Jimmy Butler blockbuster: Grading winners and losers

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Jimmy Butler blockbuster: Grading winners and losers

And the Jimmy Butler saga appears to be over. For now.

On Saturday, the Philadelphia 76ers agreed to send Dario Saric, Robert Covington, Jerryd Bayless and a 2020 second-round pick for Butler and Justin Patton, a source told NBC Sports Philadelphia’s Serena Winters. Though the trade only involved two teams, rest assured that several teams will feel the impact of Butler’s arrival in Philly.

Let’s run through winners and losers of the blockbuster deal.
 
Winners
Philadelphia 76ers

One year ago today, the Sixers were a giant question mark, starting out 6-6 with 2018 No. 1 pick Markelle Fultz, 2017 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid playing their first full season together alongside veterans J.J. Redick and Amir Johnson. The NBA didn’t quite know what to make of the young squad. Heading into the 2017-18 season, ESPN Forecast projected 33.2 wins, while Vegas slotted the over/under at 40.5 wins. They would’ve been lucky to make the playoffs.

And now? After netting Butler, they might be NBA Finals-bound. Might.

This all progressed very quickly. Simmons won Rookie of the Year (no asterisk necessary). Embiid played 63 games and averaged 22 points and 11 rebounds, establishing himself as one of the most dominant big men in the league.  Covington earned first-team all-defensive honors while making more than 200 3-pointers on the wing. Redick proved to be a perfect fit alongside the young crew. Ersan Ilyasova, Marco Belinelli and T.J. McConnell solidified a deep, if unpredictable, rotation. They won 52 games and earned the No. 3 seed, stunning the NBA with their ascension.

The Sixers stumbled out of the gate this season, but with Butler, they’re back in the conversation for a Finals trip. Every champion of the last decade had at least three All-NBA players on their roster. Yesterday, the Sixers had one in Embiid. They have two now and Simmons could be there soon.

Now, they’re no longer the underdog Sixers. They’re going for it all. With Saric and Covington gone, they lose two key members of their core, but this was a deal that they had to make. LeBron James is gone. The Boston Celtics are vulnerable. The Toronto Raptors are led by Kawhi Leonard, who only played nine games last season and has been on a strict no-back-to-back policy. The East is ripe for the taking.

No doubt, the Sixers will have their own issues to sort out. One Eastern Conference executive summed it up like so: “Jimmy is a terrific player, but they have some major fit issues.”

It starts with shooting. The Markelle Fultz Experiment will probably have to be put on the backburner as Butler moves into the starting lineup. Butler has serviceable range on the wing but at just 4.5 attempts from deep per game, Lonzo Ball and Aaron Gordon launch more 3-pointers than the newest Philly import. Playing Butler, Fultz and Simmons together would invite defenses to take up full-time residency in the paint.

It’s time to move Redick into the starting lineup, a move long overdue. The Sixers’ starting lineup with Redick last season boasted the top plus-minus of any five-man lineup in the league (plus-268). After one of the most bizarre rookie seasons in NBA history, Fultz replaced Redick and the lineup got off to a predictably rocky start. So much so that coach Brett Brown had abandoned it to start second halves. The lineup shot a paltry 8-of-26 on 3-pointers in 148 minutes on the court, an unsustainable amount in today’s NBA.

When healthy, Butler is a top-10 player and a two-way monster when he wants to be. Last season, Butler ranked third in ESPN’s real plus-minus metric, an all-in-one metric that estimates a player’s impact on both ends of the floor. He probably isn’t that good, but he’s a superior defender to Covington and more versatile in every respect of the game. The only time the Timberwolves have played respectable defense under Tom Thibodeau is when Butler manned the floor.

For newly-minted general manager Elton Brand, this is a big swing for the fences. But it’s not like he’s swinging at a pitch outside the strike zone. The Sixers will miss Covington and Saric’s presence inside and outside the locker room, but if I had told you one year ago – heck, one month ago -- that the Sixers would acquire Butler without giving up a first-round pick, Embiid, Simmons or Fultz in the deal, most Sixers fans would’ve scrambled to find the pen to sign right away. Nothing’s changed.

The long-term concerns are real. For the moment, forget about the five-year, $190 million contract that Butler is eligible to sign this summer. Butler has missed huge chunks of just about every season he’s played in the league. Over the last five seasons, he also ranks first in minutes per game. Those two might be related. Joakim Noah, Luol Deng and Derrick Rose have not had pretty post-Thibodeau campaigns (although Rose’s recent resurgence has been delightful). On the other hand, Taj Gibson and Kyle Korver have fared just fine.

Who knows how Butler will look in five years when he’ll be making well north of $40 million. Will he be worth $190 million? The Sixers don’t have to answer that now. Though there’s usually a wink-wink agreement in trades like these (see: Chris Paul), the Sixers aren’t obligated by any rule to offer him $190 million this summer. If Butler implodes his third locker room in four years, then they can part ways and not be stuck with his contract.

Los Angeles Lakers
LeBron James should send a thank-you note, or at the very least an Instagram shout-out, to Thibodeau for trading Butler to the East. The Lakers might fall into the playoffs at this point. One could make an argument that, on Saturday morning, every team in the West (OK, maybe not Phoenix) could plausibly see themselves as a playoff contender. Now, James has one less team to worry about.

At 5-6 and with coach Luke Walton already reportedly getting needled for his performance, the Lakers face an uphill climb to get into the playoffs. Lakers fans will be happy to know that FiveThirtyEight projections still give them a 70 percent shot of getting in. The Butler deal will nudge that higher.

Miami Heat
Yes, it might seem like they “lost” out on the Butler sweepstakes, but the Sixers are further up on the totem pole than the Heat and Butler provides more marginal value to them. For the Sixers, Butler gives them a Big Three and a real shot at the East title. If the Heat would’ve gotten Butler, they wouldn’t be demonstrably closer to a 50-win team, because it would likely mean giving up Josh Richardson.

It’s not a stretch to think Richardson is a Baby Butler. He’s a high-energy bulldog of a defender and already a better 3-point shooter than Butler. He doesn’t have the same handles, but like Butler, he’s worlds better than he was coming into the league. Richardson is 25 years old and already averaging 20 points per game as the focal point of the Heat’s offense. He’ll also make $11.6 million in 2021-22, about $30 million fewer than Butler’s expected annual salary.

Pat Riley, who is turning 74 years old in March, could have gotten desperate and cleared out the cupboard for Butler. Something like Richardson, Bam Adebayo and a first-rounder sounds reasonable. But Riley was wise to sit tight. The Heat should let this keep growing.

Chicago Bulls
The Bulls have to feel good about their Butler haul. For one, they received a first-round pick in a deep draft that ended up being the No. 7 overall pick. Some might argue that they got lucky by landing Lauri Markkanen, but there were plenty of talents available at that spot. Donovan Mitchell, Dennis Smith, OG Anunoby, Adebayo, Kyle Kuzma, Dennis Smith, John Collins and Zach Collins were all still on the board when the Bulls made their pick. If it wasn’t Markkanen, they’d still be fine.

And then you throw in Zach LaVine, whose lengthy ACL recovery held sneaky tank value for the rights to draft a talent like Wendell Carter Jr. LaVine is still a sieve defensively, but he’s fourth in scoring and doing so efficiently. Kris Dunn, also acquired in the Butler deal, could be a solid starter, which didn’t look to be the case in Minnesota.

It’s not entirely logical to compare the two deals at two different junctures. But what just played out in Minnesota? It could have been a real scenario for Chicago, to let Butler stew and watch his trade stock plummet. Instead, the Bulls made the deal in the summer before the season, something the Timberwolves probably wish they did.

Losers
Minnesota Timberwolves

This wasn’t a bad deal for Minnesota. It wasn’t a great one either. The problem was the wait.
President of basketball operations and head coach Tom Thibodeau could have capitulated to Butler’s trade demand before training camp when it was clear he wanted out. Instead, they held firm and it only got uglier from there. Butler threw a now-infamous tantrum at practice, capping it by reportedly shouting, “You ****ing need me” to general manager Scott Layden. Friday night, after playing 41 minutes against the Kings, Butler told The Athletic’s Sam Amick “that **** has to stop.” I’m sure there’s more we don’t know.

Letting this saga get to this point was a mistake on Minnesota’s part. It lowered their leverage in trade talks and, as a result, they ended up settling for a pair of rotation players with questionable upside and no first-round picks.

Saric has been quietly awful this season. The 25-year-old is shooting 36 percent from the floor and looks lost offensively while trying to play next to Fultz. His rates were down across the board, not just in the scoring department. His PER fell from 15.8 last season to 8.2 this season, his deflection rate is half what it was last season and his game overall has been amiss. 

The Timberwolves bought low on Saric, but they should be happy with Covington. He’s a super-long 3-and-D specialist who should fit nicely next to Andrew Wiggins. But Timberwolves fans will learn quickly that “RoCo” struggles to create his own shot and rarely gets to the line. Richardson would be a Jimmy Butler replacement. Covington is not a Jimmy Butler replacement. That said, he provides some much-needed stretch to the Wolves offense, sinking 37.2 percent of his 3 over the last two seasons.

No one’s feeling sorry for the Timberwolves here. They have Karl-Anthony Towns. But it was clear that the chemistry never really came together between he and Butler. This season, the rift had gotten to point where it’s clearly poisoning the on-court product. Last season, Butler assisted one of every 7.4 Towns field goals. This season, Butler has assisted on only eight of 89, or one every 11.1 baskets. Not surprisingly, the team’s offensive rating with Towns and Butler on the court has fallen from to 115.2 points per 100 possessions to a rotten 103.9 points per 100 possessions. And remember, points are up league-wide. It was time to pull the plug.

And the Timberwolves did just that. There’s some honor in trying to play it out this season, but this is when Thibodeau’s strong relationship with Butler was supposed to come in handy.  It should have been clear to Thibodeau the President that this wasn’t going to work out. But Thibodeau the Coach may have instead prioritized retaining talent in order to return to the playoffs. By waiting and ending up with a so-so package, they likely cost themselves wins down the line.

Houston Rockets
You think the Rockets could use Butler right now? Of course, they could. Like Philadelphia, the Rockets were one star away from serious contention for a Finals spot. Now, one of those gettable stars is off the board.

From the start, it was tough to see how they’d come up with the on-court assets to rival Philadelphia’s package. They weren’t giving up Clint Capela and the rest of the roster isn’t brimming with young studs. It’s clear now that the Timberwolves wanted actual players rather than long-term picks. Houston’s reported offer of four first-rounders and some filler wasn’t going to get it done.

The Rockets need a shakeup of some sort (and we’ll get to this another day). Their offense is in shambles and their seventh-ranked defense last season is now ranked 21st. Yeah, they could use a two-way star, but now he’s suiting up for the Sixers. Silver lining: At least that star is out of the Western Conference.

Toronto, Boston and Milwaukee
Each of these elite powers have already pummeled the Sixers this season. Maybe they shouldn’t have done that.

Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

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Rockets' Russell Westbrook gamble won't end well

If you’re the Houston Rockets, which star would be the ideal fit with James Harden?

First, the star would have to be OK with not having the ball in his hands. In the best-case scenario, said star is a sharpshooter who can defend multiple positions at a high-level. On top of that, he’d have young legs to ease Harden’s burden as he enters his thirties.

In other words, it’s probably not Russell Westbrook. 

On Monday, the Rockets reportedly traded for the 2016-17 MVP, pairing him with James Harden to form one of the most intriguing duos in the NBA at a cost of a combined $340 million over the next four seasons (Westbrook and Harden each have player options for nearly $47 million in 2022-23). As part of the deal, the Rockets traded Chris Paul, first-round picks in 2024 and 2026 and pick swaps in 2021 and 2025. 

For the Rockets, it’s a bold move, but it’s tough to ignore the scent of desperation. Houston general manager Daryl Morey valiantly fought off rumors about Paul’s reported trade demand and publicly guaranteed that Paul and Harden would be back next season.

It took less than a month for Morey to reverse course and trade Paul to a Western Conference rival so he could reunite Harden and Westbrook for a championship push. It can’t be overstated that the most 3-point obsessed team in NBA history just traded for the worst high-volume 3-point shooter ever. Westbrook’s career 30.8 percent 3-point field goal percentage is the worst in NBA history among the 110 players with at least 2,750 3-point attempts, per Basketball Reference.com.

One rival general manager called it a “panic move” by Houston, calling the pick-sweetened package “too rich” to send OKC’s way.

Westbrook seems heretical to Morey’s gospel of efficiency. Over the last decade, there’s only been one player who used at least 30 percent of their team’s offenses possessions with worse shot efficiency than Westbrook last season. That was Kobe Bryant during his farewell tour two seasons after a torn Achilles.

Morey doesn’t have his head in the sand when it comes to Westbrook’s inefficiency. Quite the opposite. In April 2017, I interviewed Morey on an ESPN podcast while his player, Harden, was up for the MVP award. Harden had lost steam in the public eye compared to Westbrook, who was averaging a triple-double on the season.

Of course, at the time, Morey was stumping for his guy, Harden, and attempting to delicately discredit the other candidates without formally naming them (Westbrook eventually won the award). Without saying the word “triple-double” Morey made it clear that that was an overly simplistic MVP criteria.

“For me, the argument is pretty straightforward and simple,” said Morey. “Don’t get distracted by the easy catchphrases.”

Morey continued, citing Houston’s No. 3 seed in the West.

“Call me crazy, but historically people who watch the NBA know that (players) can put up numbers on average to below-average teams and that’s why they don’t vote for those candidates. Call me crazy, but if you’re a dominant player and primarily dominant on offense and you’re not even an above-average offense in the NBA, it seems hard to say you’re making an impact.”

“On top of that, the other guy (Harden) who is putting up basically the same dominant numbers is leading the top-10 offense ever, not below average in the NBA this season.”

When Morey was asked more pointedly about Westbrook’s candidacy, the Houston GM again harped on Westbrook’s box-score numbers not translating to team success.

“(Westbrook)’s having one of the greatest seasons ever. He just happens to be doing it with James Harden also having one of the greatest seasons ever -- and on a team that’s winning. There’s really no precedent when two people are having absolutely historic seasons that they give it to the guy who is generating his value on the side of the ball where his team isn’t even above average.”

That was in 2017, but it might as well be right now. 

Last season, Westbrook again averaged a triple-double while his team finished 16th in offensive efficiency, sandwiched between the Washington Wizards and Sacramento Kings. And that was while Westbrook’s teammate, Paul George, had an MVP-caliber season. What’s more, the Thunder still couldn’t get out of the first round, losing to the Portland Trail Blazers in five games.

So, what makes the Rockets think they can do better with Westbrook and Harden? 

This appears to be a situation where Houston’s new owner Tilman Fertitta may have gotten impatient after a Western Conference semifinals loss to the Golden State Warriors and then went on a rant saying the Rockets should have, uh, cut the Warriors’ throats.

"I can promise you, we're gonna win some championships with James Harden because we're not going to sit here," Fertitta said. "We're going to battle every year. We're going to have a strong offseason, and we're gonna do whatever it takes to be a better team. We're not gonna sit on our hands. I can promise you that."

"I'm a fighter. That's my culture," Fertitta said. "The longer I own this team, they're gonna pick up more of my culture. We had 'em. We should have stepped on their throats the other night and cut their throats. It's step on their throats, and let's take it back to Houston and end it in six."

For what it’s worth, Westbrook certainly fits into that fighter culture. A one-of-a-kind athlete, he’s also three and a half years younger than Paul, and lines up closer with Harden’s career trajectory. Harden turns 30 years old in August and 33 at the end of his deal, while Westbrook turns 31 in November and will be 34 in 2022-23. But there are more than enough reasons to be concerned about Westbrook as he enters the back half of his career.

It starts with his injury history. Beginning with the collision with then-Rockets guard Patrick Beverley in the 2013 playoffs, Westbrook has undergone five procedures on his troublesome right knee, most recently a clean-up in May and arthroscopic surgery last September that wiped out his preseason. For someone who relies on his wheels so much, that has to be a concern.

Most alarming, there are signs his physical decline has already started. In his age-30 season, coming off that September surgery, Westbrook finished with just 33 dunks, 24 fewer than in 2017-18. Just 2.9 percent of his field goal attempts were dunks, tying a career low, per Basketball Reference. He notably had zero dunks in the Thunder’s first-round loss to the Blazers.

Some of that drop may be attributed to an early-season injury to his plant leg, an ankle sprain, that caused him to miss six games in November. But it’s also noteworthy that Westbrook experienced a bizarre drop in his ability to draw fouls during the regular season, taking only 6.2 free throws per game and making just 65.6 percent of them (down from 10.4 attempts and 84.6 percent in his MVP season).

When he is healthy, Westbrook plays like he’s shot out of a cannon, but it backfires far too often. Playing next to George was supposed to free up open shots and help Westbrook become more efficient. Instead, Westbrook became the worst version of himself, hijacking the offense with premature jumpers and getting careless in transition.  Westbrook ranked dead-last in transition efficiency among 27 players with at least 250 transition plays, according to Synergy Sports tracking. Only 22-year-old Ben Simmons coughed up the ball more times in these open-court situations, fueling the critique that Westbrook plays with a low basketball IQ even at this stage of his career.

Fastbreak opportunities are normally an integral part of a healthy NBA offense. But in the case of Westbrook, his tendencies have become so hurtful last season that him finishing a transition play was less efficient than OKC’s halfcourt offense (0.87 points per play versus 0.93 points per play). 

As the architect of the Seven Seconds Or Less Offense in Phoenix, Mike D’Antoni may be able to wean some of the headaches out of Westbrook’s game, but expecting him to make a wholesale change at this point in his career isn’t a smart bet. 

Perhaps D’Antoni tinkers with the iso-heavy offense that defined the Harden-Paul era and tries to step on the gas. Last season, the Rockets were the NBA’s fourth-slowest team in pace factor, a measure of possessions every 48 minutes. And it worked, with the Rockets ranking second in offensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Harden’s one-on-one dominance. 

Last season, Harden finished with 1,280 isolations and was the NBA’s most efficient player in those situations, scoring 1.11 points per isolation, according to Synergy tracking. The player that ranked last in isolation efficiency last season? Yup, Westbrook, at just 0.75 points per play. 

So, Westbrook is inefficient playing fast and playing slow. D’Antoni certainly has his work cut out for him. 

Westbrook should find some easier pathways to the rim with Eric Gordon and P.J. Tucker flanking him, but it is impossible to ignore the fact that Harden and Westbrook ranked No. 1 and No. 2 in turnovers last season. Meanwhile, Paul finished with half as many turnovers as Westbrook (152 to 325) and remains one of the most efficient point guards ever.

From a schematic point of view, Westbrook makes little sense next to Harden. With Harden pounding the rock in isolations and pick-and-roll attacks, why guard Westbrook off the ball? Paul shot over 43 percent on catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, while Westbrook made just 53-of-166 (31.9 percent).

Maybe that’s the idea, to just have Westbrook not shoot 3-pointers. But at least defenders had to respect Paul as a shooter. With Westbrook off ball, Harden will see more defenders in his way to the rim.

There’s also this: point guards who rely on speed and athleticism don’t age particularly well. Consider that his top comp in FiveThirtyEight’s similarity model, Isiah Thomas, played his last game at the age of 32 after rupturing his Achilles tendon in 1994. Though that injury was a career-ender, Thomas had already planned to retire that season because too many nagging injuries had sapped his effectiveness. In his last two playoff runs, following the 82-game grind, Thomas labored his way to just 13.7 points per game on 38.3 percent shooting from the floor.

The Rockets could look at Westbrook and see Jason Kidd, who is the third-closest comp on the FiveThirtyEight list. The triple-double maestro from Cal famously added a full-throttle 3-point shot in his mid-30s and enjoyed a career renaissance in Dallas that culminated in a championship in 2011. That’s the best-case scenario for Westbrook if everything falls into place, but Kidd was a significantly better shooter even at this stage of his career. 

Meanwhile, Oklahoma City continues one of the quickest, and most impressive, teardowns in NBA history. The Thunder were eyeing one of the biggest payrolls the league had ever seen before George reportedly went to GM Sam Presti with a trade request last week. The Thunder could have hung on and tried to tread water, but a Westbrook-centric team weighed down by the four years and $171 million remaining on his supermax extension wasn’t the most prudent decision for a small-market team. Though Paul has three years of max money left, it’s one year shorter than Westbrook’s (if Westbrook picks up his player option in 2022-23).

If the Thunder choose to keep Paul, he could mentor 20-year-old Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and run point alongside Dennis Schroder with Terrence Ferguson, Danilo Gallinari and Steven Adams anchoring the frontcourt alongside Nerlens Noel and Andre Roberson, who’s returning from knee surgery. That could be a playoff contender, but it’s more likely that OKC spins Paul to a team with true championship aspirations.

According to ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, the Thunder are already working with Paul’s agents to move him to a new team. If Denver sputters to start next season, would it trade Paul Millsap for Paul and accelerate their title contention now that they have former OKC stretch four Jerami Grant? That’s one possibility. According to ESPN, the Miami Heat discussed a possible Westbrook trade with the Thunder and are prominently involved in Paul trade discussions as they try to land a co-pilot for Jimmy Butler.

But OKC is loaded with assets now and can take their time with Paul and with their future. Usually teams have to lure other teams with a first-round pick sweetener to take on money like Westbrook and George, but it’s a testament to Presti’s roster that he was able to turn the tables. Teams gave the Thunder picks to take on their money. Presti brokered a record-setting deal to acquire five first-round picks and two picks swaps with the Los Angeles Clippers for George and his three-year contract (player option on the third season). They received another protected pick from Denver for Grant, giving the Thunder potentially 15 first-round picks over the next seven drafts.

In exchange for those picks and a bright future, Presti ended the OKC Thunder as we know them. I’ll never forget seeing James Harden drape his arms around Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook in Miami after the Heat had sealed the 2012 NBA Finals. Despite the five-game loss, OKC looked destined to assemble its own dynasty one day. Seven years later, all three are gone and the Thunder never got back to the Finals. 

Now, the Rockets are banking on Harden and Westbrook to rediscover their old magic in Houston. Maybe it works. With Klay Thompson recovering from a torn ACL and Kevin Durant in Brooklyn, the West is as wide open as it’s been in years. Maybe Westbrook’s reckless, driving style pairs perfectly next to the shooting of Harden, Gordon and Tucker. Maybe the old OKC Thunder duo return to their glory together and finally get the Rockets over the postseason hump that’s stalled them for the past three seasons. Vegas sportsbooks actually view this deal as improving the Rockets title odds.

But I don’t see it. Between Westbrook’s injuries, declining play and the bizarre on-court fit, this feels like a reunion that’s doomed to fail.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh) and bookmark NBCSports.com/Haberstroh for my latest stories, videos and podcasts.

Hope can be found all across wide-open NBA

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Hope can be found all across wide-open NBA

It’s the dawn of a new day in the NBA. The superteam Golden State Warriors have been dismantled. The champion Toronto Raptors lost their Finals MVP in Kawhi Leonard. 

For the first time in a long time, there is no clear favorite, no star-studded trio or villainous superteam to fear.

With the chaotic free agency finally coming to a rest, the NBA world sets its eyes on a refreshing, wide-open 2019-20 season. 

Uncertainty is the seed of hope, and the vibe around the league is bathing in that uncertainty with unbridled optimism. As NBA summer league takes place in Las Vegas, let’s zoom through what portends to be the most tantalizing season in recent history.

(If you missed it, here are my free agency columns on the new-look Clippers, the D’Angelo Russell trade, the Kemba era in Boston, Klay Thompson’s risky yet worthy max, Brooklyn’s big summer, Philly’s big pivot and the rest of the free agency moves.)

Hope at the top

Sin City’s bookmakers are already gearing up for an unpredictable race for the title. With no heavy favorite, betting market research suggests that the championship contender list is longer than its been in over 15 years. 

Teams generally employ the five percent rule, which stipulates that if you have even a five percent chance at winning the title, you better push all your chips to the middle. According to Westgate SuperBook’s latest odds, a whopping eight teams will be in that elite circle. The Clippers, Bucks, Lakers, Sixers, Warriors, Rockets, Jazz and Nuggets each have better than 20-1 (roughly five percent) odds to win the title, with the Celtics and Blazers just on the outside looking in.

“It is as open as we’ve seen in years,” said Jeff Sherman, Westgate SuperBook’s oddsmaker. “With the current landscape, we are receiving interest throughout the league.”

That wasn’t the case in recent years. During the Warriors’ reign, Sherman says their sportsbook received “minimal interest” in the next tier of teams. Not anymore. So far, the most money coming in has been on, duh, the Lakers and Clippers, with the Lakers ranking No. 1 in ticket count and total money wagered, according to Sherman. But the oddsmaker says they’re seeing solid support for about a half-dozen other teams, a rarity in the superteam era.

Don’t be surprised if a juggernaut emerges from the fog; it happened the last time a superteam split at the seams. Heading into the 2014-15 season, there was a similar cloudiness in the NBA pecking order. The Miami Heat had just broken up after their 2014 Finals defeat, and LeBron James’ return to Cleveland effectively pancaked the title race. The Cavs were the favorite to win the championship but the market was relatively cool, listed at plus-300 on the money line.

And then, bam, a superteam separated themselves from the pack. Actually, Stephen Curry’s Warriors really weren’t in the pack. Entering the regular season, the Warriors were just 28-1 odds to win the title, the eighth-most likely team with just 3.4 percent implied probability of winning it all. Under newly-minted head coach Steve Kerr, the Warriors shocked the NBA world en route to a 67-16 record and their first of three championships in four years.

The Warriors’ 2014 emergence, coupled with the Raptors’ improbable title run, has a huge chunk of the NBA feeling hopeful. Yes, the L.A. duos are exciting, and not just for sports bettors, but both star tandems face considerable injury risk to their stars. If health issues arise in Hollywood, that opens the door for teams like Portland and Boston to jump into the fray. 

Portland has its star duo, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, returning and added Kent Bazemore and Hassan Whiteside. The Western Conference finalists still have Zach Collins, 20-year-old Anfernee Simons (who is lighting up summer league) and each one of their future first-round picks to dangle in a blockbuster trade, if they so choose that route. (Hello, Kevin Love?)

Boston is harder to peg. They could miss Al Horford’s presence more than expected, but they could also swing the other way with a culture reset around Kemba Walker. If Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Gordon Hayward bounce back and Boston finally cashes in on its draft assets for a star player, this team could vault right back into championship contention. That 2020 Memphis top-six protected first-round pick, and then unprotected in 2021, is still as juicy as any traded pick out there. 

Hope in the middle

Looking at teams outside the championship contender pile, there’s still a lot to be excited about, starting with the team that traded away maybe the best big man in the NBA. New Orleans may be League Pass juggernauts with Zion Williamson, Lonzo Ball and a host of sneaky-good veterans around them led by the perennially underrated Jrue Holiday.

A fancy new analysis from FiveThirtyEight found that Derrick Favors, the team’s new starting center, was the best defender in the NBA when it came to contesting and altering shots. Then you throw in JJ Redick’s shooting and you have a sleeper out West. Amazingly, after trading Anthony Davis to the Lakers, the Pelicans rank above the Lakers by at least one prominent projection system.

Another surprise team in that early stats-based look? The Chicago Bulls, who are projected to be the No. 8 seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture. Bolstered by free agency pickups Thaddeus Young and Tomas Satoransky, the Bulls have quietly had a strong offseason. Toss in Coby White’s promise at point guard, and this team’s core with Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine, Otto Porter and Wendell Carter Jr. could be playoff-bound.

And then there’s Dallas, which flaunts the two best young stars in the league in Luka Doncic and Kristaps Porzingis. If Rick Carlisle can fast-track their development into MVP candidates like many have projected at one time or another, Dallas could crash the West’s loaded playoff party.

Hope at the bottom

Even for teams pegged to be cellar dwellers, there is light at the end of the tunnel. Memphis has Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr. and Brandon Clarke to keep fans hopeful along with whatever they net for Andre Iguodala in trade talks. With Tyus Jones, Grayson Allen and Jae Crowder joining the team, I think they’ll surprise folks next season with both their watchability and performance.

Hey, even the Wizards should be interesting beyond Bradley Beal. They quietly added one of the league’s best snipers in stretch-four Davis Bertans, who made a blistering 58 percent of his corner 3-pointers last season. He’ll share minutes with rookie Rui Hachimuira and 19-year-old sophomore Troy Brown Jr., who had 18 points and 15 rebounds on Saturday in Vegas. Twenty-one-year-old Thomas Bryant is good and should only get better. Notably, without John Wall, the Wizards posted a positive net rating last season with Beal, Brown and Bryant on the floor, per PBP Stats. Getting Bryant on a three-year, $17 million deal was a shrewd move by Tommy Sheppard.

I love what Atlanta’s doing with their youngsters. Trae Young, Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish and John Collins (still 21!) make up one of the strongest young fives in the league, if not the best. Like, they might actually take the floor together. I don’t know if they can win games, but that’s a brilliant rebuild in the post-Mike Budenholzer era by Atlanta GM Travis Schlenk. 

Look, this offseason wasn’t ideal for the Knickerbockers. Far from it. But New York can grieve the L’s in free agency by watching Elfrid Payton and R.J. Barrett toss lobs to Julius Randle and Mitchell Robinson. (Is it possible for the league’s best-kept secret to play in Madison Square Garden? That’s Robinson). Free agency was a big swing and miss, but hey, there’s always next summer. Hope springs eternal, even in the Mecca of basketball.

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