Midseason grades for all 30 NBA teams
Dallas Mavericks: B
25-19, No. 8 in the West
The Lakers would kill to be the Mavericks, wouldn’t they? Let’s go down the checklist. Aging superstar enjoying an All-Star-caliber season? Check. A few savvy free-agent signings to power a strong offense and ramp up the fun quotient? Check. The possibility of meaningful games through April, with the added benefit of taking a shot at playing first-round spoiler? Check and check.
Everything that hasn’t worked out for the Lakers has gone according to plan for Dallas, which is riding mainstay Dirk Nowitzki (21.1 points, 47.9 percent shooting, 23.2 PER) and newcomers Jose Calderon (11.7 points, 45.1 percent three-point shooting) and Monta Ellis (20 points, six assists, 46.1 percent shooting, 18.0 PER) to a No. 7 offense that can shoot it out with the NBA’s best on any given night. The Mavericks have enjoyed good health for those three, plus Shawn Marion and Vince Carter, and that’s been enough to work around the 23rd-ranked defense and a fairly glaring hole in the middle that’s contributed to the No. 27 rebounding rate.
Complaining about the Mavericks’ state of affairs would be a waste of breath and time: They are just about dead-on with preseason expectations. It would similarly be folly to get too enamored with Nowitzki’s strong bounce-back season; he just doesn’t have the horses around him to make any real noise in May.
Denver Nuggets: C-minus
20-21, No. 10 in the West
To be clear: The real damage was done during the offseason with the departures of general manager Masai Ujiri, coach George Karl and swingman Andre Iguodala. There was no way for Denver to take those three punches and pretend like nothing happened, but the resulting season has been even more deflating than expected.
Injuries are part of that: Danilo Gallinari never returned, undergoing a second and season-ending knee surgery this week, and big-money center JaVale McGee was lost to a stress fracture in early November. Really, there isn’t a more depressing phrase than, “Our $10.8 million center has logged more minutes on his Oprah Winfrey Network reality show than he has on the court.”
Some of the deflation is coming from the lingering uncertainty caused by the transition. Compared to last season, the Nuggets are slightly worse on offense and defense, they are playing at a slightly slower pace and they are way, way worse at protecting their usually stellar home-court advantage (they are just 11-9 this year after going 38-3 last year). Coach Brian Shaw has proved he means business by standing up to backup point guard Andre Miller, but he hasn’t yet succeeded in crafting a true identity for his club. That process can now be expected to stretch even longer given Gallinari’s new recovery timeline, which could stretch into next season.
A gold star to Ty Lawson for doing his best to keep things afloat, but that’s little consolation when the good vibrations of last year’s 57-win campaign can no longer be heard in the distance. The immediate question is whether Denver can claw back into playoff position, but that pales in comparison to the long-term worries that accompany a star-less roster that seems to have lost its magic chemistry.
Detroit Pistons: D-minus
17-25, No. 9 in the East
The Pistons might try to camouflage themselves in the Eastern Conference muck — they are one of five bubble teams separated by four games — but we shouldn’t let that happen. Why not? There are at least $83 million reasons why not — namely, the offseason money dumped into Josh Smith ($54 million over four years), Brandon Jennings ($24 million over three years) and Chauncey Billups ($5 million over two years).
How are Joe Dumars’ latest round of investments panning out? Smith is in the discussion for the most self-destructive offensive force in the league. Not only is his shot chart almost entirely red (that’s not a good thing) but he’s also on pace to become the first player to shoot worse than 25 percent from beyond the arc while attempting at least three three-pointers (minimum 700 minutes played). He hasn’t made a significant impact on Detroit’s defense (20th in efficiency this year, 23rd last year) and his pairing with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond has fizzled offensively, leaving the Pistons stuck yet again. Do they try to sell off Smith? (What’s the market at this point?) Do they try to cash in Monroe before his offseason payday (which is coming, one way or another)? Or do they grit their teeth and continue with their patented brand of expensive, sub-mediocre basketball?
Jennings isn’t helping matters. He’s shooting 37.4 percent and committing a career-high 3.1 turnovers, and his 106.6 defensive rating is among the team’s worst. As for the 37-year-old Billups (who is dealing with life after a torn Achilles)? His PER is a microscopic 5.9 and he’s played only 18 games, so any contribution he’s making falls under the oblique “veteran leadership” heading. This is a good reminder that the only people who should be getting paid millions to make speeches are former presidents.
The silver lining here is that Drummond has been granted a significantly larger role in his second season, and he’s responded by scaling his production in a way (12.6 points, 12.6 rebounds, 1.8 blocks, 1.4 steals, 60.4 percent shooting, 21.4 PER) that hints at All-Star potential as soon as next year. The 20-year-old big man is a true franchise building block, but the first half of Detroit’s season suggests that Dumars has made a mess of the construction plans. The Pistons’ outlays were so large in scope that they should have theoretically been in position to compete for home-court advantage once the conference fell apart around them. Instead, they have work to do simply to earn the right to be bounced in the first round of the playoffs. Even worse, their 2014 first-round pick will transfer to the Bobcats unless they tank their way to one of the league’s eight-worst records. Just bad, bad, bad.
Golden State Warriors: B
26-17, No. 6 in the West
The public opinion/hype pendulum swings faster with this team than just about anyone else in the league. The Warriors went from championship contenders to disappointments to possible contenders again in less than three months. The truth is likely somewhere in the middle, as it usually is, and Warriors fans should be pleased that Golden State survived Andre Iguodala’s extended injury absence without compromising its shot at a top-four seed. This team is not taking the world by storm, but it is holding on to a spot in the West’s loaded top six, an accomplishment that shouldn’t be pooh-poohed.
Coach Mark Jackson leans so heavily on his top-six players (Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson average 37.9 minutes apiece and fellow starters Iguodala and David Lee play at least 33) that Golden State is constantly one injury away from another swing on the pendulum back toward disappointment. Impartial observers should be crossing their fingers that the hypothetical, rotation-wrecking injury never comes. In addition to being one of the league’s most exciting five-man groups, Golden State’s starters are also one of its most balanced and devastating. In more than 500 minutes together, the lineup of Curry, Thompson, Iguodal, Lee and Andrew Bogut has posted a phenomenal plus-19.9 net rating, meaning they are capable of blowing out just about anyone at any time. The Bogut/Iguodala pairing has also powered Golden State to a No. 5 defensive rating, helping pick up the slack for an offense that hasn’t quite been as potent as last season’s.
Bogut said this week that the Warriors are “close … but not there yet” when it comes to contention, and perhaps the onus is on management to seek reinforcements before the Feb. 20 trade deadline. General manager Bob Myers has already made one move in swapping Toney Douglas for Jordan Crawford, and the time to be proactive is now with a roster that’s loaded up salary-wise and a core that’s hoping to build off its 2013 second-round appearance. Perhaps an extra set of hands (or two) can turn those lofty preseason expectations into reality.
Houston Rockets: B+
29-15, No. 5 in the West
Dwight Howard’s arrival wasn’t going to answer every question and solve every problem for the Rockets, but he’s succeeded in reaching one, overarching goal so far: nudging Houston up one notch from the playoff bubble to the conference’s second tier. In many ways, the Rockets’ year is what the Lakers expected last season with Howard. A fully healthy Howard has found a way to make an offensive impact without killing James Harden’s vibe while taking the Rockets’ defense from average to No. 10, even though he hasn’t played alongside a traditional power forward and Omer “Disgruntled” Asik has provided only headaches.
The pace of Houston’s dunks-and-threes offense has slowed somewhat compared to last season, but it still stands as an incredibly effective point-generating machine. The Jeremy Lin/Patrick Beverley combination, when healthy, is one of the better two-headed point guard monsters, and Chandler Parsons (17.2 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.6 assists, 1.2 steals) is generating career-best numbers while handling huge minutes.
Taking the next step — from the fringe to the center of the championship-contention discussion — falls on management’s shoulders, not Howard’s or Harden’s. Houston entered camp with major questions at power forward, and while Terrence Jones has emerged from a deep pack of candidates for those minutes, he still feels like a less-than-ideal solution. The Asik quandary also hangs there, and finding a resolution by the trade deadline surely continues to be Houston’s top priority. Rotation gaps and redundancies aside, the Rockets are fun, improved as a two-way team, in possession of two A-list superstars and owning some chips to play next summer. The start to their season suggests that by this time next year they could be ready to move up into the conference’s top tier.
Indiana Pacers: A-plus
33-8, No. 1 in the East
The team with the NBA’s best record stands as the single easiest grade in the league. The Pacers are sitting in the front row of the class, they’re turning in their homework early, they’re acing every test and they’re even volunteering to help the janitors mop the classroom floors. Never has a teacher’s pet been this imposing: Indiana’s defense is the league’s best by nearly five points per 100 possessions, it’s lost just one game to a team currently below .500 and it has scored signature wins over the Heat, Spurs, Clippers (twice), Rockets and Warriors.
Entering the season, The Point Forward saw Indiana as one of four teams (along with Brooklyn, Chicago and New York) that could conceivably give Miami a run for their money in the East. Not only are the Pacers the only one of that quartet left standing, but they also lead the Heat by three games for home-court advantage and appear championship-ready. The bugaboos continue to be their offense (No. 17, up slightly from last year) and turnovers (No. 25 in turnover rate), but their defense is so potent and disciplined that they should be able to book a trip to the conference finals without a second thought.
It’s not hyperbolic to state that Indiana has achieved sustained excellence, a height that few teams, including last year’s Pacers, manage to reach. The Pacers are therefore deserving of all the accolades that come with that, and it could wind up being a long list. Paul George (23.3 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.4 assists, 46.2 percent shooting, 39 percent three-point shooting, 22.6 PER) has grown into a top-five MVP candidate and no-brainer All-NBA selection. Roy Hibbert (12.1 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.6 blocks, No. 1 defensive rating in the league) should be the runaway Defensive Player of the Year winner. Lance Stephenson (career highs in virtually every category) has emerged as a key playmaker and a Most Improved Player candidate. And Frank Vogel should be among the leading vote-getters in the Coach of the Year race.
Perhaps the most magnetic aspect of the Pacers’ season has been their total focus on claiming the No. 1 overall seed, a drive that reflects a confidence that they can unseat the Heat and a vision for their own greatness. Something tells me that the Heat and Pacers will cause a lot of “This is the best matchup in the East since the Bad Boys Pistons and the early-Jordan Bulls” ink to be spilled between now and June.