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Summer improvement rankings: Miami, Indy, LA teams fall back


POSTED: Aug 5, 2014 6:24 AM ET

By David Aldridge

BY David Aldridge

TNT Analyst

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New Lakers coach Byron Scott (with GM Mitch Kupchak) has his work cut out for him.

Boom.

It's a network slogan and evocative of how fast things changed in the NBA this summer.

A year ago, I put LeBron James' chances of leaving the Miami Heat at 2 percent. As the season went on, I upped it -- to about 5 percent. But never did I expect the game's best player, in the middle of his career, to walk away from the organization and teammates that helped him become a champion. This is not a criticism of James for doing so. It was just a surprise, because so few players had done so in the past, no matter the circumstances.

And with the NBA world now spun on its axis, having almost turned completely around, an assessment is due. There are still a couple of precincts that have yet to report -- I'm looking at you, Greg Monroe -- but for the most part, we know most of what all 30 teams have done in the offseason to make themselves better. And that's all these rankings reflect -- who did the best at making their team better.

If I ranked your team in the top 10, it doesn't mean I love your team. If I ranked your team in the bottom 10, it doesn't mean I hate your team. It's just an opinion. Take it as such, for what it's worth.

As ever, the ground rules: these 30-team rankings are only for offseason moves, everything that 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 Boston, for example, to have a better record than the Grizzlies, nor do I think Philadelphia now has a better team than San Antonio. It's relative.

It 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.

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.

And, 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 Boston wrong not to do something with all that cap room it has if it couldn't snare Kevin Love in a trade, or was it better to fight another day? I had to make a judgment on that. Same with Houston, which obviously had other, bigger plans than what the Rockets wound up doing.

Salary figures, save one or two, are from the incomparable Mark Deeks' Sham Sports. If he ever has a number wrong, it's news to me.

The Top 10

Cavaliers, Bulls, Hornets, Celtics, Nuggets, Raptors, Mavericks, Grizzlies, Spurs, Knicks

The Middle 10

76ers, Thunder, Wizards, Magic, Nets, Hawks, Suns, Pistons, Bucks, Kings

The Bottom 10

Clippers, Warriors, Pelicans, Lakers, Jazz, Pacers, Rockets, Heat, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves

The Bottom 10

21) LOS ANGELES CLIPPERS

Ruling on Sterling Case

2013-14 RECORD: 57-25, lost in second round

ADDED: G C.J. Wilcox (first round, 28th pick overall): C Spencer Hawes (four years, $22.6 million); G Jordan Farmar (two years, $4.2 million)

LOST: G Darren Collison (signed with Sacramento); F Danny Granger (signed with Miami); F WIllie Green (waived, then signed with Orlando)

RETAINED: F/C Glen Davis (one year, $915,000)

THE KEY MAN: The Honorable Michael I Levanas. The Los Angeles Superior Court Judge cleared almost all of the legal hurdles surrounding the proposed sale of the franchise to Microsoft co-founder Steve Ballmer for $2 billion last week with a clear-cut ruling in favor of Shelly Sterling, Donald Sterling's estranged wife, who conducted the sale of the team to Ballmer with the NBA's blessing and counsel. Levanas affirmed Shelly Sterling's claim that she acted properly as a trustee of the family trust that owns the team in selling the team to Ballmer; agreed that physicians who determined Donald Sterling was suffering from early stages of Alzheimer's Disease, making him incapable of serving as co-trustee of the franchise along with Shelly Sterling, acted properly, and concurred with witnesses, including acting CEO Richard Parsons, that the team's value would drop significantly in the coming months if Donald Sterling were to remain as principal owner. Donald Sterling will likely appeal aspects of the ruling, but it's more likely now that he would simply seek financial redress in one fashion or another rather than continue pursuing control of the team.

THE SKINNY: The Sterling Affair drained the team of its ardor during the playoffs. Donald Sterling will certainly continue his legal fights in one court or another, but if the NBA approves the sale of the team to Ballmer by its Sept. 15 deadline, a huge emotional Rubicon will be crossed. In the interim, Doc Rivers tinkered around the margins, bringing Hawes from Cleveland to give Chris Paul and Blake Griffin more room to operate, and Farmer from across the hallway at Staples Center to back up Paul and replace Collison. Wilcox and second-year guard Reggie Bullock figure to fight it out for a late rotation spot behind J.J. Redick. But Rivers couldn't conjure up a deal that got Paul Pierce out to Cali to play the three. The ranking suffers accordingly.

22) GOLDEN STATE WARRIORS

Postgame: Steve Kerr

2013-14 RECORD: 51-31, lost in first round

ADDED: G Shaun Livingston (three years, $16.6 million); G Brandon Rush (two years, $2.4 million)

LOST: G Steve Blake (signed with Portland)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Coach Steve Kerr. My former TNT colleague takes his seat as a first-time head coach, replacing Mark Jackson. Kerr wants more ball movement on offense and not as many isolations for Steph Curry and Klay Thompson, and there's no doubt he'll figure out sets to make that happen. Kerr's personality wears well and he'll be relentless in working to get better. He was also secure enough to bring in first-rate assistants Alvin Gentry and Ron Adams. But Kerr will have to show his motivational and teaching chops quickly. This isn't a rebuild. Jackson did an amazing job changing the fortunes of one of the league's sorriest franchises. Expectations will be high for Kerr to get Golden State to the next level.

THE SKINNY: The weeks-long pursuit of Kevin Love looking unfulfilled, Golden State looks like it will go to camp with most of the playoff roster from last spring intact. Livingston will provide immediate benefits backing up both Curry and Thompson. I thought there would be more interest in Rush, who returned to action last season in Utah after missing parts of two seasons with a knee injury. He did well in Golden State, though, before he was hurt, and that familiarity allowed him another look. One wonders what the state of mind of Thompson and David Lee will be, having heard their names involved in the Love talks. One also wonders how patient owner Joe Lacob will be with Kerr after having given Jackson little chance to correct perceived errors in communicating with the front office.

23) NEW ORLEANS PELICANS

West Draft Review: New Orleans Pelicans

2013-14 RECORD: 34-48, did not make playoffs

ADDED: C Omer Asik (acquired from Houston); G Russ Smith (Draft rights acquired from Philadelphia); G Jimmer Fredette (one year, $948,000); C Patric Young (two years, $1.3 million)

LOST: G Anthony Morrow (signed with Oklahoma City); F Al-Farouq Aminu (signed with Dallas); G Brian Roberts (signed with Charlotte); F/C Jason Smith (signed with New York); F Melvin Ely (traded to Washington)

RETAINED: F Darius Miller (one year, $915,000)

THE KEY MAN: G Eric Gordon. It seems Gordon is always the key man, but it is especially so now. New Orleans matched that $58 million offer sheet Gordon got from the Suns a couple of years ago, insisting he was going to be a major part of the rotation. After missing most of two seasons with injuries, Gordon played in 64 games last season and put up decent numbers (15.4 points per game, 39 percent on threes). The contract demands more, though. Gordon underwent an arthroscopic cleanup on his knee in April, but expects to be ready for training camp -- something he's yet to be able to do in any of his three previous seasons in New Orleans.

THE SKINNY: The 7-foot-1 28-year-old Asik was targeted for one reason -- to get Anthony Davis out of the hole. The Pelicans know that playing Davis at center is not good for his long-term survival as a pro. Enter Asik, who was brought to Houston with great fanfare -- and a $25 million contract -- in 2012, but never lived up to the expectations. Last year, Asik was physically injured and mentally scarred after the Rockets signed Dwight Howard. And any thoughts of the two of them playing together for long stretches quickly dissipated. There's no such pressure on Asik in the Bayou. He and Davis could be a potent defensive combo in the paint, and Asik, in the last year of his current deal, will be playing for another contract. If Asik earns another big payday, the Pelicans will almost certainly be delighted; that would mean he helped keep Davis healthy. (Ironically, the template for this came when New Orleans traded Robin Lopez to Portland last summer for rookie Jeff Withey. Lopez bonded immediately with LaMarcus Aldridge and allowed Aldridge to thrive at power forward, his natural position.) Things are crowded in the backcourt with Jrue Holiday, Tyreke Evans and Gordon, but Fredette can still shoot, and there's always a place in this league today for someone who can shoot. Russdiculous may or may not make the roster, but he'll make a showing while he's out there.

24) L.A. LAKERS

Jeremy Lin Introduction

2013-14 RECORD: 27-55, did not make playoffs

ADDED: F Julius Randle (first round, 7th pick overall); G Jordan Clarkson (Draft rights acquired from Washington); G Jeremy Lin (acquired from Houston); F Carlos Boozer (claimed off amnesty waivers, $3.2 million); F Ed Davis (two years, $2 million)

LOST: F Pau Gasol (signed with Chicago); G Jodie Meeks (signed with Detroit); G Jordan Farmar (signed with L.A. Clippers); C Chris Kaman (signed with Portland); F Jeff Adrien (signed with Houston); G Kendall Marshall (waived, then signed with Milwaukee)

RETAINED: F/C Jordan Hill (two years, $18 million); G Nick Young (four years, $21.5 million); F Xavier Henry (one year, $1 million); F/C Ryan Kelly (two years, $3.3 million); F Wesley Johnson (one year deal)

THE KEY MAN: Coach Byron Scott. The longtime former player and one of the last active links to the Showtime era has to make sense out of this hash of a roster. L.A. actually has more than enough athletes to be able to run credibly. A lineup of, say, Lin, Young, Henry, Randle and Hill could get up and down the floor pretty well. But with Kobe coming back from his knee injury, that's not gonna happen. So Scott has to meld a halfcourt-centric core of Bryant, Boozer and Steve Nash with the young horses. One can only imagine what will happen at the other end of the floor. Under former coach Mike D'Antoni, L.A. was 25th in the league in field-goal percentage allowed and 28th in defensive rating. But Bryant publicly endorsed Scott before the Lakers made it official, and with their collapse on the court, the Lakers have no choice but to try it BScott's way for a while.

THE SKINNY: There's no way that all this can come together in one season, and there's no way to recover quickly from another whiff at free agency, with Anthony contemplating a move west, but deciding in the end to stay in New York. But Randle is a very solid piece to build around. He does a lot more than bully people in the paint. He can pass, he has a touch outside of the paint and he has a nice feel for the game. Lin has never been as great as his supporters say nor as bad as his critics contest; he's a good, solid guard who'll get the ultimate tutelage from Nash, playing his final season. Davis should have stuck in Memphis, but didn't. Now's a great time for him to figure it out. You give Boozer minutes, he'll score. Scoring, of course, was never the problem in L.A.

25) UTAH JAZZ

West Draft Review: Utah Jazz

2013-14 RECORD: 25-57, did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Dante Exum (first round, 5th pick overall); G/F Rodney Hood (first round, 23rd pick overall); F Trevor Booker (two years, $9.7 million); F Steve Novak (acquired from Toronto); G Carrick Felix (acquired from Cleveland)

LOST: F Marvin Williams (signed with Charlotte); G Brandon Rush (signed with Golden State); F Richard Jefferson (signed with Dallas)

RETAINED: F Gordon Hayward (matched four-year, $63 million offer sheet from Charlotte)

THE KEY MAN: Coach Quin Snyder. The former college and D League head coach, who's been an assistant in Atlanta, Philly and the Lakers the past few seasons, gets his shot at an NBA head coaching gig. Snyder's philosophies meshed with Mike Budenholzer's in Atlanta last season, with the assistant getting his share of the credit for the Hawks' improved flow. He'll have young talent to work with in Salt Lake, and having been around the Spurs (he coached their D-League affiliate in Austin), Doug Collins in Philly, Mike Brown in L.A., Ettore Messina at CSKA Moscow (2012) and Budenholzer in Atlanta, Snyder's own coaching ideas should keep growing, and he'll likely expand the games of Hayward and Derrick Favors.

THE SKINNY: Utah's putting some good pieces together, with Hayward and Favors and Enes Kanter up front, and Trey Burke, Alec Burks and Exum in the backcourt. But young has an awfully hard time winning anything substantive in this league, especially for a young team in the west, and none of the aforementioned half-dozen is 25 years old yet. The 19-year-old Exum is talented, to be sure, but he's got some learning to do, and he'll have to get a rapport with Burke -- who's also still learning the pro game. Hood could be a high-value pick; he looked very good in Vegas. But can Snyder possibly find enough playing time for all of them, not to mention vets Booker and Novak? But the time is coming, and soon, when GM Dennis Lindsey will have enough to make a move on someone's disgruntled star with legit assets to send back.

26) INDIANA PACERS

GameTime: George Injury Discussion

2013-14 RECORD: 56-26, lost in Eastern Conference finals.

ADDED: G C.J. Miles (four years, $17.9 million); G Rodney Stuckey (one year, $915,000); F Damjan Rudez (three years, $3.4 million)

LOST: G Lance Stephenson (signed with Charlotte); G/F Evan Turner (signed with Boston)

RETAINED: F Lavoy Allen (one year, $915,000)

THE KEY MAN: Dan Dyrek, Team Physical Therapist Consultant. The longtime physican worked almost non-stop for years to keep Larry Bird's back functioning well enough for him to play out his waning years in Boston (he is still the Red Sox's Director of Sports Medicine). And he will surely be among those Bird trusts most as the team devises a rehab plan for Paul George, injured in that gruesome scene during Friday night's Team USA exhibition in Vegas. (Normally, I tell you to Google stuff if you want to see it. Trust me. Don't Google it.) Knowing Dyrek's history, and Bird's history, I know that Indiana will be relentless in looking for every way to make George's rehab easier, but they will also be honest with him, and they won't push him. These are two guys who know the pressure on a star player trying to push through pain. They will be grownups about it.

THE SKINNY: This was already a lousy offseason for Indy, with Stephenson leaving for what amounts to pennies on the dollar over what the Pacers offered him. Now, it's catastrophic. No one expects George to play a second next season, and although the initial reports indicate a clean break in the bone, that won't mean anything in the months to come. It's incredible how long and painstaking a process it is to build a contender -- and how so very fast it can come unraveled. (There's obviously no replacing George, though the team can apply to the league for a disabled player exception, which would be granted when a physician designated by the NBA determined that George would miss all of next season. In that case, because of George's max salary, the team could only get an exception at the non-taxpayer midlevel amount of $5.3 million for next season. The Pacers could also trade for a player in the final year of his contract that is making $5.4 million next season.) The Pacers had high hopes that second-year swingman Solomon Hill could contribute some next season. He'll get his chance now, under horrible circumstances.

27) HOUSTON ROCKETS

West Draft Review: Houston Rockets

2013-14 RECORD: 54-28, lost in first round

ADDED: F Trevor Ariza (sign/trade with Washington -- four years, $32 million); F Alonzo Gee (acquired from New Orleans); F Clint Capela (first round, 25th pick overall); G Nick Johnson (second round, 42nd pick overall); F Jeff Adrien (one year, $915,000); G Ish Smith (one year, $915,000); C Joey Dorsey (two years, $1.9 million)

LOST: F Chandler Parsons (signed with Dallas); G Jeremy Lin (traded to L.A. Lakers); C Omer Asik (traded to New Orleans)

RETAINED: G Troy Daniels (two years, $1.7 million)

THE KEY MAN: G Patrick Beverley. The Rockets are entirely different when Beverley is healthy and causing havoc on the ball. They were 39-17 with him in the lineup; 15-11 when he wasn't. And with Parsons gone, everyone is going to have to do a little more. That means continuing to improve behind the 3-point arc for Beverley.

THE SKINNY: Houston has become an NBA Rorschach Test; you see in the Rockets what you want. If you like GM Daryl Morey's aggressiveness and willingness to always take a shot at game-changing players, Houston was right not to throw good money after bad at Parsons, and the Rockets remain a cutting-edge franchise. If you think Morey is a swashbuckler with little regard for his players' well-being, you delighted at Houston getting a taste of its own medicine, from Dallas, whose offer sheet was just too rich for Houston's blood. And you constantly point out just how little the Rockets have won in the postseason since Morey took over. The truth, as is almost always the case, is somewhere in the middle. But there's no arguing what a poor offseason Morey and his team had. The Rockets didn't get Carmelo or LeBron or Chris Bosh, whom they targeted with a max deal. Instead, Bosh took an even better max deal to stay in Miami. They dumped Lin and Osik to create enough room to make a run at Bosh, and wound up with nothing. They did get Ariza's sticky hands and defensive instincts, and on a team with Howard and Beverely on the court, that could give Houston an edge at the defensive end.

28) MIAMI HEAT

Bosh Stays In Miami

2013-14 RECORD: 54-28, lost NBA Finals

ADDED: F Luol Deng (two years, $19.8 million); F Josh McRoberts (four years, $22.6 million); F Danny Granger (two years, $4.2 million); G Shabazz Napier (Draft rights acquired from Charlotte)

LOST: F LeBron James (signed with Cleveland); F James Jones (signed with Cleveland); F Shane Battier (retired)

RETAINED: F Chris Bosh (five years, $118 million); G Dwyane Wade (two years, $31 million): C Chris Andersen (two years, $10 million); G Mario Chalmers (two years, $8.3 million); F Udonis Haslem (two years, $5.6 million)

THE KEY MAN: Bosh. No one had him staying if James left town, but here he is, having gotten a max deal to stay in Miami in order to walk away from the Rockets. And no one expects Bosh to replicate all the things James did. But he's scored before in his career, and with the remaining and new talent on Miami's roster, playing through Bosh makes the most sense.

THE SKINNY: There's no spin that can cover up for losing the best player in the game. And as such, there's no way Miami isn't one of the big losers this offseason, no matter the scrambling that Pat Riley's done since James announced he was heading back to Cleveland. Deng will play well and McRoberts will be an active big body, and Napier will get better after a terrible summer league, and Erik Spoelstra will devise smart game plans. But there's a reason James walked away from all that institutional knowledge and mental toughness. Wade couldn't perform at a high level during the Finals despite being protected all season. Andersen and Haslem were injured at key stretches during the season, and even two of Miami's replacements, Deng and Granger, have battled injuries throughout their careers. In the east, Miami is still a playoff team. But it's no longer the team to beat.

29) PORTLAND TRAIL BLAZERS

2013-14 RECORD: 54-28, lost in second round

ADDED: C Chris Kaman (two years, $9.8 million); G Steve Blake (two years, $4.2 million)

LOST: G Mo Williams (signed with Minnesota)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: C Meyers Leonard. Damian Lillard was so electric and dynamic as Rookie of the Year in 2012 that Leonard, the 11th pick overall that year, has been able to come along slower without inviting much public or national scrutiny. The Blazers said when they drafted him that Leonard's ability to run the floor would get him into the rotation, but that hasn't happened yet. There isn't a ton of pressure on Leonard to produce with Robin Lopez established in the hole, and Kaman now backing him up, but at some point soon, Leonard's going to have to earn his keep in a meaningful spot.

THE SKINNY: I'm not being critical here; Portland didn't do anything really wrong. But the Blazers just didn't do much at all. Portland didn't delve too deeply into free agency, with a solid rotation, a lot of guaranteed contracts going forward for at least this coming season and a need to prepare for 2015, when Cousin LaMarcus will likely opt out and become a free agent. He's said he'll do so only to sign a bigger deal and wants to stay in Portland, but this coming season's results could certainly impact that decision. Blake replaces Williams as Lillard's backup, and Kaman comes in after struggling at Dallas and with the Lakers to stay in the regular rotation. He won't be starting here, which should help. The Blazers are also looking for internal improvement from the likes of second-year guards C.J. McCollum and Allen Crabbe, or third-year man Will Barton.

30) MINNESOTA TIMBERWOLVES

All-Access: Zach LaVine

2013-14 RECORD: 40-42, did not make playoffs

ADDED: G Zach LaVine (first round, 13th pick overall); G Glenn Robinson III (second round, 40th pick overall); G Mo Williams (one year, $3.75 million)

LOST: None

RETAINED: G Robbie Hummel (one year, $880,000)

THE KEY MAN: G Ricky Rubio. When and if Kevin Love is traded, there will be even more pressure on Rubio to be the game-changing force Minnesota's front office insisted he'd be when he came over from Spain. That just hasn't happened yet. He shot a ghastly 38 percent from the floor and his 5.9 estimated Win Shares last season was only good for 12th among point guards. Understand: No one is saying Rubio is terrible. He was fourth in the league in assists (8.6) last season. He just hasn't been as good as we were told he'd be.

THE SKINNY: This rating is sure to change in late August, when the Wolves finally pull the trigger on a Kevin Love trade. If Minnesota does deal Love to Cleveland, as just about everyone expects, and gets Andrew Wiggins back as part of the package, that would be worth a slot or two north. It still would not be a good offseason for the Wolves, but at least they'd have someone tangible around which to build. Until then, though, there isn't much in the way of noticeable improvements -- understandable, as the franchise has more or less been put on hold until Love is moved. LaVine's hops will get him his own line of athletic gear, but he still has to guard people at the other end. And while the Wolves were presentable defensive under former coach Rick Adelman, they did have significant lapses at times.

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