Who wins Kawhi sweepstakes?

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The NBA moved up the beginning of its contact period a few hours this season, so that scene that plays out in your head where Mark Cuban is ringing some coveted free agent’s doorbell at the stroke of midnight with some chocolates and a bottle of wine can now transpire at a reasonable hour.

The time to woo has arrived.

How Raptors president Masai Ujiri and his front office support staff fare over the weekend as they try to keep Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard becomes as important to Toronto as the team that just brought Canada its first NBA title, dethroning Golden State.

Similarly, Warriors owner Joe Lacob and team president Bob Myers are as vital to the franchise’s future success as Stephen Curry and Draymond Green since they’ll be trying to secure that Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson remain their teammates as the organization makes their move to San Francisco.

Both L.A. and New York teams are also expected to be major players in free agency since all have money to spend, so selling their vision effectively in living rooms or in most cases, board rooms, will be essential considering how wide open the league looks at the moment.

Whether they re-sign with the Warriors or move on, Durant and Thompson may miss next season completely after suffering disappointing injuries earlier this month. Golden State is no longer the NBA’s overwhelming favorite. Those days appear to be over.

The latest championship odds at the Westgate SuperBook list the Warriors tied for sixth at 12-1 entering the start of free agency, a nod to a potential scenario where they keep Durant and Thompson and see both healthy enough to contribute once the postseason rolls around.

The L.A. Lakers are a 3-1 choice, established as the favorite after securing Anthony Davis’ services. Getting in on them this early is only advisable if you believe that Leonard, who grew up rooting for the purple-and-gold, wants to join forces with LeBron James and Davis to create a new juggernaut.

If he wants to go home and covets more of a challenge, the Riverside County native could choose to join the Clippers, turning L.A. into a turf war and making meetings between Staples Center’s tenants spicier. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer is serious about escaping the Lakers’ shadow and is looking to strike while the Lakers are at their weakest, having failed to reach the playoffs in six straight seasons while dealing with organizational chaos under owner and president Jeanie Buss.

Pulling off the trade for Davis gives the Lakers two of the NBA’s top 10 players but also weakened their depth, making this offseason an essential one. Plan A for everyone starts with that guy named Kawhi, but it may end up making more sense for the Lakers to lure a few more moderately priced options to help make life easier for their superstars, especially since avoiding injuries will be a priority for both going forward.

The Raptors are an 8-1 choice per Westgate, behind the Bucks (6-1) and Clippers (7-1) while even with the Rockets, but that figure will plummet if Leonard bolts. If he hangs around, he won’t only continue in his current role as Canada’s favorite adopted son, but would affect the fortunes of fellow free agents Marc Gasol (player option) and Danny Green, who both want to be back if he’s returning. The Raps would be favored to repeat as a result.

I’m of the opinion he’s played his last game for Toronto and won’t be present to see the team’s championship banner rise, so the Bucks are an attractive betting option considering that they’ll be formidable with MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo returning and under contract through 2021. Milwaukee is hoping to keep All-Star Khris Middleton, an unrestricted free agent who will also do a little flirting to see what’s out there, so the NBA landscape is currently in flux.

All-Star point guard Kyrie Irving is expected to leave Boston for New York or L.A too. Al Horford opted out and is unlikely to return to the Celtics if rumors of him having already secured a long-term deal with another suitor are to be believed. Jimmy Butler and Tobias Harris could walk away from the 76ers. Butler is another L.A. native who wants to return home, so his decision also has a shot to swing the odds dramatically.

A 16-1 choice like the Nuggets or teams at 20-1 like the Jazz, Thunder and Nets appear to be the ones to get behind since they’re currently flying under the radar. Denver is loaded with young, emerging talent and will have a Rookie of the Year candidate debut in Michael Porter, Jr., who missed all of last season.

Utah added point guard Mike Conley to help make life easier on young star Donovan Mitchell, Oklahoma City should be healthier with Russell Westbrook and Paul George back and would return intact if it doesn’t trade center Steven Adams. Brooklyn seems to be an even bigger player than the Knicks if guys want to play in New York and could provide great value if the Eastern Conference is indeed shaken up by the departures of a Leonard, Irving or Butler.

Unless they get Leonard, look for the Lakers’ reign as NBA favorite to be short-lived, since I’m expecting the landing spot of the reigning Finals MVP to be placed in that role. The 76ers and Warriors should each take a significant hit if they’re unable to keep their fearsome foursomes together, so getting in on them at 12-1 is a significant gamble since I don’t expect either team to return intact.

Hornets point guard Kemba Walker is an X-factor to watch as well. Although he could stay in Charlotte on a more lucrative deal than if he bolts, the diminutive scorer is capable of significantly altering a team’s fortunes and will be highly coveted when meetings begin.

Leonard may not wind up being the first domino to fall, but he’ll unquestionably be the biggest. It’s going to be an intriguing summer.

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About the Author
Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia

Tony Mejia has been a national writer 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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