Stephen Curry is the new Michael Jordan

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NBC Sports

Stephen Curry is the new Michael Jordan

Stephen Curry seldom resembles Michael Jordan. But on a Wednesday night in late October at Oracle, the two-time MVP was making an exception.
 
After splashing his 10th 3-pointer of the game against the Washington Wizards and sending the crowd into a mad frenzy at the end of the third quarter, Curry looked to the Warriors bench and gave his teammates a throwback -- The Shrug, a la Jordan from the 1992 NBA Finals. 

Curry’s quick 3-point attempt -- casually launched from 31 feet, just beyond the hash mark on the sideline and only nine seconds into the shot clock -- is his trademark, one that the entire NBA is chasing, just like it did with Jordan and his tongue-wagging dunks and fadeaways.

Watch the NBA on any given night and the story of this season has Curry’s fingerprints all over it. The league is taking 3s more frequently than ever, deeper than ever and quicker than ever. 

It’s time to come to grips with the fact that Curry is the Jordan of his generation, single-handedly changing the way the game is being played and being appraised. 

* * *

The dunk used to be the domain of giants like Wilt Chamberlain, but not guards. But Dr. J helped changed that, and then Jordan took it to another level. Basketball researchers dug up dunk totals from old Sixers media guides and found that Jordan’s reign coincided with a dramatic rise in the slam dunk. In ‘87-88, the year Jordan won his second Slam Dunk contest in a row, there were 5,727 dunks in the NBA. By Jordan’s final Bulls season in 1997-98, there were 9,318 dunks, a rise of 63 percent.

As the rarely questioned GOAT of basketball, it seems impossible to believe that Jordan used to be dismissed as “just a dunker” by his peers.

But Larry Bird did just that, talking to the Hartford Courant in 1987 about the MVP race.

“If I had to pick a guy beside myself [to start a team], there’s no question who I’d choose,” Bird said. “Magic’s head and shoulders above anyone else. I’ve always said, and I haven’t changed my opinion, that Magic is the best player in the league.”

Bird went on.

“Dominique [Wilkins] and Michael Jordan? They’re not Magic Johnson. They’re dunkers. Michael takes 30 shots to get to 30 points. You know, there’s a difference.”
 
Forget the fact that Jordan averaged 37.1 points on 27.3 field goal attempts and never scored below 30 points on 30 shots. But that “just a dunker” narrative would eventually change. Soon, Jordan would become a global icon. There was the “Be Like Mike” commercials. There was the generation of kids who started sticking their tongues out on the court and buying his Nikes. A barrage of high-flying guards, like Kobe Bryant, Jerry Stackhouse, Vince Carter and even Harold Miner, became the heir to Air Jordan, the “Baby Jordans.” 

Like Jordan, Steph has become an inspiration all his own.

For the fourth straight year, Curry led the league in jersey sales. Curry nearly single-handedly put Under Armour on the basketball map (a Morgan Stanley analyst once pegged Curry’s value to UA at $14 billion). Kids, often clad in Curry gear, are shooting so many deep 3s that the NBA and USA Basketball issued new guidelines to discourage 3-pointers in youth leagues. 

Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. It was with Jordan. It is with Curry. Enter Trae Young and a whole generation of Baby Stephs.

* * *

It was 10 years ago, almost to the day, when Trae Young first saw Steph Curry play basketball. 

Young was just a scrawny 10-year-old who scored tickets to the Blake Griffin-Steph Curry blockbuster showdown. Griffin’s Oklahoma Sooners were facing off against Curry’s Davidson Wildcats in Young’s hometown of Norman, Oklahoma. Young sat across the student section while Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook sat courtside in a packed Lloyd Noble Center. 

“Steph had 40 or something,” Young says now. “Blake and him put up crazy numbers.”

Curry actually had 44, while Griffin had 25 points and 21 rebounds. It was then that Young saw himself in Curry, a scrawny guard who would one day become the NBA’s first unanimous MVP. Young began DVRing Curry’s games and maniacally watching his drills.

Young believes Curry’s skills and confidence revolutionized the game. Nowadays, point guards like Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard are routinely scoring 30 points a night with loads of pull-up, deep 3s. 

“Steph has changed the whole league, period,” Young says. “I think it’s a perfect time for a guy like me who’s not the biggest guard in the world but can shoot the ball. He’s made it OK for teams to go out and get those type of guys and play them.”

Young drew an onslaught of Curry comparisons after leading the NCAA in points and assists per game with a 180-pound frame and a propensity for deep 3s. And it’s no surprise that Travis Schlenk, former Warriors executive turned Hawks GM, chose him as the franchise guy in Atlanta. This summer, executives around the NBA noticed when it came time for Schlenk to hire a new head coach and new trainer, he reached back into the Warriors organization with Golden State assistant Lloyd Pierce and head trainer Chelsea Lane. Consider it Warriors East.

Curry didn’t just alter the way the NBA plays, he influenced the direction of another franchise.

“The way Steph has changed the game, it’s been great,” Young said, before launching a pair of 30-footers in Curry’s hometown of Charlotte later that night. He missed both. 

The opposing point guard that night, 6-foot-1, 184-pound Kemba Walker, made 4-of-10 of his 3-pointers en route to 29 points. Before Curry’s MVP season in 2014-15, Walker had taken double-digit 3-pointers in a game just once in his career. Now, he averages 10.4 3-point tries a night.

* * *

It’s been four years since Curry’s storybook ‘14-15 season, and yet, he continues to elicit dumbfounded reactions. Take, for example, these responses after his 51-point explosion against the Wizards, when he made 11-of-16 from downtown.
 
“You got a guy taking 40-footers,” Warriors coach Steve Kerr said after that October game against the Wizards, “and you’re on the sideline going, ‘Yeah, that’s a good shot.’ Nobody’s ever done what he’s doing.”
 
Wizards coach Scott Brooks was asked for his perspective after the game, and could barely get out the words.
 
“Uhh, not, I mean, some of the shots that he was making, they were just, they were … you don’t see that,” Brooks said. “He’s a special player, special scorer, special shooter. I mean, he was taking 35-foot shots. It’s hard to double-team a guy that is that far out. And he makes them. He makes them like they’re layups. I’ve never seen anything like it.”

On that night, Curry took eight 3-pointers from 28 feet and beyond, and made six of them. This season, per Basketball-Reference tracking, Curry has taken 25 3-pointers from this area and made a jaw-dropping 16 of them. That’s a conversion rate of 64 percent -- on shots near the halfcourt logo.

Brooks calls them layups. But if you do the math, they’re more like dunks. The bonus point within a 3-pointer means that on these deep 3s, Curry is averaging 1.92 points per attempt this season. Dunk attempts are averaging 1.82 points this season, according to Basketball-Reference.com tracking

Yes, Curry launching from deep this season has been a smidge more efficient than a friggin’ dunk.
 
Teams are struggling to adapt. Curry’s incredible shooting has at times necessitated his own version of the Jordan Rules, the famous bullying tactic the Detroit Pistons deployed on Jordan in the playoffs. After the game, Wizards All-Star guard Bradley Beal was asked how to defend Curry when he’s in the zone. His response could have been straight out of Chuck Daly’s playbook.
 
“Foul the sh-- out of him,” Beal said. “And even when we did that, he was still making them. So, I don’t know.”

Beal then closed his eyes, raised his eyebrows and turned his head as if someone just asked him to explain the physics of gravity. 

* * *

The 30-foot dunks have put Curry into hallowed ground. 

The early favorite for MVP, Curry is on track to go down as the NBA’s most efficient scorer ever. If you pull up the 55 NBA greats who boast a career scoring average of at least 20 points per game on Basketball-Reference.com, Curry’s true-shooting percentage of 62.3 percent is the best ever (minimum 500 games). Said another way, Curry is an incredible 62.3-percent shooter when you factor in 3-point attempts and 1-point attempts (free throws). For reference, LeBron James and Shaquille O’Neal check in at a career 58.6 percent and Jordan at 56.9. There have been plenty of 20-point scorers, but no one has done it this efficiently.

Just as Bird discounted Jordan’s unconventional game while MJ terrorized the league, Charles Barkley has been the dismissive critic of Curry. In February 2016, months after Curry won the MVP and a championship, Barkley was asked by DIME magazine if Curry is as dominant as he and Shaq were in their prime. Barkley disagreed.

“He’s just a great shooter. It’s a totally different animal.”

He’s more than a just a shooter, right? Barkley’s response: “No. He’s not more than a shooter. He’s just a great shooter.”

Jordan was just a dunker. Curry was just a shooter. But both are incredibly valuable skills on a basketball court. If you can seemingly slam the ball in the basket on command, you’ve figured out a cheat code. Same goes for sinking 30-footers that are worth three points. 

Should you need proof of why Curry’s superhuman shooting ability is not to be belittled, consider the fascinating Nylon Calculus research that showed Curry’s mere presence helps lift his teammates’ shooting percentages better than anybody in the game -- even LeBron James. 

If the name of the game is to stuff as many points as possible into every possession, Curry belongs in the conversation with the greatest. Not just greatest shooters, but greatest ever.

And if you don’t love modern analytics, don’t forget Curry’s traditional accolades are piling up as well. Curry is now just the eighth player in NBA history with three titles and multiple MVPs. If things stay on course and Curry wins a third MVP and his fourth title this season, that list gets whittled down to just five players -- Kareem, Russell, Jordan, Magic and Curry. Not bad for just a shooter.

Tom Haberstroh is the national NBA Insider for NBC Sports. You can follow him on on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh).

Ariza is a Band-Aid, not the solution

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USA Today

Ariza is a Band-Aid, not the solution

How many Band-Aids can you stick on a gaping wound?

That’s essentially what the Washington Wizards are trying to figure out with their latest trade for Trevor Ariza, a 33-year-old who is shooting 37.9 percent from the floor and statistically mired in the worst season of his career.

The wound here is an active payroll that is the sixth-highest in the NBA for the league’s sixth-worst team in the standings. And the payroll is likely to grow next season when John Wall’s four-year, $170 million extension kicks in.

By acquiring Ariza’s expiring $15 million contract, the Wizards tossed in two of the only young players in their rotation, 23-year-old Kelly Oubre and 26-year-old Austin Rivers. Moving Oubre, who is set to become a restricted free agent this summer, is not a franchise-changing transaction, but it’s another stop-gap move by a team compensating for a previous decision.

It started with Otto Porter Jr. and the decision to match Brooklyn’s $106 million offer sheet in June 2017. The Wizards could have let the Nets, who weren’t a rival, take on that contract. Such a move would’ve allowed the Wizards to focus their efforts on Oubre Jr., the Wizards’ 2015 first-round pick who also played Porter’s position.

When the Wizards matched, execs around the league began to wonder: What did this mean for Oubre? Could they afford both?

That question was all-but-answered a month later when Wall signed a max extension, ensuring the Wizards would owe him $207 million through 2022-23 season. That meant Washington’s trio of Wall, Beal (due another $105 million) and Porter were locked in for a whopping $418 million. 

Oubre’s fate in Washington was sealed two summers ago. This is not baseball where teams can spend exorbitant payrolls and not worry about finding cap space for the supporting cast. This is the NBA. There is a luxury-tax line and a repeater luxury-tax line. With that much money dumped into three players, the Wizards had little choice but to throw darts at cast-off veterans on the downsides of their careers.

It has not gone well. 

This summer, the Wizards traded away Marcin Gortat for Rivers and replaced Gortat by signing 33-year-old Dwight Howard, who was just waived by the Nets. While Rivers was a worthwhile gamble at age-26, Howard has played just nine games and may not play again until the All-Star break. Despite his modest $5 million price tag, the Wizards granted him a player option for 2019-20, which may loom large if he doesn’t fully recover from back surgery.

The Wizards also became the fifth team (Grizzlies, Clippers, Magic and Cavs before Washington) in the last five years to take a flier on 32-year-old Jeff Green. And on Saturday, the Wizards flipped Oubre and Rivers for 33-year-old Ariza.

Look, Ariza isn’t as bad as he’s been playing this season in Phoenix. He’s a solid catch-and-shoot option who can run in transition and, when feeling fresh, defend multiple positions.
 
Defensively, he’s lost a step since the Rockets’ deep playoff run and with the Suns. Synergy Sports tracking places him in the 27th percentile on that end of the floor. He’s also less disruptive, generating 2.2 deflections per 36 minutes, down almost a third from his 3.1 deflections per 36 minutes last season. More glaring: the Suns allowed 10.5 points per 100 possessions more when he was on the floor compared to when he was on the bench. All in all, the Suns were 12.6 points-per-100-possessions worse with him on the floor this season.

The Suns added Ariza because he’s been a glue-guy veteran who could ostensibly mentor and improve the youngsters around him. Except the Suns got worse, not better.

They cut bait.

So why do the Wizards think it’ll be any different in Washington? Well, they do have fond memories of Ariza. Back in 2013-14, Ariza was instrumental in the Wizards’ 44-win season and surprising first-round playoff win. But the, “Hey, maybe he can turn back the clock and be like he was five years ago!” strategy is what led them to Howard, Green and Ian Mahinmi’s $64 million contract.

Maybe Ariza just needed a change of scenery. Maybe Phoenix was a toxic environment. Maybe he can turn back time. Maybe he can do what former Sun Tyson Chandler has done with the resurgent Lakers.

But these hopeful maybes have to feel hollow for a fanbase that hasn’t seen a 50-win team in nearly 40 years.

The good news is that the front office didn’t panic and flip Oubre and Rivers for 25 cents on the dollar after Friday night’s three-team trade fell apart over confusion about whether the Grizzlies were including Marshon or Dillon Brooks in the deal. On Saturday, the Wizards cut Memphis out and got it done anyway.

Ariza figures to stay in D.C. for a playoff push, but if it doesn’t work, the Wizards also have the option of trading him again, as long as it’s a one-for-one deal, according to the collective bargaining agreement. If Phoenix owner Robert Sarver truly was hell-bent on not trading Ariza to the Lakers -- like The Athletic’s David Aldridge reported late Friday night -- perhaps the Wizards can extract more value from the Lakers than Phoenix could. 

One deal to monitor in that scenario would be flipping Ariza to the Lakers for 25-year-old wing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. The potential trade works from a CBA perspective and would endlessly tickle every Sarver adversary out there.

Regardless, the Wizards could still make the playoffs simply because there are only six teams in the East with winning records. As of Monday morning, FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO model offers the rosiest outlook, with a 70 percent likelihood of making the playoffs in its simulations (It’s pure ELO model, at 40 percent, is not as bullish). However, Basketball-Reference’s model paints a darker picture, giving the team just a 13 percent chance. 

Yes, the statistical models are just as confused about the Wizards as all of us.

If the Wizards weren’t going to pay Oubre this summer, perhaps it’s worth taking a flier on Ariza and hoping for the best. But in Wiz land -- with the sixth-highest payroll and the sixth-worst record -- patience might be wearing thin.

In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

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NBC Sports

In The Courts: The State of NBA Betting

LeBron James was done hiding it. 

After getting swept in the 2018 NBA Finals, James sat at the postgame podium and briefly rested his hands on the table in front of him. A tsunami of camera flashes began flooding the room because, there it was, for all the world to see: a soft cast covering his right hand. James picked up the microphone with his left hand and began to take questions from the surrounding media.

Sitting at his Las Vegas home, Vic Salerno couldn’t bring himself to watch. The legendary Vegas bookmaker, who is the president of USBookmaking and was inducted into the American Gaming Association Hall of Fame in 2016 for his innovation in the regulated sports wagering industry, thought he had seen it all in his 40 years of work in the sports betting industry. But nothing quite like this. 

In that presser, James admitted he played through what he described as “pretty much ... a broken hand,” confirming the stunning media reports that trickled out within moments after Game 4 final buzzer. Salerno was blindsided by the news that James had suffered a serious injury to his shooting hand in the aftermath of a bizarre Game 1. Multiple MRIs were taken, according to ESPN’s Brian Windhorst, for his visibly swollen hand. Still, James kept playing through the injury and averaged 28.3 points, 10.7 assists and 8.7 rebounds in the final three games, all losses. No one said a word about the hand.

To many, it was a Herculean feat by James.

But to Salerno, this was something entirely different. In Salerno’s eyes, this was a devastating blow to the integrity of the game, an inexcusable breach of trust. Perpetrated by, not LeBron, but the NBA itself. And Salerno was ready to battle the league office head on, in the courts.

* * *

Even before the Supreme Court struck down the Professional and Amateur Sports Protection Act (PASPA) on May 14, 2018, NBA lawyers had begun lobbying in various state courts and proposing that sportsbooks (like the ones Salerno helped operate across the US) should be required to pay the NBA a small percentage of every bet placed on its games to ensure integrity is being maintained.

“Call it a royalty, call it an integrity fee,” NBA commissioner Adam Silver told reporters at his annual NBA Finals press conference two weeks after PASPA was reversed. “We will have additional expenses [to further protect integrity], and it’s ultimately our intellectual property and we ultimately believe we should be compensated for it.”

Salerno was incensed at James’ revelation, and so were other sportsbook operators, he says. Here was the NBA’s biggest star playing on the biggest stage, suffering what he says was a broken bone in his shooting hand, and laboring through it for multiple games.. Millions of dollars were wagered on these games with betting lines based on, in large part, official injury reports provided by the league, the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Golden State Warriors. 

Nothing in those reports said anything about James’ injured hand and thus bettors went heavy on the Cavs. After Game 1, 94 percent of bets to win the series at William Hill’s Nevada sportsbook were placed on Cleveland and MGM’s sportsbook took six times more bets on the Cavs than the Warriors, according to ESPN’s David Purdum. As it turns out, the Cavs failed to cover the spread in any of the remaining games (though Salerno says the sportsbooks didn’t lose money on the bets, nor did they spot any irregularities in betting). 

But the issue raises a host of questions. How soon did the Cavs know about James’ injury? Who in the organization knew? Did the league know and if not, why not? And did anyone leak that information to bettors? 

Without citing concrete evidence, Salerno believes the league was aware of James’ injury and chose not disclose it.

“Oh, they knew,” Salerno says over the phone. “They knew.”

But when contacted by NBC Sports this week, NBA spokesman Tim Frank called that claim “100 percent false” and denied any knowledge of James’ injury before it became public following Game 4. Salerno finds that hard to believe, considering the stakes and, you know, the fact that the hand belonged to LeBron James.

Dan Spillane, NBA Senior Vice President and Assistant General Counsel who is leading the league’s efforts to lobby for royalty fees and a compensation package in state legislature, says the Cavs followed league policy that requires teams to detail whether a player is probable, questionable, doubtful or out due to injury, illness, personal matters or resting.

“In this particular situation, LeBron [James] played in all of those games and played very well,” Spillane explained over the phone. “This wasn’t, as I understand it, an injury that was going to affect whether he was going to play or not. LeBron was going to play in the rest of the series.”

John T. Holden, a leading sports law expert and an assistant professor at the University at Oklahoma State, worries that the NBA’s policy needs to be expanded to cover injuries like James’ that could affect the gambling world.

“These things need to be disclosed,” Holden says. “Otherwise, you’re just creating a market for people with that information. And that’s where integrity really gets threatened.”

Spillane believes it’s hard to imagine the NBA expands its injury-reporting policy to include injuries that might affect performance without “hundreds of reports being filed constantly” by NBA teams. 

“While it’s a fair question to raise, it’s not obvious how you would construct a rule that would require disclosure of that kind of thing without becoming all-encompassing and requiring a much more burdensome, intrusive and wide-range of disclosures than we have today,” Spillane says.

Still, Salerno isn’t satisfied with the league’s stance.

“This really blows their whole argument apart,” Salerno says. “That proved to me that we couldn’t count on the NBA to protect the integrity of the game.”

This isn’t just an opinion of a bitter bookmaker. Salerno is one of the biggest, most-trusted names in the sports betting industry. In October, as the director of sportsbook operations for BetChicago, Salerno testified in front of Illinois lawmakers at a sports wagering hearing and raised the Finals issue as an example of why sportsbooks should not be required by the law to pay an integrity fee to sports leagues. In that meeting, a National Basketball Players Association representative defended James’ right to withhold that information.

State legislatures, so far, are siding with Salerno and the sportsbooks. None of the eight states with legal sports betting have included an integrity fee, which is currently proposed by the NBA, MLB and PGA Tour as 0.25 percent of the amount of money wagered, otherwise known as the handle. (The compensation package was initially introduced as an “integrity” fee in January but has since been called a royalty). Still, Spillane and the NBA’s team of lawyers continue to make their case that the NBA deserves a cut off the top. It’s a big ask considering sportsbooks in New Jersey, for example, took home just six percent of the handle

“It has been a part of several bills that have been introduced in various states over the course of the year including a couple that came very close to passage,” Spillane says. “We view this as the very beginning of the process, though.”

Four years after Silver wrote a groundbreaking op-ed for the New York Times, the NBA has put on the full-court press to leverage the Supreme Court ruling and boost revenues for NBA owners. The integrity fee (or royalty fee) is just one revenue stream related to gambling. 

The others will undoubtedly change the way fans will experience the sport. Already, the whole NBA landscape is shifting before our eyes.

* * *

Sports leagues and the gambling world have long been embroiled in something of a cold war. 

For years, the NFL went as far as banning the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority from advertising during the Super Bowl, even without any reference to sports betting or gambling in general. Now, the NFL will relocate the Oakland Raiders to Vegas in 2020 and commissioner Roger Goodell announced on Wednesday that it will hold its 2020 NFL Draft in Sin City, saying the NFL is "looking forward to working with" that same Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority in its press release. As recently as 2012, then-NBA commissioner David Stern wrote in a declaration in a New Jersey case against legalized sports gambling: “The NBA cannot be compensated in damages for the harm that sports gambling poses to the fundamental bonds of loyalty and devotion between fans and teams.”

Like the NFL, the NBA also reversed its position recently. In one of his first landmark moves as NBA commissioner, Silver’s 2014 Times op-ed argued in favor of legalized sports gambling. Silver’s direct repudiation of his mentor changed everything and laid the groundwork for the current gambling-friendly climate. (Stern now backs legalized sports gambling).

“Silver’s op-ed was huge,” Holden says. “It was sort of the first professional sports league change in policy in about a hundred years. It was certainly a monumental change.”

But May 14, 2018 changed tides and opened up the floodgates. That afternoon, Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban went on CNBC and didn’t hold back when summarizing the SCOTUS decision: “Everybody who owns top-four professional sports teams just basically saw the value of their team double,” Cuban said. “At least.”

The NBA didn’t hesitate to line up business deals that industry sources say are amounting to millions of dollars of revenue. In late July, the NBA announced that MGM Resorts would become an official gaming partner of the NBA and WNBA, marking the first partnership of its kind with a sports betting operator in the United States. This week, the NBA landed another partnership, this time with the Stars Group, which operates in New Jersey under its BetStars brand.

Things have changed so quickly that Las Vegas is now seen as a potential safe harbor for an NBA team. On Wednesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Phoenix Suns owner Robert Sarver was threatening to move the team to Las Vegas (or Seattle) if the city couldn’t agree on an arena deal. The NBA has developed strong roots in Las Vegas, holding its Summer League there since 2004 and making it the premier offseason showcase in recent years. In 2017, it became the MGM Resorts NBA Summer League through a marketing deal with the casino giant. 

With the climate softening on Vegas and NBA gambling in general, Cuban hired the most famous NBA bettor, Haralabos Voulgaris, and brought him into the Mavs’ front office to help him win games. Voulgaris’ nearly 150,000 followers on Twitter won’t have access to his keen insights into the NBA anymore. But soon, fans might be able to attend an NBA game and legally bet on it without having to look over their shoulder. Yes, in-arena betting may be coming sooner than you think.

* * *

At the local level, teams are joining in on the betting biz boom. 

In October, the Philadelphia 76ers’ ownership group, Harris Blitzer Sports & Entertainment, announced a multi-year partnership with Caesars Entertainment, which operates the Harrah’s Philadelphia just 30 minutes away from the Sixers’ home at Wells Fargo Center. Caesars also operates sportsbooks in Atlantic City, which will be the destination for Sixers in-game promotions such as “Score For The Shore” half-court shots or “Live Like A Caesars VIP” social media contest on the team’s official feed.

Was it a coincidence that they struck a deal just months after PASPA was repealed?

“It’s not,” says Caesars SVP Marketing & Chief Experience Officer Michael Marino. “For us, we think there’s a lot of value in meeting sports fans because we believe they’re highly likely to become sports betting fans as well. There’s certainly more interest now than five months ago in meeting these fans. We’re looking forward to the many different activations as a brand partner and then also, obviously, the more direct to the consumer we can get, the better.”

Caesars has reason to be bullish about officially getting into the NBA space. In less than six months of operation, gamblers in New Jersey have wagered nearly $1 billion. (Under the hypothetical of a quarter-percent royalty fee, a $1 billion handle would mean sportsbooks would have to write a $2.5 million check to sports leagues). On Thursday, Philadelphia’s first sportsbook, SugarHouse Casino, is set to open just a 15-minute drive from the Sixers’ arena.

Marino envisions that in early 2019 fans seated inside Wells Fargo Center can open up their Caesars app on their phone and bet on the game. The state of Pennsylvania legalized land sports betting in November, but online gambling hasn’t been launched yet. Now, fans on their phones can only bet legally in New Jersey, just a few minutes away. 

It’s partnerships like these that have people wondering how soon we will see a sportsbook at an NBA arena. Salerno believes fans will be soon able to bet on NBA games in a brick-and-mortar space at an NBA arena “within the year.” Think Churchill Downs, but with an NBA game as the live event.

Marino doesn’t think Wells Fargo Center will have a sportsbook any time soon, but it’s not out of the question for Caesars to open up a sportsbook on-site down the road.

“Someday,” Marino says, “we would love that.”

One theory is that legalizing sports gambling will make more fans tune into games and attend live events.

But that hasn’t happened just yet. According to Sports Media Watch tracking, ratings have been in surprising decline so far this season. Through last Friday, ESPN and TNT have seen a year-over-year drop in 24 of the 37 NBA games they have aired this season. Part of that might be due to Stephen Curry’s injury, general Warriors fatigue and the early struggles of elite teams in some of the NBA’s largest markets like Houston and Boston. Still, the gambling boom hasn’t led to more eyeballs quite yet.

“The numbers are well below what I expected this season with LeBron’s move to L.A.,” said Jon Lewis, who writes under the psyeudonym “Paulsen” at Sports Media Watch and has been covering sports ratings since 2006.

However, at the local level, it might be a different story. As Pennsylvania and New Jersey ramp up their sportsbooks offerings, the 76ers now rank No. 1 league-wide in attendance, averaging 20,339 fans per home game. What’s more, the team’s local broadcast partner, NBC Sports Philadelphia just posted its highest November average since 2001 -- the year Allen Iverson won MVP. It’s far too early to attribute that growth to the legalization of gambling in the Philly region, but these sort of viewership gains are the goal.

To Salerno, this is why lobbying for integrity or royalty fees is a waste of time. In his view, the NBA will make plenty of money on gambling-related private partnerships, advertising and increases in franchise value. The NBA, from his perspective, has already benefited greatly from gambling even before PASPA was repealed.

“Who’s going to watch the Nets-Celtics game when the Celtics are a 16-point favorite? If nobody’s betting on it, nobody’s going to watch the game,” Salerno says. “We’ve made them a lot of money.”

Holden believes that won’t stop the NBA from going to the courts and advocating for an integrity fee. A federal sports betting bill has recently been drafted and, though it’s unlikely to pass in Holden’s view, how Congress proceeds will be worth monitoring. Still, expect more NBA/MGM-like business deals to continue.

“I think the league is going to continue to press very hard to get a cut of the handle, but I think the best opportunities for the league to profit from legalized sports gambling is through these private partnerships,” Holden says. “There are a number of legal issues associated with states mandating integrity fees.”

Holden warns that the NBA might be sending the wrong message to fans that, before the federal ban was lifted on sports gambling, the league wasn’t financially or systemically equipped to protect integrity of the game. If bringing sports gambling from the shady underground to above ground will be safer for bettors as Silver argued in his op-ed, why suddenly ask for integrity fees now?

“That’s a very contradictory statement that they’ve made,” Holden says. “I don’t know how sustainable it is to continue asking for the integrity fee. They are not going broke paying lobbyists to ask for integrity fees but at some point, how many times do you want to strike out, before you move onto something else?”

Holden then pauses.

“But it can’t hurt to ask for free money,”