The good news about the NBA at midseason is that the second half can't possibly be as crummy and deflating as the first. At least that's the hope.
You ask: Was it really that bad? Oh, yes. Just name a half dozen unbelievable events that happened between late October and last week. I'll spot you Carmelo Anthony chopping down Bernard King's record (even though it came in the 43rd game, technically the second half), and a few Kevin Durant highlights, and J.R. Smith untying someone's shoelaces. Go ahead, name three more.
The East has been historically dreadful, with only four teams holding winning records at the halfway stage. Both New York teams were eyesores (and still are). The rookie class, save for a fortunate few, gets a D-minus grade and is in danger of flunking. Derrick Rose went down. Kobe Bryant went down. The Bucks went so far down they're now playing in Beijing.
For the sake of balance, we'll make sure to point out some of the positives in this look at the best and (very) worst of the NBA at the break:
Best player performance: Kevin Durant.
Oklahoma City is leading the West despite Russell Westbrook missing 25 games, and it's mostly because Durant is going nuts. In January alone he's averaging 34 points, six rebounds and six assists and making all sorts of big plays that swing games in OKC's favor. For the year he's had 10 straight games of 30-plus points and five 40-plus. The MVP award is his to lose.
Best coaching performance: Terry Stotts.
Stotts is doing wonders in Portland, where a contender surfaced almost overnight. For almost a month the Blazers were in command of the West, surprising for a team that won only 28 games two years ago and 34 last year. Yes, it helps to have a pair of All-Stars in Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, but Portland is staring OKC and the Spurs in the eye.
You also must give a shout-out to Frank Vogel, who had to make Indiana the best defensive team in basketball (check), develop Lance Stephenson while reigning him in (check), find a useful role for Danny Granger (check), unleash Paul George (check) and help Indiana seize control of the East from the jump (check). If you haven't noticed the job he's doing with the Pacers, check him out.
Best rookie performance: Michael Carter-Williams.
Carter-Williams is a four-tool player (17.3 points, 6.5 assists, 5.7 rebounds, 2.5 steals) and exactly what the Sixers need as they try to build an identity and a winner. Amazingly, five guards were drafted ahead of Carter-Williams, who'd go either first or second overall, regardless of position, if the draft were held again.
Worst rookie performance: Anthony Bennett.
When you're being compared, and unfavorably so, to Kwame Brown, then yeah, your rookie season isn't going so swell. Bennett was a surprise No. 1 overall pick last June and it appears, in the very short term anyway, that the Cavs outsmarted themselves with this decision. Bennett was hurt during the summer, came to camp out of shape, shot poorly from the start (he's at less than 30 percent right now) and so far is a bad fit at both forward positions. They took Bennett over Victor Oladipo because they already had Dion Waiters at guard, but there's friction between Waiters and Kyrie Irving. Bennett is the poster child for a draft that's been as bad as advertised.
Biggest positive surprise (player): Arron Affalo.
A year ago Afflalo was a throw-in for the Dwight Howard trade and considered an overpaid role player. Now he's averaging 21 points for the Magic and went from trade bait to a borderline All-Star and, at age 28, an important part of Orlando's rebuilding project.
Biggest disappointment (player): J.R. Smith.
Smith has been a train wreck since before the season, when he refused to get knee surgery until he signed a contract extension. Then came the brainless decisions, fines, disagreements and more fines. What's worse, though, is that he hasn't produced in big spots for the Knicks. In the past, his behavior was tolerated because Smith was one of the more effective sixth men in basketball. But when you're shooting 37 percent and averaging 12 points on a struggling team, you'd better carry yourself like a Boy Scout.
Biggest positive surprise, team: Phoenix Suns.
In a matter of months the Suns, who haven't had a winning season since 2009-10, have progressed from a slapstick organization to defying all odds in the deep and competitive West. Hiring Ryan McDonough to run the team and Jeff Hornacek to coach and trading for Eric Bledsoe is paying off better than anyone expected. A solid young nucleus built around shooting (Phoenix is 8th in scoring) should have the Suns squarely in playoff position come April.
Biggest disappointment, team: Brooklyn Nets.
They're finally showing a heartbeat right now, but clearly, much more was expected of the Nets, the priciest team in NBA history by far. Even if they completely dig out from a 10-21 start and make the playoffs, they'll do it in the watered-down East, and they still haven't dropped any hint of being a title contender, which at this point appears to be as much of a dream for Jason Kidd as winning coach of the year.
Best trade: Boston Celtics.
Faced with a daunting rebuilding project in Boston, Danny Ainge was masterful. He grabbed a No. 1 pick for coach Doc Rivers and three first-rounders for the aging core of Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry. In the next five drafts, the Celtics own eight first-rounders, including their own.
Worst trade: Minnesota Timberwolves.
The Timberwolves had the No. 9 pick but traded down for 14 and 21, where they chose Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng. Neither rookie is getting significant minutes -- Muhammad was sent to the D-League. Meanwhile, the Wolves lost the chance to get Trey Burke (who went to Utah at 9) and Michael Carter-Williams, two of the leading candidates for rookie of the year. You mean to tell me that, in an awful draft, the Wolves wanted two picks instead of one?
Best free agent: Paul Millsap.
Hawks GM Danny Ferry let Josh Smith go to the Pistons for $54 million over four years and instead signed Millsap for $19 million over two. And Millsap could be selected to the East All-Star squad over Smith. When the Hawks lost Al Horford for the year with shoulder surgery, Millsap assumed control of the Hawks and is averaging nearly 20 points and 10 rebounds. Al Jefferson to the Bobcats rates a close second.
Worst free agent: Andrew Bynum.
The Cavs wasted $6 million on Bynum, who came to Cleveland with an underwhelming body and an overwhelming ego. The red flags were first raised when Bynum said he was "half the player I used to be" and then he greased his exit by complaining about playing time. That no team has bothered to sign Bynum after he was traded to the Cavs and then released serves as a reality check for him.
Worst injuries, in order:
Unfortunately, this is a stacked category with a handful of candidates for the top few spots.
1. Derrick Rose suffering another knee injury (though less serious than the first) after taking a year off.
2. Kobe Bryant; at least the Achilles is OK.
3. Russell Weatbrook having three knee procedures in less than a year.
4. Brook Lopez's broken foot, benching him for the year.
5. Danilo Gallinari won't play this season after knee surgery.
6. His teammate, JaVale McGee, is still mending from a stress fracture to his right tibia.
7. Dwyane Wade must deal with chronically sore knees that caused him to miss a week, and likely more games between now and the playoffs.
8. Chris Paul is nearly back from a bum shoulder.
9. Al Horford suffered a major shoulder injury for the second time in 18 months.
10. Quincy Pondexter, an up-and-coming shooter, was lost in December to a broken foot.
11. Eric Bledsoe should return from knee surgery before the season's over.
12. Omer Asik has been missing from the Rockets since December with a bruised right thigh (and also a bruised ego from the arrival of Dwight Howard).
Single game performance of the half-season: Kevin Durant.
Durant's 54-point stabbing of the Warriors on Jan. 17 was even more impressive than Carmelo Anthony's 62-point game because it came in a tight contest against a contender. And Durant had to make big shots deep in the fourth quarter to pull out the win.
Best tank: Milwaukee Bucks.
The Bucks didn't even pretend to be competitive this season, and sure enough, they aren't. Yes, injuries are playing a part, and maybe strategically so, encouraging the Bucks to spend most of their time studying the college game this season.
Worst tank: Toronto Raptors.
The Raptors traded Rudy Gay last fall and dug in for a long season with veiled hopes of landing great odds for the No. 1 pick and possibly Toronto native Andrew Wiggins. Instead, no thanks to the weak East, the Raptors are getting career efforts from Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan and find themselves among the top four in the conference. They're in a tough spot: Do they trade Lowry (a free agent this summer) by the deadline and sink, or make a run for the playoffs and lose any hope of drafting a potential franchise player?