By Rahul Lal
This NBA season, just a month old, has already shown us a bit of everything. We’ve seen Dwight Howard reemerge in his hometown of Atlanta. The Cavs picked up right where they left off. Heck, even the 76ers won some games in November.
While the season hasn’t matured enough for the contenders to separate from the pretenders, 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?
The Hawks lost Al Horford to Boston and Jeff Teague to Indiana but somehow still resemble the force they were just a couple years ago. Only have one player (Paul Millsap, of course) is playing over 30 minutes a game, though Dwight Howard have a hometown resurgence, averaging near 15 points and 13 rebounds in only 28 minutes a game. They may not be the Cavs, but the Hawks already beat the Cavs, along with the Rockets, Bulls, Heat and Bucks. Look for them to do some serious damage as the season rolls on.
The Celtics are loaded with players who have the potential to make “the leap.” No player has been more impressive than Avery Bradley, who leads the team in both minutes and rebounds (take that, Al Horford). In fact, Bradley has put up seven point/rebound double-doubles in his first 13 games this season. While Isaiah Thomas has been incredible and number two pick Jaylen Brown has shown flashes, the Celtics are tough to assess since Horford, Jae Crowder, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart haven’t been healthy at the same time yet. As it stands, they’ve shown poor defensive returns and high offensive efficiency, and their record hovers around .500. There’s plenty of room to grow.
The Nets haven’t looked terrible. Really. Stay with me on this one. Brook Lopez is doing what we all know he’s capable of; Jeremy Lin has been fairly productive when healthy and guys like Bojan Bogdanovic, Sean Kilpatrick, Trevor Booker, Justin Hamilton and Isaiah Whitehead are giving League Pass faithfuls some fun games to watch. All that said, they’ve only held an opponent to under 100 points twice this season (94 and 99 points) and are giving up 113+ points a game. They’re also only 0.6 turnovers away from giving up the most per game.
The Hornets have exceeded just about every expectation I had. Kemba Walker is making a case for being this year’s Isaiah Thomas by averaging over 25 points per game and leading the Hornets to the top of the standings early on. Who can say if this will last? But losing Jeremy Lin, Al Jefferson and many others has only created more room for Nicolas Batum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Frank Kaminsky to operate.
Here’s what we know: Chicago is still one of the league’s better defensive teams; Jimmy Butler is still one of the most underrated superstars and the Bulls have about 10 guys making an impact each and every night. We don’t know whether guys like Butler and Dwyane Wade can keep up their shooting percentages, especially from downtown. Also factor in that, despite their record, the Bulls have really only beat two genuine playoff teams this season in Boston and Indiana (who they have also lost to).
There’s absolutely no doubt about it — the Cavs look like the best team in the NBA. It isn’t even really close at this point. Kyrie Irving is pacing them at 24 points a game; Kevin Love leads in rebounds per game and LeBron James is still playing like Michael Jordan against the Monstars… except he’s also playing like the Monstars did in the first half. Wait a second, is that just me, or does anybody else hear R. Kelly singing “I Believe I Can Fly” as LeBron runs on a fast break?
This team will get a lot better once Reggie Jackson returns from injury but, so far, the Pistons have struggled to continue the progress they made just a season ago. Tobias Harris and Andre Drummond are still doing all they can and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Marcus Morris are showing they deserve their 30+ minutes a game. But the rest of the roster is really lacking. Still, the Pistons have won most of the games that they should have and suffered close losses to good teams like San Antonio and Boston. Look for the Pistons to be significantly better in a couple weeks after Jackson is back at full strength.
It hurts me to give the Pacers such a poor grade, but they’ve failed to mesh and look very unimpressive so far. Big Al seems like a liability, Monta Ellis and Jeff Teague have struggled to find chemistry in the backcourt. Paul George and Thad Young are the only players to play with any sort of consistency, even with Myles Turner showing that last year’s rookie season was no fluke. The Pacers have only won a single pair of back-to-back games and seem to take entire nights off — a problem that can hurt them given all the veteran players who are set in their own playing styles at this point in their careers.
A lot of basketball fans still don’t realize that, in just a couple years, about every player from those Heat teams is gone from their everyday lineup. This team is highlighted by Goran Dragic, Tyler Johnson, Dion Waiters, Josh Richardson, Justise Winslow and the most talented of the bunch, Hassan Whiteside. They have some young talent, but this team isn’t supposed to be good this year and their record and offensive efficiency show that. Pat Riley will have to start wheeling and dealing to get this team back in the playoff conversation in a few years.
Other than Giannis Antetokounmpo becoming the league’s most versatile point guard and Jabari Parker making that same “leap” Antetokounmpo did last year, not a lot is going right in Milwaukee. Their schedule has been tough, leading to plenty of losses. They’re also suffering from the season-long loss of Khris Middleton. Greg Monroe has rebounded from a bad debut year with the Bucks, but the mashup of Matthew Dellavedova, Tony Snell, Rashad Vaughn, John Henson and Miles Plumlee hasn’t translated yet.
New York Knicks
Sorry, Knicks fans, looks like this little experiment isn’t working very well. To be clear, I’m not part of the camp that thinks the Knicks need to get rid of Carmelo Anthony. But I do believe they need to focus the offense more around Kristaps ‘PorzinGod’ Porzingis. Derrick Rose is having quite possibly his worst season efficiency and production-wise, as is Joakim Noah, who looks like a shell of his Chicago self. It’s time for the Knicks to play some players with more upside, such as Justin Holiday, Kyle O’Quinn and Willy Hernangomez next to Anthony and Porzingis. That might get them back on the right side of .500 for the season.
The Magic are the perfect mix of players who all deserve minutes but are fighting for minutes at the wrong positions. The Magic’s wins have come at the expense of struggling teams like Philadelphia, Sacramento, Washington and Dallas. Essentially, they’ve won the games they should win but have also been blown out of the water by teams they should have beat. Trying to find a working rotation in Orlando, given their depth, might be the hardest game plan any coach has had to create all season.
Philly, you can exhale a bit now. Joel “Trust The Process” Embiid is healthy and showing why he deserves to have one of the league’s highest usage rates. In limited minutes, he’s proving that he can do a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor and has made every other game bearable. (He only plays every other game.) Nerlens Noel and Jahlil Okafor have each made their case to be the big man who eventually winds up not on the roster next season. Still the Sixers get a positive overall rating because Embiid, along with Ben Simmons, give hope for a bright future.
It’s time for people to stop underrating DeMar DeRozan. He’s an offensive juggernaut who knows exactly how to be most effective on the court with everything from shot selection to drawing fouls to maximizing his teammates’ abilities. The Raptors have played very well this season and exceeded many expectations, even while suffering controversial losses like the blown call against the Kings.
Washington has been one of the worst teams this season on both ends of the court. Even with superstar John Wall and the injury-prone Bradley Beal, the team just can’t seem to put together a complete game. Their bench has been atrocious, routinely giving away leads and games in the third quarter. The only real bright spot on a team destined for the bottom of the lottery (and an eventual heartbreak when John Wall is a free agent) is the improvement of Otto Porter into a legit starting forward in the NBA.
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.