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Monday, November 19, 2012
Debate: Best teams in the NBA

ESPN.com

LeBron James
Any conversation about the top teams in the league should probably start with the Grizzlies and Heat.

The Grizzlies have the NBA's best record. The Knicks are off to their best start in years. The Clippers have been the best team in L.A. The Spurs are still the league's best-kept secret. And the Heat are, well, the defending champs.

So who's actually the best team in the NBA? Second-best? Third-best? And so on? Our 5-on-5 crew chimes in on the current cream of the crop:

1. Best team in the NBA?


Danny Nowell, Portland Roundball Society: Miami Heat. Sure, a few teams have fewer losses, but does anybody doubt that Miami has the only real claim to top honors? Its newcomers seem to be integrating well to the fluid offense, and it's hard to imagine the defense won't stiffen up to its usual standard.

Chris Palmer, ESPN The Magazine: Grizzlies.They appear almost amoeba-like, able to handle any lineup, scheme or tempo opposing teams might run. They are great at both running and defending the pick-and-roll. They have a top-3 frontcourt. They've got shooters who can stretch the floor and great individual defenders. Mike Conley is quite underrated as both a creator and game manager. Oh, and then there's Rudy Gay, their best player.

Tom Sunnergren, Philadunkia: Grizzlies. Z-Bo (Zach Randolph) is quietly having a career-year, Marc Gasol is dishing like a guard, and the traditionally dull Memphis offense has become one of the league's most dynamic. It's doubtful we'll see another three-game stretch this season as impressive as what the Griz submitted by dispatching Miami, OKC and the Knicks by a combined 38 points. Good luck with all of that, NBA.

Amin Vafa, Hardwood Paroxysm: Grizzlies. Their offense is strong (scoring around 100 points per game), and their defense is stronger (allowing around 90 points per game). After losing to their unofficial archrival Clippers in their first game of the season, they've won their next eight -- including three double-digit wins in a row against the Heat, Thunder and Knicks.

Justin Verrier, ESPN.com: Heat. The defense has looked shoddier than you'd like, but it's tough to judge the reigning champs too harshly given an early-season string of dings and bad health, and the fact that postseason matchups, and thus regular-season records, don't matter as much in the shallow East. Helps to be the most talented team in the league, too.


2. Second-best team in the NBA?


Nowell: Los Angeles Clippers. This team seems ready to max out its potential, provided Vinny Del Negro can get out of his own way. With DeAndre Jordan and Jamal Crawford providing heretofore unseen explosiveness, the biggest question seems to be when "Mini-LeBron" (Eric Bledsoe) will be let out of his cage.

Palmer: Clippers. They feel so ... what's the word? Complete. They're without a glaring weakness and most of the stuff they need to work on (like knowing when to help) will come with more film study and experience. Eric Bledsoe has been a revelation and is just scratching the surface. DeAndre Jordan's development has been a big boost. And Jamal Crawford is an amazing weapon. Surrounding Chris Paul with so many able scorers who are so different from one another is as fun to watch as it is hard to guard.

Sunnergren: Heat. Although they haven't put up the most robust title defense so far -- the D hasn't been there and lately neither has the increasingly, and disconcertingly, fragile Dwyane Wade -- the points are coming easily and LeBron James is still LeBron James. Did I mention LeBron James? LeBron James is on this team.

Vafa: Knicks. If you're not pleasantly surprised with the Knicks this season, you're at least very surprised. They're playing well on both ends of the floor, and their point guards have allowed the city to get over the offseason loss of Jeremy Lin. As odd as this sounds, the Knicks actually look like contenders. But nobody tell Amar'e, OK?

Verrier: Grizzlies. I believe! Come April? Maybe not. But the improved outside shooting and early offensive pop shown by Mike Conley provide new dimensions to this gritty, defensive-minded team. Based on this season's body of work alone (8-1, with wins over both 2012 Finals participants), the Griz look like a bear to bring down (sorry) for anyone, now and in the postseason.


3. Third-best team in the NBA?


Nowell: New York Knicks. I'm not sold that the 'Bockers will stay this high all season, but if their best player keeps playing his best ball and the role players can produce consistently, this team has real legs. And if their promise is a lie, it's still a fun one to tell myself.

Palmer: Heat. I know, feels low for a defending champ that remains largely intact and has LeBron James. But they just don't feel that scary and there are issues with consistency, post depth and Ray Allen's defense that will need to be resolved. Fear not, Heat fans. November's not really their thing. They'll be there in May.

Sunnergren: Knicks. Bolstered by under-the-radar offseason acquisitions Jason Kidd, Ronnie Brewer and Raymond Felton, the 'Bockers are getting it done on both ends and boast the Association's widest scoring margin. A caveat: Amar'e Stoudemire's looming return could disrupt what Mike Woodson and Co. have built. Not a chemistry thing, as much as an "Amar'e Stoudemire isn't good anymore" thing.

Vafa: Clippers. This world may not be ready for the Clippers to be the better NBA team in L.A., but that moment is upon us. A 22-point whomping of the Spurs? Beating the Heat when LeBron scores 30 and the Lakers when Kobe scores 40? The only thing that could spoil this season is the Mayan apocalypse.

Verrier: Oklahoma City Thunder. Has this team lost its spunk or did the shine just come off along with the novelty beards? OKC has lost to every worthwhile opponent thus far, but a grace period is in order after the front office reshuffled the deck so close to its start date. In the meantime, Kevin Durant has looked better than ever. Enough for me.


4. Fourth-best team in the NBA?


Nowell: Grizzlies. The Grizzlies are treating a smallball league like a market inefficiency to be exploited, and the dashes of long distance efficacy they've sprinkled into their attack nudge them toward completion. This year seems destined to be the definitive referendum on Memphis' attempt at ascension.

Palmer: Spurs. It's just so tempting to brush them aside every possible chance I get. No more. For all I know they could be the best team in the league. But I'll drop them here as not to get carried away. Nothing's changed really. Tim Duncan is going out of his way to prove he's the most consistent player ever, Tony Parker is still driving opposing coaches mad by skating into the lane and Pop's got his role-loving defenders playing way better than they actually are.

Sunnergren: Thunder. I still like them even though the offense has looked downright Philadelphian for stretches, The Beard is continuing his growth elsewhere and Russell Westbrook continues to think the solution to every problem is "take the shot." Kevin Martin has been remarkably efficient and Kevin Durant is developing a LeBron-like knack for being precisely the thing his team needs on any given night.

Vafa: Spurs. Setting aside the loss to the Clippers, San Antonio has been giving us classic championship-caliber basketball. They're taking care of business against non-contenders, and they're playing tight, methodical and entertaining games against the top teams. The best coach in the game plus an ageless core is good for another run.

Verrier: Los Angeles Lakers. Maybe they're spiking the Staples Center coffee, but it's hard to overlook a team with this much front-line talent, particularly after witnessing two 110-plus-point glimpses at what's to come with Mike D'Antoni at the reins. The defense remains a concern, but a healthy Dwight Howard -- no sure thing -- solves much of that, at least in theory.


5. Fifth-best team in the NBA?


Nowell: San Antonio Spurs. Tim Duncan may be safely ensconced against the siege of time, but Manu seems to have been felled by its advance. Even so, the Spurs continue to outclass rosters with younger top-end talent while they strive to perfect a perpetual motion machine offensively.

Palmer: Thunder. Out of all the quality teams, the early season jury is still out on the Thunder. Yes, they're 8-3, but they've beaten the Blazers, Hornets, Warriors, Raptors and Pistons (twice). The transition from Harden to Martin does seem to be going much smoother than anticipated and Durant continues to blossom as a player. Still can't really figure out their identity without Harden though.

Sunnergren: Spurs. They always get short-shrift on lists like this because they're great in a way that's so routine and consistent and almost mechanical that you don't even notice it after a while. If it were sunny and 70 every day, eventually you'd stop talking about the weather. I probably have them two spots too low. Also, Tim Duncan has been tremendous.

Vafa: Heat. You cannot count out the defending champions, especially when this team includes an in-his-prime-weight-off-his-shoulders LeBron James and a holy-cow-he-is-shooting-above-50-percent-from-behind-the-arc Ray Allen. Even Dwyane Wade's off-and-on injuries can't put a damper on a team that only got better in the offseason. At least, not yet.

Verrier: Los Angeles Clippers, with all due respect to the Knicks, who still reek of flash-in-the pan, and the Spurs, who are probably too refined for my palate. That the Clippers' outlook is so tied to improved depth is somewhat concerning, given its dulled effect in playoff games, but they're showing maturity and they're top five in efficiency on both sides of the ball for a change.