With a quarter of the season played it’s high time we took a look at the league and handed out grades against what teams have achieved against what was expected of them.
If you missed it, here’s the Western Conference grades. Today we’re examining the East.
Atlanta Hawks (10-10 record)
The Hawks were not exactly transparent this offseason. In acquiring Danilo Gallinari, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and Rajon Rondo, the Atlanta brass sent out a clear ‘playoffs or bust’ message.
So far, so good. The Hawks haven’t set the world alight, but they are sitting in 6th place in the conference. Though it must be said that in a suddenly compact mid-table, they’re only two games ahead of the 11th placed Toronto/Tampa Bay (Toronto Bay?) Raptors. Encouragingly, Gallo and Boggy Bog have only played 17 games between them, so there is room for the improvement.
The incumbents have most certainly improved. De’Andre Hunter has perhaps taken the most pronounced step forward, improving immensely as a playmaker and in turn taking the pressure off of Trae Young. Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish have performed in fits and starts, but are on the path to establishing themselves as elite role players. Clint Capela – finally injury free – is playing out of his skin. The 26-year-old Swiss is 2nd in the league with 14.4 boards per night, and recently put together back-to-back performances of 27 points, 26 rebounds, and 5 blocks against the Pistons followed by a 13 point, 19 board, 10 block triple double versus Minnesota.
Boston Celtics (10-8)
The Celtics have managed to stay afloat in the race to the top of the East, currently slotting into 4th position, despite losing Jayson Tatum for five games due to COVID protocols, and Kemba Walker only playing in six games – and only 24 minutes per game in those six – this far.
The main reason for their holding on is the ascension of Jaylen Brown. The former third overall pick from 2016 is putting up a team leading 27.1 points per game alongside career-best shooting splits – his 44.3% from deep is miles ahead of his career success rate – and his usual stellar defense. He’s surely a lock for All-Star selection this season. With Tatum back on the floor and Walker slowly getting back to full fitness, Boston are primed for a top-two tilt in the East.
That said, not everything has worked out for them, so far. Aaron Nesmith has been underwhelming – although balanced out somewhat by Payton Pritchard’s surprise emergence – and Tristan Thompson’s physical presence hasn’t had the desired effect, with the team still looking far more connected with Daniel Theis or Robert Williams manning the middle.
Brooklyn Nets (13-9)
The Nets got their man. In trading for James Harden, the team has assembled its Big Three, has an elite release valve in Joe Harris, and uh…has 2015’s Deandre Jordan to do the dirty work.
Post Harden deal, the three universal questions directed Brooklyn’s way were: do they have enough defense? Do they have enough depth? Can their superstars coexist?
Whilst Kyrie Irving always has the potential to throw an entire toolbox of spanners in the works, so far so good on the last of those queries. The first two, however? Yikes.
The Big Three are all averaging over 35 minutes a night, with Harden’s already astronomical Houston minutes actually increasing since moving East. Harris’ minutes have increased to around 35 a night since the trade. The ancient Jeff Green is playing around 30 minutes; Jordan – who was losing minutes hand over fist to Jarrett Allen – is in the high 20’s. Even Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot is playing over 20 minutes a night. So, no. The Nets do not have depth right now.
As for defense….oh my. The nets 3rd ranked offense is well and truly balanced out by their 26th ranked defense – 29th since the trade.
The silver lining is that the Nets should clean up on the buyout market. Veterans of all shapes and sizes will want to ring chase in Brooklyn. General Manager Sean Marks mission is to find the right type of players to shore up both his defense and bench.
Charlotte Hornets (10-11)
Many – including this writer – scoffed at the Hornets handing the keys to Fort Knox to the oft-injured Gordon Hayward. So far (touches all of the wood), Hayward has stayed healthy and is living up to his contract. The soon to be 31 year old (as well as he’s playing now, that contract will still age poorly) is pouring in a career high 23 points per game, on career high efficiency. It’s safe to say that this is the Gordon Hayward Boston hoped to be signing.
Combine the resurgent veteran with an exciting rookie and you’ve got yourself a chance in every game. LaMelo Ball is well on the way to proving himself the best of the Ball brothers – sorry LiAngelo stans – as he lights up Charlotte with an array of dazzling passing. His unselfishness has proven infectious and for once, we’re using the term infectios as a positive.
Ball is whipping the ball around the court and almost on his own he’s made Charlotte a legitimately fun team to watch. They’re very much middle of the road, sitting in 8th place in the East, ranking 15th in Net Rating, but after their recent history of Kemba and nothing else, this is clear progress.
Chicago Bulls (8-11)
After years of mismanagement, the Bulls are finally back on the right path.
Billy Donovan is following on from last seasons excellent coaching job in Oklahoma City by finding a system that augments his players strengths, including pushing the pace to a level perhaps never before seen in Chicago, and allowing his players to be three level scorers.
The results are obvious. Zach Lavine has found yet another level as a scorer but is doing it with heightened levels control and patience. Coby White has become a full time starter and has unveiled previously unseen play making chops: both are averaging career highs in assists. Wendell Carter finally looks like a decent NBA centre after a young career spent in seemingly permanent regression. Veteran forward Thad Young looks rejuvenated. Patrick Williams is giving off young Kawhi Leonard vibes.
There is still quite a way to go for the Bulls, but for the first time since a young Derrick Rose had fully operational legs, there is excitement building in the Windy City.
Cleveland Cavaliers (10-11)
Perhaps more surprising than the Hornets sitting in a playoff spot is that the Cavs are tied with them (sitting ahead of Charlotte thanks to the current tiebreaker). There might not be a living soul outside of Cleveland that expected this Cavs team to be decent.
So how are the Cavs doing this? Simple: defense. The team sport the 7th best defensive rating in the NBA at the time of writing. They’re playing a physical, trapping, helter-skelter system that is creating turnovers at a league leading rate, allowing their jet heeled guards and equally speedy big men in Larry Nance Jr (quietly having a fantastic campaign), Andre Drummond and Jarrett Allen to get out and run. Rookie Isaac Okoro is already a defensive terror, though he has a long way to go before he’s anything more than an Andre Roberson clone.
The downside for the Cavs is that when they can’t run, they don’t score. Cleveland are second to last in offensive rating, and last by a country mile in half court offense. Collin Sexton is their only shining light on the offensive side of the ball, providing the Cavs with a nightly 24.1 points on 50/44/82 splits and 4.1 assists.
Detroit Pistons (5-15)
Never has the emphasis on the first syllable in DEEE-TROIT BASKETBALL been more apt.
Sitting only a game above the injury and COVID impacted Wizards, Detroit’s transformative season hasn’t panned out as planned. Rookie Killian Hayes has played like a 19 year old stepping up too many levels all at once. He’ll be fine in the long run, though the team probably had too high an expectation on him to start for this team from the jump. The front office may have missed on its best chance to maximise Derrick Rose in a trade, although the former MVP is still playing well off the bench.
Blake Griffin, sadly, looks done. The former superstar Clipper is a mere shell of himself these days. He still has the intelligence to get into good positions, but he simply lacks the explosiveness – not his old explosiveness, but any explosiveness – to make good of those situations.
The clear positives are the early returns on rookie Saddiq Bey, who looks a keeper, and Jerami Grant betting on himself. The former Nugget garbage man has seamlessly shifted into being a first option to the tune of 23.6 points, 5.9 rebounds, 2.9 assists, 0.9 steals, 1.1 blocks and 2.6 three pointers at a 40% clip. All bar the blocks are far and away career highs.
Credit where it’s due: Grant has made many of us in the media look foolish this season.
Indiana Pacers (11-9)
The Pacers quiet rebuild has come to fruition. They’ve built through the draft, through timely trades, free agency, and made lemonade out of the lemons Paul George handed them. They’ve worked under a coach who gave them a high floor, and now have a coach that combines that floor with a much higher ceiling.
The bedrock of the Pacers success is their big-big pairing of Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis. The still somehow only 24 years old Sabonis has stuck it to those that mocked his All-Star appearance last season – this writer was very much Team Sabonis – by putting up more than 20 points, 12 boards and five assists a night as the hub of the Pacers offense. Turner, on the other hand, takes care of things on defense. His 3.9 blocks per game lead the NBA by a huge margin: the difference between he and second placed Rudy Gobert is the same as the gap from Gobert to Robert Williams down in 11th.
Impressively the team has been doing all this without Bubble God TJ Warren who is out injured and whilst reincorporating Jeremy Lamb after his own long term injury layoff.
The only downside to their season so far is that trade acquisition Caris Levert is yet to suit up for the team. Though even that cloud has a silver lining: the pre-trade physical might just have saved Levert’s life.
Miami Heat (7-13)
Whilst there was a hint of fluke about Miami’s finals run in the NBA bubble, there can simply be no excuse for this team to be at 7-13, in 13th position in the conference and closer to the bottom two than the 8th placed Hornets. The only possible excuse is that Jimmy Butler has only played in eight of their 20 games, so far. But even in those games the Heat are only 4-4.
On an individual level, things are going swimmingly. Bam Adebayo is extending his offensive repertoire; Duncan Robinson remains the most feared shooter this side of San Francisco; Tyler Herro is evolving into an excellent point guard; rookie Precious Achiuwa has shown some most promising flashes.
Yet it’s simply not working for the Heat so far. Erik Spoelstra is a genius level coach who will surely work out a way to fix whatever it is that ails his Heat. In a shortened season, he’d want to do that sooner rather than later.
Milwaukee Bucks (12-8)
With all the hype centred around the Los Angeles teams, Utah’s surprise emergence, Brooklyn’s new super team and Philadelphia’s belated arrival to the elite, the NBA zeitgeist seems to have passed the Bucks by, somewhat. Don’t let the relative lack of attention fool you, though. The Bucks are still elite, lurking in the shadows of the East.
Milwaukee’s conscious decision to forego their much celebrated depth for more top end artillery can only truly be judged come playoff time, but so far their regular season returns have been just fine, with the team sporting the best Net Rating in the entire league.
Giannis Antetokounmpo (27.3 points, 11 boards, 5.7 assists, 1.1 steams and 1.1 blocks) continues to provide phenomenal play at both ends of the floor, though his 59% free throws remain a concern. To that end, coach Mike Budenholzer has taken the ball out of the MVP’s hands late in games, instead entrusting Jrue Holiday and especially Khris Middleton to steer the side home.
Middleton is once again an efficiency monster, with 52/46/92 shooting splits putting him on course for his first 50/40/90 campaign (he missed by only .03% on field goals last season). His elite shooting, combined with using Giannis as the league’s most terrifying lob threat has given the Bucks the potent late game offense that they’ve lacked in recent years.
New York Knicks (9-13)
The Knicks are….competent? It seems strange to say that about the 21st centuries most moribund franchise, but coach Tom Thibodeau – unsurprisingly – has the team playing punishing defense (8th in the NBA) with just enough offense to keep afloat. They’ve been maddeningly inconsistent so far, though, mixing a pair of three game winning streaks with losing runs of five and three games.
Coaching aside, the clear catalyst has been Julius Randle, who has finally put it all together in season seven. He’s averaging career highs in points and rebounds, but it’s his 6 assists a game – doubling his career average – that has turned the heads of pundits as well as those of the defense.
In seasons past, Randle’s spin move was almost inevitably a slapstick turnover or forced shot that assaulted the backboard. This season, he’s finding players both inside and out with some canny looks.
Another positive has been the form of rookie Immanuel Quickley, who has already established himself as the best point guard on a roster loaded with failed lottery pick lead guards. He should probably be starting already, but Thibs once started Keith freaking Bogans for a whole season, so don’t hold your collective breath, Knicks fans.
Orlando Magic (8-13)
At the beginning of the season, the Magic looked like they were turning a corner, despite the absence of cornerstone big man Jonathan Isaac. That 4-0 start has been long forgotten under a deluge of harmful injuries to Markelle Fultz (out for the season when looking on the verge of a genuine breakthrough), Evan Fournier (nine games missed) and now Aaron Gordon, who will miss at least a month.
The Magic simply don’t have the depth to cover absences to four of their presumed starting five. The likes of Dwayne Bacon, James Ennis and rookie Cole Anthony are all being asked to play above their station and it shows.
The Magic get a pass mark, here, due to those injuries and the promise the team showed when close to healthy. By season’s end, however, their record could be truly ugly.
Philadelphia 76ers (15-6)
This is what we’ve been waiting for. Despite being hit hard by the leagues COVID protocols and the rumours of a Ben Simmons trade, the Sixers sit atop the East.
Coach Doc Rivers has his team humming, but it’s simplistic to say that it really was all Brett Brown’s fault. The off season additions made by Elton Brand and/or Daryl Morey have fit seamlessly. Seth Curry is top five in three point percentage (Tobias Harris is top 15). Danny Green has given the Sixers his usual solid two way play. Rookie Tyrese Maxey is a spark plug off the bench, as is veteran centre Dwight Howard.
The catalyst for all of this, though, is Joel Embiid who is finally fulfilling his immense potential. Jojo is piling up counting stats: 28.3 points, 11.1 boards, 2.8 assists, 1.2 steals, 1.3 blocks and 1.2 made treys on 54/40/84 shooting splits. The big man is devouring fools in the paint at both ends of the floor. As a throwback to the era of Olajuwon, Robinson, Shaq, Parish, Daugherty et al, it’s a wonderful thing to see.
Toronto Raptors (8-12)
How the mighty have fallen.
In recent years the Raps have forged an identity as the team that cannot be felled, no matter the personnel losses they endure. After an off season where they lost their centre rotation, it was generally accepted that they had recovered well with the signing of Aron Baynes and the presumed promotion of Chris Boucher.
Whilst the springy Boucher has thrived off the bench, the veteran Australian looks like he’s finally feeling the effects from 17 years of physical pounding in leagues all over the world. The three point shot – Bangers point of difference to many behemoth centres – isn’t falling, either. After a pair of seasons hovering around the 35% mark, Baynes is down to a woeful 23.3% from deep this season.
Pascal Siakam struggled badly in the bubble, but it was presumed he would get back to normal outside of bubble life. Could his continued struggles be attributed to the team living in Tampa Bay this season? It’s not the same as the Orlando bubble, but it’s not home, either.
Washington Wizards (4-12)
(Like the Grizzlies in the West, Washington 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)
So….what’s the over/under on games played before Bradley Beal just starts indiscriminately punching people in the face?
The leagues leading scorer – by a full four points per game – has surely had enough of this mess. After tasting some success in the John Wall era, he’s now having to watch Wall thrive in Houston while simultaneously watching Russell Westbrook (who cost them a first round pick, don’t forget) bruise every hoop that he shoots at.
Injuries haven’t helped: Westbrook has missed games sporadically which has stunted his ability to mesh with teammates. David Bertans missed the start of the season and has been – for him – ice cold since returning. Thomas Bryant was looking great before a season ending knee injury.
The $64k question in Washington is this: do they trade Beal now and fully embrace the rebuild, or do they hope that Beal can lead their youngsters to the playoffs? The trade deadline is always intriguing. In Washington, it could be era defining.