Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:17PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:58PM
More Eastern Conference grades ...
New York Knicks
Considered a train wreck in the making before the season, the Knicks have been surprisingly competitive in almost every game this season. In giving New York a modicum of freedom it didn't have under Larry Brown, and in forcing it to funnel the offense into the gifted Eddy Curry, Isiah Thomas not only has won his team's respect, but also crafted one of the league's more productive offenses. At the very least, Thomas has the Knicks at least trying to win this year, while doling out a hearty helping of bench time to anyone playing incompetently. Don't get us wrong; the defense is nonexistent and Thomas' efforts to imbue the Knicks with a rough-and-tumble swagger has done more harm than good, but New York isn't a laughingstock, something few would have thought possible in November.
Star Student EDDY CURRY
Not only is he averaging career highs in points and rebounds, but he's playing 34 minutes a game -- not too shabby for a guy with a questionable ticker.
Back of the Class STEVE FRANCIS
Has any player transformed from MVP candidate to league washout before the age of 30? Francis is trying.
LOOKING AHEAD Sorry, Knicks fans. It looks like Isiah will make it to next season. He's already helped Curry grow into a fully functioning, NBA-quality center. He's shown a willingness to bench Stephon Marbury. And if he can keep the Knicks within sight of the Atlantic Division lead, that sounds an awful lot like the "progress" owner James Dolan said Thomas needed to show to keep his job. Just as important, it appears the Knicks have finally put an end to adding any more salary-cap-bloating contracts, which should have them back in the free-agent market in, oh, 18 years or so. Baby steps, to be sure, but at least enough to move the Knicks off the funny pages and back into the sports section.
Last season's 15-6 finish proved to be no fluke for one of the NBA's most promising young teams, as the Magic jumped out to a 13-4 start this season. Though playing at one of the NBA's slowest paces ( i.e. limiting possessions), Orlando has been one of the league's most accurate-shooting teams and among the most difficult to shoot against, both distinctions a function, in large part, of Dwight Howard's dominating presence. Howard has received plenty of help, though, from the likes of Jameer Nelson (who took it upon himself to organize team get-togethers in the offseason), Grant Hill (who has already played more games this season than he did all of last year) and a bench that doesn't score a whole lot but defends to the teeth.
Star Student DWIGHT HOWARD
Already one of the league's top rebounders, Howard has produced 31 double-doubles this season. And, oh, he just turned 21.
Back of the Class TONY BATTIE
Why, oh why coach Brian Hill starts Battie each game, especially when a decision has to be made on free-agent-to-be Darko Milicic, is beyond us.
LOOKING AHEAD Their youth and the hole they have at shooting guard may make a presumed playoff stay a short one, but no team may have a brighter future than the Magic. Assuming they've learned their lesson after letting Shaq walk away, the Magic will likely have the NBA's premier big man, Howard, in Orlando for the next decade. Nelson is developing into the type of take-charge leader capable of dragging a team through the dog days of any season. And with as much as $13 million in salary-cap space this summer, Orlando has the wherewithal to make a jump into the NBA's elite a lot sooner than many expected.
This was train wreck in the making and, sure enough, it sailed off the tracks in spectacular fashion. After none-too-quietly shopping Allen Iverson most of last summer and not finding any deals to their liking, the 76ers hoped their franchise player would let bygones be bygones and make nice with a poorly constructed team and an overmatched coach. When that notion went as expected, AI asked out and Sixers chairman Ed Snider agreed to the demand on national TV, which pretty much submarined any chance Philly had of getting close to equal value for the former MVP. Two first-round draft picks and Andre Miller later, the Sixers began the first day of the rest of their lives. The record didn't improve -- the Sixers went 5-14 with Iverson and have gone 6-16 without him -- but Philadelphia did find Andre Iguodala's inner scorer and no one has asked to be traded since, so it isn't all doom and gloom in Philly -- it just mostly is.
Star Student ANDRE IGUODALA
In his third season, the Sixers' stopper has accepted some of the scoring responsibilities Iverson left behind and turned out to be the solid second banana AI always needed. Too bad Iverson is in Denver.
Back of the Class BILLY KING
We actually thought the GM did OK in getting what he could for Iverson, but that doesn't make up for giving Samuel Dalembert $58 million, trading for a washed-up Chris Webber or handing Willie Green $17 million. King didn't push Iverson out the door, but he made it a whole lot easier for him to leave.
LOOKING AHEAD Hit the scouting trail -- hard. With three first-round picks in what many consider one of the deepest drafts in recent years, the Sixers have a chance to rebuild in a hurry with some cheap, young talent. With the season already a lost cause, a fact punctuated by the buyout of Chris Webber, we can only hope, for the sake of the Sixers' faithful, that the only asset the team would deal those picks for is something in the top two. In fact, if Miller can net a first-rounder from a team desperate for a veteran point, move him too. What good is an extra win when the loss may get you a better player for the future? And with Iguodala's development and the eventual move of Larry Brown into King's seat or King's and coach Maurice Cheeks' seat, the future -- as uncertain as it is -- is a lot brighter than the present in Philly.
If the fact that a team that finished last season 28 games under .500 is sniffing the break-even mark this late into '06-07 doesn't impress you, then the fact that the Raptors have done it while losing their only All-Star, Chris Bosh, to a knee injury for 12 games should. Although not GM Bryan Colangelo's ideal prototype to run a wide-open offense, coach Sam Mitchell has his team running a bit more and taking care of the ball while also "limiting" opponents to 46.4 percent shooting from the field, a 2.7 percent improvement over last season. Mitchell isn't the only one exceeding expectations; T.J. Ford has missed only three games because of an ankle injury and produced career numbers in scoring, assists and shooting, and rookie Andrea Bargnani has proved a valuable -- and rangy -- scorer off the bench while making the transition from Europe to the NBA. And those aren't bad building blocks to help Toronto make the transition back to the NBA itself.
Star Student T.J. FORD
What a difference having a point guard who looks to pass first and shoot second can make.
Back of the Class RASHO NESTEROVIC
Even someone as well regarded as Colangelo isn't perfect, and his deal for the increasingly ineffective big man is far from it.
LOOKING AHEAD More important than going 6-6 in Bosh's absence, the Raptors learned they could compete without their young superstar. That has paved the way for Toronto to foster legitimate hope that it can win the Atlantic with Bosh back and producing at an All-Star level. That may not be saying much in a division that hit the halfway point with no teams over .500, but it is for a Raptors team that hasn't won more than 33 games in the last four seasons. More important than that playoff berth, however, is Mitchell's ability to keep this team focused and allow the young players he's been given to grow into the type of free-flowing team Colangelo envisions. The oft-derided Mitchell is off to a better start than many expected, but it won't take much of a slip to prompt Colangelo to install someone like Suns assistant Marc Iavaroni, whom some insiders have speculated is Colangelo's head-coach-in-waiting.
The Raptors may be trying to become Phoenix East, but the Wizards already are. Offense this fluid is hard to come by in the East. Outside, inside, slashing to the hoop, Washington has kept defenses on their heels all season. Further goosing coach Eddie Jordan's motion offense are the scoring exploits of Gilbert Arenas, whose reputation seemingly gets more teammates open than his subpar accuracy. The effort and creativity on offense must exhaust the Wizards, though, because they offer little resistance on the defensive end, which makes for great highlights but some frustrating losses.
Star Student GILBERT ARENAS
As entertaining off the floor as he is on it, Arenas is making the decision to leave him off Team USA last summer a shortsighted one, indeed.
Back of the Class BRENDAN HAYWOOD
Imagine how good the Wizards would be if they had someone who could consistently score in the post. You know, like a 7-foot, 263-pound center who scored more than seven points a game?
LOOKING AHEAD There's little doubt this team can compete for the Southeast Division title with an offense that keeps most clubs off balance. But Washington is allowing almost as many points as it is scoring. That's not a recipe for a long run in the playoffs, when defenses bare their claws and a motion offense can be schemed against. There don't appear to be any quick fixes. The Wizards didn't play much D last year and they didn't import anybody to help on that end of the floor this year, which means they will likely adopt a Suns-like approach in pressing what they do best -- score -- and take their chances. At the very least, it is an approach that has seen the Wizards into the postseason the previous two seasons and will again this campaign.