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NBA quarter-mark grades: Celtics among five ‘A+’ teams, Warriors struggling, two squads earn ‘F’

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The In-Season Tournament is over, and every team in the NBA has played between 19 and 23 regular-season games. This means, while there’s still plenty of time for teams that have started poorly to turn it around — and for teams that have started well to fall apart, I suppose — it’s no longer too early to take stock of where things stand. 

What follows is a brief breakdown of each of the league’s 30 teams, along with a letter grade for its performance through the first 25% (or so) of the season. 

Atlanta Hawks: C

  • Record: 9-12
  • The basics: 5th in offense, 26th in defense, 20th in net rating (-0.3)
  • One notable stat: They give up more fast break points per game than any other team in the league (16.5).
  • One reason for optimism: The offense is truly elite, and they can score with anyone. 
  • One reason for pessimism: Any way you slice it, the defense is a mess. They get shredded at the rim, from the corners and in transition. 

To their credit, the Hawks have made changes to try to take this group to the next level. They’ve traded for All-Stars, they’ve traded for reliable role players, they’re on their third head coach (fourth if you count interim Joe Prunty) in four seasons and they’ve shaken up the front office. None of it has worked. Once again, they’re hovering around .500 and look like a play-in team.

Even with Quin Snyder in charge, it’s the same old Hawks. With pick-and-roll maestro Trae Young leading the way, the offense is incredible. They race up and down the court, get to the free throw line and shoot it well from 3. And then they let other teams do whatever they want on the other end. They give up more fast break points per game (16.5) than anyone else, allow the second-most attempts in the restricted area (31.4) and second-most corner 3 attempts (11.4). Nothing sums up this team better than the two-game stretch earlier this season in which they scored 299 points and gave up 302. — Jack Maloney

Boston Celtics: A+

  • Record: 16-5
  • The basics: 6th in offense, 3rd in defense, 1st in net rating (+8.5)
  • One notable stat: Boston’s new starting five is annihilating everybody. It has outscored opponents by 27.5 points per 100 possessions, the best mark of any lineup that has logged at least 70 minutes. (I’m smuggling in a second stat: In the halfcourt, where an average team scores 98-99 points per 100 possessions, this lineup is scoring 113.2 per 100 and holding opponents to 83.6 per 100, according to Cleaning The Glass.)
  • One reason for optimism: Jayson Tatum has always had a midrange game, but, until this season, he’d never made more than 40% of his long 2s, per Cleaning The Glass. This year, that number is up to 54%.
  • One reason for pessimism: While Joe Mazzulla talked about diversifying the shot profile coming into the season, it is so far virtually identical — tons of 3s, particularly above the break; not a ton of midrange shots and probably not as much at the rim as you’d like, especially because the free throw rate has remained unremarkable.

Al Horford is a fine shooter, but Kristaps Porzingis is something else. With a center who is a threat from several feet behind the 3-point line, the Celtics’ spacing has been supercharged. And just like they hoped, Porzingis has provided vertical spacing in addition to the long bombs. Everything he did away from the spotlight with the Washington Wizards last year has carried over, and, since Boston has been the league’s best team, he hasn’t been bothered by the reduction in post-ups and isolations. 

There are still nits to pick on offense — they turn down driving opportunities, aren’t awesome in transition and turn the ball over too much — but I’m not even sure how to concern-troll the Celtics’ defense. They still don’t really force turnovers, I guess, but that has hardly mattered. Jrue Holiday and Derrick White are maniacs, and this team is elite when it comes to protecting the rim, preventing corner 3s, transition defense and defensive rebounding. Boston is committing fewer fouls than it did last season, too.  James Herbert

Brooklyn Nets: B+

  • Record: 12-9
  • The basics: 7th in offense, 18th in defense, 8th (tie) in net rating (+3.6)
  • One notable stat: Five Nets are shooting 38% or better on catch-and-shoot 3s and attempting at least 3.5 of them per game. No other team in the league has more than three players doing this. (Lonnie Walker IV, 46.2% on 3.8 attempts; Dorian Finney-Smith, 45.9% on 5.6 attempts; Cameron Johnson; 42.6% on 4.9 attempts; Mikal Bridges, 40.9% on 4.4 attempts; Royce O’Neale, 38.5% on 4.8 attempts.)
  • One reason for optimism: With this personnel, the defense can (and likely will) improve. Brooklyn is stuffed with big, switchable wings, and there’s no reason it should be dead last in forcing turnovers.
  • One reason for pessimism: Is this offense sustainable? It’s good news that Ben Simmons is looking at his rehab as a “matter of days to weeks, as opposed to weeks to months,” as his agent told the New York Post, but his eventual return will complicate matters for a team that has been making the most of its spacing.

The Nets came into the season with a plan — get stops and play at hyperspeed — but that plan blew up almost immediately. Nic Claxton missed eight straight games after opening night, and, by the time he returned, Simmons was out with a nerve impingement in his back. As a result, Brooklyn is a wildly different team than anticipated, with an offense that has been better than the sum of its parts and a defense that has been worse.

Cam Thomas started the season on a heater, and Bridges, making a case for his first All-Star appearance, has dropped 40-plus twice. Quietly, though, Spencer Dinwiddie has been essential for the Nets’ offense — they’ve scored at an Indiana-like rate with him on the court and a Detroit-like rate with him off the court. — Herbert

Charlotte Hornets: D+

  • Record: 7-13
  • The basics: 19th in offense, 29th (tie) in defense, 26th in net rating (-7.8)
  • One notable stat: They’re 5-0 in games decided by three points or fewer and 2-13 otherwise. 
  • One reason for optimism: Brandon Miller appears to have been the right choice with the No. 2 pick. 
  • One reason for pessimism: LaMelo Ball’s ankles.

The Hornets haven’t been to the playoffs since 2016, which is not only the longest drought in franchise history, but the longest active drought in the league. It does not appear they’re going to end it this season. Their offense is middling, the defense is awful and Ball is hurt again. That they’ve decided to re-sign Miles Bridges after his heinous acts only makes matters worse.

As bad as things are right now in Charlotte, however, there are legitimate reasons to be excited about their future. Ball was playing some of the best basketball of his career before yet another ankle injury, Miller appears to have been the right choice with the No. 2 overall pick and big man Mark Williams has improved after an encouraging rookie campaign. Can they eventually build a winning group around Ball, an offense-first star with serious injury concerns? That remains to be seen, but there is young talent on this roster. — Maloney

Cleveland Cavaliers: B

  • Record: 13-9
  • The basics: 24th in offense, 8th in defense, 17th in net rating (+0.6)
  • One notable stat: The Cavaliers’ offense generates the fewest wide-open 3s per game (14.1) of any team.
  • One reason for optimism: They’ve won nine of their last 12 games.
  • One reason for pessimism: They can’t score.

The Cavaliers’ crash and burn in the first round of the playoffs last season was a wake-up call, and they spent the offseason trying to address their severe lack of spacing and outside shooting. But even though Max Strus, their marquee signing, has been playing as well as anyone could have hoped, the same issues are plaguing them. They have the worst offensive rating of any team with a winning record (111.2) and create the fewest wide-open 3-point attempts per game (14.1) in the league. 

On the flip side, they’re still capable of playing elite defense. While they rank eighth in the league for the entire season, they’re third during this 9-3 hot streak. As you might expect with their two-big lineup, opponents have a terrible time finishing in the restricted area against them, and they force teams to take a ton of mid-range jumpers. It won’t be pretty, but if they keep defending like this they’re going to win a lot of games. — Maloney


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Chicago Bulls: D

  • Record: 9-13
  • The basics: 25th in offense, 21st in defense, 23rd in net rating (-4.5)
  • One notable stat: They are leading the league in percentage of points scored from the mid-range (11.7%) for the third consecutive season. 
  • One reason for optimism: Coby White is enjoying a breakout campaign. 
  • One reason for pessimism: They’re on a road to nowhere and it’s not clear if their top trade assets can actually get them anything of value. 

The Bulls might have the most depressing situation in the league, regardless of their current four-game winning streak. They’ve stubbornly forged ahead with this core that clearly isn’t good enough to make any noise in the Eastern Conference, and now they’re left with three expensive and aging stars who don’t appear to be all that valuable on the trade market. Alex Caruso would probably fetch them the biggest return, but the front office seems reluctant to move him. 

There’s a good chance this roster looks much different by the end of the season, and that would be for the best long-term, even if they don’t get much in return for the likes of DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic. Whatever ends up happening by the trade deadline, the next few months are going to be an awkward slog as the front office debates its options. — Maloney

Dallas Mavericks: B

  • Record: 13-8
  • The basics: 3rd (tie) in offense, 23rd in defense, 12th in net rating (+3.1)
  • One notable stat: Luka Doncic is on pace to become the eighth player in NBA history to average 10 or more 3-point attempts per game.
  • One reason for optimism: After years of bizarre clutch struggles, the Mavericks are 8-2 in clutch games this season with a +21.6 net rating.
  • One reason for pessimism: They still don’t have anyone to defend guards.

The offense has largely been as advertised. They take the most 3s in the league. They never turn the ball over. Luka Doncic is a supernova. Dereck Lively II is his ideal center. Kyrie Irving has kept the offense more than afloat when Doncic has rested. They’re finally winning close games. They’re finally beating the teams they’re supposed to beat.

Your grade here is going to vary based on expectations. If the goal was simply to prove to Doncic that this team could viably win 50 or so games for the next few years? They’re on the right track. But they still have a long way to go defensively and probably need a substantial trade of some sort to edge their way into the championship picture. — Sam Quinn

Denver Nuggets: B+

  • Record: 14-9
  • The basics: 9th in offense, 11th in defense, 8th (tie) in net rating (+3.6)
  • One notable stat: Nikola Jokic has a career-high 32.9% usage rate, partially because Jamal Murray has played only 10 games and partially because Jokic simply realizes no one can stop him. 
  • One reason for optimism: Reggie Jackson has been revitalized! Per 36 minutes, the veteran guard is averaging 18.1 points (on 58.4% true shooting), 6.2 assists and 3.3 rebounds, similar numbers to the ones he put up with the Clippers in 2019-20 and 2020-21.
  • One reason for pessimism: Bruce Brown and Jeff Green aren’t walking through that door, and, despite Jackson’s heroics, it’s still not clear if the Nuggets have the depth they need in the playoffs.

Considering Murray has played 28 fewer minutes than Peyton Watson, it’s hard to judge the champs too harshly for their good-not-great record. Denver is still outscoring opponents by more than 10 points per 100 possessions in Jokic’s minutes, but, somewhat unsurprisingly, it ranks 25th in aggregate bench net rating.

I feel good about Christian Braun, even though he’s attempting only one catch-and-shoot 3 per game. I feel good about Watson defensively, but I’m not sure about the other end. Justin Holiday had a nice stretch at the end of November, but he’s out of the rotation again. I’m guessing the plan is to go small in the non-Jokic minutes when the games really matter, but it’s not clear what exactly those lineups will look like.  Herbert

Detroit Pistons: F

  • Record: 2-20
  • The basics: 27th (tie) in offense, 24th in defense, 29th in net rating (-10.0)
  • One notable stat: They have more double-digit losses (10) than the league’s two best teams, the Timberwolves and Celtics, have combined losses (nine).
  • One reason for optimism: They might win the lottery again.
  • One reason for pessimism: New coach Monty Williams’ rotational decisions have exacerbated their issues.

What a disaster. You can point to their injuries – Bojan Bogdanovic and Jalen Duren have missed significant time, while Monte Morris has yet to play – their extreme youth and a new coaching staff and system, but none of it excuses this. They’ve lost 19 games in a row, which is the longest single-season losing streak in franchise history, and they haven’t even been close most of the time. The only two defeats by fewer than five points during this streak were in games in which Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jokic got ejected. 

Making matters worse, Williams’ rotations have exacerbated their issues. Jaden Ivey, who made the All-Rookie Second Team last season, is playing 25% less than he did last season, and has seen his minutes and role shift from night to night. A whopping 15 players either are, or have been, averaging 10 minutes per game. Even though Bogdanovic is now back, there are still stretches where neither he, nor Ivey, nor Cade Cunningham are on the floor. The Pistons’ players haven’t been good enough, but you can make the case they haven’t been put in the best position to succeed either. — Maloney

Golden State Warriors: C-

  • Record: 10-12
  • The basics: 14th (tie) in offense, 17th in defense, 18th in net rating (+0.3)
  • One notable stat: The Warriors rank outside of the top 10 in 3-point percentage for the first time during the Steve Kerr era, excluding Stephen Curry‘s injury-riddled 2019-20 season.
  • One reason for optimism: Stephen Curry hasn’t aged a day. His scoring numbers are virtually identical to last year’s. He can still be the best player on a championship team.
  • One reason for pessimism: Curry is the only Warrior scoring. ChrIs Paul and Andrew Wiggins are both averaging the fewest points of their careers. Klay Thompson is averaging the fewest points since his rookie season.

Here’s the simplest way to describe Golden State’s issues right now: the older players are aging out of their primes before the younger players are aging into their own. The Warriors could get away with Thompson, Paul and Wiggins declining if Jonathan Kuminga or Moses Moody were ready to take their place. Both have impressed in smaller roles, but neither has broken out in the way that a contender would hope a third-year lottery pick would.

This newfound talent deficit is making it harder for the Warriors to get away with some of their traditional flaws. Golden State is among the league leaders in turnovers almost every year. The team’s high-risk play-style isn’t balancing those turnovers out with the easy layups and circus 3s that it once did. Peak Thompson and Andre Iguodala helped the Warriors get away with small defenses because of their foot speed and basketball IQ. Now the Warriors are just a tiny team in an increasingly large league. Curry is so good that he’s masking these deficiencies to some extent. If he misses time? Things could get ugly. — Quinn

Houston Rockets: A

  • Record: 10-9
  • The basics: 20th in offense, 4th in defense, 13th in net rating (+3)
  • One notable stat: Houston is allowing 2.6 fewer fast-break points per game than any other team in the NBA. Last season, the team allowed the most fast-break points of any team in the NBA.
  • One reason for optimism: Alperen Sengun is scoring 2.3 more points on an effective field goal percentage 1.3 points higher than Jokic did in his third season while averaging only 0.4 fewer assists per game. He is going to be a superstar.
  • One reason for pessimism: They’ve been the second-luckiest team in the NBA in terms of opponent 3-point shooting, so the defense is probably going to decline slightly as they regress to the mean.

The Rockets are probably overperforming slightly. Their 1-8 road record is concerning. Defensive regression is coming when opponents start making shots. Dillon Brooks may not be the 31% 3-point shooter he was during the darkest days of his Grizzlies tenure, but there’s no evidence suggesting he’s going to maintain his 42.4% mark, which has already started to regress. But even if the Rockets are, say, a 38-win team instead of a 44-win team, this season is still an unmitigated victory.

Upgrading from the worst coach-point guard combination in the NBA to a rather good one has done wonders for the Rockets. For the first time in years, they look like a real NBA team. They’ve jumped from 30th to 12th in assists and 29th to 5th in turnovers. Ime Udoka has empowered Sengun in ways Stephen Silas never did, and now Houston has its long-term franchise player. The Rockets have a ways to go before they can genuinely compete, but considering where they were even a year ago, this season has been better than they could have hoped. — Quinn


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Indiana Pacers: A+

  • Record: 12-8
  • The basics: 1st in offense, 28th in defense, 7th in net rating (+3.8)
  • One notable stat: With a 123.5 offensive rating, they are on pace to record the most efficient offense in NBA history.
  • One reason for optimism: Have you seen their offense?
  • One reason for pessimism: Have you seen their defense?

The Pacers and their budding superstar, Tyrese Haliburton, are the best story in the league through the first quarter of the season. True to their namesake, they play at such breakneck speed that they routinely create fastbreak points after made baskets. That they do so without turning the ball over is remarkable. They lead the league in offensive rating (123.5), pace (104.13) and assist-to-turnover ratio (2.41), and create more wide-open 3s per game (24.3) than any other team. The engine behind their success is Haliburton, who has taken his game to incredible new heights and currently leads the league in assists per game (12.1). In November, he joined Michael Jordan and LeBron James as the only players ever to average at least 25 points and 10 assists for an entire month while shooting 50% from the field and 40% from 3-point land.

Unfortunately for them, their status as the most entertaining team in the league comes from the fact that they give up nearly as many points as they score. They went all-in on preventing 3-point attempts, but have gotten destroyed in the paint and at the free throw line as a result. They allow the fewest 3-pointers in the league, but also the most shots within five feet and the most free throws. The easy points for their opponents add up quickly and put a ton of pressure on their offense to score at a historic level every single night. — Maloney

Los Angeles Clippers: B-

  • Record: 11-10
  • The basics: 14th (tie) in offense, 5th in defense, 6th in net rating (+3.9)
  • One notable stat: Lineups featuring James Harden, Kawhi Leonard and Paul George without Russell Westbrook are outsourcing opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions.
  • One reason for optimism: They’ve been remarkably healthy so far this season. Neither Kawhi Leonard nor Paul George have missed a game yet. James Harden hasn’t missed a game since arriving in Los Angeles.
  • One reason for pessimism: The Clippers still have many of the same weaknesses that they had before Harden’s arrival. They rank 23rd in pace, 29th in offensive movement and 30th in passes per game.

A few weeks ago the Clippers were a laughingstock. They’re figuring things out now. The new starting lineup is killing teams, and Russell Westbrook — averaging roughly 19 minutes per game in his last five appearances — has been a breath of fresh air as a change-of-pace reserve. For all of Harden’s defensive weaknesses, the Clippers have done well to scheme around his strengths. They lead the NBA in deflections and do a great job of minimizing shots at the rim (thanks to Ivica Zubac, the unsung hero of this whole operation).

There’s still plenty of reason for concern here. They’re not remotely the elite shooting team they once were, for example, and that’s going to prove problematic in the playoffs since they still never get to the rim. They’re definitely a guard-defender away in a Western Conference featuring star ball-handlers around every corner. History tells us that the injuries are coming. They can survive a month here or there without a star. Lose any of George, Leonard or Harden for the year and they’re done. But after their embarrassing five-game losing streak upon Harden’s arrival, the Clippers are in a pretty good place, all things considered. — Quinn

Los Angeles Lakers: B

  • Record: 14-9
  • The basics: 22nd in offense, 7th in defense, 15th in net rating (+1.1)
  • One notable stat: The Lakers have outscored their opponents by 131 total points with LeBron James on the floor, but have been outscored by 104 points with LeBron James on the bench.
  • One reason for optimism: It took some time to figure out the rotation, but some clever roster moves and great player-development have given the Lakers their best group of perimeter defenders since the 2020 championship run. Cam Reddish and Max Christie have both been stellar on the ball, and Jarred Vanderbilt is slowly working his way back into shape. The Lakers have the NBA’s best defense over the past 11 games.
  • One reason for pessimism: Even at full strength, this team can’t score. The shooting issues have persisted since last season, and they’re no longer dominating the free-throw margin to quite the same extent. LeBron’s improved jump-shooting is the only thing holding this offense together.

The same basic formula from last season’s playoff run is still largely working. The Lakers still get to the line plenty. They score in the paint and their defense is ferocious. James has defied Father Time yet again and Davis is quietly making his strongest run yet at the Defensive Player of the Year trophy. This year’s team has been far deeper than last year’s. Reddish in particular has been a revelation. Gabe Vincent will help when he gets healthy.

But offensive redundancy limits this group’s upside. In D’Angelo Russell and Austin Reaves, both of the secondary ball-handlers here are slow and reliant on craft to generate buckets. That has limits in the postseason. Too many of the wings are shaky shooters. Neither Jaxson Hayes nor Christian Wood has definitively grabbed the backup center slot. This team needs another high-end scorer, someone explosive enough to get to the rim consistently without sacrificing spacing. Until then, it’s just hard to imagine them generating enough offense to hang with the best of the Western Conference. — Quinn

Memphis Grizzlies: D-

  • Record: 6-15
  • The basics: 29th in offense, 11th (tie) in defense, 24th in net rating (-5.9)
  • One notable stat: No Grizzlies player is averaging more than seven rebounds per game (Bismack Biyombo).
  • One reason for optimism: The defense has performed admirably, given the circumstances.
  • One reason for pessimism: Not a single good thing has happened to this franchise for 10 solid months.

We can’t really grade Memphis on the 21 games we’ve seen so far. Everyone is hurt or suspended. It’s hard to hold a 6-15 record against a group largely built around backups. But the Grizzlies are learning some hard lessons that will apply to their future. Jaren Jackson Jr., for instance, isn’t quite the same rim-protecting menace without a bruiser like Steven Adams next to him. Even before his own injury, Marcus Smart — coming off a disappointing year in Boston — hardly lived up to the dual defensive-stopper/backup-point-guard role Memphis envisioned for him. Opportunity here has been ample. Not a single young Grizzly has really taken advantage of it. Maybe Jacob Gilyard has earned some fringe minutes?

Ja Morant is coming back soon. The Grizzlies will probably be more competitive with him. Memphis is only five games out of the play-in as of this writing. But in the grand scheme of things, a reset season might not be the worst thing. Memphis has lost several key role players over the past few offseasons. Dillon Brooks, Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton are all sorely missed. Getting a lottery pick might help this group reload for another run next season, but going all-out-tank carries its own dangers. The last thing Morant needs right now is a losing culture. There’s just very little room for optimism at this point. — Quinn

Miami Heat: B

  • Record: 12-10
  • The basics: 13th in offense, 13th in defense, 16th in net rating (+1.0)
  • One notable stat: Opponents shoot 71.1% in the restricted area, the highest mark allowed in the league.
  • One reason for optimism: They haven’t been healthy at all but are still above .500. 
  • One reason for pessimism: Of the 19 teams with winning records, only the Suns (two) and Knicks (three) have fewer wins against opponents with a winning record than the Heat (four). 

The summer did not go to plan for the Heat, and neither has the first quarter of the season. After failing to acquire Damian Lillard, they haven’t been healthy and sit in ninth place in the Eastern Conference. Only rookie sensation Jaime Jaquez Jr. has played in every game, and their opening night starting lineup of Kyle Lowry, Tyler Herro, Jimmy Butler, Kevin Love and Bam Adebayo has played just 38 minutes together. 

But despite using a league-high 14 different starting lineups, they’ve found a way to stay in the mix, which really shouldn’t be surprising at this point. That’s thanks in large part to Adebayo, who, when healthy, has been tremendous on both ends of the floor, and a revitalized Duncan Robinson. There was a point where Robinson was unplayable last season, but he’s returned with a new and improved playmaking game to pair with his usual elite shooting. Miami’s development program is truly incredible. — Maloney

Milwaukee Bucks: B+

  • Record: 15-7
  • The basics: 3rd (tie) in offense, 22nd (tie) in defense, 11th in net rating (+3.1)
  • One notable stat: Damian Lillard leads the league in clutch points with 69. 
  • One reason for optimism: The offense has looked unstoppable even though they’re still figuring out a new coach and system. 
  • One reason for pessimism: Their perimeter defense is a sieve, and there doesn’t appear to be any way to fix that.

This has been a strange opening quarter for the Bucks, who are tied for the third-best record in the league at 15-7, yet still feel like a mess due to their defensive issues and coaching drama. The latter two came to the forefront on Thursday during their loss to the Pacers in the semifinals of the In-Season Tournament, after which reports emerged that Bobby Portis confronted new coach Adrian Griffin in the locker room

Lillard has elevated their offense, especially in clutch time, which has been a key issue for this team in recent years. He and Giannis Antetokounmpo have been the third-highest scoring duo in the league (56.1 points per game), even though they haven’t really figured out how to play together yet. At the same time, Lillard’s presence has made their perimeter defense a sieve, and as long as they continue playing him and Malik Beasley, that’s not going to change. They can still protect the rim, but Brook Lopez is under more strain than ever.  Maloney


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Minnesota Timberwolves: A+

  • Record: 17-4
  • The basics: 17th in offense, 1st in defense, 2nd in net rating (+7.3)
  • One notable stat: Minnesota is on its own tier when it comes to halfcourt defense, having held opponents to 87.6 points per 100 possessions, a full 3.6 per 100 better than anybody else. No team has sustained a halfcourt defense this stingy since the 2016-17 Warriors. 
  • One reason for optimism: Anthony Edwards has improved — his assists are up on a per-possession basis, and he’s made long 2s and free throws at a much higher rate than ever before — but it’s not like he’s made another enormous leap or anything. I’d be more skeptical of the Wolves’ early-season success if it felt like Edwards’ individual brilliance was papering over fundamental flaws.
  • One reason for pessimism: The offense has been, like, fine. In this era, I’m not sure if that’s good enough, especially because Minnesota isn’t dominating the possession game or terrifying in transition.

The Wolves have the feel of a team that looked at what went wrong last season and learned all the right lessons. They’re not fouling like crazy anymore (and they’re getting to the line more themselves), they’re no longer a disaster on the glass and their transition defense has gotten better. 

Coach Chris Finch has a well-earned reputation for creativity, but there’s nothing that tricky going on here. Minnesota’s best players have been healthier (although Jaden McDaniels has been out for weeks with an ankle injury), and the reinvigorated Rudy Gobert is on track to win his fourth Defensive Player of the Year award. There’s more structure offensively, especially compared to this time last year, and the pick-and-roll defense has been awesome.  Herbert

New Orleans Pelicans: C

  • Record: 12-11
  • The basics: 18th in offense, 16th in defense, 21st in net rating (-0.5)
  • One notable stat: The Pelicans have used eight different starting lineups in their first 23 games.
  • One reason for optimism: They’re finally (almost) healthy! Trey Murphy and CJ McCollum are back. Larry Nance Jr. is the last key player out with an injury.
  • One reason for pessimism: Zion Williamson won’t go on a diet, apparently.

The Pelicans are talented enough to go .500 in their sleep. That’s more or less where they’ve been over the past few years, despite getting barely anything out of Williamson. But there’s a concerning lack of identity in this team. It’s not fully clear what the Pelicans want to be. Sometimes Jordan Hawkins is flamethrowing his way through opposing bench units. Next thing you know he’s out of the starting five. Dyson Daniels thrives as a starter and then moves to a fringe role upon McCollum’s return. And then there’s Williamson.

The best version of him is the one defenses can’t prepare for. When he gets the ball on the move he’s unstoppable. His best basketball came when Stan Van Gundy turned him into a point guard. So why is this offense so stationary? Why don’t the Pelicans use their shooters to space the floor for him? Williamson may have conditioning issues, but the Pelicans aren’t exactly doing him favors. Until the Pelicans decide what kind of team they want to be and commit to actually playing that way, they’re going to continue to hover around the middle of the Western Conference. — Quinn

New York Knicks: B+

  • Record: 12-9
  • The basics: 11th in offense, 9th in defense, 8th (tie) in net rating (+3.6)
  • One notable stat: Jalen Brunson is attempting 4.1 pull-up 3s per game (up from 2.8 last season) and making 40.2% of them. He’s also taken a league-high 15 charges — there are 20 entire teams that haven’t taken that many.
  • One reason for optimism: Mitchell Robinson is not just an outrageous offensive rebounder; he has matured into one of the most disruptive defensive centers in basketball.
  • One reason for pessimism: Is it fun to play in this offense? The Knicks are dead last in offensive pace, and both Quentin Grimes and Josh Hart have voiced frustration related to a lack of touches

This team is a bunch of bullies. New York dominates the boards on both ends, makes opponents uncomfortable (without fouling!) and, in Brunson and Julius Randle, it has the kind of players that can make the kind of shots that are necessary to win ugly (now that Randle has bounced back from a terrible early-season shooting slump, anyway).

The spacing is still iffy, even though the Knicks have collectively shot well from deep. They’re a bit smaller now, with Donte DiVincenzo having effectively replaced Obi Toppin, and they’re still searching for the right way to balance the rotation, with Grimes having moved to the second unit following his airing of grievances. All things considered, New York should be pleased with where it stands, but open to upgrades that might raise the ceiling. — Herbert

Oklahoma City Thunder: A+

  • Record: 14-7
  • The basics: 8th in offense, 6th in defense, 3rd (tie) in net rating (+7.2)
  • One notable stat: Chet Holmgren is averaging an ultra-efficient 17.1 points (.518/.371/.878 shooting splits; 63.9% true shooting), but he’s not the Thunder’s most efficient rookie — Cason Wallace‘s 72.3% true shooting percentage ranks third in the entire league. 
  • One reason for optimism: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is a superstar and Holmgren is the ROY favorite, but this is definitively not just the Shai & Chet Show. Oklahoma City’s aggregate bench net rating ranks No. 1 in the NBA, a genuine achievement for a team that has developed its reserves.
  • One reason for pessimism: I don’t know if it’s a fatal flaw, but it’s a glaring one: The Thunder have been the league’s worst defensive rebounding team and second worst offensive rebounding team.

It’s all coming together so nicely. Oklahoma City is one of two teams — the other being Boston — that ranks in the top 10 in both offense and defense, and it has done this without rushing the process in any way. It’s possible that Wallace will eventually miss and Isaiah Joe‘s 44.2% mark from 3-point range (on a difficult shot diet) will take a dip, but nothing about the Thunder’s identity feels fluky. 

On offense they’re a blur of movement — drive-and-kicks, small-small pick-and-rolls, ghost screens — with sound spacing and a bunch of different ballhandlers. On defense, they force tons of turnovers, bait opponents into long 2s and make them play deep into the shot clock. For all of the front office’s asset-hoarding in recent years, it appears to have struck the perfect balance between drafting for talent and fit. — Herbert

Orlando Magic: A+

  • Record: 15-7
  • The basics: 14th (tie) in offense, 2nd in defense, 5th in net rating (+4.9)
  • One notable stat: They lead the league in attempts per game in the restricted area at 33.3. 
  • One reason for optimism: Paolo Banchero and Franz Wagner both appear to be the real deal and are one of the most exciting young duos in the league. 
  • One reason for pessimism: Can they score enough with their lack of outside shooting and propensity for turnovers?

It seems like just about every season there’s one team that makes the leap before everyone was expecting them to do so, and the Magic are that team for 2023-24. The abundance of young talent on the roster had everyone excited about their future prospects, but they skipped the line right to the top of the Eastern Conference and are currently tied for the No. 2 seed. Along the way, they’ve picked up wins over the Celtics, Bucks, Nuggets and Lakers. 

The Magic’s calling card thus far has been their defense. With their youth, length, athleticism and physicality, they are a pain in the ass to play against, and that’s a wonderful trait to have. Are they going to finish the season with the second-best record in the East and make some noise in the playoffs? Perhaps. Perhaps not. Either way, we’ve seen far too much now to dismiss their hot start. — Maloney

Philadelphia 76ers: A

  • Record: 14-7
  • The basics: 2nd in offense, 15th in defense, 3rd (tie) in net rating (+7.2)
  • One notable stat: It’s a small sample (129 minutes over nine games, including three games against bottom-five defenses), but Philadelphia’s current starting lineup — with De’Anthony Melton and Nicolas Batum in place of James Harden and P.J. Tucker — has scored 134.9 points per 100 possessions, which is 13.9 per 100 better than last year’s group managed.
  • One reason for optimism: Joel Embiid has taken to Nick Nurse’s new offense — he’s still leading the league in scoring, but he’s also averaging 8.9 assists per 100 possessions, which is easily a career high. (Points of comparison: Maxey is averaging 8.3 per 100, Domantas Sabonis 9.5 per 100, Harden 9.9 per 100.)
  • One reason for pessimism: For a team that employs Embiid, Philadelphia is sure giving up a ton of shots at the rim and, overall, surprisingly unimpressive defensively.

The headline is that Maxey got way better again. The 23-year-old guard is serving as the Sixers’ primary ballhandler, leading the league in minutes, taking ridiculously deep 3s and averaging an efficient 27.1 points. His pick-and-roll game with Embiid is coming along, and good luck to any defender who has the misfortune of having to close out on him. The guy is shooting 48.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s, and when he attacks a tilted defense, his speed is impossible to handle.

But there’s a lot more going on with this team. Batum is the connective passer Philly has needed forever, Robert Covington is near the top of the deflections leaderboard again (although he’s been strangely absent from the rotation lately), it’s winning the non-Embiid minutes (!) and it has gone from a terrible offensive rebounding team to a top-five one. The transition defense is still rough, and the halfcourt defense is only OK, but if the Sixers can make some progress on that end, they’ll fit the profile of a proper contender.  Herbert


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Phoenix Suns: B+

  • Record: 12-10
  • The basics: 10th in offense, 19th in defense, 14th in net rating (+2.4)
  • One notable stat: Phoenix is 15-3 dating back to last season in games that both Kevin Durant and Devin Booker started.
  • One reason for optimism: Lineups featuring Durant and Booker are lighting opposing defenses on fire, and Bradley Beal has barely played.
  • One reason for pessimism: There isn’t a playoff-caliber center on this roster.

If you had any concerns about the offense coming into the season, they’re gone now. Booker has taken to his new point guard duties wonderfully by averaging over eight assists per game. Durant is making half of his 3-pointers. Frank Vogel doesn’t exactly coach Moreyball offenses, but he’s modernized Monty Williams’ archaic shot diet just enough to be palatable. Nobody is stopping the Suns when Beal returns. All things considered, the defense has been good enough. They limit corner 3s and rebound reasonably well. They’re within spitting distance of league-average, more than enough with a possible “greatest of all time” offense.

But the entire center position is a black eye on this roster. We knew Jusuf Nurkic was no longer mobile enough to hang defensively in pick-and-rolls against the Western Conference elite … but he’s shooting a lower percentage on 2-pointers than Josh Okogie and Eric Gordon. Phoenix will try to go small in certain matchups, but that doesn’t solve their Jokic problem. The Suns will have to work the margins for a reliable big. Without one, they’re going to be in serious trouble come playoff time.  Quinn

Portland Trail Blazers: C-

  • Record: 6-15
  • The basics: 30th in offense, 10th in defense, 25th in net rating (-7.0)
  • One notable stat: Toumani Camara, who was drafted No. 52 in June, is fourth on the team in minutes played (532), while Anfernee Simons, Robert Williams III and No. 3 pick Scoot Henderson have played a combined 527 minutes.
  • One reason for optimism: Portland’s halfcourt defense ranks eighth in the NBA, despite Wililams suffering a season-ending injury less than two weeks in. 
  • One reason for pessimism: The Trail Blazers have the worst offense in the NBA, and they’ve been more efficient with Henderson on the bench than with him on the court.

Maybe there was a world in which these Blazers, like last season’s Jazz, quickly coalesced into something surprising and delightful. The roster similarly mixes new blood with holdovers from the previous era and players acquired in the trades that ended it. That is not this world.

But that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Simons is back after missing more than a month with a thumb injury. Henderson is back after missing nine games with an ankle injury. Jerami Grant is in the concussion protocol and both Deandre Ayton and Malcolm Brogdon are dealing with knee issues, but if Portland can get close to full strength sometime soon, we might find out that the team is actually … decent? Camara has been something of a revelation defensively, Shaedon Sharpe is going to be incredible and Henderson deserves your patience. Sure, the offense has mostly been a mess of turnovers and missed jumpers, but Portland has at least been forcing turnovers on the other end, with an aggressive, switch-heavy defense that fits this personnel.  Herbert

Sacramento Kings: B-

  • Record: 12-8
  • The basics: 12th in offense, 20th in defense, 19th in net rating (-0.3)
  • One notable stat: De’Aaron Fox is on pace to become just the seventh player in NBA history who is 6-3 or shorter to average 30 points per game.
  • One reason for optimism: They’ve got some shooting regression coming. Keegan Murray making only 30% of his 3s in particular is going to improve.
  • One reason for pessimism: Their offense – the most efficient in NBA history last season – is a bit less powerful in practice just given the offensive improvement around the league. Everybody else got better, so winning shootouts is a less reliable strategy than it was a year ago.

The numbers don’t quite bear it out, but Sacramento’s offense is much more dangerous this season. Fox making his 3s is a terrifying proposition to opposing defenses because it means they can no longer duck under screens against him. There’s not a guard in the NBA that can beat him in a footrace to the rim, so that advantage was essential. Only Gilgeous-Alexander has an easier time getting to his spots now. Murray will start making his 3s eventually. Kevin Huerter is already emerging from his own slump.

But the defense is an even more dire situation now that Davion Mitchell is struggling to stay in the rotation. There might not be an above-average defender in the rotation, and Mike Brown’s schematic excellence can only go so far. Reports have suggested the Kings will be active on the trade market. If there’s a solution out there, they’ll find it.  Quinn

San Antonio Spurs: D-

  • Record: 3-18
  • The basics: 27th (tie) in offense, 27th in defense, 30th in net rating (-11.8)
  • One notable stat: San Antonio’s net rating is 16 points per 100 possessions better with Tre Jones on the floor (-2.4) than off the floor (-18.4).
  • One reason for optimism: Victor Wembanyama is everything we hoped he would be.
  • One reason for pessimism: Jeremy Sochan isn’t a point guard and they should know that by now.

The Spurs avoid an F only by the stage of their rebuild. They’re still trying to figure out what they have and who they’re going to be, so sure, why not try Sochan at point guard for a little while? If nothing else, it might help unlock some playmaking that serves him well as a forward. Of course, the theoretical benefit of that experiment should have been on defense. It hasn’t been. How much ground is Wembanyama losing on offense without someone who can safely get him the ball? At a certain point, his best interests need to supersede the rest of the roster’s.

Statistically at least, the other young players are plateauing. All of this losing takes a toll. The point guard situation isn’t their only problem, but it’s the lowest-hanging fruit here. Right now, the Spurs are just a collection of players. Nobody is tying them together into a team so long as Jones spends half of the game on the bench. — Quinn

Toronto Raptors: C-

  • Record: 9-13
  • The basics: 23rd in offense, 14th in defense, 22nd in net rating (-1.8)
  • One notable stat: Pascal Siakam has yet to make a pull-up 3 this season (0-for-11) and is shooting 20.5% from deep overall.
  • One reason for optimism: Scottie Barnes, one of the NBA’s most improved players, is attempting 4.2 catch-and-shoot 3s per game (up from 2.1 last season) and making 40.4% of them (up from 30.1%). Even if the percentage doesn’t hold, his lack of hesitation has been heartening.
  • One reason for pessimism: The defensive numbers are average on the season, and the Raptors have been torched by New York and Charlotte in recent games. This whole thing doesn’t really work with only an average defense; if it’s worse than that, major changes are surely coming.

Toronto’s defense under new coach Darko Rajakovic has been more conservative — way fewer turnovers forced, way fewer fouls committed, average rebounding, average shot profile — but it hasn’t been any better or worse: The Raptors have surrendered 113.1 points per 100 possessions this season, the exact same defensive rating that they had last season. And their offense, which is more Barnes-centric and less iso-heavy, has been worse.

The starting lineup, with Dennis Schroder in Fred VanVleet‘s place, desperately needs better spacing. The bench has an aggregate true shooting percentage of 50.9%. Since an ugly win against Minnesota on opening night, Toronto has not beaten a team that currently ranks in the top 18 defensively. In the big picture, Barnes’ development is the most important thing, but there isn’t much else to be excited about. “It doesn’t feel like anything is bad, it just feels like nothing is amazing,” Siakam said recently.  Herbert

Utah Jazz: D+

  • Record: 7-15
  • The basics: 26th in offense, 25th in defense, 27th in net rating (-8.6)
  • One notable stat: The Jazz have the highest turnover rate in the NBA. Think they miss Mike Conley?
  • One reason for optimism: Keyonte George, who became Utah’s starting point guard the same day he turned 20, already has three 11-assist games on his resume. 
  • One reason for pessimism: Walker Kessler, who earned a spot on the All-Rookie First Team last season, has found himself behind Omer Yurtseven in the rotation.

Last week, after a 147-97 (not a typo) defeat against the Dallas Mavericks in which Utah lost each individual quarter by at least 11 points, coach Will Hardy summed it up with an incredible quote: “That was a masterpiece of dogs—.”

Hardy also said that he hadn’t been disappointed with the team often. This is notable, if only because it is a reminder that this Jazz team has serious limitations on both ends, particularly without Lauri Markkanen, who has missed their last seven games because of a hamstring injury. The spacing hasn’t been nearly as pristine as it was for most of last season, the perimeter defense has been shaky and the live-ball turnovers have been killer. The hope is that Markkanen’s imminent return will give Utah new life; the concern is that, if the losses keep piling up, the team won’t even be competitive.  Herbert

Washington Wizards: F

  • Record: 3-18
  • The basics: 21st in offense, 29th (tie) in defense, 28th in net rating (-8.7)
  • One notable stat: Of the 48 players taking at least 15 shots per game, Jordan Poole has the lowest field goal percentage at 40.5. 
  • One reason for optimism: Bilal Coulibaly is the most exciting young player the Wizards have had since John Wall
  • One reason for pessimism: Just one? 

The Wizards are bad, not fun to watch and largely bereft of young talent that makes you excited about the future. Poole has been horribly inefficient, appears incapable of stepping into a bigger role and his attitude has been so rotten that Kevin Garnett said on his show with Paul Pierce that Poole shouldn’t even be in the league. That might be an overreaction, but it tells you all you need to know about Poole and the Wizards this season. 

About the only bit of good news has been Coulibaly’s impressive start. The long and wiry rookie was expected to be a high-risk, high-reward project, but he has made an immediate impression on the defensive end and is shooting over 40% from 3-point land. It appears the Wizards have finally hit on a draft pick in the middle of the lottery, which is a big win for the new regime. — Maloney

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