Denver Nuggets: C
If it wasn’t for the Lakers, the Nuggets would be the most disappointing team in the NBA so far this season. The notion that they were going to be a threat to win the West was pure hyperbole, but many felt that they’d win a lot of regular season games. So far they’re hovering at .500, and haven’t found any sort of consistency. One night they’re great, and the next they’re awful. In part they’ve struggled because they just don’t have a cohesive half-court game. Danilo Gallinari has been woeful and Ty Lawson just hasn’t been the same player we saw last year.
Minnesota Timberwolves: B+
The goal at the start of the year was to stay competitive, play hard, and hover at around .500 until Kevin Love and Ricky Rubio returned. Mission accomplished. The Timberwolves, thanks to coach Rick Adelman, and some fantastic basketball from Andrei Kirilenko, Nikola Pekovic and a host of underrated glue guys, have managed to stay afloat while waiting for the return of their star duo. Injuries have killed this team all year, but they’ll be hoping for a clean bill of health so we can truly see what this group is capable of.
Oklahoma City Thunder: A+
I think we can all say, at least on the evidence so far, that Sam Presti knows a little bit more about basketball than you or I. The James Harden trade was hammered by many, by the Thunder haven’t missed a beat in his absence. Instead, they’re currently the best team in the West, and Kevin Martin, the forgotten man who was part of that blockbuster trade, has been very productive and efficient off the bench. Westbrook continues to be a polarizing figure, but Kevin Durant is having an MVP-type season. His rebounding numbers are currently the best of his career, and as of now, he’s maintaining that much sought after 50-40-90 shooting split.
Portland Trail Blazers: B-
Forget that this team is under .500, and probably won’t make the playoffs; the Portland Trail Blazers are punching well above their weight. A big reason for that is the play of rookie Damian Lillard, who has been sensational. Lillard has a look of Derrick Rose about him, and has a poise that belies his rookie status. Whatever happens this year, the young trio of Lillard, Nicolas Batum, and LaMarcus Aldrige should give fans in Rip City major reason for optimism.
Utah Jazz: C+
The Jazz are like the Nuggets in the sense that you never know which team is going to show up on a nightly basis. At times this season they’ve looked like the unstoppable frontcourt-driven juggernaut that many thought they’d become this year, and on other nights, particularly on the road, they seem flat and lifeless. They’re also likely to make a trade before the season is out. Al Jefferson has recovered after a slow start, and it seems like power forward Paul Millsap will be the man on his way out.
Golden State Warriors: A
The Warriors are far from the best team in the Western Conference, but they’re easily the most surprising so far. After years of futility the Dubs finally appear to have a team ready to challenge in the playoffs for years to come. David Lee and Steph Curry have played at an all-star level thus far, and after a slow start, Klay Thompson is starting to recapture his rookie form. The key for the Warriors has been their improved play on defense, an area that has been their weak spot for years. Coach Mark Jackson should get a ton of credit for installing discipline into a team that’s always had the talent, but not always the effort.
Los Angeles Clippers: A+
At the time of writing, the Clippers are on a 9-game winning streak, which is the biggest winning streak in franchise history since the team was known as the Buffalo Braves—mighty impressive. Like the Knicks, there were many questions for Del Negro’s boys entering the year—questions about fitting players into a cohesive rotation, and whether Blake Griffin would make the jump after a somewhat disappointing sophomore season. But the Clippers have exceeded expectations so far. Chris Paul leads the team as expected, but it’s the second unit that has been a major surprise. Eric Bledsoe, Matt Barnes, and Jamaal Crawford have given the team incredible production off the bench.
Los Angeles Lakers: D
The Lakers are beginning to turn things around it seems, but given the talent that this team possesses, there’s no way they should be under .500 at this moment in team—hence the terrible grade. Kobe’s been fantastic, but he’s been having to do way too much on offense, given the injuries to Nash and Gasol, and the fact that Howard is less than 100%. Once Nash returns, and Gasol comes back with rested ligaments, they should improve, but the real issues are on defense, and that’s less about personnel and more to do with effort.
Phoenix Suns: D
This was always going to be a tough season for the Suns, losing their two future Hall-of-Fame backcourt stars in Nash and Grant Hill, and their record so far suggests that’s been the case. Although Goran Dragic has led the team well at point-guard, without Nash, the production from Marcin Gortat and Jared Dudley has dropped considerably. Luis Scola has looked like a decent pick-up, but Michael Beasley, like he was in Miami and Minnesota, continues to be an enigma.
Sacramento Kings: D-
Bill Simmons called the Kings a “pick-up basketball team from hell” and so far that’s seems like an apt description of this group. DeMarcus Cousins has been unplayable on some nights, but he’s been his usual bad self when it comes to discipline and terrible shot-selection. The talent is there, but this team is so poorly put together—too many gunners and not enough team-oriented guys—that it’s no surprise to anyone that they’re one of the worst teams in the West.
Dallas Mavericks: C+
The Mavericks have played a couple of absolute stinkers recently—the game in Toronto standing out—and they’re struggling to stay at .500. But given the amount of new players they’ve had to integrate into the team, and the fact that they’ve been without Dirk the entire time, they’ve performed pretty admirably. Rick Carlisle has once again shown that he’s one of the best coaches in the game, keeping his team competitive and disciplined, while free-agent signing O.J. Mayo has been one of the bargains of the year. Making a measly $4 million this season, Mayo has been playing like a man out to prove the doubters wrong. If Dirk can return soon, those two could make quite a deadly 1-2 punch on offense.
Houston Rockets: C+
People may have been too quick to propel the Rockets into playoff contention once they traded for James Harden, but they’ve certainly improved from a team who looked destined for the bottom of the conference. Harden has been everything the Rockets would’ve hoped for—scoring, distributing, and generally being the focal point of the team—but their other backcourt signing, Jeremy Lin, has struggled. It’s been difficult for Lin to adapt to playing off the ball this year and he doesn’t look like the player that took MSG by storm last season. Elsewhere on the team, Chandler Parsons has been playing fantastic basketball. He may just have the best contract in the NBA—making under $1 million in the next two seasons. An absolute bargain.
Memphis Grizzlies: A
The Grizzlies are finally getting the respect they deserve. It took annihilating the Miami Heat on the road for mainstream fans to finally realize that this team is for real, but now they are rightfully being thrown in as a legitimate threat to win it all. In Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol, and Rudy Gay, the Grizzlies might just have the best frontcourt in the NBA—and may make teams like Boston and Miami re-think their strategy of playing small-ball in the post-season. The only issue going forward for Memphis is their lack of outside shooting, which could hinder their progress once the playoffs come around.
New Orleans Hornets: D+
The Hornets have a dismal record, and should really get a D, but they’re getting the benefit of the doubt because of injuries to rookie Anthony Davis, and Eric Gordon. They’ve been reasonably competitive during games—well coached by Monty Williams throughout—and haven’t been blown out too often. In fact, the Hornets are one of the few teams to triumph over the Clippers this season. Ryan Anderson has continued the type of fantastic play that saw him win Most Improved Player last season, but this team definitely needs Davis to stay healthy if they’re going to move off the bottom of the Western Conference.
San Antonio Spurs: A
Despite the fact that people continue to write off the Spurs before the start of every season, they’re once again one of the best teams in the league. Whatever you think about the now infamous ‘Rest-gate’ the Spurs are led by the best coach in the NBA, Gregg Popovich, and continue to play a beautiful team-oriented style of basketball. Manu Ginobli has been sub-par so far this year, and Tony Parker has been a little inconsistent, but shooting-guard Danny Green seems to have stepped up to the next level, and is now the Spurs’ premier perimeter defender, it seems. 36 year-old Tim Duncan, however, has been the best Spur on the court, night in and night out. Duncan is averaging 17 points, 10 rebounds, and 2 blocks per game—incredible at this stage of his career. He says he doesn’t want to go to the all-star game, but he absolutely deserves to.