The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly from the First Half of the NBA Season
As the halfway mark of the 2018-19 season approaches, lets take a look at how each team has done thus far. Remember, grades are not based solely on a team’s record, but rather their expectations coming into the season and what the future outlook is.
Dallas Mavericks: C+
Does it even matter if they miss the playoffs? This is a rare occasion where a generational talent like Luka Doncic almost overshadows the Mavericks overall record and complexion. He is averaging 19.4 points, 6.7 rebounds and 4.9 assists and according to Warriors forward Draymond Green, Luka is already “ a problem.” Doncic is the present and the future in Dallas.
All things considered, the Mavericks have been ‘consistently inconsistent’. You know what you are going to get from them as they have one of the best home records in the NBA at 16-5 and an awful 4-18 road record. Dennis Smith Jr has been a disappointment this season, leading to rumours of the Mavericks shopping him around the league. The Mavericks have a really interesting decision to make down to stretch. In the Doncic trade, the Mavericks gave up Trae Young and a top 5 protected pick in this year’s draft. Do they push for a playoff spot or shut down their starters early on to ensure they keep their pick and potentially pair another young star with Doncic?
Denver Nuggets: A+
I can’t imagine many people predicted the Nuggets being 1stin the West halfway through the season. Kudos to coach Mike Malone for turning this team around on the defensive end, from one of the worst last season to 9thin defensive rating this season. The fact that they are 29-13, after playing most of the season thus far, without Gary Harris, Will Barton and Paul Millsap, is nothing short of incredible.
Nikola Jokic has been a stat-sheet filler and is a realistic MVP candidate. Jamal Murray has been the Nuggets closer, hitting many clutch shots down the stretch of games. Aside from those two, youngsters like Monte Morris, Malik Beasley and Juancho Hernangomez have become valuable role players, giving the Nuggets a lot of depth with their starters getting healthy again. The Nuggets have the best home record in the NBA at 18-3 and fans will be hopeful that the team can at least finish with a top 4 record.
Golden State Warriors: A-
When you’ve won three championships in the last four years, you can excuse a team for perhaps not caring as much about the beginning of the season. Some Warriors players have even admitted that they are ‘bored’, and waiting for the playoffs. The Warriors have had to endure some serious turbulence though. Steph Curry has missed 11 games with a groin injury, Draymond Green and Kevin Durant had a dust-up, Klay Thompson hasn’t looked like himself and, most concerning of all, Draymond Green has forgotten how to shoot.
Regardless, they’ve managed to overcome the hiccups and sit right near the top of the West. As Demarcus Cousins gets set to return, it will be interesting to see how the Warriors incorporate him into the offense, and if that causes chemistry issues, the Warriors may start to look more and more vulnerable.
Houston Rockets: B+
After a dreadful start to the season, the Rockets – hemorrhaging defensively and missing Chris Paul for 10 games – were next to last in the West. The Carmelo Anthony experiment failed miserably and many were prepared to write off the Rockets as contenders this season.
Then, the reigning MVP, James Harden took over. For a two-plus week stretch in mid-December/early January he went on a historic run averaging roughly 40 points as the Rockets climbed into the West’s top five. The defense has improved and they’ve gotten unexpected contributions from guys like Austin Rivers and Danuel House. With Harden in his current form, you can’t count this team out against anyone!
Los Angeles Clippers: A-
For all of the rhetoric about needing a superstar to succeed in the NBA, the Clippers seem to be the outlier. Relatively good health, a grind-it-out mentality and good team morale has the Clippers in top-six territory in the West, an area where few expected them to be.
Doc Rivers has done a wonderful job getting the most of this team. Tobias Harris is having a career year and may very well be an all-star this season. Rookie Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has been a nice surprise at point guard and guys like Montrezl Harrell, Lou Williams and Danilo Gallinari have all made key contributions this season. The Clippers looked primed for a playoff appearance.
Los Angeles Lakers: B-
Thus far, the Lakers season has been a mixed bag. At times, the Lakers have looked like a top team in the West. Other times, they’ve looked like an inconsistent and immature team, struggling against weaker opponents. The reality is probably somewhere in the middle and the key to the Lakers season will be getting LeBron James back as soon as possible to avoid sliding further down the Western Conference Standings.
Recently, Kyle Kuzma has shown signs of growth and an ability to accept a larger role, while Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball have struggled with inconsistency. It will be interesting to see whether the Lakers go for it this season and relinquish some of their young pieces for a more established all-star or if they stay patient and wait for the off-season to improve the team.
Memphis Grizzlies: C
At one point, the Grizzlies were 15-9, playing quality basketball with a healthy Mike Conley playing like a borderline All-Star again. Since then, things have gone downhill and the same issues that plagued this team for years are resurfacing now: lack of wing scoring and an offense that ranks 26thin 3-pointers made.
Rookie Jaren Jackson has had an encouraging start to the season and Marc Gasol has been Marc Gasol, but outside of that the Grizzlies have not gotten much production from the rest of the roster. Much was expected from Dillion Brooks but injuries have derailed his season. With the current state of the Western Conference, it is difficult to see the Grizzlies making the playoffs.
Minnesota Timberwolves: D
It has been a chaotic start to the season for the Timberwolves, to say the least. For all of his talents, Jimmy Butler could never mesh with his Minnesota teammates and it was just a matter of time before he left. Coach and team president Tom Thibodeau was also let go, amidst rumours that he had lost the locker room.
The good news is that, since then, Karl-Anthony Towns and to some extent Andrew Wiggins have elevated their play. The best news of all has to be the resurgence of Derrick Rose who is averaging 18.9 points per game. Still, the Wolves find themselves two games outside of the No.8 spot and will be hard-pressed to make the playoffs this season.
New Orleans Pelicans: D+
It is déja vu yet again for the Pelicans. The team has struggled to cope with injuries and Anthony Davis is dominating next to an underwhelming supporting cast. Davis is putting up monster numbers, (28.7 ppg, 13.3 rpg, 2.6 bpg) yet the Pelicans are second last in the West. How does this organization expect Davis to commit look term if they repeatedly fail to get him the help he deserves?
Julius Randle has been better than expected, averaging a career-high 19.9 points and Jrue Holiday (20.8 ppg, 8.3 apg) has been solid, too. But, outside of that, the team has not gotten much production. They have one of the worst benches in the NBA, the 25thranked defensive rating and an abysmal 5-17 record on the road. Unless this team makes a move at the deadline, (which will be difficult, considering their lack of resources) do not expect much down the stretch.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A-
There is someone playing at an MVP level this season in OKC and it is not the former MVP. Paul George is putting up career-best numbers (26.8 ppg) and has been the team’s most consistent and efficient player on both ends of the floor. Westbrook, on the other hand, has really struggled with his shot and is averaging career-lows in all major shooting category percentages.
Defense has been the Thunder’s calling card so far this season, however, as they own the best defensive rating in the NBA. Steven Adams and Nerlens Noel are elite rebounders and rim protectors. Paul George and Jerian Grant are fantastic wing defenders and even Russell Westbrook pressures ball handlers and is one of the league leaders in steals per game. Even more impressive is that OKC has managed to do this without their star defensive ace Andre Roberson. Defense wins games, especially in the playoffs, so this team may have a legitimate shot of coming out of the West when it is all said and done.
Phoenix Suns: D-
This is obviously an exaggeration but it seems as though the Suns have been rebuilding for the last 20 years and what makes this even more problematic is that there are so few signs of growth within the organization in terms of talent, direction and leadership. Comments by the owner of potentially moving the team have not helped to rally fan support and give any confidence to the team, either.
On the bright side, No.1 overall pick Deandre Ayton, though somewhat underwhelming, is putting up solid numbers. Devin Booker, when healthy, looks like one the best offensive players in the league and an all-star for years to come. Even Kelly Oubre, who they acquired in the Trevor Ariza trade, has looked promising. The Suns will yet again be choosing near the top of the lottery, and for the sake of their fans, this team better start making some progress.
Portland Trail Blazers: B+
In the words of NFL coach Dennis Green, the Blazers are “who we thought they were!” Sitting in 4thplace, they are on pace for another 50+ win season and own one of the best home records in the NBA. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum remain the 1-2 punch in Portland generating most of the team’s offense, with the former likely to earn another all-star selection.
With all of that said, you have to ask yourself what is this team’s ceiling? Some franchises are content with being perennial playoff teams, getting knocked out in the first of second round every season. If the Blazers wish to take the next step and truly challenge for a title, it may be time to think about potentially moving someone like McCollum and bolstering their frontcourt instead.
Sacramento Kings: B+
There is finally hope in Sacramento! Following over a decade of inept leadership, a coaching carousel and a pathetic on-court product, the Kings look like they are on the verge of finally ending their NBA-long 12 season drought of not making the playoffs.
The Kings are led by their young and dynamic backcourt with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield averaging roughly 40 points nightly and often drawing double-teams. Fox, in particular, looks like the cornerstone of the franchise and an all-star for years to come. Bogdan Bogdanovic, Willie Cauley-Stein and Marvin Bagley comprise the rest of the Kings young core, which has fans hoping that come April, the team will still be playing meaningful games.
San Antonio Spurs: B
After getting off to a poor start, the Spurs have been among the league’s hottest teams in the past few months, showing improvements across the board and looking like, well, the Spurs. The defense, in particular, has significantly improved and with a commitment to teamwork and moving the ball, the Spurs have gotten contributions from multiple players.
DeMar DeRozan has transitioned relatively smoothly and is arguably playing the best all-around basketball of his career, averaging career-highs in assists (6.4) and rebounds (6.2). The loss of starting point guard Dejounte Murray for the season was a big blow but guys like Bryn Forbes and Derrick White have filled in admirably. The Spurs are in the thick of the playoff race and with coach Greg Popovich still leading them, you would bet on them keeping their 21-year playoff streak alive.
Utah Jazz: C+
A .500 mark through the first half of the season seems like a glaring step down for the Jazz after winning 48 games and advancing to the second round of the playoffs last season. Consider, though, that Utah has dealt with quite a few key injuries and has had the toughest schedule in the NBA thus far.
Many expected Donovan Mitchell to take the next step this year, but instead, he has experienced a sophomore slump, struggling with his shot in particular (40.9 percent overall, 30.9 percent on 3-pointers). Rudy Gobert remains one of the premier rim protectors in the NBA and the addition of Kyle Korver has helped a team that severely lacked shooting. With a friendlier schedule on their side, the Jazz will once again look to make a push in the second half of the season in an effort to make the playoffs.