by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

It's always important to keep current on any fundamental or compartmentalized changes in handicapping any sport. The NBA is probably the prime example of how things can change quickly, and this season it's very apparent the situation is fluid.

There are several variables that make this season different from any since 1999. Certainly the NBA brass is sporting cake-eating grins about the television ratings, which are up sharply across the board (cha-ching!). And recently no less of an expert than David Stern admitted the compressed schedule was a contributing factor in the increase in injuries. (We can't remember so many players laying out with back spasms). Along with an increase in viewership and frequent flyer miles, NBA teams have definitely exhibited some system-wide betting tendencies which could be logically linked to the compressed, 66-game schedule. First, teams have realized every game has added importance, and that the homecourt edge is to be cherished and protected. Home teams have recorded a narrow 193-188 edge vs. the points this year, compared with a 582-628 spread mark last year during the regular season. Teams seem to be conserving their energy and slowing the pace. This year, the "under" overall is 204-166 (55.1%), an increase over last year's 629-579 (52%) "under" advantage. The schedule has radically increased the number of games played back-to-back, and this season has been dramatically different from last. A year ago, home teams were at a modest disadvantage when unrested, posting an 88-94 spread mark, while road teams were marginally above .500 at 209-198. This season, unrested home teams are redoubling their efforts and are 55-42 vs. the number while road teams seem to be "letting go of the rope" more easily, with a 65-76 spread mark.

Obviously, the compressed offseason was new to front office personnel, and, as is the case on many occasions in life, some chose well; some chose poorly. Individual team notes and situation updates follow on the Eastern Conference. We'll review the Western Conference in Monday's "Part B" of this week's issue of the Basketball Gold Sheet.


Atlantic Division

Boston...Boston was taking on water like the Titanic back on Jan. 21, as the media sharks were circling the 5-9 Celtics. Doc Rivers has righted the ship and Boston has won 9 of its last 10 despite an injury to key point guard Rajon Rondo. Rondo is back in action in a big way, dishing 35 assists in the three games since his return. Throughout the slow start, Rivers remained calm and confident, as the Celtics were playing the best defense in the league. Boston allowed the fewest points, lowest overall FG%, and lowest 3-point conversion. Offensively, the Celtics lead the league in shooting prowess from beyond the arc, making 40.7% thanks largely to Ray Allen (41%). Rivers' confidence has been rewarded, as Boston's recent hot streak has pulled the Celts within 3½ games of division-leading Philly (who Boston has yet to play). Celtic forward Kevin Garnett is making 64% of his shots in February, and vet forward Paul Pierce has scored 23 ppg and has handed out 7.4 assists while grabbing 6.6 boards in the 9-1 Boston surge. Rivers and his Celtics are gearing up for a run deep into the playoffs.

Philadelphia...Philadelphia head coach Doug Collins picked the right time to return to the wars. The Sixers clearly look like the best team in the Atlantic Division, and Collins has had much to do with their improvement from a .500 team last year to the fourth-best record in the league this season. Defense is a major reason for the Sixer surge, as only Boston (86.5 ppg) gives up fewer points than Philly's 86.6 per game allowance. Last season, the Sixers gave up 97.5 ppg, but this year the development of center Spencer Hawes (8.3 rpg, 1.5 blocks, though missing 11 games with a sore Achilles and back problems), the health of power forward Elton Brand (7 rpg, 1.6 blocks), and the addition of 7-0 rookie pivot Nikola Vucevic (from Switzerland; spend three years at Southern Cal) has given Philly opponents pause to think before driving to the hoop. Philly has given up just 81 ppg at home in the first half, smothering teams and generating a 12-4 spread mark in first 16 at home. The defensive team concept is entrenched in Collins' system, and his players are "all in." Offensively, the Sixer scoring is as widely distributed as any in the league. Essentially, eight players are averaging double-figures, led by guard Lou Williams (15.5 ppg), who hasn't started a game. Although the Sixer win margin has been thinned out a bit over the last 10 games, but they are still the best in the league at +10 ppg.

New Jersey...The biggest news items emanating from New Jersey are, in order, Kris Humphries divorce proceedings in his marriage to Kim Kardashian turning ugly and Mikhail Prokorov claiming he'll give 17 of his $18 billion to charity if he beats Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and three other candidates to become president of Russia in next month's election. That should tell you almost all you need to know about reality TV, Prokorov's real chances against Putin, and the state of the New Jersey Net basketball team. The divorce will end up streaming live on the internet, Prokorov won't give away a dime, and the Nets...well, shall we talk about that great new arena they're building in Brooklyn? The fact New Jersey fished Chicago reject G Keith Bogans out of the dustbin and installed him as its sixth man, even starting him at shooting guard along side PG Deron Williams when Anthony Morrow had to take some personal time for his grandmother's funeral speaks volumes. This is a team in limbo, hoping for a deal that will bring Dwight Howard to the beautiful new Barclays Center (trust us, it will be beautiful when it gets built, we've seen the architect's rendition on Facebook). Essentially, Avery Johnson and his Nets are on hold. They have Williams, and it appears as if Providence rookie MarShon Brooks (15 ppg, 46%, 4.4 rpg) looks like a draft-day steal, but he's missed the last five games with a broken toe and will be out another week. But injury to Brook Lopez has taken N.J.'s other main piece off the table, and when they get him back later this month, the real point is to get him into shape so he can be traded. Humphries is a solid 13.4 ppg & 10.4 rpg, but those numbers will drop when Lopez returns and drop again if Howard comes in trade. Much like the old Brooklyn Dodgers, the Brooklyn Nets will have to wait till next year.

New York...Things have gone terribly wrong for head coach Mike D'Antoni and the Knicks in the first half of the season. Adding center Tyson Chandler has improved the New York defense (95 ppg), but it's a bit of an ill fit. Star Carmelo Anthony is out 1-2 weeks after injuring his groin early in Monday night's game against Utah. Amar'e Stoudemire is out this week due to the death of his brother. The result has been a disappointing 11-15 SU start. On the bright side, the glaring weakness at point guard might have been filled if the recent play of Harvard graduate Jeremy Lin is not just a mirage. Lin has passed Toney Douglas, Iman Shumpert, Mike Bibby and the yet-to-be-utilized Baron Davis to be number one at the point for the Knicks. In the three games since being given extended playing time, Lin has scored 25 ppg and handed out 8.3 assists while shooting a robust 58%. New York is going through a period of Lin-tastic Lin-sanity. It was an interesting result at Washington on Wednesday, as the Knicks handled the Wizards despite playing without Stoudemire and Anthony, passing the ball and playing a team concept in 14-point win. If Lin can maintain this level of play, New York has a significant potential second-half upside.

Toronto...Toronto has made definite changes under head coach Dwane Casey, but most of the advances on defense (from 105 ppg and 48% allowed to 94 ppg & 43%) have been linked arm-in-arm with a decline in the Raptors' offensive production (down to 88 ppg this season from 99 a year ago). The situation isn't good, as calf injury to leading scorer Andrea Bargnani doesn't appear to be getting better any time soon (he can't even run to test it at this writing). Obviously the team misses his 23.5 ppg & 6.4 rpg, as the Raptors are just 2-12 straight-up without the 7-footer. Toronto front office suit Bryan Colangelo has made noises about signing a free agent big man (Andrei Kirilenko and Wilson Chandler have been mentioned), but it's just Colangelo blowing smoke. They've got Bargnani and a halfway (and only halfway) decent backcourt of DeMar DeRozan (14.4 ppg but only 38%) and point guard Jose Calderon, whose assist-to-turnover ratio is the envy of every point guard not playing for Chicago. The return of forward Linas Kleiza (18.5 ppg, 52% last 4 games) has been a plus, but there's not enough material to expect anything but garbage in, garbage out.

Central Division

Chicago...The Bulls are leading the East with a 22-6 record, but heavy hangs the head that wears the crown in this delicately balanced business. All- Star PG Derrick Rose has valiantly played through various injuries, most recently back spasms. Bull head coach Tom Thibodeau allowed his star to play just 22 and 11 minutes in Chicago's last two games, a pair of blowout wins against New Orleans and New Jersey. Richard Hamilton has been a treasure trove signing as a free agent, scoring 14 ppg off the bench, but his recent groin injury has kept him out of the last 5 games and could prove costly to the Bull championship aspirations if it lingers. Chicago ranks second in offensive efficiency and 3rd in defensive efficiency and is second in point differential. The one-two frontline punch of C Joakim Noah and F Carlos Boozer is effective, and Noah isn't satisfied with his team's current level. Forward Luol Deng's return from a wrist injury is definitely a plus, as he looks as if he's regained his touch. Considering the Bulls posted the best record in the league last season, none of this can come as a surprise. Rose is the reigning MVP, and as long as his back holds up, Chicago has to be the favorite to represent the East in the Finals.

Cleveland...The Cavs has overachieved already, which might sound odd considering they are just 10-14 straight-up. However, consider Cleveland was the worst team in the East a year ago, winning just 19 of 82 games with a -9 differential. This season the Cavs have rookie-of-the-year favorite in Duke G Kyrie Irving, who's leading the team with 18 ppg and shooting a remarkable 49% (a great percentage for a first-year guard). Fellow rookie Tristan Thomas (via Texas) has been out with an ankle injury lately, but over the first three weeks, he looked like a future talent. However, he's played just 38 minutes in the last eight games. The Cavs have had a number of nagging injuries that cost not only Irving & Thomas, but guards Daniel Gibson & Anthony Parker also missed at least five games. Center Anderson Varejao is playing out of position, but he's doing it with effectiveness. Varejao's 11.8 rpg ranks 4th in the league, and he's scoring 11 ppg and hustles every minute. The team has even overcome Antawn Jamison's 40% shooting on a team-high 15 shots per game (and his $15 million per year expiring salary). Head coach Byron Scott is doing a solid job considering his material, and that's been reflected in the Cavs solid winning record as an underdog.

Detroit...The Pistons aren't as bad as their 7-20 record might indicate. They are also better than their 30th ranking in points scored and rebounds. HC Lawrence Frank has only had starting guard Ben Gordon for about half the games. Guard Rodney Stuckey and F Tayshaun Prince have both missed games. Frank had his full roster available in win at New Jersey Wednesday night, as Ben Gordon returned to action. Center Greg Monroe has been a rock all season (19 ppg & 12 rpg last 5 games). Forward Jonas Jerebko has shown steady improvement and is making more significant contributions of late after missing last season with injury. Detroit has won three in a row for the first time this season, something they did just once last season. The Pistons still have point guard problems, but Rodney Stuckey and Brandon Knight are sharing the position, combining for 25 ppg and 7.4 assists, although they are shooting just 40%. Not sure Frank can turn things around in Detroit, but the Pistons will probably be closer in quality to last year's edition (30-52) before all is said and done.

Indiana...Indiana head coach Frank Vogel, who took over 44 games into last season for Jim O'Brien, landed in the right place at the right time. Larry Bird and the rest of the Pacer brass decided to loosen the purse strings and brought in free agent power forward David West from New Orleans (career 16.2 ppg, 7.2 rpg) and guard George Hill from the Spurs. Although Hill has been out with chip fractures in his ankle, he's been a good fit with the Pacers and should return before the All-Star break. Vogel has also benefited from the rapid development of swingman Paul George, who scored just 7.8 ppg last season, but has contributed 13 ppg this season and is at 14.4 in February. George is looking forward to putting his considerable talents on display on All-Star weekend (soph-frosh game, 3-point contest). Indy is limiting foes to just 91 ppg this season, 5th-best in the league, and own the 5th-best record in the league. We haven't even mentioned star F Danny Granger (hitting his career average of 18 ppg, but his shooting touch leaves a bit to be desired) and center Roy Hibbert, who is at career-highs in scoring, rebounds, blocks and shooting. Yes, indeed, Frank Vogel appears to be in the right place at the right time.

Milwaukee...Milwaukee has to be cast as an underachiever this season, even if the Bucks' winning percentage is virtually the same as it was a year ago. Center Andrew Bogut has missed a dozen games and won't return until late March. Without their leading rebounder, the Bucks have slipped to 27th in rebounding differential. Head coach Scott Skiles has also had to work around injuries to forward Mike Dunleavy and assorted other support players. Stephen Jackson has been in and out of Skiles' doghouse, sitting three of four games at the coach's discretion prior to playing 30 and 33 minutes against Phoenix and Toronto in the Bucks' last two. Jackson made 10 of 22 shots in his most recent stint, but it's unclear if the team's second-leading scorer has a role in Skiles' increasingly muddled plan or if he's being put in the shop window for a possible trade. Point guard Brandon Jennings' shooting has taken a regression to the mean in February, as he made just 34% in the Bucks' first five games this month. It appeared Jennings was making strides this season after he scored 19 ppg and was shooting around 45% through the team's first 20 games. The Bucks recently cleared a roster spot and might make a move on Kyrylo Fesenko, who would be a welcome addition on defense.

Southeast Division

Atlanta...Atlanta has overcome an injury to starting center Al Horford to post an improved record in the early going this season. Horford's absence has definitely been a negative, compounded by an injury to backup pivot Jason Collins. Zaza Pachulia hasn't exactly made Hawk HC Larry Drew forget Horford, as Pachulia has produced just 6.6 ppg and taken 5.7 boards, but the coach has been able to lean on power forward Josh Smith (15 ppg, 8 rpg) and guards Joe Johnson (19 ppg) & Jeff Teague (13 ppg, 49%). The Hawks pulled the trigger on a longer term fix, signing veteran pivot Erick Dampier, who will be playing in his 16th NBA season. It's uncertain how much tread remains on the Dampier's tires, but just two seasons ago he pulled down 7.2 rpg in 23 minutes for Dallas. Horford's torn pectoral muscle might keep him out for the remainder of the year, so Dampier will get a chance to show what he can do. Teague's improvement at the point has helped Atlanta climb to 3rd in the league in fewest turnovers committed. Smith & Johnson have stepped up their production since Horford's injury. Although the Hawks straight-up improvement this season has been commendable, it hasn't translated into pointspread results, and Atlanta has been slipping at "the Highlight Factory" (Philips Arena) of late, dropping three of their last four straight-up and against the number at home.

Charlotte...Nothing much was expected from head coach Paul Silas' Bobcats, but the team has still managed to disappoint. Charlotte owns the worst record in the league through 25 games, with Bobcat losses coming by an average 18 ppg margin. Injuries have played a role in Charlotte's horrible start, as the top two Bobcat offensive threats, shooting guard Gerald Henderson and point guard D.J. Augustin, are both injured and expected to miss more time. Projected starter Corey Maggette had played in just six games and is on the shelf. Forward Reggie Williams sat out the first 21 games and has only just begun to contribute. Developing big man Tyrus Thomas has missed seven games with various injuries. The Bobcats lack a player who can consistently produce in the pivot, and Silas is likely to give 6-9 Bismack Biyombo more minutes in the second half in order to see what he can do. The only real plus for the Charlotte faithful has been the play of rookie guard Kemba Walker, who's averaged 14.6 ppg, 5.5 rpg and 4.2 assists in his 13 starts, but he's finding it's not easy to get open looks on this level and is shooting just 36.7%. The good news is Silas still has control of the situation and the confidence of his players.

Miami...The Heat are coasting along with the second-best record in the East, but Miami is also playing to the level of the competition, logging a 3-8 spread mark as a road favorite and has covered only 3 of first 9 laying more than 9 points at home. The Heat front office knew what it was getting in acquiring LeBron James and Chris Bosh last season, but rookie point guard Norris Cole (Cleveland State) has been a quality find, as he and an improved Mario Chalmers have solidified the point position, combining for 19.6 ppg & 6.3 assists, as well as helping out defensively. Cole's quickness has been an asset. The free agent signing of veteran Shane Battier has helped on the defensive end and has added professionalism, but his offensive contributions have been minimal. Mike Miller came back and is doing what he's paid to do, shoot (55% overall, 51.5% on treys). Dwyane Wade and LeBron James are getting their numbers, and Bosh stepped up when Wade missed eight games with injuries. Miami is trying to bring in center Joel Przybilla, who's weighing his options (reportedly the Heat or the Bulls). Erik Spoelstra better win the title this year, or LeBron and D-Wade will need a scapegoat.

Orlando...Orlando has been a team that's waiting for the other shoe to drop, as Dwight Howard's future with the team is cloudy at best. The Magic front office is making noise about continuing the negotiations and trying to convince him to re-sign with Orlando. It's clear the team wants Howard to appear in the All-Star game (to be played in Orlando) in a Magic uniform and won't trade him until after that, if that's the road they must travel. The team has been as streaky as any this season, starting 10-3, then going 2-6 before winning four of its last five, capped by an impressive 102-89 dismantling of Miami on Wednesday. Head coach Stan Van Gundy has got to be a bit weary of the roller-coaster. Reports he has recently received a prescription for sleeping pills would support that theory. Van Gundy says he's not up at night worrying about his job security, but he takes the losses hard. (And the drama surrounding Dwight Howard probably has a bit to do with it.) Van Gundy has had a few run-ins with other players as well, most notably with forward Glen Davis, who was suspended two games. If Howard hits the road, will Stan take a cue from his brother Jeff and trade coaching for commentating?

Washington...The Wizards are horrible once again, and someone had to take the fall. As in most such cases, the front office and players pointed at the coach in unison, and Flip Saunders walked the plank. That Washington went just 2-15 this season under Saunders and then won three of the Wizards' first eight under interim coach Randy Wittman was more a function of the schedule than any instant corrections; Washington's wins under Wittman came against Charlotte twice and Toronto. The Wizards have been one of the worst offensive teams in the league, scoring only 90 ppg and shooting just 42%, and only Charlotte & Sacramento give up more points than Washington. Wittman has inherited a team that's guard-heavy in the scoring department, as the starting backcourt of Nick Young (17.3 ppg) and John Wall (16) leads the team. Unfortunately, they've combined with sixth man and backup guard Jordan Crawford (3rd at 11.5 ppg) to make just 40% of their shots. Wall has made 7.7% of his threes...at least he doesn't take many. A calf injury to power forward Andray Blatche (10 ppg, 7.1 rpg) will rob the Wizards of their top frontline player for about three more weeks, and Washington was outrebounded 198-152 in last 4 games. Last season "DC" won 28% of its games. In order to match that "success" rate, the Wizards must go 19-22 down the stretch. Next stop...Lottery City.

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