2013 NBA Offseason: The Top 5 Most Improved Teams in the Draft and Free Agency

Andy WittryCorrespondent IJuly 14, 2013

2013 NBA Offseason: The Top 5 Most Improved Teams in the Draft and Free Agency

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    In an offseason in which more than one-third of the players selected in the 2013 NBA draft were traded on draft night and, as ESPN's Marc Stein tweeted, 12 teams changed head coaches, the National Basketball Association has been revamped in the past three weeks. 

    Are we really down to last head coach opening in NBA universe??? TWELVE new ones hired already. Only Philly (said to be Brett Brown) to go!

    — Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 4, 2013

     

    The combination of drafting talented prospects, hiring new coaches and signing free agents who can make an immediate impact has allowed several teams to enter next season better off than where they finished last year.

    Playoff teams improved to potential title contenders and teams that missed the playoffs last season now seem destined to make the postseason in 2014.

    The combination of several All-Star-caliber players becoming free agents this offseason and the hype around the 2014 NBA draft class, which has been rumored to be the best since 2003, has forced some teams to make a tough decision.

    They could either make a run at Dwight Howard, Andrew Bynum, Andre Iguodala or another big name in free agency or they could put together a weak roster for next season that will put them in position to have one of the best draft picks next June, as noted by Sports Illustrated.

    Loaded 2014 NBA draft class offers hope to rebuilding teams: http://t.co/zdaFUifEuG (via @ChrisMannixSI)

    — Sports Illustrated (@SInow) July 12, 2013

     

    While the Boston Celtics and Philadelphia 76ers appeared to choose the latter, most teams tried to sign free agents who will fill a void in their rosters. 

    By convincing Dwight Howard to leave the Los Angeles Lakers, the Houston Rockets have become one of the favorites in the Western Conference.

    Money is no object to Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The Nets will owe at least $80 million in salary cap tax penalties after they traded for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce and Jason Terry and then signed Andrei Kirilenko. Brooklyn now has one of the strongest starting lineups in the NBA.

    Without further ado, here are the five teams that improved the most this offseason.

     

    Note: When evaluating the most improved teams, last season's results and the best-case scenario for teams based on their offseason additions do play a factor. Additionally, signing a free agent from another team has a greater impact than re-signing a free agent who played for the same team last year. The return of an injured player to the same team that he played for last season is not part of the criteria.

Honorable Mention

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    The Portland drafted former Lehigh guard C.J. McCollum with the 10th overall pick. McCollum could become the third guard for the Trail Blazers and back up his NBA likeness, 2012-13 Rookie of the Year Damian Lillard

    When comparing the two guards—both of whom both played at schools not known for producing NBA lottery picks (Lillard played college ball at Weber State and Lehigh has never had a player play in the NBA, according to ESPN Stats & Info)—their senior seasons, at least statistically, were eerily similar. Both averaged roughly 24 points, exactly five rebounds, a couple assists, 1.5 steals and nearly three made three-pointers per game.

    The Trail Blazers then exchanged two future second-round picks for the Cleveland Cavaliers' 31st pick, which materialized into former California shooting guard Allen Crabbe

    Portland then capitalized on Houston's participation in the Dwight Howard sweepstakes by trading for last year's fifth overall pick, Thomas Robinson, in return for two future second round picks as well as the rights to Kostas Papanikoaou and Marko Todorovic. 

    The Trail Blazers also signed veteran free agents Dorell Wright and Earl Watson this offseason.

    Portland remained active in free agency by taking part in a three-team trade that allowed them to acquire center Robin Lopez and Terrel Harris from the New Orleans Pelicans

    In short, Portland acquired a starting center coming off of the best season of his career, two of the top 31 picks in the draft, one of last year's top prospects and a couple of veteran guards who can add depth to the bench. 

    Last season Portland finished with a 33-49 record, 12 games behind the eighth seed in the Western Conference. With LaMarcus Aldridge in his prime, an improving Robin Lopez, Lillard and a handful of talented players under the age of 25, the Trail Blazers could make a run for the seventh or eighth seed in the West next season. However, Portland fell short of the top five because of its youth; the Trail Blazers had a good offseason but are a year or two away from getting the most out of the talent on their roster. 

    A few other teams have had a productive offseason but not enough to put them in the top five most improved teams.

    The Minnesota Timberwolves acquired a few talented prospects through the draft and draft-night trades. They drafted Lorenzo Brown and Bojan Dubljevic. Minnesota then traded for Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng.

    The T-Wolves exercised a one-year option on Dante Cunningham and signed free agents Kevin Martin and Ronny Turiaf

    Minnesota finished 20 games below .500 last season at 31-51. Similarly to Portland, the Timberwolves could potentially contend for one of the final playoff spots, if they re-sign Nikola Pekovic, but their rookies need a few seasons to develop before Minnesota will be viewed as a postseason threat.

    Finally, the Indiana Pacers quietly had a good offseason. Former Arizona forward Solomon Hill could be one of the steals of the draft or a player that makes Pacers fans question why Indiana reached to draft him 23rd overall. 

    He could provide a three-point scoring threat, which Indiana lacked last season. 

    The Pacers re-signed power forward David West and signed free agents C.J. Watson and Chris Copeland. Watson gives Indiana depth at point guard and Copeland is a versatile forward who shot 42 percent from beyond the arc last season.

    Indiana forced a Game 7 in the Eastern Conference Finals last season. A deeper postseason run next year would be likely be fueled by the return of a healthy Danny Granger, more so than Indiana’s new signings, which is why the Pacers are an honorable mention most-improved team.

5. Los Angeles Clippers

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    The Los Angeles Clippers have learned that "Lob City" works in the regular season as it led to a 56-26 record and the Clippers earning the fourth seed in the West. However, the playoffs are a completely different animal. Teams play defense on every possession, and offenses must be able to run half-court sets. Players have to make free throws. 

    Los Angeles took a 2-0 lead against the Memphis Grizzlies and then lost four consecutive games in the conference quarterfinals. 

    Vinny Del Negro was fired and has since been replaced by Doc Rivers, who will bring championship experience to a Clippers organization that desperately needs to capitalize on surpassing the Lakers, even if it's only for a year or two. 

    Rivers knows how to coach all-stars after successfully leading the Boston Celtics through a rebuilding process that involved Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Ray Allen and Rajon Rondo. 

    However, a coach can only do so much if he doesn't have the right players, which is why signing free agent Darren Collison and re-signing Chris Paul, Matt Barnes and Ryan Hollins was important for the Clippers.

    Los Angeles was also part of a three-team trade with the Phoenix Suns and Milwaukee Bucks that allowed the Clippers to acquire J.J. Redick and Jared Dudley

    Rivers can utilize Redick as a poor man's Ray Allen; he and the other guards recently acquired by the Clippers give Paul more scoring options. 

    With the 25th pick in the draft, the Clippers selected former North Carolina shooting guard Reggie Bullock, who averaged nearly 14 points and seven rebounds last season with the Tar Heels. 

    While some of the honorable mention teams may have more upside among their draft picks and free agents, the Clippers acquired one of the best coaches in the NBA to go along with one of the top point guards in the league. 

    L.A.'s best-case scenario is earning the second or third seed in the West and advancing to the conference finals. 

    Ian Thomsen of Sports Illustrated wrote that the Clippers are a dangerous team with their new additions.

    The Clippers aren't going to be favorites to win the West next season—neither Paul nor Blake Griffin has ever played beyond the second round. But they are going to give themselves a chance because the team has filled out the perimeter with shooters that will provide space for the two stars to create.

     

    However, Los Angeles is fifth on the list because it still has deficiencies at power forward and center. Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan are athletic but are huge liabilities at the free-throw line late in games. Plus, most of their offense is at or near the rim, which makes them limited offensively. 

4. Detroit Pistons

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    After signing free agent forward Josh Smith to a four-year, $54 million contract, the Detroit Pistons suddenly have one of the youngest, most intimidating frontcourts in the NBA. Smith can start at small forward with Greg Monroe and Andre Drummond at power forward and center, respectively. 

    Sports Illustrated's Rob Mahoney wrote about Smith's potential at small forward even though he may naturally fit better at power forward.

    Detroit didn’t exactly need Smith, but his addition—and rumored positioning at small forward—isn’t an incontrovertible disaster. He’s oscillated between both forward slots for years, and though Smith’s skill set may better jibe with conventional definitions of a power forward, that in itself didn’t stop him from being a tremendously effective wing option for Atlanta in the right lineups.

     

    While the trio will have to figure out how to play together in Detroit, they averaged more than 40 points, 25 rebounds and four blocks per game last season.

    And the best part?

    Drummond is 19, Monroe is 23 and Smith is 27. 

    Add in third-year combo guard Brandon Knight, the recently signed Chauncey Billups, a host of holdover role players (Will BynumJonas JerebkoKyle SinglerRodney Stuckey and Charlie Villanueva) and this year's draft picks—Kentavious Caldwell-PopeTony Mitchell and Peyton Siva—and the Pistons look like a playoff team. 

    Detroit was 29-53 last season. The Pistons' best-case scenario is that their strong frontcourt carries them to 10 to 12 more wins next season to capture one of the higher playoff seeds in the East.

3. Cleveland Cavaliers

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    A strong argument can be made for the Cavaliers to be in the top two most improved teams this offseason. 

    Cleveland has several up-and-coming players in its starting lineup and the team that was spurned by LeBron James is looking like it will make the playoffs for the first time since "The Decision."

    No. 1 overall pick Anthony Bennett, who averaged 16.1 points and 8.1 rebounds per game last season at UNLV, has the potential to be a very productive small forward, despite his defensive limitations. 

    The Cavs drafted two players who can play both shooting guard and small forward. They selected Russian Sergey Karasev with the 19th pick and Arizona State's Carrick Felix 33rd overall. 

    While Cleveland made some noise in the draft, the Cavaliers were only getting started with their offseason acquisitions. They signed ex-Laker forward Earl Clark, ex-Warrior backup guard Jarrett Jack and most notably, free-agent center Andrew Bynum, who had more hair styles (too many to count) than games played (zero) in Philadelphia last season.

    ESPN's Marc Stein tweeted that it was smart for Cleveland to only guarantee $6 million of the $24 million contract.

    Cavs played it smart. Guaranteeing $6M in a $24M deal sounds like a lot based on Bynum's health history, but it's really not. Cleveland ...

    — Marc Stein (@ESPNSteinLine) July 10, 2013

     

    Injuries have limited point guard Kyrie Irving to only 110 games in two seasons, but when he's healthy, he's good for 20 points and six assists per night. Last year, rookie shooting guard Dion Waiters averaged nearly 15 points per game. Power forward Tristan Thompson became a full-time starter in his second season and is on his way to being a dependable double-double player for a long time.

    Cleveland has its share of questions and uncertainty around its two biggest signings: Bennett and Bynum.

    The Cavs have to figure out how to fit Bennett, an undersized power forward, into their rotation. Plus, there had been rumors, according to ESPN's Chad Ford of Bennett's weight ballooning this offseason. Then there's the fact that he needs improvement defensively. 

    Cleveland took a risk in signing Bynum. His agent told interested teams that Bynum wouldn't work out for them, which raises major red flags about his health and passion for basketball.

    However, amid these concerns, there is a positive vibe about the Cavaliers this offseason. If the 2011-12 version of Bynum shows up (18.7 points and 11.8 rebounds per game) next season and Bennett becomes an immediate contributor, then Cleveland is suddenly in the conversation to potentially earn the fifth or sixth seed in the Eastern Conference next season. 

    While the Cavaliers will rely on a lot of young players who don't have playoff experience, they could advance to the Eastern Conference semifinals if they get the right first round matchup. 

    It also doesn't hurt that two of their biggest strengths, point guard and center (again, assuming Andrew Bynum is healthy and motivated), are at positions where the Miami Heat are vulnerable. 

2. Brooklyn Nets

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    Two questions loom over the Brooklyn Nets this offseason. 

    First, how will Jason Kidd, who is only a few years older than some of his players and does not have any previous coaching experience, fare in his first season as the head coach of the Nets?

    Even though Kidd lacks experience directing games from the sidelines, Nets fans should be encouraged by his attitude and mindset. ESPN's Michael Wallace tweeted that Kidd said Brooklyn has the "horses" to compete with the Miami Heat. 

    Kidd: Nets have 'horses' to knock off Heat http://t.co/3nmHnMqzKF

    — Michael Wallace (@WallaceNBA_ESPN) July 12, 2013

     

    Secondly, how will Brooklyn's team chemistry develop with many accomplished veterans who all want their share of touches and have a history of being the alpha male on their respective teams?

    If Brooklyn can answer those questions and keep their players healthy, the sky is the limit for the Nets. 

    They traded for Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, Jason Terry and D.J. White in a blockbuster deal with the Boston Celtics. 

    On draft night, the Nets selected former Duke power forward Mason Plumlee

    Then Brooklyn signed free agent Andrei Kirilenko for $3.1 million for next season after Kirilenko decided to take $7 million less than he would earn in Minnesota.  

    The Nets improved their bench even more by signing backup guard Shaun Livingston.

    Next season, Brooklyn can have a starting five of Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett and Brook Lopez. On the bench, the Nets will have Andrei Kirilenko, Jason Terry, Andray Blatche, Reggie Evans and Shaun Livingston as their second team. 

    As the fourth seed in the Eastern Conference last season, the Nets were eliminated in the first round by a Derrick Rose-less Chicago Bulls team that, late in the series, played without even Luol Deng and Kirk Hinrich.

    The Nets will likely finish somewhere between second and fourth place in the East but they have a roster that is built for the playoffs, unlike last season.

    Brooklyn's season will come down to head coaching, health and team chemistry. But if all goes well, then the Nets are among the seven teams—Miami, Chicago, Indiana, San Antonio, Oklahoma City and Houston—that can legitimately compete for an NBA title next season. 

    Two questions loom over the Brooklyn Nets this offseason. 

    First, how will Jason Kidd, who is only a few years older than some of his players and does not have any previous coaching experience, fare in his first season as the head coach of the Nets?

    Even though Kidd lacks experience directing games from the sidelines, Nets fans should be encouraged by his attitude and mindset. ESPN's Michael Wallace tweeted that Kidd said Brooklyn has the "horses" to compete with the Miami Heat. 

     

1. Houston Rockets

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    Dwight Howard finished second in MVP voting in the 2010-11 season ahead of LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant and Dirk Nowitzki. That season he averaged 23 points and 14 rebounds per game and made nearly 60 percent of his shots. 

    Howard has made the All-Star Game every year since 2007. He has been named the Defensive Player of the Year on three occasions, in addition to leading the league in rebounding five times.

    And he's durable. He is averaging more than 77 games played in the regular season in his nine-year career. 

    Maybe DH12 cares more about becoming a brand and getting attention than he does about winning a championship, but Houston was the best fit for him. He has talented young teammates on the Rockets in James Harden, Chandler Parsons, Omer Asik, Jeremy Lin and rookie point guard Isaiah Canaan. 

    If Howard cares as much about his image as the media suggests, then LeBron James winning back-to-back championships has to be the best motivation for Houston's new center. James went from a villain after "The Decision" and leaving Cleveland to an admired hero once he added a couple pieces of NBA jewelry to his hand. 

    The Rockets have just as much, if not more, talent as the Orlando Magic squad that Howard led to the NBA Finals in 2009 and now that Houston has assembled a powerhouse roster, there's no reason why he can't be a part of multiple more deep playoff runs in the Western Conference. 

    CBS' Gary Parrish tweeted that Houston can win a title because there is no one else like Howard in the league. 

    Houston tops the list over Brooklyn because the Nets could be hampered by Kidd's lack of coaching experience and some of its older players' bodies breaking down over the course of the season. The younger Rockets also have a longer window to potentially win a championship than the veteran Nets.

    Houston was the eighth seed in the Western Conference last season and its best-case scenario is to finish in the top three and potentially make the NBA Finals. The best part for the Rockets is that as long as Howard and Harden are together, Houston will be a dangerous team for years to come.