John Henson

The Extra Pass: Bucks are bad, and that’s good; plus Wednesday’s recaps

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By D.J. Foster

All over the league, we’ve seen young teams fighting against the tank.

If the playoffs started today, the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns would be in the playoffs. This was unfathomable a few months ago. It wasn’t just about their rosters being bad – they were supposed to be bad.

The Milwaukee Bucks, meanwhile, are never supposed to be bad. Here’s what Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Howard Beck before the season:

“In our organization, there is this competitive need to be as good as we can every year,” Bucks owner Herb Kohl told Bleacher Report. “It’s an instinct. Even though one might argue that mathematically you’re better off going the other way.”

“I’m not speaking for what other teams do,” Kohl said. “We just every year do the very best we can, to put together the best team we can. That’s our M.O. That’s what we do.”

What Milwaukee does, in reality, is openly embrace mediocrity. It’s been 13 years since the Bucks have advanced past the first round of the playoffs. They’ve had one top-5 pick in that timeframe. They’ve never had more than 46 wins in any of those seasons. If it weren’t for such a rich tradition, the Bucks would be completely and totally irrelevant.

On Wednesday night, the Bucks hosted a San Antonio Spurs team that actually embodies the principle Kohl mistakenly thinks his franchise does.

The Spurs compete. They are the best they can be every year. But guess what?

Even the inscrutable Spurs tanked once in 1997, and they haven’t had to since.

On Wednesday night, that Spurs team that tanked 16 years ago to get Tim Duncan held a 38-point lead in the third quarter. Duncan had 21 points and 16 rebounds in 24 minutes.

O.J. Mayo, Milwaukee’s $24 million dollar life preserver, was one made three-pointer away from putting up a “22 trillion” – 22 minutes with zero meaningful stats across the board.

The Bucks, obviously, ended up losing the game. Plenty of words sprang to mind to describe the performance. Embarrassing. Depressing. Ugly.

But you know what else it was? Productive.

The 2014 draft class is projected to be one of the best we’ve seen in years. Sure, there are no guarantees in the lottery, but Milwaukee has to give themselves a chance to be great. Pretending the system doesn’t work the way it does is more than stubborn. It’s stupid.

There are pieces here. John Henson is a future star. Giannis Antetokounmpo has the kind of natural ability you dream on. Nate Wolters looks like a nice player. Make no mistakes, though: the Bucks are begging for direction.

32 point losses at home aren’t fun. Neither is the trip to the cellar of the Eastern Conference. But realistically, is it any worse than the last 13 years of Milwaukee Bucks basketball?

The Bucks have attempted to sell their fanbase on a somewhat competitive team for long enough. It’s time to sell them some hope for once.

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Orlando 92, Charlotte 83: The Magic got a balanced attack that saw seven different players finish in double figures scoring, and out-rebounded the Bobcats by 11 to help in securing this victory. Charlotte shot just 36.9 percent from the field as a team, and Gerald Henderson led the Bobcats in scoring with 12 points, but did do shooting a miserable 3-of-14 from the field in just over 30 minutes of action. — BP

Clippers 96, Celtics 88: Doc Rivers had an emotional first return to Boston as head coach of the Clippers, and by his own admission emotions got the better of him throughout the game’s first half. That may explain L.A.’s slow start in this one, but the Clips scored 57 second half points to be able to get the win. Chris Paul finished with a near triple-double line of 22 points, seven rebounds and nine assists. –BP

Thunder 116, Grizzlies 100: No Marc Gasol and no Tony Allen for Memphis in this one, so the easy double-digit victory for OKC in this one was somewhat expected. Russell Westbrook did the damage with a monster of a game, and finished with 27 points on 12 shots, to go along with six rebounds and nine assists. — BP

Spurs 109, Bucks 77: Take one of the best, most efficient teams in the league in the Spurs and face them against one of the league’s worst teams in Milwaukee, and this is the end result. This game was over by halftime, when the Spurs led by 23 points and Tim Duncan had already registered 16 points and 11 rebounds in just over 16 minutes. Someone named Miroslav Raduljica tallied 10 points and seven rebounds in less than 23 minutes for the Bucks, proving just how out of hand this game truly was. — BP

Timberwolves 106, Sixers 99: Philadelphia started off strong by getting out to a 19-point first quarter lead, but Minnesota slowly crawled back into it and outscored the Sixers by 20 in the second half to come away with the victory. The Timberwolves won despite shooting a far lower percentage than their opponent — just 38.5 percent to Philly’s 52.7 percent — but that was due to Minnesota gaining 22 more field goal attempts thanks to 12 more offensive rebounds and the Sixers turning the ball over 26 times. — BP

Pelicans 111, Pistons 106 (OT): Detroit came back from nine down in the fourth to force the extra session, after neither team could score in the final 1:19 of regulation. Ryan Anderson scored eight points in overtime to help his team win, while huge efforts from Greg Monroe (28 points, 10 rebounds) and Brandon Jennings (25 points, five rebounds, four assists, six steals) were wasted in the losing effort. — BP

Knicks 83, Bulls 78: The Knicks need wins, they’ll take them no matter how ugly they are. And this one was ugly. Carmelo Anthony did his part with 30 points and 10 rebounds, and Amar’e Stoudemire stepped up with 10 points during a key 19-0 Knicks run in the second quarter. New York led by 23 but the scrappy Bulls battled back to tie it at 74-74. You can thank Mike Dunleavy Jr. who had 20 points and 8 dimes. But Stoudemire hit a key jumper and Anthony had 9 points in the fourth. It’s a win, Mike Woodson will take it right now. — KH

Jazz 122, Kings 101: Sacramento didn’t dress Rudy Gay or anyone else from the trade (they couldn’t play because Greivis Vasquez has yet to pass his physical in Canada) but that wouldn’t have helped them here. Utah was just clicking on offense — they shot 53.9 percent overall, hit 13-of-23 from three and had an offensive rating of 133.2 points per 100 possessions. Individually Richard Jefferson was 7-of-9 shooting, Derrick Favors 6-of-9, Alec Burke 7-of-11 and that will get it done. After the way this season has gone for them, the Jazz could use an easy win. — KH

Warriors 95, Mavericks 93: Dallas had a, 18-point lead in the first half, a 10 point lead with 8 minutes to go, but against the Warriors in Oracle Arena that is like a 2 point lead anywhere else. Stephen Curry had 16 of his 33 points in the fourth quarter — including the game winner, which was part of a 9-1 Golden State run to close out the game and get the win. Monta Ellis and Dirk Nowitzki each had 21 for Dallas. — KH

‘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.