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David Aldridge

dwight howard
Dwight Howard's move to Houston makes it a legit playoff contender (and more) at last.

With summer shuffling all but finished, Rockets stand at the top


Posted Aug 5, 2013 12:17 PM

Let me get this straight -- this was the quiet summer?

Sandwiched between the Summer of 2012 (Dwightmare Part I, the Olympics) and the Summer of 2014 (basically, a rerun of the Summer of 2010, with LeBron James and a cast of thousands in free agency, the World Cup in Spain, plus the best potential Draft since 2003), 2013's offseason was supposed to be relatively drama-free. Dwight Howard would certainly stay with the Lakers, Chris Paul would stay with the Clippers, and the Draft was supposed to be meh.

We fall for it every time, don't we?

Howard, of course, defied the conventional wisdom that no one important ever A) Takes less money in free agency in order to find happiness, and B) leaves the Lakers in his prime. Those seeds have been in place for the past few years, of course; James and Chris Bosh took less than the max to play in Miami. But they were going to Miami, which had already won a title with Dwyane Wade and was, well, Miami. (Before you send hate Tweets, I think Houston is a great town. Honest.)

Howard's end in Los Angeles came after the Cavs shocked just about everyone by taking Anthony Bennett No. 1 overall in the Draft. The Cavs' move came after the Celtics traded their coach and the remaining 2/3 of their '08 championship core in separate deals -- but only because the Commish told them they couldn't do them in one big deal.

And so, with the offseason slowing down, and enough of the impact free agents and Draft picks now on their respective teams, there's enough intel to assess who had the most productive offseason, who did OK with what they had, and who came up a little short.

After this week's Tip, I'm gonna disappear for a while. Been a really long season. But I've got some great guest Tippers lined up for you and I hope you enjoy reading their takes.

As ever, the ground rules:

• Rule No. 1: These 30-team rankings are only for offseason moves, the things teams have done since they last played a game, taking into account the Draft, free agency and trades. It is not a predicted order of finish for next season; I do not expect Sacramento, for example, to have a better record than the Bulls, nor do I think Charlotte now has a better team than Miami. It's relative.

• Rule No. 2: This is as much art as science, weighing the impact both of the Draft and free agency, but also assessing whether teams got value in their free-agent signings. Overpaying the right player is as much a sin as signing the wrong player. New coaches, new GMs, new owners and new arenas are also significant factors in judging a team's summer success, for a good coach can coax some more wins out of a roster, and a new building can generate the kind of revenue necessary to let a team be aggressive in pursuing free agents and trades -- if not this season, then in future seasons. Also, teams that are rebuilding obviously have different priorities than teams making a championship push. That's factored in.

• Rule No. 3: Continuity matters here as well. The most successful teams identify a core group of players and keep them together several seasons; teams that re-sign their own players (at reasonable amounts) get good marks from me. The bottom line, though, is how much better is a team after its offseason moves than it was before? That is what is being ranked here: improvement.

• Rule No. 4: With more and more teams terrified of paying luxury tax, a team that stands pat must be viewed in the context of preserving cap space and/or flexibility in order to be able to make unbalanced trades down the road. Was Atlanta wrong not to blow all its cap space this summer, once it was clear that neither Dwight Howard nor Chris Paul would go there? I had to make a judgment on that. Same with Dallas, which obviously had other, bigger plans than what the Mavericks wound up doing.

The Top 10

Rockets, Nets, Pacers, Cavs, Clippers, Warriors, Hawks, Bobcats, Wolves, Kings

The Middle 10

Pistons, Grizzlies, Mavs, Spurs, Pelicans, Bucks, Wizards, Blazers, Lakers, Nuggets

The Bottom 10

Suns, Bulls, Knicks, Celtics, Raptors, Heat, Thunder, Magic, Jazz, Sixers

The Top 10

No. 1 -- HOUSTON ROCKETS

2012-13 RECORD: 45-37, third place, Southwest Division; lost in first round of playoffs

ADDED: C Marcus Camby (one year); F Omri Casspi (two years, $2 million); C Dwight Howard (four years, $88 million); G Reggie Williams (two years, $2 million); G Isaiah Canaan (second-round pick, 34th overall); F Robert Covington (two years, $2.25 million)

LOST: C Furkan Aldemir (rights traded to Philadelphia); G Carlos Delfino (signed with Milwaukee); F Royce White (traded to Philadelphia)

RETAINED: G Aaron Brooks (one year, $884,000), G Francisco Garcia (two years, $2.6 million)

THE KEY MAN: Center Omer Asik. If Asik, who asked for a trade when the Howard deal went down, can get past his disappointment at being relegated to the bench, Houston will have the best starter-backup center tandem in the league.

THE SKINNY: After years of maneuvering, GM Daryl Morey has gotten two stars to build around in Harden and Howard. Whether that will be enough to break through in the West is up for discussion. Are Howard's back issues a thing of the past? Can he regain the three-time Defensive Player of the Year form he had in Orlando? How will the Rockets' role players adjust to having to play off of Howard instead of in the freewheeling system coach Kevin McHale used last season? And is this a good enough defensive team? But the Rockets matter again in the West, and that was Morey's goal.

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No. 2 -- BROOKLYN NETS

2012-13 RECORD: 49-33, second place, Atlantic Division; lost in first round of playoffs

ADDED: Coach Jason Kidd; G/F Alan Anderson (two years, $2 million); F Kevin Garnett, F Paul Pierce, G Jason Terry (acquired from Boston via trade); F Andrei Kirilenko (two years, $6.5 million); G Shaun Livingston (one year, $1.27 million);

LOST: F/C Kris Humphries, F Gerald Wallace, G MarShon Brooks, G Keith Bogans, F Kris Joseph (trade with Boston), G C.J. Watson (signed with Indiana)

RETAINED: F Andray Blatche (one year, $1.37 million)

THE KEY MAN: Owner Mikhail Prokhorov. The Nets' owner continues to go all in to win at ridiculous numbers -- Brooklyn's tax bill for the upcoming season will be more than $87 million if it goes through the season without major roster changes. That tax bill is on top of a team salary that will be in excess of $102 million. Of course, the Russian tycoon is sitting on billions, and could conceivably spend this way for years. But other very rich owners have lost their taste for deficit spending if it doesn't produce championships. If Brooklyn doesn't overcome Miami and/or Indiana and Chicago in the next couple of years, will The Prokhorov keep the checkbook open this wide?

THE SKINNY: For all the heat and speculation the mega-trade with Boston produced, the Nets' biggest transaction remains their gamble on Kidd, who literally took off his Knicks uniform one week and was named Brooklyn's coach the next. He's never spent a minute on anyone's bench in any capacity other than as a player. Other former players have gotten that kind of shot before, from Bill Russell to Danny Ainge to Magic Johnson to Larry Bird to Mark Jackson. But few have had to come in and coach as veteran a team as Kidd will, that has such great expectations. The respect players have for Kidd is universal, but that was while he was a fellow player. Kidd will now have to develop his coaching philosophy and style, manage his new roles as a motivator and disciplinarian (I would pay cold hard cash to be there the first time J-Kidd has to cuss out KG for missing an assignment). He has to deal with the world's most ferocious and insatiable media market while never making another mistake in his personal life. That's a big ask. But if he pulls it off ... what a party they could have on Atlantic Avenue next season.

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No. 3 -- INDIANA PACERS

2012-13 RECORD: 49-32, first place, Central Division; lost in Eastern Conference finals

ADDED: F Chris Copeland (two years, $6.13 million); F/C Luis Scola (acquired via trade with Phoenix); G Donald Sloan (two years, $1.83 million); G C.J. Watson (two years, $4.09 million); F Solomon Hill (first-round pick, 23rd overall)

LOST: G D.J. Augustin (signed with Toronto); F Gerald Green, F Miles Plumlee (traded to Phoenix); F Tyler Hansbrough (signed with Toronto);

RETAINED: F David West (three years, $36.6 million)

THE KEY MAN: Guard George Hill. The Pacers came tantalizingly close to The Finals, with a couple of chances to knock off the Heat in the East finals. But Indiana was undone by its inability to handle Miami's pressure in Games 5 and 7 on the road, with 17 turnovers in Game 5 and 21 turnovers in Game 7. And when Indiana did manage to get into its offense, Hill didn't run his team near well enough or make enough shots (4 of 18 from the floor in Games 5 and 7 combined) to make the Heat back off. The Pacers are sticking with him, but Hill is going to have to be better in the biggest moments next season.

THE SKINNY: After getting next to no production from their bench against Miami, the Pacers shook that group up. The 33-year-old Scola takes Hansbrough's role as the top power forward off the bench and Watson replaces backup point Augustin. Indiana figures to get a boost next season with the return of Danny Granger, which should allow it to bring Lance Stephenson off the bench. Otherwise, Indiana's window is now wide open, with Roy Hibbert emerging in the playoffs after a horrid start to the season and Paul George looking like a max-player superstar for long stretches. And Coach Frank Vogel insisted during the playoffs that he was serious about putting in a zone defense for next season. Doing so could make what was already one of the league's top two or three defenses almost impregnable (if it takes to Mavs-circa-2011 type flow).

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No. 4 -- CLEVELAND CAVALIERS

2012-13 RECORD: 24-58, fifth place, Central Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: Coach Mike Brown; C Andrew Bynum (two years, $24 million); F Earl Clark (two years, $8.5 million); G Jarrett Jack (four years, $25.2 million); F Anthony Bennett (first-round pick, first pick overall), G/F Sergey Karasev (first-round pick, 19th overall)

LOST: F Omri Casspi (signed with Houston); G Wayne Ellington (signed with Dallas); G Shaun Livingston (signed with Brooklyn); F/C Marreese Speights (signed with Golden State)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Center Anderson Varejao. The oft-injured veteran is all that's currently standing between the Cavaliers and having to depend on the even-more-oft injured Bynum next year. No matter which one plays more in the middle, though, Cleveland has to become a better defensive unit. The Cavs were a sieve last year, allowing a ghastly 109.4 points per 100 possessions, according to basketball-reference.com, fourth-worst in the league -- a stat that got no better when Tristan Thompson was pressed into service at center because of Varejao's absence. Bynum would clearly help there -- he was tied for 15th in the league in defensive win shares (3.3) in 2011-12, his last healthy season. But, it's hard to see a scenario where he's up to speed physically by the time training camps and/or the regular season begin, or where the Cavs can be confident he can get through long stretches healthy. That means Cleveland will need Varejao to regain some of his defensive oomph that he brought in the salad days of LeBron.

THE SKINNY: GM Chris Grant continued to methodically re-stock the Cavs' shelves with versatile ingredients, starting with Jack, whose scoring and savvy should be a boon to Kyrie Irving's development (and get Irving off the ball on occasion). Whether starting or coming off the bench, Jack will be a stabilizing force. Taking Bennett first will obviously be dissected for a while, but his scoring chops are undeniable. Brown should certainly get more defensively out of this bunch than Byron Scott could manage, and a playoff run in the East is a distinct possibility. With young talent at every position, the Cavs are clearly ready to make a run at the well-known small forward with championship experience who will be an unrestricted free agent next summer and who could be the final piece to their puzzle. I am speaking, of course, of Trevor Ariza.

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No. 5 -- L.A. CLIPPERS

2012-13 RECORD: 56-26, first place, Pacific Division; lost in first round of playoffs

ADDED: Coach Doc Rivers (acquired from Boston); G Darren Collison (two years, $3.8 million); F Jared Dudley (acquired trade from Phoenix); C Byron Mullens (two years, $2 million); G J.J. Redick (acquired via sign-and-trade with Milwaukee); F Reggie Bullock (first-round pick, 25th overall)

LOST: G Eric Bledsoe, F Caron Butler (traded to Phoenix); G Chauncey Billups (signed with Detroit); DaJuan Summers (waived); C/F Ronny Turiaf (signed with Minnesota)

RETAINED: G Chris Paul (five years, $107 million); F Matt Barnes (three years, $10 million); C Ryan Hollins (one year, $884,000)

THE KEY MAN: Center DeAndre Jordan. Jordan again struggled in the playoffs, averaging just 3.7 ppg and 6.3 rpg against the Grizzlies in the first round. The Clippers don't need him to be a big-time scorer, but if he's going to keep playing starter's minutes, he has to do more -- or at least become more active on the glass against the better bigs in the league

THE SKINNY: Rivers will bring a championship focus to a franchise that's already done a lot of the heavy lifting in changing the culture from three decades of loss and slapstickery (a new word I just made up!) to playoff appearances and sold-out crowds at Staples Center. Rivers' first task is to finish the team's climb from a defensive joke to pretty good (11th last season in defensive efficiency) under former coach Vinny Del Negro. Next comes finding better options against the top defenses than Chris Paul trying to make chicken salad out of screen rolls. Enter Redick and Dudley, who each have career true shooting percentages of .580, giving Paul more space. Rivers also went the misdirection route on offense more in Boston the last couple of seasons, so there should be lots of plentiful ways to not only get more good open looks at 3-pointers (which the Clippers were pretty good at already). He should also be able to find more things for Blake Griffin to do on offense than roll for Lob City dunks or catch and shoot. Only a title will justify the Clippers giving up a first-round pick for Rivers to get him out of his Boston deal. It worked for the Patriots when they surrendered a first rounder to the Jets in 2000 for Bill Belichick, and Miami probably doesn't regret the $1 million and the 1995 first-rounder it gave the Knicks for Pat Riley.

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No. 6 -- GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

2012-13 RECORD: 47-35, second place, Pacific Division; lost in Western Conference semifinals

ADDED: G Toney Douglas (one year, $1.6 million); F Andre Iguodala (four years, $48 million); F/C Jermaine O'Neal (one year, $2 million); F/C Marreese Speights (three years, $10.9 million); G Nemanja Nedovic (first-round pick, 30th overall)

LOST: G Jarrett Jack (signed with Cleveland); F/C Carl Landry (signed with Sacramento); G Brandon Rush, F Richard Jefferson, C Andris Bierdins (traded to Utah)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Center Andrew Bogut. Forget Golden State's 30-17 regular season record without the Big Aussie last season. The Warriors can dream true contending thoughts if and only if Bogut can stay healthy. Still formidable at both ends of the floor after coming through a couple seasons' worth of injuries, Bogut was dominant against Denver in the first round and more than held his own against San Antonio in the West semis when he avoided foul trouble. The Warriors tried to add depth behind Bogut and Festus Ezeli (out several months following offseason surgery to fix his MCL and PCL) by signing Speights and O'Neal, but neither brings the tools that Bogut has in the box.

THE SKINNY: Mark Jackson was blunt with me during Las Vegas Summer League -- even though Kent Bazemore was tearing it up for a couple of weeks, he's not likely to see a lot of time when Golden State opens camp. There are five players ahead of Bazemore -- Steph Curry, Klay Thompson, Harrison Barnes, Draymond Green and Iguodala. That Gang of Five is the heart of the Warriors going forward. There isn't another team in the league with the versatility at the wings Golden State will have next season, and Iguodala should give Jackson even more defensive options at three positions. One wonders how Barnes, who started to look lethal as the series with the Spurs went on, will handle what seems likely to be a trip to the bench. Maybe he'll slide easily a la Harden as OKC's "sixth starter" years ago. The Warriors will need someone to pick up the slack in reserve for Jack and Landry, big losses for a team that had great chemistry all season.

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No. 7 -- ATLANTA HAWKS

2012-13 RECORD: 44-38, second place, Southeast Division; lost in first round of playoffs

ADDED: Coach Mike Budenholzer; F/C Elton Brand (one year, $4 million); F/C Paul Millsap (two years, $19 million); G Dennis Schroeder (first-round pick, 17th overall); C Lucas Noguiera (draft rights acquired from Dallas); G Jared Cunningham (acquired via trade from Dallas)

LOST: G Devin Harris (signed with Dallas); C Zaza Pachulia (signed with Milwaukee); F Josh Smith (signed with Detroit)

RETAINED: G Kyle Korver (four years, $24 million); G Jeff Teague (matched four-year, $32 million offer sheet by Milwaukee)

THE KEY MAN: Teague. The Hawks held onto him by matching the Bucks' offer sheet, keeping him from his old coach, Larry Drew, who wanted him badly in Milwaukee. Paying $8 million a season for a starting point guard is doing very well these days, and Teague has improved his game since becoming the full-time starter (though he was still 20th in the league last season among point guards in PER). Any hopes the Hawks have of moving out of the middle of the pack lie with Teague, who'll now have the German rookie Schroeder pushing him for minutes.

THE SKINNY: The Hawks were cost-efficient in free agency once it became clear their long-shot hopes of getting Dwight Howard or Chris Paul in free agency weren't going to come through. GM Danny Ferry added solid, low-cost vets in Millsap and Brand, while drafting for the future with Schroeder and center Noguiera, who may play overseas this season. Atlanta will remain patient and competitive while waiting for another shot at a bigger group of impact free agents next summer.

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No. 8 -- CHARLOTTE BOBCATS

2012-13 RECORD: 21-61, fourth place, Southeast Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: Coach Steve Clifford; F/C Al Jefferson (three years, $40.5 million); F/C Cody Zeller (first-round pick, 4th overall)

LOST: C Byron Mullens (signed with Clippers); F Tyrus Thomas (waived via amnesty provision); G Reggie Williams (signed with Houston)

RETAINED: G Ben Gordon (picked up player option); G Gerald Henderson (three years, $16 million); F Josh McRoberts (picked up player option)

THE KEY MAN: Swingman Michael Kidd-Gilchrist. The Bobcats insisted trade rumors involving their rising second-year forward were bogus, but even so, MKG must develop some kind of consistent offense. Mark Price, new to Charlotte's bench as an assistant and de facto shooting coach, said that Kidd-Gilchrist's form was so off last season that he would take baseline jumpers with his feet pointing out of bounds. Charlotte signed Jefferson to give MKG more room to drive, the thing he does quite well offensively. But he'll have to fix the jumper to have any chance to be anything more than a situational player.

THE SKINNY: Charlotte had to show some level of seriousness in improving the roster, so it gave Jefferson a boatload of cash, and gambled that Zeller's all-around game will translate to the pros. For what it's worth, Zeller looked terrific in the Las Vegas Summer League. There is still a long, long way to go to get the locals excited about the on-court product, but the team should at least be representative on offense running things through Jefferson. And the Bobcats, in their last season with that nickname before they become the Hornets again, have more than $20 million in tradeable contracts to move for more pieces (the expiring deals of Ben Gordon and Ramon Sessions, plus the very reasonable $2 million of backup center Brendan Haywood, whose minutes will certainly trickle to drips with Jefferson in town).

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No. 9 -- MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

2012-13 RECORD: 31-51, fifth place, Northwest Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: F Corey Brewer (three years, $15 million); G Kevin Martin (four years, $28 million); F/C Ronny Turiaf (two years, $3.2 million); G/F Shabazz Muhammad, C Gorgui Dieng (draft rights acquired from Utah)

LOST: F Andrei Kirilenko (signed with Brooklyn); C Greg Stiemsma (signed with New Orleans)

RETAINED: F Dante Cunningham (team option picked up); F Chase Budinger (three years, $16 million)

THE KEY MAN: GM and President of Basketball Operations Flip Saunders. The Timberwolves' former coach was brought back by owner Glen Taylor to continue adding to the team's talent base after Taylor dismissed former GM David Kahn -- but to also repair the relationship between the franchise and Kevin Love, whose opt-out in 2015 looms larger and larger each day.

THE SKINNY: At this writing, there's a huge shoe yet to fall in Minnesota -- the status of restricted free agent center Nikola Pekovic. The bruising center still seems likely to remain with the Wolves, but each day can give rival GMs ideas of how to construct three-team deals that might give Pekovic the loot he's looking for. Assuming Pekovic ultimately is re-signed, the Wolves can trot out a very representative starting five next season, having pried Martin loose from Oklahoma City to take over at the two.

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No. 10 -- SACRAMENTO KINGS

2012-13 RECORD: 28-54, fourth place, Pacific Division; did not make playoffs

ADDED: Coach Mike Malone; F/C Carl Landry (four years, $26 million); F Luc Mbah a Moute (acquired from Milwaukee); G Greivis Vasquez (acquired from New Orleans); G Ben McLemore (first-round pick, 7th overall); G Ray McCallum (second-round pick, 36th overall)

LOST: G Toney Douglas (signed with Golden State); G Tyreke Evans (sign-and-trade to New Orleans)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Majority owner Vivek Ranadive. Sacramento has been active and energetic since the NBA's Board of Governors picked Ranadive's group to run the team, and Ranadive wasted no time picking the coach and general manager he wanted -- in that order. The Kings then made a serious run at free agent Andre Iguodala before losing out to the Warriors. Ranadive has also already addressed the elephant in the room -- what to do with DeMarcus Cousins. Ranadive has made it clear he hopes to keep the center around for a while. He was hanging out with Cousins' people at the USA Basketball camp last month and talks on an extension are ongoing. Meanwhile, plans for the franchise-saving arena that Ranadive pledged to build in Sacramento continue apace, though there is small local opposition.

THE SKINNY: If Cousins is indeed going to be the cornerstone of the franchise, the Kings have to surround him with shooters and playmakers. The Draft afforded them a chance at getting both. Having McLemore fall into the Kings' laps at seven in the Draft was a gift, allowing them to move Evans and get back a solid piece in Vasquez. But Malone's bones are about defense; it's been his calling card as an assistant and hot coaching prospect for several seasons. Does Sacramento have the personnel to make a big leap defensively? Enter Mbah a Moute, who established a reputation as one of the league's better on-ball defenders before injuries slowed him the last two seasons. He's not a difference-maker by any means, but every drop of defense in the Kings' culture bucket is going to be up Malone's alley.

>> OFFSEASON GRADES: THE MIDDLE 10 | OFFSEASON GRADES: THE BOTTOM 10

Longtime NBA reporter and columnist David Aldridge is an analyst for TNT. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

The views on this page do not necessarily reflect the views of the NBA, its clubs or Turner Broadcasting.

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