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, Heat, 76ers, Knicks
Central: Cavaliers, Bulls, Bucks, Pacers, Pistons
Southeast: Hawks, Wizards, Heat, Hornets, Magic
Northwest: Trail Blazers, Thunder, Jazz, Nuggets, Timberwolves
Pacific: Warriors, Clippers, Suns, Lakers, Kings
Southwest: Spurs, Rockets, Grizzlies, Mavericks, Pelicans
Atlanta Hawks: A+
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.
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.
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+.
Boston Celtics: B+
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.”
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-
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.
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
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.
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.
Chicago Bulls: B
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.
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.
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Cleveland Cavaliers: B+
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.
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Dallas Mavericks: B-
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.
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.
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Denver Nuggets: C-
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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Shaw’s departure came shortly after a cap-shrinking sell-off that saw Timofey Mozgov moved to Cleveland, JaVale McGee dumped on the Sixers, and Arron Afflalo and Alonzo Gee shipped to Portland. Denver badly needed to reduce its roster redundancies, open up minutes for its younger players, and acquire extra draft picks, and all of those things took place over the last few months. Clinging to past success is out; Starting anew is in.
Squelching some of the long-term optimism that you might expect when a team turns the corner philosophically are lingering questions about the fit between its remaining big-dollar players and the apparent lack of developmental prospects with true upside. Speedy point guard Ty Lawson is who he is (15.4 PPG and 9.6 APG) and Danilo Gallinari has come on of late (18.7 PPG, 4.7 RPG since the All-Star break and a 47-point explosion last week), but Kenneth Faried (12.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG) appears to have stagnated and the other vets are all pretty pedestrian. Aside from 2014 first-round pick Jusuf Nurkic, the roster’s younger pieces don’t pack much punch just yet, either.
Denver now finds itself with the same doubts about its top-level talent that it’s faced since George Karl was the coach. Couple that with serious depth concerns and you do not have a formula for success in the West. Tearing this thing down even further is the way to go this summer.
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Detroit Pistons: C
Midseason grade: C+
Off. Rating: 17 | Def. Rating: 21 | Net Rating: 20
At a glance: Stan Van Gundy’s arrival didn’t immediately transform the Pistons' fortunes or snap the franchise’s lottery streak, but things are looking up in Detroit. While hopes of pushing into the postseason after a horrid start died when Brandon Jennings (15.4 PPG, 6.6 APG) went down with a season-ending Achilles injury, the Pistons still managed their best win total since 2009-10, and Van Gundy’s credibility helped eliminate some of the drama from previous seasons.
This franchise isn’t far removed from an infamous player boycott, a never-ending cycle of coaches, and too many apathetic performances to count. However, Van Gundy appears to be making progress on the culture front, guiding the Pistons to their best defensive efficiency ranking since 2008-09. He also deftly handled the release of floor-shrinking forward Josh Smith, downplaying what could have been a circus, and he completed a trade deadline move for Reggie Jackson (17.4 PPG, 9.2 APG) that helped fill the void created by Jennings’ injury. More than anything, Van Gundy accomplished arguably his biggest goals by blowing up the jumbo trio of Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Smith, and by leading the first Pistons team to launch an above-average number of three-pointers since 2005-06. Detroit still need to fully turn the corner, but at least it isn’t failing in the same old predictable ways and shows signs of modernizing.
The offseason sets up to be a doozy, as Detroit faces contract decisions on both Monroe and Jackson. If Drummond had enjoyed a monster breakout in his third season, perhaps that would have solved the Monroe question, but that didn’t really happen. Instead, Drummond’s production (13.7 PPG, 13.5 RPG, 1.9 BPG) mimicked last season's, forcing Van Gundy to consider whether it’s in his best interest to let Monroe’s talent walk out the door. As for Jackson, paying to keep him sets up the possibility of a long-term position battle with Jennings. It’s possible that Van Gundy views his two point guards as a problem for another day, or a good problem to have, given the rest of his talent-deficient roster.
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Golden State Warriors: A++
Midseason grade: A++
Off. Rating: 2 | Def. Rating: 1 | Net Rating: 1
At a glance: Yes, sticking with the second plus does look a little cheesy, but on what grounds can Golden State’s grade really be docked? To quickly recap, the Warriors have a shot at posting one of the NBA’s 10 best records and eight best point differentials of all time, they’ve blown away their previous franchise record of 59 wins, they’ve maintained an impeccable consistency across an 82-game season, they’ve been superb on both offense and defense, they've posted the league's best record at home and on the road, they’ve helped take the game in new strategic directions, and they’ve been the most entertaining squad to watch on a night-to-night basis all year.
Golden State has strong candidates for MVP (Stephen Curry), Coach of the Year (Steve Kerr), Executive of the Year (Bob Myers), Defensive Player of the Year (Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut), Most Improved Player (Green and Klay Thompson) and Sixth Man of the Year (Marreese Speights and Andre Iguodala), All-NBA (Curry and Thompson), and All-Defensive (Green, Bogut and Thompson). As of this writing, Golden State actually has more wins by 20+ points than total losses. The Warriors are the only team that has had two different players (Curry and Thompson) top 50+ points in a game. This list of accomplishments can really just keep going and going. The Warriors’ starters are arguably the league’s best five-man group, posting a ruthless +18.3 net rating in more than 750 minutes together. Even though the Warriors have enjoyed so many blowouts with so much garbage time that they have played the fewest “clutch” games this season, they still have the league’s second-best record in clutch games (21-8).
Both the Spurs and Cavaliers loom as serious threats to spoil the Warriors’ fun and keep the franchise from claiming its first Larry O’Brien Trophy since 1975. But the simple fact that a team that won 51 games, lost in the first round, and hired a first-time coach over the summer is now sitting in pole position tells you everything you need to know about how well 2014-15 has treated the Warriors. Things rarely go this well in the NBA. Cheers, Golden State.
Houston Rockets: A
Midseason grade: A-
Off. Rating: 12 | Def. Rating: 6 | Net Rating: 6
At a glance: There’s nowhere else to start except with James Harden’s truly remarkable season (27.5 PPG, 6.9 APG, 5.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG). As recently as last August, he drew belly laughs when he suggested that he was the best all-around player in basketball, and many observers weren’t even willing to consider him for the “best all-around offensive player” label. In a season in which stars seemingly dropped like flies, Harden logged nearly 3,000 minutes with a sky-high usage rate of 31.3. Now that is a burden. Since 2010, the only other players to hit those thresholds in a season are LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. Harden’ impact is as unquestionable as his indispensability: Houston’s offense improves from 93.9 when he is off the court (equivalent to No. 29 in the league) to 107.5 (equivalent to No. 5) when he’s on it.
All of that said, the narrative that Harden has done this completely by himself is a little grating. Third-year big man Donatas Motiejunas enjoyed a nice breakout season before going down, Trevor Ariza has been a rock on the wing, newcomers Josh Smith, Corey Brewer and Jason Terry have all made critical contributions, and Dwight Howard is still capable of captaining a quality defense (when healthy). The whole thing falls apart without Harden, no doubt, but every superstar needs to be surrounded by productive and team-minded pieces if he wants to win big.
Really, the most underrated (unmentioned, really) name in this year’s Coach of the Year conversation is Kevin McHale. Entering the year on the hot seat, McHale hasn’t gotten much, if any, credit nationally for Houston’s success this season. That’s understandable, given that Harden’s MVP-caliber season is bound to overshadow everything else in H-town, but the Rockets’ strong record is due to both Harden’s one-man heroics on offense and a defense that remained in the top 10 all season long despite injuries and the need to incorporate a bunch of new faces into the rotation. It’s clear that Houston appreciates McHale’s efforts, as he was rewarded with a contract extension in December.
Make no mistake: Harden is going to face more pressure in the first round of the playoffs than any other player in the league, period. As Dwight Howard told SI.com a few weeks back, Harden has been playing “redemption basketball” since a weak showing against the Blazers in the 2014 playoffs. All eyes will be watching to see whether he can continue his brilliance under the playoff lights and against defenses that are sure to pay him extra, extra attention.
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Indiana Pacers: B
Midseason grade: C
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 8 | Net Rating: 17
At a glance: The Pacers make you ask two questions. One: How is this team in the playoff picture? Two: Do I even really care?
Out of nowhere, Indiana has posted the East’s third-best record since the midway point, trailing only Cleveland and Atlanta. Coach Frank Vogel has constructed another top-10 defense around Roy Hibbert (10.7 PPG, 7.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG), even without Paul George and Lance Stephenson, and he’s scraped together just enough offense from George Hill (15.8 PPG, 5 APG), C.J. Miles (13.1 PPG, 3 RPG), and Rodney Stuckey (12.7 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 3.1 APG) to get by. Even though George’s much-ballyhooed return to the court from a serious leg injury hasn’t yet produced a major on-court impact, Indiana has won six straight games entering Wednesday’s action and has the inside trade for the East’s No. 8 seed. This is all a testament to Vogel’s focus and command, and to the competitive spirit of his roster.
Should anyone really care though? The Pacers do not have the obvious makings of a team poised to shock the world. Indiana’s offense is the second-worst among playoff teams (better only than Milwaukee), and Atlanta swept the season series 3-0, with an average margin of victory of 15 points. If George looked like a difference-maker, maybe this would be a different story, but he’s been on a strict minutes limit and unsurprisingly appears to be showing the effects of 75+ games spent on the sidelines.
While Vogel deserves kudos for making lemonade out of an offseason filled with lemons, that’s all that needs to be said about the Pacers until training camp, barring some totally unforeseen turn of events. Once George is fully back up to speed, the Pacers reenter the conversation and the East’s pecking order becomes that much more interesting.
Los Angeles Clippers: B+
Midseason grade: B
Off. Rating: 1 | Def. Rating: 15 | Net Rating: 2
At a glance: The Clippers’ season can be told in a six-word story…
“They’re really good. Didn’t get better.”
Those two sentences explain precisely why the Clippers are so polarizing. Optimists see Chris Paul (19.1 PPG, 10.3 APG, 4.6 RPG, 1.9 SPG), certified MVP candidate, leading the NBA’s best offense and one of the league’s most dominant starting lineups. Pessimists see a bench that shows fewer signs of life than Death Valley. Optimists see a team that responded to an uneven start and injuries to Blake Griffin and Jamal Crawford by kicking into high gear down the stretch and making a run at the West’s No. 2 seed. Pessimists see Spencer Hawes and Austin Rivers standing at the scorer’s table waiting to check in. Optimists see DeAndre Jordan posting career-best numbers (11.4 PPG, 14.9 RPG). Pessimists wonder whether his foul shooting will force him off the court in the playoffs. Optimists see the Clippers as a legit contender due to the second-best point differential in the league. Pessimists see the same core that has fallen apart before it reaches the conference finals in each of the last three seasons.
L.A. will wind up finishing with virtually the same record it has had in each of the last two seasons, and that flat-lining is the root of all of the debates listed above. While these Clippers aren’t identical to previous versions, they’re close enough that a little hot air is helpful to pass the time.
As fantastic as Paul and Jordan, in particular, have been, it’s difficult to give the Clippers top marks as a whole because: 1) the Warriors zoomed past them in the division, 2) expectations were heightened once Steve Ballmer replaced Donald Sterling, and 3) Doc Rivers’ roster mismanagement has put an unbelievable amount of stress on his starting five. Those starters—Paul, J.J. Redick, Matt Barnes, Griffin and Jordan—are good enough to beat anyone on any given night, and the Clippers deserve to be considered the “best of the rest” besides the Spurs and Warriors. It’s just impossible to put them in the same tier as San Antonio and Golden State when those teams have equally strong starting units that happen to be complemented by numerous capable reserves. Any chance the Clippers have at busting through to the conference finals rests on Paul entering God Mode for three or four weeks straight.
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Los Angeles Lakers: F
Midseason record: F
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 29 | Net Rating: 27
At a glance: Well, there’s no question what the yearbook quote for the 2014-15 Lakers will be.
"I got a sense of a whole lot of them I wouldn't want to be in a foxhole with. I think they'd end up shooting me in the back.” – Lakers coach Byron Scott on his players
What a perfectly horrible thing to say to cap off a perfectly horrible season. Shooting your players in the back by wondering whether they might shoot you in the back is basically the NBA’s dark and twisted version of “Inception.” How deep, exactly, is this gyre of demented friendly fire?
At some point, running down all the bad things that have happened to the Lakers gets to be tiresome. So, quickly: an aging Kobe Bryant posted an atrocious -12.2 net rating before suffering his third straight season-ending injury; Nick Young predictably failed to live up to a large multi-year contract and his own incessant hype; Jeremy Lin never found the right fit and will be running as fast as possible toward free agency; 2014 lottery pick Julius Randle suffered a season-ending injury on opening night; Steve Nash retired without playing a game this season and without getting traded; and the Lakers are about to post the worst point differential in the 67-year history of the franchise.
To make matters worse, the Lakers didn’t even properly execute the tank, winning four games against fellow laughingstocks Minnesota and Philadelphia during the last month. As it stands, L.A. has the fourth-worst record in the league. Remember, the Lakers only get to keep their 2015 lottery pick if it lands in the top five. So, if two teams jump over the Lakers in the lottery order, they will be forced to hand over that pick to the Sixers (who acquired it from the Suns at the trade deadline). For the sake of their fan base’s sanity, the Lakers really, really, really need that pick. Gulp. Rolling out Carlos Boozer and a bunch of D-Leaguers only to get gut-punched by the wrong ping pong ball combinations? Now is a bad time to mention Bryant will make $25 million next season, isn’t it?
Memphis Grizzlies: A-
Midseason record: A
Off. Rating: 14 | Def. Rating: 4 | Net Rating: 11
At a glance: After a first half defined by a newfound two-way balance, the Grizzlies have reverted to the offense-deprived, defense-first team we’ve come to know over the last few seasons. The results haven’t been terrible, but some of that early-season luster has diminished due to the regression on offense.
Beating the Spurs or Warriors in a series requires the ability to keep up in a shootout, as the Grizzlies know from personal experience after the Spurs swept them out of the 2013 Western Conference finals. Since the All-Star break, the Grizzlies offense ranks No. 24 and it stands as the worst, by a wide margin, among the West’s eight playoff teams. It’s hard for any defense—even one as tested and physical as the Grizzlies’—to compensate for that.
The midseason acquisition of Jeff Green hasn’t proven to be a game-changer, as the Grizzlies perform slightly better on offense but substantially worse on defense when he’s on the court. Coach Dave Joerger has tinkered with Green’s role, but his fit won’t matter all that much if Memphis can’t rekindle some shooting. Since the midway point of the season, Memphis ranks No. 29 in three-point makes and attempts per game. There’s plenty of blame to go around, as Vince Carter is shooting just 30.2% from deep on the season, Courtney Lee is hitting just 30.7% of his threes since the All-Star break, and Nick Calathes, Beno Udrih and Tony Allen aren’t threats from outside.
With those familiar issues acknowledged, Memphis still possesses a top-five defense, an All-NBA center in Marc Gasol (17.4 PPG, 7.8 RPG, 3.8 APG), a matchup nightmare for small ball teams in power forward Zach Randolph (16.2 PPG, 10.6 RPG), a very steady hand in point guard Mike Conley (15.8 PPG, 5.4 APG), and years of collective playoff experience. Memphis won’t enter the playoffs with as much momentum as some of the West’s top contenders, but it certainly won’t take the court expecting to lose in the first round, either. The Grizzlies, as always, will force you to beat them, leaving you bruised one way or the other.
Miami Heat: C-
Midseason grade: C
Off. Rating: 22 | Def. Rating: 19 | Net Rating: 21
At a glance: The barrier to entry in the East playoffs is so low that many would have thought it laughable last summer to exclude a Heat team from the conference’s top eight. On Tuesday, the unexpected became official: Miami will miss out on the playoffs for the first time since 2008 and just the second time since 2004.
"We have nothing to be ashamed of," All-Star guard Dwyane Wade told the Associated Press recently, and he’s correct. Losing LeBron James to the Cavaliers was bound to send the Heat tumbling down the standings, but “I’m coming home” wasn’t guaranteed to be a fatal blow. Throw in a lost season for injured forward Josh McRoberts, 20 missed games for Wade (21.5 PPG, 4.8 APG, 3.5 RPG), and a fluky, life-threatening health diagnosis that ended Chris Bosh’s season (21.1 PPG, 7 RPG, 2.2 APG) at the All-Star break, and it’s no great surprise that the Heat failed to cross the finish line.
Next year is setting up to be far more promising: Bosh and McRoberts will be back, midseason acquisition Goran Dragic (assuming he is re-signed) will pair with Wade in the backcourt, and out-of-nowhere center discovery Hassan Whiteside (11.8 PPG, 10 RPG, 2.6 BPG) will return on a bargain deal. Throw in workhorse forward Luol Deng and point guard Mario Chalmers, and that’s a rotation that, on paper, looks like it will have a chance to make some noise next year.
Frankly, though, the Heat’s party ended the moment James packed up his sports cars and returned to Ohio. The Cavaliers’ strong second half to 2014-15 is a reminder of James’ unbelievable four years in Miami, but also an indication of just how hard it will be for the rest of the East to keep pace with the Cavaliers over the next 2-to-3 years. Even if everything breaks better for the Heat in 2016 than it did in 2015, what is the franchise’s reasonable ceiling? Can a 33-year-old Wade (34 next posteason) really power another deep playoff run? These are tough questions to process, in large part because Wade and Bosh still seem too talented to be afterthoughts. They are questions that must be asked, though, when Miami won’t even be on the map next week.
• MORE NBA: Henry Walker's journey back to the NBA
Milwaukee Bucks: B+
Midseason grade: B+
Off. Rating: 25 | Def. Rating: 2 | Net Rating: 14
At a glance: “Only a B+?” Yes, only a B+. Strictly from a results standpoint, Milwaukee has been as impressive as just about anyone this season, improving from 15 wins last year to .500 this year. That is a massive, massive jump that can sometimes take two, three, four or more years to make, and Jason Kidd pulled it off in just one. Indeed, Kidd has the Bucks in the playoffs, with a real chance to push their first-round opponent, thanks to the league’s second-best defense and a roster dotted with unexpected surprises like Most Improved Player candidate Khris Middleton (13.4 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.3 APG), Clippers castoff Jared Dudley, and the ever-tantalizing All-Vine First Team member Giannis Antetokounmpo (12.8 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 2.5 APG).
So what’s holding the Bucks back from acing this season? It’s not the midseason trade of leading scorer Brandon Knight for Michael Carter-Williams (in an effort to avoid paying Knight big money this summer), or even the buyout of troubled center Larry Sanders (who has ceased his basketball career). It’s the season-ending knee injury suffered by 2014 No. 2 pick Jabari Parker. Here’s a question for Bucks fans: How many of those 41 wins would you trade for a healthy Parker? 10? 20? 30? My guess is just about all of them, because few things are as unsettling as a player with the potential to become a perennial All-Star goes down with a career-altering injury during his rookie season.
Although Parker’s injury doesn’t singlehandedly negate Milwaukee’s substantial progress this season, it does complicate the Bucks’ outlook until he is back on the court handling his usual workload without any further issues. Kidd deserves full credit and Coach of the Year consideration for keeping the Bucks on track after Parker went down, but there’s no way that the positive response to the adversity has outweighed the negatives that go with temporarily losing such a promising building block. That was the immediate feeling when Parker went down and it shouldn’t get overlooked in the playoff excitement.
Since the midway point of the season, Milwaukee’s offense ranks No. 26 overall and dead last among projected playoff teams. Their top asset entering the playoffs is a total lack of expectations: very few expected the Bucks to be here and this no-name cast is unlikely to be a popular upset pick. Combine that “nothing to lose” mentality with this roster’s obscene wingspan and agility, and the Bucks start to look a little dangerous. More importantly, though, there should be plenty of A’s to come in their future once Parker returns and Kidd’s new core has a few seasons to gel.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D+
Midseason grade: D
Off. Rating: 26 | Def. Rating: 30 | Net Rating: 29
At a glance: It took multiple trades, enough injuries to fill an emergency room, and 11 straight losses down the stretch, but the Timberwolves have back-doored into their ideal situation: the worst record in the league. This franchise badly needs the type of talent that can be found at the top of this year’s draft board. Pair 2014 No. 1 pick Andrew Wiggins with Karl-Anthony Towns or Justise Winslow, and the Timberwolves just might have a chance to pull themselves out of the dark ages.
Wiggins’ first season (16.8 PPG, 4.5 RPG, 2.1 APG), which will almost certainly land him Rookie of the Year honors, was easily the most positive takeaway for Minnesota. He acclimated to the NBA game more quickly than many expected, and he has succeeded in turning his freaking athleticism into regular trips to the foul line and looks in the basket area. Fellow rookie Zach LaVine (10 PPG, 3.5 APG, 2.8 RPG) was far from a perfect fit at point guard, but the 20-year-old high-flyer joined Wiggins in exceeding pre-draft expectations. Outside of Mo Williams’ totally random 52-point outburst in January, that’s just about all there was to get excited about.
The rest was really rough. Ricky Rubio, fresh off a big rookie extension, missed three-quarters of the season with an ankle injury. Nikola Pekovic, Kevin Martin, Shabazz Muhammad each missed at least half the season due to injuries. Timberwolves president Flip Saunders wasted a first-round pick on Thaddeus Young last summer, only to trade Young at the deadline for 38-year-old Kevin Garnett, who played in just five games for Minnesota down the stretch. The “homecoming” fanfare for Garnett might have temporarily distracted some sappy supporters, but the real takeaway was that Saunders kicked away a first-round pick at the exact time he should have been hoarding picks and then compounded that questionable decision by failing to make the Young addition work as a long-term fit.
Saunders’ season is worthy of scrutiny for other reasons too. His old-school approaches to three-pointers (he doesn’t love them) and strategic rest (he thinks it’s best if everyone plays every game) manifested in his treatment of Wiggins, who has totally eschewed perimeter opportunities and logged nearly 3,000 minutes during his age-19 season (often playing 40+ minutes in meaningless games despite complaining of fatigue). That’s a recipe for frustration if adjustments aren’t made next season.
One can’t help but wonder whether it’s wise for Saunders to serve as both GM and coach of this organization. The conflicts of interest are obvious, and he inherited a Timberwolves roster that needed tons of work given Kevin Love’s unhappiness. One year in, and the master plan still needs clarification.
• MORE NBA: Unlocking the potential of Andrew Wiggins
New Orleans Pelicans: B
Midseason grade: C
Off. Rating: 9 | Def. Rating: 22 | Net Rating: 15
At a glance: The Pelicans enjoyed a good—not great, but not horrible—season. On the plus side, they did well to keep things together despite injuries to Anthony Davis, Jrue Holiday, Ryan Anderson, and Eric Gordon, and they kicked hard (7-3 in their last 10) when they could have folded. On the other hand, they happen to owe their playoff chances to the Thunder’s injury woes; if Kevin Durant had played 65 games, the Pelicans’ postseason hopes would have been dead long ago.
relatWhether New Orleans’ season ends Wednesday or after four or five games against Golden State, the biggest takeaway will be the ascension of Davis, who entered elite company this season. The do-everything forward has posted a Player Efficiency Rating of 31, joining Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players to ever hit that standard for an entire season. Davis has also averaged 24.3 PPG, 10.2 RPG and 2.9 BPG, joining Shaquille O’Neal as the only players to average 24/10/2 in their age-21 seasons. Davis has done it inside, he’s done it outside, he’s done it on offense, he’s done it on defense, and he’s done it in the clutch. He’s a no-brainer All-NBA First Team selection, and he will soon be pushing James for the “Best player on the planet” title.
Ongoing doubts about coach Monty Williams can be traced to the Pelicans’ below-average defense and the superficial assumption that a team with Davis playing at such a high level should be better than just scraping by. Most of New Orleans’ core is under contract for next season (and, in many cases, beyond), making a coaching change easier to execute than a quick-fix roster makeover. Is it crazy to think that the Pelicans’ internal opinion of their progress might hinge, to some degree, on the result of Game 82?
• MORE NBA: Pelicans' success hinges on supporting cast
New York Knicks: F
Midseason grade: F+
Off. Rating: 29 | Def. Rating: 28 | Net Rating: 30
At a glance: Roughly six months ago, New York’s season was opening with an ESPN: The Magazine feature of Carmelo Anthony, in which the All-Star forward and his team of advisors contemplated key questions like how he should define his image, brand and legacy. Today, after a season-ending knee surgery and the worst campaign in franchise history, Anthony might be better off hiring a team of crisis managers to help completely distance him from the rest of the Knicks, who have plummeted to Exxon Valdez-esque levels of unpopularity and disdain. The nightmare is deep for Anthony, who has nowhere to run or hide after signing a five-year contract last summer. Now he must wait to see how president Phil Jackson puts the pieces back together after stripping down the roster.
Jackson has taken too much flak for trading J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert, in large part because both players have emerged as key contributors for Cleveland. Prior to the move, the environment and fit in New York were clearly off, and Jackson’s decision to cut ties and slash payroll remains totally defensible. Better to start the clean-up process earlier than later, even if that means testing everyone’s patience by running out the likes of Andrea Bargnani, Lou Amundson, Cole Aldrich, Lance Thomas, Jason Smith, and Travis Wear.
What’s not defensible: New York messing up a perfectly successful tank by going 3-2 in their last five games. Coach Derek Fisher: You had one job, and you completely blew it! The Knicks’ sole purpose since shutting down Anthony was to maximize ping pong balls, and Fisher somehow found a way to enrage fans by cutting his team’s chances at the No. 1 overall pick. "I'm sure people are upset with us," Fisher admitted after Monday’s win over Atlanta. Yeah, man. Watching an organization suffer through months of punchline-status only to work directly against its own self-interest at the last possible moment will get the blood going.
The bad news for Fisher is that he’s just about completed his run as a rookie coach. The New York media’s gloves will really be coming off shortly, and they’ll be wondering why his team led the league in mid-range jumpers, why the Knicks ranked in the bottom-three in both offense and defense, and how exactly he plans to deliver on Jackson’s Triangle promises. Will he have answers?
Remarkably, Jackson's 11 rings didn’t even buy him an 11-month honeymoon period, and he’ll join Fisher on the pressure cooker this summer. Indeed, Jackson needs to deliver, in actions rather than words, or you can bet the paper bags will be back in the Madison Square Garden courtside seats come October.
• MORE NBA: Gallery: 2014-15 Knicks: Season In Despair
Oklahoma City Thunder: D
Midseason grade: C-
Off. Rating: 11 | Def. Rating: 16 | Net Rating: 13
At a glance: The only number that truly matters for Oklahoma City this season is three, as in the number of foot surgeries reigning MVP Kevin Durant has undergone since training camp. That’s the defining, all-encompassing number because Durant’s extended absences completely torpedoed the Thunder’s legitimate preseason title hopes and caused the franchise to fall well short of matching its 59 wins in 2013-14. Among established teams, the Thunder had the most disappointing season relative to expectations, and it’s not particularly close. No one last summer thought Oklahoma City would still be fighting to avoid the lottery on the last day of the regular season.
There were some developments that kept this lost season from being a total failure. At the top of the list was the rise of Russell Westbrook (28 PPG, 8.6 APG, 7.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG) into the MVP conversation, as his run of triple-doubles gave Thunder fans something to cheer about as injuries wreaked havoc on the Thunder’s rotation. GM Sam Presti had a nice trade deadline, too, adding Enes Kanter, Kyle Singler, and D.J. Augustin in hopes of keying a late-season push. Durant’s setbacks sidetracked that idea, but free-agent-to-be Kanter (18.4 PPG, 10.9 RPG in OKC) looks like a potential keeper, even if he’s a shamelessly one-way guy.
It might be easier to focus on those positives and sit tight for Durant’s return if Oklahoma City’s long-term future was solidly in place. That’s just not the case, though, with Durant heading to free agency in 2016 and Westbrook following in 2017. Both players will be able to cash in like never before in the NBA’s new salary-cap world, and Presti will have his work cut out for him retaining its superstar duo. The 2014-15 season, then, has the potential to be remembered as everything from a “blip on the radar” to the “beginning of the end.” Durant’s ability to return to the court and return the Thunder to the top of the 2016 standings will go a long way to determining whether this forecast is overly ominous.
• MORE NBA: Russell Westbrook opens up: All there is to know
Orlando Magic: C
Midseason grade: B+
Off. Rating: 27 | Def. Rating: 25 | Net Rating: 26
At a glance: At the midway point, it appeared the Magic had finally “graduated from awful to bad.” Unfortunately, that perceived progress didn't stick, as the Magic are set to finish with a bottom-six ranking on both offense and defense while making barely-perceptible gains over their 23-win campaign in 2013-14. The stagnation cost coach Jacque Vaughn his job, and his interim replacement James Borrego hasn’t made an overwhelming case to stick around down the stretch.
The Magic looked headed for another year of unremarkable dreariness back in October, and that’s precisely where they have ended up in April. What’s more, Orlando is now three full years into its post-Dwight Howard life and still doesn't have a developing or bonafide superstar to show for its pains. Nevertheless, this should be a fairly attractive job for established coaches given the young talent on hand and the depressed expectations. The clock is definitely ticking, as evidenced by Vaughn’s departure, but achieving success in 2015-16 only means winning 30-something games.
That seems doable, as long as the Magic’s next coach can find a better way to mesh the talents of the existing pieces: lottery guards Elfrid Payton and Victor Oladipo, dependable center Nikola Vucevic, 2014 lottery forward Aaron Gordon, and forward Tobias Harris, assuming he is re-signed this summer.
Part of the attraction here is the knowledge that the toughest sledding has already been endured: Payton now has more than 2,400 minutes under his belt, and Oladipo made real progress as a scoring threat in his second season. The Payton/Oladipo combination wasn’t terrible in its first season together, at least by Orlando’s standards, but the pairing presents obvious spacing questions that haven’t been answered yet. Gordon only exacerbates those concerns, regardless of whether he plays the three or four.
However, similar issues haven’t stopped the Bucks from hitting .500 and making the playoffs. Perhaps Magic management should sell its job as the chance to be the “Next Milwaukee.” Like the Bucks, the Magic’s path to respectability will start on the defense end, where Payton and Oladipo have the physical tools and mentality to help deliver significantly better team results as they continue to mature. In the meantime, Magic GM Rob Hennigan will enjoy adding yet another high lottery pick to the fold come June. Intrigue should begin to replace the dreariness next season.
• MORE NBA: Magic's Payton headlines NBA's All-Anomaly Team
Philadelphia 76ers: C
Midseason grade: C
Off. Rating: 30 | Def. Rating: 13 | Net Rating: 28
At a glance: This was a “Groundhog Day” season for the Sixers by design: GM Sam Hinkie again prioritized long-term talent additions and draft picks rather than short-term help, coach Brett Brown again helped a no-name roster overachieve, and Philadelphia again ranked dead last in offensive rating. Of note, the Sixers’ offense was even worse this year than last, challenging the 2012 Bobcats for the worst offense of the last decade. Also of note, and on a brighter note, the Sixers managed to post an above-average defense, something that absolutely can’t be said of fellow tankers like the Timberwolves, Lakers and Knicks.
The anemic offensive was an inevitable byproduct of a number of factors: reigning Rookie of the Year Michael Carter-Williams was dumped at the deadline for a future first-round pick, leading scorer Tony Wroten went down early with a season-ending injury, 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel plays a defense-first game, injured 2014 lottery pick Joel Embiid was held out for the entire season, and Hinkie churned his roster like mad, with 25 players taking the court for the Sixers this season. You can’t reasonably expect Isaiah Canaan and Robert Covington to save the day under these circumstances.
It’s still not clear how long Hinkie plans to keep riding this cycle of terrible, but he didn’t really have a choice this season once he took the plunge and selected Embiid. The question going forward is when he will decide to accelerate the process by making meaningful moves in free agency to supplement his pipeline of young drafted talent. There’s yet to be any indication that Hinkie will turn that corner this offseason, suggesting that Philadelphia will be right back here, or fairly close to it, next year.
Although the Sixers’ decision-making is unorthodox, their logic has been consistent, which goes a long way to maintaining buy-in from both ownership and the diehard fans. Still, it’s fair to wonder whether the surprising trades of Carter-Williams and rookie K.J. McDaniels reflect cracks in the process. In Carter-Williams’ case, Philadelphia got great value, but the move required breaking up what some had assumed was the team’s core. In McDaniels’ case, the easiest explanation is that he wanted to play in a more traditional environment. Faced with these and any other doubts, Hinkie’s ace in the hole remains that he is perpetually one lottery drawing win away from being hailed as a genius. Anarchists will continue to root for a Hinkie lottery victory just to gawk at the sprawling fallout. Everyone else will go on forgetting that the Sixers even exist, at least until Embiid and Noel come of age.
• MORE NBA: '72-73 76ers remain benchmark for NBA futility
Phoenix Suns: C-
Midseason grade: B-
Off. Rating: 14 | Def. Rating: 17 | Net Rating: 19
At a glance: As it turns out, the feel-good underdog story the Suns started writing in 2013-14 didn’t get picked up for a second season. Things got rotten in the state of Arizona in record time. Marcus Morris went after Jeff Hornacek in a huddle. Goran Dragic muscled his way out of town. Hornacek and Gerald Green got into a public back-and-forth over his diminished role. Suns executives sniped their former players in the media after a busy trade deadline.
Once the trade dust settled, Phoenix faded from the playoff chase and eventually closed the season with a 1-10 collapse that included a number of ugly blowouts. Honestly, these guys folded faster than a spring-loaded tent once GM Ryan McDonough shipped out two-thirds of his point guard triumvirate. If owner Robert Sarver was willing to send out gifts to fans when the Spurs rested their players during a preseason game, surely he’s lining up 20,000 free cars after this meltdown, right?
Consolation can be found in Hornacek’s abilities as a coach and in McDonough’s clean salary-cap sheet. The only long-term deals on his books belong to keepers—Eric Bledsoe, the Morris Twins and P.J. Tucker—and Phoenix will enter the offseason with plenty of room to re-sign midseason acquisition Brandon Knight, thereby completing its backcourt of the future. Second-year center Alex Len made some strides this season, too, giving McDonough the semblance of a core to build around. Despite all the drama, the Suns look to be in position to take a second pass at this whole rebuilding thing, doing so with the understanding that a team’s positional balance and collective personality are both more important factors than they realized the first time around.
• MORE NBA: Playoff reform? Suns serve as strong case for it
Portland Trail Blazers: B-
Midseason grade: A
Off. Rating: 8 | Def. Rating: 10 | Net Rating: 5
At a glance: The goofy rule that guarantees division winners a top four seed has helped mask the degree to which the Blazers have fallen off during the second half of the season. Remember, this was a team that started 30-8 and looked like a darkhorse candidate to make a run to the conference finals; since the midway point, Portland is just 20-17, a record that bests only Dallas among West playoff teams. While Portland will enter the playoffs as the West’s No. 4 seed, there are at least five teams better than the Blazers in the conference, and they will begin their first-round series without home-court advantage and as the underdog.
The second-half slide can be attributed to a tougher schedule and a seemingly never-ending list of injuries. The real killer was Wesley Matthews (15.9 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2.3 APG), who was lost to a season-ending Achilles injury. Aldridge, Nicolas Batum, Arron Afflalo, Dorell Wright and C.J. McCollum have all either been banged up or injured since the All-Star break, and this team isn’t exactly deep even when fully healthy.
Matthews’ injury carries repercussions past this season, as he, along with Aldridge, Robin Lopez and Afflalo, can all become free agents this summer. Prior to the injury, Portland’s continuity was one of the top selling points for Aldridge to re-sign. Keeping the band together made total sense when the Blazers’ offense had posted elite numbers for two seasons and its defense looked to be on the rise. Without Matthews, Portland’s perimeter defense has really struggled, and Aldridge must surely be seeking answers from GM Neil Olshey as to the franchise’s plans in handling Matthews going forward. McCollum’s late-season emergence helps ease some of the stress, but neither he nor Afflalo is capable of replicating Matthews’ two-way impact and glove-like fit next to Lillard.
There’s far more shakiness to these Blazers than was expected a few months ago, but it goes without saying that Aldridge has seen far worse. In fact, this season marks the first time he’s won a Northwest Division title outright, although that fact is significantly aided by the Thunder’s own adversity. Although Portland enters the postseason without much positive momentum and multiple training-room maladies, it will have a puncher’s chance in its first round series thanks to Aldridge and Lillard, who both enjoyed strong showings against the Rockets last year.
After Lillard’s series-clinching buzzer-beater, the strong start, and the acquisition of Afflalo at the trade deadline combined to raise expectations, a one-and-done showing this year would qualify as a disappointment. An early exit wouldn’t be a catastrophe, though, considering the unavoidable impact of Matthews’ absence.
Sacramento Kings: D
Midseason grade: F
Off. Rating: 16 | Def. Rating: 27 | Net Rating: 25
At a glance: The Kings missed the playoffs for the ninth straight year, lost 50+ games for the third straight year, and cycled through three coaches in less than five months. Reports indicate that a transition of power is going on in the front office, and owner Vivek Ranadive has run such a loose ship that he has already burned through a large chunk of the goodwill he earned by saving the Kings from relocation in 2013.
In times like these, it’s important to ask, “Well, were there any positive aspects to take from this experience? I see three. One: DeMarcus Cousins (24.1 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 3.6 APG, 1.7 BPG) had his best season yet and was rewarded with his first All-Star trip (he was an injury replacement, but that still counts). Two: The Kings re-signed Rudy Gay (yes, that doesn’t really seem like a positive) but they avoided disaster by paying him “only” $40 million over three years. Three: the “Sauce Castillo” legend was born. That’s basically it, unless you want to talk yourself into Ben McLemore’s second-year ramp-up, Derrick Williams’ YouTube view totals of a poster dunk, or the Sim Bhullar experiment/publicity stunt.
The hiring of veteran coach George Karl looks good in theory, but it will inevitably lead to another round of roster turnover that is almost guaranteed to aggravate Cousins. Is this even a good coach/star match? Should we be reading into Karl’s recent comments that no player is “untradeable”? Does anyone have any faith in Ranadive and his subordinate of the month formulating a quality plan this summer and sticking to it, especially with multi-year deals to Cousins, Gay, Carl Landry, Jason Thompson and Darren Collison already on the books?
Add up those questions, factor in the Kings’ shallow talent pool, and it’s reasonable to conclude that deck is stacked pretty heavily against the Kings cracking into the playoffs next year. That said, Ranadive is nothing if not unpredictable, so it’s best not to rush to make assumptions, lest we miss out on the dramatic twists and turns that are bound to keep coming.
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San Antonio Spurs: A-
Midseason grade: C+
Off. Rating: 6 | Def. Rating: 3 | Net Rating: 3
At a glance: I might adopt some grandchildren just so I can tell them about the Spurs’ greatness. The only team that can match Cleveland in the “amazing midseason turnaround” department is San Antonio, who shook off numerous early-season injuries to post the league’s No. 1 point differential, No. 2 winning percentage, No. 2 offense and No. 3 defense since the All-Star break. Talk about hitting your stride at the perfect time.
The biggest revelation has been the ongoing development of 2014 Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard (16.6 PPG, 7.2 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.3 SPG), who has firmed up his reputation as the league’s premier perimeter defender, expanded his offensive game by making himself a threat to score in isolation and post-ups, and posted an unbelievable +12.3 net rating. Despite missing time earlier this season and playing fewer minutes per game than most stars, Leonard has done enough to land spots on both the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams, and he will surely be coach Gregg Popovich’s answer to virtually any touch matchup in the postseason.
San Antonio’s preferred starting lineup—Tony Parker, Danny Green, Leonard, Tim Duncan and Tiago Spitter—has roasted opponents to the tune of a +23.6 net rating, reprising the dominance it displayed throughout the 2014 playoffs. Duncan’s role in that success shouldn’t be undersold. The future Hall of Famer acted as a stabilizing force throughout the season (13.9 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 2.9 APG), and he should be rewarded with another All-NBA selection. Duncan’s consistency kept the Spurs close enough to the pack so that the team’s 11-game winning streak could potentially shoot them all the way into the West’s No. 2 seed. There’s little question that the Spurs are the West’s most feared team outside of the Warriors, and basketball fans of all stripes are pulling for the dream Warriors/Spurs showdown in the Western Conference finals.
Tony Parker (18.2 PPG, 5.3 APG in March) has finally started to come on, and it stands to reason that he will be one of the playoffs’ top X-factors. Last year, the Spurs won the championship despite multiple nagging injuries to Parker, but the Warriors and Cavaliers both potentially represent tougher challenges than anything the Spurs faced in 2014. If you’re not psyched to watch these Spurs—now officially Leonard’s Spurs—defend their 2014 title, there’s something wrong with you.
• MORE NBA: Overlook Kawhi Leonard, Spurs at your own peril
Toronto Raptors: B-
Midseason grade: B+
Off. Rating: 3 | Def. Rating: 23 | Net Rating: 10
At a glance: Let’s imagine the Eastern Conference is a must-visit destination, and the local tourism board wanted to film a commercial touting its merits. Their first move, no doubt, would be to call the Raptors and line them up as pitchmen.
“Have you ever wanted to go somewhere where you could go 12-16 after the All-Star break and 1-9 during a stretch of February and March, and still open the playoffs with home-court advantage?” Kyle Lowry, while wearing sunglasses and staring into the camera, might ask rhetorically, “Would you rather just not be a good defensive team, at all, with no major consequences?” DeMar DeRozan could chime in. “Are you looking for a getaway where long-term injuries to star players don’t really alter your postseason outlook?” coach Dwane Casey adds. Then, GM Masai Ujiri concludes the spot by asking: “Wouldn’t you like a favorable exchange rate? Like, a place where 48 wins gets you more than just a measly eighth seed?”
relaLife really is easier in the East. The Raptors, entering Wednesday’s action as the No. 4 seed, can afford to put their second-half struggles completely out of sight and out of mind as they turn their attention to winning just the second playoff series in franchise history. DeRozan’s extended absence and choppy return no longer matter. Lowry’s back problems are only an issue if they continue to limit him physically. The lingering defensive struggles are worrisome, but the Raptors are likely going to face a Wizards team that isn’t exactly potent. Sure, the Raptors built themselves a nice cushion by racing out to a fast start, but this margin for inconsistent play just isn’t available to West sliders like the Blazers and Mavericks.
Does Toronto have a chance to advance? Absolutely, but Lowry (17.7 PPG, 6.8 APG, 4.7 RPG), DeRozan (20.1 PPG, 4.6 RPG, 3.5 APG) and Sixth Man of the Year candidate Lou Williams (15.5 PPG, 2 APG) will all need to show up in a big way. Ujiri’s roster is approaching a summer crossroads, with Williams, Amir Johnson, Chuck Hayes, and Tyler Hansbrough all set to become free agents. How many changes are in store will likely be determined by whether the Raptors can get over the first-round hump for the first time since 2001.
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Utah Jazz: B+
Midseason grade: C+
Off. Rating: 15 | Def. Rating: 12 | Net Rating: 16
At a glance: The Jazz stand as the perfect example of why the NBA’s “eight teams from the West, eight teams from the East” format is unfair and, for lack of a more sophisticated term, dumb.
At 38-43, the up-and-coming Jazz have compensated for a rough start by playing exceptional defense since replacing Enes Kanter (traded to the Thunder) with rim-protecting extraordinaire Rudy Gobert (8.4 PPG, 9.5 RPG, 2.3 BPG). Since the midseason point, Utah has the NBA’s top defense (!) and the league’s fourth-best net rating (!!). The Jazz have posted a +6.3 net rating since Jan. 24, which is five points better than any of the other non-playoff teams (entering Wednesday’s action). Keep in mind, Quin Snyder’s club has made this run even though they have had nothing to play for, given how far back they were in the playoff race in December. This has been pure pride and, in Gobert’s case, emerging, game-changing talent.
In the East, Utah would be in the mix for one of the final playoff spots. And, if Salt Lake City happened to be located in Maine or Maryland, Snyder would be getting some portion of the love that’s been (deservedly) handed out to Celtics coach Brad Stevens. Utah would have become a popular bandwagon pick, as its hard-working young core is a lot more entertaining than Brooklyn’s dreadful vets or Miami’s MASH unit. Odds are, these Jazz could give a slumping team like the Raptors a real push in the first round of the playoffs.
Indeed, if the NBA simply had the proposed “16 best records make the playoffs” format in place this year, Utah would be exactly one win out of the 16th seed entering Wednesday. Their push not only would have mattered, but it would have gone down all the way to the wire.
Instead, this exemplary stretch of hoops is totally irrelevant to outsiders. They are a team that dug a hole so deep that it was never going to be ale to climb out in the West. Their recent success really only matters internally, in terms of how it affects the players’ growth and the front office’s planning. If the Jazz can come back significantly better next year, they just might have a shot at the playoffs under the current system. If not, they'll fall by the wayside again as everyone sits on the edge of his or her seat, breathlessly anticipating Deron Williams’ latest postseason appearance in front of 1,200 fans who are so quiet they might as well be checking out books at the Brooklyn Public Library.
Washington Wizards: C+
Midseason grade: B+
Off. Rating: 19 | Def. Rating: 5 | Net Rating: 12
At a glance: Here’s a crazy factoid that you would never guess: Washington’s winning percentage this year is its best mark since 1979! When was the last time a team enjoyed its best season in 35 years without generating any real excitement? The Wizards have climbed their personal Mount Everest, only to have the achievement be met with polite golf claps and grumbles rather than a standing ovation.
A big part of that phenomenon is that the 2015 Wizards are only marginally better than the 2014 version, and they have the same fundamental issues. Randy Wittman is still the coach, they still take too many mid-range jumpers (top-five in the league), they still don’t take enough three-pointers (bottom-five in the league), their offense is still a squirt gun compared to the East’s howitzers (Cleveland and Atlanta), and their defense, while strong, almost certainly won’t be good enough to compensate for its offensive impotence. A long second-half slide is at work here too: Washington is 17-21 since the midway point of the season, which is the worst mark among projected playoff teams. Worse than the Raptors. Worse than the Mavericks. Worse than the Bucks.
John Wall (17.6 PPG, 10 APG, 4.7 RPG, 1.7 SPG) has firmly established himself as one of the East’s best players, but he hasn’t been able to pull the Wizards out of this funk. An injury to Bradley Beal (15.2 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 3.1 APG) was a major factor in Washington’s struggles, as the Wizards lost six straight without him, but his return didn’t immediately or permanently restore order. Look no further than Washington’s paltry 95 points in a double-overtime loss to Indiana for evidence of the ongoing issues.
If the malaise is indeed as strong as it appears, a summer shake-up should be on the horizon. In the meantime, the Wizards will try to grind out a first-round series victory. If successful, they’ll be hard-pressed to avoid a second-round stomping. Whether by early exit or painful elimination by a contender, here’s hoping the Wizards’ playoff departure leads to a long look in the mirror and real changes.
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