This era of NBA basketball has been about one thing: putting together a super team that can topple the Golden State Warriors. We first saw this iteration of super teams in 2007 when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce in Boston. A few years later LeBron James famously took his talents to South Beach along with Chris Bosh to join Dwayne Wade. The Warriors built their super team through the draft, taking Steph Curry with the 7th overall pick in 2009, Klay Thompson with the 11th pick in 2011, and Draymond Green in the second round in 2012. They’ve drafted extremely well but since then they’ve added Kevin Durant and now Demarcus Cousins which makes them the most All Star studded team in history and almost impossible to beat.
The NBA right now is about stars joining forces to try and “out-super team” other super teams. Last year Chris Paul joined James Harden in Houston, and Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joined Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City. So far none of these teams have been successful, but let’s look at which NBA teams have improved their 2018-19 stock the most during this offseason.
The first, and easiest answer is the Los Angeles Lakers. Any team with LeBron James on it has a fighting chance. At least, in this year’s case, to make it to the Western Conference Finals. The Lakers didn’t make the playoffs last year, and haven’t for the past five years, so a trip to the Conference Finals would be a treat.
Instead of trying to beat the Warriors by out shooting them (which no one has done so far), the Lakers have surrounded LeBron this offseason with other playmakers. Rajon Rondo has the third most assists in the league since 2010 and has an incredible basketball mind. He is extremely efficient at creating scoring opportunities for himself, or more often for his teammates. Lance Stephenson is also more of an all around playmaker than a shooter. If these old vets can gel with the young core of Lonzo Ball, Kyle Kuzma, and Brandon Ingram, the Lakers will be good for the foreseeable future and may ultimately challenge the Warriors.
Another contender for the most improved NBA team this offseason is the Toronto Raptors, as they have just landed a trade for Kawhi Leonard. How can a team that had the best record in the East last season improve that much? The Raptors are a team that falls apart in the playoffs. Four years ago they were swept by the Washington Wizards, with home court advantage, in the first round. They got over that hump but they still crumbled under the pressure of facing LeBron James. He and the Cavaliers have beaten the Raptors in the Eastern Conference Finals three postseasons in a row, and the last two have been sweeps.
Their disappearance in the playoffs is in large part due to Demar Derozan’s performance. In the 2016-17 season, he averaged 27.3 points per game and shot 46.7% from the field. In the playoffs however, those numbers dropped to 22.4 points per game and 43.4% shooting. Against the Cavaliers in the playoffs this past season, he averaged only 16.8 points and didn’t make a single three pointer (0-9). You need your leaders to show up on the biggest stage and he failed to do that.
Kawhi Leonard is not only a better all around player than Derozan, he’s a proven clutch performer both on offense and defense. To list some of his accolades, Leonard has two defensive player of the year awards, four NBA All Defensive Team appearances, two All NBA Team appearances, and was the 2013-14 NBA Finals MVP. He’s won in the regular season and in the playoffs. He has the ability to shut down the opposing team’s best player on defense, and his offensive game has improved every season (excluding last year when he only played nine games). Just as it was looking like the East would consist of only two teams, the Celtics and the 76ers, the Raptors land a player that will keep them right there at the top as well.