Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team Entering Season's Midway Point

Adam Fromal@fromal09National NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 13, 2016

Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team Entering Season's Midway Point

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    Remember when you were in middle school and would get report cards sent home midway through the term? 

    It's time for the NBA version. 

    But unlike what happens in the typical classroom, we're not grading every one of the Association's 30 squads on the same scale. Preseason expectations are vitally important, because they can color the perception of two similar records.

    For example, the New York Knicks and Washington Wizards are only separated by a half game in the Eastern Conference standings, but they'll be receiving vastly different grades. One of those squads has exceeded expectations and started to expedite a rebuilding process, while the other has underwhelmed mightily. 

    More than a few teams will want to hang these grades up on a refrigerator, boasting about the score they received. That's especially true in the East, where the conference as a whole has improved behind a host of strong squads. 

    But at the same time, a handful of organizations will want to hide these reports as soon as they come in the mail. 

    Note: Teams are listed in order of grade from F to A-plus.

Brooklyn Nets: F

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    When your veteran-laden team sinks near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings and forces your owner to fire the head coach and reassign the general manager midway through the season, that's awfully problematic.

    It's worse still when the nauseating smell of losing permeates the organization from top to bottom, making it unlikely any big-name free agents will want to hop aboard and help resuscitate this lifeless franchise. And it's even worse when all your lottery-bound ways are for naught because you owe the Boston Celtics an unprotected first-round pick that could wind up as high as No. 1 in the 2016 NBA draft. 

    The good news is that Joe Johnson's contract expires at the end of the year, giving the Nets some hope of financial flexibility to use on second-tier free agents. But that's hardly going to make up for the putridity of the current campaign, especially now that Jarrett Jack is out for the season. 

    And when Jack tearing his ACL spells doom, you know you were already in trouble. 

Philadelphia 76ers: F

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    On one hand, the Philadelphia 76ers are exactly where they want to be. They've made no pretense that winning basketball games is high on their list of priorities, and having the NBA's worst record just makes it easier to stockpile more young players with untapped talent. 

    But that's not an excuse at this point, since the franchise has been mired in its tanking ways for too long. Were there any signs of progress, the win-loss record would be excusable, but the Sixers were forced to abandon "the process" by hiring Jerry Colangelo, and the talents they've already acquired don't show much chemistry. 

    Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel are supposed to be the centerpieces here, so it's troubling that Philadelphia is outscored by an outrageous 22 points per 100 possessions when they share the court—significantly worse than the team's overall net rating of minus-12.4. When Dario Saric eventually joins the Sixers, the team will have to trade at least one of its promising frontcourt pieces, and that number only grows if Joel Embiid regains his health. 

    There's too much treading of water in the City of Brotherly Love. Tanking won't necessarily result in a failing grade, but there has to be a sign of progress indicating it just might yield beneficial results in the future.

Phoenix Suns: F

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    It's all fallen apart for the Phoenix Suns, whose unrealistic expectations came back to bite them in an unpleasant way. 

    Is it possible that Markieff Morris deserves the lion's share of the blame after his disgruntled nature seemed to affect the entire organization? Remaining professional is vital in the NBA, and the power forward didn't do so after the team traded his twin brother to the Detroit Pistons. 

    But the issues in Phoenix go beyond a single player. There's more to it than Eric Bledsoe going under the knife or Tyson Chandler failing to live up to his new contract with the desert-dwelling franchise. 

    We have to look to the front office, which set a brutal tone with Goran Dragic last season, bringing in more point guards and sticking him in an off-ball role after it seemed like he was becoming the face of the franchise. That saga culminated in his list of preferred trade destinations and eventual move to the Miami Heat, and nothing has been right ever since. 

    This Suns team was supposed to keep building, relying on the veterans to aid the young contributors on the roster while the dynamic backcourt duo of Brandon Knight and Bledsoe torched opposing guards. Instead, it's back in the lottery, plummeting toward a cellar-dwelling spot in the Western Conference it didn't expect to see. 

Milwaukee Bucks: D

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    Count the Milwaukee Bucks as another young team that was hoping to make the proverbial leap in 2015-16. They were supposed to build upon a tenacious defense, as well as a stable of young offensive contributors who would only improve with the presences of a healthy Jabari Parker and the newly signed Greg Monroe. 

    Last year, the Bucks allowed just 102.2 points per 100 possessions, notching a defensive rating that trailed only the marks earned by the Golden State Warriors and San Antonio Spurs. This season, that number has skyrocketed to a league-worst 109.9. 

    And because that alone isn't enough to earn a "D," it's worth noting that the Bucks offense hasn't exactly trended in the right direction. They're still scoring only 103.5 points per 100 possessions, which puts them ahead of just the Denver Nuggets, Minnesota Timberwolves, Memphis Grizzlies, Los Angeles Lakers, Brooklyn Nets and Philadelphia 76ers. 

    Khris Middleton has regressed significantly on the defensive end. Michael Carter-Williams has been one of the few point-preventing bright spots, but his complete and utter lack of a consistent jumper remains problematic. Giannis Antetokounmpo hasn't blossomed into a star. Parker has been a negative on both ends of the floor. 

    In fact, box plus/minus (BPM), which estimates how a player compares to a league-average contributor over the course of 100 possessions, indicates that only two members of the Milwaukee roster have been above average: Monroe and John Henson. 

    That's less than ideal. 

New Orleans Pelicans: D

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    It's reasonable to point out that Anthony Davis has missed a handful of games with various minor injuries. It makes sense to note that Quincy Pondexter won't play in a single contest all season following knee surgery, and that Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans, Omer Asik and virtually every other member of the roster has been inactive for at least a few outings. 

    In fact, only Eric Gordon and Alonzo Gee have suited up in every Pelicans game this year.

    But the problems go beyond the injury imp that seems to reside by the bayou. Head coach Alvin Gentry's new offensive system just hasn't worked yet, and his lack of defensive acumen doesn't help either. 

    Thus far, Gentry's offense has taken players away from their sweet spots—Davis, most notably—and the lack of comfort has yielded far more losses than expected. This is a team that was supposed to build upon its first-round exit at the hands of the Golden State Warriors by moving up in the Western Conference. 

    Instead, tanking is becoming an increasingly likely possibility, since even a scorching streak during the season's second half would lead to nothing more than another opening-round blowout by either the Dubs or the San Antonio Spurs. 

Houston Rockets: C-

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    The Houston Rockets have had to claw their way into playoff contention, struggling to get back to .500 after a brutal start to the schedule, unfortunate levels of defensive apathy and the firing of former head coach Kevin McHale. 

    That's not the desired encore to a season in which they earned the No. 2 seed in the Western Conference with a 56-26 record, came back from a sizable deficit against the Los Angeles Clippers and advanced to the penultimate round of the playoffs. Similar levels of excellence were expected.

    And yet, Houston has often played as if it is grudgingly stepping onto the court and would rather be anywhere else. 

    Thanks to a defense that would have trouble stopping a nosebleed, Houston is still being outscored by 1.5 points per 100 possessions. Simple rating system (SRS), which analyzes squads based solely on margin of victory and strength of schedule, pegs the Rockets as the No. 19 team in basketball and No. 8 in the West. 

    The Rockets have not been nearly as strong as their 19-19 record would indicate. Even if they're finally beginning to trend in the right direction behind the continued offensive superiority of a certain bearded shooting guard, this team hasn't been successful in 2015-16. 

Washington Wizards: C-

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    Breaking down the timing of John Wall's knee MRI, CBS Sports' Zach Harper put the Washington Wizards' struggles into proper context: 

    While they're getting closer to .500 basketball, the fact that they're not a winning ball club nearly 40 games into the season is a bit stunning. After their performance in the playoffs last season and their commitment to small ball this off-season, many were picking the Wizards to possibly be the second best team in the East. Instead, they've struggled to the point that we're not even sure they can make the playoffs.

    Count yours truly among the group that believed Washington could be the East's second-best team. 

    It seemed as if head coach Randy Wittman really had learned from the playoffs, and he had his squad playing smaller throughout the slate of preseason action. 

    Instead, Washington has looked uncomfortable, with no one being quite sure of his role. The players who are best around the basket are the ones taking more jumpers, and the ones who typically thrive from the perimeter are attempting to attack the rim. It's a classic case of making frivolous additions to skill sets instead of building where necessary and beneficial. 

    If Wall avoids a significant injury, he's talented enough to pull the Wizards back into the playoffs, even without a healthy Bradley Beal. It also helps that Otto Porter Jr. has looked strong during his increased run.

    But given how many teams have looked more than competent in the Eastern Conference, it's a bit shocking that the Wizards aren't one of them. 

Memphis Grizzlies: C

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    Though the Memphis Grizzlies have played a difficult schedule, they're still not outscoring their opponents. The team's 21-18 record is massively misleading, since they've actually been outdone by 2.5 points per game and 2.7 points per 100 possessions. 

    That's why SRS gives them a score of minus-1.73, which sandwiches them between the Wizards and Suns for the No. 22 spot in the Association. Even if this team continues winning nail-biters and then getting blown out by competitive squads, it won't be much of a threat in the Western Conference. That much is already clear. 

    Zach Randolph has moved into a bench role, while Marc Gasol's game has evaporated at times. It's a bit inexplicable, since he's not an ancient big who is still attempting to lumber around with younger players. Regardless, Gasol has been quite slow getting to his spots and can no longer rely on timing that would make Swiss watchmakers jealous. 

    In the past, the Grizz have been able to make their outdated style work. But now, it's impossible for them to overcome the lack of three-point prowess with an older, slower roster that has too many exploitable weaknesses. 

Utah Jazz: C

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    The Utah Jazz might be the toughest team to grade. 

    It's easy to look at their record, remember the preseason expectations that had them flirting with 50 wins after last year's post-All-Star-break and emerge with a disappointed expression. But doing so would ignore all the injuries this squad has been forced to endure. 

    Dante Exum's torn ACL was only the beginning. Since then, we've seen Alec Burks miss a significant chunk of time to recover from ankle surgery, Rudy Gobert go down with a sprained knee and Derrick Favors interrupt his breakthrough campaign with news of a balky back. 

    The Jazz have hung around in the Western Conference playoff picture, but that's more because their half of the NBA has taken an overall step in the wrong direction. It's not exactly on their own merits that they've remained postseason factors, which is obvious by their sub-.500 record. 

    Could the Jazz still put together the terrifying defense that led to their second-half surge in 2014-15? Absolutely, and they're finally starting to get healthy again. 

    But the first half of the season hasn't provided too many reasons for unabashed optimism. 

Charlotte Hornets: C+

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    A few weeks ago, the Charlotte Hornets would have earned a much stronger grade. They were sitting pretty near the top of the Eastern Conference, riding the improved shooting of Kemba Walker and the stellar versatility of Nicolas Batum to one win after another. 

    But now, everything has gone awry. 

    Since Al Jefferson went down with a right knee injury that required surgery, the Hornets have looked more like the Bobcats. They've dropped seven games in a row, including must-win contests against the Phoenix Suns and Denver Nuggets.

    Now, they're 5-13 in games where Jefferson wears street clothes, and his expected six-week absence may be too much for them to overcome in the tightly packed East. Charlotte still has plenty of promise, but it's troubling that one aging big man can make such a difference on the fortunes of the organization. 

Denver Nuggets: C+

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    As Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone explained to Geoff Lepper of the Denver Post, Jameer Nelson and Mike Miller have helped set the tone for the younger members of the roster: 

    They're two of our hardest workers. So if you have guys that have that kind of success and been around as long as they've been, hopefully guys like Emmanuel, Gary (Harris), Nikola (Jokic), Jusuf, Joffrey (Lauvergne), Will (Barton) can look at that and say, "OK, this is how you last in the NBA. This is how you get better in the NBA." I love the example they set on a daily basis for us. Jameer's been outstanding for us in that regard.

    This season was never about making a push for the playoffs. Instead, building an identity and allowing the young contributors to learn on the job were the primary goals, and that's mostly what has happened in the Pepsi Center. 

    Even though Emmanuel Mudiay has been ineffective for large portions of the campaign, the Nuggets have let the rookie point guard undergo a trial by fire whenever he's healthy. That should pay dividends in the long run, and the same is true for guys such as Gary Harris and Nikola Jokic. 

    It's also a good sign that Will Barton has broken out, establishing himself as a strong candidate for Most Improved Player and Sixth Man of the Year. He's yet another member of the roster who could establish himself as a long-term keeper, joining the aforementioned names and plenty of others. 

    Denver still doesn't have a firm on-court identity and displays lackluster effort levels a bit too often. But it's hard to call this season a failure when it has allowed so many young players to receive hefty minutes on a team that won't just ignore veteran presences. 

Los Angeles Lakers: C+

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    The 2015-16 season has been a mixed bag for the Los Angeles Lakers. 

    Jordan Clarkson has continued to look like a keeper while playing alongside plenty of new teammates. Lou Williams has shown some offensive brilliance, even if he's been overmatched on defense. Kobe Bryant has been able to do whatever he wants during his final NBA season, and he's filling up arenas with uninterrupted ovations wherever he goes. 

    But at the same time, head coach Byron Scott has struggled with his management of D'Angelo Russell and Julius Randle. The team also hasn't shown much progress when it comes to winning games, even if a recent stretch of strong play boosted the win total to a more respectable level. 

    According to my FATS model (based on historical comparisons and explained in full here), it's actually the Lakers who have played like the worst team in basketball. The Philadelphia 76ers (21.4 wins) and Brooklyn Nets (22.1) have been strong candidates, but the Lakers have taken the proverbial cake by performing like a 21-win squad throughout the season. 

    Still, we're grading the Purple and Gold on a different scale. After all, the front office has made it clear that letting Bryant get his due is the biggest priority in 2015-16—even if doing so comes at the expense of development. 

Minnesota Timberwolves: C+

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    It would be easier to palate the Minnesota Timberwolves' many losses if the young players were showing distinct improvement. Instead, only Karl-Anthony Towns has emerged as a potential superstar, while many of the up-and-comers are trending in the wrong direction.

    Total points added (TPA) is based on box plus/minus figures and estimates how many more points a player provides than a league-average contributor would (full explanation contained throughout this article). Using my databases, we can look at last year's TPA and this year's score prorated to a full season for the key young guns in the Land of 10,000 Lakes: 

    Player2014-15 TPAProrated 2015-16 TPA
    Gorgui Dieng107.8243.46
    Zach LaVineMinus-164.61Minus-91.32
    Adreian PayneMinus-85.73Minus-51.66
    Ricky RubioMinus-5.45117.45
    Karl-Anthony TownsN/A80.08
    Andrew WigginsMinus-134.3Minus-148.74

    Ricky Rubio, Towns and the progress of Zach LaVine have been bright spots, but it's not quite enough. 

    Though the potential of this Minnesota squad remains astronomical, how long will it take before the team realizes that? Will it happen before or after Andrew Wiggins has developed a Carmelo Anthony-like reputation as a scorer who doesn't necessarily have what it takes to help his team win a championship? 

Atlanta Hawks: B

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    The Atlanta Hawks were never going to replicate their 60-win exploits from the 2014-15 season. That was rendered impossible as soon as they had to decide between Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll during the ensuing free-agency period. 

    They made the right call in keeping Millsap, and not just because Carroll has subsequently struggled to adjust to his new role with the Toronto Raptors. Millsap has blossomed into one of the league's 20 best players, and his versatility makes him indispensable to the Hawks. 

    Additionally, Kent Bazemore has done an excellent job of filling the shoes Carroll left behind, averaging 13.1 points, 4.6 rebounds, 2.4 assists, 1.4 steals and 0.5 blocks while shooting 47.1 percent from the field and 42.5 percent from beyond the arc. 

    Nonetheless, the Hawks have regressed, even if they remain in contention for the No. 2 spot in the Eastern Conference. Kyle Korver has struggled to find his perimeter stroke, and the point guard rotation hasn't been nearly as strong as it was in 2014-15. And this isn't surprising, since replicating so many career-best campaigns was always going to be nearly impossible. 

Boston Celtics: B

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    If the Boston Celtics manage to turn some of their many compelling pieces into stars on the trade market, they'll have a chance to elevate up the Eastern Conference hierarchy. But even with the logjams in place, they've been a good—but not great—team. 

    Jae Crowder has started to blossom into a star, showcasing his versatility and defensive intensity while developing into a potent scoring threat. He's joined by Isaiah Thomas, who has taken to his alpha-dog role on offense with aplomb. Avery Bradley is also making strides in the right direction, as are some of the bigs. 

    But without a true superstar, the Celtics are still hovering around the middle of the pack in the East. They could just as easily rise into home-court advantage for the opening round of the playoffs as they could fall out of the postseason entirely. 

    It's just too soon to tell, and their fortunes could largely be determined by the moves made at the trade deadline—whether by them or other squads in their half of the NBA. 

Los Angeles Clippers: B

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    According to, the Los Angeles Clippers have largely been let down by the overall incompetence of their bench. 

    Not only does the defensive efficiency of the second unit rank just No. 21 throughout the Association, but the offensive efficiency isn't any better, sitting all the way down at No. 22. That leaves the Clippers as one of only seven teams ranked in the bottom 10 of both categories—the Washington Wizards, Milwaukee Bucks, Houston Rockets, Brooklyn Nets, Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons are the others. 

    The Miami Heat and Detroit Pistons stand out as exceptions, since they boast strong starting fives. 

    The Clippers do as well, but the strength is mitigated by the absence of Blake Griffin and the enduring hole at small forward. Chris Paul has done well while making up for his fellow superstar, but it's not quite enough to push LAC into the realm of true Western Conference elites. 

    This team has bounced back from its early struggles and now sits in the top half of the West's playoff picture. But it's still a tier below the three best teams in the conference, and that alone is enough to prevent it from earning anything more than a B.

Miami Heat: B

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    If only the Miami Heat were a bit more consistent. 

    SRS places them just outside the top 10 teams in the league, though they've shown the ability to beat almost anyone on any given night. When Goran Dragic's shots are falling and Hassan Whiteside is engaged, this Heat squad is one of the best in the Association. 

    Miami can beat the Cleveland Cavaliers and then drop a game to the Washington Wizards two nights later. It can topple the Indiana Pacers in overtime to complete a three-contest streak but then look physically outmatched in the follow-up outing against the New York Knicks. There's just no consistency. 

    By the end of the year, Miami could well emerge as the only squad truly capable of dethroning the Cleveland Cavaliers in a postseason series. But if it does not make significant improvements—or suffers one significant injury that forces it to rely on an unreliable bench—it could also stumble out of the first round of the playoffs. 

    Right now, anything seems possible in South Beach, and that's not necessarily a good thing. 

Portland Trail Blazers: B

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    Usually, losing four starters is a recipe for disaster. And that's exactly what happened to the Portland Trail Blazers during the 2015 offseason, with Nicolas Batum being traded to the Charlotte Hornets, Robin Lopez signing with the New York Knicks, LaMarcus Aldridge joining the San Antonio Spurs and Wesley Matthews inking a new deal with the Dallas Mavericks. 

    But Rip City hasn't plunged down to the bottom of the Western Conference, which is both good and bad. 

    On one hand, the ability to hang tough will likely prevent the Blazers from adding a superstar in the draft. Tanking was a legitimate strategy in 2015-16, and a failure to do so could impact the long-term ceiling of this franchise. On the other, how can Portland complain about all the internal improvements it's witnessed this year?

    Ed Davis and Mason Plumlee have become legitimately impactful frontcourt pieces, and it seems likely Meyers Leonard could follow suit now that he's healthy. Allen Crabbe is a bona fide rotation player, while C.J. McCollum's scoring exploits have made him a strong candidate for Most Improved Player. 

    Winning games and handing so many minutes to unheralded players are often mutually exclusive strategies, but that hasn't been the case for head coach Terry Stotts and his Blazers. Instead, they've hung around in contention for a playoff berth, even if that's largely a byproduct of the overall backsliding of the Western Conference. 

Sacramento Kings: B

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    The Sacramento Kings have the necessary talent to a pose a threat to some of the top teams in the West, but they don't yet have the cohesiveness. Across the board, you can find intriguing players who aren't playing up to their full capabilities. 

    DeMarcus Cousins, for example, is having a monstrous season by averaging over 25 points and 10 rebounds. However, despite the gaudy nature of his per-game statistics, his impact has gone down significantly since last year, largely because he now fancies himself a floor-spacing center and doesn't have the shooting percentages necessary to back up the claim. 

    Ben McLemore has been shooting the ball much better, but his inability to make an impact in any other facet still leaves him as a liability. Rudy Gay is taking too many perimeter looks for a team that needs spacing—just not from him. 

    And Rajon Rondo, despite his incredible assist totals, hasn't necessarily been a beneficial player. It's a bit troubling that the Kings have a net rating of 1.2 when he's not playing but are outscored by four points per 100 possessions when he is. 


Chicago Bulls: B+

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    The Chicago Bulls must be happy they're within striking distance of the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but that doesn't mean they're a legitimate threat to the supremacy of the Cleveland Cavaliers. 

    This team is unquestionably a good one. Jimmy Butler has established himself as a bona fide superstar who can help win games on either end of the court, and, especially if it's parlayed into more backcourt help at the trade deadline, the depth of talent in the frontcourt should be terrifying for the rest of the East.

    Plus, if Derrick Rose can improve, the Bulls will only become more dangerous. The double vision he's experienced is a valid excuse, but it's still troubling that TPA has him on pace to be the third least-valuable player in the Association, better than only Jahlil Okafor and Emmanuel Mudiay. 

    Then again, it also makes it even more impressive that Chicago has won so many games with a glaring minus at arguably the most important position. 

    The question is: With or without throwback form from Rose, is this team truly great?

    Despite boasting an impressive win-loss record, Chicago sits at No. 23 in offensive rating and No. 6 in defensive rating. SRS labels the Bulls as the No. 12 squad in the NBA, and FATS has them playing at a 43.6-win pace—the eighth-best mark in the Eastern Conference. 

    They deserve praise for what they've accomplished under a first-year head coach, but that doesn't mean they'll continue to excel all year. Regression is still coming, although an abrupt improvement from Rose could change that.

Dallas Mavericks: B+

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    Who expected all of the following to happen? 

    • Dirk Nowitzki to average 17.7 points and 6.8 rebounds while shooting 45.8 percent from the field, 39.2 percent from downtown and 89.4 percent at the charity stripe during his age-37 campaign.
    • Wesley Matthews to rebound from a torn Achilles and maintain his deadly shooting accuracy from beyond the arc (37.3 percent on seven attempts per game). 
    • Deron Williams to play inspired basketball, knocking down a game-winner in double overtime and continuing to show flashes of the point guard who was once considered one of the very best at his position. 
    • Dwight Powell to emerge as a viable rotation member with the fourth-best player efficiency rating (17.7) on the Mavericks roster. 
    • Zaza Pachulia, who will soon celebrate his 32nd birthday, to enjoy the best season of his NBA tenure by averaging 10.7 points and 10.8 rebounds with a career-best 18.6 PER and career-best 2.6 BPM. 

    Under the watchful eye of head coach Rick Carlisle, virtually everything has gone right for the Mavericks. This team has milked all the possible talent out of its rotation members, even turning JaVale McGee back into a player who can log significant minutes without wrecking the unit's chances. 

    Luke Walton, Gregg Popovich and Billy Donovan will likely emerge as the leading candidates for Coach of the Year, thanks primarily to the records of their talent-laden squads. But Carlisle should receive strong consideration for the work he's done with this hodgepodge outfit of castoffs, veterans and formerly injured contributors. 

Detroit Pistons: B+

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    Would you believe that the Detroit Pistons only have two players on their roster with above-average PERs? 

    Reggie Jackson has continued to look the part of an All-Star guard by averaging 19.9 points, 4.0 rebounds and 6.9 assists. Accordingly, his 21.7 PER leaves him in second place on the Pistons roster. 

    The prize, however, goes to Andre Drummond, who has continued to establish himself as a developing offensive threat with unmatched rebounding chops. The same player isn't typically supposed to lead the league in both offensive and defensive rebounding percentages, but this big man is on pace to join Dennis Rodman, Dikembe Mutombo and Reggie Evans as one of just four to do so since the NBA-ABA merger. 

    Beyond those two, the Pistons employ an assortment of floor-spacing threats who have been merely mediocre. BPM indicates that Joel Anthony, Ersan Ilyasova, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Anthony Tolliver and Marcus Morris have been above-average two-way contributors, but none of them has emerged as a star. 

    This isn't a particularly deep roster, and it still remains to be seen if Jackson and Drummond can maintain their torrid paces for an entire season without too much help surrounding them. But thus far, they've been enough for the Pistons to find themselves right in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race. 

Indiana Pacers: B+

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    As Bleacher Report's Dan Favale explained while breaking down every NBA team's season in a single tweet, the Indiana Pacers have figured out how to remain competitive while retooling and undergoing a sizable stylistic shift: 

    The Indiana Pacers are one of the few teams to have mastered the art of retooling without sacrificing playoff contention. It helps that Paul George is one of the foremost non-Stephen Curry MVP candidates, but this squad has undergone a complete stylistic shift, all but abandoning traditional lineups for floor-spacing combinations.

    Though the Pacers have played sub-.500 basketball over their last 10 games, they rank in the top half of offensive efficiency and are fielding the Association's third-best defense. That they're so stingy with Monta Ellis logging heavy minutes is nothing short of fantastic.

    When Monta Ellis signed on and the Pacers revealed their plan to suit up Paul George at the 4, it seemed likely that Indiana would become an offensively oriented team. Roy Hibbert and David West were both gone, and it presumably didn't have the defensive firepower necessary to maintain its old identity. 

    Instead, Ian Mahinmi has been one of the most improved players in basketball, establishing himself as a rim-protecting stud while playing next to Lavoy Allen, George and whomever else feels like playing power forward. Even Ellis has been a positive defensive presence, picking the right times to gamble and finally playing in a system that can make the most of his talent and athleticism. 

    The Pacers haven't yet come together on offense, but they could. And that would be scary for the rest of the East. 

Orlando Magic: B+

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    "[The London trip] can go both ways—it can help us or it can go opposite," Evan Fournier told Brian Schmitz of the Orlando Sentinel, referring to the Jan. 14 contest against the Toronto Raptors that will be played in London's O2 Arena. "It's a long trip. That's a huge game versus a very good team and if we lose that game it could kind of break our spirit. So we really have to take this trip seriously as professionals."

    Just think about the fact that the Orlando Magic, who enter that game with a 20-18 record, are actually in a position where that contest has such high stakes. Winning would go a long way toward earning an eventual playoff berth, while losing with so much time off could push the squad into a downward spiral. 

    Up to this point in the year, the six players who have logged the most minutes are all 25 years old or younger—Tobias Harris (23), Fournier (23), Nikola Vucevic (25), Victor Oladipo (23), Elfrid Payton (21) and Aaron Gordon (20). In fact, if you add all of their ages together, you'll find that their combined years on the planet equal Tim Duncan's age*.

    The playoffs were supposed to be a realistic goal next year, but Orlando is most assuredly ahead of schedule.  


    *This is not technically true, but the six youngsters have indeed combined to play fewer career games (1,156) than Duncan has by himself (1,364).

New York Knicks: B+

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    Are the New York Knicks a great basketball team yet? Not really, and it remains unlikely that they break out of the clump of decent-to-good teams in the Eastern Conference to earn even the No. 8 seed in the 2016 postseason. 

    But that's fine. 

    After all, the Knicks have already won more games than they did throughout the entire 2014-15 campaign, and that's an unmistakable sign of progress. Progress, mind you, is all that should matter right now as this struggling organization attempts to break out of its lengthy slump of mediocrity. 

    Just watch Kristaps Porzingis, who is turning doubters into supporters every time he unveils his guard-like ball-handling skills, developing touch from the perimeter, timing on putback opportunities or defensive presence around the basket. Just look at Carmelo Anthony, who is transitioning into a true leader and no longer needs to score astronomical point totals in order to make a positive impact. 

    The Knicks aren't at the end of the proverbial tunnel yet. But they can see the light, and it's only getting brighter as the season continues. 

Toronto Raptors: A-

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    As Zach Lowe wrote for in a typically fantastic breakdown of how the Toronto Raptors are working to get over the hump, this team has become even more dangerous on both ends:

    Toronto is one of just four teams in the top 10 in both points scored and allowed per possession. The offense was powerful last season, but those Drakes relied too much on pull-up jumpers and the floppy ref-baiting of Lou Williams -- junk that doesn't hold up against playoff defenses. They've shaved away five pull-up jumpers per game and replaced them with better stuff -- catch-and-shoot looks, free throws and about nine more drives to the basket, according to SportVU tracking data research.

    The per-possession numbers tell the story:

     Offensive Rating (NBA Rank)Defensive Rating (NBA Rank)
    2014-15111.0 (No. 4)107.7 (No. 25)
    2015-16107.1 (No. 6)103.3 (No. 9)

    Everything should be sustainable this season, and that includes the MVP-caliber play of a slimmed-down Kyle Lowry and the multifaceted work of DeMar DeRozan. 

    The Raptors have already endured some bad luck with injuries to Jonas Valanciunas and DeMarre Carroll, but they're poised to assert themselves as legitimate contenders in the Eastern Conference when everyone is healthy at the same time. 

Cleveland Cavaliers: A

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    Breaking news: LeBron James is still incredible at basketball. 

    The four-time MVP is averaging 25.8 points, 7.4 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.5 steals and 0.7 blocks while shooting 50.1 percent from the field, and that's been enough to keep the Cleveland Cavaliers atop the Eastern Conference while key players rehabbed various injuries.

    Now, with Kyrie Irving and Iman Shumpert back—we can focus mostly on Irving—the Cavs are prepared to gain even more separation from the other 14 teams in the East. Already, they've outscored the opposition by a mind-numbing 22.9 points per 100 possessions when the typical starting point guard is on the court. 

    Even more impressively, Cleveland has produced a 24.3 net rating when each member of the Big Three is playing. We're still working with a relatively small sample there, but there's no reason to doubt the effectiveness of a three-man lineup that also earned a 13.6 net rating in 2014-15. 


Oklahoma City Thunder: A

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    If you're inclined to think of the Western Conference as a two-horse race, you might want to hesitate. 

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are still gaining chemistry as Kevin Durant spends more time on the court next to this historically dominant version of Russell Westbrook, and many of the secondary pieces are only growing increasingly comfortable in their roles.

    As a whole, this team is trending in the right direction: 

     Offensive/Defensive RatingsNet Rating
    First 10 Games110.0/103.66.4
    Second 10 Games108.9/104.54.4
    Third 10 Games114.8/99.914.9
    Last 8 Games119.3/113.36.0

    If you want to see the actual trend instead of arbitrary splits, click here. There was plenty of fluctuation early in the season, but OKC is leveling out right now while outscoring opponents by around eight points per 100 possessions. 

    Apparently, it's tough to beat a team that boasts two top-10 players who are performing at the peak of their powers. There's a reason SRS has the Thunder as the league's No. 3 team with room to spare. 

Golden State Warriors: A+

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    Here's hoping you didn't expect the Golden State Warriors to earn anything less than an A-plus.

    After a 111-103 victory over the Miami Heat on Jan. 11, the defending champions moved to 36-2 on the season, which puts them on pace to win...wait for it...78 games. And it's not just the sheer win-loss record that's so impressive. 

    The all-time record for SRS belongs to the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks, who earned a score of 11.91—narrowly ahead of the '96 Bulls and their 11.80 SRS. The Dubs sit at 10.76, which would put them behind only those two squads and the 1971-72 Los Angeles Lakers (11.65).

    Net rating tells a similar story, as my databases show that the '96 Bulls and their 13.4 net rating sit atop the historical leaderboard. Only the 1996-97 Bulls (12.0), 2007-08 Boston Celtics (11.3) and 1991-92 Bulls (11.0) have ever been on the right side of 11. 

    Well, Golden State is scoring 114.1 points per 100 possessions, the best offensive rating in the Association. It's also allowing just 102.1 points over the same stretch, which places it at No. 7 in the defensive rating hierarchy. 

    Combine those two, and you'll find that the Warriors are on pace to match the '97 Bulls for the No. 2 net rating in NBA history. 

San Antonio Spurs: A+

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    The win-loss record might not show it, even if the San Antonio Spurs' current pace puts them on track to earn a 69-13 mark at the end of the regular season. However, the team sitting at No. 2 in the Western Conference has actually played like the best squad in the NBA during the first half of the 2015-16 campaign. 

    Let's turn to those same metrics used to illuminate the Golden State Warriors' dominance. 

    Again, the 1970-71 Milwaukee Bucks claim the SRS record at 11.91, and the Warriors' score is a sensational 10.76. But the Spurs are blowing both those marks out of the water with a 12.41 SRS. 

    Turning to net rating and the all-time record of 13.4 established by the 72-win Bulls, San Antonio proves superior once more. 

    Not only has it produced the league's No. 3 offensive rating (110.5), but it's also allowing just 95.4 points per 100 possessions. After accounting for the era and the corresponding changes in style, the Spurs' adjusted defensive efficiency of 109.96 puts them on track to go down in the record books as one of the four best point-preventing units ever.

    Turning back to net rating, the Spurs are outscoring their opponents by a seemingly impossible 15.1 points per 100 possessions. If anything, they've been a tier above the record-setting Bulls of 1995-96.  

    Even if they don't continue to get better—which they could if LaMarcus Aldridge returns to an All-Star level in his new digs—this is already one of the best teams the sport has ever witnessed. 


    Adam Fromal covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @fromal09.

    All stats, unless otherwise indicated, are from or Adam's own databases and are current heading into games on Jan. 12.