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Wednesday, June 12, 2002
Updated: June 24, 11:18 AM ET
What's Next?

By by Ric Bucher


After a nine-month run that saw everything from Air going flat to West going east, the NBA season is finally over, leaving us with one question -- how soon can we go again? For if you thought this season witnessed a lot of drama, what with the Bucks' magnificent swoon and the Wizards' brief rise and there being three out of four fresh new faces in the conference finals, imagine what awaits: Phil, Kobe and Shaq in uncharted waters, The Admiral's last voyage, Vince and AI in search of bilge pumps, Clippers setting sail or abandoning ship. With everyone punching new buttons on their TV remotes to see it all.

Just in case your spyglass is cracked or you've misplaced your compass, here's what looms on the horizon. You know, just to tide you over until word comes down from the crow's nest: Game Ho!

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Yao Ming
Houston is hoping to build the Ming Dynasty.
YAO NOW

But where, when and how?

If the Rockets weren't committed to him as the No.1 pick, Rudy Tomjanovich wouldn't have made the 15-hour flight to China to get Yao's national-team commitment in writing. Don't worry that the Mavs' Wang ZhiZhi going AWOL will screw up the works -- the situations are different. The Chinese simply want to know Houston will be Yao's new home.

But don't start digging up those Clutch City signs just yet, even if Rashard Lewis gets to join his hometown team, sign-and-trade style, too. Yao will be the league's tallest curiosity, but it will take him several more years before he lives up to his top-pick billing. Keep in mind the learning curve for 1998 No.1 pick Michael Olowokandi, once thought a bust but now a year away from being the league's second-best center.

Lewis and Yao, combined with a migraine-free Steve Francis, Cuttino Mobley and Eddie Griffin, could mean three Texas teams in the playoffs. That's rare as a 7'5'' Chinese dude who can ball.

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KINGS' RANSOM

Good thing the Maloof brothers abandoned their plans to put CWebb's likeness on a seven-story building a year ago, since they'd have to pull it down now and replace it with Mike Bibby's. "After one year, it's his team," says Rick Fox, one of many new admirers after Bibby pulled up the Kings and almost pushed out the Lakers in seven games plus overtime.

The Kings will pay a hefty price, though, since Bibby is a restricted free agent this summer. The easiest solution: max him out now. But needlessly maxing out CWebb -- no one else could come close to the seven-year, $123M deal Sacto handed him -- has already squeezed the Kings' cap space. Unless the Maloofs adopt Paul Allen's budget-busting philosophy, maxing Bibby means the likely loss in the next two years of Vlade Divac or Hedo Turkoglu, not to mention Gerald Wallace or Bobby Jackson, to avoid a big luxury-tax hit.

And that will mean problems down the road. There's a reason Bibby didn't glow like this with the Grizzlies -- he needs talent around him.

Right now, none of that matters, which is why the Kings will be a popular pick to win it all next year -- especially if Bibby plays the same monumental role he did this postseason. Bibby-CWebb, Parker-Duncan. The race to be the next Stockton-Malone is on.

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LeBron James
This minor is a major player.
THE RACE FOR LEBRON

If all the reports are true, Kobe has only one more year as the league's standard-bearer. After seeing LeBron James in a high-school tournament in nearby Trenton, N.J., on All-Star Weekend, several scouts said he belonged on the NBA stage in Philadelphia that day. If you're the Cavs, moving Andre Miller for future considerations to ensure another miserable year might be worth a shot at landing the local (Akron, Ohio) product. LeBron's already cost the Cavs $150,000 and coach John Lucas a two-game suspension for giving him an informal run. (A ridiculous punishment, according to NBA players, plenty of whom had access to informal workouts with their local pros during their high school and college days.)

Since the league already has its eye on Lucas, any perceived tanking should draw an even harsher reaction from David Stern and friends. Then again, maybe they won't care, knowing how easily a move like that could backfire -- the last 12 teams to finish with the worst record did not wind up with the first pick in the draft. Which is where LeBron will go.

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WEST GOES EAST

Rumor has it Jerry West was too polite to say no to owner Michael Heisley's advances, so he jacked his salary demands sky high to make the Memphis owner back off. Only Heisley didn't. In any case, West's rep already is at work, with several midlevel free agents (think Utah) privately saying they'd happily go to Memphis to join a team poised to get better in a hurry. Rumors that Eddie Jones and the Dunleavys, Jr. and Sr., might be Memphis-bound reflect the kind of heavy-hitting moves the Grizzlies can make now.

West's two biggest challenges: picking a plum with the fourth pick in a draft murky after the first two, and getting through to JWill like he did to Kobe and Shaq.

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INSTANT HEADACHE

Instant replay will be implemented in some form, but the potential for even greater controversy awaits. Sure, videotape would have saved Bernie Fryer from waving off Baron Davis' first-round three against Orlando, or Joe Crawford from counting Reggie Miller's late three against the Nets. But angles are everything when it comes to replays. One camera made Laker Samaki Walker's trey at the halftime buzzer of Game 4 against the Kings look clearly late: The ball appeared to be in his hand with the game clock over his shoulder reading zero. But a side angle showed the refs missed the call by only 1/10th of a second, because the ball actually was on his fingertips.

Plus, games that aren't nationally televised don't all have multiple cameras recording all the action. So the plan proposed by the competition committee is for officials to consult in-house camera feeds for plays at the end of each period. Imagine, then, what the conspiracy theorists might say if an in-house camera replay proves inconclusive and some other tape later surfaces that indicates the play should have gone against the home team? Stern would rather risk that pitfall than hear any more from the Ralph Naders about how unerring NBA whistles are integral to the national emotional equilibrium.

Almost makes you wish for the days of exploding Pintos.

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CLIPPERS ON THE CLOCK

Next season should be the first of many playoff years to come for the Clips. It should be the season they turn the corner and don't look back, creating a perennial logjam of Staples Center playoff dates in May, and making Cali as big as Texas on the postseason scene. Should be. But this is Donald Sterling's team, and somehow, we're having a hard time seeing it all come true.

Olowokandi is quietly on his way to becoming the league's second-best center. He's the only one who can legitimately go one-on-one with the league's biggest and best player. Kandi won't sign an offer sheet or an extension with the Clips this summer, setting himself up to test the free-agent waters a year from now. David Falk is issuing a tougher ultimatum for Elton Brand -- max him out now or forget it. Sure, Elton is a solid 18 and 10 guy -- but then Loy Vaught was for a while too. If the Clips stay their usual course, they'll keep Brand, lost in the shuffle of the Western Conference's surplus of great power forwards, and lose Kandi, the player who can truly be special.

And if Sterling commits to neither? Then the intense shopping of Lamar Odom, currently explained as the disposal of a problem child, will be quickly recast as the start of another fire sale.

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NO MICHAEL? NO PROBLEM

No sequel caused more of a ruckus than MJ's return last summer, unless it was the one before that. Or was it two comebacks ago? His status for next season is in limbo again, only this time the mania has subsided. Whether it was the sight of him limping up and down the floor or sitting on the bench at crunchtime, his Airness has slipped so far from the national consciousness that a recent New York tab headline read, "Wizards' Jordan May Not Need Surgery." Guess that was so we didn't confuse him with Nets' assistant Eddie or the Dodgers' Brian. Or the river, which hasn't been doing so well either.

The big ratings for the Lakers-Kings series indicates a sea change: minus the exploits of a single tongue-wagging, bald-headed messiah, the world is tuned in to see the emergence of new rivalries (Lakers-Kings) and new stars (Bibby, Jason Kidd). Reports are circulating that Michael isn't working out and is done. Let's hope MJ can play. Let's also hope no one tries to make it a bigger deal than it is.

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Jason Kidd
Will JKidd find himself deep in the heart of Texas?
JOINING FORCES

You know Tim Duncan watched JKidd lead his merry band of 'tweeners all the way to the Finals only to run smack-dab into that purple-and-gold mountain with the Superman fixation. Just as you know JKidd saw TD going head-to-head with Shaq while looking for someone on the perimeter who could take on Kobe. Think at some point the same thought bubble appeared over their respective heads: "Hey, together, maybe ..."?

Rookie Tony Parker was a nice surprise, but the Spurs would move him in a heartbeat to upgrade. They'll get the chance next summer when Kidd is a free agent. If he doesn't sign an extension with the Nets after their playoff run this off-season, it tells you all you need to know.

Duncan is a free agent, too, so get ready for a season-long barrage of stories speculating on where he'll wind up. But none will come from TD. The Spurs risked first-round elimination to allow him time to grieve when his father died last spring, and that only served to strengthen Duncan's already close bond with Gregg Popovich. Plus, Duncan was named league MVP and the Spurs reached the second round in what, in reality, was a rebuilding year.

Besides, Duncan only has to look at what happened in Orlando after it failed to lure him away two years ago to know that greener grass can turn out to be cheap outdoor carpeting. Kidd, meanwhile, has proved that surrounded by a modicum of toughness and talent, he can orchestrate a Finals-worthy attack. Hey, together, maybe ...

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INTRODUCING YOUR EASTERN CONFERENCE CHAMPION ... ... New Orleans Hornets. Why not? Whatever the support in Nawlins, it has to be better than playing in front of no-shows and lame-duck fans. A homecourt advantage, a healthy Jamal Mashburn and Baron Davis bent on gilding his pending free-agent stock -- he's a restricted free agent this season, unfettered after next -- should turn last season's second-round run into an NBA Finals finish. Then there's the French Quarter influence, sure to distract a visiting player or two.

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FOUR-PEAT FORECAST

Phil finally faces the challenge Michael Jordan preempted once and the Bulls' dissolution prevented a second time. But he won't be the only one working without a map. Kobe, guided by MJ's blueprint so far, is now on his own. Because he's the stick by which every player is measured, he has to upgrade his game while letting his mind and body recover from almost four seasons' work -- counting playoffs -- squeezed into three.

Shaq's body also needs rest, but not more weight -- and surgery on his big right toe in the off-season won't help. One former Bull suggests that Phil severely limit Shaq's minutes to ready him for another long postseason. Says Phil, "We can't go forward with him only playing 50-55 games a year."

It's hard picturing a four-peat without GM Mitch Kupchak stepping boldly from the shadow of departed mentor Jerry West. This turn at the wheel has to be better than last season's, his second, which delivered dead weights Samaki Walker, Lindsey Hunter and Mitch Richmond. Free agents Slava Medvedenko and Devean George have a vital blend of triple-post experience and youthful exuberance, and will be be sorely missed if they're not re-signed. But Kupchak also has to land some other F/C to spell Shaq and Robert Horry. The answer: track down Bison Dele, whose agent says he's considering a comeback. Dele (as Brian Williams) helped Phil get a ring in '97 and is primed to do so again. But the Lakers can't upgrade without Jerry Buss paying the luxury tax, something he's resisted so far.

So something has to give. Will we see the first four-peat since the 1959-66 Celtics or the Kings finally being crowned? Will Yao wow? Will West transform the Grizz? Forget instant replay for the moment -- somebody hit fast forward.

This article appears in the June 24 issue of ESPN The Magazine.