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Led by Kevin Durant (right), the Thunder are emerging as a darkhorse pick for 2009-10.
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Patience paying off for Thunder

By David Aldridge, TNT analyst
Posted Aug 8 2009 1:38PM

So, what was this offseason about in the NBA?

The rich getting richer, that's what. The defending champions lost nothing and gained Ron Artest, getting younger, deeper and more talented. The runners-up lost Hedo Turkoglu, but more than made up for it.

All over the league, the elites fortified themselves while their lessers fought for scraps. The Eastern Conference gained more traction in its tug-of-war with the West. The sour economy and the lack of much salary cap room this summer conspired to make movement slow for most, with players like Allen Iverson and David Lee waiting for the dam to burst and someone to come up with some cash. Money has now, unfortunately, created a class system in the NBA. It's clear that those with means can stay strong, while those without have to wait their turn. That cleaves the league nicely into five categories:

The Haves (Spurs, Lakers, Celtics, Magic, Cavaliers, Mavericks, Trail Blazers)

The Middle Class (Raptors, Wizards, Pistons, Hawks, Nuggets, Jazz, Rockets, 76ers)

The Holders (Bulls, Knicks, Heat)

The Folders (Timberwolves, Grizzlies, Bucks, Kings, Bobcats, Nets)

The Dreamers (Clippers, Hornets, Pacers, Warriors, Thunder, Suns)

In grading each team's offseason, the financial divide has to be taken into account. The Lakers simply have more money than a lot of teams, which makes their offseason that much easier. If Miami had offered Lamar Odom the same amount of money that Los Angeles did, he might be on South Beach right now. But Miami couldn't, and Los Angeles knew it, so L.A. could afford to wait for L.O. to come to its number. That's an advantage. But it doesn't mean the teams with less can't be productive, as you'll see below with teams like Indiana.

I grade teams on their entire offseason -- the Draft, free agency, trades, coaching changes, new ownership, new arenas, anything that has impacted or will impact rosters. But it's kind of graded on a curve because of the money disparities. Once again: This is not a predicted order of finish for next season, only one guy's evaluation of what's transpired between the end of each team's season and now.

Here are The Dreamers. For the others, click on the links above.

The dreamers

They don't have the bucks of the others, but they can still make the Playoffs because of dynamic individual talents (Chris Paul, Steve Nash) or as-yet untapped potential (Blake Griffin, Kevin Durant). If they can catch lightning in a bottle, they might make just enough money to squeeze a free agent pickup or make a trade next summer that could get them to the middle class.

L.A. CLIPPERS

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 12

Last season: 19-63, fourth place, Pacific; Did not make Playoffs.

Added: F Blake Griffin (first-round pick), G Sebastian Telfair (trade with Minnesota), F Craig Smith (trade with Minnesota), F/C Mark Madsen (trade with Minnesota)

Lost: F Zach Randolph (traded to Memphis), G Quentin Richardson (traded to Minnesota)

Retained: None

The key man: G Baron Davis. If he and Coach Mike Dunleavy will just meet each other halfway, the Clippers could take off next season.

The skinny: This roster is too talented to be as bad as last season. That, plus Griffin, could get the Clippers back to the Playoffs. Having him fall in the Clippers' laps allowed them to move Randolph and free up cap room for next summer. Davis was terrific at Tim Grgurich's camp in Vegas this week. But the guess is still that this is his last season in L.A., with a big trade coming next summer to bring a superstar to pair with Griffin and Eric Gordon.

NEW ORLEANS

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 14

Last season: 49-33, fourth place, Southwest; Lost in first round of Playoffs.

Added: F/C Emeka Okafor (trade with Charlotte), G Darren Collison (first-round pick), G Marcus Thornton (second-round pick), F Ike Diogu (free agent, Sacramento)

Lost: C Tyson Chandler (traded to Charlotte)

Retained: None

The key man: F James Posey. He didn't have a bad season coming off the bench last season; his numbers were about the same as they were in Boston the year before. But he's making $25 million now. The Hornets need an upgrade, not the status quo. Unfair? Yes. That's life in the big city.

The skinny: GM Jeff Bower keeps his own counsel. He ignored the advice of sage analysts such as myself that he needed to take Sam Young in the first round, and took UCLA's Collison to lessen Chris Paul's workload. He waited deep into June before finally trading Chandler, which everyone knew he had to do, and still got the better of the deal, adding a better offensive player and shot-blocker in Okafor. Thornton and Diogu provide much-needed bench depth. Quiet, but good. That's Bower.

INDIANA

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 16

Last season: 36-46, fourth place, Central; did not make Playoffs.

Added: F Tyler Hansbrough (first-round pick), G A.J. Price (second-round pick); G Dahntay Jones (free agent, Denver; four years, $11 million); G Earl Watson (free agent, Oklahoma City; one year, $3 million); F Solomon Jones (free agent, Atlanta)

Lost: G Jarrett Jack (signed with Toronto), G Marquis Daniels (signed with Boston)

Retained: C Josh McRoberts

The key man: C Roy Hibbert. This is a different team if the 7-foot-2 second-year center makes more of an impact next season. He doesn't have to score, just do what he can do -- rebound and block shots and make sure no one chumps Danny Granger.

The skinny: You couldn't see this team through all the injuries last season -- to Granger, to T.J. Ford, to Mike Dunleavy, to Troy Murphy. A return to relative health alone will do wonders, as will the addition of Hansbrough, who won't be as bad a pro as his critics believe nor as good as his idolators would have you believe. I kind of like what Larry Bird did this offseason; he added solid players like Jones and Watson who won't cost much. Losing Jack hurts, though, which is why the grade isn't higher.

GOLDEN STATE

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 17

Last season: 29-53, third place, Pacific; did not make Playoffs.

Added: G Stephen Curry (first-round pick), G Acie Law (trade with Atlanta), G Speedy Claxton (trade with Atlanta), F Devean George (trade with Toronto)

Lost: G Jamal Crawford (traded to Atlanta), G Marco Belinelli (traded to Toronto)

Retained: None

The key man: F Anthony Randolph. He came on strong the second half of last season and dominated the Vegas Summer League. The fullcourt skills are ridiculous, but is he ready for 35 minutes a night banging against much thicker power forwards?

The skinny: The Warriors will hang 150 on somebody next season. Write it in ink. They've got amazing offensive options, starting with Curry, Monta Ellis and Anthony Morrow in the backcourt, Stephen Jackson and Corey Maggette at small forward, Randolph at the four and Andris Biedrins at center. Who do you double-team? Who can you afford to leave alone? Nellie's gonna have some fun, that's for sure. Will The City get back to the Playoffs? No, but who cares when you lose 130-128?

OKLAHOMA CITY

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 23

Last season: 23-59, fifth place, Northwest; did not make Playoffs.

Added: G James Harden (first-round pick), C B.J. Mullens (traded rights from Dallas), G Robert Vaden (traded rights from Charlotte), C Etan Thomas (trade with Minnesota)

Lost: G Chucky Atkins (traded to Minnesota), F Damien Wilkens (traded to Minnesota), G Earl Watson (signed with Indiana)

Retained: None

The key man: G Russell Westbrook. The Thunder passed on Ricky Rubio, Tyreke Evans, Jonny Flynn and all the other available point guards in a point guard-rich draft because it thinks the second-year Westbrook is the man for the job. He got better and better as his rookie season went on, and he has to keep getting better to justify his team's not partaking in such a deep position.

The skinny: OKC is the darkhorse pick of many to contend for a playoff spot next year. I'm still skeptical. But there's no doubt that the Thunder have patiently built a very strong and young nucleus around Kevin Durant. Harden is a pro's pro; Mullens could accelerate the team's development greatly if he's a keeper in the middle. But a realistic look at the West says one more year of struggle. Then GM Sam Presti will strike and add the big-time piece to go with Durant. Then it's a whole new ballgame.

PHOENIX

DA's Offseason Rank: No. 25

Last season: 46-36, second place, Pacific; did not make Playoffs.

Added: F Earl Clark (first-round pick), F Taylor Griffin (second-round pick), G Sasha Pavlovic (trade with Cleveland), F Channing Frye (free agent, Portland; two years, $4 million)

Lost: C Shaquille O'Neal (traded to Cleveland), F Matt Barnes (signed with Orlando), C Ben Wallace (buyout)

Retained: F Grant Hill (two years, $6 million), removed interim tag from coach Alvin Gentry

The key man: C Robin Lopez. He was pretty good as Shaq's backup last season, but he's a starter now and will have to be productive with bigger minutes.

The skinny: Convinced Steve Nash to sign a two-year extension, but still have a lot of rebuilding to do. They'll run again like in the old days under Mike D'Antoni, but that's the problem -- Nash is 35 and Hill will be 37 on opening night. And Amar'e Stoudemire's eye injury has only put off the day of reckoning between him and the club, with ownership unwilling to give him a huge extension. A healthy STAT will at least bring some more promising young talent in return at the trade deadline or next summer.

Send your 2010 draft boards, crazy trade proposals, questions, comments and criticisms to daldridgetnt@gmail.com. If your e-mail is picked you'll be the next judge on American Idol, replacing wacky Paula. Well, actually, that's not true; you won't be sitting next to Simon any time soon. But we will publish your e-mail.

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