2023 Midseason Report

Midseason Report Cards: Grades for all 15 teams in the East

Take a team-by-team look at the Eastern Conference as the 2022-23 NBA season hits its midpoint.

The Celtics are No. 1 in the East at the season’s midpoint, but the Bucks aren’t too far behind.

As the NBA officially hits the midseason point for 2022-23, take a closer look at how each team in the Eastern Conference has fared so far this season.

Note: Teams are listed in alphabetical order.

> Midseason Report Cards: The West | NBA Midseason Media Survey

Atlanta Hawks (19-21)

Nineteen months ago, the Hawks had one of those springs about which sonnets get penned — they achieved what most sports teams only strive toward, their whole becoming greater than the sum of their parts. A 23-24 team closed 2020-21 in a rush, knocked off the New York Knicks and Philadelphia 76ers in the playoffs, then took the eventual-champion Milwaukee Bucks to six games in the East finals.

Since then? Atlanta’s whole has been less than the sum of those parts, many of whom remain the same. From overachieving to underachieving, with brush fires up and down the organization.

Guard Trae Young remains their driving force, both scoring and distributing, and his feistiness is one reason the Hawks have snapped several teams’ winning streaks. Only Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic joined him, through weekend games, with at least 900 points and 300 assists. But Young went AWOL on his teammates for a game and reportedly has chafed with coach Nate McMillan.

Factor in the evergreen John Collins trade rumors and front office changes, and you’ll understand their record, their grade and the speculation as the league deadline nears. Midseason Grade: D

Boston Celtics (29-12)

The durability of Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (left) has keyed Boston’s strong start.

If the old saying about success in life is true — 80% is just showing up — the Celtics are a great case study because their two best players are the biggest reasons Boston has the NBA’s top record to the midpoint. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown have taken, in tandem, another leap, with neither serious injuries nor trendy “load management” blocking their way.

Tatum is a Kia MVP candidate, both likely will be All-Stars and no team has a more reliable duo. They have missed a total of four games — the Celtics are 1-1 without Tatum, 2-0 without Brown — and are two of only four players in the East averaging at least 27 points and 7 rebounds.

Boston’s season looked to be in jeopardy before it even began when coach Ime Udoka was suspended for violating team policies on the eve of training camp. But replacement coach Joe Mazzulla has slid over successfully, kept the ship on course toward an NBA Finals return and put his own stamp on things, too, as more than a caretaker.

A December sag saw the Celtics playing down to, and some nights below, the level of their competition. But the league’s No. 1 offense (117.1 points per 100 possessions) has Robert Williams III back to hitch up the No. 7 defense. Midseason Grade: A

Brooklyn Nets (27-13)

Kyrie Irving and the Nets will have a heavier load to carry in the 2nd half of 2022-23.

All it took for the Nets to fulfill a lot of the expectations and projections for them was to focus on, y’know, the actual basketball stuff. By the time Brooklyn got past Kevin Durant’s offseason fussing for a trade, Kyrie Irving’s off-court actions, the uncertainty of Ben Simmons and the termination of Steve Nash as coach, this crew was 7-9. Sticking almost exclusively between the lines since then, the Nets went 20-4, including an 18-2 stretch that was the best in franchise history.

The challenge now is to ride out Durant’s knee injury, suffered Sunday at Miami. Durant at 34 had turned back the clock for a renewed prime — 29.7 ppg, 55.9% FG — and had helped the Nets to an 85-44 record in games he played since arriving in 2020. But they were 34-31 without him, pending this upcoming stretch for however long he’s out.

Can Irving carry the primary load? Will assistance from Simmons, Nic Claxton, Royce O’Neale and the rest be as effective in Durant’s absence as they’ve been? That’s the challenge for them and coach Jacque Vaughn. Midseason Grade: B+

Charlotte Hornets (11-30)

Thank goodness for teams like Charlotte, who make it possible to still see some good old-fashioned coaching as they flounder around near the bottom of the conference standings. Coach Steve Clifford, a wonderful man who doesn’t suffer fools gladly, had to call out his crew after an overtime loss to Detroit in which the Hornets gave up 141 points.

“You can’t just outscore people in the NBA,” Clifford said. “And you can’t decide that you’re not gonna do the things that take effort like rebounding, or getting loose balls, or putting your body in front of the ball.”

That’s largely how the Hornets’ first half went, an 11-30 mess in which they ranked in the bottom five both offensively and defensively. A team that didn’t lose its 30th last season until mid-February this season has strung together two eight-game skids.

Injuries have hurt, but when you’re 6-18 without LaMelo Ball but only 5-12 with him, that’s only part of the tale. A talent shortage, bad habits and shoddy effort speak more loudly. Midseason Grade: D

Chicago Bulls (19-22)

Halfway through the 2021-22 season, the Bulls sat atop the East at 27-14, the on-court success pushing Arturas Karnisovas into early Executive of the Year conversations for his front-office maneuvers in rounding up Lonzo Ball, Alex Caruso and DeMar DeRozan. Chicago went 19-22 the rest of the way, however, and settled for sixth place before a five-game exit against Milwaukee in the first round.

Combine that second half with this season’s first half, and the Bulls look stuck. They got to Thanksgiving with an 8-10 record, then lost eight of their next 11, only to turn around and win eight of 11 from there. Ball has yet to play, while their three-headed scoring monster of DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic hasn’t meshed as well, to the point some folks suggested Chicago bag it and become a seller at the trade deadline.

That’s extreme, and it’s not clear the United Center fan base would tolerate it — one playoff tease before yet another overhaul? Mostly, they need Ball back and they need LaVine to play the way he has lately (25.5 ppg on 52.4% shooting since Dec. 1 vs. 20.9 on 40.7% before that). Midseason Grade: C-

Cleveland Cavaliers (26-15)

Donovan Mitchell and the Cavs have been a perfect pairing so far this season.

Simply put, the acquisition of Donovan Mitchell has gone entirely according to script for the Cavs. They needed a primary scoring threat, a cornerstone guy who handles the spotlight and boosts the collective confidence, they got him. Credit to the front office, to coach J.B. Bickerstaff and staff for making it an immediate success and to Mitchell’s teammates for embracing his arrival and slotting in around him.

Over the second half, the biggest hopes from Cleveland fans should be that Mitchell won’t have to maintain the Kobe Bryant impersonation because helpers such as Darius Garland, Evan Mobley and Caris LeVert more reliably will ease his load, and that they all stay relatively healthy. The Mobley-Jarrett Allen rim protection (league-low 45.1 points in the paint) is the foundation of the Cavs’ top-ranked defense, and vet Kevin Love again merits Kia Sixth Man of the Year consideration. The time is now to work on that 8-11 road record. Midseason Grade: A-

Detroit Pistons (11-32)

One step forward, one step back. Just when fans of young, promising players started to see early sparks with Pistons lottery rookie Jaden Ivey alongside last year’s No. 1 overall pick Cade Cunningham, then Cunningham (shin surgery) was lost for the season. Now folks need to figure out if that setback explains Detroit’s bottom-feeding in the East or provides cover for it.

A tricky part about youth movements is sorting out which guys are young talents and which are just young. The Pistons’ pieces two seasons back included Saddiq Bey, Killian Hayes, Saben Lee and Isaiah Stewart. Now, Stewart is the real keeper, with Bey and Hayes searching for their roles (and Lee in the NBA G League). Ivey has been a basket-attacking delight and teenager Jalen Duren looks to be an offensive-rebound savant. Getting and keeping everyone in sync is where coach Dwane Casey will earn his salary now. Midseason Grade: D

Indiana Pacers (23-18)

Tyrese Haliburton’s continued excellence has Indiana in solid shape after the season’s 1st half.

Almost in spite of themselves, the Pacers are on pace for a playoff berth, defining their 2022-23 season far differently than a lot of preseason predictors saw it. It took Indiana 82 games to win 25 times last year, compared to 22 before 2023 was a week old. Why so different? A young, relatively deep crew that plays the games in front of them, rather than focusing on some future teammate drafted with a high Draft pick.

Point guard Tyrese Haliburton, acquired last season from Sacramento for Domantas Sabonis in a deal that helped both teams, is the offensive ignitor. He leads the NBA in assists and points-assists double-doubles. At his disposal are weapons such as deep threat Buddy Hield, big man Myles Turner and rookies Bennedict Mathurin and Andrew Nembhard. Mathurin might finish high both in top rookie and top sixth-man balloting, while Nembhard stylistically brings a change of pace from Haliburton to Indiana’s attack.

Needy rivals still covet Turner and Hield as trade targets, and mathematically there’s still time for the Pacers to plunge toward the standings’ bottom in search of lottery balls. But the results have been so fun and promising that it’s now a sour scenario to consider. Midseason Grade: A

Miami Heat (21-20)

This tidbit at the start of this week typifies the good news/bad news season Miami is having: Jimmy Butler has led the Heat in scoring in 10 of his last 12 games. Of course, Miami played 17 times in that span, with Butler missing five games over the three-week stretch.

Miami’s defense, anchored by Bam Adebayo, can be tenacious. Its offense, pace and size issues are hindrances. A recent 10-5 stretch through the holidays, including seven of the victories on the road, have perked up the Heat, as has Victor Oladipo’s return as bench help.

But the organization renowned for turning lemons into lemonade — undrafted players into valuable contributors — has a cupboard looking bare. That’s why Miami figures to pop up in a lot of the trade speculation, if not in the actual transactions, as the February deadline approaches. Midseason Grade: C-

Milwaukee Bucks (26-14)

Giannis Antetokounmpo has had little trouble coming up strong in the 1st half of 2022-23.

It’s almost impossible to assess the Bucks as a title contender because we barely have seen the team capable of getting them there. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton and Jrue Holiday have played only five games together, good for a 3-2 mark. Middleton missed 32 of the first 39 due to left wrist surgery and right knee soreness. Six of Holiday’s 11 absences were due to illness and “The Greek Freak” has nursed an achy left knee throughout, missing six.

After a 9-0 start, Milwaukee settled into a 16-14 stretch of mediocrity and most recently dropped six of nine heading into their Jan. 9 game at New York. A resurgent season at both ends for veteran center Brook Lopez and strong work up front by Bobby Portis Jr. haven’t made up for a drooping offense.

And these guys look complacent some nights, a troubling sign for the league’s oldest and most experienced (as in, high mileage) roster. Even Antetokounmpo’s crazy nights of crooked numbers don’t inspire confidence that the Bucks will be able to completely flip a switch and overcome a slightly lower seed when it’s time. Midseason Grade: B-

New York Knicks (22-19)

If the Knicks were a old TV, you might walk up and give ‘em a whack to see if that straightens things out. It just doesn’t make sense that they could rank in the Top 10 in offense (114.1), defense (111.7) and net rating (2.4) and be a seventh-place team in the East. That rarefied statistical area generally is the domain of Top 4 seeds, not a group that might have to fight its way out of a Play-In.

There’s more on the assets side of New York’s ledger at the halfway mark: The Knicks are 12-8 on the road, one of only three teams above .500. They are 13-10 within their conference. They went 12-6 from Dec. 4 to Jan. 9 to reach 23-19. Mitchell Robinson is a problem for opponents hoping to attack the paint. And both Jalen Brunson and Julius Randle are worthy of All-Star selection. Brunson is one of those additions who, though overpaid based on his resume, fits and plays like a star.

Over on the liability side, New York’s shooting accuracy isn’t great and its defense gives up a lot of 3-pointers. But for now, the Knicks are on pace to flip last season’s 37-45 finish. Midseason Grade: B

Orlando Magic (15-25)

The Magic had just lost nine in a row, mired in a same-old, same-old stretch no different from the past two seasons. Then — whoosh! — the young guys from Orlando go 10-5, the first six consecutively to put the Merry in Christmas for a change and inspire visions of Play-In possibilities.

Orlando has more than doubled its victory total from its first half in 2021-22 (7-34) thanks largely to the arrival of No. 1 pick overall, big man Paolo Banchero. The 20-year-old from Seattle, by way of Duke, was NBA-ready before he hit Summer League. He has topped 20 points 24 times in a heady mix of size, skills, confidence and work ethic.

And while Banchero is a front-runner for Kia Rookie of the Year, forward Franz Wagner might be the favorite for a mythical Sophomore of the Year award. His versatility has him playing like another Detlef Schrempf, to compare a countryman. Orlando’s greatest uncertainty comes from its unsettled backcourt, where injuries and inefficiency stubbornly persist. Midseason Grade: C+

Philadelphia 76ers (24-15)

Joel Embiid and James Harden (right) hope to have more time to gel in the 2nd half of 2022-23.

Half of an NBA season ordinarily qualifies as a small sample size, except in the case of the Sixers’ winning formula: Joel Embiid and James Harden still haven’t played enough games together to really know where this team stands as a threat in the East.

No serious observer would suggest that Philadelphia’s Finals ambitions hinge on anything more than that lethal tandem. Yet the two have appeared in only 19 games together, with the Sixers going 11-8 compared to 13-7 when one or neither plays. More specifically, through Sunday’s games, Embiid and Harden had teamed up for only 519 minutes out of Philadelphia’s 9,485 (5.5%). That compares, say, to Jayson Tatum-Jaylen Brown’s 945 minutes side-by-side with Boston or Jalen Brunson-Julius Randle double-teaming for 1,068.

When Philly’s All-Star big man and scoring guard have played together, they’ve been very good (+9.0 as a combo). The roster is deep with most boxes competently checked, but propping open a championship window and seeing Embiid and Harden together in an NBA Finals will depend on their reps over the second half. Midseason Grade: B

Toronto Raptors (17-23)

There has been a sameness to the Raptors’ roster, partly by design and partly in spite of design. Regarding the former, coach Nick Nurse and boss Masai Ujiri targeted a fleet of lanky 6-foot-9-ish players who could work interchangeably at both ends. As for the latter, Toronto has continued its overreliance on its five starters, with help off the bench that hasn’t always been reliable.

Lurking within the Raptors’ 17-23 record through the first 40 were a 5-13 road mark and 11-16 results against East rivals. It’s legitimate to point out that their preferred starting five — Pascal Siakam, Scottie Barnes, OG Anunoby, Gary Trent Jr. and Fred Van Vleet — have only played nine games together, going 3-6. But it’s also worth noting that those guys have scored 86% of Toronto’s points. Leaning so heavily on the first five was to be fixed after last season, yet here they are.

The Raptors’ versatility is great. But their shooting has been suspect and, at 26th in assists, the fact that none of the 6-foot-9 clones is Magic Johnson hurts. Midseason Grade: D+

Washington Wizards (17-23)

You can’t accuse the Wizards of being either slackers or flashes in the proverbial pan. At 17-23 so far (good for 11th in the East), they’re right on pace to finish with the same 35-47 record they posted in 2021-22. That’s about as “meh” as it gets after the season’s first three months.

Look, the trio of Bradley Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma — all averaging north of 21 points — can be fun to watch. But Washington’s eighth-best field-goal percentage is undercut by their 22nd-ranked 3-point accuracy. There’s no denying that some of their most recent victories came against opponents who showed up without their top players. And Beal has missed 16 games with ongoing left hamstring soreness.

Developing young role players such as Deni Avdija, Rui Hachimura and Corey Kispert and watching the scoring trio put up numbers (including Porzingis’ and Daniel Gafford’s combined 4.2 blocks per 36 minutes), while acting as spoilers vs. unassuming foes, seems to be the ceiling for Washington. Midseason Grade: D

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Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA since 1980. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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