Time will tell if Nets were big winners

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Kevin Durant leaving Golden State to join Kyrie Irving in Brooklyn was the first major move that came down during a wild first two days of NBA free agency.

Unfortunately for the long-suffering Knicks fan base, the duo that was long rumored to be a package deal decided that the Nets were the better option. Durant didn’t even bother granting New York a meeting. The Nets will be among the league’s title favorites for the 2020-21 season once Durant is cleared to return from an Achilles rupture suffered in the Finals last month.

The favorite for this upcoming season remains to be seen since Kawhi Leonard has decided to take his time in choosing between defending the title in Toronto or taking up a new venture in his native Los Angeles with either the Lakers and Clippers. All three teams are getting meetings before his decision is made.

The Westgate SuperBook put out their updated championship odds and listed the Lakers as an even money favorite, so if you believe that Leonard will look to team up with LeBron James and Anthony Davis rather than lead his own team, the time to strike might have passed. You can debate whether he should look to be the alpha male or link up with two of the most talented players ever until the end of time, but for the purposes of making money, getting in on the Purple and Gold to win it all is gone. .

If you’re a loyal reader of this column, you know that I’ve believed Leonard will link up with the Clippers for the past six months. Winning an unexpected championship with the Raptors doesn’t change that, although it certainly gives Toronto team president Masai Ujiri a little more ammunition. Restaurants throughout the city have offered him free food for his life if he stays, while all of Canada has adopted him as a conquering hero.

Center Marc Gasol opted in for one more season, so outside of fellow free agent Danny Green, the champs are expected to return with most of their roster intact. Interestingly, the Raptors’ odds fell from 8-1 to 14-1 over the last week.

Jimmy Butler, who I believed would join Leonard with the Clippers in filling their two maximum-contract slots, chose Miami instead. After a deal involving Dallas fell through due to the Mavericks’ desire to maintain cap flexibility, the Heat ended up keeping Goran Dragic and instead were able to move center Hassan Whiteside to Portland, making them one of the big winners during this process.

Whiteside can be an excellent rim protector and tenacious rebounder, but his inconsistency was a nightly obstacle. When you have someone making over $25 million watching while games are being deciding, you have a problem. Miami will be much better for it and joins the mix chasing the Raptors and Bucks, who remain the class of the Eastern Conference.

Milwaukee kept All-Star guard Khris Middleton, backup point guard George Hill and added backup center Robin Lopez to play with his brother Brook for the first time since their days at Stanford.  With reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo leading the way, the Bucks have the best championship odds (6-1) of any East team.

Boston recovered from losing Irving by signing Kemba Walker away from the Hornets, ending his nine-year association with Charlotte. Replacing center Al Horford, who left for the rival 76ers, will be much trickier. Enes Kanter arrives to lend a hand, but the Celtics will find it much tougher to defend the league’s top big men. Joel Embiid will now team with Horford, who gave him fits over the past few years, in addition to forward Tobias Harris, who re-signed for $180 million over five years. 

The Pacers, Bulls, Magic and Nets all appear to be better-equipped to contend, so the East should have a level of depth it hasn’t enjoyed in quite some time.

Despite this, the Western Conference remains loaded, whether Leonard finds his way to L.A. or not.

Golden State recovered from Durant’s decision by executing a sign-and-trade with Brooklyn to acquire All-Star D’Angelo Russell, an excellent shooter who will help fill in for the injured Klay Thompson, who tore his ACL in the Finals. The Warriors have the option of dealing Russell at the deadline or moving him at the end of the season if they don’t view him as a long-term option and managed to re-sign Thompson and Kevon Looney. 

Golden State, currently at 14-1 alongside the Raptors, Clippers (16-1) and 76ers (10-1), won’t fade into oblivion.

With the biggest domino still set to fall, the NBA landscape remains in flux but is setting up to be as wide open as it’s been in nearly a decade so long as Leonard doesn’t join the Lakers. If he takes that road, L.A. would still have depth issues to overcome but figure to be an overwhelming favorite

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About the Author

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national sportswriter for nearly two decades and has covered NBA and college basketball as a columnist, analyst, handicapper, and bracketologist for CBS Sports, Pro Basketball News, and numerous other sites.

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