The NBA season is now 25 percent over. Some teams are in midseason form. Some are still trying to gel. And some have already made it clear they never will.
What happens in November and early December in the Association isn't always meaningful, but there is much we can learn about how each team has played so far. The rankings will change, and so will some personnel, but the foundation of each team's season has already been set.
Here, we grade how how well every team in the NBA has performed one-fourth of the way through the regular season.
Danny Ferry is a genius. After being hired as the Atlanta Hawks GM this summer, he cleaned house, getting rid of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in an attempt to remold this team into one that may be able to get out of the second round of the playoffs in the near future.
So far, it is going swimmingly as the Hawks have knocked off the Memphis Grizzlies, Oklahoma City Thunder and Los Angeles Clippers on their way to the sixth-best record in the league.
Al Horford is back from an injury that cut his last season short and he is performing great. He has anchored the post and the glass. The 19-point, 14-rebound outing he had during Saturday's win over Memphis was emblematic of how he and Jeff Teague have helped lead the team all year.
Down six at the half, Teague realized their mentality had to change: "We just came in (at halftime), and it was like: 'Forget it. Let’s play Hawks basketball and get after it.' And it helped."
Hawks basketball. In recent seasons, that term has not always been a compliment.
But they have, so far this season, remade their identity and look poised to be the under-the-radar team in the East that no team will want to face in the playoffs.
The Boston Celtics chose to make one more run at the title after they overachieved last postseason. Rather than let the Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce era fade into the sunset, they reloaded by signing Jason Terry, Jeff Green and Courtney Lee.
Thus far, the return on investment is nonexistent.
All of the new additions have below-average PERs, while team captain Pierce may be playing the worst basketball of his career. He hasn't shot this poorly since he was sharing a starting lineup with Mark Blount and Jiri Welsch, and he has been embarrassing himself on defense.
The team has had enough raw talent to slog through, and a marquee win over the Oklahoma City Thunder shows that the Celtics will always be able to win any game, but their mediocre play and no-longer-threatening defense have made their season so far a major disappointment.
Where Brooklyn at? Fourth place in the Eastern Conference currently.
Whether that is good or bad depends on your preseason expectations. Regardless, things certainly looked better a few weeks ago when the Brooklyn Nets were beating the Los Angeles Clippers, Boston Celtics and New York Knicks. Now, they have coughed up four straight games and are poised to clash with their new rival, New York, twice in the next 10 days.
We will have a much better feel for how good this team can be once those games are over, but as far as the first quarter of the season goes, the team has at least avoided any worst-case scenarios and generally looked like it could be the second- or third-best team in the conference.
The defense has been league-average. That, actually, is a coup, as many expected disastrous results. If that can continue, the talent on the other end should be enough to make a second-round matchup between the two teams from NYC a reality. Based upon what we have seen so far, one should finish the regular season second in the East while the other takes third.
Right now, based upon Brooklyn's play early this season, I would slot it as the team that would have home-court advantage in that series.
The Charlotte Bobcats have already won as many games this season as they did all of last year.
What more do you really need to know about how they're playing?
While Kemba Walker, Ben Gordon and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist deserve much credit for their high-level play—and energy—night in and night out, coach Mike Dunlap has been the biggest difference. The environment of accountability and the enthusiasm for fundamentals he has instilled cannot be overstated.
The roster still lacks some talent and certainly the poise that can only be achieved through veteran leadership, but it's hard to see how this team could have started the season any better.
With no Derrick Rose, it's fair to say that the Chicago Bulls are outperforming expectations. It has taken Luol Deng and Joakim Noah playing the first- and second-most minutes per game respectively in the NBA this season, but the team is sitting atop the Central Division and would be a No. 4 seed if the playoffs started today.
Noah has played fantastic basketball, putting up a silly line of 13.7 points, 10.8 rebounds, 4.2 assists, 2.3 blocks and 1.4 steals per game. Deng has been great as well. Even Carlos Boozer and Rip Hamilton have been performing well.
The problem, as evidenced by all the minutes needed from the starters, is depth.
Taj Gibson, fresh off a payday this summer, has played his typical excellent defense by and large. But the team hasn't gotten much from him offensively, as he has scored in double-digits just four times this season. Surprisingly, Nate Robinson has been highly effective, being featured in many of Chicago's best offensive lineups.
A bench spark on offense is nice, but the key, of course, is the other end.
Tom Thibodeau's teams always excel on the defensive end, and this year they have been the league's second-stingiest team. If they can continue to stay healthy while milking so many minutes from the top players, the Bulls may just be in a better position than expected when Rose returns.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are difficult to watch. The promise of Kyrie Irving and the uncertainty surrounding their supporting cast of young players meant that even if good basketball wasn't the norm, the team would spend this season learning who it can build around.
Instead, Irving got injured, and the only thing we've learned is that Anderson Varejao is really, really good. Tristan Thompson has also played well, showing a more nuanced understanding on the offensive end and a surprising improvement on defense. His numbers don't impress, but certain games have shown his value.
Dion Waiters, on the other hand, has played very badly. He takes up a ton of possessions for a guy shooting 36.3 percent and has displayed little to make us think he will have subtler, non-shot-making-based positive effects on an NBA offense any time soon.
The losses have piled up, the defense has been a sieve and the team can't score. Between that and little evidence that anything will improve in the near term, the first quarter of the season was a disaster in Cavs-ville.
A Varejao All-Star berth is likely the only silver lining for fans in Ohio.
The Dallas Mavericks are a sad lot. They have crawled to a .500 record (10-10), but they have aesthetically been hard to watch at times.
Fortunately, they have been steady from three-point range, led by O.J. Mayo's insane 52.3 percent shooting from deep, but the offense has generally looked scattered and inconsistent. There is a reason the team felt the need to sign Derek Fisher—and it wasn't so that it could get him one more ring.
With the general mediocrity seen from similarly performing teams, like the Houston Rockets and Denver Nuggets, the Mavs may still have time to turn this into a fun, throwaway season before the real reload goes down next summer. But so far, this duct-taped-together, veteran-laden roster of players that weren't highly sought-after is looking like just that.
It is tough to grade the Denver Nuggets' season so far since they have been so streaky. Here is how they started the year: two losses, four wins, three losses, four wins, three losses.
Additionally, while every team plays 41 games at home and 41 games on the road, the Nuggets have had to play 15 of their first 21 games on the road.
Still, just under .500 is a backslide from last year, and the addition of Andre Iguodala was supposed to make a fast team playing a mile above sea level even more dangerous. That has yet to happen.
The confounding underperformance of Ty Lawson has been a microcosm for this decline. Historically one of the more efficient point guards in the NBA, he is shooting a career low and has been especially unreliable in marquee games. In games against the Miami Heat, Memphis Grizzlies and Los Angeles Lakers, he didn't show up—scoring zero points, nine points and nine points in each game, respectively.
Danilo Gallinari's inability to make shots has highlighted another problem: three-point shooting. Only four teams have been less accurate than the 32.7 percent rate Denver has hit from behind the arc.
The frontcourt players have been much better, and the team's success has been largely dependent on its league-high (by far) 53.9 points in the paint per game. (The Los Angeles Clippers are second at 46.9.)
This provides a good foundation of success, but the long-range futility likely can't continue if this team wants to turn its paint-heavy attack into something that is more difficult to defend.
Greg Monroe. Andre Drummond. Kyle Singler. Who knew there would be so many young players killing it in Detroit?
The team at large struggled to get wins early, but these three guys, along with Brandon Knight at times, have given fans a reason to watch every night.
Monroe and Drummond have both put up great numbers, leading the team in rebound rate and posting PERs of 18.0 and 20.6, respectively. Singler, for his part, is looking like the steal of the draft. Starting 14 games so far, he has 11 double-digit-scoring games on the season. Knight, too, has had his moments, particularly a great final quarter against the Toronto Raptors.
The Detroit Pistons didn't have much hope of making the playoffs this season. Their play in the first quarter of the season probably hasn't changed that. But they have now gone 7-7 after losing their first eight games to start the year.
That, along with a high-performing young core, means that the next 20 games should include even more improvement. It's a nice trend reversal for a franchise that has spent years spinning its wheels.
Golden State has yet to get any meaningful contribution from the only player on its roster to ever make an All-NBA team (Andrew Bogut), but it has nevertheless outpaced all expectations. The Dubs have won six of their past seven en route to the fifth-best record in their conference and can claim victories over the Los Angeles Clippers, Atlanta Hawks and the Brooklyn Nets (twice).
There isn't a more dangerous pair of backcourt shooters in the league than Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, who have combined to hit 58 of their last 124 three-pointers (46.8 percent) over their past nine games.
Turnovers remain a concern for the team that averages more per game than all but four teams, but the fast-playing Warriors start three perimeter players who are 24 or younger, so the mistakes are par for the course—and the benefits of having three dynamic scorers have far outweighed the downside.
When James Harden started the year scoring 37 and 45 points in his first two games, the jubilation coming out of Houston made it seem like it expected to win the title. Reality soon kicked in, however, and the team has been playing middling basketball since.
The Houston Rockets play the fastest-paced game in the league, and they can score. But so can their opponents, who have thus far posted a 51.0 percent eFG%.
Still, things are looking up.
Harden has struggled at times with his shot selection, but he has fully proven that he can be the lead player on a very good team. Chandler Parsons and Patrick Patterson have been fantastic. Omer Asik has shown why he was worth his contract for his defense alone—the 11.5 rebounds per night are almost just a bonus.
The biggest step now is getting Jeremy Lin to make some shots.
No other guards on the roster have been reliable, so they are going to need Lin to improve on his 38.1 percent shooting if they hope to make the playoffs.
The Indiana Pacers finished the 2011-12 season with the league's fifth-best record. By re-signing Roy Hibbert and George Hill in the offseason, they expected to play similarly this season. Preseason news that Danny Granger would be out for several months curbed some enthusiasm, but the team figured it had plenty of players to step up.
As they say, man plans and God laughs.
The Pacers looked like an abomination to start the year, losing six of their first nine, including defeats at the hands of teams like the Toronto Raptors, Charlotte Bobcats and Milwaukee Bucks. Even the wins were ugly (a buzzer-beating win over the Raptors, a double-overtime victory over the Sacramento Kings, and a narrow defeat of the Washington Wizards).
The team's offense has never looked good, and even as the record has improved, the scoring output really has not. Some recent victories (over the Dallas Mavericks, New Orleans Hornets and Portland Trail Blazers) have shown that there is hope for the future, and David West's consistently brilliant play all season gives the team something to lean on.
There has not, however, been any point in this season when the Pacers looked like a team capable of living up to the high standards it set last season. Unless Hibbert and the bench learn how to score and Granger comes back with a vengeance, it is hard to see this team securing home-court advantage in the playoffs—something that the team considered a near certainty six weeks ago.
Things were actually looking spotty for the Los Angeles Clippers not so long ago. Amid a rough stretch of schedule, they struggled to get wins, losing to the Oklahoma City Thunder, Brooklyn Nets and Atlanta Hawks in consecutive games.
Those are all good teams, but when they followed up that three-game losing streak with a loss to the New Orleans Hornets—in Los Angeles, no less—there was genuine cause for concern.
Still, the Clips have enough quality wins (over the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Lakers, Atlanta Hawks and San Antonio Spurs twice) that there is no need to panic—especially since they have now won six straight after hitting a rough patch.
Chris Paul has been just as good as he was last year. Blake Griffin hasn't, but he is looking to now be shedding an early-season slump.
Moreover, the team is 14-6 and currently has the NBA's sixth-best offense and eighth-best defense. A few losses against good teams can't erase what is otherwise a very strong resume thus far for the team that has played the third-toughest schedule in the league.
It is impossible to call this Lakers season anything but a failure. Circus also comes to mind.
Ultimately, the team is certain to improve. Mike D'Antoni is still new in his seat at the helm, Steve Nash has played just two games and Pau Gasol has been unable to contribute anything presumably—at least in part—due to tendinitis in both knees.
Somewhat ironically, the key question many had coming into the season—whether or not Kobe Bryant would force too many shots—has been the least of anyone's concerns, as Bryant is currently playing the best ball he has in recent memory. That, however, is just about the only thing the team, the fifth-worst in the Western Conference, has going for it right now.
Finally healthy for the first time in three years, Memphis has become the class of the league. With some of the teams that have played well so far, you know the run of success is a facade. Not the Grizzlies.
This team has all the parts necessary to make a run at the title. No team in the league, outside of perhaps the Los Angeles Lakers, has an interior foundation that can combat the Marc Gasol/Zach Randolph combination. Combined with the offensive leadership of Mike Conley and the dynamic scoring of Rudy Gay, this is a deep, dangerous team that can beat anyone in the West in a seven-game series.
Just look at the teams they have already beat: the Miami Heat, Oklahoma City Thunder, New York Knicks, Los Angeles Lakers, Golden State Warriors and Utah Jazz. In all, they have played the league's fifth-toughest schedule yet still managed its third-best record.
The Miami Heat are coasting. In the Eastern Conference, that is still apparently good enough for second place. As long as you're wearing the rings anyway.
Two blowout losses to the New York Knicks are reason for some concern. The squad from MSG seems to be the only true contender that will threaten Miami's dominance over the conference, especially since its biggest strength (making three-pointers) dovetails with the Heat's biggest vulnerability (allowing teams to make threes).
LeBron James has continued his otherworldly play from last postseason. It may have begun to seem like old hat, but his talents remain the most remarkable thing this league has to offer.
This, in turn, has transformed Miami's open shooters into lethal weapons. Ray Allen (49.3 percent), Rashard Lewis (48.5), Shane Battier (46.8), James Jones (44.4), James (43.9), and Mike Miller (41.0) have all been three-point marksmen, with the team as a whole shooting 41.8 percent, good for first in the league.
The struggles of Dwyane Wade, who looks old and/or hurt, could become another problem area. The defense, too, is not living up to its billing as arguably the league's best. Far from it, in fact, at 22nd in the league. But presuming this improves, along with the team's effort, the results we have seen thus far should continue—even if the team waits until after the All-Star break to get serious.
The first quarter of the Milwaukee Bucks' season has to be divided into two parts: a surprisingly strong start followed by three weeks on the skids. The team remains above .500 at 10-9, but the record should be better for a team that won six of its first eight games.
Instead, the Bucks have dropped seven of their past 11.
A lot of the problem has come from a drop-off in the play of the team's starting backcourt, Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis, who have shot just 39.5 percent—while hoisting 253 shots—in these last seven losses. For Jennings, who was stellar in the early games, the fall-off has shot a hole in the sails of hope that he was finally putting it all together.
Ersan Ilyasova, meanwhile, has been a train wreck. His performance has improved of late, but especially considering the amount of money he was paid this offseason, he has arguably been the most disappointing player in the entire league this season. Eight points and five rebounds on the season from a guy making $9 million.
Quality wins over the Brooklyn Nets and Boston Celtics of late give reason to think the team can get back on track, but the early-season sheen has been replaced by the reality that this is a middling team. At best.
With injuries to Ricky Rubio, Kevin Love, Brandon Roy, Nikola Pekovic and Chase Budinger, it is hard to believe that the Minnesota Timberwolves have fought to .500. Credit coach Rick Adelman first.
Also, Andrei Kirilenko has played wonderfully in his return to the NBA after a year spent winning the Euroleague MVP for CSKA Moscow.
All this and Love is yet to play up to his standards. With Rubio slated to return as soon as his conditioning is up to snuff, big things may await—a challenge Ricky looks forward to:
The pressure followed me when I came here and they said, "Oh Ricky’s coming after two years, he’s going to bring everything to this team." It’s just hard, but it’s something that I’m used to. I like the pressure, I like the challenge. The more difficult the challenge, the better it is for me.
So far, the Wolves are like the kid in class who doesn't even read the book but still does well on the test. As the season moves forward and the expectations raise from .500 to securing a No. 5 or 6 seed, their performance will have to increase in turn.
It is nearly pointless to judge this team so far. Anthony Davis has played just six games, while Eric Gordon hasn't even suited up. Ryan Anderson has been tearing the net off the rim with his jump-shooting, but these aren't the real New Orleans Hornets.
That said, the fact that NOLA has even five wins is somewhat impressive. First of all, it has played the league's hardest schedule. Second, Roger Mason, Jr. has started nine games. Lastly, Austin Rivers is shooting 31.1 percent.
Nobody on the team right now, other than Anderson, can be relied on to score. Thus, we will give the Hornets an extension before handing out a grade.
No team has played better compared to its preseason expectations than the New York Knicks. They have the second-best scoring offense in the league and a veteran roster that seems to have transformed the culture.
Carmelo Anthony has ramped up everything good about his game and cut out everything that detracts, punishing defenders by riding his dribble all the way to the hoop and willingly swinging the ball when he lacks an advantage.
More surprisingly, J.R. Smith has followed that lead. He and Steve Novak have become a dynamic duo, an odd couple who have gotten as much joy from passing to the next shooter as they do from popping a three themselves. The ball movement has been so effective that Jason Kidd, Raymond Felton, Anthony and Novak are all shooting above 40 percent from behind the arc.
With just five losses, the Knicks are the East's best team. Anyone who thought that would be the case before the season is either a liar or Spike Lee.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have thus far played as you might expect the team with two of the world's 10 best basketball players to perform: excellently.
There was a deflated feeling early in the year, as the fallout from the James Harden trade was felt immediately, and the team lost two of its first three games. A later loss to the mighty Memphis Grizzlies and the mediocre Boston Celtics added further fuel to that argument.
But the record and the stats speak for themselves, proving that the Thunder remain one of three or four elite teams in the NBA. They have the league's best offense and its third-best defense in terms of forcing an opponent to miss shots.
Kevin Durant is only getting better and is currently second in the league in scoring on a career-high 50.6 shooting percentage. Russell Westbrook has become the most explosive guard in the league, and with Derrick Rose injured, it really isn't close.
With eight straight wins, including impressive performances against the Brooklyn Nets, Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, there may be no team in the league playing better right now.
If there was one team I could chose not to watch again this season, it would be the Orlando Magic. They are among the league leaders in mid-range jumpers taken per game despite the fact that they make just 36.9 percent of them, which pegs them as the 22nd-most accurate shooters from that zone. No team that shoots worse has shot as many as the 572 mid-range shots they have put up through 20 games.
Glen Davis, who leads the team in possession usage, has predictably been a primary offender, and the result has been the third-worst offense in the NBA. It's really, really hard to watch.
One saving grace is their most recent road trip. They won three out of five on a West Coast swing. That isn't easy to do, but I doubt it's a harbinger of a major season turnaround to come.
If you're grading on expectations, this season has not gone well for the Philadelphia 76ers. If you're grading on the performance of Jrue Holiday, everything has been grand.
The team is looking smart for extending the contract of its point guard early in the year, as he is playing better than ever while leading the team in scoring and assists and ranking second in shooting percentage. Unfortunately, this hasn't been enough to get Philly any marquee wins other than a victory over the Boston Celtics on Friday.
The team's frontcourt has badly missed Andrew Bynum. Spencer Hawes and Lavoy Allen have been adequate underneath the hoop, and the undersized Thaddeus Young has played excellently (shooting 52.2 percent), but the lack of productive big men has turned the Sixers into the fourth-worst team in the NBA in terms of points in the paint per game and 17th in terms of second-chance points.
The most misguided franchise in the league is playing like it. The roster the front office has assembled is not built to win in the future—or now.
The Phoenix Suns have been the definition of unimpressive, doing nothing well on the court. The defense has been particularly bad, allowing opponents to shoot 47.5 percent (good for third-worst in the NBA). Even when they have forced a miss, they have been ineffective rebounders (only five teams have given up more offensive boards, as a percentage of misses).
They have scored better, posting a league-average offense that plays quickly enough to make some runs. But since they struggle to make jump shots, they are too reliant on getting buckets at the rim.
Marcin Gortat has shown his value, but he—and to a lesser extent, Jermaine O'Neal—has been the only player who can consistently score at the rim. The result is a team that has been too heavily skewed toward taking jumpers that all too often have clanged off the iron.
Goran Dragic, Gortat and Luis Scola have all been individually effective at times. But neither on offense nor on defense have they found a way to fit all the pieces together.
What's the deal with LaMarcus Aldridge? He is posting a career-worst 45.1 shooting percentage and 6.3 percent offensive rebound rate. The effort to score in the paint just isn't there, and he is settling for way too many long jump shots.
Perhaps it is the low expectations for the team coming into the season, but whatever the cause, it has helped sink the team to the fourth-worst record in the West.
It's a shame, too, because rookie point guard Damian Lillard has been one of the league's best bright spots. Though he has cooled off lately after a tremendous start, the Portland Trail Blazers have definitely found their floor general of the future.
Lillard has hit his shots, gotten to the basket and assisted on more than 30 percent of the buckets scored while he is on the floor. He has been the biggest revelation in a season where nothing else has impressed—especially the bench, which doesn't have a single player who has earned a PER above 15.
The Sacramento Kings haven't done anything particularly well this season. Other than foul people. They have done that better than anyone in the league.
Their 7-12 record has them near the bottom of the league, as only four teams have fewer wins. That naturally speaks for itself, but it was to be expected.
What wasn't expected, however, was DeMarcus Cousins spending another year not reaching his potential. Cousins has been OK, but he isn't shooting well, and he was forced to serve a high-profile suspension after having an altercation with San Antonio Spurs announcer Sean Elliott.
Fortunately, the team may be improving.
They have won three straight with convincing wins over the Portland Trail Blazers, Orlando Magic and Toronto Raptors. Throw in wins over the Golden State Warriors and the Los Angeles Lakers, and perhaps this team can improve yet.
The San Antonio Spurs have the best record in the NBA. What else is new?
At this point, excellence from Gregg Popovich's team is so expected that this just seems par for the course, but this year's team has been extra encouraging since it has blended its high-octane offense with a resurgent defense. Last season, it mainly outscored opponents. Now, it is winning some games with a staunch defense and has become less reliant on making a ton of three-pointers.
Some of this is due to the improved mobility Tim Duncan has displayed. He is blocking more shots than he has since 2007 and is scoring at his most efficient rate since then as well.
The player who was the Robin to his Batman back then, Manu Ginobili, has produced like a shell of his former self, and injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Stephen Jackson have also hurt the rotation. But in many ways, that makes the early success even more impressive, as players including Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter have stepped up to keep the wins coming.
The most unfortunate part about the heartbreaking basketball the Toronto Raptors have played so far this season is the deleterious effects it will likely have on Canadian's perception of the sport. With the NHL locked out, way too many people may be tuning in to watch the Raps lose several games every week.
At 4-17, there have been plenty of chances.
Several of the losses have come during close games, so that could mean they are playing better than it seems and just unable to finish down the stretch. But they also have the third-worst scoring differential at minus-6.95 points per game.
DeMar DeRozan has been a bright spot, and rookie center Jonas Valanciunas looks to be figuring out how to succeed in this league. However, there has been little else to herald on a team that can't stop anyone from scoring.
The Utah Jazz offense can score, rebound and get to the line. It has been a potent force all season, led by a frontcourt full of capable, productive players.
Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors have all had their moments to shine, compiling 12, seven and two double-doubles on the season, respectively. Injuries have become a concern of late, but it hasn't prevented the Jazz from winning their last three games.
It also hasn't curtailed Gordon Hayward from having playing well even with an increased role in the offense. His shot has been erratic, but he is playing with a confidence that has helped spark some clutch performances, especially his fourth quarter against the Sacramento Kings.
With the frontcourt remaining reliable, and Hayward, Mo Williams and even players like Jamaal Tinsley providing the occasional spark, it's no wonder the Jazz are outperforming expectations after 22 games.
If you thought the 2011-12 Bobcats were as bad as it gets, the Washington Wizards have been doing their best to change your mind. With John Wall, this team seemed like it would struggle to win 20 games.
Without Wall? Yeeesh.
Their current .118 winning percentage pace extrapolates to a 10-win season. Perhaps coincidentally, three of the team's starters are shooting below 37 percent. This is historical ineptitude.
In positive news, both of their wins have made headlines: the first since it didn't come until their 13th game of the year, and the second because it was over the Miami Heat. Everybody, naturally, likes to laugh at the champs.
Unfortunately, the rest of the few wins they get this season will just come quietly in the night, with nobody paying them any more attention.