To say the events of the past three or so weeks were irregular would be the understatement of the year. And during an already tragic year for the NBA, the league made the tough choice to postpone the season, prior to government intervention, on Wednesday, Mar. 11.
In the two-plus weeks since the COVID-19 outbreak and subsequent shutdowns, players have continued to entertain the league’s fans in creative and interactive ways. But watching our favorites play Call of Duty is no substitute for NBA action. Considering the remainder of the 2019-20 season isn’t a given at this point, Basketball Insiders has instead shifted its focus on the next guaranteed league-wide event – free agency.
Ben Nadeau covered the best free agents from the Northwest Division on Tuesday, while Spencer Davies identified the best free agents available from the Central Division yesterday. Next, let’s shift our focus to the Atlantic Division.
The Atlantic Division’s class is lacking true star power. There is no Anthony Davis, Mike Conley or Paul Milsap, either – and most of the established talent in the Atlantic is locked up well beyond 2020. But what the division lacks in established free agents, it makes up for in promise. A number of the following players are younger guys who have yet to fulfill their full potential and there might even be a few future All-Stars listed below.
So, for the next five or so minutes, forget about everything going on outside and dive into a rundown of the best free agents the Atlantic Division has to offer.
Most Likely To Be Priced Out Of His Current Team
Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $9,346,153
Without question, VanVleet will be the most sought-after free agent from the Atlantic Division this offseason, whenever that is.
VanVleet turned 26 years old last month and was originally signed by the Raptors after going undrafted in 2016. He’s accumulated approximately $20 million in career earnings. While that’s better than more than 99% of us, his next contract will probably feature two commas and eight zeroes – that’s the kind of money most of us can’t fathom. And while there should be at least one more big payday for VanVleet after this one, the uncertainty of recent events might convince himself to secure his family sooner rather than later.
All indications point to VanVleet’s satisfaction with Toronto, too. He had this to say about his impending free agency last October in an interview on Sportsnet’s Tim & Sid: “But, I mean, I’ve been on record about how I feel about this place,” the fourth-year guard said. “This organization knows how I feel about this place. So in a perfect world, we know what would happen.”
But in light of the volatility in global financial markets, does Toronto still believe that it can successfully build a contender around VanVleet and Pascal Siakam, knowing that it might be impossible to add more top-tier talent?
VanVleet is arguably the best point guard prospect in the 2020 class. While some teams will feel like paying more than $25 million per season for VanVleet is overkill given his height and limited athletic ability – others will see his season-to-season development, scrappiness and clutch play as more than worth it.
Most Likely To Look Elsewhere Due To Coaching Change
Joe Harris, Brooklyn Nets – Unrestricted – $7,666,667
Harris’s situation is similar to VanVleet’s. Harris was the 33rd overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft by way of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Despite being in the league for two more years than VanVleet, they’ve made approximately the same total amount in career earnings.
Harris’ star has also never been brighter, except for maybe last season. He posted career highs in points (13.9), rebounds (4.3) and minutes per game (30.9) in 2019-20. He also shot a more-than-respectable 41.2 percent on 5.9 three-point attempts per game this season, down from a ridiculous 47.4 percent in 2018-19. And he did all this inside the flow of the offense.
So why would the Nets let Harris leave, you ask? They won’t, if it is up to them. Harris is an unrestricted free agent, so where he plays next year and beyond is entirely up to him.
Why, then, might Harris explore leaving the Nets, a team with whom he would almost certainly compete for a championship next season? He probably wouldn’t have – until Mar. 7, when the Nets mutually parted ways with head coach Kenny Atkinson. Atkinson was the Nets coach for Harris’ entire tenure with the team, while the latter was a huge supporter of the former.
Additionally, there are the inevitable disruptions that playing alongside megastars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving will bring – like decreased role and increased media scrutiny. Still, Brooklyn gave him a home after he was unceremoniously dumped in the G League — so, for now, only time will tell.
Most Likely To Prefer A Fresh Start
Allonzo Trier, New York Knicks — Restricted — $3.551,100
Judging by Trier’s body language and decreased availability in the Knicks’ locker room in 2019-20, it’s safe to assume that he was less-than-pleased in New York this season.
He entered the NBA last season as an accomplished scorer whose draft stock took a hit after testing positive for Ostarine, a performance-enhancing drug. And despite inconsistent playing time, Trier’s rookie campaign reinforced the idea that he was more prepared to score at the professional level than scouts and executives thought. He averaged 10.9 points over 22.8 minutes per game during his rookie campaign and most people around the team felt he would develop into a dependable sixth man capable of providing off-the-bench punch.
But Trier’s role changed this year and he has played in 24 of the Knicks’ 66 games and posted just 6.5 points in 12.1 minutes per game.
Trier is already 24, older than most sophomores. But he’s also played for the Knicks, whose rotations have impeded the progress of a number of other younger players in the recent past (see: Frank Ntilikina). It would be shocking if new team president Leon Rose prioritizes a long-term deal for a player that’s been out of the rotation all season when the Knicks have so many other holes to fill.
But fear not, Iso-Zo fans, someone will take a chance on Trier. And he’ll look significantly better on a playoff roster, capitalizing on the spacing that talent affords.
Most Likely To Seek One Last Payday
Serge Ibaka, Toronto Raptors – Unrestricted – $23,271,604
The Raptors are a tough team to peg. In spite of many proposing a rebuild in the days post-Kawhi Leonard, Toronto played out 2019-20 with their roster as is. As of the most recent day of the season, the Raptors were 46-18 – good for the third-best record in the entire league.
But like most great minds, team president Masai Ujiri is probably motivated by succeeding at seemingly impossible challenges – like a full-on rebuild. And this might be his best shot. The Raptors have a number of players entering unrestricted free agency, including headliners like Ibaka, Marc Gasol and Fred VanVleet.
While the VanVleet situation is probably out of the team’s control, Ibaka and Gasol are realistic returnees – so long as it’s desired by the Raptors.
Gasol fits the profile of someone that can be brought back on an inexpensive deal. He’s already 35 and would dictate far less on the open market than Ibaka. On the other hand, Ibaka is somehow only 30 and played incredibly well in 2019-20, averaging 16 points and 8.3 rebounds over 27.5 minutes per game.
While his defensive prowess isn’t what it once was, he’s still more than serviceable and makes up for any regression with three-point shooting (39.8 percent) and versatility.
With tough financial decisions ahead, the Raptors will probably let Ibaka walk without making too strong of a recruiting pitch. But what team offers him the kind of money that lures him out of Canada is anyone’s guess.
Most Likely To Leave Early To Cash In On A Weak Class
Gordon Hayward, Boston Celtics — Player Option — $32,700,690
This one is probably a stretch. Elfrid Payton is more likely to be cut loose by New York, as is Bobby Portis and Wayne Ellington. Further, Brad Wanamaker is more likely to leave Boston than Hayward. But it’s infinitely more fun to consider the possibility of Hayward fleeing Beantown, isn’t it?
This concept is complicated by two key points: Hayward won’t command anywhere near the $34 million he’ll walk away from next season, while he’s probably never been happier with a coaching staff considering coach Brad Stevens was also his college leader at Butler.
But there’s a key incentive driving this hypothetical, too – if Hayward opts out, he can guarantee himself a multi-year contract worth more in 2020 than he’ll be able to negotiate in the competitive class of 2021. And in the eternal words of DJ Quick, if it don’t make dollars, then it don’t make sense.
It may even be the right time for Hayward to seek a new contract, too. He’s scoring 17 or more points per game for the first time since 2016-17. Better, he’s proven to be healthy, score in bunches and make players for those around him. The long-time Jazz-standout is now averaging 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds and 4.1 assists in 33.4 minutes per game – all as he shoots 39.2 percent on three-pointers and slightly above 50 percent from the field.
And if Boston is unwilling to spend because it understands future needs like Jayson Tatum must be met, the situation between Hayward and the Celtics can become contentious.
Most Likely To Split For A More Defined Role
Glen Robinson III, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted – $1,882,867
Dust-ups happen and teams and players do their best to publicly make nice afterward for the greater good. Basketball Insiders’ own Spencer Davies broke the news in February that Robinson III was confused with his role in Philadelphia.
The 76ers are well-stocked at the wing position and, as a 26-year-old journeyman, Robinson III certainly knows that he’ll only get so many opportunities to cash out in the NBA. The Athletic recently reported that Robinson III is not ruling out a return to the Warriors despite the presence of Andrew Wiggins, and he’ll obviously explore other situations, too. Already though, his time in Philadelphia looks like a thing of the past.
Robinson III finally broke double-figures in scoring this season at 11.8 per game. He also set career highs in assists (1.6 per game) and rebounds (4.3), while hitting a career-best 48.6 percent from the field. Wherever he signs, Robinson III will be a relatively-inexpensive and serviceable bench player who could develop into a regular part of a rotation.
Most Likely To Chase The Biggest Opportunity
Alec Burks, Philadelphia 76ers — Unrestricted — $2,320,044
Burks is the most established of the remaining free agents on this list. He averaged 10.7 points per game this season — but he’s proven he can do more, like the year he put up 16.1 over 48 games with Golden State in 2019-20. Burks is an inconsistent defender, but he’s shown flashes of competency on that side as of late. Still, what he adds offensively typically outweighs his defensive limitations.
Burks has been set back by a series of injuries and he’s already 28 years old, so it’s unlikely he’ll expand past much more than he’s done thus far. But that’s more than enough for a number of contending teams in need of scoring off the bench.
He can always fall back on Philadelphia given their need for depth, but his scoring punch should enable a deal beyond the likes of that franchise can afford. If he’s stuck between offers, Burks will probably go with whichever team offers him the biggest role.
Maurice Harkless, New York Knicks — Unrestricted — $11,011,236
The eight-year NBA veteran has averaged 7.2 points, 3.7 rebounds and 1 steal per game throughout his entire career. Beyond that, Harkless’ per-36 numbers are surprisingly consistent year-to-year, which, long story short, means that you know what you’re getting in the established wing.
But that’s not a bad thing as Harkless is an above-average defender. He’s long and versatile, possessing the ability to switch in most pick-and-roll scenarios. Further, Harkless doesn’t require touches, but he can score when needed.
The February trade that landed Harkless in New York probably threw a wrench in his already up-in-the-air plans. He didn’t spend enough time with the Knicks to gauge the rotations, while it’s assumed that the coaching and overall roster will undergo a major revamp this offseason regardless. In that case, Harkless will probably leave New York and he’ll have a number of suitors.
The Atlantic Division’s free agents might lack star power, but there are some big-time role players available. Some will walk with big money, whereas others will be forced to settle for less than they’d hoped — but that’s what free agency is all about right, isn’t it?
Regardless of who gets what, we can all agree that the world is a better place when basketball is being played. Stay tuned as Basketball Insiders continues our free agent series tomorrow.
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