Last week in this space, we looked at how the Western Conference is shaping up through the first few weeks of free agency. Given how the numbers have shifted from June 26 to the present day, oddsmakers have given the Rockets and Thunder a nod for making some inroads with their huge splashes, but defending champion Golden State remains the clear favorite to represent the West in its third straight NBA Finals.
It’s a good thing we held off on breaking down the East for a few days.
Last Friday, news came down that Kyrie Irving had asked the Cavaliers to trade him. The former No. 1 pick whose clutch 3-pointer in Game 7 of the ‘16 Finals helped LeBron James make good on the promise to end Cleveland’s title drought has made it known he is done playing with the King. He wants to go his own way.
Scorching the earth by putting it out there that he was interested in a new environment where he can be more of a “focal point” in issuing this trade demand seems like a calculated move in order to reach a point of no return, especially since there’s noise out there that Irving believes James made the request public knowledge.
This drama packs the trifecta of leaks, ambition and back-stabbing, which combined with the lack of direction Dan Gilbert put on full display in mishandling his GM situation, has thrown everything into chaos. After being spurned by Chauncey Billups due to a low-ball offer, the Cavs boss finally promoted assistant GM Koby Altman to replace David Griffin, whose ill-timed departure was the domino that started this all.
An inability to land Paul George in a deal that would have moved Kevin Love to Denver has damaged any sense of camaraderie among a “Big 3” that is 1-for-3 against the Warriors in the Finals, so the fact Cleveland remains favored to win the East is a slap in the face to everyone else in the conference.
A fractured group remains the best bet to reign, if only because the King is likely to remain. Both Irving and Love know that James, who definitely is consulted on personnel matters, has been willing to part with them if it improves the chances of adding to his ring collection. Everyone knows that the league is a business, but it’s still impossible not to take things personally when you’re a star of that magnitude.
Irving, despite having two years remaining on his contract, wants out now. James is staying put, controlling his future thanks to a no-trade clause on his deal that is up this summer, but no one else outside of Gilbert himself can realistically feel secure of their position on the Cavs. The team even fired their cap expert. That’s not a great work environment.
After opening at 2-to-5 (-250) at Westgate Superbook, Cleveland remains favored to win the Eastern Conference, but is now down to 4-to-7 (-175) after spending most of July at 1-to-2 (-200). Will this be the best odds available to bank on LeBron reaching his eighth consecutive NBA Finals? That’s going to depend on one of two variables.
Either James has to find a way to smooth things over with his betrayed teammates or Altman has to hit the ground running in executing trades that will keep the Cavs atop the East throne despite losing arguably the conference’s second-best player. The former is a strong possibility since competing for another title is going to be in the running for best situation for both Irving and Love, but damage has certainly been done.
How can James help appease the bruised egos of his teammates if he’s unsure of his own future going forward? Teams will line up to make offers both Irving and Love, but the Cavs will no longer be dealing from the position of strength they would’ve been working with had this news not gotten out there. That’s one reason to discredit the allegation that LeBron’s camp leaked the Irving information, because that group is nothing if not calculating, methodical and bright.
The Cavs have time on their side but have badly bumbled the offseason. They’re a 4-to-1 (+400) bet to win the 2017-18 title, but betting on that would be akin to setting money on fire given how things stand. The Warriors have Cleveland shook, thrown into a state of disarray.
Boston, which was 4-to-1 to win the East when odds were released on June 24, is now sitting at 5-to-2 (+250) as the most likely successor should the Cavs crumble. The odds on Washington (+1200), Milwaukee (+1500), Philadelphia (+1500), Toronto (+2000) and Miami (+2000) haven’t been affected much over the past few weeks, but this past week’s events certainly makes it far more appealing to pick a favorite and take a shot at a large payday.
Cleveland is as vulnerable as it has been since James returned.