Same old places, fresh new faces. The NBA off-season never fails to shake things up and shift the balance of power through player movement via free-agency, the draft, or managerial circles getting on the phone and striking a deal in hopes that a player swap can take their team over the top. In the midst of this past summer’s player shuffle, it was obvious that a few teams were going for the gusto and are currently plotting on the Larry O’Brien championship trophy for the 2014-2015 season. Let’s take a look at the squads who improved their roster the most:
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
For obvious reasons, the Cleveland Cavaliers made the top of this list. LeBron James (SF) alone elevates any team into championship discussions. Aside from getting the closest thing to a mutant to ever play the game, the surrounding roster moves have been calculated, impressive, and make the Cavs the class of the Eastern Conference.
The Acquisition of three-time All-Star, Kevin Love (PF) from the Minnesota Timberwolves, makes Cleveland’s frontline an immediate threat from an offensive standpoint. His arrival and ability to score in the paint, as well as from the land of the trey, should result in a healthy raise of Kyrie Irving’s (PG) assists per game, and make the two deadly in their pick-and-roll/pick-and-pop sets.
Aside from snagging the big man, the fact that any sane player chomps at the bit to play with LBJ and contend for a title makes for an easy sell from the powers that be for the Ohio franchise. With youth already secured in the form of All-Star, Irving, Dion Waiters (SG), Tristan Thompson (PF), along with Love, the focus shifted to veteran free agents that were looking to make their last hoorah as their careers reach the tail end. This prompted the signings of Shawn Marion (SF) (a.k.a. “The Matrix”), Brendan Haywood (C), and LBJ’s former Miami teammates and expert three-point snipers, Mike Miller (SF) and James Jones (SF). These additions provide an incredible amount of depth to their bench, playing experience, considering all of them have been in the league for more than ten years, and championship experience with each of them have at least one ring. Talk about setting the bar high and adding an immediate amount of seriousness and business-like approach to the locker room.
With the exception of Chicago, good luck to the remaining thirteen teams in the East. Last years 33-49 squad is a thing of the past, and is now in the conversation for possibly threatening the 72-10 record setting season that the Chicago Bulls had in the 1995-1996 NBA campaign.
2. Dallas Mavericks
The Dallas Mavericks were the 8th seed in the Western Conference Playoffs last season and lost in the first round. Vince Carter bounced for Memphis and Shawn Marion sought greener pastures in Cleveland with LeBron. Sounds like the Dallas Mavericks were headed to the dumps right? Take a chill pill. Owner, Mark Cuban definitely had a few tricks up his sleeves in the offseason. The team that played the soon to be NBA champion, San Antonio Spurs, better than anyone else in the playoffs and took them to seven games, actually made improvements in light of the departures that were made.
In a trade with the New York Knicks, his “rabbit out of the hat” included reacquiring Tyson Chandler (C), his defensive anchor from the 2011 Mavs championship team, and Raymond Felton (PG). With cap space as a non-issue in Big D, a bidding war was entered into with their in-state and inner-division rival, the Houston Rockets. The target in their crosshairs: 6’9 long-range shooter, Chandler Parsons (SF). The Rockets gracefully bowed out of the race for Parsons after Dallas pretty much said put your money where your mouth is H-Town! A three-year, $45 million dollar, contract was eagerly signed by Parsons after pouring in more than 16 points and 5 rebounds a game in 2013-2014. Emphasis was placed on Parson’s in the open market because of his statistical improvement in those categories in each of the three years he has been in the league. Soon after Dallas General Manager, Donnie Nelson, lured former Orlando Magic guard, Jameer Nelson (PG), and also wooed versatile swingman Richard Jefferson (SF) to end his flirtatious ways with the free agent market and join the mix to make a championship run.
Similar to the Cavaliers, with the exception of Parsons and Felton, these acquisitions provide veteran leadership and players with experience who have either gotten a ring, Chandler, or have played in the NBA Finals, Jefferson with the Nets and Nelson with the Magic. A deeper roster to compliment Dirk Nowitzki (PF) and Monta Ellis (SG) only make the Mavericks more of a threat in the Western Conference and a team that everyone should circle on their schedule.
3. Chicago Bulls
The Chicago Bulls come in a close third to the Mavericks. If Derrick Rose hadn’t already played games as a Bull, and was suiting up for his first game instead, they would be a sure fire #2. Despite such, the few pieces that they have picked up definitely allow them to keep pace with the cavaliers, if they’re not already ahead of them, in the race for the Eastern Conference crown.
Head coach, Tom Thibodeau, and General Manager, Gar Forman, coupled with the current make-up of the roster in light of D-Rose coming back into the fold, persuaded Pau Gasol (PF) to sign on the dotted line for a three-year deal worth $22 million. The chance of getting more hardware for his trophy case was clearly a priority and caused him to leave the Los Angeles Lakers and his life on the west: say goodbye to picture perfect weather and sandy beaches, and hello to the Windy City, where hoodies and massive winter coats are a common sight. Fans will quickly forget that Carlos Boozer was playing the same position just a few months ago upon seeing the variation of offensive skills that Gasol will bring and his career averages of more than 18 points to go along with 9 boards per contest that are now added to the mix.
Even before Gasol even hit the market, savvy roster moves were made in the June draft and it was apparent through the selection of Doug McDermott in the first round (11th Overall) that the Bulls sought immediate contributors instead of developmental projects that would take two to three years to blossom. Not only did the Bulls brass have the wherewithal to select the two-time Missouri Valley Conference Player of the Year (2012-2013), they knew that he had the potential to provide instant offense after leading the NCAA in scoring his senior year by averaging more than 26 points a clip. A rare breed in today’s basketball landscape since he is one of few players that is fully seasoned by way of four years of hoops on the collegiate level. Dougie McBuckets showed and proved throughout this year’s Las Vegas Summer League by averaging 18 points and also had a 31-point game, which solidified their draft day “A+” assessment on draft day.
These key acquisitions will make for a smooth transition for the Bulls’ prized international prospect Nikola Mirotić who will be joining Chi-Town after playing five years of professional ball in Spain. The Spanish-Montenegrin power forward was signed to a three-year deal worth more than $16 million and should be able to provide added versatility to their frontcourt after being named to the All-Euroleague Second Team for the past two years. Learning from Gasol should make the 2013 Spanish League MVP a solid contributor come mid-season, and give insurance when the injury bug hits any of their bigs.
New blood along with veteran pedigree has the Bulls in position to jockey for the first seed in the Eastern Conference, defeat the revamped Cavaliers, and potentially take the Bulls back to the golden era of the 90’s and MJ by winning their first one in nearly 20 years.
HONORABLE MENTION (in no particular order)
Despite going on a 26-game losing streak last year, and ending with a 19-63 record, something good has to be said about the franchise that laces up in the City of Brotherly Love. It can’t get any more dreadful for them than last season. So the only direction they can go is up. They honestly don’t have a choice.
Quite frankly, though there isn’t much to say about the closest thing the Association has to a team that could be ranked in the Top 25 of college basketball (NBA’s youngest team with the average age at 23.8 years old), having some decent talent come by way of the draft has to count for something. Philly finally gets Nerlens Noel (PF), the 2013 #6 overall pick, onto the floor after missing the entire 2013-2014 season with a torn ACL. And from the looks of things, he’s coming around with great promise. Noel definitely recovered nicely from his injury and posted more than 13 points, and 5 rebounds in monitored action at the Orlando Summer League in July.
The Sixers weren’t going to settle for just one big man though. They also drafted Joel Embiid out of Kansas with the #3 overall pick this year. With all of the upside any team could imagine from the offensive and defensive end, the fact that he has a checkered past with injuries and is currently sidelined for five to eight months with a bum foot, the 76ers still decided to push their chips in for a big man after watching him dominate the Big 12 last season.
If Embiid makes it to the hardwood this season, that will be an even bigger bonus to the young team and get them in the win column more often. While they may not be a playoff team, they will surely be more competitive as the season progresses and in future years to come.
San Antonio Spurs
Without any notable additions or splashes in free agency, there is only one reason why the Spurs are here: the passage of time. Honestly, this is the only team that could enter a “most improved team” conversation without making any major roster moves.
At this point, San-An has shown that they will get worse when they choose to get worse. Either that or when one of their big three decides to put their career in the sunset. An aging Tim Duncan (C), a Manu Ginobili (SG) that has been injury prone as of the past few years, and a maturing Tony Parker (PG) haven’t shown any signs of slowing. They continue to prove doubters wrong and defeat the test of time. Call them the fine wine crew if you may: with time, they simply get better.
With the Spurs Franchise garnering the most championships of any team since 1999, this trio together since the 2002-2003 season, and running a clinic on the Heat in last years finals to win their fifth championship in 15 years, who is to say that the end is anywhere in sight.