Toronto Raptors earn top marks in Eastern Conference midterm NBA report cards

Jay Asser 19/02/2018
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We’re at the unofficial halfway point of the NBA season, so it’s only right we take a look at how every team has fared up so far and hand out midterm grades.

Keep in mind that these grades are fully based on context and expectations and not determined simply by how teams have done in a vacuum.

Here are the grades for the Eastern Conference, with the West marks coming on Tuesday.

Atlanta Hawks

Record: 18-41

Standing: 15th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.9 (22nd)
Defensive rating: 108.0 (24th)
Grade: C-

It’s no surprise how much they’ve struggled considering the roster is bare of top-end talent. They’ve at least been developing some of the younger guys in the process – John Collins, DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince – but are knocked slightly for being tied with the worst record in the league.

Boston Celtics

Record: 40-19
Standing: 2nd in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.4 (21st)
Defensive rating: 100.9 (1st)
Grade: A-

No one expected them to be doing this well after Gordon Hayward went down with a gruesome injury just five minutes into the season, yet they’ve been one of the top contenders in the East. Their recent dip is fairly concerning, but in the context of the bigger picture, they’re well ahead of schedule.

Brooklyn Nets

Record: 19-40
Standing: 13th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.1 (24th)
Defensive rating: 107.9 (23rd)
Grade: C-

This is a team that has zero incentive to tank because they of course don’t own their draft pick this year. So 19 wins at the All-Star break is a little disappointing, but they’ve also been without Jeremy Lin and D’Angelo Russell for most of the season. Spencer Dinwiddie, however, has been a pleasant revelation.

Charlotte Hornets

Record: 24-33
Standing: 10th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.9 (17th)
Defensive rating: 105.8 (14th)
Grade: D

A return to the playoffs was the expectation ahead of the season, especially with the addition of Dwight Howard, but Charlotte have become stale. And unlike other lottery-bound teams, the Hornets don’t have much up-and-coming talent they can build around and take solace in.

Chicago Bulls

Record: 20-37
Standing: 12th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 101.8 (28th)
Defensive rating: 108.2 (25th)
Grade: C+

Chicago were widely considered the worst team in the league coming into the season, so they’ve done well to overachieve with 20 wins so far. Promising player development, however, has costed them a more favourable position in the draft lottery, but they’re still in position to nab a top pick.

Cleveland Cavaliers

BeFunky Collage4

Record: 34-22
Standing: 3rd in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 110.1 (5th)
Defensive rating: 109.8 (28th)
Grade: C

If we were grading Cleveland up until the trade deadline, they would undoubtedly receive an F. But the moves they made to overhaul the roster and breathe new life into the team have so far appeared to work. After floundering early, the Cavaliers look poised to reach the NBA Finals again.

Detroit Pistons

Record: 28-29
Standing: 9th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.6 (18th)
Defensive rating: 105.0 (10th)
Grade: C

They’ve been the definition of average, but the trade for Blake Griffin before the deadline added some life and a foundation piece for the future. If the Pistons can get their act together on the road (19-12 at home, 9-17 away), they should be able to snag one of the final playoff spots.

Indiana Pacers

Record: 33-25
Standing: 5th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 108.4 (6th)
Defensive rating: 106.4 (17th)
Grade: A-

Are the Pacers a serious threat to make noise in the playoffs and reach the Finals? No, but considering how much grief they endured after trading Paul George in what seemed like a lopsided deal, they’ve come out smelling like roses with the leap Victor Oladipo has made into a legit All-Star.

Miami Heat

Record: 30-28
Standing: 8th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.1 (25th)
Defensive rating: 104.4 (8th)
Grade: B-

Even though they haven’t played like the same team that went 30-11 at the end of last season (what a surprise), Miami continue to have grit and an identity that makes them tough for any opponent, night-in and night-out. It’s hard to argue Erik Spoelstra isn’t getting the most out of his players.

Milwaukee Bucks

Record: 32-25
Standing: 6th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 107.3 (9th)
Defensive rating: 106.0 (16th)
Grade: C

The Bucks would receive a lower grade if not for their recent surge in the wake of firing coach Jason Kidd. Milwaukee are 9-3 since making the necessary change, but many of those wins have come against low-tier squads. At least their defence appears to finally be heading in the right direction.

New York Knicks

Record: 23-36
Standing: 11th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 103.7 (23rd)
Defensive rating: 106.6 (18th)
Grade: C-

Their grade isn’t for failing to meet expectations – because those were low in the first place – but for trying so hard to win. The Knicks’ primary objective should be developing Frank Ntilikina and Kristaps Porzingis (now injured), but they’ve had this delusional mentality they’re good enough to fight for a playoff spot.

Orlando Magic

Record: 18-39
Standing: 14th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 104.6 (19th)
Defensive rating: 108.6 (27th)
Grade: D

The Magic were red hot coming out of the gates and it seemed like they might finally step out from the league’s basement. Alas, it was a mirage and since then, Orlando have arguably been the worst team in the NBA. And most damaging of all, they’ve yet to develop a franchise player.

Philadelphia 76ers

Record: 30-25
Standing: 7th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 105.4 (15th)
Defensive rating: 102.6 (3rd)
Grade: B

‘The Process’ is no longer processing; it’s happening. The Sixers have turned into a playoff team fairly quickly, with Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both looking like foundational pieces. The only downside of the first half has been the bizarre case of Markelle Fultz, who has given them nothing so far.

Toronto Raptors

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Record: 41-16
Standing: 1st in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 110.7 (4th)
Defensive rating: 102.6 (4th)
Grade: A

There was a lot of talk about Toronto switching up their style of play this season and they’ve backed that up by being a modern team. They’ve been the best team in the East and are the only side, along with Golden State, to rank top five in both offensive and defensive efficiency.

Washington Wizards

Record: 33-24
Standing: 4th in Eastern Conference
Offensive rating: 107.1 (11th)
Defensive rating: 105.3 (12th)
Grade: B

If it wasn’t for the Cavaliers, the spotlight would burn a lot brighter in Washington, where there always appears to be drama. They’ve fared well in John Wall’s absence, but there are lingering chemistry issues and for as much talent as they have, they often act like bullies despite not earning that right.

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NBA All-Star Game was a success in first attempt with new format

Jay Asser 19/02/2018
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LeBron James celebrates after the final buzzer of the 2018 NBA All-Star Game.

The format shake-up worked – the NBA All-Star Game was more entertaining than it has been in years.

Team LeBron James beat Team Steph Curry 148-145 in the star-studded showcase on Sunday, successfully bringing intrigue back to an event that had become stale and little more than players going through the motions.

Though it wasn’t exactly played at playoff intensity, Sunday’s contest was nowhere near the farce of last season’s 192-182 laugher.

There was actual defence played at times, with deflections, blocks and fouls preventing several easy points. And the fourth quarter actually felt something you would see in a typical competitive NBA game, with Team LeBron storming back in the final minutes partly because of defensive stands.

Maybe the interest wouldn’t have been the same if the game hadn’t come down to the final possession and had instead been a blowout, but there were enough redeeming qualities through the first three quarters to make the spectacle appealing.

“We wanted to kind of change the narrative of the All-Star Game being a joke,” Kevin Durant said. “Today we wanted to make it a real basketball game.”

Directly or not, the new format made a difference. The change – which mixed the East v West dynamic and instead saw James and Curry draft their squads irrespective of conference – gave the players further reason to write a worthwhile first chapter to the new era.

And it helps when the face of the league and its best player is setting the tone for everyone else, as James collected MVP honours for his 29 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists.

“It worked out for everybody – not only for the players, not only for the league, but our fans,’’ James said. “It was a great weekend and capped it off the right way. It had a real-game feel to it. Steph and I took it upon ourselves to change the landscape of the game.’’

Next year’s event has a chance to be even better, with commissioner Adam Silver all but confirming the draft will be televised after the players expressed comfort in having the order of the picks made public.

“When we sat with the union and we came up with this format, we all agreed, let’s not turn something that’s 100 per cent positive into a potential negative to any player,” Silver told ESPN.

“But then… maybe we’re overly conservative because then we came out of there, and the players were, ‘We can take it. We’re All-Stars. Let’s have a draft.’ So it sounds like we’re going to have a televised draft next year.”

Ultimately, the All-Star Game, due to its nature, can only be so enthralling, but at least it’s now on the right track.

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Donovan Mitchell channels Vince Carter to win slam dunk title at NBA All-Star weekend

David Cooper 18/02/2018
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High-flying rookie Donovan Mitchell launched an aerial assault on the basket and Devin Booker showed off his silky smooth shooting skills at the 2018 NBA All-Star Game skills competition on Saturday.

Mitchell had two perfect 50 scores over four dunks to edge runner-up Larry Nance Jr. and win the Slam Dunk contest which capped the two-day festivities leading up to the 67th All-Star classic on Sunday.

“Believe it or not I have been preparing for this since I was a kid,” Mitchell said. “Growing up I was a big dunker. I wasn’t really much of a basketball player.

“I just dunked and played defence and I watched a lot of Vince’s (Carter) videos.”

Mitchell needed at least a 47 point on his final dunk in the championship round to defeat Nance Jr. of the Cleveland Cavaliers and he did it by earning a 48.

Mitchell is leading his Utah Jazz team in scoring and is one of the frontrunners to win the Rookie of the Year award this season. He leads all rookies by averaging 19.6 points per game.

Saturday’s events included some of the more talented players in the league competing for three separate titles, comprising the Skills Challenge, Three-Point Contest and the Slam Dunk Contest.

It is part of the build up to Team LeBron and Team Curry taking the floor Sunday at Staples Center arena which is hosting the All-Star Game for the third time.

Mitchell joined the dunk field after 2016 Slam Dunk runner-up Aaron Gordon was forced to withdraw from the contest due to injury.

Mitchell has scored at least 40 points in a game twice, becoming the first Jazz player with multiple 40-point games in his rookie season.

His first perfect dunk score came in the semi-finals when he jumped over three people including his sister, Jordan.

He donned the jersey of former Toronto Raptor star Carter for his final jump which included a 180 degree spin and then a right-handed slam.

Phoenix Suns Booker won the three-point shooting contest in superb fashion, outlasting Golden State Warriors Klay Thompson, Tobias Harris, of the Los Angeles Clippers, in final.

2018 JBL Three-Point Contest

Easy three-sy: Devin Booker ruled the three-point contest.

The Suns guard hit 28 points in the final round. Overall, he hit 20 of his 30 balls to beat former champ Thompson, who was the runner up with 25 points.

“I’m really excited about it,” Booker said. “I always said I always want to represent the city the best I can, with the support they always show for me since day one.

“The season is not going how we planned, but I know a lot of the city was ready for this all-star weekend and having somebody participate. So I’m glad I could win it.”

Brooklyn Nets point guard Spencer Dinwiddie defeated the Chicago Bulls’ Lauri Markkanen in the final round to take home the Skills Challenge trophy.

The Skills Challenge featured two sessions, the chest pass and a top-of-the-key three pointer.

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