Evaluating the Betting Odds for Where Kawhi Leonard Will Play in 2018-19
Kawhi Leonard's NBA career has been one odd roller coaster ride.
Selected with the 15th pick in the 2011 draft, Leonard was dealt from the Indiana Pacers to the San Antonio Spurs on draft night (in exchange for George Hill). In true Spurs fashion, head coach Gregg Popovich and the team turned a raw 19-year-old Leonard into a Finals MVP in the matter of two-plus seasons. By the end of the 2016-17 year, he was a two-time All-Star with two Defensive Player of the Year awards to his name.
He was a top-five (probably top-three) player coming off the best regular season of his career. However, following an appearance in the 2017 playoffs, a nagging quad injury followed Leonard into the offseason and kept him out of the 2018 preseason. But his absence stretched even further than anticipated, carrying over into the regular season.
Eventually, Leonard took the floor but played in only nine games before returning to the bench for what turned out to the be the rest of the season. Though he was cleared by team doctors, he cited his own medical team, which had yet to give him the green light for a return.
The entire saga stirred up rumors of a strained relationship with the team, and that led to a players-only meeting. It was around that time that a report surfaced regarding the Los Angeles Clippers' monitoring of the situation.
After sitting out San Antonio's five playoff contests, Leonard had a sit-down with Popovich to clear the air. The expectation was that the two sides would mend fences and agree on a max deal worth $219 million over five years.
But less than a week later, multiple outlets reported that Leonard wants out of San Antonio. Many teams, including the Clippers and Cleveland Cavaliers, have expressed interest in acquiring Leonard. And the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics have emerged as the most discussed potential landing spots in a trade.
Bookmaker.eu didn't take long to put odds on the situation, with the Lakers favorites at -200 compared to the Spurs at +500. But should the Lakers be the favorites, and does another squad provide better betting value at lower odds?
The Incumbent Spurs
At +500, the Spurs opened with an implied probability of 16.7% to retain their All-NBA forward. Hours later, they had been bet down to +579 (14.7%) -- a far cry from where they stood (-170, 63.0%), according to odds released by Bovada on April 18th.
For a number of reasons, it's become quite obvious that the Spurs aren't likely to hold on to Leonard. From today's special prop on Bookmaker, Leonard is listed at +329 (23.3%) to be a Spur in 2018-19, but he's even more likely -- 3.5 times as much -- to be in a different uniform. At -499, the implied probability of him ending up on any other team sits at 83.3%.
That being said, there's value in putting some money on the Spurs at their decreasing odds. Not only is the franchise known for retaining star players like Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and David Robinson, to name a few, but even more recently, a disgruntled LaMarcus Aldridge and Coach Pop were able to meet in the middle. For Aldridge, the result was a career year and a spot on the All-NBA Second Team.
Also working in favor of a San Antonio bet is the misconception about their small-market label. According to 2016-17 data, the Spurs are the NBA's 11th-most valuable team at around $1.55 billion, and they were the ninth-best team in terms of draw on a national level this season.
Add that to the fact that Leonard would be forced to surrender $31 million in giving up the $219 million supermax with San Antonio for a $188 million contract anywhere else. While Leonard suggests that he's not worried about missing out on that money, it's hard to completely take that out of the equation here.
As has become customary of late, the Lakers have become the suggested destination for big-time free agents -- LeBron James and Paul George chief among them -- like Leonard. If we're being honest, it's now been five seasons since the team boasted a star (Kobe Bryant). They're hungry for one, and now is as good a time as any to make a play for an elite name.
On top of the Lakers' historic legacy, with 16 championships and countless Hall of Fame players, they have the money to pay Leonard $37-plus million a year. L.A. has just eight players under contract for next year, amounting to only $39.1 million toward the cap (according to Spotrac). Assuming they let restricted free agent Julius Randle walk on an offer sheet, they could pursue Leonard by sending out guys like Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and/or Josh Hart. However, they could opt to use Randle (and the salary he'll command) to help make the money match up.
Matching up the money could be the biggest hurdle in completing a deal that works for both sides. It's unlikely that the Lakers deal all three of the above guys, but even if they did, it would amount to approximately $9.1 million -- nearly $11 million shy of Kawhi's roughly $20.1 million salary for 2018-19. Combining Ingram and Kuzma would amount to under $7.5 million, but if they can match a Randle (whose qualifying offer is $5.6 million) contract at about $12 million, things would work out perfectly for them to send him, two others and a pick (they own the 25th and 47th picks in this year's draft) to retool the Spurs.
That would still leave a lot of room for Magic Johnson and company to pursue James, George and others, assembling their own form of a super-team to combat that of the Golden State Warriors. Whether or not a deal gets done, though, hinges upon the Spurs' reported reluctance to do business with their Western Conference rivals. That's probably why, when released, we saw the Lakers' odds quickly go from -200 to -124 in the matter of hours.
The Lakers are as intriguing a destination as there is, but there doesn't appear to be much value in betting them at this time.
The Beasts of the East
Unlike the Lakers, the Celtics have the benefit of being in the East, away from what would be a rebuilding Spurs team in the West. And with the Celtics, being a contender isn't a matter of whether James or George joins Leonard. At +800, Boston opened as Vegas' fourth-highest favorite to take the title in 2019, and the addition of Leonard would, in all likelihood, push them ahead of the Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets -- both at +350 to Golden State's +125 odds.
For Boston to make a move, it comes down to their willingness to give up prized assets. There's been a lot of talk about who and what the Celtics should consider, but there's no way Danny Ainge -- with all his wizardry -- gets around including one of either Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum (who might just be untouchable) as Leonard's replacement on the wing. Also, with Brown making under $5.2 million, the Celtics would need to deal a combination of Marcus Morris, Terry Rozier and Guerschon Yabusele or an established, high-contract guy in Al Horford or Gordon Hayward.
The Celtics could get away with Brown, Morris, Rozier and Yabusele. Brown and Rozier are 21 and 24, respectively, and the Celtics could throw in 1 of 10 potential first-round selections over the next four drafts. It could be worth targeting if their odds drop back down to or around +1200, which is where they opened before moving to +347 on the afternoon that news broke of the Spurs preferring to send Kawhi to the East.
The Philadelphia 76ers, the team eliminated by the Celtics in this year's playoffs, are Bookmaker's second-most likely landing spot among Eastern Conference squads. They have a lot in common with Boston in that they are a relatively young team and should compete for the crown of the East, assuming that either LeBron heads out West or joins Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and company. But that -- meaning LeBron -- could be a pitfall to landing Kawhi.
If LeBron were to choose to bring his talents to the youth movement in Philly, his presumed four-year, $152 million max deal would eat up $38 million of the team's $44.7 million in cap space heading into the year. With Leonard making around $21 million, the Sixers would probably have to include Robert Covington and his $10.4 million contract, with the Spurs likely to want either Markelle Fultz or Dario Saric in addition to pick compensation. Granted, that would create a starting five with four spots occupied by Simmons, Leonard, James and Embiid. Yo!
That sounds like a good problem to have, but 2018 won't be the problem -- 2019 and beyond will. Simmons is still on his rookie deal and would demand more money as soon as next offseason (his contract expires before the 2020-21 season), and with James and Embiid on big deals and Leonard due for a pay raise, that core wouldn't see more than a season together. In other words, the Sixers would be selling out for one season after going through the entirety of The Process to get to this point.
Back on April 18th, the Sixers stood at +400 before moving to +1500 on June 15th and +644 later that day. The line movement is encouraging for their chances, but not much else is.
The Other Contenders
There has been as much chatter about the Clippers as any other team in recent days. Some of it has been negative, but it's clear that the franchise is looking for its next big star, and it could be Leonard. Reportedly, the Clippers are willing to offer Tobias Harris along with the 12th and 13th picks in this year's draft. They might have to throw in another low-salary guy to make it work, though it would appear the Spurs would get what they need in three young assets, including a replacement at small forward.
Since starting at +700 odds two months back, the Clippers have actually experienced a downward trend. After news broke four days back, they went from +1500 to +1088, which would suggest that they will inch closer to where they were in mid-April. If Steve Balmer and company can get past Leonard's red flags on the injury front, the Clippers might just swoop in and shock the favorite Lakers.
The Cavaliers have a ton up in the air this offseason, and they've added the possibility of Leonard donning the wine and gold next year. Only a day ago, the team had reportedly made calls to the Spurs regarding a potential trade. Undoubtedly, this has to be a move to keep LeBron in Cleveland for at least another year.
While the Cavaliers may have interest, it appears that neither Leonard or the Spurs have much interest in this one. It's become quite obvious that Leonard is looking for a big market and to be a franchise's go-to guy. On the Spurs' end, though, the Cavs don't possess the assets to make the move. Their best asset is the Brooklyn Nets' eighth overall pick in 2018, and there are not many contracts to help match Leonard's incoming salary.
Kevin Love, George Hill and Tristan Thompson come in at $24.1, $19.0 and $17.5 million, respectively, but they're probably not the types of assets the Spurs are looking for. And Thompson would have to be coupled with another player at that. For that reason, the Cavs were at +2147 (4.5% implied probability) on Friday afternoon -- a decrease of 3.2% from their +1200 back in April. They are appropriately priced as the last of the top six (including the Spurs) contenders.
The Outside Shots
The Phoenix Suns have been a part of a few prop bets this offseason, including their draft position in the lottery and who they will pick with the first pick in the draft. However, until recently, they haven't been on sportsbooks' radars for this year's top free agents or trade targets. But with the Kawhi news, they emerged with +1500 odds -- and that, in large part, stems from the team's assets.
On top of this year's number-one pick, with which they're expected to take Arizona's Deandre Ayton, Phoenix owns the 16th, 31st and 59th selections for this week's edition of the draft. They also have 2019 and 2021 first-rounders incoming from Milwaukee and Miami, respectively. And that's just Phoenix's draft assets. The Suns also have young up-and-comers in Devin Booker, Josh Jackson and Marquese Chriss, all of whom are 21 or younger and still on their rookie deals.
It's not all that difficult to fathom a deal both ways, but is it gaining any traction? If Monday is any indication, there could be something to this.
On European sportsbook 5Dimes, the Suns went from +1700 to -140 to acquire Leonard in the matter of 21 minutes. After that, the line appeared to stabilize at +245 (29.0% odds). Still, that type of swing suggests that something was in the making. Maybe Phoenix isn't as set on taking Ayton, and maybe they'd like to take on a more proven, experienced player to go alongside Booker. Whatever the reason, it's worth monitoring, and if the price goes back into the triple-digits, laying money on the Suns wouldn't be a bad idea.
One of these things is not like the others, and that's the Milwaukee Bucks. Of the teams to be listed with odds on Bookmaker, their +2000 and +4000 odds (2.4% implied probability) came in dead last. And there hasn't been any murmurs about them since.
Sure, the Bucks have Giannis Antetokounmpo and they play in the less competitive East, but they're still a smaller market (26th) with limited assets to wheel and deal. With five players -- none of them named Jabari Parker -- set to make $10-plus million in 2018, the Bucks have over $103 million in cap allocations. Parker's contract could easily push that beyond $110 million, and the Greek Freak has already voiced his opinion on bringing the 23-year-old back. It doesn't seem to be a fit here, plain and simple.