Monday, February 27, 2017

J-Speaks: 2016-17 NBA First Half Review

Consistency and expectations are two words to describe the unofficial first half of the 2016-17 National Basketball Association (NBA) campaign so far. The defending NBA champions and the team that they defeated in The Finals back in June by record have been the most consistent and have met expectations. One of the league’s most consistent teams for the last two-plus decades also have met expectations despite being below the headlines, which is how they like it. Some teams have been very inconsistent or played below expectations, while a few teams like in our nation’s capital had a rough start to the season, but have turned things around. A couple of former teammates who faced many questions going into the 2016-17 campaign have not only exceeded expectations that many pundits had, but they are in the leading candidates for MVP. Here is my 2016-17 NBA first half review and grades for all 30 teams.
Abbreviation Key represents statistics from this season: 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. and T-tied.
Eastern Conference
Atlanta Hawks: 32-26 (2nd Southeast Division; No. 5 Seed East) 16-12 at home, 16-14 on the road.
-103.2 ppg-20th; opp. ppg: 104.3-9th; 44.1 rpg-9th
The team with the second longest streak of making the postseason belongs to the Atlanta Hawks. Unfortunately, while the team with the best streak the San Antonio Spurs with 18 straight playoff appearances have won five titles, the Hawks had the last two seasons end in a four-game sweep at the hands of the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers in the Conference Finals and Semifinals respectably. Despite that great success, the Hawks decided to make some changes to their roster and the team seemed to be taking hole at the start of this season. Since then though, their consistency has been like the stock market, up and down.
The Hawks began the 2016-17 season going 9-2 to start. Then they hit some rough times going 8-14 from Nov. 18, 2016 to Dec. 30, 2016.
Since then, they have corrected things, going 15-10 and are a 2 ½ game behind the Toronto Raptors for the No. 4 spot and home court advantage in the opening round.  
Back in the summer, the Hawks said goodbye to the likes of Jeff Teague and Al Horford via free agency or trade and earlier this season, they traded sharp shooting guard Kyle Korver to the rival Cavs in exchange for forward/guard Mike Dunleavy (5.9 ppg, 39.4 3-Pt.% in 19 games w/Hawks) Mo Williams, cash considerations and a protected future first-round pick.
One major change for the Hawks in the off-season was signing eight-time All-Star, three-time Defensive Player of the Year and Atlanta native Dwight Howard (13.3 ppg, 12.9 rpg-4th NBA, 64.3 FG%-3rd NBA) to a three-year $70.5 million and he has played solidly with 36 double-doubles, which is tied for sixth in the league.
Former backup guard and now Hawks’ starting floor general Dennis Schroder has been solid with career-high averages of 17.4 points and 6.3 assists, on 45.4 percent from the field and 34.1 from three-point range.
While Howard and Schroder have performed well for the Hawks this season, one key player the Hawks re-signed has been very inconsistent.
Swingman Kent Bazemore (10.8 ppg), who re-signed on news four-year $70 million contract has played okay, but not as consistent as he was a season ago, shooting just 39.9 percent from the field and just 33.8 from three-point range.
Undrafted rookie Malcolm Delaney (5.8 ppg); the No. 12 overall pick Taurean Prince out of Utah, and the No. 21 pick DeAndre Bembry out of St. Joseph’s have played okay when they have gotten minutes.
The Hawks have also gotten solid minutes from backup forwards Mike Muscala (7.0 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 50.7 FG%, 40.9 3-Pt.%) and Kris Humphries (4.7 ppg, 3.4 rpg).
The most consistent Hawk this season has been four-time All-Star Paul Millsap (17.9 ppg-Leads team, 7.8 rpg, 3.7 apg), who at one point was on the trading block, but was not dealt on Thursday.
The Hawks at the trade deadline on Thursday acquired sharp shooting forward Ersan Ilyasova (14.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 35.1 3-Pt.%) from the Philadelphia 76ers in exchange for center Tiago Splitter and two second-round draft picks. 
The other consistent Hawks, especially after the Korver trade has been Tim Hardaway, Jr. (13.1 ppg, 44.3 FG%-career-high, 35.2 3-Pt.%), who after a rough first year with the team, has bounced back big time this season and has really been on the mark the last two months averaging 14.5 points on 46.0 from the floor and 41.0 percent from three-point range in January and 18.2 points on 46.3 percent from the floor and 39.7 from three-point range in February so far.
His talents were on full display for a national audience on Feb. 2 when he scored 23 of his career-high 33 points in the fourth quarter helping the Hawks overcome a 20-point deficit to win at the Houston Rockets 113-108. The Hawks outscored the Rockets 40-22 in the final period and Hardaway went 8 for 11 from the field, including 3 for 5 from long range in the final stanza.
That comeback broke a streak of 1,308 consecutive games when a team trailed by 20 points in the fourth quarter and lost.
This is a team under head coach Mike Budenholzer over his first three seasons was predicated on ball movement and spacing offensively and consistent defense.
While the number of assists per game head coach Budenholzer’s team ranks seventh in “The Association” at 23.7 per contest, they are only No. 17 in field goal percentage at 45.3 percent; 25th in three-point percentage at 34.0 and 26th in turnovers per game at 14.8.
While they are tied for sixth in field goal percentage allowed at 44.7, the Hawks are tied for 14th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.0; 19th in rebound differential at -0.2 and tied for 12th in block shots per contest at 4.9, despite having Howard in the middle.
The Hawks though are tied for 10th in the NBA in steals per game at 8.2 and are tied for fifth in forcing turnovers at 14.8 per contest.
To put into better perspective about the highs and lows of the Hawks this season, they first game following the All-Star break was a 108-90 loss versus the surging Miami Heat on Friday night, which was followed by a 105-86 loss at the Orlando Magic the following night. They sustained 95-68 setback at the Utah Jazz on Nov. 25, 2016; a 109-107 loss at the Phoenix Suns on No. 30, 2016; 128-84 loss at the Toronto Raptors, their sixth setback in succession on Dec. 3, 2016; a 131-120 loss versus the Orlando Magic on Dec. 13, 2016; a 92-84 loss versus the Minnesota Timberwolves on Dec. 21, 2016; a 118-95 loss at the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 18; a 112-86 loss versus the Washington Wizards on Jan. 27; a 108-107 loss at the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 10 and a 99-84 loss at the Los Angeles Clippers three days later, who also beat them on their home court 115-105 back on Jan. 23.
The Hawks have shown this season that they can beat anybody. They have also shown that can be beaten by anyone as well.
Unless a serious collapse ensues, the Hawks will make the playoffs for a ninth straight season. What they do in the playoffs is the biggest question. They could go down in flames in the first-round or they could make at least the East Semifinals.
Grade: C+
Boston Celtics: 38-21 (1st Atlantic Division; No. 2 Seed East) 20-8 at home, 18-13 on the road
-108.1 ppg-6th; opp. ppg: 105.5-16th; 41.3 rpg-28t
While the NBA champion Cavaliers have been head and shoulders the best team in the East in the unofficial first half of this season, the question has been who is the second best team in the East. Record wise, it is the Boston Celtics right now and a big reason why is their two-time All-Star lead guard, who has taken the NBA by storm.
Starting lead guard Isaiah Thomas, who the Celtics acquired for a bag of peanuts and some ice tea from the Phoenix Suns a little over two years ago is not only having a career year, but is the dark horse for league MVP this season behind James Harden of the Houston Rockets and Russell Westbrook of the Oklahoma City Thunder.
The 60th and last overall pick in the 2011 draft is currently second in the league averaging 29.7 points per game; a career-high 6.2 assists per game and career-highs in field goal percentage at 46.5 percent and 38.5 percent from three-point range. On top of that, Thomas is shooting 91 percent from the charity stripe, which is third in the league. He is tied for fifth in attempts per game at the foul line at 8.8 and is fourth in makes at 8.0.
To put Thomas spectacular season into perspective, he scored 18 points going just 4 for 12 from the field in the C’s 104-88 loss versus the defending Western Conference Champion Golden State Warriors. Since then Thomas has scored 20 points or more the last 44 straight games, breaking the previous franchise record owned by Hall of Famer John Havlicek, who did it 40 straight contest back in the 1971-72 season. He broke the mark with a 29-point performance in a tough 104-103 loss at the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 16. 
His best performance during this great run came back on Dec. 30, 2016 when he scored a career-high 52 points in the Celtics 117-114 win versus the Miami Heat. That beat his previous career-high of 44 points that Thomas set 10 days prior in the team’s 112-109 win at the Memphis Grizzlies.
Where Thomas has been at his best is in the fourth quarter, where he leads the NBA with a 10.1 average. With 13 points of his game-high 33 points in the fourth quarter of the C’s 116-108 win versus the Philadelphia 76ers in their second to last game before the All-Star break, it was the 25th time this season the two-time All-Star he scored 10-plus points in the final stanza.
Thomas’ amazing streak has been a major reason the Celtics have gone 32-15 since that No. 18, 2016 loss versus the Warriors, which includes winning 11 of their last 13 games entering the All-Star break.
Along with the great play of Thomas, forward/center Al Horford (14.2 ppg, 6.6 rpg, 4.9 apg, 1.5 bpg-Leads team) has been a solid new addition.
His fellow starting front court mate Jae Crowder (13.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 45.2 FG%, 40.4 3-Pt.%-career-high) has really played well, as well as third-year guard Marcus Smart (10.6 ppg, 4.5 apg, 3.9 rpg, 1.7 spg-Leads team), especially as a starter with averages of 12.1 points, 4.1 boards, 4.4 assists and 2.6 steals in 22 starts.
In the previously mentioned victory versus the Sixers, Smart had 21 points, five boards, five assists and a career-high eight steals.
The rest of the cast of forward/center Kelly Olynyk (9.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 51.0 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%); veteran center Amir Johnson (6.3 ppg, 4.7 rpg), rookie Jaylen Brown (5.9 ppg), who is averaging 9.9 points, 3.8 boards so far in February; Terry Rozier (5.7 ppg, 3.0 rpg), Gerald Green (5.5 ppg), Jonas Jerebko, Tyler Zeller and James Young have been solid as well.
The only issue, at least on the surface that head coach Brad Stevens has had to tangle with has been with starting guard Avery Bradley and his lingering Achilles injury that has shelved him for 21 of the Celtics last 22 games.
The Celtics hoped that Bradley would return to the lineup after the All-Star break, but he sat out their 107-97 loss at the Raptors on Friday night on ESPN and the team’s 104-98 win at the Detroit Pistons on Sunday night.
The loss of Bradley has hinder the Celtics, specifically at the defensive end. While they are third in opponent’s three-point percentage giving up just 34.2 percent, and ninth in opponent’s field goal percentage at 45.3 percent, the Celtics are 26th in the league in rebound differential at -3.4; 23rd in block shots per contest at 4.2; 20th in steals per game at 7.4 and 16th in forced turnovers per game at 13.5.
The other lingering issue for the C’s is having another bonified go-to scorer in the lineup. While Thomas made himself into a great player that has carried the Celtics to a number of wins, he is still a small guard who teams can slow down when we get to playoff time.
The Celtics made no moves at all at the trade deadline on Thursday, despite all the assets that Celtics’ GM Danny Ainge had at his disposal from draft picks to players on the roster that have high trade value.
You can look at it two ways, the Celtics were not blown away at an offer where they needed to make a move or they felt that this was not the time to reach for the stars and get that one player like a Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls or Paul George from the Indiana Pacers who can make the Celtics into a serious threat to the Cavaliers in the East
The Celtics are in prime position to make it to the playoff for a third straight season, which is remarkable because just three years ago, many figured after moving on from the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Ray Allen, and Rajon Rondo and head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers that the C’s were in for a major rebuild. They are in position to win 50-plus games this season and to win the Atlantic Division for the first time since 2012, which is also the last time they got past the first round. They lost to the eventual NBA champion Miami Heat in six games in the Conference Finals.
On top of that, they will be big players in the draft and in free agency. They have everything in their favor going forward and when it is time to make that major move, Ainge will
Grade: A
Brooklyn Nets: 9-49 (5th Atlantic Division) 7-24 at home, 2-25 on the road.
-105.3 ppg-15th; opp. ppg: 114.4-30th; 43.9 rpg-14th
Besides the defending NBA champion Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors, the other consistent team that has met expectations this season besides has been the Brooklyn Nets. Unfortunately, they have been consistently bad this season and it has gotten worse. The question is how did they get to this point
Three years ago, the Nets took a major gamble in acquiring for All-Star forwards Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce from the Celtics and sent to the them three first-round draft picks in 2014, 2016 and 2018.
That dream of becoming a champion never came to fruition and now the Nets they do not have they do not own their No. 1 draft pick outright until the summer of 2019.
This is the bed that owner Mikhail Prokhorov made and now General Manager Sean Marks, a disciple of the San Antonio Spurs and first-year head coach Kenny Atkinson, a Huntington, NY native and well respected assistant coach formerly, with the Hawks are tasked of rebuilding this team from the ground up. 
One of those players the Nets hoped would be at the center of this rebuild was free agent guard Jeremy Lin (13.1 ppg, 5.5 apg, 47.2 FG%. 34.6 3-P.t%), but he has been available for just 14 games this season because of a lingering hamstring injury that has sidelined him on three separate occasions this season.
He did return last night and scored seven points with five assists in 15 minutes in the team’s 129-109 loss at the Denver Nuggets on Friday night.
During Lin’s absence, coach Atkinson has given the opportunity to the likes of Spencer Dinwiddie (7.1 ppg, 3.0 apg-Leads team, 44.8 FG%, 42.3 3-Pt.%) and rookie Isaiah Whitehead (7.2 ppg) to start at the lead guard spot, which they have done 16 and 26 times respectably.
The Nets have also used this season to get a good look at the likes of guard Sean Kilpatrick (13.3 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 34.5 3-Pt.%), Joe Harris (8.4 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.%), Justin Hamilton (6.8 ppg, 4.5 rpg, 44.6 FG%), rookie Caris LeVert (7.0 ppg), and second-year swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson (8.1 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who was shelved most of his rookie season because of a bad ankle.
Whenever you go through a season like the Nets are experiencing now and might experience the next couple of years is to develop good habits while you are trying to learn how to win and become a playoff contender again. An important part of that is being able to have some veteran players to show the young core of players how to do that.
The Nets have some of those players in the prior mentioned Lin; forwards Trevor Booker (10.3 ppg-career-high, 8.6 rpg-career-high, 53.2 FG%), Luis Scola and Quincy Acy (6.5 ppg), and guard Randy Foye.
There were rumors that starting center Brook Lopez (20.5 ppg-Leads team, 5.1 rpg, 1.8 bpg-Leads team, 46.8 FG%, 34.2 3-Pt.%) was going to be dealt at the trade deadline on Thursday.
He was not dealt, but sharp shooting guard Bojan Bogdanovic and forward Chris McCullough were traded to the Washington Wizards on Thursday in exchange for forward Andrew Nicholson, guard Marcus Thornton, who was waived and a 2017 first-round pick.
The Nets also acquired another player in forward K.J. McDaniels from the Houston Rockets for cash considerations
Victories will be hard to come by this season and maybe the next couple for the Nets. The hope is that via free agency and through some creative maneuvering in the next two drafts they can find players that will to allow them become a playoff contender again. The one good thing they have on their side is time. What they do with it is on them. 
Grade: F
Charlotte Hornets: 25-34 (4th Southeast Division) 16-13 at home, 8-20 on the road.
-104.7 ppg-18th; opp. ppg: 104.4-10th; 45.0 rpg-5th
One major component in being a team that consistently makes the playoffs is being able to perform at a high level each, and every year. It also requires your key players stepping their games up even more, especially when key members of last season’s roster departure. While the Hornets’ star player, who became an All-Star for the first time in his career has taken his game to another level, two key players from last season’s 48-win team have been up and down and that along with their inconsistent play at the defensive end has the Hornets fighting to just make the playoffs for a second straight season.
Last season, Kemba Walker had break out season and just missed the making the East All-Star team. This season, that dream became a reality thanks to career-highs in points at 22.7, field goal percentage at 45.1 and three-point percentage at 40.2, to go along with 5.4 assists per contest.
While Walker has been at the top of his game, the rest of the Hornets cast has been inconsistent.
Swingman, Nicolas Batum (15.3 ppg, 7.0 rpg, 5.9 apg-Leads team, 36.2 3-Pt.%) who was re-signed to five-year $120 million deal, has shot only 40.4 percent from the field overall. 
Forward Marvin Williams (11.0 ppg, 5.7 rpg,), who turned his most productive season since 2008-09 into a new four-year $54.5 million contract is shooting just 40.9 percent from the field this season and just 34.4 percent from three-point range.
That inability to compliment the newest addition Marco Belinelli (10.6 ppg, 37.0 3-Pt.%), starting center Cody Zeller (10.8 ppg, 6.5 rpg, 58.7 FG%), who has had a breakout season so far and a solid season from second-year forward Frank Kaminsky III (11.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg) has been a major problem for the Hornets, especially offensively.
A season ago, the Hornets ranked 15th in three-point percentage at 35.3 percent; third in triples made per contest with 10.4 and in attempts at 29.4. This season, despite being eighth in attempts from long distance at 28.4 and 10th in makes at 10, the Hornets are ranked just 18th in percentage at 35.2.
What has also been an issue for the Hornets this season has been injuries to Zeller and Jeremy Lamb (9.4 ppg, 4.4 rpg) have missed a total of 20 games because of injury and Zeller is been on the shelf recently, missing 13 of the last 14 because of a soreness in his right quad.
Center Miles Plumlee, who the Hornets acquired recently from the Milwaukee Bucks in exchange for centers Roy Hibbert and Spencer Hawes has a second-degree calf strain in his right leg that was revealed from a recent MRI. He is currently out and will be re-evaluated in about two weeks.
The one guy who has been healthy unlike the past two seasons has been forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (8.9 ppg, 7.7 rpg-Leads team).
Having him back has been a big reason the Hornets are tied for fifth in field goal percentage allowed at 44.6 and are 11th in block shots per contest at 5.0.
They are ranked just 30th in steals per game at 6.6 and 27th in forced turnovers per game at 12.1.
Whether it is trying to be more productive offensively or defensively, things have not gone right for the Hornets in recent games and their last game before the All-Star break was a perfect example.
They had a 17-point lead entering the fourth quarter at the Raptors on Feb. 15, thanks to a 34-14 third quarter, but were outscored 32-10 in the final period and lost 90-85. It was their fourth loss in a row and their 11th straight defeat on the road.
In their first game after the All-Star break at the Detroit Pistons, the same thing occurred. They led by as much as 18 points in the third quarter. Had an 85-70 going into the fourth period and were outscored 30-15 in period and 14-8 in overtime to fall 114-108.
A 34-point night on 11 for 19 shooting by Walker was waisted and so was the double-double by Kidd-Gilchrist of 12 points and 14 rebounds.
They did get back on track with a solid 99-85 win at the Sacramento Kings on Saturday afternoon ending a 12-game road losing streak, but they lost a tough one 124-121 at the Los Angeles Clippers on Sunday night
The Hornets currently stand three games out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot, which is now occupied by the Pistons. On top of that, the Milwaukee Bucks and Heat are ahead of them in the fight for that final postseason spot.
For the Hornets to get back above the playoff line in the East, they need better production from Batum and Williams to compliment Walker Belinelli, Zeller, and Kaminsky. They also need to consistently play more cohesive at the offense end
It is one thing to take the NBA by surprise and come out of nowhere to make a postseason appearance. It is another thing to make it back when you are not a secret any more. That is the challenge the Hornets are going to have to meet in the second half of this season if they want to make their second straight playoff appearance.
Grade: D
Chicago Bulls: 30-29 (3rd Central Division; No. 7 Seed East) 18-11 at home, 12-18 on the road.
-102. ppg-23rd; opp. ppg: 103.1-7th; 46.5 rpg-2nd 
This off-season after missing the playoffs in 2016, the Bulls felt that it was time to say goodbye to some mainstays over the past few seasons. They traded 2011 MVP Derrick Rose to the New York Knicks and let starting center Joakim Noah go in free agency, where he also signed with the Knicks. In free agency, the Bulls made a couple of big splashes and with two former All-Stars and champions joining All-Star Jimmy Butler. While they are above the playoff line right now, their season has been full of inconsistency and dysfunction.
After an 8-4 beginning, the Bulls have played very inconsistently compiling just a 22-25 record since.
The additions of guards Rajon Rondo (6.6 ppg, 6.5 apg-Leads team, 5.1 rpg) and Dwyane Wade (19.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.9 apg, 1.5 spg) has lifted the Bulls to only the No. 7 spot in the East.
This has been one of Rondo’s worst season’s statistically, especially shooting wise with just a 37.9 clip from the field and his other flaws from co-existing with his teammates and head coach Fred Hoiberg. have come to the forefront, which ended his short stint with the Dallas Mavericks.
That mentality worked during his career with the Celtics because they had dominant personalities in head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers and the likes of future Hall of Fames Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen.
That attitude ended his short stint with the Dallas Mavericks a couple of years ago and it did not work with the Sacramento Kings a season ago despite his solid season a year ago.
Wade, who signed with his home town team in the off-season has played well in spurts, but his ability to be a veteran presence has not worked out as well as hoped.
He has been a solid compliment to Butler (24.3 ppg-Leads team, 6.3 rpg, 5.1 apg, 1.9 spg-6th NBA, 45.0 FG%), who was named an All-Star again and has emerged as not only the best player on the Bulls, but their team leader, which makes it hard to understand why there is a rumor going around that he was going to be dealt to the Celtics during last Thursday’s trad deadline.
If anything, Butler should be the one player the Bulls focus on building the team around The Bulls missed the playoffs for the first time since the 2007-08 season and their defensive identity that became a staple under Thibodeau was gone.
The team did make a trade at the deadline, sending forwards Doug McDermott, Taj Gibson and a 2018 second-round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder for forward Joffrey Lauvergne, guard Cameron Payne and guard Anthony Morrow.
The new additions will join a young, but inconsistent reserve group that consist of Nikola Mirotic (9.3 ppg, 5.3 rpg), Michael Carter-Williams (8.1 ppg, 4.5 rpg), Jerian Grant (5.8 ppg), Cristiano Felicio, Bobby Portis and rookies Paul Zipser and Denzel Valentine.
While the roster seems to have been a mismatch all season, if the playoffs started today, they would be in, despite all they have been through.
If they can get it together for the remainder of this season, they could be a tough out for anybody. Just ask the Raptors, who they have beaten 11 consecutive times, which includes their 105-94 victory back on Valentine’s Day.
On paper, the Bulls roster should be a major threat to the Cavs in the East. The difference is that possessing talent that looks good on paper does not mean it will. That point said, at the end of the day, the Bulls have underachieved and this roster has been a serious mismatch, which has been of no help to Coach Hoiberg.
This roster is talented enough to make the playoffs. What they do with that chance is on them. Their future depends on it.
Cleveland Cavaliers: 40-17 (1st Central Division; No. 1 Seed East) 25-5 at home, 15-11 on the road.
-111.3 ppg-3rd; opp. ppg: 106.1-20th; 43.9 rpg-10th
On Sunday June 19, 2016, the Cleveland Cavaliers won Game 7 of the 2016 Finals 93-89 at the Warriors to win their first title in franchise history and ended 52-year title drought for all the pro sports teams in Northeast Ohio not winning a title. The question coming into this season can the Cavs repeat
Through the first 36 games of this season, the Cavs looked like no one in the East could play at the level of the Cavs as they were 28-8 after a 120-116 win at the Phoenix Suns. Since then, a lot has taken place with the defending champions as they have gone just 12-9 since.
While four-time MVP, three-time Finals MVP and Akron, OH native LeBron James (25.7 ppg-T-9th NBA 7.8 rpg, 8.9 apg-4th NBA, 54.0 FG%, 38.6 3-Pt.%) is having another great season, he is logging a lot of minutes averaging 37.5, which is second only to Kyle Lowry of the Toronto Raptors.
Olympic Gold Medalist, All-Star guard and James’ teammate Kyrie Irving (24.6 ppg, 5.9 apg, 46.5 FG%, 38.2 3-Pt.%) has also been having a solid season, but he himself has been logging a lot of minutes at a 35.1 average
One of the reason that James and Irving have been logging a lot of minutes is as the defending champions, they are each team’s prime game of the season meaning they have to bring it every night.
What also has contributed to head coach Tyronn Lue not being able to lower James and Irving’s playing time is that two important players in All-Star forward Kevin Love (20.0 ppg, 11.1 rpg-10th NBA, 38.4 3-Pt.%) and guard J.R. Smith (8.6 ppg, 36.2 3-Pt.%) are out because of knee and thumb surgery respectably and will not return until near the playoffs in April.  They also lost backup center Chris Andersen earlier this season because of knee surgery. They did deal him earlier this month to the Hornets. 
The supporting cast of Channing Frye (9.3 ppg, 40.4 3-Pt.%), Tristan Thompson (8.2 ppg, 9.8 rpg), Iman Shumpert (7.8 ppg, 39.6 3-Pt.%) Richard Jefferson and DeAndre Liggins have been solid for most of this season.
However, when things started to go bad in January when the Cavs went just 7-8, that was when the depth issues really came to the forefront.
It also prompted James to speak about the fact that he felt the team was lacking talent wise and something needed to be done and it was.
The Cavs acquired from the Hawks Kyle Korver (10.3 ppg, 47.1 FG%, 45.6 3-Pt.%), who has averaged 11.5 points on  51.9 percent from the field and 52.3 from three-point territory in 20 games with.
The Cavs have also signed forward Derrick Williams, who began with the Heat this season, signed another 10-day contract and likely will be signed for the rest of the season.
The Cavs also plan to see if they can sign guard Deron Williams, who was waived by the Dallas Mavericks on Thursday or they might take a run at center Andrew Bogut, if he is waived by the Philadelphia 76ers, who acquired him from the Mavericks on Thursday.
The bottom line for the defending champs, if they can get healthy by the playoffs, and play more consistent, suffocating defense, they will be fine.
Being ranked 16th in field goal percentage allowed (45.5); tied for 15th in opponent’s three-point percentage (36.2); tied for 14th in rebound differential (+0.3); tied for 21st in steals (7.3) and 19th in forced turnovers (12.9) will not get it done in the playoffs.
Talent wise the Cavs are head and shoulders the best team in the East and while the like of the Celtics and Washington Wizards have put themselves in a position to challenge for the top spot in the East, the Cavs have LeBron James and they do not. Also, they are the defending champs and they put that on display in their 10th straight win over the New York Knicks on Thursday night on TNT 119-104
James had his 6th triple-double of the season and 48th of his career with 18 points, 13 boards and 15 assists. Irving led the way with 23 points and Korver had 20, hitting six triples for the second straight game. Jefferson had 14 points off the bench and Thompson had his 18th double-double of the season with 10 points and 14 rebounds, along with four blocks.
Grade: B
Detroit Pistons: 28-31 (4th Central Division; No. 8 Seed East) 18-12 at home, 10-19 on the road
-101.4 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 101.8-5th; 44.6 rpg-7th
Last spring, the Detroit Pistons made their first playoff appearance after a seven-year absence. Despite being swept 4-0 to the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers in the first-round, the Pistons showed a lot of grit and did not back down to LeBron James and his crew. The question coming into this season were the Pistons going to bring that same intensity and win more games? If the playoffs started today, they would be in as the No. 8 Seed, but they have played very inconsistent in 2016-17.
One major reason for that is starting lead guard Reggie Jackson (15.0 ppg, 5.5 apg, 36.6 3-Pt.%), who was rumored to be traded at the trade deadline this Thursday missed the first 21 games of the season having platelet-rich plasma (PRP) injections to treat tendinosis and to nurse an Ulnar Collateral Ligament (UCL) in his right thumb.
The Pistons went 11-10 without Jackson, but since he has come back, the team have gone 17-21.
Starting center Andre Drummond (14.6 ppg, 13.8 rpg-2nd, NBA, 1.7 spg-Leads team, 53.0 FG%), who signed a new five-year $130 million deal as a restricted free agent over the summer has been solid with 39 double-doubles, but he has not had the kind of impact on the game like he did a season ago, when he was named an All-Star.
While the other three-fifths of the starting quintet for the Pistons from a season ago Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (14.6 ppg, 37.7 3-Pt.%), Marcus Morris (14.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg) and Tobias Harris (16.3 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 48.6 FG%) have been solid, but the bench of the Pistons has not performed up to par.
Except for forward Jon Leuer (11.2 ppg-career-high, 5.7 rpg-career-high, 50.4 FG%), who has started 21 games for the boys of the “Motor City” this season, the rest of the reserves like guards Ish Smith (8.2 ppg, 5.0 apg) and Beno Udrih (5.7 ppg, 3.0 apg, 45.3 FG%, 35.7 3-Pt.%); center Aron Baynes and second-year forward Stanley Johnson have been mediocre at best and borderline awful.
Head coach Stan Van Gundy’s team overall has played about average offensively as well as defensively.
They are ranked just 15th in field goal percentage 45.4 percent; just 27th in three-point percentage at 33.8 percent and are tied for 23rd in assists per contest at 21.2.
While the Pistons have the seventh best rebound differential in the league at a +2.2, they have just 12th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 35.8. The opposition shoots on average 45.7 percent from the field against them, which is tied for 17th in the league. The Pistons are tied for 29th in the league in block shots per game at 3.8; tied for 23rd in steals at 7.0 per contest and are tied for 27th in forced turnovers per game at 12.1.
After a shaky start in their first game back from the All-Star break, the Pistons rallied from an 18-point third quarter deficit to beat the Hornets at home 114-108 in overtime on Thursday night in their first game following the All-Star break
Caldwell-Pope led the way with 33 points and nine rebounds, going 7 for 15 from three-point range. Harris had 25 points off the bench with seven boards and hitting 4 triples in 8 attempts. Morris had 16 points and eight rebounds. Drummond had a double-double of 12 points and 13 boards and Leuer had 10 points and nine rebounds.
They fell three nights later versus the Celtics 104-98, thanks in large part to a five-point possession by Boston in the very late stages of the fourth quarter.
If the playoffs started today, they would have the eighth and last playoff spot in the East and would fall again in a four-game sweep at the hands of the Cavs.
If they are happy to just make the playoffs, so be it. It is just a shame though that a team that really performed admirably against the Cavs a season ago would let a season with so much optimism go to waist.
If the Pistons can play like they did in versus the Hornets in the second half, they can maybe move up in the standings. Whether or not they can play more consistent remains to be scene. 
Grade: D
Indiana Pacers: 30-29 (2nd Central Division; No. 5 Seed East) 21-10 at home, 9-18 on the road
-105.3 ppg-16th; opp. ppg: 106.1-21st; 41.4 rpg-26th
There has been no better example of a team in the NBA this season that has a tremendous amount of talent on it, but has been very inconsistent this season than the Indiana Pacers.
After being at, below as much as three games and then as high as six games above the .500 mark, the Pacers put together a seven-game winning streak from Jan. 26 to Feb. 8 that improved their record to 29-22. That was followed by six consecutive losses entering the All-Star break, where they surrendered 110 points or more in each contest.
The Pacers snapped that six-game skid in their first outing after the All-Star break with a 102-92 win versus the Grizzlies on Friday night, but lost at the Miami Heat 113-95 one night later
What makes the hot and cold effort of the Pacers hard to fathom so far this season is that they have from top to bottom one of the most talented and deep of a team in the league.
Swingman Paul George (21.8 ppg-Leads team, 6.1 rpg, 1.5 spg-Leads team, 44.2 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%) is as talented a two-way player as they come, but he has not taken his game to the kind of level where he elevates the play of the rest of his team.
Indianapolis native and starting league guard Jeff Teague (15.3 ppg, 8.1 apg-career-high, 4.2 rpg-career-high, 44.7 FG%, 35.2 3-Pt.%) who the Pacers acquired back in the off-season from the Hawks in a three-team deal has been steady for them, especially as a floor general with 14 double-digit assists games in the new year.
Second-year center Myles Turner (15.6 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 2.1 bpg-3rd NBA, 51.9 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt.%) continues to improve on both ends of the floor, especially as a three-point shooter.
The bench unit of forward C.J. Miles (10.7 ppg, 44.1 FG% 42.4 3-Pt.%), guard Rodney Stuckey (8.8 ppg), center Al Jefferson (8.5 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 50.6 FG%), Aaron Brooks, Kevin Seraphin, Glenn Robinson III and Lavoy Allen are as good as you can get in players who can have an impact off the bench.
The problem as mentioned earlier with the Pacers has been their ability to perform consistently on both ends of the court and it is why they are just one game over the .500 mark.
Offensively, the Pacers have played okay, ranking 10th in field goal percentage shooting 46.5 percent; tied for seventh in three-point percentage at 37.0 percent and second in free throw percentage at 81.4 percent
It has been a struggle though at the defensive end for the Pacers, which was not the case the past few seasons under then head coach Frank Vogel, who is now the head man with the Orlando Magic.
Under first year head coach Nate McMillan, who was an assistant under Vogel the past couple of seasons, the Pacers are eighth in field goal percentage allowed, giving up 45.1 percent. They went from 3rd in opponent’s three-point percentage a season ago to tied for 13th at 35.9 percent. They are also just 26th in “The Association” in rebound differential at a -3.5.
Thanks to Turner’s ability to protect the rim against all comers into the paint, the Pacers are ranked eighth in block shots per game at 5.2. They are tied for eighth in steals per game at 8.3 and are eighth in forcing turnovers at 14.5.
To put the Pacers defensive struggles into context, when forward Thaddeus Young (11.3 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 1.8 spg-Leads team, 52.4 FG%, 39.6 3-Pt.) plays, teams have shot just 34.7 percent from three-point range, the sixth lowest in the NBA. In eight games he has not played, due to a sprained left wrist, opponents have shot 41.5 percent from three-point territory, the second highest in the league.
Coming into this season, team president and Hall of Famer Larry Bird said that he wanted the Pacers to become the type of a team that plays at the offensive end like most teams in the NBA have over the past couple of season. That shoot a ton of three-pointers, relies on ball movement and spacing, and that can run with the best.
That goal has not come to the forefront and the Pacers have not played nowhere up to the standard they have set for themselves as mentioned earlier at the defensive end.
The other problem they have on their hands is a frustrated Paul George, who had heard that the organization were teetering on trading him. George has stated that he wants to be with the Pacers for the rest of his career, if they are trying to everything they can to contend for a championship, like they did in the early part of this decade.
Baring a serious collapse, the Pacers will be in the postseason, which makes it even more important that they figure things out the rest of this season.
They could make some noise in the East, at least get to the Conference Finals. If they fall short, they will need to decide if trading George in the off-season is the best thing for him and the franchise? We shall see. 
Grade: C-
Miami Heat: 27-32 (3rd Southeast Division) 14-14 at home, 13-18 on the road.
-101.8 ppg-24th; opp. ppg: 102.1-6th; 43.9 rpg-13t
Prior to the last season and a half-plus the Miami Heat were kings of the NBA universe making four straight appearances to The Finals and winning two straight titles in 2012-2013. Then in the blink of an eye things changed starting with the departure of LeBron James came two summers ago, as he returned to the Cavs. That was followed by the sudden the farewell of the other two staples of the “Big Three” in perennial All-Star guard Dwyane Wade in free agency and perennial All-Star forward/center Chris Bosh, who failed his physical and essentially ended his career. The Heat as expected this season struggled at 11-30, but then suddenly they got as hot as the South Florida weather.
They proceeded to win 13 straight games from Jan. 17 to Feb. 11, the third longest streak in franchise history.
To bring the turnaround of the Heat into context, in the first 41 games, they were averaging just 98.3 points per game on 33.8 percent shooting from three-point range and their point differential was a -4.5. In their 13 victories in succession, the Heat averaged 109.4 points per game, shooting 42.7 percent from three-point range and had a +10.6 point differential.
At the head of this snake was the starting backcourt of Goran Dragic (20.3 ppg-Leads team, 6.1 apg, 3.9 rpg, 48.4 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%) and off-season addition Dion Waiters (16.1 ppg-career-high, 4.4 apg, 3.5 rpg, 39.1 3-Pt.), who signed a two-year $5.9 million deal.
There was a stretch that Waiters missed 20 games from Nov. 28, 2016 to Jan. 3 with a groin injury and the Heat lost 15 of those 20 games. Since he returned, he has been playing the best basketball of his four-year career in the NBA with averages of 16.6 points and 19.3 points per game in January and February respectably.
He really showed out on Jan. 21 when he tied a career-high with 33 points on 12 for 18 shooting, including 4 for 8 from distance as the Heat won versus the Milwaukee Bucks 109-97. Dragic had 25 points.
Waiters scored 33 points again going 13 for 20 from the floor, which included six three-pointers in eight tries, with the last being the game-winner as the Heat won versus the defending champion Warriors 105-102 on Jan. 10.
What makes this streak even more improbable is that the Heat were getting this done without some key core players in second-year forward Justise Winslow (10.9 ppg, 5.2 rpg, 3.7 apg), who has been shelved for the remainder of the season following surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder.
Second-year guard Josh Richardson (10.5 ppg) missed 18 games from Jan. 8 to Feb. 24 because of a bad ankle and veteran forward Josh McRoberts, whose Heat career has been ravaged by injuries the past two and a half seasons has been shelved since late December 2016 because of a stress fracture in his left foot.
The injuries forced head coach Erik Spoelstra to give guys playing time to the likes guard Wayne Ellington (10.8 ppg, 35.5 3-Pt.%); undrafted rookie guard Rodney McGruder (6.4 ppg, 3.4 rpg), who has made 42 starts this season and averaged 6.9 points and 3.7 boards and forward Willie Reid (5.3 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 57.1 FG%), who really played well in January when he averaged 8.7 points and 6.5 boards and in five starts this season averaged 14.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 4.6 blocks on 68.6 percent from the field.
Back on Jan. 3 in a 99-90 loss at the Phoenix Suns, Reid had career-highs of 22 points and 18 boards. He tied that career-high of 22 points to go along with 12 boards in a 127-100 win at the Los Angeles Lakers three days later. In the sixth of the Heat’s 13 straight wins of 100-88 at the Bulls on Jan. 27, Reid scored 20 points going 9 for 11 from the floor.  
While Waiters and Dragic have been at the forefront of the turnaround of the Heat’s season, the one player that got a serious payday back in the off-season and a lot was expected from was Hassan Whiteside (16.6 ppg, 14.1 rpg-Leads NBA, 2.1 bpg-4th NBA, 55.4 FG%-8th NBA), who signed a five-year $98 million deal and by the numbers has increased his production even more from his two prior seasons in South Florida.
So far in February, Whiteside has averaged 16.9 points, 15.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks on 58.5 percent from the field.
Another player who has made a name for himself for the Heat is guard Tyler Johnson (13.8 ppg, 4.2 rpg, 35.2 3-Pt.%), who went from being undrafted out of Fresno State to a guy who got a new four-year $50 million offer sheet offered by the Nets as a restricted free agent, which the Heat matched.
The 2016-17 campaign got off to a painful start for the Heat who lost Wade in free agency and, Bosh, the 11-time All-Star whose last two seasons have ended after the All-Star break because of blood clots and he failed his physical after a recurrence was discovered which again basically ended his career in the NBA.
Because of the foundation that has been laid in Miami led by team president Pat Riley of hard work, focus, attention to detail and a determination to get better each day, the Heat went from being a lottery team to one that has a chance to make the playoffs.
Their 108-90 victory at the Hawks in their first contest following the All-Star break on Friday night, followed by a 113-95 win versus the Pacers one night later pulled the Heat to within just one game of the No. 8 and final playoff spot, that is occupied by the Pistons.
If anything that the Heat have shown this season is that when given an opportunity, it is up to the individual to make the most of that that chance. A number of the Heat players have made the most of that opportunity and this season whether they make the playoffs or not will serve as a major stepping stone for the future. 
Grade: B
Milwaukee Bucks: 26-31 (5th Central Division) 15-15 at home, 11-16 on the road.
-105.4 ppg-14th; opp. ppg: 105.3-12th; 41.3 rpg-27th
Last season was a disappointing one for the Milwaukee Bucks, who missed the playoffs after battling tooth and nail against the Chicago Bulls before falling in six games in the opening round the year prior. Coming into this season, the hope was with the addition of a couple of veteran players, a highly touted second-round pick and another year together for two cornerstone forwards, there was hope that the Bucks would make it back to the postseason. They have put themselves in position to do that even though they have been very inconsistent this season.
One big reason the Bucks are in position to make the playoffs this season has been the continued emergence of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who was named to the first of many All-Star selections. He is the only player this season to lead his team in points (23.6), rebounds (8.7), assists (5.4), steals (1.8-7th NBA) and blocks (2.0-6th NBA) per game.
To put his continued growth into perspective, he had just 12 double-doubles in his first two seasons. Last year, Antetokounmpo had 21 and so far this season, he has 23. A season ago, he had five triple-doubles and has two already this season.
On New Year’s Eve, 2016, the guy nicknamed “The Greek Freak,” made some history in helping the Bucks in their 116-96 win at the Bulls. His effort of 35 points, nine boards, eight assists and seven blocks joined him on a list of Anthony Davis (2015), and Hall of Famer Julius “Dr. J” Erving (1982) and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (1975 and 1980) of players who scored 35-plus points, grabbed nine-plus rebounds, dished out seven-plus assists and blocked seven-plus shots in a game in NBA history.
The other cornerstone that the Bucks that was having a solid season was third-year forward Jabari Parker (20.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg), who was having a break out season, especially shooting wise from the floor, where he was hitting 49.0 percent of his shoot attempts and 36.5 percent of his three-point attempts.
Unfortunately for the second time in his career, Parker’s season was cut short from due to a torn ACL that he sustained in the Bucks 106-88 loss versus the Heat on Feb. 8. It was the same knee he injured the ACL in December 2014 that limited Parker’s rookie season to just 25 games.
Parker had surgery to repair that knee last week and a report said that it was successful, but it will take close to a year before he will have a chance to get back out on the court again.
While the loss of Parker is big, the Bucks before the break got back guard Khris Middleton (9.8 ppg, 44.4 3-Pt.%), who missed the first 51 games of this season recovering from a serious hamstring injury.
His return should give the Bucks the necessary scoring punch that will be much needed in the absence of Parker.
The Bucks will also need more from forward/center Greg Monroe (11.5 ppg, 6.8 rpg, 53.1 FG%), whose been very inconsistent with his play this season. They will also need more from his understudy John Henson (6.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.3 bpg, 51.2 FG%).  
There will also be an opportunity for rookie Thon Maker, the No. 10 overall pick back in June’s draft, who has started in recent games since Parker been shelved.
Last season, the Bucks were one of the worst three-point shooting teams in the business ranking 21st in three-point shooting at 34.5 percent; 30th, dead last in attempts at 15.6 and in connections from long range nailing just 5.4 per game.
The additions of Mirza Teletovic (6.7 ppg, 34.6 3-Pt.%); veteran guard Jason Terry (3.7 ppg, 42.1 3-Pt.%); guard Matthew Dellavedova (7.3 ppg, 5.2 apg, 35.0 3-Pt.%); guard Tony Snell (8.1 ppg, 45.8 FG%, 40.2 3-Pt.%) and forward Michael Beasley (9.7 ppg, 3.6 rpg, 54.2 FG%, 42.1 3-Pt.%) have improved the Bucks offense as they are tied for sixth in percentage at 37.0 percent, despite being ranked 26th in attempts with 22.8 per game and tied for 24th in connections at 8.5.
The Bucks are second overall in field goal percentage at 47.8 and fifth in assists per contest with 24.5.
One of the biggest surprises for the Bucks this season has been the play of second-round pick, No. 36 overall pick from the 2016 draft in guard Malcolm Brogdon (9.5 ppg, 4.2 apg, 41.4 3-Pt.%) out of University of Virginia. In his 12 starts this season, Brogdon has averaged 13.2 points, 5.7 assists, 4.5 boards on 44.7 percent from the floor and from three-point range and is averaging just 1.8 turnovers in those starts.
In the previously mentioned Bucks win on New Year’s Eve 2016 at the Bulls, Brogdon had his first career triple-double with 15 points, 12 assists and 10 rebounds.
The Bucks have garnered some big wins this season like their 118-101 win versus the defending champion Cavs on Nov. 29, 2016; scoring a 123-96 win versus the Washington Wizards on Dec. 23, 2016; garnering a victory at the San Antonio Spurs 109-107 on Jan. 10; a 127-114 win at the Houston Rockets on Jan. 23 and a 116-100 win at the Pacers on Feb. 11.
Unfortunately, head coach Jason Kidd’s team has also had some head scratching losses like to the Miami Heat three times this season; at the Minnesota Timberwolves (116-99) on Dec. 30, 2016; versus the New York Knicks 116-111 on Jan. 6; versus the Philadelphia 76ers (113-104) on Jan. 16; at the Orlando Magic (112-96) on Jan. 20 and at the Denver Nuggets (121-117).
One big factor in each of those losses for Bucks has been their inability to consistently slow the opposition down offensively.
While the Bucks are tied for fifth in blocks shots per game at 5.5; tied for fourth in steals per game at 8.4; rank 10th in forcing turnovers at 14.2 and are tied for 10th in field goal percentage allowed at 45.4, they are 16th in opponent’s three-point percentage surrendering 36.2 and are 22nd in rebound differential at -1.3.
Despite their inconsistent play, the Bucks stand just one game behind the Pistons for the No. 8 and final playoff spot. Their first game following the All-Star break, a 108-95 setback versus the Jazz on Friday night kept them from pulling even with the Pistons for that last spot.
They lost two of their three matchups with the Heat this season, but the Bucks have won two of their first three meetings against the Pistons and have one more game against them in Wisconsin on Mar. 31. That game will go a long way in deciding who makes the postseason.  
Of all the teams fighting for that last spot, the Bucks have arguably the best player in Antetokounmpo, who has really stepped his game up this season. If he and his teammates can play more consistent on both ends, then they can make it back to the postseason.
Grade: C+
New York Knicks: 24-35 (3rd Atlantic Division) 15-15 at home, 9-20 on the road.
-106.1 ppg-13th; opp. ppg: 109.4-25th; 46.0 rpg-4th
With the additions made over the summer in the “Big Apple,” there was optimism that the New York Knicks were going to make it back to the playoffs for the first time in three years and make some noise. After a 118-112 win at the Los Angeles Lakers on Dec. 11, 2016, the Knicks were 14-10 an in the thick of race for home court in the first-round. Unfortunately, like last season when the Knicks finished 32-50 after being 22-22 on Jan. 20, 2016, they have struggled and they have garnered just as much negative attention both on the court and off the court.
Since their stellar beginning where they were in the thick of playoff contention at 14-10, the Knicks have gone just 10-25 since then.
New head coach Jeff Hornacek has given him more gray hairs as he has had to deal with losing games every way possible, especially those by just one possession.
The most difficult losses were the ones that were by one possession; a one-point buzzer beating loss versus the Bucks (105-104) on Jan. 4. Another buzzer beating loss of 98-97 at the Philadelphia 76ers seven days later. A three-point 113-110 loss versus the Wizards on Jan. 19, which was followed by a 107-105 loss versus the Phoenix Suns two days later and a 142-139 quadruple-overtime loss at the Hawks on Jan. 29.
If that was not enough, the Knicks made headlines for the wrong reasons away from the court.
Their 110-96 setback versus the New Orleans Pelicans on Jan. 9 was not the main headline. It was the fact that starting lead guard Derrick Rose left the team without permission or even made the Knicks aware of the fact that he had a family matter to handle.
All-Star forward Carmelo Anthony (23.5 ppg-Leads team, 6.0 rpg, 37.3 3-Pt.%) has been rumored to be traded, particularly during the last two months and on top of that, he has been taking one shot after another from team president Phil Jackson in the media and on social media and from writers who are closely associated with Jackson. One of those confidants of Jackson, Charley Rosen wrote, “Anthony has outlived his usefulness in New York.”
Then there was the ugly incident back on Feb. 8 where the Knicks lost 119-115 versus the Los Angeles Clippers and Knicks legend Charles Oakley was taken from the arena by security and then there was the firestorm back in early December 2016 when Jackson called the business associates of LeBron James his “posse.”
James and the Cavs responded by demolishing the Knicks 126-94 in their Dec. 7, 2016 meeting.
While Rose (17.6 ppg, 4.4 apg, 46.2 FG%) has a solid season numbers wise, he has not had the kind of impact that he was expected to have when he was acquired from the Bulls in the off-season.
Neither has his teammate Joakim Noah (5.0 ppg, 8.8 rpg-Leads team), who has missed time recently because of a knee injury, has not lived up to the four-year $72 contract he signed in free agency this summer. He just recently had arthroscopic knee surgery and will be re-evaluated in 3-4 weeks, but it is likely that his season is over.  
Second-year forward Kristaps Porzingis (18.1 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.0 bpg-Leads team), who was a real surprise last season as a rookie, has regressed going from averages of 20.1 points on 46 percent shooting the first 32 games to just 14.9 points on a dismal 41.9 percent from the floor the last 17 games prior to Thursday contest at the Cavs. The Latvia native had been shelved recently by an Achilles injury and a stomach bug that shelve him for seven games combined in January and February and on Thursday suffered a sprained ankle that shelved him for the Knicks’ 110-109 win versus the Sixers on Saturday night.
All the distractions and the losing has forced Jackson and GM Steve Mills to see if they can overturn the roster again. Along with seeing if they can trade Anthony, who has a no-trade clause in his contract, the likes of guard Brandon Jennings (8.6 pig, 5.0 apg, 34.0 3-Pt.%), who has played solidly as the understudy to Rose, and backup center Kyle O’Quinn (6.4 ppg, 5.6 rpg) were among the Knicks that were rumored to be traded before the deadline on Thursday.
Thursday has gone by and no Knicks were dealt and it the short term that seems to be a good thing for them.
Besides the no-trade clause, the Knicks were hesitant to move Anthony, because of the poor play recently of Porzingis, who without question is the future centerpiece of the team, but seems unready to take that mantle.
One thing that Anthony has shown during these tough times is the ability to play and play well despite as he has averaged 25.7 points in February, and going back to the start of the 2017 has scored 30 or more nine times. It has only resulted in just one win.
What this tough stretch has also masked is the recent solid play of two rookies in center Willy Hernangomez (6.7 ppg, 6.0 rpg, 54.2 FG%), who has averaged 11.0 points and 9.4 rebounds this month and Mindaugas Kuzminskas (5.8 ppg), who averaged 8.7 points per contest in January and third year guard Justin Holiday (7.4 ppg, 35.7 3-Pt.%).
You would think with the trade deadline behind them, the Knicks would have an inspired effort in their first game back from the All-Star break at the defending champion Cavaliers and show they want to make the playoffs.
After a close first quarter where the Cavs led 34-33, they outscored the Knicks 35-18 in the second stanza and cruised to a 119-104 win.
Lee had a season-high 25 points. Anthony had 20, but was just 9 for 25 from the field, including just 2 for 8 from three-point range.
They nearly let another one get away on Saturday night against the previously mentioned Sixers, but a left baseline jumper by Anthony in the closing moments that gave him a game high 37 points pulled the Knicks right out of the fire and earned them a 110-109 win.
The boys of the “Big Apple” are now four games out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot, occupied by the Pistons.
While they are in striking distance, the Knicks have not shown they can put a string of consistent performances together.
They can score a big win like they did versus the San Antonio Spurs 94-90 on Feb. 12, and back it up with a 116-105 loss at the Oklahoma City Thunder three days later. They garnered a 117-106 win at the Celtics on Jan. 18, then lost two one-possession games in succession. The beat the Bucks 116-111 on Jan. 6 and lost three straight after that.
The Knicks want to get back into the playoff picture, they must find a way to consistently wins games in succession and playing consistent defense will give them better chance of making that occur.
They are not playing like a team that is ranked 11th in the league in rebound differential at +1.0. That is tied for eighth in three-point percentage allowed at 35.1 and is tied for 10th in field goal percentage allowed at 45.4.
If things do not change and the Knicks miss the playoffs again, it will be another season that began with a lot of hope and it will end with disappointment and possible changes.
Grade: F
Orlando Magic: 22-38 (5th Southeast Division) 10-19 at home, 12-19 on the road.
-99.7 ppg-29th; opp. ppg: 105.8-17th; 42.8 rpg-23rd
Consistent teams that win in the NBA have an identity. They know their style of play like the back of their hand and bring that to the court night in and night out. Above all, the players have faith in adopted system and in each other to play up to the system and to never deviate from it. That is something that has eluded the Orlando Magic under their new head coach.
In Vogel’s 6.5 seasons with the Pacers from 2010-2016, which saw him go 250-181, reach the playoffs five times in six seasons and guiding them to the Conference Finals in in 2013 and 2014, the Pacers never finished outside the top 10 in defensive ranking.
The Magic so far in the 2016-17 campaign are tied for 25th in field goal percentage allowed at 46.3; tied for 20th in three-point percentage allowed at 36.5 and they are 25th in rebound differential at -2.4.
The additions of Serge Ibaka, via a trade over the summer and Bismack Biyombo (6.0 ppg, 7.2 rpg, 53.2 FG%) who signed as a free agent on a four-year, $68 million deal, where supposed to provide serious rim protection, which has not worked out.
The Magic dealt Ibaka to the Raptors earlier this month in exchange for guard Terrence Ross (10.6 ppg, 44.0 FG%, 37.6 3-Pt.%) and a 2017 first-round pick. Ross had 13 points in his debut as the Magic lost at home 112-103 to the Portland Trail Blazers on Thursday night. He put up 24 points on 10 for 15 shooting, including 4 for 7 from three-point range in the Magic’s 105-86 win versus the Hawks on Saturday night.
The other big trade that the Magic did during the draft was they sent Victory Oladipo to the Thunder, which meant the team’s new starting shooting guard was Evan Fournier (16.6 ppg-Leads team) who was re-signed to a five-year $85 million deal back in the off-season.
While he is scoring at a career-best this season, he is only shooting 43.1 percent from the floor and just 33.6 percent from three-point range after making 40 percent of his attempts from distance a season ago.
Three other players that were expected to make serious growth this season for the Magic were forward Aaron Gordon (11.2 ppg, 4.6 rpg); starting lead guard Elfrid Payton (12.5 ppg-career-high, 5.7 apg, 45.7 FG%) and guard Mario Hezonja.
Gordon has shown flashes of the kind of athlete he is, but playing small forward has been an adjust for him as he is only shooting just 43.2 percent from the floor and just 28.6 percent from three-point range.
Since the trade, the No. 4 overall pick in 2014 has been moved back to his more nature position of power forward and has played a lot better with a 18-point effort on 7 for 11 shooting against the previously mentioned Hawks on Saturday night.
Payton has shown in flashes that he can be an elite point guard and in the January, he averaged 14.7 points, 6.8 assists, on 46.0 percent from the field and 37.1 percent from three-point range.
Hezonja, who the Magic chose with the No. 5 overall pick in the 2015 has been unable to get any serious playing time this season and those minutes have mainly been occupied by Fournier.
He showed some signs against the Trail Blazers with 10 points in 25 minutes on Thursday night and in the Magic’s 116-107 win at the Heat on Feb. 13, Hezonja had 11 points off the bench in 16 minutes, going 3 for 3 from three-point range.
The other reason for Hezonja not getting playing time early on was because of veteran guards Jodie Meeks (8.9 ppg, 40.4 3-Pt.%) or D.J. Augustin (8.4 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt.%).
Two other players who were also supposed to be big parts of the Magic competing to make the playoffs this season were center Nikola Vucevic (14.2 ppg, 10.1 rpg, 47.2 FG%) and Jeff Green (9.4 ppg).
In his first three seasons with the Magic after his rookie season with the Sixers in 2011-12, Vucevic was traded to the Magic the next summer and in his first three seasons he averaged 13.1, 14.2 and 19.3 points respectably, along with averages of 11.9, 11.0 and 10.9 boards. He was a walking double-double. Last season, while he averaged 18.2 points per game, Vucevic averaged just 8.9 boards.
While he has averaged double-digit boards this season like in seasons past, Vucevic’s scoring average is still down and has yet to find his groove under Vogel.
On 20 occasions this season, he has come off the bench, which he never did only five times in his first four seasons.
As for Jeff Green, he was a very talented player at Georgetown, but has never put it all together with the Magic, where he is shooting just 38.6 percent from the field and an abysmal 27.8 from three-point range.
With the addition of a veteran head coach in Vogel, some solid veterans, and young players with a lot of talent, this was supposed to be a season where Magic contended for a playoff spot. Instead, it will be another season with no playoffs, and another June picking high in the draft, hoping to select another young player to get them where they are trying to go.
Grade: F-
Philadelphia 76ers: 22-36 (4th Atlantic Division) 14-16 at home, 8-20 on the road.
-101.6 ppg-25th; opp. ppg: 106.9-23rd; 42.9 rpg-22nd  
Winning 34, 19, 18 and an abysmal 10 games respectably the past four years is what being consistently bad is or what the Philadelphia 76ers called it under then GM Sam Hinke, “The Process.” Well that process reached a low of just 10 wins a season ago and it was miserable to watch, especially for the fans of the city of “Brotherly Love.” Things were headed in that same direction this season, even with two key draft picks finally playing, but some signs of life took hold in the new year.
In the month of January, the Sixers went 10-5, which matched their entire win total from a season ago. In those 10 victories to start 2017 consisted of a 94-89 win versus their Atlantic Division rivals the Raptors on Jan. 18; a 121-110 win versus the Clippers on Jan. 24; a 114-109 win at the Bucks and they closed the month with a come from behind 122-119 win versus the Sacramento Kings.
Two big reasons why the Sixers have turned things around are the addition of two players who finally were able to dawn a Sixers uniform in the No. 3 overall pick in 2014 center Joel Embiid, who “The Process” was named after and the No. 12 overall pick from that same draft year in forward Dario Saric (11.1 ppg, 6.2 rpg).
After sitting out the first two seasons because of injury, the former Kansas Jayhawks that was highly talented coming out of college has lead all rookies and the Sixers team in scoring at 20.2 per contest, rebounds per contest at 7.8 and block shots per contest at 2.5.
Saric, who played the last two seasons overseas has really stepped his game, especially in February where he is averaging 16.6 points and eight boards.
Another player who has played a major role in the Sixers turnaround has been second-year guard and Pennsylvania native is guard TJ McConnell (6.4 ppg, 6.2 apg-Leads team, 1.5 spg, 47.0 FG%).
While by the numbers he has not stood out, McConnell has given something to the Sixers they have not had in recent years, stability at the lead guard spot.
In January, McConnell was solid with averages of 8.1 points, 9.3 assists, four boards and 1.6 steals in 14 games on 47.2 percent shooting. Last month, McConnell had six double-digit assists games, which included a career-high of 17 assists in the Sixers 110-106 loss at the Celtics on Jan. 6.
During the last three seasons while the Sixers were going through this tough rebuilding process, they found via the draft, free agency or acquired players, who are turning out to be some serious gems in the likes of forward Robert Covington (12.2 ppg, 6.3 rpg, 2.0 spg-Leads team), Nik Stauskas (9.1 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.%) and Richaun Holmes (6.8 ppg, 4.4 rpg, 53.5 FG%) and guard Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, who the Sixers took with the No. 24 overall pick back in June’s draft.
They also brought in some veterans to help head coach Brett Brown on learning to be great players both on and off the court in guard Jerryd Bayless, who has been shelved since the third game of the season because of wrist surgery; guard Gerald Henderson (9.9 ppg, 44.3 FG%, 36.1 3-Pt.%) and guard Sergio Rodriguez (7.9 ppg, 5.1 apg).
One big issue the Sixers needed to deal with was the log jam in the front court. At first it was center Jahlil Okafor (11.8 ppg, 4.9 rpg, 51.5 FG%), the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 draft that was thought to be traded by the Thursday deadline.
The Sixers instead dealt forward/center Nerlens Noel on Thursday to the Dallas Mavericks in exchange for center Andrew Bogut, who was bought out of his contract and is now a free agent, guard Justin Anderson (6.5 ppg) and a 2017 first-round pick.
The other issue the Sixers need to take care of is getting Embiid back on the court healthy and keeping him there. He has missed 13 straight games and 16 of the last 17 because of a slight meniscus tear in his left knee.
Embiid is scheduled to have an MRI at the start of this week and has been ruled out indefinitely.
There was hope that the No. 1 overall pick in this June’s draft in forward Ben Simmons, the 2016 NCAA Freshmen of the Year out of LSU would finally play at some point this season. He has been on the shelf because of an acute Jones fracture of the fifth metatarsal in his right foot he sustained before training camp, that required surgery.
The Sixers have said that Simmons will not play this season because a report, the foot he injured has not fully healed and the team wants to take extra precaution because of that.
While this might be surprise, it should not be. The team has done this before with Noel and Embiid, who sat out their first seasons recovering from injury. The hope is that Simmons can be fully healed and can come back next season healthy and ready to roll
By no means are the Sixers a finished product that can contend for a playoff spot, but they have given their fans something they have not had in the last four seasons. Hope.
Going forward, it is about getting Embiid and Simmons healthy and back on the court so they can lift the Sixers back to prominence. If that can happen, it will make the last five seasons of suffering all worth it.  
Grade: C-
Toronto Raptors: 35-24 (2nd Atlantic Division; No. 4 Seed East) 21-10 at home, 14-14 on the road.
-108.5 ppg-5th; opp. ppg: 104.2-8th; 42.5 rpg-25th 
Not only did the Toronto Raptors win a franchise record 56 games a season ago, they won their third consecutive Atlantic Division crown and reached the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history, before falling to the eventual NBA champion Cavaliers. In the off-season, they managed to keep their All-Star off-guard in the fold for years to come. The question coming into this season, could they build off last season’s success and emerge as a serious threat to the Cavs.
The Raptors got off to a solid start going 22-8. Since then however, the team that goes by the mantra “We the North” is just 13-16 since and their biggest problem has been at the defensive end.
While the Raptors are ranked third in the league in steals per game at 8.5; ninth in forced turnovers at 14.3 and tied for 10th in field goal percentage allowed at 45.4 percent; the Raptors are tied for 15th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.1; 17th in rebound differential at -0.2 and tied for 13th in block shots per game at 4.9.
That is why the Raptors earlier this month made a deal with the Magic and acquired forward Serge Ibaka (15.2 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 1.6 bpg, 49.0 FG%, 38.7 3-Pt.%) in exchange for guard Terrence Ross and a 2017 first-round pick.
To improve their perimeter defense, the Raptors acquired forward/guard P.J. Tucker (7.1 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 34.3 3-Pt.%) from the Suns for forward/center Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks.
In his first game as a Raptor versus the Atlantic Division leaders the Celtics on Friday night, Ibaka had 15 points on 7 for 12 shooting, seven boards, one block and one steal in 36 minutes in helping the Raptors earn a 107-97. Tucker had nine points, 10 boards and three steals in 29 minutes in his Raptors debut.
In the Raptors 112-106 victory on Sunday night versus the Portland Trail Blazers, Ibaka had 18 points, 10 rebounds and two steals on 8 for 15 shooting, including 2 for 5 from three-point range.
To put into perspective what the Raptors acquired in Ibaka, they finally filled a whole they had at their starting power forward spot. They filled that void with a three-time All-NBA Defensive team selection; the NBA shot block per game leader from 2010-14 and a player who has played in 89 career playoff games, with 27 of those coming in the Conference Finals and NBA Finals.
In Tucker, the Raptors now have another defender, along with DeMarre Carroll who can guard some of the best perimeter players in the league.
The Raptors hope Ibaka and Tucker can have a major impact at the defensive end, where he the Raptors have had their struggles recently. The team also hopes that Ibaka can be that consistent third scorer that the Raptors have been searching for the last couple of seasons.
At least it is an upgrade from what the Raptors had at the power forward/center spot with Lucas Nogueira (5.2 ppg, 4.8 rpg, 1.7 bpg-Leads team), Pascal Siakam (4.4 ppg, 3.5 rpg), Jared Sullinger, who is just getting back into shape after missing the early part of the season recovering from a fracture right foot and the rookie Jakob Poeltl has not yet proven he is ready for the big time yet.
The team had hoped that Carroll (9.6 ppg, 4.0 rpg, 35.2 3-Pt.%), who they signed to a five-year $60 million deal season ago would be that third scorer, but he was slowed by injuries last season and this season and is only shooting 41.1 percent overall from the floor.
That is why the additions of Ibaka and Tucker are especially important now because their perimeter shooting will allow for even better spacing for the Raptors’ dynamic All-Star backcourt duo of DeMar DeRozan (27.7 ppg-5th NBA, 5.3 rpg, 3.7 apg, 46.7 FG%) and Kyle Lowry (22.8 ppg-career-high, 6.9 apg, 4.7 rpg, 1.5 spg-Leads team, 46.3 FG%, 41.7 3-Pt.%).
Unfortunately, Lowry as announced by the team on Monday will undergo right wrist surgery and is expected to miss 4 to 6 weeks. The team hopes that Lowry will be back in time for the postseason.
This means that the Raptors will need more from center Jonas Valanciunas (12.3 ppg, 9.7 rpg, 54.5 FG%), who has 21 double-doubles on the season, has shown flashes that he should be getting more shot attempts, but has not become the kind of player who will demand the ball in the low post and make his presence felt consistently at the offensive end. That is something that is going to have to change with Lowry on the shelf for likely the rest of the regular season.
Luckily for the Raptors, they have a very capable understudy to take the place of Lowry in Cory Joseph (8.7 ppg, 44.3 FG% 39.7 3-Pt.%), who in the last two games that he been the starting lead guard has scored 11 points with six assists versus the Celtics and 14 points and six assists versus the Trail Blazers.
The Raptors will also need more contributions from the likes of Norman Powell (7.3 ppg, 45.1 FG%, 33.6 3-Pt.%) and Patrick Patterson (7.2 ppg, 5.3 rpg, 36.3 3-Pt.%), who have only on occasion shown they can be impact players consistently this season.
Patterson particularly has been slowed down this season by a lingering knee issue that shelved him for the last seven games prior to Friday’s tilt versus the Celtics. He has missed 17 games in total this season.
The other issue for the Raptors is that they have hung tough with last season’s NBA Finalists, but have lost their five meanings between to the Cavaliers and Warriors by an average of 5.4 points.
On top of that, they have done well in close games this season, with a 4-7 record in games decided by three points or less. Prior to their victory versus the Hornets before the All-Star break, two of the Raptors previous three losses came at the Minnesota Timberwolves 112-109 on Feb. 8 and versus the Pistons 102-101 four days later, where they blew a 26-point lead.
Head coach Dwane Casey’s team because of their struggles to win games prior to their two straight wins have dropped from the No. 2 Seed to the No. 4 Seed and currently lead the Hawks 2 ½ games ahead of the Hawks, who are No. 5 right now.
A chance at four straight Atlantic Division titles is still there for the taking because they won the regular season series 3-1, but the Celtics have the edge of not just having a three-game lead on the loss side, but they are trending upward.
The Raptors have the talent to reach the Conference Finals again, but their road to get there will not be easy, just as it was not in the postseason last year. Can they make it? Will they make it? We shall see.  
Grade: B
Washington Wizards: 34-23 (1st Southeast Division; No. 3 Seed East) 24-8 at home, 10-15 on the road.
-107.9 ppg-8th; opp. ppg: 105.5-14th; 42.9 rpg-21st 
Coming into this season, the Washington Wizards led by their dynamic backcourt were expected to make it back to the postseason after missing out a season ago. Injuries, inconsistent play and friction amongst the players were some major factors in the team underachieving 2015-16. While the team did not get off to a blistering start under their new head coach, they turned things around beginning in December and looked every bit the team that just two seasons prior were considered an up and coming contender.
After three and a half seasons under the guidance of head coach Randy Wittman, who went 178-199, the Wizards fired him back on Apr. 13 and eight days later hired former Thunder head coach Scott Brooks, signing him to a five-year $35 million contract.
After the first 18 games of this season, the Wizards were just 6-12 and completely out of sorts and that poor start was aided by the fact that All-Star guard John Wall did not come into training camp in the best of shape and the fact that he spent much of this summer rehabbing from double-knee surgery.
Slowly, but surely Wall (22.9 ppg-Leads team, 10.7 apg-2nd NBA, 2.1 spg-2nd NBA) got better month by month and now is having the best season of his career, where he is shooting career-high 45.2 percent from the floor.
His last two months have been sensational with averages 21.2 points, 10.9 assists, 4.6 rebounds and 1.8 steals in January and 23.9 points, 12.6 assists and 1.9 steals in February is a big reason the Wizards have gone 18-7 so far in 2017.
His backcourt mate Bradley Beal has not only stayed healthy for the first time in his career, he is playing every bit like one of the best off-guards in the business and like a player who signed a five-year, $127 million contract off-season with career-high averages of 22.6 points, 3.6 assists per contest on 47.8 FG% and a 39.9 percent from three-point range.  
Their relationship as teammates, which made a lot of headlines a season ago has been good and has really shown itself on the court as they are both playing at a high level right now.
Another key player who has played very well for the Wizards has been starting center Marcin Gortat (11.8 ppg, 11.3 rpg, 58.6 FG%-5th NBA), who has amassed 32 double-doubles this season.
Forward Markieff Morris (14.7 ppg, 6.7 rpg-career-high, 45.5 FG% and 36.2 3-Pt.%-career-high), who was acquired at the trade deadline for a first-round pick from the Suns a year ago, has provided a versatile game where he is scoring inside as well as outside at a very high level.
The big question coming into the season was could Otto Porter, Jr. emerge as the kind of small forward who can complement the starting unit?
All Porter, Jr. has done is have that breakout season that the organization has been waiting for with career-highs in points per contest at 14.3; rebounds at 6.7; field goal percentage at 52.8 and league-leading tie for three-point percentage at 45.8.
To put into focus the kind of season Porter Jr. has had, he had just five double-doubles a season ago, he already has 10. The Wizards are 17-3 when Porter, Jr. has made three or triples in a game this season and when he has connected on six three-pointers or more, the team is 3-0.
The bench unit has been the one area, that the Wizards have had their inconsistent moments this season. New addition in guard Trey Burke (5.0 ppg, 44.5 FG%, 41.9 3-Pt.%); forward Kelly Oubre, Jr. (6.1 ppg, 3.3 rpg), forward/center Jason Smith (4.9 ppg, 3.2 rpg, 53.7 FG%) and guard Thomas Satoransky have had their moments, but their production has been one of the lowest in the league this season. 
One player the Wizards hoped would make an impact for them this season was free agent center Ian Mahinmi, who signed a four-year $62 million deal has played just five games this season because of issues with a knee he had surgery on twice this season.
The Wizards hope the acquisition they made on Thursday of Bojan Bogdanovic (14.0 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 35.7 3-Pt.%) from the Nets and forward Chris McCullough for forward Andrew Nicholson, Marcus Thornton and a 2017 first-round pick will improve the bench.
Bogdanovic had just two points on 1 for 5 shooting in his debut for the Wizards in their 120-112 loss at the Sixers. He had 15 points on 5 for 10 from the field, including 3 for 6 from three-point range in 33 minutes in the 102-92 loss versus the Jazz on Sunday afternoon.
One big reason the Wizards went from a team that couldn’t get out of its own way to having homecourt in the postseason is their 17-game winning streak at the Verizon Center from Dec. 8, 2016 to Feb. 6, where they lost 140-135 in overtime versus the Cavaliers in one of the best games of the season. It represents the longest home winning streak since 1989 and it the second longest winning streak since they won 22 straight home games from Nov. 2, 1974 to Mar. 5, 1975 when they were the Washington Bullets playing at U.S. Airways Arena, which was originally the Capital Centre.
In one season, the Wizards went from a huge disappointment to a serious contender in the East. Their backcourt of Wall and Beal is playing at the top of their game and the rest of the starting quintet of Gortat, Porter and Morris have been a great compliment to them.
If the team can remain healthy and Bogdanovic can give them some major offensive pop off the bench, the Wizards can make some major noise in the playoffs and give the Cavs something to think about.
Grade: B+
Western Conference
Dallas Mavericks: 23-35 (4th Southwest Division) 15-14 at home, 8-21 on the road.
-97.8 ppg-30th; opp. ppg: 100.0-4th; 38.3 rpg-30th 
Injuries to key personnel and inconsistency at the offensive end put the Dallas Mavericks behind the eight ball at the start of this season and if the playoffs began right now, they would miss out for just the second time in the last 17 years. The improved health of the team, the emergence of a new addition, the valued experience certain players got because of the injuries, the solid defense and the addition of a D-Leaguer who took this league by storm in just a short time is how the Mavericks put themselves within striking distance of the making the postseason. 
Future Hall of Famer Dirk Nowitzki (13.8 ppg, 6.2 rpg, 38.4 3-Pt.%), now 38 years of age, missed 25 of the team’s first 34 games of this season due to an Achilles injury.
Not having the franchise leader in points, games played and minutes played, who signed a new two-year $50 million deal in the off-season is why the Mavericks were 10-24 entering the new year.
Having starting lead guard Deron Williams, his understudy J.J. Barea (12.2 ppg, 4.9 apg, 35.1 3-Pt.%) and fellow guard Devin Harris (6.2 ppg) and center Andrew Bogut on the shelf for a total of 101 games because of injury was not help to the Mavericks cause either, especially at the offensive end.
Despite leading the league in the fewest turnovers per game at 11.1, the Mavericks are ranked 27th in assists per game at 20.3; 26th in field goal percentage at 44.1 percent and 17th in three-point percentage at 35.7.
The injuries to key personnel have presented opportunity for head coach Rick Carlisle to give the rest of the team the chance to show their stripes especially a key off-season acquisition.
Forward Harrison Barnes (20.0 ppg-Leads team, 5.2 rpg, 47.5 FG%), is having the best scoring season of his career after essentially being traded along with Bogut from the Warriors.
To bring this point into fuller context, in four seasons with the Warriors, where he helped them win a championship in 2015, he led the Warriors in scoring just six times in four seasons. He has led the Mavericks in scoring 26 times this season. His +8.3 scoring average increase from a season ago is the best of any player in the NBA.
Two other new additions to the team that have emerged have been Seth Curry (12.0 ppg, 47.4 FG%, 42.2 3-Pt.%), the younger brother of reigning back-to-back MVP of the Warriors Stephen Curry and guard Yogi Ferrell (12.8 ppg, 4.8 apg, 40.7 3-Pt.% in 12 games), who turned a 10-day contract into a multi-year deal he signed earlier this month.
He earned that opportunity by having performances like the one he had on Feb. 3 with a career-high of 32 points, hitting 11 for 17 from the field, including 9 for 11 from three-point range to go along with five assists in helping the Mavericks win at the Portland Trail Blazers 108-104 in a late night national television tilt on ESPN.
That is what made it possible for the Mavericks at the trade deadline on Thursday to deal guard Justin Anderson and Bogut to the Sixers for forward/center Nerlens Noel (8.9 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 1.5 spg, 60.1 FG%).
In Noel, the Mavericks have a young center who can guard at the basket as well as on the perimeter.
In his Mavericks debut, Noel had nine points and 10 boards in 30 minutes in the team’s 96-83 win versus the New Orleans Pelicans on Saturday night.
The one other Maverick who has also helped to steady things during some rocky moments early on this season was veteran guard Wesley Matthews (15.1 ppg, 37.8 3-Pt.%), who is nearly two years removed from torn Achilles that basically put his career in jeopardy. The Mavericks to a risk in signing him a season ago and while he might be the same consistent knock down shooter and perimeter defensive ace than he was with the Trail Blazers, he has shown flashes of his ability to do both at a high level.
The team has also gotten contributions from the likes of forward Dwight Powell (6.7 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 53.4 FG%), undrafted rookie forward Dorian Finney-Smith and center Salah Mejri
Of all the coaches in the league, no one has been better at taking what he has and making it work than of the Carlisle, who will earlier this season surpassed former NBA head coach with the Hawks, Cavaliers, and Memphis Grizzlies and NBATV analyst Mike Fratello for the No. 20 spot on the all-time head coaching win list, where he now has 684 victories in his 14-year career.  
He has found a way to get the Mavericks to bring it each night despite not having a full deck of cards to work with and now are at least within striking distance of the postseason.
The Mavericks right now stand just 2 ½ games from the No. 8 and final playoff spot, which is occupied by the Denver Nuggets. The Sacramento Kings and the Trail Blazers are in front of them though.
The Mavericks have lost two of the first three meetings with the Nuggets this season, with one more meeting on the second to last night of the season on Apr. 11. They tied the regular season series with the Trail Blazers 2-2.
There were high hopes in Texas for the Mavericks to make the postseason in the twilight of Nowitzki’s career. It is very likely they will miss the playoffs as mentioned earlier just the second time in the last 17 seasons.
Most teams that got off to the kind of start that the Mavericks did would have packed it in and waited until next year. Not a Carlisle coached team and one owned by Mark Cuban.
They also found some players in Barnes, Curry, and Ferrell to move the team forward when Nowitzki does decide to retire.
Becoming a consistent winning team that is a perennial playoff participant does not happen overnight. The Mavericks were awful before Cuban became owner of the team in 2000. Today they have a championship to speak of that they won in 2011 and know that while another title may not be in sight right now, being a consistent playoff participant will go a long way in getting back to that moment down the road.
Grade: C-
Denver Nuggets: 26-33 (3rd Northwest Division; No. 8 Seed West) 16-14 at home, 10-19 on the road.
-110.6 ppg-4th; opp. ppg: 111.7-28th; 46.6 rpg-1st
There are a lot of teams throughout the history of the NBA that show signs that better days come quicker than expected as they are rebuilding. That is the case of what is happening for the Denver Nuggets in 2016-17 campaign
While a 12-17 mark so far in 2017 may not get many to jump up and down and shout to the roof top, it has put the Nuggets in position to make the playoffs for the first time since 2013.
After a solid rookie season, forward Nikola Jokic (15.8 ppg, 8.9 rpg-Leads team, 4.4 apg, 57.5 FG%, 34.8 3-Pt.%), who played well in the Rio Olympics over the summer has emerged as the Nuggets best player.
After a slow start to the season, the 2014 second-round pick averaged 17.0 points, 8.9 boards and 4.9 assists per game in December 2016 on 67.5 percent from the field; 23.9 points, 11.1 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game in January on 60.9 percent from the field and 16.1 points and 10.5 boards and 5.9 assists in February on 51.4 percent from the field and 41.7 percent from three-point range.
After registering eight double-doubles in the first 2 ½ months of the season, Jokic had total nine in January and in this month registered the first two triple-doubles of his career with 20 points, 12 boards and 11 assists in the Nuggets 121-117 win versus the Bucks on Feb. 3 and 17 points 21 rebounds and 12 assists in leading the Nuggets to a 132-110 win versus the defending champion Warriors on Feb. 13.
His play has been a major reason that the Nuggets have found a way to win games, especially when they have not had the likes of forwards Danilo Gallinari (17.4 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 37.6 3-Pt.%) Kenneth Faried (9.7 ppg, 7.8 rpg, 55.9 FG%) and Darrell Arthur (6.8 ppg, 46.7 FG%) and guards Will Barton (13.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 3.4 apg, 44.4 FG%, 37.8 3-Pt.%), Gary Harris (14.2 ppg, 48.1 FG%, 43.0 3-Pt.%) and Emmanuel Mudiay (11.5 ppg, 4.1 apg), who have missed a combined 102 games because of injury.
While by the numbers he has had a hot and cold season rookie season, the No. 7 overall pick in draft in June, guard Jamal Murray out of Kentucky (8.8 ppg) has shown flashes that he can eventually be one of the best shooters in the NBA.
He showed some of that in Nov. 2016 when he averaged 12.3 points per game and hit 42.7 percent of this triples. So far in February, he is averaging 10.9 points off the bench per contest and is hitting a decent 35.3 percent from three-point range.
Jokic, Mudiay, Harris and Murray are not the only players with a lot of upside on the roster. They also have forward Juancho Hernangomez, the No. 15 overall pick from June’s draft from Spain, who had a coming out party of 27 points and 10 boards on 9 for 17 shooting, including hitting six of the Nuggets NBA record-tying 24 three-pointers in the previous mentioned win versus the Nuggets. They also have on the roster the No. 19 overall pick in swingman Malik Beasley out of Florida State.
Besides the previously mentioned Faried, Gallinari and Barton, the team has veteran guards in Jameer Nelson (9.2, 5.0 apg-Leads team, 44.8 FG% 39.0 Pt.%), Wilson Chandler (15.8 ppg, 6.7 rpg, 45.5 FG%) and Mike Miller, who helped the Heat win back-to-back titles in 2012 and 2013 there for guidance for the young core and they have been productive themselves.
More depth was added on Feb. 12 when the Nuggets acquired center Mason Plumlee (10.9 ppg, 7.9 rpg 53.4 FG%) from the Trail Blazers along with a 2018 second-round pick in exchange for center Jusuf Nurkic and a 2017 first-round pick.
The plethora of young talent is a major reason head coach Mike Malone’s team is fourth in “The Association” in assists per game at 24.8; tied for sixth in three-point percentage at 37.0 and tied for ninth attempts at 28.2, while being tied for seventh in makes at 10.4.
They are also great at getting to the free throw line, ranking sixth at 24.8 attempts; tied for ninth in makes at 18.9 and are making a solid 76.0 percent of those chances, 21st in the league.
Back in the off-season, Nuggets president Josh Kroenke had said that when the Nuggets become playoff-bound again, he wants them to become a team that has staying power and not become one that has constantly flames out in the opening round.
They are half way towards that goal as they have a one-game lead on the Sacramento Kings for the No. 8 and final spot in the postseason.
If the Nuggets can keep the core young players he has and they can grow together the goal will go from making the playoffs to contending for a title down the road.
Grade: B
Golden State Warriors: 49-9 (1st Pacific Division; No. 1 Seed West) 26-3 at home, 23-6 on the road.
-118.2 ppg-1st; opp. ppg: 105.4-13th; 44.8 rpg-6th
Last season, they had one of the most productive offenses in the NBA, with 1,077 three-pointers made and that resulted in an NBA record 73 wins in the regular season, which consisted of the most road wins in NBA history with 34 and a tie for the second most home wins in NBA history with 39. The reigning MVP of a season ago won it again and made an NBA record 402 three-pointers. Unfortunately, the dream season had a nightmare ending as the defending champs fell to the Cavs in Game 7 in front of their loyal Oracle Arena fans. That did not sit well with the organization and they went to work in shaping the team to make another title run and they landed the biggest fish in the free agent pond. The big question was could they share the offensive wealth and could they be as good defensively. They have made it work and have put themselves in a position again to win it all.
The newest addition to the defending Western Conference champions Kevin Durant has fit in like a glove with the Warriors. He is tied for ninth in the league in scoring at 25.7 and is averaging career-highs in rebounds per game at 8.4-which leads the team, assists per contest at 4.9, blocks per contest at 1.7 (9th NBA); field goal percentage at 53.9 and is shooting 38.0 percent from three-point range.
Early in the season, reigning MVP, and All-Star lead guard Stephen Curry (24.9 ppg 6.4 apg 1.7 spg 47.0 FG%, 41.5 3-Pt.%) had to adjust to having a new offensive weapon to make sure he got shots and it really showed in December 2016, where he averaged 20.9 points per game and shot just 42.7 percent and 37.5 percent from three-point range.
Since then, last season’s unanimous MVP, the first in NBA history has played at that level with averages of 27.8 points, 7.0 assists, 1.5 steals on 47.0 percent from the floor and 43.1 from long range in January and has put up 24.6 points, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals on 46.9 percent from the floor and 41.0 from three-point land.
Fellow “Splash Brother” and All-Star Klay Thompson (22.1 ppg, 47.5 FG%, 42.2 3-Pt.%) has had no issue adjusting either. So far in February, he is averaging 27.0 points on 52.4 percent from the floor and 53.1 from three-point range.
Behind the high-octane offensive trio of Durant, Curry and Thompson, the Warriors are No. 1 in the NBA in assists per game at 31.0. They have registered 30 or more assists 38 times this season and have gone 37-1.
The Warriors are No. 1 in the league in field goal percentage at 50.0 percent; third in three-point percentage at 38.9; fifth in three-point attempts at 31.5 and third in makes at 12.3. 
While his scoring may be down from a season ago, the ultimate swiss army knife in the league in two-time All-Star forward Draymond Green (10.0 ppg, 8.1 rpg, 7.1 apg-Leads team, 2.1 spg-Leads NBA), who was second in the NBA in triple-doubles as season ago with 13 has done all the little things one can do to help his team win a game.
The best example of this was when he registered the most unique and unthinkable triple-double in a game in NBA history when he scored just four points, but had 11 rebounds, 10 assists and 10 steals to go along with five block shots in 38 minutes in the team’s 122-107 win at the Grizzlies on Feb. 10.  
For as good as the Warriors are offensively, head coach Steve Kerr puts as much emphasis on the effort they put at the defensive end, where they are No. 1 in field goal percentage allowed at 43.5 and lead the league in opponent’s three-point percentage allowing just 32.6 percent.
They are first in block shots per game at 6.6 and in steals at 9.6; ninth in rebound differential at a +1.4 and tied for fourth in turnovers forced at 14.8.
For the Warriors sign Durant this off-season, they had to clear cap room and had to say goodbye to key players on their 2015 title team like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli and Brandon Rush.
The Warriors did re-sign key reserve players in guards Shaun Livingston and Ian Clark (6.4 ppg, 38.8 3-Pt.%) and forward James Michael McAdoo.
The front office of GM Bob Meyers and owner Joe Lacob had enough salary cap space to sign key veterans to add depth to the bench in forward David West and centers ZaZa Pachulia (6.0 ppg, 6.1 rpg 53.7 FG%) and JaVale McGee (6.1 ppg, 3.2 rpg).  
The Warriors even added more talent to their coaching staff in hiring former head coach Mike Brown as an assistant and naming former NBA player Willie Green as their assistant coach of player development.
Last season ended painfully for the Warriors, who blew a 3-1 series lead in The Finals to fall as mentioned earlier in Game 7 on their home floor to the Cavs. The end goal is to make back to The Finals and win their second title in the last three seasons.
With the way things are going, that will be able to be in position to make that happen with homecourt all the way to The Finals if they can make it there. History if anything is on their side as of the three prior teams [1972-73 Los Angeles Lakers, 1996-97 and 1997-98 Bulls] that won 69-plus games the previous season, they went on to win 60 games or more the next season and the Bulls won the title.
They put the league very loudly with their 123-113 victory versus the Clippers on TNT on Thursday night in their first game following the All-Star break.
After scoring 49 points in the first half and trailing by 12 and by as many as 16, the Warriors put up 50 points in the third quarter, outscoring the Clippers 50-26.
That 50-point third period by the Warriors was the most in the NBA since the Lakers scored 51 in a quarter versus the Knicks in their 127-96 victory on Mar. 25, 2014.
Curry scored 20 of his game-high 35 points in the period, going 10 for 16 on the night, including 6 for 10 from long range and 9 for 10 from the free throw line. Durant had 25 points, 14 rebounds and seven assists, on 8 for 15 shootings, including 4 for 6 from distance and Thompson had 18 points.    
The Warriors sent a message to not only the Clippers, who they beat all four time this season and 10 straight, but the rest of the league, including the defending champion Cavs.
Grade: A+
Houston Rockets: 42-18 (2nd Southwest Division; No. 3 West) 22-7 at home, 20-11 on the road.
-115.2 ppg-2nd; opp. ppg: 108.2-24th; 443.8 rpg-15th
Last season, All-Star guard James Harden put up great numbers, but the team was not winning like it did the season prior where they fell three games short of making it to The Finals. In fact he did not even make one of the three All-NBA teams. In fact many considered him a selfish player who would just dribble, and dribble and dribble to make plays for himself. The fact that he and then center Dwight Howard did not get along unlike the season prior did not help either. One season later, a new head coach with a new system, some new players and Harden coming into the season in the best shape of his career has resulted in a complete turnaround for the Rockets that has them in position to make a big postseason run.
It started with the hiring of new head coach Mike D’Antoni to be their new head coach, the 14th head coach in franchise history back in June 2016.
He named Harden, the five-time All-Star and two-time All-NBA First-Team selection the team’s point guard.
The result, career-high numbers of 28.9 points per game, third in the NBA; Leading the NBA in assists per game at 11.3; leading the team in rebounds per game at 8.1; averaging 1.5 steals per game and while he is only shooting 43.9 percent from the field and a decent 35.3 from three-point range.
Harden is also leading the league in free throw attempts per game at 10.9 and in makes at 9.3, which averages at to 85.4 percent from the charity stripe.
What also helped to make this move possible is starting lead guard Patrick Beverly (9.6 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 4.5 apg 38.8 3-Pt.%) missed the first 14 games because of injury.  
To bring into clearer context Harden’s career season, he is the league leader in double-doubles with 47, which is two less then what he has had in the last two seasons combined and 15 of his 24 triple-doubles in his career have come this season.
Those 24 triple-doubles are second only to that of his former teammate with the Oklahoma City Thunder Russell Westbrook, more on his great season later.
On two occasions this season, Harden had two 50-point game triple-doubles, the first player in NBA history to do that. His first came on New Year’s Eve 2016 when he had 53 points, 16 rebounds and 17 assists on 14 for 26 from the field, including 9 for 16 from three-point range and 16 for 18 from the free throw line in the Rockets’ 129-122 win versus the Knicks. In the Rockets 123-118 win at the Sixers on Jan 27 on ESPN, Harden had 51 points, 13 boards and 13 assists on 16 for 28 shooting, including 6 for 11 from distance and 13 for 14 from the free throw line.
Two other key parts in the Rockets turnaround this season have been the additions of former New Orleans Pelicans’ forward Ryan Anderson (13.9 ppg, 5.0 rpg, 40.4 3-Pt.%), who signed a four-year $80 million and guard Eric Gordon (17.2 ppg, 38.2 3-Pt.%) for four-years at $53 million in the off-season.
These were two players who during their time in the “Big Easy” were more known for missing games because of injury than their ability on the court to spread it with their remarkable shooting ability.
Good health this season has them both, along with Harden in the Top 10 in three-pointers made this season with Gordon and Harden in second with 192 and Anderson is eighth with 159.
The new sharp shooting editions alongside forward Trevor Ariza (11.8 ppg, 5.5 rpg, 1.9 spg-4th NBA, 35.5 3-Pt.%) is a big reason the Rockets lead the NBA in three-point attempts and makes at 40.3 and 14.7 per game respectably, and are tied for 11th in the league in three-point percentage at 36.5.
Back on Dec. 16, 2016 in their 122-100 win versus the New Orleans Pelicans, the Rockets set an NBA record with 24 made three-pointers on a record 61 attempts.
Harden had a triple-double on the evening with 19 points, 13 assists and 11 rebounds, hitting 6 for 12 from distance. Gordon led the way with 29 points off the bench, hitting 7 for 12 from three-point range. Ariza had 20 points and hit five threes in 14 chances.
The Rockets at the trade deadline added another potent offensive threat in trading for one of the best scoring reserves in guard Lou Williams (18.7 ppg-career-high, 44.7 FG%, 38.5 3-Pt.%-career-high).
Along with their ability to take and make triples at a high rate this season, the Rockets have also thanks to Harden able to get to the free throw line consistently, ranking fourth in attempts at 25.5; tied for fourth in makes at 19.5, hitting a solid 76.3 percent, which is 17th in the league. The Rockets also rank second in the NBA in assists per game at 25.6.  
When Howard moved on in free agency to the Hawks, the new starting center became third-year man Clint Capela (12.1 ppg-career-high, 7.5 rpg, 65.1 FG%-2nd NBA), who has been more than serviceable.
His understudy Nene (8.2 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 61.2 FG%), who the team signed to a one-year $2.9 million deal has been solid as well and the drafting back in June of forward Chinanu Onuaku with the No. 37 overall pick out of Louisville and center Zhou Qi with the No. 43 overall pick.
Besides Capela, the Rockets have gotten solid production from two of their other young players in forward/center Montrezl Harrell (9.3 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 64.7 FG%) and forward Sam Dekker (7.4 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 47.8 FG%).
When Capela missed 16 games from Dec. 20, 2016 to Jan. 18 because of a fractured fibula, Harrell started 14 times and averaged 12.0 points, 5.1 rebounds on 64.2 percent from the field.
The only thing that can sabotage the Rockets from going very far in the postseason is their defense, something that new assistant coaches Jeff Bzdelik and Roy Rogers were expected to turn around.
While they are ranked sixth in opponent’s three-point percentage giving up just 34.9 percent; tied for fourth in steals per game at 8.4 and tied for fifth in forced turnovers at 14.7 and a solid 12th in rebound differential at a +0.3, the Rockets are just 21st in field goal percentage allowed at 46.2 and 18th in block shots per contest at 4.6.
One thing that D’Antoni did not have or looked to find if he did have in his prior coaching stops with the Nuggets, Suns and Knicks is a deep roster. That is one thing he will have the chance to find out with the Rockets with players like forwards Sam Dekker and Montrezl Harrell and guard K.J. McDaniels.
Last season the Rockets were a shell of the team that they were the season prior. When this regular season concludes, they could have the league MVP; the Sixth Man of the Year and Head Coach of the Year.
On top of that, they have a legitimate chance of making it to the Western Conference Finals.
One thing is for sure, Harden will make an All-NBA team this season and it is highly likely he will make the First-Team for the third time in his five seasons as a Rocket.
Grade: A-  
Los Angeles Clippers: 36-23 (2nd Pacific Division; No. 5 Seed West) 19-9 at home, 17-14 on the road.  
-108.1 ppg-7th; opp. ppg: 104.7-11th; 43.5 rpg-17th
There have been a few constants in the last five seasons for the L.A.’s other basketball team. They have made the playoffs for five straight seasons, soon to be six. They have won 50-plus games the past five seasons, the longest streak in franchise history. The Clippers have also had their season end in tough fashion in the postseason, with no appearances in the Conference Finals. On top of that, they have had to deal with injuries to their two All-Stars. This season, seemed to be off to a great start, but adversity hit them again with on the injury front to their lead guard and power forward.
After a 14-2 start to the 2016-17 campaign, The Clippers came back down to Earth going 22-21 since.
Two big reasons for their up and down play has been injuries to All-Star lead guard Chris Paul (17.4 ppg, 9.8 apg-Leads team, 5.4 rpg, 2.3 spg-Leads team, 46.0 FG%, 39.8 3-Pt.%) and All-Star forward Blake Griffin (22.3 ppg-Leads team, 8.7 rpg, 5.1 apg, 48.9 FG%).
Griffin missed 18 games from Dec. 20, 2016 to Jan. 23 because of knee surgery. He returned to the lineup on Jan. 24 and had 12 points, 11 boards and five assists on just 3 for 11 shooting in the Clippers 121-110 loss at the Sixers. He has gotten back on track in February with averages of 25.9 points, 8.6 rebounds and 6.3 assists on 49.5 percent from the floor.
Paul was on the shelf for 14 games because of broken left thumb that he sustained back on Jan. 16 versus the Thunder.
He did return to the lineup and registered 17 points, six boards, five assists and two steals on 6 for 14 shooting in 33 minutes in the Clippers 105-97 loss versus the Spurs on Friday night on ESPN.  
In the prior 13 games that Paul was shelved, excluding the 123-113 loss the Clippers had on TNT on Thursday night, the Clippers were 6-7 without their All-Star floor general, they scored 106.9 points on average, while surrendering 110.9.
The three constants that head coach Glenn “Doc” Rivers has been able to count on during this season to keep the ship afloat without his two stars has been first-time All-Star and Olympic Gold Medalist in starting center DeAndre Jordan (12.3 ppg, 13.7 rpg-3rd NBA, 1.7 bpg-10th NBA; 69.6 FG%-Leads NBA), who has 25 double-doubles on the season; three-time Sixth Man of the Year winner in guard Jamal Crawford (12.2 ppg, 34.0 3-Pt.%) and starting shooting guard J.J. Redick (15.0 ppg, 41.6 3-Pt.%).
With very little cap room, the task of energetic owner Steve Ballmer and Rivers, who is also the general manager of the Clippers was to fixed their bench, which was the weak link over the prior two seasons.
They additions of forward/center Marreese Speights (9.7 ppg, 4.6 rpg, 39.0 3-Pt.%); guard Raymond Felton (7.6 ppg, 37.0 3-Pt.%); forward Brandon Bass (5.7 ppg) and forward/guard Alan Anderson have been key in keeping the Clippers on track when Paul and Griffin were out of the lineup.
What has also been key is the play “Doc’s” son Austin Rivers, who is having a career season with a 12.4 scoring average on 44.1 percent from the field and 39.1 from three-point range.
In his 27 starts this season is averaging 16.3 points on 45.9 percent from the floor and 42.4 percent from three-point range.  
Talent wise, the Clippers have always been in the mix to win a championship and have had ripped from them the last four postseasons.
There is an extra emphasis to at least reach the Conference Finals this season, with the impending free agency of Paul, Griffin, and Redick at the end of their season.
They would have home court advantage in the opening round against the Utah Jazz if the playoffs began today and that is on shaky ground as their 123-113 lost at the Clippers, their 10th straight to their state and division rival and the previously mentioned setback versus the Spurs on Friday saw them drop to the No. 5 spot in the West. Which means if the playoffs began now, they would not have homecourt in the opening round.
There is still time for the Clippers to get back to the No. 4 spot, which makes their Mar. 13th and 25th showdowns with the Jazz huge games.
If the Clippers cannot reach the Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history this postseason, it may never happen and that would be a shame for a team that at one time was consider the worst in North American pro sports
Grade: B
Los Angeles Lakers: 19-41 (4th Pacific Division) 12-15 at home, 7-26 on the road.
-104.2 ppg-19th; opp. ppg: 110.9-27th; 44.0 rpg-10th  
In the storied history of the 16-time NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers, which also dates back to their time in Minneapolis, MN, they had missed the postseason two straight seasons just once (1975 and 1976). Going back to the 1990s, they missed the playoffs just in the 1993-94 campaign and just once in the 2000s in the 2004-05 season. The farewell tour five-time NBA champion with the Lakers Kobe Bryant was the greatest form of deodorant that masked a dismal season where the Lakers won just 17 games, the worst in franchise history. It was also their third straight season of missing the playoffs, the longest drought in franchise history. In the team’s first season since the 1995-96 campaign without the future Hall of Famer, there were signs of hope when the team began 10-10, but reality came to the forefront and they have been dismal since. However, the core young and talented players, a former Laker champion as their head coach have and maybe the second greatest Laker now in the front office, there seems to be better days ahead.
That journey began with adding a new head coach in Luke Walton, who has brought in a level giving confidence to the young cast, which is a major change from what former Laker great Byron Scott had in his two seasons as head coach.
That young core of players expected to take this team into the future under the guidance of Walton is second-year guard D’Angelo Russell (14.6 ppg-Leads team, 4.7 apg-Leads team 3.8 rpg, 34.5 3-Pt.%); second-year forward Julius Randle (12.8 ppg, 8.2 rpg-Leads team, 48.3 FG%); the No. 2 overall pick back in June’s draft in forward Brandon Ingram (8.3 ppg, 4.0 rpg); second-year forward Larry Nance, Jr. (6.7 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 54.8 FG%), son of former Suns’ and Cavs’ forward Larry Nance and third-year guard Jordan Clarkson (13.8 ppg, 45.0 FG%), who re-signed for four years at $50 million in the off-season.
With young players that have a lot of talent, but need veterans to learn the ropes of what it takes to win in the NBA, that is where the likes of Nick Young (13.5 ppg, 40.5 3-Pt%), who has had a rebirth this season; forward Luol Deng (7.6 ppg, 5.3 rpg), who signed a four-year $72 million deal and Timofey Mozgov (7.4 ppg, 4.9 rpg 51.1 FG%), who signed a four-year $64 million deal in the off-season come into play.
Leading this remodeled Lakers team is the prior mentioned Walton, who really showed that he got the chops to do this when he served as interim head coach of the then defending champion Warriors for the first 43 games of last season ago with Steve Kerr on the mend from back surgery. The team went 39-4, including getting out to a 24-0 start, a new NBA and pro sports record.
Last year Walton was coaching the leading scoring offense as well as the No. 1 three-point shooting team in “The Association” at 41.6 percent. The Lakers this season are 26th in assists per game at 20.6; 23rd in field goal percentage at 44.4; tied for 21st in three-point percentage at 35.0 and 22nd in turnovers per game at 14.5.
They have been just as bad, if not worse defensively ranking 29th in field goal percentage allowed at 48.0; 24th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.5; 20th in rebound differential at -0.9 and 28th in block shots per game at 3.8.
Earlier this month, the front office got a major makeover as Hall of Famer Earvin “Magic” Johnson earlier this month was named President of Basketball Operations for the Lakers in a seismic cleaning in house.
One of his first moves was sending the team’s then top scorer on the season in Lou Williams to the Rockets at the trade deadline on Thursday in exchange for veteran guard Corey Brewer and a 2017 first-round pick. They also waived guard Jose Calderon.
The Lakers also acquired from the Rockets in another deal guard Tyler Ennis and the draft rights to guard/forward Brad Newly for guard Marcelo Huertas.
There are three main goals for the remaining 23 games for the Lakers this season. The first, their young core to gain some valuable experience playing together and to develop a team identity. The second, for Johnson to have as much basketball savvy front office people around him so they can become as knowledgeable of the Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) as well as the ins and outs of the business side of the NBA. Third, to lose as much as possible to protect that Top-3 protected first-round pick in this June’s draft.
Grade: D-
Memphis Grizzlies: 35-25 (3rd Southwest Division; No. 6 Seed West) 18-11 at home, 17-14 on the road.  
-100.8 ppg-27th; opp. ppg: 99.6-3rd; 43.5 rpg-18th
This season could have gone in a different direction for the Memphis Grizzlies under rookie head coach David Fizdale, who the team hired in the off-season. He made a bold choice in having one of the team’s mainstays come off the bench and wanted to make some tweaks to the “Grit and Grind” style that has garnered six straight postseason trips for the Memphis Grizzlies, which included a birth in the Conference Finals three seasons back. Even with injuries to some key personnel, the Grizzlies have thrived under Fizdale and look every bit like the team that most in the West fear playing in the playoffs.
The first big move that coach Fizdale made was convincing starting power forward Zach Randolph (14.2 ppg, 8.3 rpg, 45.3 FG%) to come off the bench and let second-year forward JaMychal Green (9.0 ppg, 7.3 rpg, 48.4 FG%) start in his spot.
That one move has worked to perfection to the point where Randolph and Green have been great compliments to one another.
It has also helped Marc Gasol (20.5 ppg-career-high, 6.2 rpg, 4.4 apg-career-high, 46.5 FG%) expanded his game and he has taken on more responsibility at the offensive end.
In the first eight seasons of his career, the younger brother of Spurs’ forward/center Pau Gasol hit 12 three-pointers in the first eight seasons of his career. He has connected on 80 triples this season so far and is shooting 38.3 from the three-point arc.  
For years, starting lead guard Mike Conley was one of the most underrated floor generals in “The Association.” A new five-year $153 million deal he signed in the off-season, the largest amount for one contract in NBA history made him no longer underrated and his game has grown with career-highs of 19.4 points per contest, 3.6 boards and 41.0 percent from three-point range to go along with a team-leading 6.2 assists average.
One of the Grizzlies biggest issues over the past few seasons has been their inability to consistently make three-point shots and create instant offense off the fast break. 
They hoped that the signing of swingman Chandler Parsons, who signed a four-year $94 million deal in the off-season would rectify that, but a troublesome knee has sapped him to career-lows of 6.2 per game on 34.4 percent from the floor and 25.6 from three-point range.
They also hoped the addition of former Heat forward James Ennis (7.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 47.3 FG%, 41.3 3-Pt.%) would also provide much needed perimeter shooting, but a calf injury earlier this season put that on hold.
The floor spacing responsibilities were left to guard Troy Daniels (8.6 ppg, 39.7 3-Pt.%) and the journeyman has been a major reason the Grizzlies made at least 10 triples in a game on 18 occasions earlier this season, which matched their total for all the 2015-16 campaign.
While tied for 18th in three-point percentage at 35.2 and tied for 16th in makes at 9.2 is not that big of a jump, it is considering where they ranked 29th (33.1%) a season ago, which was next to last, not to mention they were 27th in makes from long range at 6.1 a season ago.
The previously mentioned Daniels, Green and Ennis make up a supporting cast of names that are a perfect fit for the Grizzlies in the likes of perimeter defensive ace Tony Allen (9.3 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 1.9 spg-Leads team), forward Brandan Wright, veteran guard Vince Carter (8.1 ppg, 36.4 3-Pt.%), guard Toney Douglas, young guards Andrew Harrison and rookie Wade Baldwin, IV.
Harrison and Baldwin were key during a stretch earlier in the season when Conley was shelved because of a fractured vertebrae in his lower back that shelved him for nine games from Nov. 30, 2016 to Dec. 14, 2016. The team went 7-2 in Conley absence.
During that stretch, Harrison scored in double-figures on five occasions, including a career-high of 21 points on 7 for 12 shooting, including 4 for 5 from three-point range in a 120-105 Grizzlies loss at the Raptors on Nov. 30, 2016.
Baldwin in the team’s 96-91 win versus the Sixers on Dec. 6, 2016 had 11 points in 24 minutes off the bench.
Two big things that the good teams do that set them apart is win close games and garner victories against the elite in their sport.
On Dec. 8, 2016 when the Grizzlies defeated the Portland Trail Blazers 88-86, it was their 12th straight win that was decided either in overtime or by five points or less. The streak unfortunately ended with a 96-92 loss versus the Sacramento Kings eight days later.
In games decided by five points or less this season, the Grizzlies are 12-5 this season and against the elite competition of the, the Grizzlies have won two of three meetings against the defending Western Conference champion Warriors; they split two their two meetings with the defending champion Cavaliers and beat the Spurs on Feb. 6 at home 89-74.
When Coach Fizdale first came to the Grizzlies, his goal at the end of the day was to lead them to a championship. Many would laugh at that lofty of a goal, but with the team that he has, there is no reason for them to think anything less than that. While the task may high, so are the expectations for this group in their minds.
Aside from the Warriors and the Spurs, every other team is young in terms of championship experience and knowledge of what it takes to win in the playoffs.
With the right matchup, the Grizzlies could make themselves a factor in how the West plays out.
Grade: B+
Minnesota Timberwolves: 23-36 (5th Northwest Division) 15-8 at home, 8-18 on the road.
-105.1 ppg-17th; opp. ppg: 105.9-19th; 42.7 rpg-24th
With the young talent assembled and a proven head coach coming aboard, there were a lot of people in the NBA circle that thought the Minnesota Timberwolves were going to make a serious run at their first playoff appearance since 2004. Unfortunately, this talented, but young group and their demanding head coach have not meshed together yet and while they have shown flashes of what they can be, the young T’Wolves have yet to show the grit and attention to detail necessary to win games consistently in the NBA.
When the Timberwolves back on Apr. 20, 2016 hired former Bulls’ head coach Tom Thibodeau to not only be their new leader on the sideline, but in the front office as their new President of Basketball Operations.
It was believed that Thibodeau’s no-nonsense, we will work hard, play hard, bring it every night, especially at the defensive end, which made the Bulls a title contender in the East would rub off on the young talented T’Wolves.
The T’Wolves also hired veteran front office man Scott Layden as their new General Manager.
At Thibodeau’s disposal to close that gap will be a group of talented players, who have shown in flashes they have the potential to be great.
At the head of this talented roster are the last two Kia Rookies of the Year in forward/center Karl-Anthony Towns a season ago (24.0 ppg-Leads team, 12.1 rpg-6th NBA, 52.2 FG%), who is third in the NBA in double-doubles with 44, after finishing third a season ago with 51 and swingman Andrew Wiggins (23.4 ppg- 46.4 FG%) who, improved his three-point shooting from his first two seasons to 35.1 percent.
Surrounding these two lynchpins of the T’Wolves is guard Zach LaVine (18.9 ppg, 45.9 FG%, 38.7 3-Pt.%), who was really improving, but his season concluded after 47 games due to a torn ACL in his left knee; center Gorgui Gieng (10.2 ppg, 7.9 rpg, 51.5 FG%), swingman Shabazz Muhammad (9.3 ppg, 47.0 FG%, 40.8 3-Pt.%); starting lead guard Ricky Rubio (9.1 ppg, 8.6 apg-Leads team), fellow guard Tyus Young and Kris Dunn and forwards Nemanja Bjelica and Adreian Payne.
The front office, led by new GM Scott Layden brought some veterans to balance out the team in guard Brandon Rush; center Cole Aldrich; forward/center Jordan Hill ; veteran and guard John Lucas III.
Even with the talented young core of players and the mix of veterans, it has not worked this season for the guys from the land of 10,000 lakes.
For starters, the T’Wolves have lost 13 of 16 chances in games decided by five points or less and they are 10-29 when they allow 100-plus points to their opponent.
Speaking of their issues at the defensive end, a year ago, the T’Wolves were 28th in field goal percentage allowed at 47.1 percent; 17th in opponent’s three-point percentage surrendering 35.5 percent; 15th in rebounding differential at -0.3; 19th in block shots per contest at 4.6; 14th in steals at 8.0 and in forced turnovers at 14.2.
While there a better rebounding team this season at +2.3, which is sixth in the league, the T-Wolves are tied for 27th in field goal percentage allowed at 47.1; tied for 15th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 36.1; tied for 20th in blocks per contest at 4.5; tied for 15th in steals at 7.8 and 14th in forced turnovers at 13.8.   
No one expected things to turn around in Minneapolis over night, but it is hard to fathom that a team as talented as the Timberwolves, with the best coach they have had since the late Flip Saunders they are not contending for a playoff spot.
What it is going to take is more time and patience for this team to learn how to win. Two things that cannot be attained via a trade, free agency or drafted
Grade: D-  
New Orleans Pelicans: 23-37 (5th Southwest Division) 14-16 at home, 9-21 on the road.
-103.1 ppg-21st; opp. ppg: 106.9-22nd; 43.8 rpg-16th
Last season injuries ravaged the New Orleans Pelicans and missed the playoffs one season after they and their superstar forward announced themselves to the basketball world. They hoped to have a better beginning than they did in 2015-16. That was not the case this year as they began 0-8 and have tried to play catch up ever since. They have made some strides as we began the second half of the season and they added one big piece for that run.
In what was the one and truly blockbuster move at Thursday’s trade deadline, the Pelicans acquired All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins (27.6 ppg-6th NBA, 10.7 rpg, 4.8 apg, 45.4 FG%, 35.0 3-Pt.%) and forward Omri Casspi in exchange for guards Tyreke Evans, rookie Buddy Hield and Langston Galloway and a 2017 Top-3 protected first-round pick and a 2017 second-round pick.
The addition of Cousins gives the Pelicans the truest offensive compliment that All-Star forward/center Anthony Davis (28.1 ppg-4th NBA, 11.9 rpg-7th NBA, 2.4 bpg-2nd NBA, 50.2 FG%) a formidable front court of two guys who can post up and play on the perimeter and when they are focused, two men who can guard the paint.
In their first game together and Pelicans first contest after the All-Star break versus the Rockets on Friday night Davis had 29 points and nine boards, while Cousins had 27 points, 14 rebounds, five assists, five steals and four blocks, but the team lost 129-99.
Casspi had 12 points, but broke his thumb in his Pelicans debut on Friday. He was going to be out 4 to 6 weeks, but a report from The Vertical over the weekend said that the Pelicans were going to waive Casspi, just like they waived forward Terrence Jones.
So far, the Pelicans are 0-3 with the new dynamic front court duo in Davis and Cousins.
With two more perimeter threats, along with Hield, Evans and Galloway, the Pelicans were very thin in terms of guys who can score from the wing. Which is why they signed to 10-day contracts former New Orleans Hornet guard Jarrett Jack, forward Hollis Thompson, and Reggie Williams, who is in his second stint with the Pelicans.
The new additions were brought to replace the perimeter punch that was either traded or waived. It will also take some pressure of guard Tim Frazier (8.3 ppg, 5.5 apg), forwards Solomon Hill (6.6 ppg, 3.7 rpg, 34.8 3-Pt.%), Dante Cunningham (6.0 ppg, 4.1 rpg) and centers Omer Asik and Alexis Ajinca, who are not known for scoring.
What this also does is puts the spotlight on starting lead guard Jrue Holiday (15.9 ppg, 7.4 apg-Leads team, 1.6 spg-Leads team, 45.8 FG%, 37.4 3-Pt.%), who missed the first 12 games of this season as his wife, midfielder for the U.S. Women’s National Soccer team Lauren, who not only welcomed their first child, a daughter had brain surgery to remove a benign brain tumor.
When he did comeback, Holiday as you might expect started his season slowly, but each month he got better and better to where so far in February, he is averaging 16.6 points, 7.3 assists, 6.1 boards and 1.8 steals on 45.4 percent from the field.  
Right now, the Pelicans are 3.5 games out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot held by the Nuggets, with the Kings, Trail Blazers, Mavericks, and Timberwolves right in front of them.
If the Pelicans are going to have a chance at making the postseason, they need the tandem of Davis and Cousins, with the help of Holiday and head coach Alvin Gentry to construct a style of play, particularly offensively that will allow the team to mesh together and perform at a high level.
If that does not happen, they have next year, but they need to figure this out now so that things become easier later.
Grade: D
Oklahoma City Thunder: 34-25 (2nd Northwest Division; No. 7 Seed West) 22-8 at home, 12-17 on the road.
-106.2 ppg-12th; opp. ppg: 105.9-18th; 46.5 rpg-3rd
They were just one win away from a trip to the NBA Finals, and in an instant the Oklahoma City Thunder blew a 3-1 lead to the Warriors in the Conference Finals and lost in seven games. Then they lost 2014 MVP and four-time scoring champion Kevin Durant, who left in free agency to sign with the defending Western Conference champs. This made All-Star guard Russell Westbrook the undisputed leader and best player on the team. The question was could he carry the Thunder, who made some edition to the roster in the hopes of convincing Durant to stay. He has not only carried the Thunder this season, he has put together a season we have not seen since the days of Hall of Famer Oscar Robertson.
Westbrook, the front runner along with James Harden of the Rockets for MVP of this season has not only averaged career-highs across the board this season, but he is the first player this late into the NBA season to average a triple-double of 31.0 points, which leads the NBA; 10.3 assists, which is third in the league and 10.6 rebounds which is 12th. If that was not enough, he is also averaging 1.6 steals per game, which is 15th in “The Association.”
Last season, Westbrook put up eye popping statistics alongside Durant, leading the NBA in triple-doubles with 18. This season, he has 29 triple-doubles. His first of the season came in the second game of the season, where he scored 51 points along with 13 rebounds and 10 assists in the Thunder’s 113-110 win versus the Suns. It was the first 50-point triple-double since Hall of Famer Kareem Abdul-Jabbar had one like this in 1975.
To put into better context what Westbrook has accomplished, those 29 triple-doubles give Westbrook a total of 66 for his career, which is now fifth all-time in NBA history and 15 of those have come with him scoring 30 points or more.
Westbrook recorded the seventh triple-double of his career when scoring 40-plus points, when he registered 41 points, with 21 in the fourth quarter, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in the Thunder’s 118-110 win versus the Pelicans on Sunday night. 
The Thunder have gone 23-6 this season when Westbrook gets a triple-double and just 11-19 when he does not.
The only teams that Westbrook has not registered a triple-double against in his career are the Bulls, which he came close in the Thunder’s 109-94 victory on Jan. 9, when he had 21 points, 14 assists and nine boards; against the Hornets, where in the team’s Jan. 4 matchup in Charlotte, NC Westbrook had 33 points, 15 rebounds and eight assists in the 123-112 loss and against the Spurs, where in the 108-94 loss on Jan. 31 in their building, Westbrook had 27 points, six rebounds and 14 assists.
One area that Westbrook has really mastered in his game is the ability to get his teammates involved throughout the game.
The high level of assists per game are the result of Victor Oladipo (16.1 ppg, 4.4 rpg) putting the ball in the basket at a 44.6 percent clip from the field and at a 35.4 percent rate from three-point range.
Forward/center Enes Kanter (14.3 ppg, 6.8 rpg), scoring around the basket or from the perimeter, hitting 55.3 percent of his shots or starting center Steven Adams (12.3 ppg-career-high, 8.0 rpg-career-high), who is having the best season of his four-year career and his making his shots at a 57.3 percent clip, which is seventh best in the NBA.
The Thunder have gotten solid contributions from rookie Domantas Sabonis (6.1 ppg, 3.7 rpg), the son of former Trail Blazer Arvydas Sabonis is shooting just 40.9 percent from the floor on the season and just 31.5 from three-point range.
While the supporting cast of starting shooting guard Andre Roberson (6.8 ppg, 5.2 rpg), forward Jerami Grant (6.1 ppg, 47.8 FG%, 38.6 3-Pt.%), Alex Abrines and Semaj Christon have been solid, especially when it comes to the intangibles of the game, the Thunder just were lacking more scoring when it was not coming from Westbrook, Oladipo and Kanter.
That is why at the trade deadline, the Thunder acquired from the Bulls sharp shooter Doug McDermott (9.9 ppg, 36.6 3-Pt.%) and bruising forward Taj Gibson (11.5 ppg, 6.9 rpg, 51.4 FG%) and a 2018 second-round pick in exchange for forward Joffrey Lauvergne, guards Cameron Payne and Anthony Morrow.
When the Thunder returned to action following the All-Star break, they not only beat the Lakers 110-93 and Westbrook recorded as mentioned earlier his 28 triple-double of 17 points, 17 assists and 18 boards, they also welcomed Enes Kanter back from a 10-game absence due to a broken forearm he sustained when he hit a chair on the Thunder bench after being upset about a call in the Thunder’s 109-98 win versus the Mavericks on Jan. 26 on TNT. He had just four points on 2 for 12 shooting in 19 minutes.
This made the acquisition of Gibson smart thinking by the Thunder organization as it will take time for Kanter to get back on track.
When this season began, two big questions were can Westbrook be the true leader of the Thunder without Durant? Could he also get the rest of his teammates involved in the game while looking to make plays himself?
As mentioned earlier, he is averaging a triple-double and has provided energy and undeniable effort on both ends and is in a back-and-forth with Harden for league MVP.
Right now, they are comfortably in the No. 7 spot in the West playoff standings, but stand just a half game behind the Grizzlies for the No. 6 spot.
If the Thunder keep up their pace of winning, they could move up to No. 6 and avoid a first-round tussle with the Spurs. If that happens, it would mean a match up with Harden and the Rockets and that matchup in the playoffs would be must see television.
Grade: D
Phoenix Suns: 18-41 (5th Pacific Division) 10-18 at home, 8-23 on the road.
-107.0 ppg-10th; opp. ppg: 112.5-29th; 44.5 rpg-8th
Going through a rebuilding process and trying to build a team that can win consistently can be tough. Having talented and skilled player to evaluate as you rebuild and having some veterans to show them the way makes going through the long slog worth it, especially if it all comes together. That is the challenge in front of the Phoenix Suns.
The talented and young roster consist of the starting backcourt of Eric Bledsoe (21.3 ppg-career-high, 6.3 apg, 5.0 rpg), whose scoring and assists averages have improved in all four of his seasons in the “Valley of the Sun,” and second-year guard Devin Booker (21.1 ppg, 37.2 3-Pt.%), who is averaging 7.3 more points per contest from his rookie season last year.
The two best games the former Kentucky Wildcat has had in his career came earlier this season when he had then a career-high of 38 points on 13 for 22 from the field in 41 minutes in the Suns 112-11 overtime win at the Pelicans on Nov. 4, 2016. He followed that up with a new career-high of 39 points on 14 for 25 shooting in 45 minutes, but the Suns lost 119-108 at the Lakers on Nov. 6, 2016.
Booker has scored 20 points or more 27 times and 30 points or more nine times, which includes a career-high tying back-to-back performances of 39 points in a 113-108 loss versus the Mavericks in Mexico City on Jan. 12 and again in a 108-105 win versus the Spurs 48 hours later.
The Suns backcourt also consists of the talents of rookies Tyler Ulis, the No. 34 overall pick out also out of Kentucky and fifth-year guard Brandon Knight (11.0 ppg).
There is also young talent in the front court in the No. 4 overall pick in June’s draft in forward Dragan Bender, who played a season ago for Maccabi Tel Aviv. The 19-year-old Croatian rookie though has been out recently because of an arthroscopic procedure to remove bone spurs in his right ankle.
Via a trade with the Sacramento Kings in June’s draft, the Suns acquired the draft rights to No. 8 overall pick Marquese Chriss (7.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg) out of the University of Washington, who has showed steady progress this season and will improve enough to be the Suns’ starting power forward for years to come.
One Sun that the organization has been waiting and waiting for to go from showing flashes of what he can do to playing at a consistent level is the No. 5 overall pick in 2013 in center Alex Len (7.5 ppg, 6.4 rpg). Last season, he showed some progress with averages of 9.0 points and 7.6 rebounds per contest, which included 19 double-doubles, which is nine more that he had in his first two seasons. This year has been a major setback and he has registered just seven double-doubles so far.
In terms of those the rookies can learn from, the Suns brought back a couple of members for another stint in forward Jared Dudley (7.9 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 47.8 FG%, 42.0 3-Pt.% w/Wizards), who signed for three years at $30 million and from the then NBA champion Warriors guard Leandro Barbosa (6.4 ppg, 46.2 FG%, 35.5 3-Pt.%), who signed for two years at $8 million.
The one Suns front court player who has progressed in his time with the team is third-year forward TJ Warren (12.9 ppg-career-high, 46.0 FG%).
In the last 38 games that Warren has started, the former North Carolina State standout, who was selected No. 14 overall in 2014 has averaged 13.1 points on 46.9 percent shooting.
The provide guidance to the young core of player on the Suns is center Tyson Chandler (8.4 ppg, 11.4 rpg-Led team, 67.1 FG%), who has had 14 games of 15 rebounds or more, which includes three games of 20 or more boards. They also have the likes of Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa, who played for the Suns in better times.
In the case of Barbosa, who played the first seven seasons of his career for the Suns, who acquired his rights from the Spurs when he was drafted No. 28 overall. The man who goes by the nickname the “Brazilian Blur,” best run of his career was from 2005-2009 where he scored averages of 13.1, 18.1, 15.6 and 14.2 per game respectably on 48.1, 47.6, 46.2, and 48.2 percent from the floor and 44.4, 43.4, 38.9 and 37.5 from the free throw line.
For the Suns’ young players, especially their guards of Booker, Bledsoe and Ulis, Barbosa’s career is the example they can have of a player who put the time into his game and got better. He also later in his career to become a solid role player, especially for the Warriors in helping them reach The Finals the last two seasons, with them winning it all in 2015.
In Chandler, the Suns’ young front court players have the greatest example of a player who learned how to have an impact on the game without scoring. He made himself into a great rebounder, defensive presence and the kind of teammate you respected.
The man responsible for trying to turn things around is head coach Earl Watson, who is in his first full season as the head man on the sideline for the Suns.
The one thing that Watson had in his favor when he took over on an interim basis and now the full-time head coach is that the former UCLA Bruin played in the NBA for 13 years with the then Seattle Supersonics, now Thunder, Grizzlies, Jazz, Pacers, Nuggets, and Trail Blazers. He served as an assistant coach for the San Antonio Spurs’ NBA Developmental League affiliate the Austin Spurs and joined the Suns’ staff in summer of 2015 when now Knicks’ head coach Jeff Hornacek was on the sidelines.
He has also seen what it takes to be a leader of people and has tried to use that style that he learned from his father, who became the first African American to integrate the Army as a drill sergeant.
For Watson, it is about creating an atmosphere where the team is focused on the moment and to create a positive vibe into the basketball team. A team of great character that can really connect with one another from the players to the coaching staff. A team where the staff can love the players, nurture them and teach them.
For the Suns and GM Ryan McDonough, it is about giving as much opportunity to the young players to see who can become the core of this team going forward. That is why at the trade deadline, the Suns dealt forward P.J. Tucker to the Raptors for forward/center Jared Sullinger and two second-round picks.
It is about developing the young talent, find a player or two in the draft to fit in and grow with what they have now and to build a foundation that will consist of more wins and eventual playoff appearances in the future.
Grade: D
Portland Trail Blazers: 24-34 (4th Northwest Division) 14-13 at home, 10-21 on the road.
-107.3 ppg-9th; opp. ppg: 110.0-26th; 43.3 rpg-19th
Last season, the Portland Trail Blazers used a 33-18 finish to make the playoffs and beat the Clippers 4-2 to advance to the Semifinals, where they lost to the Warriors in five games. There were a lot of high expectations entering this season for the guys from the Pacific Northwest and despite some major additions and the play of their dynamic backcourt, things have not gone well for the Trail Blazers and as a result find themselves trying to just make the 2017 postseason.  
The dynamic backcourt of Damian Lillard (25.9 ppg-7th NBA, 5.8 apg-Led team, 4.9 rpg, 35.4 3-Pt.%) and C.J. McCollum (23.3 ppg, 48.0 FG%, 40.9 3-P.t%), last season’s Most Improved Player are playing even better than they have a season ago, with both averaging career-highs in points per game, which was why Lillard was signed to a five-year $120 million extension and so did McCollum, whose was for four years at $106 million.
What has hindered the Trail Blazers has been the play of the rest of the supporting cast, including the team’s biggest acquisition in the off-season.
A season ago, forward Al-Farouq Aminu (8.4 ppg, 7.4 rpg), was a major sparkplug for the Trail Blazers with his ability to make three-pointers a moment’s notice and guard multiple positions, especially some of the best wing players in the league. This season, he has been slowed by a calf injury that cost him 13 games from Dec. 9, 2016 to Dec. 3, 2016. When he has played this season, he has not always been himself, especially offensive, shooting a career-low 37.0 from the floor overall and just 30.7 from three-point range.
The addition of swingman Evan Turner (9.7 ppg, 3.8 rpg, 3.4 apg), who signed a four-year $70 million deal in the off-season was supposed to provide the team a solid ball handler who can score and be a facilitator on the offensive end. That has not materialized this season as he has just two double-doubles after a combined 20 in the last three seasons and has only shot just 43.5 percent from the floor and just 28.3 percent from the three-point arc. He is not even available to play now because a fracture in his right hand that he sustained back on Feb. 7 in the Trail Blazers 114-113 win at the Mavericks. Turner is not expected to return until mid-March and that is highly unlikely.
The signing of center Festus was supposed to add some depth to the front court, but the former Warrior who signed as a free agent, but he has been sidelined the entire season because of a knee injury.
With no Ezeli and the loss of Turner, the Trail Blazers have asked for more from the likes of forward Maurice Harkless (10.7 ppg, 4.7 rpg, 48.4 FG%, 35.6 3-Pt.%) and sixth man Allen Crabbe (10.3 ppg, 45.9 FG%, 42.8 3-Pt%).
Harkless, who went from a benchwarmer in the early part of last season into a starter, has averaged 11.5 points and 4.9 boards on 49.7 percent from the field and 37.5 from three-point range in 47 starts this season.
Crabbe, who was offered a four-year $75 million offer sheet from the Nets, which the Trail Blazers matched in the off-season did not register a 20-point game off the bench during all the 2016 part of this season. He has scored 20 points or more off the bench four times since the start of 2017, which includes a career-high of 30 points on 12 for 15 from the field, including 5 for 5 from three-point land in a 125-124 double-overtime loss versus the Pistons on Jan. 8.
The scoring responsibilities for the Trail Blazers fall in the hands of Lillard, McCollum, Crabbe and Harkless. The responsibility of doing the dirty work like rebounding, setting screens and playing solid defense and scoring off of broken points fell in the hands of Mason Plumlee, Ed Davis, Noah Vonleh and Meyers Leonard.
A season ago, that foursome was consistent in those areas of the game, especially defensively. That has not been the case this season.
While the Trail Blazers are tied for 10th in field goal percentage allowed at 45.4 and are tied for 12th in block shots per game at 4.9, they are second to last 28th in opponent’s three-point percentage giving up an average of 37.9 percent. They are 23rd in rebound differential at -1.4; tied for 26th in steals per game at 6.9 and tied for 24th in forced turnovers at 12.6.
Davis, who was a consistent contributor off the bench as season ago is only averaging 4.3 points and 5.3 boards per game this season.
Vonleh, who was a starter early on this season and a high draft pick by the Hornets back in 2014, has had some productive moments, but it has been in flashes and very small flashes.
Leonard, the No. 11 overall pick back in 2012 had a very productive season before it was cut short because due to injury last year at 8.4 points and 5.1 boards on 44.8 from the field and 37.7 from three-point range has regressed across the board with averages of 5.5 points and 3.3 boards on just 36.3 percent from the floor and just 33.3 from beyond the three-point arc. Far from what the Trail Blazers paid him to re-sign a season ago at four years and $41 million.
Two weeks back, the Trail Blazers in a bold move traded Mason Plumlee and a 2018 second-round pick to the Nuggets in exchange for center Jusuf Nurkic (8.1 ppg, 5.9 rpg, 50.9 FG%).
In his first game as a Trail Blazer at the Jazz on Feb. 15, Nurkic had 13 points and eight boards in 21 minutes off the bench in the 111-88 loss. He had a better performance of 12 points, 13 rebounds, five assists, three steals and two blocks in 34 minutes in the team’s 112-103 come from behind win at the Magic in their first game following the All-Star break on Thursday night. He had eight points and four rebounds in 21 minutes in the 112-106 loss at the Raptors on Sunday night.
With all that has gone wrong for the Trail Blazers this season, they are just 1 ½ games out of the No. 8 and final playoff spot, held by the Nuggets. What is also good for the Trail Blazers is that only one other team besides the Nuggets is in front of them, the Kings.
The Trail Blazers are 2-1 head-to-head with the Nuggets this season, with one more game remaining on Mar. 28 in the confides of the Moda Center.
The Trail Blazers have no room for error going forward. If they want to make it back to the postseason, their defense must improve and the rest of the team must provide offensive balance for Lillard and McCollum.
Grade: D
Sacramento Kings: 25-34 (3rd Pacific Division) 18-23 at home, 15-26 on the road.
-102.9 ppg-22nd; opp. ppg: 105.5-15th; 41.1 rpg-29th
Teams that consistently win in the NBA are teams that are on the same page from the front office right on down to the players and coaching staff. They think and believe in the same thing for the most part and any friction that does exist does not get outside the team. That is the difference between a good team and the Sacramento Kings, who have been the definition of dysfunctional for the past decade. The hope was that they were going to make the playoffs this season, but the much-anticipated breakup threw those plans right into the trash with no sign of light at the bottom of the can.
On Thursday’s trade deadline, the Kings traded talented, but dysfunctional All-Star center DeMarcus Cousins to the New Orleans Pelicans along with forward Omri Casspi in exchange for guards in rookie Buddy Hield (8.8 ppg, 36.9 3-Pt.%), Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans (9.8 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 3.4 apg), along with a 2017 first-round pick, that is Top 3 lottery protected and a 2017 second-round pick. The Kings also waived forward Matt Barnes to make room on the roster for the new additions.
What makes this trade so unbelievable besides the fact that the face of the franchise is gone is the fact that earlier in the week that Kings’ GM Vlade Divac said that the organization was not going to trade Cousins. Divac also said that they had a better offer on the table prior to the trade that they made.
It is this kind of miscommunication and underhandedness why the Kings are in the position they are in now and how they let the one main attraction for fans to come down and see the Kings at the new Golden1Center.
Forget about making the playoffs anytime soon, the Kings are in need of a centerpiece to construct their franchise around.
They would hope that Hield would develop into that down the road, but as mentioned earlier, he is still in his rookie season with a lot to learn.
The Kings would have a least a primetime player talent wise to finish the season with, but forward Rudy Gay (18.7 ppg, 6.3 rpg 45.5 FG%, 37.2 3-Pt.%), but he tore his Achilles on Jan. 18 in the Kings’ 106-100 loss versus the Pacers that required surgery and he season was finished after games.
What this means for first-year head coach Dave Joerger and the Kings is opportunity to show who will be part of this team going forward.
It is an opportunity for the likes of centers Willie Cauley-Stein (6.1 ppg, 2.8 rpg, 55.6 FG%) and Kosta Koufos (6.1 ppg, 5.4 rpg, 57.8 FG%), guards Ben McLemore (6.9 ppg, 38.1 3-Pt.%) and rookie Malachi Richardson and forward Skai Labissiere to get some necessary time on the court.
It gives veterans like guards Darren Collison (13.6 ppg, 4.3 apg, 47.9 FG%, 43.0 3-Pt.%), Ty Lawson (8.9 ppg, 4.5 apg-Leads team), Arron Afflalo (7.8 ppg, 39.0 3-Pt.%) and Garrett Temple (7.7 ppg, 36.7 3-Pt.%) and forward Anthony Tolliver (7.2 ppg, 3.9 rpg, 39.4 3-Pt.%) to put their professionalism to the forefront and keep this team competitive for the remainder of the season.
It has been since 2006 that the Kings made the playoffs. There was a time just 15 years ago, the Kings were one win away from the NBA Finals, but lost Game 7 in their old arena, then Arco Arena to the Lakers, led by Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant. It does not look like there will be any postseason appearances anytime soon.
This is what happens when the front office and the team are not on the same page and the loyalist of fans in the NBA have to suffer as a result.
Hopefully Divac and owner Vivek Ranadive can gets things right and there will be better days ahead in the capital city of California.
Grade: F-
San Antonio Spurs: 45-13 (1st Southwest Division; No. 2 Seed West) 19-6 at home, 26-7 on the road.
-106.9 ppg-11th; opp. ppg: 98.3-2nd; 43.9 rpg-11th
Consistency, defending, ball movement and just winning ball games are who the San Antonio Spurs are and have been for nearly the last 30 seasons, particularly the past 18. They have a new centerpiece that does not say much, but his game is a loud as any great player in the league today. A veteran bunch that plays well together and a no nonsense head coach who knows how to run his team and they are doing this without a future Hall of Famer who retired over the off-season. They plugged in another future Hall of Famer who has won titles and they continued to win.
Perennial All-Star and future Hall of Famer Tim Duncan announced his retirement during the off-season after 19 amazing seasons with the Spurs and all with appearances in the playoffs.
The Spurs have continued to win at a high clip thanks to the continued emergence on both ends of the reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year and All-Star in Kawhi Leonard (25.8 ppg-8th NBA, 5.8 rpg, 3.4 apg, 1.8 spg-T-8th NBA, 48.6 FG%, 38.9 3-Pt.%), who is the dark horse for league MVP and the steady play of All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge (17.5 ppg, 7.4 rpg, 47.6 FG%).
While they may be a year older and not the same players that were All-Stars and lynch pins for many years for the Spurs, starting lead guard Tony Parker (10.8 ppg, 4.8 apg-Leads team, 47.0 FG%, 36.2 3-Pt.%) and Manu Ginobili (7.6 ppg, 40.2 3-Pt.%) can still show some of that magic that made the Spurs champions five times.  
The Spurs during the head coach Gregg Popovich and GM R.C. Buford era, they have always been about adding the right mixture of players around the stars of the team, which is now Leonard and Aldridge, and Duncan, Parker and Ginobili before.
In free agency, the Spurs signed forward/center Pau Gasol (11.9 ppg, 8.0 rpg, 2.0 bpg-5th NBA, 51.3 FG%), and they ran off 13 straight wins to open this season.  
They also added another former All-Star in forward David Lee (7.3 ppg, 5.6 rpg, 59.1 FG%); rookie Davis Bertans and the No. 29 overall pick in June guard Dejounte Murray out of the University of Washington.
Those additions, alongside role players like guards Patty Mills (9.8 ppg, 45.3 FG%, 43.0 3-Pt.%) and Jonathon Simmons (6.4 ppg); starting shooting guard Danny Green (7.6 ppg, 40.4 3-Pt.%) and swingman Kyle Anderson.  
The faces might be different. Their style of play at the offensive end has evolved over the years, but there have been three constants in the “Alamo City” over the past two decades. They will defend; play together as one and head coach Gregg Popovich know the right buttons to push.
That is why he can rest his star players for a game or two and his team will still win games. They can have an injury to a key player like Gasol, who missed 15 games because of broken finger and the Spurs still go 11-4 because they have the likes of Lee, Bertans and Dedmon to plug in and the beat still goes on.
That level of consistency has produced 18 straight postseason births, soon to be 19 this season and why they have as good a chance to knock off the defending Western Conference Champion Warriors in the postseason and make it back to The Finals to earn their sixth Larry O’Brien Trophy in franchise history.
Grade: A+
Utah Jazz: 37-22 (1st Northwest Division) 20-11 at home, 17-11 on the road.
-100.4 ppg-28th; opp. ppg: 95.6-1st; 43.2 rpg-20th  
The Timberwolves, Suns, Sixers, Nets, Magic, and Bucks hope in a few years to be where the Utah Jazz are right now. A team that built their team through the draft and their picks they made or acquired the rights of a player; making a couple of smart trades and the signing of some veteran players have them back in the playoffs and in position to make some serious noise and they have a style of play that is winning them ball games on a consistent basis.
Back in 2014, the Jazz hired a new head coach in longtime assistant Quin Snyder and in a short three seasons has established a system that has put the Jazz in position to make their first postseason appearance since 2012.
One of the hallmarks of Snyder in his career as a coach in the NBA is player development and that has been the case with some of the core players that were in Salt Lake City, UT before Snyder got there and some of the additions that have come over the past couple of seasons.
The No. 9 overall pick out of Butler University in 2010 Gordon Hayward became an All-Star for the first time in his career thanks to career-highs of 22.5 points per game, which lead the team and 5.6 boards per game, on 47.0 percent from the field and 39.0 from three-point range.
The No. 27 overall pick in 2013 in starting center Rudy Gobert (13.0 ppg, 12.8 rpg-5th NBA, 2.5 bpg-Leads NBA, 63.9 FG%-4th NBA), who is having the best season of his career and earned himself a four-year $102 million contract extension.
To put the rise of “The Stifle Tower” into context, in Gobert’s second and third seasons in the league, had 25 and 20 double-doubles respectably. He has 41 so far, this season, ranked fourth in “The Association.
Back on Jan. 20 in the 112-107 overtime victory by the Jazz at the Mavericks, Gobert had career-highs of 27 points and 25 boards, to go along with two blocks. It was the best game by a Mavericks opponent who registered 25-plus points and 25-plus boards in a single game all-time against the Dallas. The names that Gobert joined include Al Jefferson of the Pacers, who had 28 points and 26 boards back on Apr. 16, 2012 in helping the Jazz to a 123-121 triple-overtime win versus the Mavericks; the late Lorenzo Wright, who had 33 points, 26 rebounds against the Mavericks back on Nov. 4, 2001; Former Atlanta Hawk Kevin Willis, who had 29 points and 31 boards against the Mavericks on Dec. 3, 1991 and current NBA on TNT studio analyst and Hall of Famer Charles Barkley had 32 points and 25 rebounds for the Sixers in a game against the Mavericks back on Mar. 30, 1986.
Starting forward Derrick Favors (9.4 ppg, 6.1 rpg, 47.8 FG%), the No. 3 overall pick back in 2010 in seasons four, five and six of his career had really matured and grown into a solid player with averages of 13.3, 16.0 and 16.4 points, 8.7, 8.2 and 8.1 boards and 1.5, 1.7 and 1.5 blocks per game respectably. The biggest issue for the former Georgia Tech star has been staying healthy, especially over the past season and a half where he has missed 40 games combined in the last season and a half.
Two other key core players of the Jazz that have been shelved because of injury this season has been guards Alec Burks (6.6 ppg, 44.7 FG%), who has missed 143 games the past two-plus seasons because of injury; Rodney Hood (13.3 ppg, 3.5 rpg, 36.5 3-Pt.%), who missed 18 games this season because of injury and Dante Exum (6.2 ppg), who missed all of last season because of a torn ACL in his knee and he has missed games this season because of knee tendinitis.
The one player for the Jazz this season that has been the barometer for them this season has been starting lead guard George Hill (17.7 ppg-career-high, 4.0 apg-Leads team, 47.9 FG%, 39.0 3-Pt.%) who was acquired in a three-team deal with the Pacers and Hawks this off-season.
He has averaged 18.6 points in their 37 wins this season and just 15.0 points in their defeats.
When Hill has been in the lineup, the Jazz are 25-8 this season and just 12-14 in the games he has missed because of injury.  
That has made the additions of veterans in forward Boris Diaw and signed All-Star swingman Joe Johnson (8.4 ppg, 40.2 3-Pt.%) just as important this season.
It has also given the likes of forwards Trey Lyles (7.3 ppg, 3.7 rpg), Joe Ingles (6.5 ppg, 46.6 FG%, 43.8 3-Pt.%-3rd NBA) and guard Shelvin Mack (7.3 ppg) the opportunity to get minutes and their play, especially early in the season allowed the Jazz to win games with some of their key personnel shelved because of injury
The one constant for the Jazz this season, which has been their identity the past two seasons has been their defense, where they are No. 3 in field goal percentage allowed, surrendering just 43.8 percent to their opponents; fifth in rebound differential at a +3.0 and tied for 11th in opponent’s three-point percentage at 35.7.
Most young teams who make the playoffs for the first time in a while are fighting to just get in and are jockeying for either the No. 7 or No. 8 spot. The Jazz currently are in the No. 4 spot and if the playoffs began right now, they would have home court advantage in the opening round against the Clippers and they would have a solid chance of beating their Conference rivals, who they are 0-2 against this season with one more game left in L.A. on Mar. 25.
What will help the Jazz and their young core players in the postseason is they will have Johnson, Diaw and Hill to lean on. In their careers, Johnson, Diaw and Hill have 101, 108 and 75 career postseason games respectably under their belt. Diaw and Johnson have Conference Finals experience and Diaw has a title to his name that he won with the Spurs in 2014.
Their draft selections have developed very nicely and their additions in free agency have brought experience and knowledge of what it takes to win consistently in the NBA. With a few wins over the next few weeks, the Jazz will officially clinch their first postseason birth in five seasons and stand a good chance of making some noise in the playoffs.
This season if it continues to go well and they advance in the postseason will serve as a stepping stone for the next few years of hopefully becoming a title contender.  
Grade: B
Information, quotes and statistics are courtesy of from 2016-17; NBATV/TNT Insider David Aldridge’s Off-Season Rankings: Top 10 Middle 10 and Bottom 10 from Aug.8; by Shaun Powell from Sept. 1-Sept. 30, 2015; all 30 NBA teams; ; 10/5/16-10/20/16 NBATV “Team Preview” of all 30 NBA teams hosted by Jared Greenberg, Vince Cellini, Rick Kamla, Kristen Ledlow, Greg Anthony, Grant Hill, Rick Fox, Isiah Thomas, Stu Jackson, Steve Smith, Dennis Scott and Brent Barry; NBATV’s “The Starters-2015-16 Season Preview-72 Burning Questions” with J.E. Skeets Tas Melas, Leigh Ellis and
;; 2/27/17 “Joel Embiid, Battling Knee Swelling and Soreness, Set For MRI;”;; “Raptors Hope To Have Kyle Lowry Back In Time For Playoffs;” 2/9/17 2 a.m. edition of NBATV’s “Gametime,” with Vince Cellini, Steve Smith and Billy King; 2/9/17 8:30 p.m. contest Utah Jazz at Dallas Mavericks on FOX Sports Southwest with Mark Farrowell, Derek Harper and Jeff “Ski” Wade; 2/11/17 7:30 p.m. contest Philadelphia 76ers versus Charlotte Hornets on FOX Sports Southeast with Eric Collins, Stephanie Ready and Dell Curry; 2/10/17 NBATV news crawl; 2/12/17 1 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by State Farm with Kristen Ledlow, Dennis Scott and Mike Fratello and 2/13/17 3:30 a.m. NBATV’s “Gametime,” presented by Kia Motors with Matt Winer and Steve Smith.