Top Teams Sitting Out Of NBA Playoffs

Some of the NBA's hottest teams missed the cut for this year's playoffs. And to what lengths will Cuban athletes go for a chance to play in the MLB? ESPN.com's Howard Bryant tells NPR's Wade Goodwyn.

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WADE GOODWYN, HOST:

And it's time for sports. Today, the NBA playoffs begin, and several teams that normally steal the spotlight are nowhere in sight. Meanwhile, some old guys from San Antonio are again looking like contenders. We're joined by Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. He's at the studios of New England Public Radio. Good morning.

HOWARD BRYANT: Good morning, Wade. How are you?

GOODWYN: I'm fine, thanks. This year, the Los Angeles Lakers, the Boston Celtics, and the New York Knicks are all sitting out of the NBA playoffs. They're the three biggest markets in the country. What happened?

BRYANT: Well, I think what happened was the - well, the Celtics certainly are in a rebuilding mode. Everybody knew they weren't going to be a very good team this year. I think the Lakers, once you lose Kobe Bryant, he only played six games this year, and they lost Dwight Howard to free agency last year, then they weren't going to be that good either. And the Knicks, well, the Knicks are just one dysfunctional team, but luckily they've got Phil Jackson, he of the 11 championship rings, and maybe they can turn it around next year. But from a signature name standpoint, the NBA is missing three big teams for the first time in 67 years.

GOODWYN: I guess there's one main question about the playoffs. Can anybody beat the Miami Heat?

BRYANT: Well, that's been the conversation ever since LeBron James got there. Can anybody beat them four times? And I think that that's been - last year, the San Antonio Spurs were 20 seconds away from doing it, and even they didn't do it. So this year, the conversation is the same. The Spurs have been the best team over the course of the season, but LeBron James is the best player in the league, even though Kevin Durant from Oklahoma City is going to win the MVP, I think.

But to me, I'm just going to believe it when I see it, that somebody can take out. In the NBA, best player wins. So can you take out LeBron James? Because we haven't seen it for the last couple years. They're looking for three championships in a row.

GOODWYN: On a more somber note, this week two publications, ESPN The Magazine and Los Angeles Magazine, reported a story about a major league baseball outfielder. His name is Yasiel Puig.

BRYANT: Yasiel Puig.

GOODWYN: Yasiel Puig.

BRYANT: Yes. Try saying that three times fast.

GOODWYN: Yasiel Puig. And the story wasn't about his game, but his journey from Cuba to America to play for the Los Angeles Dodgers. And it sounded disturbing and complicated.

BRYANT: Yeah, it's, it is a complicated story. And I think people, as the story's begun to unfold, it's depressing. It's the story about how the Cuban ballplayers defect and their road to get away from their country and defect to play in the United States. And Yasiel Puig, a couple years ago, he signed for $42 million. And Scott Eden, the reporter for ESPN The Magazine, did a fantastic job on just explaining the different handlers that get involved. And one of the handlers happened to be part of a Mexican drug cartel.

And now Puig is also being sued by other people who want 15, 20 percent of his earnings to come here. And it's a very high cost in human lives, as well as what's taking place back in Cuba, as well. The number of people who are involved, who supposedly, according to the story - and we know that this has happened in the past - that the ballplayers allegedly told the Cuban government that they'd essentially snitched on them and sent some of these guys to prison to allow the baseball players to escape. It's a really, really sad story.

It's very complicated in terms of culpability. But the one thing that we do know is that when you're trying to defect from a place like Cuba and the desperation that's involved, there's a lot of money at stake - and these ballplayers are making ridiculous loads of money - and the desperation to get out is pretty high. Puig, this was his fourth attempt, I think, or his fourth or fifth attempt to escape. And so the stakes are very, very high. And now that he's here and he's a great, great player, and now there are a lot of people who also have their hands out.

And there's a lot of legal wrangling about who's responsible for some of those people who are now in Cuban prisons, as well. It's a fantastic story.

GOODWYN: Howard Bryant of ESPN.com and ESPN The Magazine. Howard, it was a pleasure.

BRYANT: My pleasure. Thank you.

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