Sink or soar: NBA's biggest contrasts

Looks like a wave has hit the Atlantic Division, putting the normal ruler near the bottom and the also-ran at the top. See how our writers view many of the unexpected results in the early going of the 2011-12 NBA season.

1. Which team in your view has fallen farthest this season?

Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: No reasonable folks outside of their fan bases expected much more than the Knicks or Mavericks have currently delivered, so the answer has to be Boston. Mired in a four-game losing streak, they're no longer competitive with the league's elite, and if not for back-to-back wins against the rudderless Wizards, who knows how bad things would be in Beantown?

Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: The Nets have been the league's emptiest calories, a squad of inconsistent gunners with no defensive discipline. How dreadful can they be and still expect to re-sign Deron Williams? Wait, I thought Avery Johnson was coaching this team.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Boston. I thought the Celtics had enough defensive presence to overcome a mediocre offense and win the Atlantic Division. Instead, at 4-7 against a soft early schedule, it may be an uphill climb just to get to the playoffs. The visual is pretty unimpressive, too -- perhaps no team looks slower at positions 2 through 5.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets are Scorching: The Boston Celtics. We all expected them to falter to some degree -- a year older is a year worse for wear when you're on the wrong side of 30. But their only wins thus far are against the bottom-feeders in each Eastern Conference division: Washington, New Jersey and Detroit. Not even Greg Stiemsma can save them now.

John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: I'm going to go with the Celtics. They seem to have simply fallen victim to Father Time -- I thought they had one more run left in them, but it hasn't looked that way so far.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: I wasn't especially high on the Boston Celtics entering the season -- finishing a distant third in the East was probably their upside -- but given that they've only beaten the Nets, Pistons and Wizards (twice), making the playoffs seems a challenging goal for them at this point.

2. Which team in your view has risen the most this season?

Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: It's gotta be Cleveland, right? Sure, they were riddled with injuries and reeling from The Decision, but they've already won a quarter of the games they did last season. They're beating the teams they should, and Kyrie Irving has been great thus far. With either Antawn Jamison or Anderson Varejao as their second-best player, no one should've expected this team to be hovering around .500.

Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog:
How have the Spurs maintained their "capable veterans" status while the Celtics have just grown old? Great minutes from complementary players. Kawhi Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Daniel Green and Matt Bonner have spent more total time on the floor this season than the Big Three of Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan and Tony Parker (1,011 to 874 minutes). The Fearsome Foursome's cumulative plus-107 plus/minus has played a big part in the Spurs' 9-4 start.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Philadelphia. I thought they'd be pretty decent; I didn't expect nightly 25-point routs. I know the competition hasn't been great, but these games count, too; blowing out bad teams is actually a strong indicator of a quality team. Philly's 15-point average scoring margin speaks for itself.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets are Scorching: The Sixers -- where did this team come from? They're outscoring teams by nearly 15 points per game, have the league's best defense by a fairly wide margin and their leading scorer is their sixth man. They haven't allowed a team to score over 100 points in 2012, and they've allowed only one to score over 90.

John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: The 76ers are the obvious choice here, so I'll go with them.

Show me someone that predicted the 76ers would be beating teams by an average of 15 points through 12 games, and I'll show you a fibber.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: I thought the long-term plan in Utah made sense, but I didn't expect the Jazz to play much good basketball this season. Plus, it's not like they're playing completely over their heads. At some point, Raja Bell either has to start playing better or stop getting 20 minutes a night, right?

3. Which team's early success seems the least sustainable?

Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: Philly. First place in the Atlantic Division, first in defensive rating, first by far in point differential and the league's fourth-ranked offense. But none of it is as impressive after a peek at their schedule. Detroit, Toronto and a back-to-back with Washington? Eventually they'll face stiffer competition, and it's doubtful their success will continue.

Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Utah Jazz.
The Jazz have an abundance of young talent, but their cupcake schedule has made the team look further along than they really are.

The team's recent success (6-1 in 2012) has come against opponents with a combined record of 23-46.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Utah Jazz. They won a bunch of close games but I have trouble believing the Jazz can stay over .500 for long. They just don't have enough quality on the perimeter to support their admittedly strong frontcourt, and defensively the Millsap-Jefferson combo will always be suspect.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets are Scorching: The Sixers. I just talked them up, but they're playing way over their heads early, and their schedule gets much more difficult. Starting Jan. 30, they play Orlando, Chicago, Miami, Atlanta, the Lakers, the Spurs and the Clippers in the span of 11 days. Let's check back with them then.

John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: I'm going to go with the Jazz -- they have an 8-4 record and have scored exactly as many points as their opponents have. A regression to a .500 record seems bound to happen.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: The Pacers are going to make the playoffs but, as the schedule gets tougher (beating the Hawks in the game in which Al Horford went down is a nice win, but their next two best wins are against the Celtics), their torrid pace of victories will slow even though Danny Granger will, eventually, start making shots again.

4. Which team is the biggest sleeper?

Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: Could it be the Lakers? Granted, they're far from a low-profile team, yet given their drastically lowered expectations, L.A. could still surprise some people. Much of the attention has shifted toward their Staples Center co-tenants, but even after this weekend's loss, the Lakers' defense is much improved and they're still atop the Pacific standings. With upcoming games against Dallas, Miami and a Clippers rematch, we could have an answer by the end of the month.

Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: Memphis Grizzlies.
Their sluggish start has some wondering whether the Grizzlies filled too many empty lockout hours reading their own clippings. Of course, last season the Griz played three months of sub-.500 ball before nearly reaching the Western Conference finals. If Zach Randolph is fully healthy, this team is still a matchup nightmare.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: Staying on the Denver bandwagon after the Nuggets' impressive win over Miami on Friday. This team's depth makes it perfectly adapted to the rigors of this season's schedule, and the home-altitude advantage against tired opponents should only make them more formidable at Pepsi Center.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets are Scorching: Can you ever count out the Portland Trail Blazers? No Greg Oden, no Brandon Roy, no Andre Miller, no Rudy Fernandez, no problem. LaMarcus Aldridge is following up last season's career year with another one, and the rest of the pieces are falling in line. I'd be surprised if they're still the No. 8 seed come April.

John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: I don't know if it's fair to call the most popular franchise in the NBA a sleeper, but I never count the Lakers out of anything. Bynum looks strong, the team will get more and more comfortable with Mike Brown, and Kobe looks like he's going to be dropping 28 points a game when he's on Social Security.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: The East is too stratified to have a real dark horse. The West is deeper, so playoff matchups could be a significant factor beyond the first round. Portland has played the toughest schedule in the league so far and, despite that, rank in the top 11 in the league in both offensive and defensive efficiency. If anybody's better than their early record, it's the Trail Blazers.

5. Who's the No. 1 team in the NBA?

Myles Brown, A Wolf Among Wolves: Until a matchup with Chicago or OKC proves otherwise, it's Miami. They're still suffering from the same late-game breakdowns as last season, but those struggles also culminated in a Finals appearance. Yes, they lost; however, we shouldn't fool ourselves into thinking this team hasn't improved.

LeBron's struggles may be fodder for blogs and talk radio, but we haven't reached the point where he shouldn't be feared. Barring injury or another catastrophe, expect the home team to party at Club Liv this year.

Jordan Heimer, ClipperBlog: The Chicago Bulls.
The Bulls are perfectly built for the lockout schedule. Great depth. Great coach. A defense that thrives in ugly games in a season that has already been full of them.

And Derrick Rose has gotten better.

John Hollinger, ESPN.com: It's still Miami until further notice. Losing three straight on the West Coast trip -- two in OT -- doesn't eliminate the Heat's impressive start to the season, nor invalidate our presumption entering the season that this was the best team.

While Philadelphia and Chicago have played better thus far, the sample of games is small enough, and a full-strength Miami team -- meaning with Dwyane Wade having a fully functioning ankle -- is still the team to beat.

Devin Kharpertian, Nets are Scorching: I'll give the Chicago Bulls the slight edge over the Oklahoma City Thunder, because they have a better combination of offense and defense. Derrick Rose has somehow gotten better this season, and Luol Deng's one of the most underrated defenders in the NBA. Like the Blazers, a sum greater than its parts.

John Krolik, Cavs: The Blog: The Bulls. The 76ers have a far better win margin, but the Bulls have a better superstar, a better record, have played more away games, and have more playoff experience.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: The Chicago Bulls have the best record in the league, and there's no reason to think that's a fluke. Given Tom Thibodeau's default level of intensity and the minutes Derrick Rose and Luol Deng are playing, the risk of burnout exists over the course of a compressed season, but it hasn't surfaced yet.

ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
John Hollinger writes for ESPN.com. Myles Brown, Jordan Heimer, Devin Kharpertian and Bret LaGree write for the TrueHoop network.

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