So Ricky Rubio is in the draft, apparently to stay. Good news for a league that can use the star power in the 2009 guessing festival that lacks the twinkling lights of recent years, good news for the teams that will pick in the top three or four and need a point guard, and obviously good news for the Hornets. Anything that diverts attention for 12 seconds from whatever that was Monday night in New Orleans, they're all for it.
This changes nothing, though. Oklahoma power forward Blake Griffin is still clearly the projected No. 1 pick and everyone else is in the chase car, as has been the case all season, and Rubio's recent decision to enter the June 25 draft a couple of months after a lot of teams thought he would stay in Spain doesn't move the needle much. It's a boost for the depth of the draft, not the intrigue, according to an early read from NBA executives.
"He is that far ahead of the pack," one personnel boss said of Griffin versus the field.
"Right now," another executive added, "it's a clear difference."
The landslide is at least a partial surprise. To many around the league, a difference-maker at point guard is harder to acquire than a difference-maker at power forward. That should be an obvious lean to Rubio, in much the same way most teams would have taken Greg Oden over Kevin Durant in 2007, because of the position value of a center over a small forward that should always win out in a close call. Also, Rubio is a charismatic playmaker who has drawn unfair comparisons to ball-handling genius Pete Maravich in style and appearance, and has a better chance to sell tickets. That matters.
Other considerations just matter more:
• Take big over small. Repeated throughout the years. Griffin is 6-foot-9 and plays bigger because of his superior athleticism and strength, and Rubio is 6-3. Oden-Durant was a big-small debate because Durant, though 6-9, was a wing.
Executive No. 2: "The guy [Griffin] is a special athlete, for one thing. When it comes to athleticism, he's freakish. And he's a big guy. I know point guards are hard to find. But so are bigs."
• The age factor. Griffin is 20, Rubio is 18. A two-year difference is not everything. Some 18-year-olds are more mature than some 20-year-olds. But as part of the larger package that will go into the call by the team that lands No. 1, it's a consideration.
• The comfort level. Rubio wasn't hard to find as the starting point guard for DKV Joventut, but there were fewer opportunities to scout him in Spain. The Spanish leagues play at a high level and others who jumped the Atlantic enjoyed immediate success, though most had the advantage of being older.
"There's certainly that fear that maybe his game won't translate, that maybe he's the Spanish Sebastian Telfair," a third executive said.
Meanwhile, teams were able to watch most, if not every, Oklahoma game, whether in person or on TV. The Sooners competed in a prominent conference, were one of the top teams in the nation with Griffin in the spotlight, and played into the second round of the 2008 tournament and to a regional final in '09.
"With those factors," the first executive said of a potential Rubio challenge, "I don't think there's any way he goes No. 1."
The Kings, with the greatest chance to draw the first pick in the May 19 lottery, have an obvious need for a point guard over a power forward -- Beno Udrih is a train wreck and the 6-11 Jason Thompson, the No. 12 pick last year, has a future. There's also the consideration that the fan base has gone from legendarily good to frustrated by the direction of the franchise. The Kings finished last in the league in attendance this season, a notion no one would have dared suggest a couple of years ago. (Utah's Brevin Knight, on the new Arco Arena atmosphere: "It's sad." Pau Gasol, after Lakers fans shouted down Sacramento fans in April: "I can't imagine how bad it would make me feel if I was a Kings player.")
But if Griffin is bottom-line better than Rubio through the very few individual workouts they consent to, and it's not a close vote right now, the Kings go Griffin as the practical move and the safe move. Besides, they're only one season into a regrettable five-year deal with Udrih, and president Geoff Petrie is notoriously patient.
The Wizards, with the second-best chance at the top spot, have Gilbert Arenas and his knee problems and the final five seasons on a $111 million contract at the point. They also have Mike James (with a player option) and Javaris Crittenton. Executive No. 1: "I think Washington takes Blake Griffin every day of the week. But you can see it, that maybe they would want to play Arenas off the ball."
The Clippers, with the third-best chance, have Baron Davis at point guard, and he's difficult to move with four years remaining on a contract that totals $65 million. They have Zach Randolph at power forward, with the possibility of Marcus Camby or Chris Kaman if Kaman gets healthy.
The Thunder, with the fourth-best chance, have the only no-brainer among the teams with the best chance to pick first. They play in Oklahoma City. Griffin is from an OKC suburb. Russell Westbrook is set as the point guard. Done deal.
The success of Denver in the first round has been because of Chauncey Billups and because the opponent, New Orleans, decided not to show for Game 4 and the forfeit went down as a 121-63 Nuggets victory for record-keeping purposes. The success of the season, though, has been because of defense, and didn't everyone see that coming?
The unpredictable rise to Northwest Division champions and No. 2 in the Western Conference, after being sent head first out of the opening round a year ago, is nothing compared to how they got there. The Nuggets finished 14th in field-goal-percentage defense and 29th in scoring defense last season, then traded the 2006-07 Defensive Player of the Year (Camby) ... and finished fourth in shooting defense and 19th in scoring defense. The emphasis on stopping the ball came a season later than coach George Karl had predicted, but it's been one giant comeback.
It's not 2007-08 anymore, in a lot of ways: Nene recovered from testicular cancer to contribute 14.6 points and 7.8 rebounds as Camby's replacement at center, decent numbers in 32.6 minutes; Chris Andersen climbed back from a drug suspension to finish second in the league in blocks despite a reserve role; and Billups brought leadership and skill after being traded back to his hometown team.
• All the pressure is on the Rockets, the franchise unable to get out of the first round, even with a 3-2 lead over the Trail Blazers as the series returns to Texas on Thursday. If Houston does advance, it's the best chance anyone has to defend Kobe Bryant, better than even the Cavaliers and the roster that tied for No. 1 in shooting defense. (Though you know Bryant would love to go at LeBron James for four or seven games and take James' new status as an elite defender out for a spin.) Being able to throw Ron Artest or Shane Battier at Kobe -- unless maybe it'll be Ron Artest and Shane Battier at the same time -- is a level of defense among wings that no one can match.
• The breakdown for Boston: Paul Pierce has gone from 37.5 minutes a game in the regular season to 43.4 in the cage match against the Bulls, Rajon Rondo from 33 to 44.4, Ray Allen from 36.4 to 37, Glen Davis from 21.5 to 41.2 and Kendrick Perkins from 29.6 to 38.2. The Celtics can never be called plucky, and certainly not the Celtics as defending champions. But ...
• The Mavericks didn't just step over the gimpy Spurs. Dallas played its way out of No. 8 in the West -- and an inevitable first-round exit against the Lakers -- and reached all the way to No. 6 by winning seven of its final nine regular-season games. In that time, it dropped 140 and 130 on Phoenix and Utah, respectively, in consecutive games, beat Houston and split a home-and-home with New Orleans back when that may have meant something. Though San Antonio was nowhere close to being the real San Antonio, the Mavs have earned their place in the second round.
• It's foolish to put too much stock in one quote after one game, especially a game with the emotions of a season-ending defeat, but just try disregarding the Jerry Sloan assessment of Utah reserve point guard Ronnie Price in the televised news conference Monday. "I've never seen a guy play that hard in my life in that situation," the Jazz coach said. It's Sloan, the most anti-hyperbole guy in the NBA and possibly the world, so: Wow. Best of all for Price, it comes as he is about to become a free agent. Guess which quote goes at the top of the résumé.