Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team Entering 2016-17 Season's Midway Point

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 10, 2017

Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team Entering 2016-17 Season's Midway Point

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    Sometimes, it's hard to believe the 2016-17 NBA season is roughly halfway gone. But then you realize how many hot takes we've all developed since opening night, at which point it becomes totally believable.

    This revelation is followed by the sudden, irrepressible urge to pass judgment on everything we've seen. And there's no reason to fight it; we have plenty of red pens.

    Midseason report cards will take the entire year so far into account. Teams will not be brutally punished for hitting a recent rough patch. On the flip side, immediacy matters: Squads that have reinvented themselves of late will get better-than-expected grades if the turnaround is deemed sustainable.

    Like last time, all marks will be doled out relative to each individual case; better teams are held to higher standards, so a curve must be implemented. It's possible for a contender to receive the same grade as a bottom-feeder without implying that the two are equals.

Atlanta Hawks: B-

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    Who are the 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks? 

    Since beginning the season 9-2, the Hawks are 12-14 and rank bottom-three in points scored per 100 possessions. Their defense imploded during the month of December, the backup point guard situation is a disaster, and Kent Bazemore has been unplayable at times.

    Atlanta has since entered seller's mode—during a stretch in which it's won 11 of 15 games, including victories over the Oklahoma City Thunder, San Antonio Spurs and Toronto Raptors.

    Kyle Korver is already gone, and Paul Millsap may or may not be far behind him, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. Tim Hardaway Jr.—who is having a career year—can be had for a second-round pick as well, per's Zach Lowe.

    With all signs pointing toward a teardown, Atlanta continues to contend for a top-four record in the Eastern Conference.

    So, who the heck are the Hawks? It's not worth going down that rabbit hole (again). They'll just turn around and do something contradictory to anything we think we know.

Boston Celtics: B

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    On track for 51 wins, with the East's third-best record, the Boston Celtics are right where they should be.

    Injuries tied their hands at the beginning of the season, but the offense, which is seventh in efficiency, has been a pleasant surprise. The spacing with Al Horford and Isaiah Thomas on the floor is splendid, and Avery Bradley is outpacing last year's career effort with another one.

    Yet, pegged by many to be a top-five fortress, the Celtics don't even own a top-15 defensive rating. They're allowing 107.4 points per 100 possessions over their last 12 outings—which would rank 23rd on the season—and their preferred starting five is a collective sieve. The Celtics have enough rangy stoppers to crack the top 10 in points allowed per 100 possessions and need more full-time balance if they're going to create problems for the Cleveland Cavaliers.

    Boston is 10-2 through its last 12 games nonetheless, and the team is 15-5 when its opening lineup of Jae Crowder, Amir Johnson, Bradley and Thomas actually plays. 

Brooklyn Nets: C-

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    Silver linings aren't hard to come by for the Brooklyn Nets.

    Yes, they're bad. Highest-turnover-rate-in-the-Association bad. League-worst-record bad. Lose-to-the-Philadelphia-76ers-by-double-digits bad. 

    But these Nets were never supposed to be good. This season is all about reinventing the culture and uncovering gems for the future. And Brooklyn is doing its job on that front.

    Sean Kilpatrick is a legitimately good NBA player, Isaiah Whitehead has flashed defensive spunk and is connecting on almost 39 percent of his spot-up threes, the offense generates more wide-open looks than any other team, and Caris LeVert looks like a worthy prospect less than 20 games into his career. 

    There is still plenty for the Nets to figure out. Jeremy Lin's missing most of the season doesn't wholly explain their record, and they need to make a decision on Brook Lopez's future. (Two first-round picks is the current asking price for his services, per's Marc Stein.)

    All things considered, though, life in Brooklyn could be much worse. The losses haven't noticeably fractured player camaraderie, and head coach Kenny Atkinson has installed a distinct offensive style—victories of a different kind.

Charlotte Hornets: B

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    Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford is once again flexing his defensive muscles. His troops rank eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions, continue to make life difficult on three-point shooters and suffocate all pick-and-roll ball-handlers.

    It's a different story on the offensive end.

    Fielding a top-14 attack after losing Al Jefferson, Courtney Lee and Jeremy Lin over the offseason is no small feat. The three-point shooting has been good, albeit not great, despite down years from many of the team's most important snipers. Kemba Walker deserves an All-Star nod for his profound impact on Charlotte's scoring.

    Still, the Hornets lack a certain oomph. 

    Hovering just above .500 is enough to keep them in the conversation for a top-four playoff spot, but they need a trademark victory. They are 8-11 against squads with winning records and a combined 0-6 against the Eastern Conference's Big Three (Boston, Cleveland, Toronto).

    There is ample room for a breakout team in the East's postseason pack, and the Hornets defense is good enough to anchor such a rise. But it's going to take some trade-deadline magic to get their offense on the same level.

Chicago Bulls: C

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    After a relatively hot start to the 2016-17 crusade, the Chicago Bulls offense has gently tumbled back down to solid ground.

    OK, fine. It has violently crashed. Propping up an entire offense with second-chance points, free throws and a career-best three-point clip from Dwyane Wade never projected as a sustainable model:

    Bulls'...Off. Rtg.Rank eFG%RankOff. REB%Rank TOV%Rank
    First 16 Games107.1748.42330.2113.39
    Last 21 Games102.52646.33030.0114.318

    Jimmy Butler has been terrific, but there aren't enough complementary shooters around him. And the Bulls don't pretend to have them; they are dead last in outside attempts per game.

    Bouncing Rajon Rondo from the rotation might help. Chicago is ninth in points scored per 100 possessions over its last five games—a stretch that's included wins over Cleveland and Toronto. But its effective field-goal rate is bottom of the barrel, suggesting this is another statistical blip.

    The Bulls, for their part, must hope it's not. Their defense isn't good enough to offset the ill effects of a clunky offense.

Cleveland Cavaliers: A

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    Something about the Cavaliers' shaky depth—specifically in the backcourt—was initially going to be the grounds for an A-.

    And then they traded for Kyle Korver, who will now shoot roughly one trillion-zillion percent off passes from LeBron James.

    Backup point guard remains an issue. Cleveland isn't flush with playmakers beyond Kyrie Irving and James. Matthew Dellavedova and Mo Williams have been supplanted by Kay Felder and Jordan McRae.

    "We still got a couple more things we need to do," James said, per's Dave McMenamin. "We got to get a point guard."

    "Yeah, it's my last time saying it," he added. "We need a point guard."

    Now that The King has spoken, the Cavaliers will have probably absorbed Deron Williams into their Anderson Varejao trade exception by the time you finish reading this.

    Oh, and for all the "Cleveland can't play defense" truthers out there, please note the Cavaliers are 10th in points allowed per 100 possessions over the last 15 games. 

Dallas Mavericks: D

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    While the Dallas Mavericks offense is almost watchable following the return of Dirk Nowitzki, the defense is imploding. Only the Milwaukee Bucks are more inept in the clutch, and the bench has been less a bright spot and more a gray area.

    Uncovering the latest version of Harrison Barnes is a big-picture boon. So, too, is the emergence of Dorian Finney-Smith and the re-ascendance of Wesley Matthews.

    And yet, despite owning the Western Conference's second-worst record, Dallas isn't prioritizing the big picture—not entirely anyway.

    Sources told's Marc Stein that the Mavericks are "batting away" trade proposals for the 30-year-old Matthews. They haven't even committed themselves to moving the expiring contract of 32-year-old Andrew Bogut, per's Tim MacMahon.

    Less than five games separate Dallas from the West's No. 8 seed, so the prospect of a playoff berth isn't dead. It is, at the very least, on life support.

    And until the Mavericks start acting like the sellers their future needs them to be, they cannot be graded on a curve.

Denver Nuggets: C+

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    We can forgive Denver Nuggets head coach Mike Malone for burning through 25 games before he tabbed Nikola Jokic as the lone starting big. The team has logjams on logjams, and a 22-year-old Jusuf Nurkic is too good to just give up on.

    The Nuggets are openly shopping Nurkic now, in addition to entertaining offers for Wilson Chandler, Kenneth Faried and Danilo Gallinari, according to's Marc Stein. But the rotation remains fluid, with Malone testing out different lineup combinations and individual weapons.

    This perpetual state of limbo, though arguably unavoidable, isn't helping. As Tim Bontemps underscored for the Washington Post, the Nuggets need to tighten things up and identify a core with which to move forward:

    How Denver eventually makes these decisions is important for two reasons. The first is obvious: figuring out the optimal pairings and best players among these combinations to form this team's core for the next several years. But the second – determining which pieces can be offered up in trades – is equally important.

    For all of Denver's talent, the general consensus around the league is they're still lacking a long-term franchise centerpiece to build around. The hope for the Nuggets will be to use the depth of talent they've generated to go out and find that player – one that, in many ways, the franchise has been looking for since trading away Carmelo Anthony six years ago.

    Too much talent seems like a silly problem, and the Nuggets have the league's third-best offense since Jokic rejoined the starting five. But the absence of long-term direction outside Jokic (and perhaps Emmanuel Mudiay) won't allow Denver to do more than chase a sub-.500 postseason cameo.

Detroit Pistons: C

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    Prior to Reggie Jackson's return from knee and thumb issues, the Detroit Pistons were mediocre. Now, with him back on the floor, they're worse:

    Pistons...Off. Rtg.RankDef. Rtg.RankNet Rtg.Rank
    With Jackson105.911111.730-5.929
    Without Jackson102.422101.421.012

    Detroit's assist rate isn't good, and it's been lower with Jackson on the floor. That's not a knock on him so much as an indictment of the roster makeup.

    Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has shown promise as an on-ball distributor, but he, Tobias Harris and Marcus Morris are score-first ball-handlers at heart. And it doesn't help that Andre Drummond has never developed as a strong passer out of the post.

    Plop down this mix around a ball-dominant point guard like Jackson, and it's no wonder why the Pistons are having offensive issues even after head coach Stan Van Gundy tweaked the starting five by adding in stretch-4 Jon Leuer.

    These warts wouldn't be as dire if the Pistons weren't getting wrecked on defense. And while it would be easy to cite Jackson's return as the root of this downfall, Detroit has allowed significantly more points per 100 possessions all season whenever Harris and Drummond are in the game.

Golden State Warriors: B+

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    Are the Golden State Warriors on course to flirt with 70 victories? Yes. Do they have the league's best offense? Yup. And a top-five defense? Also yup.

    Will they ultimately be fine after blowing fourth-quarter leads against the Cavaliers on Christmas (14 points) and Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 6 (19 points)? Absofreakinglutely. Probably.

    But those collapses are still unnerving—particularly when the Warriors have yet to beat the Houston Rockets, Cavaliers or Spurs (combined 0-3) and lost both their meetings with the Grizzlies. 

    "I'm actually happy we lost today," Draymond Green said after the game against Memphis, per the San Francisco Chronicle's Connor Letourneau. "There are some things we need to correct to win a championship."

    Fourth-quarter letdowns have become something of a theme for Golden State. Just three teams have a higher turnover rate, and the offense's overall assist percentage (71.4) drops by more than six points (64.2) in the final frame.

    Garbage-time play accounts for some of this noise, but when you bake in suboptimal fourth-quarter shooting from the new-look "Death Squad," it's clear the Warriors have ample room for improvement.

Houston Rockets: A+

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    If James Harden doesn't win this year's MVP award, he has his supporting cast—and not Russell Westbrook's triple-double onslaught—to blame.

    More specifically, he'll want to have a word with Patrick Beverley. His return has helped the Rockets tread water without Harden on the court:

    Rockets without Harden...MPOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net Rtg.
    Before Beverley's Return11888.4110.5-22.1
    Post-Beverley's Return343110.298.012.2

    Appropriate responses here include: "Wowzers!"; "Holy bleeping bleep!"; and "The Los Angeles Clippers are so screwed."

    Whatever the most devout optimists expected from the Rockets, it wasn't this. They have the NBA's fourth-best record, are fourth in defensive efficiency since the start of December and deploy a top-three offense buoyed by insane three-point volume and a version of Harden even video game enthusiasts couldn't fathom.

    Limiting turnovers will be key for Houston moving forward, but let's not taint the NBA's best feel-good story with nondetrimental mood-killers.

Indiana Pacers: B-

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    Canning former head coach Frank Vogel, signing Al Jefferson and trading for Jeff Teague and Thaddeus Young has not allowed the Indiana Pacers to scrap and claw for Eastern Conference supremacy. For most of the year, they've been a mid-tier playoff team, if that, with little chance of separating themselves from the East's clump of unremarkable steppingstones.

    Enter the Pacers' savior: Glenn Robinson III.

    Indiana is 8-6 since moving him into the starting five. That's hardly championship-worthy, but the defense ranks fifth in points allowed per 100 possessions during this stretch, while the offense is dancing around the top 10.

    Bench production continues to give the Pacers problems, even with Monta Ellis, C.J. Miles and Jefferson all coming off the pine. And their recent five-game winning streak has featured four victories against sub-.500 opponents. But consistently beating less-fortunate teams earns you a postseason bid in the East.

    Besides, Indiana's new starting five is obliterating rivals by 14.5 points per 100 possessions, and four of its five most-popular lineups are substantial plusses.

    The Pacers are trending in the right direction for the first time all season.

Los Angeles Clippers: B-

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    Doesn't it feel like forever ago that we were pondering whether the Los Angeles Clippers, then owners of the NBA's best record, were the biggest threat to the Warriors? 

    In all actuality, it wasn't yet two months ago. It merely feels like longer—a lot longer—because the Clippers have endured a season's worth of slippage:

    Clippers'...Off. Rtg.RankDef. Rtg RankNet Rtg.Rank
    First 16 Games111.7298.2213.51
    Last 24 Games106.814107.120-0.214

    Losing Blake Griffin to right knee surgery and Chris Paul to a strained left hamstring hasn't helped the situation. But Paul is back, and their defensive plunge began long before the injury bugs came out to play.

    A shallow second unit is once again at the center of Los Angeles' glass ceiling. The bench is 20th in net rating, and the all-backup unit of Jamal Crawford, Raymond Felton, Wesley Johnson, Austin Rivers and Marreese Speights is no longer setting the hardwood ablaze.

    Footing the NBA's second-highest payrollwith few trade assets not named Blake Griffinthe Clippers don't have the means for midseason improvement. They can only hope their latest four-game winning streak portends a return to their early-year dominance.

Los Angeles Lakers: B-

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    Semilofty expectations attached themselves to the Los Angeles Lakers after the first 20 games of the season—ambitions that have mostly faded.

    Los Angeles' offense is oft-electric but scores with below-average efficiency. Speed, occasional hot hands and a starting five that specializes in getting buckets help mask turnover woes and general inefficiency.

    Only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers forfeit more points per 100 possessions. The Lakers don't allow a ton of easy looks relative to the rest of the league, but they give up more wide-open threes than the Sixers and are 29th in defense at the rim.

    Youth takes time to marinate, though. Many of the Lakers' most important players are under 25, and five of their six highest-volume lineups defend with top-10 stinginess. Finishing the season above .500 is out of the question, but this group is on pace to almost double last season's win total.

    And it hasn't plummeted out of the West's (ugly) race for the No. 8 seed.

    This Lakers outfit, growing pains and all, offers peace of mind for the future—a byproduct of the Luke Walton era that more than deserves a passing grade.

Memphis Grizzlies: A

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    By a show of hands, how many of you (outside Memphis) believed the Grizzlies would enter the halfway mark contending for the West's fourth-best record?

    For those of you liars with their limbs in the air, how many of you would have remained loyal to this prediction had you known Mike Conley was going to miss nine straight games with a fracture in his back, and that Chandler Parsons was going to be a nonfactor to this point?

    The Grizzlies are annihilating expectations under the circumstances. They are 29th in effective field-goal percentage and still don't profile as an exceptional outside-shooting team.

    But they don't need to be: Marc Gasol (39.5 percent) and JaMychal Green (36.8) are respectable enough from long range for Memphis to sporadically detonate. And the offense is sixth in efficiency since Parsons' return on Dec. 21.

    Defensive flubs have accompanied this uptick, but the Grizzlies are a breath away from owning the NBA's top defense. Their penchant for winning close contests isn't too unsettling, either. They are 15-5, with a fourth-place net rating, in games during which no side is ahead or behind by more than three points entering the final three minutes.

    Adjust the scope for two-point margins in the final two minutes, and the Grizzlies are a godly 13-1, with a top-six net rating. They deserve to be taken seriously—even after accounting for inevitable regression.

Miami Heat: C

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    How much longer will it be until the Miami Heat follow the thickly laid bread crumbs to tanking territory?

    Justise Winslow is likely done for the season after undergoing surgery on his right shoulder. The offense ranks 29th in points scored per 100 possessions and cannot function on the most fundamental level without Goran Dragic. The defense has slipped to middle-of-the-road. 

    Miami has used 16 different starting fives, tying the New Orleans Pelicans for most in the league. Twenty-three of the Heat's matchups have entered the final five minutes with no team trailing or leading by more than five, but they're 8-15 in those situations—the fourth-worst crunch-time record this season.

    More than eight games now separate Miami from the East's eighth and final playoff spot. The Sixers have a better record. The debate on whether to trade a 30-year-old Dragic is in full swing.

    Rebuilding through free agency will be exponentially harder this side of the designated player exception in the new collective bargaining agreement. There's no sense pretending the Heat need to amass victories now as a bargaining tactic later.

    Every sign is asking—begging—Miami to fire up the tank machine. And with no other team actively pursuing losses at the moment, it's on franchise maestro Pat Riley to dive further into this reset.

Milwaukee Bucks: B+

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    Four teams have top-12 marks on both the offensive and defensive ends this season: the Utah Jazz, Clippers, Spurs, Warriors and these Bucks.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's surge through the superstar ranks has turned a fringe playoff unit into one of the most dangerous dark horses. He paces the team in total points, rebounds, assists, steals and blocks, and no one in league history has ever matched his per-game output.

    What the Bucks often lack in spacing, Antetokounmpo makes up with his dribble penetration. He cuts through rival barriers like butter and has made more shots in the restricted area than anyone. His teammates are converting 39.7 percent of their three-point looks off his passes.

    Milwaukee remains on the postseason brink despite Antetokounmpo's world takeover, but the squad outscores opponents by 5.7 points per 100 possessions with him on the court—a net rating slightly higher than that from the Cavaliers (plus-5.5). Remove their league-worst display in crunch time from the equation, and the Bucks would be sitting pretty.

    Good luck to the rest of the East if this team ever realizes how to execute down the stretch of close games.

Minnesota Timberwolves: D

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    It bears repeating, for the kajillionth time, that the Minnesota Timberwolves should not be judged against their inability to crash the West's playoff party.

    Holding them to that standard, even after they added head coach Tom Thibodeau, is beyond unfair. The average age of their players is 23.6—one year younger than any other team. Their three most-used contributors—Zach LaVine, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins—are all under 22.

    Generating enough offense has not been the problem; the Timberwolves are so-so shooters but place 11th in offensive efficiency.  

    Cruddy defensive sets are what's killing them. They are 24th in points allowed per 100 possessions and clearly miss the retired Kevin Garnett, as Nylon Calculus' Andre Snellings wrote:

    Garnett was playing extremely short minutes, over a small number of games, making this a small sample size, but, Garnett was playing pretty much exclusively with the Timberwolves starters, against the opponents’ starters. Which means that he was leading (defensively) the unit against the best line-ups that the opponents had to offer.

    Inexperience does not excuse regression. Minnesota's starting five is the most-used lineup in the NBA, and this complete absence of any defensive progress from cornerstone prospects is unequivocally damning.

New Orleans Pelicans: B-

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    Real-life anecdote: An anonymous writer (me) sets out to grade the Pelicans' first half of the season and is intent on shredding their nonexistent offensive mojo.

    That same unnamed scribe (me) then leaves his review sold on the New Orleans defense and utterly convinced it's going to make the playoffs.

    The Pelicans are seventh in points allowed per 100 possessions and even better when Anthony Davis is patrolling the paint. And they've been even better than that following their 1-9 start to the season:

    Pelicans'...Def. Rtg.RankOpp. FG%RankOpp. 3P%Rank
    First 10 Games105.72145.92037.128
    Last 28 Games103.2543.4434.87

    Jrue Holiday's return hasn't triggered an offensive renaissance. The Pelicans aren't keeping up with the Association's frenzy of three-point shooting, and they fail to offset that deficit with a noticeable number of point-blank opportunities.

    But it's not like this group has been given time to jell. Holiday didn't make his season debut until Dec. 11. Tyreke Evans played his first game on Dec. 15. New Orleans has two lineups that have logged more than 75 minutes of court time, and none of its five-man units have made 20 appearances.

    That the Pelicans are within sniffing distance of the West's final playoff spot warrants a round of applause.

New York Knicks: D

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    There is no need to panic about the New York Knicks' losing record—or worry about their bottom-five defense. After all, it's not as if head coach Jeff Hornacek has given up on them or anything.

    Whoops, never mind.

    "I think they're trying," Hornacek said of New York's defense following a 115-103 loss to the Orlando Magic on Jan. 2, per's Ian Begley. "We just must not be good enough defensively."

    Hornacek played undrafted rookie Ron Baker over Derrick Rose and Brandon Jennings in the fourth quarter of the Knicks' come-from-behind win over the Bucks on Jan. 6, but that's not a permanent solution. He was, most harrowingly, correct in his assessment: New York is incapable of playing good defense.

    Carmelo Anthony and Rose are duds—the two worst defenders for one of the NBA's crappiest defenses, according to NBA Math. Joakim Noah is valuable only when playing beside Kristaps Porzingis. Jennings doesn't have the size or strength to be a real asset. Justin Holiday, Courtney Lee and Lance Thomas don't have the chops to hide the flaws of those around them.

    Better teams than the Knicks couldn't cover up for so many liabilities. And though it comes as no surprise that they're outside the playoff bubble, their performance on both ends is unbecoming of a $102 million payroll.

Oklahoma City Thunder: B

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    Feel free to fall in love with the Oklahoma City Westbrooks.

    Your infatuation isn't wholly misplaced. The Thunder are a rock-solid playoff team; they might toy with winning 50 games if they get hot at the right time.

    To be in this position, competing for a top-four playoff seed, is fairly incredible after losing MVP-talent-who-must-not-be-named for nothing over the offseason. Russell Westbrook's nightly showcases can be sloppy, but his triple-double onfalls mean something—everything, to be more exact.

    Oklahoma City is getting destroyed whenever its point guard takes a breather. It's this dependence on one player that makes the team dynamic so fragile. Other single-star factions face similar limitations, but the Thunder's case is more dire. They have yet to find an identity outside Westbrook the way the Rockets have forged one beyond James Harden.

    Draining threes with Westbrook in the game is hard enough (33.2 percent); creating space without him is next to impossible. And there isn't enough defensive depth in the second unit to neutralize offensive standstills.

    Barring a trade, the Thunder as currently constructed have hit their ceiling—good, even surprising, but relatively harmless in the grand scheme of things.

Orlando Magic: D

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    Orlando consigned itself to a year of struggles by flooding the roster with frontcourt talent. Lingering outside the East's postseason gaggle is a fitting place for one of the NBA's clunkiest offenses.

    But the Magic cannot even be consistently bad. Break their season into four tidbits, and you're left feeling confused:

    Magic's...W-LOff. Rtg.Def. Rtg.Net Rtg. eFG%
    First 10 Games4-699.2108.3-9.146.7
    Games 11-204-693.593.7-0.245.9
    Games 21-305-5106.9112.9-6.052.1
    Games 31-393-6103.4108.2-4.750.8

    Strength of opponents matters, and head coach Frank Vogel has dropped a handful of starting fives. Aaron Gordon was a starter, then a reserve, and now he's back with the opening five. Ditto for Elfrid Payton. Nikola Vucevic hasn't started since Nov. 25.

    Liberally fiddling with the rotation hasn't shed light on the Magic's vision. Do they have any plans for sophomore Mario Hezonja? Is Payton even a "point guard of our future" candidate anymore? Will Gordon forever be chained to the 3? Does Vucevic have a place with this team long term?

    Bismack Biyombo and Serge Ibaka are the 4-5 combo to which the Magic are most married. That's the extent of the clarity they've provided.

    Halfway through the season, this just isn't good enough.

Philadelphia 76ers: B-

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    Joel Embiid is higher on the Sixers than anyone in the galaxy, per the Associated Press' Brian Mahoney: "I think we have a chance. We've been hot lately. We've won three out of four lately, so I look at it and I think we have a chance and we're really figuring things out. We're starting to learn how to win games."

    In the event Philly erases the 7.5-game gap separating it from the East's No. 8 seed, make sure you have a poncho handy. I hear there will be a lot of rain during the apocalypse. 

    Look, the Sixers don't have the NBA's worst record. That's worth a parade or seven.

    They also own the Eastern Conference's best defensive rating since Nov. 16—a span of 25 games. And they play opponents almost evenly whenever Embiid is jumping center. 

    Things are looking up, but we mustn't pretend this is a quasi-Cinderella story. Embiid hasn't cured the league's worst offense, and the Sixers commit far too many turnovers for a squad that isn't playing at frenetic speeds. Most of all: It's taking too long to hash out the frontcourt's future. Giving Nerlens Noel more time beside Embiid is an overdue play, but letting Jahlil Okafor rack up DNPs is not a sustainable solution.

    Philly has four viable 5s under the age of 24 if you include Richaun Holmes, with no room to slot any of them at the 4—a depth-chart pileup that should be at least slightly more manageable by now.

Phoenix Suns: C

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    The Phoenix Suns are yet again juggling two visions—one of a rebuilding team, the other of a group that plays to win now.

    Neither direction looks promising at the moment. The Suns' wild mix of veterans and projects have overlapping skill sets. Phoenix has some veteran-packed lineups that grind out positive differentials, but they can't be used in excess without coming at the expense of the youngsters. And playing the kiddies hasn't helped the Suns' immediate chances.

    Devin Booker specifically has been up and down. He's barely shooting 40 percent from the field, and his three-point success rate has dipped below 34 percent. His assist rate has stalled despite an increase in usage.

    Then there's the Brandon Knight situation: His efficiency has crashed, and he still owns the NBA's worst plus-minus by a mile. That's meant more burn for Tyler Ulis, who, at 5'10", can be a surprisingly effective defender.

    Dealing Knight—a distinct possibility, per's Marc Stein—trims some of the backcourt fat off the bottom line, but it won't solve everything. This franchise is no closer to deciding whether it's aiming for a quick turnaround or thorough rebuild.

Portland Trail Blazers: C-

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    Portland's quest to find balance is raging on—and it's not going well.

    Defensive warts originally threatened to derail the Blazers' season. Calf and back injuries limited Al-Farouq Aminu to 12 appearances through 30 games, during which time the team ranked dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions.

    Fast-forward to now, almost 10 games into Aminu's return, and the Blazers offense is betraying them. They are eighth in defensive efficiency since getting him back but pair that standing with a 22nd-place scoring attack.

    Damian Lillard missed five of the last seven games, so we shouldn't buy into the offense's demise. Similarly, though, we can't invest praise in the defense; the 106 points per 100 possessions the Blazers have allowed during this stint would rank 21st on the season.

    Too much is up in the air for us to feel remotely good about this team. Evan Turner continues to look out of place next to C.J. McCollum and Lillard, there isn't enough shooting in the frontcourt, and Portland needs to acquire a big who's more than a specialist. 

    The Blazers' saving grace thus far has been an unsightly race for eighth place in the West—a crutch they cannot expect to lean on all year.

Sacramento Kings: C

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    Rocky Widner/Getty Images

    Should the Sacramento Kings abandon their pursuit of a first-round sweep at the hands of the Warriors and resign to auctioning off Omri Casspi, Rudy Gay, Kosta Koufos and Ben McLemore? Most definitely.

    Will their refusal to do so despite fluttering around the bottom 10 of offensive and defensive efficiency come back to bite them? Probably.

    Is it troublesome that hiring head coach Dave Joerger and playing at a more calculated pace hasn't boosted their defensive standing? Undeniably so.

    Why the passing grade then? Because by refusing to deal super-duper-megastar DeMarcus Cousins (so far), the Kings have increased their chances of keeping him.

    Sources told's Marc Stein that Sacramento will "pitch Cousins on a long-term partnership in the summertime, knowing he's going to be eligible in July for a designated player extension that ‎could make him one of a handful of $200 million players leaguewide."

    Another lottery finish might convince Cousins to rebuff the extension overtures. Or he could sign the deal and try to force a trade during the middle of next season. Either way, the Kings win: It'll be tough for Cousins to decline that much money, and they'll be able to ask for the moon in trade negotiations if he tries to orchestrate his exit post-extension. 

    Nicely done, Kangz.

San Antonio Spurs: A+

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    Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

    One of these years, the Spurs will get the regular-season dap they deserve.

    None of us will be alive to see it. The world will be ruled by robots programmed by Kawhi Leonard descendants to appreciate whatever iteration of the Spurs exists. But the day will come when San Antonio no longer flies under the radar while contending for a championship. 

    In the meantime, nothing has changed: The Spurs have the NBA's second-best record, and no one blinks. They have the league's top defense, and a few of us wonder if their pick-and-roll prevention can be better. They own the Association's best net rating since Nov. 24—roughly half the season—and we talk about why living myth Stephen Curry has devolved into regular-old superhero Stephen Curry.

    Sure, the Spurs have weaknesses. They don't look athletic enough to contend with the Rockets and Warriors over a seven-game series. Yet they're also a combined 3-1 against both those teams.

    The Spurs are Spurs-ing, no less than usual, at a time when most expect and often claim to see regression. It's time we take notice.

Toronto Raptors: B+

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    Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

    The Toronto Raptors' last 10 games have been a slog. They are 5-5 and rank outside the top 12 in both offensive and defensive efficiency. 

    But step back, and the macro view is sound.

    Toronto has a second-place offense and top-three net rating. Kyle Lowry is the MVP of players who won't be considered for the MVP award. Lucas Nogueira and Norman Powell are having a real positive impact. Terrence Ross is catching fire as you read this. DeMar DeRozan is clearing 27 points per game on 47-plus percent shooting without a reliable outside stroke. DeMarre Carroll is hitting threes again.

    All this, and the Raptors are still one sizable piece away from being genuine title threats. They don't have a long-term answer at power forward. Their defense is inconsistent. DeRozan remains a net minus on both sides of the court. And, most notably, they are a combined 1-8 against the Cavaliers, Clippers, Rockets, Spurs and Warriors. 

    Trading for a high-end 4 would help the Raptors' cause, but Paul Millsap is no longer available, according to The Vertical's Adrian Wojnarowski. And he wouldn't close the gap between them and the Cavaliers anyway. 

    Basically, the Raptors are stuck—in a good place, but trapped all the same.

Utah Jazz: A-

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    Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

    No team has been impacted by injuries more than the Jazz. However, they're still on the path toward 50 victories.

    Few squads have the depth to be successful with such a turbulent rotation. 

    Boris Diaw, Dante Exum and Derrick Favors have all missed significant time. Neither Alec Burks nor George Hill has made 20 appearances. Not one of the Jazz's lineups has totaled 100 minutes of action. And head coach Quin Snyder's substitution patterns have been unpredictable when he has a full arsenal at his disposal.

    Utah needs to iron out a pecking order soon—particularly for Favors' sake. He looks out of whack when he doesn't play with the starters, but lineups that feature Rudy Gobert and Trey Lyles are offensive goliaths and worth further exploration.

    Playing with additional pace has to be a goal at some point, too.

    The Jazz are last in possessions used per 48 minutes, and the Mavericks are the only team that gets out in transition with less frequency. They aren't built to play fast all the time, but some offensive variance should help the Jazz improve upon their 6-12 record against teams above .500.

Washington Wizards: B-

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    Here come the Washington Wizards. They are 11-5 over their last 16 games, during which time they're registering top-10 offensive and defensive ratings while climbing up the East's postseason ladder.

    Head coach Scott Brooks isn't messing around with his rotations through Washington's upswing. Bradley Beal, Marcin Gortat, Otto Porter and John Wall are on the floor with one of Markieff Morris or Kelly Oubre Jr. for more than half the game, and lineups that include less than three starters are nearly obsolete.

    Unfortunately for the Wizards, this means their bench hasn't fixed itself. The reserves have a bottom-10 net rating over this season-saving stretch and, as's Ben Alamar wrote, aren't offering the tiniest sliver of respite:

    The Wizards' bench plays very little. Washington's starters all average over 30 minutes per game - of the 143 players in the NBA averaging between 20 and 30 minutes a game this season, none play for the Wizards). No Wizards reserve has a value over replacement player that is positive.

    Not only are there no real contributors coming off the bench, none of them have assist rates above 20 percent. When Wall is on the floor, the Wizards have an assist rate of 59 percent, and that drops to 49 percent when he is off. None of the players coming off the bench with more than 300 minutes have a team-level assist rate over 55 percent -- when Wall is out of the game, the ball really doesn't move.

    Burning out the starters before April is a real risk, one the Wizards cannot ignore. At the same time, they don't have any palatable alternatives to the current rotation—a tenuous dynamic they'll have to try remedying ahead of the trade deadline.


    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter: @danfavale.

    Stats courtesy of or and accurate leading into games on Monday, Jan. 9.