By Michael Wilbon
Friday, June 26, 2009
NEW YORK Ricky Rubio lasted 'til fifth? You mean the Wizards could have kept their pick, No. 5 -- HELLO! -- and taken Rubio themselves? How do you say "Maravich" in Spanish? If the Wizards are going to start the season with 10 guards on their roster, then why couldn't one of 'em be this kid? In case Gilbert Arenas opens the season in physical therapy, why couldn't we have watched Rubio throw those delicious passes, the likes of which nobody even attempts anymore in the NBA? The Wizards could have moved Arenas, ultimately, to shooting guard, which of course is what he is.
Who do I want finding teammates with the ball: Rubio or Arenas? No, that's not a trick question. Seeing a kid with that handle go to Minnesota is a bit of a downer, to tell the truth.
Look, draft night is about dreaming big dreams, right? Even if this is a bad draft, relative to recent years, the bet here is Blake Griffin and Jordan Hill, all 6 feet 10 of him, can play. I mean really play. Rubio, in all seriousness, is a curiosity at this point. Are Mike Miller and Randy Foye better players than Rubio? Yes, of course. Are they going to make the Wizards substantively better than they were when Arenas was healthy? I don't see it.
A veteran player asked me yesterday, "Are the Wizards moving to a 6-foot-4 and under league?" He was implying, of course, that the Wizards roster is radically unbalanced. They've got only three bigs: 7-footers Brendan Haywood and JaVale McGee, a rookie, and 6-10 Andray Blatche, whom nobody in the NBA confuses with an actual big man. That's one proven NBA Big (Haywood). Now, there's no law that says the Wizards had to acquire a Big Man by the end of Thursday night's draft. There's time, all summer in fact. But they'd better have a couple more legit big men by the time camp starts. Miller and Foye add to the Wizards' obvious strength; their acquisition from Minnesota doesn't address any of the Wizards' most glaring weaknesses.
When we look back at the '09 draft in a few years, it's possible the picks of impact simply won't be at the top of the draft. I like Stephen Curry going to Golden State instead of the Knicks. I like Gerald Henderson to become the steal of the draft at No. 12 to Charlotte, where he'll probably be in a back court with Allen Iverson come November. I like Austin Daye, lighter than a paperweight but highly skilled, going to the Pistons at No. 15. He's the new Tayshaun Prince, so why not play in Detroit?
I like the Utah Jazz, so smart, getting a ready-now backup point guard in VCU's Eric Maynor. I like Earl Clark, at No. 14, going to the Suns where there is plenty of playing time to be had since 14 feet of talent is gone with the departure of Shaq and Amare Stoudemire.
The '09 NBA draft was pretty basic stuff. The trades provided all the excitement. Shaq is now with LeBron in Cleveland. Stoudemire is now with Nellie -- the coach not the rapper, in Oakland. Vince Carter is now in Orlando, which I don't like one bit. Does this mean the Magic thinks it won't or can't keep Hedo Turkoglu?
You know what the greatest thing about draft night '09 was? Knicks fans in agony. The look on their faces when the Warriors, picking seventh, took Curry one spot ahead of the Knicks picking eighth, was worth coming to New York to cover the draft. I love coming to watch basketball in Madison Square Garden, no matter how stinky the Knicks are.
The only thing that ever gets tiresome is Knicks fans, so their self-absorbed righteous suffering is something I've come to snicker at over the years. They act as if the basketball gods owe them something, though the Knicks franchise is possibly the most overrated in professional sports in America. When the Timberwolves selected Rubio and Jonny Flynn, both point guards, with consecutive picks, Knicks fans went wild. They were so certain Golden State, already stocked with shooters, wouldn't take Curry.
But of course Don Nelson was going to take Curry to put in a lineup with newly acquired Stoudemire, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Corey Maggette. After spending all season coveting somebody else's player (LeBron), it was knee-slapping funny to see the Knicks fans have the rug snatched out from under them again. Good.
Anyway, there was a strange juxtaposition Thursday night. The draftees were talking about what everybody else at the little theater inside Madison Square Garden was talking about: the death of Michael Jackson. On nights like these, shocking nights, sports leagues want people to be with their program, to act as if their show, in this case the NBA draft, is foremost on everybody's mind.
Just like another NBA event wasn't foremost on everybody's minds June 12, 1994, either, the night that Al Cowlings and O.J. Simpson were in that white Ford Bronco, speeding south on the 405 straight into our collective consciousness . . . forever.
It comes up because the NBA had to share that night, too, with bizarre news of a different nature. It was Game 5 of the NBA Finals between the Rockets and Knicks. And there was the big screen in the Garden split between basketball and the white Ford Bronco being chased by police. No, the death of Michael Jackson wasn't scandalous, but it was another New York basketball night that got pushed to the back burner for so many people.
Back in '94 we still learned stuff, no matter how important, by word of mouth. If you had a cellphone, you didn't necessarily have it on you at all times. Even if you did, it didn't have Internet access. Even if you had a cellphone it didn't get instant news alerts. The draftees, who have no knowledge of word of mouth, had their cellphones on their ears, their eyes so wide it looked as if they'd been glued open.
"I can't believe the news about Michael Jackson," is what Curry said to me more than an hour before the draft began. "My agent just called me . . . "
All around Curry the same scene was playing out. "Did you hear?" Keep in mind, Michael Jackson was so done by the time any of them were born. Let's say Jackson's best year was 1983, the year after "Thriller," the best-selling album in history, was released. Michael Jordan wasn't even in the NBA then. Michael Jackson, to Steph Curry or Blake Griffin, is like Babe Ruth or Muhammad Ali or Frank Sinatra or Marvin Gaye. He's the History Channel. But he was also the weirdest, most famous man on the planet and they all knew that.
So draft night was different in that sense, different, too, in some insignificant ways, like the way the draftees dress so conservatively now, the way they were so understated and business like.
My favorite is James Harden. The Arizona State swingman is the single best dressed player to ever walk across the draft stage and shake Commissioner David Stern's hand on draft night. Beige slacks, perhaps Super 120s, vest, smart two-button blazer that had just a little olive to provide a contrast with the slacks/vest and looked like it might have been, oh, silk and bamboo, topped of by a bow-tie with coordinated pocket square. Best-dressed college athlete I've ever seen. Ever.
It kinda matters on draft night, what you look like, where you're going, who's starting over in someplace new, like Shaq or Amare. The Cavaliers will be better off, as will the Warriors, who know what they're getting. Not that it will be easy incorporating men as demanding as Shaq and Amare. But the men who put the fun in draft night will put the fun into the early weeks of the regular season as well. The Wizards, if they're up to it, should feel free to join.