Midseason Report

Atlanta –¬†Better help defense could turn around poor effort

The team isn’t getting the effort it needs on defense. Opponents drive around Hawks perimeter defenders with ease, and C Dikembe Mutombo has become reluctant to step over and help out because his teammates do not rotate to pick up his unguarded man. In the NBA, where the talent is so good that keeping a player from penetrating or getting open off screens is virtually impossible, defense without help is poor defense. That’s why the Hawks, first in the league in defense last season (84.3 ppg), are allowing 102 points per game this season. Until there’s a commitment by the players to cover each other’s back, the inability to stop teams at key moments will continue.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

Coach Lenny Wilkens has to do his part to get things turned around. So far, he has done nothing. He’s using the same lineup and same rotations and playing the same style. He has to start G Jason Terry at the point and let him thrive or survive. He has to implement a halfcourt trap or a full-court press to force an up-tempo game, which could result in a quicker pace and more active players.

Boston – Team has shot at playoffs but must improve defense

The biggest issue facing the Celtics is the team’s ability to defend. The team is among the worst in opposition field-goal percentage. Rick Pitino wants the team to be more man-to-man oriented, but his players aren’t good man-to-man defenders. Pitino hasn’t abandoned his trademark full-court press, but he is using it less. Instead, the Celtics are trapping more in the halfcourt when mismatches go against them. The team is gradually buying into the defense-first mentality, not always an easy thing to do with young players.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

In the topsy-turvy East, the Celtics are hanging around with a shot at the playoffs. The team has a brutal stretch in February and March, playing most of the top teams in the West on the road. But it has a favorable April schedule, so Pitino simply wants to be in the hunt. The team is making progress, winning close games, winning on the road and holding court at home. Pitino has been unable to restrain himself at trade time in each of the past two Februarys. If the team continues to show improvement, he may take a pass this time around.

Charlotte – Frontcourt needs to step up its production

How quickly the team will be able to overcome the death of G Bobby Phills and bounce back remains to be seen. Not only did it lose its second-leading scorer and one of its best defensive players, it lost one of its best leaders and most-respected players. Dale Ellis was added to fill Phills’ sixth-man role, and he will provide some needed outside shooting. But the real burden will fall on the starting frontcourt of PF Derrick Coleman, SF Anthony Mason and C Elden Campbell. They need to step up. Coach Paul Silas has done a great job of holding the team together, but it’s still too early to tell how the team will hold up over the long haul.

SECOND-HALF: GAME PLAN:

The Hornets could become more committed than ever to pounding the basketball inside and utilizing mismatches with Coleman, Mason and Campbell. They lead the NBA in field-goal attempts, so they could look to make hay at the free-throw line the rest of the season. If the team can work out some chemistry issues and start focusing better and playing harder on the road, it still could make a run at a Central Division championship.

Chicago – Injuries, lack of depth make for lost season

Primarily became injuries have sidelined their top shooters and also because coach Tim Floyd opted to continue running the triangle, the Bulls have been last in the league in scoring most of the season. The team’s defense, however, suggests it’s good enough to win half of its games. What bugs insiders most is they know the under-staffing of the Bulls from a roster standpoint was done in deference to stockpiling as much salary-cap space as possible to make a bid for free agents this summer. So this season, like the last one, was sacrificed for an uncertain future.

SECOND-HALF: GAME PLAN:

The Bulls’ first intention is to get healthy and do a better job of running the triangle. Then, Floyd must decide whether he continues to start PG Matt Maloney and SG Ron Artest or use veterans PG Randy Brown and SG Hersey Hawkins, who opened the season as starters before getting injured. Floyd will continue to play C Elton Brand and Arrest big minutes to facilitate their development. It’s pretty clear they are the cornerstones of the Bulls’ rebuilding program. Most everybody else is on trial, auditioning for new contracts.

Cleveland – Kemp takes a beating inside; team has no depth to help

F Shawn Kemp’s body seems to be breaking down. It started last season when he reported to camp after the lockout at more than 300 pounds. But the weight issue was a non-factor when he played at an extremely high level right away. In October, he showed up looking heavier. He needs to change his offseason routine and must get in shape. His play is critical to the team’s success. He’s averaging 18.8 points, 8.9 rebounds and 40.8 percent shooting. But that’s not worth it for someone making $10.8 million. He has taken a beating around the basket this season and plays extremely hard. But without depth, there’s no one to relieve any pressure.

SECOND-HALF GAME PLAN:

Without C Zydrunas Ilgauskas, who will miss the rest of the season, winning 30 games might be a realistic goal. The Caps have been blown out only a handful of times. In most games, they get a lead and succumb down the stretch. Because they likely will miss the playoffs, they’ll keep their first-round pick. The Caps have little room to operate under the salary cap anyway, other than the mid-level exception ($2.25 million next year).

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