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

‘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?

Wizards rookie changes name from Sheldon McClellan to Sheldon Mac

WASHINGTON, DC - DECEMBER 30: Sheldon McClellan #9 of the Washington Wizards dribbles in front of Sean Kilpatrick #6 of the Brooklyn Nets during the first half at Verizon Center on December 30, 2016 in Washington, DC. 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. (Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
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The Wizards trading for Bojan Bogdanovic pushes Sheldon McClellan even deeper on the bench.

Actually, “McClellan” is now off the team entirely.

Chase Hughes of CSN Mid-Atlantic:

Yes, the player formally known as Sheldon McClellan is now officialy Sheldon Mac. The 24-year-old returned to Houston, Texas over the past week and, with the blessing of his mother, changed his name.

Mac expects to have his jersey changed at some point and he will now be referred to in print as ‘Sheldon Mac.’ He said the reason was because ‘McClellan’ was a name he got from his father, whom he has no relationship with.

“I just added a little swag to it.”

If this makes him happier, I’m all for it.

76ers’ No. 1 pick Ben Simmons out for season

TARRYTOWN, NEW YORK - AUGUST 07:  Ben Simmons of the Philadelphia 76ers poses for a portrait during the 2016 NBA Rookie Photoshoot at Madison Square Garden Training Center on August 7, 2016 in Tarrytown, New York. 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: Copyright 2016 NBAE  (Photo by Nick Laham/Getty Images)
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76ers CEO Scott O’Neil guaranteed No. 1 pick Ben Simmons would play this season. Just about a week ago, Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said he expected Simmons to play this season.

But with rumor after rumor — the latest report saying his injured right foot hadn’t fully healed, even though he had participated in drills — indicating Simmons could miss the entire year, the 76ers accepted this undesirable fate.

Corey Seidman of CSN Philly:

Ben Simmons is officially out for the season, Sixers president of basketball operations Bryan Colangelo said Friday.

Simmons had a CT scan on his injured right foot Thursday in New York which showed that the foot is not yet fully healed.

He’ll have another scan in about a month, Colangelo said.

“I have always known that there was a desire to get him back on the court when healthy,” Colangelo said. “We’ve always anticipated there would be an opportunity for him to play, hopefully this season.

“But there was always the outside chance that it didn’t happen because there wasn’t complete and full healing. And we weren’t going to put Ben Simmons in a place where he was (susceptible) to a re-fracture.

“There are genetic things that change the healing patterns of people. So if everybody had done their research and saw that most Jones fractures took 3 to 4 months, great. But it’s not 3 to 4 months in every case, it’s 3 to 4 months in most cases.”

“He’s heartbroken. He wants to play. He wants to be out there. It’s eating him alive, I’m sure.”

Simmons follows Nerlens Noel and Joel Embiid as high first-round picks to miss their entire first professional season with the 76ers. If it weren’t for Embiid’s emergence this season, this would be an even more bitter pill to swallow for Philadelphia fans fixated on immediate on-court gains.

But Embiid has provided more than enough reason for optimism, though he’s also hurt now (just not nearly as severely).

Long-term, the 76ers must figure out how Embiid and Simmons mesh and try to develop them together. We know Embiid works well with a stretch four, but what about a dynamic passing power forward like Simmons — or a tall point guard, if that’s what Simmons become? This injury delays answering those questions.

It also raises questions about Simmons — his ability to avoid and recover from injuries. Colangelo’s comments about Simmons’ genetics are particularly eyebrow-raising.

Likewise, there should be questions about the 76ers’ handling of their players’ health. How could Simmons return to on-court work before fully healed?

Philadelphia, at various points, has tried to accelerate its rise. But properly rebuilding takes time and care. At times like this, the 76ers must remember to trust The Process.

Paul Pierce shoots back at Warriors: ‘3-1 lead oops’

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Draymond Green was harsh in trash-talking Paul Pierce last night.

Pierce and the Clippers couldn’t shut up Green on the court, as the Warriors won. But on Twitter?

Pierce responded there:

Pierce has repeatedly taken shots at the Warriors, particularly Kevin Durant. I’m not going to complain about trash-talking, but I can also see why Green would tire of this — and even try crushing Pierce last night.

But there’s apparently no way to silence Pierce.

Ty Lawson cleverly runs down clock in Kings’ win over Nuggets (video)

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The Kings traded DeMarcus Cousins for two key reasons:

  • They wanted to change their culture, and they thought jettisoning the combustible Cousins would do that.
  • They wanted to avoid conveying a top-10-protected first-round pick to the Bulls this year, which required getting a little worse in the short term.

But what if they did the former so well, it disrupts the latter?

Sacramento played with enthusiasm and savvy in a 116-100 win over the Nuggets last night. The most clever play came from Ty Lawson.

With the Kings trying to preserve a 109-94 lead with 2:38 left, Lawson took an inbound pass following a Denver basket and let the ball roll/lie on the court for 22 seconds before picking it up.

The game clock didn’t stop because the game wasn’t in the final two minutes. Neither the shot clock nor the eight-second count started because no team possessed the ball.

Denver had an extremely slim chance at erasing a 15-point with 2:38 left, but Lawson reduced those odds considerably. Eventually, Jameer Nelson — who failed for far too long to press Lawson out of this tactic — committed a frustration foul after his own basket.