Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team: How Many Teams Are Truly Acing Season?December 20, 2021
Report Card Grades for Every NBA Team: How Many Teams Are Truly Acing Season?
Not too long ago, I was minding my own business when an avalanche of late-night Slack notifications sent my laptop's internal fan amok. It was Santa Claus, force-pinging me despite my alerts being turned off, informing me he received an influx of letters begging for another piping-hot batch of NBA report-card grades in time for Christmas.
And who am I to disappoint children and grown adults alike?
Just like last time, each squad will be evaluated relative to their individual expectations. Bad teams that were supposed to be bad will not get slammed as harshly as should-be good teams that are, so far, not good.
Issues beyond franchise control will continue to be accounted for wherever necessary. Rosters ravaged by injuries and absences from the league's health and safety protocols will be judged relative to the number and importance of missing players.
Rest assured: Every aspect and caveat of team performance will be considered prior to dusting off the red pen. Individual players, lineup decisions, extracurricular distractions and miscues, strength of schedules, strengths, weaknesses, surprises and disappointments, among other things, all factor into final impressions.
Previous grades will be noted for posterity, and more recent developments must be taken under advisement. We will not belabor points and concerns made on prior report cards. Overall, though, every team's entire season, through games played on Dec. 16, is still getting put under the microscope.
Atlanta Hawks: C-
Previous Grade: C-
Crappy defense dented the Atlanta Hawks' mark the first time, but they've shown some improvement since we last met. They're 13th in points allowed per 100 possessions, and despite ranking second-to-last in the share of field-goal attempts surrendered at the rim, they're holding opponents to a 56.5 percent clip around the hoop—the third stingiest mark during this span.
Taking these strides without De'Andre Hunter (wrist) and Onyeka Okongwu, who just returned from shoulder surgery, is a big deal. So is the Hawks offense. They're third in points scored per 100 possessions, with a top-two turnover rate. Trae Young is having a career year, and John Collins, Kevin Huerter and Danilo Gallinari are offsetting the absence of Bogdan Bogdanovic (ankle) with incandescent shooting and finishing.
This doesn't read like the profile of a team struggling to play .500 ball. That's exactly what the Hawks are, though. No single issue is ever solely at fault, but their fourth-quarter haze comes pretty damn close.
Atlanta has the Association's worst offensive rating in the final frame and places 28th in point differential per 100 possessions during crunch time. Better decision-making is a must; too often the Hawks' attack seems to bog down in the fourth. More diligent boxing out and smarter transition defense would also go a long way.
Any way you slice it, this team shouldn't be working so hard to stay mediocre. It may be time for the front office to consider a consolidation trade on the wing.
Boston Celtics: D
Previous Grade: C
To what end the Boston Celtics' performance should be excused by missed time from Jaylen Brown, Josh Richardson and Robert Williams III is in the eye of the beholder. The honest-as-hell truth: Their absences aren't enough to cushion the team's rampant blahness.
Sugarcoat it however you want. The Celtics are an underwhelming offensive team. Jayson Tatum's shot profile remains a concern, particularly when he's not drilling his threes at a preternatural clip. And his play remains a microcosm of the entire roster.
Boston ranks in the bottom 10 of the frequency of its looks that come at the rim and 26th in accuracy on above-the-break threes. Its efficiency at the rim has fallen off over the past month to boot.
To be absolutely clear: The Celtics are not without bright spots. Romeo Langford and Grant Williams are having impactful years. Al Horford has been a rock-solid addition, spotty three-point shooting notwithstanding. Richardson was a good pickup. The half-court offense has mostly survived, and Boston ranks first in free-throw-attempt rate since its last report card. Dennis Schroder has good moments, and his speed kills.
None of it is enough. The Celtics need to be at full strength and damn near perfect on defense to gut out victories. And in recent weeks, they haven't. They're 4-9, with a bottom-two net rating, in the final two minutes of one-possession games. Bleck.
Brooklyn Nets: A-
Previous Grade: B
Skepticism continues to permeate the Brooklyn Nets' Eastern Conference-best record, even with Kyrie Irving potentially, eventually returning.. Sustainability seems to be their enemy.
Brooklyn's reliance on Kevin Durant was harrowing before its roster entered health-and-safety-protocol purgatory. He hasn't averaged this many minutes per game since 2013-14. The offense is astoundingly, uncomfortably dependent upon Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge to shoot 1 trillion percent on long twos and Patty Mills' outside clip.
James Harden is delivering a trademark performance roughly every two or three games. DeAndre' Bembry and James Johnson are uber-important to the rotation. So is rookie Cam Thomas. The Nets have a top-10 defense, but their frontcourt rotation is not conducive to lockdown rim protection, and opponents are shooting under 32 percent from three, the lowest mark in the league, implying luck is at play.
Look, the Nets aren't some paper tiger. They will get healthier. Nic Claxton is back and disruptive as ever on defense. Harden will climb out of his three-point rut. And above all, there are worse realities than finding yourself too dependent on Durant, one of the best players in NBA history.
Mostly, though, this grade isn't about where the Nets will go. It's about what they've done. And what they've done is navigate a slew of absences, including an ankle injury to their second-most important wing in Joe Harris, to grab the East's best record and top-six net rating. Their sustainability is arguable. The results to date are not.
Charlotte Hornets: B
Previous Grade: B
The Charlotte Hornets deserve applause for keeping their heads above water since their last report card. They've turned in the league's second-best offense and effective field-goal percentage while enduring limited availability from LaMelo Ball and Terry Rozier. Their three-point shooting has been divine, and they're smoking opponents in transition.
Of course, this offensive magnificence continues to be paired with defensive ineptitude. The Hornets are dead last in points allowed per 100 possessions over the past month and 29th on the year. Their size remains a glaring issue on the defensive glass, opponents still enjoy parades to the rim and they have little fast-break resistance of which to speak. Charlotte is 30th in points allowed per possession after a missed shot, according to Inpredictable.
The current roster will not yield a defensive fix. Mason Plumlee is not a premier anchor. Playing small for even longer won't be tenable. JT Thor stints are hits of adrenaline, but let's not get carried away. Nick Richards and Vernon Carey Jr. probably aren't going kaboom. Kai Jones doesn't seem to be part of this year's equation.
Dinging the Hornets for their defensive warts in the middle is fair game. This isn't a revelatory shortcoming. Their limitations were apparent over the offseason. Failing to address the center rotation beyond Plumlee is a huge blotch. But Charlotte is not Atlanta or Boston. It is roughly where it's supposed to be.
Chicago Bulls: A-
Previous Grade: A
The overall impressions of the Chicago Bulls' 2021-22 campaign stand. No one forecasted them as a top-10 defense, with or without Patrick Williams (likely out for the season with a wrist injury). And few would've predicted they'd cobble together a top-12 offense while getting arctic-cold shooting from Nikola Vucevic.
Reading anything into the Bulls' performance since their initial report card is tough. They were hit hard by players entering the health and safety protocols before ever having games canceled.
Should they be concerned about a .500 record and below-average offense (18th) and defense (17th) during this span when DeMar DeRozan, Alex Caruso (hamstring) and Javonte Green all missed at least 30 percent of the games actually played? Probably not.
Chicago's reliance upon DeRozan for ball control is at least a little unsettling. It may be operating on borrowed time with the share of opponent looks coming at the rim (29th). And it definitely needs to acquire a wing, plus perhaps another backup big, before the trade deadline.
But the overarching message from last time and the season overall persists, even if this team is less polished than initially advertised: The Bulls are back.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A+++++
Previous Grade: A+++
Plenty of Instagram commenters destroyed the Cleveland Cavaliers' first-month mark. And, well, they're not going to enjoy the updated version.
"But they have a worse record than the Golden State Warriors and Phoenix Suns and Utah Jazz and Brooklyn Nets and Milwaukee Bucks and others? How do they deserve an A+++++?!?! Are you stupid? Drugs are bad!"
Reactions of this ilk must be met with the same response: These grades are relative to expectations.
Did anyone, yours truly included, see the Cavs contending for a top-four seed? Without Collin Sexton? Did we predict their ultra-big front line would spearhead a top-two defense? Or that Jarrett Allen would noticeably level-up his offense? Or that Evan Mobley would guard basically every position effectively? Or that Darius Garland's playmaking and shot-making would explode? Or that Ricky Rubio would stake his claim in the best-backup-point guard discussion? Or that a Cedi Osman "cold streak" would mean 37.5 percent shooting from deep over nine games?
Cleveland is not without flaws. It needs a wing who can put the ball on the floor. This roster is also just getting started. Isaac Okoro is converting 41.2 percent of his threes, on real volume, through his last 13 appearances. Lauri Markkanen is hanging with defensive assignments that should go over his head. The team's rebounding has picked up.
Oh, the Cavs also have the second-best net rating since we last did this and are up to fifth on the year—after playing out the league's second-toughest schedule, per ESPN. They haven't exceeded expectations. They've massacred them.
Dallas Mavericks: C-
Previous Grade: B-
Wait for the Dallas Mavericks to progress from afterthought to fringe contender at your own peril. It isn't happening without a trade.
Counting on Luka Doncic to hit more threes upon return from ankle injury is fine. But the Mavericks offense is far too bland for one piloted by Luka.
Dallas is 20th in points scored per 100 possessions on the season and an uninspiring 16th since its first grade. Nights on which it gets a big ol' bowl of stink from two to three starters are regular occurrences, as are missed gimmes. Over the past month, Jalen Brunson, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Kristaps Porzingis are all posting sub-42 effective field-goal percentages on wide-open looks while Reggie Bullock bangs in just 33.3 percent of his uncontested triples.
Appreciable improvement is not a given when looking at the structure of the Mavs offense. They rank 29th in average possession time, according to Inpredictable, and no squad takes a smaller share of shots at the rim. Moving on from head coach Rick Carlisle has not incited a commitment to transition. Only two teams spend less time on the break.
The Mavs, in essence, are working too hard for nondescript looks. They're around the bottom 10 in shot quality, an expected effective field-goal percentage model based on location and play context, according to PBP Stats—a level of offensive disappointment that cannot be eclipsed by a slight uptick in defensive performance.
Denver Nuggets: B
Previous Grade: B
Struggling to top .500 does not typically warrant a cascade of confetti. For the Denver Nuggets, it might.
Jamal Murray (ACL) and Michael Porter Jr. (back) are on the shelf. P.J. Dozier (ACL), one of Denver's most important defenders, is done for the year. Nikola Jokic, an unheralded iron man, has missed time with a right wrist issue. The Nuggets could easily be worse, much worse, playing for absolutely nothing.
They're not. They're surviving, mostly on the back of Jokic, who is averaging 26.3 points and 7.5 assists while downing 66.0 percent of his twos and 38.1 percent of his threes and suffering from a case of "Not Enough MVP Consideration Beyond Hipster Twitter." Denver's record is unspectacular, but it's hammering opponents by 12.1 points per 100 possessions when he plays.
Defense remains a concern despite the best efforts of Aaron Gordon. The Nuggets are 29th in points allowed per 100 possessions since their first report card. Some of that's bad luck. Rival offenses during this span are shooting 38.6 percent from three.
The rest is a matter of math. Denver has run out of bodies. Jeff Green and Zeke Nnaji are good, but the team needs a backup big. Bones Hyland, Monte Morris and Will Barton are treasures, but the Nuggets need a sturdier wing defender taller than the 5'10" Facundo Campazzo. That this team can have expectations at all, though, says more about its season than anything else.
Detroit Pistons: D
Previous Grade: C-
Part of me is compelled to show more compassion to the Detroit Pistons. They're not supposed to be good—or even miles within good. Kelly Olynyk hasn't played since early November because of an MCL sprain. Jerami Grant is out with a thumb injury.
And yet, the Pistons have lost every game they've played since first-month report cards. That's inexcusable, and it's made more detrimental by a dearth of bright spots.
Cade Cunningham is awesome. Already. That's great. Isaiah Stewart is worker-bee rim deterrent and quietly, shooting 42 percent from mid-range. But Killian Hayes is back to struggling from every area of the floor. Saddiq Bey's rut might be something more sinister. Grant has looked overtaxed on offense despite clearing 20 points per game. Opponents are shooting better than 70 percent at the rim during Detroit's losing streak. The bench is abysmal.
The latter is unforgivable. So problematic, in fact, the Pistons couldn't shake up the top of the rotation even if they tried. Trey Lyles is the best backup big option—which, yikes. Hamidou Diallo or Frank Jackson is the top perimeter reserve—less of a yikes, but still not great.
Detroit should be deeper with fliers. That's an indictment of the team's offseason. Forgive the Pistons for that, and they are still, on most nights, a roster without distinct form.
Golden State Warriors: A
Previous Grade: A
Finding true fault in the Golden State Warriors' season is a fool's errand. Even the most hyperbolic optimists didn't have them contending for the NBA's best record without Klay Thompson. A league-best defense, by a comical margin, has allowed them to spit fire all over preseason forecasts.
That defense has also masked some genuinely concerning offensive warts. The Warriors are 19th in points scored per 100 possessions over roughly the past month.
Stephen Curry's race to claim the NBA's all-time three-point record is in part at play. The entire offense was pressing, and he turned in more 6-of-19-type nights than you'd expect from him. He will be fine.
Golden State's non-Steph minutes, however, are back to being a problem. The offense rates in the 19th percentile without him, and the team is no longer a net positive when he sits. Relying on Jordan Poole and Andrew Wiggins as your top secondary shot creators, as good as they've been, has its limits.
Thompson's return might not extend the offense. Or maybe it will. Golden State has missed makeable attempts. Poole and Damion Lee are at sub-28 percent on wide-open threes this past month, Juan Toscano-Anderson has missed all five of his uncontested looks, and Andre Iguodala has an aversion to shooting at all and is missing badly when he does.
Do not confuse this to mean the Warriors are doomed. It's merely worth monitoring as we reset projections for a team that was clearly underestimated before the season.
Houston Rockets: C
Previous Grade: D-
BREAK UP THE HOUSTON ROCKETS—AND NOT FOR THE USUAL REASONS.
Since earning a "D-" the first time around, the Rockets have turned in an 8-5 record, replete with a seven-game winning streak, and the league's fifth-best offense. The defense is a mess—a haze of fouls, cruddy rebounding, stodgy rim protection and unattended three-point shooters—but goshdarnit, this team has by and large been fun.
Whether the Rockets should be concerned if this entertainment-value ascent coincides with Jalen Green's hamstring injury is a separate matter. (He's a rookie. This is actually fine. Kevin Porter Jr.'s struggles on the other hand...) They've made a handful of strides and discoveries in recent weeks. That matters more.
Garrison Mathews is a fire-breather who never should've needed to sign a two-way contract. (He's been converted to an NBA deal.) Eric Gordon has partnered rim pressure and outside shooting with perhaps career-best playmaking. Jae'Sean Tate has started hitting threes. Christian Wood remains dynamic. Alperen Sengun is crafty and gutsy. Kenyon Martin Jr. makes up for finite range with explosive hustle. Armoni Brooks plays like he lives in the gym.
Cherish these butterflies and rainbows, Rockets fans. Tougher stretches await. Houston has already slogged through them. And its grade remains repressed because there should be even greater emphasis on playing the kiddies. Sengun needs more minutes, Josh Christopher has earned extra floor time, and please, let Usman Garuba see the court.
Indiana Pacers: D
Previous Grade: C-
Recent reports paint the Indiana Pacers in dire terms.
They might be contemplating a full-tilt rebuild, per Shams Charania and Bob Kravitz of The Athletic. Myles Turner is unhappy with his role, or lack of clarity behind it, or something. Team president Kevin Pritchard laments their dearth of conventional stars. Oh, wait, no he doesn't. They have stars. And by the way, they actually aren't considering a full-tilt rebuild.
There are real bones to pick with the Pacers. Watch them for consecutive games, and it feels like you're seeing a different iteration each night. Why is Domantas Sabonis averaging substantially fewer paint touches this season compared to last year? Why does Caris LeVert so often exist miles outside the ebb and flow of the offense? Can any of the non-Turner starters knock down threes at an enviable clip?
Indiana is not without silver linings. Rookie Chris Duarte is a genuine find and forging useful synergy with Sabonis. Oshae Brissett makes you want to watch what happens away from the ball—and has finally cracked the regular rotation. LeVert is enjoying his best offensive stretch of the season. Justin Holiday is back after sitting several games because of the league's health and safety protocols.
Through all the muck and mud, the Pacers have a top-11 net rating outside garbage time. T.J. Warren's eventual(?) return from a foot injury will be huge.
Yet they are still the team that folded against decimated Miami Heat and Milwaukee Bucks rosters, and that owns a 2-11 record through games with one-possession differentials inside the final two minutes.
Los Angeles Clippers: B
Previous Grade: B+
To whom it may concern: The Los Angeles Clippers defense is legit.
Luck is working in their favor to some extent. Opponents are hitting under 33 percent of their non-corner threes for the season. But the Clippers bust their butts. They have a compilation of workaholics on the perimeter and don't surrender a ton of uncontested triples. They grind to stamp out transition opportunities.
Ivica Zubac may be the league's most underrated back-line enforcer. Opponents are shooting six percentage points worse than their season average when challenged by him inside six feet, and he's in the 84th percentile of adjusted points saved at the rim per 75 possessions, according to BBall Index.
Things get murky for the Clippers at the other end. They're 24th in points scored per 100 possessions, 23rd in turnover percentage and 25th in free-throw-attempt rate. Their rim frequency is close to nonexistent, and the finishing is spotty. They rank inside the bottom seven of effective field-goal percentage on pull-up jumpers. No one other than Paul George is suited to higher-volume responsibilities, and even he's been bogged down.
Kawhi Leonard's absence is the mother of all excuses, and the Clippers have labored through stretches without Serge Ibaka, Marcus Morris Sr., Nicolas Batum and George himself. They deserve credit for finding Brandon Boston Jr., and signing Isaiah Hartenstein. Luke Kennard is trending up. The Clippers without Kawhi don't suck. They're unspectacular yet built to capitalize on a slumping Western Conference middle class. That's a win.
Los Angeles Lakers: C-
The Los Angeles Lakers haven't given meme-makers as much material since their first grade. They've turned in a top-six defense and a record comfortably above .500 amid LeBron James' return from the league's health and safety protocols, better play from Russell Westbrook (40 percent on threes his last 11 games) and Anthony Davis-at-center arrangements.
That shift to more AD at the 5 is gargantuan. It not only means fewer reps for DeAndre Jordan but also gives way to the Lakers' most successful lineup structure. Units with AD at center alongside LeBron and Russ are at plus-13.6 points per 100 possessions.
This does not paper over all the Lakers' concerns. They have converted just 33 percent of their above-the-break triples during their above-.500 stretch. The half-court offense is an abject disaster when LeBron sits. AD's demise is greatly exaggerated, but he's a non-factor from distance and not shooting well enough from mid-range to float his current volume.
A 37-year-old Carmelo Anthony has cooled off. Go figure. His regression is actually a telltale sign of a larger symptom: The Lakers don't have a bankable supporting cast. They can't favor one player without compromising an entire side of the court—without torpedoing floor balance on offense or jeopardizing defense. It's an issue sans in-house solutions, and one many forecasted before the season.
Good on the Lakers for seemingly trending in the right direction. That doesn't rewrite the vast majority of their season or the potentially cataclysmic flaws inherent in their roster. They remain up against the burden of proof.
Memphis Grizzlies: A
Previous Grade: B
Soldiering on without Ja Morant has proved to be no problem for the Memphis Grizzlies. He hasn't played since Nov. 26, after suffering a left knee sprain and then entering health and safety protocols. Memphis has lost just once during this stretch while notching a top-six offense and Association-best defense and pulling off road victories in Toronto, Dallas, Miami and Portland.
Hot-take opportunists will use this as a chance to discuss the inflated value of Morant. Make sure you're not one of them. Memphis' defensive rise without him is no coincidence, but he's a transcendent offensive player who avoids the dead-weight qualification at the other end.
Use this instead as an opportunity to understand and appreciate the Grizzlies' depth. The Desmond Bane leap is happening, both on and off the ball, and it's real. Dillon Brooks is a defensive bulldozer. Tyus Jones is the living embodiment of rock solid.
Jaren Jackson Jr. has made strides at both ends—and especially on defense. Steven Adams still does the dirty work. De'Anthony Melton is a ferocious defender. Memphis is so deep a healthy Kyle Anderson is guaranteed only spot minutes. This team has a league-best 62.4 net rating in the final two minutes of one-possession tilts(!).
Sustainability is always an issue for overachievers. But the Grizzlies have room to regress and still mess up the West's pecking order, and the absolute best version of themselves will remain untapped until Morant is all the way back.
Miami Heat: A-
Previous Grade: A-
Let's pour one out for the Miami Heat's supporting cast.
Injuries to Bam Adebayo (thumb) and Jimmy Butler (back) should've capsized a roster panned for questionable depth leading into the season. This isn't hyperbole. Adebayo and Butler have played just four games each since last month's run-through. Much deeper teams, on paper anyway, couldn't withstand the protracted loss of two stars.
The Heat apparently can. They're at .500 during this stretch, with footnote ranks in offensive and defensive efficiency, but survival under menacing circumstances is a skill. And it isn't just Kyle Lowry and Tyler Herro doing the heavy lifts. Hell, Herro has missed time himself. And Duncan Robinson continues to stroke threes at a tepid clip.
Everyone from P.J. Tucker and Dewayne Dedmon to Gabe Vincent and Max Strus is playing well. All four are canning more than 38 percent of their triples on the season. Dedmon is holding his own at the rim and on both sides of the glass. Tucker is aging in reverse.
Caleb Martin is a revelation, a portable defender who, in addition to knocking down his treys, has converted nearly 70 percent of his looks at the rim. Omer Yurtseven has even endeared himself, in small doses, with scrappy rebounding and some plays at the basket.
Miami's others are flat-out getting it done. And it makes you wonder, in a good way, what this team will look like at full strength.
Milwaukee Bucks: A-
Previous Grade: B
Injuries and entries into health and safety protocols have bilked the Milwaukee Bucks of any shot at early-season continuity. They've rolled out a baker's dozen starting lineups, and only two of all their five-man units have logged even 50 minutes.
Milwaukee has a top-seven offense and defense anyway. Seriously.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is once again a top-three or -four MVP candidate. Jrue Holiday has an effective field-goal percentage of 81.9 on step-back jumpers (23-of-36). Khris Middleton has looked more like Khris Middleton.
Bobby Portis is shooting and switching well enough to stabilize a shaky center rotation. Grayson Allen and Pat Connaughton have been big-time. Donte DiVincenzo's imminent return from an ankle injury and the health and safety protocols will mitigate the need for Jordan Nwora minutes.
Brook Lopez's back injury warrants serious concern. Neither Portis nor DeMarcus Cousins can replace what he does on defense. But the Bucks remain really good, and frankly, given how dominant they've been when Giannis, Jrue and Middleton share the floor, they deserve to be billed as Eastern Conference favorites.
Minnesota Timberwolves: C+
Previous Grade: C
This year's Minnesota Timberwolves are a giant tease. Just when you think that it might be safe to call them a play-in or top-six-seed lock, alternate-reality checks come swiftly and in droves.
Sure, they're 11th in points allowed per 100 possessions, but they're 23rd over their past 12 games. Yes, Anthony Edwards is electric. And D'Angelo Russell is connective tissue without which the Wolves can't properly function. But the offense still rates below average, in no small part thanks to suboptimal clips around the rim and from deep.
Karl-Anthony Towns is dominant and capable of stretches in which he outduels Jusuf Nurkic, Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis. He's also someone who will go from hoisting 20-plus shots to barely 10. Jarred Vanderbilt is human caffeine, yet not the answer on the defensive glass or to eruptive size. Minnesota is a team that will win seven of eight and then lose five straight, including three successive blowouts at home, only to turn around and bag road victories in Denver, Portland and L.A.
Inconsistent availability from key players has no doubt messed with the Timberwolves' season. Their preferred starting five is blasting opponents by 52.7 points per 100 possessions yet has made just 12 total appearances.
This exempts Minnesota from nothing. Every team is dealing with stuff. The Timberwolves are surviving theirs, with truly riveting highs, but just as their sub-.500 record suggests, none of their peaks has settled into permanent normals.
New Orleans Pelicans: C-
Previous Grade: D
Zion Williamson has yet to play this season and remains without a concrete timetable for return after receiving an injection in his injured right foot to "stimulate bone healing." That sounds, er, swell.
New Orleans' initial lack of transparency on the Zion front, as outlined last time, is absolutely part of its mark. It's not the defining factor.
Brandon Ingram is back, fully integrated and at his peak as a table-setter. Herb Jones is a defensive live wire and shooting 5-of-12 on non-corner threes this season (42.9 percent). (He's at 5-of-17 from the corners.) Josh Hart is having the best season of his career.
Jonas Valanciunas provides much-needed offensive stability. Willy Hernangomez is shooting 76 percent at the rim and grabbing every rebound in sight. New Orleans is playing .500 ball since its last report card.
Juicing the Pelicans' grade much higher still doesn't sit right. Devonte' Graham's shooting inside the arc remains sad. The fall of Naji Marshall, demotion of Jaxson Hayes, limited use of Trey Murphy III, irrelevance of Tomas Satoransky and turbulence of Nickeil Alexander-Walker are headaches of varying severity.
More than anything, New Orleans seems stuck—better served writing this off as a lost season yet seduced by reasonable proximity to a play-in spot it feels obligated but is ill-equipped to actually snag.
New York Knicks: D-
Previous Grade: C-
Switching up the starting five has not rescued the New York Knicks from a tailspin that has spanned a vast majority of the season. Since Nov. 1, they are 22nd in offense and 20th in defense and have been bounced from the East's play-in bubble.
Opponent three-point shooting is no longer their friend, and their rim protection has deteriorated. The offense has stabilized more recently but still isn't good enough. Nearly all of the Knicks' key rotation players have seen a measurable dip in their three-point percentage from last year.
New York's bench still has a top-three point differential per 100 possessions. Hooray. That isn't enough to blot out tumultuous versions of Julius Randle and RJ Barrett and this all-or-nothing-but-mostly nothing-bring-back-Kemba Walker iteration of Evan Fournier. Alec Burks and Derrick Rose are too often lifelines.
And in case you were wondering, Mitchell Robinson's demotion to the second unit has not reinvigorated his performance. You could say he's just doing cardio out there on some nights, but that'd be an insult to people who actually do cardio.
This Knicks season has suddenly become about the kids—about the range and poise of Immanuel Quickley, about Obi Toppin's motor, about calls for Deuce McBride and Quentin Grimes to get minutes. That is sweet. Genuinely. That doesn't align with the Knicks' aims. They didn't build themselves in the image of a true contender, but they tried to become the next best thing. And they're failing, inarguably, maybe hopelessly.
Oklahoma City Thunder: C-
Previous Grade: B+
Too many of the Oklahoma City Thunder's vitals went off the rails following their 73-point loss to the Memphis Grizzlies on Dec. 2. Similarly, too many people will spin that beatdown as proof the Thunder deserve a big, fat, meaty "F" and represent everything wrong with tanking and that the league should intervene like it did with Sam Hinkie's Philadelphia 76ers to remedy this sorry excuse for a basketball team.
Here's some free advice: Don't be one of those people.
The Thunder have been better than their 73-point spanking, for which they did not have Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Josh Giddey, Derrick Favors or Kenrich Williams. They also absolutely, positively deserve to be flame-broiled for their meme of a performance. All these things can be, and are, true.
Oklahoma City's feel-goods have not really changed from last time. SGA, Giddey, Luguentz Dort, Darius Bazley and Jeremiah Robinson-Earl have all shown glimpses of talent at varying scales. Tre Mann has joined them. The Thunder responded to their 73-point whooping with consecutive wins over the Detroit Pistons and Toronto Raptors and have cobbled together some gritty defensive outings on the year.
This does not excuse their 2-9 record and offensive struggles since their first grade. The Thunder's most-used starting five discriminates against floor-spacing, and Williams is forever not getting enough minutes. At some point, they need to be dinged for Aleksej Pokusevski's lack of progress. Maybe that's now.
Orlando Magic: C-
Previous Grade: C
The Orlando Magic coasted through the first month's report cards thanks to scintillating performances from their starters and not much else. It's a similar story this time.
Rookie Jalen Suggs remains out with a fractured thumb, but the other four starters shined brighter in the first place. Cole Anthony is hitting some ridiculously difficult shots. Franz Wagner has upped his playmaking while maintaining a balanced scoring portfolio.
Wendell Carter Jr. isn't bombing threes as efficiently as before but remains visibly more decisive. Mo Bamba needs his three-ball to drop more frequently than it has the past month, but he's holding his own in head-to-heads at the rim.
That the Magic don't have many other comforts is a regrettable blemish. The R.J. Hampton and Chuma Okeke experiences are inconsistent and underwhelming. Gary Harris has started hitting threes again for now. The offense really needs Terrence Ross to follow suit.
Orlando's depth and upside was always capped by long-term injuries to Markelle Fultz (ACL), Jonathan Isaac (ACL) and Michael Carter-Williams (ankle). That's not cause for favoring Harris and Ross in the rotation over Hampton and Okeke—particularly when Suggs is out, and especially when it's not helping snare wins.
The Magic have just one victory and the league's worst net rating since their first report card. And while they aren't a surprising level of bad, they're not must-see bad these days, either.
Philadelphia 76ers: C+
Previous Grade: B+
Absences beyond that of Ben Simmons afforded the Philadelphia 76ers leeway through the first month of the season. But better availability at the top has not resulted in progress. The Sixers are below .500 and 27th in offense since their first report card.
Tobias Harris is slumping hard. Tyrese Maxey has cooled. So has Seth Curry, but that only means he's volcanic rather than thermonuclear. The team as a whole is 27th in above-the-break three-point shooting during this stretch.
Joel Embiid needs someone who can throw entry passes. His post-up frequency is down and yielding fewer points per possession than last year. He isn't committing turnovers often, but double-teams can grate on his decision-making.
This spiel is not presented as a harbinger of doom. Defense will keep the Sixers afloat. Embiid would be in the Defensive Player of the Year conversation, again, if he didn't miss so much time. Philly has a winning record when he plays and the net rating to match. This team has received pivotal contributions from non-stars, including Curry, Maxey, Andre Drummond, Georges Niang and, once upon a time, Furkan Korkmaz.
Hammering the Sixers is within the realm of rationality. Allowing Simmons' spot to devolve into a gargantuan zero cripples any hope of championship contention. But flipping him just for the sake of exiting a mutually destructive situation is shortsighted. Philly's grade reflects this tug-of-war—that it's surviving without its second-most important player yet not blameless for having to do so.
Phoenix Suns: A
Previous Grade: A-
It turns out the Phoenix Suns would, in fact, actually lose again. Still, 18 wins in a row, including one over the Golden State Warriors, is pretty damn impressive. Their streak might've even kept going if Devin Booker never suffered a left hamstring strain that has sidelined him since the end of November.
His absence negates any performative doubt in the Suns offense. They're a blase 13th in points scored per 100 possessions since Report Card No. 1, but that only reinforces the importance of a scalable superstar scorer and playmaker.
Almost nothing else about this team warrants skepticism. The big-man rotation could be thin without Dario Saric (ACL) and, more recently, Frank Kaminsky (right knee). It's not. JaVale McGee is exceeding expectations, and the Deandre Ayton "You Should've Extended Me" revenge tour is in full swing.
Cam Johnson is back to swishing threes at an extraterrestrial clip. Mikal Bridges is roughly a shoo-in for the All-Defensive first team and remains surgical away from the ball on offense. This is Landry Shamet's best year since his rookie season in 2018-19. Jae Crowder wants you to know he's confident in his floater.
Then there's Chris Paul. At 36, he continues to treat defenses like his personal plaything—particularly when it matters most. He's shooting 68.4 percent (13-of-19) on twos outside the restricted area during crunch time. It is on his back, and Booker's, that Phoenix has churned out a 12-1 record and league-best net rating in clutch situations.
Portland Trail Blazers: D-
Previous Grade: D
Extended absences from Damian Lillard (abdomen) and CJ McCollum soften the blow for the Portland Trail Blazers' grade. They wouldn't be 25th in points scored per 100 possessions since the last batch of report cards if both were readily available.
Offense also isn't the Blazers' problem. Onset struggles from Lillard (playing better!) and McCollum's lower mid-range clip are among the laundry list belly-ups, but Portland is hovering around the top 10 in efficiency for the season.
Defense is the larger stain. More aggressive schemes haven't helped. Jusuf Nurkic doesn't have the mobility to play too high, and Portland doesn't employ the trustworthy help to cover up behind him. Opponents are shooting a league-high 71.1 percent at the rim against the Blazers over the past month.
Yanking Robert Covington from the starting lineup for Larry Nance Jr. is the right call. It isn't a cure-all. The Blazers remain at a disadvantage even with Nassir Little's frenetic energy. They need more individual perimeter defenders. Plural.
They also need to go back in time and fire former team president Neil Olshey before giving him the opportunity to flesh out this roster and hire a new head coach. Chauncey Billups' arrival is not the Blazers' prevailing basketball issue, but his media tactics, use of Covington and decision to play Dame 47-plus minutes in an overtime loss, on the first end of back-to-back, when he was one game into his return from injury is questionable at best.
Sacramento Kings: D
Previous Grade: D-
Firing head coach Luke Walton hasn't sparked a turnaround for the Sacramento Kings. They are .500 since their first evaluation but have a below-average offense and one of the league's worst defenses on the season.
De'Aaron Fox is playing better yet tops the list of uh-ohs. Still. His speed is intact, and he has an operable mid-range game. But he leans on too many junky in-between jumpers and is shooting a career low from deep. He has never passed less or posted a lower assist percentage out of drives. His defense is statue-like.
Elsewhere, Harrison Barnes has cooled off since returning from his right foot sprain. If Buddy Hield's contract wasn't a net-negative before, it is now. Tyrese Haliburton keeps doing everything but needs to be more aggressive—especially inside the arc.
Richaun Holmes, sidelined with an eye injury, remains a dream. Davion Mitchell has sniffed a league-average clip from three over the past month or so. Terence Davis has turned in some good minutes. Chimezie Metu would be more playable if he could shoot or finish. Marvin Bagley III has had a couple of feel-good moments under interim head coach Alvin Gentry.
This mixed bag of partly cloudy skies befits the Kings. Their direction is purposeless. Belly-flopping into the Western Conference's No. 10 seed is not an accomplishment. They needed to choose between a teardown or all-in move over the offseason. That remains true. Their failure to chart a discernible, meaningful course will keep costing them here.
San Antonio Spurs: C
Previous Grade: C+
There is an element of nihilism to the San Antonio Spurs that, if not enjoyable, at least keeps you on your toes.
Will head coach Gregg Popovich play Jock Landale instead of Thaddeus Young or Drew Eubanks? What is Lonnie Walker IV doing? Bryn Forbes? Did Dejounte Murray's dad subtweet anybody? How many ridiculous threes did the Spurs' opponent hit?
San Antonio's last month or so has left it with a tough-to-discern identity. The defense—its supposed specialty—is 19th in points allowed per 100 possessions and getting flamed from beyond the arc and on long twos. Bad luck? Something more? Its offense, on the other hand, is 11th in points scored per possession, despite placing dead last in three-point-attempt rate and lacking a dependable off-the-bounce jump shooter.
Tuning into the Spurs is an adventure, for better or worse. No team plays faster on the offensive end, according to Inpredictable. For real. Murray and Keldon Johnson have turned in some of their best basketball this past month. Derrick White has an on-again, off-again relationship with good offense. Jakob Poeltl remains impossible to fool near the rim. Devin Vassell looks like a building block even when his threes aren't falling. #FreeThadYoung—or something.
Who are the Spurs? Better yet: What are the Spurs? They're fun and fast and unfinished and just the right amounts of experimental and unhinged. Really, they're exactly what their record implies: somewhere between good and bad, neither a bummer nor an epiphany.
Toronto Raptors: B-
Previous Grade: B-
Nuggets of the Toronto Raptors' performance call for a harsher grade. They remain allergic to defensive rebounds and not fouling. Goran Dragic is not with the team for personal reasons and, thus, an on-court net zero. My heart cannot withstand any more Chris Boucher letdowns.
Some shine has worn off Dalano Banton. Precious Achiuwa continues to confuse the hell out of me. The half-court offense doesn't consistently generate fouls or function without cleaning up its own misses. And most importantly: The Raptors are 11th in the East.
Toronto has spent much of this season on the precipice of figuring it out. OG Anunoby (hip) hasn't played since Nov. 15. After missing time to start the year, Pascal Siakam is finding his defensive groove—and so are the Raptors. They are eighth in points allowed per 100 possessions since their last report card and can live with spotty foul and rebounding rates when forcing so many turnovers.
Scottie Barnes is a genuine challenger to Evan Mobley for Rookie of the Year. His defense belies his experience, and he has the goods on offense. He's connecting on 41.5 percent of his triples over his past 10 games. Fred VanVleet is outside offense unto himself—and an All-Star. Gary Trent Jr. is allowed to take chances on defense and thriving amid it and also hitting 47.2 percent of his pull-up twos.
Many expected the Raptors would spend this year wandering through the wilderness. They're doing something more, even if it hasn't all come together yet.
Utah Jazz: A-
Previous Grade: B-
Steady goes the regular-season juggernaut.
Something seemed ever so slightly askew for the Utah Jazz after the first month. Their commitment to transition defense underwhelmed. So did Jordan Clarkson's outside shooting. They dropped four of five during an early-November stretch and had a sub-.500 record versus winning opponents.
Utah has pretty much flipped every nook and cranny of this script.
Clarkson's three-point touch has returned in recent weeks, at a time when Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell are routinely entering god mode. The transition defense has tightened up, and while I'm not sure anyone needs to hear this anymore, Rudy Gobert continues to have a generational impact in the half court. The Jazz now have a winning record against above-.500 foes—and the league's best offense.
Rudy Gay's debut, on top of Hassan Whiteside's brief absence with a glute injury, also allowed Utah to indulge some self-discovery. Gay has soaked up 55 possessions at center, a series of short spells that didn't upend the defense. Said lineup combinations aren't a crutch, but they're not meant to be. They are optionality—another form of depth.
Where the Jazz stand in the championship pecking order is debatable. They are absolutely one of the top-five title picks. And at this rate, they're a lower-middle-end wing acquisition away from garnering, if not demanding, consensus-favorite consideration.
Washington Wizards: C
Previous Grade: B+
Did the Washington Wizards hoodwink us to the start the season? They're sporting a bottom-five offense and defense since the first report card, a slide that hasn't overlapped with any long-term absences.
What was once one of the league's most surprising defenses has spent the past few weeks getting torched at the rim and from beyond the arc. (The unit is still good at disrupting transition chances.) The offense, meanwhile, is on a treadmill of bleakness.
Montrezl Harrell's finishing around the basket can no longer prop up the team's efficiency. Perimeter shooting has killed the Wizards. They're last in above-the-break three-point percentage and 28th overall in accuracy beyond the arc.
Raul Neto (24.5), Corey Kispert (26.4) and Bradley Beal (27.9) are all shooting under 28 percent from three. Deni Avdija (30.8) and Davis Bertans (30.2) are below 32 percent. Spencer Dinwiddie (32.8) and Kyle Kuzma (34.4) are under 35 percent.
Aimlessness in the half court is a huge problem. Over the past month, Washington is fourth in the share of attempts coming inside four seconds of the shot clock. There needs to be more urgency to how this group operates, lest it keep firing off eleventh-hour grenades.
Guard play, specifically, shouldn't be this much of an issue. Though he's working his way back from a partially torn ACL, Dinwiddie's fit and performance is in question. And if it isn't yet time to wonder what's up with Beal, it will be soon.
Unless otherwise noted, stats courtesy of NBA.com, Basketball Reference, Stathead or Cleaning the Glass and accurate entering Friday's games. Salary information via Basketball Insiders and Spotrac.
Dan Favale covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter (@danfavale), and listen to his Hardwood Knocks podcast, co-hosted by NBA Math's Adam Fromal.