Free agency is drawing to a close and we are finally getting a handle on what the NBA will look like next year. There were some big changes this off season, as Lebron James headed West and Kawhi Leonard came East. The power dynamics of the league are always ebbing and flowing, but for now, the Celtics seems to have their hand on the wheel of the Eastern Conference.
In the past, this could be accredited to an Atlantic Division that was effectively a garbage fire. Much of the East has been pitiful over the past 20 years, but the Atlantic Division has had a special level of under performance over that time period, including a recent run of having at least two teams in the bottom six from 2014 to 2017. However, do The Process’ fruition, Toronto trading for Leonard, and Sean Mark’s scheming with the Nets have the potential to turn the division around and threaten the Celtics’ grip on power?
Let’s take a look.
Late last week, the Toronto Raptors initiated an All-Star for All-Star swap with the Toronto in order to acquire former MVP candidate Kawhi Leonard from the Spurs. Leonard hasn’t played NBA basketball since January 19th, and a soap opera involving the Spurs medical staff, Kawhi’s own doctors, teammates, Kawhi’s uncle (and his agent), and the Spurs’ front office has unfolded around Leonard. It’s clear to few people exactly what Leonard’s status is at this point and there’s even been speculation as to whether or not Kawhi would even report to the Raptors. Much has been written about these juicy gossip topics, but lost in the Vanderpump Rules spectacle of the situation is the fact that Leonard is an ideal player for the Raptors to acquire.
The last year’s Hospital Celtics certainly had a ton of players go down throughout the season, but their saving grace, beyond a high caliber of talent, a “don’t quit attitude”, and an excellent job by Brad Stevens, was their outstanding wing depth. The league is now firmly in the “pace and space era” and, until another trendsetting team like the “7 Seconds or Less” Suns comes along, it’s likely to stay that way. This is a league that is dictated by its talent and its stars, and right now, outside of Anthony Davis, nearly all of the top team’s stars are wing creators who warp spacing to a breaking point. The foil to that is to have a roster of great to serviceable wing defenders who understand what they are doing and can survive defensive switches.
Terry Rozier, Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Morris, Semi Ojeleye are all elite to decent wing defenders, and that gives the Celtics a defense where nothing comes easy. Al Horford is one of the top defensive centers in the league and giving him the luxury of a wing lineup that he can trust is almost unfair. This is exactly how the Celtics finished the year as the NBA leaders in defensive efficiency per NBA.com.
Toronto, should they be adding the healthy and engaged Kawhi Leonard, figure to upset that. Leonard is a former Defensive Player the Year, and widely considered the best perimeter defender in the NBA. Adding him to Toronto’s 5th ranked defense from last year in exchange for the erratic defense of DeMar DeRozan figures to make them an elite defensive unit.
I’m not sure if a team can win in the NBA with a center like Jonas Valanciunas who has difficulty protecting the rim or a diminished Serge Ibaka, but boy…. these Raptors might answer that question. Pairing Leonard with Pascal Siakam will give the Raptors the best defensive forward tandem this side of the Warriors. OG Anunoby was outstanding in his rookie year and is featured in four of the Raptor’s top seven ‘two-man units’ by defensive rating. Fred VanVleet and Delon Wright give the Raptors versatility at the point guard position and Norman Powell, Danny Green, and CJ Miles give the Raptors the perfect wing depth for today’s league.
There’s a lot of ways that this could go wrong for Toronto, and this is a true ‘feast or famine’ move. That said, if Kawhi Leonard is the player we remember from last year, I expect the Raptors to be one of the top 3 defenses in the NBA. That fell apart for them in the playoffs last year, but having a Finals MVP on the roster like Leonard with make them incredibly dangerous. It’s true that they lost DeMar DeRozan’s scoring, but one could argue that a healthy Leonard is actually a bigger offensive weapon than DMDR. In fact, Leonard has well ahead of DeRozan in PER every year that the two have been in the league, barring Leonard’s injury shortened season last year.
Everything for the Raptors hinges on the caveat that Kawhi Leonard is healthy, engaged and his usual self. If he is, than than this is a Raptor team that could be the second best in the NBA, and they figure to threaten the Celtics in the Eastern Conference.
A combination of the Leonard trade and a quiet off season have banished the Sixers back out of the Eastern Conference title discussion for now. That’s pretty interesting, given that just 3 months ago the Sixers were the hottest team in basketball and coming off a decisive playoff series victory of the Miami. Now, the Sixers find themselves on the 1c tier in the Eastern Conference, with many basketball pundits citing their truly lethal potential still being a year or two away. There’s some truth to that, as the Sixers (wisely, I think) punted on the off season after LeBron James and Paul George were off the table.
Trades for Kawhi Leonard or other top players will likely be available, but I think the Sixers are being victimized by the “too many assets” problem that Celtics fans may recognize as familiar. The Sixers have a young asset and draft war chest that rivals the Celtics own, but that works against you when negotiating to acquire a star player somewhat. Teams will demand a high price simply because they know you can pay it and the Sixers and Celtics refusal to add Ben Simmons or Jayson Tatum may kill those deals on arrival.
That said, it makes a lot of sense for Philly to keep their powder dry and they aren’t in a position yet where they have to trade for anyone. Kawhi Leonard, Jimmy Butler, Kemba Walker, Kevin Love and Khris Middleton will likely all be free agents next year, and Philly has turned itself into an attractive landing spot for a player that wants to win and secure the bag.
An underrated plot development for next year is what might happen to the Warriors, as both Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant will likely be free agents. Durant has sacrificed to a great extent for the Warriors already, and took $5M less than his maximum again this off season. Klay Thompson has been outrageously underpaid for the duration of the Warriors run and will be in line for $13M per year pay raise and if Thompson makes the All-NBA team this year, his pay raise could be even higher at $19M. As a team in the repeater tax, I’m skeptical the Warriors’ management will have the stomach for a team payroll that will cost north of a quarter billion dollars. Include the bizarre rumblings about chemistry problems, and there is a decent chance that one of the two shakes loose in free agency next year.
(It’s worth nothing that Kyrie Irving and Al Horford will both be possible free agents next year. While I doubt either would jump ship for Philly, it bears mentioning.)
If Philly acquires any of these star players in free agency, they will still have ample room for improvement through a young core and several of their own draft picks, still making them the clear rival to the Celtics for years to come in the Eastern Conference. Barring a big leap from Markelle Fultz, however, I largely expect the Sixers to be slightly better than last year and finish the 3rd best team in the Eastern Conference. Perhaps internal improvements and free agent additions could make the Sixers a contender this year, but for now, I see them still as year away from true championship contention.
Both the Knicks and Nets have had some rough times in the standings since the calender hit 2015 three years ago. Neither have had a winning record since then and the two have combined to miss the playoffs seven of a possible eight times. Both times will likely still be quite bad next year, but that’s okay, because both teams are currently waiting out a variety of toxic contacts. The Nets will have double maximum cap space next year, and while cap space doesn’t mean much to many teams in the NBA, playing in New York changes the equation a bit. The Nets are positioning themselves in a way similar to how the Miami Heat did in a similarly strong draft class in 2018.
With another bad year, the Nets will finally be entitled to their own top draft pick. The Nets will also possibly have a strong mid 1st round pick coming from the Denver Nuggets. Cutting ties with D’Angelo Russell via renouncement or trade will give the Nets near double-maximum cap space with a cap hold option to bring back restricted free agent Rondae Hollis-Jeffferson. The Nets look to have hit on rotation players with some of their late first round picks in Caris LeVert and Jarrett Allen. We will see what this year’s picks, Dzanan Musa and Rodions Kurucs, look like.
The Nets will have draft picks and young rotation players under contract. Playing in New York and in an Eastern Conference that has a clearer Finals path will be very appealing for players who want to team up. This might mean the Nets end up with Jimmy Butler and Kevin Love. There’s an even scarier timeline where they end up with Kyrie Irving. The scariest timeline is that they end up with Kevin Durant and Kawhi Leonard. No single timeline is incredibly likely, but there are enough stars floating around and unaccounted for that the Nets need to be taken seriously as a landing spot for stars who want to team up.
(Stop laughing. I said stop laughing!)
The Knicks have a similar situation, but a year behind the Nets’ schedule. The Joakim Noah, Enes Kanter, and Tim Hardaway Jr. contracts hobble them a bit more than the Nets, but the Knicks could still have cap room for a top free agent next year. Were I the New York brass, I’d wait an extra year or two and be ready for the 2021 free agent class. I would still try to field a decent team around Porzingis, but being ready for a 2021 class that could feature Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Damian Lillard, Rudy Gobert, Victor Oladipo and others should be their priority.
Maybe they will secure a top free agent this off season, but I’m skeptical they could persuade someone with the roster they have now. Offering Porzingis a max extension, making and developing picks, and being ready for 2021 seems like the best shot for the Knicks to be title contenders in the next half decade.
All this future talk aside though, a Knicks team with a healthy Porzingis, solid development from young players and decent role players on short contracts might be enough for a playoff berth in the watered down Eastern Conference. I don’t think it’s that crazy to suggest that next year, all five Atlantic Division teams could be in the playoffs.
When it comes to the best division in the NBA, it’s still debatable as of yet, with the Warriors still being in a class of their own and an overall strength to the third tier of the Western conference below Houston and Golden State. There’s a strong chance the Atlantic Division will feature the Eastern Conference’s three best teams this year, but many of the West divisions have multiple teams that will win over 47 games. Should the Leonard trade work out for Toronto and the Nets and Sixers enact the raid on free agents the two seem to be planning, there’s a decent chance the Atlantic is the unquestioned powerhouse of the NBA as soon as next year.