NBA Draft: DeMarcus Cousins, the boom or bust debate

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cousins_no1.jpgI clearly remember the first time I watched a Kentucky game this season. Like everyone else, I wanted to see what this John Wall kid was all about, so I timed a Saturday morning trip to the gym with a Kentucky game, got my spot on the stationary bike and watched.

Within just a few minutes I was asking, “Who is this DeMarcus Cousins?” The “other” Kentucky freshman was a beast inside — physically strong, quick feet, and he had a soft and deft touch around the rim. He looked like an NBA big thrown into a college pickup game, he was that much better than anybody else.

Scouts and general managers were already on to him for those same reasons. But they are also asking themselves: Will his million dollar body be done in by his five-cent head?

Questions of focus and work ethic popped up again at the NBA Draft Combine in Chicago this week when Cousins tested with 16 percent body fat (second highest level at the event). Some GM’s said he was just going through the motions at the combine, not taking it seriously.

All that puts general managers in a tough spot, as Frank Hughes reported for Sports Illustrated.

But despite Cousins’ attitude and reputation, he’s still a projected top-five pick. And his talents present an interesting quandary: If a team passes on him and he ends up being a great player, like Amar’e Stoudemire, the GM stands to lose his job for failing to identify his strength of character. After all, one talent evaluator said Cousins is the most productive minute-per-minute player in the draft after averaging 15.1 points and 9.9 rebounds in 23.5 minutes a game for Kentucky. But if the GM picks him and he turns into a bust, like former Clippers No. 1 pick Michael Olowokandi, the GM stands to lose his job for failing to foresee the obvious red flags

By all reports Cousins came off well in the interviews in Chicago with team executives, and at 19 he deserves some leeway. I’m not proud of everything I did at 19, nobody is. But then there is this quote from his teammate Daniel Orton just this week.

“Unpredictable,” Orton said (of Cousins). “People don’t realize it, but he’s a loving kid — sometimes. I’ve seen it get out of hand, but he can control it. It’s kind of like watching a kid throw a temper tantrum.”

Some team in the top 5 will — and should — take the risk on Cousins. In the end, talent wins in the NBA and skilled, strong big men with a hunger to score like Cousins do not come around often. But I would go out and get a reliable veteran (preferably a big man) who has a good work ethic to pair with Cousins. Someone to show him what it takes to be an NBA player, someone to show him maturity and focus. Someone to be his Crash Davis.

With that, maybe the million-dollar body will come through. But there is a risk.

Report: Wizards to offer Bradley Beal five-year max contract on July 1

Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal reacts after making a 3-point shot during the second half of an NBA basketball game against the Utah Jazz, Thursday, Feb. 18, 2016, in Washington. The Wizards won 103-89. (AP Photo/Alex Brandon)
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Bradley Beal isn’t messing around when setting his value in free agency this summer.

I’m a max player.”

Apparently, the Wizards agree.

J. Michael of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

Just as the Wizards did with John Wall, offering him a max deal early in the process of negotiation, they’ll do the same with Bradley Beal, a person with knowledge of the situation told CSNmidatlantic.com earlier this week.

This is a smart move.

Washington could let the market dictate Beal’s price, but with the salary cap skyrocketing, it’s bound to come in at a max salary anyway. By offering him a max deal on day one, the Wizards can get Beal on board with re-signing when the time is right.

Beal’s cap number will be $14,236,685 until signed or renounced. Once signed, his 2016-17 salary will become his cap number, and the max projects to be $21,579,000. So, Washington could spend the difference (projected to be  $7,342,315) then exceed the cap to re-sign Beal using his Bird rights.

Beal could get impatient and interrupt those plans, but why would he sign a max offer sheet elsewhere (projected to be worth about $92 million over four years) that the Wizards will surely match if he can just re-sign directly and get about $124 million over five years? Washington is trying to ensure he doesn’t find a reason.

Report: Warriors fretted during 2015 NBA Finals because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were out

PHOENIX, AZ - DECEMBER 28:  (R-L) Kevin Love #0 and Kyrie Irving #2 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during the NBA game against the Phoenix Suns at Talking Stick Resort Arena on December 28, 2015 in Phoenix, Arizona.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Some Cavaliers fans still want to put an asterisk on the Warriors’ 2015 championship, because Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love were injured during the Finals.

Apparently, Golden State had the complete opposite view.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Irving and Love have been the central players in Cleveland’s worst breakdowns. Opponents in the playoffs have scored 1.09 points per chance when they involve those two as the primary pick-and-roll defenders in a play that leads directly to a shot attempt, drawn foul or turnover, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. That would have ranked last by a mile among 119 two-man combos that defended at least 250 pick-and-rolls in the regular season, per that SportVU data set.

Zoom out to include any trip that features a pick-and-roll targeting Irving and Love at any time, and the number gets worse: a hideous 1.207 points allowed per possession, stingier than only one of those 119 duos — the Jrue Holiday/Ryan Anderson pairing in New Orleans.

Opponents know this stuff. They are putting Irving and Love into twice as many pick-and-rolls each game as they averaged in the regular-season, a massive jump out of proportion to the slight uptick in minutes the two are playing together. These are the sort of numbers that had members of the Golden State Warriors’ coaching staff quietly fretting when both Love and Irving missed last year’s NBA Finals, forcing the Cavs to play superior defenders in their place.

This is how the Warriors operate. They’re arrogant. They reportedly believed they’d sign Kevin Durant. Owner Joe Lacob told The New York Times: “We’re light-years ahead of probably every other team in structure, in planning, in how we’re going to go about things. We’re going to be a handful for the rest of the N.B.A. to deal with for a long time.”

So, I believe Golden State thought Irving and Love – two stars – getting hurt lowered its odds of winning. That doesn’t make the Warriors right, but there is a logic to this thought process.

If the Cavs would’ve had their top talent – including Irving and Love – on the floor, I don’t think they could’ve played the grind-it-out style that better matched up with Golden State. Giving more prominent roles to Tristan Thompson and Matthew Dellavedova and running all the offense through LeBron James made the game rougher and slower, and the Warriors struggled in that style.

That’s why I don’t accept this thought process: “Cleveland pushed the Warriors to six games without Irving and Love. Imagine what the Cavs would’ve done with those two.” It’s not that simple. The Cavaliers couldn’t have played the same way with Irving and Love, and the freer-paced alternative would’ve played into Golden State’s hands.

I believe the Warriors would’ve won that series regardless of Irving’s and Love’s injuries. Many disagree. We’ll never know.

But I do get a kick out of the idea that Cleveland fans and Golden State coaches were similarly – though for very differently reasons – distraught about Irving’s and Love’s injures.

Report: Raptors (update: probably wouldn’t have) fired Dwane Casey if they lost in first round

INDIANAPOLIS, IN - APRIL 23:  Dwane Casey the head coach of the Toronto Raptors disagrees with an offical's call in the game against the Indiana Pacers during game four of the 2016 NBA Eastern Conference Quarterfinal Playoffs at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on April 23, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana.   NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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Update: Lowe clarified in an update to his piece:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have raised questions about Casey’s job security — even with Toronto holding a 2016-17 option they were leaning toward picking up regardless of the Pacers series, sources say.

These types of mixed signals show why you shouldn’t always take general managers at their word when they give coaches votes of confidence.

 

Raptors general manager Masai Ujiri on Dwane Casey before the playoffs, via Josh Lewenberg of TSN:

If we don’t go past the first round, what’s going to happen? Coach Casey deserves to be the coach. He deserves to be our coach in the future.

Casey was coming off an impressive regular season. Toronto won a franchise-record 56 games, and Casey finished fifth in Coach of the Year voting.

But would the Raptors really keep him if they lost in the first round as the higher seed for the third straight year?

I know what Ujiri said. But it’s one thing to like Casey as a coach – I do – and another to watch another first-round upset unfold in front of your eyes. The experience of seeing four losses to the Pacers can change someone’s mind – and reportedly would’ve changed Ujiri’s.

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

Toronto might have been one gaffe by Pacers coach Frank Vogel in Game 5 away from bowing out in the first round again, a crusher that would have cost Casey his job, per several league sources.

Of course, the Raptors beat Indiana in seven games, slipped past the Heat in seven games and have beaten the Cavaliers twice in the Eastern Conference finals. That ought to preserve Casey’s job, even if Toronto is eliminated in Game 6 tonight.

The Raptors are at the point where they need a quality playoff coach. For the better part of three straight postseasons, Casey didn’t look like one. He still hasn’t come close to answering all the questions about him, but he has created enough doubt about his postseason proficiency.

Casey has done quality work transforming the Raptors. Unless they’re more certain he can’t get the deeper in the playoffs, they should keep him and give him a chance to try.

Billy Donovan: Warriors’ free-throw advantage over Thunder was ‘the difference in the game’

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 26:  Billy Donovan of the Oklahoma City Thunder looks on during Game Five of the Western Conference Finals against the Golden State Warriors during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at ORACLE Arena on May 26, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Why did the Warriors beat the Thunder in Game 5 of the Western Conference finals last night?

Andrew Bogut‘s rim protection? Kevin Durant‘s and Russell Westbrook‘s teammates not doing enough? Stephen Curry‘s late defense?

Oklahoma City coach Billy Donovan:

The difference in the game was the fact that they went to the free-throw line 34 times.

The discrepancy tonight for free throws, for whatever reason, that was really, to me, the difference in the game.

Yes, Golden State shot 34 free throws to the Thunder’s 24 – and made 31 to the Thunder’s 20 – in a 120-111 win.

But nine of the Warriors’ attempts and makes came in the final 1:02, beginning with a curiously timed Donovan technical foul and then Oklahoma City intentionally fouling. The Thunder also hacked Bogut earlier in the fourth quarter, and he went 1-for-2 at the line. Remove those, and the free-throw attempts are 25-24.

It was a little surprising when Oklahoma City intentionally fouled Klay Thompson down nine with 55 seconds left. Trailing teams should generally begin fouling sooner than they do to increase variance, but most don’t. They usually defend in those situations, which makes me wonder about a deeper motivation.

Did Donovan, realizing the Thunder were going to lose anyway, get a technical foul then order intentional fouling sooner than usual so he could complain about the free-throw disparity and lobby for more favorable calls in Game 6?