Is DeMarcus Cousins a max player next summer? Next season will have say.

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LeBron James is going to get a max salary next summer, wherever he plays. Same with Kevin Durant (who will stay a Warriors). Russell Westbrook and Paul George are lock max contracts. Chris Paul, too. Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid probably will (if Embiid stays healthy).

DeMarcus Cousins?

Probably. Cousins is the best traditional center in the game right now: 27 points and 11 boards a game last season, he can hit midrange shots and threes (36.1 percent from deep last season) and is a solid defensive presence in the paint. He also has never led a team to the playoffs, has been seen as selfish, rubbed some teammates/coaches/executives the wrong way (to put it kindly), and there are questions about his fit in an evolving NBA.

Cousins will be paired with Anthony Davis in New Orleans next year, and more than one executive told Chris Mannix of Yahoo Sports how that relationship goes could impact Cousins free agent value.

“This season is huge,” said a Western Conference team executive. “He has to prove he can win. He has never played with anyone near the talent of Davis. He has to show he is willing to sacrifice for the team and do what is best for the team first. He really needs to turn a corner. If he acts up, he will cost himself a lot of money.”

Added another Western Conference exec, “There’s no way to overstate it – there is huge money on the line.”

Cousins refuses to address anything beyond next season. “I’m not real concerned,” Cousins said. “I know people know my talent. I’m past all that.”

The max for Cousins will be at 30 percent of the cap, this season that would start at around $29.7 million (if the cap remains flat next season that would be his number). The max another team could offer was four-years, around $128 million, while the Pelicans could offer about $5 million more over the course of four years plus one guaranteed additional year (a fifth) at around $40 million.

However, it is going to be a tight financial market next summer — only nine teams are expected to have space for a max contract, and not all of them will need centers. If potential suitors are hesitant after this season, Cousins would still make a lot of money ($25 million a year?) but teams would be reluctant to go fours years. He may not get more than three.

The Pelicans are going to be battling for a playoff spot in the bottom of a crowded West — going against good teams such as Denver, Portland, Memphis, and the L.A. Clippers — and if things go sideways, there are a lot of executives around the league who think Cousins could get traded again. Who makes the postseason at the bottom of the West is going to come down to health and chemistry.

The Pelicans think they can zig while the league zags — everyone is going small and versatile, they are betting on big. If it doesn’t work, Cousins will likely get blamed, but there also likely will be a house cleaning in New Orleans of the front office and coaching staff. A lot of jobs are on the line with this bet.

And also a lot of money for Cousins.

Rockets’ Clint Capela on Warriors: “We are better than them”

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Houston’s home win Saturday night against Golden State was much more important for the Rockets than the Warriors. Not in terms of the standings (Golden State is still 3.5 games up there), but about confidence — the Rockets needed to know they can beat the defending NBA champions. This game fueled their belief that they have a shot against the Warriors.

Houston big man Clint Capela was trying to say that… then took it a step too far.

Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“We’re confident because we know if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do, we’re going to beat them,” Rockets center Clint Capela told ESPN. “We’ve got to keep playing. We know that they’re going to come back if we have the lead, and we’ve just got to keep that mindset. Sometimes I feel like, in the past, we were all dragging down after mistakes. But today, we were ready. I think that if we’re doing what we’re supposed to do on defense — all the switches, the weak side — and keep playing our offense by keeping that mentality all game long, we have the weapons to beat them.

“We are better than them.”

It goes without saying that January games are poor predictors of May playoff series. That said, I have two quick thoughts here:

• The Rockets are the team best built to have a legitimate shot at beating the Warriors. (They can score with Golden State, and they have good switchable defenders on the wing, the two things needed to have a chance.)

• I want guys to say this. I want teams going up against the Warriors to believe — that is the first step to actually doing it. You think the Cavaliers feel confident like this right now? The Rockets have the swagger and are over the intimidation factor, that’s step one.

Chris Paul scores 33, Rockets topple Warriors 116-108

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden felt closer to normal after struggling in his first game back from a hamstring injury, and the Houston Rockets got a big game from Chris Paul to down the Golden State Warriors on Saturday night.

Paul scored 33 points with 11 rebounds, Harden bested Stephen Curry twice in the final seconds and the Rockets held off the Warriors 116-108 to snap their 14-game road winning streak.

The victory gives Houston a 2-1 series advantage over Golden State after the reigning NBA champions had won the series the previous three seasons.

“Obviously they’re a championship caliber team for the past four years … and that’s what we’re trying to build our way up to,” Harden said.

Harden stepped back from Curry for a 3-pointer as the shot clock expired to make it 114-108 with 1:10 left, then blocked Curry’s 3-point attempt after a timeout.

Harden finished with 22 points. Paul added two free throws with 28 seconds left.

Golden State lost away from home for the first time since Nov. 22. The Warriors had won seven straight in Houston.

“It’s been a good streak, disappointing end to it,” coach Steve Kerr said. “But we didn’t deserve to win tonight. We played pretty poorly, did a lot of things to hurt ourselves and we’re playing a great team. Can’t get away with it.”

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni raved about the performance of the 32-year-old Paul .

“The guy is a winner, he’s been a winner, he’s going to win,” D’Antoni said.

Kevin Durant led Golden State with 26 points, Draymond Green had 21 and Curry added 19 on a night he went 5 of 15 on 3-point attempts and 6 of 20 overall. It was just the sixth time in his career that he’d attempted 20 or more shots while making six or fewer.

“It was just one of those nights where I personally didn’t have the right vision on the floor,” he said. “So I’ve got to take that responsibility for that one. It was pretty bad.”

The Warriors were wrapping up a five-game road trip and had won the first four games to tie a franchise record for consecutive road wins. But they struggled from the outset Saturday and trailed by double digits for most of the first half.

It was Harden’s second game back after missing seven with a strained hamstring. He was in a much better rhythm than in his return Thursday night, when he scored a season-low 10 points. He had eight assists, two steals and two blocks Saturday.

The Rockets got the victory despite missing Trevor Ariza and Gerald Green, who were both serving the second game of a two-game suspension for an altercation with the Clippers. Clint Capela added 18 points for Houston on a night when top reserve Eric Gordon went 0 for 9 from 3-point range and finished with just six points.

Golden State led by four before Houston went on a 9-2 run, with the first five points from Paul, to take a 109-106 lead with about three minutes left.

 

Report: NBA’s minor league won’t allow potentially eligible college players

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USC’s De’Anthony Melton, Louisville’s Brian Bowen and Auburn’s Austin Wiley and Danjel Purifoy haven’t played this season due to the FBI’s probe into college basketball. Mitchell Robinson left Western Kentucky before his freshmen season started to train for the NBA draft.

But they’re all potentially eligible to play college basketball again someday.

So, they can’t play in the NBA’s minor league.

Jonathan Givony of ESPN:

That ineligibility stems from a rule that prevents players who were enrolled in college during an academic calendar year from being offered a contract in the same season, unless they have been ruled permanently ineligible by the NCAA with no opportunity of being reinstated (as was the case with P.J. Hairston in 2013).

“We’re not looking to compete with college basketball for their players,” a G League source said. “The NBA, specifically NBA lawyers, are concerned about the optics of NCAA players being disgruntled with minutes or coaching decisions and leaving college with the hopes of joining the G League. This is a blanket rule unfortunately that applies to all players. Like all of our rules, we are open to revisiting them if needed, but at the moment any player that was enrolled in a college this season is ineligible to play in our League.”

NBA executives and scouts are griping because they can’t evaluate these prospects in games. I don’t care about that.

This is an affront to capitalism. The basis of our economy should be competition, and the NBA is handing the NCAA – a cartel – a monopoly in this level of basketball. And it’s the workers (players) who lose.

So what if a freshman is disgruntled with his minutes and wants to turn pro during the season? He can’t join the NBA due to the age minimum. Why shouldn’t he be allowed to at least enter the NBA’s minor league, for which he’s old enough? We should trust him to manage his future, not protect the almighty college coach from facing consequences to his rotation.

I don’t know whether or not the NBA and NCAA colluded, but the NBA’s stance is the exact one it would take if it colluded. The NBA has worked to improve the quality of play in its minor league by increasing salary to compete against foreign leagues for players. It’s strange to just willingly take a backseat to college basketball when there’s a great opportunity to compete for top talent.

The players could legally challenge the policy, but they’ll be eligible for the NBA draft in June, and there’s risk in upsetting a potential future employer. And would anything be decided quickly enough in court to matter for the challenging player?

Players like Melton, Bowen, Wiley, Purifoy and Robinson aren’t allowed to let the market set their compensation as college basketball players, because NCAA schools have colluded to cap wages. Those players aren’t allowed to seek employment in the comparable American professional league, because that league doesn’t want to compete with the NBA.

It’s a travesty for capitalism and these workers.

LeBron James has tepid response when asked about Tyronn Lue’s job safety

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LeBron James was no fan of David Blatt, so he was let go around the All-Star break with the Cavaliers a couple of years ago when the team had the best record in the East.

Now the Cavaliers have fallen to third in the East and have lost 8-of-11, were blown out by the Thunder on national television on Saturday, have one of the worst defenses in the NBA, and have a brutal stretch of games against good teams ahead.

Is Tyronn Lue’s job in danger? That question has been asked around Cleveland, and when LeBron was asked about it after the OKC loss his response was tepid (via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com)

Is a coaching change really the answer? I’m not Lue’s biggest fan as a coach, I think Cleveland’s offense has too much isolation and can get simplistic, but he’s got an older team that lost Kyrie Irving (and replaced him with Isaiah Thomas, who just returned to the rotation a couple of weeks ago and is still getting his legs under him).

Maybe that wakes the team up, but the more likely change is a trade or two at the deadline. If Cleveland isn’t willing to put the Brooklyn pick in the mix (reportedly they will only do that for an elite superstar) it’s hard to see them getting a player that really makes a difference. However, get one who wakes the team up out of its malaise and plays a little defense, and the Cavaliers become more likely to out of the East.

It’s going to be an interesting few weeks in Cleveland.