Mid-January Grades for Every NBA Team
Every NBA team has played enough of the 2012-13 season that it's now possible to give them legitimate grades for their performances thus far.
Going into the latest edition of the Association, some squads were expected to make the playoffs rather easily, while others were supposed to at least fight for a playoff spot. Some teams were expected lottery locks, while others were true title contenders.
Well, those expectations might be hard to remember now, but they're going to serve as the benchmarks used for determining these grades.
With dozens of games under the belt of each squad, the expectations have shifted. We now have a clearer picture of the NBA's landscape. The pretenders have emerged, if you will.
So, how does your team fare on this report card?
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current through Jan. 15.
Although it's becoming increasingly clear that the Atlanta Hawks were beneficiaries of a relatively easy start to the 2012-13 season, we still can't discredit this organization for the gaudy win-loss record it managed to accumulate.
The Hawks might be slumping now, but they're still hanging around right in the middle of the playoff picture. For a team that was usually either expected to compete for a bottom-level playoff seed or stay at home watching the postseason from the couch, that's not too shabby.
Al Horford has continued to be steady and spectacular, even during the team's recent hemorrhaging. Once his teammates remember how to score points with anything resembling consistency, Atlanta will resume its pursuit of a top-four seed.
If the NBA season ended in the middle of January, the Boston Celtics would own the No. 7 seed in the Eastern Conference, setting them up for a potential seven-game showdown with the New York Knicks.
That's a playoff matchup that wouldn't have surprised too many people before the 2012-13 season was underway. However, they probably would have expected for the seeds to be reversed.
Everything is starting to click for the C's, and it's by no means too late for them to ascend up the standings rather dramatically. Avery Bradley is back, and the bench is finally starting to look like the powerful second unit that it was assembled to become.
However, I can't overlook the disappointing start to the season, one that's depressed Boston's win-loss total to its barely-above-.500 state. This team was supposed to be one of the conference's powers while providing the Miami Heat with a massive threat to their supremacy.
How they got there wasn't pretty, but the Brooklyn Nets have become one of the most dangerous teams in the Eastern Conference. They're living up to the preseason hype.
Avery Johnson is gone, having been replaced by P.J. Carlesimo partway through the season after he choked away a few too many games. Deron Williams might not even qualify as an elite point guard anymore, and the big floor general hasn't looked like the Utah Jazz version of himself.
However, despite the negatives, the Nets are rolling.
Brook Lopez isn't getting much hype for Most Improved Player—and by "isn't getting much" I mean "isn't getting any"—but he's improved across the board, becoming so much more than just a dynamic offensive threat.
Does it even seem possible that the Charlotte Bobcats were once sitting pretty at 7-5? At that early stage of the 2012-13 campaign, Kemba Walker had sparked one of the most surprising runs in all of basketball, needing only 12 games to match the 2011-12 win total.
Since then, Charlotte has gone 2-26. I don't need to describe the futility for you, because the record simply speaks for itself.
Not everything should be depressing for this downtrodden franchise, though.
Kemba and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist have both impressed. The former is quickly becoming one of the better point guards in the league, while the latter has displayed flashes of immense potential and an ability to affect the game in nearly every way possible.
Still, 9-31 is pretty awful.
Just for the sake of argument, let's say that the Chicago Bulls were hovering right around .500 and staying in the playoff picture in the Eastern Conference. If that was actually the case, we'd be singing the praises of Tom Thibodeau and his players for their ability to stay afloat while waiting for the return of Derrick Rose.
Well, Joakim Noah wasn't content with that.
Led by the versatile center with the vastly improved offensive game, the Bulls have remained within shouting distance of the top spot in the conference. And Rose hasn't even put on his uniform yet.
In my book, that qualifies this early portion of the season as a massive success.
Injuries have been a little bit too pesky for the Cleveland Cavaliers. Whether it's Kyrie Irving or Anderson Varejao, one of the stars has usually been in street clothes as the cellar-dweller struggles to win games.
Even with Irving quickly asserting himself as a superstar and potentially a historically great point guard, losing has become the all-too-familiar narrative for Cleveland. With the NBA's second-worst record, there just aren't too many good things to talk about.
Tristan Thompson and Dion Waiters have looked good in limited spurts, but both are too young and raw to consistently make a positive impact for the Cavs.
For a team that was expected to improve quite a bit, things haven't exactly gone swimmingly.
The Dallas Mavericks are a little hotter now that Dirk Nowitzki is getting back in the swing of things.
Even with the German seven-footer in the lineup, though, this team doesn't have what it takes to play more than 82 games during the 2012-13 season. The squad is just a little bit too top heavy.
Thanks to the hot shooting of O.J. Mayo, Dallas remained competitive while its star big man recovered from the first surgery of his career—but it's quickly becoming clear that the early success was unsustainable. Shooting 55 percent from downtown was too good to be true.
The Mavs are a handful of games outside of the playoff picture in the middle of January, and that's probably not going to change all that much, even with Dirk suiting up again.
In what can only be good news for the statistically inclined out there, the Denver Nuggets are finally starting to ascend to their rightful place among the elite teams in the Western Conference.
A brutally difficult schedule to start the season—one rife with games away from the friendly confines of the Pepsi Center—gave the illusion that the Nuggets weren't as good as advertised. Of course, the poor starts by seemingly every important player on the roster helped propagate that myth.
As Ty Lawson, Andre Iguodala and especially Danilo Gallinari have started to heat up, the Nuggets have started to win more and more games.
This is still the deep, talented team that we thought it'd be during the preseason prognostications. The record, when looked at in a vacuum, just doesn't provide the strongest testimony to that.
Even though the veterans are playing well for the Detroit Pistons, it's time for the brass to make a few phone calls and fully turn this team over to the young studs.
Greg Monroe should be the unquestioned leader of this squad as he continues to grow as an all-around big man and impress most people who take the time to watch him. Andre Drummond has been impressive as well, although he still plays an inexplicably small number of minutes.
Detroit has been picking up its game lately and is now just about in line with the preseason expectations. No one realistically thought that the Pistons would be around for the postseason, and I still doubt you'll find any sane analyst who would call them a top-eight team in the Eastern Conference.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors aren't just around. They're going to stay around.
Led by Stephen Curry and David Lee, the Dubs have been one of the league's most pleasant surprises, utilizing an effective combination of potent offense and defensive improvements to assert themselves as a contender in the Western Conference.
Both of the aforementioned players almost have to be considered fringe MVP contenders for the work they've done, but they've by no means been the only quality contributors to Mark Jackson's team. Players like Carl Landry, Jarrett Jack, Draymond Green and more have all been crucial cogs in Golden State's system.
Even though they've struggled a bit of late, the Warriors are here to stay.
Even the Houston Rockets have to be a little surprised at how well they're playing during the 2012-13 season.
Daryl Morey knew what he was doing when he traded for James Harden, but he surely didn't expect for the bearded shooting guard to become one of the 10 best players in the Association. And I'm not just talking about the shooting guards in the league.
Led by Harden, a defensive ace in Omer Asik and a slowly-but-surely improving Jeremy Lin, the Rockets have made it quite clear that they'd like to hang around after the regular season comes to a close. With their depth and developing chemistry, that's more than just wishful thinking.
If the Indiana Pacers played fantasy sports, they'd go with the stars-and-scrubs strategy.
I'm not referring to a roster breakdown that includes a top-heavy starting lineup and replacement-level talent on the bench, because that's not how these Pacers are composed. Instead, I mean that Indiana has decided against playing offense in favor of playing suffocating defense at all times.
Breakout swingman Paul George and the rest of the Pacers are on the verge of becoming a statistically unique team. Per Basketball-Reference, Indiana is first in defensive rating (by a rather large margin) and 29th in offensive rating.
We have yet to find out whether they'll prove or disprove the old adage that defense wins championships, but so far, defense has certainly made the Pacers into a strong contender for a top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Los Angeles Clippers
Led by Chris Paul and an improved version of Blake Griffin, the Los Angeles Clippers have asserted themselves as one of the best teams in the NBA through the middle of January. While the Oklahoma City Thunder might take offense to this, there's a solid chance that the Clippers are the best in the league.
The beauty of this team is two-fold.
CP3 and Blake provide a certain element of star power, but the bench is just as important. The Clippers' second unit has been one of the Association's best five-man squads even when including starting fives. And that's without Grant Hill and Chauncey Billups in the rotation.
At worst, the Clippers will be the second-to-last team to reach 10 losses. If the Thunder suddenly slump, though, they could still be the last.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Los Angeles Lakers went into the season with dreams of hanging up yet another banner in the rafters of the Staples Center. Surely, they thought, a team with Steve Nash, Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard could win a title.
Well, it's the middle of January now, and the Lakers should be more focused on just making it to the playoffs.
Injuries, coaching changes, a lack of defense and more has kept their record well below .500. And the reality is that the on-paper lineup was inaccurate.
The Lakers don't have Nash, Kobe, Pau and Dwight. They have I'm-learning-a-new-system-for-the-first-time-in-a-while Nash, I-don't-play-off-ball-defense-anymore Kobe, my-confidence-is-completely-shattered Pau and I-don't-have-a-back Howard.
That doesn't look so good anymore, does it?
Very early on, the Memphis Grizzlies were the cream of the crop in the NBA. With the best record and a bevy of star-caliber players, they were in the top three of just about everybody's power rankings.
Marc Gasol and the Grizz have cooled off since then, but there's still no doubt that this is an elite squad. Gasol is making a case for Defensive Player of the Year and anchoring a fundamentally sound defense filled with great point-preventers.
Even if the Grizzlies don't make a move and hold onto Gasol, Rudy Gay, Zach Randolph and Mike Conley, this is a team that can wear down anyone in the playoffs. Unless its lack of potency playing small ball is exploited, Memphis could very well win a championship.
Of course, that was kind of expected going into the year.
The Miami Heat have struggled lately, which has led to all sorts of doomsday predictions. Remember, for the Miami Heat, "doomsday" is the equivalent of not winning back-to-back titles.
During the cold stretch, Miami has seen its lack of size exposed by constant deficits in the rebounding categories. The Heat have had issues remaining consistent. The defense is not where it should be.
By the sound of it, the Heat might as well be completely porous, at least given how many holes the critics have poked into them.
Miami still boasts the services of the best basketball player out there, though. LeBron James is enjoying yet another fantastic campaign and has the Heat perched at the very top of the Eastern Conference standings. They might not have the type of lead that you'd expect, but it's not like these struggles have resulted in anything less than positioning for a No. 1 seed.
The Milwaukee Bucks are currently poised to take home the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
That's in large part due to the defensive force that is Larry Sanders. It will be an absolute travesty if the league's leading shot-blocker isn't squarely in the conversation for Most Improved Player when the 2012-13 campaign draws to a close.
He's been more than just a swat master on the defensive end of the court: Sanders plays great on- and off-ball defense and doesn't always fall for the emphatic-block trap. Instead of rejecting the ball into the stands, he often manages to corral his own rebound and rarely allows the opposing team to both collect an offensive board and put it back in.
Between his improvement and the dynamic duo of Brandon Jennings and Monta Ellis in the backcourt, this team has every-so-slightly overachieved through mid-January.
It's tough to assign a grade to the Minnesota Timberwolves, because we haven't seen what they're fully capable of.
Ricky Rubio missed the early stretch while recovering from his torn ACL, and Kevin Love has been in and out of the lineup with his broken/re-broken hand. Even when Love was briefly healthy, he still wasn't the otherworldly power forward we've become so familiar with, as he struggled to find his shooting touch.
Despite that pesky little injury imp, the Wolves aren't too far out of the playoff picture. You can credit the versatile play of Andrei Kirilenko and the physical brute that is Nikola Pekovic for that, among others.
If you'd told Minnesota fans that they'd be just a couple of games back from the much-sought-after eighth seed despite all of these setbacks before the season started, they'd probably be content.
New Orleans Hornets
Now that Eric Gordon is back, the New Orleans Hornets suddenly seem like a decent basketball team. I know that's hard to believe, given some of the early returns during the 2012-13 season.
In fact, the reported future Pelicans have even been inspired by their star shooting guard, taking down the Boston Celtics emphatically while Gordon received a little bit of rest. It's the latest positive note in a season that's starting to finally have a few of them.
New Orleans still sits in the Western Conference cellar, but there's some hope, thanks to Gordon and the inspired play of Anthony Davis when he's healthy and on the court.
New York Knicks
Even though the New York Knicks are cooling down after their red-hot start to the season, the 2012-13 campaign has been nothing other than an unmitigated success.
Carmelo Anthony's increased skills and effort in the facilitating and defensive departments have coupled with his incredible scoring abilities to make him a bona fide MVP candidate through mid-January. The small forward masquerading as a power forward has been simply sensational ever since he first stepped onto the court.
By letting 'Melo do his thing and surrounding him with turnover-averse three-point shooters, the Knicks have found a recipe for success.
This cooling period has left me hesitant to call them true title contenders, but they're certainly in the mix.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Oklahoma City Thunder are who we think they are, even if a certain shooting guard with a follicular forest is now balling for another team. Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook are still there, so the Thunder are still elite.
No team has surged out to a better record than the Thunder, whether we're discussing the Western Conference or the NBA as a whole. Through thick and thin, this team has remained at or near the top.
Durant, as scary as this may be, has gotten even better. Now more of an all-around threat, Durant is on pace to become a member of the ultra-exclusive 50/40/90 club, thanks to the simultaneous improvement in his offensive game.
Between that, the jump in play of Serge Ibaka and the much-improved passing skills of Westbrook, the Thunder are poised to have a serious shot at repeating out West.
The new-look Orlando Magic have been one of the more impressive teams in the NBA, even if their record is anything but sparkling.
It's all about putting things in the proper perspective.
When the Magic shipped off Dwight Howard and received Arron Afflalo as the gem of the return haul, not much was expected from this team. It seems like a sure thing that Orlando would be extremely competitive in the hunt for the 2013 draft's No. 1 pick.
Instead, the Magic have played their hearts out and shocked the rest of the Association. Before their 10-game losing streak, they were actually just a single game below .500. The string of close losses has all but ended any hopes of a postseason berth, but it's clear that the Magic have still exceeded expectations.
The Philadelphia 76ers haven't been the Eastern Conference power that we though they would be. Even without Andrew Bynum, the Sixers were supposed to be a near lock for a playoff spot.
Well, so much for that.
Despite the All-Star-level contributions from a vastly improved Jrue Holiday, the Sixers haven't been able to overcome an extreme lack of ability in the paint. Bynum's presence is clearly missed on both ends of the court.
There's still a lot of time for things to turn around, but the 2012-13 season has been a disappointing one thus far for Philly.
The Phoenix Suns may not have won many of the first 40 games of the 2012-13 season, but at least they've figured out a few things.
First, Michael Beasley is not the answer. His offensive game was absolutely detrimental to the overall efforts.
Second, Goran Dragic is the answer. The talented point guard has enjoyed his return to the desert and has been a strong leader for this team, proving once and for all that he's quite deserving of a starting spot in this league.
The Suns will improve as the season progresses—their lack of chemistry to start the season almost necessitates some sort of progress—but they won't even resemble anything but a lottery squad when the 82-game schedule draws to a close.
Portland Trail Blazers
I was one of the believers in the Portland Trail Blazers going into the 2012-13 season, but I didn't expect them to be quite this good. Given their weak bench, surely the Blazers couldn't remain in postseason contention this far into the season.
Well, so much for that thought.
Even though the bench has been worse than expected, the starters in Portland have been simply sensational. LaMarcus Aldridge is playing like one of the best power forwards in basketball, Wesley Matthews is hitting shots, Nicolas Batum is making across-the-board contributions, J.J. Hickson has been a nice, big sparkplug down low, and Damian Lillard is a bona fide stud.
For a team that isn't very deep, being a game out of the postseason-eligible portion of the standings is by no means a bad place to be in mid-January.
Dysfunction has reigned supreme for the Sacramento Kings.
Unfortunately for the team, that's resulted in fewer wins than the overall level of talent would dictate. A rotation that features DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Thompson, Tyreke Evans, Marcus Thornton, Isaiah Thomas and a suddenly competent Jimmer Fredette should actually be finding some sort of success.
But as any college student knows, chemistry matters.
Sacramento has heated up in 2013, and that's still led them to just 13th place in the Western Conference.
That said, these are the Kings. It's not like we were expecting too much more.
San Antonio Spurs
No one should be surprised that the San Antonio Spurs are perilously close to finding themselves at the top of the Western Conference standings.
Gregg Popovich is still pacing the sidelines. Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili are still playing at a high level on the court. Why should we expect anything different?
Duncan and Parker are having particularly impressive seasons. Duncan seems to be blackmailing Father Time, while Parker is enjoying one of the best campaigns of his already spectacular career. Those two, along with the deep roster and incredible system, have resulted in yet another sparkling win-loss record.
Again, why should we expect anything different?
The Toronto Raptors have been a little bit worse than expected during the 2012-13 season. After the acquisition of Kyle Lowry, they were supposed to at least hang around in postseason contention.
However, that hasn't really happened. DeMar DeRozan didn't take that next step, and Andrea Bargnani was just about as bad as he could have possibly been while healthy. That, coupled with Kyle Lowry's prolonged absence from the lineup after his MVP-level start to the season, didn't result in much early success.
But hey, not everything is down in Toronto.
Terrence Ross' dunks are certainly something to shout about, and Jose Calderon is developing into a more valuable trade chip by the minute.
The Utah Jazz have had no trouble turning the depth of their roster into early success. If the season ended in the middle of January, Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Co. would have helped give the Jazz the No. 7 seed in the Western Conference.
Unless the looming trading deadline forces the Jazz to blow up this roster, the team has some serious staying power.
All of the starters are solid, and the backups have the potential to break out at any moment. Derrick Favors, Enes Kanter, Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks, DeMarre Carroll and others all seem like they're just waiting for extra minutes to strut their stuff.
The Jazz don't have much of a chance to take down a more powerful team in a seven-game series, but they're going to at least pose a little bit of a threat.
John Wall's return to the Washington Wizards has been successful so far, as the team welcomed him back with a win over the slumping Atlanta Hawks, another victory against the Orlando Magic and then a close loss to the Sacramento Kings.
It's clear that the dynamic point guard's presence in the lineup is going to open up a lot of doors for this team, but it remains to be seen how far it will take them.
But between Wall and reigning Rookie of the Month Bradley Beal, things are finally starting to look a little better for the Wizards.
They're still one of the worst teams in the NBA and need some serious talent infusions, but at least there are a few reasons for optimism. If you're a Washington fan, this is where you should stop reading. That way, you won't have to remember that your team has the worst record in the league and is about to receive a very poor grade.