Every NBA offseason carries with it a certain identity; a distinct set of trends that characterize the current values of the players involved. For the past decade, that trend has been saturated with big-name free agents gravitating toward major markets, pairing with familiar players to form super-teams. The term “Big 3” didn’t have any meaning prior to the mid-2000’s, but now it has become an embedded part of our basketball lexicon.
But, although it provides an entertaining spectacle, it is also a big reason we have seen a more top-heavy NBA, with fewer of the total number of teams finishing the season with a winning mark. Over the past 10 years, only 54.3 percent of teams have finished with at least a .500 record. That’s compared to 58.1 percent and 57.4 percent in the two decades that preceded.
But, that trend appears to have taken on a different face this summer. Players such as Greg Monroe, LaMarcus Aldridge and to a lesser extent DeAndre Jordan, shunned the bright lights of metropolitan giants to become part of something more important.
David West turned down more money than the gross domestic product of Niue for god’s sake — It’s true, look it up — all to be a part of something that has evaded them everywhere they have played; championships.
And as I look across the modern NBA landscape as it is forming this offseason, one thing is becoming more apparent by the day; there are going to be A LOT of really good teams next year.
In the playoffs last season, we saw a final four consisting of teams that hadn’t won a championship in decades, or never at all. Teams such as the New Orleans Pelicans and Milwaukee Bucks came out of nowhere to qualify for the playoffs after being given zero chance entering the season. It was the beginning of what I think may become the biggest period of parity this league has ever seen.
Never before have we seen more than 18 teams win at least half of their games, and even that has only happened six times in NBA history. But, as I look at the collective moves that have been made this offseason, between the draft, trades and free agency, I can’t help but think this may be the year that we see that mark eclipsed.
To test this theory, I inventoried all the moves made this offseason to determine whether teams on a whole got better, stayed good/bad, or got worse. Through my extremely unscientific research, I determined that 24 teams made move moves that make them, or allowed them to continue to be, legitimate threats to make the playoffs.
Only six teams — the Knicks, Lakers, Timberwolves, 76ers, Nuggets and Kings — can be counted on to be bad once again, and of those six, only the Nuggets haven’t made any moves to make them markedly better this summer.
Put another way, there are more than three times as many teams that have a high probability at competing for a playoff spot than not. Don’t believe me? See for yourself.
Got Better (and are contenders)
Oklahoma City Thunder
San Antonio Spurs
All 11 of these teams made moves that significantly improved their stock entering next season, either by bolstering their roster or by retaining their most important players. I consider all of them to be realistic threats to compete for a playoff spot, and I see four of them — Mavs, Thunder, Spurs and Cavs — being realistic contenders to win it all.
The Cavs and Thunder didn’t add any major new pieces, but both will be better next season, from continuity and health respectively.
Got better (but not contenders)
New York Knicks
Los Angeles Lakers
Say what you will about this group, but all five of these teams will be better than they were a year ago. You may disagree with my assertion that the Lakers and Knicks have have had successful offseasons, but both are doing a lot to lay a solid foundation for the looming 2016 free agent frenzy. There’s no way any of the big names next summer would even consider either team without seeing the incremental progress both are making by adding quality role players. And yes, Roy Hibbert, Brandon Bass, Lou Williams, Robin Lopez, Kyle O’Quinn and Arron Afflalo are just that.
The Timberwolves and 76ers both added potential cornerstones through the draft, while the Kings appear to be putting together a mishmash of players, some of whom are destined to drive George Karl crazy, but who will almost assuredly make the Kings better than last year’s squad. The signings of Marco Belinelli and Kosta Koufos alone almost guarantee that.
Golden State Warriors
New Orleans Pelicans
These eight teams added a piece here and there, and while none of them were groundbreaking, they also did nothing to make themselves noticeably worse. They should all remain in the mix for a playoff spot, and the Warriors will essentially be bringing back the exact same players from their championship roster.
The Pelicans are really the only team of the eight that aren’t a lock to be in the postseason.
All three of these teams should remain competitive for a playoff berth, but none of the three are locks. I could see a scenario where all three, or neither of the three are in the postseason next year. It’s that hit-or-miss.
Interestingly, all three have had similar offseasons so far in that they have locked up some of their current core — Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Goran Dragic, Thaddeus Young, Brook Lopez — but did nothing to move the needle as it relates to making them contenders. Call me crazy, but I just don’t see the addition of Amir Johnson for the Celtics taking them to the next level.
The most likely scenario here is the Heat returning to their playoff form, largely predicated on Wade’s health and Hassan Whiteside convincing me he’s actually good, while the Celtics and Nets regress.
In my estimation, the Nuggets are the only team that hasn’t done a single thing to improve themselves entering next season. That could still change via trade, but given how much they appear to overvalue their players, I’m not counting on it.
Los Angeles Clippers
Portland Trail Blazers
The Clippers and Blazers both lost cornerstone players to free agency in Jordan and Aldridge, while the Wizards lost the impetus to their playoff success in Paul Pierce. I actually think the Clippers could miss the playoffs as a result, and I have the Blazers as the team with the biggest fall-off from a season ago.
The Wizards will miss Pierce, and they haven’t made any moves in free agency so far. I love the addition of Kelly Oubre in the draft, but I also don’t think he is NBA-ready yet. The Wizards’ success could rest squarely on the ability of Otto Porter picking up where he left off in the playoffs.
When all’s said and done, there could very well be 19 teams who finish the season with a .500 or better record, marking the most to ever do so. It’s hard to imagine a scenario where any of those 19 post losing marks. This would mean teams like the Heat, Hornets, Pistons or Celtics saw their growth slow significantly, or someone like the Clippers or Pelicans regressed to unbelievable levels. I just don’t see that happening.
Of course this would mean a few things would likely have to occur. One, the teams at the top would have to win fewer games, meaning we may not see any team with more than 60. Two, the distance between the really good teams and the teams at the bottom would narrow significantly, making the race for the final playoff spots more interesting than ever.
So if you thought last season went a long way toward changing the game, and bringing it all-time highs, just wait. We could be in store for something truly special.