The New Orleans Pelicans executed one of the weirdest, wildest trades in NBA history when the team acquired DeMarcus Cousins from the Sacramento Kings for Buddy Hield, Tyreke Evans, Langston Galloway, a top-three-protected first round pick and a second-rounder in the upcoming 2017 NBA draft. The trade was expected to transform the Pelicans into a team that could go on a run to secure the eighth playoff seed, but that scenario has yet to emerge with the team stumbling to a 4-6 record since the blockbuster trade.
The weirdness was in the behind-the-scenes intrigue surrounding the trade. Bleacher Report’s Ric Bucher tweeted that the Pelicans pulled an offer that added a 2019 first round pick after Cousins’ camp made the team nervous about its ability to re-sign him. The consensus view is that the Kings got fleeced, but Sacramento effectively got a pair of first round picks for a player the team had decided to move on from. With the Kings holding a fire sale and dropping the price, the Pelicans likely saw a deal too good to pass up, despite any misgivings.
Source: better deal for Cousins 2 days' earlier Vlade Divac referenced was from NO. Boogie's reps scared NO, NO switched '19 1st to '17 2nd.
— Ric Bucher (@RicBucher) February 23, 2017
Cousins’ play for the Pelicans leaves open the question of whether New Orleans is where he wants to be. He still shows the same tendencies to swipe at steals, pick up cheap fouls and trot back on defense that soured the Kings on extending him. The trade didn’t seem to pick him up from his usual surliness, although he led the Pelicans to a 100-77 blowout of the visiting Portland Trail Blazers with 22 points and nine rebounds Tuesday. Cousins may have perked up as a result of his past history with current Blazers Meyers Leonard and Jusuf Nurkic, who were held to 4-for-16 shooting. The win drew the Pelicans within five games of the Denver Nuggets — owners of a three-game win streak and the eighth spot in the playoff picture — with only 15 games remaining.
Ultimately, the Pelicans won the trade from a talent standpoint, but lack both sufficient talent to surround Davis and Cousins with and salary cap flexibility to address that deficit. Point guard Jrue Holiday will be an unrestricted free agent this summer and New Orleans may have no choice but to tender a large offer. The team is only projected to have about $15 million in cap space if Holiday leaves. Just as the Atlanta Hawks overpaid to retain Joe Johnson in 2010, the Pelicans may be forced to overpay since the team won’t have the cap flexibility to find a replacement of equal talent.
Holiday is currently ranked 15th in real plus-minus and 16th in player efficiency rating among NBA point guards, making him about average for a starter. Potential max free agents such as Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry are beyond New Orleans’ means. Other pending free agent point guards include Utah’s George Hill and Indiana’s Jeff Teague, who were involved in a draft-day, three-team trade. Since the Jazz gave a lottery pick to the Hawks as part of the trade and the Pacers surrendered Hill, both players will be expensive to obtain due to sunk costs for their current teams. This puts the Pelicans in a tough spot since Holiday hasn’t appeared in more than 65 games since 2012-13.
Beyond Davis, Cousins and Holiday, New Orleans has no player averaging double-digit points other than Jordan Crawford (given the great nickname “Instant Grits” by Cousins), who is averaging 15.3 points through four games on a 10-day contract. Starting small forward Soloman Hill is averaging 6.5 points and 3.7 rebounds. He’s signed for three more seasons at around $12 million per. The Pelicans have a similar commitment to center Omer Asik, who is completely out of the rotation. Asik is unlikely to find his way back into it with the arrival of Cousins and improved play from fellow backup center Alexis Ajinca. Shooting guard E’Twaun Moore has three more seasons at about $8.5 million per and is averaging 9.7 points on better than 39 percent shooting from three-point range.
The Pelicans are essentially auditioning to the league’s bargain free agents as a new super team, and the audition isn’t going well. In 179 minutes Cousins and Davis have shared the court, no Pelican with multiple field goal attempts has shot better than Cousins’ 41.4 percent from the floor, per NBAWowy. Davis is shooting just 38.6 percent while on the floor with Cousins. That number jumps to 55 percent in 169 minutes with Cousins on the bench. The roster situation is so volatile in New Orleans that coach Alvin Gentry — whose job may be on the line if he can’t figure this out in a hurry — started undrafted free agent Wayne Selden Jr. at shooting guard against the Trail Blazers in his first NBA game.
On the positive side, one pending free agent who might be motivated to play for the Pelicans is Knicks shooting guard Justin Holiday, Jrue’s older brother. Basketball Insiders senior writer Michael Scotto interviewed Holiday recently, and he spoke about his desire to play on the same team as his brother. The Knicks are 5.3 points per 100 possessions better with Holiday on court than on the bench, a team-best net differential (minimum 400 minutes). If the Pelicans are so desperate for guards that Gentry feels the need to start an undrafted player with zero games experience, Justin Holiday might be exactly what New Orleans is missing.
NBC’s Michael Gallagher tweeted that Cousins said he felt expectations were set too high after the trade. So what are realistic expectations for the Pelicans? Gentry is faced with the unenviable task of trying to make a twin towers configuration work in a small-ball era with insufficient surrounding talent. A full offseason and training camp together would allow Cousins and Davis a more realistic opportunity to figure out how to play together. For New Orleans, the bottom line is that this process must result in Cousins’ image being repaired. Accomplish that and, even if it turns out that New Orleans isn’t where Cousins wants to be at next season’s trade deadline, the Pelicans could ultimately improve by facilitating a trade to Cousins’ preferred destination and receiving assets in return.
So that’s what it has come to for the Pelicans: becoming a Bourbon Street version of the Spurs Car Wash. Win or lose, if Davis can convince his fellow Kentucky Wildcat to cut down on the technical fouls and other negatives, it could improve Cousins’ trade value. The Celtics, with a war chest full of assets, would have presumably gotten involved if Boston found Cousins attractive. That they didn’t, and that New Orleans got Cousins so cheaply, indicates exactly the sort of trade value he had. Barring a miracle such as New Orleans winning one of the top three picks in the NBA Draft Lottery, the most important outcome is that, win or lose, the Pelicans need to look like they’re having fun doing it.
The NBA’s Teams Should Fear How Good Spurs Will Be When Kawhi Leonard Returns
Even without Kawhi, the Spurs have been dominant. Imagine how good they’ll be when he returns.
Even a blind man couldn’t help but to see the irony.
On Friday night, the young-legged Boston Celtics were done in by an Argentinean geezer.
Manu Ginobili sunk the Celts in the closest thing to a early-season “must see” game as there is, connecting on a three-pointer that gave the Spurs a 105-102 lead with five seconds remaining in the game.
For the Spurs, in the grand scheme of things, the win itself doesn’t mean much, but it sure has to make you wonder how much better the team will be once Kawhi Leonard returns from injury this week.
Despite not having him since Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals last May, the Spurs have begun the season by going 19-8. That Gregg Popovich’s team enters play on December 10 as the third-ranked team in the Western Conference isn’t much of a surprise. That they’ve done it without their top gun in Leonard, though, is.
“Whoever is not there, is not there,” Popovich said before the Spurs took on the Celtics on Friday night.
“We don’t worry about him [Leonard] or think about it too much. We’ve got to take care of as much as the business as we can, just like Boston is doing,” he said.
So, of course, the Spurs went out and did exactly that.
What makes the team truly scary is their thriving without arguably the top two-way player in the game.
Aside from being a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Leonard was named to the All-NBA First Team in 2016 and 2017. He’s raised his scoring average in each of his first six seasons, including a 25.5 point per game average over the course of last season.
Leonard also finished second in MVP voting to Stephen Curry in 2016 and third last year to Russell Westbrook and James Harden.
Despite his quiet nature, Leonard has become a transcendent superstar. Even without him, the Spurs enter play on December 10 with one of the league’s top defenses. They rank second in the NBA in points allowed (97.6) and third in points allowed per 100 possessions (103.5). The metrics aren’t nearly as good on the offensive side of the ball, but Leonard will help there—tremendously, at that.
With Popovich running the show, the possibilities are endless. His ability to connect with players of different personalities in unmatched. He’s humble enough to second-guess himself and take criticism from those around him, but enough of a taskmaster to extract the full potential from every talent that he gets his hands on.
Of the other top teams in the league—the Celtics, Houston Rockets, Golden State Warriors, Cleveland Cavaliers and Toronto Raptors—precisely none of them would be capable of winning two-thirds of their games without their top gun, much less without two of the team’s most important rotation players. Tony Parker, mind you, has played in just six of the Spurs’ first 27 games. The aforementioned Ginobili has missed five games, as well.
On Friday night, when Irving got off a clean look that would have answered Ginobili’s three and sent the game to overtime, everyone in the arena held their breath. When it rimmed out, the Celtics’ four-game win streak ended, and the team tasted defeat for just the third time in their past 25 games. It was the first time they’d lost to the Western Conference opponent all season, and it wasn’t for a lack of competition, mind you.
The Celtics had previously beaten the Spurs in Boston on October 30, won at the Thunder on November 3 and topped the defending champion Warriors on November 16.
So yes, they’re real—even without Leonard.
After the Celtics topped the Warriors in Boston, Stephen Curry made one of his more arrogant remarks, commenting that he was looking forward to experiencing the weather in Boston in June.
Word of advice to Curry: be more concerned with the spring in San Antonio.
Sure, it may have only been a partial game, but the Spurs badly outplayed the Warriors with Leonard in the lineup for the 24 minutes he played in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals. At the point where Leonard was forced to exit, the Spurs had built a 23-point lead on the Warriors. Obviously, this became a footnote since the Dubs erased the deficit and won the next three games in the series, but that short-lived dominance of the Warriors is something that the Spurs can hang their hat on, and it’s something that the rest of the NBA’s viewing public needs to be reminded of, even as the Rockets have surprisingly risen to the top of the Western Conference.
Make no mistake, James Harden, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving, in some order, are the league’s Most Valuable Players to this point. But the MVP Award is a regular season one—Leonard, Popovich and the Spurs are more concerned with being the last men standing come June.
“[W]hen he gets there, he gets there,” Popovich said of Leonard and his impending return to the lineup.
“In the meantime, a lot of the guys are getting time,” he said.
“We’re playing a lot of different people, a lot of different combinations. Some nights it doesn’t work out really well. Other nights, it looks really good. But I think down the stretch it will help us.”
* * * * * *
When LaMarcus Aldridge walked into Popovich’s office before the season began, neither of the two probably knew what to expect. It was a poorly kept secret that Aldridge had grown somewhat unhappy with his role in San Antonio, and when a superstar-caliber player is unhappy, it’s difficult for itself to not manifest itself in his performance.
It was well-known that the Spurs had considered trading Aldridge over the summer—as the league saw an unprecedented amount of movement among the game’s elite class of players, as any front office would do, the Spurs looked for opportunities to keep up.
So when Aldridge and Popovich met behind closed doors, it came as a bit of a surprise that Aldridge emerged reinvigorated and the franchise decided to double down on their bet that the forward could be a part of their championship puzzle. When it was announced that the duo had agreed on a three-year, $72 million extension for Aldridge, many thought the move to be foolish on the part of the Spurs.
As usual, though, they are the ones laughing now.
Through 27 games without Leonard, the Spurs have gotten 22.7 points and 8.1 rebounds per game from the star forward. As Aldridge has come to resemble the player he was on the Portland Trail Blazers, it’s because he and Popovich figured out how he can excel playing for the coach, while Popovich has altered his team’s offensive attack to allow Aldridge more elbow and low-post scoring opportunities.
If you know anything about Popovich, the way he’s traditionally coached his teams has been less about one individual player and more about incorporating the skills and talents of his rotation pieces. Part of what has enabled that to work has been his teaching that no one player is bigger than the team. So when Leonard returns from injury, rest assured that the Spurs won’t simply go back to being the team they were before he went down. Believe it or not, while Leonard will be entrusted with being the team’s primary ball handler and play maker, it’s going to be incumbent on him to figure out how to fit back into the team that the Spurs have become since he last took the floor with them.
That’s what makes them a dangerous, dangerous team.
* * * * * *
Entering play on December 10, most NBA teams have played about 25 games. We finally have sample sizes big enough to make determinations about what we’ve seen—both in terms of individual players and teams.
And we know, for sure, that even without Kawhi Leonard, the Spurs are capable of being the third best team in the Western Conference and the fifth-best team in the NBA.
Now, sit back and think about that, and then imagine just how good they’ll be when he returns to the lineup.
Josh Jackson Isn’t Surprised By The NBA’s Learning Curve
While most rookies are taken back by the NBA’s game speed, Josh Jackson saw it coming.
In a league that is usually full of surprises, Josh Jackson hasn’t seen anything he didn’t expect so far in the NBA.
The fourth overall pick in last June’s draft, considered one of the centerpieces in the Phoenix Suns’ rebuild, Jackson has been ready for the twists and turns thrown his way during the first month and change of his rookie season.
Most rookies and first-year players harp on how the speed of the game is so drastically different in the Association. Especially for prospects that spend just a year in the college ranks, adjusting to playing at a faster pace against grown men presents a bit of a learning curve.
For Jackson though, that hasn’t been the case at all.
“It’s been going pretty good,” Jackson told Basketball Insiders about his rookie season. “Nothing that I didn’t expect. The game is actually a lot slower than I thought it would be coming in from college. You can really tell it’s a thinking game, just read and react. The smarter players are the best players. You just gotta think the game a little bit more.”
Coming out of the University of Kansas, Jackson was considered one of the top prospects in his class. As a Jayhawk, he showed a deft ability to find his way to the basket and possessed physical traits that projected he could be a solid defensive wing at the next level.
Despite being ready for the next level, Jackson hasn’t been perfect on the court. Few rookies ever are. In the small forward’s defense, the Suns’ struggles as a team certainly don’t help his case any either.
Through his first 27 games though, Jackson has registered 32 steals, and has been responsible for guarding a multitude of the league’s best players. In the ever-evolving NBA, defensive matchups are rarely just “small forward on small forward” — sometimes it’s much more complex than that.
In his early goings, Jackson’s been put in that position more than few times. Again, no surprise to him, though.
“When we played the Clippers I had to guard Blake Griffin,” Jackson said. “It was pretty tough. He’s real strong. He’s really improving on his game from this year to last year, I think. It just shows that guys are always in the gym and always working hard, trying to get better.
“I saw it coming,” Jackson said about his assignment. “The game’s definitely changing. Guys like myself are starting to starting to play the four. The NBA is starting to lean towards small-ball. I already knew coming in I was gonna have to guard a bunch of different positions.”
From guarding Griffin, a 6-foot-10 power forward, to guarding the likes of John Wall, a 6-foot-5 speedy point guard, to Ben Simmons, who is a 6-foot-10 weird mix of the two players just mentioned, Jackson’s done it all.
Coupled with the struggles of his team, and the rookie bumps that Jackson’s taken, his team’s record and statistics may not directly represent the defensive versatility and potential Jackon has displayed in the early part of this season. To him, it doesn’t matter how good the individual can be on that end of the court.
“Defense is always a team effort,” Jackson said. “You can have the best defender in the world on the worst defensive team, and you know, they wouldn’t be a good defensive team. Just trying to keep that energy up, just trying to be that guy who’s pressuring the ball, running off of steals. Stuff like that.”
With his defensive potential serving as a hallmark reason Jackson was drafted so high, his offensive game can be given somewhat of a buffer period to be developed. Having no trouble getting to the rim in college, Jackson did struggle, however, when it came to shooting jump shots. A particular hitch in his shooting motion handicapped Jackson from showing true signs of growth while at Kansas.
After a slight retooling of his mechanics, Jackson’s form is looking a lot smoother than it did just a year ago, even if the results haven’t translated just yet. Jackson is posting a true shooting percentage of 45.1 and is below 30 percent from beyond the arc. With tweaked form, at this point, it’s about getting reps for Jackson.
“I don’t really focus on it that much, I just go and shoot,” Jackson said. “It’s all about repetition and muscle memory. So, more shots, the better you’ll be at shooting.”
Being a Kansas product, Jackson joins a big fraternity of Jayhawks in the NBA, some of whom are star-level talents. While he was in Philadelphia on Monday night for the Suns’ matchup with the Sixers, Jackson got a chance to catch up with an old friend, Joel Embiid.
Embiid and Jackson are good friends, and spent time working out while Jackson was still in college. Known for his Twitter fingers and sharp tongue, Embiid has taken a different role with Jackson as the 20-year-old wing player takes on his rookie season.
“Not that big of a trash-talker to me, more of a teacher I think,” Jackson said of his relationship with Embiid. “He’s been a great guy. Just trying to tell me what to look out for in the league, struggles that he had in his rookie season, just trying to keep my head, and knowing that I need to get better.”
Along with Embiid, Andrew Wiggins and other past Kansas players have reached out to Jackson since he was drafted and offered their advice and support. The NBA season is a long road, and bumpy one at times for a rookie, no matter how gifted they are.
The word of advice from Kansas players to Jackson is mostly to just keep his head up no matter what, and focus on being a better player every day.
So far in his rookie season, Jackson is off to a good start in that regard.
First Quarter Grades: Southeast
David Yapkowitz breaks down each Southeast Division team at the season’s quarter pole.
We wrap up our latest series here at Basketball Insiders with the Southeast Division quarter grades.
There was one brief surprise in the division during the first quarter of the season when the Orlando Magic started off looking like a playoff team. Since then, they’ve come back down to earth. The Washington Wizards are the obvious cream of the crop here, but even they have been up and down. Here’s our final installment of each team’s first quarter grades.
Atlanta Hawks 5-19
It was only a couple years ago that the Hawks were emerging into a powerhouse in the Eastern Conference. In Mike Budenholzer’s second year as head coach during the 2014-15 season, they won 60 games and made a conference finals appearance. Since then, they’ve either traded away or allowed the key players from that team to sign elsewhere, entering a full rebuild.
Bright Spot: When teams start down the rebuilding path, getting draft picks right goes a long way to regaining prominence. The Hawks’ front office certainly got this last draft right with John Collins. Although the promising young rookie is currently sidelined with a shoulder injury, he’s been the biggest bright spot for Atlanta. Prior to his injury, he had been inserted into the starting lineup. He’s put up 11.5 points on 59.2 percent shooting and 7.1 rebounds so far. As the Hawks reshape their roster, Collins is proving he’s part of the future.
Areas to improve: During Budenholzer’s first couple of years with the Hawks, they were always one of the better defensive teams in the NBA. This year, the 108.6 points per game they’re giving up is all the way down at 25th out of 30 teams. They do have players on the team capable of being good defenders. Collins is one, and so is second-year forward Taurean Prince. Dewayne Dedmon is a solid rim protector. A lot of it comes with improvement as well as more effort on that side of the ball.
First Quarter Grade: D+
Charlotte Hornets 9-15
When the Hornets acquired Dwight Howard in the offseason, they looked like a team trying to get back to the playoffs. They haven’t played like it, though. The two worst teams in the league are clearly the Chicago Bulls and Atlanta Hawks, but the Hornets are not all that much better. They’ve had two extended losing streaks, one of six games and one of four. Nicolas Batum was injured to start the season, but his return hasn’t managed to turn things around.
Bright Spot: Sometimes it takes a few seasons and a change of scenery for players to emerge into legit contributors. Such was the case for Jeremy Lamb. He started in place of Batum early on and was having the best season of his career. Coming off the bench now, he’s still kept up his solid production. He’s come off the bench for ten games now and scored in double figures for nine of those games. To date, he’s averaging 15.3 points on 44.7 percent, 35.7 percent from three, 5.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists.
Areas to improve: Defense has also been an issue for the Hornets. In Steve Clifford’s first year as head coach during the 2013-14 season, they gave up 97.1 points per game, good enough for 4th in the league. They’ve been slipping a bit each year since then and this season they’re down at 16th. Their defense hit rock bottom on Friday night when they gave up 119 points to the Bulls in a loss. The Bulls scored 56 points in the paint and had been on a ten-game losing streak. This isn’t a young team anymore so you can’t just chalk it up to being green. If they want to turn their season around and make the playoffs, they’ll need vast defensive improvement.
First Quarter Grade: D-
Orlando Magic 11-16
As the season began, the Magic looked like they had finally turned the corner. They revamped the front office, and the team was playing inspired basketball. At one point, they were even sitting atop the Eastern Conference. Things can change fast in the NBA, however. The Magic were 8-4 when they hit a rough patch that saw them lose nine games in a row. Since snapping their losing streak on Nov. 29, they’ve played .500 ball and suffered some critical injuries.
Bright Spot: Although he often played out of position, Aaron Gordon has always been a power forward. This season, he was moved back to his natural position full-time. He’s responded with the best season of his career to date. He’s averaging a team-high 18.7 points per game on 49.5 percent from the field and 8.3 rebounds. What’s most impressive, however, is his 40.6 percent from downtown. He’s definitely performed at an All-Star level.
Areas to improve: Rebounding-wise, the Magic could do a lot better. Their 42.0 rebounds per game are 22nd in the league, and they’re giving up 46.7. They have guys on the team in Gordon and Nikola Vucevic who should be capable of averaging double figures in rebounding. They also could stand to improve defensively. They’re giving up 110.8 points per game, right smack at the bottom of the NBA, 28th to be exact. For the Magic to regain that early season momentum, it would do them well to take a look at these areas.
First Quarter Grade: C-
Miami HEAT 11-13
Last season, the HEAT surprisingly finished with a .500 record at 41-41, and just missed the playoffs. This season, they’re on track to finish in a similar position. Considering they pretty much brought back the same group, it shouldn’t be too surprising. They’ve got the talent to make the playoffs in the East, but they also could just as easily finish on the outside looking in once again. They’re an average team.
Bright Spot: They have seen crucial development from some of their young guys, which is key to how they end up finishing the season. As detailed by our own Spencer Davies here at Basketball Insiders, Josh Richardson has emerged as a defensive anchor of sorts for the HEAT. He’s their best perimeter defender and he can score too, as evidenced by his 10.1 points per game. Starting center Hassan Whiteside has been out recently due to injury, and rookie Bam Adebayo has also shown defensive flashes with increased minutes due to Whiteside’s injury. He’s a multi-position defender, capable of patrolling the paint as well as switching off onto wings.
Areas to improve: The HEAT could stand to improve offensively a bit. They are averaging 100.2 points per game, which puts them down at 27th in the league. Better ball movement on the perimeter could help with that. They’re currently near the bottom half of the league in assists. It would also help if they were able to make more of their shots from the three-point line. They take a high number of threes per game at 32.6, third most in the league. But efficiency-wise, they’re down at 14th (36.7 percent). To be near the top of the league in three-pointers attempted, you should be hitting at a higher efficiency.
First Quarter Grade: C
Washington Wizards 14-11
Coming into the season, the Wizards were seen as a potential threat to the Cleveland Cavaliers for Eastern Conference supremacy. They haven’t really looked the part, however. They’re only three games above .500 and 5-5 in their last ten. They look like an average playoff team, not one hoping to challenge the defending conference champs. That said, they’re still far and away the best team in the division.
Bright Spot: This may finally be the year that Bradley Beal makes an All-Star appearance. He’s overtaken John Wall as the leading scorer on the Wizards with his team- and career-high 23.8 points per game. His three-point shooting is down a bit at 36 percent, but he’s getting to the free throw line with more frequency. He’s always been a great outside shooter since coming into the NBA, so as the season goes on look for that improve.
Areas to improve: What the Wizards need to do is to stop being just average. They’re pretty much in the middle of the pack when it comes to every facet of the game from scoring, to defense, rebounding, assists, three-point percentage, you name it. They don’t really do any one thing exceptionally well. If that’s the goal, to be an average playoff team, then by all means, continue. But this was a team that was supposed to be in the upper echelon of the East. They can’t have a 6-5 record at home as they currently do.
First Quarter Grade: B-