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Questions For the NBA Atlantic Division
Let’s face it, as thrilling as the NBA regular season and playoffs are there is one event that fans look forward to every year. The NBA offseason. It’s a time of eternal optimism and gives the fans the opportunity to dream up a better future for their team. This year once again sees several teams at a crossroad and others seeking to bump themselves into the playoffs. Even more exciting, this year brings the promise of one front office throwing out way too much money to a mediocre free agent just to burn cap. We haven’t seen this many teams with cap space and with the cap rising team will be tempted to burn through it. The moves a team makes in the offseason can come to define not just the next season, but the next few years of the team. With that being said let’s look at the questions that will be plaguing teams in the Atlantic division.
2015-2016 Record: 48-34
Free Agents: Jared Sullinger, Evan Turner, Tyler Zeller
Major Question: What do you do with all the picks?
The Boston Celtics will enter the 2016 draft with a rather large cache of draft picks of their disposal. Unfortunately the Celtics won’t be able to keep all of their picks given how crowded their roster already is. The Celtics are rumored to be trading for a variety of established stars from Kevin Love to Jimmy Butler. Ideally the Celtics would be able to package these picks for one such player on the trading block. It has already been reported that the Timberwolves are making the fifth pick available for Jimmy Butler. The Celtics can offer a higher pick as well as a few others, plus an established wing to replace Butler. Kevin Love’s trade value is going to be at an all time low and the Celtics can offer rotational players that could improve Cleveland’s bench. The Celtics could even use some of their lower first rounders and second rounders to sweeten the pot for the Cavs. Jahlil Okafor is also rumored to have been one of Boston’s past targets, but frankly I don’t think he’s worth what Ainge would have to give up. Danny Ainge doesn’t have a particularly high pick in what looks to be a pretty weak draft. If he can’t grab one of these players then he should strongly consider trading up for either the first overall or maybe the second overall pick. It’s possible Bryan Colangelo or Mitch Kupchak could be tempted to give away their pick for a couple of Boston’s as well as one of Boston’s already established players. Unfortunately for the Celt’s I don’t see either the Lakers or the Sixers being willing to part ways with their pick.
If the Celt’s are unable to package picks in a deal they will probably have to find a way to move players, or simply let them go. Look for players who weren’t in Brad Steven’s main rotation to be on the trading block of being waived by the team in order to clear the way for the new picks. However the Celtics could also sell back their later first rounders in order to avoid a roster overflow. There are a couple of teams (looking at you New York and Brooklyn) that could use a first rounder in this draft. But I don’t see Boston wanting any assets that either team could offer. An alternative would be for Boston to package some of their younger players for someone like Taj Gibson. The playoff series against Atlanta showcased Boston’s weakness in the middle and trading for a big such as Taj could help to remedy their paint woes. Another option for the Celtics could be to consider trading for Tyson Chandler. The Suns are in the business of collecting assets and Chandler could be the center the team needs. But Chandler is a little old for the Celtics roster and odds are if a team is going to take on any of the current young players on Boston’s roster they are probably worth keeping. But you can’t develop all of your players and unfortunately that means potentially missing out on good players.
Free Agents: Andrea Bargnani, Markel Brown, Wayne Ellington, Sergey Karazev, Shane Larkin, Willie Reed, Thomas Robinson, Donald Sloan
Major Question: What’s the plan?
The Brooklyn Nets are the most depressing team in the NBA and it isn’t even a close competition. Sure the Sixers have had one of the worst three year stretches any franchise has ever had, but at least the Sixers had a plan. The Nets have no plan right now. At best the franchise has to wait until they have their first rounder again. Sean Marks’ hiring has gotten rave reviews from some of the smarter basketball analysts and he may be able to give the franchise a little bit of hope. However it is going to be a very long time until this franchise is going to be competitive again. Right now more than anything, Sean Marks and his head coach need to focus on some sort of future game plan. That means trying to trade for either young players or trying to buy their way into the second round. It might be nearly impossible for Marks to find a deal that would get the Nets back into the first round. Any of type of deal that would send back a first rounder would undoubtedly mean either Brook Lopez or Thaddeus Young would have to be included. Even then other general managers might be hesitant to surrender a first round pick for either the oft injured Lopez or the solid, but not much more than a rotational player Young.
This leaves the Nets stuck with a mediocre roster at best, a top-5 lottery bound team without a lottery pick at worst. However preventing the conveyance of a top pick to Boston can’t be something at the forefront of Brooklyn’s plan. That might cause the franchise to be stuck in the dreaded cycle of mediocrity. Trying to improve the team in the immediate term could lead to sacrificing long term development. Ideally Brooklyn’s front office will focus on grabbing younger players (or draft picks) that could potentially develop into an NBA player eventually. The Nets are stuck between a rock and a hard place with no way out for awhile. What Brooklyn does this offseason could define where the franchise goes in the next few years.
New York Knicks
2015-2016 Record: 32-50.
Free Agents: Arron Afflalo, Lou Amundson, Cleanthony Early, Langston Galloway, Kevin Seraphin, Lance Thomas, Sasha Vujacic, Derrick Williams
Major Question: Can you still build around Carmelo Anthony?
Ideally Phil Jackson and his associates would be in a position to acquire younger talent and figuring out how to build around the Zinger. But, thanks to the (unwise) decision to re-sign Carmelo Anthony to a long term deal with a no-trade clause, the Knicks are faced with a different monster. This offseason the New York executives will have to have a very long discussion about whether or not they can still surround Anthony with the right talent to win a title. Porzingis looks like he’ll be a good NBA player sooner rather than later, but I doubt he gets there next year. If the Knicks were absolutely desperate to grab a second star to pair with Anthony next year, their best bet would be to include Porzingis in any deal. The problem is, this is the exact type of deal that has lead to New York mediocrity in the 21st century. But considering the lack of starpower and depth free agency class it is unlikely that the Knicks are going to find another way to find a secondary star.
But this assumes that Jackson still sees Anthony as the building block the Knicks are going to stick with. It is possible the Knicks are going to try to build around younger players like Jerian Grant and Porzingis, while waiting for Anthony’s contract to expire. The problem with this is that Anthony playing inherently makes your team better, putting you out of contention for a high lottery pick. Given the lack of talent on the Knicks roster, a high lottery pick in next year’s draft would be ideal. But I doubt Anthony wants to be a part of a rebuild and will try to lobby Phil Jackson to pick proven veterans on the free agency market. Which brings us to the fundamental problem with Jackson’s attempt at a rebuild: it doesn’t look like a true rebuild. Re-signing Anthony two years ago makes sense if you’re going to try to surround him with talent and compete for a playoff spot, but that didn’t happen. Now Phil is trying to split the difference and be semi-competitive while also developing young talent. It doesn’t take an expert to tell you that it’s really difficult to develop young talent while also winning games. Continuing on this road might lead the Knicks to enter in the treadmill of mediocrity. Or Jeff Hornacek could turn things around and this team pulls a 2013 Phoenix (not likely to happen, but possible).
2015-2016 Record: 10-72
Free Agents: Elton Brand, Isaiah Canaan, Ish Smith, Hollis Thompson
Major Question: Is the Process really dead?
The departure of Sam Hinkie from the 76ers organization has lead many to proclaim that the Process is dead. For the past few years Hinkie has stuck to his strategy of accumulating assets and trying to sign undrafted players that might be NBA role players. Hinkie didn’t focus on finding players that could help right away, or even help to form a team identity. Instead the former GM was purely focused on grabbing players who might be worth something down the line. Hence drafting Joel Embiid, Nerlens Noel, and Jahlil Okafor in three consecutive drafts. This coming offseason will tell whether or not Bryan Colangelo will retain the same patience exhibited by his predecessor. Chasing after veteran free agents, or borderline all stars would break from Hinkie’s strategy of signing fringe NBA players to fill out the roster. But this might not be the right move for the Sixers franchise right now.
Hinkie has left Colangelo with an absolute treasure chest of draft picks to fill out the roster in future years. The Sixers won’t hit on all of them, but if they can hit on enough, then you could potentially fill out the roster with young players with potential. That needs to be the way that Colangelo fills out the core of the Philadelphia franchise. If Colangelo tries to sign free agents to immediately improving the roster he could torpedo what Hinkie has set up. Patience is still the name of the game in Philadelphia, but it remains to be seen if Colangelo and the rest of Sixers management will play it.
2015-2016 Record: 56-26.
Free Agents: Anthony Bennett, Bismack Biyombo, Demar Derozan, James Johnson, Luis Scola, Jason Thompson
Major Question: Has this core gone as far as it can go?
The Toronto Raptors are coming off the best season in franchise history, but is it all downhill from here? Let’s be honest, this team was never close to really beating the reigning conference champs and limped past two inferior teams to get there. To add on to matters, Demar Derozan is a free agent and might bail for warmer weather (Los Angeles, in case you didn’t pick up on that). If Derozan leaves then what does Toronto have left? Lowry had a career year and is clearly a top 15 point guard in the league, but what about the rest of the pieces on the roster? Derozan was still the leading scorer on the team and it’s not clear where how the team would be able to replace the points they would lose. There has been a lot of talk about Jonas Valanciunas’ improvement as a post player, but given the amount he touches the ball, I don’t think he has the coaches trust just yet. Other than that there is no other avenue the Raptors can use to find more points. Which begs the question of whether or not Masai Ujiri should blow up the team should Derozan choose to move on.
Even if Derozan comes back there’s no guarantee this team will be able to make it back to the conference finals. The Raptors came dangerously close to being eliminated in the first and second rounds. If either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers improve a little this offseason Toronto could be a first round out in next year’s playoffs. The Raptors could look to improve their roster after signing Derozan, but this signing will tie up their cap. To make matters worse key contributor Bismack Biyombo will be an unrestricted free agent and Toronto does not have his bird rights. Biyombo will probably be getting max money on the market, making it much more difficult to bring him back. Even if Biyombo does come back that will limit ways in which Ujiri will be able to add to the roster. But that doesn’t mean this team isn’t headed anywhere. One of the guys on the roster could make a leap, or one of the top teams could slip and make Toronto’s path to the finals easier. Another prolonged playoff run is unlikely for this core, but that doesn’t necessarily mean Ujiri will have to blow it all up. Keeping the core together for a little while longer and trying to fill in the rest of the roster with role players might eventually lead to something. This isn’t likely to happen, but hey you never know in the NBA.