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Friday, January 24, 2020

10 teams that improved the most this NBA offseason

Paul George

5. Philadelphia 76ers

Is “The Process” finally coming to fruition? It sure seems like this is the year the Sixers are actually going to try to compete.

After stockpiling picks for years, the Sixers finally gave one up. They traded a future first-rounder, in addition to the No. 3 pick in this year’s draft, for the 2017 No. 1. They used that pick to select Markelle Fultz, the consensus No. 1 prospect, who on his best days shows shades of James Harden.

This was the right pick for Philly’s roster, but Fultz wasn’t the only promising rookie they acquired. The Sixers also snagged Jonah Bolden, Latvia’s Anžejs Pasečņiks, and France’s Mathias Lessort — all three were high on my list of under-the-radar wings who could turn into rotation players.

And Philly actually signed someone, too! They splurged on J.J. Redick. The deal involved way too much money, but the Sixers had plenty of cap space, it was only a one-year deal, and Redick’s veteran presence and deadly three-point shooting should greatly benefit Philadelphia this year.

4. Oklahoma City Thunder

Who would’ve thought going into this offseason that the Thunder would pull off perhaps the biggest trade of the summer? It sure seemed like Oklahoma City would go into next season the same way it ended the last.

Instead, the Thunder pulled off a heist. They flipped Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for Paul George, one of the 10 or so best players in the NBA. It was a stunner of a deal.

Whether George and Russell Westbrook can coexist remains to be seen. They both have a bit of an edge of them, and George likes to have the ball in his hands in crunch time (though throughout his career he hasn’t proved to be a clutch player).

Even if things click this year and the Thunder make a playoff run, it seems like a foregone conclusion that George is heading to Los Angeles next year. However, the deal made the Thunder better, and they didn’t have to give up much at all to pull it off.

3. Houston Rockets

Houston paired two of the best offensive guards in the game when, late in June, the Rockets pulled off a trade with the Clippers to acquire Chris Paul. In return, Los Angeles received half of Houston’s roster — Patrick Beverley, Lou Williams, Sam Dekker, Montrezl Harrell, Darrun Hilliard, DeAndre Liggins, and Kyle Wiltjer — in addition to a future first-round pick and cash considerations.

Though it looks like a lot, it really wasn’t much. Paul is one of the 20 or so best players of all time. Though he’s never found postseason success, and though we don’t know if he’ll be able to play with Harden, Houston is rolling the dice because both players are simply that good. The Rockets’ creed: put the best players on the court and they’ll figure it out.

The Rockets may not be done dealing. Rumors have swirled that Carmelo Anthony is headed to Houston in the near future. A Paul-Harden-Anthony three-headed duo would be lethal on offense; it’s tough to imagine how a team would gameplan to defend the Rockets.

2. Boston Celtics

The Celtics did what everyone expected them to this summer — they let Amir Johnson and Kelly Olynyk walk, and after a long back and forth they signed Gordon Hayward, reuniting him with his college coach at Butler, Brad Stevens.

Then the Celtics did something unexpected — they dealt Avery Bradley, one of the best defensive guards in the NBA (a two-time All-NBA Defensive Teamer), and a 2019 second-round pick for Marcus Morris. The way I see it, both teams improved as a result of the deal.

Boston needed frontline help, particularly with the departure of Olynyk, and toughness. Morris provides that and then some. Detroit needed…well, the Pistons just need everything, and Bradley is a tremendous asset. Because of the Hayward deal, the Celtics would not have been able to retain him when his contract expires next summer.

Boston also got Duke’s Jayson Tatum at No. 3, and Celtics fans are already calling him the next Paul Pierce. That may be premature, but he looked great in Summer League.

Keep an eye on the Celtics. They make another move before the deadline. I’m looking at Marcus Smart and Jae Crowder as pieces that may be traded.

1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The Timberwolves! They’re relevant! We finally get to watch Karl-Anthony Towns on national TV!

Though there were a few fleecings around the league this offseason, the T-Wolves pulled off the greatest of them all. They traded for Chicago’s Jimmy Butler on draft night. What they gave up in return was shockingly uncompelling.

Chicago traded Butler and the No. 16 pick (Justin Patton) for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn, and the No. 7 pick (Lauri Markkanen).

Butler is an All-NBA player, and you’d have expected the Bulls could have gotten more in return. The trade had Chicago fans calling for the firing of the team’s front office. Maybe one day we’ll hear the true story of how this unfolded and the Bulls got peanuts in return for one of the league’s best 3 men.

The Timberwolves also traded Ricky Rubio and signed Jeff Teague and Taj Gibson. We don’t know yet how all these pieces will fit — will Andrew Wiggins be content with being the third banana? — but, with a suddenly interesting roster, the Timberwolves should certainly be competitive in the Western Conference playoffs, after finishing 13th in the West this past season. Talk about an offseason improvement.

Aaron Mansfield is a freelance sports writer. His work has appeared in Complex, USA Today, and the New York Times. You can reach him via email at [email protected]

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