Midseason grades for all 30 NBA teams
Portland Trail Blazers: A+
32-11, No. 3 in the West
The league’s biggest surprise has fully earned its top mark. Portland — seen as a playoff bubble team entering the season after back-to-back lottery trips — has nearly matched its 33-win total from last season despite the fact that its biggest offseason acquisitions were Robin Lopez (dumped by the Pelicans) and Mo Williams (signed for cheap after the Jazz went a different direction).
The bulk of the credit for the Blazers’ rise goes to coach Terry Stotts, the heavy Coach of the Year favorite, who has delivered on his offensive-guru reputation by constructing the league’s most potent attack. Balancing heavy doses of three-point shooting from Damian Lillard (21 points, 42.4 percent on 7.2 attempts), Wesley Matthews (16.9 points, 42.3 percent on 6.3 attempts) and Nicolas Batum (12.8 points, 35.9 percent on 5.1 attempts) with steady pick-and-pop sniping and isolation success from LaMarcus Aldridge, the Blazers’ offense has frustrated opponents through smart construction and disciplined reads. Rare is the Portland possession that ends with a bad shot or sees a player try to freelance outside his strongest skill set.
Aldridge has played like a top-five MVP candidate, putting up career numbers (24.7 points, 11.6 rebounds, 2.9 assists), and he’s never looked happier or more comfortable. A dedicated student of the game who has studied Tim Duncan and watches video clips of defensive coverages on his iPad during timeouts, Aldridge has cultivated a better feel for when to exert himself late in games. He’s also surrounded by teammates he can trust to make defenses pay for over-committing.
Lillard, meanwhile, has made marginal improvements defensively since his rookie season while growing into one of the NBA’s most confident and lethal shooters at point guard. Together, the Aldridge/Lillard pairing gives Portland a strong star base to build around in the next few years, as Aldridge (set to become a free agent in 2015) recently indicated that he’s interested in negotiating a contract extension.
The Blazers have made it look easy, in large part because they haven’t faced much adversity. Their excellent starting five, a lineup posting a strong plus-10.1 net rating, has already logged nearly 900 minutes, and no starter has missed a game because of injury. That’s been huge, because Williams has been the only truly dependable bench player for Portland, whose below-average defense really starts to strain when multiple reserves hit the floor. Though the Blazers have defeated a number of top-shelf teams (San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Golden State), their strength of schedule has been among the weakest in the Western Conference, per Basketball-Reference. While a second-half cool-off could be coming, the Blazers did so much quality work early that their standing among the West’s top teams isn’t going to be thrown off by a little regression.
When the playoffs open, Portland will be seeking its first series victory since 1999-2000. Though the Blazers shouldn’t be considered a lock to advance, they look way, way more dangerous than anyone predicted in October.
Sacramento Kings: C
15-26, No. 14 in the West
A decade of Maloofery wasn’t going to be undone in three months, and it hasn’t been. It’s too easy to peg the Kings as stuck in a “same old, same old” rut, but Sacramento does find itself in familiar environs, facing fit questions on offense, terrible defensive numbers and a bevy of inflated contracts to marginal producers that make it difficult to break out of this cycle of losing.
New ownership can pursue as many forward-thinking marketing moves as it likes — which so far have included a Guinness World Record for indoor crowd noise, the acceptance of Bitcoin as a legal form of tender for tickets and a streaming Google Glass in-game experience — but those shades of lipstick can’t hide the porky contracts being paid to Carl Landry (injured for most of the season after signing a four-year, $26 million deal in the offseason) and Rudy Gay (acquired in a December trade with the Raptors, he’s owed $17.9 million this season and possibly $19.3 million next season), among others. Sacramento is shelling out nearly $30 million combined this season to Landry and four players (Marcus Thornton, Jason Thompson, Derrick Williams and Travis Outlaw) who have posted below-average PERs. A mini max extension for DeMarcus Cousins kicks in next season, and starting point guard Isaiah Thomas will be expecting a big payday come summertime, so the roster refurbishing and cap quandaries aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.
First-year coach Michael Malone has come onto the scene as one of the league’s most intense personalities, unafraid to take his team to task or go after the officials over disputed calls. He has overseen career years for both Cousins (22.6 points, 11.6 rebounds, three assists) and Thomas (19.5 points, 6.3 assists) and found a way to fit in Gay offensively, but Sacramento’s defensive shortcomings, particularly discipline and awareness on the perimeter, continue to hold the team back. These guys clearly still have a long way to go, but at least they’ll be able to make that journey unencumbered by last season’s circus act.
San Antonio Spurs: A
32-10, No. 2 in the West
Still really good. Not too old.
For the umpteenth year in a row, that’s the six-word story of the Spurs, who have shaken off a heartbreaking collapse in the 2013 Finals by racing out to another strong start this season. Boasting a top-five offense, a top-five defense and the league’s second-best point differential, the Spurs have feasted on the weaker East (12-2) while struggling against some of their top competition in the West.
Coach Gregg Popovich continues to adroitly manage the minutes of his best players, as Tony Parker (18.4 points, 6.3 assists, 51.6 percent shooting, 20.5 PER) is the only Spur to average 30 minutes. That deep distribution of playing time has continued despite injuries to Tiago Splitter, Danny Green and (this week) Kawhi Leonard, but neither the injuries nor the large minutes for lesser-known role players has stunted San Antonio’s accumulation of victories.
The Spurs’ balanced system, which has produced the league’s top assist rate for the second straight season, continues to chew up the opposition, even if Tim Duncan (14.5 points, 47.3 percent shooting) isn’t quite playing to last year’s standard. Typical brilliance from Parker, a mini-resurgence from Manu Ginobili (12.6 points, 4.6 assists, 20.4 PER) and serious sharpshooting from newcomer Marco Bellineli (11.1 points, 49.3 percent from three-point range) have more than picked up the slack.
Leonard’s hand injury will have Spurs observers sitting on pins and needles for the next month or so, but the big-picture plan is still intact. If the Spurs enter the postseason with good health for Parker, Duncan, Leonard and Ginobili, they will join Oklahoma City as the West’s two blue-chip favorites. The magnitude of their playoff success will likely hinge on whether Duncan is able to approximate his beastly 2013 postseason performance. Popovich’s “slow and steady wins the race” treatment should have his 37-year-old big man prepared to make another memorable run.
Toronto Raptors: A-
21-20, No. 4 in the East
Nothing Was The Same for the Raptors once they hired general manager Masai Ujiri, who breathed life into the organization by dumping Andrea Bargnani last summer. That move displayed a competence that had been lacking in Toronto in recent years, and following it up by quickly sending Rudy Gay to Sacramento showed that fit and logic would triumph over name recognition under this new regime. Gay’s resurgence in a more compact role with the Kings is irrelevant to the Raptors’ first-half mark: Toronto is clearly a better, more inspired and more fun team since his departure (6-12 with Gay, 15-8 without him).
Addition by subtraction rarely is this cut-and-dried. Kyle Lowry (16.1 points, 7.3 assists, 39.7 percent three-point shooting, 19.5 PER) and DeMar DeRozan (21.8 points, 17.8 PER) have made cases for All-Star selections as they have filled in the gaps, and the Raptors’ ball movement has picked up noticeably (Toronto averaged 17 assists before the trade and 22.5 since). The trade will pay dividends for years to come, too, as it places a greater burden on promising young center Jonas Valanciunas (10.1 points, 8.4 rebounds, 14.2 PER), who hasn’t yet taken the leap forward this season that The Point Forward anticipated. The Lithuanian center is still just 21, though, and coach Dwane Casey is making him earn his minutes as Toronto has emerged to compete for a division title.
Casey’s Raptors are back to scrapping defensively like they did in 2011-12, and Toronto ranks just behind Charlotte as the most-improved team on that end. The Raptors have leaped from 22nd in defensive efficiency last year to sixth this year. They excel at defending the basket area (top five in opponent shooting percentage from five feet and in) and limiting opportunities from beyond the arc (sixth in opponent three-point attempts).
In sum, it might be argued that the Raptors have performed a little bit over their heads, but they’ve done it by playing intelligent defense and unselfish offense and by making a savvy trade that improves their cap and basketball picture. Drake should be proud.
Utah Jazz: C
14-29, No. 15 in the West
The Jazz possess the Western Conference’s worst record and the league’s third-worst point differential, which is right on track with preseason prognostications. Replacing Paul Millsap and Al Jefferson with the expiring contracts of Richard Jefferson and Andris Biedrins was a clear recipe for short-term heartburn and long-term asset acquisition, and that’s where Utah finds itself.
The return of 2013 lottery pick Trey Burke from a finger injury has given Jazz fans reason to watch, something that was clearly lacking during their 1-12 run without him. Burke (13.5 points, 5.6 assists, 39 percent shooting, 14.4 PER) has fit the stereotype of a young guard getting his bearings as he transitions to the NBA, but he’s been an upgrade over the comically bad minutes-fillers who were standing in during his absence. Burke’s net rating of minus-5 is unsightly, but it blows away Utah’s minus-11 when he’s been off the court. His return has also made life easier for leading scorer Gordon Hayward (17.3 points, 5.4 rebounds, 4.9 assists), whose shooting numbers (42.1 percent overall, 32 percent from three-point range) took a major hit when he was thrust into the role of lead playmaker earlier this season.
Utah ranks last in defense, the product of a talent-deficient rotation and the calculated decision to throw young big men Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter into major roles. Favors, who signed a four-year, $48 million extension in October, has done fairly well (13.5 points, 9.1 rebounds, 51.8 percent shooting), but Kanter has been more of a mixed bag. The 2011 No. 3 pick has a team-worst defensive rating of 110.7, and he hasn’t been able to scale his rebounding rate from his two previous seasons in expanded minutes.
The Jazz hit the halfway mark confident that Burke is a keeper and with the knowledge that paying whatever it takes to retain Hayward next summer will be a worthwhile endeavor. Past that, they’re left counting down to the draft lottery with loads of roster holes to address during the offseason. A full-on, late-season tank makes all the sense in the world for the Jazz, who need a franchise-defining talent.
Washington Wizards: B
20-21, No. 6 in the East
Washington joined the Clevelands and Detroits of the world in seeking a lottery-to-playoffs leap this season, and that plan is tracking nicely. Unfortunately, achieving a .500-ish record and a middling playoff seeding came at the expense of its 2014 first-round pick (top-12 protected), which had to be sacrificed to the Suns to acquire Marcin Gortat as a hole-plugger for the injured Emeka Okafor. The Wizards knew what they were doing when they made that move, and so far a strong season from John Wall (20 points, 8.5 assists, 4.2 rebounds, 20.3 PER) has prevented that calculated risk from backfiring.
Outside of Wall, who has been a surefire All-Star, the Wizards don’t have a ton to hang their hats on. They are decidedly mediocre on offense and nothing to write home about defensively, and coach Randy Wittman, who survived some early-season hot-seat talk, has employed a very short rotation to squeeze out every last win. Six Wizards play at least 29 minutes a game, including Bradley Beal, who was among the league leaders in minutes before sustaining a stress injury to his leg in late November. The 2012 No. 2 pick has bounced back from the injury nicely, averaging 17.1 points and shooting 44.2 percent from deep, and he looks destined for All-Star appearances in years to come.
Assuming the Wizards’ key players can remain healthy, watching the Wall/Beal combination get its postseason legs should be a treat. Otherwise, this has been a “meh” season. That’s an improvement on the “immensely frustrating and often unprofessional” vibe that has dominated in recent years, but it still falls short of a top-shelf standard. If Washington is bounced quickly in the first round (or disaster strikes), expect a regretful round of second-guessing over the loss of its draft pick from outsiders. PS: Yes, No. 3 pick Otto Porter is in the NBA; he just hasn’t done anything yet.