Report cards, second-half preview for all 15 teams
Posted: Tuesday January 23, 2007 2:16PM; Updated: Tuesday January 23, 2007 5:54PM
The midseason grades are in ... and welcome to the NBA's honors class. Unlike the Eastern Conference, the West is full of high achievers.
Let the numbers tell the story. They're winning percentage is at 81 percent. They've had two 12-game winning streaks. They've lost just four games since Nov. 8 and only two road games in the last two months. In short, since starting the season a surprising 0-4, the Mavericks have been the NBA's best team, capable of running with the Suns or mucking it up with the Rockets. They've also been among the most balanced: 10 players are averaging at least 15 minutes. Still, the Mavs' scale tips decidedly in Dirk Nowitzki's direction as he positions himself for his first MVP trophy. And if that isn't enough, Josh Howard has exploded into a full-fledged star. No wonder the Mavs seem to make more news when they lose than when they win. GRADE: A+
Star Student DIRK NOWITZKI
He's not only averaging more than 20 points and nine rebounds for the seventh consecutive season but also hitting a career-best 41.9 percent from beyond the arc.
Back of the Class ANTHONY JOHNSON
From regular bench weapon to DNP-CD in short order. Maybe the Pacers were wise to deal him.
LOOKING AHEAD As TNT's Charles Barkley noted recently, the Mavs have played with an efficiency, a ruthlessness, that suggests they have some unfinished business to take care of in June. No one pushes that notion further than owner Mark Cuban, who has shifted the focus of his extravagant spending from acquiring star talent to adding complementary talents. The result is a team that, unlike the Suns, can match almost any style and gives more than a passing nod to the notion of defense. It's also a team whose deep bench will limit Nowitzki's and Jason Terry's minutes before the pressure of the postseason compels coach Avery Johnson to keep his stars on the floor. And, finally, it's a team whose only measure of success will be in how many games it wins in the Finals.
Before the brawl with the Knicks, the Nuggets ran and ran and ran some more. They scored, rebounded well and hounded opponents into turning the ball over with regularity. However, the Nuggets' quick pace also seemed to bring out the inner Phoenix Sun in opponents, who averaged more than 105 points per game. In short, if the Nuggets' offense was clicking, the Nuggets likely won; if it wasn't, Denver wasn't likely to grind out a W. But the fight in Madison Square Garden shifted the Nuggets' focus from winning to survival, especially during Carmelo Anthony's 15-game suspension. The Nuggets reached for a lifeline in trading for Allen Iverson, who, ironically, found himself in a similar position to the one he left in Philly. Denver went 5-8 in its first 13 games after the deal, leaving it in seventh place in the West at the end of Anthony's suspension. Mission accomplished. GRADE: B
Star Student CARMELO ANTHONY
Perhaps tired of being considered the weak leg of the Class of '03 triumvirate, Anthony has improved every aspect of his game, even on the defensive end.
Back of the Class NENE
Upon signing a six-year, $60 million deal last summer, he said he wanted "to be like Karl Malone." We knew Karl Malone, and sir, you are no Karl Malone.
LOOKING AHEAD Who knows? Having two alpha scorers in the same lineup rarely works. But, on paper, Iverson and Anthony should split the focus of opposing defenses. It should also make for a dangerous J.R. Smith, who figures to get plenty of open looks from downtown. That doesn't leave a lot of shots for anybody else. Good thing the likes of Marcus Camby, Eduardo Najera and Reggie Evans are such effective rebounders; they should get plenty of work on the glass. Making all of this work won't come quickly, but with half of the season gone, George Karl doesn't have much leeway. But if everybody -- Karl included -- can keep their egos in check for the next few months, Denver could make a run at opening the playoffs at home.
Golden State Warriors
Haven't we seen this before? No, not Don Nelson coaching Golden State -- which we actually have seen before -- but a Nelson-led team playing fast-paced, offensively proficient basketball. The Warriors even have the requisite breakout players Nelson has a talent of unearthing in Monta Ellis, Andris Biedrins and Matt Barnes, a product of Nelson's willingness to try relative newcomers at the expense of more established, and more expensive, veterans. But also true to form for a Nelson-coached team, the Warriors pay little more than lip service to defense, surrendering more points per game than any team in the NBA. It's a formula that produces a lot of flash but little substance. Though a trade with Indiana brings two players (Al Harrington and Stephen Jackson) at least accustomed to the concept of playing defense, we sense the deal was made more out of a desire to shed some bad contracts.
Star Student BARON DAVIS
It's still early, but the oft-injured point guard has missed only five games (one for suspension) and has limited his 3-point shooting in lieu of keeping the Warriors offense humming at top speed.
Back of the Class JASON RICHARDSON
Even before he was knocked out for 6-8 weeks with a broken hand, J-Rich was putting up the worst numbers of his career, which will force Nelson to think long and hard about handing a starting job back to him when he returns.
LOOKING AHEAD For all of the pizzazz Nelson has brought, the Warriors aren't on pace to win many more games than they have in each of the previous five seasons. Still, Nellie has the team's respect, something that couldn't be said for Mike Montgomery. And in getting Davis to control his shooting impulses to run the team, Nelson has given the Warriors an identity, and a fun one at that. The emergence of Ellis and Biedrins and the acquisition of Harrington provide the semblance of a core that offers as much unknown promise as the previous core did known disappointment. That won't get Golden State to the postseason, but it does promise better days ahead. And for a team that hasn't finished over .500 this century, that's progress.
Considering that Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady have missed a combined 22 games with injuries, it's a minor miracle the Rockets hit the halfway point at 25-16. But the absences have allowed coach Jeff Van Gundy to emphasize what he emphasizes best: hustle, defense, hard work. And Houston has listened. It is the NBA's toughest team to score and shoot against and among the league's best rebounding clubs. Not surprisingly, Van Gundy has leaned hard on a collection of veterans and role players, none harder than 40-year-old Dikembe Mutombo, who has manned the boards like a player 10 years younger. Now that we think about it, Van Gundy may have his team just the way he likes it.
Star Student YAO MING
Yes, he's out until February, but the career highs he produced in scoring and blocked shots helped the Rockets get off to a good start in a beastly division.
Back of the Class BONZI WELLS
Though signed to a relatively inexpensive $2.1 million deal, Wells, whose scoring would have been a welcome boost to a team often lacking its two best offensive players, has given the Rockets a mere 13 games.
LOOKING AHEAD It's been easy to forget about the Rockets, lost amid the Mavs-Spurs-Suns battle for league supremacy and the frequent absences of their two superstars. But Van Gundy and his band of glue guys have kept Houston in the rear view mirror of the West's best. The Rockets' presence only figures to loom larger with the return of Yao (mid-February.), who poses a matchup advantage few teams can overcome. And should the Rockets continue to pace McGrady and his balky back, they have the type of elusive scorer/playmaker who can keep them apace against the growing legion of track-meet teams. This being a Van Gundy team, though, getting into a sprint isn't the Rockets' style. The ability to stop a team in its offensive tracks can still win in this league, no matter how unpopular an approach. We have a sneaky suspicion Houston will remind plenty of teams about that well into the spring.
Los Angeles Clippers
Just when owner Donald Sterling was making a habit of opening his wallet for free-agent talent, the Clippers had to go and overpay Tim Thomas, who has spent the season mailing in his effort, as Suns coach Mike D'Antoni essentially predicted in SI.com colleague Jack McCallum's book, Seven Seconds or Less. Thomas' lethargy is only part of a pastiche of problems for last season's feel-good story. Elton Brand seems fatigued following his tour of Japan with the U.S. national team last summer. Chris Kaman is pressing to play up to his newly signed contract extension -- and failing. Cuttino Mobley looks ready to join former running mate Steve Francis in a retirement community. Point guard of the future Shaun Livingtson has yet to prove consistent. And Corey Maggette, the Clippers' most dynamic scorer, curiously has spent more time in trade rumors than in the starting lineup. It has all added up to a team that isn't bad in a traditional Clippers sense, but one that is definitely a step or two behind last year.
Star Student ELTON BRAND
His numbers from last season are down a bit but right in line with his career averages, and at 20 points, 10 rebounds and two blocks a game, those aren't bad averages at all.
Back of the Class TIM THOMAS
There are a host of reasons Thomas has played with six teams in 10 seasons, and averaging 9.8 points a game (on 40.9 percent shooting) after signing a $24 million contract is a big one.
LOOKING AHEAD On the bright side, the Clippers' problems seem to be more a function of motivation than talent. On the down side, the Clippers' problems seem to be more a function of motivation than talent. In other words, we wonder if this team is tuning out coach Mike Dunleavy. There seems to be a hierarchy of coaches in the NBA: those who are overmatched (e.g. Mo Cheeks, Terry Stotts), those who are brought in to give players a sense of professionalism (Doc Rivers, Bernie Bickerstaff), those who can take a team to the playoffs (Flip Saunders, Eddie Jordan) and those who can take a team to a title (we all know who they are). Dunleavy is a third-category sort, a solid tactician who is generally effective at motivating a new team but lacking the ability to connect to his players in different ways as their motivation changes or is challenged by success. The Clippers may not have the firepower to make the final step to a trophy, but they are dangerously closer to the lottery than the playoffs.