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NBA Quarterly Grades: Jazz earn highest mark; Lakers, Bucks in fine shape; struggling Wolves get F – CBS Sports

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We’re more than a month into the 2020-21 regular season, which means we’re around a quarter of the way through it. Or, more accurately, some teams are around a quarter of the way through their 72 games. There is a great deal of variance in games played because 20 scheduled contests (and counting) have been postponed due to health and safety protocols. This is the reality of the NBA going bubble-free during a pandemic.

Even in a normal season, this kind of check-in would have some caveats about sample size. There would be allowances made for teams that made major changes in the offseason and players adjusting to new roles. With these grades, though, it is especially important to note that these marks reflect only what we’ve seen so far and early results will likely have less predictive value than usual.

Onto the grades!  

If the playoffs started today, the Hawks would be in. No matter how you slice up the season to this point (the schedule has been soft), that’s a success, particularly when you factor in Atlanta’s two main offseason additions, Bogdan Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, missing a combined 19 games. The Hawks have a top-10 offense, defense and net rating. De’Andre Hunter has taken a big step creating some of his own offense, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish look like legit second-tier playmakers and Trae Young has shaken off his shooting woes of late and is back to playing like an All-Star. — Brad Botkin

The Celtics have had a solid start to the season, despite the fact that they were without Jayson Tatum for a chunk of games due to COVID-19 protocols. Tatum is a stud when he’s out there, and Jaylen Brown appears poised to make his first All-Star team this season. Between those two and Kemba Walker, the Celtics are extremely dangerous on the offensive end. As long as they can stay healthy moving forward, Boston will be a major threat in the East. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

It’s hard to give a grade to the Nets at this point in time after only playing a handful of games since acquiring James Harden. With a superstar trio of Harden, Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn obviously boasts an extremely explosive offense. The main on-court questions facing the Nets now are depth and defense. Do they have enough of either? There’s also the question of chemistry, and if all three stars will be able to coexist. Brooklyn should be a legitimate title contender in a couple of months, but they still have work to do. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

The Hornets are officially fun. Gordon Hayward has shown he’s still an All-Star-caliber player in the East. Terry Rozier (42.7 percent from 3) has been terrific. LaMelo Ball has lived up to all the passing hype, and his ball-sharing influence is a big part of the Hornets topping the league in assists per game. Charlotte is also boasting a borderline top-10 defense and, despite facing one of the 10 toughest schedules so far, would be in the play-in round if the postseason was to start today. Based on the (not great) reaction to Charlotte giving Hayward $100 million and the reservations people had about Ball’s game alone, this has been a pretty darn good start to the season. — Brad Botkin  

The Bulls started out the season rough, then got hit with a COVID-19 outbreak, but are now starting to get into a great rhythm. Patrick Williams is looking like a young Kawhi Leonard with his beautiful mid-range game and tough defense on the other end of the floor. Coby White has become the full-time starting point guard, and he’s actually excelling, averaging 6.1 assists and putting up 16 points a night. Zach LaVine is still a walking bucket, averaging a career high (again) in points per game (27.2), only this time he’s doing a better job of getting his teammates involved and playing within a system. Oh, and new head coach Billy Donovan has actually allowed players to take mid-range shots, which has been beneficial for guys like Williams and LaVine. Add in the veteran presence of Garrett Temple, the health of Otto Porter Jr., the continued development of Wendell Carter and Lauri Markkanen getting back on track and Chicago is starting to realize its potential. — Jasmyn Wimbish

No one, and I mean no one, expected the Cavaliers to be 8-7 and in sixth place — as of writing this — in the East. Collin Sexton deserves far more recognition than he’s getting because he has taken a sizable leap in his game, which has resulted in him averaging a career high in points (26.8), assists (4.2), 3-point percentage (46.8 percent) and steals (1.3). He’s also cut down on his turnovers and has become a more efficient scorer from the field (52.3 percent). As a team, the Cavaliers hold the second-best defense in the league, generate the most steals per game (9.9) and are third in the league in deflections per game (18.4). Cleveland’s offense might be a disaster — 28th in the league — but because the Cavs have been getting it done on defense they often find themselves in close games with the clock winding down. It’s unclear what this team’s potential is for the remainder of the season, but after several years of dysfunction and tons of losing, the Cavaliers are playing some gritty, hard-nosed basketball and it’s getting them some unexpected wins. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Luka Doncic wasn’t ready to go early on, and the whole team’s shooting numbers look rough. Willie Cauley-Stein and James Johnson are the only Mavericks who haven’t missed a game, and even with Kristaps Porzingis back in the lineup, I’m loath to judge them with Josh Richardson, Dorian Finney-Smith, Maxi Kleber all sidelined. Their massive jump on defense is more impressive if you’re unaware that opponents are shooting just 34.6 percent on uncontested 3s, but the Mavs should get some credit for limiting attempts at the rim. Coming into the season, the goal was to approximate what last year’s team did on offense and improve significantly on the other end. Maybe they can do that when they’re healthy. — James Herbert

Pay no attention to the underwhelming record. Denver has been by far the unluckiest team in the NBA so far this season. Through 14 games, opponents made 44.1 percent of their wide-open 3-pointers against the Nuggets — the fourth-best mark in basketball –and only the Wizards have a worse clutch record than Denver’s 1-6 mark. These are some of the most random outcomes in basketball, and they’ve killed the Nuggets so far. Look past them, though, and you’ll see the same contender as always. Last season’s starting five outscored opponents by 7.7 points per 100 possessions. This year’s group is nearly doubling that figure, and with a bench playing some of the stingiest defense in basketball, all the Nuggets need to reassert themselves in the playoff race is regression to the mean. — Sam Quinn

Looking at their record, you may think Detroit deserves an F. However, a deeper analysis shows that this team is doing exactly what it set out to do this season. The Pistons are in the midst of a rebuild, but they’ve also remained competitive in each loss they’ve racked up. Jerami Grant is more than living up to his contract, rookie Saddiq Bey is looking like a keeper with his 3-point shooting and Derrick Rose and Blake Griffin are keeping this team interesting. Detroit is looking at the long game here, and in a few years once Griffin and Rose have moved on to another team, the Pistons might have a solid little core with Grant, Bey and Killian Hayes. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Steve Kerr called his team “mediocre” after a home loss to the Knicks, and the question is whether that’s what we should expect. Golden State got off to a dreadful start, but has also turned in some sparkling performances this season — it’s just hard to tell who the real Warriors are. Stephen Curry is capable of going nuclear on any given night, but with defenses loading up on him, that’s an unsustainable way to produce offense. Andrew Wiggins has been rock-solid all season long and Kelly Oubre Jr. is coming out of his dreadful early-season shooting slump, while rookie James Wiseman is looking better every game. Draymond Green’s return to the lineup created an immediate team improvement on the defensive end, giving the Warriors hope that they’ll be able to gain more consistency as the players get more reps together. — Colin Ward-Henninger

The Rockets’ numbers paint them as a halfcourt-oriented team that turns it over too much, doesn’t protect the rim well and gives up way too many fast break points. I’m not sure if these numbers mean anything now that James Harden is gone, but Houston undeniably needs to do a better job of keeping teams out of the paint. The good news is that Christian Wood is for real, John Wall has his burst back, Eric Gordon looks more like himself, Jae’Sean Tate has been one of the league’s most pleasant surprises, Sterling Brown was a steal and Mason Jones is a keeper. The bad news is that Gordon’s still not making his 3s, the DeMarcus Cousins experience has been a struggle and they’re essentially starting from scratch. The Rockets should be fun to watch with Victor Oladipo in the fold, but their biggest accomplishment in the first quarter of the season was simply getting through it. — James Herbert

Indiana has been quietly very good this season, thanks to tremendous starts from Malcolm Brogdon and Domantas Sabonis. Both players are averaging over 20 points a game, and while the ruling is still out on the trade that sent Victor Oladipo to Houston in exchange for Caris LeVert from Brooklyn as part of the four-team blockbuster trade involving James Harden to the Nets, the Pacers were able to get something in return for Oladipo instead of losing him for nothing if he were to leave in free agency after this season. Interestingly enough, the Pacers had the exact same start to last season as they have here through the first 15 games of the season (9-6), and even rank similarly and many statistical categories as last season as well. Health was a major issue last season for Indiana, especially when the postseason rolled around and Sabonis wasn’t even in the bubble, and Oladipo wasn’t back to his old self yet. If the Pacers can stay healthy over the duration of the season and head into the playoffs healthy, then it’s unlikely they’ll suffer the same fate they had last year of losing in a four-game sweep in the first round. — Jasmyn Wimbish

Outside of a PTSD-inducing blown 22-point lead in a loss to the Warriors, the Clippers have once again looked like championship contenders, with Kawhi Leonard taking his playmaking to yet another level and a healthy Paul George returning to MVP contention. Serge Ibaka and Nicolas Batum have fit in seamlessly, making the Clippers much more switchable, but the offense has been ahead of the defense to start the season. The biggest concern so far is the bench, particularly Lou Williams, who has been a shell of his former self and has severely compromised the reserve unit. Coach Ty Lue has encouraged Williams to get back to his old bucket-hunting ways, and they’ll need him in top form (unless they don’t trade him) if they’re going to challenge the Lakers in the postseason. — Colin Ward-Henninger

Los Angeles Lakers: A

Once again the class of the NBA, the Lakers’ so-so home record might be some cause for concern … until you see their impeccable road record, including a convincing victory in Milwaukee. Frank Vogel has managed to keep the minutes of LeBron James and Anthony Davis under control without sacrificing wins, thanks largely to offseason additions Montrezl Harrell and Dennis Schroder, who get the most playing time of any Lakers outside of the two superstars. L.A. leads the NBA in defensive rating by a wide margin, eliminating any thoughts of a post-championship hangover in terms of effort. Rotations will continue to be tweaked throughout the season, but from the jump, the Lakers have looked like a team ready to repeat. — Colin Ward-Henninger

The Grizzlies were pronounced dead when Ja Morant sprained his ankle in late December, then they went 4-4 without him. It feels like some kind of sorcery, as does the trend of NBA-ready prospects (Brandon Clarke, Desmond Bane, Xavier Tillman) slipping to them in the draft. Just like last season, Memphis is a young team that doesn’t play like one. It has been elite on defense, and it’s near the top of the league in assist rate and passes per game. It is hard to believe that they’ve stayed afloat despite shooting so horribly from 3-point range, but this is a credit to their awesome bench and their ability to force turnovers. I can’t wait to see how they look when Jaren Jackson Jr. returns. — James Herbert

Almost impossible to accurately gauge Miami’s season at the quarter pole given that Jimmy Butler has only played in six games, but it’s been a tough go nonetheless. The good news is Bam Adebayo, who’s extended into a legit midrange shooter, looks like an All-NBA player, while Tyler Herro, now a starting point guard, has made strides closer to the basket. Duncan Robinson remains an arsonist from beyond the arc. The Heat just don’t have any room for error without Butler. When Adebayo or Goran Dragic is off the court, and especially when both of them are off, Miami has had no chance. But let’s get Butler and Avery Bradley back in the mix before we jump to any conclusions about the Heat. — Brad Botkin

Are the Bucks dominating teams like they’ve done the past three seasons? No, but they’re still winning games and Giannis Antetokounmpo has maintained his MVP level of play. So far, the trade for Jrue Holiday has largely paid off as he ranks fourth in the league in steals per game, and he’s been a perfect complement for Giannis and Khris Middleton on the other end of the floor. His scoring numbers may be down, but his efficiency hasn’t wavered, shooting 49.5 percent from the field and 37.7 percent from deep. Holiday’s lockdown defense on the perimeter will come in handy when Milwaukee has to play the likes of the Celtics with Kemba Walker, the Heat with Jimmy Butler and, more importantly, the Nets, who just leveled up by getting James Harden. While Milwaukee’s depth hasn’t been as big of a concern as many expected it to be heading into the season — its second unit ranks second in the league in 3-point percentage — the Bucks will need just a little bit more out of players like D.J. Augustin and Pat Connaughton in the postseason if they want to reach the NBA Finals. — Jasmyn Wimbish

If any solace can be taken from this unmitigated disaster, it’s that the Timberwolves might just be bad enough to keep their top three protected first-round pick. That was not the plan. Minnesota is paying its roster almost $130 million — just a hair below the luxury tax line — to struggle in virtually every area. They are in the bottom five in offense, defense and rebounding rate as of this writing. Karl-Anthony Towns has been absent for much of it, but D’Angelo Russell has stagnated without him, and No. 1 overall pick Anthony Edwards is shooting well below 40 percent from the field. It’s still early, but without serious improvement, it’s going to be another lost season in Minnesota. — Sam Quinn

The Pelicans have embraced the Milwaukee Bucks’ protect-the-rim-at-all-costs philosophy, and they’re giving up an absolutely enormous amount of 3s, far too many of them uncontested. They’re not running like they did last season, and they’re still turning the ball over far too often. Pairing Steven Adams with Zion Williamson has made New Orleans the best rebounding team in the league, but there is a massive spacing problem. The Pelicans invite all of their opponents to wall off the paint the same way they do. They have more talent than their record net rating indicate, but the pieces do not appear to fit. — James Herbert

New York Knicks: B

The Knicks are playing hard under new head coach Tom Thibodeau, and they’re winning some games, which is an improvement over recent seasons. They’ve gotten promising play from Julius Randle, RJ Barrett, and Immanuel Quickley, and they’re inside of the playoff picture in the East as things currently stand. In all, that’s a solid start for the Knicks. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

The Thunder get an “A” for player development. Second-year defensive ace Luguentz Dort has nearly doubled his scoring and is shooting over 43 percent from behind the arc. Hamidou Diallo is averaging career highs in basically everything, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander has more than picked up the playmaking slack left behind by Chris Paul. The only problem here? The Oklahoma City youngsters might be growing up too fast. The Thunder were built to lose in an effort to surround that existing core with another blue chipper in the draft. That might not be possible if the Thunder continue hovering around .500. That’s not the worst problem to have when you own 18 first-round picks in the next seven years, though. The Thunder might prefer an outright tank, but this isn’t exactly a grim alternative. — Sam Quinn

After starting out 4-0, Orlando has lost 10 of its last 13. Markelle Fultz is out for the year. Aaron Gordon is having a down campaign and remains a seemingly prime candidate to be traded. The Magic struggle to score with a 1990s shot profile and no real shot creators absent Fultz and Evan Fournier, who has played in fewer than half the team’s games, and their defense that was stout early on is showing cracks as well. We’ll give Orlando an average mark for staying halfway afloat so far, but the forecast for postseason contention isn’t great. — Brad Botkin  

Things have gone very well for the Sixers to start the season. They sit atop the East a quarter of the way through the 2020-21 campaign, despite the fact that they were hit with a plethora of absences due to the league’s health and safety protocols. The team’s offseason acquisitions have been paying off in a major way. Seth Curry leads the entire NBA in 3-point percentage, and has provided great floor spacing around Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons. Dwight Howard has proved to be a very solid and productive backup center, and rookie Tyrese Maxey has shown a ton of potential. Plus, Embiid has looked like a legitimate MVP candidate early on. So far, so good for Philly. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

The Suns won five of their first six games, but things haven’t gone as smoothly since. Chris Paul and Devin Booker are still finding their footing as teammates, and a week-long hiatus due to health and safety protocols surely didn’t help. The offense hasn’t suffered too much, however, partly due to a breakout season from Mikal Bridges, who has become a reliable volume 3-point shooter in addition to his defensive prowess. Deandre Ayton’s scoring has dropped considerably, but he’s still rebounding and shooting a high percentage. It’s clear that the Suns are still a work in progress, but they’re good enough to win a lot of games even as they knead out the kinks. — Colin Ward-Henninger

You can’t blame the Blazers for injuries to Zach Collins, Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum, but their pre-injury defensive struggles are genuine causes for concerns. Long a devotee of drop coverage, Terry Stotts has tried to implement a wider variety of pick-and-roll coverages this season in order to take advantage of athletic offseason additions Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Portland has cobbled together average defenses with far worse personnel, yet despite the upgrades, the Blazers are currently ranked 28th in defense. Cohesion is an obvious issue that will improve with time, but the broader problem is that drop coverage, in part, works by minimizing the defects of lesser defenders. McCollum is too small to switch and Nurkic, post-injury, is too slow. Parts of this roster are better equipped to handle an aggressive defense than others, and so far, the Blazers haven’t been able to find a sweet spot that takes advantage of the newcomers without exposing the incumbents. — Sam Quinn

When you’re on pace to have the worst defensive rating in NBA history, and by a wide margin, that’s probably not a great sign. Given the unfathomable defensive ineptitude, it’s almost impressive that the Kings have managed to wrangle the handful of wins that they have. De’Aaron Fox has turned in some incredible performances and rookie Tyrese Haliburton has been excellent as the Kings have quickened their pace, but they’re destined for a lot of lottery balls unless they can get their defense to a passable level. — Colin Ward-Henninger

In some ways, they’re still the Spurs. They take care of the ball, they get back in transition and they’re among the league leaders in midrange jumpers. But this team feels like the one they brought to the bubble: Faster, younger and more athletic, playing to the strengths of Dejounte Murray, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker rather than DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldridge and Rudy Gay. Aldridge’s post-ups are way down and DeRozan’s assist rate is up, but San Antonio has still fared terribly with both of them on the court. The bench has been killer, though, thanks in large part to Patty Mills‘ efficiency and Jakob Poeltl’s rim protection. Overall, an encouraging start, especially with Derrick White having missed all but one game. — James Herbert

Toronto has gotten off to a relatively slow start, and same goes for All-Star Pascal Siakam. The Raptors clearly miss their former frontcourt of Pau Gasol and Serge Ibaka on both ends of the floor as they’re certainly not as dominant defensively as they have been in recent years. A bright spot for the squad has been the play of Chris Boucher, who is averaging career highs across the board. Overall, though, it’s obvious that the Raptors have fallen pretty far from their title team in 2019. — Michael Kaskey-Blomain

If anyone is going to challenge the Los Angeles monopoly on Western Conference contention, it is going to be the Utah team that has finally struck a balance between the competing identities of its past few seasons. The Jazz made a calculated decision in 2019 to emphasize offense by ditching Derrick Favors to sign Bojan Bogdanovic. It knocked them out of the top 10 in defense for the first time since Rudy Gobert became the full-time starter. But with Favors back in the fold and Gobert as dominant as ever, the Jazz are back at No. 7 as of this writing, while Bogdanovic, Donovan Mitchell and a resurgent Mike Conley are leading an offense that has been even better. The Jazz are ranked second in 3-point percentage and third in 3-point attempts through 15 games, and they’ve done that without a healthy Joe Ingles. That enviable combination of shooting and rim protection makes the Jazz lethal in a regular-season setting that emphasizes both, but their true test will come in the postseason, where buckets are harder to come by and Gobert’s stylistic limitations have proven problematic over the past few years. This is the best Utah team of the Gobert era, though. If any Jazz group was going to make it over the top, it would be this one. — Sam Quinn

Washington Wizards: D-

The Wizards have had six games canceled due to COVID-19 protocol. They’ve hardly had enough bodies to even practice. Their 20-point loss to San Antonio on Sunday was the first game they’d played in two weeks. Russell Westbrook has played just seven games, and he has been terrible; he’s taking 54 percent of his shots from the mid-range and making them at just a 33 percent clip. He can’t get to the rim like he used to, and his 41.8 eFG, per Cleaning the Glass, puts him in the 17th percentile league-wide. Davis Bertans was 15 for his first 48 from deep. Bradley Beal leads the league in scoring and has carried the Wizards to small-sample top-10 offense, but seriously, how long is he for Washington? — Brad Botkin  

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