grades
Sam Forenich; NBAE

We now sit a little over five weeks into this compressed NBA season. With most teams having played around a quarter of their schedule – postponements due to COVID and the resulting contact tracing mean that figure fluctuates wildly from team to team – which means it’s high time we checked in on each squad and assess grades on how they’ve fared thus far.

Today, we’ll take a look at the Western Conference teams, before switching over to the East.

Dallas Mavericks (8-10 record)

C

Sitting two games under .500, in lowly 12th place in the conference, was not exactly where the Mavs had envisioned themselves. With the trade for Josh Richardson, Dallas’ plan was to improve their porous perimeter defense whilst coming as close as possible to emulating last season’s devastating offense. Whilst the defense has improved to 20th overall – some of that is down to opposition shooting luck – the offense has plummeted from it’s previous historic efficiency all the way down to 16th position.

A large part of their offensive woes centres around Luka Doncic who for the first time in his professional life is experiencing a form slump. Shooting a Westbookian 28.4% from deep on a Beal-esque 7.2 attempts per game, Luka’s shooting woes have led to driving lanes being closed up by sagging defenders. Of course, Doncic has had little to no help from his teammates, who simply haven’t been able to stay on the court. Kristaps Porzingis, Richardson, Dwight Powell, Tim Hardaway Jr, Maxi Kleier, and Dorian Finney-Smith have all missed portions of the season so far. In fact, the only Mavs to play in all 18 games are James Johnson and Willie Cauley-Stein (umm…yay?).

Those injury concerns are the only consideration saving the Mavs from a worse mark.

Denver Nuggets (11-7)

B+

There was an element of flukiness to the Nuggets conference finals run last campaign, with back-to-back seven-game wins over a shorthanded Jazz and an imploding Clippers. Yet, the Nuggets are quietly lurking, sitting in 4th place in the conference at the time of writing.

The key – as it always is with Denver – is their dynamite starting unit. The quintet of Jamal Murray, Gary Harris, Will Barton, Paul Millsap, and Nikola Jokic currently have a group net rating of +13.8, almost doubling their number from last season.

A concern, though, is that bench. Losing Jerami Grant (lighting it up in Detroit) and Mason Plumlee (not quite lighting it up in Detroit) has thinned out the Nuggets once formidable depth. Michael Porter Jr, Monte Morris and JaMychal Green are all contributing, but it’s slim pickings after that, save for the occasional Facundo Campazzo highlight. The long awaiting Bol Bol arrival would be most welcomed in Colorado.

Golden State Warriors (10-9)

B

Golden State’s expected reemergence was scuppered by Klay Thompson’s knee injury. A dreadful start against the Nets and Bucks has given way to more measured results as the team has settled into a rhythm. Draymond Green’s return from injury saw, as expected, an immediate improvement from the Dubs on the defensive end of the floor, though offensively they’re more reliant on the genius of Steph Curry than at any other time in his storied career. To his credit, Steph is pouring in 27.7 points a night with the defences totally loaded up against him. He needs support, though. At the moment, the only other Warrior providing anything at the offensive end of the floor is…Andrew Wiggins? The much maligned former #1 pick is having a breakout season of sorts, providing 17.7 points on efficient – yes, efficient – shooting numbers, including a previously unimaginable 40% from beyond the arc. You thought 2020 was strange? 2021 is giving us an efficient Andrew Wiggins.

Houston Rockets (8-9)

B-

Houston’s record, of course, has plummeted from the highs of previous years in light of firstly James Harden’s malcontented shadow and then the talent flux that come when you trade away arguably the best scorer of the 21st century. What can’t be argued is that rookie general manager Raphael Stone has done a sterling job in transforming his side in light of their disenfranchised cornerstone and a notable lack of draft assets.

John Wall – traded for a struggling Westbrook – has looked really good and importantly, healthy. Victor Oladipo has hit the ground running. Christian Wood’s small sample size in Detroit has proven to be very, very real. Eric Gordon’s jumper isn’t falling, but he’s healthy and causing havoc driving to the hoop. Former NBL star Jae’Sean Tate has been a pleasant surprise. After a slow start, even Boogie Cousins has found his groove. Throw in the partial replenishment of the franchise’s draft stocks, and this has been a solid recovery from the Rockets.

Los Angeles Clippers (14-5)

A

Their flashback inducing loss to the Warriors – where they blew a 22 point lead – aside, things are going along swimmingly in Clipperland right now. Their superstar pairing of Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are back to their near league MVP level best. Serge Ibaka has provided the expected boost at both ends of the floor from the pivot. Even the reanimated corpse of Nicolas Batum has made telling contributions.

Outside of the steadying veteran presence of Marcus Morris – not a sentence that gets written often – the bench is a concern. Ivica Zubac holds down the fort defensively but can’t hold a candle to Montrezl Harrell’s contributions. Lou Williams looks like he’s finally aging. Reggie Jackson has been – as expected – awful. The team has high hopes for former Piston Luke Kennard. They have to hope that his slow start as a Clipper is simply a matter of him getting comfortable in his new surroundings, rather than anything more terminal.

Los Angeles Lakers (14-6)

A

The Lakers primarily focused on two factors in the off season: improving their offense without sacrificing defense; and finding a way to rest LeBron James and Anthony Davis. General manager Rob Pelinka achieved both aims.

The Lakers’ primary additions to their championship core were stealing Harrell from under their neighbours noses, bringing in the enigmatic Dennis Schroder, and acquiring veteran Raptor Marc Gasol. Schroder and Harrell currently sit third and fourth on the team in minutes per game, allowing the Big Two to spell from time to time, and whilst Gasol’s number doesn’t jump off the page, the 36 year old today (Happy birthday, Big Burrito) has kept the defense humming when Davis sits thanks to his genius-level IQ and his play making has given the coach Frank Vogel a new avenue to run the offense through.

Kentavious Caldwell-Pope has picked up where he left off from the bubble, justifying his contract extension; Alex Caruso continues to be a small minutes darling off the bench; and Talen Horton-Tucker shows tantalising glimpses of his potential. Wes Matthews looks cooked, though.

Memphis Grizzlies (7-6)

A-

(Memphis are the team most affected by the COVID related postponements, so there is a certain small sample size asterisk that must be applied to their season so far)

This all has a feeling of smoke and mirrors to it. The Grizzlies are currently 6th in the wildly competitive West, despite missing Ja Morant for all bar five games and not having Jaren Jackson Jr suit up at all. This young Memphis side continues to confuse and confound.

Credit must go to the front office for finding gems with middling to late picks in the draft. Last year it was Brandon Clarke, this time around it’s Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman providing telling contributions. Praise must also be given to coach Taylor Jenkins who is balancing out a 28th place offense by having his team play a swarming, manic, turnover forcing defense that is good for 2nd in defensive rating.

The $64k question: will the Grizz thrive once Morant returns from injury, or will an increasingly congested schedule take its toll and see them fall to Earth?

Minnesota Timberwolves (4-13)

F

Is it possible to grade a team lower than a F?

This Wolves team have been disgustingly awful. They were expected to find themselves in the lower rungs of the league defensively – that’s what happens when you hitch your wagon to Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell – and that’s come to pass with the team ranked 27th in the NBA at that end of the floor, per Basketball Reference.

Their offense, however, was supposed to hum. Towns and Russell are apparently A grade offensive talents. Throw in the high scoring Malik Beasley, a sharp-shooting four in Juancho Hernangomez, Ricky Rubio back to set the table and the recent first overall pick in Anthony Edwards, and we at least thought the Wolves would put points on the board. Instead, they’re somehow worse on offense, their 105.0 offensive rating coming in second to last in the league.

Towns has been injured/ill, to be fair, suiting up for only four games so far (get well soon, big fella) and Russell has looked lost without his best friend next to him. Rubio looks a shadow of himself, creating practically nothing, getting beaten on defense, and plumbing new depths in shooting efficiency. Edwards has shown some uber-athletic flashes, but they’re all too rare amongst the too numerous drives into cul-de-sac’s and bricked mid-range pull-up jumpers.

If there is a silver lining to this most grey of clouds, it that the team will likely be awful enough to keep its pick owed to the Warriors. It’s protected 1-3 for this season (unprotected for 2022) and who here doubts that the Wolves can just about assure themselves a top three pick in the upcoming draft?

New Orleans Pelicans (6-10)

D

This is not how it was supposed to be in New Orleans.

With a young, ascendant roster and a new coach who would solidify them defensively, this was the season where – injuries permitting – the Pelicans would make their playoff push. Instead, they’re thankful that the existence of the Timberwolves keeps them from the foot of the conference standings.

Stan Van Gundy focuses on walling off the paint, closing hard on shooters and rebounding the ball. The addition of giant Kiwi Steven Adams has helped in those areas, but the team just isn’t stopping the three point shot. They’re giving up a league worst 41.6 deep attempts per game, many of them wide open. It’s no use having an elite rebounder like Adams if you’re giving the opposition open looks all night. The result of all of this is a quite un SVG like 24th in defensive rating.

Offensively, the team just doesn’t look comfortable. Adams clogs the paint meaning that Williamson isn’t nearly as effective as he could be. With those two and a pair of inconsistent outside shooters in Lonzo Ball and Eric Bledsoe (in fairness, Bledsoe is shooting well so far, though his reputation means he’s not guarded all that tightly on the perimeter) on the floor, too much falls on Brandon Ingram. The 23 year old is posting similar numbers to last season, on slightly better efficiency, but without spacing he’s not getting the driving lanes he needs to open up his jump shot.

Right now, despite their talent, this is a roster that doesn’t look well put together and seems primed for a trade come the deadline.

Oklahoma City Thunder (8-9)

B

18: that’s the number of first round picks – excluding pick swaps – that the Thunder own in the next seven drafts. With that in mind, the teams record isn’t their main consideration, right now. That said, they’re still performing admirably.

Veteran additions Al Horford and Geroge Hill have been solid without lighting the world aflame and as such have positioned themselves as ideal rentals for teams with championship aspirations. Expect general manager Sam Presti to add to that plethora of 1st rounders come the trade deadline.

Of the youngsters, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has transitioned seamlessly back to full time point guard duties, Darius Bazley and Hamadou Diallo are making the most of their increased minutes and Lu Dort is surely a front runner for Most Improved Player. The Canadian cinder block has continued to play stellar defense on everybody from Kyrie Irving through to Paul George, but he’s also made himself into something far less than the liability he was previously on offense. He’s almost doubled his scoring average to 12.8 points, whilst dramatically increasing his efficiency on all parts of the floor, including a truly shocking 40.6% from the arc, up on last season’s 29.7%.

Phoenix Suns (9-8)

A-

The Suns haven’t made the playoffs since Moses was a back-up wing at Sinai State. They made their intentions clear that this was the season they broke that streak with the acquisition of Chris Paul to shepherd their talented young core. So far, so good. Phoenix currently sit 7th in the conference, just a hair ahead of a free-falling Portland and an inconsistent Warriors side. Like any young team, they’re streaky, mixing a 5-1 start with a subsequent 1-5 run that coincided with Devin Booker’s absence due to COVID protocols.

The key to the Suns playoff push will be their balanced offense. Booker is the only Sun averaging over 20 points per game (22.9), though they have six others chipping in with between 10 and 15 points each night. If Deandre Ayton can return to the scoring levels he found last season then this teams ceiling goes up a level.

Portland Trailblazers (9-8)

C-

Earlier today, this writer caught up with Damian Lillard:

It’s really not Lillard’s fault that his teammates appear to be made of biscuits. Last year is was Jusuf Nurkic, Rodney Hood, and Zach Collins. This season it’s Nurkic (again), Collins (again), Robert Covington, and CJ McCollum that are out long term.

For the time being, the Blazers are hanging around at the bottom of the playoff picture, but they surely won’t be there for long with so many key pieces out.

Even when healthy, Portland looked a touch below the class of the contenders, Lillard and the white hot McCollum aside. Defensively, with Nurkic, Covington, and Derrick Jones Jr, coach Terry Stotts should be able to slap together a reasonable team defense, yet the Blazers currently rank 28th in that metric. Despite the length and switchability of their wings, a stock standard screen and roll creates panic in the Blazers defense. Lillard and McCollum are not big or robust enough to switch onto bigs and the Nurkic/Enes Kanter/Harry Giles triumvirate is far too slow to hang on the perimeter.

Even with good health and their roster upgrades, the Blazers still look to be an also ran.

Sacramento Kings (7-10)

D-

All of the good vibes that came from Tyrese Haliburton somehow falling to them with pick twelve in the draft have been washed away by their awful play as a team. Currently dead last in the NBA in defensive rating – and by a wide margin – the Kings are wasting their terrific back court of Haliburton, Buddy Hield, and De’Aaron Fox.

The Kings front court rotation truly flatters to deceive. Harrison Barnes, Marvin Bagley, and Hassan Whiteside are all time Empty Numbers guys. Richaun Holmes is handy, but miscast as a starter and the currently injured Nemanja Bjelica provides a stretch option but not much else as he starts to age.

It seems like it’s been said for the past half a decade, but until the Kings fix their front court, lottery balls await.

San Antonio Spurs (10-8)

A

Gregg Popovich, Ladies and Gentlemen!

The master coach is at it again. This time he’s leading an unfancied veteran core – a squad that had seemingly had its day – and mixed it in with some relatively unheralded youngsters to once again have his Spurs in the playoff picture.

The likes of Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker have taken steps this campaign and whilst the team still revolves around old men in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge – the Spurs on/off numbers are not at all kind to the veteran pair – this team feels different. They run the ball at every opportunity evoking memories of Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili in their pomp. As always, the Spurs bench units have been fantastic. Jakob Poeltl has been quietly dominant defensively whilst veteran Aussie Patty Mills has been en fuego all season long.

With Derrick White (one game played) and highly regarded reserve Drew Eubanks (three games played) set to return it will be interesting to see if Pop continues to fade out the influence of his big name but ineffective vets.

Utah Jazz (14-4)

A+

There can be no other grade than a solid A+ for the league leading Jazz. That’s right, folks: for the first time since the halcyon days of Stockton to Malone, the Utah Jazz have the best record in the NBA.

For years the Jazz won with defense and hoped to hang at the other end. At the end of the 2019 season they made a conscious decision to sacrifice some of their stifling defense for more attacking options. Last season, with Mike Conley struggling to adapt and the bench units leaking points, it didn’t really work out. This season, with Conley and Jordan Clarkson, fully integrated and the vastly underrated Derrick Favors back in the fold, the team has finally struck that balance.

Defensively, Gobert is as dominant as he has always been, but with Favors backing him up rather than Tony Bradley, the Jazz always have an elite defensive anchor on the floor. They’ve surrounded their centres with more shooting that the franchise has ever seen. Conley, Joe Ingles, and Royce O’Neal are all shooting above 40% from the arc, with Donovan Mitchell and Clarkson less than 1% away from joining them. The only disappointing element of Utah’s offense is a slump from Bojan Bogdanovic – shooting 36.5% from the line after three straight seasons in the 40’s.

The Jazz are the only team in the league that can lay claim to being top five in both offense and defense – that is the balance the front office were after.

This is the best team to come out of Salt Lake this century, and present by far the best chance in the West of derailing the Lakers juggernaut.