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David Aldridge

Lionel Hollins and Billy King of the Nets
New coach Lionel Hollins (left) and GM Billy King have big hopes for the Nets.

Summer improvement rankings: Sixers top the Middle 10


Posted Aug 5, 2014 6:30 AM

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

11) PHILADELPHIA 76ERS

2013-14 RECORD: 19-63, did not make playoffs

ADDED: C Joel Embiid (first round, 3rd pick overall); F Dario Saric (Draft rights acquired from Orlando); F K.J. McDaniels (second round, 32nd pick overall); G Vasilije Micic (second round, 52nd pick overall); G Pierre Jackson (one year, $500,000)

LOST: James Anderson (waived)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Alfred C. Koeppe, Chair, New Jersey Economic Development Authority. On Chairman Koeppe's watch, the New Jersey EDA approved a plan for a new practice facility for the Sixers in Camden, just across the river in New Jersey from Philly, that is scheduled to be ready in June, 2016. Why, yes, that is just before the NBA free agent period will begin that year -- when the likes of LeBron and Durant and Joakim Noah and Al Horford and several other big-time players will be available. A team's practice facility is rapidly replacing posh locker rooms as a key selling point for prospective free agents. The Sixers' current facility at a medical center is, um, spartan.

THE SKINNY: No, we're not crazy. The 76ers get props here because they're sticking to the plan -- acquiring as much high-upside talent as possible. I'm not tone deaf to the idea that Philly's transparency in not caring in the least about its short-term record is tough for its fans to support at the box office. I'm not immune to the idea that such obvious tanking makes the need to look at tweaking the lottery before next May imperative. But teams too often walk away from what they say they're going to do in order to save their own skins. General Manager Sam Hinkie has, so far, not walked away from the goal he's set, and owner Josh Harris, so far, has had his back. The Sixers took a reasoned gamble that Embiid can play with the back issues that plagued him during his one college season; if so, they have the player with the most upside in the Draft. Saric is viewed by many as the top player in Europe. It will take a year or two for him to come over, but when he does, it will be to Philly (and Hinkie got a future first from Orlando in the process). McDaniels was ridiculously good value in the second round. But in the meantime, it would not hurt for the Sixers to reduce some of their current ticket prices in a big, meaningful way.

12) OKLAHOMA CITY THUNDER

2013-14 RECORD: 59-23; lost in Western Conference finals

ADDED: C Mitch McGary (first round, 21st pick overall); F Josh Huestis (first round, 29th pick overall); G Semaj Christon (Draft rights acquired from Miami); G Anthony Morrow (three years, $10 million); G Sebastian Telfair (one year, $915,000)

LOST: G Thabo Sefolosha (signed with Atlanta); F Caron Butler (signed with Detroit); G Derek Fisher (retired; became Knicks coach)

RETAINED: F Grant Jerrett (four years, $3.8 million)

THE KEY MAN: Unknown backcourt mate of Russell Westbrook. Scott Brooks benched an ineffective Sefolosha against the Spurs in the Western finals. For the rest of that series, Reggie Jackson started alongside Westbrook, and that well could be the way OKC starts next season. But Jackson is valued coming off the bench. How the Thunder handles Jackson this season is something to which you should pay attention. Jackson wants to be a floor general in his own right, and he's a year from restricted free agency. The Thunder's other options would be to start Jeremy Lamb or Morrow.

THE SKINNY: Those were frightening non-denial denials for OKC last week, when Kevin Durant didn't exactly shut down speculation that he might bolt for his native Washington, D.C., and the Wizards in two years, when he becomes a free agent. The Thunder are on the clock more than ever, but OKC added a couple more good pieces in the offseason. Morrow regained his shooting eye last season for the Pelicans, and his presence will provide much needed floor spacing for the Thunder next season. His was one of the best free agent pickups for the price this summer. McGary is a talented young big who has to show he is mature enough to be trusted and capable of staying healthy in the pros. If he is, and can, he will help immediately, just as Steven Adams did last season. Huestis, as has been documented here and other places, will spend next season in the D League.

13) WASHINGTON WIZARDS

2013-14 RECORD: 44-38, lost in Eastern conference semifinals

ADDED: F Paul Pierce (two years, $10.8 million); F Kris Humphries (three years, $13 million); F DeJuan Blair (three years, $6 million)

LOST: F Trevor Ariza (sign/trade with Houston); F Trevor Booker (signed with Utah)

RETAINED: C Marcin Gortat (five years, $60 million); F Drew Gooden (one year, $915,000)

THE KEY MAN: F Otto Porter. The Wizards have to find out if Porter, the third pick overall in 2013, can play. He won't have to start with Pierce in the fold, but he'll be in the rotation, with veteran Martell Webster likely on the shelf for several months next season following back surgery. Porter injured his hip in summer league last July, missed all of training camp and never gained Randy Wittman's trust. Porter had a very good summer league this year, but that and a buck will get you...pretty much nothing of value. Porter has to show he can make threes and guard the opponents' top perimeter players like Ariza did last season.

THE SKINNY: Losing Ariza was a huge setback, especially considering he signed with the Rockets for just a little more than the Wizards were offering. Fortunately for Washington, Pierce was willing to play for the mid-level when potential deals with the Clippers fell through. He's certainly not the force he was a few years ago, but he showed during his one season with the Nets that he could still play important minutes, especially at power forward. Washington could only do that if Otto Porter (see above) flashes; otherwise, Pierce will have to have to try and guard the LeBrons and Carmelos of the Eastern Conference. But Pierce will give Washington someone to play through at the ends of games, and help the Wizards get into the penalty earlier. Re-signing Gortat was a no-brainer and well worth the $12 million annually. He was terrific at both ends last season and helped the locker room chemistry.

14) ORLANDO MAGIC

2013-14 RECORD: 23-59, did not make playoffs

ADDED: F Aaron Gordon (first round, 4th pick overall); G Elfrid Payton (Draft rights acquired from Philadelphia); F Roy Devyn Marble (Draft rights acquired from Denver); G/F Evan Fournier (acquired from Denver); F Channing Frye (four years, $32 million); G Ben Gordon (two years, $9 million); G Luke Ridnour (two years, $5.5 million); G Willie Green (one year, $1.4 million)

LOST: G Jameer Nelson (signed with Dallas); G Arron Afflalo (traded to Denver); G Doron Lamb (waived)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Charles Freeman, Executive Vice President/Chief Revenue Officer. Mr. Freeman has to figure out how to best market a team that's gone 43-121 the last two seasons -- and, at least anecdotally, has fallen behind a Major League Soccer team that has yet to play a game in Orlando in popularity. It shouldn't be a surprise that the Magic have fallen in attendance from eighth two years ago to 15th a year ago to 22nd last season. But it should be cause for concern in Orlando's front office. Fans aren't going to wait forever for a rebuild.

THE SKINNY: The above may well explain why GM Rob Hennigan felt compelled to bring in four players 30 and older this summer. The best among them is Frye, who came back and played in all 82 games for Phoenix last season after missing all of the 2012-13 season with an enlarged heart. But Orlando also needs rapid development from its young prospects, the newest (and youngest) of which is the intriguing Gordon, an 18 year old with insane athletic gifts. Payton came on throughout his career at Louisiana-Lafayette and had a similar meteoric rise on pre-Draft charts, drawing Gary Payton comparisons. (If so, why not bring in the Original Glove, who wants to be a coach, to tutor and mentor Baby Glove?) It remains to be seen if an Elfrid Payton-Victor Oladipo backcourt can shoot it well enough to make defenses honest, but the potential for defensive havoc is worth waiting for. Orlando's front office loves Fournier, the former first-rounder who didn't exactly wow 'em in Denver. He'll get another shot in the Land of the Mouse.

15) BROOKLYN NETS

2013-14 RECORD: 44-38, lost in second round.

ADDED: G Jarrett Jack (acquired from Cleveland); F Bojan Bogdanovic (three years, $10.2 million); F Sergey Karasev (acquired from Cleveland); G Markel Brown (Draft rights acquired from Minnesota); F Cory Jefferson (second round, 60th pick overall)

LOST: F Paul Pierce (signed with Washington); G Shaun Livingston (signed with Golden State); G Marcus Thornton (traded to Boston)

RETAINED: G Alan Anderson (two years, $2.6 million)

THE KEY MAN: Coach Lionel Hollins. GM Billy King didn't get serious with anyone else after Jason Kidd engineered his departure from Brooklyn, quickly signing Hollins to a five-year deal. Just as quickly, Hollins said he had no interest in doing King's job, one of the reported reasons Kidd left town. At minimum, Hollins and King should work better together; the atmosphere between coach and front office has not been marvelous for a while. There are no more excuses for anybody. Hollins has the full support of management, which he says wasn't the case in Memphis; King has a proven, winning head coach in place now, after hitching the franchise's fortunes to the unproven Kidd with his full-throated endorsement last summer.

THE SKINNY: It was a struggle to rate Brooklyn this high, given the departures of Pierce and Livingston, who each impacted the team in so many positive ways. But the Nets did a good job replacing them and strengthening the roster at the same time. Jack was great two years ago in Golden State and the bet is he'll do much better backing up Deron Williams than he did Kyrie Irving in Cleveland, where the two clashed; Brooklyn's commitment to the halfcourt game is more up Jack's alley. The Nets got Bogdanovic over from Turkey's Fenerbahce three years after drafting him in 2011, and he should help replace Pierce's production behind the arc, at least. The Nets thought about drafting Karasev in 2012 before the Cavs did. His young legs will help during the grind of the regular season. Anderson solidified things while the Nets were strafed by injuries last season, and he's earned a spot in the rotation. Don't know what the Nets will be by season's end, but they may be OK.

16) ATLANTA HAWKS

2013-14 RECORD: 38-44, lost in first round

ADDED: F Adreian Payne (first round, 15th pick overall); C Walter Tavares (second round, 43rd pick overall); G Lamar Patterson (Draft rights acquired from Milwaukee); G/F Thabo Sefolosha (three years, $12 million); G Kent Bazemore (two years, $4 million)

LOST: G Lou Williams (traded to Toronto); G/F John Salmons (waived)

RETAINED: F Mike Scott (three years, $10 million); G Shelvin Mack (three years, $7.3 million)

THE KEY MAN: F/C Al Horford. Horford missed the final 53 games of last season after tearing his pectoral muscle, and his return to good form is a must if Atlanta is to build on its seventh straight postseason appearance. Horford has missed significant time in two of the last three seasons with pectoral injuries after being pretty healthy his first four pro seasons; that's a disturbing trend line.

THE SKINNY: Methodically, GM Danny Ferry is adding solid, high-character guys to his roster. Payne, the four-year Michigan State man, is the latest. He should contribute right away, having established his stretch four bona fides his last year-plus in East Lansing. Keeping Scott and Mack at reasonable prices is a very good buy; Bazemore could find a home playing off of the likes of Horford and Paul Millsap, cutting off the wings and spotting up for threes. But the Hawks will have to likely make their call this season on whether Jeff Teague or Dennis Schroeder is their guy at the point. And, Atlanta has not been able to get a serious look the last two summers from the elite free agents, despite having cap room and great coaching and player development. That's something Ferry is going to have to address and correct in the near future. Rolling over cap room to the next year is good and practical from a business standpoint, but not inspiring to an already sleepy fan base. At some point, the Hawks have to seriously be in the game.

17) PHOENIX SUNS

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

ADDED: G Isaiah Thomas (four years, $27 million); F Anthony Tolliver (two years, $6 million); F T.J. Warren (first round, 14th pick overall); G Tyler Ennis (first round, 18th pick overall); G Bogdan Bogdanovic (first round, 27th pick overall); C Alec Brown (second round, 50th pick overall)

LOST: F Channing Frye (signed with Orlando); G Ish Smith (signed with Houston)

RETAINED: F P.J. Tucker (three years, $16.5 million)

THE KEY MAN: G Eric Bledsoe. The Suns didn't even make the playoffs last season and they're already getting a taste of Riles' "Disease of More." Bledsoe is reportedly seeking a max deal, or at least something well in excess of the $48 million over four years that Phoenix is offering. There are no easy answers here. There doesn't seem to be an offer sheet out there for Bledsoe, leaving the options of taking a long deal he doesn't like or a short one that the Suns won't like. Phoenix just gave Thomas a lot of money to do ... what? Start with Goran Dragic, or be a really overpaid third guard? It's the other side of the innocent climb.

THE SKINNY: The Suns just keep adding playmakers and scorers to their motley crew. If they can get Bledsoe back in the fold, is there a team in the league with a more potent guard trio? The Raptors begged for Ennis, a Canadian with game; he'll be lucky to see much playing time in Phoenix. Warren is a perfect fit; his scoring chops at N.C. State came from everywhere. Tolliver helped Charlotte immensely from the perimeter, shooting a career best 41 percent on threes. He will step in for Frye. Bogdanovic won't be coming over for a year. Whatever Phoenix does next season, there isn't a team in the league with more assets or room in the next two years to make a run at impact free agents or players via trade.

18) DETROIT PISTONS

2013-14 RECORD: 29-53, did not make playoffs.

ADDED: G Jodie Meeks (three years, $18.8 million); G D.J. Augustin (two years, $6 million); F Caron Butler (two years, $9 million); C Aaron Gray (two year deal); G Spencer Dinwiddie (second round, 38th pick overall)

LOST: G Rodney Stuckey (signed with Indiana); G Chauncey Billups (contract not renewed)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Agent David Falk. Falk represents Greg Monroe, the restricted free agent who has yet to reach a deal with Detroit. Falk obviously needs a soft landing spot for Monroe, either to force a sign and trade or goose the Pistons into upping their current offer, and if anyone can create a market where none seems to exist, it's the notorious Falk. Trading Monroe rather than tying up Detroit's cap for years to come would make a lot more sense, it says here -- unless Stan Van Gundy can find a buyer for Josh Smith first. But playing Smith out of position again at small forward next season is unfair to him and the team, which needs to move forward, one way or the other. I still can't believe the Celtics wouldn't want Monroe as the centerpiece of a Rajon Rondo deal to Detroit. But what do I know?

THE SKINNY: Meeks is a good player, and Van Gundy will use him, Augustin, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Kyle Singler in all kinds of creative ways. But as Van Gundy's first big move out of the free agent gate, Meeks was somewhat overpriced. Augustin, who helped keep Chicago upright last season after Derrick Rose's knee injury, was a much better value signing. Van Gundy has some good pieces to build a defense around, most notably Andre Drummond. And, again, if Smith is playing power forward rather than the three, he becomes much better across the board. There's a big shoe that still needs to drop here.

19) MILWAUKEE BUCKS

2013-14 RECORD: 15-67, did not make playoffs

ADDED: F Jabari Parker (first round, 2nd pick overall); F Damien Inglis (second round, 31st pick overall); F Johnny O'Bryant (second round, 36th pick overall); G Jerryd Bayless (two years, $6 million); G Kendall Marshall (one year, $915,000)

LOST: None

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: Robert J. Cook, Vice President of Business Affairs. Mr. Cook seems to be one of the key point people for new co-owners Wes Edens and Marc Lasry on finding a site and hammering out a deal with the city and surrounding counties for a new arena to replace BMO Harris Bradley Center. The team's lease expires in 2017, by which time it has to have a new arena online, if not built, to stop speculation about the franchise's future in Milwaukee. Cook's former job was an executive at HNTB, the architecture firm that designed the San Francisco 49ers' new stadium in Santa Clara, Calif., co-designed the Broncos' Invesco Field and that is overseeing renovations of the Citrus Bowl in Orlando.

THE SKINNY: Parker is the goods. His play at the summer league showed he is capable of becoming an all-around terror for Milwaukee for years to come. He was able to dominate the key moments on more than one occasion in Vegas, displaying a willingness to rebound, touch around the basket and an ability to finish through contact. But he's still a kid, and he's going to get jostled around his first couple of seasons as a pro as he gets stronger and more aware. The Bucks may have a sleeper in O'Bryant, who throws his body around to great effect. Inglis broke his foot before Vegas and didn't play, but is expected to be ready for camp. He'll fit in with the Bucks' defensive-oriented frontcourters like Giannis Antetokounmpo and John Henson. But the Bucks will need a lot of things to go right to avoid another high Lottery selection next summer. New Coach Jason Kidd should have a rapt audience all season.

20) SACRAMENTO KINGS

2013-14 RECORD: 28-54, did not make playoffs

ADDED: G Nik Stauskas (first round, 8th pick overall); G Darren Collison (three years, $15 million)

LOST: G Isaiah Thomas (sign/trade to Phoenix); C Aaron Gray (signed with Detroit)

RETAINED: None

THE KEY MAN: G Ben McLemore. The Kings insist McLemore and Stauskas can play together in the backcourt next season, and maybe they can. It still seems odd to take a combo guard who'll play a lot of shooting guard eighth in the Draft the year after you take a shooting guard seventh in the Draft. And it's especially odd when you give Collison $15 million to, presumably, start at the point. Neither McLemore nor Stauskas is going to make a living playing at the three in the pros. McLemore struggled throughout his rookie season -- 37 percent from the floor, 32 percent on threes and just under 42 percent on two-point attempts. The Kings had him handling the ball a lot during summer league, and he had moments where he looked good.

THE SKINNY: GM Pete D'Alessandro insists there's a solid plan for the Kings going forward, and that this summer is just one step in the process. Fair enough. Sacramento will need Collison to show he's ready to run a team after he was unable to do so in Dallas a couple of years ago. Stauskas can play and he's got a chippy attitude that will serve him well in the pros, because people will be coming at him. But there's an obvious logjam up front, where Jason Thompson, Reggie Evans, Quincy Acy and Carl Landry all currently play power forward. If D'Alessandro turns any combination of those players, picks and someone else into a Josh Smith or Rajon Rondo, the offseason rank improves significantly.

>> OFFSEASON GRADES: THE TOP 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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