July 13, 2007

Sleepless in Milwaukee

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I was going to write my last NBA Draft blog this week, but after the latest installment of “How Yi Jianlian Turns,” I had to extend it for at least a week. It is not often that a top-10 player refuses to play for the team that drafts him, so I had to write about it. Yi was drafted by Milwaukee even though he had previously made it clear that he did not want to play there. He had not invited the Bucks to his private workout, and had expressed concern about the fact that there were only 1,200 Asian-Americans in the city, approximately the same amount of people who saw Gigli in theatres.
In order to try and diffuse the situation, Milwaukee GM Larry Harris and head coach Larry Krystowiak met Yi last Thursday in Las Vegas, and are lobbying hard for him to come to his senses and sign. Bucks owner Herb Kohl wrote a letter to Yi, urging him to play in Milwaukee, citing its proximity to Chicago. Also, a recent poll taken in China revealed that 68 percent of people want him to play for the Bucks. Despite this, Yi has not talked publicly about signing, and there are strong rumors that his agent is trying to force a trade. This situation is not unprecedented, as there have been a few similar instances throughout sports history.
Probably the most famous example of this refusal in the NBA was Steve Francis. Francis was highly regarded coming out of the University of Maryland, and was taken with the second pick in the 1999 draft, one spot behind Elton Brand. There was one problem though; Francis was picked by the Vancouver Grizzlies. After being drafted, Francis was visibly shaken on draft night, looking like he had just been locked in a depravation chamber and forced to listen to Björk. Francis later publicly expressed his concern with playing in Vancouver, saying that he did not like the weather or the high taxes (he apparently wasn’t swayed by the ability to watch a lot of Vancouver Canucks hockey games).
Vancouver ultimately decided to accede to Francis’s demand, trading him to Houston in a three-team deal, receiving Michael Dickerson, Othella Harrington, Antoine Carr, Brent Price, and two draft picks (in retrospect, the Grizzlies probably would have been better off receiving the second season of The Sopranos on DVD). Vancouver was never the same, as it was built around Bryant “Big Country” Reeves, a player so unathletic that he makes Spencer Hawes look like Carl Lewis. Eventually, the Grizzlies moved to Memphis, and Francis has enjoyed a solid yet unspectacular career, making the all-star team three times.
Probably the more famous examples of players refusing to play for the teams that drafted them occurred in football. Everybody knows former Denver Broncos quarterback John Elway as a Hall-of-Famer and two-time Super Bowl champion, but most people forget that he was originally drafted by the Baltimore Colts with the first pick in the 1983 NFL draft. Elway did not want to play for Baltimore though, feeling that he would not be successful with the Colts. In addition, he had the leverage of threatening to play minor league baseball for the Yankees.
Baltimore of course traded him to Denver for Mark Herrmann, Chris Hinton, and a draft pick. Elway became one of the best quarterbacks of all time; the players the Colts received were duds and the team packed up and moved to Indianapolis in 1984 (sensing a pattern here?).
More recently, Ole Miss quarterback Eli Manning was selected by San Diego with the first pick in the 2004 draft. Manning was put off by the Chargers’ record of having players hold out, and stated before the draft that he would not play for them. San Diego drafted him anyway, but quickly traded him to the Giants for Philip Rivers and three draft picks.
Manning has been a decent quarterback, but has to deal with cold weather, the pressure to be as good as his brother Peyton and scores of sports personalities dissecting his every move. The Chargers, on the other hand, received three Pro Bowlers in the deal and play in sunny San Diego.
So where does that leave Yi and Milwaukee? In my opinion, despite precedent, the Bucks should just cut their losses and trade Yi before he decides to sit out the season, stay at home and watch reruns of Miami Vice all day long. If Yi does decide to sit out the year and does not even play for the Chinese National Team, he can apply for the 2008 draft and go to another team. Furthermore, the Bucks do not want to anger Yi so much that he turns into fictional studio boss Harvey from Entourage.
If Milwaukee is smart, it should trade Yi to Golden State. Yi would fit in well in Don Nelson’s fast-paced style. Even if he takes some time to develop, fellow rookie Marco Belinelli has looked amazing in summer league games, so there would not be so much pressure for an immediate impact. Furthermore, the Bay Area has the second highest percentage of Asian Americans in the United States, only trailing Honolulu.
In return, Milwaukee should demand Brandan Wright from Golden State. I know that I have ridiculed Wright as if he was Voldemort from “Harry Potter,” but he is a legitimate prospect, and it is better than getting a bunch of Warriors scrubs in return. Since Wright was drafted after Yi, Golden State might have to throw in a little more, but given that trading Yi would cause the Bucks to have peace of mind, Milwaukee should just accept a one-for-one deal. If nothing else though, the situation will certainly provide entertainment and gossip for NBA fans for the rest of the summer, giving everyone a respite from the doldrums of being forced to sit through ESPN’s inane running series Who’s Now.