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NBA free agency: Ranking the most improved title contenders

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Tristan Thompson reaches deal with Celtics (0:29)

Adrian Wojnarowski breaks down how the Celtics reached a deal with free agent Tristan Thompson. (0:29)

With the biggest NBA free agents off the board, which of the league's "Elite Eight" teams have improved their chances of winning the 2021 championship?

The eight teams who advanced in the NBA playoffs have been unusually active trying to upgrade their rosters during this shortened offseason. Some are loading up to try to catch the defending champion Los Angeles Lakers, who have been very busy themselves, while others are trying to deal with the loss of key free agents.

One of the biggest moves involving eight conference semifinalists came Sunday when the Lakers won a battle with the 2019 champion Toronto Raptors to land former All-NBA center Marc Gasol.

Let's take a look at where the NBA's top contenders stand. Who's getting better, and who's getting worse?

MORE: NBA trade grades | Latest NBA free agency buzz


Helped their chances

1. Los Angeles Lakers

The Lakers managed to win the 2020 championship without beating any of the other five teams with a point differential of better than plus-4.0 in the 2019-20 regular season: the Boston Celtics, Dallas Mavericks, LA Clippers, Milwaukee Bucks and Raptors. That doesn't take away from the Lakers' title, as they had to overcome the same adversity in the bubble as the other contenders, but it does suggest merely running back the same squad might not have been enough.

To their credit, the Lakers' front office recognized that and has acted aggressively to reshape both their bench and their starting lineup. Getting Gasol (at the veteran minimum) and wing Wesley Matthews ($3.6 million) at below-market rates allowed the Lakers to deal starter Danny Green to the Oklahoma City Thunder for guard Dennis Schroder and use their non-taxpayer midlevel exception to land reigning Sixth Man Award winner Montrezl Harrell.

Adding Gasol answered a lot of my questions about what the Lakers would do to finish games if Harrell proved incapable defensively in that role.

There's still some work for the Lakers to do, including actually getting a signature from Anthony Davis on a new max-salary contract. Bringing back Markieff Morris using non-Bird rights would also improve their frontcourt depth. Either way, the Lakers have upgraded their bench -- and, if Gasol (36 soon) and Matthews (34) stave off aging, perhaps their starting lineup too.


2. LA Clippers

Losing Harrell doesn't look like such a bad thing for the Clippers, who were able to use their non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add the Raptors' other key center, Serge Ibaka. Though Gasol started, Ibaka played more minutes per game in the postseason and looks like a better complementary piece on a good team at this stage of his career because of his outside shooting.

The Clippers will also hope Luke Kennard is an upgrade on Landry Shamet as a sharpshooter off the bench. However, they haven't been able to add the desired playmaking help thus far, and it's unlikely to come with the minimum contracts they have to fill out the roster. For that, the Clippers will probably need a trade.


3. Milwaukee Bucks

Despite the failed attempt to complete a sign-and-trade for restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Bucks' starting five looks better with the addition of two-time All-Star Jrue Holiday from the New Orleans Pelicans via trade. Compared to Eric Bledsoe's ice-cold 24% 3-point shooting in the last two postseason runs, Holiday's league-average shooting should be a massive upgrade.

I'm less impressed by Milwaukee's bench makeover after the Bucks traded away George Hill as part of the Holiday deal and lost Matthews and Robin Lopez in free agency and Marvin Williams to retirement.

The Bucks haven't unearthed a more versatile defensive option to complement Giannis Antetokounmpo in smallball lineups (no, Bobby Portis doesn't qualify) and bargain wing additions Torrey Craig and Bryn Forbes may not have complete-enough skill sets to finish playoff games. So the strength of Milwaukee's finishing five might depend on the development of third-year guard Donte DiVincenzo, who would have been sent to Sacramento had the Bogdanovic trade happened.


Status quo

4. Miami Heat

After their surprising run to the NBA Finals, the Heat entered this offseason trying to balance the twin goals of building the strongest team possible for 2020-21 and doing so without committing any salary for 2021-22, preserving their chances at max cap space.

The latter requirement did cost Miami starting power forward Jae Crowder (headed to the Phoenix Suns) and reserve Derrick Jones Jr. (Portland Trail Blazers). But the Heat were able to bring back starting point guard Goran Dragic and center Meyers Leonard on two-year deals with team options for 2021-22, and added guard Avery Bradley and forward Maurice Harkless to replace Crowder and Jones.

Come playoff time, Miami might miss Crower's combination of quickness and strength, since Harkless is better suited to defend perimeter players rather than power forwards. But adding Bradley strengthens their backcourt rotation, and I think the net effect is basically a wash.


5. Houston Rockets

The Rockets' offseason moves have been overshadowed by speculation about the future of guards James Harden and Russell Westbrook, who reportedly want to follow head coach Mike D'Antoni and GM Daryl Morey out of Houston.

For now, I think flipping forward Robert Covington into center Christian Wood via a pair of trades keeps Houston on the fringe of contention in the Western Conference. That will surely not be the case if Harden gets his wish for a trade.


Hurt their chances

6. Denver Nuggets

In hindsight, it turns out Nuggets forward Jerami Grant played a little too well during the team's run to the Western Conference finals, where he averaged 34.4 mpg and served as the primary defender on Donovan Mitchell, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James. That performance attracted the attention of the Detroit Pistons, who agreed to a three-year, $60 million deal with Grant.

Denver regrouped well by luring JaMychal Green away from the Clippers to complement veteran starter Paul Millsap, who came back for one year and $10 million. The Nuggets also have Michael Porter Jr. ready to step into a larger role in his second NBA season, and his development could yet make Denver a more dangerous team.

However, strictly in terms of offseason moves, the Nuggets have lost talent.


7. Toronto Raptors

Like the Heat, Toronto is balancing 2021 flexibility with 2020-21 competitiveness. Unlike the Heat, the Raptors suffered heavy losses with Gasol and Ibaka both heading for Los Angeles.

Toronto could realistically replace only one of the two centers in free agency, using the non-taxpayer midlevel exception to add veteran Aron Baynes. Barring another move, that will leave the Raptors counting on a bigger role for Chris Boucher, who will be back after re-signing as a restricted free agent.

On the plus side, Toronto was able to retain starting guard Fred VanVleet on a reasonable four-year, $85 million deal. As a result, the Raptors should remain competitive in what looks like a much deeper East in terms of contenders.


8. Boston Celtics

No contender suffered a single bigger loss in free agency than the Celtics, who saw Gordon Hayward decline a $34.2 million player option and then agree to a four-year, $120 million deal with the Charlotte Hornets. Because the market for perimeter players wasn't nearly as deep as the one for centers, Boston wasn't able to replace Hayward with an equivalent player. Instead, the Celtics added another center option with the non-taxpayer midlevel exception in Tristan Thompson.

Given the rapid development of young forwards Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum, Hayward's departure hardly dooms Boston. Still, the Celtics no longer look nearly as formidable as they did beating Toronto to reach last year's conference finals.