Updated Dec. 14, 2010
As the favorites pull away in the long race to the NBA postseason, five other groups are taking shape in the field behind them.
Here's the view from the top of the backboard:
The Thoroughbreds: Spurs, Mavericks, Heat, Celtics, Magic, Lakers.
No surprises here. The Mavs have solidified their position among the elite and the Lakers are treating the regular season a bit like an exhibition, but the vast majority of prognosticators picked one of these teams to win the championship and I'm guessing none has backed down yet.
|The Spurs are getting it done this season at home and on the road against some of the league's strongest competition. (Getty Images)|
Again, all the usual suspects filling the role of championship pretenders. Each is an experienced winner plodding along to its projected share of regular-season victories. In the end, they'll roll into the playoffs and be done within two rounds.
The Claimers: Bulls, Thunder, Knicks, Grizzlies, Rockets.
Each month produces a different cast in this category. December's climbers feature a handful of November's divers. The big surprise is New York, which has upgraded to the point where, if it's making its shots, it can hang with pretty much anyone.
The Show Ponies: Hornets, Bucks, Pacers, Suns.
This quartet already has proven it can be a handful on its best night or week, or even month. But let's be honest: All have slipped into NBA oblivion, not good enough to be taken seriously and not bad enough to position itself high enough to get the help it needs in the draft. Star players run from situations like these.
The Merry-Go-Rounders: 76ers, Raptors, Warriors, Bobcats, Wizards, Pistons.
Here are Exhibits A through F in an NBA fan's dream that the league would merge its 14 weakest franchises into the Super 16. Monta Ellis, Gilbert Arenas, Tayshaun Prince … something tells me a bunch of players in this group probably wish that dream would come true as well.
The Donkeys: Timberwolves, Nets, Kings, Clippers, Cavaliers.
If LeBron James had any guts, he would have responded to Dan Gilbert's claim of the Cavaliers winning a title before the Heat with a counter: The Cavs will plummet into the first pick in the draft before the Timberwolves. Heck, it might not take long for the latter to come true.
And thanks to one of the Show Ponies, there's a new No. 1 in this week's CBSSports.com NBA Power Rankings.