Monday, February 22, 2016

J-Speaks: Two Former Pistons Get Immortalized

It has been six seasons since the Detroit Pistons have played in the postseason. Even though they are struggling now with five losses in their last six outings, they are in prime position to make the Eastern Conference Playoffs for the first time since 2009. Prior to this streak of missing the postseason, the Pistons (28-29) made the playoffs for eight consecutive seasons, which includes six straight trips to the Eastern Conference Finals. Those team were led by a former lottery pick out of the University of Colorado and a power forward who went undrafted out of the Virginia Union University. Both received the highest honor by the organization they led to a title 12 years ago.

During the intermission of the Pistons 113-95 win back on Jan. 16 versus the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors (50-5), the Pistons retired the No. 3 jersey of center Ben Wallace, who played for the Pistons from 2000-06.

He became the eighth Piston to have his jersey retired joining Hall of Famers Dennis Rodman, Joe Dumars and Isiah Thomas; Vinnie “The Microwave” Johnson, Bob Lanier, Dave Bing and Bill Laimbeer.

Wallace also became the first member of the 2004 title team that defeated the Los Angeles Lakers 4-1 in the 2004 NBA Finals to receive this honor.

In his run in the “Motor City,” the six foot, nine inch center made the East All-Star team four times (2003-2006); won the Defensive Player of the Year Award four times (2002, 2003, 2005 and 2006), which ties Hall of Famer Dikembe Mutombo; led the NBA in rebounding in 2002 and 2003; was selected to the NBA All-Defensive First-Team five times (2002-2006) and the NBA All-Defensive Second-Team in 2007.

Wallace averaged 6.6 points, 11.1 rebounds, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per contest in 655 games played for the Pistons over nine seasons (2000-06, 2009-12).  

On hand for the ceremonies were the head coach of that championship team Larry Brown; former guard and two-time NBA champion Lindsay Hunter, Chauncey Billups, Mehmet Okur, Richard “Rip” Hamilton, Rasheed Wallace and Tayshaun Prince.

“It was a bit before Christmas when I got the call and I really didn’t believe it at the time,” Wallace, who had his wife Chanda, his two sons Ben, Jr. and Bryce and daughter Bailey on hand for the ceremony said to James Hawkins of the The Detroit News back on Jan. 16.

“I was like, ‘Who’s playing games now? We’re getting to old to be playing these games. Then they called back and convinced me that they were serious about it, and for me that was a great Christmas present.”  

Earlier this month, Wallace’s jersey was joined in the rafters of The Palace of Auburn Hills, MI by Chauncey Billups, who had his No. 1 jersey raised to the rafters during intermission of the Pistons 103-92 loss against Billups’ former team the Denver Nuggets (22-34) back on Feb. 10.

Billups, who currently is an NBA analyst for ESPN and can be seen during “NBA Countdown” pregame show on Wednesday nights with Jalen Rose and Doris Burke averaged 16.5 points and 6.2 assists per contest in his eight seasons with the Pistons.

Also in those eight seasons, Billups was selected to the All-Star team on five occasions (2006-2010); a two-time All-NBA Second Team selection in 2006 and an All NBA Third-Team selection twice (2007, 2009); a two-time NBA All-Defensive Second-Team choice (2005-2006) and the J. Walter Kennedy Citizenship Award recipient in 2008.

For any player to be immortalized forever by any pro sports team is an honor and one that is unforgettable. That is especially so for these two pillars of the Pistons in the middle of the 2000s who when they came to the Pistons were at a crossroads in their careers.

Wallace as mentioned earlier, he did not get drafted out of Virginia Union University back in June of 1996. He began his NBA journey in the nation’s capital with the Washington Wizards from 1996-99. In those three season he went from barely getting any playing time to eventually becoming a part of the regular rotation, but the Wizards did not reach the postseason in those three years.

On Aug. 11, 1999, Wallace was traded to the Orlando Magic, where in his first season became a part of the regular rotation and averaged 4.8 points, 8.2 boards and 1.6 blocks per game. The Magic on 41 games that season, but missed the playoffs.

Wallace was dealt again along with guard Chucky Atkins to the Pistons as compensation in a sign-and-trade deal for perennial All-Star back then and current co-host of “NBA Inside Stuff” on NBATV and NBA on TNT analyst Grant Hill.

Wallace was seen as a throw in when the trade occurred, but he went from a punchline to a headliner and a vital player for the Pistons.

Billups had a decorated career in playing for his hometown collegiate team at the University of Colorado.

He averaged 18.5 points, 5.1 assists and 5.6 boards over two seasons. In the 1996-97 season, Billups was named to the All-Big 12 Conference First-Team, the Basketball Times All-American First Team and Consensus 2nd team All-American. The Buffalos retired his No. 4 jersey.

Billups was selected with the No. 3 pick overall pick on the 1997 NBA draft by the Boston Celtics. Things did not work out for Billups as he and then new head coach Rick Pitino did not mesh and was traded to the Toronto Raptors in exchange for All-Star point guard Kenny Anderson after just 51 games.

On Jan. 21, 1999 Billups went home as he was traded to the Denver Nuggets in a three-team deal.

On Feb. 1, 2000 Billups was on the move again as he was dealt to the Orlando Magic, where he on injured reserve do to an injured shoulder.

Many among NBA circles considered the career of Billups a bust, but caught a major break in the off-season of 2000 when he signed with the Minnesota Timberwolves as the understudy to then lead guard in All-Star Terrell Brandon along with the likes of Sam Mitchell, Wally Sczerbiak and Kevin Garnett.

It was here that Billups really worked on his game individually and learning how to be effective within the team concept and becoming a great decision maker on the court. How to decide which plays would work at certain situations.

A serious knee injury to Brandon in the 2001-02 gave Billups a major opportunity and he took full advantage of it. He averaged 12.5 points and 5.5 assists per game that season connecting on 39.4 percent of his three-point attempts and started 54 games as well in his second season with the team.

Billups breakthrough season came a great time as he was an unrestricted free agent that summer. He wanted to remain in Minnesota, especially experiencing the playoffs in his two seasons with the T’Wolves. Salary-cap issues and waiting to see if Brandon could come back from knee surgery put Billups in limbo.

The Pistons came calling and Billups decided to sign with them for six years and $35 million.

He quickly made a name for himself on both ends of the court with his shot making in crunch time and tenacious, never back down competitive spirit at the defensive end.

It is here that Billups earned his nickname “Mr. Big Shot” and he never looked back.

Billups put it all together in the 2003-04 NBA campaign with then career-highs of 16.9 points, 5.7 assists and 38.8 percent shooting from three-point range in leading the Pistons under new coach Larry Brown to a 54-28 record and the No. 3 Seed in the East.

After getting past the Milwaukee Bucks in the opening round of the 2004 Playoffs in five games, the Pistons met the defending Eastern Conference Champion then New Jersey Nets in the Semifinals.

After splitting the first four games of the series, the Nets pulled off a big time win in Detroit in Game 5 127-120 in triple overtime to give them a 3-2 series lead. The Pistons won Game 6 in The Meadowlands 81-75 on May 16, 2004 and Game 7 90-69 on May 20, 2004to take the series 4-3.

In a defensive struggle in the Eastern Conference Finals versus the No. 1 Seed Indiana Pacers, the Pistons won the knock out, drag out series 4-3 by an average score of 75.2 to 72.7 points per contest.

As heavy under dogs in the 2004 NBA Finals against the Lakers, the Pistons outplayed, outworked and outhustled the Western Conference champs to win the series 4-1, taking all three games at the Palace of Auburn Hills.

“Game 5 was here. We wanted to win it here at home. Why? Because there was no better way to say thank you to you guys,” Billups, whose wife Piper and three daughters Cydney, Ciara and Cenaiya were on hand for the ceremony said to the fans during his jersey retirement ceremony.  

“I Chauncey Billups made no doubt about it will always and forever be a Detroit Piston. I love you.”

Billups was named Finals MVP. He averaged 21.0 points, 5.2 assists on 50.1 percent from the field, 47.1 from three-point range and 92.9 percent from the free throw line to win Finals MVP.

“Everybody deserves this. Not just me. I wish I could turn it into thirteen pieces and give a little bit to everybody,” Billups said 12 years ago.

Over the next five seasons as a Piston, Billups would average 16.5, 18.5, 17.0, 17.0 and 12.5 in his next 4-plus seasons with the Pistons.

He would help lead them back to The Finals the next year, but their championship dream was denied by the San Antonio Spurs in Game 7 in Texas as the Spurs won the 2005 title.

The Pistons would make it to the Eastern Conference Finals the next three years in a row, but lost to the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat in 2006 in six games; to the Cleveland Cavaliers and LeBron James in six games in 2007, who lost in The Finals to the Spurs 4-0; and to the eventual NBA champion Boston Celtics of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen and head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers in six games.

On Nov. 3, 2008, Billups was dealt to the Nuggets along with forward Antonio McDyess and Cheikh Samb for All-Star guard Allen Iverson. Pistons GM at the time and Hall of Famer Joe Dumars said that dealing Billups was “the hardest and toughest” move he made as the general manager. Dumars described the lead guard as “…a guy that I have looked at as a little brother.”

After a three-year stint in his second tour of duty with the Nuggets, a brief year with the New York Knicks and two seasons with the Los Angeles Clippers, Billups returned to the Pistons signing a two-year $5.2 million deal on July 16, 2013.

The success he had the first time around in the “Motor City” was not duplicated in the second stint as knee issues allowed Billups to play just 19 games that year and as a result had career lows in points, minutes, steals, field goal percentage and three-point percentage. The Pistons went just 29-53 that season.

After the team announced that they would not be picking up the option on Billups’ contract for the next season, he announced his retirement from the league on Sept. 9, 2014. Billups also cited that his health, having played in more than just 22 games in his last three seasons is why he decided to move on from basketball.

At the beginning of their careers, Ben Wallace and Chauncey Billups were guys many thought were just not good enough to have long impactful careers in the NBA. That they would be around for a few years and fade into the night sky.

When they got to Detroit, all they did was turn their careers around, make All-Star teams, lead the Pistons to six straight Conference Finals; two straight trips to The Finals and deliver the third title in Pistons history back in aforementioned 2004. Today both of their numbers will hang forever in The Palace of Auburn Hills.

When Wallace had his jersey retired back in January, there was some debate amongst many in the NBA analyst circle is Ben Wallace a Hall of Famer?

“As far as me going into the Hall of Fame, it would be a great honor. It would be an honor that I would appreciate and love to be astute upon me on day. I did everything I could do as car as basketball on the floor and when I walked away from the game I was at peace with the game and known that I was going to be judged by my peers,” Wallace said to Matt Winer on the Jan. 17 edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm.

“If they think I’m good enough to make it into the Hall of Fame or my career was good enough. My body of work was good enough to make it into the Hall of Fame that truly would be a blessing for me and my family.”

In looking at the numbers, overall Wallace averaged 5.7 points, 9.6 rebounds and two blocks for his career. His best years came with the Pistons and his first season with the Chicago Bulls in 2006-07. While Dennis Rodman may be the closest thing to the Wallace in terms of the player he was, his total body of work to me would not qualify him to be immortalized in Springfield, OH.

For what he did in his time with the Pistons, he deserves to have his No. 3 jersey, which along with Hall of Famer Dennis Johnson and the late Drazen Petrovic are the only players to have their No. 3’s retired by their respective teams, the Celtics, now Brooklyn Nets and Pistons respectably.

One player did not even get drafted into the league in 1996. The other was the No. 3 overall selection one year later. Both were considered role players that would not last very long in the league. They not only lasted, but they can forever they not only brought Detroit a championship, but no one ever again will wear the No. 3 and No. 1 on the front and back of their Piston jersey. When they think of No. 3, they will say Ben Wallace and when they think of No. 1, they will say Chauncey Billups.

Information, statistics and quotations are courtesy of 1/17/16 3 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Matt Winer, Stu Jackson and Carlos Boozer; 2/1/16 1 a.m. edition of “NBA Tonight” on ESPN 2 with Cassidy Hubbarth and Antonio Davis;;;  2006-07 Sporting News Official NBA Guide 2006-07 Preview 2005-06 Review; 1/16/16 article by James Hawkins on “No Joke: Big Ben Takes Place of Honor Among Piston Greats;” 2/10/16 article on by Rob Perez, “Detroit Pistons Legends Congregate to Retire Chauncey Billups’ Jersey;”;    

Friday, February 19, 2016

J-Speaks: 2015-16 NBA Midseason Review

At the unofficial halfway point of the 2015-16 NBA campaign and a few things have been made very crystal clear so far. The defending NBA champions have been as good as advertised and have played even better than a season ago. Their Western Conference rivals from Texas however are right on their heels. Their opponent they defeated in The Finals this past June has been the best of the Eastern Conference, but their play against the cream of the crop in the NBA forced them to make a change on their bench. For the rest of “The Association,” some team have shown flashes of being a contender, but have been inconsistent; some have underachieved beyond imagination and a few are already in the mode of wait until next year. Here is my review, grades of all 30 NBA teams and my outlook on them for the second half of the season.

Abbreviation Key: ppg (points per game); rpg (rebounds per game); spg (steals per game); bpg (block shots per game); FG% (field goal percentage); 3-Pt.% (three-point percentage); opp.-opponent’s.

Eastern Conference

Atlanta Hawks: 31-24 (1st Southeast Division; No. 4 Seed East) 17-9 at home, 14-15 on the road.

-102.4 ppg-12th; opp. ppg: 99.7-7th; 41.2 rpg-28th

Last season was a fairy tale for the Atlanta Hawks who won a franchise record 60 games and were the best team in the East.

Things have been a little different this season and yet they still are head and shoulders above a number of teams.

Two big distinct differences this season are last year’s starting small forward DeMarre Carroll bolted in free agency for the Toronto Raptors and Kyle Korver (9.3 ppg), has not knocked down shots at a high rate like he did a season ago. who really has not recovered from the ankle injury that slowed him in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals, has been by his career standards abysmal shooting from the floor at 42.8 percent from the floor overall and just 38.7 percent from the three-point line.

To put that into clearer context, he is shooting just 42.8 percent from the floor overall and a solid 38.7 percent from three-point range. For the last five seasons though, Korver has shot 53.6, 41.5, 43.5, 45.7, 47.2 and 49.2 from behind the arc and his aforementioned scoring average is the lowest since his last season with the Chicago Bulls in 2011-12.   

As season ago, the Hawks won incredible 34 out of 39 games from Dec. 2, 2014 to Feb. 11, 2015, which included a franchise record 19 straight wins from Dec. 27, 2014 to Feb. 2, 2015 and tying the fifth longest winning-streak in NBA history.

They became the first team in NBA history to have 17 wins in a calendar month without a loss as they went 17-0 in January, 2015.

Their longest winning streak this season has been just six from Dec. 16, 2015 to Dec. 26, 2015.

After having four All-Star make the East team a year ago last February, making them the eighth team to achieve that in NBA history, the Hawks only had only two representatives this time around in Toronto, ON this past weekend in Millsap (17.7 ppg-Leads team, 8.6 rpg, 3.3 apg, 48.6 FG%) and Horford (15.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 50.7 FG%).

This season’s starting small forward Kent Bazemore (12.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 45.0 FG%, 39.4 3-Pt.%-career-high) has been a solid replacement in the starting five and understudy guard Dennis Schroder (10.7 ppg-career-high, 4.5 apg-career-high) has gotten even better in his third season. There are times that he and Teague are on the floor finishing games together for head coach Mike Budenholzer, last season’s NBA Coach of the Year.

Along with the East being a little better and that this is a whole new season, the likes of perimeter defensive ace Thabo Sefolosha (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg), sharp shooting forward Mike Scott (6.6 ppg, 40.8 3-Pt.%) and off-season acquisition Tiago Splitter (5.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg), who the Hawks acquired from the San Antonio Spurs on July 9, 2015 have been up and down in terms of their play.

Splitter, who the Hawks really were counting on to improve their rebounding is going to have season-ending surgery on his hip in a few days.  

The team had hoped that guard Tim Hardaway, Jr., who they acquired back in June 2015 during the draft was supposed to be instant offense off the bench, but for some reason, he has not gotten the kind of playing time many hoped he would for a team that can really utilize his amazing perimeter skills.

Barring some serious collapse in the second half of this season, the Hawks, who are second in the NBA in assists at 25.3 per game should make the playoffs for an eighth consecutive season, the longest streak in the East.

With that being said, they are at a serious crossroads. They are not good enough to be a serious player in the playoffs, especially since they still are a poor rebounding team. They are tied with the underachieving Washington Wizards in rebounding differential at -4.5.

The only thing they did at the trade deadline was acquire veteran guard Kirk Hinrich from the Chicago Bulls in a three-team deal that involved them, the Bulls and Utah Jazz.

There was a lot of rumors that they would want to trade Horford, who is going to be an unrestricted free agent in July and Teague, whose understudy has made amazing strides in his play this season.

Outlook: Hawks will make the playoffs again but they could be one and done and then they could be saying goodbye to Horford and Teague this off-season. That is a hard fall for a team was in the Conference Finals a season ago.

Grade: B

Boston Celtics: 32-23 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 3 Seed East) 17-10 at home, 15-13 on the road.

-105.7 ppg-4th; opp. ppg: 101.5-T-14th; 45.1 rpg-7th

The Celtics had a lot of questions coming into this season. Could they build on their unexpected run to make the postseason thanks to a 21-11 record after the All-Star break? Would some of their young players take another step in their maturation as professional basketball players? Could head coach Brad Stevens improve even more as the team’s leader on the sideline? More than anything, could General Manager Danny Ainge acquire that superstar player to put the C’s into the conversation as a consistent threat in the playoffs?

Three of those four questions have been answered very loudly and clearly.

The team has shown that last season’s improvement was not a fluke and Stevens has gotten his team to play solidly on both ends of the court.

Offensively, the C’s are fifth in the assists per contest at 24.7. At the defensive end, the Celtics are fourth in field goal percentage allowed giving up just 43.5 percent; third in opponent’s three-point percentage at 32.5 percent; second in steals per contest at 9.5 and they lead the NBA in forced turnovers per game at 16.2.

The young core players like Avery Bradley (15.1 ppg, 1.5 spg, 37.4 3-pt.%), Jae Crowder (14.1 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 spg-Leads team, 44.8 FG%, 35.2 3-Pt.%), Kelly Olynyk (10.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 41.3 3-Pt.%), Jared Sullinger (9.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg), Marcus Smart (9.9 ppg, 3.0 apg, 1.7 spg) and Evan Turner (9.9 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 4.4 apg) have gotten better game in and game out.

Their biggest standout has been first time All-Star Isaiah Thomas (21.5 ppg-Leads team, 6.6 apg-Leads team, 34.7 3-Pt.%), who since he was acquired at the trade deadline a season ago, has been the team’s best player and at times the best player on the court.

Just ask the Los Angeles Clippers and their perennial All-Star lead guard Chris Paul, who he garnered his first 30-point 10 assist night of his career with 36 points and 11 assists going 12 for 21 from the field and 11 for 11 from the free throw line in the team’s 139-134 overtime win nine days ago. 

Sullinger had 21 points, 11 rebounds and seven assists in the contest as well. Crowder had 19 points and eight boards. Bradley had 18 points and Smart had 17.

Veteran forward Amir Johnson (7.5 ppg, 6.3 rpg) has provided veteran leadership and has been a presence in the paint with four double-doubles on the season and eight double-digit rebounding games so far this season.

Stevens has shown the kind of poise, leadership and in game focus to make adjustments like some of the best in the game like Gregg Popovich of the Spurs; Frank Vogel of the Indiana Pacers and Steve Kerr of the Golden State Warriors to name a few.

While some of the Celtics young cogs have made some great improvement, the jury is still out on the likes of center Tyler Zeller, forward Jonas Jerebko.

With a tone of assets like draft picks and talented players on the roster that are rookies like  guard R.J. Hunter, who many said he was the best shooter in this past June’s draft; guards Terry Rozier and James Young; forward Jordan Mickey and veteran forward David Lee (7.1 ppg, 4.3 rpg).

Ainge made no moves at the trade deadline on Thursday, so maybe the Celtics will find their star over the summer where the cap is expected to really explode.

The Celtics have scored some very impressive wins this season and have had some head scratching defeats, which has shown that they are a little ways away from being a serious threat in the East.

The one thing that the C’s have in their favor is their ability to string wins together. They have gone 10-2 in their last 12 games after going 4-8 in their prior 12 contest. They have gone 10-3 in the back end of back-to-back to this point and have won eight straight games at TD Garden.  

Outlook: The Celtics can finish in the Top 3 in the East and have home court in the opening round or not making the playoffs. They have to show they can handle being in the spotlight thanks to how they really closed the first half of this season.

Grade: B+

Brooklyn Nets: 14-40 (4th Atlantic Division) 10-21 at home, 4-19 on the road.

-96.3 ppg-28th; opp. ppg: 103.6-22nd; 42.7 rpg-20th  

It is hard to fathom that just three years ago the Brooklyn Nets were a title contender and now are tied with the Los Angeles Lakers for the third worst record in the NBA.

To make matters worse, they cannot rebuild their team through the draft because when they made some of those major moves to contend like acquiring Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics three years ago, they said goodbye to some of their first round picks.

To add insult to injury, GM Billy King being reassigned in the organization and head coach Lionel Hollins being fired last month. Hollins was replaced by assistant coach Tony Brown.

While they have some money under the salary cap to sign free agents, there really is not a lot for those looking to move on this summer to get excited about signing with the Nets.

While starting center Brook Lopez (20.2 ppg-Leads team, 8.2 rpg, 2.8 bpg-Leads team, 50.2 FG%) and starting forward Thaddeus Young (15.1 ppg, 9.1 rpg-Leads team) have been solid as can be offensively without any consistency at point guard, they have been to be kind inconsistent at the defensive end.

The rest of the roster consist of journeyman like swingman Wayne Ellington (7.3 ppg, 34.3 3-Pt.%); center Andrea Bargnani (6.6 ppg); forward Thomas Robinson and guard Shane Larkin (6.7 ppg, 3.9 apg) and Donald Sloan who saw this season as a chance to either resurrect their careers or prove that they can perform at this level at a consistent rate.

Some of the current young players like rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (5.2 ppg, 6.1 rpg), who has been on the shelf because of a fractured ankle sustained in December, guards Markel Brown and Bojan Bogdanovic (9.4 ppg, 36.3 3-Pt.%) and rookie forward Chris McCullough, who made his NBA debut recently have had some bright moments, but are a long ways away from being serious cornerstones of the team.

The job of trying to build the Nets back up again is in the hands of new general manager Sean Marks, who comes from one of the best organizations in the league in the San Antonio Spurs. Marks spent five seasons with the five-time NBA champions, including one as an assistant coach on their 2014 title team and the last two as the assistant GM.

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst said yesterday on ESPN’s “The Jump” that at first Marks did want to take the job, but he was convinced by owner Mikhail Prokorov who if you listen to him from his first press conference when he took over the team to now is not being very truthful with himself or the fans of Brooklyn about that their team is in a long rebuild.

Outlook: A long finish to this season with a lot of longer tough and dark days ahead. If Prokorov will allow Marks to do what he can, maybe the Nets can get out of the hole they are in. Only time will tell.

Grade: F-

Charlotte Hornets: 27-26 (3rd Southeast Division; No. 8 Seed East) 19-9 at home, 8-17 on the road.

-102.1 ppg-14th; opp. ppg: 100.9-11th; 44.2 rpg-11th

Coming into 2015-16 NBA season, the Hornets, who were trying to make it into the postseason for a second straight season, but crashed and burned thanks in large parts to their off-season acquisitions that just did not fit well together.

Coming into this season, they made some more logical moves on paper and centered their team more around the strengths of their cornerstone on offense Al Jefferson.

Unfortunately, Jefferson (12.5 ppg, 6.1 rpg), who scoring and rebounding averages are the lowest since his second season back in 2005-06 has played just two games since Thanksgiving 2015 because of injury and suspension.

Taking Jefferson’s place as the team’s go-to scorer has been Kemba Walker (20.5 ppg-Leads team, 5.0 apg, 1.8 spg-Leads team), who has scored 30 points or more six times this season.

He put in a career-high and a new team record of 52 points on 14 for 28 from the field and 10 for 12 from the charity stripe in leading the Hornets to a 124-119 double overtime win versus the Utah Jazz on Martin Luther King Day back on Jan. 18. Walker also had nine boards, eight assists and two steals.

The Hornets have gotten major contributions from forward Marvin Williams (10.5 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 38.6 3-Pt.%), who has played well either as a small forward or a stretch power forward. The great all-around of  the other forward Nicolas Batum (14.9 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 5.6 apg-Leads team, 35.3 3-Pt.%), who the team acquired from the Portland Trail Blazers for Gerald Henderson and Noah Vonleh over this past summer is a big reason why the Hornets have gotten back into the thick of the East playoff race.

The Jeremy’s Lin (12.1 ppg) and Lamb (10.5 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 46.3 FG%) have found a home after being in limbo in their prior stops and have provided instant offense off the bench for the Hornets.

Second-year forward Cody Zeller (8.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 49.3 FG%) is a lot more comfortable compared to his rookie season. This year’s lottery selection, the 2015 College Basketball Player of the Year and the No. 9 overall pick out of Wisconsin Frank “The Tank” Kaminsky III (7.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg) along with the acquisition of Spencer Hawes (6.2 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 34.8 3-Pt.%) has been a solid compliments to Zeller, especially lately that head coach Steve Clifford has played them more in the absence of Jefferson.  

After obliterating the Memphis Grizzlies in their gym 123-99 on Dec. 11, 2015, the Hornets were 14-8. Following their seventh consecutive loss on Jan. 10 at the Denver Nuggets 95-92, the Hornets 17-20 and falling fast. Since then the team has gone 10-6 with three straight wins heading into the All-Star break and they finished in style with a 117-95 win at the Indiana Pacers, their first victory in Indianapolis in 7 ½ years.

Walker led the Hornets with 25 points, seven boards and two steals, as they outscored the Pacers 35-18 in the second quarter to pull away. Lamb and Lin had 16 and 14 points respectably off the bench. Kaminsky contributed 10 points and eight boards off the pine. Zeller had 11 points and 11 rebounds. Batum also had 11 points with six boards, five assists and two blocks.

The Hornets shot 51.7 percent from the field; went 12 for 28 from three-point range; out-rebounded the Pacers 45-39; had 24 assists; outscored the Pacers 18-7 in fast break points; outscored them 50-46 in the paint and held the Pacers to 4 for 18 from three-point range.

Owner Rich Cho has done a wonderful job in reshuffling the Hornets’ roster and has “Buzz City” in contention for a playoff spot and wins against the likes of the Bulls, Dallas Mavericks, Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Detroit Pistons, Miami Heat and Grizzlies have made that dream even more realistic.

He made another major move in acquiring veteran guard Courtney Lee (10.0 ppg, 5.8 FG%, 37.0 3-Pt.%) in a three-team trade involving the Grizzlies and Heat.

The Hornets sent P.J. Hairston and four future second round picks. Guard Brian Roberts was sent to the Heat.  

The only downside to the Hornets right now is being without defensive ace and “Mr. Do It All,” Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (12.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg), who re-injured his surgically repaired right shoulder this past Wednesday night at the Pacers after taking a rough fall in the third quarter. An MRI has revealed that MKG suffered a torn labrum in that shoulder that will require season-ending surgery.

That is a big blow for the Hornets and for Kidd-Gilchrist, who in his second and third games back after missing the first 46 with the aforementioned surgery on that shoulder produced 19 points and 12 rebounds in a 101-82 win at the Lakers on Jan. 31 and 11 points and 13 rebounds in the Hornets 106-97 win versus the Cleveland Cavaliers. He had a season-high of 20 points with seven boards in the Hornets 108-91 win versus the Bulls on Feb. 8.

Outlook: If the Hornets defense can return to the form of two years ago and their offense can continue to progress, they will return to back to the postseason after missing out a season ago. Not having MKG will make things a little more difficult though.  

Grade: C

Chicago Bulls: 27-26 (3rd Central Division; No. 7 Seed East) 16-10 at home, 11-15 on the road.

-101.1 ppg-17th; opp. ppg: 101.9-17th; 47.9 rpg-1st

When it came to defending and playing with maximum effort, no team was better than the Chicago Bulls under the leadership of head coach Tom Thibodeau.

Unfortunately, the Bulls did not have the same consistency at the offensive end and that is why during Thibodeau’s five seasons they made it to the Conference Finals just once. It also did not help that after the 2012 playoffs, 2011 league MVP Derrick Rose has missed more games than he has played because of injury.

This off-season, the Bulls parted ways with Thibodeau and turned to former NBA player and Iowa State head coach Fred Hoiberg to lead them to the promise land.

To this point, Bulls have had moments where they look like a serious threat to the Cavaliers, especially the fact they have defeated them their first two meetings of the season. They have for the most part though played down to the level of competition and have lost some tough games to the likes of the Minnesota Timberwolves both time this season; the Hornets, Phoenix Suns, New York Knicks, Milwaukee Bucks and Washington Wizards.

On paper Jimmy Butler (22.4 pig, 5.2 rpg, 4.3 apg, 1.7 spg); Pau Gasol 17.0 ppg, 10.9 rpg-6th NBA, 2.0 bpg-5th NBA) and Derrick Rose (15.9 ppg, 4.8 apg) should be one of the best trios in the league. Gasol while he is a great rebounder and can block shots from time to time has struggled defensively. With Rose we see flashes of his former All-Star and MVP self, but it only happens in quarters expect games. And while Butler’s offensive game has ascended, his ability to take away the team’s best perimeter player has descended this season.

The rest of the roster in forwards Nikola Mirotic (10.6 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 35.4 3-Pt.%), Doug McDermott (8.3 ppg, 42.4 3-Pt.%) and Taj Gibson (8.0 ppg,7.2 rpg); guard Aaron Brooks (7.1 ppg, 36.2 3-Pt.%); rookie forward Bobby Portis (7.0 ppg, 4.6 rpg); guard E’Twaun Moore and forward Tony Snell (5.5 ppg, 35.4 3-Pt.%) comprise one of the best benches in the league when they are on point.

The loss of Joakim Noah (4.3 ppg-career-low, 8.8 rpg), who had season-ending surgery on his left shoulder back in January and is an unrestricted free agent this summer is going to more of a premium on those players to raise their level of play.

Their 113-90 setback versus the Hawks last week before the All-Star break was not only their second loss to them this season, it was their fifth loss in a row at the United Center, which matched their longest home losing streak since Mar. 2010; their fourth straight defeat overall and their 13th setback in their last 15 chances.

The Bulls might have the talent to compete with the East leading Cavs, but from what they have brought to the court, they are not even in the same conversation as their Central Division rivals. That was made even clearer with a 106-95 setback at the Cavs on TNT Thursday night.

With that being said, there is enough talent on this team for a strong finish to this month and the second half of this season to change that perception.

It is very a crying shame for one of the best defensive teams over the past few seasons, which ranks second in opponent’s field goal percentage at 43.1 percent; fifth in opponent’s three point percentage at 33.5 percent and is tied for fifth in block shots per contest at 5.9 is just 11th in rebound differential at a +1.1 and tied for dead last in the NBA in forced turnovers at 11.3 per contest.

At the offensive end, the Bulls are in the middle of the pack in assists per contest at 21.9, 14th in the NBA; is just 27th in field goal percentage at 43.5 percent and while they are 11th in free throw percentage at 78.2 percent, the Bulls rank just 24th in free throw attempts per game at 21.7.

Outlook: The Bulls will make the playoffs, but if they do not establish any consistency, they will have a quick exit and Noah could exit the “Windy City” at season’s end.  

Grade: D

Cleveland Cavaliers: 39-14 (1st Central Division; No. 1 Seed East) 23-4 at home, 16-10 on the road.

-102.9 ppg-8th; opp. ppg: 96.9-4th; 44.9 rpg-8th

This season was only about one thing for Northeast Ohio’s team, winning a title.  

That is the line in the sand that the Cleveland Cavaliers, their leader in four-time league MVP LeBron James (25.0 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 6.5 apg-Leads team) and team management of GM David Griffin and owner Dan Gilbert drew.

Last season, the Cavs made it all the way to The Finals, but came up short in six and they were without All-Star forward Kevin Love (15.7 ppg, 10.3 rpg-Leads team, 36.8 3-Pt.%) and All-Star lead guard Kyrie Irving (19.0 ppg, 4.5 apg) because of injury.

While Love was able to return in start for the regular season from left shoulder surgery, Irving was on the shelf the first 24 games of the season because of a knee injury he sustained in Game 1 of The NBA Finals versus the Golden State Warriors in June 2015.

Even though Cleveland is on top of the East and is head and shoulders talent wise above everyone else, two difficult losses to the aforementioned Warriors and to the Spurs in the span of 96 hours back in the middle of January really caused grave concern for the Cavs front office.

Despite wins at the Nets 91-78 on Jan. 20 and defeating the Clippers 115-102 24 a little over 24 hours later, the Cavs decided that something needed to be done and they fired head coach David Blatt, even though he was an incredible 83-40 in his season and a half-plus with the Cavs. He was replaced by 11-year NBA lead guard and assistant coach Tyronn Lue.

Since the change, the Cavs are playing a lot better across the board, especially after a 96-83 setback versus the Bulls in Lue’s debut back on Jan. 23 on a national stage again.

They have gone 9-3 since the coaching change and have scored over 100 points nine times, going 8-2. The trio of James, Love and Irving have really learned to play better off of each other since the change. That was especially true in the three-game stretch that ended January and entered February.

In the Cavs 114-106 win at the Detroit Pistons, Love had 29 points; Irving had 28 points hitting 11 for 19 from the field and James had 20 points nine rebounds and eight assists. The “Big Three” did it again in the rematch with the Spurs a day later as James had 29 points, five boards, seven assists, two steals and two blocks; Love had 21 points and 11 rebounds and Irving also had 21 points, six assists and two steals as the Cavs beat the Spurs on national television 117-103. It was the Cavs second win in five cracks at the Warriors, Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder. This was also the 10 game over the last two seasons that the trio of James, Irving and Love scored 20 points or more and the Cavs are 9-1 when that takes place.

The Cavs entered the All-Star break with three consecutive wins and ran their winning streak to four with their 106-95 victory over the Bulls on Thursday night on TNT.

Along with James, Irving and Love, who injured his shoulder in the team’s 120-11 win versus the Los Angeles Lakers before the break, they need for the supporting cast of J.R. Smith (12.9 ppg, 40.2 3-Pt.%); Mo Williams (9.1 ppg); Matthew Dellavedova (8.2 ppg, 4.8 apg, 43.2 3-Pt.%); Tristan Thompson (7.7 ppg, 9.5 rpg); Timofey Mozgov; Iman Shumpert and Richard Jefferson to really compliment the “Big Three.”

The front office bolstered that supporting cast with the acquisition of sharp shooting forward Channing Frye from the Magic in three-team deal involving themselves, the Orlando Magic and Portland Trail Blazers.

With Frye, the Cavs have another floor spacer, who can bring a power forward away from the basket, which will allow more operation room for James and Irving to facilitate as well as attack the basket.

Guard Jared Cunningham and a second-round pick were sent to the Magic and longtime Cavalier and a favorite team of James Anderson Varejao was sent to the Trail Blazers along with a future first-round pick.

Outlook: The Cavs have a serious chance to make it to The Finals. Once they get there it is all on them. The Warriors nor the Spurs backed down to the Cavs and they are going to have to take the title away from them if they want it bad enough

Grade: B-

Detroit Pistons: 27-27 (5th Central Division; missed playoffs) 16-10 at home, 11-17 on the road.

-101.8 ppg-16th; opp. ppg: 101.0-12th; 46.7 rpg-4th

It has been seven long painful seasons since the basketball team from the “Motor City” can dream of seeing their team in the NBA Playoffs even though lately they have been a slide winning wise.

It is a far cry from the team that began 2014-15 5-23 under new head coach and team president two seasons back Stan Van Gundy.

Going back to last season, Van Gundy’s first big move was waiving talented but agnatic forward Josh Smith, who is now with the Houston Rockets. The Pistons acquired from the Thunder back-up guard Reggie Jackson, who they re-signed this off-season.

Along with the emergence of Jackson (19.1 ppg, 6.2 apg, 37.0 3-Pt.%), the rise from a gamble as first-round pick three years ago to first time All-Star, center Andre Drummond (17.0 ppg, 14.9 rpg-Leads NBA, 1.5 bpg-Leads team, 1.5 spg-Leads team) has become one of the best big men in the NBA with a league leading 45 double-doubles. He has had double-figures in rebounding in all but seven games this season and he has garnered 20 boards or more eight times.

The acquisitions of Marcus Morris (13.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg), the signing of Aron Baynes (5.7 ppg, 4.5 rpg); the drafting of forward Stanley Johnson (9.1 ppg, 4.2 rpg) and the growth of starting shooting guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (1.6 ppg, 1.5 spg) have been just as important as the great play of Jackson and Drummond.

Two very big weaknesses of the Pistons that can cripple this Pistons playoff hopes is they are dead last, 30th in the league in free throw percentage at 64.7 percent, which is in large part due to Drummond, who shoots a dismal 35 percent from the charity stripe.

The other chink in the Pistons armor is that they have one of the lowest scoring benches in the league.

To improve the roster, the Pistons this past Wednesday acquired forward Tobias Harris (13.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg 46. FG%) from the Magic for guard Brandon Jennings and forward Ersan Ilyasova.

They also acquired forward/center Donatas Motiejunas and guard Marcus Thornton (10.0 ppg, 33.8 3-Pt.%) for center Joel Anthony and a protected 2016 first-round pick.

Harris is a younger version and better player than Ilyasova. He can score inside and out, rebound at a high rate and plays with maximum effort at all times. The additions of Thornton and Motiejunas should bolster one of the worst benches in the league and wil allow Anthony Tolliver, Spencer Dinwiddie and veteran Steve Blake to play their roles and not play outside of themselves.

One guy who could help if he can return is Jodie Meeks, who has been out since early in the season because of foot surgery.

With six losses in their last eight games, the Pistons have fallen below the playoff line in the East, but are just ½ a game behind the Bulls for the No. 8 and final playoffs spot. The Pistons have taken two of the first three meetings against the Bulls this season and they have one more meeting on Apr. 2 and if things stand, that third win could be very meaningful.

It did not take long for Van Gundy to assemble the kind of team that can play the brand of ball that he coached back when he was with the Magic and Howard was his horse in the middle. The Pistons hope that Drummond can play to that kind of level for years to come. He and Jackson will be the reason the Pistons make it back to the postseason for the first time since 2009 or not.

Outlook: If the Pistons can play better defense and they can be average at the foul line, their playoff dreams will become reality. They do not correct those areas, they will be on the outside looking in again.  

Grade: B

Indiana Pacers: 28-25 (2nd Central Division; No. 6 Seed East) 17-9 at home, 11-16 on the road.

-102.5 ppg-10th; opp. ppg: 100.3 8th; 44.1 rpg-12th

Without their top scorer Paul George for all but six games in 2014-15, the Pacers streak of postseason appearances ended at four on the final night of the regular season.

Behind a new offensive philosophy and a full off-season to rehab, George (23.3 ppg-10th NBA, 7.1 rpg, 4.0 apg, 1.9 spg-Leads team, 38.4 3-Pt.%), who made his third All-Star appearance of his career is back and better than ever. He has recorded 10 double-doubles this season and has scored 30 points or more 16 times this season.

In changing their approach to how they play offense, the Pacers traded All-Star center Roy Hibbert to the Lakers and let David West opt out of the last year of his contract of nearly $12 million and he signed with the Spurs.

Rookie center Myles Turner (9.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg) has shown in flashes he can be the Pacers man in the middle for years to come.

The addition of Jordan Hill (9.3 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 51.9 FG%), alongside a much improved Ian Mahinmi (8.4 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 59.7 FG%) and Lavoy Allen (5.7 ppg, 5.7 rpg) have been huge for the Pacers, especially since their prized free agent Monta Ellis (13.9 ppg, 4.8 apg) has not really clicked in terms of his shooting or as a compliment to starting lead guard George Hill (13.0 ppg, 43.3 3-Pt.%), who has really been more of a shooter than a pure point guard in his time with the Pacers.

The shooting void has been more than made up for by the play of C.J. Miles (11.9 ppg, 34.5 3-Pt.%), who has been very steady in his second season with the Pacers.

Compared to the past four seasons, the Pacers are a little better offensively ranking 16th in field goal percentage at 44.7 percent and three-point percentage at 35.0 percent. They are solid at getting to the foul line, ranking 12th in attempts at 23.6 perc contest and they shoot a solid 75.2 percent.

At the defensive end, where the Pacers made their money under head coach Frank Vogel, their eighth in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.2 percent and their fourth in opponent’s three-point percentage, surrendering 33.0 percent.

The Pacers though are just 17th in block shots per contest at 4.6 and they are 19th in rebound differential at -0.8.

They are ranked fourth in steals per game at 9.3 and third in forced turnovers at 16.0.

With a 91-86 win at the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 8, the Pacers stood at 21-15. They have really cooled off since then dropping 10 of their last 17 games and are 3-3 in their last six games.

One big difference for George now as compared to earlier in his career, he had the likes of Hibbert and West to help carry the load offensively. With those guys gone, he is the focal point of the team and the one guy that the opponent sets their attention to at all times.

For the Pacers to make it back to the playoffs, George must return to the level he was performing at offensively earlier in the season and he needs more consistency from the likes of Miles, Ellis and Hill on both ends. They also need for Turner to continue his maturation on both ends.

Outlook: Consistency offensively and better rebounding will get the Pacers back to the postseason and they have a chance to maybe win a round or two depending on the match up.

Grade: B+

Miami Heat: 29-24 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 5 Seed East) 16-11 at home, 13-13 on the road.

-96.0 ppg-29th; opp. ppg: 96.3 2nd; 43.1 rpg-16th

With a refurbished roster, the return to health of the top players on the team, the Miami Heat looked to be a team that had the makings of a sleeper contender. There have been moments of that dream becoming a reality and there have been other times that they have a long ways to go.

The fortunes of the success of South Florida’s team rest in the hands of perennial All-Stars Dwyane Wade (18.7 ppg, 4.7 apg, 45.8 FG%), who is still one of the best players in the business, even though he may not be able to do it like he has in the past and Chris Bosh (19.1 ppg-Leads team, 7.4 rpg, 36.5 3-Pt.%), who has made a remarkable return from the health scare of blood clots that sideline him the second of last season to be selected as an All-Star for the 11th time in his career.

Unfortunately, Bosh according to an Associated Press report has resumed taking blood thinners to treat a blood clot. He did not play in the 65th annual All-Star Game this past Sunday due to a calf strain.

Bosh is expected to return this season, but there is no timetable of when that will be.

That puts more of an emphasis for center  Hassan Whiteside (12.2 ppg, 11.0 rpg-5th NBA, 3.9 bpg-Leads NBA, 61.7 FG%-2nd NBA), who has given the Heat a defensive presence in the paint and on the offensive glass to raise the level of play even higher.

He has also shown an ability to score in the low post. The only thing holding this talented big man, who has 19 double-doubles and three triple-doubles on the season is that he can get distracted via physical play from the opposition. He has to be able to keep his composure in the midst of that and if he can, the Heat can make some noise this postseason.

The supporting cast on paper is one of the best in the league, but injuries have hampered them from really making major contributions.

Starting point guard Goran Dragic (12.2 ppg, 5.3 apg-Leads team) got off to a tough start, but he really came in December, 2015 averaging 12.6 points, 6.2 assists per contest, connecting on 47.4 percent of his shot attempts. He performed even better to start the New Year with averages of 14.2 points, 4.6 assists per contest going 52.5 percent from the floor and 46.2 percent from three-point range.

A calf strain put him on the shelf for eight games and without him in the lineup in the early part of this month, the Heat struggled going 3-5 and averaged just 87.5 points per contest.  

Other key members of the supporting cast in forward Luol Deng (10.6 ppg, 4.7 rpg), guard Tyler Johnson (8.7 ppg, 38.0 3-Pt.%), forward Josh McRoberts and forward/center Chris Andersen have been hampered by injuries at times this season missing a total of 108 games because of injury. Johnson because of shoulder surgery is currently on the shelf and there is no timetable for his return.

That has made the contributions of Whiteside, who missed six games because of an oblique injury and two games because of a right knee injury this month even more important.

The contributions of Gerald Green (10.1 ppg), providing instant offense off the bench have been huge as well as that of Amar’e Stoudemire, who has garnered two double-doubles recently of 13 points and 12 rebounds in the Heat’s 105-87 win versus the Hawks on Jan. 31 and in the Heat’s 115-102 win at the Hawks on Feb. 2, Stoudemire had 14 points and 10 boards. Stoudemire came close to a double-double on two other occasions when he had 12 points and eight boards to go along with two blocks when the Heat won at the Milwaukee Bucks 107-103 on Jan. 29 and he had eight points and 10 rebounds in the Heat’s 89-84 win at the Bulls.

The Miami Heat as they have been since Pat Riley came to town first as a head coach now in the front office has made its bones at the defensive end and this season is no different ranking seventh in opponent’s shooting percent allowing just 44.0 percent from the field. Their eighth in opponent’s shooting percentage surrendering just 33.7 percent. Thanks to Whiteside they are second in block shots per contest at 6.5 and for the first time in quite some time, they are a decent rebounding team, ranking 10 in rebound differential at +1.4.

While the Heat shoot a solid 46.0 percent from the field offensively, they rank just 28th in three-point percentage at 32.3 percent and are just 23rd in free throw percentage at 74.0 percent.

It is one thing on paper to know that you can compete with the likes of the Cavaliers, Hawks, Toronto Raptors in the East, but Sports, especially pro sports are not played on paper. The Heat have the making of a team that can really be a factor in the East. Their health for the rest of this season and their offense catching up with their defense will be critical.

Outlook: The Heat will make it back to the playoffs after a one-year absence. How far they will go will depend on the health of Wade and Bosh and how the supporting cast gels with the stars of the Heat in the second half of the season.

Grade: A-

Milwaukee Bucks: 22-32 (5th Central Division) 15-8 at home, 7-24 on the road.

-98.1 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 102.9-19th; 41.7 rpg-27th

Two years ago, the Milwaukee Bucks were at 15-67. Last year, they completely flipped the switch and finished 41-41 and battled the Chicago Bulls tooth and nail in the postseason before falling in six games. Coming into this season with the addition of Greg Monroe in free agency; the re-signing of Khris Middleton for 5 years at $70 million and the return of Jabari Parker from a knee injury that cut his rookie season short last season, the Bucks were expected to make the playoffs again.

Middleton (17.9 ppg-Leads team, 40.5 3-Pt.%) has lived up to every penny he in his new five-year $70 million contract he signed this off-season; Monroe (16.7 ppg, 9.7 rpg-Leads team, 52.1 FG%) has been a tremendous offensive presence in the paint, while also garnering 27 double-doubles, which is tied for eighth in the league and the “Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo (15.9 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 50.5 FG%) has risen his game even higher so far in season three of his career. 

While Parker (11.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 48.8 FG%) has come back well from his knee injury, he has yet to be that difference maker they though he would be.

One guy who has been inconsistent for the team has been lead guard Michael Carter-Williams (11.5 ppg, 5.5 apg-Leads team, 5.1 rpg, 1.6 spg-Leads team). He has shown that he can get into the paint and score with the best of them. With that being said, his has yet to show that he can consistently make shots from the perimeter and that more than anything else is why his understudy Jerryd Bayless (10.5 ppg, 43.6 3-Pt.%) mainly plays at the point in crunch time.

The biggest problem for the Bucks this season has been their play at the defensive end, which was their greatest strength a season ago. Despite ranking eighth in the league in shot blocks per game, thanks in large part to back-up forward/center John Henson (6.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 2.0 bpg-8th NBA) at 5.6 per game, teams this season are shooting 45.0 percent against them this season, ranking 19th in league. The opposition is shooting 35.9 percent against them from the three-point line, ranking 19th in the NBA. A team that thrived on turning their opponent over a season ago is getting just 7.8 steals per game, 16th in the NBA and they are forcing just 14.5 turnovers per game this season, far cry from the 16.6 they forced a season ago, which led the NBA. 

The other thing that is missing from the Bucks this season is veteran leadership in the locker room. The likes of ZaZa Pachulia and Jared Dudley, who are now with the Dallas Mavericks and Washington Wizards respectably this season played huge rolls in making sure the likes of Antetokounmpo, Carter-Williams and Parker understood the messages that were being given by head coach Jason Kidd through those veterans.

Speaking of Kidd, he was on the shelf for 17 games this season after undergoing hip surgery. The team went 8-9 under the guidance of assistant coach Joe Prunty.

The team hoped that the likes of O.J. Mayo (8.5 ppg), Chris Copeland and Greivis Vasquez could fill that void vacated by Dudley and Pachulia, but that has not been the case.

There is way too much talent, which also consist of the likes of rookie guard Rashad Vaughn, forward Johnny O’Bryant, center Miles Plumlee and guard Tyler Ennis for the Bucks to be this underachieving. It is one thing to take a step backwards, especially when teams like the Indiana Pacers and Heat, who missed the playoffs a season ago have improved greatly that making the playoffs was no guarantee, but being where they are right now is disappointing.

Outlook: Making a second straight appearance in the playoffs may be out of reach for the Bucks They have to decide what their philosophy is going to be for the rest of this season and going forward Are they going to become the type of team that offensive thrives by scoring in the paint? A perimeter oriented offense that lacks consistent three-point shooting or a defensive minded team like they were a season ago where they used their freakish length that allowed them to make easy switches to cause turnovers and block shots, which creates fast break chances?

Grade: F

New York Knicks: 23-32 (3rd Atlantic Division) 14-15 at home, 9-17 on the road.

-99.1 ppg-23rd; opp. ppg: 101.3-13th; 43.9 rpg-13th

Considering where the New York Knicks were a season ago, when they were 22-22, they put themselves in a position that was just a dream a season ago, making the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Carmelo Anthony (21.4 ppg-Leads team, 7.9 rpg-Leads team) has made a tremendous effort to make his teammates better, averaging a career-high 4.2 apg. Kristaps Porzingis (13.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 1.9 bpg-Leads team, 34.9 3-Pt.%) went from being booed when he got drafted this past June 2015 to a leading candidate for Rookie of the Year and a cornerstone of the franchise for the next 10-15 years.

The supporting cast of guards Arron Afflalo (14.2 ppg, 45.1 FG%, 37.3 3-Pt.%) and Langston Galloway (8.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 37.6 3-Pt.%), center Robin Lopez (9.3 ppg, 6.4 rpg), forward Derrick Williams (8.9 ppg, 3.7 rpg) and rookie guard Jerian Grant have had major moments that allowed the Knicks to win a number of games early in the season.

All of the Knicks great fortune went by the wayside following their 118-111 victory in overtime versus the Jazz on Jan. 20.

Since that time, the Knicks enter the second half of this season on a five-game skid and have suffered nine losses in their last 10 games. In a number of those setbacks, their biggest culprit has been getting off to slow starts in games having to fight back from double-digits only to fall to defeat.

That was enough for management to give head coach Derek Fisher the axe and he was replaced by Kurt Rambis.

What will help this team going forward for the rest of the season is coming out of the gates in games with more focus and attention to detail. It is one thing to have a furious comeback in a game, but it means nothing if you do not finish the deal with a victory.

On top of that, the Knicks are in major need of a point guard. Their lead guard currently Jose Calderon (7.5 ppg, 4.1 apg, 46.9 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%) has had a solid career in the league and overseas, but he is a far cry from what this team needs and Galloway and Grant are too inexperienced to be the kind of floor general that Knicks need to get them to the top.

That need will have to wait because the Knicks did nothing at the trade deadline this past Thursday.

Last season was the worst in Knicks franchise history going 17-65. They have gone from God awful to inconsistent. Early in this season, they were becoming good. There are a couple of moves and seasons away from being a playoff contender. The question now is, will Anthony be around when this team and Porzingis become good?

Outlook: The Knicks chances of making the playoffs were pretty high in the first part of this season. Their recent skid may have put that dream out of reach. For them to get back into the thick of playoff contention, they must find a way to start games better and Anthony and Porzingis must be at the head of that.  

Grade: C-

Orlando Magic: 23-29 (5th Southeast Division) 14-13 at home, 9-16 on the road.

-99.4 ppg-22nd; opp. ppg: 100.8-10th; 43.8 rpg-14th

When the Orlando Magic turned to a gritty player from their past in Scott Skiles to be their new head coach, the objective was clear. That the Magic, a team full of young talented players needed to finally put it all together and make a serious push to make the playoffs this year.

The good thing that Skiles had in his favor walking into this is that he had as mentioned talented young and hungry players that he Magic either drafted or acquired to work with that have gotten better individually over the last couple of seasons.

In the middle stands center Nikola Vucevic (17.0 ppg-Leads team, 8.9 rpg-Leads team 49.8 FG%), who has been a double-double machine the last two season and that has been the case this season with 24 double-doubles, ranking 12th in the league.

The Magic also have a very young and talented backcourt in Elfrid Payton (11.1 ppg, 5.8 apg-Led team) and his running mate Victor Oladipo (14.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg 4.0 apg), who has been consistent as a starter or off the bench.

Along with finding a new head coach this past off-season, the other main priority for the team of Walt Disney World was keeping emerging forward Tobias Harris (13.7 ppg, 7.0 rpg rpg, 46.4 FG%), who was coached by Skiles with the Bucks. The Magic re-signed Harris, to a new four-year $64 million contract and while he may not be a household name yet, he has been solid with the Magic.

He was dealt earlier in the week to the Pistons for guard Brandon Jennings and Ersan Ilyasova (11.3 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 36.3 3-Pt.%).

This trade gives the Magic two key veterans who can really play and are solid players who can have an impact off the bench.

Other talents that make up the Magic include swingman Evan Fournier (14.0 ppg, 4.5 FG% 39.8 3-Pt.%), who at times has been the best player on the floor for the Magic; Aaron Gordon (7.7 ppg, 6.1 rpg), who is not only healthy in his second-year, but much improved; rookie guard Mario Hezonja from Croatia, who has really played well in February, averaging 9.2 points and second-year guard Shabazz Napier.

Coming into the New Year, the Magic were 19-13 and were in prime position to make the postseason for the first time since 2012. A big reason for that is their improvement at the defensive end, a calling card of Skiles in his coaching career with the Bucks, Bulls and Phoenix Suns.

While it may not be the greatest defense by the numbers, it is a big improvement from where the Magic ranked over the past couple of years.

They are 14th in opponent’s field goal percentage at 44.6 percent; 15th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 35.1 percent; 13th in block shots per game at 5.2 and 14th in steals per contest at 7.9.

Since January though, the Magic have gone 4-16, with a record of 3-6 in games decided by six points or less. They have also gone in this stretch against teams at. 500 or over 3-12. This is one of the draw backs of being a young team. The inability to win close games and being able to get over the hump against teams that know what to do in the clutch and how to come out and set the tone right from the opening tip.

Despite a rough last month and a half for the Magic, they are just 2.5 games and just three in the loss column behind the Hornets for the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the East. The goal of making the postseason is still in front of GM Rob Hennigan, Skiles and the Magic.

Outlook: Winning close games and stealing a few from teams over .500 will have the Magic in the playoff hunt, but they will fall short.

Grade: C+

Philadelphia 76ers: 8-45 (5th Atlantic Division) 5-21 at home, 3-24 on the road.

-95.1 ppg-30th; opp. ppg: 105.3-25th; 42.0 rpg-26th

There was a time before Chris Paul and Blake Griffin came to the Clippers via trade and the draft that the Los Angeles Clippers were the worst team in the NBA. That title over the last three seasons belongs to one of the most recognizable franchises in the NBA. The franchise that gave us Dr. J., Charles Barkley, Maurice Cheeks, Allen Iverson, Bobby Jones, the late Darryl Dawkins now name a few. The Philadelphia 76ers of today are a far cry from that.

To put Year 3 of the team’s rebuild under GM Sam Hinkie, the Sixers lost their first 18 games of this season and 28 straight dating back to the 2014-15 season, which became. That 28th straight defeat at the Memphis Grizzlies 92-84 on Nov. 29, 2015 became the longest streak in the four major pro sports in the United States [NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB].

The streak ended on Dec. 1, 2015 with a 103-91 defeat versus the Los Angeles Lakers, another great NBA franchise struggling, more on them later. The Sixers followed that up with another long losing streak of 12, which ended the day after Christmas at the Phoenix Suns 111-104.

After a 95-91 setback at the Utah Jazz 95-91 on Dec. 28, 2015, the Sixers closed out 2015 with a 110-105 win at the Sacramento Kings, their third win of the season.

While the Sixers have been able to draft some very talented players in the likes of forward Nerlens Noel (10.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg-Leads team, 1.7 spg-Leads team, 1.6 bpg) No. 6 overall three years ago and center Jahlil Okafor (17.1 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 49.4 FG%) No. 3 overall this past June, the jury is still out if they can play together.

The Sixers supposedly had their point guard of the future in Michael Carter-Williams, but he was dealt at the trade deadline last season. The team made up for that mistake right before Christmas in acquiring Ish Smith (15.3 ppg, 7.9 apg-Leads team, 1.5 spg) from the New Orleans Pelicans for two second-round draft picks and they finally had the semblance of a true professional lead guard.

Along with acquiring a true floor general, the Sixers on Dec. 8, 2015 hired NBA front office legend and Hall of Famer in Jerry Colangelo as the Chairman of Basketball Operations and Special Advisor to the Managing General Partner. Ten days later, they hired Mike D’Antoni, the architect behind the high octane offense of the Phoenix Suns in the middle of the 2000s as the associate head coach under head coach Brett Brown.

They also added some veteran leadership for the locker room in signing former All-Star forward and one of very good men in forward Elton Brand.

The team also acquired another asset in a second-round pick along with center Joel Anthony from the Rockets.

The presence of Brand, along with veteran forward Carl Landry give the likes of Robert Covington (11.4 ppg, 5.8 rpg), guard Isaiah Canaan (10.2 ppg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), Jerami Grant (9.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 1.6 bpg-Leads team), guard Hollis Thompson (8.9 ppg, 38.7 3-Pt.%) and guards Nik Stauskas (7.5 ppg) and T.J. McConnell (6.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 4.8 apg) to see, talk to and learn about how to be a great pro both on and off the court.

Since the additions in the front office, on the bench and on the court, the Sixers have gone 7-15 and while they may not look good, it is way better considering how the Sixers have been the last 2 ½ seasons.

They are still a long ways away from being just a mediocre team, let alone a playoff contender. The 3rd overall pick of the 201 draft Joel Embiid has yet to see the court because of a stress fracture in the navicular bone in his foot and the No. 12 overall pick Dario Saric is still overseas in the Turkish League and is not coming over anytime soon.

At some point, the Sixers will no longer be cellar dwellers in the East, let alone the league, the question is will Hinkie be around to see that?

Outlook: The Sixers will have a couple more double-digit losing streaks. Noel and Okafor will hopefully find some chemistry together on both ends of the court. Coach Brown can win a few games so his team can gain some confidence for the future.

Grade: F-

Toronto Raptors: 35-17 (1st Atlantic Division; No. 2 Seed in East) 18-6 at home, 17-11 on the road.

-101.8 ppg-15th; opp. ppg: 97.4-5th; 43.3 rpg-15th  

They won their second straight Atlantic Division title a season ago. Set a new franchise record with 49 wins. Unfortunately for the second straight season, the Toronto Raptors flamed out in the playoffs in embarrassing fashion by the Washington Wizards in a four-game three-point avalanche sweep.

The Wizards averaged 110.3 points per game; shot 44.3 percent from three-point range; out-rebounded the Raptors by 9.8 per game and averaged 26.5 assists compared to the Raptors 19.5 in the first-round butt kicking a season ago.

The Wizards backcourt of Bradley Beal (20.8 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 4.0 apg in the series) and John Wall (17.3 ppg, 10.0 apg in the series), outplayed Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan, who respectably averaged 12.8 and 20.3 points per contest, but shot just 40.0 and 31.6 percent respectably from the field. Lowry shot an abysmal 21.7 percent from three-point range in the series.

This season, the Raptors and their starting backcourt have done a complete 180 and look every bit like the second best team in the East.

An in shape Lowry (21.0 ppg, 6.3 apg-Leads team, 4.9 rpg, 2.2 spg-2nd NBA, 39.2 3-Pt.%) and a healthy DeRozan (23.4 ppg-8th NBA, 4.3 rpg, 4.1 apg) have played like the best backcourt in the East and the second best in the entire league behind “The Splash Brothers” Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson of the defending champion Warriors. That is why Lowry they made the All-Star team for the second straight season as a starter and for DeRozan for the second time in his career respectably.

The additions of forward Luis Scola (9.4 ppg, 5.3 rpg), guard Cory Joseph (8.8 ppg, 3.1 apg) and center Bismack Biyombo (5.4 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 1.6 bpg-Leads team) have given the Raptors depth and a serious presence at the defensive end, where head coach Dwane Casey’s team took a major step back a season ago.  

The opposition shot 45.9 percent against them last year, ranking 26th in the league. The Raptors were 21st in rebound differential at -1.0 and ranked just 23rd in block shots per contest at 4.4.

So far this season, the Raptors are No. 10 in opponent’s field goal percentage allowing just 44.2 percent shooting. They are seventh in rebounding differential at a +2.4 and 12th in block shots per game at 5.3.

The contributions of Joseph, Scola and Biyombo along with guard Terrence Ross (9.2 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 38.6 3-Pt.%) and forwards Patrick Patterson (6.3 ppg, 34.8 3-Pt.%) and James Johnson have been especially important because prized free agent DeMarre Carroll (11.7 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.7 spg, 37.8 3-Pt.%) and center Jonas Valanciunas (12.3 ppg, 9.4 rpg, 54.9 FG%) have been shelved because of a knee injury and broken hand respectably.

While he was spotted taking jumpers in the Raptors last game prior to the All-Star break at the Minnesota Timberwolves during pregame warmups of the 117-112 setback on Feb. 10, there is no timetable for the return of Carroll.

Even with a strong roster, there were rumors that GM Masai Ujiri wanted to make another move to give the Raptors an even better chance at advancing in the playoffs for the first time since 2001 at the trade deadline. Nothing happened though and with the salary cap going to balloon this off-season, the Raptors will see what they can do with what they have currently, especially with DeRozan set to be an unrestricted free agent this July.

Outlook: The Raptors will surpass the 50-win mark for the first time in franchise history. They should make it to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will fall to the Cavs.   

Grade: A

Washington Wizards: 23-28 (4th Southeast Division) 11-16 at home, 12-12 on the road.

-102.7 ppg-9th; opp. ppg: 105.4-26th; 39.7 rpg-30th

With 46 wins last season represented the most that the Washington Wizards garnered since 2005, when they won 45 games. Last season was the second straight season they reached the Semifinals and lost in six games, this time to the Hawks.

In the off-season, the Wizards did not make any major tweaks to their roster in an effort to land perennial All-Star forward Kevin Durant of the Oklahoma City Thunder when he becomes a free agent when his current team’s season ends.

The one player they let go in free agency who was a big time part of the team is veteran swingman Paul Pierce who opted out of his contract and signed with the Clippers.

His veteran presence and big time shot making in the clutch has been sorely missed by a team that has been ravaged by injuries.

Sharp shooter Bradley Beal (18.6 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 40.0 3-Pt.%); guard Gary Neal (9.8 ppg, 41.0 3-Pt.%), forwards Nene (9.0 ppg, 4.4 rpg) and Kris Humphries (6.4 ppg, 4.1 rpg) have missed a total of 78 games because of injury. Swingman Alan Anderson, who the Wizards really expecting a lot from this season has yet to play recovering from left ankle surgery.

Inconsistency from starting center Marcin Gortat (13.7 ppg, 9.9 rpg-Leads team, 54.6 FG%) inside on both ends and forwards Otto Porter, Jr. (12.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.7 spg) and Jared Dudley (8.8 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 46.3 3-Pt.%) from the perimeter has made winning much more difficult for the Wizards. When these three have played well, the Wizards have looked like a contender many hoped they would be in the East. When they have struggled, the Wizards have had a difficult time stringing wins together.

Rookie forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. has shown flashes of being a player of promise and is a players willing to work at his craft, but is still raw and has a lot of room to improve.

At the trade deadline this past Thursday, the Wizards got a major upgrade in acquiring forward Markieff Morris (11.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg) from the Phoenix Suns for forwards DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries and a protected first-round pick.

How this deal helps the Wizards is on Morris. Whether he starts or comes off the bench, he must bring it, especially how things ended with the Suns. If his head is on straight like it was before his twin brother Marcus was dealt from the Suns this past off-season, the Wizards got a steal at the trade deadline.

The one person that has been consistent has been lead guard John Wall (20.0 ppg-Leads team-career-high, 10.0 apg-3rd NBA, 4.5 rpg, 2.1 spg-6th NBA), who is second to Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder amongst guards in double-doubles with 31 and is tied for fourth overall in double-doubles with All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins of the Sacramento Kings.

Wall’s understudy Ramon Sessions (10.0 ppg) and guard Garrett Temple (8.1 ppg) have proven to be reliable with their play whether coming off the bench or starting when called upon.

Even with all the injuries and the inconsistent play they have had in the first half of the season, the Wizards are just 2 games, two on the loss side behind the Bulls for the No. 8 and Final playoff spot. For them to make their third straight playoff appearance though, they need the likes of Beal, Gortat and Nene to play consistently and at a high level on both ends.

While they are fifth in steals per game at nine and second in forced turnovers per game at 16.1, the Wizards surrender 46.9 percent from the floor, 28th in the league; allowing 38.6 percent from three-point range, 30th in the NBA and ranking dead last in rebound differential at -4.7 will not cut it for Randy Wittman’s unit.

Their march to make the playoffs got off to a great start with a 103-89 win versus the Utah Jazz on Thursday night.

Gortat had 22 points and 10 rebounds. Wall also had a double-double of 17 points and 11 assists to go along with six boards. Nene had 16 points and five boards. Beal also had 16 off the bench and Sessions chipped in with 13 points.

The Wizards shot 48.8 percent on the night and held the Jazz to 40.3 percent from the field.

Outlook: If they show improvement defensively and Wall is on an island offensively, the Wizards will be on the outside of the playoffs looking in and that will be the end of Wittman.

Grade: F-

Western Conference

Dallas Mavericks: 29-26 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 6 Seed West) 15-11 at home, 14-15 on the road.

-100.8 ppg-18th; opp. ppg: 101.7-15th; 42.9 rpg-19th  

When prized free agent center DeAndre Jordan left the Mavericks at the altar in free agency to re-sign with the Los Angeles Clippers, it seemed like another solid player slipped through the fingers of owner Mark Cuban. The news that newest addition Wesley Matthews and starting forward Chandler Parson would not start the season recovering from Achilles’ tendon and knee surgeries respectably and that perennial All-Star Dirk Nowitzki is one year older did not ease the reality that the consistent winning days in Big D were winding down. Well those thoughts have been premature to say the least.

Even at age 37 and in year No. 18 on the professional hardwood, Nowitzki (17.6 ppg-Leads team, 6.6 rpg, 44.5 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%) is still scoring with the best of them.

The signing of ZaZa Pachulia (10.0 ppg, 10.7 rpg-Leads team), who had a career-best 22 double doubles so far this season has made people forget about Jordan. Center JaVale McGee (5.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg) has also had his moment in his first season as a Maverick in limited minutes.

While his numbers are slightly down from the past five seasons with the Portland Trail Blazers, Matthews (12.1 ppg, 34.8 3-Pt.%) has been solid on both ends, especially from three-point range where he has made 116 so far.

He has been a solid compliment to Parsons (12.6 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 48.2 FG%, 40.0 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 16.1 points and 17.4 points, 5.6 rebounds in January and so far in February while shooting 51.0 and 47.8 percent from the field and 43.8 and 45.5 from three-point range respectably the past month and a half.

Guards Deron Williams (14.1 ppg, 5.4 apg-Leads team) and Raymond Felton (9.6 ppg) came into this season with a lot to prove after the Nets bought out Williams’ contract this off-season after an inconsistent 4 ½ years and Felton has put some off-the-court issues a season ago have been a solid two-headed monster, along with Devin Harris (7.4 ppg) at the lead guard spot.

It is hard to think that head coach Rick Carlisle’s team will win 50-plus games for the 13th time in the last 16 years in the rugged Western Conference. They do have a great chance to make the playoffs for the 15th time in the last 16 years.

Outlook: The Mavs should make the playoffs, but will have a quick exit.  

Grade: B-

Denver Nuggets: 22-32 (4th Northwest Division) 11-15 at home, 11-17 on the road.

-100.5 ppg-20th; opp. ppg: 103.4-21st; 44.6 rpg-9th

Three years ago, the Denver Nuggets made the playoffs for the 10 consecutive season, a major accomplishment it the rough and rugged West. That is the season where the Nuggets what has become the rugged West. That was the season they went 57-25 under the guidance of George Karl, establishing a new franchise record for wins as an NBA team. They were the No. 3 Seed in the West, but were eliminated in the first round by the up and coming Warriors, who two seasons later captured the NBA title.

This version of the Nuggets is trying to become that kind of consistent winner under new head coach Mike Malone.

So far the results have been mixed. There are night like back on Jan. 13 when they defeated the Golden State Warriors 112-110 that they have a look of a team that can become something special in the future. Then they can moments where they look like a young team trying to figure it out like when they lost eight straight from Nov. 18, 2015 to Dec. 2, 2015.

Rookie lead guard Emmanuel Mudiay (11.4 ppg, 5.9 apg-Leads team), the No. 7 overall pick in last June’s draft has had some good moments in his first season, but he was slowed early on by an ankle injury that shelved him for 14 games. His biggest area of improvement over the rest of this season and in the summer is his shot and shot selection. You cannot be a top flight point guard in the NBA when you are shooting 34.3 percent from the field and 27.2 from three-point territory.

The good thing for Mudiay and Harris is that they have quality veterans in Jameer Nelson (7.9 ppg, 5.0 apg) and new acquisition D.J. Augustin from the Thunder.

The Nuggets also got forward Steve Novak and two second-round picks form OKC in exchange for guard Randy Foye.

The team’s best player this season has truest example of that has been reserve Will Barton (15.5 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 45.5 FG% 38.0 3-Pt.%), whose break out season has him in the running for the 2016 Sixth Man of the Year.

Mudiay’s backcourt mate in Gary Harris (11.1 ppg, 46.2 FG%, 36.5 3-Pt.%) is much improved from his rookie season and both look like the backcourt of the future in the Colorado Rockies, no pun intended on the MLB team.

The front court consist of young, talented and versatile forwards and centers in rookie Nikola Jokic (9.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 52.6 FG%, 39.0 3-Pt.%); second-year center Joffrey Lauvergne (7.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 49.0 FG%) and Jusuf Nurkic (6.5 ppg, 5.1 rpg), who has been slowed this season by a knee injury that has shelved him for 37 games.

Those young bigs have had the aide of the likes of Danilo Gallinari (19.7 ppg-Leads team, 5.4 rpg, 36.5 3-Pt.%), who has gotten back to the level he was at offensively before a devastating knee injury a couple of years back slowed him down.

It was not too long ago that forward Kenneth Faried (12.5 ppg, 8.9 rpg-Leads team, 55.5 FG%) was an up and coming young player like Jokic, Lauvergne and Nurkic are now. He has now emerged as one of the leaders on the team.

As the Nuggets are constructed now, they are in kind of a quagmire. They are not a team people are lining up in droves to see on a nightly basis at the Pepsi Center or on NBA League Pass on DirecTV and they are not in a position to get that high lottery pick to draft the next supposed big star.

Outlook: Provide as much opportunity for the young players like Mudiay, Harris, Jokic, Lauvergne and Nurkic to play and grow together on the floor for better days in the future and to really establish Malone’s system.

Grade: C

Golden State Warriors: 48-4 (1st Pacific Division; No. 1 Seed West) 24-0 at home, 24-4 on the road.

-115.5 ppg-1st; opp. ppg: 103.0-20th; 46.9 rpg-3rd

The hardest thing after you win a championship is to come back the next year and prove you can do it again. For the star players to show that what they did last season was not a fluke and for that team’s head coach to keep the message fresh for the players to stay motivated. For the defending NBA champion Golden State Warriors, they showed no signs of being satisfied.

Last season’s MVP Stephen Curry (29.8 ppg-Leads NBA, 6.6 apg, 5.3 rpg, 2.1 spg-4th NBA, 50.8 FG%, 45.4 3-Pt.%) is miles better from a season ago.

To put the front runner to win back-to-back MVP’s season into perspective, 15 times this year, he has not played in the fourth quarter. That is how badly the Warriors have been defeating their opponent’s.

The other half of the now famed “Splash Brothers” duo Klay Thompson (21.3 ppg, 46.9 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.%) has proven once again to be a great shooter and scorer in his own right, who can put the clamps on the opposing team’s best perimeter player as well. While his number are slightly down so far in February with a 19.8 scoring average, he really kicked his game into high gear in December and January where he averaged 25.3 and 24.3 points per contest and shot 47.7 and 49.3 percent respectably from the floor and 45.5 and 43.1 from three-point range respectably.

Last season, forward Draymond Green went from a solid role player to a true third best player on the team. This year Green (14.2 ppg, 9.5 rpg-Leads team, 7.2 apg-Leads team, 48.5 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.%). He is seventh in the league in assists per contest and leads all front court players in assists per game.

On Jan. 31 in the Warriors 116-95 win at the New York Knicks, Green had 20 points, 10 boards and 10 assists, to garner his 10 triple-double on the season, which tied Hall of Famer of the Warriors Tom Gola for the most triple-doubles in a season in Warriors franchise history with nine. Gola had nine triple-doubles in the 1959-60 season when the Warriors played in Philadelphia.

Green surpassed the record 72 hours later with triple-double No. 10 of 12 points, 10 rebounds, 12 assists to go along with five block shots in the Warriors 134-121 win at the Wizards on national television. Green’s record breaking night was over shadowed by the 51-point performance of Curry, who went 19 for 28 from the field, including 11 for 15 from three-point territory.

While Curry, Thompson and Green have been special this season, they fully know they are not in the position without the contributions of the likes of starting forward Harrison Barnes (12.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 46.9 FG%, 39.1 3-Pt.%); starting center Andrew Bogut (5.4 ppg, 7.5 rpg, 1.7 bpg-10th NBA) swingman Andre Iguodala (7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 38.7 3-Pt.%); center Festus Ezeli (7.5 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 55.7 FG%), who has had six double-doubles on the season so far; guards Shaun Livingston (6.5 ppg) and Leandro Barbosa (6.6 ppg, 36.5 3-Pt.%); forward/center Marreese Speights (6.3 ppg) and forward Brandon Rush.

What has made this season even more remarkable for the defending champs is they had to deal with some adversity throughout this historic march to another title.

The team was without head coach Steve Kerr for the first 43 games as he was recovering from complications of a second back surgery in the off-season. Lead assistant coach Luke Walton stepped in and the team continued to win, and win and win and win.

Barnes missed 16 games with a sprained ankle and the Warriors asked the rest of the team to step up and they continued to roll to a .923 winning percentage, the best mark at the unofficial halfway point in a season in NBA history.

That next man up mentality has also resulted in the team winning their first 24 games of the season at Oracle Arena and has the second longest home winning streak in NBA history which stands at 41 games dating back to last season. 

They got their by being a balanced team on both ends.

They lead the NBA in assists per contest at 29.2 and are 39-0 this season, when they have 25 assists or more in a game this season and there are No. 1 in three-point percentage at 42.4 percent and in connections at 12.9 per contest in 30.5 tries. Only the San Antonio Spurs shot better from the field than the Warriors, who connect on 49.0 percent.

The opposition has shot just 43.0 percent against the Warriors this season and just 31.4 percent from three-point territory, both lead the NBA. The defending champs are fifth in “The Association” in rebound differential at a +3.4. They rank fourth in block shots per contest at 6.3 and 10th in steals per contest at 8.3.

While breaking the 72-win total of the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls, led by Hall of Famers Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen and head coach Phil Jackson would be a great accomplishment, their focus is on winning a second straight title and they have shown they are more than prime to do that.

Outlook: The Warriors will set a new franchise record for wins. Curry will win his second straight MVP trophy. Green will be in the running for Defensive Player of the Year. The Warriors and the Spurs will battle it out for the Western Conference crown in late May. 

Grade: A+

Houston Rockets: 27-28 (4th Southwest Division) 16-13 at home, 11-15 on the road.

-105.0 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 106.8-29th; 42.6 rpg-22nd

Being a team with talented individuals is one thing. When that talent is not in sync, especially at the defensive end, all you have is a collection of talented players who cannot consistently win at a high level. That is what has happened to the 2015-16 Houston Rockets that were in the Western Conference Finals a season ago.

The combination of former All-Star center Dwight Howard (14.6 ppg, 12.0 rpg-3rd NBA, 1.5 bpg-Leads team), who has been relatively healthy compared to last season and All-Star guard James Harden (28.0 ppg-2nd NBA, 6.3 rpg, 7.0 apg-Leads team, 1.6 spg, 35.5 3-Pt.%) have not meshed together like they did in the playoffs a season ago.

Another 4-7 start got head coach Kevin McHale the axe, but things have not turned around under interim head coach J.B. Bickerstaff.

Howard has not had the impact at the defensive end as he has had in previous season, even though he is still rebounding at a high rate. Harden is having a career season, but his production has not led to the Rockets winning more games.

Offensively, this team is putting up numbers like they did a season ago. The difference is that they are not putting forth the effort and concentration at the defensive end as they did a season ago.

After ranking 12 in opponent’s field goal percentage a season ago, the Rockets are 25th in that category allowing 46.4 percent shooting to their opponent’s. They went from No. 1 in three-point percentage allowed last season at 32.2 percent to 21st giving up 36.2 percent.

While they rank in the middle of the pack in block shots per contest at 5.1, lead the NBA in steals per game at 9.9 and are sixth in forcing turnovers at 15.6 per contest, the Rockets are an abysmal 24th in rebound differential at -2.6 and are 27th in committing turnovers per game at 15.5 per contest.

The acquisition of Ty Lawson from the Nuggets (6.3 ppg, 3.6 apg) has been a disaster as he has averaged career-lows in points, assists, field goal and three-point percentage.

Forward Trevor Ariza (12.3 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 37.7 3-Pt.) and guards Patrick Beverly (8.9 ppg, 40.3 3-Pt.%) and Corey Brewer, the best perimeter defenders and fast break igniters on the Rockets have had their issues in guarding on the edges this season.

Forward Terrence Jones (9.3 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who has been relatively healthy compared to a year ago has been very inconsistent as well, especially shooting wise connecting on just 45.1 percent of his shots and just 31.6 percent from three-point range.

Forward/center Clint Capela (7.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 57.0 FG%) has had solid moments, but there is more chiseling needed before this rock becomes a true pearl.

At the trade deadline, the Rockets sent Donatas Motiejunas and Marcus Thornton to the Pistons for a protected 2016 first-round pick and center Joel Anthony, who they then traded along with a second-round pick to the 76ers.  

While they are just a half-game ahead of the Jazz for the No. 8 and final playoff spot in the West, the Rockets did not expect to be in this position.

On top of that, GM Daryl Morey and the organization have a big decision when their season concludes.

Do they keep Howard, who has said according to media reports, he will opt out of his contract at the end of this season or do they roll the dice and hope they can convince him to stay by paying him big time.

Outlook: If the Rockets do not mesh together, especially at the defensive end, they could have a quick exit this postseason, if they make it and that is a big if.  

Grade: F-

Los Angeles Clippers: 36-18 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 4 Seed West) 18-8 at home, 18-10 on the road.

-104.7 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 100.5-9th; 42.4 rpg-23rd  

This has been a season that has tested the mental toughness of the Clippers. They got off to a tough beginning with just 10 wins in their first 18 games entering Dec. 2015.

They entered the New Year at 21-13, but entered January without their horse in the front court in All-Star forward Blake Griffin (23.2 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 5.0 apg 50.8 FG%), who injured his leg in the Christmas Day 2015 win against their Staples Center roommates the Los Angeles Lakers 94-84.

He was expected to return towards the end of January, but a disagreement with an assistant equipment manager Matias Testi that resulted in Griffin breaking his left shooting hand back on Jan. 23 in Toronto, ON. That situation also led to a four-game suspension without pay. In total, according to an ESPN report, Griffin will lose $859,442 from his season salary of over $18 million.

The team has more than held its own without Griffin going 19-5 in his absence. A big part of that has been the leadership and play of All-Star lead guard Chris Paul (19.5 ppg, 9.4 apg-4th NBA, 2.1 spg-5th NBA); the consistent presence in the paint on both ends by DeAndre Jordan (12.1 ppg, 14.1 rpg-2nd NBA, 2.3 bpg-2nd NBA, 70.3 FG%-Leads NBA); the sharp shooting of J.J. Redick (16.4 ppg, 47.7 FG%, 48.0 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 17.6 17.0 and 17.7 points per contest the past three months respectably and shot 50.0, 49.4 and 43.3 percent from the three-point arc and the steady scoring punch off the bench from Jamal Crawford (13.6 ppg).

The two big questions for the Clippers coming into the season and still remain unanswered is their bench and finding a starting small forward.

The Clippers and head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers thought that Josh Smith, who signed as a free agent would be up to the task, but it did not work out and he was dealt back to the Rockets, where he is a better fit. Wesley Johnson (6.8 ppg) had a crack at it and that did not work. They are now giving the defensive minded Luc Richard Mbah Moute, who has started 38 times this season, but he more of a defensive player than an offensive threat.

At the trade deadline, the Clippers swung a deal with the Grizzlies to acquire forward Jeff Green (12.2 ppg, 4.5 rpg), who Rivers coached while with the Celtics, in exchange for guard Lance Stephenson and a protected 2019 first-round lottery pick.

Speaking of scoring from unlikely places, Austin Rivers (8.1 ppg) had been providing along with Crawford consistent scoring punch averaging 9.6 points per contest in January hitting 47.9 percent of his shots and 36.1 percent on his three-pointers before breaking his left hand that has him down four to six weeks.

The addition of Green should fortify the starting quintet of the Clippers as well as the bench of center Cole Aldrich (5.4 ppg, 3.8 rpg), Crawford, Rivers when he returns and Pablo Prigioni.

The other key for the Clippers going forward this season is will Paul Pierce become the big shot maker that he has been throughout his career and like he was with the Wizards a season ago.

The Clippers have flirted with being a title contender and have disappointed in the postseason the past few years.

With the Warriors, Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder head and shoulders above everyone else in the West, the Clippers still with their talent and ability to play on both ends remain a threat. The question is are they are real threat or are they teasing us again? 

Outlook: The Clippers should finish in the No. 4 spot in the West. Griffin hopefully comes back and finds his rhythm before the playoffs. This round of musical chairs at small forward is settled with Green on board and Paul cannot be a lone ranger when we get to postseason if the Clippers have any plans on making a playoff run.

Grade: B

Los Angeles Lakers: 11-44 (5th Pacific Division) 6-18 at home, 5-26 on the road.

-96.5 ppg-27th; opp. ppg: 106.1-27th; 43.0 rpg-17th

Earlier this year, I admitted something to myself that I never have before. Kobe Bryant is my favorite NBA player ever. His career is one of greatest in NBA history. He is the closest thing to Hall of Famer Michael Jordan from his game, his demeanor on the court, his mannerisms and the number of titles he has led the Lakers to, which is five. That is what has made his farewell tour special in a season that has been anything but for the Lakers.

Saying goodbye to one of the greatest to ever play on the professional hardwood amid the high number of defeats, lackluster play at times and the serious growing pains for young talented players who were chosen to be the bridge to better days ahead when the career of Bryant (16.9 ppg) concludes at season’s end.

That future does remain hopeful because of talented young players like second-year forward Julius Randle (11.1 ppg, 10.0 rpg-Leads team); second-year guard Jordan Clarkson (15.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 34.6 3-Pt.%); rookie guard D’Angelo Russell (12.2 ppg, 3.6 rpg) and rookie forward Larry Nance, Jr. (5.8 ppg, 5.0 rpg).

The real question is do veterans like guard Nick Young (7.2 ppg), forward Brandon Bass (6.2 ppg, 5.2 rpg), center Roy Hibbert (6.6 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 1.5 bpg-Leads team) fit into the future plans of the Lakers?

One veteran who has distinguished himself is guard Lou Williams (15.4 ppg), whose play is the reason Russell is no starting or getting much needed minutes on the court.

Another burning question about the Lakers going forward after this season is what will happen to head coach and former Laker champion Byron Scott; GM Mitch Kupchak and part-owner Jim Buss, who has made one bad decision after another in his time with the team.   

Outlook: Bryant will be loved and cherished on the last leg of his career and the Lakers of the future must use this time to get better and be ready to take the mantle starting next season.

Grade: F

Memphis Grizzlies: 31-22 (2nd Southwest Division; No. 5 Seed West) 19-9 at home, 12-13 on the road.

-98.2 ppg-24th; opp. ppg: 99.1-6th; 40.9 rpg-29th

There was a time that the style of the Memphis Grizzlies, who play gritty defense and play inside and out on offense was the way the NBA game was played. That style got them to the playoffs and two years ago got them to the Western Conference Finals.

Today with the game being all about pace, space and shooting three-pointers in the blink of an eye, the Grizzlies have been unable to keep up and that has cost them in the playoffs in past seasons, especially against the Warriors in the Semifinals, where they fell in five games.

While center Marc Gasol (16.6 ppg-Leads team, 7.0 rpg, 3.8 apg) remains the centerpiece of what the Grizzlies do on offense, they have moved his front court mate the past few years in forward Zach Randolph (14.2 ppg, 8.0 rpg-Leads team) to the bench to get more perimeter threats in the starting lineup.

They also acquired guard Mario Chalmers (9.9 ppg, 3.8 apg), who has averaged 10.5 points, 3.9 assists per contest since coming to “The Grind House” to add more perimeter shooting. So far in 44 games with the Grizzlies, his had a decent impact at best.

Swing man Vince Carter has had some moments in his year and a half with the Grizzlies, but he has been unable to be that consistent perimeter threat, especially from three-point range where the Grizzlies shoot just 34.1 percent, which is 21st in the league. 

Earlier this week, the Grizzlies traded Courtney Lee in a three-team deal to the Hornets and received in return center Chris Andersen from the Heat, sharp shooter P.J. Hairston and four future second-round picks from the Hornets. At the trade deadline on Thursday, the Grizzlies sent Jeff Green to the Clippers for guard Lance Stephenson and a protected 2019 first-round lottery pick.

The team even entertained the thought of trading lead guard Mike Conley (14.9 ppg, 6.1 apg-Leads team), who has been one of the most underrated point guards in the NBA is shooting a career-low 41.2 percent from the field, but has been a respectable 35.9 percent from three-point range.

The defense, especially on the perimeter is not the same either and neither is swingman Tony Allen (6.6 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.6 spg-Leads team), who has become more of a liability to have on the floor as supposed to an asset.

Teams are shooting a respectable 44.6 percent against the Grizzlies, which is 15th in NBA. The opposition connects on 36.0 percent of their three-point field goals against the Grizzlies, ranked 20th in the league. The Grizzlies still are one of the best in the business at forcing turnovers at 15.7, fifth in the NBA and their sixth in steals per contest at 8.7.

The road for head coach Dave Joerger and the Grizzlies just got tougher in making a playoff run as it was revealed last week that Gasol, who injured his left foot in the team’s 112-106 overtime loss versus the Portland Trail Blazers back on Feb. 8 is expected out four to six months with a broken right foot.

Outlook: The Grizzlies should win enough games to make the playoffs. Unfortunately, they will be out in the opening round and their window of making a title run is has closed.  

Grade: C-

Minnesota Timberwolves: 17-37 (5th Northwest Division) 9-19 at home, 8-18 on the road.

-100.4 ppg-21st; opp. ppg: 104.1-23rd; 42.2 rpg-25th

When you are going to rebuild your team through the draft, selecting the right players that are going to carry your team to better days can be tricky and success does not happen overnight. Just ask the aforementioned 76ers or the Bucks that were previously reviewed. The Minnesota Timberwolves are drafting well.

Last season’s No. 1 overall pick and 2015 Rookie of the Year Andrew Wiggins (20.8 ppg-Leads team, 44.7 FG%) has shown he can perform on both ends of the court and has All-Star potential.

This year’s No. 1 overall pick Karl-Anthony Towns (17.1 ppg, 10.1 rpg-9th NBA, 1.8 bpg-9th NBA, 54.4 FG%, 37.5 3-Pt.%), who is sixth in the league with 30 double-doubles on the season is the front runner for the 2016 Rookie of the Year and has performed better than expected. He has performed well in the low post and has defended the paint very solidly at the other end.

Second-year guard Zach LaVine (12.8 ppg, 34.5 3-Pt.%) can jump out of a gym with the best of the best in the league as evidenced by how he performed in last season’s Slam Dunk Contest winning the whole thing and came in second place in this year’s contest at All-Star Weekend this year. His game has improved, but still needs to perform at a consistent rate.

Shabazz Muhammad (9.7 ppg, 45.8 FG%) and Gorgui Dieng (9.4 ppg 7.1 rpg) have been solid sparks off the bench and have gotten better and better game in and game out. Dieng, who has been a starter recently has really hit his stride in this month with averages of 16.2 points per contest to go along with 10.2 rebounds and 4.4 assists.

Like most young teams trying to build towards a future of consistently making the playoffs, the T’Wolves are not a great rebounding team (+0.8 rebound differential, 12th NBA); a poor three-point shooting team (31.7 percent, 29th NBA) and have had critical breakdown after critical breakdown late in close games, particularly at home that have prevented them from winning in those situations.

With that being said, this team has a talented core group that is far beyond what they have had in the past and there is more optimism then before.

On top of that, Wiggins, LaVine, Towns, Dieng and Muhammad have great veterans to learn from the greatest player in franchise history in future Hall of Famer and NBA champion Kevin Garnett, who was a major part of the team’s seven straight playoff appearances, which included a trip to the 2004 Western Conference Finals, where they lost to the Lakers in six games. Two other veteran voices on the team are champion Tayshaun Prince and guard Andre Miller.

Another key part of the T’Wolves glory years in the late 1990s and early 2000s was the late great head coach and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders, who passed away back on Oct. 25, 2015 after a long and brave battle with Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Taking his place was former NBA Coach of the Year with the Toronto Raptors and a former Timberwolf Sam Mitchell, who has yet to instill his plan and vision on his young team.

With young budding talent in place, what does the future hold for the likes of Kevin Martin (11.3 ppg, 36.4 3-Pt.%) and Nikola Pekovic. There is also uncertainty about lead guard Ricky Rubio (9.7 ppg, 8.6 apg-Leads team, 2.2 spg-3rd NBA). He has sidelined more often than not because of injury and he still has not figured out how to shoot the ball. He along with Martin and Pekovic could be on the outs by the late this afternoon  

Outlook: The remainder of this season is about accelerating the development of Wiggins, Towns, LaVine, Muhammad and Dieng while remaining patient and for Mitchell to prove he is the right person to lead this team going forward. 

Grade: C-  

New Orleans Pelicans: 20-33 (5th Southwest Division) 14-12 at home, 6-21 on the road.

-102.1 ppg-13th; opp. ppg: 105.1-25th; 42.4 rpg-24th  

After last season’s furious finished that got them in the playoffs for the first time in four seasons, a lot was expected from the Pelicans, especially when they have the so-called MVP of the future in Anthony Davis and one of the most brilliant offensive minds in the game in new head coach Alvin Gentry from the NBA champion Warriors.

A 1-11 beginning and a string of injuries put the Pelicans behind the eight ball.

Davis (23.4 ppg-9th NBA, 10.0 rpg-Leads team, 2.2 bpg-3rd NBA) by the numbers justify him making selected for the West All-Star team again, but he has not had much help alongside him.

Center Omer Asik has been a major disappointment in comparison to a year ago and the likes of Dante Cunningham, Alonzo Gee, Alexis Ajinca and Kendrick Perkins are excellent role players, but not the kind you surround Davis with.

Tyreke Evans (15.2 ppg, 6.6 apg-Leads team, 5.2 rpg), Erick Gordon (14.9 ppg, 37.5 3-Pt.%), Jrue Holiday (15.0 ppg, 5.5 apg) and Norris Cole (10.1 ppg) are some of the most talented guards in the league. However, injuries and inconsistent production have not allowed them to flourish in a high tempo system that is tailor made for them.

Evans will be on the shelf for the rest of this season after undergoing successful surgery on his right knee, which at first was diagnosed as tendinitis. Gordon is close to returning from surgery on his fractured right ring finger back on Jan. 20 that has shelved him the last 12 games.

The team’s best shooter and scoring ace off the bench Ryan Anderson (16.7 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 38.3 3-Pt.%) was been rumored to be traded by the end of this week, but is still in the fold.  

If the Hornets have any plans on salvaging their season, they must get it together on the road and that will happen when they make a serious commitment to playing with force and concentration on defense.

Surrendering 46.2 percent from the field, 24th in NBA; 37.2 percent from three-point range, 27th NBA and having a -2.3 rebounding differential is unacceptable. You cannot be a high octane offensive team if you cannot stop the opposition defensively.

Outlook: Without Evans, Davis will need to do even more offensively for the Hornets to have a glimmer of hope of making something out of this season. He will need Holiday, Anderson and when Gordon comes back to bring it offensively at a consistent rate to compliment Davis.

Grade: D-

Oklahoma City Thunder: 40-14 (1st Northwest Division; No. 3 Seed West) 25-5 at home, 15-9 on the road.

-110.1 ppg-2nd; opp. ppg: 101.9-16th; 47.7 rpg-2nd

With 2014 MVP and perennial All-Star Kevin Durant on the shelf because of injury, the Thunder missed out on the playoff party for the first time since 2008.

The return of Durant (27.7 ppg-3rd NBA, 7.9 rpg, 4.5 apg, 50.8 FG%, 39.2 3-Pt.%); another incredible season from All-Star Russell Westbrook (24.1 ppg-7th NBA, 10.0 apg-2nd NBA, 7.6 rpg, 2.3 spg-Leads NBA, 45.8 FG%), who is shooting a career-high from the floor, leads all guards in double-doubles with 36 and is second in the league with eight triple-doubles and a new philosophy of first time NBA head coach Billy Donovan, the Thunder have been rolling with 20 victories in their last 27 opportunities since being 11-7 entering Dec. 2015.

A glaring issue that has lingered for the Thunder since Harden left four year ago is who is their third top scorer?

From his big payday over the summer, it should be Enes Kanter (11.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg, 56.0 FG%), who has garnered 13 double-doubles off the bench, but has scored 20 points or more just seven times. On top of that, he struggles defensively.

Starting forward Serge Ibaka (12.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 2.2 bpg-2.2-4th NBA) continues to be a solid shot blocker and has expanded his range, shooting 36.6 percent from three-point range, but he has not raised his level of scoring in the low post.

Center Steven Adams (7.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg) brings energy and toughness to the Thunder, but does not have the knack to score unless it is off the attention that Durant and Westbrook attract.

Dion Waiters (9.9 ppg, 35.8 3-Pt.%) can be explosive at times offensively and other times can drive you nuts with his shot selection and his low shooting percentage, which is at 40.1 percent this season.

The likes of Anthony Morrow (5.6 ppg, 40.6 3-Pt.%), Kyle Singler, Andre Roberson and Cameron Payne have played their roles well off the bench, but need to be more consistent, especially in the playoffs.

The Thunder made a trade on Thursday night to bolster their bench by acquiring guard Randy Foye from the Nuggets in exchange for D.J. Augustin, Steve Novak and two second-round picks.

When it comes to offensive, the Thunder are as potent as the defending champion Warriors, ranking third in field goal percentage at 47.6 percent; seventh in three-point percentage; sixth in free throw attempts with 25.5 per game and seventh in free throw percentage at 78.8 percent.

The one thing offensively they struggle with is they average just 22.4 assists per game, which is ranked 11th in the league. With that being said, the Thunder have a bad habit and have the past few years of being an isolation team offensively, especially late in games and that is how they have had setbacks late in games, particularly in the playoffs.

The one culprit of going one-on-one way too much has been Westbrook, who has made a serious effort to initiate more ball movement on offense and his game has gotten even better because of that.

The Warriors and the Spurs have been the top dogs in the West to this point and the clear favorites to represent the conference in The Finals. Talent wise, the Thunder are in the mix. They have gone 1-1 versus those to so far.

For them to have a glimmer of a chance of beating them in the playoffs, the Thunder must make a serious commitment as the Warriors and Spurs have at the defensive end.

By the numbers, the Thunder are sixth in opponent’s field goal percentage allowing 44.0 percent; 11th in three-point percentage allowed at 34.5; third in block shots per contest at 6.4 and lead the NBA in rebounding differential at +7.6. However, they are just 18th in steals at 7.6 per game and 24th in forcing turnovers at 13.1.

Outlook: This season is all about how the Thunder do in the playoffs. Durant is a free agent at season’s end and whether he stays will depend on whether the Thunder can make a serious playoff run, especially with two serious road blocks in the Warriors and Spurs waiting in the wings. If their defense is a mirage like it can be at times, they will not get past the Spurs in the Semis.

Grade: B+

Phoenix Suns: 14-40 (4th Pacific Division) 10-18 at home, 4-22 on the road.

-100.5 ppg-19th; opp. ppg: 106.8-28th; 43.0 rpg-18th

It is hard to fathom that just two years ago, the Phoenix Suns were the toast to the NBA and seemed to be a team on the rise with 48 wins, but because again of the top notch West, they were on the outside of the playoffs looking in. Today, they are a team that is the butt of jokes of the late night comics like Stephen Colbert, Jimmy Fallon and Jimmy Kimmel.

Since being 12-16 on Dec. 18, 2015 thanks to a 104-88 win versus the Pelicans, the Suns have lost 24 of their last 26 games, which includes a current nine-game losing streak entering the All-Star break.

That cost head coach Jeff Hornacek, his job and interim head coach Earl Watson has not done any better with going 0-5 record entering the All-Star break.

It has gone from bad to worse with the season-ending injuries of lead guard Eric Bledsoe (20.4 ppg-Leads team, 6.2 apg-Leads team, 2.0 spg-Leads team, 37.2 3-Pt.%), who was lost after tearing the meniscus in his left knee back on Dec. 26, 2015 in the Suns 111-104 loss versus the Sixers and forward T.J. Warren (11.1 ppg, 50.1 FG%).

Unlike most bad teams in this league, the Suns do have one thing going for them and that is they have other young players who will get a boat load of playing time to showcase what they can do for the rest of the season.

The likes of rookie sharp shooter Devin Booker (10.6 ppg, 45.0 FG%, 40.3 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 17.3 and 16.6 points in January and February respectably; guard Archie Goodwin (9.2 ppg), who has averaged 18.8 points and 6.2 assists per contest this month; forward Jon Leuer (8.6 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 40.2 3-Pt.%) and center Alex Len (6.9 ppg, 6.2 rpg).

With the trade deadline on the horizon, will the likes of Brandon Knight (19.7 ppg, 5.1 apg), P.J. Tucker (7.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 34.6 3-Pt.%), Tyson Chandler (5.9 ppg, 8.5 rpg, 52.2 FG%) and Mirza Teletovic (10.0 ppg, 40.5 3-Pt.%) be moved to gather draft picks, more young talented players to groom for the future or both.

They did get rid of the tall elephant in their room by trading Markieff Morris, who has been a serious distraction both on and off the court after the team traded his brother this past off-season to the Pistons to the Wizards for forwards DeJuan Blair and Kris Humphries and a protected first-round pick.

Outlook: Even if the Suns make any new acquisitions by days end today, they will still not to truly know where their roster stands entering next season until Bledsoe comes back healthy. Until then, the losses will be coming fast and furious.

Grade: F

Portland Trail Blazers: 27-27 (2nd Northwest Division; No. 7 Seed West) 16-11 at home, 11-16 on the road.

-102.5 ppg-11th; opp. ppg: 101.9-17th; 45.9 rpg-5th  

When the boys of “Rip City” said goodbye via free agency and trades to 80 percent of their starting five in All-Star forward LaMarcus Aldridge; forward Nicolas Batum; center Robin Lopez and guard Wesley Matthews, it appeared that a rough season was on the horizon.

That is the problem sometimes with predictions. They can be wrong. Very, very wrong.

The Portland Trail Blazers entered 2016 14-21. Since then, they have gone 13-6 the last month and a half, which included a five-game winning streak from Jan. 23 to Feb. 2. They concluded their unofficial first half schedule with three straight wins, two of which came against the struggling Rockets.

One big reason for the team’s surge has been lead guard Damian Lillard (24.3 ppg-6th NBA, 7.3 apg-6th NBA, 36.3 3-Pt.%), who is having the best season of his career, which also includes a career-high of 13 double-doubles on the season.

His backcourt mate C.J. McCollum (20.7 ppg, 39.2 3-Pt.%) has taken his great playoff run that he had in the short lived five-game bought versus the Grizzlies and turned it into a season where he could win Most Improved Player.

What has also helped the Trail Blazers be in the hunt of a surprise trip to the playoffs has been the play of the likes of Allen Crabbe (11.2 ppg, 35.0 3-Pt.%) who has been instant offense off the bench in his second season and Meyers Leonard (8.8 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 44.7 FG%, 34.4 3-Pt.%), who looks more comfortable and sure of himself.

New additions in forward Al-Farouq Aminu (10.4 ppg, 6.4 rpg, 35.0 3-Pt.%); center Mason Plumlee (9.1 ppg, 7.6 rpg, 51.1 FG%); guard Gerald Henderson (7.7 ppg, 36.5 3-Pt.%), forward/center Ed Davis (6.6 ppg, 7.3 rpg) have gotten serious playing time, especially Aminu and Plumlee and they have had their moments, but must become more consistent in the second half of the season.

They also need more from Noah Vonleh, who has started 39 times this season, but has very invisible on both ends. Getting more from forward Maurice Harkless, like he did when he had season-highs of 19 points and 13 boards in the Trail Blazers 116-103 win versus the Rockets ten days ago.

Outlook: The dynamic young backcourt of Lillard and McCollum have put the Trail Blazers in a position to make the playoffs for the third year in a row. For that dream to become a reality, the front court of Aminu, Plumlee, Davis, Vonleh and Harkless must be on both ends night in and night out.  

Grade: B-

Sacramento Kings: 22-31 (3rd Pacific Division) 13-13 at home, 9-18 on the road.

-107.1 ppg-3rd; opp. ppg: 109.1-30th; 45.2 rpg-6th

It has been a rough go for the incredible fans of the capital city of California, who have not seen their team make the postseason party since 2006.

It seemed that the Sacramento Kings were headed towards another losing season, until a five-game winning streak from Jan. 14 to Jan. 23 to bring their record to 20-23 and above the playoff line.

A big reason for that has been the play of two-time All-Star DeMarcus Cousins (26.8 ppg-4th NBA, 11.1 rpg-4th NBA), who is tied for fourth in the league in double-doubles with All-Star guard John Wall of the Wizards with 31.

The guy they call “Boogie” had an amazing two straight games in that stretch with a then career-high of 48 points and 13 rebounds on 17 for 29 from the floor and 13 for 20 from the foul line in leading the Kings a 108-97 win versus the Pacers, their fifth win in succession.

His 56-point effort 48 hours later versus the Hornets was not only a new career-high, but a new Sacramento record. Cousins also had 12 rebounds, four assists and two blocks on 21 for 30 shooting from the field and 13 for 16 from the free throw line. Cousins unfortunately fouled out in the second overtime and the Hornets were able to pull out the victory 129-128.

Another player who has been a stand out for the team has been former All-Star Rajon Rondo (11.9 ppg, 11.9 apg-Leads NBA, 1.9 spg-8th NBA, 6.3 rpg), who has garnered five triple-doubles this season; 27 double-doubles, which is tied for eighth in the league and has resurrected his career when it looked to be finished in Dallas a season ago.

To put the resurrection of Rondo, who was the lead guard on the 2008 Celtics championship team, he had new Sacramento era franchise record of 1 straight games with double-digit assists, which ended back on Jan. 30 when he recorded just eight in the Kings 11-105 loss at the Grizzlies.

The supporting cast of starting forward Rudy Gay (17.9 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 47.3 FG%), guard Darren Collison (13.4 ppg, 3.9 apg, 475. FG%, 38.1 3-Pt.%); Omri Casspi (12.1 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 48.8 FG%, 42.2 3-Pt.%), guards Marco Bellinelli (10.9 ppg) and Ben McLemore (7.7 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), Kosta Koufos (6.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg) and rookie center Willie Cauley-Stein have had solid moments for the Kings, but at times they have had tough moments that have lost games for the Kings. That is a major reason, along with the Swiss cheese defense, why the Kings lost eight of their next 11 games following a five-game winning streak.

It was so bad that the organization was very serious about firing head coach George Karl. Thankfully, they did not give him the axe because if the Kings are serious about winning, they cannot cut the cord with a head coach like they have before and has been a major trend in the NBA lately.

A come from behind win at the Sixers 114-110 ten days ago before the All-Star break gave the Kings a chance to exhale.

The biggest problem with the Kings, who have proven they can score with any team in “The Association.” The head scratching, mind blowing, drive you mad issue with the Kings is that they are a terrible defensive team.

They are 21st in field goal percentage allowed surrendering 46.0 and 25th in opponent’s three-point percentage allowing 37.0 percent.

Despite being a top notch rebounding team, ranks seventh in steals per contest at 8.6 and seventh in turnovers forced at 15.4, the Kings are just 13th in rebounding differential at +0.8; rank 20th in block shots per contest at 4.5 and commit 15.8 miscues per game, ranking 28th in the league.

Outlook: The Kings are 2 ½ games and three on the loss side out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot, occupied currently by the Rockets. If they plan on playing anymore home games after Apr. 13 at Slepp Train Arena before it closes its door for good, the defense must balance out the offense and Cousins and Rondo must be in the forefront of this effort. We know they can produce on offense. Can they improve the Kings defense? We will find out.  

Grade: C-

San Antonio Spurs: 45-9 (1st Southwest Division; No. 2 Seed West) 28-0 at home, 17-9 on the road.

-104.7 ppg-7th; opp. ppg: 92.0-1st NBA; 44.4 rpg-10th

Coming into this season, most knew that the five-time NBA champion San Antonio Spurs were going to be good. That they were one team that had the undivided attention of the defending champion Warriors. We did think that they were, even with the prized new addition they made in the off-season going to keep a serious historic pace with the defending champs, but they have.

LaMarcus Aldridge (16.9 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 49.9 FG%) has fit in with the Spurs very nicely and month by month he is getting more and more comfortable offensively. That has been evident this month where he is averaging 23.3 points on 54.7 percent from the field with 6.1 rebounds as well.

The addition of David West (6.8 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 57.2 FG%), who left a boat load of money on the table with the Pacers, $11.5 million to be exact to win a ring with the Spurs has been a real nice insurance policy signing for the Spurs.

Kawhi Leonard (20.2 ppg-Leads team, 6.7 rpg, 1.8 spg-Leads team, 51.0 FG%, 48.2 3-Pt.%), who was the MVP of the 2014 Finals, when the Spurs defeated the Heat 4-1 has gone from a great role players to an All-Star, who can score at a high rate, make plays for others and can put the clamps on the opposition’s best perimeter player. That is how good he has gotten in such a short period of time.

The emergence of Leonard and the solid play of Aldridge has allowed head coach Gregg Popovich to keep the minutes of future Hall of Famers, a.k.a the “Big Three” of Tim Duncan (8.8 ppg, 7.5 rpg), Tony Parker (12.1 ppg, 5.1 apg-Leads team, 51.5 FG%) and Manu Ginobili (10.0 ppg, 45.1 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%) so they can be fresh for a title run starting in May.

That has been especially important for Parker, who was not healthy for much of the season a year ago and he was no match for Paul in the first-round series against the Clippers, which the Spurs lost in a classic seven-game series.

Ginobili is on the shelf now and is expected to miss the next four to six weeks after sustaining a groin injury in the Spurs’ 110-97 win versus the Pelicans on Feb. 3.

What has also helped is that the role players of the Spurs like Danny Green (7.5 ppg, 35.3 3-Pt.%), Patty Mills (8.4 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 39.0 3-Pt.%), Boris Diaw (6.6 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 51.6 FG%, 40.7 3-Pt.%), Kyle Anderson, Jonathon Simmons (6.0 ppg), Boban Marjanovic and Ray McCallum have made the most of their opportunities and have proven in the past or this season that they can be in the action and they know what to do.

Speaking of what knowing what to do, the Spurs in the Duncan/Popovich era have had one commonality for why they have been able to a title contender year in and year out. They play championship level, lockdown, give no room to operation type of defense, even with the change in offensive philosophy of going inside and out or offensive flow through ball movement, where they are third in the league in assists per game at 25.1.

Getting back to their greatness at the defensive end, the Spurs are third in field goal percentage allowed at 43.3 percent; second in opponent’s three-point percentage surrendering just 32.1 percent; second in rebounding differential at +4.4 and sixth in block shots per contest at 5.8.

They have won dating back to last season 37 consecutive games at the AT&T Center. They have the perfect balance of offense and defense. Their top players are not playing heavy duty minutes and they are crushing each opponent.   

Outlook: The Spurs will win over 50 games for the 16th year in succession and for the 22nd time in the last 26 seasons dating back to the era of Hall of Famer David Robinson. They will also make the playoffs for the 16th year in succession and for the 25th time in the last 26 seasons again dating back to the Robinson era. Barring a serious injury, the Spurs should make it to the Western Conference Finals where they will matchup with the defending champion Warriors to see who goes to The Finals lose in the Conference Finals.

Grade: A+

Utah Jazz: 26-27 (3rd Northwest Division; No. 8 Seed West) 17-10 at home, 9-17 on the road.

-97.6 ppg-26th; opp. ppg: 96.5-3rd; 42.7 rpg-20th  

Three years ago, the Jazz decided to build their team through the draft with the hope of putting together young, but very talented players with the hope that they would grow together and become a perennial playoff contender. Along the way they have also been able via trades to find some talent that has meshed well.

The organization began to see that grow in the second half of last season, when they finished with the sixth best winning percentage after the All-Star break, going 19-10.

The front court trio of small forward Gordon Hayward (19.8 ppg-Leads team, 5.1 rpg, 3.6 apg-Leads team, 35.2 3-Pt.%), power forward Derrick Favors (16.4 ppg, 8.4 rpg, 51.5 FG%) and center Rudy Gobert (10.5 ppg, 10.5 rpg-Leads team, 2.4 bpg-Leads team) have collectively not take the next step completely in terms of consistent production, but talent wise they are one of the best front court trios in the business.

A lot of that has to do with Gobert and Favors missed 20 and 17 games respectably because of injury this season. The team went 7-11 without Gobert in the lineup from Dec. 3, 2015 to Jan. 6, 2016 because of a sprained MCL and the Jazz struggled at the defensive end surrendering 100 points or more on 10 occasions. Favors missed 16 games from Dec. 26, 2015 to Jan. 22, 2016 because of a back injury and the Jazz went just 7-9 without the five-year pro out of Georgia Tech.

Another talented player who is on the shelf, right now is guard Alec Burks (14.3 ppg-career-high, 38.7 3-Pt.%), who has been out since breaking the fibula in his left leg in the team’s 109-104 loss versus the Clippers on Dec. 26, 2015. At first it was reported that Burks was not going to need surgery to repair the leg injury he sustained, but it did require work by doctors.

The one silver lining if any from all the injuries that the Jazz have sustained is that it has given the likes of Rodney Hood (15.0 ppg, 36.6 3-Pt.%) and rookie Trey Lyles opportunity to get minutes and the second-year guard and first-round pick in last June’s draft have made the most of their chance. Hood has averaged 18.6 and 19.6 points per contest in January and so far in February connecting on 37.2 and 36.1 of his attempts from three-point range.

Their emergence has been very important because, the Jazz have not gotten much from offensively from the likes of Trevor Booker (5.7 ppg, 6.4 rpg) and swingman Joe Ingles, who are more glue guys that will not hurt on either end because they will make the necessary play to keep things on schedule.

The Jazz knowing they were in need of a floor general at the trade deadline yesterday acquired guard Shelvin Mack from the Hawks in a three-team deal with the Hawks and Bulls.

Mack will be a solid compliment because he played for head coach Quin Snyder when he was an assistant with the Hawks and he and Hayward were teammates at Butler University.

Currently, the Jazz are on the outside of the playoff picture looking. Their 103-89 setback on Thursday at the Wizards has the Jazz one game behind in the loss column to the Rockets, who they will play two more times this season.

Outlook: With most of the team back in the fold and their ability to defend, the Jazz have a realistic chance of making the playoffs either as the No. 8 or the No. 7 Seed. Their key is that Hayward has to evolve into the No. 1 scoring option on a consistent basis and Favors and Gobert must provide inside scoring presence consistently to balance out what Hayward and Hood bring on the perimeter.

Grade: D-

Information and statistics are courtesy of 2015-16 Midseason Report Card on all 30 teams on; 1/23/16 9 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime” presented by State Farm with Rick Kamla, Steve Smith and Dennis Scott;;;;;;; htt://; 2/9/16 & 2/18/16 6 p.m. edition of “Time to Schein” on CBS Sports Network hosted by Adam Schein, with Brandon Tierney as substitute.