Stephen Curry, David Lee, Andrew Bogut

NBA season preview: Golden State Warriors

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Last Season: The Warriors hope that last season was one where the decisions the franchise made put the team in position to compete for years to come — starting now. First year head coach Mark Jackson didn’t have much to work with, and Stephen Curry’s ankle problems that allowed him to play only 26 games didn’t help matters. By making the big trade that sent Monta Ellis out of town in exchange for Andrew Bogut, along with some smaller moves and some decent draft picks, Golden State is poised to show some major improvement if things go as planned.

Key Departures: Monta Ellis was the big one, traded to Milwaukee for injured big man Andrew Bogut. Dorell Wright is also gone, which only is important to mention because he started 61 games for the Warriors last season. Wright’s productivity was down from the previous year, however, and after the team selected Harrison Barnes in the draft, the club  realized his services would no longer be needed.

Key Additions: Bogut will be the biggest difference-maker for the Warriors, especially defensively. Rookie Festus Ezeli should also provide help on the defensive front, and Barnes will have a chance to make an immediate impact on both ends of the floor. Jarrett Jack will provide some veteran stability at point guard off the bench, after putting up career numbers last season on a dreadful Hornets team in New Orleans. The Warriors also added Carl Landry, who should be another more than serviceable option off the bench.

Three keys to the Warriors season:

1) One word: Health. It’s the first thing that comes out of every Warriors fan’s mouth when they talk about their team’s outlook for the upcoming season: “Hey, if we can stay healthy …” But can they? Andrew Bogut doesn’t exactly have a reputation as an iron man, and neither does the team’s young starting point guard, Stephen Curry. Bogut was targeting training camp for his return but he isn’t back yet, and while Curry has looked great early in the preseason, the team is still waiting as long as possible before finalizing a contract extension for him by the Oct. 31 deadline.

2) Defensive improvement in a major way: Mark Jackson wants to coach a team that plays some defense. Whether or not he can get a defensive system in place that his entire team will buy into is another story. Bogut in the middle is a good start, but there’s virtually no one behind him on the bench that can provide what he can while he sits. Maybe that’s Ezeli’s role to fill, and maybe the team can get 10-12 solid minutes a game from him there.

The Warriors are going to put up plenty of points with Curry and Klay Thompson lighting it up from the outside, but whether or not they can commit to defense and improve significantly from the 106 points per 100 possessions they gave up a season ago (only three teams were worse) will go a long way in determining just how much the team will improve in the standings.

3) How good of a coach is Mark Jackson? We have no idea, honestly. A lockout-shortened season and one where the team suffered injury to one of its best players, then made a franchise-altering trade is no way to treat your first-year head coach, not to mention one with absolutely zero prior head coaching experience at any level. If the team stays healthy, we’ll find out fairly quickly if Jackson’s systems and leadership style are indeed elite, and if he can put his stamp on this Warriors team by leading them to or very near the postseason, he’ll have proven that he belongs.

What Warriors fans should fear: See 1), above. The health concerns are so real with this team that it’s worth hitting home a second time.

Prediction: This Warriors team is going to be very tough to deal with offensively, and a third place finish in the division behind the Lakers and Clippers seems like good place to start. The starting five is legit, with David Lee and Richard Jefferson in the mix alongside Curry, Bogut, and Thompson. There’s a ton of depth in the Western Conference, but if everything comes together the way the team is hoping, a run at one of the conference’s final playoff spots is certainly within reach.

‘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.