Let's all stop and rejoice for the players who are still healthy.
LeBron James hasn't bowed out of the lineup for the Miami Heat. The Oklahoma City Thunder lost Russell Westbrook, but Kevin Durant is playing out of his mind right now. Paul George and the Indiana Pacers are still healthy.
So too are the San Antonio Spurs, though I'm not even sure it would matter if there were a boatload of major injuries. Gregg Popovich could probably coach me, my mother, my dog, Chris Smith and Kawhi Leonard into the postseason.
And no, my dog is not Air Bud.
Now quickly, everyone go out and knock on some wood. We don't want all the players I've mentioned to get injured in the next few days.
Whether your team is reeling from the effects of that pesky little injury imp or doing quite well with a full lineup, it's starting to figure out exactly where it sits in either the Eastern Conference or Western Conference. Some squads are moving up and down in rapid fashion, but all have established identities at this stage of the season.
But how do those compare to the expectations?
We're just about halfway through the season, so it's time to pull out those red pens once more.
Let's play teacher.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are current as of Jan. 18 and come from Basketball-Reference.
Searching for positives...
Searching for positives...
The Milwaukee Bucks currently have the worst record in the NBA, and they're 2.5 games beyond No. 29, which happens to be the Orlando Magic. They only have three players on the roster with above-average player efficiency ratings: Brandon Knight (15.9), John Henson (20.4) and Miroslav Raduljica (19.0).
Raduljica has barely played, but at least Henson's breakout is legitimate. Also, Giannis Antetokounmpo has shown flashes of his elite potential.
But Milwaukee is still beyond awful.
The team has been outscored by a league-worst 8.7 points per game, and Basketball-Reference shows that it's dead last in offensive rating and in the bottom 10 for defensive rating.
Don't let the New York Knicks' five-game stretch of undefeated basketball—one that ran from Jan. 5 against the Dallas Mavericks to Jan. 13 against the Phoenix Suns—distract you.
Even with that 5-0 mark in the first half of January, the Knicks boast an awful record. They'd need to reel off another 10 victories in a row just to get back to .500, and they're not even holding down a playoff berth in the putrid Eastern Conference.
There have been signs of a turnaround, at least.
Carmelo Anthony's passes are actually starting to turn into assists now that some of his teammates are making shots. Amar'e Stoudemire was playing well before spraining his ankle. Raymond Felton is showcasing a few offensive skills, and Tim Hardaway continues to look like a draft-day steal.
Now if only J.R. Smith can remember how to score and the team as a whole figures out this thing called defense.
There's a big difference between "signs of a turnaround" and "an actual turnaround."
The 2013-14 season has been filled with plenty of struggles for the Cleveland Cavaliers.
While Kyrie Irving will be a deserving All-Star and Anderson Varejao has been playing well as of late, not much else has gone right. Even picking up Luol Deng while ditching the useless shell that is Andrew Bynum hasn't spurred Cleveland to many victories, though that should change as Deng becomes more accustomed to his new schemes.
This was supposed to be a playoff season for the Cavs.
Yet even in a weak Eastern Conference, Cleveland sits more than a game out of the No. 8 seed, and there aren't too many signs of an upcoming turnaround. Mike Brown is being exposed as a coach, and the front office has done a horrific job assembling talent via the draft.
The development—or lack thereof—of Dion Waiters is particularly troubling. Look past his gaudy scoring average, and it's hard to find a lot to like. His 12.53 PER, below the league average of 15, just about says it all.
The Orlando Magic are not very good.
Although the collection of young talent general manager Rob Hennigan had been putting together wasn't supposed to win many games in 2013-14, there also haven't been that many positive signs. Beyond Nikola Vucevic, Arron Afflalo and Victor Oladipo, no players have developed in promising fashion.
Not even Tobias Harris, which is particularly problematic.
Fortunately, Oladipo is starting to look more and more like a stud.
Over his past five games, the rookie guard out of Indiana is averaging 17.0 points and 5.6 assists per game, shooting 45.9 percent from the field in the process. After a 35-point, eight-dime outing in a lengthy contest against the Chicago Bulls, Oladipo posted another 10 assists two nights later against the Charlotte Bobcats.
He's not a polished product yet, but the flashes of promise are starting to come more frequently.
The Brooklyn Nets are turning their season around, and amazingly, they're doing so without Deron Williams in the lineup.
With a 4-1 record since D-Will last suited up, Brooklyn has moved into a playoff spot in the weak Eastern Conference, and it's thanks to what seems like every single person in the organization. Even Jason Kidd is doing better, as the team is now used to his schemes and playing free-flowing offense that actually has some direction.
But above all else, it's been about Joe Johnson.
The former has averaged 24.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game over his past five outings, and he's done so while shooting 51.1 percent from the field and 46.4 percent beyond the arc. He's been lighting up the scoreboard during the first quarter, and that's made a big difference for a team so used to playing from behind.
Andrei Kirilenko doesn't understand what changed either. But it has.
Over the past few weeks, Brooklyn has pulled itself out of the failing range. However, there's still a lot of work left to be done before the Nets—who were expected to be contenders before the season started—move into the "B" or "A" range.
Is Anthony Davis the best power forward in basketball?
Everyone assumes that Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge are the top guys at the position, but it's time to divorce the names from the production. Not only does Davis play elite defense while leading the league in blocks per game, but he's dominating on offense as well.
Going into his team's loss to the Golden State Warriors—one in which Davis produced 31 points and 17 rebounds on 11-of-17 shooting from the field—"The Unibrow" was averaging 19.8 points, 10.2 rebounds, 1.2 assists, 3.0 blocks and 1.5 steals per game. And he was doing so while shooting 52.8 percent from the field.
Davis has become an unbelievably dominant player, and it's really not his fault that the New Orleans Pelicans can't win.
How exactly can they be expected to when Jrue Holiday and Ryan Anderson can't stay healthy? If you want to blame anyone for the Pelicans' lack of success, blame that pesky little injury imp.
The Utah Jazz have been a different team since Trey Burke took over.
Although they still haven't been winning many games and sit at the very bottom of the Western Conference, there have actually been things to cheer about. Burke's play is one, but so is the evolution of guys like Enes Kanter.
The big man is finally starting to live up to the hype, and he's averaging 14.6 points and 6.6 rebounds per game over his past five outings, all while shooting 57.7 percent from the field.
Utah isn't supposed to win games in 2013-14, and that's exactly what's happening.
While there is indeed stuff to get excited about, that doesn't help make up for the futility of this team.
The whole season changes for the Boston Celtics now that Rajon Rondo has returned.
His debut performance in the 2013-14 campaign wasn't exactly successful, as the Los Angeles Lakers surged ahead in the fourth quarter and escaped with a victory thanks to the heroics of Kendall Marshall and Ryan Kelly.
Rondo himself shot only 4-of-9 from the field, and he finished with a lackluster eight points and four assists during his 19 minutes on the court. His line will inevitably get better as he gains midseason form, and the C's offense will take a step in the right direction.
After the game, he told the Associated Press, via ESPN, "We missed some shots in the fourth quarter, but we've got to do it defensively."
I'll continue his statement for him. The C's have to get things done defensively because they can't get them done offensively.
It's hard to see Boston moving too far up the standings, even in the weak Eastern Conference. Management already shipped Jordan Crawford off to the Golden State Warriors, and this team has gone 1-9 over its past 10 games.
There just isn't enough offensive talent, and even Rondo's presence won't keep tanking from becoming a strong possibility.
Until the Detroit Pistons can figure out the best way to maximize their talent, they aren't going to be very competitive.
On offense, the problem is Josh Smith.
Smoove continues to frustrate the basketball world with his inexplicable inability to grasp fundamental concepts of effective offense. The ball stops in his hands, he takes terrible shots and he doesn't exactly produce stellar numbers.
All of a sudden, he's back to his old habits after a brief spurt of solid play. The three-pointers are flowing, but only the attempts—not the makes.
Defensively, the Pistons are still inexplicably bad.
According to Basketball-Reference, they're allowing 107.7 points per 100 possessions, which gives them the No. 23 unit in the Association. For a team with both Smith and Andre Drummond, that's unacceptable, and it's a clear indication that the schemes aren't working.
Injuries continue to take their toll on a Los Angeles Lakers team that has won only two of its past 10 games.
But fortunately, there have been positives.
Nick Young keeps scoring off the bench, at least when he isn't getting into fights with the Phoenix Suns and receiving one-game suspensions. He has to be one of the Sixth Man of the Year favorites at this point, and for good reason.
Against the Boston Celtics, Ryan Kelly scored a career-high 20 points, but it's still Kendall Marshall who has been the biggest positive.
Since stepping into the starting lineup, the D-League call-up has averaged a stellar 13.4 points, 4.0 rebounds and 12.4 assists per game. His shot is still developing, and he's not much of a defender, but his passing is beyond reproach.
This was never going to be a championship season for the Lakers, and the emergence of Marshall as the possible point guard of the future is a big deal.
Can you really blame Kevin Love?
The power forward is playing as well as anyone at his position, but the Minnesota Timberwolves still aren't winning enough games to move into postseason contention in the brutally difficult Western Conference.
If your answer is no, then you can't possibly say Love's stats are empty. There's really no such thing, unless he's padding them at the end of a blowout victory or defeat.
That said, Minnesota still isn't winning. It might not be Love's fault, but the team is trending in the wrong direction, and the season is becoming more and more disappointing as the losses pile up more quickly than expected.
The Sacramento Kings don't have enough talent to climb up the ranks of the Western Conference, but there have been quite a few bright spots under an owner who seems determined to make some off-court noise.
Above all else, there's DeMarcus Cousins.
The man known as "Boogie" has become an absolutely dominant offensive force, one who can't really be contained by any defense. Between his physical play in the paint and the increasing range of his jumper, Cousins is going to put up points in bunches.
Rudy Gay has also been lighting it up ever since the Toronto Raptors traded him away, and Isaiah Thomas continues to develop as an above-average starting point guard. He's a fringe All-Star and would make it in the weaker conference, especially given its increasingly weakened state.
Now if only the Kings could win games...
Mike Budenholzer's rookie season as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks has been filled with ups and downs.
At the beginning of the campaign, the Gregg Popovich product coached up Jeff Teague and the full-strength Hawks, allowing them to assert themselves as the No. 3 team in the Eastern Conference. The offense was full of screens and ball movement, and Teague looked like an All-Star lock.
But since Al Horford went down, the team has stagnated.
A 4-6 record resulted, culminating in a blowout loss to the Brooklyn Nets while playing in London. It's too early to write off the Hawks completely, especially since they still have two fringe All-Stars—Teague and Paul Millsap—on the roster, but things haven't looked good.
It's abundantly clear how important Horford's versatility was to this squad.
The Charlotte Bobcats are starting to fall down the standings.
An overtime loss to the Miami Heat dropped them to 3-7 over their past 10 games, and Kemba Walker's ankle injury might make things hard to get turned back around. The point guard has been key for these 'Cats, averaging 19 points and five dimes per game throughout the 2013-14 campaign.
Charlotte continues to boast an elite defense, at least.
Basketball-Reference shows that the Bobcats entered that game against Miami with a 103.3 defensive rating, one that left them at No. 7 in the NBA. It's not as impressive as the sub-100 mark they boasted earlier in the season, but they could climb in a positive direction once Michael Kidd-Gilchrist is fully reincorporated into the lineup.
Now if only Steve Clifford could figure out how to get this team scoring...
The Chicago Bulls can't figure out what they want to do.
It's quite obvious that the front office wants to tank, as evidenced by trading Luol Deng away for what essentially amounts to salary-cap space. General manager Gar Forman knows that it's in his best interest to maximize the value of Chicago's draft pick.
However, Tom Thibodeau disagrees.
That much was clear during a triple-overtime victory, one in which he had Jimmy Butler play 60 minutes. Seriously, the rising swingman was on the court for a literal hour of action.
It's also pretty obvious when he milks young talents like Tony Snell for all they're worth. The New Mexico product has looked like a draft steal lately, and he's been a major asset for a team that is inexplicably rising up the ranks of the Eastern Conference.
Thibs won't let tanking happen, and the Bulls are reeling off wins to prove it.
No Derrick Rose? No Deng?
The Denver Nuggets are a confusing team.
They call the Western Conference home, but they haven't played a particularly tough schedule. They have a winning record, but they aren't currently a playoff team. They don't have any true stars, but they're still winning games.
A lot of the credit goes to Ty Lawson, who would be an easy choice for the All-Star team in the East, even if he won't get in for his current conference. He's slumped at times during the 2013-14 campaign, but his ascent into the clear-cut No. 1 role has been quite impressive.
The Nuggets are still waiting for the return of Danilo Gallinari—who may miss the whole season—and JaVale McGee, two players who will make a deep team even deeper. At some point, Denver needs to make a trade, swinging some of its depth for a more established star.
While this team isn't just going to fall out of contention, it's tough to see it possessing enough upward mobility to gain entry into the postseason.
Here come the Memphis Grizzlies.
Just when everyone was starting to accept David Joerger's teachings, they got an unexpected boost. Marc Gasol returned slightly earlier than anticipated, and the Grizz have gone 3-0 since he stepped onto the court against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Gasol has only played limited minutes, and he hasn't posted huge numbers, but he's a difference-maker on both ends of the court. The offense can run through him on the blocks and elbows, and he obviously makes an impact on defense.
One play says it all, as described by D.J. Foster for ESPN's TrueHoop Network:
Late in the fourth quarter with Durant barreling down the right side of the lane with the ball, Gasol put his body—recovering knee and all—right in the direct path of Durant. You could tell he wasn't particularly thrilled about doing this—he turned his body at the last second like most anyone would when facing a collision—but he did it anyway. Charge. Grizzlies ball.
But Gasol still shouldn't steal all the headlines. Not with Mike Conley running the show.
Over his past five games—all of which have resulted in victories for Memphis—the southpaw point guard has averaged 22.2 points, 3.2 rebounds and 7.6 assists per contest while making half of his shots from the field and only coughing up the ball 1.2 times each outing.
Conley has developed into a truly elite floor general, and the Grizz are slowly starting to follow suit as an overall unit.
John Wall should be starting for the Eastern Conference when a certain game kicks off in New Orleans.
Although Kyrie Irving will be the one getting the All-Star nod due to his insane popularity with fans, Wall has been the East's top point guard throughout the 2013-14 season. He's averaging 19.8 points, 4.2 rebounds and 8.6 assists per game while shooting 42.2 percent from the field and 84.8 percent at the charity stripe.
With him running the show, everything is finally starting to come together for a Wizards squad that hit the .500 mark after a victory over the Chicago Bulls and then fell back below with a loss to the Detroit Pistons on Jan. 18.
With Nene healthy and reminding everyone how much talent he has, Wall continuing to dominate and Bradley Beal heating up in the scoring column, the Wizards are climbing up the ranks of the Eastern Conference.
Remember, .500 is a mark most teams have failed to hit.
Monta Ellis and the Dallas Mavericks continue to defy the odds.
Basketball-Reference shows that the team has the No. 5 offense in the Association, putting up 109.4 points per 100 possessions. That's the kind of thing that tends to happen when Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki are both lighting up scoreboards and continuing to thrive next to one another.
However, the Mavs are also allowing 107.5 points per 100 possessions, which is the No. 21 mark in the league. That makes it tough to keep pace in the West.
Between a small margin of victory and a strength of schedule that isn't quite elite, it's becoming clear that Dallas is doing some overachieving.
Mark Cuban's squad will have to continue doing exactly that—or figure out how to play defense—if it hopes to hold off the Memphis Grizzlies and Denver Nuggets in the battle for a playoff seed.
News flash: This Stephen Curry guy is pretty darn good.
Although he lost the battle against the Oklahoma City Thunder when Kevin Durant flat-out exploded for a career-high 54 points, the Golden State Warriors point guard did everything he could do to keep pace. Curry finished with 37 points, three rebounds, 11 assists and three steals in the outing, so it's tough to pin the blame on him.
One night later, tired legs kept Curry from shooting a high percentage again. But he wouldn't let that stop him from making a positive impact.
Curry still finished with 28 points, six rebounds, eight dimes, four steals and zero turnovers in a victory over the New Orleans Pelicans, further cementing his superstar status. Superstars are the ones who overcome the odds, after all.
With the Davidson product leading the charge, the Dubs are still sitting at No. 6 in the Western Conference. However, they're heating up now that they're healthier, and they're closing the gap between themselves and the other top teams in the tougher conference.
The Houston Rockets are finally starting to come together.
Chandler Parsons has emerged as the most important player on the roster, as his shot-creating abilities on offense—both for himself and his teammates—and lockdown perimeter defense have spurred the Rockets to bigger and better things.
James Harden and Dwight Howard have both played as expected, but it's Parsons who has the ability to either elevate this team into the realm of contenders or make it fail to live up to lofty expectations.
Plus, the defense is starting to work out the kinks. Basketball-Reference shows that the Rockets have moved into the top half of the league in terms of defensive rating, and they should continue ascending throughout the season.
The Rockets are no longer well shy of the elite tier, but they haven't made it there yet.
The Miami Heat don't really care about the regular season. That much is obvious at this point, even if LeBron James isn't particularly happy that he's been accused of coasting.
How else do you explain their recent performance?
After losing three games in a row—to Eastern Conference teams, no less—the Heat bounced back with a win over the Philadelphia 76ers and then needed overtime to get past the struggling Charlotte Bobcats. That's not exactly a promising stretch.
The Heat still have an eight-game lead over the No. 3 seed in the East, but they're also 3.5 games behind the Indiana Pacers. They're still having a great season, but it's pretty clear they aren't living up to their full potential.
And they might not until the playoffs roll around.
The Philadelphia 76ers aren't your typical tanking team.
Although they're really bad—not-so-proud owners of a 13-27 record that would currently give them the third-best lottery odds in the NBA—they're developing talent quite nicely.
Michael Carter-Williams looks like an absolute stud, and he should be drawing serious consideration for one of the final reserve spots on the Eastern Conference All-Star squad. The rookie point guard is averaging 17.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 6.8 assists per game, after all.
But he's not the only positive in the City of Brotherly Love.
Nerlens Noel is cleared to play, and the combination of Evan Turner and Thaddeus Young continues to impress. Plus, the Sixers have assets to use going forward.
Again, Philadelphia is in much better shape than most tanking teams.
It's time that we started considering the Toronto Raptors a threat in the Eastern Conference.
If you so choose, you can read my full breakdown of what's changed since the Rudy Gay trade here, but just know it's all about the improvements of three players: Kyle Lowry, DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross.
The first two should be considered strong candidates to land All-Star reserve spots, and the latter has established himself as a "three-and-D" guy worth starting on a competitive squad. And these Raptors are competitive.
They aren't going to challenge for elite status, like the Indiana Pacers and Miami Heat have, but they should now be considered the prohibitive favorites to land the No. 3 spot in the NBA's weaker conference.
What's especially scary is that all this is happening before Masai Ujiri truly influences the on-court product.
Goran Dragic has become one of the most entertaining players in basketball.
Even if Eric Bledsoe is no longer suiting up for the Phoenix Suns, make sure you go out of your way to catch "The Dragon" doing work with the ball in his hands. Especially when he's darting through defenses on a creative one-man fast break, he's a joy to watch.
Oh, and he's really good.
Dragic—at the very least—deserves to receive some serious All-Star consideration, as he's averaging 19.5 points and 6.0 assists per game with a 20.93 PER. He's become an elite point guard, and doubting that clearly means you haven't spent enough time with the Suns brightening your television screen.
But how has Phoenix fared without Bledsoe?
The team is only 3-6 since he last played, and that's not going to get it done in the tough Western Conference. While the Suns deserve credit for their scorching start to the season, they're falling back down to a more realistic range, and that will eventually involve them missing the playoffs.
The Los Angeles Clippers still need to pass a test without Chris Paul.
LAC has a winning record since CP3 separated his shoulder on a drive against the Dallas Mavericks, but there hasn't been much success against elite teams. The victories have come against the Orlando Magic, Boston Celtics, Los Angeles Lakers, Dallas Mavericks and New York Knicks, none of whom can be called powers.
Blake Griffin has managed to keep up his level of performance even without feeds from his all-world point guard, and that's undoubtedly impressive. He's started to insert his name alongside Kevin Love and LaMarcus Aldridge as one of the truly elite power forwards.
But even the Griffin-Darren Collison combination hasn't been enough for the Clippers to look elite. That's what happens after losses in the team's post-CP3 tests against the San Antonio Spurs and Indiana Pacers.
Only that keeps the Clippers from earning the coveted "A+."
Kevin Durant is unfair.
After his 54-point outburst against the Golden State Warriors, the Oklahoma City Thunder superstar/scoring leader/MVP favorite/universal fan favorite is now averaging 36.3 points, 7.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, 1.3 steals and 0.7 blocks per game since Russell Westbrook was lost to arthroscopic surgery.
But it gets more impressive.
I know, I know. That shouldn't be possible, but it is when we're talking about Durant.
During that 12-game stretch, the Durantula is shooting 50 percent from the field, 34.1 percent beyond the arc and 87.9 percent from the charity stripe. He's just unbelievably unstoppable.
Now if only it would result in more victories. Since Westbrook's surgery, the Thunder are only 7-5, and they've dropped out of the lead in the Western Conference standings.
The Indiana Pacers are the proud owners of the NBA's top record, and they aren't going away anytime soon.
Paul George continues to play like an MVP, as he shows off his two-way dominance while averaging 22.9 points, 6.3 rebounds and 3.6 assists per game. Roy Hibbert is still anchoring the league's best defense, and he should be one of the clear-cut favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. Lance Stephenson's developing game has left him as a solid All-Star candidate.
That doesn't even account for David West (who has been red-hot lately), the return of Danny Granger and the increasingly solid play of the bench.
There's a reason the Pacers don't lose very often.
Actually, there are many reasons. Now they just need to keep motivated.
The Portland Trail Blazers have an offense that just can't be stopped.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Blazers have scored 113.8 points per 100 possessions, which is easily the best mark in the league. The Miami Heat are No. 2, and they're putting up three fewer points over the same duration.
To put that in perspective, three points is the same gap that separates Miami from the Phoenix Suns, who sit at No. 10 in the offensive rating rankings.
Damian Lillard continues to light up the scoreboard, as does LaMarcus Aldridge. And Nicolas Batum and Wesley Matthews aren't exactly struggling either.
Rip City is still all the way up at the top of the Western Conference standings, and it doesn't look like the Blazers are ready for their Cinderella story to come to a conclusion anytime soon.
Why do we ever doubt the San Antonio Spurs?
Led by Tony Parker, who is reasserting himself as one of the best floor generals in the NBA, Gregg Popovich's squad just refuses to lose many games. In going 8-2 over their past 10 games, the Spurs have ascended to the very top of the Western Conference, and they aren't likely to fall down the standings anytime soon.
According to Basketball-Reference, the Spurs have played one of the toughest schedules of any team in the Association, and they still have a margin of victory that trails only the Indiana Pacers. With the No. 3 offensive rating and No. 4 defensive rating, there's no doubt this is an elite two-way squad.
Why would we ever expect anything different?