Friday June 25th, 2010

DeMarcus Cousins. That a potentially dominant 6-foot-11, 292-pound center who averaged 15.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 23.5 minutes last season -- gigantic production in short minutes while sharing the ball with four fellow first-rounders at Kentucky -- would go No. 5 in the draft is proof of how the NBA has veered away from traditional big men.

The 2007 draft example of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden endures. Even if Oden were healthy, most teams would probably look back and say that Durant should have been the No. 1 pick because he'll ultimately become the more influential star on the wing than Oden as a player in the paint. The NBA has instituted a zero-touch policy on the perimeter that liberates Durant as if he were a wide receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In the meantime, centers like Oden are pounded under the basket like running backs at the one-yard line.

And yet I'm going to insist that the teams picking up high -- led by the 76ers with the No. 2 pick -- are going to regret passing on Cousins. First of all, he has the potential to step out and make jump shots as well as pass out of double teams or from the high post to cutters. Second, and more important, big men remain crucial to the title contenders. Their value may be lost upon the majority of teams that lack the structure to make proper use of them, but ever since Michael Jordan left Chicago in 1998, I can't name a championship team that didn't have an All-Star talent in the post.

How do you stop wing penetrators like Rajon Rondo? The Lakers came up with the simplest answer during the recent Finals: Station a pair of 7-footers on either side of the lane. If you can't play hard defense on the perimeter, then gather size in the paint to protect the rim and prevent the slashers from finishing at the basket.

The Kings clearly saw the value in that strategy when they invested the No. 5 pick in Cousins and No. 33 pick in 7-foot shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside, whom they foresee as a power forward. The Kings must bring in some veterans to establish strong examples and daily routines for Cousins and Whiteside, but if they should ever fulfill their promise defensively, then there aren't going to be many points scored from the paint against Sacramento.

Wesley Johnson. The Timberwolves' decision to use the No. 4 pick on the Syracuse forward makes a lot of sense. For starters, Cousins made it clear he didn't want to come to Minnesota by refusing to work out or interview with the Timberwolves. This is another team that lacks veteran leadership as well as perimeter scoring, and so it might have backfired to force Cousins to face endless double teams without the balance of perimeter scoring for a team he didn't want to join.

Johnson, on the other hand, fills a couple of needs. He has the potential to lead Minnesota in scoring as a rookie with the talent to not only finish in a variety of ways but also to make plays for others. He carries himself with the sense of maturity that Cousins lacks at this time, and the Timberwolves will lean on Johnson's soothing presence. No doubt this is going to be a bad team next season, but Johnson has a chance to become Rookie of the Year by posting big numbers and providing some promise as a foundational star.

Kirk Hinrich. He was on the market for months and months until the Bulls finally gave him away to the Wizards on draft day, along with the No. 17 pick and cash to help cover his two-year, $17 million contract. This deal could affect a fundamental change in the Wizards' franchise as they move from a soft bunch of scorers to a tougher team that defends.

No. 1 pick John Wall should emerge as one of the league's best defenders at point guard; No. 23 pick Trevor Booker will come off the bench to defend as a forward (as well as in practice every day); and Hinrich will be setting the example for both of them. Hinrich isn't the best defender in the league, but he is one of the nastiest guys at that end of the floor. If he were a hockey player, he would be called "chippy'' because he infuriates opponents in a Bruce Bowen kind of way. He bumps, jabs and shoulders opposing scorers without worrying whether they might like him afterward. The Wizards have needed his kind of influence for a long time. It won't always be pretty, but no team can go far without it.

Paul George. The Pacers spent most of Thursday exploring trades to move back from No. 10 in order to land the point guard they need so badly. They may look back and recognize they were lucky the trades didn't work out, because the two players they might have taken in the late teens -- Eric Bledsoe and Avery Bradley -- aren't yet true point guards and will probably need a couple of seasons to develop those skills. The Pacers might have been frustrated next season while waiting for them to develop.

In the meantime, they've landed George, who will share the small forward role with former All-Star Danny Granger. But that's not a major issue for an up-tempo team like the Pacers, who believe in creating quick shots and exploiting mismatches. When Mike Dunleavy was healthy, they played him together with Granger. And now they can apply a similar formula for George, who, as noted by team president Larry Bird, can create his own shot.

There is no sense for a rebuilding team like the Pacers to draft for need. They need as much talent as they can acquire, and in the meantime this summer they can deal for or sign an NBA-ready point guard to see them through the next couple of seasons.

Kevin Pritchard. If anyone didn't know what to make of the soap-operatic divorce between the owner and once-beloved GM, the Blazers settled the argument when Paul Allen fired Pritchard an hour before the draft. With that crass and untimely move, Allen presented himself as the bad guy and Pritchard as the victim.

Does that assessment jibe with the facts? No one knows because the Blazers have presented no facts to explain the dismissals of Pritchard and his former assistant Tom Penn. But they have created an enduring image of a franchise that could not have settled on a worse time to fire its GM than the hour before the NBA draft. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances -- there always are -- but Allen and his surviving management team will bear responsibility for the shambles they've created.

This was such a promising franchise. But now the front office is shattered and Nate McMillan has acquiesced to pressure from above by relieving assistant coaches Dean Demopoulos and Joe Prunty amid the departure of assistant Monty Williams to New Orleans as new head coach. Allen must not have been very happy with 104 wins over the last two years. Are these abrupt and clumsy changes in leadership going to result in improvement? Maybe so, but now the Blazers are going to be hiring replacements from a position of panicky weakness when they really should have been dealing from a position of strength.

On his way out the door, Pritchard cut payroll for the Blazers by sending Martell Webster to Minnesota for No. 16 pick Luke Babbitt and the contract of Ryan Gomes, who can be waived at a savings of almost $9 million over the remaining three years of his deal.

Why is Kobe constantly compared to Michael Jordan? M.J. and Kobe combined have 11 rings -- the same amount as Bill Russell. Russell is obviously the greatest champion in NBA history, but we rarely hear his name when discussing the "legacies" of Kobe, M.J., LeBron, etc. It's ridiculous. Kobe would have to win six titles in the next seven to eight years. And why isn't Kareem mentioned alongside M.J.? He was a legitimate star force in bringing five titles to L.A. with Magic and another with Milwaukee. He was much more than Scottie Pippen was to M.J. -- Richard, San Francisco

My opinion is that Russell is the greatest player ever. The league was smaller and, therefore, there were great players on every team and he dominated all of them while setting standards for team play and defense that survive to this era.

But I'm in the minority. Most people tend to rate Jordan ahead of Russell. I think it's shortsighted, and I also think it is no criticism of Jordan to rate him behind Russell.

Why does Kobe Bryant get a free pass from the media? He's arrogant and demeaning in his postgame press conferences, and commentators fawn over him during the game, even when he plays terribly. Why are guys like Ron Artest, who appear to be affable in person, still taking heat for their past troubles, when Kobe doesn't? He's a great player, no doubt, but why doesn't he get ripped for being so ... rude? -- Allen, Fort Worth, Texas

The central question about Artest was whether he could contribute to a championship team. No one knew the answer until he broke through with strong performances in Games 6 and 7 while demonstrating that he was indispensable to the Lakers' latest title.

The central question about Bryant was whether he had it in his personality to inspire and lead his teammates -- to raise them to a higher level, as people like to say. Over the last two years, he has proved he can do those things. He definitely poses in public settings, and he pretended he didn't care about the Celtics-Lakers rivalry when everyone knew otherwise. But none of that really matters -- to me, at least -- now that he is doing the things he's done over the last couple of years. The same standard applies to Artest.

If Phil Jackson doesn't go back to Los Angeles because of the money, do you think there is a possibility that he can be lured by Cleveland? They do have LeBron James, and Jackson has coached the two best players of the last two decades. Why not go for a trifecta? -- Ahmadu, Los Angeles

I don't think anything so trifling as a couple of million dollars will prevent Jackson from coming back. But if he chooses to retire, for however long that retirement lasts, I don't imagine his leaving Los Angeles to work in Cleveland. If he wants to coach a championship team, I would think he'll stay with Bryant, while maintaining his relationships with Jeannie Buss and the fine weather.

Now that the Lakers have captured a second straight championship, how beneficial would it be for them to trade Andrew Bynum to the Memphis Grizzlies for Marc Gasol and any player fillers to make such a trade? Would Memphis be even willing to talk to the Lakers about any type of trade after the last one? -- Robert, Santa Barbara, Calif.

I don't foresee that happening, Robert. When healthy, Bynum created a formidable defensive alongside Pau Gasol. There is no reason to break up that combination.

The draft provided opportunities for cap-space teams to drop more financial weight -- which in turn they hope to gain back instantly and brilliantly next month when the long-awaited class of free agents can be signed.

Miami Heat. They are now the No. 1 contenders this summer -- not necessarily to sign LeBron, but to come out of the July recruiting window with the strongest improvement. The Bulls have more space under the cap, but the Heat have the likelihood of re-signing Dwyane Wade as well as the presence of team president Pat Riley, a duo that none of the other contenders can match.

I keep hearing that Riley is networked into the free-agent landscape more thoroughly than any other executive in the league; only Rod Thorn of the Nets comes close. Riley has endless credibility and he has done the hard and smart work to build relationships that will pay off July 8. He is the executive least likely to come away empty next month.

The Heat don't have enough space to sign two max guys along with Wade, but I'm not so sure they should want that much room. If they can land Chris Bosh, Amar'e Stoudemire or Joe Johnson to a huge contract to serve as the No. 2 player to Wade, then their remaining cap space will force whomever comes next -- Carlos Boozer or Rudy Gay, perhaps -- to accept a financially defined No. 3 role. No team with cap space is going to succeed unless the roles are defined explicitly to prevent a Shaq-and-Kobe war of control, and the Heat are now set up to enter next season with Michael Beasley as their No. 4 player coming off the bench. If Beasley is you're No. 4, then you have the makings of an excellent team.

Chicago Bulls. Their bold draft-day dumping of Hinrich and the No. 17 pick leaves Chicago with close to $31 million in cap space to sign one max plus another near-max star. In addition, the Bulls have a promising young trio of point guard Derrick Rose, center Joakim Noah and small forward Luol Deng to help recruit the likes of James and Bosh, which is the ultimate goal for Chicago.

If James is looking to leave Cleveland, then the Bulls became more attractive now that he can recruit another star to join him. But will it be Bosh? He can earn an additional $30 million by negotiating a sign-and-trade -- something the Raptors would prefer if they are going to lose him -- and the Bulls (along with Miami and New York) have slashed so much payroll that they can't participate in that kind of deal.

The Bulls are going to have a strong summer. But if they can't sign James, then I wonder if they'll be able to land two of the big names. There now threatens to be more cap space on offer this summer than there are stars available to be recruited. And don't forget the likes of Dallas and Houston, which could seek to negotiate sign-and-trade deals for Bosh or another of the stars.

New York Knicks. They have the most cap space, an excellent and popular coach in Mike D'Antoni and the city of New York itself. But there is little of quality remaining on their pared-down roster, and if they don't sign James or Wade will their fans be disappointed by the secondary alternatives of Bosh, Johnson, Stoudemire and/or Boozer? And will that negativity influence the decisions of those players?

I find myself wondering which franchise James is likely to visit first: the Knicks or the Nets? How will the fans and press in New York handle the day or two of waiting as James meets with Thorn, owner Mikhail Prokhorov and his friend Jay-Z? Will it be viewed as a negative signal of the Knicks' chances?

The opening week of July is going to be reality-TV theater and its headquarters will be New York. If James signs with the Knicks, the rest of the league will anticipate the building of a dynasty. But it will take a huge leap of faith by James as the Knicks will need at least a couple of years to fill out their roster around him.

From small forward Luke Babbitt, who ultimately went to Portland as the No. 16 pick following a draft-night trade. "I did 10 workouts [with teams before the draft]. I had one [stretch] that was back-to-back-to-back, and one that was back-to-back. But it's kind of like an NBA schedule -- if you can't handle doing the workouts, you're probably not going to be able to handle playing in the league. So it was a grind, it was tough, but at the end of the day it's no different than playing games in the NBA.

"The workouts are all a little different, but for the most part they all the same stuff -- one-on-one drills, two-on-two, shooting drills, ball-handling drills, some conditioning stuff. The main thing is they want to see you competing and that you've improved since the season.

"Nothing was too weird. The one at San Antonio, there was no dribbling and you had to score three-on-three. But if you can play basketball, you can do well in the drills.

"Going to all of these different facilities and meeting the GMs, the coaches who are a lot of times NBA greats -- Pat Riley, all these guys -- that's a lot of fun. It can be stressful, it can be tiring. But if you really think about it, it's a great honor to be able to do it."

From an anonymous fan in the diminished New York audience midway through the second round: "No one is watching!"

With DeMarcus Cousins' mother. I had no idea until I started reading the clips on Cousins -- for a story to appear in Sports Illustrated next week -- that I had attended McGill-Toolen High School in Mobile, Ala., with his mother, Monique.

While speaking with her by phone last week I asked for her maiden name, and then mentioned that I had my high school yearbook nearby to view her class picture.

"You had better not look at that," she warned.

"OK, OK," I said.

But as we spoke I couldn't help myself. At the end of the conversation I promised to introduce myself at the draft in New York.

"You'll see that DeMarcus and I share a resemblance," she said.

"I know you do," I said. "I looked at your picture in the yearbook."

"No, you didn't."

"I cannot tell a lie," I said. "I did look, and let me say DeMarcus is very fortunate to share a resemblance with you. Let me also say that I am very fortunate you don't have your own yearbook with you to look me up too."

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