Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team so Far This Season
If you trust the process or fear the beard (note: not deer), you'll probably be pleased with your team's grade at the quarter mark of the 2017-18 NBA season. On the flip side, that won't be true for any desert-dwelling fans or frequenters of Beale Street.
Not everyone can exceed expectations, after all.
And that's the key for these red-pen marks. We're not just listing the best teams in the league and giving them the top grades, though the best performers do typically tend to score well. Initial expectations matter, since the Atlanta Hawks and Golden State Warriors entered the league with drastically different standards. One was supposed to plunge toward the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings, while the other was widely expected to submit one of the better seasons in league history.
After weighing those initial hopes, factoring in far more than just win-loss records and using the grading scale employed by my own alma mater (along with some A-plus marks for good measure), the NBA as a whole has a 2.86 GPA at this stage of the year.
But which teams have emerged as the star students?
Don't be fooled by the Sacramento Kings' exciting victory over a Golden State Warriors squad playing without Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant; impressive as Bogdan Bogdanovic's off-balance, game-winning floater over Draymond Green may have been, it doesn't change the fact the Kings have been one of the league's worst teams.
Even after that takedown of the short-handed defending champions, they ranked 29th in offensive rating, ahead of only the Chicago Bulls. Meanwhile, they sat in the same spot for defensive rating, this time surpassing no more than the Phoenix Suns.
That's not exactly a promising combination.
New addition Zach Randolph has functioned as a solid offensive power forward, while fellow veteran Vince Carter has continued to stave off Father Time and hold his own defensively. But George Hill has been one of the league's fastest-declining players, looking every bit the part of an aging point guard struggling to adjust to his new role in a different location. Couple that veteran backslide with overmatched youngsters (De'Aaron Fox's 40.3/30.8/71.1 could be better), and you have a recipe for a long rebuild.
"A person close to the situation made clear to CBS Sports that, while the team had been 'trending in the wrong direction,' without the irreconcilable differences between Fizdale and Gasol, Fizdale's termination might not have been necessary. The person, who requested anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the talks, also said that owner Robert Pera did not intervene in the situation despite his relationship with Gasol. The decision to fire Fizdale had been made by management Sunday night.
"The optics of the situation are inescapable. A 32-year-old aging center on a max contract clashed with his coach, and after it reached Sunday's boiling point, the team sided with its All-Star, firing a coach respected league-wide. No one comes out looking good here, certainly not Gasol."
This is bad.
The Grizzlies were already trending toward a disappointing letter grade after spoiling their hot start to the year. Getting rid of a bright young coach doesn't help their case. Fizdale will almost certainly land elsewhere, and Memphis may come to regret parting with him to curry favor with Gasol, who's in the midst of his worst season in quite some time.
Then again, that's a line that can apply to many members of the Memphis roster.
Gasol's offense has dried up. Mike Conley, before succumbing to Achilles soreness, couldn't find his shooting stroke or defensive chops. JaMychal Green has been a step slow on the preventing side. With the exception of Chandler Parsons and a breakout version of Tyreke Evans, regression has reigned supreme on Beale Street.
We can overlook the messy Eric Bledsoe situation, which ended with the Phoenix Suns trading the star point guard to the Milwaukee Bucks for Greg Monroe, a protected first-round pick and a protected second-round selection. We don't have to ding this organization for pulling the plug on the Earl Watson era and replacing him with interim head coach Jay Triano, who immediately pulled his troops out of the dumps and got a few wins.
But we can't forgive the lack of growth.
Where is the progression by key players? Where are the signs this franchise is mired in anything other than a perpetual rebuild after it's used so many first-round picks on performers who aren't yet producing victories on even a semi-consistent basis?
Devin Booker has continued to score in volume, but his cold three-point shooting has dampened his overall efficiency levels, while he remains an unmitigated sieve on the defensive end. And yet, he's probably the biggest bright spot. That honor certainly can't apply to any of the tremendously disappointing sophomore trio of Tyler Ulis, Marquese Chriss and Dragan Bender. Josh Jackson has been one of the NBA's least valuable presences during his rookie season, and Mike James has cooled off after the scorching start to his delayed first campaign.
Sure, you could point to TJ Warren's scoring proficiency, but his woeful defense and inability to provide spacing beyond the three-point arc have kept his overall value in check. Maybe he's a fundamental building block for the extended rebuild, but even that isn't a guarantee.
Progress is key for the teams at the bottom of the pile, and that hasn't taken place in the desert.
Dennis Smith Jr. has shown flashes of the potential that makes him such an intriguing rookie point guard, but he's still shooting just 39.2 percent from the floor, 30.0 percent from beyond the arc and 65.8 percent at the stripe. Pair that with his turnover woes and defensive inconsistency, and it shouldn't be even remotely surprising that the Dallas Mavericks' net rating plummets 15 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
And that's been the biggest problem during a pseudo-rebuilding season (Dallas can't really rebuild until it moves past the Dirk Nowitzki era): The up-and-comers haven't been effective, and head coach Rick Carlisle can only justify handing so many minutes to veterans who likely won't be a part of the Mavericks' next playoff squad.
J.J. Barea has been brilliant on the offensive end, peppering the opposition with jumpers and showing no fear when he attacks the hoop for creative finishes. Can the Mavericks hand him enough minutes when they come at the expense of Smith and Yogi Ferrell, though?
In small doses, Salah Mejri has served as arguably Dallas' most consistent player, thanks primarily to his stifling and physical defense on the interior. But can it continue to feature the 31-year-old instead of Nerlens Noel, as it's sometimes done during the season's opening month?
This is a tough balancing act, and Carlisle's job would be so much easier if some of the younger players would help him out. Of course, getting Seth Curry back in the lineup and reminding Harrison Barnes that he's allowed to make shots might provide some aid as well.
The Milwaukee Bucks were supposed to break out and compete for one of the top spots in the Eastern Conference.
But while Giannis Antetokounmpo has lived up to the billing and asserted himself as an MVP candidate (some poor performances in recent outings notwithstanding), he hasn't received the requisite help. With Malcolm Brogdon failing to take another step after his Rookie of the Year campaign, Khris Middleton forgetting he's supposed to serve as a two-way presence, Thon Maker disappointing horribly, Eric Bledsoe struggling to fit in after an early-season trade and no one picking up the proverbial slack, the Greek Freak doesn't have the assistance required to produce anything more than a .500 record.
And before moving on, Bledsoe's 15.1 points and 5.1 assists per game don't mean he's fitting in yet. He's slashing 39.6/20.6/66.7, struggling with turnovers (3.3 per contest) and depressing the Bucks' offensive rating by 2.2 points per 100 possessions when he's on the floor.
But if teammates aren't helping out Antetokounmpo, neither is the coaching staff.
Jason Kidd looks overmatched on the sideline, refusing to veer away from defensive schemes that ask his players to aggressively trap pick-and-rolls at all times. Those actions are consistently exposing the interior, leaving the Bucks scrambling to recover in time and pushing them all the way down to No. 22 in defensive rating.
Given the length and energy of this team, that's unacceptable. And unless it changes, Milwaukee will find itself fighting to make the playoffs rather than competing for homecourt advantage in the postseason's opening round.
Credit to Jeremy Lamb, who has improved his game on both ends of the floor and become a centerpiece for the Charlotte Hornets. Kemba Walker has continued to serve as a stud, averaging 22.3 points, 3.8 rebounds and 6.2 assists while shooting 44.3 percent on field-goal attempts, 36.6 percent from downtown and 85.6 percent on freebies. I suppose we can shout out Dwight Howard's defense and Marvin Williams' shooting as well.
But that's where the positives end.
The Hornets are still far too reliant on Walker to create offense, and it's preventing them from leaping up the Eastern Conference standings. At this point, he hasn't even been enough to push Charlotte into the playoffs, since an 8-11 record leaves it at No. 11 in the NBA's weaker half.
When the starting point guard is on the floor, the Hornets boast a 109.9 offensive rating while allowing just 102.2 points per 100 possessions. Those numbers would rest at Nos. 3 and 9, respectively, in the league-wide hierarchy. But when he sits, the offensive rating nosedives to 89.4 (No. 30 overall with room to spare), while the defensive rating soars to 108.8 (better than only the Phoenix Suns).
Until Charlotte can figure how to remain afloat without Walker, whether by getting more out of the second unit or staggering starters to mitigate the damage caused by the bench mob, it'll keep underachieving. And at some point, an aging and expensive core might need to be split up if it can't win more games.
During his last 10 games, Lauri Markkanen has averaged 12.9 points and 7.7 rebounds while hitting 37.5 percent of his shots, connecting on 32.4 percent of his triples and converting 81.0 percent of his attempts at the free-throw line. Regression, perhaps aided by the almost inescapable rookie wall, has struck him fast and furiously, throwing him off the impressive course on which he began his NBA career.
And that's fine. It's expected, even. Markkanen was never supposed to be a leading contender for Rookie of the Year, and he likely won't be. But what's most concerning is that the Finnish 7-footer has still been the brightest presence on the Windy City roster.
The season began with teammates fighting—one broke the other's face—and hasn't gotten much better. Bobby Portis and Nikola Mirotic still aren't talking, as Michael Singer of USA Today reported. Eighteen games into the year, the Chicago Bulls have just three wins. And again, that's fine. They never hinted at doing anything more than unabashedly tanking for a top pick in the loaded 2018 draft.
But again, a concern crops up.
According to NBA Math's total points added metric, Chicago has zero players who have served as above-average contributors. The clubhouse leaders? Ryan Arcidiacono (minus-2.3 in five minutes), Portis (minus-2.8 in 229 minutes) and Denzel Valentine (minus-4.1 in 507 minutes).
That's the biggest problem. The Bulls can be forgiven for losing, since that was always the intended course of action. But the lack of emerging pieces is troublesome and keeps them from earning a more respectable grade.
Los Angeles Clippers
Remember when the Los Angeles Clippers won their first four games and appeared poised to overcome the loss of Chris Paul? So much for that. They dropped 11 of their next 15 outings, with the lone victories coming against the lowly Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks, Sacramento Kings and Los Angeles Lakers—two of whom have already shown up in this progressive grading exercise.
So, why are the Clippers doing worse?
Their offense struggles to generate points when the ball isn't in Blake Griffin's hands. Their offseason additions have largely been disappointing, with Danilo Gallinari in particular struggling to look comfortable on either end of the floor. The defense has regressed dramatically, hemorrhaging points because it fouls frequently, struggles to generate turnovers and allows too many second-chance opportunities.
The silver linings are few and far between.
But this is at least somewhat understandable because Los Angeles is not only attempting to overcome the loss of Paul but also combatting one injury after another. And after Austin Rivers rolled over Blake Griffin's knee in the most recent outing against their in-town rivals, the star power forward joined the ranks of injured players that already included Gallinari, Milos Teodosic and Patrick Beverley.
The Clippers never expected to rely so heavily on Sindarius Thornwell during his rookie season. Even Jawun Evans and C.J. Williams have been forced to factor into the rotation through sheer necessity, and they're simply not advanced enough to create easy opportunities for DeAndre Jordan and the other players who are dependent on set-up feeds.
Excuses are excuses, but at least these are legitimate.
Yes, the Cleveland Cavaliers are winning games. In the midst of an eight-game streak of unblemished play, they've tossed aside early concerns and elevated toward the top of the Eastern Conference standings. But look at who they've beaten:
- Dallas Mavericks
- New York Knicks
- Charlotte Hornets
- Los Angeles Clippers
- Detroit Pistons
- Brooklyn Nets
- Charlotte Hornets
- Philadelphia 76ers
The signature outing was either a blowout of the surprisingly excellent Pistons or a pull-ahead-in-the-second-half showing against the youthful Sixers. And that's simply not enough to get excited about when concerns still exist.
LeBron James isn't immortal, and he's playing 37.4 minutes per game one season after leading the league with 37.8. That workload will eventually add up, especially because the Cavaliers are so dependent on his two-way play whenever he's logging run. Maybe not this year, but it'll happen eventually. Possibly.
Beyond that, the Cavaliers defense remains atrocious. They ranked 27th in defensive rating (108.2), and they need to maintain the gains they've displayed during the winning streak when facing stiffer competition. Though they've successfully stopped lesser squads, they have yet to corral many scoring juggernauts.
Cleveland is trending toward a more respectable grade, but arguing its season has been anything other than disappointing remains impossible.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Forget about the Oklahoma City Thunder's record. Seriously. Wipe it from your memory. Use "obliviate" if you must.
Denying the Thunder's disappointing beginning to this new (and potentially short-lived) era with Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony is pointless. They've lost a bunch of games they shouldn't have dropped, thanks largely to some historically putrid performances in crunch-time minutes.
But the overall showings still haven't been nearly as upsetting.
Due at least in part to some blowout victories at the beginning of the season, the Thunder are still outscoring opponents by 3.4 points per 100 possessions, which leaves them behind only six other squads. Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system, which factors in margin of victory and strength of schedule, puts them in the same position. They're allowing fewer points per 100 possessions than every squad other than the Boston Celtics.
That phenomenal defensive rating, the product of buy-in from just about every player on the roster, should supersede many of the concerns. It gives the Thunder a calling card, and that'll help them ascend the Western Conference standings as their clutch performances regress to the mean and their key figures develop more chemistry through unrelenting exposure to one another.
Yes, the Thunder have lost more games than they should. But evaluating teams solely by their records makes for a foolhardy endeavor.
The Orlando Magic were never going to sustain their hot start to the season. Cold-shooting stretches were inevitable after Aaron Gordon, Evan Fournier and Nikola Vucevic caught fire to begin the 2017-18 campaign, ripping through twine like never before—and then some.
But after opening the year 8-4, the Magic lost nine consecutive games. The offense has continued to score with consistency (maybe not at quite the same level), and the blame all goes to a defense that has fallen apart. Since Nov. 11, when the losing began—admittedly, against a monstrous slate of opponents—this squad ceded 116.4 points per 100 possessions.
Sorry, Brooklyn Nets. Sorry, Chicago Bulls. That's the worst mark in the league with room to spare.
This is probably a more accurate representation of the team's level, though. The Magic won't finish the year as the NBA's worst bunch of stoppers, but they aren't an immovable object, either. They're still fighting an uphill battle just to remain in the playoff picture, which prevents them from earning too lofty a grade.
They can still take solace in the growth of key pieces. Gordon looks far more comfortable in his role as a show-stopping power forward, even if he's not going to shoot like Stephen Curry for any prolonged stretches. Fournier has grown in all areas, whether that's versatile scoring, improved distributing or understanding how to use his quick hands on defense. Jonathon Simmons looks to be a solid fit, and Jonathan Isaac has impressed defensively during his inaugural campaign.
Rebuilding teams need to focus on growth and staying on course. The Magic have fared well in those regards, though the wins have stopped piling up.
Expecting too much from the Utah Jazz was almost inevitable given how frequently they've imposed their defensive will on the opposition in recent years. Thoughts that they could remain anything more than a fringe playoff contender in the brutal Western Conference were premature after Gordon Hayward's offseason decision to leave the organization to join the Boston Celtics.
Rudy Gobert's succumbing to a Dion Waiters loose-ball dive wasn't exactly in the best interest of the organization. Without the 7'1" Frenchman patrolling the middle—even though Ekpe Udoh looks like an interior stopper—the Jazz don't have their identity.
That's problematic, but doubly so when they're trying to forge an offensive mindset.
Utah entered the season without a clear-cut alpha dog on the offensive end. But behind Donovan Mitchell's fearless—and, sometimes, inefficient—play and Rodney Hood's emergence into a top-tier scorer, it's starting to piece together what it'd like to do offensively. The growth of the Duke product, in particular, shouldn't be overlooked. He's averaging a career-high 17.7 points per game and slashing 41.9/40.2/92.0.
Utah still can't score consistently enough to become a postseason threat. Joe Ingles has been the team's best offensive player, but he's rarely going to create his own looks and relies on assists from his teammates as he spots up on the perimeter. That's not going to change anytime soon, though further progression by the aforementioned guards would certainly be beneficial.
Sure, we could wax poetic about Otto Porter Jr.'s early justification of the max deal he signed this offseason. We could highlight Bradley Beal's improvement on both ends of the floor, which has allowed him to serve as a primary creator for the Washington Wizards and thrive in a pick-and-roll setting.
But that would ignore the two problems.
First, John Wall hasn't been John Wall.
Before inflammation in his knee required platelet-rich plasma and viscosupplementation injections, he wasn't nearly as explosive on the offensive end and was having trouble playing his havoc-inducing style of off-ball defense. The disappearance of the quick burst that got him uncontested lanes to the basket has even held him to just 0.79 points per possession as a pick-and-roll ball-handler (52nd percentile) and 0.94 in isolation (53rd percentile).
Of course, a return to health could render these concerns moot. What's more troubling is the continued ineffectiveness of the second unit, despite the strides displayed by Kelly Oubre Jr.
Every once in a while, the bench mob does its job. But the overall product is more inconsistent than its minus-1.6 net rating indicates, and that'll only grow truer if Oubre replaces a less effective version of Markieff Morris in the starting five.
Washington was supposed to keep coalescing around its Big Three and challenge for top billing in the Eastern Conference. Now, it'll be fighting to remain above .500 as Wall works his way back to the court, leaving it shy of initial expectations even as the underlying metrics outpace its win-loss record.
Much like the Chicago Bulls, the Atlanta Hawks—whether they'll acknowledge it or not—are tanking, hoping to land top odds to land one of the potential superstars sitting atop the 2018 draft. But unlike the Bulls, they're keeping things fairly close when they do lose and getting tangible development from many of their key players.
Dennis Schroder continues to look like an offensive stud, albeit an inconsistent one. Dewayne Dedmon, buoyed by a revamped jumper that's gifted him three-point range, has been a two-way positive. Kent Bazemore's contract no longer looks quite so woeful.
And best of all, John Collins appears to be a keeper. As Graham Chapple wrote for Peachtree Hoops after the rookie posted a strong showing against the San Antonio Spurs, "It's becoming old to say already, but the energy Collins brings each game has been invaluable for the Hawks—he comes in and just works."
These positive flashes allowed the Hawks to grade out much more promisingly than their Bulls counterparts. They have a few pieces in place, and they're teasing growth from plenty of varied contributors. Even Marco Belinelli has excelled on the offensive end—yet another testament to the quality work of head coach Mike Budenholzer.
At least in terms of the grading process, that makes a big difference.
Losing D'Angelo Russell to a knee injury hindered the Brooklyn Nets' upward momentum, but his absence from the lineup also paved the way for another breakout. Since entering the starting lineup—and really, even before that—Spencer Dinwiddie has proved he's so much more than a castoff journeyman doomed to bounce from one team to another in the fruitless pursuit of a long-term home.
During his last seven games, the Colorado product has averaged a whopping 16.0 points, 3.0 rebounds and 8.1 assists, emerging as one of the league's more gifted drivers while shooting 40.2 percent from the field, 34.6 percent from deep and 71.4 percent at the stripe. The percentages still need work, but Brooklyn should be more than willing to live with the misses when he's done such a tremendous job sparking the up-tempo offense.
This was supposed to be yet another year near the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings for the Nets, who have absorbed plenty of salary and unwanted players in an unorthodox style of roster construction. But behind the wizardry of head coach Kenny Atkinson and the emergence of Dinwiddie, Russell, Joe Harris and more, Brooklyn has put together a far more palatable offense.
The Nets aren't good yet. But that would be an unrealistic expectation for a team that won a total of 41 games over the last two seasons.
They're tracking toward legitimacy, and that's a fantastic first step.
Not much the Miami Heat have done so far in 2017-18 has been notable.
They've been outscored by 1.3 points per 100 possessions, but they've learned how to win ugly and have still found a way to emerge with an above-.500 record. They haven't dropped more than three contests in a row, but they also haven't won more than three consecutive games. They've played a cushy schedule, but they're also trying to work in new pieces and reincorporate a version of Justise Winslow who excels as a passer but still can't shoot.
If you're starting to think this Miami squad is a conundrum, you're correct.
But even as the Heat attempt to get Dion Waiters back on track (he's shooting 40.1/32.1/84.6), try to receive more buy-in from Hassan Whiteside after slightly diminishing his role in the offense and figure out how to best use the struggling guard trio of Winslow, Josh Richardson and Tyler Johnson, one thing has remained consistent: They're still excellent on defense.
With Whiteside swatting shots, Winslow stifling opposing wings, James Johnson flitting between roles and Kelly Olynyk holding his own against bigger foes, the Heat have plenty of point-preventing weapons. And head coach Erik Spoelstra knows how to utilize them.
Miami's ceiling may be determined by its ability to drag the offense out of the dumps, but it's already in the top 10 for defensive rating. Having a calling card is better than struggling across the board, even if the wins aren't yet coming with any semblance of consistency.
Can we call Nikola Jokic a star now?
The Denver Nuggets center is averaging 16.3 points, 11.2 rebounds and 4.5 assists while coming dangerously close to the 50/40/90 club. His splits are 51.3/40.9/86.0, and he's been more involved in the offense without a corresponding uptick in the turnover department. And for good measure, the big man trails only three players in the league in ESPN.com's defensive real plus-minus after he finished No. 34 last year.
It's all coming together for the gifted facilitator, to the point that the Nuggets' net rating plunges from 7.4 to minus-9.0 when he leaves the court. That first number would trail only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets, while the latter would beat just the Sacramento Kings and Chicago Bulls.
Behind Jokic, the Nuggets are coming closer to functioning like a two-way squad. But they're still an offense-first bunch, and improved play from Jamal Murray and Emmanuel Mudiay (I said improved, not "good") has helped give the Mile High City residents more weapons. This Denver bunch can score with anyone, no matter how long Paul Millsap will remain out of the lineup.
But Millsap's wrist injury is still a concern, and his teammates will have to work even harder on defense to make up for his lengthy absence. This grade could decline correspondingly, but it's hard to argue the Nuggets have done anything but surpass expectations with some quality wins and a lack of letdown performances—an issue that consistently plagued them in recent years.
Los Angeles Lakers
Forget about Lonzo Ball's shooting percentages. He's still been a strong presence for the Los Angeles Lakers because of his remarkable work as a facilitator, contagious ball-movement habits and shockingly excellent off-ball defense. Though he can get blown by in the pick-and-roll game, his quick hands and instincts have made him one of the league's better defensive 1s, much to the surprise of draftniks everywhere.
Ball's high-profile presence has taken center stage for the Purple and Gold, but he really shouldn't be the primary story.
Kyle Kuzma has been a vastly superior offensive option. Jordan Clarkson is having a helluva season while operating outside the spotlight. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is becoming a two-way asset more in reality than theory, while Brandon Ingram is...showing flashes of possible improvement? The pieces are present in Los Angeles, and head coach Luke Walton is beginning to tease actual production out of them.
But the best news of all is the defense.
Part of Los Angeles' success on the stopping end, as Grant Hughes of Bleacher Report detailed, has stemmed from luck:
"The Lakers have done well in limiting opponents' corner-three attempts, but otherwise, the strong defensive performance has been the result of teams simply missing shots. Los Angeles has the lowest opponent three-point percentage in the league. Coupled with a scheme that permits huge numbers of attempts at the rim, the Lakers defense is going to regress—at least to the middle of the pack."
However, luck can't be the only factor behind a jump from dead last to No. 6 in one season. The Lakers are playing more disciplined defense, contesting more shots, fouling less frequently and preventing the opposition from generating nearly as many second-chance opportunities.
Perhaps you feel the 12-8 Minnesota Timberwolves should at least have a grade that begins with an "A." They just keep winning games, featuring tremendous performances from Karl-Anthony Towns, lots of points from Andrew Wiggins and growing comfort from Jimmy Butler.
But as we've said time and time again, more than wins matter, especially this early in the year.
The Wolves have only outscored the opposition by 0.2 points per 100 possessions, and that net rating actually falls outside the Association's top half. Basketball-Reference.com's simple rating system places Minnesota at No. 18 with a negative score. NBA Math's FATS calculator, which uses the four factors and historical comparisons to evaluate level of play, indicates this squad has functioned like one that would go 35-47 over a full season.
So credit where credit is due. The Wolves are winning games, which isn't always easy with a young roster and so many new pieces. But they're also overachieving, which prevents them from earning an even stronger grade.
And until the defense gets better, that's not going to change.
Only five teams have been worse on the preventing end throughout the first quarter of 2017-18, as Minnesota has proved incapable of holding the opposition to reasonable shooting percentages. The players almost never foul, but that's largely because they're not close enough to their assignments to initiate contact.
Until Wiggins and Co. grow more disciplined and show better understanding of head coach Tom Thibodeau's defensive schemes, they might be engaging in an Icarian climb up the Western Conference standings.
New Orleans Pelicans
- DeMarcus Cousins, 5.47 (No. 5 overall)
- Anthony Davis, 4.25 (No. 9)
- Darius Miller, minus-0.02 (No. 128)
- Jrue Holiday, minus-0.35 (No. 149)
- Omer Asik, minus-0.70 (No. 173)
Let's turn to ESPN.com's real plus-minus to help explain why the New Orleans Pelicans aren't experiencing even more success while Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins are both playing so well. Here are the team's top five placements in the catch-all metric:
Davis and Cousins have served as two-way wrecking balls, but the Pelicans have been disastrous without them. According to PBPStats.com, their net rating plunges to minus-23.1 when both bigs leave the court, which obviously can't happen too frequently or else New Orleans will be handing away games.
By opening the season a few games above .500, the Pelicans have bought themselves some time. They can afford to keep figuring things out with the second unit. They have the luxury of letting Jrue Holiday play himself back into form. They can try to place a functional defense around the two bodies on the interior.
But that window won't stay open forever, and the Pelicans have quite clearly overperformed during the season's first quarter, especially after factoring in the time missed by a certain unibrowed frontcourt contributor.
Their two biggest stars have still been pretty damn good, however, nearly dragging the bayou basketballers to a rating that starts with an "A."
New York Knicks
Even if the New York Knicks continue sliding back toward the middle of the pack, they've already made it clear they're operating ahead of schedule. This is a competitive squad right now, capable of thriving on the offensive end and forcing opponents to hit plenty of jumpers to keep up.
Kristaps Porzingis is a superstar, emerging as arguably the league's premier rim-protector while throwing up points in bunches. The three-point stroke is coming around (39.8 percent on 5.2 attempts per game), and he's burying bevies of mid-range jumpers that are virtually unstoppable because of his combination of superior size and technical skill.
But these Knicks haven't been a one-man show.
Enes Kanter is thriving on offense and playing some of the best defense of his career. Courtney Lee has become a true three-and-D wing. Frank Ntilikina, for all his offensive struggles as a rookie point guard, has flashed quick hands and racked up an impressive tally of thefts. Kyle O'Quinn has quietly become one of the NBA's most potent off-the-bench bigs. Tim Hardaway Jr. is scoring a career-high 18.1 points per game and showing enough improvement as a facilitator that he's made up for his nonexistent three-point stroke.
The length of that list is important in and of itself. When was the last time the Knicks had so many players about whom you could say positive things?
Golden State Warriors
The Golden State Warriors operate with a different baseline.
Most teams with a 15-6 record would be in prime position to earn the coveted "A+," or, at the very least, a straight "A." That's doubly true when one loss came without the squad's two best players, and the totality of their efforts has produced a league-best 12.7 net rating.
But the Warriors are the defending champions, and their roster was supposed to put them in position to have one of the greatest years in NBA history. This many dropped games during the first quarter of the season is actually slightly disappointing, even if they've still been the league's best team by a slim margin.
So, what needs to change? In a word, defense.
Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson will always do plenty of damage on the scoring end, but the Dubs have only been slightly above average as stoppers. They've already dug their way out of an early-season hole on the preventing side, but sitting "only" fifth in defensive rating doesn't quite pass muster for an organization with such historic hopes and dreams.
Golden State's schemes don't give them too many opportunities to force turnovers, and the Warriors foul rather frequently when going up against bigger opponents. The lack of size also hinders them on the defensive glass. But this is nothing new.
What's changed since last year is allowing opponents to post a 48.9 effective field-goal percentage, which is—here come those quotation marks again—"only" the second-best mark in the Association. Last year, they paced the league at 48.6 percent while also gambling for a few more steals and keeping more bodies back to get defensive rebounds.
The formula for sheer, unadulterated dominance remains in place. The wins will come.
"That was shocking because Indiana just gave him away," Kevin Durant said on an episode of the Bill Simmons Podcast in August, referring to the Indiana Pacers' seemingly inexplicable decision to trade Paul George for nothing more than Domantas Sabonis and Victor Oladipo. The move was widely criticized, but the Pacers are apparently getting the last laugh.
Take a gander at what Orlando Magic head coach Frank Vogel said about the 2-guard who began his professional career with the Florida-based organization, via CBS Sports' Chris Barnewall:
"He's playing at an All-Star level. The best basketball of his career. He's always been a great basket attacker, slasher, and defender. The way he's shooting the ball from the 3-point line is what separates where he's been prior to this year. Not just shooting open corner 3s, but shooting them off the bounce, off pin-downs, a lot of different ways and it puts a lot more pressure on the defense to close out."
That isn't an exaggeration. Averaging 23.0 points, 5.1 rebounds and 3.8 assists while slashing 47.4/46.2/79.6, Oladipo has performed so well that he should be in contention to start the All-Star Game for the Eastern Conference, not just make the roster as a bench selection. And though he's been the clear standout, Sabonis has more than held his own as a growing two-way threat providing tremendous value in a number of different areas.
These Pacers aren't going to roll over and accept a predetermined fate. They aren't bottom-feeders, and they're winning games even while Myles Turner struggles to find his shooting stroke and make a positive offensive impact.
Shooting regression might eventually push their offense from its current position at No. 5 to outside the top 10, but get on board before the bandwagon fills up. This Pacers squad is a threat to earn one of the East's final playoff spots.
San Antonio Spurs
Gregg Popovich is a genius.
This team has no business being above .500 without Kawhi Leonard, whose return date still remains a mystery. If you bet on Tony Parker making his 2017-18 debut before the small forward who might've emerged as an MVP candidate with a clean bill of health, please direct me toward the store at which you purchased your fully functional crystal ball.
And yet, Pop has Pau Gasol thriving on both ends of the floor. He not only got LaMarcus Aldridge to buy into the offensive schemes, but he's also put him in position to have one of the best years of his illustrious career. He's overcome a black hole at point guard, turned Kyle Anderson into a defensive ace and used a variety of role players to ensure San Antonio is competitive with basically anyone on the floor.
None of this makes any sense. And yet, it does.
We're talking about the Spurs, after all. Of course they're good.
San Antonio should skyrocket up the offensive standings when Leonard is back in business, especially if the coaching staff can ensure he immediately coalesces with Aldridge's ball-dominant habits. The defense, meanwhile, is already operating at elite levels, trailing only the Boston Celtics, Oklahoma City Thunder and Portland Trail Blazers in points allowed per 100 possessions.
Did you expect anything else? Even when staring at what should've been the weakest San Antonio roster in quite some time—a statement that would've remained true even with a healthy Leonard on the floor—you can't doubt the NBA's model organization for too long.
We could talk about Reggie Jackson's rebirth as a tremendous driving threat. We could go over how Tobias Harris has become a go-to offensive option capable of draining three after three and opening up so many more opportunities for himself in the process. We could discuss how key Anthony Tolliver and Langston Galloway have been for the second unit.
But the focus here needs to remain on one contributor: Andre Drummond.
The big man likely won't get much love in the Most Improved Player race because he was already putting up monstrous counting stats. However, he's grown as much as anyone, becoming a truly impactful defender while completely revamping his offensive game.
Drummond is no longer an extreme liability at the charity stripe, which has allowed him to attack much more aggressively without fear of drawing a whistle and squandering a possession with missed freebies. He's no longer relying on ineffective post moves, but is instead playing his part within the the overall offensive schemes. He's showing off advanced facilitating tools that have allowed him to more than triple his previous career high in assists per game with 3.5.
Oh, and that's all happening while he continues to lead the league in rebounds per game, clean up easy finishes around the basket and show off his quick hands as a disruptive force in passing lanes. The potential he struggled to realize in previous seasons has all arrived as actual production, making Drummond one of the game's most valuable big men.
The Pistons wouldn't be anywhere close to the top of the Eastern Conference standings without him, and they certainly wouldn't have quality wins over the Golden State Warriors, Boston Celtics and Oklahoma City Thunder.
Portland Trail Blazers
Damian Lillard is having the season of his life, which initially seems like a strange thing to say about a sharpshooting point guard who's knocking down a career-worst 33.1 percent of his three-point attempts.
But put aside that pesky number.
Thanks to his innate ability to draw contact and get to the charity stripe more frequently than ever before, coupled with his 92.6 percent clip on the ensuing freebies, Lillard's overall efficiency level as a scorer has only dipped slightly. And he has more than made up for that marginal decline by setting up his teammates with aplomb and playing—gasp—solid defense.
Let's turn to NBC Sports Northwest's Dwight Jaynes:
"I don't think I've ever seen a team make a one-season defensive improvement—with no coaching change and no real difference in personnel—the way Portland has this year. It's ridiculous how much better they are. Of course it's still a relatively small sample size but as long as [C.J.] McCollum and Lillard continue their transformation into reliable defenders, the Trail Blazers should be at least a decent defensive squad.
"Kudos to Terry Stotts and his coaching staff for engineering that defensive improvement. The Trail Blazers are a solid third in the league in defensive efficiency. Getting basketball players to defend hard every game is not easy at any level. Defense requires a lot of hard work that often goes unnoticed and many players would rather pay lip service to it rather than actually do it. In the NBA, it also requires intelligence and preparation. The coaching staff has made some technical and philosophical tweaks and some obvious changes in emphasis to pull this thing off."
Against all odds, Lillard and CJ McCollum are spearheading one of the league's deadliest defenses, a unit that's refusing to gamble so that it can contest every shot and prevent the opposition from ever generating a second-chance opportunity.
And that, paired with guards who can catch fire at the snap of a finger, makes for a rather intriguing up-and-comer in the loaded Western Conference.
The Toronto Raptors are 12-7, placing them behind only the Boston Celtics, Detroit Pistons and Cleveland Cavaliers in the improving Eastern Conference. Factor in the NBA's tougher half, and they sit behind just three other squads in overall winning percentage.
But even with that much early success, the Raptors are massively undersold by their win-loss record.
Let's turn back to our trusty metrics.
By net rating, only the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets have been superior. Basketball Reference's simple rating system features identical results, and the Raptors have provided a bit of separation between themselves and the No. 4 Celtics. NBA Math's FATS calculator indicates that Toronto has played like a squad that would go 53.8-28.2 over the course of a full season, most comparable to a 1981-82 Philadelphia 76ers bunch that lost to Magic Johnson's Los Angeles Lakers in the Finals.
Sounds elite, right?
Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan continue to do the heavy lifting as Toronto's leading stars, but the bench has helped push the Canadian representatives toward the top of the pile. Prior to a shoulder injury, Delon Wright was thriving off the pine. OG Anunoby, C.J. Miles, Pascal Siakam, Lucas Nogueira and Jakob Poeltl have all functioned as valuable pieces.
In fact, no other squad has this many role players serving as positives.
Kyrie Irving has developed into an MVP candidate—a back-end candidate, but a candidate nonetheless—by playing the best defense of his career, assisting on a higher percentage of his teammates' field-goal makes and continuing to thrive as a top-notch scoring threat. Al Horford has been fully unleashed by the switchiness of his counterparts, to the point that he should factor into the Defensive Player of the Year race. Jayson Tatum would be the runaway favorite for Rookie of the Year if Ben Simmons didn't exist. Jaylen Brown will pose problems for any other Most Improved Player candidates.
And we still haven't mentioned Marcus Smart's ability to impact the proceedings positively without a working jumper, Aron Baynes' physicality or Daniel Theis' pleasantly surprising ability to function as a strong defensive presence during his unheralded rookie season.
The Boston Celtics could've rolled over and accepted their 2017-18 season wasn't meant to be after Gordon Hayward went down mere minutes into his Beantown debut. Instead, head coach Brad Stevens has milked every ounce of production from his players, helped promote breakout after breakout, steered his troops toward the NBA's top defensive rating and rattled off an astonishing 16 consecutive victories.
Sure, you can pick at nits and point to the small margins in many of those wins. Boston has also faced one of the league's easier schedules and might struggle to remain atop the Eastern Conference without an offense that places within the top half leaguewide.
But 16 straight wins is 16 straight wins—a feat many squads couldn't even dream of pulling off. And especially after losing an All-Star candidate just moments into the campaign, that's worth the highest of marks.
The basketball-watching world knew the Houston Rockets were going to be good. But this good?
Good enough to throw a scare into the Golden State Warriors and assert themselves as a contender for the "best team in basketball" crown? While Chris Paul has sat out of all but six games?
That was just about unfathomable.
Houston has morphed into an offensive juggernaut, and it still may be able to reach another level now that Paul is gaining comfort alongside James Harden. The Rockets are taking and making a ridiculous number of threes, and The Beard seems to have virtually mastered the art of offense. He reads every defensive set perfectly, attacks at the appropriate times and has no trouble throwing up monstrous scoring and facilitating marks.
Last year, Harden generated a mind-numbing 56 points per game off his scoring and passing (29.1 per contest on his own and 26.9 through his feeds). This year, those numbers are at 31.7 and 23.7, respectively, which adds up to...drum roll...55.4.
But don't be fooled into thinking that's a decline.
Harden is spending slightly less time on the floor, somehow scoring even more efficiently (his true shooting percentage has jumped from 61.3 to 63.0 percent), turning the ball over far less frequently and playing arguably the best defense of his career. He's become the runaway favorite for MVP at this early stage of the season (Basketball Reference's MVP tracker gives him a 78.3 percent chance of winning the award), and the Rockets are experiencing a corresponding level of overall success.
One of three teams to receive the highest grade, the Philadelphia 76ers aren't on the same level as the Boston Celtics and Houston Rockets. They likely won't be for a while, since Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid and the rest of the youthful contributors in the City of Brotherly Love still need plenty of seasoning. Skipping steps during an NBA rebuild is a perilous process.
However, these grades are doled out relative to expectations, and few beyond the most optimistic supporters viewed the Sixers as playoff locks heading into the season. Lest we forget, their over/under was set at 41.5, per OddsShark.
And yet, here we are.
The Sixers have already morphed into a dangerous team, overcoming an offense still searching for consistency with strong defensive play. They function like a contender when Embiid and Simmons are both on the floor, and their young second unit should only improve as the 2017-18 campaign progresses.
Who would've expected the Sixers to win 11 of their first 19 games? Who thought the victories wouldn't just come at the expense of bottom-feeders, but would include successful outings against the red-hot Detroit Pistons, Houston Rockets, Indiana Pacers and Portland Trail Blazers? Who could have dreamed all this would happen while Philadelphia faced what's been, by far, the league's toughest slate of competition?
The Sixers aren't ahead of schedule; they've left the schedule in the dust.