint (two years ago, Dalembert wore out his welcome clamoring for the ball more often in Philadelphia). But it was Dalembert's defense on Tim Duncan that was the deciding factor in the win over San Antonio in Houston's home opener, and his 10 blocks in 78 minutes show he's the rim protector that the Rockets have lacked the last few years in Yao Ming's absence. Elsewhere, the members of Houston's formidable, if not championship-caliber, Big Three are off to strong starts. Kyle Lowry is averaging a league-high 11.5 assists (including 18 in his third game in three nights Saturday against Atlanta); Kevin Martin is hitting 41.9 percent from three-point range (though his free-throw attempts are down); and Luis Scola is providing his usual solid mid-range game, shooting 53.8 percent overall.
 
13Orlando Magic
After getting pasted by the Thunder on Christmas, the Magic rebounded with four straight wins before falling in Detroit on Monday. The system is the same: They are taking and making a ton of threes, while daring opponents to try to challenge Dwight Howard inside. While Jameer Nelson, Jason Richardson and Glen Davis have struggled, Hedo Turkoglu is compensating for his porous defense with hot outside shooting, Ryan Anderson (19.2 points, NBA-high 22 three-pointers) is producing at power forward and J.J. Redick continues to improve. But the schedule has been pretty soft to this point, and tougher opponents are likely to expose Orlando's utter lack of depth at center. Before fouling out late against the Pistons, Howard had been whistled for just 13 fouls in his first five games.
 
14Minnesota Timberwolves
There are plenty of positive signs for Minnesota, which has won back-to-back games against Dallas and San Antonio after opening with close losses to Oklahoma City, Milwaukee and Miami. Kevin Love reported in the best shape of his life and has improved his defense while continuing to post elite rebounding, scoring and three-point-shooting totals, proving he deserves a max contract. Point guard Ricky Rubio has the court vision and instincts to rival those of elite peers like Chris Paul and Rajon Rondo, he's shooting better than anticipated and he's not being overwhelmed that often on defense. Rookie forward Derrick Williams has the luxury of operating beneath the radar -- unusual for a No. 2 pick on a losing team -- and is going to be, at minimum, a solid rotation player. And Rick Adelman is the ideal coach to sew these virtues -- which also include the contributions of glue guy Anthony Tolliver -- into a team. That said, the Wolves have played only one road game, they are committing turnovers at an alarming rate and they need more from the wing positions, where Michael Beasley and Wes Johnson had been struggling before helping Minnesota beat the Spurs on Monday.
 
15Boston Celtics
Two workmanlike wins over the miserable Wizards have put Boston at .500 after it began with three straight road losses, most notoriously to the Hornets. Yes, Paul Pierce's return was a potent elixir, but this proud team has precious little depth behind its aging stars and point guard Rajon Rondo. The Celtics struggle to score without both Pierce and Ray Allen on the court, and competent but fairly nondescript glue guys such as Keyon Dooling, Avery Bradley and Chris Wilcox are being asked to contribute more than they can deliver. Forward Brandon Bass has been a godsend off the bench -- expect him to play crunch-time minutes in certain matchups -- and maybe Mickael Pietrus can provide similar relief in the backcourt once he comes back.
 
16Dallas Mavericks
Clearly, everyone knew Brendan Haywood couldn't fully compensate for the loss of Tyson Chandler, and that the spark of J.J. Barea would be missed. But that doesn't fully explain the listless demeanor and general befuddlement that seemed to infiltrate the team as it lost four of its first five. Dirk Nowitzki and Jason Kidd got off to unproductive starts, and reigning Sixth Man Award winner Lamar Odom was shooting less than 20 percent in his first five games. Monday's solid victory against Oklahoma City should be a boost, as Odom and fellow newcomer Vince Carter both shook off the doldrums for their best performances of the season.
 
17Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks are fortunate to be 2-2. Center Andrew Bogut hasn't been able to find his offensive rhythm, and while point guard Brandon Jennings has upped his accuracy to a still-mediocre 42.4 percent, he hasn't shaken the stigma of being an inconsistent, shoot-first floor general. The most notable new face, veteran swingman Stephen Jackson, is converting just a third of shots. But coach Scott Skiles has reconstituted the dogged defensive spirit that fueled the team's overachievement two years ago. New additions Mike Dunleavy and Shaun Livingston are both long and lithe on the perimeter, complementing the rugged style of Jackson, Ersan Ilyasova, Carlos Delfino, rookie Jon Leuer and Bogut, who led the NBA in blocks last season. Their efforts have Milwaukee atop the league in field-goal defense and defensive efficiency. To make the playoffs, however, Jennings, Jackson and Bogut need to start hitting their shots.
 
18New York Knicks
An overreliance on three-pointers and a glaring lack of ball movement were responsible for Monday's horrid home loss to Toronto. Yes, the return of Amar'e Stoudemire (out briefly with an ankle sprain) will provide some spark to the offense, but without a playmaking point guard who can instinctively execute the pick-and-roll, the full range of Stoudemire's game is constrained and more of the scoring burden falls on the jump shot of Carmelo Anthony. My colleague Zach Lowe identified this dynamic after the Knicks' season-opening win over Boston, and it's a flaw that will remain until point guard Baron Davis returns and rediscovers his pick-and-roll facility. But the fact that offense is a concern on a team with Anthony and Stoudemire, coached by Mike D'Antoni, is a sign of trouble.
 
19Memphis Grizzlies
It's been a rough, seemingly hexed beginning for the Grizzlies. They traded their best backup point guard, Greivis Vasquez, to New Orleans the day before Christmas and then saw starter Mike Conley go down with a sprained ankle in the first minute of their second game. This was after emerging power forward Darrell Arthur sustained a season-ending torn Achilles tendon and before star power forward Zach Randolph was forced to leave Sunday's game against the Bulls because of a bruised knee. The result has been a 1-3 record and a diminished capacity (both Conley and Randolph are day-to-day) to exploit a soft spot in the schedule, with Memphis set to face the Kings, Wolves and Jazz in the next three games.
 
20Cleveland Cavaliers
The pundits who pegged the Cavs for the NBA basement this season probably forgot how good Anderson Varejao can be. Still reeling from the shock of losing LeBron last season, Cleveland was a relatively respectable 8-23 before the 29-year-old tore a tendon in his foot -- and 11-40 without him. This year he's leading Cleveland in minutes and rebounds while re-establishing himself as one of the premier pick-and-roll defenders among big men. Because the Cavs are rebuilding, the Brazilian could be traded sometime this season. And if he stays healthy, Varejao should be a nice prize for a host of playoff contenders -- a high-motor, defense-first center-forward with big-game experience and a reasonable long-term contract. (Not that it will happen, but wouldn't he be a better fit than Chris Bosh on the Heat?)
 
21Toronto Raptors
The Raptors blew large second-half leads in back-to-back games against the Magic on Sunday and the Knicks on Monday, but profited from the experience by holding off New York. Because new coach Dwane Casey has committed to improving Toronto's notoriously inept defense without cutting the minutes of expensive and defensively porous cornerstones Andrea Bargnani and Jose Calderon, the Raptors are experiencing growing pains trying to get stops late in tight games. But five games into the season, Bargnani and Calderon are playing more than ever even as Toronto's defense is allowing seven fewer points per 100 possessions compared to last year. And although the team's offensive production is down slightly, Calderon has been magnificent, averaging 9.8 assists and 1.8 turnovers and compiling a gaudy 63.9 true shooting percentage (which factors in three-point and free-throw accuracy).
 
22Detroit Pistons
The Pistons would like to think their last two games -- solid wins over Indiana and Orlando, after three losses -- represent the future of the franchise. Center-forward Greg Monroe, 21, and 24-year-old forward Jonas Jerebko nearly recorded back-to-back double-doubles. Overpaid shooting guard Ben Gordon had a combined 42 points and 10 assists. And Detroit held the Pacers and Magic to 76 total points in the second half. But it is difficult to see how the Pistons ascend to elite status when they've tied up their payroll by paying a lot of good players better-than-good wages.
 
23Sacramento Kings
Whether or not DeMarcus Cousins demanded to be traded or otherwise deserved to be told to stay away from Sunday's game against the Hornets, the dysfunctional situation between the talented second-year big man and coach Paul Westphal needed to be dramatized in hopes of resolving it before the team's entire season is torpedoed. But those hopes were mostly doused with the news that Cousins will rejoin the team on its upcoming road trip, a decision that seemed to undermine Westphal's clout. Cousins has been as advertised -- a wealth of talent and a load of trouble -- since the Kings ignored the red flags about his attitude and took him fifth in the 2010 draft. Without him Sunday, the Kings were a minus-19 on the boards against New Orleans -- but won by 16 points to snap a three-game skid.
 
24Phoenix Suns
How strange it is to see the Suns down among the bottom third of teams in field-goal and three-point percentage, and generating only an NBA-average number of assists. Blame Steve Nash's bruised ribs for the dip. He had his best game of the season Monday, scoring 21 points on 9-of-13 shooting and finishing with nine assists and only two turnovers in a win over Golden State. Even with that boost, Nash is converting only 40.4 percent and posting a lower assist rate (albeit in just five games) than in any year since he arrived in Phoenix. The Suns have continuity -- all five starters from the last month of the 2010-11 season have returned -- and a promising rookie in forward Markieff Morris, who had 20 points and nine rebounds and was a plus-20 in 32 minutes on Monday. But the health of their two-time league MVP will be the most significant factor in how long they can compete for a playoff berth.
 
25Golden State Warriors
Unlike the experience of Dwane Casey in Toronto, new Warriors coach Mark Jackson has lost more productivity from his offense than he's gained by improving the defense in comparison to last season. Assorted absences have disrupted continuity, with starters David Lee, Stephen Curry and Monta Ellis all missing time. Golden State is undeniably talented -- it can boast of being the only team to beat the Bulls -- but Jackson hasn't been able to solve the riddle of redundancy between backcourt mates Curry and Ellis. Even granting the coach's appropriate emphasis on getting stops, this team shouldn't be averaging fewer than 90 points.
 
26Utah Jazz
Utah Jazz (2-3)
Even after dealing center Mehmet Okur to New Jersey, the Jazz will have difficulty speeding the development of young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter with both Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap in the starting lineup. Of the two, Millsap is the more attractive and plausible trade chip. He's owed significantly less than Jefferson over the next two years ($16.7 million versus $29 million), and is more comfortable in the wide-open, motion-oriented offensive schemes favored by most NBA teams. On the Jazz side of the equation, Favors is further developed than Kanter, can play power forward as well as center, and has strengths and weaknesses that mesh well with Jefferson's potent-offense, suspect-defense portfolio. Regardless of what roster changes are possible, however, Utah should be planning for steadily increased minutes for both of the younger bigs as this rebuilding season progresses.
 
27New Orleans Hornets
Coach Monty Williams has determined that the Hornets are better served with center Chris Kaman backing up Emeka Okafor, but Kaman's accurate mid-range jumper would seem to make him an ideal complement alongside Okafor. Kaman is nailing 58 percent from 16-23 feet (he hasn't been below 41 percent since 2006-07) but is shooting a wretched 41.7 percent on attempts at the rim. Pairing him with Jason Smith -- another pick-and-pop 7-footer -- is as redundant as the starting big-man tandem of Okafor and Carl Landry, who both prefer to operate in the paint. But Williams prioritizes defense, and in that regard Okafor is the big man best suited to cover for Landry's lapses at that end of the floor.
 
28Charlotte Bobcats
After being mocked by many (including yours truly) for their woeful frontcourt options, especially with forward Tyrus Thomas injured, the Bobcats have exceeded expectations with a motley committee at center and power forward. Undersized Boris Diaw is maximizing his virtues with a team-leading 26 assists and a surprising 35 rebounds in four games; undersized rookie Bismack Biyombo is proving to be a live body with perhaps a greater upside than his more heralded rookie teammate, Kemba Walker; fourth-year power forward D.J. White seems poised for a career season in minutes and production at the age of 25; and even overweight DeSagana Diop has been throwing around his massive bulk to the tune of 17 rebounds in 41 total minutes. Consequently, Charlotte is a missed traveling call on Dwyane Wade away from being 2-2. On the other hand, the Bobcats have lost their last two games by a combined 60 points and need the return of Thomas and improvement from Corey Maggette (who is shooting 28.3 percent) to avoid a free fall.
 
29New Jersey Nets
Deron Williams finally played like one of the three or four best points guards in the NBA on Monday against Indiana, but with Brook Lopez recovering from foot surgery, Kris Humphries (shoulder) sitting and former starting two-guard Anthony Morrow still mired in a nasty shooting slump, the Nets had little chance of avoiding their fifth straight loss. For die-hard optimists, rookie swingman Marshon Brooks is scoring (and jacking up shots) in bunches, and Humphries, when healthy, is proving that his breakout season as a quality rebounder wasn't a fluke. But the injury to Lopez -- the prime bait for a Dwight Howard trade -- and Williams' rocky, turnover-prone start have combined for a hellish intro to what had already seemed like a season the Nets would spend in purgatory waiting for the chance to get Howard.
 
30Washington Wizards
The situation is pretty toxic in D.C. and we're not just talking about Congress. With hapless play making them deserving of being the only winless team, the Wizards must begin to contemplate the possibility that prized point guard John Wall is better at stuffing the stat sheet than at fostering the skills of his undeniably talented teammates, and/or that the likes of JaVale McGee, Andray Blatche and Nick Young will never mature. Coach Flip Saunders seems like an inevitable scapegoat at some point this season for a crew that, because of or in spite of Wall, seems destined to underachieve and remain foreigners to the fundamentals of team play.
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