The Suns and the Lakers are the leading candidates to be the most improved NBA teams this year as measured by win totals this year compared to last
The Orlando Magic made the biggest turnaround last year, winning 17 more games in 2018-19 than they did the previous year. The Magic went from 25 wins last year to 42 wins and a playoff appearance last season.
So which team will be the most improved this year? We’ve already got some strong candidates emerging.
The Suns went 19-63 last year, which was the second-worst record in the NBA. There’s no point reliving their disastrous 2018-19 season, so let’s review the changes they’ve made heading into this season.
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Most notably, they fired their coach Igor Kokoskov and replaced him with Monty Williams. Williams coached the Hornets/Pelicans for five years from 2010-15 and compiled a record of 173-221.
As far as personnel changes, the Suns made a bunch of moves to reshape the team. First, they traded away T.J. Warren to the Pacers for draft picks and shipped their 2019 first-round draft pick to Minnesota for Dario Saric and the Timberwolves first-round pick, who became Cameron Johnson. They also traded draft picks to the Celtics for Aron Baynes and signed Frank Kaminsky to a free-agent deal.
Their big offseason move was signing point guard Ricky Rubio from the Utah Jazz to a three-year $51 million deal. They also shipped off former No. 4 pick Josh Jackson along with De’Anthony Melton to the Grizzlies for Kyle Korver (who they waived) and Jevon Carter.
Then, they signed Kelly Oubre to a two-year deal. The Suns picked up Oubre midway through last season from the Wizards for Trevor Ariza. They also said goodbye to free agents Rishaun Holmes, Jamal Crawford, Troy Daniels, and Dragan Bender.
So, when the Suns began the 2019-20 season they had a starting five of Rubio, Devin Booker, Oubre, Saric, and Deandre Ayton. Ayton was suspended for 25 games for a banned substance, so Baynes moved into the starting lineup for the time being. They have a bench of Kaminsky, Tyler Johnson, Cameron Johnson, Mikal Bridges, and Carter.
The Suns are off to a 5-3 start, already winning a quarter of the games they won last year. It’s a much more balanced, defensive-minded team as the Suns rank 11th in points allowed and 6th in field goal percentage against. They have an emerging superstar in Booker and stability at the point guard position with Rubio, which they have lacked.
The Suns are legitimate playoff contenders in the West and could potentially win 20-25 more games in 2019-20 than they did the previous year.
Los Angeles Lakers
The Lakers went 37-45 last year and finished out of the playoffs for the sixth straight year last year. The win total was a bit deflated as the Lakers actually got out to a decent start last year, but the team was plagued by injuries as superstar LeBron James missed nearly 30 games as did Brandon Ingram. Lonzo Ball and Rajon Rondo missed about 35 games each, and Kyle Kuzma missed around 12 games.
As the Lakers fell out of contention in the second half, the tank was in – or so it seemed.
After the season, the Lakers did some house cleaning. Magic Johnson resigned as president of basketball operations and coach Luke Walton followed him out the door. Frank Vogel was hired as the new head coach with Jason Kidd named his assistant.
Then came the big trade. The Lakers sent Ingram, Ball, Josh Hart, and the No. 4 pick in the 2019 draft to the Pelicans for The Brow – Anthony Davis. James now had a legitimate superstar to play with. But the Lakers weren’t done. They also signed DeMarcus Cousins, but he tore his Achilles in the preseason and is out for the season. But they signed Dwight Howard to replace him in the middle. They also brought in shooting guards Danny Green and Avery Bradley to join holdovers Javale McGee, Rajon Rondo, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, and Kyle Kuzma – among others.
The reconstituted Lakers are off to a 7-1 start and have the best record in the NBA. They currently have a starting five of Green, Bradley, James, Davis, and McGee. But they have been easing Kuzma back into the rotation as he returns from injury and Rondo will be back soon. Plus, Howard has been playing more minutes at center than McGee.
Once the Lakers are fully healthy and they have the finishing lineup of Rondo, Green, James, Kuzma, and Davis – with Howard, McGee, Bradley, Pope, Quinn Cook, Troy Daniels, and Alex Caruso off the bench, they will be tough to beat. The Lakers obviously have the talent at the top end with Davis and James, who have clicked from the start. But what’s overlooked is their depth. Kuzma has been playing with the second unit and will be counted on to provide some valuable scoring off the bench.
If the Lakers stay healthy, they could be looking at 55-60 wins or a 20-25 win improvement over last season.