NBA Midseason Grades: Lakers, Bucks have surprise company among teams with highest marks
Several teams check in at the halfway point with A grades, while many others are hoping things improve from this point on
An NBA season usually needs around 41 games to build an identity of its own. It takes months for the reality of the new to replace the expectations of the old. Nobody thought that the Portland Trail Blazers would miss the playoffs a year after reaching the Western Conference finals. Yet at the season's halfway point, the standings are getting harder and harder to deny. Maybe Spencer Dinwiddie and Brandon Ingram really are All-Stars now. We might even make it through an entire season without a superstar forcing a trade.
It's jarring to imagine a world in which the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors aren't in the Western Conference playoffs, or one where Russell Westbrook misses the All-Star Game, but the facts of what has played out on the court over the past three months look firmer with each passing game. This is the world we live in now.
So it's time to take stock of what has already come in an effort to prepare for what lies ahead. Which teams have lived up to our expectations, and which ones have disappointed? Who still has a chance grow into contenders, and whose fate has already been sealed? We graded all 30 NBA teams at the midway point in an effort to find out.
Atlanta Hawks: C-
Where they're at: This is the worst team in the NBA, based on its net rating and 9-32 record. That is different, however, than being the most dysfunctional team, the most hopeless team or the least exciting team. Atlanta is full of young players, and the veterans have not been productive enough to give them the structure they need to compete. The Hawks were not built to get stops or to be functional with Trae Young on the bench, and they definitely weren't built to withstand John Collins being suspended for 25 games and Kevin Huerter hurting his shoulder.
How did they get here: Young is averaging about 29 and 8 on 58.8 percent true shooting, and he'll likely be an All-Star. His teammates, however, are shooting a nightmarish 30 percent from 3-point range, and they can't make up for his defensive limitations. Atlanta turns the ball over like crazy and gives up loads of transition points. It fouls recklessly, doesn't keep opponents out of the paint and and surrenders way too many offensive rebounds. It has also been one of the league's worst crunch-time teams on both ends, and there have been intermittent issues with effort. The highlights are cool, though.
Where do they go from here: There is still so much upside. Young and Collins, a devastating pick-and-roll duo, have made real progress. Huerter complements those two beautifully, and the front office made big bets that rookies De'Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish will do the same. I personally hope the Hawks can pull off a move or two and make the team more organized, as long as they don't deviate from their patient plan or sacrifice much of their financial flexibility. Maybe an Andre Drummond trade would fit into that category, but I don't love his fit with Collins and I'm not sure they will be able to retain him without overpaying. -- James Herbert
Boston Celtics: A-
Where they're at: The Celtics switched one All-Star point guard for another over the summer, and their chemistry seems to be lightyears better as a result. Kemba Walker has been a great fit in Brad Stevens' system, while young forwards Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have both stepped up their play on both ends. Same goes for Gordon Hayward, who appears to have fully bounced back from the leg injury that cost him the entirety of his first season with the Celtics. Boston sits second in the East, and appears poised to make a real run in the postseason.
How did they get here: Flipping Kyrie Irving for Walker has proved to be a catalyst for success for the Celtics. Pretty much every player on the roster is playing better than they were last season, and the unit as a whole seems more together. Tatum and Brown both have All-Star cases, and Daniel Theis and Enes Kanter have done a solid job of manning the paint following Al Horford's deflection to Philadelphia in free agency.
Where do they go from here: The Celtics are in an enviable position, as they're constructed to be competitive both in the short-term and the long-term. The continued development of Tatum and Brown will be key for the Celtics moving forward, and it will be extremely interesting to see how the team fares in the playoffs in the post-Kyrie era. While they failed to live up to lofty expectations last season, they have an opportunity to do the opposite this season. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain
Brooklyn Nets: C+
Where they're at: The Nets are hovering just below .500 on the season and occupy the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Now that Kyrie Irving is back in the fold, however, Brooklyn will look to try to climb up those standings, though making up major ground will be tough as they're already 16.5 games behind the top-seeded Bucks and 6.5 games behind the sixth-seeded Sixers.
How did they get here: Injuries have obviously played a huge role in Brooklyn's season to this point. The Nets knew they were going to be without Kevin Durant for the entirety of the campaign, but then they lost Irving for 26 games and Caris LeVert for 25 games. Wilson Chandler also missed the first 25 games of the season due to a PED suspension. It's tough for any team to stay afloat when their key veteran contributors miss so many games combined, but the Nets have been able to remain in the playoff picture in the East, thanks largely to the solid play of Spencer Dinwiddie in Irving's absence.
Where do they go from here: Now that Irving is back in the fold, Kenny Atkinson has to figure out how he is going to use Irving and Dinwiddie moving forward. Will he start them both, or bring Dinwiddie off of the bench? After this question is answered, the Nets can work to figure out just how dangerous they can be this season. Ultimately, though, Brooklyn won't reach its full potential as a team until Durant joins the active roster next season. Until then, the Nets are sort of on hold. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain
Where they're at: They're finally losing some close games now, but the Hornets' 15-28 record is still more flattering than their minus-6.8 net rating, which ranks 26th in the league. Being in ninth place says much more about the East than about them -- they are only 2.5 games ahead of the 14th-place Knicks, despite a flabbergasting breakout season from Devonte' Graham, pleased about what it has seen from rookie P.J. Washington and offseason acquisition Terry Rozier.. For a team in Year One of a rebuild, though, this is fine, and Charlotte should be generally
How did they get here: Graham's pick-and-rolls have given the Hornets something of an identity at a time when they could have easily been flailing aimlessly in the post-Kemba abyss. Their shot profile is encouraging, and both Graham and Rozier have been efficient crunch-time scorers. Graham has not been much of a threat inside the arc, though, and as a team Charlotte has struggled to finish inside. For a pretty young team, the Hornets are shockingly slow -- they are dead-last in pace -- and their offense has gone to hell when Graham has gone to the bench. Their biggest issue, though, is that they have been terrible defensively, which prompted coach James Borrego to make Bismack Biyombo a starter in late November and put Michael Kidd-Gilchrist in the rotation for a while in December.
Where do they go from here: Ideally they will not finish the season 28th in defensive rating, and they will see some growth on that end from their young guys in between now and the end of the season. Player development is the priority now, with a few big-picture questions facing the coaching staff and front office. Are Graham and Rozier a viable long-term pairing? What about Washington and Miles Bridges? Can they get Malik Monk on the right track? Charlotte's hefty contracts are all coming off the books either this summer or next, and how management chooses to spend its money will be telling. -- James Herbert
Where they're at: Checking in at 14-27, the Bulls aren't the worst team in the Eastern Conference, but that isn't exactly much of an accomplishment considering some of the other candidates. They're on track to miss out on the playoffs for the third straight season, and are still dealing with coaching staff and front-office turmoil.
How did they get here: To the Bulls' credit, they've actually been really solid on the defensive end, checking in as a top-10 team in defensive rating. Kris Dunn, trying to prove himself after a tough first couple of seasons, has been terrific on the perimeter, and they force the most turnovers in the league. Unfortunately, their offense has been a disaster, due in large part to the problem of not having very many good players. That problem has also led to their league-worst 1-16 record against teams with a winning record.
Where do they go from here: This season? Not far. They just aren't a good team, and are already five games out of the playoffs. In the future? Probably not much further. Their young players aren't particularly inspiring, they have a bad coach and the front office is stuck in the past. -- Jack Maloney
Where they're at: The Cavs are barely ahead of the Knicks and Hawks for the worst record in the East at 12-29, and even though we all knew they'd be terrible, it's somehow been worse than expected. They don't win, aren't very fun to watch and are dealing with all sorts of off-court drama.
How did they get here: First let's start with the on-court stuff. They're at the bottom of the standings because they have a lot of bad and/or young players. They're bottom-five in the league in offensive and defensive rating, they can't shoot and they absolutely never pass -- just ask Kevin Love! Off the court, there were early rumors of veterans being frustrated with head coach John Beilein, followed by a later report of him calling players "thugs" during a team meeting.
Where do they go from here: Oof. If this project ends up bringing any success, it's not going to be for a few years at least. Their three supposed best young players are all small-ish guards who can't shoot and don't pass. -- Jack Maloney
Dallas Mavericks: B+
Where they're at: At the midway point of the season the Dallas Mavericks should be thrilled with their 25-15 record, which is good for the No. 6 spot in the Western Conference. They own the top-ranked offense in the league, and have one of the NBA's best players in Luka Doncic leading them on a nightly basis. They're still waiting for the chemistry between Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis to take off, but for now, sixth in the West is a huge feat for a team that wasn't even expected to make the playoffs.
How did they get here: The Mavs owe most of their success this season to the play of Doncic, who at 20 years old is averaging nearly a triple-double and is on his way to becoming a first-time All-Star, while being a legit MVP candidate. Rick Carlisle should also be getting a share of the credit for his ability to -- once again -- bring a team together to play above their individual talents on a nightly basis. Tim Hardaway Jr. has surprisingly been the third-best player on this team. Dallas also has the fifth-highest scoring bench in the league (42.5). Maxi Kleber is having a career season, shooting 40.6 percent from 3-point range. It has also enjoyed quality production from Seth Curry, Delon Wright, Jalen Brunson and Justin Jackson at different points throughout the season, but they'll all need to be more consistent in the second half of the season in order for Dallas to stay competitive in the West.
Where do they go from here: The biggest goal should be getting Porzingis going within this offense in the second half of this season. He's missed the last several games with knee soreness, but he's nearing his return. That should definitely help the Mavericks, who struggled in their last few games, especially in clutch situations. Dallas desperately needs Porzingis' shot-blocking ability on the floor, and while he hasn't been fully comfortable within Carlisle's system, he was still putting up 17.3 points a game, which is a big chunk of the Mavericks scoring. -- Jasmyn Wimbish
Denver Nuggets: B+
Where they're at: The Nuggets are in an interesting spot -- they have the same net rating as last season and are on pace for about the same amount of wins, but something has just seemed a bit off in 2019-20. That being said, they're still serious contenders in the top-heavy Western Conference. The Nuggets have a deep and talented roster, but most feel they're one star short of reaching the championship level, particularly since Jamal Murray has failed to take a significant step forward.
How did they get here: Owners of a top-10 offensive rating and just outside the top 10 in defensive rating, the Nuggets are about as solid as they come. Nikola Jokic got off to a sluggish start, possibly due to a lack of conditioning, but has turned it on recently, exploding for a career-high 47 points against the Hawks. Jokic's numbers are down across the board, but they'll likely match or exceed last year's by the end of the season. He continues to operate as the main playmaker, and his high-post passing ability is one reason that the Nuggets are second in the NBA in scoring off of cuts, according to Synergy.
Where do they go from here: If a trade for a superstar (Jrue Holiday would fit nicely) is not in the cards, the Nuggets will need Murray to step up and become that true No. 2 option. Last year in the playoffs it was pretty clear -- when Murray played well, they won. Paul Millsap holds things together and Will Barton and Gary Harris are nice wings, but in the regular season the Nuggets go a long way with their depth and ability to take care of the ball (they're in the top 10 in the NBA in turnover percentage). When the playoffs roll around and the rosters shorten, they'll need Murray or a yet-to-be-acquired star to help take the burden off Jokic. -- Colin Ward-Henninger
Detroit Pistons: C-
Where they're at: Stuck in the bottom half of the Eastern Conference at 14-27, flailing miserably at their attempt to get back into the playoffs. They're tied for 10th place, already five games back and things are looking grim.
How did they get here: Injuries have played a big role in their struggles. Reggie Jackson has played just two games, and Blake Griffin has only suited up for 18. It's hard to win when two of your three best players have missed over half the season. They're an elite 3-point shooting team, knocking down over 37 percent of their attempts, which has kept their offense respectable, but they turn the ball over like crazy and don't play defense.
Where do they go from here: If you haven't noticed, despair is a big theme in the Central Division. Griffin is aging poorly and likely out for the rest of the season, Jackson is always hurt and there are trade rumors surrounding Andre Drummond, who is set to be a free agent in 2021. Without any young exciting players, the future's not bright in Detroit. -- Jack Maloney
Golden State Warriors: D
Where they're at: None of us could have foreseen the woes that have befallen the Warriors. After making five straight trips to the NBA Finals, Golden State is now battling the Hawks for the worst record in the NBA, and the lottery is a bigger conversation at the brand new Chase Center than the playoffs. The defense has improved over the course of the season, but they're dead-last in the league in offensive rating, partly due to D'Angelo Russell, their only above-average scorer, being in and out of the lineup. The vibe has certainly changed, but everyone -- fans, players, coaches, etc. -- seem to be treating this as a gap year.
How did they get here: The Warriors looked bad to start the season, but things turned catastrophic when Stephen Curry broke his hand in the fourth game of the year. Further injuries to Draymond Green and Russell forced Golden State to look toward its ragtag band of reclamation projects and unproven youth to carry the load. The result has been a bad basketball team, with the Christmas Day miracle win over the Houston Rockets likely to be the highlight of the season.
Where do they go from here: The top of the lottery, if the Warriors have their way. Steve Kerr has already hinted at more time off for Green, and with Curry and Klay Thompson not scheduled to be re-evaluated until February, the losses will continue to pile up. Kerr and the front office are using the rest of the season to take stock of players like Omari Spellman, Jordan Poole, Damion Lee and Alen Smailagic to see how they might fit in, this season and beyond, when the Splash Brothers return. -- Colin Ward-Henninger
Houston Rockets: B-
Where they're at: James Harden has outdone himself again, averaging 37.8 points a night, while Russell Westbrook is putting up 24.6 points on a Rockets team that sits fifth in the West. Houston still has the same issues it has faced in previous seasons, such as Harden still pulling much of the weight for this team as well as a lack of depth. While they did add Westbrook, he's shooting as inefficient as ever from beyond the arc.
How did they get here: Trading for Russell Westbrook was never a move the Rockets needed to make, especially considering Chris Paul is having a stellar season in Oklahoma City now. The Rockets can pull out wins against teams in the regular season on the strength of Harden's offensive genius, but they didn't make enough moves to position themselves to make a deep run in the playoffs. They rank in the bottom half of the league in 3-point percentage (34.9 percent) and have the lowest-scoring bench in the NBA (25.9), but have skated by on a rather easy schedule in the first half of the season.
Where do they go from here: Once again, Harden has been keeping this team together, and without any real help around him outside of Westbrook it's hard to see this season ending any different that the past three. The Rockets desperately need to add better role players around Harden and Westbrook, so maybe a trade is in their future before the deadline. Yet with the amount of money they have committed to both Westbrook and Clint Capela, it's going to be difficult to get any trade done with the lack of assets they have. They'll make the playoffs, and likely win in the first round, but it may not go further than that. -- Jasmyn Wimbish
Indiana Pacers: A-
Where they're at: The Pacers got off to a terrific start, and have kept chugging along, boasting a solid 25-15 record that has them in fifth place in the East, but right in the mix in the race for the No. 2 spot. That they've done it all without Victor Oladipo only makes it more impressive.
How did they get here: Their offseason additions have looked genius, with Malcolm Brogdon starring in Oladipo's absence, T.J. Warren leading the team in scoring and Jeremy Lamb proving to be a solid contributor at the two-guard. They shoot it well from outside, have tremendous ball movement and work hard on defense. They're just a really solid team.
Where do they go from here: With Oladipo's return scheduled for the end of the month, the Pacers are going to be one of the most interesting teams in the second half of the season. It's clear that they're a strong, middle-of-the-road playoff team. How much can Oladipo elevate them? -- Jack Maloney
Los Angeles Clippers: B+
Where they're at: The Clippers are certainly winning. At 28-13 they're right in the thick of the race for the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference, but the underlying numbers leave a bit to be desired. They've posted the NBA's No. 6 offense and No. 7 defense since Paul George returned in mid-November. Most teams would be thrilled by that, but the Clippers have championship aspirations. Trailing the Mavericks in net rating was never part of the plan. To this point, they have won on talent alone.
How did they get here: The Clippers have made a firm commitment to load management, and it has showed. Their starting lineup of Patrick Beverley, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Moe Harkless and Ivica Zubac has played only 178 minutes together this season, and the version of that lineup that includes Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell in place of Harkless and Zubac is at only 46. It was always unrealistic to expect the Clippers to play with the same lineup consistency as, say, Denver (577 minutes for their starting five), but every night off for George or Leonard pushes the Clippers further and further behind in the Western Conference's chemistry arms race. LeBron James and Anthony Davis have played over 1,800 possessions together. George and Leonard haven't even cracked 1,000.
None of this is to say that the Clippers were wrong to manage their roster this way. The premise behind doing so was that they had such an overwhelming talent advantage over the field that their only possible playoff pitfall was poor health. Load-management is their defense against that. Whether they have such an advantage is debatable. They certainly aren't the Kevin Durant Warriors, but it says quite a bit about a team when it goes 28-13 with so little cohesion. Even if that gap doesn't exist, it's worth noting that quite a bit of the basketball world believed that it did entering the season. The Clippers were more than justified in planning for its presence.
Where do they go from here: Talent decides most playoff series, but when it's close, chemistry is a common tiebreaker. The Clippers don't have it yet, so they could theoretically go in a number of directions in order to either generate it or minimize its importance. The obvious path is to stop resting their players this much. Perhaps there's a middle ground here, and in some cases, the Clippers aren't even making the choices. But whatever lineups they plan to use when the going gets tough, they simply have to find more minutes for now before the pressure ratchets up.
They could also increase the talent gap between themselves and the field through a trade. As good as this roster is, there are still holes. They don't have a defensive answer for Anthony Davis yet. Their offense is woefully homogenous as well. They run the fourth-most pick-and-rolls (largely between either Leonard or Williams and Harrell) in the NBA and the eighth-most isolations (either Leonard, Williams or George), but beyond those players, they lack any meaningful form of shot-creation. Beyond them, no player on the roster averages more than 8.3 points per game. An elite passer would go a long way here. The Clippers can trade their own 2020 first-round pick and have some moveable mid-tier salaries in Harkless and Zubac to dangle, so a move is possible, but at the moment, the Clippers appear content to bring their current roster into the postseason. -- Sam Quinn
Los Angeles Lakers: A-
Where they're at: The Lakers get an A+ for their performance against the 27 worst teams in the NBA. They are 29-2 with both LeBron James and Anthony Davis in the lineup against anyone except the Clippers and Bucks. They are currently on pace for nearly 68 wins, a total only six teams have ever reached. They currently have a top-five offense and defense, and trail only the Bucks in terms of net rating. This team is a complete and utter juggernaut.
How did they get here: Their games are typically competitive only due to boredom. They outscore opponents by 15.5 points per 100 possessions in the first quarter and then get complacent before stepping on throats in crunch-time, where they've blasted opponents by 15.3 points per 100 possession in league-defined clutch situations. On a night-to-night basis, the Lakers are functionally without weakness. Losing is usually as simple as shooting variance, as they've made only 31.8 percent from behind the arc in their losses while opponents hit 36.3 percent of their attempts in those games. Beating the Lakers, for everyone except the Clippers and Bucks, basically boils down to hoping that they miss.
Where do they go from here: The goal from this point, almost exclusively, is preparing for the Clippers and the Bucks. While the proletariat may not be able to exploit the Lakers' few weaknesses, the elite have proven emphatically that they can. Wing defense, for instance, is largely not a problem against literally anyone else. They've played Luka Doncic four times and held him to 42 percent shooting and stifled Pascal Siakam into a 9-of-25 game. But Kawhi Leonard and Giannis Antetokounmpo have shot a combined 56 percent against them this season, and the Lakers haven't held either of them below 30 points. Lacking a secondary ball-handler has done minimal damage against lesser teams. Getting outscored by 2.6 points per 100 possessions when LeBron sits hardly matters when you destroy opponents by over 12 points per 100 when he plays. But that cushion disappears against the Clippers and the Bucks. LeBron will theoretically play more minutes in those series, but the Lakers still have no way of surviving the few in which he has to sit.
Beating up the bad teams is nice, but it's no longer relevant. The Lakers have proven that they can feast on the laymen. They will now be judged solely on their ability to beat the Clippers, Bucks and any other team that rises into their tier. Whether it comes through trade deadline moves, the buyout market or internal improvement, the Lakers have to solve the few remaining issues keeping them from championship favorite status. The next time they are graded, that is all that should be taken into account. -- Sam Quinn
Memphis Grizzlies: C+
Where they're at: Don't look now, but the Grizzlies are the eighth-ranked team in the West, and while they only have a 19-22 record, it's still good enough to make the playoffs. They've won eight of their last 10 games, including six straight, and have started to turn a corner toward the end of the first half of the season behind their young core of Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke.
How did they get here: Morant has taken his game up a level since the new year. He's averaging 20.3 points a game, 8.9 assists and 4.4 rebounds, while shooting a ridiculous 60.9 percent from the field and 44.4 percent from beyond the arc since Jan. 1. You can see this team progressing as the season goes on. Thanks to growing chemistry, they've already been able to pull off some upset wins against teams like the Clippers and Rockets.
Where do they go from here: No one would've thought that this team would even challenge for a playoff spot at the beginning of the season, but here we are. The Grizzlies are playing with house money at this point, and as Morant continues to build his overwhelming case for Rookie of the Year, Memphis keeps stringing together wins. If this team ends up making the playoffs, that's a huge bonus, but if it reverts back to what it was at the beginning of the season, and start to get blown out on most nights, then it can just continue to focus on developing its young core for the future. -- Jasmyn Wimbish
Miami Heat: A
Where they're at: The Heat are 27-12, half a game behind the second-place Boston Celtics, with the 10th-best net rating in the league and room for improvement if Justise Winslow gets healthy and their defense gets back on track. They're coming off close losses to the Nets and Knicks, but before that they were 11-3 in games that came down to crunch time (ahead or behind by five points or less in the last five minutes). Miami is not considered a championship contender, but no one in the East will be hoping to see Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo in the playoffs.
How did they get here: At their best, the Heat make you think they can pull off a deep playoff run. They're balanced, tough and full of overachievers, with athletic, versatile defenders and a star who is never in a hurry. There are a bunch of good stories here: Adebayo is expanding his game seemingly every day, Duncan Robinson is one of the league's scariest shooters and Tyler Herro is much more than just moxie. Miami has the fourth-best halfcourt offense in the league; if it ever cleans up its turnovers and finds some transition opportunities, watch out.
Where do they go from here: Butler is 30, so the Heat are trying to win now. They're natural buyers at the trade deadline but they have no first-round picks (and only one second-rounder) to offer and they'd like to keep their 2021 cap space open. Are they OK with letting Goran Dragic enter free agency? How committed are they to Winslow? I'm not sure the missing piece they're looking for will be available in the short term, but these are the questions they need to be asking themselves. Don't be surprised if they essentially stand pat and bet on their defense becoming more consistent. Their roster is good enough to talk themselves into holding off on chasing another star. -- James Herbert
Milwaukee Bucks: A+
Where they're at: The Bucks are on pace for 70 wins, and boast the best record in the league at 36-6. They have the best defense, the best net rating and the best player in reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo.
How did they get here: It's really the same story as last season for the Bucks. They have the MVP, and everything starts with him on both ends of the floor. Around him they have a solid supporting cast that locks in on the defensive end, and launches 3s with at times reckless abandon. They've already won 13 games by 20-plus points, which is more wins than four teams have all season.
Where do they go from here: They already have a seven-game lead in the East, so that's wrapped up. For the remainder of the regular season their goals will be to hold off the Lakers for the best record in the league, and earn home-court advantage throughout the playoffs, and perhaps chase 70 wins if they want it. And then, of course, there's the playoffs. They fell short in the Eastern Conference finals last season. Can they get over the hump this time around? -- Jack Maloney
Where they're at: A strong start to the season was soured by a lengthy losing streak and an injury to Karl-Anthony Towns, who was in the midst of a career season. Even so, they're very much in the mix for the final playoff spot in the West if Towns returns healthy, despite being 23rd in the league in both net rating and offensive efficiency.
How did they get here: Andrew Wiggins has cooled off after looking to be on the precipice of a breakout season to start the season, and the injury to Towns has really sunk whatever offensive promise this team had. The good news is that the Wolves defense, which has been awful in recent years, is in the middle of the pack this season. That's a step in the right direction for Ryan Saunders' crew, but it's pretty clear that they're still a few steps away from contention.
Where do they go from here: The Wolves are a popular team in trade rumors because of their assets -- namely Robert Covington -- and their known desire to acquire a point guard to grow with Towns and Wiggins. They nearly signed D'Angelo Russell in the offseason before the Warriors stepped in, and he could still be on the radar. It's hard to evaluate this team with Towns missing so much time, so they can wait and see how things look when he's a regular in the lineup. -- Colin Ward-Henninger
New Orleans Pelicans: D-
Where they're at: The Pelicans had a rough start to the season, but on the back of Brandon Ingram's emergence as the star player on this team, New Orleans has gone 7-3 in their last 10 games. They're still just 15-26, which is the second-worst record in the West, but with the, at least the Pelicans have managed to turn things around just in time for Zion to enter the lineup.
How did they get here: After trading Anthony Davis this past summer, the Pelicans had the task of fitting in a lot of new pieces into their lineup. That didn't get off to the greatest start, but no one could've predicted that this team would only win eight games in the first two months of the season. Ingram has looked like an All-Star, averaging 25.1 points, 6.8 rebounds and 4.2 assists, but up until recently the rest of the team around him couldn't contribute enough to string together wins in New Orleans. Lonzo Ball is looking more like what he was projected to become as the No. 2 pick in the 2017 draft, and his improved jump shot has him shooting a career-high 35.5 percent from 3-point range. The Pelicans have only just recently began to get things going offensively, and it's resulting in a more dynamic team that resembles the "potential playoff team" prediction some people had for them.
Where do they go from here: The wait for Zion is palpable, and when he does make his debut the next step is figuring how he fits in this lineup. Does he start alongside Derrick Favors? Do they severely manage his minutes? Does he come off the bench? How does the offense change around him? These are all questions the Pelicans will need to answer when he returns. It's hard to say how Zion will impact this team, whether he'll catapult them into the playoff conversation or if he'll bring all the progress this team had built to a halt. Either way, having him on the floor will be a sigh of relief after his recovery took longer than expected. -- Jasmyn Wimbish
Where they're at: The Knicks are 14th in the East and heading for yet another lottery landing. They are also without a clear cut franchise cornerstone to build around moving forward, or a coach that they trust to help to turn things around on the floor.
How did they get here: The real answer is decades of ineptitude from ownership. The short-term answer is that the Knicks signed a bunch of ill-fitting pieces over the offseason after missing out on Zion Williamson in the draft and all of the top-tier superstars like Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in free agency. They then they fired head coach David Fizdale less than two months into the season when the team wasn't performing well. Fizdale was used as a scapegoat by the organization, as his firing did little to help solve their short-term, or long-term, issues.
Where do they go from here: This isn't easy to answer, as the Knicks have no clear direction moving forward. They have a couple of talented young players on their roster like RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson, and ideally they would work to develop those players while continuing to add more young talent through the draft while adding complementary pieces in free agency. However, until the front office, or ownership -- or both -- changes, there's little reason to be optimistic about the Knicks' prospects moving forward. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain
Where they're at: One of the surprise stories in the NBA (depending on who you talk to), the Thunder are in solid playoff position despite losing two All-NBA players in Russell Westbrook and Paul George, as general manager Sam Presti has put on a clinic in how to re-tool on the fly. OKC is one of the hottest teams in the NBA at the midway point, winners of eight of their last 10 games with a record of 23-17.
How did they get here: The Thunder remedied their glaring lack of wing depth with a simple solution: Just don't play any wings! The lineup of Chris Paul, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroder, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams has the best net rating of any five-man unit in the league that has played over 100 minutes together -- an absolutely absurd plus-31.4. Part of that is a breakout year from Gilgeous-Alexander and a bounce-back year from Schroder, but the MVP of the team has been Paul, who has helped the Thunder go 17-11 in games that meet the NBA's "clutch" criteria (within five points with five minutes remaining). OKC is third in the NBA in clutch games with a net rating of 24.9, and Paul is among the league leaders with 3.7 points per game in those situations.
Where do they go from here: The Thunder have one of the most interesting situations in the league, as they could choose to ride out their current core and see how far it can take them, or they can explore trades for Gallinari, Schroder and Paul (though he'd be hard to move) and let the full rebuild commence with one of the best stashes of draft picks in the league. The Thunder would certainly not be an easy out in the first round of the playoffs, so they may choose to ride it out for this season and leave their decisions for the summer. -- Colin Ward-Henninger
Where they're at: The Magic are in the miserable middle of the conference, and they are on track to comfortably make the playoffs and quickly make a first-round exit They have a gross offense, a top-five defense, the 14th-best net rating in the league, a 19-21 record and an expensive roster. Worse, they reportedly applied for disabled player exceptions for Jonathan Isaac and Al-Farouq Aminu, meaning they are both expected to miss the remainder of the season with their respective knee injuries. Evan Fournier is the new Nikola Vucevic, as the wing now leads the team in scoring and is getting almost no recognition for his career year.
How did they get here: They're a classic Steve Clifford team, in that they don't turn the ball over, they don't foul, they limit offensive rebounds, they limit rim attempts, they play at a snail's pace and they get back in transition. Their shooting is atrocious, though, and their playmaking is not much better. Vucevic has regressed like you might expect after his outlier All-Star season, and Terrence Ross and Aaron Gordon have been way, way less efficient than last year. Orlando is not fun to play against, but it is not difficult to scheme for. Shoutout to Markelle Fultz for making something out of his fresh start, though.
Where do they go from here: If they don't do anything at the trade deadline, Clifford will continue to squeeze whatever juice he can out of this deficient roster, which has been his fate far too many times in his coaching career. Gordon's declining contract is still sitting there, though, and it feels like the right time for him to get a fresh start of his own. Maybe they'll finally move him, and they at least have to consider moving Fournier, too -- he will be a free agent in July if he declines his $17.2 million player option next season. The Magic were one of the few teams that actually made a bit of sense as a DeMar DeRozan destination, but he and the Spurs are playing so well now that it's unclear what it would take to get him. -- James Herbert
Philadelphia 76ers: C+
Where they're at: At the midway point, the Sixers aren't where they expected to be. Prior to the season's start, Brett Brown said that the Sixers were gunning for the top seed in the East, but through 41 games they are sixth in the conference, and 10.5 games behind the Bucks for the top spot. If the playoffs started today, they wouldn't even have home-court advantage in the first round. At 25-16, they're on pace to finish the season with 50 wins, which would be their lowest total in three years.
How did they get here: Years of (controversial) restructuring has led to this moment for the Sixers, as they finally cashed in their cap space and signed Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, and Al Horford to big-money deals over the summer. In turn, they entered the season with legitimate championship aspirations. While the Sixers have been great at home (18-2) and have shown flashes of their lofty potential -- they're notably a combined 4-0 against the Bucks and Celtics this season -- they have also been inconsistent and struggled mightily on the road (7-14).
Where do they go from here: It seems unlikely that the Sixers will trade any members of their starting five this season. Considering the major investments that the organization made in three of those five starters over the offseason you would have to think that general manager Elton Brand would like to see the team play in at least one postseason series together as a unit before pulling the plug. The more likely scenario is that the Sixers move some secondary pieces and future draft picks prior to the trade deadline to add some ancillary shooters and/or playmakers in order to shore up the rotation for their playoff push. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain
Phoenix Suns: C-
Where they're at: Judging the Suns against the standard of their 7-4 start is unfair. The lottery was the expectation, and they shouldn't be dinged for falling to 16-24 afterward when 16-24 is better than most expectations coming into the season anyway. In a micro sense, the Suns are exactly where they need to be: not quite in the playoffs, but meaningfully improved from previous seasons.
How did they get here: The veteran additions this offseason have more than done their jobs. Ricky Rubio provided the necessary adult in the room, and while Aron Baynes couldn't quite keep up his peak-Marc Gasol impression, he has remained a stabilizing defensive presence that does all of the little things a team could ask for offensively. The macro concern, and real culprit behind their overall regression, is a complete inability to develop players.
While Devin Booker has shined by increasing his efficiency without sacrificing volume, the rest of the young core leaves quite a bit to be desired. Kelly Oubre's scoring appears real, but considering the only marginal defensive upgrade he provides over T.J. Warren, choosing the former plays out as a fairly lateral move. We're now 120 games into Mikal Bridge's shooting slump, and with 377 3-point attempts under his belt, he's now halfway to the 750 marker that, in most cases, serves as a reliable indicator of a shooter's quality. Cam Johnson is making his shots, but providing practically nothing else. And poor Deandre Ayton can't even draw courtesy comparisons to Luka Doncic anymore. As disruptive as his suspension was, his shooting numbers are down across the board and his pick-and-roll defense remains atrocious.
After landing Booker in 2015, the Suns made five top-10 picks and traded another. They've parlayed that draft capital into a center who is in and out of the starting lineup, a three-and-D wing that has provided neither three nor D, a 23-year-old with knee and hip surgeries already in the rearview mirror and one year of Dario Saric. That might be the single-worst haul any perpetual lottery team has every pulled from the NBA Draft.
Where do they go from here: Booker's presence alone gives Phoenix hope, and there's still time for its other young players to improve, but this season was supposed to provide proof of concept for the next contending Suns team. Instead, beyond Booker, Phoenix has won behind its veterans. That, in itself doesn't have to be a bad thing, but player development is absolutely critical over the next three months. Barring a lottery jump, the Suns won't have another top-five pick incoming. Most of their cap space this summer will likely go to re-signing Baynes. Unless they manage to make a surprising trade, this is the group of players that Phoenix will have next season. Monty Williams may not have picked them, but garnering significant improvement out of them is his single-most important job moving forward. -- Sam Quinn
Portland Trail Blazers: D+
Where they're at: After making the conference finals last season, to say the Blazers have taken a step back would be a gross understatement. They're fighting for their playoff lives at well below .500 with the 24th-rated defense in the NBA, and injuries have left them absolutely desperate for contributing bodies. Even if Portland rallies to make the playoffs, the prospects of it doing any damage are minimal.
How did they get here: The problems really started in the offseason, when the Blazers traded Moe Harkless and lost Al-Farouq Aminu in free agency, leaving the team with limited options on the wing -- particularly at power forward. Injuries to Zach Collins and Rodney Hood made matters worse, and while the acquisition of Carmelo Anthony has worked out decently, there's just a lack of contribution from the forward rotation that can't be overlooked. That being said, Damian Lillard has been outstanding and CJ McCollum has been steady, while Hassan Whiteside is putting up numbers only Hall of Famers have produced before him. It hasn't been enough, however, as just when it looks like the Blazers are about to get some momentum, they backslide.
Where do they go from here: The best the Blazers can hope for at this point is that they can shimmy their way into the No. 8 seed, then hope for a healthy return for Collins in March. Any time you have Dame and CJ on the court, you're dangerous, so maybe they can catch lightning in a bottle -- though an upset over the Lakers, Clippers or whichever team secures the top seed out West seems highly unlikely. Portland will be a team to monitor at the trade deadline, as they could be both sellers or buyers, depending on where the front office wants to go. -- Colin Ward-Henninger
Where they're at: As disappointing as the 15-25 record is, the process that led to it is far more concerning. The Kings punted away the identity that led to their best season of the decade for reasons that remain largely unclear. Sacramento led the NBA in transition points last season and finished third in pace. They played that way because it suited their roster. Their young, athletic roster was 17th in the NBA in half-court offensive efficiency last season, so running was their pathway to points. They are 19th in transition points and 27th in pace this season, and considering their half-court offense is ranked 23rd, it's safe to assume that running would help.
How did they get here: Every move the Kings made this offseason suggested an organizational desire to play slow. Their four highest-paid players were all signed in free agency this offseason and have an average age just under 30. While injuries have played a part in this decision, 31-year-old sharpshooter Nemanja Bjelica has started 36 games despite hand-wringing from the front office last season over Dave Joerger's decision to bring Marvin Bagley off of the bench. The three-man combination of De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield and Bogdan Bogdanovic has barely played together after being a staple last season.
Luke Walton's teams have historically played fast, but the decision to hire him in the first place made little sense. Joerger had clearly connected with last season's roster, and he built the style that, by Kings standards, turned them into winners. The coaching change was unnecessary at best and callous at worst. If the relationship between Joerger and Vlade Divac was really so untenable that they could no longer work together, then maybe the person to go should have been the one who dug the team into a decade-long hole rather than the person who pulled them out of it.
Where do they go from here: As bad as the tension behind Dewayne Dedmon's trade request and Hield's lament over his role might be, there are tangible solutions to the problems at play here. Dedmon is ultimately tradable, and carving out a consistent role for a player who just signed a $106 million contract shouldn't be too difficult. The Kings can choose to play faster. They can clear bad apples out of the locker room. These problems are fixable. An organization fundamentally misevaluating its own players and the style they are best suited for might not be. The right moves are only possible when they are guided by the right philosophy, and sadly, it doesn't seem like the Kings have that. -- Sam Quinn
Where they're at: There hasn't been a more disappointing team this season than the Spurs, who have a 17-21 record near their midway point. However, due to the struggling bottom half of the West, they're still in the mix for a playoff spot. They have one of the worst defenses in the league, but because Gregg Popovich is still one of the greatest basketball minds this game has ever seen, he's managed to get this team to rack up back-to-back impressive wins against the Milwaukee Bucks and Boston Celtics.
How did they get here: The pairing of DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge just isn't working as well as they'd hoped, and because San Antonio is so committed to both of those guys, players like Bryn Forbes, Dejounte Murray and Derrick White haven't really been able to develop. They're a middle-of-the-pack team that has been able to remain competitive in games throughout the season because DeRozan and Aldridge can still put up points, but they're stuck between the past and the future, and until they figure out which direction they're going they won't improve in any way.
Where do they go from here: The Spurs need to try and trade DeRozan and Aldridge, and start focusing fully on a rebuild. They need to see what Lonnie Walker can do with some consistent playing time, and figure out if Forbes, Murray and White are players you want to start a rebuild around. If they trade their veteran stars, the playoffs would likely be out of the picture, but then at least they could focus on the upcoming draft and developing the younger guys on the team. The streak of making the postseason would end at 22 seasons, but that may be a good thing as this team enters a new era with the rumors swirling of a possible Popovich retirement coming soon. -- Jasmyn Wimbish
Toronto Raptors: B+
Where they're at: The Raptors have been one of the more surprising teams this season. After losing reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard to the Clippers in free agency, many expected them to take a major step back. Instead, the Raptors have remained right in the thick of the East playoff picture, thanks in no small part to the continuing development of Pascal Siakam as well as the savvy coaching of Nick Nurse, who has deployed an extremely effective defensive scheme for his team this season.
How did they get here: After winning the NBA title in June, the Raptors had a relatively quiet offseason, aside from losing Leonard. Toronto plugged OG Anunoby into the starting forward spot left vacant by Leonard's departure, and they haven't really missed a beat. Having proven veterans like Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka certainly helps, as does Siakam's ascension to All-Star status. Toronto's success without Leonard during the season shouldn't come as much of a surprise, as they were very solid (15-7) during the 22 games he missed last season. However, how they've overcome the numerous injuries to their key players has been a testament to Nurse and his coaching staff.
Where do they go from here: As mentioned above, the Raptors have dealt with a lot of injury issues throughout the season with Lowry, Ibaka, Gasol, Siakam and Fred VanVleet all missing multiple games. Moving forward toward the playoffs they just have to hope that they're fully healthy, or close to it. If they are, they'll be a team that no one will want to face in a series. -- Michael Kaskey-Blomain
Utah Jazz: B
Where they're at: The Jazz get a "C" for the team that they intended to build and an "A" for the one that they actually have. Until the former is either reconciled with the latter or discarded entirely, meeting in the middle seems like the sensible compromise. Utah started the season a disappointing 12-9 with Mike Conley in the lineup. They are 15-3 since he suffered a hamstring injury in December that has, aside from a cameo against Orlando, kept him out for that entire run.
How did they get here: Suggesting that Utah is definitively better without Conley is likely an oversimplification. The schedule got easier after he got hurt. Early-season funks have been a staple of the post-Gordon Hayward era in Utah anyway. Lineups with Conley and Donovan Mitchell have still managed to outscore opponents by 9.7 points per 100 possession. But the inherent awkwardness of building an offense around two ball-handlers was undeniable prior to Conley's injury. Mitchell has thrived in Conley's absence, shooting much closer to his career norms and racking up assists at a rate befitting a point guard.
Joe Ingles' improvement as a starter compared to his time coming off of the bench is comical. He's shooting nearly 20 percentage points better (50.4 percent) in the starting lineup than he was as a reserve (31.2 percent). Ingles isn't exclusively a catch-and-shoot player. He relies on rhythm and thrives as a secondary pick-and-roll threat, and without Conley taking up possessions, he can play that way. Even if he couldn't, the Jazz even traded for Jordan Clarkson to give themselves another scoring guard in Conley's absence. He has thrived in that role, leading to broader questions about what comes next.
Where do they go from here: The underlying motives behind the Clarkson trade are fascinating. Utah surely knows what squeezing Clarkson and Conley into the same rotation would do to Ingles, and Emmanuel Mudiay has earned minutes as well. Nearly every metric suggests that Utah is better without Conley, and adding another guard making eight figures isn't exactly a ringing endorsement of his play so far.
Eventually, the Jazz are going to have to find a more permanent solution to the Conley problem than just waiting for him to get healthy. Whether that involves a trade, some other lineup reconfiguration or an outright benching remains unclear, but Utah is playing championship basketball right now, and as highly regarded as Conley is league-wide, the team won't let him stand in the way of that. -- Sam Quinn
Where they're at: Washington has been a surprising story this season, but that's all based on its style, not its ability to win games. The Wizards are 30th in defense and 29th in defensive rebounding, essentially going all-in on a fast, wild and movement-oriented offense. They are 13-26 and 25th in net rating, but beware of overlooking them: They have recent wins against Miami, Denver and Boston, all with Bradley Beal sidelined because of a knee injury. While Beal is Washington's best player, forward Davis Bertans is the unquestioned hero of the season.
How did they get here: Free to fire away on the move and from 30-plus feet, Bertans has become one of the league's most prolific and accurate 3-point shooters.The Wizards have scored 115 points per 100 possessions with him on the court, which is 0.4 points worse than the Mavericks' league-best offense. When healthy, Beal's driving game has looked better than ever, thanks to the space around him and his increased emphasis on driving downhill and getting to the line. Beyond that, Lakers castoff Mo Wagner has been extremely efficient and Jordan McRae can catch fire at any time. Washington hardly puts up any resistance defensively, though, and the Isaiah Thomas experiment has had mixed results.
Where do they go from here: If Beal hadn't signed a two-year extension in October, he'd be the most sought-after trade target in the league. He can't be moved, but the future of the 26-year-old star is still unclear from a long-term perspective. Bertans, 27, would be a hot commodity if the Wizards made him available, but all signs point to them trying to re-sign him in the summer. Their immediate concerns, then, are developing Troy Brown Jr., Rui Hachimura and the rest of their young core; figuring out what to do with Thomas; and evaluating their options with McRae, an upcoming free agent. John Wall's recovery from Achilles surgery continues to hang over the entire organization. -- James Herbert
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