By Eric Neel
Page 2

All off-seasons are fun, but this one is the best show on television. (OK, maybe second-best, after Bravo's new if-Henry-Rollins-were-a-hairdresser program, "Blowout.")

We're not even to the signing date yet, and already -- like a good campy, must-watch episode of "Dallas" -- the season of NBA wooing, wishing, and wangling has had dramatic twists, a few good fights and some mystery. And, thanks to the fact that seven teams (Phoenix, San Antonio, the L.A. Clippers, Utah, Denver, Atlanta, and Charlotte) have room under the cap to go all-out, heaping piles of cash.

The early winners?

Coach K wins for walking away.

Mike Krzyzewski
Mike stays in Durham. Well played.

He could only have sullied his "special" rep with the move. He's an icon where he is. In the pros, in L.A., he'd just be a guy with bad hair and no sense of style. And everywhere else, he'd just be the guy who took the money and abandoned the college game when it needed him most. Hell, he'd have been no better Lon Kruger.

But by staying, his legend grows. Now he's the guy who has four thousand wins, 73 Final Four appearances, 37 national titles, a deep and abiding love for "his kids," and the courage of his convictions. He's the guy nestled deep in the welcoming bosom of a land where the locals consider it sacrilege to even think bad thoughts about his hair.

The Lakers win because Kobe's pick didn't bite.

First of all, they shouldn't be twisting themselves in knots to give Bryant everything he wants. He thinks he wants to play for the Clippers? Let him go. (Shaq would stay, the Lakers could enter the Brent Barry derby, try to make moves on Ray Allen and Kenyon Martin, etc.; it'd be fine.) Let him find out first-hand what things are like under Sterling and Baylor. Put him in a room with Ron Harper. Have him take a meeting with Danny Manning. Hook him up with Darius, who'd rather live and work in Cleveland. Then see how much he wants to play for the Clips.

Second of all, Krzyzewski wouldn't have been able to do the job. It's likely he wouldn't have had Shaq and Kobe together; and even if he did, it wouldn't have mattered. You know what the Lakers were thinking: This discipline-and-hard-work thing is working in Memphis, and it got the job done in Detroit; we should give it a go here.

But see, Hubie's a discipline-and-hard-work guy who's also a proven NBA guy whose young players knew from the get-go that he knew more than they did about how to win at this level. Larry's a discipline-and-hard work guy who's also a won-at-every-level guy, with rings from the YBA on up to the Finals. Coach K would have rolled into L.A. light in the bona fides department, and the players would have smelled it in a heartbeat.

On top of that, tell me what sophisticated offensive scheme he was bringing to the party. Tell me what his savvy in-game strategies are. Talk to me about his years of experience massaging egos. The guy is a motivator and a leader, no doubt; but he's a motivator and a leader of kids who drink the Blue Devil Kool-Aid -- not of feuding, three-ring-wearing professional superstars. Once upon a time, Cruise had Zelwegger "at hello." And that's just about the same moment Coack K would have lost the Lakers.

Third, last, and best of all, the Lakers get Rudy T now. Rudy is perfect. He's hungry coming off the cancer and eager to show he can still do it. He walks in the door with cred. He knows a thing or 12 about moving the ball around between Hall of Famers. He wins Game 7s. His fire is the antidote to Phil's ice (players sick of pretentious book recommendations will tune in for raspy gut-check speeches). And my guess is his hiring is the one best shot to keep both Kobe and Shaq in town and into it in '05.

McGrady and Yao win (forgive me) BIG.

Even last year, when he had to shoot just to keep his team from being ground into little bits of dust on the gym floor, Tracy dished (5.5 assists per game/6.6 per 48 minutes). He and Yao are going to bring flow back to Houston in a way folks haven't seen since The Tyler Rose rambled and White Shoes danced. I see back-cuts and screen-and-rolls; I see an inside-out/outside-in game; I see interior passes that seem to appear in the other guy's hands as if by magic; I see smiles and high fives; I see Yao and T-Mac doing one of those Magic-and-Vlade hugs come playoff time.

Mehmet Okur
Okur's best seats in the house might move West.

Memo Okur, your life is calling.

Opportunity done knocked down the door at the Okur household this week. Six-and-fifty for a man who scored under four points in roughly 22 minutes a night? For a man who played no real role in the Pistons' playoff run? Damn. I know he's got the swarthy Elvis thing going. I know Larry hid his light under a bushel. I know he's good (a monster upgrade over whichever of the Collins brothers it was the Jazz were trotting out there last year), and he'll get plays run through and for him in Utah. But still, we're basically talking about a jump shooter, aren't we? Whatever, watch for Okur to look real good picking and rolling with Kirilenko, Arroyo, and a healthy Matt Harpring.

Rafer Alston has arrived.

He was a very solid back-up in Miami last year; but after Dwyane Wade blew up into the player the Sports Guy recently and rightfully slotted as the 10th-least-tradeable cat in the League, he wasn't going to get beyond that role. Now he signs for $29 million and gets the keys to the Raptor backcourt. Sure, he's in Toronto, so it's not perfect . . . but his nickname is, after all, Skip to My Lou, which is pretty damn close to perfect.

And the losers?

The Land of the Rising Sun fell hard.

I don't blame the Suns for not hanging around in the Kobe game. They were a long, long shot to win. But throwing $65 million at Nash over five years was a panic move. Like the guy coming off the slots with a bucket full of silver dollars, Colangelo started buying drinks for everyone in the house just to show he could do it. The Suns overvalued Nash's production, convinced themselves that what he does out there when the other team has the ball is actually defense, and, I guess, just ignored the fact that he's already 30 years old. He'll make some highlight reels and there'll be some nice 'loops to Amare, but he's no longterm solution.

What they should have done was throw half their money, or less, at his former Mavericks teammate Marquis Daniels, who's seven years younger, three inches taller, five pounds heavier, and every bit as productive. Instead, Dallas did that themselves; and now, if you stroll the halls of the casino, you can hear Mark Cuban shouting, "Winner, Winner, Chicken Dinner!"

The latest Phoenix rumor (courtesy of colleague Marc Stein), by the way, is that they'll make a pitch for Hedo Turkoglu. That makes sense because, you know, he comes up so big come springtime. What? They're not interested in Christie or Peja?

As if that goofy Silver Surfer logo man and the hiring of Montgomery weren't embarrassing enough ...

Now the Warriors decide they should sign Adonal Foyle for $41 million for five years. I like Adonal. He's a hell of a guy. His Democracy Matters organization is worthy of every fan's respect and admiration. But here's the thing: He's not your franchise center. Not even if you play in Oakland, Calif. He plays very good defense when he's healthy, but almost no offense at all regardless of his state of physical fitness. Yeah, the Warriors are going to lose Dampier; and yeah, they should be nervous. But this is the organization of Nate Thurmond and Clifford Ray, for gosh sakes. There are standards.

Shaq isn't so much a loser as he is just plain old lost.

Mitch Kupchak
It's a bad day at the office when you lose two All Stars.

Mitch and Jerry gave the team to the kid outright when they called on Coach K. And the other teams that are interested in Fu and could pile enough talent into the trade truck to make the move (Dallas, Sacramento, and maybe Memphis) are hesitating. So now he's just dangling out there, sticking to his trade "demand," whistling in the dark, and wondering how it is he could be the dominant player in all the land and still not have a pot to pee away his pride in. My guess is he'll be back. And even if Kobe's gone, he'll hate it.

Kiki is cuckoo.

If he lands Ginobili, he looks brilliant. But giving Camby a six-year deal for upwards of $50 million is madness. I don't trust the legs to hold up for 70-plus games; and I don't see who, after maybe Pau Gasol, he's big enough to stick in the Western Conference post.

And last, and least ... Little Stevie and the Magic

You have maybe the most complete player in the game and he's unhappy. Do you build around him with the draft or do you trade him?

You are playing alongside a center who, if things go right, might be a revolutionary force for years to come. Do you find a way, despite your first impulses, to share the ball with him or do you gum up the works until you make yourself expendable?

Are these hard questions?


All right, that's it for the first week.

Even as I type, Rasheed and Joe D are doing lunch, Kobe is having the Clippers over for tea, and Kenyon Martin's voice mail is filling up. There'll be plenty more to talk about next week.

Until then, or until Kobe announces he's signed-and-traded himself for CWebb and Bibby ...

Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2. His "On Baseball" column appears weekly.