The Outlet Pass: DeMarcus Cousins and a Silly Summer of Free Agency
Also: Justise Winslow's three-point shot changes everything, answering Trade Deadline questions, investigating an interesting Russell Westbrook stat, an absolutely wild stat about Tony Parker, and much more!
Photo by Mike Nelson—EPA/EFE
Let’s Talk About DeMarcus Cousins’s Free Agency
Boogie is back and Boogie looks good. He’s a fresh instrument added to the most surgical offense in history; a precise bulldozer who plunges through inattentive defenses that have no choice but to submit whenever he seals his man with 19 seconds still on the shot clock. As a roll man, whatever decision he makes—good or bad—tends to reverberate through the possession. He can pass on the move. He can drill wide-open threes. He can set the type of off-ball screens on whoever’s trying to cover Klay Thompson that will vegetate the defense.
Cousins is also his generation’s most rugged rebounder. He can protect the rim, and in pick-and-roll coverage he’s fine dropping low, forcing a long two, grabbing the miss, then kick-starting a fast break. Watching him execute anything and everything on this Golden State Warriors team is comical. He’s simultaneously superfluous and relevant.
Before his debut, the uncertainty surrounding Cousins’s health (and temperament) was the oxygen anti-Warrior hopefuls craved. It’s only been a few games and the human body is indeed unpredictable, especially when it’s that large, but Cousins looks spry for someone who’s not even in game shape yet. From here, what happens with his free agency is the next question worth considering.
Assuming Cousins keeps this up and Golden State wins a third-straight title, several teams will show interest, even if he won’t necessarily be their top priority. The Los Angeles Lakers need to keep their bag of assets full for Anthony Davis, but if the Boston Celtics trade for him do the Lakers then immediately pivot to Cousins as a respectable Plan B? The Los Angeles Clippers need a center no matter what Kevin Durant or Kawhi Leonard decide. If the New York Knicks swing and miss on Durant, Davis, and everybody else, do they splurge on Cousins or roll it back with healthy Kristaps Porzingis, Kevin Knox, Mitchell Robinson, Frank Ntilikina, and their incoming lottery pick?
Do the Dallas Mavericks think about letting Boogie dance with Luka Doncic? (This is my favorite scenario.) Considering how well Luka moves off the ball, fitting him with a center who really knows how to pass could be fantastic. Going one step further, what if the Mavs offer Harrison Barnes, Dennis Smith Jr., and a lottery-protected 2021 first-round pick to New Orleans for Jrue Holiday before this year’s deadline, then swap Cousins in for DeAndre Jordan over the summer? It would allow Doncic to function as a point guard in lineups that protected him from actually defending the position, immediately shove Dallas into the playoffs, and be a generally awesome outcome for the NBA at large.
I'm throwing crap against the wall, but what if the Milwaukee Bucks get word that Boogie’s interested in teaming up with Giannis Antetokounmpo? Do they opt for that future instead of one that locks most of their current core in for the long haul? (Brook Lopez, Malcolm Brogdon, Eric Bledsoe, and Khris Middleton can all be free agents this summer.)
Cousins won’t hand pick his next team. There’s a small line of All-NBA-caliber players who need to make their own decisions before every door can open. He turns 29 in August and will (likely) enter the market healthy, humbled, freshly dipped in Warriors gold, and motivated to reclaim his status as the best center in basketball.
That doesn’t mean everything won’t go horribly wrong for whichever team decides to make a long-term commitment (if any do), but Boogie’s free agency deserves significant attention. This summer is going to be silly.
Russell Westbrook is Either Evolving or Declining
Most of the conversation about Westbrook’s season has deservedly centered around his crumpling efficiency. Now 30, his True Shooting percentage is 47.7 (about five points lower than the 30th-ranked New York Knicks) and, well, feast your eyes on this bad boy:
But look past the porous shooting and watching Westbrook is still not quite the same experience it used to be. He’s slightly less selfish in a way that’s unclear whether that’s good or bad. Take this stat: Westbrook is ending his drives with a pass way more than he normally does. Right now, he passes the ball on 51.8 percent of his drives, which, among all players who average at least 10 drives per game, ranks fourth behind Ricky Rubio, Ish Smith, and Joe Ingles. If you’re having trouble imagining the significance of this number, think about what Chris Paul looks like whenever he takes off for the basket. Westbrook’s pass percentage is slightly higher than Paul’s. That’s not nothing! (Last year, Westbrook’s pass percentage on drives was 35.9. Two seasons before that it was 33.7. In 2015, it was 30.0.)
Now, Westbrook’s assist rate and field goal percentage on drives are more or less consistent with his recent past, and there’s nothing inherently terrible about him moving the ball more often than not. But it’s still curious. Westbrook-ian rage doesn’t yield perfect results, but lousy things happen when he disconnects from that identity. There are countless examples in every game and here's one. Like, short of accusing him of hunting assists, why doesn't Westbrook finish through Nikola Vucevic here instead of forcing a difficult pass to Nerlens Noel?
Generally, given Oklahoma City’s non-existent outside shooting, this sort of makes sense. Maybe help defenders are able to rotate earlier and make Westbrook be a facilitator more often than he should? But the Thunder were even less effective from deep two seasons ago and that didn’t stop Westbrook from going ballistic during an MVP campaign in which he averaged over 20 drives per game. (Also—this may mean nothing!—but the percentage of Westbrook’s dunks that are assisted is up to 54.5 this season. Last year it was 40.4, and in 2017 it was 34.7.)
Paul George wasn’t around then, and perhaps his MVP presence tilts Westbrook’s (and the defense’s) thought process just a little bit. It also makes you wonder if some sort of decline is starting to materialize. Physically, Westbrook looks ageless. He’s still able to turn his body into a pole vault and his field goal percentage at the rim is higher than ever before. But his increased passing percentage on drives without seeing that translate to more assists may be an open wound over his greatest strength.
An optimist will say he’s steadily maturing into life as a more refined floor general. Or that what he does during the regular season is less critical than how aggressive he’ll be in the playoffs. Maybe he just doesn’t want to get fouled as frequently as he used to. (Westbrook has been curiously bad at the line this season.) I have no idea what all this means and one stat doesn’t come close to painting an entire canvas, particularly when Westbrook is averaging 21.7 points, a league-high 10.8 assists, and a career-high 10.9 rebounds, but it feels somewhat important. Or maybe it’s not. (I’m so confused.)
Justise Winslow’s Three-Point Shot Changes Everything
Floor General Justise is a unique phenomenon that was created when Goran Dragic went down with a knee injury about a month ago. We’re a few weeks into Miami’s by-any-means experiment and Winslow looks more comfortable by the game. Since December 22, he’s averaging 15, 5, and 5 while correctly analyzing defensive schemes, tossing picturesque alley-oops, and even finishing with his right hand!
His quickness attacking off a ball screen still catches opposing bigs off balance, and Miami’s admirable drive-and-kick identity feels like it’s mutated into something even more distinct than before. But while “put the ball in Winslow’s hands then surround him with competent shooters/playmakers/lob targets and see what happens” is a fun idea, an even more significant development to keep an eye on over the long-term is his outside shot.
Not only is Winslow more comfortable behind the three-point line than ever before, but the carefree yet focused flick of his wrist has streamlined his developing offensive repertoire. He no longer murders promising possessions by hesitating for a beat too long after someone passes him the ball, or mulls over options that evaporate as he considers them. It’s the type of leap Miami has prayed for, and may have already widened the scope of what he can ultimately become. Winslow made 38 percent of his threes last season, but his volume was low (3.9 tries per 100 possessions) and he entered this year shooting 31.4 percent for his career.
Right now his volume is up to 6.1 attempts per 100 possessions and so is his accuracy (39.4 percent). “Drastic improvement!” Heat forward Kelly Olynyk joked after I told him the difference between last year’s percentage and what he’s shooting right now. “He’ll be shooting like forty-seven percent in year ten.”
Scale and situation matter, of course, and most of his teammates (including Olynyk) are taking notice. “He’s knocking down shots left, right, and center,” Olynyk continued. “I mean, he’s making multiple threes every single game now...He’s trusting his shot and going to it early. That’s something he hasn’t really done in the past, I don’t think.”
As someone who’s inevitable responsibilities on a good team are off the ball as often as on, Winslow’s ability to spread the floor really matters. In those situations he hasn’t seen defenses universally treat him differently, but there have been subtle shifts here and there that he’s still getting used to.
“Every game is different,” Winslow told VICE Sports. “There’s some games where they just leave me open and I just shoot it. Some games they close out, I still shoot it. Some days they close out, I drive. It’s just about making the right reads, but I think defenses are definitely closing out harder this year.”
Operating pick-and-rolls, Winslow is more willing to pull up when defenders duck under the screen (inside and behind the arc) than he used to be, and even though his percentages on those shots don’t rival Steph Curry, they’re trending in the right direction. Heading into this year he never attempted more than 48 pull-up shots in a season. He’s already jacked up 91 of them this year. (Going one step further, Winslow made one pull-up three in his first three NBA seasons. Right now he’s 4-for-17.)
“Defenses are much more concerned and aware of where I am but guys still are trying to go under on me,” he said. “That’s gonna be my thing for a long time is going under the screen so, just becoming more comfortable with that as time goes on, but I don’t think that’s going to change this year.”
Winslow is still only 22 years old, he just signed an extremely team-friendly three-year, $39 million extension (there’s a team option on the third year!), and he’s evolving in various ways that makes him ideal in just about any context. The swelling confidence in his three-point shot may prove to be more important than anything else.
“We’re going to push him out of his comfort zone to help him continue to grow,” Erik Spoelstra said. “But he loves it. That’s when he feels most alive.”
Tackling Trade Deadline Questions!
Will Anthony Davis get traded?
What will the Indiana Pacers do?
Before Victor Oladipo’s season ended, the Pacers were positioned to spoil the playoffs for teams that entered this season with higher expectations and more transparent ambition. The bad news? Those dreams have been dashed. But the silver lining is that Oladipo’s injury occurred before the trade deadline, allowing Indiana to choose if it wants to add or subtract from a roster that’s (mostly) built to win now.
Here is the list of Pacers who are about to enter unrestricted free agency: Bojan Bogdanovic, Thaddeus Young, Darren Collison, Cory Joseph, Tyreke Evans, and Kyle O’Quinn. Assuming Indy wants to avoid locking itself into this roster going forward, things will look a lot different next year, no matter what. The question is, do they sit tight and cross that bridge when they get there, or see if any optimistic playoff teams want a boost for the home stretch? Option 3: the Pacers attach expiring contracts to assets like Aaron Holiday, T.J. Leaf, and/or their own draft pick and search for long-term stability. Assuming Oladipo will return to All-Star form, why not sniff around and see if Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, or Kevin Love can be had?
It’s unlikely they have enough for any of those three without including Domas Sabonis or Myles Turner—it’s still too early to split those two up—but catching an early glimpse of what Indy’s identity may be in 2019-2020 and beyond would be nice.
If I were Indiana, I’d field offers from probable buyers (Houston, Oklahoma City, Sacramento, Charlotte, Washington, Philadelphia, Brooklyn, Utah, Minnesota, etc.) without any pressure to make a deal. If nothing comes my way, we’ll still probably make the playoffs and put up a fight. If someone offers a draft pick for Bogdanovic, Young, or Evans, terrific. But generally speaking I’m content rolling into this summer with cap space and (fleeting but still tangible) momentum.
Which teams should try to get under the tax?
Miami and Washington are two teams that can still make the playoffs even if they shed enough salary to get under the tax. The Heat is about $6.27 million above the tax and the Wizards are $5.78 million over it. Now, both teams want to make the playoffs and neither seems willing to tank. (According to FiveThirtyEight, Miami has a 57 percent chance of making it while Washington is slightly below a coin flip.) So there’s an obvious balance in play.
Let’s start with the Heat. To be honest, I’m not sure anybody on this roster should feel totally safe right now, and that includes Josh Richardson and Justise Winslow (though either one getting dealt feels highly unlikely). The logical compromise is Wayne Ellington, who hasn’t played in 18 of Miami’s last 25 games, but also started over Rodney McGruder in a win earlier this week against the New York Knicks. He makes $6.27 million this year, so shedding him for a second-round pick may be enough by itself to squeeze Miami under the tax.
Plenty of teams would be interested in that type of deal—Oklahoma City and Philadelphia are the two most obvious—but almost every team is capped out, complicating the issue. (The Thunder have a trade exception from the Carmelo Anthony deal that’s large enough to fit Ellington, but would spike a tax bill that’s already obscene.)
Washington should try and unload Trevor Ariza and/or Markieff Morris, but they’ll likely run into the same issue as Miami: there may not be any dumping ground this season.
What will the Sacramento Kings do?
This ties into the last question. Sacramento has a little over $11 million to fill. So, will they absorb an undesirable contract that would eat into their cap space this summer just to land an extra pick? (If Portland really wants to get under the tax, maybe they exchange their 2021 second-round pick plus the perpetually-hobbled Moe Harkless for Justin Jackson? The Kings can probably get way more than that somewhere else, but both sides might consider it.) Or will they go the other way and ship out assets for someone like Nikola Mirotic? As the only team with space right now, Sacramento can position itself as a pivotal trade partner. They're only two games back of the eight seed and making the playoffs would be pretty awesome for them.
Will anyone go after Kevin Love?
Um, this is a tough one. Love is 30 and guaranteed $120 million over the next four seasons. He's frequently hurt and may never make another All-Star game. That said, if Love and Oladipo were healthy, I could see the Pacers talking themselves into a deal that was centered around Domas Sabonis. But that's not realistic right now.
The Utah Jazz can move Derrick Favors and Dante Exum for Love, a deal that destroys their cap space but ostensibly makes them more potent for years to come. Love fits so nicely with Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell, but I doubt the Cavs would give him up for this package, even though it doesn't push them over the tax and includes an intriguing 23-year-old on a decent contract.
Will the buyout market yield more interesting results than the trade deadline?
With so many good teams unwilling to mortgage their future during a season in which the Golden State Warriors still reign, this is a depressing possibility. Like, why would a team surrender even a second-round pick for Jeremy Lin if they know he’s probable to get bought out and it’s conceivable they can sign him outright? There’s obviously less certainty with this route, but I bet most teams are more than happy to roll the dice.
How Tony Parker is Actually Benjamin Button
Tony Parker isn’t the efficient swashbuckler he used to be, but as an established, entirely independent presence off Charlotte’s bench, he’s swerving his way through a surprisingly satisfying season that’s more impressive (and unusual) than it looks.
Now 36 years old, an age when players typically depend on teammates to do most of the heavy lifting, Parker’s literally more self-reliant than ever before. His usage is the highest it’s been in five years, his assist rate is highest it’s been in six years, and, most notably, a higher percentage of Parker’s baskets are unassisted than ever before. In fact, the only players who’re asked to create more for themselves are Chris Paul and James Harden. Wild.
Only seven percent of Parker’s shots at the rim have been assisted this season. Eleven years ago that number was 20 percent, which is the second-lowest it’s ever been in his career. Parker no longer sizzles down the floor for transition layups, but the guy is still able to turn defenders into traffic cones and get where he wants to go.
And when he can’t get all the way to the basket, Parker’s floater is still a machete.
Chew on this stat: Willie Hernangomez has passed the ball to Parker 336 times this season—more than any other Hornet—and only three were an assist. To those who thought Parker was washed, the man is doing so much more than treading water in a situation that banks on his minutes.
How Good, Exactly, is D.J. Wilson?
It's hard to say what D.J. Wilson is right now. There are moments where he looks like a critical piece of Milwaukee's puzzle—the unique defensive presence who can switch onto several positions and fundamentally alter a defensive scheme that may be better suited for the regular season than a lengthy playoff run. (Opponents who downsize and force Brook Lopez to the bench and opt to attack from the three-point line—where Wilson's quickness has already helped limit attempts—will have to switch things up.)
He's also someone who played 42 minutes last week and didn't score a single point. And if the Bucks need to rely on him in the playoffs it may put a dent in those championship aspirations. For now, Milwaukee has killed opponents when he’s on the court with and without Giannis Antetokounmpo. He has mouthwatering upside and is critical going forward as a resistant rubber band who can shoot threes (he's 20-for-45 from deep this season) and neutralize threats who give most opponents serious problems. Not many players can stay step for step with a Pascal Siakam bullrush (without fouling) like Wilson does in the clips below:
The amount of ground he can cover is marvelous, too. Here he cuts off a drive, forces a pass to Zaza Pachulia, then contests the inefficient floater.
Time will ultimately tell what Wilson is able to do in the playoffs, but on paper he's large and twitchy enough to give Siakam, Ben Simmons, and possibly even Al Horford (whose methodical post-ups broke Milwaukee's back in last year's playoffs) trouble for seven games.
(Partially-related: I'm morally opposed to Fiserv Forum playing the same Mannie Fresh “Go DJ” soundbite over their PA system that the Los Angeles Clippers once used for DeAndre Jordan whenever Wilson scores a basket. There are so many other options out there! Feel free to spark joy and go with "Hey Mr. D.J." by Zhané instead, Fiserv Forum in-game ops person. Let's make that happen.)