The season is just over a month old and the pecking order in the league is slowly starting to materialize. It’s still too premature to make widespread assumptions about players and teams and where they’re all headed.
It’s not too early, however, to spot those teams that did serious work in the offseason to enhance their chances of seeing progress. And in that sense, the payoff has arrived rather quickly in some cases.
Through trades and free-agent signings and keeping in-house talent from leaving, a select handful of teams managed to steer clear of salary-cap issues to solve weaknesses and fill holes and just put themselves in a better place.
Here are the five teams who — so far — helped themselves the most in the offseason, listed in order:
1. Washington Wizards
To grasp the breadth of the slick maneuvering that flipped the fortunes of the Wizards, you must first understand where they were before it all happened. A few short years ago, the Wizards were stuck with the massive remaining contract belonging to John Wall coming off an injury, had little depth, questionable flexibility and riding a mediocrity treadmill in the NBA.
Now? Their salary cap is favorable, they have manageable assets to keep or trade, and as a bonus, they’re Top 5 in the East.
It happened so quickly. Tommy Sheppard did two shrewd moves as GM, first by trading Wall for Russell Westbrook — which allowed the Wizards to reach the playoffs last season — and then immediately shipping Westbrook to the Lakers before his value could plummet and getting quality (and far less cap-restrictive) pieces in return.
And so: Washington is flourishing with Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, three very useful rotational players who also bring winning attitudes, an element sorely missing from the Wizards the last few years. Kuzma seems motivated to recapture the spark of his first few seasons, now that he has escaped the shadow of LeBron James. Harrell won the Kia Sixth Man of the Year Award two seasons ago and seems back to that level; he’s also playing for a new contract and therefore has extra motivation. And KCP still has scoring pop in whatever role the Wizards need him.
But the Wizards’ offseason wasn’t restricted to a single trade. Sheppard also spent smart money on Spencer Dinwiddie to fill the point guard vacancy. Dinwiddie seems an ideal fit next to Bradley Beal in this very early stage of their on-court relationship.
Finally: The Wizards hired Wes Unseld Jr. as coach. It’s his first time in the big chair, but he’s been around the game his entire life as the son of a Washington legend, and his adaptable personality is apparently going over well in the locker room. Plus, you can’t question the early results.
The challenge for Sheppard is weighing the plusses and minuses of giving a big extension to Beal, whose efficiency and impact has slipped this season, versus trading him at the deadline. Do the Wizards really want to deal with a star in his 30s carrying a max contract again?
2. Chicago Bulls
You want to make a case for Chicago having the best offseason? It’s close enough for that argument. In this case though, unlike the Wizards, the Bulls spent heavily in free agency and basically locked themselves into this team for the near future.
Whatever: Chicago is getting a solid return on DeMar DeRozan, Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso and have no buyers’ remorse at all.
The most impressive signing was DeRozan, if only because he seemed all set to return home to L.A. and join the Lakers. The Bulls swooped in with a bucket of cash and a vision and convinced him that winters in Chicago would be well worth it. In response, DeRozan is playing perhaps the best ball of his career, averaging 26 points and more importantly is meshing very well with Zach LaVine.
Ball is running the club with decent efficiency and is a far better 3-point shooter than when he entered the league when that shot was problematic. Meanwhile, Caruso — also stolen from the charms of LA — is giving the Bulls a surplus of energy and play-making and quickly became a crowd favorite at the United Center.
As a bonus, the Bulls traded for Derrick Jones Jr., who brings bouncy athleticism needed on the fast break and a lengthy-armed defender who comes in handy on the perimeter.
In relatively quick time, the Bulls gave LaVine a co-star, fortified the point guard spot and added to the bench to emerge as a team in the East mix. Again: They had the financial resources to enhance the rotation and they didn’t make a bad mistake.
3. Brooklyn Nets
Surely you ask: How can a team that lost Kyrie Irving be on this list? Well, given the limited flexibility they had going into last offseason, the Nets had the best bang for the buck, and that’s one reason they’ve been able to withstand the absence of Kyrie (Kevin Durant is the other reason).
Imagine what shape they’d be in right now if not for LaMarcus Aldridge and Patty Mills?
Both were economical additions — the salary cap-stretched Nets didn’t really have another choice — who are suddenly asked to do more, and both are responding better than expected.
Aldridge had retired following a heart scare last year, then had a change of heart and decided to return. After the Nets dropped DeAndre Jordan and sacrificed Jarrett Allen in the James Harden trade, the center position became an issue. Aldridge has been a capable replacement by averaging 13.6 points, 5.9 rebounds and just being a presence in the middle. His value increased once Blake Griffin started poorly and fell in the rotational pecking order.
Mills knows how to adapt to superstars — he had a few in San Antonio — so simply from a chemistry standpoint, he was the right fit for Durant and Harden. Brooklyn thought Mills would spell Irving, but once Irving chose against getting vaccinated, Mills’ role increased. His 3-point shooting is ballistic; he’s making more than half of those shots and making defenses pay for leaving him open.
4. Miami Heat
Miami always seems to find room for help, and last summer was no exception when they added a pair of championship-tested veterans in Kyle Lowry and P.J. Tucker. From every possible metric, they’re the right fit for the personality of the club and also give the Heat an extra layer of toughness.
Neither loom as the most crucial players on the roster; this is still the team of Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo and Tyler Herro. Plus, Lowry and Tucker are on the back nine of their careers and from a regular-season production standpoint, no one expects either to post steep numbers.
But that was never the point of signing them. Miami has high aspirations this season and sees itself as a serious threat to the Bucks and Nets in the East. Therefore, the true worth of Lowry and Tucker will be realized once the playoffs begin. Lowry is such a steady and smart leader at point guard and usually makes the right decisions. Tucker is still a top one-on-one defender who can check taller players. He’ll draw the Durant assignment if it comes to that again in the postseason.
5. Milwaukee Bucks
It’s always tricky for a defending champion to improve much in the following offseason, especially a champ with three players earning north of $30 million a year.
But the Bucks found a way to become marginally better this season, and that’s a testament to their creativity and unwillingness to stand pat.
The big move by GM Jon Horst was convincing Bobby Portis to re-sign and skip the free-agent process, where he might’ve received a higher offer elsewhere. Portis was so instrumental in the championship journey, providing energy and big-boy play in the paint and becoming a massive crowd favorite. Portis is averaging over 15 points and eight rebounds and has been elevated to the starting lineup, where he’s playing bigger in the absence of Brook Lopez, out since the opener with back issues.
The other source of help is Grayson Allen. He’s suddenly a valuable catch-and-shooter who’s making 42% from deep and looking better than he was last season in Memphis. Allen is also filling the role of Donte DiVincenzo, who’s still mending from his foot injury.
Add George Hill and Rodney Hood and the Bucks are bringing supporting help for the big three of Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton. Once DiVincenzo and Lopez are healthy, you could argue the Bucks are deeper if not better than they were last season when they won it all.
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Shaun Powell has covered the NBA for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.
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