The biggest suspense in this year’s NBA draft likely will come with the first pick. Will the Portland Trail Blazers take Ohio State center Greg Oden or Texas forward Kevin Durant with the first pick? The Seattle SuperSonics then get an excellent consolation prize with the second pick, taking the star the Trail Blazers pass over.
Many of the draft experts, including ESPN’s Jay Bilas, think Portland will select Oden, who has the potential to be a dominant center. “I think you have to think long and hard, but I think it’s Greg Oden,” Bilas said in a conference call. “Kevin Durant is going to be an all-star, but getting a dominant center is difficult to do in the NBA. Greg Oden is going to be that. I think it’s easier to build around a dominant center than a great scorer. I tend to think it will be easier to hang (championship) banners with Greg Oden than Kevin Durant.”
Bilas said Oden is an “unbelievably high character guy” in the mold of San Antonio Spurs star Tim Duncan. “He’ll allow himself to be coached.”
For the fifth year in a row, ESPN will broadcast the draft live at 6 p.m. Thursday from Madison Square Garden. Mike Tirico will host, with Bilas and analysts Mark Jackson and Stephen A. Smith. Other contributors will be international expert Fran Fraschilla, Dick Vitale, Stuart Scott, Lisa Salters, Ric Bucher, Andy Katz and field reporters Rachel Nichols (Charlotte), Sal Paolantonio (Philadelphia) and Jim Gray (Los Angeles).
ESPN will have a one-hour preview at 9 p.m. Wednesday. A segment will include Bilas playing H-O-R-S-E with top prospects Corey Brewer, Kevin Durant, Al Horford, Joakim Noah, Brandon Wright and Julian Wright.
Bilas’ Top 10 prospects:
Greg Oden, Ohio State: “Greg Oden is the best center prospect since Tim Duncan or Patrick Ewing, and will be a defensive presence and the foundation of a championship team.”
Kevin Durant, Texas: “Kevin Durant is a more athletic Danny Manning, and has a unique knack for putting the ball in the basket. Durant is a special scorer and talent, and only the promise of Oden could keep him out of the top spot.”
Al Horford, Florida: “Al Horford is NBA-ready. He has a high basketball IQ, a great touch, and he is a big-time rebounder. Horford wins the battle right now, but will he be better in five years?”
Brandan Wright, North Carolina: “Brandan Wright is the classic ‘upside’ guy. He’s a long, athletic lefty who just swoops in and makes plays. He can be truly outstanding, but he has to improve his shot and his body to realize that potential.“
Michael Conley, Jr., Ohio State: “Mike Conley is the best point guard in the draft. This kid is special, and he is a winner. He finishes ambidextrously around the rim like Tony Parker, and he wins like Joe Montana. The only question is his shooting consistency.”
Corey Brewer, Florida: “Corey Brewer is the most versatile player in the draft, and can guard anybody. He passes, handles the ball, can hit open shots, and he is a very solid prospect. He is a queen on a coach’s chess board.”
Joakim Noah, Florida: “Joakim Noah’s motor revs higher than anyone else’s in this draft. He can run, rebound and block shots, but his offense raises some questions as to how effective he will be.”
Jeff Green, Georgetown: “Jeff Green is undervalued in this draft. He can do everything, and is an underrated athlete. The only question is whether he has the temperament to be dominant and assertive.”
Yi Jianlian, China: “Yi Jianlian is a 7-footer who can really shoot it. He brings potential, and also brings your team a billion fans.”
Julian Wright, Kansas: “Julian Wright does everything but shoot it with consistency. Put him in a system where he can get out and run, and you will see an explosive NBA talent.”
Almost to a man, NBA analysts who I have talked with speak glowingly about Oklahoma City as a permanent home of an NBA franchise. As part of an ABC/ESPN conference call Wednesday, I questioned Bill Walton and Rick Barry, both analysts and former league standouts, about the city’s prospects as an NBA city. Walton’s son, Luke, a Los Angeles Lakers forward, also weighed in on the matter. Although Bill Walton spoke highly of Oklahoma City, he said he would be disappointed if the Sonics moved here from Seattle.
Rick Barry: I was in Oklahoma City for the last game, before they were going back to New Orleans. I was pretty amazed at the tremendous following they had, knowing farewell that this was an interim situation. The fans really seemed to take the team to heart. It was a wonderful experience seeing that. I see no reason they wouldn’t be successful if they (the NBA) were to go back to Oklahoma City. It’s all going to come down to what Seattle does regarding an arena. Oklahoma City, to me, was very professional in the way they supported the team.
Bill Walton: I was there for Oklahoma City’s first game and a number of games subsequently. I was extremely impressed with every aspect, not only of the management and organization of the team there, but also the support of the city, in the ticket base, sponsors and corporate community. I think Oklahoma City is a marvelous market for the NBA, but I personally would hate to see Seattle drop out of the NBA. That has always been one of my favorite places. I’m a big believer in basketball in the Northwest and the championships from the ’70s, right on the heels of Rick Barry’s championship in 1975. West Coast/Northwest basketball was dominant a couple of decades ago and we’re looking forward to a return of that with Greg Oden and Kevin Durant coming to the Northwest.
(Led by guard Dennis Johnson, the Sonics won their only NBA championship in 1979, routing the Washington Bullets, 4 games to 1. Barry led Golden State to a title in 1975, and Walton led Portland to a title in 1977).
Luke Walton: I played in Oklahoma City twice in the last two years. They were very professional about everything. It’s just like you’re playing in any other NBA city or arena. And the fan support was amazing. We played them four times in the last two years, twice in Oklahoma City and twice in New Orleans. Both times in Oklahoma City they blew us out and the fans were standing the entire game and they were loud. It was a lot of energy. It was a lot of fun. The two times we played them in New Orleans we got wins. I definitely think Oklahoma City could support a team.
It’s no secret why Cleveland Cavaliers star LeBron James is the focus of ABC’s promos for the NBA Finals. ABC/ESPN sportscasters and executives are giddy about the ratings impact James will have on their coverage of the finals, which begin at 8 p.m. Thursday in San Antonio.
James has more star appeal than anyone on the Detroit Pistons, who lost to the Cavs in the Eastern Conference finals, and the Spurs, who will face the Cavs in the finals and will be going for their third title in five years and fourth overall.
“I think it will bring in a lot of the casual fans who want to get a view of a guy who obviously has a chance to do something special in his career,” said play-by-play announcers Mike Breen.
“I think in the Piston series he went from great to something special,” analyst Jeff Van Gundy said. “Whether he can do it in the finals, or whether he can do it over time, to me that is the intriguing thing. Can he develop that will of a champion? Can he inspire the rest of his team to do that? I think that will be an intriguing subplot because (Tim) Duncan has already done that with the Spurs.”
In the past three seasons, the finals have given ABC a ratings boost in the normally slow ratings month of June. ESPN vice president Norby Williamson noted ABC has won the ratings battle in 14 of the past 18 finals nights.
Although Van Gundy admits the Cavs are underdogs, he said can take solace in Dwyane Wade’s performance in leading the Miami Heat to an upset of the Dallas Mavericks in last year’s finals.
“Miami had an up-and-down regular season. They had and up-and-down playoffs. They started the Dallas series 0-2, and then Dwyane Wade had four remarkable games in a row. If you’re Cleveland, even though you’re going to be the prohibitive underdog, all you’re going to need is LeBron James to be great in four games, and I believe he can be great in four games, or four or more games. That’s why they have a chance to win.”
Van Gundy has been a tremendous addition to ABC/ESPN’s top broadcast team, which also includes the mediocre Breen and Jackson. ESPN vice president Norby Williamson said he hopes to bring Van Gundy back for that role next season. Van Gundy, the former Houston Rockets coach, sounds like he’s ready to take a break from coaching.
“I’m looking to live in Houston and broadcast next year,” Van Gundy said. “If that opportunity presents itself, that will be wonderful. I would be remiss if there is a contract extention being offered to turn it down because I did that earlier this year (with the Rockets) and it didn’t quite work out like I wanted.”
Pregame coverage, with host Dan Patrick and analysts Jon Barry and Michael Wilbon, will begin at 7:30 each night. Michele Tafoya and Stuart Scott will serve as reporters.
Technical gizmos include SkyCam, with aerial views of the action, and FreezeCam, which has the ability to capture a play and zoom in on a particular angle.
Coverage will include an updated version of the “Hall of Fame” opening segment, which features some of the most memorable players and moments in finals history and “The Finals in Harmony,” a celebration of many of the players, teams and moments from the finals through the voice and performance of Steve Sidwell and the Hollywood Film Chorale.
ESPN is taking a low-key approach to its first telecast of Major League Baseball’s First-Year Player Draft from 1-5 p.m. Thursday on ESPN2.
The fact that it is being televised at all shows how far MLB officials have gone in changing their attitude about publicizing the draft. A few years ago, it was conduced in near secrecy.
“We have no expectations,” said ESPN senior vice president Len DeLuca in a conference call Monday. “We’ll have a lovely afternoon in which we can sit down and attract the great MLB fan who wants to know who will be the next great star on his team, if in fact you can determine that from this, and maybe we’ll attract some casual viewers. We know this is not an event that is tantamount to the NFL draft or NBA draft.”
The fact that it is being held on a weekday afternoon shows neither baseball nor ESPN is expecting a big audience.
Karl Ravech will serve as host with analysts Peter Gammons and Steve Phillips from Orlando, Fla. Additional contributors will include ESPN.com’s Keith Law, ESPN.com fantasy expert Matthew Berry, Baseball America’s Jim Callis and the Perfect Game’s Dave Rawnsley (of the amateur baseball site www.pgcrosschecker.com).
ESPN will provide coverage of the first-round and compensation picks. Producers have lined up video highlights of the top 60-70 players. Teams will have only five minutes between first-round picks, meaning the telecast will move quickly, unlike the NFL draft, which has 15 minutes between picks.
Vitale picks Cavs to win NBA Finals: ESPN basketball analyst Dick Vitale, appearing on Monday’s “Mike and Mike in the Morning” show on ESPN Radio and ESPN2, predicted a victory for the Cleveland Cavaliers in the NBA Finals. “I’m picking Cleveland to win that series in seven for a very simple reason – LeBron,” Vitale said. “Like Magic, when he was a rookie, when they had to play without Kareem … he would not allow them to lose. That was the defining moment in the world of Magic. He (LeBron) is not going to let Cleveland lose.”
NFL Network ranks bad weather games: What game had the worst weather in NFL history? The NFL Network (Cox 252) will list its top 10 at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The hour show features archival footage of each game along with fresh interviews with former players and coaches including Mike Ditka, Mike Singletary and Don Shula.
Of course, the “Ice Bowl” will be included. The 1967 NFL Championship game between the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers at Lambeau Field was played in -13 conditions with a wind chill of -46. The Packers beat Dallas 21-17 on Bart Starr’s 1-yard touchdown run with 13 seconds left.
The most recent game will be the New England Patriots’ 16-13 victory over the Oakland Raiders in the 2001 AFC divisional playoffs. Three inches of snow fell during the final game at Foxboro Stadium. Adam Vinatieri kicked the game into overtime with a 45-yard field goal five plays after the “Tuck Rule” overturned a Patriots’ fumble. Vinatieri won the game with a 23-yard kick in overtime.