Friday December 12th, 2008

More and more I find myself feeling compelled to write about teenage draft picks who may never pan out, as well as moves that may never happen at the trade deadline this February or in the summer of 2010, while in the meantime, events that are actually happening right now seem to carry less and less importance.

5. Here's an example. While attending a recent game at an NBA arena, a league personnel scout and I worked through a list of possible new homes for Steve Nash based on two enormous ifs: a collapse by the Suns prior to the February 2009 trade deadline, and a subsequent decision by them to cash out for the 34-year-old Nash now rather than wait until next season, when his contract will be expiring.

We had been talking about the Suns' difficulties when we naturally began wondering about Nash's future, and whether he might be made available sooner than later. "He would become the NBA's Brett Favre,'' I declared as we worked our way through the NBA standings in search for possible Nash suitors. Here is what we came up with:

i. Magic: This would be a tough deal to make, as the Suns probably wouldn't want Jameer Nelson as Nash's replacement ... but maybe they'd like Hedo Turkoglu?

h. 76ers: Would the Suns be interested in Andre Miller's expiring contract?

g. Hawks: Atlanta could dangle a pick and Mike Bibby's expiring contract.

f. Rockets: Luis Scola and Luther Head are among those who could be offered.

e. Raptors: Would they deal emerging point guard Jose Calderon to bring home the great Canadian? Besides the seven-year age gap between Calderon and Nash, the Spaniard has base-year restrictions that would complicate any move.

d. Knicks: They could package David Lee to the Suns, then sign Nash to a less expensive extension that could lure LeBron James and others to New York in 2010.

c. Cavaliers: Imagine Nash's dealing to LeBron in transition, though the Cavs might have to surrender Mo Williams and an expiring deal while taking on an unattractive contract from Phoenix.

b. Trail Blazers: They could package Raef LaFrentz's expiring deal along with Sergio Rodriguez and/or other young talent; they could even expand the deal while taking another expensive contract off the Suns' hands.

a. Lakers: How about a package from among the likes of Lamar Odom and Chris Mihm (who have expiring contracts) and Jordan Farmar?

Fans of Nash may get worked up by this speculation. Let me emphasize, however, that it is all a lot of pap with no basis in reality. I have no inside information that Phoenix is interested in trading Nash, nor that any of these potential suitors is actually interested in acquiring him (though, wouldn't he look good in a Trail Blazers uniform?).

I ran my proposals by a league general manager. He said, "I don't see that kind of a market for Steve Nash.''

I mentioned Bibby as a possible asset to be used for Nash.

"I'm not sure there's a market for Mike Bibby either,'' the GM said. "San Antonio, Boston, Cleveland -- they're not going for Mike Bibby. Who is going to say, We're going to win a championship if we get Mike Bibby?

"Phoenix might do something for Steve Nash, but I think it would have to be for something really good. At his age, it will be tough to get a terrific young player for him. I would think they would be more likely to try to trade Amaré Stoudemire than Steve Nash.''

This is the kind of interesting discussion that drives coverage of the NBA on the Internet. It is speculation, and when engaging in it I try to write it as such. But somewhere along the way speculation often becomes more important than fact.

4. What we're missing. The big story of this NBA season revolves around LeBron's future. Will he stay in Cleveland, or is he destined to be a Knick? In previous generations, this would be an interesting back-burner plot line. But the way things work today, LeBron In 2010 appears to be all that matters.

In the meantime, the Cavs (19-3 through Thursday) are contenders to win the championship. Throughout these opening weeks, I've assumed that they were a good player short of contending this season, based on the recent NBA Finals struggles of LeBron and Kobe Bryant as the lone stars of their teams. But I am telling you now that I have been wrong.

I can also tell you that the Celtics view Cleveland as their equal, based on the backcourt addition of Williams, the growing cohesion of the Cavs' roster since the blockbuster trade of last February, and the continued improvement of LeBron himself. The Cavs are outscoring all comers by a league-leading average of 13.4 points, they're No. 4 in scoring and virtually equal to the Celtics atop the defensive stats, and they're doing all of this while LeBron plays five fewer minutes per game than last season.

Has my attention on the present been obscured by innuendo about 2010? Maybe. But instead of lathering about the Knicks and LeBron, shouldn't we be attending to the landscape here and now and ask: Who would be so crazy as to walk away from a team as dominant as the Cavs are today? (And Cleveland is near his hometown at that.)

3. The draft is the NBA's black hole. I cover this story because I know the readers eat it up, and nobody can accuse me of not trying as my mock draft last June was relatively accurate. But let's be honest: The draft is a weak version of what it used to be, when the best talents spent three or four years in college before turning pro. It's preposterous to imagine a rookie winning the league MVP, as Wes Unseld did in 1968-69.

Most of the players who enter the draft are too young and unschooled to contribute at the NBA level. They are years away from becoming useful members of this lucrative society, which is why the NBA draft bears more in common with baseball's draft than with the NFL's.

Every now and then someone like LeBron comes along, but otherwise the draft is a severe futures market. The quality of the draft has never been worse, and yet interest is at an all-time high. I don't understand it.

2. How it came to be. Why is the future of the NBA more important than its present?

As the NBA grew more valuable, and the players negotiated more money for themselves, the league had to come up with new ways to prevent its owners from spending themselves out of existence. The salary cap led to the luxury tax, which has created a system in which the contract of a player is often more important than his talent. It is a system in which trades cannot be manufactured unless salaries of equal value are exchanged (with a few loopholes, of course).

Teams used to trade players of similar ability. Now they trade contracts of similar value, or they maneuver those contracts to clear cap space for 2010.

Allen Iverson is among the most charismatic players in the world. In acquiring him last month, were the Pistons interested more in his talent or in his expiring contract?

For a league that thrives on the personalities of its players, the valuation of talent has been a dehumanizing trend.

"It's become such a meat market that cap space and 2010 is all the public wants to talk about,'' said an NBA advance scout who spends the season on the front lines traveling to watch a different game every night or two. "There are a few stars in the league that everyone would love to have, and it seems like the rest of the players are just numbers that get moved around. I wonder how the players feel about it.''

I suppose they view it as a small price to be suffered in exchange for the money they're paid.

The other part of this equation is the role of the Internet and the nanosecond news cycle. In this virtual world in which we must always be looking ahead to the next big thing, the medium has become the message.

1. Will we ever learn to reverse this trend and live in the moment? I don't know. Maybe if I ask a psychic ...

4. It seems like Kevin Garnett isn't very popular among NBA players and fans these days. I know his taunting of Jose Calderon, getting on all fours to defend Jerryd Bayless and publicly berating teammate Glen Davis aren't helping matters. It seems like after years of frustration in Minnesota, followed by success in Boston, he'd be praised for his hard work and leadership, but the opposite seems to be happening. What do you think of KG? -- Antoine G., New York

I wish more stars played like him. He plays hard every night, defends rabidly and antagonizes opponents rather than worrying about maintaining friendships with players on opposing teams. When sports fans complain about the stereotypical NBA star, they aren't talking about Garnett because he is the antithesis of that negative stereotype.

3. With all this talk about who's going where in 2010, what do you think about Toronto's chances of landing Nash? Although the Raptors have Calderon in place, wouldn't Nash potentially feel a desire to come home to Canada? Especially if Jay Triano remains in place as coach -- they have a longstanding relationship stemming from their Canadian national team days. -- Nathan, Ottawa, Canada

Not that you were alluding otherwise, but the outcome of the Raptors' search for a full-time coach will have more to do with stabilizing the team as a playoff contender and keeping Chris Bosh happy in Toronto than with the far-off possibility of signing Nash. If Nash is a free agent in 2010, then Toronto should have a chance at him. But if an attractive contender were to trade for Nash by February 2010 on the stipulation that he agrees to an extension, then he would not be available.

2. Don't you think this is the first time in an NBA season that Pistons president Joe Dumars made bad decisions? Hiring an inexperienced Michael Curry to replace the experienced Flip Saunders? Signing players like Kwame Brown? Trading the "General" Billups for "Lone-Ranger" Iverson? -- Torrence, Jakarta, Indonesia

Brown is on a reasonable two-year, $8.1 million contract. Curry was hired to provide the discipline and accountability that the Pistons felt was lacking from Saunders; it may nonetheless be asking too much of a rookie coach to sort out the complex on-court relationships between Iverson and his new teammates. But even if it doesn't work out this season, the trade can't be judged until we see how the Pistons manage the cap space realized from Iverson's expiring contract. Dumars believed their former lineup had exhausted its championship potential. Let's see how this plays out.

1. The Cavs have done a fantastic job with the rotation of their centers this year. They have a shooting center in Zydrunas Ilgauskas, a defensive center in Ben Wallace and a pick-and-roll-forever center in Anderson Varejao. I'd argue that the Cavs have the best rotation of centers in the league. That's great that you think Dwight Howard is the best center in the league, but which team do you think has the best rotation of centers? -- Bryce McKenney, Canton, Ohio

Give the Cavs credit for making the most of what they have up front. They have an excellent trio of big men, but let's be real: Wallace starts at power forward alongside Ilgauskas, so by putting it your way you bring other teams into the discussion -- including the Spurs with Tim Duncan playing a lot of center with Fabricio Oberto and Kurt Thomas, and the Suns with their rotation of Shaquille O'Neal, Stoudemire and Robin Lopez.

If we're talking about Nos. 1 and 2 center combinations (excluding starters at power forward), then the best include Cleveland with Ilgauskas and Varejao, Portland with Greg Oden and Joel Przybilla, Orlando with Howard and Tony Battie and (when healthy) the league's most talented center combo of Marcus Camby and Chris Kaman, though they've rarely been available together for the underperforming Clippers.

3. On averaging just 34 minutes this season for the 18-3 Lakers, an 11-year low for Bryant:

"It means we're blowing them out,'' Kobe said. "I've had like five, six, seven games where I haven't played the entire fourth.''

It isn't a goal to reduce your minutes?

"Not really,'' he said. "I feel great, my body feels good. We've just been creaming people, so it feels a lot better to sit over there on the bench.''

2. On whether the season-ending 39-point loss in Game 6 of the NBA Finals inspired the Lakers:

"Yeah, because we were close, we were there,'' he said. "We made a trade midway through the season [for Pau Gasol], it worked out great for us. But we shuffled lineups so much -- we had guys coming out, guys getting injured, this that and the other -- that it was amazing that we made the run that we made [to the Finals] in hindsight. But we were there. So now it's time to fine-tune things and learn from the Celtics, and learn from that experience. And now the ball's in our court to see if we can't get back there and finish it up.''

1. On whether the Lakers are now bigger than the Celtics:

"Yeah,'' Bryant said, "but they're stronger. At least they were last year physically. So that's something we've made a conscious effort to improve on. Everybody here looks bigger, everybody got in the weight room this summer and got stronger. Because those boys were just stronger than we were, and they got a lot of rebounds because they were tougher in the paint. They're still the barometer which we judge ourselves by.''

2. Antonio Daniels goes to New Orleans from Washington, which receives Mike James from the Hornets and Javaris Crittenton from the Grizzlies; Memphis sends a conditional second-round pick to the Hornets and receives a conditional first-rounder from the Wizards. The key player for this season is Daniels, who has been injured and showing his age at 33. But he will further unify the Hornets and provide stable backcourt minutes as Chris Paul's backup. A good move for a contender looking ahead to the playoffs.

1. Charlotte sends Jason Richardson, Jared Dudley and a 2010 second-round pick to Phoenix for Raja Bell, Boris Diaw and Sean Singletary. The Bobcats have sacrificed talent for future flexibility; this looks like the initial step of a Larry Brown overhaul. For the Suns, this is less like a finishing move than the next of many changes that began with the trade for Shaquille O'Neal and the departure of coach Mike D'Antoni. The pieces in Phoenix no longer fit and Richardson, talented though he is, isn't likely to bring them together.

1. McHale can be an excellent coach, according to rival executive Danny Ainge of the Celtics. "I never really thought about it at the time,'' Ainge said in reference to his years as McHale's teammate on the Celtics. "I don't think I could see Kevin being a coach for 25 years, that type of guy. But Kevin has a great temperament, a great perspective, and he's very bright. He has a lot of characteristics, though I don't think he's one of those grind-it-out types of people -- but there are a lot of different ways to coach.''

I recalled the old criticism of Larry Bird that McHale could have worked harder on his game and become an even more dominant player in the 1980s.

"I think those are unfair assessments of Kevin and his work,'' Ainge said. "He brings a joke and a smile to work. He's not a guy who's watching thousands of films, but he's bright and can pick things up pretty quick, and the game is a simpler process to him than it is to some of these people who put in thousands of hours. He was the same as a player: Kevin loved to play basketball, to play one-on-one. I always thought of Kevin as an extremely hard worker, but he played for the fun of it. He enjoys life, and he has a different approach to life than some people might. So that can be interpreted in a certain way, but I thought he did work at his game.

"Kevin is a great competitor. He is a guy who is encouraging and positive and upbeat. He likes the players, and he just likes people. It's a different approach than a lot of coaches today, but it can be successful. The big factor is, how committed are you to it? There's no question, if Kevin is committed, he could be a very successful coach.''

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