NBA

2021-22 NBA midseason grades: Suns, Cavs, Grizzlies get highest marks; Lakers, Knicks disappoint in first half

One of the most common criticisms lobbed at the NBA is its predictability. Only a few teams enter each season with a chance to win the championship, the detractors say. Where is the parity?

Waiting for 2022, apparently. With a little more than half of the 2021-22 season in the books, only a single team (the Phoenix Suns) is on pace to win 60 games. The bottom of the standings are just as sparse. The Orlando Magic are the last team stuck in single digits in the win column. If you’re looking for a middle class, boy, is this the season for you. 

The top-seeded Chicago Bulls in the Eastern Conference have won 27 games. The No. 10 seeded Boston Celtics have won only four fewer. The gap between No. 5 and No. 9 in the West is just three losses, and only the Houston Rockets are more than four games out of a play-in spot in that conference. If the season ended today, the 2020 NBA champion Los Angeles Lakers would need to earn their way into the playoffs through the play-in round, and the 2021 Eastern Conference runner-up — the Atlanta Hawks — wouldn’t even get that chance. Good luck finding a less predictable season of professional basketball than this one.

To help you sort through the muck and figure out where things are going from here, our staff of NBA experts has keyed in on each and every team to figure out what’s worked, what hasn’t and where they can go from here. Below you’ll find our grades for all 30 teams at roughly the halfway point this season.

The Hawks have been one of the most disappointing teams in the league over the first half of the season. After advancing all the way to the Eastern Conference finals last season, the Hawks currently sit 12th in the conference, and completely outside of the playoff picture. It’s never a good sign when the general manager is publicly questioning a team’s roster construction, as Travis Schlenk did recently. In turn, changes could be coming for the Hawks. The good news for Atlanta is that there’s still time to turn its season around and climb up the standings in the East after a forgettable first half of the season. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

The Celtics have won five of their last six games, but after the one loss, 76ers star Joel Embiid said this about their offense: “Obviously, Boston is more of an iso-heavy team, so it kind of becomes easier to kind of load up and try to stop them.” Overall this season, the Celtics have failed to reach expectations, thanks largely to that offense. Boston has been horrible from long-range, except in the corners, where Grant Williams is making P.J. Tucker proud. This is an excellent defensive team, and while it does *not* need to scrap the Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown pairing, it does need some balance. — James Herbert

All things considered, Brooklyn has been impressive: It’s near the top of the East, with the ninth-best net rating in the league, despite, well, everything. Kyrie Irving was banished and unavailable, then unbanished and half-available. Joe Harris hasn’t played since mid-November, just about everybody has been in health and safety protocols and, now, Kevin Durant is out 4-6 weeks with a knee injury. Even though this is a midseason grade, Brooklyn’s playoff rotation isn’t much clearer than it was in the preseason. Shout-out to Patty Mills‘ 3-point shooting, LaMarcus Aldridge’s mid-range shooting, DeAndre’ Bembry’s perimeter defense and Cam Thomas’ chutzpah, though. — James Herbert

The first half of the season was pretty promising for a Hornets team that hasn’t qualified for postseason play since 2016. Reigning Rookie of the Year LaMelo Ball has continued his evolution into one of the league’s young stars, and Miles Bridges has emerged as a legitimate go-to guy alongside Ball. Bridges is averaging career-high numbers in points (19.6), rebounds (7.2) and assists (3.6) per game this season, and in the process, he has emerged as a candidate for the Most Improved Player Award, and a borderline All-Star. The Hornets are a couple of years away from legitimate contention, but they have a real solid shot of ending their playoff drought this season. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Chicago Bulls: A

No one expected the Bulls to rank at the top of the Eastern Conference midway through this season, but here we are. They’ve gotten there on the clutch shooting of DeMar DeRozan, who ranks fourth in the league in clutch scoring, highlighted by knocking down game-winning buzzer-beaters on consecutive days. Zach LaVine is having another incredibly efficient shooting season with 49/41/87 splits, and the additions of Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso have given Chicago an edge on defense. 

Yet as impressive as the Bulls have been through the first half of the season, especially in the wake of a team-wide COVID-19 outbreak, there are still areas where Chicago stands to improve in hopes of showing that this regular season success can translate to the playoffs. The Bulls’ frontcourt depth is a glaring issue that was made even worse with the early-season injury to forward Patrick Williams, who isn’t expected to return this season. Chicago hasn’t found a full-time replacement in the starting lineup to fill Williams’ spot, and the current committee of players who have filled in (Javonte Green, Derrick Jones Jr.) shouldn’t be a long-term solution. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Cleveland Cavaliers: A+

There’s a lot to like about what the Cavaliers have done so far this season. Darius Garland is averaging career highs across the board, Jarrett Allen is playing at an All-Star level while anchoring Cleveland’s top-notch defense. Oh, and they have the current front-runner for Rookie of the Year in Evan Mobley. They’re doing all this while winning games and putting themselves in good position to make the postseason for the first time since LeBron James returned home.

The only thing dampening the mood on this suddenly entertaining team to watch is the loss of Ricky Rubio for the season after he tore his ACL at the end of December. Prior to that, Rubio was having a standout year while attempting 3s at the highest rate of his career. Cleveland made a trade for Rajon Rondo to fill that void, but the ruling is still out on how the veteran guard will work with this squad. That aside, though, the Cavaliers are ahead of schedule, so any amount of success should be celebrated. — Jasmyn Wimbish

The controversial Jason Kidd hiring, a slow start that had them under .500 on New Year’s Day and Luka Doncic’s conditioning problems have all combined to make this feel like a rather underwhelming season for the Mavericks. And yet, you look up and they’re in fifth place in the Western Conference at 25-19, and have won nine of their last 10 games. Three of those were double-digit wins over the WarriorsNuggets and Grizzlies. 

For all their faults, they still have Luka Doncic, who is putting up 25/8/8 a night in a “disappointing” campaign. And, in a surprise twist, they’re actually playing defense. After years toiling in the bottom half of the league on that end, they currently boast the fourth-best defensive rating (106.5) in the league. — Jack Maloney

Denver Nuggets: C

We should really split this blurb into two sections. The Denver Nuggets excluding Nikola Jokic deserve an F. Nikola Jokic himself deserves an A. But Nikola Jokic is a part of the Denver Nuggets, so sure, let’s average the two together for a respectable C. Were it not for the reigning MVP, Denver might actually be the worst team in the NBA. That’s hardly even conjecture. The Nuggets have played 812 minutes with Jokic off of the floor this season … and they’ve lost those minutes by 204 points. Only four NBA teams have been worse than that across the entire season. The Nuggets can hardly be blamed for that considering the injuries they’ve endured, and the front office continued its hot streak by finding a mid-draft keeper in Bones Hyland, but the majority of the roster has failed to offer Jokic even cursory support. The Nuggets might have the best player in the NBA, and they’ll re-enter the championship conversation the moment his two best teammates are healthy, but for now, this decimated roster has done little to lift Jokic in what has been a truly transcendent three-month stretch of basketball. — Sam Quinn

This may seem like a harsh grade for a team that we all know is in the midst of a rebuild centered around No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, but even knowing that, they just haven’t looked good as a team this season. They have the worst offense in the league per Cleaning The Glass, 23rd in defense and rank similarly in terms of shooting from basically everywhere on the floor. Individually, Cunningham has shown flashes of potential after a slow start to his pro career, and second-year players Saddiq Bey and Isaiah Stewart have shown positive development from solid rookie campaigns. But Detroit has often looked out of sorts on offense, and is only slightly better on the other end of the floor. On the bright side, though, with the second-worst record in the NBA so far, the Pistons look on pace to grab another high lottery pick in the 2022 draft to pair with their young core. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Golden State Warriors: A

It’s easy to forget that most preseason predictions had the Warriors landing somewhere in the bottom half of the Western Conference playoff race. They’ve absolutely destroyed expectations behind an MVP-caliber season from Steph Curry, a Defensive Player of the Year push from Draymond Green, a breakout year from Andrew Wiggins and an excellent job by the front office to fill in the gaps with perfectly fitting role players – not to mention Steve Kerr’s ability to make it all work on both ends. The recent offensive struggles led by Curry’s uncharacteristically long shooting slump means the Warriors no longer boast the league’s best record, but they’re still by far the No. 1 defense in the NBA. That will keep them in every game, even when scoring is hard to generate. — Colin Ward-Henninger

No one expected the Rockets to be good this season, and they have not been. They are the worst defensive team in the league (114.6 points allowed per 100 possessions), the worst at free-throw shooting (71.5 percent) and the most turnover-prone (16.9 percent of their possessions end with the ball in the other team’s hands). You don’t need to be an expert to know it’s hard to win like that. At 13-32, they have the third-worst record in the league and are on their way to another top-five pick. 

They weren’t built to win this season, though, so all of that isn’t even the biggest concern. Rather, it’s the off-court drama that continues to follow them around. John Wall still hasn’t played this season, and it doesn’t appear that saga will be resolved any time soon. Meanwhile, after a locker room incident during a recent loss to the Nuggets, Kevin Porter Jr. simply went home at halftime and Christian Wood refused to check in for the second half. Both players were suspended. The Rockets have a lot to sort out moving forward, both on and off the court. — Jack Maloney

By the end of the trade deadline the Pacers may look like a completely different team considering the reports that suggest Indiana is taking calls on virtually everyone on its roster. Specifically Domantas Sabonis, Myles Turner and Caris LeVert, as Indiana is thinking about a rebuild going forward. That’s understandable considering the lack of success this team has experienced in the playoffs the last few years, and the fact that Indiana ranks 20th in the league in defense and has a middling offense as well. It also doesn’t help that the Pacers have dealt with several injuries to key players essentially every season, and this year has been no different.

That aside, though, the Pacers have shown that they can’t compete with quality teams this season, but they can grab wins against the rebuilding ones. However, that’s not going to be enough if they want to get back to the playoffs. As it stands right now, Indiana sits seven games out of the final play-in spot, so their chances for the postseason are looking grim. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Paul George looked like he might be able to keep the Clippers in the mix with Kawhi Leonard on the shelf, but fatigue and an eventual injury halted whatever momentum he had built. They’ve slumped considerably since George has been out, and the lack of potency on a roster built around two absent superstars has been apparent. It particularly hurts on the offensive end, where they land close to dead last in the league in terms of efficiency. Reggie JacksonMarcus Morris Sr., Luke KennardTerance MannIvica Zubac and the rest of the role players have done all they can, but they’re simply out of their depth trying to do the heavy lifting with George and Leonard out of the lineup. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Does a roughly .500 team deserve a “D” grade? This one does, especially when taking expectations into account. You can’t give the Lakers an “F” since LeBron James has turned in an astounding, (mostly) healthy season and they’ve gotten solid performances from Carmelo AnthonyMalik Monk and rookie Austin Reaves, but almost everything else that can go wrong has gone wrong. Anthony Davis was shooting 18 percent from 3-point range and looked nowhere near dominant, even before his injury. Russell Westbrook has the worst offensive efficiency in the entire NBA among players with as many possessions as he has, according to Synergy. The minimum players have been unimpressive and/or injured for most of the season. The top-ranked defense from a season ago has plummeted to the bottom third of the league. If you’re a “glass-half-full” type of person, you could say it can only get better in the second half, but LeBron is pretty much the only thing that saved the Lakers’ first half from being an unmitigated disaster. — Colin Ward-Henninger

At 31-15, the Grizzlies have the fourth-best record in the entire league and are locked in a battle with the Cavaliers for the best story of the season. After sneaking into the playoffs via the play-in tournament last season, the Grizzlies have officially taken the leap. Ja Morant is playing at an All-NBA level, they have the deepest roster in the league (shout-out John Konchar) and are top 10 in both offensive and defensive rating. 

They play extremely hard, will not back down to anyone and their 14-8 record against opponents that are .500 and above (second only to the Suns) makes it clear this is in no way a fluke. The Grizzlies are for real. — Jack Maloney

Considering the injury issues that they’ve dealt with, the Heat have to be happy with where they stand halfway through the season. The Heat are currently second in the East behind the Bulls, and they boast a top-10 offense and defense. If anything, it seems like their health issues have helped the Heat develop their depth, as they have one of the league’s most productive benches. Perhaps most importantly, Kyle Lowry looks to be a solid fit alongside Jimmy Butler and Bam Adebayo and that should make the Heat extremely formidable come the postseason. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Milwaukee’s title defense did not go as planned out of the gate due to injuries and COVID, but coming out on the other side of that, the Bucks quietly look dominant yet again. Giannis Antetokounmpo continues to do things that remind you why he’s called the Greek Freak, and though Khris Middleton has been in and out of the lineup, when he’s healthy he’s putting up career averages. 

But what’s been most impressive about the Bucks so far this season is their role players, namely Bobby Portis and Grayson Allen. Portis is having the best year of his career, making the fact that Milwaukee was able to re-sign him an even bigger deal. He’s benefited from Brook Lopez being sidelined for the majority of the season, which has resulted in career highs in points (15.5) and rebounds (9.1). Acquiring Allen has also paid dividends so far, as he’s gone from a solid reserve in Memphis to nightly starter for the defending champions while shooting the ball extremely well from deep. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Minnesota’s defensive improvement is genuinely one of the most surprising developments in recent NBA history. The Timberwolves hadn’t finished better than 20th on that end of the floor since the 2013-14 season. They entered the season with the NBA’s third-youngest roster. Both Karl-Anthony Towns and D’Angelo Russell had, at points, been among the very worst defenders at their positions in all of basketball. Now? They’re both positives. Chris Finch has tweaked the defense to their strengths, pulling Towns onto the perimeter more often and allowing Russell to play quarterback as a help-defender while Patrick Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt do the heavy lifting. The Timberwolves rank ninth on defense this season, and while that figure may be buoyed by some very fortunate opponent’s shooting luck, it’s more than enough to get Minnesota into contention once Anthony Edwards fully matures into a superstar. The Timberwolves still have a ways to go, but if the season ended today, their ninth-place finish would be their best in a Jimmy Butler-less year since 2005. — Sam Quinn

The Pelicans’ season could have gone completely off the rails after their 3-16 start, but they’ve played .500 ball since then to get back in the mix for the play-in tournament. It might end up being too little, too late, but they deserve a lot of credit for righting the ship. Second-round pick Herb Jones has been a menace on defense and it looks like they’ve found something since he solidified a starting spot. Devonte’ GrahamJosh Hart, Jones, Brandon Ingram and Jonas Valanciunas have a plus-10.7 net rating, and the Pels are 11-8 when they’re all healthy this season. 

But we can talk about Jones’ defense, Valanciunas’ 3-point shooting and Ingram’s playmaking as much as we want. The only thing that truly matters for this club is Zion Williamson‘s health. He recently relocated to Portland to continue rehabbing his foot, and it’s looking increasingly likely that he won’t play at all this season after suffering multiple setbacks. If that’s the case, the Pelicans have much bigger problems to worry about than making the playoffs. — Jack Maloney

R.J. Barrett has had a great January, and I’m scared to say anything about it because I’ve seen this before. When Cam Reddish’s ankle is healed, he will presumably join what has been the third-best bench in the league. From the strong start to the discouraging dip, the benching of Kemba Walker, the triumphant return of Walker, the knee soreness of Walker and the Julius Randle thumbs-down incident, it has been a strange season. It feels right to me that the Knicks are .500, but internal expectations are surely higher. Let’s see if they can find their form in the second half, the way they did last year. — James Herbert

Should we grade teams based on their raw performance, or by how they measured up to the team’s actual goals? Because Oklahoma City’s roster has no business sporting a 14-29 record that has the Thunder only four games out of a play-in spot … but that was by design. The Thunder want to tank, but the young players they’ve added in recent years have been too good to allow them to do so properly. The same was true a season ago, when Oklahoma City closed the season on a 3-26 streak that catapulted it near the top of the lottery. Barring another injury to Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, such chicanery probably isn’t possible. That’s not exactly the worst place for Oklahoma City to be. Few teams would complain about a thriving young core, after all, but the Thunder are desperately trying to avoid the superstar-less no man’s land so many rebuilding franchises find themselves in after a few years in the lottery. Oklahoma City wants another franchise player to pair with Gilgeous-Alexander, and thus far, they’ve struggled to position itself to find one. — Sam Quinn

The Magic are the worst team in the NBA record-wise, and they’re anchored at the bottom of the Eastern Conference standings. This isn’t especially surprising given the team’s expectations heading into the season, but still, they’ve been bad. The silver lining of the season for Orlando is the ample on-court experience that its young guys like Cole AnthonyJalen Suggs and Franz Wagner are getting. Overall though, Orlando has a long way to go on its climb back to contention. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

Since Dec. 20, the Sixers are 10-3, with the second-best defense, eighth-best offense and third-best net rating in the NBA in that span. Related: Joel Embiid has averaged 31.8 points on 64.5 percent true shooting, plus 10 rebounds and 4.1 assists in those 13 games, with a 38.3 percent usage rate. Embiid has been outrageously good since he got healthy, and it suggests that Philadelphia can be a contender if it makes a good Ben Simmons trade (or gets him back, which seems incredibly unlikely but is technically within the realm of possibility). It would be a shame to waste not only Embiid’s season, but a roster that is built to compete now, particularly with Tyrese Maxey and Seth Curry showing improvement and Georges Niang fitting in. — James Herbert

Phoenix Suns: A+

The Suns have emphatically proven that last season’s run to the NBA Finals was no fluke, posting the league’s best record and second-best net rating in the first half of the 2021-22 season. They’ve essentially been a top-five offense and a top-five defense for the majority of the season, and that’s with Chris Paul posting the worst field goal and 3-point percentages since he was a rookie. Devin Booker is shooting a career high from 3-point range, Deandre Ayton, Cam Johnson and Mikal Bridges have all continued to develop, while JaVale McGee and Jalen Smith have plugged a hole at backup center. Overall, Monty Williams’ squad couldn’t have asked for a better first half of the season. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Damian Lillard gave the Blazers an out this offseason when he waffled on some possible interest in a trade. Had Portland acknowledged the limitations of its roster, it likely would have seen just how far it was from contending for anything meaningful and traded Lillard for a bounty. Instead the Blazers doubled down and gave away yet another first-round pick for Larry Nance Jr. It hasn’t mattered. Portland’s defense was dreadful even when it was healthy, which it no longer is. Lillard is injured. CJ McCollum is only now returning from a lengthy absence of his own. Long-time GM Neil Olshey is gone, and with Lillard and McCollum’s trade value depreciating by the day, the Blazers are further than ever from long-term viability. The only thing saving Portland from a big, fat “F” is the emergence of Anfernee Simons as a cornerstone. The fourth-year guard is averaging over 26 points in his last eight games, but Portland failed to lock him into a contract extension this offseason. If his ascent continues, Portland will have to pay a premium just to keep him, giving the team four guards making eight figures annually. Even Portland’s positives come with negatives. — Sam Quinn

If the Kings hoped to end the longest playoff drought in NBA history, this isn’t exactly the start they were looking for. They fired head coach Luke Walton just 17 games into the season, and their net rating has gotten worse under interim coach Alvin Gentry. The defense is laughable on most nights and the offense isn’t productive enough to keep up. Perhaps most concerning is that the pairing of De’Aaron Fox and Tyrese Haliburton has been disappointing on both ends, raising questions about the future coexistence of the talented backcourt. Sacramento is still in play-in contention, but is also another losing streak away from falling to the bottom of the conference. — Colin Ward-Henninger

As we hit the midway point of the season, the Spurs are just about where everyone expected they would be. They have enough talent and coaching to compete most nights – minus-0.3 net rating that ranks 17th in the league — but they aren’t a playoff team. (Yes, they’re hanging around in the race for the last play-in spot, but that says more about the lack of depth in the West than anything.) 

Dejounte Murray‘s play has been the most encouraging aspect of the Spurs’ season. At 19.1 points, 8.3 rebounds and 8.9 assists per game, he’s a borderline triple-double guy every night, while leading the league in steals at 2.1 per performance. If Murray can stay at this level, that makes the Spurs’ future much more promising. — Jack Maloney

Fred VanVleet is scorching and will be an All-Star. Pascal Siakam has, for the last three weeks, played perhaps the best basketball of his career. Toronto has outscored teams by six points per 100 possessions when they’ve both been on the court, and the 7-3 stretch that started on New Year’s Eve has been encouraging. Everybody wants to see more of VanVleet, Siakam, OG Anunoby and Scottie Barnes on the floor at the same time, but it’s only happened in 10 games and that group has struggled to score. This is a stylistically interesting team, and it could turn out to be a pretty good one if it can reach its defensive potential. Who expected the Raptors’ offense to be ahead of their defense at this point? — James Herbert

Utah’s transformation into a full-fledged offensive juggernaut is officially complete. The Jazz are scoring a mind-boggling 116.1 points per 100 possessions, 3.5 more than any other NBA offense, and they’re doing it despite a two percent drop in 3-point percentage. Once Joe Ingles and Jordan Clarkson start making the shots they’ve always made, Utah will effectively become unstoppable on offense. So why don’t the Jazz get an A? Because they sold their soul for points, and the defensive cracks that got them knocked out of the playoffs last spring are starting to widen. Utah has fallen to 11th in defense, the second-worst mark of the Rudy Gobert era, and when Gobert is out the defense disappears entirely. When he missed five games in the health and safety protocols earlier this month, the Jazz allowed over 120 points per 100 possessions, and there’s even been a bit of slippage in the games he’s played. Stanley Johnson shouldn’t be able to take it to Gobert in pick-and-roll as easily as he did on Monday. Big men who can handle the ball are getting more aggressive in the ways that they attack him, and if Utah can’t find him some defensive help at the deadline, its offensive firepower won’t be able to save it in the playoffs. — Sam Quinn

The Wizards have a lot of new pieces this season, and they’ve done a decent job of fitting them all together. Inconsistency has been an issue for Washington, though. One game they could look like a legitimate contender, and the next night they could be blown out. They’re currently on the edge of the playoff picture in the East, and that’s likely their ceiling — a team that could make the playoffs, but not likely to advance. It remains to be seen how Washington’s performance this season will impact Bradley Beal when it comes to figuring out his future with the franchise. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain



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