Hottest seats in the NBA draft
Players face pressure of finding right team in right stage of development in draft
Expected top pick Blake Griffin carries heavy burden of improving woeful Clippers
Knicks face expectations to build roster that will attract top free agent in 2010
The NBA draft is a game unto itself or, for our purposes here, a combination of games: equal parts musical chairs and hot potato.
All seats are hot when you're talking about the millions of dollars, thousands of hours of prep work and years (or not) of productivity an NBA team invests, devotes and expects, in order, from the "pro-tentials" whose names will be read Thursday by commissioner David Stern and wingman Adam Silver. Some, however, are hotter than others.
For players, it's always a question of right team, right time. For teams, it's a defensive don't-mess-up pressure that intensifies after the first couple of picks -- as consensus falls away -- and doesn't begin to let up until Round 2. For general managers, of course, draft night is Showtime, their "King me!" moment (only a precious few are playing chess) that sets up subsequent maneuvers in free agency, trade talks and general bush-beating for help.
For a coach, what happens on draft night can be like an unstoppable force grabbing the tiller of next season, probably several, because the direction of his team can get altered for years; it's hard to go true north when your roster abruptly gets pointed south-by-southeast.
Here are just some of the participants who face hot seats in this draft:
Blake Griffin. Hey, what did Griffin do wrong to get on this list? Nothing actually, but he will be wrestling with the basketball gods from draft night forward. Here are the paths he faces: Either Griffin -- the Oklahoma forward with the most can't-miss body and talent in this year's class -- will get dragged down by the Clippers' sorry draft fortunes or he will risk hernias nightly wrenching the franchise's tradition in a happier direction. If the No. 1 pick in general, and Griffin in particular, is supposed to be the NBA's Road Runner, hitting the ground at full speed, the Clippers historically have been that tunnel merely painted on the mountain wall.
Grizzlies GM Chris Wallace. Getting bumped down or not moving up in the draft lottery stinks, but moving up -- only not up far enough -- can sting, too. The Grizzlies vaulted from seventh (by odds and tiebreaker) to second this spring, landing smack at the intersection of Dilemma and Quandary.
The early line had Spain's Ricky Rubio as the presumed second-best prospect, which meant Memphis had to weigh the relative merits in their backcourt of Rubio, Mike Conley and O.J. Mayo. Then came word that Rubio might not be interested in the Grizzlies, a Steve Francis flashback in waiting, with the added leverage of simply staying and playing in Europe.
More recently, the mock drafts have moved Rubio around some, with UConn center Hasheem Thabeet looking like a better fit and safer pick. Except that we all know what often happens when teams pick safe. The adage about "if you're going to make a mistake, make a mistake big" too often is self-fulfilling. But wait, our man Ian Thomsen thinks Memphis might go with local college guy Tyreke Evans. Wallace's pick of Conley after his arrival shortly before the 2007 draft and his delivery of Pau Gasol to the Lakers should already have him riding on a heated leather seat, not good when it's June in Tennessee.
Ricky Rubio. This hot-seat stuff cuts both ways. Rubio is the pivotal player in this draft from No. 2 through mid-lottery, and it's not just based on teams' evaluation of him. He and his agent, Dan Fegan, have his European contract as both a problem to unsnarl and a fall-back position. His Sacramento workout was spoiled when he got sick, and the sizable gap between his pros and cons has been polarizing scouts' and GMs' assessments. If he does come over but doesn't show flashes of brilliance swiftly enough, the second-guessing will commence.
Knicks boss Donnie Walsh. It's time for the vision to kick in, time for Walsh and coach Mike D'Antoni to start getting evaluated by decisions and results. The honeymoon, if there ever was one, is coming to an end. The time has come to find some running mates for whatever star free agent they are able to lure. Their target just might be Davidson guard Stephen Curry, who led the nation in scoring and might have risen past the Knicks at No. 8. So it could require some crafty moves for Walsh to get his guy; if he doesn't make one and Curry goes seventh or sooner, we'll hear the boos.
Timberwolves owner Glen Taylor. Taylor's latest blueprint for the future is into its second revision already, facing further delays unless David Kahn, the team's new president, gets the Wolves back on schedule. At least the team isn't coping with the cost overruns of recent seasons; bad contracts already have been cleared, replaced by desirable expiring deals (Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal). Taylor hired Kahn pretty late in the predraft period, though. And with Kevin McHale getting cut loose Wednesday, there is no coach, and thus no established style to shape the team's three first-rounders (Nos. 6, 18 and 28).
Admittedly, the Wolves have holes at several spots, so the first priority might be grabbing assets while worrying later about their allocation. Kahn, though some think he wants to make a bold stroke on draft night, publicly is preaching patience. But there isn't much left, outside among fans or even inside; add another five-year plan onto Al Jefferson's first five NBA seasons and he could be feeling like Kevin Garnett in search of a winner.
Eric Maynor. The 6-foot-3 guard from Virginia Commonwealth could be the first college senior picked on a night when the NBA job market is as shaky for those kids as for the graduates with other specialties. Only five seniors were selected among the top 30 picks last June. Western Kentucky's Courtney Lee wound up as a valuable contributor on an NBA Finals club, growing up a lot in the postseason. Rider's Jason Thompson showed promise in Sacramento, and Georgetown's Roy Hibbert had modest success in Indiana, though former Hoosier D.J. White with Oklahoma City and New Mexico's J.R. Giddens with Boston had no impact.
Tyler Hansbrough. Hansbrough's seat is even hotter than Maynor's because he is facing the ultimate college star/pro journeyman questions after his stellar stay with the Tar Heels. At least the verdict from the draft combine was working in his favor, with scouts satisfied that Hansbrough's size and strength are legit.
Warriors GM Larry Riley. And naturally, coach Don Nelson, too, since the two are thought to always be on the same page. The issue: whether Monta Ellis is the Warriors' long-term answer at point guard. In a draft most distinguished by depth at that position, their alleged assurances to Ellis that he's their guy could mean passing up at No. 7 a better option (Ellis hardly made folks forget Baron Davis when he did log time there during an injury-shortened 2008-09 season). The team set up a radio interview to get the message out, but calming Ellis and spinning the situation a week before the draft is way different from committing now and kicking yourselves later.
Brandon Jennings. It isn't Jennings' career that is on the hot seat, but it is his decision to spend last season with Italian club Lottomatica Roma, rather than feigning interest in freshman history, that will be at stake. If the point guard's one-year stint overseas, foregoing a one-and-done NCAA stay, gets him into the lottery, he might become a little trendsetter, with others taking that route. If he slips too far, while he's safe in terms of getting guaranteed first-round money, Jennings might make future young basketball athletes accept the "student" prefix for a year (or until the rule gets changed).
Bulls coach Vinny Del Negro. The heat isn't on John Paxson, since he has sidestepped out of direct GM responsibility now. Del Negro, though, will be judged on the Bulls' ability to build from the first-round, seven-game thriller against Boston, which has raised expectations again at United Center. He needs a bona fide low-post threat, but the players you hear mentioned here -- Hansbrough, Pittsburgh's DeJuan Blair or Wake Forest's James Johnson -- won't come without questions.
Rockets guard Tracy McGrady. If the Rockets are successful in moving high into the first round (they're currently pickless), McGrady will be the chip that facilitates it. Or he'll be profoundly affected by it. Either way, he could have different whereabouts come October. The oft-injured scorer has a tough contract to move, but his teammates' performance in his absence for microfracture surgery created the incentive to make that happen sooner rather than later. Of course, with McGrady, you don't need to worry about him fouling up the rotation or chemistry of the group we watched beat Portland and extend the Lakers to seven games; you just wait for the next injury to avert that problem.
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