All 30 NBA teams -- from the contenders to the stinkers -- have made the turn after an unpredictable first half of the 2014-15 season. With new blood at the top of the standings, fresh faces in the MVP race and plenty of action in the race for the bottom, it's time for midseason grades to be dispensed.
SI.com's grades are determined by first-half performance relative to preseason expectations and also take into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major offseason moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, are also considered in the grading process.
(All statistics, rankings and records through Jan. 24.)
Atlanta Hawks: A+
Record (through 41 games): 33-8
Off. Rating: 6 | Def. Rating: 2 | Net Rating: 2
At a glance: The tagline for the feel-good movie based on Atlanta’s surprising first half practically writes itself: “After a summer in which everything fell apart, they banded together and played better than ever before.” That would be corny if it wasn’t entirely true, as the Hawks are tracking towards the best season in franchise history (57 wins is the mark to beat) after an ugly offseason full of infighting and racially-charged drama. Coach Mike Budenholzer deserves full credit for maintaining his team’s focus, charging forward with his vision for a pass-happy spread offense, and making the most of Al Horford’s return on both sides of the ball.
• MORE NBA: Examining Hawks' long-term future
The excellent health of the Hawks’ core (Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver) has been a key driver of their success, and the great fear when things are rolling this well (16 straight wins and counting entering Monday is that an injury could bring it tumbling down, or at least change the season’s course. Again, Budenholzer deserves credit for limiting the wear and tear on his major guys and getting major contributions from his reserves: No Hawks player is averaging even 34 minutes. At the midway point, Atlanta’s unselfish, balanced, cohesive and deep squad has earned the right to be mentioned in the group of title contenders.
Defining moment: After years (decades?) of producing mundane fare followed by a choppy start, the Hawks’ late-November surge mostly flew under the radar. By mid-December, though, there was no longer any ignoring the power of Budenholzer’s relentless offense. One signature performance came on Dec. 17, when the Hawks went into Cleveland and torched the Cavaliers 127-98, racking up 36 assists and 16 three-pointers with ease. The damage was so severe Cavaliers coach David Blatt felt compelled to issue a public apology for the “embarrassing” result.
Boston Celtics: B-
Record (through 41 games): 15-26
Off. Rating: 22 | Def. Rating: 18 | Net Rating: 18
At a glance: The on-court product has been a mixed bag. Coach Brad Stevens has done well to cultivate a certain level of tenacity, but he just doesn’t have a heck of a lot to work with yet. The hope with a youth movement is that someone (anyone!) will enjoy a true breakout and emerge as a foundational piece. Boston is still waiting. One obvious candidate in that regard, 2014 lottery pick Marcus Smart, had his rookie season sidetracked by a bad ankle injury, but should make a greater impact down the stretch.
President Danny Ainge did well to liquidate Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, and Brandan Wright, and the sell-off should continue with the likes of Brandon Bass and others before the deadline. In a season that was bound to be another transition year, Boston has done pretty well balancing its long-term priorities and its short-term product, and Ainge’s asset-hoarding should help buoy spirits as the impatience starts to rise.
Defining moment: Years of trade rumors finally culminated in mid-December when Ainge traded Rondo to the Mavericks. A few weeks later, the four-time All-Star point guard returned to the TD Garden, where he was welcomed with standing ovations and a tear-jerking tribute video.
Brooklyn Nets: D
Record (through 41 games): 17-24
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 17 | Net Rating: 24
At a glance: In 2010, Mikhail Prokhorov entered the NBA with an oil prospector’s enthusiasm and bluster. Five years later, his Nets are a broken-down ghost town and the bills are starting to pile up. Brooklyn is hardly unique among Eastern Conference teams in its blah sub-.500 record, but they are at the top of the list when it comes to disappointments. Many of those feelings are injury- or age-induced: Deron Williams, Brook Lopez and Kevin Garnett simply can’t sustain anything resembling their peak levels. The departures of Paul Pierce and Shaun Livingston have taken a toll, leaving Mason Plumlee as the only bright spot for the future.
The frustration will continue until GM Billy King is able to cut payroll and/or start rebuilding his depleted stash of future picks, but the biggest question is whether his “name” players are real assets or toxic assets. Lopez has been in rumors, and should be able to fetch something of quality, even considering his injury issues. Past that, it gets dicey fast.
Defining moment: The defining moment of Brooklyn’s season occurs every time Williams, signed to a max contract in 2012, limps to the locker room. At this point, three years into Williams’ decline, those sequences tend to run together. If there’s anything that will endure from this Nets campaign, it’s coach Lionel Hollins’ apparent disdain for his new lot in life. He’s gotten in a number of digs, but his depressing general assessment during an early-January losing streak really sums up the uninspiring state of the Nets’ union: “We have established an identity: We don't make shots. That's an identity."
Charlotte Hornets: C-
Record (through 41 games): 16-25
Off. Rating: 28 | Def. Rating: 10 | Net Rating: 21
At a glance: This wasn’t exactly how the much-anticipated first year of the reborn “Hornets” was supposed to unfold. Dreams of a playoff series victory have given way to a nightmarish list of injuries (Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Al Jefferson, Lance Stephenson and now Kemba Walker) and some lasting regret over Josh McRoberts’ offseason departure. Aside from a number of spectacular buzzer-beaters and game-winners, Charlotte’s clunky offense is one of the league’s ugliest attacks.
The uncomfortable nature of Stephenson’s first season in Charlotte goes past the pelvic injury that sidelined him for nearly a month. His fit, with Walker and with Charlotte’s other starting pieces, hasn’t been right and his shooting numbers have been absolutely atrocious. Rather than the dynamic play-maker we saw at times last year in Indiana, Stephenson has mostly been frustrated and lost, often ignored or benched late in games. When such a major offseason move goes so wrong, with no signs of major improvement to date, it can send an entire season spiraling.
Defining moment: Offseason signings became trade-eligible on Dec. 15, and the “Player X is now trade-eligible and he’s already on the block” story has become an annual tradition. Stephenson was a prime candidate for such treatment this season and, sure enough, the rumors picked up immediately. That’s what happens when you shoot 38.5 percent overall, 15.3 percent on threes, post a minus-7.6 net rating, and your default personality setting is “displeased and distant.”
Chicago Bulls: B+
Record (through 41 games): 27-14
Off. Rating: 8 | Def. Rating: 12 | Net Rating: 10
At a glance: The Bulls are where they want to be: at the top of the Central Division and firmly in the title conversation. Their unpredictable path to get there has resembled a glitchy Google Maps route, all twists and turns and blind alleys and closed off-ramps. The Jimmy Butler/Pau Gasol duo has done well to carry Chicago through the bumps that have come with Derrick Rose’s latest return and injuries to Joakim Noah, Taj Gibson and Mike Dunleavy. Butler (20.5 PPG, 6 RPG, 3.3 APG) has blossomed into the Most Improved Player favorite, while Gasol’s fine play (18.4 PPG, 11.6 RPG) has earned him an All-Star starting spot.
Given the turnstile lineups this year, there’s no ducking the doubts about Chicago’s ability to get everyone healthy at the same time. Bigger picture, though, the Bulls would much rather be scrambling to keep things together as they enter the stretch rather than enduring a third straight season rendered hopeless by Rose’s ongoing knee issues. That Rose is still (usually) in the lineup and contributing to wins in late-January counts as a major victory, and it’s one Windy City fans surely aren’t taking for granted.
Defining moment: Gasol’s return to form (and happiness) after two disheartening seasons with the Lakers has been one of the better stories in the league this season. The pinnacle of his season came against the Bucks earlier this month, when the 34-year-old Spaniard scored a career-high 46 points and pulled down 18 rebounds in a win.
Cleveland Cavaliers: D+
Record (through 41 games): 21-20
Off. Rating: 7 | Def. Rating: 26 | Net Rating: 15
At a glance: There were so many reasons to disapprove of Cleveland’s start to the season. LeBron James’ “You guys figure it out” act towards his teammates early on. Anderson Varejao’s crippling season-ending injury. Coach David Blatt’s shuffling lineups. Kevin Love’s muted impact. Ongoing issues with team defense and bench production. The chirping about Blatt’s job security. James’ first major injury absence of his entire career. Most analysts agreed during the preseason that patience was in order, but Cleveland’s holes were so obvious that they demanded criticism. Any team that James is on at this point in his career is a de facto contender, and this group was offering him precious little help. The immense promise generated with James’ triumphant return had shockingly given way to listlessness.
• MORE NBA: Cavaliers shoot up in latest NBA Power Rankings
GM David Griffin saved Cleveland’s season by shipping out Dion Waiters and multiple picks in a pair of deals to acquire center Timofey Mozgov and guards J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert. Those moves don’t immediately vault the Cavaliers back to the top of the East’s pecking order, but they did give this group a new lease on life. Before the trades, Cleveland was toast. After the trades, and with a rejuvenated James, Cleveland has the opportunity to improve the consistency of its high-powered offense and eliminate its most glaring defensive shortcomings. As bad as the first few months were, the Cavaliers’ 2014-15 campaign is really just beginning.
Defining moment: Hope, hype and reality smashed on during Cleveland’s season opener. An offseason of swinging fortunes, national advertising campaigns, social media polls about whether James should do his signature chalk toss, and an extended video during playoff introductions finally gave way to basketball – and the Cavaliers fell on their faces against the hapless Knicks. The dud showing was an immediate reminder that building a contender can’t be done overnight.
Dallas Mavericks: B+
Record (through 41 games): 28-13
Off. Rating: 2 | Def. Rating: 13 | Net Rating: 3
At a glance: “Blame” the heightened preseason expectations on Dirk Nowitzki, whose offseason contractual sacrifices helped owner Mark Cuban add small forward Chandler Parsons and center Tyson Chandler. The Mavericks have repaid Nowitzki’s generosity by riding one of the league’s most potent offenses right into the thick of the West’s playoff picture.
It didn’t take long for the roster’s defensive shortcomings to rear their ugly heads, and rather than hope that a one-way team could make noise in the postseason, Cuban rolled the dice by trading for Rondo, thereby completing one of the best starting units in the league. Rondo’s limitations as a shooter made this a less-than-perfect fit, but he’s so far produced one of the Mavericks’ top net ratings (+9.7) and Dallas really hasn’t skipped a beat despite the midseason shakeup. Cuban might not quite have assembled a top contender, but he’s certainly accomplished his top priority: helping Nowitzki, 36, play meaningful, entertaining basketball during the twilight of his career.
Defining moment: Cuban’s reputation as a one-of-a-kind deal-maker added another chapter during the Rondo negotiations. Keith Olbermann informed the world that Cuban hashed out the final details of his deal with Boston while in the green room for the taping of the Colbert Report’s farewell episode. Only Cuban.
Denver Nuggets: C
Record (through 41 games): 18-23
Off. Rating: 17 | Def. Rating: 22 | Net Rating: 22
At a glance: Denver remains stuck in a Groundhog Day existence, as most feared back in the fall. Coach Brian Shaw still hasn’t found lineup combinations that are producing the results he wants. The organization is still stuck working around missing (JaVale McGee) and rehabilitating (Danilo Gallinari) pieces that are major salary cap line items. The roster still lacks a true star, with Ty Lawson and Kenneth Faried failing to emerge as transformative forces.
GM Tim Connelly’s trade of Mozgov for two first-round draft picks did generate a sliver of hope, as it opened the door for promising rookie Jusuf Nurkic and suggested that a teardown -- that has been overdue for some time -- might finally be underway. Both Wilson Chandler and Arron Afflalo look like obvious trade chips heading into the deadline, and Denver’s management needs to start taking steps to assure that the franchise doesn’t remain “stuck in the middle” again in 2015-16, and 2016-17 and 2017-18, and so on. It’s going to take a little dynamite to make the second half of the season look better than the first.
Defining moment: Shaw’s frustration with getting consistent performance from his roster dates back to last year, and the hot seat talk picked up quickly after a 1-6 start in which the Nuggets gave up 110+ points in five straight games. "It's a tough situation that we're in," Shaw told the Denver Post after the sixth straight loss. "If we don't have that kind of effort from everybody, then we're not going to ever get out of this situation, and I won't survive it. And it's that simple." The frank talk resulted in Denver winning six of its next seven games, saving Shaw’s job, but the wild swings in performance have continued into the New Year.
Detroit Pistons: C+
Record (through 41 games): 16-25
Off. Rating: 21 | Def. Rating: 15 | Net Rating: 17
At a glance: If these were quarterly grades, Detroit would have brought home an “F” followed by an “A+.” This turnaround story is about as clean as they come: a hopeless, boo-worthy existence with Josh Smith has given way to the dawn of a new, much brighter day without him. This weekend’s loss of Brandon Jennings unquestionably dampens the mood, but the Pistons still deserve props for saving their season from a 3-19 abyss.
Coach Stan Van Gundy has gradually fashioned the Pistons into something closer to his Magic-era winning formula. As the season has unfolded, Detroit’s defensive awareness and effort have improved, Jennings and Andre Drummond have had more room to work without Smith, and the three-pointers are starting to roll in from a variety of sources. Whether Jennings’ season-ending injury proves to be a season-killer for the Pistons remains to be seen; either way, the last month has produced the best Pistons basketball over the last six years.
Defining moment: Detroit has been stuck in a cycle of despair for so long that the natural tendency is to wallow in the misery. Van Gundy’s decision to jettison Smith set the table for a total climate change; within a few weeks, the Pistons were celebrating a seven-game winning. As the jubilation unfolded, it was hard not to wonder, “How long has it been since this franchise won seven games in a row?” Not since Allen Iverson, age 33, was lacing them up during his brief stint in the Motor City in 2008-09.
Golden State Warriors: A++
Record (through 41 games): 35-6
Off. Rating: 3 | Def. Rating: 1 | Net Rating: 1
At a glance: No analysis needed, really. The Warriors ran away from the competition during the first half of the season, producing the MVP favorite (Stephen Curry), a first-time All-Star candidate (Klay Thompson), a Coach of the Year contender (Steve Kerr), a Most Improved Player and Defensive Player of the Year candidate (Draymond Green) and a Sixth Man of the Year candidate (Marreese Speights). Along the way, they torched the competition night after night on their homecourt, their starters posted some of the most impressive five-man lineup numbers anyone has ever seen, and their general dominance has drawn comparisons to the 1995-96 Bulls. That says it all.
Defining moment: Thompson’s 37-point quarter against the Kings in Game 41 just barely squeaked into the first half of the season. Not only was it one of the all-time great individual scoring exhibitions, but it was a beautiful illustration of the Warriors’ camaraderie. As Thompson poured in three after three, his teammates gasped, cheered, danced, and fed him the ball. Andre Iguodala even appeared to use his phone to document the whole thing from the bench. Once the night was over, and all the funny post-game interviews were complete, the force of Golden State’s power started to sink in: “Thompson isn’t even their best player!”
Houston Rockets: A-
Record (through 41 games): 28-13
Off. Rating: 14 | Def. Rating: 5 | Net Rating: 9
At a glance: Houston’s first half was all about dispelling widely-held assumptions like, “They’re dead in the water if one of their superstars gets injured” and “They can’t win with defense” and “Kevin McHale is a lame duck with a good chance to be the first coach fired” and “No analytics-minded executive would touch Josh Smith in a million years.” The Rockets really cut against the grain, surviving an extended absence from Dwight Howard thanks to MVP-level production from James Harden and some surprisingly stingy team defense. On Christmas Eve, GM Daryl Morey signed Kevin McHale to a contract extension in what amounted to a big vote of confidence following a first-round exit last spring.
Harden has Houston right where it wants to be and where people expected them to be: battling in the West’s second-tier for a shot at home-court advantage. His stabilizing presence (a league-leading 27.3 PPG, 6.8 APG, 5.5 RPG, 2 SPG) are further validation of Morey’s years-long pursuit of a superstar. Houston fans will be counting on Harden to back up those career-year numbers with his best postseason yet.
Defining moment: Many observers couldn’t help but note that McHale’s extension came almost simultaneously with the signing of the polarizing Smith. The twin moves saved both player and coach from potentially destructive “coach-killing” speculation if things hadn’t worked out, and they bought the organization some time to ease Smith into his new digs. For Morey, the addition of Smith has the potential to pay dividends in the postseason, when his versatility and defensive abilities could prove useful against the West’s deep power forward contingent. But, if Smith winds up shooting the Rockets out of a series or losing his cool at an inopportune moment, Morey has set himself up for one of the loudest “You, of all people, should have known better!” choruses of all-time.
Indiana Pacers: C
Record (through 41 games): 15-26
Off. Rating: 29 | Def. Rating: 9 | Net Rating: 23
At a glance: If you predicted that the Pacers, sans Paul George and Lance Stephenson, would find a way to be mildly competitive, better-than-average defensively, and totally unbearable to watch, then congratulations – you were correct on all counts. Coach Frank Vogel has had a really tough go – not only did he lose his top two play-makers from last season, but George Hill, David West, C.J. Miles and others have also missed real time this season.
Getting the remaining MASH unit to post a top 10 defense through 41 games is validation for Vogel’s approach, but the wait for George’s return has left Indiana in the worst place you can be: stuck in the East’s crowded gap between “No. 8 seed” and “terrible enough to get lots and lots of ping pong balls.” With such a futile short-term situation, the Pacers should explore their selling options before the deadline to gear up for what should be a much more entertaining 2015-16 season.
Defining moment: One Pacers fan might have set a new high-water mark in the desperate search for hope amid trying circumstances. Back in November, a fan tweeted the Fox Sports Indiana broadcast with the following question: “Do you think that Donald Sloan could be a franchise player for a team and how underrated do you think he is?”
Sloan, 27, went undrafted out of Texas A&M and has bounced around the NBA since 2011, mostly on 10-day contracts. This season, in his first meaningful chance to start, he’s stepped in and averaged career highs of 9.8 points and 4.5 assists, although he’s shooting just 41.3 percent from the field and 32.2 percent from deep. His PER of 14.4 is almost half of Anthony Davis’s (31.2) and sits below the league-average mark of 15. Maybe one day.
Los Angeles Clippers: B
Record (through 41 games): 27-14
Off. Rating: 1 | Def. Rating: 16 | Net Rating: 4
At a glance: How good is the Clippers’ preferred starting five? So good that it can still power the league’s best offense, seemingly no matter how many ill-conceived signings and trade Doc Rivers can concoct. The Chris Paul/J.J. Redick/Matt Barnes/Blake Griffin/DeAndre Jordan quintet has posted a net rating of +18.2 in nearly 800 minutes together, even though Paul seemed to work his way into the season a bit and even though Griffin has shifted more of his offense away from the basket area.
This Clippers core has won enough regular-season games since Paul’s arrival that a little leeway for their slow start is understandable. They are getting scant help from their second-unit colleagues, though, and Rivers’ depth-depleting trade for his son, Austin, figures to loom large in the postseason, when the Clippers will theoretically be hard-pressed to matchup with deeper and more versatile opponents. Although more excitement and more fireworks were expected of L.A. in its first post-Sterling season, their strong point differential suggests their current record undersells their capabilities.
Defining moment: Rarely has someone invited scrutiny quite like Doc Rivers, who dumped Jordan Farmar and traded Reggie Bullock, Chris Douglas-Roberts and a pick to acquire his son. Taking a flier on Austin was a defensible decision, under the premise that a father would know how to best utilize his kin, but it looks a lot more dubious when it comes at the expense of three bench players at thin positions and when Austin’s skillset is pretty redundant with incumbent Jamal Crawford. Austin hasn’t exactly been lighting the world on fire during his short time in L.A. (3 PPG, 2.8 APG, 29.4 FG%), but the Clippers have painted themselves into a corner here. Austin will need to produce once the postseason rolls around, or father and son will face the second-guessing side-by-side.
Los Angeles Lakers: F
Record (through 41 games): 12-29
Off. Rating: 18 | Def. Rating: 28 | Net Rating: 27
At a glance: With no chance at winning this year, the Lakers entered the season with two major goals. One: to relentlessly sell the Kobe Bryant legend, milking every last benefit from the aging Hall of Famer. Two: to cultivate Julius Randle as a possible franchise player, setting up the 2014 lottery pick for what should be a long and prosperous career. Unfortunately, injuries intervened on both counts: Bryant is likely done for the year with a shoulder injury and Randle was lost to a horrific season-ending injury on opening night. The Lakers are therefore totally stuck with the ugly present, now that past glories and future hopes have been stripped away.
The present is really rough, in part because coach Byron Scott has taken curious philosophical stances and opened the season with a number of questionable lineup decisions. If there’s any good news, it’s that the Lakers are now well-positioned to play some of their younger guys (Jordan Clarkson, Ed Davis) down the stretch. They are also on track to keep their 2015 first-round pick (it’s top-five protected in a trade with Phoenix), as they currently possess the league’s fourth-worst record. After striking out in free agency in back-to-back summers, L.A. badly needs that influx of high-end talent, even if it means investing years into the developmental process.
Defining moment: As awful as L.A.’s season has been, Bryant’s move past Michael Jordan on the all-time scoring list was a significant and memorable milestone. The last two-plus years have been filled with injury heartbreak and interminable rehabilitations for Bryant, making that Jordan-passing feat a testament both to Bryant’s longevity and his will power.
Memphis Grizzlies: A
Record (through 41 games): 29-12
Off. Rating: 10 | Def. Rating: 11 | Net Rating: 12
At a glance: Climbing to the top of the murderous Southwest Division is worthy of an “A” by itself. The Grizzlies find themselves in that position largely because they’ve enjoyed the smoothest ride. Unlike last year, when they were forced to race up the standings after an early Marc Gasol injury, the Grizzlies are riding high thanks to very good health for virtually their entire rotation.
Both Gasol and Mike Conley have turned in All-Star worthy seasons, and Courtney Lee has filled the complementary scorer role with great success. The end product has been the most balanced Grizzlies team in years, one capable of beating you at either end rather than solely focusing on grinding you down with its defense. Conley, in particular, has been scorching hot in late-game situations, and that will need to continue if Memphis is to emerge from a West field that is deep in high-powered offenses and clutch, high-volume individual scorers.
Defining moment: For a team that has been criticized in recent years for trading Rudy Gay and failing to retain former coach Lionel Hollins, the move to acquire Jeff Green from the Celtics stands as a timely, logical, win-now roll of the dice. In past seasons, Memphis has had trouble going away from its preferred frontcourt pairing of Gasol and Zach Randolph; Green can help solve that dilemma while also adding another big, athletic body to use against elite small forwards. The move brought back good return for Tayshaun Prince’s expiring contract and it should send a clear signal to Gasol -- an unrestricted free agent this summer -- that the franchise is serious about winning now.
Miami Heat: C
Record (through 41 games): 18-23
Off. Rating: 19 | Def. Rating: 21 | Net Rating:19
At a glance: Life comes at you fast. The Heat knew life without LeBron James would be less glamorous and less fruitful in the standings, but their heads must be spinning after falling from four seasons on center stage to a new life on the East’s playoff fringes. Miami’s last six months have been a startling reminder of James’ value over a replacement player. Luol Deng, the two-time All-Star who signed up to fill James’ shoes, has played fine, but “fine” in this case is so far short of LeBron's level that strong seasons from Chris Bosh and Dwyane Wade haven’t kept the Heat from falling off pace.
Miami still has a chance to play spoilers in the postseason, although their shot at making real noise will require a favorable matchup and herculean performances from their two remaining stars. On the bright side, the pickup of the well-traveled and long-armed Hassan Whiteside will, at the very least, add some intrigue and excitement for the stretch run. While the Heat’s longer-term plan has yet manifested, the Bosh/Wade combination deserved a season or two to flex its muscles and test its ceiling. At some point, perhaps as soon as this summer, Heat president Pat Riley will need to get to work on what comes next.
Defining moment: The Heat – from Riley and Wade on down -- is an immensely prideful organization, and it surely relished the opportunity to face James and his Cavaliers on Christmas Day. Miami’s 101-91 victory, in which Wade finished with 31 points, five rebounds and five assists, will almost certainly go down as the sweetest of the season.
Milwaukee Bucks: B+
Record (through 41 games): 21-20
Off. Rating: 23 | Def. Rating: 3 | Net Rating: 13
At a glance: The only thing keeping the Bucks from an “A” or even an “A+” was the loss of Jabari Parker to a season-ending knee injury. Yes, Milwaukee has kept rolling after losing the No. 2 overall pick in this year's class, but he is such a critical piece to their long-term future that losing a year of his development time qualifies as a real damper.
Everything else, minus Larry Sanders’ latest off-court setback and Kendall Marshall’s season-ending injury, has been as rosy as can be. The gamble to poach coach Jason Kidd has paid off swimmingly, with the former Nets boss fashioning an excellent defense around a deep interior cast and a long, active group of wings. Brandon Knight has played well enough to deserve a solid second contract while Giannis Antetokounmpo has scaled his production in year two, even if his overall offensive game needs to expand. Consider these Bucks, who were expected to rank among the East’s worst, to be among the league’s biggest overachievers now that they’ve fought their way into the postseason picture despite their evident hurdles.
Defining moment: The loss of Parker (12.3 PPG, 5.5 RPG) during a Dec. 15 game against the Suns was an absolute body blow. Here was a top Rookie of the Year candidate and a fan favorite who helped a new ownership group transition during the offseason going down for the count. Milwaukee responded with a defining performance, hanging tough on the road against a tough Suns team. Down one in the final seconds, Khris Middleton managed to bank in an improbable buzzer-beating three-pointer, sparking a mosh pit celebration on that court that even Kidd couldn’t resist joining. Not a bad way for a young team to respond to adversity.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D
Record (through 41 games): 7-34
Off. Rating: 27 | Def. Rating: 30 | Net Rating: 29
At a glance: Nothing of significance was expected from the Timberwolves in the first post-Kevin Love season, and yet somehow there’s still a demoralizing air to this group. Perhaps it’s all the injuries, especially the soul-crushing ankle sprain suffered by Ricky Rubio. Perhaps it’s the limited effectiveness of Thaddeus Young, who came at the cost of a first-round pick. Perhaps it’s how silly coach Flip Saunders’ aversion to three-pointers seems in the modern NBA. Perhaps it’s the atrocious defense, night after night.
Whatever the case may be, at least No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins is rounding into form. The 19-year-old wing isn’t putting up monster numbers (15.1 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 1.8 APG), but his production has picked up steam in January. The only way this season could have truly been a disaster would have been for Wiggins to get stuck playing less than his share of minutes on a wing that was crowded with veterans; that hasn’t happened, and he’s repaying that full opportunity with what should be a Rookie of the Year campaign. Big decisions await Saunders at the deadline (he should be selling off parts) and next summer (he should be finding a replacement for himself as coach). A little action there will go a long way to creating a more promising future.
Defining moment: Aside from Wiggins’ acclimation to the pros, it’s quite possible that the only thing anyone remembers from this Timberwolves season is Mo Williams’ out-of-this-world explosion for 52 points against the Pacers. The shot-happy veteran point guard can pretty much hoist as often as he likes given Minnesota’s injury situation, and he made full use of that freedom during his career night. The last time Williams scored more than 35 points? February 11, 2009.
New Orleans Pelicans: C
Record (through 41 games): 20-21
Off. Rating: 9 | Def. Rating: 23 | Net Rating: 16
At a glance: The fundamental, and perhaps unavoidable, problem for the Pelicans is that Anthony Davis’s ascent continues to outpace his team’s improvement. In most situations, tracking towards an improved winning percentage for the fourth straight season would be viewed as a major accomplishment, but in New Orleans it just doesn’t quite feel like enough. Not when Davis is threatening to become the youngest player to ever register a PER greater than 30. Not when the Pelicans are stuck in the basement of the ruthless Southwest Division. Not when the abundance of shoot-first wings often exert too much influence late in games when Davis should be the alpha and omega.
Outside observers must now wait and see whether Pelicans management and ownership is feeling the same impatience. GM Dell Demps’ options would seem to be fairly limited this summer, assuming he re-signs center Omer Asik, unless he can somehow offload Eric Gordon and/or Tyreke Evans. New Orleans’ depth is already lacking, though, meaning an Evans trade would need to return real talent. That makes for a tough situation for coach Monty Williams, who could certainly deal with more hot seat talk if the Pelicans fall out of the playoff fringe down the stretch.
Defining moment: It’s impossible to know when a young superstar will reach the tipping point of widespread recognition. For Davis, the 2012 No. 1 overall pick, it is happening as we speak. The 21-year-old phenom pulled down more than 1.3 million All-Star votes this year (up from 286,000 last year), earning himself a starting spot for the West (he was only named as an injury replacement in 2014). Credit his strong play with USA Basketball at the FIBA World Cup, his galactic stats (24.2 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 2.9 BPG), his above-the-rim plays, and his growing legion of superstar admirers (Kevin Durant was early on the “AD for MVP” talk) for helping voters catch on.
New York Knicks: F+
Record (through 41 games): 5-36
Off. Rating: 25 | Def. Rating: 29 | Net Rating: 28
At a glance: Less than four months after president Phil Jackson said that he believed the Knicks would be a playoff team, New York reached the halfway point of the season with at least two fewer victories than every other team in the league, including teams that were purposefully trying to lose games in volume. It’s difficult for expectations to be further out of whack than that, even if Carmelo Anthony’s knee injury is factored into the equation.
The only thing saving the Knicks from a flat “F” is that Jackson -- after watching his troops struggle to learn the Triangle Offense under rookie coach Derek Fisher and fail to play defense of any kind -- decided not to stick his head in the sand. Instead, he admitted his grave miscalculation by dumping as much salary as possible, including future money owed to J.R. Smith. This common rebuilding tactic is often anathema to large-market franchises, but Jackson did the right thing by swallowing his pride, slicing his payroll, and playing for tomorrow. Bad news: his squad is still terrible. Good news: now everyone knows that Jackson knows that. Hey, you have to start somewhere.
Defining moment: There’s no doubt about it: the symbol of New York’s season will be the five friends who paid four figures apiece for courtside seats at Madison Square Garden, only to wear brown paper bags over their heads. Their simple, familiar statement made national headlines and the Knicks had no choice but to take their lumps.
Oklahoma City Thunder: C-
Record (through 41 games): 21-20
Off. Rating: 20 | Def. Rating: 8 | Net Rating: 14
At a glance: The Thunder have been on the NBA's honors list each of the last five seasons, but dual injuries to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook brought a level of uncertainty the franchise hasn’t seen since its first year in Oklahoma City. Optimists will note that disaster didn’t strike, that the Thunder remain within shouting distance of the playoffs and that they could even make a run at the Northwest Division title. Realists will point out that the combined power of Durant and Westbrook has been sufficient to lord over the Northwest with relative ease, and that there are still plenty of kinks to iron out – and hurdles to climb -- before the postseason.
Regardless of whether the glass is half empty or hall full, both Durant and Westbrook are back – they’re so back that they rank No. 2 and No. 3, respectively, in PER league-wide. That cream should start rising once Oklahoma City’s schedule (one of the toughest in the league to date) begins to lighten up. If any team in the league deserves an incomplete at the midway point, it’s the Thunder, and there’s not yet cause for panic. But when your standard is consistent excellence, average feels significantly worse in the moment, even if there are extenuating circumstances.
Defining moment: Thunder GM Sam Presti, a notoriously patient hoarder of assets, cashed in a first-round draft pick to acquire Dion Waiters, an odd fit, in a surprising trade with the Cavaliers. The move suggested that the Thunder aren’t content to simply let their stars carry the load, although it seemed to run counter to the franchise’s deliberate approach of the past. Perhaps Durant’s 2016 impending free agency played some part in motivating the move? Perhaps Presti, like the rest of his colleagues, is finally feeling the pressure of a ticking clock.
Orlando Magic: B
Record (through 41 games): 14-27
Off. Rating: 26 | Def. Rating: 24 | Net Rating: 26
At a glance: The Magic find themselves in a strange spot: they’re definitely better than most people expected, but they aren’t nearly good enough to have any buzz to show for it. In simpler terms, they’ve graduated from “awful” to “bad,” with one more step needed before they’re taking seriously on the national level.
Despite that prognosis, management should be fairly happy with the progress. Nikola Vucevic has ramped up his scoring to the point that he’s a fringe All-Star candidate, 2015 free agent Tobias Harris looks like a keeper, and the young backcourt duo of Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo are getting every opportunity to learn on the job. Aaron Gordon, a 2014 lottery pick who was injured early on, has returned to the court looking to salvage the second half of his rookie season. Importantly, some of the offseason’s weirder moves – adding veterans Ben Gordon and Willie Green – haven’t really impeded the youth movement. Exactly where is this franchise going and how long will it take? Those answers aren’t yet clear, but the beginning of 2014-15 should go down as a modest step in the right direction.
Defining moment: Orlando fans got a taste of the future when the Magic surprised the Rockets earlier this month. The game-deciding play saw Payton, a 2014 lottery draft pick, make an instinctive steal to set up Oladipo, a 2013 lottery pick, for a breakaway 360 dunk to seal the win. The Magic’s development timeline is tied directly to how effectively the two attack-first, defensive-minded, ultra-athletic can work together.
Philadelphia 76ers: C
Record (through 41 games): 8-33
Off. Rating: 30 | Def. Rating: 14 | Net Rating: 30
At a glance: Well, the Sixers are pretty much the quasi-professional outfit that everyone thought they would be, although their record is inflated a little bit thanks to some favorable schedule circumstances. Philadelphia’s wins include victories over Miami (without Chris Bosh), Cleveland (without LeBron James and Kyrie Irving), New Orleans (without Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday), and Detroit (with Josh Smith). Put simply, these Sixers are better than their 0-17 start but not quite as good as their eight wins to date suggest.
Still, GM Sam Hinkie’s master plan is running smoothly. Philadelphia remains on track for another top-three pick, young prospects are playing all the minutes they can handle, Nerlens Noel has looked like the impact player he was drafted to be, K.J. McDaniels and Robert Covington look like puzzle pieces, and there’s still the promise of Joel Embiid’s debut waiting, forever on the horizon. The best thing to be said about the Sixers is that their upcoming five-year window looks far preferable to their bottom-of-the-barrel counterparts (the Knicks, Lakers and Timberwolves).
Defining moment: When the stink of a tank gets on a franchise, cynicism ratchets up quickly. That brings us to the final minute of Philadelphia's close loss to Houston back in November. The Sixers, of course, were in the midst of an epic losing streak and the Rockets had no business losing at home to them. Things were looking great for the Sixers until a series of late-game gaffes was punctuated by coach Brett Brown’s decision to kick the basketball towards the baseline, drawing a costly technical foul with less than a minute to go in the game. Everyone say it together: Here was Brown, literally kicking away a game.
Phoenix Suns: B-
Record (through 41 games): 23-18
Off. Rating: 5 | Def. Rating: 19 | Net Rating: 11
At a glance: The initial temptation with Phoenix might be to view this season as a bit of a flatline after their surprising spike up in 2013-14. There’s an element of truth to that – the Suns aren’t yet ready for prime time in the West as constructed – but it’s not the whole truth. There have been individual growth stories for Phoenix, including at least two important ones: Markieff Morris, who has increased his scoring for the fourth straight season, and Alex Len, who has emerged as a positive contributor after an injury-plagued rookie year. Those are important big-picture developments, as they look to be long-term pieces for a fairly empty frontcourt.
The tough decisions come in the overloaded backcourt, where Goran Dragic, Eric Bledsoe and Isaiah Thomas have all found a measure of success. But is the three-headed monster the best long-term strategy? Almost certainly not, and Dragic’s status as a free agent this summer doesn’t give GM Ryan McDonough much time to play out of his options. At least McDonough won’t face major pressure at the trade deadline: Phoenix has already beaten most preseason expectations, simply by avoiding a meaningful step back.
Defining moment: Coach Jeff Hornacek has his fingerprints all over the Suns, starting with their relentless style that took the NBA by storm last season. A few weeks ago, the world saw another layer of Hornacek’s style, when Marcus Morris lost his cool after a disputed call and screamed in his coach’s face. Hornacek didn’t back down, he didn’t lose his cool, he kept things in house, and he commanded enough respect that Morris immediately and publicly apologized afterwards. What could have been a flashpoint fizzled within hours. Hornacek’s own competitive fire, and his lifetime of NBA experience, surely comes in handy managing a team that is both edgy and competing against each other for minutes and touches.
Portland Trail Blazers: A
Record (through 41 games): 30-11
Off. Rating: 11 | Def. Rating: 4 | Net Rating: 4
At a glance: The Blazers are a good reminder that a strong start – even a very strong one -- is no guarantee of much of anything in the West these days. Portland will look back on its first 41 games with pride, as it compiled the West’s second-best record despite the loss of Robin Lopez and ongoing injury issues with Nicolas Batum. The “how” was nearly as important as the results: The Blazers showed significant improvement defensively, albeit against a light schedule, thereby raising hopes for a deep postseason push. Along the way, Portland throttled just about everyone that came through the Moda Center and pulled off a number of come-from-behind Houdini acts in the fourth quarter
Portland’s foundation remained the star duo of Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge, although Wesley Matthews league-leading three-point shooting was crucial in helping pick up the slack for all of the injured pieces. That foundation will be tested down the stretch due to a thumb ligament tear for Aldridge. The three-time All-Star power forward opted to delay surgery, knowing that an extended absence would send the Blazers’ winning percentage plummeting and kill the team’s playoff seeding. If Aldridge can make due, Portland is on track for its first outright division title since joining the Northwest Division. Still, the jackrabbit start could go for naught if Aldridge isn’t able to play at peak levels once the postseason opens; remember, it took multiple big-time performances from Aldridge to put away the Rockets in round one last year.
Defining moment: Lillard (22 PPG, 6.2 APG, 4.7 RPG) has continued to make major progress in his third year, tightening up his defensive fundamentals and attacking with greater regularity when the game is on the line. Before Aldridge opted to play through his thumb injury, the most memorable moment of Portland’s season came when Lillard dropped a career-high 43 points in a thrilling triple-overtime win over the Spurs. Lillard was so good, and the game was so tight, that his personal highlight reel from that night runs nearly 10 minutes in length.
Sacramento Kings: F
Record (through 41 games): 16-25
Off. Rating: 15 | Def. Rating: 25 | Net Rating: 20
At a glance: “Pointless self-sabotage” isn’t what any NBA team strives for, but that’s exactly where the Kings find themselves after a disastrous turn of events. Everything was going along smoothly – the franchise put together its best month in years in November – before new owner Vivek Ranadive cashed in some of his goodwill for saving the team from relocation for a vanity project. That project? An abrupt coaching change that has produced a 5-14 record since Michael Malone’s departure. Just as the Kings were creeping towards relevancy, thanks largely to the All-Star caliber play of franchise center DeMarcus Cousins (24.2 PPG, 12.6 RPG, 3.2 APG, 1.6 BPG), Ranadive swooped in to return his franchise to laughingstock status.
The implosion has made it difficult to gauge the progress of the Kings' core players and to understand Sacramento's roster priorities. Second-year shooting guard Ben McLemore has made progress with his shot this season. Where does that leave 2014 lottery pick Nik Stauskas? The Kings entered the season with a variety of options at power forward (Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams, Carl Landry), but no real answers. Have they made any progress at all on that front? Rudy Gay was re-signed to a fair extension, but is the Cousins/Gay partnership really what Ranadive envisions as being his path to postseason play? Who knows.
Defining moment: The fallout from the Malone axing was arguably worse than the deed itself, as it revealed that Ranadive’s jazz-themed vision for the Kings is a questionable fit for the team’s current personnel and a total mismatch with “might as well promote him, I guess” interim coach, Tyrone Corbin. By laying out his grand, futuristic ideals, Ranadive unintentionally allowed everyone to conclude that the rest of this particular season was a total wash. Why would it matter if the current product was so far removed from what Ranadive believes his team should be about? Leadership is supposed to inspire; here, it overstepped and befuddled.
San Antonio Spurs: C+
Record (through 41 games): 25-16
Off. Rating: 12 | Def. Rating: 6 | Net Rating: 7
At a glance: The 2014-15 Spurs have looked quite a bit difference than the chainsaw that carved up the competition during the 2014 playoffs. The varied, and inconsistent quality of play can be traced to a litany of injuries to key pieces (Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, etc.). Leonard's absences, due to eye and hand injuries, didn't get nearly the national attention that they deserved. The reigning Finals MVP left a gaping hole that an aging, carefully-paced team couldn't fill.
Coach Gregg Popovich responded to the constant flux by pulling out every trick he could think of, including five-man lineup substitutions. A series of overtime games caught up with the Spurs in December, when San Antonio posted a losing month (8-10) for the first time since February 1999. This counted as chaos for the ever-steady Spurs, but already those speed bumps seem like a thing of the past. The Spurs are 5-1 since Leonard returned and their rankings on both sides of the ball, not to mention Duncan's continued brilliance (14.8 PPG, 10 RPG, 2 BPG), suggest that they are still firmly in the contender conversation, even if they need to make up some ground in the standings.
Defining moment: The hand-wringing in Texas reached a crescendo when the Spurs lost consecutive triple-overtime games against the Grizzlies and Blazers. Here, it seemed, was evidence that San Antonio's worst fears were confirmed -- that its dream run in 2014 couldn't be replicated and that the West's hungry upstarts were out for blood. In hindsight, that crazy 72-hour stretch, which saw the 38-year-old Duncan play 90+ minutes with zero wins to show for it, looks more like an anomaly than anything else. San Antonio became the first team since 1951 to play two straight triple-overtime games; in the five weeks since, the Spurs have played a total of one overtime period, in a win over the Pelicans.
Toronto Raptors: B+
Record (through 41 games): 27-14
Off. Rating: 4 | Def. Rating: 20 | Net Rating: 6
At a glance: For a team that has arrived at the midway point pretty much where September’s conventional wisdom suggested they would – at the top of the Atlantic Division, solidly in the mix for home-court, led by first-time All-Star Kyle Lowry – this Raptors season sure has been a rollercoaster of emotions. A ridiculously hot start, like Toronto’s 13-2 opening run, is enough to excite any fan base, let alone the rabid Raptors fans who entered the season clamoring for blood after a first-round exit.
After that peak, regression slowly started to set in, due in part to the loss of 2014 All-Star DeMar DeRozan to a groin injury. A tough Western Conference road trip cooled the Raptors further, Lowry seemed to be dealing with fatigue from carrying the league’s No. 1 offense (at the midway point) on his shoulders night after night, and DeRozan’s return to the lineup has so far been pretty dismal. Older and wiser, these Raptors appear ready to win the franchise’s first playoff series since 2000-01, but anything past that is up in the air. November’s promise has given way to real concerns about whether Toronto can: 1) defend well enough to make a deep run, and 2) find enough help for Lowry (from DeRozan, Terrence Ross, and Jonas Valanciunas) to keep up with Cleveland and Atlanta, whose offenses have picked up some serious steam.
Defining moment: Lowry was one of the biggest All-Star snubs last year, and the Raptors seemed determined to avoid the same fate this time around. Their solution? Blitzing their fans and television viewers with “get out the vote” messaging that went above and beyond anything we’ve seen before. TV play-by-play broadcaster Matt Devlin even went so far as to make constant references to “Hashtag NBA Ballot” – the hashtag needed to trigger a vote on Twitter – whenever he referred to Lowry during his calls of game action. As distracting and shameless as the entire charade was, it worked perfectly! In the final days of voting, Lowry barely passed Dwyane Wade for a starting spot on the East’s roster. Sure, this sets a horrible precedent for other teams in years to come, but at least Lowry was deserving of the nod.
Utah Jazz: C+
Record (through 41 games): 14-27
Off. Rating: 16 | Def. Rating: 27 | Net Rating: 25
At a glance: The Jazz were a sexy pick as a sleeper team that might make some noise this year. Although that hasn’t quite unfolded, coach Quin Snyder has restored real intrigue to an organization that was dragging over the last few years. Snyder has so many prospects to work with that it’s easiest to group them into generations.
The first group of youngsters – Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Alec Burks and Enes Kanter – has grown up enough that firm decisions can be made. Hayward (19.1 PPG, 4.7 RPG, 4.1 APG) and Favors (15.8 PPG, 8.6 RPG) are clear building blocks, the type of players you want to keep in town for their whole careers. Burks was lost to a season-ending shoulder injury, but his lucrative four-year extension was a “Sure, why not” play. Kanter, a 6-foot-11 center whose future is probably as a third big man, is the clear question mark: Wouldn’t Utah be better off moving him so that it could go forward with the Favors/Rudy Gobert pairing?
The second-generation group includes Gobert, the athletic center whose recent play has been exactly the type of breakout executives are praying for when they fully embrace a youth movement. If 2014 lottery pick Dante Exum can find solid footing in his new starting role, Utah will really be onto something in a year or two. Last but not least: Trey Burke, who has seemed over his head as a starter and was wisely moved to the bench by Snyder this month.
What’s clear, in sum, is that the wheat on Utah’s roster is separating from the chaff. Perhaps those expecting a sleeper push in 2014-15 were overly eager and a year too early.
Defining moment: The highlight of Utah’s season, by far, was Hayward’s game-winner to down the Cavaliers. But the lasting memory from this Jazz season might actually wind up being Trevor Booker’s crazy, two-handed, over-the-head, clock-beating circus shot. It’s sheer unpredictability and never-before-seen nature was a good testament to this group’s current stage in the life cycle. Who knows, for sure, what will happen when Exum attacks off the dribble? Who can tell what Gobert has up his sleeve when he lunges towards the rim? Booker is a bit older than most of Utah’s building blocks, but his “shot of the year” candidate perfectly captured the Jazz’s “anything could happen” whimsy.
Washington Wizards: B+
Record (through 41 games): 28-13
Off. Rating: 13 | Def. Rating: 7 | Net Rating: 8
At a glance: John Wall’s Wizards have reaffirmed their place among the East’s top teams with a business-like start. But do any true contenders fear them? That’s a legit question, and it applies to any team that relies so heavily on mid-range jumpers, fails to effectively incorporate the three-point game, and expects a solo star to run all aspects of the show. Are the Hawks and the Cavaliers, who both have more top-end talent and balance than the Wizards, worried at all about a postseason matchup? Wouldn’t the Bulls, if healthy and stocked up, welcome a rematch? Washington has scored wins against both Cleveland and Chicago this season, but their approach on offense seems susceptible to dissection in the postseason.
Call this the curse of the “very good but not quite great” up-and-coming team. Maybe Bradley Beal can be the game-changer? His third season got off to a false start due to injury and his numbers (14.8 PPG, 3.8 RPG, 3.3 APG) have taken a step backwards from his strong 2013-14 campaign. The question facing coach Randy Wittman: if not Beal, then who? Marcin Gortat and Nene have continued to be reliable offensive options while posting excellent defensive numbers, but that two-big combination could fall victim to spread mismatches in the playoffs.
Wall has insisted that media observers have sold him short, and his play this year (17 PPG, 10.1 APG, 2 SPG) has earned him new levels of admiration. The 24-year-old, former No. 1 overall pick wants to be regarded as the best point guard in the game, and superstars at that level make their teammates’ deficiencies disappear. Is Wall prepared to handle that burden right now?
Defining moment: Does any superstar itch for a “fight” quite like Wall? He wasn’t pleased about his ranking in SI.com’s Top 100 Players and made it known on Twitter. He appeared on the cover of SLAM Magazine alongside the words, “I still get overlooked.” And, during a recent win over the Bulls, he mockingly co-opted Derrick Rose’s skipping celebration as a way to get revenge for Rose’s trotting during a Chicago victory earlier this season. Clearly, Wall had let the payback idea marinate because he immediately pulled it out in his first career victory against his point guard counterpart and Adidas colleague. If any current superstar can bring back the spirit and spite of the 1980s playoffs, bet on Wall.