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TGS SPECIAL REPORT...NBA ALL-STAR BREAK UPDATE: EAST REVIEW
by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor


The All-Star weekend is a welcome break from the grind of the 82-game NBA season for just about every NBA squad (not to mention for handicappers). The players have time off to rest and recuperate from the various injuries that inevitably accumulate over time. Coaches and general managers evaluate their team's situation and burn the phone lines in the last week before the trade deadline.

As handicappers, we use the break to grade out each team and reset our expectations up and down the standings. Today the Eastern Conference is featured; Monday the Western Conference evaluation.

ATLANTIC DIVISION


Toronto (28-24)...Toronto has been one of the big surprises in the NBA this season, as head coach Dwane Casey has the Raptors in front in the Atlantic Division. On the surface, that might not seem like a major accomplishment, but remember that Toronto has finished above .500 just once in the last 11 seasons and hasn't made a playoff appearance in the past five years. The trade of Rudy Gay to Sacramento on December 8 snapped the Raptor team to attention. Toronto was 6-12 straight-up before the trade was officially announced, and 22-12 since Gay packed his bags. Guards DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have taken up the scoring slack, and the move of 6-6 swingman Terrance Ross into the starting lineup for Gay has worked out. Ross has scored 13 ppg and given much more defensive effort than Gay could muster. (At times the fans occupying courtside seats at the Air Canada Centre presented more of a defensive deterrent to opposing players than Gay did). Grade: A

Brooklyn (24-26)...After finishing 49-33 last season and signing vet free agents Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Andrei Kirilenko, Russian owner Mikhail Prokhorov and GM Billy King should've gotten much more than just a bloated payroll bill. Rookie head coach Jason Kidd had a rough learning curve as the Nets got off to a more-than-disappointing 10-21 start, partly due to injuries and partly due to relying on too many sluggish, aging vets playing beyond their sell-by date. But when the calendar turned to 2014, the Nets' fortunes turned as well. Pierce regained some shooting touch. Garnett accepted the role of replacing Brook Lopez in the pivot and focusing on defense and rebounding. The team's shot selection, passing and defense improved. Balkan import Mirza Teletovic started to become a factor, contributing double-digits off the bench at power forward. PG Deron Williams regained his health. And the Nets won 10 of their first 11 games in the new year. The success of Prokhorov's vision for the team this season is inconclusive at this juncture. The Nets might still win the division going away as many preseason previews predicted. Grade: Incomplete

New York (20-32)...After finishing strong in the strike-shortened season after the coaching change from Mike D'Antoni to Mike Woodson and a 54-28 mark last season, there was every reason to believe the Knicks could challenge Miami in the East. New York had stability at head coach, a contented, productive superstar in Carmelo Anthony, solid contributing role players, a former defensive player of the year in the pivot, and a ravenous and loyal home crowd. But the Knicks limped into the all-star hiatus on a 1-5 SU run. With every loss, Woodson looked more and more like a dead man walking. Anthony's body language says he wants out. The team is just 12-18 straight-up at home, and Spike Lee put his house up for sale (that likely has more to do with the fact that he will make $16 million off the sale than any impending move out of town). In the terrible, terrible East, the Knicks are just 2½ games out of the last playoff spot, but they will only be fodder for Indiana or Miami if they manage to crawl into the postseason. Grade: D-

Boston (19-35)...The Celtics are deep into Danny Ainge's rebuilding plan, and are among a number of teams attempting to tank without looking like they're tanking. The Celts trimmed the payroll down to $46 million for next fall, allowing them money to go after some of this summer's marquee free agents. Ainge has acquired an extra first-round pick in each of the next five seasons, and Boston's own pick figures to be at lottery-level for the next two seasons. But what good does that do Celtic fans right now? Nothing is the correct answer, and Ainge has to be looking over his shoulder at least a bit. The team has won one title since Ainge played for them in 1984. Although he put together a title team as the GM in 2008 and made another run to the finals in 2010, most of that run was due to the free agent signing of Kevin Garnett and a bit of luck in acquiring PG Rajon Rondo in a draft-day deal. Let's not forget Ainge also acquired Sebastian Telfair and Delonte West at that time, and his hiring of Rick Pitino didn't quite work out. (Pitino was 102-146 with the Celtics, and near the end of his tenure said famously, "Larry Bird is not walking through that door.") And even though they palmed Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry off on the Nets, they still have to pay Kris Humphries, Gerald Wallace and Keith Bogans about the same money, and Wallace doesn't come off the books for two more years. Grade: C-

Philadelphia (15-39)...The old adage, "You get what you pay for" certainly seems to apply for Philly. The Sixers have the lowest payroll in the NBA...and the worst defense, and the second-worst record. It's not getting better, either, as the team has dropped 18 of its last 21 (6-15 vs. the number). Philadelphia has a modest triumvirate of F Evan Turner, PG Michael Carter-Williams and vet PF Thad Young, who all average around 17 ppg, plus Spencer Hawes (13 ppg, 9 rpg, and can block a shot and shoot the three). However, that's not nearly enough offense when a team gives up 110 ppg. The Sixers were beaten by 45 & 43 pts. on consecutive nights in their recent western swing....now that's unusual! HC Brett Brown and GM Sam Hinkie will have a lot of money to spend in the offseason, but some of it will have to go to retaining Young and Hawes, and it's going to take a lot of talking to convince premier free agents to go to the City of Brotherly Love this summer. Grade: F.

CENTRAL DIVISION


Indiana (40-12)...Despite a mild downturn in the last week, Indiana owns the best record in the East and has surprised most pundits by staying ahead of two-time defending champ Miami in the race for the homecourt edge in what looks like a near-certain playoff collision course. The Pacers play the best defense in the East thanks to the best paint-intimidator in the league in center Roy Hibbert. Offensively, the Pacers are led by F Paul George, although there is a cast of characters in Lance Stephenson, David West, George Hill and Danny Granger, any one of whom is capable of carrying the team on the attack end on any given night. Looks like only an injury to George or Hibbert will keep the Pacers out of the conference final. Grade: A

Chicago (26-25)...Chicago's season has been hijacked by an injury to PG Derrick Rose again, but must compliment HC Tom Thibodeau and his Bulls for not buckling under that handicap. The Bulls are one of just four Eastern teams with a winning record, own the second-best defense in the league, and have posted a 17-9 SU and spread mark since Dec. 19, despite trading away star F Luol Deng. The move to acquire PG D.J. Augustin (16 ppg, 5 apg last 10 games through Feb. 12) has substantially mitigated the loss of Rose, and the play of F Taj Gibson and G Jimmy Butler equates to a quantum leap, as both are averaging career highs. Thibodeau doesn't have a marquee superstar to turn to down the stretch, but he does have a dedicated crew of solid citizens who know how to win games defensively on sheer effort. Grade: B+

Detroit (22-30)...After averaging a .357 win percentage over the last four years, Detroit's 22-30 mark (.423) would at first glance seem an improvement. That would be an incorrect assumption. Considering the collection of talent on hand and the money invested in this roster, GM Joe Dumars has conjured up an utter disaster. Dumars' missteps are numerous. Knowing the Pistons had a desperate need at the point, he passed up both PG Trey Burke, a player right in his own back yard at Michigan, and Michael Carter-Williams to take instead Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Then he signed low-percentage but volume shooting PG Brandon Jennings to a three-year, $24 million deal to fill the void running the team. The signing of free agent Josh Smith isn't working out well, either, as the presence of big men Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe has forced Smith, who's more of a power forward than a small forward, away from the paint, where he traditionally likes to operate. Not coincidentally, he's averaging a career-high three-point attempts (and making just 23% of them), while he's at an eight-year low in rebounds. Let's not even talk about the contracts he gave Rip Hamilton or Charlie Villanueva. Dumars likely will be hiring his ninth coach in 14 years in the offseason. Note to Joe Dumars: It's not the coach. Everything you know is wrong. Grade: F

Cleveland (20-33)...Cleveland is underachieving without a doubt, as a 20-33 SU mark indicates, and the fact that the Cavs are just 5-14 against the number as a favorite this season might be a sign they don't have consistent mental toughness. PG Kyrie Irving is a budding superstar around whom a team can be built. Frontliners Anderson Varejao and Tristan Thompson are one of the best tandem of rebounders in the league. The trade for Luol Deng might prove to be a good move if the front office is really interested in signing him as a free agent. (But the Andrew Bynum trade last season seemed like a good idea at the time, too.) Shooting guards C.J. Miles and Dion Waiters combine for 26 ppg. HC Mike Brown loves the city and took the Cavs to the finals not too long ago. So what's the problem? It's tough to say, but the defense (102 ppg) isn't what Brown wants, and the shot selection sometimes isn't exactly stellar. Injuries have hurt, as five key contributors have missed at least a handful of games. However, the Cavs were just 45-103 the last two seasons, so with a that as the norm, the cup might be half-full for Cav fans. Grade: C

Milwaukee (9-43)...C'mon ping pong balls! Milwaukee didn't have a very talented roster to begin with after declining to re-sign guards Brandon Jennings (3 years/$24 million from Detroit) and Monta Ellis (3 years/$26 million from Dallas). Injuries have been responsible for making a bad Milwaukee team truly terrible, as backup power forward Khris Middleton is the only Buck to appear in every game, and starters C Larry Sanders (missed 20 games) and PF Ersan Ilyasova (13) have been out for extended periods. The Bucks managed to cover five of the last six heading to the break, but all of those spread wins came with inflated numbers (7½ or more). Grade: F

SOUTHEAST DIVISION


Miami (37-14)...LeBron James has been pulling the Heat like a locomotive chugging up a mountain dragging a string of freight cars. Although he's gotten some support from C Chris Bosh (16.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg), Dwyane Wade has missed 15 games, as his body is breaking down a bit. Ray Allen is at the end of his time in the league, averaging a career-low 9 ppg, and his shooting percentage is his worst in the last nine years. It's a boxing truism that the fighter doesn't really retire from the ring; the ring retires the fighter. In Allen's case, it looks like the court is retiring him. The good news is that the engine of the Miami train is the most powerful locomotive in the league, and it's stoked with enough coal for the whole trip. James is at the peak of his game, and that's a peak in a mountain range including Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Wilt Chamberlain. You can make an argument that if the playoffs started now, Miami should be favored over any other team in a seven-game series. There have been some slip-ups (like losing to New York, Brooklyn and Washington in consecutive games in mid-January), but you're the king until someone lops off your head and picks up your crown. (At least that's the way it works in Game of Thrones!) Grade: B+

Atlanta (25-26)...Atlanta has been very streaky this season, and the Hawks finished the pre-All-Star portion of the season as ice cold as the weather in that part of the country. Atlanta lost five straight before the break by an average of 10 ppg, while scoring just 86 ppg and getting out rebounded by 9 per game. The injury to the Hawks' top scorer and rebounder has had something to do with Atlanta's woes, as center Al Horford (19 ppg, 8.4 rpg) has missed the last 22 games, and his backup, Pero Antic (11.4 ppg, 6 rpg as a starter) is also out. With those two sidelined, PF Paul Millsap is overworked (and sometimes double-screened out) as the main rebounder. Millsap's boards have dropped from 10.8 rpg in December to 7.6 in 2014. The Hawks had been tougher at home this season before losing to Indiana and New Orleans at the Philips Arena in the last week, but their 15-9 spread mark at home is a huge improvement over last season's 15-26 mark. Antic will be back soon, so an uptick could come. Grade: C+

Washington (25-27)...Washington is just a tick away from stepping up a few rungs in the ladder in the East. Wizard PG John Wall is having a great season (20 ppg, 8.5 apg). G Bradley Beal has scored 17 ppg and is making 43% of his treys. Marcin Gortat and Nene Hilario have combined for 26 ppg, 14.5 rpg and give the Wizards a productive inside game, and Trevor Ariza is a decent small forward (14 ppg, 6 rpg). However, there's not much depth, perhaps contributing to the Wizards' 5-11 mark as a home favorite. Washington surged to an above-.500 mark for the first time in years before losing four of last five straight-up just before the break, but a 7-2 spread record in last nine is good for "extra credit" in our gradebook. Grade: B

Charlotte (23-30)...Charlotte has already won more games than it did last season, thanks to the addition of Al Jefferson (20 ppg, 10.5 rpg on the season), continued development of PG Kemba Walker (18 ppg, 5.2 apg), and the improved health of Gerald Henderson (played in all 53 games after missing 14 with injury last season). Walker and Henderson have been careful with the ball, as the Bobcats make the fewest turnovers in the league, The Bobcats have covered 56% on the season and have shown particular value on the road, where Steve Clifford's team has posted a 16-10 spread mark. By the time they become the Charlotte Hornets again next season, they could possibly have added three first-round choices in a talent-rich draft. Their prospects are promising. Grade B+

Orlando (16-38)...Had the grades been turned in 10 days ago, Orlando wouldn't have passed. However, the Magic managed to cram enough for their midterm to win and cover three of their last four games, including upsetting Oklahoma City and Indiana, the best teams in the West and the East. That being said, from Nov. 8 through Feb. 3, Orlando was 10-35 SU and 15-30 against the points; that won't get it done. It's understood HC Jacque Vaughn is running a reconstruction project in the wake of the departure of Dwight Howard after the 2011-12 campaign. With Howard, the Magic won three division titles and went to the playoffs six straight seasons. HC Stan Van Gundy was fired and Howard traded, so Vaughn has time, but in the NBA, no one has a lot of time. There are some building blocks in rookie guard Victor Oladipo, Arron Afflalo (19.4 ppg), F Tobias Harris (13.7 ppg) and C Nikola Vucevic, but PG Jameer Nelson is 32 years old (and really not that good). They give up 101 ppg and get outrebounded 4.4 per game, but they'll win more games than they did last season. That's nothing to write home about (they only won 20 LY). Grade: D


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