Wednesday June 6th, 2007

Also in this column: • On the Sonics' future • Donovan makes right decision • Kobe puts his foot down

I'm not going to say that the Cavaliers are incapable of upsetting the Spurs -- not after watching them put down the supposedly unbeatable Pistons. If LeBron James turns out to be the best player on the floor, and if his teammates knock down shots like the Warriors did to Dallas, then the biggest Finals upset in 30 years (going back to the Trail Blazers' 1977 win over Philadelphia) is possible.

But let's be realistic. So long as they emerge with their health intact, the Cavs will only benefit from this experience. Even if they're swept.

Not only have they leapfrogged their own timetable to reach the Finals -- there are players on the upcoming draft board who are older than 22-year-old LeBron -- but they're about to receive the most honest evaluation of how far they stand from winning a championship and what they need to get there.

People like to complain that the Spurs are boring. I say we should all be grateful. If it weren't for a franchise like the Spurs maintaining the high standard for team basketball as handed down from Bill Russell's Celtics, then the NBA really would lose its way as a traditional sports league. Without teams like San Antonio this whole enterprise might devolve into a reality show based on marketing and celebrity and preening for the cameras.

The easiest thing now would be to anoint James as the new King of the World before he's really earned it. Someday he'll surely reach that highest ground, but first the Spurs are going to put him through a most rigorous boot camp. They're going to show the utmost respect for him by bodying him out of his comfy positions and bruising him and reminding him that, if he really wants to be the best, he has to regard the court as a prize-fight ring rather than a TV studio.

James already knows what they're about to teach him. But it's a rite of passage that he's going to have to absorb the hard way.

Even if this becomes an ugly series and the Cavs can't win a game -- which would surprise me -- the result will be promising because it will be the truth. It will provide real feedback that the Cavs can apply to improve their team. In that sense Cleveland can't lose. Nobody expected the Cavs to be here, and it's hard to say how much the Pistons' passive play helped them along. But now they're about to run headlong into the NBA's version of the 1967 Green Bay Packers. Over the coming fortnight San Antonio will ruthlessly expose Cleveland's weaknesses and strengths in a most objective way.

While other teams might relax at this stage and be content to have exceeded expectations without hoping to advance further, that won't be the case in Cleveland because of James' farsighted decision to negotiate an opt-out in 2010. This introduction to the Finals isn't going to do it for a player who self-consciously wears uniform No. 23. James' contract status is going to maintain steady pressure on the franchise to keep improving and building toward the level of the Spurs, and GM Danny Ferry and coach Mike Brown will welcome that pressure because they, like their best player, want to be what San Antonio has become.

With Sam Presti's apparent ascension to GM of the Sonics, it looks like the Spurs organization is annexing rival franchises like so many colonies.

But two other factors have contributed to the Spurs' growing empire. First is that former Spurs executive Danny Ferry was chosen by Larry Brown, who was planning to become president of the Cavaliers; when Brown backed away, Ferry assumed command in Cleveland. My sense is that Ferry's history as a former Cavs player and Larry Brown's personal judgment (which turned out to be quite prescient) were at least as important as Ferry's winning association with the Spurs.

Now please consider this common dynamic:

Gregg Popovich: Tim Duncan

Danny Ferry: LeBron James

Sam Presti: Kevin Durant

It's obvious that Popovich and Ferry (and their staffs) have done well to surround Duncan and James, respectively, with players to help them reach the Finals. But neither team would be here if it hadn't won the lottery.

A lot of people in the league believe that Presti, who is currently San Antonio's assistant GM, has the makings of a tremendous executive. If he takes the job in Seattle you'll know he's a smart guy, because he's following the examples of Popovich and Ferry by uniting himself with a young star capable of leading his team into contention someday.

Never mind the Sonics' combined 66 wins over the past two years. Presti would be taking over one of the most-envied rosters in the league. The Sonics are deep with young talent and sensible contracts, and the reason they slumped to 31 wins last season was because of injuries to starters Ray Allen, Rashard Lewis and promising center Robert Swift. The reward to GM Rick Sund for patiently assembling this team was to be fired with a year left on his contract; all I can imagine is that rookie owner Clay Bennett was exploited by bad counsel.

In other news, I'm standing by my story that Lenny Wilkens is going to be reassigned and will have no say over basketball matters in Seattle. I wouldn't be surprised if it's happened already.

People are making fun of Billy Donovan for changing his mind, but I can tell you a lot of people in Boston wish Rick Pitino had done it this way instead of taking over the Celtics.

There is no wrong time for correcting a mistake or making the right decision.

Donovan wasn't ready to move to the NBA, but this bit of intrigue has only elevated his Q rating. He's only 42, and even if he has to kill the next five years until his Orlando contract expires, the wait will only increase the desire of NBA teams to hire him. (Provided, of course, he keeps winning at Florida.) Someday he'll jump to a franchise that makes him feel comfortable. In his own confused way he's making the same decision that Joakim Noah and Al Horford made a year ago: To stay in school until the time is right to leave. No one but Donovan can claim to know when that time is right.

In the meantime, the Magic have a chance to get the right guy by signing Stan Van Gundy. They'll play defense, they'll run, and by playing at the properly frenetic tempo they'll quickly get to the bottom of whether or not Jameer Nelson can manage the team. Van Gundy will be able to develop a relationship from the ground up with Dwight Howard, giving him an opportunity to overcome his pre-existing condition as Pat Riley's underling. In Orlando, Van Gundy can become an elite coach in his own right.

Another guy who is being taunted is Kobe Bryant.

Let's cut to the result. Rumor has it now that the Lakers are seeking trades for the kind of veteran players that Bryant wants to play with in Los Angeles. And I am certain that we won't be hearing any further critical comments from Lakers "insiders"' of the kind that so infuriated Bryant last week.

It is now clear to everybody that Bryant is the central figure in the Lakers franchise. It's clear because Bryant put his foot down.

In previous summers Bryant has had to deal with far worse criticism than he's heard over the last week. What he's putting up with now is a small price to pay if it helps run the franchise to his liking. I'm not saying that Bryant was right for doing it this way. But I am saying that he knew what he was doing, and that his declarations had the desired impact. The people who think he is unstable, confused or outright stupid are seriously underestimating him.

I don't see Bryant being traded next season, but he could force a trade the following year by promising to opt out in 2009. In that case the Lakers could trade him for expiring contracts with the hope -- far-fetched as it seems now -- of attracting LeBron James or Dwyane Wade should either decide to opt out in 2010.

I'm sure all of this has occurred to Knicks president Isiah Thomas, who at the February 2009 trade deadline could send the expiring contracts of Stephon Marbury ($20.8 million) and/or Steve Francis ($17.8 million) and/or Malik Rose ($7.6 million) to Los Angeles should Bryant vow to opt out, enabling the Lakers to slash payroll and create a huge open space for Kobe's free-agent replacements to fill. It's something to consider over the next year and a half, especially with Kevin Garnett due to become a free agent in the summer of 2009.

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