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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?

Terse Kevin Durant says he has not yet spoken to Draymond Green

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Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant‘s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Maybe it was Draymond Green calling him a “b****” (reportedly what got Green suspended for a night).

Maybe it was what Green said lobbing verbal grenades about Kevin Durant’s impending free agency in July in the locker room later.

Whatever it was Green said, it clearly still ate at Durant postgame Tuesday after the Warriors knocked off the Hawks. In his postgame press conference, Durant was short with the media (not something completely out of character, but given the circumstances, something seemed to bother him).

Two quick takeaways here.

First, the Warriors suspension of Green was a signal to Durant the franchise has his back. Green is given a lot of latitude by the Warriors for his emotional outbursts because he’s a special player and that emotion is part of what makes him great. For the team to slap Green across the wrist like this means he crossed a line with something he said. But it’s also a message to Durant, as he considers free agency, that the Warriors will back him. It’s not going to be the biggest deciding factor for Durant this summer, but the franchise wants him to feel wanted and respected.

The other is that this will not get in the way of the Warriors title run. The Warriors have had their spats before and gotten over it, at least enough to play and win together.

Jimmy Butler on Markelle Fultz: ‘I know how hard he works’ (VIDEO)

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Much discussion has taken place about the potential impact that new Philadelphia 76ers guard Jimmy Butler might have on the development of struggling young sophomore Markelle Fultz.

Fultz has had the yips for over a year, and Butler did not garner rave reviews from the young stars on his last team, the Minnesota Timberwolves.

There does seem to be some worry that Butler might not respect Fultz, or that Butler might push him even further into whatever psychological hole he’s currently in.

Butler joined the Sixers organization this week, and during his introductory press conference said that he knows that Futlz is a hard worker. It was the right thing to say, perhaps the first in many weeks after Butler went off the rails in Minnesota.

Via Twitter:

That’s promising at this moment. Fultz needs all the help he can get, and not having Butler going directly at him is additive in and of itself.

Sixers fans are hoping things work out with this new group in Philadelphia. Time will tell if Butler will be able to solve some of the issues they’ve had on offense to start the year.

Raptors players say emotions will run high when Dwane Casey returns

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TORONTO (AP) Kyle Lowry and Jonas Valanciunas spent a dozen years between them developing their games under coach Dwane Casey. Valanciunas had never played for any other NBA head coach before this season.

When they welcome Casey and his Detroit Pistons back to Toronto on Wednesday night, the two longest-serving current Raptors know emotions will be running high.

“It’s going to be different, but hey, I’m still going to try to take his head off, the team’s head off,” Lowry said with a laugh.

The Raptors will face Detroit for the first time since Casey was fired, just days after Toronto was ousted from the playoffs by Cleveland for the third consecutive season.

Lowry became a four-time NBA all-star under Casey’s watch, while Valanciunas has grown into a multi-skilled big man. Casey had kind words for both Raptors on the eve of his visit. Lowry got off to a rocky start with Casey when the Raptors acquired the temperamental guard in 2012, but he and Valanciunas returned the compliment.

“(Our relationship) changed a lot,” Lowry said. “It went from a guy who kind of wasn’t trusting in what I did, and me not trusting in what he wanted, and kind of us battling back and forth, to him being like, `Hey listen, I believe in what you can do, you show me what you can do,’ and me saying `All right, if you show me that and I’ve showed you what I can do, I’ll listen to you more and we’ll have a good relationship.”‘

“It turned into a great coach-player relationship. And him having young kids, and me having … they played soccer together, so we created a bond off the court also.”

Nick Nurse, who was promoted to head coach after Casey’s dismissal, insisted he was looking forward to seeing his former boss despite rumors the two were not close.

“My communication with whoever is between me and whoever I’m communicating with, whether it’s between Kyle and me and Kawhi (Leonard) and me or Case and me. . . or whoever,” Nurse told The Canadian Press. “I’ll keep that to myself. I am looking forward to seeing him.”

Nurse characterized his relationship with Casey as “good.”

“We have five years together and a lot of success. A lot of battles and a lot of long hours together, working hard,” Nurse said. “He took a team from relative obscurity or the hinterlands to relevance, and that may be the hardest thing to do in this league. I’m glad I was a part of it for five years. We had a lot of success and I learned a lot from the guy and have a lot of respect for the guy.”

The 51-year-old Nurse said the biggest lesson learned under Casey was professionalism and diligence.

“The seriousness of the day-to-day, the grind and probably most importantly is the work ethic,” Nurse said. “He used to say it to us a lot. He’d put his work ethic up against anybody in the league and he was right in that. The guy always had our staff prepared and our players prepared, he taught me all those things.”

After leading Toronto to a team-record 59 wins and the top seed in the East last year, Casey was also named the NBA’s Coach of the Year – after his firing.

The Raptors have a video tribute planned for the 61-year-old Casey early in the game.

“He did some really good things for the city, for the team. I think everybody respects him,” Valanciunas said. “(But) as a business we’ve got to move on and he (ended) up pretty well, so that is life. Sometimes we’re separating.”

More AP NBA: https://apnews.com/NBA and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports

Steve Kerr jokes after Durant-Draymond spat: ‘I kicked MJ’s ass’

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Golden State Warriors general manager Bob Myers said on Tuesday that Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had not yet spoken after the two had a dust-up during Monday night’s overtime loss to the Los Angeles Clippers.

Green was suspended for one game, apparently for repeatedly calling Durant “bitch” while the two were still on the court with the Clippers. It was testy, and Durant was even seen saying what appeared to be the words, “That’s why I’m out.”

Things didn’t calm down when the Warriors returned to the locker room after the game, and a suspension was issued by the team.

Meanwhile, Warriors coach Steve Kerr said that he felt that the team would be fine. He reiterated that no team he had ever been on had always experienced smooth sailing. Kerr famously got into a scuffle with Michael Jordan in Bulls training camp in 1995.

To that end, Kerr joked on Tuesday that he had, “Kicked MJ’s ass.”

Via Twitter:

Will things be okay in the Bay moving forward? The team has such a strong culture it’s hard to bet against things getting patched up, especially with regard to how the team will play as they seek another championship this season. Remember, Green was one of the guys who recruited Durant to Golden State in the first place, and the two have the same goal.

The real question many have is whether this spat will have an impact on Durant staying with Golden State this offseason. That’s anybody’s guess, seeing as how Durant is nearly impossible to predict.

For now, we just have to wait.