Report cards, second-half preview for all 15 teams
Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:17PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:58PM
The midseason grades are in ... and it's not looking good for the East. You won't find any teams worthy of an A here -- you'll have to check out our Western Conference midseason grades for that.
A promising 4-1 start suggested that a team long on promise was finally about to go long on performance. With free-agent signee Speedy Claxton cast behind the wheel, though, the Hawks clearly forgot to gas up for their trip. Atlanta, like last season, has devolved into Joe Johnson and four other guys. And one against four isn't going to win many games. GRADE: D
Star Student JOE JOHNSON
Increased his scoring by 4.5 points a game (20.2 to 24.7) while also improving his shooting to a career-high 48.4 percent.
Back of the Class SPEEDY CLAXTON
Which of these numbers don't fit: 6.5 ppg, 4.8 apg, $6.8 million?
LOOKING AHEAD Joke about them we do, but the Hawks have talent. Josh Smith is a raw but explosive leaper with 3-point range. Shelden Williams is playing up to his college nickname, the "Janitor," with an impressive 13.5 rebounds per 48 minutes. Zaza Pachulia is a respectable scorer and rebounder in the paint. And Marvin Williams is an intriguing work in progress with across-the-board potential. With a clutch scorer in Johnson already in the fold to tie this group together, the Hawks have all the pieces to compete for a playoff spot in a downtrodden East. What they don't seem to have is focus, heart, inspiration -- in other words, better coaching. That isn't likely coming soon with the team's ownership situation still muddled by former part owner Steve Belkin's attempt to buy the club from his former partners. And if a team can't clarify the structure of its front office, what chance is there for the rest of the organization?
What do we know for sure about this team? Well, it's young. It has a great player in Paul Pierce. And, well, it's young. These Celtics largely have been a mystery. Win five in a row, lose five in a row. Start Sebastian Telfair at point for 30 games. Start Delonte West at point for 10 games. With a revolving door of minutes and lineups, the Celtics are a different team almost every night, which makes for a club that lacks cohesion, a major factor in some appalling late-game collapses. Losing Pierce, Al Jefferson, West, Theo Ratliff and Tony Allen to injury for significant portions of the season (the last two for the rest of the campaign) hasn't helped in the win column, but it has helped provide some of the young talent ( i.e. Gerald Green) a chance to get some much-needed PT. GRADE: D+
Star Student PAUL PIERCE
Losing 14 of 16 games without the team's leader in scoring and assists should finally put to rest any remaining thoughts that the Celtics would be better -- in any run -- without Pierce.
Back of the Class SEBASTIAN TELFAIR
A point guard who has never averaged as many as four assists per game and can't shoot really was worth trading away the No. 7 pick in the draft?
LOOKING AHEAD For as much heat as Doc Rivers receives for his inscrutable rotations, isn't it about time the fans and media turn their ire toward the man who put this team together? It's all well and good to collect assets, but at some point that talent has to be allowed to grow into a cohesive unit. But GM Danny Ainge keeps adding pieces -- point guards, big men -- at a rate that Rivers' ability to coach is overwhelmed by the need to evaluate the ever-shifting pool of talent. It's time for the Celtics to determine the growth potential of the Al Jeffersons, Gerald Greens and Kendrick Perkinses they are so reluctant to trade. While that means Rivers has to play the youngsters, it also means Ainge can't deal them for another lottery pick. Recent history doesn't lead us to believe these two are capable of either.
The semblance of a quality club is here, as evidenced in wins over San Antonio, Cleveland, Utah, the Lakers and Detroit (twice). It's all those other games that seem to obscure this team's potential. Well, that and an inability to shoot (43.6 percent) that make scoring a chore for this bunch. And when you can't score in today's more free-flowing NBA, you're going to lose, and lose the Bobcats have. Further sinking the Charlotte offense is the regression of Gerald Wallace from his eye-opening 2005-06 numbers, including a 20.8 percent mark from beyond the arc. GRADE: C
Star Student EMEKA OKAFOR
Has bounced back from an ankle surgery that cost him 56 games in '05-06 to become a beast on the boards and in the paint, swatting almost three shots a game.
Back of the Class PRIMOZ BREZEC
When a 7-1 center who makes his bones on offense is shooting 44.4 percent, that's never a good sign.
LOOKING AHEAD The Bobcats are doing what they need to do, letting the promising young core of Okafor, Raymond Felton, Sean May and Adam Morrison gain experience on the floor, not on the bench. But with the postseason not even a dream, there's little use for a veteran point such as Brevin Knight, who might bring a draft pick or another promising talent in a trade from an interested contender. Despite their youth, the Bobcats aren't a bunch of rookies, and should the second half go as poorly as the first, Charlotte needs to think long and hard about finding a coach who specializes in more than being merely competent.
After again stumbling through their early-season two-week road trip, the Bulls bounced back into Eastern Conference contention with a healthy dose of home games and a surprisingly efficient offense led by the blossoming Luol Deng and a Ben Gordon who has finally grown comfortable in coming off the bench. But make no mistake, coach Scott Skiles is a defense-first sorta guy. And after the team seemed to spend a bit too much time expecting free-agent signee Ben Wallace to do all of the lifting in the early going, it seems to have realized that no man -- or headband -- can do it all alone and once again rides into the second half among the league's toughest teams to shoot against.
Star Student LUOL DENG
Only 21, Deng has grown into the Bulls' most consistent weapon and a slasher on par with Reggie Miller.
Back of the Class CHRIS DUHON
Sure, he plays because of his defense, but a guard has to at least offer the threat of scoring, and Duhon hasn't been too threatening this season.
LOOKING AHEAD Stars win in the postseason -- stars who can score at will, stars who can draw whistles. And for as well rounded a group as this is, it lacks that game-changing talent who can get a bucket by sheer force of will. The Skiles-John Paxson braintrust has stayed true to its young core, and that likely won't change, but a loss in the playoffs to Gilbert Arenas or LeBron James or Dwyane Wade may ramp up those Kevin Garnett trade rumors again. But, to be honest, with a homecourt advantage in the East there for the taking, it's tough to argue for a change to a formula that is steadily working.
For a team with perhaps the league's most complete offensive player, the Cavs have been disturbingly inconsistent this season. At times they aggressively attack the basket; at others they appear to grow tired of trying to break down a defense and fire away from outside. At times they hold an opponent such as the Spurs scoreless for minutes on end; at others they allow Tyronn Lue to score at will. It all makes for a team that plays to the level of its competition and one that has yet to meet the lofty expectations so many had for it after last season's playoff run.
Star Student LEBRON JAMES
With him, this team could reach the Finals; without him, it would be lottery-bound. Enough said.
Back of the Class LARRY HUGHES
It's tough to play Robin when you're regularly in the infirmary and your shot's accuracy is more Joker than Batman.
LOOKING AHEAD This team is puzzling. Should their defense play the way it has in 2007, the Cavs have a legitimate shot of winning the East. But if LeBron mails it in -- as it appears he has on a few occasions this season -- if coach Mike Brown can't get this team to drive to the rim, a first-round exit would not be surprising. The front office will likely make a play for a point guard who can shoot a little and, more important, make sure the team keeps running the offense, but without a draft pick to offer or much in the way of expiring contracts, its options will be limited.