The clear favourites and those who should just pack up and leave: Our quarterly NBA review

We’re now a quarter way through the NBA regular season, and there’s already a whole lot we know about a heap of teams.

Some are the title contenders; that’s easy. Then, there are those at the very bottom, along with those who are stuck in no-man’s-land.

Here’s our review of every team, so far.

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Rose hits game-winning dagger

Rose hits game-winning dagger

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Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks are not good.

John Collins’ suspension didn’t help, but that’s not the underlying problem here. The Hawks are just so young, so inexperienced, and still in a rebuild; they’re coming to the end of it.

Trae Young looks to be turning into a special player, and that’s really the only nice thing we can say about the Hawks. They came into the season as one of those teams that’ll be toward the top of the lottery, and that’s not changing.

Boston Celtics

Getting rid of Kyrie Irving was clearly the best thing for the Boston Celtics.

Brad Stevens is now surrounded by a heap of players who are buying into his system, and they’re all excelling. Kemba Walker has eased his way into producing the way we know he can, while Gordon Hayward also looked like he was back to his old self before breaking his hand.

Jayson Tatum still isn’t close to reaching his potential as a superstar guy in the NBA, but his three-point attempts are up, and he’s shown enough flashes that lead us to believe that he’s trending in the right direction.

We’re not at the point where we can call the Celtics contenders, but, when healthy, that scoring punch is combined with the two-way impact of Jaylen Brown and Marcus Smart to create a team that can easily finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference playoff picture.

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Brooklyn Nets

Being without Kevin Durant (Achilles) meant the Nets were always going to be that fringe playoff team, so the season has played out as expected thus far.

They score a lot of points – a bit less since Irving went down with a shoulder injury – but are pretty woeful defensively. Spencer Dinwiddie keeps demonstrating why he’d be a starter on a lot of other teams, showing off his value when stepping in for Irving.

Right now, Kenny Atkinson’s team has no choice but to cruise along; they’re not going to make noise atop the East, but won’t be in the lottery. It’s really just about keeping healthy, figuring out a defensive identity, and waiting for Durant to get back.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets aren’t as bad as we thought they’d be, but they’re still not great.

Terry Rozier has been just fine, and PJ Washington is really impressive for an unheralded rookie, but the story of the season is Devonte’ Graham.

The point guard managed to work his way into the starting line-up and has been, without question, one of the biggest surprises of the regular season. Graham is, to be honest, the one thing keeping the Hornets somewhat competitive and fun.

Chicago Bulls

It’s really tough to judge anything these Bulls are doing without it being clouded in the shambles that is Jim Boylen remaining head coach.

The team clearly isn’t bought in to what he’s doing, and they’ve basically said that explicitly.

Yes, Zach LaVine is doing a good job on the offensive end, and Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen are slowly returning to form, but we really can’t take what the Bulls have done up to this point too seriously because of that animus between the players and their head coach.

Cleveland Cavaliers

The Cavaliers started the season so well, but have since fell off in a really emphatic way.

Initially, we saw what every lottery teams wants, and it’s something the Hawks did well last season: breeding promising young talent around veterans who were a good influence.

Is Sexton a good piece to build around?

Is Sexton a good piece to build around?Source: AFP

Collin Sexton and Darius Garland aren’t the best prospects, but they’re solid, and were playing nicely alongside guys like Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. That situation hasn’t changed, but the team is losing now, and whispers are starting to come out about tension between the playing group and head coach, John Beilein.

The Cavaliers are your quintessential lottery team, and that’s not changing soon.

Detroit Pistons

The Pistons are probably in the worst place you can be as a team.

Luke Kennard opened the season well, but isn’t a franchise-changing young player, while the likes of Andre Drummond and Blake Griffin aren’t guys who are going to lead a team to a title. The Pistons have worked around load management well – dealing with Griffin and Derrick Rose’s fragile bodies – and Drummond is having an All-Star season, but they have nothing to show for it.

They look like they could sneak into the playoff picture in the East, or may well just fall to the end of the lottery. Either one is a grim outcome.

Indiana Pacers

Here’s a team that started poorly, but has since looked like a dark horse in the East.

Malcolm Brogdon is looking like the league’s Most Improved Player, and Domantas Sabonis has well and truly taken the mantle as the primary big-man on this roster.

The Pacers have shown so much defensive potential, but still, there are two questions that need to be answered to decide their fate. The first: when will Victor Oladipo be back? When he returns, watch out. The second question: what’s Myles Turner’s future like? Nate McMillan will lean on Sabonis moving forward, so Turner is the odd man out; it seems a trade should be in the offing.

Miami Heat

Eric Spoelstra is leading maybe the most surprisingly good team in the league.

Jimmy Butler is leading the way for the young Heat, but the big difference has been Bam Adebayo’s emergence into an All-Star level player. He’s seriously one of the best young big-men in the league, and it’s come out of nowhere.

Seriously, how good has this guy been?

Seriously, how good has this guy been?Source: AP

Goran Dragic off the bench is a nice touch, while Kendrick Nunn is another guy who, unexpectedly, is one of the best rookies in the NBA. Add Tyler Herro to the mix, and the Heat are just clicking so, so well.

Milwaukee Bucks

There’s not much to say here. The Milwaukee Bucks have the best player in the NBA, and they’re the best team in the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo is still unstoppable, and the team around him looks like one that’s trying to redeem themselves after an early playoff exit.

Are the Bucks the favourites?

Are the Bucks the favourites?Source: AFP

They’re on a 15-game winning streak for a reason.

New York Knicks

Here’s another team where there’s not much to say. The New York Knicks recruited poorly, are run poorly, so they’re playing poorly.

They just fired David Fizdale as head coach, but the problems go so much deeper than that. They are, and will continue to be the worst team in the NBA this season.

Orlando Magic

Like the Pistons, the Magic are in that no-man’s-land, but they have a saving grace.

His name is Jonathan Isaac, and he may just be the best defensive player in the NBA.

Nikola Vucevic’s injury didn’t help the Magic, obviously, but Steve Clifford’s team was always going to be in the middle of the road. The jump Isaac has taken, along with Markelle Fultz looking like an NBA player again, are the positives to take out of what’s going to be another season without too much direction.

Philadelphia 76ers

The 76ers had a busy off-season, and look like a team that’s still trying to figure a lot of things out.

Defensively, they seem as sound as expected. It’s the other end of the floor that’s a bit questionable.

Ben Simmons is slowly putting it all together.

Ben Simmons is slowly putting it all together.Source: AP

Ben Simmons has really come into his own in December, but Joel Embiid – despite his numbers – really hasn’t had an amazing season to date. Tobias Harris had some shooting woes, and Josh Richardson suffered an injury, but things do look to be trending upwards for Brett Brown’s team.

As unconvincing as they’ve looked, the 76ers have shown enough flashes. They’re probably the only team that can compete with the Bucks in the East.

Toronto Raptors

Pascal Siakam went from an unknown, to the Most Improved Player, to now: an MVP candidate.

He won’t win the award, but the fact that he’s in the conversation is a massive development, and a credit to how things are being run over in Toronto.

Seriously, he’s looking like a superstar, doing his best to make up for the absence of Kawhi Leonard. The problem: he’s not Kawhi Leonard, so the Raptors’ ceiling is a whole lot lower.

Fred VanVleet has officially shown that he’s a starting-calibre player in the NBA, and that’s also part of the reason why the Raptors are doing really well in the East, but it’s tough to see them contending this season without a Leonard-level player.

Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is still an extremely talented basketball player, Rui Hachimura is a really promising rookie, and Davis Bertans is maybe the best three-point shooter in the league. Seriously.

Unfortunately, that’s about it. The Wizards weren’t ever going to be good, so that’s what we’re seeing.

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Dallas Mavericks

The big addition to this team was Kristaps Porzingis, but the only thing we need to talk about is Luka Doncic.

He’s still just 20, but really could be the most talented young player the league has ever seen. He’s basically averaging a triple-double, and leading the Mavericks to one of the best records in the West.

Doncic has been incredible.

Doncic has been incredible.Source: AP

Denver Nuggets

These Nuggets are good, but they could be so much better.

Nikola Jokic hasn’t come close to fulfilling his potential this season; one where he could’ve been an MVP candidate. Instead, he’s looking a step slow, while Jamal Murray also isn’t living up to his potential.

Still, Mike Malone has his team clicking well enough that they’re one of the best defensive teams in the league, and sitting at a decent spot in the West.

They’ll go as far as Jokic wants to take them.

Golden State Warriors

Everyone is injured. Just close your eyes and wait until next season.

Houston Rockets

The James Harden-Russell Westbrook experiment has been… interesting.

This team still revolves around a billion Harden isolations, and look, while it’s not pretty, it’s getting them wins.

There’s still a big question of how those two co-exist for extended periods of time on the court, but for now, that doesn’t matter. Clint Capela is imposing on both ends of the floor, bringing a heap of value at that five-spot, but the season has been entirely about Harden’s scoring exploits, and it will continue to be that way.

Los Angeles Clippers

Load management will make sure the Clippers don’t finish with the best record in the West, but they’ll probably still be the scariest team to come out of that conference.

Leonard is the monster we know he is, while Paul George has returned from his shoulder injury with a vengeance. That’s hard enough to guard, and then Doc Rivers throws Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell at you – the latter is having a career year – and, all of a sudden, they’re unstoppable.

There are still questions about that centre spot, and health will always be the Clippers’ biggest obstacle, but don’t get it twisted: they’ve shown themselves to be probably the best all-round team in the West.

Kawhi Leonard.

Kawhi Leonard.Source: AP

Los Angeles Lakers

We can say it now: the Lakers are legit.

There was a point where you could say they were just going through a honeymoon phase, but they’ve picked up enough quality wins for us to take them very seriously.

Anthony Davis leads the team in scoring, but it’s the other end of the floor that’s been incredible for the big-man, who’s probably the early frontrunner for the Defensive Player of the Year award. LeBron James seemingly hasn’t lost a step and leads the entire league in assists, and those two superstars are surrounded by a team that’s really balanced.

Are the Lakers legit?

Are the Lakers legit?Source: AFP

Danny Green is the perfect two-way guard next to both of them, Dwight Howard is shining off the bench, and yes, Alex Caruso is making a hell of an impact.

The Lakers are a dominant two-way team, and have shown themselves to be a legitimate title contender.

Memphis Grizzlies

The Grizzlies aren’t a great team right now, but have some very promising pieces, so this is far from a wasted season.

Ja Morant is everything we thought he’d be, while Jaren Jackson Jr. is coming into his own when he’s not fouling out. Those two are looking like a budding duo that can play on both sides of the ball, and something the Grizzlies can lean on for years to come.

Jonas Valanciunas and Jae Crowder are those high-character veterans you want, and while the back injury to Morant didn’t help, this was always going to be a lottery team.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Here’s the thing. Karl-Anthony Towns is having another great season. Hey, Andrew Wiggins even looks like he’s turning into a legitimate star in the NBA; he’s putting it all together offensively.

That’s all we’ve got.

The Timberwolves started strong, but since dwindled into reality. They’ve taken a positive step in starting Jarrett Culver, but that also might be a sign of their intentions. They have the raw talent to sneak into the playoff picture in the West, but that’s probably as far as they’ll go this season.

New Orleans Pelicans

Zion Williamson hurt his knee before the season began, and then everyone else also decided to get injured.

Outside of Brandon Ingram having a hell of a breakout season, it’s mostly been a pretty dismal season for the Pelicans, who are really just waiting for Zion.

Oklahoma City Thunder

The Thunder are better than we’d thought they’d be.

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander started the season looking like a revelation, but has since come back to life a little bit. We know the type of player Chris Paul is, and him working alongside Steven Adams has been producing the outcome we expected.

For a team that wants to tank, they’re doing a bad job at it, but they’re fun to watch, and have the potential to sneak into the playoffs if they remain hot.

Phoenix Suns

Okay, how fun have these Suns been?

It’s not all because of Aron Baynes, but it’s mostly because of Aron Baynes.

Seriously, Baynes and Ricky Rubio went to Phoenix and, with Monty Williams, just implemented this culture that’s lifted the entire playing group. Devin Booker and Kelly Oubre Jr. are looking terrific on the wings, and the Suns look to have put together a defensive identity.

Baynes has lifted the Suns.

Baynes has lifted the Suns.Source: AP

It’ll be interesting to see how things change when Deandre Ayton returns, but the Suns don’t look like a lottery team anymore; don’t be surprised if we see them playing at the end of April.

Portland Trail Blazers

What’s that saying about doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result?

Well, the Trail Blazers are that.

Damian Lillard is having a good season, and so is CJ McCollum. But, that’s been the case over the past few years, and they have nothing to show for it. Nostalgia kicked in when Carmelo Anthony signed in Portland and immediately made an impact, but there just doesn’t seem to be a spark on this team anymore.

At this point, Terry Stotts’ team is way out of the top-8 in the West. They have the talent to get in there, but why?

Sacramento Kings

The Kings didn’t start the season well, and that was compounded because of injuries to De’Aaron Fox and Marvin Bagley III.

Since then, Luke Walton is slowly leading a team that’s finding its identity. Buddy Hield has been impressive lately, and Richaun Holmes is a lot of fun to watch for a group that’s just hanging on in that playoff hunt.

When those injured guys return, the reality is that the Kings are probably still a few years away, but they seem to be building something.

San Antonio Spurs

We’ve said it a few times over the past few seasons, but this might be the one where the Spurs don’t make the playoffs.

DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge have been fine – solid, actually – but just aren’t conducive to a team that can succeed long-term in 2019. We thought we’d see more out of those budding guards in San Antonio, but have been forced to wait.

Bjelica buries Houston

Bjelica buries Houston

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A quarter-way into the season, the Spurs aren’t in the playoff picture, and the team doesn’t look like it’s built to work its way there. This could be the end of the Gregg Popovich’s postseason streak.

Utah Jazz

The Jazz really should be so much better.

Defensively, they’re exactly what a team with Mike Conley and Rudy Gobert should be.

Offensively, they haven’t been great, and that shrinks their ceiling a whole lot. Donovan Mitchell is having a good season thus far, and Bojan Bogdanovic is providing Quin Snyder everything he’s expected to, but then it gets a bit grim.

Conley is having a down year overall, while the depth we thought the Jazz would have isn’t giving them much. They’re a playoff team, to be sure, and they have the potential to get back into the title race if they figure things out on the offensive end, but, right now, they’ve looked suspect.

Also, free Danté.

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Olgun Uluc is the Senior Basketball Reporter for Fox Sports Australia. Twitter: @OlgunUluc

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