Monday , Feb , 14 , 2005 C.Y. Ellis

Points in the Paint

By Warren Blatt, Sports Network NBA Editor

Philadelphia, PA (Sports Network) – The NBA regular season is past the
midway point. With the 54th NBA All-Star game less than a week away, it’s a
great time to take a look at what has gone on in the league so far in the
2004-05 campaign.

Here is a team-by-team evaluation for all 30 NBA franchises. Each club will
receive a grade based on performance, with expectations, injuries and
transactions factored into the final grade as well.

ATLANTA HAWKS – The Hawks hired Mike Woodson to be its new head coach and
acquired talented forwards Al Harrington and Antoine Walker in the offseason.
Atlanta felt it would be able to sneak up on its opponents and be one of the
surprise teams in the league this season. The Hawks will once again focus on
how to rebuild and try to figure out what is going wrong. This is an awful
squad! GRADE: F

BOSTON CELTICS – Boston could end up winning a very weak Atlantic Division
with a .500 or below record. Head coach Doc Rivers has done a good job with
the talent he has to work with. All-Star Paul Pierce is having another
excellent season, while Ricky Davis, Raef LaFrentz and Gary Payton, who may
very well be traded to a Western Conference team by the trading deadline on
February 24th, have been solid. The Celtics are fortunate to be in the
Atlantic, but the fact is that if they stay healthy they will probably be the
No. 3 seed in the East at playoff time. GRADE: B-

CHARLOTTE BOBCATS – Connecticut product Emeka Okafor has turned out to be an
excellent first draft pick for this franchise. Charlotte has been competitive
in a lot of games and its management seems to have a plan going forward.
Remember, the Bobcats are an expansion team. GRADE: C-

CHICAGO BULLS – Are the Bulls finally headed in the right direction? Rookies
Luol Deng, Chris Duhon and Ben Gordon have all contributed in a big way, while
guard Kirk Hinrich just keeps getting better. Head coach Scott Skiles has been
able to get Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry to perform on a more consistent
basis and the results are showing, as the Bulls have a real chance to appear
in the postseason for the first time since 1998. GRADE: A-

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS – LeBron James has continued to amaze in his second season
in the NBA. The Cavaliers will have two players (James and Zydrunas Ilgauskas)
in the All-Star Game for the first time since 1993 when Cleveland was
represented by Brad Daugherty, Larry Nance and Mark Price in the contest.
Forward Drew Gooden has helped Cavaliers’ fans forget about Carlos Boozer,
while guard Jeff McInnis is having a good season. James is having an MVP-type
season and things just keep getting better in Cleveland. The Cavs are battling
Detroit for the Central Division crown and they will make it back to the
playoffs for the first time since 1998. GRADE: A-

DALLAS MAVERICKS – The Mavericks got the center they have been searching for
when they traded for Erick Dampier in the offseason. Dallas’ roster is more
suited to compete in the postseason than it has been in years. All-Star Dirk
Nowitzki is having another outstanding season, while his supporting cast of
Dampier, Michael Finley, Josh Howard, Jerry Stackhouse and Jason Terry have
all contributed for this very talented team. Once again, the Mavericks are in
the heat of the playoff race in the West and they will be jockeying for
positioning in the postseason the rest of the regular season. GRADE: B

DENVER NUGGETS – Denver was supposed to be a contender this season. Instead,
the Nuggets fired head coach Jeff Bzdelik on December 28th after a
disappointing 13-15 start, and replaced him with assistant Michael Cooper on
an interim basis. After Cooper guided Denver to a 4-10 record, the Nuggets
named George Karl the 19th head coach in team history on January 27th. The
Nuggets have played much better under Karl, as forwards Kenyon Martin and
Carmelo Anthony have taken on a bigger load. This is a very talented club on
paper, but on the court the Nuggets have been one of the NBA’s biggest
disappointments. GRADE: D+

DETROIT PISTONS – When you are the defending NBA champion, every team is
primed to play you. The Pistons have struggled at times during the season, but
they have experienced players who know how to deal with adversity and also how
to overcome it. All-Star Ben Wallace, Chauncey Billups, Richard Hamilton,
Tayshaun Prince and Rasheed Wallace could just be doing enough to win the
Central Division as they wait for the playoffs. Detroit does not look like
the team that defeated the Lakers in five games in the 2004 NBA Finals, but
make no mistake about it that the Pistons will be ready to defend their
title when the postseason arrives. However, the Pistons season will have a
cloud over it because of the despicable events on November 19th in a game
against Indiana at The Palace. GRADE: B

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS – Head coach Mike Montgomery probably wishes he was back
at Stanford, as Golden State vice president Chris Mullin has made a mess of
things. Guard Jason Richardson and forward Troy Murphy are having solid
seasons for the Warriors, who will once again be absent from the postseason
for an 11th straight season. This team needs to go in a different direction.
GRADE: F

HOUSTON ROCKETS – All-Stars Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming are starting to jell
like the Rockets had hoped they would. Guard David Wesley, who was obtained in
a trade with New Orleans, has been a nice addition. Head coach Jeff Van Gundy
seems to have figured out how to get the most from his squad and they could be
very dangerous down the stretch. This is a team that is on the move. GRADE: B-

INDIANA PACERS – The Pacers lost defensive stopper Ron Artest for the season
for his participation in the disgraceful brawl during November 19th’s game at
The Palace of Auburn Hills. Indiana was lucky that All-Star forward Jermaine
O’Neal, who had originally been suspended for 25 games, had his suspension
reduced, while swingman Stephen Jackson served a 30-game suspension for his
actions during the game against Detroit. The Pacers would have been a serious
contender for the Eastern crown if their players would have concentrated on
playing basketball instead of trying to showoff their boxing skills to a bunch
of Detroit fans. The Pacers are battling just to make the playoffs. GRADE: D

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS – At least the Clippers are competitive. They won’t make
the playoffs once again, but Elton Brand and Corey Maggette are fun to watch
and forward Bobby Simmons has been a pleasant surprise. Remember, this is the
Clipper. GRADE: C

LOS ANGELES LAKERS – Rudy Tomjanovich announced his resignation, barely
halfway through his first season as the Lakers’ head coach, while All-Star
Kobe Bryant was out for a significant amount of time with an ankle injury. The
Lakers have found that life without Shaq is not going to be easy. Caron Butler
and Lamar Odom have played well in their first season with the Lakers, but
they are nowhere close to being in the same category as Shaq. Bryant is great,
but he will have trouble winning in the West without a dominant big man. The
Lakers have become an average team that will have to fight for the right to
make the playoffs. GRADE: C

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES – After the sudden retirement of former head coach Hubie
Brown, the Grizzlies made the right decision when they hired Mike Fratello to
be the new head coach on December 2, 2004. Fratello has Memphis playing
winning basketball and the Grizzlies look like they could appear in the
playoffs for the second consecutive year. Point guard Jason Williams has
flourished under the leadership of Fratello, while star forward Pau Gasol has
been hampered by left foot plantar fasciitis and should be ready to return in
the near future. Memphis, which won a franchise record 50 games in the 2003-04
regular season and started this season by winning just 5 of its first 16
games, has once again found its game under Fratello. GRADE: B

MIAMI HEAT – Shaquille O’Neal has been everything that the Heat hoped he would
be and more. All-Stars O’Neal and Dwyane Wade have Miami playing like the best
team in the Eastern Conference. The rest of Miami’s roster understands that
the road to success goes through Shaq and Wade, as veteran guard Eddie Jones
has accepted a lesser role offensively and Udonis Haslem, Damon Jones and
Rasual Butler have fit right in with head coach Stan Van Gundy’s system. The
Heat have become the “Beast of the East.” GRADE: A+

MILWAUKEE BUCKS – The Bucks have been a disappointment. Shooting guard Michael
Redd and forward Desmond Mason have been solid for Milwaukee, while forward
Keith Van Horn has struggled since returning from right ankle tendinitis,
which put him on the Injured List, and Joe Smith has just been ok. Milwaukee
has lacked intensity and it looks like a team that will finish below .500 and
will need some serious luck to make it into the postseason in a very weak
Eastern Conference. Redd and Mason give this team some hope, but it doesn’t
look too good. GRADE: D

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES – By far the NBA’s biggest disappointment this season.
Head coach Flip Saunders lost his job on February 12th because players like
Sam Cassell and Latrell Sprewell are more worried about their contract status
for next season than winning. Reigning MVP Kevin Garnett has been spectacular,
but he has become frustrated by the way Minnesota has played. With the
exception of Garnett, this team lacks heart and it’s time to get a new
supporting cast for Garnett. Remember, this team won a franchise-best 58
games last season and made it all the way to the conference finals. Saunders
was not the problem and deserved better than the fate he met. GRADE: D

NEW ORLEANS HORNETS – Injuries have killed this team. A season that head coach
Byron Scott, who is in his first year with the Hornets, and the entire
organization would like to forget about. No team would have been able to
overcome what New Orleans has had to deal with. GRADE: D

NEW JERSEY NETS – The acquisition of Vince Carter is proving to be a good one.
Jason Kidd is back, but the loss of forward Richard Jefferson, who was having
a career-year and appeared to be headed towards making his first NBA All-Star
team, is huge. Kidd and Carter make the Nets a tough opponent each night and
New Jersey looks to be improving as they two play more and more together. The
Nets should make a run at the Atlantic Division crown after the All-Star
break. GRADE: C+

NEW YORK KNICKS – When will Isiah Thomas make his next big trade is the
question here? The coach is already gone, as Lenny Wilkens announced his
resignation on January 22nd and was replaced on an interim basis by assistant
Herb Williams. The Knicks have struggled and it looks like their is no team
chemistry. Thomas will try to once again fix the situation on the short term
with a deal, but it might not work this time. GRADE: D

ORLANDO MAGIC – There is life after Tracy McGrady. Steve Francis has been all-
world for the Magic and should have been named as a reserve to the All-Star
team. All-Star forward Grant Hill is healthy once again and is having a great
season, while Hedo Turkoglu and rookie Dwight Howard have been solid. Doug
Christie, who was acquired from Sacramento for Cuttino Mobley, was a nice
addition who gives Orlando some much needed experience and help on the
defensive end of the court. The Magic should be right in the mix at playoff
time. GRADE: B-

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS – Head coach Jim O’Brien still has not figured out how he
wants to use his rotation on a consistent basis. All-Star Allen Iverson has
made the transition to the point and is having an excellent season, while
three-point specialist Kyle Korver has benefited from O’Brien’s system the
most. Forward Corliss Williamson, who was acquired from Detroit in the
offseason, was an excellent addition, while Kenny Thomas, who averaged a
double-double last season has struggled under O’Brien. The Sixers are a .500
team at best, but the fact is O’Brien and Iverson have them battling for
the top spot in the Atlantic Division and a trip back to the playoffs.
GRADE: C+

PHOENIX SUNS – After winning just 29 games last season, the Suns added Steve
Nash, who has played like an MVP, and Quentin Richardson in the offseason
through free agency. Phoenix is now one of the most explosive and exciting
teams in the league. The Suns are the only club in the NBA to have three All-
Stars (Shawn Marion, Nash, Amare Stoudemire) in February 20th’s game at
Denver. Marion, Richardson and Stoudemire have meshed well with Nash, who has
made each player better. Phoenix is great in transition and simply tries to
get into a shootout with its opponents. The Suns are one of the pleasant
surprises in the 2004-05 campaign. GRADE: A+

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS – Head Coach Maurice Cheeks may not survive past this
season as Portland’s general. The Trail Blazers are nothing special and their
record does not lie. Zach Randolph is still the teams best player and the only
untouchable, but everyone else could find themselves in another uniform by the
trade deadline. It is time to completely rebuild in Portland. GRADE:D+

SACRAMENTO KINGS – The Kings are still one of the top teams in the league.
They made once significant move, as they dealt defensive specialist Doug
Christie to Orlando for sharp-shooter Cuttino Mobley. Sacramento is headed
towards another 50-plus win season, but do they have enough to beat Dallas,
Phoenix or San Antonio. Mike Bibby, Peja Stojakovic and Chris Webber will team
up with Brad Miller, who is in his second season with Sacramento, and Mobley
to take another shot at winning the West. No surprises here, this team is
doing exactly what everyone expected of them. The playoffs are the real test
for this squad. GRADE: B

SAN ANTONIO SPURS – The motto here is simple, just win! All-Stars Tim Duncan
and Manu Ginobili are having excellent seasons, while Tony Parker continues to
give the Spurs excellent play at point guard. The Spurs know how to win, and
they have to be the favorite in the Western Conference. GRADE: A+

SEATTLE SUPERSONICS – The Sonics have a big lead in the Northwest Division and
have shocked everyone with their awesome play this season. Guard Ray Allen and
forward Rashard Lewis, who are both headed to the All-Star Game, have been
unbelievable for Seattle. Allen and Lewis have become on the most potent one-
two scoring punches in the league, while forwards Vladimir Radmanovic and
Danny Fortson and guards Luke Ridnour and Antonio Daniels have helped their
teammates make Seattle the biggest surprise in the NBA this season. GRADE: A+

TORONTO RAPTORS – Toronto traded All-Star Vince Carter to New Jersey and is
trying to start a new chapter in the franchise. The Raptors are also trying
to trade Jalen Rose and Donyell Marshall and would like first-year head coach
Sam Mitchell to have a new nucleus of players to work with. After its 3-0
start, Toronto has come crashing back down to Earth. GRADE: D+

UTAH JAZZ – Carlos Boozer and Mehmet Okur were supposed to help Utah get back
into the playoffs after one-year absence. Both players have been solid at
times, but the injury to Andrei Kirilenko hurt big time as Utah was just 6-20
with out him. Utah traded guard Carlos Arroyo to Detroit, because he could not
get along with head coach Jerry Sloan. Instead of being a team that was going
to be a tough opponent in the playoffs for a club in the West, Utah management
is trying to figure out if it has the right mix of players on its roster.
GRADE: D

WASHINGTON WIZARDS – All-Stars Gilbert Arenas and Antawn Jamison were reunited
in Washington in the offseason, and the duo has teamed up to make the Wizards
a playoff contender in the East. For the first time since 1987, Washington has
two players representing the franchise in the All-Star Game. Head coach Eddie
Jordan has Washington headed for the postseason for the first time since the
1996-97 season. The future of basketball is starting to look bright in
Washington! GRADE: B+