By the end of this week, each and every NBA team will have reached the 25 games played mark. That means we’re past the ‘small sample size’ segment of the season, where teams are still feeling their way through new lineups, coaches and dynamics. We’re now at the point where we can make some relatively definitive judgements on where each club stands, grading them to this point of their campaigns.

Today we’ll take a look at the Eastern Conference, before heading west later in the week.

All offensive and defensive ratings come courtesy of Basketball Reference and are current up to and including games on Tuesday December 7th (US time).

Atlanta Hawks (B-)

Record: 13-12

Off Rtg: 114.4 points/100 possessions (2nd in NBA); Def Rtg: 111.8 (26th); Net Rtg: +2.6 (7th)

After a somewhat surprising run to the conference finals last season, a deep and talented Hawks roster was expected to stake their claim amongst the elite of the East this time around. So far, the Hawks have disappointed, barely keeping their heads above .500 in a tight Eastern Conference.

Resident star Trae Young has suffered a similar fate to James Harden in that he’s seen his free throw rates drop considerably (8.7 to 6.0 per game) due to the new refereeing interpretations, though that has been offset by a substantial uptick in his percentage from deep (34.3% up to 39.2%).

Perhaps the Hawks’ early struggles can be explained away through a tough early schedule (7th hardest as per Tankathon). Atlanta just hasn’t been able to match it with the very best in the NBA, so far losing to Utah and Philadelphia twice with single losses to Denver, Golden State, Brooklyn and Phoenix. Conversely, their only win against elite opposition came against a Bucks team missing Khris Middleton. There’s no shame in being a hair behind the best, but when you’ve played so many of those teams in such a short space of time it can skew your record somewhat.

Injuries haven’t helped. Onyeka Okongwu is yet to suit up, Cam Reddish and Deandre Hunter have missed time and Bogdan Bogdanovic is currently sitting. But as their schedule starts to soften and players start to return, expect the Hawks young leaders in Young and John Collins (quietly enjoying a career best season) to have the team trending upwards.

Boston Celtics (C+)

Record: 13-12

Off Rtg: 109.3 (16th); Def Rtg: 107.6 (10th) ; Net Rtg: +1.7 (10th)

The Celtics under rookie head coach Ime Udoka are built to be a defensive nightmare and lean on young tent-pole talents Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown at the other end of the court. The outlines of a good team are there, though the C’s have underwhelmed to this point.

There were early signs of discontent when Marcus Smart called out his young teammates for playing heroball – the Celtics were 2-5 at that point – and that wake up call appears to have been heard, with Boston on a 50 win pace since then.

Brown’s continuing hamstring issues haven’t helped matters, leaving too much of the scoring load to the unusually inconsistent Tatum and to the likes of Smart, Dennis Schroder, Al Horford and Josh Richardson, whose inconsistencies are par for the course.

Defensively, it’s been a feeling out process for Udoka. He’s pulled back somewhat on his ‘switch everything’ mantra which has seen the Celtics defense improve from a bottom five to a top five defense in the past few weeks. If, once Brown is healthy, the C’s offensive numbers can pick up then we might see the Celtics in the middle of the playoff picture, as expected at the start of the season.

Brooklyn Nets (A)

Record: 17-7

Off Rtg: 110.3 (12th); Def Rtg: 106.6 (7th) ; Net Rtg: +3.7 (6th)

This writer’s preseason prediction as NBA Champions (assuming a certain flat-earth, anti-vaxxer was in uniform) have had a funny old season, to this point. They sit atop the Eastern Conference despite a myriad of factors going against them.

Kyrie Irving is of course yet to suit up and may not play for the team ever again. Harden has had, by his own lofty standards, a sub-par campaign (though he is coming around), Blake Griffin misplaced his fountain of youth, key rotation pieces Joe Harris and Nic Claxton have missed a considerable number of games. Their offense, expected to be explosive, is middle of the pack. They never get to the rim.

Yet, they still lead the East!

How? Kevin Durant is the primary reason. KD leads the league in scoring at 28.4 points per game on 53/38/87 shooting splits. Weirdly, he’s steering away from the long ball, his 4.6 attempts from three point range the least since 2013. However, he’s killing it from mid range. He and the returned LaMarcus Aldridge have connected on 58.9% of their mid-range attempts, and they’re shooting a tonne of them. As a point of reference, the Nets pair have attempted more mid range shots than the Utah Jazz or Houston Rockets have as a team.

At age 36, Aldridge is giving the Nets more than what they could have hoped for, with 13.9 points on 57% shooting. Australian flame thrower Patty Mills has also exceeded expectations, stepping in as the starting two guard with Irving sidelined.

As Harden reverts to his norm, Harris and Claxton return and they pick up the inevitable mid season buyout veteran, the Nets will only get stronger. Considering they’re leading their conference their season to this point can’t be considered anything but a success, despite all of (gestures wildly at everything) this.

Charlotte Hornets (B+)

Record: 14-12

Off Rtg: 113.0 (4th); Def Rtg: 113.4 (29th); Net Rtg: +3.7 (6th)

Dr. Jekyll, meet Mr. Hyde.

The Hornets roller coaster of an early season opened with a 5-2 start, followed by a five game losing streak, immediately backed up with five wins on the bounce.

If the ratings above don’t give it away, here’s a very short synopsis of Charlotte’s season: Offense good, defense bad.

The Hornets run more than any other team in the league, including from opposition makes. They get to the rim a tonne as well as being the most accurate three point shooting team in the NBA – that’s a formidable combination.

LaMelo Ball has picked up where he left off as a rookie, running at every opportunity, hitting deep threes and threading outrageous passes to teammates. He’s very quickly turning into the modern day Pete Maravich. Miles Bridges is known for his earth shattering jams, but his shooting and play making have improved exponentially. He’s surely on the radar for Most Improved Player. Before his recent ankle sprain, Terry Rozier was on a tear from deep, hitting eight trey’s against the Wizards and a further six versus Houston. And Charlotte haven’t even released their prized top ten pick James Bouknight onto the league, yet.

At the other end of the floor, though, it’s pretty ugly.

Charlotte’s best offensive lineup is with PJ Washington at centre, but literally any lineup with him at the five haemorrhages baskets. Coach James Borrego hasn’t managed to find that balance between explosive offensive and a tyre fire defense, having given up 140+ points on three occasions already this season.

Given this wasn’t the season that Charlotte were expected to push for anything greater than a spot in the play-in tournament, sitting in 7th spot in the conference and gaining undeniable League Pass Darlings status has the Hornets in good stead for the future.

Cleveland Cavaliers (A+)

Record: 13-12

Off Rtg: 107.9 (20th); Def Rtg: 105.7 (4th); Net Rtg: +2.2 (9th)

This might just be the easiest team to grade in the conference. The Cavs haven’t made the playoffs without LeBron James on roster since 1998, when an overweight Shawn Kemp was their best player. This season wasn’t expected to change that, with the Cavaliers seemingly a long way from playoff contention.

For sure, there were interesting pieces, but the fit just didn’t seem right. Could the SEXLAND back court coexist? How would string-bean rookie Evan Mobley mesh with newly minted $100 million man Jarrett Allen? How and where did off season acquisition Lauri Markkanen fit into all of this? To the eternal credit of coach JB Bickerstaff, the Cavs are performing a long, long way above expectations.

There are a lot of success stories here, but the narrative simply must start with Mobley. Rookies are traditionally poor on defense, yet the Cavs defensive rating with the rook on the floor is an elite 99.9, compared to 107.2 when he sits. Mobley’s versatility has unlocked a huge front court lineup, where Allen (17.3 points, 11.2 rebounds, 1.3 blocks and one legitimate All Star claim) can stay near the rim to do what he does best, whilst hiding the sharp shooting Markkanen on the worst front court player. Mobley’s insane length and remarkable footwork allows him to smother guards at the point of attack as well as protect the rim.

Darius Garland has also made a leap, looking far more composed on the ball as he leads the team in scoring, assists and steals. The tutelage of Ricky Rubio is clearly having a positive impact on the young guard.

Directionless just last season, this iteration of the Cavs has a clear future for the first time since LeBron’s second defection.

Chicago Bulls (A)

Record: 17-8

Off Rtg: 111.1 (6th); Def Rtg: 106.3 (5th); Net Rtg: +4.8 (4th)

You can count this writer as a Bulls skeptic before the season. Even when they made their hot start, there were still lingering doubts. How would the slow-it-down stylings of DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic mesh with the rest of this go-go roster? Would they get any interior defense? To this point, it’s fair to say that the team has found it’s way as one of only five teams in the league sporting both a top ten offense and defense.

Whilst Vooch has struggled, DeRozan is playing close to career best ball without impacting Lavine’s offensive numbers at all. Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have formed the most frightening perimeter defensive duo in these parts since Jordan and Pippen held court; imagine what havoc they could wreak if Patrick Williams returns this campaign.

There are still concerns. Offensively the Bulls are almost unhealthily reliant on Lavine and DeRozan. They desperately need Vucevic to find his way in this new ecosystem. Defensively the team is wafer thin, especially in the front court.

That said, what was a boom or bust off season has proven explosive so far.

Detroit Pistons (D+)

Record: 4-19

Off Rtg: 100.7 (29th); Def Rtg: 110.6 (23rd); Net Rtg: -9.9 (29th)

A tough team to grade. Detroit were not exactly going to pull up any trees, this season. With their best players either 1st or 2nd year player, or Jerami Grant, this was always going to be another rebuilding year in Motor City.

Even so, things haven’t gone well on the court. First overall pick Cade Cunningham missed the opening weeks of the season with an ankle injury then struggled upon his introduction, though he has looked better recently. Ultimately he hasn’t been quite as impactful as was hoped. He has the look of a player that acts as a skeleton key unlocking the good players around him, rather than a dominant supernova type.

Last year’s trio of top picks have all underwhelmed. Saddiq Bey has regressed after a surprisingly strong rookie campaign. Isaiah Stewart is one of the hardest workers in the entire league, but his most telling contribution to the team has been his attempt to murder LeBron James. Killian Hayes has improved, but the bar he set as a rookie was so low you could ice skate over it. All three look like role players at best.

Grant impressed last season in his first attempt at being the main man. He’s also regressed this season, though he remains Detroit’s best player by quite a margin.

This team is a tough watch, currently on pace to be just the 5th team in 22 years to finish dead last in both FG% and 3P%. The upside is another juicy pick in the 2022 draft.

Indiana Pacers (D+)

Record: 10-16

Off Rtg: 109.3 (15th); Def Rtg: 108.5 (13th); Net Rtg: +0.9 (13th)

After discarding the toxic Nate Bjorkgren and returning to the familiar in former head coach Rick Carlisle, things were supposed to improve for the Pacers, but so far it just hasn’t happened.

Notoriously prickly, Carlisle hasn’t been able to improve the mood round the team. He hasn’t helped himself by marginalising his best player in Domantas Sabonis. An All Star the past two seasons operating as a mid to high post offensive hub, Carlisle instead stations Sabonis as a stretch big for extended periods where the career 31.3% three point shooter – 27.9% this year – is struggling to make the same type of impact. Carlisle did the same thing with Kristaps Porzingis in Dallas, but Zinger is a sniper from deep and far too weak through the hips to be a consistent scoring post threat, nor does he hold the play making chops to be a creative hub in the same way Sabonis does.

Now it’s being reported that the Pacers are accepting calls on both Sabonis and fellow big man Myles Turner. That might not be a bad thing in the grand scheme of things – the two of them haven’t exactly proven a natural pairing – but reducing Sabonis’ trade value before shopping him is surely counter productive.

Injuries haven’t helped the Pacers cause, either. Caris Levert has missed time and under performed when on the floor. Malcolm Brogdon has been in and out of the lineup. The perma-crocked TJ Warren is yet to take to the court.

There could be a little bit of flukeyness to Indiana’s poor start, too. They’ve lost eight games by four points or less, plus another in overtime. Turn three of those nine into wins and their a .500 club.

Miami Heat (B+)

Record: 14-11

Off Rtg: 110.6 (10th); Def Rtg: 108.0 (12th); Net Rtg: +2.6 (8th)

Let’s get the negatives out of the way, first of all.

The Heat’s starting unit (Kyle Lowry, Duncan Robinson, Jimmy Butler, PJ Tucker, Bam Adebayo) are less than the sum of their parts offensively. Their offensive rating of 104.0 is slightly worse than the struggling Pelicans manage as a team. Tucker is a zero at that end, these days. Robinson is in an almighty shooting slump (a huge concern considering he gives you practically nothing else).

Now, onto the positives.

That same starting unit is a defensive juggernaut, surrendering 95.4 points per 100 possessions. Backup centre Dewayne Dedmon – starting since Adebayo inured his thumb – has been outstanding defending at the rim.

Lowry’s hit ahead passes have elevated the Heat from average to excellent in the open floor, gifting his teammates easy buckets. Tyler Herro has improved as a scorer, but has made an exponential leap as a play maker, allowing Butler to focus more on his scoring, putting up 22.8 points per contest, his best output since his days in Chicago.

The Heat are probably a level below the big guns of the East but, alongside the Hawks, they are ready to pounce in the playoffs if they get a few breaks.

Milwaukee Bucks (B)

Record: 16-9

Off Rtg: 110.7 (9th); Def Rtg: 106.5 (6th); Net Rtg: +4.2 (5th)

It’s likely that this isn’t quite how the Bucks had envisioned the opening stages of their title defense. Ravaged by injuries to key personnel, Milwaukee was a shell of itself in the opening weeks of the season. Brook Lopez played the season opener but hasn’t been sighted since. Donte Divincenzo is still yet to suit up after missing the playoffs last season. In addition, all three of their stars have missed time.

Encouragingly, the Bucks are 11-0 when all three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday play. Pat Connaughton has turned into a legitimate sniper. Bobby Portis has at long last found some consistency. Grayson Allen (13.5 ppg) has unexpectedly turned into a legitimately good starting 2-guard and they’ve been able to give minutes to exciting young scoring wing Jordan Nwora.

The Bucks are lurking.

New York Knicks (D+)

Record: 12-12

Off Rtg: 110.1 (13th); Def Rtg: 110.3 (22nd); Net Rtg: -0.2 (16th)

Bing Bong, the Knicks are dead…

Following on from a successful 2021 season, a strong start that had the Knicks faithful just a tad excited. What the Knicks are now experiencing is a phenomenon known as ‘regression to the mean’.

(A reminder: that video was taken after the Knicks tasted victory in one (1) game this season).

Julius Randle is still capable of some brilliant games and incredible shot making, but his efficiency numbers have reverted towards his career rates after an outlier of a season last time out. RJ Barrett is proving that progress isn’t linear. He’ll be fine in the long run, but after taking significant strides last season, he’s plateaued a touch so far this campaign.

Most concerning, especially for a defensive coach like Tom Thibodeau, is the Knicks porous defense. Of course, is swapping out Elfrid Payton and Reggie Bullock for Kemba Walker and Evan Fournier, some defensive regression was expected, in the name of improving the offense. Unfortunately for the Knicks that lack of point-of-attack defense has impacted them more than they perhaps thought.

That has been made all the worse by their new starting back court flaming out spectacularly. Fournier is shooting a career worst 41.5% from the floor with wild fluctuations between his best and worst. Typically, he doesn’t provide much play making or defense, so if his shot isn’t falling he’s not providing value.

That’s more than can be said for Walker, however. One of the most popular players in the league, Walker’s dodgy knees have finally caught up with him. He simply doesn’t have the pop to get past people and penetrate the lane, meaning defenders are able to over play him for the jump shot – an issue when you’re as small as Walker. He’s not only been removed from the starting lineup, but from the rotation entirely.

Orlando Magic (B-)

Record: 5-20

Off Rtg: 110.7 (9th); Def Rtg: 106.5 (6th); Net Rtg: +4.2 (5th)

To this writer, the Magic were for many years the most blah team in the NBA. Consistently an eighth seed and first round cannon fodder in the playoffs, they had some nice players, but nobody that would ever take them over the top. When they did find some interesting prospects, like Jonathan Isaac or Markelle Fultz, they inevitably got injured.

Led by the exciting Cole Anthony, this season’s version of the Magic isn’t good – let’s be very clear on that. But they are very, very interesting. Their prized rookies have impressed. After a slow start 5th overall pick Jalen Suggs was finding his feet before a recent injury. From the 8th pick, the Magic look to have a gem of a player in Franz Wagner who looks a certainty for an All Rookie 1st Team position.

The prize for trading out Nikola Vucevic was Wendell Carter Jr, who has impressed despite playing out of position as a power forward. He’s using his shooting and play making to keep the offense moving. The reason he’s out of position is that Mo Bamba has risen from the dead. The 6th pick in the 2018 draft had all the makings of a bust until this season, where he’s producing 10.5 points, 8.9 boards and 2.2 blocks, whilst shooting just well enough (1.3 deep makes at 32.7%) to draw opposing bigs away from the paint.

It feels weird to say it, but the Magic look like a team with a genuine future.

Philadelphia 76ers (B-)

Record: 13-11

Off Rtg: 110.6 (11th); Def Rtg: 109.4 (17th); Net Rtg: +1.1 (12th)

It could have all gone so wrong for the Sixers.

They’ve seen Joel Embiid, Tobias Harris and Matisse Thybulle miss time with COVID, Danny Green suffer with hamstring issues and Ben Simmons not suit up with what the Sixers medicos are describing as Ego-knack. Yet they’re doing just enough to keep their heads above water through a mixture of resourcefulness and some most welcome internal development.

Tyrese Maxey has emerged as a legitimate weapon. In his 35 minutes he’s giving the Sixers 17.2 points on 47/36/89 shooting splits, with 4.9 assists to boot. The ability of Maxey and Seth Curry in the pick and roll game – both fall in the top 15 in the league for pick and roll efficiency – has seen the Sixers transform their offense into something that is much more suited to their personnel.

They’ve also gotten some inspired play from Andre Drummond in Embiid’s absence and former Jazzman Georges Niang has slotted in seamlessly as a play making stretch four.

Of course, there are still issues. The defense isn’t great on the whole. They also struggle to create transition offense and to generate open three’s. They could fix all three of those problems with a Ben Simmons type player. No idea where the Sixers would find one of those, though.

Toronto Raptors (C)

Record: 11-13

Off Rtg: 109.6 (14th); Def Rtg: 109.9 (21st); Net Rtg: -0.3 (17th)

On paper, the Raptors’ array of talent is impressive. They’ve got shooters; long, lithe wings; talented big men. They have a brilliant coach to boot. But you have to wonder if their distribution of resources overlaps a little too much.

Injuries haven’t allowed Toronto to show us what they can do – and importantly how they do it – as a complete unit, but there is a lot of overlap between Pascal Siakam, OG Anunoby and star rookie Scottie Barnes. Theoretically, those three alongside Fred Vanvleet and Gary Trent Jr could form an active, switch-everything defensive unit that can scramble to cover any mismatch, whilst overwhelming teams with speed, shooting and play making at the other end.

In practice, they’re an elite offensive rebounding team and their defensive transition is excellent, but as expected they don’t protect the rim at all well and all that scrambling leads to them fouling everything that moves and giving up an extraordinary number of open threes. Perhaps some lineup continuity will help eliminate some of those defensive issues.

There is an intriguing level of talent on this roster. The development of Precious Achiuwa this season will be paramount. If he turns into a solid centre then that narrows the focus of what acclaimed general manager Masai Ujiri can search for when, as expected, he shops Siakam to make more room for Barnes.

Washington Wizards (A-)

Record: 14-11

Off Rtg: 108.2 (19th); Def Rtg: 109.1 (16th); Net Rtg: -0.9 (21st)

General Manager Tommy Sheppard deserves a medal for the way he’s reconstructed this roster over the past couple of off seasons. In turning John Wall into Russell Westbrook and draft capital, then turning Westbrook into half a roster, he’s converted his squad from a top heavy but limited group into a deep, talented and hard working team. Sure, there have been mistakes along the way (we need to investigate if the Monstars have robbed Davis Bertans of his ability to shoot) but overall Sheppard has done a remarkable job.

The team currently sit in 5th spot in the Eastern conference despite star man Bradley Beal struggling mightily and exactly zero appearances from Thomas Bryant and Rui Hachimura. They’ve done it through a hugely improved defense – 16th in the NBA after being the worst in the league for the past few seasons – and a deep rotation where anybody could step up on any night.

For all his struggles, Beal is still putting up 22 points a game despite shooting a ghastly 26.6% from beyond the arc. Reverting to his norm will see him quickly get back to 25+ an outing. Spencer Dinwiddie has returned from injury to reclaim his place as a pick and roll maestro, taking a lot of the play making pressure away from Beal. Montrezl Harrell is playing career best basketball, as is Kyle Kuzma. Fellow newcomer Kentavious Caldwell-Pope along with Daniel Gafford and Deni Avdija have given the Wizards defense some much needed starch.

To be fair, Washington are probably not as good as their hot start suggests, but with a deep roster, players still to return and young prospects n board, Sheppard has the assets to make a big swing if and when he sees fit. That’s a far cry from where they sat just a couple of years ago.

This article also appears at leading independent media site FOOTYOLOGY.