10 NBA teams that have improved the most this offseason
Fans and analysts knew this NBA offseason could be crazy, with a number of big-name players potentially changing uniforms — and the league hasn’t disappointed. So far, we’ve seen the unsurprising (LeBron signed with the Lakers), moderately surprising (Paul George is sticking with OKC), and downright stunning (DeMarcus Cousins is headed to the Bay Area).
But the above moves are just scratching the surface of all that’s happened. Other teams improved through the draft and through signing players who aren’t household names but should still make a big impact.
Which squads have made the biggest leap over their 2017-18 iterations? Here’s our take on the 10 teams that have improved the most so far this summer.
10. San Antonio Spurs
The biggest move of San Antonio’s offseason, of course, has not yet happened: the trade of Kawhi Leonard, which seems all but certain to occur. And even though they’ve lost Tony Parker and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs have still had a good summer to date. Marco Belinelli won a title with the Spurs in 2014, and they’re happy to have him back. He was a key piece on the Philadelphia team that at times looked unbeatable late in the season, and he’s one of the league’s best shooters. Snagging him at $6 million a year is a real value. R.C. Buford lucked out landing Lonnie Walker, a cold-blooded creator from Miami, at No. 18 in the draft – one of my favorite picks. He’s shown shades of Dwyane Wade.
9. Brooklyn Nets
The Nets haven’t made any big, splashy moves, but they’ve quietly improved. They made one of my favorite signings: Joe Harris for two years at $16 million. Harris simply gets the job done; he’s a reliable outside shooter, a decent creator, and a solid defender. Last season he averaged 10.8 points per game while hitting 41.9 percent of his outside shots. Furthermore, Brooklyn added veteran big Ed Davis at a perfectly reasonable price: one year for $4.4 million. Though the Nets didn’t have any high picks, they did well in the draft. They landed Dzanan Musa, a mature scorer, at No. 29. In the second round, they got a 6-foot-10 athletic wing in Rodions Kurucs, who may spend another year or two in Barcelona but should eventually blossom into an impact player in the NBA.
8. Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder didn’t change all that much, per se, but they are overjoyed to have Paul George back on a four-year max deal. Sam Presti knows OKC’s title window is now; he’s lost two stars before, and he didn’t want to lose another. Though George and Russell Westbrook are an impressive duo (and should play better together with time), the Thunder need another piece to compete with the Warriors, Rockets, Celtics, and Sixers. I like OKC’s addition of Nerlens Noel at two years and $3.5 million — that’s a no-to-low risk proposition for a guy with tons of upside. He could flourish when he’s only asked to do the small things. Though the hefty Jerami Grant signing (three years, $27 million) was head-scratching, OKC’s offseason has been a major net positive.
7. Denver Nuggets
The Nuggets landed my favorite pick in the 2018 draft: Michael Porter Jr. at No. 14. He could have gone as high as No. 2, but his medicals gave teams pause. If his back doesn’t turn out to be a debilitating injury, we could look back on this pick and say, What were those other teams thinking? Like OKC’s Noel signing: low risk, high upside. Additionally, Denver brought back the much-improved Will Barton for four years (at $54 million). Barton is quietly the most explosive bench player in the entire league. He’s shown the ability to carry Denver’s offense when its stars are sitting. With Barton, Nikola Jokic, Gary Harris, and Jamal Murray in the fold, Denver should return to the postseason soon. Now, if only the Nuggets weren’t paying $29 million a year to Paul Millsap…
6. New Orleans Pelicans
It might seem strange that the Pelicans allowed DeMarcus Cousins to take off, but it’s understandable. New Orleans played well with Boogie in 2017-18, but better without him. Despite his talent, the Pelicans could afford to let him go. They replaced him with another former Kentucky Wildcats big: Julius Randle, much to Anthony Davis’ delight. Randle’s style of play complements Davis far better than Cousins’ did. The Pelicans’ two bigs should be able to do beautiful things with Randle running the fastbreak and banging inside and Davis doing, well, everything. I also like the Pelicans’ move to bring in Elfrid Payton for one year at $2.7 million. Payton’s career hasn’t gone as planned, but this is a nice short-term bet on a guy who could replace Rajon Rondo and will at worst provide spot minutes on a playoff team. With the pressure off, he should flourish.
5. Dallas Mavericks
At long last, DeAndre Jordan is a member of the Mavericks. The ultra reliable center signed a somewhat odd deal (one year, $24 million) — it seems Mark Cuban is sick of losing. Dallas also brought back serviceable big Salah Mejri (one year, $1.6 million). But the Mavs are really on this list because of their draft. Luka Doncic is a potential franchise cornerstone – a guy who will have a real shot at Rookie of the Year – and Jalen Brunson should stick around the league for a long time. With Doncic, Brunson, and Dennis Smith Jr., the Mavs have the most intriguing young backcourt in the NBA. After a miserable 2017-18 season, Dallas will be a fascinating “League Pass” team.
4. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers took the Cavs to the brink but couldn’t quite get it done. Nonetheless, given Victor Oladipo’s continued emergence and Myles Turner’s expected development, Indiana is a real threat to Boston, Toronto, and Philadelphia this season. Drafting Aaron Holiday No. 23 wasn’t my favorite move, but the Pacers made two free-agency additions I loved. Indiana locked up Tyreke Evans for one year at $12 million; Evans can carry the offense when Vic takes a seat with foul trouble, as he had to during the Cleveland series. Indiana also added Doug McDermott, who continues to improve on defense, for three years at $22 million. He’s another big shooter – you can never have enough of those.
3. Golden State Warriors
I’ve harped on low-risk, high-reward transactions throughout this piece, and Golden State’s signing of Cousins is the ultimate example of such a move. How could you argue with the Warriors replacing JaVale McGee with a four-time All-Star? Sure, Boogie is coming off of a devastating injury, but he can take his time returning; Golden State’s in no rush. Sure, there are concerns around the league about his locker-room presence – but if any team can fix that, it’s Golden State (see: McGee and Nick Young). Cousins is a monumental upgrade over McGee and Zaza Pachulia, and the possibilities with him on this team (at $5.3 million!) are dazzling. Quieter-but-also-positive moves: re-signing Kevon Looney at one year and $1.6 million, a deal far below his value, and snatching Iggy 2.0, Jacob Evans, No. 28 in the draft.
2. Phoenix Suns
We all expected the Suns to have a big offseason, and they haven’t disappointed. After adding coach Igor Kokoškov, Phoenix selected Deandre Ayton, the most dominant big man the college game has seen in some time, and made another good draft-night move by trading for Mikal Bridges. Bridges was Villanova’s best player (it’s true!) and should contribute immediately. Phoenix isn’t going all-in on rebuilding mode, however: the Suns ponied up for Trevor Ariza, giving him $15 million for one year. Phoenix has its own 2019 pick as well as Milwaukee’s first-rounder, but don’t be surprised if the Suns actually try to win this year. The Suns still need a point guard, but it isn’t outlandish to suggest this team could see a 10-15 win improvement this season.
1. Los Angeles Lakers
It’s the obvious choice, but the only logical one. The Lake Show had plenty of young talent, but won only 35 games last season. Adding LeBron vaulted L.A. instantly into title contention. Some of the team’s other signings – JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, and re-upping Kentavious Caldwell-Pope – were dubious, but LeBron reportedly signed off on the moves, and there’s no question L.A. should make a big leap this season. Moritz Wagner and Isaac Bonga are both projects but were solid picks as their position; I like Bonga in particular. We shouldn’t expect the Lakers to flourish immediately, but they’re already Vegas’ second favorite, behind the Warriors, to win it all. Credit to Rob Pelinka and Magic Johnson for revamping the roster – but more changes are likely to come.
Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer whose work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]