- Grade: A
Why I give Dallas an “A” is their complete disregard for their contention timeline. Who expected them to be the top-ranked offense in the NBA this season? Who expected Luka to go from seemingly out-of-shape Rookie of the Year to a more in-shape MVP candidate, averaging 29 points, 9 rebounds and 9 assists in just one season? Who expected a team with six guards and one wing player to figure out how to play league-average defense? Dallas has all but shattered expectations, not only of this season but of their rebuild. Things can only get better from here as the teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco keep getting older and NBA players start to realize how much cheaper it is to live in Dallas over California. If there was a thing I could ask of Luka, it’s this: don’t get sucked into that James Harden mentality of taking a bunch of step-back threes. While a nice highlight, he’s only shooting 31% from behind the arc and if he stopped taking so many of those, he could probably get up to 40%. As a team, Dallas is ranked last in the league in opponent turnover percentage and they’re still 15th in defensive rating per 100 possessions. It might mean trading one of their ancillary guards, but the acquisition of a wing player (Iguodala?) might be the key to becoming an above-average defense. But as of now, Dallas doesn’t need to do much, they’re too far ahead of schedule to worry at the moment.
- Grade: B-
The Rockets will never avoid being the most confounding team in the NBA. In the span of seven days, they can lose to the Santa Cruz Warriors on national television, then seven days later, blow out the Denver Nuggets. Their variability night-to-night tells me they are a team not to be trusted. James Harden continues to make an MVP case (38 points per game!) even though no one wants to give him another one of those. I won’t even say he leverages the rules, it’s just not fun to watch the way it is to watch Giannis or Luka. Westbrook will probably never change; for what it’s worth, he’s averaging more points than Chris Paul did, if that matters (it doesn’t). My take: good for him. Never change Russ. If you and James are friends like that, figure something out over the All-Star break. But it’s funny how the team that says they value analytics the most is the team where none of those statistics truly matter. And there is no way for the Rockets to upgrade their roster that doesn’t involve taking fliers on buy-out guys and guys like J.R. Smith who are more than available. My assessment of the Rockets is that they could either lose in the 1st round of the playoffs or win the championship and I really wouldn’t be surprised by either outcome.
- Grade: B+
Memphis is in the mold of Dallas, except things are going a little bit more conventionally. They have a brand new front office, brand new coach, and brand new franchise cornerstones. So far, all is going well; Ja Morant seems on track to win Rookie of the Year and Jaren Jackson Jr. is on track to becoming a premier two-way big man in the league. Memphis has time to fill in the blanks where they deem fit, but having their point guard and center going forward is a big plus. The stats don’t favor them (currently ranked 20th in offensive and 25th in defensive rating per 100 possessions), but they’re only still two games out of the eighth seed. But going forward, I expect them to reign things back a bit, cut some minutes from Morant and Jackson Jr., and do their best to keep their draft pick this year, which is top-six protected or it goes to the Celtics (if they can land Anthony Edwards, look out!). But up until now, they’ve been competitive and that’s all you can ask of a team that pressed the reset button the way the Grizzlies have.
New Orleans Pelicans
- Grade: B
Don’t look now, but the Pelicans are riding a four-game winning streak and are only four games out of the eighth seed. It looked pretty bleak early, but things have turned around since their abysmal start, most notably for Jrue Holiday who’s averaging almost 20 points per game now. In the past three games, the Pelicans have averaged 119.7 points per game and have an average scoring margin of +16.3 points per game, ranked first and second in the league, respectively. Brandon Ingram is only 22 years old and is flirting with a 50-40-90 season on high volume and making a pretty compelling case for an All-Star selection. This all begs the question of whether New Orleans should ride this out and see if they can make the playoffs or just start trading guys away. At the beginning of December, I would’ve expected them to start looking at trades for Jrue, JJ Redick, and Derrick Favors. Now I’m thinking maybe they should ride this out, at least until the trade deadline. Nothing is out of the realm of possibility this season and making the playoffs without their franchise player would be an absolute success.
San Antonio Spurs
- Grade: C-
Based on how things have fallen apart in New England this season, it’s only fitting that heading into a new decade, this thing in San Antonio falls apart as well. While the Spurs are 11th in offensive rating per 100 possessions, there’s no conceivable way that the team ranked 29th in three-point field goals made and last in three-point field goals attempted should be considered a problem for real contenders. While an overhaul of the roster seems like the right move, who are the Spurs trading two of the most overpaid, antiquated players in the league to? Hopefully, they can get some things in place for the heir-apparent in San Antonio to work with going forward, but this seems like the transition season where we realize this thing is over, just like in New England. I kind of just wish things were a little more palatable in the Spurs case.