NBA midseason grades: The Warriors are short on consistency
After handing out grades to the East, we’re back with the Western Conference today. How do we judge the Warriors? What’s going on with the Lakers? How much can I still gloat about the Nuggets? You’re about to find out the answers to all those questions and many more. Grades are based mostly off reasonable preseason expectations, as well as a combination of gut reaction, entertainment, and several other secret spices. Bonus points were given to teams that handled adversity well.
All stats and records are through the morning of Jan. 17. Teams are placed in order of the current standings. Grades for the Eastern Conference can be found here. Onward.
First-Half Record: 31–14 | Net Rating: 2nd
I mean, yeah. The Warriors are first in the West after a relatively tumultuous season. They’ve weathered injuries and drama only to end up where everyone expects them to be. Here’s what it comes down to: The expectations are sky high for Golden State, and even with some impressive offensive explosions they’ve been short of consistently remarkable this season. The Dubs are coasting to some extent, and that’s perfectly fine when you’re the best team ever assembled and all you care about is winning a title. But we also don’t need to pretend like Golden State being in first place is anything to be excited about. Judging this team during the regular season is completely worthless. The Boogie Cousins comeback will be fun to watch, though.
First-Half Record: 29–14 | Net Rating: 7th
Their shellacking at the hands of the Warriors notwithstanding, this has been a remarkable season for MY Nuggets. Denver holding on the top spot in the West for as long as it did was a shocking feat considering 60% of the starting lineup has missed significant time. Will Barton went out in the second game of the season and is only recently rounding back into shape. Gary Harris has played in only 25 games due to multiple injuries. And Paul Millsap, the backbone of the Nuggets’ defense, missed eight games himself. Mike Malone is my pick for Coach of the Year, while Nikola Jokic is building an MVP case and Jamal Murray is making a star turn.
There are some issues. The defense has slipped, but better health from Millsap and Harris should help things get back on track on that side of the ball. Denver also must be eagerly awaiting to play its opening night starting five again, a group that’s cruelly been unable to play major minutes together since the start of last season. The Nuggets are No. 2 in the West after missing the playoffs entirely in 2018. Just give them two months of good health, please.
First-Half Record: 26–17 | Net Rating: 5th
On one hand, you see that OKC has arguably two of the top-10 players in the NBA, and it’s not shocking to see them third in the West. On the other, it’s not too long ago the Thunder were being humbled at the hands of the Jazz en route to a first-round playoff exit. OKC just makes more sense this season, and the gamble to trade for Paul George two summers ago has paid off beautifully. Not only is George committed long-term, he’s playing the best basketball of his career. He’s defending at an All-NBA level while averaging 26.6 points per game—thanks in large part to some lethal three-point shooting. Steven Adams is still performing admirably as the third cog, and Jerami Grant has steadily improved his game. I am a Russell Westbrook believer, but I can’t in good conscience give this team a straight A because of his abysmal three-point shooting. (Russ, my man, please keep getting to the paint instead.) OKC may not be championship material quite yet, but as other 2018 West playoff teams have taken a tumble, the Thunder have come into their own.
First-Half Record: 25–19 | Net Rating: 12th
This is a tough one. James Harden is playing out of his damn mind and seemingly finds new ways to break the game of basketball every night. And after a painfully slow start to the season, the Rockets are somehow fourth in the West, only five-and-a-half games out of the top spot. Here’s what worries me: The defense. Houston is 26th in defensive efficiency, an absolute free fall from its No. 7 mark in 2018. Bringing back assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik hasn’t fixed the issues on that side of the ball. The Rockets still miss Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute. Chris Paul looked a quarter-step slow even before he hurt his hamstring, and it’s unclear what to expect from him when he returns to action. Harden’s ascendance to this never-before-seen interstellar plane is remarkable, but we’ve seen him wear down in the past from having to carry the team on this level. Without Clint Capela for a month, the burden on Harden will only get bigger. Houston scores big points for handling adversity much better than most teams, but I’m worried about the long-term consequences of how they’ve reached this point.
Trail Blazers: C+
First-Half Record: 27–19 | Net Rating: 11th
The Blazers are slightly behind their last season’s pace, and I’m personally upset with them for slipping defensively after I wrote glowingly about their identity on that side of the ball. Portland is fifth in the West, and for better or worse, this is pretty much what this team is always going to be. They have the requisite talent and coaching to play with any team on any given night. At the same time, PDX’s roster limitations mean it’s never really taken seriously as a title contender. This is another team that has a small gap between it’s ceiling and it’s floor, so it’s hard for the Blazers to really stand out as overachievers. They deserve credit for staying steady in the middle of the playoff bracket. But there’s no “Wow!” factor here.
First-Half Record: 26–20 | Net Rating: 10th
San Antonio is doing that thing where it zigs while the rest of the league zags, miraculously building a top-five offense around a post player and midrange shooter. Gregg Popovich was basically handed an incredibly complicated Chopped basket in the dessert round and asked to cook a five-star dish with a broken ice-cream machine. And he’s done it! The Spurs didn’t only lose Kawhi Leonard, they lost Dejounte Murray and are somehow still making this work. The defense is unSpursian—currently in the back half of the league—but it somehow hasn’t mattered. It’s pretty incredible for San Antonio to be in the playoff picture considering the huge changes to its rotation and a slow start to the season. But just as the world keeps turning, the Spurs keep winning. Pop deserves his own COTY votes for what he’s done this year, and some unlucky saps are going to hate facing this team in the first round.
First-Half Record: 24–20 | Net Rating: 15th
The Clips are falling victim to their own early-season success. L.A. was one of the league’s surprises last year, and continued that this season with a hot start despite a fairly starless roster. But the Clippers are only 9–14 since Dec. 2, and now look like they’ll be in a fight for a playoff spot through the spring. L.A. has some intriguing pieces in Tobias Harris, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, and Montrezl Harrell, but Doc Rivers seemingly hasn’t been able to put together a solid starting five. The Avery Bradley-SGA and Bradley-Pat Beverly backcourts both have negative net ratings, and Marcin Gortat needs to spend significantly more time on the bench. For an organization that hopes to attract a marquee free agent, the Clippers can’t afford to end their season on a prolonged downswing.
First-Half Record: 25–21 | Net Rating: 8th
A hot stretch from Utah has them back in the volatile playoff picture in the West. The Jazz have won five in a row, and are 8–2 in their last 10 games, putting them in eighth place in the conference. It’s a big jump for a Utah team that’s been hovering under .500 for large chunks of this season. The Jazz were an overthinking writer’s pick to be a 50-win team this season, with many people perhaps putting too much stock into their first-round beatdown of the Thunder last year. Second-year Donovan Mitchell has been inefficient, and Utah’s offense sits in the bottom-third of the league. The West is better as a whole this season, and the Jazz didn’t do too much to improve their roster last summer, eventually adding Kyle Korver once the season began. That leaves too much of a burden on Mitchell, who is really the only guy on the team who can routinely create his own shot. Hopefully the first half of the season is a little bit of a wake-up call for the Jazz and what they need to do to nurture Mitchell. All that said, they’ve recovered pretty nicely from the horrid start, and that saves Utah from a non-passing grade.
First-Half Record: 24–21 | Net Rating: 14th
This grade has steadily dropped. I was pleasantly surprised by the Lakers for much of the season, and the fact that this team has the No. 6 defense makes me want to slap the sides of my computer screen every time I read that stat. But the dropoff without LeBron is now too worrisome not to be a significant issue. The optimistic view of James’s decision to join the Lakers was that the young core could develop into a worthy supporting cast. Instead, L.A. is playing a lot like Bron’s Cleveland teammates did whenever he missed time. Since the day after Christmas, the Lakers have the worst offense in the NBA. The defense has held up, but these guys should be able to score, right? Lonzo Ball and Brandon Ingram haven’t made the strides needed to become secondary stars, and LeBron can’t fix that all by himself.
James is 34; expecting him to be perfectly healthy for every regular season from this point forward is a risky proposition. The core around him needs to be better, not only for stretches like this, but for the Lakers’ hopes to package some of these players into a trade for a star. And by the way, the veterans L.A. signed haven’t exactly held down the fort without James as well.
There have been some positives. LeBron has been willing to keep up with Luke Walton’s preferred pace. JaVale McGee has anchored some stingy defensive units. Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart have become very valuable role players. But after seemingly overachieving for much of the season, the Lakers are now in ninth place in the West. Is LeBron really okay with still having to do everything himself?
First-Half Record: 23–21 | Net Rating: 21st
Anytime Sacramento’s owner isn’t publicly discussing a harebrained scheme, it’s a positive for the Kings. This year, the franchise has mixed competence with a feisty attitude on the court, and it’s resulted in a 23–21 record. How shocking is that mark? The Kings haven’t finished above .500 since 2006! In fact, Sacramento is only three victories from matching its win total from all of last season. The leader of the renaissance has been De’Aaron Fox, the spark-plug guard who has made a leap in his second season. Fox is relentless night in and night out, and he’s emerged not only as a star, but as a leader. The Kings’ years of losing have finally paid off—just ask Phoenix how hard that can be. Fox, Buddy Hield, Marvin Bagley, and Bogdan Bogdanovic all look like keepers for a quickly brightening future, and Dave Joerger has pushed all the right buttons with this group. That’s where the minus comes in, though. Remember that pesky owner? Why were the Kings considering firing Joerger for even a second? They’ve since seemingly rectified the situation, but it‘s baffling the team itself somehow got in the way of this feel-good season.
First-Half Record: 21–23 | Net Rating: 20th
The Jimmy Butler saga cast a pall over this entire season. Ownership botched both Butler’s trade request and the firing of Tom Thibodeau. And the Wolves are three games out of the playoffs, perhaps proving Butler was making some good points during his practice rants. Here’s what I like: Ryan Saunders. Karl Towns thriving in Butler’s absence. The additions of Robert Covington and Dario Saric, the latter of whom I want to start. Minnesota has gone 17–14 since ditching Butler, which is actually pretty respectable. I don’t think the Wolves are a lost cause, but it’s going to be a little embarrassing if they miss the playoffs after Butler said they couldn’t win without him. Towns and Andrew Wiggins are expected to be stars, and they have enough supporting pieces to realistically compete in the West. It’s up to them to carry this team into the postseason and prove they are worthy of becoming franchise building blocks. It’s all or nothing for me. If Towns and Wiggins play up to their pedigree and secure a playoff berth, this season was a success. If not, it’s a failure. For now, I’m comfortable leaving the Wolves in the middle.
First-Half Record: 21–24 | Net Rating: 13th
What’s gone right for this team? The Pelicans’ season has been dominated by Anthony Davis trade talk, and his days in the Bayou look numbered with each passing day. Davis is playing well, but it isn’t translating into wins like it did last season. Injuries to key rotations guys have killed any chances at consistency. New Orleans needed to build on last year’s second-round showing to have any chance at keeping Davis beyond this season. Instead, the Pels taken a major step back, and the future of the franchise is in serious doubt. This season has been pretty much the worst case scenario for New Orleans. Maybe the Pelicans can somehow turn this around and swing a trade that entices Davis to stay for the long haul. For now, the franchise’s best player has a pretty convincing case to start looking elsewhere.
First-Half Record: 20–24 | Net Rating: 18th
The Mavs aren’t moribund but they aren’t good. Rick Carlisle, a perennially underrated coach, deserves one day to again have a roster that’s actually talented enough to make some noise in the West. Dallas realistically doesn’t have the talent to do anything of note in the conference. The Mavs even being on the fringe of the playoff race is a testament to Carlisle, and of course Luka Doncic, who has quickly separated himself from everyone else in his draft class. Dallas gets a B here almost entirely because of Luka and the excitement he’s injected into the organization. The Mavs are going to have some cap flexibility as early as this summer, and their books are clean throughout the life of Doncic’s rookie deal. Hitting a home run in the lottery and having the ability to capitalize on it moving forward is enough reason to celebrate in Dallas. This team isn’t out of the woods, but a light is certainly starting to emerge off into the distance.
First-Half Record: 19–25 | Net Rating: 22nd
A hot start, and then a free fall. The Grizzlies tantalized us with some inspired play early in the season, but they’ve won only six times since Dec. 1, and only once in the new year. Memphis is currently on a three-game losing streak, and it already has losing streaks of five and six games this season. Mike Conley’s injury was a good excuse for this team’s awful record last season. There aren’t any excuses left. The Grizz just don’t have the right combination of pieces to be successful. Looking to trade Conley and Marc Gasol as the trade deadline approaches would be wise. Jaren Jackson Jr. has been a godsend, and the front office needs to focus on building around him and him only for the foreseeable future. As much as it would hurt to definitively end the grit-and-grind era, the Grizzlies desperately need to modernize their roster. Holding on to what’s left and trying to make another ill-fated playoff run won’t really help anyone involved. Memphis’s early season success looks more like a mirage than anything else at this point. I credit the Grizzlies for giving it a go with this group, but the results are clear, and it’s time to figure out how to best tip off a new era with Jackson as the centerpiece.
First-Half Record: 11–24 | Net Rating: 28th
What the hell is going on here? At what point do we ask the Suns to not be so awful at basketball? Phoenix has a young team, sure, but the Suns need to see that Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton can actually start producing some wins. It’s not an apples to apples to comparison, but look at what Luka Doncic has done in Dallas. The Suns also tried to be respectable by bringing in a vet like Trevor Ariza, but he’s already been shipped away and the organization looks no closer to even being average. Ayton certainly isn’t a bust, but he’s been outshined by players taken after him. Booker has yet to prove he can be anything more than a volume scorer on a dead-end team. And is Phoenix really going to play this entire season without an NBA-caliber point guard? The young guys have flaws, but it doesn’t help that the infrastructure around them is completely nonsensical. Booker is going to start making superstar money by next season. Ideally this team would be making strides to be, you know, not a complete embarrassment by then. Instead the Suns look just as directionless as the day they drafted Booker.
Article written by Rohan Nadkarni #SportsIllustrated
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