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NBA grades: Final marks for all teams

How did your team fare this season? It's time to face the grades.

Before turning our full attention to the playoffs, it's time to hand out regular-season grades for all 30 teams. Midseason grades, delivered in late January, are included for comparison's sake. Grades are determined by performance relative to preseason expectations and also take into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major offseason moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, are also considered in the grading process. (All stats are through April 13; records and team stats are through the end of the season.)

Index: Team grades

Atlantic: Raptors, Celtics, Nets, Heat76ersKnicks
Central: Cavaliers, Bulls, BucksPacers, ​Pistons
Southeast: Hawks, WizardsHeat, Hornets, Magic
Northwest: Trail Blazers, ThunderJazz, Nuggets, Timberwolves
Pacific: Warriors, ​ClippersSuns, ​LakersKings
Southwest: SpursRocketsGrizzlies, ​Mavericks, Pelicans

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Atlanta Hawks: A+

Record: 60-22
Midseason grade: A+

Off. Rating: 6 | Def. Rating: 7 | Net Rating: 4

At a glance: Atlanta is a fantastic example of quickly-inflated expectations totally warping perception. For the last month or so, the talk around the Hawks has largely been how they’ve “fallen off” a bit, and how the surging Cavaliers have moved past them to the top of the list of East contenders.

• MORE NBA: Alternative awards | Postseason primer | Playoff questions

While it’s true that the second-half Hawks haven’t quite matched their first-half performance, they’ve still been excellent. Consider: Atlanta’s 24-12 record since SI.com handed out midseason grades translates to a 54-win season, meaning that the Hawks would still be the East’s No. 1 seed if they had played at this “falling off” pace all season. Atlanta was not picked to be among the East’s best outfits last fall and it will conclude the season with something in the range of a 10-game cushion over the rest of the conference. Really, the only standard the Hawks haven’t met lately is the absurdly high bar they posted by rattling off 19 straight wins in December and January, and coach Mike Budenholzer has wisely chosen to rest his players down the stretch rather than stress for meaningless regular-season wins.

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Although All-Star Weekend saw four Hawks land on the East’s roster, the end-of-season awards won’t be treating the franchise as kindly. Budenholzer deserves serious Coach of the Year consideration, especially in light of the Danny Ferry scandal from last summer, but he has been outkicked by Warriors coach Steve Kerr down the stretch and likely won’t win the award. He’s also up for Executive of the Year, but his best roster move this year was “Welcoming Horford back from injury” rather than any particular signing or trade, which makes his case a tough sell. Paul Millsap (16.8 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3 APG) and Al Horford (15.2 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 3.2 APG) deserve All-NBA consideration, but both could easily wind up getting snubbed. It’s not particularly easy to win 60 games and get totally shut out of the awards, but maybe that’s how the Hawks would prefer it. They’ve been at their best when they are overwhelming unsuspecting opponents, and the “favorites” label carries a heavy burden.

Atlanta does face a number of questions as it enters the playoffs. Are Horford, Millsap and Jeff Teague ready to make the first deep run of their careers? Will the Hawks succeed in controlling the pace and style of play once the postseason hits, a la the 2014 Spurs, and will they stick to their guns late in close games? Will a strong defensive team, with the benefit of game-planning, find a way to muck up or throw off Atlanta’s machine-like attack? Will one of the East’s bigger teams find a way to exploit their relatively weak defensive rebounding, thereby forcing adjustments? Can they do something that no East team has done since 2010: topple LeBron James? Those questions will help set the terms for the 2015 playoffs, but they are all irrelevant in gauging Atlanta’s regular-season performance. The only possible grade here is A+.

• MORE NBA: Meet the Hawks, the NBA's superstar less contenders

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Boston Celtics: B+

Record: 40-42
Midseason grade: B-

Off. Rating: 20 | Def. Rating: 13 | Net Rating: 18

At a glance: There aren’t many things that everyone in the NBA can agree on, but “Brad Stevens is doing a hell of a job” definitely falls on that list. Under Stevens, Boston has managed to climb into the East playoff picture by posting a top-10 point differential since the All-Star break, even though Rajon Rondo, Jeff Green, and Brandan Wright were all moved in midseason deals and the team’s one potential franchise player, rookie guard Marcus Smart, has been better known as “the guy who suffered a vicious ankle injury” and “the guy who pounded Matt Bonner’s privates into a pulp.”  

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Celtics president Danny Ainge has been extraordinarily busy as he continues his multi-year rebuilding plan, and his recent run of moves looks good. He plucked Tyler Zeller (10.2 PPG, 5.7 RPG) from the Cavaliers last summer, he cashed out on Rondo and Green at the appropriate time for solid returns, he snagged Isaiah Thomas (19.5 PPG, 5.4 APG in Boston) from Phoenix at the deadline to bolster a backcourt that needed some punch, and he added a second-round pick by charging Doc Rivers a “father tax” to acquire Austin Rivers, among others. It’s difficult to be as active as Ainge without leaving yourself open to second-guessing, but his asset-accumulation vision is clear enough and his pile of future picks is getting deep enough that there’s really not much room to nitpick. The big “How do the Celtics get a star?” question still hangs, of course, but the groundwork is being laid methodically and logically.

Unless the Celtics spring a monumental upset in the first round of the playoffs, observers would be wise to moderate their “little engine that could” celebrations. Yes, Stevens’ bunch has overachieved, but this is still a team that’s under-.500 and playing relevant games in April only because the East is composed of five real teams and 10 unfinished products.

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Brooklyn Nets: C-

Record: 38-44 
Midseason grade: D

Off. Rating: 18 | Def. Rating: 24 | Net Rating: 22

At a glance: There’s that old movie premise of the absent parent, after years of no-shows, sheepishly coming around with an expensive gift for a child. The act invariably causes the audience to dismiss the present, roll its eyes, sigh, and ask that killer question: “Where were you when it mattered?” Brooklyn’s late push back into the bottom of the East’s playoff picture deserves exactly that type of skepticism.

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An outrageously expensive Nets roster that was constructed to “win now” just hasn’t been able to handle that task with any consistency. Brook Lopez’s recent string of Player of the Week awards and 20/9 production since the All-Star break is what Brooklyn was expecting all along when it signed him to a max rookie extension, but that level of play has been far from bankable. For a few years, my XBox was limping along OK, but I needed to use a knife or a screwdriver to pop open the CD tray because the eject button wouldn’t respond. Deron Williams (13.1 PPG, 6.6 APG) has that same dying XBox reliability, and he is liable to “red ring” two or three times during a seven-game series. Oft-injured centerpieces on eight-figure contracts stand as a great formula for perpetual disappointment.

For every pleasant surprise (an uptick from Bojan Bogdanovic, Billy King actually winning a trade by getting Thaddeus Young), there are the persistent depressing realities: Williams is on the books for two more years, Joe Johnson is making gigantic money through next season, Lopez can opt out this summer and command another huge deal, Young will need to be paid this summer or next, and King is down roughly 932 draft picks thanks to deals that didn’t produce the expected postseason success. Brooklyn has been better since the midway point, but “better” is still just barely above .500 with a -2.5 point differential. 

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Charlotte Hornets: D

Record: 33-49
Midseason grade: C-

Off. Rating: 28 | Def. Rating: 9 | Net Rating: 23

At a glance: The “buzz” associated with the return of the Hornets moniker gave way to a “zzz" pretty quickly this season. Kemba Walker (17.6 PPG, 5.2 APG) more or less mirrored his numbers from last year before a knee injury intervened, Al Jefferson (16.6 PPG, 8.4 RPG) failed to build off of his 2014 All-NBA season, and youngsters Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Cody Zeller both made clear progress but didn’t quite achieve breakout status. As a team, Charlotte took small steps backward on both offense (where they were really bad again) and defense (where they were very good, all things considered), resulting in yet another lottery trip rather than a much-anticipated return trip to the postseason.

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This regression makes it impossible to avoid turning Charlotte’s season into a referendum on the Lance Stephenson signing. It was Stephenson (8.2 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 3.9 APG) who was supposed to jolt the Hornets’ offense with his playmaking skills and seamlessly fit into coach Steve Clifford’s proven defensive schemes. Instead, Stephenson has been a reverse Midas: everything he touches turns to... well, you know. Stephenson had had a negative impact on both offense (he drops Charlotte from 99.9 to 94.3 when he’s on the court) and defense (he drops Charlotte from 100.2 to 101.8 when he’s on the court), his -5 Real Plus-Minus ranks 95thout of 100 shooting guards, and his 8.9 PER ranks 71st out of 80 players at his position.

Most (un)impressive: Stephenson has made just 18 three-pointers this season, and his 17.1 three-point percentage is the worst ever recorded by a player with at least 100 three-point attempts in a season. (By comparison, Stephen Curry made more three-pointers in the first 12 days of the season than Stephenson has made all year.) No wonder Clifford has taken to benching Stephenson, telling the Charlotte Observer earlier this month: “I can’t find a group that plays well when he’s out there.” To read a less damning assessment, please refer to the warning label on the nearest bottle of rat poison.

On the bright side, at least Hornets rookie P.J. Hairston was named SI.com’s Flopper of the Year. Charlotte is also on track to pick in the top 10 of this year’s draft, which should help ease owner Michael Jordan’s misery a bit. 

• MORE NBA: Can perimeter player win Defensive Player of the Year?

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Chicago Bulls: B

Record:​ 50-32
Midseason grade: B+

Off. Rating: 10 | Def. Rating: 11 | Net Rating: 9

At a glance: The Bulls have regressed this season, but they could easily be a lot worse. Chicago was sitting pretty atop the Central Division at the midseason point before LeBron James kicked into gear, and both Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose went down with injuries. To no one’s surprise, Tom Thibodeau’s team has scrapped to avoid collapse, posting a 21-16 record since the midway point and putting the Bulls in position for home-court advantage in the first round.

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With Butler and Rose back, Chicago takes its place as the East’s top challenger to Cleveland and Atlanta. The Bulls have talent, size, toughness and depth, and they have enjoyed big contributions from a number of sources. Pau Gasol (18.5 PPG, 11.8 RPG, 2.7 APG) should be in the All-NBA mix, Butler (20 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.3 APG) is the favorite to win Most Improved Player, and Nikola Mirotic (10 PPG, 5 RPG) has drawn some Rookie of the Year talk. Lineups that include Rose, Butler and Gasol have posted a solid +4.3 net rating this season, and while that isn’t “blow your doors off” great, that combination should be enough to drive a first-round series victory and make a competitive second-round showing. Rose returning, rather than shutting it down, was huge, as Chicago has played significantly better with him (32-18 when he starts), even in his current form, than with his in-a-pinch replacements.

Thibodeau’s Windy City future may be in doubt, according to reports. Regardless of what happens this summer, 2014-15 will go down as another Thibs-ian season. With players going down left and right, questions swirling about Thibodeau’s management of minutes, and championship hopes briefly raised, the Bulls have eventually arrived more or less at their anticipated destination. It’s been quite dramatic, to be sure, but only a first-round exit would turn this into a true disappointment. 

• MORE NBA: Rose still searching for defined role on Bulls

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Cleveland Cavaliers: B+

Record:​ 53-29
Midseason grade: D+

Off. Rating: 4 | Def. Rating: 20 | Net Rating: 7

At a glance: This is one totally insane turnaround. Cleveland’s front office and ownership have taken their fair share of lumps over the last five years or so, but Cavaliers GM David Griffin deserves to be named 2015 Executive of the Year. At this time last season, we were busy chronicling Anthony Bennett’s atrocious rookie season, wondering whether Kyrie Irving had regressed, speculating about Dion Waiters’ whereabouts (remember when he literally just disappeared for a few days?) and counting down the days until coach Mike Brown got fired (again).

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Since then, the Cavaliers have added LeBron James and Kevin Love, resuscitated Irving’s game, somehow traded Waiters for a first-round pick (Griffin might be worth the Executive of the Year award for that alone), added key pieces in Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, and resisted the urge to fire coach David Blatt after a rough start to the second James era in Cleveland. After four straight lottery trips, the Cavaliers will enter the postseason as the East’s No. 2 seed and the conference’s favorite to advance to the Finals. Even if James deserves a lion’s share of the credit, given his MVP-level play over the last few months and his orchestration or key role in many of the events, Griffin deserves the hardware. That’s true despite the fact that the decision to trade away Andrew Wiggins could lead to years of second-guessing.

The Cavaliers possess the fourth-best winning percentage, third-best point differential and third-best offense since the All-Star break, and it’s hard to remember the last time so many moving parts fit together so quickly on the fly. The new go-to lineup of Irving/Smith/James/Love/Mozgov just wrecks opponents, posting a 115.7 offensive rating, 97.6 defensive rating and +18.1 net rating. Good luck to whomever draws Cleveland in the first round. You’re going to need it.

• MORE NBA: Will Love leave the Cavaliers after one season?

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Dallas Mavericks: B-

Record:​ 50-32
Midseason grade: B+

Off. Rating: 5 | Def. Rating: 18 | Net Rating: 8

At a glance: Perhaps the best illustration of the West’s strength is that Dallas added Tyson Chandler, Chandler Parsons and Rajon Rondo this season, retained Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki, and managed to jump from the No. 8 seed… all the way to the No. 7 seed. Three well-received impact moves that produced—from a cold bottom-line standpoint—very little impact. That says more about the landscape than it does about the moves, as stealing Chandler from the Knicks was a no-brainer, adding Parsons was a defensible use of cap space to make the most of Nowitzki’s twilight, and trading for Rondo was a calculated gamble that hasn’t really paid off.

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Dallas has slipped after a strong start, and they’re in familiar territory: hoping to play first-round spoiler with little hope of making a deep playoff run. An offense that was torching everyone earlier in the season has cooled since the All-Star break, and Rondo’s 101.5 offensive rating in Dallas pales in comparison to his predecessor Jameer Nelson (112.4). While the Mavericks play better defense with Rondo on the court, the defense-for-offense exchange hasn’t worked out in their favor. Coupled with some serious late-season cooling from Ellis, Dallas has barely kept its head above .500 since midseason.

If there’s one particularly frustrating aspect to the season, it’s that the last few months have almost raised more questions than they have answered. Is Ellis a player worth investing another contract, and multiple years in, given that he is 29? Does winning a free-agency bidding war for Rondo even qualify as a win? Is retaining Chandler truly the offseason’s top priority? Is it time to start thinking of Nowitzki as a player who is no longer totally defying his age? If the Mavericks go one-and-done in the playoffs, like last season, those questions will either remain unanswered or lead to another summer of sweeping changes.

• MORE NBA: The overflowing legacy of Steve Nash

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Denver Nuggets: C-

Record:​ 30-52
Midseason grades: C

Off. Rating: 21 | Def. Rating: 26 | Net Rating: 24

At a glance: The only thing worse than a bad team is a bad team whose front office doesn’t realize it. The Nuggets just suffered through their worst season since 2002-03, but the good news is that GM Tim Connelly and company are no longer in denial about the team’s direction or the capabilities of former coach Brian Shaw, who was mercifully canned in March and replaced by interim coach Melvin Hunt. The guy was rapping his pre-game instructions and reading books about millennials in an attempt to find ways to get through to his players. 

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