The Golden State Warriors will likely be even better next season than they were in 2015-16, which is a scary proposition. Adding Kevin Durant to a team that won 73 games obviously makes the Warriors a team on the rise, but considering they were already top-level contenders, we won’t include them here.
1. Utah Jazz
The Utah Jazz were a better team last season than their record would indicate. Injuries to Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors limited the Jazz, who were already playing without second-year guard Dante Exum (who tore his ACL during the offseason).
This summer, the Jazz acquired George Hill from the Indiana Pacers, Boris Diaw from the San Antonio Spurs and signed Joe Johnson to two-year contract.
Utah was in need of a solid point guard who could facilitate the offense, spread the court with his shooting and play tough perimeter defense. In Hill, the Jazz get all of those things and a veteran who can mentor Exum. In Johnson, the Jazz get a veteran forward who can shoot from deep and score in crunch-time situations. Johnson isn’t the explosive scorer he once was, but he still can score in isolation situations effectively, which is something Utah has needed. Furthermore, Diaw adds positional versatility and a wealth of experience from playing under head coach Gregg Popovich and the Spurs.
With these new pieces, Utah has addressed some areas of concern and has created a roster that can put together some interesting lineups. With a lot of length, strong defenders, added shooting and more veteran experience, Utah is well positioned to make a big leap next season. This is especially true if Exum comes back close to 100 percent healthy and if Gobert and Favors can avoid the injury bug.
2. Indiana Pacers
The Pacers had an interesting offseason. First, team president Larry Bird decided not to retain head coach Frank Vogel – a move that many people questioned. He then replaced Vogel with Nate McMillan, who was an assistant under Vogel.
Next, the Pacers went out and aggressively restructured their roster. They traded George Hill to the Jazz in a three-team trade, which landed them Jeff Teague from the Atlanta Hawks. Teague was born in Indiana and despite struggling last season, he is a solid point guard who can both facilitate an offense and shoot from distance. It was just two years ago that Teague was an All-Star.
Then, the Pacers traded the 20th overall pick in the draft to the Brooklyn Nets in exchange for Thaddeus Young. Young is one of the more underrated forwards in the league and should be a nice addition to Indiana’s frontcourt next to Paul George.
The Pacers also added veteran center Al Jefferson to improve their scoring in the post. Jefferson is a throwback center who can score with his back to the basket. Jefferson doesn’t necessarily fit into the up-and-down style of play Bird seems so interested in, but there is value in having a center who can score in bunches coming off the bench (something we see with Enes Kanter in Oklahoma City).
The Pacers did lose some players, such as Ian Mahinmi, Jordan Hill and Solomon Hill. However, with Paul George playing at a high level, Myles Turner showing great promise in his development and an infusion of quality veterans, the Pacers could make some noise in the Eastern Conference next season.
3. Minnesota Timberwolves
The Minnesota Timberwolves didn’t have a splashy offseason, but they do have one of the best cores of young talent and a budding superstar in Karl-Anthony Towns. The Timberwolves added to that young core with the additions of Kris Dunn (the fifth pick in this year’s draft), Cole Aldrich, Brandon Rush and Jordan Hill.
Dunn is 22 years old, which makes him older than Towns, Andrew Wiggins and Zach LaVine. However, this is why he’s been described as one of the most NBA-ready rookies in this incoming class. He played four years in college and should add a steady hand at point guard and defensive intensity at the position as well. Dunn showed flashes of his skills on both ends of the court at the Las Vegas Summer League and seems well positioned to be an immediate contributor for the Timberwolves as the backup to Ricky Rubio.
However, despite these nice additions, the biggest acquisition for the Timberwolves this offseason was the hiring of head coach Tom Thibodeau. In hiring Thibodeau, the Timberwolves now have one of the best defensive coaches in the league running the show. Thibodeau is a tough coach who demands discipline and cohesion from his players. If he can mold this young, talented team into a focused defensive unit, this squad can make a big leap sooner rather than later. With a transcendent talent like Towns anchoring the middle, elite athletes like LaVine and Wiggins on the wing and an underrated floor general in Rubio running the show (and a great perimeter defender in Dunn playing under a defensive genius in Thibodeau), the Timberwolves should be a team to keep an eye on next season.
4. Boston Celtics
The Boston Celtics have exceeded our collective expectations since Brad Stevens took over as the head coach. Now the Celtics are collectively older, more experienced and have benefited Stevens’ excellent coaching.
However, more than anything, talent determines how good a team can be and the Celtics are finally getting a marquee player in Al Horford. Despite the disappointment of not landing Kevin Durant, the signing of Horford means that the Celtics addressed their biggest weakness in the frontcourt. Horford is a very intelligent big man who can play both ends of the court very effectively. His ability to anchor a defense will be a big boost for the Celtics and will give Stevens a new focal point from which to structure his defensive schemes.
The Celtics also added Jaylen Brown with the third overall pick in this year’s draft. Brown is a an athletic forward who may be physical enough to play as a small-ball power forward in certain matchups. He needs to work on his shooting from distance, but he is a nice addition who should get a decent amount of playing time next season.
The Celtics also still have a glut of young, developing players in Terry Rozier, R.J. Hunter, Marcus Smart and Brown and a treasure trove of assets and salary cap flexibility. It’s no secret that Danny Ainge has been trying to add another star to put alongside All-Stars Horford and Isaiah Thomas.
With a disciplined group of young talent and the addition of Horford, the Celtics will likely continue to exceed expectations and perhaps become one of the better teams in the East.
5. Phoenix Suns
For the last few seasons, the Suns have been stuck between rebuilding and trying to compete for the playoffs. However, things have finally shifted toward more of a rebuild with the team adding some nice pieces in the draft, staying away from overspending in free agency and bringing in some familiar faces to mentor the team’s younger players. While the Suns may not be much better next season and certainly could miss the postseason, they make this list since they have finally chosen a path toward competing at a high level and are no longer caught between two competing paths.
The Suns drafted Dragan Bender (No. 4), Marquese Chriss (No. 8) and Tyler Ulis (No. 34) and then signed Jared Dudley and Leandro Barbosa in free agency. In Bender and Chriss, the Suns are getting two long and skilled forwards who are raw, but could be big-time contributors in the future. Bender, in particular, may have the tools to be a special talent in the NBA considering the size and skill he already has at the age of 19. Ulis is a nice addition in the second round, as he can control the floor, shoot the ball effectively and defend particularly well for a player standing 5’9. He was a standout performer at the Las Vegas Summer League and could eventually be viewed as a steal if he plays to his full potential.
The Suns will also benefit from bringing back Dudley and Barbosa, who both spent some of their best years in Phoenix. Dudley, in particular, could be a valuable addition at power forward with his ability to shoot the long ball. Dudley and Babosa will be excellent locker room presences as well, which is important since it’s always good to put strong leader and consummate professionals around a young core as they develop.
The biggest bright spot for the Suns at this point is second-year guard Devin Booker. Booker showed tremendous skill and poise in his rookie season and proved in the Las Vegas Summer League that he has the intensity and confidence to push his game to another level this upcoming season.
The Suns still have some issues to sort out with their roster and they may have a tough upcoming season, but their collection of young talent is quite impressive and could make them a very intriguing team down the road.
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