The biggest trade of the NBA offseason is still on the horizon, but free agency has mostly settled. As the league waits on the Damian Lillard trade to finally go through — and maybe a James Harden trade, too — rosters around the NBA have been reshuffled by the free agent frenzy.
Free agency is mostly about filling holes in a team’s roster, especially now that superstars rarely hit the open market. There are plenty of different ways to evaluate deals between players and teams, but at its core a good free agent addition is one that makes the team better regardless of the money involved.
With free agency winding to a close, it’s time to look at the teams that improved during the transactional period. This list does not emphasize teams that retained their own players — only ones who added new players to the roster. Check out our list of free agency winners and losers and a look at the league’s least team-friendly offseason signings, as well.
Teams that got better
After winning only 59 combined games over the last three seasons, the Rockets were more active in free agency than any team in the league in hopes of finally getting out of the cellar in the Western Conference. Houston forked over $242 million to acquire three players in free agency: Fred VanVleet, Dillon Brooks, and Jock Landale. The Rockets also signed Jeff Green and Aaron Holiday. VanVleet and Brooks got more money than anyone could have anticipated, but Houston needed to pay a premium price to lure quality veteran talent to one of the league’s youngest teams. The future of the Rockets will still rely on their loaded young core — Jalen Green, Jabari Smith Jr., Amen Thompson, Cam Whitmore, Tari Eason, and Alperen Sengun — and this year’s free agent haul will be tasked with helping them go from prospects to winning players. While it feels like Houston overpaid on the market, there’s no doubt the team is going to be a lot better next season after adding so many veterans in free agency. In fairness, there’s nowhere to go but up.
A year ago, Bruce Brown said nobody wanted him in free agency. All he needed to do to change that was turn into a playoff hero for the Denver Nuggets on their way to the first championship in franchise history. Brown went from making $7.5 million last year to getting a huge two-year, $45 million contract with the Indiana Pacers that includes a team option in year two. It’s a stunning payday for a career role player in Brown, but there’s no doubt his defensive toughness, spot-up shooting, and quick ball movement will be a nice addition for the Pacers. Brown can slot in as the connective tissue on both ends of the floor around Tyrese Haliburton, Myles Turner, and Bennedict Mathurin. The Pacers also made a nice trade for Obi Toppin, acquiring the former top-10 pick from the Knicks for only a couple of second rounders. Toppin gives Indiana a lob threat for Haliburton, and a potential floor spacer as a shooter. Indiana will still be really young when you factor in first round pick Jarace Walker at the four, but it’s possible this team could be destined for a big jump up the standings with two good veteran additions and improving young centerpieces.
The Suns made their big move just before the draft by acquiring Bradley Beal from the Wizards for Chris Paul and a bounty of second round picks and pick swaps. With Beal joining fellow big money stars Kevin Durant and Devin Booker, Phoenix was essentially limited to only minimum contracts in free agency, but still came away with an impressive haul of talent to help boost their depth. Eric Gordon can still add a jolt of shooting at 34 years old. Keita Bates-Diop is a big forward with an improving shooting stroke, Yuta Watanabe is a 6’9 three-point sniper, and Drew Eubanks and Chimezie Metu add new skill sets to the front court. The Suns will go as far as their stars take them, but they deserve kudos for restocking their depth on the fly with such little space to work with.
The Cavs entered the offseason with a clear strategy: add shooting on the wing at any cost. The team paid $89 million combined to add Max Strus and Georges Niang, which is a statement no one could have imagined a year ago. While the money feels shocking, getting knockdown shooters around the core of Donovan Mitchell, Darius Garland, Jarrett Allen, and Evan Mobley feels like a sharp move. It’s easy to forget the Cavs won 51 games and had the second-best point differential in the NBA last season after their quick and embarrassing first round playoff exit, but this team should be very formidable again with the added benefit of some extra wing shooters.
The Mavericks needed some defensive toughness and spot-up shooting between Luka Doncic and Kyrie Irving, and they found a great fit when they acquired Grant Williams in a three-team trade and signed him to a reasonable three-year, $54 million deal. Williams won’t be a high usage offensive player, but he can hit an open jump shot and make quick passing reads while providing the type of defensive versatility Dallas needed. I’m not quite as high on the Seth Curry signing given his dip in production over recent years, but he still made sense as a buy-low shooter. The team also added former top-five pick Dante Exum, who has quietly improved as a shooter in recent years while playing overseas.
The Bulls’ decision to run it back for next season bewildered just about everyone following the league, but the additions of Jevon Carter and Torrey Craig should help at least a little bit. Carter and Craig are both capable three-point shooters which will help a team that finished dead-last in both three-point attempts and three-point makes last season. Carter will be a welcome addition at point guard for a team set to be without Lonzo Ball again, providing bulldog on-ball defense and quick-trigger shooting on the perimeter. The Bulls also needed forward depth, and found a nice fit with Craig, a high-energy rebounder who hit 39 percent of his threes last year on average volume. Carter and Craig won’t change the world for the Bulls, but they should make a 40-win team a little bit better — as long as Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nikola Vucevic can remain as durable as last season.
Teams that got worse
Not everyone can get better in the offseason. Here are the teams that definitively got worse.
Denver Nuggets: The reigning champs bring back their entire starting five and will be the favorites to win the championship when the season opens. It’s just going to be a lot harder this time around without Bruce Brown in the rotation. The Nuggets also lost Jeff Green to the Rockets. Denver did not add a real piece to the roster over this summer, instead opting to re-sign Reggie Jackson and add a couple rookies via the draft. The Nuggets need some internal development from the likes of Christian Braun, Peyton Watson, and Julian Strawther if they want to go back-to-back.
Toronto Raptors: Swapping out Fred VanVleet for Dennis Schroder is a downgrade, no doubt. The $104 million difference in their contracts will tell you that much. I like what the Raptors did in terms of adding Gradey Dick to the roster via the draft, but the team still needs more shooting and more shot creation, and didn’t do enough to address either area.
Miami Heat: This one is a big wait and see. For now, the Heat lost Max Strus and Gabe Vincent. Josh Richardson and Thomas Bryant were nice additions, but the Eastern Conference champs are going to be worse unless they swing a big trade for Damian Lillard. Lillard is telling teams he only wants to play for Miami, but the Blazers need to play ball, too. With Lillard, the Heat are the favorites in the East. Without him, they could struggle to make the playoffs again.