Midseason Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

Dan Favale@@danfavaleFeatured ColumnistJanuary 15, 2020

Midseason Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

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    Sarah Stier/Getty Images

    Another NBA regular season is halfway gone, which can mean only one thing: a fresh batch of report cards for each and every team.

    Grades will be handed out relative to individual expectations. Offering a favorable review to the Charlotte Hornets because they're not the worst team in the league does not mean they're on equal footing with the Los Angeles Clippers.

    Every aspect of a franchise's operation is up for review. What happens on the court matters more than anything, but unnecessary drama and front-office mishaps are all part of the product. They count.

    Report cards will not penalize squads for issues beyond their control. In other words: Injuries matter. So too does offseason context. If a team made a questionable move over the summer that's panned out poorly, that misfire will indeed be held against it.

    Recent developments were weighted heavily, but these marks are based off the entire season. As ever, the bigger picture, including second-half outlooks, matters more than hot streaks and cold spells.

Atlanta Hawks: D-

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    John Amis/Associated Press

    Outsized expectations followed the Atlanta Hawks into this season after they finished last year on some high notes, mainly with the emergence of Trae Young and the closing-kick defensive improvement from John Collins. Their performance in the face of that elevated bar, which includes the league's worst winning percentage, begs for recalibration.

    In hindsight, Atlanta wasn't held to a high enough standard over the summer. Yours truly is culpable. Among the chief transgressions: giving up too much for De'Andre Hunter, flipping Kent Bazemore for Evan Turner, (possibly) missing in a huge way on Cam Reddish and failing to put a true secondary playmaker behind Young. (Shouts to Brandon Goodwin for his recent play, though.)

    Fast-tracking the Hawks for noticeable improvement on the heels of all that should've never been the default. Yet, even when grading them against that optical curve, they're missing the mark.

    Some bugaboos are beyond their control. They couldn't have accounted for Collins' 25-game suspension or Jabari Parker's right shoulder injury. Most of their other issues were calculable—the offshoot of their roster construction. They need a longer-term answer at center if it's not Collins, another table-setter and more consistent defensive presences across the board.

    It'd be easier to stomach Atlanta's struggles if Young's own efforts were giving way to a clear offensive identity. They're not. The Hawks are dead last in offensive efficiency over the past month and 29th on the season. They only rank inside the 19th percentile of points scored per 100 possessions when Collins and Young share the floor, and the development of everyone aside from them and Kevin Huerter doesn't inspire much confidence.

    This doesn't amount to irreversible doom and gloom. Atlanta is still young, can reset around the youngsters this summer and could, technically, receive a more favorable grade if expectations on the outside merely clashed with internal perception. It's hard to tell whether that's the case.

    The Hawks' interest in Andre Drummond, however preliminary, implies they were counting on more from this roster. That, or they're dealing with a disconnect between ownership and management. Neither is ideal.

Boston Celtics: A-

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    Losing Al Horford and Kyrie Irving has not slowed the Boston Celtics. Kemba Walker is a fantastic fit, and both Jaylen Brown (slumping recently) and Jayson Tatum have worked their way into the All-Star conversation.

    Extensive absences from Gordon Hayward and Marcus Smart could have, theoretically, put Boston in a temporary bind. They didn't. Ditto for the Celtics' lack of size. They're third in defensive efficiency and sixth in the share of opponent attempts that come at the rim.

    Pleas for them to acquire another big aren't off-base. They fall inside the bottom 10 of defensive rebounding and are winless through three matchups against the gigantic Philadelphia 76ers, including the most recent meeting in which Joel Embiid didn't play.

    Shoring up the minutes Walker spends on the bench also needs to be a priority. Boston's offense rates in the 25th percentile when he's catching a breather, and it is only marginally better when Brown, Tatum and Hayward share the court during those stints (43rd percentile).

    The Celtics are winning these minutes overall (holy defense), and Kemba-less stretches will be fewer and further between in the playoffs. But the offense has a slightly fragile air to it. Boston isn't finishing exceptionally well around the rim or routinely catching fire from deep. Another playmaker needs to be on the radar.

    This nitpicking shouldn't be conflated with urgent worry. The Celtics have the second-best record in the Eastern Conference after losing their two best players from last season. They're an unmitigated success story.

Brooklyn Nets: B

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    Speeding into the halfway point under .500 should be a colossal disappointment for the Brooklyn Nets. Except, well, they're not speeding. They're hobbling.

    Kevin Durant (probably) isn't playing this season as he recovers from a ruptured right Achilles tendon. The Nets knew that when they signed him, and the roster is built with the intention of semi-contending in the Eastern Conference despite his injury.

    Less predictable were the extensive absences from Kyrie Irving (26 games) and Caris LeVert (25 games). That Brooklyn played close to .500 during the two-plus months at least one of them was on the shelf is a minor miracle.

    Having both back in the rotation addresses their most glaring holes: playmaking and shot creation. Spencer Dinwiddie turned into a lifeline during their absence, over which time he built an All-Star case, but the Nets lacked reinforcements. They ranked 28th in offensive efficiency between losing LeVert, who went down first, and getting back Irving.

    Brooklyn, if anything, now has a chance to outperform expectations.

    Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Taurean Prince and Garrett Temple will start hitting their threes again at some point, and the defense is a pleasant surprise. The Nets were sixth in points allowed per 100 possessions while navigating the Irving and LeVert absences and rank 10th on the year.

    This doesn't feel like a total fluke. What they lack in size, dependable rebounding and a lockdown perimeter stopper they make up for with a rosy defensive shot profile. Only the Milwaukee Bucks and Orlando Magic allow a lower share of their opponents' attempts at the rim while just the Philadelphia 76ers and Utah Jazz coax offenses into mid-range looks more often.

    Sustained health is a big part of forecasting the Nets. They don't have the offensive juice to make a dent in the Eastern Conference without Irving. If his shoulder issue is behind him, they'll become more of an immediate problem.

Charlotte Hornets: B

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Be wary of overvaluing the Charlotte Hornets' first-half performance. Their proximity to the playoff picture says more about the Eastern Conference than this Cinderella run that isn't. 

    Charlotte is 26th in net rating against one of the league's 10 easiest schedules. That isn't exactly worth throwing confetti over. Life will only get harder if Devonte' Graham's jumpers don't start falling at a ridiculous clip again. (Slump-trackers will be happy to know he detonated for 27 points while shooting 8-of-13 from deep in Charlotte's Jan. 13 loss to the Portland Trail Blazers.) 

    On the flip side: Devonte' Graham, anyone? 

    His breakout has given the Hornets access to a more promising timeline. Luka Doncic and Trae Young are the only other players averaging as many points, assists and made threes per 36 minutes. For real. And Graham is not the benefactor of an easier role. He's hitting the same types of shots. Only Young, James Harden, Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum have attempted as many pull-up jumpers.

    Leveraging Graham's off-the-dribble work and outside touch opens the floor for everyone, especially inside the arc. PJ Washington hasn't yet figured out how to hit twos without him. Terry Rozier is nowhere near as impactful when he doesn't have Graham to soak up primary ball-handling duties. 

    Unearthing another potential cornerstone in the immediate aftermath of Kemba Walker's exit is huge for the Hornets. They deserve to be trolled for how his departure played out, but they're on pace to win about 29 games when most wondered whether they could sniff 20.

    That's not nothing.

Chicago Bulls: C-

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    Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

    Offseason prognosticators were, by and large, fairly high on the Chicago Bulls. They brought back head coach Jim Boylen without staging much of a search, but the additions of Luke Kornet, Tomas Satoransky, Coby White and Thaddeus Young left many wondering whether this was a team that could squeak into the playoffs.

    So much for that.

    Chicago is 10th in the East and showing few signs of making a push. Key injuries aren't helping their case. Otto Porter Jr. isn't due back from his left foot issue until after the All-Star break, and Wendell Carter Jr. will miss the next 4-6 weeks with a right ankle sprain.

    Playing without Carter figures to be extremely difficult. The Bulls have employed a blitzing defensive scheme all year and don't get the same foot speed or IQ from Kornet or Daniel Gafford. They rank 12th in points allowed per 100 possessions but foul a ton and give up shots at the rim more frequently than any other team. Their defense could get ugly in Carter's absence if they stop forcing turnovers.

    A lack of progression up and down the roster only makes this season tougher to digest. Zach LaVine is draining ridiculously difficult shots, but the offense barely cracks the 30th percentile with him on the floor, and he remains a defensive liability. Lauri Markkanen awoke for a minute, but he's back to underwhelming as a scorer.

    Kris Dunn is defending his behind off but remains limited at the other side. Carter wasn't being aggressive—or featured—enough on offense before going down. White's microwave scoring is unreliable, but at least he's a rookie.

    Fitting Young into the equation has even proven to be a chore. His hands are as quick as ever on defense, but the Bulls aren't catering to his offensive strengths. He has never attempted a lower share of his shots at the basket and isn't getting to set as many screens.

    It is hard to imagine a less-encouraging start from Chicago. The record could be worse, but it should be better. The Bulls are 8-17 in games that enter crunch time, including 6-11 when they're ahead or behind by no more than three points heading into the final two minutes. This franchise is overdue for a shake-up, but it doesn't sound like a real one is coming.

Cleveland Cavaliers: C-

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    Giving the Cleveland Cavaliers a C- seems, somehow, both too generous and too harsh. Perhaps that means it's just right.

    People are more likely to harp on the bad. The Cavs are giving them a lot of material.

    Their apparent standoff with Kevin Love is unforgivable because it was preventable. Maybe his body language is getting blown out of proportion, but his future with the team has become a distraction either way. Extending and then keeping him this long never should've been part of the plan, and Love's toe surgery last season only offers them a modicum of cover.

    Rookie head coach John Beilein isn't doing Cleveland any favors. Players reportedly grew frustrated with his coaching style almost immediately, and his use of "thugs" instead of "slugs" during a film session is, at its most innocent, yet another unnecessary distraction.

    Injuries only dampen the vibe around the Cavs. Rookie Dylan Windler won't play this season while recovering from a left leg injury, and Kevin Porter Jr. is scheduled to miss the next 4-6 weeks with a left knee issue. Larry Nance Jr. is dealing with left knee issues himself. 

    But Cleveland is not without its bright spots. Beilein has given the young players a longer leash. That matters. Porter Jr. had played like the Cavs' best prospect for long stretches before his injury, and Darius Garland has found an offensive groove. (He's busting out some nifty change-of-pace and -direction stuff coming around screens.)

    Even Collin Sexton has made some strides, albeit not as a playmaker. His assist percentage on drives is the second-lowest among 77 players averaging at least seven downhill attacks per game. Sexton is still perking up on offensive overall. He's averaging 21.5 points per game since the Jordan Clarkson trade on a true shooting percentage closer to the league average.

    Speaking of which: Dante Exum was a solid acquisition. Cleveland is light on prospects, and he's a 24-year-old who plays exhaustive defense. Eating his $9.6 million salary for next season in exchange for two second-rounders is exactly the kind of move a rebuilding squad should make.

    For anyone who expected much more from this team, that's on you. The Love situation is its biggest miss so far, and it still has time to find him a new home.

Dallas Mavericks: A

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    Optimistic projections had the Dallas Mavericks fighting for a playoff spot in the Western Conference. They've already annihilated those estimates.

    Dallas is one of five teams embroiled in the hyper-competitive race for the West's No. 2 spot. That is absurd. Maybe some could have seen the Mavericks finishing sixth, as they might, but Luka Doncic's ascent is powerful enough that they may be a mere one player away from title contention.

    Some regression is inevitable. It might already be underway. Dallas' offense has slipped since Doncic's return to the rotation, and Kristaps Porzingis' right knee injury has gone from a minor wrinkle to a major concern. 

    These reality checks only bolster the Mavericks' standing. Surviving hardship is part of the regular season, and they're treading water.

    They still have the NBA's best offense overall and are getting purposeful production from their supporting cast. Only the Milwaukee Bucks reserves have a better point differential per 100 possessions, and most importantly, Dallas is winning the minutes it spends without Doncic on the court.

Denver Nuggets: B

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    It shouldn't be so hard to feel good about the Denver Nuggets. Nikola Jokic has regained MVP-candidate form after a concerning start, their offense has improved right along with him, they're getting strong contributions from Michael Porter Jr., and they have the second-best record in the Western Conference.

    Something still doesn't seem right. Denver feels beatable. 

    Jokic's upsurge has coincided with a defensive free fall. The Nuggets are 25th in points allowed per 100 possessions over their past 20 games. This isn't Jokic's fault. Teams are getting to the rim much less when he's in the game, and the defensive rating is nearly six points per 100 possessions better with him compared to without.

    The Nuggets have more problems on the perimeter. They struggle to match up with star wings and defend the three-point line. It doesn't help that their best stoppers tend to be offensive liabilities.

    Right now, that includes Gary Harris. He's shooting under 32 percent from three and is a billboard for Denver's most damning issues: combustible shooting and the absence of two-way players. 

    Jamal Murray is hitting under 33 percent of his treys. Jokic is still at just 34.0 percent with his hot streak caked in. Will Barton is closer to league average (35.0 percent) but not quite there. The Nuggets now have a top-10 offense on the season, but they're 21st in effective field-goal percentage, which actually represents overachievement relative to their shot location.

    Getting by on offensive rebounds and sound ball control won't cut it for long. Denver needs more out of its highest-volume shooters or it needs to acquire a more consistent outside threat. Or both. A wing player who gets to the foul line with some semblance of consistency would also go a long way.

Detroit Pistons: C-

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    Bob Leverone/Associated Press

    Every takedown of the Detroit Pistons needs to account for their bad luck. They haven't been healthy and aren't anywhere near reaching full strength.

    Reggie Jackson's back injury has sidelined him since the second game of the season. He's just now nearing a return. Blake Griffin never looked right and is out indefinitely after undergoing left knee surgery. Bilateral knee tendinitis has kept Luke Kennard out since Dec. 21, and he isn't slated to return until sometime after the All-Star break.

    To what end the Pistons must be granted special treatment is up for debate. They'd be better off if everyone were healthy, but theirs is not a situation tainted entirely by misfortune. They were well aware of Griffin's knee issues and Jackson's larger injury history before now. They doubled-down on last year's eighth-seeded playoff berth anyway. 

    Granted, the Pistons never did anything to worsen their long-term outlook. Bringing in Derrick Rose has paid off. They have gotten some good minutes from Langston Galloway. Christian Wood is making things happen off the dribble. Kennard was a bright spot before his tendinitis flared up. Sekou Doumbouya, the league's youngest player, doesn't look overmatched.

    This roster can be unmade and redirected if the Pistons are so inclined. Team governor Tom Gores seems willing to consider everything, and Andre Drummond has been made available, according to ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski—both of which are long overdue.

Golden State Warriors: C-

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    Evaluating the Golden State Warriors is hard.

    Kevin Durant's departure and Klay Thompson's ACL injury afford them some leeway. So does Stephen Curry's recovery from a broken left hand. And Kevon Looney's abdominal injury. The Warriors are the second-worst team in the league, but they don't have the available personnel to be any better.

    Do we default to a good-job, good-effort grading curve?

    Then again, it was the Warriors who decided to acquire D'Angelo Russell and thin out their ranks even further, most notably with the Andre Iguodala trade. Losing Curry was rough, but they looked bad before he went down. They were, remember, busy getting thrashed by the Phoenix Suns at the time of his injury.

    Golden State is now the only team tanking on purpose. The Atlanta Hawks and New York Knicks of the world are organically bad. The Warriors alone are liable to shelve Draymond Green for 4-16 weeks because he cut himself while shaving and then used the wrong brand of styptic pencil to treat it. Or something.

    Should we kill Golden State for so obviously entering this season with playoff aspirations only to occupy the NBA's basement?

    Rolling with a C- aims to find the middle ground. The Warriors aren't faultless for their current position, if only because they've leaned into their bad luck by firing up the tank. They're also not completely responsible. 

    Factors beyond their control laid the groundwork for what we're watching now. They've at least responded by opening up the rotation to fliers, some of which are could-be keepers. Ky Bowman, Damian Lee, Eric Paschall, Glenn Robinson III and Omari Spellman are all worth extensive looks. Alec Burks, meanwhile, might net something small at the trade deadline.

    Brownie points must also be awarded for how Golden State is navigating its time at rock-bottom. Reports of an unhappy Green aren't running rampant, and even the speculation on Russell's future has been kept in check.

    This year's roster is a punchline, and the Warriors are finding out head coach Steve Kerr's offensive principles mean little to nothing without Curry. But the organization's culture has so far endured beyond the dynasty. That's a win.

Houston Rockets: B+

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Impressions of the Houston Rockets' season are up for interpretation. They have a top-three offense and top-six net rating and are in the hunt for the Western Conference's No. 2 seed. That's a big deal. It still feels like they could be doing better.

    Relitigating the Russell Westbrook trade has become tired. That doesn't make it invalid. He has added an element of speed to the Rockets offense. They're ninth in transition frequency, up from 18th last year. But his arrival has come at a functional cost.

    Westbrook is having the worst three-point-shooting season in league history among everyone to ever average at least three attempts from beyond the arc. That wouldn't be so much of a problem if he were successfully piloting lineups without James Harden, but he's not. Houston has inched closer to even money in the minutes he goes it alone but is still a net minus overall.

    That represents a huge downgrade from Chris Paul, a better shooter and defender than Westbrook. The Rockets outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions last season when he played without Harden. Lineup quality in that time matters, but the roster hasn't changed much.

    Still, getting rid of Paul was never about the basketball fit alone. More than that, Houston is winning.

    Harden is scoring all the points, and defenses are drastically overcompensating. The Rockets have parlayed that level of concern (fear?) into highly profitable four-on-four and four-on-three opportunities. Clint Capela and PJ Tucker are valuable as ever, and Eric Gordon is connecting on 38.6 percent of his threes since rejoining the lineup. 

    This roster still wants badly for a three-and-D wing, but Danuel House and Ben McLemore have given it playable bodies to move around.

    Houston is getting along just fine—and potentially much better than that.

Indiana Pacers: A-

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    Victor Oladipo has yet to play this season. (That'll change on Jan. 29.) Malcolm Brogdon has missed 12 games. Jeremy Lamb has missed 11. Myles Turner has missed eight. Even Domantas Sabonis has dealt with a left knee issue.

    The Indiana Pacers are still 10 games over .500 and a mere four losses behind the Eastern Conference's second-seeded Boston Celtics. Literally, wow.

    Nothing below an A suffices under the circumstances.

    No, the Pacers are not nearly perfect. They have the 13th-ranked offense in spite of their shot profile. They don't get to the foul line nearly enough and should be, like always, taking more threes. They could stand to look for more transition opportunities after missed shots and turnovers. Their defense has also slipped in recent weeks, and they're not go-getters on the glass.

    But, like, whatever.

    Indiana has positioned itself to make a real run if Oladipo can begin to regain his previous form. The question of whether Turner and Sabonis can coexist has even died down. The Pacers are turning away interest in Turner, according to ESPN's Zach Lowe, and for good reason. They're plus-7.1 points per 100 possessions when the two bigs play together, with an above-average offensive rating to boot.

    Turner has shown signs of discomfort with his role and volume. That's worth monitoring. Knowing how much continuity and manpower they've lost to injury, though, the Pacers couldn't have asked for a much better first half.

Los Angeles Clippers: B

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    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Nobody needs to be worried about the Los Angeles Clippers. They're supposed to be a cut above the chaos unfolding between second and sixth place in the Western Conference, but they've so far approached the regular season with detectable indifference. 

    That does not spare them from the microscope.

    Their wins haven't always come in the most convincing ways. Most recently, it took way too much to beat the New York Knicks on Jan. 5 and the Golden State Warriors on Jan. 10 even though the Clippers were down a star in both games. They were pummeled by the Memphis Grizzlies on Jan. 4 and fell to the Denver Nuggets on Jan. 12, each time without Paul George.

    Los Angeles' reliance on Kawhi Leonard has become a tad unnerving. Opponents have won the minutes he's spent on the bench, including when George remains in the lineup. The offense in general looks too predictable. The Clippers could use more motion from off-ball shooters to spice things up in the half court. Landry Shamet isn't finishing around screens nearly as often as last season

    Splitting hairs much? The Clippers are 14-4 when George and Leonard play together. They're not in danger of ceding powerhouse status in the near term.  

    Hanging around until June is all that was ever going to matter. If the Clippers can prioritize bodies and rack up 55 victories in the process, more power to them. If their win total dips below the current pace, well, they're still going to be fine.

Los Angeles Lakers: A

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    Let us take a moment to appreciate exactly what LeBron James is doing.

    At age 35 and in his 17th season, he's averaging 25.5 points and a career-high, league-leading 10.7 assists per game. That is remarkable. His true shooting percentage is the lowest it has been since 2007-08, but that hardly matters. 

    LeBron is still, after all these years, the most valuable player on one of the league's top title contenders.

    Somewhat oddly, this is also where the nitpicking begins. The Los Angeles Lakers are getting outscored by 1.9 points per 100 possessions when he's off the floor, a deficit that would be much worse if not for their Jan. 11 victory over the Oklahoma City Thunder.

    Sitting in the red at all without James defeats the purpose of having another top star. Anthony Davis shouldn't be carrying an offense from scratch, but he's a worthwhile No. 1 option when surrounded by enough playmaking. The Lakers get thin on plus decision-makers after James. Their offense rates in the 47th percentile when Davis plays without him.

    Adding another ball-handler (or shooter) leading into the trade deadline should top Los Angeles' to-do list. Relying on Kyle Kuzma or Rajon Rondo to be the third-most prominent player isn't safe.

    And yet, the Lakers are at once imperfect and deeper than advertised. They are getting strong minutes off the bench from Dwight Howard and Alex Caruso. Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is shooting 43.1 percent from three. Opponents are hitting just 50 percent of their attempts at the rim against JaVale McGee. Danny Green is Danny Green. 

    Los Angeles may not be set, but it's pretty damn close.

Memphis Grizzlies: A-

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    Context is important before over-celebrating the Memphis Grizzlies. They've crept their way into the Western Conference playoff picture, but they're still under .500 with a 20th-ranked net rating. They are not some sleeping giant.

    With that disclaimer out of the way, holy crap.

    The Grizzlies have been a revelation over the past month-and-a-half. They're 12-7 since Dec. 5 with a top-three offensive rating and the second-best effective field-goal percentage. Almost everyone has caught fire over that time.

    Zion Williamson will eventually have something to say on the matter, but Brandon Clarke and Ja Morant have arguably been this year's two best all-around rookies. Jaren Jackson Jr. is scoring up a storm. Jonas Valanciunas can't miss. Dillon Brooks and Jae Crowder are hitting more of their jumpers. De'Anthony Melton is draining 41.4 percent of his spot-up threes over this span while wrecking lives on defense.

    Head coach Taylor Jenkins has the Grizzlies playing with a discernible offensive style. After years of operating at a slow, calculated pace, they're now off to the races. Memphis is 10th in average possession time on offense and third following a defensive rebound or turnover, according to Inpredictable.

    Modest success should not cloud the Grizzlies' judgment ahead of the trade deadline. Clarke, Jackson and Morant should be their only untouchables. If they get aggressive offers for Crowder, Melton or Valanciunas, among others, they're obligated to listen. Those overtures might not come, but rebuilding teams have to keep an open mind.

    Mostly, though, the Grizzlies are free to party on. Theirs is a rebuild noticeably ahead of schedule.

Miami Heat: B+

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    Wilfredo Lee/Associated Press

    Trade-machine doctors are obsessed with putting together deals that land the Miami Heat another half-court initiator. That angle isn't wrong, but it's probably time to start worrying more about their defense.

    The Heat are 21st in points allowed per 100 possessions since Dec. 1, over which time they've been picked apart in the half court. They're still doing a good job limiting attempts at the rim, but they're not stopping the opportunities they do let up. Opponents are converting 67.4 percent of their looks at the basket during this stretch, up from a 65.9 percent clip beforehand.

    Miami is now dead last in field-goal percentage allowed at the rim. Limited resistance on the perimeter is at the heart of its drop-off. Justise Winslow is dealing with back problems, and the Heat are feeling the squeeze. As Nekias Duncan wrote for Five Reasons Sports:

    "What this is an example of, however, is Kendrick Nunn dying on a screen. This has been happening quite often since the first month of the season. He started the season hot as a point-of-attack defender, often 'jumping' the screen — feeling where the pick is coming from and getting into the ball-handler's body before the screener can even make contact — and staying attached.

    "Teams got privy to that, and we saw more guards start to back-cut him. Since then, Nunn has been a bit slower in his approach to attack screens. It's led to less backdoor cuts, but he's allowed himself to get screened, putting the rest of the defense in limbo.

    "As productive as Goran Dragic has been offensively, he's been … let's say the exact opposite of that on the defensive end. Dragic's inability to stay connected on screens is a big reason why he's in a bench role to begin with.

    "Tyler Herro and Duncan Robinson have been mostly fine as team defenders. They know when and where to rotate, and can execute simple dig-and-recover sequences when they aren't directly involved in the action."

    Slipping defensively doesn't wipe out all the goodwill Miami has built up. On the contrary, this season is a resounding success. 

    Jimmy Butler has deferred at a career-high clip to the benefit of his teammates. Free from Hassan Whiteside's shadow, Bam Adebayo has blossomed into a should-be All-Star. Herro looks to be among the biggest steals from the draft. The Heat have found hidden gems in Robinson and Chris Silva, as well as an instant scorer in Nunn.

    They aren't supposed to be party-crashing the race for second place in the East, but that's exactly what they're doing.

Milwuakee Bucks: A+

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    Sam Forencich/Getty Images

    Congratulations to the Milwaukee Bucks for earning the league's highest grade. They deserve it.

    Eric Bledsoe and Khris Middleton have both missed some time. Malcolm Brogdon, as just-pay-the-tax advocates will point out, is in Indiana. Brook Lopez is shooting—quadruple-checks notes—28.7 percent on wide-open threes, easily the worst mark among 79 players who've fired off at least 75 such attempts.

    Milwaukee is on track to win 70 games anyway.

    Seven. Zero.

    Seriously.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo is at the center of it all. He is the rightful MVP favorite, and his stat lines look like typos. He's helped the Bucks' spacing by jacking threes at a career-high clip. His efficiency isn't great (32.5 percent), but the volume is paramount. Defenses will be inclined to cover him if he doesn't hesitate, which he's not.

    Antetokounmpo is converting as many pull-up threes per game as Spencer Dinwiddie, LeBron James and Donovan Mitchell. That's absolutely terrifying and also somehow not Milwaukee's most important development. That honor belongs to the supporting cast.

    Middleton remains undervalued as a No. 2 option, even if that's not his ideal role. Bledsoe is hitting more of his jumpers. George Hill is playing like his stints with the Sacramento Kings and Cleveland Cavaliers never happened. Donte DiVincenzo has turned in rock-solid minutes at both ends.

    Depth has permitted the Bucks to keep Antetokounmpo's minutes at bay...as in, under 31 per game. They have the Association's highest bench differential per 100 possessions, and they're bulldozing opponents in the time they've logged without the reigning/presumed MVP—almost half of which have also come sans Middleton.

    Props to head coach Mike Budenholzer for exploring more Antetokounmpo-at-the-5 combinations, as well. He's already tallied a career-high 296 possessions at center, through which Milwaukee has a plus-29.6 net rating. Anything's possible in the East, particularly once the playoffs roll around, but the Bucks are doing a bang-up job of turning their NBA Finals appearance into a borderline formality.

Minnesota Timberwolves: C+

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    Few teams are having a more on-brand season than the Minnesota Timberwolves. They are the pinnacle of "Exactly What We Thought They Were." This is to say, they're below .500 and unlikely to make the playoffs, but they're not bad enough to be full-on teardown candidates.

    Minnesota flirted with outperforming expectations to begin the season. That hot start faded quickly.

    Andrew Wiggins has come back down to Earth, and Karl-Anthony Towns' left knee injury has reemphasized the Timberwolves' defining dilemma: They don't have an offensive pulse without him, but he's also part of the defensive problem. As The Athletic's Jon Krawczynski wrote:

    "During the Wolves' 10-8 start, Towns helped to anchor a defense that was ranked 12th in the league (106.8). For a team that has long languished near the bottom of the league in that category, even when Tom Thibodeau, Jimmy Butler and Taj Gibson were in Wolves jerseys, it was a revelation. Towns, Robert Covington, Wiggins and Jake Layman were surprisingly stingy and things were looking up.

    "But then an 11-game losing streak started in December. Towns was healthy for seven of those games, and the Wolves plummeted to 30th in defensive rating during that stretch, being bludgeoned at a 123.5 clip. 

    "When Towns went down, Gorgui Dieng moved into the starting lineup at center and Noah Vonleh's minutes increased as the backup big. Outside of a putrid performance in Houston on Saturday, the Wolves have been terrific on defense, their 103.1 rating good for second in the league."

    Lineups featuring Robert Covington at the 4 with Dieng at the 5 have fared extremely well on defense. With Jarrett Culver finding his way at both ends, perhaps that's a blueprint the Timberwolves can spill over to Towns' return over the second half of the schedule.

    That's assuming they don't move on from Covington. They might. New suitors emerge for him on a daily basis. He has two years left on his contract, so the Wolves aren't under intense pressure to deal him. But he's 29, and Minnesota isn't in position to accelerate its rebuild.

    Turning him into a younger prospect and a first-round pick would be the prudent play. But trading him risks sending the wrong message to Towns, who may already be unhappy, per The Athletic's Ethan Strauss. His impression of their direction matters more than anything, even if he's under team control for the next four years.

    Not all of the awkward questions facing the Timberwolves have to be answered over the second half of the season. Some do. Hammering out their timeline tops the agenda, an issue directly tied to what they do with Covington and how they view the point guard spot over the long haul.

    Is Culver the answer? Do they bring back Jeff Teague? Go after a D'Angelo Russell trade?

New Orleans Pelicans: B+

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    Giving the New Orleans Pelicans such high marks isn't as ambitious or generous or blasphemous as it seems.

    Entering the second half of the season with the Western Conference's second-worst record doesn't look great on paper. Things could also be worse. Zion Williamson's debut is coming, but he has yet to play. Lonzo Ball, Jrue Holiday and Derrick Favors have all missed time. No team has played through a harder schedule.

    Really, it's a wonder New Orleans isn't jockeying for league-worst status.

    Favors' initial return—he's dealing with a hamstring injury now—brought new life to the Pelicans. They're 9-7 over that monthlong span with a top-11 defense and top-10 net rating. They've fared even better over their past 12 games (8-4), which just so happen to align with Ball finding himself at both ends of the floor.

    Saddling this team with playoff expectations as they get healthier and Williamson joins the fold is unfair. But is it really that unfair? Just four games separate them from the eighth seed, and as of early January, executive vice president of basketball operations David Griffin was approaching the trade deadline from a buyer's perspective, per ESPN's Brian Windhorst.

    Substandard records at the bottom of the West allow the Pelicans to think in these terms. So does Brandon Ingram's breakout year. He's played himself into a max contract given ahead of restricted free agency.

    New Orleans' depth is beginning to catch up with him. Ball isn't alone with his midseason uptick. Jaxson Hayes' motor runs at light speed. Rookie Nickeil Alexander-Walker is an efficiency seesaw, but he's injecting some pizzazz (read: ball movement) into the Pelicans' half-court attack.

    FiveThirtyEight's projection model still gives New Orleans a 47 percent chance at earning a playoff bid. Whether you buy into that is immaterial. The Pelicans have faced enough roadblocks for their postseason odds to crater. That they haven't is a testament to their fast-improving body of work.

New York Knicks: D

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    Handing the reins to interim head coach Mike Miller has spared the New York Knicks from an F. They are free to hang a banner for this achievement.

    Through 18 games under Miller, the Knicks are 7-11 with an 18th-ranked offense. That's a stark improvement from the 4-18 record and league-worst offense they notched with David Fizdale, but their performance hasn't been worlds different. A smaller share of their shots are coming at the rim and from beyond the arc compared to before.

    New York's most impressive alterations have come on defense. Opponents have gone from taking 36.9 percent of their looks at the basket to 31.4 percent—the difference between ranking 31st and fourth in enemy frequency at the rim. These attempts have been exchanged for more mid-range jumpers; offenses are taking 31.4 percent of their shots from those spots, up from 24.9 percent.

    Other victories of the Miller era include Julius Randle's willingness to play within the offense's flow, RJ Barrett not completely sucking from the foul line, Reggie Bullock's fit upon joining the rotation and Marcus Morris' trade value. The Knicks have succeeded in ensuring this season doesn't become an unwatchable sludge wire-to-wire.

    How much credit they deserve for doing the bare minimum will no doubt vary. They're so very, very far from deserving the benefit of the doubt and aren't yet acting like a team planning around the big picture.

    Why was Elfrid Payton currying favor over Frank Ntilikina (before his groin injury)? Are they completely out on Kevin Knox? Why isn't Mitchell Robinson starting? (Foul trouble isn't a good enough excuse.) Do the Knicks really fancy themselves quasi-buyers at the trade deadline?

    One source told the New York Post's Marc Berman that "some members of the front office are leaning toward holding onto Morris at the deadline—unless they get back a star-type player in a large package." If this is posturing on the Knicks' part to drive up the asking price, they need to be more convincing. If it's an accurate snapshot of the front office's thinking, they need a new front office. (They need a new one anyway.)

    This isn't meant to be an all-out hit section on the Knicks. Selling off veterans "just because" isn't smart practice. There are scenarios in which keeping Morris and others who should be on the chopping block makes sense.

    New York's lack of direction hasn't subsided either way. The improvement shown under Miller could be a prelude to something special, or it could just be another detour in this franchise's perpetual rebuild. Until the Knicks maintain a coherent vision for a significant amount of time, they deserve all the skepticism thrown their way.

Oklahoma City Thunder: A

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    Cracking the Western Conference playoff race is not an against-all-odds feat for the Oklahoma City Thunder. A team with Steven Adams, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Chris Paul would always make noise. Whether they'd stay together long enough to remain competitive was the issue.

    That hasn't changed. The Thunder are comfortably above .500 and closer to the West's second seed than ninth place, but they remain committed to the bigger picture. ESPN's Adrian Wojnarowski recently said on SportsCenter that they're "open for business" ahead of the trade deadline (h/t OKC Dream Team podcast's Andrew Schlecht).

    What the Thunder have actually done is arm themselves with the freedom to choose. Busting up the post-Paul George and Russell Westbrook nucleus no longer needs to be a given. Oklahoma City has just as much of an incentive to let it ride.

    Missing out on increased lottery odds would sting but just barely. This year's draft class isn't inciting much praise, and the Thunder could have as many as one jillion 15 first-round selections between now and 2026.

    Many of their primary assets might also look more attractive over the summer. Adams and Dennis Schroder—who's shooting a career high from, um, just about everywhere—will be on expiring deals after this season. Paul's contract may seem slightly less onerous when it can be peddled as a strictly two-year commitment. 

    Gallinari poses a problem with free agency around the corner. Or perhaps not. So few teams have major cap space this summer. The ones that do—notably Atlanta, Charlotte, Memphis, New York—don't have the timelines of traditional big spenders. Oklahoma City could feasibly get value for Gallinari as part of a sign-and-trade or later on after he signs his next deal.

    Creating so much optionality is an unconditional win for the Thunder. It is leverage. And it just so happens to come while Gilgeous-Alexander, the crown jewel from this past summer, is transforming into an offensive and defensive star. His progression is a separate avenue unto itself—motivation for OKC to try juggling the present with the future, a balancing act few, if any, had them fitted for following the offseason's impromptu pivot.

Orlando Magic: C-

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    Pretty much no one should be surprised that the Orlando Magic have taken a step back from last season. 

    Injury bugs have hit them hard, affecting both Aaron Gordon and Nikola Vucevic and currently sidelining Al-Farouq Aminu, Michael Carter-Williams and Jonathan Isaac. That they haven't been reduced to the Chicago Bulls tier of the Eastern Conference is close to a relief.

    Remove all the absences from consideration, and the Magic would still default to regression. They capitalized on an above-average number of career years last season, including standout campaigns from Vucevic, D.J. Augustin and Terrence Ross. Delivering an encore—or improving—would've been the real surprise.

    Orlando didn't do itself any favors by leaning into its limited shooting model. Burning the mid-level exception on Aminu, who wasn't having a positive impact when healthy and probably won't play again this season, remains a puzzling move. The Magic needed a floor-spacing playmaker. They still do.

    Career years from Markelle Fultz and Evan Fournier haven't been enough to offset the downward swings from Augustin, Ross and Vucevic. Orlando is 25th in offensive efficiency and 29th in effective field-goal percentage. Defense is once again carrying its postseason stock.

    Faulty roster construction is absolutely on the Magic. It will continue to be on them if they don't beef up their floor spacing at the trade deadline. Even steering into seller's mode would be preferable to maintaining the status quo. More of the same doesn't guarantee they'll tread water when most of their remaining games come on the road, where they're 6-13.

Philadelphia 76ers: C

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    Resting on "the Philadelphia 76ers are built for the playoffs" crutch isn't good enough anymore. The East was supposed to be a two-team race between them and the Milwaukee Bucks. The Sixers are instead in sixth place at the halfway point.

    Please don't play the "they're closer to second place than seventh" card. That doesn't fly anymore either. Maybe the Sixers get it together once Joel Embiid returns from surgery on his left hand. Cool. Not every team in front of them has peaked yet.

    Justise Winslow will help stabilize the Miami Heat's recent defensive plunge upon return. The Toronto Raptors will get healthier. The Indiana Pacers are getting Victor Oladipo back. The Boston Celtics could upgrade the center spot at the Feb. 6 trade deadline or on the buyout market. The Heat could also parlay their salary-fodder supply into an impact player. The Bucks aren't going anywhere.

    Philly's grace period has long since expired. The starting five owns a dreamy net rating but is scoring just 106.3 points per 100 possessions (27th percentile). Bouncing Embiid from the opening lineup helps, but it comes at the expense of the defense and, more critically, isn't a viable option over the long haul.

    Acquiring another shooter who can make plays off the dribble would open things up, and the search for that player is on, per ESPN's Tim MacMahon. But finding the right target is difficult. The Sixers don't have the contract-filler to take a home-run swing without forking over one of their core pieces.

    Perhaps they overcome their functional warts. They are a combined 7-4 against the five Eastern Conference teams ahead of them, including a win over the Bucks. That doesn't make this much ado over nothing. The Sixers offense is capped at mediocre with adding a JJ Redick- or Landry Shamet-type player (fired shots intended), and they need to figure out a way to snag W's on the road before they're deemed a genuine championship contender.

Phoenix Suns: B-

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    Penciling in the Phoenix Suns for an above-average grade after they lost to the Atlanta Hawks on Tuesday is not ideal. They are 9-20 since their 7-4 start, with their season only alive because the bottom of the Western Conference playoff race refuses to leave anyone behind.

    Phoenix has pressing issues to address, the most urgent of which is Deandre Ayton. He hasn't been bad since returning from his 25-game suspension; his defense has improved. But his offensive fit is no longer the cleanest.

    Getting away from the "Bayton" experiment is a worthwhile redirect. Ayton can, in theory, punish second units off the bench while still closing games. But the Suns need him to run the floor more consistently and to finish harder on his rolls.

    Teammates might be more inclined to feed him if he showed more range. It doesn't sound like Phoenix has instructed him to avoid threes. As general manager James Jones told Bright Side of the Sun:

    "No one has limited Deandre. If he has a trail three and it's a good shot and he makes them all the time, he just has to take them. At some point, internally, if he has the confidence to take them and make them he will. Until he gets there, we can just encourage him to take it. And encourage him to take those opportunities and make the most of them.

    "We're not stopping him from shooting threes. Every NBA player shoots threes. It's just whether or not they have the confidence to shoot them in games."

    Focusing on the Ayton conundrum shouldn't take away from everything the Suns have going for them. Their offensive death sentence without Devin Booker in the game is equal parts troubling and proof of his progression into one of the NBA's best all-around offensive forces. He has upped his true shooting percentage on superstar usage for the third consecutive season. James Harden is the only other player with 25 points and six assists per 36 minutes on Booker's efficiency level.

    Kelly Oubre Jr.'s year is one massive flex. He is killing it in the open floor and has boosted his threat level off the dribble. Mikal Bridges teleports on defense and is hitting more of his threes, albeit on negligible volume. He's the rare player who can leave his mark without even shooting. Cameron Johnson needs to play more. Aron Baynes' one-man demolition act has slowed down, but he's proved to be a net-positive pickup in aggregate.

    Remaining so far below .500 does not warrant a victory lap. But the Suns were crucified for their offseason. The C grade they received here was on the higher end and still perhaps a touch too cruel. Phoenix has plenty of issues and doesn't appear to be playoff-bound, but the assets it has put together is far more hopeful than hopeless.

Portland Trail Blazers: C+

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    Few will be tempted to give the Portland Trail Blazers a better grade. Dropping to 10th in the Western Conference is grounds for an even harsher verdict, no matter how close they remain to the postseason bubble.

    I'm more inclined to let the Blazers plead "injuries...so many injuries." Come join me.

    Jusuf Nurkic has yet to play this season. Zach Collins registered only three appearances before dislocating his left shoulder. Rodney Hood is done for the year after suffering a torn left Achilles. Even Skal Labissiere, a pleasantly surprising contributor on the front line, is out for the long haul with an articular cartilage lesion on his left knee. 

    Carmelo Anthony is starting, averaging almost 32 minutes per game and being leaned on in crunch time after not playing in the NBA for more than a year. Think about that. He's shooting 39.4 percent from deep, and Portland's defense has improved with him on the court, but really, truly think about that.

    Staying within two games of the eighth seed and seven games of .500 is a minor miracle given everything the Blazers have been up against. That they only recently plummeted into the bottom five of points allowed per 100 possessions is almost impressive.

    Head coach Terry Stotts has run out Anthony, Damian Lillard, CJ McCollum all at once...outside of garbage time. Kent Bazemore hasn't proved to be an upgrade over Evan Turner. That's the shallowness with which the Blazers are dealing.

    Sympathy for their plight is still going to be in short supply. They dried up their depth and the wing rotation by bidding farewell to Al-Farouq Aminu (who's now out indefinitely) and turning Meyers Leonard and Maurice Harkless into a Hassan Whiteside. Whether they'd be much better off with a mulligan on the latter move is debatable, but they'd at least have more options at their disposal in the frontcourt.

Sacramento Kings: D

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    Injuries give the Sacramento Kings a slight cushion. Marvin Bagley III, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De'Aaron Fox and Richaun Holmes have all missed substantial time. A drop-off from last season is also easy to excuse. With so few win-later squads populating the Western Conference, reaching 39 wins again was always going to be an uphill battle.

    But this...this is something worse.

    Absences and natural regression alone do not explain these Kings. It is like watching a completely different basketball team on some nights. The most notable difference: pace. They are 18th in average possession time, down from second last season, according to Inpredictable. That is unforgivable for an offense entrusted to Fox's care.

    Sacramento is playing faster since his return from an ankle injury. The offense is fourth in average possession time over that span. But that's only a sliver of the season (14 games), and even this speedier version of the Kings can still stand to push the ball more consistently off turnovers.

    Equally notable: Sacramento once again swung and missed on its veteran acquisitions over the offseason. Dewayne Dedmon is (mostly) out of the rotation and has requested a trade. Trevor Ariza isn't giving them much on offense. Cory Joseph is a complete non-scoring threat. (The Holmes signing was nice.)

    Buddy Hield's play, meanwhile, is a red flag. His 54.1 true shooting percentage ties a career low, and head coach Luke Walton has ostensibly decided to reinvent his entire essence. As Tim Maxwell unpacked for Sactown Royalty:

    "Last year under Dave Joerger, Hield's role on the offensive end was relatively simplistic: sprint to the corners in transition, jack up open catch-and-shoot three-pointers, and make as few key decisions as possible. That was the perfect situation for a player like Buddy, as his shooting is far and away the most important and elite aspect of his game. Instead of choosing to build on that success, Luke Walton has turned that vision on its head, insisting that the fourth-year guard play the role of half-court distributor on offense, despite Buddy's lack of dribbling prowess or court vision. Hield often handles the point guard duties when he's paired with Joseph, and he's now running the pick-and-roll on 27 percent of his possessions, compared to just 16 percent of the time during the 2018-2019 campaign."

    On top of all this, I've personally yet to figure out a good reason why the Kings declined Harry Giles III's $4 million team option for next season. Sure, Fox and Bagley will eventually land their next deals. But the Kings are not in imminent danger of breezing past the luxury tax in 2020-21 unless they go inexplicably high on Bogdan Bogdanovic's next deal.

    And besides, the more expensive they get, the more important it is to retain cost-controlled prospects—particularly those who are already their best passing big man and have flashed more expansive offensive potential.

San Antonio Spurs: C+

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    Join us in welcoming the San Antonio Spurs to the 21st century. It has taken them a while to get here—too long, in fact—but they have finally arrived. 

    Let's see if they stay.

    San Antonio's offensive shift has been more sudden than gradual. LaMarcus Aldridge went from averaging 1.7 three-point attempts through his first 26 games to basically tripling that volume over his past 10. The Spurs as a team were dead last in long-ball-attempt rate before their big man's uptick, taking just 27.5 percent of their total looks from beyond the arc. Nearly 34 percent of their shots have come from behind the rainbow since, the 16th-highest mark in the league.

    Warming up to the long ball has re-weaponized San Antonio's offense. Only the Utah Jazz are scoring more points per 100 possessions during this span, and the starting five is steamrolling counterparts

    DeMar DeRozan specifically is having a field day, in that he's no longer clumping up the Spurs' floor balance. His paths to the basket are less congested than ever, and he's shooting 63.9 percent inside the arc. You read that correctly.

    This all begs the question: What the bleepity bleep took so long? 

    Convincing players to change their shot profile takes time, but Aldridge has always been a pick-and-pop big. His latest reformation is a matter of taking a couple of steps back. That shouldn't be a huge deal. 

    You better believe the Spurs lost one letter grade for not ironing out their offensive wrinkles sooner. They haven't solved everything—so many players are due for regression from this hot streak—and they should still consider moving DeRozan before the trade deadline. But the offensive success they're having in recent weeks makes what they were doing before that much harder to comprehend.

Toronto Raptors: A

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    Here is a list of every team that has lost more wins to injury than the Toronto Raptors as of early January, according to Man Games Lost.

    That's the list. It includes no one. There is no list. The Raptors are on their own plane, and they're not yet fully healthy.

    Norman Powell and Pascal Siakam just took the floor for the first time since Dec. 18 in a Jan. 12 loss to the San Antonio Spurs. Marc Gasol is still dealing with a hamstring injury, and Fred VanVleet has now joined him. Toronto's best five-man unit projected to include both of them, along with Siakam, OG Anunoby and Kyle Lowry. That group has seen just 375 possessions together (and nuked opponents during that time).

    Playing so short-handed for this much of the season after losing Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green could've torpedoed the Raptors season. They're instead 11 games over .500, a mere three losses off the Eastern Conference's No. 2 seed. The offense has topped out at average even when Lowry, Siakam and VanVleet share the floor, but Toronto owns the second-best defense.

    Chris Boucher, Terence Davis, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Patrick McCaw have all taken on sizable roles in the face of injuries, and they're getting the job done. (Though, not so much anymore for RHJ.) This says nothing of Serge Ibaka's steadying hand while playing exclusively at center, or of Siakam's fringe-MVP case, or of Lowry's under-the-radar All-NBA argument.

    The Raptors probably need another scoring playmaker to challenge the Milwaukee Bucks and make it out of the East. That they're even good enough to be in this conversation, though, is the real feat.

Utah Jazz: B+

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    Reentering the starting five has looked good on Joe Ingles. His return has looked even better on the Utah Jazz.

    In the 18 games since he's rejoined the opening lineup, the team is 15-3 with the league's best offense and effective field-goal percentage. The defense has slipped, but the Jazz will take it when they're still in the top 10 and not flush with wing stoppers or first-rate backup bigs, and when Bojan Bogdanovic and Donovan Mitchell are blowing defenses to smithereens.

    Flipping Dante Exum and two second-rounders to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Jordan Clarkson has turned out to be just as impactful. His three-point touch has been up-and-down since his arrival, but Utah's bench went from 25th in point differential per 100 possessions beforehand to 13th since. The off-the-dribble variance he gives the second-string rotation is a big reason why.

    One potential hiccup: The Jazz's climb up the Western Conference standings has taken place without Mike Conley (hamstring). They struggled to integrate him before, and the dynamic is even more fragile now. 

    Utah can move Royce O'Neale (playing extremely well) to the bench without issue, but pairing Conley with Bogi, Ingles and Spida risks some imbalance. That foursome has played well in limited action, so perhaps it doesn't matter. But the Jazz may want to consider more stringently staggering at least Conley and Mitchell once the former returns. 

    For the time being, nothing else stands between them and an even higher score. Getting Conley acclimated helped stunt their progress at the beginning of the year. Successfully handling his return is the biggest obstacle they currently face.

Washington Wizards: B

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    Before demanding a retraction, think about what this Washington Wizards' season was supposed to be: decidedly not fun.

    No John Wall. Very few to zero prospects worth evaluating against the big picture. Bradley Beal logging 35-plus minutes per game for a team barreling toward nowhere. Presumably too much Isaiah Thomas and Ish Smith. Next to zero proven defenders. Lots of losses. Potentially a league-worst record in the event Beal missed extensive time.

    It was all in play. Some of it is still in play. But not all of it. Or most of it.

    We are definitely seeing too much Isaiah Thomas these days, but there is, for now, no such thing as too much Ish Smith. The Wizards are not suddenly brimming with blue-chip 20-somethings, but they're finding potential keepers on the margins.

    Troy Brown Jr. is averaging 15.6 points while shooting 51.6 percent on twos and 40 percent from three in the New Year. Gary Payton II leads the league in deflections per 36 minutes and has the sixth-highest defensive rebounding rate among qualified players 6'3" or shorter since joining the roster. Jordan McRae is a firecracker from beyond the arc and always a threat to do something entertaining off the dribble.

    Davis Bertans has shot his way into the rumor mill, which might actually make him untouchable, because his outside touch might be more valuable to the Wizards long-term. Mo Wagner was scoring from all over and making the occasional play around the basket prior to his ankle injury. Garrison Mathews shot well enough to be considered officially intriguing before his.

    Beal is probably playing too much (36.2 minutes per game) for a team this light on expectations, but the Wizards didn't completely roll over while he was out with a right leg injury. They rattled off wins against the Boston Celtics and Atlanta Hawks and put up an interesting fight against the red-hot Utah Jazz.

    Washington still faces a great number of big-picture questions, most of which won't be answered this season. What is Rui Hachimura? Will Beal be on the roster next season? Should Bertans be flipped at the deadline? Is this a gap year or the start of a rebuild? The list goes on.

    In the meantime, the Wizards are what they're not supposed to be: fun.

           

    Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.comBasketball Reference or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Tuesday's games. Salary and cap-hold information via Basketball InsidersEarly Bird Rights and Spotrac.

    Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale) and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by B/R's Andrew Bailey.