By Ian Parfrey @Ianparfrey
1. Miami Heat (36-14). Other than a couple of nitpicks– they’re a very bad rebounding team, and the “point guard” combination of Mario Chalmers and Norris Cole really blows– this is exactly what a title defense should look like. The big three are healthy and playing great basketball; Erik Spoelstra isn’t wearing anyone out with too many minutes (ahem, Tom Thibodeau); and if nothing else, Ray Allen can really space the floor for them. Grade: A+
2. New York Knicks (32-18). This is basically a .500 team since starting out 18-5, with a two-month string of uninspiring victories and ugly losses. They don’t defend much anymore, the threes have stopped falling, and the point guard duo of Raymond Felton and Jason Kidd is starting to look, respectively, fat and old. Still, Carmelo Anthony is awesome, Amar’e Stoudemire has some life left in him, and the Knicks are successfully treading water, which is what good teams manage to do when they’re not playing well. Should I mention that they’ve had a very easy schedule so far? Grade: A-/B+
3. Indiana Pacers (32-21). They’ve got a tough defense, a great young prospect in Paul George, and two very solid, playoff-tested youngish veterans in David West and George Hill. Frank Vogel is a very underrated coach, too. They’re 4-0 against the Heat and the Bulls, but their record against the other top Eastern teams is underwhelming. Can they win enough 85-80 games in the postseason to make some noise? Will Roy Hibbert ever show up this year? Grade: B+
4. Brooklyn Nets (31-22). A lot of people, myself included, thought this team was going to score a ton of points. Instead, they’re well on their way to establishing a grind-it-out defensive identity. Brook Lopez has been quietly phenomenal– averaging 19 points and 7 rebounds, which is the same season he put up every year on the terrible New Jersey teams. It’s really, really hard to contribute as effectively to a contender as you did to a team that wasn’t very talented. Just ask Kris Humphries. The Nets also do a great job of winning the games they’re supposed to win, going 20-4 against non-playoff teams. Grade: A- for P.J. Carlesimo, C for Avery Johnson. B+ overall.
5. Chicago Bulls (30-22). Chicago just got some bad news, when Derrick Rose revealed that he’s still having difficulty dunking. I think he will suit up this year, probably within a month, but I don’t think you can count on him elevating the Bulls to a conference finals lock. We might not see the real D-Rose until November. I have to give the Bulls a lot of credit for pulling together in his absence and winning games. Nate Robinson and Jimmy Butler have been enormous surprises. We already knew about Luol Deng and Joakim Noah– the Bulls needed them to be terrific, and they have been. Grade: A-
6. Atlanta Hawks (29-22). Another pleasant surprise– trading Joe Johnson for the back end of the Nets’ bench hasn’t turned out all that badly. Josh Smith continues to be a polarizing player as he heads toward a big free-agent payday– he can do just about everything on the court, but he wants to be a perimeter scorer, and he might not beat Dwight Howard in a free-throw contest. Al Horford and Jeff Teague have carried the team at times as well, and Kyle Korver (the league leader in 3PT percentage) was a terrific low-cost pickup. Grade: A solid B, or an “Incomplete” until Smith’s situation is resolved.
7. Boston Celtics (28-24). The Celtics appeared to be slowly fading away, until Rajon Rondo tore his ACL and they promptly won eight out of nine. Jared Sullinger (back surgery) and Leandro Barbosa (ACL) are also out for the season. Credit Danny Ainge for bringing in enough talent to withstand three serious injuries, but sooner or later they will begin to miss what Rondo brings to the table. Grade: B-
8. Milwaukee Bucks (26-25). Milwaukee is lucky that there are eight playoff spots, although they have gone 10-7 against the other Eastern “contenders.” That, and the Larry Sanders block party, is really all there is to see here. Jim Boylan has stuck with a consistent player rotation, which Scott Skiles couldn’t seem to do, but the results have been about the same. Grade: C
9. Philadelphia 76ers (21-30). So, the Sixers were so hot to unload the last $30 million of Andre Iguodala’s contract that they were willing to stake their season on the health of Andrew Bynum’s knees. Early returns on that move haven’t been too encouraging. Bynum’s absence is the entire reason they’re five games out of a playoff spot. There’s almost nothing else to talk about. The emergence of Jrue Holiday has been the consolation prize in this season; the emergence of Evan Turner un-happened sometime around Christmas. Grade: An F for the front office, a C+ for the team. Overall: C-/D+
10. Toronto Raptors (21-32). The Raptors head into the break on a 4-game winning streak. They managed to acquire an overpaid star in Rudy Gay, while simplifying their point guard problem by getting rid of Jose Calderon. That would have been a nice move if they were anywhere near contention at the time, and if they also didn’t owe way too much money to Andrea Bargnani and Landry Fields. If they manage to unload “The Flying Spaghetti Monster”, I might let them re-take the course. By the way, do you remember the hype about this team in the preseason? Grade: D+
11. Detroit Pistons (21-33). It’s hard to believe that the same Joe Dumars who so skillfully built the 2004 championship team is also responsible for the mess that the Pistons are now, and even more unfathomable that Dumars has remained on the job to try to dig his way out of it. Well, Detroit has bigger problems than the Pistons, anyway. Grade: D-
12. Cleveland Cavaliers (16-37). Individually, Kyrie Irving has taken a giant step forward, and Tristan Thompson has also begun to show signs of being an NBA player. They cashed in on the Grizzlies’ salary-cap paranoia and landed two decent bench players in Marreese Speights and Wayne Ellington. Their draft picks, Dion Waiters and Tyler Zeller, are both starting, and not completely embarrassing themselves. So far, so good, until you look at their record, and realize that Luke Walton and Shaun Livingston both get consistent minutes off their bench. The loss of Anderson Varejao doesn’t hurt as much as you’d think– the Cavs weren’t winning with him, either, and at least Thompson and Zeller are getting heavy minutes to develop in. Grade: C
13. Washington Wizards (15-36). Washington is 11-8 after getting off to a 4-28 start. The Wizards brought in some decent talent to surround John Wall. Wall started the season on the shelf with a knee injury, then his backup, A.J. Price, broke his hand, and pretty soon D-League pickup Garrett Temple was running the point. Add in injuries to Nene Hilario and Trevor Ariza, and you can see how their season went down the toilet so quickly. Like the Raptors, they’ve collected a good deal of overpaid mediocre talent in the hopes of getting two home playoff games against Miami one of these years. Grade: C-, with small glimmers of hope.
14. Orlando Magic (15-37). Yes, there are worse teams than the Cavs and the Wizards. I hardly believe it myself. The Magic are a few years behind the Cavs in the “we traded our superstar for a magic bean” process, and other than the terrific play of Nikola Vucevic (12.4 points, 11.5 boards), the Howard trade has worked out as badly as everyone thought it would. Their starting small forward for most of the year has been 19-year old Maurice Harkless. But hey, they have a 2017 Lakers first-round pick with partial lottery protection! Grade: Since you can’t expel NBA teams, an F-.
15. Charlotte Bobcats (12-40). So much for that 7-5 start. It’s hard to win when your team is extremely young and not particularly talented. Kemba Walker and Ramon Sessions are a nice point guard combination, and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist will be an above-average NBA player within a year or two, but what other bright spots does this roster even have? Bismack Biyombo has been very unimpressive as the starting center. Byron Mullens belongs in the D-League. People think suiting up for the Wizards tarnished Michael Jordan’s legacy? How about this shitshow? Grade: F-
Next week’s conference matchups:
Tuesday February 19: Bucks @ NETS (7:30pm, YES)
Wednesday February 20: KNICKS @ Pacers (7pm, MSG)
Wednesday February 20: NETS @ Bucks (8pm, YES)
Wednesday February 20: Heat @ Hawks
Thursday February 21: Heat @ Bulls (8pm, TNT)
Saturday February 23: Hawks @ Bucks