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ReLaTiVe To ExPeCtAtIoNs.
Sorry, but we needed to get that out of the way before getting knee-deep in the officially official midseason report cards for every NBA team.
Select fans always get caught up in comparing these tallies. Don’t be one of them. Each squad was not graded on the same scale or by straight wins and losses. It doesn’t work that way. The Atlanta Hawks, a rebuilding team with minimal expectations, cannot be held to the same standard as the Golden State Warriors, a two-time defending champion up against a dynastic bar.
Failure and success vary by circumstance. Everything was considered when breaking out the red pen. Teams were given leeway if overrun by injuries. They were picked apart for unnecessary drama and front-office shortcomings.
Recent play was taken into account, but these marks strove to reflect the season in its totality. The big picture, including second-half outlooks, mattered more than hot streaks and cold stretches.
For exclusivity’s sake, the field was limited to one perfect grade (A-plus) and one complete flop (F). Let’s roll.
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Grading bad teams that are supposed to be bad is always a challenge. The Hawks didn’t make it any easier.
In instances like this, a high-end prospect making considerable improvement goes a long way. The Hawks have one. It just isn’t the one on which all the attention falls.
Trae Young’s sub-30 percent clip is a genuine concern. The “He’s just a rookie” deflections don’t work. It doesn’t matter that his vision is as advertised, or that he’s canning more than 38 percent of his treys since the Hawks’ Dec. 8 win over the Denver Nuggets.
Luka Doncic, the player Atlanta traded to get Young, is holding Rookie of the Year hostage for an unmeetable ransom. He complicates everything for the Hawks’ most talked-about name.
John Collins is doing his damnedest to provide cover. He’s (quietly) averaging 18.9 points, 10.6 rebounds and 2.4 assists while burying 44.4 percent of his corner threes and exploring the limits of his self-starting jumpers. Lineups that run him at the 5 are deployed in small doses and getting obliterated on defense, but his offensive role expansion is a reminder that Atlanta has more than one top-shelf prospect.
Others are pitching in, too. Kevin Huerter appears to be Young’s backcourt mate of the future. Taurean Prince still has potential to work with when he returns from his left ankle injury. DeAndre’ Bembry University continues to accept applicants, but admission is about to close.
The Hawks are fun. They’re getting into the habit of stealing random road games against quality opponents. And unlike some other rebuilding squads, their asset chest isn’t the least bit tied to selling off veterans—Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Jeremy Lin—by the trade deadline.
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Everything is mostly fine with the Boston Celtics. They’re being looked at as if they’re something worse.
Elevated expectations will do that to a team. Plenty of smart people billed the Celtics as Eastern Conference kings leading into the season. They begin the second half of the year in fifth place. They may end up hosting a playoff series, but they’re not catching the top-ranked Toronto Raptors or Milwaukee Bucks.
The outlook isn’t dire. The Celtics are second in points scored per 100 possessions with the league’s best net rating since the end of November. Kyrie Irving is having a career year. Jayson Tatum’s arc has evened out. Jaylen Brown is less of a wild card.
Welcome to an 82-game regular season.
More concerning is Boston’s marriage to inconsistency. As Al Horford told reporters after Saturday’s loss to the Orlando Magic, per Yahoo Sports’ Keith Smith: “We play hard for stretches. For some of the time. But we don’t play hard all of the time. And it’s hard to win if you don’t play hard all the time.”
Gordon Hayward isn’t close to all the way back. Terry Rozier’s value has cratered. The defense misses Aron Baynes. Horford is roller-coastering himself. Marcus Morris is Boston’s second- or third-best player right now. That’s a problem.
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It may be time to start gearing up for the Brooklyn Nets’ return to the postseason.
That by itself is big time. That they’re within striking distance of .500 and inside the East’s playoff picture after losing Caris LeVert to a dislocated right foot is absurd.
Brooklyn is a bag of fun on most nights. Spencer Dinwiddie and D’Angelo Russell are, of course, commandeering the spotlight. They deserve it. Russell has honed his playmaking, and Dinwiddie, who’s hitting 36 percent of his pull-up threes, looks more like an offensive hub.
Rolling them out together has yielded mix returns. Head coach Kenny Atkinson is more inclined to close games with one or the other, and he usually picks Dinwiddie. But they’re finding ways to make it work. The Nets are outscoring opponents by 3.2 points per 100 possessions since Dec. 1 with both on the floor—one of many recent bright spots.
Joe Harris remains underrated. DeMarre Carroll is having stretches in which he forgets to miss from beyond the arc. Rodions Kurucs is a player. Jarret Allen and Ed Davis make for one of the NBA’s most solid center rotations. Shabazz Napier is perking up again. A healthy Treveon Graham is a defensive difference-maker.
This team has flaws. The defense waxes and wanes by the lineup. Mass turnovers are part of the Nets’ DNA. They’re learning how to survive crunch time. Sub-.500 records do not warrant confetti. Playoff contention and top-to-bottom development do.
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Scrapping and clawing for one of the East’s final three postseason spots is exactly what the Charlotte Hornets are supposed to do. They cannot be penalized for swiping right on mediocrity.
That doesn’t make the path they’re taking to a first-round exit or end-of-lottery appearance any more impressive.
The Hornets are getting roundhouse kicked on the road and are light on trademark victories. Prior to Monday’s win over the San Antonio Spurs, they hadn’t beaten an opponent above .500 since they squeaked past Denver…on Dec. 7.
Cody Zeller’s right hand injury hurts more than box-score addicts will credit, and Charlotte has cobbled together some nice small-ball units with Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. But this team is all kinds of uneven.
Nicolas Batum is dead-last in usage rate. Rookie Miles Bridges is the closest the Hornets come to having a two-way wing, and his offense has yet to take discernible form. They are a collective turnstile around the rim. Frank Kaminsky can no longer buy playing time in a rotation that suddenly needs Bismack Biyombo. The offense is again beginning to crack without Kemba Walker, and no one has lent him a helping hand in crunch time.
Perhaps the Hornets make the playoffs. The East is the East is the East. But it’s tough to imagine them leaving a memorable mark once they get there—unless, that is, they turn their stable of tepid trade chips into a blockbuster acquisition.
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Every measure possible was taken to avoid giving the Chicago Bulls an F. But even after awarding them bonus points for not yet ruining Lauri Markkanen, prying two second-rounders from the Memphis Grizzlies in the Justin Holiday trade and Wendell Carter Jr.’s general existence, this is the only grade that feels right.
Firing head coach Fred Hoiberg and replacing him with Jim Boylen hasn’t helped. The Bulls have turned in a couple of not totally terrible defensive performances, but their offense is a mess. Just look at where they place in some key metrics under Boylen:
- Offensive rating: 30th
- Effective field-goal percentage: 27th
- Free-throw attempt rate: 30th
- Turnover percentage: 28th
- Offensive rebounding percentage: 28th
- Three-point attempts per 100 possessions: 30th
This might look a little better if there didn’t seem to be such a disconnect between coach and players. Boylen has a crush on combat. He nearly caused a mutiny during his first week on the job with his bootcamp practice schedule and attitude toward player conditioning and effort.
Most recently, Boylen found “competitive” value in a scrimmage dustup between Kris Dunn and Robin Lopez, per ESPN.com’s Malika Andrews. Which, fine. But the culture of this teams feels broken.
Plus, on some level, the front office is failing to act like it’s in charge of a rebuild. The Bulls should be prime salary-dumping ground so they can reload the asset chamber with some picks and prospects. To this point, they haven’t used Jabari Parker, currently in quasi-exile, to complete such a trade.
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It took the Cleveland Cavaliers way too long to realize their post-LeBron James era needed to include at least one tanking season.
Signing Kevin Love to a four-year, $120.4 million extension was a mistake before he suffered a toe injury that required surgery. And JR Smith’s excommunication and Tyronn Lue’s exit could have unfolded without so much drama had Cleveland been more up front and privy to its position over the offseason.
Whoever’s calling a majority of the shots for the Cavs, be it general manager Koby Altman or owner Dan Gilbert, deserves to be scolded for those misfires. But they at least, to some degree, realized the error of their ways in time to pivot.
Cleveland is among the only teams that has shown a willingness to absorb salary in trades while holding a fire sale. George Hill and Kyle Korver were turned into future picks, and the Cavaliers have more assets they can use to take on money at the deadline—including Love.
Watching this team isn’t particularly fun unless it’s playing the LeBron-less Los Angeles Lakers (apparently). The Cavs are neither fast nor efficient, and they don’t attempt nearly enough threes for a group that faces stark talent deficits on a nightly basis.
At the same time, all the right faces are seeing the court. No one is outplaying Cedi Osman and Collin Sexton (shooting almost 39 percent from deep, by the way), and they’ve given some run to stabs in the dark and two-way players.
Cleveland’s commitment to rebuilding and staying in asset-collection mode will be tested upon Love’s return. For now, acting as a franchise trying to start over is a refreshing change of pace.
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Luka Donic this. Luka Doncic that. Luka Doncic here. Luka Doncic there. Luka Doncic everywhere.
Luka Doncic, Luka Doncic, Luka Doncic. Lu-ka Don-cic.
We get it. The kid is electric and unfair, with the makeup for greatness. He churns through step-back threes like they’re free throws. He has simultaneously accelerated the Dallas Mavericks’ expectations this season and ostensibly made them a more attractive free-agent destination this summer, when they could have access to more than $50 million in spending power.
Can we talk about head coach Rick Carlisle’s ability to make dominant second units out of anything and anyone for a second? Dirk Nowitzki‘s return has cramped Dallas’ style a tad, but the bench is sixth in point differential per 100 possessions. (It was first prior to Nowitzki’s debut.)
J.J. Barea’s ruptured Achilles is a downer, and his absence matters. But Carlisle will make it work. Give him some chewing gum, a few popsicle sticks and any point guard over the age of 33, and he’ll make it work.
Whether Carlisle will scheme Dallas into the playoffs is an entirely different matter. He might not get the chance. The Mavericks are two games back in the loss column of the Western Conference’s No. 8 seed, but they’re shopping Wesley Matthews and Dennis Smith Jr., according to ESPN.com’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Tim MacMahon.
Both are probably goners. Smith entered the rumor mill last month, and Matthews will become a prime buyout candidate if he’s not rerouted elsewhere. What the Mavericks get in return for either of them will determine whether they’re committed to pushing the bill this season or joining the tankathon—their pick is owed with top-five protection to Atlanta—many thought they were suited for in the first place.
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Correct: The one and only allotted A-plus is going to Denver. Do not ask for, demand or expect a retraction. It isn’t coming.
Few predicted the Nuggets would contend for a top-three Western Conference record, let alone the top spot, more than halfway through season. Had everyone been preemptively informed of the injury onslaught that has since befallen them, the number of top-three forecasts would’ve plunged to approximately zero.
What the Nuggets are doing doesn’t make sense when looking at their roster—not even to those most accepting of Nikola Jokic as a superstar. Consider what Denver Stiffs’ Adam Mares wrote in response to The Ringer’s Bill Simmons’ remaining reluctant to board the Mile High team’s bandwagon beyond the regular season:
“The Nuggets have seven second-round draft picks on their roster, two players who went undrafted, and just three who were taken in the lottery (Jamal Murray, Trey Lyles, and Michael Porter Jr.). They lead the league in games missed due to injury and have the third-youngest roster yet still, somehow, have the best record in the Western Conference. You don’t believe in the Nuggets? Don’t apologize. You shouldn’t believe in them!”
Jokic’s improvement on the defensive end, while still dependent upon Millsap, is for real. Monte Morris is a game-managing demigod. Murray is flashing future stardom with diet-brand consistency. The Jokic-Mason Plumlee frontcourt is pummeling opponents by more than 14 points per 100 possessions through ample playing time (422 possessions).
Juan Hernangomez has tapered off but offers a spacing safety valve. Torrey Craig is disruptive. Malik Beasley belongs in the NBA. The Nuggets seem one knockdown shooter or three-and-D wing short of registering as the Golden State Warriors’ biggest roadblock in the West, and even that’s prematurely pessimistic.
Will Barton has only just returned. Gary Harris is still banged up. Either Porter or Isaiah Thomas might help. We’ve yet to see the full-strength Nuggets, and they’re already a problem. They’ve earned this gold star.
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Evaluations of the Detroit Pistons will vary based on whether their erratic shooting, weirdo defense and scant player development is viewed as an insurmountable obstacle or basic failure. The answer: It’s a little bit of both.
Injuries haven’t made things easy on the Pistons. Luke Kennard, a pivotal floor-spacer, missed a chunk of the season with a right shoulder injury. Ish Smith has a groin issue. Zaza Pachulia, Detroit’s best backup big, has missed time with a leg injury.
None of which says much about the Pistons’ roster construction. Kennard’s playing time has seesawed since his return. Glenn Robinson III can’t crack a rotation starved for wings. Bruce Brown is a quality defender and attacker, but he sports a shaky jumper. Stanley Johnson has either regressed or plateaued.
Blake Griffin‘s All-NBA efforts at the offensive end are too often futile. Detroit ranks 23rd in points scored per 100 possessions and doesn’t have the surrounding shooters to capitalize on the attention he monopolizes off the dribble and in the post.
Reggie Jackson’s fit beside Griffin and Andre Drummond is imperfect on its best nights. The Pistons are a net plus when they share the court, a differential buoyed by the standout performance of a few lineups.
Detroit’s modest defensive success feels untenable. Opponents are shooting 34.2 percent on wide-open threes, the second-lowest mark in the league, and no team is allowing a higher success rate at the rim.
Make of this what you will. The Pistons won’t be fixed from within. Short of Drummond recalibrating his approach to focus solely on defense and rebounding, they need to pick up a shooter or two at the trade deadline to have a convincing chance of re-entering and remaining in the East’s postseason bracket.
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Joy is making its way back into the Warriors’ identity. Their Dec. 27 overtime loss to the Portland Trail Blazers might go down as a wake-up call.
Klay Thompson has worked his way out of a malaise. Draymond Green isn’t hitting his threes, but his early-season kerfuffle with Kevin Durant feels like forever ago—almost immaterial. And for all the crap Green is getting for his overall decline, most of which he deserves, Golden State allows under 104 points per 100 possessions when he’s at center.
Durant himself is having a season worthy of MVP buzz. He has never looked more comfortable as a lead playmaker, and he’s a scorching-hot stretch from downtown away from posting a 50/40/90 shooting slash.
Stephen Curry is Stephen Curry, only more so than ever. The center rotation is a concern, but DeMarcus Cousins‘ debut looms. The bench is a bigger issue, and we know that’ll be addressed in some capacity as the buyout market develops.
Still, it has taken the Warriors a long time to reach hunky-dory territory. They rank 16th in defensive efficiency and could tumble further down the ladder as Cousins works off the rust. The offense is a little mid-range heavy, a systemic reality of catering to Durant but not unimportant when it has displaced Curry into a role that tilts too far toward Steph light.
Over 57 percent of Curry’s buckets have come with assists this year—far and away the most for his career. Golden State has given him more of a creative license in recent weeks, but it needs to span longer than that to be considered a state of normal.
Worrying about the Warriors is overrated. Their flawed performance still puts them in play for the West’s No. 1 seed, and their postseason switch is real. But this does look like the most vulnerable version of the Durant-era Dubs. Whatever that means.
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Let’s just call James Harden a god and move on, shall we?
Since Chris Paul left the lineup with a hamstring injury during a Dec. 20 loss to the Miami Heat, the reigning MVP is playing like, well, the back-to-back MVP. Harden is averaging over 40 points and nine assists while putting down 37.8 percent of his 16.(!) three-point attempts per game.
The Houston Rockets’ defensive regression remains a problem, despite getting strong minutes from Danuel House Jr. (back in the G League) and even Gary Clark. They’re 22nd in points allowed per 100 possessions during this stretch without Paul and 26th overall.
Reinforcements aren’t on the way without a trade. Houston’s wing rotation is thin, and Clint Capela will miss the next four to six weeks with a right thumb injury, per Wojnarowski.
Aspects of the Rockets’ offensive tear are unsustainable. A right knee injury has kept Eric Gordon on the sidelines. Austin Rivers is second in playing time since his arrival. Any team that needs Gerald Green to clear 25 minutes per game is destined for backslide.
Except, hey, maybe it can. Harden isn’t playing outside the confines of his game. This is a supercharged edition of the defending MVP. The Rockets’ dynamic is fragile so long as its tethered to him and him alone, but for now, their dependence on him is working.
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The Indiana Pacers are a problem for the rest of the Eastern Conference. They’re not receiving the love or respect being doled out to the Celtics, Bucks, Raptors and 76ers, but they belong in the same conversation.
This is a team capable of winning the East.
Star power isn’t a strength of the Pacers, which might dog them in the postseason. But their depth is a matchup nightmare. They’re rock-solid across every position, with a bench that just keeps on coming.
Indiana’s second-stringers are outpacing opponents by 3.8 points per 100 possessions—the best mark in the league. Domantas Sabonis is a Sixth Man of the Year favorite, Cory Joseph remains a steadying force, and Tyreke Evans, while struggling, has enjoyed his moments.
Something will always feel off about the Pacers offense. They are 28th in three-point attempts per 100 possessions and 25th in three-point-attempt rate, with an uncomfortable reliance on long mid-rangers. The defense, which ranks second overall, has faltered in recent weeks. Indiana is 28th in points allowed per 100 possessions over its last six games, a stretch that has somewhat aligned with Myles Turner’s absence.
Whatever. The Pacers are going to be fine. Their offensive shot profile was wonky last season, and Turner will even out the defense. The results speak for themselves, and Indiana is playing at almost a 55-win pace.
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Teams without recognized superstars have a way of falling off the Western Conference’s radar. They can be spunky, earn brownie points and play spoiler, but they will, at some point, peter out and submit to top-heavier contenders.
This just in: The Los Angeles Clippers have no plans of going anywhere.
Tobias Harris and Danilo Gallinari are turning in career years and will solicit a smattering of “All-Star snub!” cries. But they’re fringe stars at best, and neither comes close to broaching the All-NBA tier. The Clippers are getting by on the strength of their depth, with a rotation that feels overcrowded yet somehow works.
Los Angeles is another team that needs to shoot more threes, and Luc Mbah a Moute’s return from the most extensive sore right knee in league history would go a long way toward beefing up a defense light on switchable wings.
We call that nitpicking. The Clippers hit the triples they take at a high clip and get to the foul line enough to offset unflattering volume—a luxury of having Gallinari, Lou Williams and the can’t-stop-won’t-stop-will-not-ever-stop Montrezl Harrell.
The defense isn’t a strength. The Clippers are foul-happy and don’t force turnovers. But they limit quality three-point looks, and Gallinari is affording them some surprise maneuverability across three, sometimes four, positions. He has logged more than 150 possessions at center, during which time Los Angeles’ net rating is plus-33.6, and yes, you are now free to swoon.
Head coach Doc Rivers is again hovering around the Coach of the Year conversation. He’s earned the consideration. Los Angeles is scrappy and devoid of ego and unafraid. In what may be the most Clippers stat ever, they’ve won a league-high 10 games when entering crunch time without the lead.
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Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press
BREAKING: Team that isn’t built to navigate LeBron James’ absence is failing to navigate LeBron James’ absence.
So, obviously the Lakers need to fire head coach Luke Walton.
Feel free to pan Los Angeles for its performance without James as he recovers from a groin injury. Seriously, do it. The Lakers are 3-7, shooting a league-worst 29.2 percent from deep and dead friggin’ last in points scored per 100 possessions since he went down. It is getting ugly, and a home loss to the Cavaliers didn’t help. (They’re second in defensive rating without James, so there’s that.)
Do not—repeat: do not—convince yourself this recent stretch is a shocking referendum.
Criticizing the makeup of the Lakers’ roster is low-hanging fruit. Fans are tired of hearing about it. Rajon Rondo is injured! But it’s a real thing. Los Angeles is made up of youngsters and largely ill-fitting veterans, none of whom has the experience or the offensive chops to carry a team. The Lakers weren’t considered a consensus playoff team over the summer for a reason.
Give them a healthy James, and that changes. They’ve proved that much when at or close to full strength. No matter how many threes and free throws they miss, no matter how much Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram disappoint, the Lakers have that going for them. And in that way, with James, they’ve avoided failure.
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The more the Grizzlies play, the more it becomes clear their 15-9 start was never going to last.
A tougher schedule has given way to a free fall. Memphis is 4-15 with the league’s second-worst offense since that gutsy opening. Even the defense is being squeezed of its grit. Only the Minnesota Timberwolves are faring worse at guarding the three-ball during this stretch, and Marc Gasol hasn’t looked right since tweaking his ankle in a November loss to the Raptors.
It isn’t all gloom and doom in Memphis. Mike Conley is working magic at both ends without setting fire to the three-point line. Jaren Jackson Jr. is an offensive dream who needs more touches, and his defensive awareness is progressing nicely despite excessive fouling. Kyle Anderson made waves after gaining more control over the half-court offense before suffering his left ankle injury.
Memphis has the talent to arguably right the ship. (Justin Holiday has to play better, right?) But do the Grizzlies have the time? They’ve dropped to 14th in Western Conference, and their next 10 games come against opponents with better records.
Going nuclear is an option. It won’t be ideal after forking over two second-rounders to get Holiday, but the Grizzlies have the runway to author a mini-teardown and keep the top-eight-protected pick they owe to Boston.
Any about-face begins with Gasol. People around the league are starting to believe he’ll decline his player option this summer, according to Stein. Memphis will have to look long and hard at moving him ahead of Feb. 7 if he’s giving off that vibe.
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Starting Justise Winslow at point guard looks good on the Heat.
Since making that change shortly after Goran Dragic’s right knee injury, Miami is 10-4 with a top-five defense and the sixth-best net rating. The preferred starting five isn’t spitting hot fire, but they’re defending well enough to stay on the court. And Winslow is averaging 13.7 points and 5.3 assists while banging in 36 percent of his threes.
Outside shooting remains an issue. Head coach Erik Spoelstra is a master of floor balance and makes sure the Heat employ enough volume to keep defenses on tilt, but half-court sets are still bogged down what is, at best, an average collection of marksmen.
Something also needs to be said for how much the Heat seemingly need a soon-to-be 37-year-old Dwyane Wade. Dragic’s return will add depth to the shot-creation ranks, but Flash won’t be nonessential unless Dion Waiters takes off.
Miami’s losing record at home is bizarre. Even the Washington Wizards managed to hold serves on their home turf while at their lowest point. The Heat’s grade almost took a hit for these shenanigans.
Consider Miami’s home opponents since Nov. 30: Pelicans, Jazz, Magic, Rockets, Bucks, Raptors, Cavaliers, Timberwolves, Wizards, Nuggets, Celtics and Grizzlies. That’s a difficult stretch, particularly when the Heat were dealing with backcourt injuries galore.
For them to go 8-4 over that half-harrowing gauntlet is a big deal and worth a little benefit of the doubt.
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Milwaukee’s season is best nutshelled by looking at Mike Budenholzer and his overwhelmingly strong Coach of the Year case. As SI.com’s Rob Mahoney wrote:
“The Budenholzer Effect has been fairly comprehensive. Milwaukee runs a healthier base rotation than it did last season with largely the same roster. It was Budenholzer who reconceptualized Brook Lopez, who was marginalized and subsequently disregarded by the Lakers last season, as a volume three-point shooter.
“Eric Bledsoe is more engaged and effective under Budenholzer’s watch than he’s been in five years. Revising the Bucks’ offensive priorities has given Khris Middleton a leaner shot diet that serves him well. Even D.J. Wilson and Sterling Brown have become useful players in their own right, shoring up the back of the depth chart.”
Parts of the Bucks’ depth were acquired—Lopez, George Hill, Ersan Ilyasova, etc. Most of it was unleashed. The whole team is used in a way that bears Budenholzer’s signature, from his center by committee to who receives the most time without Giannis Antetokounmpo.
It is this optionality that makes the Bucks so dangerous. They’re more than the sum of Antetokounmpo’s wingspan and Eurostep gait for the first time since his breakout.
Certain other defenses will mirror Utah’s approach to defending him with a traditional big. Some may even succeed. The Bucks have the operable sidekicks to overcome his off nights, insofar as he has them. They’re a plus-5.3 points per 100 possessions without Antetokounmpo on the floor—which isn’t to say he’s any less indispensable. Milwaukee is merely that much more capable.
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The Minnesota Timberwolves’ front office is indebted to many of its incumbent players. They are all that’s sparing the team from complete disaster.
Allowing former coach-president Tom Thibodeau to drag out and enable the Jimmy Butler soap opera never made sense. It looks even worse now that management canned him in advance of season-ticket renewals. Minnesota did well in its return on Butler under the circumstances, but permitting a lame-duck exec to complete a trade with an era’s worth of repercussions only to fire him roughly two months later verges on malpractice.
Perhaps interim head coach Ryan Saunders is the answer. His approachable demeanor is resonating with the players. Or maybe he’s just the answer right now. Minnesota cannot be trusted to tell the difference.
Move beyond the Timberwolves’ politics, and silver linings start to emerge.
Karl-Anthony Towns is back to being unfair, but with an extra dose of playmaking and defense. Derrick Rose will be a louder Sixth Man of the Year candidate if the Wolves sneak into the playoff picture. Rookie Josh Okogie has swagger and plays with hustle. Tyus Jones’ restricted free agency will be fascinating. Robert Covington was a stabilizing defensive force before his ankle injury. Dario Saric’s shot has come and gone, but he too has helped Minnesota persevere on defense.
For anyone who fancied this team a postseason lock or fringe contender, a harsher grade would be more appropriate. The Timberwolves were never that, not even with Butler. More than anything, they’re afflicted by an unreliable vision upstairs and Andrew Wiggins’ lack of development.
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Failing the Pelicans is too easy. In a season that may determine whether they get to keep Anthony Davis, they’ve spent most of the schedule languishing at or below .500 and staring up at the West’s playoff hierarchy.
Key injuries grant them a slight reprieve. Elfrid Payton and Nikola Mirotic have missed a combined 47 games, while Davis, Darius Miller and E’Twaun Moore have all missed five apiece.
New Orleans has given reason to believe it can hang with a full cast. Lineups featuring Davis, Jrue Holiday and Payton are a plus-29.6 points per 100 possessions, and the three-big frontcourt (Davis, Mirotic and Julius Randle) has dominated through a handful of appearances.
Shorthanded stretches do not absolve the Pelicans of their position, though. The defense is unnecessarily sloppy even when understaffed. New Orleans fouls too often, and both Davis and Holiday are generally tasked with doing too much. No other team is allowing a larger share of opponent three-point attempts to go uncontested.
Over-reliance on a few has come back to bite the Pelicans. They have an NBA-high 16 losses in games that enter crunch time to go along with a league-worst offensive rating. Absences are no doubt a factor, but to be worse than a coin toss in those situations—they’re 5-10 since Dec. 1 alone—is a patented letdown.
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R.I.P. to the fun-kind-of-bad New York Knicks. They were taken from us way too soon.
Those rollicking losses that punctuated the start of the season are being replaced by run-of-the-mill blowouts. New York is 2-17 with the league’s second-worst raw point differential since its Dec. 1 overtime victory against Milwaukee, an enduring stretch that isn’t the teensiest bit neutralized by a pleasing play style or junkyard-dog efforts.
Squint past the macro struggles, and the Knicks are walking into their share of micro victories.
Kevin Knox is playing out his best stretch of the season while getting more reps as a featured scorer. Allonzo Trier is a keeper. Damyean Dotson is a defensive grinder. Luke Kornet is having his moments, and he’s quicker on defense than his plodding speed suggests.
Emmanuel Mudiay and Noah Vonleh have become interesting trade-deadline chips or possible big-picture fits. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s off-balance shot-making is an event. Frank Ntilikina sometimes plays, and he sometimes looks good.
The Knicks aren’t letting anyone down by notching a bottom-two record. They’re right on schedule—in line for top-three lottery odds. But the novelty of head coach David Fizdale’s inconsistent rotations is wearing off. Ntilikina specifically needs a longer leash, even if he is hurting the product for possessions at a time, and New York should definitely be trying to play faster than its current league-average pace, per Inpredictable, to generate more looks at the rim and from the corners.
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There should be more to dislike about the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Their crunch-time record (8-14) is unbecoming of a contender. The wing rotation is scary shallow. Abdel Nader is getting actual minutes. Terrance Ferguson is up to 37.4 percent shooting from beyond the arc, but Alex Abrines hasn’t played since Dec. 23 while dealing with a stomach illness and then a personal matter.
Russell Westbrook still has a complicated relationship with putting the ball in the basket. Oklahoma City is putting down 33.2 percent of its wide-open threes—a league-worst mark that’s bad even for a team with minimal shooting on the wings.
And yet, the Thunder are chugging right along.
Paul George should be a top-five MVP candidate and Defensive Player of the Year favorite. Steven Adams is having a career year and will steal All-Star consideration. Westbrook is still shooting a career high at the rim, ceding more of the offense to George and playing better half-court defense. Jerami Grant is flirting with league average from three. And Oklahoma City is first in points allowed per 100 possessions.
One thing to watch: The Thunder have the Association’s hardest remaining schedule, according to PlayoffStatus.com. Their Western Conference mettle will be tested to close the season.
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Chasing a playoff berth should not top the Magic’s to-do list. They are still rebuilding, and without a clear long-term option at point guard, they need to remain in asset-collection mode.
If they stumble into a postseason cameo, so be it. That’s what they’re doing now.
Orlando is getting career years from soon-to-be-free-agents Terrence Ross and Nikola Vucevic. Aaron Gordon is embracing more of a niche role on offense. (It’d be nice to see him used even less like a wing.) D.J. Augustin hasn’t solved the point guard problem, but the Magic are pumping in 110 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. That number jumps to 112.6 when he’s beside Vucevic.
Hiring head coach Steve Clifford hasn’t talent-proofed the defense. But he has given the Magic a set of principles to follow. They punt on forcing turnovers in favor of limiting fouls and looks at the rim.
Filter out garbage time, and Orlando is 14th in points allowed per 100 possessions. And Mo Bamba isn’t even what he’s supposed to be yet.
How the Magic handle the trade deadline matters when seeing if this grade can hold. They don’t have to sell. The East is that wide-open, and it’ll take an epic tank job to maximize their lottery odds. But they shouldn’t be regular buyers, either.
Investing in this roster would indicate they have something worth keeping together when, in fact, they’re more so a plucky placeholder still searching for a permanent cornerstone.
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Conversations surrounding the Sixers don’t mirror those of a team on track to clear 50 wins. The coverage is more skeptic, if negative, than glowing.
Philly’s three best players are the core of its irresolute outlook. Joel Embiid and Jimmy Butler have both voiced concern about their roles, albeit to varying degrees, following the latter’s arrival. Their partnership with Ben Simmons is plagued by functional awkwardness.
Embiid and Simmons like to occupy the same space on the floor when they don’t have the ball. Embiid’s three-point volume alleviates a smidgeon of the gawky spacing, but Simmons is neither a good enough shooter nor consistent enough cutter to counteract the rest.
Bake in Butler’s preference to work on the ball, and the Sixers have a combustible compound on their hands. Sheer talent isn’t enough to overshadow it (yet). Philly is outscoring opponents by under a point per 100 possessions when all three share the floor, and the starting lineup sorely misses Robert Covington’s team approach to defense.
But again: The world isn’t ending. The Sixers are playing to host a postseason series and have time to bridge the small gap separating them from the Bucks, Pacers and Raptors.
Fleshing out their second unit is a more immediate concern than the cohesion of their Big Three. (All hail Landry Shamet, though.) The bench is 15th in point differential per 100 possessions and converting under 35 percent of its threes since Dec. 1. Philly is open to forking over its first-round pick to shore up the reserve rotation, according to Sporting News’ Sean Deveney, but the buyout market will once again be critical to this team’s success.
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Shaun Powell was a little more down on the Phoenix Suns when penning midseason grades for NBA.com. He gave them a D-minus while writing the following:
“Has the season already gone off the rails in Phoenix? It sure seems that way, because there’s little signs of growth within the organization in terms of talent, direction and leadership. That pretty much covers it for a club with a young core that’s still stuck at the bottom after adding pieces that were supposed to form a foundation. Signing Trevor Ariza only to pawn him off two months into the season was embarrassing. And the Suns still lack a true point guard.”
This is all correct. But putting them so close to “F” territory deemphasizes the developmental steps from a few important pieces.
Devin Booker is a viable lead playmaker, something that couldn’t be said for much of his career. He shouldn’t be saddled with point guard duties to the extent that he is, but the Suns are scoring nearly 115 points per 100 possessions when he’s the official floor general.
Deandre Ayton isn’t winning Rookie of the Year, and the Suns won’t be allowed to forget about their decision to pass on Luka Doncic anytime soon. That pressure is not unique. The Hawks and Sacramento Kings are in the same boat, and Ayton is light years ahead of their rookies. He’s a double-double machine who should expand his off-the-dribble arsenal in time, and his pick-and-roll coverage is advancing beyond the train-wreck awareness he showed earlier in the year.
De’Anthony Melton is growing as a facilitator, though he shouldn’t be anyone’s first option at the point. Mikal Bridges is beginning to find his NBA range. Richaun Holmes is a success story, even if he’s a virtual goner in free agency. (For what it’s worth, Phoenix can extend him now.) Josh Jackson is a defensive worker and shooting 34.6 percent from deep over his last 10 games. The Suns are getting quality spurts from Kelly Oubre Jr.
Everything else matters. Phoenix carried itself like a playoff hopeful in free agency and ended up being one of the league’s worst teams. Buying out Tyson Chandler and Austin Rivers instead of using their salaries as trade-deadline anchors remains shortsighted. But this Suns’ core is a bright spot that shields the franchise from total hopelessness.
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Some of the shine has worn off the the Blazers’ hot start to the season, but things could be so much worse. A stretch in which they lost eight of 11 between mid-November and early December had characteristics of a potential death knell.
The Blazers came out of it, just like they always do. Their losing record against Western Conference teams is an eyebrow-raiser, but they’ve put up good fights against the Warriors, Rockets and Thunder in recent weeks. There might be a rivalry brewing between them and the Kings.
Portland is 15th in points allowed per 100 possessions. That’s not great. But the defense has a shot profile of a better team. The Blazers limit looks at the rim and short mid-rangers. They’ve taken hits from outside, but they do a nice job chasing shooters off the line.
Opponents are getting to the rim more often when Jusuf Nurkic plays with one of their small-ball 4s, but he’s proved up to the volume. The Zach Collins-Meyers Leonard frontcourt is more of a functional deterrent but less capable at challenging point-blank looks.
Whatever high the bench was riding to begin the year has long since subsided. Portland’s second unit is 27th in point differential per 100 possessions since Dec. 1. Acquiring another wing would be a big help.
But the Blazers are hanging tough. Damian Lillard is having another career year, even as he works his way through a shooting slump. CJ McCollum is showing signs of life. Nurkic is having the best season of his career, too.
Evan Turner is filling gaps. Seth Curry is shooting 45.9 percent from long range over his past 10 games—and has lowered his overall three-point clip in the process. Al-Farouq Aminu is a one-man perimeter defense for stretches at a time.
Pretty much everyone in the West is a fringe playoff team. For all its warts, Portland is tilting closer toward a lock.
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I don’t care.
I don’t care that the Kings are five games under .500 against the Western Conference. I don’t care that their negative net rating suggests they’re one of the league’s six luckiest teams so far.
I don’t care that they need an enforcer around the rim, preferably someone who also rebounds. I don’t care that they need, like, two more wings.
I don’t care about the Luka Doncic jokes. I don’t care that this whole thing between general manager Vlade Divac, head coach Dave Joerger and assistant general manager Brandon Williams is destined to end poorly, or that Sacramento-plus-cap-space-plus-expiring-contracts makes for a dangerous trade-deadline cocktail.
The Kings are not supposed to be good—to be above .500 and within a game of the playoffs. They aren’t exceeding expectations. They’re annihilating them.
De’Aaron Fox would be a Most Improved Player lock if sophomores weren’t considered taboo candidates. Buddy Hield is providing across-the-board offensive utility. Nemanja Bjelica, a signing yours truly most assuredly mocked, has reinvented Sacramento’s spacing—his recent cold streak notwithstanding.
Iman Shumpert is competing at both ends. We need to talk about Bogdan Bogdanovic’s offense, but not before we talk about his defense (which looks better versus bigger wings). Justin Jackson won’t stop hitting threes. Willie Cauley-Stein is up and down, but he’s filling up the box score. Marvin Bagley flashed a tantalizing offensive skill set before suffering a left knee injury from which he just returned.
Give the Kings their due. This season is wild, but not unreal. They’re not surrendering ground in the West’s playoff race quietly.
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Losing three of four has knocked the Spurs back down to solid ground. It has not killed their midseason turnaround.
Since Dec. 3, after they fell to 11-14, the Spurs are fourth in offensive efficiency, eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions and fourth in net rating. LaMarcus Aldridge has recaptured his All-Star form, and DeMar DeRozan is rolling along, tallying career-best assist totals as the de facto point guard.
San Antonio’s bench is booming. Only Indiana’s reserves have a better point differential per 100 possessions.
Davis Bertans and Jakob Poeltl were born to play under head coach Gregg Popovich. Patty Mills is slippery three-point shooting in perpetuity. Marco Belinelli is more tolerable now that his treys are finding nylon.
The Spurs’ starting-lineup newbies are holding their own. Bryn Forbes has an off-the-dribble flair to his game, and he’s not the defensive detriment his wingspan intimates he should be. Derrick White is demanding more attention.
Over his last 10 outings, White is averaging 18.5 points, 4.3 assists and 1.5 steals per 36 minutes while shooting 63.2 percent from the floor and 50 percent from behind the rainbow. He is an active defender and attacks both on and off the ball at the offensive end. He could be one of those swing prospects who unexpectedly, and drastically, shifts the Spurs’ trajectory.
FiveThirtyEight gives San Antonio a 52 percent chance of making the playoffs. That would’ve felt high a few weeks ago. It doesn’t anymore—though, to be fair, something needs to give for the Spurs on the road, where they’re 7-14.
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Toronto’s rise through the Eastern Conference shouldn’t be taken for granted. This isn’t a matter of adding Kawhi Leonard and wandering into the No. 1 seed. The Raptors are working for their pole position.
Leonard has yet to play on both ends of back-to-backs, and injury bugs are not being kind to the rest of the roster. Kyle Lowry and Delon Wright have already missed time, and Jonas Valanciunas is on the mend after thumb surgery. C.J. Miles and Fred VanVleet are both dealing with hip injuries.
That the Raptors are not getting nuked whenever Leonard or Lowry catches a breather is a minor miracle. The bench is a shell of itself from last season. Sitting both stars at the same time, even at full capacity, should be a non-option.
It won’t always come across during games, but the Raptors need another shooter. They’re 23rd in the three-point efficiency overall and 27th since Dec. 1. Reserve playmaking has become an issue in light of VanVleet’s availability and the regression of all-bench units built around him and Wright.
In spite of it all, the Raptors have the league’s best record.
Pascal Siakam is Most Improved Player material. Serge Ibaka is enjoying a resurgence. Danny Green is disrupting things on defense and posting his highest mark from distance since 2014-15. Norman Powell is sort of intriguing again. OG Anunoby looks more comfortable on offense. Lowry is a difference-maker even when he’s not shooting well. Leonard is almost all the way back, period.
What’s more, while the Raptors could stand to acquire a finishing touch on the wings, the talent and court time they’ve lost to injuries means it’s possible they might have another as-is leap left in them.
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Brace yourselves for another second-half surge from the Jazz.
Just three teams have played a tougher schedule. No one in the West has an easier slate the rest of the way, per PlayoffStatus.com. Only Boston and Milwaukee are posting a higher net rating in victories. And Utah has the fourth-best point differential per 100 possessions overall since Dec. 1.
Donovan Mitchell is worth watching. After struggling for most of the season, he’s on a tear since Christmas. If his shots stop falling and he goes back to forcing the action without making the right passes, the offense will regress right along with him and the call for Utah to land another from-scratch creator will grow.
In the meantime, the Jazz are poised to continue their trek up the Western Conference standings, injuries and all.
Dante Exum (knee) and Ricky Rubio (hamstring) are both scheduled to miss some time, and Thabo Sefolosha hasn’t played since Jan. 4 while recovering from a hamstring injury. The Jazz will be fine. They’re deep and plenty used to navigating a below-average point guard rotation.
Royce O’Neale has stepped up in the interim, and Joe Ingles is atoning for his recent cold shooting by taking more reps as the playmaker. And yeah, having Rudy Gobert, a defense unto himself, helps Utah survive these shorthanded stretches, too.
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Are the Wizards a major letdown relative to preseason expectations? Yes. Should they consider overhauling the roster at the trade deadline? Also yes.
Could they maybe, potentially, sort of, kind of, almost be starting to salvage the remnants of what’s deemed a lost season? Who knows.
To be clear, this is good news. The ol’ “Who knows” is an upgrade compared to where the Wizards were a couple of weeks ago. John Wall‘s season-ending Achilles injury gave off end-of-the-line vibes, but hey, everybody eats.
Washington has won five of eight games thanks to its new duo in the backcourt. Bradley Beal is averaging 29.8 points, 6.6 assists and 2.5 steals during this stretch while canning 41.4 percent of his 8.8 three-point attempts. He shouldn’t be getting more than 39 minutes per game forever, but holy cow.
Tomas Satoransky is busting out by his own standards. He is a “Play that man!” staple but has really picked up the offensive slack in Wall’s absence. He’s averaging 11.3 points and 5.6 assists while dropping in 43.5 percent of his threes over his last eight games. (And just because he deserves it: Shout-out Thomas Bryant.)
The Wizards are not fixed. The Trevor Ariza trade lacked foresight, was heavy on desperation and isn’t guaranteed to work out, and they’re still 11th in the Eastern Conference.
There’s a chance this burst of competence does nothing more than hoodwink Washington into standing pat when it should take more substantive measures. But the Wizards aren’t getting a pass here, and the East is forgiving. What we’re seeing now is fun—and potentially meaningful.