By Ian Thomsen
June 20, 2008

This is seen as a two-star draft featuring Derrick Rose and Michael Beasley, followed by eight to 10 players who are difficult to rank. "There's just not a lot of separation,'' a Western Conference general manager said. "Normally you're trying to get a certain guy, or hoping he'll drop to you. This year no one knows what's happening in front of them.''

With the talent in the lottery so tightly packed, I asked five NBA executives to each come up with a dark horse in this draft -- a player who will turn into a formidable pro.

5. Donte' Greene, SF/PF, 6-foot-9, 225 pounds, Fr., Syracuse. "If we were picking in the upper middle of the lottery -- I'm talking about picks 3-4-5 -- I would be looking at this guy. He has to get bigger and stronger. But he is a face-up 4 with a stroke, a shooter. I'm not a big fan of the combo guards in the draft, and I think Greene will turn out to be better than any of them -- [O.J.] Mayo, [Jerryd] Bayless, [Eric] Gordon, [Russell] Westbrook.''

4. Kevin Love, F/C, 6-9, 255, Fr., UCLA. "There are a lot of questions in this draft, but there are very few uncertainties regarding Kevin Love. You know he's going to rebound, he knows how to play, he's a good passer, he has good hands and he plays hard. There's value in knowing exactly what you're getting in a draft pick. He'll be a 4, and in today's [smaller] NBA he can guard some 5s. I haven't mentioned his shooting, which is a wrinkle to his game. He'll be a solid starter in the league.''

3. Joe Alexander, SF, 6-8, 220, Jr., West Virginia. "He's tough as hell. He comes in dressed like a prep-school kid, and on the court he bites your head off. He has the most unusual background: He grew up in China, he speaks fluent Mandarin. He's confident and he keeps improving. He can shoot it, he's a great athlete, he's tough. He hasn't shown he can rebound yet, but I think in time he'll be able to in our league. Eventually he'll play some 4. Plus he is the strongest guy in this draft according to the numbers, so he has got a lot going for him.''

2. Russell Westbrook, G, 6-3, 192, Soph., UCLA. "I like Westbrook because of his scoring ability, and he's able to handle the ball some too. His defensive ability is an obvious strength, as he demonstrated against some of the better players. Watch the Pac-10 semifinal game and the last UCLA [regular-season] game vs. Southern Cal, and you'll see that Mayo wanted no part of attacking him. So far he's relied on his athleticism offensively, but the underrated part of his game is that Westbrook can make shots. His shot looks good, and he's a guy who is going to work hard to keep improving it. He has a chance to be a guy who can score and handle the ball enough to play as a 1. He'll be a very solid player."

1. Robin Lopez, C, 7-0, 245, Soph., Stanford. "He has a physical presence, he has mobility and he has underrated offensive potential. He's going to get drafted a lot higher than anyone realizes -- anywhere from 10 to 13, I think. He'll be a good shot disruptor -- he won't be blocking a ton of shots, but he'll be altering them. He'll be a good rebounder because he's strong and mobile and he pursues the ball easily.

"But the main thing is I think he's better offensively than people give him credit for because of his twin, Brook, who is so good offensively. They get compared unfairly. But the truth is that Brook is not that bad defensively, and Robin is not that bad offensively. It's just that they've relied on each other to share the work and their games have suffered a little bit as a result, but they have the potential to do more. It's as if they're being penalized in these predraft assessments for being around each other.''

4. What is the wildest draft rumor you're hearing?-- Ivan H., Chicago

I'm hearing three good ones:

(a) Memphis is trying to trade up for Beasley. The story going around is that the Grizzlies are proposing a package that includes Mike Miller and the No. 5 pick in exchange for Miami's No. 2 pick. Why would the Heat not want to take Beasley? "I think they're worried about Beasley playing in Miami,'' theorized a rival GM, referring to the neon distractions of one of America's party capitals.

Others scoff at the idea that Beasley will be more vulnerable in Miami than other players. "Like the rest of the league is choir boys?'' another GM said. "I get the concern with Beasley, but this is the time of the year when everything gets overanalyzed.''

I'm told the trade can work only if the Heat are assured of being able to draft Mayo at No. 5. The problem is that Mayo is still heavily in play at No. 3 for Minnesota, which by all accounts has yet to decide on its pick (and may trade it as well), and Mayo is also on the board for Seattle at No. 4.

For this rumored deal to be consummated, either Minnesota's pick needs to be included in a complicated three-team trade, or else both Miami and Memphis must wait out the third and fourth picks on draft night before launching a Beasley-Mayo exchange.

"I don't believe it's going to happen,'' said an executive of a team with a top 10 pick. "I hear Minnesota is now saying they're going to take Mayo, which is the smart thing for them to do.''

Said Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace: "I can't comment on rumors, but we're going to be active in the draft and looking at all possibilities. It's way too early to speculate what our position will be, because things in this league don't tend to get resolved until the afternoon or evening of the draft. We're on two tracks: We're involved in the evaluation process of our two spots [Nos. 5 and 28] in the first round, and we're also going around the league to see what's out there for us in terms of a trade.''

The bottom line: Beasley is this draft's most talented individual. Until proved otherwise, I'm assuming he winds up in Miami.

(b) The Warriors are strongly considering Jason Thompson at No. 14. Thompson, a senior power forward at Rider, is listed as a second-round pick in many mock drafts. The Warriors were so impressed by his performance in a 24-player workout last week (attended by more than a dozen teams) that Thompson was reportedly headed back to Oakland for a second workout this weekend.

"I'm not so surprised,'' a Western Conference GM said. "He's pretty versatile, and he can shoot it a little bit, so I can see why Nellie [coach Don Nelson] likes him.''

"I've heard from another team in the top 15 that they're looking at Thompson too,'' a team president said.

Said another GM: "Golden State is all over the map. "They have that big trade exception [of $9.9 million from last year's trade of Jason Richardson to Charlotte; the exception expires June 30] and there are 900 ways they could go.''

(c) Serge Ibaka is rising fast. The 18-year-old center from Congo has been playing organized basketball for a few years, but he had a strong Reebok camp in Italy recently and is coveted by a number of teams drafting in the 20s.

"Think about it this way,'' a GM said. "If you're a playoff team and you want to use some or all of your mid-level exception this summer, then you take a guy like Ibaka and let him continue to develop in Europe [he currently plays for CB L'Hospitalet in Spain] while he stays off your cap.''

The threshold for Ibaka appears to be at No. 20. That pick belongs to the Nuggets, whose vice president, Mark Warkentien, has let it be known that he's happy to talk trade, as always.

3. Here's a thought: The Wolves add the talent and star power they need by taking O.J. Mayo at No. 3, and then package their two top-four second-rounders and either Randy Foye or Rashad McCants to move back up into the late first round and take Robin Lopez, who as a scrappy defender and rebounder can complement to Al Jefferson. Realistic? Not?-- Sam, Minneapolis

To get Robin Lopez they'll probably need to be in the teens, and I doubt they would give up Foye to do it. But maybe they can find a big man they like early in the second round.

The Timberwolves have been difficult to project. By many accounts, they've liked Brook Lopez, Mayo and Love. If somebody wants to trade up for their pick to take Mayo at No. 3, they'll be interested in listening.

2. Do you think the league's decision to allow a zone defense has taken away the star players' ability to carry a team? When you see Kobe Bryant and LeBron James having three guys just standing in the paint waiting for them, it makes the game boring. If these rules were in place during the Jordan era, it might have lessened his dominance of the league.-- Frank Crutchfield, Chattanooga, Tenn.

There is no doubt that Jordan played in a different environment. Defenders were far more physical on the perimeter with hand-checking (remember the defense Gary Payton played at his best) It has changed the rules, that's for sure.

"The rules are completely different now,'' Bryant told me in November. "I've always been able to shoot the ball, but the rules have changed since he played in terms of playing a zone defense. You have to be a jump shooter now because there's no way you can get to the basket -- particularly myself because they just stack guys up. I wish we had the rules they had back in the day where you could isolate guys and you could go to the basket anytime. But now you have to be able to shoot.''

I disagree that this style makes the game boring. Few teams execute defensively as the Celtics did this year through Kevin Garnett, but the only way to beat a defense like Boston's is to push tempo before it can set up, and later try to break it down by switching the ball with a lot of passing. I'd much rather see fast breaks and half-court ball movement than one-on-one play.

1. Whose reputation took a bigger hit in the Finals -- Kobe Bryant's or Phil Jackson's?-- Dennis Lee, Los Angeles

Kobe's, without a doubt. See below.

3. How Doc Rivers outcoached Phil Jackson. The bottom line is that the Celtics had better and older players than L.A. Jackson lost to the better team.

But all year long I was arguing that Rivers did the best coaching job in the league, and the Finals affirmed that. He turned a bunch of high-scoring individuals into a team that shared the ball and played defense. He was secure enough to give control of the defensive end to assistant Tom Thibodeau, even though they had no prior relationship. And he helped raise the performances of Rajon Rondo and Kendrick Perkins to a championship level over the course of the season.

Those who want to say that Rivers was the superior coach in the Finals should focus on his work over the course of the season, because no coach in the history of the league has ever pulled together so many loose ends to form a championship team in one short season. By the time they reached the Finals, the Celtics were playing as cohesively as some of those Spurs teams that have been together for years. It was not as easy to weave that team together as Rivers made it look.

Rivers beat the Lakers in the fine details. For example, the Celtics scored at a high rate following timeouts, which is a small but important measure of a coach's influence on the game. Rivers would design a play and more often than not the Celtics would execute it for a good shot. Too many times the Lakers were unable to execute offensively coming out of their huddles ... because of Boston's superior defense, of course.

2. The Kobe-Michael comparisons are on hold. Let's be fair: Bryant didn't have Scottie Pippen. But it's valid to ask if Jordan would have disappeared over the final three quarters as Bryant did in the Celtics' clinching 39-point win in Game 6.

"In the end, it's going to be a defining moment for Kobe,'' said a rival team executive whose opinion echoes the feelings of many in the league, I believe. "The comparisons with Michael Jordan can stop now. Kobe had multiple good quarters in the Finals, but the defense always found a way to stop him. Jordan used to let the game come to him, but in the end he could amass points and usually answer in the clutch. Kobe didn't make shots when he needed to make shots, and he didn't have the ability to instill in the rest of the guys that [feeling of] 'we're going to get this done.' It's hard to pinpoint what it is exactly, but you either have it or you don't.''

I have a different view. Instead of criticizing them for their failures in the final round, I tend to applaud the Lakers for doing as well as they did. The midseason injury to Andrew Bynum inspired them to trade for Gasol, which will give them an exceptional front line next year. Now that they'll be aiming for a championship, they'll come back with older, tougher playmakers in complementary roles next season. After this Finals, I'm more convinced than ever that Bryant is going to win at least one championship without Shaquille O'Neal.

1. The chances of a rematch. The Lakers could use a lot of what James Posey and P.J. Brown gave the Celtics at both ends of the floor. They may consider either elevating Jordan Farmar to the starting lineup or bringing in a new point guard that will enable Derek Fisher to move to the bench, where he could be a lethal scorer. They must also make the hard decision on forward Lamar Odom, who is entering the final year of his contract: Are they going to re-sign him or trade him for a player who can create his own shot and complement Bryant in the half-court against tough defensive teams like the Celtics?

Bryant must continue his trend of putting his teammates in situations to make plays. Over the next season, they need to develop the mentality of making big plays so that they'll be able to come through in key moments next year when the defense focuses on shutting down Bryant.

The champions have a lot of issues themselves. The Celtics must retain Posey, who is expected to opt out from his $3.5 million salary for next season and could demand the full mid-level exception of more than $5 million annually -- which would turn into a $10 million expenditure for Boston because of the luxury tax. A decision must be made on restricted free agent Tony Allen, who in his short burst during Game 5 of the Finals looked to have recovered his explosiveness. If healthy following knee surgery last year, he would give the Celtics a dynamic scorer and defender off the bench.

Considering the ages of Ray Allen (33 next season), Garnett (32) and Paul Pierce (31), the Celtics can be expected to try going a little younger off the bench next season. They must also address the future of Rivers, who has one year remaining on his contract.

2. Do I believe the NBA tells referees which team to favor in a particular game or series? No.

1. Do I believe there are house men among NBA referees? I suspect there are.

I can tell you that a lot of people in the league believe this too: that there are referees who know which outcome their bosses would like to see, and in subtle ways they try to nudge the result in that direction.

Commissioner David Stern isn't going to fix games by telling the referees what to do. Never mind the immorality of it. The risk of getting caught is far worse than any potential gains of, say, having the Lakers and Kings extend their series to a Game 7 in 2002. It's a ridiculous accusation.

But there are employees in every organization who do what they think the boss wants from them. Why should the NBA be any different? Stern is a strong executive, and as a matter of human nature there are going to be officials who will try to advance their careers by making decisions they assume will be pleasing to the boss.

So, is the NBA doing a good job of stamping out this kind of conduct when it occurs? Or is it subtly encouraged? I don't know the answer.

I do know it's a difficult thing for any organization to police itself in these kinds of situations, which is why Phil Jackson would like the referees to become a separate association outside the control of the NBA. (It isn't going to happen.)

I've never had the sense that the NBA completely understands how to oversee its referees or relate to them. The latest example is Stern's idea that players be penalized for flopping. There are so many difficult judgment calls that referees must make already, and now they'll be given another area to oversee? If anything, the NBA should be trying to simplify the game for its referees instead of making it more complex.

I see why Stern is anti-flopping: He is trying to discourage needless collisions that put $10 million players at risk to injury. But this kind of suggestion demonstrates that issues troubling to NBA referees are not the priority, even at the height of the Tim Donaghy scandal.

1. Lithuania. At his lakeside summer home July 5-7, Sarunas Marciulionis will host a reunion of the Soviet Union's 1988 Olympic gold-medal team. Attendees will include Arvydas Sabonis and Rimas Kurtinaitis. The Soviets' Cold War thumping of the U.S. team of collegians led to the creation of the original 1992 Dream Team of Michael Jordan, Magic Johnson and Larry Bird at the Olympics four years later. It's hard to believe how much things have changed in so short a time as 20 years.

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