Midseason grades for all 30 NBA teams
New Orleans Pelicans: D
16-25, No. 12 in the West
The Pelicans looked promising until the ambulance sirens began to overwhelm. Look, the roster theory — ride the positionally balanced and athletically gifted quintet of Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Ryan Anderson and Anthony Davis as far as they could go — had merit. Lots of merit, really, as Davis is a budding superstar, Holiday is a 2013 All-Star point guard who plays both ends and Anderson remains one of the NBA’s best-kept secrets. In the limited time that lineup has played together, it’s posted an off-the-charts offensive rating of 123.5, which more than hints at possible playoff potential.
That five-man roster theory doesn’t work when two of the five pieces — Holiday (leg) and Anderson (neck) — are sidelined for an extended period of time. New Orleans is just 2-10 in January, a stretch that has killed its playoff hopes and could soon send it all the way to the Western Conference basement.
What’s left to play for down the stretch? Well, every outing is worthwhile for Davis (20.2 points, 10.3 rebounds, three blocks, 1.5 steals), who has turned in an All-Star-type season in his second year. The 2012 No. 1 pick is on track to become the first 20-year-old to post a PER of greater than 26, and he regularly does things (block turnaround jump shots, come clear across the court to snag an offensive rebound or alley-oop lob) that few others can accomplish.
Besides gawking at Davis, the injury-ravaged start has left the Pelicans to seriously consider the tank game. If their 2014 first-round pick lands outside the top five, they must convey it to Philadelphia, and New Orleans can certainly use a top-end talent infusion. The Pelicans’ best-case scenario is to tank and tank hard, doing whatever it takes to keep that pick, even if this organization might have thought it was through playing Ping-Pong ball gymnastics as recently as a few months ago.
New York Knicks: F
15-27, No. 11 in the East
Oklahoma City Thunder: A+
33-10, No. 1 in the West
Here’s a list of the teams whose records have been compromised by injuries to a key player or players: Atlanta, Boston, Brooklyn, Chicago, Denver, Golden State, the Lakers, Memphis, Milwaukee, New Orleans, New York, Phoenix and Utah. That’s nearly half of the NBA. Notably absent from that list: the Thunder, who enjoyed Russell Westbrook’s services for just 822 minutes before he was sidelined with his third knee surgery since April. With Westbrook, Oklahoma City was 21-4; without him, it is 12-6, including an extraordinary five-game winning streak with victories over Houston, Golden State, Sacramento, Portland and San Antonio in one week’s time.
All things are possible through the greatness of Kevin Durant. After repeatedly informing the world that he was sick of placing second to LeBron James and the Heat, the NBA’s scoring leader has done something about it this season. Durant has snatched the first-half MVP title from James thanks to a preposterous statistical output that has lifted Oklahoma City to first place in the West.
If you’ve found yourself wondering, “How does he do it?” as Durant has piled up four games of 46 or more points in January, realize that he’s starting to wade into uncharted waters. He’s putting together one of the most marvelous individual seasons in league history. Durant is averaging 31 points, 7.7 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.5 steals, a line that has been achieved only once previously (Michael Jordan, 1988-89). Meanwhile, Durant is shooting 50/41/88 even though his usage rate is 31.9; that type of shooting efficiency in such a major role has been approached only once before (Larry Bird, 1987-88). This, again, is greatness.
This hasn’t been a one-man effort. After all, no club can put together a conference-leading defense without team-wide contributions, but Oklahoma City would be lost without him. Durant’s continued growth has allowed Serge Ibaka to stay inside his wheelhouse offensively, helped Reggie Jackson and Jeremy Lamb assimilate to larger roles and helped cover up for the limited offensive contributions offered by at least half of the Thunder’s Westbrook-less rotation.
Oklahoma City has lots of players, including the guys mentioned plus the always reliable Nick Collison, Thabo Sefolosha and rookie Steven Adams, but this is very much a “Jordan and the Jordanaires” vibe, where all roads eventually lead back to Durant. He’s been otherworldly, and he’s made Oklahoma City sensational. The prospect of a Westbrook comeback keeps the Thunder as the West’s favorites.
Orlando Magic: C-
11-32, No. 14 in the East
Projected as one of the league’s worst teams, Orlando has certainly lived up (down, really) to that billing in Year 2 of the post-Dwight Howard era. I thought this rebuilding Magic group would be a little bit friskier. On paper, an established backcourt and a handful of young pieces, many with considerable athletic gifts, looks like a good formula for springing upsets. Instead, the Magic have beaten only four teams currently above .500, they’re winless against the Western Conference since Nov. 6. and they’re doing their best to sneak wins here and there from the East’s dregs.
The loss of Nikola Vucevic to a concussion weighs heavily in their struggles: The Magic are 1-14 without their third-year starting center, who represents the only real size on the roster. Vucevic is averaging a double-double (13 points and 11 rebounds) for the second straight season, and he has all the makings of a stable building block. The other dominant stories: a mid-career breakout scoring year for Arron Afflalo (a career-high 20.6 points and a career-best 18.1 PER) and an entertaining-but-inefficient rookie season from No. 2 pick Victor Oladipo, who produces spectacular highlight plays and misses jumpers with the best of them.
Off-court planning is clearly a bigger deal than on-court developments for general manager Rob Hennigan, who continues to stick tightly to the tear-it-down script. The Magic finally bought out Hedo Turkoglu. They’re tracking toward good cap flexibility next summer and another top-five pick. They could also land a second lottery pick by way of the Howard trade, depending on how Denver and New York finish.
Slow and steady wins this race. In that vein, the voices suggesting that the Magic sell off Afflalo, who is under contract through at least 2014-15, don’t make a lot of sense. If significant progress isn’t made by this time next year, with the benefit of an offseason to fill out the roster, then it will be time to reassess.
Philadelphia 76ers: B
14-28, No. 13 in the East
It’s hard for any team winning one-third of its games to inspire true excitement, but the Sixers deserve praise for vastly outperforming the “Possibly Worst Team Of All Time” label they carried into training camp. General manager Sam Hinkie can’t ask for much more out of his group: The Sixers electrified the league with a three-game winning streak to start the season, somehow swept a four-game Western Conference road trip and have the Rookie of the Year front-runner in Michael Carter-Williams, the most pleasant surprise of the 2013 class.
There have been many losses — including many blowout losses — along the way for the Sixers, who possess the league’s second-worst point differential, but the organization was prepared for that. More important, the key variables that could determine their next steps have all lined up just fine. Carter-Williams’ play has been the headliner, but 2013 lottery pick Nerlens Noel hasn’t suffered any setbacks in his knee rehabilitation and could be cleared soon, while Tony Wroten (13 points, 3.4 rebounds, 3.3 assists) has delivered as a worthwhile, low-budget flyer. Thaddeus Young (17.3 points, 6.4 rebounds, 17.6 PER) and Evan Turner (18.7 points, 6.2 rebounds, 3.7 assists) have been able to showcase their abilities, setting up the possibility of some trade-deadline excitement.
A rash of injuries to the Pelicans has also been an indirect blessing for the Sixers. New Orleans owes Philadelphia its 2014 first-round pick as long as it doesn’t land in the top five. The injury-ravaged Pelicans look headed for a spot in the back half of the lottery, barring a full-fledged tank job. That would be perfect for the Sixers, whose own pick could end up in the top five. So while this season might not be a conventional success for Philadelphia, it’s hard to see what exactly has gone wrong.
Phoenix Suns: A
24-17, No. 7 in the West
To observers, the out-of-nowhere Suns have been delightful to watch. To opponents, their high-pressure defense, relentless attacking of the basket and youthful exuberance have been a royal pain in the neck. First-year coach Jeff Hornacek is in the Coach of the Year discussion for his ability to mold a group short on star power into a determined, team-first unit that has defeated Portland, Houston, Golden State, the Clippers and Indiana even though it entered the season projected to be the West’s worst team.
Eric Bledsoe’s knee injury is a real bummer, and it’s taking a little bit of the shine off of Phoenix’s great start. With Bledsoe, who has looked like a Most Improved Player candidate since arriving from the Clippers in a summer trade, Phoenix is 16-8; without his 18 points, 5.8 assists, 3.8 rebounds and 1.5 steals, Phoenix is 8-9. The fourth-year guard has been the explosive, foul-drawing, basket-attacking menace that many could see developing behind Chris Paul, but his pairing with Goran Dragic (19.4 points, 5.9 assists, 3.3 rebounds, 1.3 steals) has worked out better than anticpated. Many expected them to struggle sharing the load, but the two playmakers have worked in tandem very well, allowing Phoenix to keep constant pressure on opponents and creating easy opportunities for the Suns’ secondary scoring options.
The list of guys on this roster playing better than expected goes on and on. Gerald Green? He’s averaging a career-high 13.7 points and hitting 37 percent of his threes on more than six attempts, making him a dangerous perimeter weapon. Miles Plumlee? From barely used by Indiana as a rookie last season to a cool 9.7 points and 8.7 rebounds this season. The Morris twins? As trash-talky as ever, but both have career-high numbers across the board to back up the yapping.
Can the Suns hold on to a playoff spot? They’re likely to be in a dogfight with Dallas, Memphis, Denver and Minnesota for the No. 7 and No. 8 seeds. Whether they make the postseason or not isn’t all that important in the big picture; this was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and general manager Ryan McDonough has accumulated tons of extra picks and will enter next summer without any bad contracts on the books. Their unexpectedly awesome start deserves the attention it has received, but we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that Phoenix is set up nicely for continued success next season and beyond.