NCAA Tournament Takeaways: What we learned from women’s round of 64 and men’s round of 32

The best time of year on the sports calendar definitely delivered. With 48 NCAA tournament games played over the course of Sunday and Monday between the men’s and women’s divisions, there was no shortage of basketball action to watch. Hopefully, it made the start of your work week more tolerable. The men’s tournament has whittled its way down to 16 remaining teams and will take the rest of the week off. The women keep rolling on Tuesday with the round of 32.

I don’t know that anything could top what we saw over the first two days of the men’s tournament, but the past two days came pretty close. If you missed anything from the weekend or are just looking to catch up on the big storylines, let me catch you up on what we learned.

Best is yet to come in women’s bracket

After an incredibly boring first day of action, the women’s NCAA tournament started to heat up on Monday. Every single favored seed won on Sunday, with lower seeded teams going 16-0. Georgia Tech did pull off a stunning 17-point second-half comeback to beat upset-minded Stephen F. Austin in overtime. That was about the only real excitement we got on Day 1. Things changed in a big way on Day 2. 11-seed BYU knocked off No. 6 Rutgers for the first upset of the 2021 tournament. Belmont then stunned Gonzaga in a 5-12 seed upset. Wright State took it up a notch, beating 3-seed Arkansas to really shake up the bracket. The best game of the day though was probably the upset that didn’t happen. Troy came agonizingly close to being the first 15-seed to beat a 2-seed. Texas A&M got a little bit of help from the refs to secure its spot in the round of 32, ending what would have been an awesome Cinderella story. You can tell me what you think, but this looks like a backcourt violation to me.

We will get better matchups going forward. Michigan draws Tennessee on Tuesday. Iowa vs. Kentucky should also be thrilling. Could Syracuse possibly topple UConn without coach Geno Auriemma and starting guard Nika Muhl in doubt due to injury? It’s unlikely, but there should hopefully be a bit more intrigue as we move further along. Don’t just write off the division because we had a lackluster start to the proceedings. You never know when you might get an Arike Ogunbowale moment. That’s what makes it March Madness.

Chaos reigns in the men’s bracket

Speaking of 15 seeds, Oral Roberts continues its unlikely run, becoming just the second 15-seed to ever reach the Sweet 16. Max Abmus and company took down an SEC power this time in Florida and set up a date with another SEC school in Arkansas. While that is all wild and fun, it probably isn’t even the most shocking region in the field. Illinois fell to Loyola Chicago, Oregon State knocked off Oklahoma State and Syracuse toppled West Virginia. Rutgers also came very close to upsetting Houston, ultimately blowing an eight-point lead with four minutes to play. Still, the region is guaranteed to have either an 8-seed or a 12-seed in the Elite Eight. Plus, don’t rule out the Orange taking out the Cougars given how well Buddy Boeheim and company are shooting the rock. In total, there are four double-digit seeds in the Sweet 16.

We could still end up with a very chalky Final Four, but that’s looking less and less likely with every round. It seems like there are a few more upsets on the horizon and we could end up with a very high seed participating in the final weekend of the tournament.

Pac-12 does it again

In both divisions, the self-proclaimed Conference of Champions continues to excel. On the women’s side, that was expected. Pac-12 women’s teams went 6-1, with Washington State the only team to not make it out of the first round. The Cougars were also the only underdog, at least from a seeding perspective. It speaks to the dominance of the conference as a whole.

Meanwhile, the men’s Pac-12 teams are pulling off upsets left and right. I already mentioned Oregon State knocking out Oklahoma State. USC stormed past Kansas, handing the Jayhawks their worst loss in NCAA tournament history. Oregon dropped 95 points on Iowa to end the Hawkeyes’ title hopes. UCLA also cruised into the Sweet 16, taking care of Abilene Christian. Only Colorado came up short, getting blown out by Florida State. Ironically, Colorado was the highest men’s team from the conference this year. In a year where nothing makes sense, at least that still applies to basketball.

What’s wrong with the men from the Big Ten?

All season long, we heard about how great the Big Ten was. The conference was incredibly deep, evidenced by the eight teams from the conference to make the field, including two No. 1 seeds. After two rounds, only Michigan remains, and the Wolverines were definitely tested by LSU. Illinois suffered a shocking upset. Iowa got blitzed in transition by Oregon, despite Luka Garza scoring 36 points. Ohio State didn’t even reach the second round. After I panned the ACC for only having two teams left after the first round, it has more teams in the Sweet 16 than the Big Ten does. Maybe it was just fatigue after a long season of beating up on each other, but this has to go down as a disappointment for the conference after all of its regular-season success.

Why wasn’t Baylor a No. 1 seed again?

The defending champions in the women’s division narrowly missed being on the top line, instead settling for a No. 2 seed. After watching the Lady Bears drop 101 points on Jackson State while NC State struggled early against North Carolina A&T, it is fair to question if the committee got it right. Now, the Wolfpack did lose Kayla Jones to injury, but after one round, it certainly looks like the committee messed up. It happens all the time. On the men’s side, it is clear Loyola Chicago deserved better than a No. 8 seed. If it sounds like I am splitting hairs, consider this: Baylor has to go through UConn to reach the Final Four (assuming both teams make it that far.) NC State would draw Texas A&M, who nearly lost to Troy, if seeding holds the rest of the way. I don’t care how good you are, you would rather be playing Texas A&M with a trip to the Final Four on the line than UConn.

CBS gets creative with its graphics

March Madness has undoubtedly delivered on the hype, particularly after skipping a year, but I don’t think anyone could have anticipated this gem. Greg Gumbel’s face will no doubt be a meme for years to come. This clip has already made its rounds on social media, and I don’t think it will stop any time soon. What makes it even better, is that CBS doubled down and used these weird Mii adjacent dancers, this time supported by their television producers as backup dancers.

The Madness is clearly spreading. I apologize if you cannot unsee this.

Just stop checking your bracket

If you are like me, your bracket is likely toast by now. I picked Illinois to win it all in the men’s division and I picked all the wrong early-round upsets on the women’s side. Only two perfect brackets remain in ESPN’s Women’s Tournament Challenge. I honestly don’t know if anyone successfully predicted the 16 teams left in the men’s bracket. This seems like a good time to mention that ESPN has a Second Chance Bracket. No, it’s not nearly as fun, but I will never get tired of filling these things out.

NCAA Tournament Takeaways: What we learned from men’s first round

The greatest time of year on the sports calendar is finally here. We have all waited a very long time to enjoy March Madness. At long last, our full days of meaningful basketball games have returned! The men’s NCAA tournament is off to a thrilling start and there is still plenty to come with the second round of action on Sunday and the women’s tournament getting underway. With the first 36 games in the books on the men’s side, let’s take a look at what we learned.

We really missed March Madness

Whether it was Oral Roberts stunning Ohio State, Ohio knocking out the defending champs, or complaining about our brackets being busted, it was so good to have the NCAA tournament back. Friday really spoiled us with tons of upsets and three overtime games. Saturday was a bit more tame early on, but we still had plenty to talk about with Virginia losing its first NCAA tournament game since the biggest upset ever against UMBC in 2018, VCU bowing out due to COVID-19 positive tests and Abilene Christian shocking Texas. To put it in perspective, my friend Akshat offers a very sobering comparison.

Needless to say, we all needed March Madness back in our lives. The second round of the men’s tournament starts Sunday, as does the first round of the women’s tournament. There are going to be an absurd number of basketball games on. Savor these moments. As we learned last year, we can’t take it for granted and before we know it, the season will be over and we will be without college basketball once again.

The NCAA still has a long way to go on gender equity

This should come as no surprise, but the women competing in San Antonio were not given the same treatment as their male counterparts in Indianapolis. While the men had a full weight room, the women had one weight rack with a few dumbbells. Thankfully, Oregon’s Sedona Prince was unwilling to stand for this.

The NCAA botched the whole situation. They issued all kinds of excuses and apologies, but that does not erase the very apparent issue. The NCAA does not have the best interests of women’s college sports at heart. I get that the men’s game makes more revenue, but for the governing body of college sports to not only allow, but play a hand in increasing the gap between men’s and women’s sports is disgusting. All signs point to Mark Emmert being unqualified to hold his position. Thankfully, athletes from the NBA, WNBA and men’s college hoops spoke up on social media and Prince’s tweet went viral. It made national news broadcasts across the country and reignited the conversation surrounding a lack of funding and respect for female college athletes. I won’t pretend that this fixes everything, but it is good to put the spotlight on the issue. And, as a result, the NCAA fixed the situation.

It is nice to see that these athletes can use their platform to advocate for themselves, but it is way past time for these things to stop happening. Hopefully, the NCAA actually learns something from this incident and addresses how they prioritize their athletes. I won’t be holding my breath though.

Cinderella is alive and well

Four teams seeded 13 or higher reached the Round of 32 for the first time in tournament history. No. 13 North Texas, No. 13 Ohio, No. 14 Abilene Christian and No. 15 Oral Roberts all booked spots in the second round in stunning fashion. In total, nine double-digit seeds made it through the first round. With Abilene Christian set to face No. 11 UCLA, we are guaranteed to have a double-digit seed in the Sweet 16. In a year unlike any other, there was bound to be upsets. I expected that. This level of chaos was not something I saw coming.

Could one of these teams truly be Cinderella and reach the Final Four? Recent history suggests that it is likely. From 2013 to 2018, a team seeded 7th or higher made it to the Final Four. No. 11 Loyola Chicago did in 2018. No. 7 South Carolina made it to the final weekend in 2017. No. 10 Syracuse stunned everyone with a semifinal appearance in 2016. No. 7 Michigan State reached the Final Four in 2015. No. 7 UConn beat No. 8 Kentucky in the National Championship game in 2014. What a wild year that was. No. 9 Wichita State made a semifinal run in 2013. It is far from a guarantee, but all signs point to another unforeseen team making a deep run.

If I had to pick one team from this year’s group, I am looking at UCLA. Michigan is not at full strength without Isaiah Livers. Alabama looked plenty mortal against Iona. Florida State and Colorado have high ceilings, but low floors. Mick Cronin’s group is my pick to play Cinderella this year after watching the first round.

Pac-12 came to play

Only one conference in men’s college hoops emerges from the first round undefeated. The Pac-12 went 5-0 as Colorado, USC, Oregon, UCLA and Oregon State all advanced to the round of 32. Now, that record has an asterisk because Oregon advanced without actually playing, but this is still incredibly impressive. Georgetown was a very trendy upset pick over Colorado, but the Buffaloes blew out the Hoyas by 23. In fact, all four teams that actually played won by double digits, which is just unheard of. None of these teams were seeded a five seed.

Now, the task gets much harder going forward. Florida State, Kansas, Iowa, Texas and Oklahoma State await, but after what we have seen so far, it would be a mistake to count this conference out. Remember this next year when you are making your bracket. It’s important to eliminate that East Coast bias.

ACC was as bad as we thought

Speaking of teams on the East Coast, the ACC was downright terrible. And this should not come as a shock. Despite having seven teams in the tournament field, this was a down year for the conference. Virginia and Florida State were the highest-seeded teams, landing on the four-seed line. Much has been made of Duke’s struggles, but they were far from the only blue blood to miss a step this year. UNC was incredibly inconsistent. Georgia Tech was too. Virginia Tech and Clemson faded down the stretch. Louisville, who arguably should’ve been in the field, had some ugly losses. The bottom of the conference was really bad as well. Miami, Notre Dame, Boston College, Pittsburgh and Wake Forest all finished with losing records. A 2-5 showing in the first round feels like a fair reflection. Syracuse and Florida State advance, but their opponents, West Virginia and Colorado respectively, could very well keep the ACC out of the Sweet 16 all together.

What home state advantage?

Purdue was the only school from the state of Indiana to go dancing his year. The Boilermakers earned a top-four seed and seemed poised for a potential Sweet 16 run playing in front of a largely pro-Purdue crowd. North Texas had other ideas. Until arenas are back to full capacity, it might be hard to count on location making much of a difference in the outcome of games. These limited capacity crowds are really fun. Grand Canyon students gave us some memorable moments, but it is clear crowd noise and energy is still not too much of a factor.

All or nothing for Virginia

This time around, it is a bit more understandable why the Cavaliers were upset. The team was not able to practice all week due to COVID-19 protocols and the rust was clear on offense. UVa scored its fewest points of the season as they shot 35 percent from the field and 25.8 percent from behind the arc. 

It is easy to forget, but Virginia was actually the defending champion, having won the tournament in 2019. That means UVa’s last loss in the NCAA tournament came in 2018, which just so happens to be the infamous UMBC game. Looking at how this all played out over the past three tournaments, I think the Cavaliers would do it all again if given the chance. Those first-round upsets sting, but those national championship banners hang in the rafters forever. (Well most of the time. Sorry, Louisville.)

Buddy Buckets is for real

For those wondering, Buddy Boeheim is more than just the coach’s son. In the month of March, Boeheim is averaging 26.7 points per game. He went off for 30 in Syracuse’s first-round win against San Diego State, including a torrid stretch where he scored 16 straight points. He is joined by Kevin Obanor of Oral Roberts and Miles McBride from West Virginia as the only players to reach the 30-point mark in the Round of 64 this year. Boeheim and McBride will face off on Sunday as well, so prepare for some major fireworks. As a Syracuse alum, I don’t think I could have written this column without mentioning Jim Boeheim’s youngest son.

Making a perfect bracket is impossible

We didn’t even get through the first round before everyone’s brackets were busted. ESPN and Bleacher Report both announced that no users on their site had a perfect bracket after Ohio upset Virginia and Maryland knocked off UConn. I didn’t even come close to making it that far. I had UNC facing Ohio State in the Elite Eight with the Buckeyes advancing to the Final Four. That didn’t quite pan out, with both teams suffering first-round losses. Texas was also in my Final Four. Trying to predict the outcome of 63 games is inherently difficult as it is. Add in the wild range of possible outcomes from college athletes and you have what makes the tournament so entertaining. The single-elimination format makes it truly unpredictable. So while your bracket may not be perfect, you can take solace in knowing that no one else managed to predict all these results either. And maybe now there is still hope you could win your bracket pool.

Follow the Aftermath via email to get every article delivered right to your inbox. Enter your email in the text box to subscribe. You can also follow us on Facebook and Twitter.

10 Best WNBA games to watch this season

Basketball is back! The WNBA season is underway at the IMG Academy in Florida, with the first week of action now in the books. It won’t be a typical season because of the coronavirus, but the league has established a double round robin regular season, meaning each team will have 22 games before moving to its traditional playoff format.

I am really excited to watch this 2020 season, so I thought I would share my favorite matchups for the shortened league year. There are two reasons for this. One, to highlight the best games on the schedule. Two, to draw attention to the lack of access for fans to watch their favorite teams and television coverage devoted to the WNBA as whole.

2020 will be the first season the Minnesota Lynx have all of their games broadcast on television. We will see if that remains true next year when the league resumes its traditional 34-game season. It is ridiculous that Lynx games are not regularly available on TV. The franchise has won four WNBA titles, with the latest coming in 2017. For it to be this difficult to watch one of the league’s premier franchises is embarrassing and provides a pretty clear picture of how little the media pays attention to women’s sports.

In the interest of making sure everyone can watch all of the games listed, I only picked matchups that are scheduled to be nationally televised. Fortunately, this season will feature the most nationally televised games in WNBA history. ESPN announced Monday that it will be adding 13 more games to it’s slate for the season.

Unfortunately, that rules out both 2019 finals rematches between the Mystics and Sun. For a point of reference, both games between Warriors and Raptors, last year’s NBA Finals participants, were nationally televised. Just another indication of the disparity between men’s sports and women’s sports coverage. ESPN/ABC and CBSSN are the national broadcast partners for the league.

Here are my top 10 games to watch for the rest of the season.

 

Sabrina Ionescu
Ionescu is college basketball’s all-time leader in triple-doubles. (Wikimedia Commons)

10. Las Vegas Aces vs. New York Liberty
August 9, 3 pm ET, ESPN
The headliner here will be watching the previous two No. 1 picks face off in Jackie Young and Sabrina Ionescu. We might get a pretty good glimpse at the future of the WNBA in this matchup as well. The Las Vegas Aces represent what the New York Liberty could be in a few years, but there are some very young players with star potential on both sides. For Vegas, A’ja Wilson might already be at that point. Kelsey Plum is still just 25 and looking to get back to her 2018 form. New York boasts seven rookies and most of the roster is 25 and under. The Aces were semifinalists last season. They should be one of the most exciting teams to watch all season.

 

9. Atlanta Dream vs. Dallas Wings
August 8, 12 pm, ESPN2
For many reasons, this should be an interesting showdown. The first matchup between these two teams proved to be the most high-scoring game of opening weekend. Atlanta and Dallas combined for an even 200 points in a 105-95 victory for the Dream. Both teams are really young and feature some exciting prospects. Atlanta has rookie Chennedy Carter, who averaged 22.5 points per game at Texas A&M and dropped 18 points in her debut, and 2019 first-round selection Kalani Brown, who struggled to get minutes as a rookie in Los Angeles. Dallas’ entire roster is under the age of 28. They have a ridiculous collection of young talent, including Arike Ogunbowale, Katie Lou Samuelson, Megan Gustafson, Satou Sabally, Tyasha Harris, Allisha Gray, Marina Mabrey and Bella Alaire. I’m buying lots of futures in Wings stock. Expect this to be an entertaining contest.

8. Dallas Wings vs. Chicago Sky
September 11, 8 PM, CBSSN
We see it all the time with UConn players, but now we get a chance to see two former Oregon stars battle it out to close out the season. Satou Sabally and Ruthy Hebard both put together stellar careers in Eugene, translating that success into first-round selections in the WNBA draft. Chicago should be looking to strengthen it’s playoff position come season’s end. For Dallas, the playoffs might be a bit of a long shot, but it will be really interesting to see how much this young team develops and bonds over the course of the season. This should be a game of contrasting styles as well. The Sky had the fastest-paced offense in the league last season while the Wings were notorious for slowing it down.

 

Seattle Storm forward Breanna Stewart (30) takes a free throw.
Stewart missed the 2019 season with a ruptured Achilles. (Wikimedia Commons)

7. Seattle Storm vs. New York Liberty
August 18, 9 pm, ESPN
If you had high expectations for Sabrina Ionescu’s WNBA debut like I did, you were probably a little disappointed. It turns out she saved the fireworks for her second game. We should probably expect some streaky performances from the 2020 No. 1 pick as she gets acclimated into the league, but she showed her immense potential. That makes a rematch with Breanna Stewart and the Storm even more exciting. This game should feature plenty of three-point shooting and big names. Given a few more weeks to gel, New York’s young core could start to click as well. The season opener between these two teams was close until the fourth quarter. I think the next one could be tight all the way to the end.

 

6. Los Angeles Sparks vs. Washington Mystics
September 10, 10 pm, CBSSN
Even without Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, the Washington Mystics are showing they mean business in 2020. Myisha Hines-Allen, Ariel Powers and 2019 WNBA Final MVP Emma Meesseman have all shared the scoring load in the early stages of the season. The team made a statement on Thursday by knocking off the title-favorite Storm. Los Angeles would also like to have a word with anyone looking to crown Seattle in August. Nneka Ogwumike, Brittany Sykes and Candace Parker form a formidable trio with Chelsea Gray facilitating the offense. This late-season contest should be an important one when it comes to playoff seeding and a potential preview of a playoff matchup in the semis or finals.

5. Phoenix Mercury vs. Connecticut Sun
August 26, 10 pm, CBSSN
On it’s own merits, this would be a really fun game to watch. Add in that Dewanna Bonner will be facing the Phoenix Mercury on national television. Bonner has already looked like a staple of the Connecticut offense, especially with Jonquel Jones opting out for this season. I am eager to see her going head-to-head with Brittney Griner as the heat turns up on the playoff push. Neither team has gotten off to a great start, but expectations of a playoff appearance are the minimum for both sides. If that wasn’t enough for you, just go watch Diana Taurasi and Skylar Diggins-Smith ball out for a few hours. It will make your day better.

 

800px-a27ja_wilson_shoots_a_foul_shot_284809277864229
Former No. 1 pick A’ja Wilson earned all-star status in each of her first two seasons. (Wikimedia Commons)

4. Washington Mystics vs. Las Vegas Aces
August 15, 12 pm, ESPN
A rematch of the WNBA semifinals from 2019 is looking like another top-end showdown for 2020. Washington was supposed to take a step back without Elena Delle Donne and Tina Charles, but the depth of this roster has stepped up. Through three games, the Mystics are the only undefeated team left in the league. Las Vegas has not been quite as prolific out of the gate, but it flashed its immense potential in a 30-point drubbing of Atlanta. The Aces added Angel McCoughtry to a roster already featuring A’ja Wilson and Liz Cambage. That group has championship potential, but Ariel Powers and company are proving that the road to a title still runs through D.C.

 

3. Dallas Wings vs. Phoenix Mercury
August 10, 7 pm ET, ESPN2
Dallas hit the reset button on the franchise this offseason, trading its star player, Skylar Diggins-Smith, to Phoenix for three first-round picks. The Wings used the first two of those picks on Bella Alaire and Tyasha Harris. We won’t know the full haul of this trade until after the 2021 draft, but it will be really interesting to see how Diggins-Smith handles playing her former club and the progress we can assess in the Wings’ rebuild. This matchup would have been a lot more exciting if not for COVID-19 and fans would be able to welcome Diggins-Smith back to Dallas, but this will have to do for now. We can look forward to that reunion next season.

 

513px-2_sylvia_fowles_2019_28cropped29
Fowles is a two-time WNBA Finals MVP and hasn’t missed a game since 2015. (Wikimedia Commons)

2. Los Angeles Sparks vs. Minnesota Lynx
August 26, 8 PM ET, CBSSN
Rivalry renewed. The Lynx and Sparks met in back-to-back WNBA Finals in 2016 and 2017, with each of them winning one title. Seimone Augustus switched sides this offseason, which only adds fuel to the fire. Both rosters look a bit different than the last time they met with a championship on the line, but you can always count on star power. WNBA all-time leading rebounder Sylvia Fowles is still getting it done on the interior for Minnesota. Napheesa Collier looks like she is on her way to stardom after collecting the 2019 Rookie of the Year award. Candace Parker is still one of the league’s best and fellow veteran Kristi Tolliver is back after a stint with Washington. If you are looking for some bad blood in a regular season matchup, this is your best bet to find it.

 

1. Chicago Sky vs. Seattle Storm
August 10, 9 pm, ESPN2
This is shaping up to be the game of the year, at least in the regular season. Last season, Courtney Vandersloot led the WNBA in assists. Natasha Howard led the league in steals. Both are off to strong starts already and Howard gets one of the best defensive players in the league back to help her in Breanna Stewart. Expect this matchup to be a chess match wrapped inside a heavyweight fight. There is an incredible level of talent of both sides and a lot of veteran superstars. Chicago and Seattle seem to be on a collision course for a meeting in the playoffs. If you are a fan of three-point shooting, great one-on-one matchups and lockdown defense, this is the game for you.

Best landing spots for Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook
Westbrook was named league MVP in 2016. (Wikimedia Commons)

If you were living under a rock and didn’t here, the Thunder traded Paul George to the Clippers for a ridiculous number of draft picks, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Danilo Galinari. George is joining forces with newly signed, reigning Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard. As a result, Russell Westbrook is suddenly all alone in Oklahoma City on a team leaning into a rebuild. I pegged him as one the biggest losers of free agency. There is no question Westbrook’s time in OKC is over. It is just a matter of time before he is suiting up for a new team. The fire sale is already on in Oklahoma City. Jerami Grant was shipped to Denver. More will likely follow.

But where will Westbrook call home next? That is the question right facing the Thunder and Westbrook himself. He is certainly controversial, but there is no question he will have a long list of suitors. When you have the chance to add a former MVP just entering his 30s, you take it. Here are the best fits for Westbrook.

9163126439_ba341593de_bNew York Knicks
2018-19 record: 17-65
Likelihood of deal: 6/10
Of course the Knicks are in this conversation. They are desperate for a superstar to build around. With plenty of young prospects to potentially send to Oklahoma City in exchange for Westbrook, New York seems like a very likely trade partner. Between Kevin Knox, Dennis Smith Jr. and Mitchell Robinson, there should be a package to entice the Thunder. There could be some hesitation from Westbrook to head to the Big Apple without another proven star. RJ Barrett could develop into one, but that might take a few years.

For the Knicks, it makes them a much more desirable free agent spot to court future stars. Essentially, New York would doing something similar to what Miami just did in acquiring Jimmy Butler to build around. However, because of NBA trade restrictions, this deal would not be able to go down until December or January when recently signed players like Reggie Bullocks and Bobby Portis would be trade eligible. New York does not have any high-priced veterans to match Westbrook’s contract before then. If Russ is willing to wait it out or the Thunder fail to find a trade partner before that deadline, expect the Knicks to be in the hunt for him.

orlando_magic_wordmark_logo_2008-currentOrlando Magic
2018-19 record: 42-40
Likelihood of deal: 4/10
The Magic probably don’t jump to mind when you think of a contender, but this team did make the playoffs last year and challenged the Raptors in the first round. Orlando desperately needs a point guard and Westbrook could fit well alongside Nikola Vucevic and Mo Bamba. Orlando has a ton of depth on the wing and in the front court, but needs a floor general to make them a challenger in the East.

On the Oklahoma City side of things, there are a few intriguing pieces the Magic could have to offer. If the Thunder want more draft picks, the Magic owns all of its first round picks for the foreseeable future. The other piece that could be significant is Aaron Gordon. The high-flying forward has the contract necessary to be involved in this deal. He also won’t turn 24 until September. Rumors have been there for a few years now that Orlando would be interested in moving Gordon. With youth and athleticism on his side, he could be a solid player for the Thunder to pair with Steven Adams and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander as they lean into this rebuild.

chicago_bulls_wordmarkChicago Bulls
2018-19 record: 22-60
Likelihood of deal: 3/10
Here is the current list of players listed at point guard on the Bulls roster: Kris Dunn, Coby White, Ryan Arcidiacono. That is a group that could use a massive upgrade. This is an extremely young team that just signed a couple of veterans in Tomas Satoransky and Thaddeus Young. It might seem like a bit of an awkward marriage to bring in Westbrook, but his playmaking ability would certainly be fun to watch with Lauri Markkanen and Wendell Carter Jr.

However, one of those two players could be part of any deal the Thunder would pursue with the Bulls. I will be honest, I don’t see Chicago making this deal. Despite needing a proven point guard, this team is nowhere near contending and would probably be better off just letting its young core grow together. Sending Russ to an Eastern Conference team would be preferable for OKC, but Chicago is unlikely to send back the type of compensation the Thunder would be looking for in this deal.

minnesota_timberwolves_wordmarkMinnesota Timberwolves
2018-19 record: 36-46
Likelihood of deal: 2/10
Talk about a team looking for a playmaking point guard. Minnesota actually has a lot of the components needed to make a deal happen with Oklahoma City. Andrew Wiggins’ high-priced contract help make the finances work, and considering he is only 24, the Thunder might be interested in seeing how he would develop. They also have some young prospects in Keita Bates-Diop and Josh Okogie to help build a young core. The Timberwolves also own all of their own picks going forward.

Westbrook might even be interested in heading to Minnesota for a chance to team up with Karl-Anthony Towns. However, this deal starts to fall apart when you consider these teams are in the same division and taking on Wiggins’ massive contract isn’t really a move that makes sense for a rebuilding team. It runs through 2022, by which point, you would have to imagine the Thunder would picture themselves contending again. Both sides could find some benefits from it, but there are too many question marks to see it going through.

1024px-Dallas_Mavericks_Primary_LogoDallas Mavericks
2018-19 record: 33-49
Likelihood of deal: 6/10
While the Mavericks technically finished second to last in the West last year, Dallas has a couple of players that could team up nicely with Westbrook. Luka Doncic is one of the most polished rookies in NBA history and with Kristaps Porzingis coming back from injury, that could make for a fun “Big 3” in Texas. Mark Cuban is always looking to add more star power to his team and Dallas seems like it is building a team to start competing this year. Adding Westbrook would help accelerate the process.

The Mavs are lacking a ton of picks to send back to the Thunder in exchange for Westbrook, but with the expiring contract of Courtney Lee, they could package together a few things to give Oklahoma City cap flexibility going forward. Where it starts to get tricky is the recent addition of Delon Wright in a sign and trade. Considering how the roster is shaping up for Dallas, this deal might not be able to be consummated until trade restrictions are lifted for newly signed players. It is far from a guarantee, but I think the Mavericks would feel good about selling Russ on their future.

miami_heat_wordmarkMiami Heat
2018-19 record: 39-43
Likelihood of deal: 9/10
If there is a front-runner in these trade talks, it would have to be the Miami Heat. Fresh off the sign-and-trade deal to land Jimmy Butler, the Heat are hard capped, looking to the trade market for ways to improve this team. With Butler already on the roster, it would be easy to see Westbrook eager to team up with another star. Both seem to have a similar approach to the game, playing with relentless passion. It could be a match that thrusts Miami back into contention to at least reach the Eastern Conference Finals.

Pat Riley has shown zero reservation in shipping out draft picks in the past and seems to be against rebuilding, always opting to reload instead. Plus, selling Russ on South Beach will probably be easy. The Thunder already own a few Heat draft picks courtesy of the Paul George trade, but probably wouldn’t mind adding a few more. A package of picks, Goran Dragic’s and James Johnson’s expiring contracts, and 23-year old Justise Winslow could be enough to land Westbrook. A player like Patrick Patterson might be involved just to make the money work. It offers the Thunder a ton of cap flexibility heading into the 2020 offseason and a few more more high-upside prospects.

milwaukee_bucks_wordmark_2015-currentMilwaukee Bucks
2018-19 record: 60-22
Likelihood of deal: 5/10
Here it the real wildcard to the conversation. Milwaukee is coming off a stellar season where it posted the best record in the NBA and reached the Eastern Conference Finals. There are already rumblings though about what it will take to keep Giannis Antetokounmpo in Milwaukee. Adding Russell Westbrook would probably be more than enough to convince him to re-sign. The Bucks like Eric Bledsoe a lot, but the chance to add a former MVP to pair with the reigning MVP is too good to pass up. Even with all the potential shooting restrictions this team could have, it would make Milwaukee the title favorite.

Where it begins to get tricky is regarding what the Bucks send back. Bledsoe cannot be traded until September because he signed a contract extension in the past year. He would be a good stabilizing presence on what will likely be a young team. Milwaukee also does not have a ton of draft picks to offer, but could send the Pacers pick they just acquired in the Malcolm Brogdon deal. DJ Wilson and Donte DiVincenzo are the only two prospects Milwaukee could ship out. Maybe the Thunder would like to take on Pat Connaughton’s expiring contract. The Bucks might not quite have enough, or even be interested in making that major of a shake up to its current group, but this would put them over the edge in the title conversation.

NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

kawhi_leonard_vs_charlotte_2019
Leonard turned the NBA on its head by signing with the Clippers. (Wikimedia Commons)

Chaos. Absolute chaos. That is the best way to sum up NBA free agency in 2019. Kawhi Leonard and Paul George are teaming up with the Clippers. Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving joined forces in Brooklyn. Anthony Davis finally landed in Los Angeles alongside LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins. That doesn’t even include Al Horford, Jimmy Butler or Kemba Walker signing with new teams.

It was one of the craziest weeks in the history of the league. At the end of the day, the league’s power dynamic has completely shifted. The NBA officially runs through Los Angeles. It is time to assess the winner and losers from this wild free agency period.

los_angeles_clippers_logo_1984-2010Winners: Los Angeles Clippers
Wow. No one saw this coming. The Clippers were long linked to Kawhi, but no one expected him to go there alongside George. The former Thunder superstar forced his way out of OKC and now creates a superstar pairing with a ton of depth around them. Los Angeles has to be the title favorite heading into the season.

Russell WestbrookLoser: Russell Westbrook
This cannot be where Russ expected to be when free agency opened. The talks are already rumbling about a potential Westbrook trade so Oklahoma City can truly enter a rebuild. He finds himself without a co-star on a team that still couldn’t make it out of the first round of the playoffs. His days in OKC are numbered.

800px-adam_silver_281584700477129Winner: The NBA
Do you remember there ever being a more exciting free agency period in another sport? MLB is coming off a year where huge names moved, but it took so long that the fun was lost. The NBA is in a league of its own when it comes to exciting offseason drama. It is clearly dominating the headlines and will be the talk of the sports world well into the month of July, not a typical situation for basketball.

toronto_raptors-wordmarkLosers: Toronto Raptors
Leonard is gone. Danny Green is gone. That’s 40 percent of the Raptors’ championship-winning starting lineup set to play next year in Los Angeles. Toronto is far from a rebuild, still boasting Kyle Lowry, Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka and Pascal Siakam. The bench is deep, but this team no longer has a top-five star to lean on. The Raptors will be good, but they are no longer anywhere near the title conversation.

Nets logoWinners: Brooklyn Nets
It is easy to almost forget about the Nets given the moves the Clippers just made, but Brooklyn set itself up to be a contender from 2020 onward. Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving and DeAndre Jordan join a team full of young talent and perimeter shooting. The Nets even made the playoffs last season without their new big three. Without Durant, they don’t have the makeup of a real contender, but when he returns, they will be firmly in the conversation.

9163126439_ba341593de_bLoser: New York Knicks
It’s hard to talk about one basketball team in New York without bringing up the other. The narrative all season was that the Knicks were poised to land a bunch of stars in the offseason. Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and Anthony Davis were all mentioned. Instead, New York’s big free agency move was to land Julius Randle. That is barely a consolation prize by comparison to what could have been. Given the fact the Knicks also missed out on the Zion sweepstakes, fans are going to be very unhappy with how this offseason went.

1280px-los_angeles_lakers_logo.svg_Winners: Los Angeles Lakers
No, they didn’t win the Kawhi sweepstakes, but it might be a good thing for the Lakers for this year. With limited cap space, the Lakers filled out the rest of their roster, bringing back Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope. Then they landed the floor-stretching Danny Green and continuing reclamation project DeMarcus Cousins. Cousins showed flashes of his All-Star potential in the postseason, before he suffered another injury. There is a decent amount of injury risk with this team, but if it can stay healthy, Los Angeles is much closer to an NBA title than it was a year ago.

charlotte_hornets-wordmarkLosers: Charlotte Hornets
This continues to be one of the worst run franchises in the NBA. Kemba Walker skipped town and the Hornets overpaid to bring in Terry Rozier. He might be 25 years old, but paying him over $19 million a year seems pretty steep. This team is capped out otherwise and seems to be nowhere near the playoff conversation. Charlotte will finally have more flexibility next season, but losing Walker makes it tough to qualify this as anything other than a loss.

philadelphia76ers2Winners: Philadelphia 76ers
Lost in the shuffle of all this is the fact the Sixers reloaded for another run. Signing Tobias Harris, sending Jimmy Butler to Miami for Josh Richardson and signing Al Horford makes Philly one of the best defensive teams in the NBA. It will be interesting to see how this team lines up, Ben Simmons could play point guard, but it seems like this is the best positioned team to challenge Milwaukee in the East next year.

cleveland_cavaliers_wordmarkLosers: Cleveland Cavaliers
The Cavs are undoubtedly in a rebuild and seemed poised to move high-priced veterans like Kevin Love and JR Smith. With free agency mostly over and every roster seemingly set, it is going to be more difficult to move either or both players. Cleveland had a window to reshape the roster and it feels like it missed out.

miami_heat_wordmarkWinners: Miami Heat
For whatever reason, Pat Riley never wants to go through a rebuild. Miami reloaded again by adding Jimmy Butler in a sign-and-trade deal with Philly. Suddenly, the Heat are in the mix to continue to build. Don’t expect the Riley to sit around idly either. He will be aggressive in acquiring more pieces to surround Butler and Dion Waiters.

minnesota_timberwolves_wordmarkLosers: Minnesota Timberwolves
There were a lot of rumors this was a likely destination for DeAngelo Russell. Not only did Minnesota not land him, they failed to move Andrew Wiggins’ bloated contract as well. Signing Jordan Bell was a savvy, but Minnesota went through another offseason without finding a way to build around Karl-Anthony Towns. In a loaded Western Conference, this team feels further away from the playoffs than they did a year ago.

memphis_grizzlies_wordmarkWinners: Memphis Grizzlies
Make no mistake, Memphis is nowhere near competing with the top tier teams in the West, but they are leaning into the rebuild. The Grizzlies sent Mike Conley to Utah and acquired Andre Igoudala and a first round pick from the Warriors as part of a salary dump. They will continue to be active, already adding Delon Wright to the list of veterans shipped out.