America is too obsessed with football to pay proper attention to the NBA in its first two months of the season. But just because people aren't watching as closely doesn't mean it isn't significant.
We learn which rookies are ready for the league and which teams are ready to take the next step. But there's some deception as well, lurking like black ice on the roadway. That's why Israel Gutierrez and I are here to separate which elements of the 2012 portion of the season were real and which parts will be exposed as unreal as we roll through 2013.
REAL: The Los Angeles Clippers
This should go without saying, but because they're named the Clippers, people are awaiting the collapse, the same way they're anticipating Kim and Kanye's divorce before they even get married. I can't speak for Kimye, but the Clippers aren't going away. They might not retain the top overall spot in the NBA standings once they hit some tough stretches in the schedule (incredibly, the Oklahoma City Thunder sit only a game behind even after 17 consecutive Clippers victories), but they will rightfully remain among the upper echelon and should accept nothing less than a place in the conference finals.
The key to the Clippers is balance; they rank among the top five defensively and offensively, and their second unit is just as potent as their starters.
UNREAL: The Denver Nuggets' early struggles
They've been almost unbeatable when they're at home. The problem is, they've been home as often as a truck driver. That'll change in the 2013 portion of the season, when they're at the Pepsi Center for 31 of their remaining 50 games. At their current rate (9-1), that would give them 37 victories just at home. Even if they can't maintain that pace in Denver, they should win there often enough and eke out enough road wins to comfortably clear the playoff entry bar and make a run at the No. 5 spot currently occupied by the Golden State Warriors. That reminds me ...
REAL: Golden State Warriors
The kids (Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green et al) are playing like grown-ups. David Lee is playing like the superstar his agent portrayed him as when he hit the market three years ago. Andrew Bogut, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Rush have hardly played at all -- yet the Warriors have won two-thirds of their games. They've got their loyal fans reinvested in the team, ready to make the Oracle one of the best home-court advantages in the league. The Warriors might not hang on to the No. 5 seed, but they'll be in the playoffs. And we all remember what happened the last time they reached the postseason.
UNREAL: The demise of Tim Duncan
Duncan's demise has been chronicled for, oh, a half-dozen years now. But the best power forward ever is still keeping up with the current crop; he is third among power forwards in scoring and rebounding, averaging 18 and 10, respectively. And Duncan is doing it despite playing only 30 minutes a game, part of Gregg Popovich's plan to preserve his big man's aging knees. Pop might not like it, but Duncan will get some extra minutes in the All-Star Game, where Duncan will return after his run of selections ended at 13 a year ago.
REAL: DeMarcus Cousins' immaturity
If you thought it would be a moot point after last season, why is it we're stuck on the same talking points now that he's a year older? He isn't there yet, and I maintain he won't get there while he's in Sacramento. (Not that the Kings are long-term locks to stay in Sacramento themselves.) He needs to be in a winning environment. And even that won't be enough on its own. He needs a few more years to gain wisdom and perspective, to learn that not every word of criticism should be viewed as an insult, to recognize that all everyone around him wants is for him to improve.
UNREAL: O.J. Mayo looking like an All-Star, 3-point shootout contestant or any other type of participant in the Houston festivities in February
In November, he averaged 21 points per game and made more than half his 3-point shots. Then his numbers dipped to 17 points and 39 percent from 3 in December. With Dirk Nowitzki back, Mayo won't get as many chances to boost his numbers back up. Mayo still has been a good signing for the Mavericks, and he could help them next year, either by picking up his player option for a bargain $4.2 million or opting out and granting the Mavericks even more salary-cap space to pursue a superstar.
REAL: DeAndre Jordan's dunks
And they're spectacular. He needs to be in the dunk contest. There tends to be an anti-big man bias in these things (ask JaVale McGee), but Dwight Howard managed to win it. Jordan gets great elevation and style for a big man. Here's him soaring over a grounded 6-foot-10 Al Jefferson to provide some visual assistance. Jordan's participation would almost assuredly bring out Chris Paul to throw him a lob. My dream scenario: Paul throws a lob to Blake Griffin, who intentionally slams it as hard as he can off the rim, setting up Jordan to come through and dunk it home.
UNREAL AND REAL: The Lakers
They won't remain a mere .500 team, as they integrate Steve Nash and Howard approaches full recovery from his back surgery. That record will feel almost as much a part of the past as Mike Brown. But that 15-15 ledger in the first two months placed very real obstacles in their path to greatness. They must go 31-20 to get to 46 victories, which was the minimum Western Conference playoff threshold the past four full regular seasons. Bear in mind they still have 10 more sets of back-to-backs remaining. There are 11 games against the Clippers, Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Miami and Memphis still to be played. The Lakers have no margin for error. It's real ... even if it feels surreal.