With Christmas Day games behind us (and, thankfully, the Christmas Day jerseys), enough of the 2013-14 season has come to pass that we can legitimately start drawing conclusions about the identities of the 30 teams making up the NBA.
We can start pinpointing the contenders and the pretenders, even with a number of teams dealing with injuries to prominent players. But before doing any of that, we have to look back first.
How have the teams fared thus far? Have they met, exceeded or failed to live up to the expectations that accompanied them heading into the latest campaign?
It's always important to remember that expectations matter when playing teacher and handing out some grades. Not all records are created equal, as a .500 mark looks far different from a surprisingly good team than it does from a team struggling to put all the talented pieces together.
Now, let's get out those red pens.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current as of Dec. 27 and come from Basketball-Reference.
The New York Knicks are a complete mess.
They're really good at one thing: finding new ways to lose.
If you ask them to do anything that's positive on the basketball court, though, that's when the problems start flowing. This is a team that has trouble scoring because no one's shot is working at the moment, and it's not like the Knicks play enough (read: any) defense to make up for their off shooting nights.
Then again, is it an off night when it's every night?
Something has to change for Carmelo Anthony and co., but the word has come down from on high that there will be no changes made via firings or player movement. So that change needs to be made internally, and there's no guarantee J.R. Smith or any of the other struggling players can turn their seasons around.
It's not a good time to be a fan of New York basketball. Unless you have a mean sense of humor. That's really all that can be said for this team, the only one that deserves a letter grade not even the worst student can hope to achieve.
The Brooklyn Nets actually won a game!
We should all pat them on the back and offer our congratulations, as the victory ended a four-game losing streak that coincided with losing Brook Lopez for the season. Except...the game was against the Milwaukee Bucks, so the win loses a lot of its luster.
This is still a deeply flawed team, even with Deron Williams back in the lineup and playing well.
For example, Jason Kidd is emerging as a lame-duck coach, and Yahoo! Sports' Adrian Wojnarowski wasn't too impressed with the rookie head man during a recent article:
If Kidd wants an early exit with the $10 million left on his contract, he's following the proper blueprint: Blame the players, alienate everyone and, above all, keep losing. All those years ago, his final act to bail on the Nets was feigning a headache, sitting out a game against the Knicks and accelerating a trade to the Dallas Mavericks. Kidd wanted out of the losing, and he quit on the franchise.
Only now, Kidd can't complain there's no talent with the Nets. Only now, there's nowhere else for him to run in the NBA, nowhere else to go. Only now, it's Jason Kidd on the clock.
This picture shouldn't even exist.
The very fact that it does is a true testament to the struggles the Chicago Bulls have been forced to endure during the 2013-14 season. It's no wonder Tom Thibodeau sounds like he's gone to hell and back when he speaks to the media after a game.
Derrick Rose is lost for the season after a torn meniscus ruined his comeback campaign. Kirk Hinrich has missed time. Marquis Teague just isn't very good.
Chicago actually had to reach into the free-agent pool and sign D.J. Augustin, then immediately hand him significant playing time. While the point guard hasn't been terrible, what does it say that I'm even writing about him at this stage of the season.
Though it's no fault of their own, the Bulls have suffered enough injuries that even making the playoffs in the weak Eastern Conference should prove challenging during the 2014 portion of this season.
This was supposed to be a playoff season for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
With a 10-18 record during the first two months of the 2013-14 season, they are an awfully long way away from meeting that goal, even though the Eastern Conference is set up to let sub-.500 teams sneak into the most important stage of an NBA season.
On top of that, they're lucky to have 10 wins.
Being outscored by six points per game thus far, the Cavs boast a margin of victory defeat better than only the Philadelphia 76ers and Milwaukee Bucks in the East. According to Basketball-Reference, they have just eight Pythagorean wins (which account for points scored and allowed).
Kyrie Irving is starting to play better after a slow start to his third professional season, but that's about where the positives end.
In fact, only five members of the roster have a PER that's above the league-average mark of 15: Irving (19.6), Tristan Thompson (15.1), Andrew Bynum (15.4), Anderson Varejao (16.3) and Tyler Zeller (16.5).
That's not a good look.
The Memphis Grizzlies are now allowed to hit the panic button.
Marc Gasol's absence from the lineup gives them a convenient excuse for their futility, but it's not like this team was winning games at a solid clip before the reigning Defensive Player of the Year went down. This team doesn't have enough talent to compete, and that's not going to change when Gasol returns.
Yes, the Grizz will improve. No, they won't improve enough to move into the playoff picture.
Zach Randolph has been the player keeping the Grizzlies respectable, and he's averaged 20.4 points and 13.4 rebounds per game over his last five outings. Unfortunately, he's done that while shooting 40.2 percent from the field, so his offensive value is slightly negated.
Memphis should have acquiesced and made a few big moves during the offseason. Now it's just too late to salvage this season.
The Milwaukee Bucks, like the Philadelphia 76ers, are doing a wonderful job tanking.
With a 6-23 record, they're easily the worst team in basketball, and the points they're scoring and allowing support that claim. According to Basketball-Reference, Milwaukee is dead last in offensive rating and checks in at No. 20 in defensive rating.
Last I checked, that's not a combination conducive to winning basketball games.
But that's not problematic, as the Bucks benefit from being awful and maximizing the value of their first-round draft pick. What's bad is that unlike the Sixers, they haven't had any young players emerge as studs.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is ahead of schedule, Khris Middleton looks like a rotation player and John Henson has shown flashes of greatness, but that's about it. There's no star power in Milwaukee, and that means the rebuilding process is going to be a lengthy one.
There really hasn't been a more enigmatic team in the NBA than the Sacramento Kings ever since Rudy Gay entered the picture.
Gay deservedly earned a terrible reputation while he was playing with the Toronto Raptors, but he's been much better ever since changing locations. Going into his 11-of-19 outing against the Miami Heat, the small forward was averaging 17.7 points, 3.9 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game on 45.8 percent shooting while wearing his new purple threads.
But the Kings weren't winning games.
Sacramento still has a 3-5 record since Gay's arrival, and that's not how this is supposed to be going. The team has lost to a bunch to Eastern Conference squads, then it used a spirited second-half comeback to force overtime and beat the Heat.
It doesn't make sense. Hopefully things become clearer in the future, though I don't suspect that will happen anytime soon with so many mercurial pieces on the Kings roster.
Kevin Love is ridiculously good at putting up monstrous numbers, but the Minnesota Timberwolves just can't seem to get a winning streak going.
Since starting the season 5-2, the 'Wolves haven't been able to put together back-to-back wins even once.
Does that sound like a playoff team? More importantly, does that sound like a playoff team in the remarkably difficult Western Conference?
Despite Love's brilliance, Minnesota just can't get over the hump. A lack of valuable depth and the decrepit jumper Ricky Rubio uses on occasion hold this squad back in a big way, and Love isn't able to do anything about it.
That's not a knock on Love, as I don't believe that his numbers are "empty." No power forward in the NBA could step into his shoes and carry this team to the postseason unless his teammates improved dramatically.
Unfortunately, that's not how it'll play out among fans and the media if Love misses the postseason again. And that might be all the impetus necessary to ending the Minnesota portion of his young career.
Let's just say that December was not a good month for the Orlando Magic.
With two games left—one against the Atlanta Hawks and one against the Golden State Warriors—the Magic are 3-10 during the final month of the year, and their only wins came against the Chicago Bulls, Charlotte Bobcats and Detroit Pistons.
Basically, this team is becoming the bottom-feeder it should've been all year.
There are bright spots, like the play of Nikola Vucevic and the continuing development of Victor Oladipo, but general manager Rob Hennigan's squad appears to be a little bit behind schedule. Arron Afflalo is the closest thing to a star on the roster, and he doesn't seem to have a long-term future in Orlando.
Given all the young talent the Magic lay claim to, this season has been disappointing.
The Utah Jazz have been competent since Trey Burke joined the squad.
I know, I know. That's hard to believe, but it's actually true.
Since the Michigan product debuted, the Jazz are 7-12. Without him, they've gone 1-11. And it gets better still, as Utah boasts a 7-10 record since Burke moved into the starting lineup.
Although the young point guard has struggled with his shot, he's still making a positive impact simply because he makes things easier for everyone else. Burke demands defensive attention through his confidence and ability to penetrate off the dribble, and those components are only going to improve as he continues to mature.
Alec Burks also deserves some credit for his play of late, as he's been performing quite well. During December, the shooting guard has averaged 14.8 points, 3.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists per game while shooting 49.7 percent from the field and 44 percent beyond the arc.
The young talent in Salt Lake City is finally starting to show up.
The Denver Nuggets are starting to regress to the mean after a scorching set of games in late November that had them shooting up the standings.
While this is a talented and deep team, Brian Shaw wasn't going to keep gleaning meaningful minutes out of virtually everyone on the roster for an entire season. That was inevitable.
But what's a bit troubling is the edge Denver has lost at home. After dropping only three games in the Pepsi Center throughout the entire 2012-13 season, the Nuggets have already lost six contests at home this year—literally this year, as they haven't even gotten to the 2014 portion of the season.
If Denver is going to make the postseason, it's going to be as one of the bottom seeds in the Western Conference. So the Nuggets need to maximize every advantage they have, and that means milking home-court advantage in the Mile High City for all its worth.
Also, can someone help Ty Lawson out on offense?
See how the Detroit Pistons are all lining up to give Josh Smith some credit?
It's time we do the same.
Smoove takes a lot of flak for his boneheaded decision-making and insistence on firing away with long jumpers and three-point attempts, but he's actually been playing—gasp!—smart basketball recently for his new team.
During the six games prior to his Dec. 26 brickfest against the Orlando Magic, Smith was averaging 23.8 points, 6.3 rebounds, 2.8 assists, 2.0 steals and 1.7 blocks per contest while shooting 49.2 percent from the field. But then he regressed against Orlando, shooting 2-of-13 from the field, in what Pistons fans hope doesn't again become a trend.
Here's the problem, though.
Even when Smith was playing better during that six-game stretch (and he's been awful for much of the year), the Pistons could only muster a 3-3 record. This team still isn't jelling.
Maybe that's a word Blake Griffin thinks can describe the Golden State Warriors, but I can think of a few other descriptors that work:
That's just naming a few.
The Dubs might get mixed up in it, but only when the Los Angeles Clippers instigate. This is a good team that isn't going to get caught up in such extracurricular affairs too often, at least not when playing teams that don't make up the other half of a burgeoning rivalry.
If you just look at Golden State's 18-13 record, it's easy to think that the Warriors have been massively underwhelming thus far. But that's a short-sighted analysis, as it overlooks the fact that there's been a constant stream of injuries plaguing this team.
At full strength, the Warriors can hang with every team in the league, especially when Andre Iguodala develops more chemistry and feels comfortable asserting himself on a more consistent basis. It'll happen.
The Boston Celtics are holding steady while waiting for Rajon Rondo to come back from his ACL injury and attempt to do what no other prominent star has done while returning from a major malady in 2013: stay healthy.
In his absence, the C's have learned a few important lessons.
First, Jeff Green is a solid player, but he's not ready to function as a No. 1 offensive option. He's best suited as an above-average role player, as evidenced by his struggles to shoot the ball efficiently and lack of impact in areas that don't involve the scoring column.
Secondly, this roster is better than originally thought.
Under Brad Stevens' tutelage, everyone has looked at least serviceable, and Jared Sullinger has emerged as a potential star. Averaging 14.1 points and 7.1 rebounds per game, the Ohio State product has looked awfully good during his second professional season.
As the Dallas Mavericks settle into their new identity, they're becoming less of a team built around extremes.
The defense is no longer horribly porous, though it still isn't particularly good. The offense can be stopped on some nights, but it's still giving Dallas one of the better point-producing machines in the NBA.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Mavericks rank No. 8 in offensive rating and No. 22 in defensive rating. Still a potent combination, though not as extreme on the two ends as they were earlier in the season.
And really, that's to be expected.
Monta Ellis has fallen back to Earth a bit after his scorching start to the year, though he's still been quite impressive while displaying his new, improved mentality. The combination of he and Dirk Nowitzki is tough to stop, but there's actually a scouting report out on the duo now that they're going through teams for the second and third times.
On the flip side, the defensive chemistry is starting to become more established, which is mitigating some of the offensive decline.
Basically, the Mavericks are becoming exactly who we thought they were: a middling Western Conference team that could make the playoffs if things break right.
How do you not love the heart that the Los Angeles Lakers are playing with?
This is a roster that's nearly devoid of talent, and yet they're still managing to win some games and remain competitive in most of their losses. Hell, they're even fun to watch. Brimming over with chemistry and heart, the Lakers are maximizing their talent and attempting to stay close enough to the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference that Kobe Bryant's eventual return can push them over the top.
Will it happen?
Almost definitely not, but the effort is commendable.
Especially when Jordan Farmar was still out (his value is off the charts right now) and the Lakers were playing without a point guard, they had less talent than teams like the Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. The difference was, they still cared.
Effort does count for something.
The New Orleans Pelicans are creeping back into the playoff picture now that everyone is healthy.
Anthony Davis continues to put up impressive numbers, but Tyreke Evans is starting to turn his game up a few notches and justify the money and players that NOLA spent on him during the offseason. Against the Denver Nuggets, he almost recorded a triple-double, putting up 19 points, seven rebounds, 10 assists and two steals in the victory.
With all their pieces in place, this is a formidable team.
Not many squads boast as much offensive talent, and that will be quite clear when Evans, Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday and Eric Gordon all get it going at the same time.
That will happen at some point. It hasn't yet, but it will.
Since Rudy Gay was traded to the Sacramento Kings, the Toronto Raptors have gone 5-3, proving once and for all that the oft-shooting small forward did more harm than good during his brief tenure north of the border.
Despite his reputation, Gay was just too inefficient to have a positive impact in Toronto, and he prevented Jonas Valanciunas from truly blossoming.
The Lithuanian big man has been solid since Gay's departure, averaging 12.1 points and 8.5 rebounds per contest while shooting 53.9 percent from the field, but this team still belongs to DeMar DeRozan.
Over that same stretch, the athletic 2-guard has posted 20.3 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, though his efficiency isn't very impressive. Possibly because his three-point stroke has completely deserted him, DeRozan is making only 39.9 percent of his shots from the field.
This still isn't a very good team, but it's clearly a playoff squad at the moment, especially in the weak Eastern Conference.
Why "at the moment"?
Masai Ujiri. That's why.
The Washington Wizards may have avoided a major blow.
Bradley Beal went down in a heap against the Minnesota Timberwolves and needed to be carried off the court with an apparent knee injury, but he later revealed that the X-rays were negative. And he made the Wizards' hearts skip a collective beat too, as he told The Washington Post's Michael Lee, "The X-ray was pretty positive—it was negative, my bad. It was negative."
Troll move, Brad. Troll move.
As long as Beal is healthy, the Wizards have enough support for John Wall. Not that he's needed it lately, as the young point guard just continues to get better and better as he develops during his latest go-round in the nation's capitol.
Wall has asserted himself as a truly elite point guard in 2013-14, justifying the max deal he signed in the offseason.
This is a playoffs-or-bust season for Washington, which benefits rather significantly from playing in a certain conference. So far, so good on that front, even if the Wizards are far from establishing themselves as a legitimately strong squad.
Don't ask me how, but James Harden probably drew a whistle from this position.
With a 27-point outing against the Memphis Grizzlies, one that featured two made shots from the field and 25 free-throw attempts, Harden prompted Zach Randolph to complain with a quote captured by NBA.com's Matt Miller:
It's obvious. It was the refs tonight. Eight against five. In the second half, a man [was] shooting free throws every time. We're out there playing hard, and they're dictating the game...It was a horrible game they reffed tonight.
It's an emotion that has been felt by both the Houston Rockets and their opponents throughout a see-saw of a season. Some nights, the Rockets look completely dominant. Others they look like they have no idea what they're doing.
While it's clear that this is a deadly, championship-worthy team when/if everything is put together, that just hasn't happened yet. At least, it hasn't happened on a consistent basis.
Chris Paul is just ridiculously good at this whole point guard thing.
Even though it wasn't enough for his team to get the victory either night, CP3 put all of his skills on display against the Golden State Warriors on Christmas Day and then again versus the Portland Trail Blazers. During those two games, he averaged 30 points, 2.5 rebounds, 13.5 assists and four steals per game while shooting a combined 25-of-49 from the field.
Simply put, there's no other floor general on his level.
Behind CP3, the Clippers have slowly crept back into the thick of things near the top of the Western Conference standings. But it's not just him, as Doc Rivers finally has this defense functioning at a high level.
Don't look now, but this is a team that's starting to become one of the best offensive and defensive teams in basketball.
Once the schedule eases up, a lengthy winning streak will inevitably put the Clippers back in striking distance of the top spot.
The Miami Heat have the luxury of going through the 2013-14 season without any worries.
As two-time defending champions with a roster that's arguably even stronger than that of the last two NBA champions, they can pick and choose which matchups they get up for. They can play the Indiana Pacers tough one night, then fail to show up against the Los Angeles Lakers and lose to the Sacramento Kings.
While it's always disappointing to see a team this good drop games, it's going to happen. And it won't faze Miami, because everyone on that roster knows exactly how good the Heat can get when hitting that proverbial next gear.
LeBron James is allowing himself to consciously chase after a season in which he shoots 60 percent from the field (at least it seems that way), Dwyane Wade is taking games off to rest his knees and the defense doesn't swarm as often some games.
But despite the up-and-down nature of Miami's focus, the reigning MVP and the rest of his crew sits pretty in the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference, only 1.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers. They may not be meeting everyone's ridiculously lofty expectations, but it's not like they're having a bad season.
The Atlanta Hawks have been rolling along, holding steady at No. 3 in the Eastern Conference and rejoicing after beating the Cleveland Cavaliers in an intense, double-overtime battle. But the rejoicing was rather short-lived.
As reported on Twitter by The Atlanta Journal-Constitution's Chris Vivlamore, Al Horford suffered a complete tear of his right pectoral—a shoulder muscle he'd injured before—during that victory against Cleveland. Such a crucial piece for the Hawks, Horford will be sorely missed, even if Atlanta still has enough talent to maintain a playoff spot in the East.
That's mostly thanks to Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, both of whom have emerged as legitimate All-Star candidates.
Teague had one of the finest games of his career, while embroiled in a tough one-on-one matchup with Kyrie Irving, dropping in 34 points and 14 assists on only 24 attempts from the field. Those included the game-tying shot to send the contest to double overtime and the eventual game-winning buzzer-beater.
The Hawks were for real, but the past tense is necessary now that Horford has been knocked out indefinitely.
Are the San Antonio Spurs ever going to throw out a team that isn't competitive?
Even when Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Tim Duncan all take the night off against the Miami Heat, the Spurs hang tough. That's a true testament to Gregg Popovich's greatness and the system that he's built during his tenure in San Antonio.
While the Spurs haven't asserted themselves as a truly dominant unit in the Western Conference, they're right up near the top of the standings. And that's without Duncan playing like, well, Duncan.
There's no reason to doubt San Antonio. Ever. Doing so is the cardinal sin of NBA fandom, as the Spurs will make you regret that you ever lost faith.
But that surety that the Spurs will get going doesn't help them earn top marks through the first two months of the season. Given the perennially lofty expectations, a 23-7 record simply can't earn the prized "A+."
Plus, it would help if San Antonio could actually beat a contending team.
Even in a year with plenty of tremendous candidates (Portland's Terry Stotts, Phoenix's Jeff Hornacek and Indiana's Frank Vogel), if Steve Clifford doesn't win Coach of the Year, then he better at least come in second.
The rookie head coach has been a huge difference-maker for the Charlotte Bobcats, and it's all started on the defensive end of the court.
Clifford has everyone buying into his system, one that resembles what Tom Thibodeau has run to such success for the Chicago Bulls. Packing the paint and eschewing complicated rotations and switches, the Bobcats preach fundamentals and transition defense above all else.
And it works.
According to Basketball-Reference, only the Indiana Pacers have held opponents to fewer points per 100 possessions. That, in a nutshell, explains why this team has been able to comfortably hold down a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.
Michael Jordan's organization is building something special, and it's time for everyone to recognize that.
The Philadelphia 76ers' season is going perfectly, despite what their record would indicate. And yes, it's a record that leaves them falling toward the very bottom of the putrid Eastern Conference, which they'll inevitably reach by the end of the season.
While maintaining great positioning in the Andrew Wiggins Jabari Parker sweepstakes, the Sixers have discovered that they have a great deal more talent than previously expected. Remember, this is a team that Brett Brown wasn't exactly sold on before the start of the season, and he's made them respectable when a certain player is on the court.
That player would be Michael Carter-Williams, and he's the real reason Philly earns a good grade thus far. Successfully tanking all the while, the Sixers have gone a respectable 7-10 when the rookie point guard is in the lineup.
He's shattered the expectations, leading Philadelphia to realistically believe that it could be working with not one, not two but three young stars in 2014-15 when Nerlens Noel is expected to be healthy and another top pick is added to the mix.
The Phoenix Suns aren't just going to go away.
Jeff Hornacek has done a masterful job maximizing the talent on this roster, and it seems as though everyone in the desert is playing the best basketball of their career. Eric Bledsoe is climbing up the ranks of point guards, as is Goran Dragic, and guys like P.J. Tucker and Channing Frye are having great seasons.
Per Basketball-Reference, the Suns boast the No. 6 offense in the NBA, and they're No. 17 in defense. That's a combination that points toward the playoffs, which is exactly where the Suns would be if the season ended when the calendars flip over to 2014.
Basketball-Reference also uses what it calls simple rating system, a rating that accounts for margin of victory and strength of schedule. Thus far, the Suns are checking in at No. 9—not in the Western Conference, but in the entire NBA.
Again, that points toward the postseason. Everything does.
The Indiana Pacers aren't just going to go away either.
If anything, they're getting stronger now that Danny Granger has been added back into the mix so that he can help provide a little more depth on the wing behind Paul George. And, of course, PG continues to be absolutely sensational on both ends of the court.
Behind George's efforts—and a little help from guys like Roy Hibbert and David West—the Pacers don't just have the best defense in the league. They have a historically great unit that's leaving everyone else in the dust.
Going into the Dec. 27 action, here's how the top five teams in defensive rating panned out, per Basketball-Reference:
- Indiana Pacers, 95.8
- Charlotte Bobcats, 100.6
- Chicago Bulls, 100.7
- San Antonio Spurs, 100.7
- Oklahoma City Thunder, 100.8
That's not just a gap between No. 1 and No. 2, but rather a chasm.
The Oklahoma City Thunder are going to miss that guy in the picture.
Russell Westbrook, who has been knocked out of action until the All-Star break thanks to scope surgery, according to The Oklahoman's Darnell Mayberry, was one of two players who the Thunder couldn't afford to lose.
Obviously, the other is Kevin Durant, the high-scoring forward who will now see his efficiency plunge without the protection that Westbrook affords him.
Scott Brooks proved at the beginning of the 2013-14 campaign that he couldn't adjust to life without the All-Star point guard, and now he'll have a chance to redeem himself.
That said, this grade isn't based on what will happen, but rather what has already come to pass. And that's a lot of domination for the Thunder, who are hanging with the Portland Trail Blazers in the race for the No. 1 seed. Thanks to a suffocating defense and two offensive studs, OKC had emerged as one of the heavy title favorites.
Of course, that was before the injury.
There's a legitimate MVP candidate for the Portland Trail Blazers, and his name is LaMarcus Aldridge.
While spearheading an assault that has left Rip City atop the Western Conference with a 24-5 record, Aldridge has played absolutely sensational basketball. On the season, he's averaging 23.4 points, 11.0 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, and he's playing enough defense that Terry Stotts can build the system around his efforts (along with Robin Lopez's).
Additionally, Aldridge is shooting 47.3 percent from the field and 79.6 percent at the charity stripe, solid numbers for a player who carries an offense and thrives from mid-range.
Damian Lillard gets a lot of attention—deservedly slow—but this has become Aldridge's team. And that's clearly a good thing.
The Blazers are for real, and it's time we start treating them like a legitimate championship contender.
After all, they are.