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NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins

Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.

Moke Hamilton

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Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.

By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.

Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.

On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.

Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.

Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?

That may be pricisely the case here.

Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.

We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.

For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.

In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.

Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.

That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.

* * * * * *

With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.

The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.

At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.

In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.

Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.

Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.

Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.

And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.

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NBA DAILY

NBA Daily: Zhaire Smith ready to take the next step in the NBA

Zhaire Smith is ready to prove his worth and he seeks to transition to the NBA.

Simon Hannig

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Zhaire Smith out of Texas Tech is a name that rises up on a lot of people’s draft boards this season with his stellar play, especially on the defensive end.

This past season, Smith averaged 11.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, 1.8 assists, 1.1 blocks and 1.1 assists per game. He also shot 55.6 percent from the field and 45 percent from three point range. Despite a strong performance this season, though, Smith has not been consistently appearing in NBA Mock Drafts until at least 2019.

He addressed it at the NBA’s Draft Combine in Chicago.

“Yeah, I didn’t know that,” Smith said of his seemingly low perceived value. “I really don’t pay attention to all that, but it is what it is.”

One of Smith’s biggest strengths that makes him an intriguing prospect for an NBA team is defense.

“Just being a little physical,” Smith said. “Not too physical where they can draw a foul on me, but just playing. Getting low. Just playing. Moving my feet.”

Smith had a highlight reel dunk vs. S.F. Austin in the first round of the NCAA Tournament. It was one of those dunks you had to watch over and over again because you could not believe it. It came off of a pass from his teammate, Keenan Evans.

Although on play is rarely enough to get a player noticed, the play did exhibit Smith’s exceptional athleticism. Along with his defense, his ability to convert explosive finishes could also help his value among NBA teams and potentially help him end up in the league.

“Yeah. If it was a bad pass, I made it look good, but yeah,” Smith said of the dunk. “I just adjusted to it. It just happened. I didn’t even know that was what had happened.”

For players coming into the NBA, there is a bit of a learning curve—both with respect to surviving in the league and how to fit in with their particular team.

“I see myself fitting in probably rookie, first two years, just fitting in, doing good, being a solid role player,” Smith said. “And in a few years I can see myself as an All-Star.”

During his freshman year at Texas Tech, Smith played in all 37 games, including 21 starts. He holds a total points record as a freshman with 417 points. He also totaled 185 rebounds, 42 blocks and 42 steals. The 42 total blocks for a freshman were second in team history.

In terms of his numbers being more than “empty” production, on the season, Texas Tech was 19-8 when Smith scored 10 or more points. And during the team’s four-games March Madness run, he averaged 12.0 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.5 assists, one block and one steal per game.

Although it’s early, Smith could end up being an “under the radar” type of prospect, similar to the Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell. To this point, he has been mostly renowned for his excellent defensive game, but his offensive game is respectable, even if it is still considered a work-in-progress.

As for whether he can be the “next” Donovan Mitchell, Smith didn’t shy away from the prospect.

“I think so,” he said. “…If I put in the work.”

For him, the process is just beginning. Hopefully, for his sake, his NBA journey is far from over.

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NBA Daily: LiAngelo Ball Fighting For Place in the NBA

LiAngelo Ball has the name recognition but is trying to prove he belongs in the NBA based on his skills and abilities.

James Blancarte

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NBA fans are currently being treated to competitive Western and Eastern Conference Finals. The postseason is coming to a close and in roughly two weeks, the eventual 2018 NBA champion shall be crowned. With the NBA season nearly over, NBA draft season is revving up. On June 21, exactly sixty young men will hear their name called on draft night. This group will include highly sought-after NCAA collegiate prospects, international players and U.S. born players that have spent time improving their respectives games overseas.

Attention is most often focused on the top few picks. However, one name has had a conspicuous tendency to stick out, LiAngelo Ball. Like his older brother Lonzo Ball, Liangelo was recruited into the UCLA program amid the heightened attention surrounding the Ball family. Unlike Lonzo, Liangelo was unable to showcase his game on the U.S. collegiate level following a widely covered theft scandal overseas, his subsequent suspension from the UCLA program and the Ball family’s decision to then place LiAngelo and his younger brother LaMelo Ball into the Lithuanian league.

Now removed from overseas play, LiAngelo Ball is fighting to prove that his game (and not just his name) warrants the attention of NBA team officials. Many critics are quick to look past Lonzo’s clear NBA talent and whatever potential LaMelo Ball might have to quickly dismiss LiAngelo. LiAngelo Ball made it clear he sees himself as an NBA player. Ball spoke to Basketball Insiders recently to discuss a wide range of topics.

“I’m an NBA player, that’s why I declared for the draft. That’s why I’m here also,” Ball stated.

While those who question the potential for Ball to make the league via the draft, Ball has been busy doing his best to make a good impression in person. Ball spoke about the interviews he’s had so far.

“Team interviews were great. It wasn’t really an interview for me. I just started talking, vibing with the coach really. I felt like it went good for me,” Ball said and confirmed which teams he had spoken to. “I had two with [Oklahoma City] and the Suns.”

Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype confirmed that Ball also has private workouts scheduled with the Lakers, Clippers and Warriors.

Ball gave some insight into his approach to the workouts and whether there is a specific approach regarding the teams in attendance.

“I’m going to work out hard. I’m not really familiar with what they do so, I don’t know but I’m going to knock down my shots and show my endurance. Stuff like that,” Ball said.

Numerous videos have been posted of Ball shooting well in these workouts. The videos, as his past play would indicate, show that Ball is at least a capable outside shooter. Ball was quick to point this out, along with his defensive potential, as skill sets that make him a viable NBA prospect.

“I feel like I bring the team, I can knock down shots for a team. I’m real confident in that,” Ball said. “I feel like my defensive game is good. With the right coach and somebody lets me know the techniques, I feel like I’ll be a good defender in the league.”

Young players and prospects are often asked which players they have looked up to or emulated as it helps to give a bit of insight into the young player’s mentality. Ball didn’t admit to copying a particular player’s game but did name a few players he likes to watch while slipping in a flattering comparison he says he has heard about himself.

“I don’t really model my game after other players. I always just play my own way, my own style. I like to watch players as far as James Harden, LeBron [James], Klay Thompson. People say I play like [Thompson] sometimes. So, I just like watching that type of stuff. Pick up stuff from the game,” Ball said.

Ball also highlighted his time in Europe as a plus to his resume.

“I feel like it translates good into the NBA. I mean, I got a year of experience over in Europe, Europe basketball. [Because] they do a lot of the same sets, like I said, as far as coming off the screens, pull-ups and all that. I feel like it helped me out there,” Ball stated.

Also, Ball didn’t hesitate to show his interest in playing for any team beyond the Lakers, if that opportunity presented itself.

“I’m saying I’d like to play for the Lakers [because] my brother is on the team. I want to play with him. I’d love to play for any other team really. I don’t have like a set choice.  Any other team, I’m ready to play for,” Ball stated

Ball needs to keep all options open. There are only so many spots in the draft and as Ball stated, he will have to be prepared to explore every opportunity in the draft, free agency or perhaps through the G-League. For now, he is focusing his attention on the task at hand and doing whatever he can to ensure his name is among the sixty called on draft night.

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NBA Daily: Porter Jr. Ready to Make Up For Lost Time in the NBA

Michael Porter Jr. played just 53 minutes of basketball in his lone college season, yet believes he’s the best player in the draft now that he’s seemingly healthy.

Dennis Chambers

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When Michael Porter Jr. stepped foot on Missouri’s campus, he was supposed to inject life into a basketball program that hadn’t made the NCAA tournament since the 2012-13 season.

After receiving his release from the University of Washington, following the firing of Lorenzo Romar, Porter Jr. decided to return home and play under Cuonzo Martin for the Tigers. The No. 2 ranked recruit in the nation, the near 6-foot-11 small forward possessed the scoring and versatility traits to suggest he would be a star at the college basketball level before making his jump to the NBA.

But that would not be so for Porter Jr., as a back injury and subsequent surgery would limit him to just 53 total minutes in three games coming at the end of the season.

In his brief stint as a student-athlete, Porter Jr. played how many would expect a teenager coming off of months-long injury rehab: rusty.

Thirty points and 20 rebounds in three games, on 10-for-33 shooting from the field, and 7-for-20 from beyond the arc. It was clear Porter Jr. was not up to the speed he expected to be on the college court just several months prior. But no matter, he wanted to get out there anyway, regardless of risking re-injury, so that he could help his teammates.

“I knew that I wasn’t gonna put on a show, or be the Mike that they saw in a few months,” Porter Jr. said at the NBA Combine. “The way I was thinking about was just, you know, they’ll know the player I am in a few months. Just trying to help my team and not be selfish with the decision. We had like six players on scholarship at the time because two had gotten injured. So, I was just trying to do what I could to be a part of the team.”

Porter Jr.’s return didn’t lift his team the way he had hoped, as Missouri fell to Florida State in the first round of the NCAA tournament 67-54. When the clock hit zeros, the smooth shooting swingman with a questionable injury history set his sights on the NBA.

However, Porter Jr.’s projection at the game’s highest level is much different in May than it was 10 months ago. From positioning himself to battle for the top overall pick, Porter Jr. is now somewhat of an enigma. His game is a bit of a mystery, and so are his medical records. Once considered a no-brainer to be picked top-three, Porter Jr. could find himself sliding near the back end of the top 10 on draft night.

Noting that he originally injured his back a few years ago in high school, when the injury finally caught up to him just before his college career was ready to tip off, Porter Jr. took a unique approach to otherwise disappointing news.

“When I had to have the surgery I kind of viewed it as a blessing,” Porter Jr. said. “A new start, and I could really reach my full potential. They had me as the number one player in high school, but I didn’t even feel like I was at 100 percent, and I do now.”

Being at 100 percent, as Porter Jr. says in his own words, just before he begins his NBA career has the forward excited for his future. Despite missing time on the court and falling behind other prospects in the draft conversation, Porter Jr. hasn’t lost his self-confidence.

“I’m just excited to show everybody the player that I am,” Porter Jr. said. “I’m still the best player … I played against all these guys, they’re all great players. But I’m the best player in this draft.”

Though his back is still a mystery, and his sample size is small, if Porter Jr. were to reach the potential scouts and NBA personnel pegged him as having when he was on the doorsteps of college basketball, then he has the makings of a franchise-caliber player.

With the opportunity of getting that kind of upside at a potentially discounted selection, Porter Jr. was one of the most popular names at the Cmbine. The forward mentioned meeting with just about every team picking in the top 10 come June’s draft. One team that Porter Jr. has been frequently linked to, the Chicago Bulls, were not exclusively mentioned on his list. But Porter Jr. noted the Bulls and his agent were in contact and he hoped to get a workout scheduled with Chicago.

No matter who Porter Jr. meets with or works out for from now until draft night, the versatile and skilled forward projects to be one of the most interesting players to follow. Could he impress throughout the draft process and reclaim his spot within the top-three? Or will he slide down draft boards and become a potential steal for a team in the back half of the lottery?

Whatever the outcome is, Porter Jr. will be ready.

“I was hoping to turn college basketball upside down like a lot of these players,” Porter Jr. said. “But this is just a step in my process in becoming the best player that I can be. It’s a little different, but I’m more ready than ever. I’ve been dreaming about this NBA stuff for so long, I feel like I’m ready.”

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