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NBA midseason grades

NBA Midseason Grades
 
The best aspect of the first half of the season was the drama it has set up for the second half and on into the playoffs. The Celtics and Lakers are seeing their conference supremacy challenged by Miami and league-leading San Antonio, respectively. The Magic blew up their team and seemingly emerged stronger; the Bulls shrugged off an assortment of injuries and kept winning.

But a team's record isn't the sole criterion for these grades. Another factor is how well the team has performed relative to reasonable expectations. For example, the Hornets have a slightly worse record than the Jazz, Mavericks or Thunder, but few people imagined they'd be this close to landing home-court advantage in the Western Conference playoffs at this point. Also taken into consideration is how and why a team is winning or losing. Some sub-.500 teams are accepting losses while they build a foundation for their future, while others have been sabotaged by injuries or dysfunction. And finally, weight is also given to how well (or poorly) the season's first half has positioned the team the rest of the way.

In the end, of course, it is a subjective judgment that could look especially silly or shrewd with a sudden winning streak or mysterious collapse.

(All stats and records are through Jan. 19.)

B+Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks have won seven of eight to wedge themselves between the highly respected Bulls and Magic in the standings, and they've emphasized defense -- the ingredient to playoff success -- under rookie coach Larry Drew. Yet it still feels as if the Hawks' season is on an entertaining treadmill, while they hope against the odds that it's actually an escalator. Al Horford keeps getting better, and Mike Bibby is providing more than can be reasonably expected of a 33-year-old point guard who was already slow in his prime. But they're paying Joe Johnson to be a difference-maker, and he keeps demonstrating he's better suited to be the third-best player on a champion. The Hawks have reached the second round of the playoffs in back-to-back seasons, but they would be hard-pressed to repeat that accomplishment if they end up facing Chicago, Orlando, Boston or Miami in a 4-5 first-round matchup.
 
A-Boston Celtics
Concerns about a more lax defense without injured center Kendrick Perkins and departed assistant coach Tom Thibodeau were unfounded as the Celtics once again were indomitable before Christmas. They beat the Heat twice and rolled to a 23-4 mark with a 14-game winning streak, surviving a slew of injuries to players other than their veteran Big Three, including NBA assist leader Rajon Rondo and practically everyone taller than 6-9. But right after that, a 10-game stretch of .500 ball and Kevin Garnett's calf injury brought back memories of last year's midseason swoon. No matter: The Celtics have demonstrated that when fully healthy they have to be considered at least the co-favorites to win the East.
 
C-Charlotte Bobcats
In retrospect, Larry Brown should have walked out, or been shown the door, right after Charlotte decided to trim payroll by dumping Tyson Chandler and failing to re-sign Raymond Felton in the offseason. After leading the franchise to its first playoff appearance last season, the 70-year-old coach was exhausted by the notion of retooling, and his team followed his lead. Interim coach Paul Silas, himself 67, has simultaneously relaxed and energized the players, stoking the confidence of some guys ignored by Brown, such as center Kwame Brown (the former No. 1 pick now incredibly in his 10th year) and second-year swingman Gerald Henderson. The Bobcats' hopes of returning to the playoffs mostly rest with Gerald Wallace, Stephen Jackson and Tyrus Thomas. But they're better off with Silas at the helm.
 
AChicago Bulls
Nothing beats watching your team win a championship, but seeing one quicken into a legitimate contender after years of mediocrity is nearly as satisfying. That's what the Bulls' faithful is experiencing now: the emergence of a superstar in Derrick Rose, and the way major and minor role players have clicked into place almost exactly the way it was envisioned in the summer blueprint, despite a plethora of injuries. The Bulls, with the right mix of size and quickness, offense and defense, age and youth, are coalescing into something that could be special. Among the minor points of concern are Carlos Boozer's injury history; Rose's endurance after playing in the FIBA World Championship last summer and now carrying a heavy burden for Chicago; the temperament of tightly wound coach Tom Thibodeau when the intensity rises in the postseason; and a less-than-stellar rotation at shooting guard.
 
FCleveland Cavaliers
Their three straight road wins in early November seem like a mirage today. If Amar'e Stoudemire had converted a 12-foot fadeaway at the buzzer on Dec. 18, the Cavs would be in the midst of a 24-game losing streak. As it is, they have dropped 14 in a row. Their best player, Anderson Varejao, is lost for the season with an ankle injury. They rank last in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) and 29th in defensive efficiency. If you strain hard for positive signs, you can make out the improvement in Daniel Gibson, the flashes of talent in J.J. Hickson when he's not feuding with coach Byron Scott, and the fact that those seven wins in October and November count just the same on the final tally in April, probably saving the Cavs the ignominy of being the worst team of all time.
 
BDallas Mavericks
A little more than three weeks ago, they had the league's second-best record and were a confident, deep and well-balanced team. Now, after a 3-9 plunge triggered by injuries to forwards Dirk Nowitzki (who missed nine games) and Caron Butler (who is out for the rest of the regular season), they have the sixth-best record and precious little momentum heading into the second half. Taking more contested shots in the half court after Nowitzki went down, Jason Kidd converted 26.5 percent from the field and Jason Terry was at 39.6 percent over a 10-game stretch. Nowitzki has returned and, even with Butler gone, there's too much talent here to totally fade from contention. But the notion that this was a special season in Dallas is gone, and will be hard to regain.
 
B-Denver Nuggets
Their season will remain in limbo until the Carmelo Anthony situation is resolved. The reasonable assumption is that Anthony wants to be paid a maximum salary and choose which team he plays for next, the Nuggets want maximum return in any trade and those parallel desires are difficult to reconcile. Fair enough, but Nuggets fans deserve better; along with waiting out the Carmelo saga, they've been unable to see this team play at full strength very often and have heard rumors that the team's other marquee player, Chauncey Billups, will also be dealt -- against his desire to stay, retire and ascend to the Denver front office. Under the circumstances, the team is a respectable 24-17. Nobody knows what the next step is in the wake of New Jersey's decision to end Carmelo talks. The seasonlong uncertainty makes the most logical grade an incomplete, but the B-minus reflects George Karl's solid work in the face of trying circumstances.
 
CDetroit Pistons
Let the rebuilding begin in earnest, because it is just as certain after 42 games as it was back in October that even if the current roster overachieves, Detroit still isn't going to be anything more than first-round fodder for the Celtics or the Heat. Losing Jonas Jerebko in the preseason was a rough blow to that rebuilding process, but over the past couple of weeks it has been good to see John Kuester's belatedly giving big minutes to rookie center Greg Monroe and finding more time for second-year forward Austin Daye. Kuester has also stopped using veteran shooting guard Richard Hamilton, whom the coach insists was benched as part of a rotation change, not to keep him healthy before a possible trade.
 
C+Golden State Warriors
After two years of lampooning Basketball 101 under thankfully departed coach Don Nelson, the Warriors are working toward respectability. There's still plenty of room for improvement: They rank only 28th in defensive efficiency and last in defensive rebounding percentage, and they shoot the fewest number of free throws while allowing the second most. But Monta Ellis has become more than just a volume scorer and ball-hawk, and three-point shooter Dorell Wright has proved to be a shrewd acquisition. If guard Stephen Curry, forward David Lee and center Andris Biedrins overcome their nagging injuries and stop underachieving, Golden State -- which has a home-heavy schedule in the second half -- could still contend for a playoff spot.
 
CHouston Rockets
Losing Yao Ming yet again is naturally the central drama to the season, but it was revealing how unsuccessful the limited-minutes experiment with him was before he went down. Coach Rick Adelman's post-Yao strategy has been to try to run a high-powered offense with the likes of Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Aaron Brooks, Chase Budinger and floor-spacing center Brad Miller, and balance them with quality defenders such as Chuck Hayes, Shane Battier and Courtney Lee. The result has been offensive fireworks and horrible defense. GM Daryl Morey has rightly been praised for stockpiling assets, and if ever a team needed to trade quantity for quality, it's the Rockets.
 
C+Indiana Pacers
Given the tantalizing glimpses we've seen, a 16-23 record is disappointing. Center Roy Hibbert played like a potential All-Star the first six weeks of the season and then shot less than 40 percent the last six weeks. Danny Granger has been an All-Star but is not playing like one this season. Point guard Darren Collision is finally finding a rhythm after being given more minutes and freedom to run the offense, but his defense is problematic. Overall, defense is what's propping up the Pacers, who rank eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions. That's why they are more likely to flourish than flounder in the second half, although neither scenario would be a surprise.
 
B+Los Angeles Clippers
Blake Griffin has relentlessly gotten better in his rookie season. From October to January, all of his major categories -- minutes, points, rebounds and assists -- have steadily improved each month. In his first eight January games, he is averaging 27.8 points, 13.6 rebounds and 4.3 assists. Not coincidentally, the Clippers have risen with him, posting months of 0-3, 3-12, 7-8 and 6-2. The Rookie of the Year lock isn't a one-man team, either. Eric Gordon leads the Clippers with 23.8 points a game. Baron Davis has shelved the selfishness that can infect his game and is increasingly looking to enable Griffin and Gordon in half-court sets. DeAndre Jordan is finding his niche as a rim protector. Ryan Gomes is a savvy glue guy. Eric Bledsoe and Al-Farouq Aminu are precocious rookies who didn't embarrass themselves as starters when injuries hit the team earlier this year and deserve their rotation minutes now. And center Chris Kaman, an All-Star last season, should be back sometime during the second half of the season. L.A. will be tested with 10 consecutive road games starting before and finishing after the All-Star break, but Clippers jokes are on hold in 2011.
 
B+Los Angeles Lakers
They are "only" 31-13, including four home defeats to teams currently with losing records, and face a tougher schedule in the second half. Other things to worry about, in order of importance: the lack of cartilage in Kobe Bryant's aching knee; the seven-game advantage the Spurs hold in the loss column for the No. 1 seed in the Western Conference; Ron Artest's shooting woes; and the surprising lack of depth, even with Andrew Bynum's return, for the last six weeks of the season's first half. On the other hand, Lamar Odom is playing better than ever, Bynum's early-season absence will make him fresher for the playoffs, and Kobe and coach Phil Jackson know as well as anyone what is required to go from opening night to the NBA Finals.
 
BMemphis Grizzlies
After Memphis faded from playoff contention last season due at least in part to overworked starters and the NBA's least productive bench, coach Lionel Hollins has sought to develop a quality nine- or 10-man rotation. It was smart to make O.J. Mayo a sixth man, and Hollins has worked defensive specialist Tony Allen, second-year forwards Darrell Arthur and Sam Young and rookie guards Xavier Henry and Greivis Vasquez into the regular mix. If Portland finally succumbs to its injuries and the Nuggets ever do trade Carmelo Anthony and start rebuilding, the deeper Grizzlies -- led by Zach Randolph (20 points, 13 rebounds per game) and Rudy Gay (20.7 points on a career-high 47.7 percent shooting) -- are poised to pounce on a playoff spot.
 
B+Miami Heat
In recent years, some of the elite NBA teams, recognizing that the road to a championship is a marathon, have caught their breath and coasted for brief stretches after proving to themselves they could perform at a title-worthy level. Perhaps that explains how the Heat have bracketed their 21-1 dominance over a six-week period through December with a pedestrian 9-8 start and a current four-game losing streak. The Heat have cause to be confident. Their point differential is second only to San Antonio's, and when LeBron James and Dwyane Wade are both healthy and acclimated to playing with each other, they've been close to unbeatable. All that said, however, LeBron has seen his favored, supposedly elite team beaten before, more than once, in the postseason; this team still hasn't defeated the Celtics (it's 0-2 with the next showdown set for Feb. 13); and Miami's supporting cast lacks the playoff pedigree of most legitimate contenders. So far, Miami has been as good as advertised. But the real tests are on the horizon.
 
C-Milwaukee Bucks
Reigning Executive of the Year John Hammond should have realized that ball-hogger Corey Maggette and no-nonsense, defensive-oriented coach Scott Skiles would mix like oil and water. But Hammond has no control over the recovery time necessary for franchise cornerstone Andrew Bogut to regain his peak form of a year ago, before he suffered a horrific fall last April. Add in the injuries that have sidelined point guard Brandon Jennings (their second-best player), Hammond's other big offseason acquisition, forward Drew Gooden, and double-digit scorer Carlos Delfino, and you have the opposite of last year's feel-good story. Silver linings: According to Basketball-Reference, the Bucks have played the NBA's toughest schedule; and despite a woeful offense and 15-24 record, Milwaukee is only one games out of the eighth seed in the East -- and just one game behind the pace of last year's playoff team, which went 30-13 down the stretch.
 
CMinnesota Timberwolves
Their frontcourt is arguably among the 10 best in the NBA. Third-year power forward Kevin Love has blossomed into a star and a rebounding phenomenon, and small forward Michael Beasley has played closer to the potential that made him the No. 2 pick in 2008 than he did in his two seasons in Miami. Center Darko Milicic remains maddeningly inconsistent but continues to tease with ace shot-blocking and a refined low-post offensive game on the occasions when he is focused. On the flip side, second-year point guard Jonny Flynn looks like a bust, 23-year-old rookie Wes Johnson is regressing and the adults in the room, point guard Luke Ridnour and coach Kurt Rambis, don't seem capable of helping this team hold on to fourth-quarter leads. The Wolves have come a long way since last season, but they have at least that far to go before playoff contention is even a possibility.
 
DNew Jersey Nets
Is it possible to take a step backward from a 12-win season? Since the conclusion of that horrid year, the Nets were bought by a grandiose billionaire who was used as a pawn during his courtship of big-name free agents; New Jersey eventually settled for Travis Outlaw, who has a wretched 47.6 true shooting percentage (which takes into account free throws and three-pointers) and, according to Basketball Value, is a weak link on defense. More recently, the Nets were spurned in their assiduous pursuit of Carmelo Anthony, before saying they'd finally ended the chase. Their best players (Brook Lopez and Devin Harris) have been inconsistent and they have the NBA's fourth-worst record at 11-31 under Avery Johnson. On the bright side, a 2-28 finish is all it would take to improve on last season.
 
ANew Orleans Hornets
The Hornets have nearly the same record as Chicago and Utah, so why some observers don't at least include Chris Paul in the conversation for best point guard in the NBA, when Derrick Rose and Deron Williams have vastly superior supporting casts, is a mystery. Adopting the slow, deliberate pace he learned under Nate McMillan in Portland, rookie coach Monty Williams has done a terrific job wringing near-optimal production from defensive-oriented center Emeka Okafor and helping New Orleans jump from 21st to sixth in defensive efficiency. The winning formula has been to slow the tempo, play solid team defense and rely on arguably the best two-man game in a half-court offense this season, Paul and deadly mid-range shooter David West. The Hornets probably won't get past the first round of the playoffs, but they're still better at this stage of the season than most anyone expected.
 
BNew York Knicks
The Knicks have thrived on the pick-and-roll prowess of Amar'e Stoudemire and point guard Raymond Felton, but, as often happens with Mike D'Antoni's teams, they're being undone by shoddy defense. They are 11-2 when holding opponents below 100 points and, having lost five of six, 22-19 overall. But it counts for something that fans have derived a lot of satisfaction out of such a relatively mediocre record. It's been a long drought in New York. In a perfect world, Stoudemire would be paired with another star. Otherwise, notwithstanding more interior help, the surrounding pieces are mostly in place. Rookie Landry Fields is playing with the sagacity of a wily vet, Wilson Chandler has been a reliable swingman and Danilo Gallinari has added dribble penetration and an ability to draw fouls to his long-range shooting.
 
B+Oklahoma City Thunder
A year ago, the young Thunder improved by 27 games and threw a scare into the Lakers in the playoffs. It was inevitable that this encore season would be overhyped, anticlimactic and, in terms of wins and losses, more successful than last year. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook have slipped defensively, but Durant has picked it up offensively after a slow start and Westbrook is attacking the rim with a vengeance for the Northwest Division co-leaders. The two stars and the improvement of second-year bench players Serge Ibaka and James Harden make the Thunder a legitimate threat to do some damage in the playoffs. And if they swoon, the experience will make them that much better in 2011-12.
 
B+Orlando Magic
GM Otis Smith should be applauded for having the nerve and instincts to make wholesale changes to a team seemingly destined to take a step backward. Those who clamor for Gilbert Arenas to take time away from Jameer Nelson miss the point: The trade with Washington was perhaps most beneficial for avoiding the awkward scenario of eventually having to bench Rashard Lewis and his enormous contract. As for the deal with Phoenix, I was apparently wrong to doubt the instant rejuvenation of Hedo Turkoglu, but maintain that the real upgrade is swapping out Vince Carter, who shrinks from the occasion, for Jason Richardson, who was part of Golden State's historic upset of Dallas in the 2007 playoffs and was frequently unstoppable in helping Phoenix get to the conference finals last season. But for all he's done, shame on Smith if he can't unearth a quality backup center for Dwight Howard before the spring.
 
B-Philadelphia 76ers
The situation looked grim when the Sixers started 3-13, including two losses apiece to the Wizards, Raptors and Cavaliers. New coach Doug Collins' reputation as a quick-fix artist of bad teams was being supplanted by the notion that he was out of touch. But then the defense kicked in, allowing under 100 points in 10 of 11 games as Philadelphia went 8-3. If the season ended today, the Sixers would qualify for the playoffs while still developing their young roster. Six of Philadelphia's top eight players in minutes are 24 or younger, including 20-year-old cornerstone point guard Jrue Holiday and 22-year-old sixth man Thaddeus Young. No. 2 pick Evan Turner is also in that mix, but the rookie shooting guard is hitting only 39.5 percent and hopefully faces a learning curve rather than being physically overwhelmed.
 
C-Phoenix Suns
Letting Amar'e Stoudemire walk was defensible only if you had a quality option in the paint and didn't have to rely solely on center Robin Lopez, who entered the season having played 1,600 minutes in the NBA -- the equivalent of slightly less than 20 minutes per game for one full season. When Lopez predictably couldn't carry the load on his own, the Suns dealt leading scorer Jason Richardson -- and took on Vince Carter -- to get center Marcin Gortat. Now last year's conference finalists are under .500 and rank last in defensive efficiency. They need to take advantage of this break in the schedule -- a stretch of five straight games against losing East teams began with Wednesday's victory in Cleveland -- if they are going to avoid wasting the next-to-last year of Steve Nash's contract.
 
B-Portland Trail Blazers
Count me among those who assumed Portland would never have to endure another run of injuries as damaging as the one that derailed it last season. Well, having the three biggest keys to its championship aspirations -- Brandon Roy, Greg Oden and Marcus Camby -- all felled by knee woes exceeds last year's carnage (Roy is sidelined indefinitely after surgery on both knees this week, Oden is done for the season and Camby had surgery Thursday and reports say he's expected to miss about three weeks). Thus, we're once again left to admire the Blazers' grit in the face of adversity, while strongly suspecting that a team I regarded as a legitimate threat to the Lakers in the preseason will face an uphill battle merely to make the playoffs. There have been positives amid the injuries: LaMarcus Aldridge has become a legitimate low-post scorer; it's pretty clear management didn't waste $34 million when it signed free agent Wes Matthews; playing at the league's slowest pace still enables Nate McMillan's team to out-execute many opponents; and Andre Miller remains a steady contributor.
 
D+Sacramento Kings
Rock bottom occurred somewhere in that November-December period when they lost 16 of 17 games, reigning Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans was hobbling around on a bum foot, rookie DeMarcus Cousins was displaying his immaturity and coach Paul Westphal's job status was a daily curiosity. Although that gruesome phase has passed, Sacramento is still the NBA's second-worst team at 9-31. For better or worse, Westphal is fast-forwarding the development process, giving Cousins a full immersion despite the presence of a strong backup in veteran Samuel Dalembert. The Kings have drafted skillfully and have some decent trade chips like Omri Casspi and Carl Landry, if they want to clear cap space or fill in pieces that complement Evans and Cousins.
 
A+San Antonio Spurs
They are on a 70-win pace without a viable MVP candidate -- now that's a team. Everyone has a specific role but is expected to be proficient in other areas. Manu Ginobili is a premier closer, and Tim Duncan and Tony Parker have postseason game-winners on their résumé, but no one is surprised if the likes of Gary Neal and Matt Bonner are called on to take the big shot. Much has been made, with good reason, of the Spurs' up-tempo reforms on offense, but two other things to keep in mind: In the Gregg Popovich/Duncan era, the Spurs have almost always improved in the second half by tightening their defense; and they're running away with the NBA's best record despite little production from rookies James Anderson (who played six games before breaking his foot) and Tiago Splitter, and the fact that Richard Jefferson's much-ballyhooed renaissance has been mostly hype.
 
C-Toronto Raptors
Their future without Chris Bosh is not as bereft of hope as Cleveland's without LeBron, but the Raptors still seem relatively clueless about how to build a winning roster. They paid big money to Andrea Bargnani, Jose Calderon and Hedo Turkoglu the past few years, with predictably disastrous results on defense. They were able to unload Turkoglu (for Leandro Barbosa) in the offseason, and create some future salary-cap flexibility by trading for the expiring contract of Peja Stojakovic in late November. But aside from banger Joey Dorsey and foul-prone Amir Johnson, there aren't any above-average defenders on the roster. Second-year swingman DeMar DeRozan has had some breakout scoring games lately, but the deeper statistics confirm what you see -- he doesn't do much to enable his teammates at either end of the court. Even with Bosh and Turkoglu, the Raptors missed the playoffs in the weaker Eastern Conference last season. Unfortunately, their current 13-29 record seems about right.
 
B-Utah Jazz
Deron Williams carried the Jazz through a 13-3 November, including 6-1 on the road, with MVP-caliber play, but they're barely over .500 otherwise. Their chronically inept first quarters are finally starting to cost them games, and coach Jerry Sloan might have to think about altering his lineup so that two unreliable shooters, Andrei Kirilenko and Raja Bell, aren't out there together for the opening tip. Forward Paul Millsap and sixth man C.J. Miles have been boom or bust on offense, and new acquisition Al Jefferson is holding his own on defense but without the offensive explosions that occurred pretty regularly in Minnesota. Now that Mehmet Okur is back, maybe Sloan can hit upon the right rotation. But right now, Carlos Boozer's offensive consistency is sorely missed.
 
DWashington Wizards
No one is shocked that the Wizards phased out Gilbert Arenas in favor of John Wall, or that once-touted players like Yi Jianlian and Al Thornton haven't improved on their pedestrian performances of previous years. But the more viable causes for hope also haven't panned out. Wall's rookie campaign has been marred by injuries. Forward Andray Blatche, who received an extension that added at least $28 million to his contract in the offseason, is shooting less than 42 percent and had a physical altercation with the Wizards' other skilled big man, JaVale McGee, outside a nightclub last month. Coach Flip Saunders' offensive ingenuity is being translated into the NBA's 25th-ranked team in points per 100 possessions. And despite the steady veteran presence of Kirk Hinrich and (more recently) Rashard Lewis, and the emergence of Nick Young as a potent scorer, Washington is the sixth team in NBA history to start a season 0-20 on the road.
 
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