Midseason Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 17, 2018

Midseason Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

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    Now halfway through the 2017-18 NBA season, it's time for some straight talk. And nothing cuts right to the evaluative point like a letter grade.

    This isn't just about each team's win total at the midway mark. We've got the standings for that.

    Instead, we're grading performance relative to initial expectations. Is the team in question on pace to meet its goals? Has it fallen short? Has it blown them away? And, critically, how reasonable were those goals in the first place?

    If you started out with a bad plan and failed to execute it, but in the process accidentally wound up in the spot you should have been gunning for all along, you will be awarded no points, and may God have mercy on your soul.

    Where forces majeure have intervened (think catastrophic, unforeseeable injuries), we'll either grant leeway or, in special cases, award extra credit if the team has overcome obstacles not of its own making. Foreseeability is so, so critical. It's the difference between giving a team a pass or burying it when bad breaks arise. If you should have seen it coming, there's no sympathy.

    Break out the red pens.

Atlanta Hawks: B

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    The Atlanta Hawks have the league's worst record, but that was kind of the plan.

    We all knew what new general manager Travis Schlenk was about when he offered a two-item mission statement in September: "We went into this offseason with a couple goals, and [one of] those two goals was to try to get younger. ... The second thing we wanted to accomplish was financial flexibility moving forward as it relates to the [salary cap] as well."

    That's code for "we're rebuilding."

    Atlanta has seen intermittent flashes of starter-quality play from rookie John Collins, whose energy and bounce have at least added some excitement to an otherwise unexciting season. Taurean Prince has shot it much better in his second year, and the Hawks are nicely positioned to sell off veterans—Dewayne Dedmon, Ersan Ilyasova and Kent Bazemore, to name three—for more future assets.

    Ideally, Dennis Schroder would have taken a bigger step forward in scoring efficiency. But it's hard to be too critical of his play considering the lack of talent surrounding him.

    The Hawks are where they want to be: in line for the top overall pick and in possession of two other first-rounders (via the Rockets and Timberwolves) to boot.

Boston Celtics: A+

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    I'll just spoil this now and let you know there's only going to be one A-plus handed out—and the Boston Celtics get it easily.

    It's not just that they won 16 games in a row early in the year and own the league's top defensive rating. It's not just that they keep adding to their lead on the rest of the Eastern Conference contenders—to the point that they might even be able to coast over the season's final couple of weeks.

    It's that they've done all this after losing Gordon Hayward mere minutes into his debut season.

    Even with Hayward, nobody expected Boston to be this good.

    Before the season, most over/under figures for the Celtics hovered in the low to mid-50s. If they play .500 ball the rest of the way, they'll still push up close to the over on a lot of those bets. At 34-11, it seems reasonable to expect a little better than a break-even mark from here on.

    Toss in the preservation of their asset trove, Kyrie Irving's MVP candidacy, the stunning effectiveness (and three-point shooting!) of rookie Jayson Tatum and the historic production from a young roster, and you have the highest grade in the class.

Brooklyn Nets: B

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    The Brooklyn Nets are a bit of a special case because they had no chance to push for a playoff spot and had no draft-related incentive to lose games.

    The best they could hope for was the continued refinement of a style and culture that would, eventually, lead to wins when the right talent came around. And if any hidden gems or distressed assets showed promise, all the better.

    Halfway through the year, the Nets have played fast, shot lots of threes and seen some young players develop under head coach Kenny Atkinson—a patient and principled leader who has his team playing a modern game. Spencer Dinwiddie capitalized on D'Angelo Russell's injury absence, establishing himself as a legitimate NBA player after putting that status in doubt as recently as last year.

    Caris LeVert looks like a rotation-level lead guard (with upside), Jarrett Allen has a ceiling higher than his draft slot would have suggested, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson got better, and the addition of Jahlil Okafor means the Nets have two of the top three picks from the 2015 draft. That's not bad for a team that hasn't had the rights to its own first-rounders for what seems like 1,000 years.

    It would have been nice to see a little more from Russell by now, but the Nets' season has otherwise progressed fine—particularly considering the limitations imposed by the previous regime's dumb dealing.

Charlotte Hornets: Incomplete

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    If the grade had to go in the book right now, it'd be an "F."

    The Charlotte Hornets are comfortably out of the playoff picture, headed for the luxury tax, devoid of up-and-coming talent (What happened to you, Malik Monk?) and securely locked into a roster of veterans who are either overpaid or compensated at market value.

    We pillory teams that lock themselves into this kind of stasis if they're fighting for one of the last few playoff spots. When they're not even competing, the criticism has to be even harsher.

    But the Hornets can still salvage this thing if they grit their teeth, squint through the pain and trade Kemba Walker.

    Ideally, Charlotte would dig itself out of this rut by moving someone other than its best and most reasonably paid player. But nobody's kicking down the door for Nicolas Batum and the $76.7 million remaining on his deal after this season, and even if Dwight Howard is producing one of his best statistical seasons in a while, he's been on a different team in each of the last three years for a reason.

    Moving Walker before the deadline would help the Hornets avoid a gone-for-nothing exit in free agency after next season while creating some badly needed flexibility. If a draft asset also came back in the bargain, even better.

    Blowing up the squad wouldn't get the Hornets a high mark, but it'd keep this season from being a total failure.

Chicago Bulls: B+

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    Normally, we would have docked the Chicago Bulls for winning seven straight games amid a 10-2 stretch, perhaps invoking some kind of harried all-caps plea like OH NO WHAT ARE YOU DOING DO YOU EVEN WANT THE FIRST PICK YOU'RE 3-20 FOR CRYING OUT LOUD!

    But head coach Fred Hoiberg needed something to stabilize his position and validate his style. He needed something to point toward as "proof of concept" after failing to connect or impress in his first two seasons. The wins provided all that.

    The Bulls' surprising surge also pumped up Nikola Mirotic's trade value. Best of all, Chicago's burst of success may not be fatal to its lottery aims. There's still plenty of time to tank between now and April.

    Kris Dunn looked like a total washout as a rookie but now appears to be a capable starter with game-altering defensive chops. He'll be 24 on March 18, so the potential for improvement is limited. But to say he's been anything but a pleasant surprise would be wrong.

    Zach LaVine came back and scored a ton of points right away, and rookie Lauri Markkanen made his 100th three-pointer more quickly than any rookie in league history.

    The Jimmy Butler trade still feels like a bad one, particularly as Butler works his way into the MVP conversation, but Chicago's foundation is far sturdier than it appeared at the start of the season.

Cleveland Cavaliers: C

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    Every season of LeBron James' second tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers has been the same.

    We wring our hands over the coasting, the team-wide bouts of inattention and the shoddy defense. Every year after 2014-15, we've also sought to differentiate the current season from the one before, talking ourselves into the ways these new circumstances make this edition of the apparently vulnerable Cavs more problematic than ever.

    We're doing it again. And because this is how things work, we're all really sure Cleveland's flaws will sink it this time.

    Maybe this is the year. Maybe Isaiah Thomas won't help. Maybe the Irving void can't be filled. Maybe the defense is truly broken—to the point that reaching the Finals will be impossible. And maybe Boston and Toronto are real threats this time.

    But the Cavaliers have only finished with the top seed in their conference once since James came back, and they've cruised to the Finals every time anyway.

    The benefit of the doubt remains. Cleveland is the best bet to be the last team standing in the East until proved otherwise.

    Could the first half have gone better? Sure.

    Does it matter? Probably not.

Dallas Mavericks: C-

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    The Dallas Mavericks won 33 games last year, added Dennis Smith Jr. in the draft and basically ran it back, hoping to push for a playoff spot with a veteran core built to keep Dirk Nowitzki involved in competitive basketball games for as long as he chooses to play.

    Smith has been impressive at points, and his athletic gifts make his ceiling among the highest in a loaded 2017 class. But he's a rookie, rookies are generally not helpful players, and, as a result, the Mavs aren't any better than they were last season.

    If this grade seems harsh, remember that good results (Dallas currently sitting within striking distance of the top lottery spot) don't excuse flawed plans. The Mavs didn't necessarily want to be here. They don't tank*. Their goal is a playoff berth.

    Seth Curry's missing the season with a stress reaction in his tibia hasn't helped, but that J.J. Barea has played better than ever at age 33 nearly offsets Curry's absence in the luck ledger. Nerlens Noel's doghouse stint stinks, but at least the Mavs didn't commit to him on a long-term deal.

    Not every franchise can so easily sell off everything and bottom out. Dallas feels an obligation to Nowitzki, and that obligation means a lot of wheel-spinning and little progress. Sentimentality and professional courtesy are honorable things, so we're taking it easier than we should on the mediocrity treadmill-riding Mavs.

    *Until they're mathematically eliminated, at which point they tank hard.

Denver Nuggets: D+

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    The Denver Nuggets are right in the midst of the playoff race, but it's hard to get past the feeling that they're fighting for position with the wrong crowd.

    Instead of duking it out with the .500-flirters and hoping to finish among the West's top eight, Denver's talent level and young, theoretically improving core should have it up there with the sub-Warriors elite, hoping to snag home-court advantage in the first round.

    It's possible we got carried away with last season's scoring surge (Denver's offense was the league's best after Dec. 15). And we may have also priced in more improvement than was reasonable for everyone from Nikola Jokic to Jamal Murray to Gary Harris.

    Still...the Nuggets ought to be better.

    Maybe if Paul Millsap hadn't gotten hurt, they'd be two or three games closer to the West's top tier—which is where so many thought the Nuggets belonged. We can't hold Millsap's injury against Denver; it was a freak occurrence affecting a durable guy. Millsap has already missed more games in 2017-18 than he did in any of his prior 11 seasons.

    Head coach Mike Malone is right there with the disappointed legions, though, telling his players after a Jan. 11 loss that they were "full of s--t" if they thought they were playoff-worthy.

    There's time to fix this, but Denver has been a mild disappointment so far.

Detroit Pistons: B

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    Avery Bradley has missed time, Stanley Johnson's development remains minimal, and Reggie Jackson's severe ankle injury shone a light on the Detroit Pistons' anemic playmaking.

    But Tobias Harris is now a 40-plus percent three-point shooter, Reggie Bullock has solidified his rotation role, and Andre Drummond is having the best year of his career by virtually every measure. So even though Detroit's half-season features nearly as much bad news as good, the organization gets a solid mark on the strength of Drummond's progress.

    He's still the team's most important player, not to mention the one in whom they've invested a max salary. His strides as a facilitator from the elbows would be cause for celebration on their own, but he's also no longer a glaring liability at the foul line, as he's shooting 63 percent from the stripe.

    It's always nice when your franchise cornerstone can actually play high-leverage minutes. For most of Drummond's career, opponents could intentionally foul him off the floor late in games. Not anymore.

    As recently as this past summer, it was unclear whether Drummond had a role in an increasingly space- and skill-based league. His play in the first half put those concerns to bed, and it's difficult to overstate how much that means to a Pistons organization built around an old-school big man.

Golden State Warriors: A

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    Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green have all missed time because of injury, Andre Iguodala is in a season-long shooting slump, and the defensive intensity slips more often than ever. Yet the Golden State Warriors are still tops in net rating (10.7), winning percentage (.800) and offensive efficiency (113.6).

    In fact, if they keep up their current pace, they'll set the all-time record for effective field-goal percentage—a mark they broke in 2015-16...finishing that season and 2016-17 at 56.3 percent. Granted, effective field-goal percentage has trended up across the league in recent years. But anytime the "all-time" qualifier gets tossed around, it's significant.

    More broadly, if the playoffs started today, anyone with sense would pick the Dubs to win the title without hesitation.

    The standard is exceptionally high, but the Warriors earn an "A" because they're where they (and we) expected they'd be. Jordan Bell looking like a draft steal, Kevon Looney proving himself in spot minutes and David West playing like he's closer to 27 than 37 are just different flavors of icing on the cake.

Houston Rockets: A

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    A clear-cut No. 2 in the West, the Houston Rockets looked like they might be even better than that for a good chunk of the first half.

    When Houston cranked out that 20-1 stretch and climbed all the way to No. 7 in defensive efficiency (on Dec. 18), it looked like the Warriors had their strongest in-conference challenger of the Steve Kerr era. That may still be the case, but Houston will have to get healthy.

    Chris Paul has already missed significant time, James Harden is currently out with a hamstring and Luc Mbah a Moute's shoulder cost him a full month. Houston is thinner than you think.

    Still, preseason concerns about Paul and Harden meshing have turned out to be meritless. This thing works, and Houston (when healthy) can play big, small or in between. Offensive dominance is certain—whether it comes from undersized fivesomes spreading the floor and firing or simple Harden isolations.

    Houston has hit the upper extremes of where most expected it'd be this season. An "A" is the only option here.

Indiana Pacers: A-

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    The Indiana Pacers' surprising success is similar to the Celtics' in degree, if not quite as consequential.

    Indy's leap from theoretical cellar-dweller to consistent competitor and likely playoff participant is a big deal, as is Victor Oladipo's sudden status as an All-Star guard in the Eastern Conference. Voting's not over yet, but if he's not in, there needs to be an investigation.

    He's one of eight players currently averaging at least 24 points, five rebounds and four assists. In that group, only Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry and LeBron James have a higher effective field-goal percentage. That's flat-out elite play from a guy who, at the start of the season, felt overpaid at $20 million per year.

    Domantas Sabonis is a rotation player as well, which means Indiana actually won the Paul George trade—something that absolutely nobody thought possible at the time.

    There are sustainability issues with the Pacers' excellent first half. They've shot exceedingly well from deep, and several of their key offensive weapons—Oladipo included—are performing well above their career shooting norms.

    That said, the Pacers are far more competitive and far more fun than most anticipated. Thanks to Oladipo, they've also got a star in place, which matters more than anything else.

Los Angeles Clippers: C-

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    Lou Williams' incendiary scoring is probably the most surprising element in the Los Angeles Clippers' first half, and even that isn't a total shock. Of course, one of the league's most notorious gunners was going to go off when an injury-riddled roster had no choice but to give him the green light in big minutes.

    Predictability of a different sort has defined most of L.A.'s half-season.

    Everyone who looked like an injury risk got injured. Blake Griffin, Danilo Gallinari, Patrick Beverley and Milos Teodosic have all missed at least 16 games. Beverley is done for the year. Austin Rivers, Sam Dekker and even the ultra-durable DeAndre Jordan have also spent time in street clothes.

    Despite that foreseeable misfortune, the Clips have survived. They're above .500 and currently a half-game back of the eighth spot in the West. That's probably a negative in the grand scheme, though, as a lottery pick would have helped create hope for the future. As it stands, postseason contention makes it more likely L.A. will hold on to Jordan, perhaps heading into next year with yet another aging player locked into a fat contract.

    He'd join Griffin and Gallo as key Clips figures whose best days are already behind them.

    The Clippers intended to stay relevant when they re-upped with Griffin, and they've done that. Achieving a misguided goal isn't the kind of thing we should be rewarding, though.

Los Angeles Lakers: D

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    This isn't entirely about Lonzo Ball, which is perhaps the only time an item on the Los Angeles Lakers has ever started that way. He's been fine lately, may no longer be fairly regarded as the worst shooter of all time and is even increasing his on-court value, per sports analyst Dean Oliver. 

    The nonsense surrounding (and created by) LaVar Ball persists, and it may eventually force the Lakers to question whether the son is worth the trouble produced by the father. That has to temper some of the enthusiasm generated by Ball's improved play.

    The bigger issue with the Lakers is that they simply haven't been good enough to make themselves attractive to free agents.

    Despite talent upgrades in rentals Brook Lopez and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma's rookie breakout and Ball's purported offensive wizardry, the Lakers' attack has been toothless all year. With the defense slipping since a top-10 ranking on Dec. 1, L.A. still looks like one of the half-dozen worst teams in the league.

    Considering how much salary they'll have to cut to afford two max players, the Lakers will be asking free agents to trust in a threadbare core that hasn't shown much. That's a tough sell.

Memphis Grizzlies: D-

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    Let's run it down:

    • A longstanding difference of opinion between head coach David Fizdale and star Marc Gasol resulted in a coaching change in November.
    • Gasol's play has slipped in his age-33 season, particularly on defense, where he's now far closer to being a liability than a DPOY winner.
    • Mike Conley's sore Achilles, which cost him over a month in 2015-16, is basically a lock to keep him out for over half of this season. And that's a best-case outlook.
    • Chandler Parsons' knee has him on the sidelines again.
    • A franchise perennially intent on making the playoffs...will not come close.

    Yes, the Memphis Grizzlies are going to get a pick toward the top of the draft. And yes, that provides one of the only realistic avenues toward competitive play in the coming seasons. Conley and Gasol, both on fat contracts and tough to trade, might get a young superstar as a sidekick, which could help Memphis bridge the end of its current era and the start of its next.

    But this isn't at all what the Grizzlies intended to do. They're in the position of a tanker without trying to tank, and their books remain clogged with bad deals.

    In other words, it's been a rough first half.

Miami Heat: B+

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    We've been hard on a lot of teams that paid veterans and hoped to be playoff-relevant—partly because many such teams spent too much, and partly because those plans went awry.

    But the Miami Heat were a bit more judicious in their spending and, more importantly, their plan is working. A recent hot streak vaulted the Heat from the lottery into the East's top four, and after seeing this team go on a 30-11 run to close last season, we shouldn't write off any surges as lucky or unsustainable.

    The Dion Waiters contract was a bad call, and the bum ankle that cost him time last year will prevent him from playing the rest of this season. Otherwise, Miami's moves have paid off. Kelly Olynyk provides shooting, James Johnson can run an offense from four positions, and Josh Richardson is a defensive menace showing improvement on offense.

    Miami didn't get any of those guys cheaply, but they're all contributing to a team that plays hard, and they're all tradable on their new deals.

    Plus, rookie center Bam Adebayo looks like a stud—a defensive difference-maker who can switch onto guards and facilitate or score at the rim on the other end.

    This is how you walk the line between winning in the present without severely compromising future flexibility. 

Milwaukee Bucks: C

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    With Giannis Antetokounmpo making the leap to the MVP short list, the Milwaukee Bucks should be better than they were last season.

    But they're not.

    In fact, if you use net rating as your criteria, this year's plus-0.1 shows Milwaukee is worse than last year's plus-0.5. That's a marginal difference, but it still paints the Bucks as roughly a .500 team despite Giannis' leap, despite the acquisition of Eric Bledsoe and despite a full season from Khris Middleton.

    That's where scheme (and, necessarily, coaching) crops up.

    The Bucks defense is overly aggressive and yields too many opportunities at the rim. Their offense routinely stations non-shooters on the strong side and is rarely spaced sufficiently to provide outlets for Antetokounmpo, against whom opponents simply pack the lane without fear of repercussion.

    That Antetokounmpo has developed into a superstar while being set up to fail so often speaks volumes about how good he is and, believe it or not, how much better he could be in a more sensible scheme.

    The Bucks already have the hard part down. They have their transcendent star. But other systemic issues mean he's not shining as brightly as he could be.

Minnesota Timberwolves: A

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    It'd be nice if Andrew Wiggins could do anything but score, and it'd be nicer if he could get those points more efficiently, but we can't let one young player's failure to develop overshadow the fact that head coach Tom Thibodeau has pushed all the right buttons in his second season with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

    For more than a month, the Wolves have been the best team in the league. Thanks to Jimmy Butler's two-way excellence and leadership, Minnesota's defense is even trending up. Since Dec. 15, the Timberwolves have allowed the fifth-fewest points per possession.

    Tyus Jones has emerged as (at least) a terrific backup point guard—a defensive havoc-wreaker who deflects or steals every errant pass. There's a case to be made he's earned minutes over the more highly compensated Jeff Teague.

    Karl-Anthony Towns remains one of the most talented scoring bigs in memory.

    Thibodeau's heavy-minute demands will always be a concern, but the Timberwolves are fourth in the West after winning just 31 games a year ago.

New Orleans Pelicans: B

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    Maybe a tenuous playoff spot and a narrowly positive net rating don't seem particularly impressive, but when you consider the New Orleans Pelicans' lack of talent beyond the DeMarcus Cousins-Anthony Davis-Jrue Holiday trio, this team has performed just fine.

    The Pels offense checks in among the league's top 10. Ideally, you'd want to see a team built around two conventionally sized big men performing better on D, but New Orleans' shaky showing on that end hasn't torpedoed the season yet.

    Rajon Rondo has had his moments, Darius Miller can shoot, and E'Twaun Moore has scored with exceptional efficiency.

    Head coach Alvin Gentry deserves credit for using his star big men in interesting ways, effectively putting the ball in their hands on the perimeter and letting them work in tandem. Despite a dearth of playmakers and floor-spacers, the Pelicans have found ways to score.

    Cousins turns the ball over far too often, still loafs in transition defense and doesn't seem interested in running out to shooters, but the Pels have actually defended better with him on the floor. Box score-wise, he's been a statistical monster—as has Davis, who ranks fifth in player efficiency rating.

    It would have been so easy for this two-big experiment to go badly, but the Pels are making it work.

New York Knicks: B-

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    Kristaps Porzingis is a tunnel-vision scorer who'll easily make it three straight years with more turnovers than assists, but we should cut the guy a break. He's 22 and ably shouldering far more scoring responsibility than ever—without sacrificing much in efficiency.

    With career-best averages in points and blocks, KP used the first half of 2017-18 to prove his worth as a top scoring option with legitimate rim-protecting prowess. This version of Porzingis couldn't be the lead dog on a title contender, but it's easier than ever to see him developing into that kind of player.

    There's also a broader freshness to the New York Knicks that is not coincidentally linked with the expiration of Phil Jackson's triangle offense. Head coach Jeff Hornacek has the Knicks moving a bit more, and despite leaning on a third-year big man and a rookie point guard, the Knicks are producing roughly league-average offense.

    Tanking would probably have been the best course this year, but there'll be time for that in the spring.

    Finally, this was going to be a C-plus, but Michael Beasley's sporadic scoring outbursts have been fun enough to warrant a bump into the B range.

Oklahoma City Thunder: C-

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder are fine. They're going to make the playoffs and probably scare whoever they face in the first round. Nuclear athleticism and tons of raw talent make them dangerous.

    But the Thunder are also clearly something less than a championship contender, which makes their first half a disappointment.

    The fit between Russell Westbrook, Paul George and Carmelo Anthony has been far from seamless. The offense is painfully clunky. Pedestrian. Stagnant. Unimaginative.

    The pieces are still intriguing, and Steven Adams remains a star in his role. But the Thunder don't have a two-way shooting guard, Patrick Patterson isn't the same guy he was in Toronto, and, most importantly, Westbrook's style of play marginalizes everyone around him.

    Since several variables have changed in OKC—the coach, the other stars, the supporting cast—while Westbrook's presence has remained the one constant, it's easier than ever to draw a straight line between his stylistic preferences and the Thunder's underperforming offense.

Orlando Magic: F

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    The 8-4 start, fueled by hot three-point shooting and pegged by virtually everyone as unsustainable at the time, made everything that came next sting a little more. Ephemeral as it was, the Orlando Magic sparked hope. And then that hope died.

    Orlando has been the worst team in the league since it got off to that surprising start, running up a 5-27 record since.

    Head coach Frank Vogel has Orlando defending at a bottom-five rate, which adds increasing credence to the idea that his defensive success with the Pacers was personnel-based and not the result of some ingenious scheme.

    Aaron Gordon has developed a three-point shot but still remains something less than a cornerstone. Rookie Jonathan Isaac projects well, but he too feels more like a rotation talent than a franchise-altering star. That means the Magic are again on pace for a lottery trip without an incumbent talent to build around.

    Most of this falls on the past regime. This front office isn't responsible for past botched drafts, overpaid veterans or stalled player development. All the same, Orlando's first half solidified its status as one of the league's most hopeless organizations.

Philadelphia 76ers: B

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    Joel Embiid has been mostly healthy, which is the absolute best outcome the Philadelphia 76ers could have envisioned.

    Also a positive: Ben Simmons is better than anyone expected, giving the Sixers a pair of stars.

    So even if Philadelphia is merely fighting for a playoff spot and suffering through bouts of inconsistency, the certainty of a tandem like Simmons and Embiid means this first half counts as a win. It would have been a much bigger one if Markelle Fultz's first several months with the team hadn't been defined by a busted shot, a suspicious shoulder injury, competing explanations for said injury from team and player, a rehabilitative shutdown and virtually no on-court sample to judge.

    It's entirely too early to write Fultz off, but you'd have to agree that everything we've seen so far this season increases the likelihood Philly whiffed on the top overall pick—which it surrendered assets to acquire.

    Other than that, The Process continues apace.

Phoenix Suns: C-

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    The Phoenix Suns' first half featured a little too much success in the clutch for a team that should still be tanking for a lottery pick. Their plus-5.2 net rating in close-and-late situations ranks 11th in the league, and the extra wins generated by that performance could sabotage a rebuild that is still in its infancy.

    Still, good clutch luck (which is bad luck in this case) isn't the reason for Phoenix's poor grade. Instead, it's the lack of development by its most important players.

    Devin Booker is scoring at high volume with improved efficiency, but two-and-a-half years into his career, it feels like a stretch to say he's the kind of player who could lead Phoenix to glory. As a second or third option, Booker's game would look fantastic. But the Suns need someone better.

    Josh Jackson, Dragan Bender and Marquese Chriss have all underwhelmed, which means the Suns still need more lottery luck to find their transformative star.

    Grabbing a first-rounder for Eric Bledsoe was a fine move, though a more proactive approach might have yielded a higher return. If the Suns had traded Tyson Chandler or any of their other vets for draft assets in the first half, it would have juiced this grade.

    Finally, firing Earl Watson was the right move. But, like the Bledsoe deal, it's one Phoenix should have made last season.

Portland Trail Blazers: C

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    An average grade for a team that seems committed to mediocrity. Just feels right, doesn't it?

    At least the Portland Trail Blazers changed things up on us, somehow arriving at their typical break-even status by flipping their offensive and defensive profiles. Instead of scoring at elite rates and surrendering points in droves, the Blazers are suddenly stalwart defenders who can't score.

    This upside-down version of the Blazers exists despite the fact they have much of the same personnel as last year.

    Portland feels stuck. It can either spend big on Jusuf Nurkic this summer or let him walk, and it's hard to decide which would be worse. Neither outcome feels objectively good, though. With Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum in their primes, the Trail Blazers should feel some urgency to compete. But this core is effectively locked in, and bad deals for Evan Turner and Meyers Leonard further compromise flexibility.

    A first half that offered clarity of direction would have been ideal. If the Blazers had fallen apart or vaulted into the West's top four (which seemed possible after Nurkic produced excellent numbers in a 20-game cameo last season), at least the team would know how to align its goals.

    Instead, we've got a Blazers team ticketed for a low-40s win total and life in the dreaded middle.

Sacramento Kings: D

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    Remember that bit waaaay back in the introduction about how there'd be no points awarded for arriving at the right result via the wrong process?

    That was specifically directed at the Sacramento Kings, who added veterans in free agency, gave them minutes over younger players and tried to play respectable ball while building for the future. As we've seen so many times, it's hard to have it both ways.

    The only thing that saves the Kings from a failing grade is their recent decision to strategically shelve vets and redistribute those minutes to the kids. That's right: The tank is on now.

    De'Aaron Fox has shown flashes but remains a reluctant shooter who doesn't get to the rim enough. Bogdan Bogdanovic is probably the team's best offensive player, but he's already 25. There's no cornerstone.

    The Kings are lucky to not be regarded as one of the worst teams in recent memory. They should have 10 wins (not 13), according to their point differential, and they're last in offensive and defensive efficiency.

    The team's shot profile is horrendous; Sacramento ranks first in percentage of shots taken in the mid-range area and last at the rim. That should raise concerns about basic coaching principles as much as talent.

    The Kings are doing the right thing by packing it in and gunning for the lottery. They don't have their own first-rounder in 2019, so getting a transformative talent in the upcoming draft is vital. It's just a shame that instead of using its cap space to take on bad money with assets attached, Sacramento wasted it on veterans who'll sit—and who probably won't command much as trade bait.

San Antonio Spurs: A

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    Mark Sobhani/Getty Images

    Only the San Antonio Spurs could lose their best player on both ends for 36 games and casually emerge from that doomsday scenario with a top-four playoff seed and the sixth-best net rating in the league.

    Kawhi Leonard's MVP case in 2016-17 was built mainly on his two-way impact, but his situation as San Antonio's only real star and offensive lynchpin was also a factor. It stood to reason his removal from the mix would sink the aging, stodgy Spurs.

    Instead, San Antonio let LaMarcus Aldridge reprise his plodding, post-up heavy Portland role while maximizing Pau Gasol's considerable remaining offensive talent. Manu Ginobili delivered two jaw-dropping highlights a week, Rudy Gay looked strong as a small-ball 4 until he got hurt, and Davis Bertans flashed serious stretch-big chops when called upon.

    San Antonio remains a marvel—a high-functioning, egoless monument to team play and shrewd scheming.

Toronto Raptors: A

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    Jeff Haynes/Getty Images

    Where to start?

    DeMar DeRozan's evolution into a complete offensive player who'll fire off threes more often than ever?

    The development of a youth corps—Jakob Poeltl, Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby and Pascal Siakam to name four—that gives Toronto a feisty second unit and the option to dump longer-term money elsewhere without fear of a productivity decline?

    An offensive overhaul that has the ball moving and three-point shots going up more frequently than at any point in this era of Raptors basketball?

    If you wanted to get critical, Norman Powell's failure to live up to his new contract might be an option. But the real reason he's been somewhat marginalized in the first year of his deal is that Anunoby is destroying expectations as a rookie. It's hard to fault the Raps for nailing it with their first-rounder.

    Toronto lags slightly behind Boston in the wins department, but its net rating is 2.2 points higher.

    So if the Celts get our only A-plus, the Raptors certainly deserve the next best thing.

Utah Jazz: B

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    Ned Dishman/Getty Images

    If the Utah Jazz had accidentally burned down Vivint Smart Home Arena, forfeited a dozen games by oversleeping and forgotten their shoes on a five-game road trip, they still would have gotten at least a "C-plus."

    Donovan Mitchell's emergence is that big of a deal.

    Dealing for the No. 13 pick and immediately watching him shoulder massive scoring and playmaking responsibilities using skills no evaluator could have known he had is a borderline miracle. Mitchell profiles as the next great player for a franchise with some serious history. For an organization that has only built sustained success from within, Mitchell is salvation incarnate.

    And, oh, sweet fancy Moses, the dunks! As Ricky Rubio told NBA.com's David Aldridge:

    "He's bringing it every night, and he wants it more. We know how tough it is your rookie season; imagine if you're one of the top guys on the team, and we expect you to bring it every night, because you showed you can do it. The [expectation] level is rising higher and higher every day, just because of the way he does things."

    Rudy Gobert's injury woes mean the Jazz are unlikely to repeat last year's playoff appearance, and it would be nice to see Rodney Hood prove he can get to the bucket and/or make others better before Utah has to commit to him in free agency.

    But in the wake of Hayward's departure, the Jazz have their next iconic talent. That makes for a good first half.

Washington Wizards: C+

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    Stephen Gosling/Getty Images

    The Washington Wizards were supposed to be good, and overall, that's what they've been.

    The problem has been consistency, as Washington's habit of playing up or down to the competition has produced some inexcusable losses to subpar opponents. The Wizards are 12-9 against sub-.500 foes.

    On the positive side, Kelly Oubre Jr.'s progress is encouraging. He and Otto Porter Jr. are so far producing a plus-8.0 net rating when sharing the floor. Among Wizards twosomes that have spent at least 500 minutes on the court together, only Porter and John Wall have been more productive.

    Wall's shot profile has been less than ideal. He's substituting more jumpers for rim attacks and making them with alarming infrequency. Wall is shooting 30.5 percent on his two-point jumpers, his lowest percentage since his second year in the league.

    Washington is on pace for 47 wins after it won 49 games last year. Not spectacular, but hardly a disappointment.


    Stats courtesy of Basketball ReferenceCleaning the Glass or NBA.com unless otherwise specified. Accurate through games played Tuesday, Jan. 16.

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