Get out your red pens, basketball fans.
With the Toilet Bowl behind us, the Portland Trail Blazers still scorching hot and atop the Western Conference, the Charlotte Bobcats playing great defense and so much more, it's time to play teacher and dole out some grades.
What has happened matters. Expectations matter. The legitimacy of what has happened matters.
But the future does not. There isn't a predictive element to these grades, as we're merely looking back on the previous action and making sense of it all.
It's a strange point in the season, as it suddenly seems like there's never been a bigger gap between the two conferences. Only four teams in the Eastern Conference have outscored their opponents on the year; only four in the West haven't.
Yep, it's going to be tough to make sense of these messy standings.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current as of Dec. 7 and come from Basketball-Reference.
The Brooklyn Nets should change their name to the Brooklyn Titanics.
This season has been that much of a disaster, and the lowlight was losing by 30 points to a reeling New York Knicks team that was embroiled in a nine-game losing streak.
So many prominent pieces have missed time—Deron Williams, Andrei Kirilenko and Paul Pierce are still out—but there just haven't been signs of an upcoming turnaround. Jason Kidd is in completely over his head, and he's managed to emerge with this brilliant list of offensive plays:
- Throw the ball to Brook Lopez and hope for the best.
- Let Joe Johnson play isolation basketball and hope for the best.
- Spill drinks and get more time to think about the first two options.
- Hope for the best.
Don't expect this season to get much better, even when the starting lineup is fully intact. Or should I say, "if the starting lineup is fully intact?"
The New York Knicks are starting to show signs of turning everything around.
They blew out the Brooklyn Nets by 30 points and then destroyed the Orlando Magic, but how much do those victories actually tell us? As Carmelo Anthony told the Associated Press via ESPN after the second win, "Whether we figured everything out in two games, that's yet to come, but we'll take these two wins."
It'll be tough to evaluate this team until Tyson Chandler is back in the lineup, after all.
One positive in a sea of negatives has been the play of Anthony.
Even though he's struggled to elevate his field-goal percentage, he's playing unselfish basketball. His teammates just aren't hitting shots with any sort of consistency, and they're passing the ball right back to him. Essentially, he's been forced to play hero ball, even if he doesn't seem to desire that style of play anymore.
That said, this was supposed to be a contending team. It's doing a great job of contending, but only if we're talking about the race for a top lottery pick in the 2014 NBA draft—one it would have to give up anyway.
The Cleveland Cavaliers have been completely incapable of scoring points at a high level during the 2013-14 season.
And it all starts with Kyrie Irving.
Last year, the Duke product became a fan favorite and was heralded as the next great point guard. But that's just not true if the early portion of this campaign is any indication.
Irving is averaging 19.7 points per game, but his assist numbers are down from an already low average in 2012-13, and he's shooting only 39.4 percent from the field. He just hasn't had that spark this season, and the inability to finish plays around the basket is really coming back to bite him.
Couple that with struggles from Dion Waiters, and the much-vaunted backcourt in Cleveland has been completely underwhelming.
So too has the entire team.
The Milwaukee Bucks are really bad at basketball.
That wasn't entirely unexpected, but the sheer incompetence of this team—admittedly one that hasn't always been healthy—is still a little shocking. The Bucks were supposed to hang around in the competition for the No. 8 seed, not fall all the way to the bottom of a historically bad conference.
No team has been worse at scoring—not in terms of points per game, but the more important offensive rating. And as for defense, that hasn't been much better. Milwaukee's defensive rating of 106.8 is also one of the worst marks in the league.
But there are a few bright spots, at least. One of those is the play of Giannis Antetokounmpo, who appears to be further along in his development than many expected thanks to some remarkable physical abilities and great instincts.
At least Trey Burke is in the lineup now.
The highly touted rookie point guard has averaged 12.0 points, 2.9 rebounds and 3.8 assists per game during his first nine professional games, but he's also shot below 40 percent while posting a 14.5 PER. It's a respectable start to his career, but it has to be better for the Utah Jazz to start winning games.
This was supposed to be a developmental season for the team, but few players are impressing.
Gordon Hayward has struggled with his shot. Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter have been solid, but neither has been particularly special during their first seasons as full-time starters. Beyond that, it just gets ugly.
With the worst margin of victory defeat in the NBA, the Jazz are leaving everyone grasping at straws when trying to come up with silver linings.
Even though Luol Deng has been playing lights-out basketball and his team scored an upset victory over the Miami Heat, the Chicago Bulls are still going to struggle to win games consistently without a certain point guard.
Since Derrick Rose went down against the Portland Trail Blazers, the Bulls have gone 2-4, adding a win over the Detroit Pistons to their aforementioned outing with the defending champions. But it's not as bad as it sounds, since two of the losses went past the fourth quarter.
How can things be viewed positively in the Windy City, though?
With Rose, this team was expected to compete for a championship. Without him, it's scrambling to stay in playoff contention despite the utter futility of the Eastern Conference.
At least DeMarcus Cousins is good.
The Sacramento Kings weren't expected to be a quality basketball team during the 2013-14 campaign, but even the most pessimistic analysts didn't see them going on a six-game losing streak to drop into the same realm as the NBA's true bottom-feeders. This team just lacks an offensive identity.
And it's not like defense is a skill either.
"Boogie" is averaging 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game, but it hasn't been enough. At least there are a few things pointing toward better play in the future.
The strength of schedule has been ridiculously tough—in fact, only the Utah Jazz have played tougher competition—and the margin of victory indicates that they're a little more competitive than their ugly record would indicate.
Although their defensive skills are keeping them alive, the Grizz have a 103.1 offensive rating, one that leaves them sitting at No. 21 in the NBA. It's tough to win games when you can't score points. And when you can't win games, it's awfully difficult to keep pace in the Western Conference.
Things should change when Gasol eventually returns, but there's no telling how quickly he'll be able to work himself back into pre-injury form. This is still Conley's show, and the lefty point guard isn't getting enough help from his teammates at this stage of the campaign.
Memphis supporters probably don't want to think about such things, but it may be time to shake up this roster a little bit.
Arron Afflalo is starting to look like an elite shooting guard.
Not only does he play underrated defense on the wing, but he's been the very embodiment of "on fire" during the early portion of the NBA season. In fact, according to my "pure shooting" metric, he's been the No. 2 shooter in the entire league so far.
Afflalo is shooting 49 percent from the field and 46 percent beyond the arc, making the 22.4 points per game he's putting up quite valuable. He has basically kept the Orlando Magic offense alive.
Well, kind of.
Even with Afflalo lighting it up, this team still has one of the worst offenses in basketball.
Maybe it'll get better when Tobias Harris can finally play?
Perhaps the Toronto Raptors need to start looking at stats again. It might scare them into playing more efficient basketball instead of taking bad shots every single night.
I can't imagine how many desks general manager Masai Ujiri has broken by pounding his head right through them.
Rudy Gay is doing a tremendous job in the Least Valuable Player race, as he's shooting way too much for a player knocking down only 38.8 percent of his attempts. He's earned minus-0.4 offensive win shares thus far.
That's right. Despite his 19.4 points per game, Gay is less valuable on offense than I am, and I haven't stepped foot on an NBA court all season.
At least DeMar DeRozan is looking good.
The 2-guard has made noticeable strides shooting the ball, and he's finally putting all the pieces together during an impressive 2013-14 campaign. Too bad he's not getting much help.
If you want to talk about positives, it's all going to revolve around Andre Drummond.
This is a guy many are pegging as the next superstar in the NBA (myself included), and that's happening for good reason. A dominant defensive force, Drummond is improving on a nightly basis, crashing the boards and showing off a developing offensive skill set with surprising frequency.
But that's where the positives end.
The teams that Detroit has beaten have a combined record of 61-110 going into Dec. 7, and that's including their surprising victory against the Miami Heat, who were playing without Dwyane Wade.
Chris Paul has come back down to Earth.
You know a point guard is good when averaging 18.7 points and a league-best 11.8 assists per game qualifies as such. CP3 can only be measured on historical levels at this point.
As for the Los Angeles Clippers as a whole, they're actually starting to look competent on defense. Doc Rivers has finally started to make an impact on the less-glamorous end of the court.
Allowing 105 points per 100 possessions, the Clippers have the No. 13 defensive rating in the NBA. They may allow a lot of points, but that's largely due to the quick pace that this team is employing every single night.
LAC is still right in the middle of the playoff pack, but it has yet to emerge as one of the true contenders in the Western Conference. Based on the preseason expectations this team produced, that's still a little bit disappointing.
The Minnesota Timberwolves can't possibly Love the way they lie in the Western Conference standings, but they have to Love the ones they're going to war with each and every night.
They've been constantly leaving other teams asking if they can feel Kevin Love tonight, as he's continued to post monstrous offensive and rebounding numbers. But the Love game isn't the only thing that's working, as Kevin Martin keeps lighting up the scoreboard night in and night out.
Unfortunately, defense is still giving Love a bad name, and it's representative of the team's struggles as a whole. The 'Wolves have excelled defensively some nights, but they've struggled on some as well, especially now that the offense isn't just scorching hot.
While Minnesota has looked all right, you'd still have to be bold as Love to call this squad even a fringe contender.
It's unknown whether or not the Boston Celtics are trying to tank.
Brad Stevens certainly is coaching his butt off, and players like Jared Sullinger are attempting to prove that they belong in prominent roles. But there's only so much talent on this roster while Rajon Rondo continues to rehab his torn ACL.
As for the front office, it's impossible to tell the thought process.
On one hand, there's no point in playing to win this season. But on the other hand, the Atlantic Division is so historically bad that the C's have still managed to emerge atop the pile.
It's a weird season in Beantown, but the current winning percentage seems unsustainable, because other teams are starting to improve and Boston's offense is just that bad.
Ty Lawson is balling right now, and the Denver Nuggets offense is following suit.
The diminutive point guard has averaged 19.3 points, 3.7 rebounds and 8.0 assists per game while shooting 44.3 percent from the field. Andre Iguodala's offseason departure figured to make Lawson even more responsible for the offense's ebbs and flows, and that's worked out quite nicely for Denver.
He looks great dominating the ball, and the depth of the supporting pieces has aided him greatly. Brian Shaw took a while to figure out his rotations, but everyone is starting to respond to his tutelage in recent weeks.
Once Danilo Gallinari returns sometime in 2014, this becomes an even more dangerous team. All the Nuggets need to do prior to the return of Gallo is keep pace in the tough Western Conference, and that's exactly what they're doing.
The Golden State Warriors are surviving.
Although they haven't ascended up the ranks of the Western Conference, they've held course while Andre Iguodala recovers from his hamstring injury, just as they did when Stephen Curry was missing time.
As long as Curry and Klay Thompson are on the court, this team can score at an elite level. But the Dubs still need both Iggy and Andrew Bogut to continue playing like a top-shelf defensive team, and that's what's needed to push them over the top.
Currently ranked No. 13 in offensive rating and No. 6 in defensive rating, the Warriors still feel like one of the better teams in basketball—but only when all of their key pieces are on the court. There just isn't enough depth for them to withstand too many more blows.
What exactly do the Miami Heat have to play for during the 2013-14 season?
It's more important that they keep everyone healthy for the inevitable Eastern Conference Finals against the Indiana Pacers, and they can live with giving up the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage. Dwyane Wade's knees are way more important than the potential trouble an away Game 7 could give them.
There's also no danger of slipping below No. 2. No one in the East is capable of winning 70 percent of their games, and that's about a worst-case scenario for Miami.
It's a strange set of circumstances, so there's no reason for anyone to panic when Miami drops one or two surprising games. They'll get up for big contests, but let-downs aren't going to be out of the question when one of the bottom-feeders comes to town.
Oh, and LeBron James is still really good.
Ryan Anderson is a big difference-maker for this team.
The stretch-4 has averaged 21.7 points and 6.2 rebounds per game while shooting a lights-out 50 percent from beyond the arc. Since he's returned to the lineup, the Pelicans have gone 6-4, and that's without Anthony Davis playing alongside him.
Good news in the bayou, huh?
The Pelicans probably didn't think that a 9-10 record heading into mid-December would leave them down near the bottom of the Western Conference—but they have to be encouraged that with all their pieces healthy, they can do so much better.
This has become one of those teams that you'd rather not face, even if it hasn't won games at an elite level.
So this John Wall guy is pretty good.
Even though the development of his jumper is still...in progress (I'm trying to be nice), the dynamic point guard is averaging 19.6 points, 4.4 rebounds, 9.2 assists and 2.3 steals per game. He's not shooting the ball particularly well, but the combination of his scoring and distributing is doing wonders for the Wizards.
That said, the Wiz need to find other sources of offense.
They're scoring fewer than 100 points per game, and that's an unacceptable total for a team with such an offensively dominant point guard. Perhaps the addition of Otto Porter will improve things, but the Wizards need Bradley Beal to start becoming the shooting guard he's supposed to become.
At least the Wizards have the benefit of playing in the Eastern Conference while they figure everything out.
The Atlanta Hawks are one of only three teams in the Eastern Conference with a record over .500. Seriously, that's it.
While they've emerged as the class of the second tier in the East, that's not exactly anything to write home about. Even if Atlanta does earn the No. 3 seed, it's still just setting itself up for the inevitable slaughter at the hands of either the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat.
But with that said, there's plenty of reason to be positive here.
Kyle Korver has now made three-pointers in 90 consecutive games after breaking Dana Barros' team record with a first-quarter triple against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap all look like potential All-Stars some nights, and there's enough roster flexibility to swing a deal for an upgrade on the wing.
Atlanta continues to play aesthetically pleasing basketball, but there's only so much that can be said for treading water.
The Houston Rockets have been incredibly up and down throughout the season, even losing to the Utah Jazz, but they seemed to put it all together against the Golden State Warriors.
And with D12 looking like vintage D12, the perimeter defense was able to step up, free from worry about what was happening behind them. It's exactly what Daryl Morey's vision must have been heading into the season.
But is it sustainable? And how will things change when Jeremy Lin and Omer Asik return to the lineup?
There are still plenty of questions, and it'll be tough to call this an elite team until it consistently plays defense at a high level.
Predictably, the Dallas Mavericks have struggled on defense. But they've been able to make up for the porosity on the less-glamorous end with some high-powered scoring efforts.
Dirk Nowitzki is not declining. Let's go ahead and make that clear right now.
He's averaging 20.9 points, 5.9 rebounds and 2.5 assists per game while shooting 48.7 percent from the field, 40.3 percent beyond the arc and a scorching 92.9 percent at the charity stripe. Thanks to the slashing abilities of Monta Ellis, Dirk has consistently made defenses pay for leaving him with any room at all.
As long as the German 7-footer keeps firing away and scoring at these remarkably high levels, Dallas isn't a team to be taken lightly.
Did anyone expect the Los Angeles Lakers to be above .500 when Kobe Bryant returned to the lineup?
Thanks to a 10-9 record leading into the Mamba's debut against the Toronto Raptors, that's exactly what's happening. It's an impressive development for the Purple and Gold, who have seen Mike D'Antoni squeeze as much performance as possible out of a rather lackluster roster.
When Kobe is back on the court, everything changes.
The Lakers will finally have a go-to scorer, even if they have to slow down the pace a little bit to keep Kobe fresh throughout the rest of the season. It remains to be seen how much of an impact he can have, but he's surely going to be an upgrade over some of the role players the Lakers have been throwing out on a regular basis.
Something tells me most members of Laker Nation like where their team currently sits.
Don't look now, but the Oklahoma City Thunder are suddenly starting to look like one of the best teams in basketball again. They've won nine of their past 10 games, and the only loss came at the hands of the smoking-hot Portland Trail Blazers.
And Kevin Durant isn't even playing like Kevin Durant yet.
Although he's leading the league in points per game, Durant is shooting "only" 46.4 percent from the field, 36.6 percent beyond the arc and 88.1 percent at the stripe. On top of that, Russell Westbrook is still hovering right at 40 percent from the field, basketball's version of the Mendoza Line.
What happens when the two superstars really start clicking?
They haven't yet, but they will. And even while they aren't, the results have still been quite positive.
Michael Carter-Williams and the Philadelphia 76ers have finally fallen back to more expected levels.
They're still on the verge of making the playoffs thanks to the utter ineptitude of the Eastern Conference, but a record well below .500 is much more in line of what was expected.
Still, this season has been filled with nothing but positive developments for Philadelphia.
- Evan Turner looks like an above-average starter, and he could be used as trade bait later in the season.
- The same applies to Thaddeus Young.
- MCW is way better than expected and still looks like a lock for Rookie of the Year.
- Everyone on the roster has flashed potential at varying levels throughout the year. There are actually building blocks already in place.
- Brett Brown is a coaching stud.
This season was supposed to be used for evaluation purposes, and it still is—except now the Sixers also look like they'll get a better pick out of it despite the positives.
The Charlotte Bobcats' defensive turnaround has been nothing short of ridiculous.
Last year, Basketball-Reference shows that the team allowed 111.5 points per 100 possessions, the worst mark in the NBA. This season, they've given up only 99.7 points per 100 possessions, a number beaten out by only the Indiana Pacers and San Antonio Spurs.
It remains to be seen how this will continue while Michael Kidd-Gilchrist recovers from his broken hand, but the pieces are in place for the 'Cats to continue employing some suffocating defense. Now, if only they could score.
Kemba Walker's shot hasn't been falling with much frequency, and there isn't an inordinate amount of offensive talent on the roster. If a few players can emerge as go-to options, though, Charlotte is stingy enough to emerge as a playoff team in the NBA's weaker conference.
At what point can we start to accept that the Phoenix Suns are actually a good basketball team?
They're scoring 107.2 points per 100 possessions. That's good for the No. 8 spot in the NBA.
They're allowing 105.4 points per 100 possessions. That's good for the No. 15 spot in the NBA.
How many other teams can say that they're in the top half of the league on both sides of the ball? To save you from having to look this up for yourself, I'll answer my own rhetorical question: only eight.
- Miami Heat
- Houston Rockets
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Minnesota Timberwolves
- San Antonio Spurs
- Oklahoma City Thunder
- Golden State Warriors
- Atlanta Hawks
That's a group I'd certainly want to be a part of.
The Indiana Pacers may not be the best team in basketball, even though they have the best record in the Eastern Conference. Eventually, the defense might start letting up a bit as the Pacers fall off their historic pace.
But up to this point in the season, yikes.
Everything has clicked, and a suffocating (yes, the extra emphasis is necessary) defense has been able to carry a middling offense to a 17-2 record. No one else in the Association can match that exemplary mark, and the Pacers are on pace to win the most games in NBA history.
There's nothing to dislike here.
The Portland Trail Blazers play some of the most entertaining basketball in the NBA, exploiting any weakness an opposing defense shows and then locking down the perimeter on the other end. Their personnel is perfectly suited to an amorphous style of play.
LaMarcus Aldridge can take over a game with his mid-range shooting. Damian Lillard can hit from the outside and keep defenses honest with his skill driving into the teeth of a defense. Wesley Matthews is on fire from the perimeter. Nicolas Batum can do it all.
This is a well-constructed roster that's built to compete now and continue doing so years into the future. Sports Illustrated's Ben Golliver and Rob Mahoney are both buying into the Blazers are contenders to win the West this season, and they aren't alone.
All the pieces are coming together, the chemistry is just through the roof, and there's an infusion of talent waiting to be deployed whenever C.J. McCollum is healthy enough to make his professional debut.
So far, the Blazers have answered every question that's been asked of them. Despite an uptick in the difficulty of their schedule, they're still winning games at a better rate than any other team in the Western Conference.
Do the San Antonio Spurs ever miss a beat?
They're one of the few franchises in the NBA that could justify being disappointed by a 15-3 start to the season because they aren't the No. 1 team in the Western Conference. So long as Gregg Popovich is on the sidelines, there's absolutely no reason to doubt this squad.
But what's terrifying for the rest of the NBA is that San Antonio is doing all this without a vintage Tim Duncan. He's been struggling more than he has in a long time, and a turnaround would make the Spurs the unquestioned favorites in the West.
Assuming they aren't exactly that already.