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How DeMarcus Cousins Changes the Race for 8th

The Boogie trade to New Orleans was a tectonic shift in the western playoff hunt. Now there are 6 teams in the hunt for the 8th spot — Sacramento, Minnesota, Dallas, Portland, New Orleans, Denver.

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The DeMarcus Cousins trade has violently shifted how we should think about the race for eighth in the West.

Just last week, this “race” was the NBA’s version of a small town in the middle of nowhere. We wanted to talk about the glitzy skyscrapers in Oakland and Cleveland, the disgusting bog of New York and Chicago. Then, in the bottom of the news sections in tiny font, there were six teams within four games of each other — all battling for one playoff berth.

The Oklahoma City Thunder are 6.5 games up in the seventh seed right now. That leaves these sad, sub-.500 teams chasing a spot with no chance of moving up; they’ll get there and play the Golden State Warriors in the first round. It’s not a glamourous battle. You get to the top of the hill and die a painful death.

That small town conversation, though, is a lot sexier with Cousins’ move to the Big Easy. With Anthony Davis, the Pelicans now have a power duo the likes of which we haven’t seen since Tim Duncan and David Robinson. This is the twin towers concept for the new NBA: a pairing who can shoot threes, create off the dribble, and rebound at a high level.

The trade simultaneously strips ninth-seed Sacramento and powers up 12th-seed New Orleans, a move that fundamentally changes the race’s dynamic.

So let’s explore the teams who are still in the ring, starting with those who are least likely to meet Steph Curry and Kevin Durant in April.

The Long Shots

Sacramento Kings
24-33 (1.5 games back)
Offense: 17th (104.8)
Defense: 24th (108.6)

Trading Cousins means the Kings want to tank, something both surprising and silly. For the last seven years, the Kings have built their team around him. They’ve sold future picks, shed salary, and acquired players (like the Boogie-tamer Matt Barnes) to satiate Cousins’ desire for the playoffs. Ironically (and hilariously), at a time when they’re the closest they’ve ever been to a playoff spot — they traded Cousins to start a tank job.

Now they want to walk a thin tightrope to keep their first-round pick this year. First, they have to finish in the bottom ten, otherwise the protected pick transfers to the Bulls. Then, they would like to finish with a better record than the 21-35 Sixers, who have the option to swap picks if Sacramento does get a top-ten or better.

These liner notes on a single draft pick show how shortsighted this rebuild is. They already owe Philadelphia their first round pick, unprotected, in 2019. Trading Cousins for dirt and some lint only gives them a puncher’s chance at keeping their pick this year, with one first rounder next year. The trade helps them get closer to that tenuous goal. It will not help them make the playoffs.

Minnesota Timberwolves
22-35 (3.5 games back)
Offense: 11th (107.5)
Defense: 23rd (108.3)

Making up four games in the loss column after the All-Star Break is certainly possible, but it seems most unlikely for the young Timberwolves. Tom Thibodeau is still struggling to give this team a defensive identity, and they’re wanton to space out for long stretches of games.

The rumours of a Derrick Rose trade are uncomfortable too — throwing a non-shooting point guard who doesn’t go to the free throw line is bad news for the development of Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns. Despite my nervousness, big things are in store for the League Pass darlings. Just not this year.

Dallas Mavericks
23-34 (2.5 games back)
Offense: 19th (104.2)
Defense: 17th (106.1)

Mark Cuban’s silence during a hectic trade deadline should tell you all you need to know about the Mavericks’ direction this season. They’re in no rush to get into eighth and risk a lottery pick. Harrison Barnes is quietly putting together a good season, averaging 20.1 points and 5.2 rebounds per game. Besides him, though, it’s been mix and match for Dallas’ roster. Yogi Ferrell and Seth Curry are important pieces here, to give you a sense of things.

 

We hope better for Dirk, though. One wonders if Dallas can get more signature wins, similar to the ones over San Antonio and Utah over the last month. The next couple weeks will be indicative of their ability to close the gap, with games against New Orleans, Minnesota, and Oklahoma City.

The Hopeful Contenders

Portland Trail Blazers
23-33 (1.5 games back)
Offense: 13th (106.5)
Defense: 26th (109.0)

Oh, if only the Blazers could defend! This team is exciting to watch, if you have your critical brain turned off. Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum are still an incredibly entertaining backcourt, averaging 25.7 and 23.4 points respectively. Their defense, though, has more or less killed the team’s prospects of being where they were last year. When they’re on the floor together, opposing teams have an effective field goal percentage of 52.4. When they’re off? That drops to 45.9 per cent.

Simple pick and rolls throw these two guys off the scent, leaving an undersized frontcourt of Meyers Leonard and (ugh) Jake Layman to clean up the mess. The Jusuf Nurkic acquisition probably won’t do much to clog their leaks, and management knows it too. According to reports, they’ve been in pursuit of bigs like Tyson Chandler for a while now.

The help on offense around Lillard and McCollum has been lacking too. Their lack of defense means they need to score like Houston to make up for it. In order to do that, they need Evan Turner and Allen Crabbe — worth a combined $38 million of salary this year — to do more stuff. It’s a tall ask at this point.

There’s cream at the top for Portland, but not enough sustenance underneath to put them with the last two teams.

The Inside Track

New Orleans Pelicans
23-34 (2.5 games back)
Offense: 27th (102.3)
Defense: 8th (104.7)

Now we get to the meat of it. With Cousins and Davis playing together, all the pressure now lands on Alvin Gentry. Can he, on extremely short order, find creative ways to use these two big men in his offense? The team has been anemic on that end of the floor so far this season, and Cousins’ 27.8 points per game should provide a huge boost.

The Pelicans have long searched for a Robin to Davis’ Batman, and for good reason. Opposing teams focus exclusively on him, as he has a ridiculous 32.7 usage percentage (yet still manages a 57.9 true shooting percentage). Finding good ways to use Cousins and Davis together — high-low plays, 4-5 pick and rolls — will be critical in varying the Pelicans attack. Whether Gentry is keen enough to get that going with just days of practice time… that’s a big challenge.

The other question for the Pelicans is their supporting cast. E’Twaun Moore and Solomon Hill will be the starting wings for this team now, and they average 38.7% and 35.7% from three-point territory respectively. That makes Jrue Holiday the team’s quiet x-factor over the next six weeks. Averaging 16.3 points and 39.3% from deep, he needs to stay healthy and keep the team’s tempo effectively.

Ultimately, the talent of their two bigs alone will drive the Pelicans into the top rungs of this group. Waiting there, though, is one other team who’s peaking at the right time.

Denver Nuggets
25-31 (8th place)
Offense: 8th (108.8)
Defense: 30th (110.9)

If their 24 made threes in a win over Golden State didn’t wake you up to the Nuggets, you should be awake now. This team can score in bunches, and the magic of Nikola Jokic has created a love affair in the NBA community. Jokic’s 16.3 points and nine rebounds bely his most important stat: 4.3 assists per game. In just his second year, he’s been able to take a roster that’s been banana mash since the Carmelo Anthony trade and become the cog.

 

With a leader in Jokic and good coaching from Mike Malone, the rest of the pieces are falling into place in Denver. Six players average double figures for this Nuggets team, led by Danilo Gallinari with 17.2, showing that depth has a lot more purpose when there’s a sense of order to it.

The Nurkic trade frees them of some controversy over his lack of playing team, and provides them a more traditional centre in Mason Plumlee. Other shoes may fall here — Gallinari and Wilson Chandler have both been in the trade rumour mill. With or without them, though, the puzzle is starting to come together in Denver.

The Nuggets’ cohesion is the perfect counter to the shiny new Pelicans. It might just be enough to overcome two superstars, and I have every expectation that it’ll come down to the last few days of the NBA season.

John is a sports writer hailing from the flat part of Canada. He's an editor and podcast host at SB Nation's Raptors HQ, with other sports work published in The Classical. As a freelance reporter, he's covered sports at every level in Winnipeg: from the NHL's Jets and CFL's Blue Bombers, to CIS basketball and hockey at both major universities. In his spare time, John writes too seriously about music and posts good-to-okay photography on Instagram.

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Featured Article

Ride The Wave

Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers. Things were good then.

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Back in October the sky was the limit. LeBron had decided to move to LA and join the Lakers, drawing in a decent support team and a lot of talk that the West was looking incredibly dominant next to a “weaker” East. Things were good then.

Five months later and things couldn’t be farther from that idylistic picture. The East thrived without the King and GMs put together some of the most noteworthy teams in a while. And the Lakers? The Lakers currently sit in the 11th spot of the Western Conference with very little hope of making it to the playoffs. They’re a team that is constantly attacked for their lack of chemistry, skill, and effort. For the first time in a long time, LA became synonymous with “hopeless”.

This wasn’t the future we saw for the King.

On the heels of a night filled with one of his greatest achievements ever, the Lakers as a team walked away with a loss to the Denver Nuggets. A night that began on a high note went out on one that was equivalent to sour candy. Furthermore, a frustrated team left an arena, hopped on social media, and found a bevy of congrats for their star player, while enduring the storm that came with another Lakers loss.

It seems that James’ stardom has reached a tipping point, one that makes him a GM one moment, the King of the league the next, and finally the biggest point of contention within the locker room. The most notable thing is that it is clearly wearing him down. Chris Martin let us know that “nobody one said it was easy”, but you’ve got to ask yourself, does it have to be so hard?

The answer is unfortunately, yes. It’s always going to be this way, and there is no fighting the current, but there is beauty in riding the wave. Embracing that moment when the wave comes crashing down on you is important, because it’s always going to happen, but your attitude will always be remembered. LeBron rides high, and keeps things in the positive light for the media, but he’s got to realize that they are writing his story, and he doesn’t have to play into their’s. Ride the wave, and take the loss in stride with all the great that has come with it, but take the loss because your part of a team that is.

The wave has crashed down, but the current will bring another.

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Year 15 | A Mini Documentary

Year 15 of a legacy…

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What’s to come for the man on top, and what got him here?

It’s Year 15 of a man’s career, but it’s also Year 15 of a legacy…

Created by Tristan Laughton | Twitter: @Ctrice

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Editorial

Something Out of Nothing

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It’s March 2016, and I’m driving with Alan Shane Lewis to Montreal to meet with Marc Griffin and Phil Boileau. We’re meeting to speak about this exciting new idea I pitched to them. We were tired of spinning the wheels on our own individual internet shows, and I told them that it was time we stopped waiting for a network and became the network.

We spoke that weekend about creating a community of content creators that all loved ball and came together to make unique content with unique voices – voices we felt were never heard in the mainstream. This community was the base of Press and we’d continue to push forward from that spot. We spoke about some amazing show ideas, article ideas, social media plan. It was truly an exciting time, and still one of the best weekends of my life.

Two years later and that group is a lot smaller, and that idea is Press Basketball.

It caught fire at the beginning and we had people joining our bright shiny new plaything left, right, and center. It was exciting, but now I kind of realize that a lot of it was just that we were that “bright shiny new thing”.

We ended up with a lot of Press Basketball “members” but when I stepped back and looked at what was happening… it wasn’t what I’d imagined. The fire burned out. The idea was gone. We had just become another thing trying to stay alive, waiting for some deus ex machina to show up with money and make everything okay.

I’ve gone through most of my life making something out of nothing. It’s never easy, but when it happens it’s always worth it… ALWAYS. Press made me feel alive at a point. It was literally all I could think about, and while it still is on my mind, it doesn’t make me feel alive. This hurts more than I can ever explain.

Changes are coming my friends. We’re not laying down and dying, and if we do it’s not going to be like this.

The core of Press will be setting fire to a lot over the next few weeks and I personally can’t wait for this to start. From the ashes something new will rise (I watched a lot of XMEN growing up).

Stay tuned, because it’s not over.

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