Early-Season Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team
Relative to expectations.
Remember this sentiment as we navigate early-season report card grades for every NBA team. Each squad will be evaluated on their own individual scale. Bad teams that were supposed to be bad will not be judged as harshly as should-be good teams that are, so far, not good.
Circumstances beyond organizational control will be accounted for wherever necessary. It absolutely matters that Zion Williamson has yet to play for the New Orleans Pelicans, and that the Milwaukee Bucks rotation has spent much of the year ravaged by injuries. Valid excuses will soften the blow for any squads that seem like underachievers.
Just about everything under the sun is subject to judgment. Individual performances, lineup decisions, play styles, extracurricular distractions and miscues, strength of schedules, surprises and disappointments, among other things, all factor into final impressions. Recent developments will be considered, but this is an assessment of the entire year.
These grades are not irreversible. Roughly one-quarter of the season is in the books. Teams have time to meet, exceed and, yes, tumble below expectations. But enough basketball has also been played for us to break out the red pen, without hesitation, and treat most of what we've seen to date as each organization's normal.
Atlanta Hawks: C-
Banking some wins over the past week helps the Atlanta Hawks elude a disastrous grade, but we can't soon forget the stretch in which they lost eight of nine.
Hovering below .500 before the quarter-mark is a gigantic letdown for one of last year's two Eastern Conference Finals participants. They have racked up plenty of nights where they look bad but also have games where they just seem to be floating, aimlessly, toward absolutely nothing.
Talent has preserved their offensive returns. Can the Hawks sustain a top-10 offense while placing in the bottom-five of the share of their shots that come at the rim and from deep? They shouldn't try to find out. Their defense is a larger concern either way. They've plunged to the bottom five of points allowed per possession and are letting opponents shoot nearly 70 percent around the rim—the league's worst mark.
Clint Capela looks...off. His finishing around the cup is way down, and rival offenses aren't as deterred by him at the other end. Foes are shooting 73.4 percent at the cup when he plays without Collins.
Atlanta is far from irreparable. Trae Young hasn't struggled to exist amid the new officiating as much as fellow free-throw-monger James Harden. Collins is so damn good—and adaptable. But the Hawks might be too deep (and bench-curious) for their own good. Striking a consolidation trade, at some point, could go a long way.
Boston Celtics: C
Absences must be taken into account when litigating the Boston Celtics' season. Al Horford, Robert Williams III and, most importantly, Jaylen Brown have all missed time.
Treading water near .500 when your second star hasn't played half the year is borderline encouraging. But the Celtics have a way of fomenting doubt no matter the circumstances.
Their defense is statistically elite but fouls too often and is, relatedly, a little too switch-drunk. Grant Williams' gap-filling is a silver lining; their reliance on him is unsettling. The offense wants for rim pressure, better three-point shooting, a floor general-type presence and more consistency from Jayson Tatum.
Dennis Schroder at once seems mission-critical and pleasantly helpful and also like he calls his own number too much. Aaron Nesmith and, more notably, Payton Pritchard have not parlayed standout summer-league performances into staple roles. Boston needs one of them to hit.
Horford has been fine. Josh Richardson has turned in some good moments. Marcus Smart needs more shots to fall. The Celtics-at-large are just a little too bleh right now. At least they put the erroneous Brown-for-Ben Simmons rumors to bed.
Brooklyn Nets: B
Big-picture expectations for the Brooklyn Nets must be adjusted so long as they remain without Kyrie Irving. Championship formalities, they are not.
Brooklyn should still be among the league's most threatening title hopefuls. It houses two top-10 players even without Kyrie. Supposedly.
James Harden's early-season performance remains a disappointment. He has perked up, but the Nets' reliance on Kevin Durant is uncomfortable. They are still a net minus on the year with both megastars in the game.
Solo alpha minutes have gone better. Brooklyn is smashing opponents when Harden or KD go it alone. Their time together will continue improving over time, particularly now that Joe Harris once more has an offensive pulse. Perhaps Blake Griffin will follow suit. LaMarcus Aldridge—shooting better than 60 percent on long twos and 40-plus percent from deep—will remain paramount if he doesn't.
Sifting through one of the league's most confusing frontcourt rotations has not torpedoed the Nets defense. They're near the top 10 in points allowed per possession and not getting bludgeoned on the glass off opponent misses. (Their offensive boarding is a different story.) They need to do better getting back in transition. They're dead last in points allowed per possession after committing a turnover, per Inpredictable.
Contending for a top-three record in the East without Kyrie is a fair-weather existence. But the game-to-game swings infer vulnerability. Entering Friday, only the Houston Rockets experience a larger net rating swing between their wins and losses.
Charlotte Hornets: B
On some nights, when the Charlotte Hornets are getting torched from every angle on the defensive end, it feels like there was a rush to coronate them as a playoff threat following LaMelo Ball's rookie-year detonation. On other nights, this squad looks like an Eastern Conference sleeper that isn't as bogged down by P.J. Washington's elbow injury or lackluster center rotation.
A recent winning streak that included victories over Memphis, New York, Golden State and Washington does little to simplify the Hornets' outlook. They picked up those W's without, by and large, going kaboom on offense.
Charlotte's actuality probably lies somewhere in the middle. That's not spicy, but it's welcomed.
LaMelo is already a top-five passer and capable shooter and, seemingly, a few pounds of muscle away from better finishing at the rim and complete unguardability. The Miles Bridges leap is for real. There is more unpredictable directionality to his on-ball game, and it shows. Gordon Hayward is on the league's most efficient treadmill.
Kelly Oubre Jr.'s outside shooting will likely slip. That's fine. Terry Rozier is due to start hitting looks he made last season. Jalen McDaniels and Cody Martin intrigue.
The defense doesn't feel solvable with the current personnel. It has held up during the Bridges-Mason Plumlee minutes, but the Hornets are not built to win battles on the boards or successfully thwart attempts at the rim and from floater range. They are imperfect and fun and maybe actually good or at least not bad. That's a net positive for now.
Chicago Bulls: A
Don't pretend you saw these Chicago Bulls coming. You didn't. Even the most happy-go-lucky optimists could not have predicted they'd be contending for the Eastern Conference's best record while propping up a top-seven offense and top-friggin'-five defense.
All this, meanwhile, has come without the most convenient availability.
Patrick Williams appeared in five games before suffering what's believed to be a season-ending left wrist injury. Coby White only recently made his season debut. Nikola Vucevic has missed time in the league's health and safety protocols, and he wasn't playing too well before vacating the rotation. Chicago's offense has thrived while he misses makeable shots.
It turns out the Bulls' primary additions are real difference-makers, almost as if good players can do good things. DeMar DeRozan has provided a steadying offensive hand, wreaking havoc out of the pick-and-roll and streamlining some of Zach LaVine's offensive existence. Lonzo Ball is splashing threes, including pull-up looks, and defending his butt off. Alex Caruso leads the league in steal percentage and is in the top-three of deflections per game.
Javonte Green remains a delight. Rookie Ayo Dosunmu is giving the Bulls minutes. Head coach Billy Donovan is unafraid to downsize on the frontline. Derrick Jones has gained some momentum as the roll man. LaVine is averaging 26-plus points on better than 60 true shooting—and is, somehow, not a primary storyline. The Bulls, it seems, are back.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A+++
Holy damn hell.
Collin Sexton is out with a torn meniscus in his left knee and had yet to find his every-night chi within the Cleveland Cavaliers' new offensive pecking order before his injury. Lauri Markkanen has now missed more than half the season. Kevin Love just exited the league's health and safety protocols. Evan Mobley is set to miss two to four weeks with a right elbow sprain. And the coup de grace: Only two teams have played out a tougher schedule to date.
Somehow, someway, the Cavaliers are above .500.
Most wouldn't have predicted this start even if they were at full strength. And while it seems easy to write this off as early-season noise, it's also lazy. The Cavs hung tough against Boston and Golden State last week...without Mobley, Markkanen, Sexton and Jarrett Allen.
This team isn't just going away. The Mobley-Allen frontcourt is a genuine defensive terror. Allen is mobile and swallows possessions whole near the rim. Mobley is positionless stopping power in 7-footer form. Darius Garland has made strides as a passer and scorer. His floater is authentic. Ricky Rubio adds offensive stewardship. Cedi Osman is hitting step-back threes.
Regression over the next few weeks seems inevitable. Mobley is already the Cavs' most valuable player. Maybe it goes beyond his absence. Cleveland's defensive rebounding is blah with Mobley spending so much time on the outside. The offense can be sloggy. To date, though, there is no bigger surprise than these Cavs.
Dallas Mavericks: B-
The Dallas Mavericks are rolling right along when taking a 10,000-foot view.
Kristaps Porzingis missed time with a back issue, Maxi Kleber remains out with an oblique injury, and Luka Doncic is currently dealing with ankle and knee stuff. Factor in freezing-cold shooting from Reggie Bullock, the non-impact of Sterling Brown and the traumatizing repetitiveness of Willie Cauley-Stein missing gimmes (4-of-12 on layups!), and the Mavs deserve credit for sticking within the top four of the West.
At the same time, their place in the conference may say more about the field than themselves. There is a level of nondescriptness to how they got here. The offense has exploded in recent days but is roughly average for the year. Their center rotation is deep and oft-unimpressive. Only the Brooklyn Nets take a smaller share of their shots at the rim.
Head coach Jason Kidd has Doncic posting up like he's forever hunting a mismatch. (He's not.) Kristaps is playing more 5, but KP-at-the-4 reps are nightmarish on offense, and putting him at center hasn't panned out at the other end. No team is posting a lower net rating in losses.
Jalen Brunson and, yes, Frank Ntilikina are bright spots. Dorian Finney-Smith and Tim Hardaway Jr. are starting to drill their threes at a higher clip. Ditto for Doncic. Yet, overall, what's supposed to be a fringe contender has been more of a sort-of-good-far-from-great experience.
Denver Nuggets: B
Sans context, the Denver Nuggets register as a letdown. They're flitting a few games above .500 while Nikola Jokic averages over 26 points and six assists and shoots better than 65 percent on twos and 38 percent from distance. That should amount to a league-bestish record. What fresh hell is this?
A shorthanded one.
Not only is Jamal Murray recovering from the torn left ACL he suffered last season, but Michael Porter Jr. hasn't played since leaving Denver's Nov. 6 win over Houston with a back issue—and might not play again this season, per The Denver Post's Mike Singer. When he was available, his offensive efficiency spent too much time in the gutter.
Will Barton's standout year has not been enough to rescue the Nuggets' depth. Absent an operable No. 2, they are getting smoked whenever Jokic catches a breather.
Hope for their bench is wearing thin. Bones Hyland is a tricky defensive cover, but he's a rookie. Facundo Campazzo, Monte Morris and Austin Rivers are all miscast when logging time without star contingencies.
Spotty defense during the Green-squared minutes only complicates matters. Opponents are shooting over 75 percent at the rim when they populate the frontline.
On the bright side, Denver's overall defense is among the early-season elites. Whether that holds all season is irrelevant for this discussion. Aaron Gordon is busting his butt at the point of attack and currently an All-Defense shoo-in. Along with Barton and Jokic, he is most responsible for keeping the Nuggets afloat amid circumstances that would sink lesser teams.
Detroit Pistons: C-
Any major qualms with the Detroit Pistons has little to do with their record. They are not constructed to be good. Theirs is organic, full-strength badness.
Dig into the details, and they have developments about which to be pleased.
Killian Hayes is not the full-on punchline Twitter can make him out to be. His offense is a work-in-progress (sub-30 percent on twos) and probably includes too much on-ball license, but he's converting over 38 percent of his threes and playing tough defense. Opposing pick-and-roll ball-handlers are coughing up the rock more than 23 percent of the time when he's on them, a top-seven mark among 60-plus players who have guarded at least 50 such possessions.
Cade Cunningham looks the part of a game-changer—even when he's not scoring. Isaiah Stewart warps shots near the basket and is downing 50-plus percent of his short mid-rangers. Saddiq Bey has hit some tough jumpers. Jerami Grant remains overstretched but still finishes well and is hitting enough of his above-the-break triples.
The Pistons disappoint mostly due to a lack of distinct form.
They don't religiously push the ball; they're 26th in average possession time after forcing a turnover, per Inpredictable, and 26th in overall transition frequency. No team shoots a lower clip on wide-open threes. Saben Lee should get more run with the big club. Hamidou Diallo should get more run, period. And there should be more experimentation at center beyond Trey Lyles minutes with Kelly Olynyk out.
Golden State Warriors: A
Level-headed projections had the Golden State Warriors perhaps entering the championship-contention fracas upon Klay Thompson's return. Hardly anyone was guaranteeing powerhouse status at any point in the season, let alone right out of the gate.
Props to the Warriors for obliterating expectations. They remade their roster on the margins over the offseason, and it's paying dividends. Andre Iguodala, Nemanja Bjelica and Otto Porter Jr. have all played a role in their ascension. Giving a roster spot to the ultra-disruptive Gary Payton II was a stroke of genius.
Golden State's mainstays are doing their damnedest, too. Stephen Curry is a top-three MVP candidate, if not the absolute front-runner. Draymond Green is at the center of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. Damion Lee is giving the team quality minutes. Andrew Wiggins and Jordan Poole are roller coasters but have delivered worthwhile highs.
No team in the league is better right now. Literally. The Warriors have the best defense, most efficient half-court offense and NBA's highest winning percentage. They have evaded catastrophe during non-Steph minutes and carved out spurts for rookies Jonathan Kuminga and Moses Moody to boot.
Just think about what they'll be like once Thompson is back. And if Poole's shot-making settles into a happy medium. And when James Wiseman rejoins the rotation. The latter could double as a setback given how last season unfurled, but the point stands: Golden State has re-entered the heavyweight class.
Houston Rockets: D-
Imagine harping on the Oklahoma City Thunder's alleged aversion to winning when the Houston Rockets exist. They have just one victory and are currently embroiled in what feels like an eternity-long losing streak.
Further exploring Kevin Porter Jr.-at-point guard is defensible. The same goes for indulging Jalen Green's shot difficulty. Failing to roster a veteran floor general to serve as an offensive cushion was a mistake. Maybe John Wall, the highest-paid assistant coach in NBA history, wouldn't be the answer. D.J. Augustin is certainly not the answer.
Rookie Alperen Sengun is as crafty as advertised on offense. There have been moments in which he capably moves his feet and shifts his body on defense. He should not be used less than Daniel Theis.
Jae'Sean Tate should not be playing so much 3. Kenyon Martin Jr. should just be playing more. Usman Garuba and Josh Christopher should spend actual time in the G League if Houston's going to bury them on the bench. (Garuba was just assigned there.) Eric Gordon and David Nwaba could stand to play less in the name of developing the youth. Send Danuel House somewhere else already.
Wayward sucking is the worst kind. Don't even get me started on Christian Wood's body language. Blame head coach Stephen Silas if you must. But he was hired to oversee a team that had James Harden and instead inherited...this. The Rockets' issues are an organizational failure. They're not so much losing by design as losing without one.
Indiana Pacers: C-
Some leeway must be caked into the Indiana Pacers' grade. They are forever not at full strength. T.J. Warren has yet to make his season debut, and Malcolm Brogdon, Caris LeVert, Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner have barely made five appearances together.
Indiana is not far off from stealing flashier marks. Only the Boston Celtics have logged more crunch-time minutes this season. The Pacers' 3-8 record in those situations is a buzzkill.
That doesn't entirely excuse their sub-.500 showing.
Self-discovery is part of any head coaching change, but the Pacers have been painfully vanilla under Rick Carlisle. Moments of half-court brilliance and complexity do not elude them. Any semblance of pace does. No team plays at a slower rate after a defensive rebound, and they are 26th in average possession time following a forced turnover, per Inpredictable.
Transition opportunities are basically nonexistent as a result. Brogdon and LeVert should shoot better from three, but they're already getting peak marksmanship from Turner. Sabonis' frontcourt touches are way down, without a huge dip in minutes. Lineups with him at the 5 are once again getting creamed.
Rookie Chris Duarte has at times been a breath of fresh air. He also shouldn't be this integral to a playoff hopeful, and Indiana has started capping his influence over the offense. The defense is fouling at an above-average clip without forcing turnovers or rebounding especially well. Any way you slice it, the Pacers feel overwhelmingly, disappointingly average.
Los Angeles Clippers: B+
Starting the season 1-4 gave off all sorts of bad vibes for the L.A. Clippers. They've since flipped the script—without incurring incredible amounts of luck.
Kawhi Leonard remains on the shelf recovering from a partially torn right ACL. Marcus Morris Sr. (left knee) has appeared in just two games. Serge Ibaka (back) is merely a couple of cameos into his return and hasn't looked great.
That the Clippers rank second in points allowed per possession is astounding. Ivica Zubac and Isaiah Hartenstein represent almost the entire center rotation. Paul George and Nicolas Batum have needed to sponge up time on the frontline. L.A.'s defense has been not good, but immaculate during those stretches.
This doesn't profile as a happy accident. The Clippers' defensive vitals aren't fluky. Rival offenses are only shooting a hair below average from beyond the arc. If anything, they're getting a bump from low clips at the rim and on short mid-range looks.
Though the offense has picked up lately, it looms as the bigger concern. PG is a beast—and probably a top-five MVP candidate. Batum doesn't miss, apparently. Terance Mann has recaptured his touch from deep, and Luke Kennard was spitting fire until recently. But the Clippers are still without a true floor general.
Reggie Jackson doesn't quite qualify. Eric Bledsoe in no way qualifies. Lackluster rim pressure and a middling free-throw-attempt rate are more unnerving without Leonard. Still, the Clippers aren't merely making due. They've been a real thorn in the side of their opponents.
Los Angeles Lakers: C-
BREAKING: LeBron James' team is not good without LeBron James. More at 11.
It is, on some level, really this simple for the Los Angeles Lakers. Surviving without one of the league's best players, even when he's not at his apex, is difficult.
Then again, Russell Westbrook's bandwidth to carry them through LeBron-less stretches was the most salient argument in favor of his acquisition. He and Anthony Davis have failed to inoculate Los Angeles against life without No. 6.
The Lakers are getting trucked when Russ and AD play on their own. To what end that's on them is debatable. Russ' turnovers are an issue, and they should run more pick-and-rolls together. But the Lakers' roster construction isn't doing them any favors.
DeAndre Jordan shrinks the floor without beefing up the defense or performance on the glass. Rajon Rondo has underwhelmed. (Note: Russ-AD lineups without LeBron still get nuked when removing the aforementioned two.) The Lakers aren't taking nearly enough threes, and their efficiency from deep trails off significantly after Carmelo Anthony.
Talen Horton-Tucker has impressed since returning from right thumb surgery. Malik Monk has some explosions under his belt. Dwight Howard is muuuch better than DJ. Active silver linings are tough to find beyond them (and Melo). And focusing on LeBron's limited availability, plus the absences of Trevor Ariza and Kendrick Nunn, is a tired refrain. The Lakers have been one of the least impressive teams while playing one of the easiest schedules. That's a problem.
Memphis Grizzlies: B
Impressions of the Memphis Grizzlies are bound to be split. Expectations varied drastically for them entering the season. They spent the summer acting largely like a win-later team yet their past two postseason bids suggested a punchy unit with staying power.
Handing them a "B" is an attempt to juggle warring standards.
The Grizzlies once more refuse to fade from the postseason race. Ja Morant is making the megastar turn on the back of niftier shot-making from long distance and mid-range. Desmond Bane has the look and feel of a quasi-offensive tent pole. Dillon Brooks is shooting well since returning from his fractured left wrist. Defenses still bend to Jaren Jackson Jr.'s range, even though he's not raining fire. Kyle Anderson is rock-solid. De'Anthony Melton has cooled off from downtown but remains a defensive jolt.
Memphis' performance is harder to reconcile when looking at the aggregate defense. It is 29th in points allowed per possession. Opponents are shooting an untenably ridiculous 40.5 percent from deep. Brooks' return will help. Jackson is better on that end but not ready to anchor a defense from the 5. The team has struggled to get back after turnovers and missed shots, per Inpredictable.
For the time being, the Grizzlies are right where they should be—flawed but plucky, someone no one should want to play, with an uncertain ceiling barring a core change to the roster.
Miami Heat: A-
So much for the Miami Heat being too old, or not being built for the regular season, or not having enough depth beyond their top-six players.
Miami has at times looked like it stalled out completely. Those lulls are fleeting. The Heat are jockeying for the East's top record and have cleaned up against above-.500 opponents despite a handful of absences from Bam Adebayo, Jimmy Butler and Kyle Lowry and disturbingly human outside shooting from Duncan Robinson.
Strong play at the top has given the Heat margin for error. Lowry is a menace, even when his three-ball isn't finding nylon. Adebayo does everything except look for his own shot enough.
Butler is so far a top-five MVP candidate whose brute downhill force has been virtually unaffected by the new laissez-faire officiating. Tyler Herro is splashing absurdly difficult jumpers from all over—and running away with Sixth Man of the Year. P.J. Tucker has thrown some emphatic passes, is hitting threes again and is posting the second-highest offensive rebounding rate of his career.
Committing to second-chance opportunities at all has been a boon for the Heat. They are fifth in offensive rebounding rate and rank ninth in putback plays generated per friendly missed shots and boardable free throws.
They are deeper than anticipated, too. Everyone from Dewayne Dedmon and Markieff Morris to Max Strus and Caleb Martin has pitched in off the bench—surprise depth that has helped their top-five defense and fortified their case as a contender.
Milwaukee Bucks: B
Friends don't let friends read too much into the Milwaukee Bucks' season until they cobble together protracted stretches of close-to-full-strength rotations.
Sensationalists will seize the chance to poo-poo the reigning champs' lackluster start. Save any profound energy for when, you know, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton have more than five tandem performances under their belt. And even then, we should wait for the return of Brook Lopez before delivering nuclear takes. Donte DiVincenzo, by the way, has yet to make his season debut.
Muster up fake concern for Bobby Portis' below-average three-point clip and Giannis' declining volume around the rim if you're feeling performative. But BP's efficiency has perked up recently, and Giannis' impact isn't being neutered by a slightly altered shot profile.
Milwaukee, in fact, is outscoring opponents by a supersized margin when he plays without Holiday, Middleton and Lopez. Giannis' MVP case writes itself. Do not compare him to the LeBron James-less struggles in Los Angeles. Both Anthony Davis and Russell Westbrook pale in comparison to Giannis' capacity to ferry an entire team.
The Bucks are not without feel-good storylines beyond him, either. Grayson Allen is sniping from all over the place. Jordan Nwora's confidence is aspirational, but he's breaking from jump shots enough to put pressure on the rim. Both developments are huge for the present and future Bucks—a veritable title contender no matter what their record says now.
Minnesota Timberwolves: C
It already feels like the Minnesota Timberwolves have played through three separate seasons. They are confusing and frustrating and, thus, exhausting.
Stingy defense to begin the year has given way to a collapse since the start of November punctuated by crummy rebounding and lazy fouling. Pretty much all of their medium- and high-volume three-point shooters have regressed into the doldrums. Karl-Anthony Towns is the only player attempting two or more triples per game and hitting them at better than a 34 percent rate.
Wins like their Nov. 18 victory over the San Antonio Spurs hint at a team figuring it out. The offense is more balanced and less prone to mistakes. Anthony Edwards reads the game, ostensibly recognizing when to show restraint and when to call his own number. Malik Beasley and Jaden McDaniels see the ball go through the net. Patrick Beverley fills defensive and playmaking gaps. D'Angelo Russell supplements feeble shooting with actual paint pressure. KAT plays like The Guy.
Glimpses into what the Wolves might be, however, do not erase what they've been: inconsistent and, against above-.500 squads, pushovers. They have the 28th-ranked fourth-quarter offense, and there are far too many stretches in which you're wondering "How long has it been since KAT touched the ball?"
Unlike past years, the West's playoff picture offers time to find clarity. Will the Wolves discover themselves, or is this another instance of postseason aspirations deferred? The question itself says it all.
New Orleans Pelicans: D
Injuries do only so much to Febreeze over the stench emanating from the New Orleans Pelicans. Zion Williamson has yet to play this season. Brandon Ingram spent time on the shelf. Herb Jones and Josh Hart lost some games to injuries. That matters.
So, too, does the Pelicans' lack of transparency with Zion's recovery. They have been more forthcoming in recent weeks, but with each update projecting the next update, we're reminded how his broken right foot was hidden, and kind of downplayed, in the first place.
Using a steep curve to grade their on-court results does help—but not much. Jonas Valanciunas has been their most consistent player. Devonte' Graham has injected some perimeter pizzazz into the equation. Jones will defend everyone. Hart is having a good year.
None of which is rosy enough to eclipse bottom-five offensive and defensive marks. Nickeil Alexander-Walker's finishing at the rim is a tick better, but he may have taken a step back. Kira Lewis Jr. is a non-factor. Garrett Temple is currying favor over Naji Marshall and Trey Murphy III. (Marshall dealt with a sore right knee.)
Dumping on the Pelicans' offseason is disingenuous without context. Keeping Lonzo Ball wouldn't have improved rim pressure or off-the-dribble initiation without Zion. But they haven't used Tomas Satoransky nearly enough to justify treating him, along with Temple and a 2024 pick, as a centerpiece of that trade. The Pelicans need Zion. I get it. Their product without him is still an indictment of their organizational process.
New York Knicks: C-
Welcome to life with expectations, New York Knicks. It's rough out here.
Crippling play from the starters has left the Knicks much too close to .500. No lineup, from any team, has tallied more possessions than the quintet of Kemba Walker, Evan Fournier, R.J. Barrett, Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. Availability, in this case, is not a skill. That group is getting blasted by 17 points per 100 possessions, giving up a ton of threes and struggling like hell in the half court.
New York's all-bench mob of Immanuel Quickley, Derrick Rose, Alec Burks, Obi Toppin and Taj Gibson has been its savior. That's simultaneously huge and not ideal.
Something needs to give with the starters. Perhaps head coach Tom Thibodeau will have made a much-needed change by the time you read this.
Tinkering with the opening five is not necessarily a cure-all, though. Fournier's performance has recently fallen off a cliff, to the extent he's been essentially bounced from the fourth-quarter rotation. Randle hasn't yet found his identity within the new offensive hierarchy. Barrett's outside efficiency has dropped, but he's finishing better around the rim. The absence of a pure floor general grates, particularly later in games.
Nothing here is akin to hopelessness. The Knicks are underachieving yet still over .500, and they've cobbled together a league-averageish defense despite opponents drilling threes galore. Figuring out how to better equip the top of the rotation would do wonders. Fewer losses to the Orlando Magic, too.
Oklahoma City Thunder: B+
Shout-out to all the superheroes prepared to claim the Oklahoma City Thunder deserve a failing grade for improperly tanking. You're all super creative, original gems.
Oklahoma City forecasted as the league's premier laughingstock. It has instead compiled some fun victories—and not just against the Los Angeles Lakers—while scraping together a league-average defense and plenty of hunky-dory developments.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is downing nearly 36 percent of his step-back threes. Rookie Josh Giddey is dropping sweet, sweet dimes and, as it turns out, isn't opposed to looking for his own shot. Lu Dort's offense is on the rise. Darius Bazley is rising to the occasion on defense. Rookie Jeremiah Robinson-Earl is hitting threes and playing center.
The Thunder could be early-season fool's gold. Some of their games have been two-syllable bad. Only two teams have a worse net rating in losses. SGA needs to find some defensive inspiration. Aleksej Pokusevski continues to be more novelty and theory than actual asset. And above all, this team wasn't built to have better than a bottom-five record. A different reality could soon set in.
If it does, then so be it. We only care about what's happened to this point. And up until now, the Thunder are an unexpected joy ride.
Orlando Magic: C
Combine a bottom-five offense and defense with a bottom-three record, and we should have the impetus to fail the Orlando Magic.
Except, we don't.
Orlando is delivering flashes of fun and progress—especially when they play the New York Knicks. The starting five is still outpacing opponents by a laughably large margin. And this, mind you, is with Jalen Suggs ranking as one of the league's least effective rotation players.
Cole Anthony has turned this season into his own personal playground. His finishing around the hoop is a coin toss, but he's draining off-the-dribble jumpers left and right. His 55.8 effective field-goal percentage on pull-up looks ranks third among 82 players with at least 50 attempts, trailing only...Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry.
Franz Wagner deserves to be third on your Rookie of the Year ladder right now. His offensive game is infinitely scalable and includes off-the-bounce physicality on top of feathery shooting. Wendell Carter Jr. is in his bag—looking at the basket more on the catch and everything. Mo Bamba is playing like a real NBA player for extended stretches.
Nudging up the Magic's grade wouldn't be a stretch. Their lack of functional identity is somewhat offset by the continued absences of Jonathan Isaac and Markelle Fultz. But they don't have much to celebrate beyond the starters. Gary Harris, Chuma Okeke and Terrence Ross are laying frozen bricks from deep, and R.J. Hampton has too many games in which he plays without leaving an imprint.
Philadelphia 76ers: B+
Roster-wide availability is not a luxury the Philadelphia 76ers have enjoyed this season.
Ben Simmons, as we all know, has yet to suit up. His absence is just the beginning. Joel Embiid, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle have all missed at least five games. The Sixers are above .500, with a top-two offense, anyway.
Everything hasn't always been peachy keen. Philly labored through a five-game losing streak amid the injury carousel. But to be competitive this season at all is a testament to how well The Others have fared.
Seth Curry is ensconced in a silhouette of flames. Andre Drummond's play has slipped of late, but he's been big. Georges Niang and Furkan Korkmaz have been bigger. Rookie Charles Bassey, the No. 53 pick, has actually played and contributed and capably scrapped with Nikola Jokic.
Tyrese Maxey appears to be making the leap. He can make defenses pay for going under on screens and has upped his finishing around the rim. He's looked the part of a veritable All-Star the past two weeks or so.
Philly has another gear to hit. It's called being healthy. Embiid wasn't playing up to his usual level of dominance before entering the league's health and safety protocols. This version of the Sixers is better than expected.
It is also somewhat self-inflicted. Everyone involved has botched the Simmons situation. Philly gets dinged for that...and pretty much nothing else.
Phoenix Suns: A-
Hot-take artists were no doubt foaming at the mouth when the Phoenix Suns tipped off the season 1-3. Their rabid glee was short-lived.
Phoenix is back up near the top of the Western Conference after a long-as-hell winning streak. Chris Paul's defense has picked up, he doesn't know what turnovers are, and he is a literal, actual fourth-quarter bucket. Anyone griping about Devin Booker's scoring decline should staple their mouth shut. He is still a master manipulator, with underrated acceleration, and has ratcheted up his playmaking.
JaVale McGee and Frank Kaminsky (now out with a right knee injury) are giving the Suns different and potent looks at the center spot. Mikal Bridges has All-Defense in his sights. Jae Crowder is shooting 10-of-13 on drives (76.9 percent) and has busted out the occasional floater. Landry Shamet has offset the perimeter slumps of others. Cameron Payne is on the come-up. Cam Johnson's jumper is showing signs of life. Phoenix's defense is up to third in points allowed per possession.
There are, like always, some nits to pick. Johnson isn't out of the woods yet. Deandre Ayton remains integral to the defense but needs to more consistently play better than replacement-level offense. Phoenix still isn't constructed to put pressure on the rim or get after the offensive glass.
Big whoop. The Suns are following up one elite season with another. They're in great shape.
Portland Trail Blazers: D
Going from Terry Stotts to Chauncey Billups on the sidelines without making any seismic changes to the roster has not suddenly morphed the Portland Trail Blazers into a powerhouse. Who knew?
Irrevocable damage is not being done on the court, just so we're clear. Norman Powell is offensive lifeblood. CJ McCollum is downing threes. Nassir Little is a delight. He can finish on the move, fight on the boards and contest the heck out of shots. A Little-plus-Larry Nance Jr. frontline has potential.
Portland ranks inside the top five of points scored per possession. That's a minor miracle considering Damian Lillard's shooting rut persists and McCollum's mid-range accuracy has taken a nosedive. Anfernee Simons has cooled off. Jusuf Nurkic too often looks lost or without purpose. He's on course to post a career-high turnover rate on career-low usage.
The defense remains in the bottom five of points allowed per possession and is getting torched on the perimeter and off live boards. The Blazers' starting unit that demoralized opponents last season is now barely a net positive. They have played a tough schedule, but it'd be nice if they could win on the road.
To top it all off, team president Neil Olshey is under investigation for creating a toxic work environment. This would never be OK. It is made worse knowing Olshey hasn't retained his post purely on merit. Eight-year playoff streak be damned, he has failed to build the Blazers into a legitimate contender—this season, it seems, included.
Sacramento Kings: D-
Deluded expectations from within are hurting the Sacramento Kings. They are about where we'd expect in the standings, precariously wafting near, not inside, play-in territory. But the organization apparently has grander visions. Why else would head coach Luke Walton get the boot so early into the season?
His exit is a microcosm of the Kings' fatal flaw: They cannot appropriately self-evaluate. They expect last year's 12-seed in the West to take a gigantic leap because...they drafted Davion Mitchell? Acquired Tristan Thompson? De'Aaron Fox's max extension kicked in?
Getting rid of Walton isn't the wrong decision. But it's a decision you make over the offseason, not one you entertain now, when you can't stage a proper coaching search beyond defaulting to Alvin Gentry.
And look, Gentry is a good offensive mind. Offense also isn't the Kings' problem. They're in the top 15 of points scored per possession despite Fox's intense underachieving (part of this grade), Walton starting Chimezie Metu at the 4 and a failure to prioritize transition.
There are traces of squandered opportunity here. Harrison Barnes and Buddy Hield have played some of their best basketball this year. Richaun Holmes is a push-shot and oop-catching machine. Tyrese Haliburton is comprehensive awesomeness. Watching Mitchell defend is a form of cardio. Marvin Bagley III refusing to soak up garbage-time reps is largely irrelevant.
Sacramento's grade could be higher. The talent on the roster justifies it. Invariably, though, the damning and inexcusable disconnect between those upstairs and reality strikes again.
San Antonio Spurs: C+
Reviewing the San Antonio Spurs' season requires a unique perspective. Theirs is not a grade that can be tethered to their record. They're in transition.
San Antonio has countered a shaky half-court offense by quickening the pace—only Golden State uses fewer ticks per possession, according to Inpredictable—but not to efficient gains. Dejounte Murray is the Spurs' best creator, by far, and the strides he has made as both playmaker and mid-range scorer are not stark enough to buoy an entire offense.
They have no No. 2. Not really. It is Derrick White in practice, but he can do only so much when shooting this poorly.
Devin Vassell has emerged as more than a specialist. His effective field-goal percentage of 54.0 on pull-up jumpers ranks sixth among 82 players who have attempted at least 50 shots. Lonnie Walker IV adds occasional spice. Keldon Johnson has more layers. Neither he nor Vassell nor Walker, though, is a perma-solution to San Antonio's limitations.
The Spurs are more refined on defense. They force turnovers without fouling a ton, protect the hoop and erase fast breaks. Head coach Gregg Popovich has experimented with Thaddeus Young-at-the-5, by necessity, and a handful of those combinations hit like a shot of adrenaline.
This nucleus doesn't have a final form. That's cool for now. The Spurs are learning about themselves absent an immediate timeline. Their objective going forward is responding to that information—which, at this moment, begs them to act like a team without a North Star in place.
Toronto Raptors: B-
Checking in under .500 isn't the end of the world for the Toronto Raptors. Pascal Siakam is fewer than 10 games into his return from shoulder surgery, and the Raptors are depending heavily on rookie Scottie Barnes. Their recent slide has coincided with OG Anunoby's absence due to a hip injury.
And yet, the past two weeks have people wondering whether this is a stealth tank. Head coach Nick Nurse appears married to lineups that don't dredge up real floor spacing, even by this roster's crampy standards. Toronto is 27th in three-point-attempt rate and 19th in efficiency beyond the arc.
The entire offense has a stick-in-the-mud motif to it. The Raptors aren't ideally built to operate from the half court—especially without Goran Dragic—but rank a much-too-low 16th in average possession time, per Inpredictable, and don't devoutly push the rock unless they force a turnover.
Fortunately, they force turnovers at the league's second-highest rate. Their defense is long and smothering at its peak. But that aggression can blow up and lead to quality three-pointers and bunnies at the rim.
Uncertainty is ingrained into the post-Kyle Lowry era, but Toronto has blessings to count. Siakam is already showing flashes. Barnes' mid-range touch is revelatory. Fred VanVleet is flat-out really good.
Gary Trent Jr. is taking too many off-the-dribble jumpers yet still piecing together a gnarly season. Chris Boucher can only get better. Anunoby is better. Dalano Banton has staying power. The Raptors' grade is merely reflective of a trajectory undefined.
Utah Jazz: B-
League-best offense? Check. Top-10 defense? Check.
Steps, maybe leaps, forward from Donovan Mitchell—at both ends? Check. Yoga enthusiast Mike Conley playing like he has a vendetta against Father Time? Check.
Upgraded frontcourt play off the bench? Thanks to Hassan Whiteside, Eric Paschall and, if Rudy Gay's debut was any indication, also check.
The Utah Jazz are a regular-season machine. They remain as much now...for the most part.
Losing four of five games in the middle of November remains a letdown. They are below .500 against winning teams. Jordan Clarkson is on pace to set the record for the most three-pointers attempted by someone converting them at a sub-27 percent clip. The defense has been bad after turnovers and live-ball rebounds—like, in the bottom 10. Younger, more athletic wings would help the latter. Gay might, as well.
Splitting hairs? Hell to the yeah. That's the norm for entrenched contenders. The Jazz have set a skyscraping baseline for themselves. They're meeting it, kind of. But they've also missed it, sort of. They're still great. They need to be, and probably will be, better.
Washington Wizards: B+
Wes Unseld Jr. deserves a front-and-center spot in the early-season Coach of the Year discussion. He has the Washington Wizards playing like a defensive powerhouse.
They are fourth in points allowed per possession and first in opponent effective field-goal percentage. Arch nemeses won't continue to shoot sub-32 percent from behind the rainbow, and the Wizards are 24th in foul rate yet force turnovers at the league's lowest rate. They have also gorged on below-.500 opponents.
But their defensive success does not forecast completely fly-by-night. They get back in transition and have a handful of pesky positional defenders. Raul Neto still wears other players' skin, and going from Russell Westbrook to Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Spencer Dinwiddie and Kyle Kuzma on the perimeter is a demonstrative upgrade.
Deni Avdija is making plays up and down the positional spectrum. His defense is suffocating, both on and off the ball. Among 150-plus players standing under 6'10" who have logged more than 300 minutes, his block rate ranks seventh. Washington's entire defense has generally held up versus top-10 offenses.
The Wizards' own offense leaves much to be desired. Bradley Beal hasn't yet hit his stride, and Kuzma is the lone player shooting better than 32 percent on above-the-break threes. Davis Bertans looked broken before suffering an ankle injury. Strong finishing at the rim, led by Montrezl Harrell, has propped up the team's overall efficiency.
Washington has exceeded expectations in the aggregate. Its staying power just remains in question.