2018-19 NBA Midseason Grades: Surprise teams join Raptors, Warriors as title contenders; two franchises earn fat F's

On opening night, every NBA team has hopes of fortune and glory -- and perhaps a perfect 82-0 season. But those dreams quickly fade as the reality of the season sets in, and unforeseen roadblocks, whether injuries, internal drama or outright poor performance, rear their ugly heads.

Every team has had obstacles during the 2018-19 season, but some have managed to deal with them better than others. So our CBS Sports NBA staff thought, at the halfway point of the season, it was only fitting to hand out grades for each team. These are all relative to expectations -- the Hawks don't get an "F" because they're at the bottom of the Eastern Conference -- and they're all based on the team's performance thus far, not any sort of projection.

As you'll quickly see, a lot of the teams we expected to pass with flying colors have struggled out of the gate, while others have completely exceeded our expectations. One thing's for sure -- these grades won't be the same when the season ends.

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How has your team fared so far this season? Graphic illustration by Michael Meredith (CBS Sports)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Atlanta Hawks: C

It's tough to appropriately grade the Hawks this season since they are building for the future. In the present they're not great, but in Trae Young and John Collins they seem to have identified a couple of foundational pieces moving forward. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Boston Celtics: C+

This way-less-fun-than-it-should-be team was meant to be a title contender, and every time it seems like it is turning the corner, it gets off track. The overall numbers aren't that bad -- the Celtics have the third-best net rating in the league! -- and their upside cannot be dismissed, but you know something's wrong when a player calls his team "too talented" and his point of view is seen as totally reasonable. Shoutout to Marcus Morris' unbelievable season, though. -- James Herbert

Brooklyn Nets: A

The Nets blew a 23-point lead against the Thunder at home on Dec. 5, their eighth loss in a row, and that could have been that. They were 2-10 in the three weeks since their best player, Caris LeVert, got injured, and the word "tanking" was being thrown around. Instead of splintering, they held a players-only film session and won seven straight. Brooklyn is now 14-5 since that OKC game, and there are positive vibes all around. Also: Rodions Kurucs! -- James Herbert

Charlotte Hornets: C+

The Hornets remain trapped in one of the most undesirable positions in the NBA: not good enough to truly contend, but not bad enough to land at the top of the lottery. Charlotte has been stuck in this cycle for years, and the '18-19 season appears no different. It is clear that the Hornets don't have enough talent as currently constructed to compete with the top dogs in the East, yet the play of Kemba Walker keeps them from sinking too far toward the bottom of the standings. Ultimately, the Hornets will either need to surround Walker with more All-Star talent, or start over. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Chicago Bulls: D

Everyone knew the Bulls were going to be bad this season, but they get a "D" for how they've handled things more so than their record. They abruptly fired Fred Hoiberg, replaced him with Jim Boylen, who nearly caused a mutiny within the first week, then empowered Boylen with a raise and contract extension despite the fact that he has done nothing to deserve such a thing. -- Jack Maloney

Cleveland Cavaliers: C-

The Cavaliers have been worse than probably everyone expected, but that's in large part due to Kevin Love's injury and their fairly early decision to pack things in and prepare for the future. They let Ty Lue go, traded Kyle Korver to the Jazz and put J.R. Smith on leave. Still, while it's better for the long run that they're going to get a high draft pick this summer, there aren't many signs of hope in Cleveland right now. -- Jack Maloney

Detroit Pistons: D

What a disaster for the Pistons this season. They brought in Dwane Casey, had a full summer to prepare with Blake Griffin and had real hopes of getting back to the playoffs for the first time since 2016. And they still might get there due to how pitiful the bottom of the East is, but this has been an awful season in Detroit. -- Jack Maloney

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Victor Oladipo and the Pacers are proving last season's success was not a fluke. USATSI

Indiana Pacers: A

The Pacers burst onto the scene last season, and have proved in this campaign that they were no fluke; this team is legit. They have an excellent defense, Victor Oladipo is a star and Domantas Sabonis is the leading candidate for Sixth Man of the Year. It will be interesting to see what kind of noise they make in the playoffs, but the first half of the season has been everything the Pacers could have hoped for. -- Jack Maloney

Miami Heat: B

Despite hovering around .500 midway through the season, the Heat still lead the Southeast Division, thanks to some solid contributions from a plethora of players like Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow, and, of course, Dwyane Wade. If nothing else, the Heat appear poised for another playoff appearance, and are giving Wade an appropriate sendoff in his final season. So, while in the long run the season might prove forgettable for the Heat, at least they're keeping it interesting on a nightly basis. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Milwaukee Bucks: A+

Even the Bucks probably didn't expect things to go quite this well in the first season under new head coach Mike Budenholzer. The revamped offense has turned them into a 3-point machine and opened up room for Giannis Antetokounmpo to operate, which has helped turn him into an MVP candidate. Halfway through the season they've established themselves as one of the league's best teams, and are fighting with the Raptors for home court in the East. -- Jack Maloney

New York Knicks: D+

The Knicks don't use the word "tanking" -- they prefer to talk about "development" -- but it is clear that wins and losses don't matter much right now. You can credit them for getting Kevin Knox to a place where he could win Rookie of the Month and allowing Noah Vonleh to show what he can do. You can note that young players generally rave about coach David Fizdale. You can remain skeptical, however, about New York changing its reputation and attracting a top-tier star. -- James Herbert

Orlando Magic: C

The Magic are in the midst of another forgettable season as they continue to develop some of the young [seemingly ill-fitting] talent that they have acquired. In addition to the fact that they are out of the playoff picture, the team has to be a little concerned about the lack of production from 2018 lottery pick Mo Bamba, who looks to be every bit the project that he was projected to be. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Philadelphia 76ers: B-

It feels weird to grade the 76ers now, given that they're about to start what could be a season-defining stretch. They should be pleased with their healthy starting five's plus net rating and overall record, but it has been a thoroughly weird three months, full of drama and disappointing road losses. Let's see how they do against -- gulp -- the Pacers, Thunder, Rockets, Spurs, Nuggets, Lakers, Warriors, Kings, Raptors, Nuggets (again), Lakers (again) and Celtics in the next few weeks. -- James Herbert

Toronto Raptors: A

The big-picture stuff is extremely encouraging: Kawhi Leonard has been just as efficient as he was before his quad injury, Danny Green has fit in better than anyone could have hoped and Pascal Siakam has sparked joy all over Toronto. There are issues -- Kyle Lowry's scoring dip, the non-dominant bench -- but they are relatively minor for a team with the league's best record. The Raptors' ceiling is significantly higher than ever before. -- James Herbert

Washington Wizards: F

Things couldn't have gone much worse than they have for the Wizards. They entered the season as a contender in the East, but almost immediately fell out of the playoff picture due to injuries and other internal issues. The team reportedly planned to shop its two best players, one of which -- John Wall -- is now out for the season. At this point, the Wizards would probably like a do-over on the entire season. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain

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The Warriors overcame both injuries and drama to start the season, but that's now just a distant memory. USATSI

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Dallas Mavericks: C+

When you think of the Mavericks, it starts and ends with rookie sensation Luka Doncic, who has taken the league by storm and is easily the front-runner for the Rookie of the Year Award. However, this is a group with some aging veterans like Dirk Nowitzki and Wesley Matthews, and now it appears that Dennis Smith Jr. could be on the move. The team is still hovering around the .500 mark and it's not impossible to see them sneak into the postseason as the eighth seed. -- Chris Bengel

Denver Nuggets: A+

The Denver Nuggets are among the top teams in the Western Conference. While many people don't buy them as a serious threat in the postseason against teams such as the Thunder and Warriors, the bottom line is this team is going to enter as one of the top three seeds in the West -- if not the No. 1 seed. That is a major accomplishment for a franchise that has barely missed the postseason the past two years and hasn't made it since the 2012-13 season. -- DJ Siddiqi

Golden State Warriors: B

The Warriors haven't felt like the runaway best team in the league that many people still think they actually are, but let's keep it in perspective: They're the current No. 1 seed in an absolutely loaded Western Conference and have the second-best net rating in the league. How much can you really ding them? That said, they are having a harder time pulling away from teams even when they play well. It's fair to say it was feeling like the league as a whole had closed the gap on Golden State, and then we were reminded: Oh yeah, they have DeMarcus Cousins, who was spectacular in his Golden State debut. The Warriors are just fine with the way things have gone as they are getting hot at the right time. -- Brad Botkin

Houston Rockets: B+

The Rockets spent the early portion of the season barely keeping their heads above water. However, despite losing Chris Paul, this is a team that still has shown it can be a major force in the Western Conference. It also hasn't hurt that James Harden is playing out of his mind and riding an insane scoring streak. When healthy, the Rockets proved just how dangerous they are during the postseason in 2018 and a similar run could be in the cards once again. -- Chris Bengel

Los Angeles Clippers: B

The Clippers have fallen off after getting out to a red-hot start, but all things considered, they've still had a terrific start. It will be interesting whether they look to move anyone at the trade deadline, perhaps freeing up even more money for next summer when they will have a ton of cap space and figure to be one of the biggest players on the free-agent market. Tobias Harris has played like an All-Star and Montrezl Harrell might be the best player in the league a lot of common fans haven't given a second thought to. If the Clippers make the playoffs, in this Western Conference, with this roster, all while really keeping their eye more on the upcoming summer, it will be remarkable. -- Brad Botkin

Los Angeles Lakers: B-

When LeBron James went down with a groin injury on Christmas Day, the Lakers were 20-14 and looking like a borderline top-four team in the Western Conference. For a team that won 35 games in 2017-18, that says a lot -- particularly about LeBron's MVP status. However, to think that James, in his 16th season, was going to play anywhere near 82 games -- as he did last season -- was unrealistic, and the bottom line is the Lakers haven't played well enough in his absence to grade much higher than this. Kyle Kuzma is looking like the best player of the young core four. Lonzo Ball is too often irrelevant for a guy that can be so tantalizingly good when he's being aggressive and his jumper is falling at an even halfway respectable rate. Brandon Ingram has had stretches where he has looked as advertised, but not consistently enough. Without James, this team hasn't really improved that much since last season. But they have James, and that's really all there is to this report card. -- Brad Botkin

Memphis Grizzlies: C-

The Grizzlies found themselves picking in the top five of the lottery last season after firing David Fizdale during the regular season. However, Memphis did finally get a healthy Mike Conley back on the roster this season, which has led to more victories. The team has definitely been inconsistent as of late and that could lead the team to be a seller at the Feb. 7 trade deadline. -- Chris Bengel

Minnesota Timberwolves: F

You can call me out for being way too harsh on this team, but just a year ago this was considered to be a championship-contending team for the next several seasons. Fast forward a year after acquiring Jimmy Butler and the whole operation has been blown up. Butler is gone, head coach Tom Thibodeau has been fired, and while this team is still decent, it's unclear what the future holds for the Wolves despite having two "franchise" stars in Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. -- DJ Siddiqi

New Orleans Pelicans: C-

Easily one of the most polarizing NBA storylines this season has been what is going to happen to Anthony Davis. He's eligible for a supermax contract extension with the Pelicans this summer, but the prominent theory is that he'll turn it down and could be dealt elsewhere down the road. In terms of this year's team, New Orleans finds itself below .500 and currently in 12th place in the Western Conference. The team does have a very talented front court with Julius Randle and Nikola Mirotic in addition to Davis, but the back court leaves a lot to be desired aside from Jrue Holiday. -- Chris Bengel

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Russell Westbrook and Paul George have been a tremendous 1-2 punch for OKC. USATSI

Oklahoma City Thunder: A

The Oklahoma City Thunder have exceeded expectations. They've been one of the top three teams in the Western Conference for most of the season despite starting out 0-4. Russell Westbrook has figured out that this team excels when Paul George is the main scoring option -- not him. Although Westbrook has struggled with his shooting efficiency, his rebounds and assists per game remain in double digits and his usage rate has declined. The one thing that is holding this team back is the lack of a 3-point shooter -- something that they will have to address at the trade deadline if they want to win the title this season. -- DJ Siddiqi

Phoenix Suns: D-

The only reason I'm not giving them an "F" is Deandre Ayton has looked pretty good ... even if it looks worse every day that the Suns, like the Kings, passed on Doncic. Devin Booker looks like pretty much the same player, which isn't a knock -- he is really good, whatever deficiencies you want to cite notwithstanding, and has been for a while now. But the Suns just stink, man. Flat out. Josh Jackson is, for the most part, brutally bad. They made a decent trade in dealing Trevor Ariza to Washington, if only to get a look at Kelly Oubre Jr. before making a decision on him in restricted free agency. Phoenix could have close to a max slot available this summer, and joining Booker and Ayton isn't the worst selling point. But in this season, right now, the Suns are indeed a disaster. Again. -- Brad Botkin

Portland Trail Blazers: B

The Portland Trail Blazers are a solid team that looks like it won't do any damage in the postseason -- again. The Blazers have the misfortune of playing in the same division as two of the best teams in the West, and the fact that they still overly rely upon both Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum for their offense isn't ideal. Despite Lillard and McCollum's continued dominance on offense, they're still a middling team on both offense and defense. -- DJ Siddiqi

Sacramento Kings: A

If anyone tells you they had the Kings as a playoff team in the Western Conference for much of the season, they're lying. But here they are. De'Aaron Fox has turned into a star. Buddy Hield isn't far behind. Bogdan Bogdanovic is fun as hell. The Kings are doing what teams trying to jump from bad to competitive have to do: They're winning close games (16-10 in clutch games, defined as a game that was within five points within five or fewer minutes to play), and they're making hay against the bad teams -- 16-5 vs. below-.500 squads. Now, if only they would've drafted Luka Doncic. -- Brad Botkin

San Antonio Spurs: B+

The Spurs made a franchise-changing move this past offseason when they decided to trade Kawhi Leonard to the Toronto Raptors. While it might have been tough for the fan base to see the team part ways with its superstar, DeMar DeRozan was quite the return for San Antonio. The Spurs have been led by DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge in addition to a very talented veteran group. While they're in sixth place in the West, this is a team that is much more prepared than a season ago and a Gregg Popovich-led team can never be bet against. -- Chris Bengel

Utah Jazz: C+

The Jazz have bounced back as of late, showing off their dominant defensive identity since early December. However, this team is still fighting for a top eight seed at this point in the season and will be clawing just to make it back to the postseason a year after clinching as the fifth seed. The lack of offensive firepower outside of Donovan Mitchell continues to be a real problem. -- DJ Siddiqi

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