The NBA offseason is a time for many things: self-reflection, recalibration, home run swings, insane overhauls, measured tweaks, trade demands, repeated rumors, existential dread, unchecked optimism, and so on.
Overall, however, the association’s summer break is a chance to improve. It doesn’t matter if your team has just won the title, lost more than 60 games or done something in between. Improvement is the whole point of the offseason.
Many teams opt out of this in favor of wholesale resets. Others focus on marginal scams. A handful of organizations fail completely, sometimes spectacularly.
However, certain teams are taking significant steps forward. This exercise aims to identify which teams have made the most progress, positioning themselves to surpass last year’s performance, perhaps by leaps and bounds.
This isn’t about predicting which teams will increase their win total the most. It’s about spotlighting the franchises that have done the best job of improving their rosters compared to last season in terms of both their needs and the tools at their disposal.
The Cleveland Cavaliers entered the summer with two primary goals: upgrade their shooting on the wings without torpedoing the defense, and deepen the frontline rotation behind Evan Mobley and Jarrett Allen.
Some have mocked the addition of Max Strus (four years, $62.3 million) and Georges Niang (three years, $25 million). They shouldn’t. Both price points are fine. Strus makes a hair above the non-taxpayer mid-level exemption, while Niang barely costs more than the mini-MLE. Their exterior volume is worth the entrance fee.
Niang hit just over 40 percent of his threes on more than nine attempts per game. 36 minutes. Strus hit 35 percent of his triples at nearly identical volume and promises the added benefit of draining ultra-difficult attempts in motion or off the (quick) bounce.
Ideally, Cleveland would have nabbed a shooter like Strus with Isaac Okoro’s defense. It never happened. Strus competes enough in that end to hold its own in the playoffs.
The secondary big rotation is a bigger concern. Niang isn’t gigantic, and the Cavs didn’t add other big difference-makers. Emoni Bates is a lovely flyer. Ditto for Damian Jones. None of them will have major roles. Summer League Finals MVP Isaiah Mobley’s development could be big here, but he’ll need to improve his defense and off-ball offense.
Still, overall, the Cavs addressed their two biggest question marks — skilled enough to be an even bigger force in the East.
Undercurrents of disappointment were directed at the Motor City this offseason. The Detroit Pistons had plenty of cap space, and many wanted them to make bigger, glitzy splashes.
Go ahead and identify what flashy moves were available. I am waiting. But not for too long. Because they don’t exist. The Brooklyn Nets clearly never let Cam Johnson leave, and betting on the Grant Williams and PJ Washington sweepstakes shouldn’t incite fears of regret.
Turning cap space into a few expiring contracts and rolling over summer flexibility was a smart move. Especially when the expiring contracts can play.
Monte Morris remains an under-controlled game manager who can snake into pull-up middies and space the floor away from the ball. Joe Harris’ health has developed into a question mark, but at his best he can fly around the perimeter and attack closeouts.
Baking Ausar Thompson at No. 5 is huge. The acceleration on the ball is terrifying and will be put to good use in conjunction with the extra shooting. His defensive energy is bottomless. Believe in his jumper.
Lumpy redundancy continues on this list. The double-big model is underwhelming, and the Pistons have a surplus on the ball after adding Thompson and, less critically, Marcus Sasser.
Detroit nonetheless found ways to open the floor for its key kids while increasing its NBA talent quota. The depth chart is now more coherent and so will the pistons wow better.
Did the Houston Rockets dramatically improve? Or was the status quo so depressingly confusing that the acquisition of any actual NBA talent would seduce us into optimism?
It’s a bit of both. But mostly the former.
Fred VanVleet’s arrival arms the Rockets with a much-needed playmaker who won’t cannibalize touches from developmental projects and will work off the defense. Don’t worry about the money. A two-season max with a 3rd year club option is more team friendly than not.
Feel free to bemoan Dillon Brooks’ money. Guaranteeing him $86 million is an overpayment. But he just made an all-defensive team, and his offensive mindset won’t be as detrimental if Houston limits his use of the ball.
Amen Thompson has THAT. His jumper is a concern, but the Rockets have it from yuuuust enough space to let him loose downhill. He will be a defensive nuisance on the ball immediately.
Stumbling into Cam Whitmore at No. 20 is big time. What he lacks in feeling, he makes up for in visceral, visual intensity. Jock Landale adds drips and drabs of frontline switchability, rim protection, shielding and even spacing. Jeff Green will leave his mark on the locker room.
This is to say nothing of internal development from Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Alperen Şengün and others. It still feels like Houston’s roster has too many moving parts, but there’s more of a rhyme and reason to its build and depth. It will go a long way.
Multiple truths can coexist. The Los Angeles Lakers are the proof. Their offseason is both overrated and will absolutely make them much better.
Anyone clamoring for general manager Rob Pelinka to win Executive of the Year already needs to chill. The Lakers are not profound different when looking at the ins and outs of their offseason:
- IN: Jaxson Hayes, Jalen Hood-Schifino (No. 17), Maxwell Lewis (No. 40), Taurean Prince, Cam Reddish, Gabe Vincent
- Out: Mo Bamba, Malik Beasley, Troy Brown Jr., Wenyen Gabriel, Dennis Schroder, Tristan Thompson, Lonnie Walker IV
Keeping Austin Reaves on a four-year, $53.8 million contract was a caps-lock W. (Related: Shame on no fewer than three teams for not marrying Reaves.) He can and will get better. So can Rui Hachimura, and the D’Angelo Russell contract (two years, $37 million) provides a potentially good trade chip.
Still, most of the Lakers’ improvements are tied to internal development and more time together rather than a combination of additions. At the same time, going from Schröder to Vincent is a material offensive upgrade that doesn’t sacrifice any defensive juice, and Prince is a legit three-and-D complement that should have a chance to close out games.
Along with the intrigue of Hood-Schifino’s wing defense on the ball; the prospect of Reaves (and Rui) getting better; and the end-of-the-bench dice rolls on Hayes (flashes of defensive versatility) and Reddish (can he keep the ball moving and make threes?), the Lakers’ offseason feels like it will pay serious dividends during the season.
Outraged that the Phoenix Suns are consolidating the few assets they had left in Bradley Beal if you’re feeling performative. They went from a 38-year-old Chris Paul, Landry Shamet and picks and players who weren’t going to contribute next season to a 30-year-old with an NBA cap.
You can’t lose that deal. At all. It doesn’t matter how you feel about Beal’s contract. Or the depth. The Suns added a true third star and are much scarier for it. And if you have a problem with their asset allocation, you really question how much they gave up for Kevin Durant. That is another discussion.
Phoenix has also mitigated some of the risk by absolutely dominating the minimum contract game. Eric Gordon and Yuta Watanabe would be in every other NBA rotation. The same goes for Josh Okogie most nights.
Bol Bol (can he hold his own on defense?) and Keita Bates-Diop (will his threes continue to fall?) have narrow risk-reward profiles. Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu were available for a reason, but they bring versatility to the front court. Damion Lee should have played more for the Suns last season.
Offloading Cameron Payne in a treasure dump detracts from the ball handling ranks. Phoenix will be fine. Beal and Durant are top-tier secondary playmakers, and Devin Booker is closer to an alpha floor general than given credit for.
The Denver Nuggets remain, clearly, the best team in the West. But the sun is next.
A single player can afford to participate in this conversation. The San Antonio Spurs have one in Victor Wembanyama – who, as I wrote earlierlooks like an instant all-timer:
“The ease with which he can get to his jumper anywhere bodes well for his overall offensive build. The pass is still more reactive than planned, but he doesn’t have to juggle at Scoot Henderson level to lift his teammates. His small frame can cause problems against certain defenders, but he knew the angle and we used the ball so we surgically touched the ball. is that it should never matter.”
“Wemby can also come in and just be one of the NBA’s most intimidating off-ball defenders from Day 1. His presence around the rim is omnipresent, and he’s already shown an ability to shoot unimaginable holes and drain jumpers.”
This is not just about the arrival of Wembanyama either. The Spurs used their cap space to gain weight genuine basketball players. Reggie Bullock is a legit three-and-D wing. Cameron Payne adds the wiggle in the half court and playmaking. Cedi Osman will occupy the floor.
Does Julian sign “What if he’s a Higher-End Kenrich Williams?” Champagne for a regular NBA contract will mean something. The Spurs have Dominick Barlow, coming off a two-way, in restricted free agency. They’re not immediately playoff bound, but they’ve improved enough in more ways than one to ensure the West is devoid of pushovers.