NBA.com's Sekou Smith gives a team-by-team look at each team in the Eastern Conference at the halfway mark of the 2018-19 season.
(Note: Teams listed in alphabetical order)
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Team grades: Atlanta Hawks | Boston Celtics | Brookyn Nets | Charlotte Hornets | Chicago Bulls | Cleveland Cavaliers | Detroit Pistons | Indiana Pacers | Miami Heat | Milwaukee Bucks | New York Knicks | Orlando Magic | Philadelphia 76ers | Toronto Raptors | Washington Wizards
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The Hawks are in a full blown rebuild in Lloyd Pierce’s first season as coach, so the roller coaster ride they’re on this season was expected. Turning the offense over to rookie point guard Trae Young came with inherent risks as well. But to his credit, Young has proved to be more durable (physically, mentally and emotionally) than his slight frame and limited exposure might have suggested.
Second-year forward John Collins is the player who has emerged for the Hawks, who have to figure out which of their youngsters are long-term keepers. He’s got 20-point, 10-rebound potential for years to come and is the ideal stretch big for today’s NBA. The evaluation process for rookies Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman will continue into this season and beyond as the Hawks reconstitute themselves. Veterans like Vince Carter and Jeremy Lin are helping to bridge the gap as Atlanta’s plans enter the next phase.
It’s a good thing these grades aren’t handed out for just one subject, because the Celtics are failing chemistry miserably this season and dragging down their overall GPA with it. Sure, their injuries haven’t helped. But with the expectations and talent the Celtics carried into this season, more was expected. Coach Brad Stevens knows that and so does every player.
The Celtics, however, have time on their side. Like a handful of other teams around the league, they know that their ultimate evaluation will be based on their playoff run. To get to the postseason in the right frame of mind, they’ll have to shore up their defense (106.8 defensive rating since Dec. 1) and be better than just mediocre (10-10) on the road. Kyrie Irving has taken it upon himself to be the public face and voice of this team, so the onus for what transpires from this point forward is on him.
Seeing the Nets in the playoff mix at this stage of the season ranks as one of the most surprising developments of the first half of this season. It’s a testament to the relentless grind coach Kenny Atkinson has been on since taking over in Brooklyn. A devastating right foot injury to Caris LeVert didn’t sink the early momentum because the Nets have been developing their entire group as opposed to focusing solely on a perceived core group of young players.
D’Angelo Russell is playing the best basketball of his career. Jarrett Allen is asserting himself as one of the better young rim protectors in the league. Spencer Dinwiddie has solidified himself as a key part of the team’s future, as has Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and rookie find Rodions Kurucs. GM Sean Marks and the Nets’ front-office crew have a blueprint for what they’re trying to do and are clearly on the right path.
Kemba Walker deserves better than this. The veteran point guard has played at an All-Star level this season, but needs more help from a quirky and enigmatic supporting cast. Outside of Jeremy Lamb, the Hornets have not gotten consistent high-level production out of the rest of their roster. Chalk it up to the transition the entire roster is making under first-year coach James Borrego or injuries or whatever else you want. But no other team in the NBA’s playoff mix is as poor a road team (4-12) as the Hornets.
All that said, the Hornets are in the perfect spot to move up in the standings if they can find a groove in the weeks leading up to 2019 NBA All-Star next month in Charlotte. Yet another injury (hand surgery) and long absence for Cody Zeller certainly doesn’t help the cause. Filling that hole might give Borrego an opportunity to explore some different rotation options, including more time for rookie Miles Bridges.
Given all the drama the Bulls have endured so far this season -- Fred Hoiberg being jettisoned and replaced by Jim Boylen, pulling the plug on the Jabari Parker experiment and a delayed start to Lauri Markkanen’s season -- a failing grade would have been almost too easy to deliver. The Bulls aren’t just flunking NBA 101, they are an unmitigated disaster from the top of the organization down to its core. Putting that on Boylen or the players wouldn’t be a fair assessment of what’s going on (and gone wrong) for the Bulls.
Lost in the avalanche of bad headlines regarding these Bulls is the monster effort Zach LaVine has put into his breakout season, not to mention how good Markkanen looks. The dysfunction in Chicago also distorts the development of rookies Wendell Carter Jr. and Chandler Hutchinson. But the disjointed locker room is the product of faulty planning on the part of the front office, who deserve the “F” grade here more than any player or coach.
LAL (Life After LeBron) has been the painful process most predicted it would be, especially with no Kevin Love around whom to build a cohesive unit. Coach Tyronn Lue didn’t last long enough to show us what he might be able to cobble together with the remnants of the group that made four straight trips to The Finals. Now it’s on Larry Drew to try to make sense of the mismatched parts the Cavaliers are working with in the first year of their rebuild.
One of the benefits of knowing exactly where you stand is the absence of unnecessary pressure when developing young players. Collin Sexton and Cedi Osman need plenty of space to learn and make mistakes without punitive consequences. Veterans like Jordan Clarkson, Tristan Thompson, Larry Nance Jr., Rodney Hood and recent additions Alec Burks, Sam Dekker and fan favorite Matthew Dellavedova need only to keep their heads down and play their respective roles the rest of this season.
A strong start to Dwane Casey’s first season with the Pistons shook up the expectations for this team early on. But that surprising early start only camouflaged the fact that the same issues the Pistons dealt with in the final days of the Stan Van Gundy era remain. The Pistons are still struggling to find the balance between using their All-Star frontcourt tandem (Blake Griffin and Andre Drummond) while developing the right mix around them.
The Pistons’ point guard predicament is still perplexing, given Reggie Jackson’s raw talent and Ish Smith’s fit with this group. Neither one of has been consistent enough to lift the Pistons’ performance, which could be the one thing that denies them an opportunity to make the playoffs. Which, given the wide open nature of the Eastern Conference’s playoff picture after the top (five-team) group, is not that tall a task.
The Pacers sit atop the list of teams not mentioned enough when discussing young core groups built for a sustainable future. They’ve got star power (Victor Oladipo and an improving Myles Turner), versatility (Damontas Sabonis, Bojan Bogdanovic, Thad Young, T.J. Leaf) and plenty of depth (Corey Joseph, Darren Collison, Tyreke Evans, Aaron Holiday) to work with. They’ve also got the ideal coach (Nate McMillan) to serve as the steward of the program.
The Pacers have turned what looked like a four-team mix at the top of the Eastern Conference (Boston, Toronto, Philadelphia and Milwaukee) into a five-team one. Built for both the present and the future, Indiana poses the clearest danger to whatever that established order was supposed to be. The Pacers’ front office doesn’t get the credit it deserves for putting things together as well they have.
Having Goran Dragic for just 14 games could have been a season-crusher if the Heat didn’t have quality depth and leadership on the roster. Dwyane Wade’s impact on this group, in his farewell season no less, has been critical. He’s not just along for the jersey exchanges, he’s playing crucial minutes for a team in the thick of the playoff chase and mentoring youngsters like Josh Richardson in the art of being a franchise pillar.
Richardson’s emergence this season as the Heat’s best two-way (and overall) player is a great sign. The Heat’s player-development program has long been one of the best in the league and Richardson is the latest example. The return of a healthy Dion Waiters is also a positive addition to the depth of a group that already has Justise Winslow, Hassan Whiteside, James Johnson, Tyler Johnson, Rodney McGruder, Kelly Olynyk and Bam Adebayo all playing pivotal roles.
No offense, Kawhi Leonard, but Bucks coach Mike Budenholzer has been the best offseason addition in the Eastern Conference. It helps to have an eager and willing Giannis Antetokounmpo waiting on you to help take his game to the next level. But Budenholzer’s impact on the culture of the organization is undeniable. He has raised the standard for the entire group in a just a few short months by demanding more from every player on the roster.
In addition to Antetokounmpo being one of the frontrunners for this season’s Kia MVP, Khris Middleton could find himself in Charlotte next month for All-Star Weekend. Eric Bledsoe and Malcom Brogdon are both having special seasons. But no player on the roster and perhaps in the East has benefitted from the changes Budenholzer has engineered than veteran center Brook Lopez, whose ability to stretch the floor at his size makes the Bucks a matchup nightmare for opposing defenses -- especially come playoff time.
Grading this crew on a curve might make more sense, because we won’t know exactly what they are working with until Kristaps Porzingis returns. But since Porzingis is not expected back this season, they’ll have to own whatever mark they earn in coach David Fizdale’s first season at the helm. And with an eye on the future (2019 draft and free agency), it’s safe to assume that this team will look dramatically different in the future.
Unfortunately for the Knicks, this grade is based on their performance this season. And there just has not been enough quality basketball from the Knicks to pass. There have been moments and bright spots from Tim Hardaway Jr., Emmanuel Mudiay and rookies Kevin Knox, Alonzo Trier and Mitchell Robinson. But this group has been built to do exactly what their win-loss record suggests they’ve been doing.
Coach Steve Clifford continues to work his big man magic in this league. Nikola Vucevic has played at an All-Star level so far this season. Strange as it sounds, that might also be the Magic’s biggest problem this season. The plan was for Aaron Gordon to take the next step in his evolution and to challenge for an All-Star spot. Gordon has been solid this season, but hasn’t played well enough to make anyone’s All-Star team.
D.J. Augustin has been solid at point guard this season. But if the Magic want to be taken seriously as a playoff challenger, they’ll need more. And that doesn’t mean getting quality relief minutes at that spot from Jonathan Simmons (who is doing the work Jerian Grant was supposed to do). The heavy lifting being asked of their young bigs (Mo Bamba and Jonathan Isaac) has yielded mixed results thus far.
Coach Brett Brown deserves hazard pay dealing with all of the extracurricular drama that comes with the job of coaching Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid. They are as talented as they are complicated, both on and off the court. The Sixers traded depth for star power when they acquired Butler. Unfortunately for them, you need plenty of both if you’re trying to win the Eastern Conference this season. These Sixers are good -- really good, at times -- but fall short of being something of great.
If there was any indication that Markelle Fultz was going to rejoin this group and aid in the playoff push, there would be cause for more optimism. For now, Sixers fans must lean on the fact that they have three of the league’s most talented players (Ben Simmons, Butler and Embiid) and hope that kind of star power wins out over everything else in the playoffs.
The Raptors are as dangerous as they’ve ever been during team president Masai Ujiri’s reign. This season, though, they’re doing that with a new coach in Nick Nurse and a new franchise player in Kawhi Leonard. Perhaps it should have been expected. But no one really knew what the Raptors were getting in Nurse (always a well-respected assistant to Dwane Casey) or Leonard (whose nine games with the Spurs last season didn’t inspire a ton of confidence). That both have eased into their roles the season after Toronto’s best regular-season finish ever has been nothing short of spectacular.
Toronto has crossed over into the realm of teams whose seasons are no longer defined solely by regular-season accomplishments. That means what we’ve seen from the likes of Serge Ibaka, Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet during this season must continue into the postseason. We know this team can find its way to the conference finals. Now they must show us they can go beyond that point.
All-Star point guard John Wall’s season is over, courtesy of heel surgery. Losing him provides a completely different view of this team than what was on the table just a few weeks ago. A season on the brink of disaster now becomes a golden opportunity for Bradley Beal to show his mettle as both the leader and best player on this team. If Beal is as ready to assume the position as the face of this franchise, maybe the Wizards will have to make some tough decisions about their priorities for the future.
Acquring Trevor Ariza for Kelly Oubre (and to a lesser extent, Austin Rivers) is another veteran upgrade that was much-needed in a disjointed Washington locker room. If indeed, “everyone eats,” when Wall is sidelined, there should be plenty to go around for everyone in the three to four months left in 2018-19. Even with all their struggles this season, the Wizards are still within striking distance of No. 8 in the East. One solid win streak and who knows where this season goes for the Wizards.
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