by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

The All-Star weekend is a welcome break from the grind of the 82-game NBA season for just about every NBA squad (not to mention for the handicappers). Teams will be off for either seven or eight days this season. The players have time to recuperate from the grind, rest their legs, and generally unwind (or hit the Strip in Vegas or the beach in Antigua, take your pick). Coaches and general managers of flagging franchises evaluate potential moves to set up priorities for next season. Teams in contention burn the phones hoping to pick up the piece that will help their squad go deeper into the playoffs.

As handicappers, we review each team and reset our expectations up and down the standings.  We review the Eastern Conference below...


Central Division

CLEVELAND (39-16)...Despite LeBron James' fretting about the depth in Cleveland, the Cavs are on top in the East. Clearly, there is some truth to the King's laments, as Kevin Love will likely be out for six weeks after a knee scope, and G J.R. Smith is still not ready after undergoing thumb surgery earlier this season, and he probably won't be back for another month. The Cavs did add guard Kyle Korver to fill in for Smith for a while. Meanwhile, Boston is pushing the defending champions for the top spot in the East, as the Cavs lead the Celtics by just 2 1/2 games, while Toronto's acquisition of PF Serge Ibaka has the potential of shifting the balance of power. Heavy hangs the head that wears the crown.

INDIANA (29-27)...Nate McMillian's Pacers have some of work to do if they are to go "over" their 45 total victory impost this season. The recent wrist injury to power forward Thaddeus Young and knee injury to backup PF Lavoy Allen have contributed to a 6-game losing streak for the Pacers. Indy has given up 116 ppg in those losses, and F Paul George's shots haven't been falling as often as when Young was available. Jeff Teague has helped settle the PG situation well this season, and Myles Turner (16 ppg, 7.1 rpg, 2.1 bpg) has stabilized the pivot. The Pacers need to break the losing streak before they drift any further down the standings (currently in sixth position, just 3 1/2 games ahead of ninth-place Milwaukee, with Miami and Charlotte also in hot pursuit of the playoffs).

CHICAGO (27-29)...The drama has been intense in Chicago this season. Star forward Jimmy Butler and guard Dwyane Wade at times insinuating that they are the only players on the team giving full effort, which didn't sit well with vet PG Rajon Rondo, among others. Butler's name was seemingly mentioned in every other trade rumor. And the team has a losing record. Part of the problem is that the Bulls haven't kept up with the times. Chicago ranks last in the league in three-pointers made, attempted and in percentage. Lately the Bulls aren't playing effective defense, giving up more than 111 ppg in February. And Chicago's schedule gets tough right after the break (Cavs, Warriors, Clippers, at Detroit, Rockets and Boston, with only a couple of cupcakes sprinkled in over the next two weeks). How long will Fred Hoiberg last?

DETROIT (27-30)...Piston head coach Stan Van Gundy is trying to get his team back to the playoffs. Detroit missed the postseason for six straight years before finishing 44-38 last season and getting the 8th seed (and being swept by the Cavs). Frankly, the Pistons have underachieved this season, with PG Reggie Jackson regressing, in part due to a somewhat slow comeback from injury (missed 21 games), and Andre Drummond still a victim of his own horrible FT shooting. Van Gundy has denied the trade rumors surrounding Jackson, and has given the PG a vote of confidence, but Jackson has scored only 10 ppg and shot 37% (27 on treys) in his last 10 games. With numbers like those, he won't get traded (because there will be no takers), and the Pistons will miss the playoffs.

MILWAUKEE (25-30)...Milwaukee was a trendy pick to go "over" its total wins number of 39 1/2 before the season began, with all the pundits enamored with the "Greek Freak" (Giannis Antetokounmpo). However, last season's leading scorer, G Khris Middleton, suffered a hamstring tear in camp. Then, after PF Jabari Parker was sidelined last week with an ACL injury, it seemed that winning 15 of the final 27 games was a bridge too far. Well, Middleton just returned and has shown flashes of the player he was when scoring 18 ppg last season, and the Bucks showed surprising resiliency winning their last three games prior to the break. Eight-year vet F Michael Beasley has provided relief at the power forward spot, scoring 15 ppg on 67% shooting in the 3-game win streak since the Parker injury. Don't tear up you tickets on the Bucks winning 40 just yet!

Atlantic Division

BOSTON (37-19)...After winning 11 of its last 12 games, Boston is the hottest team east of Oakland. And we're about ready to take back all those bad things we said about Brad Stevens after the Celts were 66-106 in the first 172 games he coached in the NBA. Diminutive point guard Isaiah Thomas has had an MVP-level season, scoring 30 ppg, and C Al Horford has provided a defensive presence in the paint the team hasn't had since Kevin Garnett left town. The deep Celtic bench has helped the team overcome the loss of G Avery Bradley (18 ppg) for 20 games, while Horford and F Jae Crowder missed a combined 22. Boston is pushing Cleveland for the best record in the East, and the Celtics could really use a homecourt edge in a potential matchup with the Cavs. Boston has lost 8 of the last 9 against the defending champions, including two losses in Cleveland earlier this season. The Celtics play the Cavs twice at home later this season, and those games loom large in the postseason picture.

TORONTO (33-24)...The Raptors looked like the team to beat in the East around Christmas, as Toronto was 22-8 after winning at Portland Dec. 26. With G DeMar DeRozan scoring at a 30 ppg clip and backcourt mate Kyle Lowry contributing 24 ppg and shooting 50% on his threes in December, Dwane Casey's team was riding high. However, an 11-16 record since has taken much of the shine off the apple. Star G DeMar DeRozan missed a stretch of games in late January and early February, sitting in 7 of 8 due to an ankle injury. The Raptors now have their backcourt intact, and the recent trade for F Serge Ibaka could tip the scales in their direction. Ibaka provides a substantial upgrade at the power forward for Toronto. Ibaka is a defensive presence who scores 15 ppg and can shoot the three, and with the strong backcourt scoring and C Jonas Valanciunas (12.4 ppg, 10 rpg), the Raptors are a much more complete team now.

NEW YORK (23-34)...Trade Carmelo Anthony. Fire Phil Jackson. It's not going to make any difference. The Knicks are a million miles away from where they thought they'd be at the beginning of the season. Between the rapid development of Kristaps Porzingis and the offseason acquisition of former MVP PG Derrick Rose, the Knicks were forecast to improve from 32 wins to 41. That's just not going to happen. The funniest thing is that Jackson is probably surprised and miffed that Anthony doesn't waste much effort on the defensive end, rarely makes a pass unless he's looking for the ball back, and often hangs out around the arc, only connecting with the offense when someone gives him the ball. What exactly was Jackson expecting when he signed him to a max contract with a no-trade clause?

PHILADELPHIA (21-35)...Surprise probably isn't the word for Philadelphia this season. After starting the year 4-18, it appeared the Sixers were looking to max out their ping-pong balls in the lottery again. After all, Philly was just 47-199 in the last three seasons; they know the way to the lottery. However, Philly is 14-11 SU and 19-6 against the points in its last 25 games. The team now knows it has a bona fide star in center Joel Embiid (20 ppg, 8 rpg in 25 mpg; being held out due to a knee issue) and is being pleasantly surprised by the play of Croatian rookie F Dario Saric (16 ppg, 7 rpg in his last 10 games). Sixer brass fully expects No. 1 pick Ben Simmons to have impact much like Embiid, although it's iffy if they'll let him play this season after he recovers from a foot injury. If they can deal big man Jahlil Okafor for some backcourt help (four teams reportedly very interested), the future might belong to the Sixers. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.

BROOKLYN (9-47)...No one will wrest the No. 30 seed's chair at the NBA draft from the Nets this season. Brooklyn has the league's worst defense by a wide margin, giving up more than 114 ppg. The Nets are also one of the weakest rebounding teams in the league, as foes grab a league-most 56 per game. Projected starting PG Jeremy Lin has been healthy enough to start just 9 of the first 56 games. The Nets are reportedly trying to move their best player, center Brook Lopez (21 ppg). How did Kenny Atkinson get this job? No one else wanted it.

Southeast Division

WASHINGTON (33-21)...Washington has been virtually unbeatable at the Verizon Center since the first week of December, posting a remarkable 19-1 SU mark at home. The blossoming of the backcourt of PG John Wall and Bradley Beal has made up for the Wizards' lack of depth on the frontline. C Marcin Gortat has scored more points in the past, but he might be having his best defensive season, including taking a career-high 11.5 rebounds per game. The Wizards ranked 14th in defensive efficiency and 19th in offensive efficiency last season. This year head coach Scott Brooks has helped them improve to 9th in both categories. If the Wizards continue at their present winning percentage, they will collect 50 victories for the first time since the then-Washington Bullets 1978-79 team of Elvin Hayes lost in the finals to the Seattle SuperSonics led by Dennis Johnson. More pertinent to the rest of this season, the Wizards are 14-4 laying 9 points or fewer at home.

ATLANTA (32-24)...With all the chatter going on about the Hawks trying to peddle virtually any player under contract not named Dwight Howard or Dennis Schroder, you'd think the sky was falling in Atlanta. The Hawks dealt Kyle Korver to the Cavs last month. They shopped PF Paul Millsap all over the NBA, but took him off the market. Six players are currently up for sale, with at least five of those not expected back with the team next year under any circumstances. Now, take a step back, head coach and president of basketball operations Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks are currently sitting in the fifth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff chase. They are just 2 1/2 games behind Washington (currently the third seed in the East), despite the fact that the Wizards have won 10 of their last 11 games. Atlanta has won only one division title since 1993-94. You're within grasp of the third seed. Pump the breaks on the trades and coach!

MIAMI (25-32)...Unlike some teams facing a down season, Miami and Pat Riley are not ready to pull the plug on this year and head for South Beach. The Heat were buried with an 11-30 mark and headed no where before coming home off a long road trip for three days off in mid-January, ready to start a four-game homestand. Things then, incredibly, fell into place, and Miami ripped off 13 straight wins and put the glimmer of a potential playoff return in the ryes of the fans. Behind guards Goran Dragic and Dion Waiters, the Heat caught fire. Dragic and Waiters combined for 38 ppg in January. Backup guard Tyler Johnson added 15 ppg off the bench, and Hassan Whiteside and James Johnson became downright nasty in the paint. Now, instead of scouting draft picks, Riley is reportedly trying to swing a deal for Denver's Wilson Chandler for a little frontline scoring punch. We'll see what happens, but the turnaround is more than a bit surprising considering the facts of the case just a month ago.

ORLANDO (21-37)...If you want to know how Orlando's season is going, all you have to note is the Magic dumped power forward Serge Ibaka, the team's second-leading scorer, best shooter among the starters, and probably its best defensive player, for Terrence Ross and a second-round pick. Ross has had his moments, but he's a career 9.5 ppg scorer and 42% shooter. Not that the Magic were going anywhere other than on vacation, so what does it really matter? The move will save Orlando $10 million over the next two seasons, compared with what Jeff Green, who's on an expiring contract, makes this year. The second-rounder might turn out to be a real NBA player, but whoever he turns out to be will most definitely be less expensive that just about any veteran. It's a business decision, surely. The bad basketball decisions in Orlando go way back. Remember the Magic let Shaq walk and fired Stan Van Gundy to appease Dwight Howard, who they also let walk. The Magic have had four coaches and five losing seasons (counting this year) since Van Gundy left. Who's running this team?


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