NBA Teams with the Toughest Paths to Improvement

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 17: Jayson Tatum #0 and Jaylen Brown #7 of the Boston Celtics pose for a portrait with the Larry O'Brian Trophy and with the The Bill Russell Finals MVP Trophy after winning Game 5 of the 2024 NBA Finals on June 17, 2024 at the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. Mandatory Copyright Notice: Copyright 2024 NBAE  (Photo by Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images)

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Boston Celtics

Good luck improving upon a team that just won the NBA championship, posted the fourth highest net rating through the regular season and playoffs in league history and is slated to sit comfortably above the second apron.

Still, very few of the Celtics’ most important players are on the downswing, and their two main stars, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum continue to get better. Boston is also out just one future first-round pick (2029). It won’t be able to aggregate salary, but attaching draft equity to a Payton Pritchard or Jaden Springer could feasibly land them rotational upgrades like Kenrich Williams or Santi Aldama.

Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets will clear the second apron unless they unload salary or losing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (player option) in free agency. Improving via the addition of new faces is limited to hitting on minimum contracts or pairing their No. 28 pick and/or 2031 first-rounder with the salaries of Zeke Nnaji ($8.9 million) or Reggie Jackson ($5.3 million player option) in trade negotiations.

Unlike most other second-apron squads, though, Denver can realistically hold out hope for internal growth. Christian Braun and Peyton Watson are already rotation staples and nowhere near finished products. Getting anything from soon-to-be sophomores Jalen Pickett, Julian Strawther or Hunter Tyson would be an upgrade. And we cannot completely write off getting more layered offense from (an almost) 26-year-old Michael Porter Jr.

Golden State Warriors

Conceptually speaking, the Warriors don’t belong here. They have the ability to retain basically everyone from last year’s roster, and players like Jonathan Kuminga, Brandin Podziemski, Trayce Jackson-Davis and Moses Moody are all on upward trajectories.

And yet, Golden State’s nucleus is old enough that core regression could outstrip in-house development. The best versions of Stephen Curry, Draymond Green, Chris Paul, Klay Thompson and maybe even Andrew Wiggins are in the rear view, and this says nothing of how the organization will handle the futures of CP3 (non-guaranteed) and Klay (unrestricted).

Absence of improvement, though, feels like it’ll wind up being a choice. The Warriors don’t have to duck the tax entirely. But they might. And while their top-of-the-line trade packages aren’t enough to win sweepstakes involving Oklahoma City, New Orleans or a smattering of other teams, they have the picks and prospects to do something consequential. Whether they use the tools at their disposal is a different story.

Minnesota Timberwolves

Keeping the Timberwolves out of the meat and potatoes of this list was the toughest call among honorable mentions. They will be a second-apron team even if they let both Kyle Anderson and Monte Morris walk in free agency, and you cannot, under any circumstance, convince me they come out of a Karl-Anthony Towns trade, or a Nickeil Alexander-Walker trade, or a Naz Reid trade, looking better for wear.


League-minimum fliers could go a long way for this team. Finding a playable floor general at that price point will be difficult, but adding a higher-volume shooter looking to boost his future stock by contributing to a contender is on the table.

More than anything, though, the Timberwolves have an All-NBA cornerstone in Anthony Edwards who is both a candidate for the Association’s best two-way player title and still on the ascent. His trajectory alone is enough to render next year’s team significantly better than the one that just made the Western Conference Finals.

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