The NBA is in the middle of one of its most enjoyable seasons in years. Ten teams have legitimate title hopes, but every one has just enough weaknesses to make it vulnerable. The league has more superstars than ever, and they’re more charismatic than every other major sport’s stars combined. At least four times a week, the Western Conference gives us a game that melts our brains. This is the season when I’ve started looking at basketball fans without League Pass the way I used to look at people without cable. How do you survive?
Now we’re at the All-Star Game, which means, including the playoffs, we’re officially halfway through this journey. So just for fun, let’s celebrate the break by taking a long look around and writing way too much about the NBA. We’ll do it with a report card.
We begin at rock bottom.
F: Total F’ing Failure
Jason Miller/Getty Images
Dion Waiters. I’ve accepted that he will not be good this season, or maybe ever, but watching him try will never get old. I love Waiters, so it hurts to grade him like this. And yet to truly appreciate the disappointment here, you have to remember what Waiters’s season could have been.
“I actually talked with LeBron before he made his decision,” he said this summer. “He called me and just told me to be ready. Be ready.” It was like watching a petty criminal getting made by the Godfather. Then came talk of the best backcourt in basketball, BUCKETS DNT LIE, and the beginning of a dynasty in Cleveland. But that dynasty never really got started, and Godfather LeBron cut him out of the family. Now he’s in Oklahoma City as a shoot-first, pass-never reminder of the nonexistent chemistry that makes this team so hard to trust. There’s a decent chance he’ll bounce back later in his career, but there is a better chance we’ll look back at Waiters as the guy who got opportunities to play with the two best players alive and wound up getting frozen out by both.
Scott Brooks. He’s been called awful so many times that he’s probably underrated, and his contributions in getting the Thunder this far have been overlooked. Injuries add a giant asterisk to everything that’s happened this season. But none of that means he should still be coaching this team. It’s only gotten more obvious as OKC has struggled this season and all the problems from the past few years have only gotten worse.
Think about how Golden State pulled the trigger on getting rid of Mark Jackson last summer to add Steve Kerr, who has taken the Warriors to the next level. Then imagine the exact opposite. That is Scott Brooks in Oklahoma City.
The Kings. We had a great three weeks when the Kings were the biggest surprise in the NBA, Boogie was new and improved and mature after Team USA, and everything was lovely. Then: Boogie got meningitis. Then: They fired the coach who everyone liked, promoted the assistant who nobody respected, watched the season fall apart, and hired an aging coach who the franchise player reportedly doesn’t want. Now: FREE STAUSKAS.
The Nets. On the one hand, this is the most depressing team in the NBA, and there’s no hope of getting better for the next several years. On the other hand, if you read this New York Times investigation about the insane amounts of foreign money driving up the elite real estate market in New York City, it all makes sense. Think of the Nets as if they were a giant condo that made Mikhail Prokhorov a billion dollars while the ruble collapsed. Suddenly the Joe Johnson trade doesn’t look so bad.
The Rookies. Exactly 18 months ago, we were dreaming about this current rookie class and calling it one of the greatest drafts of all time. Now, almost everyone is either injured or struggling. It’s been a disaster. Not quite a 2013 draft disaster, and there’s still hope for the long term, but this year’s rookies have been so depressing that we don’t even talk about how depressing this year’s rookies are.
D: Didn’t Get an F!
Rocky Widner/Getty Images
Serge Ibaka. Remember when the Thunder chose Ibaka over James Harden and it didn’t seem completely insane? This isn’t even a criticism of the OKC management. You could make great cases for both sides of the argument. Three years later, Harden is probably leading the MVP race and Ibaka is the guy averaging 13 points per game while floating on the perimeter and taking 3s for some reason.
It’s been a rough year. When he went down in the playoffs and the Thunder got destroyed by the Spurs without him, everyone in the league noticed exactly how crucial Ibaka was to OKC’s success. When Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook got hurt nine months later, it accidentally turned into a reminder that Ibaka has tons of limitations. It didn’t even matter that OKC still had a “star” in the lineup. Reggie Jackson was twice as important to keeping the Thunder afloat during the injuries.
Ibaka is the one problem in OKC that never gets mentioned. For all the coaching and chemistry issues, it also matters that the superstar big man they decided to build around just isn’t a superstar. He’s a good defender and still a crucial role player, but if anything, his offense is regressing, and now he’s trying to reinvent himself as a stretch 4, which only makes his problems more obvious. It’s not even that OKC needs another 20-point scorer every night, but if the Thunder are going to play small and be a four-out team on the perimeter, at least they could get a 4 who actually scares people on the perimeter.
Kevin Love. His numbers have been better than people realize, but this year is still a massive disappointment. The dream of Love and LeBron running a two-man weave — endless outlet passing back-and-forth for the most exciting offense in history — feels dead. Instead of rising to the occasion playing for a contender, he’s been sulking for at least 60 percent of the time he’s been on the court, his defense has been exposed (again), and every off-the-record murmur about his competitiveness in Minnesota is now considered something like fact after the past four months. Having said all that … whether it happens in Cleveland or somewhere else, I’m officially counting the days until the Kevin Love comeback. This season has been a nightmare, and at some point he’ll wake up. He’s been so bad, and it’s time for him to remind the world that he’s still pretty good. (Unless he goes to the Lakers this summer to team up with Kobe, in which case it might be time to bail out forever.)
Derrick Rose. Let’s rank the best 15 point guards right now.
- Steph Curry
- Chris Paul
- Russell Westbrook
- John Wall
- Tony Parker
- Mike Conley Jr.
- Jeff Teague
- Damian Lillard
- Kyrie Irving
- Kyle Lowry
- Derrick Rose
- Rajon Rondo
- Eric Bledose
- Goran Dragic
- Ricky Rubio
First, look at all of those great point guards. Good god.
Second, ranking everyone 4 through 10 is just about impossible. No matter what combination you try to go with, it will look stupid once you’re done.
Finally, the reason it’s been tough to watch Rose isn’t because he’s fallen down to the second half of that list, but because he operates like he’s still in the top three. It’s hard to blame him for this — he was better than almost anyone when he was healthy — but at some point excuses don’t even matter. He swallows up possessions like he’s Westbrook, and all the drives to the rim from three years ago are bad jump shots now. He’s at the center of media drama roughly once a month. He’s making $40 million the next two years. It all makes the Bulls’ situation more complicated than it needs to be.
Hopefully it gets better. This is the first time in three years we’ve actually seen a full Rose season, so it won’t be that crazy if the adjustment takes a few months. He has improved — 30 points and seven assists against the Cavs last night, earning some MVP chants — and it will take time to shake off the rust and get used to a new Bulls lineup. This can still work. If Rose finds a way to balance his game through the second half and lets guys like Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol carry more of the offense, it’s better for everyone.
The Hornets. The great thing about the Eastern Conference is that teams can actually have two separate seasons, and it’s basically fine. This is the second year in a row everyone spent the first few months writing off the Hornets before they turned into a shockingly decent team that’s surprising opponents every other night.
The Wizards. There is a 50-50 chance the Wizards are having the exact opposite of the past two Charlotte seasons.
Incomplete: Check Back in Six Months
David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images
Chris Paul and the Clippers. No team makes less sense than the Clippers. Everything Zach Lowe wrote about their offensive brilliance and playoff potential is true. But they’ve also been absolutely brutal to watch. Blake Griffin is teaching himself to be a small forward, Big Baby is 50 pounds overweight and still plays crucial minutes sometimes, Matt Barnes is the Clips’ version of Kendrick Perkins, and it’s all so grim that it doesn’t even matter that DeAndre Jordan is having the best season of his career.
Then there’s Paul. It seems like he’s gotten more ornery with age. Everything that was annoying about CP3’s game — flopping and cheap shots and bitching to the refs nonstop — has only gotten worse, and what he does well has gotten less fun. It’s why people are beginning to turn on him. Everyone’s pointing out that he’s never made a conference final, he’s difficult to play with, etc.
The Clippers would get a C-minus or a D for the first half, but let’s just wait to see where this goes. Griffin is out for at least the next three weeks, and I think we’re about to see why Paul is one of the greatest point guards ever. It’s just a gut feeling; there’s zero evidence to support this. But the “CP3 is overrated” camp is getting way too crowded. Paul is not overrated. He is getting older, he’s obnoxious as hell, and he has never won anything. But he’s still the best point guard we’ve seen since Isiah Thomas and Magic Johnson. If he can keep the Clippers alive in the middle of the West with Griffin gone, that’ll just be a little more proof. And then if Griffin gets back just in time for the playoffs? The season from hell might not look so bad come April.
Ryan McDonough. Now that I’ve successfully jinxed the Suns into one Alex Len injury and losing three out of their last four, it’s probably time to tone down Phoenix optimism. But whatever happens the rest of this season, there’s a chance this situation looks a lot better by July.
The Spurs. They have looked suspiciously mortal through the first half of the season. Is this a trick? It seems like a trick.
The Knicks, Lakers, and Celtics. There have been lots of jokes told at the Knicks’ and Lakers’ expense, and the Celtics have been almost as terrible, albeit in a slightly less aggressive way. Instead of playing hopeless young players, the Celtics have tried tanking with hopeless veterans. Good wrinkle. But for all the jokes, this is exactly what all three teams should be doing. They’re biding their time until the draft this June, they have tons of flexibility, and there’s plenty of hope for the future. It’s never a bad thing to be the opposite of the Brooklyn Nets.
There are only two reasons these teams don’t get A’s. First, because that would be obnoxiously counterintuitive. Second, because the Celtics could get screwed in the lottery, meaning all this losing would mean nothing, and the Knicks and Lakers are always a 50-50 bet to overpay B-list superstars and lock themselves into salary-cap hell. But if the Knicks don’t max out Tobias Harris this summer, and if the Lakers don’t max out Love and Rondo, they might be in good shape in two years.
C: Could Be Worse … Could Be Better
DeMarcus Cousins. 23.8 ppg, 12.5 rebounds, 24.27 PER … best season of his career … first All-Star appearance … but it’s not that simple. After that virus hospitalized him in December, he’s had a couple of pretty bad moments — Vineable defense is almost never good. Likewise, the Kings have fallen back to earth since that hot start, and this postgame interview last week was just weird.
If you want to criticize Cousins, you could point out that he’s gotten along with only one of four coaches and he’s never made the playoffs with any of them. He operates with this strange persecution complex (see: interview above), but it seems like the main reason he’s ever persecuted is because he’s not very much fun to deal with. It’s tough to blame people if that indignant attitude rubs them the wrong way. Some of those probably include Kings fans at this point. Boogie causes problems as often as he provides solutions.
But I don’t want to criticize Boogie Cousins. It’s better to live in a world in which Boogie is winning gold medals and nearly starting a war with Lithuania. I want to see game-winning 3s, and bullying people down low, and everything in between. I want to see Boogie and The Brow dominating the league for the next decade.
I just don’t know if it’ll happen on the Kings. Now they’ve added George Karl to the mix, a move that Boogie reportedly opposed, and it seems like things may get worse before they get better. Watching Cousins win with the Kings at the start of the year was as much fun as we’ve had all season. They were the Lost Boys, and Boogie was their Peter Pan. Now it’s starting to look like Boogie may need to go somewhere else to really take off.
One question: Would any of this have happened if he hadn’t been hospitalized with meningitis in December? In that case, the Kings probably would have kept winning, the front office wouldn’t have possibly been able to justify firing Mike Malone, and Boogie would have stayed happy and productive during the best season of his career. Maybe things would have broken bad regardless. I don’t know. But if Karl doesn’t click and the DeMarcus Cousins era falls apart in Sacramento, I already know I will be wondering about the meningitis forever.
David Blatt. For all the hype he had coming into the year, his authority next to LeBron feels something like that of a substitute teacher. That brilliant motion offense that tricked us all into believing the Cavs would dominate the NBA? That was abandoned almost immediately. In fairness, it’s hard to imagine a more impossible situation than what Blatt inherited with the Cavs. Especially since LeBron played the first three months like he’d been tranquilized and had decided he was player-coach-motivational-guru-brand-ambassador. The Cavs have looked better since then, and there’s still a chance Blatt gets more comfortable and turns into the shrewd, creative coach we all expected. And hey, no matter what happens, he didn’t get fired in the first half of his first season.
And this commercial everywhere else:
The Bulls. Losing faith would be understandable after some of these losses, but it’s a long season. I’m not giving up on Rose; or Pau; or Noah; or Jimmy Butler, the surprise superstar; or Thibs, the grumpy genius; or the ceiling for this team, which could absolutely win the East.
The Raptors. Full disclosure: We all have finite time on this planet. Life is a series of choices. Where do you spend your energy? Who gets your attention? You can’t do everything. So who do you love, and who do you ignore? Watching the NBA is like that. I know they’ve been good, I know Kyle Lowry is great, but for the life of me, I can’t bring myself to care about the Toronto Raptors.
Gordon (Hayward) and (Rudy) Gobert. The Jazz are hopeless … But the Jazz might not be hopeless forever!
The Mavericks. They have been hanging tough in one of the toughest Western Conferences ever. They have two more months to make it work with Rondo and hit another level. They will be miserable to play against in the first round. It’s not a bad situation right now. Another way to look at it: Dirk is getting older and (finally) slipping noticeably, Monta Ellis and Rondo don’t seem to have much chemistry, and $15 million a year for Chandler Parsons is what happens when practical jokes on Daryl Morey are taken too far. We’ll see which version of the Mavs looks more accurate by May.
B: Because It’s Not the Playoffs Yet
The Hawks. Basically the Tracy Flick of this NBA class. The adorable overachiever whom you might also want to strangle.
The Grizzlies. Don’t let the adorable Christmas videos fool you.
The Warriors. George is Steph, and Diego is Klay, Pablo is Kerr.
Atlanta, Memphis, and Golden State have (obviously) had great regular seasons, but nothing is guaranteed. If they go down early in the playoffs, none of this matters. The Warriors will still be too perimeter-oriented, the Grizzlies will still be too weak on the perimeter, and the Hawks won’t have enough stars. Those criticisms probably shouldn’t diminish the regular season. For now, let’s not go too crazy; they all deserve B-pluses.
Damian Lillard. It seems like he’s become overrated over the past 12 months, almost solely because people love watching him. Killing the Rockets also helped. But aside from the clutch shots, he is a not-so-great defender and a scoring point guard who depends on streaky shooting to dominate. Some nights he’s unstoppable, but there are a lot of nights when he’s pretty mortal. All of which is to say, ranking him among the best point guards was impossible. I know in my heart that he’s probably not a top-five point guard yet, but there’s nobody in the NBA I love watching more than Lillard. And some nights, he’s better than anyone.
A: Anthony Davis and the Angry Thunder
Anthony Davis. He’s having a better season than anyone. As Bill Simmons pointed out last month, he’s actually flirting with some of the best numbers in history. The greatest single-season PER is Wilt Chamberlain’s 31.82, and you know where Davis is as of the All-Star break? 31.86. And he’s 21.
It should have been impossible to exceed the hype he got leading up to this season, but here we are. Davis is hyperbole-proof. Watch him take off from the foul line and catch a one-handed alley-oop in a split second, then watch him pump-fake in midair to hit a 30-foot buzzer-beater. This is like NBA science fiction. They created a guy who can do everything.
He throws his body all over the court, but he does it in the most graceful way possible. He scores inside, but now he can hit from outside. He blocks shots, but he also gets steals. He’s a power forward who passes as well as anyone on his roster.
More than anything else, watching Davis makes me wonder. Does it even matter if he’s stuck with Monty Williams and Jrue Holiday? Will he unleash 30 and 20 averages over the next few years, or the next few months? How does it ever get crazier than Anthony Davis, Kevin Durant, and LeBron James all thriving within the same decade? What is the NBA future if these guys are the present? These are questions you ask when you watch Davis. Then he dunks on someone, and it shakes you back to the present.
Andrew Wiggins and Jusuf Nurkic. They saved the rookie class, they made their terrible teams watchable, and now Nurkic might be teaching the rest of the Nuggets roster how to curse at refs with Balkan profanities. The future is bright.
James Harden. Will voters give the MVP to the superstar they all secretly despise? Or will they give it to a player who is obviously not as valuable as Harden?
Chris Bosh. Sometimes I remember how much shit Bosh took during that first year in Miami. Then I remember he won two titles, got paid $140 million, and now he’s probably living a stress-free life piling up numbers with nothing left to prove. It makes me happy to think about how happy he must be. What about winning, you say? Bosh has won in every way possible. Also …
Mario Chalmers. Christmas 2014. Forever.
Jason Kidd and Giannis. It doesn’t even matter what happens for the rest of this season. If I were a Bucks fan, I’d just keep watching this Vine for the next five months.
David Griffin. The Cavs flipped Waiters and picks into three players (Timofey Mozgov, J.R. Smith, and Iman Shumpert) who helped transform them from a shell of a team into a real contender. I don’t know whether to credit GM Griffin or GM LeBron or some combination, but whoever did it could not have done better. If James continues playing well, the Cavs are the favorites in the East. And it wouldn’t be possible without that desperate trade, which now looks brilliant.
Steph and Klay. The Warriors make me throw up my hands and say “Jesus Christ … ” more than any team I’ve ever watched. That’s entirely because of Klay and Steph. Regardless of what happens this spring, those two pretty much guarantee that the Warriors will be one of the three most enjoyable teams in the NBA for the better part of the next decade.
The Angry Thunder. It’s a great time to be alive.
Kevin Durant is in full-on asshole mode.
Westbrook has spent his entire career in asshole mode.
The injuries have been miserable, Ibaka is a mess, Waiters and Jackson have been horrendous, and Brooks is helpless on the sideline. But don’t you see? This makes the Thunder the best show in basketball. The NBA season is a marathon for everyone, but KD and Russ are running that marathon on a treadmill with the incline cranked up 400 percent.
Durant has grown into his role as the meanest scorer on the planet, and he’s turning into the angry-asshole version of Kobe while he’s in the middle of his prime. Westbrook was described just last week as “un-stepped-on basketball cocaine,” and recently put together a stat line of 48 points, nine rebounds, and 11 assists. These are the two most incredible players in the NBA right now, and they play on the same team. And they are pissed off and ready to prove the whole world wrong. This is superhero ball.
Everything that makes the Thunder vulnerable — the jacked-up offense, the injuries, the crappy supporting cast — also makes them irresistible. Every night, we get to watch two superstars try to be so dominant that everything else becomes irrelevant.
It’s been the most fascinating story of the first half, and it’s what I’m most excited about for the second half. Russ and KD may not even make the playoffs, and they probably won’t win it all. But who else is ready to watch them try?