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For free agents, home is where the wins, and the good weather are

You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way Ricky Rubio is blowing, but it helps. The sensational teenaged point guard from Spain officially hasn't explained what appears to be his reluctance to join the Minnesota Timberwolves, the NBA team that grabbed him with the No. 5 pick in the June 25 draft. Others -- his father Esteve Rubio and Wolves exec David Kahn -- have done most of the talking for him, and at this point it still isn't clear whether Rubio cannot get to Minnesota for the 2009-10 season (a tricky and expensive buyout to negotiate with his Euroleague team, DKV Joventut Badalona) or simply will not (doesn't want to come).

There are several reasons why Rubio and his parents might consider the Wolves one of the "bad" NBA teams they talked about with SI.com's Ian Thomsenback in May: Minus a head coach, the Wolves have missed the past five postseasons, and Kahn's choice of another rookie point guard, Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, at No. 6 might look more like competition than insurance to Rubio. So far, though, the only thing we know for sure is that, the day before the draft, Rubio was asked to react word-association style to several NBA markets. His response to Minnesota? "Too cold."

Now that is cold. In a world where perception frequently is reality and gut responses like that can shape franchise's futures, "too cold" is a burden Minnesota has bear. The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but the ice and snow in Minneapolis/St. Paul bites everyone equally. Temperatures in January in Badalona range from nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit down to about 40; the average high in the Twin Cities that month is 21.9 degrees, the average low, 4.3. Subzero readings are so common, when the locals say, "It's freezing today!" they're boasting, not griping.

So Minnesota is cold, in the shorthand of NBA players. Sacramento is boring. Utah is straight-laced. New York is huge. Philadelphia is tough. Indianapolis is sleepy. Toronto is, y'know, up there somewhere, eh? Cleveland is enjoying a reprieve for as long as LeBron James stays put. It's all image, but image is important, now -- on the brink of summer free agency -- more than ever. How alluring an NBA city is to your average player weighing his employment options goes a long way toward determining its team's success and its fans' enjoyment.

My task here: Rank the 30 NBA markets in terms of attractiveness to players, weighing tangibles as well as intangibles, to better understand the team's inherent competitive advantages and disadvantages.

My methodology: I identified a dozen separate categories allowing for both objective and subjective evaluation, among them Climate, Night Life, Tradition, Marketing Potential, Facilities, Local Economy, Lifestyle (schools for kids, diversions for spouses), even Tax Implications. A few were hardcore hoops stuff: Readiness to Win, Teammates, Salary-Cap Space, Coaches. I consulted with statisticians at a local community college to concoct a point system, assigning scores ranging from plus-5 down to minus-5, and then calculated weights for each category, mathematically prioritizing them. You'll notice that I also counted Los Angeles twice, because as destinations go, the Lakers' and the Clippers' versions of L.A. might as well be the two moons of Mars. For these purposes, let's say the Lakers are Phobos and the Clippers Deimos.

So I wound up, in the end, with a formula as scientific as the NFL's quarterback-rating system and twice as indecipherable. Which is why I scrapped it entirely, painting-and-deleting the whole shebang as an acknowledgement that this stuff always is a matter of taste, subjective and highly personal for the players involved. Some want to win, some just want to get paid. Some would be happy as role guys on great teams, others want to be the main man on his own team. One player might frequent museums and plays, the other is happy with a satellite dish and Wii. There are more X-factors in decisions like this than there are, well, Xs and all the other letters in the alphabet.

Here then, is something less than learned. but arrived at through years of covering and traveling to the various NBA markets. It is one man's assessment and snapshot, not intended to offend and no more valid than the next fellow's, but no less than, either. Because that is how these decisions get made, from Rubio to James, one, by one, by one:

1. Los Angeles (Lakers): Oh, to be young, rich and a Laker. You've got championship potential (and a ring coming if you already were there this spring), a dominant superstar, the wisest of head coaches. And Hollywood in awe and that marvelous playground beyond Staples Center.

2. Miami: What's not to like? There's no state income tax, South Beach, balmy weather all winter long, Dwyane Wade, first-class travel and facilities, the competitive backdrop of Pat Riley to keep ambitions on track. Oh, and did we mention South Beach?

3. Phoenix: Things might not be as appealing at the moment, given the unsightly, and some would argue, needless makeover this team underwent. But the Suns used to run a relative country club for players, then became the most fun spot to play in the NBA. Steve Nash still keeps it fun, if you can ignore the scoreboard many nights.

4. Houston: I was surprised several years ago when I learned how many players league-wide spend their offseasons living and working out in this steamy city. Now that the Rockets are loaded and with management that can explain in intricate detail why you're the perfect fit for their system, it's an even greater place to be in-season.

5. Orlando: The tax thing. Dwight Howard. Three-pointers galore. The Celtics are getting old, the Cavaliers might lose LeBron. 'Nuff said.

6. Dallas:Mark Cuban is a players' owner, and there's nothing he says or does that the guys on the Mavericks roster wouldn't say or do if they could get away with it (or afford the fines). All NBA players owe a debt to this franchise, too, for upping to ante on treatment and amenities, little perks that fall just short of salary-cap violations.

7. New York: Sure, the team stinks. Yes, the building doesn't crackle with energy the way it used to. OK, there are miles to go to seriously contend. But many players like coach Mike D'Antoni's style, and the pressure from media and fans means people are passionate about what you do. Then you step outside onto W. 34th Street and you've got that whole city to enjoy.

8. Chicago: The tradition of Michael Jordan resonates more with today's players than even the Celtics' and Lakers' fabled pasts. No one grew up wanting to wear a Grizzlies or Thunder jersey, but they sure did play in their driveway thinking "Bulls." The Berto Center practice facility draws raves, and it's remarkable how Chicago has continued to fill United Center, through ups and downs, 11 years post-Jordan.

9. Atlanta: Gotta be the shoes. NBA players historically turned road trips to Atlanta into shopping sprees for their feet at Friedman's. Now the weather, the nightlife, the Hawks' youth and their recent playoff runs make this city even more attractive.

10. San Antonio: There might not be a ton of entertainment options here, but getting a contract offer from the Spurs is like getting accepted into an Ivy League school. It is a validation of a player's character or at least his potential to put the team ahead of the individual, and it is hard for many of them to say no. Or rather, no thank you, sir.

11. Cleveland: The power of LeBron, who stands with this market perched on his shoulders like some Lake Erie Atlas. Being a teammate of a superstar like this can line a fella's pockets in ways beyond paycheck, during and after their playing days. His possible free agency in 2010 means management will go overboard, wherever it can, to make things nice for him and his. Shaq means laughs, too. But if James goes, it will be like your high school team losing five senior starters, coming back with jayvee squaders.

12. Boston: All that lore and all those banners seem to mean more to players once they're inside the Celtics' mystique rather than from the outside. It's as if they have to get indoctrinated, have Bill Russell show up in the locker room or John Havlicek drop by practice, to connect the dots. Some NBA players question the friendliness of the city itself -- that was an issue about which Kevin Garnett placed a few phone calls in the summer of 2007 -- but current ownership seems willing to do what it takes to win.

13. Denver: The Nuggets as a destination got a boost from Chauncey Billups' performance and his ambassadorship after his trade from Detroit. The Pepsi Center crowds were solid before, but they were crazed in the just-finished postseason. Bright future, and playing for the Nuggets means not having to adjust in 24 hours to the mile-high thing.

14. Detroit: This place is looking better because of the money it plans to spend. The organization and the suburbs score higher with players than the local economy and downtown Detroit (rarely seen by most Pistons).

15. Portland: Can't quibble with the talent assembled, the stability of management and coaching or the ego-goosing that comes when you're one of the big shots for the only game in town. A lot of NBA players, though, are urban guys and, until they truly experience it, the Pacific Northwest is way out there somewhere. The crowds at the Rose Garden sagged, too, when the team's fortunes did, in contrast to a place like Chicago.

16. Philadelphia: Biggest strength in Philly? It is a basketball town, with Gatorade pumping through pebble-grained veins. Great tradition here for the sport and the franchise. No fans are more rabid, both good and bad. Somehow, Charles Barkley and Allen Iverson found enough nighttime entertainment, too. But the Sixers currently have a highly paid star, Elton Brand, who isn't helping enough.

17. Washington: Some Wizards see President Obama as he is -- a Bulls fan -- and say, "Why?" Others see what he could be -- showing up at games for them, not an occasional opponent -- and say, "Why not?" Basketball is "in" in D.C., so this market might be climbing. Interest in playing here might be, too, with offensive-minded Flip Saunders as coach and pieces in place for a playoff push.

18. New Orleans: Pre-Katrina and during the initial honeymoon of the Hornets' time in New Orleans, it would have ranked among the top 12. Now this franchise has financial and competitive issues that can counter the wonders of playing with Chris Paul.

19. Charlotte: This ought to be a great spot to recruit players -- the area is hoops mad, the weather is terrific, there's a small-town feel to the place. But Michael Jordan's absentee or air-drop management doesn't make him the asset he could be and, let's face it, there is a sense that the Bobcats are trying to do things on the cheap.

20. Golden State: What a marvelous place to live! What a predictable place to lose! The Warriors have had losing records in 14 of the past 15 seasons and way too much drama, relative to results, for a club that spends money and has had talent.

21. Los Angeles (Clippers): They share Staples Center with the Lakers -- and that's about all they share. It's hard to imagine these teams having all the same off-court advantages in terms of culture, climate and so forth. It's like Dennis and Randy Quaid vying for a leading-man role. Same gene pool but ... not. Still, enough players have joined the Clippers for non-basketball reasons to keep it off the canvas.

22. Toronto: A great, great city and a Raptors organization that treats players well. But changing coaches, missing the playoffs (or failing in the first round) and nervously waiting for Chris Bosh to stay or go works against it. The monetary challenges -- exchange rate, tax issues -- can be surmounted by hiring a good accountant, but there is an out-of-sight, out-of-mind disadvantage to playing for Canada's lone NBA team. Besides, some players and their cronies aren't wild about navigating customs.

23. Indiana: Swell place to settle down and raise a family. Unfortunately, that's not No. 1 on a lot of active NBA players' lists, especially when their paychecks allow them to have multiple residences and help with the kids. Not sure the Pacers get much oomph from their resident legend with the current generation of players, other than, "Hey, that's Larry Bird, isn't it?" Winning matters a lot in markets like this and the next one.

24. Utah: The Salt Lake Tribune reported Monday that power forward Paul Millsap, a restricted free agent, might be targeted by Oklahoma City. Which reminded me that there probably is an equation to be discovered for how many spots down this list a team can hope to lure a player. For instance, can Memphis lure away a Laker? Might be easier for the Thunder to entice a Jazz.

25. New Jersey: You can be 15 minutes away from all that Manhattan has to offer, yet make your residence a safe distance from the sirens and the dirty-bomb fears. You can draw a solid NBA paycheck without feeling any of the pressure or urgency to win that permeates Madison Square Garden. What's not to like about that? Well, it is pretty dreary, that Izod Center, and the potential Brooklyn move means some serious lame-duckedness.

26. Sacramento: The crowds here, and the one-horse-town centricity seemed bulletproof for years. Now not so much. The Kings are on the short list of NBA franchises experts think might re-locate. The arena is outdated. That first glimpse from the airport -- from terminal to open fields to Arco Arena to open fields -- isn't as stark as it used to be, but Chris Webber's concerns about proper soul food and other cultural attractions weren't completely unwarranted.

27. Milwaukee: Vastly underrated, and it seems to stay that way. Milwaukee gets points from some players for its proximity to Chicago. Others see it as a slushier Minneapolis. It would have helped if the Bucks got their No. 1 picks when they were Shaq and LeBron rather than Glenn Robinson and Andrew Bogut.

28. Oklahoma City: The talent on the roster, and the brainpower in the front office have lots of admirers, and the Ford Center fans can be among the league's most active and loud. But there's no cachet to being the first franchise in, at the big league level, and the Thunder will need to win soon to convince young players to stay or come aboard.

29. Memphis: Attendance is disappointing, and the Grizzlies have a ways to go before people forget the Pau Gasol trade. Now the team must wait for Hasheem Thabeet to develop, while worrying that Rubio could end up as a young star, sooner, somewhere else.

30. Minnesota: Rubio isn't the first NBA player to notice it's cold there. Stephon Marbury initially said the harsh winters left him no choice but to stay in the gym, working on his game. Then he bolted town barely two seasons later, his teeth chattering and thermal underwear beneath his jeans -- in March. Isaiah Rider at least turned the cold to his advantage, adding a dead battery and broken water pipes (from ice expanding) to his list of creative excuses for late arrivals and no-shows. Odds are, the NBA logo today would be a silhouette in galoshes, had the Lakers not moved to L.A. the summer they drafted Jerry West.

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