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Thursday, May 22
Updated: May 22, 10:23 PM ET
 
Secaucus still the place to go to rebuild
By Sam Smith
Special to ESPN.com

Is Thursday the day the Cleveland Cavaliers become NBA contenders?

The Denver Nuggets?

What's this, the NFL? Cleveland or Denver playing for a championship?

Not in David Stern's NBA!

"You see, Mr. Stern, what we do is inject this dye into the Ping-Pong balls, and then the Knicks ..."

No, no, the NBA draft lottery isn't manipulated. I swear.

Yes, Mr. Stern, I've written what you instructed. Now will you tell me where you've hidden my dog?

Dajuan Wagner and Ricky Davis
If LeBron James joins Dajuan Wagner, left, and Ricky Davis, the Cavaliers could be back in style.
OK, if I have to admit it, I really believe Thursday's NBA lottery is legitimate. Really. But that's the problem. Since it is on the up and up, we may someday be going to Cleveland for a championship game.

They can do these kinds of things in the NFL with Tampa or Green Bay in the finals. That league is just a five-month betting pool, anyway. The NBA is a big-time sport, and we know big-time sports need big-time cities to have the big-time teams, so they can get big-time TV ratings and everyone can make lots of money from those big-time TV contracts.

But if this lottery works out according to the odds, some place you usually don't want to be, like Cleveland or Denver, is going to get the No. 1 pick and high school sensation LeBron James.

This guy is going to be good. I'd bet my -- Oh, that's right; that's the NFL. Trust me. This kid could be one of the top 10 players in the NBA in two years.

And that's how you become a great team.

OK, it's not certain. Kevin Garnett and Tracy McGrady are among the top five players in the NBA, and they are at fewer playoff games than I am. They play in barely more postseason contests than Shareef Abdur-Rahim, and he's never played in one. But the formula for championships in the NBA is greatness, and greatness comes through the draft.

So how do get to the Finals? Well, you call your travel agent.

Let's examine the four teams this season with a chance to get to the NBA Finals. OK, three. Sorry, the Pistons never had a chance. But they could be there next year.

Thanks to Doug Collins and Rick Sund before they were fired, the Pistons got the Grizzlies' No. 1 draft pick this year (unless it's No. 1 overall) for Otis Thorpe. So if they get the second or third pick and add it to what they have, they're looking pretty good.

The Nets made a heck of a trade to get Jason Kidd. But watch the development of Kenyon Martin. He's turning into an elite player. Richard Jefferson is a nice piece, too. They're both top draft picks.

The Mavericks, who once had Kidd, eventually parlayed that into Steve Nash. But their core player is Dirk Nowitzki, who came through the draft. How he got down that far remains a great coup.

And, of course, there is the ultimate draft team, the Spurs, saying goodbye to former No. 1 overall draft pick David Robinson this season as Tim Duncan continues to emerge as perhaps the best all-around player in the NBA, now with consecutive MVP awards. He's a recent No. 1 overall draft pick.

Sure, you've got to be lucky when you have that No. 1 overall pick, unlike 1998 when Michael Olowokandi and Mike Bibby were the top two picks or 1995 when Golden State tabbed Joe Smith before high schoolers were the rage and Minnesota got Garnett at No. 5.

The revolution in the NBA in the last decade was free agency.

And, sure, the Lakers built a champion with it by signing Shaquille O'Neal, though that was an either/or signing. As in either he was going to Los Angeles or staying in Orlando. There was no open market. The Orlando Magic had a nice free agency plan in 2000, but it didn't work out as Grant Hill was injured.

Fact is, the rules of the NBA make it too difficult and too unlikely that a team can build through free agency, even though the all-time -- and probably one-time -- crack in that universal truth exists this summer with the Spurs. They're perhaps headed to a championship, and have the most money under the salary cap to add the best available free-agent player in the league because of Robinson's retirement and the contracts of veterans like the retiring Steve Smith. That best free agent would be the Nets' Kidd, who'll probably end up staying with the Nets.

The reason is money. The NBA rules were formulated in the 1999 collective bargaining agreement to give the home team an advantage to re-sign its players by being able to offer an extra year on a contract and a bigger annual raise. Players always talk about championships, and then they always go where they can make the most money. It's the ultimate truism of sports.

But that labor agreement changed even that truism to a degree.

Players always went for the most money, so the Chicago Bulls' rebuilding plan after the breakup of its championship teams in 1998 was to accumulate the most money and then, thus, get the best players. But the new labor deal put a ceiling on salaries. So all teams under the salary cap were equal. That means a free agent could look to interest B, which could be where his wife wanted to live or where the golfing was better.

There's only a handful of truly elite players in the game, and they're not about to start over. Kobe Bryant can opt out of his contract after next season. Think he's going to take that Charlotte salary cap room?

Except for the aberration with the Spurs this season, the only way a team accumulates enough money to make a big score in the free-agent market is to be lousy, or Bullish (Bulls-like?) in the recent vernacular. And free agents don't like rebuilding. They like comfort. You make a lot of money and you lose a lot of games, but who's fault is that? Guess. There's only a handful of truly elite players in the game, and they're not about to start over. Kobe Bryant can opt out of his contract after next season. Think he's going to take that Charlotte salary cap room?

So if you're going to be successful in the NBA, you have to take a deep breath, get smart and get lucky.

Like the Bulls. They had this big free-agent plan and, oops, they had to start over. Now, through the draft -- and annual 60-plus loss seasons -- they have an impressive young nucleus of talent. There probably isn't a team in the East that wouldn't trade rosters with the Bulls now. OK, maybe in a year or two.

The point is, that is how you get rich in the NBA.

Cleveland and Denver have put in the lousy part. Now they have a chance to start getting better. But so does Toronto, which also has Vince Carter. Wouldn't that be a nice addition for the Raptors ... and Miami and, oh yeah, did I forget to mention the Knicks?

Sam Smith, who covers the NBA for the Chicago Tribune, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com.

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