Oklahoma City Thunder's Durant leaves the court after their NBA basketball game against the Miami Heat in Oklahoma City

NBA Power Rankings: Thunder move up to second spot

5 Comments

Some shifting around near the top as the Thunder go up, the Heat drop down and the Spurs hold steady. So do the Bobcats at the bottom. It’s not March Madness, but it is March setting up for a run to the playoffs.

1. Bulls (40-10, last week ranked number 1). With an undefeated week playing with Derrick Rose the Bulls become the first team to mathematically clinch a playoff berth. Big game Sunday when they face the Thunder, but only interesting if Rose plays.

2. Thunder (37-12, LW 4). The best offense in the NBA this season and it showed in an impressive win over Heat on Sunday. Tough tests ahead with the Lakers Thursday, the Bulls Sunday and the Heat again the following week.

3. Spurs (33-14, LW 3). Three games in three nights and the Spurs sweep them all, including wins over Dallas and Philadelphia. Not bad at all. If Manu Ginobili is healthy these Spurs can make it all the way to the Western Conference finals (remember they were without him in loss to Grizzlies last season). And the Spurs are a matchup problem for Thunder.

4. Heat (35-12, LW 2). They are coasting and not looking very impressive doing it of late. They are not building good habits toward the playoffs right now. We know they have another gear or two, the question is can they find it?

5. Lakers (30-19, LW 5). They are still trying to figure out who they are with Ramon Sessions in the lineup. Of course, for Lakers fans that kind of experimentation leads to a crisis mode. Too early to worry. Big test coming Thursday against the Thunder.

6. Magic (31-18, LW 6). They’ve got a relatively soft schedule to close out the season, which likely means they are going to be your three seed in the East.

7. Hawks (30-20, LW 9). Does anybody really fear the Hawks come the playoffs? They have won five of seven and have been one of the hotter teams of late, but they still just don’t strike fear into anyone. Mostly because their offense is average.

8. Mavericks (28-22, LW 10). The Lamar Odom situation in Dallas is getting worse by the day — he got a DNP-CD against San Antonio then played poorly against Houston. Mark Cuban said they were not going to buy him out, but they may have to sit him a lot.

9. Pacers (28-19, LW 14). Nice wins over the Clippers and the Bucks last week, two teams trying to stay in the playoff race. For the Pacers now it’s all about scoreboard watching and seeing who they face in the first round.

10. Clippers (27-21 LW 8). Vinny Del Negro watch is on, but it can only be a serious watch if you think owner Donald Sterling would be willing to pay for two head coaches at once. I’m not convinced. Four straight games at home could help Vinny’s cause this week.

11. Grizzlies (26-21, LW 7). Three straight losses — including to the Kings and struggling Blazers — until they picked up a nice win over the Lakers Sunday night. Still think they are struggling to fit Zach Randolph back in the rotation. Did you notice Gilbert Arenas got a DNP-CD against the Lakers?

12. 76ers (27-22, LW 11). They beat the Celtics and still hold on to that valuable Atlantic Division lead (meaning the four seed and avoiding the Heat and Bulls in the first round) but with a lot of road games to close out the season (11 of 17) they are by no means a lock at that spot.

13. Jazz (26-23, LW 16). Six wins in a row until they ran into the Hawks and four overtimes. Then they have to fry to New Jersey for another game Monday? If they win that I’ll be really impressed.

14. Celtics (25-22, LW 15). They are just half a game back of the 76ers again for that top spot in the Atlantic, but they have a much harder schedule the rest of the way. How hard to they push for that crown vs. resting for the playoffs?

15. Suns (25-24, LW 13). If I were Houston — the current 8 seed in the West — and I were worried about one team catching me, right now it would be the Suns.

16. Nuggets (26-23, LW 12). It’s going to be a hard slog the rest of the way with Rudy Fernandez out and right how Danilo Gallinari out as well. Plus, you know, trading Nene away for JaVale McGee. I don’t see them making the playoffs.

17. Knicks (24-25, LW 18). Key game Monday night against the Bucks. They are 5-1 in the Mike Woodson era but the schedule gets harder and they may have to go a stretch without Amare Stoudemire who is having back issues.

18. Bucks (22-26, LW 17). They are scoring a lot of points with the Monta Ellis/Brandon Jennings back court, but can they play enough defense to catch the Knicks for the final playoff spout in the East? They need that game Monday in New York.

19. Rockets (26-23, LW 19). If this team could get Kyle Lowry back from his bacterial infection I’d like their chances better to stay in the playoffs. That said, is there a team that gets as much out of the talent it has on the roster than Houston?

20. Timberwolves (24-26, LW 20). Kevin Love is in full on beast mode — three games last week he had at least 30 points and 14 rebounds.

21. Blazers (23-26, LW 21). They have started out 3-3 under interim coach Kaleb Canales. Apparently their young coach thinks they are supposed to be winning, not tanking. He didn’t get the memo.

22. Warriors (20-27, LW 22). Part of the thinking behind the Monta Ellis trade was to get more run for Klay Thompson, and he scored in double digits every game this week, has looked solid and is growing into an NBA two-guard before our eyes.

23. Kings (17-31, LW 24). Picked up a nice win over Memphis last week. And we like Isaiah Thomas. And we like Keith Smart. So, that’s three nice things (and you thought I couldn’t get to three).

24. Cavaliers (17-29, LW 25). They are talking about bringing Antawn Jamison back next season. At age 35. We need to discuss the concept of rebuilding with them again.

25. Pistons (16-32, LW 23). They have lost five in a row (Rodney Stuckey is injured, coincidence?) but to get beat by JaVale McGee making a smart play is just bad luck. And painful.

26. Nets (16-34, LW 26). Well, they got a win over the Bobcats last week. And just one more month until they are born to run out of the swamps of Jersey.

27. Raptors (16-33, LW 27). Don’t tell anyone, but the Raptors are playing pretty good defense again. Dwane Casey is a good coach if they give him some talent.

28. Hornets (12-36, LW 28). New Orleans threw a wild party in the French Quarter after they beat Chris Paul and his Clippers last week… wait, you mean it’s like that there every night?

29. Wizards (11-37, LW 29). The sign of how much better they are with Nene in the lineup is how bad they were with him gone against Boston Sunday.

30. Bobcats (7-39, LW 30). Dreaming of Anthony Davis….

‘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
Leave a comment

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:

image

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):

image

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):

image

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
3 Comments

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)

1 Comment

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)

Leave a comment

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.