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 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 a quest to become valedictorian.
Atlanta Hawks: B+
Despite Joe Johnson’s scoring, Josh Smith has been the most important Hawks player this year. Still, does the team have the interior bulk or the athleticism at the point guard position to be special? Right now the Hawks are respectable, but nothing more.
Boston Celtics: B+
While the Celtics continue to play solid defense and efficient offense, something is missing. Aside from Kevin Garnett, their lack of frontcourt length has hurt them defensively, and the team has desperately missed James Posey’s physicality and ability to connect dagger threes. Plus, they’ve been slow to adapt to opponents who can neutralize Rajon Rondo’s penetration with long, tall defenders. They’re solid, but they’re missing two bench players to truly be special.
Charlotte Bobcats: C-
Larry Brown is slowly erasing the damage done by Sam Vincent and molding the team to his liking. In are defensive standouts and ball movers like Desagana Diop and Boris Diaw. Gone are one-dimensional scorers and non-athletes like Jason Richardson and Adam Morrison. Still, the team’s thirst for offense leaves them near the bottom of the Eastern Conference.
Chicago Bulls: D-
The good news is that Derrick Rose is a legit star. The bad news is that the team still lacks a post threat, still is chalk full of poor defenders, still is comprised of selfish scorers, and still contains too many malcontents (Larry Hughes, Ben Gordon) who are more concerned with their own production than the team’s success. In short, Rose is the only improvement from last year’s disaster.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
So this is what Cleveland can do when Mike Brown runs a more complex offense than simply high screen/rolls. Nobody in the league comes close to LeBron James’ speed, quickness, explosion, vision, and strength. Imagine what he could do if he had a jump shot! Mo Williams has been everything the Cavs have asked for, while Delonte West keeps the ball and the players moving. And with Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Ben Wallace, and Andy Varejao protecting the rim, scoring in the paint takes Herculean efforts. Still, the Cavs will only go as far as LeBron’s jumper will take them.
Dallas Mavericks: C-
No matter how many times Dirk impresses over the first three quarters, he’s always bound to disappoint in the fourth. But at least he shows up for the first three. Where has Josh Howard been after the first quarter? And is Jason Terry their only player playing to his maximum potential? The Mavs don’t pay attention to detail on defense—which makes sense, since they mutinied against Avery Johnson’s consistent naggings. Getting to the playoffs will be an accomplishment. If Dallas wants more, it needs to back up the truck and start over.
Denver Nuggets: A+
Has any team in the league been more of a surprise than the Denver Nuggets? It’s still a surprise as to why the Nuggets have played so well. Has it been because Carmelo Anthony is more mature and more efficient since he knows he’s the team’s designated scorer? What about Nene’s potent post offense, and his committal to playing every aspect of defense—not just roaming for shot blocks a la Marcus Camby? Could it be that Chauncey Billups has been every bit the leader the Nuggets have needed? Or that the banishment of Allen Iverson has led to more discipline and unselfishness knowing that the team can actually run plays aside from watching AI isolate? Whatever the reason—and all those reasons are valid—the Nuggets are playing as well as they can possibly play.
Detroit Pistons: D+
It’s been a disaster. Allen Iverson deserves the brunt of the blame, but simply accusing him is taking the easy way out. Rasheed Wallace continues to be less than meets the eye. If he’s been a reluctant post player for years, he’s now losing his defensive edge. And the team doesn’t know if it’s a drive and kick team (which plays to Iverson’s strengths, but minimizes the effectiveness of Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince), or if it’s a precision offense team (which plays to Rip Hamilton’s ability to curl and shoot, but forces Iverson to make correct decisions, and jump shots, something he’s never been able to do). Drastic changes will need to be made.
Golden State Warriors: D-
Does anyone on the team make the extra pass? And besides Ronnie Turiaf and Andris Biedrins, does anyone defend or play with heart? Injuries have provided a convenient excuse, but what team in the West hasn’t suffered debilitating injuries? No, with players who are only out for themselves and a coach who only focuses on one side of the court, the responsibility lies with them.
Houston Rockets: C+
For every stirring performance, the team lays an egg. Is Ron Artest alive? Is there a softer player in the league than Tracy McGrady? The team has two months to develop chemistry or else another first round exit will await them.
Indiana Pacers: B-
The Pacers have played hard in every game, only to see their inability to defend haunt them in a number of close losses. Danny Granger is the goods, but with Mike Dunleavy out for almost the entire first half, he’s operated without a Robin. T.J. Ford hasn’t been a difference maker, and the team desperately needs a shot blocker, a creator, and defenders at every position. Still, despite being devoid of talent, the Pacers don’t play bad ball and can upset any team in the league, as the Lakers and Celtics have found out.
Los Angeles Clippers: F
Yeesh! Where to begin? Baron Davis is more concerned with making movies than playing ball, and he’s on the hook for five years. Marcus Camby’s overhyped defense has made no difference (where have we seen this before), while Chris Kaman’s robotic offensive maneuvers have been thwarted by the league’s better defenders. Zach Randolph won’t pass because he thinks he can make every shot. The only reason why Ricky Davis has begun to pass is because he’s forgotten how to make any shot? The kids can play, but they’re stuck as secondary options with this roster. To sum it all up, the Clippers are a collection of selfish, defenseless losers and play selfish, defenseless, losing basketball because of it.
Los Angeles Lakers: B+
They’re better than last year—and the best team in the league—but they still have work to do. Too often, their triangle offense dissolves into Kobe Bryant isolations. Which is disappointing considering Lamar Odom’s emergence in the wake of Andre Bynum’s injury, and Pau Gasol’s terrific high and low post play. The main concern is the defense, which has essentially involved the Lakers packing the paint and overloading the strong side relying on opponents to miss open jumpers. That strategy can easily backfire against a team that’s shooting well from the outside. The wins over Cleveland and Boston are impressive, the team is far from perfect.
Memphis Grizzlies: F
It’s been three long years with nothing to show for it in Memphis—but what can you expect from a franchise that is concerned more with penny pinching than progress. Rudy Gay can score in a broken field and pick up steals, but he has no idea how to play in an organized system. The only player on the team who’ll do the dirty work is Marc Gasol, and the Grizz don’t even bother playing defense. It will take light years for the nebulous talent to solidify into a body of good basketball.
Miami Heat: A+
Dwyane Wade has reminded the world that he’s a superstar of elite proportions, and the team has worked their tails off to become a solid defensive ball club. All this despite two rookies in the rotation, no post offense, no length in the front court, little from Shawn Marion, two rookies in the rotation, and a defenseless bench. Eric Spolestra deserves serious consideration for coach of the year.
Milwaukee Bucks: A
The Bucks have bought completely into Scott Skiles’ drill sergeant routine. Michael Redd is playing the best ball of his career, while Charlie Villanueva has surprised many (including yours truly) by flourishing as one of Milwaukee’s main scoring options. Richard Jefferson’s helped mostly on defense, while Luke Ridnour’s smarts and Ramon Session’s unselfishness and talent have formed an unheralded, but dynamic point guard duo. The team competes hard, shares the ball, contests everything, and despite losing Andrew Bogut, Redd, and Ridnour for extended stretches, has never asked for sympathy or looked for excuses. These Bucks are as refreshing as they are exciting.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D+
It’s been a tale of three Timberwolves seasons. The first third of the year where the team did nothing under Randy Wittman, the second third of the year, where the Wolves played about as well as their talent would allow them, and the upcoming final third of the year where it will be a miracle for the Wolves to score 100 points with Al Jefferson done for the year. AJ can certainly score, but he still can’t pass or defend, and nobody else on the team is adept at creating their own shot. It’s hard to blame the T-Wolves for losing so many games when the team has such a profound lack of talent, but Minnesota has to failed to develop any kind of second option behind Jefferson.
New Jersey Nets: A-
Devin Harris has made the jump from quality player to All-Star in half a season, and he’s been the Nets’ best player. Vince Carter sometimes plays like an All-Star, sometimes plays like a fourth option, and sometimes plays like a nobody. Usually, the better the opponent, the worse Carter plays, which is why in reality, Carter is nowhere close to being considered a superstar. The real credit to New Jersey’s season goes to the role players. Brook Lopez and Ryan Anderson have made immediate contributions, while Josh Boone, Eduardo Najera, Jarvis Hayes, Trent Hassel, Bobby Simmons, and Keyon Dooling have all been put in roles they can succeed in and have performed those jobs to the best of their abilities. That shows that the team is well coached. If Carter steps up in the second half, New Jersey might even make the playoffs. Who would have thought that at the beginning of the season?
New Orleans Hornets: D
Have the Hornets forgotten what made them so successful last year? Why does Chris Paul walk the ball up so much? Why haven’t David West and Tyson Chandler been the physical defenders the Hornets need them to be? Why doesn’t West post up as much? Why do the Hornets sleepwalk through so many games? If these questions still persist at the end of the year, the Hornets will be stung in the first round.
New York Knicks: B-
Forget the on-court play of the Knicks, Mike D’Antoni’s access, honesty, and accountability have completely changed the culture of the Garden from Isaiah Thomas’ and James Dolan’s paranoid co-dictatorship. On the court, the Knicks play with passion, excitement, and enthusiasm, and their offense has no doubt clicked. Should the Knicks have these same problems next season, then due criticism will come forthright, but given the expectations of the Knicks this year, they’re doing a solid job.
Oklahoma City Thunder: C-
It’s taken a few months, and a much-needed coaching change, but the Thunder have finally found their groove. Kevin Durant’s jumper is flawless with an infinite amount of bullets in a future filled with potential. Jeff Green’s quietly improved his handle, jumper, and toughness, while Russell Westbrook is athletic by athletics’ standards. Now, they need to find out which pieces can be used to add around those guys. Either way, give Scott Brooks credit for quietly doing a terrific coaching job.
Orlando Magic: A+
Jameer Nelson took a huge step forward as a decision maker, tough scorer, and a leader before separating his shoulder. Dwight Howard’s steadily improved, and Rashard Lewis’ three-point bombing, occasional posting up, and quick-handed defense have taken the Magic to the next level. Kudos to Stan Van Gundy for having his Magic about a year away from being magical.
Philadelphia 76ers: B+
With Elton Brand out of the picture, the Sixers have gone back to their roots to find success: running, running, and more running. Interim coach Tony DiLeo has given his team the confidence to shoot from the outside, and as Andre Iguodala’s jump shot has returned, he’s carved up defenses with his ability to score from the outside, from the inside, and with his ability to set up other players with his passing. The Sixers are as dangerous as they were last season.
Phoenix Suns: C-
It’s been almost a no win season for the Suns, but they still have hope of making the playoffs. Amare Stoudemire is perpetually discontented, Steve Nash has less room to make wonderful assist passes, and it seems as if the better Shaq plays, the worse his team does. With Jason Richardson brought in to unsuccessfully revert the team to a running, gunning offensive juggernaut, the team’s lost all traces of defense in the process. The parts simply don’t work well together and raw talent alone is holding the Suns in the playoff sky.
Portland Trail Blazers: A+
The Blazers’ consistency is a direct result of Nate McMillan’s coaching, and Brandon Roy’s poise. And of Roy, is there a smoother player in the league? Greg Oden has made small strides, while Joel Pryzbilla’s sturdy rebounding, screen-setting, and defense make him an invaluable backup. Plus, LaMacus Aldridge and Travis Outlaw are long, talented point makers. Not a championship contender yet, the Blazers make huge strides every single season. Their time of greatness will come sooner rather than later.
Sacramento Kings: F
Was Ron Artest that important? The team has given up in his absence. The team is devoid of NBA-ready athleticism, except for Kevin Martin, John Salmon, and Francisco Garcia. The youngsters haven’t progressed, and Kevin Martin isn’t tough enough to be a franchise player. Brad Miller and Beno Udrih have been defensive liabilities and haven’t made up for it offensively. What is the team’s plan? What is the team’s direction? What are the Kings’ goals for the future? Sacramento doesn’t have a plan and is paying for it.
San Antonio Spurs: B+
As usual, they were written off before the season. As usual, they were written off when Tony Parker joined Manu Ginobili on the inactive list early in the year. As usual, the Spurs are virtual locks to make it back to the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs have reinvented themselves as a perimeter shooting team, but when Roger Mason and Matt Bonner are on, then the Spurs offense finds its groove. Does the team have the athleticism or the ability to manufacture enough easy shots to beat the Lakers though?
Toronto Raptors: F
The Jermaine O’Neal experiment wasn’t a success, while Andrea Bargnani continues to be a failure. Is there a worse defensive player in the league? And wasn’t he supposed to be athletic with the ball? Jose Calderon has thrived as a starter, but with T.J. Ford gone, there’s been no backup? Where’s the toughness? Where are the defenders? Is Anthony Parker the only clever player on the team? And if Bosh is an elite player, why is always torched on defense, and afraid to assert himself on the low block? It’s been a dismal failure north of the border.
Utah Jazz: C
Their youth excuse doesn’t apply after a trip to the Conference Finals and a trip to the Conference Semis. Why can’t they manufacture the same execution on the road that they do at home? And of all the potential playoff teams, is there a worse passing team in the league? Only Deron Williams can do tricky things with the ball. Still, despite crippling injuries, the team always plays hard and tough. But is playing hard, playing tough, and trusting Deron Williams enough to win a playoff series if the Jazz don’t have home court?
Washington Wizards: F
The team’s hopes were lost when Brandon Haywood went down. The team could—and last year, had—compensated for the loss of Arenas with their other talented scorers. With Haywood injured though, the team has had no rebounding, no screen-setting, and no interior defense. And with $14 million dollars tied into Arenas this year, the Wizards haven’t had a chance to build quality depth. How fragile are the Wizards that one specific player turned them from playoff hopefuls to bottom feeders?
Erick Blasco is a 21-year-old college student attending Brooklyn College on a full scholarship. He is majoring in Television/Radio and minoring in English with the hopes of someday becoming a professional basketball analyst.