Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team: Do LeBron's Lakers Get the Highest Marks?

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistDecember 4, 2019

Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team: Do LeBron's Lakers Get the Highest Marks?

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    The quarter mark of the NBA campaign is a critical evaluation period.

    By this point, hot takes have given way to more reasonable observations, and there's enough data around to run comparisons with the eye test. This is when trends start becoming identities, early promise morphs into full-fledged excitement or concerns grow into nightmares.

    Teams have been running their own assessments all along, but this is when the results really start to matter. Remember, teams can start trading most players signed this summer on Dec. 15, so these judgments can soon have tangible effects on the exchange market.

    So, what should you make of your team's play through the 2019-20 campaign's quarter mark? That's what we're here to answer by comparing preseason expectations against regular-season realities.

    With red pens at the ready, let's get to grading.

Atlanta Hawks: D+

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    Misfortune in the way of John Collins' suspension and Kevin Huerter's shoulder injury hasn't helped the Atlanta Hawks. Team-wide allergies to defense and struggles with consistent secondary playmaking have caused even more damage.

    Atlanta has twice surrendered 150-plus points in games that were decided in regulation. Only five teams have worse defensive ratings, and just the New York Knicks and Golden State Warriors have lower net ratings than Atlanta's abysmal minus-9.2.

    It's getting hard to remember there were legitimate playoff hopes for this team ahead of the season's tip.

    It hasn't quite been all disastrous. Trae Young looks like a superstar (28.2 points, 8.3 assists), and Jabari Parker seems rejuvenated (16.3 points on 49.6 percent shooting). But this squad still went from stealthy sleeper to cellar-dweller quickly.

Boston Celtics: B+

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    Even after significant offseason shuffling, the Boston Celtics again appear a force to be reckoned with in the Eastern Conference. Even better news: Most of this looks legit.

    Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are enjoying the breakouts we all expected to see last season. Gordon Hayward was phenomenal before the injury bug needlessly attacked him again. Marcus Smart is silencing opposing scorers and slicing 8.1 percentage points off their field-goal conversion rates. The chemistry seems improved, as anticipated once Kemba Walker replaced Kyrie Irving.

    The Celtics have ample room for improvement, too.

    Walker and Tatum are better field-goal shooters than they've shown. The frontcourt rotation is still working itself out. The rookies can make a more positive impact than they have. Grant Williams won't go 0-for-the-season from deep.

    Could Boston require a trade to bulk up its post-Al Horford interior? It's possible. Did the late-game ceiling slip a tiny bit once Uncle Drew walked? It might have. But those questions can only be answered with time. For now, the Shamrocks should be feeling good about the campaign's early happenings.

Brooklyn Nets: C-

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    Once Kevin Durant and his ruptured Achilles came on board, the Brooklyn Nets knew they'd be talking about injuries all season. But they probably didn't plan on having so many non-Durant discussions on the medical front.

    Caris LeVert may lose a month-plus to thumb surgery. Kyrie Irving can't shake a shoulder impingement that has kept him out of their last nine games. It's no minor miracle the Nets have avoided a complete collapse without them since they occupied the top two slots on the Durant-less scoring hierarchy.

    Credit Spencer Dinwiddie, who's been a nightly source of 25.0 points and 7.3 assists since Irving went down. Credit Joe Harris, who's been the Association's surest outside shooter since the start of last season. Credit Jarrett Allen, who's doing everything he can to bury DeAndre Jordan on the depth chart. And credit head coach Kenny Atkinson, who continues to do more with less than a lot of his peers.

    The Nets aren't quite where they expected at the 20-game mark, but they can't have many complaints given the circumstances.

Charlotte Hornets: B

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    The Charlotte Hornets were effectively left for dead once Kemba Walker bolted this summer, and they probably don't have much of a playoff pulse now.

    But they're checking some of the most critical boxes for a rebuilder, none greater than prospect production. Devonte' Graham might be leading the Most Improved Player award race. Terry Rozier looks comfortable and capable playing on or off the ball. PJ Washington is a much better shooter than he could show in college. Miles Bridges is becoming the bouncy Swiss Army knife every winning team seems to have.

    As an added bonus, head coach James Borrego has been able to prioritize his team's youth without abandoning the vets.

    "Nic Batum, Marvin Williams and Bismack Biyombo are all playing off the bench, but also playing significant minutes," Rick Bonnell noted for the Charlotte Observer. "Borrego prepared them for what to expect this season; they don't feel abandoned, and are making the best of the situation."

    Keeping the veterans engaged could prove a quietly massive victory should one or more fetch something of value at the trade deadline. But that would merely be icing on the cake, as Charlotte's primary objective is to develop its youngsters, and that project appears well ahead of schedule.

Chicago Bulls: F

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    There were hopesexpectations even—that these Chicago Bulls might crash the playoff party. Instead, they're penning the book on how not to rebuild.

    Lauri Markkanen, maybe their most important building block, looks broken. Zach LaVine, arguably the most recognizable face, has already been thrown under the bus by head coach Jim Boylen. Coby White, ordained the answer to their point guard problems, rarely meets a shot he doesn't like. Wendell Carter Jr., maybe the steadiest of the youngsters, is underutilized and poorly served by this overly aggressive defensive scheme.

    "I think everybody needs to do better. Coaching staff on down," LaVine told Yahoo Sports' Vincent Goodwill. "It can't just be the players. You can't single out guys, it's not just two players, five players. It's everybody."

    Remember, we're not even two months into the season. That's an alarming quote, almost as bad as Boylen's movie cliche.

    The Bulls are already nosediving into disaster. This roster has talent, but good luck finding any player who's exceeding expectations. Only they and the Golden State Warriors have yet to defeat a .500-or-better opponent.

    Golden State lost Kevin Durant to free agency, then Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson to injury. What's Chicago's excuse?

Cleveland Cavaliers: C+

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    It could be a couple of years (at least) before the Cleveland Cavaliers are measuring success through wins and losses, so the 5-14 record and minus-7.6 net rating aren't damning marks.

    In fact, the Cavs have more positives than negatives to take from the first quarter. Collin Sexton is relentless. Darius Garland is ignitable, and he'll be a problem once he finds his inside-the-arc niche. Larry Nance Jr.'s addition of a deep ball dramatically increases his appeal. Kevin Porter Jr. shows enough flashes of bounce, handles and shot-making to intrigue the mind about his future.

    That's enough to get Cleveland a passing grade at the quarter turn, but the play of the vets nudges the assessment north of average. Kevin Love looks awesome on offense, as he's one of only two players averaging 17 points, 10 boards, two assists and two triples. Tristan Thompson is again a walking double-double, but he's also a better shooter, shot-blocker and distributor than ever.

    If the Cavs can turn one of Love or Thompson into a positive trade asset, that would be a substantial gain. If both emerge as such, this would serve as something of a dream season for Northeast Ohio.

Dallas Mavericks: A

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    All hail our new basketball king. Seriously, is there anything Luka Doncic can't do—other than legally procure an adult beverage before Feb. 28?

    "It's astonishing to see how consistently dominant Doncic is at such a young age," ESPN's Tim MacMahon wrote. "I mean, the kid had a 41-6-10 line in a road rout of a West contender, and it was maybe his third- or fourth-most impressive performance last week."

    Doncic has already sprinted past the point at which his accomplishments impress for his age group. He's doing things we almost never see anyone do. If the campaign closed today, he'd be only the third player ever to average at least 30 points, nine assists and nine rebounds.

    He's been so special he nearly helps the Dallas Mavericks ace the first quarter by himself. Tim Hardaway Jr. catching fire (18.2 points on 55.4 percent shooting over six starts) is another massive win for the Mavs. Dallas might deserve an A-plus if not for the rust still covering Kristaps Porzingis.

    If the 7'3" unicorn gets rolling, good night.

Denver Nuggets: B+

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    The Denver Nuggets are breaking the mold, and it should make them even more powerful in the end.

    The blueprint for building a contender around Nikola Jokic and Jamal Murray sounds simple enough. Give both of them fluorescent green lights on offense, deploy enough snipers to maintain maximum spacing and hope your defense doesn't turn to dust before your opponent's does.

    But Michael Malone is calling the shots. So, naturally, Denver is dominating with defense. The Nuggets own the Association's best defensive rating, which has been vital when they rank just 18th at the opposite end.

    If the defense proves sustainable, the Nuggets could be a nightmare for the West. This offense is so much better than it has shown, especially when guys like Will Barton (42.6 three-point percentage) and Paul Millsap (48.8) are throwing flames from distance. If Jokic, Murray and Gary Harris find their footing, their point production alone can overwhelm the opposition.

Detroit Pistons: D

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    The Detroit Pistons have just seven wins to their name at the 20-game turn. It's a brutal start for a club that says it's trying to win and has spent accordingly. This is a $132.6 million team by payroll, but not by performance.

    "To me, it seems like we love the victory but we don't like the fight," Blake Griffin told reporters. "You're not going to win games like that."

    You also won't win much when allowing opponents to shoot 46.8 percent, as Detroit has so far. Working around injuries to Griffin, Derrick Rose and Reggie Jackson isn't helping, either.

    At least Luke Kennard is making a leap. Christian Wood seems like a sneaky-good investment, too. Oh, and Andre Drummond appears en route to a career year, although his upcoming free agency makes it tough to tell what that means for the Motor City.

Golden State Warriors: F

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    The goalposts have obviously moved for the Golden State Warriors. But remember, we're grading largely off preseason expectations. And before a rash of injuries made the Warriors' season all about maximizing their draft lottery odds, they seemed destined to be at least a postseason participant, if not a shadow contender.

    That must be reflected in this grade, which looks, well, awful. The Dubs own the NBA's worst net rating (minus-10.0). Their leader in total minutes is journeyman Glenn Robinson III. Their leader in total points is this summer's 41st pick, Eric Paschall.

    "They are like a wounded deer on the side of the road right now," an Eastern Conference executive told Bleacher Report's Ric Bucher. "No need to torture them; just put them out of their misery each game."

    There are positives Golden State can take under its new reality, like Paschall's emergence, D'Angelo Russell's production and the likelihood of injecting some high-upside youth by way of next summer's draft pick. But under our grading metric, this has been an abject failure.

Houston Rockets: B

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    If the rest of the Association is playing checkers, James Harden is playing...nothing at all. He's too busy doing math homework to make time for games.

    His analytical feasts of triples, free throws and point-blank baskets have yielded production so jarring the only historical comparison comes from the late, great Wilt Chamberlain.

    Harden's 38.9 points per game are the most anyone has ever averaged outside of two Chamberlain seasons. The Beard's 14.4 free-throw attempts per contest are second only to Chamberlain's 1961-62 campaign when he averaged 50.4 points per night.

    "I think that a lot of people like to normalize greatness when you see it over and over again, but it's not normal because there's nobody else that can do it," Russell Westbrook said, per MacMahon. "... He's put himself in position to be one of the best offensive scorers of all time because of the way that he's able to score the ball at a high level in a variety of ways."

    The aesthetics of Harden's dominance might be up for debate, but the impact isn't.

    The Rockets are again rubbing elbows with the West's elites thanks to his contributions. Westbrook seems mostly himself during his first go-round in Space City, albeit more deferential than we've seen. Depth looked like an issue even before Eric Gordon went under the knife.

    The concerns aren't minor. They just tend to feel like that when Harden is doing so much else in a major way.

Indiana Pacers: B+

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    With Victor Oladipo still finding his way back from a ruptured quad, the Indiana Pacers had a built-in excuse to stumble out of the gate. Instead, the Circle City's finest have capitalized on facing the league's softest schedule and have seen several players execute significant leaps.

    The offseason investment in Malcolm Brogdon has already returned massive dividends. After previously shining as a near-ideal complementary piece, the President looks more than comfortable taking center stage and is one of only four players averaging 19 points and eight assists.

    "It's a role I feel like I'm meant to do," Brogdon told Forbes' Shlomo Sprung. "And this is the right time for me to step into it."

    Domantas Sabonis has aced the Robin role with a steady source of efficient scoring, rebounding and secondary playmaking. If the campaign closed today, he'd join Giannis Antetokounmpo and Joel Embiid as the only players to average 18 points, 13 rebounds and three assists in the last decade.

    Tack on a slew of capable role players and some expert guidance from head coach Nate McMillan and the Pacers aren't merely surviving, but thriving sans Oladipo.

Los Angeles Clippers: B

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    If it didn't feel like such a cop-out, the Los Angeles Clippers would carry an incomplete grade for their first quarter. They've played 1,013 minutes so far and had Paul George and Kawhi Leonard together on the court for just 141 of them. (Those minutes, by the way, have been predictably ridiculous: plus-12.7 net rating.)

    This goes beyond George's recovery from offseason shoulder surgery and Leonard's load management, too. Only five Clippers have suited up for all 21 games, and just seven have made more than 16 appearances. Given how much this roster changed over the summer, that's a ton of missed time for a team still in the early stages of chemistry development.

    All things considered, it's hard to get too worked up about a 15-6 record and the NBA's fifth-best net rating.

    "We have in what we have in and we're becoming good at that, but we have a long way to go," head coach Doc Rivers said, per Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times.

    The Clippers look really good, but they're measured against the expectation of greatness. They haven't quite hit that level, and the supporting cast around George, Leonard, Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell has left something to be desired.

Los Angeles Lakers: A

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    The pairing of LeBron James and Anthony Davis has been everything the Los Angeles Lakers could've dreamed and then some.

    With a star scorer at his side, the King is free to focus on his playmaking and just might snag the first assist crown of his career (while still supplying 25.7 points per night on 50.1 percent shooting). And with James so willing to share touches, Davis can basically play like he's still in the Big Easy. The Brow's points (26.1), shots (18.9) and usage rate (30.6) are all north of his career norms.

    Together, the two are basically working basketball sorcery. They've compiled a plus-11.7 net rating across 472 shared minutes. For context, the 60-win Milwaukee Bucks paced the Association last season with a plus-8.6 mark.

    Beyond this dynamic duo, everything else is coming up aces for the Purple and Gold, too.

    Danny Green is a three-point fire-baller, and Rajon Rondo(!) is, too. JaVale McGee and Dwight Howard are masterfully splitting the center minutes and providing a combined 13.9 points, 13.3 rebounds and 2.6 blocks per game. Oh, and Kyle Kuzma isn't even at full-stride yet, so this club can take its ceiling several stories higher.

    The Lakers have 17 wins in 20 tries and top-six efficiency marks on offense and defense. Even the most optimistic projections for this group probably didn't have it shining this brightly, this quickly.

Memphis Grizzlies: B

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    This is a throw-the-record-out-the-window kind of season for the Memphis Grizzlies, especially when they've started against the NBA's second-toughest schedule. This year is all about development: of their young players, their first-year coach and their revamped front office.

    This roster might have its warts, but its most critical prospects all look tremendous. Before being knocked out by back spasms, Ja Morant took pole position in the Rookie of the Year race. Jaren Jackson Jr. is on a short list of the league's most versatile young bigs. Brandon Clarke might be the draft's biggest steal, as the 21st pick leads all rotation rookies in win shares, box plus/minus and value over replacement player.

    The Grizzlies are plucky. They've already knocked off the Minnesota Timberwolves (twice), the Brooklyn Nets (with Irving and LeVert) and the Utah Jazz. That speaks to the talent level of Memphis' youngsters, but also to head coach Taylor Jenkins' ability to craft a system that fits them and still keeps the veterans on board.

    Finally, the front office is off to a strong start. The drafting of Morant might've been obvious, but as mentioned, the value on Clarke already looks humongous. Plus, the Grizzlies have a chance to keep fueling their asset collection if they can work out a trade involving Andre Iguodala or Jae Crowder.

Miami Heat: A

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    Jimmy Butler isn't here for the slander. While many criticized his decision to bolt the Philadelphia 76ers for the Miami Heat—in their minds, leaving a ready-made contender for, at best, a mid-level playoff participant—Butler warned the masses to wait and see what could happen in South Beach.

    "This league has players with way bigger names than myself and everybody else in this locker room. But don't count us out, man, because it's a team game and no one can do it by themselves," Butler told Yahoo Sports' Chris Haynes. "But we'll show people throughout the year that we can compete with the best of them."

    He wasn't lying. At the quarter mark, the Heat are tied for the fifth-best winning percentage (.737) and own the seventh-best net rating (plus-6.0). Both marks happen to sit above the 76ers', for whatever that's worth.

    Miami has some shooting concerns to iron out, and those could prove problematic going forward. But for now, Sixth Man of the Year candidate Goran Dragic and ahead-of-schedule youngsters Tyler Herro, Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson are doing enough to keep this offense afloat. And this defense is ferocious, as one would expect from a unit featuring Butler, Bam Adebayo and Justise Winslow.

Milwaukee Bucks: A

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    It's deja vu all over again for the Milwaukee Bucks and their human-cheat-code leader Giannis Antetokounmpo. The reigning MVP is doing things we haven't seen since Wilt Chamberlain and Elgin Baylor were punishing NBA rims. The reigning wins leader is somehow taking things up a notch.

    "If Milwaukee was dominant last season, it is, uh, dominant-er through the first month and a half of this one," SI.com's Rohan Nadkarni wrote. "Through 21 games, the Bucks have a better offensive rating, defensive rating, winning percentage, and effective field goal percentage compared to last season's version."

    At some point, there were legitimate concerns that the Bucks could greatly miss Brogdon and Nikola Mirotic. Apparently, that isn't happening. George Hill has taken over as the new guard with absurd shooting rates (53.7 from the field, 52.5 from deep), while Donte DiVincenzo has deftly handled a rotation role. Khris Middleton and Eric Bledsoe can both make compelling All-Star arguments at this juncture.

    And Giannis has been...well, downright freaky. He's an impossible cover. As six-time All-Defensive selection Tony Allen recently quipped on Twitter, "Giannis looks like what it was like to make a created player all 99s and 7'0" tall on NBA Live." The Bucks are 15.4 points better than their opponents per 100 possessions with Antetokounmpo on the floor. That's not fair.

Minnesota Timberwolves: B

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    The Andrew Wiggins redemption tour has been one of this season's most pleasantly surprising developments. He's making strides with both volume and efficiency, largely by improving his decision-making and shot selection.

    And while it's only a 16-game sample so far, there are reasons to believe this might be real. Namely, Minnesota Timberwolves head coach Ryan Saunders seems to have forged the kind of connection that can bring out Wiggins' best.

    "He's a big difference," Wiggins told B/R's Yaron Weitzman. "He believes in me, and he puts more confidence in me. To have a head coach that's like that, that means a lot."

    Karl-Anthony Towns entered the season as an established star, but he has taken another leap as well. He's launching away like a jumbo-sized Splash Brother (3.8 threes per game at a 42.1 percent clip) and hitting career-high marks in rebounds, assists and steals.

    So, what has all of this added up to? A 10-9 record suggesting the Timberwolves will spend another season on the playoff bubble. There are an uncomfortable number of anemic shooting rates among the supporting cast, including Jeff Teague's 27.0 three-point percentage, Jarrett Culver's 37.2 field-goal percentage and Treveon Graham's 42.0 true shooting percentage, eighth-worst among the 296 players to log at least 200 minutes.

New Orleans Pelicans: C

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    If anyone deserved an incomplete grade, it's probably the New Orleans Pelicans. They've been on Zion Williamson watch all season, and since the top pick only just resumed light on-court work after October meniscus surgery, per ESPN's Andrew Lopez, the wait could last a while.

    But New Orleans' injury issues extend well beyond the bouncy freshman. No one has suited up for all 20 Pelicans games, and only six players have missed fewer than four games. Lonzo Ball has barely appeared in half of them (12), and Derrick Favors hasn't even hit that mark (nine).

    So, it's hard to evaluate this team when we haven't really seen what this team is.

    But there still are some positives, none greater than Brandon Ingram's bid for his initial All-Star selection (25.5 points, 7.4 rebounds and 4.0 assists). Jrue Holiday keeps giving his all at both ends of the court. JJ Redick has never made more threes (3.5 per game) and has only once hit a higher percentage (47.1). Jaxson Hayes and Kenrich Williams are exceeding whatever meager expectations existed.

    With that said, this is still a 6-14 team with a bottom-five defense. And youngsters Frank Jackson and Nickeil Alexander-Walker have a ton of work to do on the offensive end.

New York Knicks: F

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    The New York Knicks carried zero realistic expectations into this season. Somehow, they're still underwhelming.

    Free agency was such a mess that they released a "please keep the faith" letter on June 30. Their first 10 games were so rocky that Knicks president Steve Mills and general manager Scott Perry held an impromptu press conference to discuss how poorly things had gone. By mid-November, Mills, Perry and David Fizdale had all found their way to the hot seat.

    Even if 'Bockers backers braced for the worst—a wise move given the perplexing decision to ink power forward after power forward this summer—they couldn't have held the bar this low.

    The Knicks are objectively atrocious: 4-17 overall, dead last on offense, 23rd on defense, 29th in net efficiency.

    One would think this would bring about a youth movement. And yet, Marcus Morris is third in minutes, Mitchell Robinson sees fewer than 21 minutes a night, Kevin Knox recently had a DNP-CD, Dennis Smith Jr.'s playing time has been all over the map, and Allonzo Trier has been forgotten. And to add insult to...insult, RJ Barrett, maybe the only clear building block they have, owns a woeful 39.6/31.7/53.3 shooting slash.

Oklahoma City Thunder: C

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    The Oklahoma City Thunder are who we thought they were.

    Although they're rebuilding, they didn't dismantle a 49-win team to the point of taking it down to the studs. Swapping out Russell Westbrook for Chris Paul was a lateral move, or maybe even a slight improvement. And the pick-heavy package they received for Paul George also included the highly intriguing Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and the steady-scoring Danilo Gallinari.

    The Thunder don't have the top-end talent to compete with juggernauts, but they aren't bottoming out. They're hovering right around mediocrity—a shade below it on offense, a pinch above on defense. Having Gilgeous-Alexander at the controls bodes well for the future. Having Gallo maintain or even improve his value bodes well for the trade deadline.

    It would help if other youngsters showed more signs of offensive life. Things could get crowded quickly if Terrance Ferguson and Hamidou Diallo don't grow more comfortable from distance. The few updates on Andre Roberson's recovery have not sounded promising, either.

Orlando Magic: D+

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Rather than a letter grade, the Orlando Magic might deserve a DJ Khaled meme instead.

    Spending big to retain a 42-win team is rarely a good look, especially when that "success" was heavily tied to career (and contract) years from late-20-somethings (Nikola Vucevic and Terrence Ross). And when the frontcourt was already crowded, why have your biggest offseason investments be Al-Farouq Aminu and Chuma Okeke? (And that's coming from someone who likes both players!)

    This offense is barely functional. Only the Knicks are less efficient, and only the Hawks shoot a lower percentage from three. No one on this roster averages 20 points or five assists. Aaron Gordon's regression is worrisome, especially if the Magic still see him as a foundational piece. As hard as it is to abandon hope for a top-10 pick in his sophomore season, Mo Bamba is making it tempting.

    Two things save this squad from a full-on failure. Jonathan Isaac is making a leap, and he clearly means more to this franchise's future than anyone. Plus, Markelle Fultz is looking like a keeper, and maybe something more. The 2017 No. 1 overall pick is still searching for his outside shot, but his inside-the-arc success is up across the board.

Philadelphia 76ers: C+

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    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Re-run this assessment in a few weeks, and you might get a much more favorable result. The Philadelphia 76ers have caught fire of late, winning eight of their last nine. Stretch this out a little further, and they'll be closer to the juggernaut we've all been expecting.

    For now, though, it's tough to find many encouraging surprises.

    The starting five has perhaps gelled ahead of schedule, as it's bulldozing opponents by 21.3 points per 100 possessions. But adding Al Horford and Josh Richardson to the Joel Embiid-Ben Simmons-Tobias Harris trio always had massive potential. If there is encouragement here, it's that the quintet can be this dominant when only the two newcomers are hitting their long balls at an above-average clip.

    The Embiid-Simmons fit remains funky, as their ideal court conditions are dramatically different. The bench unit still has question marks, especially if you don't buy that James Ennis has suddenly become a 50/40 sniper. Philly has the talent to work around these issues, but offensive consistency will be key in unlocking this group's potential and earning a better letter grade.

Phoenix Suns: B

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    On balance, the Phoenix Suns still stand as one of the early feel-good stories. But the story felt a lot better when they sprinted out to a 7-4 start than it does now that they've gone just 2-6 since.

    Still, who looked at this roster and saw it posting a top-half efficiency mark at this juncture? For the select few that did, who would've guessed this would be possible without bananas scoring numbers from Devin Booker or a sophomore surge by Deandre Ayton?

    Booker is averaging two fewer points than he did last season, but he's bulked up his efficiency to an absurd 50.8/40.8/94.8 slash. Ayton has been out since the opener after receiving a 25-game suspension for testing positive for a diuretic. Aron Baynes was incredible in his place (56.3 percent shooting, 43.9 from deep) before a hip flexor strain and calf strain forced him off the floor.

    The Suns can't afford to let their momentum slip away. Their roster is improved, but it isn't capable of making up a ton of ground in the Western Conference. The offense could get a big boost from Ayton's return, but their 17th-ranked defense needs to improve before it can support a postseason push.

Portland Trail Blazers: D+

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    The Portland Trail Blazers' signing of Carmelo Anthony felt desperate. That's because it was.

    Prior to his arrival, the Blazers were trapped in a 5-9 downward spiral, and their frontcourt had been decimated by injuries. They needed a jolt in the worst kind of way, so much so that they kicked the tires to see what the 35-year-old had left a year removed from his last NBA appearance.

    It doesn't seem so desperate now, does it? Anthony just took home Western Conference Player of the Week honors after steering the Blazers to a 3-0 week in which he averaged 22.3 points, 7.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists.

    Granted, a three-game stretch hardly means Melo is back. And it certainly doesn't cure all of the early-season ills of a Blazers team saddled with an 8-12 record and a negative net rating. Portland's bench has yet to impress, potential shooters Anthony Tolliver, Mario Hezonja and Kent Bazemore can't find their marks, and the defense has been (slightly) worse with Hassan Whiteside than without.

    In other words, the Anthony addition has been a welcome relief amid a mostly frustrating beginning.

Sacramento Kings: C-

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    The Sacramento Kings have long been searching for their veteran accelerators.

    Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and George Hill weren't the answers before. If the first 19 games are any indication, Cory Joseph, Trevor Ariza and Dewyane Dedmon aren't the answers now. At least they found a steal in Richaun Holmes, because their biggest summer spending hasn't moved the needle at all.

    That's the bad news. The good news is that the Kings are still hanging around the playoff hunt thanks to their youngsters and younger vets.

    Buddy Hield is one of the league's most lethal long-range shooters. De'Aaron Fox was hitting his stride before an ankle injury derailed his run. Harrison Barnes is (gasp) living up to his $85 million deal. Bogdan Bogdanovic is positioning himself for a big payday next summer.

    The Kings' outlook would be easier to gauge if not for the injury to Fox and earlier loss of Marvin Bagley III. The prospect growth has mostly been encouraging—it would be even more so if Harry Giles III could find the floor once in a while—but the 8-11 start is still disappointing for a team that talked and spent like it had playoff expectations.

San Antonio Spurs: D

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    So, if the San Antonio Spurs are finally finished, does that mean death and taxes are no longer certainties?

    Waving the white flag for the Silver and Black has been ill-advised for the last two-plus decades. But it's hard to find hope for this iteration of the Spurs that doesn't simply draw from the franchise's history.

    After a 4-1 start, the Spurs have dropped 13 of their last 16 games, and that's while tying for the fifth-softest schedule to date. Their defense is fourth-worst in the entire league. They take fewer threes than anyone. Their minus-4.2 scoring differential ranks eighth-worst, right in between the Zion-less Pelicans and John Wall-less Washington Wizards.

    If there's a saving grace—in terms of avoiding an F, not turning things around—it's that this roster hasn't done much harm to itself. In other words, the trade values attached to DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and any other key veteran probably hasn't changed much. Similarly, the career trajectories of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Jakob Poeltl all align with preseason expectations, too.

Toronto Raptors: A

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    No Kawhi Leonard. No Danny Green. No problem for the Toronto Raptors?

    Apparently not, now that Pascal Siakam has suddenly taken a superstar turn and perhaps positioned himself to be the league's first repeat winner of the Most Improved Player award. Last year, he sizzled as a Swiss army knife glue guy. This season, he's seamlessly filling the featured scorer role, while still grinding for rebounds, flying around on defense and even chipping in as a secondary table-setter.

    "He can be as good as anybody," Raptors head coach Nick Nurse told The Athletic's John Hollinger.

    With Siakam ascending to Leonard's vacated spot at the top, the rest of the roster has fallen in line behind him. Kyle Lowry is both more aggressive and more efficient. Fred VanVleet has handled top playmaking duties. OG Anunoby leads a group of long-limbed, versatile perimeter defenders. Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka again split the interior duties, this time with assistance from Chris Boucher.

    Teams almost never survive a superstar's exit. Then again, teams almost never sprout a new superstar seemingly out of thin air. The Raptors are forcing us to rethink what's possible, and they're improbably right back in the thick of the championship race.

Utah Jazz: C-

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    All is not well in Salt Lake City.

    On the surface, the Utah Jazz are fine. Solid, even. They're 12th in winning percentage and 13th in net efficiency.

    There's only one problem: This group is supposed to be special. Teams don't tinker with a 50-win roster without expecting major improvement. By bringing in the likes of Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to pair with Donovan Mitchell, Rudy Gobert and Joe Ingles, the Jazz seemingly set themselves up for the final ascension into the elite ranks.

    Six weeks later, they're still stuck on the launching pad.

    The takeoff can still happen. History says Conley will hit more than 36.9 percent of his shot attempts moving forward. Ingles will begin to shoot better than 30.9 percent from three-point range. With Gobert anchoring the interior, this defense will almost assuredly finish higher than 11th.

    But we aren't evaluating potential. We're measuring production against expectations, and the Jazz are coming up short at the moment.

Washington Wizards: C

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    The Washington Wizards are doing the impossible.

    No, they aren't winning many games, but that option was off the table when John Wall ruptured his Achilles in February. But they are making their games entertaining, which seemed impossible ahead of the season.

    The Wizards have the league's fourth-most efficient offense. That isn't a typo. Bradley Beal is turning into a fantasy juggernaut with nightly contributions of 28.0 points and 7.3 assists. Starting center Thomas Bryant is suddenly flirting with three assists per game. Moritz Wagner is attempting to open the 60/40/90 shooting club. Isaiah Thomas is doing Isaiah Thomas things again. Davis Bertans is sinking almost everything that leaves his fingertips.

    The Wizards have cleared the 120-point mark nine times already and scored at least 130 five different times—all in regulation. They average the third-most points, shoot the fourth-highest percentage from the field and drop more dimes than anyone.

    So, why only the C grade? Because this group plays zero defense. Zilch. Nada. None.

    They're the NBA's worst defense by almost two full points per 100 possessions. They give up 122.7 points per game on 49.3 percent shooting, both dead-last marks. They've surrendered three different 140-plus-point outbursts, and again, they haven't played any overtime games.

    It makes for an entertaining viewing experience, but it isn't a sustainable style, so it's tough to tell what (if anything) the Wizards will gain from it.

                         

    All stats, unless otherwise noted, used courtesy of NBA.com, ESPN.comand Basketball Reference and are current through games played on Dec. 2.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.