Forecasting the 5 Most Improved NBA Teams After Training Camp
In some rare cases, certain improvements made during NBA training camps are so drastic that a season outlook is altered.
This season features a handful of such teams. These squads should be feeling confident after a productive training camp and preseason.
They have given us reason to believe they've not only dramatically improved since last season, but have also taken steps in the right direction in the past month.
Here we forecast these teams, analyzing why their trajectory is sloping upward as the regular season nears its tipoff.
Now, this list isn't exhaustive. Other teams have certainly made improvements, but the teams listed here have taken the most impressive strides.
If you feel that another team should've cracked this list, state your case in the comments section!
The Kings finished the preseason with an eye-opening 5-2 record, and they held their opponents to just 95.6 points per game in these contests (last year, they gave up a league-high 104.5 PPG).
That statistic alone shows they've installed a new defensive identity in the past month, and they should, as a result, be a much more formidable all-around team this season.
Coach Keith Smart's vision for the team appears to be at the core of their recent progress. He has implemented a defensive grading system to provide accountability and has overall made it a focus to build a new team culture.
It's clear that Smart has given much thought since last season on how to revamp Sacramento's style of play. The improvements are already being seen in training camp and in their seven preseason games, which featured three victories over the Los Angeles Lakers.
From a personnel standpoint, there is a load of young talent on this roster. DeMarcus Cousins is one of the most skilled big men in the league, and Smart's accountability system should help "Boogie" reach his potential all the more. During the preseason, Cousins had the 13th-highest efficiency rating amongst all players at 17.9.
Further, Tyreke Evans (who is playing in a contract year), Marcus Thornton, Isaiah Thomas and rookie Thomas Robinson all provide spark to the Kings' lineup.
The bottom line is that they have the talent to make noise, but they have lacked the discipline in years past. Smart is changing the scope of that lack of discipline, and the vast improvements have already been seen.
If such progress continues, the Kings could make a push for a playoff spot and become a scary first-round opponent for a team like the Oklahoma City Thunder or Lakers.
The Raptors finished tied for the best preseason record at 6-1. It's foolish to overanalyze preseason records (the Lakers went 0-8 and the Miami Heat notched a 4-4 mark), but the Raps must be doing something right.
A major reason for their improvements has been the acquisition of guard Kyle Lowry. The versatile guard gives Toronto a stellar backcourt weapon, and he's already tallied significant results in four preseason appearances. He accumulated a 19.8 efficiency rating, the third highest in the league during the preseason.
Another reason for their improvements is the presence of Andrea Bargnani. Last year, Bargnani only appeared in 31 games for the Raps. If he can remain on the floor, he gives Toronto a potent, unique offensive weapon. He stands 7'0'' and has the ability to knock down threes on a regular basis.
Since camp has opened, they've also showcased some other newcomers that give this team depth.
Jonas Valanciunas, a 6'11'', 20-year-old Lithuanian, averaged 8.3 points per game, 6.8 rebounds per game and a lofty 1.8 blocks per game in his preseason outings. He's already performing well and his upside is through the roof.
Newcomer Landry Fields provides an added dimension as well. He's developing chemistry and appears to be gelling with Lowry, who has recently found Fields on some nifty backdoor cuts.
Further, Fields can adequately defend on the wing and should enhance Toronto's defensive versatility.
Similar to the Kings, the Raptors could challenge for a playoff spot if they continue to make strides. In fact, this is a likelihood in a weaker Eastern Conference. They have the depth and Lowry continues to emerge. As long as they avoid major injuries and continue to feed off the momentum they've built in training camp, they could win around 45 games.
The Jazz are yet another team who netted a solid preseason record (5-3).
Their chief bright spot is young big man Enes Kanter, who had the highest efficiency rating among centers during the preseason (18.9). Averaging 21.1 minutes per game, he tallied 13.1 PPG and 9.4 RPG.
That screams production. By the way, Kanter isn't even a starter for this team. But that could soon change.
Kanter's vaulted trajectory could mean that the Jazz soon trade one of their current starting big men, Al Jefferson or Paul Millsap. Both are playing in contract years and it's unlikely that the Jazz bring both back next season, especially with Kanter's development.
Further, the Jazz recently exercised the fourth-year option on Derrick Favors, yet another developing big man who could be paired next to Kanter down the road.
The continued improvement and promise of both of these young players is very intriguing for Utah and gives them some pressing decisions to make in regards to Jefferson and Millsap.
Should they perhaps trade both of them and in turn build their frontcourt around Kanter and Favors? This is not a bad idea, and the evidence seen thus far in training camp amplifies that this could be a wise maneuver.
The Jazz have also had some bright spots elsewhere. Second-year guard Alec Burks averaged 9.3 PPG in just 18.9 minutes of action per outing, evidencing some steady improvements.
Newcomer Marvin Williams has also played effectively during the preseason, averaging 11.0 PPG in 23.8 MPG.
What's more, while Mo Williams, another newcomer, has battled a groin injury during training camp, he figures to uplift Utah's backcourt play. His addition will prove to have distinct value during the regular season.
Overall, the Jazz have numerous reasons to be optimistic, and what's been seen during training camp and the preseason should have Utah fans excited. This team is loaded with promise, and Kanter specifically could be budding into a superstar.
Oklahoma City Thunder
"The Thunder just traded James Harden. Therefore, how on earth are they one of the most improved teams?"
You're likely thinking this. But, hear my argument before you bash me in the comments section.
First of all, while they lost Harden, they did acquire a hefty amount in return. Kevin Martin is a proven scorer with a career average of 18.4 PPG.
Now, he's clearly not a superstar-caliber talent like Harden, and he is also six years older. However, he is still more than capable of being an elite weapon off the bench for Oklahoma City. It honestly wouldn't be shocking to see him follow after Harden and win this season's Sixth Man of the Year Award.
What's more, Martin is also playing in a contract year, so he'll have every ounce of motivation to perform well this season.
Therefore, the loss of Harden hurts, but Martin is a fitting replacement. It's not like a washed-up Vince Carter is now stepping into Harden's role.
Secondly, the Thunder also landed Jeremy Lamb (as well as two-first round picks). Lamb, the 12th overall pick in June's draft, has major potential as a shooting guard. He led Houston's summer league team in scoring at 20 PPG.
Lamb figures to play a role as a rookie, even if it's not a major one. Overall, the combination of Martin and Lamb off the bench help offset the loss of Harden. In fact, their combined production will almost surely surpass what Harden provided last season.
Lastly, the Thunder can now focus on basketball and avoid the distraction of Harden's contract status. It likely would've been a buzzing issue throughout the year, and it's now been eliminated.
Let's also remember that while Harden is a high-quality player, he's not near as foundational to the Thunder's success as Russell Westbrook or Kevin Durant. Remember when Harden disappeared in the NBA Finals last season? He's a proven talent, no doubt. But the Thunder can succeed without him.
And it's not like they just cast him off for a few average players. They added two quality offensive threats as well as draft picks. This move is enough to improve them in the here and now as well as down the road.
Losing "The Bearded One" will hurt the hearts of Thunder fans who fell in love with him, but believe it or not, this bold trade stamps their training camp as a success.
This small-market franchise continues to find ways to make steady improvements that point them toward a championship, and this preseason blockbuster was a prime example of that.
The James Harden blockbuster was one of those rare trade scenarios that really was a "win-win."
While I argue that Oklahoma City are the real winners in this deal, it's not like the Rockets are losers. Truthfully, this trade considerably improves Houston as training camp comes to a close.
From Houston's perspective, it was overloaded with unproven young players and lacking in assets who can provide offensive stability.
Therefore, Harden is a perfect fit in the red and white, and he plans, according to ESPN, to sign a long-term extension before the regular season begins.
He gives them a proven guard who will likely become an All-Star, and he becomes the "go-to guy" for a searching offensive team.
Newcomer Jeremy Lin and Harden should provide the bulk of the guard minutes, and these two have the potential to become one of the league's premier backcourts. Houston fans should surely be compelled by this tandem.
Houston fans should also be excited about the development of Omer Asik, the former Chicago Bull. Asik hauled in 11.6 RPG in 25.4 MPG during the preseason.
Further, he's also shown the ability to make some keen passes, revealing an improved offensive skill set entering this season.
This team will take time to mesh, and it's not like their training-camp improvements put them into a potential No. 4 or 5 seed in the playoffs. Quite frankly, even with the improvements, the playoffs may be a long shot.
But the addition of Harden suddenly makes them much more respectable. He's an ideal fit for a team searching for a featured star, and the Rockets had the flexibility with their young roster to pull the trigger on such a blockbuster.
Prior to this deal, the Rockets were looking at being one of the league's worst teams and destined for a high draft pick. But now their forecast has changed.
Once this team establishes familiarity with one another, the Rockets could be scary. If they establish this familiarity sooner rather than later, don't be surprised if they push for a playoff spot.
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