Wednesday February 9th, 2005

NBA Midterm Report Card
Grade Team
F Antoine Walker was brought in largely for the salary-cap relief his $14 million contract will provide when it expires after this season. First-round draft pick Josh Childress has "a poor man's" Jared Jeffries written all over him. And the club is drawing 13,000 fans a game. As former colleague John Hollinger opined, this team has had exactly one good thing happen to it this season -- Josh Smith, and he's hurt.
C+ To overhaul the roster, bring in a new coach and convince a team including Gary Payton, Paul Pierce and Ricky Davis to play cohesively enough to provide the Celtics a legitimate chance at a division title should buy GM Danny Ainge a little more patience for his rebuilding plan. They'll need it -- more changes are on the way.
C Coach Bernie Bickerstaff is a master of transforming bad teams into respectable outfits. With the steady Emeka Okafor already in the fold and a front office shrewd enough to pluck young, untapped talents such as Primoz Brezec and Jason Hart, the Bobcats aren't merely celebrating their very existence in their first year. With the salary cap making proven talent more available than ever, Charlotte may be respectable faster than any previous expansion team. Heck, they're already better than the Hawks.
B+ Granted they're playing stifling defense and getting huge contributions from the bench, but it's still a mystery as to how the light finally came on for a Bulls team that appeared to be going through the motions at the start of the season. Maybe it had something to do with the front office's steadfast support of coach Scott Skiles. Maybe it had something to do with Eddy Curry and Tyson Chandler both playing for contracts. Maybe it doesn't matter, not when you are within shouting distance of the Central division lead after losing an average of 61 games a year over the past five seasons.
A- If things go according to plan, the LeBron James Era is only a John Elway-drive or Michael Jordan-shot away from ending in disaster. Until that day comes -- and for Cleveland fans that day always comes -- the town should take the time to enjoy the turnaround of franchise that was the league's worst two seasons ago into an Eastern Conference contender. As much as that says about the shallow talent pool in the East, it says even more about the most talented player to grace the shores of Lake Erie since Jim Brown.
A- Steve Nash is gone in person and coach Don Nelson is essentially gone in spirit, yet the Mavs keep winning. As much as that is a result of Dirk Nowitzki's otherworldly play, it is also a testament to the benefits of creating a winning atmosphere the past few seasons. Fill-in coach Avery Johnson was adequate in Nellie's absence (due to surgery on his right shoulder) -- and was even able to spark Erick Dampier of late, but the Mavericks played well because they have played in Nelson's system so long that, at this point, they can run it themselves.
C We've never been a member of the Kiki Vandeweghe cult, that group that professes every move the Denver GM makes to be laced with gold. But how valuable was drafting Nikoloz Tskitishvili with the fifth overall pick in 2002? How valuable was throwing $51 million at the consistently underwhelming Andre Miller to run your offense only to have to turn over the point guard duties to onetime journeyman Earl Boykins late in games. And how valuable was hanging now-former coach Jeff Bzdelik out to dry without a contract extension after he guided the Nuggets to the playoffs last season? With the respected George Karl now on the bench, it's Vandeweghe's turn on the hot seat.
B Is there a bigger drama queen in the NBA than coach Larry Brown? For all of his coaching genius, Brown seems incapable -- or unwilling -- to grasp that after playing deep into June last year, his Pistons might not have the juice to put their feet on the gas early in the regular season. Doesn't a team as experienced and proven as Detroit deserve the benefit of being able to save a little energy for the extra quarter of a season another deep playoff run would entail? And for all of the hand-wringing in Motor City, the Pistons still find themselves atop the Central division.
D- Imagine going to sleep the coach of a perennial college basketball powerhouse, a beloved figure on one of the prettiest campuses in America. Then imagine waking up the coach of a perennial NBA also-ran, a criticized figure on a team that blows $88 million on two bench players, Adonal Foyle and Derek Fisher, essentially placing the franchise's feet in cement shoes for the next six years. Could anyone blame Mike Montgomery if he's been stocking up on the Tylenol PM?
B- Long one of the league's most offensively challenged coaches, Jeff Van Gundy opened things up a bit after the Rockets appeared lost coming out of the gate. Of course, it's easy to increase your team's scoring with a motivated Tracy McGrady on the floor. True to the style of Previous Van Gundy teams, the Rockets' rise hasn't been pretty to watch on the floor, but it's been steady.
INC There may be no other team in the league that could lose three-fifths of its starting lineup for most of the season's first two months and still be in contention for the playoffs. Stephen Jackson's increasing unpredictability may complicate things, but Rick Carlisle is a good enough coach to guide this team to home court advantage in at least the first round of the postseason.
C+ What must Clippers owner Donald Sterling have on GM Elgin Baylor? Year after year Baylor assembles a talented young roster of players and cajoles some of the NBA's most respected coaches to guide and shape the explosive talent only to see Sterling nickel-and-dime Baylor's work apart. This year promises to be no different. Coach Mike Dunleavy will likely ride Corey Maggette, Elton Brand and some eye-opening performances by Bobby Simmons and Marko Jaric to within reach of the playoffs. The media will speculate as to how good the Clips could be with another year of seasoning. And Sterling will prove us all fools as he keeps his wallet closed to the possibility of keeping the two players he did pay -- Brand and Maggette -- surrounded by productive complementary players but open to collect his profits.
B- Did they really trade away Shaquille O'Neal? After the biggest offseason of upheaval since Michael Jordan's Bulls broke up (Did the Lakers really trade away Shaq?), the Lakers recovered as well as could be hoped. The fact that this team hasn't completely collapsed, a bad loss to Atlanta aside, in Kobe Bryant's absence (due to a severely sprained ankle) or Rudy Tomjanovich's resignation speaks volumes about the type of player Lamar Odom is when healthy and motivated. If Kobe could comprehend this, the Lakers might give Bryant the last laugh in his desire to prove he can lead a winner without Shaq. (Did the Lakers really trade him?) But we get the sense that Kobe would tell Wilt Chamberlain to clear out if they played together.
B Former coach Hubie Brown's 10-man rotation worked early on in Memphis when everyone was equally clueless to his teachings. After about two seasons, though -- when a gifted Pau Gasol has caught up to the Lorenzen Wrights as to the proper position to call for an entry pass -- it's time to take advantage of the abilities more talented players have (i.e. give the starters more minutes). New coach Mike Fratello recognized this and adjusted the Grizzlies' rotation, which now has the Grizz quietly in the thick of the Western Conference playoff seedings.
A Much has been made about how the improved performances of the Heat's role players have helped Shaq and Dwyane Wade catapult Miami to the top of the East. Funny, that's the same claim made of the Lakers' most recent championship teams. Wonder if there's a common thread?

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