by Zack Lambert
Can you believe how time flies? We’ve just entered the year 2020 and, more importantly, the NBA season is almost half over. Luckily, that’s enough time for every team to understand exactly where they sit and what they should be looking forward to. Some overperformers have their sights set on June basketball while others might be watching from the couch. Regardless, let’s grade each team’s performance so far this season and talk about where a suitable landing spot might be.
Atlanta Hawks (8-28)
The Hawks are the worst team in basketball and the only reason they didn’t receive an F is because they were expected to be bad. What concerns me is the complete lack of effort from Trae Young on defense. In fact the players that Young guards have averaged a scoring clip of 87.6 PPG, 3rd worst in the NBA for players with 20+ games this season. His offense can be overwhelming but it means very little when he’s allowing those types of numbers on defense.
Another concern is that the Hawks have the worst 3 point shooting percentage in the NBA despite Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter’s best efforts. That helps Lloyd Pierce’s team find themselves dead last in OffRtg and 27th in DefRtg. I understand that with contracts like Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, and Evan Turner on the books that the Hawks aren’t expecting anything, but it would still be nice to see bigger steps from the youngsters. This team has no chance of getting to the playoffs and will be better off going for the top pick.
Boston Celtics (25-8)
Boston has played extremely well all season with all of their young weapons stepping up. Jaylen Brown might actually end up being worth that contract extension he signed and Kemba has been incredible as a leader and initiator of offense. Plus the lanky wing combo of Brown and Tatum on the wings have helped Boston play some of the best defense in basketball; the Celtics are first in points allowed and 3rd in DefRtg so far.
My only concern is that Boston lacks a center that can take on someone like Giannis or Embiid. The East will undoubtedly run through one of those two players and I don’t think Boston can stop them. Kanter gets played off the court by prolific centers and Robert Williams is too young to take on those types of assignments. Tatum or Brown might be able to deal with Giannis on the perimeter but there is no one that can stop on the interior. That could be a big issue in a long series and it’s the only reason they aren’t an A+. Boston should have their eyes set on a run to the Finals but I can’t see them getting any farther than the Conference Finals, even if they have a great run.
Brooklyn Nets (16-18)
Kyrie and Caris LeVert have played a combined 21 games this season and it’s shown. The losing record isn’t very good but the teams they’re losing to are alarming as well. In their past 10 games they’ve lost to Charlotte, San Antonio, and the Knicks. The return of LeVert will help the offense level things out but how much should we expect? He’s not a volume 3 point shot maker and he isn’t a good top option. The Nets need Kyrie back desperately.
That being said, this is a different team from last year. The Nets were one of the most fun teams in basketball with D’Angelo Russell as the leader and the offense seems… off. The 3s are still flying but they’re only going in 33.4% of the time, 28th in the league. The high quality shots aren’t being found nearly as often and the effect is visually visible. The offense just isn’t right without the clutch shot maker at the helm and it likely won’t get better until Irving is back on the court.
Luckily, the Nets aren’t planning on being a true force until next season which makes all of this stagnation bearable. Once Durant and Irving are both healthy on the court we can start the real criticism. Regardless of when the Nets want to make their title run some more playoff experience will be valuable for this young team. Playing late season basketball in a hostile environment will be invaluable for guys like LeVert, Harris, and Allen.
Charlotte Hornets (15-23)
How can a 15-23 team earn a pretty good grade for the season? Well, for starters the Hornets were expected to be one of the worst teams in the NBA. Everything about their roster said so. Yet here they are, 2 games out of the playoffs. A lot of that success can be attributed to the breakout of Devonte’ Graham who is averaging 19 points and 8 assists per game. The offense isn’t great but there are some good signs. The 3-point shooting is solid among the younger players and Charlotte is 5th in offensive rebounding.
What else I really like is the development of PJ Washington. His first game against Chicago saw some fantastic 3-point capability and now he’s the team’s best shooter from range. The defense is far from ready, but that will come with time for these young players. The playoffs are somewhat realistic for the Hornets, but that shouldn’t stop them from selling and committing to the rebuild. Graham and Washington seem like hits and starting a rebuild that includes trading some veterans might, and probably should be, in the books for Michael Jordan’s team.
Chicago Bulls (13-23)
Everything about this Bulls season has been terrible. A lot of people estimated the Bulls to at least compete for the 8th seed, but there isn’t a chance. Up and down this team has been bad, starting with the front office. The ex-Wizard players have had very little effect on the season as Porter has played only 9 games and Satoranskỳ is averaging 10/3/5. Zach LaVine is playing well, earning a career high in points, and Lauri Markkanen has seen a recent uptick in scoring, but it’s pretty barren otherwise.
Yes, I hear the clamor about the 6th best DefRtg at 105.9, but the OffRtg is 104.6 which nullifies whatever the defense is doing. They’re terrible shooters and the defense on the perimeter, save for Kris Dunn, is really bad. Teams average a lot of turnovers against the Bulls, but that doesn’t mean they’re playing good defense. And finally, the coaching is just miserable. Boylen is much better served as an assistant as he just doesn’t have what it takes to run a team. The Bulls seem destined for the number 7 pick yet again.
Cleveland Cavaliers (10-26)
Like the Hawks, Cleveland was never expected to compete this season. In fact, when Kevin Love signed his big extension this past offseason, GM Koby Altman promised him that the Cavs were going to rebuild. Well the thing is that they aren’t. They haven’t flipped any vets with value for picks and the current playstyle is just terrible. Collin Sexton and Darius Garland throwing the ball at the backboard is frustrating to watch and it’s frustrating for Love, too.
This team seems to be operating like a college team with college players and that makes for a really bad NBA team. Love has done everything possible to ask for a trade without saying the words. The issue is that his contract is so big that very few contenders might be able to take him on. Either way this team is not even close to a functional NBA team and they can’t defend like one either as opposing teams thrive shooting the ball against them. They need to deal anyone with value and restart completely.
Dallas Mavericks (22-13)
Dallas was expected to be pretty good this year, but there were some qualifications for them to make the playoffs. First was that Kristaps Porziņģis needed to play a majority of the games and so far he has, 31 of 35. The other qualifier was for Luka Dončić to take his ROY season and elevate it, and boy has he done that. He’s transformed from a fan favorite/All-Star caliber player to a legitimate MVP candidate. He’s gone from a 21/8/6 player to a 29/10/9 triple-double machine. His ability to his deep 3s and attack the basket with rim-runners like Powell and Kleber makes guarding him one of the worst jobs in the NBA.
The only gripe that I have with this team is the defense. They allow a lot of offensive rebounds and defense in general is clearly on the backburner. This could be the subject of a possible trade coming soon, but for now they need to clean up if they want to make a real run in the playoffs. Other than filling those cracks, Dallas is way ahead of schedule. The bench is very good and Rick Carlisle has this team functioning at a high level. They should be looking at a deep run in the playoffs that could include knocking off a giant, but I’m not sure I can see them making the Finals unless they add a big piece.
Denver Nuggets (24-11)
It can almost always be said of a Mike Malone team, but the Nuggets are a very intelligent team and it shows in their shot selection. The unpredictability of Jokić and Jamal Murray help free up teammates who get a lot of nice shots because of it. The percentages aren’t the highest for the Nuggets but that is negated by their stellar perimeter defense. They lead the NBA in opposing 3-point percentage allowed. They’re also 3rd in the NBA in offensive rebounding thanks to the smart positioning of Jokić and Paul Millsap.
The other positives for the Nuggets that I’m especially fond of are their untapped potentials. Michael Porter Jr. has recently returned and is showing signs of star potential. He can handle the ball and make shots which is a very desired trait for this team. Jerami Grant also has yet to find his footing for the Nuggets. His ceiling is much higher than where he’s performing right now and I can see him being a difference maker if he can find that form. The Nuggets are for real and have a legitimate shot at the Finals. They have a deep bench with a lot of players that could potentially sway a playoff game.
Detroit Pistons (13-24)
Every year it seems like we’re talking about this being the year that the Pistons become a real player in the East and every year we find ourselves scratching our heads. If the past few years have taught us anything it’s that the days of a back-to-the-basket center leading you to a championship are over which means the Pistons are out of luck. Andre Drummond is truly a wonderful player and the best rebounder of this generation but he cannot be the best player on a contender.
Blake Griffin’s injury seems to be the straw that broke the camel’s back in that it’s time to break this team up. The terminal underachievement with so many lustrous pieces can only continue for so long until an adult steps in with realistic expectations. Drummond, Derrick Rose, Griffin, Langston Galloway, and Markieff Morris can all fetch decent hauls to the right buyer and it’s time to sell. If Dwayne Casey can’t muster the playoffs out of this squad then no one can, it’s time to blow it up.
Golden State Warriors (9-29)
Grade: F… or A?
What were the pragmatic expectations for the Warriors coming into this season? Very few if any sensible people saw them as a title contender while most saw them landing a 6-8 seed at best. So when Steph Curry broke his hand 4 games into the season and the rest of the team was left staring at each other wondering who was supposed to score, the Warriors did the perfect thing. They tanked. Curry has taken the longest recovery that we’ve ever seen for that injury (why wouldn’t he) and the other stars, Draymond and D’Angelo Russell, have been in and out of the uniform for most of the season. The Warriors are cruising.
It takes a lot of chutzpah to cap off a dynasty with a tanking season but that’s exactly what the Warriors are doing. They’re playing dudes you’ve never heard of every night and they do so shamelessly. They’re shooting horribly, they don’t play good defense, and they don’t care. Could you imagine what the Warriors will look like if they can get the number one pick and flip D’Angelo Russell for another star forward? They’ll be back in the Finals talks. Being the worst team in the NBA is usually a bad thing unless you do it like this. Well done, Bob Meyers, well done.
Houston Rockets (24-11)
It’s a shame that the public dislikes the way James Harden plays basketball because what he’s doing right now is something that most fans have never witnessed. Harden is underappreciated considering he’s scoring 38 points a night, something no one has done since Wilt Chamberlain did it in the 60/61 season. Russell Westbrook is also having another good season but will lose his streak of averaging a triple-double. What has been nice for Russ is that his secondary role has allowed his playmaking to flourish a bit more and will save some of his energy for the playoffs.
Here’s where my problem is. This team was obviously constructed to support James Harden and that’s it. Even the Russell Westbrook trade was in order to make things easier for Harden. Westbrook allows Harden to rest, Capela and Chandler set picks, and everyone else spots up. This means that when Harden has a bad shooting night, which admittedly doesn’t happen often, to derail this team. A Herculean effort from someone like Patrick Beverley or Kawhi Leonard could derail a playoff run. This is clearly an “all in” team for Houston but I can’t see them beating a team like the Lakers or Clippers. Deep playoff run? Sure. Finals? Forget about it.
Indiana Pacers (22-14)
Every year the Pacers fly under the radar and every year they’re the team that no one wants to see in the playoffs. Domantas Sabonis is an absolute monster in the paint, TJ Warren has shown he’s not just a selfish scorer, and Malcolm Brogdon has proven he can run a successful offense without a superstar involved. To cap it off, Victor Oladipo should be back in the next couple of weeks. If this production doesn’t dip substantially then Indiana has the chance to make a run at a home playoff series. They’re that good.
The Pacers don’t have a 20 point scorer but they do have a very effective bench mob that can keep up with other team’s starters. Sabonis and Myles Turner provide rim protection, solid post scoring, and fantastic rebounding. Warren, Doug McDermott, and the Holidays provide spacing and shooting. They’re very careful with the ball and are 5th in the league in opposing eFG% which is a testament to their commitment on both ends. Indiana will likely end up with a 5 or 6 seed but a very good Victor Oladipo could realistically give them a chance at the 4 seed. They’re still a year away from really looking at Championship moves.
Los Angeles Clippers (26-12)
It’s tough to find another roster that’s as stacked as this one. Kawhi Leonard is still probably the player that I would pick if my life was on the line and I needed a bucket, Paul George is shooting just below 40% from 3, they have two 6th Man of the Year candidates, and they’re top 15 in nearly every important category. They have they 4th best OffRtg in the NBA while shooting 36% from 3 and 46% from the field. Their DefRtg is 106.5 which is 9th in the NBA and they can nearly put together an All-Defense team on their own. They’re unreal.
To make things better is that the stars who are injury prone, George is coming off shoulder repairs and Kawhi took over a year off to recover before being traded, have suffered no real injuries of note. The only reason this team isn’t top of the NBA is their case of weird losses. They’ve lost to the Pelicans, Bulls, and Grizzlies among other bad teams and it doesn’t make much sense. I still trust them over most teams and I stand by my preseason assessment that they’ll make and win the Finals. I think the only team that can really push them is Milwaukee and the all around playmaking on Los Angeles can overwhelm the star-centric Bucks.
Los Angeles Lakers (29-7)
For those that follow college football, the “Washed King” thing is a lot like Dabo Swinney straw man arguments that people have counted out Clemson. No one thought LeBron was washed but he’s still going out of his way to confirm it. James is doing what he always could have: lead a massively efficient offense as a pass first ball handler. This is what LeBron has always loved and now he can embrace it with his best ever big man partner. He’s had such an effect that the Lakers have the 3rd best eFG% in the league which is especially impressive considering their seeming lack of shooters at the beginning of the season.
However, the most impressive bit from this team is their fantastic defense. LeBron is back playing hard on that end of the court, Anthony Davis is a legitimate candidate for DPOY and blocked 8 shots against the Pistons. Dwight Howard and JaVale McGee are great rim protectors and Avery Bradley and Danny Green have always been plus defenders. Their 4th place spot in DefRtg is not a fluke.
Just because they’re so good and lead the West with breathing room doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement. My biggest wish for this team is another playmaking guard. Rajon Rondo is still one of the smartest players in basketball but Father Time is undefeated. They need another solid initiator that can run with Davis and James in the break. The other is a return for Kyle Kuzma. He’s very desired as an asset and if he plays well in the coming weeks his value will never be higher. He’s a young, talented forward that is being boosted by two Hall of Fame caliber players and is worth his weight in gold at the moment. Make these moves and the Lakers are set to combat the Clippers in a Hollywood Conference Finals. These can be the Showtime Lakers Volume 2 and they can knock off anyone if they’re playing their best.
Memphis Grizzlies (15-22)
Points can be a misleading category and it’s especially so for the Memphis Grizzlies. Memphis is 3rd in the league in Pace and are 9th in points, pretty good for a middling team fighting for a playoff spot. But they’re only 18th in OffRtg and their pace is killing their defense as they’re 25th in that category. So it’s nice that you run up and down the court to attract the people who are bored by slower sports, but the end product just isn’t working out, especially when 3 of you 5 best scorers are big men.
But holy smokes is Ja Morant fun. I mean, oh my god is he fun. He has 50/40/90 shooting potential, his vision is already top 15 in the NBA, and he will disrespect anyone in the league in any range of ways. He tried to dunk over Kevin Love like Vince Carter did to that French dude and he’ll stop and hold the ball to watch you stumble to the baseline after crossing your sorry ass up. Dude can ball and he might lead this team to the playoffs. Some experience might be good for this young squad since they won’t get their first round pick (unless it’s from 1-6 which is exceedingly unlikely), there’s no reason not to go for it.
Miami Heat (26-10)
It seems as though Eric Spoelstra can do no wrong. The “Heat Culture” has always been a notorious mindset that not many players can thrive in, but Miami’s head coach just seems to know how to draw that extra effort out of his guys. Despite some burnouts like Hassan Whiteside and Dion Waiters, the Heat have seen players that might not have made a roster on other teams become massive contributors. Kendrick Nunn was an undrafted rookie, but now he’s playing 30 minutes a night with a 15/3/4/1 statline and is behind only Ja Morant in ROY voting. Tyler Herro is a lottery pick, but his name was not widely known and now he’s scoring 13 points a game while shooting 38% from 3. Bam Adebayo might be an All-Star and is in the conversation for Most Improved player. The transformation of this roster has been astonishing thanks to the front office and coaching staff.
So far this season Jimmy Butler has been the perfect addition for the Heat in terms of leadership and production on court. The young guys adore him, he works unbelievably hard, and he cares about winning. That’s Heat Culture personified. His presence has also correlated with the 2nd best 3-point percentage in the NBA (thank you Duncan Robinson) and the 4th best eFG% in the NBA. The bench has also developed into one of the best in the NBA with the likes of Goran Dragić, Robinson, Kelly Olynyk, and Derrick Jones Jr. bringing scoring and energy contributions without the drop in production. That could actually be a difference in a playoff series, especially when you consider that Miami and Dallas are the only teams to beat both Milwaukee and Philadelphia at home. It would not surprise me to see the Heat make a Finals run considering their intensity and depth but a Conference Finals seems like a more likely resting spot.
Milwaukee Bucks (32-6)
My goodness is Giannis great. I mean, come on. You’re really going to be 6-11 with that frame and play like Russell Westbrook? There aren’t many players that I have seen better when driving the lane than Giannis and his 30/13/6/1/1 statline proves that. He has the length and athleticism to beat most players off the dribble and he can elevate to dunk or finish on anyone in the NBA. He understands and loves basketball and the scary part is that he wants to get better. He sees Brook Lopez hitting 3s regularly and he wants that. He sees the media praising Embiid as the best defensive big and he wants that. Everyone ought to be afraid of Giannis because he’s coming for your awards and trophies. He has a chance to come after Shaq’s Most Dominant Ever title and chances are he won’t stop there. He’s unbelievably good.
What makes this Bucks team great is that they do the same thing as the Rockets, build the team around the star, but the Bucks do it better. Their shooters are more versatile, their bigs can stretch the floor to draw shot blockers away from the rim, they can drive and cut and kick, they’re all more capable than Houston’s role players. Every player knows their role and how to get the most out of it. They’re first in FG, 2P%, rebounding, SRS, DefRtg, Pace, eFG%, as well as opponents FG%, 2P%, and eFG%. They’re 3rd in OffRtg and I don’t really think any of it is unsustainable. They’re the best team in the NBA and I doubt anyone would be surprised to see them win the title this season.
Minnesota Timberwolves (14-21)
It just doesn’t seem like it’s going to happen for the Timberwolves. Karl Anthony-Towns is consistently one of the best centers in the NBA but Minnesota seems incapable of surrounding him with decent talent. They make inept financial decisions like giving Andrew Wiggins a max deal despite his terrible track record and then wonder why they can’t win. They T-Wolves looked like a decent team earlier in the year but a 2-11 record in December has destroyed their cushion and put them at 11th in the conference. Even the fans have lost interest as Minnesota ranks 30th in the NBA in attendance.
What they lack in nearly everything they try to make up for with defense and offensive rebounding. When Towns plays hard he is a decent defender and can play well on both ends. Robert Covington is a coveted 3 and D player and the bench gives enough effort to drag the team to 15th in DefRtg. I think it might be time to blow up this team and trade players while there’s still value. Teams have inquired about Towns and Covington and Teague both can bring some decent picks. It’s time. This isn’t working out. Minnesota might make the 8 seed with a good 2nd half but they don’t have a chance of advancing or even winning more than a single game.
New Orleans Pelicans (12-25)
A 12 game losing streak from late November to mid-December officially capped off the Pelicans chances at making any sort of playoff impact this season but I don’t think anyone is too worried about that. Top pick Zion WIlliamson still has yet to play (and might just miss the season to rehab completely and get into better shape) and the young guys are able to develop their game without any type of pressure. Plus there aren’t any players that might get moved apart from J.J. Redick and maybe Jrue Holiday. You can’t ask for a much better rebuild situation. So despite this season getting derailed early it isn’t all that bad.
The brightest spot on the season is the emergence of elite level Brandon Ingram. He’s 12th in the league in scoring with en eFG% of 54.5 while hitting 3s at a 40% clip. That’s really good and seems like it should be sustainable as long as he can be a leader in the offense. My only concern for this team is Zion not being able to salvage this team. For a single player to help this team compete next season they will need to be a top 20-25 player at worst. Zion certainly has the capability to do that but if he cannot then there will be a bigger issue. But that’s for next year! The Pelicans are better off just playing their young guys and focusing on development this season. Wins and losses don’t matter, just focus on your team.
New York Knicks (10-26)
I could write a whole article about how miserable this organization is but I don’t feel like preaching to the choir. James Dolan is the most ignorant person involved with the NBA and it’s a shame because sports are better when New York has a decent team. The entire organization is just intellectually unavailable, committing to bad decisions over and over again. It wouldn’t surprise me if you could sell their front office an oceanside timeshare in Orlando. The only respectable statistic they excel in is offensive rebounding and that’s just because they have an absurd amount of power forwards and centers and the whole team is terrible at scoring points.
Marcus Morris being your go-to scorer is a telling sign of how bad you are, but there’s something that’s even more criminal and more serious than that. One of the positives for this team going into the season was their pool of youth and the idea that at least one of them was going to pan out. But none of the have. You can point at Julius Randle but he was clearly an established star before coming to New York. Trier is efficient for his minutes but he gets played off the court too often. RJ Barrett is a good shooter but the rest of his skillset is very questionable. No young player has taken a step forward to differentiate themselves this season. Not Mitchell Robinson, not Kevin Knox, not Dennis Smith Jr., not Frank Ntilikina. No one has been able to progress and that’s just as much on the organization as it is on the players. This team has been in dark days for years and the current regime doesn’t seem to be ending that reign.
Oklahoma City Thunder (20-15)
This was largely a throwaway season for Oklahoma City as they traded the two biggest stars on the team and accumulated mostly draft picks in a somewhat surprising rebuild. However the combination of Chris Paul, Danilo Gallinari, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schrӧder have become devastatingly effective and the team are now staring the playoffs in the face. The triple point guard lineup has become the most effective that OKC can field and it’s driving them from a playoff afterthought that would be picked for scraps to a team that could battle for a middle seed.
So what’s driving this team? Right now it’s the well-roundedness of the team. Outside of rebounding and hitting 3s there isn’t a noticeable flaw. The lack of size contributes to the rebounding issues and the absence of shooting guards makes perimeter scoring an issue, but the Thunder get a lot of high quality shots that help boost their eFG%. It helps when there are so many unselfish players that enjoy passing the ball without a need to accumulate stats at all costs. OKC owns their draft pick if it’s from 1-20 so they can keep playing at this rate, earn a playoff spot to sharpen SGA, and keep their pick. That’s a win-win-win.
Orlando Magic (16-20)
This is a bad pick that I’m going to have to own, unfortunately. I called upon the Magic to earn the 3 seed in the East and that’s blowing up in my face. Apart from other East teams playing great basketball, why is this happening? Well it starts with their offense. Aaron Gordon has regressed yet again and doesn’t seem like he’s going to pan out to the massive potential he possesses. Orlando is also one of the worst shooting teams in the league ranking 27th in 2P%, 26th in 3P%, and 29th in eFG%. What makes things even worse is that centerpiece Nikola Vučević seems to finally be slowing down; whether the decrease in production is due to the influx of good bigs in the East or simply age is irrelevant.
But let’s stop focusing on the bad and start looking at the good here, because there is some. The biggest and maybe best development out of Orlando is that Markelle Fultz has seemingly overcome his mental block and is now playing well which is absolutely wonderful. The increase of awareness of mental health issues in professional sports starts in the NBA and it’s great that Fultz is back able to play the game he loves. The other rising star for the Magic, Jonathan Issac, seems to be a two-way menace in the making. He’s averaging 12 points and 7 rebounds with pretty decent shooting numbers for a young big man. If Orlando can commit to the development of those two and Mo Bamba they should be in good shape for the future. Plus, the defense is really good regardless of the offense. They have the 6th best DefRtg in the NBA as well as one of the better opposing field goal percentages. Another playoff series to strengthen Fultz and Issac would be a very productive experience for the Magic.
Philadelphia 76ers (23-14)
I’ve praised a lot of teams for their defensive effort so far in this column but I don’t think anyone has as good of a defensive lineup as the 76ers. Joel Embiid is the best defensive player in the NBA when he wants to be, Ben Simmons isn’t far behind, Al Horford always plays especially efficiently on defense, and Josh Richardson and Matisse Thybulle can lock down nearly any pairing of guards in the nation. I equate this to the Warriors “Lineup of Death” in ‘16/17 except on defense. This group can be special on that end. The only issue with that lineup is that on offense spacing can become an issue as Thybulle is the only reliable shooter from range and Simmons, Embiid, and Horford all play close to the rim. But this lineup isn’t designed to score, just stop.
But this team isn’t without its issues and it all starts with the offense. The losses of J.J. Redick and Jimmy Butler are substantial. They’re not great at shooting 3s and there isn’t any late game shot taker that i feel comfortable with. Compound that with Ben Simmons refusing to learn how to shoot to make both himself and the team better and you have a real issue on your hands. Plus Embiid isn’t able to commit 100% to every game due to his durability issues. That is making life in the very competitive East a big issue since Philly has slid to the 5 spot and would currently have to play an away series in Toronto in Round 1. Talk about unfavorable. They have the capability to claw all the way back to maybe the 2 or 3 seed if they get some help, but no matter where they play they are dangerous enough to make and win the Finals. I don’t think we’ve seen this team at a collective 100% in health and effort yet and they’re going to be as good as anyone in basketball when they show us that form.
Phoenix Suns (14-22)
The Suns bandwagon was at capacity when they started the season hot without Deandre Ayton, but things have since cooled down. In fact, without that nice start the Suns would probably have an even lower grade. Alas, we’ve seen some interesting developments, and lack thereof, out of Phoenix this season. Kelly Oubre has become a legitimate scoring option as he’s improved to 18 points per game along with a strong knack for defense. However that improvement is at least partially offset by the lack of development from Ayton. His rebounding has improved but his scoring has actually gone down which could problematic, especially since he’s recently decided to shoot long 2s as often as he posts up. He’s being a bit stubborn considering the Suns don’t need spacing help for him to dominate the lane.
Luckily the overall offense for the Suns isn’t that bad. They run a lot and they score a lot of points because of it; they rank 12th in OffRtg and Devin Booker is replicating his scoring from last season when he set a career high. They biggest issue is a lack of shooting. Most of the players on the roster are better when attacking the basket so signing or drafting a bonafide 3-point shooter is a must for this team. They’re unlikely to make the playoffs yet again so focusing on development and nailing the draft is the best option for Phoenix.
Portland Trail Blazers (15-22)
Portland has been one of the bigger disappointments of the season so far considering the expectations coming into the season. A conference finals had the league believing that the Blazers were a good piece away from contending with a now wide open West. But for some reason it’s just not clicking for Portland. They’re 30th in the NBA in assists, they’re middle of the road in shooting, and they haven’t been finding good shots. Another problem is in the defense where they rate 23rd in the league. A lack of ball movement and inability to turn offenses over is leading to equal possessions with better looks for the opposing team, a tried and true formula to lose games.
Injuries have played a role in the problems that this team faces, Nurkić’s return is still indefinite, Collins is likely out for a couple more months, and Rodney Hood tore his ACL, so we can’t blame everything on poor production, but it is getting close to time to ask the toughest question of all: “Does our lovable core actually have a chance at winning a title.” It’s a scary thought for the Blazers considering they’re a year removed from massive success, but it needs to be asked. The answer will become clearer if Nurkić returns this season, but even if they make the 8 seed it’s time to reevaluate and maybe even reset.
Sacramento Kings (13-23)
Last year the Kings led the NBA in pace and were close to averaging 140 points for a short stretch of the season. This year those numbers have flipped under new head coach Luke Walton and it’s become a sad sight. The Kings rank 28th in Pace and have little to show for it. The shooting is mediocre, the passing is stagnant and bland, and players like Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox aren’t able to play where they excel: in transition. What else hurts is that the ball is being turned over at an alarming rate which means that Sacramento is taking even less shots. The offense is a huge issue right now and it really shouldn’t be considering the players that the Kings employ.
The other issues that I notice revolve around the youth and big men. Foremost is that Fox and Bagley aren’t stepping into bigger roles. These can be excused with the difference in play and injuries, but the development still needs to happen. The other issue I see is with rebounding. The Kings don’t have a very big team to begin with and now Dewayne Dedmon is demanding a trade. Either Richaun Holmes or Marvin Bagley needs to become a rebounding monster that can pull down 13 boards a game and help start the break. The Kings don’t have a chance at the playoffs with their new head coach so figuring out the offense and finding some good deals is the best idea for now.
San Antonio Spurs (15-20)
This is shaping up to be the worst season for Hall of Fame head coach Gregg Popovich despite still being in position for the playoffs. They’re clinging to the postseason for dear life and might not have an All-Star for the first time in literal decades. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge haven’t been able to keep up with modern basketball by shooting mid-range jump shots and for the first time in many years I can’t see a reason for the Spurs to make the playoffs. They own all of their picks, they don’t need anyone to get playoff experience, and they could get a top 10 selection if they slip just a few games. Now I know San Antonio will never don that mindset, but it wouldn’t hurt them if they did.
The reason that the Spurs have had so many issues is partially due to the lack of shooting 3s (that’s always been a staple for the Spurs), but it’s more in tune with the quality of shots they’re taking and the defense they’re playing. The Spurs have always need transcendent defenders but this season they’re 22nd in DefRtg and they’ve given up the 5th most points in the NBA. Dejounte Murray seems to be the only player that can still play that old Spurs style of ball. And as for shot selection, the deep midrange has become one of the worst shots in the NBA and the Spurs can’t get enough of it. They take bad shots at a very slow rate and play defense that isn’t good enough to give that play style a chance. I’m certainly not calling for Popovich’s job, but a shake-up in style is definitely in the books for San Antonio.
Toronto Raptors (24-12)
I’m not sure that anyone went as far as counting the Raptors out of the playoffs considering how bad the East has been, but I doubt anyone expected this. Pascal Siakim has been one of the best players in the NBA and was being thrown around the MVP conversation before his injury. The biggest testament to how bad this team wants to defend their title is their defense. Lowry, Siakim, Ibaka, and Gasol have taken it upon themselves to work as hard as they can on defense and it’s working. They’re 2nd in opposing eFG% and are top 10 in both blocks and steals. That goes without telling you that they also limit the turnovers that opposing defense can take.
But the personnel stepping up to replace Kawhi has just been exceptional. We talked a little bit about Siakim, but Fred VanVleet is the other player that has stepped up the production. He’s gone from 11/2/5/1 per game all the way to 18/4/7/2 while shooting 37% from 3. Norman Powell and OG Anunoby have also been extremely valuable role players on either end of the floor, their length and athleticism causing major issues for opposing players. Toronto has a very good chance to earn a home playoff series and it isn’t outside the realm of possibility for them to advance to a conference finals although a more likely final destination is the conference semis.
Utah Jazz (24-12)
Utah certainly hasn’t been bad this season but they also haven’t been playing as well as they can. The offense is the main culprit of those struggles as they’ve slipped to 17th despite adding Bojan Bogdonović and Mike Conley. Bogdonović hasn’t been an issue on offense but Conley has. His scoring has fallen from 21 PPG last season in Memphis to only 13 this season. He has been battling injury for a while but that fall is still startling and bring a touch of possibility to the rumors that he had began to decline. Hopefully the addition of Jordan Clarkson to the mix can help stabilize the scoring since Donovan Mitchell is playing his best basketball to date.
The defense is also a bit worrying to me considering they’ve dipped slightly. This isn’t to say that the defense is bad, they’re still top 10 in DefRtg and have the tools to shut down prolific offenses, but the individual defensive stats have begun to drop. They’re 30th in steals, 28th in blocks, 27th in turnover percentage and Rudy Gobert has slipped very slightly which has a ripple effect on the rest of the team. Again, defense is not a weakness for the Jazz, but it can improve. Utah still has the potential to compete with both the Lakers and Clippers for the Western Conference and even a title. They have the scoring and potential on defense, so don’t be surprised to see them as one of the final four teams in the Playoffs if the can clean up their mistakes.
Washington Wizards (12-24)
You would be hard pressed to find a worse string of injuries than the Wizards have suffered recently. Wall, Beal, Bertāns, Bryant, Hachimura, Miles, Wagner, all of them are out right now, yet they just beat Boston, Denver, and Miami. So all things considered between injuries and expectations, this team isn’t too bad. Now I’m not saying they’re making the playoffs, but those are some impressive wins. Plus, Bradley Beal is playing exceptionally well on offense, Dāvis Bertāns is hitting 43% of his 3s, and Rui Hachimura is showing promise. Thomas Bryant, Mo Wagner, and Isaiah Thomas are also helping keep this team afloat with their offensive production.
The biggest issue for the Wizards is the defense. They’re dead last in the NBA is DefRtg at 116.3 and are dead last in opposing eFG% as teams are shooting and adjusted 55.5% on them. Another issue is the rebounding. Wagner and Bryant are okay but the forward and guard rebounding is very poor as the Wizards and 29th in defensive rebounding (part of that is due to the opposing shotmaking) and 21st in allowing offensive rebounds. An experienced big that understands the art of rebounding is needed to help stop the bleeding in this department. The Wizards don’t have chance at making the playoffs so taking the rest of the season to experiment with the roster would help Washington learn more about their players while earning a higher pick in the draft. Not all is terrible here.
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