Life without a second star: Paul George, DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis
A look at the past, present and future of three superstars who do not play for a superteam
For better or worse -- I'd say better! -- we live in a world where superteams reign supreme. The Golden State Warriors look set to destroy everything in their path this season, unless of course LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love manage to upset them again. Paul Pierce said the Los Angeles Clippers should be considered a superteam, too, and Derrick Rose thinks that people should put the New York Knicks in that category for some reason. While the San Antonio Spurs generally don't care about designations like this, their talent in recent years speaks for itself.
It has always been difficult to win big in the NBA without multiple stars, but in this climate, it's looking less and less likely that a single-star team constructed like the Dirk Nowitzki-led Dallas Mavericks in 2011 is going to win it all anytime soon. With that in mind, and with Kevin Garnett's retirement still fresh, here's a look at the paths of three stars who are mired in mediocrity with the teams that drafted them (much like Garnett was before he joined Pierce and Ray Allen in Boston), and what their outlook is for this season and moving forward.
How long has he been there? The Pacers drafted him No. 10 overall in 2010.
High-water mark? In 2013-14, Indiana won 56 games despite an uneven final third of the regular season, good enough to beat out the Big 3 in Miami for the top seed in the Eastern Conference. George was seen as an MVP candidate early in the season, and Indiana almost had three All-Stars: Roy Hibbert made the team and Lance Stephenson was considered a snub.
Like the previous year, the Heat eliminated the Pacers in the conference finals. George delivered a superhuman performance in Game 5, though, scoring 37 points in 45 minutes, including 21 points in the fourth quarter. Unfortunately, the most lasting image from that game is not anything George did, but rather Stephenson blowing in James' ear.
What has happened since? Playing in a Team USA scrimmage in the summer of 2014, George suffered a broken leg that has since been described as "gruesome" and "horrific" far too many times. Stephenson went to Charlotte and has never been the same. George missed most of the 2014-15 season, then Hibbert and David West left in free agency, with Indiana president Larry Bird declaring that the team needed to replace coach Frank Vogel's "smash-mouth basketball" with a faster, more exciting style.
Stuck with a roster that wasn't equipped to run last season, Vogel experimented with all sorts of lineups and the Pacers finished seventh in the East at 45-37, largely on the strength of George returning to his pre-injury form. In seven mostly ugly games against the second-seeded Toronto Raptors, George once again came awfully close to leading Indiana to a major upset.
Even though this result exceeded any reasonable expectations, Bird fired Vogel four days after Game 7 and replaced him with Nate McMillan. Aside from George, forward Lavoy Allen is the only Pacer remaining from the roster that went to the Eastern Conference finals in 2014.
Is it going to get any better this year? Maybe. Indiana found new running mates for George in the summer, trading George Hill for Jeff Teague and a first-round draft pick for Thaddeus Young. It also acquired Al Jefferson to act as an offensive anchor for the second unit.
This is an intriguing team, but it is counting on McMillan to both improve the offense and make sure the defense doesn't fall apart. Myles Turner, the rare 7-footer who can both stretch the floor and protect the rim, is full of potential, but he is 20 years old. The Pacers suddenly need him to be productive on both ends every night.
What if it all goes wrong? George could effectively make the 2017-18 season a contract year. While he is eligible for a contract extension now, and Bird is ready to give him the max, it's reasonable for him to play out this season and see how things come together. The five-year extension George signed in 2013 has a player option on the 2018-19 season, and unless he suffers another serious injury, he would be crazy not to exercise it and get a massive raise.
George has high hopes for this team -- he thinks the Pacers are ready to challenge James' Cavaliers -- and is not interested in rebuilding. If Turner doesn't take a step forward and McMillan can't make this team jell, then the organization will be under intense pressure to prove it is the right place for George to stay.
How long has he been there? The Kings drafted him No. 5 overall in 2010.
High-water mark? In November 2014, Sacramento was briefly a fun place to be a professional basketball player. It was coach Michael Malone's second season, and the team embraced defense and started 9-5 despite a difficult early season schedule.
Cousins played the best two-way basketball of his career, having established real trust with a coach for the first time as a professional. There were a bunch of stories about him becoming a leader and a superstar.
What has happened since? Cousins came down with viral meningitis, the Kings went on a losing streak and Malone got fired against the players' wishes, as ownership and the front office wanted them to play a faster, more modern style of basketball. Sacramento promoted Tyrone Corbin to coach, and all the progress made under Malone was undone. The Kings tried to run, but the players never fully bought in and the defense was a disaster.
The Kings replaced Corbin with George Karl over the All-Star break, Cousins said all the right things and none of it mattered. They finished 29-53, and Karl reportedly tried to have Cousins traded in the offseason, which led to a public, emoji-fueled feud. New-ish general manager Vlade Divac elected to bring both Karl and Cousins back to training camp, and Sacramento was again a dysfunctional, defensively deficient mess in 2015-16.
Is it going to get any better this year? Maybe. New coach Dave Joerger has a lot in common with Malone, and Kings players are "genuinely excited" to actually be practicing defense now, according to the Sacramento Bee's Jason Jones. Cousins is also on the record saying he thinks the team is on the right path, though you have to wonder what he'd say about team management if he was given truth serum.
The good news: This is the deepest team that Sacramento has had in a while, and it's easy to imagine all those articles about Cousins' leadership and maturity being written again in the next couple of months. The West is deep, though, and it would be surprising if the Kings managed to sneak into the playoffs.
What if it all goes wrong? Like George, Cousins' contract expires in 2018. That sounds far away, but a league executive told CBS Sports' Zach Harper that the Kings are "fooling themselves" if they think Cousins will re-sign with them.
Cousins has never even come close to making the playoffs in Sacramento -- last year's 33-49 record was the Kings' best since 2008 -- and he has been frustrated with the never-ending drama for the vast majority of his tenure. If Sacramento doesn't become a normal, functional team soon, then it will have to at least consider trading him.
How long has he been there? The Pelicans drafted him No. 1 overall in 2012.
High-water mark? In 2014-15, Davis' third year in the league, he had one of the best statistical seasons in NBA history, averaging 24.3 points, 10.2 rebounds, 2.2 assists, 2.9 blocks and 1.5 steals with a true shooting percentage of 59.1 percent and a PER of 30.8. At the age of 22, he led the Pelicans to the playoffs despite numerous injuries to key players. They were swept by the Golden State Warriors in the first round, but against that juggernaut he was just as dominant and even more efficient than he was in the regular season.
What has happened since? Last season, many observers, including myself, picked New Orleans to continue its ascent and Davis to win Most Valuable Player. Instead, the Pelicans were even more injured than they were the previous season and they took a massive step back on both ends of the floor. Their 30-win season was a massive disappointment, and the absence of significant improvement from Davis was a minor one. While his individual numbers remained astounding, he missed 21 games due to injury and regressed defensively.
Is it going to get any better this year? Maybe. It should be impossible for New Orleans to be as shorthanded as it was last season, but Tyreke Evans' knee still isn't healthy and Jrue Holiday is out indefinitely because his pregnant wife needs brain surgery. So far, the Pelicans have not provided Davis with young teammates capable of becoming his co-star(s), though they hope that rookie sharpshooter Buddy Hield will fit that bill.
Gentry and assistant coach Darren Erman do at least have some new pieces to fix the NBA's 28th-ranked defense. Free-agent additions Solomon Hill, E'Twaun Moore and Langston Galloway should help on that front.
What if it all goes wrong? Luckily for New Orleans, Davis is locked up through at least the 2019-20 season -- the final year of his five-year maximum contract is a player option. The franchise is in no danger of losing him in the short term, but every move that it makes should have that timeline in mind.
If things go sideways, next summer represents a chance for the Pelicans to reinvent themselves -- Holiday and Evans will be free agents, and the front office might need to do something drastic to get Omer Asik's contract off their books. Doing that, though, would be a tacit admission that their first attempt to build a contender around Davis was a failure.
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