Pulse of the NBA

( - As we look ahead to the New Year, I have a feeling we'll have only two divisions that will be hotly contested.

The Toronto Raptors and Portland Trail Blazers have very comfortable cushions with Toronto leading the Brooklyn Nets in the Atlantic by 8 1/2 games, while the Blazers are 10 1/2 games up on the Oklahoma City Thunder in the Northwest.

The Chicago Bulls lead the struggling Cleveland Cavaliers by 3 1/2 games in the Central, but with the loss of Anderson Varejao for the season and Kevin Love continuing to struggle, it doesn't look like the Cavs will be able to keep up with such a deep Chicago team.

In the Pacific, the Golden State Warriors are five games up on the Los Angeles Clippers, who look like they've taken a step back from last season. With Stephen Curry clearly better than Chris Paul, and the Warriors' talent level clearly being better than the Clippers, I don't see Doc Rivers' team being capable of staying with Golden State.

So that leaves us with the Southeast and Southwest Divisions, which may not be decided until April.

Let's take a close look at each race:


The Washington Wizards were the preseason favorites to win the division, but have been unable to shake the Atlanta Hawks.

The Hawks are one game up on the Wizards, but Atlanta has been the more impressive team. They have clearly been better against the upper level teams of the league. Atlanta is 7-3 versus teams that would currently qualify for the playoffs, while the Wizards are just 3-7.

The Hawks lost their first three games of the season against such teams, but since are 7-1.

Former Hawks great Dominique Wilkins, who is currently the team's television color analyst, is really excited about what he's seeing on both ends of the floor.

"There's two things that excite me about the team: team defense and playing defense on the ball is the most impressive thing," said Wilkins. "You see a lot of teams rely too much on help; the Hawks defend out front. Secondly, ball movement from side to side. They share the ball. They give up a good shot for a great shot."

As for the Wizards, I have to wonder after hearing some comments from Paul Pierce following a win over the struggling Miami Heat on Dec. 19, if they're as committed to being a top team as the Hawk are.

"We got to build ourselves on great habits," Pierce said, according to the Washington Post. "Tonight I wasn't happy with the defense, especially against a team struggling to score 100 points. We allowed them to shoot too high of a percentage. So them aren't the habits we want to have throughout the course [of the season]."

I think the division will be up for grabs into the final month, but my gut tells me the Hawks will be the one to prevail.


The Grizzlies sit atop the division with a one-game lead over the Mavericks, 1 1/2 games over the Rockets, while the Spurs are five back.

Here's a breakdown of each team:


The Grizzlies' big three of Marc Gasol, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley have all played at a high level, and are mainly responsible for their 23-8 mark.

Gasol is easily having his best season. In just his eighth year in the league, he's averaging a career-high 20.1 points, which is more than five points above his previous high.

One problem with the Grizzlies is the secondary players who aren't on the same level as those on the Spurs and Rockets.

Up until Randolph missing the last five games with a sore knee, the Grizzlies have not had to deal with any injury issues, unlike two of their division rivals.

Memphis lost the first three game without its starting power forward, but then beat the struggling Heat, who were without Chris Bosh and followed it up with a win over the Spurs, who were missing Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard.

The bottom line is the Grizzlies can ill afford to lose any of their top three players for any period of time if they hope to win the division.


Aside from James Harden's MVP-worthy performance so far, the big story has been the Rockets ability to overcome a ton of injuries.

Dwight Howard and Patrick Beverley have each sat out 12 games, while Terrence Jones has missed the last 26.

During Howard's absence, which included seven games without Beverley and Jones, the Rockets managed to go 8-4.

The injury to Jones gave Donatas Motiejunas the opportunity for some big minutes and he's really blossomed, averaging 10.1 points and 6.1 rebounds in just over 27 minutes per game.

The third-year power forward is now coming off the bench again after the Rockets signed Josh Smith following his release by the Detroit Pistons. Smith scored 21 points in his Rockets debut in a win in Memphis, but he combined to score just eight points on 3-of-13 from the field and committed eight turnovers over the next two games, which Houston lost.

Does Smith's presence hurt the Rockets chemistry? It's certainly a question worth asking, as the Pistons have run off three straight wins after dumping the 10-year veteran.

But the Rockets have another recent addition that has already paid immediate dividends and should only bolster a very solid bench.

Corey Brewer, who was acquired from the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 19, is averaging 16.3 points in just over 24 minutes in four games with the Rockets, and is shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 59.1 percent from 3-point range.

If Smith can fit in, I like Houston's chances to come out on top, especially with Harden playing at such a high level and the Rockets having so much depth


The Spurs have given the Rockets plenty of competition in the injury department.

Tony Parker is dealing with a lingering hamstring injury which has caused him to miss 12 games, while Kawhi Leonard has missed 11 games with a bruised hand and is out indefinitely at this point.

In addition to the injuries to two of their top players, the Spurs have had to deal with Tiago Splitter missing 22 games, while backup point guard Patty Mills has played just two games after finally coming back from offseason shoulder surgery.

With Parker and Leonard having ongoing issues, and the need to also keep Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili fresh for the playoffs, don't expect Greg Popovich to push his team to win the division title.


Rick Carlisle's team will have to prove they can compete with the better teams and have to overcome the loss of valuable backup big man Brandan Wright, who was dealt to the Boston Celtics in the Rajon Rondo trade.

The Mavericks are just 5-8 against teams that would currently qualify for the postseason, and one of those wins came against a depleted Spurs team playing without Duncan, Parker, Leonard, Ginobili and Splitter.

The Mavs particularly have had problems in beating the other seven teams in the Western Conference that would qualify for the playoffs at this point. That mark is just 1-7.

The addition of Rondo should help Dallas defensively in the backcourt, but it doesn't solve the problems in the frontcourt where Dirk Nowitzki and Chandler Parsons have problems with their lack of athleticism.

Defensive deficiencies and the loss of Wright will make it difficult for Dallas to take the division.