Midseason grades for all 30 NBA teams
Los Angeles Clippers: B-minus
29-15, No. 4 in the West
You can’t claim one of the West’s top-four seeds without being really good, and the Clippers, who boast the league’s sixth-best point differential, are really good. They’re also resilient: Los Angeles is 7-3 without Chris Paul, whose separated shoulder is just one of many injuries sustained by its deep perimeter corps. Still, the cumulative effect of a rejiggered rotation (enter Jared Dudley, J.J. Redick and Darren Collison, exit Eric Bledsoe), the juggling lineups and Paul’s absence has made this somewhat of a downer start to the season, especially when contrasted to L.A.’s 2012-13 start, which was full of woofing, turnover-generating defense and a month-long winning streak.
Coach Doc Rivers arrived last summer riding a wave of hype and a strong offseason only served to ratchet up expectations. We took Rivers’ decision to cover up the Lakers’ title banners at Staples Center as a sign that the Clippers meant business, but instead their championship-ready makeover hasn’t fully formed yet. The offense, which many felt had a chance to be the league’s best, has essentially duplicated last year’s results (No. 4 ranking in 2012-13, No. 6 ranking this season). The defense, which was supposed to benefit from Rivers’ magic touch, also hasn’t taken a significant step forward (No. 9 ranking last year, No. 8 this year). The roster’s major problems — interior depth and the late-game reliability of DeAndre Jordan — remain.
Whether the Clippers are actually stuck on a plateau or merely pacing themselves in preparation for the playoffs remains to be seen. Either way, nobody delivers as many high-flying thrills, and Blake Griffin (22.6 points, 10 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 22.5 PER) deserves credit for doing a little bit of everything to keep things on track. The next three months will be about ditching the “same old, same old” vibe and recapturing the “new and improved” excitement that swirled in the fall.
Los Angeles Lakers: D
16-27, No. 13 in the West
Consider this a merged “D” grade: Los Angeles gets a “C” for playing almost exactly to expectations on the court and an “F” for all of its unfortunate injury news (and its truly unfortunate contract extension for Kobe Bryant). Entering the season, The Point Forward saw the Lakers as a non-factor in the Western Conference playoff picture, a team that was more or less dead on arrival without cohesive parts on offense and totally devoid of defensive talent. That’s exactly what has played out: The Lakers are a bottom-10 squad on both sides of the ball, they’ve gone 3-14 since Dec. 21, and they’re 8½ games out of the eighth seed in the West. Even if Bryant and the other key sidelined pieces (Steve Nash, Jordan Farmar, Steve Blake, etc.) magically returned tomorrow, this just isn’t a playoff team.
L.A.’s struggles have produced a few storylines that have, if nothing else, helped pass the time before the 2014 draft lottery. Farmar made a triumphant return from overseas before going down to injury. Kendall Marshall has had a chance to compile large assist totals in his second NBA chapter. Nick Young has provided some off-brand star power in Bryant’s absence, making sure that the Lakers’ beat writers always have something to write about. Young — aka “Swaggy P” aka “Swagtime” aka “Swag Mamba” aka whatever — is ultimately a style-over-substance fill-in for a legend whose future remains unclear.
You know what’s really swaggy in my book? Shooting above league average from the field (something Young has never done in his seven-year career), putting together a roster capable of posting a defensive rating that doesn’t look like a Death Valley temperature in mid-August (something the Lakers didn’t even really try to do) and smartly managing the salary cap (something the Lakers kicked to the curb by signing Bryant to a two-year, $48.5 million extension). You know what else is swaggy? Being a relevant factor in the postseason. Bryant’s quick knee injury after his return from an Achilles tear dashed any chance of relevance for this season. His league-leading contract and the barren roster around him paint a similar picture on L.A.’s horizon.
Memphis Grizzlies: C-minus
20-20, No. 9 in West
This has been a dizzying free fall for the Grizzlies, who have plummeted from a franchise-best 56 wins last year to .500 this year, and from a dazzling trip to the conference finals to fourth place in the Southwest Division. The major extenuating factor, of course, is a knee injury that sidelined Marc Gasol for nearly two months. The Spanish big man is the Grizzlies’ centerpiece on both sides of the ball, and his absence made for a Memphis team that bears little resemblance to last year’s group. In 2012-13, the Grizzlies’ grit-and-grind defense ranked second. This season, Memphis is 17th in points allowed per possession, buried near the unimpressive likes of Cleveland and Orlando. Gasol, the reigning Defensive Player of the Year, will surely help pick things up on that end now that he has returned, but he is tasked with a major excavation effort.
The good news: Memphis sits just three games out of the playoff picture and could well replace Phoenix or Dallas by season’s end, thanks in large part to All-Star-caliber play from point guard Mike Conley (18.1 points, 6.3 assists, 20.8 PER) in Gasol’s absence. The bad news: The clock was already ticking on the Grizzlies’ veteran-dominated core group, and just squeaking into the playoffs won’t be enough to consider this season a success.
Indeed, the rough start to the season has been a reminder that contention windows can open and close with incredible quickness in the uber-competitive West. Falling out of the conference’s top tier — for any reason, injuries included — forces the Grizzlies to ask some tough questions. Can first-year coach Dave Joerger resurrect the team’s elite defense, or did their premier play on that end depart with former coach Lionel Hollins? Is a roster whose perimeter corps features the recently acquired Courtney Lee, the dilapidated Tayshaun Prince and the injured Quincy Pondexter capable of keeping up with the West’s premier offenses? Is it worth maintaining a payroll that’s nearly in the luxury-tax territory for a team that’s looking at an uphill battle to win a single playoff series? Is it time to start imagining a life without Zach Randolph, who is making $17.8 million this season and can become a free agent in the summer? Have we reached the point where this team’s core should really only consist of the Gasol/Conley pairing?
These aren’t questions that Memphis thought it would be facing so quickly after its 2013 joy ride, but they will all loom large unless Gasol can lead a major turnaround by April.
Miami Heat: A
31-12, No. 2 in the East
The Heat held training camp in the Bahamas and they’ve been sipping Mai Tais and scoping out the bikinis ever since. I, for one, will not hold that against them. Some might crush the two-time defending champions a little bit for coasting, but it must be acknowledged that they are 24-6 (.800) when Dwyane Wade plays and that LeBron James, Wade and Chris Bosh are all approaching career lows in minutes per game. How many times do we need to see the Spurs surprise people before we realize that reducing some of that workload will pay dividends later? Shouldn’t we point out that James (No. 2 in PER), Wade (No. 16) and Bosh (No. 30) all remain elite weapons, together representing, once again, the best trio in the league?
The championship-level intensity on defense hasn’t been there on a night-to-night basis: Miami has slipped to No. 11 in defensive efficiency, its lowest mark since James arrived in 2010, and the reigning MVP acknowledged recently that his team has had to find ways to stay motivated after three straight runs to the Finals. Panic, or anything close to it, would be silly. Even with Wade resting often and Bosh playing less, the Heat have the league’s second-best offense, and they are the only Eastern Conference team that ranks in the top 11 in that category. It’s therefore difficult to envision how the Heat’s first two playoff opponents, whoever they might be, will avoid being treated like cream puffs.
Nobody benefits more from the weak East than the Heat, who can save their bullets, mold Michael Beasley, test-drive Greg Oden and prepare for their clash with the Pacers and, if they prevail, another battle with the West winner. With more than four months to go before the Finals, it’s easy for NBA junkies to forget that the Heat’s entire season really boils down to those final 14 games. Everything that’s unfolded suggests that Miami itself hasn’t forgotten.
Milwaukee Bucks: F
8-33, No. 15 in the East
Let’s start with two pieces of good news. First: Milwaukee took a chance in drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo and smartly realized immediately that: A) his development should be a top organizational priority, and B) he was an Internet sensation waiting to happen who demands saturation coverage. That’s led us to the point where the 19-year-old Greek rookie is averaging 23.2 minutes — that’s more than Andre Drummond last year — and roughly 1,426 gushing blog posts per week by people who are rightfully captivated by his long arms, gigantic hands, crazy upside, adorable smile and general all-around friendliness.
Second, Bucks.com writer Alex Boeder continues to fight the good fight despite a brutal season, hilariously noting earlier this month that seldom-used, 25-year-old rookie Miroslav Raduljica was enjoying a higher PER than LeBron James during his own rookie season. That is some warm, tasty brew to wash down a really, really bitter pill of a 2013-14 season. Well done.
Everything else has been a train wreck. Their offense ranks dead last, their defense ranks 20th, newly extended center Larry Sanders leads the league in embarrassing headlines, O.J. Mayo has basically flamed out and a summer spent accumulating middling veterans (Caron Butler, Zaza Pachulia, Carlos Delfino, Gary Neal) has led to a league-worst record and a steady supply of frustrated postgame comments.
It seemed like the Bucks had spent enough ($24 million for Mayo, $15.6 million for Pachulia, $13 million to the Delfino/Neal pairing, $44 million to lock up Sanders, $5.5 million payroll increase in the Butler trade) to reach their usual standard of banal mediocrity. Instead, they are a surprise tank with all sorts of unnecessary gizmos and ill-fitting parts. As soon as you start thinking, “Hey, Andrew Wiggins is just the guy to turn that whole franchise around,” you can’t help but reverse course entirely, instead settling on “Man, I hope Andrew Wiggins goes somewhere else.”
Minnesota Timberwolves: D-plus
20-21, No. 11 in the West
Minnesota is sharing a lot of the same “outside the playoffs looking in” disappointment as Denver and Memphis, but its plight might be more comparable to Detroit’s given the level of offseason expenditures. Quickly, a reminder: New president Flip Saunders shelled out $60 million to Nikola Pekovic, $27.8 million to Kevin Martin, $15 million to Chase Budinger, $14.1 million to Corey Brewer and $3 million to Ronny Turiaf, and the franchise has since taken on $4.4 million worth of future money to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute. That’s nearly $125 million (!) of investments that haven’t moved the needle compared to last season, when Minnesota was 17-24 at this point despite a bunch of injuries.
The spending was a calculated gamble to keep All-Star forward Kevin Love (25 points, 13 rebounds, 4.1 assists) happy, but his frustration with his teammates boiled over again earlier this month. The 2015 free-agency period is now just 18 months away, and the 25-year-old Love is staring straight at the possibility of a sixth straight lottery trip.
Yes, the Timberwolves are the “better than their record” poster child. In fact, the Timberwolves rank in the top 10 in both offensive efficiency and defensive efficiency. Somewhat astoundingly, their point differential ranks seventh, better than that of the Warriors, Rockets, Suns and Mavericks. The obvious explanation for the disparity between their statistical body of work and their record: a 5-15 mark in “clutch” games (within three points with five minutes to go), per NBA.com.
Underperforming so badly in close games could be viewed as a sign that Minnesota is due for some late-game luck. It could also be seen as a symptom of a serious problem at point guard, where Ricky Rubio (8.6 points, 8.2 assists, 35 percent shooting) has struggled with his jumper and confidence to the point that he’s been repeatedly benched down the stretch, and J.J. Barea (8.7 points, 3.5 assists, 40.5 percent shooting) just isn’t someone you want deciding your team’s fate in the game’s biggest moments night in and night out.
Individually, Minnesota’s offseason moves were logical, and in some cases (particularly Pekovic) the alternative would be far worse than the current reality. Together, though, the moves have put Minnesota over the cap for next season, and none of its newcomers (many of whom can be classified as overpaid) carries much in the way of trade value. The Wolves lack young prospects, too. Because of these factors and Love’s free agency next year, the Timberwolves badly needed to end their playoff drought and generate some momentum this season. There might not be another team in the league that needs a second-half turnaround more than this one.