The State of Basketball in the State of California

The last two weeks I’ve ranked the both the Western and Eastern Conferences, and I have to say, I’ve had a riot with it. So instead of switching things up and finding a new theme, I decided I would ride this power rankings phase out for as long as I could. However, I ran into a problem. There are only two conferences in the NBA. Luckily for me, there are four teams in the state of California (for now), and there is a whole lot going on with those teams. I think it’s a perfect time to evaluate everything that is going on in the land of the Golden Poppy.

The city of Sacramento– Those poor, poor Sacramentans. The history of the Sacramento Kings is one littered with disappointment. First, in the only draft that Sacramento had the number one overall pick, they selected Pervis Ellison. Then they struggled to a somewhat unthinkable 1-40 road record in 1991. Then they drafted Duke standout point guard Bobby Hurley, who got in a near fatal car accident two months into his rookie season. Then Dick Bavetta and the Lakers happened, derailing the best Kings team in the franchise’s history. And now, after a relatively tortured past, the Kings are most likely going to be relocating to Seattle in two shakes of a lamb’s tail. All Sacramento really has to hang its metaphorical hat on is that is the capital of California. But then again, so are Helena, Concord, Bismarck and Cheyenne.

The idea of unselfishness in Sacramento– To make this really simple for everyone and avoid having to find any statistics to back up this point, I’ll just say this: the idea of unselfishness in Sacramento is just as real as Manti Te’o’s girlfriend.

The Mike Brown Era– Poor, poor Mike Brown. I think a lot of people saw this coming from many miles away. At the first sign of struggle the Lakers were going to need a scapegoat, and coaches usually don’t make out too well in those kind of situations. Just ask Avery Johnson, Jerry Sloan, Mike D’Antoni (New York version), Stan Van Gundy (Miami and Orlando version), Mike Brown (Cleveland version) and every other notable coach who got the axe because a player wanted him out, or because the team was underperforming. Mike Brown never stood a chance. Once the Lakers started 1-4 Mike Brown was canned and there were instantly rumblings that Phil Jackson would be open to returning. But then, a funny thing happened…

January 15, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers head coach Mike D

The Mike D’Antoni Era– After Mike Brown was fired the Lakers signed Mike D’Antoni to a three-year, $12 million contract which came as a shock to the Lakers fans who were clamoring for the return of Phil Jackson. Although D’Antoni had coached Steve Nash for many years in Phoenix during Nash’s prime and reportedly had a good relationship with Kobe Bryant, the hire was met with some skepticism. There was uncertainty as to how D’Antoni’s system would work with Pau Gasol (I continue to believe it is Pau’s lack of touches in the post that have ultimately led to his stock dropping… More on this coming up) and Dwight Howard in the line-up. There was no guarantee that the Lakers, a relatively old team, would be able to play at the “7 seconds or less” tempo D’Antoni would likely prefer to play. And my cousin Paul Clark refused to stop referring to Mike D’Antoni as a creep and shyster. D’Antoni was facing a lot of pressure and some heavy expectations, and so far the results haven’t been great. You could make the argument that the Lakers haven’t been healthy all year, particularly since D’Antoni was hired. But the record often doesn’t lie. The Lakers are 10-16 under Mike D’Antoni this year. Sure, D’Antoni has had more success than Mike Brown did this year, but clearly, Bernie Bickerstaff was the man for the job.

Pau Gasol as the best Gasol in the NBA– Pau’s run as the best Gasol in the NBA was a long and successful one. From the 2001-02 season to the 2011-12 season Pau averaged 18.7 points, 9.2 rebounds, 3.2 assists, and 1.7 blocks while also being the centerpiece of one of the biggest hijacking’s in NBA history, and winning two NBA titles after that trade. As his younger brother Marc was inching closer and closer to taking the metaphorical conch from his older brother, Pau dominated the 2012 Summer Olympics and nearly spearheaded a Spain upset in the Gold Medal Game, leaving most to believe that Pau had something left in the tank and was more than just a trade piece for the Lakers. Thanks to creaky knees, a Javale McGee elbow, Mike D’Antoni’s system and his younger brothers continuing emergence, Pau is for the moment 2ndin the Gasol Power Rankings, and way further down on the California Power Rankings than I’m sure he’d like to see himself, and much further down that I expected him to be. Pau almost single handedly beat the United States in the Gold Medal game. This cannot be forgotten.

Jan 18, 2013; Memphis, TN, USA; Sacramento Kings center DeMarcus Cousins (15) drives against Memphis Grizzlies forward Marreese Speights (5) at the FedEx Forum. Memphis defeated Sacramento 85-69. Mandatory Credit: Nelson Chenault-USA TODAY Sports

DeMarcus Cousins Potential as a member of the Kings- I can’t think of a player in the NBA who desperately needs a change of scenery more than Boogie Cousins does. I’m the kind of fan who wants to see good players playing in meaningful games. Unless there is a major overhaul or a literal change in scenery (i.e. perhaps relocation for the franchise… we’re getting there), Boogie might never reach the level that he could, and should. We’re talking about a player who averaged 26 points, 15 rebounds and 10 assists his freshman year in high school; a player who could’ve possibly been the number one pick in the NBA Draft if scouts weren’t saying things like this: “To his credit he made it through the entire season without any suspensions or ejections. However, there were a few times (flagrant fouls) where he may have deserved to be.” Whoa! Congrats Boogie! You made it through a whole college season without getting suspended or ejected. A tremendous accomplishment! Instead, Cousins dropped to the 5th pick and was slated to be the centerpiece of the in-total-shambles Sacramento Kings, where he’s been flanked by a bunch of perimeter players who care about themselves on just a slightly lower level than Lance Armstrong does. Hopefully Boogie Cousins gets his head on straight, lands on a contender, and perhaps emerges as a star player and feel-good story.

Dwight Howard- Dwight Howard is my least favorite player in the NBA and I’ve never been afraid to say that. I think he got let off the hook for what he did to Orlando. I think he gets vastly overrated historically because he is playing in an era where more and more teams are playing small ball. And from a skill-set standpoint, he’s one of the least impressive “superstars” I’ve ever seen played in person. Still, I had Dwight ranked the third best player in the NBA before the season started. Slightly hypocritical, I know. I believed that a guy built like an ancient Greek sculpture (as I knock Dwight’s basketball skill set, I will say he and LeBron James are the two most impressive physical specimens I’ve ever seen in my life) would be able to shake off back surgery and thrive in a new role with a new team and new coach. Apparently back surgery wasn’t something Dwight could just “shake off.” And apparently, the new team and coach wouldn’t be providing much help for an easy transition from Orlando to Los Angeles.

I’m firmly planted on the “Dwight isn’t totally healthy and doesn’t really want to be playing in Los Angeles” bandwagon. I don’t think Dwight is any better than 75% healthy. He certainly doesn’t look like it. And I think he still has his heart set on playing in Brooklyn, which would make all kinds of sense. Not only would Dwight walk into Brooklyn as easily the most marketable player on the team, but he and Deron Williams would have all kinds of fun getting a coach fired every month while Joe Johnson would sit there quietly not saying a word while he was still busy counting the $119 million he got in 2010. Doesn’t that sound like fun?

Golden State’s Championship chances- Who would’ve thought that this conversation would be warranted in mid-January? Even as someone who picked Golden State to make the playoffs, I didn’t think it would be necessary to evaluate their title chances. Frankly, as I’m about to do so, it still feels a little weird. To sort it out, let’s go through the checklist of everything a team needs to be considered “Championship caliber.”

Scorers: Stephen Curry and David Lee have emerged as one of the best point guard/power forward duos in the league, and for people who haven’t seen the Dubs play that much, you just need to look at the stats to see where the Golden State resurgence is stemming from. Curry and Lee are both sitting in the top ten in scoring, one of three groups of teammates to be able to boast this (Durant/Westbrook and LeBron/Wade are also in the top ten). Plus, Klay Thompson is always will to take on the scoring load. He’s inching his way closer and closer to a “Brian Cook All-Stars” roster spot. CHECK.
Rebounding/Defense: I decided to combine these two sub-categories into one larger category since Golden State was 28th in the league in both rebounding and scoring defense last year. Thanks to some personnel changes and brilliant coaching by Mark Jackson, the Warriors have improved in both categories this year. The Dubs are 4th in rebounding (a drastic improvement) and 22nd in scoring defense (not as big of a jump, but they are no longer playing pick-up game defense like they were last year). Also, keep this in mind: Golden State has been playing without 7-footer Andrew Bogut all season long. CHECK
Coaching: I give Mark Jackson the slight edge over Mike Woodson, Tom Thibodeau, and Frank Vogel in the Coach of the Year standings right now. The impact he’s had on this team in a year and a half has transformed the Warriors from perennial lottery team to playoff contender. And stylistically, he’s been the catalyst in changing the Warriors from a street ball team to an actual basketball team. I touched on the rebounding and defensive improvements, but he’s also changed the way Golden State plays offensively. Oddly enough, the Warriors were 28th in assists last season. This season they’ve jumped up to 8th. He’s engrained in them a mentality to not only look for the right pass, but to also look for the extra pass. Mark Jackson is a very good coach. CHECK
Bench: Part of what has made Mark Jackson so successful in year two is the moves Golden State made over the last 12 months. The acquisitions of Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry, and selection of Harrison Barnes, Festus Ezeli, and Draymond Green have made Mark Jackson’s job much easier. Every coach would welcome that kind of talent influx. But it’s been Jackson’s decision to bring Jack and Landry off the bench that allows Golden State to get the check mark in this category. I’ll discuss Jack and Landry’s sixth man of the year candidacy in a little while. Most games Golden State won’t skip much of a beat when they start bringing the bench players in, and often times they’ll close the game with Jack and Landry on the floor. CHECK
Free Throw Shooting: Golden State sits in 2nd behind Oklahoma City in team free throw percentage. You have to make your free throws to close out games, and the Warriors late game line-up can do just that. Stephen Curry, David Lee, Klay Thompson, Jarrett Jack and Carl Landry all shoot over 80% from the free throw line. CHECK
Home Crowd: Don’t think this can’t swing a series. Remember back in 2007 when 1 seed Dallas got upset in the 1st round by, wait a second, what team was that again… oh that’s right, it was the Golden State Warriors who rallied behind their frenzied home crowd to become only the third 8 seed to ever upset a 1 seed. CHECK
Experience: No check mark here. The Warriors are inexperienced and haven’t been through the pain and heart ache of coming close and falling short. Jordan, Kobe, LeBron, Shaq… they all suffered heart breaking defeat before they got to the top. This is why Oklahoma City is so dangerous this year. That’s why 3 years from now Golden State, if they stay together, could be a title contender. Right now they are missing the key ingredient though.

Jarrett Jack as Sixth Man of the Year– Jack has been 0.5% better as a sixth man than Jamal Crawford, 10% better than Matt Barnes and Carl Landry, and 9,000% better than Jodie Meeks.

DeMarcus Cousins Potential on any team but the Kings- I touched on this briefly before, so instead of repeating what I said above, here are my favorite/most interesting/totally unrealistic DeMarcus Cousins fake trades thanks to ESPN’s NBA Trade Machine.

Trade #1: Sacramento receives Rajon Rondo and Josh Smith; Boston receives DeMarcus Cousins, Tyreke Evans and Jimmer Fredette; Atlanta receives Jeff Green, Jason Thompson and Aaron Brooks.

NOTE: Former high school teammates reunite as the faces of the new team out west. Boston takes on DeMarcus Cousins and Tyreke Evans, and most likely get the most out of both players. Atlanta accomplishes what seems to be a big goal of theirs by finally trading Josh Smith.

Trade #2: Sacramento receives Dwyane Wade; Miami receives DeMarcus Cousins, John Salmons and Jimmer Fredette.

NOTE: I had to.

Trade #3: Sacramento receives Dwight Howard; Los Angeles receives DeMarcus Cousins, Marcus Thornton and John Salmons.

NOTE: I asked my cousin Pauley, a Lakers fan, if he would want this trade. His response: “Man that’s really tough. If Cousins wasn’t such a dick I think I would for sure.” Ladies and gentlemen, DeMarcus Cousins!

Trade #4: Sacramento receives Kevin Love; Minnesota receives DeMarcus Cousins and Paul Millsap; Milwaukee receives Al Jefferson and John Salmons; Utah receives Monta Ellis, Ersan Ilyasova and Nikola Pekovic.

NOTE: Oddly enough, I think every team improves in this trade. The franchise formerly known as the Kings gets a marquee player to toss a ton of money at and build around. Minnesota gets two high quality pieces for Love. Milwaukee also makes out on the deal, especially if they could keep Al Jefferson around. And Utah doesn’t have to deal with the dilemma of losing Al Jefferson and Paul Millsap without getting anything back.

Trade #5: Sacramento receives Marc Gasol and Pau Gasol; Memphis receives Joe Johnson, Gerald Wallace and Marcus Thornton; Los Angeles receives Rudy Gay, Brook Lopez and Francisco Garcia; Brooklyn receives Dwight Howard, DeMarcus Cousins, John Salmons, and James Johnson.

NOTE: This would go down as my favorite trade of all-time even though Memphis and Los Angeles are simply pawns. Big picture, it teams the Gasol’s up in Sacramento Seattle, AND it would result in Dwight Howard, Deron Williams and DeMarcus Cousins would be on the same team. No coach is safe!

Kobe’s homicide potential- This was at the top of the power rankings a couple of weeks ago until Kobe joined Twitter, reconciled with his wife and actually gave credit to LeBron James after a tough loss last Thursday night. Kobe Bryant isn’t a competitively homicidal maniac… maybe he’s actually a cuddly teddy bear. 

Kobe’s scoring leader potential- Roughly half way through the season Kobe (29.2 points per game) is trailing Kevin Durant (29.5) and tied with Carmelo Anthony (29.2) in the race for the scoring lead.  With the Lakers collective back against the wall, Kobe knows nothing to do besides shoot his way out of trouble. If I were a betting man, I’d have my money on Kobe to close out the season as the leading scorer in the league.

January 4, 2013; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Lakers small forward Metta World Peace (15) and Los Angeles Clippers power forward Blake Griffin (32) during the game at the Staples Center. Clippers won 107-102. Mandatory Credit: Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

Bad Blood amongst the California teams– I’m a huge advocate of teams not liking each other (or at least playing like it), and out west there is no such thing as California Love. The Lakers and Clippers turned into a rivalry when David Stern intervened and took Chris Paul away from the Lakers, essentially deciding that the league was better off with Paul throwing Blake Griffin a whole bunch of lobs and Kobe not winning six or more titles (just kidding, but that is what a lot of the Lakers fans will say). There are a whole bunch of big personality and hyper-competitive players that make any Clippers/Lakers game must-see TV. Not to feel left out, the Warriors made their mark this year by playing in what was probably the most entertaining game of the season against the Lakers back in December. Then they followed that up by openly mocking Blake Griffin after he horribly missed three pointer, only to be on the losing end of Blake Griffin and Chris Paul eff-you games three nights later. Last night, Golden State handed the Clippers their 10th loss of the season as Stephen Curry outplayed Chris Paul. Finally, you have the Kings who aren’t going to be relevant in this conversation unless DeMarcus Cousins decides it would be a fun idea to challenge Metta World Peace to a fist fight, which is something we can’t rule out.

The Clippers “Lob City” MonikerObserve.

San Francisco 49ers Championship chances- The 49ers are the early four point favorites in the “Harbowl” and I have them winning by seven points. 27-20, the San Francisco 49ers are your Super Bowl Champions.

Chris Paul’s MVP credentials- If LeBron James wasn’t playing the best all-around basketball of dare I say all-time, and if Kevin Durant wasn’t “next in line” to win the MVP Award, it would already have Chris Paul’s name etched onto it. The Clippers are improbably 32-10 just three years removed from being the premier cellar-dweller in the NBA, and it wouldn’t be possible without Chris Paul. Sure, they’ve got a roster that goes ten deep, but all of the Lob City hoopla started when David Stern decided it would be fun to put Chris Paul in the mix. Did you see the YouTube video of Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan after they heard about the trade? There is a reason why Blake Griffin reacted like a 7 year old kid does when he walks out of his bedroom on Christmas morning, and it’s not just because he knew he was going to be catching an exorbitant amount of alley-oops. It was because for the first time, the Clippers were going to be relevant. Chris Paul turned the Clippers into the best team in California. Every night he goes out and competes harder than anyone else. He’s fearless, and his play and attitude reflect that. More and more I think the Clippers can win the title just because of Chris Paul.

The NBA- Let’s run through this super quick since I’ve already surpassed 3,000 words: There are four NBA teams currently in California. Three are going to be making the playoffs (Yes, I hesitantly include the Lakers). On those three teams, you could make the case that there are seven top 30 players (Chris Paul, Kobe Bryant, Dwight Howard, Blake Griffin, Stephen Curry, David Lee and Pau Gasol). The fourth California team is moving back to a city that is craving an NBA team, and provides a much bigger market for television ratings than Sacramento does. So to quote Charlie Sheen, the NBA is winning.