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‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

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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?

Russell Westbrook scores most points ever in triple-double, 57

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Russell Westbrook led a double-digit comeback in the final minutes of the fourth quarter. Been there done, that.

Westbrook hit a defining buzzer-beating 3-pointer. Been there done, that.

Westbrook posted a historic triple-double. Been there, done that.

All three in one game?

That’s a new level for Westbrook, who lifted the Thunder to a 114-106 win over the Magic tonight while posting an incredible stat line: 57 points, 13 rebounds and 11 assists.

James Harden scored 53 in a triple-double just this season, and Westbrook has already one-upped that record.

This MVP race is one for the ages.

Russell Westbrook’s 3-pointer caps incredible Thunder comeback, send Magic game to OT (video)

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The Thunder trailed the Magic by 21 points in the second half and 14 points midway through the fourth quarter.

Russell Westbrook capped the incredible comeback with this 3-pointer to send the game to overtime.

This becoming the norm for Oklahoma City.

NBA: Timberwolves got away with key late foul in win over Pacers

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Paul George expressed extreme dismay after the Pacers’ loss to the Timberwolves last night — the latest cause for concern in Indiana with its biggest star just one season from free agency.

But perhaps George wouldn’t have sounded so disillusioned if that game featured correct officiating down the stretch.

Minnesota’s Kris Dunn got away with fouling Jeff Teague by disrupting the Pacers guard’s speed/quickness/balance rhythm with 21.6 seconds left, according to the NBA’s Last Two Minute Report:

Dunn (MIN) makes contact to Teague’s (IND) arm that affects his SQBR and causes him to lose control of the ball.

Because the Timberwolves were in the penalty, a correct would’ve sent Teague — who’s making 86% of his free throws this season and 84% for his career — to the line. He would’ve had two attempts to build on Indiana’s two-point lead.

Instead, he forced an off-balance shot, which Minnesota rebounded. Ricky Rubio drew a shooting foul on a 3-pointer on the other end, and his three free throws lifted the Timberwolves to a 115-114 win.

The two-minute report featured a few other missed calls: George getting away with pushing off then Wiggins getting away with fouling George on a possession where George missed anyway, Andrew Wiggins getting away with a travel on a possession where Minnesota turned the ball over anyway. But those were effectively wash’s. Dunn’s uncalled foul was the one of consequence — especially if it contributes, even in a small way, to George’s exit from the Pacers.

Edmond Sumner declares for NBA draft despite torn ACL

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Edmond Sumner has grown about five inches since high school.

That has helped turn the 6-foot-5 Xavier point guard into an intriguing NBA prospect — but also seemingly contributed to physical complications. Sumner missed nearly all of his freshman year with knee tendinitis. Then, after a promising second season and start to his third, he tore his ACL in January.

Still, he’s entering the NBA draft.

Sumner:

Rick Broering of Musketeer Report:

Like with Duke’s Harry Giles, medical testing will be huge with Sumner. But at least Giles ended the season on the court. Sumner might not be healthy at all during the pre-draft process.

Sumner looked like a borderline first-round pick before the injury. This probably pushes him into the second round.

His long strides provide impressive speed and quickness, and he’s still shifty. Add quality court vision, and his ability to drive by defenders is even more valuable.

A 6-foot-8 wingspan and good lateral mobility also help make him a quality defender.

But it’s also concerning that so much of his positives could be undermined by his knee issues, especially considering his unreliable jumper. If Sumner can’t move like he did before getting hurt, I don’t see how he sticks in the NBA.

If Sumner’s knees check out, it’s worth rolling the dice on him and hoping his jumper develops. He might even be OK without shooting range, though that’d lower his ceiling considerably.

Again, though, the first thing is examining his knees.