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Posted: Monday June 29, 2009 1:38PM; Updated: Tuesday June 30, 2009 1:44AM
Steve Aschburner Steve Aschburner >
INSIDE THE NBA

For free agents, home is where the wins, and the good weather are

Story Highlights

Lakers, Heat, Suns are the top destinations for NBA free agents

Mavericks' locker-room amenities set example many teams have followed

Sagging attendance, cold weather turns many players off of T'wolves

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Even Mickey Mouse and his Disney friends can't get enough of Kobe Bryant and a Lakers franchise with 15 titles to its credit.
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You don't have to be a weatherman to know which way Ricky Rubio is blowing, but it helps. The sensational teenaged point guard from Spain officially hasn't explained what appears to be his reluctance to join the Minnesota Timberwolves, the NBA team that grabbed him with the No. 5 pick in the June 25 draft. Others -- his father Esteve Rubio and Wolves exec David Kahn -- have done most of the talking for him, and at this point it still isn't clear whether Rubio cannot get to Minnesota for the 2009-10 season (a tricky and expensive buyout to negotiate with his Euroleague team, DKV Joventut Badalona) or simply will not (doesn't want to come).

There are several reasons why Rubio and his parents might consider the Wolves one of the "bad" NBA teams they talked about with SI.com's Ian Thomsen back in May: Minus a head coach, the Wolves have missed the past five postseasons, and Kahn's choice of another rookie point guard, Syracuse's Jonny Flynn, at No. 6 might look more like competition than insurance to Rubio. So far, though, the only thing we know for sure is that, the day before the draft, Rubio was asked to react word-association style to several NBA markets. His response to Minnesota? "Too cold."

Now that is cold. In a world where perception frequently is reality and gut responses like that can shape franchise's futures, "too cold" is a burden Minnesota has bear. The rain in Spain may fall mainly on the plain, but the ice and snow in Minneapolis/St. Paul bites everyone equally. Temperatures in January in Badalona range from nearly 60 degrees Fahrenheit down to about 40; the average high in the Twin Cities that month is 21.9 degrees, the average low, 4.3. Subzero readings are so common, when the locals say, "It's freezing today!" they're boasting, not griping.

So Minnesota is cold, in the shorthand of NBA players. Sacramento is boring. Utah is straight-laced. New York is huge. Philadelphia is tough. Indianapolis is sleepy. Toronto is, y'know, up there somewhere, eh? Cleveland is enjoying a reprieve for as long as LeBron James stays put. It's all image, but image is important, now -- on the brink of summer free agency -- more than ever. How alluring an NBA city is to your average player weighing his employment options goes a long way toward determining its team's success and its fans' enjoyment.

My task here: Rank the 30 NBA markets in terms of attractiveness to players, weighing tangibles as well as intangibles, to better understand the team's inherent competitive advantages and disadvantages.

My methodology: I identified a dozen separate categories allowing for both objective and subjective evaluation, among them Climate, Night Life, Tradition, Marketing Potential, Facilities, Local Economy, Lifestyle (schools for kids, diversions for spouses), even Tax Implications. A few were hardcore hoops stuff: Readiness to Win, Teammates, Salary-Cap Space, Coaches. I consulted with statisticians at a local community college to concoct a point system, assigning scores ranging from plus-5 down to minus-5, and then calculated weights for each category, mathematically prioritizing them. You'll notice that I also counted Los Angeles twice, because as destinations go, the Lakers' and the Clippers' versions of L.A. might as well be the two moons of Mars. For these purposes, let's say the Lakers are Phobos and the Clippers Deimos.

So I wound up, in the end, with a formula as scientific as the NFL's quarterback-rating system and twice as indecipherable. Which is why I scrapped it entirely, painting-and-deleting the whole shebang as an acknowledgement that this stuff always is a matter of taste, subjective and highly personal for the players involved. Some want to win, some just want to get paid. Some would be happy as role guys on great teams, others want to be the main man on his own team. One player might frequent museums and plays, the other is happy with a satellite dish and Wii. There are more X-factors in decisions like this than there are, well, Xs and all the other letters in the alphabet.

Here then, is something less than learned. but arrived at through years of covering and traveling to the various NBA markets. It is one man's assessment and snapshot, not intended to offend and no more valid than the next fellow's, but no less than, either. Because that is how these decisions get made, from Rubio to James, one, by one, by one:

The top five

1. Los Angeles (Lakers): Oh, to be young, rich and a Laker. You've got championship potential (and a ring coming if you already were there this spring), a dominant superstar, the wisest of head coaches. And Hollywood in awe and that marvelous playground beyond Staples Center.

2. Miami: What's not to like? There's no state income tax, South Beach, balmy weather all winter long, Dwyane Wade, first-class travel and facilities, the competitive backdrop of Pat Riley to keep ambitions on track. Oh, and did we mention South Beach?

3. Phoenix: Things might not be as appealing at the moment, given the unsightly, and some would argue, needless makeover this team underwent. But the Suns used to run a relative country club for players, then became the most fun spot to play in the NBA. Steve Nash still keeps it fun, if you can ignore the scoreboard many nights.

4. Houston: I was surprised several years ago when I learned how many players league-wide spend their offseasons living and working out in this steamy city. Now that the Rockets are loaded and with management that can explain in intricate detail why you're the perfect fit for their system, it's an even greater place to be in-season.

5. Orlando: The tax thing. Dwight Howard. Three-pointers galore. The Celtics are getting old, the Cavaliers might lose LeBron. 'Nuff said.

Almost always appealing

6. Dallas: Mark Cuban is a players' owner, and there's nothing he says or does that the guys on the Mavericks roster wouldn't say or do if they could get away with it (or afford the fines). All NBA players owe a debt to this franchise, too, for upping to ante on treatment and amenities, little perks that fall just short of salary-cap violations.

7. New York: Sure, the team stinks. Yes, the building doesn't crackle with energy the way it used to. OK, there are miles to go to seriously contend. But many players like coach Mike D'Antoni's style, and the pressure from media and fans means people are passionate about what you do. Then you step outside onto W. 34th Street and you've got that whole city to enjoy.

8. Chicago: The tradition of Michael Jordan resonates more with today's players than even the Celtics' and Lakers' fabled pasts. No one grew up wanting to wear a Grizzlies or Thunder jersey, but they sure did play in their driveway thinking "Bulls." The Berto Center practice facility draws raves, and it's remarkable how Chicago has continued to fill United Center, through ups and downs, 11 years post-Jordan.

9. Atlanta: Gotta be the shoes. NBA players historically turned road trips to Atlanta into shopping sprees for their feet at Friedman's. Now the weather, the nightlife, the Hawks' youth and their recent playoff runs make this city even more attractive.

10. San Antonio: There might not be a ton of entertainment options here, but getting a contract offer from the Spurs is like getting accepted into an Ivy League school. It is a validation of a player's character or at least his potential to put the team ahead of the individual, and it is hard for many of them to say no. Or rather, no thank you, sir.

The vast middle 10

11. Cleveland: The power of LeBron, who stands with this market perched on his shoulders like some Lake Erie Atlas. Being a teammate of a superstar like this can line a fella's pockets in ways beyond paycheck, during and after their playing days. His possible free agency in 2010 means management will go overboard, wherever it can, to make things nice for him and his. Shaq means laughs, too. But if James goes, it will be like your high school team losing five senior starters, coming back with jayvee squaders.

12. Boston: All that lore and all those banners seem to mean more to players once they're inside the Celtics' mystique rather than from the outside. It's as if they have to get indoctrinated, have Bill Russell show up in the locker room or John Havlicek drop by practice, to connect the dots. Some NBA players question the friendliness of the city itself -- that was an issue about which Kevin Garnett placed a few phone calls in the summer of 2007 -- but current ownership seems willing to do what it takes to win.

13. Denver: The Nuggets as a destination got a boost from Chauncey Billups' performance and his ambassadorship after his trade from Detroit. The Pepsi Center crowds were solid before, but they were crazed in the just-finished postseason. Bright future, and playing for the Nuggets means not having to adjust in 24 hours to the mile-high thing.

14. Detroit: This place is looking better because of the money it plans to spend. The organization and the suburbs score higher with players than the local economy and downtown Detroit (rarely seen by most Pistons).

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