Wednesday, February 27, 2013

So far this 2012-13 National Basketball Association (NBA) campaign some teams have lived up to expectations. Some have not. Some teams have risen from where they began this season and some have fallen. With the All-Star break in the rearview mirror and two and a half months remaining in the season here are my grades and explanations for each NBA team.

Abbreviation Key: ppg-points per game; rpg-rebounds per game; apg-assists per game; bpg-blocks per game; spg-steals per game; FG%-field goal percentage; 3-Pt.%-three-point percentage.

-Stats and information to February 27

/Atlanta Hawks (32-23 currently-residing second in the Southeast and the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference; 29-22 at the break) 18-10 at home, 14-13 on road: 97.7 ppg (13th in NBA) 24.4 apg (2nd in NBA) 96.7 opp. ppg (12th in NBA).

-When this season began there were plenty of questions surrounding the Hawks after former Cleveland Cavalier and San Antonio Spur Danny Ferry took the job as general manager this past off-season.

The first thing he did was trade Hawk mainstays with huge salaries in six-time All-Star Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets and Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz.

The question was how would forward Josh Smith (17.3 ppg-leads team, 8.6 rpg, 4.2 apg) and Al Horford (16.8 ppg, 10.0 rpg) respond as the heads of this snake. Not to mention the fact that the team has several new additions like Devin Harris (8.8 ppg), Kyle Korver (11.4 ppg 4.1 rpg), DeShawn Stevenson (5.9 ppg) and Louis Williams.

The Hawks surprised the entire league going 20-10 over the first two months of the season. However since then, they have gone 10-13 since that time. In that same time frame, they lost their prominent sixth man Williams who tore his anterior cruciate ligament (ACL) at the Brooklyn Nets on Jan. 18 and was lost for the rest of the season. That is 14.1 ppg, 3.6 apg and 36.7 shooting from the three-point that is no longer coming off the bench.

Lead guard Jeff Teague is having a career season with 14.5 ppg, 7.2 apg and 1.5 spg. Korver’s perimeter marksmanship of 45.5 percent from the floor and 46.4 percent from three point range, which leads the NBA has been more than a pleasant site.

The Hawks do have one guarantee for the rest of this season, that Smith who they did not trade at the deadline last Thursday will be a Hawk for the rest of this season.

When the Hawks comes to and end, management will have some major decisions to make. Will they break the bank for Smith, which he considers himself to have earned or will they let him walk and have nearly $40 million dollars to spend in free agency.

Admits all the changes and uncertainty about Smith future, if the Hawks do anything this postseason, they will have exceeded the expectations of most.

Grade: B

/Boston Celtics (30-27 currently-residing third in the Atlantic and the 7th seed in the Eastern Conference; 28-24 at the break) 20-9 at home, 10-18 on the road; 96.2 ppg (18th in NBA) 23.1 apg (7th in NBA) opp. ppg 96.1 (9th in NBA).

-Five seasons, the Celtics acquired perennial all-stars Kevin Garnett (15.1 ppg 7.7 rpg-leads team) and Ray Allen to join Paul Pierce (18.5 ppg-leads team, 6.3 rpg, 4.5 apg) and Rajon Rondo and they rewarded their fans and the organization with five straight (2008-12), four of those seasons were of 50-plus wins in the regular seasons, which included 66 victories in 2007-08 and 62 wins in 2008-09. The first season finished with the franchises NBA leading 17 championship with a six-game victory in the finals over the rival Los Angeles Lakers. They made it back to the Finals in 2010, but lost to the Lakers in seven games. The last two season, the Celtics were beaten in the playoffs by the Miami Heat in the Conference Semis and the Conference Finals respectably.

This past off-season, the Celts said goodbye to Allen who left in free agency for the Heat. In his stint they signed Jason Terry (10.3 ppg), Courtney Lee (7.9 ppg) and in the draft they chose late in the first round from Ohio State Jared Sullinger (6.0 ppg, 5.9 rpg). They also got back Jeff Green (10.8 ppg 3.4 rpg), who missed last season because of heart surgery.

With the team set, the Celtics seemed poised for another championship run. So far that has not panned out that way this season. After a Jan. 2 loss to the Memphis Grizzles, the C’s were three games under .500 at 14-17.

The pieces that they acquired in the off-season to go along with the core that was already in place was not meshing together as quickly as they had hoped.

While the team lived up to its calling card on the defensive end ranking in the top 10 in points allowed, ranking eighth in field goal percentage against at 44.1 and sixth in three-point field goal percentage at 34.2. They also rank sixth in steals per game 8.6 and they force 15.7 turnovers per contest.

However they rank just 29th in rebounding at 39.9 board a contest, getting out-rebounded by 3.9 boards a contest and only block just 4.2 blocks a game, which is 26th in the NBA.

The place that the inconsistency has shown is at the offensive end. They rank in the middle of the pact in scoring per game, but they have the ninth best shooting percentage in the league at 45.9, but they are at the bottom in terms of shooting from three-point range at 34.3 percent (23rd NBA).

After that Jan. 2 defeat versus the Memphis Grizzles, the Celts went on a six-game winning streak and seemed to have things back on track. They unfortunately followed it up with a six-game losing streak, which was culminated with a 123-111 double-overtime loss at the Hawks on Jan. 25, in which they blew a 27-point first half lead.

They not only loss the game, but the team learned after their 100-98 double overtime victory versus the Heat two days later that they would lose Rondo, who had a triple double of 16 points, 10 boards and 11 assists in the loss that Friday night for the rest of the season because of a knee injury. That is 13.7 ppg, 11.1 apg (leads NBA) 5.6 rpg and 1.8 spg (leads team) on 48.4 percent shooting from the field in 38 games gone from the line up.

Not only have they lost Rondo for the rest of the season, they also lost one of their top reserves in Sullinger because of back surgery that took place on Feb. 1. His back problems were the major red-flag that turned a lot of teams that were at the top of last summer’s NBA Draft away.

Despite those key injuries, the Celtics have gone 10-4 with impressive victories over the likes of the Chicago Bulls, Los Angeles Clippers and the rival Los Angeles Lakers.

While this team has shown the heart of a champion and the grit of a team that never feels sorry for itself, the issues that were around at the beginning of the season are still around.

The teams hopes that Jordan Crawford (12.6 ppg, 34.5 3-Pt%), who they acquired from Washington at the trade deadline last Thursday for guard Leandro Barbosa and center Jason Collins and guard Terrance Williams (4.3 ppg) who they just signed recently can help in the scoring department and provide depth off the bench.

It is up to Garnett and forward Brandon Bass (7.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) along with everyone else to be better in the rebounding department if they plan on making any noise this postseason.

More than anything, they have to play better on the road. Being eight games under .500 will not cut it.

They will only go as far as Pierce and Garnett can take them and how their head coach Doc Rivers can motivate them to be great.

Grade: C+

/Brooklyn Nets (34-24 currently-residing second in the Atlantic and the 4th seed in the Eastern Conference; 31-22 at the break) 20-12 at home, 13-12 on the road; 95.2 ppg (19th in NBA) 20.2 apg (27th in NBA) opp. ppg 94.8 (5th in NBA).

-When you get a new start you want to leave your past behind and have your future be so bright, you have to wear shades to see where you are going.

That future for the Nets who moved to Brooklyn and into their new arena the Barclays Center seemed bright when they acquired perennial all-star Joe Johnson (17.0 ppg, 3.1 rpg, 3.6 apg) from the Hawks. They also resigned lead guard Deron Williams (17.3 ppg, 7.7 apg) center Brook Lopez (18.8 ppg-leads team, 7.2 rpg, 2.2 bpg-leads team) forwards Kris Humphries (5.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg) and Gerald Wallace (8.5 ppg, 5.2 rpg). They also signed free agents C.J. Watson (6.8 ppg), Andray Blatche, Jerry Stackhouse, Keith Bogans (4.5 ppg), Reggie Evans and Josh Childress.

The Nets got off to an incredible beginning this season going 11-4 in the month of November and then coach Avery Johnson won NBA Coach of the Month.

That bright start soon was in the rear view mirror as the team lost 10 of its next 13 games in December and with no hesitation Johnson was given the pink slip and was replaced by lead assistant P.J. Carlesimo.

The team got back on track in its first two games defeating the Bobcats (97-81) and the Cleveland Cavaliers (103-100). Reality set in on New Year’s Eve as the Nets were trounced at the Western Conference leading San Antonio Spurs 104-73. The difference was in the third quarter as the Nets were held to five points (on 2 for 20 shooting), the third lowest scoring quarter output in NBA history.

They bounced back in a big way by winning at the second best team in the West at Oklahoma City 110-93. In the first 14 games under Carlesimo, the Nets won 12 of those 14 games to improve to 10 games over .500 at 26-16.

Since then however, they have gone 8-8 as they have had better competition. In that stretch they have lost to the Houston Rockets and the Grizzles twice, the Heat, the Lakers, and Spurs.

Their victory on Tuesday at the New Orleans Hornets recent record has put them a half a game ahead of the Hawks for the No.4 seed, which means if the playoffs began today, they would have home court advantage.

If they plan on staying at No.4, the starting backcourt of Johnson who has missed the last three games because of injury and Williams must play better. They are having their worst seasons individually of their careers in terms of scoring output per game and their shooting percentages from the floor of 41.7 and 42.3 percent respectably are the worst of their careers.

The team as a whole ranks 21st in the league in shooting at 44.1 percent and they are in the middle of the league, tied for 13th in three-point shooting at 35.9 percent.

While he has scored and protected the paint well, Lopez must average more than 7.2 boards a game. He should be averaging just as much as Evans does at 9.2 boards per contest or more.

They have been solid defensively though ranking in the top five in points allowed, but opponents shoot 46.3 percent against them (25th NBA) and they are 18th in block shots at 4.9 per contest. They are in the middle of the league in rebounding per game getting 42.3 boards a game and they out-rebound their opponent by 2.6 a contest (15th NBA).

Along with getting play from their starting backcourt and getting more on the glass from Lopez, they must get more production from Wallace and they must continue to get consistency from Blatche who has been a pleasant surprise with his play, especially after being amnestied by the Washington Wizards this summer (10 ppg and 5.4 rpg).

This team has talent and has shown in flashes it can compete with the best in the East and in the entire NBA. They have to prove they can beat the best if they want to deliver a title to the other borough of New York.

Grade: C+

/Charlotte Bobcats (13-44 currently-fifth in the Southeast and the 15th in the Eastern Conference; 12-40 at the break) 7-22 at home, 6-22 on the road; 93.7 ppg (26th in NBA) 18.9 apg (30th in NBA) opp. ppg 102.8 (28th in NBA).

-Three years ago the Charlotte Bobcats won 44 games and made their first playoff appearance in franchise history. They lost to the Eastern Conference runner-up the Orlando Magic in a four-game sweep.

It was thought that this would be the start of a string of playoff appearances for the franchise, especially since the team was now going to be run by new owner Michael Jordan, legend himself.

In the two plus years that have followed, they went from 34 wins two seasons ago to just seven wins last season. In fact the Bobcats 7-59 record, a .106 percentage set the a new record for the worst season in NBA history. It was previously held by 1972-73 Philadelphia 76ers. Charlotte lost their final 23 games off the season, which broke their previous record of 16 that came one year earlier.

Their luck did not change in the draft lottery where they did not win the No. 1 overall pick. That went to the New Orleans Hornets, who used to reside in Charlotte.

They got the second slot and they chose out of Kentucky Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9.0 ppg 5.6 rpg). They also selected with the 31st pick forward/guard Jeffery Taylor out of Vanderbilt (6.5 ppg). In free agency they signed guards Ben Gordon (12.2 ppg, 40.5 3-Pt.%) and Ramon Sessions (14.6 ppg 3.9 apg) and center Brendan Haywood (3.7 ppg and 4.9 rpg).

The Bobcats began this season, under new head coach Mike Dunlap very well going 7-5 matching their win total from a year ago. They won six of those games by four points or less

The good times did not last as the team lost its next 18 games in a row. They did not win again until New Year’s Eve when they won at the Chicago Bulls 91-81.

While things have been terrible to say the least, there has been one bright spot and that is the play of second year guard out of University of Connecticut Kemba Walker who leads the Bobcats in scoring at 17.6, assists at 5.5 and steals at 1.9 respectably. Another pleasant surprise has been center Byron Mullens who is the fourth leading scorer at 12.5 points a game and their leading rebounded at 7.8.

Right in front of him in the scoring department is guard Gerald Henderson with a 13.4 average. While center Bismack Biyombo from Zaire is very raw offensively (4.5 ppg) he has shown to be a very consistent rebounded and shot blocker grabbing 7.3 boards a contest and blocking 1.8 shots.

Going forward, the team has to build around Walker, Kidd-Gilchrist and Henderson as they are clearly the cornerstones of this team going forward. It is clear that they do not have assets that other teams might want via trade.

So the Bobcats, led by Mr. Jordan have to figure if the likes of Tyrus Thomas (4.8 ppg, 2.8 rpg), who has spent more time on the bench because of injury in his career instead of on the court fit into the future of this team.

That future will come through the draft and somehow convince future free agents to sign with Charlotte.

Grade: F-

/Chicago Bulls (32-25 currently-residing second in the Central and the 6th seed in the Eastern Conference; 30-22 at the break) 15-13 at home, 17-11 on the road; 92.6 ppg (28th in NBA) 23.0 apg (8th in NBA) opp. ppg 91.4 (3rd in NBA).

-In the very first game of the 2012 NBA Playoffs also Game 1 of the first-round versus the Philadelphia 76ers, former league MVP guard Derrick Rose suffered a serious knee injury and was lost for the series.

Though they competed against the Sixers, the Bulls lost in six games and the questions were how long would it take for Rose to return and how would the Bulls hold up without him coming into this season?

The team has held up very well. How, the entire supporting cast has stepped to the fore front to take on the load both offensively and defensively.

First-time all-star center Joakim Noah has had a career year across the board averaging 11.7 ppg, 11.2 rpg (leads team) 4.3 apg and 2.1 bpg (leads team). The other all-star Luol Deng has also raised his game leading the team in scoring at 16.5 ppg while grabbing 6.7 boards per contest.

The main key though has been the resurgence of forward Carlos Boozer who is finally living up to expectations, when the Bulls signed him as a free agent three years ago. While his production is about the same scoring 15.5 points and 9.3 boards a game, he has been very consistent with his play and that has made a huge difference.

Another big question marks about this team is would their bench be as productive as it has been the previous two seasons with Korver, Watson, Ronnie Brewer, Omer Asik and John Lucas III gone in free agency?

The newest reserves from free agency in Marco Belinelli (9.5 ppg 35.6 3-Pt%), Nate Robinson (11.8 ppg 4.1 apg), Kirk Hinrich (7.1 ppg, 5.4 apg) in his second stint with the team along with the emergence of sophomore forward Jimmy Butler (7.2 ppg, 3.5 rpg) and consistency of Taj Gibson (7.7 ppg, 5.4 rpg) have more than held their own.

The big reason why this team has not slid with their best player in Rose out is that head coach Tom Thibodeau has preached a no-excuses mentality and the team has stood behind that rallying cry defense.

The team’s defense is just as good since he has been their ranking third in opponents field goal percentage at 43.4 percent, third in opponents percentage from three-point range 33.6 percent and sixth in overall rebounding at 43.5 boards per contest, out-rebounding the opponent by 2.6 boards a contest.

When they went 12-4 in the month of January, they held their last seven opponents under 88 points, which fell one game shy of the franchise record

The were at one point the No. 4 seed and would have had home court in the first round if the playoffs began today.

Three loses in their last five games however has dropped them to the sixth spot. Their loss on Tuesday night to the division rival Cleveland Cavaliers was their third consecutive at home, longest streak since 2010.

The offense, which has been the case all season has been the culprit been the big culprit.

In the Bulls last three loses, prior to Tuesday’s set back, to the Celtics, Heat and Oklahoma City Thunder, the Bulls scored, 71, 67 and 72 points and shot 36.5, 37.3 and 29.1 percent respectably. That 29.1 percent shooting from the floor on Sunday at the Thunder was the worst output from the floor the Bulls have had since a regular-season game nine years ago.

A comeback from Rose might not solve all the problems the Bulls have at the offensive end, but he would certainly be a major shot in the armor for a team that ranks in the bottom of the league in points a game, 24th in field goal percentage at 43.7 percent and 25th in three-point accuracy at 34.3 percent.

If Rose can come back and be anywhere close to his all world player he was, this team can challenge the Heat in the East. If he decides not to come back, that will be a bigger help for the team in the years to come, but not in 2012-13.

Grade: B+

/Cleveland Cavaliers (19-38 currently-residing fifth in the Central and the 12th in the Eastern Conference; 16-37 at the break) 10-16 at home, 9-22 on the road; 97.7 ppg (13th in NBA) 20.4 apg (26th in NBA) opp. ppg 101.2 (24th in NBA).

-When you lose a Hall of Fame type of player in LeBron James like the Cavs did to free agency three years ago, the climb back to just respectability was going to be a long hard slog. Having good fortune is a major part of that process.

That form of good luck came two years ago where with the No. 1 overall selection, the Cavs selected out of Duke guard Kyrie Irving. All he did in his rookie campaign was win Rookie of the Year with an output of 18.5 ppg, 5.4 apg on 46.9 percent from the field, 39.9 percent from three-point range and 87.2% from the free-throw line. Not bad for a guy that played just 11 games in college because of injury.

All he has done for an encore in his second season (23.3 ppg-leads team, 5.6 apg-leads team 1.6 spg-leads team, 46.8 percent from the field, 42 percent from three-point range and 86 percent from the free throw line) was make the All-Star team and win the Three-Point Contest on All-Star Saturday earlier this month.

In order to become that team that can be ranked with the best, you need other players to go alongside the superstar.

In the last two drafts, the Cavs have drafted the likes of forward Tristan Thompson (11.2 ppg 9.2 rpg), rookie guard Dion Waiters (14.6 ppg) and center Tyler Zeller (8.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg).

On top of that you also have to make trades that can fill out the roster. The Cavs earlier this season they acquired from the Grizzles Marresse Speights

(12.2 ppg 6.1 rpg), guard Wayne Ellington (9.4 ppg, 46.3 FG%, 42.6 3-Pt%).

It also helps that you can find some gems in free agency, especially ones that you never saw coming. The Cavs found a few gems in starting small forward Alonzo Gee (10.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and reserve guard C.J. Miles (11.1 ppg 37.8 3-Pt.%). This process would have been great to see if they had center Anderson Varejao (14.1 ppg 14.4 rpg-leads team), but he is injured again and out for the season. Sharp shooter Daniel Gibson (6.6 ppg, 38.6 3-Pt%) has also been nicked up this season.

It is clear that this team has a long ways to go before than can even think of themselves as a playoff team. At least they have a future with the players that they have, lead by Irving. They also have a coach in Byron Scott who knows what it takes to be great as he has been there as a player winning championships with the Lakers and as a coach with the Nets and New Orleans Hornets where he had the likes of Jason Kidd and Chris Paul to run the show.

They have a future. It is up to them whether it is a bright one or not.

Grade D+

/Dallas Mavericks (25-31 currently-residing fourth in the Southwest and the 11th in the Western Conference; 23-29 at the break) 16-12 at home, 9-19 on the road; 101.3 ppg (7th in NBA) 22.8 apg (10th in NBA) opp. ppg 102.4 (27th in NBA).

-Two years ago, the Mavs after knocking on the door so many times for over a decade finally won their first championship in franchise history by beating the East champion Heat. They were lead by their all world player Dirk Nowitzki.

However, they let some key cog that helped to win that title like center Tyson Chandler, J.J. Barea, Stevenson to leave via free agency. The team according to owner Mark Cuban wanted to get under the cap so that the next summer they can go after big free agents center Dwight Howard and current Net Deron Williams.

With that along with the condense season of 66 games, The Mavericks 11 seasons of winning 50 games or more dating back to the 2000-01 season ended.

They finished 2011-12 with a 36-30 record and were the 7th seed in the West. They lost in a four-game sweep to the eventual Western Conference champion Oklahoma City Thunder.

That summer they said goodbye via free agency Terry, who signed with the Celtics and starting point guard Jason Kidd, who signed with the New York Knicks. They unfortunately were not able to sign Howard who was dealt to the Lakers or Williams, who resigned with the Nets.

They were able to save face in signing guard O.J. Mayo, veterans forward Elton Brand (7.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg), center Chris Kaman (12.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg) and forward/guard Dahntay Jones, who they traded at the trade deadline to the Hawks for swingman sharpshooter Anthony Morrow. They also got Darren Collison (12.7 ppg, 5.5 apg) from the Indiana Pacers in a trade for center Ian Mahimi.

When the season began, the Mavs started behind the eight ball because Nowitzki missed the first 27 games because of knee surgery.

In the beginning part of the season, the Mavs and head coach Rick Carlisle managed to hold up well, thanks to Mayo (17.5 ppg 4.4 apg, 3.7 rpg).

Seven straight losses in the middle of December has not helped the boys from Big D and even with Nowitzki (16.2 ppg, 6.7 rpg) back, he has not been the same and the team is on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

For the Mavs to give themselves a fighting chance to make the playoffs for the 12 straight season. Nowitzki must shoot better than his career-low of 43.8 percent from the field.

The cast of forward Shawn Marion (11.4 ppg 8.0 rpg), Vince Carter (13.0 ppg 3.9 rpg, 40/4 3-Pt.%) and Brand must give more.

Above all they must play better defensively. When they won the championship they had Chandler to be their anchor in the middle.

That has not been the case this season ranking at the bottom in points allowed.

While they rank 11th in opponents shooting percentage at 44.4 percent and they are 10th in blocked shot at 5.5 per game, they rank 16th in three-point percentage at 36.4 percent and they get out-rebounded by three boards a game, even though they are a decent rebounding team in terms of total boards a game at 42.8,, ranked 13th in the league.

The chances are slim that head coach Rick Carlisle’s team will make the playoffs seeing that they are five games behind the Houston Rockets, who currently hold the eighth and final slot.

If this holds, the Mavs will not make their 12th straight appearance in the playoffs. They will have one thing in their favor. Eight players contracts will expire at the end of the seasons and the team will have plenty of cap room this off-season to get another crack at Howard. That is all owner Mark Cuban wants.

Grade: D

/Denver Nuggets (36-22 currently-residing second in the Northwest and the 5th seed in the Western Conference; 33-21 at the break) 24-3 at home, 12-19 on the road; 105.4 ppg (3rd in NBA) 24.1 apg (3rd in NBA) opp. ppg 101.7 (26th in NBA).

-There are four words to describe the Denver Nuggets offensively. Explosive, talented, balanced and fast.

This is a team that has nine guys that average between eight and 17.1 points per contest. They are led in scoring by forward Danilo Gallinari at 16.9 a game followed by guard Ty Lawson averaging 16.2 along with 7.1 assists and 1.5 steals, forward/guard Andre Iguodala (13.1, 5.3 rpg, 4.9 apg 1.6 spg-leads team), forward Kenneth Faried at 12.1 and 9.6 boards (leads team), forward/guard Corey Brewer at 11.4 a game, center JaVale McGee at 9.8 points, 4.8 boards and two blocks (leads team), forward/guard Wilson Chandler 10.3 points and 5.2 rebounds, guard Andre Miller at 9.1 points and 5.8 assists and center Kosta Koufos who averages eight points and pulls down 6.5 boards.

After a slow start to this season, which saw the Nuggets play a combination of a great number of road games as well as the third toughest schedule to start the season, they stand in a good position.

Besides winning a great number of their home games, the Nuggets have an excellent record against the West with a 23-11 record. Only the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Los Angeles Clippers have better conference records.

The acquisition of Iguodala over the summer, the emergence of Faried and a strong second unit that is interchangeable has put the Nuggets in a prime position to make some noise in the postseason.

The question now is, can this high octane, balanced and explosive offense win a playoff series? The Nuggets have not won a playoff series since 2009 when they beat the Mavericks in the Conference Semis 4-1. They lost in the Conference Finals to the eventual NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers 4-2, which is also the last time they had a go-to guy in Carmelo Anthony, who they traded to the New York Knicks for Gallinari, Chandler, Koufos and center Timofey Mozgov two years ago. In fact going back to the 2003-04 season, the Nuggets have lost in the first round in eight of the last nine season.

If they want to change that trend, they have to get better on the defensive end. They are the second best rebounding team in term of total at 45.2 and they out-rebound their opponent by 3.5 a game. They hold the opposition to 44.6 percent shooting, which is 13th in NBA, block 6.6 shots a game (4th NBA) and they are second in steals at 8.9 a contest. They force they give up way to many points as well as they do turn the ball over a lot at 15.2 a game (25th NBA).

This team has the offense to make some noise in the playoffs, but if they cannot tighten up their defense as well as improve on their record away from the Pepsi Center, they will have another early exit in the postseason.

That is on the players to do and it is on head coach George Karl to demand it. It is all on them.

Grade: B-

/Detroit Pistons (22-37 currently-residing fourth in the Central and the 11th in the Eastern Conference; 21-33 at the break) 15-18 at home, 7-19 on the road; 94.9 ppg (21st in NBA) 20.7 apg (24th in NBA) opp. ppg 97.6 (16th in NBA)

At the beginning of the last decade the Detroit Pistons made the postseason for nine consecutive seasons. In six straight seasons in that time period, they reached the Eastern Conference Finals. They made the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons winning it all in 2004 defeating the Lakers 4-1, but lost the following season to the Spurs 4-3.

In the next three seasons they made it to the Conference losing in six games to the Heat, Cavs and Celtics respectably.

The 2008-09 season would be their last appearance in the postseason in which they were swept in four games by the Conference runner up the Cavs.

The team traded away the last remaining member from those glory days forward Tayshaun Prince, who went from a bench warmer earlier in his career to a starter, in January in a three-team deal along with forward Austin Daye to the Grizzles and received guard Jose Calderon from the Raptors.

The Pistons where they stand will miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

While the team has drafted some talented players over the past three seasons like leading scorer and rebounded Greg Monroe (15.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg) in his third season, guard Brandon Knight (13.6 ppg 4.3 apg) in his second season and rookies Kyle Singler (8.8 ppg 3.9 rpg, 43.7 FG%, 36.5 3-Pt.%) and center Andre Drummond (7.3 ppg, 7.5 rpg and 1.7 bpg-leads team), they have to see if they players can continue to grow and emerge.

They also have to decide after the season if veterans like of guard Rodney Stuckey (11.5 ppg, 3.4 apg), guard Will Bynum (9.4 ppg), forward Charlie Villanueva (7.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg) and forward Jason Maxiell (6.9 ppg, 5.5 rpg) are going to be a part of this Pistons revival from their doldrums period they are in.

It is on head coach Lawrence Frank to put a product on the court that can win regularly and bring this team back to prominence.

He does have them competing in games, especially on the defensive end where they rank in the middle of the league in opponents shooting percentage at 44.7 percent, which is 15th in the league. They are 8th in total rebounds per game at 43.3 and they out-rebound their opposition by nearly one board per contest and they are tied for ninth in blocks per game with the Phoenix Suns at 5.5.

While it make take a while, they at least have players that are developing. Whether they can become elite remains to be seen.

Grade: D

/Golden State Warriors (33-24 currently-residing second in the Pacific and the 6th seed in the Western Conference; 30-22 at the break) 18-7 at home, 15-17 on the road; 101.1 ppg (8th in NBA) 22.7 apg (11th in NBA) opp. ppg 101.5 (25thth in NBA)

-There are only two other occasions when the Bay Area has seen their basketball team in the top eight of the playoff race and above .500. In the 1993-94 season and the 2006-07 season.

Back in 1994, they were lead by the likes of NBA TV analyst Chris Webber, Latrell Sprewell, Hall of Famer and ESPN NBA analyst Chris Mullin, Billy Owens, former Nets and Mavs head coach Avery Johnson. They won 50 games that season and lost in Round 1 in a three-game to the Phoenix Suns.

They would not make the playoffs again until the 2006-07 season where they were led by Baron Davis, who was acquired before that season’s trading deadline, Matt Barnes, Al Harrington, Stephen Jackson, Jason Richardson and Monta Ellis, who is now with the Milwaukee Bucks. They went 42-40 that year and they faced the No. 1 seeded Mavs who were 60-22 that season.

In amazing fashion the Warriors defeated the Mavs in six, but lost in the Conference Semis to the Utah Jazz in six games.

After another five-season playoff drought, the team is back in the hunt for a playoff spot and they are being led again by a solid group of talented offensive players.

Leading the way is the son of former veteran sharp shooter Dell Curry, Stephen Curry, who finally healthy leading the team in points at 21.3 points a game, assists at 6.5 assists and in steals at 1.6 while shooting 44.1 percent from the floor, 44.6 percent from three-point range (5th NBA) and 90 percent from the free throw line.

In the starting backcourt with him is the son of former NBA veteran of the Portland Trail Blazers and Los Angeles Lakers Mychal Thompson, second year guard Klay Thompson who is averaging 16.3 points, four boards on 38.7 percent from the three-point line.

Taking care of business on the inside is all-star forward David Lee, who is averaging the second most points in his seven-year career at 19 points and 11.1 rebounds (leads team) and 3.7 assists per contest on 51.6 percent from the floor. He leads the league in double-doubles (points and rebounds) with 37 and in games of 20 points or more scored and 10 or more rebounds with 21.

Two big contributors to the team’s success come off the bench. Veteran journeyman forward Carl Landry (11.5 ppg, 6.5 rpg) and leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year in point guard Jarrett Jack who is averaging 13.7 points, 5.9 assists a game on 47 percent from the floor and a career-best 42.5 percent from three-point range.

In the Warriors last three victories, prior to their setback at the Indiana Pacers on this past Tuesday night, Jack was averaging 24.7 points a game on 49.1 percent from the floor, hitting 9 for 17 from the three-point arc and dishing out 7.3 assists.

While rookies Harrison Barnes (9.0 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and Draymond Green (3.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), they have shown in flashes that are players in this league and are solid contributors who when the time comes they are ready and they are not intimidated at all.

Like the two other playoff teams Golden State has had, this one has the same high octane offense that scores well, shoot well from the field at 45.6 percent, which is 10th in the league; first in three-point percentage at 39.4 percent, ninth in makes from the arc at 7.8 a game and second in free throw percentage at 79.8.

Likes those other two playoff teams the Warriors had that were potent as those teams were offensively, this team like their playoff predecessors are far below the curve when it comes to defense.

While they allow their opponents to shoot just 44 percent from the floor (9th NBA), 34.1 percent from the three-point line (4th NBA) and they are third in the league in rebounding at 44.9 a game, with a differential of 2 boards per contest, they do not block shots getting 4.1 a game (28th NBA) and they do turn it over way too much committing 15.2 per contest (24th NBA).

If Andrew Bogut (7.1 ppg, 6.5 rpg), who they traded for a season ago and who has played just 12 games this season because of back and ankle problems, can come back and play like he did in his early years with the Milwaukee Bucks, they have a chance to be a better at the defensive end.

For a long time, the Warriors expect from the prior two aforementioned seasons of being in the postseason have been in the cellar of the West. When they hired former NBA on ESPN/ABC analyst and 17-year veteran Mark Jackson as head coach, this was going to be a great hire or a very bad one. It has so far been a great hire and the culture of misery has been changed to one willingness and commitment to getting better each and they are winning basketball games because of it.

What will happen next, we have to see when they get to the postseason.

Grade: B+

/Houston Rockets (31-27 currently-residing third in the Southwest and the 8th seed in the Western Conference; 29-26 at the break) 19-8 at home, 12-19 on the road; 106.3 ppg (2nd in NBA) 23.3 apg (6th in NBA) opp. ppg 103.5 (29th in NBA).

-When the last decade began, the Rockets did not make the playoffs the first three years. In five of the next six seasons, they made the postseason party, but they were bounced out in round one four out of those five times. The one time they did get past the second round was in 2009 when they beat the Portland Trail Blazers in six games, but they lost in the Conference Semis to the eventual champion Lakers 4-3.

Over the next three seasons, include last season, the Rockets barley missed the postseason.

This past off-season management decided that if they wanted to get back to the top of the NBA mountain, they had to take care of business in the draft, free agency and they had to try to acquire star talent.

On July 11, 2012 the Rockets signed restricted free agent guard Jeremy Lin, who was last seasons NBA sensation out of left field to a 3-year $25 million dollar deal, that the Knicks did not match. Nine days later they signed restricted free agent center Omer Asik to an offer sheet of three years and $25.1 million dollars. The Bulls did not match the offer and on July 24th, Asik officially joined the Rockets.

The big catch came just before the start of the season on Oct. 27, 2012 when the team acquired guard James Harden from the Thunder along with center Cole Aldrich, guard Daequan Cook (know with Bulls) and Lazar Hayward in exchange for guard Kevin Martin, rookie guard Jeremy Lamb and other draft picks.

Harden when traded also signed a 5-year contract extension for approximately $80 million.

The Rockets’ newest star and first time all-star earlier this month, is averaging a career-best and fifth scoring average in the NBA at 26.4 points a game along with 4.8 boards and 5.6 assists proving he was worth every penny of that extension. He really sealed it in his debut where he had 37 points 12 assists, six boards and four steals in a 105-96 victory at the Pistons on Oct. 31, 2012. He backed it up the next night by scoring 45 points and seven boards.

Lin (12.8 ppg, 6.2 apg 1.9 spg (4th NBA)) has also proven that his come out of nowhere season with the Knicks a year ago, that became known as “Linsanity” was no fluke. Evidence of that came when he scored a career-high tying 38 points in a 134-126 double overtime loss versus the Spurs on Dec. 10, 2012.

Lin and Harden are a the two major reasons why the Rockets are the second highest scoring team in the league, in the top five in assists per contest, sixth in field goal percentage at 46.3 percent, eighth in three-point percentage at 36.8 percent and second in makes from the arc at 10.6, but their fast paced offense does not work if they cannot rebound and thanks to Asik (10.5 ppg, 11.5 rpg-leads team) the Rockets rank 10th overall in rebounds per contest at 42.9 per game and a rebounding differential of 1.1.

What has also helped is the continued grow of starting forward Chandler Parsons who is second on the team in scoring at 14.4 a game grabbing 5.6 boards and 3.8 assists.

While the team has played well this season, the organization did not stay put as right before the trade deadline they sent backup guard Toney Douglas (8.1 ppg), Aldrich and forward Patrick Patterson (11.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg) to the Sacramento Kings for rookie forward Thomas Robinson (4.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg), the fifth overall pick in this past summer’s draft, forward/guard Francisco Garcia (5.2 ppg) and Tyler Honeycutt.

They will bring depth to the team to go alongside the likes of reserves Greg Smith (5.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and rookie forward Donatas Motiejunas, who they plan to play time this season to see what he can bring.

While this team can score with the best in the NBA if they are going to hold onto that playoff spot, they must get better defensively.

Even with Asik they block just 4.1 shots a game (27th NBA). The opposition shots 45.9 percent against them (19th NBA) and 37.2 percent from three-point range (24th NBA). On top of that they turn the ball over more than anyone else in the league 16.3 times a game.

As of now, the Rockets hold the eighth and last playoff spot in the West by three and over the Lakers, four games over the Portland Trail Blazers and five games over the Mavs.

If they have one thing that they can call on if they do face some hardship is the fact that their head coach and Celtic Hall of Famer Kevin McHale has had to battle through a very difficult hardship. The loss of his daughter Sasha who passed away in November.

Grade: B

/Indiana Pacers (36-21 currently-leading the Central and the 2nd seed in the Eastern Conference; 32-21 at the break) 24-5 at home, 12-16 on the road; 94.0 ppg (24th in NBA) 20.5 apg (25th in NBA) opp. ppg 89.6 (1st in NBA).

-Last season, the Pacers were up in the Conference Semis on the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat 2-1. Wins in Games 4, 5 and 6 with the front and back end of those games at Bankers Life Fieldhouse, the Pacers, who won their first playoff series since 2004 when they beat the Orlando Magic 4-1 in the first round a year ago, saw their magical season end.

The question was coming into this season, the question was would the team take that next step towards becoming a contender?

Even without their leading scorer from a year ago forward Danny Granger, who played his first game of the season in the back end of a home series against the Pistons on Saturday, the Pacers have gotten better.

After going 10-10 in their first twenty games, the Pacers have gone 26-11 since then and stand in the second spot in the East.

Without Granger, third year swingman Paul George has taken the rains as the teams best offensive player. The third-year man out of Fresno State, who played in his first all-star game earlier this month is the team’s leading scorer at 17.6 a game, a career-best; grabbing 7.9 boards per contest and is second on the team in assist at four.

Veteran forward David West has given the team solid scoring down low and on the glass with 17.2 points and 7.6 boards a contest and George Hill (14.8 ppg, 4.9 apg), the Indianapolis native who went to IUPUI who came over in a trade last season from the Spurs, has been steady at running the team.

This team also has a solid second unit with the likes of forward and energizer Tyler Handsbrough (6.6 ppg 4.1 rpg), guard Lance Stephenson (8.5 ppg, 3.8 rpg), who is now starting at the two guard spot these days and newcomers Gerald Green (6.4 ppg), center Ian Mahinmi (5.5 ppg, 4.0 rpg) and guard D.J. Augustin (4.8 ppg).

What can hold this team back is the fact that they are not a potent offensive team. Besides being ranked in the bottom in terms of scoring and assists per game, they shoot on average just 43.4 percent from the field, which is 26th in the NBA. They do shoot a respectable 35.4 percent from three-point range, which is 16th in the league.

In their five-game winning streak though, they have scored over 100 points four times. In their first four victories in a row prior to last night they have won those by a total of 108 points, which is the largest scoring differential in a four-game stretch by a team since 2001.

Defensively, they are great. Not just in how much they allow the opposition in terms of points allowed, but they are first in the league in opponents field goal percentage 41.3 percent and three-point percentage at 32. They are also the best in the league in total rebounds per game at 45.9 as well as in differential of 4.7 and third in the league in blocks at 6.8 per contest.

For them to go to the next level and advance further in the playoffs this time around, center Roy Hibbert has to play better offensively. He is way to good to be averaging just 10 points a game. He averaged after his rookie season 11.7, 12.7 and 12.8 points a game respectably. He must bring a presence at offensive end as he does on the glass grabbing 8.2 boards a game (leads team) and in the lane blocking 2.6 blocks per game (4th NBA).

On top of that, they have to play better on the road because you have to be able to win a game in a playoff series on the opposing team’s home court. That is one thing head coach Frank Vogel, who has done a masterful job in getting this team back being a legit contender, has to get his team to do.

If Granger can give them anything offensively he has been in his prior seven seasons with the Pacers (18.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), this team can be a serious threat to the Heat’s chances or repeating.

Grade: A+

/Los Angeles Clippers (41-18 currently-leading the Pacific and the 3rd seed in the Western Conference; 39-17 at the break) 23-6 at home, 18-12 on the road; 100.5 ppg (9th in NBA) 23.3 apg (4th in NBA) opp. ppg 94.1 (4th in NBA).

-There is a team from Los Angeles that is in first place in the Pacific Division and resides third overall in the Western Conference standings. It is not the usual suspect though. It is the little brother to the Lakers, the Clippers. That’s right the Los Angeles Clippers are the team on top in the Pacific, in the top three of the conference and the top team in LA.

This rise to NBA relevance came last summer when the team acquired from Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets after the other team in L.A. tried to acquire him and the trade was denied by Commissioner David Stern.

Led by Paul (16.0 ppg, 9.4 apg-(2ndNBA), 2.5 spg-leads team (1st NBA)) and the team’s other all-star Blake Griffin (18.6 ppg-leads team, 8.6 rpg-leads team, 3.6 apg) along with center DeAndre Jordan (8.9 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 60.7 FG% (2nd NBA)) the Clippers went 40-26, finishing fifth in the West last season.

They met the Grizzles in the first round and beat them in seven games, winning the decisive game at the Fed Ex Forum.

They were unable to go any further as they were swept in four games by the Conference runner up the Spurs.

Having their best season since 2005-06, the last time they made it to playoffs and won a playoff series beating the Nuggets 4-1, but losing in the Semis in seven to the Phoenix Suns, they did not stand pat.

The organization went out signed guard Jamal Crawford, who has given them a scoring punch off the bench scoring 16.8 ppg.

They also signed forward/guard Matt Barnes, who has had the best scoring season of his nine-year career at 10.6 ppg to go along with 4.6 rpg.

They also signed in free agency veteran forwards Lamar Odom (4.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg), who has two championship rings from his Laker days and Grant Hill (3.6 ppg, 1.9 rpg).

While both have yet to play major roles for the team because of injury for Hill and Odom trying to get his legs back after a season to forget in Dallas, where it seemed like he lost love for the game due to the fact he was traded from the Lakers where he helped them win two titles.

Without Hill and small contributions from Odom, the Clippers reeled off 17 straight wins, a franchise record from Dec. 1 to Dec. 30 of 2012. The only other time they had a double-digit winning streak was back in 1974-75 when they were the Buffalo Braves led by current Miami Heat assistant coach and Hall of Famer Bob McAdoo, who averaged 34.5 ppg and 14.1 rpg that season.

They also have beaten their neighbors of the Staples Center the Lakers all three times this season, with one more meeting remaining. None of which was sweeter than their last defeat before the All-Star break on Valentine’s Day when they put a 125-101 thrashing on them at Staples Center.

It was not just their third victory over their big brothers it was also the fourth biggest margin of victory. They beat them by 31 points on Feb. 19, 2992; by 26 points on Nov. 13, 1992 and by 25 points on Dec. 9, 1994.

The went on that tear thanks to a balanced offense that has a 6.6 point differential (4th in NBA). They ranks fourth in field goal percentage at 47.4 and shoots well from three-point range at 36.1 percent, which is 12th in the league.

They also play solid defense blocking 5.9 shots a game, ranking seventh in the league. They lead the NBA in steals at 9.9 a contest and forced turnovers at 16.7 a game. On top of that, they hold the opposition to 43.8 percent (5th NBA) from the floor.

The Clippers hope that Odom and Hill can get back to form to go alongside the other two important cogs Caron Butler (10.4 ppg, 39.6 3-Pt%) and Chauncey Billups (9.4 ppg, 45 3-Pt.%), who has only played in 10 games this season as he continues to recover from a season ending injury from a year ago.

To understand the evolution of the Clippers, it comes down to this statistic. They are 77-41 when Paul is in the line up over the last two seasons. With this seasons All-Star Game MVP, the Clippers are just 9-9. He is that important and how they do this postseason, will determine if he stays, because he is a free agent at the end of the season.

The Clippers are on track to have their best season in franchise history and that is saying a lot for a team that was the NBA definition of futility, failure and mismanagement.

The three things that the must improve on as they head towards the playoffs is they must improve in the half court offensively They must shoot better at the foul line than 70.3 percent (27th NBA), where Griffin and Jordan shoot and abysmal 66 and 42 percent respectably.

More than anything, the Clippers must continue to be hungry to improve and not get complacent. That falls to the head coach Vinny Del Negro, who has done a masterful job in getting this group of talented players to play together and not worry about how many minutes they get.

Grade: A+

/Los Angeles Lakers (28-30 currently-residing third in the Pacific and the 9th in the Western Conference; 25-29 at the break) 18-11 at home, 10-19 on the road; 102.1 ppg (6th in NBA) 22.1 apg (16th in NBA) opp. ppg 101.3 (24th in NBA).

-After the Lakers lost in the Conference Semis to the eventual Western Conference Champion Thunder, the team knew if it wanted to win another title, they had to make the roster better to help veterans Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Metta World Peace.

It began on July 4, 2012 by acquiring future Hall of Famer and two-time MVP Steve Nash from the Phoenix Suns in a sign-trade for first round picks in 2013 and 2015 as well as second round picks in 2013 and 2014 and $3 million. It was made official seven days later.

They then made the blockbuster deal acquiring former Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard from the Orlando Magic in a four-team deal that sent last year’s starting center Andrew Bynum to the Philadelphia 76ers. They also acquired from the Magic forward Earl Clark and guard Chris Duhon.

In free agency, they signed veteran forward Antawn Jamison and sharp shooting guard Jodie Meeks.

With all of the talent that they acquired in the off-season, veteran who have all the knowledge in the world on how to play, it is hard to believe that they are on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

They fired then head coach Mike Brown on Nov. 9, 2012 after five games, in which the team was 1-4. The team went 5-5 under the direction of interim head coach Bernie Bickerstaff.

It was rumored that the Lakers were trying to get Hall of Fame head coach Phil Jackson who helped the Lakers win five titles. The organization instead hired former Knicks and Suns head coach Mike D’Antoni.

The Lakers unfortunately have yet to get on track. At one point this season, they were eight games under .500 (18-25).

A major reason for that is that Nash (12.0 ppg, 7.1 apg, 51.7 FG%, 43.2 3-Pt.%, 90 FT%) missed nearly much of the start of this season because of a leg injury he suffered in the team’s second game of the season at the Trail Blazers. The understudy to Nash in veteran guard Steve Blake (4.9 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) has also missed significant time this season because of injury.

While Howard has put up solid numbers of 16.3 points, 11.9 rebounds (leads NBA) and 2.3 bpg (5th NBA) and has 29 double-doubles this season (points and rebounds), he has yet to be that dominate player that was a perennial Defensive Player of the Year and who for the past four season averaged 20.6 points and 13.8 boards a game.

He has dominated the headlines more for his issues with his back, which he had surgery on this past off-season and torn labrum in his shoulder that he has been playing through since January. He has also been in the news because of issues with Bryant.

Gasol has not been himself as well because of injuries as well as in inability to find his way in D’Antoni’s offense. He has averaged a career-worst 13.4 ppg on .45.3 percent shooting from the floor and just 70.6 percent from the free throw line, while grabbing just eight boards a contest. He is on the shelf right now because a torn plantar fascia in his right foot. His return before the season is over is in question.

The injury to Blake along with the inconsistent play of Jamison (8.9 ppg, 4.5 rpg) and Meeks (7.8 points 40.6 3-Pt.%), the Lakers bench has been a

major weakness.

The only consistent things that the Lakers have had this season is the scoring of Bryant, who is the fourth leading scorer in the league at 27.1 points, 5.4 boards and 5.6 assists and the play of Earl Clark who has started 20 times at the power forward this season and is averaging career-highs in points (8.3) rebounds (6.7) and shooting from the field (46.7%) and three-point range (37.5%).

The Lakers are on the outside of the playoffs looking in. With just 24 games left in the season, its now or never for them. They have no more room for error. If they need any inspiration for the rest of this season, all they have to do is look to the sky. That is where they great owner of 33 seasons Dr. Jerry Buss, who passed away on Feb. 18 after a long battle with cancer.

Under his ownership, the Lakers have only missed the playoffs twice (1993-94 and 2004-05) in the last three-plus decades. They have the talent to turn this thing around. Do they have enough time to do so and do they have the faith and willingness to do the little things to get their.

That willingness has to especially be at the defensive end. It is remarkable that this team, which is ranked fourth in total rebounds a game at 44.6 is ranked 17th in defensive field goal percentage at 45.5 percent. Opponents shoot 35.9 percent from the three-point line against them and they only rank 14th in blocks per game at 5.3.

This would be the disappointment of all disappointments if the purple and gold does not make the playoffs.

Grade: F-

/Memphis Grizzles (37-18 currently-residing second in the Southwest and the 4th seed the Western Conference; 33-18 at the break) 22-8 at home, 15-10 on the road; 93.4 ppg (27th in NBA) 21.0 apg (23rd in NBA) opp. ppg 89.6 (2nd in NBA).

-There is an old saying in professional sports, offense wins games and defense wins championships.

The Grizzles have one of the best defenses in the league. They are 12th in the league in rebounding garnering 42.8 boards per game and out-rebound their opponents by 4.1 boards a contest.

The opposition shoots just 44.1 percent from the floor, which is in a three-way tie with the Celtics and Warriors for seventh in the league. They are third in steals at 8.9 per contest and in forcing turnovers at 16 a game.

Even with the powerful inside scoring punch of all-star forward Zach Randolph, who leads the team in scoring and rebounding at 15.7 and 11.7 respectably and center Marc Gasol at 13.6 points, 7.8 boards, 3.7 assists and 1.7 blocks (leads team), the offense ranks 20th in field goal percentage at 44.1 percent.

They hoped that their best perimeter player swingman Rudy Gay, who season was cut short because of a shoulder injury, was supposed to provide that missing part of their offensive attack.

Instead, he was having one of his worst shooting season of his career.

The other problem that was looming over this championship caliber bunch is the fact that the new ownership was trying to get under the luxury tax threshold.

Even though this group had a major coming out party in last seasons playoffs where they beat the No. 1 seeded Spurs in six games and took the Thunder to seven games in the Conference Semis a year ago, management decided to cut bait with certain players whose salaries they wanted of the books.

On Jan. 23, the team traded center Marreese Speights, guard Wayne Ellington, guard Josh Shelby and a future first-round pick to the Cavaliers for center John Leuer.

Seven days later they said goodbye to Gay along with center Hamed Haddadi who they traded to the Toronto Raptors in a three-team deal and received back Tayshaun Prince, forward Austin Daye from the Pistons and forward Ed Davis and a future second round pick from the Raptors.

After a 12-2 start to the season the Grizzles hit a snag going 14-12 after that point. After losing three of four games from Jan. 31 to Feb. 6, Memphis has reeled off seven consecutive wins, four of which have come since the All-Star break. Their defense has gotten even stingier as they have allowed the opposition to score just 87 points.

This team though will not be judged until we get to the postseason. If they hope to have the same success as they had a year ago. They must get better offensively. Unless they can get better perimeter play offensively, teams will have a better chance of defending Gasol and Randolph inside.

That falls on the hands of lead guard Mike Conley (13.4 ppg, 5.9 apg, 2.3 spg-2nd NBA)) and his under study Jerryd Bayless. Shooting just 42.9 and 41.6 percent respectably will not get it done.

This team plays good enough defense lead by guard Tony Allen (8.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 1.6 spg), forward/guard Quincy Pondexter (6.4 ppg) and Gasol guarding the rim.

If they do not get far this postseason, head coach Lionel Hollins job might be in jeopardy and that would be a shame for a guy who has made this team a contender for the first time in its came into the league first in Vancover.

Grade: B-

/Miami Heat (41-14 currently-residing first in the Southwest and 1st in the Eastern Conference; 36-14 at the break) 25-3 at home, 16-11 on the road; 103.9 ppg (5th in NBA) 22.6 apg (12th in NBA) opp. ppg 96.7 (11th in NBA).

-When LeBron James and Chris Bosh joined Dwyane Wade in Miami two summers ago, the goal was clear. It was to win championships. Not just a championship. Championships.

After the Mavericks and Nowitzki denied Miami’s so-called “Big 3” that dream in 2011, they more than made up for it last June when they defeat the Thunder in the Finals 4-1, winning the last four games.

While much of the core is still in tact, they did add some sharp shooting to the arsenal in signing guard Ray Allen, who has been as expected coming off the bench scoring 11 points a contest 45.3 percent from the floor and 42.7 percent from three point range. They also signed forward Rashard Lewis, who has not played as much to this point

James has been his stellar as the No. 3 scorer in the league per game at 27.3, while also leading the team in rebounding at 8.1, assists at 7.3 and steals at 1.7. He is likely on his way to winning another Most Valuable Player Award, which he has done in three of the last four seasons.

How good has James been. Well he started this season by scoring 20 points or more in the first 33 games, that is the second most in NBA history to only Hall of Famer George “Iceman” Gervin who did it for the first 45 games. He played 254 straight minutes with committing a foul. In fact the last time he fouled out of a game was back in 2008.

He set an NBA record for six straight games of scoring 30 points and shooting 60 percent from the floor. That streak came to an end on Valentine’s Day at the Thunder where he did score 39 points, grab 12 boards and dish out seven assists, but his 14 for 24 from the floor (58.3 percent) ended his stellar shooting streak of 60 percent from the floor. He did set another record for consecutive games for scoring 30-plus points and shooting 55-plus percent from the floor with seven. That passed the late Hall of Famer Wilt Chamberlin who did six straight games in 1961 and 1965 and Hall of Famer Moses Malone who also did in six straight back in 1982.

Just last week, James was named Eastern Conference Player of the Week for an NBA record 42nd time in his great career with an output of 23.5 points, 7.8 rebounds, 9.3 assists on 59 percent shooting.

His sidekick Wade started slowly this season, he is rounding into form scoring 21.5 a contest to go along with five boards, 4.8 assists and 1.7 steals. His marksmanship of 51.6 percent shooting from the field is the best of his nine-year career.

While he may not get much attention as his two other counter parts, Bosh is very important to this team. All you have to do is look at last seasons playoffs particularly in the middle of the Conference Semis and the beginning of the Conference Finals, when he was not their, the team did struggle and when he came back, they got back on track and won it all. So while the all-star may be scoring 17 points and grabbing 7.1 rpg on a career-best 54.7 percent from the field, he is very important to this team’s success.

The defending champs have hit their stride, particularly recently with an 12-game winning streak, where they are averaging 107.7 points a game and holding the opponent to 96.9 points. They began this month with a loss at the Pacers and have not lost since.

Despite that recent hot streak, the Heat are a team that does have some holes that could hurt them in the postseason if they are not careful.

While they are good at holding the opposition in the scoring department and in the shooting department at 44.4 percent (10th NBA), they are a very poor rebounding team ranking 30th, that’s dead last in total rebounds a game at 38.6 and they block only 5.1 shots a game (16th NBA). They do get a lot of steals though, averaging 8.7 per contest (5th NBA), forcing 15.5 turnovers a game and they take very good care of the ball committing only 13.3 miscues per contest (4th NBA).

It is clear that the this team will be judged about what they do in the postseason. They have the “Big 3” to carry them at the offensive end. The question is can the supporting cast of Mario Chalmers (8.1 ppg), Shane Battier (6.4 ppg), Norris Cole (4.9 ppg), Mike Miller (3.6 ppg) give them the perimeter shooting to help them when teams try to take the “Big 3” of James, Wade and Bosh away?

More importantly can Bosh along with Udonis Haslem (3.7 ppg 5.5 rpg) and Chris “Birdman” Andersen (2.9 ppg, 3.4 rpg) give them the inside presence on the interior on both ends of the court?

All you have to do is look at what the Pacers did in their two victories over the Heat this season, both of which were on Indiana’s court. In the Jan. 8 meeting, Heat shot just 41.2 percent and were out-rebounded 55-36 in the 87-77 win and in the second meeting on Feb. 1, the Heat were out-rebounded 34-25 and were outscored in the paint 48-40.

The Heat are 1-6 this season against the Knicks, Bulls and Pacers combined and they will see those three teams at least six more times combined as this season winds down.

The other team that plays to that kind of tune in the East are the Bulls. In the West, teams like the Spurs and Grizzles would also give the Heat problems if they see them in the Finals.

Head coach Erik Spoelstra and his staff understand where their team is and where it has to get better. Their form of small ball, which worked in the Finals a year ago has worked to this point, but they must be careful to make sure it does not blow up in their face between now and the postseason.

Grade: A-

/Milwaukee Bucks (27-28 currently-residing third in the Central and the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference; 26-25 at the break) 14-14 at home, 13-14 on the road; 97.7 ppg (14th in NBA) 22.3 apg (13th in NBA) opp. ppg 98.8 (18th in NBA).

-When you look at the Bucks closely you see a team that is not bad, but they are also a team that does not scare you.

In the backcourt you have Brandon Jennings (18.7 ppg, 6.1 apg-leads team, 1.8 spg-leads team) and Monta Ellis (18.3 ppg, 5.7 apg, 1.9 spg-leads team), who can be explosive at times. However, they shoot from the field 40.1 percent and 40.2 percent respectably from the floor and 36.7 percent and 23.2 percent respectably from three-point range. On top of that neither is known as a great defensively.

In the frontcourt you have the likes of Ersan Ilyasova, whose breakout season last year of 13.0 ppg, 8.28 rpg, 49.2 percent from the field and 45.5 percent from three-point range, he has dropped a little bit to 11.5 ppg 6.4 rpg while the shooting has been steady with last season’s marksmanship with 45.1 percent from the floor and 44.2 percent from three-point land.

The one frontcourt person that has been a major surprise has been center Larry Sanders, who has had a stellar third season giving the Bucks 8.9 ppg, 8.9 rpg and 3.1 bpg, which leads the NBA.

The other frontcourt players like Luc Richard Mbah Moute (7.6 ppg 5.0 rpg) and Samuel Dalembert (7.0 ppg, 5.8 rpg) like the team have been stellar at times and other times they are not producing.

The Bucks while they may struggle at times offensively, they do rebound well garnering the fifth most total board per game at 43.7, but they get out-rebounded by a little over two a game.

They do block the second most shots a game at 7.4 and the opponent shoots 44.6 percent against them from the floor and just 34.4 percent from the three-point arc, ranked 12th and 8th in the league respectably.

The bench has had its moments from the likes of Mike Dunleavy, Jr., who is averaging 11.1 ppg and 3.9 boards on 45.7 percent from the floor and 43.2 from the three-point line.

In order to boost the team’s chances of at least sealing up the last playoff spot, which is where they are right now, the Bucks were rumored to be trying to get forward Josh Smith from the Hawks.

When that did not happen, they pulled off a trade with the Orlando Magic sending guard Doron Lamb, forward Tobias Harris and guard Beno Udrih to the sunshine state in exchange for guard J.J. Redick (15.1 ppg, 4.4 apg 45.1 FG% , 39.2 3-Pt%), forward/center Gustavo Ayon and guard Ish Smith.

While this team was at least a playoff team, it was a team with parts that at times have just not fit together. On top of that then head coach Scott Skiles uncertain future caused a break down with team management.

It is that among other things that head coach Scott Skiles relieved himself of his post and Jim Boylan was named interim head coach in his place.

In his stead, the team has stayed above water with an 11-12 mark and they lead the Toronto Raptors by five games for the eighth and final playoff spot. Baring a major collapse they should make the playoff and will to the defending champion Heat in the first round in April.

The one lingering over this team whenever their season ends is whether or not they will match any other another teams makes on Jennings, who is a restricted free-agent. Bucks general manager John Hammond has said that they have every intention on keeping their starting lead guard.

Grade: C+

/Minnesota Timberwolves (20-34 currently-residing fifth in the Northwest and the 12th in the Western Conference; 19-31 at the break) 13-14 at home, 7-20 on the road; 95.2 ppg (20th in NBA) 21.9 apg (18th in NBA) opp. ppg 97.4 (16th in NBA).

-When you look all the teams in this league, on paper the Timberwolves are as talented as they come.

When you say forward Kevin Love (18.3 ppg-leads team 14.0 rpg-leads team), center Nikola Pekovic (16.0 ppg, 9.0 rpg), guard Ricky Rubio (8.2 ppg, 6.8 apg, 2.1 spg-leads team) Andrei Kirilenko (13.1 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.6 spg), J.J. Barea (11.0 ppg, 4.2 apg) rookie guard Alexey Shved (10.3 ppg, 4.2 apg), guard Luke Ridnour (12.2 ppg 3.9 apg), forward Derrick Williams (10.5 ppg, 5.3 rpg) and Brandon Roy (5.8 ppg), you are talking talent who has done some good things in this league or has shown flashes of greatness.

Unfortunately, talent on paper does not win you games. Neither does having injured player after injured player. 

From Love breaking his hand twice and playing in just 18 games and Chase Budinger (11.8 ppg) suffering knee injury that have derailed their seasons. In fact for Roy, who was trying to make a comeback after being cut by the Blazers because of his knee problems, which stem back from his collegiate days at the University of Washington, he may never play again because of that.

On top of that, Rubio, who is trying to come back from a knee injury that derailed his rookie season and the T’Wolves playoff hopes, has not regained the form that had the T‘Wolves posed to make the postseason.

This season has gotten so bad that head coach Rick Adelman had a health scare of his own when his wife had to be hospitalized and that took him away from the team for a while.

On the court, the team has had to sign the likes of Josh Howard (6.7 ppg), Mickael Gelabale (5.6 ppg) and call up former Celtic Chris Johnson (5.8 ppg. 2.6 rpg) from the NBA D-League to give the T’Wolves some healthy bodies to compete.

In the first two months of this season, the T’Wolves did all they could to stay above water until they got healthy. That was not the case and even with Love does return, which is expected by at least the end of March, Minneapolis will go another spring without its basketball team in the postseason.

Grade: D

/New Orleans Hornets (20-38 currently-residing fifth in the Southwest and the 13th in the Western Conference; 19-34 at the break) 10-18 at home, 10-20 on the road; 94.5 ppg (22nd in NBA) 21.5 apg (21st in NBA) opp. ppg 97.3 (13th in NBA).

-Five seasons ago the Hornets made some serious noise in the playoffs as they beat the Mavericks in the first round and put up a serious fight to the might Spurs losing in seven games.

In the next four seasons, the Hornets lost in the first round to the Nuggets in 2009 in five games and to the Lakers in six in 2011. They missed the playoffs in 2010 and last season.

Before the start of 2012, the team traded the face of the franchise Chris Paul to the Clippers and it was clear that they were in rebuilding mode.

The process began On Apr. 13, 2012 when the team announced that New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson was purchasing the franchise for $338 million. Two months later they Benson appointed Saints general manager Mickey Loomis as head of basketball operations overseeing the teams GM Dell Demps and he named Saints business operations head Dennis Lauscha in the same role with the Hornets.

On May 30, 2012, the Hornets were awarded the No. 1 overall pick in the Draft, which was the first time since 1991, when the team was in Charlotte that they won the draft lottery.

They selected center out of the University of Kentucky Anthony Davis (12.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg 1.8 bpg-leads team), 2012 National Player of the Year and 2012 NCAA Tournament Most Outstanding Player.

With the 10th pick, which was acquired from the Clippers in the Paul trade, they selected from Duke University guard Austin Rivers, the son of Celtics head coach Doc Rivers.

On July 11, 2012, the Hornets acquired from the Magic forward Ryan Anderson last year’s Most Improved Player and 3-point makes leader in exchange for center Gustavo Ayon.

So far this season, Davis, who also won a gold medal as part of the USA Men’s Basketball team this past summer, the youngest player ever to win a gold medal, has shown flashes of greatness while Rivers (6.0 ppg) has had his struggles especially shooting from the floor, hitting just 35.6 percent of his shots.

Anderson has been an excellent fit scoring a career best 16.7 points (leads team), grabbing 6.5 boards per contest and making 100 three-pointers and shooting 39.8 percent from behind the arc.

One big surprise that has been a pleasant one for the Hornets has been the play of lead guard Greivis Vasquez. The former Maryland Terp has come into his own in his third season with career-best in scoring 13.7 points a game, dishing out 9.5 assists per contest (3rd NBA) and grabbing 4.6 boards per game. He has more than shown that he is the starter for head coach Monty Williams.

The most important part of this team as it develops though is can leading scorer guard Eric Gordon (16.6 ppg) get back to form after missing the first two months of the season because of a knee injury.

When he made his season debut on Jan. 1, the Hornets went on a stretch where they won seven of nine games. With him back in the lineup the Hornets have gone 11-11.

The other question for this team going forward is where do the likes of center Robin Lopez (11.5 ppg, 5.4 rpg 1.6 bpg), who has been the starter in the pivot, back-up center/forward Jason Smith (8.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and forward Al-Farouq Aminu

(7.4 ppg, 7.6 rpg-leads team) fit into the team going forward.

There are pieces here to work with, a once in a lifetime player in Davis, a very young and improving guard in Vasquez, a scoring dynamo in Gordon and a very good young head coach who believes in playing defense in Williams, which the Hornets have shown at times this season. They are 18-12 when holding their opponents under 100 points this season.

Opponents have shot 46.3 percent against them this season (23rd in NBA) and 36.9 percent from three-point range (22nd NBA). They do rank eighth in blocks at 5.6 per game, but they rank 20th in rebounding at 41.3 and they only out-rebound their opponents by just one per game.

The question is can this group grow and become a team that competes against the best every night and wins its share of games. That remains to be seen, but one things is for sure. The team will not be nicknamed the Hornets anymore. Next season they will be known as the New Orleans Pelicans.

Grade: C-

/New York Knicks (33-20 currently-residing first in the Atlantic and the 3rd seed in the Eastern Conference; 32-18 at the break) 20-8 at home, 13-12 on the road; 100.1 ppg (10th in NBA) 19.6 apg (29th in NBA) opp. ppg 96.3 (10th in NBA).

-When you are in a big media market like the “Big Apple” and you have all-star players like forward Carmelo Anthony, Amar’e Stoudemire and the supporting cast includes the likes of Jason Kidd (6.9 ppg. 4.1 rpg, 3.5 apg), Tyson Chandler, J.R. Smith and Raymond Felton, there is only one thing you have to do. Win! Win! Win!

That is what the Knicks did at the beginning part of the season going 18-5 behind a out of this world perimeter attack led by Anthony (28.4 ppg (2nd NBA), 6.5 rpg), J.R. Smith (16.0 ppg, 4.9 rpg) and Raymond Felton (14.7 ppg, 6.0 apg-leads team).

The team has used a 37.4 accuracy rate from three-point range (6th NBA), making about 10.8 per contest, which leads the NBA to get to the top of the East at the time. A major part of that was forward Steve Novak who is shooting 44.7 percent (102 for 228) from the arc, which is fourth in the league. Anthony, Smith and Felton have also shot well from behind the line this season at 38.9, 34.6 and 34.8 respectably.

They were doing all of this without Stoudemire, who was recovering from knee surgery and guard Iman Shumpert, who was also recovering from a knee injury he suffered in Game 1 of the first round versus the Heat.

What has also been a major reason the Knicks were able to win at an amazing rate is their stellar defense, which has been a priority since Mike Woodson took over as head coach for Mike D’Antoni last season.

The anchor of that defense has been Chandler. Last season’s Defensive Player of the Year and a first-time all-star is having another stellar season scoring 11.4 ppg, grabbing 11.1 boards and leading the league in shooting percentage hitting 66.1 percent of his shot attempts.

They rank in the top ten in points allowed, but they allow the opposition to shoot 45.8 percent from the field (19th NBA) and 35.8 percent from three-point territory, which is 14th in NBA.

Even with Chandler, the Knicks get out-rebounded by their opponent by nearly one per game and they are next to last in blocks shot per game at 3.8.

After that sparkling beginning, the Knicks came back down to Earth going 15-15 since, which includes a as they went 7-9 between Dec. 17 and Jan. 21.

That losing stretch began when former Knick Jeremy Lin came back to the grounds where his name gained national prominence and the Knicks lost at home 109-96.

They also had some key injuries to the likes of Felton, Kidd, Anthony and forward/center Rasheed Wallace and center Marcus Camby. Wallace, who has not played since Dec. 13, has according to a report from ESPN had surgery on his foot and is expected to miss the remainder of the regular season and at least one week of the playoffs.

In the case of Felton, who missed time because of an injured finger, with him in the line-up the Knicks had a sparkling record, which at one time was 20-8. When he has missed games this season because of an injured finger, they are not the same and their pick-and-roll game, which is their bread and butter play, is not as effective.

On top of that, there ability to make three’s has escaped them recently and so has their ability to consistently guard the opposition.

The hope is that with Stoudemire back (13.7 ppg, 5.0 rpg) and Shumpert (4.8 ppg) back, they can get better play on the inside offensively and better perimeter defense.

They also signed veteran forward Kenyon Martin as insurance for the playoffs.

There is no doubt that the Knicks will make the playoffs and they have a good chance to win a playoff series for the first time since 2000 when they defeated the Heat in the Conference Semis, when NBA on ESPN/ABC anaylst Jeff Van Gundy was the head coach. They lost to the Pacers in the Conference Finals.

However if they play like they have in their last four games, losing three of them, including their first two out of the all-star break at the Pacers (125-91) and at the Raptors (100-98), their dreams of overtaking the Heat in the East and winning a title maybe dashed.

Grade: B-

/Oklahoma City Thunder (41-15 currently-residing first in the Northwest and the 2nd in the Western Conference; 39-14 at the break) 25-4 at home, 16-11 on the road; 106.6 ppg (leads in NBA) 22.0 apg (17th in NBA) opp. ppg 97.5 (15th in NBA).

-In a three-year period of time the Thunder, formerly the Seattle Supersonics, went from an exciting young team to a title contender.

The beginning stage saw them lose to the Lakers in the first round of playoffs in 2011 in six games.

The middle stage had them making it to the Conference Finals where they lost to the eventual NBA champion Mavericks 4-1.

Last season they swept the Mavs in the first round 4-0, they defeated the Lakers 4-1 in the Conference Semis and after falling behind 2-0 against the veteran Spurs, the Thunder reeled off four straight wins to advanced to the Finals, where the lost the last four games of that series to go down 4-1 and Miami won its second championship in franchise history.

It was thought that the young trio of Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and James Harden would comeback and try to get back to the Finals and win it all.

The was not in the cards unfortunately because Harden, who was an impending free agent after the season, contract was on the horizon and the inability to give another max contract to him tied the hands of the organization. So they dealt him to the Rockets and in return got Kevin Martin.

The question of whether Martin could take the place of Sixth Man and complement Durant and Westbrook were put to rest very quickly. Martin has fit in very well scoring 14.9 points per game and shooting 45.3 percent from the floor and 43.1 percent from the three-point line.

Durant has been his all-star self leading the league in scoring again at 28.8, closing on not just his fourth scoring title, but a rare 50 percent from the floor (51.6%), 40 percent from behind the arc (42.6%) and 90 percent from the free throw line (91%) season.

Westbrook has had another great season scoring 22.9 points eight assists (5th NBA) and grabbing 5.3 boards a game.

The stellar offensive season of the Thunder’s dynamic duo are a major reason the Thunder have the best scoring differential in the NBA at 9.1 per game. They are the No.1 three-point shooting team in the league at 39.2 percent and they are first in the league in getting to the foul line at 26.9 attempts and they are No. 1 in percentage at the stripe at 83.3 percent.

Starting power forward Serge Ibaka continues to get better and better with career-highs in scoring at 13.4 ppg, rebounding at 7.9 boards, blocking 3 shots a contest (2nd NBA) on 55.7 percent from the floor and 77.9 percent from the foul line.

The Thunder have managed to be that combination of a high scoring team that can also defend.

They hold teams to just 43 percent shooting from the field, ranking second in the league and they rebound the ball very efficiently getting 42.9 boards a contest (11th NBA), out-rebounding their opponent by 2.2 per contest. They lead the league in blocks per game at 7.5.

That is in large part to the presence of Ibaka and his counterpart in the starting frontcourt Kendrick Perkins (4.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg).

The defense, especially on the perimeter might get even better with the acquisition of forward/guard Ronnie Brewer from the Knicks before the trade deadline.

With Brewer and defensive ace starting two guard Thabo Sefolosha (7.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg), it will be that much harder for teams to score on the outside.

Brewer will be another asset to a very solid bench which includes backup point guard Reggie Jackson, who made former understudy to Westbrook Eric Maynor expendable and he was dealt before the deadline to the Portland Trail Blazers for a future draft pick. The addition of center Hasheem Thabeet has given the team another tall body to protect the paint.

To be the kind of team the Thunder are and to have the record that they have, you have to be able to win games in all kinds of way. When they are ahead after three quarters this season, the Thunder are 34-2. They have 30 of their victories by 10 points or more. They are 22-11 versus teams with a .500 or better record and they are 28-8 in their very tough conference.

They have a talented young duo in Durant and Westbrook, role players that have no problem doing the dirty work. They win against the best of the best and they have a new sixth man in Martin, who has for now made the Thunder not regret trading Harden. That is the great coaching of head man Scott Brooks.

They sit in the second position in the West trailing the Spurs by three games. Their road to catch them for the No. 1 seed will not be an easy one as 15 of their final 24 games will be against teams with a better than .500 record.

This team has enough to get back to the Finals. They have a tough conference to get through come playoff time. It is on them to get it done.

Grade: A+

/Orlando Magic (16-41 currently-residing fourth in the Southwest and 14th in the Eastern Conference; 15-37 at the break) 9-20 at home, 7-21 on the road; 93.9 ppg (25th in NBA) 23.4 apg (5th in NBA) opp. ppg 99.5 (20th in NBA).

-It is hard to say to your fan base that the team especially one that just four years ago was in the NBA Finals and contending for a title for the first time since 1995.

Unfortunately that was the case when the Magic traded away all world center Dwight Howard in the summer. They also said goodbye to head coach Stan Van Gundy who all he did was average 51.8 wins in his five seasons. In his place they hired former Spurs assistant Jacque Vaughn.

When they traded Howard in a four-team deal to the Lakers, they received in return from the Denver Nuggets guard Arron Afflalo and all he has had the best season of his six-year career averaging 16.8 ppg on 44.8 percent shooting from the field.

They also acquired in the deal center Nikola Vucevic from the Philadelphia 76ers and he has been more than a surprise with his play putting up a double-double of 12.3 ppg and 11.5 boards (leads team) a contest shooting 52.2 percent from the floor.

In a double overtime loss to interstate rival Heat, Vucevic had career-highs of 20 points and 29 boards, which was also a new franchise record. Eleven of those boards were offensive. He also had three steals and two blocks.

One of the biggest keys in when you are trying to build a program from scratch is to get solid players in the draft. Rookies Andrew Nicholson (8.2 ppg, 3.7 rpg) out of St. Bonaventure and Moe Harkless out of St. John’s University (5.9 ppg, 4.1 rpg) have shown flashes, but they have a long way to go before they are household names in the eyes of Floridians.

The other big key to the rebuilding process is having veterans to show the way and to put into practice literally and figuratively. That has fallen to lead guard Jameer Nelson (14.5 ppg, 7.4 apg), forward Al Harrington, who played in his first game of the season after being out because of a staff infection in his knee that occurred from off-season surgery. He scored nine points and grabbed three boards in 12 minutes They have also looked to forward Glen Davis for leadership as well.

Unfortunately both have had injuries and have not been able to be on the court to put the message of coach Vaughn’s into action.

Davis, who was part of the 2008 championship team of the Celtics was having a career year of 15.1 ppg, 7.2 boards per contest on 44.8 percent from the field broke his left foot on Jan. 30 at the Knicks and has been out since. Without Davis, the team, which was already in the midst of a seven-game losing streak coming in has seen the loses pile up one after another. In fact since Dec. 19, they have gone 4-28.

A process of starting from the bottom and working your way back to the top is not easy, but sitting on your hands and doing nothing will not work either.

That is why management people like general manager Rob Hennigan and assistant GM Scott Perry get paid the big bucks to do things like make trades like the one they did sending second leading scorer and sharp shooter J.J. Redick (15.1 ppg, 45% shooting and 39% three-point range) along with center Gustavo Ayon (3.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg) and guard Ish Smith (2.4 ppg) to the Bucks for guard Doron Lamb, guard Beno Udrih (6.8 ppg, 3.8 apg) and forward Tobias Harris (5.5 ppg, 2.3 rpg).

This team went through this once before when current NBA on TNT analyst Shaquille O’Neal left the Magic back in 1996 for the Lakers and it took 14 seasons before the Magic made it back to the Finals. They find themselves in that same position now that Howard is now in LA.

Grade: D-

/Philadelphia 76ers (22-33 currently-residing fourth in the Atlantic and 10th in the Eastern Conference; 22-29 at the break) 16-14 at home, 6-18 on the road; 92.0 ppg (29th in NBA) 22.3 apg (13th in NBA) opp. ppg 95.8 (7th in NBA).

-When the Sixers traded swingman Andre Iguodala to the Nuggets and center Nikola Vucevic to the Magic in a four-team deal that brought them center Andrew Bynum from the Lakers, they thought they had the man in the middle that was going to make them a force for the Heat, Knicks and other qualities teams in the Eastern Conference to deal with.

Iguodala has played well for the Nuggets who are in the thick of the West. Vucevic has improved by leaps and bounds from last season as he is averaging a double-double with the Magic and Bynum has yet to see the court as he is recovering from surgery on both knees. In fact the only reference to him this season has been to his out of control hairstyle.

Without Bynum to carry the load offensive, the Sixers have had to do it by committee. Lead guard Jrue Holiday, who was selected to his first time all-star team earlier this month, has lead the way with 19points a game, 8.7 assists (4th NBA) and 1.5 steals.

Thaddeus Young continues to impress scoring 14.7 per contest and grabbing 7.5 boards and 1.7 steals (both lead team).

The No. 2 overall pick in the 2010 draft swingman Evan Turner is finally breaking out this season with a 13.9 point a game scoring average with 6.6 boards and 4.4 assists.

The most glaring weakness in the Sixers offense without Bynum is their ability to make perimeter shots.

While Thaddeus Young and Holiday have had solid years shooting from the floor 51.8 percent and 45.4 percent respectably, Nick Young, Turner and Jason Richardson (10.5 ppg), who is gone for the rest of the season because of knee surgery have a tough shooting years. They have shot 41.1, 42.4 and 40.2 percent respectably.

As a team, the Sixers only ranked 22nd in shooting from the floor at 44 percent and 20th in three-point percentage at 35. Only the Knicks commit the least amount of miscues in the league than the Sixers who turn the ball over only 12.9 times a game.

You would also think that without the big man the Sixers would be weak on the defensive end. That has not been the case. They are 7th ranked in points allowed, teams are shooting just 45 percent against them (16th NBA) and just 34.7 percent from three-point range against them, which is also ranked 7th in the league.

They do miss Bynum presence on the glass as the Sixers rank 21st in the league in total boards at 41.3 per game, being out-rebounded by 2.6 boards per game. They only rank in the middle of the pact in block shots a game at 4.9 (18th NBA).

Spencer Hawes (9.9 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Lavoy Allen (6.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg) have done a decent job in the middle, it is just not the same as having Bynum.

The odds do not look good for the Sixers to make the playoffs as they sit four games behind the Bucks, especially since they have lost six games in a row, their longest losing streak in three seasons. Since Jan. 1 only the Bobcats at 5-21-a .192 win percentage and the Magic at 4-22-a .154 win percentage have had a worst record than the Sixers who have gone 8-16-a .333 win percentage.

With that being said, if they can get on any kind of a run, they have a chance if they can. With head coach Doug Collins at the controls, they will not have a choice.

They also expect Bynum to come back some time soon. It would be in his best interest to return and help this team win ball games considering that he is a free agent at season’s end. If he wants to get paid by Philly or any other team this off-season when he becomes a free agent at season‘s end, it is on him to get it in gear. He owes that much to himself.

Grade: D

/Phoenix Suns (19-39 currently-residing fifth in the Pacific and 14th in the Western Conference; 17-36 at the break) 13-15 at home, 6-24 on the road; 94.4 ppg (23rd in NBA) 22.2 apg (15th in NBA) opp. ppg 99.9 (22nd in NBA).

-Three years ago, the Phoenix Suns were in the Western Conference Finals and they were one stop away from winning Game 5 at the Lakers. A tip in by Metta World Peace, formerly Ron Artest at the horn gave the purple and gold squad the victory and they won Game 6 in Phoenix moving on to the Finals where they went on to beat the Celtics in seven games.

They missed the playoffs in the next two seasons and in this past summer they traded away the face of the franchise Steve Nash to the rival Lakers.

The result, the Suns have fallen so far from grace it is not even funny. They went from a team that had a high octane offense to one that scores in the mid 90s if they are lucky.

They have always been a very mediocre defense, but without the high octane offense to at least balance it out, it has been really hard to win games.

The parts do not seem to fit into place in terms of the roster. Lead guard Goran Dragic (14.1 ppg, 6.8 apg, 1.5 spg) who at one time was the understudy to Nash, has yet to show that he will ever be what Nash was.

Marcin Gortat (11.4 ppg, 8.5 rpg) and Luis Scola (12.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg) have been up and down this season in terms of production at the center and power forward spots and small forward Michael Beasley, the former No. 2 overall pick five years ago (10.2 ppg, 4.0 rpg) has been so inconsistent that he lost his starting spot.

Whether they are coming off the bench or making an occasional appearance as starters, guard Shannon Brown (11.2 ppg), second-year forward Markieff Morris (7.5 ppg 4.3 rpg) or guard P.J. Tucker (5.5 ppg 4.0 rpg), it has not made any difference. The only solid play they have gotten has come from swingman Jared Dudley, who is backing up his career season of a year ago with a 11.3 scoring average to go along with 3.5 boards per contest.

It has gotten so bad that former head coach Alvin Gentry who was the coach when the Suns lost to the Lakers in the Conference Finals three seasons ago left the sidelines to be an analyst for NBA TV. In his place the Suns chose two-time NBA champion Lindsey Hunter on Jan. 20.

Since the change the Suns have not faired much better as they have gone 6-11. Eight of those loses have been by double-digits, which includes four loses by 20 points or more and two of them came in a home-and-home series against the Thunder.

The only good thing that has happened for the Suns this season is that Markieff has reunited with his former University of Kansas teammate and twin brother Marcus Morris (8.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg). They will be able to finish this season of misery together.

This is a serious mess that looks like it will not get cleaned up anytime soon and that is very sad for the fans. This was a team in the middle of the last decade that was knocking on the door of winning a title with a fast paced coming out you type of an offense. They are now a team searching for any signs of competitive life.

Grade: F-

/Portland Trail Blazers (26-30 currently-residing fourth in the Pacific and 10th in the Western Conference; 25-28 at the break) 18-9 at home, 8-21 on the road; 96.8 ppg (17th in NBA) 21.2 apg (22nd in NBA) opp. ppg 99.7 (21 in NBA).

-After saying goodbye to starting two guard Brandon Roy and starting center Greg Oden who were high picks in the draft and who showed flashes of excellence and had all-star appearances, All-NBA selections and hopefully title chances for the Trail Blazers in the future were let go over the past two seasons because their injuries prevented from staying on the court consistently.

The Blazers struck gold in this past summer’s draft when they selected point guard Damian Lillard out of Weber State, all he has done is have 2012-13 campaign leading all rookies with 18.3 points and 6.5 assists per contest.

His amazing play which has him as the consensus 2012 Rookie of the Year, has helped solidify a starting five that is one of the best in the league. The centerpiece off it all is all-star power forward LaMarcus Aldridge whose leads the team in scoring at 20.8 points a game and is second on the team in rebounding at 8.7. Small forward Nicolas Batum, who got paid in the off-season, has responded with a breakout season of 15.4 points, 5.9 boards, 4.9 assists a game shooting 36.5 percent from three point range. Shooting guard Wesley Matthews (14.9 ppg) has provided solided perimeter shooting from three-point range hitting 38.5 percent of his shots from deep. The biggest surprise has been the presence of J.J. Hickson who, is averaging double-double of 13 points, 10.4 boards while shooting a career high 57.4 percent from the floor, that’s fifth in the NBA.

It is because of that starting five, the Trail Blazers were the toast of the NBA as they were 20-15 and new head coach Terry Stotts was a leading candidate for Coach of the Year and the Blazers had a chance to make the playoffs. In fact when they have led after three quarters this season, they are 18-2.

Reality set in after that as they have gone 5-18 since and have fallen out of the playoff picture.

While the starting quintet has been outstanding, the second unit has been non-existent.

How bad are the Blazers reserves? Well their top two scorers are rookie center Meyers Leonard and forward Luke Babbitt and they both average just 4.1 ppg. That is why they are in the middle of the pact, 17th to be precise in scoring per game.

On top of that, the Blazers don’t defend well ranking 21st in scoring defense.

Despite the fact that Hickson and Aldridge are both individually rebound very well, as a team the Blazers get out-rebounded by nearly one board a game and they are in the middle of the pact in total caroms per contest at 41.5 (18th NBA).

They are 22nd in block shots at 4.6 a contest and they only get seven steals a game, which tied with the Nets for 24th in the league. They also turn the ball over at a high clip committing 15.1 a game (23rd NBA).

With all of that being said, this has been a solid season to this point for the team from “Rip City.” They have their point guard of the future. They have shown their all-star forward Aldridge that they have a plan for the future. They have a solid supporting cast in Batum, Matthews and Hickson, who can be a major piece if they decide to trade for upgrades to the bench.

The Blazers front office has shown they can put together a team that can compete on the court. It is up to them to deliver even better pieces to make this team even better and hopefully make this team into a contender like it was in the early 1990s and in the beginning of the last decade.

Grade: B+

/Sacramento Kings (19-38 currently-residing fourth in the Pacific and 14th in the Western Conference; 19-35 at the break) 14-13 at home, 5-25 on the road; 97.6 ppg (15th in NBA) 20.0 apg (28th in NBA) opp. ppg 104.9 (30th in NBA).

-There are three words to describe the Sacramento Kings. Young, talented and skilled. There are another set of three words to describe this basketball team. Immature, foolish and inconsistent.

Those sets of three words describe the team’s top scorer, rebounded and steals leader DeMarcus Cousins who is averaging 17.5 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.6 steals. There are nights this guy looks like one of the best front court players in the league. I mean the likes of Tim Duncan of the Spurs, LaMarcus Aldridge of the Blazers, Kevin Love of the T’Wolves.

However, there are times when he goes out and argues with officials when he does not get calls to go his way. Has no regard to listen to head coach Keith Smart and allows his emotions to get the better of him way to often.

Another enigma is the other high caliber player guard Tyreke Evans (15.5 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 3.2 apg) Three years ago, he had one of those first years that was for the history books as he averaged 20.1 ppg, 5.3 boards, 5.8 assists and shot 45.8 percent from the field in capturing Rookie of the Year.

In the two years that followed he has scored well averaging 17.8 and 16.5 points a contest respectably, but he missed a lot of time because of injury. The other problem has been what position does he play is he a point guard, two guard or small forward.

The ball handling duties for this team were solved with the last pick in the 2011 draft the Kings selected out of the University of Washington Isaiah Thomas.

All the 60th overall did in his rookie season was start in 37 of the 65 games he played and averaged 11.5 ppg, 4.1 assists per contest and shot 44.8 percent from the floor, 37.9 percent from the three-point arc and 83.2 percent from the charity stripe in 25.5 minutes.

On Feb. 19, 2012, Thomas recorded his first career double-double of 23 points and 11 assists at the Cleveland Cavaliers. That came against the No. 1 overall pick in the draft of that season in Kyrie Irving, who won Rookie of the Year.

Thomas’ sophomore season has been better as he is averaging 12.6 ppg, 3.4 apg and shooting 43.8 percent from the floor, 33 percent from three-point land and 88 percent on the foul line. His solid play has pushed former starting guard Aaron Brooks (8.0 ppg, 45.9 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt%) to the bench.

The other two cogs of the starting five in power forward Jason Thompson (10.9 ppg 6.8 rpg) and small forward John Salmons (9.1 ppg, 2.7 rpg, 3.1 apg) have been okay, but they have had stretches where they just disappear.

The bench has had it moments this season. Shooting guard Marcus Thornton (12.1 ppg) can light up scoreboard at the drop of a hat like he did on Tuesday at the Heat when he scored 36 points on 11 for 18 from the floor, 8 for 12 from three-point range and 6 for 8 from the foul line. He has also had moment where he can shoot you out of a game if he is not striking a match from the field.

Second-year guard out of Brigham Young University (BYU) Jimmer Fredette

(7.2 ppg) has an ability to make shots in his sleep, especially from three-point range, where he shoots 42.6 percent from this season. In the month of December he was averaging in double figures of 10.1 points a contest shooting 40 percent from deep, but he has only averaged between 5.6 and 7.3 in the months of November, January and February and the question with him is where does he, point guard or the two-guard.

Forward/center Chuck Hayes and his second unit mate James Johnson give the Kings players who can defend in the paint and on the perimeter, but the two do not contribute much offensively averaging 5.2 and 2.4 points a contest respectably.

The team did make a move to get some better production for the bench when they acquired forward Patrick Patterson, who was having a breakout season of 11.4 ppg, 4.6 rpg on 51.9 percent shooting from the floor and 36.5 percent from three-point land, along with guard Toney Douglas (8.1 ppg) and center Cole Aldrich. The Rockets received No. 5 overall pick out of Kansas forward Thomas Robinson (4.8 ppg, 4.7 rpg), guard Francisco Garcia (5.2 ppg) and forward Tyler Honeycutt.

The great teams like the aforementioned Spurs, Heat, Thunder, Pacers and Clippers bring it every game and as a result they are contenders championship contenders.

They especially play defense. You cannot become a playoff contender when the opposition shoots 47.1 percent from the floor (29th NBA) and 36.4 percent from three-point land (19th NBA)

The opposition out-rebounds them by 3.7 boards a contest (27th NBA) and they rank 24th in block shots at 4.3 a game.

On top of that, this team with all of this offensive talent should not be in the middle of the pact in assists per contest and in the mid 20s in field goal percentage at 43.9 percent (23rd NBA).

There is talent here in the capital of California. However if that talent cannot mature and play at a high level game in and game out, you will have moment when you beat the like of the Lakers, Trail Blazers, Knicks and Warriors. However, that is all they are moments.

Grade: D-

/San Antonio Spurs (45-13 currently-residing first in the Southwest and 1st in the Western Conference; 42-12 at the break) 22-2 at home, 23-11 on the road; 104.3 ppg (4th in NBA) 24.9 apg (1st in NBA) opp. ppg 95.8 (8th in NBA).

-They are old. They are not flashy. They do not seek the lime light of the media or the so-called experts of the game.

All the San Antonio Spurs do and have done it seems for over a decade is win. They just play hard, stick to the details, get better each day and try to go out on the court and take care of business.

That is what has allowed them to win four championships (1999, 2003, 2005, 2007). It has allowed them to compete for the top spot in the West year after year after year.

It all starts with head coach Greg Popovich, who seems to always have the pulse of his team and gets the best out of them. He has also done a solid job in monitoring the minutes of his three key players of forward Tim Duncan, lead guard Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.

In fact back on Nov. 29 in a national televised contest on TNT at the Heat, Popovich did not play the “Big 3” or Green. In fact they did were not even on the bench or in the city.

How did the team do? They played toe-to-toe with the defending champs before falling 105-100, snapping a five-game losing streak and the team received a fine from Commissioner from David Stern of $250,000.

Duncan, who has had his role as the top scorer reduced in recent years, has had one of his most stellar seasons in recent memory of 16.7 points, 9.6 boards (leads team) and 2.7 blocks (3rd NBA). Parker, who has become the Spurs best player as well as their leading scorer at 21.1 points, 7.6 assists per contest and a 53.6 field goal percentage, which is the best among guards. Ginobili, who despite missing some time again because of injury has been steady scoring 12.4 points, grabbing 3.7 boards and dishing out 4.4 assists a game.

The Spurs have been able to maintain their greatness for over a decade because of the supporting cast around their “Big 3”

While he has not had the amazing season he had as a rookie, swingman Kawhi Leonard’ sophomore season has been good with an output of 10.6 points and 5.4 boards a contest.

Guards Danny Green (10.6 ppg) and Gary Neal (9.4 ppg) and forward Matt Bonner (4.0 ppg) have given the Spurs shooting from the perimeter shooting from behind the three-point line of 43.1 percent, 35.5 percent and 42.2 percent respectably that allows Duncan to operate in the paint and Ginobili and Parker to score off the dribble.

The emergence of Tiago Splitter this season (10.5 ppg, 5.8 rpg, 59.5 FG%(3rd NBA)) has allowed Popovich to bring Boris Diaw (6.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 2.5 apg) off the bench to go along with Stephen Jackson, (6.4 ppg), DeJuan Blair (5.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg).

The other thing that makes this team very special is their ability to bounce back.

Just last season, they were riding a 20-game winning streak entering Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals against the Thunder and the Spurs lost that game and Games 4, 5 and 6 to fall short of reaching the NBA Finals for the first time since 2007, their last championship season where they swept a younger LeBron James and the Cavaliers.

The question now is will all those miles on the tires of this team catch up with them again. They have the talent to win.

They are balance offensively with a top five scoring offense, that is second in the league in shooting at 48.6 percent from the floor and fifth in three-point percentage at 37.9 percent. They lead the league assist at 24.9 and they are fourth in free throw percentage at 79 percent.

They have also gotten back to their calling card that won them those four titles defense as they are in the top 10 in points allowed. The opposition shoots just 43.9 percent from the field against them (6th NBA), and just 32.5 percent from behind the three-point arc, which is second in the league. They are fourth in steals at 8.7 thefts a contest and they force 15.2 turnovers a contest.

The one areas that they must clean up before the postseason are their rebounding in which they are 25th in the league grabbing just 40.9 boards a game and they get out-rebounded by 1.7 per contest.

Teams like the Thunder and the Clippers might be grabbing all the headlines and deservedly so because of the amazing seasons that they have had. The Spurs though are just as good and they have been through the playoffs wars and have reached the mountain top. Well see what happens in April.

Grade: A+

/Toronto Raptors (23-34 currently-residing fourth in the Atlantic and 9th in the Eastern Conference; 21-32 at the break) 15-15 at home, 8-19 on the road; 97.2 ppg (16th in NBA) 21.9 apg (19th in NBA) opp. ppg 98.5 (17th in NBA).

-To win in the NBA you have to have a talented roster along with the ability to win games in a multitude of ways and then you have to be real lucky.

The Raptors have talented, young players who have shown they can play in the NBA. They also have some players who have blossomed because they have been given opportunity.

One of those talented players is third year swingman DeMar DeRozan (17.6 ppg, 43.5 FG%) who has continued to get better and better.

Forward Amir Johnson, who was drafted by the Pistons out of high school eight years ago, has really come into his own with consistent minutes since joining the Raptors in 2010 and his had a career year with averages of 9.8 points and 7.1 boards (leads team) a contest.

Guard Kyle Lowry has been a welcome edition to the team either as a starter or sixth man scoring 13 points, grabbing 4.5 boards and dishing out 5.9 assists a game and shooting a career-best 40.8 percent from three-point range.

What has hurt the team North of the border this season has been injuries to the likes of center Andrea Bargnani, forward Linas Kleiza (7.4 ppg), forward/guard Landry Fields (4.8 ppg, 4.6 rpg) and rookie Jonas Valanciunas.

That along with a rough schedule to start as well as suffering heartbreaking defeat after heartbreaking defeat has put Dwayne Casey’s team behind the eight ball.

They have been playing better recently, especially since acquiring forward Rudy Gay from the Grizzles on Jan. 30 in a three-team deal that sent guard Jose Calderon to the Pistons and forward Ed Davis to the Grizzles.

In his first four games with the Raptors, Gay scored 97 total points, the most in that stretch in franchise history, breaking the previous mark of 78 which was done by Donyell Marshall nine years ago.

Since acquiring Gay, Toronto has won seven of their last 11 games and Gay has risen his scoring average from 17.4 points per contest to 21.4.

He had his best performance as a Raptor with 32 points, seven boards and two steals in a 100-98 victory over the Knicks last Friday.

The team with their latest run of winning has given itself an outside shot of making the postseason. They are currently three and a half games out of the last playoff spot, that is occupied currently by the Bucks.

If they miss out on the playoffs, they at least have a starting backcourt in Lowry and DeRozon in tact for the future as well as a superstar player to build around in Gay.

If that future is going to be bright though, Bargnani must somehow play to the level that made him No. 1 overall pick seven years ago. His averages of 13.3 points, 3.7 boards and 40.4 percent shooting from the floor will not cut it. On top of that he must stay healthy going forward.

They also need Valanciunas (7.0 ppg, 5.5 rpg) and fellow rookie Terrence Ross (6.2 ppg) to develop and become major contributors.

Grade: C-

/Utah Jazz (31-26 currently-residing third in the Northwest and 7th in the Western Conference; 30-24 at the break) 21-7 at home, 10-19 on the road; 98.6 ppg (11th in NBA) 22.9 apg (9th in NBA) opp. ppg 99.0 (19th in NBA).

-I have mentioned the word talent a lot in this report. There are a lot of teams who have that. The problem is that the talent on some of the previous teams I have graded on is young, immature and has not produced wins on the court. The Utah Jazz do not have that problem.

They have talent across the board that is mature, productive and has them in the playoff hunt.

The core of that amazing talent begins in the frontcourt with starting forward and center Paul Millsap (15.1 ppg, 7.3rpg) and Al Jefferson (17.6 ppg-leads team, 9.3 rpg) who can score from the inside, off the offensive glass and from 15 feet.

Reserve big men Derrick Favors (9.3 ppg, 6.3 rpg) and Enes Kanter (6.4 ppg, 4.0 rpg) have shown in spurts that they can play inside with the best and they continue to scratch the surface of greatness, though they still have a long ways to go.

The starters along with the reserve of big men are a major reason the Jazz are a decent rebounding team ranking 16th in the league at 41.9 boards a game and out-rebounding the opposition by close to one board per contest.

The perimeter attack has had its ups and downs. The trio of guard Randy Foye (11.5 ppg), Gordon Hayward (14.1 ppg) and Alec Burks (6.6 ppg) have shot well from three-point range this season hitting 41.5, 39.6 and 35.2 percent respectably.

What has held the Jazz back this season from contending in the tough Western Conference has been the instability at the point guard position.

Starting guard Mo Williams (12.9 ppg, 6.7 apg) has missed games because of an injury to his hand. They have had to play that position by committee between Jamaal Tinsley, (3.9 ppg, 5.0 apg), Earl Watson (2.2 ppg, 4.3 apg) and Burks.

Another big problem has been their inability to win at a consistent rate on the road, where they are just 10-19 away from Energy Solutions Arena.

Even with the injuries and sour play on the road, head coach Ty Corbin’s team stand in the seventh spot in the West and baring a major collapse they will make the postseason for a second straight year and most likely they will go down to defeat to either the Spurs or Thunder who are currently in the first and second seeds respectably.

When the trade deadline came around, it was thought that the Jazz might trade either Jefferson or Millsap, considering they both are free agents and they could sign with another team this summer. The Jazz stood pat and now when their season ends, there will some major decisions to make regarding the future direction of the Jazz.

Grade: B

/Washington Wizards (18-37 currently-residing third in the Southeast and 12th in the Eastern Conference; 15-36 at the break) 13-15 at home, 5-22 on the road; 92.0 ppg (30th in NBA) 21.9 apg (20th in NBA) opp. ppg 95.5 (6th in NBA).

-When you are a team that has gone through some difficult times as the Washington Wizards have with just one playoff series win, that in 2005, in the last 30 decades and no matter what kind of talent comes in through the draft or free agency, there is one word you stand by during these times. Optimism.

That was the word head coach Randy Wittman and owner Ted Leonsis hoped to for this season, but it did not start out that way.

Former No. 1 overall pick and starting guard John Wall missed the first three months of this season because of knee surgery.

Even though understudy A.J. Price (7.4 ppg, 4.0 apg) has his moments as the floor general, without Wall, the team looked and played like one of worst offenses in the league ranking last in scoring per game and 29th in shooting percentage at 43 percent.

They are not shot that bad from three-point territory hitting at a 35 percent clip, ranking 19th in the league. That is in large part to the marksmanship of Martell Webster, who second in the league connecting on 44.6 percent from the arc.

The editions of forward Trevor Ariza (8.4 ppg 4.3 rpg), center Emeka Okafor (9.4 ppg, 8.9 rpg) and Webster (10.8 ppg, 3.8 rpg) could propel them out of the Eastern Conference basement. They are still in the cellar.

The team has done some positive things this season in admits all the tough losses. They rank in the top 10 in opponents points per contest. They rank fourth in field goal percentage defense at 43.6 percent as well as tied with the Warriors in three-point field goal defense at 34.1 percent.

They are tied with the Pistons for eight in the league in rebounds per game at 43.3, though they get out-rebounded by 1.6 per contest.

On Jan. 7 the team was 5-28 going nowhere fast. When they got Wall, who is now leads the team in scoring and assists per game at 14 and 7.6 assists respectably, they have played much better.

They have gone 12-9 since the return of their floor general, beating current playoff teams like the Nuggets, who they have defeated in both meeting this season, the Bulls, Clippers, Nets, Knicks, Bucks and Rockets.

Another reason for the team’s turnaround is the improving play of rookie shooting guard out of Florida Bradley Beal, who is averaging 13.9 points and 3.5 boards a game.

He has especially played well in the Wizards last three victories with 17 points and 12 rebounds this past Friday versus the Nuggets (119-113); 21 points and five boards versus the Rockets (105-103) and 20 points and six boards on Monday at the Raptors.

With the future starting backcourt of Wall and Beal in place now, they key will be to build chemistry and tap into the raw talents they possess.

It will also be important for the team to learn if the likes of starting center Nene (12.6 ppg, 6.8 rpg) along with forward Kevin Seraphin (9.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg), Cartier Martin (6.8 ppg), forwards Trevor Booker (5.2 ppg), Chris Singleton (4.2 ppg) and Jan Vessely (2.6 ppg) can complement Wall and Beal.

This is a team with talent. They are young and they need time to develop and they need to gain experience together. The question is will Wittman be around to see the fruits of his players labor.

Grade: F

Information and statistics are courtesy of;;; Sporting News The Ultimate NBA Almanac Official NBA Guide 2006-07 Preview/2005-06. Review.