Three Random Thoughts on the NBA 2/3

The NBA Can Still Suck

In the very early parts of this season, one that promised to be one of the most exciting in recent memory, the Boston Celtics lost Gordon Hayward to a gruesome ankle injury. Boston was on the shortlist of contenders for Eastern Conference supremacy, having completely revamped a team that had reached the Eastern Conference Finals, and bringing Hayward aboard was one of the most important parts of that transformation. The team was playing its season opener against an opponent who had not not only eliminated Boston from the playoffs, but also one with which the Celtics had swapped star point guards in the offseason. It seemed the perfect opening for a great NBA season. Hayward’s injury ruined that. The league demonstrated that it could still be cruel, and set a precedent for injury that would be difficult to top.

Last week, they might have accomplished just that. On Friday, the New Orleans Pelicans lost their star center DeMarcus Cousins to an achilles tear, an setback from which it is notoriously difficult to recover. Cousins was in the midst of an all-time great season from a statistical standpoint. He was averaging 25.2 points, 12.9 rebounds, and 5.4 assists, numbers which no player in league history has achieved. He was coming off a stretch of two triple doubles in three games, including a 44-point, 23-rebound, 10-assist outburst against Chicago.

Beyond his individual exploits, Cousins was finally figuring it out with his Pelicans teammates. After more than six frustrating (to say the least) seasons in Sacramento and less than half of one to mesh with fellow versatile big Anthony Davis in New Orleans, Cousins was under immense pressure to succeed this season.

He was in a contract year, and to this point in his career, he was one of the league’s most prodigious talents, but also one of its more maddening personalities. His Kings teams burned through coaches before eventually figuring that they might as well move on from their star in order to truly leave a woeful era behind them. This was Boogie’s first chance to prove that the franchise’s toxic atmosphere–and not his behavior– were to blame for Sacramento’s seemingly endless struggles.

Entering this season, Cousins had never played in a playoff game in his whole career. He was sixth on the all-time list of games played without recording a single postseason appearance. He is second among active players, behind only Omri Casspi, who is bound to break that drought this season as a reserve for the Warriors. The Kentucky product is also second all-time in points per game among all players who have never qualified for the playoffs. Despite finishing his season six games over .500, that streak is now destined to continue.

Cousins will also be a free agent in 2018. It will be difficult for the Pelicans to justify re-signing him. Yes, they had won eight of their last 10 games when he suited up and were comfortably in the playoff picture. However, they had no indication that they were going to seriously compete for anything noteworthy anytime soon, and paying Cousins the max money that he surely feels he deserves will hamstring their salary and leave them with two nearly impossible to move contracts if they ever decide to blow it up in the near future.

Teams will want Boogie. He will find somewhere to play, that goes without saying. However, he will be hard-pressed to convince a team to throw a five year deal at a 28-year old center coming off an achilles surgery.

Cousins was beginning to change the narrative around his career, and it all came screeching to a halt. Here’s to hoping that he comes back quickly and better than ever.  

A League of Dysfunction

The NBA controls the sports media landscape. Even during its offseason, the assortment of trades, both true and rumored, were a constant presence on daily talk shows. Even during Super Bowl week, the most important week of the nation’s supposed most important game, the NBA can dominate news with what appear to be non-newsworthy items.

Consider: On Thursday, ESPN produced no less that eleven pieces of multimedia content dealing with a report that they themselves published claiming that LeBron might be considering taking a meeting with the rival Golden State Warriors when his contract expires in six months.

Not that he was signing there, or even that the Bay was one of the most likely destinations. Just that he was thinking about meeting with them. This story was front and center of every sports media outlet for at least 24 hours.

The NBA is currently putting out a superb product. The talent level of players and teams is higher than ever before. They also have the most engaging trade deadline and offseason of any professional league in the country. However, the NBA also remains in the news one other way.

They make everything a big deal. The LeBron story is just one example. Over the past few weeks, there have been reports of numerous teams in dysfunction. Star players wanting out. Players-only meeting going awry. Clint Capela serving as a decoy as Chris Paul leads a brigade of teammates through the Staples Center’s secret passage in order to confront an injured Austin Rivers in the home locker room. If you were to believe every report, you would think that half of the league was about to go up in flames.

Some teams are clearly in some kind of trouble, however. Cleveland’s rut doesn’t seem like the usual annual January shenanigans, although they are still my favorites to win the East. There’s clearly some animosity between Kevin Love and Isaiah Thomas. Now, one of them is out injured long-term and the other is nowhere near the level he needs to if the team is going to compete. The rest of the team isn’t quite as deep as many thought before the season tipped-off. Even if they do get back to the finals and lose, this season may have cost them a chance at retaining LeBron James.

The Wizards tried to hold a players-only meeting, an event which many teams have historically dubbed as crucial positive turning points. Except, the Wizards version ended up poorly, as both John Wall and Bradley Beal openly admitted. Washington has been a disappointment all season, and they have played their best three-game stretch of the year in the first three games of Wall’s extended spell on the sidelines.

There were hotly contested reports that Kawhi Leonard, he of one the league’s strangest injury rehabilitations, wanted out of San Antonio. That’s how far the league has come. Leonard, the league’s quietest superstar, might have beef with its most stable franchise.

Dysfunction has also been in the headlines in Los Angeles, who have added a strained relationship with Julius Randle and Jordan Clarkson to the worldwide, traveling circus that is Lavar Ball; as well as Milwaukee, who’s superstar offered to intervene in order to save the fired head coaches job.

Now, I put together a four team-trade that it is almost as unrealistic as LeBron signing with the Kings next summer, but it looked pretty fair and solved much of the dysfunction problems. Of course, after I played around with the trade machine for a while last week, the two main pieces to the deal went down injured. Still, I have included it here along with a brief explanation.

Wizards Get: Kevin Love

Cavaliers Get: DeMarcus Cousins, Jason Smith

Lakers Get: Marcin Gortat, Channing Frye, Ian Clark, 2018 Wizards 1st Round Pick

Pelicans Get: Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Kelly Oubre, Luol Deng, 2018 Cavaliers First Round Pick (Via Brooklyn)

In this deal, Washington accomplishes three objectives. First, add a third star-caliber player who could push them to the upper echelon of the Eastern Conference. The next part is two-fold. Getting rid of Gortat takes his expensive contract off the books, as well as removing a player who has been accused of criticizing John Wall this season. Losing Oubre and a third consecutive first round draft pick is a big price to pay, but taking the Gortat contract off the books and ridding themselves of a locker room distraction, as well as adding a player like Love, is worth it.

The Cavs move on from Love, who has mostly served the role of scapegoat in his three-plus drama-filled seasons in the Land. They also lose the valuable draft pick, but Cousins (pre-injury) would have pushed the Cavs up a tier this season, and at least given them a shot against Golden State. This type of move may have also convinced James to stick around at least another year.

The Lakers are mostly in this deal to shed cap and add a draft pick (they could probably get some combinations of future first and second round picks in addition in order to sufficiently entice them). They can get rid of Luol Deng, who has an albatross of a contract to move, as well as wantaways Randle and Clarkson. Frye and Clark are on expirings and the team could waive Gortat. The extra space that this deal would create would undoubtedly be used to chase LeBron James or Paul George, among others, this summer.

This whole deal, of course, hinges on whether the Pelicans were looking to trade Cousins. Although it is unlikely that they were actively shopping him, if they were even considering it, this would be a pretty sweet package. Although it may seem an underwhelming return on paper, they get three solid young pieces to team with Davis, along with a likely top-10 pick this summer. All things considered, they would have flipped Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, and Langston Galloway for Randle, Clarkson, and Oubre. It would be a rebuild without completely blowing anything up.

A Shift of Power in the East?

Of course, the first big move of trading season didn’t involve any of the aforementioned teams. The transaction involved Blake Griffin going to Detroit in exchange for Tobias Harris, Avery Bradley, Boban Marjanovic, and draft picks.

The trade is clearly risky for Stan Van Gundy. His Pistons are currently ninth in the Eastern Conference, but sit just one game back of a spot in the playoffs. Griffin just signed a monster contract extension, and has a long list of injuries, including two this season.

Griffin is a multidimensional star–one of five players this season averaging at least 22 points, seven rebounds and five assists per game. He can score inside the paint and from three, although his midrange game is painfully bad. He is one of the best passing bigs in the game, and he can take over a lot of the ball-handling duties while Reggie Jackson is out. Offensively, he is tremendously versatile and valuable.

His arrival in Detroit instantly gives the Pistons the conference’s best front court pairing. Many have pointed out the similarities between Pistons star Andre Drummond and Griffin’s former Cipper companion DeAndre Jordan, as both are big, athletic bigs who can’t shoot or score from the post to save their lives.

However, Drummond is a far superior passer, and running an offense through two bigs can be hard to stop. Expect to see a lot of pick and rolls between the two bigs, as well as Griffin cutting off of Drummond at the elbow. Drummond has done a good job understanding his role this season, so he won’t interfere when his new partner goes to work on the low block.  

When Atlanta was at its peak under Mike Budenholzer, they ran a lot of offense through a pair of passing bigs, Al Horford in the high post and Paul Millsap handling the ball or playing the low post. Drummond and Griffin can aspire to emulate that.

The only issue is that Horford and Millsap were surrounded by solid talent and, especially, solid shooting. Without Harris or Bradley, the Pistons will have a hard time making that claim. Detroit may be even more dependent on Blake to create offense than the Clippers did earlier this season.

There’s a lack of star power in the Eastern Conference, particularly at the power forward position. Griffin will be the better player in the vast majority of his matchups, and that should make the Pistons hard to stop. Most teams in the East are built around guards and wings, so no one wants to confront Detroit early in the playoffs. However, their lack of guard play will hurt them. In terms of depth of talent, Detroit cannot yet compete with Cleveland, Boston, Toronto, or Milwaukee. Outside of giving a slight scare, it doesn’t look like they could get the better of any of those teams in a seven-game series.

Stan Van Gundy the executive likely made the move in order to save Stan Van Gundy the coach’s job. He couldn’t survive another season without a playoff appearance, so he was backed into making a big move to be the sixth or seventh seed this season. It doesn’t have to be a move that will leave the franchise consigned to the treadmill of mediocrity, but it doesn’t improve the roster in a major way this summer, that’s exactly what it will be.

 

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