This time a year ago, the NBA's lights were going dim. The doors were being locked and the windows boarded up, with one sweltering room in the back reserved for commissioner David Stern and union executive director Billy Hunter to battle over collective bargaining issues (which would take five months to resolve). The late-June draft, in essence, was the league's farewell party.
It's worth remembering that on Thursday night, when NBA teams will hire 60 new employees in Newark, N.J., and they won't be told to take an indefinite sabbatical this time around. There will be a full-fledged free agency period just a few days from now, followed by a summer league in which these very same prospects will get to work improving their games and kick-starting their careers.
The storylines are back to normal, with the focus on basketball instead of business and no shortage of intrigue surrounding the players who will be such a huge part of the league's next generation. The future is bright again, and it's worth taking a moment to acknowledge this welcome change from the dreary lockout summer.
Now, let's shed some light on the latest storylines heading into the 2012 draft.
No matter which side of the fence you fall on in this Jared Sullinger story, it's hard not to feel bad for the guy. The Ohio State power forward has gone from possible top five pick a year ago to being left off the NBA's list of 14 green-room invitees for Thursday night, mostly because of a medical situation that may or may not hinder his career.
Sullinger's stock took a hit when news broke earlier this month that he was red-flagged for back issues at the Chicago draft combine. But beyond where he gets drafted, the endless (and sometimes mindless) chatter about his situation had to be hard to hear for the 20-year-old who, lest we forget, was one of the most productive players in the country last season (17.5 points and 10.2 rebounds per game) while missing just two games with back spasms.
There were ruthless debates on ESPN about whether he was even worthy of being a first-round pick. People taking shots at him on Twitter. As if his occasional weight issues and a dearth of athleticism hadn't given his critics enough ammunition already, sullying Sullinger has become the trendy thing to do these past few days.
His agent, David Falk, came to his defense yet again on Wednesday. That's what agents do, of course, but Falk sounded more like his father than his representative as he spoke with anger about how this has all unfolded.
He said Sullinger has seen a respected back and spine specialist who isn't nearly as alarmed as some teams, insisting that even the most extreme of solutions here would only keep him on the shelf for a few months. And after downplaying the severity of the situation in our interview last week, Falk continued to warn the many general managers who are thinking about passing on this problematic prospect.
"I'm a big investor in bonds, because I don't like to take big risks," Falk said. "I'm not like these NBA general managers who risk their career on drafting guys with potential. I like to buy bonds. Jared Sullinger is a Triple-A bond.
"He's a can't-miss, solid guy, a great rebounder, great shooter, a very intelligent guy, a coach's son. He may not be able to jump as high as some other guys, but the last time I looked, jumping is not a major prerequisite for playing power forward in the NBA."
Falk's opinion, it was made clear, is that there was a built-in bias against Sullinger even before the red flags started waving. He bristled at the NBA's addiction to athleticism that is so often overhyped.
"Last year, a guy named Kevin Love led the NBA in rebounding," Falk said. "I don't think most people would consider him one of the great leapers in the game, but he only led the league in rebounding.
"And if he came out tomorrow, and you compared him to a guy like [Bobcats power forward] Tyrus Thomas, who was drafted No. 4, or [Mavericks power forward] Brandan Wright, who was drafted No. 8, you'd say, 'God, the guy's not nearly as good a jumper as those guys,' but he only led the league in rebounding last year.
Falk also noted that another one of his clients who was knocked for his athleticism, Roy Hibbert, the 17th pick in the 2008 draft, is set to become a restricted free agent after an All-Star season with Indiana.
"When he signs a contract on July 1, I assure he will not be the 17th most highly compensated player in this draft class," Falk said. "And a lot of people made a bad mistake by overevaluating his lack of athleticism. He's very smart, he's highly skilled, and that's the way it is."
Falk said Sullinger is a risk worth taking.
"The risk of him having a problem is far less than the risk of a lot of the players in the draft's top 10 being out of the league in three or four years or being busts," he said.
Wherever Sullinger lands, he'll have to rise above the fray in a very different way if he wants to have the last laugh.
"I guess I got another ladder to climb," he wrote on his Twitter account on Monday. "It's nothing new. Same ole Sully."
Thank goodness for Anthony Davis. It's not much, but the Kentucky power forward is giving us one thing -- and only one -- to be able to count on during draft night. He's going first overall to New Orleans, and then we wait to see what happens with the Bobcats.
Sources said Charlotte's phones were burning up on Wednesday with teams trying to move up and grab the No. 2 pick. But those suitors have balked so far at having to take the aforementioned Tyrus Thomas, who has three years and $26 million remaining on his contract.
From there, it's shenanigans galore. The following isn't confirmed information, but rather the relaying of conversations that should show why there's so little trust among even the closest of front-office colleagues this time of year.
One executive said on Wednesday night that Cleveland (No. 4) was under the impression that Portland was attempting to use its No. 6 pick to get Washington's No. 3 pick and draft Syracuse shooting guard Dion Waiters. Then Yahoo! Sports reported that the Cavs -- who were at the front of that line of teams trying to get to No. 2 in order to pick Florida shooting guard Bradley Beal -- were seriously considering Waiters at No. 4.
While Waiters is known to be in the Cavs' mix, sending out the message that he's their guy at No. 4 could lead to Beal's landing in their lap. Here's that scenario: The Bobcats select Kansas power forward Thomas Robinson, as many expect them to do if they keep the No. 2 pick. Then the Trail Blazers, if successful in obtaining the third pick, take Waiters there, leaving Beal to Cleveland.
Meanwhile, Golden State (No. 7) is known to have Waiters on its short list. All this chatter could inspire the Warriors to be more aggressive in an attempt to move up.
The truth is in there somewhere between all the misdirections and manipulations.
With the way Rockets general manager Daryl Morey has been stealing the spotlight, you'd half-expect him to replace Stern as the emcee once the picks start getting announced. A trade with Minnesota on Tuesday and another one with Milwaukee on Wednesday have left Houston with the 12th, 16th and 18th picks. Now comes the compelling part, as Houston clearly didn't go to such great lengths just for the chance to add three rookies to its roster.
These are trade pieces either for Orlando's Dwight Howard or another star, but that doesn't mean Morey will be able to make that play before they actually become Rockets players. He knows this, of course, and that's why sources said Houston asked Baylor power forward Perry Jones to come in for a second visit on Wednesday night, a surprise meeting as part of the team's 11th-hour prospect homework. Jones could become the selection with one of the three picks, but it's sure convenient that, as one of the sources said, Jones is high on the Magic's list (they pick at No. 19) and thus plays this role to perfection.
With the obligatory "things can change" caveat attached, I'm told that the Kings are likely to keep the fifth pick despite Houston's well-chronicled attempts to acquire it. There should be an asterisk next to Barnes' name here, though, because sources said the Kings are very interested in adding a big man to complement center DeMarcus Cousins. For now, I'm thinking they'd either take Barnes here or move back if they decide go big (possibly to No. 7, as they have had recent talks with Golden State about a swap). If it's Barnes, that means the Kings are got comfortable with the idea of him as their small forward of the future despite the fact that he refused to work out in Sacramento (as did Robinson, Kidd-Gilchrist and Beal).
If the Kings go big, one possible target is North Carolina power forward John Henson, a two-time ACC Defensive Player of the Year. But Henson isn't believed to be in play until Detroit's No. 9 pick, so there could be a chance to obtain another asset if Sacramento traded down.
Weber State point guard Damian Lillard is an unlikely dark horse because of the team's glut of guards. Also, I've been assured that it's possible that the Kings would pass on Kidd-Gilchrist if he remained available.