The Philadelphia 76ers came into the season behind only Boston in the East pecking order, but quickly saw the Toronto Raptors ascend past them and the Celtics as the team to beat in both the Atlantic Division and the conference.
A healthy and motivated Kawhi Leonard has changed everything in the race to become the first team since 2010 not led by LeBron James to emerge as the East’s NBA Finals representative.
Barely a dozen games in, Philadelphia could see that what it had on board wasn’t going to cut it, so it moved its two young starting forwards, Robert Covington and Dario Saric, to Minnesota in exchange for All-Star wing Jimmy Butler as pro basketball’s juiciest saga is finally over.
Butler asked for a trade just before training camp, briefly held out and then returned to berate the general manager and dominate the Timberwolves’ two young stars, Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins in the most acrimonious practice session since Latrell Sprewell introduced his hands to then-Warriors head coach P.J. Carlesimo’s neck 20 years ago. Butler played in games he wanted to suit up in while skipping those he had no interest in and was going to continue being a distraction until getting his way, so news that Minnesota had finally secured a trade partner came as no surprise last weekend.
The team that secured the deal raised eyebrows since the Miami Heat and Houston Rockets were thought to be the favorites to secure Butler’s services as his most aggressive suitors. But Philly’s desire to take full advantage of the presence of Top-3 picks Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid ultimately won out once they made both of their top young forwards available.
The 76ers have needed a closer and a vocal veteran leader to drive up the intensity, so the 29-year-old Butler should scratch that itch. He’ll be a free agent once he opts out this summer, so count on him be motivated. If the fit is right, Philadelphia will be mutually interested in locking him up to a long-term deal to ensure that it hasn’t traded for a one-year rental.
Prior to Butler’s acquisition, the 76ers were a 7-to-1 choice to win the Eastern Conference and 30-to-1 to emerge as NBA champion per the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook. Those odds were amended to 5-to-2 to win the East and 12-to-1 to prevail in the Finals after the trade was announced last Saturday.
Jazz at 76ers (Friday): Butler’s first appearance with the 76ers will come in Orlando on Wednesday,. But we’re going to come in and fade his home debut Friday night in what should be an electric atmosphere. Chemistry takes time to develop, so a Utah defense that is among the league’s most formidable provides a difficult early challenge. Expect to get at least four points on the road too. JAZZ
Trail Blazers at Timberwolves (Friday): This week’s second lean likes the Timberwolves to lose at home to the Trail Blazers on Friday night since they’re dealing with so many moving parts. Point guard Jeff Teague and Wiggins just returned to the lineup on Monday night after being banged up and the newcomers from Philly must also be integrated. Head coach Tom Thibodeau’s defense should be in shambles as a result, so a talented Portland team is likely to take advantage. I’d expect this spread to be close to a pick’em. TRAIL BLAZERS
Last week: 1-1