Brooklyn’s $177m Simmons puzzle: Mid-season Report Card
The first half of the NBA regular season is in the books in a good time to assess how all 30 teams have been tracking.
It’s been a wild and whacky season and one of the most open championship races we’ve seen in recent years, particularly after a number of contenders have fallen off.
Meanwhile for others, the priority has been tanking for Pick 1 or the highest draft pick possible in a bid to land one of the upcoming star prospects, with the lure of Victor Wembanyama in the background.
And then there’s teams moving in the right direction with what they want to achieve, sides in awkward NBA purgatory and those that could flat out blow it up ahead of next month’s trade deadline.
Taking into account the expectations for every team, how they’ve fared on the court, cheap jerseys their front office decision-making and generally what each team is wanting to achieve this season, here’s how we’ve graded the entire league through the first half.
There’s no sugar coating this one, the Hawks just aren’t where they expected to be, nor probably where they should be. Although it’s feeling more and more like their 2021 Conference Finals appearance was more of an aberration than a team that was heading in the right direction. The splash off-season move of surrendering three first-round picks for Dejounte Murray hasn’t worked out, with the Hawks dropping off a cliff offensively and only middle of the road defensively. There’s even murmurs coach Nate McMillan has considered resigning as well as talk Trae Young is unhappy, while John Collins’ future with the franchise is uncertain. It’s not a complete disaster, but Atlanta’s trajectory isn’t moving in the right direction.
Life is good in Boston, the deserving championship favourite. The Celtics own the best record in the entire NBA – and sit some four games clear of the next best teams in the East, Milwaukee – and lead the league in offensive rating and net rating. It comes despite rookie coach Joe Mazzulla taking the reins from Ime Uodaka after his suspension and Rob Williams sitting out the first 29 games of the season. And with Williams back, there’s still upside with their play on the defensive end despite being ranked seventh in the league. Jayson Tatum, who’s averaging the highest points ever by a Celtic, continues to amaze in a career-best season as an MVP contender, and Jaylen Brown is somehow still underrated despite sitting top six in the league in total scoring. According to StatMuse, jerseys for sale only three players in the NBA are averaging 27 points, seven rebounds and multiple threes this season. In Tatum and Brown, Boston has two in them.
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The firing of Steve Nash and early off-season turmoil feels like a distant memory now. The Nets completely turned their campaign around under Jacque Vaughn including a stretch where they won 12-straight games to climb into the East’s second seed. The bad news is they’ll need to get by for the next several weeks without Kevin Durant, who’s been central to their surge and remains as valuable as any superstar in the league. The early signs aren’t promising, with the Nets going 0-3 since Durant got struck down to fall to fourth in the East and Cleveland lurking one spot below. The team is now precariously leaning heavily on Kyrie Irving as its main star, and there’s still inconsistency around Ben Simmons’ production and question marks over whether he’ll ever get back to the player he once as, or even close. Something the Nets need the Aussie to do given Durant’s injury and Simmons’ monster $177 million ($254M AUD) contract.
Not that the Hornets were ever expected to do much this season, having only reached the play-in tournament the last two years, but it’s been a mess. Injuries have clearly played a part, but even since LaMelo Ball has returned, it’s been rough, with just one win from their last nine games. Charlotte has a bottom five ranked offence and defence and the second-worst record in the league to suddenly find itself in the Pick 1 sweepstakes for Victor Wembanyama, although it doesn’t exactly feel planned. Frankly, given the lack of young talent on their roster outside of Ball, the Hornets should be embracing tank mode and going into seller mode ahead of the trade deadline – putting everyone but Ball up for discussion.
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CHICAGO BULLS (20-24) – C
The Bulls are … kind of exactly where most people thought they’d be? An average, middle-of-the-road side stuck in NBA purgatory – where it’s not contending nor rebuilding – probably the most dreaded position in the league. Although Chicago has bizarrely fared well against some of the best teams and struggled against the lesser sides, so really, the Bulls are a genuine enigma. The loss of Lonzo Ball remains a brutal blow, and we might never find out how good this team could’ve been at full strength. But with the big three of Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic seemingly maxing out as a fringe playoff team, the Bulls will be one of the big watches as potential sellers ahead of the trade deadline. On a positive note, LaVine has looked much better of late after seemingly being bothered by a knee issue earlier this season, with the star guard averaging 29.1 points on 49 per cent shooting from the field, 41 per cent from three-point range and 88 per cent from the line over his last 10 games.
CLEVELAND CAVALIERS (28-17) – A-
The move for Donovan Mitchell has been a complete masterstroke, with the superstar guard in career-best, MVP type form and taking the Cavaliers to the next level as contenders to come out of the East. While there’s ample commentary around teams when they have ‘bad vibes,’ the Cavaliers are the complete opposite, building a positive and competitive culture with buy in across the board. Darius Garland doesn’t get love in general as the team’s second star, while twin tower frontcourt Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen have been key to the Cavs having the second-best defensive rating in the NBA, which should hold JB Bickerstaff’s side in good stead come the playoffs. Keep an eye on Cleveland potentially making an upgrade on the wing ahead of the trade deadline, too.
DALLAS MAVERICKS (24-21) – B
After a slow start to the season, the Mavericks started to work things out, including a stretch where they won seven-straight games. But as constructed, what exactly is this team’s ceiling? Luka Doncic has been a top three player in the league at worst, but he’s largely surrounded by role players – excluding maybe Christian Wood, who’s flourishing as a starer. The others have stepped up in recent times, but can’t necessarily be trusted. Unfortunately for Dallas, its first-round pick this year is tied to New York from the Kristaps Porzingis trade in 2018 – and because it has protections, the Mavs can only deal their first rounders from 2026-2030 due to the Stepien Rule where teams can’t trade out of the first round for consecutive future seasons. While the Mavericks still have one of the best offences in the NBA – at large behind Doncic – they rank bottom six defensively and don’t feel like a genuine contender to come out of the West despite making the conference finals last year. In saying that, anything is possible with Doncic leading the way.
DENVER NUGGETS (31-13) – A
It’s time to put some respect on the Nuggets’ name. Denver has been the premier team in the West for much of the season and currently sits first in the conference – currently riding a seven-game winning streak including 14-straight home wins and claim to the league’s second-best offence behind Boston. Nikola Jokic is playing out of this world and could well be on track for a third-straight MVP, while the returns of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr. combined with the off-season additions of Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Bruce Brown have made Michael Malone’s squad arguably the deepest in the league. Although they’ve improved defensively to now being ranked 17th in the NBA, it’s that side of the court the Nuggets would still like to shore up to be more talked about among the title favourites.
DETROIT PISTONS (12-35) – D+
All things considered, did anyone expect much more from the rebuilding Pistons? Especially after a shin injury limited Cade Cunningham to just 12 games. Developing their young players is clearly the priority, and the likes of Jalen Duren and Jaden Ivey have shown flashes, while Killian Hayes has impressed after replacing Cunningham as the starting point guard. There’s at least a vision starting to show, something you couldn’t say in recent years, although their record and overall play is clearly still grim – ranked bottom five in offensive rating and defensive rating. It’s possible the Pistons offload leading scorer Bojan Bogdanovic ahead of the trade deadline to bolster their draft hand and ramp up their tanking bid.
GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS (22-22) – C-
Going 6-5 without Steph Curry – which was ultimately a relatively short absence – was key as the Warriors didn’t capitulate and kept their head above water without their superstar guard despite otherwise struggling when he’s off the floor. And so Golden State welcomes him back to a full-strength side as it looks to overcome an indifferent start to the season – where Klay Thompson looked off and their young players struggled to step up in bigger roles – to now make a push in the second half of the campaign. The reigning champions are still a ways off defensively, but working in their favour is how open the West is and weaker than previous years. Plus, would anyone really want to run into Curry and co. in the playoffs?
HOUSTON ROCKETS (10-34) – D+
The results have been bleak in H-Town – including a current 11-game losing streak – to suddenly hold the worst record in the entire NBA – and they’ve been a mess at both ends of the floor. But like every other rebuilding team, the development of young players is the priority for the Rockets right now. As such, they’d be buoyant by the recent form of frontcourt duo Alperen Sengun and Jabari Smith Jr, while Kevin Porter Jr. and Jalen Green continue to pace the backcourt. The Rockets haven’t been shy to give minutes and touches to such names at the expense of wins as one of the key players in the tanking race. One team is ultimately going to end up with Victor Wembanyama, and that’s a major reward.
INDIANA PACERS (23-22) – A-
The playoff contender no one saw coming, there really is so much to like about what the Pacers are doing. Tyrese Haliburton has emerged as a genuine superstar and deserves to be right up there in Most Improved Player of the Year Award conversations with the likes of Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Lauri Markkanen. Indiana has several other weapons like Buddy Hield, Myles Turner and Bennedict Mathurin, and overall, a good mix of youth and experience that holds them in good stead both for the now and the future. If they can tighten up defensively – currently ranked 22nd in the NBA – there’s potential for a really good side here. While some still think Indiana will be sellers ahead of the trade deadline, that might not be the case. They may just like the pieces they have to carry them forward into a new era under Haliburton’s lead.
LA CLIPPERS (23-23) – C-
Are we ever going to see the Clippers at full strength for a sustained period? It feels like whenever Kawhi Leonard isn’t sidelined, Paul George is, with the star duo playing 16 of a possible 46 games together this season – not nearly enough past the halfway mark of the season. Sure, Tyrone Lue’s side has stayed competitive enough, currently occupying the West’s sixth seed behind a good arsenal of role players. But at what stage do the Clippers prioritise building team chemistry and continuity on the court? Given how little we’ve seen them healthy, it’s frankly hard to say whether they’re a genuine title contender, despite appearing to be on paper – nor has Lue had a proper opportunity to decipher what works and what doesn’t. They’re impressively still ranked sixth in the NBA in defensive rating, but sit bottom four in offensive rating.
LA LAKERS (20-24) – C-
You can look at the Lakers’ season in two ways. On one hand, they’ve overcome a horror 2-10 start with a clunky roster to surge into the play-in mix – and remain in the play-in mix despite Anthony Davis being sidelined for the last 16 games with a foot injury – while Russell Westbrook has found his groove in a sixth-man role. On the other hand, you can’t help but feel LeBron James’ still dominant twilight years – even at age 38 – is being wasted on a team that’s a ways off contending, and they’ve dropped three of their last four games and sit 13th in the West. Maybe when Davis returns, the Lakers will make a serious push, and they may even be one trade away away from really doing damage this season. Although giving up any future assets would be bold considering where they currently sit.
MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES (30-13) – A
Since the turn of the new year, the Grizzlies have been seriously good … best team in the league good. According to StatMuse, Memphis has ranked first in net rating, first in defensive rating and fifth in offensive rating during that span, and it’s currently in the midst of a 10-game winning streak. We know how much of an a superstar Ja Morant is and the impact he’s has had on this franchise, but Jaren Jackson Jr. – the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year – and Desmond Bane are now deservingly getting more recognised by the NBA world for what they’re bringing to the table. It’s scary to think the aforementioned trio have only shared the court for a handful of games this season. Are they the best team in the West?
MIAMI HEAT (24-21) – C-
Perspective is everything, and this is a Heat team that finished in the No. 1 seed in the East last season. This campaign has therefore been underwhelming overall, but Miami has gotten going recently. It’s record is 8-4 over its last six games including beating the Bucks twice. Staying healthy is going to be key – Jimmy Butler, who’s finally strung a big block of games together, in particular. The Heat could also yet atone for their quiet off-season where several other teams in the East got better and make a move by the trade deadline – and potentially address their lowly ranked offence and three-point shooting.
MILWAUKEE BUCKS (29-16) – B+
It hasn’t been all smooth sailing for Giannis Antetokounmpo and co. this season despite occupying the East’s second seed. Khris Middleton’s absence has been sorely felt, with the three-time All-Star playing in just seven of a possible 45 games in a contract year. And even when he returns, how long before they get a fully fit and firing Middleton? Getting Joe Ingles back last month has helped cover that void – and Jrue Holiday and Brook Lopez are both enjoying great seasons – while Antetokounmpo continues to do Antetokounmpo things despite a curious drop in efficiency. Although the Greek Freak would ideally have a slighter lesser load to carry to ease some pressure on that knee that’s been bothering him. The Bucks just haven’t looked quite as formidable as previous years and rank bottom eight in the league in offence rating. This isn’t to get too low on Milwaukee, as it’s still among the title favourites, but the team must be marked against its high standards.
MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES (22-23) – D
This season hasn’t paned out as the Timberwolves would’ve hoped when they surrendered a king’s random including buzz rookie big Walker Kessler, who’s making them look really silly, to acquire Rudy Gobert that was intended to push them into the upper echelon of the West. If anything, Minnesota has gone backwards, although its recent form is more promising. Chris Finch’s side recently won four games in a row including six of its last eight and is still yet to welcome back Karl-Anthony Towns, who’s been sidelined the last 24 contests with a calf injury. Between Towns, Gobert, Anthony Edwards and D’Angelo Russell, there’s plenty of talent on this team and the potential for it to go on a run in the second half of the season and push into the playoff mix. But it went into the campaign with higher expectations than just getting back to the post-season.
NEW ORLEANS PELICANS (26-18) – A
The Pelicans have emerged as a budding powerhouse under the lead of Zion Williamson, who was playing at a genuine MVP level prior to his hamstring setback. In fact, when Williamson was up and firing earlier this season, New Orleans ranked top five in both offensive rating and defensive rating – the profile of a bona fide title contender. Unfortunately, he and Brandon Ingram have only played 12 games together this season as injuries hamper this team from reaching its full potential. Luckily it has one of the deepest rotations in the NBA to help cover the losses though including promising Aussie rookie Dyson Daniels. When they get all their stars on the court together for a sustained period, look out.
NEW YORK KNICKS (25-20) – B
Someone has to say it – the Knicks are good. Tom Thibodeau’s side has won seven of its last nine games – including 16 of its last 20 – as Julius Randle looks like his All-Star self from two years ago, while Jalen Brunson is arguably being underpaid on his four-year, $104 million deal, such has been the guard’s impact in the Big Apple. They’re 14-8 on the road and rank 11th in defensive rating and ninth in offensive rating, although do sit bottom six in three-point percentage. There’s still question marks over RJ Barrett, who with a proper breakout, could really take New York to another level. But it’s overall been a positive season for the Knicks so far in bouncing back from last year’s playoff miss.
OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER (21-23) – B+
The Thunder’s rebuild couldn’t be going much better right now. They’ve essentially already found their franchise superstar in Shai Gilgeous-Alexander amid a phenomenal season where he’s an All-Star lock and All-NBA team contender. Josh Giddey’s recent surge – particularly offensively – has been seriously promising too in shades of a future superstar in his own right, while rookie Jalen Williams looks like a steal at Pick 12. And while development of such names has been paramount, OKC is winning games including six of its last eight to surge into the playoff mix – largely fuelled by a top 10 ranked defence. And this is all with Pick 2 draftee Chet Holmgren set to return next season and a surplus of draft picks at their disposal.
ORLANDO MAGIC (16-28) – B-
You can’t help but be infatuated with what Orlando is building. One of the teams thought to be in the tanking race for Pick 1 has instead pushed into the play-in mix behind a band of promising young guns. None more so than Paolo Banchero in a dominant season from the Pick 1 draftee we haven’t seen from a rookie in some time. Beyond Banchero, Franz Wagner and Wendell Carter Jr. look like key pieces long term – and along with their other talent – has made the Magic one of the most fun teams to watch even if they haven’t officially arrived yet per se. They still need to work out which guards will take this group forward though. Markelle Fultz has consolidated himself as the starting point guard, but the likes of Jalen Suggs, Cole Anthony, Garry Harris and Terrence Ross are all splitting the rest of the minutes for the moment.
PHILADELPHIA 76ERS (28-16) – B
After a slow start to the season hindered by injuries to key stars including Joel Embiid, James Harden and Tyrese Maxey missing significant time, the Sixers are starting to click. They’ve gone 8-2 over their last 10 games and have climbed all the way into the East’s fourth seed despite what feels like an indifferent campaign from Doc Rivers’ side for the most part. While it’s ranked fourth in the league defensively, Philly still has a problem with its Harden-Maxey backcourt pairing, with De’Anthony Melton even starting over the latter in their last two games. We also really just haven’t seen enough of a sample size of Embiid and Harden (on a combined $372 million AUD) together at their best to get a gauge on whether the Sixers are a genuine contender, and they shouldn’t be satisfied with being anything less.
PHOENIX SUNS (21-24) – E
It’s not pretty at the moment, with the Suns in a rut – if we can still call it that. They’ve gone 2-12 over their last 14 games including 1-9 more recently to tumble all the way down outside the current play-in qualification, bizarrely holding a worse record than the rebuilding Thunder. Injuries have clearly played a major part, with Cam Johnson requiring knee surgery after the team’s split with Jae Crowder to leave it thin on the wing, Chris Paul battling a heel issue and now a hip problem and Devin Booker being sidelined since late December with a groin injury. But it feels like the wheels are falling off in Phoenix, if they haven’t already, as the team could shake things up with a trade in the coming weeks.
PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS (21-23) – C
Portland was one of the big surprise packages earlier this season, opening its campaign 10-4 to surpass all expectations. But they’ve since come back down to earth – dropping 19 of their last 30 games and look like a play-in team at best – weighed down by a bottom-10 ranked defence. You can’t be too harsh on a side that’s still very close to .500, but it appears the Blazers won’t be going far this season as constructed – not that Damian Lillard would ever accept such a reality – and they could yet sell off players with value prior to the trade deadline.
SACRAMENTO KINGS (24-18) – A-
OK, it’s time to stop just calling the Kings fun or getting too carried away with the Light the Beam stuff – this is a serious basketball team. They’re ranked third in the league offensively and have two genuine All-Stars in De’Aaron Fox and Domantas Sabonis – which have helped carry Sacramento to the four seed and on track to ending a 16-year playoff drought. They clearly need to improve their 24th-ranked defence, but a team not thought of as much more than a play-in contender currently has a better record than Dallas, the Clippers, Golden State, Minnesota and Phoenix in the West.
SAN ANTONIO SPURS (14-31) – C-
If there was a team most blatantly following the tanking manual, it’s the San Antonio Spurs. They’ve exposed their young players to big roles and a variety of different assignments and given players plenty of rest games – perhaps more than necessary. The promising Devin Vassell has really emerged with increased opportunities as the main bright spot and potential future star, and Jakob Poeltl, who could find himself on a different roster by the trade deadline, has also impressed. With all that in mind, and winning clearly not the team’s priority – in fact, the complete opposite – the Spurs are tracking along as planned.
TORONTO RAPTORS (20-25) – D+
Is it time to blow it up – in some shape or form? The Raptors have been outside the play-in mix for much of the season despite having star quartet Pascal Siakam, O.G. Anunoby, Fred VanVleet and Scottie Barnes, who along with Gary Trent Jr, Nick Nurse continues to put a huge workload on with massive minutes. Siakam particularly has enjoyed a big season and Anunoby continues to excel, but beyond those two, the rest of the roster has underwhelmed for the most part. For all their defensive versatility, they’re still just middle of the road on that side of the court. They’ve been better of late including five wins from their last seven games – albeit two of those coming over Charlotte at home – but it’s hard to really trust it after such an inconsistent season to date. Over to you, Masai Ujiri.
UTAH JAZZ (23-24) – B+
Yes, the Jazz aren’t at their early-season heights where they spent time in the West’s first seed and looked a playoff lock. But factoring everything in – including a genuine breakout season from Lauri Markkanen and the massive haul they got back from the Rudy Gobert trade, Walker Kessler included – and Utah is very well placed. Also holding highly valued trade assets they’ve helped build up such as Jordan Clarkson and Kelly Olynyk and it all makes for a successful season in Utah in Will Hardy’s first at the helm, no matter where they finish or how they far they go.
WASHINGTON WIZARDS (18-26) – D
Earlier this season, the Wizards were a hard team to get a handle on, but it’s now become apparent they’re simply a below average unit. Sure, they’ve had some injuries and Bradley Beal’s hamstring setback has been a key blow. But outside of Beal, Kristaps Porzingis and Kyle Kuzma – the latter who’s future at the franchise is uncertain – there’s not much to like or young prospects coming through. And even at full strength, they’re probably not a playoff team – ranked in the bottom half of the league both defensively and offensively. Another team to watch ahead of the trade deadline.