Friday March 7th, 2008

Also in this column: Magic aren't a legit threat in the East Don't rule out Isiah's return in '08-09

We won't know the order of the draft until the May 20 lottery, but it's a good bet that the first four picks will come from my top four below. Note the dominance of teenagers ...

5. Anthony Randolph (18 years old), 6-11 freshman PF, LSU. I admit he's a longshot to go this high, but who knows? It's shaping up to be a four-player draft, followed by several murkier picks based on long-term potential.

"Randolph has the most upside of anybody,'' an NBA scout said. "This guy, if you walked into his gym, you'd say, 'I'm looking at Chris Bosh [when he was a freshman at Georgia Tech]. He's from Dallas, he's skinny and left-handed, skilled and athletic -- all like Bosh. He doesn't shoot it quite as well as Bosh did, and we have a lot more to learn about him over the next two months. But he could become Chris Bosh.''

4. Eric Gordon (19), 6-4 freshman SG, Indiana. In 2004, undersized shooting guard Ben Gordon went No. 3 to Chicago, with several teams seeking to trade up for him. Will Eric Gordon (no relation) create a similar market? His aggressiveness and versatility as a scorer will translate to the NBA while endearing him to GMs who value a killer instinct.

"The Big Ten is an awful league, but he's been really, really good,'' the scout said. "He's a big, thick kid, a little short for a 2 but at 215 [pounds], he can play there. He shoots it with great range and he's not really selfish; he's a willing passer.

"When I saw him, I was disappointed in how he defended. But he will score in our league. I don't know if he has a chance to be an All-Star, but he's one of the rare guys as a young kid who can make NBA threes. He's going to come in and make that shot.''

3. Danilo Gallinari (19), 6-9 SF, Armani Jeans Milan (Italy). As the draft draws near and Gallinari is placed in the equivalent of a police lineup alongside the other candidates, I'm betting he'll emerge as the No. 3 pick. The NBA will see that he's a true 6-9 (they don't inflate heights in Europe as they do over here), an excellent athlete with three-point range, playmaking abilities and a post-up game. As a teenager, he's been the leader of his team playing among grown men in the Italian Serie A and the Euroleague, either of which is far more taxing than the NCAA.

I visited Gallinari in Milan in January, and there is a growing consensus in Italy that he can become a better player than countryman Andrea Bargnani, the No. 1 pick of the 2006 draft.

2. Derrick Rose (19), 6-4 freshman PG, Memphis. He is the firm No. 2 choice right now. "You win with 1s and 5s, and he's the best athlete in the draft,'' a scout said. "He runs like Bo Jackson. He's the fastest player in basketball; end line to end line, you can't catch him. You can't replicate that speed. It puts so much pressure on the defense.

"Though Rose isn't a great shooter, he's a better shooter than Jason Kidd. In time, he'll be good enough with his shooting. He's a great defender, a great rebounder. He's a little wild at times, but it's easier to slow down players than it is to rev them up. He's a no-nonsense kid, and you could play him alongside a small guard because physically he can guard a 2.''

1. Michael Beasley (19), 6-9 freshman power forward, Kansas State. "He shoots 39.8 percent from the three; there are guards in this draft who don't do that," another scout said. "He plays right-handed, left-handed, he rebounds. He has an unbelievable feel for the game. He's not selfish, doesn't take 30 shots and he tries to play the right way even though his team is not very good. You go to Kansas and get 39 [points] the first time you ever play there [last Saturday], and the next game [against Colorado] you get 33. The guy's a machine.

"Everyone questions his character. He's immature, as he should be. But he's not malicious. His mistakes are magnified because he's the best player in the draft. But don't overevaluate a guy like this, don't look for warts -- do your due diligence, for sure. But unless he's done something really bad in his life, judge his character by the way he plays. He's having a better year than Kevin Durant statistically [last year] and he doesn't have nearly as good players as teammates as Durant had.''

4. You must have a poor view of the Magic. In this story about the Celtics/Pistons, you mention only the Cavs as another contender in the East. I know it has been a while since the Magic have done anything. But this year they have made a huge improvement and have been holding the third spot in the East all year. -- D. Mitchell, Orlando

Your points are well taken. Since their torrid opening month (16-4), however, the Magic have gone 24-19, and their best player has never won a playoff series. Dwight Howard should advance to the second round this year, but can his team beat the Pistons or Celtics? Not likely.

3. I'm sooo sick of this idea that the Pistons are somehow invisible. And I'm sick of the notion that because of some so-called "spotlight" on the Celtics, that's going to help the Pistons beat them in the playoffs. It's such a tired and stupid argument. And even worse when, like in this case, it's one team's tired rhetoric/propagandist ploy. -- Eric Graziano, Waterbury, Conn.

I'm with you in one sense. I hate the clichés that come out after any championship game when the winners say "nobody thought we could do this'' and "we didn't get any respect'' and "the only people to give us a chance were these guys in this locker room.''

But this is how it works in sports: The most talented people try to pretend they're underdogs. Michael Jordan and Larry Bird were famous for making themselves angry at any criticism or slight because they needed the juice. They couldn't afford to view themselves as the favorite because that attitude would lead to complacency.

It's all about ambition. A lot of people in the league feel Detroit is the team to beat in the East, regardless of the Celtics' record. But that kind of talk doesn't help the Pistons, who have been good for so long that they need new sources of ambition. In this case, they've recast themselves as an underdog team trying to catch the great Celtics. I take it as a sincere attempt on their part to remain fresh. If the Pistons weren't able to turn their season into a come-from-behind challenge, they would grow bored -- like you.

2. Regarding the collective bargaining agreement ... do you think there's going to be a move to end the midseason waiving/buyouts? Veterans on losing teams pout their way out and get to play on a team that's destined to make a deep playoff run. Also, it seems unfair that teams can trade players and still get them back in time for the playoffs. -- Arjun, San Diego

Are teams going to vote in favor of a rule that prevents them from saving money? That's what you're asking them to do by outlawing contract buyouts.

As for the second part, please read on ...

1. No question the Spurs are the team to beat. Everyone agrees that their solid fundamentals keep them on top year after year. But with Phoenix-gate last year and now Brent Barry re-signing after going through the motions, there are a couple of questionable moves on their record. Do you see any similarities between Bill Belichick's Patriots this year and tape-gate, as far as a team with everything going for it and a hands-down favorite pushing the limits to get that extra edge? Will any of these things start to taint their dynasty in the long run? -- Jonathan, Vancouver

I don't hear anybody accusing the Spurs of anything beyond luck and ingenuity. They didn't coerce Amaré Stoudemire and Boris Diaw to leave their team bench during that playoff game; that was Phoenix's mistake, not San Antonio's.

As for trading Barry and then re-signing him after he had been waived by Seattle, that has become a common ruse. In 2005, the Celtics reclaimed Gary Payton after packaging him to Atlanta for Antoine Walker. Similar plans involving Antonio Davis (traded by Chicago to New York) and Jerry Stackhouse (part of the original Mavericks-to-Nets trade for Jason Kidd) were quashed when the plots were leaked.

These loopholes -- including one that the Mavericks used to revive Keith Van Horn's career with a new $4.3 million salary that filled out the Kidd trade -- aren't entirely bad, because they helped produce the most fluid trade-deadline period in recent memory. The NBA's complex financial rules have not only discouraged trades, but also many of the deals that have been consummated have been counterintuitive moves made for cap reasons, to the detriment of the play on the court.

Any loophole that promotes movement of players and more provocative playoff races is a loophole NBA fans should love.

On the other hand, the salary cap and luxury tax exist to create equality among the big and small markets. The Mavericks could afford to exploit the loophole. The New Orleans Hornets, however, could not have taken on those costs, and that skews the system.

There will be calls to change the next collective bargaining agreement to prevent unnecessary cash from being spent on retirees like Van Horn. As for preventing someone like Barry from re-signing with the Spurs, an easy fix would be to ban him from participating in the playoffs with the team that traded and then re-signed him.

No, I am not campaigning on behalf of Thomas. But I don't believe it's guaranteed that he'll be fired either. The Knicks' James Dolan is at the opposite end of a spectrum he shares with the Clippers' Donald Sterling: Dolan spends outrageously while Sterling has tended to be an outrageous miser, but both owners have stubbornly refused to conform to pressure from the public or the league office. How many years did we hear that Elgin Baylor (the 2006 NBA Executive of the Year) must be fired by the Clippers? Yet he is now in his 22nd year as VP of basketball operations for Sterling.

Thomas is finishing his fifth year with the Knicks, and it would not surprise me to see him return next season. Nor would anyone be surprised if he were to be fired this summer. But don't assume that he has no future with Dolan, because the normal rules don't apply to this franchise.

3. Dolan wants Thomas to succeed. Let's say that Dolan replaces him with Bryan Colangelo (after paying a lot of money to Toronto to buy him out), Donnie Walsh, Jerry West, Jerry Colangelo or Kiki Vandeweghe, and any of them turns the Knicks into a winner. How is Dolan going to feel about that? On the one hand, he'll be happy, of course; but on the other hand, the success of a new team president will be held up as proof that Dolan should have fired Isiah long ago.

Now look at it the other way. What if Dolan believes that Thomas can still rescue the Knicks? If so, then the owner is looking ahead to the day he gets to say "I told you so'' to everybody. He has already invested heavily in Thomas, absorbing a ton of losses on the court and in the ledgers. If Dolan still believes in Thomas -- and I don't know if he does or doesn't -- then I think he'll bring him back. That's because, ultimately, it will be much more satisfying for Dolan to win with Isiah than with any other executive who might replace him.

It would drive a lot of Knicks fans crazy to see Thomas returning next season, but the Knicks don't belong to New York. They belong to Dolan, and he has the only vote on Thomas' future.

2. Dolan trusts Thomas with the Knicks' draft pick. One of Isiah's least assailable qualities is his ability to find talent in the draft. I'm guessing that Dolan will like Thomas' chances of discovering an All-Star with the Knicks' high lottery pick this June. The alternative is to fire Thomas and give the new scouting staff a short two-month window to figure out the draft.

1. Thomas wants to stay. There has been a lot of speculation that Thomas is looking to get himself fired, that he has given up and wants to leave with a huge buyout. I don't believe it. Everything I heard during the trade deadline was that he was seeking trades that were financially advantageous to his owner. It was not the work of a saboteur.

One more thing, for whatever it's worth. The Knicks won't hold the rights to their first-round pick in 2010. They dealt it to Phoenix in 2005 as part of the Marbury trade, and the Suns moved it onto Utah in a financial trade involving Tom Gugliotta. The pick is protected through No. 25 this year and No. 24 next year, but in 2010 the Jazz will claim it with zero protection. Therefore, the Knicks must return to the playoffs by 2009-10 or else risk losing the potential No. 1 pick in the draft. Does this influence any decision on Thomas? As in all cases with Dolan, it's impossible to say.

2. Can he be a leader? The recent Atlanta Journal-Constitution report that Hawks ownership prevented GM Billy Knight from firing coach Mike Woodson has put more pressure on the All-Star guard to provide leadership, and to salvage something for an organization that appears to be on the verge of wholesale changes this offseason. Johnson is a quiet personality, but during All-Star weekend I asked if he's raised his voice more often this season.

"I have to be built up to a certain level,'' he said. "I've had a few times where I've lost my cool a little bit, but other than that I'm pretty much mellow. I say how things should be, and I give guys insight here and there by telling them some of the things they're doing wrong and doing right. Little things.''

1. Can the Hawks be led? They've gone 3-7 since trading for Mike Bibby, who is averaging 13.4 points and 6.8 assists while trying to elevate his young teammates. Johnson, too, has tried to be more of a playmaker this season. The question is whether the Hawks are mature enough to seize their opportunities. Johnson isn't sure they realize the importance of extending their season.

"A lot of times, young guys may not know the significance of making the playoffs,'' he said, "and if you've never been to the playoffs, then you may not even care.

"You really can't explain it to them. But you try to give them a little insight and let them know how it is, how the crowds are. We haven't had a lot of big crowds. But if we made the playoffs, it would probably be a packed house every night.''

In which case the entire franchise might earn respect. "And that would help everybody out,'' Johnson said. "Winning cures a lot of things.''

1. Derek Fisher, L.A. Lakers. As talented as the Lakers have become with the acquisition of Pau Gasol and the improvement of Andrew Bynum (who should be back in time for the playoffs), they might not be contenders without their 33-year-old point guard.

"How many guys are capable of running your team, defending and making shots?'' an Eastern Conference executive said.

"He's a calming presence to those guys,'' a West executive said. "In some ways, he's an afterthought -- until he kicks your ass. You look at their starting lineup and he's their fifth-best guy. If Derek Fisher is your fifth-best player, that's a pretty good team. He and Kobe are two of the great clutch shooters in the game. When I look at Fisher, I also think he could be a hell of a coach someday.''

SI Apps
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide - from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Seth Davis, and more - delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.