Most Improved NBA Teams: OKC Thunder Turn Elite Contenders
Oklahoma City Thunder
GM Sam Presti was vilified in some circles for trading James Harden, who transformed into a triple-double machine and MVP candidate. He witnessed Kevin Durant migrate to the Bay Area and win his first NBA championship. After years of frustration, Sam put together an offseason for the ages.
Against all odds, he won the offseason trade extravaganza by stealing Paul George from the Pacers for a relative pittance. Already hailed a hero by Oklahomans, he convinced the Knicks to send Carmelo Anthony to the Thunder, creating a legitimate big three by offloading contracts of Victor Oladipo and Enes Kanter for superstars.
Russell Westbrook finally decided he’ll stay with the Thunder for the rest of his prime, signing the richest contract in the NBA. Oklahoma City now has a chance to become the second seed in the west and challenge the Warriors for the western conference championship.
The Houston Rockets ran out of gas last year, fading in the second round of the playoffs against the San Antonio Spurs. GM Daryl Morey knew he had to figure out a way to get James Harden some help late in the game, so he worked his magic through trade, landing legendary point guard Chris Paul.
Now the Rockets have two of the best facilitators in the league, enabling elite ball handling throughout the game. When together on the court, Paul and Harden can act as spot-up shooters for each other, or as pick-and-roll partners.
Houston kept most of their best shooters, giving Paul and Harden great outlet options at all times. Ryan Anderson, Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker will enjoy more open looks around the perimeter than any shooter in the league. If Houston stays healthy, they could break their own record for most three-pointers in a single season.
Boston started free agency with a bang, eventually securing the services of ex-Utah Jazz swingman Gordon Hayward. Danny Ainge, GM of the Celtics, finally splurged on another elite free agent, a crucial get considering he lost out on Paul George and Jimmy Butler.
Then the implausible happened: Kyrie Irving - Robin to LeBron’s Batman – didn’t want to play with King James anymore. Kyrie wanted to be the alpha dog on his own winning team. This triggered an unprecedented swap between two bitter rivals. Heart-and-soul Celtics Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder were traded for Kyrie Irving, along with other Celtics assets.
This stunning trade completely changed the complexion of the east, giving Cleveland newfound depth and a first-round draft asset. Boston now has a young superstar point guard in his prime, hungry to prove himself as a champ without LeBron. Boston’s better off in the short and long term, especially if they extend Uncle Drew’s contract.
The Timberwolves were one of the beneficiaries of the Cleveland Cavaliers resigning LeBron. Suddenly in win-now mode, it was clear that LeBron wanted a long, Bosh-style shooter who could hit threes and open up space in the paint. The Kevin Love trade gifted Andrew Wiggins to Minnesota, and the next year they drafted Karl-Anthony Towns, an amazing young center who might grow into an MVP candidate soon.
This trade also gave the Timberwolves enough salary cap space to take on another big contract. Cue the Chicago Bulls, who wanted to begin a rebuild in earnest instead of spinning their wheels. Incredibly, they traded their all-star to Minnesota for Zach LaVine, Kris Dunn and a draft pick – Lauri Markkanen.
With Butler and coach Tom Thibodeau reunited, Minnesota’s front office went all in, signing point guard Jeff Teague. In a single offseason, the Timberwolves progressed from fringe playoff competitors to a team which the western conference will fear.
LeBron James was the real MVP between 2014-2016, dragging the Cleveland Cavaliers to the NBA Finals with unreal performances almost every evening. He brought Cleveland two games away from a title without Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love in 2015. During the 2016 finals, he lead the Cavaliers to the most incredible comeback in NBA history. Last year, he averaged a triple-double in the finals, but it was only enough for a single win against the Dubs.
It’s clear LeBron needed extra help to combat the Warriors with Kevin Durant. At first, the offseason looked grim, with stars like Butler, George and Paul opting for other west coast teams. Derek Rose was the only notable signing for a while.
Out of nowhere, the Kyrie trade happened, and the Cavaliers suddenly had Isaiah Thomas and Jae Crowder – a top three-and-d man who fits LeBron’s needs perfectly. The Cavs also scooped Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green and Jose Calderon to strengthen the rotation.
Cleveland now has the depth needed to put up a better fight against the Warriors. As long as they have LeBron, they won’t need to worry about the eastern conference.
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