During the last week of school, every student in the Houston Independent School District is handed a report card. Many things are on that report card: grades, attendance records, contact information, and so on. But there’s only one thing that anyone is really concerned with: In the bottom section of the report card, so small that you’d never guess how important it is, there’s a tiny box. And in that tiny box are the words "PROMOTED" and "RETAINED."
If a student has met all of the requirements laid out by the school to move to the next grade level, there will be a small "x" next to PROMOTED. If the student has not met all of the requirements, there will be a small "x" next to RETAINED. During my time as a teacher, few things were as joyous as handing report cards to students on that borderline and seeing them light up when they realized they’d made it. (Likewise, few things were as pulverizing as watching kids realize they’d been retained.)
This column is going to be a version of that. We’re going to look at what NBA players accomplished (or didn’t accomplish) this season and figure out if they should receive a promotion to whatever level is above them, a demotion to whatever level is below, or if they should just be retained at whatever level they’re currently on.
Let’s do 16 quick ones first:
- Devin Booker: PROMOTED to Holdonasecond This Guy Might Really Be Legit. Scoring 70 points in a game helps your reputation quite a bit, it seems.
- The Plumlee Brothers: RETAINED at We Still Don’t Have To Know Either Of Their First Names. Perhaps one season they will ascend to the Brook and Robin Lopez Level of Identifiability.
- James Harden: PROMOTED back to Top 5 Player In The League. This season was such a big turnaround for him. (Except for his last six quarters in the playoffs.) (Those were a total disaster.) (He shot 2-for-11 from the field in an elimination Game 6 against the Spurs.) (At home.) (Without Kawhi Leonard guarding him.) (LOL.) (Perhaps we should rethink his promotion.)
- Kyle Korver: DEMOTED to The Trading Block. Fare thee well, Kyle. We all wanted to see you do well. I hope you know that.
- Joel Embiid: PROMOTED to Actual Franchise Savior. It might sound a little bit preposterous, but there was a point this season when I legit responded to a dinner invitation with something like, "Nah. I can’t go. The Sixers are playing tonight. I wanna watch that game." That’s how magnetic Joel Embiid is. He makes watching Sixers games seem like a thing that should be done. It’s the closest we got to a genuine NBA miracle this year.
- Russell Westbrook: RETAINED at Philosophical Conundrum. It’s a very rare thing when two people can watch the exact same phenomenon (like, say, Russell Westbrook attempting to fireball his team into a game) and walk away feeling very good that they’ve each just watched a perfect example of why their particular argument is correct.
- Patrick Beverley: PROMOTED to Elite-Level Defender. To be sure, he has been a very great defender for at least two years now, but watching him do it in the playoffs against Russell Westbrook, one of the most terrifying players in the league, earns him a proper promotion with an official title and all.
- Carmelo Anthony: DEMOTED to Knicksian Scapegoat. What I don’t understand is how the Carmelo Anthony situation in New York can be both so very interesting and also completely uninteresting at the same time. What happened here? And what happened to his career? Am I just being overly dramatic? No, right? I feel cheated. Do you remember how exciting it was when we all found out he was going to New York during that 2011 season? It felt like we were heading toward high-stakes basketball in the Garden again. And now? It’s just a million fart noises.
- Kristaps Porzingis: RETAINED at Wherever It Was You Had Him Going Into The Season. Was he overhyped for you? Then he’s still there. Was he a unicorn for you? Then he’s still there.
- The Minnesota Timberwolves: PROMOTED to A Team You Don’t Ignore Anymore. Towns & Wiggins & Rubio & LaVine.
- J.J. Redick: DEMOTED to Tattoo Watch. A few months ago my Ringer colleague Molly McHugh made a joke about J.J. Redick being a Late In Life Tattoo Guy. It’s the only thing I can think about now whenever I watch the Clippers play.
- Chandler Parsons: DEMOTED to Road Rules: All Stars. He just looks like he belongs on that show.
- Giannis Antetokounmpo: PROMOTED to Superstar. I still have not forgiven the Raptors for preventing us from getting LeBron vs. Giannis for four games this playoffs.
- John Wall: PROMOTED to Elite Superstar. Nobody made a bigger jump in the player rankings this postseason than John Wall, who played a brilliant brand of angry, petty, exceptional basketball. (I’ve closed my eyes very tightly and chosen to ignore him going 0-for-11 in the final 18 minutes of Game 7 of the Wizards-Celtics series.)
- Klay Thompson: PROMOTED to Existential Champion. Klay Thompson is my favorite Golden State Warrior because he’s secretly the most complicated of all the Golden State Warriors.
A couple of longer ones:
Kevin Durant: PROMOTED to Alpha-and-Omega Status. The most telling part of everything that’s happened since KD joined the Warriors is that now, from the moment they won the championship Monday night until a champion is crowned next year, every basketball conversation will be Kevin Durant–tinted. Every single serious question that gets asked will take into account either (a) what Kevin Durant is doing, or (b) what Kevin Durant is. "How will the Spurs contend next year (with Championship Kevin Durant and the Warriors)?" "Will the Cavs make a move for Paul George (so they can challenge Championship Kevin Durant and the Warriors)?" "Will we see even more superstars jump teams (like what we saw with Championship Kevin Durant and the Warriors)?" "Was this loss actually good for LeBron (because now he gets to try to chase down Championship Kevin Durant and the Warriors)?" On and on and on like that. Like it or not, he’s the centerpiece of the league now. It’s inarguable.
The Toronto Raptors: DEMOTED from Legitimate Cavs Challengers to Let’s Just Get to The Second Round, I Guess. It’s over. That conversation is over. Nobody is allowed to talk about how "this might be the season the Raptors finally get past the Cavs" anymore. Add the DeMar DeRozan–Kyle Lowry Era Raptors to the list of teams that were just never able to get over the hump (the Derrick Rose Era Bulls, the Paul George Era Pacers, the Jeff Teague Era (lol) Hawks, etc.). Mind you, there’s no shame in this. LeBron has just been too good/big/strong/incredible for too long. The only way the Raptors are getting past him is if they talk him into joining their team, which seems unlikely.
Isaiah Thomas: PROMOTED to Dangerous Cult Hero. There’s the level of Cult Hero that, say, someone like Dion Waiters is at (which is to say, more beloved through force of personality than basketball success), and then there’s the level of Cult Hero that Isaiah Thomas is getting promoted to, which is to say, Dangerous Cult Hero, which is to say, the one who has become beloved because of how exceptional he is at flamethrowing teams into oblivion. Fun stuff: Thomas averaged more points in the fourth quarter this season (9.8) than all but one player in the history of the NBA (or at least since the NBA began tracking this stat in the 1996–97 season). Thomas averaged more points per game this season than any player under 6 feet in the history of the NBA. And Thomas averaged more combined points and assists per game this season than all but two Boston Celtics players ever (Larry Bird and John Havlicek beat him, because Larry Bird and John Havlicek beat everyone).
J.R. Smith: RETAINED at Lovable Cult Hero. For his career, J.R. Smith shoots 42 percent from the field and 37 percent from 3, and averages just under 13 points per game. During Game 5 of the Finals, an elimination game the Cavs were playing on the road, he shot 81.8 percent from the field and 87.5 percent from 3, and scored 25 points (including a late-game 3 that cut the Warriors’ lead to nine, which covered the spread for the Cavs), which is just about the most J.R. Smith thing I can think of. After his Game 7 press conference in 2016, he was promoted from Curious But Possibly Hazardous Outsider to Lovable Cult Hero. He retains that spot this year.
Derrick Rose: DEMOTED to Milton From Office Space. Usually when I’m working on an article like this I’ll talk to a bunch of different people about a bunch of different things. One of those people is Sports-Reference’s Mike Lynch, who, if we can pretend for a moment like this is The Big Short, is my quant. He’s my numbers guy. He always has some remarkable stat or numerical observation that I’m not smart enough to figure out on my own. When I asked him about Derrick Rose, though, he didn’t even bother to offer up a stat. He just said that Derrick Rose needs to be sent "to a sub-basement somewhere." So Rose is getting demoted. We’re all just going to agree to send him down to a basement somewhere and hopefully, after a while of his not receiving any checks, things will just sort of work themselves out naturally.
Kawhi Leonard: PROMOTED to That Motherfucking Dude. Two things: (1) I don’t want you to think that I’m arguing that the Spurs would’ve beaten the Warriors in the Western Conference finals had Kawhi not gotten hurt, because I don’t think that (probably) would’ve happened. All that I want you to acknowledge is that his Spurs were up 21 with less than eight minutes to go in the third quarter before Zaza Pachulia Misery’d his ankle. (If only the Spurs had another Big Name Player on their team who could’ve taken over in Kawhi’s absence.) (2) Kawhi was the Finals MVP in 2014, sure, but this season — his first without Tim Duncan to grab hold of when the water got deep — was truly his breakout. He remained one of the three best defensive players in the league, became a consensus Top 5 On Earth Right Now player, and had his first signature playoff game (Game 4 against the Grizzlies, when he all of a sudden became Basketball John Wick and scored 16 straight to try and tear the game away from the Grizzlies). There are just zero questions anymore that he’s going to be the guy who leads the Spurs for the next decade or so. My second-favorite stat of his from this year was pointed out by Pounding the Rock: Kawhi led the postseason this year in PER (31.5) and win shares per 48 minutes (.314). The only other players to ever reach those numbers: LeBron James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain, George Mikan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar. My favorite stat: His Spurs led the NBA this postseason in knocking the Rockets out of the playoffs.
LeBron James: RETAINED at Cultural Paragon. There is no one in the NBA who is a better basketball player than LeBron, same as it’s been for the past decade or so. There is also no one in the NBA who, correctly or incorrectly, represents more things to more people than LeBron. He’s who you point to when you’re talking about why the NBA is the way that you think it is. (People who think the NBA is great today almost always think LeBron is great. People who think the NBA is not great today and that it used to be so much better some time ago almost always think LeBron is bad.) It’s a level few others have ever reached. Magic and Bird got there. Jordan got there. Iverson got there. And LeBron is there. I suppose that’s the one level that’s still out of reach for KD right now.