Team Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team Entering Final Stretch
With teams gearing up for the final stretch of the 2013-14 NBA season, we've gained a pretty solid handle on the fates of most squads.
The elites have risen to the top of the standings in their respective conferences, and the bottom-feeding squads have been fully exposed as the talent-devoid teams they've been all along. The fringe elites and postseason sleepers have fallen into place as well.
Of course, there are a few things left up in the air.
Who ends up in the final spot of the Western Conference playoffs is anyone's guess, as is whether the New York Knicks will be able to surpass the Atlanta Hawks by the end of the year. What fun would the stretch run be without a little drama?
At this stage, it's time to get those red pens out once more.
Remembering that we're evaluating these teams on a moving scale, one that takes expectations into account, let's figure out which teams pass the 2013-14 season with flying colors and which squads—if any—earn failing grades.
Note: All stats, unless otherwise indicated, come from Basketball-Reference and are current as of March 22.
The Atlanta Hawks' season took a nosedive when Al Horford was lost for the year.
Big Al tore his pectoral muscle (again) during a double-overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, and it was a game that pushed the team's record to a promising 16-13. Maybe that's not a stellar winning percentage, but it still had the Hawks sitting pretty in the Eastern Conference's No. 3 spot.
But since Horford left the lineup, Atlanta has struggled its way to a 15-23 record, and it's in danger of losing the final postseason berth to the surging New York Knicks.
Jeff Teague's promising season was derailed, partially at least, when Horford went down. Not even Paul Millsap has been enough to keep the Hawks within striking distance of the elite teams in the East. Buoyed by the development of a three-point stroke, Millsap made his first All-Star team and has continued to produce stellar numbers when healthy.
It just hasn't been enough.
The Hawks were never supposed to be much more than another version of the squad that has spent the last few years firmly trapped in upper-level mediocrity, but they've been even worse than that. Being in position to earn a playoff spot just doesn't mean much in the East.
Not even Rajon Rondo has been able to save these Boston Celtics.
The dynamic point guard has suited up in 23 games, but the C's have gone only 6-17 in those contests. Believe it or not, they've been more successful in the record column when Rondo has either been sitting on the bench, rehabbing or celebrating his birthday in Los Angeles.
And while the passing wizard has averaged 11.4 points, 5.1 rebounds and 9.2 assists per contest, Boston has been worse on both sides of the floor when he's on the court:
|Offensive Rating||Defensive Rating|
While Brad Stevens has seemed like a promising head coach, it's tough to think of this franchise as having much direction. It'll have plenty of draft picks to use in the rebuilding process, but even Rondo's status going forward is uncertain.
At least Jared Sullinger is proving to be a keeper, and Kelly Olynyk looks as though he could be trending in the same direction.
The expectations were never high for this team, but the Celtics have managed to tread water between tanking and competing throughout the year. That's never a good thing, and it only hurts the general perception that Rondo hasn't been himself since returning from his ACL tear.
If any team has experienced a true roller coaster during the 2013-14 season, it would be the Brooklyn Nets.
After they acquired Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Jason Terry from the Boston Celtics, the expectations were sky-high. Making the value signing of Andrei Kirilenko only added to the belief that the Nets had suddenly become one of the dark-horse contenders in the Eastern Conference.
Hell, with the highest luxury-tax bill in NBA history, their horses might not even have been that dark.
Then the season started, and everything fell apart. Jason Kidd's status as a quality head coach was questioned, the roster looked old and there was absolutely no system present in the Barclays Center.
Basically, the Nets were disastrous.
But they've rebounded in 2014, and Deron Williams has led the charge up the standings. All of a sudden, the Nets are within striking distance of the No. 3 seed that would give them home-court advantage in the first round of the postseason.
Slowly but surely, Brooklyn has begun reminding everyone why they were thought of so highly at the beginning of the season.
Even still, it's hard to view a 36-31 record and the No. 5 spot in the East as exceeding preseason expectations.
Al Jefferson should've been an All-Star.
At least that's what he's been trying to prove ever since he was snubbed and left off the Eastern Conference squad. Jefferson was having a great season before the Midseason Classic, but he's been absolutely unstoppable after it.
Since the festivities in New Orleans, Jefferson is averaging a mind-boggling 24.6 points, 10.3 rebounds and 2.2 assists per game, and he's doing so while shooting 53.3 percent from the field. He's been the clear-cut go-to player for the Charlotte Bobcats, and he's the main thing keeping the offense from being completely, well, offensive.
But even more impressive is his defensive improvement.
In the past, Jefferson was a sieve on the less glamorous end of the court. This year, his defensive rating has dropped to a career-best 100, and he's earned more defensive win shares (3.7) than all but 11 players throughout the Association.
With Jefferson actually passing the eye test in the paint, the Bobcats have used a swarming, suffocating defense to emerge as a bona fide playoff team in the Eastern Conference. They aren't locks quite yet, but even holding down a postseason berth this deep into the season is cause for celebration in Charlotte.
Such a word doesn't exist for the Chicago Bulls, who have overcome the odds to establish themselves as the team no one wants to face in the Eastern Conference.
The Bulls could've given up when Derrick Rose was lost for the season. They had another opportunity to do exactly that when Luol Deng was traded to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Andrew Bynum, who was immediately waived.
However, Joakim Noah refused to allow it.
The ponytailed big man has used the second half of the 2013-14 campaign to establish himself as an MVP candidate and favorite for Defensive Player of the Year. His energy is contagious, and his versatile contributions on both ends of the court have allowed for the Bulls' ascension up the standings.
Chicago has remained a fairly elite team despite the following supposed flaws on the roster:
- Kirk Hinrich, who looked washed up earlier in the year, and D.J. Augustin, who couldn't find a consistent home in the NBA, are the leading point guards.
- Mike Dunleavy and Jimmy Butler are the starting wings, and Tony Snell is the only consistent backup at either shooting guard or small forward.
- Carlos Boozer is starting.
Basically, if Tom Thibodeau isn't on a Coach of the Year ballot (not necessarily in the top spot, though), that ballot should be thrown out.
This was supposed to be a playoff season for the Cleveland Cavaliers, who took a calculated, risk-free gamble on Andrew Bynum and overpaid Jarrett Jack as a means of providing much-needed depth.
But that isn't happening.
Kyrie Irving has failed to showcase much growth during his third professional season, though he was looking better in the second half of the season before a biceps injury knocked him out of the lineup. Tristan Thompson has been frustratingly inconsistent, and Dion Waiters is still earning negative offensive win shares.
The pieces just aren't in place for this team. Even a midseason trade for Luol Deng couldn't spur this squad onto bigger and better things, and now the Cavs are left wondering how they're going to a) make things better this offseason, b) convince Irving to stay longer than he has to and c) re-sign Deng.
There hasn't been as much dysfunction swirling around the organization since Chris Grant was fired and turned into a scapegoat for all of the team's problems, but missing the playoffs this year is a big deal. And barring an unforeseen winning streak without Irving in the lineup, that's exactly what will end up happening.
The Dallas Mavericks are playing a dangerous game, but they keep winning.
Up to this point in the 2013-14 season, Dallas is scoring 110.9 points per 100 possessions. That's an elite mark, one beaten by only the Miami Heat, Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers. Led by a resurgent Dirk Nowitzki, the point-producing machine is just humming along for the Mavs.
But defense hasn't been as much of a positive.
Dallas is allowing 108.3 points per 100 possessions, which is the No. 23 number in the NBA. Somehow, the Mavericks are the only playoff team in the bottom 10 of that leaderboard, which is both a testament to the majesty of their offense and a sure sign that their playoff participation will be filled with difficulty.
Unlike some of the other teams hanging around Dallas in the standings, a postseason run simply doesn't seem possible. Not when defense starts mattering even more.
However, this has still been a feel-good season for a legend and the rest of his supporting cast.
The Denver Nuggets' season has been all about injuries.
With JaVale McGee playing only a few games and Danilo Gallinari needing a second surgery on his ACL after the first experimental procedure didn't have the intended result, the Nuggets just never received the necessary reinforcements. And that's not even worrying about the in-season injury to Ty Lawson, one that left Denver without any workable point guards.
Making the playoffs was always going to be a long shot for the team that lost Andre Iguodala, Kosta Koufos, Corey Brewer and George Karl, but this team has shown flashes of excellence when Lawson is healthy and running the show.
The speedy point guard finally figured out how to make the most of his ball dominance, and his increased ability to change directions at top speed rather than playing in straight lines made the offense all the more explosive.
And lately, everything has been starting to click. The players understand Brian Shaw's system, and they're actually buying into the principles. It's allowed Kenneth Faried to break out in a big way, for example.
Next season should go much more smoothly for Denver, because this one has been quite tempestuous.
Stubbornness rules the day for the Detroit Pistons.
Eventually, you'd think the team might have pulled the plug on the frontcourt that featured Andre Drummond, Greg Monroe and Josh Smith, but that hasn't happened. Instead, Maurice Cheeks got fired, and nothing really changed.
The 20-year-old Drummond has been absolutely fantastic. The center referred to as "Moose" has also been having a good year. But Smith has been terrible.
His March 21 performance against the Phoenix Suns, one in which he went 1-of-5 from downtown, turned the ball over the last time he touched it by throwing a bounce pass into the first row and went 0-of-8 from the charity stripe, basically underscored this entire season.
"Smoove" has posted historically awful marks shooting the ball from the perimeter, but he's blissfully ignorant to his struggles. He just keeps firing away, and the Pistons just keep losing games.
This was another team that seemed quite intent on making the playoffs after an offseason spending spree, but the result has been only 25 victories and a squad that is drawing close to mathematical elimination from the postseason.
It's hard to figure out the vision in place here, assuming one even exists.
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors are a confusing bunch.
Although they have offensive talent at most positions, they've emerged as a team with a defensive identity. And it's a good one, as the Dubs have allowed more points per possession than only the Chicago Bulls and Indiana Pacers.
With Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson splashing in threes, the offense is usually strong enough to win games, but the Warriors haven't emerged as an elite squad. Far from it, as they're still fighting to lock up a playoff berth in the Western Conference, something they're drawing ever closer to doing thanks to a recent hot streak.
But the Warriors have allowed quite a few teams to expose their flaws.
The bench is shaky and inconsistent. Turnovers and poor shooting rear their ugly heads down the stretch of tight games. And despite a solid home record, they haven't established themselves as anything other than an inconsistent squad within the should-be friendly confines of Oracle Arena.
Golden State still feels like an elite team.
But unless something changes down the stretch, that's a hard sentiment to back up.
Are the Houston Rockets elite?
It would be hard to argue otherwise now that they've used a red-hot February and March to rocket up the Western Conference standings. Behind the heroics of James Harden and the increasing comfort level of Dwight Howard, the Rockets are as dangerous as any team in the league right now.
Harden in particular has been thriving, lending some credence to the belief that he should be a fringe candidate for MVP. There was actually a 12-game stretch during the aforementioned months in which the bearded shooting guard averaged 29.7 points, 5.3 rebounds and 7.3 assists while shooting 50 percent from the field and 43.7 percent from beyond the arc.
All of a sudden, Houston is elite on both ends of the court, though the defense has been slipping a bit in recent weeks. Once that comes back, the Rockets will be primed to pull off a few upsets in the postseason.
Not bad for a team that added such a major piece during the offseason.
The Indiana Pacers, winners of only five of their past 10 games, are absolutely reeling right now.
They've managed to hold onto their stranglehold on the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference because the Miami Heat have struggled as well, but that's not exactly cause for celebration. Ever since the All-Star break, the Pacers have been exposed on a consistent basis.
A historically elite defense has been scored upon with surprising ease, as Roy Hibbert has shown that he can't play excellent defense unless he's protected by stellar wing defenders and worrying only about exhibiting principles of verticality around the rim.
And the offense...
No one can create shots. No one can hit perimeter jumpers. Quite frankly, no one can score.
(The Knicks) switch almost everything on the floor. They just take you out of stuff and we haven't grown our I.Q. as a team into improvising when teams try to throw in little wrenches into our offense and that's where we got to grow offensively.
I say that because at this point of the season everybody knows what we're running, so this is the point where we've got to be able to play at a higher pace and higher I.Q. as a team to where we can beat teams to whatever style that they're playing.
This is still an elite team, but it's time for them to start playing like it again. The first half of the season earned them an "A+" with ease, but that grade is already starting to slip.
Los Angeles Clippers
Is it possible the Los Angeles Clippers boast the services of not one, but two players who deserve some consideration for Most Improved Player?
DeAndre Jordan has developed into a DPOY candidate under the tutelage of Doc Rivers, and he's been more involved in the offensive proceedings than ever before. No longer is he just an insane athlete who jumps around with reckless abandon, blissfully unaware of everything that's happening around him.
And then there's Blake Griffin.
The LAC power forward would be No. 3 on my personal MVP ballot, as he took on an inordinate offensive burden while Chris Paul was recovering from his separated shoulder. And even since CP3 has returned, the vastly improved 4 has remained one of the offensive hubs. It's rare to see a play unfold that doesn't see the ball touch Griffin's hands.
Thanks to this duo, the Clippers are still dark horses to ascend all the way up to No. 1 in the Western Conference standings. It's unlikely, but at least it's still possible this late into the 2013-14 campaign.
Oh, and it doesn't hurt that LAC is one of three teams—the San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are the other two—to rank in the top seven in both offensive and defensive rating.
Los Angeles Lakers
It's hard to find positives when discussing the Los Angeles Lakers this year.
But I'll soldier on and do my best to list a few:
- Steve Nash actually managed to return and dish out 11 assists when he was already ruled out for the season.
- Kobe Bryant hasn't punched Nick Young for stealing shots, though that may be because the Mamba has played only six games.
- Jodie Meeks has emerged as a legitimate rotation player.
- Mike D'Antoni has allowed various role players to look like feasible options throughout the season.
- The tanking expedition has left L.A. ahead of only the Utah Jazz in the Western Conference standings.
- The Lakers haven't lost a game by 50 points yet.
And that's about it.
This season has been disastrous, especially for an organization that stubbornly insisted it would never tank before the start of the season.
The Memphis Grizzlies have emerged as the Western Conference doppelganger to the Eastern Conference's Chicago Bulls.
Both teams play fantastic defense, anchored by the presence of an elite center, and both teams have emerged as squads that you really don't want to face when the playoffs roll around. Memphis has won seven of its past 10 games, and this team is only getting more and more comfortable running Dave Joerger's system around Marc Gasol.
Here's USA Today's Sam Amick on the team:
As Joerger can attest, it's certainly better than being under fire. The Grizzlies (40-27), who have the same core of Gasol, Mike Conley, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen but who have added six new players since last season, have the best record in the NBA since Jan. 10 (25-8).
Rare is the eighth seed that sends this kind of scare into the top-tier teams.
And it's all about chemistry.
"The chemistry is the best that I've ever seen it in all of my years here," Joerger told Amick, referring to the seven years he's spent with the team in some sort of coaching capacity. "Guys really like each other. They like playing together. They like traveling together. They're playing for each other, and I think that's very positive."
The struggles while Gasol was recovering from an MCL sprain are still depressing the grade, but it's rising to respectable levels.
The Miami Heat may have begun the 2013-14 season on pace to match their previous campaign, but they've fallen off that track:
|Year||Through 25 games||Through 50||Through 67||Finish|
Through 50 games, the records were identical.
But while the 2012-13 Heat were able to reel off a 27-game win streak that must've left the Los Angeles Lakers' all-time record feeling threatened, this year's squad has been unable to muster up any sort of momentum. They've faltered many times, and the team as a whole still seems rather unmotivated to make a run at the No. 1 spot in the Eastern Conference.
LeBron James' MVP candidacy is slowly slipping away, and not even a relatively healthy Dwyane Wade has been enough to get this team where it wants to be.
Miami is still an elite team, one capable of turning everything up a few proverbial notches during the postseason and then completing the three-peat bid in successful fashion.
It just hasn't looked like it lately.
The Milwaukee Bucks weren't even trying to tank...
General manager John Hammond spent the offseason trying to acquire veterans who would balance out the youthful feel of this team, helping to make the jobs of John Henson, Larry Sanders and Brandon Knight much easier.
Well, that didn't work out so well.
The Bucks still have the worst record in the NBA, and the Philadelphia 76ers are the only team with a realistic opportunity to overtake them in the quest for the bottom of the season-ending standings. They've been that bad, and opponents have outscored them by an average of 8.1 points per game.
Giannis Antetokounmpo has been one of the few bright spots for Milwaukee, but even that's not enough to save them from the dreaded failing grade.
The Minnesota Timberwolves just can't catch a break.
This is one of the first times in recent memory they've spent the season relatively healthy, and they've actually outscored their opponents by 3.2 points per game. If you sorted the Western Conference standings by only that stat, the 'Wolves would be holding down the No. 7 seed.
But that's not how it works.
Even though this simple rating system—which takes strength of schedule and margin of victory into account—also shows that Minnesota has been the No. 7 team in the conference, the 'Wolves aren't going to make the playoffs, barring some sort of late-season miracle.
Kevin Love has played spectacular basketball throughout the season, but he's been undone by a lackluster bench, Ricky Rubio's atrocious shooting and the team's inability to protect the rim on a consistent basis.
Once more, he'll be watching the postseason from the unfortunate comfort of his couch. Here's hoping he's by now spent his money on a nice ottoman to rest his feet on.
New Orleans Pelicans
Anthony Davis is just ridiculously good at basketball. If the New Orleans Pelicans were offered the opportunity to trade him for any player in the NBA, they'd probably do so only for LeBron James or Kevin Durant.
"The Brow" is averaging 21.6 points, 10.4 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and a league-high 2.9 blocks per game while shooting 52.8 percent from the field. And he's only been getting better as the season progresses.
Over his last seven outings, Davis is posting 32.6 points, 13.9 rebounds, 2.7 assists and 2.7 blocks per game. And he's shooting a cool 57.9 percent from the field. It's a stretch highlighted by a 40-point, 21-rebound game that included a game-winner against the Boston Celtics, one that showcased his burgeoning confidence on mid-range attempts.
But unfortunately for the Pelicans, he's been one of the few bright spots during an injury-ravaged season.
Jrue Holiday has played in only 34 games, and Ryan Anderson has suited up a dozen fewer times than that. Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans, Davis, Greg Stiemsma and Jason Smith have also missed at least a handful of outings.
This team should be much stronger in 2014-15, but 2013-14 has been quite disappointing.
New York Knicks
Let's put everything in perspective.
After holding off a late-game charge from the Philadelphia 76ers, the New York Knicks extended their stretch of undefeated play to an impressive eight games. But despite that streak, the following facts are all undeniably true:
- New York is still being outscored by 1.1 points per game.
- The Knicks are three games shy of the Atlanta Hawks in the "race" for the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
- New York would need to extend the winning streak to 19 games in order to reach a .500 mark on the season.
- Only two of the wins during the streak came against teams with a winning record, as the Knicks tended to pick on Eastern Conference bottom-feeders.
Don't let that eight-game stretch convince you this season has been anything less than embarrassing.
New York was supposed to be one of the more competitive teams in the Association, especially after coming off a season that saw them actually win a playoff series.
Obviously, that hasn't happened.
Phil Jackson's hiring offers hope for the future, but the postseason still looks like more of a dream than a reality. The schedule is about to get a lot tougher—nine of the final 10 games are against playoff teams—and three games is a huge gap to overcome with only 13 contests remaining.
Even though New York is hot right now, this season has been a failure.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant is just ridiculously good at this whole basketball thing, and he proved that yet again during a big double-overtime win against the Toronto Raptors.
All K.D. did was drop 51 points, 12 rebounds and seven assists during his 52 minutes on the court, and that included the game-winning triple with just a few ticks remaining on the clock. Before you brush aside those numbers like they're just another impressive performance, it's time for a history lesson.
Since the start of the 1985-86 season, only three games have been recorded in which a player matched or exceeded 51, 12 and seven:
- Kevin Durant, 2014
- Michael Jordan, 1992
- Michael Jordan, 1989
Durant put up a ridiculously historic night, albeit one that required extra time, and it's still being treated like just another outing in his fantastic 2013-14 campaign. That's how special he's been this year.
Thanks to his heroics, OKC has remained elite throughout the season, both when Russell Westbrook has been in the lineup and when the point guard has been rehabbing.
The Orlando Magic are sinking down toward the bottom of the NBA's totem pole, but this season was never meant to be anything more than a developmental springboard for the many young players on the roster.
Not every single one of them has thrived, but enough have that the Magic aren't going to earn a failing grade for their sub-.300 winning percentage.
Victor Oladipo, for example, has remained a central figure in the Rookie of the Year race throughout the season. While he won't end up winning the award, the Magic have to be encouraged by how well he's taken to playing as a point guard/combo guard rather than continuing to function as solely a 2-guard, as he did at Indiana.
His passing has been quite impressive, and that should make him much easier to build around going forward.
Tobias Harris is finally starting to come around as well. Since the All-Star break, he's averaged 18.2 points, 6.4 rebounds and 1.4 assists per game while shooting 51.8 percent from the field and 36 percent from beyond the arc.
His season had been quite disappointing before the late-season breakthrough, but now it's yet another positive for Orlando.
How in the world do you grade this team?
The Philadelphia 76ers began the season in shock-the-world mode, beating the Miami Heat to get things kicked off in surprising fashion. They maintained confidence and competence for a while, but the regression to the mean came hard and fast.
Recognizing the need to finish at the very bottom of the standings, the Sixers traded Evan Turner and Spencer Hawes before the deadline to pick up a few more picks.
Then they started losing.
And kept losing.
And kept losing some more.
Currently embroiled in a 23-game skid, Philly still has a shot at finishing the season with top lottery odds and showcasing development from a number of young players. Michael Carter-Williams' stock has fallen back to earth quite a bit, but Tony Wroten, Henry Sims and a few others all look like keepers for the long-term rotation.
So, what grade do you give the Sixers?
Does their putrid record earn them an "F"? Does their masterclass in successful tanking earn them an "A+"?
I have no idea.
Grade: Philadelphia 76ers
Goran Dragic showed he was a bona fide All-Star throughout the 2013-14 season, even if he was ultimately snubbed by the coaches selecting reserves to the team. Joining him in the backcourt, Eric Bledsoe also displayed some star power when he was healthy.
Gerald Green bounced back from his declining seasons in spectacular fashion, becoming a consistent contributor and even exploding for 41 points during an contest in early March against the Oklahoma City Thunder.
Then there's P.J. Tucker (one of the more underrated players in the league), Markieff Morris (a legitimate candidate for Sixth Man of the Year), Channing Frye (man can he shoot the ball) and Miles Plumlee (emerged as a true starting center).
Across the board, the Phoenix Suns proved how much talent they had, and it means they're way ahead of the rebuilding vision general manager Ryan McDonough had when he originally took over the desert-based franchise.
The Suns may ultimately miss the playoffs and end up drafting late in the lottery, but who cares?
Most franchises don't have the luxury of showing indifference about their draft slot, but Phoenix is picking up a handful of picks from other teams as well. Where they finish is ultimately irrelevant, so Jeff Hornacek letting his squad play to win is highly advantageous.
Portland Trail Blazers
Remember when the Portland Trail Blazers were sitting pretty at the top of the Western Conference standings?
I know, I know.
It's becoming increasingly difficult to do so as Rip City keeps sliding down the standings. Without LaMarcus Aldridge in the lineup, Damian Lillard and co. are in big trouble. There just isn't much depth on the Portland roster, and the lack of defense is coming back to bite these upstarts.
After going 4-6 over their past 10 games, Portland is in danger of losing home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs. The Blazers are already at No. 5 in the standings, and the red-hot Golden State Warriors are drawing perilously close to dropping them another spot.
This is still a potent offense, but the feel-good story is coming to a close and won't last long in the postseason.
Major props to Rip City for exceeding the expectations in such dramatic fashion, but all good things must eventually come to an end.
The Sacramento Kings still have the same problem they had at the beginning of the year.
This roster has a lot of talent, but it just doesn't translate into success in the win-loss column. The pieces don't mesh, and the logjams at certain positions make it difficult for some lineups to establish a strong rapport.
Isaiah Thomas is a great young point guard, one who will end up overcoming his diminutive stature and starting in the NBA for a long time. DeMarcus Cousins is one of the truly elite centers in basketball, and he ranked as the No. 3 player at his position in my last set of rankings.
Then there's Rudy Gay.
Although the uber-athletic forward struggled with the Toronto Raptors—to put it lightly—he's been fantastic during his time with the Kings. Not only has he averaged 20.3 points per game since arriving, but he's done so while shooting 48.7 percent from the field.
Despite all of the talent, Sacramento has still struggled its way to a bottom-three spot in the Western Conference.
At least there's finally room for optimism, though.
San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is the only coach being featured in one of the 30 pictures contained in this article.
While Tony Parker and Tim Duncan have dominated while healthy and Manu Ginobili has made a strong case for Sixth Man of the Year, it's Pop who has kept everything together during what should have been a trying season. Between the injuries and the incorporation of new role players, there's no way the San Antonio Spurs should have the best record in the NBA.
San Antonio has been forced into using 24 different starting lineups throughout the 2013-14 season. For major bonus points, try listing every player who's started a game for the Spurs in the comment section. Good luck if you're planning on doing so without cheating.
Only the Los Angeles Lakers, who have dealt with both injuries and experimentation, have used a higher number of unique starting fives. The Spurs haven't needed to experiment; they've just endured so many blows to key players that they've had no choice but to change things up.
The job Popovich has done this year can only be described as masterful.
General manager Masai Ujiri easily could've continued blowing things up after he traded Rudy Gay to the Sacramento Kings.
He had the opportunity to find a new home for Kyle Lowry's expiring contract, deal DeMar DeRozan while he was still viewed as a high-upside player and scrap the rest of the supporting cast.
But Ujiri didn't, and the Toronto Raptors put all of the pieces together right away.
Without Gay in the lineup, both Lowry and DeRozan were able to handle the ball more, and the results have been quite impressive. The former has become an upper-tier starting point guard who motivates his teammates with his hard-nosed play, and the latter has become a great distributor to mitigate the negative impact of his poor perimeter shooting.
The GM's patience paid off, because Toronto is now the proud owner of the No. 3 record in the Eastern Conference. It's unlikely these Raptors can advance past both the Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers, but it's not out of the realm of realistic possibilities that they beat one of those elite teams.
The Utah Jazz have slumped down the stretch, which is actually a good thing for a team that needs the best chance possible of landing a star player in the draft.
Can you imagine adding Jabari Parker or Andrew Wiggins to this current squad? A five-man lineup of Trey Burke, Gordon Hayward, Parker/Wiggins, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter sounds pretty good to me, as each of the five players would be filled with unrealized upside.
The Jazz haven't been very good during the 2013-14 season, but they've shown flashes of potential with Burke at the helm.
During his first season out of Michigan, the Rookie of the Year contender has averaged 12.7 points, 3.1 rebounds and 5.4 assists per game. His shot has given him trouble, but the leadership skills and ability to involve teammates are both great skills for such a young player.
The Jazz were never expected to be a strong team. And they aren't.
But unlike the other team that's undoubtedly tanking—the Philadelphia 76ers—there haven't been as many positive signs throughout the year.
Everything pointed toward the Washington Wizards wanting to make the playoffs in 2013-14.
Drafting Otto Porter, who was viewed as one of the more NBA-ready prospects in the rookie class, was the first sign, even if the Georgetown product hasn't panned out. Then trading for Marcin Gortat was the nail in that coffin, and there was no longer any doubt this was a playoffs-or-bust season in the nation's capital.
Fortunately, it's a mission that will end up successful.
The Wizards haven't clinched a playoff spot, but they're seven games ahead of the lottery-bound portion of the Eastern Conference. It certainly seems as though Washington will be holding onto its postseason berth, and there's still a chance it could rise up as high as No. 3.
Thank you, John Wall.
The dynamic point guard has averaged 19.9 points and 8.9 assists per game, but it's his defense that has also been highly beneficial for the Wizards. With the former Kentucky Wildcat functioning as an elite two-way presence, Washington finally has the legitimate star presence it needs.
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