Yao-wee

July 02, 2002 7:57 AM
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So what are we to make of last week’s NBA draft?

Owners and general managers have had their pick of the bountiful collection of athletic talent from the college and international ranks. Do the Clippers, Warriors and Bulls have a chance to catapult from the lottery to the playoffs? Will there be a Ming dynasty in Houston, with 7-foot-5 Yao Ming elevating the Rockets to one of the elite teams in pro basketball?

The answer to all of those queries: Most likely not.

The teams that had the top six picks in last year’s NBA draft (Wizards, Bulls, Clippers, Hawks, Warriors and Grizzlies) failed to make the playoffs this past season. The draft was interesting because of the unprecedented amount of international talent taken. It’s not clear how the 22-year old Ming, who is from China, will adjust to the NBA.

Ming was a gifted outside shooter (32.4 ppg, 18.9 rpg) for the Shanghai Sharks), but doesn’t weigh enough to crash the boards against guys like Tim Duncan, Dikembe Mutumbo and Shaquille O’Neal. He’s a finesse player, who scouts argue is better than 7-6 Shawn Bradley, but perhaps not as good as Dirk Nowitzki.

Regardless of the uncertainties, Houston is a good fit for Ming. The Rockets have been plagued by injuries the last two years, but when healthy are very good. Houston is a guard-oriented club with Cuttino Mobley (21.7 ppg) and Steve Francis (21.6 ppg).

With Ming alongside 20-year old, 6-10 forward Eddie Griffin (8.8 ppg, 5.7 rpg), the Rockets have the height they lacked. Ming will also benefit because he won’t be asked to carry the offense and he’ll work with one of the best coach/teachers in the league in Rudy Tomjanovich.

When the Orlando Magic drafted Shaq in 1992, they went from 21-61 without him to 41-41 in his first season. In 1983, Houston had the No. 1 pick in the draft and was able to grab Virginia’s 7-4 Ralph Sampson, one of the greatest college centers of all time. The Rockets went from 14-68 to 29-53 in Sampson’s first season.

Only the Nets and Pistons made the playoffs after drafting in the Top-9 of the 2001 NBA draft. And, New Jersey ended up trading Griffin (the No. 7 pick) to Houston for Jason Collins, Richard Jefferson and Brandon Armstrong. The Nets loaded up on depth, grabbed Jason Kidd in another trade, and ended up in the NBA Finals. Many times moves like that, rather than the actual draft picks, have the biggest impact.

This happened in 1996 when Lakers GM Jerry West (now at Memphis) traded starting center Vlade Divac to Charlotte for 18-year old high schooler Kobe Bryant. With the money he saved by dumping Divac, West was able to sign O’Neal as a free agent, thus constructing the foundations of a dynasty on draft day.

Both the Nuggets and Knicks think they did something similar last week. New York sent Marcus Camby, Mark Jackson and No. 7 pick Maybyner Hilario to Denver for often-injured All-Star Antonio McDyess and Illinois guard Frank Williams. The Knicks were fed up with the on-again, off-again play of Camby and got a monster-talent in McDyess. But McDyess will have to bounce back from a serious knee injury for the trade to work out for New York. And Denver”¦well, the Nuggets may be trying to set themselves up to get next year’s No. 1 pick.

If Michael Jordan comes back healthy, the Wizards could be even better than the overachieving team they were last season. Washington traded 25-year old guard Courtney Alexander to New Orleans for the No. 17 selection, which gave the Wizards four of the first 40 picks. Washington chose 6-10 Jared Jeffries (Indiana), 6-8 Rod Grizzard (Alabama), 6-3 Juan Dixon (Maryland) and 6-4 Juan Navarro (Spain).

They’re already young with last year’s top overall pick 19-year old Kwame Brown. Without Jordan’s intelligence, experience and leadership, the Wizards will be in trouble with all that youth. But with the remarkable Jordan (22.9 ppg, 5.7 rpg, 5.2 apg), the excess depth and athleticism could get them to the next level. Remember last season Washington went on a 24-11-2 ATS run just before Jordan hurt his knee in late February.

One surprise was UConn’s Caron Butler dropping to No. 10, where Pat Riley gladly grabbed him. The Heat had an awful season where little went right, but there is talent with Eddie Jones and Alonzo Mourning. Butler is the early Rookie of the Year favorite and it would seem only injuries would prevent this bunch from getting back to the postseason after a one-year hiatus.

The LA Clippers raised some eyebrows by taking the top two power forwards available in Chris Wilcox (Maryland) and Melvin Ely (Fresno State). They already have Elton Brand (18.2 ppg, 11.6 rpg) to crash the boards, which suggests a trade before training camp begins. Although, you never know what the Clippers are going to do.

The three-time champion Lakers didn’t need to get better, but trading Lindsey Hunter and draft pick Chris Jeffries (Fresno St.) for Missouri’s 6-6 Kareem Rush looks to be a steal. Smart front office moves, and luck, are more important to a team’s success than a string of Top-10 picks.