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NBA Season Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: 57-25, second seed in the Western Conference playoffs. The trip to the postseason was shorter than usual for the then-back-to-back defending champs, as they were unceremoniously swept out of the second round by the eventual champion Mavericks.

Head Coach: Mike Brown takes the helm in his first season with the Lakers after Phil Jackson finished 11 in Los Angeles, going to the finals seven times during that span and winning five NBA titles. Brown of course has the experience of coaching a team led by one of the league’s best players, as he was the man in Cleveland responsible for guiding LeBron James and company to the best regular season record in the league a couple of times, along with a trip to the NBA Finals.

Key Departures: Lamar Odom was traded away to the defending champion Mavericks, after the deal that would have brought Chris Paul to the Lakers was vetoed by the league office. Odom was hurt by this, and immediately requested a trade. And for some reason, the Lakers decided to immediately grant this request. Someone might have wanted to remind the Lakers’ front office that just because a player asks to be traded, you don’t have to give him away for nothing just to appease him. If that were the case, Kobe Bryant would have been gone in the summer of 2007.

Oh, and Shannon Brown signed a one-year deal in Phoenix as a free agent.

Key Additions: Does a Traded Player Exception count? Because that’s what the Lakers received from Dallas in return for the league’s reigning Sixth Man of the Year. If you’re looking for actual bodies that L.A. added, then we have Josh McRoberts and Jason Kapono — both of whom are substantially worse than the departed players whose minutes they’ll likely be taking.

Best case scenario: The Lakers were not a team that was completely broken, despite their shortcomings in the playoffs against the Dallas Mavericks. L.A. was gassed after three straight trips to the Finals, and mentally, believing that somehow once the playoffs began that they would magically solve all of the problems that were evident during the regular season wasn’t a great place to be. The Lakers got what they deserved against Dallas, but talent-wise, they were just fine. That’s no longer the case entering this season.

Trading Odom away for nothing more than a traded player exception — collective bargaining agreement jargon for empty salary cap space to acquire somebody else, so, essentially, thin air — is, by itself, a terrible move from the Lakers’ front office. When you add the fact that they gave Odom to the Mavericks, the very team that beat them four straight times in last year’s playoffs, well, on paper, it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense.

Now, if that was step one to clearing some cap space to help the Lakers acquire Dwight Howard, then fine. But as of right now, Howard is off the trading block, and the Magic seem content to start the season with him on their roster. At some point, the Magic will likely look to trade Howard, in order to get something in return instead of the nothing they’d receive if he left at the end of the upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. But with Howard waffling recently on the intensity of his desire to leave Orlando, it’s not a guarantee that he will be traded at all, much less to the Lakers.

Right now, with the loss of Odom and the less than inspiring roster additions that the Lakers have managed to make thus far, the best case for a successful season in Los Angeles — meaning, at minimum, a trip to the Finals — is acquiring Dwight Howard. Short of that, losing depth while helping the defending champs seems like a step or two in the wrong direction, and teams like the Thunder and Grizzlies are as strong as they were last season, if not stronger. Getting out of the West with less talent than before isn’t likely, so really, the Lakers need to pin their hopes on acquiring Howard, while still keeping either Pau Gasol or Andrew Bynum on the roster.

For that to happen: The Magic will have to start slowly, and Howard will need to once again realize that the Magic have failed to provide him with the correct pieces necessary to win not one, not two … well, at least a single NBA championship. With Kobe Bryant waiting in Los Angeles — along with Gasol or Bynum, one of which would have to stay to make it worth the Lakers’ while, at least in the short term — the Lakers should be the preferred option for Howard if and when he should once again tell his current team that he won’t be back next season.

More likely the Lakers will: Begin their descent into mediocrity as Kobe Bryant plays out his final few seasons as angry and disgruntled as ever? Not just yet. But if the current roster is the one the Lakers are forced to go into battle with for the duration of this season, it’s tough to envision them doing much better than a deep trip into the Western Conference playoffs, when successful seasons for this core group of players are measured only by championships.

Prediction: 48-18, third seed in the Western Conference.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.