No matter the year, we tend to have a good sense of where the top free agents are likely to go. At the very least, we can easily predict potential suitors based on their contention situation and the teams with available cap space.
Go a few rungs down the ladder and it’s anyone’s guess where some of the lower-level free agents will sign. They’re not unwanted commodities. They can actually wind up being important pieces to any team’s puzzle. But the type of deals they command are far less financially imposing — more MLE than max deal — allowing more teams to throw the name in the hat for their services.
Divisions still technically exist and at the very least tell you which conference foes are guaranteed to play four regular season games against each other. Beyond that, after previously guarantee homecourt in the postseason, winning the division doesn’t even have to reassure a playoff spot. It’s nothing more than an accomplishment only the poorest of franchises seek validation from or bragging rights among geographical contemporaries.
Up in the north east, however, an intriguing battleground emerges within the division in position to dictate the Eastern Conference for years to come.
Four of the five Atlantic Division teams made the playoffs in 2020, tied for the most among the NBA’s six divisions. Two of them battled it out in a seven-game conference semifinals duel. The other half that bowed out in the first round will enter next season reinforced and ready to contend. Oh, and the Knicks.
That’s four semi-rivals likely to be in each others way come playoff time in the years to come. Gaining even the slightest of edges could prove immensely beneficial, which could come in the form of these free agents.
Whether their looking to ride the bench en route to a ring, lending their voice in the locker room, or lay down roots in a single city, it’s all about having the right pitch needed to draw them in.
Despite a golden opportunity to make The Finals, Boston is coming off a season that exceeded expectations and showcased the bright future ahead of them.
Jayson Tatum passed every test to prove his superstardom, posting career-highs during the regular season only to usurp them in leading Boston to the Eastern Conference Finals. At 22-years-old, he is already the face of the Celtics but won’t go alone in trying to lead them, not with Jaylen Brown emerging to average north of 20 points for the first time in his career.
Along with Kemba Walker, the Celtics were the only team last season with three players to each average more than 20 points a night. Throw in Marcus Smart Marcus Smarting and that’s a quartet that gets it done at both ends.
Walker remains an All-Star point guard, though knee issues in the bubble raise questions regarding how his body holds up as he ages deeper into his 30’s. Perhaps those concerns can be leveraged in negotiations with a second-unit floor general looking for the assurance of specific minutes. However, if and when that time comes, Brown’s continuous ascension will allow him to swap spots in Boston’s hierarchy and ease the load on the diminutive point guard.
Brown’s extension kicks in this upcoming season. Tatum is a near lock to sign a long-term deal of his own. There might be more talented duos. None offer the same type of positional flexibility at both ends that allows Boston to mold their supporting cast in whatever way they see fit, widening the scope of free agents they can target to slot around them.
Those targets will likely address the two glaring needs in Boston’s roster: starting center and backup point guard. Is their potential enough to entice Aron Baynes to return to Beantown or coerce a 12-year veteran like D.J. Augustin with the chance to play past the first round for just the second time in his career? Maybe they can convince Harry Giles III to set himself for a lucrative deal by contributing towards a contender.
Along with a master tactician for a head coach and one of the league’s top deal-makers running the front office, the Celtics have proven themselves ready for today and tomorrow.
The Brooklyn Nets have the most intriguing ceiling in the NBA. Their roster reads like the type that can readily compete for the NBA championship, headlined by the potent offensive pairing of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving. They have quality supporting pieces like Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Jarrett Allen who have grown tremendously during their time in Brooklyn.
Look below the surface and their hopes aren’t as simple. The last time we saw KD on the court was almost a year and a half ago. It doesn’t matter how little his game relies on athleticism. Coming back from a torn Achilles is a challenge.
At what point is Kyrie Irving considered injury prone? He played only 20 games in his first season with the Nets and has topped 70 games just once in the last five years.
There’s a lot of talent but no real indication on how it’s going to fit, not when each of Durant, Kyrie, LeVert and Dinwiddie are best with the ball in their hands. Such limits the type of free agents the Nets would even consider bringing in, where spot-up shooters like Marco Belinelli and E’Twaun Moore would be valued more than anything else.
Steve Nash did a good job filling out his staff with coaches who can shorten his learning curve as a first-time head coach. Will that help him mesh the personalities of those who came up under Brooklyn’s culture and the two stars who came in and upended it?
The Nets offer the chance to go for the championship right now in one of the league’s biggest markets. That’s the only appeal some free agents need, even if it means rarely stepping onto the court for any meaningful minutes. Just don’t be surprised if the journey isn’t a whole lot of fun.
At this point, the only reason a non-star free agent heads to New York is because the Knicks want you to occupy their loads of cap space. Just ask Julius Randle, Bobby Portis, Marcus Morris, Taj Gibson, Elfrid Payton, Wayne Ellington or Reggie Bullock.
Signing with the Knicks to win at any level right now? Come on.
How much faith do you have in Daryl Morey? Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons are elite talents who, contrary to popular belief, can thrive together. They did back in their first season together (2017-18) where, among two-man combos with more than 1,000 minutes, they ranked fifth in net rating.
But whatever heights their cohesion can reach isn’t going to matter unless Morey can surround them with the proper shooting. Al Horford isn’t the answer. Tobias Harris would be a more suitable one if he could start and finish games at power forward.
Should any free agent believe in the most aggressive trade pursuer in the league, the Sixers could be capable of springing up the league’s hierarchy. When Simmons and Embiid aren’t saddled with help defenders at every turn, life becomes significantly easier for two elite rim finishers.
Those potential moves will define Philly’s immediate future more than the pairing of Embiid and Simmons or the hiring of Doc Rivers, whose approval among players might have taken a hit after his latest blown 3-1 lead in Los Angeles.
If they materialize, the results in a passionate city like Philadelphia could be glorious. Being a part of that revitalization could function as a legitimate selling point, one that could be sold by the new management put in place. Though residing in the disappointing reality where they don’t could be too harsh an alternative for a player to risk.
No team surpassed more expectations than last season’s Toronto Raptors, a testament to the top-to-bottom championship culture any free agent would be grateful to join.
With free agents of their own in Fred VanVleet, Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka, Toronto could look very different heading into the 2020-21 season. Pieces still remain, however, to establish relevance at the minimum for years to come.
A poor postseason showing dimmed the excitement on Pascal Siakam. How quickly we forget the rapid growth he’s undergone in just four seasons and how little experience he has as the leading man. He’ll bounce back while OG Anunoby and Norman Powell continue to rise.
As important as they’ve been during their tenure, the departures of VanVleet, Gasol and Ibaka wouldn’t be a death sentence for Toronto. Not the organization that uncovers talent wherever they look. Or the one with the resources to lure Giannis Antetokounmpo up north in the summer of 2021.
However realistic the pursuit of Giannis is, committing to the chase would keep the Raptors from inking anything beyond a one-year deal this summer. Their run this past season was incredibly inspiring. But after the glow of their title defense has worn off, are they truly good enough convince a free agent to sacrifice money for a title pursuit that might not be all that legitimate?
Masai Ujiri is the type of front office exec who can swing the pendulum Toronto’s favor. The same can be said of Nick Nurse, the reigning Coach of the Year whose adaptability can lure any type of player to trust Nurse enough to make it work.