With the season halfway over, it’s time to see which teams are passing this season’s tests with flying colors, and which teams still need to do more homework.
The grades aren’t only based on performance, but on expectations as well.
For example, the Kings and Timberwolves are taking remedial classes to help them for the future, while the Spurs and Cavs are taking the most rigorous championship-level courses in a quest to become valedictorian.
On to the grade book.
Atlanta Hawks: A
The Hawks are right on the precipice between being a very good team and a championship-caliber team. Either level is a step above where many thought they’d be. Josh Smith’s maturity has been the biggest difference maker, but Marvin Williams has quietly become a solid two-way player. Do they have the bench to survive an injury and will the starters and super-sub Jamal Crawford be burned out come the playoffs?
Boston Celtics: D-
Kevin Garnett’s athleticism is sapped, Ray Allen is slipping, and the team’s depth is non-existent. Rasheed Wallace is even less willing to play in the post, he shoots far too many blanks, and his normally superb help defense has deteriorated from the beginning of the season. Tony Allen isn’t ready for prime time, and what did the Celtics expect out of lumbering Sheldon Williams anyway? Rajon Rondo has been the team’s only constant. If the Celtics want to win another ring, they’ll need a major postseason from Paul Pierce.
Charlotte Bobcats: A-
The Bobcats’ defense has been solid throughout and Stephen Jackson has given their impotent offense a shot in the arm. Can Gerald Wallace continue his miraculous season, and will Tyson Chandler provide anything to help secure the franchise’s first ever playoff berth?
Chicago Bulls: C
It took Derrick Rose a quarter of a season to attack the rim and stop settling for floaters. John Salmons isn’t a two-guard and couldn’t replace Ben Gordon’s lost production. Adding Kirk Hinrich to the starting lineup has improved Chicago’s spacing, shooting, and speed but for every great performance (like Chicago ripping apart the Western Conference playoff picture on a six game road winning streak), the team lays too many eggs. Chicago should be better than what they are.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A+
LeBron James was implored to improve his shooting stroke, his mid-range game, and his on-ball defense and he’s grown by leaps and bounds in each area. And nobody has ever had his combination of speed, strength, and skill. The Cavs have learned to incorporate Shaquille O’Neal, but Anderson Varejao has been the team’s unsung hero. They defend, they shoot the lights out, and they have the team’s best player. The Cavs are clearly the class of the NBA.
Dallas Mavericks: C
The team’s perimeter defense fell apart forcing their desperate but necessary acquisition of Caron Butler. Dirk Nowitzki still isn’t a good help defender, and Josh Howard was too flaky to be reliable, hence his being shipped out. If Caron Butler isn’t the answer, where does Dallas go next?
Denver Nuggets: A-
Carmelo’s been his usual spectacular self, Nene’s the most unheralded big man in the league, and the Nuggets have athleticism galore. Aaron Afflalo has replaced and exceeded everything Dahntay Jones provided, while Kenyon Martin does the dirty work on defense. If J.R. Smith stops whining and starts producing, the Nuggets absolutely have the goods to win the West.
Detroit Pistons: F
The Pistons’ continuity doesn’t work because Rodney Stuckey isn’t a smart distributor and Jonas Jerebko doesn’t set the same screens as Antonio McDyess and Rasheed Wallace used to. They can’t play iso-ball because Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Ben Wallace aren’t one-on-one players. The team doesn’t play hard for John Kuester, and don’t have faith in him. He’s the second straight swing-and-a miss coaching hire, while Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva have been swing-and-a-miss free agent signings. Sacrilege as recent as two years ago, one more strike and Joe Dumars may be out.
Golden State Warriors: F
Even with zero expectations, the Warriors find ways to embarrass themselves. Don’t blame the players though, they’re simply following Don Nelson’s orders. Blame him for an absurd small-ball gameplan, and Chris Cohan for letting Nelson run willy-nilly.
Houston Rockets: A
Chuck Hayes and Shane Battier have been non-scorers, Trevor Ariza can’t create his own shot, the team’s defense has suffered under the need to generate offense, and yet the Rockets are alive and kicking for a playoff berth in the West. Rick Adelman is easily this season’s Coach of the Year.
Indiana Pacers: D
The Pacers have no commitment to defense, and a team-wide shortage of athletes. Sure Danny Granger can ball, but he spends too much time on the perimeter and is too defenseless to be a premier player. A.J Price isn’t quick enough to be a fixture at the point, and Roy Hibbert is slower than a tree. The Pacers need to be committed to a youth movement that extends beyond Granger.
Los Angeles Clippers: D
Eric Gordon is talented and Chris Kaman is solid, but what else is there? Baron Davis’ performance—and interest level of playing for the Clippers—is sporadic at best. Marcus Camby continues to be less than meets the eye, and there’s nothing coming off the bench. The team needs a higher basketball IQ, and Baron Davis’ departure. That Blake Griffin guy probably wouldn’t hurt either.
Los Angeles Lakers: C+
They’re starting to round into form, but they’ve needed to be bailed out by Kobe Bryant too many times. Pau Gasol is getting pushed around like it’s 2008, Derek Fisher continues to degrade, Andrew Bynum still suffers from maturity problems, their depth has been compromised due to injuries, and Kobe’s dominated the ball too often. On the other side, they still have more talent than anyone else, including the Cavs, Nuggets, Magic, and Celtics. They know that Kobe can push them over the top late in games, and they’ve played with togetherness in his absence the last several games. If Kobe’s talent can merge with the team’s continuity, the Lakers will overtake the Cavs as the team to beat.
Memphis Grizzlies: A+
The future is now in Memphis. O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay are growing up, Zach Randolph is playing the best basketball of his career, and Marc Gasol plays above his years. They still have to add an impact point guard and improve defensively, but the Grizz will be flashing their claws from here into the near future.
Miami Heat: B+
Few teams get the most out of limited rosters as the Heat do. The youngsters haven’t made strides, Jermaine O’Neal, Jamaal Magloire, Quentin Richardson, Carlos Arroyo and Rafer Alston are all over the hill, and Dwyane Wade’s had to carry the team all on his lonesome. Miami’s counting down the days until free agency starts—and praying that Wade is still with them when they rebuild their roster.
Milwaukee Bucks: A
How are the Bucks not a bottom feeder? Brandon Jennings’ quickness, Luke Ridnour’s court awareness, Ersan Illyasova’s shooting, Andrew Bogut’s post play (but only against subpar teams), and Scott Skiles’ perpetual demands for smart play and hard work.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D-
It’s a given that Kevin Love and Al Jefferson can’t play together, but everything else is a mystery. Is Corey Brewer a key part of the future? What to do with Ricky Rubio? And where can they find an athletic wing scorer? Three years of questions, precious few answers.
New Jersey Nets: F-
Devin Harris is the league’s least improved player, Yi Jianlian is the league’s softest player, and Courtney Lee‘s game is lost and nowhere to be found. Brook Lopez is okay, but he’s too stiff to be an impact center. It’s one thing to be bad. The Nets are embarrassing.
New Orleans Hornets: D+
The Hornets are still a team that relies too much on their point guards. Byron Scott needed to go so Darren Collison and Marcus Thornton could get more minutes. Peja Stojakovic and Emeka Okafor have been disasters. Hilton Armstrong gave them nothing, but the Hornets still have little frontcourt depth. It’ll be a major surprise if the Hornets sneak into the playoffs with Chris Paul out for another month.
New York Knicks: C+
The team lives and dies with Chris Duhon. When he’s shooting well, the Knicks’ drive-and-kick offense performs well enough to scare any team in the league. If he isn’t shooting well, the Knicks don’t have talented one-on-one scorers to score consistently. David Lee’s become a terrific offensive player and rebounder, but his defense is awful, as are most of his teammates. The franchise is close to purging itself of the mistakes of the Isaiah Thomas era, but signing LeBron James is a pipe dream and not a reality.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A+
The more Kevin Durant plays, the better he gets at making scoring points appear effortless. Russell Westbrook is an uber-talented running mate who is improving by leaps and bounds, and Scott Brooks has the team committed to defending, sharing the ball, and playing as a team. Last year, people thought the Thunder might be the worst team in NBA history. This year, they’re right in the thick of the Western Conference playoff hunt. The scary thing is that they’re only going to get better.
Orlando Magic: C
The Vince Carter trade has been a disaster as Orlando’s offense isn’t as sharp without Hedo Turkoglu as their prime decision maker. Instead of Turk’s ball movement, the Magic have been stuck with Carter’s timid drives to the rim, bad shot selection, and poor decision making. With Carter forcing the offense, there’ve been less touches for Dwight Howard and Rashard Lewis, Orlando’s true prime-time players.
Philadelphia 76ers: D-
Lou Williams hasn’t developed into the point guard the Sixers need him to be, Elton Brand isn’t the same as he was before signing with the Sixers, and Andre Iguodala isn’t a go-to scorer. The team misses Andre Miller and isn’t benefiting from Eddie Jordan’s almost whimsical rotations and game plans.
Phoenix Suns: B
Steve Nash is the eighth wonder of the world and the glue holding the Suns to a playoff spot. Their return to the run-and-gun stylings popularized Mike D’Antoni has helped generate an offense that masks their deplorable defense. If they do make the playoffs, they’ll be cooked in the first round.
Portland Trail Blazers: B
Brandon Roy’s surprising petulance and reluctance to play alongside Andre Miller set a bad tone from the start, and the bad karma has continued with a rash of injuries. Through it all, the Blazers have plugged away and would be one of the West’s eight playoff teams if the postseason started today. Credit Nate McMillan for getting the team to play with togetherness through a trying season. They’ll still need a low post scorer and post defender if they want to advance in the postseason.
Sacramento Kings: A
They’ve fallen on hard times after a hot start, but in Tyreke Evans they have the athletic star they’ve been searching for since the Chris Webber days expired. Omri Casspi has been a pleasant surprise, and the kids play with enthusiasm. What’s next on Sacramento’s to-do list? A back-to-the-basket player, and an answer as to whether they fancy Evans a shooting guard or a point guard.
San Antonio Spurs: D
Tim Duncan is graceful enough to continue to produce despite diminishing athleticism, but what has happened to Manu Ginobili? Richard Jefferson has provided absolutely nothing, Roger Mason hasn’t duplicated his 2008-09 success, and in Duncan, DeJuan Blair, Antonio McDyess, and Matt Bonner, the Spurs are lacking in frontcourt athleticism. San Antonio was supposed to be the main challenger to the Lakers in the West. Instead, they’re behind Denver, and perhaps Utah in the West’s pecking order.
Toronto Raptors: B-
The Raptors sure can shoot the ball. And with enough of an inside presence from Chris Bosh, and enough defense from Jarrett Jack and Amir Johnson, the Raptors have reared their teeth after a disappointing start. Don’t expect the Raptors to escape the first round though.
Utah Jazz: B
Andrei Kirilenko’s re-entrance into the starting lineup has energized the Jazz. Their offense is crisper, and AK47 provides defensive length and athleticism to a frontcourt that desperately needs it. The Jazz execute their offense as well as any team in the league. In other news, the sky is blue and the grass is green.
Washington Wizards: F
It was embarrassing enough to expect a team jacked with perimeter shooters and lacking everywhere else would be successful, but Gilbert Arenas’ idiocy sunk the franchise to new lows. Caron Butler was having a miserable go of it before being traded, and Nick Young and Andray Blatche are too immature to realize their considerable gifts. The Wizards kept assuming that a defenseless, perimeter-oriented roster would ever taste postseason success (one playoff series victory over a mediocre Bulls team in six years is not success). Now, Ernie Grunfeld has to pay the price.
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