As you probably inferred from the title, we’re halfway through the NBA season. As you may have read yesterday, courtesy of the illustrious Rohan Nadkarni, we’re handing out mid-season grades. Yesterday, we ran through the West. Today, the East. Tomorrow, the world. These grades are based on...basically nothing but my own opinion, relative to expectations.
Atlanta Hawks: D
The slight upgrade from abject failure represents Trae Young’s continued evolution into one of the NBA’s most exciting guards, which should no longer be in question. Not much else has gone remotely according to plan. Atlanta was sold as a trendy sleeper to push for a low playoff seed in the East. That didn’t happen. John Collins’ suspension was a tough break, to be fair, and Kevin Huerter (who is quite good) has also missed time. The individual quality of twin lottery picks De’Andre Hunter (40% from the field) and Cam Reddish (32%, yikes!) was widely oversold—both have room to grow into rotation players on winning teams, but benefitted from the state of a generally iffy 2019 draft. But until the Hawks can find even a facsimile of a defensive backbone to protect the rim on a consistent basis (hence, the Andre Drummond rumors), this group is going to struggle to guard. It’s one thing to preach patience, but Atlanta will grit their teeth for signs of growth in the second half while they worry about the upcoming draft.
New York Knicks: F
I mean, I don’t really know what anyone expected here after the offseason mudslide that ended with seven different average-to-above-average power forwards showing up at Penn Station. But whatever even the most true-hearted, least-jaded Knicks fans could have reasonably hoped for...this season hasn’t been that. The Fizdale firing felt inevitable, and whatever comes next in terms of leadership changes won’t be a surprise, either. But when the headlines are trumpeting 30-year-old Marcus Morris as a potential part of the team’s future and you’re 11-29, and somehow still holding onto the pipe dream of enticing a star free agent to join a mostly-barren roster, you’ve got bigger problems. On an equally sobering note, R.J. Barrett’s PER of 10.41 is just a tick higher than that of Kevin Knox (10.34). I‘m not trying to inordinately bash the Knicks, I just genuinely don’t know what anyone can do to fix this.
Cleveland Cavaliers: F
How Cleveland’s particular brand of hell compares to what’s happening at Madison Square Garden right now is not for me to say. But I’m also not sure what anyone expected from the Cavaliers this season, because there is no philosophical harmony in handing the reins to Collin Sexton and Darius Garland while also trying to field a remotely competent defensive team, particularly one that features Kevin Love. The Cavs were never making the playoffs this season, they probably should never have offered Love that massive contract in the first place, and if he and Tristan Thompson don’t move before the deadline, there will be no solace in what was already a bit of a tenuous rebuild. Thankfully, this group is young and new enough that they’ll have a chance to hit the reset button over the summer. John Beilein’s pronounced struggles to manage an NBA locker room is just a sprinkle of salt on the slug.
Washington Wizards: C+
Despite being the worst defensive team in the entire league, the Wizards can at least measure this season in small successes as they wait to see what version of John Wall shows up at training camp in the fall. Acquiring Davis Bertans for quite literally nothing, then watching him bloom into one of the NBA’s best catch-and-shoot players is a massive win. Rui Hachimura acquitted himself relatively well before a very unfortunate groin injury. They’ve unearthed reasonably competent minutes out of Moritz Wagner and Jordan McRae. With Bradley Beal signed for the long-term, at least the Wizards have had the luxury of being able to try some stuff. If they can flip any of their pieces into future value before the trade deadline, even better. Washington will have to produce some important answers next season, when the Beal/Wall duo reunites and the clock starts to tick on what the roster should look like. But at least there’s some rhyme and reason behind the team’s approach to what’s amounted to a strange gap year.
Detroit Pistons: D-
Signs of growth from Luke Kennard and Bruce Brown, and Derrick Rose’s resurgence as a potentially tradable asset are pretty much the only things going for the Pistons right now. It was kind of inevitable in a sense, but a team that had an outside shot at the eight-seed is teetering on the precipice of what could legitimate cellar-dwelling territory for the foreseeable future. There is no rising star in place to build around, Blake Griffin’s physical decline has begun faster than expected, and Detroit has to find a way to trade Andre Drummond before he has a chance to walk this summer. It’s tough to be a selling team without attractive things to flip, of course. But with Griffin injured and potentially a long-term moot point, the Pistons are ripe for a change of course. Finding suitable trade partners for their veterans, handing more minutes to younger players and sifting through the scrap heap for talent the rest of the way can improve this mark, but it feels a little bit bleak.
Chicago Bulls: C-
With some actual talent on the roster and external impatience with the franchise beginning to bubble over, the bar for the Bulls to clear this season wasn’t all that high. Feigning playoff contention would probably be acceptable, all things considered, and it would be one thing if the Bulls were two or three games out of the playoffs. But after injuries and spouts of inconsistency, and even after going .500 in December, they’ve got a decent chunk of ground to make up just to catch the Nets and Magic. It feels like a lot to ask, with Wendell Carter sidelined for an extended period of time and the trade deadline nearing. Chicago will be better off selling and trying to exercise patience with their younger players. Safe to say, it’s been an underwhelming run, and speculation persists that there could be changes to the coaching staff and front office after the season. The Bulls aren’t totally dead yet, but it could happen any time.
Charlotte Hornets: B-
Things have fallen apart a little bit over the past six weeks, but given pretty much everyone expected Charlotte to be among the league’s worst teams, there are a lot of silver linings here if you’re an optimist. Devonte’ Graham looking close to a legitimate starting guard (although his shooting has dovetailed a bit) is one of them, and he’s coexisted with summer signing Terry Rozier to an extent, although that duo is logging a ton of minutes. P.J. Washington looks like an astute draft pick, Miles Bridges has been productive, and while it would surprise nobody if the bottom falls out in the second half, it’s easier to be slightly optimistic as far as personnel is concerned. Simply being competitive and having a shot at playing back into the eight-seed conversation is about all the Hornets could ask for given the circumstances.
Brooklyn Nets: C+
The fact the Nets are hanging onto a playoff spot right now doesn’t say much about the state of affairs—with the injuries they’ve had, it could be much worse, and with Caris LeVert and Kyrie Irving back, Brooklyn should be able to stay the course. This season was more about player growth than anything else, and the real expectations will come with Kevin Durant‘s return in the fall. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris and Jarrett Allen have all had opportunities to shine. Going through a healthy stretch run as a group should eventually pay dividends, and while it hasn’t been smooth sailing, at least the Nets are getting the job done.
Orlando Magic: B-
This was going reasonably well before Jonathan Isaac’s injury—the Magic wanted to return to the playoffs, and they’re positioned to do that, so this could be way worse. The bigger question is whether they’re starting to hit their ceiling as a group, which is tough to say. Isaac was having a strong season, Markelle Fultz has been passable and healthy, and Mo Bamba is still very much an experiment. It’s an eye-of-the-beholder thing, but Orlando has been very good defensively at full strength, and might just be a scorer away from taking a step forward as a team. They might be inclined to make a move or two at the deadline with an eye toward next season, but regardless, at least there’s a better sense of what the Magic have to work with. This feels like what we expected.
Indiana Pacers: A+
Putting together a 26-15 start without Victor Oladipo is an unbelievable turn of events for Indiana, and it’s hard to spin it any way but positive. The Pacers have gotten more out of their returners, made shrewd additions with Malcolm Brogdon, T.J. Warren and Jeremy Lamb, and look like a team that can make things extremely interesting in the playoffs, depending on how long it takes Oladipo to get right. This is how you build a franchise in a mid-size market. Someone please put Domantas Sabonis on the All-Star team.
Philadelphia 76ers: C+
Well, 10 games out of first place in the East and a heavy dose of unrest isn’t what anyone hoped for, but here we are. The Sixers aren’t totally screwed by any means (they’re still 18-2 at home and are still in the mix for a top-three finish), but the gambles they took in rearranging the roster have yet to pay serious dividends, and everyone is back to wondering about the Embiid-Simmons long-term fit, which is to say, not a lot has really changed. Whether or not Philadelphia does something drastic at the deadline will be fascinating. This group is still capable of contending in the East, although the bench still needs help. On whole, it feels like everyone has more questions than answers.
Toronto Raptors: A-
It was dumb to write the Raptors off. All their major players have missed time, Kawhi is gone, and yet they’re in the mix for another top-four finish, and you wonder whether they’ll try and up the ante. Pascal Siakam is a star, which would have meant a ton regardless of all the other successes. Fred VanVleet keeps getting better, everyone else is still very good, and Toronto has made do despite a good amount of adversity. This is what stability looks like, and even without a clear championship ceiling, the Raptors can feel pretty good about what’s happening. Remember when people wondered if they’d make the playoffs?
Miami Heat: A
The Heat were a sexy sleeper pick to take a leap as a group, but they’ve done it faster and more successfully than anyone imagined. Sure, they’ve been punching above their weight a bit and eking out some close ones, but...these are mid-season grades. Miami’s had as successful a start as anybody, relative to the range of outcomes. Bam Adebayo’s breakout is real, and Jimmy Butler finally seems happy. We’ll see whether or not you can make it to 50 wins relying heavily on Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson. Regardless, Miami deserves a lot of credit, and it won’t be shocking if they make an aggressive move at the deadline.
Boston Celtics: B+
While Boston is still a player or two away from seriously contending, it’s hard to quibble with how the Celtics chose to reload. Losing Al Horford probably stings that much more, given the circumstances. They’ve cooled after starting 10–1, and still have to play Milwaukee and Miami three more times apiece, but the schedule looks generally friendly down the home stretch, and the Celtics are in good position to finish second or third, thus avoiding the Bucks. The frontcourt situation is not overly convincing. But it’s not like this team is going anywhere.
Milwaukee Bucks: A+
The Bucks are *on pace* to go 70–12. Enough said.