Thursday, June 25, 2009

Caught in the Draft


The great thing about the NBA Draft is that you never know who’s going to be the bust. Okay, you knew Michael Olowokandi was going to stink, A) Because the Clippers chose him and B) Well, they’re the Clippers. There may be those out there who were sure Darko Milicic was going to be a colossal mistake and who insist they could predict that Sam Bowie’s gimpy feet would make Portland look like idiots. But with few exceptions, each year’s Draft is, as new Sixers coach Eddie Jordan put it Tuesday, like Christmas. Only the nice packages aren’t labeled, so you don’t know which one contains the home colonoscopy kit and which houses the home edition of Megan Fox’s Slap-and-Tickle Workshop.

Tonight, the NBA teams play talent roulette once again with a crop of imperfect, largely undertrained and unpredictable prospects, hoping that weeks of interviewing and auditioning have led them to find someone who can help their team win. With the specter of Benoit Benjamin hanging over the proceedings, it’s possible to imagine the person who has the NBA’s antacid concession getting a beach house out of this year’s Draft.

Every single player available has some big-time questions haunting him. Even Blake Griffin, everybody’s number one pick, has his faults, particularly on defense and when he’s asked to do something with a basketball in his hands from further than a foot away from the rim. Each of the 62 point guards vying for first-round spots has his liabilities. Stephen Curry may never guard anybody. Ty Lawson can’t get it done in the halfcourt. Tyreke Evans doesn’t shoot. All the big guys measured shorter than they thought they were. And all the Europlayers are stained by the failures of many of their brethren who stumbled before them.

But let’s face it; the NBA isn’t built on 19-year olds. The Lakers and Magic had a combined one rookie on in their rotations during the Finals. With few exceptions, newcomers don’t bring playoff prosperity. The Draft is for the great unwashed. It’s a chance for Minnesota to accumulate as many picks as possible, despite not having a coach and with an owner who knows nothing about basketball. Look at what happened in the summer of 2007. The Celtics had stunk like old fish but had been hosed in the Lottery. So, they traded the fifth overall pick and some baggage to Seattle for Ray Allen and then dished former first-rounders to Minnesota for Kevin Garnett. Hello, world championship. Meanwhile, the T-Wolves are a shambles and may be trying to pin their future on a teenage Spaniard who will owe the IRS in his country $8 mil when he signs and NBA deal. (His club has accumulated so much in back taxes that it transferred the kid’s onerous buyout to the Feds.)

So, when the Raptors select DeMar DeRozan, or whatever unlucky soul gets to play with Chris Bosh for a season before watching him walk in free agency, Tronno residents shouldn’t start setting aside dough for playoff tickets. Despite all the hype by the NBA and its propaganda partners, the Draft doesn’t promise prosperity. More than likely, a high pick this year is a harbinger of more misery to come.

Nope, it’s the trades that make champions, and in today’s economic climate, the NBA is turning into league with a caste system that could soon have owners sporting bindis. The two big deals that have been consummated so far have allowed wealthier teams to acquire big-name talents in return for the expiring contracts of B and C-Listers that Kathy Griffin might even scorn. San Antonio was able to add Richard Jefferson, a 20-a-night wing that will rejuvenate its sagging offense and help the team get younger, in return for aging Bruce Bowen, complementary piece Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas, whose value to a team now is more as a stock analyst than interior factor. Two days later, Cleveland acquired the Big Everything from Phoenix, which was once a showpiece franchise but is now on a cost-cutting binge. By acquiring Sasha Pavlovic’s attractive contract and The Ghost of Ben Wallace, the Suns save about $10 million and maybe more, if they can buy out Wallace. Cleveland, meanwhile, gets a Tweeting fool who can play 25 minutes a night, attract double teams and amuse locals with his hilarious comedy routine. And if he actually tries, which wasn’t always the case in Phoenix, Shaq could help the Cavs win a title. Given that this is the last year of his contract, Cleveland might actually expect maximum effort from its new road grader. Most of the time.

The lesson is clear: NFL teams may build through the Draft, but NBA powers load up by fleecing poor teams in the kinds of deals little brothers make with their older siblings before Mom or Dad vetoes the swap. Hey, Johnny, why don’t you give me your iPod for this cool rock? Sure, Ricky. You’re the best. Look at this season’s finalists. The Lakers didn’t quite give Memphis a bag of magic beans for Pau Gasol, but it was close. The cash-strapped Grizzlies single-sourced the trade with L.A., much to the dismay of every other team in the league, who would have surrendered more for the big man. Orlando, meanwhile, convinced Houston that it was a good idea to give the Magic Rafer Alston in a three-way with Memphis. At least the Rockets got Kyle Lowry out of the deal. The Grizz ended up with a whole lot of nothing, which fit in well with the rest of its roster.

Thursday night, you’re going to hear a lot about the great futures of those drafted and how much the league’s untouchables helped themselves by selecting a point guard with many questions about his game. Disregard that and pay attention to two things: Which contenders are conning economically-challenged rivals into surrendering valuable players in return for detritus, albeit cost-effective detritus? And which clubs are trying to dump salary in the hopes of having enough cap room next summer to make runs at the unprecedented bonanza of talent expected to hit free agency? By the time Friday dawns, the cast of Clean House will be able to pick about 10 of next year’s Lottery participants, and the short list of candidates for the Larry O’Brien Trophy will be established. That’s what “happens” in the NBA right now, and it’s not the best news for fans of the league’s cellar denizens.

It’s even worse for Oklahoma forward Blake Griffin. The Clippers are taking him.

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EL HOMBRE SEZ: Now that Maria Sharapova is out of Wimbledon, does the tournament still go on?...Cowboy Quarterback is down in Mississippi throwing to high schoolers. Sounds like he’s preparing to play for the Raiders, not Minnesota…Say what you want about the NHL and its follies, but the one thing the league does right is its Winter Classic. Pairing the Bruins and Flyers in Fenway Park on New Year’s Day is a genius move and will no doubt result in high ratings and a bonanza for ticket scalpers. Now, if the league could do something about its sagging franchises, stinky TV deal and the perception (mostly among Detroiters) that it favored Pittsburgh and Freddie Mercury in the Stanley Cup finals, everything would be fine…Here’s a shocker: The BCS rejected the Mountain West Conference’s proposal for a college football playoff. That means another five years of choosing college football’s national champion on paper. In a related story, the Red Sox were just named World Series champs because they have the best record in baseball right now…Congratulations to the U.S. soccer team for its landmark win over Spain Wednesday. Seems like the Americans specialize in these uprisings, only to return to hit-and-miss play afterward. The challenge now is for the squad to play well Sunday in the Confederations Cup final, build momentum through World Cup qualifying and then send a team to South Africa next summer that doesn’t lose to Ghana.

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YOU GOT A PROBLEM WITH THAT? It’s time for Phillies manager Charlie Manuel to move Jimmy Rollins out of the leadoff spot for an extended period of time. Rollins hasn’t been the same player since his 2007 MVP campaign, and his inability to get on base is killing the Phillies’ offense. Rollins continues to swing at bad pitches, still tries to pull the ball, hits way too many fly balls and refuses to work walks and agitate the way a true leadoff man should. When Rollins is going well, he’s a tremendous weapon, but that hasn’t happened for a while. Manuel needs to drop him until Rollins starts hitting again, and more importantly, shows that he’s interested in doing the things to set the table for teammates, rather than trying to be a slugging shortstop. Make the move, Charlie. It’s time.

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AND ANOTHER THING: Is El Hombre the only one who sees the irony in the timing of Donald Fehr’s announcement that he is stepping down as the head of the players’ union? In a couple days, Manny Ramirez will be back with the Dodgers after his 50-day suspension for using a drug related to steroid use. Perhaps Fehr can serve as the emcee at Ramirez’s press conference, since it was in large part due to Fehr’s refusal to allow drug testing in Majoke League Baseball that the steroid era was able to blossom. Marvin Miller will always be remembered as the man who brought free agency to baseball, while Fehr’s legacy is one of aversion, avoidance and acrimony. Fehr, in concert with serial back-turner Bud Sellout, helped create a climate in which players abused performance-enhancing drugs for more than a decade and tainted the game’s reputation. Miller belongs in the Hall of Fame; Fehr shouldn’t get a vote. And to all those Dodgers fans who used to rail against Giants supporters who backed BALCO Bonds all those juicy years: You have become colossal hypocrites because of your undying support for a drug abuser and a lout.


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