There are seasons when it pays to be bad. The Wizards were rewarded last year with John Wall, as were the Clippers two years ago with Blake Griffin and the Bulls in 2008 with Derrick Rose. The last four drafts have produced at least one elite prospect, but that trend appears to be braking to a full stop now.
"This is not a year to have the No. 1 pick in the draft," a team president said.
Added a team executive with a successful track record in the draft: "I can't tell you who the top-five picks are. I don't see how anyone in this group can be distinguished right now."
North Carolina's Harrison Barnes was viewed as a potential No. 1 pick before the college season, but the 6-foot-8 forward is averaging 13.1 points and shooting 40.4 percent as a freshman.
"I still like Harrison Barnes, he'll be fine," another team executive said. "He was a can't-miss, jab-step, get-to-the-rim guy -- but now he's strictly a jump-shooter, and we're all trying to figure out why. It's crazy."
Another potential No. 1 pick from the ACC is Duke freshman point guard Kyrie Irving, even though he played only eight games before suffering a toe injury that may cost him the remaining season.
"Maybe it helps him not to be seen," an executive said. "He'll be a very good point guard, like a shorter Deron Williams. He'll get to the rim and set people up."
Said a longtime scout: "He's still going to go in the top three of the draft. He's not the electric athlete that a John Wall or a Derrick Rose is, and I don't want to compare him to Chris Paul, because Irving is similar in size but he's not as thick. This kid is very cerebral, he keeps the ball on a string and he's a better shooter today than Chris Paul was coming out."
Notice that no one is saying anything exceptional about the 6-2 Irving. If a team picks him No. 1, aren't the fans going to expect the next coming of Wall or Rose?
"He doesn't have the overdrive athleticism you associate with the No. 1 pick," said yet another team executive. "You're not going to be blown away by his size or his speed. He'll be a solid player at a position that is hard to fill."
What happens -- or doesn't happen -- over the remaining two months of the NCAA season and tournament will carry less importance than the NBA workouts that take place in the weeks leading up to the June 23 draft. Because the top of this draft is so young and indistinguishable, the crucial investigations will be performed by teams as they challenge and test and compare players in private workouts. Not until May and June will the order of this draft begin to take shape.
"The postseason process when you're kicking their tires in a private workout -- the importance of that time is going to be heightened this year," a scout said. "Just because a guy makes a couple of shots on CBS some Thursday afternoon in March, I'm not going to go by that. I'm more likely to go by what I see in the workouts."
A group of candidates with the potential to be top-four picks in the draft include (in no particular order) Irving, Jonas Valanciunas, Jared Sullinger and Perry Jones.
One executive believes the 18-year-old Valanciunas, a 6-11, 240-pound center with the Lithuanian club Lietuvos Rytas, will emerge as the top pick.
"He's the best thing I've seen out of that country since [Zydrunas] Ilgauskas," the executive said. "He has a very good basketball IQ, he's tough, he can score, and over the last two years he has made the kind of jump you're looking for. He can shoot, but he can also be a traditional back-to-the-basket center, the way you like centers to be. He's different from [the Raptors' Andrea] Bargnani in that he's a legitimate post player.''
Sullinger is a 6-9, 280-pound power forward with Ohio State.
"He's an undersized power forward who is built like Danny Fortson -- long arms, big hands, looks overweight with a huge butt, but he's really skilled," an executive said. "He doesn't have great lift and may lead the league in having his shot blocked, but he's resilient. He's a better shooter and better passer than Glen Davis was at LSU."
Jones is a 6-10, 220-pound freshman at Baylor. One executive criticized his energy level, but another raved about his talent.
"He's a Kevin Garnett type with a body that's really long and athletic," he said. "He doesn't have the spirit that Garnett had -- he's not going to kick your butt every possession and get every rebound. This guy is more finesse-oriented, and he has a long way to go to learn the game. But in terms of sheer talent, he's breathtaking. Maybe he does become Garnett or [Tracy] McGrady, because he's that gifted, and you know how we draft for potential."
I've yet to hear a scout decry this as a bad draft. For teams picking outside the top four or five, there will be opportunities to steal a player who can contribute to the rotation or may even bloom to become, in hindsight, the best talent in the draft. There aren't necessarily any great players, but there are a lot of good prospects.
"That's why I could see one of those NFL-formula trades, where a team trades Nos. 3 and 31 for Nos. 17, 21 and 29," a team executive said. "This could be the year to trade back like that."
In the meantime, teams will look forward to the postseason workouts, when they can take a closer look at intriguing prospects like 6-8 sophomore power forward Derrick Williams of Arizona; or 6-10, 262-pound 18-year-old center Enes Kanter, who has been ruled ineligible at Kentucky; or European big men Donatas Motiejunas (a 7-foot, 215-pound Lithuanian with Benetton Treviso) and Jan Vesely (a 6-11, 240-pound Slovakian with Partizan Belgrade).
"If you're picking outside the elite bubble, it's a decent draft," an executive said. "You can get a good player between Nos. 8 and 15."
Ron Artest, I think (though I'm never quite sure) I understand you. You think the Lakers want you to be Dennis Rodman, who defended without ever wanting or needing to score. But you are not Rodman. You view yourself as being able to contribute at both ends, as you did in Games 6 and 7 of the Finals last season, after which the Lakers acknowledged they could not have won the championship without your contributions around both baskets.
It used to be said that a big man who goes to the trouble of running the floor needs to be rewarded with a pass for the easy basket. In your case, you need to be rewarded in return for your defense. You need to feel plugged in to the team to be confident, and you need that confidence to defend. You have long been viewed as a high-maintenance player, but, as the Lakers realized last June, that high price can produce the highest reward. So if they want you to do the thankless work defensively against Paul Pierce or LeBron James, then they should invest in you offensively -- they'll benefit from the extra ball movement, considering they've averaged 16.8 assists in their last four losses against the contending Celtics, Mavericks, Spurs and Heat.
Jackson gave you 41 minutes Thursday against San Antonio, which was a good start. But your team's inability to control the defensive board in the final moments -- the Spurs won 88-87 because they secured three offensive rebounds on their final possession (including one rebound that was flubbed by you) -- proves your team isn't focused on the crucial details.
Now: Do you want to be traded to a team that can supply you with more shots and zero championship hope? Of course not.
Dirk Nowitzki, when you talked about moving back to Europe to play basketball professionally, didn't you know the NBA wasn't likely to let you walk out on the remaining three years of your Mavericks contract? This is like that scene at the end of
This is the same approach the NBA would take against you and the $63 million over the next three years of your contract -- lockout or not. Personally, I'd like to see all of you NBA stars move over to Europe during the lockout, because then I'll be able to go to Europe, too.
Kevin Love, I named you to my ballot. Originally the coaches left you off by appearing to insist that the West-worst 11-37 record of your Timberwolves wasn't going to cut it. Then commissioner David Stern chose you Friday to replace injured Yao Ming, which leaves a long list of players to feel as disappointed as you'd felt one night earlier -- LaMarcus Aldridge, Tyson Chandler, Steve Nash, Tony Parker and Zach Randolph all went unnoticed despite representing teams in playoff contention. And don't forget Monta Ellis, either.
"My career earnings as a No. 5 pick were just over $1 million, and when I signed my first NBA contract, in 1976, I thought I had all of the money in the world. I was making $100,000.
"My parents were teachers who instilled in me that education was always the answer, no matter what I did with sports. I went to Virginia and I started out really poorly. I chose not to go to class my spring semester of my freshman year -- it was the first year that freshmen were eligible to play varsity and I was starting, I thought I was a big deal, so I had a fun spring and none of it was happening in the classroom. My grades were terrible and when I came home my dad basically said, 'We're proud you had a good year on the court, but don't let this happen again.' I needed to hear that, and I finished much stronger. My senior year I made the Academic All-America team, which I was and am proud of.
"Like a majority of NBA players, I was totally into my playing career and wasn't looking much further than that, but I did have one good business experience. The summer after my rookie year in my hometown of Millersville, Pa., I put on a basketball camp and we would run it for seven years. I enjoyed the business end of it and it started me thinking that pursuing a business career would be something I wanted to do.
"One real advantage that I hope all players take advantage of -- some do, but not enough -- is that as a player you have access to all kinds of interesting people who want to talk to you because you can put the ball in the hoop. Guys should really try to learn what makes other people successful in business. When I was playing, one of my friends was the author Tom Robbins, a good guy who became a great friend, and I got to know him because he was following the team.
"My last year was in Houston with the Rockets. I wasn't getting to play that much and the handwriting was pretty big on the wall. So after that year I took the GMATs -- the boards to get into business school. I prepared for it because I'd been out of college for eight years. It was a three-hour test and I took it in Seattle, where I'd played for five seasons, and during one break I was going to the restroom and the guy in the stall beside me looks at me and says, 'What are you doing here?' 'Same thing you are, pal.'
"I was accepted to Harvard and Stanford, but I was living on the West Coast and the idea of spending two years at Stanford appealed to me. Never had I heard of Goldman Sachs, and 18 months later I ended up taking a job with them in what they call private wealth management -- helping well-to-do individuals with their investment portfolios. Since I graduated from business school in June '87 and started in late August as a trainee, I was on the trading floor for Black Monday when the market crashed. That was a fascinating study of human nature in all aspects.
"Was I viewed as an ex-player? I think some clients felt, 'He had to have initiative to get the financial degree.' But other people thought of me as wearing the microscopic basketball shorts, and they had trouble taking the leap of faith to make me their financial guy. One guy, John Stanton -- I had never met him before I had lunch with him and his wife. But we hit it off and he said he wanted me to represent them, and his wife said, 'Let met get this straight: We're going with the basketball guy?' Both of them became not just clients but good friends over the years as well.
"By definition, players have great confidence in themselves and they think they're going to play forever. But the average career length in the NBA is less than five years, and even if you have a successful run of 10 years, that's still a lot of life ahead for you to be sitting around and recounting what you did in your 20s. That's not a good way of having an adult life.
"I spent seven years with Goldman Sachs, and two months after I left to start my money-management firm in San Francisco I got a call from the Sonics' ownership group. I didn't have a particular relationship with them, but I'd done broadcasting for the team part-time while I was traveling for my real job. I said no thanks, but two months later I agreed to take the job. Over my 12 years there our record was good, and for 10 years our payroll was at the league average or below.
"My last day with the team was the date the sale closed [in 2006 to Clay Bennett, who would move the franchise to Oklahoma City]. By the fall of 2007, I was starting to get up early and manage my portfolio. That was a signal to me that it was time to get back into money management -- not only that, but a bunch of my friends and former clients had said to me that if I ever did get back, to count them in as investors. Now I wake up between 4:30 and 5 a.m. without an alarm clock because I'm fired up for it every morning.
"Do I view myself as a former player or a hedge fund manager? The way to answer that is to say I've always enjoyed whatever I was doing at the time. I love what I'm doing now, though I would like to get another hour or two of sleep. But that's not going to happen."
So you and team president Larry Bird never had a conversation about losing on purpose?
"Never, not one," he said. "First of all, I would never have enough guts to bring it up to him, and it's not in his makeup, nor is it in my makeup. Nobody in that franchise, from ownership down, would ever -- I mean, that never even crossed our mind. It crosses your mind only from the standpoint that you're reading that's what you should do. The irony is that you're saying you should get fired because you're not winning; and then when you start winning, you should get fired because you're winning. If there was ever a Catch-22, you got it there. It's really nuts."
"So the thing is you can't get crazy about playing bad. And there are certain guys I can't be around, because they don't want to be flustered by my immature enthusiasm at age 60 to try to win the game. But there are some guys, I can put my arm around and pick them up and move 'em. And you've got to think those things through: I call it my 15 minutes of ego management. So I'll probably stay away from Nene. But I can probably get Kenyon [Martin] in a good place, because he's got to make a lot of defensive reads that he and I can work together on, and there are two or three other guys. Al [Harrington] might need a touch because his name's been in the paper a lot [as a player who may be traded] and Al likes my enthusiasm, we have a good relationship. But those are the things you think about."
"It was like that steal from Isiah [Thomas in Game 5 of the 1987 East finals]. People don't believe me, but that was all reaction. It was in my hands and out of my hands before I could tell it was happening. I knew they had a timeout, and I couldn't believe they didn't take the timeout. But he probably figured I couldn't get over there."
Turkoglu, now 31, was the national star of last summer's FIBA World Championship held in his country. He led his Turks to victories in their first eight games, including a Hoosiers-esque 83-82 semifinal win over Serbia in which Turkoglu fumbled the ball before feeding it to Kerem Tunceri for the winning drive with a half-second remaining. He will never forget that feeling.
"This is your business, you make money from NBA and you're doing what you love to do," he said in the Magic locker room after a recent game. "Over there it's all emotions, and you go there and play for your country, for the jersey, for the people, and you want to do more and more and you try to do your best. That's the best memory that I will have in my basketball career."
Turkoglu grew up as the Maradona of Turkish basketball. He was a public figure at a young age, vested with unprecedented hope and potential. At 18, he was playing for the Turkish national team. In the summer after his NBA debut, he was helping lead Turkey to a surprising silver medal at the European Championship in Istanbul. He was named the NBA's Most Improved Player in 2007-08, and the following year, as a 6-10 point-forward, he created mismatches that helped drive Orlando to the NBA Finals.
The original idea was for him to leave Turkey and become a basketball star abroad. Never could he have guessed that he was meant to do his most important work back home. His Turkish team -- known as "The 12 Giant Men" -- had never experienced such support.
"The fans, the whole country are so into it, they were all focused and just enjoying being together," he said. "We knew -- especially the old guys -- we would never see this opportunity again, so we just try to do our best with it. Wherever we go they supported us, they were behind us. It was really special -- you literally don't feel that from here [in the U.S.]. But as a member of it, wearing that jersey, seeing those people cheer for you, it makes you speechless."
The 81-64 loss to the U.S. in the gold-medal game was an understandable failure that did not diminish their grand success.
"I was hoping always that we can become one of the strong countries throughout the world and throughout Europe, to be able to challenge good countries like [the former] Yugoslavia, Italy, Lithuania," he said. "We were hoping to be on the same level with them."
The momentum of the summer has carried Turkoglu into this NBA season. He said he is in the best shape of his career, in part because of his preparation for the Worlds. In December, he was traded by the Suns back to the Magic, with whom he hopes to return to the NBA Finals. Even now, he feels the support of his fans back home ringing out like a seashell's echo. He knows they're watching him, and so he plays for them as well as for the Magic fans in Orlando.
"It's eight hours' difference," he said of the change in time zones that force Turkish fans to rise early to watch his games with the Magic, "and they're still going to get up and support us."
Next is a list of the 12 most expensive players this season. They are averaging 14.8 points at an average salary of $18.7 million. This is the kind of list the owners will note as they demand shorter guaranteed contracts from the players in the next CBA. To which the players can respond: No one forced you to give us that money.