Countdown: Draft day names, free-agent contenders to watch
DeMarcus Cousins taken at No. 5 shows NBA has veered from traditional big men
Miami, Chicago and New York have become most powerful free-agent contenders
Other topics: LeBron James' free-agency tour, Kobe Bryant's media perception
DeMarcus Cousins. That a potentially dominant 6-foot-11, 292-pound center who averaged 15.1 points, 9.9 rebounds and 1.8 blocks in 23.5 minutes last season -- gigantic production in short minutes while sharing the ball with four fellow first-rounders at Kentucky -- would go No. 5 in the draft is proof of how the NBA has veered away from traditional big men.
The 2007 draft example of Kevin Durant and Greg Oden endures. Even if Oden were healthy, most teams would probably look back and say that Durant should have been the No. 1 pick because he'll ultimately become the more influential star on the wing than Oden as a player in the paint. The NBA has instituted a zero-touch policy on the perimeter that liberates Durant as if he were a wide receiver five yards beyond the line of scrimmage. In the meantime, centers like Oden are pounded under the basket like running backs at the one-yard line.
And yet I'm going to insist that the teams picking up high -- led by the 76ers with the No. 2 pick -- are going to regret passing on Cousins. First of all, he has the potential to step out and make jump shots as well as pass out of double teams or from the high post to cutters. Second, and more important, big men remain crucial to the title contenders. Their value may be lost upon the majority of teams that lack the structure to make proper use of them, but ever since Michael Jordan left Chicago in 1998, I can't name a championship team that didn't have an All-Star talent in the post.
How do you stop wing penetrators like Rajon Rondo? The Lakers came up with the simplest answer during the recent Finals: Station a pair of 7-footers on either side of the lane. If you can't play hard defense on the perimeter, then gather size in the paint to protect the rim and prevent the slashers from finishing at the basket.
The Kings clearly saw the value in that strategy when they invested the No. 5 pick in Cousins and No. 33 pick in 7-foot shot-blocker Hassan Whiteside, whom they foresee as a power forward. The Kings must bring in some veterans to establish strong examples and daily routines for Cousins and Whiteside, but if they should ever fulfill their promise defensively, then there aren't going to be many points scored from the paint against Sacramento.
Wesley Johnson. The Timberwolves' decision to use the No. 4 pick on the Syracuse forward makes a lot of sense. For starters, Cousins made it clear he didn't want to come to Minnesota by refusing to work out or interview with the Timberwolves. This is another team that lacks veteran leadership as well as perimeter scoring, and so it might have backfired to force Cousins to face endless double teams without the balance of perimeter scoring for a team he didn't want to join.
Johnson, on the other hand, fills a couple of needs. He has the potential to lead Minnesota in scoring as a rookie with the talent to not only finish in a variety of ways but also to make plays for others. He carries himself with the sense of maturity that Cousins lacks at this time, and the Timberwolves will lean on Johnson's soothing presence. No doubt this is going to be a bad team next season, but Johnson has a chance to become Rookie of the Year by posting big numbers and providing some promise as a foundational star.
Kirk Hinrich. He was on the market for months and months until the Bulls finally gave him away to the Wizards on draft day, along with the No. 17 pick and cash to help cover his two-year, $17 million contract. This deal could affect a fundamental change in the Wizards' franchise as they move from a soft bunch of scorers to a tougher team that defends.
No. 1 pick John Wall should emerge as one of the league's best defenders at point guard; No. 23 pick Trevor Booker will come off the bench to defend as a forward (as well as in practice every day); and Hinrich will be setting the example for both of them. Hinrich isn't the best defender in the league, but he is one of the nastiest guys at that end of the floor. If he were a hockey player, he would be called "chippy'' because he infuriates opponents in a Bruce Bowen kind of way. He bumps, jabs and shoulders opposing scorers without worrying whether they might like him afterward. The Wizards have needed his kind of influence for a long time. It won't always be pretty, but no team can go far without it.
Paul George. The Pacers spent most of Thursday exploring trades to move back from No. 10 in order to land the point guard they need so badly. They may look back and recognize they were lucky the trades didn't work out, because the two players they might have taken in the late teens -- Eric Bledsoe and Avery Bradley -- aren't yet true point guards and will probably need a couple of seasons to develop those skills. The Pacers might have been frustrated next season while waiting for them to develop.
In the meantime, they've landed George, who will share the small forward role with former All-Star Danny Granger. But that's not a major issue for an up-tempo team like the Pacers, who believe in creating quick shots and exploiting mismatches. When Mike Dunleavy was healthy, they played him together with Granger. And now they can apply a similar formula for George, who, as noted by team president Larry Bird, can create his own shot.
There is no sense for a rebuilding team like the Pacers to draft for need. They need as much talent as they can acquire, and in the meantime this summer they can deal for or sign an NBA-ready point guard to see them through the next couple of seasons.
Kevin Pritchard. If anyone didn't know what to make of the soap-operatic divorce between the owner and once-beloved GM, the Blazers settled the argument when Paul Allen fired Pritchard an hour before the draft. With that crass and untimely move, Allen presented himself as the bad guy and Pritchard as the victim.
Does that assessment jibe with the facts? No one knows because the Blazers have presented no facts to explain the dismissals of Pritchard and his former assistant Tom Penn. But they have created an enduring image of a franchise that could not have settled on a worse time to fire its GM than the hour before the NBA draft. I'm sure there were extenuating circumstances -- there always are -- but Allen and his surviving management team will bear responsibility for the shambles they've created.
This was such a promising franchise. But now the front office is shattered and Nate McMillan has acquiesced to pressure from above by relieving assistant coaches Dean Demopoulos and Joe Prunty amid the departure of assistant Monty Williams to New Orleans as new head coach. Allen must not have been very happy with 104 wins over the last two years. Are these abrupt and clumsy changes in leadership going to result in improvement? Maybe so, but now the Blazers are going to be hiring replacements from a position of panicky weakness when they really should have been dealing from a position of strength.
On his way out the door, Pritchard cut payroll for the Blazers by sending Martell Webster to Minnesota for No. 16 pick Luke Babbitt and the contract of Ryan Gomes, who can be waived at a savings of almost $9 million over the remaining three years of his deal.