With the regular season’s final drops trickling down the drain, it’s time to take out the grade book and evaluate how each team handled the regular season.
The grades aren’t only based on performance, but on expectations as well.
For example, the Grizzlies and Thunder are taking remedial classes to help them for the future, while the Lakers and Celtics are taking the most rigorous championship-level courses in their quest to become valedictorian.
For some background on my personal preseason expectations, here are my conference-by-conference predictions on how I figured each team would fare over the season.
Atlanta Hawks: B+
Give the Hawks credit for soaring at home despite barren crowds. In fact, that task—not Cleveland’s exceptional home court advantage—may be the most impressive team feat accomplished in the league.
The Hawks brim with infectious passion and enthusiasm, if not necessarily with smarts. However, Josh Smith is still too immature, Al Horford is too short, Mike Bibby is too unathletic, and Zaza Pachulia is too much of a D-Leaguer masquerading as a legitimate NBA backup for the Hawks to hunt down the East‘s top dogs. They’ll feast at home, though the first series that requires them to win games on the road will be the final series they participate in.
Boston Celtics: C+
They’ve persevered, but they never solved the problems they expected to have coming into the season. Stephon Marbury’s been insignificant as Rajon Rondo’s backup. Tony Allen and Mikki Moore have failed in their attempts to duplicate the successes of James Posey and P.J. Brown.
The frontcourt still has no length outside of Kevin Garnett. Paul Pierce and Ray Allen have logged heavy minutes. They don’t have the firepower or the defensive stopper to win a championship.
Charlotte Bobcats: A-
The season has been a reminder that when Larry Brown has players that will actually listen to him, the man can coach. Vladimir Radmanovic, DeSagana Diop, Boris Diaw and Raja Bell gave the team versatility and defense, and the ‘Cats actually found a sucker, I mean taker, for Adam Morrison’s inept game.
Plus Emeka Okafor’s finally starting to develop some semblance of an offensive repertoire. At worst, Charlotte has washed away the stench of the Sam Vincent era and the team is playing as smart as they did during the Bernie Bickerstaff era. At best, the team is another scorer away from knocking down the playoff door.
Chicago Bulls: B+
Derrick Rose will be mentioned with the names of Paul, Parker, and Williams in the years to come, and acquiring the stability of John Salmons and Brad Miller was the deadline deal of the year. If he made a boatload of mistakes, at least Vinny of the Black's players haven’t mutinied (as they did under Scott Skiles) or tuned him out (as they did under Jim Boylan). He didn’t cave in to Larry Hughes’ selfishness and learned to keep Rose in the game late in fourth quarters. Still, the team lacks the post presence and the perimeter defense to win a playoff series.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
Everything has come together in order for the Cavs to contend. LeBron improved himself as a jump shooter and as a defender, elevating himself to the forefront of the MVP race. Mo Williams made his baskets and become at least an adequate defender.
Mike Brown puts LeBron in different spots on the court aside from high pick-and-rolls. If the Cavs had a more reliable post presence than Zydrunas Ilgauskas and had better baseline rotations, they’d be surefire bets to win the whole shebang.
Dallas Mavericks: C+
Give Jason Kidd credit for being an old dog who’s learned the new trick of shooting the three. The one-on-one talents of Josh Howard, Jason Terry, and Dirk Nowitzki have been good enough to brush off the lesser teams from each conference. The Mavericks still don’t have the heart to beat the league’s elite, meaning a third-straight first round exit awaits them.
Denver Nuggets: A
With Chauncey Billups at the helm, Denver no longer has the lowest collective basketball IQ in the league. Chris Anderson’s been Marcus Camby without the hefty salary.
Carmelo Anthony is more patient knowing that without Allen Iverson around, he’s the team’s alpha male, while J.R. Smith’s wondrous talents have begun to be refined. Also, the team actually has a collective defensive game plan of trapping every high and wing screen and funneling the ball into their collection of shot-blockers at the hoop. Still, the Nuggets revert to their old ways against disciplined clubs, and clever teams often use Denver’s aggression against them, but it’s likely they’ll win their first playoff series in an eternity.
Detroit Pistons: F
Mayday, mayday! It’s been a disaster in Detroit, and it’s time to rebuild.
Allen Iverson’s unbridled selfishness derailed the Pistons long before he quit on the team in April. Rasheed Wallace is no longer the paint protector he used to be, and has turned into an offensive non-entity. Michael Curry displayed his lack of guts by benching Rip Hamilton mid season (instead of Iverson), and keeping that lineup too long while the team languished behind Iverson’s ball-dominating disposition. Plus, why did Curry banish Jason Maxiell from the rotation the first half of the season?
Why does he make lineup mistakes, like keeping in the defensively deficient Will Bynum over Rodney Stuckey late in fourth quarters when his team has the lead? Rodney Stuckey, Tayshaun Prince, Rip Hamilton, and Jason Maxiell are the best fits for the present, while Stuckey is their guard for the future. The rest of the squad should be shown the exit.
Golden State Warriors: D
It’s not a surprise that their non-stars have played harder than their scorers. What can you expect when selfish players (aside from Jamal Crawford) are given free reign of a backwards game plan? Until Don Nelson leaves, uninspired ball will be the norm by the Bay.
Houston Rockets: B+
After a chaotic opening half of the season, the Rockets have established themselves down the stretch. Their defense is immaculate with Ron Artest and Shane Battier bottling up perimeter wings, funneling them into Yao Ming’s gargantuan mass and Luis Scola’s well-timed rotations.
If the team misses Tracy McGrady’s athleticism, Artest’s muscular drives to the hoop give the Rockets an offensive swagger T-Mac could only wish to deliver. If the team had more ball handlers to handle the Lakers’ on-ball pressure, and if Artest was more reliable in fourth quarters, the Rockets would be the best bets to capture the West—not the Lakers.
Indiana Pacers: C+
The Pacers need more defenders to compliment Danny Granger, who’s developed into a fine basketball player. Troy Murphy and Jeff Foster are useful players, but Murphy can’t defend and Foster is a backup on a winning team.
One should go for a shot-blocking center. A playmaking guard is another must, as is an upgrade at the point. With minimal talent though, the Pacers played hard throughout the year and got the most out of their roster. Compared with the dismal underachievers employed in Indiana beforehand, these Pacers have room to grow.
Los Angeles Clippers: F
Following the model of Isiah Thomas’ Knicks, the Clippers created a roster purely on talent, with no regard to chemistry. No wonder there was no catalyst for winning basketball.
Canning Mike Dunleavy would be the right start, but what to do with Marcus Camby, Zach Randolph, Al Thornton, Eric Gordon, and Baron Davis—all players who are less than meets the eye?
Los Angeles Lakers: B+
Their baseline rotations are still a problem, one that the Lakers are hoping Andrew Bynum can fix. On the plus side, their long-limbed pressure defense swallows up unathletic teams and forces undisciplined ones into dumb mistakes.
When Kobe’s found the balance of creating for himself and others, the Lakers offense is nigh-unstoppable, but too many times Kobe aborts the offense—giving shot-hungry teammates the green light to follow suit. Shannon Brown’s defense and decision making will be a boon to a lifeless bench, and spells less playing time—and screw ups—for Sasha Vujacic and Jordan Farmar.
The Lakers flaws are mitigated by the fact that each other Western Conference team’s are far more severe. With Pau Gasol and Kobe, the Lakers have the best scoring and creating inside-outside tandem in the league.
Memphis Grizzlies: D-
Being young isn’t an excuse for awful basketball. None of the players know how to play in any kind of organized offense, and the team is devoid of good defenders.None of the youngsters have made serious progress and are just as raw as they were when they came into the league. They’ve played hard till the end, but when will the potential begin to be realized?
Miami Heat: A
Dwyane Wade bought into Eric Spoelstra from the onset and that’s made all the difference. Wade has been spectacular in every aspect of the game, and his teammates have plugged their roles to the best of their ability. Considering the Heat’s youth and relative lack of talent outside of Wade, and the Heat’s success story is even more impressive.
Milwaukee Bucks: B+
They couldn’t hold things together after injuries decimated them in the second half, but progress was made. Ramon Sessions can play and is Milwaukee’s point guard of the future.If Charlie Villanueva’s still soft, he’s much more assertive and consistent. Luc Richard Mbah a Moute will be an excellent defender for years to come. Getting more defensive frontcourt depth is a priority but the Bucks are on the up-and-up.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D-
Of course they were going to struggle with Al Jefferson down for the count, that’s what happens when you build a roster with only one player who can consistently create his own shots. Kevin Love will be a nice role player for years but O.J. Mayo can fill up the basket. You don’t think the T-Wolves want a do-over on that deal? Plus, Love and Jefferson may be the worst defensive frontcourt pairing outside of Utah. The point guards are pointless, the scoring guards can’t score—it’s Al Jefferson, the underrated Ryan Gomes, and a whole lot of nothing in the twin cities.
New Jersey Nets: B+
Rumors of Lawrence Frank’s job security of ridiculous. Under his watch, Devin Harris finally blossomed into the star his athletic traits suggested he’d be. Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson have evolved into a smart and talented frontcourt twosome, and Jarvis Hayes bounced back from an off year in Detroit to provide energetic and smart shooting and defense. If Vince Carter played with any fire, the Nets might have even been able to sneak into the playoffs. As is, Carter’s lack of an edge, and Yi Jianlian’s ineptitude were the only down spots in New Jersey.
New Orleans Hornets: D-
Why did they mess with a good thing? Last year’s Hornets played at a much more frenetic pace than this year’s version.
Instead, Chris Paul plays much more passively, relying on his teammates to make their own plays. David West is a talented third option, but doesn’t have the goods to be a championship-caliber second option. Rasual Butler isn’t a winning player, and Peja Stojakovic always disappears under the bright lights. Did the Hornets give San Antonio’s style of play too much credit after they knocked New Orleans out of the playoffs last year, or is Tyson Chandler really the catalyst that makes New Orleans go? Probably both.
New York Knicks: B-
The stench of the Isaiah Thomas era disappeared from Madison Square Garden, so that alone makes the Knicks season a success. Now they can get back in the business of winning games.
Jared Jeffries is the Knicks only ace defender, but he has no offensive game whatsoever. David Lee is as good a rebounder as he is as bad a defender. Wilson Chandler has the goods to someday be the Knicks’ best two-way player, but he doesn’t always play with total confidence. Larry Hughes can score and defend, but how long will he last before his me-first attitude poisons the locker room?
Will Nate Robinson and Al Harrington ever stop making brainless mistakes that lose games? Mike D’Antoni’s Knicks are certainly more enthusiastic than the sullen Thomas/Stephon Marbury Knicks. Now it’s on D’Antoni to see if they’re better.
Oklahoma City Thunder: C-
After firing the dunce P.J. Carlesimo, and hiring Scott Brooks, the Thunder actually started to resemble a basketball team. Kevin Durant’s shooting stroke is golden, and Jeff Green is a lengthy, athletic sidekick.
If Russell Westbrook ever develops, the Thunder will have quite an impressive threesome. Finding a defensive-minded shooting guard is a necessity, as is losing the notion that Robert Swift is a reliable NBA center. There’s certainly more growing pains to go through, but give the Thunder a couple more seasons and they’ll begin taking the West by storm.
Orlando Magic: A
Dwight Howard’s always been a monster rebounder and shot-blocker, but now his court awareness and post moves are gradually coming around. Hedo Turkoglu is the playmaker and big-shot taker, while Rashard Lewis has a myriad of ways to score, and is much more comfortable in his second year in Disneyland.The Magic shoot the lights out and play with total unselfishness. While Howard struggles against the best post defenders, Orlando has the goods to write a fairy tale ending.
Philadelphia 76ers: B
After struggling early, the Sixers rediscovered what makes them tick. Defending, rebounding, and letting Andre Miller and Andre Iguodala run in transition all game long. However, the Sixers lack that go-to scorer who they could dump the ball into in the halfcourt and create easy shots—someone like Elton Brand.
Phoenix Suns: F
They quit on Terry Porter and decided to take the easy road of playing all-offense and no-defense. No wonder they struggled to beat playoff teams the entire second half.
For a team with as much talent as the Suns to miss the playoffs is inexcusable. The team doesn’t have the drive to play championship-caliber basketball. It’s time to ship out the biggest culprits—Steve Nash and Amare Stoudemire—and start over.
Portland Trail Blazers: A+
What a masterful franchise! Brandon Roy is a legit super-duper star who is always one step ahead of his defender, and can do it all on offense—drive, shoot, pull up, and finish with contact.
LaMarcus Aldridge is mostly a jump shooter, but he’s deadly for a near-seven-footer. The entire team’s court intelligence is at a Ph.D level, a testament to Nate McMillan’s coaching. All they’re missing is requisite experience and a post presence, both of which can be obtained in the near future.
Sacramento Kings: F
What a lost franchise! Reggie Theus wasn’t the solution, but he wasn’t the problem.The Maloofs’ rash decision to can Rick Adelman after the 2005-2006 season was. Kevin Martin isn’t close to being a franchise player, and the rest of the roster has been strip-mined of talent. It will be a long time before the Kings are competitive again.
San Antonio Spurs: C+
Despite a rash of either severe or chronic injuries, the diminishing effectiveness of Tim Duncan, the season-long injury woes of Manu Ginobili, the petrifaction of San Antonio’s older supporting cast members, and the sheer lack of athleticism throughout the roster, would it really be a surprise if the Spurs once again earned a trip to the Western Conference Finals? The Spurs still have championship-level guts, but they don’t have the talent to upset the Lakers.
Toronto Raptors: F
Jay Triano’s proven he’s not an NBA-level coach. Chris Bosh can block a few shots and is a talented elbow and baseline scorer, but he doesn’t have the physicality to impose his will on a game, and gets beaten up on defense.
Jose Calderon doesn’t make many mistakes, but doesn’t have much creativity either. Andrea Bargnani’s one of the worst defensive players in the league. The Raptors don’t have any toughness and don’t have many creative scorers, the main reason why they lack any real bite.
Utah Jazz: F
It’s been a total disappointment. Andrei Kirilenko disappeared over the second half and has too many games where he’s a non-factor. Mehmet Okur and Carlos Boozer are the least athletic frontcourt in the NBA, the main reason why screen/rolls targeting either of the two nearly always result in made baskets. Plus, the team misses far too many layups at the hoop. How else to explain their struggles on the road, but a genuine lack of confidence? The Jazz need a roster-wide athleticism infusion.
Washington Wizards: F
Losing Gilbert Arenas and Brendan Haywood were major losses, but a roster with Caron Butler and Antawn Jamison should still have played better than the 63-loss disaster they led the Wizards to. The youngsters play like children, and the veteran role players aren’t very good. Even when healthy, their ceiling is mediocrity and a first round exit.