Updated Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistFebruary 26, 2021

Updated Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The NBA standings may seem like the only form of report card we need. They're dispassionate, and they tell us exactly how every team grades out by the metrics that ultimately matter most: wins and losses.

    We know every team enters the season with different expectations, though. Framed that way, it's easy to give a superior grade to a team further down the standings. Everything's relative, and here, we're going to judge all 30 teams on the basis of what they've done compared to what they entered the season hoping to do.

    Success isn't objective. It's the measure of what you've accomplished relative to your capability.

    Meeting expectations earns a C. Fall short of or exceed them, and that'll move the mark below or above average. We'll also leave room to improve or knock down a grade for smaller surprises or disappointments—like a prospect developing (or not).

    Factoring in the disparate impact of injuries and health-and-safety-protocol-related absences will be tricky, but we'll do our best to be fair. And finally, we'll also give a little extra weight to recent play. The whole year matters, but as teams hit their midseason strides, we get a better sense of their quality.

    Red pens ready.

Atlanta Hawks: D+

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Atlanta Hawks were 7-7 when we handed out grades a month ago, and all that earned them was a C-minus.

    Led by Trae Young and a host of veteran free-agent acquisitions, the Hawks were supposed to solidify themselves as a postseason lock, but they've played losing ball since then. Four straight defeats dropped them to a season-worst 11-16 earlier this month, and they've alternated wins and losses in the five games since.

    Many of the same struggles persist, led by the unavailability and/or underperformance of most of those new additions.

    Bogdan Bogdanovic is still on the shelf, as is Kris Dunn. Danilo Gallinari is shooting under 40.0 percent on two-pointers (though he did bury 10 threes on Feb. 24). Ditto for Tony Snell, and Rajon Rondo is under 40.0 percent overall. Meanwhile, the most pleasant surprise of the early season, De'Andre Hunter, had his breakout interrupted by knee surgery.

    Trae Young is still an offense unto himself, and the Hawks handily win the minutes he's shared with John Collins and Clint Capela. There's a definite playoff team here with legit scoring punch and passable defense—if Atlanta could just get everyone healthy and performing at expected levels. 

    That still hasn't happened, and the resulting slip down the standings for a club that thought its lottery days were long gone means the grade has to take a hit, too.

Boston Celtics: D

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    Michael Dwyer/Associated Press

    The Boston Celtics probably wish we'd picked another time to do these evaluations, as they recently hit the nadir of their season. A blown 24-point second-half lead to the New Orleans Pelicans on Feb. 21—brought about by the stagnant offense and lack of depth that has plagued them all year—dropped the Celtics to 15-15.

    They lost their next two games to fall all the way to 15-17.

    Boston is getting all it could have expected from Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown, and Payton Pritchard has been the rare late-first-round pick to show up rotation-ready right away. But virtually everyone else has underperformed, and Marcus Smart's calf injury has kept him out for all of February, further exposing a roster lacking toughness.

    It's also a bad sign when every description of Kemba Walker you read includes the phrase "shell of himself."

    Boston has two elite wings, good coaching and more big-game experience to rely on than most. But the offense is a real issue, particularly in the clutch, and only the most pessimistic predictions would have had the Celtics around .500 this late into the season.

Brooklyn Nets: A+

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    Marcio Jose Sanchez/Associated Press

    Even with Kevin Durant missing more time with a second health-and-safety shelving and a sore hamstring, the Brooklyn Nets are definitively putting to bed all the concerns that arose when they added James Harden in January.

    The "there's only one ball" worry hasn't materialized because Harden is passing that thing with renewed willingness, leading the league in assists and dominating as a point guard. Kyrie Irving is cool with that, which matters, and the lack of depth created by the Harden deal isn't hurting the Nets so far.

    Brooklyn completed a 5-0 road trip through the Pacific Division on Feb. 21, besting both L.A. contenders to close out that stretch. That's a statement, and the Nets made it without Durant for all but one of those five wins. KD was having an extremely Kevin Durant (the fully healthy version) season and should continue to do so once he's back in the fold.

    The Nets' increased reliance on switching is keeping the defense afloat and allowing for small-ball attacks on the other end that border on unfair. Nobody tops Brooklyn in offensive rating, and untapped upside remains.

    All three of the Nets' superstars are shooting over 50.0 percent from the field, but imagine what this group will get up to with more reps to build chemistry and more opportunities for Steve Nash and his staff to see what works best. They already have the best record in the league against winning opponents, which might matter more than anything for a team with title hopes.

Charlotte Hornets: B+

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    If LaMelo Ball had merely sustained his numbers as a reserve for the full season, it would have been a win for the Charlotte Hornets. Ball's first 20 games, all off the bench, included averages of 12.2 points, 5.9 rebounds and 6.1 assists. All he's done since slotting into the first unit is bump all of those figures up, along with his usage rate.

    Most importantly, his scoring efficiency has also climbed in a larger role. That's not usually how it works. Most players handed increased responsibilities and more minutes against opposing starters see their efficiency rates head south, but the great ones (or at least the ones who might someday be great) don't follow the rules.

    Terry Rozier is having the best 2020-21 nobody's talking about, Miles Bridges is good for three jaw-dropping dunks every week, Gordon Hayward is playing All-Star-caliber ball and the Hornets are buzzing around .500 nearly halfway into the campaign. 

    It looks like Charlotte is going to be a playoff consideration, and its most important young player has blown past expectations. Not everything has gone right for the Hornets (Devonte' Graham's tough year comes to mind), but enough has played out favorably for them to sustain the B-plus they earned last time around.

Chicago Bulls: C+

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    This isn't great news for Lauri Markkanen, but the Chicago Bulls seem to have found a lineup that really works for them.

    Coby White, Zach LaVine, Garrett Temple, Patrick Williams and Wendell Carter Jr. have seen more action together over the last month than any other Bulls quintet, and they've run up a plus-6.8 net rating while hammering opponents on defense. Markkanen's absence is hardly the sole cause of that group's success, but it does further validate the Bulls' decision not to reach a preseason extension agreement.

    LaVine is the team's biggest leaguewide story. He's in the midst of a brilliant offensive season, and now the 2020-21 narrative is expanding to note his improvement on D. We shouldn't get carried away on that front; LaVine's offensive production is beyond reproach, but the Bulls still get outscored in his minutes partly because their defense craters with him on the court.

    Chicago has been a borderline top-10 team in net rating over the last month, Williams has been one of the league's best rookies, LaVine is filling it up efficiently and there seems to be better general buy-in on defense. Last month's straight "C" grade needs a boost.

Cleveland Cavaliers: C+

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    Craig Mitchelldyer/Associated Press

    Nobody's been worse than the Cleveland Cavaliers over the last month, and while that description shouldn't seem strange when applied to a team that came into the year with one of the lowest win projections in the league, it's a disappointment after a pleasantly surprising start.

    We gave the Cavs a B last time around, as they caught the NBA off guard with an extremely aggressive, turnover-forcing defense and encouraging play from their young backcourt duo. Cleveland's defensive punch is entirely gone now, and though both Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are posting solid counting stats, their shared minutes coincide with a hugely negative net rating.

    Larry Nance Jr.'s fractured finger took Cleveland's best two-way player out of the lineup, and Andre Drummond is now on ice as he awaits a trade or buyout. Kevin Love hasn't played since Dec. 27. Excuses abound, but the most honest assessment of this team has to include an acknowledgement that the hot start was mostly a mirage.

    The Cavs' frigid February has them right back down toward the bottom of the standings, which is basically where everyone thought they'd be prior to the season. We're giving them a slight nudge above average because Sexton and Garland look good, Jarrett Allen is a keeper and Isaac Okoro is showing flashes of real defensive promise.

Dallas Mavericks: D+

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The Dallas Mavericks are still playing to a negative net rating. It helps that they've looked better in February as they've gotten further removed from a litany of missed games due to health and safety protocols, but that bottom-line number is an unequivocal disappointment.

    Kristaps Porzingis' defensive immobility is a major concern; he's gone from being a rim-protecting force to a liability. That could be entirely due to the lingering effects of offseason knee surgery, but the Mavs now face the possibility that KP may not be the second star they hoped for. That's a potential crisis for Dallas.

    Luka Doncic shook off a slow start and has his numbers right back in line with last season's. His mid-range game has taken a sneaky leap in both volume and accuracy, which only makes him harder to guard, and he's knocking down his threes at a career-best clip. 

    Defense has been the biggest teamwide issue for the Mavs since we last graded. No team has allowed more points per possession in that span, which dates back to Jan. 22. If Dallas can't get its play on that end to passable levels, and if Porzingis doesn't soon resemble the guy he was in the 2020 bubble, this season will go down as a failure.

Denver Nuggets: B-

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    Nick Wass/Associated Press

    Maybe they're not quite where they'd like to be in the West standings, but the Denver Nuggets have a top-five offense and a defense inching toward league average after a brutal start. That's the statistical profile of a team that could make the conference finals, which is pretty much in line with expectations.

    It would now be a surprise if Nikola Jokic didn't finish among the top three in MVP voting. He leads the league in several catch-all metrics, including box plus/minus and win shares, and is on pace to join Oscar Robertson as the only players to average at least 26.0 points, 11.0 rebounds and 8.0 assists for a full season.

    Paul Millsap and Gary Harris have had a hard time staying in the lineup, which further exposes the Nuggets' already vulnerable defense. Denver could also stand to quit fouling so much.

    On balance, the Nuggets aren't far from where they planned to be, and their point differential says there should be a couple more wins on the ledger than they currently have. With Jokic playing this well, it's easy to be optimistic.

Detroit Pistons: D

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    Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

    I know this is supposed to be about performance relative to expectations, and the Detroit Pistons didn't enter this season with delusions of grandeur. But it's possible for organizations with even the most modest outlooks to fall short.

    The Pistons aren't getting developmental minutes for rookie Killian Hayes because he's been out since Jan. 4 with a hip injury. Blake Griffin was a ghost of his former All-Star self, robbed of his last shred of athleticism and unable to make positive contributions on either end, prior to going on the shelf while the team tries to find a taker in trade.

    Detroit has the fewest wins in the East and, alarmingly, the second-worst mark in the NBA against teams with losing records. It seems like the only time the Pistons win is when they catch an opponent with a winning record sleeping. Those clubs could be forgiven for overlooking a group this unimposing.

    At least the Jerami Grant signing is working out, and rookie Saddiq Bey looks like a quality rotation player.

Golden State Warriors: B-

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    Stephen Curry is playing like an MVP, though he's not going to get serious consideration for the award as long as the Golden State Warriors continue their streakless trend.

    They haven't won or lost more than two games in a row all year.

    That said, the Dubs are a lot more exciting than their mediocre record would indicate. There are moments when the second unit buzzes with defensive electricity and whips the ball around on offense. One such stretch lasted nearly a whole game on Feb. 20, when the Dubs would likely have beaten the Hornets without Curry—if not for Draymond Green's costly late-game emotional meltdown.

    James Wiseman was hit-or-miss with sparks of promise before a wrist injury cost him nearly three weeks, which isn't an ideal interruption to a rookie season that needs to wind up a major success if the Warriors' long-term outlook is going to feature a return to contention.

    Kelly Oubre Jr. has been terrific since breaking out of his early slump, but Andrew Wiggins' shooting has trended down as his fellow wing's has ticked up.

    Curry's sustained brilliance is the most significant aspect of the Warriors' season, as it suggests they can plan around him being an All-NBA player for at least another couple of years. It's also been one of the most frustrating aspects, though, because this supporting cast isn't ready to rise toward contention yet. Bluntly, this is a wasted year of Steph's prime.

    Overall, the Warriors are a pretty good team with upside if Wiseman improves and the wings play well at the same time. That's juuuust a bit better than what we had a right to reasonably expect.

Houston Rockets: D

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    Carmen Mandato/Associated Press

    Almost nothing has gone right for the Houston Rockets lately.

    The post-James Harden portion of the season started going down the tubes right when Christian Wood re-aggravated an ankle sprain on Feb. 4 against the Memphis Grizzlies. He's been out ever since, and Houston has lost nine straight games in his absence.

    The injury bug has also chowed down on Victor Oladipo and, most surprisingly, iron man P.J. Tucker, whose streak of 267 straight appearances ended on Feb. 15.

    John Wall continues to show flashes of his pre-injury self, and it still seems like the Rockets won the Wall-Russell Westbrook trade. But the team's offense is highly ineffective, and DeMarcus Cousins' struggles on defense were profound enough to contribute to his release, which will thrust Houston into more small-ball looks than ever.

    Losing Harden turned the Rockets' season upside down, and this latest stretch is reemphasizing how much they're struggling to get their bearings.

Indiana Pacers: B

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    We lauded the Indiana Pacers for installing a modern shot profile last time around, and they're still getting the math right for the most part. No team takes a larger percentage of its shots at the rim, and Indy continues to treat mid-rangers like they're illegal.

    The Pacers, though, aren't very accurate at close range. And they don't make enough of their corner threes. Perhaps there was a reason (beyond old-school stubbornness) that former head coach Nate McMillan didn't urge his team toward more triples and layups.

    Despite mostly taking the right shots, Indiana's offensive efficiency is trending the wrong way, into below-average territory over the last month. If T.J. Warren and Caris LeVert were healthy, we might not even be discussing this. It's tough for a team to produce when its top two wings are on the shelf.

    Indiana is doing what it can, leaning on zone defenses more often than most (despite some real issues with those looks) and making sure to take care of business against sub-.500 teams (12-6). The Pacers are a clear playoff team, which, considering the absence of critical players, is moderately encouraging.

Los Angeles Clippers: A

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    Kelvin Kuo/Associated Press

    We're far enough into the season to start taking the Los Angeles Clippers' historic three-point shooting seriously. They're a fraction behind the 1996-97 Charlotte Hornets in the race for the highest long-range hit rate of all time, and it should go without saying that it's hard to avoid winning consistently when your treys are falling at better than a 42 percent clip.

    It might be time to stop predicting a regression in L.A.'s jump-shot-dependent offense.

    The Clips defense is slowly coming around; they've lost by double digits just twice all season and Paul George and Kawhi Leonard were both easy All-Star choices.

    This team was always going to be judged by its playoff performance, but the Clippers can't start the job of proving themselves on that stage for another few months. For now, with a top-three seed in the West looking highly likely and an offense that shows no signs of slowing, Los Angeles has met or exceeded the lofty expectations with which it entered the season.

Los Angeles Lakers: A

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz are putting some distance between themselves and the rest of the West, which means the Los Angeles Lakers may have to settle for something less than the conference's top seed.

    Anthony Davis' calf strain will keep him out through the All-Star break, and the Lakers extended their season-long losing streak to four games with Wednesday's road defeat against those indomitable Jazz. LeBron James may be a fatigue denier, but you'd have to think L.A. will throttle him back if it senses the Jazz are uncatchable.

    Scoring efficiently continues to be a problem for the Lakers, who've slid out of the top 10 on that end. Fortunately, they're toting the league's top defense and throttle opponents by 13.6 points per 100 possessions when their best lineup—Dennis Schroder, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, James, Davis and Marc Gasol—are on the floor.

    In the rare occasions Davis has slid to the 5 with Alex Caruso replacing Gasol, their positive point differential absolutely explodes. For a team that should be most concerned with how its very best lineups play in high-stakes moments, the big-picture outlook for the Lakers remains rosy.

    This is a rough patch, but L.A. should still be viewed as the title favorite.

Memphis Grizzlies: B

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    The smart money was on the Memphis Grizzlies working through a consolidation year after surprisingly inserting themselves into the 2020 playoff mix behind Ja Morant's stellar rookie season. It was fair to forecast a small step back—at least in a postseason race that would feature rejuvenated versions of the Warriors and Phoenix Suns.

    That Memphis is currently in position for a play-in game stands as a success. Despite Morant missing the first half of January and Jaren Jackson Jr. logging zero minutes all year, the Grizz haven't folded.

    Morant's declining three-point percentage is a long-term concern, but Kyle Anderson and Grayson Allen have helped the Grizzlies stay dangerous enough from deep this year. Rookie Desmond Bane is also striping it.

    Memphis' defense forces turnovers at a high clip, and it is also one of the league's better offensive rebounding teams. Those two stats indicate real hustle, and the extra possessions the Grizzlies generate on both ends have been key to keeping them in the playoff conversation nearly halfway through the year.

Miami Heat: D+

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    Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

    Jimmy Butler had only played a half-dozen games last time we graded, and his full-time return to the Miami Heat's lineup has the defending East champs looking more familiar.

    Miami is still turning the ball over far too often, ranking near the bottom of the league in giveaway percentage. As has been the case all year, squandered possessions are dragging the Heat's offensive efficiency down. Miami is a respectable 15th in effective field-goal percentage but ranks 23rd in points per 100 possessions.

    A good offensive goal for the rest of the season would simply be: Get a shot up.

    Though they've looked better with improved health, and though Bam Adebayo was an egregious All-Star snub, the Heat aren't where most would have expected them to be. Below .500 and floundering when they play opponents with winning records, the Heat have a lot of improving to do if they want to win a playoff round—let alone make another deep run.

Milwaukee Bucks: C-

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    Good news: The Milwaukee Bucks are second in the league in net rating and are scoring the ball at a top-three clip.

    Bad news: Last year's airtight defense is springing leaks, and the Bucks have had particular trouble slowing down the best offenses in the league. That's only a problem if Milwaukee intends to redeem its last two postseason flops by going deeper than ever, which would require handling said top offenses in multiple series.

    That is the Bucks' intention, which means the defensive slippage is a problem.

    The broad strokes say Milwaukee is a contender, and it'd be unfair to pile on a team that is clearly experimenting with different approaches after criticizing it over the last two years because it wasn't experimental enough. The Bucks are doing what everyone asked them to, so maybe we should relax—even in the wake of those five straight losses earlier this month. Maybe these struggles will pay off.

    All that said, the Bucks seem diminished compared to what they looked like the last two seasons. They're thinner, Giannis Antetokounmpo's jumper isn't coming around and Brook Lopez is a step slow. Nobody will remember these concerns if Milwaukee reverses past trends and improves in the postseason, but it's not a great look at the moment.

Minnesota Timberwolves: F

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    There's no requirement that we give somebody a failing grade, but what else are we supposed to do with these Minnesota Timberwolves?

    No team has fewer wins than the Wolves this season, and while no rational predictor had them finishing toward the top of the West, their clear status as the league's worst team to date is disheartening. Even if we all knew Minnesota was going to give big minutes to Anthony Edwards and struggle to capably fill the 3 and 4 spots, a small step forward seemed possible.

    Instead, the Wolves have struggled mightily on both ends, D'Angelo Russell is out for an extended stretch (Minny clearly lost the Andrew Wiggins trade, by the way, which has to hurt) and Ryan Saunders became the first head coach to lose his job this season.

    If Karl-Anthony Towns can close the year strong and Edwards shows improving feel, all won't be lost. But those are tough asks with a season already circling the drain.

New Orleans Pelicans: C-

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    This grade feels harsh, but we're actually bumping the New Orleans Pelicans up from the D-plus they got last time around.

    The defense is still abysmal, and no team allows a higher effective field-goal percentage than the Pels. Volatility is also an ironically consistent trademark for New Orleans, which lost to the Phoenix Suns by 18 points after taking an 11-point advantage into the fourth quarter and then engineered a historic comeback win against the Boston Celtics two days later.

    Despite all that, and despite the frustration of currently sitting outside the West's top 10, there's still reason for genuine optimism here.

    Zion Williamson, now operating on the perimeter with the ball in his hands more often, earned an All-Star berth and is proving his versatile worth. New Orleans' offense has taken a leap with him working off the dribble in space. Since we last graded, the Nets are the only team scoring more points per 100 possessions.

    Zion's clear suitability for an on-ball, perimeter role may make it harder for him to coexist long-term with Brandon Ingram, who also operates best in that capacity. But Ingram is a knockdown shooter off the ball, so this is a workable pairing.

    The Pels aren't where they'd like to be in the standings, and that hurts them here. But few things matter more to the team's big picture than figuring out how to maximize Williamson's unique game.

New York Knicks: B+

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    Sarah Stier/Associated Press

    Here we are more than two months into the season, and the New York Knicks defense continues to appear (dare we say it?) for real.

    Yes, opponents still seem to be getting unlucky on their threes and at the rim. New York is holding other teams to the lowest effective field-goal percentage in the league, despite allowing a shot profile that should rank them 27th. At some point, it becomes clear that simple shot-location data isn't capturing everything the Knicks are doing well.

    They hustle. They give second efforts. They adhere to the principles of Tom Thibodeau's defensive scheme.

    And it works.

    Julius Randle is an All-Star, the Knicks are in playoff position, and even if it doesn't necessarily factor into their grade, fans were allowed back into Madison Square Garden (in limited capacity) for the first time this season on Feb. 23. That's three pieces of positive news.

    It may still be a struggle for New York to sustain its performance and hold onto its playoff spot. But what the Knicks have done to this point deserves serious praise. Only unabashed optimists and true-blue Knicks homers could have expected this.

Oklahoma City Thunder: A-

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    Sue Ogrocki/Associated Press

    Shai Gilgeous-Alexander scored a career-high 42 points, and Lu Dort drilled the game-winning corner three at the buzzer, downing the San Antonio Spurs by a final of 102-99 on Wednesday and prompting a postgame dog-pile with a smiling Dort at the bottom.

    The Oklahoma City Thunder are 13-19, which wouldn't normally be worth celebrating. But they're seeing development from their key young players, have clearly maintained a competitive edge in a year everyone knew wouldn't end with a playoff trip and are generally acing the "rebuild without totally bottoming out" plan.

    OKC must still trade Al Horford and George Hill for draft capital, and the loss of the few vets on the roster will probably trigger some ugly losing stretches. It won't be easy to avoid late-season malaise as defeats mount and sage voices depart. But so far, the Thunder are getting everything they could want out of this season.

    This was supposed to be the worst team in the league—or at least the one least concerned with its win-loss record. OKC has been better than expected in all the best ways.

Orlando Magic: D-

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    Phelan M. Ebenhack/Associated Press

    The Orlando Magic (4-3 in their last seven games) are in the midst of their best stretch since they shockingly opened the season with a 6-2 mark.

    Don't mistake this recent respectability for a turnaround. The Magic, beset by injuries from the jump, have only a single win against an opponent with a record over .500 this season. Orlando is also only 12-10 against losing teams, which is how a squad with modest goals of squeaking into the playoffs can still register as a disappointment.

    Nikola Vucevic's brilliant offensive season continues, but the Magic lack punch elsewhere and are woefully undermanned at the point with both Markelle Fultz and Cole Anthony out.

    The Magic rank in the bottom three in offensive efficiency, and it's scary to think where they might wind up if Vucevic cools off—or winds up getting traded to a contender.

    Of course, if Orlando managed to trade Vooch, finally triggering the rebuild that's been necessary for years, it would probably improve its grade next time around. When you're mired in sub-mediocrity like this, flipping vets for prospects is good business.

    Last time, we gave the Magic a D and pegged their ceiling as that all-too-familiar first-round exit. Now, even that uninspiring outcome seems optimistic.

Philadelphia 76ers: B+

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    Matt Slocum/Associated Press

    Joel Embiid has only strengthened his MVP case in the time since we last graded, putting up a career-high 50 points against the Chicago Bulls on Feb. 19 and running away with the league lead in free-throw attempts per 36 minutes.

    A smoother decision-maker when doubled and seemingly incapable of missing mid-range jumpers this season, Embiid is a problem without a solution for opposing defenses. Either he scores, or you have to foul him. Many nights, it feels like there's really not a third outcome.

    As much pain as Embiid inflicts when he's in the game, the Sixers feel more than their share whenever he's on the bench. No single player (among those who've logged at least 500 minutes) has a larger positive impact on his team's net rating. Philly gets badly outscored whenever Embiid rests or is unavailable.

    The Sixers have still spent more time atop the East this season than any other team in their conference, but their net rating has dipped ever so slightly in the second month of the season. Depth issues and the carryover of last year's glaring home-road splits mean Philadelphia is imperfect. But with Embiid playing this well and the team vying for the East's top seed, the Sixers still get high marks.

Phoenix Suns: A-

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    Brandon Dill/Associated Press

    The Phoenix Suns had to settle for a B-plus last time because Chris Paul and Devin Booker hadn't quite figured out their on-court chemistry. As a result, the Suns were a solid-but-unspectacular 8-5 with a plus-2.9 net rating.

    Since then, they've been the second-best team in the West, going 12-6 and outscoring teams by 7.1 points per 100 possessions. On the strength of those improved numbers alone, the Suns deserve an even better mark. 

    It's never going to seem right that the Suns have had more success with Frank Kaminsky alongside Paul, Booker, Mikal Bridges and Deandre Ayton than Jae Crowder or Cam Johnson. But maybe all that means is that there's even more upside still undiscovered with this group. You have to assume Phoenix will eventually start dominating with Johnson and Crowder at the 4 as well. If that doesn't come to pass, it would be a bad omen for the Suns' playoff hopes.

    Kaminsky has been helpful, but it's tough to imagine him playing high-stakes minutes against top competition.

    The Suns look great, and they have room to get better.

Portland Trail Blazers: B

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    Michael Ainsworth/Associated Press

    The Portland Trail Blazers' current three-game losing streak shouldn't distract from the six-game surge they went on from Feb. 9 to Feb. 17. Those last two defeats were part of a road back-to-back against the Suns and Nuggets, with that second leg at altitude being particularly taxing.

    Surprising no one, Damian Lillard has been the driver of Portland's success over the last month or so. He's cracked the 30-point mark seven times in February and ran off four games in a row with at least 30 points and 10 assists from Feb. 14-20. Zach LaVine is the only player with more total clutch points than Dame, but the Bulls' scoring guard can't touch Lillard's 60.0/55.6/100.0 shooting split in close-and-late situations.

    Portland's No. 29 defense still leaves a ton to be desired, and Lillard's crunch-time efforts have the team dramatically outperforming its point differential. But we have to give credit where it's due. The Blazers seemed certain to hit the skids when CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic went down with significant injuries within days of each other.

    Thanks to Lillard, Portland hasn't just weathered this difficult stretch. It's actually climbed in the standings.

Sacramento Kings: D

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    Gerald Herbert/Associated Press

    With nine straight losses, nobody in the league is colder than the Sacramento Kings. Of course, during a 7-1 stretch that included wins over the Raptors, Pelicans, Celtics, Nuggets and Clippers right before this horrendous skid kicked off, there were few teams running hotter.

    The Kings remain the worst defense in the league, so their wild win-loss swings are mostly dependent on whether they can score enough to stay competitive.

    Sacramento's most-used lineups are pulling their weight. De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield, Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley III and Richaun Holmes are comfortably outscoring opponents in their shared minutes. When rookie Tyrese Haliburton slides into that group ahead of Bagley, the Kings have been dominant—and even surprisingly passable on defense.

    Virtually every other player grouping has bled points on D and struggled to score. So while it might be tempting to lambast head coach Luke Walton or pillory Hield for shooting under 40.0 percent from the field, it seems clear this is mostly a depth issue. The Kings' top six players are just fine; the losses are piling up because nobody else on the roster is getting the job done consistently.

San Antonio Spurs: B+

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    Nell Redmond/Associated Press

    An unwanted health-and-safety-driven 10-day break interrupted the San Antonio Spurs' mounting momentum, putting them on pause in the wake of an 8-3 stretch.

    It still feels like the Spurs are getting a little lucky record-wise, but several tight wins may just be the product of a stellar defense that keeps games close. San Antonio slipped to an uncharacteristic 24th on D last year but has since returned to form with a top-10 ranking in 2020-21.

    The Spurs don't foul and take better care of the ball than any other team, a perfectly on-brand "we win by doing the little things" profile made even more encouraging by the youth involved. Veteran DeMar DeRozan is still the headliner, but Dejounte Murray (24), rookie Devin Vassell (20) and Keldon Johnson (21) are all factors in the Spurs' detail-oriented, defensively driven success.

    San Antonio may not be a threat to win a playoff series, but it looks very much like a playoff team. That's better than the expectation coming into the season, which featured a 28.5 over/under win total. The Spurs (16-12) could go into a tailspin and still eclipse that figure.

Toronto Raptors: C-

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    Morry Gash/Associated Press

    OK, Toronto Raptors. That's a little more like it.

    After starting 1-6 and earning a D-plus last time around, the Raptors have mostly righted the ship. No, they're not looking like the same semi-sleeper contender they were a year ago. But Toronto owns the third-best net rating in the East since Jan. 22 and has moved into a tier of likely playoff entrants.

    That's progress.

    The Raptors still aren't getting the three-point shooting they need from Pascal Siakam, who's at 29.5 percent from deep on reduced volume. His regression from the perimeter and a corps of mostly ineffective bigs has resulted in more time at the 5 for last year's All-NBA second-teamer. The results have been good, with Toronto posting a plus-9.5 net rating in Siakam-at-center looks.

    Though they've trended up overall, the Raptors are still below .500 on the year. That's well beneath where a team with this level of talent and championship experience should be.

Utah Jazz: A+

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    Rick Bowmer/Associated Press

    The Utah Jazz are 22-2 in their last 24 games and are lapping the field in net rating, especially if you filter out garbage time, of which this dominant outfit sees plenty.

    We've reached the point now where the only real conversation worth having about the Jazz, who reside in the top four in both offensive and defensive efficiency, is whether they can keep cleaning house like this in the playoffs. There's no longer any doubt that Utah is a cut above everyone else at the whole "winning regular season games" thing.

    Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert are All-Stars, and Mike Conley had as strong a case to make it as he's ever had. In addition to those three top-line talents, Utah's reserves are blowing the league away as well. Georges Niang (seven), Joe Ingles (seven) and Jordan Clarkson (five) drained 19 of the Jazz's franchise-record 28 triples in a 132-110 rout of the Hornets on Feb. 22, and Clarkson has to be the favorite for Sixth Man of the Year.

    Excellent on both ends, boasting terrific chemistry and reeling off big wins against top competition, Utah can only get the highest possible grade. This has been the Jazz's year.

Washington Wizards: D+

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    Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press

    The Washington Wizards had a friskier look during a recent five-game winning streak, in part because Russell Westbrook showed some renewed zip. He cranked out successive triple-doubles against the Rockets, Nuggets and Blazers, and then missed a fourth by one assist during a Feb. 22 win over the Lakers.

    Russ has perfected getting his numbers in ways that don't always help his teams, but because his recent productivity was tied to what looked like improved athleticism, optimism is easier to justify. That stretch also included three straight games in which Westbrook made at least half of his field-goal attempts. It had been over a year since he'd done that.

    We can't get carried away. Washington is still a bottom-five defense, and nobody but Bradley Beal can be relied on for high-end play every night.

    Still, the Wizards are within striking distance of a play-in game and deserve credit for their modest surge during the second half of February. Considering they earned a D-minus last time, we have plenty of room to bump them up without pretending they're anything close to average.

           

    Stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference and Cleaning the Glass. Accurate through games played Thursday, Feb. 25.