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 Wednesday, June 28
Lot at stake with Thomas and the CBA
By David Aldridge
Special to ESPN.com

Isiah Thomas
Isiah Thomas has no coaching experience, but he might be taking over the Eastern Conference champs.
Forget the machinations of the NBA draft, the conniving and lying by agents to get clients, the mistruths and folly spun by GMs to one another and to the press. The hardest of hardball is being played between Isiah Thomas and David Stern. At stake right now is Thomas' future with the Indiana Pacers.

But the real stakes are control and leverage for what will be a torturous negotiation between the league and the players when the current Collective Bargaining Agreement expires in 2004 or 2005.

The center of the storm is another CBA -- the Continental Basketball Association. Right now, Thomas owns it. But the league, as you are no doubt aware, has told Thomas that he has to sell his interest in the CBA if he wants to work in the NBA, citing potential conflicts of interest. The theory goes that CBA Boss Thomas could manipulate salaries of CBA players to entice them to go to his NBA team.

As you've read in these pages before, the NBA is rife with conflicts that the suits at Olympic Tower chooses not to investigate. Chummy agents and general managers, owners with baggage, agents representing players and coaches, etc. But it's their league, and they make the rules. So Thomas has to sell.

The NBA would prefer he sell to it. Thomas and the league have been dancing for months, trying to find a price. Thomas wants to make profit on his $10 million investment; the league points out that without its annual $2 million dowry, the CBA would likely fold. When Thomas held out for a better price, the NBA conveniently decided to start another minor basketball league, despite the cries from absolutely no one that the world needed it. The question on your mind should be, why does the NBA want the CBA so badly? The answer lies in (shudder) the lockout.

Stern and the owners put the screws to the players in the last negotiation because they knew the players had nowhere to go. There was no alternative to the offer the league made. The players could have held out and tried to decertify, but that would have taken months and drained their wallets. The agents' laughable attempt at an all-star game in Atlantic City only served to point out that some of their clients, to quote Tony Soprano, should start seriously considering salads.

The CBA league, though, provides an outlet. It provides arenas, facilities, staff, infrastructure -- everything the union didn't have the last time. Whoever owns that league can be a conduit for the players if they need somewhere to play during another work stoppage. And the NBA knows that. If it owns the CBA, that window is closed. And it can really put the hammer down. (The owners' next target will likely be guaranteed contracts.)

This is why Thomas hasn't been named coach of the Pacers yet. The league won't allow it until he coughs up the CBA.

But Thomas is fighting back. Expect him to announce in the next few days that he's reached agreement to sell his stake in the CBA ... to the union.

On the surface, it makes no sense. The union doesn't have that kind of money. But there are others behind the scenes that do. What if, for example, Fox's Rupert Murdoch were to buy a controlling interest? Or Black Entertainment Television's Robert Johnson? Who does business with TCI's John Malone? Now you not only have a league, you have television networks on which to show the league, and cable carriers to send the pictures down the line. And, if you're the union, you have leverage. Major leverage. If Thomas is able to pull that off, the ramifications will go well beyond whether or not he can keep Reggie Miller and Jalen Rose and Austin Croshere.

Draft Dirt
  • With the draft approaching, it's time for me to tell you who's lying (everyone) and who's telling the truth (no one). All these mock drafts make me laugh; you have one team with three of the top 13 picks trying to get rid of all of them, another team with two picks in the top seven that never tells anyone the truth about who it really likes and doesn't like and, after Kenyon Martin, no sure thing.

    That's why it's pointless. But you like this stuff, I know, so here goes nothing.

    Even though David Falk is telling people that Martin won't go first -- and if anybody's got the fix in, it's Falk -- it's hard to imagine that either the Nets (or the Magic, if New Jersey accepts Orlando's current offer of five and 10 for one) don't take Martin. Even before Jayson Williams decided to retire, the Nets were in desperate need of a power player. Ditto the Magic, who have no interest whatsoever in either Chris Mihm or Joel Pryzbilla. (Would you if Tim Duncan was available?) Here's something you can take to the bank: if Orlando deals two or all three picks and doesn't take Martin, it's got Duncan (or the consolation prize, Brian Grant) sewed up.

    Martin's range of motion and flexibility in the wake of his fractured fibula are ahead of schedule. He had the screws in his leg removed last week. Every doctor says he's on line for a full recovery.

    Missouri point guard Keyon Dooling is now the solid choice to be the first playmaker selected. He's now ahead of Hofstra's Speedy Claxton on most teams' cards. St. John's Erick Barkley is still a possible first-rounder, leaving the question of what will happen if he's still around when the Knicks pick 22nd.

    Florida's Mike Miller is moving up, too. There are major concerns about his defense, but his offensive skills and size make him a lock to be the first small forward taken. He'll go in the lottery, perhaps as high as five to Orlando.

    High schooler Darius Miles could go as high as three, to the Clippers. He wears a size 18 shoe, which indicates there's another growth spurt coming, a la Kevin Garnett. And that's scary. "For a kid his size (6-9), he's something," Nets president Rod Thorn says. "But will there be some physical constrictions on him early on? Will he take a beating? Garnett took it. And when you've got guys like Michael Jordan and Jerry West saying he's the best player in the draft, that doesn't hurt you." On the downside? Syracuse's Etan Thomas. Milwaukee may scarf him up at 15, though. The league told Michigan State's Mateen Cleaves not to come to Minneapolis, which tells you all you need to know. DePaul's Quentin Richardson's stock is plummeting, too. But the latter may be a smokescreen coming from teams (Boston and Toronto, to name two) that may be hoping the Blue Demon falls to their mid-first round level. Cleaves being uninvited to sit in the Green Room on draft night is not a good sign. But I think teams that need a point that pass on Cleaves are going to rue it.

    Around The League
  • Are the Grizzlies trying to worm out of the second pick? There's apparently a split in the braintrust about whether to draft yet another young player or go for some experience. Grizzlies say they have no problem taking either Stromile Swift or Marcus Fizer with the second selection. "You can roll the ball out tomorrow with Fizer and Martin and they're ready to play," one Vancouverite says. "Fizer is 265 pounds ... those guys are men already."

  • The Cavaliers, apparently concerned that none of the best big men will be available by the time their pick comes around at eight, have at least discussed a package of Brevin Knight and that eighth pick to the Clippers for their third selection.

  • The Mavericks are looking to add a late first-rounder. And despite his pleas to the contrary, I can't believe Mark Cuban won't try to figure out a way to buy out the last four years of 7-2 Iakovos Tsakalidis' contract from the AEK team in Greece.

  • The Wizards may be looking to add longtime assistant and former Blazers head man Mike Schuler to their assistant group of Larry Drew and John Bach.

  • Even though insurance is going to pay the bulk of it, it's still a classy move by the Nets to pay the balance of Williams' $86-million deal. They could have haggled over the bucks and paid much less in a settlement, but opted for the full ride. Now New Jersey gets an injury exception (around $3.7 million, the expected NBA average salary for 2000-01) for next season. And Williams will come off the Nets' cap completely next April 1, the two-year anniversary of his injury. That takes New Jersey's cap obligations for 2001-02 from $55.6 million down to $40 million.

  • The Hawks can't buy a break. They're now on their third attempt to get a top assistant for Lon Kruger. First, Alvin Gentry left them at the altar at the 11th hour to go to San Antonio. Now, Eddie Jordan is staying in New Jersey to be Byron Scott's top man, turning down a guaranteed three-year offer from the Hawks.


    ESPN.com's coverage of 2000 NBA draft

    Daily draft dose: Hot and not

    Stein: Hurricane Nellie ready to draft again

    Lawrence: Chicago not Bullish on weak draft

    Aldridge: They'll win, but are they great?

     David Aldridge can see Stromile Swift ending up in Vancouver.
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