The records might be nearly identical but the reality is actually quite different and complicated. This is to say: Not all .500 teams are the same.
Right now in the NBA, the number of teams at or near the break-even mark are clogging the middle of both conferences, and on any given night, any one of them can rise from eighth place to fourth — or vice versa. It’s that tightly packed, it’s that tenuous and it changes that often.
But the truth is in the details. Some of these teams are on the rise, some are starting to fall. As you examine a variety of factors — injuries, health, scheduling, etc. — you get a better idea of which teams should be encouraged and which teams should be worried.
Therefore, we study all teams currently sitting at or between .450 and .550 and determine which way they’re leaning.
1. Atlanta Hawks (.542)
Trending: Down. Wait, the Hawks are in fourth place in the East, right? Yes, but they’re standing on a banana peel, going 6-8 after starting the season 7-3. Trae Young isn’t having a very efficient offensive season, and now, his relationship with coach Nate McMillan needs inspecting after they engaged in a spat. The Hawks have dealt with injuries to Bogdan Bogdanovic, who just returned to the lineup. On the flip side, Dejounte Murray has checked all the boxes in his first season in Atlanta. This team has just as much talent, if not more, than the club that reached the 2021 East finals, but sustainability is a problem. If Young starts to connect on his shots and the Hawks keep getting promising results from De’Andre Hunter and youngsters AJ Griffin and Onyeka Okongwu, they can rise again.
2. Brooklyn Nets (.520)
Trending: Up. Now that Team Drama has reduced the volume a bit, the Nets can get back to doing what they were built to do. They started 1-5, now they’re rising toward the middle of the pack in the East. You knew a team with Kevin Durant couldn’t stay stuck in the mud forever. Some uncomfortable signs, namely Ben Simmons remaining an offensive enigma and Joe Harris not yet supplying his usual 3-point punch alongside Seth Curry. Also, the Nets, even at their best, might not be on the level of the Boston Celtics and Milwaukee Bucks, if ever. That’s OK, though. For now, anyway, the Nets are thrilled the focus has returned to basketball, and the more they win and trend upward — and Kyrie Irving doesn’t veer off topic — the more that focus will remain.
3. Dallas Mavericks (.522)
Trending: Down. If you lose to the Houston Rockets, Orlando Magic, Oklahoma City Thunder, Detroit Pistons and Washington Wizards, can you be taken seriously as a contender? This explains the Mavericks and their current state of confusion for a team that reached the 2022 West finals. Yes, Luka Doncic, as expected, is on an MVP level, and such players are usually centerpieces of good teams. But there’s a considerable drop-off in terms of production and impact from Doncic to … whomever the No. 2 guy is in Dallas. The Mavericks are built almost exclusively around Doncic because the ball is cemented to his hands, therefore his teammates, with the exception of Spencer Dinwiddie, rarely create their own shots. So it’s all about spreading the floor, letting Doncic cook and draw the double team, and making catch-and-shoots when left open. When those shots fall, the Mavericks are very good. When they don’t, the Mavericks lose to lesser teams. Doncic has never had a quality co-star — emphasis on “star” — who can occasionally take over games like, for example, Jaylen Brown for Jayson Tatum in Boston. This might be the year he needs one.
4. Golden State Warriors (.520)
Trending: Up. They’ve been poor defensively and are coming off a home loss Monday to the Pacers (who played without Tyrese Haliburton and Myles Turner). However, this isn’t the low point — that was when the Warriors began 3-7. They’re 10-5 since and, helped generously by a scorching start from Stephen Curry, the Warriors are at least making strides in the right direction. It was a humbling first few months for the defending champs as Klay Thompson was still trying to recapture the magic dust and their young core mostly failed to collectively pull its weight. But it would be a surprise if the Warriors are still in this spot a month from now … there’s simply too much talent here. They believe the worst is over.
5. Indiana Pacers (.542)
Trending: Down. As one of the early-season surprise teams, the Pacers received plenty of applause. But as Christmas approaches, the schedule tends to reveal who’s legit and who’s a flash. We’ve already seen some early-season teases — like the Spurs, Thunder, Jazz and Wizards — begin to fall back to Earth. Will the Pacers drift and soon follow in that direction, once some of the East favorites (Miami, Philly, Brooklyn) begin to get key players back from injury? At any rate, Indiana is getting quality results from solid all-around point guard Tyrese Haliburton and rookie Bennedict Mathurin. The elephant in the room regarding the Pacers is the trade deadline and what, if anything, they should do with Buddy Hield and Miles Turner. The longer the Pacers prosper, the more unlikely they’ll trade one or both. But should they stumble like the Spurs and others, the phone lines will be alive in Indiana’s front office.
6. Los Angeles Lakers (.455)
Trending: Up. The conversation with the Lakers has suddenly shifted to Anthony Davis and the MVP race. That’s a refreshing pivot for a team that has won eight of its last 10, saw its season flip and rescued the franchise from a rut. Davis is enjoying one of the best stretches of his career — certainly on the level of bubble/restart Davis and New Orleans Pelicans-era Davis — and even better, he’s healthy and sturdy. It’s really the best scenario for a team that struggled out of the gate and saw all the old demons surface, namely Russell Westbrook’s steady fall. But now look: Nobody’s targeting Westbrook, who looks solid off the bench. LeBron James is back from injury and pushing the limits of a 20-year player. Best of all, Davis is aggressive and behaving like a man who wants to be “That Guy” who carries a team and changes the narrative.
7. Miami Heat (.458)
Trending: Up. They’ve been a head-scratcher all season, still looking for a win streak that helps place them among the East elite. And maybe that’s coming soon. Right now, Miami is dealing with too much inconsistency and not enough Jimmy Butler (who missed nine games with injury) and Tyler Herro (eight games) to gain traction over the first few months of this season. The belief is now that Miami is whole again, the “Heat culture” will return and this team, which was a game away from reaching the NBA Finals last season, will regain its swagger. That will happen if Bam Adebayo follows up his November (22.4 ppg, 9.9 rpg, 1.0 spg) with a strong December.
8. Minnesota Timberwolves (.478)
Trending: Down. It’s early, but Year One of the Rudy Gobert trade is shaping up as a worst-case scenario. As in: Gobert doesn’t transform the Wolves into an instant contender right away. This was always the gamble for a franchise that swapped a collection of first-round picks for a one-dimensional center. The Wolves wanted immediate results and instead they’re getting inconsistency. It’s not primarily Gobert’s fault, though. Anthony Edwards hasn’t yet taken the next step toward stardom, D’Angelo Russell has actually taken a step backward at point guard (and could be trade bait at the deadline if this keeps up) and now Karl-Anthony Towns is dealing with injury. Minnesota’s offensive efficiency with Gobert-Towns was poor (along with their 3-point shooting), raising questions about the pairing and if these big men can transform a team together.
9. New York Knicks (.458)
Trending: Down. An inability to play top-shelf defense or protect home court has cost the Knicks, who once again are teetering on the thin edge between respectability and the basement. Jalen Brunson’s arrival hasn’t had the desired result in the win-loss column — not yet, at least. Plus, the Knicks are still waiting for a significant uptick from some of their young core, namely Obi Toppin and Mitchell Robinson. The good news is Julius Randle, an All-Star in 2020-21, is seemingly on the verge of a bounce-back season. He’s averaging 21.1 ppg, 8.5 rpg and hearing friendlier voices from the crowd at the Garden. The better news? Maybe his trade value has improved.
10. Oklahoma City Thunder (.458)
Trending: Down. Yes, they’ve won three straight and fresh off a win in Atlanta, so maybe OKC isn’t slipping but simply running in place right now. They’re not exactly a bottom-feeder that doesn’t compete most nights, nor do they appear to be a threat to soar above .500 and remain there. The good news is Shai Gilgeous-Alexander can pretty much book his flight to the All-Star Game, and once again, OKC’s player development is working. The same system that groomed Lu Dort and Josh Giddey is now looking to polish rookie Jalen Williams. Too bad star rookie Chet Holmgren is taking a medical red shirt, but OKC is laying a solid foundation and a good argument for the big picture.
11. Philadelphia 76ers (.500)
Trending: Up. They were just staying afloat until James Harden and Tyrese Maxey shed those street clothes. Shake Milton and De’Anthony Melton were decent replacements, but the Sixers clearly needed those injured starters to add balance next to Joel Embiid. That’s why it’s probably wise to be bullish on the Sixers: times will only get better now that Harden is back and the Sixers’ lineup returns to normal. Meanwhile, Philly has played very good defense, with Embiid and PJ Tucker as the core, and because of that, the Sixers recently won seven of nine games. Assuming the defense remains relatively solid, the Sixers will become much more unpredictable — and tougher to stop — offensively, given what Harden and Maxey bring to the mix.
12. Portland Trail Blazers (.542)
Trending: Up. Damian Lillard is back and prepared to give the Blazers one of the more balanced offensive backcourts in the league. Just as he did last season when Lillard was hurt, Anfernee Simons flourished in what amounts to a coming-of-age period of his young career. Along with Jerami Grant, the Blazers bring three players who average 23 points per game or more, and all three are shooting 34.7% or more from 3-point range, too. The Blazers started the season strong, then lost five of the seven games when Lillard was hurt. There’s a safe assumption that they’ll find their sweet spot again with him in the lineup and be prepared to pull out close games.
13. Toronto Raptors (.500)
Trending: Up. Once you understand that Pascal Siakam missed 10 games, you get a better understanding for why the Raptors are swimming at sea level. Add the missed games by Fred VanVleet and the Raptors haven’t dealt from a full deck for much of the season. But that’s all behind them and Toronto is poised for a run. They protect the ball (13.3 turnovers per game, 2nd lowest in the NBA) and play smart and solid overall. While the Raptors aren’t built around a solo star, they’re deep, well-coached and can throw different looks on the floor. They’re just a short winning streak from being a top-five team in the East. They only suffer from the lack of a rim-protecting big man (despite ranking 8th in the NBA in blocks per game), and their 3-point shooting is bottom-five in the league.
14. Utah Jazz (.538)
Trending: Down. They were once 10-3 and briefly enjoyed a penthouse view in the West, no doubt taking pleasure in reading all the preseason projections of doom. But gravity and the NBA schedule soon worked against the Jazz, who’ve fallen back towards Earth … and perhaps reality as well. Any team that trades a pair of All-Stars in their prime (Donovan Mitchell and Rudy Gobert) can’t expect to shock the league for long. At least the signs all say Lauri Markkanen and Jordan Clarkson are both built to last a bit longer, however, so there’s that. The critical point for the Jazz will arrive in roughly two months, just before the trade deadline. That’s when, if they’re sitting below the Play-In Tournament cut line, they might have every reason to sell — again.
15. Washington Wizards (.458)
Trending: Down. Bradley Beal is now dealing with a bad hammy and could miss some time, but even before then, the Wizards began to slide from respectability. They’ve lost six of their last seven games and signs of a carbon copy of last season, when a decent October stretch turned cold and the Wizards dropped rapidly in the standings. Kyle Kuzma is immune from it all, same with Kristaps Porzingis. The rest of the cast seems too inconsistent, or still under development, to make much of an impact. Should this continue, the Wizards must decide whether to be sellers by the trade deadline and secure their place in the Victor Wembanyama sweepstakes. The worst place to be is trapped in mediocrity, where the Wizards hopelessly reside.
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