We’ve practically reached the halfway point of the regular season, with numerous teams at or around the 41-game mark. This checkpoint is a perfect time to hand out grades for the NBA, starting today with the Western Conference. (My colleague Jeremy Woo will handle the East.) Professor Ro’s criteria for grades is mostly based on performance compared to my preseason expectations, with some exceptions made for extreme cases (basically teams dealing with particularly punitive injuries.) If you have any problems with the methodology, unfortunately these grades are final and written in stone on every team’s permanent record. Let’s go.
I’m not going to kill the Warriors for what was always going to be a tricky season once Klay Thompson tore his ACL. Things obviously went from bad to worse once Stephen Curry broke his hand. I don’t really love advocating for teams to tank, but the Warriors are probably not too upset about how this year has gone on a macro level. As outlined here and elsewhere, a rough 2020 could be something of a long-term blessing for the Dubs. Steph and Klay get to rejuvenate after five straight trips to the Finals. And the organization doesn’t have to deal with the physical, mental, and emotional toll of another deep playoff run. Rarely do teams like Golden State get a chance to reset in the middle of a championship window. The Warriors will still have Steph, Klay, and Draymond Green next year. Steve Kerr has finally had a chance to develop some young talent like Ky Bowman and Eric Paschall. And the front office will have attractive assets for a summer reload. This is far from a lost season—it’s more like a rare and welcome pause.
It’s not an outright failure because the Zion injury was out of the Pelicans’ control. And Brandon Ingram flashing star qualities is a welcome development—though David Griffin will now need to be comfortable maxing him next summer. However, while New Orleans is still in the race for the eighth seed in the West, this has been a frustrating year. Zion is still something of a question mark until he actually plays (which reportedly will be very soon.) Lonzo Ball and Josh Hart don’t necessarily look like cornerstones. And the veterans that were supposed to prevent a Process-esque rebuild have been the subject of numerous trade rumors. Again, Griffin can’t control an injury to his most prized possession. Yet after looking like they won the summer and courting somewhat lofty expectations, the Pelicans have instead faced a sobering reality.
Sacramento was one of the most fun teams in the NBA last season. Now, the Kings are 10 games under .500 and playing at a snail’s pace under Luke Walton. What happened here? Injuries to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley certainly didn’t help. Still, Sacramento should’ve been the kind of team making a leap into something close to perennial playoff contender. Instead, they’ve taken a step back, and it’s fair to wonder if firing Dave Joerger was worth it. The Bogdan Bogdanovic trade rumors are also a little upsetting. He’s a good player! Sure, the Bogdanovic-Fox-Buddy Hield trio hasn’t played well together, and they’ll get expensive this summer. And yet last year the Kings were finding a way to make it work. Hopefully we see more of what they did last season in the second half.
Another team beset by injuries (specifically a knee ailment for Karl-Anthony Towns that’s kept him out since Dec 13.) The play of Andrew Wiggins has been a silver lining in what feels like the Wolves’ umpteenth-straight cloudy season. They need Towns back before they can be fully judged. Wiggins’s improvement combined with Towns’s stellar offensive repertoire was flashing promise before the latter got hurt. Minnesota is still within striking distance of a playoff spot. Unlike the other teams behind them, the Wolves are the toughest to gauge in relation to preseason expectations because of Towns’s absence. We’ll have to check back on them once he returns. Minny does deserve some credit for staying relatively afloat without its best player.
Phoenix has cooled off after a wildly hot start, and yet it would feel mean to drop the Suns below a B+. Devin Booker is a positive plus-minus for the first time in his career. Kelly Oubre Jr. looks like a legitimate building block. Deandre Ayton has made good contributions since returning from suspension. And Aron Baynes—while no longer shooting like prime Dirk from three—remains one of the summer’s most underrated signings (while also functioning as a valuable trade chip if need be.) Phoenix should probably be further along considering all the years it was in the lottery. Let’s not let that get in the way of what’s been the most exciting season here in years. Don’t sleep on this team ultimately sneaking into the postseason.
Trail Blazers: D-
Yeesh. Playing without Jusuf Nurkic and Zach Collins is obviously a massive handicap for the Blazers. (Not to mention also losing Rodney Hood in December.) Nobody expected Carmelo Anthony to be starting for this team heading into the season. But this is a rough follow-up campaign to a summer that saw PDX reach the conference finals. Forget the injuries for a second. Was the front office right to jettison guys like Al-Farouq Aminu and Moe Harkless? How much blame do Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum deserve for not being able to keep this team closer to .500? These are difficult questions to answer. And like the Warriors, Portland may realize some long-term benefits from this seemingly lost season. The difference is the Blazers don’t have years of championship success in their rearview mirror. This was supposed to be the year we found out what Dame and C.J. could do in a more balanced West. Instead, that will likely have to come next season, and the front office will have to prove it can capitalize on the flexibility it will have in the offseason.
This is really all about what you can expect from the Spurs. This is a flawed team in a loaded conference, with a starting five that barely breaks even, and a roster that performs significantly better when its two highest-paid players are off the floor. San Antonio rebounded from a slow start to be in the thick of the playoff race. As much as it would hurt for Gregg Popovich, a lottery berth could be more valuable than a first-round exit for this mostly veteran squad. There is certainly promise in the likes of Lonnie Walker, Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, and Dejounte Murray. This franchise will be better off when the team is fully in their hands.
Probably no team in the NBA has outperformed their expectations more than the Grizzlies. Ja Morant is the real deal. Jaren Jackson Jr. has taken a step up from his stellar rookie season. And Memphis currently holds the eighth and final playoff spot in the West. Ja and JJJ still need to prove themselves as a duo—Memphis has a -1.7 net rating in their 630 minutes together, though that number is trending in a better direction. But this kind of feistiness from a young team is wildly promising. (Dillon Brooks and Brandon Clarke have also had great moments.) The Grizzlies don’t even need to make the postseason for 2020 to be a success. To flash this much potential only months after moving on from Marc Gasol and Mike Conley has to already be incredibly reassuring for this franchise.
It’s not completely shocking the Thunder are playing this well. I wrote all the way back in July I expected a baseline level of competence from OKC, thanks in large part to the presence of Chris Paul. CP3 has delivered, while Denis Schroder has been a sparkplug off the bench and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has looked like a future All-Star. The question now is if OKC tries to remain competitive, or if Sam Presti will be compelled to move someone like Steven Adams in favor of a long-term piece. I hope the Thunder keep this team together. The city deserves a hard-playing squad after the mass exodus of stars over the last half of the decade. And OKC has been legitimately fun to watch after an early season lull. Teams like this one should be valued by the NBA. Not only do I hope the Thunder make some noise in the postseason, it would be good for the league if they’re able to put that rebuild off for as long as possible.
I really wonder if deep down even Dallas thought Luka Doncic could be this good, or at least this good this quickly. Doncic has been an MVP candidate, and the Mavs have the best offense in the Association (and for what it’s worth, a better net rating than the Clippers.) It feels like Dallas is ahead of schedule, and the front office is also in good position to build around the current core moving forward. Though Kristaps Porzingis’s knees will definitely need to be closely monitored, it would be far from surprising if this team were able to make some noise in the playoffs.
The Clippers clearly aren’t placing much importance in the regular season. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George hardly practice together let alone play in games. Kawhi and PG have only shared the floor for 18 times through the team’s first 40 contests. The good news is the Clips have a 10.7 net rating when those two share the floor. And the highs here have been scary. The Clippers have two wins against the Lakers, and Kawhi has had some particularly dominant stretches this season. (Few players can basically end a game with a four-minute spurt like Kawhi has done several times.) The bad news is the defense has been leaky at times, and at their current pace, the Clips are in danger of playing the entire postseason without a homecourt series. This franchise obviously wants to be judged by what happens in April, May, and June. I’ll oblige them by saving any praise until then.
I’m still a skeptic of the James Harden-Russell Westbrook pairing, but they’ve been proving me wrong for a little while now. The duo has a 7.2 net rating when sharing the floor, and Westbrook—after a rough start to the season—is now close to breaking even in his solo minutes. Houston has the second-best offense in the NBA, and that’s in spite of teams often ignoring Russ at the three-point line to send a second defender at Harden. The Rockets also have two wins against the Clippers and one against the Nuggets (though they’ve yet to play the Lakers or Jazz.) And amid all of this, Harden continues to break the modern NBA with his absurd scoring prowess. The only thing keeping Houston from an A grade is how few games they’ve won (or played against) the top six in the West, and Westbrook is somehow still shooting 4.8 threes per game.
Utah went from a curious disappointment early in the season to one of the hottest teams in the league. After a middling 12–10 start, the Jazz have gone 17–2 since. (Notably with only one win over a better-than-.500 team.) Still, Utah has taken care of business, and it’s done so with Mike Conley having missed every game since Dec. 17 with a hamstring injury. I’m going to nick the Jazz slightly for the slow start, and they still need to prove themselves against elite teams in the West. For now, the Jazz firmly belong in the West’s second tier.
I have high expectations for the Nuggets, considering I picked them to make the Finals. To see them second in the West is almost a little shocking considering their high-profile lulls this season. Nikola Jokic started the year in a slump. Jamal Murray hasn’t improved on his numbers from last season. And while Michael Porter Jr. has flashed offensive brilliance, he’s still prone to rookie mistakes—and he’s occasionally clashed with Michael Malone. It’s hard to make sense of Denver. The defense was at one point best in the league, and has since slipped outside of the top ten. The offense is finally looking right thanks to Jokic’s resurgence, though it’s still slightly worse than last year’s.
Ultimately, the Nuggets are in the same class as the Rockets and Jazz. That’s not a bad place to be, but I expected Denver to have more separation from those squads considering the continuity it had in place. Jerami Grant and Porter should definitely help come playoff time. And the starting five continues to be one of the most efficient units in the league. The second half will be all about if the Nuggets can create some separation from the teams they’re currently neck-and-neck with.
When Dwight Howard signed with the Lakers, I made the case for why it could work. After media day, I wrote about how this team finally made sense. Basically, I’ve been a Lakers optimist for a quite a while, and even I’m shocked at how well this team has played through 40 games. LeBron has been absurd. Him and Anthony Davis have a 12.4 net rating when sharing the floor, and somehow the Lakers still have a better mark in LeBron’s solo minutes (13.3) Dwight has been a revelation, while role players like Danny Green, Alex Caruso, Avery Bradley, and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope have provided the right mix of shooting and defense. Essentially, the Lakers are getting the best possible version of every player in their respective roles. That rarely happens. And with LeBron and AD committed to pushing off load management, it’s resulted in a wildly successful start.
The only thing keeping the Lakers from a full-on A+ is the two losses to the Clippers. The Lakers still need to figure out their closing five against the Clips. (Hint: It probably shouldn’t involve Rajon Rondo.) For now, Frank Vogel (a Coach of the Year candidate) has ample time to find that combination, and good options to choose from before any potential playoff series. More than anything, the Lakers have been wildly fun. Good on LeBron and AD for playing most games. Good on Davis to prove why his dramatic exit from New Orleans was worth it. The Lakers being this good—with this much top-end talent—is great for the league, and great for us to watch unfold. If Bron, AD and the gang keep this up, we should be in store for a classic postseason.