San Antonio Spurs v Memphis Grizzlies - Game Four

ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Memphis Grizzlies

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Last season: After totaling up 56 wins in the regular season, the Memphis Grizzlies got sweet revenge over the Los Angeles Clippers in the first round, then extinguished a short-handed Oklahoma City Thunder team before finally falling to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. This was the best season in franchise history by a large margin.

Signature highlight from last season: Tayshaun Prince invites you to bring your whole crew.

Key player changes:

IN: Mike Miller, Kosta Koufos, Jamaal Franklin, Nick Calathes.

OUT: Austin Daye, Darrell Arthur, Tony Wroten.

Considering the tiny amount of wiggle room the Grizzlies had under the luxury cap, there were some great additions made.

Kosta Koufos is one of the most underrated centers in the game, and he’ll mesh with Ed Davis and Zach Randolph much better than Darrell Arthur did. Nick Calathes has been one of the best players overseas the last few years, and getting a distributing backup point guard with size is another good fit. Jamaal Franklin could be scary in a few years if he stays glued to Tony Allen. There’s a lot of defensive potential there.

Mike Miller could be the biggest addition come playoff time, as the perimeter-shooting starved Grizzlies will welcome his presence as a floor-spacer when the games really matter.

The Grizzlies lost very little and made some very nice additions to the bench on the cheap. This might be the deepest team in the league.

Keys to the Grizzlies’ season:

1. Are the minor tweaks enough? 

The Grizzlies got better this offseason, but was it enough? Despite having one of the league’s best defenses last year, this was still a team that sputtered offensively late in the postseason and was just the 17th ranked offense in efficiency during the season. The Grizzlies have gone against the grain for a while now, but placing last in three-point makes and attempts might not be good enough to take out the best of the best when the defense really steps up in the playoffs.

2. What’s in the cards for Zach Randolph?

We know the Grizzlies front office isn’t afraid to trade a big piece after the Rudy Gay trade, and the tax concerns in Memphis are very real. Ed Davis is on tap for an extension or a big offer in restricted free agency next season, and keeping both Davis and Randolph on the books next year would be very difficult. Randolph is still a valuable piece, but he may be in decline and Memphis will lose leverage the longer they wait on a deal. Could another blockbuster be on tap this year?

3. Was the decision to let go Lionel Hollins for Dave Joerger the right one?

Hollins may not have always been on board with the decisions of the front office, but to his credit, his teams always defended and played hard. Joerger should be able to get the same from a veteran roster, but whether he can improve the sometimes baffling rotations and game-management in his first season as a head coach will be interesting to watch. Memphis was the league’s slowest team last season in pace, but Joerger has said repeatedly that he wants to speed it up. Will that turn out to be coach-speak or a real strategy that jump starts a below-average offense?

Why you should watch the Grizzlies: Marc Gasol is a bonafide basketball genius. Spend a whole game watching just him, and you’ll marvel at his positioning and decision-making. Tony Allen adds the perfect amount of unpredictability to a predictably stifling defense, and Mike Conley’s growing comfort level has led to more eye-popping plays. The Grizzlies are like a smart indie movie — the aesthetics may not always be on par with the competition, but it’s nuanced enough to be wholly enjoyable.

Prediction: 54 wins, the 4th seed and a second round exit. The Grizzlies are incredibly deep and will enjoy plenty of regular season success thanks to that defense, but the possible decline of the starting forwards (Tayshaun Prince and Zach Randolph) and the strength at the top of the Western Conference might make a deep playoff run difficult. Once we see what the Grizzlies do at the deadline, if anything at all, we should have a better idea of their playoff outlook.

‘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.