There’s still a long way to go, obviously, but just past the halfway point of the 2022-23 season we’ve seen a decent amount of action and are, as such, in a decent place to start handing our some team grades this this point.
How did our staff go about grading all 30 teams? Simple: It’s relative to roster, and ultimately, expectations. The Oklahoma City Thunder and Minnesota Timberwolves have a virtually identical record. They did not, suffice it to say, receive similar grades.
And so, with that in mind, here are our midway-point grades. As always, go easy on the feedback.
(By Michael Kaskey-Blomain)
Boston Celtics: A
The Celtics have been the top team in the league record-wise for much of the first half of the season, and for good reason. They have the NBA’s best net rating, a top-two offense in the league and a bonafide MVP candidate in Jayson Tatum, who has taken his game to another level this season. There was potential for this Celtics campaign to go sideways after the team suspended head coach Ime Udoka for a year and replaced him with the inexperienced Joe Mazzulla prior to the start of the season, but that hasn’t been the case at all. The team has clearly responded well to Mazzulla, and as a result the Celtics have looked like the class of the East thus far.
After a bit of a slow start, the Sixers have been playing much better basketball as of late. On the season, they have the league’s fourth-best defense, 10th-best offense and fifth-best overall net rating. This comes despite the fact that Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey all missed some significant time with injury issues. When on the floor, Embiid has been playing at an MVP-level again, and Harden has been excellent as well, both as a scorer and a facilitator. The Sixers are deeper than they have been in recent years, and as long as they can stay healthy they’ll have a chance to make a real run in the East this season.
The Nets have been trending upward ever since they moved on from Steve Nash as head coach at the beginning of November. They started the season 2-5 under Nash, but they’ve climbed all the way to near the top of the Eastern Conference standings under Jacque Vaughn. They’re top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, and (the currently injured) Kevin Durant is turning in some of the best, and most efficient, basketball of his career. There are still some concerns, including Ben Simmons’ lack of aggression on the offensive end, and the team’s overall lack of size. Overall though, the Nets look like a cohesive contender for the first time in a while.
The Raptors have seemed out of sorts this season. Pascal Siakam missed a chuck of time and that certainly factored into their struggles, but overall it just feels like they should be better than they have been. They’re an average team on both ends of the floor, and while they’ve played well at home, they’re well below .500 on the road on the season. With several players who would generate significant interest on the trade market, it will be interesting to see if Toronto shakes things up prior to the deadline after its slow start or if the Raptors hold onto their key contributors and try to make a playoff push.
Inconsistency has been an issue for the Knicks this season, but there are also some reasons for optimism. They’re hovering around the top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating, and Julius Randle has bounced back in a major way after a down campaign last season. Plus, the offseason addition of Jalen Brunson has proven to be a home run. Brunson has been everything that the Knicks could have hoped for in a lead guard, and there’s a real shot that both he and Randle will be All-Stars. If they can continue to play at a high-level, the Knicks should remain in the playoff picture in the East.
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(By Sam Quinn)
It doesn’t quite feel fair to grade the Bucks right now. Khris Middleton has played 171 minutes. The movie Titanic is longer than that, and Middleton will go a long way towards fixing their 24th-ranked offense. But there are troubling trends here. Giannis Antetokounmpo is shooting below 60 percent on 2-pointers for the first time since Mike Budenholzer took over in 2019. The defense, which looked impenetrable in October and November, is quietly ranked 17th since Dec. 15 (right around the moment Brook Lopez’s block rate dropped from “Defensive Player of the Year territory” to “still good, but not eye-popping.”) Does anyone besides Bobby Portis want to create some offense the bench? Ultimately, the Bucks are going to be OK. They have the best player. They have the best playoff defense. But any notions this team might have had to simply inserting Middleton into the lineup and steamrolling the Celtics team they nearly beat without him a year ago are gone. There are kinks to be worked out here if Milwaukee plans to make it through the East.
The macro picture here is swell. Cleveland still has the Eastern Conference’s second-best net rating and the NBA’s second-best defensive rating, and with four core players under the age of 27, the Cavs are frankly ahead of schedule. But if they want to make the Finals here and now, there are questions that extend well beyond their vacant small forward slot. It’s a tad perplexing, for instance, that lineups featuring both Darius Garland and Donovan Mitchell (ranked in the 64th percentile in terms of offensive efficiency according to Cleaning the Glass) are hardly scoring better than solo-Mitchell (58th) or Garland (55th) lineups. It doesn’t help that Evan Mobley is shooting just 36.1 percent from anywhere outside of the restricted area this season. None of these issues are crippling, of course. They’re a somewhat natural consequence of accelerating a timeline. Garland and Mitchell are used to monopolizing their offenses. Of course they’ll need time to adjust to one another. Mobley is in only his second NBA season and playing in a fairly untraditional lineup. A third shooter in that empty small forward spot would go a long way on both fronts. But for now, as well as Cleveland has played on balance, there are just too many minor question marks to award the Cavs an “A.”
You’re surely familiar with the exploits of Tyrese Haliburton by now, and if you at all enjoy the misery of Laker fans, you’re probably aware of the career years Myles Turner and Buddy Hield are having as well. Those three are great, but it’s the less famous Pacers to secure Indiana’s “A.” Second-round pick Andrew Nembhard and Celtics cap casualty Aaron Nesmith have become defensive linchpins for a team that desperately needed them. Suns castaway Jalen Smith has settled in as exactly the sort of starting-caliber two-way forward Phoenix could really use right about now. Indiana entered the season with the lowest projected win total in the conference, and as critical as the bigger names have been to dismissing those projections, Indiana’s depth has been just as important. So long as Kevin Pritchard keeps nailing every move on the fringes, this team is going to be just fine.
All things considered, Chicago even making it to 20-24 is somewhat admirable. The Bulls feasted off of close-game luck a season ago, but are just 8-15 in the clutch this season. They are somehow scoring more fast-break points without Lonzo Ball this season than they were with him a year ago, and their sixth-ranked half-court offense defies logic considering their shot-selection (dead last in the NBA in 3-point attempts!). They’ve even managed to cobble together a nearly average defense with minimal rim-protection and terrible opponent’s shooting luck. And yet… the Bulls are still 20-24. There’s a real “all of that for a drop of blood?” feeling behind Chicago’s meager attempts to stay in the play-in picture behind an aging roster that probably needs an overhaul. Their offense lives and dies with a 33-year-old wing that doesn’t shoot 3’s and a 27-year-old guard on a max contract that struggles to stay healthy. Their young players have largely stagnated, and their first-round pick is likely headed to Orlando. The Bulls deserve credit for just staying afloat, but without much organizational direction, it’s hard to get too excited about a team on a 37-win pace.
The basketball gods dropped a sack of lemons on Detroit’s front door in the form of Cade Cunningham’s season-ending injury, but the Pistons have made some decent lemonade in the aftermath. The seemingly unsalvageable Killian Hayes, who shot 27 percent from deep in his first two seasons, has slowly crept his way up to league-average over the past few months in an expanded role. Rookies Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey are thriving in the low-pressure minutes Detroit can offer, each offering up a highlight or two per night to go along with their typical rookie mistakes. Even Kevin Knox is fighting to revive his career in a smaller rotation role. Once Cunningham went down, Detroit’s play-in hopes effectively ended. All the team could do from there was maximize a lost season by playing young guys and showcasing veterans for deadline deals. The Pistons have done both quite well, and in the process set themselves up for a 14 percent chance at Victor Wembanyama. It may not be what they were hoping for, but they’re making the best out of a less-than-ideal situation.
(By Colin Ward-Henninger)
A .500 team is certainly not what the Atlanta front office (which has coincidentally undergone a facelift recently) envisioned when it went all-in for Dejounte Murray last offseason. The 26-year-old guard has been productive in his first season as a Hawk and he has certainly helped the defense, which has gone from 26th last season to the top half of the league. The problem, somewhat surprisingly given their weapons and the presence of Trae Young, has been the offense, which has fallen from second last season to the bottom 10. Murray was supposed to keep the scoring going with Young on the bench, and that just hasn’t happened – the Hawks have put up 113.6 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor, and just 105.1 when he sits. Same old story. The good news is that their regular starting lineups (with either Clint Capela or Onyeka Okongwu at center) have been excellent, which bodes well for a playoff scenario when the rotations shorten. But, currently in play-in position, the Hawks have to get there first. Perhaps the John Collins trade will finally come to fruition and Atlanta will get a much-needed boost at the deadline.
It’s one thing to lose. It’s another thing to lose the way the Hornets are losing. They’re last in the league in offense and bottom-five in defense. They’re a league-worst 5-16 at home. They’ve been unable to gain any traction due to constant injuries to key players, and head coach Steve Clifford publicly lambasted his squad for a lack of commitment on the defensive end of the floor. Rebuilding teams can talk themselves into losing if there are signs of development and progress, but there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of that going on in Charlotte. Even LaMelo Ball, whose numbers look great, has been a net negative due to the team giving up an unfathomable 121.6 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. If there was any question, the first half of the season has solidified that trading off veteran pieces like Terry Rozier, Gordon Hayward, Kelly Oubre Jr. and Mason Plumlee to get into the top of the lottery is a viable (and perhaps their only) option, so we’ll see how things look after the deadline.
A top-10 defense has been the saving grace for a Heat team decimated by injuries in the first half of the season. Their opening-night starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Caleb Martin and Bam Adebayo has played just 14 games together, and it’s been highly effective with a net rating of plus-8.7 in 197 minutes. Outside of that, Miami has been scratching and clawing with previously little-known players like Orlando Robinson, Jamal Cain and Haywood Highsmith drawing rotation minutes. They’re trending upward, however, winning eight of their last 12 games, and Herro – who is in the 84th percentile as a pick-and-roll scorer, according to Synergy – recently rejoined the lineup. The offense has been in the bottom 10, partially due to the availability issues, so there’s reason to believe that will improve in the second half of the season. Adebayo has been the key, with Miami’s offense falling from 113.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to 103.3 when he sits.
You can’t really give a 16-win team an “A,” but the vibes around the Magic are extremely positive. After a 5-20 start, they’ve gone 11-8, including a six-of-eight stretch highlighted by consecutive road wins over the mighty Celtics. Since Dec. 7, Orlando has put up 113.4 points per 100 possessions, a massive jump from the 108.8 they averaged prior to that date, and the defense has improved as well. Paolo Banchero admitted to hitting the proverbial rookie wall in December, but he is still the clear frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, and on pace to become just the ninth NBA rookie to average at least 20 points, six rebounds and 3.8 assists per game. The three-man unit of Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. has been a plus-10 in net rating in 375 minutes this season, setting up a promising young core that can perform on both ends. While Orlando is most likely headed for the lottery this season, the Magic are within striking distance of the final play-in spot if that’s something they’re interested in. No matter where they finish, however, the rebuild is certainly moving in the right direction.
The Wizards got a “B” at the quarter-season mark after playing to a .500 record. Since then, they’ve dropped to eight games below .500 and are a bottom-five team overall in net rating. They’ve been unable to finish games, going just 9-16 in clutch situations (games within five points with five minutes remaining), with a paltry offensive rating of 98.8 points per 100 possessions. Bradley Beal has only played 24 games this season, but units featuring him, Kyle Kuzma and Kristaps Porzingis have been effective with a plus-3.4 net rating. Porzingis has been very good (and healthy) so far, and the Wizards have been much better with him on the floor. The small-ball unit of Beal, Porzingis, Kuzma, Deni Avdija and Monte Morris has been devastating, but outside of that it’s been difficult for head coach Wes Unseld Jr. to find groups capable of consistent production. Kuzma – averaging a career-high 21.6 points per game – has been frequently mentioned in trade rumors, and given the Wizards’ current position in the standings, they’d be well served to listen to offers.
(By Brad Botkin)
Things couldn’t be going much better in Denver, which resides atop the Western Conference with to-the-moon shooting numbers and the best player in the league in Nikola Jokic. Yeah, I said it. No analytical qualification necessary: Jokic is the best player in the league and he should be the leading candidate to win his third straight MVP. On top of that, Jamal Murray looks more and more like his pre-injury self, with almost parallel per-minute scoring numbers to prove it. It won’t be long before the efficiency returns, too. Until then, the Nuggets are loaded with marksmen who add up to the top eFG percentage in the league, per Cleaning The Glass. Aaron Gordon continues to be a match made in basketball heaven with Jokic. Can a bottom-10 defense be a realistic contender? Yes. That’s how great this team is at putting the ball in the basket with Jokic orchestrating.
Relatively speaking, things couldn’t be going much better in Utah, either. The Jazz were always going to come back to reality, but they have laid a winning foundation without passing the point of no return. Should they choose to do so, the Jazz are well within lottery distance with their principles intact. They have found a core guy in Lauri Markkanen and, for my money, Walker Kessler and Jarred Vanderbilt fit that bill moving forward as well. The Jazz have trade pieces that can help any team if they want to sell at the deadline. The defense needs to be addressed, but there’s time for that. Right now it’s honeymoon time for what felt like sort of a shotgun roster marriage that has proven highly compatible.
Minnesota Timberwolves: F
Yuck. This whole Rudy Gobert trade, which I was enthusiastic about when it happened, has been the complete and total bust that most everyone else predicted. Disgusting fit, and Gobert doesn’t even look like the same player himself. He isn’t moving the same way he did in Utah. It’s hard to put my finger on the difference, but you can just tell when you see it. This season, especially with Donovan Mitchell going nuts, is something of a championship parade for all the people who have long maligned Gobert as overrated and a principal culprit in Utah’s shortcomings during his tenure there. I don’t want to make the absolutely average results of the Wolves so far all about Gobert, but in the context of what they gave up to get him, and how committed they are to him long term, that’s really what this team is all about until a drastic move of either selling Gobert at a significant loss or dealing Karl-Anthony Towns is made. D’Angelo Russell thinks he’s way better than he is; he is either going to sign for way too much in Minnesota, walk for nothing this summer, or fetch an underwhelming trade return at the deadline. Worst of all, none of this is set up for Anthony Edwards to thrive. Spacing. Clear offensive vision. Team-wide focus and effort. Just the general vibes around the team. It all stinks in Minnesota right now. The Wolves were supposed to be a contender for a top-four seed and a potential postseason disruptor. Instead, they are a nothing burger. Just another date on the schedule of teams that matter.
Portland Trail Blazers: C-
This is an absolutely average team. Not good. Nod bad. Certainly not what they hoped they would become when they finally shook up their roster. I still want to believe that Gary Payton II is a major difference maker and Portland will take off at some point, but I can’t convince myself anymore. Everyone hammered Neil Olshey for his reluctance, or flat out unwillingness, to break up the Lillard-McCollum duo and/or make strong roster moves during his tenure, but this is the other side of that. It’s not easy to improve on what Portland was under Olshey and Terry Stotts, particularly with a roster full of players that are worth more on the court than they are on the market (McCollum, Nurkic, Norman Powell, etc.). Still, Portland fans just wanted to see some kind of front office action. So when Joe Cronin started shipping out pieces right and left and brought in Josh Hart and Jerami Grant and Payton and appeared to be building a more defensively equipped team, everyone got excited for a minute. But now the dust has settled, and what are the Blazers? Still a bad defensive team covering with a vulnerable backcourt. Still a team trying to win in the tightest of margins, a team that has to rely on Damian Lillard (or someone else) playing hero in clutch time, only that isn’t happening like it did a few years ago, and suddenly this team that has long lived in the neighborhood of a net-neutral point differential looks in the standings like the exact kind of team it is: .500, more or less, with no real reason to believe it can become much more than that.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A
Everyone assumes OKC is going to eventually fall out of the postseason hunt, but is that true? This is a team that nobody wants to play for three core reasons: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is unstoppable, they really defend, and the depth allows everyone to operate at full tilt at all times. Indeed, if you love effort, watch the Thunder. They are relentless on both ends. As someone who has been against anyone (and certainly perimeter players) who can’t shoot, Josh Giddey grows on me every time I watch him play. You just feel good when the ball is in his hands. I love Jalen Williams and Lu Dort. This is a team that, to me, might have accidentally become too good to tank, but unlike a lot of teams that should be tanking only to get sidetracked by surprising success, OKC is already stocked with all the capital it needs. If they can compete now, which they clearly can, go ahead and compete now rather than run the risk of SGA losing his patience. Awesome season so far for the Thunder.
(By James Herbert)
Not only are the Kings a top-tier League Pass team, they’re having their best season in almost two decades. Offensively, they’re channeling the spirit of the glory days, with Domantas Sabonis alternately picking defenses apart from the high post and bludgeoning people down low. De’Aaron Fox could join him in the All-Star Game and be the first winner of the Clutch Player of the Year award. The ball is moving, the starting lineup (second in the league in total minutes, +8.5 net rating) is dominating and the pace is blazing fast. The Beam Team is not a title contender — Sacramento ranks 24th in defense — but, for a team that hasn’t made the postseason since Rick Adelman was on the sidelines, this season has been sublime. Kevin Huerter, who came up with that nickname, was made for this system; his usage and efficiency are both higher than ever and his two-man game with Sabonis makes defenses dizzy.
Kawhi Leonard is ninth on the Clippers in minutes played, and he’s only shared the floor with Paul George for 369 minutes spread over 16 games. There is a championship-caliber ceiling here, but, since their two best players have yet to play together in four consecutive games, you have to squint to see it. Ideally, the sixth-ranked defense sustains, and with some continuity — plus, perhaps, a trade-deadline addition — the offense comes to life. Despite Luke Kennard shooting 46.2 percent from deep (49.5 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts!) and Norman Powell shaking off his slow start, they’ve scored just 110.2 points per 100 possessions — only the Spurs, Rockets and Hornets have been worse. They’ve been predictably slow and reliant on jumpers, and they’ve also been turnover-prone.
It’s not that hard to be optimistic about the Warriors — just focus on the starting lineup (+19.1 net rating, better than any five-man unit that has played at least 150 minutes), the improvement of Jonathan Kuminga and the way they handled the Celtics back in December. More than halfway through the season, though, the overall statistical picture is troubling: The defending champs turn the ball over like crazy, foul too much, lose virtually every road game and don’t get to the rim or the line. Even if you believe that Golden State is way better than its record, you’re probably second-guessing the two-timeline plan. Gary Payton II, Otto Porter Jr. and Nemanja Bjelica are greatly missed, and this year’s bench has been worse than anybody outside of Denver and San Antonio, in terms of aggregate net rating. If the front office doesn’t make a move, then it needs Kuminga and JaMychal Green to stabilize the second unit when they return from injury.
Phoenix Suns: C
Last year’s Suns outscored opponents by 6.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Devin Booker off the floor, according to Cleaning The Glass. This year, they’ve been outscored by 6.0 per 100 without him. Chris Paul’s inside-the-arc efficiency has dropped, and the spacing hasn’t been the same with Jae Crowder out of the picture and Cameron Johnson injured for all but eight games. Nobody is putting pressure on the rim, nobody’s getting to the free throw line and, with Booker nursing a groin injury, Phoenix has lost 12 of its last 14 games. Damion Lee (48.5 percent from deep, 55.6 percent on wide-open 3s) has exceeded expectations and Landry Shamet and Jock Landale have had their moments, but this team desperately needs to get healthy and find a sensible Crowder trade.
Their spacing is suspect, their defense falls apart without Anthony Davis and their non-garbage-time point differential ranks 23rd, per Cleaning The Glass. There are some positives — LeBron James is averaging 37 points, 9.7 rebounds and 8.6 assists in his last seven games; Davis was playing at an MVP level before his foot injury; Thomas Bryant has been helpful — but the lack of shooting gives them no margin for error. The Lakers have made only 35 percent of their wide-open 3s, and, according to NBA CourtOptix, they move the ball less than everybody but the Hawks. Russell Westbrook has been even less efficient than he was last season, and James has shot just 29.3 percent from deep. They had an eight-wins-in-ten-games stretch starting in mid-November, though, some of it with James sidelined, and a six-wins-in-seven games stretch starting in late December, all of it with Davis sidelined. If there is hope that this season can be salvaged, it’s because, like the three other underwhelming teams in their division, they should get healthier and could make a trade.
(By Jasmyn Wimbish)
The Grizzlies are right near the top Western Conference, have the depth to contend with just about any other team in the league, and, most impressively, own the best defense in the NBA. That last statistic is thanks to Jaren Jackson Jr., who has anchored Memphis’ defense, and should be considered the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year. He leads the league in blocks (3.3) and ranks fourth in the league in defended field goal percentage (43.7 percent). The Grizzlies allow 8.1 fewer points per possession when Jackson is on the court, compared to when he sits, which ranks in the 97th percentile among bigs in the league. Although Jackson missed the first month of the season, he seamlessly reacclimated himself and has lifted Memphis defense while being a reliable threat on offense. Couple Jackson’s play with Ja Morant’s steady MVP play, the continued ascension of Desmond Bane and the Grizzlies have had one of the most impressive first halves of the season.
The Pelicans have once again been dealing with injuries to their most important players in Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and Herbert Jones. However, CJ McCollum has kept this team not just afloat, but steadily in the top three of the West. That’s no small feat in a crowded conference, and should probably get more attention than it is. There’s still no timetable for Ingram’s return, Williamson should return in a couple weeks and Jones has been day-to-day with a back injury. While the Pelicans have managed to grind out wins without two of their top three scorers, some cracks are starting to form, as New Orleans ranks just 17th on offense and 20th on defense. It’s admirable that the Pelicans have managed to hold steady with constant injuries, but you also have to wonder how much longer is this sustainable. For now though, what McCollum and the rest of that team has been able to do without two All-Star players should get a high mark.
Dallas had a nice seven-game win streak at the end of December which featured a 60-point, 21-rebound triple-double from Luka Doncic and a 51-point outing just four days later. But three of those Mavericks wins came against the Rockets, the worst team in the league, indicating that Dallas was simply just taking care of business rather than proving anything of significance — especially considering the Mavericks followed up that winning streak by going 2-5 with blowout losses to the Celtics as well as back-to-back blowouts to the Trail Blazers. Doncic’s MVP efforts have lifted the Mavericks out of the bottom of the West to the No. 5 spot, but the supporting cast around him has proven on more than one occasion that it can’t hang with championship-contending teams. Unless Dallas makes a trade ahead of the deadline to improve the talent around Doncic, the chances of them keeping that spot, or moving up in the standings, may be slim with the level of competition right behind them.
You have to put a grade like this into context of the team. The Spurs are losing a ton of games, but given that this is a rebuilding year, where the primary objective is to develop players, then San Antonio is succeeding. Keldon Johnson has taken the next step in his development, averaging a career high 21.1 points, and prior to having knee surgery, Devin Vassell was having a textbook third-year leap, averaging career highs across the board, and significantly improving his efficiency. The wins and losses for a team like the Spurs don’t matter while young guys are developing in low pressure minutes, and if losing just so happens to heighten the odds of landing heralded prospect Victor Wembanyama in the process, well then that’s just a sweet bonus.
Houston Rockets: C
Most rebuilding teams may receive high grades because the positive development they’re seeing from their young players is the main goal. However, for Houston, the same can’t be said. No. 2 overall pick in the 2021 NBA Draft Jalen Green has regressed in his efficiency despite averaging over 21 points a game. Veteran guard Eric Gordon has spoken publicly about the team’s lack of improvement over the course of the season, and the lack of discipline has been cited several times when you watch the Rockets play. Jabari Smith Jr., who Houston selected with the third overall pick in the most recent draft, has shown great promise as a two-way player, and second-year big man Alperen Sengun has often looked like Houston’s best player this season. But when you watch the Rockets play there’s a serious lack of cohesion or team basketball, which is what you don’t want when trying to establish a culture with a young crop of players.