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  1. It's mid-July, and most of the league is convening for the Las Vegas Summer League. Teams all over the league have altered their destinies with a variety of blockbuster transactions from draft picks to trades and, of course, free-agent signings -- 25 of the top 30 free agents are off the board. While there are still free agents to be signed and trades to be made, most of the roster overhauling has already occurred, as the league prepares to enter its unofficial "slow" period, the six-week stretch between the end of summer league and the beginning of informal team pickup games that usually commence after Labor Day. Here's an evaluation and rank of the five most improved teams this summer and why.
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  3. 1. Los Angeles Clippers
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  5. Re-signing Chris Paul: Putting the Clippers in first place was actually an easy decision. Of all the teams with successful offseasons, the Clippers risked losing the most. Re-signing Paul, the No. 2 free agent on my Big Board, was the difference between solidifying the Clippers -- long thought of as L.A.'s "other" team -- as a winner or going back to the Dark Ages. By keeping Paul in the fold, the Clippers gained the credibility needed to pursue other free agents (both now and in the future) without having to overpay for their services.
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  8. New coaching staff: Of course, keeping Paul was an easy task after the Clippers managed to acquire former Celtics head coach Doc Rivers. Rivers brings a championship pedigree (whether that pedigree is real or imagined is beside the point). He brings the credibility of having been to the mountaintop, giving his words more weight in the locker room. Also, signing former Phoenix Suns head coach Alvin Gentry as associate head coach brings much-needed creativity to the Clippers' offense.
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  10. Signing J.J. Redick and trading for Jared Dudley: By adding Redick and Dudley, the Clippers added two bona fide sharpshooters, providing much-needed spacing for Paul and Blake Griffin to operate in pick-and-roll situations; they will allow Griffin to post up with more breathing room. Additionally, both Redick and Dudley are consummate professionals and high basketball IQ players on both ends of the court.
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  12. Re-signing Matt Barnes: Barnes was a major component of the Clippers' success, bringing toughness and defensive intensity. Re-signing him maintains some continuity, and his defensive versatility was invaluable. He guarded 2s, 3s and even some 4s.
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  14. 2. Houston Rockets
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  16. Signing Dwight Howard: Years of hoarding assets and careful cap management finally provided Houston the opportunity to add their bona fide superstar in Howard, who will team with rising superstar James Harden to form a devastating inside-outside combination. Reportedly, one of Howard's issues with the Los Angeles Lakers was head coach Mike D'Antoni's pick-and-roll heavy offense. Luckily for the Rockets, Howard apparently didn't subscribe to NBA League Pass last year, which indicated that Houston ran a ton of pick-and-rolls, including many borrowed sets from D'Antoni's playbook. (And despite Howard's protests, he was successful at it.) His fit in Houston is nigh perfect, which bodes well for Kevin McHale.
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  18. Dwight Howard
  19. Jeff Hanisch/USA TODAY Sports
  20. The Rockets added Dwight Howard while retaining their best assets.
  21. Not giving up core assets: Sometimes the best deals are the ones that aren't made. Houston was able to acquire a franchise-caliber player in Howard without divesting any of their other tantalizing young assets -- Harden, small forward Chandler Parsons or center Omer Asik. This makes them a deeper team for now, but the true value is in the Rockets' ability to shop these players -- if needed -- in separate deals to bring back more assets.
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  23. Re-signing Francisco Garcia: Although Houston fell in six games, Garcia proved his value (not bad for a trade-deadline acquisition) as a 3-point shooter (38.6 3P% in regular season, 45.9 3P% in playoffs) with enough length and quickness to cover Kevin Durant.
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  25. Trading Royce White: In the ultimate "addition-by-subtraction" move, the Rockets were able to dump White onto the Philadelphia 76ers. It comes at a hefty price -- cash to pay for his deal, plus the rights to promising young Turkish prospect Furkan Aldemir. But it was a necessary move to clear the locker room of any lingering negativity.
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  27. 3. Golden State Warriors
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  29. Signing Andre Iguodala: Golden State added the No. 5 free agent on my Big Board at a great value without giving up a major asset to acquire him and moved roughly $24 million in salaries (representing less than 1,100 minutes in combined court time). In the process, they went from sitting on the tax threshold to having the cap space to sign Iguodala outright. Convincing Denver to agree to a sign-and-trade allowed the Warriors to retain the use of their salary cap exceptions.
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  31. Raised profile by entering Howard sweepstakes: The Warriors were the only over-the-cap team (other than the Lakers) who were named as legitimate contenders for Howard, and by all accounts, they wowed him in their presentation (especially head coach Mark Jackson). They wisely bowed out early, which allowed them to snag Iguodala, but there was substantial value in establishing themselves as a desirable free-agent destination -- value they hope to capitalize on next summer when they'll have significant cap space. However, health still will determine their ultimate success this season.
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  33. Solidified bench: Golden State added three value-deal veterans -- backup point guard Toney Douglas, an excellent one-on-one and team defender and 3-point shooter; backup F/C Marreese Speights, a skilled inside-outside offensive player; and backup C Jermaine O'Neal, who brings 17 years of experience and was rejuvenated in Phoenix. Speights' deal was the highest AAV at $3.7 million per year, once again representing great value. Conversely, by relinquishing overpaid bench players like Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, the Warriors were able to add an Olympian and three solid vets to boot. Moreover, they avoided being tied up long term by paying easily replaceable talents.
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  35. 4. Brooklyn Nets
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  37. Traded for Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry: Presently, this was a terrific deal for the Nets. They dumped an ugly contract in Gerald Wallace and a bunch of filler and got three, championship-proven vets who will rapidly advance the culture of the Nets' locker room. It cost three future first-round picks (two of which are completely unprotected) and a right to swap picks, but it's a price future generations will have to bear.
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  39. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce
  40. Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images
  41. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce bring veteran leadership to the Nets.
  42. Signing Andrei Kirilenko: This was one of the best free-agent signings of the summer. Brooklyn added an elite, versatile defensive player in Kirilenko, who can also serve as a big playmaker and ballhandler at a fraction of what his market value was. When other teams are calling a transaction "unfair," there's a good chance you're doing something right.
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  44. Re-signing Andray Blatche: I called Blatche one of my five best value deals earlier last season, and the Nets managed to retain him without committing a common mistake teams make: overpaying someone who was once on a value deal.
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  46. Drafting Mason Plumlee: The Nets' roster is starved for young talent and trading away a bevy of picks will make it difficult to restock. Plumlee gives them a solid piece to look forward to, as an athletic F/C who rebounds well and can be a finishing threat out of the pick-and-roll.
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  48. 5. Cleveland Cavaliers
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  50. Signing Andrew Bynum: If Cleveland is going to go from the lottery to the playoffs, it will be based on the health and performance of the fourth-best free agent on my Big Board. It is easy to forget that, a year ago, the general consensus was that Bynum would sign a max extension upon arriving in Philadelphia. To sign him to a two-year, $24 million deal with a team option on the second year and just $6 million guaranteed in the first year is nothing short of a home run. But the Cavs will gladly turn in the cost savings in favor of Bynum actually playing. Health will be key for both Bynum and Kyrie Irving.
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  52. Drafting Anthony Bennett and Sergey Karasev: It almost seems unfair that Cleveland should draw the No. 1 overall pick a mere two seasons after drafting Irving first overall. While Bennett is currently injured, he brings a lot upside as an inside-outside frontcourt threat. Bennett might also allow Cleveland to pursue trades for Tristan Thompson. Karasev also was an excellent selection. A 6-foot-7 wing with deep range and good feel, Karasev has the potential to fill the hole the Cavs have at small forward, providing Irving with another spacer on the floor.
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  54. Signing Jarrett Jack: While paying $6.25 million per year for a backup point guard is a little steep for my taste (I had Jack valued at $4.5 million per year), it is a luxury Cleveland can afford. Irving has missed an average of 19 games per year so far in his career, and Jack not only gives them an insurance policy should he go down, but also a means to reduce the wear and tear on the All-Star guard by shortening his minutes. The Cavs may come to rue that deal in the future, but for now, it is a solid enhancement of their bench.
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