Who will be drafted by whom next month? It's impossible to say before Tuesday, when the annual lottery spells out the order of teams at the top of the draft. But here is an early look at five of the top picks and the franchise where each might have the biggest impact. Keep in mind this is a fantasy exercise, because who knows whether any of these teams will be positioned to draft the player it needs most?
5. Jordan Hill, 6-foot-10 junior power forward, Arizona. "Toronto could use him," said an NBA pro personnel scout who helped serve as my matchmaker. "[The Raptors] are so soft, and they can't rebound. Memphis is another team that needs size. Apart from Marc Gasol, it's really small and slight with guys like Hakim Warrick and Rudy Gay, and the Grizzlies could use Hill's toughness."
Hill averaged 18.3 points and 11.0 rebounds for Arizona last season. "I think he's a guy who will be solid, but he won't be great," the scout said. "I've heard him compared to Chris Wilcox as a rookie, but I don't think Hill is special like Wilcox was athletically. But I do think Hill is good athletically, and he'll play hard, a lunch-pail guy."
The choice: Raptors.
4. Hasheem Thabeet, 7-3 junior center, Connecticut. "He makes some sense in Minnesota," the scout said. "The Timberwolves are so small up front with Al Jefferson and Kevin Love. I know what they're listed at, but that has to be on stilts -- [Jefferson] is really 6-8 and Love is 6-8. They need length, and they don't need to have a center who is good offensively. Thabeet will be OK on offense, not completely deficient; he shot 64 percent from the free throw line, so maybe they can get him up to 73-74 percent. He can be a double-double guy -- by that I mean 10 and 10, not 18 and 10. And he'll give you three blocks a game and a huge defensive presence."
Pairing him at center with Jefferson at power forward would give the Timberwolves a pair of shot-blockers and rebounders, though they would need to figure out how to make Thabeet relevant offensively without crowding Jefferson out of the low post.
"It may be a little rich for him to go as high as 3, 4 or 5," the scout said, "but it's not a great draft, and if you're picking No. 3 or 4, you have to take somebody. I don't know if he loves the game, if he knows how to compete night in, night out. He'll either learn that and become really good or he won't, but none of us can know that right now."
The choice: Timberwolves.
3. James Harden, 6-5 sophomore guard, Arizona State. "He would be good in Oklahoma City because he would give them a second scorer," the scout said. "He'd be a nice 2 for them, and they have a need at shooting guard. Harden's got a great basketball IQ, he can really pass and he has the fundamentals of coming from a good program where he was well-coached. The Thunder have been drafting from programs like UCLA [with Russell Westbrook], Georgetown [Jeff Green] and Texas [Kevin Durant], so he fits that profile. And he fills a need."
Harden is one of those players who could vanish if he goes to the wrong team. He's a blend player who won't necessarily put up huge numbers but will know how to help teammates. He might also fit nicely in the backcourt of the Raptors or the Knicks, who favor the fluid European style.
The choice: Thunder.
2. Ricky Rubio, 6-4 point guard, 18 years old, DKV Joventut Badalona (Spain). Of the teams with the best hope of gaining the top-two pick necessary to draft Rubio, the Thunder may need to consider other options -- unless, of course, they view Rubio as a better prospect than Westbrook, who is coming off an impressive rookie year. The Wizards and Warriors would have to consider picking Rubio to play alongside Gilbert Arenas or Monta Ellis, respectively, as well as to serve as a replacement should either Arenas or Ellis suffer another injury.
"I think he fits the best with Sacramento," the scout said. "He can replace Beno Udrih at the point, and the Kings can build their style around him. They have a good shooting guard in Kevin Martin, who can run, and [their frontcourt of] Jason Thompson and [Spencer] Hawes can get up and down the court. They still could use an elite 3, but they're building -- and Rubio would give them the strong foundation of an 18-year-old point guard they'll have for the next 12 years.''
While Rubio is an up-tempo creator of a style approved by Kings GM Geoff Petrie, he may worry about disappearing for a rebuilding team in a small market like Sacramento. The jackpot move would be for Rubio to wind up playing in New York for Knicks coach Mike D'Antoni -- but then most players would wish for the same thing. When it comes to Rubio, however, the Knicks have a 3.3 percent chance at a top-two pick.
The choice: Kings.
1. Blake Griffin , 6-10 sophomore power forward, Oklahoma. There isn't a team that wouldn't be happy to have him. He could play in Minnesota, where concerns about Jefferson's size at center would be overwhelmed by the talent of the front line. The Clippers are spending a lot of money on their frontcourt, but they would gladly clear out room for Griffin.
Griffin would make an even bigger impression in Oklahoma City, where he would become an instant local star and make the fans feel it was their team (as opposed to one that had moved from Seattle). But the Thunder would have to move Green either to sixth man or to another team.
So consider this thought. "He's a great fit for Washington," the personnel man said. "Because then they can trade Antawn Jamison. That Washington team has a lot of good players up front but no toughness. They're looking to win now, and he would be a good rookie right off the bat because he's not afraid. Double teams will bother him, and he'll have to learn to play in traffic, but he's so competitive that he'll pick up things quickly."
By essentially trading out Jamison to make room for Griffin, the Wizards would relaunch with three stars -- Arenas, Caron Butler and Griffin -- all in their 20s.
The choice: Wizards.
4. Do you think Yao Ming's latest foot injury will finally get him to give up his Chinese national team duties? What can he/the Rockets do to stop this recurring injury? Does he need screws put in his foot like Zydrunas Ilgauskas?-- Katherine Groom, Brooklyn, N.Y.
I don't see Yao walking -- or in his case limping -- away from his national team. At the same time, I can't imagine him being available to play for China this summer. An anticipated recuperation of 8-to-12 weeks from the hairline fracture of his left foot should sideline him into August, leaving Yao little more than a month before the start of training camp. It makes nothing but sense to give him a summer of complete rest in hopes of breaking his streak of four seasons blighted by injury.
3. I like seeing what the league does in regulating how certain situations are called by the refs, but what are they (or aren't they) doing about the consistency of calls being made? I know it's a league of stars, but one has to question the possible motives of the league when players are obviously given preferential treatment. How could a first-team defensive player (LeBron James) average one foul per game in the playoffs? I feel like it's pointless for me to even watch when it seems apparent the cards are stacked to have a Kobe vs. LeBron Finals to coincide with all the commercials featuring both of those players.-- Dan, Louisville, Ky.
It has always been this way. The cries of preferential treatment didn't begin with LeBron; they date back to George Mikan and Bill Russell as well as Wilt Chamberlain, who never fouled out of an NBA game. (Moses Malone would break Chamberlain's NBA record by going 1,212 consecutive games before fouling out.)
For every one fan like you who may stop watching the NBA because of perceived star bias, a number of fans will tune in to see an NBA Finals of Kobe vs. LeBron, if it comes to that. Remember when Michael Jordan blatantly shoved Bryon Russell out of the way before hitting the final championship-clinching shot of his Bulls career? There are purists who view that as an incident of outright cheating, but a majority of fans call it one of the great plays in NBA history.
2. Which player among the (three surviving) Western Conference playoff teams do you think has the most chance of containing LeBron if they get to the Finals with the Cavs?-- Sean, Manila, Philippines
The answer to your question is Houston's Ron Artest, who has the size, strength and focus defensively to make things hard on James. He'll also have Shane Battier to provide a different defensive style against James for a few minutes.
You're asking a good question, Sean, but I think an even better question is: Which team can play the high level of five-man defense needed against LeBron? Because a five-man approach was applied by the Spurs and Celtics to limit him over the last two postseasons, and that's what it's going to take now. The answer is that I don't think any team is playing the lockdown defense that will be needed in the Finals. Again, Houston would appear to have the best chance defensively, but LeBron's improved perimeter shooting combined with the cast of shooters around him makes him the Cavs more difficult to stop than they were a year or two ago.
1. A non-playoff question, if you will. What is the Warriors' grand plan? Only a few years ago they were the toast of the NBA after upsetting the top-seeded Mavs in the playoffs. Now their former point guard is miserable in L.A. and the man who built the team (Chris Mullin) is out. Is there any reason for hope in the Bay Area?-- Brandon P., Los Angeles
Hope? Hope is without end for the Warriors. Hope is all you ever have. Every few years your team drafts well, puts out an intriguing group of young future stars, then something happens, the players go away, a new administration comes in and the cycle renews with new young players and on and on it goes. Hope is what this franchise is all about, and little else but hope.
Ask the Orlando Magic coach a cliched question and he'll knock it out of the park like Albert Pujols sitting on a hanging curveball.
3. Did the Magic win Game 1 because they had more rest coming in than the Celtics, who had finished their seven-game series against Chicago just two days earlier?
"They did not look like in the last 16 minutes like there was much fatigue on their part," answered Van Gundy, who watched the Celtics make a big second-half comeback. "You wouldn't get less fatigued as the game went on. At least I don't understand how you would: I'm tired, but after I've played 30 minutes I'm not tired anymore? I don't think that would happen."
2. On making adjustments to what the Celtics might or might not try to do:
"Not that you don't think about what they might do, but it's not a matter of anticipating what they might do. It's being prepared hopefully for whatever may come. You don't want to be in a guessing game and say, 'Oh, well, we guessed wrong' -- and then lose. You've got to be prepared for anything that will come.
"The adjustment thing is a little overplayed. There [are] minor adjustments from game to game. But we pretty much know Paul Pierce is a pretty good player and they'll probably go to him. Ray Allen, they're going to try to get him shots. ... You can run a different play here or there, they may come and double-team Rashard [Lewis]' post-ups. You know the team's basic game. And neither one of us is going to do anything to the other team that you haven't seen before. I mean, I've got no revolutionary scheme here that I can throw out there that Doc [Rivers] and his coaching staff are going to be baffled with my genius because they've never seen this before. You prepare to try to do what you think is going to be best. Whatever you take away, you're going to give up something else, and you hope they can't capitalize on it. So there's no perfect adjustments or anything."
1. On perceptions that the Celtics are the "tougher" team:
"I don't know about the whole toughness thing. When I watch the NBA or any sport, it generally comes down to who is better, who is going to be good enough. Did we win [Game 3] because we were tougher than the Celtics, or did we win because we shot 59 percent? Did they win in Boston in Game 2 because they were tougher, or because they were draining shots? Does it take a lot of toughness for Eddie House to run off a screen and drill a [shot] in your face 11 out of 14 times, or does it take great skill?
"Everybody in sports -- I don't know what it is, fans, media -- wants to bring it down to who wanted it more. Well, they could have wanted it, but if Eddie House had gone 4-for-14, we would have been in the damn ball game. It usually comes down to who's better."
A follow-up: Was the issue of toughness made relevant by the Detroit Pistons' championship Bad Boys teams of the late 1980s?
"It certainly got heightened, and then it became the trend for a while -- Pat [Riley] in New York, with those teams beating the crap out of everybody. The NBA didn't like it, they legislated against it. Toughness is important, but you can't play that way anymore where you just beat the hell out of everybody.
"I'm not sure that's what got it done, either. You can talk about all those teams, you can talk about the Bad Boys all you want and Rick Mahorn and Bill Laimbeer -- I hate to be a non-believer, but I'm saying, Isiah Thomas, Vinnie Johnson and Joe Dumars making shots [won their championships]. It's still a skill game."
2. On the epidemic of injuries. Of the NBA's final eight teams, only Cleveland and Denver have not suffered from an injury to a leading player that has affected the postseason. Lakers center Andrew Bynum is struggling to regain form after his midseason knee injury. The Rockets are without Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming. The Celtics and Magic lack Kevin Garnett and Jameer Nelson, respectively, the Hawks were without Al Horford and Marvin Williams for part of the second-round series, and Dallas couldn't always count on Josh Howard because of his ankle injury.
This is not to mention the first-round absence of San Antonio's Manu Ginobili and the limited availability of New Orleans' Tyson Chandler.
Before the playoffs last month, I asked commissioner David Stern if he had any theory for the wave of injuries affecting star players. His answer: "I think we're putting demands on our bodies with the training."
Their fitness and athleticism could be adding stress to the joints and muscles. In addition, MRIs and other high-tech tools are enabling doctors to diagnose injuries that never would have been detected a generation or two ago; in the past, players were compelled to play through undiagnosed pain or soreness.
But it's interesting that most players from the 2008 U.S. Olympic team have escaped injury this season. It's also ironic that the NBA has grown less violent with fewer hard fouls and fights, and yet the number of injuries appears to be rising.
1. On the suspensions. People were flabbergasted by the NBA's admission that the game officials erred in permitting Carmelo Anthony to make a game-winning three-pointer after he had been fouled intentionally by Antoine Wright.
The statement was a good-faith effort to increase transparency post-Donaghy. But I also wonder if it was tacit acknowledgment that the league office has gone too far with its postseason suspensions. Apart from the dramatic games involving the Celtics, the surprise story of the playoffs has been the NBA's hardline decisions to suspend key players for plays that would have been overlooked as misdemeanors in previous eras. Was Wright afraid of fouling Anthony too hard? Did he limit his foul because the suspension police were in his head?
As his club was blowing a 23-point lead in the championship game of the Euroleague Final Four last week in Berlin, the co-owner of the Greek club Panathinaikos of Athens created quite a scene. From his seat in the stands near the court, in full view of reporters covering the event, Thanassis Giannakopoulos stood up to criticize the referees for favoring his team's opponent, the defending Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow. As the Russians charged back to within one point in the final minute, Giannakopoulos began throwing paper money toward the court, in apparent demonstration of his belief that the referees had been bribed.
He then turned to heckle Euroleague CEO Jordi Bertomeu, throwing money his way as well. To add comedy to the incident, Giannakopoulos' bodyguard scrambled to pick up the boss' money as it was being tossed.
After the game, the enraged Giannakopoulos grabbed a referee so strongly as to leave bruises on his arm. He did this even as his team was celebrating its victory -- Panathinaikos having held on to win 73-71 to conclude one of the great Finals Fours in European history.
Reports say Giannakopoulos is expected to receive an enormous fine by Euroleague standards, perhaps $136,000 or more. This is nowhere near the $1 million penalty issued by the NBA a few years ago to Mark Cuban, who never committed any violation so disgraceful as that by Giannakopoulos, who has since given an interview expressing regret for his temper.
Team officials like Giannakopoulos fail to realize the damage they do to the larger business of basketball in Europe.
On the other hand, the NBA could use some of his passion. For all of the outrage over suspensions and officiating in the NBA playoffs, the post-Donaghy world thus far has been much-ado-about-little and, compared to the goings-on in other parts of the world, rather dull.