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Saturday, November 18, 2017

10 teams that improved the most this NBA offseason

Jimmy Butler

Though there was no single Kevin-Durant-to-Golden-State-sized splash in the NBA this offseason, teams made move after move to jockey with the Warriors in an attempt to interrupt their reign of terror.

The Rockets took a leap of faith and traded the farm for an aging Chris Paul. The Celtics used their cap space to reunite Gordon Hayward with Brad Stevens, then got rid of an asset in Avery Bradley to balance their checkbook. The Timberwolves suddenly became a legitimate Western Conference contender by ripping off the Bulls.

There were so many moves, in fact — so many trades and so many signings — that, now that the league’s transaction churn and burn has finally calmed, it’s hard to believe all that actually happened. To sum it up:

We’re going to see a lot of familiar faces in new jerseys come this fall (the preseason begins Sept. 30). But which of those players will make the biggest impact, and which teams will look the most improved? Which 2017-18 NBA squad will make the biggest leap?

It’s too early to know, of course, but below is my take on the 10 NBA teams that improved the most this offseason.

10. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets found themselves in a precarious position with Danilo Gallinari. The stretch 4 is a valuable piece in the modern NBA, and people loved him in Denver.

However, the team hadn’t found success since Gallo came over in the 2011 trade that landed Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups on the Knicks. The Nuggets made the playoffs during the first three years Gallo was in Denver, but were eliminated in the first round each time. He’s a solid player, but not a centerpiece.

Given the state of the franchise, it was hard to justify giving Gallo more than $20 million a year and extending this iteration of Nuggets history. The team decided to let him go, and Denver shrewdly got a 2019 second-round pick out of it via a three-team deal with the Clippers and Hawks.

Denver made two great decisions this offseason: letting Gallo walk and signing forward Paul Millsap. The 6-foot-8, 32-year-old Millsap has long been one of the most underappreciated players in the league. Millsap doesn’t put them over the top, but he gives them one more valuable piece.

ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported the Cavs are interested in Jamal Murray. If Denver can pull that off and trot out Kyrie, Millsap, and Nikola Jokic, the Nuggets will make some noise in the loaded West.

9. Los Angeles Lakers

Everyone around the league believes the Lakers are gearing up for an active 2018 offseason — they plan to pursue Paul George and maybe even LeBron James — and the organization made some wise moves this summer to prepare for it.

For starters, they allowed Nick Young to walk, and traded D’Angelo Russell. Though both guys are talented, valuable players, they were too much of a distraction to keep around, especially when you’re going to try to lure marquee free agents.

The Lakers’ trade of Russell to Brooklyn was good for both sides. L.A. landed Brook Lopez, one of the most underrated bigs in the league, and also snagged the 27th overall pick. That pick turned into Kyle Kuzma, who looked excellent in Las Vegas and even cracked my early top 10 favorites to win NBA Rookie of the Year.

They also did well with their lottery pick. Lonzo Ball, the Summer League MVP, is a perfect fit, and I expect Magic Johnson will continue to like what he sees in his new floor general.

8. Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets are sneakily moving in the East. After missing the playoffs by five games this past season, it was clear they had to retool, and they’ve made a few under-the-radar moves that I’m a fan of.

Take, for example, their trade for Dwight Howard. No one wants Dwight at this point in his career. It’s considered a given that he’s going to ruin your locker room. But the Hornets got Dwight on a bargain deal. They gave up Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee, and a second-rounder for Howard and a first-rounder.

Howard’s minutes dipped to 29.7 per game with Atlanta last year, but he posted decent numbers: 13.5 points, 12.7 rebounds, and 1.2 blocks per game. He’s a shell of the player who was the most dominant big in the NBA, but even that shell is still a pretty solid starting 5 man.

Additionally, the Hornets pulled off my favorite pick of the draft, snagging Kentucky’s Malik Monk at No. 11. With Kemba Walker, Monk, Nicolas Batum, Frank Kaminsky, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, and Howard, the Hornets should find themselves having moved up to the East’s second tier.

7. Golden State Warriors

The rich only got richer this offseason. In addition to locking up Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry for the foreseeable future, Golden State re-signed Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Zaza Pachulia, and also added some valuable pieces.

Nick Young has become overshadowed by his Swaggy P alter-ego and propensity for being involved in off-the-court drama, but when Young is hot, he’s one of the best shooters in the league. Additionally, his decision to take a pay cut and sign with Golden State tells me he’s done some growing up and, at this point in his career, he values winning above personal accolades. Getting the 32-year-old Young on a one-year, $5.2 million deal was a steal for the Warriors.

The Warriors also purchased yet another draft pick to snag Oregon’s Jordan Bell, a 6-foot-8 forward with a high basketball IQ who does it all. He wants to be Draymond 2.0.

Though Omri Casspi isn’t a household name, he’s a valuable bench player who agreed to take the veteran minimum. He could turn into another unheralded, undervalued vet who contributes valuable minutes in the NBA Finals.

6. Brooklyn Nets

Thanks to foolish management, the Nets have managed to both be terrible and have no exciting young players on the roster in recent years. What we’ve witnessed in Brooklyn has been a rare feat of ineptitude.

But give GM Sean Marks credit: the Nets were desperately in need of a rebuild, and he took sage steps toward achieving that end this summer. The most noteworthy of Marks’ moves was his trade for D’Angelo Russell and Timofey Mozgov.

Russell has had an interesting career, to say the least, and for all the jokes about him being a TMZ beat reporter, he’s shown flashes of brilliance on the court. I think the former No. 2 overall pick could still become an All-Star.

Other great moves for the Nets: holding onto Sean Kilpatrick and flipping Justin Hamilton for DeMarre Carroll’s contract, a first-round pick, and a second-round pick.

See Nos. 5-1 on Page 2

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