NBA: Free Agency Notebook — Lack of Power Moves Made in Atlantic

Kathy Willens/AP Kyle Lowery is back for more in Toronto and the Raptors are all the better for it in an Atlantic division that hasn't done much to improve this off-season.

Kathy Willens/AP
Kyle Lowry is back for more in Toronto and the Raptors are all the better for it in an Atlantic Division that hasn’t done much to improve this off-season.

Michael Walton II writes about the NBA for We Are Regal Radio.

Michael is a student, freelance writer and burgeoning high school basketball scout based in Chicago. He’s previously been published in TrueStar Magazine, the Redeye Chicago and thelyricallab.com.

We’re halfway through with my overview of the NBA off-season (read the prior two installments here and here), and this time around I will take a look at one of the NBA’s weaker divisions: the Atlantic.

First off, let me start by saying that the Atlantic Division was the only division this past season in which the eventual winner (Toronto Raptors) won less than 50 games. In a division with so many weak teams, there is no wonder that there weren’t many moves made. For this edition of my off-season analysis I will order the teams in the exact way I think they will finish this upcoming season. Yes, with still about four months left before they start the next season I believe the Atlantic is this easy to call.

Also, I will help clear up each Atlantic franchise’s current overall status, some of these teams are clearly trying to win now, while others clearly have an eye towards the future.

1. Toronto Raptors

Franchise Status: Contender

The Toronto Raptors were one of the best surprises in the league last year, their long-term vision for success finally started to come to fruition and most fans around the league couldn’t help but to feel good for them. After discarding Rudy Gay early in the season through a trade to Sacramento, both DeMar DeRozan and Terrence Ross started to play well, the former earning his first all-star selection in the process. The team established an identity as a tough defensive team that follows the lead of point guard Kyle Lowry — who as a free agent re-signed with the team this summer after weeks of speculation of his rising value in the open market — and head coach Dwane Casey. A division-winning season ended with a disappointing Game 7 loss to the Brooklyn Nets but even with the loss, last season was encouraging for the Toronto faithful.

Because of the success they attained last season, it is no shock that the moves the Raptors made were focused on keeping this core group of players together. In short order the Raptors re-signed Lowry, Greivis Vasquez, and Patrick Patterson. The only move Toronto general manager Masai Ujiri made that wasn’t a re-signing was the signing of forward James Johnson, who had already previously played for the Raptors. The Johnson signing is risky because of the huge “knucklehead” red flag that comes with him. However, Johnson is great defensively and will provide great help to a squad that was hurt defensively by Joe Johnson’s size against their guards in the 2014 playoffs. Ultimately, the Raptors are firmly entrenched in the thick of the Eastern Conference race for the 2014-15 season.

2. New York Knicks

Franchise Status: “Zen-mode”

I half-jokingly put the New York Knicks franchise status as “Zen-mode,” partly because while I enjoy poking fun at the Knicks and the difficult rebuild in front of them, it would be ignorant to act like new Knicks dictator Phil Jackson doesn’t have the power to turn this situation around.

The original Zen Master, who has influenced many, including yours truly (@ZenMasterMike), has impressed already in his short time as Knicks president, he has shed the franchise of some of its biggest headaches while also managing to hold on to star Carmelo Anthony. In his first off-season on the job, Jackson started by making a blockbuster deal that shipped Tyson Chandler — who had given up playing like Tyson Chandler in New York — and Raymond “No Joke Necessary Because I Am One” Felton to the Dallas Mavericks for Samuel Dalembert, Shane Larkin, Wayne Ellington, Jose Calderon and two second round draft picks. This trade was one of the first big moves of the NBA off-season and it underscored how serious Phil Jackson was about aggressively rebuilding the Knicks.

While the Knicks’ only big signing was the re-signing of Carmelo Anthony, who many had out the door, they did make small moves to improve. Andrea Bargnani wisely (for him, at least) didn’t use his early termination option and will hopefully one day learn what defense is and he Knicks frontcourt has been filled out by the additions of Cole Aldrich, Jason Smith and the return of Amare Stoudemire.

In the draft New York used its two draft picks on Cleanthony Early and Thanasis Antetokounmpo, both are lanky forwards but that is where the similarities end. Antetokounmpo is the brother of “The Greek Freak” Giannis Antetokounmpo of Milwaukee and he plays with great energy, his defense is pretty good, but he needs to develop in pretty much all other facets of the game.

Early is an experienced college veteran who won a lot at Wichita State and is well known nationally from his NCAA March Madness heroics. He is well-rounded, however Early’s offense will likely take off once he adjusts to the faster pace of the big league. In the end, the Knicks’ off-season was all about keeping Melo, but now that he is secure Phil Jackson will need continue to to find ways to bring the team back to respectability around him. This task is made a lot easier by being in the weak Eastern Conference and even weaker Atlantic Division. Barring a completely-injury free season by the Brooklyn Nets, I expect the Knicks to make their way back into the playoffs next season.

3. Brooklyn Nets

Franchise Status: NBA purgatory

The Brooklyn Nets are in one of the worst positions a franchise could be in, the dreaded area where you may be a playoff team but you definitely are not a title contender. The Nets suffered some tough losses this off-season, trading away Marcus Thornton to Boston and losing Paul Pierce to the Washington Wizards. A team that ranges from cagey veterans like Kevin Garnett to unproven talents like Marquis Teague is simply too random of an outfit to predict on how good they will be.

In a hilarious twist of events, the team owned by a Russian billionaire may be the first NBA team to have two Russian players in prominent roles. Andrei Kirilenko is still be around along side him is Russian wing Sergey Karasev, who never really received a chance to blossom while on the Cleveland Cavaliers, but the Nets definitely know of his exploits.

The team is not just relying on Karasev in their reserves, though, they also picked up veteran point guard Jarrett Jack from Cleveland to help take wear and tear off Deron Williams. With a veteran coach like Lionel Hollins, who saved the franchise after Jason Kidd’s failed coup, this team could be a surprise in the East and at least produce some type of playoff birth. At the same time the Nets’ penchant for trading away draft picks seems destined to come back to haunt them. Only time will tell.

4. Boston Celtics

Franchise Status: (Clearly) rebuilding

Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports  Evan Turner missed an opportunity to make an impact in Indiana but he stands a chance to help turn things around for young Boston.

Brian Spurlock/USA TODAY Sports
Evan Turner missed an opportunity to make an impact in Indiana but he stands a chance to help turn things around for young Boston.

The Celtics have been in the process of rebuilding since Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett were traded to the Brooklyn Nets in 2013. That complicated process begins and ends with point guard Rajon Rondo. The “will he or won’t he be traded” drama surrounding Rondo has went on for a while without a clear front-runner for his services emerging. The team actually did a lot in the off-season to improve its roster, seemingly, just to be able to collect even more moveable assets. GM Danny Ainge is a master at pulling off blockbuster trades to take the Celtics from pretender to contender in a heartbeat. Such a deal is more likely this week signing free-agent Evan Turner paired with the signing of Thornton this summer, though its looking like the team is now out of the running for Kevin Love.

Boston could also choose to keep all their assets, which would result in them having a team with quite impressive depth at the wing positions, it is now nearly two deep at every position. The C’s youth movement is in full effect with Kelly Olynk, Jared Sullinger, Jeff Green and new addition Tyler Zeller in the fold along with draft additions Marcus Smart and James Young.

Both Smart and Young have the athletic potential to be steals of the draft if they continue to improve their overall games. I say this team is in clear rebuilding mode only because of Ainge’s asset-hording strategy, but in the coming years there is no saying they can’t gel together to become one of the better younger up-and-coming squads. Knowing Ainge though, he definitely has a big-name remaining target like Eric Bledsoe or Greg Monroe on his radar.

5. Philadelphia 76ers

Franchise Status: Tankapalooza 2014

The Sixers are not just in rebuilding mode; they are in all-out tank mode yet again. GM Sam Hinkie implemented his strategy of losing purposefully to get a lottery pick to a tee this past season and fell into potential top overall pick Joel Embiid, a clear roll of the dice due to his back problems and his not likely playing for a large chunk of his first season, a repeat of their standing with last year’s first rounder Nerlens Noel.

The Sixers also added Dario Saric in the draft but he will play in Europe for two more years before he comes to the NBA. This means that the Sixers will more or less have the same roster from last year’s disastrous season, which will most likely land them in the 2014-15 NBA lottery where they can pick yet another young star to add to their roster. Philly is thinking long-term, and truthfully I can’t blame them. We will need another five years about to fully judge what this team is doing now.

Follow Regal Radio on Twitter @regalradio1 and on Facebook under Regal Radio; follow Michael on Twitter @ZenMasterMike

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