Early-Season Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 21, 2021

Early-Season Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

0 of 30

    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Between a truncated schedule, planned rest, health-and-safety-related absences and several postponements, the 2020-21 NBA season is more resistant to evaluation than any in memory.

    We're going to try anyway.

    As we grade each team on its efforts over the first month of the season, everything from on-court work to transactions to chemistry is fair game. We need all the inputs we can find in a year like this.

    This will be a holistic look at the way each team's season has progressed so far. Think of it as a state-of-the-union assessment, relative to expectations and organizational goals, that basically asks: How's it going?

Atlanta Hawks: C-

1 of 30

    Jacob Kupferman/Associated Press

    Trae Young hasn't found his stroke from anywhere but the foul line, and all the Atlanta Hawks' veteran offseason additions have missed significant time because of injury. Throw in the simmering discontent surrounding Young's ball-dominant style, which bubbled up during a film session earlier this month, and it's something of a miracle Atlanta owns a positive point differential.

    Atlanta has been lucky on defense; it's allowing ample looks at the rim and from deep, but opponents aren't hitting those high-value shots at league-average rates. When that normalizes, the Hawks will see their defensive efficiency, surprisingly respectable to date, head in the wrong direction.

    De'Andre Hunter has grown in many of the right ways. After a forgettable rookie year, the 6'8" wing looks more comfortable from deep and has been better attacking the basket. He's getting to the free-throw line more often and has slashed his turnover rate substantially. Those are both welcome signs.

    If the Hawks' injured and absent additions (we haven't even mentioned rookie Onyeka Okongwu, who's played just one game) return to the rotation to offset the impending defensive downturn, the playoffs will remain a realistic goal.

    It's been a little bumpy so far, but Atlanta is still in good position after the first month.

Boston Celtics: B+

2 of 30

    Jose Juarez/Associated Press

    Without Kemba Walker for the first three weeks of the season and struggling to identify a 4-5 combination that wouldn't bleed points, the Boston Celtics find themselves in a surprisingly strong position.

    Jaylen Brown narrowed the gap between himself and superstar teammate Jayson Tatum, giving Boston the league's best under-25 tandem and setting a high night-to-night floor. Those two, without much help, can get an awful lot done on both ends.

    Daniel Theis and Tristan Thompson haven't impressed in two-big looks, and Marcus Smart's three-point shot is going in less often than it has in any year since 2017-18. Fortunately, rookie Payton Pritchard can play, which helped fill the Walker void. His deep shooting and confidence suggest he'll be a quality backup point guard (at worst) for years to come. That's real value at No. 26 in the 2020 draft.

    Though they're just outside the top 10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency, the Celtics haven't had their full rotation healthy at any point this season. When that changes, they'll inch their way up toward the top five on both ends.

Brooklyn Nets: Incomplete

3 of 30

    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    The Brooklyn Nets are the recipient of what will be our only "incomplete" cop-out of this exercise.

    With Kyrie Irving out for a long stretch due to personal reasons and a violation of the health and safety protocols, James Harden just barely getting integrated into what will almost have to be an overhauled offensive scheme and new depth-chart issues to figure out following the trade that brought the Beard aboard, Brooklyn is just too unsettled for us to evaluate it.

    If we were basing the grade on everything leading up to Harden's arrival, it would have been somewhere in the C range. Irving's absence offset Kevin Durant's stellar return from a torn Achilles, while rebounding issues produced a worse defensive performance than you'd expect from the talent on hand. Spencer Dinwiddie's torn ACL also robbed the offense of a key piece.

    Harden logged a triple-double in his Nets debut and appeared more than happy to be the team's main facilitator. He was just as good in one of the season's best games to date, a two-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Jan. 18.

    If his improved focus persists, and if head coach Steve Nash can figure out how to coax league-average defense from a roster bereft of stoppers, Brooklyn will be a top-flight contender and deserve an A.

Charlotte Hornets: B+

4 of 30

    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    LaMelo Ball is better than advertised, which matters more than anything else to the Charlotte Hornets' early-season grade.

    There aren't many players who visibly energize a team just by being on the floor, but Ball does it with his innate court sense and genius-level passing. He's confident, always has his eyes up and can fit the ball into impossible windows—almost always on time and on target. His setups are going to make Miles Bridges a pile of money, and every Hornets player perks up and cuts harder when Ball checks into the game.

    He's special.

    Gordon Hayward is thriving and on pace to set a career high in scoring. Ditto for Terry Rozier.

    If not for Devonte' Graham's inability to hit a shot and Cody Zeller's fractured finger, Charlotte would be off to one of the most pleasantly surprising starts in the league. As it is, the Hornets are a ton of fun to watch and appear set up to be at least interesting, but also possibly competitive as Ball's influence continues to grow.

Chicago Bulls: C

5 of 30

    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    In order to score at respectable rates, the Chicago Bulls need shot creation from Coby White and Zach LaVine. Unfortunately, it's clear the team can't generate any stopping power with those two as point-of-attack defenders. 

    That dynamic defines the Bulls, who've played middling offense while putting up some of the least defensive resistance in the league. 

    The Bulls' regular starting unit—White, LaVine, Patrick Williams, Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.—has been getting creamed. No five-man unit with at least 75 shared minutes owns a worse net rating. It's a good thing Chicago's backups, led by vets Garrett Temple and Thaddeus Young, have consistently led reserve-unit comebacks. 

    It's not difficult to imagine this group finishing among the league's top 10 in scoring, especially if Markkanen continues to drain 40.0 percent of his threes. But the Bulls will be no more than a play-in hopeful without a major step forward defensively.

    Unless you were uncommonly high on Chicago heading into the season, its 6-8 record feels about right.

Cleveland Cavaliers: B

6 of 30

    John Raoux/Associated Press

    A 3-0 start fueled by shockingly effective offense never felt real, and the Cleveland Cavaliers predictably regressed to the mean over the ensuing weeks, settling in at the very bottom of the league in offensive efficiency. Strange as it sounds, they have actually shown some encouraging signs on that end.

    Darius Garland and Collin Sexton appear to have a future as backcourt partners, with the former's truer point guard skill set allowing the latter to attack and score. Both can stretch the court, and though they're undersized as guard duos go, they've embraced the Cavs' focus on competing defensively.

    Unlike its scoring, Cleveland's work on D has held up. A sky-high opponent turnover rate, best in the league to this point, can't continue at these levels. But the Cavs have forced tons of mistakes for a month now. That's long enough to give them credit for their aggression and general handsiness. They have also defended well at the rim, which you'd expect from a team that has roughly 73 centers on the roster.

    Scoring will be a struggle all year, but some of the defensive gains have legs. Add to that the slick acquisition of Jarrett Allen in the James Harden trade, which bolstered the young core of Garland, Sexton and rookie Isaac Okoro, and there's a lot to like about Cleveland's first month.

Dallas Mavericks: C-

7 of 30

    Ron Jenkins/Associated Press

    That the Dallas Mavericks are in the neighborhood of .500 without once having Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Dorian Finney-Smith and Josh Richardson on the floor together counts as a success.

    Porzingis' recovery from offseason knee surgery and the league's health and safety protocols have conspired to prevent us from seeing Dallas at anything approaching full strength. Despite those hurdles, the Mavs have handled themselves well overall.

    A 51-point evisceration of the Los Angeles Clippers on Dec. 27 warps Dallas' net rating, but don't overlook quality road wins over the Denver Nuggets, Houston Rockets and Charlotte Hornets (plus a three-point loss in Milwaukee).

    Doncic's defensive effort seems to have spiked this year, and he's on pace to smash previous career bests in block rate and defensive box plus/minus. Those aren't phony numbers; the eye test reveals a newly committed and impactful Doncic. His words are also in step with his actions.

    Dallas isn't where it wants to be, and even if bad luck (which is already turning around with Porzingis back in the fold) is the main reason, we have to grade the team on how it's performed relative to expectations so far. Hence the slightly below-average mark.

Denver Nuggets: C

8 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    Even without Michael Porter Jr. for all but four games, the Denver Nuggets offense is as advertised. A top-five scoring clip owes largely to Nikola Jokic's brilliant early play as the Nugs get nothing but high expected-value looks whenever he's on the floor.

    We've made it deep enough into the season to believe Jokic—currently averaging 25.1 points, 11.4 rebounds and 10.0 assists—could sustain his numbers all year. At the risk of upsetting Russell Westbrook's constituency, Jokic's potential triple-double average wouldn't be propped up by stat-hunting. He's earning these figures, and Denver is basically unguardable when he's on the floor.

    The other end is an issue—for Jokic and the Nuggets as a whole.

    Denver has generally kept teams away from the rim well, though, and its opponents have been lucky on perimeter shots. This bottom-10 defense could eventually be better than the numbers make it look.

    Denver is just 7-7, and Jamal Murray doesn't seem interested in finally proving he can play like a superstar during the regular season. Gary Harris, for the third year in a row, is struggling to regain his offensive punch.

    The Nuggets, a fringe contender coming in, probably expected a little more. But there's nothing terribly wrong under the hood.

Detroit Pistons: D+

9 of 30

    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    The Detroit Pistons didn't seem to harbor any designs of making the playoffs, so by one measure, they're succeeding. This team resides at the bottom of the East standings and doesn't have much hope (or intention) of climbing.

    That said, the best outcome for the Pistons this season was to lose while also developing key players. Rookie Killian Hayes' hip injury will likely keep him off the floor for the remainder of the season, which means Detroit's most important young piece will essentially start his rookie year over next season.

    Jerami Grant has quieted doubters with his early play, proving he may have been ready for the larger role he wanted after leaving the Denver Nuggets. His strong performance helps take some of the sting out of Blake Griffin's stumbles, but his decline is still a problem for the Pistons.

    In an ideal world, Griffin would have looked good enough to entice a few trade offers. Now, it looks like Detroit will either have to part with substantial draft capital to move him or grit its teeth and pay him this year and next, when the former All-Star will almost certainly pick up his $39 million player option.

Golden State Warriors: B+

10 of 30

    Tony Avelar/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry has managed to erupt for a handful of thrilling "Yeah, I'm still an MVP" nights despite opposing defenses throwing all manner of geometric defensive nonsense at him.

    Box-and-one, triangle-and-two...don't be surprised if some pioneering coach (probably Nick Nurse) abandons concern for the other four Golden State Warriors on the floor and deploys a pentagon-shaped scheme that surrounds Curry with all five defenders.

    Growing pains and flashes of brilliance have defined James Wiseman's first month. His athleticism is undeniable, and his shooting stroke suggests he'll be a high-volume three-point threat as soon as next year. But he's got a long developmental road ahead of him.

    Kelly Oubre' Jr.'s frigid shooting to start the season seeped into other aspects of his offensive game. Hesitant, constantly unaware or even literally in the way of Curry's patented relocation treys, Oubre has often looked totally adrift. On D, he's been a live wire, though Andrew Wiggins deserves the most praise for his work on that end.

    Wiggins' offense comes and goes, but he's been one of the best wing stoppers in the league. The Warriors will take that, and they'll also gladly accept second-year forward Eric Paschall's hand-in-glove fit as a small-ball center in a speedy second unit.

    Golden State is right where it ought to be, fighting for one of the last few playoff spots in the West and demonstrably able to compete with the league's best on the right nights. It already has comeback wins over the Los Angeles Lakers and Los Angeles Clippers. If Wiseman improves quickly, Draymond Green can remember how to score and Oubre regains his stroke, a move toward the West's upper tier is still possible.

Houston Rockets: B

11 of 30

    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    John Wall doesn't look like a guy who's missed a couple of years (for the most part), and Christian Wood's offensive production is right in line with what he did in his brief stint as a starter for the Pistons last season. Let's toss in P.J. Tucker's red-hot shooting from deep while we're chronicling positive developments that, relatively, don't mean much at all.

    The James Harden trade is what defines Houston's first month, and...that went surprisingly well!

    Houston now effectively controls the Nets' first-round pick through 2027, which is quite a return for a player the entire universe knew it had to trade. Maybe Victor Oladipo is just an expiring salary to the cost-conscious Rockets, but maybe he'll be good enough to keep long-term. Worst case, Houston can flip him for an extra pick at the deadline.

    New head coach Stephen Silas finally gets to run the show without Harden's discontent casting a shadow over everything, which lends a refreshing note to whatever's ahead for the Rockets.

Indiana Pacers: B+

12 of 30

    Darron Cummings/Associated Press

    The story of the Indiana Pacers' first month isn't a sexy one unless you've really got a thing for shot profiles.

    Under new head coach Nate Bjorkgren, the Pacers are swapping out mid-rangers for threes and point-blank looks. As a result, last season's No. 19 offense is up to 11th—and that's with last year's leading scorer, T.J. Warren, missing all but four games due to a stress fracture in his left foot.

    No team gets a larger share of its shots at the rim than the Pacers.

    Domantas Sabonis is playing bully ball while still finding time to set up his teammates, Malcolm Brogdon doesn't ever seem to miss, and Myles Turner (currently out with an avulsion fracture in his hand that, thankfully, won't require surgery) might still lead the league in blocks whenever he returns. 

    The Pacers also aced a key transaction, essentially turning Victor Oladipo's expiring contract into Caris LeVert, cash and a future second-round pick.

    LeVert is currently facing an uncertain health situation after a mass was found on one of his kidneys during the post-trade physical. But assuming he can return at full strength, Indy did well to secure a younger, cheaper wing who might actually fit even better than Oladipo, who was ticketed for free agency anyway.

Los Angeles Clippers: A

13 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    The Los Angeles Clippers aren't defending, but they're doing so much else well that it doesn't even matter.

    Near the top of the league on offense and propelled by a version of Paul George that, so far, looks even better than the one that finished third in MVP voting after the 2018-19 season, the Clips are overwhelming opponents with top-end talent and considerable depth.

    Early signs might suggest the bench is a trouble spot as all five of Lou Williams, Reggie Jackson, Luke Kennard, Marcus Morris Sr. and Ivica Zubac have played to negative net ratings. But look at those names! Almost every team in the league could improve by swapping out a couple of starters for the guys L.A. brings off the bench.

    The Clippers are surviving mainly on jump shots, and skeptics could point to their struggles to get to the rim as an ominous sign. But even with a 51-point loss to the Dallas Mavericks, this team is still among the top three in net rating—and that's without so much as scratching the surface of its defensive potential.

    Serge Ibaka has fit well, and Nicolas Batum's rejuvenation is real. Though no one will buy the Clippers until they prove they've got what it takes to win in the postseason, they've looked dominant for most of the early part of the year.

Los Angeles Lakers: A

14 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    There's nothing to complain about here as the Los Angeles Lakers' first month did not dispel the preseason notion that they were a cut above the rest of the league.

    LeBron James, still looking every inch like the best player in the league, has been productive, efficient and incomprehensibly durable. He's tied for the league lead in games played. So much for taking it easy in Year 18...

    New additions Dennis Schroder, Marc Gasol and Montrezl Harrell have all succeeded in their roles, with Schroder looking like an indispensable piece of L.A.'s best closing lineup. Long-term defensive concerns exist about Gasol (immobility) and Harrell (general badness); both may have trouble staying on the court in playoff crunch time.

    But those concerns disappear when you remember James and Anthony Davis will man the 4-5 spots in the moments that matter.

    The Lakers have the best record and net rating in the league, their superstars are undimmed, and the new guys are all contributing as expected. This team collected a title, reloaded and hasn't missed a beat.

Memphis Grizzlies: A-

15 of 30

    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    Despite a slightly negative point differential, the Memphis Grizzlies hit the one-month mark at 7-6 with two wins over the Nets and one apiece against the Philadelphia 76ers and Phoenix Suns. All this with Jaren Jackson Jr. yet to play a second and Ja Morant missing eight games after a nasty sprained ankle.

    It's a little concerning that Morant rushed back well ahead of the projected three-to-five-week timeline, but from an old-school perspective, his toughness could further galvanize a team that has a history of winning with grit.

    Rookies Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman Sr. are already contributing, with the former striping it from deep at 48.9 percent and the latter showcasing defensive instincts and mobility that could make him a rotation mainstay despite limited offensive skill.

    Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke still can't shoot, but they and the rest of the Grizz are buckling down on D. Memphis owns a top-five defensive rating that isn't propped up by bad opponent shooting luck.

    The Grizzlies were a popular regression pick after reaching the play-in round last year, but they've been a pleasant surprise without their two best players for most of the season.

Miami Heat: D+

16 of 30

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Nobody should be worried about the Miami Heat, who, led by Jimmy Butler (still probably exhausted from a life force-draining playoff run), are ramping up slowly. That said, the results so far are still objectively worse than you'd expect from a Finals participant that stayed mostly intact over the offseason.

    If the playoffs started today, the Heat wouldn't be involved.

    Jae Crowder and Derrick Jones Jr. are gone, which has hurt the defense. But the real issue in Miami is turnovers. A problem last season, the Heat's giveaway disease—possibly the result of an egalitarian, passing-based attack—has metastasized. They own the highest turnover rate in the league.

    Tyler Herro is doing his best to shoot his way out of a slow start, and Butler has missed a ton of time. Fortunately, Duncan Robinson is incapable of shooting below 40.0 percent from deep, and Bam Adebayo looks like an All-NBA candidate. He's blowing past previous career highs in usage and shooting efficiency while also working his way to the foul line like never before.

    No panic here, but we've got to be fair. The Heat have disappointed in the early going.

Milwaukee Bucks: A

17 of 30

    Lynne Sladky/Associated Press

    Suspect depth was a concern for the Milwaukee Bucks in the wake of the Jrue Holiday trade, but blistering shooting from just about every bench player on the roster has quieted those worries so far.

    Bryn Forbes, Bobby Portis, Pat Connaughton and D.J. Wilson are all striping it at over 40.0 percent from deep on the year, and Milwaukee ranks among the top three in overall three-point accuracy. Those rates will cool, but it's getting harder and harder to predict regression for Khris Middleton, who is on pace for a 50/40/90 season and continues to solidify himself as one of the game's most accomplished three-level scorers.

    Giannis Antetokounmpo's free-throw shooting warrants mention. He went 1-of-10 from the foul line in a three-point win over the Mavs on Jan. 15 and has looked increasingly uncomfortable on his freebies. That's ultimately a playoff concern, but we need to flag it now that he's down below 60.0 percent on the season.

    The Bucks' starting five is crushing opponents. Combined with a bench that has been more effective than expected, it's no wonder Milwaukee has the top point differential in the East.

    Milwaukee was supposed to resemble a top contender, and that's exactly what it looks like.

Minnesota Timberwolves: F

18 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    It's not the Minnesota Timberwolves' fault that injuries hit immediately, upping the difficulty they were already in line to face with a young and imbalanced roster in the perennially punishing West.

    Tough breaks don't exempt the Wolves from tough judgment.

    Karl-Anthony Towns and Josh Okogie hit the shelf in the first week of the season, robbing the team of its offensive fulcrum and best defensive wing. D'Angelo Russell continues to be a catastrophically noncompetitive defender, Anthony Edwards is validating predraft concerns that he'd show flashes but ultimately produce only empty points, and few organizations have less quality at the 2, 3 and 4 spots than Minnesota.

    The Wolves rank dead last in net rating, putting themselves on track to potentially lose their top-three-protected first-round pick to the Warriors. The play-in round seems like a pipe dream, and it's not out of the question that head coach Ryan Saunders could be among the first coaches fired—a jarring possibility given his deep familial ties to the franchise.

    Ricky Rubio deserves a medal for doing a second tour with this group.

New Orleans Pelicans: D+

19 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    Head coach Stan Van Gundy's emphasis on size and a slower pace was supposed to be worthwhile. Yes, the New Orleans Pelicans, seemingly suited to play an uptempo style, would lose some offensive zip. But they'd get a stouter defense in the bargain.

    So much for that.

    The Pels are in the league's bottom third in defensive efficiency, and they predictably haven't shone on offense, either. They play at an extremely slow pace and wall off the lane, but no team surrenders a larger share of opponent shots from three.

    Zion Williamson's play has been mixed. He's attempted only three triples on the year and has yet to make one, but as his bounce has gradually returned, he's been increasingly dominant inside. In a Jan. 17 win over the Sacramento Kings and a Jan. 19 loss to the Utah Jazz, he combined to shoot 27-of-34 from the field. He's looked unstoppable in the lane.

    Lonzo Ball has been a disappointment and is shooting under 40.0 percent from the field—a rough start partially offset by Nickeil Alexander-Walker's emergence. It's a year late, but the Pels guard is validating many who viewed him as a steal in the 2019 draft.

    On balance, New Orleans is a disappointing 5-8 and has underwhelmed on both ends. There's talent here, so there's also hope. But New Orleans hasn't impressed so far.

New York Knicks: B

20 of 30

    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    When you've been groping around in the dark as long as the New York Knicks, you'll welcome shine wherever you can find it—even if it's only fool's gold doing the gleaming.

    New York, reorganized and playing with actual intent and purpose under Tom Thibodeau, is a stunning 7-8 through its first 15 games. That's good for sixth in the East standings.

    That success is driven mostly by incredible luck. The Knicks allow the third-most wide-open three-point attempts per game, yet opponents are converting them at a 32.0 percent clip, the lowest in the league. That's not the way to build a sustainable defense, nor does it help to surrender the third-highest percentage of opponent attempts at the rim.

    The Knicks should be allowing the second-highest effective field-goal percentage in the league. Instead, due to good fortune, they're permitting the second-lowest. To be fair, the Knicks have been unlucky by that same measure on their own shots. But not to the degree that normalization on both fronts will balance out.

    Julius Randle has been better than ever, Mitchell Robinson isn't fouling himself off the floor as often, and Thibs has New York competing at levels unseen over the last several years.

    The losses are coming, but we're just going to grade on the results so far. It's the least we can do for a franchise that needs some love.

Oklahoma City Thunder: A-

21 of 30

    Kathy Willens/Associated Press

    The only imperfection in the Oklahoma City Thunder's performance shows up in the win column; they've got too many for a rebuilder focused on draft picks. OKC has so many incoming selections from other teams that it doesn't really need its 2021 first-rounder to be great. but that'd still be nice in what's supposed to be a deep draft.

    Fortunately, the Thunder's 6-7 record is out of step with their bottom-five point differential. As that balances out, the welcome losses will come. Hooray!

    From a personnel standpoint, everything's going great.

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is joined by only James Harden, Stephen Curry, Kyrie Irving and Nikola Jokic with averages of over 21.0 points, 6.0 assists and 5.0 rebounds on at least 60.0 percent true shooting this season. His slithery handle and off-time attacks knock defenders off balance and allow the 22-year-old guard to get his own looks and set up others.

    Luguentz Dort is draining treys at an elite clip while using his bulk to shut down wings and attack the rim with purpose, and OKC's longtime preference for rangy athletes it hopes to mold into actual basketball players is paying off. Hamidou Diallo and Darius Bazley, 22 and 20, respectively, have clearly developed more ball skills and craft.

    The ground floor of a rebuild isn't supposed to look this good or be this much fun.

Orlando Magic: D

22 of 30

    Mary Altaffer/Associated Press

    Nikola Vucevic has been one of the best offensive players in the league, but he hasn't been good enough to make the Orlando Magic's attack any good. Though he's still hot, the team recently crashed back to earth by losing six in a row and exposing a fraudulent 6-2 start.

    This is nothing new as the Magic are in line to finish with a bottom-10 offensive rating for the fifth straight season. No team has a lower expected effective field-goal percentage than Orlando, which is what happens when you love mid-rangers and hate corner threes more than anyone.

    Markelle Fultz's torn ACL was a gut punch, Aaron Gordon is now in his sixth straight season of "he'll be a high-end starter someday, but not today," and Evan Fournier's back has cost him most of the season.

    There's a scenario in which Orlando tightens up enough on defense to offset its lack of talent and crummy shot profile on the other end, but the ceiling is familiar. Yet again, the Magic's best-case scenario is a five-game first-round ouster.

Philadelphia 76ers: A-

23 of 30

    Chris Szagola/Associated Press

    Let's start with the most important thing: Joel Embiid is up near the top of everyone's early-season MVP list.

    For the Philadelphia 76ers, who go as Embiid goes, that's a huge deal. The franchise center is having a career year, setting new highs in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage and free-throw rate. Though he can still be turnover-prone when doubled, sending a second defender is now an absolute must for opposing defenses. Otherwise, Embiid is either scoring or getting fouled.

    Philly is succeeding with its defense, no longer best in the league after a suffocating start but still among the top three. On the other end, scoring is no problem whenever Seth Curry is on the floor. In fact, he's had the largest positive impact on his team's net rating in the league among players who've seen at least 200 minutes.

    Ben Simmons is still afraid to shoot or get fouled, but both Tyrese Maxey and Shake Milton have had their moments. Tobias Harris, back with head coach Doc Rivers, is flirting with a 50/40/90 shooting split in what's shaping up to be a career year.

    As long as Embiid stays fit and healthy, the Sixers will present a matchup problem against every team in the league.

Phoenix Suns: B+

24 of 30

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Mikal Bridges and Cameron Payne are the only Phoenix Suns rotation players who've demonstrably exceeded expectations this year, which should concern the rest of the league. Even with Devin Booker, Chris Paul, Deandre Ayton, Jae Crowder and several others still adjusting to their roles on a revamped roster, the Suns have won more often than they've lost.

    Once the rest of Phoenix's key figures round into shape, this team is going to be a real problem.

    The Suns could stand to force a few more turnovers, but a relatively conservative scheme is succeeding at running opponents off the three-point line. Bridges and Booker give Phoenix enviable length at the wing, and few players in the league boast more smarts on the perimeter than Paul.

    The Suns are a work in progress, but there's already a lot that seems to be working just fine. Coming into the year, the more optimistic forecasters saw a Phoenix team capable of finishing among the West's top three. Nothing we've seen so far suggests that projection was out of line.

Portland Trail Blazers: C-

25 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    For the second year in a row, injuries to frontline players will define the Portland Trail Blazers' season.

    In a two-day span, Portland lost starting center Jusuf Nurkic to a fractured right wrist and CJ McCollum, one of the hottest scorers in the league, to a hairline fracture in his left foot. The former stands to miss at least six weeks following surgery, while the latter won't be re-evaluated for a month.

    Losing starters always hurts, but the Blazers will be particularly vulnerable without McCollum and Nurkic. The more Enes Kanter has to play, the more hopeless Portland's defensive prospects become. And Anfernee Simons, who figures to see more time now, continues to underwhelm on both ends. Already one of the worst defenses in the league, the Blazers may now also find it impossible to score whenever Damian Lillard rests.

    If any of this sounds familiar, it's because that was basically the dynamic of the Blazers' 2019-20 season.

    Portland's full-season outlook is still strong, assuming it gets its best players back on the floor within the projected timelines and doesn't completely fall apart in the interim. But the margin for error is gone now.

Sacramento Kings: D

26 of 30

    Rich Pedroncelli/Associated Press

    Tyrese Haliburton is an absolute standout, gifted with levels of two-way savvy and poise that'd make most 10-year vets jealous. He's over 50.0 percent from the field and from deep, and he's already got more intelligent, bucket-saving defensive plays on his reel than anyone else on the Sacramento Kings roster.

    That's pretty much where the good news ends, though.

    De'Aaron Fox still flashes superstardom for short stretches in almost every game, and Richaun Holmes plays hard. But the Kings cannot field an NBA-caliber defense with Buddy Hield and Marvin Bagley III on the floor. Those two are both starters, so nobody should be surprised by Sacramento's 30th-ranked defense.

    Despite a roster built to run, led by one of the league's fastest players in Fox, head coach Luke Walton only has the Kings in the middle of the pack in transition frequency. These guys can run, but they're not doing it nearly enough.

    Add tactical mismanagement to inconsistency and a dearth of talent on Sacramento's list of woes.

San Antonio Spurs: B

27 of 30

    Ashley Landis/Associated Press

    The San Antonio Spurs' younger core matters most, which is why it's such a bummer that Derrick White is out with a toe injury. But Keldon Johnson's high-energy work on both ends and Dejounte Murray's steady development as a point guard (career-low turnover rate plus career-high assist rate equals progress) mean at least some of the Spurs' key long-term projects are on track.

    DeMar DeRozan has already made as many threes this year as he did in either of the two previous seasons, and he continues to be one of the game's most underrated facilitators. He's on pace to set a career high with 7.4 assists per 36 minutes.

    LaMarcus Aldridge is posting the lowest true shooting percentage of his long career and is looking washed, which happens at 35. But the Spurs' delicate balance between present and future is otherwise looking good.

    San Antonio remains annoyingly addicted to mid-rangers, but that's been a workable strategy for its personnel over the years. We can't be too critical there even if it feels like the Spurs keep leaving points on the table.

    Few expected San Antonio to sit above .500 this far into the season, and this group has been respectable on both ends. It's a solid start for a franchise that is no longer elite but stubbornly refuses to become a pushover.

Toronto Raptors: D+

28 of 30

    Chris Carlson/Associated Press

    Alarm bells were blaring after the Toronto Raptors' 1-6 start, as even the most ardent believers in Kyle Lowry and the championship-tested Raps (raises hand) got a little freaked out.

    Did Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka really matter this much? Was Pascal Siakam's bubble slump permanent? Were the Raptors suddenly done as a playoff threat?

    Thankfully, Toronto and Siakam are sorting themselves out. And if any team gets a special pass in this strange season, it should be the one that won the whole thing in 2019, had to arrive to last year's bubble early and is now playing "home" games in Tampa Bay.

    On the bright side, Chris Boucher is swatting everything and proving he can handle a much higher-volume offensive role—especially from deep. Toronto can play a true five-out style when he's on the floor, which is what it was hoping to do with signee Aron Baynes. But Baynes, who's shooting a ghastly 15.8 percent from three, has been one of the least effective players in the league so far.

    Based on point differential, the Raptors should have a few more wins than currently appear on the ledger. Much like the Heat, Toronto's messy start shouldn't inspire panic. It's been ugly, though, and we have to slap a the Raps with the unappealing mark their play has earned them.

Utah Jazz: A-

29 of 30

    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz are off to a quietly dominant start behind a welcome return to excellence from Mike Conley and some surprisingly effective bench play.

    Conley, who looked to have lost his game in his 2019-20 debut with the Jazz, has followed a resurgent effort in the bubble with borderline All-Star play—appropriate for perhaps the best player to have never made an All-Star Game. His knockdown shooting and steady offensive stewardship have helped balance out slower starts for fellow starters Donovan Mitchell and Bojan Bogdanovic.

    The latter is coming off wrist surgery and should be forgiven for some of the scoring struggles he's experienced thus far. Bogdanovic is too skilled of a scorer to stay under 40 percent from the field for much longer.

    Georges Niang, Derrick Favors and Jordan Clarkson are thrashing opposing second units, and the Jazz's Rudy Gobert-led defense remains impenetrable. The schedule has been soft, but Utah is once again among the top defensive teams in the league.

    Few clubs are more disciplined on that end; Utah has the league's lowest opponent free-throw rate and forces turnovers on a lower share of possessions than anyone. These guys don't reach, but you can be conservative without losing effectiveness when all you have to do is funnel everything to Gobert.

    As has often been the case over the last several years, the Jazz are the best team nobody pays attention to.

Washington Wizards: D-

30 of 30

    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Bradley Beal is still really good, as evidenced by his career-best and league-leading scoring average, which happens to come with a shocking level of efficiency. He's on pace to join Michael Jordan, James Harden and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar as the only players ever to average over 34.0 points per game on at least 60.0 percent true shooting.

    Everything else about the Washington Wizards—Deni Avdija excluded—is kind of a bummer, though.

    Starting center Thomas Bryant tore his ACL and is out for the year. Russell Westbrook was unhelpful and is now on the shelf after aggravating a quad injury. The defense is alarmingly foul-prone (and generally atrocious). Davis Bertans isn't living up to his $80 million contract.

    The Wizards are 3-8 through their first 11 games, putting them right on the modest pace that squeezed them into the bubble last year. Meeting a 2019-20 standard is a letdown in this case.

    Head coach Scott Brooks is in the final season of his deal, and Beal is now the hottest commodity on the trade market. Westbrook's presence means no true teardown is possible, but a move involving either the head coach or the team's best player feels increasingly likely.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Wednesday, Jan. 20. Salary info via Basketball Insiders.