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NBA futures: LeBron takes his talents to Hollywood?

Matt Youmans  
VSiN senior editor

June 20, 2018 07:00 AM

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Is LeBron James returning to Cleveland? When the week started, the Cavaliers were posted at 50-1 odds to win the 2018-19 NBA championship. After a significant bet surfaced, the Westgate moved the number to 12-1 on Monday.
© USA Today Sports Images

LeBron James, the NBA’s drama king, has all eyes on him this summer as The Decision Part III nears. Oddsmakers in Las Vegas and offshore locales are watching every move he might make and following every rumor.

Will LeBron take his talents to Hollywood and, if so, will his L.A. team of choice be the Lakers or Clippers? What are the chances he heads to Houston or Philadelphia? As bettors take shots at guessing the answer, bookmakers are aggressively adjusting futures odds on the 2018-19 championship.

The most popular pick of the betting public is the Lakers, who were posted at 20-1 odds just 10 days ago. A crush of action on the Lakers has caused those odds to move to 6-1 at the South Point and William Hill sports books and 10-1 at the Westgate. The recent report that Kawhi Leonard wants out of San Antonio and hopes to land in L.A. is more motivation for the Lakers’ speculators.

“There are so many angles to this. It’s hard booking these futures because there’s 100 different rumors,” said Jeff Sherman, the top NBA oddsmaker at the Westgate. “Everyone is betting based on these rumors.

“I can say I’m convinced LeBron’s not going to be back in Cleveland, and that’s why we (had) the Cavs at 50-1. I can’t say I’m convinced he’s going to the Lakers.”

Sherman lowered the Cavaliers to 12-1 on Monday, when a bettor asked for $3,500 at 50-1 odds. The Westgate booked a $1,000 bet before moving the number.

“We take lower limits on it prior to free agency with all of the unknowns,” Sherman said.

The Golden State Warriors, winners of back-to-back NBA titles, top the Westgate futures board at even money. Boston is the second choice at 4-1, followed by Houston (9-2), Philadelphia (10-1) and the Lakers.

Nevada gaming regulations restrict books from posting proposition odds on such bets as players changing teams. But one prominent offshore book recently posted numbers on which team James will be on in the first game of next season. The Lakers were made odds-on favorites (-140), followed by the 76ers (9-2) and Rockets (7-1).

It might seem absurd for the Lakers to be posted at single-digit odds to win the championship, yet bookmakers adjust futures prices based on exposure to specific teams. Sherman said the Westgate was forced to move the odds as low as 6-1 when the book’s liability on the Lakers approached $100,000 late last week. A $1,200 wager on the Lakers was placed at 20-1, and several more Lakers’ bets were made in the $500 range.

On the morning of July 4, 2016, Kevin Durant announced his plans to leave Oklahoma City for Golden State via free agency. Durant’s decision shook up the odds board, with the Warriors moving to 2-3 favorites (-150) to win the 2017 championship.

The previous day, Sherman said, at least one bettor had a clue. The Westgate took a $20,000 wager on Golden State at 3-2 odds ( 150), a preemptive strike that paid off.

“Nobody is betting 20 dimes at that price unless they have an idea of something going on,” Sherman said.

It’s a guarantee that teams, players and agents are involved in under-the-table talks now, though no free agents can reach verbal agreements until July 1.

The Celtics currently lead the futures ticket count at the Westgate — with the Lakers a close second — and Boston’s odds have been chopped in half from 8-1. The returns of Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving are driving factors in that action, in addition to James’ anticipated departure from Cleveland and the theory the Celtics could make a blockbuster deal for Leonard.

One team being overlooked by the betting public is Philadelphia, but the 76ers hold the assets to acquire Leonard in a trade with the Spurs, who prefer to send Leonard to the East instead of to L.A. The Clippers, posted at 80-1 odds, are another team overlooked by most oddsmakers.

What happens in the NBA Draft on Thursday will not significantly change futures prices. The draft is basically ignored in Las Vegas, where bookmakers have not bothered to post props and may not this week. But a draft-related trade of an established star such as Leonard could trigger a shakeup.

Here is the key: Where Leonard goes, LeBron seems more likely to follow.

If Philadelphia pulls off a trade for Leonard, Sherman said, the 76ers with Leonard, James, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid could become the title favorites ahead of Golden State. If the Clippers or Lakers add Leonard, James and Paul George might soon follow.

“I’m sure if James went to L.A., someone like George would go with him,” Sherman said. “I have heard the Clippers are going to be aggressive in trying to get Leonard. LeBron has got a great path to go to Philly, and with Embiid and Simmons, the Sixers are the favorites to win the East. Everyone is betting Boston out of the East, and nobody is betting Philly. But if you add Leonard and had those four playing together, that would be an unbelievable team.”

The Lakers would need to offer an over-the-top trade the Spurs could not refuse — possibly Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, another player and a first-round pick — to get Leonard.

San Antonio is more likely to consider competitive offers from the Celtics, 76ers and Clippers. And maybe even the Cavs. A potential Leonard deal, not the draft lottery, is most important to watch this week.

There will be more suspense in the offseason than there was in the NBA Finals, when LeBron took a broom to the backside and then showed off his (supposedly) broken right hand. Was that his final game in Cleveland?

It would be much ado about nothing if the drama king stays home.

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