April 21, 2006
Julio Franco:
At 47 years and 240 days, the ageless Franco becomes the oldest baseball player to ever hit a home run. Is Geritol on the banned-substance list?
The Lead Item
Two Words For You:

LeBron James is my pick for NBA MVP, and I'd love to think that I was the decisive vote in giving LeBron the edge over Kobe, 7-6, for ESPN.com's NBA Awards panel.

I respect the argument for Kobe, that no player single-handedly carried a less talented supporting cast into the playoffs.

I respect the argument for Nash, that no player makes his teammates better.

So I'll take LeBron, because he combined the best of both of those other top MVP contenders, making him a more complete -- and valuable -- player.

As Kobe-Like Team Carrier:
What does it say that with slightly better talent around him than Kobe had, LeBron was nearly every bit the scorer Kobe was (minus the "81"), and yet -- unlike Kobe, and this is huge -- still managed to make his teammates better.

(Let's agree: Kobe makes no one better. Perhaps he had to "carry" his teammates because his selfish interpretation of how the game is to be played effectively disempowered and even eroded the rest of the roster.)

As Nash-Like Playmaker:
So if LeBron makes his teammates better -- almost as well as Nash does -- LeBron is also Nash's superior in so many other ways:

While Nash was "merely" his team's playmaker, LeBron had to fill that role and the go-to scorer role, along with being a team leader in rebounding, for which Nash and Kobe had no responsibility on their teams.

Throughout this MVP debate, everyone has tried to parse "valuable" into these mutually exclusive buckets: Biggest scorer or biggest facilitator or best player on the best team or "most with least" or biggest surprise.

When you combine all the "value" factors together, no other player is even close to being as completely valuable as LeBron.

He had it all over anyone else.

NBA Playoff Picks
This year's Rob Thomas? Tom Petty will provide the sound track throughout the NBA playoffs on ESPN and ABC.

In honor of that, here are my picks for the NBA first round, using the Petty discography. Confidence? To quote Petty: "No, I won't back down":

Pistons d. Bucks (in 4)
"Runnin' Down a Dream": Detroit has been on a mission all season long; phoning it in lately was just to prep. The 16-win run starts now.

Heat d. Bulls (in 5)
"Don't Come Around Here No More": Bulls actually have an edge on the perimeter, but in the lane, where playoff series are won? Yikes: Shaq, 'Zo, Haslem. Game over.

Nets d. Pacers (in 5)
"Breakdown": Injuries have plagued the Pacers all year long, but they're finally healthy. But the Nets have gelled into a top-five team.

Wizards d. Cavs (in 7)
"Learning to Fly": Playoff first-timer LeBron shines, but Butler (25 ppg in last 3G) outplaying ex-Wiz Hughes will be the difference.

Spurs d. Kings (in 6)
"Don't Do Me Like That": Artest stoked things Thursday: "I don't even think we're the underdogs anymore ... They're No. 1 now, but I think we'll leave No. 1."

Suns d. Lakers (in 5)
"Into the Great Wide Open": Suns and Lakers averaged a combined 206 ppg in four games this season. Ultimate team vs. individual showdown.

Clippers d. Nuggets (in 7)
"Stop Draggin' My Heart Around": Is there a more hard-luck fan base than the Clippers'? Appropriately, home-court advantage is the difference.

Mavs d. Grizzlies (in 5)
"Free Fallin'": Memphis has never won a playoff game. So the good news is that they'll finally win one; the bad news is that'll be it.

And as for the rest:
East Finals: Pistons d. Nets
West Finals: Spurs d. Suns
Finals: Pistons d. Spurs (6)

Pat Riley: Will return as Heat head coach next season
St. Louis Blues: Win NHL Lottery (then Pens, Hawks, Caps)
NBA head coaches: Can directly call timeouts next season
Duke: Will continue to allow sales of "Duke LAX" apparel
T-Wolves: Rumored to be interested in Stephon Marbury
Brian Billick: Ray Lewis refuses to back him in interview
MLB Wrap
Yankees valued at $1 billion: Everyone do your best Dr. Evil impression. Forbes tabs the Yanks as the first MLB team to be worth $1B. As if Yankees fans needed anything more to be insufferable about.

Derrek Lee out 6-10 weeks! Like clockwork, mere weeks after signing a monster contract extension, Lee is out with a broken wrist after that freak collision with Rafael Furcal.

Bonds Watch: IBB, not HR. Bonds didn't start for the second straight game, and if he didn't hit a HR as a pinch-hitter last night, he did the thing he's next-best at: He got on base with an intentional walk that preceded a game-winning rally in the ninth.

O's Mazzone works magic: Erik Bedard became the third pitcher (Schilling, Villarreal) to start the season 4-0, gutting through a 3ER, 6H, 7K, 2BB performance in six innings. "I had to battle," he said.

The 2006 Clint Barmes Award for Idiotic Injury goes to Kevin Mench, who got turf toe from wearing shoes a half-size too small. With that cleared up now, maybe he can work on those "size zero" RBI.

Stanley Cup Preview
I got a playoffs e-mail from my go-to NHL source. He reminded me that our preseason Stanley Cup prediction of Ottawa over Calgary is still very viable and to stick with it. Meanwhile:

"My key story line still is how the referees are going to call penalties in the playoffs. The traditional 'prison rules' that made the NHL playoffs so intense and exciting aren't supposed to apply any more.

"Watch for over half of many first-round games to be played with one team shorthanded -- special teams will become a huge factor and also puts MORE pressure on your goaltender."

He gave me a shocker of an upset call: 8-seed Edmonton over 1-seed Detroit, noting that the Oilers are 2-2 versus the Wings this season. I suggested that perhaps it ties into America's "Addiction to Oil." No reply.

(Scott Burnside has a great analysis of why this upset isn't likely to happen, part of ESPN.com's must-read NHL playoff coverage.)

UCLA Pair Going Pro
In the Morning Quickie chat, we like to joke that my hoops skills are similar to Jordan Farmar's, if I had any skills.

Mainly, that's because the UCLA point guard is the greatest Jewish basketball player of our time, and I'm merely a Jewish basketball player.

But I'm one step closer to my dream of seeing him in the NBA. For better or worse, he declared for the draft, along with backcourt mate Arron Afflalo.

Presumably, after that unexpected trip to the national title game, they think their stock will never be higher, even though if they returned, UCLA would be a top-five team and a strong Final Four favorite.

Neither is necessarily first-round material (but if they don't like their draft status, they are leaving the option open to go back to school).

I see Farmar as a poor man's Sam Cassell (but, more importantly, substantially better looking, in that "nice Jewish boy" way). Afflalo is a poor man's Bruce Bowen, arguably the best perimeter defender in college hoops.

But is that enough to impress the scouts into making them first-round picks? As always with early entrants, individual workouts (and perhaps a team developing as much of a man-crush as I seem to have) will be the key.

L. Brown to Return
Larry Brown will return to coach the Knicks next season. Or so he and GM Isiah Thomas said Thursday.

No guarantee for how things will be in a month.

Or next fall.

Or halfway through next year.

A few helpful tips for Brown:

• Stop coaching via the media.
• Stick with a lineup already.
• Embrace your young players.
• Find a way to ditch Isiah.
• Try not to be such a crank.

As I argued on Monday, his return (much like his original hiring) is a mistake.

NFL Fan Draft
Latest from SportsNation's NFL Fan Draft:

No. 18 (DAL): OT Eric Winston
Another "U" alum hits 1st Rd.
19 (SD): CB Antonio Cromartie
Missed all of '05 (knee)
20 (KC): DT Brodrick Bunkley
No. 9 on Kiper's Big Board.

Get a recap, and vote today for the Pats (9 a.m. ET), 49ers (noon ET) and Bucs (3 p.m. ET).

Quickie Draft Challenge! One week to go! Don't forget to sign up for the new "Daily Quickie Readers" group of ESPN.com's "Draft Forecast" game. (Open to everyone; no password needed). Sign up here!

Madden 07 Cover
It's Shaun Alexander. Which begs a question:

Between (a) the Madden cover jinx; (b) the curse that happens for almost every free agent who gets a huge payday; and (c) the natural karma boomerang he's due after setting the single-season TD record...

How many fantasy football owners with the first overall pick will think twice before drafting Alexander? If only because the guy has every jinx indicator pointed right at him, suggesting a problem-plagued 2006 season.

Moe Williams:
Found guilty of disorderly conduct in connection with the Vikings' infamous boat cruise. Let's hope his community-service sentence doesn't include water time.
Today on ESPN.com
Quickie: Live!
NHL Playoffs
Page 2 Index
My NBA MVP ballot
How many more MVPs to come?
Won his first scoring title
Didn't have novelty of '04-05
Best player on best team
Tops Hollinger's PER list

Chad Johnson agrees to a contract extension with the Bengals through 2011. He'll need the extra money for all the TD-celebration fines he'll have.

"Kevin Garnett is staying here," T-Wolves GM Kevin McHale said. There goes my master plan to trade KG to the Nets for Richard Jefferson and picks.

Anyone else notice that Mark Madsen took seven 3s in the T-Wolves' season finale? He was 0-of-7. They'd be better off with Jason McElwain. No, seriously.

Did you miss National High Five Day? (No, not "Happy 4/20 Day," though if you were confused, it was probably predictable.) Even I got a five in.

Huge shout-out to the best NBA team blog online, "Wizznutzz," who are all over the national breakout of Gilbert Arenas (Nickname: "Zero")

At this weekend's Miss USA pageant, shield your eyes from the mockery that will be celebrity judges Hines Ward and Chad Hedrick.

Tom Petty Fun Fact: Continuing what can only be described as "The Season of the Gator," NBA playoff soundtracker Petty was raised in Gainesville.

On Saturday, you'll get to experience the Heat-Bulls game via ESPN's "Full Circle" coverage: On ESPN, ESPN2, ESPN.com, on the phone and more.

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