While the Atlantic Division has been the class of the league in 2018-19, it is also ripe for change come free agency. I covered the potential for change in Toronto last week – the Raptors looked well-positioned for the present as well as the future– but it’s not only Toronto that could be in for a disruptive free agency period.
The entire Atlantic Division is set for change. The division could see more than its share of free agent movement in what could ultimately be seen as a microcosm of the modern NBA. The 76ers have two high-profile free agents and the Celtics very well may lose their superstar point guard. Meanwhile, the Knicks have enough cap space to sign two max free agents, and the Nets could make room for one in addition to the (seemingly inevitable) resigning of D’Angelo Russell.
So let’s review each remaining Atlantic Division team – not including Toronto, which was covered on its own last week – with an eye on key free agents and potential cap space.
When it comes to Boston’s 2019 offseason, the name of the game is Kyrie Irving. In October 2018, Irving proclaimed that he would prefer to re-sign with the Boston Celtics at an event at the TD Garden. But time can change lots of things, and since approximately a week before the trade deadline – seemingly instigated by the Celtics’ lack of success and a consistent line of questions from the media about the possibility of Irving planning to team up with Kevin Durant in New York – Irving’s happiness with the Celtics has apparently waned. He has grown shorter, albeit with the media and not necessarily with teammates. He stepped back from the commitment he made to re-signing in Boston last October when he recently told reporters, “I don’t owe anybody sh*t,” regarding his future.
He could merely be communicating his displeasure with the constant speculation about his future; after all, he did recently complain about the amount of attention a star basketball player receives. Or the lack of consistency and success post-LeBron may be weighing on him. Either way, Irving appears to be a very real flight risk.
Fortunately for the Celtics, they can still re-sign Terry Rozier, who will be a restricted free agent in July, as well. However, Rozier told me before the Celtics’ February 1 game at Madison Square Garden that, after this season, starting is “the only goal.” And while he represents a very strong safety net for the Celtics, if Irving takes time making a decision and another team swoops in with a pricey offer for Rozier, the Celtics will have to choose quickly.
But one way or another, it seems that Boston will lose one of their talented point guards. And if Irving heads to New York, it will send shockwaves through the division, even if most around the league aren’t terribly surprised.
Much like the Raptors, the Sixers rolled the dice this season, too. They flipped Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2022 second-round pick for Jimmy Butler, a 2019 unrestricted free agent, and Justin Patton. And then they moved Wilson Chandler, Mike Muscala, Landry Shamet, their own protected 2020 first-round pick, Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick and two future second-rounders for Tobias Harris, another 2019 unrestricted free agent, Boban Marjanovic and Mike Scott.
As currently constructed, the 76ers’ ceiling is sky high. And Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons both remain under team control until at least 2021. But if either or both of Butler and Harris walk, they will have dealt a good amount of relatively affordable young talent and future draft capital for whatever the final result will be for this season. If that ends up being an NBA championship, then it will be all worth it. But if it’s not and both move on to other teams, they’ve traded a lot with little left over to show for it. However, with or without a 2019 title, if the 76ers re-sign both, GM Elton Brand will be on the shortlist for the Executive of the Year award.
New York Knicks:
The Knicks are the team looking to make the biggest improvement in the Atlantic Division – and the league. They should have as much available cap space as any team in the league, which they hope to use to add two superstars. Rumors have circulated that they would prefer to add Irving and Kevin Durant. Irving grew up in northern New Jersey. Meanwhile, Durant’s company (Thirty Five Ventures) recently relocated to New York and his former teammate and friend, Royal Ivey, is a Knicks’ assistant coach. While neither is close to being a done deal, chasing Irving and Durant appears to be a real priority for the Knicks, and realistic additions at that.
In addition to possibly adding two superstars, the Knicks will also be the proud owners of what will probably end up being at least a top-6 pick in the 2019 NBA Draft by virtue of the likelihood that they finish with one of the two worst records in the league. In years’ past their chances would be even better to score a higher pick; however, thanks to a recent rule change, bottom dwellers can only guarantee themselves as high as a 14 percent chance at the top overall pick, with the bottom two teams having an identical chance at that prize. The team with the worst record in the league is guaranteed to pick no lower than five, whereas the team with the second-worst record can fall no lower than sixth – and the Knicks currently sport the worst winning percentage in the NBA.
Irving, Durant and a top-five pick in the 2019 Draft would be nice supplements to an already talented core of Dennis Smith Jr., Kevin Knox, Frank Ntilikina and Mitchell Robinson. And as good as that lineup would be, the team can also try to package their young talent and draft picks for a third superstar on the trade market, like Anthony Davis.
Or the Knicks could strike out in free agency and end up deciding between conserving cap space for future trades and/or free agents or overpaying next-tier stars. The Knicks’ future hangs in the balance, but it could change dramatically in slightly less than four months – which will have very real implications on the rest of the division.
The Nets are likely to see the least amount of change in the Atlantic Division this coming offseason. Their core is mostly locked in for at least the 2019-20 season. The team re-signed Spencer Dinwiddie to a three-year extension earlier this season, and Caris LeVert, Joe Harris, Jarret Allen and Rodions Kurucs are all signed for at least next season.
The Nets could free up the requisite cap space for a max-level free agent as well, but it would require them to renounce the right to all of their restricted free agents and player options, including D’Angelo Russell. Considering how well Russell has played this season, especially in 2019, it appears unlikely that the team allows him to walk. If the Nets choose to hang onto Russell and Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, their cap space will be closer to $19 million, which gives them far less room to operate in free agency. However, a $19 million free agent added to Brooklyn’s roster is nothing to sneeze at. They could also choose to keep Russell while letting Hollis-Jefferson walk, which could possibly give them enough room to chase a max player like Tobias Harris, a Long Island native to whom the team has recently been linked. And with the Nets’ success this season, there is a strong reason to believe that Brooklyn is viewed as a desirable destination.
Every division is affected by free agency, and more so today than in years’ past. But the Atlantic Division could look entirely different next season with teams like the Raptors, 76ers and Celtics possibly losing superstar talent directly to division rivals like the Knicks and Nets. As implausible as that may have sounded years ago, it could realistically happen in only a few short months.