One third of the NBA season is in the books. Already this season we’ve been witnesses to some exciting basketball and we’re just now entering the second full month. With plenty of basketball still left on our plates, if the first third is anything like what we’ll see the remainder of the season? It’s an exciting time to be an NBA basketball fan.
I’d like to take this time to reflect on the first third of the season and give you my take on what we’ve seen so far and what to expect in the coming months leading up to the All-Star Game. I’ll lead off by taking an in depth look at each team in each conference and give them my grade so far this season. We’ll start things off first with the East :
Chicago Bulls (17-5)
Miami Heat (17-5)
Atlanta Hawks (15-6)
Philadelphia 76ers (14-6)
Indiana Pacers (13-6)
Orlando Magic (12-8)
Boston Celtics (9-10)
Cleveland Cavaliers (8-11)
Milwaukee Bucks (8-11)
New York Knicks (7-13)
New Jersey Nets (7-14)
Toronto Raptors (7-14)
Washington Wizards (4-16)
Detroit Pistons (4-17)
Charlotte Bobcats (3-18)
Chicago Bulls (A+):
What can you say about Chicago? Chicago has not only met expectations but, exceeded them as well. Which really is saying a lot for last year’s best record holders. Chicago has proven to be a much better team than they were last year with the acquisition of Rip Hamilton and the propelled play of Luol Deng. Add to that the continued stellar performances of defending MVP Derrick Rose and you have one dangerous team that could go all the way this Summer. The first third of the season has proved that Chicago is back, for good this time. And signs point that they won’t be going anywhere soon.
Chicago leads the league in rebounds per game, is second in points allowed, and fifth in assist per game. All this translates to a team that knows how to win and lose as a team. Chicago is by far the deepest squad in the East and will provide a lot of trouble for anyone trying to reach the Finals this Summer. And yes, that includes the Miami Heat. Don’t let their recent dropped game against the Heat fool you. Chicago is poised for a deep run this summer and it’s possible that the road to the Finals will once again be directed towards Chicago.
Miami Heat (A+):
The Three Kings, The Miami Thrice, and The Three Amigos. Whatever your nick-name for the super friends in South Beach? The Miami Heat are the class act of the East despite trailing Chicago by a single game. LeBron James is a man among boys with his 11 games of 30-5-5 this season. Gone is the fun loving, dance on your team wearing a pink sleeve James. Replaced by a ruthless King who is hell bent to finally get his crown. LeBron may have shed the “Villain” role this past off-season but, he’s far from shedding the MVP performances that have led the Heatles.
Let us not look past the two other parts to this three headed monster. Despite injury Dwayne Wade continues to lead the Heat in defensive categories of Steals per Game and Blocks per Game. All of this while playing 9 less games than the rest of his teammates with a troublesome ankle injury. Wade recently exploded back onto the court in a match up with Chicago showing little signs of trouble as he’s running the floor and throwing down monster dunks.
And lastly the “Other Guy” Chris Bosh. If they handed out an award for “Behind the Curtain MVP” it would certainty be Chris Bosh’s to lose. Bosh is the X-Factor to the Heat. He is second in scoring, third in rebounding and second in FG% for the Heat. Bosh has exceeding expectations and is anything but the overshadowed player he was expected to be behind Superstars James and Wade. While he may not grab the headlines or the highlights he is certainty an important piece to this trifecta and will be the reason the Heat either win or lose this Summer.
Atlanta Hawks (A)
If there is any team that could give the Bulls a run for deepest in the league it’s the Atlanta Hawks. Their acquisition of Tracy McGrady this past off-season has provided them with much needed scoring off the bench. McGrady is putting down 46% of his shots from the field and an astonishing 71% from three. He is the second unit’s best option and has played well coming off the bench for Atlanta.
On the starting side of things the Hawks are led by “The Contract” Joe Johnson who leads the team with 18.6ppg. Johnson is also putting in 42% of his shots from the field and a less impressive 36% from three. Which really isn’t too bad of a stat considering he’s putting up 5.3 attempts from three per game. More impressive however and a testament to how well the Hawks are playing this season is the play of third year man Jeff Teague. Teague leads the team in steals per game and is third in scoring behind Johnson and Josh Smith. Teague should be mentioned in a lot of circles come this off season for Most Improved Player.
This Atlanta Hawks team has what past teams lacked, real depth. With all five starters averaging double digits in scoring and playing great team basketball, 4th in the league in assist per game. The Hawks might finally shed that pretender status and be real contenders come this post season. They trail the Heat by only a half game in the Southeast Division so look for Atlanta to make a lot of noise this off-season.
Philadelphia 76ers (B-):
Everyone outside of Philadelphia is surprised. The 76ers lead both the Boston Celtics and the New York Knicks in the Atlantic Division by 4.5 and 7 games respectively. However, don’t let this early season success fool you. The 76ers in their next 7 games will face 7 winning teams. That’s more than they’ve had combined in their first 20. These next seven games will be the true test for the surprise Sixers who up until this point have had it relatively easy.
Perhaps more so a product of their schedule the 76ers are boasting the NBA’s best defense. Currently allowing only 87ppg. Again, the real test for this team will be in the upcoming weeks where we will find out just how good defensively they are. You will be able to catch them in action tonight against the Orlando Magic and then again Wednesday against the Chicago Bulls.
The 76ers for what it’s worth though are playing fantastic team basketball. They currently have seven players averaging double digits in scoring. I predicted earlier this season that Evan Turner would be a sixth man of the year candidate. Surprising though is that despite how well he’s playing, he is out shined by true 6th man for Philadelphia Lou Williams. The 76ers feature a combo of four guards who play well together in Jodie Meeks, Evan Turner, Lou Williams, and Jrue Holiday. How well that will translate though come Summer remains to be seen. If the 76ers pass their upcoming tests their grade will rise and I will put more faith behind this team. However, until then, in my eyes they are unproven.
Indiana Pacers (B-):
The Pacers are another team in the East that I feel is doing well but, not really living up to what they can be. They’re gritty, they rebound well but, they haven’t really played good team ball. They’re currently ranked 28th in the NBA in assist per game. Telling me that a majority of their possessions are dominated by one player. While this has brought success for the Pacers it’s going to take a real good team game to topple the top teams in the East. And while they’re gritty defense helped them bruise and bang up the Bulls last season it proved that it wasn’t enough for the Pacers to advance.
Leading the team again in scoring is Danny Granger. However, Granger is shooting 38% from the field and 35% from three point range. These numbers need to see some increases if Granger expects to be truly effective later in the year and well into the post season. Behind Granger is big man Roy Hibbert. Hibbert has improved on his marks a season ago and is still showing that he can grow in this league. That’s dangerous for the rest of the East because once Hibbert puts it all together he could be one of the better Big Men in the league. His health has been a concern though as he’s been playing through an ankle injury and is currently listed Day to Day.
The Pacers like the Bulls are hanging their hats on defense. However, unlike the Bulls they lack the explosive scoring both in the starting line up and off the bench. While the Pacers are on the cusp they’re not going to be making much noise in the off-season unless they improve on the offensive side of the ball. Again, it’s enough to slow teams down but I don’t feel it’s going to be enough to win a series this Summer. Indiana continues to improve though and that’s a positive sign for the team moving forward.
Orlando Magic (D-):
The first “bad” grade of my review goes to the Orlando Magic. You may think it harsh or unnecessary to label a playoff team with a grade of D- (The lowest grade I will give) but, it’s more so because of the off-court play of the Magic than the on-court play. Even though both should be given their fair share of scrutiny.
The Orlando Magic are The Cleveland Cavaliers and Denver Nuggets of the 2011-2012 NBA Season. Their disgruntled Superstar Dwight Howard is leading the league in Headlines per week. Every Monday it’s a new team to his list, or a new destination he would like to play at. Dwight is more focused on where he wants to go and winning there rather than going out and winning games here in Orlando. And it shows in this team’s play. They were blown out by the Celtics only to turn around and blow their own blow out of the same team. Then they get stomped by the New Orleans Hornets. They lost a “Bar Fight” in the words of Kevin Garnett and perhaps the Magic have lost much more than that. I see a team that’s lost it’s will to win.
On the positive side of things there’s Ryan Anderson, J.J. Redick and surprisingly Hedo Turkoglu. On the negative side of things aside from Dwight Howard? There’s Jameer Nelson, Chris Duhon, Glen Davis and both Richardsons. As you can see the negatives far outweigh the positives and this is ultimately leading to the end of days for the contending Orlando Magic. Otis Smith has let this project implode on itself which is sad considering only two years ago this team was in the NBA Finals. Rebuild is on the horizon for Orlando.
Boston Celtics (C+):
The Boston Celtics continue to hang their hat on defense. And that’s really the only place to hang their hat. The Twilight is upon the C’s and it’s showing night in and night out. This squad has become far too old to play at the pace of this shortened NBA Season. For every good game they’ve had they’ve countered it with a bad game and that ultimately leads to their current record of 9-10.
Kevin Garnett continues to be the heart and soul of this team. If he could will the Celtics to a win every night he would. However, those days are far behind K.G. and the Celtics are left to the mercy of scrapping out wins through brute force and nights of heightened play which ultimately leads to nights of lowered stamina. Lets face it the Celtics are done and in the final moments let us hope that Boston can muster up the strength to make decent moves to build towards the future all the while letting Paul Pierce retire a Celtic. Here I am again talking more about the off-court issues than on but this is a team whose contending days are behind them.
They’re good enough to stay afloat the playoff picture in the East but not good enough to make any noise come this Summer. There are far better and far younger teams in the East that can outlast the Celtics in any series over five games. While this may be unfair to the 2008 Champions the landscape in the East has changed far too much for them to muster another run at a title.
Cleveland Cavaliers (B+)
Before you scream “Homerism”, hear me out. The Cleveland Cavaliers are not the team of a season ago and that alone propels them to at least a “C” rating. Add in the fact that they made good selections in Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson in this years draft and this team in the matter of one season is on the upswing. I for one thought the rebuilding process would take a lot longer for Cleveland. Kyrie Irving and Tristan Thompson might have shortened that timeline by one or two years.
On the realistic side of things if the season ended today the Cavaliers are not only not winning a series in the post season they’re more than likely getting swept. They only have two players averaging more than 10ppg with Anderson Varejao at the cusp with 9.9. Antawn Jamison is in the last legs of his career as well as Anthony Parker. Cleveland however, has put together a very youthful corps of players that will only continue to get better in the upcoming years with Byron Scott at the helm. Add to that the favorite to win Rookie of the Year in Kyrie Irving and Cleveland may well be forgetting about LeBron James sooner than expected.
Cleveland is scrappy. They’re contending in games this season which is much more than they did last season when they tied the Tampa Bay Buccaneers in consecutive losses for a professional team at 26 games. The Cavaliers have exceeded all expectations this season as they were projected to be a cellar dweller in the East. Cleveland has done well for themselves this year and put together pieces for success. This team will be a contender again in the East sooner rather than later. This grade more reflects their potential than their actual play on the court thus far this season.
Milwaukee Bucks (C):
The Bucks are once again in the spotlight however, it’s for all the wrong reasons. This team has taken a step backwards from their surprise showing in previous years. And now after losing Andrew Bogut for what could be the remainder of the season? The Bucks are going to be hard pressed to make a run at a legitimate seed in the East. I still see them making the playoffs in the weak East despite the Bogut injury but Milwaukee isn’t going to be making much noise come the post season.
Their struggles could be attributed to injury but more so to the fact they haven’t found a legitimate swing man. Adding to their struggles is their lack of depth. The Bucks don’t feature a star or scorer off the bench and ultimately if you can beat their starting five (now, without Bogut) you can beat the Bucks. Coach Skiles will continue to press this team to be tough on defense and to fight it out the remainder of the season but there isn’t enough on the offensive side of the ball to get anything rolling in Milwaukee.
New York Knicks (D-):
Two words. Mike D’Antoni. This is the problem in New York and will continue to be the problem until the front office gets a clue and gets D’Antoni out of there. It’s simple in basketball. You can’t win games if you don’t play defense. This isn’t the college level where D’Antoni’s play style is more fitting. The Knicks suffer because of their lack of defensive intensity down low. Melo refuses to play defense and that makes it much harder on Amar’e and Tyson Chandler who have yet to sync up down low. Then you factor in that the New York Knicks don’t have a legitimate guard and this spells trouble for the Knickerbockers.
Perhaps it’s Melo? Who was thrown under the bus by former coach George Karl this past weekend who thanked his team, the Denver Nuggets for providing him with what he called a “More coach-able team”. Now, the words weren’t directly shot towards Melo but they certainly were fired just above his bow as a warning shot to the rest of the league.
New York is in some serious trouble and with the amount of money and talent that they’ve spent to bring their own version of “The Big Three” together they can’t afford to have another failed project. Expect New York to be the biggest players heading into the trade deadline. They don’t have much in terms of assists but, with Amar’e and Chandler struggles either one or both of the stars could be moved for more suitable pieces around Melo.
New Jersey Nets (D+):
The Nets are for lack of a better word, struggling. Deron Williams has lost his shot and as the only viable option for Jersey this is spelling doom for the Brooklyn bound Nets. New Jersey is going to have to find answers at the trade deadline or risk losing their point guard in the off-season. Leaving them with nothing more than a few minor pieces as they make their move across town in the off season.
There is little to be excited about in New Jersey but MarShon Brooks is proving to be a good assist for the Nets moving forward. “The Most Hated Man” Kris Humphries is providing a little spark as well but how long can he maintain it? He says the boo’s motivate him but if he really needed that drive to be good? Just how reliable can he be moving forward? Like my review there are a lot of questions for New Jersey and no clear cut answers. Again, it’s going to take a miracle at the trade deadline to turn this team around. Until then expect them to continue to play “dead in the water” as the rest of the Eastern sharks circle. They can smell blood coming from Jersey and hopefully for Jay Z’s sake they can stop the bleeding before they lose too much.
Toronto Raptors (C-):
Perhaps I’m being a little too nice to the Raptors who have struggled as of late. Andrea Bargnani is playing his best basketball and has a chance to make the All-Star game this year. However, a recent calf injury may prove to slow the big man down and with it what little momentum the Raptors have found this season. DeMar DeRozan is struggling to find his shot but has improved his range over past seasons. The Raptors lack any real identity and that prevents them from hanging their hat on any one part of their game to focus on. Couple that with their struggles and this team is really looking lost in the Atlantic.
I for one want to see the Raptors succeed but I think they’ve done far too little in previous seasons to truly put together anything that resembles an NBA team. They have pieces but no gel. They have potential but no real direction to their squad and that makes for a lack luster team in the East. The Raptors won’t be making much noise through the remainder of the season but expect Bargs to continue his great play and build on a successful season. If DeRozan can find his shot and stop struggling the Raps have a chance to turn this ship around but, until then. They’re the best of the worst in the East.
Washington Wizards (D-):
If I could give out “F’s” I would right here. Talk about a team with no direction, no lead, and now, no coach. Randy Wittman is not the answer for the Wizards. Just as he wasn’t the answer for the T’Wolves or the Cavaliers years ago. He isn’t a coach who can build on a guys play or bring this team together to play well. John Wall is the one who suffers the most despite his 15-7-5 season. Wall hasn’t had the Coach to lead the team and has proven he himself is no leader as well. Wall was touted as one of the best rookies to ever hit the game and despite his decent numbers there is far more lacking in his mental game that will prevent him from truly living up to his potential.
Fifth year man Nick Young is doing what he can to help lead the team and is right on pace to match his numbers from a season ago. Unfortunately for the Wizards it’s not enough to get them moving in the very deep and difficult Southeast division. Washington’s struggles are again more off court issues than on and until they can get that under control they are going to continue to struggle. Which is unfortunate for a team that was supposed to make a little noise this season.
Detroit Pistons (D-):
Another “F” worthy squad lies in Detroit. The Pistons have two bright spots, Brandon Knight and Greg Monroe. It starts and stops with them. They’re nice pieces to build on moving forward but surrounded by aging players and guys not living up to their potential it could be a long time before Detroit is on the up and up again. They will benefit from another high draft pick come this off-season but, until then the struggles will continue to D-Town.
Focusing on their positives though just how good are Greg Monroe and Brandon Knight? Monroe has improved in each of his categories from his rookie season and is starting to show that he “gets” the game. Once he gets settled in and becomes more comfortable with his new leading role he’ll be a dominating force and is someone that Detroit can build around defensively. He’s also been absolutely fabulous on the boards for Detroit and gets the tough rebounds. He’s a fighter and a big part to what little success Detroit has found this season.
Opposite him is Brandon Knight who surprisingly is shooting the ball relatively well and is showing that he can command the offense when needed. The only knock I have on his game is his passing. He needs to look to set up his teammates more. When he does that he’ll relalize that scoring will come much more easier when teams are focusing more on his teammates and not keying in on him. He’s suffered when dealing with pressure and that is to no fault his own. Outside of Monroe Detroit’s scoring options are few and far between. Ben Gordon and Tayshaun Prince have been the better scoring options but their age is starting to show.
Charlotte Bobcats (D-):
I attribute Charlotte’s struggles to getting to know one another. Couple that with Corey Maggette just getting started this season and you can see why the Bobcats are off to a slow start. Also attributing to this slow start is their lack of a first option at Power Forward. Boris Diaw, Tyrus Thomas and D.J. White are all splitting 20+ minutes at different positions and have all made the starting line up at one point or another (Again, don’t read too much into this as Maggette is just now getting onto the floor).
Paul Silas was never really a coach that could put his focus on one side of the ball or the other. Here’s someone who struggled to make the playoffs in a weak Eastern conference with a young LeBron James. While LeBron was no where near the player he is now he had the talent and the pieces around him to make a run. However, Silas held the Cavaliers back from their true potential and I’m afraid that he’ll do the same here in Charlotte. He’s lost on the floor at times and can’t remember where he’s at during some nights. Silas isn’t the answer for Charlotte.
Kemba Walker is starting to shine though. He’ll get more comfortable as the season goes on and will start to find his game. He lacks confidence and again, he doesn’t have the right type of Coach on the bench for developing his game. When Kemba settles down and gets all the pieces together he’s going to be a viable option for Charlotte and a very strong piece to build on for the future. However, for now the Bobcats can focus on the draft and what pieces they want to start surrounding him with because the Queen City Kitties aren’t going anywhere but in the cellar this season.
Discuss these grades over on the forum!