by P. Carl Giordano, Managing Editor

The All-Star break is a welcome respite from the grind of the 82-game NBA season for just about every NBA squad. The players have time off to rest and recoup from the various injuries that inevitably accumulate over time. Coaches and general managers evaluate their team's situation and burn up the phone lines in the last week before the trade deadline.

As handicappers, we use the break to grade out each team and reset our expectations up and down the standings. Today the Eastern Conference is featured, Monday the Western Conference evaluation.


New York Knicks (SUR: 32-18)...In preseason the network pundits were joking about the geriatric Knick roster, a third of which is 35-40 years of age. Amar'e Stoudemire was on the shelf as the season started, and didn't play until January 1. The Knicks have answered the critics, led by Carmelo Anthony, who is having his best all-around season, and hopefully will quickly recover from the arm contusion he recently suffered. Although New York entered the break on a downshift, dropping three of last four games, including a galling home loss to Toronto, things are upbeat in the Big Apple. The defense isn't as good as it looked back in November, when the Knicks held their first nine foes to just 89 ppg, but only seven teams allow more points and they are just outside the top 10 (along with the Clippers and Miami) in defensive efficiency. Considering the games missed by point guards Ray Felton (out 12 games), Jason Kidd (5) and Iman Shumpert (37), forwards Stoudemire (30) and Anthony (7), not to mention vet backups Rasheed Wallace, Marcus Camby and Kurt Thomas (a total of 84), have to consider the job head coach Mike Woodson has done an outstanding effort. Grade: B+

Brooklyn Nets (SUR: 31-22)...Not sure this is what Jay-Z and Mikhail Prokhorov had in mind for the opening act at the brand new Barclays Center. Brooklyn's 31-22 mark at the break would be good enough for the fourth playoff seed in the East and a home court edge in the first round, but a year ago they were shooting much higher. Firing Avery Johnson provided a temporary boost, but P.J. Carlesimo is just a band-aid fix (and we miss Johnson's emotional, high-pitched speeches on "The Association'"). Brooklyn trails the crosstown rival Knicks in the standings and all-star point guard Deron Williams has been underachieving, shooting around 40% since moving to the Nets from Utah. Williams' assists are down to 7.6 per game, his lowest production since his rookie season, and his scoring is at a 6-year low. Other underachieving Nets include forward ex-reality TV personality Kris Humphries, who might be more obsessed with his drawn-out divorce from Kim Kardashian than his play. Humphries has almost played his way out of the rotation, scoring just 3.6 ppg & grabbing only 3.3 rebounds in his last 10 games, a far cry from the last two seasons when he averaged a double-double and shot 50%. The team's major free agent acquisition, guard Joe Johnson, got paid and, like many NBA players before him, immediately lost intensity and exhibited greatly reduced production. Brooklyn ranks 18th in defensive efficiency and only Golden State forces fewer turnovers than the Nets. Grade: D

Boston Celtics (SUR: 28-24)...The Celtics looked like they were at rock bottom just before tipoff of the Jan. 27 game against Miami. The realization that star point guard Rajon Rondo was lost for the season with an ACL tear could've been devastating. HC Doc Rivers had lost his only young star and the future face of the franchise. Miraculously, the Celtics reeled off a run of 8 wins in the next 9 games, including victories over Miami, the Clippers, the Lakers, Denver and Chicago. The Celtics made the run without promising rookie power forward Jared Sullinger, out the last 7 games with a back injury that required surgery, and more recently vet guard Leandro Barbosa has been sidelined for the rest of the season with an ACL injury. Now Rivers and GM Danny Ainge are faced with making one last run with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett (35 and 36-years-old, respectively), or holding a fire sale and seeing what they can get for two aging all-stars with big contracts. It's doubtful either player will bring enough to warrant a trade, so Celtic fans will have to grin and bear it. Grade: C-

Philadelphia 76ers (SUR: 22-29)...Suffice to say our "under" prediction on 45½ total wins for the Sixers published in the first issue this season looks like a winner (a 24-7 run down the stretch just isn't going to happen). They envisioned the trade for center Andrew Bynum in the offseason bringing them a franchise cornerstone; hard to be a cornerstone sitting in the training room rehabbing for the first six months with your new team. While Bynum proved to be "subtraction by addition," The Sixers lost Andre Iguodala via trade, last year's leading scorer Lou Williams to free agency and amnestied last season's top rebounder Elton Brand. That's just subtraction. As a result, head coach Doug Collins is saddled with one of the worst offensive teams in the league, as Philly ranks 27th in scoring efficiency, and the only bright light has been point guard Jrue Holiday (19 ppg, 9 apg). Rookie PG Royal Ivey looks like a rookie, vet Jason Richardson is old and has been injured, Evan Turner is shooting 34% in February and it's doubtful any trade will help (or indeed, even happen). Sixers are thinking draft position and Collins is likely wondering what possessed him to leave the broadcast booth for the bench. Grade: F

Toronto Raptors (SUR: 21-32)...Toronto hit a hot streak, winning its last four games prior to the all-star break, bringing the Raptors back on pace to just come up short of the 33½ win number hung at the books in preseason. The trade of point guard Jose Calderon and the addition of forward Rudy Gay gives Toronto a reliable frontline scorer to pair with guard DeMar DeRozan, but it remains to be seen if Kyle Lowry can play consistently at the point. Additionally, keeping big man Andrea Bargnani healthy has been an impossible task, as he's only played in half of the team's games the last two seasons. No wonder his name is being floated in numerous trade scenarios, especially considering Casey has big men Amir Johnson and Jonas Valanciunis in the fold. It's a mildly interesting collection when healthy, but the playoff window is shut for this season and head coach Dwane Casey's defense has deteriorated. The Raptors are giving up five more points than a year ago and foes are shooting 46.2% against the compared with 43.5% last season. Grade: C


Indiana Pacers (SUR: 32-21)...Give that the face of the franchise, forward Danny Granger, hasn't played yet due to injury, it's more than a bit surprising to see the Pacers sitting atop the Central Division. Paul George has taken up the standard for Granger, making his first all-star team by leading his team in scoring and steals and ranking second in rebounding and assists. Granger could be back in action as soon as Wednesday. Although Granger's name has been bandied about in trade rumors, the feeling is he's staying as the team's shooting forward and that George will settle in the guard slot, with Lance Stephenson moving to the bench as the team's sixth man. The only real problem on the radar for HC Frank Vogel is the curious case of center Roy Hibbert's disappearing shooting touch. Hibbert shot 49.7% last season but has fallen to just 41.3% this year. Still, the intimidating Hibbert is at a career-high in blocks and is a factor in the Pacers leading the league in defensive efficiency, fewest points allowed and allowing foes to shoot a league-low 41.7%. Granger will only be moved if it helps Indiana, he won't be given away. Grade: A-

Chicago Bulls (SUR: 30-22)...Star guard Derrick Rose hasn't played since tearing his ACL early in the playoffs last April, and recent interviews indicate he feels he's a long way from being ready to get back out on the court. Yet, even without their leader available, head coach Tom Thibodeau has crafted a work-around and has been jockeying with Indiana for the Central Division lead all season. Forward Carlos Boozer has shown some wear and tear. Guards Kirk Hinrich and Richard Hamilton missed a dozen games each with injuries, but the Bulls are in the thick of the playoff race. Obviously not having Rose has had an effect. Chicago is scoring 3 fewer points per game and allowing 3 more than last season, and the defense has been less-efficient overall. However, considering the central role Rose played for the Bulls, have to applaud Thibodeau for the team's performance. Grade : A-

Milwaukee Bucks (SUR: 26-25)...The Bucks fired Scott Skiles in early January, giving the fiery and sometimes abrasive head coach the boot. Assistant Jim Boylan took over, but after an encouragigng couple of weeks,it's more of the same, as the team has lacked much identity since trading Andrew Bogut to Golden State last season for Monta Ellis. The experiment of pairing Ellis and Brandon Jennings in the backcourt together has yielded mediocre results, and the Bucks recent run of eight straight spread losses (2-6 SU) has made the front office start thinking about moving one of them for a frontline scorer. The two have combined to shoot less than 40% this season, and, while shot-blocking specialist Larry Sanders has a defensive role and shooting forward Mike Dunleavy can get a hot hand at times, the rest of the team's "bigs" contribute little scoring and Ersan Ilyasova's 11 ppg and 6.2 rpg is pedestrian at best. Ellis doesn't appear to be the all-star player the Bucks thought they were getting, and both he and Jennings are just as likely to shoot Milwaukee out of games as to make a positive difference. Jennings will become a restricted free agent and has a new agent looking to make a score, so he might not be in Milwaukee much longer. This is a team that could use Josh Smith, but they likely don't have enough to offer in return. Grade: D

Detroit Pistons (SUR: 21-33)...Detroit has been down so long it might look like up to them, but it's not. The trade for Jose Calderon indicates the Pistons were finished waiting for Tayshaun Prince to develop into an "A" player and that they don't feel Brandon Knight can pass well enough to play point guard in the league. Recently backup PG Will Bynum said he wasn't concerned he might be the next Piston to leave in a trade, that he only cared "about winning and trying to make the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoffs." Okay, from the horse's mouth, Bynum is going to Milwaukee, because that's just about his only chance to make the eighth seed. Center Andre Drummond (7 ppg; 8.8 rpg) has promise, but he's injured his back and it's not exactly a surprise if the ninth pick in the draft is a decent player. Head coach Lawrence Frank has been handcuffed by years of prior mistakes by the team's president of basketball operations, Joe Dumars. While he was a great Piston and a hall-of-famer, he's clearly not a great general manager. Detroit has been out of the playoffs and below .400 in the standings for 3½ years, so it might be time for a change in the front office. Grade: D-

Cleveland Cavaliers (SUR: 16-37)...The Cavs are another team dealing with an injury to a key player, as they lost the league's top rebounder, center Anderson Varejao, after he had played in just 25 games. While it's hard to say a team that's 16-37 as a team on the rise, Cleveland has more than a few things going its way. The first is an all-star point guard in second-year pro Kyrie Irving (23.5 ppg; 47%). Obviously, Varejao's 14.4 rpg was a major plus as well before his knee gave way and a blood clot was discovered in his lung, but the development of power forward Tristan Thompson (also in his second year) and the addition of Mareese Speights has mitigated Varejao's absence. Thomas and Speights have combined for 15.5 rpg, and rookie C Tyler Zeller has contributed a respectable 6.2 boards and has improved his offense recently (47% in February). This is one of the younger teams in the league, and has a much brighter future than any other sub-.500 team in the East. A recent three-game losing streak prior to the all-star break snapped a 7-3 run when the Cavs flashed their potential with wins over Boston and Oklahoma City. Another lottery pick likely awaits Cleveland, and if Varejao can be ready by next fall, the Cavs could make their first post-LeBron trip to the playoffs. Grade: A


Miami Heat (SUR: 35-14)...If there was ever any doubt, LeBron James has made it clear the best player in the game resides in South Beach. His recent string of 30-point, 60% shooting games has him averaging 30.4 ppg and shooting 69% in February. James and Mario Chalmers are the only members of the Heat to play in every game. Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade are both shooting above 50%, and the Heat as a team are at 49.4% FGs and rated as the most efficient offensive team in the league. Really the only negative is that the Heat are such a "public" team, there is little value in betting on Miami (25-24 against the points). Considering LeBron has historically been even better after the all-star break, it appears everyone else in the East is playing for second place. In a recent commentary one of the ESPN pundits pointed out an interesting observation when asked the difference between James and Michael Jordan. He said opposing players would definitely try and contest Jordan on his drives to the rim. No one is eager to try to stop the 6-9, 250-pound James when he gets a head of steam going into the lane. Grade B+

Atlanta Hawks (SUR: 29-22)...Atlanta has been somewhat of an overachiever this season, as Jeff Teague has taken a step forward at point guard and Al Horford has improved as well (career-high 16.4 ppg and just off his career best in rebounding at 9.8). The Hawks are in sixth place in the Eastern Conference while dealing with injuries to players who figured to play a key role this season. Guard Lou Williams (14 ppg) is through for the year, and PG Devin Harris missed 17 games. Atlanta coach Larry Drew has done a solid job of fitting square pegs in round holes, playing for periods without a solid shooting guard (Kyle Korver has been out lately) and using Josh Smith as a slightly undersized power forward (he's 6-9 but weighs just 225). However, almost the only mention of the Hawks lately are about GM Danny Ferry's decision not to re-sign Smith in free agency and that he's trying to move his most productive player before the deadline. Smith is talented, and Ferry too shrewd give him away cheaply. Hawks are a bit ahead of schedule. Grade: B

Washington Wizards (SUR: 15-36)...The Wizards have been a tale of two teams this season. Washington started the season 5-28, waiting for point guard John Wall to regain his health and join the fray. Wall, one of the top two or three young point guards in the league, was ready January 12, and the Wizards are 10-8 SU and 14-4 vs. the points with Wall at the controls. Washington's offensive production has spiked since he returned, and Nene's scoring and rebounding has gone up sharply since Wall regained full health. The recent return of fast-developing rookie Bradley Beal (13 ppg this season; has improved his shooting to 46% in February) is a major plus as well. Beal had to sit out five games with a sore wrist that was affecting his touch. Head coach Randy Wittman has some depth, with 6-7 double-digit scorers at his disposal, and the attitude on the team is on the upswing. Washington's 32-18-1 spread mark at the break was eye-catching, and the Wizards have been playing defense lately as well, holding 10 straight foes below 100 points. A 11-3 "under" run coming out of the all-star break brought the Wizards to a 30-20-1 "under" mark for the season. Things are upbeat in the District of Columbia. Grade: B

Orlando Magic (SUR 15-37)...When the oddsmakers pegged Orlando at 23½ wins back in October, they new what they were talking about. The Magic are on that exact pace, as rookie head coach Jacque Vaughn weeds his way through a treacherous first season. Things didn't start out badly, as Orlando was 12-13 after beating Washington on Dec. 19, their fourth straight win. Then came a 2-23 nosedive that no doubt aged Vaughn unnaturally (he turned 38 this Feb. 11...belated happy birthday Jacque!). The Magic have a litany of injuries that have taken a toll, with projected starter Al Harrington yet to play and Glen "Big Baby" Davis out indefinitely. Assorted minor nicks saw leading scorer Arron Afflalo miss 6 games, PG Jameer Nelson 11 and guard J.J. Redick 4. Forward Hedo Turkoglu has played in just 11 games and was hit with a 20-game suspension for using banned performance enhancing drugs (he can't play until March 27th). No wonder the Magic have lost 12 of 14 against the points and rank 26th in offensive efficiency and 25th in defensive efficiency. No, this rebuilding project isn't going well at all. At least ex-headman Stan Van Gundy was spared the pain. Grade: D

Charlotte Bobcats (SUR: 12-40)...Talk about a mirage! Was that really Charlotte sitting at 7-5 straight-up at Thanksgiving and talking about a shot at the playoffs? Postgame "Bobcat talk" on the radio has turned a bit salty since then, with Charlotte going 5-35 since then, covering just 12 of those 40 contests. The Bobcats rank 29th in both offensive and defensive efficiency, but they'd be last in the league if Washington PG John Wall had been healthy at the start of the season. To quote Charles Barkley, "Bad team man. Bad ****in' team." Charlotte's lead player, guard Kemba Walker is serviceable, but the dropoff is dramatic from there. Guard Ramon Sessions is shooting 41% and can't guard the scorer's table. Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (9 ppg), the second pick in the draft, turned out not to be an NBA-ready starter. Starting C Byron Mullens (39% FGs, terrible for a center) loves to hang outside and jack up treys...4½ per game even though he makes just 32% of them. It looks like guard Ben Gordon is on the trading block after an outburst directed at coach Mike Dunlap that was beyond disrespectful. Apparently the team would've suspended him, but they were afraid it would dilute his trade value. Wow! Grade: F

Coming Monday: NBA West All-Star Break Update!

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