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Weekly countdown: Draft edition

The busiest week of the NBA offseason, at least until free agency kicks off next month, yielded plenty of items to dissect.

5. Are the Nets for sale? Four groups are positioned to invest in the Nets, a highly placed source in the league office confided this week.

Two other league sources told me that minority owner Vincent "Vinny" Viola is moving to buy out majority owner Bruce Ratner and take control of the franchise.

But the senior-level source named Viola, the senior startegic advisor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, as one of four potential suitors, while adding that Ratner may remain involved with the Nets and could even retain majority status. "It's all up to negotiation," said the source, emphasizing that all the interest is based on the promise of the Nets' long-anticipated move from New Jersey to Brooklyn.

The most intriguing group of potential new investors is headed by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who, until this season, was the financier of the Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow. The league source predicts that Prokhorov would survive the league's vetting process as a potential owner. Prokhorov is 6-foot-9 but didn't play basketball past elementary school. He was listed by Forbes last year as the 24th-richest man in the world, and his involvement with the Nets could eventually lead to the NBA arrival of Ettore Messina, the Italian coach who ran Prokhorov's CSKA teams.

Another potential investment group is headed by hedge-fund managers, while the fourth is drawn from the private equity field.

The potential sale of the Nets helps to explain the big move they made on draft day. They unloaded Vince Carter's remaining three years and $51 million to Orlando in exchange for three players, among whom only Courtney Lee will remain on the Nets' payroll in 2010-11 at a low rookie-scale salary of $1.4 million. Their payroll going into that season couldn't be more sparse, and they still have a 26-year-old All-Star point guard in Devin Harris. Coach Lawrence Frank will also be in the final year of his contract this season.

The Nets have long been rumored to be on the market. If a team is to be sold, then this often is how it's done: Remove as much furniture as possible so the new owner can remodel the place to his liking.

The cost-cutting played a role in the draft. Instead of going for forwards James Johnson or Tyler Hansbrough as rumored, they used the No. 11 pick on Terrence Williams as a potential replacement at shooting guard for Carter.

4. James Harden to the Thunder. Amid speculation that they would use the No. 3 pick on Tyreke Evans or Ricky Rubio, Oklahoma City instead went for the draft's top shooting guard in Harden. The Thunder were committed to taking the best available talent who fit their profile -- they are big on team-first character -- and Harden has a variety of skills to complement Kevin Durant. In other words, Harden can influence the game without necessarily scoring big numbers.

In doing so, the Thunder further committed themselves to Russell Westbrook as their point guard going forward. Westbrook was viewed as a combo guard coming out of UCLA a year ago, and many in the league doubted his ability to run a team. But Oklahoma City clearly doesn't share those doubts: The team could have easily drafted Rubio or Evans to take the ball out of Westbrook's hands, but instead he moves to the summer knowing the quarterback job is his for next season.

3. Minnesota's trio of point guards. At No. 5, the Timberwolves took Rubio, at No. 6 they went for Jonny Flynn and with the 18th pick they added Ty Lawson -- though that pick was dealt to Denver, providing the Nuggets with a backup point guard from George Karl's alma mater on a cheap rookie salary.

Rubio didn't want to go to Minnesota, but the Timberwolves appear intent on keeping him. They could use him to brand the team to his exciting uptempo style in hopes of returning fans to their arena, and he could form a strong inside-outside partnership with low-post big man Al Jefferson. Most interesting will be watching Rubio and Flynn learning to play together as GM David Kahn plays to Minnesota's newfound strengths in a surprising way. Usually teams try to make do with a backcourt of two scorers and ask one of them to be a point guard. In Kahn's case, however, he may try pairing two point guards and ask one of them to be a scorer.

Flynn is a scoring point and Rubio is a passer who promises to improve his jump shot. What an idea: Build a team with guys who like to pass the ball.

2. Brandon Jennings' long way around the green room. Early this season, Jennings was rated as a potential top five pick. Then he went to Lottomatica Rome in the Italian league, where he played poorly and had trouble earning consistent minutes. Little more should have been expected of a teenager who bypassed his freshman year of college to play against grown men in the Euroleague, yet the move appeared to hurt his standing.

On Thursday morning I called his agent, Bill Duffy, who said he would pull Jennings out of the green room rather than subject him to potentially becoming the last player in public waiting to be picked. Throughout the day he received no assurances -- my understanding was Jennings might go no earlier than No. 17 to the 76ers -- and so Jennings was watching with family at his New York hotel when the Bucks selected him No. 10.

A short time later Jennings appeared on stage with David Stern to shake the commissioner's hand. No harm had been done and he was happy with the final result -- thanks to Minnesota's decision to draft two point guards and the slide of Jrue Holiday out of the top 10. In the end, Holiday was picked 17th by the Sixers.

1. DeJuan Blair goes to San Antonio in the second round. The burly Pitt star was viewed as a lottery pick until teams got wind of his medical exam. Blair underwent ACL surgery on both knees in high school, and many teams said his long-term prognosis was not good.

Though he went undrafted in the first round, his landing site could not have worked out better for Blair. He'll join the Spurs and help them as a rookie while playing limited minutes, which should set him up for a contract in three years.

Many executives in the league didn't like seeing Blair fall this far, but there was little they could do to stop it. Most team doctors red-flagged him, which prevented the GMs from taking Blair in the first round.

"This is the worst I've ever seen as far as doctors unwilling to put their butts on the line," said a senior executive of an Eastern conference team. "If there's any kind of gray area, they're going to flunk the player."

Because of the sophisticated testing of MRIs and other high-tech devices, team doctors "know things they never used to know," the executive went on. "They never used to flunk players, and now they flunk them all the time. And a lot of the time it's to cover their [butts]."

In the next section I'll also deal with Washington's trade with Minnesota ...

4. The Warriors' potential trade for Amar'e Stoudemire. Unlike the other deals in this category, this one made sense in basketball terms. As widely reported, the trade couldn't be completed until July 1 because of the base-year status of Warriors' center Andris Biedrins, who would be included in the package to Phoenix.

The Suns would also receive Stephen Curry, who was picked No. 7 by Golden State and would go to Phoenix as part of the deal. And so, in one day, the Suns shed their frontcourt of Shaquille O'Neal and Stoudemire and head into next season with a team led by Steve Nash, Jason Richardson and Curry.

I have recently criticized the Warriors for perpetually rebuilding for a future that never comes, but I won't be saying that any longer if they have Stoudemire. He will thrive in Don Nelson's offense with Monta Ellis pushing the ball. Once again, the Warriors are going to be a fun team to watch.

3. Shaquille O'Neal to the Cavaliers. In sending Ben Wallace and Sasha Pavlovic to Phoenix, Cleveland satisfies its short-term and long-term ambitions.

For next season, it'll have a post presence who -- in combination with LeBron James -- will create open space for Mo Williams and his fellow shooters. Shaq will be fired up to win another championship while proving he's worthy of a new contract. He was third-team, all-NBA last season with Phoenix, and more of the same can be expected next year.

Because Shaq's contract is expiring, the Cavs can retain maximum cap space in 2010 to recruit a star free agent alongside LeBron (provided he decides to re-sign). That means they'll be positioned to win this season with him, and then over the next several years without him. It could be the best of both worlds -- pending LeBron's decision, of course.

2. Vince Carter goes to Orlando. The former All-Star was coming off one of his best seasons while providing leadership to the young Nets. When the Magic said they were willing to spend in order to remain in contention, they weren't exaggerating: Carter's contract runs another three years at $51 million, and in the exchange they gave up the contracts of Tony Battie and Rafer Alston, which both expire in 2010.

Carter is a go-to scorer, but he isn't a selfish player. In fact, he is a gifted passer, and coach Stan Van Gundy will surely insist that the ball keeps moving rather than allow it to stall when it goes to Carter. The next question is whether Orlando will be able to re-sign free agent Hedo Turkoglu, which would put it well over the luxury tax but also could push it back into the Finals.

1. Jamal Crawford to Atlanta. The Hawks gave up the small price of Acie Law and Speedy Claxton in exchange for Crawford, who will join with Joe Johnson to form a younger starting backcourt.

This trade is one example of an interesting new dynamic in the league. The deal was dreamed up by Hawks' director of pro personnel, Steve Rosenberry, who was assigned to scout rival NBA teams for potential acquisitions. "This is the first time I've had someone with that title," said Hawks GM Rick Sund of the pro-personnel job description. "Think of the money we spend scouting to make one NBA pick -- the attention and the focus we put on making that one pick. Having someone scout the NBA teams is a new position in the league, and more and more teams are doing it."

It only makes sense to invest in learning the behind-the-scenes facts of players currently in the NBA. Based on Rosenberry's recommendation, the Hawks now have one of the best clutch shooters in the league to pair with their All-Star in Johnson.

3.Most pundits seem to think the Wizards are "going for it" by trading for Mike Miller and Randy Foye. Even assuming the healthy return of Gilbert Arenas, does this team have the talent, and more important, commitment to defense, that will catapult it past the Magic, Cavs and Celtics next season?-- John, Gaithersburg, Md.

I don't know if they'll surpass those other contenders, but the Wizards will surely be respected by the top teams in the East. Three minutes after I broke news of that trade, a GM from one of the East's top teams called to ask if I had the details right. He didn't like seeing Washington add so much firepower.

Flip Saunders will make the most of this team -- so long as Arenas is healthy.

2. So word is that Phil Jackson might just coach mostly home games for the Lakers next year. Can that sort of arrangement work? Won't the players likely tune out the substitute knowing that Phil can't rip them until they get back to L.A.? And what about the differing philosophies/styles?-- Thomas H., San Diego

Thomas, count me among the minority who think this could and would work. Jackson likes to see his players work things out among themselves, though this would be taking that aim to an unprecedented extreme.

Jackson would be placing more leadership demands on Kobe Bryant which -- if successful -- would strengthen the team. In the meantime, Jackson would be pacing himself for the playoffs, which is the approach taken by contenders toward veteran players. And instead of handing the team over to Kurt Rambis (or Brian Shaw) and all at once, he would work his way in. It would be highly unusual, but I could imagine it working to their benefit.

1. Why does everyone always say that Michael Jordan is the greatest of all time, when Bill Russell has almost twice as many championships, and Wilt Chamberlain has way more personal records? In my book, Jordan was the greatest of his time and better than Bird and Magic. And where does George Mikan fit into this list?-- John W. Fullwood, Bronx, N.Y.

In my book, Bill Russell is the greatest player of all time. He set the standards for leadership and teamwork, while establishing a new approach to defense, which makes him the most influential player of the history of the sport.

But the fairest way to measure players is to divide the NBA thus far into three generations, with Mikan as the greatest of his era, then Russell as the player who defined what the NBA should be, followed by Jordan as the dominant player of modern times.

After so many major trades this week, here's an early look at how the conference races are shaping up for next season.

2. The East

15. New Jersey14. Milwaukee13. Charlotte12. Indiana11. Toronto10. New York9. Detroit8. Chicago7. Miami6. Philadelphia5. Atlanta4. Washington3. Boston2. Orlando1. Cleveland

A word of caution: The Pistons and Raptors could make moves in July to improve and move back into the playoffs.

1. The West

15. Sacramento14. Memphis13. Minnesota12. L.A. Clippers11. Phoenix10. Oklahoma City9. Utah8. Golden State7. Houston6. New Orleans5. Dallas4. Portland3. Denver2. San Antonio1. L.A. Lakers

Can Denver retain or replace its low-priced free agents? When will Tracy McGrady return to the Rockets, and in what kind of shape? And will Utah re-sign or successfully replace its free agents? These questions will be answered in the month ahead.

1. The Cleveland Cavaliers will meet the Los Angeles Lakers less than 12 months from now. Shaq versus Kobe, and Phil may even coach the games in Cleveland. I say Cleveland wins the title ... for now.

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