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Column: Is Stern best commissioner in sports?

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Column: Is Stern best commissioner in sports?

During the ring ceremony on opening night in Miami, a microphone picked up NBA Commissioner David Stern telling LeBron James, ``I'm proud of you.''

No doubt.

Although it doesn't become official until 2014, Stern's recent retirement announcement cracked the door on the debate about his legacy. In one important sense - more on that in a moment - it's an open-and-shut case.

Charles Barkley weighed in during the Celtics at Miami pregame show, calling his one-time boss, ``arguably the greatest commissioner in sports'' because since both arrived in 1984, the average player salary had skyrocketed from $250,000 to $5.2 million this season. Factor in relative labor peace, a decided lack of scandal, expansion from 23 teams to 30 and the explosive growth of the league's fan base internationally, and Barkley's assessment doesn't sound far-fetched.

Stern is a ``player's commissioner'' in nearly every sense, which is why the knocks against him have plenty of merit, too. He inherited one of the best rivalries in sport, Magic vs. Larry, but as Michael Jordan ascended to become basketball's first truly global figure, he hitched the league's fortunes to the drawing power of its stars at the expense of its teams. So while Stern often pays lip service to achieving competitive balance, the dominance of two dozen or so superstars has made the argument moot. Only eight teams have won a championship during his stewardship - compared to 15 in the NFL and NHL, and 18 in major league baseball - and as Stern's cameo alongside James on Tuesday night reminded us, that's not likely to change anytime soon.

If you're one of those superstars, or lucky to have landed in the right place at the right time, it's been a good run. Dwayne Wade qualifies on both counts. His breakthrough season came when Shaquille O'Neal parted ways with Kobe Bryant in Los Angeles and moved east to claim his last title in Miami. Two seasons ago, James decided to leave Cleveland to take his talents there, too, pulling along Chris Bosh from Toronto in his wake. After a sure-handed 120-107 win over their Eastern Conference rivals, someone asked Wade whether players kept track of how few teams passed out rings during the Stern era like the ones the Heat collected before the game.

``I do. I do. I'm sure a lot of players do,'' Wade replied. If you know the history of the game, you know not many franchises, not many coaches and obviously not many players have won championships in that long period of time from when I started watching basketball.''

During training camp, James was asked a similar question and said, ``The game is different, but the way it's being shaped, it has some similarities.''

He's right insofar as superstars always needed a strong supporting cast - both Magic and Bird had All-Star teammates, and even Jordan needed Scottie Pippen as a sidekick - but these days they have more say over where they play than ever. The labor fight that shortened last season, and Stern's veto of the Chris Paul-to-Los Angeles trade just before it began were an attempt to slow down that movement, but it was a case of too little too late. Just about every superstar looking for a better home already has found one in the past few seasons - the latest example being Dwight Howard and Steve Nash moving to Los Angeles - which is why the biggest name anyone expects to get moved between now and the trade deadline is Cavaliers center Anderson Varejao.

As if the Heat's title last year wasn't impressive enough, they added Rashard Lewis and three-point specialist Ray Allen, putting even more distance between them and the rest of the conference. The story is almost as depressing in the West. Oklahoma City, the team Miami beat in the finals last season, figured to have its hands full getting past those Lakers and the Spurs again this year. And in a bid to save money, the Thunder traded sixth-man James Harden to Houston, deciding they didn't want to take on another long-term contract in addition to the two deals they made to lock up Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.

It's not just the players, of course, who've taken notice of how Stern does business. Fans and owners in more than a few of the league's outposts, from Sacramento to Charlotte, know only too well how the league operates. So do the bookies in Las Vegas, where more than one has the Heat and Lakers as odds-on co-favorites.

``It's great to be in that category,'' Wade acknowledged. ``It's special. It's the one thing, when the banner was going up, you look and you say, `Man, this is something that can never be taken away from us.'''

Not to worry. There's likely to be another one or two hanging alongside it sometime soon.

---

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke(at)ap.org and follow him at Twitter.com/Jim Litke.

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Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

Though not a big man, first round pick Troy Brown fills several needs for Wizards

The Wizards' selection of Troy Brown of the University of Oregon with their first round pick has been met with a strong reaction among fans, many of whom argue he doesn't play a position of need, that it was a luxury pick when other areas could have been addressed, most notably in their frontcourt. Big man Robert Williams of Texas A&M, for example, was still on the board. 

The Wizards, though, did address needs by picking Brown. And really, they arguably filled more pressing needs in the short-term than those at power forward and center.

Though the Wizards clearly need some help at big man in the long-term, as both of their starting bigs are on expiring deals, they need help immediately at both shooting guard and small forward. Brown, though he is only 18 years old and offers no guarantees to contribute right away, can play both of those positions.

Shooting guard is where he can help the most. The Wizards have one backup shooting guard in Jodie Meeks and he is due to miss the first 19 games of the 2018-19 season while serving a suspension for performance-enhancing drugs.

Even when Meeks was available this past season, he only helped so much. He shot just 39.9 percent from the field and 34.3 percent from three. Head coach Scott Brooks often chose to rely more on starter Bradley Beal than go to Meeks as his replacement. As a result, Beal logged the fourth-most minutes of any player in the NBA.

More depth at shooting guard will help relieve Beal of some of that workload. That would be great for keeping him fresh throughout the season and help him be at his best when they need him most in the playoffs.

The Wizards also have some urgency at small forward. It is their strongest position in terms of one-two on the depth chart, but they have no logical third option. That was magnified in the playoffs once Otto Porter got injured. They were left with Kelly Oubre, Jr. and had to trot out Tomas Satoransky, who has limited experience at the position.

Brown can play both shooting guard and small forward, giving them much needed depth. If he can play well enough to earn a rotation spot, the emergency situations the Wizards encountered last season could be avoided in 2018-19.

The Wizards still need to find long-term solutions at power forward and center, but they were going to need to find answers at shooting guard and small forward as well. Both Meeks and Oubre have one year left on their deals. Brown helps solidify the long-term outlook at wing.

Now, there's no denying the Wizards already had considerable talent at both shooting guard and small forward with Beal, Porter and Oubre. That begs the question of how much Brown can offer particularly in the first year of his career. But the Wizards would like to play more positionless basketball and to do that requires depth at wing.

The Boston Celtics have helped make positionless basketball famous and their roster shows that the one player-type you can't have enough of is similar to Brown. Boston has Gordon Hayward, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown and Marcus Morris. All are around 6-foot-7 or 6-foot-8 and offer versatility on both ends of the floor.

The Wizards also now have four players of that size and with positional versatility in Brown, Porter, Oubre and Satoransky. They can roll out different combinations of those guys and possibly have an advantage on defense with the ability to switch seamlessly on screens.

In the age of positionless basketball, players of Brown's ilk have become major assets especially for teams that have many of them. There is such a thing as having too many point guards or centers because they can't coexist on the floor. Versatile wings, in most scenarios, can play together in numbers.

It's different but in a way similar to certain positions in other sports. In baseball, you can have too many catchers but you can't have too many talented pitchers and utility players. In football, you can have too many running backs or tight ends, but you can't have too many defensive linemen. 

Brown gives them options from a roster perspective in the long-term. Oubre has one year left on his contract and if he continues his trejectory with a strong 2018-19 season, he could price himself out of Washington. Brown could move up the depth chart as his replacement one year from now. The Wizards also now have the option to consider trades at the position given their depth.

The problem, one could argue, with drafting Brown over a Williams-type is that it limits their options at center in particular. Drafting Williams would have made it easier to trade Marcin Gortat, for instance, because they would have had depth to deal from. Now, it's more difficult to trade Gortat, whom they have shopped on and off for months, without a plan to replace him. Finding a Gortat substitute in free agency with the limited resource they have would not be easy.

But big man wasn't their only need and in Brown the Wizards may have found a solution at other areas where they clearly needed help.

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

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Wizards' second round pick Issuf Sanon will take time, much like Tomas Satoransky did

The first round of the NBA Draft played out expectedly for what the Wizards had planned for the night. In Troy Brown, they clearly got the guy they wanted all along, seeing as there were many interesting prospects they passed on to choose him.

The second round was a bit more chaotic. Team president Ernie Grunfeld said there were a few players picked just ahead of them at No. 44 that they had their eyes on. They contemplated trading up, but no perfect deals were presented.

So, they decided to think long-term, like really long-term. In choosing Ukrainian point guard Issuf Sanon, the Wizards understand it may be years before he plays in the NBA.

"We hope to have him developed in a few years," Grunfeld said.

Sanon, just 18, plays for Olimpija Ljubljana in Slovenia. He may stay in Europe into his 20s before he comes to the United States.

The Wizards have utilized the draft-and-stash model with other players. Their 2015 second round pick, Aaron White, has been playing in Europe for the past three seasons.

Sometimes those players never convey and contribute for the Wizards. But sometimes they do and Grunfeld pointed to a player already on their roster as a model to consider.

"We drafted Tomas [Satoransky] at an earlier age, he went overseas [and] he played at the highest level and it got him ready for the NBA," Grunfeld said.

The difference between now and then is that the Wizards have a G-League franchise starting this fall, the Capital City Go-Go. Because of that, it seemed more likely going into the draft that the Wizards would use the second round pick on a guy who can play there right away. 

Grunfeld, however, opted for roster flexibility. By keeping Sanon in Europe, the Wizards can have another open roster spot. They could either fill that spot, or leave spots on the end of their roster open as they did for much of last season.

"We want to preserve a roster spot, so just because you draft someone in your second round, if you sign him, he still has a roster spot even if you let him play for the GoGo," Grunfeld said.

Sanon may have a bright future. He is a 6-foot-4 point guard with impressive athleticism who doesn't turn 19 until October. He said he models his game after Russell Westbrook, as a guard who can score the ball. More will be known about him once he plays for their summer league team in July.

The Wizards passed on several interesting prospects to pick Sanon. Still on the board were Keita Bates-Diop of Ohio State, Hamidou Diallo of Kentucky and Svi Mykhailiuk of Kansas, three players they brought in for pre-draft workouts. But instead, they went with a long-term investment, hoping they found the next Satoransky.

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