Okur, Boozer should make Jazz stronger

Updated: July 23, 2004, 9:44 AM ET
By David Aldridge | Special to ESPN.com

The Hot Stove has finally begun to cool.

The NBA has simply never had an offseason like this one. For that matter, neither has baseball.

Rating the offseason
Aldridge: Teams 1-10
Aldridge: Teams 11-20
Aldridge: Teams 21-30
When was there ever a three-month stretch where there were so many high-profile changes on the bench and on the floor? So many big-name players involved in trades? So many small-market teams with millions in cap room-and, for the first time in memory, the willingness to use it? So many talented but unproven high schoolers taken in the draft?

Every team in the league has had an opportunity, at one time or another since the end of the Finals, to do something big. Just about every team tried to do something meaningful to shake things up, change the landscape. (That is, by the way, the biggest impact of the Laker Follies; everyone now thinks they have a real chance to win, which hasn't been the case in five years.) And as July descends into August, we now have enough information to make some judgments. While the final destination of players like Jamal Crawford and Erick Dampier could still impact the scoreboard, we can at least take a stab at the question: Who has improved the most this offseason?

By "offseason," I refer to everything that's happened to a team since the day it played its final game. That means everything -- new ownership, new coaches, new buildings, new players. Some teams, obviously, have thus had a little longer to make changes. Some teams concentrated on the draft, while others banked on free agency. And others were better to begin with, and didn't have as much work to do. I tried to take all of that into account when ranking the teams -- as well as noting smaller moves that may not make headlines, but will help.

Please keep in mind: This is not a predicted order of finish for next season. Nor does it mean that I think the teams at the bottom of the rankings will be in the lottery. This only covers the offseason, where owners, GMs and agents rule, and is only a measure of where these teams are relative to themselves last season. Once the ball goes up, the players usually decide who wins for real.

Offseason rankings
1. Utah Jazz

2003-04 RECORD: 42-40, did not make playoffs
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: G Kirk Snyder (1st round, draft); F Kris Humphries (1st round, draft); F Carlos Boozer (restricted free agent, Cleveland); C Mehmet Okur (restricted free agent, Detroit)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: C Greg Ostertag (signed with Sacramento)

Last summer, the Jazz stuck a toe in the free agent waters, signing Jason Terry and Corey Maggette to offer sheets. Both were matched, and Utah came away with nothing. But instead of shying away this summer, the Jazz jumped in neck deep. They targeted Okur and got him early. And when whatever happened with Boozer happened in Cleveland, GM Kevin O'Connor was ready to pounce. It is a measure of how much O'Connor is respected around the league that absolutely no one is angry with him for taking advantage of the rules. The free agency boom also overshadows the selection of Snyder midway through the first round of the draft, a player some scouts compare to Latrell Sprewell. And don't forget Matt Harpring, who missed the last half of last season but is expected to be back in time for training camp. Utah now boasts a talented, deep young frontcourt that will give Andrei Kirilenko some help, and allow the precocious Humphries time to develop. We can only hope that Jerry Sloan's heart is in coaching next season after losing his wife, Bobbye, to cancer. We wish him well.

2. San Antonio Spurs

2003-04 RECORD: 57-25, lost in second round
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: G Brent Barry (unrestricted free agent, Seattle); G Beno Udrih (1st round, draft)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: F Hedo Turkoglu (signed with Orlando)

We say it a lot around here: When you're already good, often, the goal is just to keep what you've got. And the Spurs did that again. Last year, they kept Tim Duncan on the reservation before things got, shall we say, Boozerized. This summer, they fended off serious pushes from Denver and Phoenix for Manu Ginobili, re-signing the guard for $52 million, and re-upping Bruce Bowen for three years. Some think the price tag for Ginobili was too high, considering he's a guy who's more comfortable coming off the bench. In most places, it would be. But in San Antonio, where Ginobili's Latino heritage makes him a near-god among the locals, it was a smart investment. And Barry is exactly what the doctor ordered -- a perennial top-10 three-point shooter who should get five or six open looks a game playing off of the Big Fundamental. We love Brother Hedo, but the Spurs had to get better on the perimeter. In the Duncan Era, when the Spurs have knocked down jumpers, they've won titles. And don't overlook Udrih, who seems to be missing a consonant but who could solidify the Spurs' backup point position.

3. Denver Nuggets

2003-04 RECORD: 43-39, lost in first round
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: F Kenyon Martin (acquired from New Jersey)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: F/C Chris Anderson (signed with New Orleans); F/C Michael Doleac (signed with Miami)

Yes, the Nuggets may still need another shooter. But they needed a cop for Carmelo Anthony even more. When the Wolves are talking junk to you, as they did to Denver in the first round, you need to go get an enforcer. K-Mart fits the bill, and then some. He's ornery. He's physical. He's a leader in the clubhouse. He's one of those guys whose impact on the game is so much greater than his numbers. Guys really don't want to mess with him. And with Martin running the floor (call it the Mailman Effect), Anthony and the other Nuggets should be even more lethal in transition. The Nuggets also strengthened their bench, bringing in Michael Cooper from the WNBA as top assistant and making Adrian Dantley -- extremely well-respected around the league -- a fulltime assistant coach. Jeff Bzdelik knows full well that this is his last season in Denver, and that Cooper is his likely replacement. But he's handled it with grace. Besides, if Martin does what he's getting paid $92 mil to do, Bzdelik's going to go out in style.

4. Detroit Pistons

2003-04 RECORD: 54-28, won NBA championship
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: F Antonio McDyess (unrestricted free agent, Phoenix); G Carlos Delfino (reached buyout with Skipper Bologna)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: C Mehmet Okur (signed with Utah)

The champs took about five seconds to replace Okur with McDyess, with a reasonable four-year, $23 million deal with an option for a fifth season. If McDyess can stay healthy, he should provide Larry Brown with the rebounding that Okur did only sporadically. And the 6-foot-6 Delfino, one of the Pistons' first-round picks in 2003, is finally in the fold. He'll be a combo guard who will give Detroit a little bit of everything behind Rip Hamilton. Plus -- you laugh at your peril -- Darko Milicic should get on the court next season. So Detroit's adding three players to an already-strong rotation. Potential glitch: Brown lost a lot of brain power with the departures of assistant Mike Woodson -- who took the head job with the Hawks and took Brown's brother Herb with him -- and assistant John Kuester, who's going to New Jersey. We know that Pound-for-Pound is the best guy out there, but on his teams, the buffer between head coach and players that the assistants provide is critical.

5. Houston Rockets

2003-04 RECORD: 45-37, lost in first round
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: G Tracy McGrady (acquired from Orlando); F Juwan Howard (acquired from Orlando); G Tyronn Lue (acquired from Orlando)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: G Steve Francis (traded to Orlando); G Cuttino Mobley (traded to Orlando); F/C Kelvin Cato (traded to Orlando)

If McGrady's truly a great player, he'll raise his game to elite levels playing with Yao Ming in the hole and for Jeff Van Gundy on the bench. McGrady should become a great defensive player, for example; no excuse for him not being able to lock people up with his quickness and length. The same goes for Yao, by the way. Entering his third season, he should be close to full-formed. And with Shaq out of the West, Yao should be the best big man in the conference by a lot. Yao and T-Mac will discover what Kobe and Shaq should have known -- hey, together, we're even better. If that happens, the Rockets will be a force in the West. If you look at Howard's career, when he's been a third option -- as he should be in Houston -- he's been pretty good. Lue is a solid backup, but struggles as a starter; the Rockets still need to get a top-shelf ballhandler.

6. Miami Heat

2003-04 RECORD: 42-40, lost in second round
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: C Shaquille O'Neal (acquired from Lakers); G/F Dorell Wright (1st round, draft); F/C Michael Doleac (unrestricted free agent, Denver)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: F Lamar Odom (traded to Lakers); F/G Caron Butler (traded to Lakers); F/C Brian Grant (traded to Lakers); G Rafer Alston (signed with Toronto)

Let me be clear. You do not trade Shaquille O'Neal. Repeat. You do not trade Shaquille O'Neal. Once again, you do not trade Shaquille O'Neal. Everybody clear on where I stand? Yes, the Heat gave up a lot to get a 32-year-old center with iffy knees. But where, exactly, was Miami going next season? Was it going to be better than Detroit (nope) or Indiana (nope)? With O'Neal, the Heat have about a three-year window to get to the Finals. Hey, that's where we are in sports these days. There aren't any five-year plans. It's a trade that Riles should have made a million times out of a million. Let's get one more thing straight: I've read a lot about how Shaq is on the downhill side of his career. Maybe. But the naysayers forget one small thing -- Shaq is less dominant only when compared to Shaq. Entering this year, Shaq had averaged 28 points, 12.9 rebounds and 3.1 blocks in the playoffs. This postseason, O'Neal averaged 21 points, 13 boards and almost three blocks. Show me any team in the league that wouldn't take that from its starting center and I'll show you … the Lakers.

7. Chicago Bulls

2003-04 RECORD: 23-59, did not make playoffs.
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: G Ben Gordon (1st round, draft); F Luol Deng (1st round, draft); G Chris Duhon (2nd round, draft)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: F Marcus Fizer (taken by Bobcats in expansion draft)

The Bulls turned one lottery pick into two, and will reap the benefits. I'm a big Ben Gordon guy, and so are most of the league's scouts -- "he's not going to fail," a personnel guy said before the draft. A Gordon-Kirk Hinrich backcourt is going to be rough sledding for opponents for a long time, and getting Deng, who should step in to the small forward spot, with the seventh pick is only a bonus. Deng isn't going to wow you with athletic prowess, but he does everything well. When he adds a jumper to his game, watch out. Plus, whatever John Paxson decides to do with Jamal Crawford, he should get something good in return, but he's also looking to also rid himself of some onerous contracts (Eddie Robinson and Jerome Williams), and that might not be possible. We know Chicago will only go as far as Tyson Chandler and Eddy Curry improve this season, but with the new kids on the block, and with Scott Skiles getting an entire offseason and training camp to get everyone in shape, the Bulls should be much improved next season.

8. Orlando Magic

2003-04 RECORD: 21-61, did not make playoffs
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: F Dwight Howard (1st round, draft); G Steve Francis (acquired from Houston); G Cuttino Mobley (acquired from Houston); F/C Kelvin Cato (acquired from Houston; F Hedo Turkoglu (restricted free agent, San Antonio); G Jameer Nelson (acquired from Denver)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: G Tracy McGrady (traded to Houston); F Juwan Howard (traded to Houston); G Tyronn Lue (traded to Houston)

Considering he inherited a train wreck, with an unhappy superstar, new GM John Weisbrod performed, I think, a pretty good salvage operation. I would have held onto McGrady a little longer to see if there were more lucrative offers, but you certainly can't say Orlando got robbed. Francis is a big-time scorer, and it would surprise me if Johnny Davis doesn't give him the ball like he gave Allen Iverson the ball during AI's rookie season. Time will tell on Howard, but the Magic didn't flinch; they chose the high schooler over the polished college kid with the national championship pedigree. The $93 million question is always going to be Grant Hill's ankle. Again, Hill is hopeful that he'll play next season, but he doesn't know, I don't know, nobody knows. It may be more realistic to expect a return to health of forward Pat Garrity from knee surgery; his three-point shooting would come in handy. Turkoglu will be an able small forward whose passing skills should help Francis and Howard get good shots. It says here that Nelson will be a starter in this league; it's just a matter of whether it will be in Orlando.

9. Golden State Warriors

2003-04 RECORD: 37-45, did not make playoffs
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: F Andris Bierdins (1st round, draft); G Derek Fisher (unrestricted free agent, Lakers); C Dale Davis (acquired from Portland)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: G Nick Van Exel (traded to Portland); F Brian Cardinal (signed with Memphis)

They finally gave Chris Mullin the keys to the car, and Mully hasn't wasted any time. He brought in Rod Higgins as his right-hand man, drafted big man Bierdins out of Latvia with the 11th pick and hired Stanford's Mike Montgomery as head coach. The last is the biggest gamble, but at least Mullin put solid assistants (Terry Stotts, Mario Elie) around him, and the NBA guys who worked with Montgomery on the World Championship team say he's got a chance. And Mullin is surrounding his young core of Jason Richardson, Mike Dunleavy and Troy Murphy with veterans from winning situations -- enter 0.4 hero Fisher, and Davis, whose been in the playoffs for most of the last decade. Giving Adonal Foyle $41 million is a reach, though, even if Dampier won't be retained. That should set up an interesting negotiation next summer with Dan Fegan, Dampier's agent -- and the rep for Murphy and Richardson, both of whom could be restricted free agents after next season. But Mullin isn't going to back down from a fight.

10. Phoenix Suns

2003-04 RECORD: 29-53, did not make playoffs.
SIGNIFICANT ADDITIONS: G Steve Nash (unrestricted free agent, Dallas)
SIGNIFICANT LOSSES: F Antonio McDyess (signed with Detroit)

We love Nasty Nash around here, but giving the 30-year-old $65 million, with his history of injury, is a major risk. Still, it's indicative that new owner Robert Sarver, after writing Jerry Colangelo a check for $400 million, is willing to spend money to win, and that's the biggest reason the Suns have reason to hope. Colangelo was always there with his checkbook, but it's been harder the last few years as he tried to walk a financial tightrope with the Diamondbacks, too. The offseason will be even better if the Clippers don't match Phoenix's offer sheet for Quentin Richardson, which would give the Suns a dynamic guard rotation with Nash and Joe Johnson. It would be the best three-man weave this side of what Dallas used to have. But the guess here is that Q will never see the Valley of the Sun. If that's true, the Suns will lose a player, but gain cap room that can still be put to use.

David Aldridge, who covers the NBA for ESPN, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. Also, click here to send a question for possible use on ESPNEWS.