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Friday, June 30, 2006

On Draft Night Every GM Gives Himself a Gold Star

by Roland Lazenby

Winners and losers in the NBA draft of 2006?

That’s supposed to be the assignment here. But it’s more a matter of gulpers and sippers.

This wasn’t so much a draft as it was a giant smoothie for the league’s executives.

Just dump all the draft picks and trades into the huge blender that was draft night and hit the HIGH button. Let it whir for a few hours, and like that, you have something that every general manager can digest, if not downright savor, and better yet, something they think they can sell to the fans.

Every general manager, that is, except Isiah Thomas of the New York Knicks. His selling days are mostly over. For the past two years, Thomas and Knicks/Madison Square Garden executive James Dolan have been acting as if they’re made men, as if they’re bullet proof, while throwing away tens of millions of dollars on one crazy decision after another.

Draft night may have been the final deed that gets them planted late some night in one of those deserted Jersey fields that the goombahs use for waste disposal.

Knicks fans are that frustrated.

You gotta give it to Zeke, though. If he’s gonna go down, it’s gonna be blazing, ghetto-style, doing it his way. So he takes the 20th overall pick and uses it to select Renaldo Balkman, that 6-5 forward out of South Carolina who is all raw passion with skills that make you grimace.

He’s an interesting pick, one that inspires some people to compare him to Dennis Rodman or Charles Barkley. Zeke’s gonna run and gun with his Knicks next season, and now he’s got a Rodman clone to introduce a little mayhem and a lot of energy into the proceedings each night.

“What? Is he nuts?” was the immediate chorus of ESPN broadcast analysts amidst the boos and hoots of the draft-night crowd at Madison Square Garden.

I have a little history with Zeke, so I’m not on that bandwagon just yet. Yes, he’s pulled some sneaky-stupid moves over the years. But he has always drafted well, he always pretty much knows what he wants, and Zeke can flat out lead a basketball team.

Yes, he may screw up a zillion things, but there’s a certain part of things he’s gotten straight over the years. His draft last year was primo with Channing Frye, David Lee and Nate Robinson.

Ditto for his days in Toronto with Damon Stoudamire and Marcus Camby. Isiah didn’t stay in Toronto very long, but the guys he picked proved themselves over the ensuing decade.

As a player, Zeke won two titles with Rodman, who hadn’t even played high school ball and couldn’t shoot a lick.
Thomas wants his team to get out and go next year. He’s got the talent to do that, and in Balkman he’s got a motor at the forward spot. Yes, he’s undersized, but a motor is a motor.

Then, just to throw fans another curve with the 29th pick, he added Mardy Collins, a big bulky, smart, skilled point guard who interned with John Chaney at Temple. Collins has got a big ole butt good for backing people down if the Knicks manage to slow it down long enough to run a half-court set or two.

Who’s to say the Knicks can’t play the way the Phoenix Suns do?

No, they don’t have Steve Nash, but their bloated payroll has purchased the talents of a lot of guys who can get out and go, unless Zeke happens to trade a few of them before the season starts.

I know Isiah has been acting like a pill lately, hiding from the New York media, etc., but I like the guy. I like his moxie. Always have. Hope he succeeds.

If he doesn’t, it’s still going to be among the most entertaining theater the NBA has to offer this upcoming season. There’s nothing quite like watching a train wreck.

Maybe Dolan and Isiah really are made men.

As for other screamers on draft night, ESPN’s Greg Anthony shook his head at the zany activity of the Portland Trail Blazers. There were trades that seemed to accomplish nothing, or worse yet, seemed to downgrade the roster.

The Blazers shipped a brilliant young talent like Sebastian Telfair (and a solid defender in Theo Ratliff plus a future second-round pick) to the Celtics for Raef LaFrentz (!), injured guard Dan Dickau, and the draft rights to Randy Foye (which they promptly spun off).

By the end of the night, though, Blazers executive Steve Patterson was smiling. He had acquired former University of Washington guard Brandon Roy and former University of Texas post LaMarcus Aldridge.

The Blazers also selected Joel Freeland (a project center from England) and James White (shooting guard from Cincinnati) with the 30th and 31st picks in 2006 NBA Draft. In addition to those picks the Blazers also acquired Sergio Rodriguez (PG from Spain) from Phoenix in exchange for cash.

They then traded James White to the Indiana Pacers for Alexander Johnson and second-round picks in 2007 and 2008.

Forgive their fans for being dazed and confused by all the moves. Yet it’s obvious more are to come for this bunch.

Patterson, though, sat back like a self-congratulatory Jerry Krause and pointed to all he had done. The young Blazers had gotten much younger and arguably more talented.

Will it all work out in the long run? Who knows, but at least the fans have something new to sip on.

Besides the Celtics and Blazers, who else came away with something good? Well, that depends on whom you ask. Here’s a list of candidates:

• Michael Jordan and the Charlotte Bobcats got the scorer they wanted in Gonzaga’s Adam Morrison.

• John Paxson and the Chicago Bulls loaded up while getting young and athletic by trading the second overall pick, Aldridge, to Portland for No. 4 pick Tyrus Thomas and forward Viktor Khryapa. Thomas was the SEC Freshman of the Year at LSU and averaged 12.3 ppg, 9.2 rpg and 3.1 bpg. The Bulls also acquired Swiss guard Thabo Sefolosha from Philadelphia for a future second-round pick, cash and Rodney Carney, who was taken with Chicago's 16th overall pick. Sefolosha averaged 12 ppg playing in Italy last season.

• Picking late, the Lakers still probably found a starter. They selected UCLA guard Jordan Farmar with the No. 26 overall pick in Wednesday's NBA Draft. The 6-foot-2 Farmar averaged 13.5 ppg and led the Pac-10 in assists with 5.1 as a sophomore. The Lakers also acquired guard Maurice Evans from the Pistons for Cheick Samb, their second-round pick.

• The Orlando Magic got just the shooter they needed to complement their core of young talent with Duke guard JJ Redick.

• Danny Ferry and the Cavaliers bolstered their backcourt by selecting Michigan State guard Shannon Brown at No. 25, Texas guard Daniel Gibson at No. 42 and Nigerian forward Ejike Ugboaja with the 55th pick.

• The Memphis Grizzlies and Jerry West, who always seem to come away with something on draft night, selected Kyle Lowry at 24th overall, then acquired draft rights to Alexander Johnson from Portland in exchange for a 2008 second-round draft pick.

And, oh, yeah, the Toronto Raptors, picking first, took Italian big man Andrea Bargnani, supposedly the hottest Euro of them all.

What does it all mean?

Well, each and every team website is hawking the news today. WE GOT THE GUYS WE WANTED. Right next to that is the season ticket form.

They’ve all had a great night. There’s new stuff to sell.

These guys will all be great, if Isiah and the other coaches around the league can get them to play hard and smart.

Here’s a fact to think about: Nearly a half of these kids who will get guaranteed salaries worth millions will be busts. Not worth a hoot. And NBA teams will lose tens of millions in wasted salaries for these players who don’t pan out.

Now you know why the NBA is so determined to push ahead with the Development League. It can buy an entire league of development players for $1 million, a mere fraction of what it costs for one first-rounder on draft night.

Go ahead, sip on that.

Roland Lazenby is the author of The Show: The Inside Story Of The Spectacular Los Angeles Lakers In The Words Of Those Who Lived It, recently released by McGraw-Hill


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