Pivotal picks add to draft intrigue
In the wake of one of the most interesting NBA drafts in recent memory, teams are hard at work in free agency and trying to gain a true understanding of their rosters for next season. Though all teams obviously place great emphasis on acquiring talent through the draft, this year's draft means a great deal more to some teams than others. The 2006 draft has special importance for the following teams.
Here are a handful of teams for whom the 2006 draft has special importance:
It's believed the Hawks made a promise to Duke forward Shelden Williams to take him with the fifth overall pick. Promise or not, Atlanta selected Williams, once again raising questions about where the team will find a point guard. Last year, GM Billy Knight endured a great deal of criticism for passing on eventual Rookie of the Year Chris Paul to select Marvin Williams and add him to a roster full of swingmen. Marvin Williams probably will develop into a great player as he matures, but Paul was considered by many to be the best point guard prospect since Jason Kidd, and the Hawks desperately needed a floor general. This year, still in need of a point guard, the Hawks drafted a power forward. While Shelden Williams does fill a need with his rebounding and shot-blocking, the Hawks could have moved down in the draft and still selected him while also acquiring other assets. As it is, Atlanta reportedly has a deal in place to sign Speedy Claxton away from the Hornets in free agency.
Owner James Dolan delivered the edict to Isiah Thomas to dramatically improve the team next season or be shown the door. With that in mind, it's hard to understand why Thomas rolled the dice by using the 20th overall pick on South Carolina forward Renaldo Balkman. Though Balkman played well in the Orlando pre-draft camp, most scouts thought he did enough only to solidify a spot in the second round. Balkman contributes loads of energy and enthusiasm, elements the Knicks sorely lack, but they could have selected him in the second round rather than using the 20th pick. In need of a pass-first point guard, Thomas instead passed on the best point guard prospects in this draft -- Marcus Williams and Rajon Rondo. Thomas added Balkman to a team that already has Quentin Richardson, Jalen Rose and, sometimes, Jamal Crawford at small forward. Balkman will have a hard time finding minutes and proving worthy of a first-round selection. Thomas had better hope Balkman's play justifies this pick. Doubting Thomas has become the favorite pastime of Knicks fans, and if this draft-day gamble doesn't pay off, Dolan will have another buyout to negotiate.
The Blazers have attempted in vain to shed their "Jail Blazers" image and reconnect with a once-rabid fan base. Nevertheless, they resisted the chance to easily gain more fan support by maneuvering to draft Adam Morrison. Instead, they positioned themselves to draft two of the top players in this year's draft crop, LaMarcus Aldridge and Brandon Roy. In addition to their basketball talents, both players come with high grades in the character department. Aldridge has the size and low-post scoring skills that could allow the Blazers to continue their roster and image make-over by parting ways with power forward Zach Randolph. Roy has the complete game and perimeter skills that could make Portland fans not only forget about Morrison, but also make Darius Miles a distant memory.
Danny Ainge has managed to assemble some young talent through the draft, enjoying great success with his selections the last two years. This year, he passed on the likes of Randy Foye, Marcus Williams and Rudy Gay in order to acquire Sebastian Telfair from Portland. He also completed a trade with Phoenix to acquire Rajon Rondo. With Telfair, Rondo and Delonte West, the Celtics find themselves with an overload at point guard. The Celtics make the list because one of these point guards, in addition to some other pieces, may contribute to the acquisition of Allen Iverson. Picking up Iverson would dramatically alter the make-up of this franchise.
The Logo -- GM Jerry West -- has not enjoyed the type of success in Memphis that marked his tenure with the Lakers. In 2002, West passed on Amare Stoudemire in favor of Drew Gooden. In 2003, he traded the draft rights to Marcus Banks and Kendrick Perkins to the Celtics for the rights to Troy Bell and Dahntay Jones. While Perkins has shown he can become a serviceable NBA big man and Banks went on to show a glimpse of talent in Minnesota, Bell couldn't manage to stick in the league. This year, West traded Shane Battier, to Houston to re-acquire Stromile Swift and the draft rights to Rudy Gay. Could this deal have the same results as the gamble that he took when he traded a serviceable center in Vlade Divac for super athletic prospect back in 1996 by the name of Kobe Bryant? If Gay plays with some passion and up to his potential, West will re-establish himself as the standard-bearer for NBA talent evaluators.
Rod Thorn and Ed Stefanski have proven their collective talents by building the Nets into a perennial threat in the Eastern Conference. They worked their magic in 2001, shipping the draft rights to the talented but troubled Eddie Griffin to Houston for the draft rights to Richard Jefferson, Jason Collins and Brandon Armstrong. Jefferson has become one of the best young talents in the league, and Collins starts a center for the Nets. This year, the Nets rescued Marcus Williams from his free-fall, selecting the UConn guard, who could have gone as high as fifth, with the 22nd pick. The Nets, in need of a quality point guard to lessen the load on Jason Kidd, could have a steal, especially if some of the character issues that have dogged Williams in the past do not become issues of the present and the future. If this pick pays dividends, the Nets may also have found the point guard to groom for life after Kidd.
With the very next pick, the Nets may have found the low post defensive presence they crave in one of Williams' UConn running mates, Josh Boone. The former Big East Defensive Player of the Year can block shots at a very high rate and provide a physical presence on defense, things neither Collins or Nenad Krstic can offer. Like Connecticut teammate Gay, Boone has heard questions about his will to compete, or apparent lack thereof. If New Jersey can find a way to keep the competitive fire lit under Boone, they will have a physical inside presence that will allow them to compete with the elite teams in the East.
The Suns, with big decisions looming in regards to re-signing Boris Diaw and Leandro Barbosa, traded away their two first-round picks for a future first-rounder from Boston and cash. Head coach Mike D'Antoni will do everything in his power to keep the team's nucleus -- Steve Nash, Shawn Marion, Stoudemire and Diaw -- together while avoiding the dreaded luxury tax. Phoenix traded the draft rights to two point guards (Rondo and Sergio Rodriguez) that could have thrived in the Suns' system and worked as a quality backup point guard to lighten the load on Nash. If they fail to re-sign Diaw, and to a lesser extent Barbosa, the Suns could come to regret passing on Rondo, Rodriguez and/or Marcus Williams.
For a team in need of positive publicity as it attempts to get a new arena built, the Sonics have made some interesting draft selections of late. For the third consecutive draft, Seattle took a relatively unknown 7-footer who has a long way to go in terms of development. Strange for a team that should look to do something dynamic that will bolster its efforts for a new arena. This year, the Sonics took Mohammed Saer Sene, the incredibly athletic, defensive-minded center from Senegal who has a 7-foot-8 inch wingspan. Sene has very limited offensive skills, which does not help the Sonics at all when their two other 7-footers -- Johan Petro and Robert Swift -- also have offensive limitations. Chris Wilcox, Seattle's only true low-post scoring option, heads into restricted free agency this summer. Sene could develop into a dominant defensive force, which would make the pick look good, but it won't help much in the short term.
As Mitch Kupchak and Phil Jackson continue to build the capped-out Lakers in the post Shaquille O'Neal era, they have to rely on the draft and trades. Kupchak has to continue to draw good value from the draft as he emerges from the shadow of Jerry West as a general manager. Last year, with players such as Danny Granger still on the board, Kupchak rolled the dice on Andrew Bynum. The young center has the chance to develop into a quality big man in the NBA. This year, Kupchak drafted local product Jordan Farmar, a point guard from UCLA. Farmar obviously loves to compete, as evidenced by his participation in the NBA pre-draft camp even though he knew he would land in the first round. His competitive nature should fit very nicely with Bryant. Though Jackson generally does not play rookies, a lack of consistent scoring from anyone in the backcourt not named Kobe played a large role in the Lakers' playoff implosion. Farmar's game suits the triangle offense very well, and the Lakers need him to help answer some of their questions at the point.
Antonio Williams is an NBA scout with Marty Blake and Associates and a regular contributor to ESPN's Scouts Inc.