IT’S OUR NBA FIRST-HALF REPORT CARD GRADES – WE’RE CHECKING OUT THE EASTERN CONFERENCE
It’s been a real sweetheart season so far in the NBA for the Milwaukee Bucks (46-8, .852) and the defending champion Toronto Raptors (40-15, .727) – hey, the latter’s been an even bigger story with this 15-game winning streak in the “year-after-Kawhi Leonard” finally snapped this past Wednesday night in Brooklyn.
Now, we’re taking a few moments here to hand out NBA First-Half Report Card Grades to the 15 teams that play in the Eastern Conference.
NBA REPORT CARD GRADES – EASTERN CONFERENCE
TORONTO (40-15) – The single-biggest positive team story in this year’s NBA … and who would have “thunk” it after Mr. Leonard ditched Canada for LA cool! The Raptors have not missed a beat and you could make the case that this is the best-balanced team in the league what with five different players averaging 15.3 points per game or more and that’s starring All-Star Pascal Siakam (23.5 ppg). Three cheers for still-underrated head coach Nick Nurse.
BOSTON (37-16) – Gotta say that the positive “chemistry” is back in Beantown now that PG Kyrie Irving is gone and former Charlotte star PG Kemba Walker is running the show … but that was easy to spot. The fact is Brad Stevens’ crew is deep with three 20-ppg scorers including top gun Jayson Tatum (22.1 ppg).
MILWAUKEE (46-8) – No question there were high expectations for this year’s Bucks following that playoff meltdown versus Toronto last spring but so far, so good for MVP frontrunner Giannis Antetokounmpo (30.0 ppg) and Company. Hey, Milwaukee’s eight games above .500 spreadwise and that’s slick considering all the high price tags Mike Budenholzer’s club has been laying.
MIAMI (35-19) – Hats off to exec Pat Riley who has put together one of the league’s true overachieving teams as the offseason pick-up of G Jimmy Butler (20.6 ppg) was a brilliant stroke. True, the Heat’s a middle-of-the-road team in terms of scoring (15th in the NBA) and scoring defense (11th) but they squeeze out plenty from this roster.
INDIANA (32-23) – The recent six-game SU (straight-up) losing skid put a major dent into the Pacers’ grade and it’s odd how Indy’s actually regressed with star G Victor Oladipo back in the every-day lineup … hmmm.
PHILADELPHIA (34-21) – Go ahead and give the 76ers a round of applause for winning those close calls at home this year but the bottom line is Philly has not meshed well (playing .462 ball spreadwise) and the specter of trading away C Joel Embiid continues to loom over this “trust-the-process” franchise.
WASHINGTON (20-33) – The Wizards knew this one-man gang approach with G Bradley Beal averaging 29.1 ppg wasn’t gonna be easy and it doesn’t help matters being the worst defense in the sport!
CHARLOTTE (18-36) – Let’s face it, this Hornets’ team never was gonna be a playoff contender after parting ways with PG Walker but the worst offensive squad in the association? Geez … Malik Monk’s been a major three-point bust.
BROOKLYN (25-28) – We’re going on record to say the Nets should have left “well enough alone” last offseason … new import Irving has been in and out of the lineup at a dizzying pace and there’s been no real connection here. Bad job by GM Sean Marks and HC Kenny Atkinson. Have fun waiting for Kevin Durant to heal up!
ATLANTA (15-41) – Yes, second-year G Trae Young (29.7ppg) is already one of the league’s marquee players but this club plays next-to-zero defense (next-to-last in the league).
ORLANDO (24-31) – There’s simply too much talent on this Magic squad for ’em to be playing .436 ball SU and sub-.500 ball ATS (against the spread). We want more from jumping-jack Aaron Gordon.
NEW YORK (17-38) – The bar was set low-low-low for these Knicks who absolutely mish-mashed together a 2019-2020 roster and really hasn’t gotten much from third overall draftee R.J. Barrett (a mere 38.8 percent shooter).
CHICAGO (19-36) – We easily could have dropped the Bulls into the “D” grade category but toss ’em a bone because rookie C Wendell Carter, Jr. has missed some 18 games with injury.
CLEVELAND (14-40) – Not sure to this very day why former Michigan HC John Beilein exited the college scene for this mess and not much has gone good from “BelieveLand” the first 50-plus games.
DETROIT (19-38) – It’s become a real hoops “wasteland” in Motown as the Pistons are the worst pointspread side among Eastern Conference clubs (see chart above).
NBA REPORT CARD GRADES – WESTERN CONFERENCE
OKLAHOMA CITY (33-22) – Make no mistake about it, this OKC Thunder crew has been the NBA’s “best bet” this year while playing .600 ball SU (straight-up) and .648 ball ATS and, of course, that’s following the off-season exodus of do-it-all PG Russell Westbrook. Head coach Billy Donovan has masterfully connected the dots on this 2019-2020 edition that spreads the wealth with three 19-plus ppg scorers in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Dennis Schroeder and Danilo Gallinari plus keep in mind Okie City sports a top 10-ranked defense too. The Thunder could be a major pain for the 2, 3 or 4 seeds in Round I of the Western Conference Playoffs this spring.
DALLAS (33-22) – Here’s your next-best bet from the West and hats off to the Mavericks for a snazzy 18-8 SU road record and the league’s third most productive attack featuring All-Star G Luka Doncic (28.9 ppg). Too bad Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis haven’t played together enough as both guys already have missed double-digit games.
LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS (37-18) – The “other” Staples Center resident has four guys scoring 18 ppg-or-better and Doc Rivers’ squad entered the break having won 12 of their last 18 games SU; the Clips kick it with multi-NBA champ Kawhi Leonard (27.2 ppg) but he’s no one-man-band as Paul George (21.7 ppg), Lou Williams (19.5 ppg) and Montrezl Harrell (18.8 ppg) would be / could be numero uno options on most any other NBA squad.
LOS ANGELES LAKERS (41-12) – True, the Lakers sport a healthy four-game lead over Denver in the West as we head into the break but we’re not tossing any purple-and-gold confetti into the air just yet when it comes to this year’s Lakers’ bunch. We’re wondering if the tragic death of five-time champion great Kobe Bryant will put “too much pressure” on LeBron James (25 points per game) and Anthony Davis (26.6 ppg) to snag a title this spring … fact is the Lakers’ won/loss mark is pretty much where we thought it would be at this time.
DENVER (38-17) – Okay, so the Nuggets were “our pick” to win the West this year and a near .700 winning percentage features a nifty 17-10 road record but gotta admit we thought Denver would be more explosive (just 18th in the NBA in scoring at 110.4 ppg). Center Nikola Jovic (team-leading 20.6 ppg) needs to be a better paint defender and we like but don’t love this bench.
MEMPHIS (28-26) – The arrival of rookie PG Ja Morant (17.6 ppg and 7.1 assists per game) has been an absolute godsend for this franchise that floundered for years. Love the fact the Grizzlies entered the break having won eight of their last 10 games SU.
UTAH (36-18) – In a league in which scoring’s way up, the Jazz still do it with “D” (sixth in the NBA) though we must point out that one-two punch Donovan Mitchell (24.3 ppg) and Bojan Bogdanovich (21 ppg) have been spectacular at times with the latter shooting 42.5 from 3-land.
GOLDEN STATE (12-43) – The state of affairs has never been good in “Dub Nation” this year but don’t blame savvy head coach Steve Kerr who has G-State playing hard most of the time (just two games below .500 spreadwise) without starry injured cast members Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson.
HOUSTON (34-20) – So, James Harden (35.3ppg) can go off for 40-plus point games all he wants but count us among the folks that believe the Rockets have regressed (see .500 record spreadwise).
SACRAMENTO (21-33) – Excuse us for saying, but it’s taking these Kings a loooong time to mature: There’s a batch of high draft picks on this squad including top scorers G Buddy Hield (20.4 ppg) and lefty PGG DeAaron Fox (19.7 ppg) but progress has been uber-slow. Out of the playoff chase weeks ago … ugh!
PHOENIX (22-33) – The pieces are starting to fit nicely in the Valley of the Sun with All-Star add-on G Devin Booker (26.4 ppg) the lead character here but would have liked to see PHX win a few more close ones (lost seven games by four points or less including a couple toughies in overtime).
SAN ANTONIO (23-31) – It’s not so easy without world champion-type players, huh Gregg Popovich? No question the Spurs have lost some real tough games but blowing a 27-point lead at 6.5-point fav Denver this past Monday night was an utter disaster!
PORTLAND (25-31) – Injured all-star Dame Lilliard has been nothing short of magnificent (see 29.5 ppg) and backcourt partner CJ McCollum (21.3 ppg) has been no slouch either but this has been a bad year so far for the T-Blazers who rank 26th league-wide in defense. Maybe it’s finally time to dump HC Terry Stotts.
MINNESOTA (16-37) – The worst spread side in the whole NBA has been a bitter disappointment and losing nine of their last 10 games SU has Minny in a major tank mode. Shame on them!
NEW ORLEANS (23-32) – Simply not fair to apply a grade to this Pelicans team that was forced to play some 45 games without stud rookie Zion Williamson.
NOTE: Get all the latest in the college hoops world in the next column.