POSTED: Aug 5, 2014 6:09 AM ET
LeBron James is back home, and that means Cleveland is on its way up.
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
76ers, Thunder, Wizards, Magic, Nets, Hawks, Suns, Pistons, Bucks, Kings
Clippers, Warriors, Pelicans, Lakers, Jazz, Pacers, Rockets, Heat, Trail Blazers, Timberwolves
1) CLEVELAND CAVALIERS
David Blatt Interview
2013-14 RECORD: 33-49, did not make playoffs
ADDED: F LeBron James (two years, $42.2 million); F Mike Miller (two years, $5.5 million); F James Jones (one year, $1.4 million); F Andrew Wiggins (first-round pick, first overall); G Joe Harris (second round, 33rd overall); C Brendan Haywood (acquired from Charlotte); F Derrick Powell (acquired from Charlotte); G John Lucas III (acquired from Utah)
LOST: G Jarrett Jack (traded to Brooklyn); F Sergey Karasev (traded to Brooklyn); C Tyler Zeller (traded to Boston); G Carrick Felix (traded to Utah); F Alonzo Gee (traded to Charlotte); C Spencer Hawes (signed with L.A. Clippers)
THE KEY MAN: Coach David Blatt. The rookie NBA coach has a strong reputation from his work in Russia and Israel over the years, developing chemistry where little existed previously. He has a great leg up now, obviously, with James. But his offense will have to be diversified enough to integrate the scoring skills of Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters with shooters like Mike Miller. Will Blatt utilize LeBron in the post, as Erik Spoelstra ultimately did in Miami? And will Blatt, who believes in his abilities, command the respect of NBA players in a high-pressure, high expectation situation right out of the box?
THE SKINNY: The Cavs flopped the nut straight. James is back, after his four-year sojourn in Miami. Cleveland is not a finished product, but it has a lot of good pieces. Giving Irving a five-year max deal was a no-brainer, and James' presence compelled former Heat teammates Miller and Jones to come. When and if the Cavs pull the trigger on the Kevin Love trade, the 216 SuperFriends will get at least two shots at that long-awaited championship for Cleveland. But even if Love comes, there are questions about the Cavs' ability to defend. At this point of his career, James knows he can't keep having to guard the opposition's best player every night and put up near triple-doubles without it taking a toll (which is one of the reasons I'd keep Wiggins around, even if it means the Wolves walk away from a Love deal). Anderson Varejao is the last line of defense at the moment, but he's had several injuries the past couple of seasons. The last piece to that victory parade is probably not yet on the roster. It's GM David Griffin's job to find him before 2016.
2) CHICAGO BULLS
Derrick Rose Interview
2013-14 RECORD: 48-34, lost in first round
ADDED: F Pau Gasol (three years, $22 million); F Nikola Mirotic (three years, $16.6 million); F Doug McDermott (Draft rights acquired from Denver); C Cameron Bairstow (second round, 49th pick overall); G Aaron Brooks (one year, $915,000)
LOST: F Carlos Boozer (amnestied)
RETAINED: G Kirk Hinrich (two years, $5.5 million)
THE KEY MAN: G Derrick Rose. Two-plus years removed from his first knee injury, and coming off surgery to repair a torn meniscus after just 11 games last season, Rose has returned to the court to work out for the U.S. World Cup team. By all accounts, he's looked a lot like his old self, and has been explosive. How the Bulls will work him back into regular minutes during the season will be one of the important stories of the year. It would not surprise if Chicago implements a Popovichian/Sloanian minutes limit on Rose at least until the playoffs.
THE SKINNY: Chicago went all in for Carmelo Anthony and missed, but wound up with a very productive summer anyway. The bet here is Gasol has at least two good seasons left in him after being put in drydock in Los Angeles (where he feuded with then-coach Mike D'Antoni). A Gasol-Joakim Noah big man duo will offer up memories of the old Chris Webber-Vlade Divac pairing in Sacramento -- two bigs with outstanding passing skills, who can replace one another in the post depending on matchups. Gasol is not a great on-ball defender, but with Noah (and, often, Taj Gibson) behind him, he won't have to be, and he's always been smart about using his length to good effect. Chicago was 28th last season in offensive rating (102.5 points per 100 possessions) and worst among playoff teams; the Bulls should be a much more difficult team to load up against next season. We know Chicago will be a top defensive team as long as Tom Thibodeau takes in air. The issue has been offense. Chicago only averaged 90 points per game against Washington in its first-round series loss last season. That will change. With Rose back on the ball, McDermott and/or Mirotic on the wings and Gasol in the paint, slashers like Jimmy Butler will have much more room to operate. Tony Snell looked much more comfortable shooting during summer league than at any point last season. The only salient issue is Rose's health. Can he get back anywhere near his 2011 league MVP form? He's got a lot more weapons to help ease the load on him now than he did then. This is going to be a very difficult team to beat in the playoffs.
3) CHARLOTTE HORNETS
Hairston Shines During Summer League
2013-14 RECORD: 43-39, lost in first round
ADDED: G Lance Stephenson (three years, $27.4 million); G Brian Roberts (two years, $5.5 million); F Marvin Williams (two years, $14 million); F/C Noah Vonleh (first round, 9th pick overall); G P.J. Hairston (Draft rights acquired from Miami)
LOST: F Josh McRoberts (signed with Miami); G Ben Gordon (signed with Orlando); F Anthony Tolliver (signed with Phoenix); G Luke Ridnour (signed with Orlando); C Brendan Haywood (traded to Cleveland); F Derrick Powell (traded to Cleveland)
RETAINED: G Jannero Pargo
THE KEY MAN: C Cody Zeller. With the versatile McRoberts departing, the second-year Zeller will have to absorb bigger minutes this season playing next to Al Jefferson. The Hornets raved about Zeller's athletic gifts when they took him fourth overall in 2013. Zeller isn't the shooter McRoberts was and no one expects him to be, but he'll have to rebound and defend to earn his keep.
THE SKINNY: Nobody got better bang for their buck this summer than the Hornets, who spent just under $47 million -- about $1 million more than Dallas did for Chandler Parsons -- to bring in Stephenson, Williams and Roberts, three players that will fill specific needs for an already-good playoff team. (None of that would have happened if Utah hadn't matched the $63 million offer sheet the Hornets gave restricted free agent Gordon Hayward. The best laid plans, you know?) Stephenson was an All-Star caliber two in Indiana last season, showing his improvement as a passer to go with his shooting and defensive skills. For all of his issues, and they are real ones, he was one of the few guys that competed in Game 6 against Miami in the playoffs, when many of his teammates mailed in their efforts. And he's just 23 years old. In Charlotte, his presence will definitely make things easier for Jefferson and Kemba Walker. Williams was coveted by several other playoff teams and is a veteran who'll balance the floor. Roberts played very well for the Pelicans last season, with a True Shooting Percentage higher than John Wall, Reggie Jackson or his now-teammate, Walker. Vonleh was a top-five pick on many Draft boards before sliding just far enough for Charlotte to be able to snag his incredible length and rapidly developing game. The Hornets were already a top-10 team in defensive rating, opponent field goal percentage and points allowed. With Stephenson and Vonleh teaming with the likes of Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Charlotte could have the makings of a lockout, championship-caliber unit.
4) BOSTON CELTICS
Draft Review: Boston Celtics
2013-14 RECORD: 25-57, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Marcus Smart (first round, 6th pick overall); G James Young (first round, 17th pick overall); F Evan Turner (two-year deal); (G Marcus Thornton (acquired from Brooklyn); C Tyler Zeller (acquired from Cleveland)
LOST: F Kris Humphries (sign/trade to Washington); G Jerryd Bayless (signed with Milwaukee)
RETAINED: G Avery Bradley (four years, $32 million)
THE KEY MAN: Assistant general manager Mike Zarren. Well-respected around the league, Zarren's creativity will likely be at the centerpiece of the next big deal the Celtics pull off in the next year. Zarren and GM Danny Ainge will have lots of assets they can package if they want to accelerate the rebuild.
THE SKINNY: Ainge couldn't engage the Wolves in Kevin Love talk, but he managed to add numerous assets without dealing Rajon Rondo. Yet. With Smart the obvious heir apparent for Boston at the point, Ainge can now take his time and make the best deal for Rondo he can. The Celtics will likely have to move one of their surplus of guards before the season starts, but they'll be dealing from a position of strength. Bradley may have been a little overpaid considering the team's standing, but he's a terrific defender and certainly worth retaining. Most important to Boston's future, the Cs got another future first in the three-team deal that brought Thornton from Brooklyn; Boston has at least seven first-round picks outright in the next four years. Combined with the significant cap room that's just around the corner, Boston could rebuild in a hurry -- especially with the potential of a Smart-Young backcourt developing in the coming years.
5) DENVER NUGGETS
Brian Shaw Interview
2013-14 RECORD: 36-46, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Arron Afflalo (acquired from Orlando); C Jusuf Nurkic (Draft rights acquired from Chicago); G Gary Harris (Draft rights acquired from Chicago); G Erick Green (three years, $2.3 million)
LOST: G Aaron Brooks (signed with Chicago); F Jan Vesely (signed with Fenerbahce Ulker)
THE KEY MAN: Danilo Gallinari. Coach Brian Shaw told us during the Vegas Summer League that the big man was on schedule to be ready for training camp. A return to form for Gallinari, who has missed the last year-plus following two surgeries to repair his knee, could skip a step in the rebuilding process for the Nuggets.
THE SKINNY: No offense to Evan Fornier, but the Nuggets stole Affalo from Orlando. The veteran guard was in high demand, and he'll fit in right nicely in a second stint of duty in Denver, next to Ty Lawson. With a starter in place at the two, adding a high value prospect like Michigan State's Harris might be a little redundant, but he was too good to pass up at 19. Given the Nuggets' inability to escape injuries, depth is never a bad thing. Nurkic was the top Euro big man available this year; the adjustment period to the NBA will no doubt take some time, but he's a talent. Denver made big bids for Kevin Love and Mike Miller, and if the Nuggets had landed Minnesota Ice, their grade would be even higher. But considering what they had to work with at the start of the summer, they did very well. Now the Nuggets just need to get healthy.
6) TORONTO RAPTORS
Masai Ujiri Interview
2013-14 RECORD: 48-34, lost in first round
ADDED: F Bruno Caboclo (first round, 20th pick overall); F James Johnson (two years, $5 million); G Lou Williams (acquired from Atlanta); C Lucas Nogiera (acquired from Atlanta)
LOST: G John Salmons (traded to Atlanta); F Steve Novak (traded to Utah); G Nando de Colo (signed with CSKA Moscow); C Joey Dorsey (signed with Houston)
RETAINED: G Kyle Lowry (four years, $48 million); G Greivis Vasquez (two years, $13 million); F Patrick Patterson (three years, $18 million)
THE KEY MAN: C Jonas Valanciunas. Still just 22, Valanciunas progressed in his second NBA season, averaging nearly a double-double in just more than 28 minutes a night. Staying out of foul trouble should inch up the minutes, and the production, next season. Toronto doesn't need Valanciunas to be a big scorer, but he needs to be more effective; his PER ranked 30th among players that regularly played center last season, behind the likes of DeJuan Blair and Timofey Mozgov.
THE SKINNY: It takes a losing franchise a long time to change its spots. After years chasing their collective tails, the Raps finally turned the battleship around last season. Whether it was by design or luck (GM Masai Ujiri had a deal to send Lowry to New York, only to have Knicks owner James Dolan veto it), Toronto has some momentum now, an exciting style of play, a great hashtag (#wethenorth) and a renewed fanatical fan base around which to build. So keeping the still-young core together was crucial, and Ujiri did it without overspending. Lowry's new deal puts him right among most of his point guard peers, but below the elite. That's right where he should be. Patterson really helped change the geometry of the Raptors' offense when he arrived from Sacramento as part of the multi-player deal that sent Rudy Gay to the Kings. In 48 games in Toronto, Patterson shot 41 percent on threes and had a PER superior to that of Marvin Williams, who got more money per season in free agency, and Josh McRoberts, who signed with the Heat. Another solid single for Ujiri. Williams faltered last season in Atlanta and was deemed expendible, but Coach Dwane Casey (also re-signed with little muss or fuss) will no doubt give him opportunities to regain his form in Philly (pre-ACL tear) as one of the league's most dangerous scorers off the bench. Time will tell whether Caboclo was worth the reach in the first round, but the early signs in Vegas were promising.
7) DALLAS MAVERICKS
In Game Interview: Mark Cuban
2013-14 RECORD: 49-33, lost in first round.
ADDED: F Chandler Parsons (three years, $46 million); C Tyson Chandler (trade with New York); G Ray Felton (trade with New York); G Jameer Nelson (two years, $5.5 million); F Al-Farouq Aminu (two years, $2.1 million); F Richard Jefferson (one year, $915,000)
LOST: G Jose Calderon (traded to New York); C Samuel Dalembert (traded to New York); G Vince Carter (signed with Memphis); F DeJuan Blair (traded to Washington)
RETAINED: F Dirk Nowitzki (three years, $25 million); G Devin Harris (four years, $16.5 million)
THE KEY MAN: Don Kalkstein, Mavericks Director of Sports Psychology. The Mavs are serious when they say Kalkstein, in his second tour of duty with the team, is as responsible for their success over the years as anyone. Mark Cuban has said his biggest regret as owner was firing Kalkstein at then-coach Avery Johnson's request in 2005. Cuban brought Kalkstein, who won a World Series ring counseling the Boston Red Sox in 2007, back after Johnson was fired in 2008. Kalkstein has a seat on the bench, an office in the AAC and full access to players at all times, with Rick Carlisle's blessing. With so many new faces on the roster again next season, establishing chemistry quickly -- accepting roles, dealing with frustrations, getting to know teammates -- is going to be crucial for the Mavericks to have success. Kalkstein is at the center of the team's efforts.
THE SKINNY: Again left at the free agent altar, not having gained any traction in its pursuit of Anthony or James -- after missing out on Dwight Howard last summer, and Deron Williams in 2012 -- the Mavericks again had to revamp their roster with low-priced or short-contract vets. This time, though, it could work out better. Having gotten one impact free agent -- Monta Ellis -- last summer, Dallas doesn't have quite as many holes to fill. Parsons is a significant add-on, even though he's wildly overpaid for what he's produced so far. That said, he will be great playing next to Nowitzki. He'll give a veteran team some energy and life, and the Dallas fans will love him. The Mavericks are hoping Tyson Chandler's decline his last season in New York was an anomaly, and that he will regain his 2011 championship form as the team's defensive anchor. Nelson could well wrest the starting job from Felton before too long. Aminu's a younger, less expensive version of Shawn Marion, but facsimiles aren't the real thing. But having to deal the solid Calderon to the Knicks, and losing Carter, who always seemed to be the guy most likely make a big play for the Mavs the last couple of years, keeps me from ranking Dallas' offseason moves higher.
8) MEMPHIS GRIZZLIES
Memphis Welcomes Vince Carter
2013-14 RECORD: 50-32, lost in first round
ADDED: F Vince Carter (three years, $12.2 million); G Jordan Adams (first round, 22nd pick overall); F Jarnell Stokes (Draft rights acquired from Utah)
LOST: F Mike Miller (signed with Cavaliers); F Ed Davis (signed with Lakers); F James Johnson (signed with Toronto)
RETAINED: G Beno Udrih (two years, $4.2 million); F Zach Randolph (exercised 2014-15 player option, signed two-year, $20 million extension); G Nick Calathes (one year, $816,000)
THE KEY MAN: Owner Robert Pera. After it looked like Coach Dave Joerger was on his way to the Timberwolves, Pera reached out at the 11th hour in June to convince Joerger to stay. That followed a cleaning of the Grizzlies' front office, with former team president Jason Levien and assistant GM Stu Lash shown the door. GM Chris Wallace, who'd been in exile, was brought back and given his old authority back, and Memphis brought in longtime executive Ed Stefanski last week to help out. Pera's reputation as an owner took a rightful beating after some of his reported shenanigans came to light. He's started to clean things up during the offseason.
THE SKINNY: The Grizz kept their core together by keeping Randolph in the fold and added the still-effective Carter from Dallas to give Joerger better end-of-game options and to replace Miller. That means continuity from a team that lives on its stingy D and halfcourt offense inside the 3-point line (almost 83 percent of Memphis' field goal attempts last season were on two-pointers according to Basketball Reference.com, the highest percentage in the league). Calathes still has 13 games to go on his 20-game NBA-imposed suspension that was handed down just before the playoffs, but he was terrific down the stretch last year and getting him to turn down a lucrative deal from Panathinaikos to return to Memphis was big.
9) SAN ANTONIO SPURS
Duncan Talks About Popovich on Inside Stuff
2013-14 RECORD: 62-20, won NBA championship
ADDED: F Kyle Anderson (first round, 30th pick overall); assistant coach Ettore Messina
RETAINED: F Boris Diaw (four years, $28 million); G Patty Mills (three years, $10.9 million); F Matt Bonner (one year, $915,000)
THE KEY MAN: G Manu Ginobili. The Spurs have won, in brief stretches, without Tim Duncan or Tony Parker in the postseason. They have never been able to win a title without Ginobili playing at a high level, as he did again against the Heat in San Antonio's five-game romp. With a forced summer off -- Ginobili wanted to play for Argentina in the World Cup later this month -- the stress fracture in his right leg he had to play through during the playoffs will get its best chance to heal before next season.
THE SKINNY: The Spurs' high ranking is not because anyone really expected Diaw or Mills to leave, or because Anderson is likely to become the next end-of-the-round gem unearthed by their front office. San Antonio is ranked high because the culture of sacrifice and team the franchise has created and continued over the last decade-plus allows for continuity, year after year, in all aspects of the franchise's operation. It gives the front office the financial flexibility to sign Tony Parker to a three-year extension last week for the maximum amount, and means Gregg Popovich's extension earlier in the summer was barely announced by the team at all. Bringing in Messina, a long-time target and one of the greatest coaches in Europe for the last quarter-century, was done only after everyone was assured his presence on the bench wouldn't impede the development of Ime Udoka, one of the Spurs' young up-and-coming assistants. That's how they think in the 210.
10) NEW YORK KNICKS
Phil Jackson Interview
2013-14 RECORD: 37-45, did not make playoffs
ADDED: G Jose Calderon (acquired from Dallas); C Samuel Dalembert (acquired from Dallas); G Shane Larkin (acquired from Dallas); F Cleanthony Early (second round, 34th pick overall); F Thanasis Antetokounmpo (second round, 51st pick overall); C/F Jason Smith (one year, $915,000)
RETAINED: F Carmelo Anthony (five years, $124 million); C Cole Aldrich (one year, $915,000)
THE KEY MAN: Coach Derek Fisher. After the Knicks were left at the altar by Steve Kerr, Phil Jackson reached out to another triangle-friendly mind in Fisher, the latest former player to walk directly from the court to a head coaching job without any experience. Fisher has a lot of work to do with a roster that doesn't seem especially suited to run the triangle, though Calderon (career 41 percent 3-point shooter) would seem likely to fit in quickly. Fisher will have to be a disciplinarian as well as a teacher, and it's always difficult for guys who were peers a second ago to get used to the idea that their former teammate is now their boss. We'll see how Fisher does.
THE SKINNY: James was clearly the biggest prize in free agency, but Anthony was the guy that the teams with cap room came at hardest. In the end, Anthony eschewed a potential great fit in Chicago, playing with James Harden and Dwight Howard in Houston or re-shaping the Lakers franchise to stay home -- and get an extra $20 mil or so in the process. Without a first-round pick, Jackson did well to get two solid prospects in Early and Antetokounmpo, the younger brother of Milwaukee's Giannis. But New York kept its word to Anthony -- it should have significant cap room a year from now to go after a second blue-chip free agent. And it kept a great, talented player that should be effective in this or any other offense.
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