2022-23 NBA mid-season grades: Western Conference
The NBA season is past its halfway point so let’s hand out some mid-season grades! We’ve already given out grades to the Eastern Conference, to today we cast our gaze to the Western Conference.
These grades are doled out relative to a team’s expectations, so whilst the Jazz and Suns sport similar records, their grades will be very different.
Dallas Mavericks (26-24 win/loss record): B-
The Mavericks’ inability to replace Jalen Brunson in the off-season has placed a huge burden on the shoulders of resident mega star Luka Doncic. In terms of both style and sheer ability, he’s irreplaceable within the Dallas ecosystem. Now, with Doncic out for an expected week or so with yet another ankle sprain, we’ll see just what Luka’s supporting cast is capable of.
Against the Suns, the team the Mavs were playing when Luka went down, Spencer Dinwiddie stepped up. They’ll need increased production from him, Tim Hardaway Jr, Josh Green and Dorian Finney-Smith amongst others to carry them through Luka’s absence.
With the Mavericks sitting in the 6th seed, squarely in the middle of that morass of teams running from 4th through 10th in the west, a losing streak here could be disastrous.
Denver Nuggets (34-15): A-
Things are going quite swimmingly in the Mile High City.
The Nuggets sit comfortably atop the conference – only a half game off the leagues best record – with the games best player at the peak of his powers. Jokic is just a tenth of an assist from averaging a triple double on the season, with 1.4 steals and 55/38/82 shooting splits. He is at or near the top of practically every advanced stat known to Man. The 27 year old is simply dominating this NBA season. The Nuggets dominance, whilst centred on their big man, isn’t solely down to him, though.
Aaron Gordon is playing at a borderline All-Star level, providing outstanding defense and proving the perfect foil for Jokic. Jamal Murray is starting to look something like the player he was prior to his knee injury. Michael Porter is back to near his best whilst subjugating himself for the good of the team at both ends.
Denver are the NBA’s best offensive team. The only thing that stops them from gaining an A+ grade is their defense, currently ranked 17th in the league. If they can start to nudge that towards the top 10, then they would surely claim outright favouritism for the championship.
Golden State Warriors (24-24): D+
These Warriors are a walking contradiction.
They’re great at home; poor on the road. The starting five is one of the best units in basketball; their bench units amongst the worst. Offensively they’re fantastic; defensively a sieve. They can take down the soaring Grizzlies like it’s nothing, yet the Magic and Pistons seem to have their number. The Warriors are the NBA’s Schrodinger’s Cat: simultaneously both a championship contender and an also-ran.
The Warriors’ famed two-timeline approach is starting to fray around the edges. Jordan Poole has stagnated and James Wiseman is a trade candidate. Moses Moody is going though standard 2nd year blues, though at least Jonathon Kuminga is looking solid.
The Dubs are so reliant on their veteran starting five that an injury to any one of them – though especially Curry, of course – could see this team drop into the lottery.
Houston Rockets (11-38): C-
When rebuilding, you expect to see progress from your younger players. For the most part, that hasn’t happened in Houston to this point.
Jalen Green can score but his efficiency has somehow regressed from his wasteful rookie campaign. Kevin Porter Jr remains a trick-or-treat baller. Rookie Jabari Smith Jr and Tari Eason have been patchy, at best. Fellow 1st rounder TyTy Washington can barely get on the court.
The single bright spot has been 2nd year big man Alperen Sengun. The Turk will never anchor an elite defense, but that might not matter when you are as delightful with the ball in hand as he is. Putting up a nightly 15 points and nine boards, along with 3.6 assists and a block, Sengun is simply wonderful to watch, with his tricky footwork and extraordinary vision.
It’s easy to see how Sengun draws comparisons to Nikola Jokic.
Sengun is really the only out and out good news story for this seasons Rockets, though. The lack of teamwork and cohesion on this team is astounding.
The talent is there, but a reset is clearly needed. If improvements are not made, perhaps coach Stephen Silas pays with his job.
Los Angeles Clippers (27-24): B
For all of their talent, the Clippers have undoubtedly under performed in the Kawhi Leonard/Paul George era. A large part of that under performance is on those two superstars and their inability to stay on the floor.
The Clippers are loaded with wonderful complimentary players, but they’re superfluous without somebody to compliment. Leonard and George have missed 25 and 16 games respectively, yet when they both take to the floor the Clippers do look like something approaching a real live contender.
Ivica Zubac has had a career season, though the lack of a legitimate backup does have him looking gassed. Norman Powell has returned to elite 6th man levels after a rough start. Luke Kennard remains one of the league’s premier marksmen.
If the Clippers (currently 5th in the West) can do something to upgrade the point guard position – Fred Vanvleet and Mike Conley are often mentioned – then they’re only some good health to their stars away from perhaps making a run at the western conference crown.
Los Angeles Lakers (23-26): C
Don’t look now, but the Lakers might just be turning a corner.
After a gawd-awful start to their campaign, losing Anthony Davis – who had found something close to his best form – could have torpedoed what was left of the Lakers’ season. Instead, LeBron James has gone on a run that would be astounding for a man 10 years his junior.
In the month that Davis was in the infirmary, James averaged near enough to 34 points, eight boards and eight assists. The Lakers were +112 with him on the floor and -140 without him as the Lakers split the 20 games that Davis missed.
With Davis now back in the lineup, Lonnie Walker due to following shortly and Rui Hachimura on board, could the Lakers make a run into the post season?
Memphis Grizzlies (31-17): A
Despite their seeming inability to take down the Warriors, the Memphis Grizzlies are arguably the class of the Western Conference.
The Grizz have pretty much everything. In Ja Morant, they have an elite offensive totem pole. Their defense is anchored by the magnificent if astonishingly foul prone, Jaren Jackson Jr. They have a fantastic 3rd banana in Desmond Bane, a wonderful agitator/heat check guy in Dillon Brooks, a dreadnought big man in Steven Adams, and all the depth that any team could possibly want.
The only thing that Memphis doesn’t have is the experience of having been there before, this group having yet to make a conference finals, though the soon-to-return Danny Green will help in that regard. They’ll be there soon enough.
Minnesota Timberwolves (25-25): D-
I’ll admit that whilst the trade for Rudy Gobert had the immediate potential to be an all time disaster, I was one of those pundits who was cautiously optimistic. Gobert provided something different at both ends of the floor (on offense: vertical spacing; on defense: playing actual defense) and I felt that Chris Finch, with time, would find a way to make it all work.
The Wolves haven’t exactly been kissed by the Basketball Gods. They lost Karl-Anthony Towns to COVID for large swathes of the pre-season, whilst Gobert was tied up playing for France. The resulting lack of chemistry was evident from pretty much opening night as the Wolves struggled at both ends of the floor. Gobert’s presence has taken away the USP of Towns as an elite shooting centre, whilst crowding the paint for Anthony Edwards’ electric forays to the hoop.
With Towns injured it was hoped the Wolves would find some clarity in their rotation and with it some cohesion on the floor. It hasn’t happened. Gobert looks a step slower (just whisper it, but is he in decline?) though he and D’Angelo Russell have struck up a lovely understanding.
So what is the answer, here? It’s tough to say. Trading Gobert now would recoup cents on the dollars the Wolves gave up. Russell is an expiring deal and a negative on defense. Edwards is – or at least should be – untouchable.
Shudder to think…Towns may be the odd one out.
New Orleans Pelicans (26-23): A
Once again, the Pelicans have been held back from reaching their full potential by injuries to key players, this time Zion Williamson, Brandon Ingram and defensive ace Herbert Jones. It’s a testament to the ridiculous depth of this squad, as well as the play of CJ McCollum, that they’re hanging on to the 4th seed in a ridiculously crowded west.
The Pelicans have gotten performances from somebody amongst their ensemble cast whenever they’ve needed them. Be it Trey Murphy, Jose Alvarado, Dyson Daniels, Naji Marshall or Jonas Valanciunas, somebody always seems to step up on cue with a big game.
That said, the Pelicans five game skid suggests that the magic dust is wearing off and the return of those key players is more urgent that it seemed even a week ago.
To that end, Jones is due back any day and Williamson within a fortnight. Getting those two (and eventually Ingram) back will allow the Pellies to build upon what has already proven to be a very good season.
Oklahoma City Thunder (23-25): A
For all the hand wringing about the Thunder’s barefaced tanking efforts (trading every veteran not pop riveted down, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander’s ‘injuries’), they’re been truly bad for all of two seasons. Now they’re a legitimate threat to make the playoffs even with prized 2nd overall pick Chet Holmgren yet to take to the court.
SGA is a nightmare to guard; a slinky with a jump shot. He’s taken the art of deceleration to levels that would make prime James Harden proud. He’s a scorer, a playmaker and a defensive stopper all rolled into one. In short, he’s a (very near) future MVP candidate.
Around SGA, Josh Giddey’s preternatural feel for the game is being augmented by an increasingly effective jump shot; Jalen Williams and Lu Dort are hard nosed wings, Kenrich Williams has become a genuine leader; even Mike Muscala is proving a valuable commodity.
Just for a moment, imagine this team with Holmgren in place of Muscala. Is that not the core of a playoff team?
Phoenix Suns (25-25): D
The Suns championship chances appears to be, ahem, setting.
Last season’s epic playoff meltdown to the Mavericks, coupled with Chris Paul aging, Devin Booker’s injury, the soon to be lifted spectre of Robert Sarver and whatever the hell is going on between the franchise and Deandre Ayton has coalesced to sap the life out of a team that last season dominated the regular season and just 18 months ago held a 2-0 lead in the NBA finals.
There have been some wins around the edges this season. Damion Lee has exceeded expectations, Landry Shamet has performed well and Jock Landale has been a pleasant addition to the rotation. They’re minor players, though.
That doesn’t matter, however, if Booker doesn’t come back soon, Ayton doesn’t rediscover his fire and Paul can’t reverse the aging process.
Portland Trailblazers (23-25): C
As their record suggests, Portland are a bang-average basketball team. That represents an improvement on last season, without a doubt. However, it doesn’t hide the fact that the team could see out the remainder of Damian Lillard’s prime without playoff basketball. That makes me a little sad.
After the team stagnated under the former front office regime, new general manager Joe Cronin has rebuilt much of the cast around Lillard, with CJ McCollum, Norm Powell and Robert Covington gone. Replacing them are Jerami Grant, Gary Payton II and Josh Hart, with Anfernee Simons given a promotion. The results are pretty much the same.
The Blazers are still a team with a high scoring, though defensively awful backcourt. Their frontcourt defense is still solid, if a little overrated. Jusuf Nurkic continues to do just enough to be effective though not enough to be a true difference maker.
As David Bryne once said:
Sacramento Kings (27-20): A+
How could the Kings, the feel good story of the NBA, garner anything less than an A+ grading?
Prior to the season I thought that Sacramento could be a sneaky League Pass darling based on a delightful offense led by Domantas Sabonis and De’Aaron Fox and a defense that might concede as much as the offense scores. That has proven true with the Kings just a hair behind Denver for the NBA’s best offensive rating yet just 25th of defense. What wasn’t expected was for the Kings to be on pace to win 50+ games for the first time in 18 years.
Kevin Huerter has proven a wonderful addition. Keegan Murray has more than justified his somewhat surprising 4th overall selection.
After not making the playoffs since 2006 (Andrea Bargnani, who hasn’t been an NBA player for over seven years, was the #1 pick that year) the Kings, at long last, look like they’re back.
LIGHT THE BEAM!!!
San Antonio Spurs (14-35): B+
The Spurs were expecting to be terrible and this grade is awarded within that context.
San Antonio, for the first time in about three decades, are genuinely focused on development. To that end, mission accomplished. Devin Vassell and Keldon Johnson are both averaging career highs across the board, with fellow youngsters in Tre Jones and Romeo Langford, as well as rookies Jeremy Sochan and Malakai all showing something.
Expect the Spurs to be players at the trade deadline, be it taking on long term bad money from other teams – with the obligatory cost of draft assets, of course – or moving on from their remaining veteran in Josh Richardson, Jakob Poeltl and Doug McDermott.
All in all, the Spurs efforts to land Victor Wembanyama are as on track as they could possibly be.
Utah Jazz (25-26): A
It’s almost certain that the Jazz’s primary aim for this season was to land themselves a franchise changing future superstar in the season’s draft. Victor Wembanyama or Scoot Henderson would have been a wonderful compensation for moving on from former stars Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert as well as key wing Bojan Bogdanovic.
As it stands, the Jazz have played their way out of contention for those two gems, sitting just inside the play-in picture with a mish-mash of castoffs and role players. They’ve found a possible tent pole player in Lauri Markkanen who is finally realising his potential. They have an elite marksman in Malik Beasley and possibly their starting centre for the next decade in Walker Kessler…and that before we even start to talk about the war chest of draft picks coming Utah’s way.
It is expected that the Jazz will continue to shed veterans either before the trade deadline or at seasons end. Mike Conley, Jordan Clarkson and possibly Beasley will garner lots of attention. Even if they are traded and the Jazz miss a playoff berth, this season has been a great success for the Jazz.