NBA Midseason Grades: Western Conference

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Thursday January 26th, 2017

The NBA season has officially passed the midway point, with last year’s finalists sitting atop their respective conferences and some familiar large-market franchises lagging well behind the pack yet again. Before the basketball world turns its attention to the All-Star Game next month, here’s a midseason report card for all 30 teams.

Here’s the Western Conference. In case you missed it yesterday, check out the Eastern Conference.

SI.com's grades are determined by first-half performance relative to preseason expectations, taking 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 and rankings through Jan. 25. All first-half records through 41 games.)

Tom Pennington/Getty Images

Dallas Mavericks: F

First-Half Record: 14-27 | Current Record: 16-29
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 19 | Net: 22

This is a hesitant “F” rather than a forceful “F” for three reasons. First, rolling with Harrison Barnes over Chandler Parsons is looking like the correct decision. Second, Wesley Matthews has quietly enjoyed a nice bounceback in his second season following Achilles surgery, finding his three-point stroke and playing some of the league’s most effective late-game on-ball defense. Third, the Mavericks didn’t let a rough stretch of play in November kill their competitive resolve, meaning a deep sleeper run at the No. 8 seed is still in play.

Even so, the first half was painful. Only one West team (Minnesota) underachieved relative to preseason over/under expectations more than Dallas. From a salary standpoint, the Mavericks are right there with the Blazers and Pistons when it comes to getting the least bang for their buck. And, more than anything, Dirk Nowitzki’s injury issues and age-related decline have seriously cut into the fun factor. As it turns out, watching a 38-year-old Nowitzki shoot a career-low 38.7% is just as sad as watching a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant shoot 35.8% was last year. While the Mavericks really should be playing for lottery balls, they haven’t yet started a race for the bottom. That could prove problematic, as they need a future franchise player more than any of the other West teams that are currently outside the playoff picture.

Denver Nuggets: B+

First-Half Record: 17-24 | Current Record: 19-25
Off. Rating: 8 | Def. Rating: 29 | Net: 19

The biggest winner of the West’s collapsed eighth seed race is Denver, a star-less team whose two competing identities would, in most seasons, make it an afterthought. The Nuggets have a host of young prospects who aren’t quite there yet and many good-but-not-great veterans who are kind of just in the way. This type of push-and-pull dynamic usually results in some level of frustration for all parties and a trade deadline reckoning. Instead, the Nuggets have a real shot at getting slaughtered by the Warriors in the first round (that would count as meaningful progress after three lottery trips) and they have the luxury of being buyers or sellers (or both) next month.

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It took a little longer than necessary, but the Nuggets eventually came to the correct conclusion by rolling with Nikola Jokic over Jusuf Nurkic. Whereas the future of the Nuggets once looked like it would belong to the young guard trio of Emmanuel Mudiay, Gary Harris and Jamal Murray, the 21-year-old Jokic has cut to the front of the line thanks to his mesmerizing playmaking skills and solid scoring ability. Nuggets fans have needed a reason to cheer, and Jokic’s nightly highlight reel plays certainly fill that void, even if his defensive impact lags far behind other up-and-coming bigs. In light of an early injury to Harris, continued inefficiency from Mudiay and a defense that often drives coach Michael Malone nuts, it’s legitimately surprising that Denver is still in the mix, and with a fairly hopeful outlook, this late in the season.

Golden State Warriors: A+

First-Half Record: 35-6 | Current Record: 39-7
Off. Rating: 1 | Def. Rating: 1 | Net: 1

The reloaded Warriors bounced back from their Finals collapse without any signs of lingering regret or resentment, bringing Kevin Durant into the fold with terrifying quickness. Don’t make the mistake of judging the 2017 Warriors solely against the 2016 Warriors, who opened with a record unbeaten streak and rode Stephen Curry’s incomprehensible career year to 73 wins. This group has been obscenely great in its own right: Through 41 games, Golden State had the fourth-best point differential of all time (better than last year) and was on pace to become just the third 70-win team ever. Meanwhile, the Warriors’ new starting lineup has posted an insane +22.4 net rating, which is the best lineup in the league (minimum: 200 minutes) and far more devastating than last year’s starters (+13.2). With near-perfect health and relatively light minutes loads for their key players, Golden State has faced fewer hiccups than Cleveland.

If there’s any cause for concern, it’s to be found in the Warriors’ late-game collapses against the Cavaliers and Grizzlies, when complacency and stagnation have collided in troubling ways. But after Draymond Green flipped out on Durant for playing isolation ball against Memphis, in a rare public conflict, Golden State responded by ripping off seven straight wins by an average of 19.4 points. Crisis averted. The Warriors aren’t perfect, and they might be a half-step behind last year’s pace, but they’ve been the league’s most dominant, balanced, frightening and consistent team by a considerable margin.  

Houston Rockets: A+

First-Half Record: 31-10 | Current Record: 34-15
Off. Rating: 3 | Def. Rating: 18 | Net: 4

Houston has been the NBA’s biggest first-half overachiever by a country mile, crossing the midway point on a 62-win pace after opening with a 44-win over/under line. Surprise victors often reap end-of-season spoils, and James Harden, coach Mike D’Antoni, GM Daryl Morey and sixth man Eric Gordon are all serious awards candidates. The Rockets’ approach has been so satisfying in large part because they have raced far past boundaries that seemed relatively fixed. Just when 32 or 33 three-point attempts seemed like a hard-to-reach upper limit, Houston has launched nearly 40 a game without suffering much in the way of volume-related diminishing returns. On the contrary, the ultra-spread approach, aided by newcomers Gordon and Ryan Anderson, has Houston near the top of the offensive efficiency tables and it has unlocked Harden’s best play.

Morey’s summer was full of large bets—giving D’Antoni another shot, backing up the Brinks truck for Harden’s extension, moving on from Dwight Howard, throwing expensive and debatable contracts at Gordon and Anderson—and so far they are all paying out. Although the Rockets, much like the Raptors and Celtics, may not have sufficient defensive personnel to keep up with the league’s elite teams, the fact that such nuanced analysis is taking place is a win in and of itself. Clearly, it’s a good sign when an organization faces questions like “Will their interior defense hold up against elite offenses?” and “Can they succeed when the pace slows down in the playoffs?” rather than “Why does it seem like Harden and Howard hate each other’s guts?” and “Wait, they fired Kevin McHale after how many games?”   

Harry How/Getty Images

Los Angeles Clippers: B–

First-Half Record: 27-14 | Current Record: 30-17
Off. Rating: 5 | Def. Rating: 6 | Net: 5

Under different circumstances, it would be very tempting to drink from the “Glass is half full” view of the Clippers, who did well to survive Blake Griffin’s extended absence thanks to MVP-caliber play from Chris Paul. Optimists could point to LA’s blistering opening to the season, fantastic starting lineup (+15.2 net rating) and improved bench. With an experienced core, strong offense/defense balance, and numerous quality wins on their sheet, the Clippers at full strength have arguably the highest ceiling of any team besides the Warriors and Cavaliers. 

But even before Paul was lost to a hand injury, the forecast was beginning to dim because the Clippers, even more than most second-tier teams, need everything to break right if they are to overcome their talent disadvantage and unseat the Warriors. Making due without Griffin or getting by without Paul just isn’t good enough; LA needed to maximize its chemistry, cohesion and, frankly, its confidence too. This is the make-or-break season, with so many major free-agent decisions coming in July, and the Clippers are no closer to narrowing their gap with the Warriors now than they were in September, or last June, or the June before that. Unfortunately, the “Woulda, coulda, shouldas” have come back to haunt and define this team again.  

Los Angeles Lakers: C–

First-Half Record: 15-26 | Current Record: 16-33
Off. Rating: 21 | Def. Rating: 30 | Net: 29

November feels oh so long ago, doesn’t it? The “Baby Lakers” flirted with life as feel-good overachievers before crashing back to the West’s basement in record time. Despite the recent downturn, which has included some truly ugly blowouts, LA is in a far better spot than the last few seasons. Luke Walton is the right man for the job, young lottery picks like Brandon Ingram, D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle are getting the developmental minutes and touches they need, and losing big is still the best-case scenario. The Lakers will only keep their 2017 first-round pick if it lands in the top three, and they could really use another A-list prospect given their recent failures in free agency.    

While the Lakers have enjoyed the best of both worlds—getting a taste of winning early without compromising their draft positioning—there have been a number of teeth-gnashing developments along the way. Russell hasn’t yet broken through offensively and remains a mess defensively. Ingram, the jewel of the roster, is neck-deep in teenage growing pains, playing some of the most aesthetically-pleasing but incredibly inefficient basketball in recent NBA history. And the two biggest off-season signings—Timofey Mozgov and Luol Deng—have both backfired, as the Lakers possess the league’s worst defense for the second straight season. If management is smart, LA will lean into its struggles and sell off a few vets at the deadline, thereby maximizing its chances at another infusion of high-lottery talent come June.

Memphis Grizzlies: B+

First-Half Record: 24-17 | Current Record: 27-20
Off. Rating: 25 | Def. Rating: 4 | Net: 13

There were many ways this Grizzlies season could have gone sideways quickly. Zach Randolph could have insisted on a starting role, or pouted about his demotion to sixth man. Chandler Parsons’s injury problems could have sunk morale. Mike Conley could have missed more time or taken longer to get back up to speed. Memphis could have lost a few of its many coin-flip games early, planting seeds of doubt. Marc Gasol could have been merely great, instead of a total life-saver on both ends.  

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First-time coach David Fizdale deserves a healthy chunk of Coach of the Year votes for navigating Memphis through that endless series of potholes. Grit-and-grind defense still carries the day, but Fizdale has crafted just enough offensive space by encouraging Gasol to shoot from deep, giving Conley the greenest light of his career, deploying long-range specialist Troy Daniels, and committing to smaller lineups. Without a healthy Gasol holding down the middle defensively, the shooting-for-size exchange might have backfired, but the Spaniard has bounced back beautifully from a foot injury that cost him much of last season. While Memphis probably lacks the depth and firepower to make a deep postseason push, they’ve succeeded in welcoming a new coaching staff and modernizing their approach without skipping a beat. 

Minnesota Timberwolves: C

First-Half Record: 14-27 | Current Record: 17-28
Off. Rating: 12 | Def. Rating: 23 | Net: 16

The Timberwolves are the West’s biggest underachievers, relative to their preseason over/under line, but it’s not entirely their fault. As noted in October, Minnesota was easily the NBA’s most overhyped team given the age of its core pieces and its modest off-season additions. Disappointment over the youngest team in the league’s inability to close games and play passable defense says as much about the observer as it does about the team itself. The same principle applies to those who are underwhelmed by Tom Thibodeau’s early impact. Minnesota’s new coach/president purposefully took a deliberate approach last summer, avoiding major contract mistakes to clear things out for Karl-Anthony Towns, Andrew Wiggins, Zach LaVine and (to a lesser extent) Kris Dunn. That was bound to lead to some bumps in the road, but it was certainly the right call.

To be clear, there are plenty of frustrations. Towns, as brilliant and as hungry as he often is, must improve as a centerpiece defender. Wiggins can’t be posting such paltry all-around numbers given his workload. Dunn, somewhat surprisingly, hasn’t factored into the Rookie of the Year race at all. And the Timberwolves’ 8-15 record in close games ranks No. 28, topping only the Nets and Lakers. While these situations are all worth monitoring, they’re not back-breakers or even true red flags. Patience is a lost art, but one these Timberwolves still deserve.

Sean Gardner/Getty Images

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New Orleans Pelicans: D

First-Half Record: 16-25 | Current Record: 18-28
Off. Rating: 26 | Def. Rating: 8 | Net: 20

How Anthony Davis hasn’t devolved into DeMarcus Cousins-like perpetual fury is one of life’s great mysteries. Here’s Davis, putting up numbers that compare favorably to Peak Shaq and doing his best to dig the Pelicans out of their massive early-season hole, while all around him lurk sources of frustration. There’s Omer Asik, a cap-clogging center who can’t even get on the court any more. There’s Solomon Hill, New Orleans’s prized free agent acquisition, shooting a pristine 37.1% and posting a Real Plus Minus that ranks outside the top 40 at his position. There’s Tyreke Evans, who has missed half the season and has yet to log 30 minutes in a game. There’s Buddy Hield, an “NBA ready” rookie who unfortunately, it turns out, was woefully unready. And don’t forget former teammates Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon, who are thriving in Houston while largely leaving their chronic injury issues in New Orleans. 

There are at least a few rays of sunshine. Jrue Holiday has made a successful return, giving New Orleans the reliable backcourt weapon it desperately needed. Terrence Jones has delivered strong value as a low-budget find. Coach Alvin Gentry has mostly ditched his worthless traditional centers, shifting to a more potent smaller look that has done real damage in spurts recently. But the overall outlook remains grim: Davis can’t do much more individually, his supporting cast is what it is, and New Orleans’s track record of identifying, attracting, and properly compensating talent is not good. Snagging the eighth seed might count as a face-saving moral victory, but it also might delay a badly-needed front-office overhaul. There’s really no winning outcome here, as the Pelicans are boxed in by their past mistakes and persistent health issue at every turn. Let’s all hope, for the sake of Davis’s sanity, that Holiday doesn’t skip town this summer.   

Oklahoma City Thunder: A–

First-Half Record: 24-17 | Current Record: 27-19
Off. Rating: 16 | Def. Rating: 9 | Net: 12

While there’s more to the Thunder’s story than Russell Westbrook, the NBA’s triple-double maestro surely deserves the bulk of the attention. With a retooled supporting cast and without both Kevin Durant and Serge Ibaka, Westbrook has kept Oklahoma City in the playoff picture and pulled it through rough patches. His numbers—30/10/10, sterling advanced stats, league-leading clutch play—are off the charts across the board, but the most telling sign comes from his on/off impact. With Westbrook, the Thunder boast a +4.5 net rating, similar to the Clippers, Jazz and Cavaliers on the season. When he’s off the court, that falls to a -10.4 net rating, which is far worse than the Nets. If it feels like Westbrook has been a one-man army who represents the difference between respectability and hopelessness for his team, that’s because he has been.

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Otherwise, Oklahoma City has enjoyed solid returns from its big-dollar secondary players (Steven Adams, Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter) and seen enough from both defensive whiz Andre Roberson and rookie Domantas Sabonis to feel like there’s a well-balanced post-Durant core emerging. Even the Thunder’s critical postseason weakness—a lack of perimeter shooting to space around its ball-—hasn’t been that much of a bummer. It was expected, after all, and Oklahoma City’s tenacity helps compensate in the watchability department. The Thunder look like first-round exit fodder in the West, especially if Westbrook starts to wear down under the burden of his record usage. That said, only a fool would underestimate Westbrook’s ability to gut out an upset and Thunder fans should rejoice at the fact that their franchise player and MVP candidate has captained this transition season so smoothly.  

Phoenix Suns: D+

First-Half Record: 13-28 | Current Record: 15-30
Off. Rating: 20 | Def. Rating: 24 | Net: 26

GM Ryan McDonough’s awful run of losing trades and shaky signings set up the Suns for a tough season defined by multiple conflicts of interest. In one corner, vets like Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe, Brandon Knight and P.J. Tucker expect to win every night, or they’re wasting their time. In another, youngsters like Devin Booker, Marquese Chriss, Dragan Bender, Alex Len and T.J. Warren all need committed minutes to figure out who they are as NBA players. First-time head coach Earl Watson has done a reasonably good job of juggling these groups: He’s leaned heavily on his older players, successfully installed Booker as a lead option, and granted Chriss a starting role, even though the 19-year-old rookie is clearly in over his head.

The result? A sometimes-spunky squad that pulls the occasional upset, but one that hasn’t won nearly enough to make it worth staying the course. Indeed, dynamite time is fast approaching again, although McDonough will likely find that players he overvalued—Chandler and Knight in particular—won’t reap much of anything in return. The Bledsoe/Booker pairing has a shot at working long-term, as Booker’s been able to scale his scoring this season, but McDonough might as well dangle Bledsoe while he’s healthy to see what offers are out there. If nothing else, Tucker should land a worthwhile pick from a contender, clearing more time for Phoenix’s youth movement. With memories of the Isaiah Thomas and Knight trades still fresh, though, Suns fans can be forgiven if they reflexively shudder at the thought of an active deadline. 

Portland Trail Blazers: D–

First-Half Record: 18-23 | Current Record: 20-27
Off. Rating: 13 | Def. Rating: 27 | Net: 21

A good number of analysts expected the Blazers to struggle a bit under the weight of inflated expectations following a fluky first-round series victory over the Clippers and a summer spending spree. But not many predicted this season’s flat start to be so embarrassing and identity-shaking. The top culprit is obviously a defense that has regressed badly, one that lacks sufficient size on the perimeter and ranks at or near the bottom in opponent FG% from mid-range and beyond the arc. A short-term injury to stopper Al-Farouq Aminu helped reveal Portland’s shallow defensive talent pool and further expose its many redundant wing pieces. GM Neil Olshey managed to hand out well over $300 million to five players this summer, including an extension for CJ McCollum, and yet somehow failed to address his team’s glaring needs defensively.

Other minor regressions have added up. Damian Lillard’s three-point shooting and clutch play have both left something to be desired. Mason Plumlee hasn’t performed like a quality starting center on either end. Aminu’s ugly perimeter shooting has returned after a career year. Evan Turner has been a predictably awkward fit. Festus Ezeli turned out to be completely damaged goods. More teams around the league are playing smaller lineups and therefore have better match-up answers for Portland’s go-to spread look. Taken together, these developments have forced well-respected coach Terry Stotts to juggle his lineups in search of solutions that probably aren’t there. Olshey should search high and wide at the deadline, but that may prove fruitless too. While the Blazers are still alive in the West’s weak race for the No. 8 seed, the ceiling has seemingly collapsed on one of the league’s most expensive rosters. Barring a dramatic second-half turnaround, major player personnel changes—and perhaps more—should be in order.  

Rocky Widner/Getty Images

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Sacramento Kings: D

First-Half Record: 16-25 | Current Record: 18-27
Off. Rating: 17 | Def. Rating: 26 | Net: 25

The enduring image of the Kings’ season came earlier this month, when a triumphant DeMarcus Cousins, fresh off a winning performance and news that he planned to sign a lucrative long-term extension this summer, asked local reporters if they wanted him to remain in Sacramento. Instead of gushing to praise the franchise guy—the standard response in most NBA marketsCousins was met with a “No comment” dodge and then a flat “No.” After years of tense relations with Cousins that have culminated in well-publicized confrontations, the media’s lukewarm response wasn’t that surprising. But still. Yikes.

Sacramento should have seriously considered a hard reset by trading Cousins in the name of a fresh start. Instead, the allure of a playoff chase and a new Collective Bargaining Agreement that will help incumbent teams retain high-profile free agents will likely tie the Kings and Couins together for the foreseeable future. Past behavior is the best predictor of future behavior, so there’s no real reason to believe an unpredictable owner and an overmatched front office will be able to construct a contender around Cousins any time soon. Nor is there any good reason to believe that Cousins, who has been consistently spectacular and entertaining on the court this season, will control his worst impulses well enough to lead a winning culture. With holes all over the perimeter and few trade assets, Sacramento must continue its pointless pursuit of the eighth seed. Success would likely prove counterproductive, as it would validate poor decision-making and encourage the type of quick-fix moves that have left the Kings’ roster in such bad shape. Unfortunately, falling short represents a dead end too, now that Sacramento seems determined to continue with Cousins no matter what.

On the bright side, at least Garrett Temple is balling.

San Antonio Spurs: A

First-Half Record: 32-9 | Current Record: 36-9
Off. Rating: 4 | Def. Rating: 3 | Net: 2

As the free world continues to plunge headfirst into Yeats’ widening gyre, take comfort in the knowledge that the Spurs remain the Spurs. A nuclear holocaust is nigh, and yet Gregg Popovich’s club continues to mow down the competition thanks to a deep cast of contributors who hail from Latvia to Australia and back again. Kawhi Leonard, now in year six (!) of his “I keep scaring everyone by how much I improve” plan, gets the lion’s share of the attention, but San Antonio’s success continues to derive from its systematic approach to… well… everything. Remarkably, 13 different Spurs players currently possess net ratings of +6 or better, meaning that any individual weak links are concealed deep inside nearly unbreakable chains.  

One suspects, however, that Tim Duncan’s retirement will eventually be felt come playoff time, when Popovich must whittle down his lineups and weigh player-by-player matchups with Golden State and other top contenders. For now, though, San Antonio has been the NBA’s steadiest team besides the Warriors, and its collective experience and ability to dictate tempo should go a long way in potential postseason matchups with the Rockets, Jazz or the retooled Thunder. The Spurs appear to be the NBA’s most qualified party crashers: They have elite coaching, a superstar scorer, quality complementary shooting, lineup versatility, trustworthy ballhandlers, change of pace options, newfound perimeter athleticism, disciplined defensive schemes, a deeply-ingrained unselfishness, and core pieces who should be well-rested come playoff time. If anyone is capable of spoiling the Warriors/Cavaliers trilogy, it’s probably these guys.

Utah Jazz: A–

First-Half Record: 25-16 | Current Record: 29-18
Off. Rating: 11 | Def. Rating: 2| Net: 6

Utah is the rare team to make a major leap into the West’s playoff picture even though its feet have been bound together by a slew of injuries to key players. For past iterations of the Jazz and other growing clubs, this season would have already devolved into a “Man, if only they could have stayed healthy” lament. Not many teams could survive, let alone thrive, when five of their six highest-paid players have all missed extended stretches.  

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Credit Rudy Gobert, the Jazz’s bedrock center and a top Defensive Player of the Year candidate, for holding down the fort as the lineups cycled around him. The 24-year-old Frenchman has been one of the NBA’s most indispensable players this season, leading the league in blocks, improving as a pick-and-roll target, and guiding a Jazz defense that ranks among the league’s best. Thanks to another year of repetitions for its main playmakers and multiple veteran offseason additions, Utah has performed far better in late-game situations this season than last. While the overall offense could still stand to be more free-flowing and the preferred starting group will eventually need to log real time together, Utah’s well-defined profile—slow pace, stingy defense and a respectable, balanced attackgives it a good chance to win its first playoff series since 2010. That should be enough to seal up Gordon Hayward’s free-agency return, right?

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