By Rahul Lal
This NBA season, just a month old, has already shown us a bit of everything. We’ve seen Russell Westbrook go full Oscar Robertson; James Harden lead the league in assists and Nick Young (err… I mean Swaggy P) have a better player-efficiency rating than Derrick Rose, Devin Booker and Klay Thompson, amongst others.
While the season hasn’t matured past its whiny teenager phase, we’re already seeing outlines of the mature and/or overpaid teams that may emerge come playoff time.
In the meantime, it’s report card time. How do the 30 NBA teams grade out a month into the season?
I was pretty critical of the Harrison Barnes signing this offseason, but he’s played pretty well given the load he’s had to carry thus far. On the negative side, Father Time has tripped up Dirk Nowitzki with an achilles injury, leaving just Wesley Matthews (only two years removed from achilles surgery), Deron Williams and Andrew Bogut to make any impact. The Mavs have struggled to stay on the court and close out ballgames. They’ve only pulled out wins against the Bucks and Lakers this season, so there isn’t a lot to be happy about in Dallas right now.
Does anybody know what’s going on with Denver’s big men? Head coach Mike Malone might have one of the most difficult jobs in basketball balancing minutes between Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic, Kenneth Faried and nontraditional players who can get forward minutes in Wilson Chandler and Danillo Gallinari. On the bright side, Emmanuel Mudiay is still showing improvement despite a 1.1 assist/turnover ratio and the Nuggets have shown solid depth, winning games against Minnesota, Boston, Phoenix and Utah despite injuries to Will Barton and Gary Harris.
Golden State Warriors
Let’s not lose our heads, the Warriors are the most stacked team in basketball and are still the best bet to beat the Cavs come Finals time. Even withfour of the top 25 players in the league, the Warriors have been really bad rebounding the ball and playing defense in the paint. And their bench production — something that was integral in blowing a 3-1 Finals lead last year despite winning 73 games in the regular season and a championship the season before — is terrible. The Warriors are still scary, but just a little less scary at this point in the season.
Mike D’Antoni has James Harden playing defense? Aside from leading the league in assists and nearly leading the league in points, Harden trails only Trevor Ariza in steals per game on the team.He and has actually been a defensive plus for the Rockets while on the floor. New Orleans transfers Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon have both made decent impacts, and Clint Capela is showing why he’s a great fit for this team after Dwight Howard’s departure. There’s a lot to like in Houston, starting with the return of the pesky Patrick Beverly to the lineup.
Los Angeles Clippers
The Clippers have been the best team on defense (check the stats), net rating (check the stats) and record (check the stats) thus far on the season. As a frequent Clipper trash-talker, I’ve had to bite my tongue. We know what Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan can do; but it’s the other guys who have made the difference for the Clippers. The contributions by J.J. Redick, Jamal Crawford and especially offseason pickup Marreese Speights have propelled the Clippers to a new level — one that this Clipper hater hopes will still bring disappointment come playoff time.
Los Angeles Lakers
With wins against Houston, Atlanta and Golden State and near-wins against nearly every team they’ve played, what’s not to like? Their coach is still younger than several players still playing in the NBA. Lou Williams and his younger clone Jordan Clarkson should both be Sixth Man of the Year candidates. And future stars D’Angelo Russell and Julius Randle, not to mention Brandon Ingram, are already changing the game on both sides of the ball. I didn’t even mention Swaggy P or the ages of each player.
Remember that movie The Longest Yard with Adam Sandler and Chris Rock? The Grizzlies are like Chris Rock’s character, Caretaker. They’re dangerous enough to be in prison playing with the big boys, but they aren’t actually as dangerous as their record shows. Zach Randolph’s move to the bench hasn’t upped his game as expected, nor is Marc Gasol showing the stuff he had a couple years ago. Chandler Parsons can’t stay healthy, and Mike Conley isn’t playing like the superstar he’s paid to be. While Memphis has played their way into the last six playoffs, it’s tough to know if they can keep that run up.
This is one of the most difficult teams to evaluate this early into the season. The Timberwolves are a really, really good team that is destined for success in a couple years. The Timberwolves are also a really, really young team with a new head coach. Players are still developing their skill sets while fighting expectations for immediate success. Simply put, they have underperformed this season, particularly on the defensive end of the floor, which is surprising given Tom Thibodeau’s defensive expertise. There’s a lot of room to grow, but seeing Andrew Wiggins turn into an absolute monster offensively has to be exciting for fans, as is the developing dominance of Karl Anthony-Towns.
New Orleans Pelicans
The Pelicans started out a dismal 0-8 but have since managed some wins, including the first two that Jrue Holiday has played in. Holiday, who took time off to care for his ailing and pregnant wife, has removed some of the burden from Anthony Davis, who has been putting up video-game numbers in losing efforts. Holiday is averaging 21.5 points on 55% shooting from the field and 44% from three and 8 assists. And he’s doing all that in only 27 minutes, due to a minutes restriction, The Pelicans will be just fine, even if they have some ground to make up.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder’s record is deceiving thus far. While they’re record is decent, they’ve also struggled to beat competitive teams, only really taking care of teams that aren’t considered playoff teams. Russell Westbrook seems to be doing just about everything humanly possible, but there just isn’t enough talent on that team right now to see things getting better.
The Suns might be the most fun team to watch that isn’t actually good. They love to run, they take lots of shots and have a really interesting mix of young and veteran talent that play alongside each other. Even with all of that going for them, they’ve failed to meet expectations, struggling to put together all four quarters of a game against both great and poor teams alike.
Portland Trail Blazers
Evan Turner signed one of the most head-scratching contracts this offseason. The Trail Blazers clearly has their ball handlers and scorers in place, with the deadly combo of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. Turner has struggled to fit in offensively, and the Blazers as a team have been consistently at the bottom of all rebounding and defensive statistics league wide. Their record has been decent, but they’ll need to figure a few things out to remain around .500.
The Kings are struggling yet again and only have an irritated DeMarcus Cousins and trade talks to show for it. Darren Collison has been the biggest catalyst for this team, as his return from suspension makes the Kings competitive every night. Still, even with Rudy Gay getting back into the mix, the Kings are still losing games and looking at potential trades for Cousins.
San Antonio Spurs
Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Pau Gasol have all shown a lot of decline in their game this season but, at the same time, Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge have played just as well as expected, or better in Leonard’s case. It doesn’t make much sense for a team with so many odd combinations, players with decreasing values and even injuries to be doing so well. But the Spurs are still on their way to competing for the number one seed in the stacked Western Conference. And they’ll probably get it.
This grade is incomplete, as the Jazz have had to deal with injuries to starters Alec Burks, George Hill, Gordon Hayward and Derrick Favors. Yet they’ve managed to be a very good team despite a mediocre record. The Jazz have outplayed other teams with similar records as per league ranks and should be fairly happy with the steady production from players like Rodney Hood, Rudy Gobert and Joe Johnson.
Rahul Lal is an LA native stuck in a lifelong, love-hate relationship with the Lakers, Dodgers and Raiders. You can follow him on Twitter here.