By Bill Simmons
Page 2

Come on, I couldn't have allowed the summer to pass without another edition of America's favorite running column gimmick, "Which NBA player has the highest trade value?" Besides, the demand for this year's edition was off the charts -- a whopping eight readers e-mailed me over the past week wondering where it was.

(For the non-NBA fans, I'll save you the time and write the scathing e-mail for you: "Jeez, ANOTHER column about the NBA? Could you just bludgeon me in the head? Nobody cares about this stupid league! You're the only one! Get a life, Simmons! Why don't you go give Cuban another lap dance? Burn in hell! Burn in hell!" Feel free to copy and paste that and send it along. Back to the column.)

TRADE VALUE 101
A quick recap of the rules:

A. Salaries matter. Would you rather pay Boris Diaw $4.6 million for two years or Ben Wallace $60 million for four?

B. Age matters. Would you rather have Ray Allen for the next five seasons or Chris Bosh for the next 12?

C. Pretend the league passed the following rule: For 24 hours, any player can be traded for any other player without cap ramifications. So if Team A tells Team B, "We'll trade you Player X for Player Y," would Team B make the deal or not?

D. Concentrate on degrees. For instance, neither the Lakers nor Orlando would make a Howard/Kobe trade. But at the very least, the Lakers say, "Wow, Dwight Howard's available?" while the Magic would say, "There's no frickin' way we're trading Dwight Howard." That counts in the big scheme of things.

E. The list runs in reverse order (Nos. 40 to 1). So if Carmelo comes in at No. 15, players 1 through 14 are all players about whom the Nuggets would probably say, "We hate giving up 'Melo, but we definitely have to think about this deal." And they wouldn't trade him straight-up for any player listed between Nos. 15 and 40.

Two things you need to know:

1. For a quick refresher of the rules, check the accompanying sidebar on the right.

2. I spent way, way, WAY too much time on this column: Four drafts and more than 5,200 words. You don't have to plow through it now -- just print it out and save it for the next bathroom trip. My feelings won't be hurt.

Before we dive into the Top 40, let's say goodbye to the incumbents who couldn't crack this year's list: Al Jefferson (No. 37 last year) was demolished by the sophomore jinx. ... Say what you want about Zach Randolph (33), but at least his ridiculous $86 million extension led to the "Cribs" episode where Zach held up a framed photograph of him shaking hands with Nelson Mandela, then looked into the camera and said, "Nelson Mandela, powerful man, powerful man." ... Larry Hughes (32) never meshed with the Cavs and can't seem to stay healthy. ... Richard Jefferson (31) doesn't seem to be getting better and might want to consider changing his first name to "Ricky" or "Rico" to spruce things up. ... Kenyon Martin (27) moved over to a prime spot on the "Top 25 Worst Contracts" list (don't worry, we'll cover that as well). ... And Ben Wallace (26) went from being wildly underpaid and underrated to wildly overpaid and overrated in the blink of an eye. Just check his regular-season and playoff stats, for God's sake. He peaked two or three years ago.

(That reminds me, am I the only one who thought Chicago wasted much of its cap space for two extra rebounds per game, a mild defensive upgrade and the ongoing comedy of a Buckwheat-caliber afro? Congratulations, you get to play four-on-five for the next four years in a league where every rule adjustment favors teams that can score. Why not just keep Chandler for two-thirds the price? Instead, they overpaid for Wallace and gave away Chandler for a washed-up P.J. Brown and a draft bust that New Orleans was trying to dump? I don't get it. This is like Paramount Pictures signing William H. Macy to a four-picture, $60 million deal -- sure, he's a great actor, but that doesn't mean you pay him like a superstar. They will eventually regret this one almost as much as Wallace probably regrets filming that T-Mobile commercial that made him seem whipped.)

The toughest omissions from this year's list:

Carmelo Anthony and George Karl
Jeff Gross/Getty Images
Max contract for Melo and George (plus their max egos) may cause trouble in Denver.

Marvin Williams: If the Hawks traded him, it would be a signed confession that they screwed up royally with Chris Paul. Congratulations, Marvin, you're the new Darko.

Charlie Villaneuva: Actually, this wasn't a tough omission -- I just wanted to comment on the Villanueva-T.J. Ford trade. Disregard Ford's scary spinal cord problems, that he can't shoot to save his life, that he's a free agent two years earlier than Villanueva, even that he lost crunch-time minutes to Charlie Bell last season. Again, I want you to disregard everything in that sentence. From a pure basketball standpoint, since when is a young point guard worth as much as a young power forward who can rebound and shoot 3s? When has that EVER been the case? How fast did the Bucks' front office say yes to this trade? 0.79 seconds? 1.2 seconds? Did they say, "Hold on, we'll discuss this and call you back in a few hours," then hang up and start pouring champagne on one another? If somebody made this deal in my fantasy league, I would have protested it.

Devin Harris: Now THIS is the type of young point guard you get for Villanueva. Unbelievable. Maybe the worst one-for-one NBA deal since Dennis Johnson-for-Rick Robey in 1983. I can't say enough about it. You know my ongoing "I should be running an NBA team" joke? As it turns out, I'm overqualified -- I watch basketball and have common sense. Looks like the dream is dead.

Jason Richardson: When somebody averages 24 points a game in the same backcourt with Baron Davis shooting 38 percent and pulling his "Teen Wolf" routine, that's saying something. But would you want to be paying him $62 million over the next five years? Me neither.

Ben Gordon (40 last year): Let's downgrade his ceiling from "the next Andrew Toney" to "the next Vinnie Johnson." No shame in that -- who was more fun to watch than the Microwave? And did one of your college roommates ever have a recurring hookup that you nicknamed "The Microwave?" Um, me neither.

Andre Iguodala (38): Didn't seem to improve enough last season. Of course, if they ever launch a new professional basketball league in which the whole team concept is scrapped and players just have 30-minute individual workouts, followed by judges scoring their performances like figure skaters, Igoudala and Rajon Rondo would probably be the top two picks.

Joe Johnson (21): Even though he pulled the Dirk Diggler memorial, "You're not the boss of me! You're not the boss of me! I'm the biggest star here!" routine with Phoenix last summer, you have to hand it to him for thriving in Atlanta with WNBA-caliber point guards. Surprisingly solid crunch-time guy as well. I'm downgrading him only because of his contract (four years and $58 million remaining).

Jason Richardson
Rocky Widner/NBA/Getty Images
If you have a spare $62 million, then Jason is for you.

Onto this year's Top 40 ...

Group I: "Cost-Effective Building Blocks"

(Important note: Because of their potential and/or their contracts, teams wouldn't trade the next seven guys in any realistic deal, but it would be stupid to pretend they're more valuable than the subsequent players on the list. So we're sticking them here.)

40. Tayshaun Prince, Caron Butler (tie)
Two playoff-proven guys with reasonable six-year extensions kicking in next season ($49.5 million for Prince, $48 million for Butler). That's right, these guys will make 20 percent less than Nene through 2012. You figure it out.

39. Chris Kaman
Name me three other quality centers under 30. Go ahead. I dare you. Now, name me five other low-post players who can score with their back to the basket, going in either direction, with either hand, whenever they want. And while we're here, name me one other NBA starter who hasn't cut his hair in six years, looks like the ax murderer from an Eli Roth movie and functions at a high level despite severe ADD.

38. Boris Diaw
A throw-in to the Joe Johnson trade cracks the annual Top 40 list ahead of Johnson just 12 months later. Ladies and gentleman, Mr. Billy Knight!

Tayshaun Prince
Elsa/Getty Images
Tayshaun's contract might look pretty attractive when the Pistons are .500 next season.

37. Emeka Okafor
A freefall from No. 16 last summer. Did we ever figure out how someone can miss 56 games with a sprained ankle? Would that even happen to Rocco Baldelli?

36. Andrew Bogut
I will never doubt anyone from Australia again. Not even someone with the name "Paul Hogan Jr."

35. Josh Smith
Quietly turned into a homeless man's Bill Russell after the 2006 All-Star Break: 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists and an eye-popping 3.13 blocks per game. And he can't drink legally until December. If the NBA started handing out awards like, "Most Surprisingly Exciting Player To See In Person," last year's winner would have been Smith or Andrei Kirilenko. Seriously, is there a more exciting play in hoops than a lanky forward sprinting down the court like a gazelle, sizing up a fast-break layup from the blindside, then swatting it into the fifth row? I think not.

Group H: "You'll Have To Bowl Us Over, But We're Listening"

34. Ron Artest
On the hook for $23 million for the next three years -- that's a bargain, even for someone who redefines "volatile."

That reminds me, here's the updated tally on the Artest Melee: Hands down, the worst NBA on-court incident in 27 years ... caused the NBA to completely overhaul security measures in every arena ... obliterated a dominant Pacers team that looked like the favorite to win the 2005 title ... led to Ben Wallace's brother narrowly edging Marcus Vick for the "Worst Sports Sibling Of the Year" Award ... made Jim Gray sound like he was near tears on the air, although he later claimed it was the pepper spray ... gained a charmed second life on TiVo and YouTube ... landed a few Pistons fans in jail, which was probably a good thing ... somehow resulted in Stephen Jackson unquestionably winning "craziest guy in the league" status, even though Artest was the one who charged into the stands ... failed to spark Artest's music career, regrettably ... ultimately led to the Pacers giving away a top-30 talent for three lukewarm months of Peja Stojakovic.

33. Rip Hamilton
Now here's a good contract for an All-Star: $40.6 million and an unlimited supply of schnozzaroo masks over the next four years.

32. Tony Parker
Can't shoot 3s, can't guard anybody, doesn't create shots for other guys, on the books for $58 million over the next five years ... and I still couldn't leave him off this list. Besides, he gets bonus points for swaying the Sports Gal into watching Spurs playoff games just to see what Eva Longoria was wearing, leading to classic questions like "Why doesn't Ginobili just color in his bald spot?" and "Wait, is that guy's name really 'Nazi?' "

31. Josh Howard
In danger of becoming the next "Everyone's been calling him underrated for so long, he's slowly becoming overrated" guy. Due for a major extension, which means we won't be seeing him on the 2007 list unless he starts nailing 3s.

30. Michael Redd
One of the most efficient scorers last season: 25.5 points per game, 40 percent 3s, 88 percent free throws. But can you get past the first round if he's your best guy? Probably not. Well, unless you pull off three more Villanueva-for-Ford heists.

(Did I mention that I can't get over that trade? I'm in an American League-only fantasy league in which the second-place team traded Single-A prospect Cameron Maybin to the 10th-place team for Justin Morneau last month, and that set off three weeks of vicious message board posts, angry phone calls and the resignation of our longtime commissioner, since he was the one who ended up with Morneau. And this was a FANTASY league. The Villanueva-Ford trade was the real-life equivalent -- so were there angry e-mails and phone calls between the GMs in the Central Division when they found out? Like, did Joe Dumars immediately flip out and leave nasty messages on Bryan Colangelo's machine? Or does this only happen in fantasy leagues when the owners don't have lives?)

Group G: "Just Know, He's Worth More To Us Than To You"

29. Andrei Kirilenko
Not a good sign that his 2004 stats were better than his 2006 stats, or that his biggest impact last season came from his wife giving him that "once a year" sex pass. Let's hope he's not one of those tantalizing talents who keeps going four rounds too early in our fantasy drafts. I hate those guys. By the way, I'd stick him lower but he's on the books for $73.5 million over the next five years. Seems a little steep.

28. Kirk Hinrich
The poor man's Nash. We might have to ask the president to step in and demand that Hinrich plays in the 2008 Olympics. It's for the good of the country.

27. Shaun Livingston
So, I'm watching a Charlotte-Orlando game from 1994 on ESPN Classic a few weekends ago, mainly because it was so jarring to see Skinny Shaq and Skinny Alonzo flying around. But that game made me realize three things. First, Orlando should have dominated the rest of that decade; it's almost inconceivable that bad luck (Nick Anderson missing those ill-fated free throws in the '95 Finals, leading to a Rockets sweep and Anderson going from a potential 10-time All-Star to a certified Section 8) and petty jealousies (the stupid Shaq-Penny feud) ended up sidetracking a potential dynasty.

Second, Penny Hardaway was really, REALLY good. We forget this now, but he made consecutive first-team All-NBA's before he turned 25. Ten years later, he's known to an entire generation of fans under 25 as "the dude from 'Blue Chips.' " Kinda weird how that turned out.

And third, I keep comparing Livingston's ceiling to a poor man's Magic, but that's not totally fair: Magic was one of the all-time greats and had leadership/charisma skills that Livingston just doesn't possess. We're never going to see another Magic, which is unfortunate because that means we'll never see another "The Magic Hour." But the pre-injury Penny Hardaway ... now there's a comparison. Penny was a better scorer; Livingston is a better passer. Other than that, they're eerily similar, right down to the passive-aggressive body language, lanky physiques and jawdrop/nuclear/freakish/world-class athleticism. Say what you want about Penny, but if Livingston evolves into a more unselfish version of him, this would be a good thing. And, yes, I renewed my season tix for a third year solely because of him, even though I was on the fence after the Clips fans did The Wave during consecutive playoff games. Downright humiliating. I'll get over it. Eventually.

26. Ray Allen
Props to anyone who reels off a monster contract year, signs a monster contract, then submits an even BETTER season the following year. He's like the Bizarro Jerome James. We might need to get him out of Seattle, by the way. I just picture him watching the draft last week, hoping the Sonics would trade up or something, then sinking into his expensive sofa after the Sene pick and angrily opening a bottle of Scotch. Ray Allen deserves to play for a 50-win team.

25. Chauncey Billups
Can we still call him Mr. Big Shot when he's playing for a 40-42 team next season? But you're looking at the best dollar-for-dollar value for any veteran in the league -- two years remaining at $13.1 million. Did I mention this is the same league that guaranteed Nene $60 million last week? I mentioned that, right?

(By the way, congrats to Joe Dumars for parlaying Ben Wallace, Carlos Arroyo and the No. 2 pick from a draft that featured LeBron, Wade, Bosh and 'Melo into Nazr Mohammed and Orlando's 2007 No. 1 pick. Well done.)

Group F: "Shhhhhh ... We'll Discuss Him, But You Can't Tell ANYONE"

THE ANSWER
Rumors are swirling that (A) the Celtics are the odds-on favorite to land Allen Iverson, and (B) Iverson is pushing hard for Boston. And since it's not often that your team has a chance to land one of the top-40 players of all-time, as well as a top-20 talent on the tail end of his prime, I had to comment.

Here's my take: I hope the Celtics don't overpay for AI for four reasons. First, he peaked as a player about three or four years ago, especially on the defensive end. Second, there isn't a good track record for penetrating guards in their early-30s who absorbed a ton of contact over the course of their career (Tiny, Isiah, KJ, Mo Cheeks, etc.); like smaller running backs, they tend to lose it almost overnight. Third, it's doubtful that he could coexist with another alpha dog (in this case, Pierce); the Sixers contended with him only once (during a weak year in the East in 2001), and only because they surrounded him with veteran role players who let him do his thing.

And fourth, if you think the Philly media had trouble handling AI, just wait until you see what happens in Boston, a city that leads the country in "middle-aged white sportswriters and radio hosts who are openly threatened by cornrows, tattoos, chest-pounding and general belligerence with the media." Iverson might be one of the most misunderstood athletes in any sport, someone who wears his heart on his sleeve, a hypercompetive guy who can be brutally honest at times, one of the more thoughtful and self-aware superstars around. In the right city, he would absolutely thrive. I'm just not sure he would get a fair shake in Boston, where the media would pick him apart for the little stuff (missing an occasional practice, shouting at a reporter, flipping out after a loss) and miss the bigger picture (that he's a top-20 player and an absolute warrior).

Throw in the obvious Pierce/Iverson alpha conflict in crunch-time (who gets the ball down one with 20 seconds left?) and this is a bigger gamble for the Celtics than it seems on paper. Does it make sense? Sure ... as long as they don't give up Pierce, Delonte West, Perkins, Telfair or Jefferson. The Celtics mean nothing in Boston right now; next to the Patriots and Red Sox, they're an afterthought. Iverson would change that. But I'd rather see them wait a few months, then hope an unhappy Iverson sabotages his situation in Philly and pursue him for 50 cents on the dollar. It's the Michael Corleone move.

As for my dad's take, here it is: "Please, God, no."

24. Allen Iverson
A future Hall of Famer who averaged 33 a game is currently available ... and not only do none of the contenders seem to be interested (not even the Bulls, who would have been perfect for him), but the guy shopping him is Billy King, who would have easily clinched "Worst GM of the decade" honors if Isiah Thomas and Kevin McHale never passed through our lives. Is anyone else terrified right now? We could be heading for the sequel of the Barkley-for-Hornacek/Perry/Lang trade here, right down to the poor Sixers fans being involved again.

(Here's a prediction: Within the next 15 years, Philadelphia becomes the first city to ban professional sports for an entire calendar year to preserve everyone's collective safety. We're really getting to that danger point. Hooligans, rioting, you name it.)

23. Jermaine O'Neal
If I were running an NBA team, here's the guy I would target: Good chemistry guy, total warrior, fantastic in the community, a guaranteed 22-10 every night, and he's potentially available because of some fluke injuries and Indiana's apparent desire to blow things up. Peruse the most one-sided trades from the past 25 years (Shaq, Barkley, Bernard, T-Mac, Ray Allen, C-Webb, Vince, J-Kidd, Sprewell, Alonzo, Moses, Dennis Johnson, Robert Parish, etc.) and they have one thing in common: Somebody gave up on an All-Star in his prime for reasons that had nothing to do with his talent. This looms as the next big mistake. Mark my words. I love this guy. And not just because he ran 50 feet to punch out Turtle from "Entourage" during the Artest Melee.

22. Pau Gasol
Still picking up his teeth after Dirk Nowitzki handed it to him in the playoffs. He might need to shave the beard into muttonchop sideburns next season. You know, just to mix things up.

21. Shawn Marion
Someone In The Know swore to me that hell would freeze over before Robert Sarver (the Suns owner) ever paid the luxury tax, even guaranteeing a Marion deal this summer as soon as Amare Stoudemire gets a totally clean, "All right, you're ready to kick butt again" bill of health. Thought that was interesting. But Marion clearly thrives with a certain style (run-and-gun), which gives him more value to the Suns than anyone else. And as Mike Francesa would say, he has a yooge, YOOGE contract. So where would he go? You got me.

(By the way, I've been watching the World Cup for four weeks trying to decide which NBA players could have been dominant soccer players, eventually coming to three conclusions. First, Allen Iverson would have been the greatest soccer player ever -- better than Pele, better than Ronaldo, better than everyone. I think this is indisputable, actually. Second, it's a shame that someone like Chris Andersen couldn't have been pushed toward soccer, because he would have been absolutely unstoppable soaring above the middle of the pack on corner kicks. And third, can you imagine anyone being a better goalie than Shawn Marion? It would be like having a 6-foot-9 human octopus in the net. How could anyone score on him? He'd have every inch of the goal covered. Just as a sports experiment, couldn't we have someone teach Marion the rudimentary aspects of playing goal, then throw him in a couple of MLS games? Like you would turn the channel if this happened?)

Group E: "Pretty Much Untouchable"

20. Manu Ginobili
As time passes, his Game 7 foul on Nowitzki will take its rightful place alongside Isiah's pass that Bird stole, Worthy's pass that Gerald Henderson stole, Derek Harper dribbling out the clock, Nick Anderson's free throws and the Peja/Christie airballs as one of the 25 most incompetent moments in NBA playoff history. And yes, I would watch that show. But I could see his career going one of two ways -- either he's never the same, or he's better than ever before. I vote for the latter.

(Not to keep bringing back soccer, but Ginobili's constant flopping makes much more sense after sitting through four weeks of World Cup -- he only needs to incorporate the "carried off in a stretcher, and as the stretcher is taking him away, he hops off like nothing happened and joins the play again" maneuver. That's my favorite.)

19. Vince Carter
Finally taken off the hook in Canada after Chris Pronger's wife forced the Anaheim trade. (Also taken off the hook: Doug Christie.) I have to say, it makes me want to puke that he cracked the top 20. No way around it.

18. Paul Pierce
Put it this way: When you walk into Boston owner Wyc Grousbeck's office, the first thing you see is a gigantic, framed, autographed No. 34 Celtics road jersey.

17. Chris Bosh
A delightful third season: 22.5 points and 9.5 rebounds per game, 51 percent shooting, 82 percent from the line ... and I will never figure out for the life of me how any NBA expert believed that an 18-year-old Croatian was a safer bet in the 2003 NBA draft.

16. Chris Paul
If you could pick any point guard under the age of 30, this is the guy. It's nice to see the best prospect in an NBA Draft get picked first, then live up to the hype. Oh, wait, he went fourth.

15. Carmelo Anthony
Terrific regular season, numerous clutch moments, vindicated himself on every level ... and he was three levels beyond dreadful in the Clippers series. Now he's locked into an $80 million extension, and we know that he's uneasily coexisting with his ornery coach (George Karl, who has apparently reached "I'm Keith Hernandez" status even though he hasn't won a title) on a Nuggets team that had too many iffy chemistry guys and completely self-combusted in April. In other words, I don't see 'Melo's 2006-07 season going that well -- my B.S.-detector is going off like a car alarm.

Group D: "Ridiculous For You AND For Us"

MONEY PLAYERS
Just for fun, the 25 worst contracts in the league:

25. Antoine Walker -- 5 years, $45 million remaining
24. Rasho Nesterovic -- 3 years, $23.4m
23. Jamal Crawford -- 5 years, $43m
22. Brian Scalabrine -- 4 years, $12.4m
21. Jamaal Tinsley -- 5 ys, $33.6m
20. Kyle Korver -- 5 years, $23.4m
19. Adonal Foyle -- 3 years, $26.8m
18. Darius Miles -- 4 years, $34m
17. Brian Cardinal -- 4 years, $24.3m
16. Etan Thomas -- 4 years, $26.4m
15. Eddy Curry -- 5 years, $52.5m
14. Zydrunas Ilgauskas -- 4 years, $45.8m
13. Sam Dalembert -- 5 years, $50m
12. Nene -- 6 years, $60m
11. Quentin Richardson -- 4 years, $33.2m
10. Raef LaFrentz -- 3 years, $35.4m
9. Mark Blount -- 4 years, $27.5m
8. Marko Jaric -- 5 years, $35m
7. Erick Dampier -- 5 years, $50m
6. Jerome James -- 4 years, $25m
5. Chris Webber -- 2 years, $43m
4. Steve Francis -- 3 years, $52.7m
3. Stephon Marbury -- 3 years, $59.2m
2. Zach Randolph -- 5 years, $73.3m
1. Kenyon Martin -- 5 years, $71m

14. Shaquille O'Neal
Nobody could absorb his contract and Miami would never trade him. That's no fun. By the way, when are we getting another Shaquille O'Neal All-Star comedy roast? Some of the clips from the first two are floating around YouTube -- I defy anyone to watch the first five minutes of Guy Torry's performance in the Emmitt Smith Roast and not come close to coughing up a lung.

13. Tracy McGrady
Peaked as an offensive player three or four years ago -- he's not as productive or efficient as Kobe, Wade, LeBron or Arenas, and not even remotely as durable as those guys OR Pierce. Even when healthy, his back worries him enough that he settles for too many jumpers and 3s (over the past three seasons, he shot just 42 percent from the field and his FT attempts dropped significantly). On the flip side, he has played 25 career playoff games and averaged a 30-7-6. Could you win a title with T-Mac, Yao and a bunch of role players? Absolutely. That's why he's not going anywhere.

12. Kevin Garnett
Keeping KG as the centerpiece of a 40-win team for the rest of the decade makes no sense to me. None. Zero. Kevin McHale screwed this thing up with a variety of dumb trades and signings, the damage was irrevocable, and now it's time to cut the cord and move on. At this point, holding onto KG to keep the fans happy is like mismatched parents staying together for the sake of their kids -- sure, it's a noble gesture, but they're still doing more harm than good. Plus, I honestly wonder if KG can make it through another .500 season -- you can see the venom seeping from him during every loss. He's borderline homicidal. Unfortunately, it seems like Minnesota is going to wait one more summer to pull the trigger. I don't get it.

Group C: "Only If They Asked to Leave"

11. Elton Brand
Ahead of KG, you say? Well, would you rather have 27 year-old EB hitting his prime at a reasonable $46 million for the next three years, or 31-year-old KG killing your cap at $66 million for the next three years with about 120,000 miles on his odometer? Yeah, I thought so.

10. Gilbert Arenas
Scoring average by season: 10.9, 18.3, 19.6, 25.5, 29.3. And he turns 25 next January. By the way, Kobe averaged six more points than Arenas last season but needed an extra 505 shots to do it. Thought that was interesting.

9. Kobe Bryant
I have run out of things to say about him. Good and bad.

8. Steve Nash
Come on, how could they trade him? He's the two-time MVP! He's the best player in the league! Everyone voted on it and everything!

Group B: "Let Me Save You Some Time: N-O."

7. Amare Stoudemire
Remember, he was No. 2 on last year's list. Now? You got me. Let's just say that the track record of NBA stars missing an entire season because of a serious injury, then returning to their pre-injury form isn't extensive. In fact, it doesn't exist. There's no precedent. Bernard King might have come the closest. And that's why this is every Phoenix fan's worst-case scenario opening for a March 2008 episode of "Real Sports":

"Hello, I'm Bryant Gumbel. Tonight on Real Sports, figure skating has become a multi-billion-dollar business ... so why would the sport continue to shun asthmatic amputees? Bernie Goldberg has more. Also, Mary Carillo investigates a bulimic jockey fantasy league in Kentucky that went horribly wrong. And Frank Deford has the tragic story of an autistic Special Olympian Russian immigrant who somehow survived Cherynobyl, Colombine, the Unabomber AND the Exxon-Valdez spill before finally losing his life during a coal mine collapse. But first, how Amare Stoudamire's microfracture knee surgery completely altered the course of a potential Hall of Fame career. More importantly, why aren't NBA players ever the same after this procedure? Armen Keteyian intentionally blew out his left knee to find out."

6. Dwight Howard
Not even Moses Malone was tossing up 28-26s at age 20. We need Linda Cohn back on the 2 a.m. SportsCenter so she can start calling him "D-Ho."

Group A: "Completely and Utterly Untouchable"

5. Dirk Nowitzki
His averages for the 2006 Finals: 22.8 points, 10.8 rebounds, 39 percent shooting, 25 percent from 3s, only 4.5 veiled "Boogie Nights" references per game from Scott Van Pelt and Neil Everett. Pretty pedestrian. By the way, kudos to my buddy House for spending a solid hour at work searching for the angry e-mail he sent me in mid-June (12 hours after Nowitzki's no-show in Game 4) and being genuinely crushed that he couldn't find it. These are the things my buddies do at work. Anyway, the e-mail roughly read like this:

    Dear Dirk,

    "We regret to inform you that we're rescinding your invite into the Pantheon, although we're mailing you $200 worth of feminine hygeine products to soften the blow. Now please take the skirt off, forget about the refs and start driving to the basket like you did in the first three rounds. You make us want to throw up. And next time you decide to [disgusting sexual act described in gory detail], please alert us first so we can wager against your team. You [expletive]."

    Sincerely,
    The Pantheon Committee

4. Yao Ming
Was making The Leap after the All-Star Break (25.7 points and 11.6 boards per game) before breaking his foot in early April. What a shame. And we forget that he's only 25 -- for instance, Shaq peaked at 28, Hakeem peaked at 30, David Robinson peaked at 29, Ewing and Moses peaked at 27, Kareem peaked with his almost unprecedented triple-whammy at age 33 (an MVP season, Finals MVP and award-winning cameo as Roger Murdock in "Airplane" in 1980), Paul Mokeski's mustache/perm combo peaked at 28, Mike Gminski's beard peaked at 29, and Shawn Bradley didn't peak as a dunking test dummy until 28. True centers take awhile. Everyone forgets this. We're getting a 28-12 from Yao one of these years. It's coming.

3. Tim Duncan
His finishes in the Top 40 column: No. 2 (2001), No. 3 (2002), No. 1 (2003), No. 2 (2004), No. 1 (2005), No. 3 (2006). Pretty impressive. Not quite as good as making the All-NBA First Team eight years in a row, but pretty impressive.

2. LeBron James
I know, I know -- under normal circumstances, he'd be No. 1. But these are the facts ...

A. I keep writing about this, and everyone in Cleveland keeps sending me hate mail, and I don't really know what else to tell you ... but people around the league swear that there's a clause in LeBron's Nike contract (already worth $100 million) that doubles the money if he plays for an NBA team based in New York, Chicago or Los Angeles AND that some of his other endorsement deals have the same clause. Don't shoot me, I'm just the messenger.

B. We know that LeBron and his peeps are already positioning himself as a multimedia presence, someone who could potentially emulate Magic and P. Diddy and own record companies, movie theaters, clothing lines and everything of that ilk. You need to live in a big city to pull this off -- either New York or L.A.

C. The Cavs blew their cap space last summer (more than $160 million spent on Zydrunas Ilgauskas, Damon Jones and Hughes) and have no real way to improve. If you remember, by the end of the Detroit series, poor LeBron was a one-man show. Do you think he wants to spend the next eight to 10 years carrying a mediocre supporting cast?

D. LeBron becomes an unrestricted free agent in the summer of 2008. He could sign an extension with the Cavs this summer, but there's really no reason to do so. Thinking logically, he could break any bone or blow out any ligament over the next 24 months and STILL get offered a max contract by every team with cap space. So why not see how this season unfolds and keep his options open? No injury short of paralysis could hurt his value over the next two years.

E. From the NBA's standpoint, nothing would generate more interest in the 2006-07 season than the running subplot, "Is LeBron staying or going?"

F. The first day that teams could offer max extensions to rookies from the 2003 draft class: July 1, 2006. We know that Denver offered one to Carmelo (quickly accepted), Miami offered one to Wade (quickly accepted), and Cleveland offered one to LeBron (NOT accepted -- plus, neither LeBron nor his agent has commented publicly and it has been six days and counting). The silence has been deafening. Repeat: Deafening. In fact, it's developing into the biggest sports story of the summer and nobody seems to give a crap. But they will. Just wait.

Dwyane Wade
Joe Murphy/NBA/Getty Images
It's safe to buy your D-Wade jersey -- he's not going anywhere.

G. Everyone in Cleveland is having a collective heart attack. And with reason. If LeBron ends up fleeing the Cavs, that would be the biggest non-injury/non-death blow to a professional team in sports history. Unless they were able to sign-and-trade him for a mother lode of players and picks (like the Oilers did with Gretzky), basketball would die in Cleveland and the team would have to move. Imagine living in Cleveland, watching LeBron pass through town like a comet -- the next Ali/Tiger/Pele/MJ -- then he spends the heart of his career playing in another city? How do you bounce back from that? The answer: You don't.

H. There are dozens of reasons -- literally -- why Isiah Thomas is one of the worst executives in sports history. But his failure to create cap space for the summer of 2008 just in case Facts A-thru-F played out remains his all-time dumbest move. Yes, even dumber than the Curry trade.

(Note: If Bron-Bron re-signs with Cleveland this month, disregard everything in the previous few paragraphs and move him to No. 1 on this list. You never know. And just for the record, I hope he stays in Cleveland because LeBron splitting town would be one of the cruelest sports stories of all-time, even if it was overwhelmingly predictable from day one, and no fan base deserves to get kicked in the collective groin to that degree. Well, unless he goes to the Clippers. Then I would wet myself. Repeatedly.)

1. Dwyane Wade
Now here's someone we KNOW won't be going anywhere.

Bill Simmons is a columnist for Page 2 and ESPN The Magazine. His new book "Now I Can Die In Peace is available on Amazon.com and in bookstores everywhere.



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