PER Diem: Jan. 27, 2009

So the Celtics, Cavs and Magic, in some order, are the three best teams in the East. That much is clear.

But which team is fourth-best?

Some would say Atlanta, based on the Hawks' strong start and still-solid position in the standings. For a while this season, it appeared the Hawks would take the spot by default, but recent injuries have cooled off their early 50-win pace and brought them back to the pack.

Others might peg Detroit, which despite its recent struggles commands a healthy amount of respect -- as should any team that features a top seven of Rodney Stuckey, Allen Iverson, Tayshaun Prince, Jason Maxiell, Rasheed Wallace, Richard Hamilton and Antonio McDyess, let alone one with Detroit's track record and GM Joe Dumars' history of making deft midseason additions.

And then there's resurgent Philadelphia, which despite Monday night's setback in New Orleans, lurks as a team to watch in the second half.

But after Miami beat Atlanta 95-79 on Monday night, we may have a surprise entrant in this race.

The Heat won just 15 games last season but are only 1.5 games behind the Hawks in this season's standings and will play the Hawks twice more (but both games are in Atlanta). And they're improving. The Heat nudged ahead of the Hawks in Tuesday's Power Rankings after Monday night's win.

On paper, this doesn't seem possible. The Heat are starting Joel Anthony and Yakhouba Diawara, for crying out loud, not to mention a rookie second-round draft pick at point guard.

But two fairly unlikely events have combined this season to help the Heat thrive. First, Dwyane Wade has come back better than ever, ranking third in the league in player efficiency rating. Second, Wade hasn't missed a single game thanks to injury. The latter is probably an even greater shock than the first, as Wade checked out after playing just 51 games each of the past two seasons.

He'll be an MVP candidate if he keeps up the pace, but he serves as an illustration for how Miami has as wide a variance as any team in the league. If he misses any time, the Heat will sink like a stone in the standings -- as the club demonstrated a season ago.

But for now, let's focus on the glass-half-full view. Facing Miami with a healthy Wade would put a fright into any opponent in a postseason matchup, given his proven ability to be a one-man band in the postseason and the potential of the Heat's playing him 45 minutes or so rather than his season average of 38.3.

As long as Wade stays upright, the Heat will be a serious threat to claim that fourth playoff spot in the East. With that, they'd operate with home-court advantage in the first round. And with a whirling dervish at shooting guard, they could play deep into May.

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him, click here.