NBA Midseason Grades: Eastern Conference

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Wednesday January 25th, 2017

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

First up, the Eastern Conference. Check back Thursday for the Western Conference.

SI.com's grades are determined by first-half performance relative to preseason expectations, taking into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major off-season moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, are also considered in the grading process.

(All statistics and rankings through Jan. 24. All first-half records through 41 games.)

Ron Hoskins/Getty Images

Atlanta Hawks: B+

First-Half Record: 24-17 | Current Record: 26-19
Off. Rating: 24 | Def. Rating: 5 | Net: 13

No NBA franchise is better than the Hawks at failing to inspire excitement while surpassing expectations. While they have staved off preseason fears that they might fall apart in the wake of the Jeff Teague/Al Horford departures—thanks to another year of All-Star level play from Paul Millsap and the reasonably successful integration of Dwight Howard—their return to the middle of the East’s playoff picture has answered few questions. Dennis Schroder has proven he can handle starter’s duties, but will he ever blossom into a top performer at his position? What happened to Kent Bazemore’s shooting stroke? Why should Millsap trust the end of his prime to a team that’s constantly turning over its roster? Wouldn’t the Hawks be much better off selling off Millsap like they traded Kyle Korver, with an eye towards building around their 25-and-under roster pieces? 

While there are worse fates than dreary respectability, Atlanta’s wheel-spinning is bound to continue given Millsap’s expensive summer decision and a young core that has yet to distinguish itself or even really take shape.   

Boston Celtics: B

First-Half Record: 26-15 | Current Record: 26-18
Off. Rating: 7 | Def. Rating 22 | Net: 9

Let’s pat the Celtics on the back for staying afloat despite early injuries to Al Horford and Jae Crowder and do the wave to honor of Isaiah Thomas’s breakthrough as an offensive superstar. With those pleasantries dispensed, let’s shift focus to where it should be: holding Danny Ainge’s feet to the fire before the trade deadline. Even at full strength, Boston hasn’t defended or rebounded well enough to keep pace with the league’s best teams, running up an 0-8 record against Cleveland, Toronto, Golden State, San Antonio and Houston. 

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With assets of all forms to spare, Ainge must address his team’s defensive regression and frontcourt weaknesses, or risk setting up his team playoff disappointment of one flavor (shocking early exit due to a bad matchup) or another (complete obliteration by the Cavaliers). As the Wizards, of all people, proved with Tuesday’s “Funeral” blackout: No one has real cause to fear these Celtics. 

Brooklyn Nets: D–

First-Half Record: 8-33 | Current Record: 9-35
Off. Rating: 27 | Def. Rating: 28 | Net: 30

The Nets are terrible on offense, atrocious on defense and their most marketable player, Jeremy Lin, hasn’t been able to stay on the court due to injuries. Nevertheless, there are clear signs of progress. A slashed payroll has made the losing less embarrassing for ownership. New coach Kenny Atkinson has not only avoided Lionel Hollins-esque open frustration and boredom with his dead-end short-term reality, but also coaxed fairly consistent energy out of his pack of also-rans and might-bes, including a few surprising wins over projected playoff teams. Most importantly, youngsters like Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert and Isaiah Whitehead have enjoyed ample developmental minutes. 

Don’t mistake any of this for legitimate hope or optimism given the franchise’s shallow talent pool and hopeless draft pick situation. The Nets are merely crawling along rock bottom rather than freefalling into the abyss. Brook Lopez might be the most patient person in the world.

Charlotte Hornets: C

First-Half Record: 20-21 | Current Record: 23-22
Off. Rating: 14 | Def. Rating: 6 | Net: 8

There’s an alternative universe—one without HB2, Dwyane Wade and “Purple Shirt Guy” conspiring to dash their 2016 playoff hopes, and multiple season-altering injuries to Michael Kidd-Gilchrist—in which the Hornets are gearing up to host All-Star Weekend as the toast of the NBA. Picture it. Kemba Walker, fresh off a postseason breakout, is an All-Star lock rather than a potential snub. MKG is heading down the path towards the “Next Kawhi” tag rather than stuck on one-way enigma status. And owner Michael Jordan is being lauded as a proven turnaround artist gunning for a possible Eastern Conference finals trip. 

Sadly, Charlotte is stuck in a less satisfying reality, despite Steve Clifford’s ability to coax helpful contributions from unexpected sources and a starting group that boasts a strong +8.9 net rating. After not quite getting over the hump against the Heat and paying up to keep the most important members of the band together, the Hornets are smack in the middle of the East’s unpredictable mid-tier glut thanks to an offense that remains a little too reliant on Walker and a defense that started shakily but has turned up the intensity of late.  

Randy Belice/Getty Imades

Chicago Bulls: C–

First-Half Record: 20-21 | Current Record: 23-23
Off. Rating: 19 | Def. Rating: 9 | Net: 15 

While LeBron James has made headlines this week for pushing Cleveland’s front office to improve his supporting cast, it’s worth a moment to pause and consider the relationship between Jimmy Butler and Chicago’s rag-tag tag-team of Gar Forman and John Paxson. The Bulls front office failed to foresee Butler’s emergence. They low-balled him on his extension offer. They wound up paying him full fare once he played his way into major money. They dragged their feet on ditching Derrick Rose. They made a complete mess of their coaching change. They allowed Butler’s name to emerge in trade rumors. And, worst of all, they totally mucked up their retooling plan by signing Rajon Rondo and Dwyane Wade, two pieces that presented clear issues at this stage of their respective careers. 

Ironically, Butler’s brilliance is single-handedly keeping Forman and Paxson employed, as he ranks third in RPM and was recently selected as an All-Star starter despite the Bulls’ mediocre record. When he’s off the court, Chicago’s -9.4 net rating is worse than every team in the league’s, including Brooklyn’s. The sad part, though, is that Butler is a high-usage, high-minutes player who simply doesn’t have years of his prime to waste with Fred Hoiberg’s Rotation Roulette and Rondo’s “more harm than good” impact. How long until ownership realizes the mess that management has made? And how much does management, backed into a corner with no easy outs, owe Butler for not airing his grievances in LeBron-like fashion?  

Cleveland Cavaliers: A

First-Half Record: 30-11 | Current Record: 30-13
Off. Rating: 6 | Def. Rating: 17 | Net: 7

There are nits to pick with the Cavaliers’ internal dynamics, but their position on the wider chessboard remains excellent. First, the grievances. LeBron James (37.5 MPG) is playing too many minutes. Like many champions who return with their conference’s most talented roster, the Cavaliers only crank up the defensive intensity when needed. J.R. Smith’s injury is felt on a nightly basis. Kyle Korver was a logical addition, but James is correct in saying this week that Cleveland should keep tweaking. And aside from a fourth-quarter comeback on Christmas, Cleveland has largely been at Golden State’s mercy in their two head-to-head matchups.  

Most of these issues are non-issues given the cast of pretenders chasing the Cavaliers. Not since the 2013 Heat has one of James’ teams enjoyed such a wide regular-season gap in the East, and that 66-win squad encountered minimal resistance until it reached the conference finals. These Cavaliers, as “top-heavy” as they might be, seem headed on a similar course, whether or not James gets the help he’s requested.

Detroit Pistons: D–

First-Half Record: 18-23 | Current Record: 21-25
Off. Rating: 22 | Def. Rating: 13 | Net: 18

Detroit and Portland entered the season with the same over/under projection—38.5 wins—and hit the halfway mark with the exact same record. Yet somehow the Blazers have (deservedly) been hit with the disappointment tag while the Pistons have mostly been ignored. There are a few obvious explanations—Reggie Jackson’s early injury, Damian Lillard’s star power, Portland’s first-round victory and off-season spending spree—but none that really absolves the Pistons and head honcho Stan Van Gundy. After all, Detroit has been bad with and without Jackson on the court. Max center Andre Drummond has flat-lined or regressed in all aspects. And 2015 lottery pick Stanley Johnson remains a minor bit player. 

Remember, this was supposed to be a team positioning itself to take another step forward after a first-round exit in 2016. Van Gundy spent multiple years reshaping the roster, doling out numerous questionable contracts, and hand-selecting Jackson as his pick-and-roll point guard and Tobias Harris as his stretch four, among other targeted acquisitions. Now, he’s acknowledging that everyone on his roster, including Drummond, is “available” in trade talks. The season is still salvageable, given that the playoffs are within shouting distance, but the Pistons are right there with the East’s biggest underachievers because their carefully-laid and extremely costly plan hasn’t worked out at all.  

Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

Indiana Pacers: C

First-Half Record: 22-19 | Current Record: 22-22
Off. Rating: 18 | Def. Rating: 14 | Net: 17

There are good arguments to be made in favor of giving the Pacers a longer leash: head coach Nate McMillan is new, Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young are new, Myles Turner is extraordinarily young, and a host of key contributions from last year’s squad changed zip codes over the summer. But there are, seemingly, an equal number of reasons to panic: franchise player Paul George has missed time and has been far less effective than in previous years, Monta Ellis has quickly approached “unplayable” status, Teague hasn’t lit the world on fire, and every winning stretch that features cohesive basketball has been followed by a losing streak where even the lowliest opponents enjoy field days.    

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Where does that leave the Pacers? Great question. On paper, the Pacers fit together more cleanly than the Bulls, they possess more top-end talent than the Pistons, and they’re less combustible than the Knicks. That combination should help keep Indiana in the playoff picture and could set up a second-half run if George and Teague can kick it up a few notches and if Turner can continue his promising development. Even in a best-case scenario down the stretch, though, it’s hard to envision Indiana truly solving its persistent identity problems. President Larry Bird has cycled the pieces around George in recent years and his latest core doesn’t look much more threatening than the previous models. 

Miami Heat: D

First-Half Record: 11-30 | Current Record: 15-30
Off. Rating: 28 | Def. Rating: 11 | Net: 23

Sometimes teams pursue rebuilds. Sometimes rebuilds swallow up teams. The Heat have landed in the latter category thanks to Dwyane Wade’s off-season departure, Chris Bosh’s career-altering health concerns, and Justise Winslow’s season-ending shoulder surgery. Even if Pat Riley was philosophically opposed to tanking, the tanks are cruising down Biscayne Boulevard and closing in on him fast. No amount of empty calorie 20/10 lines from Hassan Whiteside can stop them. 

Winslow’s injury was a real crusher; The 2015 lottery pick is easily Miami’s top prospect, and he possesses an offensive game that still needs serious development. What’s left of the Heat appeals only to diehards, those amused by Dion Waiters’ whimsy, and Nets fans looking for company to share in their misery. Everyone else can pray for a trade deadline sell-off involving Goran Dragic and then commence counting lottery balls and dreaming up free-agency offers. On the bright side, there were warning signs that this nightmare was coming, and its “sink fast rather than drown slowly” nature has gifted the Heat a clarity that many teams above them in the East’s standings lack. Riley and his fan base no longer have the luxury of self-delusion and that should help speed up the turnaround.  

Milwaukee Bucks:  A 

First-Half Record: 20-21 | Current Record: 21-23
Off. Rating: 9 | Def. Rating: 19 | Net: 10

Perhaps the most common criticism of online basketball analysis from NBA executives is that it’s easy to lose sight of the bigger picture when grading every last transaction individually, especially when most moves take years to pan out. The Bucks might be the best example of this in recent memory. Thon Maker, their controversial top-10 pick, has barely seen the court. Miles Plumlee, their $52 million center, is still in the league in case you were wondering. Matthew Dellavedova, another expensive summer add, has lost his three-point stroke now that he’s not being set up by LeBron James. Greg Monroe, a key 2015 acquisition, has found some success, but only in a reduced role. Khris Middleton, one more big-dollar contract guy, has yet to take the court this season due to a hamstring injury.

Please see the forest through the trees. Giannis Antetokounmpo has made such a gigantic leap this season—springing into the All-Star starting lineup and firmly into the “Who inherits the East from LeBron?” conversation—that everything else, including Jabari Parker’s emergence, feels relatively minor. Antetokounmpo’s full breakthrough to superstardom has been the type of magical three-month stretch that organizations like the Bucks dream about for a decade. The wins will come. 

Elsa/Getty Images

New York Knicks: D

First-Half Record: 18-23 | Current Record: 20-26
Off. Rating: 15 | Def. Rating: 25 | Net: 22

The last thing the world needs right now is another biting round of Knicks angst that leads to an inevitable and self-evident conclusion: they’re a mess. Let’s keep this as brief as possible. The president has displayed zero accountability, the coach has openly admitted his players might not be capable of playing defense, the franchise player has engaged in a public back-and-forth with management against his better judgment, the point guard has disappeared without warning, and the center has proven to be perhaps the worst signing of the 2016 off-season. 

The organization’s only truly promising young talent—Kristaps Porzingis—has somehow managed to display progress as a two-way impact player even though his environment has done him zero favors. Unfortunately, as the Knicks have plunged down the standings, it’s become increasingly difficult to concentrate on the hope Porzingis inspires. The pity is simply too thick.  

Orlando Magic: D+

First-Half Record: 17-24 | Current Record: 18-29
Off. Rating: 29 | Def. Rating: 21 | Net: 27

The Orlando Sentinel recently conducted an interview with Magic GM Rob Hennigan, who addressed his team’s weak start after four straight losing seasons and a summer trade for Serge Ibaka that looked terrible before the ink dried. Here’s a nuts-and-bolts summary of the interview. In Hennigan’s view…

• The Magic were built as a defense-first team but have been “extremely disappointing” defensively…
• The Magic have perimeter players who need to improve offensively in many key areas…
• The Magic have lacked consistent energy and effort despite being relatively young…
• The Magic want to have lineup versatility but haven’t been able to make it work…
• The Magic’s young players are feeling the effects of multiple coaching changes…
• The Magic need more “shooting, shot-making and basketball IQ”…
• The Magic could also use additional “experience [and] feel for the game.”

Or, maybe the Magic just need a new GM.

Philadelphia 76ers: A-

First-Half Record: 15-26 | Current Record: 16-27
Off. Rating: 30 | Def. Rating: 12 | Net: 28

Some oddsmakers elected to pull the Sixers’ preseason over-under lines in the immediate aftermath of No. 1 pick Ben Simmons’s injury. It’s incredibly tempting to pull a similar copout on their midseason grade. On one hand, Philadelphia surpassed last season’s win total shortly after the new year and discovered a legitimate savior in Joel Embiid. On the other, Philadelphia still has the league’s worst offense, Embiid has missed 13 games and has yet to log 30 minutes in a contest, and Simmons hasn’t yet made his debut. Trying to maintain perspective is so jarring after three-plus years of The Process: a 9–3 stretch is almost incomprehensibly joyous and amazing, even if a similar 12-game performance would practically raise alarm bells for the Warriors or Spurs. 

Much like with the Bucks and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s breakout, the big picture is the key. Don’t get too bogged down in Jahlil Okafor’s uselessness, his father’s Twitter Fingers, or any of the many fundamental flaws baked into a stripped-down roster. The only things that truly matter this season—even more than the wins —are Embiid’s play (sensational), his ability to stay on the court (hit or miss) and Simmons’s acclimation (TBD). The Sixers are now the NBA’s most promising and precarious organization, one that swings from contender to ruin every time Embiid slips, stumbles, falls or simply sits out. While it’s tempting to get caught up in the hype and give Philadelphia a straight “A” to date, bigger doses of Embiid and Simmons could easily lead to even better times down the stretch.  

Toronto Raptors: B+

First-Half Record: 28-13 | Current Record: 28-17
Off. Rating: 2 | Def. Rating 16 | Net: 3

Want to know the surest sign that the Raptors have arrived? The Basketball Intelligentsia has spent the last four months scrutinizing Toronto with an intensity that’s reserved only for contenders. That’s the blessing and the curse of life with two All-Stars and an Eastern Conference finals trip in the rearview. Excitement over the mere prospect of 50 wins has rightfully given way to a more pointed discussion of Toronto’s abysmal 0-7 record against the Warriors, Spurs and Cavaliers. 

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Those discussions should yield three conclusions: 1) The Raptors are very good, 2) The Raptors aren’t good enough, and 3) The Raptors have the necessary pieces to improve with a midseason trade. At present, Toronto’s ultra-efficient offense is zooming past a defense that is held back by major frontcourt holes. The Raptors have played enough games, and Dwane Casey has tinkered with enough combinations, to conclude that real help must come from outside, leaving president Masai Ujiri as the league’s most obvious deadline buyer. With any luck, Ujiri will embrace his franchise’s rising fortunes and give the Raptors’ passionate fans reason to believe their team has a real shot against the NBA’s best. 

Washington Wizards: B

First-Half Record: 22-19 | Current Record: 25-20
Off. Rating: 10 | Def. Rating 18 | Net: 11

It would be much easier to throw caution to the wind and hop on the Wizards’ bandwagon if they hadn’t spent the first month of the season showing the world that their margin for disaster is so incredibly thin. Even so, their recent push has been heartening: John Wall has returned to life as a true franchise player, Otto Porter has earned himself some fringe Most Improved Player love, Bradley Beal has been the productive scorer everyone has spent the last four years waiting on, and the Washington starters have posted an impressive +10.3 net rating. Even with a bench so terrible that it causes retina damage, Washington has flashed hints of “Eastern Conference finals” sleeper potential. 

All of that said, the foundation is built on quicksand. Wall must hold up despite a heavy minutes load, and any individual regression will show immediately in the standings. Beal must remain both healthy and fully engaged (double gulp). The other starters need to maintain near-perfect availability, lest the second-unit stand-ins screw things up. And the front office must weigh the benefits of a win-now trade, as a minor trade deadline reinforcement would go a really, really long way. Whatever happens, let’s all root for the Best Wizards, because the Worst Wizards, who played to thousands of empty seats throughout November, were right there with the Nets when it comes to despair-inducing unwatchability.  

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