Predicting the 5 Most Improved NBA Teams in 2013
The dog days of the NBA summer are (nearly) upon us. The draft and the Summer League are well in the rear view, the free-agent pool has all but dried up and basketball at the 2012 London Olympics will be done faster than you can say, "Team USA did what?!"
Now comes the dreaded wait for preseason training camps to tip off in the fall.
Well, maybe not so dreaded for everyone. If you shutter to think of hearing any more about Dwight Howard's ongoing "Indecision," then yes, these coming weeks will more than likely be a drag on your existence.
But if your favorite team was one of those that went about its offseason business in a productive and constructive way, then the only agony with which you'd be concerned is that which accompanies fevered anticipation.
Hope may spring eternal, but it certainly won't die in the heat of the summer. Not for these five teams, anyway.
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How does a team that hasn't so much as sniffed the playoffs in five years come out of the offseason with a positive outlook after clogging up its cap space for the next two?
Just ask the Washington Wizards. They added Nene's massive deal at the trade deadline last season and picked up Emeka Okafor and Trevor Ariza just prior to the draft. Those three will combine to make about $69 million total in the coming two seasons, not including the additional $13 million per season Nene is owed in the two after those.
In the interim, the Wizards won't have the sort of financial flexibility necessary to perhaps add another big piece here and there, be it via trade or free agency, because of their current salary restrictions.
But the upshot for Washington isn't concerned with dollars and cents so much as with a revolution in the culture of the organization.
Gone are just about all of the hazardous remnants of the Gilbert Arenas era and the laughingstock years that followed. JaVale McGee and Nick Young turned into Nene, Rashard Lewis into Ariza and Okafor, and Blatche turned into a smoldering pile of rubbish on the amnesty waiver wire.
Those nitwits will no longer be around to hinder the development of John Wall, who can now count on a supporting cast of level-headed, defensive-minded veterans (Okafor, Ariza, Nene) and a young shooting guard (Bradley Beal) who's been hailed as Eric Gordon 2.0.
More talent, fewer headaches and a full season under head coach Randy Wittman should put the Wizards within striking distance of the Eastern Conference playoff picture this season, if not closer.
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The Brooklyn Nets shouldn't just be hovering around the playoffs in the East this coming season; they should be knee-deep in them.
Such are the spoils for perhaps the most decisive victors of the summer. The Nets convinced one All-Star (Deron Williams) to come back rather than play for the Dallas Mavericks, acquired another (Joe Johnson) for a bag of peanuts, re-signed a solid front court (Brook Lopez, Kris Humphries and Gerald Wallace) and stocked their bench with wily veterans like C.J. Watson and Reggie Evans.
Those moves have all but guaranteed the Nets a spot in the postseason to cap off their inaugural campaign in Brooklyn. This after five seasons of losing that followed the dismantling of the good-to-very-good-but-not-great foundation of the Jason Kidd era in New Jersey.
If all goes according to plan, the Nets should be in the mix for a top-four spot in the East, with the conference finals figuring in as a realistic goal depending on how the matchups shake out.
And if Brooklyn can somehow swing a deal for Dwight Howard later in the season, then the notion of an instant dynasty in the Big Apple—one that would relegate the New York Knicks to the back pages of the tabloids for the foreseeable future—might not be so far-fetched.
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It's not often that a team loses a surefire Hall of Famer and actually gets better.
Granted, Ray Allen's departure wasn't the cause of the Boston Celtics' offseason improvement. By all accounts, the C's would've still been better off had they been able to convince Jesus Shuttlesworth to keep his sweet shot in Beantown rather than take his talents to South Beach.
On the whole, though, GM Danny Ainge deserves plenty of credit for restocking his roster with depth and talent while putting the Celts in a potentially better position to challenge the Miami Heat for the Eastern Conference crown.
Re-signing Kevin Garnett was crucial to the cause, as was signing Jason Terry to fill in for the injured Avery Bradley in the interim and return to a role as an ace reserve when the young shooting guard gets healthy.
There's no shortage of nits to be picked with Jeff Green's contract (four years, $32 million), though adding him to a bench that will also feature Terry and Courtney Lee vastly improves Boston's second unit from a season ago.
So too will the additions of rookies Jared Sullinger and Fab Melo. Sully looked like a solid low-post scorer and mid-range shooter with Boston's Summer League squad, while Melo, if nothing else, is a big body who, along with Jason Collins and a healthy Chris Wilcox, should be able to ease KG's workload.
Boston may not see quite the spike in the end result that others will next season—after all, the C's were within one poor quarter of sneaking into the NBA Finals—but the team that gets there should be markedly better.
Los Angeles Lakers
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As for the Celtics' biggest cross-country rivals, the Los Angeles Lakers pulled off a few noteworthy moves of their own to challenge for the Larry O'Brien Trophy in the West.
Mitch Kupchak's masterstroke of replacing Ramon Sessions with Steve Nash may well prove to be the best (and the cheekiest) maneuver of the summer. Whenever you can replace a 26-year-old journeyman who doesn't play a lick of defense for a 38-year-old future Hall of Famer who...ummm...doesn't play a lick of defense.
Still, Nash's superb abilities as a ball-handler, playmaker and passer should help to lubricate the Lakers' creaky offensive machinery that too often saw Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol and Andrew Bynum stepping on each other's toes last season.
Re-signing Jordan Hill and adding Antawn Jamison, both at steep discounts, figures to bolster a bench that ranked among the league's least productive last season. All the Lakers need to do now is find a competent backup for Kobe (Raja Bell, perhaps?), and they'll be set to compete with the Oklahoma City Thunder and the San Antonio Spurs for supremacy in the West.
That is, unless they can swing a deal for Dwight Howard, at which point the rest of the West would be put on notice, to say the least.
Golden State Warriors
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Just up the coast from one of the NBA's most fortunate franchises (the Lakers) sits perhaps the unluckiest of all—the Golden State Warriors.
The team's Lemony Snicket-like history, though, may finally be on the upswing. The Dubs added a pair of now-former Hornets (Jarret Jack and Carl Landry) to a team replete with shooters like Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Richard Jefferson, the re-signed Brandon Rush and rookie Harrison Barnes. Surrounding Andrew Bogut and David Lee with a cast of snipers could pay off big for Golden State, perhaps in the form of a playoff berth.
The key to the reason rests with the health of a pair of ankles—Bogut's and Curry's. If both are healthy enough to withstand the rigors of most (if not all) of an 82-game schedule, then the Warriors will be one of the league's biggest surprises of the 2012-13 campaign.
And teams thinking about tanking will have one more success story on which to base their respective rebuilding strategies.