Kawhi Leonard hadn’t even been doused with champagne yet before being asked about his plans this summer.
His Toronto Raptors won their first NBA title, but for every other front office and fan base, the real games began. It’s transformation time.
The offseason is often as exciting as the regular season. That’s especially the case in a year like this one, when so much talent is entering free agency, able to move wherever they desire.
All-Star forward Anthony Davis was under contract entering the final year of his deal in New Orleans, but he got the party started by finally forcing his way to the Lakers. Los Angeles mortgaged its future in order to not waste another year of their valuable partnership with LeBron James, the top prize in last year’s free agency period.
Books across the Las Vegas Strip moved quickly and made the Lakers the early favorite for the 2019-20 NBA title prior to the move and adjusted those future odds once the announcement a deal had been struck came down on Saturday afternoon.
The Westgate SuperBook lists the Lakers as a 3-1 choice, followed by the Bucks (+600), Clippers (+700), Rockets (+800), Raptors (+1000), Warriors and 76ers (+1200).
I wouldn’t touch anything this early unless it is to get behind a team that offers a significant return and might be currently undervalued like the Denver Nuggets (+1600) or Brooklyn Nets (+2000), the favorites for Celtics point guard Kyrie Irving’s services.
Toronto may lose Leonard, an unrestricted free agent, to Los Angeles. He’s never sent any mixed signals about his desire to play in his hometown. While some believe he’s now obligated to help Toronto defend the title, he’ll be a national hero even if he leaves after ensuring that an NBA championship banner will hang in an arena outside of the United States for the first time ever. Will he want to play with James and Davis on the team he grew up rooting for? I believe the Clippers would be a better fit, especially since they can offer a second marquee free agent a max deal to come play alongside Leonard and a young corps that helped deliver an unlikely playoff appearance this past season.
The Warriors could lose Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson despite their intention to offer them each max contracts and despite the knowledge each will be rehabilitating major injuries suffered in the Finals. Although Durant ruptured his Achilles in the second quarter of Game 5 and Thompson tore his ACL in the third quarter of Game 6, both will also have suitors willing to pay them handsomely to take next year off to get healthy if it ensures securing their services long-term.
Despite Golden State’s injury woes, Toronto is a worthy champion, especially since so many veterans stepped their games up to the highest level on the biggest stage. The Raps won despite not having a single lottery pick on their roster, which is entirely unconventional considering so many of the NBA’s teams, particularly those who aren’t among the historically established powers, rely on the draft to supply their foundation.
The Warriors sent shock waves throughout the league when they signed Durant away from Oklahoma City three years ago, but they were also built with shrewd selections since neither Stephen Curry nor Thompson were top-five picks. Draymond Green had to wait until the second round to hear his name called.
On Thursday, the Pelicans will select Zion Williamson with the No. 1 pick and others will follow suit to try and build up their core. The Grizzlies will happily select Murray State point guard Ja Morant with the second choice and the New York Knicks, still reeling from not seeing the ping-pong balls go their way in the most anticipated lottery since LeBron James’ draft class (2003), are expected to grab his Duke teammate, wing R.J. Barrett, at No. 3.
The Lakers had the fourth pick, but have agreed to ship that selection to New Orleans in their package for Davis. Former lottery picks Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball, valuable guard Josh Hart, a 2021 conditional pick that would be unprotected if deferred to ’22, a ’24 unprotected first-rounder that can be deferred to ’25 and an unprotected pick swap in ’23 will also go to the Pels in a deal expected to become official on July 6.
It’s a tremendous gamble from L.A.’s standpoint, but one it felt it needed to make given the chaos of this past season and its continued descent towards the Western Conference’s basement. Davis is a gem and worth it if he stays healthy, but no one can say new head of basketball operations David Griffin didn’t get maximum value for the Pelicans’ top asset, setting up a bright future.
The Draft drama begins at pick No. 4, since Vanderbilt guard Darius Garland is slotted to go in that spot on many draft boards but wouldn’t fit the Pels’ needs since they’ve acquired Ball to run the point. Texas Tech wing Jarrett Culver, North Carolina guard Coby White, Virginia forward De’Andre Hunter, Duke wing Cam Reddish and Guinean forward Sekou Doumbouya are also likely to land inside the top-10. Expect to see their names linked in props on draft nights, which means the key to cashing in on Top-10 selections lies in following what the Pelicans are most likely to do with the selection they’re getting from the Lakers.
Culver fills a need as a potential two-way wing given their lack of shooting threats last season, but with Williamson certain to be in the mix, it remains to be seen whether Griffin wants two top-five picks on the roster or would prefer to put veterans around the No. 1 pick.
White, a speedy combo guard whose point guard instincts need work but versatility and shooting touch should be an asset, may be worth targeting in props since he and Culver seem to have consistently climbed up draft boards.
Following the conclusion of a draft likely to involve more assets traded for one another, the free-agent picture should become clearer, so expect picks on futures in next week’s column.
For the sake of capitalizing on opportunities before lines shift, I’d take a shot on the Clippers landing both Leonard and Jimmy Butler when all is said and done.
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