By Elijah Stewart
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) — With most of the major NBA offseason moves in the books, we take a look at the five teams that have improved the most heading into the 2014-15 season.
1. Cleveland Cavaliers
Key Moves: Signed LeBron James and Mike Miller; drafted No. 1 overall pick Andrew Wiggins
Whenever you sign the generation’s greatest player, you’ve had an A+ offseason. Add that to selecting the No. 1 pick in one of the deepest drafts in recent memory and you may have one of the most successful offseasons in NBA History.
The Cavs struck gold when James decided to come back home this offseason to end Cleveland’s 49-year drought without a championship. The Cavs have been unable to fill the void left by James at small forward since he took his talents to Miami. Now, James fits right in on the wing alongside an already talented backcourt featuring All-Star Kyrie Irving and Dion Waiters.
All eyes will be on what happens with Wiggins. Wiggins is a talented player who can be a useful piece to grow alongside Cleveland’s already strong nucleus, but with trade rumors swirling around Minnesota Timberwolves All-Star Kevin Love, Wiggins could be on his way out and the Cavs could end up landing another one of the league’s Top 10 players by month’s end.
2. Charlotte Hornets
Key Moves: Signed Lance Stephenson and Marvin Williams; drafted No. 9 overall Noah Vonleh and No. 26 overall PJ Hairston
The Hornets swung for the fences this offseason, but in doing so, they have given themselves a legitimate chance to jump up into the top half of the wide-open Eastern Conference. With Miami reeling off of the loss of James, and the Hornets outbidding Indiana for Stephenson, last season’s top two eastern conference teams are in a complete tailspin (and that was before Paul George’s awful leg injury last week).
The shooting guard position was the Hornets’ weakest spot last season and Stephenson was the most talented player available at that position. Stephenson is definitely an enigma, but a player with his offensive creativity is exactly what the Hornets needed to take the pressure off of Al Jefferson. The reasonable terms of Stephenson’s contract (2 years, $18 million plus a 3rd year option for $9.5 million) makes the move low-risk, high reward.
Vonleh is a young player with raw offensive skills and tremendous upside, while Hairston should help improve one of the league’s worst three-point shooting teams.
3. San Antonio Spurs
Key Moves: Re-signed Tim Duncan (exercised player option), Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner, Patty Mills; extended Tony Parker; drafted Kyle Anderson
Sometimes the offseason isn’t about making splashy, high-priced moves that clog your cap space or mortgaging your future on overpaid players. The Spurs consistently compete at an elite level because of their ability to make smart low-cost moves, while keeping the championship nucleus in price.
In a league where we’ve seen aging stars like Kobe Bryant sign for cap crippling Max deals, the Spurs model of excellence is predicated on signing their older stars to team-friendly deals. With Parker and Duncan agreeing to take hometown discounts to stay in San Antonio, the Spurs were able to keep all of the pieces of their championship team intact.
Diaw’s playmaking ability and Mills’ fearless big shot making were two important elements of the Spurs demolition of the Miami Heat in this year’s NBA Finals. The Spurs also added one of the steals of the draft in UCLA Point forward Kyle Anderson, a perfect fit Gregg Popovich’s system.
4. Denver Nuggets
Key Moves: Traded for Arron Afflalo; drafted Gary Harris and Jusuf Nurkic
After winning 57 games in the 2013 season, the Nuggets suffered a steep decline through an injury-riddled 2014 season in Brian Shaw’s first year as coach. However, they pulled off the most lopsided trade this offseason when they brought back Afflalo, for just Evan Fournier and a second round pick on draft night.
Afflalo was one of the league’s most improved players last season, posting the highest scoring average of his career (18.2 PPG) and highest 3-point percentage since 2010 (42.7 3FG%). Afflalo adds much needed scoring on the wing and will fit nicely in the backcourt with speed demon, PG Ty Lawson.
The Nuggets’ fortune continued on draft night when they traded Doug McDermott for two first rounds picks that turned into attacking SG Gary Harris and punishing C Jusuf Nurkic. Harris will bring more scoring to an already loaded backcourt that includes Lawson, Afflalo, and Nate Robinson. Nurkic can bring some toughness and defense to a frontcourt that desperately needs it.
5. Chicago Bulls
Key Moves: Signed: Pau Gasol, Nikola Mirotic; resigned Kirk Hinrich; drafted No.11 overall Doug McDermott
The signing of Pau Gasol is certainly an upgrade over Carlos Boozer. Boozer wore out his welcome in Chicago, and Gasol quietly had a very good season in LA last season, despite being misused by former coach Mike D’Antoni. The Bulls now finally have a legitimate threat in the low post with Gasol, and him and Noah should form the best frontcourt passing tandem in the league.
McDermott is a lights out scorer who’ll bring immediate offense off the bench, while Mirotic’s shooting and versatility at power forward will remind Bulls fans of a young Toni Kukoc. Under Head Coach Tom Thibodeau, the Bulls have been the league’s best defensive team. Now, by addressing their need for offensive firepower, the Bulls will have their most complete team during Thibodeau’s tenure.
However, not landing Carmelo Anthony was still a blow for the organization. Every thing with this team moving forward hinges entirely on Derrick Rose’s health.
Boston Celtics: After blowing the team up last year, Boston has at least seven first rounds picks coming their way in the next four years, thanks to some shrewd moves by President Danny Ainge. Depending on what happens with Rajon Rondo, they could have even more first round picks coming their way. Talented first round picks Marcus Smart and James Young will join an already good young nucleus of players. With a ton of cap room coming in the near future, things are looking up in Beantown.
Dallas Mavericks: On the surface, $45 Million over three years seems like a lot for a third-option, but the addition of Chandler Parson now gives Dallas one of the league’s most versatile players and one of the best three-man tandems in the West. Almost as equally important, the Mavs hurt in-state rival Houston who had to scramble to replace him. However, Tyson Chandler and Raymond Felton were dreadful in New York last year and will have to return to form if Dallas moves up in the West.
Toronto Raptors: Similar to the the Spurs, the Raptors did an excellent job keeping their core intact. Kyle Lowry emerged as one of the best point guards in the NBA last season and they were able to keep him at a reasonable price (4 years $48 Million) along with role players Patrick Patterson and Greivis Vasquez. The Raptors also stole Lou Williams from Atlanta in one of the most underrated trades of the offseason.
New York Knicks: The Knicks had to retain Carmelo Anthony. Losing him would have set the franchise back years, and the Knicks will now have the cap flexibility to add other star players to play alongside Anthony next offseason when the contracts of Amare Stoudemire and Andrea Bargnani expire. The Knicks also rid themselves of the two players most responsible for their decline last season (Felton and Chandler), while upgrading at PG with Jose Calderon.
Elijah Stewart currently works for the 94WIP Morning Show, as he continues his studies at CUNY Graduate School of Journalism in New York.
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