Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:17PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:58PM
More Eastern Conference grades ...
Indeed, the Pistons have come back to the pack in the East, but the wheels are far from falling off, thanks to the production of Chauncey Billups, Rip Hamilton and Tayshaun Prince. Though the Pistons remain a threat to win anywhere, any night (they are the only team in the East with a winning road record), they also have become a team that can lose to anyone. Just ask the Bobcats. Still, Flip Saunders seems to be utilizing his veteran talent wisely, dictating a slower, deliberate pace that often keeps games close until the Pistons' savvy and experience can capitalize on the mistakes of a less poised opponent.
Star Student CHAUNCEY BILLUPS
Playing for less than $7 million this season, the game's most complete point guard should finally be paid what he's worth next summer.
Back of the Class RASHEED WALLACE
Increases in rebounds and blocks (and weight) offset by declines in shooting and scoring and rewarded with a trip to the bench.
LOOKING AHEAD Billups looks to have his work cut out for him, directing the offense on the floor and keeping the peace off of it. Wallace can't be entirely pleased with his recent benching, and it's unlikely new addition Chris Webber won't chafe at having to play center. On paper, those might sound like Saunders' jobs, but we still get the sense the locker room doesn't completely buy into what he's selling, a feeling the coach won't be able to shake unless he reaches the Finals. That figures to be a tall task with the target the Pistons carry on their backs and the potential injuries a team that has played 83 postseason games over the past four years could face.
Maybe the Pacers can sue Ben Wallace for derailing what looked to be a title contender. Yes, the brawl happened more than two years ago, but the Pacers have never seemed whole since. Even with the return of Al Harrington, Indy seemed a bit lost, experimenting with a lineup built more for speed than power and then switching back to a more traditional attack when it loped out of the gate at 7-7. When that switch didn't set the Pacers afire, Jermaine O'Neal voiced his concerns about remaining with the club beyond this season. To the front office's credit, it chose to at least attempt to rebuild around O'Neal in dealing for Ike Diogu, Troy Murphy and Mike Dunleavy on Jan. 17.
Star Student JERMAINE O'NEAL
The league's leading shot-blocker is also averaging 19 points or more for the sixth straight season.
Back of the Class STEPHEN JACKSON
Jackson's arrest outside a strip club before the season cast yet another dark cloud over a team that has seen far too many of them in recent years. A trade to Golden State should brighten up the Pacers' future considerably.
LOOKING AHEAD Clearly this was not a good mix, which the Pacers obviously acknowledged in shipping out Harrington, Jackson, Sarunas Jasikevicius and Josh Powell to the Warriors. The deal won't provide any cap relief, courtesy of the monster contracts Dunleavy and Murphy have, but it should provide some relief for O'Neal, courtesy of the space-stretching shooting range of those two and the largely untapped (by the Warriors) low-post skills of Diogu. Is it a deal that catapults the Pacers among the elite? No. But it at least offers some evidence to the fans -- and players -- that the status quo wasn't good enough, that the potential of the unknown is more palatable than the reality of the known. We can't say we disagree.
Pat Riley gambled that he could cajole, prod and shove a team of players largely closer to retirement than their primes into one more playoff run -- and lost. Shaq got hurt, Antoine Walker has yet to show he has even a drop of gas left in the tank and Riley took to the hills with a well-timed hip replacement surgery before he needed to make good on his debt. Despite all that has gone wrong in South Beach, Dwyane Wade has, with a little help from Udonis Haslem and Alonzo Mourning and a lot of help from a dismal East, kept the Heat afloat while everyone waits for Shaq's return.
Star Student DWYANE WADE
Has upped his scoring and assist totals even without the Big Security Blanket.
Back of the Class ANTOINE WALKER
He's not scoring, he's not rebounding, he isn't shooting well and his assist average is at a career low. Other than that, he's been real solid.
LOOKING AHEAD In an ideal world, Shaq comes back to help the Heat limp into the playoffs, where a rejuvenated Riley snaps this team out of its funk to give those creepy white-shirted fans a second title. In a world that was becoming all too clear in last year's playoffs, Shaq comes back and plays hard about twice a week, the Heat reach the postseason, where they topple a defensively impotent team such as the Wizards, and Riley takes a final bow off the Heat's coaching stage in Round 2, after which he is praised for "guiding" such a flat team past the first round. Then Heat fans get to look forward to paying Walker another $38 million over the next four years.
The Bucks had quietly put together a pretty intriguing team before injuries sidelined their starting backcourt and forward Charlie Villanueva. Michael Redd was scoring at a career-high clip, Mo Williams was one of only three players in the league to average at least 17 points, five rebounds and five assists (Kobe and LeBron being the other two), and the Bucks were leading the East in scoring and shooting percentage. Darkening Milwaukee's sunny offense, though, has been a defense that doesn't stop, but stops and stares, which has sunk the Bucks as many times as their offense has helped them sail.
Star Student MICHAEL REDD
Gilbert Arenas may get the ink, but Redd is as prolific a scorer there is -- and a more accurate one.
Back of the Class TERRY STOTTS
Remember that old saw that offense can't be taught, but defense can be? Well, the Bucks seem ready for a substitute teacher.
LOOKING AHEAD With the bulk of the Bucks' offense (i.e. Redd) on the shelf until at least the All-Star break, this seems as good a time as any to see if former No. 1 pick Andrew Bogut can become a go-to player. Redd's absence also should allow the Bucks to assess the value of Williams, 24, who figures to become a very wealthy man as a free agent this summer. But introspection doesn't generate ticket sales the way a playoff team can. And for that you need a leader on the bench who does more than pay lip service to the notion of defense, which is something the Bucks are likely to learn this season, too.
New Jersey Nets
The Nets are weird. For weeks they puzzled with their lethargic play. Their defense was middle of the pack; their offense was middle of the pack. Yet they couldn't scratch .500, even in the East. Why? Got us. As best we can figure, New Jersey has fallen victim to a confluence of issues. Richard Jefferson struggled with an ankle injury before deciding to have surgery this week. Vince Carter started hot, but his performance has declined each month since. And the bench has offered little in support. But New Jersey turned things around a bit when journeyman center/forward Mikki Moore joined the starting lineup in place of the injured Nenad Krstic. The Nets won nine of the first 13 games Moore started to regain a small lead in an Atlantic Division most pundits expected them to win. That's the good news. That it took a guy who has played for six different franchises in nine years to jump-start the Nets' season doesn't say much for the rest of the roster.
Star Student JASON KIDD
Problems? What problems? Kidd has upped his scoring, rebounding and assist averages over last year, and is shooting better than he has in nine seasons.
Back of the Class JASON COLLINS
How a guy 7-1 can't grab more than 4.2 rebounds a game by accident is beyond us. And that's just one of many concerns we have over someone whose game has regressed for the second straight season.
LOOKING AHEAD For as embarrassing as having your private life splashed across the front pages must be for Kidd, it should at least allow the players and the team to move on without worrying about when the news would eventually leak to a
press hungry for dirt. Of course, that also makes the team an easy target for hecklers and sharp-penned columnists. More worrisome for the Nets: If their early-season struggles were at all fueled by the players' personal problems -- impending divorces for Kidd and Carter -- their immediate future is a cloudy one in a league that doesn't offer any credit for sympathy. Perhaps that's why Kidd reportedly has been shopped around. Or why the Nets might also be wise to do the same with Carter before he smiles his way to a new team as a free agent next summer. Even with a healthy Krstic, this team wasn't going far in the playoffs. With the team across the river an example of what can happen to a club that chooses to rebuild too late, GM Rod Thorn can't help but think the Nets' window to rebuild quickly -- and
relatively painlessly in a bad East -- is at hand.