By Britt Robson
February 21, 2012
NBA Midseason Grades

Instead of doing the regular Power Rankings this week, I'm going to hand out midseason grades that reflect teams' performance since the season began.

As I noted last season when grading the teams at midseason, there isn't a sole criterion for the marks. A team's record is obviously the most important factor. But consideration is also given to how a team has performed relative to expectations, and how and why it is winning or losing, including its response to injuries and its trends toward improvement or dysfunction as the season unfolds. A faltering championship hopeful is in tougher shape than a team that is losing games but developing its young players and building for the future.

(All stats and records are through Monday, Feb. 21.)

B Atlanta Hawks (19-13)
Losing their best player, Al Horford, just 11 games into the season should have doomed the Hawks to the fringes of the playoff picture -- and may still. But Atlanta's defiant 9-2 surge in the weeks after Horford tore his pectoral muscle was an important statement for a team generally regarded as too dysfunctional and/or not talented enough to challenge the elite teams in the East. Then again, the Hawks have been better bullies than giant killers, going 14-1 against teams with current losing records, and their offense has fizzled during what has been a grim February. Incorporating point guard Kirk Hinrich after his early-season absence has been more hindrance than help, and small forward Marvin Williams has engaged in his annual ritual of raising and then dashing the hopes of Hawks fans. The size of that fan base is another problem: Atlanta is again near the bottom in attendance, with a payroll close to luxury-tax territory this season and with about $60 million already committed for six players next season. The high-priced players such as Josh Smith and Joe Johnson have to earn their keep, and they generally have been. But Horford, the most reliable of Atlanta's expensive trio, isn't due back anytime soon.
C Boston Celtics (15-16)
The Celtics can neither be counted on nor counted out, as the ravages of age and the resilience of pride wage an epic battle to determine what defines their season. Although they got the better of the Glen Davis-Brandon Bass trade, the season-long loss of Jeff Green, as expected, opened a void between the old stars and the callow kids that contributes to the team's inconsistency. The spectacular defense of second-year point guard Avery Bradley and the silky skills of forward JaJuan Johnson promote hope for the future. But in the present, the Celtics must rely on jump shots for points and a maniacal defense for wins, a grueling, ultimately impossible way to get where they want to go.
D- Charlotte Bobcats (4-27)
The Bobcats were the consensus pick as the worst team in the NBA before the season started, so their record isn't that much of a surprise. But they showed a disheartening lack of spunk during the month-long losing streak that began in mid-January, driving their point differential down to minus-14.3, by far the least competitive mark in the league. Unfortunately, the future appears nearly as bleak. Their last major free-agent signing, Tyrus Thomas, remains immature and injury-prone, and of their top two rookies, Kemba Walker profiles as a 6-1 shooting guard and teenager Bismack Biyombo might be an elite low-post defender in two or three years, but is really raw.
A- Chicago Bulls (26-8)
The Bulls will not win a championship with C.J. Watson and John Lucas as their point guards or if MVP Derrick Rose is too compromised by back spasms and turf toe. They've posted an admirable record in the games Rose has missed, and despite key players such as Luol Deng and Richard Hamilton (a disappointment at shooting guard) joining Rose on the sideline at various times, the team's offensive efficiency (points per possession) has actually increased from 11th a year ago to third. (The defensive efficiency remains in the top three.) But the playoffs are a different beast, especially at crunch time, when a healthy Rose has proved capable of carrying the team. Given that his signature move is a fearless drive to the hoop through traffic, the most important "win" in Chicago's first half might be the MRI ruling out any structural damage in his back.
B- Cleveland Cavaliers (12-17)
This season will be remembered as the year rookie Kyrie Irving enabled Cavs fans to put the LeBron James era in their rear-view mirror. Irving's offensive game gleams with charisma. The 19-year-old has a knack for finishing in traffic, yet can step back and convert more than 40 percent of his three-pointers. His play ascends to accommodate the big moments in crunch time, and his demeanor exudes confidence without arrogance or false bravado. He is so good at generating his own offense that it is easy to overlook his turnovers -- three per game, against fewer than five assists -- and his poor defense, which gives back nearly everything he gains at the other end of the court. Fortunately, coach Byron Scott has assembled a second unit that gets after it on defense, especially on the perimeter with Ramon Sessions, Daniel Gibson and Alonzo Gee, none of them renowned as effective defenders before this season. Losing center Anderson Varejao for a few weeks with a broken hand is a significant but temporary setback for a team whose rebuilding project can progress more rapidly than expected.
B+ Dallas Mavericks (21-12)
With two season-opening blowout losses and a 3-5 start, "disarray" didn't begin to describe how physically and mentally unprepared the Mavs were to compete at a high level. Out of that malaise came a team differently composed than last season's champions, playing in a style that defied expectations. The original consensus was that with Lamar Odom added to Dirk Nowitzki, Jason Terry, Jason Kidd and Shawn Marion, Dallas had enough firepower to compensate for a defense that would sorely miss Tyson Chandler. Instead, the firepower fizzled because of injuries (Nowitzki and Kidd), a bruised psyche (Odom) and a probable hangover from last year's glory; Dallas is only 21st in points per possession. But these Mavs are deeper and scrappier on defense than they were with Chandler last year. Unsung performances by Brendan Haywood, Ian Mahinmi, Delonte West and, most surprising, Vince Carter fortified the defense, which is third in efficiency. In the past two weeks, Nowitzki and Kidd have finally showing flashes of their vintage form. But at their best, the 2011-12 Mavs are a lunch-bucket team, grinding their way into the thick of the West race.
C Denver Nuggets (18-15)
The Nuggets have lacked mental toughness and defensive intensity while plummeting in the standings after a 14-5 start. Yes, they have suffered their share of injuries, but depth was regarded as a strength heading into the season. Playing the NBA's fastest pace, they too often have elected to exchange baskets with opponents, a gambit that hasn't even served them well in the high altitude of their home arena, where they are merely 9-7. Ty Lawson and Danilo Gallinari (who has missed the last two weeks with foot and ankle injuries) have met high expectations with career years, and Sixth Man Award candidate Al Harrington and stabilizing force Andre Miller have been key contributors off the bench. It's been the high-priced free-agents signings, Nene and Arron Afflalo, who have struggled most noticeably.
C- Detroit Pistons (11-22)
On Feb. 1, Detroit lost its seventh straight game to fall to 4-20, and it was beginning to look like the player mutiny against then-coach John Kuester last season might not be the modern nadir of the franchise after all. But since then, the Pistons have won seven of nine, and with games against Cleveland and Toronto this week, they have a chance to go into the All-Star break with genuine momentum. Guard Rodney Stuckey has finally overcome injuries enough to help lighten the load on second-year center Greg Monroe, who is having a breakout year. The roster is still littered with terrible long-term contracts and laden with combo guards at the expense of those who make ball distribution a priority. And the bargain coach Lawrence Frank recently struck with his players -- make a stop on defense and you can freelance on offense -- sounds like the teaching process is at ground zero. But winning games while you develop a franchise center isn't a bad way to end the first half.
C Golden State Warriors (12-17)
Mark Jackson, who, as a television analyst, disdained those who ignored the fundamentals, seemed like a good fit for a talented but young team that earned more cheers than wins by playing a helter-skelter style. In many respects, these problems remain during Jackson's first year as coach. Once again, the Warriors ranks near the bottom in defensive efficiency (27th, one spot worse than last year) while playing at a fairly hectic pace (eighth fastest, compared to fifth a year ago). Their opponents still shoot many more free throws and grab many more offensive rebounds. It's true that Kwame Brown, a defensive-oriented player championed by Jackson, has been out since early January with a torn pectoral muscle. But Jackson has still given as many minutes per game to a loose cannon like guard Nate Robinson as he has to second-year big man Ekpe Udoh, his best, most fundamentally sound defender. Ironically, the place where Jackson's discipline has been most beneficial is on offense, where the Warriors' efficiency has climbed from 12th to seventh, in part because they take care of the ball better and have improved their shot selection and accuracy.
B+ Houston Rockets (19-14)
Despite the coaching change from Rick Adelman to Kevin McHale and general manager Daryl Morey's dogged offseason efforts, the Rockets find themselves in a remarkably similar place as last season -- they are an offensive-oriented team that is deep with talent but lacks a bona fide star and is scrapping for a playoff berth. The last-minute acquisition of Samuel Dalembert has been extremely important for a team that has trouble defending the paint. And defense matters: Houston scores five more points in victories compared to losses, but it allows 17 fewer points. Along with Dalembert, credit McHale for the slight uptick in defensive efficiency (from 19th to 16th). By giving unheralded rookie Chandler Parsons ample playing time, McHale sends the message that defense is a priority.
A- Indiana Pacers (19-12)
Indiana has taken a step forward on the strength of smart front-office decisions, a defense-oriented coach with the right low-key temperament and the maturation of its young talent. Fourth-year center Roy Hibbert became an All-Star for the first time; forward David West has brought the nasty edge and mid-range scoring threat (although his accuracy is down) that the Pacers were counting on when they signed him as a free agent; and Paul George has blossomed into a shutdown defender and three-point marksman in his second season. Sure, Indiana could use more scoring off the bench and improvement from point guard Darren Collison, but the core players are young and on the rise and there is still plenty of room to maneuver under the salary cap.
B+ Los Angeles Clippers (19-11)
The Clippers seem to have been in a state of flux all season. Chris Paul and Mo Williams were injured early, then Chauncey Billups went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, and then free-agent power forward Kenyon Martin signed to beef up the frontcourt. As this roiling abates, the Clippers are left with two All-Star starters in Paul and Blake Griffin; a quality rim protector in center DeAndre Jordan; a wonderful third option in small forward Caron Butler, who knows how to penalize opponents who discount his presence; two grinders with different skill sets in Reggie Evans and Martin; and an inconsistent but explosive scorer in Williams. That's an exciting array, but questions persist. The defense has languished in the bottom third in efficiency throughout the first half (it's now 22nd), and Billups was the best of the Clippers' defenders at shooting guard. Opponents have also been able to rebound and score in the paint despite the presence of Los Angeles' talented big men. Are these chronic flaws or can they be remedied by more familiarity and stability? Either way, the team's question marks certainly have become more compelling than usual.
B- Los Angeles Lakers (19-13)
Playing 16th-year veteran Kobe Bryant more than 38 minutes per game in a compressed schedule is very unlikely to be a successful season-long strategy. But Kobe and coach Mike Brown would challenge the critics to come up with a better alternative. Put simply, the Lakers need a role player who can hit an open jumper to take the pressure off Bryant and 7-footers Andrew Bynum and Pau Gasol. The most likely candidates are Steve Blake, Troy Murphy and rookie Andrew Goudelock, while starters Derek Fisher and Metta World Peace have already repeatedly tried and failed at the task. Meanwhile, after an impressive start, the defense has slipped to 10th in efficiency. While dangerous, this team simply isn't as scary as in years past -- something acknowledged by the front office, if there is any validity to the Gasol trade rumors.
B- Memphis Grizzlies (18-15)
Losing All-Star power forward Zach Randolph to a torn MCL after just one week was a significant setback, but not a crippling one. Center Marc Gasol began paying immediate dividends on his $57.5 million contract by elevating his game to All-Star status to help mitigate the loss of Randolph, whose timetable for return has been vague. Dante Cunningham and Marreese Speights are at best mediocre replacements at power forward, and when possible, the Grizzlies have gone small with Rudy Gay and Tony Allen moving up a notch as forwards and O.J. Mayo playing beside Mike Conley in the backcourt. Memphis, which is tied for the last two playoff spots in the West, would once again be a potentially lethal first-round foe if Randolph can return with his low-post prowess intact.
A Miami Heat (25-7)
The only grade that matters for this team is a pass/fail in the championship series. Nevertheless, the Heat's first half verified that they are the team to beat and most of the developments have solidified their chances for postseason glory. Mario Chalmers' improvement and rookie Norris Cole's poised, active play have significantly upgraded the point-guard position. Chris Bosh seems more comfortable defending the low post and moving in and out of a primary role on offense. Udonis Haslem is healthy. Last season's melodramatic scrutiny and losing streaks have dissipated quite a bit. On the down side, Dwyane Wade has been frequently dinged up, Shane Battier has been clanking jumpers all season and everyone would probably feel better if MVP favorite LeBron James elevated his game (especially at the free-throw line) in the clutch more reliably.
C Milwaukee Bucks (13-19)
Immediately after losing center Andrew Bogut to a broken ankle in late January, the Bucks defeated the Lakers and Heat during a 3-0 homestand, still playing with the joyfully united purpose and rigorous discipline that characterized their surprising playoff team and inspired "Fear the Deer" slogans two years ago. But since then, they've been plagued by poor shooting from Brandon Jennings, who was having a career year and had a greater impact because Milwaukee has increased its pace this season. Bogut's defense has also been sorely missed, as the Bucks have fallen to 19th in defensive efficiency. The feisty temperaments of first-year Buck Stephen Jackson and coach Scott Skiles haven't been a good fit. As always, Skiles has made good use of interesting role players such as Shaun Livingston (a feel-good story after his gruesome knee injury in 2007), Mike Dunleavy and Ersan Ilyasova. But the Deer is apparently not to be Feared much this season.
A- Minnesota Timberwolves (16-17)
One could predict that the Wolves would be vastly improved just by watching their first preseason game. Forward Kevin Love had dropped 25 pounds so that he was quicker without losing strength. Rookie Ricky Rubio proved that his underwhelming stats in Spain camouflaged his NBA-ready court vision and passing skills, with his underrated defensive savvy and competitive streak more apparent once the games started counting. And coach Rick Adelman introduced such previously arcane concepts as the corner three-pointer and defensive accountability into the Wolves' makeup. In the past few weeks, the emergence of center Nikola Pekovic has been yet another major upgrade. The situation is a long way from perfect -- the Wolves won a combined 32 games the previous two seasons -- as the team is getting anemic contributions at both ends of the court at the small-forward and shooting-guard positions, and No. 2 pick Derrick Williams hasn't earned Adelman's trust enough to play game-deciding minutes unless someone is missing or in foul trouble. But Minnesota fans finally have a team they can embrace for the first time since Kevin Garnett's departure in 2007, a club that might shock the league and sneak into the playoffs.
D New Jersey Nets (10-24)
A week before the season started, the Nets seemed to have a pretty good chance of pairing Deron Williams with Dwight Howard in their near future. That delicious prospect was put on hold while Brook Lopez, the potential centerpiece of a Howard trade, recovered from a foot injury that sidelined him nearly the entire first half. Meanwhile, rookie MarShon Brooks' NBA-readiness has been a pleasant surprise, and underrated grinder Kris Humphries is averaging career highs of 13.6 points and 10.5 rebounds. But the Nets have been pathetic on defense and Williams, at times, has played with the unsatisfying tenor of a good player on a bad team, prone to bouts of apathy and self-interest. Lopez made his season debut Sunday, and the Nets have 10 more games before the trading deadline. Whether circumstances will allow him to re-emerge as a prime chip in an eventual deal for Howard is enormously consequential for this franchise.
D New Orleans Hornets (7-24)
Because the NBA seems to care more about the financial solidity of the franchise than the caliber of product its caretaker ownership puts on the court, let's begin by noting that the team is 27th in home attendance -- and 19th in attendance as a percentage of building capacity -- in one of the league's smallest markets. The key acquisition in the Chris Paul trade, guard Eric Gordon, has played two games and recently had knee surgery. He also turned down the team's offer of a contract extension. Other important players -- Jarrett Jack, Emeka Okafor, Trevor Ariza, Carl Landry and Jason Smith -- have also missed or are missing more than five games because of injury. But the sad nature of this Hornets season is summed up by Chris Kaman's being told to stay home while the team tried to trade him, then suiting up because of injuries and leading the team to its past two wins.
C New York Knicks (16-17)
Well, it certainly hasn't been boring. The first month of dysfunctional play hammered home the lesson that stockpiling stars doesn't ensure victories. Trying to reverse the negative momentum by seizing control of the offense, Carmelo Anthony appeared to be a narcissistic ball-stopper, and Amar'e Stoudemire turned passive in his confusion over his role. Coach Mike D'Antoni's head appeared to be on the chopping block. So when an obscure benchwarmer named Jeremy Lin abruptly ended the Knicks' torturous stint of point-less guard play, it felt like, and was received as, something akin to a basketball miracle. What happens after this tsunami of goodwill inevitably abates? How much will the two stars regard the pecking order during the ebbing of Linsanity? And where in the world is J.R. Smith supposed to fit in? It won't be boring.
A- Oklahoma City Thunder (25-7)
As expected, the Thunder's combination of youthful energy and roster continuity has given them an edge in a year when there is little time to rest or practice. Those who favor teams that pound the ball into the low post don't trust the Thunder offense, which would rather slash than bludgeon. Incredibly, they have built the best record in the West despite a road-heavy schedule, a merely league-average defensive efficiency rating and an offense that turns the ball over nearly as often as it registers an assist. But stars and supporting cast all play their roles to the hilt, and the offense is second in efficiency despite the turnovers because Kevin Durant, James Harden and Russell Westbrook are among the top 15 in free-throw attempts per game and collectively convert 83.5 percent of them. Durant also shoots 51.6 percent from the field, making him as reliable as any classic low-post behemoth. It remains to be seen if "Thunder ball" can thrive deep into the playoffs. But the jury is in on its success in the regular season.
B+ Orlando Magic (21-12)
Orlando has made the best of a bad situation. The pivotal moment came after a 1-5 stretch in late January, which included an 87-56 loss at Boston, a 93-67 defeat at lowly New Orleans and blowing a 27-point lead at home against the Celtics. At 12-9 and in the midst of what coach Stan Van Gundy called the worst stretch of his five-year tenure, the team could have packed it in and waited for the trading deadline to resolve Dwight Howard's lame-duck status. Instead, the Magic have won nine of 12 to thrust themselves back into position for home-court advantage in the playoffs. It is still possible that Orlando, knowing it needs to get something in return for its superstar center, will deal Howard by March 15. But both the player and the franchise can feel good about the way they are potentially closing out his legacy in Orlando.
A- Philadelphia 76ers (20-12)
Coach Doug Collins has done a superb job of fashioning two units that are nearly equal in skill and effectiveness, turning the Sixers' "Night Shift" bench crew into a weapon. By getting the most out of his roster, however, the team's weaknesses become that much more apparent. Specifically, there is a distinct shortage of quality big men. Center Spencer Hawes showed significant growth in his game early, but he hasn't been the same since back and Achilles injuries intervened. Rookies Nikola Vucevic and Lavoy Allen are already better than emergency stopgap Tony Battie, but they can't be counted to hold their own in the playoffs. And starting power forward Elton Brand is game but slow. Led by all-purpose All-Star Andre Iguodala, the rest of the team is quick, deep on the wings, tenacious, exciting to watch and holding down the fourth seed in the East.
C- Phoenix Suns (14-19)
The Suns are mired in their worst season since 2003-04, the year before Steve Nash came over from Dallas, coach Mike D'Antoni had his first full training camp and the Suns improved by 33 wins. For those who don't understand why Nash doesn't want to be traded to a contender this season: The rapid-fire style of play he pioneered in Phoenix, which will always be associated with his name and this franchise, is of more value than hitching a ride toward potential postseason glory as a role player to complete a hole in his résumé. If this is indeed his final season in Phoenix, he's leaving as an All-Star, and despite the presence of decent players like center Marcin Gortat, sparkplug Jared Dudley and rookie Markieff Morris, the Suns are totally unprepared to replace him.
C Portland Trail Blazers (17-16)
Portland opened 7-2 while playing at a quick pace at odds with coach Nate McMillan's usual deliberate style. Since then, the team has struggled and McMillan has eased up on the throttle, but that seems to have magnified the evidence that, so far, trading Andre Miller for Raymond Felton was a mistake. On the plus side, Gerald Wallace has provided grit and versatility (although, even more than the rest of the team, he has played much better at home) and LaMarcus Aldridge is strengthening his case to be regarded as an elite power forward. But more than anything else, the Blazers' first half has been defined by their inability to win close games: They are 2-10 in games decided by five points or fewer.
D+ Sacramento Kings (10-21)
The Kings were rejuvenated when coach Keith Smart took over for Paul Westphal seven games into the season. Smart has done a much better job at helping combustible center DeMarcus Cousins channel the positive and defuse the negative aspects of his emotions, though it is still an intensive work in progress. The coach has also unlocked the energy of Sacramento's other prime talent, Tyreke Evans, and generally has the team playing with passion. Unfortunately, the Kings are bereft of poise and veteran leadership (they actually miss Beno Udrih), and they still haven't discovered a lineup that maximizes their potential. For all of Smart's efforts, the Kings are still losing about twice as often as they win.
A San Antonio Spurs (23-9)
I have underrated the Spurs all season, docking them for reasons ranging from the need for coach Gregg Popovich to conserve the energy of Tim Duncan; the injury to Manu Ginobili; their once-abysmal road record; and their once-porous defense. But San Antonio has turned nearly every adversity into an advantage. Resting stars has groomed better role players. Tony Parker has responded to Ginobili's absence and the offseason loss of guard George Hill with increasing brilliance and confidence. Eight victories in their 11-game winning streak have been on the road, many of them accomplished with greater intensity and opportunism on defense. Another reason the Spurs are underrated is the lack of bells and whistles, the minimum of drama and vainglory. All the while, the system works: Players representing this organization know how and when and whom to foul, when and where to shoot, when to take a calculated risk and when to play it safe. To use a cliché, the Spurs rarely beat themselves. This season, other teams rarely beat them either.
C Toronto Raptors (9-23)
The record is unsightly, and the Raptors allowed Charlotte its first win in 17 games last week. But there are genuine reasons for optimism, beginning with the transformation of Andrea Bargnani into a capable defender under the tutelage of new coach Dwane Casey. Bargnani has battled a chronic calf injury that has caused him to miss nearly 20 games, which, combined with a wretched year from DeMar DeRozan after his breakout season in 2010-11, has short-circuited Toronto's offense to the point where even the defensive improvements aren't enough to generate victories. Some "lost" seasons are more valuable than others, though. The culture has changed under Casey so that Toronto should maintain its hard-nosed style even when a hopefully healthy Bargnani is joined next year by another long, thin European forward-center in Jonas Valanciunas, last year's top pick.
B+ Utah Jazz (15-16)
Five weeks with a winning record is longer than most would have expected the Jazz could last, even with a schedule front-loaded with home games. A year after the departure of legendary coach Jerry Sloan and All-Star point guard Deron Williams, the challenge was to stay competitive with veterans like Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Devin Harris while developing youngsters such as Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward and Alec Burks. There have been some glitches: Harris has disappointed, Hayward is still very inconsistent and Favors, Kanter and Burks all could use an extra five or seven minutes per game. When the team was winning and Millsap and Jefferson were both mentioned as possible All-Stars, the kids off the bench naturally got shorter shrift. But Utah has inevitably faded in February, and now even pleasant veteran surprises like swingman Josh Howard have to yield playing time.
D Washington Wizards (7-25)
As with Sacramento, a coaching change has helped a young, immature team that had tuned out the previous authority figure. Flip Saunders and the Wizards exhausted each other, and along with simply being a different voice, his replacement, Randy Wittman, has benefited from a calf injury to Andray Blatche, an indifferent underachiever with a long-term contract. Blatche's absence has allowed Wittman to insert the more motivated and engaged Trevor Booker at forward and provide more minutes to coltish rookie Jan Vesely, who could become a dynamic running mate for John Wall. Between Wall at the point and JaVale McGee at center, the Wizards have players with star-quality skill sets at the two most important positions. It is time for them to reverse the culture where silly, self-defeating mistakes are business as usual.

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