The sweat literally on his brow, DeMarcus Cousins didn’t even have time to wipe his face before he received news that seemingly took him by surprise.
“Oh really?” He asked.
The disappointment clearly visible on his face, in an instant, and much to his surprise, Cousins had learned that he had played his final game as a member of the Sacramento Kings. And just like that, in the aftermath of the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, he was a member of the New Orleans Pelicans.
The All-Star had recently been assured by the Kings that they wouldn’t trade him, and they did so despite the fact that anyone who saw Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leave their respective teams for nothing knew that it would be in the best interest of the franchise to do exactly that.
As LaMarcus Aldridge had done with the Portland Trailblazers about 18 months prior, out of fear of alienating their fans or scorching the earth upon which they would have to walk, a superstar simply has to say the right things.
One can only wonder whether or not Larry Bird has been paying attention. Because like it or not, the time has come for the Pacers to trade Paul George.
* * * * * *
The spry 20-year-old sat on the bench, waiting for his opportunity to make a difference.
He saw Tyler Hansbrough play minutes that could have been earmarked for him and saw Josh McRoberts, Brandon Rush and Mike Dunleavy run and gun with Darren Collison and Danny Granger.
Nobody knew back in 2010 that the rookie George would one day emerge as LeBron James’ only peer in the Eastern Conference. Nobody knew that, before Kawhi Leonard, it was he who would appear destined to become the next big thing. Indeed, nobody knew that George would recover so smoothly from what appeared to be a career-altering injury that it would become a mere footnote.
Now, right before his eyes, George has seen his Indiana Pacers go from being a team that challenges James for a right to play in the NBA Finals to one vainly hoping to avoid being swept by him in the first round. The Pacers have taken a few steps backward and seem to be behind scores of teams in the Eastern Conference in the “Who’s Next?” pecking order that is filing as James and his supposed demise inch closer.
Interestingly enough, here and now, the Pacers sit exactly where the Utah Jazz once sat with Deron Williams, and exactly where the Kings recently found themselves with Cousins.
In the end, after Cousins had been alerted of the trade, the pieces of substance he fetched in return for the Kings seemed underwhelming. The most gifted center in the entire league returned Buddy Hield and a protected first round pick in the 2017 NBA Draft. Sure, Langston Galloway and Tyreke Evans are each serviceable players, but neither would move the needle for the franchise with a playoff drought dating back to 2006.
Had the Kings been a tad bit more proactive and preemptive, they could have received much more. One can only wonder how closely Larry Bird and his Pacers have been watching.
This summer, should the Pacers decide to move on from George, what kind of return could they receive for him? Ask that question again after sifting through the numerous instances in which Magic Johnson, the recently installed president of basketball operations of the Los Angeles Lakers, has let it be known that George will be the apple of his eye the moment the he decides to test the market (George is under contract for the 2017-18 season and has a contract option to become a free agent prior to the 2018-19 season—an option he’s almost certain to exercise).
Magic and Bird have been competing against each other for decades. In some ways, it’s fitting for them to now be competing as executives, especially for Bird’s franchise player.
As has been the case in the past, though, it appears that Magic is destined to emerge the victor. One way or another.
For George, what reason is there to stay?
* * * * * *
Neither London nor Seattle can compete. Many consider rainfall to be a blessing. That being the case, in the aftermath of the NBA’s exploding cap, executives and general managers should be revered as messiahs.
With the NBA’s 2017 Collective Bargaining Agreement, which will take effect on July 1, the rich will get richer. In the April 16 NBA Sunday column, we discussed the Designated Player Exception—a mechanism in the 2017 CBA that will allow an incumbent team like the Pacers to astronomically outbid contenders for one of their qualifying free agents. In short, the exception works like this: if a player accomplishes certain accolades, he will become eligible for a higher cumulative salary under the terms of his subsequent Bird contract. The mechanism became a part of the 2017 CBA as a result of the league wanting to further swing the financial pendulum in favor of an incumbent team wishing to re-sign their franchise player.
In other words, based on both Dwight Howard and Kevin Durant leaving more guaranteed money on the table by opting to take their talents to Houston and Oakland, we have seen that a superstar isn’t afraid of walking away from a few dollars.
Obviously, $30 million isn’t enough to make today’s NBA superstar flinch. That can be recouped. But what about $80 million? With George becoming the first to test the theory, we’re about the find out.
In essence, whether or not George will qualify as a “designated player” hinges on whether or not he makes an All-NBA team this season. He faces stiff competition from the likes of LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Gordon Hayward. George may not qualify, especially since his Pacers barely snuck into the playoffs.
If he doesn’t qualify, the Pacers would still be able to outbid the Lakers for George when the time comes. But again, Howard and Durant have already shown us that the fifth guaranteed year and bigger raises won’t necessarily be enough to keep a free agent home if his heart is truly abroad.
Should George qualify, which doesn’t appear very likely, the Pacers (or whichever team holds his Bird rights, if he’s traded) would be able to offer George a five-year contract that, in total, would exceed $200 million. Other teams wouldn’t be able to offer much more than about $130 million over four years.
The common thought from most would be that the Pacers should sit back and wait and see how the voting shakes out and, if George improbably steals an All-NBA spot from one of the six aforementioned forwards, hold onto him and hold steadfast to the belief that he wouldn’t turn down the extra $75 million.
While possibly true, the truth for the Pacers would be somewhere in the middle. The franchise should hope that George does qualify, and then trade him, anyway. Remember, the NBA is a two-way street.
If Magic Johnson is as hot for George as he has led the public to believe, the prospect of the Pacers being able to offer George such a higher sum would probably make Johnson more desperate to trade for him than attempt to win his services via free agency. Obviously, signing George as a free agent would make the Lakers a stronger team, as they wouldn’t be required to part with any of the members of their young core in receiving him. However, the ability to avoid the bidding war on a 27-year-old player who has already proven capable of shouldering the burden for a franchise would be enticing to Magic. That George is a native of Los Angeles would only bolster the credibility and support that he would have with Lakers fans from day one.
In other words, the Pacers find themselves in an interesting situation. If George fails to qualify for an All-NBA team, they wouldn’t be able to offer him substantially more than any other team, lessening the probability of re-signing him when the time comes. If he does qualify, in theory, it would bolster their ability to re-sign him since they could offer him the highest sum. However, it would increase the potential return they could get by trading him. Magic, as well as any other rival executive that was interested in his services, would be willing to part with more assets out of a desire to avoid being outbid via free agency.
It is the epitome of irony. The mechanism that would allow the Pacers to pay George far more than any competitor is the same mechanism that would allow them to maximize the return that he could fetch. You’ve gotta love the NBA.
With things taking a turn for the worst in Indiana and George entering what will likely be the final year of his contract, it’s simply time for Larry Bird to bite the bullet and trade his franchise player as soon as he can. The longer he waits, the less leverage he has. Between now and then, Bird should hope that George qualifies as a designated player, because interestingly enough, doing so would maximize the return he would net.
* * * * * *
It doesn’t seem all that long ago that the Pacers were riding high atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference and had many convinced of their ability to topple the mighty Miami HEAT. Just a few short years later, Frank Vogel is coaching in Orlando, David West is chasing a championship ring in Oakland and Roy Hibbert is playing for his third team since being traded by the Pacers back in 2015.
Two things are promised in the NBA: change and history repeating itself. The Pacers have already seen the changes that go hand-in-hand with running a franchise. Now, with George, as the Rockets saw with Howard and the Kings with Cousins, history is indeed giving us a rerun.
The wise man learns from his own mistakes, but the wiser man learns from the mistakes of others.
By the time next season begins, we will have learned whether Larry Bird is as smart as we have all been led to believe.
NBA Daily: Collin Sexton’s First All-Star Weekend A Success
Spencer Davies looks back at Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton’s first-time experience at NBA All-Star weekend in Chicago.
It was early Friday afternoon at the Wintrust Arena in Chicago, the stage was set to kick off a laid-back weekend of celebration on NBA All-Star Weekend and commend the hard work of the brightest young talents, both national and international, the league had to offer.
The events of the 72-hour spectacle are meant to be enjoyed, connecting with others and soaking in the experience as a reward rather than being a full-on competition. Added to the U.S. Team roster as a replacement for injured Miami HEAT rookie Tyler Herro, Cleveland Cavaliers guard Collin Sexton did just that. Between a multitude of media appearances in the bright lights with cameras all around, the 21-year-old upstart took advantage of the opportunities to expose his personality to a national audience.
But amidst the fun, Sexton still went the extra mile as he always does. Phil Handy, a former Cavaliers assistant who worked famously with Kyrie Irving and the man that conducted Sexton’s pre-draft workout with Cleveland, was the head coach of the U.S. Team. So the one they call Young Bull decided to take full advantage with a post-practice workout when the floor cleared.
“[He’s worked with] great guards, yeah. He’s a great guy,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “He just told me to continue to get better, continue to work, continue to strive to be great. He talked to me a little bit about Kobe [Bryant] and his time with him, so I just got a good takeaway from him.”
Additional work at a practice to improve his game and prepare for an exhibition contest during a time that was meant for fun? It’s par for the course in his world. Just weeks prior following the Cavaliers’ loss to the Oklahoma City Thunder on the road, a team source revealed to Basketball Insiders that Sexton went to Cleveland’s practice facility after landing in Northeast Ohio in the early morning hours to hone his craft.
“Dude’s motor doesn’t stop,” the source said.
“Oh naw, I work hard. When I feel like…if I’m on the court, I’mma do whatever I’ve gotta do. No days off, whatever,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders of his never-ending drive. “If it’s taking care of my body or just stretching or lifting, it’s not always about shooting and stuff like that. You’ve just gotta do the little things and that’s going to help you in the future.”
Though Sexton wasn’t used to the kind of attention he was receiving in the Windy City, he was determined to prove that he belongs. Usually taking a business-like approach to downplay things of this nature, he admitted how amazing it felt to achieve the milestone and be a part of the most popular three-day stretch the NBA has to offer.
“I feel like all my hard work, it paid off. So I’m glad to be here, especially with these group of guys, really good group. It’s an honor,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders that Friday morning.
Among star-studded sophomore names such as Luka Doncic and Trae Young, as well as human-highlight-reel rookies like Zion Williamson and Ja Morant, a motivated Sexton made his mark on the floor.
In 20 minutes of action, he poured in 21 points, nabbed five rebounds and dished out three assists. He shot 9-for-14 from the field, including three triples on six tries. And he even had a reverse jam on a bounce pass to himself, though he joked that it was “kinda weak.”
“At first, I was just chillin’ out there, wasn’t playing too hard. Then, you know, I can turn it on pretty quick,” Sexton said.
“Honestly, I just go out there and just play my game. Honestly, no matter who I’m put in the room with, I’mma do what I do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s exciting just because of like all the attention they bring, but me, being myself . . . I’m a dog too, so I’mma go out there and show everybody that I can represent as well.”
Sexton was the 20th Cavalier in franchise history to represent the team in the Rising Stars game since its inception in 1994. With a grin on his face naming those wine-and-golders who came before him, he was thinking ahead about the teammates that could now follow his lead.
Basketball Insiders saw a side of Sexton that hasn’t been seen much in Cleveland. He started a long media tour Thursday with a Yahoo-sponsored pop-a-shot contest followed it up with an NBA TV sitdown interview alongside Dennis Scott. While the next day was entirely centered on Rising Stars, he continued Saturday with an appearance for Metro By T-Mobile during a media-player role reversal contest and finished off at a barbershop sit down with the legendary Scottie Pippen and other notorious players from the league.
Through all of the losing, through all of the tumultuous nature of his one-and-a-half seasons with the Cavaliers — who are hiring their fourth coach since the 2018 NBA Draft — Sexton is not going to change his approach. He’s not going to change who he is. He’s not going to veer into a different path because of another shift in direction.
“It’s a great experience for me just to take my bumps and bruises, to go out there and pretty much just play hard each and every night, and that’s what I’mma do,” Sexton told Basketball Insiders. “It’s tough losing because no one wants to lose. I feel like we’re moving in the right directions and we’ll get better and start winning.”
Whether people want to believe it or not, what he’s doing is working just fine.
All-Star Weekend proved it.
NBA Daily: The Stretch Run – Central Division
In the next edition of our The Stretch Run series, Basketball Insiders takes a closer look at the Central Division bubble teams as things get back on track following the All-Star break.
The so-called second half of the season is kicking back into gear, but the forthcoming agendas for teams in the Central Division are all very different. Some organizations have their eye on the draft lottery, some on making the playoffs and one or two have set their sights on the NBA Finals. Each team has less than 28 games remaining, which means every one of them will be extremely important.
As part of Basketball Insiders’ latest running series called The Stretch Run, we’re taking a look at every division and analyzing their standing — both in the postseason position or rebuilding efforts.
The Central Division is a mixed bag of teams on various tier levels, naturally. The Milwaukee Bucks find themselves alone at the top, owning the best record in the league — as of publishing — with a 46-8 record. Clearly not a bubble team, Milwaukee’s focus has been on fine-tuning their roster and figuring out their playoff rotation. They recently added another piece in Marvin Williams after his buyout with the Charlotte Hornets.
Behind the Bucks sit the Indiana Pacers with a 32-23 record at the All-Star break. Indiana beat Milwaukee in their final game before the stoppage to end a five-game losing streak. One of the reasons for their recent struggles is likely due to incorporating Victor Oladipo back into the rotation. While the chemistry will take time to build, the talented backcourt Oladipo and Malcolm Brogdon should be one of the best in the league eventually. Their twin towers of Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner should keep the Pacers squarely in the playoff picture.
At the opposite end of the spectrum sit the Cleveland Cavaliers. They are 14-40 on the season and have had very few bright spots. Collin Sexton picked up where he left off last season, but he hasn’t been able to elevate his teammates. The Cavaliers decided not to move Kevin Love before the trade deadline, before then acquiring Andre Drummond from a division rival to create a log jam of big men. After taking Sexton and Darius Garland in the draft lottery the past two years, Cleveland will likely have another top pick to use this summer.
The odd five-year contract that Cleveland gave former Michigan head coach John Beilein this past summer has not worked out well. After reports earlier this season that the players had already tuned him out, it appears as though his days in the league have come to an end. Beilein and the organization finalized a contract settlement that’ll stop proceedings just a half-season into the deal.
Again, and swiftly, the franchise has fallen on hard times since LeBron James’ second departure.
The remaining two teams in the Central are right on the bubble and have some work to do. All hope is not lost, but they will need a few breaks to go their way over these final weeks.
With those three out of the way, it’s time to dive deep into the divisional troublemakers.
The Chicago Bulls have had a disappointing season, but they also have dealt with a myriad of injuries. Now that the All-Star festivities have concluded, the city will see if their team can get back into the postseason with a little bit of luck. The Bulls are 19-36 on the season with 27 games remaining. Looking ahead, the numbers are fairly even as 14 of those games will be against teams .500 or better. Additionally, Chicago will also have 14 of those 27 games on their home floor.
Chicago has lost six straight games and is currently tenth in the Eastern Conference standings. worse, they must find a way to leapfrog the Orlando Magic and Washington Wizards. Both teams have a similar strength of schedule over the course of their remaining games. If the Bulls want to get back into the playoffs, they will have to finish tight games. Chicago has a winning percentage of 41.7 in close games this season, which ranks 22nd in the league.
Individually, Zach LaVine has been having an outstanding season. His 25.3 points and 4.8 rebounds per game are career highs — and his late-game execution has been remarkable, considering the defenses knowing exactly where the ball is going. His ability to penetrate, finish, or just pull up has kept Chicago afloat this season. Injuries to virtually every other player on the roster have had this team trying to dig their way out of a hole since early in the year.
Oddly enough, the offense has been the biggest issue in Chicago this season. The Bulls are 26th in offensive rating and rank 25th in the league in scoring. Their defense has actually been much better than most people realize as they rank inside the top half of the league in opponent scoring and defensive rating. Both Thaddeus Young and Kris Dunn have been catalysts on that end of the floor for Jim Boylen’s squad. If they crumble over this final stretch, it could be the end for the outspoken coach.
The Detroit Pistons have a little more work to do and they only have 25 games in which to do it. Detroit currently sits 12th in the conference with a 19-38 record. The most difficult obstacle in this challenge for the Pistons will be jumping over four teams to get there. Of their 25 remaining games, only 11 of them will be played at home in Little Caesars Arena.
A playoff appearance last season increased expectations for the Pistons this year, even with Blake Griffin’s injury in that first-round series. The thought was that he would be ready to go at the start of this season, but that didn’t happen. Unfortunately, he only made it 18 games before he had to have another round of surgery. Quickly, the season outlook changed for Dwane Casey’s team.
Drummond had a fantastic start to the season without Griffin and was put up his typically-monstrous numbers. With their outlook changing, Detroit traded the big man to Cleveland for all of John Henson, Brandon Knight and a second-round draft pick. Stranger, Derrick Rose has been Detroit’s best player by a wide margin. The resurgent point guard leads the team in points and assists — and, further, did not want to be traded. Reggie Jackson returned to the lineup just before the break but just accepted a buyout so that he could join the Los Angeles Clippers.
Christian Wood has played very well and rookie Sekou Doumbouya emerged as a pleasant surprise for the Pistons, thankfully, so it’s not all doom and gloom. Bruce Brown continues to be one of the best young guards that no one talks about. Should Luke Kennard return to health and continue his progression, a return to the playoffs might be possible with a strong finish. Change must come swiftly, however, as Detroit has lost 10 of its last 12 games.
The real question here is if the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference is indeed worth pursuing. Should Chicago or Detroit earn the spot, a first-round exit is almost a certainty. The Bucks are arguably the best team in the league with the likely back-to-back MVP leading them. Obviously these division rivals know Milwaukee well and simply do not have an answer for them. Injuries can always play a factor in how these things turn out, but the owners would prefer to have the playoff revenue.
The other side of this would be getting into the lottery to improve their first-round draft pick. Normally this is weighed heavily by the organizations, but with the rules designed to prevent teams from tanking, that’ll be difficult to do so.
Making the playoffs is still something that most players would like to do, needless to say. Coaches definitely would prefer that route, of course, as their jobs are dependent on it. Looking at the two Central Division teams in the hunt though, both appear to be headed back to the lottery once again.
Kristaps Porzingis Is Quietly Rounding Into Form
After disappointing early this season, Kristaps Porzingis is rounding into form with the Mavericks. How much does Luka Doncic’s absence factor into his improved recent play?
The Dallas Mavericks are far ahead of schedule.
Just a single season removed from their worst finish since 1998-99, the Mavericks are already back in playoff position, poised for another decade of success despite the departure of Dirk Nowitzki. The chief means behind their rapid rebuild requires no explanation. Luka Doncic will almost surely finish top-five in MVP voting this season and has a convincing case as the league’s best 20-year-old of all-time. At this rate, it’s even only a matter of time until Doncic supplants Dirk Nowitzki as Dallas’ greatest player in franchise history.
But Doncic’s ankle-breaking step-back triples, dazzling finishes and ingenious all-court playmaking won’t lift the Mavericks to legitimate contention alone. The front office has done typically well rounding out the roster with solid, versatile contributors who fit snugly next to Doncic, while Rick Carlisle’s consistent ability to get the most from his bench assures Dallas of competence on which most teams can’t rely without their superstar. The Mavericks couldn’t have planned to rise up the Western Conference hierarchy quite so rapidly, but already possess the rough outlines of a team ready to compete for a title.
Smoothing those edges into surefire championship contention will be no easy task. Tim Hardaway Jr.’s evolution into a valuable role player could complicate Dallas’ plans to make a splash in free agency this summer. The team projects to have more cap space in 2021, but Mark Cuban understands the fickle unknown of free agency better than any owner in basketball after years of missing out on marquee, high-priced targets.
Luckily for the Mavericks, they aren’t necessarily looking to free agency or the trade market to find Doncic a worthy co-star. Swinging for the fences last year by bringing in Kristaps Porzingis afforded the luxury of building around a potentially elite tandem from the ground up.
It’s no secret that Porzingis’ acclimation to the Mavericks, not to mention the court after spending a year-and-a-half off it while recovering from a torn ACL, is ongoing. Dallas’ plus-5.9 net rating with that pair on the floor is solid, far better than the team’s season-low mark after trudging into the All-Star break by losing four of its last six games. Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the Mavericks have fared far better with just one of Porzingis or Doncic on the floor despite their seemingly symbiotic offensive fit.
Dallas outscores opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Doncic plays without Porzingis, a feather in his MVP cap. The Mavericks’ plus-8.9 net rating when Porzingis plays without Doncic is almost equally strong, but the former hasn’t received near the praise bestowed on the latter for propping up similar lineups.
Even a multi-faceted big like Porzingis just can’t affect the game the way a maestro alpha dog like Doncic does. His abject struggles to punish smaller defenders on switches early in the season was a popular early-season talking point among national media — plus Carlisle’s December acknowledgment that Porzingis can better help his team by spacing the floor fueled that narrative further. Dallas didn’t sign Porzingis to a five-year, max-level extension before he ever donned a Mavericks uniform for him to shoot 34.5 percent on post-ups and 23.1 percent in isolation, per NBA.com/stats.
The Mavericks will always be best served with the ball in Doncic’s hands, but that hardly means they don’t need Porzingis to be much, much better than he’s been for the majority of this season when possessions devolve into one-on-one play. The good news? Recent evidence suggests Porzingis still has the goods to exist as that trump card, at least on a part-time basis.
With Doncic sidelined by a sprained right ankle for seven straight games early this month, Porzingis forcefully reminded the basketball world why optimists once considered him a potential MVP candidate in his own right. He dropped 38 points and 12 rebounds on the Houston Rockets, 38 and 12 on the Indiana Pacers and then 32 and 12 on the Memphis Grizzlies in successive appearances. After being limited against the Washington Wizards by a broken nose, he returned three days later to score 28 points on 17 field goal attempts against the Utah Jazz.
A five-game sample size is small, obviously, but the scope of Porzingis’ labors and the perception of his play in 2019-20 overall make his dominance without Doncic noteworthy regardless. He averaged 27.2 points and 10.2 rebounds over that brief stretch, shooting 50 percent from the field and 40.9 percent from deep on nearly nine three-point attempts per game.
But even without Doncic setting him up, Porzingis did most of his damage with help. Whether he was popping off screens or attacking overzealous close-outs off the dribble, he was still far more of a play finisher than starter — an indication of his limits as a true offensive fulcrum.
Where Porzingis’ play diverged from this season’s norm was his sudden propensity for drawing fouls. He took at least 10 free throws in just two games prior to Doncic going down, but surpassed that total versus Indiana, Memphis and Washington before attempting nine freebies against Utah. Porzingis lived at the line when Doncic returned to the lineup against the Sacramento Kings, too, connecting on 10-for-12 free throws during a 27-point outing.
Porzingis’ free throw rate now stands at .293, a hair off his mark during his breakout final season with the New York Knicks. Is that uptick and his recent scoring binge proof that Porzingis is merely getting more comfortable on the court two years removed from surgery? Or, rather, that the Latvian and Doncic still have work to do before reaching their ceiling as a duo?
The answer, obviously, lies somewhere in between. Porzingis’ rising production is what matters most — and should have the rest of the league extra wary of Dallas going forward – in both short and long-term futures.