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Bill Simmons not cool with daughter liking purple

My daughter has one goal every night: to prolong her bedtime routine as long as humanly possible.

A few months ago, she realized that watching sports with me -- and pretending to be interested, no less -- was a good way to avoid brushing her teeth, reading two books, getting kissed good night, then lying in a dark room until she falls asleep. About 7:30 every night, she snuggles beside me on the sofa, throws herself into the game I'm watching, asks a few pertinent questions, then eventually says, in the sweetest voice possible, "Daddy, can I close my eyes for a few minutes?"

That really means, "Daddy, I'm skipping the bedtime routine and falling asleep right here against your warm and slightly doughy body. It's going to be like Ryan Clark knocked me unconscious. And eventually, there will be a timeout in this stupid game you're watching, and you're going to have to carry my sleeping ass upstairs to bed. We've done it before; we're doing it again."

It's a smart move. She knows I want her to like basketball. That 15-minute window before "Daddy, can I close my eyes …" is one of my few chances to brainwash her. I don't care whether she becomes a fanatic, just that she knows enough so that …

A) We can attend Clippers games without her believing that cheerleaders, vendors and the humongous video screen are 10 times more interesting than the players or anything happening on the court. (Although, at a Clippers game, it's 50/50 she might be right.)

B) She realizes that "Celtics = good" and "Lakers = evil."

I can't control A. When she's 16, she might still be leaning toward cheerleaders, vendors and the humongous video screen. But I can control B. Or, I should be able to control B.



Tourney thoughts, a little O.J. and the Lopez twins
I spent the weekend lounging around the Sports Guy Mansion, watching college basketball and waiting for the Milwaukee Bucks to contact me about their suddenly vacant GM job. You're not going to believe this, but they never did. And you know what? I can't spend the next few weeks checking my e-mails 300 times a day and jumping every time the phone rings waiting for the Bucks to come to their senses and interview the one guy who'd actually generate some interest in the franchise and kick-start dinner-table conversations across Wisconsin like this one:

"Hey, did you hear that the Bucks finally interviewed Simmons for their GM job?"

"Who's that?"

"Bill Simmons, the guy who writes the 'Sports Guy' column for ESPN."

"No, I know who Simmons is -- who are the Bucks?"

Just kidding. I'm almost positive that more Sconnies know about the Bucks than me. But if you're a Bucks fan, here's what should scare you a little:

(A) Not only are the 2008 Bucks headed for the lottery again, but there isn't a single player on their roster who could be the best player on a championship contender.

(B) If you're expecting the lottery to change things, know that there isn't a prospect in the 2008 draft who could be the best player on a championship contender with the possible exception of Michael Beasley (who has a little too much Glenn Robinson/Derrick Coleman in him for my liking).

(C) You can't sign a free agent who could be the best player on a championship contender because your previous GM killed your cap space for the rest of the decade.

(D) Of the available GM "candidates," there isn't a single one that could get their fans excited or even somewhat interested in any conceivable way.

(E) As tragic and depressing as this sounds, other than winning the 2008 lottery, framing LeBron James for a crime or bringing Don Nelson back to Milwaukee, the only realistic way that the Bucks could generate some local and mainstream buzz would be to make me a candidate. Think about it. They interview me and "Bucks Interview Sports Columnist for GM Job" becomes a national story, not because it's me, but because it would lead to a weeklong debate about whether a sports columnist could successfully run an NBA team. Name me another realistic move that the Bucks could make right now that would crack the first 10 minutes on "PTI," generate 100 comments on a sports blog or lead a sports radio show. You can't.

Now here's why points A through E should scare you if you're a Bucks fan: If your team had a creative, enterprising, thinking-out-of-the-box bone in their lottery-ridden body, it would have jumped on my "candidacy" quickly and tried to milk a few weeks of P.R. out of it. Why?

BECAUSE IT'S THE ONLY WAY THEY WOULD EVER GET A CASUAL FAN REMOTELY INTERESTED IN THE DAY-TO-DAY PROCEEDINGS OF THE MILWAUKEE BUCKS!

They could have made me think I had a real chance at the job, put me through the interview process, added me to the final list of candidates, then given the position to someone else in the end. That's a savvy move, right? Throw in the one-in-a-thousand chance that I'd impress the hell out of them and somehow get the job and it's the proverbial no-brainer -- just to get their fans chattering, they should have contacted me and thrown my name in the mix, even if they didn't really mean it. That's why the average Bucks fan should be thinking to themselves right now, "Wow, we're such a mess right now that we couldn't even figure out how to cash in on some easy P.R."

Anyway, since the Bucks refuse to acknowledge my candidacy, it looks like I'm going to have to shift to Plan B: Openly and frequently torturing them. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, allow me five extended thoughts on the first two rounds of March Madness:

1. On Thursday, I broke my longstanding "Never drive to Anaheim for any reason" rule to catch four first-round games with my friend Lewis. Anaheim might only be 35 miles from L.A., but it usually takes between two and five hours to get there thanks to a hideous deathtrap called the "5," the interstate everyone is forced to take from Los Angeles when you're driving to Disneyland, Angels games, Ducks games, Commerce Casino or the Center of Hell. You couldn't even call it "traffic" on the I-5. It's more like a meandering, overheated crawl, only with the remnants of major accidents every two or three miles and the added bonus that a truck might just decide to drive over your car. Remember the abandoned, bomb-infested highway that Snake Plissken navigated at the end of "Escape From New York"? That highway was less dangerous and more scenic than the I-5. I hate the I-5. Have I mentioned that I hate the I-5?

There were five astounding things about the first round in Anaheim. First, the arena didn't serve any alcohol for the entire day. That's just un-American and I can't even come up with an adequate reaction of disgust for this decision. Second, everyone was forced to leave the arena between the first session (the first two games) and the second session (the last two games), which would have been fine if we were in downtown Boston or downtown Chicago, but, um ... we were in Anaheim. Half the arena spilled into the only bar/restaurant within a three-block vicinity, shattering the record for "most customers per waitress" and threatening to become the biggest mob scene in California since the Rodney King riots. And third, everyone at that same bar had more fun drinking and watching the K-State/USC and Duke/Belmont games on TV than anything we witnessed in our four games. It's absolutely incredible how many people despise Duke and how the entire place galvanized behind Belmont at the end like it was the 1980 Olympic hockey team. If Belmont had pulled off the upset victory, there's a 25 percent chance that we'd still be there drinking and celebrating four days later.

As for the fourth astounding thing, we happened to be sitting near the Cornell section for the Cornell-Stanford blowout and saw fans wearing Cornell jerseys and red paint. You have to love March Madness if only for the thought of someone buying a Cornell jersey five years ago and saying, "Some day, we'll make the NCAAs and I'll get to wear this thing during a 40-point blowout."

But all of those astounding things paled in comparison to the Cornell cheerleaders, a group that apparently was assembled hastily within 48 hours of the tournament. During the first half, they tried to do one of those pseudo-pyramids in which two groups of three girls lifted two other girls in the air, only one of the girls lost her balance and nearly tumbled face-first to her death before the other girls somehow caught her. Unfortunately, they had to finish their routines for the rest of the game, leading to a terrifying moment where they attempted the pseudo-pyramid again in the second half, only the girl who almost fell the first time had the same petrified look on her face as the babysitter in the last 30 minutes of the "When a Stranger Calls" remake. I don't think I've ever been so scared for someone in my entire life. Somehow they pulled off the pseudo-pyramid, although it was marred a little when the poor girl lost control of her bowels on the three girls holding her up. Just kidding. Again, you have to love March Madness.

2. The biggest tournament shocker for me: The "powerful" Pac-10 failing to live up to the hype, keeping just three teams alive in the first round and then having two of those teams nearly get toppled in the second round. (By the way, count me among those who thought the Pac-10 was better than every other conference. The lesson, as always ... well, you knew already.) The big disappointment was USC, an athletic team that looked like it was coming on thanks mostly to O.J. Mayo. Nearly a year ago, I wrote a basketball blog about the McDonald's All-American Game comparing Kevin Love to Mayo and predicted that Mayo might become my least-favorite player since Vince Carter before everything was said and done. Then the college season started and we realized that Mayo wasn't close to being the next LeBron; when Billy Packer slapped the "overrated" tag on him during a CBS game in December, for the first time in 25 years, I found myself agreeing with Billy. When the predictable "O.J.'s not that good!" backlash started, Mayo freefalled on the draft boards and became somewhat of an afterthought on the college scene.

In the middle of February, Someone Who Knows Things urged me to give Mayo another chance and think of him simply as a talented swingman and a potential lottery pick. I watched a couple of USC games and, much to my surprise, found myself becoming a semi-fan. All of Mayo's annoying chest-puffing and posturing had been shelved; his shot selection had been corralled considerably; and what remained was a world-class athlete with genuine gifts as a defender and passer, a streak scorer who took over games for extended stretches, someone with a first step so quick it's hard to imagine how he could fail as a pro (especially when you throw in his body and the way guys seem to bounce off him LeBron-style). Believing that the NCAA tournament would double as Mayo's coming-out party as a top-four pick, I picked USC to make the Final Four in a shaky region, never expecting an enigmatic K-State team to knock the Trojans out.

So what do we make of Mayo as a prospect? Drop the LeBron comparison and think of him more like Andre Iguodala, only if Iguodala was a first-class passer ... and if he isn't one of the top-five picks in June, I will be flabbergasted. He's too good. More importantly, thanks to Mayo's growth at USC over the past two months, Vince Carter remains safe as my least-favorite player of this generation.

3. Speaking of the draft, did anyone else find it interesting that Texas A&M's DeAndre Jordan was ranked 10-15 spots ahead of Love on every draft board for most of this season, but when they crossed on Saturday night Love dominated on both ends down the stretch while Jordan looked like the illegitimate son of Kwame Brown and Darko Milicic? You're telling me that Love isn't one of the best 10 prospects in this draft? Really? What else needs to happen?

While we're here, Davidson's Stephen Curry couldn't crack the first round of anyone's board because he's an undersized shooting guard, even though he's probably the closest thing we've seen to a one-man team in the tournament, and even though we've seen him win two (and counting) March Madness games by himself. Hey, here's an idea -- if you have a taller point guard, just draft Curry in the middle of the first round (the right spot for him), play him at 2-guard on offense and have him defend point guards on the other end. That wouldn't work? Offensively, Curry reminds me of a smaller Brandon Roy because of his patience and his Iversonian ability to find little seams and get his mid-range shots off, only if Roy shot 3-pointers like Jason Kapono. There's no way Curry wouldn't score in the NBA. It's impossible. Stick him on a team like the Clippers or Nets (who have two first-rounders), team him up with a taller point guard (like Devin Harris or Shaun Livingston) and watch him turn into a mini-Monta Ellis. I love him. Even if it's unclear whether he has any body hair yet.

4. Most common question from the past four days: Does Texas qualify for the Ewing Theory? Of course it does. I may be drinking the Kevin Durant Kool-Aid, but he's never won anything and Texas is doing better without him. These are the facts. While we're here, of any potential first-round pick remaining in this tournament, I think D.J. Augustin is the one who can help or hurt his stock the most over these next two games. Right now, he's either the second- or third-best point guard in this draft -- depending on how you feel about Darren Collison, who's been coming on like a freight train lately -- but he hasn't had one of those "In case you didn't know, I'm REALLY good" games along the lines of the way he demolished K-State earlier in the season. At some point, you need to play well in the Big Dance if you're a fringe lottery pick and he hasn't done it yet. Meanwhile, Collison played out of his mind in the Pac-10 tournament and rose his game when it mattered against Texas A&M (as did Love and Russell Westbrook). Either way, "Collison vs. Augustin" is going to be an interesting draft debate when we get there.

(Important note: I'm still sorting out my "Favorite Players In the Draft" list, but many of them are playing in the Sweet 16, including Derrick Rose -- the guy I'd take first over Beasley -- Augustin, Curry, Joe Alexander, Kyle Weaver, Brandon Rush, Scottie Reynolds, the three UCLA stars and ... um ... well, let's give this its own section.)

5. All right, I have to come clean on something ...

After watching them multiple times this season and seeing them in person last Thursday, I've become a fan of ... (gulp) ... the Lopez brothers. (I know, I know. It's like you don't even know me anymore.) I'd be the first to admit that everything about them cries "bust" -- the twins gimmick, the Stanford pedigree, the androgynous first names, the Jose/Ozzie Canseco talent differential between them -- and yet, if you watch them closely and ignore all the fringe stuff, you'll realize pretty quickly that these guys are not the next coming of the Collins twins.

What's weird is that Brook has been ranked too high (top-three) and Robin has been ranked too low (second round) by the draftniks; Brook might be a better scorer at the college level, but Robin projects well as an energy rebounder/defender in the pros, like a cross between Joakim Noah and Anderson Varejao (right down to his hair). I actually think Robin is a safer pick than Brook, even if he'll go 20-25 picks later. Can Brook score down low in the pros? Could he guard bigger centers? I don't know for sure ... but I definitely know Robin could do the Noah/Varejao routine. Ideally, they'd land on the same team because they complement each other so well.

Now, the reason that we're inherently prejudiced against the Lopez twins is simple: They're charter members of the Lindsay Hunter All-Stars for "Athletes with names that make them sound like hot girls." In other words, because their names make them sound like two smoking-hot juniors at an all-girls prep school, it's impossible to take them seriously as NBA prospects. If their names were Dwight Lopez and Isaac Lopez, you'd feel much better about them in the first round. You would. On the flip side, you could argue that O.J. Mayo received so much hype over the past two seasons simply because he had such a fantastic name. Anyway, watch the Lopez twins this week and pretend their names are Dwight and Isaac. You'll feel much better about them.

Time to put the Trade Machine to work
"Hello everyone, I'm WWE announcer Jim Ross. We'd like to welcome you to another excit-..."

(We hear the sound of glass breaking and the beginning of Joe Esposito's "You're the Best Around" blaring from the loudspeakers.)

"Wait a second, what's that? (Dramatic pause.) Good God, that's the Basketball Blog's music! That's Bill Simmons! He's back! He couldn't wait any longer! He's taking this NBA trade deadline by storm! My God, the Picasso of the Trade Machine is on fire right now! Holy mackerel, this place is going crazy!!!! Folks, take a look at all these fake trades he made up that have no chance of actually happening! The Basketball Blog is back! The Basketball Blog is back! The Basketball Blog is back!"

TRADE 1A: Portland trades Raef LaFrentz, LaMarcus Aldridge, the rights to Rudy Fernandez, $3 million and a 2008 No. 1 (top-3 protected) to Memphis for Mike Conley Jr., Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal and a 2008 No. 2.

Why Memphis does it: OK, you're right ... we can't operate under the assumption that GM Chris Wallace would ever do anything logically. But for the life of me, I don't understand Memphis' post-Gasol strategy. The Grizzlies have three young point guards with varying degrees of value (Conley, Javaris Crittenton and Kyle Lowry); they need to dump one of them; and apparently, they've just decided to dump Lowry before the deadline for whatever they can get. Why is that the strategy??? Why wouldn't they use Conley, their best trade asset other than Rudy Gay, package him with Miller (who they're also trying to dump for 60 cents on the dollar), and try to land two blue-chippers for them? Everyone agrees that Fernandez would be a top-10 pick if he was in this year's draft, and Aldridge is one of the better young forwards in the league. Plus, LaFrentz's monster contract expires in 2009 and gives them a nice trade chip next season if they wanted to use it ... which they wouldn't, but you never know. Regardless, this trade gives Memphis a dirt-cheap foundation of Gay, Aldridge, Fernandez, Crittenton/Lowry, Juan Carlos Navarro, Hakim Warrick, 2008 Lottery Pick X and two more first-rounders, and they'd still have a point guard to trade this summer. Why not? What the hell?

Why Portland does it: I like Aldridge, but you have to admit that (A) he's probably one of those 17-and-8 guys who won't ever make an All-Star team, and (B) Oden makes him completely and totally expendable next season. Besides, you have to give up something to get something, right? With Fernandez, the Blazers would be selling high on a good prospect who hasn't played against superior competition yet. Meanwhile, Mike Miller gives them an elite shooter and a second option at crunch time, and by reuniting Conley and Oden, they'd be set for the next 12 years. Imagine a foundation of Oden, Conley, Miller and Brandon Roy? Now THAT would be interesting. I love this trade for Portland.

TRADE 1B: Orlando trades Pat Garrity, Carlos Arroyo, Maurice Evans, J.J. Redick, a 2008 No. 1 and $2 million to Memphis for Mike Miller, Casey Jacobsen and Brian Cardinal.

Why Memphis does it: Straight salary dump. Every guy the Grizzlies are getting back is an expiring deal except for Redick (2009). It's a soul-less, depressing trade that would ruin their fans' collective will to live. In other words, it's just like the Gasol trade.

Why Orlando does it: Are the Magic going to take a shot here or not? They're the fourth-best team in the East, they have three really good players, and they have $17 million worth of expiring contracts. What are they waiting for? They need one more quality swingman that can play the 2 and 3 and Miller is the best one available.

(Actually, why am I making up trades to make Orlando better when they could absolutely topple the Celtics in a series? Um, scratch this idea! Otis Smith, if you're reading this, apparently Mike Miller hated Orlando when he played there and thinks everyone there is trailer trash. You definitely don't want to do this one, Otis.)

TRADE 1C: Memphis gets Al Harrington, Brandan Wright, Austin Croshere and $2 million from Golden State; Utah gets Mike Miller, Brian Cardinal and Kyle Lowry; Golden State gets Andrei Kirilenko and Casey Jacobsen.

Why Memphis does it: Harrington replaces Miller's stats and becomes a free agent in 2009; Wright gives the Grizzlies another young lottery pick with value; and they dump Cardinal's contract and allow him to become Utah's signature balding white guy.

Why Utah does it: If I were running the Jazz, I wouldn't trade Kirilenko because he fills so many holes for them (great shotblocker, very good defender, runs the floor, doesn't need the ball and plays all three frontcourt spots) and they can absolutely contend for the 2008 title with what they have. But when you factor in Kirilenko's monster contract (this year plus three more for $64 million) and Deron Williams' upcoming max deal, plus the Boozer/Memo Okur contracts, there's no way they're staying under the luxury tax without trading Kirilenko. Plus, could Miller potentially be a better fit for this particular Jazz team? At crunch time, they'd have Williams and Boozer playing the two-man game with three killer shooters spreading the floor (Miller, Okur and Kyle Korver). That would be deadly, right? Also, Lowry would give them their first real backup point guard since Howard Eisley was still alive, and Cardinal gives another white guy for a franchise that can never have enough white guys. I'd think long and hard about this deal if I'm Utah.

Why Golden State does it: Because Kirilenko's manifest destiny is to play in Golden State for Don Nelson. It is. You can't tell me differently. Imagine him running around with Baron Davis, Stephen Jackson, Monta Ellis and Andris Biedrins. That's terrifying. Kirilenko would push the Warriors to another level and put them on the short list of true title contenders. He would. I'd like to see the Warriors do something before the deadline -- they have a gigantic trade exception, they need to improve Harrington's spot, they have some young guys with trade value (Wright, Marco Belinelli, even Patrick O'Bryant) and it would be a shame if they settled on being "the really fun team with a puncher's chance" for the second straight spring.

In fact, here's another one that could work ...

TRADE 2A: Sacramento trades Ron Artest and Shareef Abdur-Rahim to Golden State for Brandan Wright, Patrick O'Bryant and Austin Croshere.

Why Sacramento does it: The Kings save $8 million this season, pick up a valuable trade exception, dump Shareef's contract and pick up a lottery pick in Wright. That's a no-brainer. In fact, you'd have give Geoff Petrie a standing ovation for turning Artest and $18 million of washed-up guys (Mike Bibby and Shareef) into two high lottery picks (Shelden Williams and Wright) and expiring contracts. That's how it's done. By the way, I would sell high on Artest if I were running the Kings -- he's never played better and he's never seemed more sane, but deep down, we know he's not sane. That's why you trade him right now.

Why G-State does it: Because Artest fits in with everything else happening there -- he's crazy, he can play multiple positions, he can play any style, and he'd be absolutely devastating in NellieBall because of his unparalleled talent for guarding bigger players. At crunch time, the Warriors could trot out Biedrins, Artest, Jackson, Ellis and Davis and match up with any team in the West. ... Better yet, they'd be intimidating and nuts and unpredictable and everything else you'd want from a lower seed. I wouldn't want to go anywhere NEAR THESE GUYS if they had Artest. Besides, could you put a price on the emotional Artest/Jackson reunion, even if it only lasted for a few months? We'd have to put stun guns underneath the seats of the first few rows for every Warriors game. I can't handle the thought of Artest playing for Golden State; it's so exciting and crazy that I think I just peed on myself.

(By the way, I'm tired of reading the rumor that Denver could give up Linus Kleiza, Eduardo Najera's expiring deal and a No. 1 pick for Artest. Have you watched Kleiza? He's legitimately good and the Nuggets have him locked in at a cheap price. Yeah, Artest is a better player, but look at the strong personalities on that Denver team: Melo, Iverson, J.R. Smith, Nene, K-Mart ... and now you're throwing Artest into the mix and asking George Karl to somehow handle all of these guys? It sounds like a sick psychological experiment or something. I'd rather have Kleiza, Najera and my No. 1 over rolling the dice with that emotional rollercoaster of a team every night. We've seen what Karl does with crazy, headstrong teams. The results aren't pretty.)

Trade 2B: Houston trades Shane Battier, Kirk Snyder and its 2008 No. 1 pick to Sacramento for Ron Artest and a 2008 No. 2 pick.

Why Sacramento does it: That's a pretty good haul for Artest when he could bolt four months from now -- a valuable supporting guy at a fair price, along with a pick in the low 20s. So what if Battier went to Duke? You can't hold that against him. He didn't know any better when he signed there.

Why Houston does it: The deal knocks them under the luxury tax and makes the Rockets a little more interesting as a title contender -- they could go small with Artest at the 4 and/or run plays for him at crunch time, and he'd give them a fiestiness and an edge they don't quite have right now. The Rockets seem a little soft to me. I'm not saying it's Battier's fault, but he's the best trade chip for them because of his contract and his pedigree. You could always use Shane Battier on your team. I like this deal for both teams, actually.

TRADE 3A: Cleveland trades Drew Gooden, Shannon Brown and Ira Newble to Milwaukee for Charlie Villanueva and Bobby Simmons.

Why Cleveland does it: Because the Cavs need to do something and don't have any trade pieces that anyone really wants. They wouldn't miss anyone but Gooden, and he's replaceable because of Anderson Varejao. I also like the thought of Villanueva playing with LeBron because he can shoot 3-pointers and needs the kick-in-the-ass of playing with a great player like LeBron. And Simmons has a gawd-awful contract, but you know what? He's a physical defensive player, a tough dude who could make an impact on a playoff team. I watched him up close for an entire Clippers season -- he definitely has it in him. His contract sucks, but the good thing here is that it expires in 2010 right as do the contracts of Larry Hughes, Zydrunas Ilgauskas and ... (gulp) ... LeBron James, which means they could spend the 2009-2010 season either turning expiring contracts into quality guys, or waiting until the summer to splurge on free agency and make LeBron happy.

Why Milwaukee does it: The Bucks save some money after this season, dump Simmons' deal and turn their umpteenth perimeter guy (Villanueva) into a much-needed banger (Gooden). A no-brainer for them.

(By the way, I'd like to officially apply for Larry Harris' job -- a job we knew would be open three years ago after his deer-in-the-headlights performance after winning the 2005 lottery. Bucks fans, lemme remind you that I pushed long and hard for Chris Paul as the No. 1 pick of that draft. Do you think you'd enjoy rooting for Chris Paul right now? I bet you would. I love the good city of Milwaukee, I'd love to live there, and I'd love to run the Bucks. Come on, you couldn't do worse! Start bugging Herb Kohl right now and vote Simmons for Bucks GM in 2008! YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN!)

TRADE 3B: Chicago trades Ben Wallace, Luol Deng, Chris Duhon and Adrian Griffin to Milwaukee for Michael Redd, Dan Gadzuric, Charlie Bell and Desmond Mason.

Why Chicago does it: Hey, the Bulls have to take a chance at some point, don't they? Redd gives them a crunch-time guy; Wallace is expendable because of the way Joakim Noah has been playing; they avoid paying Deng $70 million this summer when his ceiling is slightly lower than "All-Star"; and most important, they shake things up and finally bring in an All-Star guy. If you're John Paxson, the other option is to do nothing and get fired this summer. I don't know, I think I'd roll the dice over getting canned. That's just me.

Why Milwaukee does it: The Bucks chop $4 million off this year's payroll, dump the lousy Bell/Gadzuric contracts, import a veteran rebounder/defender in Wallace, and land a quality young player in Deng. Now, would it be worth it to re-sign him for big bucks? I say no. But they could match any offer, and he'd have significant sign-and-trade value for the simple reason that everyone overrates Luol Deng. Also, if you combine this deal with Trade 2A (above), suddenly the Bucks have a foundation going of Mo Williams, Yi Jianlian, Andrew Bogut, Deng, Gooden, Wallace, 2008 Lottery Pick X and no killer contracts after the 2009-10 season. Combined, those two trades would put them in a better place than their current place with their fans, which could best be described as "A Cross Between Indifference And Hell."

(Note: Did you notice how my case for replacing Larry Harris just became a little stronger with another logical fake trade? People of Milwaukee, it's time for a change! Vote Simmons for GM in 2008! YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN! YES WE CAN!)

TRADE 4A: Seattle trades Wally Szczerbiak, Delonte West and Mickael Gelabale to Cleveland for Damon Jones, Donyell Marshall, my illegitimate brother Cedric Simmons and a 2008 No. 2 pick.

Why Seattle does it: Saves the Sonics nearly $5 million over the next two seasons and dumps their two unhappiest guys. Of course, they'd be acquiring three unhappy guys, but who cares? The Sonics need to keep saving Clay Bennett money so he can devote more resources to needlessly destroying basketball in the city of Seattle and ripping the heart out of a loyal fan base that's only supported the NBA for 41 years and counting. Yeah, let's pull their team from them because they don't want to help a billionaire build a new arena that doesn't need to be built. That's an awesome idea. I'm still waiting for someone to explain to me how David Stern could care so little about saving basketball in Seattle. It's completely inexplicable and goes against everything he's ever been about. I don't get it. I don't get it.

Why Cleveland does it: The Cavs are getting two quality 3-point shooters, one of whom (Wally) has playoff experience and could be an X-factor in the right series. While we're here, I think Delonte West is the second-best bargain available for a playoff contender other than Quinton Ross (who's going to end up being the next Bruce Bowen before everything's said and done), and here's why: He shoots 40-plus from 3-point terriroty; he was the second-best player on a great college team; he's scrappy as hell; and he's never played on a good team in the NBA. If he's your 10th man in the playoffs, you're going pretty well. Hey, speaking of Quinton Ross ...

TRADE 4B: San Antonio trades Jacque Vaughn, a 2008 No. 1 and $2 million to the Clippers for Quinton Ross and Paul Davis.

Why L.A. does it: Because Q-Ross should never be stuck on a bad team. Ever. It defies everything that makes him valuable. As a public service to him and basketball fans everywhere, the Clippers need to trade him. Plus, did I mention the $2 million? Did you see that, Donald Sterling??? That's $2 million, cash!

Why San Antonio does it: I keep hearing that we shouldn't worry about San Antonio because the Spurs are going to turn it on after the break like they always do. Have you watched them? Horry looks washed up. Finley looks washed up. Most of all, Bowen isn't the same defensively anymore -- maybe you haven't noticed, but guys can beat him off the dribble now and he's relying on that tripping/clutching/pushing routine more than ever. I can't see the Spurs winning anything with three washed-up guys playing big minutes in the playoffs. They need to do something. And if that's not enough, this is the perfect place for Ross -- he can learn all of Bowen's tricks before he takes his job. I hope this one happens.

(Note: I apologize for including all these Clipper-related trades, but every time I go to one of their games, I leave thinking that they should be sponsored by the ESPN.com Trade Machine. Pretty much every guy on the team is a terrible fit except for Kaman. You have to believe me. Even the coach is a bad fit. Really, it's been a delightful season. So glad I renewed.)

TRADE 5: Philly trades Andre Miller, Reggie Evans, Calvin Booth and Kevin Ollie to Minnesota for Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract, Sebastian Telfair, Chris Richard and Craig Smith.

Why Philly does it: I know, I know ... this trade looks insanely lopsided on paper. So allow me to explain. Philly would use Miller to dump Evans' contract, shed some luxury tax dollars (they'd save $8 million with this trade), pick up a good bargain in Smith (one of my favorite undersized power forwards, although they'd have to re-sign him), take a flyer on Telfair (showing some promise lately), and shed as much as $14 million in expiring deals after this season, giving them extra money to re-sign Andre Iguodala and remain a major player in this summer's free agent market. I like Miller, but he's never going to be an All-Star, he's always stuck on losing teams and he's a free agent in 2009, so you know they're dumping him next season, anyway. Why wait a year? The 2008 free agent class is loaded and only four teams will be under the cap this summer? What's the sense in waiting nine months to deal him for an expiring contract and a crummy No. 1 pick.

Why Minnesota does it: Here's what I don't understand about the NBA. You're the T-Wolves. Your fans are ready to drink the Jim Jones Kool-Aid. You have no hope of ever luring a free agent there, and beyond that, you have a GM who shouldn't be allowed to sign free agents under any circumstances. You also haven't had a good point guard since Sam Cassell. So why not roll the dice with Miller and build around him, Al Jefferson, Corey Brewer, Randy Foye and 2008 Lottery Pick X? Not a bad foundation, right? I don't see how it helps Minnesota to get absolutely nothing out of Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract. I really don't.

(By the way, is anyone else getting sad that we only have 24 hours left with Theo Ratliff's Expiring Contract? I miss it already. Or him. Whatever it is.)

TRADE 6A: Toronto trades Jorge Garbajosa, Juan Dixon, Maceo Baston and a 2008 No. 2 pick to the Clippers for Cuttino Mobley and Dan Dickau.

Why L.A. does it: Donald Sterling, this is right up your alley ... it's a straight salary dump! Dixon expires this year; Garbajosa and Baston expire next year; and Mobley is making $8.3 million per year through the 2009-10 season. I like Mobley, but he's the kind of guy who loses any and all value on a lousy team. May as well trade him.

Why Toronto does it: Because the Raptors are turning three nobodies into a valuable supporting guy with playoff experience who shoots 40 percent from 3-point territory. By adding Mobley to the mix with Jason Kapono, Anthony Parker, Jose Calderon and Carlos Delfino, the Raps would have five perimeter guys shooting 40 percent or better on 3s. Would you want to play a hot team that's making 3s in the playoffs? I wouldn't. As for Mobley's deal, I'm going to use the Derek Fisher Corollary here. Remember when Utah traded for Fish before last season and it was one of those, "Yeah, his contract sucks, but now that we have him, he really helps us" trades? In my opinion, Mobley is this year's Fisher -- a valuable supporting guy who happens to be overpaid. Well, is this necessarily a bad thing if you have the cap space? I say no. Besides, the money would be a wash this season and next season, and for the final year of the deal, Mobley becomes a valuable expiring contract for trading purposes.

Note: Right now, the Raptor Truthers are furrowing their brows and saying, "Wait, was that a fairly logical explanation or am I crazy?")

TRADE 6B: The Clippers trade Sam Cassell, Corey Maggette, Aaron Williams, their 2008 No. 1 (unprotected) and the rights to Minnesota's No. 1 in 2008 or 2009 to Washington for Gilbert Arenas, Etan Thomas and Washington's 2008 No. 1 (lottery-protected).

Why Washington does it: For four completely logical reasons. First, the Wizards don't have to spend max money on Gilbert when it's unclear if he's a franchise guy for anything other than a fantasy team. Second, when you factor in Gilbert's new contract with the $13 million they'd save by dumping Etan Thomas, they'd save something like $44 million in 2009 and 2010 combined because Cassell, Williams and Maggette are all expiring deals. (Heading into this summer after this deal, when you include Antawn Jamison's impending free agency, the Wizards would have a paltry $38 million committed to their 2008-09 payroll. ... That's right, more than enough money to sign a name free agent to replace Gilbert.) Third, those are two fantastic No. 1s they're getting back -- a lottery pick in 2008 and a probable high lottery pick from Minnesota -- and they have an All-Star to replace Arenas on and off the court (Caron Butler). And fourth, as crazy as this sounds, they'd actually improve their playoff chances this season by getting Cassell and Maggette since it's doubtful that Arenas comes back, anyway.

I guess it all depends on what you think of Gilbert. My buddy House (a Wiz fan) argues that Gilbert is far too popular in D.C. to ever get traded, but he uttered a terse "no comment" for my question, "Yeah, that's fine and all, but would you have fun playing with him?"

Why the Clips do it: Because of the improbable resurgence of Kobe and the Lakers, the poor Clips have been blown off the map locally. They're an afterthought. They don't matter. In other words, it's just like every other season. If they don't swing for the fences with the Cassell/Maggette contracts and their picks and try to acquire a star player, they will continue not to matter. (Put it this way: As a season-ticket holder, I'm not coming back next year unless they make a big move. I can't stomach another lousy season. And I'm not alone.) This trade gives them a foundation of Arenas, Elton Brand, Chris Kaman, Al Thornton and Shaun Livingston that's legitimately exciting on paper (at least until you remember that three of those guys suffered season-ending injuries), as well as an exciting franchise guy (and a local product) who would generate a ton of interest in Los Angeles on and off the court. Let's face it -- Gilbert was born to play in Hollywood. Literally. It's the perfect place for him.

TRADE 7A: New Jersey gets Jason Williams and Ricky Davis; Miami gets Eddy Curry, Jamaal Magloire and Fred Jones; New York gets Vince Carter and Smush Parker.

Why New Jersey does it: Cap room, baby! The Nets are turning Vince into $16 million of expiring deals. Combined with the Kidd deal, Richard Jefferson's contract would be their only big deal after this season. Better yet, adding Ricky "The Ebola Virus" Davis makes them worse this season and improves their draft pick. A win-win all around.

Why Miami does it: The Heat are rolling the dice with Curry, and why not? He's one of the few proven low-post scorers in the league. Sure, he can't do anything else. But stick him with Dwyane Wade, Shawn Marion, Udonis Haslem, 2008 Lottery Pick X and Free Agent Signing X and that's an interesting foundation. Also, I think Eddy Curry can be the guy who will give Pat Riley his first on-court heart attack.

Why New York does it: That's easy -- if Vince can't get motivated to play hard in the most famous basketball city in the country, then he's worthless as a basketball player and a human being. Seriously. If this guy cares AT ALL about basketball, then he'd give a crap about proving himself in New York. He would. It's a smart gamble for the Knicks and they have more than enough money to roll the dice. As for Curry, it's safe to say that Zach Randolph made him expendable in the "low-post scoring," "no defense whatsoever" and "moody head case" departments.

TRADE 7B: Indiana trades Jermaine O'Neal, Jamaal Tinsley and David Harrison to New York for Stephon Marbury, David Lee and Malik Rose.

Why Indiana does it: Personally, I don't think Jermaine O'Neal is the same guy anymore. He's been banged up for four years and has a ton of miles on him. If I could turn him into an up-and-comer like Lee and dump a cancer like Tinsley in the same trade, I'd do that in a heartbeat. Financially, Lee and Marbury make the same money as O'Neal this year and next; Rose expires two years earlier than Tinsley; and Marbury still gives them a gigantic expiring contract for trading purposes next season. And if that's not enough, the Pacers could trot out a legitimate whitewash with Jeff Foster, Troy Murphy, Lee, Mike Dunleavy and Travis Diener ... quite possibly, the most talented whitewash we've seen since Larry Legend was still playing. Hell, the Jumbotron could even show a video of a bunch of paint rollers painting walls white every time they did it.

Why New York does it: Combined with Trade 4A, the Knicks would suddenly have a foundation of Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Jermaine O'Neal. For a franchise that thinks like a fantasy team instead of a real team ... lemme tell you something, that's a nice-looking fantasy team! Also, you can't tell me that the poor Knicks fans (proven suckers after the way they talked themselves into Marbury four years ago) wouldn't be intrigued at the chance to turn Curry, Marbury, Lee and Rose into Vince (their first elite perimeter scorer since Bernard), O'Neal (their first elite big man since Ewing) and Tinsley (their first true point guard since Mark Jackson). Hmmmm.

(Right now the Knicks fans are thinking, "Wait, so we'd start J.O., Zach, Q, Vince and Tinsley, with Crawford as the sixth man and Balkman and Nate rounding out the rotation? I'm in! Count me in!" You guys are easy.)

Careful what you ask for, Mr. Marion
A few weeks ago, I flew to Vancouver, British Columbia, for an EA Sports shoot. The company was filming five NBA players, including Paul Pierce and Shawn Marion, in motion capture suits for "NBA Live 08," so EA offered me a chance to join them and become the first nonplayer to wear the suit. (I'm writing about this at some point, just not today.) I ended up spending a few hours hanging out with the players and going through all the mo-cap sequences with them. It was a very fun day and I even successfully executed a three-step handshake/hug with Delonte West.

Anyway, I knew Pierce was a good guy, but the scuttlebutt on Marion had always been that he was moody and enigmatic, one of those "I never get enough respect" guys who acted happy one day and slighted the next. In Vancouver, we caught him on a good day -- Marion was laughing and joking the whole time. There was only one unhappy moment: Someone asked Marion one of those, "Hey, you must be excited for the Suns season, huh?" questions and Marion brushed it off. Clearly, he didn't want to talk about the Phoenix Suns. At all. Like a little black cloud went over him for three seconds.

At the time, I thought Marion was ticked because he had landed in a few trade rumors during the summer. Tuesday, the Arizona Republic reported that Marion hadn't shown up for camp and planned on being the last Sun to report, always a big screw-you to the rest of the team. (For instance, every guy on the Celtics has been playing together in Waltham, Mass., for the past three weeks.) Today, we learned that Marion wants to be traded for that reason, as well as the fact that the Suns refused to discuss an extension for his contract (which ends in 2009). None of this is too surprising for three reasons: Marion and Amare Stoudemire have famously clashed over the years, Jack McCallum's book "Seven Seconds Or Less" documented Marion's frustrations about being underappreciated, and there was a ridiculous moment from ESPN The Magazine's Marion feature last spring that I wrote about in my MVP column:

    18. Shawn Marion
    We're penalizing him 10 spots for an exchange in ESPN The Magazine's recent feature about Marion's being underappreciated. And just for the record, I agree. He's the second-most indispensable Sun besides Nash, as well as the best defensive player in the league. Anyway, here's what happened after Chris Palmer asked him if he'd rather be an MVP candidate and a 30-point scorer on a lesser team, or continue to do what he's doing on the second-best team in basketball.

    "Wow, that's interesting," he says thoughtfully, as if he's never entertained the prospect before. Marion pauses nearly 10 seconds to concentrate on the question. "I've never been asked that," he continues. "That would be an interesting situation to be in, to really show people what I can do. [Pause] But we'd be in the playoffs, right?"

    (You bonehead! You get to play with Steve Nash! You're in the absolute perfect situation! Why don't you call Joe Johnson and ask him how Atlanta worked out, you bozo? Aaaaaaaaaaaaargh!!!!!! I read that passage and nearly flipped out like Brooke did on the "Real World" after Davis brought up her double chin. Unbelievable. Shawn Marion should be high-fiving himself every morning that Nash and Mike D'Antoni passed through his life. ... Instead, he's debating the pros and cons of carrying a mediocre team? I give up. This league seems hopeless sometimes.)

Six months later, Marion wants out. Not exactly a shock. Since this is the No Balls Association, normally when a key player on a contending team pushes for an offseason trade, the team doesn't panic (translation: doesn't have the balls to do anything) and waits for him to settle down and reconsider once he starts playing in camp with his old teammates. That might not happen this time because new Suns GM Steve Kerr played on five championship teams and values chemistry as much as anyone. (We discussed this factor extensively in my podcast with him two months ago.) Kerr knows how an unhappy Marion could single-handedly kill Phoenix's season; hell, he nearly watched this happen when he was playing with a bitter Scottie Pippen on the '98 Bulls, only MJ played out of his mind and refused to allow Pippen's sulking to derail the team. (Eventually, Scottie came around.) Kerr also knows that every healthy Steve Nash season is like playing with the house's money at this point -- you can't screw around when your best player is 33 and suffers from chronic back problems. So there's some real urgency here.

Here's the biggest issue for Kerr: Nobody they could acquire in a trade would be a better fit for the Suns than Shawn Marion. Again, he's the second-most indispensable player on that team -- he doesn't care about scoring, plays two positions, gives them rebounding and defense, fits perfectly with Nash and never misses a game. Only Andrei Kirilenko could match Marion's overall impact, and he's a complete mess (as witnessed by his bizarre trade demands last week). On paper, it would be insane to trade Marion just to fix some chemistry issues.

But there's a second red flag that doesn't get mentioned with Marion, who turns turns 30 this season: He carried an insane workload over the past three years, including 96 games and 3,750 minutes in 2004-05, 101 games and 4,100 minutes (yikes!) in 2005-06, and 91 games and 3,500 minutes in 2006-07. That's nearly four seasons in three, and if you don't think big minutes and a gigantic playoff workload can age a player overnight, check out the careers of Walt Frazier and Jo Jo White. Marion's scoring average dropped from 21.8 points in 2005-06 to 17.8 last season; his rebounds dropped from 11.8 to 9.8; and his playoff numbers dropped from 20.4/11.7 to 16.9/10.4. Could you blame those dips on Amare Stoudemire's coming back from knee surgery, or could you blame them on Marion's getting older and starting to slip because he relies on his speed and athleticism so much? Impossible to say. In Game 5 of the Spurs series with Amare suspended, Marion slapped up a 24/17. So maybe Amare did affect his numbers. We won't know for sure until he gets traded somewhere else.

I only know three things ...

1. Marion's agent must be the same guy who convinced David Caruso to leave "NYPD Blue." At some point on his next team, Shawn Marion is going to feel like an idiot for pushing to get traded AWAY from Steve Nash and Mike D'Antoni. That's a mortal lock. Playing for the Suns makes Marion seem better than he actually is. Watch what happens if he gets traded.

2. Kirilenko is the only attainable player who represents close to full value for Marion (maybe 85-90 percent). Playing with Nash in a freewheeling style that takes advantage of his considerable skills, he's a mortal lock to turn his career around. Hell, anyone who watched the Warriors-Jazz series last spring knows that Kirilenko is trapped on the wrong team -- he's playing for the wrong coach in the wrong system, and any time the pace changes (like in that Warriors series), he becomes a different player. He's also three years younger than Marion and saves the Suns $3 million this season (money they could spend on a veteran buyout guy this winter). The only drawback other than the fact that he's coming off an atrocious (but explainable) season is Kirilenko's contract, which lasts until 2011 and carries a whopping $34 million price tag over the final two seasons. For a team that's terrified of the luxury tax like the Suns, those are some frightening numbers on paper.

3. Every other trade option could potentially kill Phoenix's title hopes. Perusing ESPN's Trade Machine, only seven teams could even pull off a realistic offer for Marion: Utah (for Kirilenko), Los Angeles Lakers (for Lamar Odom and a small contract to make the numbers work), Detroit (for Rasheed Wallace and a small contract), Washington (for Antawn Jamison and his expiring deal), Memphis (for Mike Miller, one more young guy and Stro Swift's expiring deal), Houston (for Shane Battier and expiring contracts) and New York (for a package of young players and expiring contracts highlighted by David Lee). You could rule out the last four destinations because Suns fans would freak if Marion was traded for 60-70 cents on the dollar, especially on the heels of the Kurt Thomas trade. I don't see Detroit's going over the luxury tax for a Sheed/Marion swap. The Odom deal would save money and solve chemistry issues, only another problem would be created because Odom has so much trouble staying on the floor -- he's missed 146 games in the past six seasons and played more than 64 games exactly twice.

Really, the only logical move for the Suns is Kirilenko. He solves their chemistry issues, replaces Marion's rebounding/shot-blocking/defense and gives them a ton of flexibility with lineups. (With the way AK47 protects the rim, Phoenix could even play him at center in a breakneck, "smallball deluxe" lineup that would have Don Nelson drooling in envy.) I'm in the minority here, but I think Kirilenko would make the All-Star team every February playing with Nash. For some reason, it reminds me of the "Basic Instinct" producers' finally casting Sharon Stone to be in an erotic thriller in 1991. She went 10 years without the right script, then it happened and she immediately became a mega-star. I feel the same way about Kirilenko. He's been trapped doing the wrong movies for the past five years.

Over everything else, I hope the Kirilenko-Marion swap happens for one reason: Steve Nash deserves to play in one NBA Finals before the end of his prime, but it won't happen with an unhappy Marion, just like Utah won't make the finals with an unhappy Kirilenko. Rarely does a straight-up deal make this much sense on paper, although Utah should throw in something extra to account for the slight upgrade (as well as the fact that Phoenix gets stuck with those last two years of Kirilenko's deal). I hope this trade happens in some form. For everyone's sake. Even for you, Shawn Marion, the guy who won't know how good he has it until it's too late.

(Of course, this is the NBA, so the trade probably won't happen. Alas.)

Blazers don't deserve Bowie 2.0

Warning: Do not read this if you're a Portland Trail Blazers fan.

The three-word e-mail came this morning from someone who knows things: "Oden -- microfracture surgery."

My three-word response: "Oh. My. God."

It's one of the saddest stories in recent NBA history, regardless of how it turns out down the road: Not just that Portland took the wrong guy last June, but that the same city may have been screwed over twice. There was Bowie-over-MJ, and now, there might be Oden-over-Durant.

The Blazers' fans don't deserve this. They don't deserve the "Bowie 2.0" jokes, and they don't deserve to endure a season of Kevin Durant knife-in-the-stomach highlights when he's averaging 25 points a game on a bad Seattle team. On a larger scale, the double whammy of Bowie/Oden brings back memories of the day Reggie Lewis dropped dead seven summers after Lenny Bias' coke overdose. Obviously it's not as tragic because nobody died, but there was that same "Oh God, not again ..." feeling upon hearing the news. I know that feeling all too well. As a sports fan, there's nothing worse.

It's not like this story came out of the blue. Heading into the draft, there were concerns about Oden's long-term physical health and the fact his legs were different sizes. After his predraft physical with Portland, rumors spread that the Blazers were concerned about his knees, followed by a round of stories that they weren't concerned at all. I believed at the time the Oden-Durant thing was so close, ANY potential physical concerns should have swung the choice to Durant; that's one of the reasons I kept writing last June that Durant should be Portland's pick. Everyone kept writing Oden was a sure thing; if anything, Durant was the sure thing. He has a chance to become one of the greatest offensive players ever. That's his ceiling. We've never seen anyone remotely like him. Throw in his competitiveness and flair for the dramatic and I probably wrote more words arguing Durant's case than anything I've ever written for ESPN.com. Even for the team Portland had, Durant was the logical pick -- the Blazers could have kept Zach Randolph and played Durant at small forward instead of stupidly giving Randolph away.

From Portland's viewpoint, what worried me was Oden wasn't entirely a basketball decision. Clearly, his gregarious personality played a huge role -- the Blazers even said so -- and when he hammed it up at a local parade after the draft, you could see why they picked him. After the whole Jail Blazers debacle, they spent the next few years trying to upgrade the character of their team. Hence, the curious Martell Webster pick (sixth in the '05 draft???), the Brandon Roy/LaMarcus Aldridge picks (and the team shying away from Ty Thomas); the Randolph trade; Steve Francis' buyout and everything else. It's not like Durant is a bad guy -- he's actually a good guy, just shy and uncomfortable with the press -- but Oden's deadpan wit and constant smile off the court made him a more seductive pick for a franchise that was desperately trying to win back the citizens of Portland. Supposedly, they were also attracted to Oden because he's a loyal person who didn't care where he played, whereas Durant's motives were tougher to peg. In four years, if Durant evolved into a superstar and had the words of the wrong agent in his ear, would he bail on Portland to play for a big market? Could they take that chance?

So, Greg Oden was the "safe" pick.

Here's the irony of the whole thing: You know who would have won the good people of Portland back and gotten them excited about basketball again? A kick-ass superstar like Kevin Durant. That's why the Blazers should have taken the most talented player. And everything that happened after the draft helped Durant's case: Oden looked terrible in the summer league and dropped out of the Olympic tryouts because of exhaustion (a dubious reason for someone who's 19; we should have known right there). Meanwhile, Durant got better and better in summer league and knocked everyone's socks off during the Olympic tryouts, including a jaw-dropping performance in the Blue-White scrimmage on TV. Even before the story broke about Oden's surgery, I was 100 percent convinced Portland would regret passing on Durant. We'll see 20 more Odens before we see another Durant.

SILVER LINING?

Three things that might cheer up Blazers fan:

1. From what we know about microfracture surgery, it seems younger players can come back at 100 percent (such as Amare Stoudemire).

2. The Oden-less Blazers are headed for another top-five pick because they play in a tough conference; if Oden comes back healthy in 2009, they're going to be stacked.

3. Video Game Greg is still healthy on Portland's "NBA Live 2008" roster.

You could say "Those who ignore the mistakes of history are doomed to repeat them," and you might be right. But throwing aside all the videotapes, predraft interviews and workouts and everything else, there's this: At the ESPYS two months ago, I helped write jokes for Jimmy Kimmel, whose dressing room was backstage at the Kodak Theater and right off a hallway where celebrities were ushered in and out before and after the show. So, I watched every single athlete walk by at some point, and I swear, if I hadn't taken this summer off to write a book, I would have written about this story in a blog or something.

Anyway, when you see basketball players dressed in normal clothes, it's mesmerizing to watch them walk for two reasons: They're always much bigger in person, but they move so effortlessly that it's always strangely discombobulating to watch them walk, like they belong to another species or something. For instance, we all know one or two exceptionally tall people who don't play sports -- they always move gingerly, and their posture usually isn't that good, and everything about them says, "I wish I wasn't this tall." The best athletes in the NBA don't carry themselves like this. They glide. Everything moves effortlessly as they walk, and it's impossible to fully explain unless you've seen it. Even someone like Shaq glides across the room like he's the size of Steve Nash. They don't move like normal tall people.

So, before and after the show, I was vigilantly watching everyone stroll by for one reason: I wanted to see Oden and Durant walking in normal clothes. It was like the final piece of the "Durant vs. Oden" puzzle for me. As it turned out, I got to see Durant first -- he shuffled down the hallway, all 81 inches of him, looking like he was put on Earth to play sports for a living. No big surprise there. Even the biggest nonsports fan on the planet could watch Durant walk for 35 feet and think, "That guy was born to play basketball." Now, I needed Oden. We didn't see him before the show, and I didn't see him right afterward. Just when I was about to give up, a friend of mine said, "Yo, Oden just walked by."

I scurried down the hallway to see him. Lo and behold, Oden was walking by himself down the last stretch of the hallway, about 50 feet in all, right before the exit to head outside.

And you know what? He walked like a 50-year-old man. His posture was screwed up. He had the Fred Sanford walk going. If you saw him from behind and just studied his walk, you would have thought it was a retired player, someone like Patrick Ewing or Robert Parish. I couldn't believe it. I didn't stop talking about it the rest of the night. Greg Oden walked like a guy who had bad knees. If I were Portland's GM and watched Oden walk across the room, that would have been it for me. The next day, I even called my buddy Sully (who works for the Celtics) just to have the obligatory, "Yo, we might have dodged a bullet May 22; Greg Oden walks like a 50-year-old man" conversation.

Now, you could argue this is the single dumbest thing I've ever written, and you might even be right. Just know I have spent the past two months telling that Oden/ESPYS story to everyone who brought up the Oden-Durant thing to me. Sometimes in life, you just know with these things. And yeah, there's a chance he was already favoring his knee at the ESPYS, or he hurt his knee during summer league. There's also a chance his body doesn't carry its weight correctly and puts unnecessary stress on his legs and joints. ... You know, the exact same problem Sam Bowie had.

I hope I'm wrong. Portland needs Greg Oden to be good. The NBA needs Greg Oden to be good. On a personal note, I was legitimately excited to watch him play. Now he's gone for the season, and any NBA fan who doesn't cringe at the phrase "microfracture surgery" is lying their ass off. Amare Stoudemire came back, so there's hope for Blazers fans. Just don't tell me Greg Oden was the safe pick of the 2007 NBA draft. Two months ago, I wrote Durant was "the surest thing to come into the league since Jordan. Barring injury, he's going to be the league's next dominant forward."

That's what the Portland Trail Blazers passed up June 28, 2007. I thought it would haunt them some day. ... I just didn't know it would haunt them so soon.



Are you ready for some basketball?
Good news for NBA junkies: Leading up to the 2007-08 season, ESPN Classic asked me to pick games for a limited seven-week run on Wednesday nights. So, I steered away from staples like the Bird-Dominique shootout and the MJ Flu Game and picked seven games that slipped through the cracks over the past two decades. If you love the NBA, watch these games so the ratings are good, and they'll keep letting me pick more of them. No, seriously. Do it for me.

Here's the schedule:

Sept. 12: Cleveland at Boston, Game 3, 1992
From Bird's final season, the spring when he was playing in a bulky back brace and spending nights in traction. In fact, he doesn't even play in this game. But this was a great series and none of the games ever get shown -- you had the Garden on its last legs, Mark Price and Reggie Lewis at their peaks, and a number of entertaining guys on both teams. (This Cavs team could have made a Utah-like run in the East if Price and Brad Daugherty had stayed healthy.) The energy in the building was particularly incredible for the Boston home games -- we knew it was the last run with Bird, Parish and McHale -- and this particular Celtics team was especially lovable. With Bird out of Game 3, every fan and player stepped up. It's the kind of thing that just doesn't happen any more in the Luxury Suite Era. Most importantly, everyone forgets about Lewis, who had 36 points and carried a crunch-time comeback in this one. We never see him on ESPN Classic or NBA-TV so that's why I picked this one.

Sept. 19: Seattle at Phoenix, Game 5, 1993
You can't go wrong with any game involving the '93 Suns, but this one features two superb matchups (Barkley in his prime vs. a young Shawn Kemp, KJ in his prime vs. a young GP) and Dan Majerle going nuts with a then-record eight 3s. Up until this point, the series sucked ... then Game 5 turned out to be a classic. By the way, anyone who thinks the NBA hasn't been diluted by expansion needs to check out the talent in this game: Barkley, KJ, Kemp, Payton, Majerle, Danny Ainge, Tom Chambers, Sam Perkins, Eddie Johnson, Ricky Pierce, Derrick McKey, Ced Ceballos, Nate McMillan, Dana Barros, Oliver Miller during his one skinny year, Richard Dumas during one of his drugs-free years ... holy crap.

Sept. 26: Golden State at L.A. Lakers, Game 2, 1991
The Lakers' last extended playoff run with Magic, G-State at the peak of the TMC Era, and if that's not enough, Chris Mullin and Magic both catch fire during the game. If I remember correctly, the final score ends up in the mid-120s, Mullin finishes with 45 and Magic finishes with 48 or 49 ... it's a legitimate shootout. Also, check out a pre-ACL injury Tim Hardaway when he literally couldn't be guarded; a goofy-but-effective Warriors bench that included Sarunas Marciulionis, Tom Tolbert, Rod Higgins and Mario Elie; a skinny Sam Perkins on the Lakers; and especially, how unstoppable Magic was in this game. Remember, this was his 13th NBA season and nobody could guard him. How long could he have been great if not for the HIV diagnosis?

Oct. 3: Chicago at New York, Game 3, 1996
Now we're entering the stretch of games that have never been seen on ESPN Classic or NBA TV before. This was an epic game involving the 72-win Bulls and a Knicks team that wasn't nearly as good, but they were still allowed to knock the Bulls around because the league hadn't totally cracked down on the flagrants and the intimidation stuff yet. In particular, Charles Oakley acts like a crazed bar bouncer in this game -- it's like his goal was to make Scottie Pippen cry. Meanwhile, MJ plays out of his mind and singlehandedly drags the Bulls into OT ... this was one of their three playoff defeats that year, but anyone who thinks LeBron James (or anyone else) compares to MJ in his prime needs to sit down and watch this game. Also, look at the guys that the '96 Bulls threw out in crunch-time (Bill Wennington???) and tell me you honestly believe this was the greatest team ever.

Oct. 10: Chicago at Detroit, Game 3, 1991
The Bulls break the Pistons to take a commanding 3-0 lead and control of the Eastern Conference for the rest of the decade. I haven't seen this game since it happened but remember it being inhumanly intense. These teams hated each other. Don't you miss the days when teams hated each other?

Oct. 17: Boston at Milwaukee, Game 4, 1986
The greatest team ever completes a sweep on the road and clinches a trip to the Finals ... unfortunately, the Lakers don't have the balls to show up. I haven't seen this game since it happened but specifically remember Bird ripping Milwaukee's hearts out with four 3s in the final quarter, including one last 3-pointer after the game had been decided just to make sure they were dead. The Legend was at his absolute peak this spring, as was Kevin McHale. By the way, in the '86 team video, they show the Celts re-entering their locker room after the game as a giddy Bill Walton keeps singing, "Larry Bird! Larry Bird!" and laughing in disbelief at the four 3s.

Oct. 24: Orlando at Chicago, Game 6, 1995

And you thought David Stern destroyed all the evidence of this game! Yup, this was the only time from 1991 to 1998 that MJ walked off the floor as a loser in a deciding playoff game ... although it happened with an asterisk because he was still in baseball shape, but still. Check out a loaded Magic team with Shaq, Penny, Horace Grant, Nick Anderson, Dennis Scott and Brian Shaw. Could they have been a dynasty if Anderson hadn't miss those four free throws in Game 1 of the Finals? We'll never know.



Fantasy football preview
You're getting a 2007 fantasy football preview for three reasons:

1. Because my East Coast draft already happened and I have the No. 1 pick in my West Coast draft next week ... which means I'm getting LaDainian Tomlinson ... which means I can give away all my sleepers, favorite picks and stay-aways and still finish third or higher with LDT on my team. It's good to be the king.

2. Because we need a dissenting opinion to combat the side effects of MBFO (Matt Berry Fantasy Overload). Just know that Berry and I made a wager last season on Steven Jackson's 2006 production -- I was pro-Jackson, he was anti-Jackson -- and I cruised to an easy victory and won dinner off him. Sure, it will end up being an overcooked cheeseburger at the Ruby Tuesday's in Bristol, but that doesn't change the fact the scoreboard reads, "Simmons 1, Berry 0." If you want to trust Berry for your fantasy tips this year, good luck with your sixth-place finish. If you want the proven fantasy football guru of ESPN.com who has been churning out winners for the past six years, keep reading.

3. Because it's going to be more entertaining than hearing me bitch about J.D. Drew and the 2007 Red Sox for 2,000 words.

Without further ado, here's my Top-50 list heading into the weekend using the tier system:

TIER ONE: THE SURE THINGS

1. LaDainian Tomlinson
Probably the single-best argument for scrapping the draft format and going to the auction format. On the other hand, it's fun to have LDT for an entire season while your buddies constantly bitch about the fact you have him; there's really nothing else like it in the male bonding stratosphere. I mean, your friends wouldn't begrudge you for making a lot of money, or having a great car or girlfriend, or buying a huge house. ... If anything, they'd be happy for you. But when you have Tomlinson on your team? They openly hate, envy and disparage you the entire time. Somebody needs to bring this up during his Hall of Fame enshrinement in 10 years.

2. Steven Jackson
Although 2007 could be the year when a running back gets pulled down from behind by his dreads and blows out his ACL, MCL, PCL, XFL and ACLPA. We're overdue. He's one of the prime candidates.

3. Shaun Alexander
Comeback year. You can feel it in the air.

4. Joseph Addai
One of the fundamental mistakes of fantasy football is that people would value Addai over Alexander because it's more fun to take Addai. After all, he's the up-and-comer, the potential breakout guy, the guy with the higher ceiling. Well, why not go with the guy who's healthy and who has done it before? With your first-round pick, you should approach it like you'd bet your life on the pick. Would you bet your life on Addai doing better than Alexander this season? I sure wouldn't.

5. Frank Gore
Dropped him two spots because of the broken right hand. I think he's on pace to break or tear every bone and ligament in his body.

6. Larry Johnson
Forget the fact he put 110,000 miles on his odometer in 2006 and 2007. After watching a month of "Hard Knocks" episodes, what scared you more -- the Brodie Croyle/Damon Huard combo at QB, or Herm Edwards being Herm Edwards? Did anyone else watch Herm and think, "Wow, I'm glad we finally know what it would have been like if Cameron Diaz's dad in 'There's Something About Mary' became an NFL coach"? His "I did a terrible job preparing the team this week ... I DID A TERRIBLE JOB!" speech in Episode 4 rivaled some of Denny Green's finest work.

TIER TWO: THE NON-REACHES

7. Peyton Manning
My logic: The gap between Manning and the sixth-best QB in the league is much more significant than the gap between Westbrook/Parker and whatever RB you'd get in the second round. If you don't take Manning here, you're not getting him on the way back, and you're not taking Palmer in the top half of the second round, and you might not get Brady/Brees/McNabb in Round 3. Why risk pinning your fantasy hopes on the likes of Jon Kitna?

8. Brian Westbrook
Replaces Tiki Barber in the old "Reuben Sandwich" analogy that I've been making for years. When you had Tiki on your team, it was like ordering a Reuben at lunch -- for some reason, there's a hesitation as you're making the order, but when you're eating it, you're thinking, "Man, why don't I order the Reuben more often?" and your friends are all looking over and wishing they had ordered it. Now, Westbrook is like that. You never hear someone say, "Man, I wish I didn't pick Bryant Westbrook." Er, Brian Westbrook.

9. Willie Parker
Scares me only because of the fumbles. Fumbles eventually kill a running back's confidence, turn the fans against him and cause his coaches to say things like, "Maybe I'll start Najeh Davenport this week ..."

10. Willis McGahee
Baltimore's upgrade from Jamal Lewis to McGahee was like going from coach to first class on one of those two-floor jumbo jets like the one they used on "Snakes on a Plane." By Week 6, I see him sitting at 600-plus yards and eight TDs and taking shots at J.P. Losman. Too bad we can't wager on this.

(Note: Speaking or predictions, if "Snakes" doesn't have one of the most magical runs in cable history, I'll be shocked. So much to love, including Sam Jackson showing off a Barry Bonds-sized noggin, Juliana Marguiles with an "I never should have left 'ER'" look on her face, Tim Riggins from "Friday Night Lights" joining the Mile High Club, Kenan Thompson successfully landing the plane because of his experience landing planes in video games and, yes, snakes eating people on a plane. I've watched this movie three times in 10 days, and I might go for No. 4 tonight.)

11. Reggie Bush
First, he's not doing worse than he did in 2006 (1,300 rushing/receiving yards, eight TDs). Second, he should be better -- it's a logical evolution for a second-year back. Third, there's an outside chance he could have a monster season. And fourth, out of the next 10 guys on the list, he's the one who'd leave you kicking yourself if he DID have a monster year and you passed on him. So just take him here.

12. Cedric Benson
Getting 350-400 carries on a great defensive team with a potential midair plane collision playing QB. (Note: I'm tired of the phrase "train wreck," we need to start mixing it up.) Shouldn't this translate into 1,300-1,500 yards, 10-12 TDs and an eventual inclusion in the "Curse of 370" Club next summer? Or am I overthinking this?

13. Marvin Harrison
He's the best receiver. He's always the best receiver. Just take him. Nobody has ever said the words, "I wish I hadn't taken Marvin Harrison." Well, unless you're in a playoff fantasy league.

TIER THREE: THE SLIGHT HESITATION GUYS

14. Marshawn Lynch
If we've learned anything about fantasy football over the years, it's this: Every season, without fail, one rookie RB puts up a ton of fantasy points. Since Lynch is the obvious candidate this year, I'm overvaluing him and sticking him here. And if the aforementioned Rookie RB Du' Jour turns out to be Adrian Peterson, so be it.

15. Travis Henry
A little scary because of the fumbling problem and Mike Shanahan's abject hatred for fantasy owners ... and that's before we get to last weekend's remarkable "nine kids by nine different women" revelation. Remember when we were all blown away when it was reported that Shawn Kemp had seven kids by six different women? If Kemp was like Roger Bannister breaking the four-minute mile, then Henry just brought the sports fertility record down to the 3:35 range. You have to admire the way he's spreading his seed around. According to the guys at Football Outsiders, Henry has the highest kids-per-partners rate (100.0) since they started keeping track of the stat in 1993.

16. Maurice Jones-Drew
Take it from a proud MoJo owner in 2006 -- you can't go wrong. You really can't. Every time they cut into a game to say, "Let's go to Jacksonville," you'll move to the edge of your seat thinking MoJo just broke a 76-yard screen pass. I think he's a little undervalued this year, actually.

17. Carson Palmer
Everybody now: one ... two ... three ...

"IT TAKES TWO YEARS TO FULLY RECOVER FROM A TORN ACL!"

18. Rudi Johnson
One of those picks with which you're not happy even as it's happening, and then Kenny Watson starts stealing carries from him and you're telling your friends, "I knew I shouldn't have taken Rudi Johnson!" as they patiently wait for you to finish whining so they can complain about their team next. And yeah, I know this is 8-10 spots lower than he's going everywhere else. I don't care. Buyer beware.

19. Laurence Maroney
Trust me on this one: he won't get as many carries as everyone thinks. Kevin Faulk is the third-down back, and they might use Maroney and Sammy Morris almost as a Starter 1A/Starter 1B thing to keep Maroney fresh for December and January. (Remember, he died down the stretch last season, partly because of a bum shoulder and partly because he just ran out of gas.) And if that's not enough, they love going play-action near the goal line and throwing to linebackers and third-string tight ends. Just promise me you won't take Maroney before the second half of the second round. Don't do it.

20. Edge James
Comeback year alert! Comeback year alert! Although I might just be high on the Edge because he drinks Patron.

TIER FOUR: STEADY ADDITIONS

21. Tom Brady
For the first time, Brady is blessed with an above-average receiving crew that includes his best slot guy since Troy Brown in 2001 (Wes Welker), two home-run threats (Donte Stallworth and Randy Moss), a pass-catching tight end (the slightly overrated Ben Watson) and some serious depth if anyone gets hurt. Only one person could sidetrack a career season for Brady: Bridget Moynahan, his enterprising ex-girlfriend who gave birth to his baby after spending the past nine months clotheslining US Weekly photographers to take her picture while she held her belly. I was hoping she'd name her baby, "Son of New England Patriots' Star Quarterback Tom Brady Moynihan."

22. Donovan McNabb
I like him. Can't explain it. I think it's because he gave up on the Gus Williams Memorial Afro and finally shaved his head.

23. Drew Brees
The last reliable QB pick. Right after the Brady/McNabb/Brees group goes, that's when everyone looks at their list and says, "Oh, s---, I better get a QB!" And that's the chain of events that leads someone to say the words, "I'm taking Jon Kitna."

24. Larry Fitzgerald
I like everyone on that 'Zona offense -- they finally have a real coaching staff. Yeah, I want to crown Ken Whisenhunt and his staff! I want to crown their asses! OK? All right? That new coaching staff is what I thought they were gonna be! OK? All right?

25a. T.J. Houshmanzadeh
25b. Chad Johnson

It's unclear why everyone ranks Johnson over Housh when Housh had better stats last season, and Housh's efficiency as a receiver (number of catches versus number of times they threw to him) was one of the highest in football. So why do people take Johnson over Housh? Because nobody wants to say Housh's name. If his name sounded as cool as "Torry Holt" or "Reggie Wayne," he'd crack everyone's top 30.

27. Reggie Wayne
He's always one Harrison groin pull away from being the No. 1 receiver in football for a few weeks.

28. Steve Smith
Free falls into the late-20s because of the ongoing QB problems in Carolina. Has there ever been a recipe for a 6-10 season quite like a Jake Delhomme/David Carr QB battle? And what are the odds Smith sucker punches one of them before November?

29. Torry Holt
Top-five sentences you never want to hear from your No. 1 fantasy receiver: "In time, I'm going to be exonerated of these charges." ... "I'm never using cocaine again." ... "I did not knowingly take steroids, I thought I was taking a vitamin supplement." ... "My knee isn't totally recovered from the surgery, I'm at like 75-80 percent right now, but it's feeling better every day." ... and (fill in any Terrell Owens quote since 2004). And, yes, Holt made the knee comment this week. Gulp.

30. Javon Walker
After what happened in the offseason, it's safe to say Mr. Walker will be sufficiently inspired this season.

TIER FIVE: THE GUYS NOBODY CAN AGREE ON

31. Thomas Jones
The first Jet is off the board! J ... E ... T ... S ... JETS, JETS, JETS!

32. Lee Evans
Seems a little early, but screw it. Anyone who can catch long TD passes thrown by the likes of J.P. Losman deserves to be taken seriously. By the way, I forgot to put Evans on the Lindsey Hunter All-Stars for athletes with names that make them sound like hot females. Sorry about that, Lee.

33a. Marion Barber 33b. Deuce McAllister
Just because they rack up those TDs. I have Barber ranked slightly higher because every one who watched the 2006 Cowboys and/or studied their 2006 statistics believes Barber is clearly better than Julius Jones. Eventually, you'd think that someone on the Dallas coaching staff will realize this. On the other hand, Wade Phillips is prominently involved, so who knows?

35. Marques Colston
Everyone seems lukewarm on him this year. I don't get it. What's not to like? He's clearly their No. 1 guy now.

36. Antonio Gates
A hard one for me because he killed both of my fantasy teams last season and I kinda sorta hate him for it. And yet, if Norv Turner has shown anything over the years, it's an ability to maximize his assets on offense and get career years out of them. You'd think this would happen with Gates. You'd think.

37. Andre Johnson
It's not like Matt Schaub is Joe Montana or anything, but at least he's a decent QB, and Johnson was putting up big numbers with David Carr slinging him the ball. And don't underestimate the positive effects of rookie WR Jacoby Jones (aka, the 2007 Mega-Sleeper Who Isn't a Mega-Sleeper Any More After Last Week's Preseason Game) opening some space for him. Like this pick. He's 40-to-1 in Vegas to finish with the most receiving yards, by the way. Hmmmmmm.

38. Terrell Owens
Just know that he'll never be on my team. I can't root for him. It's not in me. When TO does something good, I don't want to feel happy. Also, for the number of times they threw to him, he should have had better numbers. I just don't see him getting better. Speaking of TO, did anyone else think that the Idaho senator hired Kim Etheredge to handle his PR decisions this week?

TIER SIX: THE WILD CARDS

39. Donald Driver
Stick a gigantic, Bonds-like asterisk next to this pick if we find out that his injured foot is keeping him out for an extended length of time. When healthy, he's one of the most reliable fantasy guys in football -- not quite the Reuben, but definitely a grilled ham and cheese sandwich.

40. Clinton Portis
The captain of the "I Hope Somebody Else Takes Him So I Don't Have To" Team.

41. Marc Bulger
If Westbrook is the Reuben, and Driver is the grilled ham and cheese, Bulger is like an onion bagel that's toasted and covered in butter -- good enough to tide you over until dinner, tasty if you're in the right mood, but that's about it. I don't totally trust him this season -- between the contract extension, Holt's knee, Isaac Bruce's age and the inevitable Drew Bennett injury that hasn't happened yet, he makes me juuuuuuuuuuuuust a little nervous. I'd almost rather take my chances with Alex Smith or Matt Schaub a few rounds from here.

42. Vince Young
Let's say Bulger comes close to last year's stats: 4,200 passing yards, 24 passing TDs and 44 rushing yards. And let's say Young finishes with realistic numbers for him, something like 2,500 passing yards, 750 rushing yards, 13 passing TDs and eight rushing TDs. Guess who would have more fantasy points using a conventional scoring system with one point for every 20 passing yards, one point for every 10 rushing yards, four points for passing TDs and six for rushing TDs? Yep ... Vince Young. So why is Bulger ranked 5-10 spots ahead of Young in every fantasy magazine, newspaper and Web site? You got me.

43. Adrian Peterson
The home run pick for this tier. Yeah, he's splitting time with Chester Taylor and probably rushing against the first-ever 11-0-0 defensive formation because of Tavaris Jackson ... but you never know.

44. Philip Rivers
You know he'll put up solid numbers, and there's a chance Norv Turner will give him a boost. Yes, this is where I include the obligatory "Every offense that Norv has taken over since 1873 has jumped at least 10 places in the offensive standings" stat.

45. Ronnie Brown
Splitting preseason carries with Jesse Chatman on an awful team with below-average QBs and spectacularly bad receivers, and it's unclear whether he was ever that good in the first place. Other than that, he looks good.

46. Brandon Jacobs
Crummy team, crummy coaching staff, and it's unclear whether he's the poor man's Christian Okoye or the homeless man's Christian Okoye.

47. Roy Williams
Seems about right.

48. Matt Hasselbeck
Ditto.

49. Anquan Boldin
See the reason for No. 24.

50. Ahman Green
Here's where the draft officially falls off -- when you're talking yourself into Ahman Green. I'd go with the Ravens, Bears or Pats defense in this spot. But that's just me.

While we're here, my 12 favorite fantasy sleepers:

Sleeper No. 1: Wes Welker
I am making one "take this to the bank" prediction, and only one: if he stays healthy, Wes Welker will catch at least 85 passes for at least 950 yards and at least eight TDs this season ... and he'll throw in one or two special teams TDs to boot.

Sleeper No. 2: Vince Young
As explained above.

Sleeper No. 3 (tie): Matt Schaub, Alex Smith
I'd rather grab these guys in the middle rounds over wasting a fourth-round pick on Bulger or Hasselbeck and hoping he stays healthy.

Sleeper No. 4: Jerious Norwood and Warrick Dunn (as a handcuff tandem)
If you go this route, make sure you get both -- after analyzing this from every direction, I have become convinced that (A) the Falcons have more Ewing Theory potential than any sports team in the 21st century, (B) Bobby Petrino might have a bigger fantasy impact than any player on this list outside of the top six, and (C) it's exceedingly possible Joey Harrington isn't a terrible quarterback.

Sleeper No. 5: Vincent Jackson
Technically, he's not a sleeper anymore because everyone's onto him. We need a new term for guys like this. Nappers? Dozers?

Sleeper No. 6: Jacoby Jones
If I'm a Dolphins fan this season, I'm thinking about four things: (1) I hate Nick Saban, (2) I hate Daunte Culpepper, (3) I hate Ricky Williams and (4) instead of taking Ted Ginn Jr., the Fins could have taken Brady Quinn at No. 9 and grabbed Jones at No. 71 (two picks before the Texans took him) to do the same things that Ginn does. Bad times.

Sleeper No. 7: The Oakland defense
The Raiders had a top-five defense last season (secretly) and now they have a real coaching staff and the following QBs on their schedule: Jon Kitna, Jay Cutler (twice), Charlie Frye/Derek Anderson, Trent Green, Damon Huard (twice), Vince Young, Matt Schaub, Rex Grossman. Tavaris Jackson, Brett Favre, Byron Leftwich. That's a lot of potential turnovers, no? I just made your second-to-last round pick for you.

Sleeper No. 8: Joe Horn
Might have one last good season in him. And don't underestimate the Petrino Factor. In fact ...

Sleeper No. 9: Joey Harrington
You're not picking Harrington as much as you're picking the QB who's running Bobby Petrino's potentially explosive offense on a Falcons team reeking of Ewing Theory potential. Think of it that way.

Sleeper No. 10: Santonio Holmes
Nearly every season, a second-year receiver makes The Leap. Here's your best bet for 2007.

Sleeper No. 11: The Ronald Curry/Daunte Culpepper combo
I'm not even kidding.

Sleeper No. 12: Selvin Young
I won't even tell you what team he's on. Now that's a sleeper.



Time to fix the NBA playoffs
We'll remember the 2007 NBA playoffs for seven reasons:

1. LeBron's 48 Special.
2. Oakland's dynamic crowds and Dallas' collapse during the Warriors-Mavs series.
3. The Stoudemire/Diaw suspensions and subsequent fallout.
4. May 22.
5. The day Kobe went schizo on us.
6. The greatest Spurs team of the Duncan era; and ...
7. A dreadful Finals that was so predictable and plodding, fans were much more interested in trade talk and draft speculation.

Now, I've already written about 1 through 6 (see the corresponding links). But No. 7 has to be one of the weirdest subplots in recent sports history. We've reached a point with the NBA when its offseason somehow became more interesting than its actual season. I have no idea what this means. I have no idea how to interpret this information. For whatever reason, people are more interested in figuring out how the Suns will win the 2008 title over how the Spurs are winning the 2007 title. They're more interested in wondering what the Celtics will do with the No. 5 pick versus the Duncan/Parker battle for Finals MVP. They're more interested in figuring out how Cleveland will find help for LeBron in 2008 than the help he's getting right now.

Here's the easy explanation: Anyone who understands basketball realized by the 10-minute mark of Game 2 that Cleveland was completely outclassed in this series. (Not to toot my own horn, but I tried to warn you before Game 1. All right, I guess that was some tooting. But I did try to warn you.) By the time the Spurs extended their lead to the high 20s and Mike Breen started sobbing on-air that he had been stuck with so many lousy playoff games while Dick Freaking Stockton got to call the Mavs-Warriors series, the 2006-07 season, for all intent and purpose, had been rammed with a giant pitchfork like the one Jason Voorhees used in "Friday the 13th 3D." So it was natural for everyone to start thinking about the summer, free agency, the draft and everything else.

At the same time, we've reached a point that the off-court stuff has become consistently more fascinating. Tuesday morning, I wasn't sure whether Game 3 of the Spurs-Cavs series would be good, but I definitely knew hoopshype.com's NBA Rumors page would give me 20-25 minutes of enjoyable links and rumors. When a buddy from Boston called, we spent 20 seconds talking about the Finals and 20 minutes talking about the draft. Late Tuesday night, I realized that I'm between 10 and 200 times more interested in seeing how the Suns will handle their luxury tax problems than how Mike Brown will solve Cleveland's scoring problems before Game 4.

When you think about it, there's really no parallel to this phenomenon in sports or pop culture. Baseball peaks with the playoffs and World Series. Football peaks with the playoffs and Super Bowl. Golf peaks with the Masters and the U.S. Open. Television peaks with the season finale of a show. Movies peak when the movie is released. Music peaks when the album is released. So when does the NBA peak? Certainly, not during the Finals -- the ratings keep dropping and we've had two genuinely entertaining Finals (2000 and 2006) since MJ retired. Couldn't you make the case that it peaks at the end of June, on the days leading up to the draft, when there's a flurry of trade rumors, mock drafts, free agent rumors and everything else?

Apparently, we've reached the point in the NBA that it's more enjoyable to watch GMs tinker with their teams than watching those teams actually play. Isn't this a major, major, MAJOR problem? You could even call it a crisis, right? When writers and radio hosts brought up the topic of blowing up the playoffs and changing the seeding process, for once, it didn't seem like one of those radical/inane/unrealistic suggestions that was thrown out there just to get people talking during a dead sports week. We need to blow this thing up and start over. We do. The current playoff infrastructure has failed.

Here are the three biggest problems:

1. Once the league's reckless (repeat: reckless) expansion pushed the number of teams past the mid-20s, it became too easy for one conference to be stacked with elite teams. David Stern has argued multiple times that this stuff evens out over time, but clearly, that's not true. We've had much better teams in the West for nearly a full decade; in eight of the past 10 seasons, the best two teams played before the Finals, and in four of those seasons, they played before the conference finals. Um ... that's not a major flaw in the system?

We saw this imbalance from 1980 to 1989, when there were always 3-4 great teams in the East (the Celtics, Sixers and Bucks dominated the first half, then the Celtics, Pistons, Bulls, Hawks and Cavs took turns in the second half) and the Lakers whupped up a different underdog in the Western finals almost every year. But here was the big difference: Because the league hadn't killed itself with expansion and there were so many salary cap loopholes, the Lakers were always really good. They went nine-deep with two franchise players (Magic and Kareem), an All-Star (Worthy), great role players and a rotating cast of accomplished veterans passing through for a ring. Because such a great/memorable/entertaining team was carrying the West in the '80s, nobody cared that the conferences were unbalanced. Now? We care. We don't have Magic's Lakers to salvage things.

2. Once upon a time, the NBA created conferences to cut down on everyone's travel -- not just to save expenses but to save the bodies of its players (all of whom were flying coach). Even now, it's a reasonable strategy for the regular season. But for the playoffs? Not nearly as reasonable. Everyone's flying around in charter jets, for God's sake! If we adopted the 2-3-2 format for every playoff series -- which should happen, anyway -- travel time and days would be cut back. So you can't play the "too much traveling" card. Not in 2007.

3. There's a rigid predictability to the playoffs every spring that we don't necessarily need. For instance, one of the reasons the Mavs-Warriors series was so much fun was because it came out of nowhere. Shouldn't we be searching for that "what a goofy matchup!" variable every spring? Why do we want to subject ourselves to a solid decade of Cavs-Bulls or Cavs-Heat series in the East? Isn't the unpredictability and randomness part of what makes March Madness so great?

Anyway, Warriors announcer Bob Fitzgerald made two radical proposals in his blog recently: One for realigning the conferences (not as pressing of an issue), and one for turning the playoffs into a straight 16-team bracket, almost like the Sweet 16 for March Madness, where seeds are awarded by win-loss records (so Dallas would have been No. 1 this spring, Phoenix would have been No. 2 and the Clips would have been No. 16). Please know that (A) I loved this idea and will always be ticked off that somebody else thought of it, and (B) John Hollinger beat me to the punch on Monday with his own version of how he'd handle the reseeding. Anyway, I chewed on the concept, chewed on it some more ... and decided that I'd tinker with Bob's renegade idea in the following ways:

• The top six teams from each conference still make the playoffs, only because we need the conference alignments to mean something.

• The team with the best record gets the No. 1 seed; the best team in the other conference gets the No. 2 seed. Every other seed is up for grabs. For this season, Dallas would have been No. 1, Detroit No. 2, Phoenix No. 3. and San Antonio No. 4. None of those teams could have played one another until the conference finals. Now that, my friends, is a good thing.

• For the No. 13-16 playoff spots, the league adopts my antitanking idea (from my April 23 magazine column):

"Shorten the regular season by four games, guarantee the top six seeds in each conference, then have a double-elimination tourney for the seventh and eighth seeds between the remaining ... teams. I suggest this for five reasons. First, it would be entertaining as hell. In fact, that's what we'll call it: the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament. Second, I'm pretty sure we could get it sponsored. Third, the top 12 teams get a reward: two weeks of rest while the tournament plays out.

"Fourth, a Cinderella squad could pull off some upsets, grab an eighth seed and win fans along the way. And fifth, with the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament giving everyone a chance, no team could tank down the stretch without insulting paying customers beyond repair."

Is there any downside for that idea? Lottery teams couldn't tank down the stretch and sideline their best players with dubious injuries. Playoff teams get two weeks of rest and practice so they'll be running on all cylinders in the playoffs. And if that's not enough, the Entertaining-as-Hell Tournament would be entertaining as hell, wouldn't it? Then, when the real playoffs started, we'd have a wide-open, 16-team bracket in which (A) the top-four teams couldn't play each other until the conference finals, (B) the matchups would be completely unpredictable, and (C) the bracket even would lend itself to a few illegal office pools (with the Finals MVP as the tiebreaker).

In fact, I can see one reason why this would never happen, and only one: if David Stern and the rest of the NBA decision-makers were too stubborn to admit that we need a radical change. Well, we do. Anyone who doesn't believe this should be sentenced to watch the game-deciding play of Game 3 -- you know, the one during which Anderson Varejao thought it was a good idea to attempt an out-of-control spin move against one of the best defensive players of the past 15 years -- on an endless loop for the rest of the summer. Cleveland had no business being in the 2007 Finals. None. That's why I'm one of the 19 biggest basketball fans on the planet and, yet, I care more about the 2007 draft than the 2007 Finals.

We need to fix this. Immediately.

Housecleaning time: Clips, links and e-mail
We're long overdue for some major housecleaning (links, e-mails and follow-up thoughts), but before we get to that, I have three thoughts from the weekend, including one about "The Sopranos," so get ready for a spoiler alert:

1. It seems like the Pistons have reached a fatal point -- they've gone as far as they can go with their current nucleus, they can't retool with lottery picks or major free agents, and they're probably going to get 10-15 percent worse every year unless they blow things up and head in another direction. Right now, they're a pretty good team that finished better than they should have because the East was so crappy this season; they're coming off a series in which a flawed Cavs team conceivably could have swept them 6-0 if two plays had gone differently; and they were blown out in consecutive our-season-on-the-line games (never a good sign). They don't have the right personnel for the Nash-era NBA, they don't get fast-break points, they don't have anyone who can create slash-and-kick baskets ... I mean, do you realize that the biggest lead they had in that entire Cavs series was eight points?

Clearly, they need to move Chauncey Billups and Rasheed Wallace -- both of whom should have significant value to younger teams looking for one veteran to get them over the hump -- then build around Hamilton (who has a team-friendly contract), Tayshaun Prince (ditto), Jason Maxiell, Amir Johnson (major sleeper), the 15th pick in the 2007 draft and whatever they can get for Billups and 'Sheed (whether it's young players, picks or cap space). It's the only move. For instance, let's say they make the following moves:

A. Sign-and-trade Billups to the Clippers for Corey Maggette, Sam Cassell (expiring contract) and the 14th pick.

B. Deal Wallace (two years and $26 million remaining on his deal) in a three-way trade in which 'Sheed goes to Washington, Antawn Jamison (expires in 2008) goes to Portland and Zach Randolph goes to Detroit. ... Or they could just deal 'Sheed for Jamison straight up if they wanted the cap space.

The other option? Re-sign Billups, hope McDyess and C-Webb come back, hope to get lucky at No. 15 with the likes of Rodney Stuckey, and waste their entire free agent exemption on this year's Nazr Mohammed. Face it, Detroit -- your window to win another NBA title this decade, for all intent and purpose, closed for good on Saturday night. As Greg from Detroit pointed out in a "we need to blow it up" e-mail last night, "Please help us, we have officially become the Atlanta Braves of the NBA."

2. Speaking of windows, the Red Sox left the window slightly ajar in Fenway by giving away that Yankee game -- first, Lugo gives away an insurance run with the dumbest slide of the season, then Paps leaves an 0-2 fastball over the plate to A-Rod in the ninth. Bad loss. Believe me, I'm not panicking ... it just seemed like they were one more win away from ramming a giant pitchfork into the Yanks. No matter how many problems they're having, the Yankees are like Michael Myers or Jason Voorhees in that you never feel totally comfortable until you see their heads get chopped off. You don't want to leave them "bleeding to death" but breathing. You just don't.

3. Wait ...

***** SOPRANOS SPOILER ALERT *****

All right ...

Sunday's episode was so tense, I almost started smoking again. Unbelievable. But why am I terrified that Paulie Walnuts is in cahoots with Phil Leotardo? Doesn't it seem fishy that Phil went after Tony, Silvio and Bobby but ignored Paulie, or that Paulie was in charge of Phil's whacking but it got "screwed up"? I'm fearing the Paulie backstab-out-of-nowhere, as scripted by Vince McMahon.

By the way, I enjoyed this e-mail from Kevin P. in Austin, Texas: "In regards to tonight's second-to-last episode of 'The Sopranos,' I truly believe A.J. finally surpassed Fredo as the most sniveling and pathetic Mafia-related family member of all time. He was on the cusp in the last episode but I felt he officially grabbed the reins tonight at approximately 8:46 CT."

One more thing: Between the "Lost" finale and the way the "Sopranos" is wrapping up, it's hard to remember a greater stretch of TV. Two of the 10 greatest TV shows ever slinging 99-mph heat at the same time. Fantastic.

***** END OF SPOILER ALERT *****

All right, time for some long overdue clips and links:

1. Eugene from San Antonio is trying to turn me into an alcoholic: "Check out this article that appeared in the San Antonio Express News on Sunday. David Robinson actually considered not signing with the Spurs to wait for Boston or L.A.!"

(P.S.: I'm a huge fan of Robinson as a person and believe he's one of the best role models in the history of professional sports ... but wow, has there ever been a dumber decision than Robinson not just waiting two years and putting himself in the open market instead of signing with the Spurs just to pick up an extra $1 million per year for two years? If he liked them that much, couldn't he have waited two years, gotten an insurance policy to cover the contract he could have gotten, allowed the open market to drive up his price and signed with them then? ESPN needs to create a show called "The Top 50 worst business decisions in sports history." That's a lock for the top five.)

2. From the YouTube files ...

• Kelly from Baltimore: "One man's interpretation of the Yellow Ledbetter lyrics."

• An anonymous Kansas Jayhawks fan: "If this brawl were to happen today, all that would be televised is the negative influences of pop culture, thugs in the NBA (well, this was college) and such. But videos like this show that nasty stand-clearing brawls are nothing that's unique to the post-1990 era."

• Ken from Tarzana: "Check out a classic cameo by David Letterman on 'Mork and Mindy.'"

• Luke from Richmond: "If you have a YouTube account, check out this clip from a movie called 'Undefeatable.' (Note: the clip can only be accessed by 'mature users' for some reason but it's totally fine.) I had to cover my mouth I started laughing so hard at work. Its pretty high on unintentional comedy. One of the best slow motion punches ever."

• Josh from Brooklyn: "Funny link to my twin friends playing the theme song to '90210' on the same guitar ... described by some as incestuous homoeroticism, but it invokes a few smiles. Pop culture at its finest."

• From Sully in Boston: "This is absolutely classic. I haven't seen acting this bad since Mike Brown playing the role of coach for Cleveland."

• KRob in Santa Cruz, Calif.: "In your LeBron article on Friday, you made a small reference to Pele. Whenever my friends and I start getting into the argument of the greatest athlete of all-time, I have one friend that drops the Pele hammer, hard, every time. I didn't really take him seriously until I saw this. Now I drop the Pele hammer as well ... hard. I highly recommend watching the whole 10 minutes."

• Jordan H. in Elmira, N.Y.: "Had to write in about that Johnnie Morton fight! I couldn't stop laughing because it was so funny (here is the link if you missed it). Watching this makes me think that Jay Leno could have knocked him out after Johnnie called Jay out after the Lions won a game that year."

• Josh from San Fran writes, "Check out the Top Moments in NBA Draft Lottery history on NBA.com (scroll down to the bottom). It's an instant classic. My favorite part is No. 10, when it takes Elgin Baylor a good two seconds to figure out that he just got the No. 1 pick. Doesn't that explain his career in a nutshell? Also, we get Jerry Krause's epileptic fit when he got the Elton Brand pick (No. 8) and everyone around him begins to retreat. We have the look of horror on Jerry West's face when losing out on LeBron (No. 5)."

(Note: I forgot how hilarious Krause's reaction was. One of the all-time funniest NBA moments. Watch that 20 straight times and see if you're still not giggling on No. 20.)

4. Speaking of the lottery, before the tragedy of 5/22, Josh from New Castle e-mailed an article containing details from every lottery the Celtics have ever participated in. What a grisly list. I loved that we sent Kenny Anderson for the draft that ended up getting Jerome Moiso. Perfect. Also loved the desperation of sending Milt Palacio in 2001 because he hit that miracle shot against the Nets. Somebody needs to come up with a "Top-25 Worst Ideas For Lottery Representative" list.

5. The readers seem to be split on how we should name LeBron's Game 5 performance. Old friend Jason Whitlock sold me on "LeBron's 48 Special" but a host of readers think it should either be called "LeBron's 29 for 30" or "LeBron's Leap." Maybe we should make this an ESPN.com poll.

While we're here, two leftover Game 5 e-mails:

• Dave F. in Brooklyn: "That performance was truly insane. I was sitting in my living room giggling. It was like one of those kung fu movies in which Bruce Lee is fighting 30 guys, but they only send one at a time for some reason."

• Jake in Vegas: "One of the things you didn't point out was TNT panning the Palace crowd during their postgame show. The looks on the faces of the Pistons fans is the one thing that I think I will always remember about the game. I've never seen anything like it in sports. They were COMPLETELY shell-shocked, just sitting there with blank looks on their faces like they had just survived a back-alley encounter with Keyser Soze. And its not like this was even the series-clinching win, either. Most times when they show the fans of the losing team after a tough home loss, they are either trying to ward off the trash-talking from the opposing teams' fans or just trying to make their way out to their cars. The Pistons fans just sat there like they didn't want to go home so they wouldn't have to go to bed with nightmares of King James dancing through their heads."

And just for kicks, a postgame e-mail from Game 6 from Brandon in L.A.:

"I love the NBA. Can you think of any other avenue in life in which a 22-year-old black kid from Akron, Ohio, would excitedly jump in the air and lovingly embrace for a good 20 seconds a 7-foot-3, 31-year-old from Lithuania?"

6. Speaking of Bron, Kevin from Cleveland passed this along: "Here's a link from the News-Herald, a local paper just east of Cleveland, in which sportswriter Roger Brown puts you at No. 3 on the list of the six people who have done the most damage to their reputations since the Cavs-Pistons series. Here's what he wrote:

"Simmons spent months ripping and mocking James as an overhyped fraud -- and gained lots of national attention in the process. But after James' historic Game 5 performance, Simmons scrambled to save face in embarrassing fashion. He wrote a column on LeBron that was more slobbering and fawning than a 13-year-old girl writing a fan letter to Justin Timberlake."

Sorry, I have to respond to this one. First of all, if Roger can produce anything I've ever written that called him LeBron an "overhyped fraud," I will send him a $200 check to double the salary that the News-Herald is paying him every week. I think he has me confused with Charley Rosen.

Second, I love the idea that me "ripping" LeBron gained me national attention ... really? From who? Did I happen to be in a coma at the time? I criticized him in my Anna K. column from Miami (and rightfully so, Bron mailed in a game on national TV); my All-Star column from Vegas (where Bron's lack of enthusiasm for the season was a major topic, and if you don't believe me, check out the ESPN.com column by Brian Windhorst from March once LeBron started playing hard again, and this from a writer who's covered LeBron for his entire career); when LeBron made the absurd "global icon" comment; and a couple of times during the playoffs when Bron-Bron didn't seem properly enthused by the proceedings (and he wasn't). I don't regret a single thing I wrote about LeBron in the past year. Everything still stands.

And third, before Game 5 of the Detroit series, I picked the Cavs to win in 6 and wrote an extended section about LeBron showing signs of turning the corner and getting it in Games 3 and 4, to the point that I had my hopes up for Game 5 because there was a chance something truly special might happen. Here's the exact quote:

"The fact remains, No. 23 happens to be the only interesting thing about this painfully disjointed Pistons-Cavs series. ... Like many others, I'm looking forward to Game 5 solely because of LeBron. Like many others, I want him to shift into fifth gear, hush the crowd, rip Detroit's heart out and make the Vivid Video face after everything's said and done. Like many others, I will be disappointed if this doesn't happen."

Bottom line: If you're going to rip another writer, make sure you've actually read the guy first.

While we're here, my ESPN colleague Colin Cowherd mocked my seven trade scenarios for Kobe on the radio last week without reading the entire column or even attempting to understand its premise, namely, that the trade options for Kobe were limited because (A) he needed to go to a big market for a team that could contend right away, and (B) nobody pays 100 cents on the dollar for a team looking to unload an unhappy superstar.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Cowherd embarrassed himself by not understanding basic NBA trading principles like "it would be valuable for L.A. to swap Vlad Radmanovic's contract for Bobby Sura's expiring contract in a T-Mac/Kobe deal because Sura's contract expires in 2008, which would buy them some cap space down the road."

Look, I know the radio business lends itself to hosts lazily skimming other people's columns and blogs ... but seriously, Colin, in the words of Mark Jackson, you're better than that. Your show's on for three hours a day and you get four giant commercial breaks per hour. That leaves you plenty of time to research your segments so you don't come off as misinformed. No offense.

7. All right, how did I miss this? How did I miss this???? Anthony from Gloucester, N.J., explains:

"I doubt you caught the Reebok Grand Prix on CBS this past Sunday. Track and field is only exciting every four years for the Olympics -- except when Gus Johnson takes the helm. I watched him call the 110-meter hurdles for some guy named Liu Xiang (apparently the best hurdler in the world). Gu-Jo got me on my feet and the race lasted only 13 seconds. Just another example of how CBS has the X-Factor over the other networks when it comes to sports telecasts."

Speaking of missing things, I can't BELIEVE nobody sent me this clip before a few days ago -- it was like finding out that there's another view of Shannon Tweed's nude scene in "Hot Dog: The Movie" or something. Patrick R. from Holyoke, Mass., explains:

"Inexplicably, this YouTube clip has less than 10K views, but it's a treat -- silent footage from right-center of the Roberts steal, steady as it has to be and no less fun for the passage of time."

(Note: Isn't there a way for someone to take that video, then match it with the audio of the game?)

8. After getting sent roughly a kajillion A-Rod jokes and e-mails over the past few days, the one I enjoyed the most was a relatively simple e-mail from New York reader Bjorn C.:

"I don't know if you've been following the whole A-Rod strip club scandal, but this quote from the New York Daily News (which put on its investigative hat and interviewed strippers at A-Rod's favorite clubs) absolutely made my day:

"A petite stripper at the Hustler Club said A-Rod 'likes the she-male, muscular type.'"

"Oh man. That's hilarious. I'm gonna paste it again.

"A petite stripper at the Hustler Club said A-Rod 'likes the she-male, muscular type.'"

"Somehow, this never stops being funny."

(Couldn't agree more. We're about 40 months away from seeing A-Rod re-enact Eddie Murphy's 5:30 a.m. "just being a good samaritan" car ride in Hollywood.)

9. Well, I've been pushing for a TV show with Corey Feldman and Corey Haim since 2002 (scroll down to the Corey Haim section) ... and I'm not sure what's more incredible, the fact that they're both still alive, or that it's finally happening.

(Speaking of old columns, Jake from NYC read my running diary of the 2002 Spelling Bee and points out that the famous "euonym" moment that I wrote about in that column has now been immortalized on You Tube.)

10. Kudos to Lissa in Attleboro for digging up LeBron's Bo Jackson shot from 2006 that I mentioned in Friday's column: "Your description made me go looking for the video. I think you owe it to all your fans to share it; and please, please give me credit so I can brag to my boyfriend that I got published by the SG before he did!!! Clip starts after the commercial, 46 seconds in."

11. Jared B. in New York wonders, "I don't know if you've mentioned this, but did you ever look at how many guys are on the payroll for 2006-07 for the Philadelphia 76ers and not playing for them? They are paying Chris Webber, Jamal Mashburn, Todd MacCulloch, Aaron McKie and Greg Buckner. For a total of $45 million, too. There has got to be some kind of conspiracy theory here how Billy King still has a job."

12. Some dopey-but-fun links:

• Dan from Chapel Hill, N.C.: "I send this baby name site to all my friends who are expecting. It's fascinating."

• Nick Holle from Minneapolis: "What did Ray Allen say when he heard about Kobe's trade demands today? Hint: It starts with 'I' and ends with 'told you so.'"

• A million people sent me this and it's been floating around the Web for a solid week, but in case you missed it somehow, Noah from Indiana explains: "'This package includes: A one-hour coaching session with the New York Knicks head coach, Isiah Thomas, at Madison Square Garden.' Are you kidding me? Shouldn't they just call this 'Learn how to sabotage your AAU or high school team in one hour or less.'"

• Really enjoyed this link from Lindsey in K.C.: "I know you like Joe Posnanski so here is a GREAT column he wrote about Bo Jackson. I got chills a few times remembering some of those things he did!"

• More good reading: Tim McG from Evendale writes, "In case you haven't seen it yet, good article on the sub-culture of Dunkin' Donuts." And Mike in N.J. adds, "As a baseball fan, I thoroughly enjoyed this feature about Kerry Wood. As a Cubs fan, it made me throw up in my mouth a little."

This feature on Durant/Oden made me think that it's not a lock Oden goes first. Hmmmmmmmmm.

• From Mike in Boston: "You have to include this in your links section. I wish I could say this was a joke, but what a spin job by the Hawks. Do their fans really believe this!?!?"

• Had to pass along this N.Y. Daily News report on Hal Steinbrenner (George's youngest son) potentially taking over the Yankees because of the overwhelming Vito Corleone/Michael Corleone parallels.

I never wanted this for you ... you were supposed to be Senator Steinbrenner, Governor Steinbrenner ...

• Finally, ESPN Books released an "uncyclopedia" called "23 Ways to First Base" by Neil Fine and Gary Belsky. Two whopping disclaimers: First, ESPN Books published my Red Sox book, and second, Neil Fine has been editing my magazine column for the past five years. Could you perceive a major conflict of interest here? Yes. Absolutely. But they mailed me this book last week and I was thinking, "Crap, now I have to think of a way out of plugging this thing without hurting anyone's feelings because there are too many conflicts here" ... and then I started thumbing through it and realized within about three minutes that it's one of the top-10 toilet books of all-time.

I can't even really properly describe the book other than to tell you that ...

A. It's an absorbing and valuable collection of relatively useless/helpful sports information -- stuff like "What are the lyrics to the Canadian National Anthem?" and "Who were all the No. 1 baseball picks since they started the draft?" and "What were the names of every player on 'The White Shadow'? and even "What are the best percentages for Texas Hold 'Em hands?"

B. The book has a hard cover, but it's compact, which means it fits perfectly on the top of any toilet. Just trust me, it's useful for this purpose.

C. I'd never recommend something that costs money unless I thought it was worth it.

So there you go. Buy the book, don't buy the book, I don't care. Just telling you that I liked it.



We'll never forget LeBron's 48-Point Game
Around 8:15 p.m. on the West Coast, I called a buddy who works for the Celtics and left him the following message:

"It's 91-91 and heading to overtime … just wanted to say, you better hope the Cavs lose this game because there's no stopping LeBron if he pulls this off. They're gonna own the East for the next 10-12 years. We're done."

Within 35 minutes, the fork was officially shoved into the Celtics and everyone else in the East. Our worst fears had come true. LeBron decided to make LeLeap.

This wasn't just about the improbable 29-of-30 points barrage down the stretch, those two monster dunks at the end of regulation, the way he perservered despite a crummy coach and a mediocre supporting cast, how he just kept coming and coming, even how he made that game-winning layup look so damned easy. Physically, LeBron overpowered the Pistons. This was like watching a light-heavyweight battling a middleweight for eight rounds and suddenly realizing, "Wait, I have 15 pounds on this guy," then whipping the poor guy into a corner and destroying him with body punches. The enduring moment was LeBron flying down the middle for a Dr. J retro dunk and Tayshaun Prince ducking for cover like someone reacting to a fly-by from a fighter jet. The Pistons wanted no part of him. They were completely dominated. They didn't knock him down, they didn't jump in front of him for a charge … hell, they were so shell-shocked by what was happening, they didn't even realize they should be throwing two guys at him.

This differed from vintage MJ simply because Jordan was never an overpowering physical presence. At 6-foot-6 and built more like a wide receiver, when Jordan took over games the recipe centered around 20-foot jumpers, slice-and-dice drives, putbacks off rebounds, turnaround fallaways, hang-in-the-air layups to draw contact, maybe even an occasional dunk on somebody's head. He compensated for his size in three ways: by maintaining a level of intensity that overwhelmed everyone else; by working his butt off defensively to get easy baskets off turnovers; and by creating an inside/outside scoring attack that answered every possible defensive strategy. And with all that said, guess what? He was still a middleweight. Isiah's Pistons gained an edge for a couple of years by knocking Jordan down every time he attacked the rim. When Riley's Knicks took this ploy to another level, the NBA overreacted and changed its contact rules, eventually leading to the wussified sport we're watching today. (Example No. 5,767: Antonio McDyess' ejection.)

LOOKING BACK

This is what Bill wrote about LeBron in a column from last spring:

"At least once a game, he does something so explosive, so athletic, so incredible, you can't even believe it happened. The last time I remember feeling this way about a professional athlete was Bo Jackson, who wasn't just great … he stood out. I attended a spring training game once when Bo scored from third base on a 180-foot pop fly -- standing up. It was awesome to watch. Well, LeBron reminds me of Bo. On those plays when he says, "Screw it, I'm scoring" and heads toward the basket like a runaway freight train. He's like a young Barkley crossed with a young Shawn Kemp crossed with young Magic, but with a little Bo thrown in. Out of anyone in the league, he's the only player who can cripple the other team with one monster play.

There's a perfect example that Hollinger wrote about on Sunday, but screw it, I'm retelling the story. On Saturday afternoon, I TiVo'ed the Nets-Cavs game because the Nets had won 14 straight and officially reached "record all our games" territory. LeBron completely took over the game in the fourth, capped off by one of the most startling plays I have ever seen: Trailing in the final two minutes, LeBron seized some open space in transition and pulled the Runaway Freight Train move, careening toward the basket as one Net reached in and hacked him, followed by another Net on the other side reaching in and fouling him, and then a third guy just to make sure he wouldn't score. LeBron was cradling the ball, taking two giant steps toward the basket and absorbing those karate chops. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM. Any normal human being would have either lost the ball or lost their balance and tumbled to the ground.

Well, LeBron kept going -- almost like a tight end bouncing off three safeties in the open field. As the last guy walloped him, LeBron jumped in the air (where did he get the strength?!?!?), regained control of the ball, hung in the air, hung in the air for another split-second, gathered the ball (at this point, he was drifting under the right side of the rim), and finally unleashed a righty layup that banked in. The shot was so BLEEPING INCREDIBLE, the referee practically jumped in delight as he called the continuation foul. The Nets were done after that. He ripped their hearts out, MJ-style. Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable. I couldn't believe it. I still can't believe it.
-- Bill Simmons

Put it this way: They won't need to change the rules to protect LeBron. If Jordan was a receiver, then LeBron is one of those scary tight ends who runs a 4.35 40, outsprints safeties and occasionally carries five tacklers into the end zone just to see if it can be done. Physically, he's the most imposing perimeter player in the history of the league. Nobody else comes close. Even last spring, when he was only 21 years old, I described a specific LeBron play in an NBA column that was unlike anything I'd ever seen (check the sidebar). For comparative purposes, the only athlete who worked was Bo Jackson. And that's been the challenge for LeBron these past 12 months -- finding his inner Bo, learning how to channel it, figuring out the right times to unleash it.

When he passed up the game-tying dunk in Game 1 for an ill-fated pass to Donyell Marshall, in retrospect that turned out to be the most important lesson of his career. He needed to take the abuse, needed to hear the questions, needed to hear everyone call him out. Both Detroit losses hardened him, leading to his transcendent Game 3 and another focused performance in Game 4. You could see him harnessing his considerable gifts. Every fledgling superduperstar needs one of these moments -- Jordan had the series-winning shot in Cleveland, Tiger had the '97 Masters, Magic had Game 6 of the 1980 Finals, Bird had the banker in Game 7 of the '81 Philly series -- when they can say to themselves, "I came through when it mattered, I can do it again." LeBron was one crowd-killing game in Detroit from pushing himself to another level, almost like someone completing a mission in "Grand Theft Auto."

Above everything else, that's why this game mattered. Down the stretch, LeBron turned into a cross between Bo and MJ -- he seized the moment, made it his own, took everyone to a higher place. As a reader named Billy Carter e-mailed me afterward, "Watching LeBron finally enabled me to understand the Pele speech that the cook gave to Louden Swain in 'Vision Quest.' When the game was over, I wanted to wrestle Chute."

Me too. Like so many other diehard fans, I watch thousands and thousands of hours of sports every year hoping something special will happen, whether it's a 60-point game in basketball, a no-hitter during a Red Sox game, a seven-run comeback in the ninth, a back-and-forth NFL game, a boxing pay-per-view or whatever else. Occasionally, it pays off. For instance, two Saturdays ago, the Pavlik-Miranda undercard of the Spinks-Taylor fight was special. Last January's Colts-Pats game was special. Every Oakland home game of the Warriors-Mavs series was special. Maybe there are degrees of the word, but still, every time we're clicking on a television or heading to a ballgame, deep down, we're hoping something special happens.

Well, Thursday night was ultra-special. Watching King James take over Game 5 and finally earn his nickname, I felt like something substantial was happening. Like my life as a basketball fan was being irrevocably altered.

Hold onto your seats, everybody … it's happening! LeBron James is making the leap!

If you care about basketball, you'll remember where you watched this game 20 years from now. If you care about basketball, it meant something when Marv Albert blessed the night by calling it "one of the greatest performances in NBA playoff history." If you care about basketball, you enjoyed TNT's postgame show, when a giddy Barkley was so hyped up that he could barely sit still in his seat. If you care about basketball, this game immediately joined the Bird-Dominique Duel, The Flu Game, MJ's Last Shot, Magic's Sky Hook, McHale's Clothesline, the Sleepy Floyd Game, MJ's 63-Point Game, the Bernard-Isiah Duel, the '87 All-Star Game, the Suns-Celts Game, Bird's Steal, Havlicek's Steal, West's Half-Court Shot, the Miller/Spike Lee Game and every other classic over the years that can be described/remembered/rehashed in three or four words. We'll call this "LeBron's 48-Point Game" someday. 'Nuff said.

After it ended, I had a reader compare it to a player catching fire in the old "NBA Jam" arcade game, when every jump shot would result in the basketball being on fire. I had a Pistons fan named Duane e-mail me, "Watching LeBron's performance in Game 5 made me feel like Ron Burgundy. LBJ pooped in my refrigerator, ate the whole wheel of cheese and I'm not even mad. That was amazing." I had a reader compare LeBron's performance to the "No F-ing Way Game" in Madden, when the computer makes the executive decision, "Look, you're not winning this game." I had a reader named Justin Jacobs e-mail me, "After LeBron single-handedly beat the Pistons tonight, I looked at my 10-year-old brother and told him, 'You just bore witness to one of the greatest performances in NBA history.' You know you're seeing a great moment in sports when you're happy that your little brother was there to see it."

I don't know where we're headed with the LeBron Era -- how high he'll go, what he has in store for us down the road, even whether Game 5 will end up being an aberration along the lines of Vince Carter's 50-point game in the Philly series six years ago. But for the first time, I feel confident that we're headed for the right place. Even if that place includes Cleveland dominating the Celtics and everyone else in the East until my kids are in junior high.

(On second thought … come on Detroit!)