In this week's edition of the Friday 5 with Ken Berger, the CBSSports.com senior NBA writer talks a Cousins blow-up, panic about the Celtics, the Western Conference All-Star race and more . You can follow Ken on Twitter at @KBergCBS.
1. Clippers-Lakers on Friday night, both teams a little wobbly. Who winds up on the mat in this one?
KB: The Lakers have slowly displayed some signs of life, winning six out of their last eight, but still giving up way too many points and relying way too much on Kobe for offense. In their current state, the Lakers are a terrible matchup for the Clippers, who turn turnovers and misses into a layup line/dunk contest. Despite losing two in a row, the Clippers have their act together. This could be a good proving ground for the Lakers to show themselves that they're figuring it out. Wait, did I just say beating the Clippers could be a confidence-builder for the Lakers? Yes -- yes, I did. That tells you everything you need to know about the state of basketball affairs in LA.
2. The DeMarcus Cousins situation blew up and then calmed down in the wake of Sacramento's mini winning streak. Kings management has denied the team will trade him. Can the Maloofs neuter Keith Smart anymore in this situation?
KB: When it comes to talent/investment vs. coach, talent/investment always wins. The mistake that a lot of teams make is not empowering the coach to actually coach a player like Cousins. Sadly, this is the mistake the Kings have made here. Suspending Cousins indefinitely, and then almost immediately reinstating him, sent a terrible message to the locker room that ownership and management did not have the courage to side with Keith Smart. Now, nothing has changed. Cousins remains a player with all the talent in the world who can't be coached, and Smart does not have the organizational backing to coach him. Enter Cousins' soon-to-be new agent, Dan Fegan, whose specialty is getting unhappy players out of situations that have made them unhappy. So despite Geoff Petrie's attempts to quell the Cousins trade talk, it will only heat up as we get closer to the deadline.
3. Time for our monthly "are you worried about the Celtics yet?" checkup.
KB: I'm officially worried. This is different than last season, when Boston started 4-8 and wound up losing Game 7 to Miami in the conference finals. This is different than two years ago, when they were a .500 team over the final six weeks of the season and wound up in the conference semifinals. Now that they have Avery Bradley back, the combination of Bradley, Courtney Lee and Jason Terry is more than enough to make up for the loss of Ray Allen. That's not the problem. What's so disconcerting is how poorly they're defending -- 14th in the league in defensive efficiency with 102.1 points allowed per 100 possessions. That's just not very Celtic-like. Doc Rivers has tinkered with the starting lineup and now will have to tinker again. I'm always loath to write off the Celtics, and being the last guy in civilization to write them off has worked for me before. But it's difficult to imagine the Celtics making another run without a significant roster move. They're just not good enough defensively. And when Paul Pierce doesn't have it going -- which is often, lately -- they have very little means to score consistently and certainly don't have enough offensive firepower to make up for their languishing defense. Am I off the Celtics' bandwagon? Not completely. But I'm hanging on by my calloused, Crossfit-worn hands and getting dragged along against my will.
3. Is Western Conference guard going to be the toughest All-Star race?
KB: Clippers fans are the key to this. They have to keep voting for Chris Paul to prevent Jeremy Lin from getting voted in as a starter. (After the third returns, only 46,269 votes separated Paul from Lin in the fan voting.) If you have Paul and Kobe Bryant as your West backcourt starters, the coaches have a slightly easier time choosing from among Russell Westbrook, Tony Parker, Stephen Curry and Mike Conley -- all of whom are deserving -- for the reserves. But if Lin gets voted in, a true All-Star guard in the West is going to be left out.
5. The country managed to back away from the fiscal cliff. What team will do the most to help its bottom line? (As in, get themselves under the luxury tax or shed salary by the trade deadline.)
KB: The eight teams currently over the tax line -- the Lakers, Heat, Nets, Knicks, Grizzlies, Bulls, Celtics, Warriors -- are there by choice. So there isn't an intended nontaxpayer that I see over the line that desperately needs to dive under. But I'll point out a couple of things. First, the Celtics are $1.5 million over the tax threshold. They pay the tax every year and have two more years of Kevin Garnett and one more year of Paul Pierce invested in making another run. So it will be interesting to see if Danny Ainge pushes further into tax territory or pulls back. Huge crossroads for the Celtics. Also, the Lakers are $29.9 million over the tax. That's not exactly a worthy investment for what has been a .500 team at best for two-plus months.