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Power rankings show a shrinking upper class

There's a new king in town in the power rankings, with the Thunder taking the No. 1 spot from the Chicago Bulls.

What's more interesting, though, is how the league seems to be turning into a 3 1/2 team race. Let's dissect.

You have the three real contenders in Oklahoma City, Miami and Chicago (1-2-3 in the power rankings). The Thunder are, again, playing great team basketball, Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are both getting hot, and James Harden is making it look like he's the third of their big three. Miami, not surprisingly, has figured it out in year two. And when Dwyane Wade is healthy, they have two unguardable players, spelling trouble for opposing teams. Chicago, finally, has scoring options outside of Derrick Rose this year, and their biggest problem early on, Joakim Noah, stepped it up last week.

Outside of that, the only team that has really looked championship-worthy is Denver. They have a go-to scorer (Danilo Gallinari), several secondary options (Al Harrington, Nene, Arron Afflalo) and two very solid point guards (Ty Lawson, Andre Miller). They haven't been great on the defensive end (99.2 points per game, the worst among teams with more than six wins), but that's the only piece missing.

Otherwise? I'm not sold. The Clippers seem to be the best team in the Pacific, but they've benefited from 11 early home games (9-2) and only two games on the road (2-4). Dallas has been up-and-down, and doesn't look like the same team that showed up in the postseason last year. Indiana and Philadelphia are both in the bottom third in the league in strength of schedule, and Atlanta, as explained below, is in a similar boat.

It's getting to the point where teams have had plenty of time to adjust to new coaches and rosters, and get their legs under them after a very short offseason and preseason. And as the dust is settling, just a handful look to be truly in the mix for a title.

Elsewhere Week 5:

D'Antoni, Nash, Howard rumors

The Knicks, 1-9 in their last 10 and 7-13 overall, are now a season-worst 24th in the power rankings. Phoenix is 3-8 since starting 4-4, and now 21st in the rankings. And the Magic, after losing four of five games, took the biggest hit, dropping 12 spots to 19th in the power rankigns. The bigger story surrounding the three teams is the rumors surrounding their nuclei. Mike D'Antoni is starting to feel the pressure, and Amar'e Stoudemire may be on the block. Steve Nash rumors are heating up after the veteran star lashed into his team's lack of talent. And in the "What else is new?" department, Dwight Howard is fed up in Orlando, and looks prepared to accept a trade anywhere. What will these three teams' rosters look like in a month? And can any of them bounce back in the shortened season to make a serious push?

Can Hawks keep this up?

Since losing the team's most consistent cog, Al Horford, to an injury in a Jan. 11 loss to the Pacers, the Hawks are 8-2. A large enough sample size to believe Atlanta has adjusted to life without Al, right? Not so fast. They've taken on three teams with winning records since their center went down: a three-point win against Portland (at the time, the Blazers' fourth loss in five games), a 14-point loss to Philadelphia, and an 18-point shellacking at the hands of San Antonio. It helps that Atlanta plays in the (yet again) very shallow Eastern Conference, but the schedule is going to get tougher, and soon. After a road game against Toronto Tuesday, eight of Atlanta's following 10 games are against teams with winning records. Let's reassess Atlanta after the string ends on Feb. 20 in Chicago.

What about the Rockets?

3-7 their first 10 games, 9-1 since. What gives? Well, for one, the schedule has become far more pleasant. The Rockets' first eight games were in Orlando, against San Antonio, in Memphis, against Atlanta, back-to-back road games against the Lakers and Clippers, and then a home-and-home against Oklahoma City. They finished the stretch 2-6 . . . or, in other words, how just about any team would fare. Their recent hot streak has been, in part, due to their strength of schedule, but Houston has won games against Portland, San Antonio and Minnesota. Like Denver, the Rockets are deep . . . seven players are averaging at least eight points per game, five players averaging at least five boards. Another brutal road swing is coming up at the end of next week, though, with games against Minnesota, Denver, Portland, Phoenix, Golden State and Memphis. With several games under their belt, the emergence of Kyle Lowry, and Kevin Martin finding his groove (he's day-to-day with a heel injury, but should be back by Saturday), they could take four of six.

Easy on the Lakers . . .

Los Angeles has taken plenty of abuse the past week for its inability to score. They are 12th in the Western Conference in points per game (93.0), and their 106-101 win over Minnesota on Sunday night was their first 100-point output since Jan. 3. Still, they are beating good teams. Their last three wins have come against the Mavericks, Clippers and Wolves. And while they dropped three straight late last week to the Heat, Magic and Pacers (back-to-back road games in Florida, one night of rest and then back to California), Kobe Bryant is still averaging over 30 points, and Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum are putting up solid numbers. A big three that talented is impossible to write off.

New York Sports