The 2015–16 season was action–packed at the poles, as the Warriors recorded just the second 70-win campaign in NBA history while the Sixers slogged through a tank job so ugly that its chief architect, Sam Hinkie, resigned with a 13–page manifesto to rationalize all the losing. With the season ending Wednesday and the playoffs right around the corner, let’s take a look back at Golden State, Philadelphia and everyone in between. Midseason grades, delivered in late-January, are included for comparison's sake.
Grades are determined by performance relative to preseason expectations and also take into account health-related issues, signings and trades made since the start of the season, as well as the impact of major off-season moves. Significant injuries to star players, especially those with multi-year implications, are also considered in the grading process.
(All stats and records are through April 9.)
Atlanta Hawks: B
Midseason Grade: B | Off. Rating: 109.7 | Def. Rating: 103.1 | Net Rating: 6.5
After a one-year dalliance with excellence, the Hawks are back to being an acceptable flavor of blah: a quality, balanced team that doesn’t strike fear in the hearts of contenders. While Mike Budenholzer’s squad spent the 2016 season in its own 2015 shadow, never quite able to recapture the offensive magic that surprisingly led to 60 wins, they didn’t crumble either.
The vast majority of the rotation enjoyed good health, Paul Millsap slapped together another quality season under the radar, Kent Bazemore helped make up for the departure of DeMarre Carroll, and Atlanta’s pass-heavy system led five players to average double figures. All things considered, the Hawks stack up pretty well against the East’s best squads (aside from the Cavaliers) in terms of playoff experience, top-end talent (Millsap and Al Horford), coaching and basketball intelligence.
With everything from a first-round exit to a conference finals trip on the table, Atlanta’s postseason progress will receive added attention thanks to Horford’s upcoming free agency. The versatile big man has yet to tip his hand about his summer intentions, but another deep run certainly couldn’t hurt.
Honestly, it’s best to postpone Atlanta’s true final grade until July. Like Millsap last summer, Horford is so critical to Atlanta’s philosophies on both offense and defense that his free-agency decision represents a “pass or fail” organizational test. If he returns, the Hawks continue to rank among the East’s best and most reliable teams. But if he leaves, their prospects could deteriorate quickly.
Boston Celtics: A-
Midseason Grade: B- | Off. Rating: 112.7 | Def. Rating: 110.2 | Net Rating: 2.5
Better late than never. Following a somewhat middling first half, Brad Stevens’ Celtics have turned it up in recent months to make a hard run at the East’s No. 3 seed. While it will take until Wednesday’s action to fully sort out the seeding confusion in the East’s second tier, the Celtics have every reason to celebrate. Despite not adding a star player last summer, Boston has improved its win total by at least seven wins from last season and at least 22 wins from two season ago, and it did so without taking a shortcut by cashing in some of its most desirable draft assets.
Now, Boston finds itself in position to potentially win a playoff series while also preparing for a summer with a host of assets that could facilitate a blockbuster move. A first-round exit would dampen some of the excitement and it might raise questions about whether Isaiah Thomas should continue to keep the car keys on offense, but a clear defensive identity and a deep roster of contributors gives the Celtics as good a chance as any of the East’s 3–6 seeds of advancing. This is a team—and a coach—you just don’t want to face in the playoffs.
Brooklyn Nets: F-
Midseason Grade: F- | Off. Rating: 100.7 | Def. Rating: 112.4 | Net Rating: -11.7
Here’s a fun hypothetical. Let’s say NBA commissioner Adam Silver announced plans to contract the Nets. How long would it take for the basketball community’s initial anger and surprise to shift towards laughter at the Nets’ expense and then immediately shift again to speculation about how Seattle should start fresh with a new team? Like… six minutes? Within two hours, Mikhail Prokhorov would be getting “Crying Jordan’d” on Twitter and every basketball blog would be rushing out think pieces defending the contraction, pointing out Prokhorov’s shortcomings and arguing that Brooklyn’s roster and cap situation was unsalvageable.
So that’s how the Nets' season went. Absolutely abysmal. Remarkably, nothing made the losing that much easier to swallow. Not the badly needed firing of Lionel Hollins. Not the long-anticipated dumping of Billy King and the arrival of Sean Marks. Not rookie Rondae Hollis–Jefferson’s return from injury. Not the best season from Brook Lopez, minutes-wise, since 2011. Small positives and changing faces aren’t going to fix this mess: there’s too little talent, too many outgoing draft picks (including this year’s first rounder), and too many questions about the organization’s long-term vision.
Charlotte Hornets: A-
Midseason Grade: C | Off. Rating: 112.2 | Def. Rating: 98.1 | Net Rating: 14.1
Charlotte isn’t the only East team to enjoy a second-half surge, but its success is probably the most surprising. Previous franchise centerpiece Al Jefferson missed nearly half the season and was moved to a bench role. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 2012 lottery pick, suffered two separate injuries that limited him to just seven games in his fourth season. Meanwhile, coach Steve Clifford opted to pursue a reimagined offense that highlighted off-season addition Nicolas Batum and midseason acquisition Courtney Lee in addition to his mainstay point guard, Kemba Walker.
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That’s a long list of moving parts, but the plan has come together beautifully thanks largely to an offense that has enjoyed better efficiency (ranked ninth this season after ranking 28th last season) and improved flow (Charlotte’s assist rate has improve from 26th last year to 18th this year). That recalibrated attack, plus another top 10 defense from Clifford, has generated the best season in Charlotte since the days of Eddie Jones, Derrick Coleman, Anthony Mason and David Wesley. Even better, the Hornets head into the playoffs with their best shot to win a series in perhaps a decade, thanks to pleasant surprises like Marvin Williams, Jeremy Lin, and Jeremy Lamb.
Owner Michael Jordan and GM Rich Cho will have their hands full deciding what to do with Jefferson, Batum, Williams and Lee—all unrestricted free agents this summer—but the focus for now should remain firmly on the postseason. The Hornets have been bad enough for long enough to understand that they need to enjoy the moment, even if it proves to be short-lived for contractual reasons.
Chicago Bulls: D
Midseason C+ | Off. Rating: 99.0 | Def. Rating: 103.5 | Net Rating: -4.4
A team that enters the season with the second-most talent in its conference only misses the playoffs if things are going seriously haywire under the hood. Indeed, the Windy City blame game can be played in every direction: rookie coach Fred Hoiberg failed to instill his vision, management failed to shake things up at the deadline, key roster pieces like Joakim Noah and Pau Gasol proved to be poor fits for the team’s new direction, injuries hit Jimmy Butler and Noah, and the Butler/Derrick Rose pairing produced a –3.9 net rating when they shared the court.
Compared to Tom Thibodeau’s final season, the Bulls’ defense was worse, the offense was way worse, the whispers of locker room frustration continued unabated, and the most important relationship for the organization’s short-term future—Hoiberg and Butler—includes two completely opposite personality types who have already engaged in a much-ballyhooed back-and-forth in the media.
Other than that, everything went great.
Cleveland Cavaliers: A
Midseason Grade: A | Off. Rating: 106.8 | Def. Rating: 100.9 | Net Rating: 6.0
Cleveland’s high mark at the midseason point was largely predicated on LeBron James’s steady excellence, the Cavaliers’ perch atop the East despite missing Kyrie Irving early, and this group’s talent and depth advantages relative to the rest of the conference. Things clearly aren’t perfect—otherwise David Blatt wouldn’t have been fired and James wouldn’t have spent the last few months belting out siren songs via subtweet—but they’re better than all the noise would have you think.
While James would flatly reject the idea that being the NBA’s third–best team is something to take pride in, the Cavaliers are so deluged by minor controversies—some of their own making—that they oddly don’t get enough credit for their success. James isn’t the MVP this season and he isn’t the NBA’s go-to marketing powerhouse, thanks to Stephen Curry, but he’s still more than capable of strapping Cleveland on his back for a run to his sixth straight Finals. Irving’s off-court issues and Love’s defensive limitations look like minor annoyances compared to the major, fundamental problem that James represents for the rest of the East’s wannabe contenders.
Dallas Mavericks: B+
Midseason Grade: A | Off. Rating: 116.0 | Def. Rating: 99.5 | Net Rating: 16.5
Midseason concerns that Dallas would be unable to sustain its impressive early pace proved accurate but somewhat overstated. The Mavericks managed to secure a playoff spot in the weakened West despite a little backsliding. In so doing, Dallas has advanced to the postseason in 15 of the past 16 seasons, although their first-round foe won’t be known until Wednesday night. Credit for the achievement goes to coach Rick Carlisle’s steady hand, another strong scoring season from Dirk Nowitzki, and a collective approach on offense that put forgotten veterans like J.J. Barea and Raymond Felton to good use. Let’s not forget Wesley Matthews, either, as the veteran guard returned from a torn Achilles in a matter of months to somehow log a team-high 2600+ minutes in 77 appearances. Unreal. Superhuman.
Although Dallas’s middle of the pack defense has seemingly outperformed its personnel, it’s hard to envision any of the West’s top three seeds stumbling in a series against the Mavericks. If the Mavericks do exit in the first round, as expected, owner Mark Cuban would be right back where he’s been every summer since the 2011 Finals: stuck trying, and largely failing, to find the right pieces to give the 37-year-old Nowitzki one final deep run before he retires.
This treadmill fate isn’t ideal, but the Mavericks seem to prefer it to the all-out tank that seemed like a possibility before the season. That’s their prereogrative, and one made easier by Nowitzki’s commitment to the organization through thick and thin. Honestly, this basic formula—Cuban pays middling free agents, Carlisle molds them into a slightly better than middling group, Nowitzki provides the necessary box-office push, comic relief and beautiful turnaround jumpers—seems like it could go on for years, even if it never really gets anywhere important again.
Denver Nuggets: C
Midseason Grade: C- | Off. Rating: 96.8 | Def. Rating: 99.8 | Net Rating: -3.0
The Nuggets endured a very stereotypical year in transition after hiring coach Michael Malone and trading Ty Lawson last summer: The losses piled up, no one showed up to their games, their younger prospects enjoyed healthy roles, and they uncovered a few reasons for optimism along the way.
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On that last point, rookies Emmanuel Mudiay and Nikola Jokic both look like long-term keepers. The former bounced back from a midseason ankle injury to raise his scoring and shooting numbers after the All-Star break, while the latter played his way into the Rookie of the Year conversation with an efficient and intriguing all-around game. Meanwhile, veteran forward Danilo Gallinari enjoyed a career year before suffering an ankle injury and Will Barton broke out as a Sixth Man of the Year candidate in his fourth season.
These minor victories, especially Mudiay’s gradual acclimation and Jokic’s arrival, help ease the pain for a roster with zero A-list talents and little hope of attracting a marquee free agent this summer. Denver’s hopes of increasing its relevance are tied directly to the continued development of Mudiay, Jokic and 21-year-old guard Gary Harris, who stepped into a significantly larger role in his second season. Malone is a capable and dedicated coach, but he’ll need better pieces to work with if the Nuggets are going to end a lottery streak that has reached three seasons.
Detroit Pistons: A-
Midseason Grade: B+ | Off. Rating: 107 | Def. Rating: 93.1 | Net Rating: 13.9
If there’s even such a thing as the “Most underrated Coach of the Year candidate,” the title should go to Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy. Many of the same arguments being made in favor of Portland’s Terry Stotts as Coach of the Year apply to Van Gundy as well: He’s gotten the most out of a fairly anonymous roster, he’s crafted his systems perfectly around the strengths of his best players, and he’s beaten expectations by delivering his team to the playoffs.
Even more remarkably, Van Gundy had to dig out of a lottery rut in Detroit that dated back to 2009 with a roster so thin that he had no choice but to play the likes of Steve Blake and Aron Baynes. Although the Pistons will finish the season in the middle of the pack on both offense and defense, it’s important to remember that average seemed like an impossible dream under the likes of Maurice Cheeks and John Kuester.
While the Pistons’ future is fairly bright thanks to a well-constructed core, there was definitely some good fortune behind this steady season. First-time All-Star Andre Drummond, Reggie Jackson, Marcus Morris and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope all enjoyed near-perfect availability, while Tobias Harris arrived from Orlando in an act of deadline robbery to add another quality piece for the Pistons’ playoff push. With those factors in mind, it’s fair to say that Detroit came as close to reaching its ceiling as any team in the East, even if the end product turns out to be a low playoff seed and a first-round exit.
Golden State Warriors: A+++
Midseason Grade: A++ | Off. Rating: 122.4 | Def. Rating: 83.8 | Net Rating: 38.6
Before this season, I wouldn’t have felt comfortable betting any meaningful amount of money that a team would win 72 or 73 games in my lifetime. The margin of error just seemed so slim and the three-win buffer between the 1996 Bulls and everyone else in history looked like the Grand Canyon. Whenever I tried to imagine a team winning 72 or 73 games, I always pictured them getting every single break early on and then gunning all-out from a minutes distribution standpoint in pursuit of history.
That’s what’s so crazy about this Warriors season: they’ve handled plenty of adversity and they never really sacrificed their principles when it came to managing minutes. On the first count, remember that coach Steve Kerr missed the opening months of the season with a back injury and that Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli all missed significant chunks of the season. On the second point, note that none of the Warriors players ranked in the top 25 league-wide in minutes per game.
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Here’s an interesting point of comparison: Michael Jordan logged 40+ minutes in 37 different games during the 1995–96 season, whereas Stephen Curry has logged 40+ minutes just four times this year and all four of those games went to overtime.
So many things about this Warriors season defy logic: Curry’s 390+ three-pointers, Draymond Green cracking +1,000 plus/minus for the year, the 24–0 start under interim coach Luke Walton, and on, and on. But it’s absolutely incredible that the Warriors were able to make history despite juggling lineups due to injuries and staying “within the flow” of their normal rotation. This squad is one for the ages.
Houston Rockets: D-
Midseason Grade: D- | Off. Rating: 110.7 | Def. Rating: 99.6 | Net Rating: 11.2
The only thing standing between the Rockets and a flat “F” is a two-game winning streak that has them in position to make the playoffs as the West’s No. 8 seed, assuming they can beat the Kings at home on Wednesday. Sure, an ugly sweep at the hands of the Warriors doesn’t sound particularly inviting—especially after the Rockets’ trip to the West finals last season—but it would at least qualify as a party favor following an endlessly frustrating campaign.
Houston’s massive regression from 56 wins to roughly .500 is mostly attributable to its chronic lapses in defensive effort and awareness. Things got so bad on that end that the Rockets’ unofficial motto for the season was, “We need to stop talking about it and just do it.” The firing of Kevin McHale early on made little impact, and the central pairing of James Harden and Dwight Howard posted a net rating of +2.1, down considerably from last year’s mark of +10.5 and well off what you would expect from two “superstar talents.” Given the failings of that pairing and Howard’s marginalization on offense, it seems more likely than not that Howard moves on to his fourth team this summer.
As for Harden, his reputation took a bigger hit than any A-list player this season, even though he put up a 28.8 PPG, 7.5 RPG, 6.2 APG stat line that’s been matched only by Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, John Havlicek and Oscar Robertson in NBA history. The four-time All-Star is in danger of missing the cut on the All-NBA team, and he no longer feels like a “must-have” centerpiece for USA Basketball’s Olympics team. Unfortunately, Harden has found out the hard way that reputations take years to make and just a few dozen Vines to ruin. He’ll need to return next fall in shape and with a renewed purpose if the Rockets want to play into May again any time soon.
Note that this grade drops to an “F” if Utah somehow beats out Houston for the West’s final playoff spot.
Indiana Pacers: B
Midseason Grade: B Off. Rating: 101.2 | Def. Rating: 105.2 | Net Rating: -4.0
Last summer’s abrupt personnel changes—ditching Roy Hibbert and alienating David West—didn’t lead to the radical philosophical shift that many expected or the ruinous collapse that some feared. Instead, the Pacers got by with a familiar formula of stingy defense and somewhat unsightly offense, with Ian Mahinmi plugging in for Hibbert, rookie Myles Turner plugging in to handle real minutes, and a recuperated Paul George back to handle the bulk of the touches on offense. The arrival of Monta Ellis gave Indiana another weapon, it just didn’t happen to be a particularly threatening one.
Thus the Pacers find themselves in a respectable spot: towards the back of the East’s playoff pack and in position for an early exit barring a first-round upset. Compared to the likes of Chicago and Washington, who struggled with their own shifts away from traditional lineups, things could be worse. But compared to their recent glory days that produced trips to the 2013 and 2014 East finals, things could be better too. Pacers coach Frank Vogel deserves serious kudos for maintaining his team’s defensive excellence despite the roster turnover, but this group’s ceiling isn’t likely to get much higher unless president Larry Bird can acquire some impact reinforcements this summer.
L.A. Clippers: B-
Midseason Grade: B+ | Off. Rating: 119.9 | Def. Rating: 109.5 | Net Rating: 10.4
It’s tempting to look at the Clippers’ 30–15 record without Blake Griffin and their No. 4 playoff seed—the highest realistic landing spot for them in the West—and spin their second-half performance as a strong showing. After all, L.A. will enjoy home-court advantage and favorite status in its first-round series despite some shaky results against top contenders in March, Chris Paul reached “Point God” mode for months on end, a patched-together rotation of afterthoughts, retreads and minimum guys help up surprisingly well, and Griffin has returned to the court in time to make an impact in the postseason.
Focusing on how the Clippers survived without Griffin, though, misses the larger point, which is that one of their franchise players sidelined himself for an extended stretch by punching a team employee. As a result of that poor decision, Griffin is rushing back into the lineup, the Clippers haven’t fully honed their small ball lineups in advance of a possible second-round showdown with the Warriors, and the Paul/Griffin/DeAndre Jordan core wasn’t able to demonstrate meaningful progress together in a season that had a make-or-break feel. If the Warriors knock out the Clippers as expected, Doc Rivers and company will be left wondering what might have been had Griffin’s incident never happened. Given this high probability of major, pointed regret over Griffin, and what that might mean for this organization’s off-season plans, it’s difficult to label this season a true success.
L.A. Lakers: D-
Midseason Grade: D | Off. Rating: 113 | Def. Rating: 121.9 | Net Rating: -8.9
Tourists from around the globe flock to the La Brea Tar Pits, located just a few miles from Staples Center, where they can view hundreds of skeletons of dead animals that were unable to escape after being sucked down into lakes of black goop. Sounds an awful lot like the neighboring Lakers, doesn’t it? The once-prestigious, once-proud franchise continues to sink deeper and deeper into the muck, thanks to Byron Scott’s endless bull, D’Angelo Russell’s drama, Nick Young’s nonsense, and another year’s worth of Kobe Bryant-related fanfare/enabling. It also didn’t help that Roy Hibbert, L.A.’s highest-profile off-season addition, was so ineffective that it already seems impossible that he was a 2014 All-Star.
This season marks the worst in Lakers’ franchise history—the previous worst was last season, of course—and it was entirely predictable thanks to Bryant’s damaging shadow, an anemic and disjointed offense, and a toothless defense. On the bright side, the Lakers gave themselves the best possible shot at keeping their top-three protected pick (no one was out–tanking the Sixers), they heard more than enough futile barking from Scott to conclude that he must be replaced as soon as possible, and they saw scattered flashes of Russell’s high ceiling (when the paparazzi point guard wasn’t unwittingly shooting freelance video for tabloid websites).
Will a new era without Bryant, a new coach, a new lottery pick and a few new free agents help next season look better? It should, but only because it’s hard to envision things getting any worse.
Memphis Grizzlies: D
Midseason Grade: C- | Off. Rating: 111.5 | Def. Rating: 98.6 | Net Rating: 12.9
Breaking down the Grizzlies’ hellish campaign is like jamming a finger into an open wound. Most observers agreed before the season that the “Grit and Grind” Grizzlies faced a possible extinction this season, thanks to their traditional lineups and inside-out approach, but no one could have predicted it falling apart quite as painfully as this.
After three straight 50+ win season, the Grizzlies will finish with their worst record since 2012 after losing Marc Gasol, Mike Conley, Brandan Wright and Mario Chalmers to major injuries and a host of other players to minor ones. While coach Dave Joerger has done an admirable job holding down the fort, the health crisis will likely cause Memphis to slip out of the West’s top five, thereby setting up a one-sided first-round series against one of the conference’s juggernauts. The shorthanded Grizzlies will be fortunate if they can force such a series to five games.
What comes next is anybody’s guess, as Conley is set to become an unrestricted free agent, Courtney Lee and Jeff Green were shipped out at the deadline leaving holes behind them, and the familiar pound-and-punish approach just isn’t going to cut it any longer.
Miami Heat: B+
Midseason Grade: B | Off. Rating: 113.9 | Def. Rating: 99.4 | Net Rating: 14.5
The Heat might be the only thing preventing the East from turning into another Cavaliers cakewalk. Despite losing Chris Bosh to blood clots in his leg in February, Miami has turned it up down the stretch, posting the NBA’s sixth-best point differential since the All-Star break. Finally, the pieces are starting to fit together: Goran Dragic looks comfortable and satisfied, Dwyane Wade continues to plug along, Hassan Whiteside has settled into a super-sub role, and rookies Justise Winslow and Josh Richardson (who seemingly hits every shot he throws up) have given coach Erik Spoelstra good minutes.
Miami’s case as a playoff threat boils down to its hot recent play, its top-end star power, its excellent offensive numbers since the All-Star break, its collective postseason experience, and the added bonus that Spoelstra coached LeBron James for four years and therefore knows better than anyone how to counter his all-around brilliance.
One thing is for sure: the East won’t produce a better matchup than Cavaliers/Heat from a television ratings standpoint. The James-centric narratives are just too tasty. Seriously, imagine how shocking it would be if James’ streak of five straight Finals appearances was snapped by the team he left in 2014 just months before he was set to become an unrestricted free agent again in July.
Milwaukee Bucks: C-
Midseason Grade: C- | Off. Rating: 105.2 | Def. Rating: 103.1 | Net Rating: 2.1
Milwaukee’s fall backwards following a surprise trip to the 2015 playoffs can certainly be chalked up to the inconsistency of collective youth. The Bucks’ top five players by minutes logged are all 25 and under, as are four other members of the rotation.
But this season wasn’t an entirely organic learning environment, as two key management decisions contributed to the disappointing season. First, the Bucks targeted Michael Carter-Williams as a cheap replacement for Brandon Knight. After failing to hold down the starting job, Carter-Williams underwent season-ending hip surgery. Second, the Bucks made their big off-season play by signing Greg Monroe as a free agent. Monroe has posted an atrocious 107.4 defensive rating, a mark so bad that his reliable contributions as a low-post scorer and glass-cleaner can’t cover up the damage. As a result, Milwaukee walked head first into a somewhat obvious lesson: it’s very difficult to win in today’s NBA without a point guard who can shoot and a center who isn’t particularly mobile or adept at protecting the rim.
The nice thing about young teams is that they often play tantalizing ball down the stretch, thereby easing the disappointment of missed expectations by raising hope for next year and beyond. In Khris Middleton, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker, the Bucks have one of the most talented and intriguing under-25 trios in the NBA, as all three players should be regarded as potential All-Stars at some point in their respective careers. If Bucks management is ready to admit the error of its ways, this summer’s draft and free agency activity should again center on the one and five spots. Better fits there could help make this team really good—even better than 2014–15—as soon as next season.
Minnesota Timberwolves: C+
Midseason Grade: C- | Off. Rating: 103.2 | Def. Rating: 108.2 | Net Rating: -5
Karl-Anthony Towns is one hell of a player, and the main reason this grade isn’t a few cuts lower, but he can only compensate for so many roster holes and personnel missteps. The presumptive 2016 Rookie of the Year has been sensational from Day One, giving Minnesota exactly the type of versatile, two-way big man who thrives in the modern NBA. A 2017 All-Star selection is on the table for Towns and the MVP talk will be gearing up by the time he reaches his mid-20s.
Thankfully, Towns isn’t entirely stranded thanks to 2014 No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins, who took a modest but noticeable step forward in his second season, and Ricky Rubio, who bounced back from an injury-plague season to appear in 75 games.
Go much further down the Timberwolves’ roster, however, and things start to get dicey. The oft-hyped plan of targeting veteran mentors at each position (Kevin Garnett, Andre Miller, Tayshaun Prince) wasn’t anything special to write home about; Garnett logged less than 600 minutes, Miller bailed for greener pastures in San Antonio, and Prince was a space-killing presence for the 176th straight season. Aside from Garnett’s ability to tutor Towns, the whole approach was a total waste of time and newspaper ink.
It’s high time owner Glen Taylor take more heat for his role in Minnesota’s 12 straight lottery trips. Is he fully committed to putting a quality product on the floor? Will he prove it this summer? Isn’t it time to fully reevaluate both the front office and coaching staff following the tragic death of Flip Saunders last fall?
Interim coach Sam Mitchell is among the most surly and defensive coaches in the league, and he showed little progress in modernizing Minnesota’s attack (even though Towns, Wiggins and Rubio helped improve the Timberwolves’ offensive efficiency). The question, really, is whether Towns and Wiggins in particular are succeeding because of Mitchell’s influence or in spite of it.
Minnesota’s two No. 1 overall picks will soon drag this franchise to relevance and respectability, but they deserve some better assistance along the way. Given the duo’s sky-high ceiling, it makes all the sense in the world for Minnesota to target a proven former head coach like Tom Thibodeau or Scott Brooks, men who molded high draft picks into All-Stars and MVPs. That begs the question: Does the Timberwolves’ ownership and front office possess the vision and boldness necessary to make that type of hire?
New Orleans Pelicans: F
Midseason Grade: F | Off. Rating: 109.4 | Def. Rating: 117.1 | Net Rating: -7.8
The poor, poor Pelicans seemingly logged more hours in hospital beds and sports rehabilitation centers than on the court this season. Anthony Davis, Ryan Anderson, Jrue Holiday, Eric Gordon, Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter all dealt with serious health-related issues; in related news, that’s more or less every worthwhile player on the roster.
This off-season represents a major test for ownership. Usually, freefalling out of the playoff picture, failing to craft an identity under a new coach (Alvin Gentry) shutting down a franchise player for the third time in four years (Davis), getting next to nothing out of a rough free agency decision (Omer Asik) and losing most of the rotation to injuries would lead to thorough evaluations of, and changes to, the front office and medical staffs. What will emerge in New Orleans this summer: a commitment to excellence or a satisfaction with mediocrity? If the Pelicans do change course, they’ll need to do so with the utmost haste given the extensive roster reworking that needs to be done.
New York Knicks: C
Midseason Grade: B | Off. Rating: 102.9 | Def. Rating: 113.0 | Net Rating: -10.1
New York’s first-half respectability fizzled out down the stretch, leaving Carmelo Anthony as a postseason bystander for the third straight year. As in previous years, the Knicks’ issues go far deeper than their polarizing franchise player. It’s a bad sign when your coach makes headlines for his role in an off-court love triangle with an opposing player's ex-wife. It’s a really bad sign when he feels the need to lamely defend his integrity in a first-person essay entitled “Truth” after getting canned halfway through his second season.
The worst sign of all, though, is that Knicks president Phil Jackson seemingly wants to replace the deposed Derek Fisher with Kurt Rambis, whose lackluster record doesn’t exactly inspire much hope. Although the Knicks showed progress over their 2014–15 tankathon, Jackson’s change of course with his coaching staff and his insistence on pursuing the Triangle Offense leaves New York facing the same old questions. Should Anthony be traded? Will a competent point guard finally emerge? What happens if Robin Lopez ever gets hurt? How much more does a forgettable supporting cast have to offer? When will the organization shift from building around Anthony to building around Kristaps Porzingis?
Despite a run-in with the rookie wall, Porzingis emerged as a franchise-changer whose instant popularity salvaged an otherwise forgettable Knicks season. Unfortunately, honeymoon periods never last forever and the Porzingis home run will only buy Jackson so much time. The pressure is firmly on the Zen Master to produce a second straight summer of substantial roster improvements.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A-
Midseason Grade: A | Off. Rating:109.3 | Def. Rating: 116.9 | Net Rating: -7.6
Despite facing some organization-shaking adversity, with the deaths of co-owner Aubrey McLendon and the wife of assistant coach Monty Williams, the Thunder returned to form after missing the playoffs last season. The major indicators were all positive: Kevin Durant played 70+ games and Russell Westbrook enjoyed near perfect health, Enes Kanter accepted a bench role and put up good offensive numbers to justify his max deal, rookie Cameron Payne plugged nicely into the backcourt rotation, and Billy Donovan largely avoided the scrutiny that engulfed his fellow rookie coach Fred Hoiberg in Chicago. Anyone who anticipated or feared some sort of calamity that would send Durant packing in free agency this summer is still waiting for it to develop.
There are still causes for concern. Besides the many untested rotation pieces surrounding Durant and Westbrook and Donovan’s lack of experience handling adjustments and matchups in the postseason, the Thunder also developed a pretty lengthy record of late-game struggles this year. While Oklahoma City possesses the third–best record in the West, it ranks just eighth in games with clutch situations (a five-point game in the last five minutes) and trails well behind contenders like Golden State and San Antonio when it comes to finishing games. Durant and Westbrook might both land on the All-NBA First Team and on MVP ballots, but they can’t expect to advance to their second Finals together by playing 2-on-5 down the stretch against the West’s elite teams. The big question—one that will determine how far OKC advances and, possibly, whether Durant returns—is simple: Who else is prepared to step up?
Orlando Magic: C
Midseason Grade: B+ Off. Rating: 95.3 | Def. Rating: 102.2 | Net Rating: 113.0
The Scott Skiles effect unfolded right on schedule: The Magic claimed their most wins since 2012 thanks to a fairly strong start and a sturdier defense that jumped from 25th last season to middle of the pack this season.
Even so, it’s hard to get overly excited about that progress for a few reasons. First, Orlando is hardly alone among poor East teams showing improvement this year. Second, Skiles never found a money five-man lineup that he trusted (Orlando actually traded away two players from its best lineup, Tobias Harris and Channing Frye, in midseason deals). Third, none of the Magic’s young players enjoyed a major, sustained breakout, leaving the team’s confusing pecking order issues unresolved. Fourth, the trade of Harris for Ersan Ilyasova and Brandon Jennings seemed to run counter to the Magic’s youth-oriented approach and led to a new round of doubts for an already shaky front office.
It’s easy to forecast additional progress being made next season, even if GM Rob Hennigan fails to lock down a top-tier free agent. After all, Orlando’s 25-and-under talent includes Nikola Vucevic, Evan Fournier, Elfrid Payton, Victor Oladipo, Mario Hezonja and, perhaps most promising of all, Aaron Gordon. To take the next, big step towards a winning record, this collection of young talent will need to prove that it’s capable of becoming greater than the sum of its individual parts. Otherwise, the Harris trade might prove to be a precursor of further trade activity rather than an anomaly.
Philadelphia 76ers: D
Midseason Grade: C | Off. Rating: 81.9 | Def. Rating: 122.4 | Net Rating: -40.5
The Sixers need like four separate sets of grades for their season. On the court, they’re an “F” yet again, narrowly avoiding tying the NBA record for most losses in a season. The development of their core pieces was no better than a “D”-prized lottery pick Jahlil Okafor repeatedly made headlines for his off-court behavior, posted a -20 net rating when he shared the court with fellow young big Nerlens Noel, and then underwent season-ending knee surgery. Meanwhile, Joel Embiid didn’t play a single minute for the second straight season due to injuries, with his situation getting so dire that he traveled to Qatar for medical assistance. Not even Greg Oden went that far afield by age 22.
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GM Sam Hinkie, who resigned with a 13-page manifesto earlier this month after falling victim to a Colangelo Coup, also deserves a “D” on his way out the door. For all the draft picks he accumulated, his vision led to three horrendous seasons that produced zero franchise players to date and, perhaps more importantly, failed to lead to a lasting fundamental change in thing in his organization. Instead, he departs as both a convenient scapegoat and an easy target, and he will surely watch with some combination of shame and horror as his successors trade in “The Process” for a more traditional and palatable approach to roster-building.
So what overarching grade does an organization deserve that wasted another year and then radically changed course? What grade does an organization deserve after radically changing course and alienating its fan base before really seeing its plan through? Those are tricky questions, especially before the results of the draft lottery are known. By virtue of the passage of time, relative to when they can cash in their next round of draft picks, the Sixers are better off today than they were in November, and it’s a safe bet that a return to offseason normalcy (convincing proven veterans to take your money in free agency) will produce more wins in 2016–17. In light of Hinkie’s exit, though, this now looks an awful lot like a path that was far more painful, more politically charged, and more pointless than he anticipated. The only way this messy period looks better in hindsight five years from now is if Ben Simmons is in Philadelphia next fall.
Phoenix Suns: F
Midseason Grade: F | Off. Rating: 94.2 | Def. Rating: 123.5 | Net Rating: -29.2
Phoenix’s season really, really dragged thanks to a series of countdowns to foregone conclusions and the realization that true hope is a long, long way off. First, it was short-term questions like “How long until they finally fire Jeff Hornacek?” and “How long until they finally trade Markieff Morris?” Then that gave way to the bigger-picture concerns like, “Wait, how long until Tyson Chandler’s contract is up?” and “How long until Eric Bledsoe or Brandon Knight makes it through a season without a serious injury?” and “How long until breakout rookie Devin Booker can match his strong offensive game with something better than atrocious defense?” and “How long until GM Ryan McDonough crafts a functional and sensible core group?”
This year has been so bad, so disheartening and so slow to unfold that it’s hard to remember that the Suns harbored playoff hopes last fall. Instead, they’re left trying to decide whether 36-year-old interim coach Earl Watson has done enough to earn the full-time job while launching another countdown (to draft night). Phoenix is on track for a top-five pick, and McDonough’s bleak collection of talent erases any margin of error in late June. He absolutely, positively cannot screw up this pick.
Portland Trail Blazers: A-
Midseason Grade: C+ | Off. Rating: 110.9 | Def. Rating: 114.1 | Net Rating: -3.2
After a rocky “Still getting to know each other” first half, the remade Blazers bucked conventional wisdom and tanking advocates by picking up serious steam down the stretch. Whereas many young teams tend to fade late, Portland rode a top-10 offense, powered by Damian Lillard and Most Improved Player candidate CJ McCollum, to the West’s fourth-best record after the All-Star break.
The Blazers held tough when many of the West’s middle class slipped thanks in large part to good health: Lillard, McCollum, and seven other key contributors all logged 70+ games this season. That lineup continuity helped compensate for defensive shortcomings and a somewhat weak interior cast, putting the Blazers in position to claim the West’s No. 5 seed and push the Clippers in the first round. There’s no question that Portland ranks among the biggest overachievers this season, placing Terry Stotts near the top of the Coach of the Year conversation.
While this reality beats Portland’s preseason best-case scenario, it’s merely a good save rather than major progress. Remember, the LaMarcus Aldridge era in Portland had five seasons with more wins than the 2016 Blazers. Other concerns linger. The Blazers, lacking in top-end talent aside from their backcourt duo, must convey their first round pick to the Nuggets because it was only top 14 protected. Later this summer, Portland must pay up to retain a number of decent contributors who were on bargain deals (Moe Harkless, Allen Crabbe and Meyers Leonard). Merely keeping the fun-loving band together, though, is unlikely to launch the Blazers into the West’s top tier in 2017 and beyond.
The Blazers were spunky, entertaining and motivated this year, but they’ll need to add or develop an impact frontcourt player or two before they’ll need to be taken seriously. Will Portland recognize this fact and take advantage of its prudent cap management by chasing the likes of Hassan Whiteside and Harrison Barnes?
Sacramento Kings: D
Midseason Grade: C | Off. Rating: 98.3 | Def. Rating: 113.2 | Net Rating: -15
It took a little bit to get rolling, as they were still within striking distance of .500 at midseason, but sure enough the great snowball of petty nonsense eventually obliterated another Kings season. The quintessential moment of Kings dysfunction came earlier this month, when DeMarcus Cousins and Rajon Rondo drew simultaneous technical fouls for sarcastically clapping at a referee in the closing seconds of a game that had already been decided. Not a big deal? Think again. Rondo’s technical earned him an ejection while Cousins’ drew a one-game suspension because of his season-long accumulation of techs. Why didn’t they just let their grievances slide? Because they’re the Kings.
There was no shortage of messy subplots: Cousins chewed out coach George Karl, Rondo got into an ugly and hateful incident with referee Billy Kennedy, Karl was nearly fired and then allowed to dangle, one of Karl’s assistants was fired, Karl sparked a back-and-forth dialogue with Cousins over comments the coach made about Seth Curry’s career prospects, and about one million other tiffs that saw the Kings slide deep into the lottery. Hey, at least Vlade Divac got an extension!
Sacramento’s core is broken. Despite his self-serving assist tallies, Rondo’s presence on the court made the Kings worse on both offense and defense. While a coaching change seems inevitable at this point, selling more change to Cousins after years of bench cycling sounds like a losing proposition. Does that mean that it’s finally time to seriously weigh trade offers for the All-Star? Two things are for sure: there shouldn’t be a single untouchable piece on this roster and Divac better have some real guidance if he undertakes a sell-off.
San Antonio Spurs: A++
Midseason Grade: A++ | Off. Rating: 113 | Def. Rating: 97.5 | Net Rating: 15.5
Here’s a crazy nugget from San Antonio’s season to remember: All 10 Spurs players that logged at least 1,000 minutes posted a net rating of +9 or better. In other words, at any given moment and in virtually every configuration, the Spurs were kicking butt this year. It didn’t matter if Kawhi Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge were going off, it didn’t matter if Tim Duncan was in or out of the lineup, it didn’t matter whether Danny Green was hot or cold, and it didn’t really matter what five-man group Gregg Popovich was using.
Leonard’s ascension as a scorer and MVP candidate is the top headline, followed by Aldridge’s successful immersion, but San Antonio’s season (65 wins and a top 10 alltime +10.8 point differential through Sunday) is a testament to the depth generated during an intricate off-season and a fundamental unselfishness and commitment to team priorities unmatched around the league. San Antonio’s deliberate attack feasted on mismatches and exploited the tiniest of mistakes, while its smothering, unforgiving defense led the league in fewest points allowed per 100 possessions. On both sides, the Spurs almost always moved in sync.
Thanks to the Warriors, there’s a good chance these Spurs wind up joining the list of “Greatest teams that didn’t win the title,” but there would be zero shame in that. If Duncan, who is about to hit 40, does opt for retirement this summer, he would be leaving after a season that, win or lose, embodies his best values—reliability, discipline, cohesiveness, fundamentals—just as much as any of his five championship campaigns. This is what great basketball should look like.
Toronto Raptors: A
Midseason Grade: A | Off. Rating: 112 | Def. Rating: 102.6 | Net Rating: 9.4
“Best season in franchise history” kind of says it all, doesn’t it? Just don’t mistake this for a dream season where everything fell perfectly into place. On the contrary, DeMarre Carroll and Jonas Valanciunas both missed real time with injuries, coach Dwane Casey entered the season on the hot seat and in a lame-duck contract year, and a whole bunch of new faces (Cory Joseph, Bismack Biyombo, Luis Scola and Norman Powell) all wound up playing significant huge roles out of necessity.
Given those circumstances, the takeaways are fairly straightforward: Casey needs to appear on Coach of the Year ballots, Kyle Lowry deserves All-NBA second team love, and DeMar DeRozan has positioned himself perfectly for a major pay day this summer. But before the kudos and cash get handed out, the Raptors need to deliver on this season’s true goal: advancing in the postseason for the first time since 2001. If they don’t, that “A” will feel exactly like an “F,” and the conversation will immediately turn to whose head should be on the platter.
Utah Jazz: C
Midseason Grade: C- | Off. Rating: 104.8 | Def. Rating: 120.6 | Net Rating: -15.8
No season ever boils down to a single game, but the Jazz might have royally screwed themselves by dropping a recent home game to a Clippers team that was resting most of its key players. That loss may very well be the difference between finishing in the No. 8 seed, thereby ending a postseason drought that dates back to 2012, and falling behind Houston and out of the playoff picture. It’s just one game and it’s just one seed, but that’s the difference between a successful year and a disappointing one for an up-and-coming Jazz squad looking to demonstrate clear progress compared to last season.
There are extenuating circumstances: Utah lost Rudy Gobert for a long stretch of the season, Dante Exum was sidelined the whole way with a knee injury, and management settled for adding Shelvin Mack as a placeholder at the deadline rather than swinging a bigger deal for a starting-caliber point guard after months of weak play at the position. There are bright sides too: Rodney Hood has been a revelation, Gordon Hayward continues to mature, and coach Quin Snyder has constructed a clear (slow) style of play that suits his personnel. None of those facts, however, will truly ease the burn if Utah winds up on the outside looking in come Wednesday.
Note: this grade bumps up to a B if the Jazz sneak past the Rockets to claim the No. 8 seed. While Utah would likely get steamrolled by Golden State in the first round, symbolic victories and playoff reps matter for a team whose core is composed entirely of 25-and-under players.
Washington Wizards: C-
Midseason Grade: D+ | Off. Rating: 103.4 | Def. Rating: 108.9 | Net Rating: -5.4
The Wizards certainly didn’t have the season that they hoped, but lumping them in with the Bulls, Rockets and Pelicans on the list of “biggest disappointments” is going too far. Yes, their regression relative to last year was hard to swallow. They will miss the playoffs for the first time since 2013 and they were leapfrogged by a number of so-so teams in the East. Bradley Beal’s ongoing health concerns casts a pall over the future and their transition towards small ball was rockier than many observers expected. Finally, and most painfully, the Wizards’ somewhat surprising mediocrity obviously complicates—and possibly foils—their off–season pursuit of Kevin Durant.
While the Wizards won't be in the postseason, they did enjoy another productive season from All-Star point guard John Wall, and they did snap up Markieff Morris at the deadline. There were bubbles of locker room discord down the stretch, but Washington also doesn’t appear to be a full-fledged disaster. Instead, this is a not-that-deep squad whose defense slipped more than its offense improved when it tried to pick up the pace and spread the floor. That’s a fairly common outcome for any team in transition, especially one that played nearly half the season without its second-leading scorer. It’s worth noting that lineups featuring Wall, Beal, Otto Porter and Morris performed quite well together (+7 net rating) down the stretch.
Going forward, assuming Beal is re-signed as a restricted free agent (and he should be, even at a max number), those four players represent the guts of a functional, modern roster, as they possess above-average talent and complement each other well. The retooling effort around that core should include a new coaching voice—it’s past time to pull the plug on Randy Wittman—and an emphasis on adding wing depth. Even if the Durant dream is dead, the East’s pecking order is flexible enough that the Wizards can be serious players again next season without a drastic overhaul or major free agency splash.