With this year's Christmas Day games in the rear-view mirror, many NBA fans are tuning into the Association in earnest for the first time this season.
To those newcomers and to our diehards, welcome to 2017 (more or less). In this week's edition of the power rankings, we're making a slight detour by breaking down the one thing you need to know for every team headed into the new year.
Next week, we'll be back with our typical weekly wrap-up for all 30 franchises. For now, though, sit back on your holiday weekend and enjoy our refresher course on the first two months of the NBA.
Philadelphia 76ers (previous ranking: 29)
What you need to know: The Sixers' entire rebuild will be defined by the next few months.
Nerlens Noel is a better fit alongside Joel Embiid than Jahlil Okafor, yet all the trade rumors point to Noel being the one who ends up as the odd (big) man out in Philly. That mistake could come back to haunt the Sixers. Meanwhile, whether Ben Simmons plays this year — and how his recovery goes in general — will have a significant effect on his development moving forward.
Brooklyn Nets (30)
What you need to know: The Nets are on pace to be a basketball force — in 2022
Brooklyn has a smart front office, some interesting young players in guys like Caris LeVert, a fun point guard in Jeremy Lin, and no real rebuilding assets for the next several years. As long as the Nets are patient, though, you can count on this front office to turn around one of the most pathetic franchises in the NBA.
Phoenix Suns (28)
What you need to know: There's been zero growth for the Suns' young players under Earl Watson.
Watson's not to blame, necessarily, although he certainly isn't helping. But Devin Booker has regressed in his second season, the rookies seem lost, and even guys like Eric Bledsoe are struggling. What was supposed to be a fun, energetic team on the rise is more depressing than anything these days.
Dallas Mavericks (27)
What you need to know: Dirk Nowitzki's career could be coming to a close, which means it's tank time in Dallas.
There's no easy way to say this: Nowitzki has battled injury for most of this season, and to my eyes, it would be surprising if he came back for 2017-18. The good thing is that his fading away means Dallas is bottoming out, something the Mavs should have done several years ago to try to restock the talent around Dirk.
Jerome MironJerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Minnesota Timberwolves (26)
What you need to know: Minnesota's struggles are actually healthy for the Wolves — and not that surprising.
Coach Tom Thibodeau has his Wolves executing high-level basketball concepts and complicated sets on both ends of the court. Inevitably, the young guys in Minnesota have struggled at times with taking that next step. In the long run, however, keeping things smart will pay big dividends for Karl-Anthony Towns & Co.
Miami Heat (23)
What you need to know: The Heat belong to Hassan Whiteside, for better and for worse.
Goran Dragic is essentially a non-factor waiting to be traded in Miami, leaving Whiteside as the star of the show. He's been solid this year, but one wonders just how high the ceiling is on a team led by the inexperienced veteran.
New Orleans Pelicans (26)
What you need to know: The Pelicans unleashed Anthony Davis by playing him at his real position.
I still have questions about The Brow's ability as a rim-protector, but there's no denying how good the Pelicans look when Davis is their official center. Keep Omer Asik on the bench, please, Alvin Gentry. I need more of AD at the five in my life.
Los Angeles Lakers (24)
What you need to know: The Lakers really were playing out of their minds before injuries derailed their season.
Luke Walton had a plan. He mixed his young players and veterans together in the starting lineup and off the bench, and it worked for the Lakers to start this season. Then injuries to D'Angelo Russell, Larry Nance, Nick Young, Jose Calderon, and others threw everything out of whack in Los Angeles. There's still a very good team here when everyone is healthy. The worry is that the Lakers will overreact to their recent struggles by making a trade for a second-tier "star."
Portland Trail Blazers (22)
What you need to know: The Blazers have the NBA's worst defense, but it could be due for an improvement.
The Blazers were pretty bad last year, too. Then they added Evan Turner this offseason, and things went from awful to atrocious.
The bigger problem for Portland, though, has been Al-Farouq Aminu's calf injury. He's the only above-average wing defender in the rotation, and his return last week should spell some sort of improvement for the Blazers on that end.
Orlando Magic (21)
What you need to know: Serge Ibaka is having a career renaissance in Orlando (and no one is paying attention).
Based strictly on the Victor Oladipo-for-Ibaka part of the exchange, the Magic won their trade with the Thunder this offseason. Ibaka is back to playing like his old self, even if Orlando doesn't have much to show for his success. He's one of the Magic's best 3-point shooters, and he can play as a stretch-four or a rim-protecting five, depending on which big men coach Frank Vogel plays next to Ibaka.
The only potential downside is Aaron Gordon's development. He's more of a power forward than a small forward, which is the position he's playing alongside Ibaka these days. Yet even then, Gordon's gaining valuable time on the perimeter that could help him down the line.
Detroit Pistons (17)
What you need to know: Stan Van Gundy seems to be at the end of his rope as both coach and general manager.
Van Gundy openly questioned Andre Drummond's effort on defense, scoffed at the idea that his team held a players-only meeting, and generally sounds like the most miserable human being on the planet.
To some extent, that's SVG being SVG. Yet it feels like Van Gundy bit off more than he could chew when he assumed control as both coach and personnel guru in Detroit. Now he's paying the price.
Denver Nuggets (19)
What you need to know: The Nuggets proved you can't play two centers together in today's NBA.
Denver has two very talented big men in Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets thought they could get away with a "Twin Towers" approach reminiscent of basketball in the '80s.
They quickly learned how wrong they were. Now, Jokic looks like the starter, and Nurkic is making noise about a trade. That's not the greatest scenario, but at least the Nuggets now know how to approach their future.
Sacramento Kings (18)
What you need to know: DeMarcus Cousins is having the single greatest season of his career — which has the Kings looking like playoff contenders.
In years past, there was some slight argument to be made that other centers were better than Boogie, depending on how you felt about his defense and demeanor. In 2016, the Kings big man put all those questions to rest. He's averaging nearly 30 points per game, making almost 40 percent of his 4.7 3-pointers per game, and dishing dimes like he took lessons from Rajon Rondo.
Indiana Pacers (14)
What you need to know: The Pacers are all about the future, regardless of how they feel about that.
Paul George recently expressed his frustration with Indiana's losing ways. In the very next breath, though, he said he understands it's all about the long game for the Pacers.
Between George himself and Myles Turner, Indiana has two stellar franchise players moving forward. PG's patience will be rewarded sooner than most expect, I promise.
NBAE/Getty ImagesNBAE/Getty Images
Chicago Bulls (16)
What you need to know: The Bulls have to play their very best basketball just to be acceptable on offense.
Have you ever watched someone drunkenly try to make a sandwich at 3 o'clock in the morning after a long night out? Every ounce of focus goes into getting the bread out of the bag, opening the jelly jar, getting the jelly to stay on the kinfe, spreading the jelly ... all for a mediocre sandwich that was a bad idea in the first place.
That's the Bulls' offense this season.
Atlanta Hawks (20)
What you need to know: Dwight Howard transformed the Hawks almost overnight, which is part of the problem.
The Hawks transformed from a whirling dervish of passes around the perimeter and exquisite off-ball cuts to a pick-and-roll behemoth when Howard came to town. That's largely been effective, but the big man's presence had a ripple effect on the rest of the Atlanta offense. As good as Howard still is around the rim, defenses aren't collapsing to stop him when he rolls after setting a screen.
As defenders stick to their guys on the perimeter, there's less space for the 3-point shooters, and the Hawks' outside shooting suffers significantly as a result. Until Atlanta can free up some room behind the line, this team has a definite ceiling on its offensive potential.
New York Knicks (12)
What you need to know: Kristaps Porzingis might be better than Karl Anthony-Towns.
Shhhhh, don't tell Wolves fans I said this. KAT is still my guy. I think he's going to be the best player in the NBA before too long.
Porzingis, though, might actually be the better defender at this point in time, which is a terrifying thought for the rest of the league. Big men are our future.
Getty ImagesMike Stobe
Washington Wizards (15)
What you need to know: We're not properly appreciating John Wall's greatness, because no one wants to watch the Wizards.
I get it. There are far better uses of two and a half hours than spending it with Markieff Morris and Bradley Beal. The Wizards aren't aesthetically pleasing, and they don't win a ton of games.
Wall, though, is an absolute marvel on the court. His ridiculous combination of speed and smarts makes him a once-in-a-generation player who doesn't get the credit he deserves.
Milwaukee Bucks (12)
What you need to know: The Bucks are the most intriguing team this season — and for the foreseeable future.
The Bucks saw the current "small-ball" landscape and decided the proper course of action was "long-ball." Milwaukee is a mess of athleticism and limbs with a dose of 3-point shooting thrown into the mix for good measure.
I'm not sure if it'll work in the long-term, and I'm still skeptical of Giannis Antetokounmpo. There's no denying that the Bucks are a must-watch team for any diehard NBA fan, though.
Memphis Grizzlies (11)
What you need to know: The Grizzlies are the most clutch team in NBA history, which is only a slight exaggeration.
The Grizzlies are 12-2 in games that went to overtime or were decided by five points or fewer in regulation, which seems completely unsustainable. Yet as several Memphis players pointed out earlier this year, the team is used to playing in the muck. They slow the game down and grind out possessions for all 48 minutes, which prepares them for the pressure of the clutch.
Their No. 1-ranked defense probably helps, too.
Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY SportsNelson Chenault
Los Angeles Clippers (7)
What you need to know: The Clippers are the biggest threat to the Warriors in the Western Conference.
The Clippers are in a bit of a free fall over the past couple of weeks due to Blake Griffin's surgery, but don't let a midseason swoon fool you. L.A.'s experience together, the skill of their own "Big Four" and, above all, Chris Paul's incredible play at point guard all point toward a May date between the Clippers and Warriors in the Western Conference finals.
Utah Jazz (8)
What you need to know: The Jazz are the biggest sleeper in the entire (likely) playoff field.
When they're healthy (and that's been the big problem for Utah this year, admittedly), the Jazz are as complete a team as any outside of the Warriors and Cavaliers. George Hill, Gordon Hayward, Boris Diaw/Joe Johnson, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert are going to put the fear of God into some Western Conference team in this year's postseason, and it might even be the Warriors.
Charlotte Hornets (10)
What you need to know: Kemba Walker is the best NBA player you're not watching.
Here's my theory: Walker's shimmy-celebration of a missed shot on Thursday was the best thing that could have happened to the Hornets point guard.
He desperately needs some national attention, and there's no such thing as bad publicity, right? My hope is that now that Walker is back in the public consciousness, more people will pay attention to his elite play.
Oklahoma City Thunder (9)
What you need to know: Russell Westbrook is going to finish this season with a triple-double average.
I'm calling my shot now: Westbrook will match Oscar Robertson in NBA history with one of the most impressive seasons in any professional sport.
For that, he'll win the MVP award, too.
Boston Celtics (6)
What you need to know: The Celtics are the team that most desperately needs Philly's Nerlens Noel.
The Celtics need a dynamic defensive big man who's committed to rebounding to take them to the next level. I love Al Horford, but he's not that guy.
Noel would be a perfect complement to Boston's current roster. coach Brad Stevens could unlock the mercurial big man's defensive potential, while the Celtics' leadership culture would help get Noel back on the right track mentally. If the price is right, Boston needs to be the team to make a move with Philly.
Toronto Raptors (5)
What you need to know: The Raptors are the second-best team in the East — and they don't stand a chance.
Toronto's recent loss to the Warriors was all the proof we need that the Raptors simply aren't Finals contenders. They had neither the defense nor the shooting to keep up with Golden State, and that will be the case against the Cavs, too.
It's a shame, because the Raptors are a fun team playing a unique brand of offense in this 3-point-driven era. Unfortunately, the NBA is a business, and the Raptors come up short on the bottom line.
Houston Rockets (3)
What you need to know: Mike D'Antoni has turned James Harden into the best version of himself, including as a defender.
You probably already know that Harden is playing spectacular basketball as Houston's true point guard this season, averaging 27.7 points and 11.9 assists per game.
More impressive, though, has been Harden's commitment to defense in 2016-17. He's never going to be a lockdown defender, but at least he's giving it an effort this year. Who knew it would take the NBA's most famous offensive-minded head coach to turn Harden around on that end?
San Antonio Spurs (2)
What you need to know: Kawhi Leonard is even better than you think, no matter how good you think he is.
Other than a few early season hiccups, San Antonio's defense missed a beat without Tim Duncan this season, and that's thanks to The Klaw. That Leonard is able to sustain his ridiculous level on defense while driving the Spurs' offense nearly on his own is one of the most incredible feats in the NBA this season. Yet because it's Kawhi, and because he doesn't emote, we just expect him to play like that.
Truly, such expectations are the greatest compliment you can give a player of his status.
Golden State Warriors (1)
What you need to know: The Warriors you see today aren't the same team that will face the Cavaliers in the NBA Finals.
I'm not saying the Warriors will make a trade, although anything is possible with their wily front office. More to the point, though, Golden State will continue to evolve offensively over the remainder of the regular season. They'll experiment with different looks and sets, tossing out what fails and keeping what works.
It's a nice reminder that even the very best NBA teams have to trust the process.
Cleveland Cavaliers (4)
What you need to know: The Cavs are the title favorites, without a doubt.
You don't have to be the best overall team in the NBA to win the championship; you just have to outmatch your potential playoff opponents.
Cleveland will sleep-walk through the Eastern Conference to the NBA Finals, and we've seen over the past eight games that they're superior to the Warriors. Simply put, Golden State doesn't have an answer for either LeBron James or Kyrie Irving.
When it's time to lift the Larry O'Brien trophy once more in 2017, expect the King to be the one holding the hardware.