Grading each NBA team's second trimester

Grading each NBA team's second trimester

We are now two-thirds of the way though this strangest of NBA seasons, well into the dog days of the year in which teams randomly win or lose by 50-something points and have a nightly threat to Luc Richard Mbah a Moute’s record of a minus-58 in the box score.

More fans are coming back to NBA arenas in more cities, the play-in tournament is six weeks away and we are seeing what the disincentivization of finishing top-eight has done to the NBA’s competitiveness. This is a problem, and perhaps the solution next season is going back to what was interesting in the bubble: a single No. 8 vs. No. 9 game for the final postseason berth. 

It is good to have Joel Embiid back, and we are all waiting on LeBron James and Anthony Davis. But the Los Angeles Lakers will finish wherever they finish, and have the dynamic duo back at full strength when it matters, so it’s all good.

Just a month-and-a-half away from the first game of the 2021 NBA postseason, we're going to look at every team in the league and give each of them their own grade to this point, so let’s get on with it:

EASTERN CONFERENCE

PHILADELPHIA 76ERS: Doc Rivers’ gang went 7-3 without Joel Embiid in the lineup prior to Sunday’s loss with him out, which begs the question: Why isn’t Doc in the Coach of the Year conversation? Harnessing the competitive nature of Embiid and Ben Simmons and Tobias Harris is quite laudable. Fun fact: Seth Curry (42.2%) is a better three-point shooter this season than his brother Steph (40.6%). GRADE: A

BROOKLYN NETS: The team that plays in Kings County is 27-10 since acquiring James Harden, and they are getting flack for signing LaMarcus Aldridge and Blake Griffin because...why? Because they are trying to win? And people have a problem with that? Exhibit A: Fun-haters will stop at nothing to try to ensure that everyone shares their misery; some of us are too resolute for that. Kevin Durant is almost back. If they can stop playing to the level of the competition (close games against bad teams), they will have achieved something in the final third of the regular season. GRADE: A

MILWAUKEE BUCKS: They had a bad extended weekend against the Celtics, Knicks and Clippers at the end of March, otherwise we’d be talking about a team on a 14-game winning streak. Jrue Holiday has been fantastic and just signed a max deal, Donte DiVincenzo has strung together a bunch of strong performances, and they have a chance to finish 5-0 on an extended Western road trip that ends Thursday night at Dallas. They are No. 1 in the East in point differential at +6.3. They spoiled us last season before the pandemic. It's a damn good team. GRADE: A-

CHARLOTTE HORNETS: Along the same lines as Doc, why isn’t James Borrego in the Coach of the Year conversation? The guy lost LaMelo Ball and has won 11 of 20 since then, and now he has to figure out what to do without Gordon Hayward for the next month. Five other players are scoring in double figures, and if Terry Rozier can shake off his 18-for-53 start to April, they might be able to move ahead of Miami and Atlanta for the No. 4 spot. GRADE: A-

MIAMI HEAT: The Heat carry a four-game winning streak into their next game Tuesday, and at a certain point, they will work Victor Oladipo into the equation better than they have over his first few games (7.0 points per game is a testament to why NBA teams need to be practicing more). Jimmy Butler remains as steady as they come and is shooting a career-high 48.5%. We all slept on them a year ago. They tend to peak when games get important. GRADE: B+

ATLANTA HAWKS: After an 8-0 start under Nate McMillan, they went 4-4 on an epic eight-game road trip. They have nine guys averaging double figures in points, and the acclimation process continues with Lou Williams still settling in, Bogdan Bogdanovic getting his legs back and De'Andre Hunter getting ready to return. Eight of their next 11 are at home, and 17 of their final 20 are against East teams. Exhibit B on how the NBA needs to find ways to enable more practice time. GRADE: B

NEW YORK KNICKS: Players on the Knicks are saying Tom Thibodeau is more chill than he was in the past, which is good to hear because the guy was always a bit too intense...and it hurt him, professionally. Julius Randle had a 20-point first quarter against the Pistons on Saturday night, and this team exudes a tight character culture from what we are seeing on TV and in the New York media. GRADE: B

BOSTON CELTICS: The C's have been hovering around .500 since mid-February, which is an odd holding pattern for a team with a pair of All-Stars and a huge glue guy/defender in Marcus Smart, who has been back for their past 14 games (6-8 in that stretch). Evan Fournier has been incorporated, albeit slowly, in a useful manner, which brings us back to the issue of a lack of practice time due to COVID protocols. Maybe it is time for another rules tweak, Adam? Especially for teams having trouble getting vaccinated? Boston is one of them, as we reported here at BasketballNews.com. GRADE: C-

INDIANA PACERS: An overall record of 22-26, a home record of 8-14 and the fourth-worst defense in the East are not the results the Pacers had in mind for Nate Bjorkgren’s first season, and there will come a point where that coaching choice will be second-guessed: Was it the right one? It holds more water as McMillan continues to do good things in Atlanta. The lack of practice time is impacting all teams, and this one is still incorporating Caris LeVert into the rotation following his kidney cancer surgery. GRADE: C

CHICAGO BULLS: The acquisition of Nikola Vucevic was perhaps the best trade any NBA team made, which will only be proven over the long haul. The Bulls are a curious mix of young and old, and while they are not built to get past the first round this season, they are closer now to being an above-.500 team a year from now. Sunday’s win vs. Brooklyn prevented them from taking a seven-game losing streak into their next game at Indiana, which starts a six-game road trip that could make or break their top-10 chances in the East. GRADE: D

TORONTO RAPTORS: The second-best thing in Tampa aside from Tom Brady, the long-term futures of Kyle Lowry and Masai Ujiri remain mysteries, and the Raptors' 53-point victory over Golden State on Friday night did not mask the fact that they lost 13 of 14 prior to that. Was it really less than two years ago that they went to the NBA Finals? GRADE: D

WASHINGTON WIZARDS: The best thing that can be said is that Russell Westbrook keeps us captivated on a nightly basis. We can add that Bradley Beat leads the league in scoring, and Rui Hachimura is showing discernable improvement. The Thomas Bryant injury was crippling, and Robin Lopez is the only player who has appeared in all 48 games. The Wizards now go on the road for a six-game road trip, and in a scheduling quirk, will play 11 of 14 games against Western Conference teams from April 9 to May 1. GRADE: D

CLEVELAND CAVALIERS: It's fun to check in on the Cavaliers from time to time just to get another look at Kevin Love, who was a relevant NBA player not so long ago, but now is a cap-clogger and will remain so for another two seasons. On the bright side, Isaiah Hartenstein (acquired from Denver in the JaVale McGee trade) is getting a live audition to be the long-term backup and/or Twin Towers combo with Jarrett Allen, and Collin Sexton and Darius Garland are getting heavy minutes. But they are growing up in a losing culture, which is no good. GRADE: D

ORLANDO MAGIC: The Magic traded their best three players, which you kind of never see. But that makes them very 2021-ish, because every day brings monumental surprises. Back in the glory days of January they were 4-0, but things changed. They lost to the Jazz by 48 over the weekend, and there is nothing nice to say here. Rebuilds take time, and this will be a slow one. Wendell Carter Jr. is a nice player, but the opinion here is that Vucevic should have been kept. All-Stars are hard to find. GRADE: F

DETROIT PISTONS: Troy Weaver is doing what he can with the hand he was dealt, and got something for Derrick Rose, has a leading Most Improved Player candidate in Jerami Grant and acquired a player he helped draft in Oklahoma City, Hamidou Diallo. He also saved ownership $13.3 million in Blake Griffin’s buyout. Not much of that has translated into good things in the win-loss column, yet the Pistons can still look down upon the Houston Rockets and Minnesota Timberwolves. GRADE: D

WESTERN CONFERENCE

UTAH JAZZ: Best record in the league, a nine-game winning streak and the league’s largest point differential going into tonight’s game at Dallas -- why on earth are the Jazz the fifth choice of the sportsbooks to win the title (listed behind Brooklyn, both Los Angeles teams, Philadelphia and Milwaukee at DraftKings)?! They have won 22 straight at home, have used only three different starting lineups and have hit 25 or more three-pointers in a game four times. The Jazz are the only team in the NBA to rank among the top-five in both offensive rating (117.1, 2nd) and defensive rating (107.3, 3rd). GRADE: A+ 

PHOENIX SUNS: Second in the West was not where anyone expected the Suns to be at this point in the season, and the biggest argument concerns which person is most deserving of the credit: Chris Paul, Monty Williams or Devin Booker? Perhaps we can all agree that they are equally responsible. Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges have started all 48 games. And in the “huh?” category, Phoenix is listed at the same odds as Miami (25-1) to win the NBA championship; The Heat are two games over .500, while the Suns are 20 games over .500. GRADE: A+

LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS: The learning curve under Ty Lue has been slowed by the lack of practice time, but we no longer obsess over “load management” as we did in seasons past with these Clippers. Kawhi Leonard has appeared in 42 of 51 games, and Paul George has played in 38. They have used 17 different starting lineups, and are 16-5 when using the lineup of Leonard, George, Serge Ibaka, Patrick Beverley and Nicolas Batum. And now that they have “Playoff Rondo,” they are much more highly weaponized. They also have the easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com. GRADE: B

DENVER NUGGETS: Leading MVP candidate Nikola Jokic has Aaron Gordon averaging 14.3 points since his arrival, and Michael Porter Jr. has become a beast, averaging 16.7 points (up 7.4 from a year ago) on 53.7 percent shooting, yet is 150-1 to win Most Improved Player. They are now in the midst of a five-game homestand and will play the Jazz, Clippers and Lakers only one more time each. As good as Jokic has been, this former NBA awards voter has a hard time seeing the MVP winner going to a player from a fourth-place team. So let’s see where they get between now and the third week of May. GRADE: B

LOS ANGELES LAKERS: Yesterday’s 86-point outing against the Clippers showed just how below-mediocre they are without LeBron and AD. They’ve lost six of nine, and they’ll be bouncing around the East for the next two weeks with stops in Tampa, Miami, New York and Charlotte. Their next home game is April 15, and the due date for the returns of both Davis and James is a mystery. They will be whole again eventually, and James has been to nine of the past 10 NBA Finals, so it’s really all good. GRADE: B-

PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS: The Blazers have won five of six, and they edged the Thunder by 48 points Saturday night while the rest of the world was watching Gonzaga and Baylor advance to the NCAA championship game. The Norman Powell addition is intriguing, and Portland more than held its own while Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum were sidelined by injuries. If they played in a major market, everybody would be in love with them. Instead, we all know that Damian Lillard is a great player and HULU doesn’t just have live sports. GRADE: A-

DALLAS MAVERICKS: Look, Luka Doncic may eventually become the greatest player ever to come out of Europe, but the idea of placing him alongside Kristaps Porzingis and having the two of them shoot and Eurostep the Mavs to a championship is not quite working yet. Porzingis has missed 17 games but has the highest shooting percentage of his career (47.8). Doncic has improved his three-point shooting by nearly six percentage points to 37.1%. GRADE: C+

MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES: Team COVID just has the unfortunate scheduling quirk of playing the Utah Jazz three times in six nights. In games against teams not named “Jazz,” the Grizzlies are 6-0 since March 20. They are off the radar nationally, and have one appearance remaining on ESPN and none on TNT. Memphis may be more popular in Lithuania (where Jonas Valanciunas is from) than America. JV is rebounding like a man possessed. GRADE: B-

SAN ANTONIO SPURS: Above .500 as the week begins, but sitting ninth in the West after two straight losses, the Spurs seem destined to be a play-in team of some sort unless Sacramento can catch them. They have only eight home games remaining and 17 on the road, including four separate road trips that will take them to Eastern Conference cities. The roster will look a whole lot different at this time a year from now. GRADE: C

GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS: Thanks to these guys, we will get to find out the answer to the question: “How exactly do you shake off a 53-point loss?” The Warriors have a bunch of gimme games left – three against Oklahoma City, two against Washington, two against Houston, one against Cleveland and one against Minnesota, so they’ll be a play-in team; Draymond Green will get to lock a couple guys down when that tournament rivets our attention and the Dubs thank themselves for not giving up on Kelly Oubre Jr. GRADE: C+

NEW ORLEANS PELICANS: The Pelicans will probably never be forgiven by JJ Redick, who was dealt to Dallas rather than his preferred destinations of NYC, Philadelphia or Brooklyn. Zion Williamson is shooting 64.5% this month. Nine of their next 10 are against East teams. They begin the week a half-game out of the 10th spot in the West. GRADE: C-

SACRAMENTO KINGS: They got our attention by winning seven of eight, as De'Aaron Fox strung together a bunch of great games, but now they begin the week on a three-game losing streak. They have three games left against both the Timberwolves and Thunder, along with three each against the Jazz and Mavs. It will be interesting to see whether Tyrese Haliburton can turn up his game and put some heat on LaMelo Ball for Rookie of the Year. He regressed in March compared to February. GRADE: C-

OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER: The curious case of Al Horford (sidelined for “rest” for the remainder of the season) is going to be an argument point next time the owners and players sit down and discuss how best to spend their $8 billion in revenue. But 14 of the 17 players on their roster are 23 or younger. Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is the head of the snake. GRADE: D

HOUSTON ROCKETS: We will try to say only nice things...which means there isn’t much to say. GRADE: F

MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES: Karl-Anthony Towns got a nice ovation in Philadelphia over the weekend. He is the most valuable asset this team has, and the franchise is for sale. The Wolves have the worst record in the NBA, and there's a chance that they will lose their lottery pick to Golden State, which earns them a special leaguewide report card ending. GRADE: F-

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