Before turning our full attention to the playoffs next week, let's hand out regular-season grades for all 30 teams. Midseason grades, delivered in late January, are included for comparison's sake. Note: Grades take into account performance relative to preseason expectations. (All stats and records are through April 11.)
Atlanta Hawks -- Final grade: B | Record: 43-36, No. 6 in the East
Midseason grade: B | Midseason record: 24-18, No. 6 in the East
Things are far from settled in Atlanta, but things could have gone a lot worse. That's the dual sentiment after a solid bridge year between the monster payroll that first-year general manager Danny Ferry inherited and the financial flexibility he will enjoy this summer. The impending free agency and assumed departure of Josh Smith didn't meaningfully detract from Atlanta's success; neither did a season-ending knee injury in January for 14-point scorer Lou Williams nor the departures of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in trades last summer. Instead, the Hawks are back in a similar position as last year, when they finished fifth in the Eastern Conference.
Ferry's handling of his cap space, Smith and coach Larry Drew's expiring contract this summer will have far more to say about the organization's future than anything that took place on the court in the last six months. Near the top of the cap-space decisions will be point guard Jeff Teague, who is averaging career highs of 14.6 points and 7.2 assists while posting a personal-best 16.7 Player Efficiency Rating (PER). The 2009 first-round pick looks like a long-term, stabilizing starter, but a number of his draft classmates at the position (Ty Lawson, Stephen Curry, Jrue Holiday) set a strong early market by cashing in with multiyear rookie extensions that will pay them at least $10 million annually.
Boston Celtics -- Final grade: C | Record: 40-38, No. 7 in the East
Midseason grade: D+ | Midseaon record: 20-21, No. 8 in the East
Wouldn't you know it? After much early-season fretting, Boston ranks in the top five in defensive efficiency (points allowed per possession) for the sixth consecutive season, a run that began after Kevin Garnett's arrival in 2007. It's a remarkable accomplishment, given the roster/rotation upheaval that resulted from season-ending injuries to Rajon Rondo, Jared Sullinger and Leandro Barbosa, and the fact that seemingly half of coach Doc Rivers' current players started the season in the Chinese Basketball Association.
The offense is another story: Boston's No. 22 ranking is second worst among playoff teams (the Derrick Rose-less Bulls are 24th). The Celtics are poised for a battle of contrasts in their first-round matchup with the Knicks, who own the third-ranked offense. Will Boston have enough without Rondo, a wizard during the 2012 playoffs, to beat a hot Knicks team that possesses home-court advantage? If not, it will be the first time in the Garnett era that Boston failed to advance in the postseason. That wouldn't represent a total failure in the wake of Rondo's injury, but it would be a far cry from what Boston fans have come to expect.
Brooklyn Nets -- Final grade: B+ | Record: 46-32, No. 4 in the East
Midseason grade: B+ | Midseason record: 26-16, No. 3 in the East
Money might not be able to buy a championship, but gobs and gobs of it can certainly transform an organization. The Nets have the NBA's ninth-best record, a quantum jump from 22 victories in last year's 66-game season, when they tied for the league's fifth-worst mark. Kris Humphries (who signed a two-year, $24 million contract last summer) has disappeared and Gerald Wallace (four years, $40 million) has struggled, but the bargain signing of dirty-work ace Reggie Evans (three years, $5.1 million) has helped compensate for those big-dollar disappointments.
Brooklyn deserves credit for keeping it together after an ugly midseason coaching change, and Deron Williams' second-half renaissance makes it a sneaky threat in the franchise's first playoffs since 2007. But the Nets will be dealing with plenty of second-guessers if they lose in the first round with a payroll of more than $80 million.
Charlotte Bobcats -- Final grade: D | Record: 18-60, No. 15 in the East
Midseason grade: C- | Midseason record: 10-32, No. 14 in the East
It's never a good sign when your season peaks on Nov. 24. That's life for the Bobcats, who are headed for the NBA's worst record for the second straight season. Their 7-5 start under first-year coach Mike Dunlap has long since been forgotten; an 18-game losing streak will do that. Lest you think Charlotte's poor record is somehow an accident -- and there's no reason anyone would think that -- its basement dwelling is well-earned. Charlotte ranks No. 29 on offense (ahead of only Washington) and No. 30 on defense. If Wizards guard John Wall had returned a few weeks earlier from knee surgery, there's a good chance that the Bobcats would be dead last in both categories. The saddest number: Charlotte's margin of victory is a league-worst minus-9.8 points, or 2.3 points worse than that of the Magic, who rank 29th.
Some predictable off-court headlines have accompanied all of those struggles: Ben Gordon reportedly clashed with Dunlap before the trade deadline, while owner Michael Jordan reportedly told season-ticket holders that Dunlap's future would be evaluated after the season. GM Rich Cho's talent-acquisition cycle is proceeding slowly: Rookie Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is a keeper, Kemba Walker has made meaningful progress in his second season and ... that's about it, really. At least the draft lottery -- a Bobcats annual holiday -- isn't too far down the road.
Chicago Bulls -- Final grade: B+ | Record: 43-35, No. 5 in the East
Midseason grade: A- | Midseason record: 25-16, No. 4 in the East
It's difficult to get too excited about moral victories in the NBA, but the Bulls' ability to stay well north of .500 without Rose has been worth saluting all year long. Chicago's success is built around team defense, effort and monster minutes from Luol Deng, who has combined with Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah to form a productive frontcourt. If not for foot problems that have plagued him down the stretch, Noah would be hearing lots of Defensive Player of the Year buzz, as the Bulls are nearly six points per 100 possessions better when he's on the court. Meanwhile, Nate Robinson's finding a productive, positive home on a Tom Thibodeau-coached team and Jimmy Butler's emergence in his second season are among the league's most pleasant surprises.
How far can this plucky group go without Rose? Who knows. Assuming he doesn't return, though, Chicago would enter the postseason free from the burden of expectations.
Cleveland Cavaliers -- Final grade: C | Record: 24-54, No. 13 in the East
Midseason grade: C+ | Midseason record: 11-32, No. 13 in the East
An ideal season would have been one long, stress-free joyride of the Kyrie Irving Express to superstardom. But finger and shoulder injuries have cost the 20-year-old point guard 23 games. When he plays, though, he has looked like the single brightest spot on any team with fewer than 30 wins, and he fully deserved his first All-Star nod. Elsewhere, Cleveland saw progress from second-year big man Tristan Thompson, who improved his production after a season-ending injury to Anderson Varejao in mid-December, and an inefficient but somewhat tempting rookie year from Dion Waiters.
The Cavaliers should be players in free agency because they have zero bad future obligations on the books. With a few smart offseason moves followed by full years from Irving (who also missed 15 of 66 games as a rookie and 26 of 37 games as a freshman at Duke in 2010-11) and Varejao, the Cavaliers could make a leap in the East next season.
Dallas Mavericks -- Final grade: C- | Record: 38-40, No. 10 in the West
Midseason grade: D | Midseason record: 18-24, No. 11 in the West
Oh, man, did you hear the hilarious joke about the team that decided not to shave until it got to .500 and then never got to .500? That pact, and Dirk Nowitzki's frustration with a dismantled 2011 title-winning roster, have been the leading stories for the Mavericks.
These are tough times in Big D. The Mavs' most reliable players -- Nowitzki, Shawn Marion and Vince Carter -- are each 34 and older. Their most prominent younger player, 25-year-old O.J. Mayo, will likely be expecting a fat raise in free agency. How, exactly, does this group transform into the contender Nowitzki desires in time to make the most of the former MVP's final years? Who, exactly, will step up or step in as a long-term solution at point guard?
Credit the Mavericks for gamely flirting with the eighth seed and credit owner Mark Cuban for standing up to the heat for his roster decisions. But there's just no way that the franchise's first lottery trip since 2000 could be anything except a disappointment.
Denver Nuggets -- Final grade: A | Record: 54-24, No. 3 in the West
Midseason grade: B+ | Midseason record: 26-18, No. 6 in the West
Danilo Gallinari's season-ending knee injury a week ago was a gut punch felt not only by Nuggets fans but also by those curious to see whether this well-oiled, unique offensive machine could bury the "starless team can't be a big factor in the playoffs" line of reasoning. If full strength is no longer feasible, at least Denver is still far from cooked, having beaten the Rockets and Spurs by double digits since its second-leading scorer went down.
The second-half push that everyone anticipated once Denver's early home/road schedule disparity evened out was even stronger than expected thanks to winning streaks of nine and 15 games. George Karl is a top Coach of the Year candidate for leading a team without an All-Star to the league's fourth-best record overall and an NBA-best 36-3 at home behind a fast-paced offense that excels at scoring in the paint. But let's not forget GM Masai Ujiri, the architect of what is arguably the league's deepest team. Has he made a wrong move in Denver yet? How big did getting Corey Brewer for nothing turn out to be? How solid do his recent drafts look?
Detroit Pistons -- Final grade: D | Record: 27-52, No. 12 in the East
Midseason grade: D- | Midseason record: 16-26, No. 10 in the East
The "D" here is for discouraging, with Detroit heading for its fourth consecutive lottery season. Coach Lawrence Frank, currently dealing with another round of hot-seat talk, could be swept out after the season. It's not clear how he would make a case for staying, given the Pistons' well-below-average performance on both sides of the ball. Brandon Knight's flatlining from Year 1 to Year 2 is just one more troublesome reality.
But the future outlook is considerably brighter. Rookie Andre Drummond has put up franchise-player-type numbers in limited minutes (13.8 points, 13.7 rebounds and 2.8 blocks per 36 minutes at age 19), and the brutal contracts handed out and collected by president Joe Dumars are finally dropping like flies. Trading Tayshaun Prince and the nearly $15 million owed to him over the next two seasons in exchange for Jose Calderon's expiring contract was a good step in the housecleaning. Once Corey Maggette's contract expires at season's end, Detroit will be positioned to have gobs of cap room, even if it doesn't amnesty Charlie Villanueva. The key will be to build this whole program around Drummond while maintaining the financial discipline to not take shortcuts during that process, which could take years.
Golden State Warriors -- Final grade: A- | Record: 45-34, No. 6 in the West
Midseason grade: A | Midseason record: 26-15, No. 5 in the West
Despite a .500 second half, Warriors fans are understandably thrilled by the franchise's second playoff appearance since 1994. That's not the only thing to get excited about. Golden State's success, as tenuous as it sometimes seems, looks to be sustainable. Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson and Harrison Barnes are all locked in long term, a quality talent base with pieces that complement each other and produce a top-10 offense.
Jarrett Jack will either prove to be expensive to retain or a costly loss in free agency, and Andrew Bogut's health continues to be one of the most reliably unreliable facts of NBA life. This group's growth curve could be defined by management's willingness to take on money by shipping out Andris Biedrins' and/or Richard Jefferson's expiring contracts next year. Find a way to convert that dead money into functional players, even if overpriced, and a second step forward could be in the cards in 2013-14.
Houston Rockets -- Final grade: A | Record: 44-34, No. 7 in the West
Midseason grade: B+ | Midseason record: 22-22, No. 8 in the West
Having a superstar dropped into your lap is a sure way to jump-start a resurgence, but the Rockets' rise from afterthought to solid playoff team has been more than just the James Harden story. Two deals for restricted free agents -- neither of which seemed a guarantee when offered -- have paid big dividends, with Jeremy Lin (13.2 points, 6.1 assists) and Omer Asik (10.3 points, 11.7 rebounds) each averaging at least 30 minutes without missing a game. Credit management for finding and trusting former second-round picks Chandler Parsons and Patrick Beverley, and don't leave out coach Kevin McHale's all-for-one, fun-and-gun dynamic, which has helped keep the youngsters from fading.
With credit fully shared, it's time to come back to Harden. The first-time All-Star ranks 10th in the NBA in PER, performing every bit like a franchise player should.
If the Rockets were a stock, analysts would be unanimous in making "Buy" recommendations. That's because of the core's youth, the untapped potential of Thomas Robinson, Terrence Jones and others, and the organization's big-time financial flexibility that could lead to the acquisition of another star this summer.
Indiana Pacers -- Final grade: A- | Record: 49-29, No. 3 in the East
Midseason grade: B+ | Midseason record: 26-17, No. 5 in the East
When George Hill expressed frustration with a pro-Lakers crowd at a Pacers home game, the easy rush to judgment was to write it off. Lakers fans are everywhere, en masse, so what does he reasonably expect? But Hill had a point that couldn't be escaped: The Pacers are damn good. They play with effort, they have the top-ranked defense, they've made do wonderfully without Danny Granger and, above all, they have a diamond in first-time All-Star Paul George.
Yes, there are years of back story about strained team/fan relations, and there's plenty of other hoops to consume in the Hoosier state. But these guys deserve to feel the love. That's doubly true because the Pacers have sustained their success for back-to-back seasons. After finishing with the league's fifth-best record last year, Indiana is third in the East and eighth overall.
Additional firepower would probably help put more butts in the seats, but winning ugly and consistently shouldn't go unrecognized. Here's hoping a Knicks-Pacers series in the conference semifinals sets off Bankers Life Fieldhouse and that David West re-signs this offseason so that this core can continue to flourish as George develops.
Los Angeles Clippers -- Final grade: A+ | Record: 52-26, No. 4 in the West
Midseason grade: A+ | Midseason record: 32-11, No. 3 in the West
The Clippers have managed to prove people right and prove people wrong this season. Clippers buyers, bullish on the Chris Paul/Blake Griffin combination and the surrounding veteran talent, owned the first half of the season, which included a 17-game winning streak. Clippers sellers, concerned about suspect front-line depth and too many cooks in the backcourt kitchen, are feeling a little vindication now that L.A. has gone 9-8 in its last 17 games.
No team's season requires a zoomed-out, wide-angle lens more than that of the Clippers. Despite the recent hiccups, this is the best they've ever done. The 52 victories and .667 winning percentage are franchise bests, and L.A. recently clinched the team's first Pacific Division title. The players apparently don't want to hang the banner, holding out for some meaningful postseason success. But end-of-season graders need not be that stingy. Best ever -- especially for what was a perennial laughingstock -- is worth top marks. There will be plenty of time for postmortems if things fall apart in what is guaranteed to be a first-round bloodbath, regardless of the Clippers' opponent.
Los Angeles Lakers -- Final grade: Incomplete | Record: 42-37, No. 8 in the West
Midseason grade: F | Midseason record: 17-25, No. 12 in the West
The reasons should be obvious why the Lakers are the only team to receive an "Incomplete." Locked in a battle with the Jazz for the West's No. 8 spot, the Lakers have a three-game homestand to determine whether they will be one of the greatest disappointments in recent memory. The defensively challenged Lakers would likely make a quick exit if they reach the playoffs -- perhaps a second straight postseason loss to the Thunder -- but it would provide some serious face-saving and damage control compared to the alternative.
If the Lakers qualify, their grade would rise to a "C-," mostly out of respect to Kobe Bryant's tirelessness, which was on display Wednesday when he had 47 points, eight rebounds, five assists, four blocks and three steals in 48 minutes in a crucial victory at Portland. If they slip up and Utah gets in, the Lakers would deserve an "F" by anyone's standard, and that surely includes their own.
Memphis Grizzlies -- Final grade: B+ | Record: 53-25, No. 5 in the West
Midseason grade: B+ | Midseason record: 27-14, No. 4 in the West
The media jolts of panic and anger at the Rudy Gay trade (which I liked for Memphis) evaporated with alarming quickness, didn't they? A 14-1 run in February and March (albeit against a favorable schedule) was a strong response by Memphis to losing its leading scorer. Assuming good health, Memphis looks like its same old self heading into the postseason: a stingy, all-out and balanced defense carrying the load for a slightly below-average, deliberate offense that makes up for its lack of shooting with solid chemistry. Still a team nobody wants to face; still a team that fears nobody.
One final positive development: This feels like the year Marc Gasol, a borderline genius on both ends, finally started to get the media recognition he deserves and that his solid-not-spectacular statistics don't always attract.
Miami Heat -- Final grade: A++ | Record: 62-16, No. 1 in the East
Midseason grade: A- | Midseason record: 27-12, No. 1 in the East
Some of these grades require explanation. This one does not. Twenty-seven straight wins -- a serious challenge to a 41-year-old record for consecutive victories that was thought to be untouchable. No. 1 offense. No. 7 defense. League's best record. Eleven-game lead (!) in the East. LeBron James' averages: 26.9 points, 8.1 rebounds, 7.2 assists, 1.7 steals, 56.3 percent shooting, 40.3 three-point shooting, league-leading 31.6 PER, all combining to slam the door on the notion that the MVP award could be given in good conscience to anyone else. Good night.
Milwaukee Bucks -- Final grade: C+ | Record: 37-41, No. 8 in the East
Midseason grade: B | Midseason record: 22-18, No. 7 in the East
The Bucks are crawling to the finish line and don't deserve real praise for making the playoffs with a losing record in a conference lacking depth. The positives are clear: Larry Sanders is a beast, Monta Ellis will likely opt out (which will allow the team to move on, too) and the Bucks are in a position to re-sign J.J. Redick.
The negatives start at point guard. Brandon Jennings hasn't made life easy after not receiving a rookie extension, and he's also hit only 40.1 percent of his 15.7 shots per game. Oof. Jennings' frustration is understandable; mediocre has been the default operating system for a franchise that has advanced in the playoffs in only one year since 1989 (the year he was born!). But his frustration is also, well, frustrating, considering his overall inconsistency and inefficiency. This tension is difficult to resolve: He would play better with better teammates, for sure, but he also needs to play better, period.
With Ellis, Jennings, Redick, Samuel Dalembert and Mike Dunleavly all likely headed to free agency of one form or another, substantial roster changes are coming. Thanks to No. 1 seed Miami, summer for No. 8 Milwaukee will start any day now.
Minnesota Timberwolves -- Final grade: D | Record: 29-49, No. 12 in the West
Midseason grade: C | Midseason record: 17-22, No. 10 in the West
There were two clear high points in a season that was one, long, gruesome train wreck: Coach Rick Adelman won his 1,000th game, an astounding accomplishment, and Lazar Hayward told reporters that he has been able to "see a spirit" during a meeting with a medium. Oh, yeah, Ricky Rubio returned from ACL surgery, too, but he never had the weapons in place around him to deliver, in full, on the talent we've been waiting to see now since 2009. Where do they go from here?
New Orleans Hornets -- Final grade: C | Record: 27-52, No. 14 in the West
Midseason grade: C+ | Midseason record: 14-28, No. 15 in the West
Little was expected and relatively little was delivered, although coach Monty Williams found a way to piece together a passable offense (No. 15 in efficiency) in a slow-down style that helped cover for his team's lack of experience and depth. Don't glance at the Hornets' record and mistake them for the hapless Suns or Bobcats. There's a core in waiting, needing some major polish, that will ideally include Anthony Davis, Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson, Greivis Vasquez, Austin Rivers and Robin Lopez. And New Orleans has flexibility to add to it this summer.
That group isn't without questions. Can Gordon stay healthy and be happy in New Orleans? Can Rivers put an atrocious rookie season behind him? Can Davis add the necessary strength and develop his game to become a franchise cornerstone? The Hornets will be interesting to watch for the answers to those questions and more.
New York Knicks -- Final grade: A | Record: 51-27, No. 2 in the East
Midseason grade: A | Midseason record: 25-14, No. 2 in the East
New York is the only Eastern Conference team that can look in the mirror and -- without a trace of self-delusion -- say the words: "If we play our best, we have a chance to beat a full-strength Miami team four games out of seven." (Indiana might disagree.) That doesn't mean it will happen, and most people would happily bet against anyone except Miami's making the Finals, but the Knicks deserve the "Most Credible Threat" title. Their 14-4 start and recent 13-game winning streak suggest a quality and consistency of play, built on a high-efficiency, multifaceted offensive attack and a good-enough defense, that is simply absent among their fellow conference challengers.
There have been injuries, swoons and juggled rotations that combine to create enough ammunition for the skeptics. But after the post-Linsanity anger and a summer's worth of jokes about their retirement-home frontcourt, the Knicks are flying high. New York is shooting for its first playoff-series victory since 2000 after wrapping up its first Atlantic Division title since 1994. Full marks for that.
Oklahoma City Thunder -- Final grade: A+ | Record: 57-21, No. 1 in the West
Midseason grade: A+ | Midseason record: 33-10, No. 1 in the West
I noted above that the Bobcats easily trail all 29 other teams with a margin of victory of minus-9.8. The Thunder are the inverse Bobcats. Oklahoma City's league-leading plus-9.3 margin of victory leads No. 2 Miami (plus-7.8) by 1.5 points and has been topped only once since 1998, by the 2007-08 title-winning Celtics (plus-10.3).
The Thunder do it on both ends despite their reputation as an offense-first machine, ranking No. 2 in offensive efficiency and No. 4 in defensive efficiency. They do it at home (fourth-best record) and on the road (second-best record). They've been doing it so well for so long that seemingly every two-game losing streak sets off alarm bells because, frankly, we've all been spoiled. The chief spoiler is Kevin Durant, who has maintained his 50/40/90 shooting into the season's final week. In a world without LeBron James, he would be the clear king.
If you had to bet your life on one team's being capable of dethroning Miami, it would be the Thunder -- despite the one-sided 2012 Finals and the Harden trade. They're that talented, aggressive, fine-tuned, deep, big, long and just that good.
Orlando Magic -- Final grade: C | Record: 20-59, No. 14 in the East
Midseason grade: C+ | Midseason record: 14-27, No. 12 in the East
The fall was fast and furious after a 12-13 start, aided by one injury after another. The good news is that lots of young guys have seen lots of minutes. Five rookies and three sophomores have played, with Nikola Vucevic (12.9 points and 11.9 rebounds for the season), Andrew Nicholson (10.3 points in 28 starts), Tobias Harris (16.9 points and 8.8 rebounds in 24 games since arriving in a trade with Milwaukee) and Mo Harkless (13.5 points, 5.5 rebounds in 27 games since the All-Star break) all giving various reasons for optimism. Next year -- and probably the year after that -- will be more of the same, but meaningful financial flexibility isn't too far down the road.
Philadelphia 76ers -- Final grade: D | Record: 31-47, No. 9 in the East
Midseason grade: C- | Midseason record: 17-25, No. 9 in the East
Kaboom. Season exploded. The Sixers are in the discussion for most painful offseason, a fact that coach Doug Collins made clear in his memorable rant about the fallout from the blockbuster trade for Andrew Bynum that backfired. Bynum, of course, never took the court because of a knee injury. Meanwhile, Collins' future is in question. Former No. 2 pick Evan Turner remains far short of delivering on his lofty draft position. And even the biggest positive of the season -- the emergence of All-Star point guard Jrue Holiday -- has hit some choppier waters in recent weeks.
Every problem traces to the absence of Bynum, a legitimate franchise center who left a franchise-sized hole in Philadelphia. For every GM intrigued by the possibility of attempting to buy low on Bynum after a lost season, there's another GM thinking, "I'm so glad my job doesn't depend on those knees." Holiday's breakout kept a glum season from being a complete failure; get that man some help.
Phoenix Suns -- Final grade: F | Record: 24-55, No. 15 in the West
Midseason grade: F | Midseason record: 14-28, No. 14 in the West
This is the bottom of the barrel, Charlotte included. The Suns signed Michael Beasley to a lucrative multiyear deal (inexcusable); parted ways with Alvin Gentry after saying they would retain him for the season (confusing); sloppily promoted Lindsey Hunter (strange); lost members of their coaching staff who felt Hunter's promotion hadn't been earned (embarrassing); lost the most games in the West (sad); patched together a roster lacking in cohesiveness and logic (brutal); and didn't play first-round pick Kendall Marshall real minutes until February (illogical).
At least they reunited the Morris twins and gave president Lon Babby an extension, right? I'm already covering my eyes in fear contemplating how they will use their cap space this summer. This rebuild could take awhile.
Portland Trail Blazers -- Final grade: C | Record: 33-45, No. 11 in the West
Midseason grade: B | Midseason record: 21-21, No. 9 in the West
The Blazers had their narrative all ready to go: Star rookie Damian Lillard powers his team to the outskirts of the playoff chase, exceeding expectations and winning back the hearts and minds of Blazermaniacs. It almost played out that way -- for his part, Lillard plugged through some minor slumps and held strong through 3,000-plus minutes to breeze to Rookie of the Year honors, catapulting himself right next to LaMarcus Aldridge at the top of the organization's known quantities -- but not quite.
Portland is in the midst of an ugly nine-game losing streak that could easily reach 13 games by season's end, a free fall that's brought it right back to where most analysts saw the team entering the season (30-35 wins). This one wasn't rocket science. The Blazers' lack of depth -- obvious from training camp -- and subsequent over-reliance on the starting lineup simply caught up to them. Take away one key player -- Aldridge, Wesley Matthews or Nicolas Batum -- and the whole house of cards folded. The Blazers must beef up the rotation so coach Terry Stotts can ease the load on his key guys.
Sacramento Kings -- Final grade: C+ | Record: 28-50, No. 13 in the West
Midseason grade: D | Midseason record: 16-27, No. 13 in the West
This is the most generous grade of all, but the players earned it. The Kings are ahead of two Western Conference teams, and could still pass a third (the Timberwolves), amid story after story after story about the franchise's future since a January agreement to sell the team to a group of Seattle-area investors. It's hard to imagine any organization's culture being more toxic to winning. Some players get fined or disciplined for sending an errant tweet or showing up late to practice. How do those "distractions" compare to this three-month-long mess (after years of previous messes) that is deeply personal and emotional by its very nature?
They might go; they might stay. Fans campaign; local businesses raise money. Lawyers hash out arena plans; politicians hold news conferences. And, somehow, a nonsensical roster has beaten the Bulls, Clippers, Rockets and Jazz in recent weeks, and pushed the Heat to double overtime in one of the most memorable games of the year. That's impressive, even if there have been plenty of losses and DeMarcus Cousins flare-ups along the way, too.
Somehow, in spite of it all, this season will go down as Sacramento's best winning percentage since 2007-08! That's admittedly a low bar, but where would expectations have reasonably been set in October if we had a time machine to view how this sale process would unfold? Fifteen wins? Eighteen wins?
San Antonio Spurs -- Final grade: A | Record: 57-21, No. 2 in the West
Midseason grade: A | Midseason record: 34-11, No. 2 in the West
So we meet again. There's always that one precocious student whose homework doesn't really need checking, whose Scantron tests come back clean, whose reports read like teacher's manual templates. The Spurs are that student. Duh.
Of all the silly stats that define their consistent excellence, this is my favorite: San Antonio has won at least 61 percent of its games in 19 of the last 20 years. (In 12 of those 19 years, including this season, that number jumps to more than 70 percent, but I digress). This winning habit predates Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gregg Popovich; it dates to the days when Kawhi Leonard was still teething.
Parker, who is looking to get healthy for the playoffs after late-season ankle and neck injuries, has sparked San Antonio to a No. 7 offense that finds layups and wide-open corner threes like clockwork. Duncan, enjoying roughly his 15th renaissance, has captained a defense that has improved from 11th last season to third this season. Overall, this goes down as "just another great season" for San Antonio, whose highest highs are skyscrapers, but it adds to a legacy that is now best measured in decades, rather than years.
Toronto Raptors -- Final grade: D+ | Record: 30-48, No. 10 in the East
Midseason grade: C- | Midseason record: 15-27, No. 11 in the East
Is Andrea Bargnani still on the roster? (Yes.) Did Bryan Colangelo really trade for Gay thinking he would make them appreciably better? (Yes.) Was Kyle Lowry's first season in Canada full of more red flags than initially expected? (Yes.) Are there perhaps four contracts on the books that would be worth amnestying if it were legal? (Yes.) Did DeMar DeRozan try to shame John Hollinger for predicting Toronto would win 33 games, only to put up a below-average PER for a team that will win no more than 34 games? (Yes.) Do the Raptors, who are missing the playoffs for the fifth straight season, at least have a lottery pick to look forward to? (No, unless they land in the top three.) Does anyone expect management to answer to the realities behind this silly list of rhetorical questions that could go on all day? (Nope!) Did Terrence Ross win the Slam Dunk Contest? (He sure did, and it wasn't too bad. Let's agree to focus on that one.)
Utah Jazz -- Final grade: B- | Record: 41-38, No. 9 in the West
Midseason grade: B | Midseason record: 23-19, No. 7 in the West
It's tempting to just give Utah a "pass" in a pass/fail system rather than a letter grade in response to its decision to punt on the Al Jefferson/Paul Millsap questions at the trade deadline (the team's two leading scorers are pending free agents). Unlike the Lakers, the success of their season doesn't hinge on sneaking into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. This is a mediocre result whether they get in (like last season, when the top-seeded Spurs promptly swept them) or not.
The Jazz have been respectable, a touch frustrating to many and perhaps a bit confusing in the swings from winning streaks to losing streaks and back again. Outside the diehard fan segment, which has every right to seek perfection every year (because that's the point), why demand or expect more from this particular group? What was the realistic ceiling after their baseline of play (hovering around average) was set after a few months? In the big picture, little besides the progress of young players such as Derrick Favors, Gordon Hayward, Enes Kanter and Alec Burks will matter in a few weeks, once the reality of having just six players on guaranteed contracts for next season is fully processed and the free-agent possibilities begin to be considered.
Washington Wizards -- Final grade: C+ | Record: 29-50, No. 11 in the East
Midseason grade: F | 9-31, No. 15 in the East
Most improved, and it's not even close. The Wizards were one of only three teams (along with the Suns and the Lakers) to receive failing marks at midseason. Gee, I wonder why. Perhaps the absence of John Wall and the inability of his replacements to generate quality looks for teammates had something to do with it. Washington is above .500 since the midseason evaluation point, boasting a winning percentage that is in line with the East's No. 7 seed. That's not gangbusters, sure, but it's light years better than the 0-12 start. There's improvement to be found virtually everywhere. Wall has improved his jumper and decision-making, making his case for a rookie extension. Bradley Beal progressed rapidly over the course of the season before a leg injury ended his rookie year two weeks ago. Washington's defense is tied for seventh after ranking 23rd last season. No one could fault Wizards fans for targeting the eighth seed next season, though wiggle room is limited after adding the expensive contracts of Nene, Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza last offseason.