Kobe Bryant

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: Los Angeles Lakers

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Last season: It was supposed to be yet another year spent contending for a championship for a storied Lakers franchise that already has 16 of them. L.A. loaded up with free agent talent in Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, and was on paper the team most believed would stand in the way of a second straight Miami Heat title.

Instead, it was a season full of drama and disaster. The Lakers were decimated by injuries to nearly anyone that mattered, Howard struggled to embrace head coach Mike D’Antoni’s system and playing alongside Kobe Bryant, and the team snuck into the playoffs only to be swept in the first round by the Spurs.

If all of that wasn’t bad enough, Bryant went down with a torn Achilles injury near the end of last season that will have a lingering effect on the team entering this one.

Signature highlight from last season: Bryant’s Achilles injury and subsequent free throws that helped give the Lakers a much-needed late season win to keep their playoff hopes alive was a candidate here, as was Steve Nash, literally the best teammate in the game, losing his temper Dwight Howard. But those were both bummers for Lakers fans, so instead let’s revisit some vintage Bryant heroics during one of the team’s most exciting wins of the year.

Key player changes: The loss of Dwight Howard in free agency immediately dropped the Lakers out of championship contention in the eyes of most pundits. But L.A. did a nice job of adding talented role players at below market value to support the stars still in place on the roster.

  • IN: Chris Kaman, Nick Young, Jordan Farmar, and Wesley Johnson were all signed to guaranteed contracts for the upcoming season.
  • OUT: Dwight Howard choose to sign in Houston in free agency; Earl Clark did the same with the Cavaliers, as did Antawn Jamison, now with the Clippers. Metta World Peace was waived using the amnesty provision, and was picked up by the Knicks. Other seldom-used players who are no longer Lakers: Chris Duhon, Darius Morris, Devin Ebanks.

Keys to the Lakers season:

1) The health of Kobe Bryant: Recovering from an injury as severe as a torn Achilles is no small task, even for someone with a ruthless work ethic and insanely high pain tolerance as Kobe Bryant. While his rehabilitation appears to be going well and Bryant has said that he’s ahead of schedule, the timing of his return isn’t nearly as important as the quality of his play whenever he does see the court this season for the first time.

Assuming a healthy Steve Nash and Pau Gasol, with the latter playing in a contract year as the featured big man in Mike D’Antoni’s offense, there is still legitimate star power on the Lakers roster beyond whatever Bryant brings. He puts the team over the top, however, in terms of having enough talent to do real damage — but only if he’s back playing close to the level we’ve come to expect, at least for the majority of the season.

2) Pau Gasol returning to All-Star form: Ever since coming to the Lakers via trade during the 2008 season, Gasol has been the one who largely was blamed publicly when things weren’t right with the team. He’s been the constant subject of trade rumors, and due to a variety of factors, many thought it was a long shot that he’d even be back with the Lakers this season.

Gasol appears healthy now, and after being marginalized in favor of Dwight Howard, D’Antoni has spent every opportunity praising Gasol’s abilities, and seems genuinely excited about being able to feature him in the offense. There should be a monster year on the horizon for the Spaniard, and depending on what version of Bryant we see, Gasol’s return to form could help the Lakers overachieve by most people’s standards.

On the flip side, Gasol is in the final year of his contract, and will be an unrestricted free agent next summer. If he stumbles at all or the team doesn’t produce wins in spite of his stellar play, the Lakers could look to dump him at the trade deadline in order to make sure they get something in return for a player of his caliber. A lot will hinge on Gasol’s play this season, both in terms of the team’s fortunes, as well as what the future may hold for him personally.

3) One word — Defense: The good news for the Lakers is that Mike D’Antoni has had a full training camp to put in his offense, and the Lakers have added players like Nick Young and Jordan Farmar who should thrive in his system while having no trouble putting up big numbers.

But D’antoni teams have never been known for their lock-down defense, and the personnel in place this year looks to be woefully inadequate on that end of the floor. Nash, Young, and Chris Kaman have a history of struggling defensively, yet all are expected to play big minutes this season. Bryant has proven he can play above average defense over the years, but was dreadful there a season ago, largely by personal choice.

These Lakers don’t have quite enough firepower to outscore teams, and don’t have nearly enough defensively to shut their opponents down for extended stretches .That middle ground is likely going to be troublesome to escape, and along with the uncertainty surrounding Bryant, it’s the primary reason that most have the Lakers finishing out of the playoffs.

Why you should watch: Well, the first reason is you won’t have much of a choice — the Lakers will be on national television 29 times. Beyond that, the intrigue surrounding how Bryant returns, what Nash has left to give in the twilight of his Hall of Fame career, and what ends up happening with Gasol are each reasons on their own, and combined they’ll make the Lakers as interesting as usual.

Prediction: 46-36, one more regular season win than last year’s supposed world-beater squad, and enough to secure one of the final two playoff spots in the West.

Look, there are six teams that are essentially guaranteed to make the postseason in the Western Conference, which only leaves two spots up for grabs. There are a lot of “ifs” surrounding this Lakers team, but I’m taking the optimistic approach on Kobe’s health and the overall team talent being enough to finish in seventh or eighth place when the regular season is finished.

Pistons-Kings game delayed for smoke over court (video)

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DeMarcus Cousins, in his eternal battle with referees (and everyone else), retroactively won every argument he’s ever had when he had to alert the officials in last night’s Pistons-Kings game to the large cloud of smoke coming toward the court. It was only then that the refs stopped play.

But the best reaction to the mistimed fog machine was Sacramento coach Dave Joerger:

LeBron James tweets: I’m not mad at Cavaliers GM David Griffin

CLEVELAND, OH - DECEMBER 25: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers rallies his teammates in the huddle during player introductions prior to the game Golden State Warriors at Quicken Loans Arena on December 25, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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After tearing into the Cavaliers’ roster construction last night, LeBron James said he’d tweet even more thoughts.

LeBron delivered, softening the point everyone amplified (that he wants roster improvements) and emphasizing the point that got overlooked (that he’s on board with Cleveland general manager David Griffin):

I’m guessing LeBron saw how his comments went over and wanted to quiet the storm he created. What he said sounds so much more resentful. These tweets read as much more constructive.

But the underlying point remains: LeBron is unsatisfied with the roster.

He won’t be a free agent until 2018, but remember, dissatisfaction with the Heat’s roster contributed to him bolting Miami.

Wizards wearing all black to Celtics game for a figurative funeral

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The Celtics and Wizards have a little rivalry brewing:

The latest chapter comes for tonight’s game, with the Wizards – imitating a commonly used fashion for closeout playoff games – wearing all black to the arena.

Kelly Oubre Jr.:

We’re wearing all black to the game. So you know where we’re going with that.

Round three. Let’s get it.

Wall (as Beal yells encouragement in the background):

All black everything. A funeral.

A. Sherrod Blakely of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

When Jae Crowder was asked about the Wizards all-black gear, his initial response…“That’s cute!”

Isaiah Thomas, via Blakely:

“This is definitely not Game 7 or the playoffs,” said Isaiah Thomas. “But if they want to take it that serious, they can.”

Gotta agree with the Celtics here. This is an absurd level of motivational showmanship for a January game.

But I also love it! These petty feuds are fantastic and spice up a long regular season.

My favorite part of the Wizards’ funeral motif: Even if they “bury” Boston tonight, these teams meet again in March.

‘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)
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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 10 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?