Additions: Tristan Thompson, Jeff Teague, Aaron Nesmith, Payton Pritchard
Losses: Gordon Hayward, Brad Wanamaker, Enes Kanter, Vincent Poirier
2019-20 Record: 48-24, lost in Eastern Conference Finals
Analysis: The Boston Celtics have made the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the last four seasons. While that’s an accomplishment, there is also a sense of Boston having fallen short. That makes 2020-21 sort of a make-or-break year for the Celtics. If they can’t breakthrough to the NBA Finals this year, it’s time to visit if this group can get there as presently constructed.
Boston didn’t have wide-scale roster changes, but they did have high-impact ones. Gordon Hayward opted out and signed with the Charlotte Hornets, ending a three-year roller coaster ride. Hayward was rarely healthy, but when he was available, he was very good. Hayward’s ability to play off the ball and make plays as a passer and scorer were a perfect complement to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Kemba Walker. But, as his career turns from prime to post-prime, Hayward wanted a bigger role. The $30 million average annual salary he got from Charlotte was far too much for Boston to match. With cash and role in hand, Hayward was off to the Hornets.
The Celtics now turn to a team that is unquestionably led by Tatum and Brown, with Walker in a supporting role. Tatum signed a rookie scale extension that starts with the 2021-22 season, which means he and Brown will be in Boston for at least the next four seasons. They’ve proven to be an ideal duo to build around. Both are excellent two-way players, as they can defend 2-4 and score. This year, without Hayward, both will have to take on some additional playmaking duties. Tatum took a leap with that late last season, and Brown has shown flashes as well.
Walker will miss the start of the season, as he underwent a procedure designed to help strengthen his troublesome left knee. The Celtics are optimistic that Walker will return in mid to late-January and will be back to his normal self. If so, he gives the Celtics a trio of perimeter scorers that are as good as any in the league. If not, Boston will have to lean on some of their bolstered point guard depth.
At the draft, the Celtics selected Payton Pritchard as the understudy point guard. He’ll spend the first part of the year backing up Jeff Teague, who will likely start for Walker. Teague was brought in to replace Brad Wanamaker, who signed with the Golden State Warriors. He’s a player Brad Stevens had chased all the way back to his college days. Teague’s steady hand should keep the Celtics afloat when Walker is out of the game. Also, Teague has extensive starting experience for those night when Walker sits out.
Of course, Marcus Smart is still around. He’s not really a point guard, nor a wing. He’s really best described as just Marcus Smart. He can, and will, defend anyone at any time. He can run the Celtics offense, and can also play off the ball. And you know you’re getting at least a handful of plays each game that are pure hustle and effort.
Up front, Boston swapped out Enes Kanter for Tristan Thompson. That should be an upgrade for the Celtics. Thompson is in a completely different class as a defender than Kanter. Offensively, Thompson lacks Kanter’s post-up game, but he’s a better screener and nearly Kanter’s equal as an offensive rebounder. Thompson should team with Daniel Theis and Robert Williams to give Stevens 48 minutes of quality center play.
Outside of Teague and Thompson, Boston will lean on youth off their bench once again. Aaron Nesmith was selected with the last of Boston’s extra draft picks that Danny Ainge acquired over the years. He should be a solid shooter right away, but his ability to defend opposing wings will decide if Nesmith will play or not. Pritchard will see some time, especially while Walker is sidelined. Grant Williams is going to play a big role as a backup big. When he gets healthy, 2019 first round pick Romeo Langford will also be in the mix for backup wing minutes.
It's not championship or bust for the Celtics quite yet, but it’s getting close. After multiple years of getting close to the Finals, Boston fans want to see the team take the next step. If not, the noise around needing to make changes is only going to get louder.
Additions: Jeff Green, Landry Shamet, Bruce Brown Jr., Steve Nash (coach)
Losses: Wilson Chandler, Dzanan Musa, Garrett Temple
2019-20 Record: 35-37, lost in Eastern Conference First Round
Analysis: The Brooklyn Nets biggest additions aren’t really additions at all. Kevin Durant will take the floor for the first time as a Net, after missing the entirety of last season. Kyrie Irving returns after playing just 20 games. The two All-Stars are the difference between Brooklyn being a nice team around the bottom of the playoff picture and a true title contender.
Both Durant and Irving looked good in the Nets first preseason game. Durant looked quick and explosive. Irving seemingly had no issues with his surgically repaired shoulder. If both can make it through the season without issue, Brooklyn will contend for the Finals.
Around Durant and Irving, the Nets made some small but shrewd acquisitions. Sean Marks traded for Landry Shamet and Bruce Brown, giving up Dzanan Musa to do so. Shamet fits as a shooter, who can play off his more talented teammates. Brown can come in off the bench as a defensive-minded wing. That’s something Brooklyn was lacking.
Marks also signed Jeff Green to bring a veteran presence to the frontcourt. Green is coming off a very good run with the Houston Rockets, where he showed the ability to play as a small ball five. Brooklyn still has a hole at power forward, making Green’s ability to play both big positions key for the bench.
Because of the return of Durant and Irving, the Nets bench should be one of the better ones in the league. Brooklyn will start the two All-Stars, Joe Harris (who was re-signed as the ideal off-ball shooter between Durant and Irving), Spencer Dinwiddie, and either DeAndre Jordan or Jarrett Allen at center. That pushes one of the centers to the bench, along with last season’s breakout player Caris LeVert. In addition, to those two and the three new additions, Brooklyn also has Taurean Prince, Rodions Kurucs and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot returning as well.
Do you get the sense Brooklyn has a lot of depth? On one hand, that’s a good thing. Durant is coming back from one of the worst injuries possible, and Irving has been injury-prone throughout his career. On the other hand, sometimes you can have a guy or two too many. That situation can lead to unhappiness with minutes, touches or role.
Sorting it all out is head coach Steve Nash. The former two-time MVP is leading a team from the sidelines for the first time, and it’s a ready-made title contender. Nash does have a veteran group of assistants, including former head coach Mike D’Antoni, but he’ll have to navigate some difficult conversations. If he can gain buy-in from players who have to play lessened roles, Nash will have completed arguably his most difficult task this season.
The Nets have the makings of a title contender. Durant and Irving both look like themselves. The team has more than enough depth to get through what could be a rocky season with injuries and illness. If Nash can convince his guys that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Brooklyn will be in the mix to get to the NBA Finals.
New York Knicks
Additions: Obi Toppin, Immanuel Quickley, Alec Burks, Nerlens Noel, Austin Rivers, Omari Spellman, Leon Rose (President of Basketball Operations), Tom Thibodeau (coach)
Losses: Taj Gibson, Maurice Harkless, Bobby Portis, Wayne Ellington, Damyean Dotson
2019-20 Record: 21-45, 12th in Eastern Conference
Analysis: The New York Knicks took a difference approach to the 2020 offseason. Instead of chasing stars and then signing a bunch of veterans to questionable contracts, New York stayed patient. Whether that patience was a matter of circumstance, or a hallmark of the team’s new front office, will become evident in time. For now, it’s a breath of fresh air.
Leon Rose and the new front office declined a team option for Bobby Portis, then waived Taj Gibson, Wayne Ellington and Elfrid Payton (the latter of whom they re-signed) to create more cap space than anyone outside of the Atlanta Hawks. Then, the Knicks sat on a large chunk of that cap space.
No flashy signings. No signing six power forwards. No veterans to talk the fans in to. New York made several savvy trades and then signed veterans who fit around their young core to short-term contracts.
After hiring Tom Thibodeau and making it clear this team was going in a direction of players who would work hard and defend, the Knicks doubled-down in the offseason. At the draft, they added Obi Toppin, who has a rep of being a team-first player who loves to work. They moved up slightly in the draft to come away with Immanuel Quickley, who projects as a 3&D guard, that can also grab some rebounds.
Neither draftee comes with much flash, but both should be solid pros for years. That’s something New York has been lacking. It’s a welcomed change vs going after high upside players that have a high risk of not panning out.
In free agency, the Knicks added Alec Burks to help bring some shooting and off-the-dribble creation to a lineup that lacked both items last season. Austin Rivers was brought in to bring more playmaking to the backcourt. The team re-signed Payton to be their starting point guard, as his defense and passing should give Thibodeau some comfort.
Up front, New York signed Nerlens Noel to give the team a second athletic center option along with Mitchell Robinson. Noel will also help push Robinson all year long, but because he’s on a one-year deal, there is no threat of him pushing Robinson out. Omari Spellman came over in a trade and could see some minutes as a small ball five option.
The new blood will team with some holdovers that have question marks. Julius Randle is still around as the team’s starting power forward. He put up a good stat-line, but it’s still unknown how much Randle contributes to winning. With only $4 million guaranteed for 2021-22, and Toppin behind him, Randle’s time in New York may be short-lived.
On the wing, RJ Barrett is being given full reign to blossom. With better shooting around him, Barrett should have more space to work with. That sets things up for him to show the all-around game that made him the second overall pick in 2019. To a lesser extent, the same is true of Kevin Knox, but he has a lot more to show he’s an NBA rotation player.
Frank Ntilikina and Dennis Smith Jr. are both back at point guard behind Payton. They’ve both gone in and out of the rotation during their time in New York, and are probably on their last chance to stick. Ntilikina’s size and defense will get him minutes early on, but his shot has to come around for him to keep those minutes. Smith’s athleticism and skill have yet to translate, but he’ll get a shot at some point during the season.
It’s a new era in New York…again. But this time it really does feel different. The Knicks are sitting on $18.5 million in cap space as the season starts, so they’ll be active all year long. Rose and company have a strategy that involved slow-playing things and being conservative. It’s one that will hopefully get New York back to the playoffs soon. It just won’t happen in 2021.
Additions: Danny Green, Seth Curry, Dwight Howard, Tony Bradley, Tyrese Maxey, Daryl Morey (President of Basketball Operations), Doc Rivers (coach)
Losses: Al Horford, Josh Richardson, Alec Burks, Glenn Robinson III, Raul Neto, Brett Brown (coach)
2019-20 Record: 43-30, lost in Eastern Conference First Round
Analysis: The Philadelphia 76ers were kind of a mess from the start of last season all the way through their loss in a sweep to the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs. The Al Horford signing never worked as hoped for. In-season acquisitions of Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson III didn’t boost one of the league’s worst benches. And Ben Simmons got hurt during the restart and missed the end of the season and the playoffs.
Daryl Morey was brought in to run the front office and immediately started making changes. Doc Rivers replaces Brett Brown as the team’s coach. While known as a player’s coach, Rivers has a cache of respect that Brown never seemed to carry. Rivers won’t hesitate to put his players in their place, even if they are the best ones on his team. There will be a new level accountability for the entire roster with Rivers in charge.
On the court, Morey scrapped the jumbo-sized roster for one that is more balanced. He first traded Josh Richardson to Dallas for Seth Curry. Curry’s shooting is key, but his ability to play off-ball with a high-usage ballhandler is also important. He should fit in quite well alongside Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid.
The Sixers then traded Al Horford and a future first round pick to the Oklahoma City Thunder to acquire Danny Green. Green’s veteran presence as a 3&D wing is perfect for Philadelphia. He fills a hole the team has had since trading Robert Covington.
To replace Horford, who was the team’s de facto backup center, Morey signed Dwight Howard and traded for Tony Bradley. If Howard plays with energy, as he did during the Lakers title run, he’ll be a perfect fit behind Embiid. Bradley developed into a nice player behind Rudy Gobert in Utah. He’ll provide depth on those nights when Embiid or Howard sits.
This version of the 76ers simply makes more sense. Simmons is a unique talent, but rather than shoehorning him into the point guard position, Rivers can use him as a primary ballhandling wing. Think of his role being similar to that of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Luke Doncic now. Simmons will run the offense, but he won’t have to do so as a true point guard. With Green and Curry spacing the floor, along with Tobias Harris, Simmons and Embiid should have more room to work than they’ve had to this point in their careers.
Defensively, everything makes more sense now too. Simmons is one of the league’s most versatile defenders, but you really don’t want him chasing around point guards for 35 minutes a night. That will fall to Curry and Green, while Simmons can guard the best opposing wing. Harris can now defend opposing fours, as opposed to being left on an island on the perimeter.
Everything is set up for Philadelphia to make a deep playoff run. The bench still needs a little work, but that’s something Morey will address in-season. If the 76ers can’t make it to at least the Conference Finals, expect the inevitable questions of “Can you win with Embiid and Simmons?” to be asked a little louder.
Additions: Aron Baynes, Malachi Flynn, Alex Len, DeAndre Bembry
Losses: Serge Ibaka, Marc Gasol, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson
2019-20 Record: 53-19, lost in Eastern Conference Second Round
Analysis: After the Toronto Raptors won the 2019 NBA Finals, they lost Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green in free agency and many expected them to take a big step back. Instead, Toronto waged an admirable title defense behind a proud group of veterans and up-and-coming young players. Now, similar expectations are being placed on this group, after they lost key players Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka in free agency.
The Raptors reacted well to those losses by adding Aron Baynes and Alex Len, and re-signing Chris Boucher. Baynes may actually be better than Gasol at this point, as Gasol looked fairly finished in the playoffs against the Boston Celtics. Boucher’s bouncy game has been one that had begged for more time, and he should do ok replacing Ibaka.
Beyond that, Toronto is basically running it back. Fred VanVleet was re-signed to a four-year deal. He’ll again team with Kyle Lowry in the backcourt, and is now positioned to eventually take over from Lowry as the team’s primary point guard.
Pascal Siakam is coming off his best season as a pro, as he was named to the All-NBA second team. He’s morphed into Toronto’s All-Star and is signed long-term. Siakam had some growing pains against Boston in the postseason, but should bounce back from that to have a nice season.
OG Anunoby is finishing up his rookie scale contract and is line for a new deal. To this point, Toronto hasn’t signed him to an extension, as they continue to prioritize flexibility in 2021 free agency. But Anunoby is seen a core piece for the Raptors and he’ll be re-signed eventually, even if it drags into the summer of 2021.
That free agency flexibility was primarily seen as being held to make a run at Giannis Antetokounmpo. Now that Antetokounmpo has signed an extension with the Milwaukee Bucks, it’s worth monitoring what Masai Ujiri has planned for a pivot. Ujiri is never worried about making a big move. He has earned that faith from his organization. It’s a lock he had Plans B through Z prepared, beyond just chasing Antetokounmpo.
Toronto will still be a playoff team in 2021, and they’ll probably prove everyone wrong and be better than expected. One thing to keep an eye on: The Raptors will at least start the season playing their home games in Tampa, Florida. That means the team will likely go around a year without playing a game in Toronto, following the 2020 season finishing in the Orlando bubble. But this group has proven to be resilient. This is just one more challenge to overcome.