by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

 Following is our annual NBA All-Star break review, presented by conferences and divisions and standings within.  Straight-up records are thru February 13.


Toronto Raptors (43-16)...We already got the answer before New Year’s about Kawhi Leonard making an upgrade to the roster.  But the trade deadline move for Marc Gasol (at a bargain price) from the Grizzlies might have made the Raps the team to beat in the East.  Gasol’s addition is multi-fold; for the moment HC Nick Nurse is using him with the second unit, but expect more minutes on the floor with Leonard and Kyle Lowry as we move beyond the All-Star break.  Make no mistake, however, that Gasol was added also as a potential elixir in case Toronto runs into Philly and Joel Embiid in the playoffs.  There have been other pleasant surprises on the roster (such as versatile F Pascal Siakam), and Nurse has a couple of months to make all of the pieces fit before the playoffs begin.  They’ll worry about re-signing Leonard and/or Gasol (both UFAs) in the offseason.  But the best news of all is that LeBron, now in the West, is no longer a roadblock in the playoffs.

    Boston Celtics (37-21)...The one East contender that stood fairly pat at the deadline, the Celtics remain in the mix, not only in the East but in the Anthony Davis sweepstakes that will ramp up again in the summer.  Danny Ainge is reportedly weighing a major move aimed at Davis and could put together quite a package to entice the Pelicans.  For the moment, however, more than a few are beginning to wonder if Boston might be better off without the self-absorbed Kyrie Irving, who has made thinly-veiled hints that he doesn’t see Boston as his long-term destination.  Many observers believe ball movement is much better sans Kyrie, and cite last Tuesday’s rousing win at Philly as an example.  Irving’s brooding demeanor also seems to have rubbed off on the team, which has had to deal with low-level sniping, drama, and chemistry issues, much of it related to Kyrie, who could eventually be moved to make room for a run at Davis.  Whatever happens from now until the playoffs, this doesn’t look like much fun for HC Brad Stevens, or anyone else. 

    Philadelphia 76ers (37-21)...Never mind LeBron having moved from Cleveland to the West, it’s the Celtics who continue to be the bogey team for the Sixers.  After rolling through Philly in five games in the East semis last May, Boston has taken the first three meetings this season, including last Tuesday’s 112-109 win minus Kyrie Irving.  Has Boston become a mental block (again) for Philly?  And will anything change when they hook up in the playoffs?  The old days of the “process” are now in the rear-view mirror; the years of tanking would help land Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, and now GM Elton Brand is in a hurry to surround them with as much talent as possible.  Since the beginning of the season, Jimmy Butler (via the T-wolves) and Tobias Harris (via the Clippers) have been added to comprise a near All-Star lineup.  But maturity issues regarding Embiid and HC Brett Brown having to fit these pieces together on the fly, plus the Celtics, remain hurdles to clear to advance further than the second round of the playoffs.

    Brooklyn Nets (30-29)...Don’t underestimate the importance of that triple-OT win over the lowly Cavs last Wednesday; without a W, the Nets were looking at a sixth loss in seven into the break, a dip below .500, and a clear loss of the momentum and feel-good from the first half of the season.  Whatever the last two weeks, Brooklyn remains one of the league’s pleasant surprises, continuing to hang in the East playoff mix despite injuries, though emerging  ex-Michigan G Caris LeVert has returned to active duty after missing nearly two months.  D’Angelo Russell has made the All-Star team while making the Lakers look bad for dealing him away, but he’s going to need more help if the Nets are going to hang in the playoff race.  

    New York Knicks (10-47)...Even Mark Cuban is envious at the tank job being pulled off by the Knicks, who have were on an 18-game losing streak into last thursday at Atlanta.  About all that has gone right at MSG is that the Knicks have already reached the magic 10 wins, which means they’ll exceed the 1972-73 Sixers (9-73) and avoid being the NBA losing-est ever team.  The dream for Spike Lee and all of the Knick fans begins in summer, when, if all falls into place, they’ll get first pick in the draft, nab Zion Williamson, and add two max free agents, including Kevin Durant.  For the latter, HC David Fizdale is going to be asked to recruit the stars.  Until then, there is hope that Dennis Smith, added from Dallas in the Kristpas Porzngis trade, can establish himself as a key supporting piece.  But it’s all about the summer and beyond at MSG, where the recent Westminster Dog Show will likely be the highlight of the winter.

    CENTRAL DIVISION: Milwaukee Bucks (43-14)...Mike Budenholzer has proven to be an inspired hire as HC, designing an offense with spot shooters spread out across the floor to prevent enemy defenses from ganging up on the wondrous Giannis.  At their best, the Bucks have been ferocious, good enough to destroy the Warriors in Oakland and threaten the best record in the league. Flipping Thon Maker and a handful of second-rounders at the deadline for Nikola Mirotic, a dagger-thrower who plays perfectly into the Bucks’ spread-the-floor-for-Antetokuonmpo system, was an indication that Milwaukee is serious about going for it all right now.  Mirotic (who figures to come off the bench) has been nursing a calf strain in recent weeks, but should be fine after the break, and he’ll be joining a roster that has covered in eight of its last nine games as well into the All-Star game.  In the race for the top seed in the East, Milwaukee figures to be in the mix all of the way.   
    Indiana Pacers (38-20)...The recent season-ending quad tear suffered by Victor Oladipo might have removed the Pacers from serious title consideration.  But don’t tell that to HC Nate McMillan, who recently squeezed a 6-game win streak out of his troops sans Oladipo.  Adding Wes Matthews in the buyout market was good business; though a sort of Victor-lite, Matthews does fill some of Oladipo’s roles, and should prove useful.  Indiana, which has been playing some of the best defense in the NBA all season (reflected in a 12-3 “under” mark into the break),  is apparently not about to give up earning home edge in the first round of the playoffs, though a deep postseason run now seems unlikely.

    Detroit Pistons (26-30)...Trading away much of their wing depth (Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson) for a half-season flyer on Thon Maker didn’t seem like a worthwhile move at the deadline, though the Pistons moved back into the 8th playoff spot in the East playoff race after a recent 4-game win streak.  (The Knicks and Wizards accounted for three of the four wins, but a win is a win, right?)  It is not impossible to envision Detroit hanging in the playoff mix, at least as long as Reggie Jackson, Blake Griffin, and Andre Drummond continue to grow more comfortable playing alongside one another.  That’s a pretty good core, and as HCDwane Casey has plenty of experience getting to the playoffs, the Pistons might be able to hang in the postseason mix if they stay healthy.

    Chicago Bulls (14-44)...What a mess!  Hitting the eject button on HC Fred Hoiberg in December, and promoting assistant and former U of Utah HC Jim Boylen, only seemed to antagonize the troops, but we don’t think John Wooden could have done much with this disjointed roster.  In defense of the lineup, it was minus key F Lauri Markkanen for much fo the first half of the season, and has just added Otto Porter from the Wizards.  Porter and Zach LaVine  at the wings, Markkanen and ex-Duke Wendell Carter in the middle, and Kris Dunn at the point looks like it should be a respectable quintet.  But the personnel moves puzzle, as adding Porter and his huge salary seems a short-term play, and for a franchise not in playoff contention?  We don’t get it.  Note that Boylen is letting his team run a bit, as the Bulls were “over” 13-7 their last 20 into the break.

    Cleveland Cavaliers (12-46)...We’ve seen this before in Cleveland, after LeBron left the first time in 2010.  He’s not coming back this time, though if the Cavs play it right, they could end up with the top pick in the draft and start to rebuild around Zion Williamson.  Cleveland has been dealing away players (George Hill, Kyle Korver, Rodney Hood among them) throughout the season, adding draft picks for the future rebuild. Eventually, a decision will have to be made re: Kevin Love, who has proven too injury-prone and will likely be shopped.  In the meantime, however, Cleveland remains hard to watch in a season that was done by Halloween, by which point HC Ty Lue had already walked the plank, replaced by asst. Larry Drew.
    SOUTHEAST DIVISION: Charlotte Hornets (27-29)...Yes, the Hornets were a division leader into the All-Star break, though considering it’s the Southeast, it’s about like being named Mayor of Gilligan’s Island. No Southeast team is currently above .500, but at least Charlotte is close.  That’s mostly due to heroic work by G Kemba Walker, a deserving All-Star, in front of the home folks this weekend.  But Charlotte, which was supposedly in the race to land Marc Gasol, came out of the trade deadline empty-handed, which reportedly didn’t sit well with Walker, a pending FA who would like to see his team make a serious attempt at upgrading the roster.  The Hornets look like they can slip into the 7 or 8 playoff seed before being used as cannon fodder by the Raptors or Bucks.  Then we’ll see what Walker decides to do in the summer. 
    Miami Heat (26-30)...The only developments at the deadline for the Heat involved lowering the luxury tax bill by roughly $8 million, and opening up the roster a bit more for Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow to show what they can do.  On the plus side, Goran Dragic, out for much of the season, is due to return soon, and Richardson appears to be emerging as a potential cornerstone, especially after his recent 37-point outburst vs. the Warriors.  But the only drama in the remainder of this season is if Dwyane Wade can make one more playoff appearance before he calls it quits, and before Miami is quickly dispatched by a team like the Bucks or Raptors in the first round.   Be careful laying points at home with Miami, just 4-14 as AA Arena chalk.  
    Orlando Magic (26-32)... It’s been seven years since the Magic made the playoffs, so even having a whiff of the postseason at the All-Star break is enough to get them excited at Disney World.  Now, can Orlando close the deal?  The Magic didn’t sell at the deadline, even resisting the chance to get something now for FA-to-be Nikola Vucevic, while Terrence Ross, another expected to be on the block, keyed a recent four-game win streak by scoring better than 20 ppg over that span.  If the Magic is to sustain a playoff charge, however, it will likely be due to improving defense, which held foes to a mere point per possession in a recent seven-game stretch.  
    Washington Wizards (24-34)...The Wizards have the look and feel of a team in transition, as the move of Otto Porter and his big contract at the deadline was likely the first of several roster changes upcoming into the summer.  At some point it might involve G Bradley Beal, who has never seemed to like or enjoy playing alongside John Wall, but would be welcome on many rosters around the league.  The Wiz, however, remain awkwardly tied to the mercurial Wall, who is expected to be sidelined until next January after recent Achilles surgery.  But who knows what the roster will look like when he returns, or if HC Scott Brooks is still on the job.  The defensive frailties that could cost Brooks have resulted in a 9-1 “over” mark last ten into break for Wiz.

    Atlanta Hawks (18-41)...We must say that we like the old throwback uni look to the mid-to-late 1960s St. Louis Hawks, and hope we see more of those metallic-blue outfits.  Make no mistake, however, Atlanta is in full rebuild mode, though the Hawks have been pretty entertaining at times, even as it has often looked like first-year HC Lloyd Pierce is simply rolling the ball onto the court and letting his guys shoot and run to their heart’s content.  Trae Young, however, has started to look like a real NBA guard, and 2nd-year F John Collins appears an emerging star. The Hawks look a year or two away, but sometimes we get a glimpse of what might be in the future, such as their six wins the past month when they’ve scored more than 120 points per 100 possessions. 

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