By Britt Robson
January 21, 2010
NBA Midseason Grades
The first half of the season had its share of unexpected ups and downs. Supposed also-rans such as the Thunder, Grizzlies and Bobcats have emerged as legitimate playoff contenders. The five consensus preseason favorites have a worse record than a year ago at this time, with drop-offs ranging from Orlando's minus-seven to the Lakers' minus-one. (The Cavs and Spurs are down three games, and the Celts are minus-five.)

But a team's record isn't the sole criterion for these grades. One big factor is a team's performance relative to reasonable expectations -- which explains why, for example, the Kings (widely expected to finish with the worst record in the Western Conference) get such a high mark and the Magic and Spurs have been downgraded. Another factor is how and why a team is winning or losing. Golden State, for instance, has been ravaged by injuries, while the Wizards have proved to be selfishly dysfunctional and clueless. Finally, weight is given to how well (or poorly) the season's first half has set up a team for the stretch run. Take the Celtics -- they've found that the Kevin Garnett-Rasheed Wallace tandem is not nearly as reliable as they'd hoped.

In the end, of course, it is a subjective judgment.

A- Atlanta Hawks
They have improved for the fifth consecutive year, thanks to the maturation of Josh Smith and Al Horford, the effectiveness of reserve Jamal Crawford at both guard positions, the talents of go-to star Joe Johnson and the lowest turnover rate in the NBA. They're making people pay attention, but is their lofty status among the elite a secured notch in their upward climb, or the happy result of a remarkable run of good health thus far? Validation will come only when they get past the second round of the playoffs.
B- Boston Celtics
They are 7-9 since Dec. 18, and Kevin Garnett, still the key to the defensive prowess that is their championship calling card, has more nagging knee woes. Shame on supposed missing link Rasheed Wallace for showing up out of shape and then shooting more threes (180, at 30 percent) than Paul Pierce (146, 46.6 percent) in nearly 400 fewer minutes. Kendrick Perkins and Rajon Rondo continue to improve, and Ray Allen, like Pierce, is turning in a typically solid campaign. One way or the other, though, KG's health still will decide their season.
B Charlotte Bobcats
Although their big offseason acquisition, Tyson Chandler, has been a bust, the Bobcats (9-1 in January) have climbed to fifth in the East by deploying coach Larry Brown's clamp-down defense with lineups that emphasize quickness over size. Charlotte's games are not exactly poetry in motion; it plays the NBA's fourth-slowest pace and leads the league in turnover rate. But that defense is causing nearly as many miscues, led by Gerald Wallace, who is second in the league in minutes and is grabbing 11.3 rebounds per game, way beyond his previous career high of 7.8. Stephen Jackson hasn't misbehaved yet, free-agent-to-be Raymond Felton is out to prove management erred by not signing him to a long-term deal, and Flip Murray provides precious points off an otherwise thin bench. Charlotte is 18-4 at home and 3-15 on the road.
C- Chicago Bulls
Why can't the Bulls shoot? That's one of the great mysteries of the 2009-10 season. They are 26th in field-goal percentage (43.6), and three perimeter shooters who were supposed to make up for the loss of Ben Gordon -- John Salmons, Kirk Hinrich and Jannero Pargo -- haven't shot this poorly since hand-checking was still allowed in 2003-04. A healthy, rejuvenated Luol Deng, along with a defense that leads the league in blocks and ranks fifth in opposing field-goal percentage, is bailing out the clankers, but the Bulls, who are in the midst of playing nine of 10 on the road (where they are 4-15), need to show a pulse to get coach Vinny Del Negro off the hot seat.
A- Cleveland Cavaliers
By most any measure, the Cavs are better when Shaquille O'Neal sits than when he plays, but Cleveland is willing to pay that penalty to keep him in shape to face Dwight Howard in the playoffs. Sans Shaq, the team closely resembles last year's regular-season juggernaut, with stifling defense, LeBron James as an MVP favorite and Mo Williams' shooting accuracy as an important X factor. In terms of impact on his team, dirty-work stalwart Anderson Varejao merits serious consideration for the Sixth Man Award.
B+ Dallas Mavericks
The defensive emphasis by coach Rick Carlisle has altered the Mavs' identity and enhanced hopes for a deeper playoff run. The versatility of Dirk Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Josh Howard allows Dallas to transition from half-court grinders to fast-break fliers via one substitution (Jason Terry for Erick Dampier), but that only works if Howard recalls how he used to play defense and also stops clanking jumpers (he's a woeful 37.8 percent and second only to Nowitzki in shots per minute). You expect Marion and Dampier (in a contract year) to bolster the defense, but the Mavs' best defensive unit also includes supposed liabilities Nowitzki and 36-year-old Jason Kidd (who has also cut his turnovers without losing any assists) on the floor.
B Denver Nuggets
When their two best players, Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups, are on the floor, the Nuggets have been nearly unbeatable at home (15-1) and better than .500 on the road (8-7). One concern is the slippage in Denver's defensive efficiency, down to 15th from eighth a year ago; add that to the team's fast pace, and the Nuggets are 21st in points allowed. But Anthony remains a scoring machine, and rookie Ty Lawson has emerged as an ideal complement and heir apparent to Billups. Injuries in Portland and uncertainty in Utah over Carlos Boozer's future make Denver the clear-cut Northwest Division favorite.
D Detroit Pistons
A rash of injuries has certainly been a factor in the Pistons' horrible start. But president Joe Dumars also must be accountable for assembling a team that's on a 30-win pace, no longer has any salary-cap flexibility and is bereft of a classic center or point guard. Ben Wallace has turned back the clock to provide a wonderful grace note on his career, and rookie Jonas Jerebko was a shrewd second-round find at power forward. Dumars says he'll explore deals before the trading deadline, but most of his players are overpaid -- including recent free-agent signees Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva -- while producing offensive and defensive efficiency numbers that are in the bottom third of the league.
C- Golden State Warriors
There's probably a great book to be written about the 2009-10 Warriors, along the lines of Terry Pluto's classic Loose Balls about life in the ABA. On defense, they are addicted gamblers, deploying a steal-or-layup philosophy that usually ends as badly as any gambling jones. On offense, they play by far the fastest pace in the NBA, generate nearly five more fast-break points than anyone else and rank eighth in field-goal percentage. And yet, they still are only 19th in offensive efficiency because no teammate makes it down to the basket to rebound misses and maintain possession. They've been ravaged by injuries and initially beset by the Don Nelson-Stephen Jackson feud. They also have some talented players -- including Anthony Randolph, Stephen Curry and Andris Biedrins -- whose evolution outside of Nelson's petri dish would be fascinating to watch.
A Houston Rockets
To be a Rockets fan is current bliss. No pressures or inflated expectations, no pecking-order adjustments for prima donnas; just hard-nosed, synergistic team play. Shane Battier is antithetical to the All-Star Game but an All-Star nonetheless. Fourth-quarter monster Carl Landry deposited three of his teeth in Dirk Nowitzki's arm and missed one game. Tracy McGrady was sent packing so Aaron Brooks and Trevor Ariza could continue their backcourt chemistry. Throw in 6-foot-6 center Chuck Hayes (a.k.a. the Chuck Wagon), Argentine banger Luis Scola at power forward and fire-hydrant guard Kyle Lowry joining Landry off the bench, and you've got a team that is five games over .500 despite losing its top three scorers from last season. That the Rockets have played a Western Conference-high 23 road games and a league-low 12 games against the weaker East makes their success all the more impressive.
C- Indiana Pacers
Losing All-Star forward Danny Granger and talented swingman Mike Dunleavy for a month apiece didn't help, and neither did T.J. Ford's lack of production. But regardless of who's played, the Pacers still have hurried to fail, operating at the NBA's second-fastest tempo (behind only Golden State) while ranking 27th in offensive efficiency. The dramatic improvement of second-year center Roy Hibbert is a rare but legitimate cause to rejoice in Indiana. Playing more kids -- forward Tyler Hansbrough over Troy Murphy, point guard A.J. Price over Earl Watson and the banished Ford -- would help eliminate the chance of an embarrassing first-round playoff annihilation.
B Los Angeles Clippers
Assuming top pick Blake Griffin can fully recover from his knee injury, the Clippers are well-positioned for next season. Their top three-man combination this season -- Baron Davis, Chris Kaman and Eric Gordon -- is locked up through the end of 2012 and fits perfectly with Griffin's skill set. Davis is thriving on the court and coexisting with coach Mike Dunleavy on the sidelines. Kaman is averaging 20.4 points and 9.3 rebounds, and one of his backups, the raw but intriguing DeAndre Jordan, continues to slowly but surely progress. The Clippers already have matched last season's win total of 19.
A- Los Angeles Lakers
They remain the solid favorite to repeat as NBA champions for two major reasons: Among the three frontcourt positions they can rotate four players who are all large, quick and physical (yes, even Pau Gasol); and they have one of the greatest competitors and clutch shooters ever in the backcourt. Naysayers can correctly point to a ho-hum road record (9-6) and a schedule that includes 27 road games in their last 41. Plus, Kobe Bryant is logging big minutes (38.3, up from 36.1 last season) despite the already-taxing career toll multiple trips deep into the playoffs have exacted, not to mention the myriad aches he's currently forced to surmount. "Reliable" isn't the first adjective that comes to mind when you think of Ron Artest, Andrew Bynum or Lamar Odom. But you don't rank No. 2 in the NBA in defensive efficiency by being unreliable. And you bet against Kobe and Phil Jackson at your peril.
A Memphis Grizzlies
Who saw this coming? They are 21-11 since mid-November, thanks to what can only be described as a bruising offense that leads the NBA in points in the paint and second-chance points. After getting lambasted by so many critics (including yours truly) before the season, Zach Randolph has been a stabilizing vet while playing like an All-Star. Guard O.J. Mayo, who hit the rookie wall last season, has steadily bumped up his production and efficiency from month to month, and another second-year player, center Marc Gasol, has been terrific. Memphis can't stop anybody (25th in defensive efficiency and last in points in the paint allowed) and lacks enough depth to succeed in the playoffs. But who expected playoffs and Grizzlies to even be a possibility at the halfway point?
B- Miami Heat
With four starters and sixth man Udonis Haslem all playing with expiring contracts or being eligible to opt out after the season, the Heat are biding their time for this summer's free-agent class. So it is no small accomplishment the team is over .500, thanks mostly to Dwyane Wade. His difficulty finishing at the rim has resulted in a career-low shooting percentage (45.7), and his assist average (6.1) is his lowest since his rookie year. But aside from Michael Beasley -- whose second season has been a fairly comprehensive upgrade, but still not to the level of his hype coming out of college -- the Heat have precious few other resources.
C+ Milwaukee Bucks
Like all teams coached by Scott Skiles (at least early in his tenure), the Bucks get after it on defense and hit the offensive boards. But after starting 8-3 with fuel from the buzz of rookie Brandon Jennings' 55-point explosion against Golden State, the Bucks are 9-20 in their last 29. Jennings' monthly splits drop from 21.6 points on 43 percent shooting in October-November, to 16.7 points on 37.6 percent in December, to 13.4 points on 29.3 percent in January. Sharpshooter Michael Redd is out for the year with another knee injury.
D Minnesota Timberwolves
The Wolves have been as inept as advertised. Like Indiana, they hurry to fail, ranking fourth in pace and 29th in offensive efficiency while leading the league in turnovers. The roster is filled with point guards (rookie Jonny Flynn and neglected free-agent signee Ramon Sessions, with first-round pick Ricky Rubio apprenticing for the NBA in Europe) and power forwards (out-of-position center Al Jefferson and rebounding monster Kevin Love) but lacks the type of galvanizing scorer on the wing (Corey Brewer, while improved, doesn't qualify) that has traditionally been key to the success of the triangle-style offense new coach Kurt Rambis is implementing. Rebuilding is rarely pretty.
F New Jersey Nets
Remember when they were going to be significant contenders in the LeBron sweepstakes? Now the prime source of conversation is their epic ineptitude, right in stride with the nine-win Philadelphia 76ers of 1972-73, who also went 3-38 through their first 41. What's worse, these Nets are becoming increasingly punchless in spirit as well as in scoring: They were blown out by 20 points or more just once in their first 23 games, but six more times in the 18 games since then. Center Brook Lopez has continued to put up good numbers, Yi Jianlian has had some big games since returning from injury and Terrence Williams is a promising rookie. If you want a scapegoat, point guard Devin Harris is having a wretched year. But when the record is this bad, nobody is without blame.
C+ New Orleans Hornets
After coach Byron Scott was fired, Chris Paul got hurt and the Hornets lost eight of their first 13 games, it was easy to imagine a rapid plummet to oblivion. So credit their resilience in winning nine of their last 12 to climb back into the crowded playoff race. Alas, in the brutal West, three games over .500 is tied for 10th. Coach Jeff Bower is riding Paul hard (40.4 minutes per game in January), and while Paul's assists are up, his shooting percentage reads 59.4 percent in October-November, 46 percent in December and 44.3 percent in January. On the plus side, because of the offensive upgrade of Emeka Okafor over Tyson Chandler at center and the emergence of rookie guards Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton, the Hornets' offense drops by only six points per 100 possessions when Paul sits, closing the 15-to-16 points-per-100 possessions gap of the previous two seasons. Finally, if Hornets ownership wants to save money the next two seasons, what about returning James Posey to Boston for Brian Scalabrine and Tony Allen?
B- New York Knicks
After a 3-14 start, the Knicks are 14-10 since Dec. 1. They've slowed their pace of play enough to better feature their best player, forward David Lee, whose points, rebounds and assists have risen each month. They own the league's third-worst rebounding differential while paying $18 million for centers Eddy Curry and Darko Milicic this season, and top pick Jordan Hill is a long way from helping. Unless LeBron or Wade is on the way, hopes for the future rest with Danilo Gallinari, a superb shooter and shoddy defender.
A+ Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder join the Grizzlies as the season's resounding success stories so far. And because they are winning with defense (fourth in efficiency, second in opposing field-goal percentage), are even younger than Memphis and possess a superstar blossoming before our eyes, their prospects for future postseason success are much rosier. As a frequent critic of Kevin Durant before this season, I'm happy to concede that his stunning improvement on defense makes him a legit top-five MVP candidate. But Thunder management has taken pains to build a deep, well-rounded roster of complementary parts. Choosing Durant after Greg Oden was no-brainer, but it did require savvy (in cap management and talent evaluation) for GM Sam Presti to ignore more glamorous choices in favor of Russell Westbrook and James Harden the past two drafts, and to acquire valuable pieces like shooting guard Thabo Sefolosha from Chicago and rookie point guard Eric Maynor from Utah. When the average age of your starting lineup (23.2 years) is almost exactly the same as the number of wins you have at the midpoint of the season, you are in the express lane to success.
C- Orlando Magic
There's reason for concern, with the supposedly elite Magic just 10-11 in their last 21 games. After leading the league in defensive efficiency last season, they are sixth this year, and really suffer when Dwight Howard sits -- meaning Marcin Gortat and Brandon Bass are not earning their fat new contracts. On offense, even with all his free-throw misses, Howard owns the team's top true shooting percentage (which factors in the value of three-pointers and free throws), yet is getting three fewer shots per game than last year. Meanwhile, the team's two worst performers in TS%, Vince Carter and Jameer Nelson, are first and third on the team in shots per minute, respectively.
D+ Philadelphia 76ers
A 12-game losing streak a month into the season has Philadelphia headed to the lottery. It's great that the Sixers want to run -- they are second in the league in fast-break points -- but the pint-sized backcourt of Lou Williams and Allen Iverson is one reason their putrid perimeter defense is allowing an incredible 41 percent shooting from three-point range. Plus, as has been said many times, a go-go pace is directly at odds with the current style of their $15 million man, power forward Elton Brand. Iverson has actually played well in his return to Philadelphia, but in the big picture he's a short-term sideshow whose need to start and play a lot of minutes compromises the development of Williams and rookie Jrue Holliday.
B Phoenix Suns
Having gone 11-15 after a 14-3 start, it looks like the Suns are fading from the playoff race. But check the schedule: The've already finished playing Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, and have just one of their four matchups with the Lakers remaining. On the down side, operating at the league's third-fastest pace with a 35-year-old point guard (Steve Nash, of course) and a 37-year-old swingman (Grant Hill) is not a promising long-term prescription. But in the recent past Phoenix slowed it down and alienated Nash -- a two-time MVP in the midst of perhaps his best season -- so expect the defensively porous team to live or die with an offense that leads the league in effective field-goal percentage (which accounts for the added value of three pointers).
B+ Portland Trail Blazers
They've displayed depth and grit while dealing with a spate of injuries that would have decimated most teams. Despite losing centers Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, Portland steadfastly refuses to pick up the league's slowest pace. The Blazers rank last in both fast-break points and points in the paint, but run the fifth-most-efficient offense by setting up in the half-court and letting proven surgeons like Brandon Roy and Andre Miller develop open jumpers for their teammates, no matter how obscure (Jeff Pendergraph, Dante Cunningham) or ancient (Juwan Howard) they may be. Making the playoffs in the West would be a hell of an accomplishment.
B+ Sacramento Kings
How effective can Kevin Martin be without the ball? That's the question vexing Kings management now that Sacramento has gone 1-8 when its $10 million shooting guard plays and 15-17 when he doesn't. When Martin was sidelined with a wrist injury, the Kings became Tyreke Evans' team, and they performed more effectively when the Rookie of the Year favorite was controlling the ball and Martin was replaced by a better defender. Sacramento has a hard-nosed young core, including rookie swingman Omar Casspi and second-year forward Jason Thompson, who blend well with Evans' skill set. Maybe veteran coach Paul Westphal -- who has already worked wonders his first year on the job -- can figure out a way to get maximum value out of both Martin and Evans. But otherwise, Sacramento's leading scorer the past three seasons probably has to go.
C San Antonio Spurs
Every year some guy looks silly predicting the demise of Gregg Popovich's team, a smart, proud experienced franchise. This year, I'm that guy. A 25-16 first half is the Spurs' worst in an 82-game season in the Popovich-Tim Duncan era, which began in 1997. The Spurs are 8-9 on the road and play 24 of their last 36 games away from home. Duncan has been typically stellar, but the Spurs have had trouble incorporating all their newfound depth (especially Richard Jefferson and Antonio McDyess), Manu Ginobili has been inconsistent and Tony Parker seems to have lost a crucial split second in his penetration. Heading into the season, the Spurs were widely regarded as the team with the best chance to unseat the Lakers in the West, but nothing in the first half suggests they are capable -- or better equipped than Denver or Dallas -- of going into L.A. and winning a series.
B Toronto Raptors
They are as advertised: A slick-passing, smart-shooting team that can't guard anybody. Last in the NBA in defensive efficiency, the Raptors are hovering around .500 because they possess a potent front line in Chris Bosh, Andrea Bargnani and Hedo Turkoglu, and have guys like Jose Calderon and Jarrett Jack to get them the ball. I ridiculed the big contracts awarded Bargnani and Jack before the season, but they've actually been better investments than Turkoglu. Toronto's first half was neither fantastic nor terrible enough to by itself decide the fate of impending free agent Bosh, who might be moved before the trading deadline.
C+ Utah Jazz
Carlos Boozer's unexpected decision to remain with the Jazz instead of becoming a free agent last offseason already has forced management to trade promising rookie Eric Maynor as part of a money-saving deal, adding to the enormous pressure placed on starting point guard Deron Williams. Boozer's presence is also reducing the effectiveness of Paul Millsap, and the frontcourt tandem of Boozer and Mehmet Okur is a triple-digit score waiting to happen for Jazz opponents. The best-case scenario is to get value for Boozer before the trade deadline, but that's unlikely. Having a healthy Kyle Korver to help space the floor for Williams and Boozer would help. The Jazz are one of eight teams in the West playoff race separated by three games. Jerry Sloan's team won't be excluded without a fight.
F Washington Wizards
Even before he was suspended for bringing guns into the locker room, Gilbert Arenas had sabotaged the Wizards' season with his ball-centric style, constantly short-circuiting Flip Saunders' half-court passing attack. That's how a team with a bevy of outside shooters -- Mike Miller, Antawn Jamison, Caron Butler, Randy Foye and Nick Young, along with Arenas -- guided by a proven offensive-minded coach like Saunders can rank 22nd in offensive efficiency. The Wizards will be a team to watch as the trade deadline approaches.

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