Most of the NBA—from the short list of contenders, to the expanded middle class to the dwellers in the basement—has made the turn during a record-setting first half of the 2015–16 season. With the Warriors and Spurs racing out to historic starts and an improved East keeping pace with the West for once, it’s time to dispense some midseason grades.
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 off-season 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. 18.)
Atlanta Hawks: B
Off. Rating: 7 | Def. Rating: 10 | Net Rating: 7
The Hawks’ 2015 magic carpet ride has regressed into something more like a spin around the block on a hoverboard. There’s still fun to be had, in the form of a flowing top-10 offense that can put up 120+ points on any given night, but the effortlessness, the pinch-me peaks and the winning streaks that defined last season have subsided. Whereas last year the Hawks’ machine-like offense often appeared to be the East’s answer to the Warriors and Spurs, this year they’re left looking over their shoulders, fending off improved copy cats eager to mimic their spread approach. Even though the “championship contender” label seems to have eluded the Hawks’ grasp following a trip to the East finals, it’s hard to consider them disappointments. Really, this is a case of Atlanta falling back to the pack right on schedule.
Mike Budenholzer’s team remains talented, experienced, balanced and committed to creating high-percentage shots, but it’s missing both DeMarre Carroll, a perfectly-fitting two-way impact player on the wing, and Kyle Korver’s extraterrestrial marksmanship. The Hawks’ dominant starting five from a year ago just hasn’t been as potent with Kent Bazemore in for Carroll and with Korver’s shooting numbers way off; needless to say, the halcyon days of four All-Star selections and five guys sharing East Player of the Month honors feel long gone. Still, Paul Millsap and Al Horford deserve strong All-Star consideration, and the Hawks’ dependable frontcourt tandem should keep them in position to win a playoff series.
Boston Celtics: B-
Off. Rating: 19 | Def. Rating: 2 | Net Rating: 9
Back in October, the table seemed set for the Celtics to make major strides up the standings: Boston capped off last year with noticeable positive momentum once the Rajon Rondo cloud was lifted, the off-season additions of Amir Johnson and David Lee helped stabilize a young frontcourt, and Brad Stevens, one of the league’s top coaches, was set to lead a roster deep enough to withstand an 82-game season and to handle just about any stylistic match-up.
The resulting story hasn’t been quite so tidy. Boston boasts the East’s leading defense, thanks to a host of quality individual talents (Johnson, Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and Marcus Smart) and improvement from its younger bigs. The offense, however, hasn’t held up its end of the bargain: Isaiah Thomas, who has emerged as a first-time All-Star candidate in a starting role this season, isn’t quite equipped to be a one-man show and lacks a true sidekick. An infusion of dynamic scoring talent at the trade deadline would be ideal, as the Celtics’ healthy point differential (No. 3 in the East) and underwhelming showing in close games suggest that a little boost might pay real dividends in the win/loss charts. Yes, the East has improved around the Celtics, but there’s still a degree of unmet potential at play here.
Brooklyn Nets: F-
Off. Rating: 28 | Def. Rating: 24 | Net Rating: 28
The Nets have a really strong case as the absolute bottom of the NBA’s barrel so far this season. Most of the underlying issues were covered right here, in the aftermath of owner Mikhail Prokhorov’s decision to dump both GM Billy King and coach Lionel Hollins, but let’s quickly run them down. Summer spending that locked up Brook Lopez and Thaddeus Young has paid off to the tune of the East’s second-worst record. Hollins seemed to both mail it in and lose his locker room. Jarrett Jack suffered a season-ending knee injury and rookie Rondae Hollis-Jefferson will be sidelined months with an ankle injury. Deron Williams (somewhat) predictably thrived in Dallas and Mason Plumlee played productive minutes in Portland thus far. The Barclays Center fully transformed into a library or a morgue, or some combination of the two. Andrea Bargnani even delivered a spectacularly bad minus-16.6 net rating.
The playoffs look like an impossibility, there are few young talents to rally around down the stretch, there are so many owed draft picks tying up the franchise’s flexibility, there really is no clear next step without a 2016 lottery pick, and there are months to burn until a new regime is expected to be installed. In sum, there is so little reason for anyone to hope or care about what happens to this franchise during the next 2–3 years, at minimum. The worst part? Prokhorov, while accepting some of the responsibility for this mess, didn’t exactly sound clear-eyed in his perception of his organization. “I'm sure for next season, we'll be, I hope, [a] championship contender,” he told reporters. Alright, that delusion seals it: Brooklyn is rock bottom.
Charlotte Hornets: C
Off. Rating: 10 | Def. Rating: 14 | Net Rating: 13
Admittedly, the Hornets are a victim of the artificial “midseason” deadline. Rewind to as recently as late December, when Charlotte was riding high at 17–13, and Steve Clifford and company would have been in the “A” neighborhood. But two-plus weeks of losing, even if it was easily explained by injuries and a tough road trip, requires a recalibration. At its best, Charlotte has been consistently functional and legitimately entertaining on offense for the first time in years. At its worst, especially in a few ugly showings without Nicolas Batum, who has rightfully earned some All-Star buzz this year, Charlotte has reverted to totally forgettable and flat play.
After initially looking like they had undergone a serious and sustainable makeover, the net result at the midway point is instead a host of familiar, as-yet-unanswered questions. Was the strong start a mirage or can this group, which isn’t overwhelmingly deep or talented, right itself? Have scouts caught on to the Hornets’ new offensive approach or are the injuries to blame? Will both Batum and Jefferson be inclined to return once they hit free agency in the summer, or will Charlotte retool around one of them (Batum is the more likely candidate), or will Michael Jordan face another major rebuilding effort? The positive subplots—good minutes from Jeremy Lamb, Jeremy Lin and others—pale in comparison to these greater uncertainties.
Chicago Bulls: B-
Off. Rating: 23 | Def. Rating: 6 | Net Rating: 11
Stop me if this sounds familiar: The Bulls are a force to be reckoned with thanks to a high-performing defense and a talent-rich roster, but they are stuck a cut below the Cavaliers due to an underperforming offense, a host of misaligned pieces, and hit-or-miss play from an in-and-out-of-the-lineup Derrick Rose. Everything old is new again.
The fundamentals are largely the same but the faces and power dynamics are slowly shifting under first-year coach Fred Hoiberg. Joakim Noah is done for the year with a shoulder injury and potentially on his way out via trade or free agency. Jimmy Butler continues to rise so fast and so furiously that a declining Rose should be considered expendable this summer. The frontcourt rotation is working in some new blood, but the various candidates—Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, and Bobby Portis—are each flawed enough to give Hoiberg some pause. None of these developments, not even Butler’s ascendance, amounts to a true game-changer: While Chicago remains on track for home-court in the East, it hardly looks to have closed the gap with its Central Division rivals. Considering the Bulls’ long and painful history against LeBron James, simply maintaining a consistent quality standard during a transition year won’t be enough to ultimately avoid frustration. A summer filled with fireworks could easily follow.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
Off. Rating: 5 | Def. Rating: 7 | Net Rating: 4
After five straight Finals appearances, midterm grades only apply to LeBron James and his teams in the event of a disaster. No such calamity has unfolded this season, as Cleveland has aced the only three questions that matter. One: Has James remained healthy? Yes, he’s missed just one game and that was due to rest. Two: Did Kyrie Irving make it back on the court with enough time to gel with his teammates before the playoffs? Yes, the All-Star point guard returned in mid-December and has helped Cleveland’s starters post a stupendous 120.3 offensive rating with him in the lineup. Three: Was Cleveland able to avoid digging itself into a standings hole during Irving’s absence? Oh yes, the Cavaliers are cruising at the top of the East and the gap between their ceiling and everyone else in the East’s ceiling is meaningfully wider than last year.
Road losses to both the Warriors and Spurs in showcase games plus ongoing shooting woes for James kept this from being a “perfect” opening stretch for the Cavaliers. Regardless, they are sitting pretty. It would be shocking if anyone but Cleveland emerges from the East.
Dallas Mavericks: A
Off. Rating: 12 | Def. Rating: 15 | Net Rating: 14
There are reasons to believe the Mavericks might fade a bit down the stretch: their record is meaningfully better than their (negative) point differential, they’ve won more than their share of close games (14–10 in games that were within five points in the last five minutes), and they’re in a playoff seeding race with two teams, the Grizzlies and Rockets, that both stumbled out of the gate and have better rosters on paper.
All of that misses the point. With tanking talk and concern about getting stuck in the middle circling last summer, this group has instead continued the Mavericks’ proud winning tradition. Indeed, Dallas belongs near the very top of the list when it comes to first-half overachievers, given its significant roster turnover, major preseason injury questions, and the amount of elbow grease required to get sustained contributions from the likes of Deron Williams, Raymond Felton and J.J. Barea. Mavericks owner Mark Cuban rewarded coach Rick Carlisle with a lucrative extension back in November, a decision that paid tribute to the power of the organization’s culture and the strength of Carlisle’s coaching structure. Since then, Dallas has plodded along, maintaining its spot in the West’s third tier.
Even if Dallas does taper off slightly down the stretch, its strong start has virtually clinched a playoff appearance in a watered-down West, something that wasn’t to be taken for granted entering this year. Although a lost season and a high draft pick might have been better for the Mavericks’ long-term asset base, Cuban is surely thrilled that the Mavericks are making the most of Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight while also enjoying an immediate return on their major investment in Wesley Matthews. And with the West’s top tier turning out to be so loaded, there’s no real shame in another one-and-done playoff exit, if that proves to be the end to this story.
Denver Nuggets: C-
Off. Rating: 22 | Def. Rating: 26 | Net Rating: 26
The Nuggets rank dead last in home attendance this season. As recently as 2013, they were an above-average team at the gate. It’s hard to blame the fans for their apathy. In its first year under new coach Mike Malone, Denver simply doesn’t have anything to really hang its hat on. The Nuggets are bad offensively. They’re very bad defensively. They don’t light it up from beyond the arc. After a few years of mixing and matching during transitions and coaching changes, they still haven’t set a cohesive roster vision. Skeptics might conclude that Denver is making it up as it goes along, and there’s no overwhelming evidence to the contrary.
Sadly, the best answer to a lot of these fundamental problems is that rookie guard Emmanuel Mudiay missed a month due to injury and has yet to fully hit his stride. While there have been some spectacular flashes from the lottery pick, Mudiay has been one of the league’s most inefficient players. That’s hardly surprising from a 19-year-old lead guard, but patience is always a tough sell to a fan base that has only seen the second round of the playoffs once in the last two decades. This season remains salvageable, but not in the traditional sense. Denver’s best play down the stretch is to race to the bottom, milking the Will Barton experience for all it’s worth, trying to sell off some vets at the deadline, letting Mudiay catch up on the reps he missed while sidelined, and stacking extra draft lottery ping pong balls along the way. The good news? Any fans still attending games at this point will be smart enough to see the logic behind the losing.
Detroit Pistons: B+
Off. Rating: 20 | Def. Rating: 9 | Net Rating: 12
Of the eight teams clustered within four games of each other in the East’s middle, Detroit has every right to be the proudest of its standing. Stan Van Gundy’s squad lost Greg Monroe over the summer, didn’t have Brandon Jennings for months, and added two “meh” pieces to its starting lineup in Marcus Morris and Ersan Ilyasova. Throw in a long track record of losing, the inherent uncertainty of putting your team’s fate in Reggie Jackson’s hands, and a very, very, very shallow bench and there were good reasons to doubt the Pistons’ blueprint. The Jackson/Andre Drummond spread pick-and-roll idea made sense, but was there enough else going on to make it work?
More often than not the answer has been "yes." Jackson has responded well in his new role, ranking among the league leaders in touches and drives as he acclimates to life as a full-time starter. Drummond, who looks like a strong candidate to be a first-time All-Star, has been a workhorse and a rebounding machine down low as expected. The other starters—wing stopper Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Morris and Ilyasova—have all enjoyed pristine health and found strong fits in Van Gundy’s preferred five-man lineup, which enjoys a strong +5 net rating. If anyone goes down, the Pistons’ ship will take on water quickly. If the good luck continues, Van Gundy should continue to receive respectable results from his familiar formula.
Golden State Warriors: A++
Off. Rating: 1 | Def. Rating: 3 | Net Rating: 2
Last year, the Warriors pulled down an A++ by going 35–6 and posting the league’s No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense at the midway point. This year, they managed to top even that high bar by ripping off a ridiculous 24–0 opening stretch to go 37–4 through their first 41 games, tied for the third-best first half in NBA history. Record-wise, no one has been better through half a season since peak Michael Jordan. Maybe a third “plus” after the “A,” however gratuitous that might be, is in order?
Stephen Curry has been scintillating as he plays at an MVP level for the second straight season and Draymond Green has emerged as a top-10 talent, but the most impressive aspect of the Warriors’ start has been their ability to sustain success despite juggling lineups. Golden State’s preferred starting lineup—Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Green and Andrew Bogut—has logged just 122 minutes together this season, largely due to Barnes’s ankle injury. Golden State’s preferred small-ball look—with Andre Iguodala in for Bogut—has played just 93 minutes together. In other words, don’t even think about wringing your hands over the Warriors’ slightly shaky play of late. The defending champs still have another gear they can get to come playoff time.
Houston Rockets: D-
Off. Rating: 8 | Def. Rating: 22 | Net Rating: 18
Houston wasted little time admitting that it was failing by canning coach Kevin McHale just 11 games into the season. Since then, things have gotten better under interim coach J.B. Bickerstaff—the Rockets have moved back into the playoff picture and returned to the top 10 in offensive efficiency—but there’s still no cause for major celebration. There was a discipline to the Rockets last year that made them both dangerous and worthy of respect; too often this season that discipline has been nonexistent. The mental lapses are regularly appalling, whether they come in the form of early-season blowout passes, errant passes that fly into the stands, absolutely negligent transition defense, or overly showy one-on-one play.
The underlying problem for James Harden and company is that they’ve competed this season like they are satisfied, instead of redoubling their commitment to claim a spot at the top of the conference. Why should anyone take the Rockets seriously if they don’t take themselves seriously? They shouldn’t. Why should the West’s elite fear the Rockets if they’re not committed to the same principles that drove them to a surprise Western Conference finals trip last year? They shouldn’t. The only saving grace here is that that the Rockets can still back into a very winnable first-round series with the Clippers. Whoop-de-doo.
Indiana Pacers: B
Off. Rating: 16 | Def. Rating: 4 | Net Rating: 8
Hoping to shift into a new identity on the fly, the Pacers must settle for respectability at the halfway mark. Befitting their standing smack in the middle of the East, Indiana is this year’s quintessential “Is the glass half empty or half full?” squad. An optimist would point to Paul George’s return to superstardom, a surprisingly excellent team defense, and an impressive point differential to argue that the Pacers are doing quite well for themselves in Year One after parting with both Roy Hibbert and David West. A pessimist might counter that George hasn’t gotten much help from the likes of Monta Ellis and Rodney Stuckey, the team’s dynamic offensive potential hasn’t really come to fruition, and there just isn’t enough top-end talent or cohesiveness to believe that the Pacers can make postseason noise.
The truth probably involves a little from column A and a little from column B. Importantly, even if the Pacers were to slip back into the lottery, George’s career-year numbers give this entire season a rosy hue. “Well, at least Paul George is back,” isn’t exactly the world’s most captivating slogan, but it counts for a lot given how dire the Pacers’ outlook would be without him. Right now, George’s ability to hold up for big minutes and keep Indiana in the mix qualifies as a “Mission Accomplished.” Look for the expectations and urgency—both externally and internally—to increase over the next six-to-nine months.
L.A. Clippers: B+
Off. Rating: 4 | Def. Rating: 12 | Net Rating: 5
Unfortunately, the Clippers reach the halfway point stuck in the clutches of middle child syndrome. You know, “How wonderful Steph did that, Steph, Steph, Steph.” Despite their many accomplishments—elite offense, above-average defense, impressive winning streak without an injured Blake Griffin—the Clippers are stuck in the Warriors’ shadow. That’s true not only because of their twin collapses in head-to-head matchups with the defending champs, but also because L.A. has largely struggled in its other high-profile games (losses to Oklahoma City, Houston, San Antonio, Chicago, etc.). In fact, the Clippers didn’t claim a true signature win until last week versus the Heat; the palpable excitement and joy generated by that come-from-behind victory looked, to an outsider, like a team getting a monkey off its back.
Warriors aside, this has been a rinse-and-repeat campaign for the Clippers, who were getting All-NBA contributions from Griffin before his leg injury and All-NBA contributions from Chris Paul after it. The biggest preseason bugaboos remain—a hole at small forward, questionable bench chemistry—but Doc Rivers has made it work well enough, getting contributions from unlikely sources like Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Cole Aldrich and Pablo Prigioni. As far as expectations go, the Clippers are smack dab on course: they looked like a top-four team in the West entering the season, and that’s almost certainly where they will finish. Whether that would be enough to keep this core together should they fail to reach the conference finals again is still to be determined.
L.A. Lakers: D
Off. Rating: 29 | Def. Rating: 30 | Net Rating: 29
If you would have told me in September that D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle would both be coming off the bench for Byron Scott while Kobe Bryant posted a 30+ usage rate, I would have walked straight off the Santa Monica Pier with dumbbells strapped to my ankles while screaming out, “Give them a [expletive] F on their midseason grade,” as I descended towards the Pacific. This purposeful squelching of L.A.’s young centerpieces would have sounded an awful lot like the Lakers’ absolute worst-case scenario.
As it turns out, there are slight rays of sunshine here. First, Bryant finally came to terms with the fact that he needs to hang it up, and his preemptive retirement announcement was the best possible development for the Lakers’ franchise. Second, the Lakers have been so brutally bad—even though they’re seemingly trying to win—that they might very well keep their 2016 first-round pick, which would be similarly gigantic. Third, Russell and Randle are at least playing a respectable number of minutes so they aren’t totally buried. Counter-argument: Shouldn’t they just be starting and finishing every game? Of course, and there’s a good chance the Lakers’ next coach makes that happen. Bottom line: As bad as things have been, things could be worse: Bryant could have waffled, the Lakers’ could be winning just enough games to lose their prized pick for sure, and the youngsters could have been marginalized to the point that their years were entirely wasted.
Memphis Grizzlies: C-
Off. Rating: 27 | Def. Rating: 16 | Net Rating: 21
Relationships don’t always end with a bang; sometimes people just drift apart. That’s basically what’s happened between the Grizzlies and title contention. Memphis stuck it out for roughly a half-decade, riding its signature slow-down, defense-first style to the edges of the championship conversation. After four playoff series victories in five seasons, highlighted by a trip to the 2013 West finals, the two partners are now officially going in different directions. Memphis, aging and no longer as potent, is headed for an identity reevaluation, while the “title contender” tag has latched on to teams with better balance, better shooting, and better athletes. Last year, it seemed like the Grizzlies maybe still had something going. This year, there’s just no case.
Sadly, the Grizzlies probably aren’t as good as their No. 5 standing in the West indicates. Their point differential is far worse than their record, they’ve been exceptionally lucky in close games (14–6 in clutch games, per SportVU), and they’ve been royally smacked by all the major contenders. Coach Dave Joerger, veterans Zach Randolph and Tony Allen, and free-agents-to-be Mike Conley and Jeff Green are all left contemplating the same question: What comes next?
Miami Heat: B
Off. Rating: 17 | Def. Rating: 5 | Net Rating: 10
The most telling quote of the Heat’s season came after their loss to the Warriors earlier this month. “They have the ultimate confidence in their game,” Chris Bosh said. “Damn, I miss that.” Players know better than anyone the difference between contenders and pretenders, and Miami must be placed in the latter category, despite president Pat Riley’s best efforts. This Heat team is built to win now: its starting five is composed of All-Stars and difference-makers and its bench unit is stocked with well-traveled veterans and a very capable rookie in Justise Winslow.
But that “ultimate confidence”—borne of pure chemistry and clearly defined roles—remains out of reach. Goran Dragic and Dwyane Wade have yet to strike a balance. No one seems to fully trust Hassan Whiteside. Bosh and company are posting strong defensive numbers, especially in Miami’s smaller lineup looks, but the offense suffers from a lack of three-point shooters and the Dragic/Wade combo is barely breaking even. The good news: Miami’s core pieces have enjoyed good health, until recently. The bad news: Miami hasn’t achieved much separation in the standings, so it remains vulnerable to a steep slide should injuries arise. The Heat will hope their experience can carry them through a first-round match-up, with or without home-court advantage, but their early work makes a deep postseason run seem unlikely.
Milwaukee Bucks: C-
Off. Rating: 21 | Def. Rating: 27 | Net Rating: 25
Well, well, well: The plexiglass principle strikes again. The Bucks are a textbook example of the old Bill James notion that teams that improve one season tend to decline the next. Milwaukee jumped from “atrocious” in 2012–13 to “respectable” in 2014–15, only to sink back to “bad” this year thanks to a similar “terrible” to “very good” to “terrible” again swing for its defense. While disappointing, this year’s step backwards isn’t shocking: veterans Jared Dudley, Zaza Pachulia and Ersan Ilyasova all departed over the summer, replaced largely by an incredibly intriguing (but incredibly unproven) cast of youngsters.
Who is to blame for the backsliding? There are plenty of available scapegoats: Coach Jason Kidd hasn’t been able to be with the team due to a recent hip surgery, Greg Monroe hasn’t been a game-changer for a lagging offense, Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn’t achieved the full-scale breakout many anticipated, Jabari Parker hasn’t gotten his bearings after knee surgery ended his rookie season, and Michael Carter-Williams hasn’t improved his range enough to use him for long stretches alongside other non-shooters. Clearly, Milwaukee’s biggest goals—finding a way to coax stardom out of Parker and Antetokounmpo—still rely on time more than any other ingredient. Let the waiting game continue.
Minnesota Timberwolves: C-
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 19 | Net Rating: 23
Interim coach Sam Mitchell’s painfully honest assessment of his young team in an interview with MinnPost.com made it clear that there are very real, very painful growing pains going on with the Timberwolves. That’s no great surprise, as there are signs of struggling in every direction: Minnesota’s record and point differential are both poor, its archaic offense ranks well below average, its team defense is below par, and its rotation includes some incredibly young pieces who must learn their crafts on the job.
Most of this was to be expected given Flip Saunders’s unfortunate passing, Mitchell’s abrupt promotion and the general transition of the team during the post-Kevin Love era. And it certainly hasn’t been all bad: Ricky Rubio has (mostly) remained healthy, Karl-Anthony Towns is a leading candidate for 2016 Rookie of the Year, and Andrew Wiggins continues to ramp up his scoring as a No. 1 option and All-Star in the making.
The next question, though, is whether owner Glen Taylor will scrutinize Mitchell’s work as carefully as Mitchell publicly scrutinized his players. If so, he’ll find that his team remains so, so badly behind the times in its approach to shot location and he’ll likely deem it necessary to shake up a roster that is full of competing interests. If not, prepare for another more-frustrating-than-it-probably-needs-to-be year of player development in 2016–17.
New Orleans Pelicans: F
Off. Rating: 18 | Def. Rating: 29 | Net Rating: 24
File the Pelicans under the “disappointment” heading and then the “puzzling” subheading. Very few of the preseason assumptions made about New Orleans have proven to be true. Anthony Davis hasn’t taken a major leap forward under new coach Alvin Gentry, he’s stagnated (to be clear, a stagnant Davis is still amazing). Gentry’s Pelicans have picked up the pace (going from No. 27 last year to above-average this year), as expected, but their offensive efficiency has taken a major step back. On the defensive side of things, the coaching change has sent the Pelicans back to square one, with serious roster questions hanging over their future given the poor results this year. Meanwhile, the losses have stacked up so rapidly that last year’s 45-win season already feels like a mirage.
It’s hard to get excited about the possibility of a last-gasp, late-season push into the playoffs given the weakness of the West’s middle class and the untouchable superiority of the Warriors and Spurs at the top. Progress this season meant claiming a playoff spot and taking a real shot at winning a series, and that ship sailed sometime in late November. It’s hard to believe, but Davis finds himself in the same place he was when he was drafted in 2012: in need of a lot of help and surrounded by players that don’t necessarily make him better. The best way to handle this situation—the dramatic change in fortune and the heavy lifting that needs to be done roster-wise—might very well be a change in front-office leadership.
New York Knicks: B
Off. Rating: 14 | Def. Rating: 18 | Net Rating: 17
First of all, the latest Kristaps Porzingis rap video is an A+, just like its inspiration. If you haven’t seen this video yet, take this bad boy in. If you have, take it in again. And again.
Besides being the bridge that connects the United States to Latvia’s thriving hip-hop community, Porzingis has been a strong Rookie of the Year candidate who has made the Knicks one of the most pleasantly surprising teams to watch this year. When it comes to mediocre basketball, it doesn’t get much better than the 7'3" Porzingis exploring his prodigious skillset, Carmelo Anthony playing a more sophisticated and nuanced all-around game, and a whole host of forgettable role players doing everything in their power to keep the game close for New York’s twin headliners.
Some of the major preseason questions have so far been non-issues: starting center Robin Lopez has remained on the court, Anthony has remained healthy, satisfied and engaged, and a shaky backcourt hasn’t totally killed the vibe. While New York’s offensive and defensive efficiency numbers are pretty meh, both marks are vastly improved over last year’s abomination. The short version of the Knicks is this: They aren’t going anywhere special this season, but at least they aren’t going to Hell either. That qualifies as major, welcome progress.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A
Off. Rating: 2 | Def. Rating: 8 | Net Rating: 3
Kevin Durant’s recent comments about the media’s “nitpicking” of the Thunder were telling, even though his track record of media criticism is getting fairly long at this point. Only a confident leader, one trusting in his own skills and the collective ability of his team, would push back so directly against perceived criticism or shortchanging on behalf of reporters and talking heads. Although he went out of his way to smooth things over in subsequent comments, Durant doesn’t seem particularly concerned that his words will come back to bite him. And maybe he shouldn’t be. After all, Oklahoma City has the league’s second-best offense and third-best point differential. Since Dec. 1, Durant, Russell Westbrook and company have a better point differential than the Warriors, and the two teams’ records are virtually identical. With a healthy Durant in the lineup, Oklahoma City is 27–8, with all but one of those losses coming by six points or less. That’s pretty, pretty, pretty good.
What Durant didn’t really account for in his explanation, though, was the aesthetic differences between the Warriors, Spurs and Thunder. Golden State and San Antonio rank first and second, respectively, in assist rate, their systems have proven to produce quality shots in the playoffs, and their role players have proven postseason track records. Oklahoma City, meanwhile, is just No. 18 in assist rate, and its rotation is stocked with supporting cast members that are wholly lacking in meaningful postseason experience. Durant can’t expect the media to automatically trust so many unproven pieces and he can’t expect anything but doubt at the idea of beating the Warriors and Spurs in a seven-game series while relying heavily on one-on-one play.
And so perhaps the latest round of “Durant vs. the Media” ends in a draw: Durant rightfully argued that the Thunder have been better this year than has widely been acknowledged, while the media didn’t really need to budge from its general skepticism in relation to the cream of the crop alternatives. In light of those circumstances, a solid “A” here feels like a fair compromise.
Orlando Magic: B+
Off. Rating: 25 | Def. Rating: 13 | Net Rating: 16
Death, taxes and the Scott Skiles team improvement plan. Let’s go right down the checklist to see how the Magic are faring. Has the defense improved? Yes. Have young players started to turn the corner? Yes. Do the words “overachieving” and “turnaround” and “walk before you can run” pop up over and over? Yes. Do people generally respect the work he’s done and the progress he’s made in a short time? Yes. Is anyone really scared of his team? No, not really.
Skiles’s latest project has produced a .500 record as the midpoint approaches, by far the most respectable showing of the slow-dripping post-Dwight Howard era. The major developments—splitting the minutes of non-shooting guards Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo by moving the latter to the bench, setting up off guard Evan Fournier for a nice little breakout, and inserting Channing Frye as a nominal frontcourt starter to further improve the spacing—all look like intelligent decisions. Orlando’s new starting lineup has posted a robust +7 net rating, and Oladipo deserves real credit for taking his demotion in stride (although he’s back starting for the time being due to a Payton injury).
While critics will rightfully harp on the relative lack of minutes for two recent lottery picks—Aaron Gordon and Mario Hezonja—the Magic’s progress this season is noteworthy mostly because they allocate so many minutes to young players. In fact, Tobias Harris, Fourier, Nikola Vucevic, Oladipo and Payton are all 25 and younger, and all five are logging 29+ MPG. Give Magic ownership and GM Rob Hennigan credit, then, for knowing what their roster needed in a coach this year and landing a proven candidate who could fully meet those needs. If a playoff appearance results from the new partnership, then this season will go down as an A or an A-. If not, the substantial team-wide improvement will still qualify as positive momentum heading into 2016–17.
Philadelphia 76ers: C
Off. Rating: 30 | Def. Rating: 21 | Net Rating: 30
Leave it to the Sixers to construct an alternate universe in which losing equals winning, and then still find a way to mess it up. That was the bleak reality back in November, when Philadelphia was slogging through an embarrassing 0–18 start and Jahlil Okafor was fighting all partygoers in pursuit of TMZ fame. Even though the franchise was heading towards its top goal, securing the rights to the No. 1 pick in the 2016 draft, it was going about its business in such a grotesque manner that even the “Trust The Process” faithful were starting to have doubts. Had GM Sam Hinkie gone too far?
The story has turned pretty sharply since then, thanks to the arrivals of front-office executive Jerry Colangelo and point guard Ish Smith. It’s amazing how the tiniest injection of respectability can alter a franchise’s outlook: Philadelphia is 4–8 since Christmas, Okafor’s rookie season has suddenly become more than a punchline, and coach Brett Brown can hopefully start to see the light at the end of the tunnel after three long years. Most importantly, Philadelphia is still sitting in pole position for the No. 1 pick so this hasn’t yet developed into an overcorrection. There’s a difference between being terrible and being embarrassing, and it’s good to see the Sixers back on the proper side of that divide.
Phoenix Suns: F
Off. Rating: 26 | Def. Rating: 28 | Net Rating: 27
It’s getting a bit exhausting to keep up with the layers of this mess. The owner is calling out millennials, including one of his own players, in print. The GM is stuck with the ugly reality that he made too many trades and that he still needs to make a bunch more. The coach saw two of his assistants canned and often looks like a frozen ghost during games. The veteran center keeps losing head-to-head match-ups with the rim on his dunk attempts and he hasn’t transformed the team’s defense. The star guard is out for the season with a knee injury. The No. 2 guard puts up pretty good fantasy numbers but not much else. The disgruntled forward demanded a trade, threw a towel at the coach and yet still looms over everything. The rest of the roster really isn’t much to write home about, as evidenced by a 1–13 stretch that was lowlighted by losses to the Sixers, Lakers and a 30-point blowout loss to the Timberwolves.
The playoffs definitely aren’t going to happen this season and, frankly, it could take years to turn this ship around. All bad.
Portland Trail Blazers: C+
Off. Rating: 9 | Def. Rating: 23 | Net Rating: 20
Coach Terry Stotts is the big winner from Portland’s first half: In the final guaranteed year of his current contract, he’s made a convincing case that he should be retained. First, he showed that his three-happy offensive system could maintain a top-10 rating despite losing four of his 2014–15 starters, getting increased contributions from promoted holdovers like C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe. Second, he showed a pretty keen understanding of how to incorporate his new faces, managing to coax some playmaking out of Mason Plumlee, making sure long-term building block Noah Vonleh gets reps as a starter, and constructing a narrow role that allowed Ed Davis to maximize the limited nature of his game. Third, he proved that he could keep his locker room together and motivated when All-Star point guard Damian Lillard missed time due to injury. That’s no small feat with a young team full of new additions.
The downside? Stotts is squeezing just about as much as can be reasonably expected from a roster lacking in trustworthy interior defenders and a LIllard/McCollum backcourt pairing that presents real defensive challenges on a regular basis. This is a pretty fun group that remains within sniffing distance of the playoffs thanks to disappointing seasons from the likes of Utah and New Orleans, but it’s also a team that would be better served by keeping its lottery-protected first round pick this year. Stotts simply needs more to work with if a speedy return to relevance is the goal with Lillard, 25, now in his prime.
Sacramento Kings: C
Off. Rating: 11 | Def. Rating: 25 | Net Rating: 22
When you miss the playoffs for nine straight seasons and cycle through five coaches in four years, you stop being judged by the NBA’s curve and start developing your own internal set of standards. For the Kings, who happened to find themselves in exactly that predicament, this season’s mandate was pretty clear: make the playoffs by any means necessary, even if that meant rolling the rice on Rajon Rondo, mortgaging the future in a lopsided trade with Philadelphia and getting creative with DeMarcus Cousins’s role so as to accommodate a less-than-ideal partnership with Kosta Koufos.
Many organizations would deem the results—under .500, on the fringes of the West’s playoff picture, with plenty of drama swirling all year long—to be a failure, or something close to it. Internally, the Kings are likely more optimistic than that, in part because Sacramento’s record is depressed by a 1–7 run without Cousins early in the season and in part because relevance, even fringe relevance, is such a rare commodity for the organization. Should the Kings have more to show for their investments? Probably. Should they be concerned about how much it will cost to keep Rondo next summer and whether he will be worth it? Absolutely. Should they be proud that Karl has managed to craft an above-average offense out of an odd batch of parts and that Cousins has been both productive and largely left out of trade rumors (at least for the last month or so)? Sure, why not. Given their recent history, it’s hard to begrudge the Kings their shot at an honest-to-goodness playoff race, even if it’s a down year for the West. Let’s give them a pass.
San Antonio Spurs: A++
Off. Rating: 3 | Def. Rating: 1 | Net Rating: 1
Well, this one isn’t particularly difficult. The Spurs are on pace to shatter the all-time record for point differential, entering Monday’s action at +14.2 (nearly two full points better than the '72 Lakers at 12.3). They are undefeated at home, they own the league’s best defense by a country mile, they lead the league in double-digit wins (28, five more than everyone else) and 20+ point wins (15, six more than everyone else), and they have been the NBA’s steadiest and most dominant team, by a fairly wide margin, since Dec. 1. Somehow, they’ve managed to avoid major injuries throughout, allowing newcomer LaMarcus Aldridge to integrate with coach Gregg Popovich’s big starting lineup and smaller secondary lineups alike. On top of all of that, San Antonio has also introduced the world to 7'3" center Boban Marjanovic, the most intriguing garbage time sensation in years.
Like the Warriors, the Spurs possess an MVP candidate (Kawhi Leonard), a deep and versatile rotation (every Spurs player currently boasts a +10 or better net rating, which seems impossible but is true), and elite performance on both offense and defense. On many nights, the Spurs look even more formidable than the 2014 title team, even if Tim Duncan is doing less on offense and Danny Green has yet to get going from deep. They just have so many weapons and they are so precise in their execution. Anything other than a Golden State/San Antonio showdown in the West finals would be more than a little deflating, and giving San Antonio anything other than the same grade as Golden State would have been a disservice.
Toronto Raptors: A
Off. Rating: 6 | Def. Rating: 11 | Net Rating: 6
There are a number of teams in position to claim that they have been the East’s second-best team to date, but the Raptors have the most convincing case. Toronto boasts the East’s second-best record, second-best point differential, second-best offense and a top-10 defense. What’s more, Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should both be All-Stars, as they are combining to average a whopping 43.8 points per game. DeRozan, in particular, has been key, bouncing back from a down 2014–15 to put together a career-year before his upcoming free agency. Good timing like that will get you paid.
Although his work will be forgotten if Toronto can’t advance in the playoffs for the first time since 2001, coach Dwane Casey has done well to adapt to adverse injury developments. The loss of center Jonas Valanciunas (hand) forced Casey to lean more heavily on Luis Scola and Bismack Biyombo, two budget-friendly offseason additions who have responded with unexpected floor-spacing on offense and reliable interior defense, respectively. Meanwhile, DeMarre Carroll’s knee injury has stretched Casey’s wing rotation, and yet the Raptors are 11–6 without their high-priced summer signing. Throw in a nice, fat role for third guard Cory Joseph, who pairs well with both Lowry and DeRozan, and there’s more to praise than to complain about. Those good vibrations—coupled with Cleveland’s conference supremacy, Toronto’s urgency to win a playoff series with its current core and Carroll’s extended absence—set up Toronto as natural buyers at the trade deadline. Why not take a shot and add a piece? The timing looks right.
Utah Jazz: C-
Off. Rating: 13 | Def. Rating: 17 | Net Rating: 15
The Jazz are clinging for dear life thanks to a nonstop slew of injuries that has severely limited their potential this season. Coach Quin Snyder has done his best to milk contributions from second-year wing Rodney Hood and rookies Raul Neto and Trey Lyles, but there’s only so much magic to be worked when key guys like Derrick Favors, Rudy Gobert and Alec Burks have all missed significant stretches. To no one’s great surprise, Utah’s defense slipped noticeably without Gobert holding down in the middle and the offense has often struggled to generate clean looks and productive flow without its full complement of weapons. Boy, it would be nice to have second-year guard Dante Exum, who was lost to an off-season knee injury, right about now.
Although Utah has managed to hold on to the West’s last playoff spot, this is a team that at full strength should have been competing for the West’s fifth seed. In light of the early-season disappointment, Jazz GM Dennis Lindsey faces a big February: should he invest some assets to fortify his roster for a playoff push, or should he live to fight another year? One would think a return to the postseason would be a top priority for the young Jazz, who would view the playoffs as a reward for their scrapping, even if it meant an early dismissal by one of the top contenders. While the Jazz make sense as trade deadline buyers on paper, it’s worth noting that this has been a very deliberate organization in recent years. If no help arrives, the race for the No. 8 seed could go down to the wire.
Washington Wizards: D+
Off. Rating: 15 | Def. Rating: 20 | Net Rating: 19
The “D” is for deflating. Nothing about these Wizards makes you think they came within two wins of the Eastern Conference finals last season and nothing makes you think they are a viable free-agency destination for Kevin Durant next summer. Washington, much like New Orleans, is a team caught between identities. Right now, the best way to describe the Wizards is “John Wall plus whoever happens to be healthy,” which just isn’t enough in the East these days. While Wall’s speed and play-making ability have helped coach Randy Wittman institute a faster-paced approach, injuries to Bradley Beal, Nene and others have kept the lineups cycling and made it difficult for the Wizards to find real success on either side of the ball. Remarkably, Washington hasn’t played any five-man lineup combination in more than 14 games this season.
If Wall is to lift the Wizards back into the playoff picture, he’ll need significant assistance from Beal, who returned to the court last week, and Jared Dudley, who has been a bit of a godsend after arriving from Milwaukee via trade. Even if those three can perk up Washington’s attack, it’s unclear whether the Wizards’ defense, which has slipped significantly from last year, will be able to do its part. Although there’s still plenty of time for a stretch push, one wonders whether this season’s halting momentum will bring about a coaching change and significant roster turnover come next summer.