A sense of family -- togetherness -- has helped separate the top four teams from the rest of the league over these opening months. The Spurs, Celtics, Mavericks and Lakers have been together for years, and that's a big reason why they've coasted along at a combined 92-20. Not only are they talented, experienced and coached exceedingly well, but they also know each other.
Don't discount the importance of unity. It is a quality sought by all NBA teams and embraced by few. The Heat (21-9) have yet to make the most of their talent because they're still learning to play with each other. They are 0-3 against the top four, and they'll be underdogs in Los Angeles when they challenge the champion Lakers on Christmas Day.
"There's a great confidence that comes when you've been together for some time,'' 76ers coach Doug Collins said. "If you and I are buddies and we've been together a long time, I can look out on the floor and know what you're going to do before you even do it, and vice versa. I can see by the look on your face what you're getting ready to do. I know just because I've been with you so much.''
The league-leading Spurs share in that group understanding. They've gone 25-3 with nothing more from highly anticipated rookie Tiago Splitter than 11.7 minutes and 4.5 points per game. They are pacing Tim Duncan with averages of 29.4 minutes and 14 points, but making up for that is the 14.1 points they're receiving from a more comfortable and confident Richard Jefferson after he invested a full year of struggles in getting to know his teammates and their system. They are 9-1 in games decided by six points or fewer in no small part because they know what they're doing, and other teams don't.
Togetherness enables the Mavericks (23-5) to augment their defense by incorporating center Tyson Chandler without setting back the teamwork that has been growing in layers around Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry and Jason Kidd year by year. That's why owner Mark Cuban has been quick to shoot down talk that he may break up this team in order to trade for Carmelo Anthony -- he doesn't want to ruin the cohesiveness that is awfully hard to come by.
The Celtics lose quarterback Rajon Rondo to a sprained ankle, but Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen know each other so well that they can share the playmaking and finish four victories -- stretching their winning streak to 14 -- without their All-Star point guard. So, too, do the Lakers glide along without center Andrew Bynum, as both of last year's finalists have deepened their benches without disrupting the winning identity that has been under construction for several years.
"It's everything,'' Collins said of the shared understanding, "because you learn under pressure where you can go. You don't panic. You get down six or eight, and you know you're two or three stops from getting back in the game. All of those teams are very good defensively, they're all good road teams, they've all got stars that under pressure can make big plays.''
Most teams have talented players, and most of those players don't know how to help one another.
"It's a big part of this business, especially when you're a team that's trying to be a champion,'' Collins said. "When you get in the playoffs, there's so much emotion and volatility from game to game, and you lose a game and it's like the end of the world and you have to sit there in another city for two or three days. I've always felt like it comes down to the teams that can navigate the emotional waters of the playoffs, that can keep that even keel.''
No coincidence that the winningest stars this season are those who have learned to rely on and be liberated by their teammates. Miami looks less clunky with each month that LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh spend playing together, but will they have enough time to develop a flow to carry them through the playoffs? Think of how the Celtics struggled throughout much of their postseason run to the 2007-08 championship -- they were still learning to play together even after winning 66 games that regular season.
Even if the Magic are able to make another trade to fill out their frontcourt, will they instantly become title contenders? Probably not, because acquiring talent is but the first step. As hard as it is to find stars, it's harder still to develop relationships through them. The Lakers, Celtics and Spurs, in particular, are defined by team play, and can anyone beat them on their terms? The Mavericks are positioning themselves for that challenge, the Heat hope to get there and everyone else is running out of time.
Now, on to your questions, many in response to Orlando's trades for Gilbert Arenas, Jason Richardson and Hedo Turkoglu.
As much as I admire Marcin Gortat, I get the Phoenix trade. What's going on with the Washington deal? How do you see Gilbert Arenas fitting in with the Magic? With the new makeup of the rest of the team, does he really make more sense than Rashard Lewis?-- John, Athens, Ga.
The Magic HAD to do something. They matched up horribly with the Celtics. The Phoenix trade is an absolute steal for Orlando. They get the two best players in the deal and get more athletic. Gortat is the only loss there. I do not like the Arenas trade because he's a loose cannon who I don't think can thrive on a winning team. He also plays the same positions as Jameer Nelson and Jason Richardson. One thing you can't argue, though, is that they are now more talented. Question is, Will it all fit? -- Jeff, Watertown, Mass.
THEY WON'T ALL FIT TOGETHER! Whoa. Big risk for Orlando. I understand the Rashard Lewis/Gilbert Arenas trade. but the trade with Phoenix? Basically they exchange the two has-beens (Vince Carter and Hedo Turkoglu). What will haunt the Magic is Marcin Gortat/Mickael Pietrus for Jason Richardson. They already have a glut at the 2 and 3. -- Marvin Valido, via Facebook
Like you, John, I get why Orlando made the trade with Phoenix, though I disagree with Jeff on it being an absolute steal. I tend to think the Suns will turn Vince Carter into a helpful piece, along with Gortat and Mickael Pietrus.
I understand dealing for Arenas in a couple of ways. First of all, Magic GM Otis Smith knows Arenas and can gauge the risks. Arenas will be less of a mystery to Smith than to other GMs (though the Wizards would insist after eight years with him that no one can predict what Arenas may do at any moment).
Most important is that Arenas can create his own shot either driving to the basket or for a three-pointer off the dribble. He is an all-NBA talent, which is something the Magic were lacking around Dwight Howard. They realized they couldn't compete with the Celtics, Heat, Lakers, Spurs or Mavericks without that kind of one-on-one firepower, and no other trade could have delivered it to Orlando.
The Magic are more talented, though I agree with Marvin -- the talent is lopsided on the perimeter with little length around Howard up front. The team as constructed right now has no chance of winning a championship because it can't compete with the big front lines of L.A. or Boston. That's why Smith is trying to make another trade, and it's also why no one can give a final analysis on these deals because Orlando isn't done dealing yet. The Magic have taken a big opening step, but let's see how their roster balances out after the February trading deadline.
As a longtime Magic fan, I'm never going to be sold running ANY offense through Dwight Howard. More than 50 percent of the time he touches the ball he either turns it over or gets fouled (brick city at the line). They need to mimic the old Suns' quick ball movement and bomb away. They have the firepower. Dwight can hit the boards. We lose if he tries to bust a move while everybody stands around watching. Am I mistaken? -- Chuck, DeLand, Fla.
Would Dwight Howard be as dominant if he played in the era of Hakeem Olajuwon, Patrick Ewing, David Robinson, etc.? Or would he just lead the league in disqualifications?-- Jerry Hizon, via Facebook
Howard isn't as skilled as the stars of a decade ago, but very few American centers are raised with those skills in this AAU era. But he's nonetheless the most dominant center in the league because of his contributions at the defensive end, where, after these small-ball trades, he is now more important than ever. Offensively, the idea has always been to create space and make the game easier for Howard by surrounding him with scorers on the perimeter. They have a wealth of options around Howard now. If somehow they could hold on to all of them, then Howard might be better than ever offensively, given the attention that will have to be paid to Arenas, Richardson, Turkoglu and Jameer Nelson. But I struggle to imagine a way for them to acquire size without surrendering Richardson's expiring contract.
You think that Yao Ming is the NBA's most important international star? Can't be. There may be others, but a certain tall, German fellow who plays for the Mavericks has certainly made more of an impact. -- Dave, Dallas
Yao is the most important import in NBA history. His arrival turned the world's largest market into an NBA market. Consider this: China is the only major nation whose most popular athlete is a basketball player. The same can't be said of the U.S. or any other country.
The Knicks had a nice run against lowly teams, but now that they have to deal with winning opponents, they're faltering. What, or who, is the biggest flaw in New York's lineup right now? -- Antonio, Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Knicks are playing at a high level, given their talent. For years they've unloaded their roster to dump salary, and now, after a disappointing summer of free agency, they've suddenly turned the corner in a positive way. Unless they had signed LeBron James or Dwyane Wade or traded for Carmelo Anthony, there was no way they were going to come close to winning 50 games this season. Now that they're playing better, they're going to raise the value of their players, which could help position them to acquire another couple of stars around Amar'e Stoudemire.