We’re officially past the “it’s still early” stage of the NBA season. It is early, relatively speaking but it’s also roughly a quarter of the way through the schedule. This means it’s more difficult to dismiss something like, say, the New York Knicks‘ opening-night starting five being a complete disaster. Just ask Tom Thibodeau.
This also means it’s time to take a look at where each team stands, along with a letter grade for its performance so far. The offensive ratings, defensive ratings and point differentials that follow are courtesy of Cleaning The Glass, which filters out garbage time and heaves, and all statistics are based on data gathered before Thursday’s games.
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Atlanta Hawks: B-
- Record: 12-10
- The basics: 4th in offense, 21st in defense, 8th in point differential (+3.1)
- One notable stat: Trae Young isn’t drawing nearly as many shooting fouls as he used to, but he has made up for it with his jumper — he’s shooting 55 percent on long 2s and 40 percent on 3s, excluding heaves.
- One reason for optimism: Since returning from a brutal road trip in mid-November, they’ve won eight of nine games, with the second-best defense and the best net rating in the league in that span.
- One reason for pessimism: That brutal road trip highlighted Atlanta’s most worrying trend: It has not measured up against elite teams, unless you count its 20-point win over Milwaukee (with Khris Middleton out) or the first three quarters of its loss in Phoenix.
The Hawks‘ point differential indicates they’re better than their record, but only by about one win. This might be underselling it: Their starting lineup for the seven games preceding Bogdan Bogdanovic’s recent ankle injury (Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, John Collins, Clint Capela) has a plus-34-.1 net rating, which ranks second among all lineups that have logged at least 100 minutes this season. Collins is having the best year of his career, Young’s pull-ups are breaking defenses and, with some help from the schedule, Atlanta’s defense has improved since DeAndre Hunter, its best perimeter defender, had wrist surgery.
This is an extremely deep team, and it’s easy to forget that, at some point in December or January, Onyeka Okongwu should be back in the mix. The Hawks had a strange, slow start, and, while they haven’t established themselves as a true contender, they’re trending upward. — James Herbert
Boston Celtics: B-
- Record: 12-10
- The basics: 21st in offense, 4th in defense, 9th in point differential (+2.7)
- One notable stat: Only the Warriors have allowed fewer shots at the rim, per CTG.
- One reason for optimism: Grant Williams has always been a great communicator and a switchable defender, but now he’s leaner, quicker and shooting 45 percent from 3-point range, including 20-for-38 in the corner.
- One reason for pessimism: Jayson Tatum has been as inconsistent as the Celtics‘ offense, and through 21 games he’s having far away the least efficient season of his career: 50.5 percent true shooting, 27.5 percent on pull-up 3s.
On Nov. 1, when Marcus Smart announced he’d had enough of the Celtics’ hero ball, they had fallen to 2-5 and had allowed 109.5 points per 100 possessions, per CTG. In the 15 games since, they’ve allowed 102.3 per 100, the second-best mark in the league. They’re not switching absolutely everything anymore, but they’re still switching a lot, which has helped them keep opponents out of the paint and hasn’t hurt them on the defensive glass.
Boston was built to be an elite defensive team, and it’s unclear if it is capable of a similar turnaround on the other end. The Celtics haven’t been able to string together more than a couple of impressive offensive performances in a row all season, and they were abysmal offensively in recent losses to Brooklyn and San Antonio. They’re finally whole now, though, with Jaylen Brown working his way back from a hamstring injury, Josh Richardson finding his form and, as of Wednesday’s win against the Sixers, Dennis Schroder (ankle) and Robert Williams (flu) back in the lineup. Schroder has shown he can get into the paint, and the whole league knows what Tatum and Brown can do when they’re at their best. They are still, however, trying to find their offensive flow. — James Herbert
Brooklyn Nets: B
- Record: 15-6
- The basics: 8th in offense, 12th in defense, 7th in point differential (+4.7)
- One notable stat: Kevin Durant and LaMarcus Aldridge are shooting a combined 107-for-180 (59.4%) on long 2s, per CTG. As a point of comparison, the Houston Rockets and Utah Jazz are shooting a combined 53-for-162.
- One reason for optimism: Defense! Who thought Brooklyn would have the seventh-ranked halfcourt defense in the NBA?
- One reason for pessimism: The Nets‘ best wins of the season came against Atlanta and Boston. In games against Milwaukee, Miami, Chicago, Golden State and Phoenix, they were beaten convincingly.
If you ignore the star power on the roster and the elephant in the room, Brooklyn profiles as a fringe contender that needs to tighten some things up. Offensively it’s awesome in the halfcourt, even though it almost never gets to the rim — it ranks 29th in drives per game — and shoots a ton of jumpers. Defensively it is stingy in the halfcourt, but its transition defense is a disaster and it has been at least a little bit lucky: Opponents have shot 35.1 percent on wide-open 3s, a bottom-four mark. The Nets are 26th in contested rebound percentage, per NBA.com.
Durant has been extraordinary in less-than-ideal conditions. Harden isn’t playing at an MVP level yet, but he’s coming around. Patty Mills and Aldridge have given Brooklyn everything it could have reasonably wanted from them. This is the second straight year, though, in which everything the Nets are doing has felt provisional. Picture this team with Joe Harris and Nicolas Claxton healthy, with Blake Griffin giving them what he gave them last season, with either Kyrie Irving in the lineup or some reinforcements acquired in an Irving trade. That’s not a fringe contender. — Herbert
Charlotte Hornets: B-
- Record: 13-11
- The basics: 5th in offense, 24th in defense, 17th in point differential (+0.8)
- One notable stat: The speedy Hornets are fourth in offensive pace and no one is faster after a made shot, per Inpredictable.
- One reason for optimism: P.J. Washington is back, and, when he is at center Charlotte is scoring at an elite rate (117.1 points per 100 possessions, per CTG).
- One reason for pessimism: The defense has been terrible with Washington at center, though, and the Hornets have been extremely erratic on that end all season.
The Hornets are consistently entertaining, but the wild swings from week to week have been disorienting: A 5-2 start, a five-game losing streak, eight wins in nine games, then three straight losses. Broadly, the positives are as follows: They’ve been the most accurate 3-point shooting team in the league, they get to the rim a ton, they take care of the ball and they run like hell. Miles Bridges isn’t scorching everything the way he was at the beginning of the season, but his development as a playmaker is real and he will be in the mix for Most Improved Player. LaMelo Ball remains on his star trajectory, and, although his inside-the-arc scoring isn’t quite there yet, the touch makes you confident that he’ll figure it out.
Just before Thanksgiving, Terry Rozier went on an absolute tear. Gifted a green light, Kelly Oubre is getting 3s up at incredible volume and making a career-high 37.6 percent of them. Charlotte has beaten the Nets and the Warriors, and it is coming off a two-point loss in Milwaukee, a victim of Giannis Antetokounmpo’s buzzer-beater. It also lost 140-110 in Sacramento a few weeks ago, and it gave up 146 points in an overtime loss in Houston last Saturday. Coach James Borrego challenged the Hornets to be a top-10 defense in training camp, but they’re still giving up a ton of 3s, rim shots and offensive rebounds. If they can just get to around average on that end, they’ll be in good shape. — Herbert
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
- Record: 12-10
- The basics: 22nd in offense, 5th in defense, 15th in point differential (+1.3)
- One notable stat: The Cavaliers‘ defensive rating with Evan Mobley on the court is 99.6, compared to 106.4 when he sits — an impressive impact for a rookie big man.
- One reason for optimism: For the first time since LeBron James left, the Cavaliers feel like they’re actually building towards something!
- One reason for pessimism: Where does the offense come from? This is an especially tricky question with Collin Sexton out for the season.
After LeBron left for the Lakers, the Cavaliers spent three seasons toiling away at the bottom of the Eastern Conference. Now, finally, they’ve emerged as a fun and interesting basketball team that somehow appears to be ahead of schedule. Given how they’ve started, making the play-in seems like a reasonable goal.
The story is Evan Mobley. All arms and legs, he glides around as a one-man wrecking crew on the defensive end, where he’s one of the most advanced first-year players we’ve ever seen. But it isn’t just Mobley. The Cavs play these cool, enormous lineups with Mobley, Jarrett Allen and Lauri Markkanen sharing the court. Darius Garland is starting to emerge and Ricky Rubio is suddenly a high-volume 3-point guy. Just a lot of enjoyable stuff going on here. — Jack Maloney
Chicago Bulls: B+
- Record: 14-8
- The basics: 7th in offense, 10th in defense, 4th in point differential (+5.1)
- One notable stat: Alex Caruso’s league-leading 2.2 steals per game would make him the first Bull to reach that mark for an entire season since Michael Jordan in 1995
- One reason for optimism: The balanced Bulls are currently one of just five teams in the top 10 on both ends.
- One reason for pessimism: The depth and defense in the frontcourt is a concern, especially since the loss of Patrick Williams. As their two defeats to the 76ers showed, they’re really going to have trouble against certain matchups.
Following a busy summer, there was little room for nuance regarding the Bulls. Heading into the season, nearly everyone fell into one of two camps: “this is going to be a disaster” or “this is going to be awesome.” So far, it’s trended more towards the latter, and in a wide-open East, they’re right there near the top of the pack despite coming back down to earth a bit in the last couple of weeks.
The new additions have gelled extremely well. DeMar DeRozan (who shoots 3s now) is playing some of the best basketball of his career, and Lonzo Ball and Caruso have formed arguably the most fearsome defensive backcourt in the league. This team is legitimately good, but whether they can be great is another question. They’re reliant on DeRozan and Zach LaVine for nearly half of their scoring, and the depth is questionable, especially up front. — Maloney
Detroit Pistons: D
- Record: 4-17
- The basics: 30th in offense, 23rd in defense, 30th in point differential (-11.9)
- One notable stat: If their league-worst 29.5 percent 3-point mark continues, they’ll be the first team since the 2012 Bobcats (who won seven games) to shoot under 30 percent for a season.
- One reason for optimism: They have Cade Cunningham.
- One reason for pessimism: There are a whole lot of questions about this roster outside of Cunningham.
There were no illusions about the Pistons being good this season; they had the fifth-lowest win total projection (26.5) in the league by Caesars Sportsbook. The fact that they have the worst record in the league, then, isn’t a surprise, and the mark itself isn’t even that big of a deal. It’s the fact that they’ve looked like such a mess at times that’s concerning.
The offense, in particular, is all out of sorts. They’re last in the league in both field goal (40.5) and 3-point (29.5) percentage, and are currently on pace to be just the fifth team in the last 20 years to finish last in both categories. Some of this is bad shooting luck, and injuries haven’t helped, but overall it hasn’t been fun to watch. And as impressive as Cunningham was in Portland on Tuesday, overall he hasn’t been quite as impactful right away as everyone was hoping. — Maloney
Indiana Pacers: C-
- Record: 9-15
- The basics: 14th in offense, 13th in defense, 13th in point differential (+1.8)
- One notable stat: The Pacers are the only under .500 team with a positive net rating.
- One reason for optimism: Eight of the Pacers’ losses have come by four points or less, which is a pretty good indication they aren’t as bad as their record.
- One reason for pessimism: This is the same Pacers core that’s been together for a while now, and they’ve never proven to be capable of making any real noise in the playoffs.
The Pacers desperately needed to make a change after their disastrous, one-year experiment with Nate Bjorkgren, but the first quarter of this season is proving that coaching wasn’t the only problem. Injuries to the likes of T.J. Warren — who hasn’t played all season — and Caris LeVert haven’t helped, but a record that has them ahead of only the Pistons and the Magic in the East is still disappointing.
They’re probably better than that, as evidenced by their league-worst 1-7 record in games decided by three points or fewer, to say nothing of the proven talent on this roster. But even with some better luck, it’s pretty clear that this group is just OK. Shaking up the core at some point would probably be best for everyone involved. — Maloney
Miami Heat: A
- Record: 13-9
- The basics: 9th in offense, 9th in defense, 5th in point differential (+4.9)
- One notable stat: Only the Bulls score more points in transition, per CTG, a stat that is particularly notable because Miami was squarely in the middle of the pack in this regard last season. This is the effect of Kyle Lowry’s hit-ahead passes.
- One reason for optimism: The starting lineup (Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, P.J. Tucker, Bam Adebayo) has been as dominant as advertised defensively, allowing only 95.4 points per 100 possessions.
- One reason for pessimism: That same lineup is only scoring 104 points per 100 possessions, which is only slightly better than the Pelicans have managed this season.
The Heat won’t be the same for the next four to six weeks, as Bam Adebayo recovers from thumb surgery, but they’ve already shown that they belong in the East’s top tier. The offense hasn’t looked as pretty as it did during their run to the 2020 Finals, but they’re a pain to play against. Lowry has helped them find easy baskets, Tyler Herro has made a massive leap as a playmaker and, as a result, Jimmy Butler has been able to play a more score-first style, averaging 23.6 points on a career-high 61.8 percent true shooting. P.J. Tucker has been a menace on the glass, reliable in the corners and surprisingly effective in the short roll.
Dewayne Dedmon, the interim starter in place of Adebayo, has been a plus-minus monster, and he has helped Miami limit shots at the rim at a top-five rate. You can nitpick the Heat’s transition defense, its lack of rim attempts and Duncan Robinson’s shockingly poor shooting if you’d like; the only thing I’m really worried about is the amount of 3s they’re giving up. — Herbert
Milwaukee Bucks: A-
- Record: 14-8
- The basics: 10th in offense, 8th in defense, 6th in point differential (+4.8)
- One notable stat: The Bucks have already used a whopping 250 different five-man units this season, and their opening night starting lineup has played just six minutes together.
- One reason for optimism: They haven’t been fully healthy all season, but are still right there at the top of the East.
- One reason for pessimism: Brook Lopez’s back problem. He hasn’t played since opening night, and recently underwent surgery that will keep him out indefinitely. Can he return, and play like his usual self, before the playoffs?
The Bucks’ title defense did not start off as planned, as they were decimated by injuries and COVID-related absences at the beginning of the season. At one point they lost four straight games at home, and their 7-8 record through 15 games was the latest in a season that they had been under .500 since 2016-17.
Even now they aren’t fully healthy, with Lopez and Donte DiVincenzo among the notable players sidelined. But they have started to turn things around. Eight straight wins have them just 1.5 games out of first place, and they’re 10-0 with Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday in the lineup. This wasn’t how they envisioned the first quarter of the season going, but it’s clear this team is still one of the best around when they have their best guys. — Maloney
New York Knicks: C
- Record: 11-10
- The basics: 13th in offense, 16th in defense, 16th in point differential (+1.2)
- One notable stat: The Knicks are second in the NBA in aggregate bench net rating. This is particularly notable because, in an effort to fix their underperforming starting lineup, coach Tom Thibodeau has promoted Alec Burks from the second unit and taken Kemba Walker out of the rotation.
- One reason for optimism: Some of the drop-off on defense can be attributed to opponents shooting an unsustainable 40.6 percent on wide-open 3s, the best mark in the NBA.
- One reason for pessimism: Julius Randle has been nowhere near as efficient or effective as he was last season, and in the nine games that preceded his strong game against Brooklyn on Tuesday, he averaged 15.2 points on 46.9 percent true shooting, with 4.3 assists and 3.4 turnovers.
The Knicks have been a thoroughly average team, and perhaps that’s all they were ever going to be. It has been strange, though, to see them take this particular route to average. Walker and Fournier were supposed to make Randle’s life easier, diversify the offense and improve the starting five. If that meant taking a small step back on defense, New York would live with that.
So far, however, it has taken a massive step back on defense, and that supposedly improved starting five was an absolute mess. But hey, there are silver linings: Immanuel Quickley and Obi Toppin have earned more responsibility and are becoming more beloved by the day, and the Knicks’ defense has looked much better in two games without Walker. Bing bong! — Herbert
Orlando Magic: B-
- Record: 5-18
- The basics: 28th in offense, 27th in defense, 29th in point differential (-11.4)
- One notable stat: Wendell Carter Jr. is taking four 3s a game and making 36 percent of them, a monumental achievement for a player who was hardly taking any 3s in Chicago and shot them poorly in his first couple of months in Orlando.
- One reason for optimism: Franz Wagner already does a million things that help the Magic.
- One reason for pessimism: Jalen Suggs just broke his thumb, and in his first 21 games, he was extremely inefficient.
The funny thing is, before Suggs’ injury, Orlando’s starting lineup — Cole Anthony, Suggs, Wagner, Carter and Mo Bamba — had a plus-11.2 net rating. This is entirely because of defense, and that has been heavily influenced by awful opponent 3-point shooting, but it’s still encouraging. This is a full rebuild, so the Magic have to be graded on a curve. They’ve gotten clutch shooting from Anthony, a little bit of everything from Wagner and the Carter-Bamba pairing has shown some promise defensively. Does it really matter that Terrence Ross‘ hasn’t shot well and the bench units have been obliterated?
At 20 years old, Suggs has been much better as a secondary playmaker than a pick-and-roll guy, and Orlando should live with a lot of his misses. It would be helpful, however, if he and/or Bamba could make some more jumpers as the season goes on. It would also be helpful if the Magic could collectively take care of the ball, get to the free throw line and surrender fewer open jumpers, but let’s keep expectations modest here. — Herbert
Philadelphia 76ers: B-
- Record: 11-11
- The basics: 11th in offense, 15th in defense, 10th in point differential (+2.1)
- One notable stat: With all of the roster upheaval, Philadelphia has transformed into a heavy pick-and-roll team, with remarkable results. Among players who have run at least 100 pick and rolls leading directly to a shot, Seth Curry ranks fifth in efficiency (1.15 points per possession), per Synergy Sports. Tyrese Maxey is 19th on that list (1.04 PPP), right above Damian Lillard, and he has done it at a higher volume than Stephen Curry, Spencer Dinwiddie and CJ McCollum.
- One reason for optimism: Maxey! At 21 years old, he’s giving the Sixers 17.5 points on 56.1 percent true shooting, plus 4.9 assists per game. They’ve needed this since Jimmy Butler left.
- One reason for pessimism: They could really use a Ben Simmons type because they’ve had trouble rebounding, defending in transition and generating 3s and shots at the rim … but I have no idea where they’d find someone like that.
Philadelphia’s starting lineup — Maxey, Curry, Danny Green, Tobias Harris and Joel Embiid — has a plus-14.0 net rating. That group has only appeared in nine games, though, and, between the unresolved Simmons situation, Green’s hamstring issue and Embiid, Harris and Matisse Thybulle getting COVID, the most accurate grade for the Sixers would be “incomplete.”
A couple of unequivocal victories: Maxey’s development and the signing of Georges Niang, a 28-year-old stretch big who has fit in beautifully. Niang had more playmaking ability than he showed with the Utah Jazz, and his two-year, $6.8 million contract was one of the biggest bargains of the summer. In another universe, he could have played off Simmons in small-ball units, as Ersan Ilyasova did in 2018, only better. — Herbert
Toronto Raptors: C+
- Record: 9-13
- The basics: 15th in offense, 25th in defense, 22nd in point differential (-2.6)
- One notable stat: The Raptors have a plus-2.2 net rating with Fred VanVleet on the court and a minus-19.0 net rating without VanVleet on the court.
- One reason for optimism: At some point relatively soon, Toronto should be healthier. It had the sixth-best defense in the NBA after nine games, and while the injuries to OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Khem Birch took place after the decline had started, they’ve certainly exacerbated it.
- One reason for pessimism: The Raptors’ halfcourt offense ranks 23rd in the league, which puts immense pressure on them to continue to force turnovers and crash the glass like maniacs.
If the Raptors are trying to compete for a playoff spot and build for the future simultaneously, then they must be judged on both fronts. At the moment, their season looks much better if you’re looking at it from a big-picture perspective. Scottie Barnes is way ahead of schedule, his recent ups and downs notwithstanding, and VanVleet is more efficient than ever. Before their respective injuries, Anunoby showed some signs of growth in a way bigger offensive role and Trent joined VanVleet near the top of the leaderboard in both steals and deflections.
Short-term, though, Toronto’s outlook is hazy. This is an interesting, aggressive, athletic team, but it has to scrap for its points and it doesn’t have much room for error. This is simultaneously the best offensive rebounding team in the league and the team that gives up the least transition opportunities, but it also fouls like crazy, lacks rim protection and surrenders an extraordinary amount of corner 3s. While Pascal Siakam has been effective as a playmaker since he returned from a shoulder injury, there’s no guarantee that the full-strength Raptors will jell the way they need to. — Herbert
Washington Wizards: B
- Record: 14-8
- The basics: 20th in offense, 11th in defense, 18th in point differential (+0.6)
- One notable stat: The Wizards’ analytics-friendly defense allows the most midrange shots and fewest 3s in the NBA.
- One reason for optimism: There’s obvious room for improvement offensively: Washington is shooting just 32.4 percent on wide-open 3, the third-worst mark in the NBA, and eventually you have to think Bradley Beal, Davis Bertans and Corey Kispert will start to make their clean looks.
- One reason for pessimism: Bertans’ return from an ankle injury has already complicated the rotation and it’s only going to get weirder from when Rui Hachimura and Thomas Bryant return. Hachimura likely won’t help the 3-point shooting issue, and Bryant could further disrupt the defensive rhythm that they established in the first month of the season.
You think Washington general manager Tommy Sheppard earned the contract extension that he signed a couple of weeks ago? Montrezl Harrell has been even better than he was in his Sixth Man of the Year season, Spencer Dinwiddie is once again one of the most efficient pick-and-roll playmakers in the league and, with Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Kuzma solidifying their defense, the Wizards won 10 of their first 13 games.
They’ve been shakier since then — a 25-point loss in New Orleans, a 17-point loss in San Antonio, two dreadful offensive performances against Charlotte — but this is still a deep and fairly balanced roster. Every NBA nerd is gaga over Deni Avdija and Daniel Gafford, particularly on defense. Living up to his reputation as a defensive whiz, Wes Unseld Jr. has installed a conservative, but undeniably effective scheme. If the Wizards can ever get their offense together, they might even be a dangerous playoff team. — Herbert
Dallas Mavericks: C-
- Record: 11-9
- The basics: 16th in offense, 22nd in defense, 20th in point differential (-1.4)
- One notable stat: The Mavericks are scoring a mediocre 109.0 points per 100 possessions with Luka Doncic on the court, down from 118.3 per 100 last season and 118.1 the season before.
- One reason for optimism: Jalen Brunson has once again been stellar off the bench, and he should probably either play more with Doncic or be shopped around the deadline. Or both.
- One reason for pessimism: Their point differential suggests they should be 9-11 rather than 11-9.
The Jason Kidd era has not started swimmingly. Upon arrival, he talked about involving Kristaps Porzingis more and encouraging Doncic to trust his teammates to make plays, but so far the changes to the offense have not been fruitful. On a per-minute basis, Porzingis is taking about the same amount of shots as he did in his first two seasons; he’s just getting more mid-post touches and taking fewer 3s. The Mavs’ spacing is not what it was under Rick Carlisle, their pick-and-roll game isn’t as effective, they get to the rim even less frequently, almost everybody is shooting worse and all of these things are related.
Dallas might not have the personnel to be an above-average defensive team, but there’s no excuse for what’s happening offensively. Kidd has been shuffling the starting lineup around in recent games — first he replaced Dwight Powell with Willie Cauley-Stein, then he gave Moses Brown a shot, then he put Powell back in, put Reggie Bullock in the starting lineup and made Tim Hardaway the sixth man — with decidedly mixed results. The Mavs should be so much better than this. — Herbert
Denver Nuggets: C
- Record: 10-11
- The basics: 17th in offense, 20th in defense, 19th in point differential (-1.3)
- One notable stat: The Nuggets have a plus-12.7 net rating with Nikola Jokic on the floor and a minus-15 net rating when he sits. Staggering.
- One reason for optimism: They still have Jokic, and that means they always have a chance.
- One reason for pessimism: They’ve apparently been cursed by injuries. This team can’t compete at the top of the West without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
The poor Nuggets just can’t catch a break with injuries. They were already expecting to be without Murray for most of the season as he recovers from a torn ACL, and now Porter is likely done, following yet another back surgery. Even Jokic has missed some time with a wrist injury. Aaron Gordon, Jeff Green and Monte Morris are the only players on the roster to appear in every game.
Not coincidentally, Denver is toiling away at the bottom of the Western Conference playoff picture. This is the latest in a season that the Nuggets have been under .500 since 2016-17, and they currently have the Kings in their rearview mirror — never a good sign. If you want to try and take a positive view of things, they’re still damn good with Jokic on the floor as they are 9-6 when he plays. If he can keep them in the mix until Murray comes back, then perhaps they could make some noise. That’s a big if, though. — Maloney
Golden State Warriors: A+
- Record: 18-3
- The basics: 3rd in offense, 1st in defense, 1st in point differential (+12.9)
- One notable stat: The Warriors’ net rating is on pace to be the highest ever recorded.
- One reason for optimism: Klay Thompson is nearing a return, and they didn’t even need him to get off to this insane start.
- One reason for pessimism: Do they have enough offensive talent around Stephen Curry to maintain this in the playoffs? There’s no guarantee that Thompson will be himself this season.
The Warriors are back, baby. Curry is setting records with his absurd shooting binges, Draymond Green is running the show on both ends and they have the best defense in the league. This is the team and style we all fell in love with nearly a decade ago, and Thompson hasn’t even gotten back on the court yet. (He’s expected to do so ahead of Christmas.)
If Thompson can give them something even close to his pre-injury form, they’re going to be extremely difficult to beat in any playoff series. That would make it much more difficult for teams to load up on Curry, which as it stands is one of Golden State’s few theoretical concerns. For what it’s worth, the Warriors are 4-3 when Curry shoots under 40 percent and 14-0 when he’s over that mark this season. — Maloney
Houston Rockets: D
- Record: 5-16
- The basics: 27th in offense, 18th in defense, 26th in point differential (-8.1)
- One notable stat: Despite their youth and athleticism, transition play makes up only 13.2 percent of the Rockets’ offensive possessions, the third-worst mark in the NBA, per CTG.
- One reason for optimism: The Rockets are on a four-game winning streak!
- One reason for pessimism: They are the most turnover-prone team in the NBA by a significant margin, and this absolutely matches the eye test.
Christian Wood was playing his best basketball of the season when he sprained his ankle against the Thunder on Wednesday. In the same game, Kevin Porter Jr. aggravated a thigh bruise, adding injury to the insult that was the NBA taking away the first triple-double of his career. That’s what kind of season it has been for Houston.
These Rockets weren’t supposed to be good, but they were supposed to be fun. Until this little streak, which included two wins over the Thunder, a crazy OT win against Charlotte and a shocking upset against Chicago, they haven’t been — outside of Alperun Sengun’s nightly highlight, that is. They run, but they allow their opponents to run, too. They have the “best” shot profile in the league, but their opponents get lots of 3s and shots at the rim and make them at a much higher clip. Jalen Green’s upside is undeniable, but it’s unclear if an Anthony Edwards-like uptick in efficiency is in the cards for him this season. — Herbert
Los Angeles Clippers: C
- Record: 11-11
- The basics: 25th in offense, 3rd in defense, 12th in point differential (+1.9)
- One notable stat: Through the end of November, Paul George scored 24.6 percent of the Clippers‘ total points this season.
- One reason for optimism: George has them hanging right in the mix at the top half of the West despite the poor offense and all of their injuries.
- One reason for pessimism: Without Kawhi Leonard, they are overreliant on George to a perhaps unsustainable degree offensively.
With no concrete timeline for Leonard’s return from his torn ACL, there were a lot of questions about how the Clippers would fare this season. It’s one thing to play inspired basketball without your best guy for a few weeks; it’s another to do it for (likely) an entire season. So far, though, the Clippers have been solid. They’ve dropped down a tier or two as expected, but with the middle of the West wide open, they should have a real chance to claim a top-six seed.
That’s thanks largely to their defense and to George, who has stepped up as the new leading man and looked extremely comfortable in the role. He’s putting up 25.9 points, 7.3 rebounds, 5.1 assists and 1.8 steals per game, and has scored a bigger portion of his team’s points than anyone in the league besides Kevin Durant. The only downside is that, without Leonard, and especially while role players like Nic Batum, Serge Ibaka and Marcus Morris are in and out of the lineup, there’s an outsized burden on George and Reggie Jackson. — Maloney
Los Angeles Lakers: D
- Record: 12-11
- The basics: 23rd in offense, 19th in defense, 23rd in point differential (3.2)
- One notable stat: The Lakers had the easiest early-season schedule in the league, and it’s going to get much, much tougher from here.
- One reason for optimism: They still have LeBron James and Anthony Davis. As bad as it’s looked at times, a duo that talented will always give you a chance.
- One reason for pessimism: Just one? Seriously?
As if the Lakers needed anything else to go wrong, LeBron James recently missed a game due to the league’s health and safety protocols. Between this and his various injuries, he’s only played in 11 of the Lakers’ 23 games. While far from the only problem the Lakers have faced this season, it’s definitely the biggest.
But even when LeBron has been in action, it hasn’t been pretty. The various offseason moves were great if you were trying to win your fantasy league in 2013, but not if you’re trying to win the real NBA title in 2022. Russell Westbrook doesn’t fit alongside LeBron and Davis, especially not with a traditional center clogging things up, and the Lakers have a minus-2.1 net rating with that trio on the floor together. They eschewed some of their depth and versatility for more role-specific offensive players, yet rank 23nd in offense. The defense, which had been elite for the past few seasons, isn’t much better. Worst of all, there isn’t a whole lot of flexibility to change things. — Maloney
Memphis Grizzlies: C+
- Record: 11-10
- The basics: 12th in offense, 30th in defense, 25th in point differential (-4.6)
- One notable stat: Dillon Brooks has only started in seven games, but Memphis’ preferred starting lineup (Ja Morant, Brooks, Desmond Bane, Jaren Jackson Jr., Steven Adams) has been elite at both ends, with a plus-25.1 net rating, per CTG.
- One reason for optimism: Before his knee injury, Morant attempted 2.3 pull-up 3s a game and made 38.6 percent of them.
- One reason for pessimism: The Grizzlies have the third-worst halfcourt defense in the NBA.
Who expected Memphis to go from an excellent defensive team to a terrible one? Steven Adams was supposed to be an upgrade over Jonas Valanciunas on that end, but, with Kyle Anderson moving to the bench, Jackson starting the season healthy and Brooks missing 13 games, the Grizzlies have looked completely different. Mostly, they’ve been shredded from the 3-point line, and particularly in the corner, where opponents are shooting a league-best 48.8 percent, per CTG.
The Grizzlies have the statistical profile of a 7-14 or 8-13 team, not an 11-10 team, and their franchise player just got hurt. They’ve won nailbiters against the Warriors and Jazz, though, and they’ve had a pretty tough early-season schedule. There are positives, though — Morant made a significant leap, Jaren Jackson Jr. is coming off perhaps his best game of the season, Desmond Bane has been reliable in a bigger role — and it seems unlikely that they will remain this bad defensively all year. — Herbert
Minnesota Timberwolves: B
- Record: 11-11
- The basics: 19th in offense, 7th in defense, 11th in point differential (+2.0)
- One notable stat: This is the first time the Timberwolves have had a top-10 defense since Kevin Garnett’s MVP season in 2004.
- One reason for optimism: There’s finally some positive momentum here, and maybe the Wolves really have something with this core.
- One reason for pessimism: Is this defense for real? This first quarter of the season has been solid, but it’s also a young, unproven team. Let’s see a bigger sample size.
Is there, dare I say it, hope in Minnesota again? You’d be forgiven for pumping the brakes given this team’s history, but, for the first time in a long time it looks like they have something brewing. Yes, they made the playoffs a few years ago with Jimmy Butler, but that era was so brief and toxic that fans hardly had a chance to form an attachment. This feels different. It feels like the type of group that fans fall in love with a team.
The main man leading that push, of course, is Anthony Edwards. He isn’t their best player (yet), but he’s the most exciting and charismatic, maybe the most likable player in the entire league. Edwards remains a highlight-reel staple in his second season, but his all-around game is coming along nicely, too. Karl-Anthony Towns, meanwhile, continues to be a ridiculous offensive player. Did you know he’s shooting 44.2 percent on 5.9 3s per game? Most encouraging of all, though, is that, with a more aggressive defensive scheme, the Wolves are actually getting stops. — Maloney
New Orleans Pelicans: D+
- Record: 6-18
- The basics: 26th in offense, 29th in defense, 28th in point differential (-10.3)
- One notable stat: The Pelicans have been by far the worst clutch team in the NBA, with a minus-59.1 net rating in 26 clutch minutes and a 1-8 record in games that featured clutch time.
- One reason for optimism: All of these ugly numbers have been compiled without Zion Williamson, and New Orleans has gone 5-6 since Brandon Ingram returned from a hip injury, beating the Clippers twice, plus the Jazz and Wizards.
- One reason for pessimism: Not sure that Williamson’s return is going to help the defense much.
The Pelicans have mostly been a mess, but, if you’re looking for silver linings, you can find them. Jonas Valanciunas’ 39-point explosion against the Clippers was an anomaly, but it also brought attention to the fact that he’s shooting more 3s than ever before and making a preposterous 48.4 percent of them. Herb Jones, the No. 35 pick in the draft, is everywhere on defense. The offense has been pretty good in Devonte’ Graham‘s minutes. I have no complaints about Ingram.
Ideally, Williamson will make everything make more sense relatively soon. The Nickeil Alexander-Walker breakout hasn’t happened, and he’s probably had too much offensive responsibility. Garrett Temple and Tomas Satoransky, acquired from the Bulls in the Lonzo Ball trade, have not tied things together the way you’d hope. Rookie Trey Murphy III’s minutes have dwindled. The best things New Orleans have done offensively is grab offensive rebounds and get to the line, but the turnovers have canceled that stuff out. The best thing it has done defensively is limit shots at the rim, but it’s usually playing multiple defenders who can be picked on. — Herbert
Oklahoma City Thunder: D
- Record: 6-15
- The basics: 29th in offense, 17th in defense, 27th in point differential (-8.6)
- One notable stat: The inventive Josh Giddey leads all rookies with 5.8 assists per game
- One reason for optimism: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Giddey is an extremely cool backcourt, with a lot of size and playmaking.
- One reason for pessimism: You’ve seen Oklahoma City’s roster, right?
The Thunder are not, and never will be, a free agent destination, so their only option is to build through the draft. As such, it’s hard to blame them for going all-in on this strategy, and it very well may pay off in the long run. In the short-term, though, this is one of the more egregious tanking plans in recent memory, and there’s something a little disheartening about watching a team go out there every night knowing their front office wants them to lose.
It’s not all bad vibes in OKC, however, thanks to their funky backcourt. SGA hasn’t even been shooting the ball well and he’s still putting up nearly 21-5-5 as the only serious scoring threat on the team. Giddey, meanwhile, has become a social media darling thanks to his ambitious and creative passes. — Maloney
Phoenix Suns: A+
- Record: 18-3
- The basics: 6th in offense, 2nd in defense, 3rd in point differential (+7.7)
- One notable stat: The Suns are on a franchise-record 18-game winning streak. They have won EIGHTEEN games in a row. Seems notable.
- One reason for optimism: I mean, the Suns look even better than they did last season. Reminder: They went to the Finals last season.
- One reason for pessimism: So much of their success revolves around Chris Paul. Can he stay healthy through the entire season and four playoff rounds?
There’s the streak, there’s the record (tied for the best in the league) and there’s the fact that the Suns are at or near the top of nearly every major statistical category. Very few notes here. Phoenix is making a definitive statement that its Finals run was not a fluke or based on other teams’ injuries. Simply put, the Suns rock and they’re super fun to watch. Paul is still doing his thing, Devin Booker — pending a potential hamstring injury — is shooting better than ever, Deandre Ayton has picked up where he left off and Mikal Bridges is a menace on the defensive end.
If you really want to concern-troll this team, you might point out that Paul is now 36 years old and has dealt with a host of injuries in recent years, including last season’s playoffs. It’s reasonable to wonder whether or not he’ll be able to hold up through another four playoff rounds. — Maloney
Portland Trail Blazers: C-
- Record: 11-11
- The basics: 2nd in offense, 28th in defense, 14th in point differential (+1.4)
- One notable stat: The Blazers are 10-1 at home and 1-10 on the road. That’s the second-best home record and the second-worst road record in the league.
- One reason for optimism: They’re still .500 despite Damian Lillard shooting poorly for most of the season.
- One reason for pessimism: Everything seems to have gone a bit stale in Portland.
Not awful, but hardly inspiring. Much like the offseason that led up to it, in which they replaced Terry Stotts with Chauncey Billups and tweaked the roster again, this Blazers season so far has been … OK. It has been the “we traded for Larry Nance and signed Cody Zeller, Tony Snell and Ben McLemore” of seasons.
Lillard’s shooting bordered on disastrous for the first few weeks, and he’s now sidelined due to an abdominal injury. Portland still can’t guard anyone, and off-court controversies and trade rumors have dominated the headlines. It was one thing to keep this core together when the Blazers were still fighting for a spot in the top half of the West, but, if this is the way it’s going to be, what’s the point? — Maloney
Sacramento Kings: D
- Record: 9-14
- The basics: 18th in offense, 26th in defense, 22nd in point differential (-4.2)
- One notable stat: De’Aaron Fox is shooting a career-low 27.3 percent from 3-point land.
- One reason for optimism: They’re somehow still only two games out of the play-in, which, given their playoff drought, would be an achievement.
- One reason for pessimism: They’re the Kings.
Oh, the Kings. Everyone already expects the worst and they still somehow manage to disappoint. So far this season they’ve gotten into a public feud with Marvin Bagley III’s agent and fired head coach Luke Walton after a 6-11 start — a move everyone knew was coming that should have happened in the offseason.
The play on the court hasn’t been inspiring, either. Fox, in particular, has been off to a brutal start, shooting 43.2 percent from the field and not punishing defenses for going under screens against him. He’s turned things around a bit lately, but the Kings have no chance if he doesn’t get back to a borderline All-Star level. Their defense has continued to be dreadful, unsurprisingly, although at least it’s not historically bad anymore. Somehow, despite all of this, the play-in remains a reasonable goal. — Maloney
San Antonio Spurs: B-
- Record: 6-13
- The basics: 24th in offense, 14th in defense, 21st in point differential (-1.9)
- One notable stat: Dejounte Murray is one of seven players in the NBA averaging eight or more assists, and, because he leads that small group with 8.5 rebounds per game, he’s as close as anybody is to averaging a triple-double.
- One reason for optimism: As well as being a fast team themselves, the Spurs have the best transition defense in the NBA, per CTG.
- One reason for pessimism: Derrick White‘s production has been all over the place — he scored a total of seven points on 3-for-21 shooting in a three-game stretch in November and had 24 on 10-for-21 shooting in a win over the Wizards the other day — and his 29.8-percent mark from 3-point range is disappointing.
The Spurs have fully turned the page, and it’s been a bit of an adventure. Murray’s progress has been the biggest story — they’ve been pretty good on both ends with him on the court and have completely collapsed without him — but you could also see Devin Vassell making strides as a playmaker (before his quad injury) and Keldon Johnson figuring out how to get buckets without bulldozing his way to the rim.
Jakob Poeltl is still holding down the paint. Doug McDermott isn’t getting to the rim like he did in Indiana, but he and Bryn Forbes have provided some much-needed spacing for the most midrange-heavy team in the league. This is a team that wants to push the ball in transition and drive and kick in the halfcourt, but it doesn’t get to the line anymore and doesn’t shoot 3s well. Thaddeus Young should be freed immediately. — Herbert
Utah Jazz: A-
- Record: 14-7
- The basics: 1st in offense, 6th in defense, 2nd in point differential (+12.9)
- One notable stat: I’m going to go with that best-in-the-league offensive rating.
- One reason for optimism: The Jazz look like a regular-season juggernaut again.
- One reason for pessimism: As we’ve seen repeatedly, Utah’s regular-season success does not necessarily translate to the playoffs.
The Jazz are in a weird spot: No one denies that this is a good team, but no one fully trusts them, either. And really, why should we? After a recent defeat to the lowly Pelicans, Rudy Gobert himself asked a rhetorical question: “How many times do we have to lose in the playoffs to learn?”
For all the understandable big-picture concerns about this team, though, Utah is a regular-season powerhouse. Its starting lineup has a dominant plus-10.9 net rating, per Cleaning The Glass, and it has even gotten decent production out of backup center Hassan Whiteside. Fellow offseason addition Rudy Gay has given the Jazz versatility and efficient scoring off the bench, too, since returning from a heel injury. — Maloney