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Posted: Friday June 12, 2009 1:04PM; Updated: Friday June 12, 2009 1:17PM
Scott Howard-Cooper Scott Howard-Cooper >
INSIDE THE NBA

Rubio, Grizzlies an unwise match?

Story Highlights

Rival GMs say Grizzlies may be wise to pass on second-best prospect, Ricky Rubio

The Grizzlies could be better served addressing their need in the frontcourt

More topics: Magic's Otis Smith gets last laugh; the next Brandon Roy?

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hasheem-thabeet.jpg
UConn big man Hasheem Thabeet (above) could be a better fit in Memphis than point guard Ricky Rubio.
John W. McDonough/SI
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A rival general manager is on the phone discussing the Grizzlies' options with the No. 2 pick. Ricky Rubio is the second-best prospect in the draft, he says, echoing the feeling of most peers, and Rubio would make Memphis better.

But ...

"If I'm the Grizz, I probably trade the pick."

Run from it. Full sprint. Get the certainty of an established player, maybe a power forward to address their biggest position need, and probably pick up a choice later in the first round while dodging the gathering storm of problems. Not the usual every-draft-is-a-risk problem, either.

Buyout problems. Lawyer problems. International problems.

A little less than two weeks before the draft, a lot of teams can't say for sure Rubio will be in the United States next season even if he is selected on June 25. He is challenging the terms of the buyout agreement with his Spanish club, DKV Joventut, and has requested arbitration to help settle the dispute, with clarity hanging in the balance. Victory clears the way for the prodigy point guard to come to the NBA, defeat douses him in uncertainty.

Rubio, a debate topic of the draft even without the legal maze, could get Stateside no matter what. His agent, Dan Fegan, is experienced and powerful and surely would not promise Rubio to NBA teams unless he was ready to go to the mat to get it done. David Stern would be involved at some point. DKV Joventut would be promised exhibition games and clinics. These things get resolved.

There is this, though: Rubio might not be the right choice, period. Not because a few lawyers could get summer houses off this one. Not because the Grizzlies would prefer to avoid the PR nightmare of Rubio staying in his native Spain next season, although they would hold his rights. Not even because speculation continues that Fegan is signaling that his client would be unhappy to be drafted by Memphis; the agent has not been quoted as saying anything close to that but also has done nothing to dismiss such talk. (Fegan ran the same play with the Bucks and Yi Jianlian in 2007, but Milwaukee took Yi anyway.)

Rubio might not be the choice simply because point guard is not the most pressing need around FedEx Forum. Mike Conley just averaged 10.9 points and 4.3 assists while shooting 44.2 percent overall and 40.6 on three-pointers, up from the 42.8 and 33, respectively, of his rookie season. In 30 games after the All-Star break, Conley averaged 14.5 points and 5.6 assists. Conley is 21 and two years removed from being the No. 4 pick, but that's what the debate comes down to, really. Are the Grizzlies ready to bail on that investment or are they still patient and feel more of a need to address another position?

They could take Connecticut center Hasheem Thabeet and try to play him with another 7-footer, Marc Gasol, to find a solution at power forward, not an ideal answer given the speed of starters Conley, O.J. Mayo and Rudy Gay, but at least one that would give the Grizzlies a lot more size. They could take Arizona State shooting guard James Harden, give Conley the chance for a breakout season as a third-year pro and know they eventually could always pair Harden and Mayo in the backcourt. Again, not the ideal solution, but remember that Mayo was projected as a point guard when he went to USC for a one-and-done season, so he wouldn't be the worst fit as a ball-handler.

"Thabeet probably does more to make them better than Rubio does," one executive said. "He protects the basket.

"I think they still like Conley. He really came on the second half of the year. I know [coach] Lionel Hollins likes him. I think they're posturing" with any hint of leaning to Rubio.

Said a personnel boss with the same thinking: "Looking at their team, I do think they need more size. ... I would certainly be very focused on learning everything about Thabeet -- what he is and who he is."

Another part of the problem is that Thabeet is a great risk, too, an imposing defensive presence but a player who struggled with inconsistency until last season. A dependable big man probably makes the decision a lot easier for the Grizz, and Thabeet is definitely not in the dependable category yet.

The vindication of Otis Smith

He made a risky investment to re-sign Jameer Nelson, made a risky investment times infinity to sign Rashard Lewis away from the SuperSonics, got stranded by a coach, went years without a meaningful return from the draft -- and now look: Otis Smith is the general manager of the team that won the Eastern Conference championship and is in a competitive Finals.

This was his plan; he would have been blasted to bits if it went terribly wrong, as was possible in ticking off decisions that would have lasted years past his firing, and so Smith must be credited with the same fervor. The frenzied fun inside Amway Arena this week is his fault.

Smith especially must be credited because he made moves that defied conventional wisdom. A max contract in 2007 for Lewis? No one mangles a salary cap like that for, at best, a No. 2 option behind Dwight Howard. Nelson got five years and $38 million in '07 despite not having averaged better than 14.6 points or 4.9 assists in a season. Smith hired Billy Donovan as coach, only to have Donovan bail after a few days in a move that resulted in the Orlando-Stan Van Gundy union. Meanwhile, Smith inherited the mess of Fran Vazquez being drafted 11th in '05 and declining to leave Europe, on his own took J.J. Redick at 11 in '06 and didn't have a first-rounder in '07.

But here the Magic are, in spite of it all. No matter what happens the rest of these Finals, Orlando has moved into position as a championship contender for at least the next few years, assuming it locks up Hedo Turkoglu this summer (if he terminates his contract) or next (if the contract runs to completion). It won't be fun to wrestle the salary cap in a few years with Lewis on the books for $22.7 million, Howard for $19.5 million, Nelson for $7.7 million and Turkoglu for whatever grand number he gets, but one title makes it worthwhile. It may even get Smith some credit.

Mail bonding

I've read a lot about James Harden being compared to Brandon Roy. What do you think about that comparison?
-- A.J., Cincinnati

This is when everyone knows Roy has made it big. Not leading the Trail Blazers to the playoffs, not making the All-Star team two years in a row, not appearing to be a logical addition to the next Dream Team, but now, as the draft approaches and he becomes a comparison point.

A GM told me that Tyreke Evans has "Brandon Roy qualities," Evans himself said, "I'm pretty much a Brandon Roy-type player," and there are the Harden comments you mention. I see the comparison with Harden: Both were stars in the Pac-10 who didn't get great national hype because they play steady and smart rather than drawing a spotlight, both are about the same size (Roy is slightly taller, Harden slightly heavier). But Roy is more versatile, spending a lot of Portland's fourth quarters with the ball in his hands without being a true point guard. Harden is not expected to duplicate that.

Sorry, Scott, but your info on Greivis Vasquez doesn't fly. I can tell you unless Greivis told you this face to face, you've been had. You just casually mention Greivis had decided to stay in the draft when it would be a breaking story across the state of Maryland and possibly nationally. Everyone I've talked to as of late says he'll likely be back, unless some team has all but guaranteed they'll take him in the very early second round or better. Every team so far has liked his height, but told him to go back to work and polish up a few things and come back next year. Sorry, but it seems like your Vasquez blurb is bogus.
-- Dave, Rockville, Md.

Greivis Vasquez: "I'm all in. I'm not thinking about going back to school."

Face to face? No, you got me there. I was about 5 feet away, after his workout with the Kings last week.

If Vasquez goes back to Maryland, it will be because he changed his mind from a very clear comment. And some perspective, please. Vasquez deciding to stay in the draft might be breaking national news? In what nation?

I think you need to look up the word "hypocritical" in the dictionary. I don't recall Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., arguing that the age limit for U.S. representatives is a good idea, while the age limit for NBA players is a bad idea. That would be hypocritical. The minimum age for representatives is imposed by the Constitution, Art. I, Sec. 2. So, in your book, Cohen is only allowed to criticize the NBA after he has introduced a constitutional amendment to allow 18-year-olds to be elected to Congress?
-- Kevin Jon Heller, Boulder, Colo.

Of course, he's allowed to criticize the NBA. Anyone is allowed. But if Cohen really is so concerned about age limits, he should work to change the rules of his own business. If he is taking a stand against someone being denied the chance to start a career on the basis of his birth date, then take a stand in his own house. So to speak.

As for the semantics, you're right. I could have chosen a better word than "hypocritical," though I don't think it's far off. Maybe "grandstanding opportunist" would have been better. "Disingenuous." "Hollow."

 
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