Money might have flown around the NBA during the early stages of free agency, but that wasn’t the only avenue teams used to upgrade their rosters. More so than in previous years, the trade route become a prevalent area for teams to address weaknesses.
From the Houston Rockets adding Chris Paul to the Minnesota Timberwolves’ shocking trade for Jimmy Butler, a ton of stars moved via trades.
Along with Minnesota and Houston, teams like the Golden State Warriors and Sacramento Kings founds ways to improve big time with otherwise under-the-radar signings. These are among the five NBA teams that improved most during free agency.
Regardless of whether Houston ends up closing the deal to bring Carmelo Anthony down south, this team has already improved leaps and bounds from last season.
It started with the trade for nine-time All-Star guard Chris Paul, who will now team up with James Harden to form the most-potent backcourt east of Oakland. Some may question whether Harden and Paul can coexist on the same court with both being dominating options with the ball in their hands. That’s a “problem” Mike D’Antoni will have to handle once training camp starts. But there’s very little reason to question what each of them bring to the table at a singular level.
One of the most-underrated signings of the summer was the deal that brought veteran forward P.J. Tucker to Houston. Sure losing out on Andre Iguodala after offering him a contract hurt, but Tucker is not a bad fallback option. He’s an elite-level defender that adds another dimension to an otherwise perimeter-oriented Rockets squad.
Locking up Harden on the richest contract in NBA history doesn’t hurt, either. It gives him a sense of belonging in Houston, which should help the MVP finalist up his game even more in 2017-18.
We’re not going to sit back here and predict Houston will dethrone the three-time defending Western Conference champion Warriors. That would be foolish. But this squad may very well represent the biggest threat to the defending champs out west. The additions of Paul and Tucker magnify that even more.
Karl-Anthony Towns and Andre Wiggins will be the only remaining starters from last season’s Wolves team. That’s most definitely not a bad thing considering the two didn’t receive much help after the recently traded Zach LaVine went down with a season-ending ACL injury.
Minnesota’s return to relevance started with the shocking acquisition of All-NBA performer Jimmy Butler from the Chicago Bulls. Not only is Butler one of the best scoring wings in the game, he brings a tough defensive tenacity to the table. That’s something the Wolves were missing in Tom Thibodeau’a first season as the team’s head coach.
Teaming up in the backcourt with Butler will be former All-Star Jeff Teague, who was brought on in free agency to replace Ricky Rubio. Teague is nowhere near as limited as Rubio is on the offensive end of the court. After all, he is a 36 percent three-point shooter in his career.
As with Tucker in Houston, the addition of Taj Gibson to this rebranded Wolves roster flew under the radar big time. He gives Thibs that interior defender that Minnesota simply has not had. And as with Butler, Gibson has experience in this scheme.
More than anything, these three additions helps Wiggins tremendously. A lot has been made about his one-dimensional play. He’s not a good defender. He’s not a willing passer. But Wiggins won’t have to focus on either of those aspects with Teague and Butler in the mix.
Assuming both Wiggins and Towns continue their upward trajectory as young players, it would not be an absolute shock to see Minnesota earn a top-five seed out west this season. That’s how good this team has the potential of being.
The selection of Markelle Fultz No. 1 overall in June’s draft notwithstanding, Philadelphia significantly upgraded its roster in free agency. That includes signing one of the best three-point shooters in the game, J.J. Redick from the Los Angeles Clippers. Redick will immediately slide in as the team’s starting shooting guard next to Fultz and/or Ben Simmons. He also brings a vast amount of experience, which is huge for an otherwise young team.
And while he might not get a ton of play, Amir Johnson was a solid add from Boston. The veteran forward brings toughness and rebounding ability to the frontcourt and should be a solid backup at both the four and the five.
There’s definitely a lot of moving parts here in Philadelphia. Can Joel Embiid finally prove himself to be healthy after a strong, but injury-plagued 2016-17 campaign? How will 2016 No. 1 overall pick Ben Simmons fit in after missing his entire rookie season? Are the Sixers going to move former lottery pick Jahlil Okafor before the season?
These types of questions usually lead us to believe that a team will miss out on the playoffs. But with the Eastern Conference taking a major step back, Philadelphia has a chance to inch into the postseason. The additions of Redick and Johnson magnify this to a T.
It’s about darn time the Kings’ front office and Vlade Divac turned the corner. The team simply might have needed to rid itself of the DeMarcus Cousins drama, because ever since that trade, Sacramento has done pretty much everything right.
Not only did Sacramento absolutely ace the 2017 NBA Draft, it went balls to the wall with three tremendous free agent signings. Adding former Jazz point guard George Hill to the mix with De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield in the backcourt was absolutely huge.
Hill averaged 16.9 points and shot at a 40 percent clip for a top-five seed last season. He’s a perfect veteran add to go with those two youngsters.
The Kings then added former All-Star Zach Randolph from the Memphis Grizzlies. Sure Randolph is well past his prime, but he’ll make for a darn good running partner for young center Willie Cauley-Stein, who improved leaps and bounds following the trade of Cousins back in February. Randolph was still able to average 14.1 points and 8.2 rebounds for Memphis last season.
If that wasn’t enough, Sacramento doubled down with ageless wonder Vince Carter on a one-year contract. Carter is good for between 15-20 minutes a game and shot 38 percent from distance last season.
While the Western Conference has improved a great deal during the summer, it would not be an absolute shock to see Sacramento vie for a bottom two playoff seed in 2017-18. It’s going to be all about the maturation process for Fox and Hield, but the pieces are in place for this team to be competitive once again.
Golden State Warriors
How in the world can a 67-win reigning NBA champion improve less than a month after winning the title? Leave it to these Warriors, who took care of business and more in free agency.
Sure locking up Stephen Curry on what was then the largest contract in NBA history helps. Seeing Kevin Durant take about $10 million less than the max enabled Golden State to bring back both Shaun Livingston and Andre Iguodala, two super subs for the champs. Golden State was then able to re-sign big men Zaza Pachulia and David West to small one-year contracts. Talk about taking care of your own.
But it’s the two players the Warriors added in free agency that tells us a story of a team that has improved leaps and bounds. Somehow, general manager Bob Myers and Co. were able to get veteran forward Omri Casspi to take the league minimum. Casspi might have had somewhat of a down season in 2016-17, but he’s one year removed from averaging 11.8 points and shooting at a 41 percent clip from distance. Casspi adds yet another shooter to a strong second unit in Oakland.
Though, it’s not the Casspi signing that threw the NBA for a loop. Instead, Golden State was able to use part of its mid-level exception to sign former Los Angeles Lakers guard Nick Young (don’t call him Swaggy P). Young averaged 13.2 points and shot at a 40 percent clip from three-point range for the Lakers last season. He will be a go-to option for the Warriors’ second unit in 2017-18.
The most-alarming aspect of Golden State’s successful offseason has to be a young core deep in the bench that could play larger roles next season. That includes 2016 second-round pick Patrick McCaw, fellow second-year player Damian Jones and rookie Jordan Bell from Oregon. All three have performed at a high clip during Summer League in Vegas. They add to what is already an absolutely stacked bench for the Warriors.