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.
NBA Daily: Samanic, Johnson Impressing With Austin Spurs
David Yapkowitz speaks with two young San Antonio Spurs standouts, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, about their time in Austin with the G League.
For rookies starting their NBA careers in today’s league, their journey is a little bit different than in the past.
In prior years, rookies who weren’t in the rotation immediately were often buried on the bench and relegated to garbage time minutes. It could be a frustrating and difficult situation for players used to being team focal points in college or high school.
What’s changed within the past decade is the way NBA teams have used the G League. The G League has grown tremendously to the point where almost every NBA team has its own affiliate. The New Orleans Pelicans became the 28th team to have an affiliate this season with the Erie Bayhawks, leaving only the Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers without a G League team.
More and more NBA teams have begun using their G League affiliates to get their young players playing time and development that they wouldn’t receive by staying the entire season with their NBA parent club.
One team that has taken full advantage in recent years of having a G League affiliate is the San Antonio Spurs. When the Columbus Dragons of the then NBA D League relocated to Austin, Texas, they were purchased by the Spurs and renamed the Austin Toros. They’ve since changed their name to the Austin Spurs.
Throughout their team history, Austin has had several call-ups to the NBA, and San Antonio has used its affiliate to get young players seasoning and development. Within the past five years, Kyle Anderson, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Lonnie Walker, all Spurs first-round draft picks, saw extensive time in the G League as rookies.
Coming into this season, San Antonio had two first-round picks, Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson, who didn’t figure to be in the rotation right away. To this point, Samanic has yet to suit up for San Antonio and Johnson has played in only four games. Both have spent the majority of their time in Austin.
Samanic was an intriguing prospect with a bit of a versatile skill set when the Spurs made him the 19th overall pick in last summer’s draft. He can score in the paint, handle the ball a bit and has improving range on his jump shot.
A native of Croatia, Samanic played professionally in Slovenia and Spain before declaring for the 2019 NBA draft. As a youth, he participated in the Adidas EuroCamp, an NBA pre-draft camp, and he had a few Division 1 schools monitoring him. He opted to play professionally while preparing for the NBA.
He’s spent the entirety of his rookie year thus far in Austin, where he’s been adjusting to the American pro game.
“It’s much different. I go from game-to-game and we practice a lot so that’s made it easier,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “Being with this group has helped me a lot, too. Just being more physical, coming here and adjusting to the physicality.”
In 31 games with Austin, Samanic is putting up 15.3 points per game on 43.6 percent shooting from the field to go with 7.6 rebounds. He’s had several double-doubles and after struggling a little bit early in the season, seems to have found a bit of a rhythm. He’s shooting only 31.9 percent from three-point range on the year, but in January, he was at 34 percent.
He credits the staff in Austin with helping his game and getting him adjusted to NBA style play. He knows that this season is mostly about development in Austin, but he does have the goal of making a difference for San Antonio by next year.
“I can bring the same things I bring to Austin. Whatever [Gregg Popovich] needs me to do, I’ll do,” Samanic told Basketball Insiders. “I just want to adjust as much and as quick as possible. Get experience and then next year, I’m trying to be in the rotation in San Antonio.”
In Johnson’s case, he’s been brought up to San Antonio for a few games here and there, but has also spent the majority of his rookie season with Austin. He was a highly-touted prospect at Oak Hill Academy and played only one season at Kentucky before declaring for the NBA draft.
Once projected to be a lottery pick, Johnson has the ability to be an impact player on the wing. He can put the ball on the floor and attack the rim. He has a strong inside game too and has the tools to be an effective perimeter defender. He’s shown flashes in the G League of why he was considered to be a steal when the San Antonio grabbed him with the 29th pick.
He, too, credits the G League with helping him adjust to the NBA level and is confident he can contribute to San Antonio’s rotation if needed.
“I think the main things are pace and just staying in shape. Getting up down, getting my body right and eating right,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Just playing hard and playing defense. Everything else will come in time. As long as I can be myself and do what I know I can do, I’ll be fine.”
Johnson has been one of the top standouts for Austin this season. He’s started in 29 of the 30 games he’s played in the G League and put up 20 points per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field, 5.8 rebounds and 2.4 assists. The one area he stands to improve upon is his outside shooting, as he’s only converting on 23.3 percent of his long-range attempts.
He was recently named to the Western Conference mid-season All-G-League team and if his performances are any indication, the Spurs could have another diamond in the rough on their hands. So far, he’s been impressed with the level of competition he’s faced up against in the G League. He knows that since he has an NBA contract, he’s getting everyone’s best shot night in and night out.
“I think it’s everything you can ask for. You’re playing against great players, night in and night out,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “You don’t get to take days off. Everybody is grinding, they’re hungry, we come in and they’re ready to play. You’ve got to be ready every night.”
The G League regular season ends next month, but Austin is one of the top teams in the league and could be playing into mid-April in the G League Finals. Johnson will likely be assigned to Austin for the duration of their playoff run, making next season his opportunity to get minutes in San Antonio.
For now, he’s continuing to work on his game and be ready for whenever his name should be called upon.
“I just want to get better and be the best Keldon Johnson I can be,” Johnson told Basketball Insiders. “Throughout my rookie season, just staying consistent is the main thing. Just get better honestly, that’s my main goal.”
NBA Daily: DPOY Watch — 2/25/20
Robert Covington’s off-ball disruption, the Philadelphia 76ers’ revamped rotation and Giannis Antetokounmpo’s unsurpassed individual dominance highlight this edition of Defensive Player of the Year watch. Jack Winter dives in.
The regular season is over two-thirds finished, and the playoffs start in 53 days.
Unsurprisingly, the front of the Defensive Player of the Year race has remained largely stagnant as 2019-20 enters its final stretch. But there’s ample time for movement among the obvious top-four candidates, with factors like injuries, lineup changes and even overall team performance poised to play a large part in the inevitable shuffle.
Here’s where Defensive Player of the Year watch stands as spring quickly dawns.
Robert Covington – Houston Rockets
The league’s stingiest small-ball lineups have never played all that small.
The bygone Golden State Warriors, at least before adding Kevin Durant, routinely doled out crunch-time lineups absent a defender taller than 6-foot-8. The length and physicality of Draymond Green, Andre Iguodala, Harrison Barnes and Klay Thompson allowed the Warriors to switch across positions with near impunity.
But a quartet of like-sized defenders didn’t give the Death Lineup its name or defensive effectiveness. Golden State’s ability to compensate for limitations provided by the presence of Stephen Curry and a collective lack of height is what made the team’s closing five special, a reality best explained by the off-ball genius of all-time defenders like Green and Iguodala.
The Houston Rockets, embracing small-ball like no team ever before, don’t possess a single defender at that exalted level of historical greatness. Just two of Mike D’Antoni’s top-eight players, in fact, are considered an objective plus on that side of the ball irrespective of surrounding circumstances. But the Rockets’ downsized defense has held up well thus far regardless, and Robert Covington’s rare, all-court impact as a help defender is arguably the biggest reason why.
Covington, 11th in deflections per game this season, was credited with three blocks in his new team’s convincing road win over the Utah Jazz on Saturday. The film reveals just how large those blocks loomed to the game’s outcome — and how unlikely they would have been for most any other 6-foot-8 wing challenging Rudy Gobert at the rim.
Covington is often mislabeled as a traditional stopper. He’s certainly a better option checking superstar alpha dogs than an average wing and boasts the versatility to guard pretty much anyone without being consistently exploited.
The real scope of Covington’s influence extends to All-Defense levels, though, because of his imminent penchant for disrupting action away from the offense’s initial point of attack. That’s a trait especially valuable for a team like Houston, whose switch-heavy scheme inevitably lends itself to double-teams and a losing numbers game on the backside of the play.
Through six games, the Rockets’ defensive rating with Covington on the floor is a team-best 102.5, a hair worse than the Milwaukee Bucks’ league-leading mark. They’re allowing nearly 20 points per 100 possessions more when he sits, easily the highest discrepancy on the roster.
Those numbers portray Covington as a more valuable defender than is realistic. Not even basketball’s best rim-protectors make that big a singular difference all by themselves. Still, they’re telling of Covington’s unique defensive worth to Houston and indicative of the game-changing off-ball plays – whether highlight-reel or barely-noticed – he makes on a nightly basis for basketball’s smallest defense.
The Philadelphia 76ers’ New Rotation
Good on Brett Brown for making the necessary change that confirms Philadelphia’s odd-ball offseason was a mistake.
There might be a world in which Joel Embiid and Al Horford thrive playing together, owning the paint on both ends, exploiting mismatches from the inside out and affording ball handlers ample space to operate with canny screens and dribble hand-offs. But this one definitely isn’t it, not with Ben Simmons cramping the floor by refusing to shoot outside the paint and Horford’s three-ball falling at a rate well below career norms.
The theoretical silver lining, even if it’s one you have to squint to see, is that the Sixers aren’t taking anything off the table by moving one of their best players to the bench. Embiid is almost a top-five defense unto himself. The hope is that negative fallout defensively from replacing Horford with a wing like Furkan Korkmaz or Glenn Robinson III proves minimal, while additional spacing and off-dribble dynamism on the other end juices an offense that’s lagged far behind its talent level all season long.
Fortunately for Philadelphia, there’s ample evidence supporting the viability of those assumptions. The Sixers have defended at a league-best level with Embiid on the court whether Horford plays next to him or not, surrendering equal effective field goal percentages of 50.2. Their offensive rating spikes from a putrid 98.9 to an average 108.8 when Embiid mans the middle sans Horford, with the former’s true shooting percentage bumping nearly four points to just below the hallowed 60 percent threshold. Philadelphia remains elite defensively with Horford at center, too, surrendering 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a number that would rank third in the league overall.
Obviously, the real test for the Sixers’ revamped rotation – which is still very much in flux even before accounting for Simmons’ back injury, by the way – will come in the playoffs. But this team was always built more for the postseason than 82-game grind, and Philadelphia proved last spring that it’s more than comfortable knocking jaws in a half-court series.
Should that prove the case again, don’t be surprised if Brown reverts to relying on units featuring both Embiid and Horford. Either way, what a luxury that the Sixers’ in-season about-face prompts little to no concern about their ability to hold up defensively.
Giannis Antetokounmpo – Milwaukee Bucks
The Bucks don’t play a single negative defender.
Eric Bledsoe and Brook Lopez deserve All-Defense consideration. No team in the East has a better collection of versatile, experienced wing defenders than Khris Middleton, Wesley Matthews and Marvin Williams. The defensive bona fides of George Hill, Robin Lopez and Ersan Ilyasova need no explanation. Donte DiVincenzo has quietly become one of the most disruptive perimeter defenders in the league. Pat Connaughton’s 2.5 percent block rate this season ranks sixth among all guards since 2010.
Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve immense credit. No defense in the NBA is more connected than Milwaukee’s, moving in perfect sync on the flight of the ball and letting questionable shooters launch wide-open from deep while protecting the rim at all costs.
But the above personnel’s unrelenting symbiosis and commitment to scheme isn’t what takes the Bucks’ defense from the top of the league to historical greatness. Giannis Antetokounmpo, of course, owns that distinction all by himself.
It’s not always easy for the naked eye to deduce Antetokounmpo’s defensive value. He’s rarely tasked with shutting down his team’s top offensive threat, instead primarily used as an omnipresent deterrent away from the ball. But no matter who Antetokounmpo is guarding, they’re noticeably hesitant to attack him.
Gobert leads the NBA in contested shots per game with 20.5, while Pascal Siakam ranks 20th by averaging 14.4 contested field goal attempts. Jonathan Isaac, another multi-positional defensive monster, is 52nd in that category. Antetokounmpo, by contrast, finds himself outside the top-100 in contested shots per game.
Don’t be fooled by his lackluster standing there relative to other dominant defenders, though. As the New Orleans Pelicans’ young franchise players learned earlier this month, going at Antetokounmpo is such a losing proposition that it’s best avoided altogether.
Is any other player in basketball capable of meeting Zion Williamson at the mountaintop and coming down left standing, let alone completely swallowing Brandon Ingram one-on-one in the same game? No way.
Antetokounmpo is a shoo-in for his second consecutive MVP. The case for his first Defensive Player of the Year award is nearly as strong, even if it’s much less discussed.
Defensive Player of the Year Rankings
5. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
4. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
3. Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
2. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
Honorable Mention: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers; Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics; Robert Covington, Houston Rockets; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets; Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT; Toronto Raptors – Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, O.G. Anunoby
NBA Daily: The Young, Western Conference Bubble
The race for the West’s final playoff spot may seem crowded, but the last two months make it clear that two teams are already ahead of the pack.
We all jump to conclusions too quickly, this space and this scribe most certainly included. Three months ago, five weeks into the NBA season, the Western Conference playoff bubble looked like it would be a race between the Sacramento Kings, Phoenix Suns and Minnesota Timberwolves. That has assuredly not become the reality.
While the Kings and Suns can claim to still be in the playoff race, they would have to not only make up five-game deficits, but they would also each have to jump over four other teams to reach the postseason. The Timberwolves would delight at such challenges as they initiate a not-so-subtle tank with franchise cornerstone Karl-Anthony Towns sidelined for at least a few weeks with a fractured wrist.
Instead, the race to be swept by the Los Angeles Lakers has come down to a pair of up-and-comers, a perpetual deep threat and the NBA’s most consistent organization. Of all of them, it is the youngsters who are both currently playing the best and have the most control of their playoff hopes relative to their competition.
Between the current No. 8-seeded Memphis Grizzlies, the Portland Trail Blazers (3 games back), New Orleans Pelicans (3.5) and San Antonio Spurs (4), the next six weeks will feature eight key games. Five of those will include either the Grizzlies or the Pelicans or, in two instances, both.
That pair of matchups is still a month out, but they warrant circling already, nonetheless. Memphis and New Orleans have been playing at a high level for two-plus months now, and by the time they play two games within four nights in late March — when the basketball world is largely distracted by the NCAA Tournament — the two inexperienced teams may have completely separated from Portland and San Antonio.
After starting 1-5, 5-13 and then 10-19, the Grizzlies have gone 18-9 since Dec. 21. The Pelicans have matched that record exactly, down to the date, since starting even worse than Memphis did, bottoming out at 7-23 before finding an uptick long before Zion Williamson found the court. Winning two-thirds of your games for two months is a stretch with a sample size large enough to make it clear: Neither Memphis nor New Orleans should be dismissed in this playoff chase.
Their early-season profiles were examples of young teams sliding right back into the lottery — and there was absolutely no indication a surge was coming.
|Offensive Rating||106.4 – No. 23||106.8 – No. 21|
|Defensive Rating||111.7 – No. 23||113.5 – No. 27|
Through Dec. 20; via nba.com.
Then, for whatever reason, things changed. They changed in every way and in ways so drastically that one cannot help but wonder what could come next for the teams led by the top-two picks from last summer’s draft.
|Offensive Rating||111.9 – No. 15||115.1 – No. 4|
|Defensive Rating||109.3 – No. 11||110.3 – No. 13|
Since Dec. 21, through Feb. 23; via nba.com.
In a further coincidence of records and timing, the Blazers and Spurs have both gone 13-16 since Dec. 21.
If all four teams in the thick of things out west continue at these two-month winning rates for another month, then Portland and San Antonio will have drifted out of the playoff conversation before Williamson and Ja Morant meet for a second time. Of course, those rates would keep New Orleans a few games back of Memphis; the latter has 14 games, compared to 12, before March 21, so the gap in the standings would actually expand to an even four games.
If the Pelicans can just pick up a game or two before then, though, they have already beaten the Grizzlies twice this season. Doing so twice more that week would just about send New Orleans into the playoffs – at which point, perhaps Williamson could steal a game from LeBron James to put a finishing coda on his rookie season.