Which teams will celebrate the same success -- or lack thereof -- in the new year that they had to start 2012-13? Our panel makes the call on five teams that have made a mark already this season, one way or another.
1. Contenders or Pretenders: New York Knicks.
Kalen Deremo, Roundball Mining Co.: Contenders, especially if Amar'e Stoudemire can find his niche in the lineup. The Knicks have all the pieces to contend for a title: size, a superstar, deadly 3-point shooters, veteran leadership, willingness to defend, etc. Mike Woodson's coaching and the Knicks' ability to stay healthy will likely determine how far this team goes in the playoffs.
Beckley Mason, ESPN.com: Pretenders. As currently constituted. It's possible that Stoudemire will bolster the bench unit and Iman Shumpert will give them a desperately needed wing defender, in which case the Knicks might bump up to "contender" status. Even still, they will need Raymond Felton to play four very good games out of seven to beat any top team, and that's far from a sure bet.
Michael Pina, Red94: Contenders. The Knicks are designed much like the 2011 NBA champion Dallas Mavericks. They have an unstoppable scoring MVP candidate, a defensive anchor as good as any in the league, multiple 3-point shooters on the perimeter, and Jason Kidd stabilizing it all behind the scenes.
Darius Soriano, Forum Blue and Gold: Contenders. Though the Heat are still the favorites, and integrating Amar'e Stoudemire back into the lineup will prove challenging, the Knicks have the offensive firepower and defensive talent to come out of the East. With Carmelo Anthony playing his best ball and the leadership (and skill) the complementary players bring, this team must be considered a viable threat to win.
Ethan Sherwood Strauss, HoopSpeak: Contenders. Their defense is faltering, but the stench in the East factors into this judgment. Other than the Heat, there's little resistance in the Eastern Conference. If the Knicks can upset Miami, they need only shoot well from 3 to have a real shot at winning the Finals.
2. Contenders or Pretenders: Los Angeles Lakers.
Deremo: Pretenders. Unless they make a trade, the Lakers won't do much in the playoffs. They're old and devoid of chemistry, and they have one of the worst benches in the league. Mike D'Antoni might make them look more pretty on offense, but he's not instilling the type of defensive philosophy the Lakers will need to win once the postseason arrives.
Mason: Pretenders. As in, we can pretend as much as we like, but Dwight Howard is not the same player and should not be expected to dominate like he did in Orlando. We've seen old, banged-up teams get healthier and stronger as the season goes along, but since the Lakers are fighting just to make the playoffs, it's hard to see when the time to rest will come.
Pina: Pretenders. The Lakers were built around four really good/great players, and they need all four to remain healthy and at the top of their games to cover up their dismal bench. So far only one has done his part, and the cost will either be four straight brutal rounds with no home-court advantage, or a failure to make the postseason altogether.
Soriano: Contenders. They surely look like pretenders today, but as the season progresses the Lakers still have the talent and experience to win it all. It will take chemistry developing, a refinement of their playing style, and a greater attentiveness on defense, but with their core four intact, they remain built for the grind-it-out style of the postseason.
Strauss: Pretenders. As I watched Pau Gasol chase Spencer Hawes out on the perimeter with the grace of a potato-sack racer, a thought cropped up: How is Gasol going to fare against, say, Kevin Durant when OKC slides him to the 4-spot? That's just one problem amid many, with the main one being that Dwight is moving like an anchor's inside his back.
3. Contenders or Pretenders: Golden State Warriors.
Deremo: Pretenders. David Lee has been underrated forever and Stephen Curry is having a career year, but are either of those players going to carry the Warriors past the Thunder in a tight playoff game on the road? That's the question you always have to ask about your team's best player when assessing whether you're a contender out West.
Mason: Pretenders. However, the Warriors are top contenders for the title of "my favorite team to watch." My resolution for 2013 is to watch more Stephen Curry pull-up jumpers. I understand that this will make me a better person by osmosis.
Pina: Pretenders. The Warriors boast the most lethal three-guard lineup in the league (Jarrett Jack, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson), with offensive versatility in the frontcourt that forces opposing teams to pick their poison. They're probably a year or two away from being true contenders, but if the Warriors can stay healthy, preserve their top-10 defense (and offense), and hold home court in a seven-game series, they'll be poised to make serious noise as early as this postseason.
Soriano: Pretenders. The Warriors have a fantastic mix of youthful energy and veteran toughness. But they are still too reliant on young players with zero playoff experience to be a true contender. I think they can continue to play good basketball into April and May, but they will find the increased pressure and opponents' hyper-specific game plans in the playoffs too much to overcome.
Strauss: Contenders. If Andrew Bogut returns, this might even be a title-contending basketball team. Look, I know it sounds unfathomable, but the Warriors-as-competent sounded nuts a couple months ago. If a good team gets a massive upgrade at their weakest position ... watch out.
4. Contenders or Pretenders: Houston Rockets.
Deremo: Pretenders. GM Daryl Morey was perpetually spinning his wheels down in Houston until October when he landed James Harden. While the Rockets appear to have a superstar and a nice supporting cast, Morey must still find a sidekick to pair with Harden before anyone takes Houston too seriously.
Mason: Pretenders. But behold the power of the spread pick-and-roll! This is not a roster jam-packed with talent, but as Steve Nash's Suns proved, a dynamic ball handler surrounded by shooters is an awfully tough thing to stop compared to the relative ease with which a GM can find at least one ball handler and a bunch of shooters. With Jeremy Lin cooking, the Rockets have two guys to break teams down from the perimeter.
Pina: Pretenders. But closer than you might think. The Rockets know who they are, and they're getting better by the week. Only a handful of teams score more points per possession, and nobody attacks defenses in smarter areas (3-point line/charity stripe) with more relentlessness. But as currently constructed, the Rockets play at a pace too fast for postseason basketball. They've struggled mightily against elite teams like the Thunder and Spurs, and they turn the ball over far too many times to cover up their creaky screen-door defense.
Soriano: Pretenders. Even with James Harden and Jeremy Lin starting to find their stride as complementary backcourt partners, the Rockets don't possess enough secondary talent to survive a brutal Western Conference. Combine that with their relative playoff inexperience, and they look to be at least a season away from moving up into the class of teams that are true contenders.
Strauss: Pretenders. They won't win the title, but the Rockets should be good enough to make the playoffs. I love how they use the minimalist spread pick-and-roll to great effect. The roster is a little thin, but Harden, Omer Asik and endless 3s should be enough for at least the eighth spot.
5. Contenders or Pretenders: Denver Nuggets.
Deremo: Pretenders. The only way the Nuggets can strike fear into the eyes of their opponents is if they somehow obtain home-court advantage before the playoffs get underway. This seems unlikely at this point; therefore, the Nuggets will continue to remain one Carmelo Anthony shy of accomplishing anything in the postseason.
Mason: Pretenders. Many hoped and expected Danilo Gallinari and Ty Lawson to take a step or two forward, but it just hasn't happened. Quite the opposite, in Lawson's case. Denver can also improve by playing its better players more. After a strong defensive December, it's time to give JaVale McGee more minutes.
Pina: Pretenders. When the Nuggets opt to play JaVale McGee instead of Kosta Koufos with their other four regular starters, they can neither score nor defend. (This five-man unit's net rating is a motionless minus-31.5 points per 100 possessions.) This is the Nuggets' second-most-used lineup, and they've consistently gone to it throughout the season -- a major problem that speaks to their lack of rotational options. On top of that, the Nuggets rely far too much on the play of Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari, two players who simply haven't evolved quite as we expected at this point in their careers.
Soriano: Pretenders. The Nuggets have the talent and coaching to win a round or two, but have just enough flaws to keep them out of that top tier of contending teams. When the games slow in the playoffs, their half-court offense will need to carry them, and I don't believe they have the consistent outside shooting to make a deep run.
Strauss: Pretenders. The Nuggets should make the postseason, but I can't spot them more faith than that. The offense was supposed to carry the Nuggets, but they lack enough shooting to make it click. The defense also has suffered this year, in part due to the Nene-JaVale trade.
ESPN.com and the TrueHoop Network
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor to ESPN.com. Kalen Deremo, Micheal Pina, Darius Soriano and Ethan Sherwood Strauss contribute to the TrueHoop Network.
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