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Top Free Agent Decisions: The Atlantic

With free agency right around the corner, Basketball Insiders looks at four of the biggest decisions the Atlantic Division teams must make.

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Recently, Basketball Insiders ranked the biggest marquee free agents at each position ahead of the most important offseason period. With the draft now firmly in the rearview mirror, every franchise’s full attention is fixed toward free agency, a contract-signing bonanza that’ll kick off on July 1. Although our team has already looked at players that might be available, there’s another important perspective to consider — that of the NBA front offices.

In a league where cap space is tighter than ever, franchises cannot afford to miss in the free agent market. Between letting high-level free agents walk or potentially overpaying for their services, general managers are in a difficult position. Earlier this week, Matt John tackled the Northwest and Shane Rhodes grabbed the Pacific — but now it’s time to dig into a barren Atlantic Division. With three postseason teams locked in for the foreseeable future, this is a group largely on the rise.

Still, the division-winning Toronto Raptors are absent here for good reason. Based on Basketball Insiders’ free agency resource, they won’t have many big decisions to make this summer.

With that out of the way, here are the four names to focus on once the calendar flips to July.

Marcus Smart* — Boston Celtics — $4,538,020 (Last Season’s Salary)

The list, of course, must start here. It goes without saying, but Marcus Smart is an undeniably polarizing player — a hard-nosed, defensive-minded stopper that helped the ECF-bound Celtics tick. If you exclude Andre Ingram (two games) and Kawhi Leonard (nine), then Smart’s defensive rating ranked fourth-best across the entire NBA this year. But offensively, Smart has plateaued in recent seasons. In 2017-18, Smart averaged 10.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists and 1.3 steals per game — but his percentages let him down again.

Smart hit on just 36.7 percent from the field and an even poorer 30.1 percent from three-point range, despite attempting 4.6 of them per game. Still, there’s no denying that Smart is one of the league’s premier defenders and will get paid as such this summer. But it may not be wise for the Celtics to commit all that money to Smart with so many other important contributors already in tow. With Jaylen Brown, Terry Rozier and Jayson Tatum on the rise and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward set to return — would it be wiser to let Smart take the money and run?

Although Smart could very well remain in Boston, that looming offer sheet will be the franchise’s toughest decision this offseason by far.

J.J. Redick — Philadelphia 76ers — $23,000,000

Speaking of difficult choices, next there’s the case of J.J. Redick. The 6-foot-4 shooting guard is one of the NBA’s elite three-point shooters and he proved it again last year with Philadelphia. Averaging 17.1 points on a team-high 42 percent from long range, Redick was a key cog in the 76ers’ surprise run to the postseason’s second-round. Last summer, Redick signed a one-year deal worth $23 million to anchor a young starting five that badly needed support from beyond the arc. The sharpshooting veteran could look to secure a longer multi-season deal and the 76ers will need to decide how important the 34-year-old is to their future plans.

While many Philadelphians dream of a reality in which LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard join forces with Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid, it’s hard to ignore Redick’s role in all this as well. His three-point percentage ranked fifteenth-best in 2017-18 and Redick’s 18.2 points per game in the playoffs trailed just the aforementioned Embiid for the team lead. The 76ers will likely wait for a few other dominos to fall before addressing Redick’s free agency, but they could certainly end up reinvesting this money elsewhere.

Enes Kanter** — New York Knicks — $20,566,802

When rumors broke this week that Knicks’ center Enes Kanter might decline his player option worth $18.6 million in 2018-19, many were surprised. If Kanter does hit unrestricted free agency, the chances of him recouping that money even over the next couple seasons seem unlikely at best. While Kanter isn’t a particularly strong defender, he’s more than serviceable as a bucket-getting big man. In 2017-18, Kanter averaged 14.1 points and 11 rebounds on 59.2 percent from the floor and functioned as one of the Knicks’ most dependable players once Kristaps Porzingis’ season ended in February.

Although Kanter’s decision is apparently still up in the air, he’d be open to a return. That said, it does put the onus on New York as they look to shape their murky future. Kanter’s would-be expiring contract could’ve been a quality asset heading into the upcoming campaign, but a new multi-year deal is a different situation entirely. At 26 years old, it’s no surprise that Kanter is looking for some job security in this ever-changing NBA landscape, but — if he opts out — it’ll be interesting to watch his open market value and how the Knicks proceed from there.

Joe Harris — Brooklyn Nets — $1,524,305

Compared to Smart and Redick, the Nets’ Joe Harris may not be a franchise-altering signing, but the former second-rounder is most certainly a difference-maker these days. After two difficult seasons with the Cleveland Cavaliers, Harris wound up joining the Nets in 2016 just to keep his NBA dream afloat. A few years later, he’s finally about to cash in. Harris averaged 10.8 points and 3.3 rebounds on a team-high 41.9 percent from three-point range in 2017-18. Acting as a steady force in an inconsistent locker room, Harris’ defensive prowess is respectable and his efforts often kept the Nets from regularly sliding into blowouts.

At season’s end, both Harris and general manager Sean Marks expressed enthusiasm for a return in free agency, but surely the Nets won’t be the only team interested this time around. New, costly deals for Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and D’Angelo Russell are on the Nets’ 2019 horizon, with Caris LeVert needing one the year after. In terms of both culture and fit, Brooklyn would be hard-pressed to find another like Harris — who, along with Spencer Dinwiddie, are massive success stories. But the Nets will need to measure their future plans against Harris’ current, impending payday — this one could likely go either way.

In a stacked free agent class, the Atlantic Division comes up a little short on providing the big-ticket name — but these are important decisions nonetheless. How much is an elite defensive player worth on this stacked Celtics squad? Or how should the 76ers and Nets value their team’s best three-point shooters on the unrestricted market? While they may lack the gravitas that Chris Paul or Paul George do, this foursome is worth keeping an eye on throughout free agency.

*Restricted free agent
**Player option

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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