By Ian Thomsen
May 22, 2009

5. How high will Ricky Rubio go?

First another question must be answered: Will the 18-year-old point guard be in the NBA next year? The answer, I believe, is yes.

I saw Rubio in Spain last week for an upcoming story in Sports Illustrated. During an extended interview at their home, his parents said Rubio would take his name out of the draft to avoid landing with a "bad" franchise -- one that offers a negative future to their son.

Is Memphis, which holds the No. 2 pick in the June 25 draft, one of those "bad" teams? The Grizzlies play in a small market with little support; they've slashed payroll and -- as the Rubio family knows well -- they gave away fellow Spaniard Pau Gasol in a controversial salary dump to the Lakers. (In all fairness, the dynamics of that Gasol deal are likely to be duplicated many more times this summer by other teams needing to reduce payroll. The Grizzlies merely were ahead of the curve.)

A further complicating issue is the buyout demanded by Rubio's Spanish club DKV Joventut Badalona. The club will set Rubio free from his contract if, before June 30, he pays $6.6 million (4.75 million euros being the exact figure). If he pays the buyout after June 30, the price he owes the club rises to $8 million (5.75 million euros).

It's hard to imagine that the team will be so shortsighted as to refuse to negotiate a much lower buyout. The same club last season was paying Rubio -- its biggest star and best player around whom its marketing was built -- a salary of 70,000 euros, which by today's exchange rate is worth $97,706. For this season only, the club preemptively raised Rubio's salary to 210,000 euros, or $293,118, in an apparent attempt to show it was treating him fairly.

But there is no fairness by today's standard in paying a player less than $100,000 and demanding a buyout of $8 million. Joventut president Jordi Villacampa is a former star player who has to realize that he and his club will look monstrously bad if they prevent their young star from fulfilling his NBA dream by holding him to a contract Rubio's parents signed when he was 15. Joventut took advantage of the family -- envisioning Rubio's NBA potential when the family did not -- and NBA sources say Rubio's American agent, Dan Fegan, will pursue legal action if necessary to prevent the club from holding Rubio hostage. In the meantime, Joventut would lose the goodwill of Rubio as an ambassador, turning him into an enemy instead of the ally he could become over the course of his NBA career.

One way or another, this will work itself out because both sides have much to lose if it doesn't.

Let's assume Rubio will be free to enter the draft, even if (by one scenario I've heard) he has to file a court injunction to prevent the club from demanding $8 million he can't afford to pay based on his $97,706 salary.

The questions then become whether the Grizzlies will take him at No. 2, and whether Rubio will want to go there. Dealing with the latter issue, one has only to recall Fegan's attempts to steer Chinese power forward Yi Jianlian away from the Bucks after they picked Yi sixth in 2007. When he was unable to force an immediate trade from Milwaukee, Fegan negotiated promises of playing time from owner Herb Kohl. My understanding is that Fegan doesn't necessarily view Memphis as a bad franchise for Rubio as long as the Grizzlies aren't committed to Mike Conley Jr. as their point guard at Rubio's expense.

Will the Grizzlies want Rubio? There is all kinds of talk of them preferring UConn center Hasheem Thabeet at No. 2. But Rubio is the perfect choice for them because of his style in the open floor. The YouTube highlights of him completing Magic Johnson-like passes, combined with his leadership of Spain as a 17-year-old in the Olympic gold-medal game against the best NBA players last summer, demonstrate his instant star potential.

Let's be realistic about the Grizzlies. They've rid themselves of most of their older, expensive players, going into next season with no one making as much as $8 million. They surely aren't going to be a contender anytime soon, and drafting Thabeet won't change that dynamic. But drafting Rubio and giving him the keys to the car will make them suddenly and surprisingly attractive. He'll create easy baskets for Rudy Gay and O.J. Mayo and increase their value and the value of the franchise, because with Rubio running the team, the Grizzlies can become one of the hot, fun teams to watch next season. Rubio will make them relevant in an entertaining way, whereas no one else in this draft can make them relevant in any kind of way.

Does Memphis really want to see Rubio become an instant open-floor phenom for Sacramento next season, while the Grizzlies invest years in developing Thabeet in front of small crowds?

4. Where does Thabeet fit in?

In a small draft overwhelmed by wing players and guards, in particular, Thabeet stands out as a 7-foot-3 shot-blocking center. As such, he could go as high as No. 2 to Memphis. I know of scouts who believe he will prosper in the NBA, based on his rapid improvement since he began playing basketball at age 15.

A less optimistic view held by others is that Thabeet will have trouble developing offensively, and that the history of UConn big men in the NBA does not bode well for him. UConn annually leads the nation in shot-blocking, but its big men -- Emeka Okafor, Charlie Villanueva, Hilton Armstrong and Josh Boone among them -- have yet to grow into NBA stars. Is there something of a Duke phenomenon here, of players maxing out in college while playing for a terrific coach? This is a difficult issue because there are those who believe Thabeet will prosper in the NBA.

Stanford center Brook Lopez slid to No. 10 last year and wound up becoming a Rookie of the Year contender. But he entered the league with a far more advanced game offensively than Thabeet. My best guess, based on what I hear from teams, as well as the importance of individual-skills workouts, is that Thabeet isn't going to be one of the top picks. He'll slide into the bottom half of the top 10, where he'll become an excellent value for some fortunate team.

3. Will Stephen Curry land with the Knicks at No. 8?

This is all the talk in New York. The problem is that Don Nelson is picking No. 7 with Golden State, and Nellie -- in the most general terms -- has the same tastes as New York coach Mike D'Antoni. If the Knicks like Curry, so will the Warriors.

This too: If Thabeet looks inclined to slide, a player likely to rise over the next month is a mature scorer like Curry, who will nail the interviews with team management and smoke jumper after jumper in his workouts. He's likely to impress everyone who meets him.

Curry, of course, is small for a shooting guard. The same was said of Ben Gordon, and yet in the week before the 2004 draft he was coveted by several teams hoping to trade up to get him. (Chicago selected Gordon at No. 3.)

The surest thing is that the Knicks will be able to pick an explosive guard at No. 8. Candidates will include Curry, Brandon Jennings, Demar DeRozan, Jrue Holiday and Tyreke Evans. The question is whether D'Antoni and team president Donnie Walsh love any or all of these players.

2. Which teams will be looking to trade?

Lots of them. Among the possibilities:

• The Wizards will be offering to deal No. 5 in an attempt to acquire a veteran, as well as to trim payroll to avoid the luxury tax next season. The last time they held the No. 5 pick, in 2004, they dealt it to Dallas for Antawn Jamison (while the Mavs used it to draft Devin Harris).

• Minnesota could package No. 6 with its other two first-rounders (Nos. 18 and 28) to either move up or acquire a ready-made star.

• Oklahoma City (Nos. 3 and 25) will tirelessly explore all options in search of the best value, but then that's like predicting winter will follow autumn.

Because there are no sure-thing All-Stars in this draft -- not even Blake Griffin is viewed across the board as a certainty to become a No. 1 or 2 star on a good club -- teams will develop idiosyncratic tastes for certain players. Some teams may love Jordan Hill, while others may view little future in him. I'm guessing the hot players who will be in demand by a number of teams will be skilled offensive stars such as Rubio and Curry.

1. Would the Clippers trade the No. 1 pick?

In Griffin, the Clippers would receive a younger, healthier and far less expensive replacement for power forward Elton Brand, who left Los Angeles last summer to sign with Philadelphia. (The Clippers, however, would still have to deal with the four years remaining on the onerous contract of Baron Davis.)

Coach/GM Mike Dunleavy said after the lottery that the Clippers would take Griffin. But unless he is convinced Griffin is a franchise player -- a star capable of someday leading a team to championship contention -- Dunleavy will explore all options to trade the pick. Which is not to say he'll make a deal. But if there is a chance to use the pick to get a terrific player while dumping one or more of the Clippers' big contracts, why wouldn't Dunleavy look into all of those possibilities?

This has all the makings of a busy month ahead.

4. With all the talk of teams struggling financially, do you foresee lottery teams looking to "sell" their picks?--Mike Gray, Kentucky

Just the opposite: Most of those struggling teams will be looking to unload existing and expensive veteran NBA talent in exchange for a draft pick so they can sign a promising talent to a relatively cheap rookie-scale contract. One of the exceptions is the Wizards, who believe they have the coach and talent (if healthy) to climb back into contention next year. They'll be looking to trade out of the lottery in return for a veteran who can help them next season, though they'll also probably want a team to take a toxic contract off their payroll in a package for the No. 5 pick.

3. As moderately successful as this season was for the Hawks, the sweep to Cleveland seems to show how far they are from the true elite. Can the Hawks make the jump? How?-- Ryan C. Smyrna, Ga.

The Hawks have flexibility under the luxury tax, enabling them to move some of their short-term contracts for a longer-term deal. Let's see, too, if Josh Smith can be had for the right price. He's a young, athletic and productive power forward at both ends of the floor who would benefit from playing on a veteran team.

To take the next step, the Hawks will need another star to pair with Joe Johnson. It's that simple, and they may be able to find that player if predictions of salary dumps throughout the league become true this summer.

2. With the collective bargaining agreement possibly changing the salary cap in a few years, will that affect the famed free-agent class of 2010? Will anyone sign early to avoid the potential changes?-- Dave, Oak Park, Ill.

LeBron James shouldn't worry about a reduction in salary under a new deal. His business empire will be based on winning championships, and not until he feels certain that he can win them by staying in Cleveland should he commit to an extension. It looks as if Dwyane Wade wants to stay with the Heat, and if he feels good about their future, maybe he would commit sooner than later. But I don't see Chris Bosh making a similar preemptive move to remain with the Raptors unless they do something dramatic to improve this summer. I'm not saying he's looking to leave Toronto, just that there's no reason right now for him to lock in for another five years, based on the disastrous results of this season.

The rest of the free agents will be inclined to go for the money whenever it becomes available. If their teams want to retain them, they should sign ASAP. They can't be certain the offer will be available the next day, especially if talks on a new collective bargaining agreement do proceed more quickly than anticipated.

1. Where do you think Jason Kidd will wind up this summer? Lakers? Cavs? Mavs? Can he still be a lead point guard?--Roberto, Fort Lauderdale, Fla.

I don't know where he'll wind up playing, but it will be for a contender. Kidd told me last year that he would be willing to come off the bench to contribute to a championship season. He added he'd be willing to help mentor a young point guard starting in front of him. Kidd is still a terrific point guard with leadership qualities that are hard to find. I could see him fitting in well with any of those teams, in addition to the Blazers and the Celtics. Boston has yet to be mentioned as a potential suitor but should be, considering its need for a backup to Rajon Rondo as well as Kidd's ability to defend shooting guards.

3. Supporting casts. A big issue in the NBA Finals last season was the inability of Kobe Bryant's teammates to make plays. The same dynamic is hurting the Lakers now in splitting the first two games against the Nuggets, who have a prolific one-two punch of Carmelo Anthony and Chauncey Billups,in addition to the scoring of Nenê, J.R. Smith and others. Kobe needs big performances from Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom and Derek Fisher to not only win this series but also to develop the balance that would be needed in the NBA Finals.

The same issue existed in Game 1 for LeBron James, who appeared to be the only consistent scoring threat for Cleveland as it yielded a 16-point advantage in losing at home to Orlando. LeBron is much more than a scorer, and if his playmaking is limited -- if his teammates aren't finishing around him -- the Magic will be able to continue exploiting their mismatches on the perimeter while spacing the floor for Dwight Howard inside.

2. Toughness. The Nuggets look like they have an advantage in this area over the Lakers, who must prove they can make a stand. They were knocked on their heels by the Celtics last year, and if the Nuggets are pushing them around now, how will they be able to stand up in the next round?

Physical toughness isn't so much a concern for the Cavaliers in their series. But the Magic have demonstrated a different kind of toughness in their insistence on fighting back against any deficit.

1. Pressure. Or lack thereof. Neither Orlando nor Denver has anything to lose. Both teams have already exceeded expectations, and both have cold-hearted shooters who won't be afraid of taking and making the big shots that can knock off the presumptive finalists.

2. Focus. The Lakers and Cavs have spent this season plotting to reach the Finals and win the championship. That kind of commitment will be evident in Games 5, 6 and 7, when the games tighten up to a degree that Orlando and Denver (with the exception of Billups and Kenyon Martin) have never experienced before at this stage of the season. The mood and intensity of those late-series games will benefit Cleveland and L.A., which is one reason why they should still be considered favorites to prevail despite the loss of home-court advantage.

1. The best player wins. Usually this is true. LeBron didn't get in the last word in Game 1, but if the games are close throughout this series, everyone knows he will receive the benefit of the doubt in the final two minutes and go to the line. The same is true for Kobe, who remains the most dangerous scorer in basketball over the last two minutes. Kobe and LeBron are essentially the tiebreaker in their respective series.

1. I'm on Twitter. Actually, I've been on for the last week, but I promise to start doing my best to communicate on a regular basis. Please follow me at SI_IanThomsen.

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