Entering December, there are 16 teams around the NBA playing .500 (or better) ball: Memphis, Miami, OKC, San Antonio, Brooklyn, New York, Atlanta, Philadelphia, Golden State, Los Angeles Clippers, Boston, Utah, Indiana, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee and Chicago.
Five others -- the Denver Nuggets (8-9), Minnesota Timberwolves (7-8), Houston Rockets (7-8), Charlotte Bobcats (7-8) and Dallas Mavericks (7-9) -- are just below it.
Yet when it comes to true contenders with a legitimate shot at challenging the top teams such as the odds-on favorites Miami Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder for the NBA championship, that list shrinks considerably.
Becoming a championship contender, particularly in the era of LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Kobe Bryant, is no walk in the park. It takes at least two to three stars. It takes the depth to overcome injuries and slumps. It takes a coach who can gain the respect of his team while putting all the pieces together.
On top of all that, it takes a savvy front office with a general manager willing to pull the trigger on any deal that can improve his roster for a championship run.
Here are five trade ideas this season's crop of contenders should consider:
Memphis Grizzlies acquire: J.J. Redick
Orlando Magic acquire: Tony Wroten, Jerryd Bayless, Hamed Haddadi
(Note: Bayless and Haddadi cannot be traded until Dec. 15)
Why it works for Memphis: The Grizzlies are supertalented but need to add shooting and depth to their forward-oriented bench to become a team that can contend for the title. Redick would provide an immediate upgrade to Wayne Ellington and Jerryd Bayless, whether as a starter or a reserve, and would give Lionel Hollins a solid combination at shooting guard with defensive wizard Tony Allen.
Memphis is No. 26 in the league in 3-point attempts per game (15.4), and although much of that has to do with Marc Gasol's and Zach Randolph's ability to score on the interior, adding a veteran scorer with a career 40 percent shooting percentage from behind the arc certainly would help spread the floor and keep defenses honest.
Why it works for Orlando: Redick is an unrestricted free agent after the season, and the Magic don't want to risk losing him for nothing. That's why they'd make a play for Wroten, an athletic 6-foot-5 burst of energy who was taken at No. 25 in 2012. Wroten wouldn't have to start right away because Jameer Nelson is locked up with guaranteed money through next season, but, after another season of seasoning, there is a chance the Seattle product could blossom into the next Rajon Rondo or Gary Payton. He'll need to improve his jumper and commitment to defense first, however. Bayless, meanwhile, is signed through next season at a reasonable rate ($2.9 million in 2013-14) and also could be a useful rotational player.
Boston Celtics acquire: Robin Lopez
New Orleans Hornets acquire: Courtney Lee, Boston's 2013 1st round pick
(Note: Lopez and Lee cannot be traded until Dec. 15)
Why it works for Boston: The Celtics need a true center to help Kevin Garnett in the frontcourt, and Lopez is one of the few 7-footers on noncontending teams who might be available for the right price. A few weeks back, I mentioned Phoenix's Marcin Gortat as another strong possibility. Other more remote options could include Cleveland's Anderson Varejao and Sacramento's DeMarcus Cousins, who both fit the description above but would also command a hefty haul in return. Lopez, on the other hand, would help rebound and defend the rim without the burden of a big price tag; he has team options on his contract for a little more than $5 million in 2013-14 and 2014-15.
Why it works for New Orleans: Although it's typically not advisable to trade bigs for smalls (just ask Philadelphia how that Barkley-for-Hornacek trade worked out), this move isn't nearly as risky and would enable the Hornets to lock up a young defensive-oriented shooting guard at a reasonable rate of $5 million to $5.675 million through the 2015-16 season.
It also would free them up to possibly shop oft-injured shooting guard Eric Gordon and/or polarizing rookie Austin Rivers and would set them up nicely with two picks in the first round of a 2013 NBA draft that's heavy on center prospects. The pick they would get from Boston likely would be somewhere around the No. 20 range.
San Antonio Spurs acquire: David West
Indiana Pacers acquire: Tiago Splitter, Nando de Colo, Matt Bonner
Why it works for San Antonio: The window of opportunity is still open for the Spurs, but Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili aren't getting any younger and it's hard to say how long that window will remain open. That's why it'd make sense for San Antonio to trade a bit of its future for more of the present, and that's just what West is -- a free agent at the end of the season who can come in and help Duncan on the interior with scoring and rebounding.
Why it works for Indiana: If the Pacers get a healthy Granger back in February and finish out the regular season playing well, they almost certainly would keep West in the fold for a playoff run. If they fall out of the race, though, or aren't playing like a team that can contend for the title, they would be wise to deal the veteran power forward for young pieces who can be a part of their future. Two positions of need on this Indiana team in the seasons ahead are point guard and power forward, and that's why promising international players Splitter and de Colo would be an ideal package.
Los Angeles Lakers acquire: Shannon Brown, Jermaine O'Neal, Sebastian Telfair
Phoenix Suns acquire: Jordan Hill, Earl Clark
(Notes: O'Neal and Brown cannot be traded until Dec. 15; Hill cannot be traded until Jan. 15)
Why it works for Los Angeles: Adding a former Laker in Brown would give the team a trusty scorer and ball handler off the bench whose game has started to blossom in recent seasons, and veterans O'Neal and Telfair would further solidify what has been a very shallow bench in L.A. through the month of November. Telfair and Brown would push Chris Duhon and Steve Blake further down in the rotation, which could serve the Lakers well.
Why it works for Phoenix: Giving up on Brown and Telfair would sting a little because both have played well in their time as Suns, but this would be a way for the team to buy low on Hill. The University of Arizona product was never a fit under Mike D'Antoni in New York, averaging 10.5 minutes with the Knicks in the 2009-10 season before being traded to Houston, and has barely played since D'Antoni took over with the Lakers. Phoenix would be a better fit for the big-time rebounder. Clark is a throw-in to make the deal work, but the key here is adding Hill (who is signed for a modest $3.5 million in 2013-14) as a guy who can add depth to the frontcourt and possibly back up Gortat.
Minnesota Timberwolves acquire: Marcus Thornton, Isaiah Thomas
Sacramento Kings acquire: Derrick Williams, Jose Juan Barea
Why it works for Minnesota: Injuries to Brandon Roy and Chase Budinger have the Wolves heavily relying on guys such as Luke Ridnour, Alexey Shved and Malcolm Lee in the backcourt, at least until Ricky Rubio returns. That doesn't exactly sound like a playoff team, now does it? Adding Thornton, who is one of the best-kept secrets in the NBA and averaged 18.7 ppg as a full-time starter last season, would immediately give the team a guy in the backcourt who can flat-out score. And he's signed for two seasons beyond this one. Thomas, seemingly in the doghouse with Keith Smart in Sacto after a stellar rookie season, would replace Barea and provide point guard depth with Ridnour until Rubio is healthy.
Why it works for Sacramento: With Cousins, Thomas Robinson and Jason Thompson manning the center and power forward spots, perimeter-oriented Williams could thrive in his more natural role as a small forward on the Kings. The No. 2 pick of the 2011 draft already seems to have one foot out the door in his Wolves career and could use a new start. Barea, signed through 2014-15, would replace Thomas and give the Kings another short point guard alongside Aaron Brooks.
Here is a list of some other players contenders are likely to target: J.J. Hickson, Portland; Rodney Stuckey and Tayshaun Prince, Detroit; Al-Farouq Aminu, New Orleans; Tyreke Evans, James Johnson and Aaron Brooks, Sacramento; Jose Calderon, Toronto; Trevor Ariza, Washington