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The Top 10 Winners Of NBA Free Agency

The NBA offseason still isn’t quite over – we don’t know what’s going to happen with Dwight Howard … will anyone give Tracy McGrady and Gilbert Arenas another chance? … who is signing Josh Howard? – but for the most part, the big moves have been made. Deron Williams, Eric Gordon, Steve Nash, Kevin Garnett, Tim Duncan and the rest of the best available names have chosen teams for next year.

The offseason is always an interesting time because it’s not always about making the right move. Sometimes, you can see organizations folding under the weight of fan expectations. Inevitably, they’ll make a move to appease them. It’s like seeing an accident before it happens. Someone isn’t watching the road. A car pulls out, and BAM. It’s a predictable outcome.

However, for the most part, every NBA team has the same goal heading into July: just get better than you were the year before. Some teams do that. Others? Not so much. With us stuck in one of the quietest times of the NBA calendar, here are the top 10 winners of free agency.

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10. KEVIN LOVE
Love eventually worked his way into the Team USA rotation – I guess when you’re beating teams by nearly 40 points a game, that’s almost inevitable – and appears ready to take his next step towards becoming one of those NBA stars that isn’t just an All-Star but an automatic All-Star. Once you hit that point, you start getting calls every night, the 20/10s become automatic, your name gets thrown into every individual awards race, and if you’re like Kobe, you can drop F-bombs at refs and not get T’ed up. Love is almost there, and it happens to be perfect timing… The Wolves should be in the playoffs this year.

They added Andrei Kirilenko, who’s looking like a stud in the Olympics, for a modest price of two years and $20 million, and he’s bringing his friend, Alexey Shved. Maybe AK47’s time away from the NBA rejuvenated him. Then, there’s the Brandon Roy signing. For just over $10 million, Minnesota will get a chance to see if the former All-Star has anything left. With a limited stable of swingmen, and absolutely no pressure on him at all, Roy has perhaps the best chance he’ll get to prove he can still play in the NBA.

After his knee injury put a bullet in the Wolves’ season last year, Ricky Rubio is rehabbing and apparently way ahead of schedule. Love might be disappointed the Wolves were never able to pry Nicolas Batum away from Portland, but their time is coming.

9. PHOENIX SUNS
The Suns had to know Steve Nash was leaving. When you purposely deplete your bench, and sell your draft picks year after year, and then refuse to even offer the man a deal, the writing is on the wall. Phoenix wanted this. They probably wanted it too much. Leave it up to Robert Sarver, and he’d be fielding a 20-62 team every year with 10 guys on minimum contracts. They won’t win much this year, but it wasn’t like bringing back Nash would’ve saved them. The run was over. Rebuilding was inevitable.

With that in mind, they picked up Wes Johnson in a trade, a limited player but at least he’s a limited player who’s young and athletic. Goran Dragic is coming back to the desert for four years and $34 million, where he’ll get to compete with Kendall Marshall for minutes and ease the memory of Nash. And they picked up Luis Scola off the amnesty waiver wire, which was probably the best bargain of the entire offseason.

I know there are many who have called Phoenix out for giving Michael Beasley a three-year, $18 million contract. Some are calling it the worst offseason move of the summer. I’m not. Listen, the dude is 23 years old, and has career 15 and 5 averages. Is he a great player? No. Is he a No. 2 overall pick? Probably not. Is he a one-dimensional player, a problem off the court, kind of a weirdo? Probably. But I’ve seen PLENTY of craziest contracts than three years and $18 million, especially when you consider Beasley averaged nearly 20 points a game in 2011 before Derrick Williams was drafted into his spot and all Hell broke loose.

Is Phoenix the best place for him? I doubt it. He needs people to get him to follow, rather than allow him to lead. But he’s going to put up numbers, and he’s going to help the Suns simply because they don’t have anyone else.

8. O.J. MAYO
I wanted to see O.J. head to Phoenix, where he’d get his 35 minutes and 20 points a night. But while he won’t be reaching his rookie year numbers anytime soon in Dallas, the 6-4 guard should start and play significant minutes for a playoff team. As the former standard-bearer of the “O.J. is a future All-Star!” bandwagon that’s basically empty nowadays, I’m just excited to see him launch an unlimited number of 23-foot jumpers. As a player who always reminded me in some spurts of Jason Terry, he’ll now get the chance to follow in the JET’s footsteps.

In fact, I could probably put the entire Dallas team in this spot. Everything they wanted to do this summer – get younger and more athletic, stay competitive on short-term deals to make sure they still have a chance at a big free agent next summer – they did… except of course, landing Deron Williams. When they couldn’t get D-Will, they went after Steve Nash, and ironically, the former Mav never really considered them.

After Jason Terry left for Boston, Cuban and his crew were reeling. But between adding a legitimate scorer like Mayo for only $8 million (a bargain), and three solid players (Chris Kaman, Darren Collison, Elton Brand, as well as Delonte West returning) Dallas is back to where they were at the end of last season. Under the conditions, that’s a win.

7. INDIANA PACERS
When you don’t have a superstar player to hit fallaway 20-footers at the shot clock buzzer or score 11 points in the last three minutes of a playoff game, you can’t afford any free agent defections. The Pacers made sure to match Roy Hibbert‘s offer sheet from Portland, ridiculous as it was. They re-signed George Hill, even though giving $40 million to a point guard who averaged 2.9 assists a game last year is something only Dan Snyder would do. But they also added big man Ian Mahinmi, who could become something if he ever learns how to play. Darren Collison is gone, but D.J. Augustin is a better fit on this team anyways, and Gerald Green comes to town to give the team some NBA League Pass potential.

The Pacers didn’t throw a no-hitter, but they navigated a few jams with runners in scoring position, and came away with a pretty emphatic W this summer.

6. L.A. CLIPPERS
I would’ve had the Clippers much higher if one of Blake Griffin‘s knees hadn’t told him “Stop” for the second time in just three years. He now has to be a longterm concern for the Clippers’ brass; we’ve see too many Amar’e Stoudemires and Antonio McDyesses to look over his knee troubles. But at least in the short term – next season – he should be fine and be his usual heart-stopping self.

As for the rest of the team, the Clippers fell apart in the second round against San Antonio, in part because they couldn’t take advantage of matchups or run the older squad into the ground. Next year’s team will be completely different having added Jamal Crawford and Lamar Odom. Even the 97-year-old Grant Hill should help make a difference.

By getting rid of Mo Williams and Randy Foye, re-signing Chauncey Billups and bringing aboard more size on the wings, the Clippers helped shape out their roster. Last year, it was way too top heavy, and the only depth they had off the bench all seemed to be coming from two or three puny guards. Crawford is a legit scorer to bring in behind Billups, and Hill is almost a carbon copy of Caron Butler at this point (On second thought, I’m not sure this is a good thing).

Yet, the difference-maker could be Odom. After a disastrous year in Dallas, I’d be very surprised if he came back to the beach and didn’t show up to play.

With this much talent, it’s only a matter of time before the team starts shunning Vinny Del Negro, and Chris Paul begins running timeout huddles.

5. BROOKLYN NETS
Okay, they were never able to pluck Dwight Howard out of Disney World, but despite that, we still can’t deem them losers. I have a close friend who works in high-end ticketing with the new Brooklyn squad, and on the day they traded for Joe Johnson, his phone was ringing off the hook with potential season-ticket holders. Johnson was a nice pickup, but it was the re-signings – Brook Lopez, Gerald Wallace, Kris Humphries and Deron Williams – that is going to have people excited.

The Nets did what they needed to do this summer: build excitement… and spend money. Dropping $330 million in contracts in the span of one month gets a huge pat on the back from us. They now have two mini stars, and a couple young assets and solid role players. In the East, that’s enough to finish in the top half of the playoff standings. The team won’t win a title, but they definitely came away successful this summer. Think back to the first two weeks in July when it sounded like Williams was leaving for Dallas. If THAT had happened, we could’ve created a top 10 losers column, and given all of the words to Brooklyn.

4. ANDRAY BLATCHE
So you’re telling me Blatche not only gets his money (still owed about $25 million), but now has San Antonio and Miami hot on his tail? It doesn’t make sense. There should be a way to punish guys like Blatche who show up to camp out of shape, address the opening night crowd with, “This is your captain, Andray Blatche” and then a few hours later complain you weren’t getting the ball enough.

Sure enough, Blatche is on his way to pulling a Darko and latching on with a championship-caliber team. And because he’s talented and 6-11, you KNOW it’s going to happen. He’s an obvious winner of the summer, even if we don’t totally like it.

3. BOSTON CELTICS
Ray Allen who? The best outside shooter of all time did turn into Judas Shuttlesworth this summer, transferring to South Beach. But honestly, if he was going to turn his relationship with Rajon Rondo into bizarro Brangelina, it was good they let him leave. Avery Bradley is more than adequate.

Besides that one defection, the Celtics went above and beyond their means this summer. Kevin Garnett is coming back on a three-year deal. They stole Courtney Lee for virtually nothing. They have Jeff Green finally ready to continue playing after sitting out last season. Jason Terry is coming to help ease the burden of losing the game’s best fourth-quarter shooter, and Brandon Bass is back at a reasonable $25 million over three years to help man the paint.

So basically, in one summer, Boston got deeper, quicker, more athletic, younger and more versatile. They still have the same problem as everyone else in the East – checking LeBron – but they have to be considered favorites to get back to the East Finals again.

2. STEVE NASH
Steve Nash needed this. He needed a shot. The loyalty aspect was cool, but 20 years from now, no one will be looking at Nash’s basketball obituary saying, “Yeah well, he never won a championship or even got to the NBA Finals, but at least he was loyal.” Please. That’s just a played-out cliche that makes for a good story. The truth is Nash doesn’t need basketball to make himself happy. He doesn’t allow it to define him. That’s why you see him playing soccer in the summer, showing up onstage at Nas concerts, filming weird parodies and doing everything outside of filming marriage proposals. The man loves basketball, but he also loves life, and for most of the way in Phoenix, Nash loved it there.

After I spent time with Nash this winter, I came away convinced he’d go wherever would make him most happy, and knowing much of his happiness comes off the court, I wasn’t surprised when we started hearing Nash-to-Toronto rumors. Did he truly want to go to L.A.? Or did he just go there to try to win? Maybe I was wrong about how much winning a championship meant to him… maybe he’s refusing to retire until he locks one up. In the end, it sounded like he wanted to be close to his family above all else – they live in Phoenix – and the Lakers provided just enough money ($27 million) and success (looking like the second-best team in the West) to intrigue him.

All in all, Nash got pretty much everything he wanted, and now heads to a team where he’ll have every chance to finally break through to the Finals.

1. LeBRON JAMES
You could say LeBron deserved this. Two years ago, he went from a loved international superstar to perhaps the world’s most hated athlete in one night. Last summer, he even admitted that after getting caught with his pants down against Dallas in the NBA Finals and falling apart memorably in a series the Heat really should’ve swept, he locked himself in his house for two weeks and played nothing but Barry White and Curtis Mayfield.

But this summer, he won a ring and went on a two-week party marathon that included everything outside of getting his own statue built. Right now, he’s in the process of winning another gold medal while also shooting down any viable argument that he ISN’T the best player in the world. After these games, if you still refuse to believe No. 6 isn’t the King of the basketball world, we should never speak.

When Miami added Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis this summer, it must’ve felt like icing on the cake. Allen is still a great shooter – last year he shot a career-high 45 percent from deep while averaging 14.2 points a night – and perhaps more than anyone else in the league, he has the respect of defenders. Jesus could miss every shot for a month, but because he is Shuttlesworth and has the prettiest jumper anyone’s seen… well, ever, you can’t ever leave him.

As for Lewis, he had a single digit PER (9.37) last year, and hasn’t been relevant for anything other than his contract for three seasons. But he’s a 6-11 jump shooter who’s thirsty for playoff success. If LeBron needed anymore driving lanes, he certainly got them this offseason.

Momentum is a funny thing, and the reigning Finals MVP could be heading towards his best season yet.

Who do you think had the best summer?

Follow Sean on Twitter at @SEANesweeney.

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