Midseason grades for all 30 NBA teams
The midway point of the season is here. How has your favorite team fared? Below are grades for all 30 teams.
Note: Grades are primarily determined by first-half performance relative to preseason expectations. The letter grade also takes into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major offseason moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, will be reflected in the letter grade and detailed in the accompanying explanations.
(All stats and records are through Jan. 23.)
Atlanta Hawks: B-plus
22-19, No. 3 in the East
Remember when the Monopoly Community Chest would hit you with the “You have won second prize in a beauty contest, collect $10″ card and you didn’t know whether to excitedly cash it in or take offense at what could be interpreted as a subliminal dig at your appearances from an inanimate board game? Congrats to the Hawks, the third-best team in a two-team conference, the NBA’s ultimate beauty-contest runner-up.
Cynics will point out that Atlanta is barely above .500, has lost franchise big man Al Horford for the season and — barring a a terrible catastrophic injury to an opposing superstar — has zero shot of reaching the conference finals, rendering its No. 3 seed pretty worthless. Optimists will note that the Hawks were expected to be a sixth-seed type and have outperformed the likes of Brooklyn, New York and Chicago during what was supposed to be a retooling year as general manager Danny Ferry continued to get his roster house in order.
Both sides have merit, but I tend to side with the latter group because of the Hawks’ money management. Judge, let’s enter this player comparison as Exhibit A:
Josh Smith: 15.5 points, 6.9 rebounds, 40.8 percent shooting, 23.9 percent three-point shooting, 14.4 PER, 102.5 offensive rating, 105.1 defensive rating, four years and $54 million
Paul Millsap: 17.7 points, 8.3 rebounds, 46.8 percent shooting, 38.1 percent three-point shooting, 20.1 PER, 103.8 offensive rating, 102.3 defensive rating, two years and $19 million
The “Millsap over Smith” decision looked intelligent at the time and it looks genius now. Ferry got the better scorer, the better rebounder, the better shooter, the better three-point shooter, the smarter shot-taker and the more efficient overall player — and he paid 70 percent of the annual price and 35 percent of the total price to get it done. He ditched a player with historically awful shot selection for a strong All-Star candidate. In short, that decision has already paid dividends and it will continue to pay dividends next summer, and it’s worth bumping up this grade a notch from an otherwise bland “B,” even if the Hawks’ Horford-less postseason reality looks pretty hopeless.
Boston Celtics: C-minus
15-29, No. 12 in the East
There was a brief stay atop the putrid Atlantic Division and a few scattered patches of hope early in the season, but the Celtics have crash-landed to a predictably dismal resting place. The Celtics are just 1-12 since New Year’s Eve, their offense is an eyesore, their front line couldn’t keep Muggsy Bogues off the offensive glass and Keith Bogans apparently couldn’t take it any more. Yuck, yuck, yuck.
There’s only so much you can say about a team whose first-half highlight was either blowing out New York so badly in a noon game that Knicks coach Mike Woodson decided to impose a curfew for their next early tip; giving a touching tribute to former coach Doc Rivers on the JumboTron; floating the concept of an insanely complicated draft lottery wheel; or trading Jordan Crawford for a shot at a future first-round pick.
Rajon Rondo’s return — and the possibility for trade-deadline fireworks — casts a different light over the second half of the season. The worst-case scenario is that they tank their way through March and April, which also happens to be their best-case scenario. Dragging through a lost year is never an enjoyable experience, but at least first-year coach Brad Stevens has had some flashes as he makes the transition from the college game.
Brooklyn Nets: D
18-22, No. 7 in the East
An 8-1 run through January kept this from being an abject failure, but don’t think for one second that anyone has forgotten just how low things got before the new year. “Hit me.” The painful Jason Kidd/Lawrence Frank divorce. Two solid months of flat play. A $100 million roster, whose future picks are mortgaged to the hilt, dropping games to the Cavaliers, Magic, Kings, Bobcats, Pistons, you name it. The embarrassing early exit during a blowout loss to the Spurs. An unfortunate season-ending injury to franchise center Brook Lopez. Another disappointing, injury-plagued season for Deron Williams. A truly rough start to Kevin Garnett’s post-Celtics era.
It must be mentioned — particularly for veteran-laden teams with established talent — that things could always be worse in the East. Brooklyn is within 2½ games of the Atlantic Division lead and 3½ games of the No. 3 seed, and it’s almost impossible to imagine that the second half of the season will come with as much adversity as what Kidd and company have already endured. Big picture: The Heat and Pacers aren’t going to fear the Nets in the playoffs, but a division title would at least help the franchise save a little face as it plots its next (sure-to-be-exorbitantly-expensive) move.
Charlotte Bobcats: B+
19-25, No. 8 in the East
[Rubs eyes] What’s this? A bona fide overachiever in the Eastern Conference? Michael Jordan’s Bobcats have been a source of guffaws for years, but their play through the first half deserves applause. First-year coach Steve Clifford has transformed the league’s worst defense from last season into a the seventh-ranked unit — better than … wait for it … the two-time defending champion Heat! Undeterred by multiple rotation-impacting injuries, Clifford has duct-taped together a roster filled with anonymous cast-offs and kept the Bobcats in the playoff picture into January, foreign land for the franchise since the Gerald Wallace trade in 2011.
The arrival of Al Jefferson hasn’t provided much of a boost to the offense, which stills sits in the league’s bottom five, and Charlotte’s résumé of quality wins is thin. But the Bobcats have almost matched last year’s win total (21) already. Toss in the awesome Hornets rebrand and the increasing likelihood that Charlotte will have three 2014 first-round picks, and the last few months have bordered on a boom time.
Chicago Bulls: D
21-20, No. 5 in the East
Please don’t read this “D” as short for “disrespect.” The fact that coach Tom Thibodeau somehow has his injury- and trade-decimated team posting the league’s second-best defensive numbers would be truly insane, at least if everyone didn’t react to that fact by nodding and saying, “Of course he does.” Thibodeau, Joakim Noah and Jimmy Butler are treading together on an Odyssian/Herculean journey that, at best, ends with prideful anguish like last year. That’s a steep, sad drop from what was expected in October, as news of Derrick Rose’s summer rehab workouts trickled out and Chicago looked like a genuine championship contender, and perhaps Miami’s fiercest competition. That lasted all the way until Nov. 22, when Rose injured his knee on a fluky play against the Blazers and ultimately underwent season-ending surgery.
There’s just no way to spin a season in which Larry O’Brien dreams are dashed by Thanksgiving, and no organization can reasonably expect to play the “We bravely overachieved through the loss of our franchise player!” card in back-to-back seasons. Trading Luol Deng to the Cavaliers for financial relief and minor draft considerations was seemingly an acknowledgement that Bulls management understood this fact, or at least realized it was time to stop clinging to the present and recent past. A team’s fate is rarely under its own control, and the remaining Bulls, unfortunately, are bystanders to their own tragedy. The knee-injury gods bear the brunt of this “D” mark.
Cleveland Cavaliers: C-minus
15-27, No. 10 in the East
Like most red-blooded Americans, I’m a big fan of HBO’s Hard Knocks, the documentary series that goes behind the scenes with a team during NFL training camp. It’s always entertaining and enlightening, bringing formerly anonymous players (often on non-marquee teams) to a nationwide audience.
Now, let’s imagine a twisted version of this show called Media Glare, in which we transport the New York City basketball media-industrial complex to a random smaller market and turn it loose on an unsuspecting NBA franchise. Ratings gold.
My pick for the first season of Media Glare would be the Cavaliers, who entered this season with a coach they had previously fired (Mike Brown), an injury-ravaged center who openly admitted to tuning out Brown during Lakers huddles (Andrew Bynum), a shocking No. 1 pick coming off injuries and quickly entering the discussion for biggest bust ever (Anthony Bennett), a potential J.R. Smith-in-training (Dion Waiters), a “quirky” owner who is desperate to win immediately (Dan Gilbert), a promising forward who just realized he is left-handed, or wait, is he right-handed (Tristan Thompson), and a media-savvy future superstar (Kyrie Irving). Just imagine the ratings potential for that group, especially if it fell on its face to open the season.
Even without the scrutiny of Media Glare, the drama material out of Cleveland has been nonstop. Brown has had some harsh words for his team after losses. Waiters disappeared amid rumors of a locker-room fight. Bynum was suspended and then traded for Luol Deng. Bennett’s Player Efficiency Rating of 1.1 is barely greater than his draft position (1) and it’s among the very, very, very worst among qualified players. Irving’s moonshot trajectory has cooled just a touch and he’s overseeing a bottom-six offense, with some observers questioning whether he’s a bit too quick to call his own number.
The trade for Deng was a bold, timely move that promises brighter days for this team over the next three months. Whether the Cavaliers lose Deng in free agency or overpay to keep him is irrelevant to their grade here; what matters, for these purposes, is that their goal of reaching the postseason for the first time since 2010 is still within reach, as they sit just three games out of the eighth seed. Had they continued to slog along with Bynum or, worse yet, cut him outright with nothing to show for it, an “F” would have been the only recourse.