NBA Midseason Grades: Eastern Conference
Huzzah. The NBA season is passed the halfway point, and if you thought the deluge of midseason content was over, guess again. Today, The Crossover will be handing out its midseason grades for every team in the Eastern Conference. Some teams should be more than happy, others should prepare for a wake-up call.
The grades are based mostly off of preseason expectations with bonus points for clubs who’ve handled adversity well. I would be lying if I said entertainment didn’t play some unquantifiable factor. All records and statistics are through the morning of Jan. 16. Onward.
Toronto Raptors: A
First-Half Record: 33–12 | Net Rating: 6th
This is an easy one. Any worries about Kawhi Leonard have been quelled, as Leonard has been a fringe MVP candidate for the team with the most wins in the NBA. Toronto has an enviable combination of top-flight talent, excellent role players and legitimate depth. Nick Nurse has run the team well, showing flexibility and adaptability with his lineups. The Raptors are going to be very difficult to beat when they’re fully healthy.
Milwaukee Bucks: A+
First-Half Record: 31–12 | Net Rating: 1st
Mike Budenholzer has made a strong case for Coach of the Year for his performance in Milwaukee. He’s helped spread the floor for Giannis Antetokounmpo, and the result is the Greek Freak looking like 30th-century version of Shaquille O’Neal. The Deer have the best net rating in the NBA, and they’re doing so without anyone who would be considered a traditional second superstar. Giannis and James Harden will battle each other for MVP, and the viewing public will benefit as a result.
Indiana Pacers: A
First-Half Record: 29–14 | Net Rating: 3rd
Would anyone have been surprised if the Pacers took a step back this season? Victor Oladipo hasn’t been quite the same, but a leap from Domantas Sabonis has made Indy one of the league’s most charming stories once again. Indy is ahead of both Boston and Philly—the two teams most assumed would be in the conference finals—and is succeeding without a whiff of drama. That the Pacers have done this with Oladipo missing a chunk of time with a knee injury is incredibly impressive. It’s hard to know what all of this will mean come playoff time, but there’s no way to criticize what this team has done so far. (Actually, I would like to see more from Myles Turner. There’s almost no way to criticize what this team has done.)
Philadelphia 76ers: C
First-Half Record: 29–16 | Net Rating: 8th
The Sixers should be making a bigger leap, especially with a fully operational Joel Embiid, a seasoned Ben Simmons, and the addition of a third star in Jimmy Butler. Instead, they’ve been bogged down by an imperfect fit, and they still haven’t beaten their No.1 target in the East, the Celtics. The reason Philly doesn’t have a worse grade is because it can be easy to forget how young this team is. The Sixers obviously want to strike while Simmons is still on his rookie deal, but this organization is in some ways early in its life cycle as a contender. The good news is the starting five is still soundly outperforming opponents. The bad news is Butler is already grumbling, and even with good health from its stars Philly doesn’t look markedly better than a year ago. I’m willing to give everyone a little bit more time to figure out how things should work with Butler in the fold. This all cancels out into a C to me…for now.
Boston Celtics: D+
First-Half Record: 25–18 | Net Rating: 2nd
Boston’s own version of a death lineup—Kyrie Irving, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Gordon Hayward, and Al Horford—was so pitiful offensively that Brad Stevens had to shelve it. The league’s answer to the Warriors posted a -3.8 net rating in 139 minutes. Hayward still looks nothing like a max player, averaging his fewest points since his rookie year on substandard efficiency. Brown has seemingly taken a step back and is drawing the ire of teammates for his defensive effort. Tatum probably spent too much time with Kobe last summer. Kyrie has turned into the cranky vet he seemingly wanted to get away from in Cleveland. And if the playoffs started today, Boston wouldn’t even have homecourt in the first round.
This is the team many predicted would run away with the East. Instead, they could be in for a rock fight in the first round. I don’t know how you give this team a passing grade relative to its preseason expectations. The silver lining: It’s only midseason. Boston should have enough top-end talent—and coaching!—to be a factor come playoff time. The team’s net rating is a very positive sign for future success. But the Celtics are far from the juggernaut most expected; they are separated by six games in the loss column from both first and 10th place.
Miami Heat: C-
First-Half Record: 21–21 | Net Rating: 17th
The Justise Winslow development is promising, but the Heat took too long to unleash him at point guard, and Erik Spoelstra’s rotations can still leave a little to be desired. (How much longer is Rodney McGruder going to start?) It’s been encouraging to see more consistent effort from Hassan Whiteside of late—the Heat are a much better team when he’s fully engaged. And yet, Miami can never seem to stray too far above of the .500 mark. The Heat have nice wins over the Bucks, Rockets, Celtics, and Clippers. They also have three losses to the Hawks, another to the Wizards, and have been on the business end of some humbling blowouts. Dwyane Wade still provides some fun, but Miami’s ceiling and floor with its current core appears to be roughly the same, and the Heat will seemingly straddle that line for the foreseeable future. (The ceiling is the floor?) I’m cutting them a tiny bit of slack due to Goran Dragic’s injury issues—even though his absence created Point Justise. Ultimately, for the Heat to be this frustratingly average is a little bit disheartening, and undoubtedly bothers Pat Riley.
Brooklyn Nets: A+
First-Half Record: 22–23 | Net Rating: 21st
The Nets looked left for dead after Caris LeVert went down with a gruesome injury in mid-November. Brooklyn lost 10 of 12 games after he dislocated his foot, then reeled off a shocking seven-game winning streak to sprint back into the playoff race. Kenny Atkinson has just done a remarkable job here, coaxing reliable performances from D’Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Jarrett Allen, among others. (Russell, by the way, may be playing himself into a big contract. He’s posting career bests in points per game and three-point percentage. And the team has a better defensive rating with him on the floor than on the bench.)
The Nets could have freely tanked this year and everyone would have been happy for them, especially with the franchise having its own first-round pick for the first time in forever. But Brooklyn wants to compete, and it very well could make the playoffs. The Nets have wins over the Celtics, Lakers, Sixers, and Raptors—they aren’t simply beating up bad teams. Brooklyn gives everyone a good shot nearly every night, and it’s wildly exceeded its preseason expectations.
Charlotte Hornets: B-
First-Half Record: 20–23 | Net Rating: 16th
After back-to-back under .500 seasons Charlotte is…under .500 a little beyond the midway point of the season. Last year’s Hornets had a robust net rating of 0.0. Currently, they stand at 0.2. At the same time, major leaps weren’t expected here. I like the James Borrego hire, but Charlotte still needs to cycle through its mess of big contracts before building a truly coherent roster. The Hornets get a B- almost entirely on the strength of Kemba Walker, who started this year playing as good as anyone in the league. In his eighth season, Kemba is averaging a career-high 25.2 points per game, and there are nights when he looks almost video-gamely unstoppable in high pick-and-rolls. Charlotte also looks to be a better bet for the playoffs in 2019. Their ever-so-slight improvement and the Kemba entertainment factor just push them over a meager passing grade.
Orlando Magic: D
First-Half Record: 19–24 | Net Rating: 25th
Okay, the Magic are respectful enough and certainly not embarrassing. But what’s the point of this team? Orlando paid Aaron Gordon only to continue to often play him out of position. The frontcourt glut just won’t go away. Gordon has only played 23 minutes with the team’s two most important prospects, Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba, and that trio stinks. Meanwhile, the Bamba-Isaac frontcourt has a -22.5 net rating in 208 minutes. Nikola Vucevic is a nice story, but he factors a whopping 0% in the team’s future plans, and he’s not exactly carrying Orlando to victories. This team is relying too heavily on vets to be this firmly planted in the lottery. Bamba and Isaac should both play more, because at least then the Magic could be bad in a sensible way.
Detroit Pistons: D
First-Half Record: 18–24 | Net Rating: 23rd
Even with Blake Griffin averaging a career high in points while turning into a legitimately good, high-volume three-point shooter, the Pistons are behind the Magic in the East. The Griffin-Andre Drummond pairing has a blah 2.1 net rating, and the team has won only six times since Dec. 1. This isn’t quite the worst-case scenario for the Pistons—maybe Griffin still has trade value!—but it’s pretty close. Detroit being this bad even with Blake still producing is a terrifying indictment on the rest of the roster. Maybe the Pistons back into a good lottery pick and are somehow able to kick start a rebuild in the summer. But that’s not exactly what you’re playing for with the 11th-highest payroll in the league. With a mostly empty arena to boot, this is one of the more depressing situations in the NBA. I understand new management has taken over since Griffin was acquired, but it’s reasonable to expect more from a team that has him and last season’s Coach of the Year in Dwane Casey.
Washington Wizards: A++
First-Half Record: 18–26 | Net Rating: 24th
I’m sorry, everything about this Washington season has gone exactly according to plan. John Wall grumbly and injured again? Dwight Howard contributing nothing? Austin Rivers being jettisoned well before the trade deadline? The team looking a little better as soon as Wall went down? Absolutely none of this is surprising. The Wizards have delivered in every way we’ve asked them to, that is, they’ve been every bit the comical train wreck I dreamed of when I called them a glorified reality TV show in our season preview. None of this has been disappointing. I don’t care what their record is. Washington exists solely as escapist entertainment. The Wizards are like watching a car crash happen in real time with none of the guilt or bodily harm. Should Washington’s front office blow up the roster and wash its hands of everyone except Bradley Beal? Without a doubt. Do I want this team to ever change? No. From tirade-filled practices to the comfort of this team almost definitely still believing they’re better than the Celtics, the Wizards are a pleasure to observe.
Atlanta Hawks: B+
First-Half Record: 14–30 | Net Rating: 26th
A finely executed rebuild in Atlanta so far. Trae Young, John Collins, and Kevin Huerter are all top five amongst Hawks in minutes played, while Lloyd Pierce still wisely employs his vets to keep things from going completely off the rails. Atlanta has lost and will continue to lose a lot, but it will also frustrate teams and win sometimes when it’s not supposed to. The Hawks are on a sensible path and must make sure they keep Young at the forefront of their future plans. Young hasn’t been spectacular, but he has flashes of brilliance that make his future seem bright when he’s not being constantly compared to Luka Doncic. Judging him or this team after half a season is a fruitless exercise. Atlanta needs time, and everyone knows that.
Chicago Bulls: F
First-Half Record: 10–33 | Net Rating: 29th
What a stupid tank job this is. The Bulls are bad, and that’s fine. But starting the season with Fred Hoiberg didn’t really make sense, and the Jim Boylen hire—which Chicago doubled down on!—has been absurd. The Bulls are wasting the time of Jabari Parker and (more so) Robin Lopez, and they need to cut bait with their malcontents and let the young guys be bad on their own. Elsewhere, Zach LaVine’s scoring hasn’t resulted in wins. Injuries have held back Lauri Markkanen and Bobby Portis (especially the latter.) And Kris Dunn hasn’t quite made any big strides. Markkanen and Wendell Carter are the most promising players here. It’s a shame they are being overshadowed by buffoonery everywhere else in the organization. The end result is the same here: A tank. But the Bulls’ process worries me, and I have no faith in the front office to carry forward with any semblance of common sense.
New York Knicks: B+
First-Half Record: 10–33 | Net Rating: 27th
This is exactly the season the Knicks signed up for: Play your way into the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, and hope one of your young guys flashes. New York has a chance to snag a great draft pick, and Kevin Knox is starting to live up to some of his Summer League hype. If Kristaps Porzingis can play 15 great games at the end of the season, the Knicks will have an A+ grade. It’s frankly impressive any time this team can get through a season without completely mismanaging any of its assets. For now: So far, so good. The Porzingis situation may need monitoring, but the Knicks currently resemble a normal NBA franchise for the first time in a long time.
Cleveland Cavaliers: D-
First-Half Record: 9–35 | Net Rating: 30th
Another team that’s losing games at the rate it should be. And yet—what the hell did they do with Ty Lue? How embarrassing was it when Larry Drew didn’t want to accept the head-coaching job? Are they even trying to trade Kevin Love? Everyone except the Cavs knew they should go for a full-on rebuild after LeBron left. Instead, Dan Gilbert desperately held on, and that created awkward situations for Lue, Love, Kyle Korver, and J.R. Smith. Cleveland hardly gets credit for tanking because it’s basically happened against the wishes of the front office. It’s frustrating when teams don’t even realize how to lose properly. If and when the Cavs finally trade Love that will be a good sign that management is actually taking a realistic long-term approach.