By Britt Robson
April 25, 2012
NBA Regular-Season Grades

It's time again to hand out regular-season grades. As I've said before, the most important measurement of a team's success comes from the standings that determine playoff berths and seedings for the postseason series that begin this weekend. But it is also interesting, and hopefully revealing, to consider other aspects of a team's performance when evaluating its success.

Beyond wins and losses, I used a few criteria to come up with the grades you see below. How well was a team able to withstand or adjust to injuries and other adversity? How much did it capture the passion and imagination of its fans? Did it meet, exceed or fall short of general preseason expectations? How well did it achieve its own goals and purpose for the regular season, be it contending for a title or slowly building for the future?

Here are my answers to those questions.

(All stats and records are through Tuesday, April 24.)

B+ Atlanta Hawks (39-26)
Losing their best player, Al Horford, after just 11 games was supposed to doom the Hawks. But the opposite happened: By improving on last year's winning percentage despite Horford's absence, Atlanta has reason to rebut the conventional wisdom that it has reached a plateau with this roster. Most of the credit belongs to forward Josh Smith, who is both the catalyst and linchpin of the Hawks' defense, which is ranked sixth in points allowed per possession. Another factor was a change in the rotation. Atlanta is 16-9 since coach Larry Drew replaced Marvin Williams with Kirk Hinrich to create a faster, more fluid and sure-handed starting lineup. Williams has thrived off the bench, where he bears more of the scoring burden in a complementary forward tandem with banger Ivan Johnson. Meanwhile, point guard Jeff Teague continues to improve, and center Zaza Pachulia is a bit of an unsung hero for absorbing the bulk of Horford's minutes. If the Hawks can somehow parlay Horford's talents with this year's improvements, they might finally move beyond their current status as a second-tier contender.
B+ Boston Celtics (38-27)
The Celtics' greatest accomplishment this season won't be the championship they have coveted since this core group of players last won it all in 2008; there simply isn't enough youthful depth or veteran endurance to battle that far. But with its glorious 13-4 spurt through most of March and into early April, Boston has probably postponed a massive roster overhaul at least another year. The team has proved that it can thrive with Avery Bradley replacing Ray Allen in the starting lineup, and with Rajon Rondo and Paul Pierce already under contract, the key will be in persuading Kevin Garnett to come back under a reduced, short-term deal. Watching Rondo's distinctive court vision, Pierce's cold-blooded execution in crunch time (he, not Kobe Bryant, is the game's premier closer) and Garnett's contagious intensity, it isn't hard to imagine a quality free agent willing to take a slight discount, if necessary, to don the Celtic green. What a difference from just two months ago, when it seemed like April would be the time for eulogies on the Pierce-Garnett-Allen era.
F Charlotte Bobcats (7-57)
The Bobcats have scored the fewest points per possession and allowed the most points per possession. Two more losses to close the season would extend their skid to 23 games and give them the lowest winning percentage in NBA history, making them potentially the "worst team ever." About the only bright spot is the steady improvement of 6-foot-9 teenager Bismack Biyombo, who has held his own in the paint and, though still way too raw to be an offensive threat, seems worthy of the sixth pick in last year's draft. Otherwise, Charlotte's best player, Gerald Henderson, wouldn't start on at least half the league's teams. Its four highest-priced players -- Corey Maggette, Tyrus Thomas, DeSagana Diop and Boris Diaw, who was bought out last month -- have been huge disappointments. And its coach, Paul Silas, has seemed as concerned about grooming his son, Stephen, to be his successor as he was in developing the roster.
A Chicago Bulls (48-16)
Last year, the Bulls were 0-1 without MVP Derrick Rose. This season, with two games to play, they are 17-9, which neatly encapsulates the pros and cons of 2011-12. The team has played with heart and cohesion sans its superstar, maintaining its top-rated defense and actually improving in points per possession from 11th to fifth. The Bulls (.750 winning percentage) will finish with the best record in the East again, if not the entire NBA, with a winning percentage remarkably close to last year's .756. But when a championship is your realistic goal, the regular season is about preparing for the postseason. The Bulls have demonstrated that they can beat even quality competition with and without Rose; less certain is how easily they can juggle that dual identity and make the enormous stylistic transition from having or not having their dominant, ball-centric point guard playing major minutes. That said, this regular season will be cherished in Chicago for John Lucas' stunning offensive explosions, C.J. Watson's clutch baskets, Luol Deng's ascension to All-Star status, Joakim Noah's polish added to the grind in his game and coach Tom Thibodeau's feisty, take-no-prisoners approach that spread throughout the roster.
C+ Cleveland Cavaliers (21-43)
The presence of Rookie of the Year lock Kyrie Irving alone makes this a successful season for the Cavs, who can now define themselves apart from LeBron James. Irving, who turned 20 last month, is a charismatic point guard who plays better when it matters most. He formed an effective tandem with defensive-oriented, energetic center Anderson Varejao, whose broken wrist derailed some midseason momentum that had Cleveland flirting with playoff contention. Eventually, the Cavs rightfully folded that chase, dealing Ramon Sessions and giving their other first-round pick, 6-9 Tristan Thompson, a developmental trial by fire by mismatching him against opposing centers. Irving, Varejao and Thompson will be joined by another lottery pick, plus a first-rounder from the Lakers in the Sessions trade, next season, with Cleveland's salary situation allowing for a major free-agent acquisition or salary-absorbing trade. This season was a good first step out of the mire. But with the expected departure of leading scorer Antawn Jamison, and rankings in the NBA's bottom six in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Cavs still have plenty of work ahead to become a viable playoff threat.
C Dallas Mavericks (36-29)
From the Christmas blowout at home against the Heat in their opener, to the "conditioning" hiatus taken by Dirk Nowitzki, to the travails of Lamar Odom, to the inexorable aging of Jason Kidd and Vince Carter, the Mavericks have not defended their championship very gracefully, or well. In retrospect, it is easy to see that they celebrated their long-awaited Finals triumph for too long, and were caught short by how little time they had between the sudden end of the lockout and the onset of a brutally compressed season. Thanks to the defensive schemes of coach Rick Carlisle, who emphasized wisdom over athleticism and relied on Shawn Marion's versatility, Dallas went 13-5 while allowing only 88 points per game in January -- all after losing Tyson Chandler to the Knicks in the offseason. But in the three months since then, the Mavs are barely over .500, and their offense ranks only 22nd in points per possession after finishing eighth last season. The average age of the team's top six in minutes played is 34.2; by contrast, the two rotation players under 25, Roddy Beaubois and Brandan Wright, don't seem like budding stars. Any team with Carlisle on the bench and Nowitzki and Jason Terry on the court in crunch time commands respect. But it is time to break up the old gang in Dallas.
B Denver Nuggets (36-28)
It's no secret that coach George Karl prefers a deep rotation and an athletic, wide-open style. Even when the roster churn was reaching ridiculous levels, with players being added or taken off the injured list seemingly on a daily basis, Karl kept experimenting, seemingly adding to the chaos. But there was a method to his madness. Denver has won nine of 13 and is playing its best defense of the year, to go with an offense that ranks third in points per possession for the season. Full-throttle disrupters such as rookie Kenneth Faried, point guard Ty Lawson and swingman Corey Brewer get paired with cool mid-range facilitators such as Arron Afflalo and Andre Miller and floor-spacing jump shooters like Danilo Gallinari and Al Harrington (who both happen to be at least 6-9). Almost everyone is healthy for a change, and the confusion and chaos are mostly happening to Denver's opponents.
C- Detroit Pistons (24-41)
Beating Philadelphia on Thursday would give the Pistons a .500 record (21-21) over nearly the final two-thirds of the season. But somehow their 4-20 start seems more indicative of their short-term future. Among the most promising players, center Greg Monroe has blossomed in his second year, but he remains a liability on defense; rookie Brandon Knight lacks the ball-handling to be a quality point guard; and Rodney Stuckey is a formidable 6-5 combo guard who can get to the rim, but he's an inaccurate shooter -- his mediocre 42.8 percent from the field is still above his career average and his 32.7 percent from three-point range is a career high. But the real drag is the payroll. The big-money free agents from 2009, Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva, can't hope to produce a collective $20 million worth of performance each of the next two years. And even the contracts handed out in December -- Tayshaun Prince's four-year, $28 million deal and Jonas Jerebko's four-year, $18 million deal -- already seem like mistakes. Coach Lawrence Frank did a solid job eking out wins by upgrading the defense, but to move above the sub-.400 winning percentage of each of the last three years, the Pistons need an infusion of talent. And that's not possible until they can clear the books of bad decisions.
D Golden State Warriors (23-42)
In a nutshell, the Warriors reprised their usual combination of crowd-pleasing offense and lackluster defense in the first half of the season; made some significant big-name trades in the middle; and finished out the year trying to lose enough games to improve their chances of keeping their first-round pick, which goes to Utah if it is not among the first seven selections. Gone are Monta Ellis, the skillful but redundant backcourt mate for Stephen Curry, and Ekpe Udoh, the team's best low-post defender. New to the team are center Andrew Bogut, who, when healthy, is the sort of two-way player who has been all too rare on the roster, and forward Richard Jefferson, who has two years and $21.2 million left on his contract after this season. Bogut and Curry could be a dynamic pair, but both have been injury-plagued these last two seasons, and both are having ankle surgery in the offseason. Losing Ellis paved the way for Klay Thompson, a lights-out shooter as a rookie, who in some ways reinstates the skill redundancy with Curry. After a muddled season, Golden State is selling hope and promise, which isn't so different from last year, when the Warriors had a muddled season and hired coach Mark Jackson, who announced the team would make the playoffs.
C+ Houston Rockets (33-32)
The Rockets narrowly missed the playoffs for the third straight season, but their six-game losing streak in the final weeks makes this year especially disheartening. Midseason injuries to the starting backcourt became a mixed blessing, as Goran Dragic emerged as a potential star in Kyle Lowry's stead at the point, while shooting guard Kevin Martin's absence provided the defensive upgrade new coach Kevin McHale desired via more minutes for Courtney Lee. But the team's future seems murky at best: Martin and forward Luis Scola are high-priced veterans on the wane who have never defended that well; and Dragic and centers Samuel Dalembert and Marcus Camby are all free agents (though Camby, a late-season acquisition, complements Scola and wants to return). Expect general manager Daryl Morey to be active this offseason, perhaps building around Lowry, who played at a near All-Star level when healthy, and rookie swingman Chandler Parsons, who rewarded McHale's faith by becoming an effective glue guy.
A- Indiana Pacers (42-23)
The Pacers' best season in eight years began when they used their financial flexibility to sign veteran forward David West -- whose pugnacious but disciplined approach set the template for the team and helped center Roy Hibbert blossom into an All-Star -- and take on salary in trades that brought guards George Hill and later Leandro Barbosa. In the first full season of low-key Frank Vogel as coach and Paul George and Danny Granger as tall wings in the starting lineup, the Pacers rank in the top 10 in points scored and allowed per possession. Yes, they've been lucky, with the fewest games lost to injury among their starters. But after point guard Darren Collison went down with a groin strain earlier this month, Hill played well enough to stay in the lineup when Collison returned. When respected veteran Jeff Foster retired because of back problems, Indiana had a similarly tough, grind-it-out competitor in Lou Amundson to plug in as the backup center. This is a team on the rise and, with youth, set roles and cap space, seemingly built to last.
B+ Los Angeles Clippers (40-25)
The stars have delivered. Chris Paul reinforced his credentials as the NBA's premier point guard with a floor game that was both omnipresent and unselfish. Unless something has annoyed him or the game is on the line, Paul will turn down even a slightly better scoring opportunity for himself if a good one is available for a teammate. And at crunch time, it is almost as if his coach and four court mates sit back and watch with curiosity to see what's next in his bag of tricks. Beside him, Blake Griffin has improved his shooting percentage via greater accuracy on attempts at the rim and from 16-23 feet, though his percentage from that longer distance is still slightly below the league average. Despite the criticism he has received, Griffin has also become a better defender, embracing that role more readily than most high-flying, 23-year-old scorers in their second year. Paul and Griffin ensure a playoff spot. But to reverse the franchise's checkered reputation and start building a legacy, the Clippers will need to continue getting subsidiary value from role players such as post defender Kenyon Martin and outside shooter Randy Foye -- or their replacements, should those two leave as free agents after the season. (And even with Foye's stepping up, the Clippers have missed Chauncey Billups.) Greater consistency from center DeAndre Jordan, an intimidating shot-blocker who needs to improve his rebounding and defense, would also help. All in all, the Clippers are a fascinating team that still hasn't put it all together.
B Los Angeles Lakers (41-24)
This hasn't been an easy season for the Lakers, who in the first month alone had to transition from Phil Jackson to Mike Brown; cope with the fallout from the voided trade for Chris Paul; and accommodate Kobe Bryant, who was mistrusting of change, dominating the ball and playing with a damaged wrist. Later there would be more rumors of a Pau Gasol trade, the departure of Derek Fisher coinciding with the arrival of Ramon Sessions, the immature antics of Andrew Bynum, the absence of Bryant because of injury and, most recently, the suspension of Metta World Peace for seven games. But the adversity has strengthened the team. Bynum is having a career year in terms of both health and play. Sessions provides dribble-penetration and a facility for the pick-and-roll that was missing earlier in the season. And Bryant realizes, most of the time, that he doesn't have to shoot 30 times for the team to generate a winning offense. It will be interesting watching this team entering the postseason perceived as an underdog.
A- Memphis Grizzlies (40-25)
If the Grizzlies defeat Orlando on Thursday, they will finish with the highest winning percentage in their 17-year history. Few would have predicted that success when double-double machine Zach Randolph tore a knee ligament in a 40-point loss to the Bulls in Memphis' fourth game, or even at the halfway point, when the team was just 18-15. But the Grizzlies have surged to a 12-3 April by limiting opponents to 90.9 points per game even though their best defender, Tony Allen, missed five of those games. Coach Lionel Hollins has been tremendous, boldly bringing Randolph off the bench to preserve the confidence of Marreese Speights and lessen the pressure on Z-Bo, and gradually creating better offensive spacing by playing newly signed Gilbert Arenas and giving more crunch-time burn to O.J. Mayo, who is second to the Sixers' Lou Williams in points off the bench. Throw in career years for Marc Gasol, Mike Conley and, less obviously, Rudy Gay, whose quiet leadership and improved defense have been vital, and owner Michael Heisley's big spending on contract extensions the last two years seems like a good investment.
A- Miami Heat (46-19)
The Heat's relatively benign regular season is in their best interest. There has been no domination to conversely prompt panic if they drop a game or two in the postseason, yet they also have done well enough to quell the otherwise incessant murmurs about what is wrong with the team. Ever since Miami lost in the 2011 Finals in a manner that turns up the pressure on LeBron James, this regular season has been mere prologue. And yet again, the circumstances are favorable in that he is probably the front-runner for MVP, will get votes for Defensive Player of the Year for his tenacity and versatility, and has led the Heat to a 13-1 record without Dwyane Wade. In the playoffs, as in the regular season, what he can't control is the performance of his teammates, particularly the outside shooters such as Mario Chalmers, Shane Battier and Mike Miller. If they aren't converting those open looks, Miami is vulnerable and the pressure intensifies.
C Milwaukee Bucks (31-33)
The Bucks changed personalities over the course of the season, from the defense-first philosophy that has been their signature since coach Scott Skiles joined 2005 No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut three years ago, to a run-and-gun style that is the preference of flashy point guard Brandon Jennings. The process began when Bogut fractured his ankle in January and accelerated when Milwaukee dealt him and malcontent Stephen Jackson to Golden State for Monta Ellis and Ekpe Udoh in March. The go-go pace and entertaining combo of Ellis' acrobatics and Jennings' jumpers have "worked," in that the Bucks are 12-9 since they were paired in the backcourt, averaging nearly 105 points per game. But the Bucks couldn't generate enough stops to complete their playoff push, and an examination of the team's five-man units at Basketball Value indicates that the duo are most effective when defensive stalwarts such as Udoh, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute and Larry Sanders provide a counterbalance at the other end of the court. Does Milwaukee's brain trust have the foresight to put those combinations together next season? And can it re-sign forward Ersan Ilyasova, the rare two-way performer on this roster and a candidate for Most Improved Player, who is likely to be in high demand as a free agent?
B- Minnesota Timberwolves (26-39)
Even with a horrible finish and the season shortened to 66 games, the Wolves have registered their highest win total in five years and given long-suffering fans genuine reason for optimism. Rookie Ricky Rubio proved he was an elite passer and, more surprising, a better-than-average defender at point guard. His value was apparent when the Wolves collapsed after his knee injury in February. Power forward Kevin Love shed 25 pounds, posted surreal rebounding and point totals and even generated some MVP talk despite his team's lousy record. And the emergence of center Nikola Pekovic, who curbed his fouling and somehow softened his hands to convert Rubio feeds, provides the Wolves with strong performers at arguably the three most important positions. That's the good news. Though the Wolves hold Utah's first-round pick this year from the Al Jefferson deal, they lost their own in the terrible Marko Jaric trade back in 2005. Meanwhile, president David Kahn gave Love an opt-out after the third season of his new, four-year contract rather than assenting to Love's request for a five-year extension. And aside from Rubio, Kahn's record on high-level lottery picks has been dreadful. In the last seven years, only six players taken among the first six picks have averaged fewer than 10 points and five rebounds or five assists while shooting less than 42 percent. Three of them -- Jonny Flynn, Wes Johnson and Derrick Williams -- were drafted by Kahn, who also traded for a fourth one, Martell Webster, in a deal with Portland two years ago.
D New Jersey Nets (22-43)
What happened on the court this season was supposed to be relatively inconsequential, a necessary hiatus while the franchise continued with its grand plan to debut in Brooklyn next year with a roster featuring Deron Williams and Dwight Howard. But bad luck, a seemingly bad gamble and increasing desperation turned the entire endeavor into a fiasco, and this wretched season may indeed have consequences. Injuries to center Brook Lopez -- the primary chip in any trade for Howard -- limited him to just five games. Without Lopez as a low-post presence, and with Howard deciding to remain in Orlando at least through the end of this season (he exercised his 2012-13 option before the trade deadline), Williams grew disenchanted and announced his intention to opt out of his contract with a team that paid a huge price in players and draft picks to land him last season. In a rash attempt to re-engage their soon-to-be free-agent point guard, the Nets sacrificed their first-round pick (top-three protected) for high-energy, 29-year-old forward Gerald Wallace, who can also opt out of his contract for next season. Meanwhile, power forward Kris Humphries, a valuable banger in the paint, is set to become a free agent, and the team's pleasant surprises, rookie MarShon Brooks and D-League pickup Gerald Green, join Anthony Morrow as volume shooters who need someone like Williams to feed them and someone like a healthy Lopez, if not Howard or Humphries, to rebound.
C+ New Orleans Hornets (21-44)
Nine teams will finish with 20-25 wins, and none of them should feel better about how they fared than the Hornets. Chris Paul was traded after declaring he wouldn't extend his contract in New Orleans, with commissioner David Stern having final say over the deal as the Hornets' de facto owner. Eric Gordon, the biggest acquisition in the Paul trade, hurt his knee and played only two of the team's first 52 games. Midway through the season, former All-Star center Chris Kaman was told to stay home while the team tried to trade him and his $14 million expiring contract. He was later invited back because the Hornets suffered so many injuries that they needed him in uniform. But through it all, coach Monty Williams kept the team competitive by stressing defense and playing at the league's slowest pace. Local billionaire Tom Benson bought the team late in the season, about the time some long-injured players returned, including Gordon, and New Orleans has gone 8-5 in April with one game left. The team will have two lottery picks in the June draft, a hopefully healthy Gordon joining quality veterans like Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza, and a nice contingent of role players cultivated by Williams this season.
B New York Knicks (34-30)
The Knicks have had at least seven distinctive chapters to their season, a narrative too long for this space, so let's stick to terse statements. The trio of Carmelo Anthony, Amar'e Stoudemire and coach Mike D'Antoni seethed with passive-aggressive dysfunction. D'Antoni's resignation was the right move, but mostly because Anthony is now belatedly devoted to teamwork. Without that magical month from Jeremy Lin, the Knicks would be out of the playoffs and wallowing in recriminations. Even so, Tyson Chandler is New York's MVP, changing the defensive culture of his new team for the second year in a row, after sparking Dallas last season. Iman Shumpert is ideally suited to defend point guards, but the rookie is blatantly incompetent at trying to run an offense as a point guard himself. Continuing to trust J.R. Smith as much as possible is coach Mike Woodson's biggest gamble. When Smith and Baron Davis are playing well and unselfishly, the Knicks are a very difficult team to beat.
A- Oklahoma City Thunder (47-18)
The Thunder's three stars excel at attacking opponents on isolation plays. The result is an idiosyncratic offense that commits the most turnovers and records the second-fewest assists in the league, yet ranks second in points per possession. More than ever, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden can get to the rim and/or the free-throw line, and in signature wins over the Heat and Lakers, they demonstrated that they can involve Serge Ibaka and Kendrick Perkins in the scoring. But Oklahoma City's ability to live up to its preseason hype as one of the elite teams in the West also stems from its renewed commitment to defense. The Thunder have jumped from 15th last season to ninth in points allowed per possession, with Thabo Sefolosha and Nick Collison acting as the impact players at that end. After a six-game winning streak that included victories against Miami, the Lakers and Chicago, OKC was 40-12 on April 1. Since then, the Thunder are a pedestrian 7-6 -- signs of a drop-off, or just conserving energy and resources for the postseason?
D+ Orlando Magic (36-28)
Welcome to soap opera central, where the Magic's season was defined by the ever-shifting drama surrounding Dwight Howard. We all know the details too well: Dwight wants to be traded; Dwight is too loyal to leave; Dwight wants the coach fired; Dwight never said he wanted the coach fired; Dwight wants to be the go-to scorer; Dwight isn't satisfied with his supporting cast; Dwight never quits on his team or his teammates; Dwight needs season-ending surgery for a herniated disk in his back, announced the day after a local-television report -- unconfirmed and denied -- that Dwight had told ownership that he would never play for coach Stan Van Gundy again. Meanwhile, Howard had a stellar season, leading the NBA in rebounding for the fourth time in five years with a career-best 14.5, but his field-goal percentage declined for the second straight year, he missed more than half his free throws and Orlando's team defense was not nearly as fearsome as in years past. Elsewhere, power forward Ryan Anderson had a breakout season and is a strong Most Improved Player candidate, the trade bringing Glen Davis for Brandon Bass didn't pan out, and Jameer Nelson and Hedo Turkoglu had disappointing seasons. Yes, even amid the distractions and subpar individual performances from key players, the Magic still contended for home-court advantage in the first round. But this regular season was ultimately all about the nonsense with Howard, which generates the harsh grade.
C+ Philadelphia 76ers (34-30)
At the halfway mark, the Sixers owned the Atlantic Division and Doug Collins was the probable front-runner for Coach of the Year. But second-half struggles made clinching a playoff berth a challenge and led a respected former 76ers beat reporter to write that some players were tuning out Collins. What happened? Well, the fast start was at least partially the result of a schedule that enabled Philadelphia to go 15-7 between Jan. 6 and Feb. 10 because 18 of those 22 games were at home. And while Collins was lauded for creating a potent second unit that was often as effective as the starters, the platoon eventually couldn't camouflage the lack of a quality big man or a dynamic, go-to scorer who could create his own shot and get to the free-throw line. Both are especially crucial at crunch time, which helps explain why the Sixers were 0-8 in games decided by four points or fewer before beating Indiana by three in overtime Saturday. They have been revealed as a team of complementary players in need of a star. Nobody on the roster averages any of these eminently reachable numbers: 16 points, eight rebounds, six assists, two steals or two blocks per game. Unfortunately, their splendid first half merely set them up for a discouraging thud.
B Phoenix Suns (33-32)
The respect and affection for Steve Nash (and to a lesser extent Grant Hill) were palpable as the Suns made an unlikely second-half surge to contend for the final playoff spot in the West, in what could be Nash's final year in Phoenix. But Monday's loss to Utah was fitting. Nash's tenure has generally followed a course of team overachievement that leads to dramatic disappointment; as the cliché goes, it is the journey, not the destination, that is so attractive. It's not overly sentimental to believe that Nash's faith and loyalty inspired key contributors such as Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley (career years for both), Michael Redd (who found some of his old scoring form after three years of knee injuries) and coach Alvin Gentry. In terms of generating a memorable, passionate, consequential slate of games, the Suns had a successful season, playoffs or no playoffs.
C- Portland Trail Blazers (28-37)
In the previous two years, the Blazers persevered through an onslaught of injuries to make the playoffs. But after winning seven of their first nine, this was the season it all fell apart. Portland suffered from a point-guard swap that sent Andre Miller to Denver for Raymond Felton, who lacked Miller's thick skin in dealing with taskmaster coach Nate McMillan. That conflict exacerbated the impact of Brandon Roy's retirement; even when ravaged by knee injuries, Roy was a playmaking sage in the backcourt and a trusted alter ego for McMillan. A slew of close losses sapped team confidence, and by the trade deadline, Portland cleaned house, firing McMillan and dealing Marcus Camby and Gerald Wallace, with Wallace fetching a top-three-protected first-round pick from New Jersey. The Blazers also finally cut ties with 2007 No. 1 pick Greg Oden, who along with Roy epitomized how much Portland was shortchanged by medical misfortune. With a wealthy owner, a loyal fan base, the New Jersey lottery pick and All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge, the circumstances exist for a rapid rebuilding. But by most any measure, the 2011-12 season was a step backward.
D Sacramento Kings (21-44)
The Kings have unearthed a notable rookie again, though it is the last player taken in the 2011 draft, point guard Isaiah Thomas, rather than Jimmer Fredette, the 10th pick. Thomas extends the winning streak that started with 2010 Rookie of the Year Tyreke Evans and continued with freakishly skilled center DeMarcus Cousins. But where are the wins that should come with this talent? Evans, who is 6-6 and can get to the rim in a blur, seems increasingly lacking in the offense after being shuttled to small forward, only occasionally flashing that rookie-year magic. Cousins has taken another significant step forward this season, but that volatile temperament still prevents him from being a lock for stardom just yet. And despite Thomas' becoming an offensive catalyst once he was installed at the point in February, Kings management doesn't seem entirely sold on his future. Add in leading scorer Marcus Thornton, 24, and you have some wonderful parts that don't play defense (Sacramento ranks 29th in points allowed per possession). Last but hardly least, a deal for a new arena that was celebrated by the NBA, team ownership and the city of Sacramento last month has fallen apart, creating uncertainty about the franchise's future.
A+ San Antonio Spurs (48-16)
What an unlikely offensive juggernaut. As expected, coach Gregg Popovich rested his three stars -- in blatant fashion sometimes -- to minimize the chances of another playoff disappointment. And one of them, Manu Ginobili, missed nearly half the season besides, dealing with a broken hand and then a strained oblique. Didn't matter. The Spurs were going 10-deep in their rotation even before picking up discounted but valuable veteran role players like Stephen Jackson and Boris Diaw late in the season. They have earned the top seed in the West and could finish with the NBA's best record behind a league-leading offense that is less Showtime than medical clinic -- they diagnose the impediments to their scoring and then surgically remove them by spacing and re-spacing the floor, moving the ball and moving without the ball until an easily makeable shot arises. Tony Parker has had the best season of his distinguished career, Ginobili is rested and Tim Duncan has played the past month with a hunger that rivals his wisdom on the court.
C Toronto Raptors (22-43)
Under former coach Jay Triano, the Raptors played defense as if they were afraid of contracting a contagious disease, arriving late on rotations and avoiding contact whenever possible as they surrendered the most points per possession for two years in a row. Without revamping the roster -- the top 10 players in minutes this season were here last year -- coach Dwane Casey has changed the culture enough to elevate Toronto's defensive efficiency from 30th to 14th. In the category of points in the paint given up, the jump is from 30th to fourth. Part of that is making opponents earn it at the line. Toronto has committed nearly 100 more fouls than any other team this season. Not surprisingly, this rugged approach has been embraced more thoroughly by grinders such as small forward James Johnson and power forward Amir Johnson. Casey's next challenge is doing away with the stereotype of the "soft" European: Spaniard Jose Calderon has been by far the team's worst defender this season; Italian Andrea Bargnani played staunch defense early, but tailed off after returning from a chronic calf injury; and everyone is excited about the pending arrival of Lithuanian forward Jonas Valanciunas, the No. 5 pick in 2011, who played overseas this season.
A- Utah Jazz (35-30)
Give coach Tyrone Corbin credit for the way he has refused to compromise between playing to win or developing his young talent. He has managed to do both. To most everyone's surprise, the Jazz are in the playoffs during a season in which second-year players Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward have made major strides and rookies Enes Kanter and Alec Burks have received regular minutes. Abruptly tapped to replace Hall of Famer Jerry Sloan just weeks before Deron Williams was traded, Corbin and his team looked clueless closing out the season last year. There was reason to believe that Utah was facing a long and fitful transition back to respectability. But Paul Millsap emerged as a team leader (among other things, his versatility enabled Corbin to put him at small forward in a huge but successful lineup after a rash of injuries to smaller swingmen), point guard Devin Harris regained his effectiveness after a terrible start and the four kids in the eight-man rotation proved that they deserved the playing time. Corbin's crew can enter the playoffs with a positive mindset that whatever happens is a bonus on a job already well done.
C- Washington Wizards (18-46)
The Wizards flunked chemistry for most of the season, the result of a terrible collective basketball IQ that was revealed in execrable shot selection, lack of recognition on defensive rotations and an overall tendency to abandon systemic assignments at the slightest sign of stress. Or, more simply, Washington played stupidly and selfishly while tuning out coach Flip Saunders, whose exasperation morphed into apathy, which led to unemployment after a 2-15 start. At the trade deadline, Washington unloaded center JaVale McGee and shooting guard Nick Young; soon afterward, the team told Andray Blatche to go "work on his conditioning." The result of all these moves was addition by subtraction under interim coach Randy Wittman, a no-nonsense Bobby Knight disciple. Instead of McGee and Blatche in the paint, the Wizards gave less talented but more dedicated young players such as Trevor Booker and Kevin Seraphin regular minutes. Booker has been out all month with a foot injury, but Seraphin is the team's leading scorer during a 6-2 stretch in which the Wizards have amassed a third of their wins for the season, including road victories over Chicago and Miami. Rookie Jan Vesely is raw, but he's benefiting from plentiful, low-pressure playing time down the stretch. Most important, 2010 top pick John Wall is beginning to shed the bad habits he'd picked up from his team's earlier dysfunction, and performing like the cornerstone player he has to become if the Wizards are to be relevant again.

You May Like

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)