One month in and its time to give out the first set of grades to each team. The grade is not based just on the team record, standings and advanced metrics, but many other factors such as watchability, interest value, expectations and potential for the remainder of the season. The teams are arranged alphabetically and not in any order of preference or significance. The Benchwarmer Report card grades are not comparable into any sort of necessary ‘power ranking’, but rather just in terms of what we could call ‘fan value’ – how relevant and interesting we find the team to the overall NBA watching experience.
1. Philadelphia 76ers
Record: 6–12 | Grade: B+
For a team most experts predicted would in singe digit games over an 82 game season, starting 3–0 and winning 6 games in November is a definite case of exceeding expectations. What they lack in talent and experience, they’re making up for by playing hard and fast, using thier youth and athleticism to their advantage. But one worries if this early season feel good story, in the larger historical narrative of the team, would be something we look back upon with regret. Specifically in term of its impact on the lottery position they secure in what looks to be a draft we could compare to 2003 and 96.
Player to watch: Evan Turner is finally starting to play like a no. 2 overall pick. But is he looking good just beacause of the relative lack of talent around him or is he finally developing into a quality player?
What we’d like to see: More of Spence just being Spence… dunking on Dwight, hitting off-balance threes at crunch time and bringing the mullet back again.
2. Charlotte Bobcats
Record: 8–10 | Grade: C+
Save for a heartbreaking loss to Miami, the lowly Bobcats could have been sitting at a .500 record one month in. Even with Big Al, their projected offensive centerpiece, missing most of the month. The defense is much improved and the East is so putrid that they could even make a run at the playoffs. But after so many seasons of utter misery, is this really the time for them to move towards being close to average? Specially when that could come at the cost of losing out on the chance at acquiring franchise altering talent in next June’s draft.
Player to watch: Al Jefferson brings a nice old school post-presence to this team otherwise full of streaky shooters. He could put up some nice numbers if he stays healthy, and treat us to a nice collection of drop steps, up and unders and baby hooks.
What we’d like to see: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist develop a jumpshot. Some one hire a shooting coach! Now! Please!
3. Milwaukee Bucks
Record: 3–13 | Grade: F
There’s just nothing worse than watching a Bucks game this season. OJ Mayo is proving each night that he peaked in high school and cannot be an NBA level minor star. Larry Sanders is yet to play. With all the injuries and changing rotations, it’s really hard to even care to follow this team right now. ‘Fear the Deer’ has a very different meaning this season. A high lottery pick may make up for all this misery, but who really wants the league’s next superstar to end up in Milwaukee!
Player to watch: Brandon Knight has the green light and starting role. And though his backcourt partner (Mayo) has disappointed time and again, maybe we might see Knight develop into a quality point guard.
What we’d like to see: Ersan Illyasova get on his usual hot streak where he spends a few weeks in a season putting up ridiculous stat-sheet-stuffing numbers that make everyone jump to the waiver wire to pick him up for their fantasy teams.
4. Chicago Bulls
Record: 7–9 | Grade: D
This was supposed to be their long awaited championship contention season. And then they lost Derrick Rose. Again. Sucks to be a Chicago fan right now. No amount watching this undermanned team scrap for wins with Deng playing 49 minutes a night can make it better. There are no more moral victories.
Player to watch: Luol Deng’s expiring contract. A key for Chicago, for the years going forward, is what they can do with Deng before the summer’s free agency, where they risk either letting him walk for nothing or overpaying him and trapping valuable cap space.
What we’d like to see: Chicago blowing the whole thing up. Resting Noah and letting him start next year pain free. Amnestying Boozer and letting Taj play major minutes and develop a consistent offensive game by sheer trial and error. Trading Deng for some more future pieces. And losing enough games to land a potential star in the June Lottery to pair with whatever version of Rose that comes back. Doubt Thibbs will let it happen though.
5. Cleveland Cavaliers
Record: 5–12 | Grade: C
Three things brought the Cavs up to a C from the D grade that hey truly deserve: 1. Kyrie’s flashes of brilliance, even in what so far has been a down year. 2. Watching Anthony Bennett work dilligently towards stealing the crown of worst #1 pick ever from Kwame Brown. 3. Watching Andrew Bynum suddenly go for 20, 10 & 5 blocks against the Bulls. If Bynum can slowly grow back into a reliable post presence for this team, and that’s a huge IF, this team could finally be interesting.
Player to watch: Anthony Bennett. Its just comical how much he’s struggling right now. Will he finally break through or is he permanently scarred by this?
What we’d like to see: Andrew Bynum getting fully healthy and an upgrade at the wings.
6. Boston Celtics
Record: 7–12 | Grade: D
The Celtics, save for the Jeff Green’s game winner against the Heat, really haven’t done anything noteworthy this season. They haven’t been good, they haven’t been horrible. They’ve just gone about being the protoypical losing team, inconsistent on most nights, laying out an uneventful season. Rondo’s return could be interesting, specifically seeing how he handles suddenly being on a rebuilding team.
Player to watch: Jared Sullinger showed some flashes of potential last year before he got hurt, and this year seems to have added a bit of three point range to his game as well. His development could be an interesting part of in the Celtics’ rebuilding storyline.
What we’d like to see: Jeff Green playing two good games in a row.
7. Los Angeles Clippers
Record: 12–6 | Grade: B+
The Clips have been good. Great offensively before Reddick went down. Pretty horrible defensively, letting teams like Memphis put on offesnive clinics against them. Doc Rivers insists the defense will catch up with the O but they do not look like contenders right now. Too much of the offense is predicated on Chris Paul’s playmaking. Blake still doesn’t have a go to offensive move he can use in crunch time. And DeAndre just doesn’t look like the starting center on a championship team. A few minor personnel additions and they could be dangerous come playoff time, but right now, they’re just more style than substance. The style does make for some pretty entertaining basketball though.
Player to watch: Chris Paul. Who else? (oh, and Jamal when he heats up)
What we’d like to see: Kevin Love playing here instead of Blake griffin.
8. Memphis Grizzlies
Record: 8–8 | Grade: C–
It’s sad to see the Grizzlies on the decline so soon. It might sound premature, but this team, in its current construction, peaked last year, making and getting swept in the Conference Finals. Marc is great but he’s hurt. Z-Bo too. And aside from Franken-mike Miller, whose body could fall apart at any given moment, they really haven’t addressed their glaring weakness: three point shooting. A little shot creation from the wing would have been nice too, because (to paraphrase Ras Kass) if Jerryd Bayless is the answer, then it was a stupid question.
Player to watch: Kosta Koufos could really develop while playing big minutes till Marc returns. And that development could be pretty critical down the stretch.
What we’d like to see: Some shooting and floor spacing. Please!
9. Atlanta Hawks
Record: 9 – 10 | Grade: C
Is there any team in the NBA in the last few years that has been a better example of the perpetually ‘average’ team. They’re still mired in mediocrity but Coach Budenholzer’s attempt to make them ‘Spurs East’ has the ball moving and the offense looking a bit better than the Iso-Joe and Josh ‘settles-for-bad-shots’ Smith days.
Player to watch: Al Horford has the chance to establish this as his franchise, but not sure if he’s up to the task.
What we’d like to see: Paul Millsap getting moved to a contending team where his blue collar do-everything game could really put some team over the top.
10. Miami Heat
Record: 14–3 | Grade: A–
Miami has looked great at times, and inconsistent and disinterested at others. But they have displayed their ability to shift gears when needed, and when they do, they have looked like defending 2 time champs. The weaknesses in the interior are still there, but Lebron looks more comfortable in his own skin than he’s ever been, and the old debate about wether this is Lebron’s or Wade’s team seems laughable at this point. Wade though, fresh of some serious offseason training, is playing a perfect Robin to James’ Batman. Guess that makes Bosh Alfred then. The Beasley pickup also has been a sneaky good move, and if being in an elite winning culture can change his approach to the game (it seems like it might), he could be a huge contributor down the stretch, given his still untapped potential.
Player to watch: Michael Beasley’s development (finally!) could make this team even more intimidating, maybe even unbeatable, come playoff time. But then again he could lose his head in a crucial moment and cost them a game or maybe even a series. Either way makes for riveting viewing.
What we’d like to see: Greg Oden actually getting healthy and playing meaningful minutes for the Heat this season. If that happens, we may as well hand them a third title. (It’s a longshot and almost impossible, but can you imagine if it happened. All the teams that thought going big was going to work against Miami would just have to waive the white flag and start again)
11. Utah Jazz
Record: 4–15 | Grade: D–
The return of Trey Burke has them playing a little better and even winning a few games. They’ll still be heavy favorites for a L on any given night, but at least it makes them a little more watchable… only a little. They still are among the two worst (and least watchable) teams in the league. The evolution of Derrick Favors and Gordon Hayward is not really worth the torture of actually watching a Jazz Game. Specially with a roster featuring the truly uninspiring Marvin Williams and Richard Jefferson. Maybe we can just tune in next year.
Player to watch: Just try not to watch… but if you really have to, Derrick Favors hasn’t really broken out yet, but it may happen sometime this season.
What we’d like to see: The Jazz being demoted to the D-League for this season.
12. Sacramento Kings
Record: 4 – 11 | Grade: B–
Yes the Kings are struggling… again! But for the first time in years, it looks like the team is trying to work towards something, there’s a semblance of an identity emerging. They’ve gone all-in on Boogie as the future of their franchise, and he’s been their undisputed go-to guy in late game situations. The Derrick Williams acquisition could also end up being a steal. They’re managing to compete in games, but lack the maturity and discipline to win close ones yet. That will come with time, but after years of dysfunction, its promising to see them have a direction for all the potential on their roster.
Player to watch: Derrick Williams finally has the chance to get minutes and touches and to justify his no. 2 selection. Still think he should be starting at the 4 though.
What we’d like to see: Jimmer Fredette getting some consistent minutes and getting the green light to come off the bench and just fire away. Free Jimmer! Seriously. What do they have to lose?
13. New York Knicks
Record: 3 – 13 | Grade: D+
Knicks games have been unbearable. They show flashes of what they could look like for a few minutes when the ball moves and they chhoose to try on D. And then it’s more of the same. Bad body language. Lack of interest on D. Stagnant Offense. Amar’e. But they do get some points for being one of those teams that keeps you watching in disbelief as they fall further and further. But realistically, it’s all chemistry and a lack of identity. The same pieces and healthy chandler could actually be a pretty good team. Contenders maybe not, but a top 5 team in the east – definitely (maybe even now, despite the hole they’ve dug for themselves).
Player to watch: Amar’e Stoudemire. There is something strangely perverse in finding amusement in watching a once dominant player try to play the same way, oblivious of the fact that his body has completely broken down and skills have abandoned him. Its truly comic. Tragic too though.
What we’d like to see: The Knicks finally playing hard, playing together, playing D and playing up to their potential. Fat chance.
14. Los Angeles Lakers
Record: 9 – 9 | Grade: A–
Honestly, who saw this coming. Truly the feel good story of the season so far. A collection of rag-tag misfits coming together and playing tremendous fast paced, high energy, team ball, for a coach whose system seemed more than broken for the last few years. With Kobe out, Nash injured and Pau looking several steps too slow, who would have thought the rest of them would llok like this! Steve Blake looking like the other Steve, Wesley Johnson showing the athleticism for people to say Marion 2.o, Xavier finally justifying his high school hype, Farmar looking much improved after his stint abroad & Swaggy P playing the perfect ultimate irrational confidence fan favorite role. Playing at a reckless pace, jacking 3s and running at every opportunity, this team seems to come into each game like perpetual underdogs with nothing to lose. Fun. Fast. Frantic. Must watch Basketball.
Player to watch: Kobe Bryant. There are so many questions about his return. What will he have left? How will he fit in? What happens to the care-free style when expectations of winning come in?
What we’d like to see: Nash, Pau & Kobe finally healthy and buying into this system and looking like a shocking dark horse come playoff time.
15. Orlando Magic
Record: 6–11 | Grade: B–
Loaded with young talent and with the chance of adding more next year, the Orlando rebuilding project, or life Post-Dwight seems to going quite well. They’re bad but competitive. Their young talent is growing together. Afflalo is making a surprising mid-career jump to borderline all-star. And things can only get better, as soon they’ll have Tobias Harris back.
Player to watch: Victor Oladipo is coming into his own quickly and emerging as a legit ROY candidate.
What we’d like to see: Tobias Harris back from injury, playing like he was last year, continuing his breakout campaign.
16. Dallas Mavericks
Record: 10–8 | Grade: B–
Dallas has been ok. Better than expected, but nothing more than a competitive good team. Monta has been really good for them, playing the most efficient ball of his career, and Drik is having a nice bounce back year of his own, but this team really doesn’t look like it has the talent to make any real noise in the playoffs. Given the stage in his career that Dirk is in, it’s sad to see years getting wasted not contending.
Player to watch: Dirk Nowitzki. He’s finally healthy and it would be interesting to see him round into his world beating form from 2011.
What we’d like to see: Another star to push them into contender status.
17. Brooklyn Nets
Record: 5–12 | Grade: D–
NO team had more hype coming into the season, and no one has disappointed more. It was the prefect storyline: The first time Coach back with his main franchise. 2 championship tested hall of famers. An elite center and point guard. The AK47 coup. Joe Johnson. A Deep bench. A win-at-all-costs billionaire owner. And nothing has underwhelmed more. They’ve looked old, out of sync and completely unspectacular. In all fairness, they’ve really not been healthy, but the depth should have counted for something. It’s a long season, and there’s time to still flip the script, but so far things look grim.
Player to watch: Deron Williams is playing for his legacy once he gets back. He hasn’t looked anything like the top-2 point guard he was in Utah, and if he can’t win with the talent he’s been surrounded with now, then he never deserved to have been mentioned in the same conversation as Chris Paul… even if that was 5 years ago.
What we’d like to see: What this team would look like playing fully healthy and engaged. Given the state of the east, it’s still not too late for them to make an impact… maybe (just maybe) even contend.
18. Denver Nuggets
Record: 10–6 | Grade: B
After a slow start, the new Nuggets are starting to look just like the old Nuggets. Tremendous roster depth. Uber-Athletic. Superfast. But with a bit more half court depth and some new pieces. They aren’t as good as last year with Karl & Iggy, but lawson is still the motor that runs this show, and the speedy point guard is still running fast as ever.
Player to watch: Professor Andre Miller. Because in the midst of the chaotic whirlwind that is the Denver Offense, it’s amazing to watch the ageless Miller use his deliberate and crafty old-man game to school opposing players over and over.
What we’d like to see: Anthony Randolph finally getting some minutes and developing into the player his efficiency rating and advanced stats once suggested he could be. And what better system for a player like that than the Nuggets’.
19. Indiana Pacers
Record: 16–2 | Grade: A+
The best record in the league has the Pacers poised for an impressive season. They have strengthened their weaknesses by adding key pieces to their bench. The return of Danny Granger is intriguing. He could fit into a bench scoring role (it seems unlikely that he’ll disrupt team chemistry) and add even more to an already elite team, or be used as a trade piece for some more quality talent. Either way, they’re good and potentially will be getting even better. A dominant regular season following playoff disappointment isn’t unusual. Detroit won 64 games in 05–06 after losing in the 05 Finals. Dallas won 67 games in 06–07 after their Finals meltdown against Miami in 06. Unfortunately both these teams flamed out in the playoffs. That’s the one concern with this team. Are they peaking too soon?
Player to watch: Paul George making the leap to certified superstar and potential MVP candidate without even seemingly breaking a sweat.
What we’d like to see: This team staying healthy and not running out of steam by the playoffs. This team was built to beat Miami, and it would be really tragic if health or luck played a factor in not giving them a fair chance to face them at full strength when it really matters.
20. New Orleans Pelicans
Record: 9–8 | Grade: B
The Pelicans were worth the price of admission simply for Anthony Davis alone. But his injury just as they were finally finding a rhythm has been huge. Luckily having Ryan Anderson back and playing the best ball of his career so far (he even drew a Larry Bird comparison the other day!) has softened the blow. At full strength they could be a playoff team (it’s tough making the playoffs out West, even for good teams), but they will definitely be League Pass favorites.
Player to watch: Eric Gordon still hasn’t played like the budding star he was with the Clippers. Maybe now that he’s finally healthy, he can regain some of that dominant form.
What we’d like to see: The return of the Brow! & Tyreke finally developing a jump shot. Aminu too.
21. Detroit Pistons
Record: 7–10 | Grade: B+
The super big front line experiment hasn’t really worked out the way Dumars thought it would. But there’s still time. And it’s a really intriguing look, going completely against the league wide trend of teams going small. They still have spacing issues, and someone needs to tell Josh Smith that he’s not going to be the one to solve them, but just watching them trying to make this oversized monstrosity of a front court work is reason enough to tune in. Specially with Drummond already drawing comparisons to a young Dwight, complete with the horrid free throw shooting.
Player to watch: Brandon Jennings has opportunity and supporting talent to establish himself as the team leading point guard he always believed he was.
What we’d like to see: This team managing to figure out how to make the Drummond-Monroe-Smith frontline punish teams inside consistently. And Josh Smith finally coming to terms with the fact that he really can’t shoot from 3 (but that will never happen).
22. Toronto Raptors
Record: 6–10 | Grade: D
Yes, they’re leading the Atlantic Division right now, have the highflying attack of Gay, Derozan and Ross, but they still are impossible to watch and to really be interested in. They are mind-numbingly average and that’s the worst way to be for a basketball team.
Player to watch: Jonas Valanciunas showed serious signs of growth in the summer league, but hasn’t really managed to translate that into the season. If the big Lithuanian manages to start dominating inside, this team could warrant the occasional view.
What we’d like to see: Rudy Gay finally lifting the locker room ban on stat sheets and accepting that his game so inefficient and antithetical to winning that the Grizzlies actually became better without him.
23. Houston Rockets
Record: 13–6 | Grade: A
This team is loaded with talent and (mostly) complimentary pieces. Elite three point shooting from multiple players and positions and a torrid scoring pace make them dangerous and immensely watchable. Dwight has looked only ok so far, but he has a long season ahead to find his groove. A few more steps towards a more consistent defense and some minor personnel changes and they could be looking like contenders by playoff time.
Player to watch: Chandler Parsons is really the do-everything guy that keeps this team running. It’s absurd to believe he was picked 38th in the 2011 draft – 38th! The Houston scouts deserve a raise.
What we’d like to see: The stupid-obvious-inevitable Omer Asik for Ryan Anderson trade.
24. San Antoino Spurs
Record: 15–3 | Grade: A+
No one has won more games against teams that are .500 or better. But the real story has been the continuity. It’s like they never missed a beat despite the heartbreaking finals loss, and they’re back with no layoff to dominating the league at an elite level. Even the games they’ve lost have been there for the taking. The ball movement has been poetic & the Marco Bellinelli addition was a great move, with the Marco & Manu connection becoming something to watch for in games.
Player to watch: Tim Duncan. He’s struggled to start the season, but he’s starting to find his groove, with the 20–20 game (including game winner) he pulled out against the Hawks. And honestly, we should enjoy as many more seasons of the big fundamental as we are lucky to get.
What we’d like to see: This team staying healthy and finally winning the title that could have easily been theirs either of the last two years as well.
25. Phoenix Suns
Record: 9–8 | Grade: B+
Phoenix was supposed to horrible this year. And suddenly coach Hornacek has them playing defense in desert, competing to end in almost every game and surprising the whole league. The Dragic / Beldsoe 2-point-guard backcourt has been strong (even though they’ve both been injured at different times so haven’t played all that much together). Plumlee has been a pleasant surprise at center. & Channing Frye is playing like it’s 2010.
Player to watch: Eric Bledsoe aka Baby Lebron aka the Tasmanian Devil has finally been let off the leash and has his own team to run.
What we’d like to see: More 2 point guard lineups across the league.
26. Oklahoma City Thunder
Record: 12–3 | Grade: A
The early return of Russell Westbrook has the Thunder looking like contenders again. The loss of James Harden and then Kevin Martin has been compensated by the emergence of an intriguing young bench which should only get better as the season progresses. And Durant seems to be embracing his role as team leader and game changer using all aspects of the game, not just his elite scoring ability. I still feel that flipping Perkins for an upgrade (Omer Asik anyone?) is still essential for them to be legitimate title threats.
Player to watch: Steven Adams has showed flashes of potential at the 5 and if he can give them consistent minutes, he could play a huge role in their success come playoff time.
What we’d like to see: The Thunder playing Golden State every night.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves
Record: 9–10 | Grade: A–
They’ve played a lot better than their record indicates and this team looks like it was built for Adelman’s offense. Kevin Martin is back to his super efficient high scoring ways. Pekovic is using his experience in battling Superman to muscle his way in the paint. Rubio is taking offenses apart his sublime passing skills. And Mr. Love is back to putting up video game numbers and the Love-Brewer outlet pass fastbreak is already becoming a thing of legend.
Player to watch: Luc Richard Mbah a Moute could give them the versatile defensive stopper they need to become an elite team.
What we’d like to see: Rubio learning to shoot and score a bit more.
28. Portland Trailblazers
Record: 15–3 | Grade: A+
The Blazers have been the most surprising team so far. They’ve jumped straight from lottery team with potential to near-contender in one off-season. The young talent is meshing beautifully, they’ve added great pieces to their bench, and they have the versatility to play inside and out, big and small. The analytics obsessed coaching staff even has them playing quality D, which looked truly elite in their win against Indiana.
Player to watch: LaMarcus Aldrige is playing like the best power forward in the League, steady, consistent, and unstoppable inside and from mid-range.
What we’d like to see: Wesley Matthews keeping up his career best level of play for the entire season.
29. Golden State Warriors
Record: 10–8 | Grade: A–
The Warriors have been really good but the schedule has been tough and the loss of Iggy has hurt them. But they’ve improved from the team that put a scare into San Antonio in last year’s playoffs, and with the best shooting backcourt in the league, they can put points on the board in a hurry. And with the rapid development of Harrison Barnes, the offensive firepower on this team is just unfair.
Player to watch: Steph Curry for three! ‘Nuff said!
What we’d like to see: Curry’s ankle issues being a thing of the distant past.
30. Washington Wizards
Record: 9–9 | Grade: B
The Wizards are finally playing like a playoff team, not a dominant team, but at least a playoff team. Nene has been brilliant in flashes. Wall looks like he may finally be ‘making the leap’ and till before his injury, Bradley Beal looked like he was about to do it too. Its been a long time since DC had a meaningful basketball team, but this team is finally giving them something to cheer for.
Player to watch: John Wall trying to play up to his self proclaimed ‘best point-guard in the league’ title.
What we’d like to see: Bradley Beal returning to his breakout form when he comes back from injury.