An explosive NBA off-season has ensured the title will hinge on a handful of relationships forged over the coming months. Betfair's Mark Kirwan gives his best bets for the upcoming 2017-18 campaign...
"For Golden State, their serene summer has contrasted with the upheaval elsewhere. Durant and Curry both signed contract extensions, and the Warriors have managed to retain a host of supporting players, including Andre Iguodala and David West, while making their bench deeper."
Even before the Carmelo Anthony trade, the gloom of last season had lifted from OKC with Paul George's arrival. His versatility as an attacking force and elite defence made him the most coveted player of all this offseason. The George trade catapulted a post-Durant Thunder from a probable playoff team to championship contenders. The addition of Anthony, another All-Star, could transform the Thunder for years to come.
These moves have already convinced Westbrook to sign a five-year contract extension. Can these three stars cultivate enough chemistry to make a run at the Warriors? If they can, there are brighter days ahead in Oklahoma City - they're [20.0] to go all the way.
OKC's swing for fences has stolen the thunder of the Houston Rockets. Their trade for Chris Paul, pairing him with MVP runner-up James Harden, would've been the most sensational move in a normal offseason. It adds to their already overwhelming offence, while PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute should improve a defensive game that needs to step up if the Rockets are to soar this season.
Egos allowing, the Rockets [18.5] should be in contention for a Western Conference finals appearance at the least. The Paul trade may blunt the Clippers challenge this season, but they should still be in the playoff mix. Any team would struggle to replace his elite talent, but, in Patrick Beverley they've secured a solid defensive presence, and Serb Milos Teodosic, signed from CSKA Moscow, could be a diamond in the rough.
Danilo Gallinari has been added from Denver, and, with Blake Griffin and rebound machine DeAndre Jordan returning, the departure of Paul needn't mean the Clippers fall out of contention.
In contrast, San Antonio [26.0] were very quiet this offseason, and the temptation to fade them out of the contender bracket grows with each year. Tony Parker, 35 years old, is out until February. Manu Ginobli is back at 40 after another summer of toying with retirement, and he makes Pau Gasol look spritely at 37. LaMarcus Aldridge, one of their younger stars, needs to contribute more after two disappointing seasons.
That the Spurs showed interest in Paul and George shows they need reinforcements. And yet, they won 61 games last season, and only Kawhi Leonard's freak injury in Game One of the Western Conference finals scuppered a convincing win on the Warriors' home court.
They should still be competitive with Leonard back in the line-up, and he has an opportunity to dominate like Westbrook did last season.
And then there's the blue, gold and white elephant in the room.
For Golden State [1.62], their serene summer has contrasted with the upheaval elsewhere. Durant and Curry both signed contract extensions, and the Warriors have managed to retain a host of supporting players, including Andre Iguodala and David West, while making their bench deeper.
Worries for GSW going forward stem from murmurings of future contract negotiations after securing Durant and Curry, the health of Coach Steve Kerr, and Kevin Durant's not-so-anonymous tweets. The Warriors remain the team to beat.
The most significant move in the East revolved around the top two teams, where Boston [14.0] and Cleveland [6.6] swapped stars. Kyrie Irving, Lebron's right-hand man since his return to the Cavs, grew tired of being overshadowed and requested a trade.
Stunningly, the Celtics were willing to part with their star point guard Isaiah Thomas, so the deal was done. Of concern for Cleveland is that Thomas is likely absent until January with a hip complaint, and that the Celtics allowed the face of their developing team leave. Are there issues with Thomas's long-term health?
Gordon Hayward joins Irving in moving to Boston, his protracted divorce from Utah finally confirmed. Given the pieces they've put together, and the changes in Cleveland, Boston has the potential to best the Cavs again this season in the regular season, and maybe the playoffs too.
Cleveland's roster would've looked unstoppable five years ago. Derrick Rose and Dwyane Wade have signed to support LeBron, and (whisper it) to placate him so he extends beyond 2018. They also have the oldest roster in the league with an average age of 30. The addition of Jae Crowder offers a versatile defensive presence, though the Thomas injury casts uncertainty over the early season outlook.
With so many new faces, Cleveland may not be the wisest investment for the number one seed in the East, but they will be a force to be reckoned with come playoff time. After all, they've still got LeBron.
Washington [70.0] present the most likely challenge to Boston and Cleveland in the East, their stability an attractive asset. John Wall is signed to a four-year contract, and free agent Otto Porter was also re-signed this summer. Wall, Porter and Bradley Beal form a core of youthful players the Wizards can build a perennial contender around.
The support pieces come in veteran Marcin Gortat, tough forward Markieff Morris and Kelly Oubre. If the Wizards have a weakness it's their depth, which is an unknown quantity.
It's hard to look at Minnesota, who finished 13th in the West last year, as contenders, but their move this summer for Jimmy Butler, adding him to Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, demands acknowledgement. Coach Tom Thibodeau knows Butler from the Bulls, but there's no guarantee these pieces will fit together in Minneapolis. What is encouraging is they are showing ambition, and, in a highly competitive West, that could make a difference.
In the East, Milwaukee made the playoffs last season, but will be hoping to improve on their record and could cause problems in the postseason for more fancied teams. Giannis Antetokounmpo could be worth a speculative MVP punt [9.6], and they will hope to have Jabari Parker back from another knee injury, which gives them some scope to improve.
They'll likely be tussling with the Raptors for seeding. Toronto have maintained their core, Kyle Lowry returning from injury with a three year extension, Serge Ibaka also re-signed, and DeMar DeRozan coming off his best season in the league. CJ Miles ought to slip into the starting rotation having joined from the Pacers, though they've also lost some pieces in PJ Tucker, DeMarre Carroll and Patrick Patterson.
One team that should be worth watching is the Charlotte Hornets, who've taken on the risk/reward proposition of Dwight Howard. Adding him to Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum and a hopefully healthy Michael Kidd-Gilchrist could make them a surprise team this year. Miami also found form in the second half of last season, and look to be emerging from the post-James haze after a tough few years.
Where the East is wide open, the West will be a dogfight. The Jazz have lost Gordon Hayward and George Hill but gained Ricky Rubio, Thabo Sefolosha and Jonas Jerebko, so ought to weather the departures with their tough defence led by Rudy Gobert.
They will be in a scrap with teams like New Orleans, whose twin tower experiment of Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins needs to start clicking before Davis's contract forces their hand.
Portland will be hoping they can continue the form that saw them sneak into the postseason last year, and Memphis are clearly signalling a change with a swathe of departures. Marc Gasol and Mike Conley remain, but the change to a more open, expansive style is not without risk. Denver, with the signing of Paul Millsap, could be a team to capitalise on any difficulties, having missed the playoffs last season.
Philly fans will likely be thrilled to rise to mediocre as they transition out of "The Process" and into a competitive NBA team again. The talent they've accrued has to begin delivering soon, or the cynicism and suffering of past few years will have been a waste. Embiid's health and Simmons long-awaited debut will be crucial, and, if the young players mesh, they could sneak a playoff spot.
Detroit will be hoping to improve on last season as their own rebuilding efforts stalled. Avery Bradley's arrival from Boston could see them get back on track. The Lakers should also be better, with Brook Lopez joining an inexperienced array of talents led by rookie Lonzo Ball. The issue for them could be these interesting parts do not add up to a greater whole, and the spotlight of playing in LA gold can exacerbate any difficulties.
In Sacramento, there is clearly a plan, with veterans Geoffrey Hill and Vince Carter brought in to support Buddy Hield in his sophomore year. The Kings could have a worse record this season after losing DeMarcus Cousins, Rudy Gay and Darren Collison, but they should not bottom out.
The Mavericks have Dirk returning for his 20th year, and, in point guard Dennis Smith Jr, they may have secured the steal of the draft. These two facts make it difficult to assess Dallas this season, as they could be bad with any significant injuries.
They are, like the Knicks, a team who would benefit from being worse. There is relief around Madison Square Garden following Phil Jackson's departure, that Porzingis and his supporting cast should be good enough to avoid the ignominy of a bottom four finish. Orlando are a team that define the uncertainty of the East, as they could finish anywhere between 7th and 15th, but should be good enough to avoid the basement this season.
The moves that strengthened the West have seen teams in the East suffer. The Bulls, Hawks and Pacers stand out because of the talent they've lost, and Brooks Lopez was huge for a bad Nets team last season.
Chicago lead the betting markets, their Vegas over/under for season wins being set around 22 wins. Butler has been traded, Rondo and Wade released, the returning Justin Holiday will apparently lead the team in 2017-18. The underwhelming Nikola Mirotic and injured Zach LaVine two players who will need to perform if the Bulls a to defy expectations.
Atlanta are similarly distressed, the exodus of significant contributors - Millsap and Hardaway gone, Dwight Howard traded to Charlotte - has seen little coming back in the opposite direction. They've made it to the post-season for ten straight years. Do not bet on them making it eleven.
The Pacers roster has been pulled together in desperate circumstances following George's decision to leave. Given this body blow, they've made the best of a bad situation, getting what they could and looking to the future. In the short term, expect a lot of pain in Indiana.
Finally, if Tyson Chandler, Eric Bledsoe or Jared Dudley are traded to playoff contenders, the Suns will be obviously committed to rebuilding and should be a contender for last place as well.
Currently priced at 1.62 on the Exchange, it is difficult to make the case for this as a value bet, but the Warriors should win their third championship in four years given the depth of their talent, their monstrous starting line-up, and the experience they have of going the distance.
Potential bumps in the road could include the further absence of Kerr, injuries are always possible (don't forget Steph Curry's ankles), and the possible strain of fourth season in a row of going to the Finals.
In terms of challengers, OKC are at [20.0], but Houston at [18.5] is my preferred pick given how much their defence ought to improve. Whatever happens, the West should provide the title winner.
Purely from a value perspective, Washington also stand out price wise at [70.0] on the Exchange with a view to trading, as the changes in Boston and Cleveland could create a gap for them, and their promising roster must make it to a Conference Finals soon. They are available in the Eastern Conference market at [11.5] as well.
The opportunity is there for Leonard, with the weight of the Spurs organisation continuing to build on his shoulders. One possible issue is coach Gregg Popovich's rotation of players in the regular season, which could hamper Leonard's candidacy, but it didn't stop him from finishing (a distant) third in last year's poll.
If he has to carrying the aging Spurs this season, he could be a legitimate candidate. The current price available on the Exchange seems short at [6.0] given the competition and how wide open it should be, but he has the ability and circumstances seem to be aligning to put the focus on him.
Anthony Davis is an interesting option at [24.0] on the Exchange, as his New Orleans team must make a playoff challenge this season, and Davis will have to lead that pursuit. If Washington are serious, John Wall could be worth siding with at [24.0] as well.
The Lakers will always get more coverage than they necessarily merit, and when a rookie as extroverted as Ball finds himself in the purple and gold, it seems a perfect storm, provided he delivers. He is currently priced on the Exchange at [3.25].
Dennis Smith Jr [4.1] of Dallas and Jonathan Isaac [15.0] of the Magic are two names to watch. Smith should get playing time in a Mavericks line-up that needs to look to the future, while Orlando's direction is so unclear there is a great opportunity for a talented rookie to put their stamp on the team and demand playing time through their performances.