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March 9, 2012
Deadline Impact
Most Improved Teams

by Kevin Pelton

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Over the next week, multiple teams will make trades with an eye toward improving for the stretch run. Not all of them will work. Sometimes, however, a key trade can totally change a team's fortunes. I wanted to look back on the ones that had the biggest impact over the last decade-plus. To do so, I asked a related question: Which teams have improved their winning percentage the most after the deadline in the 2000? Here are the top 10:

Team           Year    Pre   Post   Diff   Additions
----------------------------------------------------------
Denver         2005   .463   .857   .394   Najera
Golden State   2005   .296   .643   .347   B. Davis
New Jersey     2005   .418   .704   .286   Carter
Miami          2004   .418   .704   .286   (none)
Philadelphia   2007   .333   .607   .274   A. Miller
Milwaukee      2010   .462   .733   .271   Salmons
Sacramento     2006   .455   .704   .249   Artest
Phoenix        2010   .582   .815   .233   (none)
L.A. Lakers    2003   .528   .759   .231   (none)
Orlando        2006   .358   .586   .228   Milicic, Ariza

Yes, of course you remember those big deadline pickups of Eduardo Najera and Darko Milicic. Some of the other deals make a tad more sense. Let's take a close look at each of the improved teams.

1. 2004-05 Denver Nuggets (+.394 improvement)
The Nuggets also had the second-best record after the trade deadline of any team in the 2000s so far, trailing last year's 23-3 Chicago Bulls. Yes, Denver added veteran Najera in a swap with Golden State, but the more meaningful change was on the sidelines. The Nuggets actually went through three coaches that season. Jeff Bzdelik was dismissed at 13-15 and replaced by coach-in-waiting Michael Cooper. The Lakers legend and two-time WNBA champion coach got just 14 games, losing 10, before he followed Bzdelik out the door. Denver turned to George Karl, who quickly turned the young squad into a winner by tightening up the defense. Some seven years later, Karl is still with the Nuggets and is now third in the NBA in tenure behind Gregg Popovich and Doc Rivers.

2. 2004-05 Golden State Warriors (+.347 improvement)
The Warriors were limping along at a .296 clip when they were able to put together a modest package of Speedy Claxton and the expiring contract of Dale Davis to acquire Baron Davis from the New Orleans Hornets. Golden State almost immediately became a winner, would end its decade-plus playoff drought (and upset No. 1 seed Dallas) the following season and win 48 (but miss the playoffs) in 2006-07. Then Davis left as a free agent and the Warriors immediately slipped back below .500. So there's an argument to be made that Davis was the most valuable deadline addition in recent NBA history.

3. 2004-05 New Jersey Nets (+.286 improvement)
Would you believe the three biggest improvements of the last dozen years all came the same season? In this case, the Nets made their splash a bit before the deadline, putting together a package to nab Vince Carter from the Toronto Raptors in December. With Jason Kidd sidelined by microfracture knee surgery, New Jersey opened the year 2-11 and was 12-24 as late as Jan. 15. From there, the Nets nearly reversed their winning percentage, going 30-16 to reach the playoffs. If we divided this list by first half and second half, New Jersey might just top it.

4. 2003-04 Miami Heat (+.286 improvement)
The Heat stands alone as the team that made the largest post-deadline jump without making any kind of trade. Miami simply coalesced as a team late in the season. A rookie guard by the name of Dwyane Wade missed nearly the entire month of January with a bone bruise in his right wrist. After returning, Wade started to give the league a glimpse of his immense potential. Lamar Odom settled in as a second option and the Heat made a late playoff push that resulted in an opening-round win over New Orleans.

5. 2006-07 Philadelphia 76ers (+.274 improvement)
After getting off to a 5-12 start, the Sixers decided to trade former MVP Allen Iverson and sent him home. They lost their next seven games to bottom out at 5-19. Shortly thereafter, the team dealt Iverson to Denver for Andre Miller and Joe Smith in late December. Philadelphia was still 19 games below .500 at the All-Star break before finishing strong, going 19-11 the remainder of the season. A year later, the Sixers would return to the playoffs, albeit with a below-.500 record.

6. 2009-10 Milwaukee Bucks (+.271 improvement)
Fear the Deer! After picking up John Salmons at the deadline, the Bucks added a dash of offense to one of the league's best defensive units. The result was a 22-8 finish to the season. The run nearly resulted in a playoff upset before Milwaukee lost to the Atlanta Hawks in seven games. Alas, the Salmons magic proved to be short-lived, and the Bucks are still looking to get back to the postseason.

7. 2005-06 Sacramento Kings (+.249 improvement)
When Ron Artest demanded a trade early in the campaign, the Kings were the beneficiaries. They sent Peja Stojakovic to Indiana straight up for Artest in late January. 17-24 at the time, Sacramento won nearly two-thirds of its games the remainder of the way, including 19 of 27 after the deadline. Then Rick Adelman left, and the Kings were unable to keep it up. They haven't been back to the playoffs since.

8. 2009-10 Phoenix Suns (+.233 improvement)
The key for the 2009-10 Suns was a trade they didn't make. Since Cleveland wasn't willing to meet Phoenix's asking price for Amar'e Stoudemire, the Suns retained their star forward. Stoudemire responded with terrific basketball the rest of the season and a rotation fell into place for Alvin Gentry. Phoenix went 22-5 after the deadline (tied for the seventh-best post-deadline record in the 2000s) and maintained the momentum unlike any other team on this list, reaching the Western Conference Finals.

9. 2002-03 Los Angeles Lakers (+.231 improvement)
Consider the Lakers the most depressing entry on this list. Their post-deadline play was closer to where they should have been all season, but Shaquille O'Neal missed the first 12 games following abdominal surgery and needed time to play his way back into shape. The result was a 10-18 start. The Lakers still won 50 games, but the stretch gave San Antonio home-court advantage in their second-round matchup and the three-time defending champs were eliminated by a Spurs team en route to a title.

10. 2005-06 Orlando Magic (+.228 improvement)
Yes, Milicic played some of the best basketball of his career after coming to Orlando from Detroit at the deadline. However, the real story for the Magic was addition by the subtraction of Steve Francis (sent to New York for Trevor Ariza). Second-year point guard Jameer Nelson stepped in as a starter in place of Francis and averaged 15.8 points and 5.6 assists after the All-Star break, portending the way the two guards' careers would move in opposite directions.

Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus. You can contact Kevin by clicking here or click here to see Kevin's other articles.

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