10 NBA teams that made the most meaningful changes entering 2018-19 season
What movement mattered: A look at what has really changed in the league as the upcoming season fast approaches
The Atlanta Hawks had a busy summer. Between rookies Trae Young, Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman, free-agent additions Vince Carter and Alex Len and trade acquisitions Jeremy Lin and Justin Anderson, their rotation will look quite different. And that wasn't all: The Hawks shipped out Dennis Schroder and Mike Muscala, both of whom spent the past five seasons with the team. They even briefly employed Carmelo Anthony.
All of this player movement, though, probably won't amount to much in the short term. Atlanta won 24 games last season, and expectations aren't much higher this time around.
With less than a month until opening night, let's take a look at the teams that made the most meaningful moves in the context of this coming season.
Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James chose the Lakers, and then the Lakers chose Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley. A very different group of players finished 22nd in offensive rating last season, and it is safe to say that won't happen again. Typically, though, the best way to maximize James is to give him the ball and put lots of shooting around him, even if it can tire him out and create a dependence on him. Los Angeles has, obviously, not done this. Is there a different path to an elite offense here, built on the threat of having multiple playmakers on the court at all times and just enough shooting to get by? What happens late in close games and in the playoffs, when LeBron tends to dominate the ball even more? These are the big questions, but I'm also curious about their pace and their individual player development.
Los Angeles was 13th in defense last season, by the way, which is probably better than you thought. Perhaps if James is doing less playmaking, he can afford to put more effort in on that end of the court, but I'd be cautious about predicting a ton of team-wide improvement there. Coach Luke Walton has major challenges that go beyond integrating new personnel and dealing with increased expectations: How can he find a balance between building something sustainable with the young guys and getting the most out of these veteran rental players? Even Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is on a one-year contract. If the Lakers are going to be even a somewhat serious threat in the West, they need to coalesce into a cohesive unit rather than just being LeBron and a bunch of dudes.
You generally don't mess with a formula that works, but the Rockets have made an exception. After winning 65 games in a loaded conference and coming as close as you possibly can to beating the Warriors, the roster looks quite different. Gone are Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute and Ryan Anderson; joining the party are Carmelo Anthony, James Ennis, Marquese Chriss, Brandon Knight, Michael Carter-Williams and maybe even Bruno Caboclo. These newcomers all seem like medium-to-high-variance propositions, and while Houston will assuredly still be a great regular-season team, we all know what really matters is whether or not it can push Golden State again.
If Anthony fits better than he did with the Thunder, maybe he can diversify the Rockets' second-ranked offense and make them less susceptible to dry spells when facing the same relentless switching that they practice. The conventional wisdom, though, is that they are worse than they were a few months ago. It will be much harder to execute their switching scheme against the champs without Ariza, Mbah a Moute and assistant coach Jeff Bzdelik, who has been in charge of the defense for the past two seasons and retired a few days ago. It is unclear if Anthony will even be able to stay on the court in a potential Western Conference finals rematch, let alone affect such a series in a significant way. As a result of all of this, Houston will be extremely fascinating to watch, and there is an expectation that Daryl Morey's front office will do something to improve the team midseason.
This 59-win team fired its coach and traded its franchise player because playoff poundings were getting old. If Kawhi Leonard is healthy, he's the best player the franchise has ever employed, and his talent level should matter more than the loss of continuity with DeMar DeRozan gone. Now that Danny Green is in the mix, Nick Nurse believes his team has six starters, and the versatility does not end there: Toronto could very well have the best bench in the league again, and it can play all sorts of funky lineups because guys guys like Leonard, Green, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright can guard multiple positions.
The Raptors finished third in offensive rating last season, behind the Warriors and Rockets, so it can only get marginally better on that end. Their most pressing problem was defense -- while they were sixth in defensive rating in the regular season, they ranked 14th out of the 16 playoff teams. Keeping Fred VanVleet, then, was a big deal: Basketball nerds like myself see him as a starting-caliber point guard already, and few at his position make the impact he does on defense. The fact he was either out of the lineup or playing hurt throughout Toronto's playoff run was an issue. Free-agent addition Greg Monroe has proven to be a situational player, but he's basically just a replacement for Jakob Poeltl, so that's fine. This group's ceiling might ultimately be determined by what Nurse gets out of big men Jonas Valanciunas and Serge Ibaka on the defensive end -- it's kind of unbelievable that they're both still on the roster.
Oklahoma City Thunder
The Thunder were pretty good across the board last season, finishing 10th in offensive rating, 10th in defensive rating and eighth in net rating. They were never quite connected enough offensively, though, and their defense took a major hit when Andre Roberson hurt his left knee. With Paul George returning, Anthony out of the picture and a revamped bench, Oklahoma City optimists envision a team that can wear teams down with physicality and athleticism, forcing turnovers and creating easy buckets in transition. Ideally, the Thunder's spacing will improve with a bounceback season from Patrick Patterson and they will be able to survive when Russell Westbrook goes to the bench because of the presence of Dennis Schroder.
Every single season, Oklahoma City's coaching staff has to make difficult compromises in terms of its lineups. How can it provide the proper spacing for Westbrook without sacrificing defensive versatility? In this respect, Jerami Grant's shooting and the development of wings Terrance Ferguson and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are important variables. Getting Nerlens Noel for the minimum is great value, but is he prepared to play about 15 minutes a night as Steven Adams' backup? On paper, this team has a high ceiling, but the same was true last season. The organization is betting on the mix adding up to something better than pretty good this time.
The Sixers went star-hunting and came up empty, but there's a fair amount of turnover here for a 52-win team. Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli changed the course of their 2017-18 season because of the spacing they provided, and they're both gone. Management cut bait on Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot, Richaun Holmes and Justin Anderson. The versatile Wilson Chandler, stretch 5 Mike Muscala and a bunch of rookies -- Zhaire Smith, Landry Shamet, Shake Milton and Jonah Bolden -- are in their place, and Markelle Fultz is essentially an offseason addition, too.
After the All-Star break last season, Philadelphia was fifth in the league in offensive rating. If it is going to build on that, it will need to make up for losing Ilyasova and Belinelli somehow. If Joel Embiid doesn't become more consistent from long range, Fultz doesn't have a breakthrough, Chandler doesn't have a career year and none of the first-year players make an impact, it will be up to the front office -- now led by new general manager Elton Brand! -- to find another piece or two. (One player to keep an eye on: Furkan Korkmaz, who only appeared in 14 games last season but can at least theoretically play a Belinelli-like role.)
New coach Mike Budenholzer will surely try to spice up the Bucks' offense, especially with Ilyasova, Brook Lopez, Donte DiVincenzo and Pat Connaughton adding shooting to the roster. They were seventh in offensive rating last season, though, so Budenholzer's main focus is on fixing their 17th-ranked defense. In this context, losing Jabari Parker in free agency should be seen as addition by subtraction. Milwaukee needs to get back to having a defense-first identity -- remember, in 2014-15, under Jason Kidd, it was second in the league in defensive rating and everybody thought it would have an elite defense for years to come.
Giannis Antetokounmpo is a much more advanced defender than he was at that time, and his career arc suggests that he will continue to make strides on both ends. Antetokounmpo is already one of the league's premier talents, but a bit more progress in terms of jump shooting and playmaking could nudge the Bucks toward the East's upper echelon -- if his teammates fit into Budenholzer's system, that is. There is reason to be skeptical that Eric Bledsoe, entering a contract year, is the right point guard to keep Milwaukee organized.
San Antonio Spurs
Well, this is going to be weird. Kawhi Leonard, Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson are no longer Spurs. DeRozan, Poeltl, Belinelli and Lonnie Walker are. Has San Antonio's identity completely eroded? How will DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge operate together? Can this still be a stifling defensive team without any top-tier wing defenders? How different will the Rudy Gay-DeRozan pairing look this time around? I have so many questions.
It is easy to imagine the Spurs improving their 17th-ranked offense with DeRozan in the fold, even if it takes some time for everybody to get comfortable. I just wonder whether or not this new group will be able to execute the way San Antonio usually does on the other end. Dejounte Murray handles his business like a much more experienced player and Aldridge is much, much better than he's given credit for as a defender, but all these changes don't necessarily add up to a balanced team, let alone one that is dangerous in the playoffs. I can't decide whether this makes the Spurs more interesting than they've been in a few years or just kind of a bummer.
Rick Carlisle is a genius, but he hasn't had the proper pieces to play with for a while now. With Luka Doncic and DeAndre Jordan entering the staring lineup, he does. While the Mavs might not be projected to make the playoffs by many, I'll bet their offense is at least above-average, with the potential to be significantly better than that. This is saying something, considering that they were 23rd in offensive rating last season. Personally, I would have loved to see Dallas keep Doug McDermott and either Seth Curry or Yogi Ferrell. There should still be enough shooting and playmaking here for Carlisle's system to function, though -- Doncic and Jordan just make this roster make more sense.
The unknowns: As effective as Jordan is protecting the paint, is this team going to be decent on defense? Also, how much can be reasonably expected of Dennis Smith? This is going to be a very different environment than what Smith became accustomed to in his rookie season, and Doncic is going to have the ball in his hands a lot.
When teams shock the world like the Pacers did last season, it is not necessarily the start of something special. A surprising success story is sometimes followed by stagnation or, worse, regression. Indiana, though, does not appear to be taking any chances. Rather than bringing back the same exact group, the front office replaced Stephenson with Tyreke Evans, replaced Al Jefferson with Kyle O'Quinn and replaced Glenn Robinson III with McDermott. The bench will be stronger, and the offense has a chance to take a step forward. Indiana was 12th in offensive rating last season, but it was extremely dependent on Victor Oladipo: When he was on the bench, the Pacers scored at about the same rate as the Orlando Magic.
It looks like Indiana is a more well-rounded team now, but its improvement isn't completely dependent on the new guys. There is reason to believe Oladipo, Myles Turner and Domantas Sabonis can come back better players than they were. Sabonis and Turner have only played 269 regular-season minutes together, and they only shared the floor for 29 minutes in the playoffs. The Pacers need to figure out if that combination can work.
Maybe the absence of Dwight Howard will give the Hornets a rejuvenated Nicolas Batum. Maybe new coach James Borrego will give a team that had sort of grown stale a new kind of energy. Maybe a healthy Cody Zeller, a more-motivated-than-ever Kemba Walker and an improved Malik Monk will have career years. Charlotte is in a weird place, but there are reasons to believe it can be better than last season. Tony Parker should stabilize the second unit, Miles Bridges has a world of potential and, provided that Borrego uses him in the right lineups, Bismack Biyombo can still be useful as a defender and rebounder.
There is a chance that the Hornets never become more than the sum of their parts and new general manager Mitch Kupchak has to tear the whole thing down. They have tweaked the roster enough, though, that moderate Eastern Conference success seems attainable.
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