Of the 30 teams, seven earned A's at the midseason point, while two brought home F's. (Getty Images)
The midway point of the season is here. How has your favorite team fared? Below are grades for all 30 teams.
Note: Grades are primarily determined by first-half performance relative to preseason expectations. The letter grade also takes into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major offseason moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, will be reflected in the letter grade and detailed in the accompanying explanations.
(All stats and records are through Jan. 23.)
Atlanta Hawks: B-plus
22-19, No. 3 in the East
Remember when the Monopoly Community Chest would hit you with the "You have won second prize in a beauty contest, collect $10" card and you didn't know whether to excitedly cash it in or take offense at what could be interpreted as a subliminal dig at your appearances from an inanimate board game? Congrats to the Hawks, the third-best team in a two-team conference, the NBA's ultimate beauty-contest runner-up.
Cynics will point out that Atlanta is barely above .500, has lost franchise big man Al Horford for the season and -- barring a a terrible catastrophic injury to an opposing superstar -- has zero shot of reaching the conference finals, rendering its No. 3 seed pretty worthless. Optimists will note that the Hawks were expected to be a sixth-seed type and have outperformed the likes of Brooklyn, New York and Chicago during what was supposed to be a retooling year as general manager Danny Ferry continued to get his roster house in order.
Both sides have merit, but I tend to side with the latter group because of the Hawks' money management. Judge, let's enter this player comparison as Exhibit A:
Josh Smith: 15.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 40.8 percent shooting, 23.9 percent three-point shooting, 14.4 PER, 102.5 offensive rating, 105.1 defensive rating, four years and $54 million
Paul Millsap: 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 46.8 percent shooting, 38.1 percent three-point shooting, 20.1 PER, 103.8 offensive rating, 102.3 defensive rating, two years and $19 million
The "Millsap over Smith" decision looked intelligent at the time and it looks genius now. Ferry got the better scorer, the better rebounder, the better shooter, the better three-point shooter, the smarter shot-taker and the more efficient overall player -- and he paid 70 percent of the annual price and 35 percent of the total price to get it done. He ditched a player with historically awful shot selection for a strong All-Star candidate. In short, that decision has already paid dividends and it will continue to pay dividends next summer, and it's worth bumping up this grade a notch from an otherwise bland "B," even if the Hawks' Horford-less postseason reality looks pretty hopeless.
GOLLIVER: The All-Gridiron Team -- NBA players who would dominate in the NFL
Boston Celtics: C-minus
15-29, No. 12 in the East
There was a brief stay atop the putrid Atlantic Division and a few scattered patches of hope early in the season, but the Celtics have crash-landed to a predictably dismal resting place. The Celtics are just 1-12 since New Year's Eve, their offense is an eyesore, their front line couldn't keep Muggsy Bogues off the offensive glass and Keith Bogans apparently couldn't take it any more. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
There's only so much you can say about a team whose first-half highlight was either blowing out New York so badly in a noon game that Knicks coach Mike Woodson decided to impose a curfew for their next early tip; giving a touching tribute to former coach Doc Rivers on the JumboTron; floating the concept of an insanely complicated draft lottery wheel; or trading Jordan Crawford for a shot at a future first-round pick.
Rajon Rondo's return -- and the possibility for trade-deadline fireworks -- casts a different light over the second half of the season. The worst-case scenario is that they tank their way through March and April, which also happens to be their best-case scenario. Dragging through a lost year is never an enjoyable experience, but at least first-year coach Brad Stevens has had some flashes as he makes the transition from the college game.
GIVE AND GO: Scoping the comeback trails of Rondo, Oden and more
Brooklyn Nets: D
18-22, No. 7 in the East
An 8-1 run through January kept this from being an abject failure, but don't think for one second that anyone has forgotten just how low things got before the new year. "Hit me." The painful Jason Kidd/Lawrence Frank divorce. Two solid months of flat play. A $100 million roster, whose future picks are mortgaged to the hilt, dropping games to the Cavaliers, Magic, Kings, Bobcats, Pistons, you name it. The embarrassing early exit during a blowout loss to the Spurs. An unfortunate season-ending injury to franchise center Brook Lopez. Another disappointing, injury-plagued season for Deron Williams. A truly rough start to Kevin Garnett's post-Celtics era.
It must be mentioned -- particularly for veteran-laden teams with established talent -- that things could always be worse in the East. Brooklyn is within 2½ games of the Atlantic Division lead and 3½ games of the No. 3 seed, and it's almost impossible to imagine that the second half of the season will come with as much adversity as what Kidd and company have already endured. Big picture: The Heat and Pacers aren't going to fear the Nets in the playoffs, but a division title would at least help the franchise save a little face as it plots its next (sure-to-be-exorbitantly-expensive) move.
MAHONEY: Examining the future of USA Basketball
Will newcomer Al Jefferson
lead the Bobcats to a playoff trip? (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Charlotte Bobcats: B+
19-25, No. 8 in the East
[Rubs eyes] What's this? A bona fide overachiever in the Eastern Conference? Michael Jordan's Bobcats have been a source of guffaws for years, but their play through the first half deserves applause. First-year coach Steve Clifford has transformed the league's worst defense from last season into a the seventh-ranked unit -- better than ... wait for it ... the two-time defending champion Heat! Undeterred by multiple rotation-impacting injuries, Clifford has duct-taped together a roster filled with anonymous cast-offs and kept the Bobcats in the playoff picture into January, foreign land for the franchise since the Gerald Wallace trade in 2011.
The arrival of Al Jefferson hasn't provided much of a boost to the offense, which stills sits in the league's bottom five, and Charlotte's résumé of quality wins is thin. But the Bobcats have almost matched last year's win total (21) already. Toss in the awesome Hornets rebrand and the increasing likelihood that Charlotte will have three 2014 first-round picks, and the last few months have bordered on a boom time.
CODY ZELLER: Rookie diary: Life in the NBA can snowball on you
Chicago Bulls: D
21-20, No. 5 in the East
Please don't read this "D" as short for "disrespect." The fact that coach Tom Thibodeau somehow has his injury- and trade-decimated team posting the league's second-best defensive numbers would be truly insane, at least if everyone didn't react to that fact by nodding and saying, "Of course he does." Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler are treading together on an Odyssian/Herculean journey that, at best, ends with prideful anguish like last year. That's a steep, sad drop from what was expected in October, as news of Derrick Rose's summer rehab workouts trickled out and Chicago looked like a genuine championship contender, and perhaps Miami's fiercest competition. That lasted all the way until Nov. 22, when Rose injured his knee on a fluky play against the Blazers and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery.
There's just no way to spin a season in which Larry O'Brien dreams are dashed by Thanksgiving, and no organization can reasonably expect to play the "We bravely overachieved through the loss of our franchise player!" card in back-to-back seasons. Trading Luol Deng to the Cavaliers for financial relief and minor draft considerations was seemingly an acknowledgement that Bulls management understood this fact, or at least realized it was time to stop clinging to the present and recent past. A team's fate is rarely under its own control, and the remaining Bulls, unfortunately, are bystanders to their own tragedy. The knee-injury gods bear the brunt of this "D" mark.
GOLLIVER: Grading the Bulls, Cavaliers for the Luol Deng trade
Cleveland Cavaliers: C-minus
15-27, No. 10 in the East
Like most red-blooded Americans, I'm a big fan of HBO's Hard Knocks, the documentary series that goes behind the scenes with a team during NFL training camp. It's always entertaining and enlightening, bringing formerly anonymous players (often on non-marquee teams) to a nationwide audience.
Now, let's imagine a twisted version of this show called Media Glare, in which we transport the New York City basketball media-industrial complex to a random smaller market and turn it loose on an unsuspecting NBA franchise. Ratings gold.
My pick for the first season of Media Glare would be the Cavaliers, who entered this season with a coach they had previously fired (Mike Brown), an injury-ravaged center who openly admitted to tuning out Brown during Lakers huddles (Andrew Bynum), a shocking No. 1 pick coming off injuries and quickly entering the discussion for biggest bust ever (Anthony Bennett), a potential J.R. Smith-in-training (Dion Waiters), a "quirky" owner who is desperate to win immediately (Dan Gilbert), a promising forward who just realized he is left-handed, or wait, is he right-handed (Tristan Thompson), and a media-savvy future superstar (Kyrie Irving). Just imagine the ratings potential for that group, especially if it fell on its face to open the season.
Even without the scrutiny of Media Glare, the drama material out of Cleveland has been nonstop. Brown has had some harsh words for his team after losses. Waiters disappeared amid rumors of a locker-room fight. Bynum was suspended and then traded for Luol Deng. Bennett's Player Efficiency Rating of 1.1 is barely greater than his draft position (1) and it's among the very, very, very worst among qualified players. Irving's moonshot trajectory has cooled just a touch and he's overseeing a bottom-six offense, with some observers questioning whether he's a bit too quick to call his own number.
The trade for Deng was a bold, timely move that promises brighter days for this team over the next three months. Whether the Cavaliers lose Deng in free agency or overpay to keep him is irrelevant to their grade here; what matters, for these purposes, is that their goal of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2010 is still within reach, as they sit just three games out of the eighth seed. Had they continued to slog along with Bynum or, worse yet, cut him outright with nothing to show for it, an "F" would have been the only recourse.
MAHONEY: Wall over Irving? My picks for NBA All-Star starters
At 35, Dirk Nowitzki
is still a nightmare for opponents. (Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
25-19, No. 8 in the West
The Lakers would kill to be the Mavericks, wouldn't they? Let's go down the checklist. Aging superstar enjoying an All-Star-caliber season? Check. A few savvy free-agent signings to power a strong offense and ramp up the fun quotient? Check. The possibility of meaningful games through April, with the added benefit of taking a shot at playing first-round spoiler? Check and check.
Everything that hasn't worked out for the Lakers has gone according to plan for Dallas, which is riding mainstay Dirk Nowitzki (21.1 points, 47.9 percent shooting, 23.2 PER) and newcomers Jose Calderon (11.7 points, 45.1 percent three-point shooting) and Monta Ellis (20 points, six assists, 46.1 percent shooting, 18.0 PER) to a No. 7 offense that can shoot it out with the NBA's best on any given night. The Mavericks have enjoyed good health for those three, plus Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, and that's been enough to work around the 23rd-ranked defense and a fairly glaring hole in the middle that's contributed to the No. 27 rebounding rate.
Complaining about the Mavericks' state of affairs would be a waste of breath and time: They are just about dead-on with preseason expectations. It would similarly be folly to get too enamored with Nowitzki's strong bounce-back season; he just doesn't have the horses around him to make any real noise in May.
MAHONEY: Why Dirk Nowitzki still means everything to the Mavericks
Denver Nuggets: C-minus
20-21, No. 10 in the West
To be clear: The real damage was done during the offseason with the departures of general manager Masai Ujiri, coach George Karl and swingman Andre Iguodala. There was no way for Denver to take those three punches and pretend like nothing happened, but the resulting season has been even more deflating than expected.
Injuries are part of that: Danilo Gallinari never returned, undergoing a second and season-ending knee surgery this week, and big-money center JaVale McGee was lost to a stress fracture in early November. Really, there isn't a more depressing phrase than, "Our $10.8 million center has logged more minutes on his Oprah Winfrey Network reality show than he has on the court."
Some of the deflation is coming from the lingering uncertainty caused by the transition. Compared to last season, the Nuggets are slightly worse on offense and defense, they are playing at a slightly slower pace and they are way, way worse at protecting their usually stellar home-court advantage (they are just 11-9 this year after going 38-3 last year). Coach Brian Shaw has proved he means business by standing up to backup point guard Andre Miller, but he hasn't yet succeeded in crafting a true identity for his club. That process can now be expected to stretch even longer given Gallinari's new recovery timeline, which could stretch into next season.
A gold star to Ty Lawson for doing his best to keep things afloat, but that's little consolation when the good vibrations of last year's 57-win campaign can no longer be heard in the distance. The immediate question is whether Denver can claw back into playoff position, but that pales in comparison to the long-term worries that accompany a star-less roster that seems to have lost its magic chemistry.
DOLLINGER: Nuggets at No. 12 in latest NBA Power Rankings
Detroit Pistons: D-minus
17-25, No. 9 in the East
The Pistons might try to camouflage themselves in the Eastern Conference muck -- they are one of five bubble teams separated by four games -- but we shouldn't let that happen. Why not? There are at least $83 million reasons why not -- namely, the offseason money dumped into Josh Smith ($54 million over four years), Brandon Jennings ($24 million over three years) and Chauncey Billups ($5 million over two years).
How are Joe Dumars' latest round of investments panning out? Smith is in the discussion for the most self-destructive offensive force in the league. Not only is his shot chart almost entirely red (that's not a good thing) but he's also on pace to become the first player to shoot worse than 25 percent from beyond the arc while attempting at least three three-pointers (minimum 700 minutes played). He hasn't made a significant impact on Detroit's defense (20th in efficiency this year, 23rd last year) and his pairing with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond has fizzled offensively, leaving the Pistons stuck yet again. Do they try to sell off Smith? (What's the market at this point?) Do they try to cash in Monroe before his offseason payday (which is coming, one way or another)? Or do they grit their teeth and continue with their patented brand of expensive, sub-mediocre basketball?
Jennings isn't helping matters. He's shooting 37.4 percent and committing a career-high 3.1 turnovers, and his 106.6 defensive rating is among the team's worst. As for the 37-year-old Billups (who is dealing with life after a torn Achilles)? His PER is a microscopic 5.9 and he's played only 18 games, so any contribution he's making falls under the oblique "veteran leadership" heading. This is a good reminder that the only people who should be getting paid millions to make speeches are former presidents.
The silver lining here is that Drummond has been granted a significantly larger role in his second season, and he's responded by scaling his production in a way (12.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.4 steals, 60.4 percent shooting, 21.4 PER) that hints at All-Star potential as soon as next year. The 20-year-old big man is a true franchise building block, but the first half of Detroit's season suggests that Dumars has made a mess of the construction plans. The Pistons' outlays were so large in scope that they should have theoretically been in position to compete for home-court advantage once the conference fell apart around them. Instead, they have work to do simply to earn the right to be bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Even worse, their 2014 first-round pick will transfer to the Bobcats unless they tank their way to one of the league's eight-worst records. Just bad, bad, bad.
MAHONEY: Pistons' frontcourt still finding its way with Josh Smith
's standout play has earned him the first All-Star nod of his career. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
26-17, No. 6 in the West
The public opinion/hype pendulum swings faster with this team than just about anyone else in the league. The Warriors went from championship contenders to disappointments to possible contenders again in less than three months. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, as it usually is, and Warriors fans should be pleased that Golden State survived Andre Iguodala's extended injury absence without compromising its shot at a top-four seed. This team is not taking the world by storm, but it is holding on to a spot in the West's loaded top six, an accomplishment that shouldn't be pooh-poohed.
Coach Mark Jackson leans so heavily on his top-six players (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson average 37.9 minutes apiece and fellow starters Iguodala and David Lee play at least 33) that Golden State is constantly one injury away from another swing on the pendulum back toward disappointment. Impartial observers should be crossing their fingers that the hypothetical, rotation-wrecking injury never comes. In addition to being one of the league's most exciting five-man groups, Golden State's starters are also one of its most balanced and devastating. In more than 500 minutes together, the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodal, Lee and Andrew Bogut has posted a phenomenal plus-19.9 net rating, meaning they are capable of blowing out just about anyone at any time. The Bogut/Iguodala pairing has also powered Golden State to a No. 5 defensive rating, helping pick up the slack for an offense that hasn't quite been as potent as last season's.
Bogut said this week that the Warriors are "close ... but not there yet" when it comes to contention, and perhaps the onus is on management to seek reinforcements before the Feb. 20 trade deadline. General manager Bob Myers has already made one move in swapping Toney Douglas for Jordan Crawford, and the time to be proactive is now with a roster that's loaded up salary-wise and a core that's hoping to build off its 2013 second-round appearance. Perhaps an extra set of hands (or two) can turn those lofty preseason expectations into reality.
GOLLIVER: Winners and losers from NBA All-Star starters announcement
29-15, No. 5 in the West
Dwight Howard's arrival wasn't going to answer every question and solve every problem for the Rockets, but he's succeeded in reaching one, overarching goal so far: nudging Houston up one notch from the playoff bubble to the conference's second tier. In many ways, the Rockets' year is what the Lakers expected last season with Howard. A fully healthy Howard has found a way to make an offensive impact without killing James Harden's vibe while taking the Rockets' defense from average to No. 10, even though he hasn't played alongside a traditional power forward and Omer "Disgruntled" Asik has provided only headaches.
The pace of Houston's dunks-and-threes offense has slowed somewhat compared to last season, but it still stands as an incredibly effective point-generating machine. The Jeremy Lin/Patrick Beverley combination, when healthy, is one of the better two-headed point guard monsters, and Chandler Parsons (17.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals) is generating career-best numbers while handling huge minutes.
Taking the next step -- from the fringe to the center of the championship-contention discussion -- falls on management's shoulders, not Howard's or Harden's. Houston entered camp with major questions at power forward, and while Terrence Jones has emerged from a deep pack of candidates for those minutes, he still feels like a less-than-ideal solution. The Asik quandary also hangs there, and finding a resolution by the trade deadline surely continues to be Houston's top priority. Rotation gaps and redundancies aside, the Rockets are fun, improved as a two-way team, in possession of two A-list superstars and owning some chips to play next summer. The start to their season suggests that by this time next year they could be ready to move up into the conference's top tier.
MANNIX: Rockets' star-studded duo still working out the kinks
Indiana Pacers: A-plus
33-8, No. 1 in the East
The team with the NBA's best record stands as the single easiest grade in the league. The Pacers are sitting in the front row of the class, they're turning in their homework early, they're acing every test and they're even volunteering to help the janitors mop the classroom floors. Never has a teacher's pet been this imposing: Indiana's defense is the league's best by nearly five points per 100 possessions, it's lost just one game to a team currently below .500 and it has scored signature wins over the Heat, Spurs, Clippers (twice), Rockets and Warriors.
Entering the season, The Point Forward saw Indiana as one of four teams (along with Brooklyn, Chicago and New York) that could conceivably give Miami a run for their money in the East. Not only are the Pacers the only one of that quartet left standing, but they also lead the Heat by three games for home-court advantage and appear championship-ready. The bugaboos continue to be their offense (No. 17, up slightly from last year) and turnovers (No. 25 in turnover rate), but their defense is so potent and disciplined that they should be able to book a trip to the conference finals without a second thought.
It's not hyperbolic to state that Indiana has achieved sustained excellence, a height that few teams, including last year's Pacers, manage to reach. The Pacers are therefore deserving of all the accolades that come with that, and it could wind up being a long list. Paul George (23.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 46.2 percent shooting, 39 percent three-point shooting, 22.6 PER) has grown into a top-five MVP candidate and no-brainer All-NBA selection. Roy Hibbert (12.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, No. 1 defensive rating in the league) should be the runaway Defensive Player of the Year winner. Lance Stephenson (career highs in virtually every category) has emerged as a key playmaker and a Most Improved Player candidate. And Frank Vogel should be among the leading vote-getters in the Coach of the Year race.
Perhaps the most magnetic aspect of the Pacers' season has been their total focus on claiming the No. 1 overall seed, a drive that reflects a confidence that they can unseat the Heat and a vision for their own greatness. Something tells me that the Heat and Pacers will cause a lot of "This is the best matchup in the East since the Bad Boys Pistons and the early-Jordan Bulls" ink to be spilled between now and June.
MIDSEASON AWARDS: Hibbert unanimous Defensive Player of the Year
is expanding his game -- but he's still pretty good at this. (Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images)
Los Angeles Clippers: B-minus
29-15, No. 4 in the West
You can't claim one of the West's top-four seeds without being really good, and the Clippers, who boast the league's sixth-best point differential, are really good. They're also resilient: Los Angeles is 7-3 without Chris Paul, whose separated shoulder is just one of many injuries sustained by its deep perimeter corps. Still, the cumulative effect of a rejiggered rotation (enter Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison, exit Eric Bledsoe), the juggling lineups and Paul's absence has made this somewhat of a downer start to the season, especially when contrasted to L.A.'s 2012-13 start, which was full of woofing, turnover-generating defense and a month-long winning streak.
Coach Doc Rivers arrived last summer riding a wave of hype and a strong offseason only served to ratchet up expectations. We took Rivers' decision to cover up the Lakers' title banners at Staples Center as a sign that the Clippers meant business, but instead their championship-ready makeover hasn't fully formed yet. The offense, which many felt had a chance to be the league's best, has essentially duplicated last year's results (No. 4 ranking in 2012-13, No. 6 ranking this season). The defense, which was supposed to benefit from Rivers' magic touch, also hasn't taken a significant step forward (No. 9 ranking last year, No. 8 this year). The roster's major problems -- interior depth and the late-game reliability of DeAndre Jordan -- remain.
Whether the Clippers are actually stuck on a plateau or merely pacing themselves in preparation for the playoffs remains to be seen. Either way, nobody delivers as many high-flying thrills, and Blake Griffin (22.6 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 22.5 PER) deserves credit for doing a little bit of everything to keep things on track. The next three months will be about ditching the "same old, same old" vibe and recapturing the "new and improved" excitement that swirled in the fall.
VIDEO: Griffin throws down huge dunk as Lakers' Kaman ducks for cover
Los Angeles Lakers: D
16-27, No. 13 in the West
Consider this a merged "D" grade: Los Angeles gets a "C" for playing almost exactly to expectations on the court and an "F" for all of its unfortunate injury news (and its truly unfortunate contract extension for Kobe Bryant). Entering the season, The Point Forward saw the Lakers as a non-factor in the Western Conference playoff picture, a team that was more or less dead on arrival without cohesive parts on offense and totally devoid of defensive talent. That's exactly what has played out: The Lakers are a bottom-10 squad on both sides of the ball, they've gone 3-14 since Dec. 21, and they're 8½ games out of the eighth seed in the West. Even if Bryant and the other key sidelined pieces (Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, etc.) magically returned tomorrow, this just isn't a playoff team.
L.A.'s struggles have produced a few storylines that have, if nothing else, helped pass the time before the 2014 draft lottery. Farmar made a triumphant return from overseas before going down to injury. Kendall Marshall has had a chance to compile large assist totals in his second NBA chapter. Nick Young has provided some off-brand star power in Bryant's absence, making sure that the Lakers' beat writers always have something to write about. Young -- aka "Swaggy P" aka "Swagtime" aka "Swag Mamba" aka whatever -- is ultimately a style-over-substance fill-in for a legend whose future remains unclear.
You know what's really swaggy in my book? Shooting above league average from the field (something Young has never done in his seven-year career), putting together a roster capable of posting a defensive rating that doesn't look like a Death Valley temperature in mid-August (something the Lakers didn't even really try to do) and smartly managing the salary cap (something the Lakers kicked to the curb by signing Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension). You know what else is swaggy? Being a relevant factor in the postseason. Bryant's quick knee injury after his return from an Achilles tear dashed any chance of relevance for this season. His league-leading contract and the barren roster around him paint a similar picture on L.A.'s horizon.
GIVE AND GO: Sizing up Kobe's contract extension with the Lakers
20-20, No. 9 in West
This has been a dizzying free fall for the Grizzlies, who have plummeted from a franchise-best 56 wins last year to .500 this year, and from a dazzling trip to the conference finals to fourth place in the Southwest Division. The major extenuating factor, of course, is a knee injury that sidelined Marc Gasol for nearly two months. The Spanish big man is the Grizzlies' centerpiece on both sides of the ball, and his absence made for a Memphis team that bears little resemblance to last year's group. In 2012-13, the Grizzlies' grit-and-grind defense ranked second. This season, Memphis is 17th in points allowed per possession, buried near the unimpressive likes of Cleveland and Orlando. Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will surely help pick things up on that end now that he has returned, but he is tasked with a major excavation effort.
The good news: Memphis sits just three games out of the playoff picture and could well replace Phoenix or Dallas by season's end, thanks in large part to All-Star-caliber play from point guard Mike Conley (18.1 points, 6.3 assists, 20.8 PER) in Gasol's absence. The bad news: The clock was already ticking on the Grizzlies' veteran-dominated core group, and just squeaking into the playoffs won't be enough to consider this season a success.
Indeed, the rough start to the season has been a reminder that contention windows can open and close with incredible quickness in the uber-competitive West. Falling out of the conference's top tier -- for any reason, injuries included -- forces the Grizzlies to ask some tough questions. Can first-year coach Dave Joerger resurrect the team's elite defense, or did their premier play on that end depart with former coach Lionel Hollins? Is a roster whose perimeter corps features the recently acquired Courtney Lee, the dilapidated Tayshaun Prince and the injured Quincy Pondexter capable of keeping up with the West's premier offenses? Is it worth maintaining a payroll that's nearly in the luxury-tax territory for a team that's looking at an uphill battle to win a single playoff series? Is it time to start imagining a life without Zach Randolph, who is making $17.8 million this season and can become a free agent in the summer? Have we reached the point where this team's core should really only consist of the Gasol/Conley pairing?
These aren't questions that Memphis thought it would be facing so quickly after its 2013 joy ride, but they will all loom large unless Gasol can lead a major turnaround by April.
COURT VISION: Making the case for Mike Conley as an All-Star
Life isn't bad for the Miami Heat these days. (Bobby Metules/Getty Images)
Miami Heat: A
31-12, No. 2 in the East
The Heat held training camp in the Bahamas and they've been sipping Mai Tais and scoping out the bikinis ever since. I, for one, will not hold that against them. Some might crush the two-time defending champions a little bit for coasting, but it must be acknowledged that they are 24-6 (.800) when Dwyane Wade plays and that LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh are all approaching career lows in minutes per game. How many times do we need to see the Spurs surprise people before we realize that reducing some of that workload will pay dividends later? Shouldn't we point out that James (No. 2 in PER), Wade (No. 16) and Bosh (No. 30) all remain elite weapons, together representing, once again, the best trio in the league?
The championship-level intensity on defense hasn't been there on a night-to-night basis: Miami has slipped to No. 11 in defensive efficiency, its lowest mark since James arrived in 2010, and the reigning MVP acknowledged recently that his team has had to find ways to stay motivated after three straight runs to the Finals. Panic, or anything close to it, would be silly. Even with Wade resting often and Bosh playing less, the Heat have the league's second-best offense, and they are the only Eastern Conference team that ranks in the top 11 in that category. It's therefore difficult to envision how the Heat's first two playoff opponents, whoever they might be, will avoid being treated like cream puffs.
Nobody benefits more from the weak East than the Heat, who can save their bullets, mold Michael Beasley, test-drive Greg Oden and prepare for their clash with the Pacers and, if they prevail, another battle with the West winner. With more than four months to go before the Finals, it's easy for NBA junkies to forget that the Heat's entire season really boils down to those final 14 games. Everything that's unfolded suggests that Miami itself hasn't forgotten.
MAHONEY: What will Team USA look like without LeBron in 2014?
Milwaukee Bucks: F
8-33, No. 15 in the East
Let's start with two pieces of good news. First: Milwaukee took a chance in drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo and smartly realized immediately that: A) his development should be a top organizational priority, and B) he was an Internet sensation waiting to happen who demands saturation coverage. That's led us to the point where the 19-year-old Greek rookie is averaging 23.2 minutes -- that's more than Andre Drummond last year -- and roughly 1,426 gushing blog posts per week by people who are rightfully captivated by his long arms, gigantic hands, crazy upside, adorable smile and general all-around friendliness.
Second, Bucks.com writer Alex Boeder continues to fight the good fight despite a brutal season, hilariously noting earlier this month that seldom-used, 25-year-old rookie Miroslav Raduljica was enjoying a higher PER than LeBron James during his own rookie season. That is some warm, tasty brew to wash down a really, really bitter pill of a 2013-14 season. Well done.
Everything else has been a train wreck. Their offense ranks dead last, their defense ranks 20th, newly extended center Larry Sanders leads the league in embarrassing headlines, O.J. Mayo has basically flamed out and a summer spent accumulating middling veterans (Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal) has led to a league-worst record and a steady supply of frustrated postgame comments.
It seemed like the Bucks had spent enough ($24 million for Mayo, $15.6 million for Pachulia, $13 million to the Delfino/Neal pairing, $44 million to lock up Sanders, $5.5 million payroll increase in the Butler trade) to reach their usual standard of banal mediocrity. Instead, they are a surprise tank with all sorts of unnecessary gizmos and ill-fitting parts. As soon as you start thinking, "Hey, Andrew Wiggins is just the guy to turn that whole franchise around," you can't help but reverse course entirely, instead settling on "Man, I hope Andrew Wiggins goes somewhere else."
MAHONEY: Short Corner: Scatterbrain thoughts about the NBA
20-21, No. 11 in the West
Minnesota is sharing a lot of the same "outside the playoffs looking in" disappointment as Denver and Memphis, but its plight might be more comparable to Detroit's given the level of offseason expenditures. Quickly, a reminder: New president Flip Saunders shelled out $60 million to Nikola Pekovic, $27.8 million to Kevin Martin, $15 million to Chase Budinger, $14.1 million to Corey Brewer and $3 million to Ronny Turiaf, and the franchise has since taken on $4.4 million worth of future money to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. That's nearly $125 million (!) of investments that haven't moved the needle compared to last season, when Minnesota was 17-24 at this point despite a bunch of injuries.
The spending was a calculated gamble to keep All-Star forward Kevin Love (25 points, 13 rebounds, 4.1 assists) happy, but his frustration with his teammates boiled over again earlier this month. The 2015 free-agency period is now just 18 months away, and the 25-year-old Love is staring straight at the possibility of a sixth straight lottery trip.
Yes, the Timberwolves are the "better than their record" poster child. In fact, the Timberwolves rank in the top 10 in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Somewhat astoundingly, their point differential ranks seventh, better than that of the Warriors, Rockets, Suns and Mavericks. The obvious explanation for the disparity between their statistical body of work and their record: a 5-15 mark in "clutch" games (within three points with five minutes to go), per NBA.com.
Underperforming so badly in close games could be viewed as a sign that Minnesota is due for some late-game luck. It could also be seen as a symptom of a serious problem at point guard, where Ricky Rubio (8.6 points, 8.2 assists, 35 percent shooting) has struggled with his jumper and confidence to the point that he's been repeatedly benched down the stretch, and J.J. Barea (8.7 points, 3.5 assists, 40.5 percent shooting) just isn't someone you want deciding your team's fate in the game's biggest moments night in and night out.
Individually, Minnesota's offseason moves were logical, and in some cases (particularly Pekovic) the alternative would be far worse than the current reality. Together, though, the moves have put Minnesota over the cap for next season, and none of its newcomers (many of whom can be classified as overpaid) carries much in the way of trade value. The Wolves lack young prospects, too. Because of these factors and Love's free agency next year, the Timberwolves badly needed to end their playoff drought and generate some momentum this season. There might not be another team in the league that needs a second-half turnaround more than this one.
RELATED: Pekovic starting at Left Guard on The All-Gridiron Team
has dazzled, but the Pelicans
have been plagued by injuries. (Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images)
New Orleans Pelicans: D
16-25, No. 12 in the West
The Pelicans looked promising until the ambulance sirens began to overwhelm. Look, the roster theory -- ride the positionally balanced and athletically gifted quintet of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis as far as they could go -- had merit. Lots of merit, really, as Davis is a budding superstar, Holiday is a 2013 All-Star point guard who plays both ends and Anderson remains one of the NBA's best-kept secrets. In the limited time that lineup has played together, it's posted an off-the-charts offensive rating of 123.5, which more than hints at possible playoff potential.
That five-man roster theory doesn't work when two of the five pieces -- Holiday (leg) and Anderson (neck) -- are sidelined for an extended period of time. New Orleans is just 2-10 in January, a stretch that has killed its playoff hopes and could soon send it all the way to the Western Conference basement.
What's left to play for down the stretch? Well, every outing is worthwhile for Davis (20.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, three blocks, 1.5 steals), who has turned in an All-Star-type season in his second year. The 2012 No. 1 pick is on track to become the first 20-year-old to post a PER of greater than 26, and he regularly does things (block turnaround jump shots, come clear across the court to snag an offensive rebound or alley-oop lob) that few others can accomplish.
Besides gawking at Davis, the injury-ravaged start has left the Pelicans to seriously consider the tank game. If their 2014 first-round pick lands outside the top five, they must convey it to Philadelphia, and New Orleans can certainly use a top-end talent infusion. The Pelicans' best-case scenario is to tank and tank hard, doing whatever it takes to keep that pick, even if this organization might have thought it was through playing Ping-Pong ball gymnastics as recently as a few months ago.
MANNIX: 2014 NBA Big Board 3.0: Race for No. 1 grows tighter
New York Knicks: F
15-27, No. 11 in the East
Oklahoma City Thunder: A-plus
33-10, No. 1 in the West
Here's a list of the teams whose records have been compromised by injuries to a key player or players: Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Golden State, the Lakers, Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix and Utah. That's nearly half of the NBA. Notably absent from that list: the Thunder, who enjoyed Russell Westbrook's services for just 822 minutes before he was sidelined with his third knee surgery since April. With Westbrook, Oklahoma City was 21-4; without him, it is 12-6, including an extraordinary five-game winning streak with victories over Houston, Golden State, Sacramento, Portland and San Antonio in one week's time.
All things are possible through the greatness of Kevin Durant. After repeatedly informing the world that he was sick of placing second to LeBron James and the Heat, the NBA's scoring leader has done something about it this season. Durant has snatched the first-half MVP title from James thanks to a preposterous statistical output that has lifted Oklahoma City to first place in the West.
If you've found yourself wondering, "How does he do it?" as Durant has piled up four games of 46 or more points in January, realize that he's starting to wade into uncharted waters. He's putting together one of the most marvelous individual seasons in league history. Durant is averaging 31 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals, a line that has been achieved only once previously (Michael Jordan, 1988-89). Meanwhile, Durant is shooting 50/41/88 even though his usage rate is 31.9; that type of shooting efficiency in such a major role has been approached only once before (Larry Bird, 1987-88). This, again, is greatness.
This hasn't been a one-man effort. After all, no club can put together a conference-leading defense without team-wide contributions, but Oklahoma City would be lost without him. Durant's continued growth has allowed Serge Ibaka to stay inside his wheelhouse offensively, helped Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb assimilate to larger roles and helped cover up for the limited offensive contributions offered by at least half of the Thunder's Westbrook-less rotation.
Oklahoma City has lots of players, including the guys mentioned plus the always reliable Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and rookie Steven Adams, but this is very much a "Jordan and the Jordanaires" vibe, where all roads eventually lead back to Durant. He's been otherworldly, and he's made Oklahoma City sensational. The prospect of a Westbrook comeback keeps the Thunder as the West's favorites.
MAHONEY: How Durant, other veterans are handling bigger roles
has produced plenty of highlight plays -- and turnovers. (Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images)
Orlando Magic: C-minus
11-32, No. 14 in the East
Projected as one of the league's worst teams, Orlando has certainly lived up (down, really) to that billing in Year 2 of the post-Dwight Howard era. I thought this rebuilding Magic group would be a little bit friskier. On paper, an established backcourt and a handful of young pieces, many with considerable athletic gifts, looks like a good formula for springing upsets. Instead, the Magic have beaten only four teams currently above .500, they're winless against the Western Conference since Nov. 6. and they're doing their best to sneak wins here and there from the East's dregs.
The loss of Nikola Vucevic to a concussion weighs heavily in their struggles: The Magic are 1-14 without their third-year starting center, who represents the only real size on the roster. Vucevic is averaging a double-double (13 points and 11 rebounds) for the second straight season, and he has all the makings of a stable building block. The other dominant stories: a mid-career breakout scoring year for Arron Afflalo (a career-high 20.6 points and a career-best 18.1 PER) and an entertaining-but-inefficient rookie season from No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, who produces spectacular highlight plays and misses jumpers with the best of them.
Off-court planning is clearly a bigger deal than on-court developments for general manager Rob Hennigan, who continues to stick tightly to the tear-it-down script. The Magic finally bought out Hedo Turkoglu. They're tracking toward good cap flexibility next summer and another top-five pick. They could also land a second lottery pick by way of the Howard trade, depending on how Denver and New York finish.
Slow and steady wins this race. In that vein, the voices suggesting that the Magic sell off Afflalo, who is under contract through at least 2014-15, don't make a lot of sense. If significant progress isn't made by this time next year, with the benefit of an offseason to fill out the roster, then it will be time to reassess.
GOLLIVER: Magic's Afflalo starts on SG on The All-Ignored Team
Philadelphia 76ers: B
14-28, No. 13 in the East
It's hard for any team winning one-third of its games to inspire true excitement, but the Sixers deserve praise for vastly outperforming the "Possibly Worst Team Of All Time" label they carried into training camp. General manager Sam Hinkie can't ask for much more out of his group: The Sixers electrified the league with a three-game winning streak to start the season, somehow swept a four-game Western Conference road trip and have the Rookie of the Year front-runner in Michael Carter-Williams, the most pleasant surprise of the 2013 class.
There have been many losses -- including many blowout losses -- along the way for the Sixers, who possess the league's second-worst point differential, but the organization was prepared for that. More important, the key variables that could determine their next steps have all lined up just fine. Carter-Williams' play has been the headliner, but 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel hasn't suffered any setbacks in his knee rehabilitation and could be cleared soon, while Tony Wroten (13 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists) has delivered as a worthwhile, low-budget flyer. Thaddeus Young (17.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 17.6 PER) and Evan Turner (18.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists) have been able to showcase their abilities, setting up the possibility of some trade-deadline excitement.
A rash of injuries to the Pelicans has also been an indirect blessing for the Sixers. New Orleans owes Philadelphia its 2014 first-round pick as long as it doesn't land in the top five. The injury-ravaged Pelicans look headed for a spot in the back half of the lottery, barring a full-fledged tank job. That would be perfect for the Sixers, whose own pick could end up in the top five. So while this season might not be a conventional success for Philadelphia, it's hard to see what exactly has gone wrong.
ROUNDTABLE: Carter-Williams the midseason Rookie of the Year favorite
Phoenix Suns: A
24-17, No. 7 in the West
To observers, the out-of-nowhere Suns have been delightful to watch. To opponents, their high-pressure defense, relentless attacking of the basket and youthful exuberance have been a royal pain in the neck. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek is in the Coach of the Year discussion for his ability to mold a group short on star power into a determined, team-first unit that has defeated Portland, Houston, Golden State, the Clippers and Indiana even though it entered the season projected to be the West's worst team.
Eric Bledsoe's knee injury is a real bummer, and it's taking a little bit of the shine off of Phoenix's great start. With Bledsoe, who has looked like a Most Improved Player candidate since arriving from the Clippers in a summer trade, Phoenix is 16-8; without his 18 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals, Phoenix is 8-9. The fourth-year guard has been the explosive, foul-drawing, basket-attacking menace that many could see developing behind Chris Paul, but his pairing with Goran Dragic (19.4 points, 5.9 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals) has worked out better than anticpated. Many expected them to struggle sharing the load, but the two playmakers have worked in tandem very well, allowing Phoenix to keep constant pressure on opponents and creating easy opportunities for the Suns' secondary scoring options.
The list of guys on this roster playing better than expected goes on and on. Gerald Green? He's averaging a career-high 13.7 points and hitting 37 percent of his threes on more than six attempts, making him a dangerous perimeter weapon. Miles Plumlee? From barely used by Indiana as a rookie last season to a cool 9.7 points and 8.7 rebounds this season. The Morris twins? As trash-talky as ever, but both have career-high numbers across the board to back up the yapping.
Can the Suns hold on to a playoff spot? They're likely to be in a dogfight with Dallas, Memphis, Denver and Minnesota for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. Whether they make the postseason or not isn't all that important in the big picture; this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and general manager Ryan McDonough has accumulated tons of extra picks and will enter next summer without any bad contracts on the books. Their unexpectedly awesome start deserves the attention it has received, but we shouldn't lose sight of the fact that Phoenix is set up nicely for continued success next season and beyond.
JENKINS: Bledsoe speeding Suns' present by rekindling the past
and the Blazers have made it look easy this season. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
32-11, No. 3 in the West
The league's biggest surprise has fully earned its top mark. Portland -- seen as a playoff bubble team entering the season after back-to-back lottery trips -- has nearly matched its 33-win total from last season despite the fact that its biggest offseason acquisitions were Robin Lopez (dumped by the Pelicans) and Mo Williams (signed for cheap after the Jazz went a different direction).
The bulk of the credit for the Blazers' rise goes to coach Terry Stotts, the heavy Coach of the Year favorite, who has delivered on his offensive-guru reputation by constructing the league's most potent attack. Balancing heavy doses of three-point shooting from Damian Lillard (21 points, 42.4 percent on 7.2 attempts), Wesley Matthews (16.9 points, 42.3 percent on 6.3 attempts) and Nicolas Batum (12.8 points, 35.9 percent on 5.1 attempts) with steady pick-and-pop sniping and isolation success from LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers' offense has frustrated opponents through smart construction and disciplined reads. Rare is the Portland possession that ends with a bad shot or sees a player try to freelance outside his strongest skill set.
Aldridge has played like a top-five MVP candidate, putting up career numbers (24.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists), and he's never looked happier or more comfortable. A dedicated student of the game who has studied Tim Duncan and watches video clips of defensive coverages on his iPad during timeouts, Aldridge has cultivated a better feel for when to exert himself late in games. He's also surrounded by teammates he can trust to make defenses pay for over-committing.
Lillard, meanwhile, has made marginal improvements defensively since his rookie season while growing into one of the NBA's most confident and lethal shooters at point guard. Together, the Aldridge/Lillard pairing gives Portland a strong star base to build around in the next few years, as Aldridge (set to become a free agent in 2015) recently indicated that he's interested in negotiating a contract extension.
The Blazers have made it look easy, in large part because they haven't faced much adversity. Their excellent starting five, a lineup posting a strong plus-10.1 net rating, has already logged nearly 900 minutes, and no starter has missed a game because of injury. That's been huge, because Williams has been the only truly dependable bench player for Portland, whose below-average defense really starts to strain when multiple reserves hit the floor. Though the Blazers have defeated a number of top-shelf teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State), their strength of schedule has been among the weakest in the Western Conference, per Basketball-Reference. While a second-half cool-off could be coming, the Blazers did so much quality work early that their standing among the West's top teams isn't going to be thrown off by a little regression.
When the playoffs open, Portland will be seeking its first series victory since 1999-2000. Though the Blazers shouldn't be considered a lock to advance, they look way, way more dangerous than anyone predicted in October.
GIVE AND GO: Best calls, worst mistakes from SI.com's Top 100 players of 2014 list
Sacramento Kings: C
15-26, No. 14 in the West
A decade of Maloofery wasn't going to be undone in three months, and it hasn't been. It's too easy to peg the Kings as stuck in a "same old, same old" rut, but Sacramento does find itself in familiar environs, facing fit questions on offense, terrible defensive numbers and a bevy of inflated contracts to marginal producers that make it difficult to break out of this cycle of losing.
New ownership can pursue as many forward-thinking marketing moves as it likes -- which so far have included a Guinness World Record for indoor crowd noise, the acceptance of Bitcoin as a legal form of tender for tickets and a streaming Google Glass in-game experience -- but those shades of lipstick can't hide the porky contracts being paid to Carl Landry (injured for most of the season after signing a four-year, $26 million deal in the offseason) and Rudy Gay (acquired in a December trade with the Raptors, he's owed $17.9 million this season and possibly $19.3 million next season), among others. Sacramento is shelling out nearly $30 million combined this season to Landry and four players (Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams and Travis Outlaw) who have posted below-average PERs. A mini max extension for DeMarcus Cousins kicks in next season, and starting point guard Isaiah Thomas will be expecting a big payday come summertime, so the roster refurbishing and cap quandaries aren't going anywhere anytime soon.
First-year coach Michael Malone has come onto the scene as one of the league's most intense personalities, unafraid to take his team to task or go after the officials over disputed calls. He has overseen career years for both Cousins (22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, three assists) and Thomas (19.5 points, 6.3 assists) and found a way to fit in Gay offensively, but Sacramento's defensive shortcomings, particularly discipline and awareness on the perimeter, continue to hold the team back. These guys clearly still have a long way to go, but at least they'll be able to make that journey unencumbered by last season's circus act.
GOLLIVER: Kings' Thomas makes The All-Payday Team for breakout season
(left) and Tim Duncan are playing career-low minutes, but still winning. (Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images)
San Antonio Spurs: A
32-10, No. 2 in the West
Still really good. Not too old.
For the umpteenth year in a row, that's the six-word story of the Spurs, who have shaken off a heartbreaking collapse in the 2013 Finals by racing out to another strong start this season. Boasting a top-five offense, a top-five defense and the league's second-best point differential, the Spurs have feasted on the weaker East (12-2) while struggling against some of their top competition in the West.
Coach Gregg Popovich continues to adroitly manage the minutes of his best players, as Tony Parker (18.4 points, 6.3 assists, 51.6 percent shooting, 20.5 PER) is the only Spur to average 30 minutes. That deep distribution of playing time has continued despite injuries to Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and (this week) Kawhi Leonard, but neither the injuries nor the large minutes for lesser-known role players has stunted San Antonio's accumulation of victories.
The Spurs' balanced system, which has produced the league's top assist rate for the second straight season, continues to chew up the opposition, even if Tim Duncan (14.5 points, 47.3 percent shooting) isn't quite playing to last year's standard. Typical brilliance from Parker, a mini-resurgence from Manu Ginobili (12.6 points, 4.6 assists, 20.4 PER) and serious sharpshooting from newcomer Marco Bellineli (11.1 points, 49.3 percent from three-point range) have more than picked up the slack.
Leonard's hand injury will have Spurs observers sitting on pins and needles for the next month or so, but the big-picture plan is still intact. If the Spurs enter the postseason with good health for Parker, Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili, they will join Oklahoma City as the West's two blue-chip favorites. The magnitude of their playoff success will likely hinge on whether Duncan is able to approximate his beastly 2013 postseason performance. Popovich's "slow and steady wins the race" treatment should have his 37-year-old big man prepared to make another memorable run.
VIDEO: Popovich hugs Jeff Van Gundy during sideline interview
Toronto Raptors: A-minus
21-20, No. 4 in the East
Nothing Was The Same for the Raptors once they hired general manager Masai Ujiri, who breathed life into the organization by dumping Andrea Bargnani last summer. That move displayed a competence that had been lacking in Toronto in recent years, and following it up by quickly sending Rudy Gay to Sacramento showed that fit and logic would triumph over name recognition under this new regime. Gay's resurgence in a more compact role with the Kings is irrelevant to the Raptors' first-half mark: Toronto is clearly a better, more inspired and more fun team since his departure (6-12 with Gay, 15-8 without him).
Addition by subtraction rarely is this cut-and-dried. Kyle Lowry (16.1 points, 7.3 assists, 39.7 percent three-point shooting, 19.5 PER) and DeMar DeRozan (21.8 points, 17.8 PER) have made cases for All-Star selections as they have filled in the gaps, and the Raptors' ball movement has picked up noticeably (Toronto averaged 17 assists before the trade and 22.5 since). The trade will pay dividends for years to come, too, as it places a greater burden on promising young center Jonas Valanciunas (10.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 14.2 PER), who hasn't yet taken the leap forward this season that The Point Forward anticipated. The Lithuanian center is still just 21, though, and coach Dwane Casey is making him earn his minutes as Toronto has emerged to compete for a division title.
Casey's Raptors are back to scrapping defensively like they did in 2011-12, and Toronto ranks just behind Charlotte as the most-improved team on that end. The Raptors have leaped from 22nd in defensive efficiency last year to sixth this year. They excel at defending the basket area (top five in opponent shooting percentage from five feet and in) and limiting opportunities from beyond the arc (sixth in opponent three-point attempts).
In sum, it might be argued that the Raptors have performed a little bit over their heads, but they've done it by playing intelligent defense and unselfish offense and by making a savvy trade that improves their cap and basketball picture. Drake should be proud.
GOLLIVER: Drake handles player introductions during Raptors game
Utah Jazz: C
14-29, No. 15 in the West
The Jazz possess the Western Conference's worst record and the league's third-worst point differential, which is right on track with preseason prognostications. Replacing Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson with the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins was a clear recipe for short-term heartburn and long-term asset acquisition, and that's where Utah finds itself.
The return of 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke from a finger injury has given Jazz fans reason to watch, something that was clearly lacking during their 1-12 run without him. Burke (13.5 points, 5.6 assists, 39 percent shooting, 14.4 PER) has fit the stereotype of a young guard getting his bearings as he transitions to the NBA, but he's been an upgrade over the comically bad minutes-fillers who were standing in during his absence. Burke's net rating of minus-5 is unsightly, but it blows away Utah's minus-11 when he's been off the court. His return has also made life easier for leading scorer Gordon Hayward (17.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists), whose shooting numbers (42.1 percent overall, 32 percent from three-point range) took a major hit when he was thrust into the role of lead playmaker earlier this season.
Utah ranks last in defense, the product of a talent-deficient rotation and the calculated decision to throw young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter into major roles. Favors, who signed a four-year, $48 million extension in October, has done fairly well (13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 51.8 percent shooting), but Kanter has been more of a mixed bag. The 2011 No. 3 pick has a team-worst defensive rating of 110.7, and he hasn't been able to scale his rebounding rate from his two previous seasons in expanded minutes.
The Jazz hit the halfway mark confident that Burke is a keeper and with the knowledge that paying whatever it takes to retain Hayward next summer will be a worthwhile endeavor. Past that, they're left counting down to the draft lottery with loads of roster holes to address during the offseason. A full-on, late-season tank makes all the sense in the world for the Jazz, who need a franchise-defining talent.
MAHONEY: Hayward among players named to USA Basketball pool
20-21, No. 6 in the East
Washington joined the Clevelands and Detroits of the world in seeking a lottery-to-playoffs leap this season, and that plan is tracking nicely. Unfortunately, achieving a .500-ish record and a middling playoff seeding came at the expense of its 2014 first-round pick (top-12 protected), which had to be sacrificed to the Suns to acquire Marcin Gortat as a hole-plugger for the injured Emeka Okafor. The Wizards knew what they were doing when they made that move, and so far a strong season from John Wall (20 points, 8.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 20.3 PER) has prevented that calculated risk from backfiring.
Outside of Wall, who has been a surefire All-Star, the Wizards don't have a ton to hang their hats on. They are decidedly mediocre on offense and nothing to write home about defensively, and coach Randy Wittman, who survived some early-season hot-seat talk, has employed a very short rotation to squeeze out every last win. Six Wizards play at least 29 minutes a game, including Bradley Beal, who was among the league leaders in minutes before sustaining a stress injury to his leg in late November. The 2012 No. 2 pick has bounced back from the injury nicely, averaging 17.1 points and shooting 44.2 percent from deep, and he looks destined for All-Star appearances in years to come.
Assuming the Wizards' key players can remain healthy, watching the Wall/Beal combination get its postseason legs should be a treat. Otherwise, this has been a "meh" season. That's an improvement on the "immensely frustrating and often unprofessional" vibe that has dominated in recent years, but it still falls short of a top-shelf standard. If Washington is bounced quickly in the first round (or disaster strikes), expect a regretful round of second-guessing over the loss of its draft pick from outsiders. PS: Yes, No. 3 pick Otto Porter is in the NBA; he just hasn't done anything yet.
RELATED: Wall slotted at receiver on The All-Gridiron Team