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Eastern Conference Midseason Report: Lock it up

By Zach Harper | NBA writer

We are halfway through the 2013-14 NBA season and it's time to grade out how each team in the East is doing:

ATLANTIC DIVISION
By Zach Harper

Toronto Raptors: A-
(First quarter grade: F)

The first quarter of the season was a mess for the Raptors and the rest of the Atlantic division. But Toronto has found a new identity in a Rudy Gay-less world in which Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan, Amir Johnson, and Terrence Ross are unleashed on their opponents. Lowry went from a very disappointing season to an All-Star caliber campaign in the blink of an eye and the Raptors are sort of running away with a bad division. The only question I really have when it comes to this organization is does making the playoffs hinder this team's development when they had a chance to lose games and potentially draft a franchise player in the 2014 draft? Is Masai Ujiri so good as a decision-maker that you can have your cake and eat it too if you're Toronto?

Regardless of the answer to that, the Raptors are a problem for opposing teams every night.

Boston Celtics: D
(First quarter grade: F+)

The Celtics seemed to be the division winner by default in the first quarter of the season because they were. They were a streaky team that couldn't find any consistency. Boston has won just four of their past 18 games, traded away Jordan Crawford (amazingly, he was their best player for this team and won an Eastern Conference Player of the Week), and are now welcoming back Rajon Rondo. This team needs to get Rondo healthy enough to be an impact player again and work on getting a top pick in this draft. You have no chance to win the division and have already dropped four games out of the playoff picture. Embrace the losing and go get yourself a star to put next to Rondo.

Philadelphia 76ers: C-
(First quarter grade: F)

The early success of the 76ers was confusing to fans, media, and the teams they were facing. This was supposed to be a pushover before the season started and instead have been a tornado of chaos both good and bad. When they lose, they lose big like we expected them to. 22 of their 27 losses have been by double digits. Michael Carter-Williams is the biggest bright spot in this season and has all but locked up Rookie of the Year. The Sixers have been fun for their fans and they still have a top 3 chance at landing a top 3 pick. They're fun but they're not quite bad enough to feel comfortable about getting a top lottery pick.

Brooklyn Nets: C+
(First quarter grade: F)

The Nets are starting to get this turned around enough to not be all that embarrassing. With Brook Lopez out for the season, Kevin Garnett has moved to the center position, Andrei Kirilenko is back, and the team is starting to play defense. They've won six out of their last seven games heading into their showdown with the Knicks on Martin Luther King Jr. Day and Deron Williams will be returning from his ankle procedures this week. Can the Nets make a legitimate push to take control of the division from the Raptors or will the Raptors manage to fend them off and lock up the division? This might be up to the Nets and their collective effort to be better than what we've seen.

New York Knicks: C-
(First quarter grade: F)

The Knicks aren't a complete mess anymore, which is big progress. Since dropping to 9-21 after losing a back-to-back, home-and-home against the Raptors, the Knicks have won six of their last 10 games, despite a current three-game losing streak as they prepare to face the Nets on MLK Day. Carmelo Anthony keeps putting forward a great effort, even if he's not making the best decisions on the court at all time. The rest of the team is starting to find a better all-around effort but we're still seeing a team making things far too hard on themselves. With all of the failure they've endured this season, they're only two games out of the playoffs. Making the playoffs will be a big deal for them so they avoid an offseason of questions about just dramatic failure, so they have that to shoot for.

CENTRAL DIVISION
By Matt Moore

Indiana Pacers: A++
(First quarter grade: A+)

How does a team that was one game away from the Finals improve? By adjusting their offense to have more spacing, by having their Most Improved Player make an even bigger jump to superstardom, by anchoring a defense with the best efficiency rating of the past ten years, by executing consistently, and by hitting teams with second-half haymakers that blow their opponents away. This team is well on track for the No. 1 seed. The road to the Finals goes through Indiana, and getting through them is no long just "a tough out." It is not unreasonable to say this team should be the favorite in the Eastern Conference, regardless of Miami's coasting.

Chicago Bulls: C
(First quarter grade: C)

I mean, they're still winning games. But the injury, you know, the Derrick Rose injury, that was it. That was their season. There's no ceiling to shoot for anymore. They've hit it. They can bust their backsides for Thibodeau and play hard and be a competitive team, but they're not going anywhere. They just don't have enough firepower, especially after the Deng trade. It's sad, it's unfortunate, it's anything but fair, but this stuff happens. You start to wonder, even as young as he is, if the Derrick Rose era may be over before it began.

Detroit Pistons: D-
(First quarter grade: D+)

This team should be so much better than it is. But Josh Smith is hoisting epic levels of threes and shooting horrifically.(24 percent!), Greg Monroe is needed to be a better defender than he is, Brandon Jennings is having a good Brandon Jennings season but still a Brandon Jennings season and the bench doesn't have much beyond Will Bynum. There are a lot of pieces here, but someone has to make it fit, and so far neither the players nor coaching staff has.

Cleveland Cavaliers: C-
(First quarter grade: D-)

They get a D- for their overall play, an A for the Deng trade, and a B+ for their play in the short time since the Deng trade. For the first time, this roster makes sense. C.J. Miles in the starting lineup helps a lot. But Cleveland could have imploded after early season locker room discord and instead stuck together. The result is a team primed for a second-half playoff run. Their long-term future is the big question mark, but for this year, and important one, they're learning to win. They just need Kyrie Irving to be a little better.

Milwaukee Bucks: F--
(First quarter grade: F-)

Burn everything to the ground, send Bango back to the forest, trade everyone, start D-Leaguers, draft the best player available and start over. This team is a nuclear waste spill into a potty pond. Burn it all down.

SOUTHEAST DIVISION
By Royce Young

Miami Heat: B+
(First quarter grade: A-)

The excuse is that they're coasting. That they don't care quite yet and when they're ready, they'll flip the switch. That makes sense and is fine, but you have to worry just a tad if they're still capable of turning it on. Dwyane Wade is clearly not 100 percent as he battles and manages his health situation. LeBron James is obviously still brilliant, but with some subtractions off the roster, he might be trying to carry too much of the load. But until further notice, the Heat are still the favorites to win it all because as recent history has shown, when the time matters, they get going.

Washington Wizards: C+
(First quarter grade: D+)

They sit at 19-20 currently, and still, with the situation that is the Eastern Conference, you wouldn't have to try all that hard to convince me that they're the third best team in the East. When healthy, the Wizards have a star point guard, a talented shooting guard, a good inside tandem, and some quality wing players. They lack depth, and they're inconsistent, when the Wizards play to the potential with their full compliment of players, they're good.

Atlanta Hawks: B-
(First quarter grade: C+)

Injuries have really ruined what could've been a fun, surprising season from the Hawks. Losing Al Horford has pretty much ruined them, but here they still sit at 20-19 and fourth in the East. Jeff Teague is quietly putting together a fantastic season, Paul Millsap is still very good and they have a few intriguing young players. But we all know the inevitable. Without Horford, they aren't doing anything. They'll probably make the playoff because such is the East, but they're dead men walking.

Charlotte Bobcats: D+
(First quarter grade: C-)

It feels like the Bobcats are whiffing on an opportunity. They're 17-25 and currently outside of the top eight in the East. They spent in the offseason on Al Jefferson, they have some young players that are kind of blossoming, and they appear to have a quality head coach that has the team buying into a philosophy. But they can't score points, which means they can't consistently win. With their offseason, the Bobcats basically said they wanted to go from bad into the world of mediocrity. And they haven't been able to get over that hump.

Orlando Magic: D
(First quarter grade: C-)

They're 11-30, which puts them with the second-worst record in the NBA. That's bad. But it's not all bad. The Magic are clearly in the process of a rebuild and nothing would be as welcome as Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker added to a core of Victor Oladipo and Nikola Vucevic. It would be nice to see this young roster start to take gradual steps forward and win a few games more consistently, but right now for the Magic, losing is still winning.

You can view the Western Conference midseason grades here.

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