Grading each team at midseason
The Magic get the highest grade of any team at the midway point of the season
The underachieving Raptors join the Clippers as first-half failures
Minnesota, OKC and Philadelphia are among the teams playing better lately
Midterm grades are the halftime speeches of the educational world, way more important for motivation than evaluation and with a shelf life about as long as, oh, governmental transparency. Even the profs we used to seek out time and again -- y'know, the sort referred to as "Easy Ed'' or "All-A's Abramowitz'' -- would try to huff and puff eight weeks into a semester, sticking you with a lower grade than you might have expected. Yeah, yeah, we knew the drill: If we kicked butt late and aced the finals, we'd be fine.
Just like in the NBA.
With that, we dispense alphabetical assessments of what we've seen so far.
Boston Celtics: If not for last season, what they have accomplished so far in 2008-09 would look more impressive. But 19 victories in a row and a 27-2 start got eclipsed by that 2-7 stretch across the holidays. Kendrick Perkins' shoulder could be to a Celtics title defense what Achilles' heel was to the Greek team in the Trojan War. Joe Smith isn't James Posey, but he could help this team a lot more than Stephon Marbury. Grade: A-
Philadelphia 76ers: So getting Elton Brand back from his bum shoulder layoff now is going to be a bad thing? That's so wrong, especially considering that Brand was supposed to lead this team deep into the playoffs. Andre Iguodala has been playing lately like he wants to go to Phoenix in mid-February, and with their fast break cranked to 10, the 76ers are fun to watch. They need to blend Brand into that, maybe via more minutes at center. Grade: C+
New Jersey Nets: Benching Vince Carter and Devin Harris for a half against Boston is one way to make sure they don't get burned out from the inordinate load they've been carrying. But this is not a deep team -- putting Ryan Anderson into injured Yi Jianlian's place recently meant that, with Brook Lopez, New Jersey was starting two rookies for the first time since March 2002. Then there's that 9-14 home record. Grade: B-
New York Knicks: At least there has been stability at the top with Donnie Walsh and Mike D'Antoni. Next level down? Not so much, thanks to a badly handled Stephon Marbury limbo and a way-too-much-information saga about Eddy Curry and his driver. Chris Duhon, David Lee and Wilson Chandler have been bright spots, but the Knicks haven't had any All-Stars since 2001 and they won't again. Grade: C+
Toronto Raptors: It's not easy to earn a grade this harsh. You would need to underachieve dramatically, abruptly fire your recent Coach of the Year (Sam Mitchell), have a showy offseason move (trading for Jermaine O'Neal) blow up in your face, turn your lone superstar into a cranky finger-pointer who might want out, cope badly with a key injury (Jose Calderon), run off a string of losses and drown in trade rumors a month before the NBA deadline. Ladies and gentlemen, your ... Toronto ... Raptors! Grade: F
Cleveland Cavaliers: Having Anderson Varejao around and in shape from the start has helped, and just about every other piece has fallen into place for the Cavs (not counting injuries to Delonte West and Zydrunas Ilgauskas). The next challenge: Using Wally Szczerbiak's expiring contract as a chip to acquire another LeBron James helper. Charlotte's Gerald Wallace is high on a lot of Cleveland fans' lists. Grade: A
Detroit Pistons: Allen Iverson hasn't been the answer, but this team was headed sideways before AI arrived. A five-game losing streak, snapped Wednesday against Toronto, was what it took to move Richard Hamilton to the bench, which should allow the Pistons to play bigger, but the drama likely won't end there. Since we're at the season's midpoint, it's about time for Rasheed Wallace to start missing games with every other technical foul. Every February, it's Puxsutawney Phil in need of anger management. Grade: C+
Milwaukee Bucks: Give them credit: They already have won more road games (nine) than all of last season. Coach Scott Skiles has helped them shave more than six points off their defensive average, and they're even scoring a little more than last season, too. Center Andrew Bogut's injury absences have stalled the Bucks' improvement. Grade: B
Chicago Bulls: There were new reasons for optimism -- the returns of Kirk Hinrich and Luol Deng from injury, the likelihood of trading Larry Hughes -- until the Bulls started losing home games. Vinny Del Negro has had to learn on the job how to be a head coach and lately has used his staff of veteran assistants more. But Del Negro isn't the Bulls' top rookie -- point guard Derrick Rose is a keeper with jaw-dropping quickness, and he is the midseason favorite for the league's award. Grade: C
Indiana Pacers: Getting Mike Dunleavy back after he missed the first 34 games with a knee injury should alleviate some of the defensive focus on Danny Granger, who hasn't done badly as it is (he'll be an All-Star). But the defense has been poor (106.7 ppg, 21st in field-goal percentage), they play late in close games as if they expect bad things to happen, and T.J. Ford has been hampered by a sore back again. Grade: C-
Orlando Magic: The emerging contenders can counter any snide remarks about the Eastern Conference by pointing to their 18-4 record against the West, any reservations about their inexperience by citing a 17-5 road mark and other assorted slights by recalling their season sweeps of the Spurs and Lakers. Grade: A+
Atlanta Hawks: They seemed ready for a tailspin when they lost five of six and faced injuries to Al Horford and Marvin Williams. But they steadied themselves, won three of four and are right where coach Mike Woodson wanted them, on pace to push toward 50 victories. That's rare air for a franchise that hasn't sniffed above .500 since the post-lockout season. Grade: B+
Miami Heat: They didn't just survive their recent 13-day road trip, they thrived, going 4-3 and even winning both tail ends of back-to-backs. Four victories on one trip? This team had four months last season in which it didn't win four games. Dwyane Wade has done the heavy lifting, with Michael Beasley underperforming for Rookie of the Year consideration and Shawn Marion a bigger part of trade whispers than Miami's attack. Grade: B
Charlotte Bobcats: With 10 victories in the last 17 games, Larry Brown is starting to get results from a team that is retooling on the fly. But only the Lakers have played as few road games as Charlotte's 17 -- and the Bobcats haven't built up quite the same cushion at home. Rookie D.J. Augustin has turned Raymond Felton into trade bait. Grade: C+
Washington Wizards: Eddie Jordan got fired, Brendan Haywood and Etan Thomas went down and Gilbert Arenas sat around rubbing his chin, pondering whether he should deign to play this season. Nice. The Wizards are almost rotten enough to drain the mojo out of our nation's capital, especially when they open the new year coughing up games to a series of fellow losers. Grade: D-