Weekly countdown: Draft edition
The New Jersey Nets traded Vince Carter in preparation for a possible sale
By drafting James Harden, the Thunder show confidence in Russell Westbrook
Look for the Washington Wizards to make a big jump in the East next season
The busiest week of the NBA offseason, at least until free agency kicks off next month, yielded plenty of items to dissect.
5 keys to the draft
5. Are the Nets for sale? Four groups are positioned to invest in the Nets, a highly placed source in the league office confided this week.
Two other league sources told me that minority owner Vincent "Vinny" Viola is moving to buy out majority owner Bruce Ratner and take control of the franchise.
But the senior-level source named Viola, the senior startegic advisor of the New York Mercantile Exchange, as one of four potential suitors, while adding that Ratner may remain involved with the Nets and could even retain majority status. "It's all up to negotiation," said the source, emphasizing that all the interest is based on the promise of the Nets' long-anticipated move from New Jersey to Brooklyn.
The most intriguing group of potential new investors is headed by the Russian oligarch Mikhail Prokhorov, who, until this season, was the financier of the Euroleague champion CSKA Moscow. The league source predicts that Prokhorov would survive the league's vetting process as a potential owner. Prokhorov is 6-foot-9 but didn't play basketball past elementary school. He was listed by Forbes last year as the 24th-richest man in the world, and his involvement with the Nets could eventually lead to the NBA arrival of Ettore Messina, the Italian coach who ran Prokhorov's CSKA teams.
Another potential investment group is headed by hedge-fund managers, while the fourth is drawn from the private equity field.
The potential sale of the Nets helps to explain the big move they made on draft day. They unloaded Vince Carter's remaining three years and $51 million to Orlando in exchange for three players, among whom only Courtney Lee will remain on the Nets' payroll in 2010-11 at a low rookie-scale salary of $1.4 million. Their payroll going into that season couldn't be more sparse, and they still have a 26-year-old All-Star point guard in Devin Harris. Coach Lawrence Frank will also be in the final year of his contract this season.
The Nets have long been rumored to be on the market. If a team is to be sold, then this often is how it's done: Remove as much furniture as possible so the new owner can remodel the place to his liking.
The cost-cutting played a role in the draft. Instead of going for forwards James Johnson or Tyler Hansbrough as rumored, they used the No. 11 pick on Terrence Williams as a potential replacement at shooting guard for Carter.
4. James Harden to the Thunder. Amid speculation that they would use the No. 3 pick on Tyreke Evans or Ricky Rubio, Oklahoma City instead went for the draft's top shooting guard in Harden. The Thunder were committed to taking the best available talent who fit their profile -- they are big on team-first character -- and Harden has a variety of skills to complement Kevin Durant. In other words, Harden can influence the game without necessarily scoring big numbers.
In doing so, the Thunder further committed themselves to Russell Westbrook as their point guard going forward. Westbrook was viewed as a combo guard coming out of UCLA a year ago, and many in the league doubted his ability to run a team. But Oklahoma City clearly doesn't share those doubts: The team could have easily drafted Rubio or Evans to take the ball out of Westbrook's hands, but instead he moves to the summer knowing the quarterback job is his for next season.
3. Minnesota's trio of point guards. At No. 5, the Timberwolves took Rubio, at No. 6 they went for Jonny Flynn and with the 18th pick they added Ty Lawson -- though that pick was dealt to Denver, providing the Nuggets with a backup point guard from George Karl's alma mater on a cheap rookie salary.
Rubio didn't want to go to Minnesota, but the Timberwolves appear intent on keeping him. They could use him to brand the team to his exciting uptempo style in hopes of returning fans to their arena, and he could form a strong inside-outside partnership with low-post big man Al Jefferson. Most interesting will be watching Rubio and Flynn learning to play together as GM David Kahn plays to Minnesota's newfound strengths in a surprising way. Usually teams try to make do with a backcourt of two scorers and ask one of them to be a point guard. In Kahn's case, however, he may try pairing two point guards and ask one of them to be a scorer.
Flynn is a scoring point and Rubio is a passer who promises to improve his jump shot. What an idea: Build a team with guys who like to pass the ball.
2. Brandon Jennings' long way around the green room. Early this season, Jennings was rated as a potential top five pick. Then he went to Lottomatica Rome in the Italian league, where he played poorly and had trouble earning consistent minutes. Little more should have been expected of a teenager who bypassed his freshman year of college to play against grown men in the Euroleague, yet the move appeared to hurt his standing.
On Thursday morning I called his agent, Bill Duffy, who said he would pull Jennings out of the green room rather than subject him to potentially becoming the last player in public waiting to be picked. Throughout the day he received no assurances -- my understanding was Jennings might go no earlier than No. 17 to the 76ers -- and so Jennings was watching with family at his New York hotel when the Bucks selected him No. 10.
A short time later Jennings appeared on stage with David Stern to shake the commissioner's hand. No harm had been done and he was happy with the final result -- thanks to Minnesota's decision to draft two point guards and the slide of Jrue Holiday out of the top 10. In the end, Holiday was picked 17th by the Sixers.
1. DeJuan Blair goes to San Antonio in the second round. The burly Pitt star was viewed as a lottery pick until teams got wind of his medical exam. Blair underwent ACL surgery on both knees in high school, and many teams said his long-term prognosis was not good.
Though he went undrafted in the first round, his landing site could not have worked out better for Blair. He'll join the Spurs and help them as a rookie while playing limited minutes, which should set him up for a contract in three years.
Many executives in the league didn't like seeing Blair fall this far, but there was little they could do to stop it. Most team doctors red-flagged him, which prevented the GMs from taking Blair in the first round.
"This is the worst I've ever seen as far as doctors unwilling to put their butts on the line," said a senior executive of an Eastern conference team. "If there's any kind of gray area, they're going to flunk the player."
Because of the sophisticated testing of MRIs and other high-tech devices, team doctors "know things they never used to know," the executive went on. "They never used to flunk players, and now they flunk them all the time. And a lot of the time it's to cover their [butts]."
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