Around the Rim

By Josh Eberley #41

Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome to Around the Rim.

Think of Around the Rim as your local politicians would like for you to think of town hall, a safe forum for all voices in the basketball universe to be heard. A stable roundtable, fluctuating in both voices heard and trendy issues.

We are proudly now on edition 16. You can find the previous edition here. As promised, the roundtable will run every Tuesday, with new questions and new voices each week. If you have a question you’d like answered by the panel, tweet @JoshEberley or @HOOPmag and check back each week to see who hopped on for the current edition.

This week we are fortunate to have six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:

Mo Dakhil: The Jump Ball, host

Jon Hamm: Bleacher Report, writer

Joshua Priemski: At The Hive, managing editor

Jason Pugh: Tune In, host

Brandon Robinson: Scoop B Radio, host

Angie Treasure: 1280 Sports, digital director

The topic of conversation most of this week has been the Cleveland Cavaliers and their very visible struggles in March. Are the Cavaliers in real trouble or is there a magic switch? 

Dahkil: I haven’t hit the panic button yet, but I certainly have it nearby. They have been so bad defensively, and so many of their guys are playing heavy minutes. It’s not just LeBron James who is playing heavy minutes but it’s also Tristan Thompson who is playing a ton of minutes. The hope was Andrew Bogut was going to eat some of his minutes to save him for the playoffs, but we know how that went. I’m concerned about their fatigue level heading into the playoffs.

I don’t think the Cavs are in real trouble yet but I’m not sure if they are just going to be able to flip a switch come playoff time either. I think they are lucky they are in the Eastern Conference and not the gauntlet that the West is. I think they will find their swing in the playoffs and get back on track with their defense.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Hamm: It’s impossible to ignore the Cavs’ defensive struggles. They are next-to-last in Defensive Rating since the All-Star break. No Conference Finalist has slumped this badly after the break since the 2006 Phoenix Suns. Still, I can’t hit the panic button quite yet. Cleveland is aiming for its third straight NBA Finals and LeBron James has his sights on his seventh consecutive appearance. I’ll take the odds that this team can flip the switch when the playoffs start.

Priemski: There’s definitely a magic switch. That isn’t to say there isn’t trouble in Cleveland right now, but once the playoffs roll around they’ll settle into a groove and take care of business.

Something like this seems to happen every year just before the playoffs. I wouldn’t be worried.

Pugh: If your finger hasn’t already pushed the panic button, I’m sure it’s at least on it at this point. There’s no doubt that LeBron can flip the switch come playoff time, but what about his teammates? The Cavs have the second oldest roster in the NBA and it certainly looked that way in the month of March. Their defense has been nothing short of awful lately, even when the Cavs tried to come out with a sense of urgency and effort on the defensive end of the floor against San Antonio recently, they were ran out of the gym by the Spurs. Cleveland’s road to the Finals will be much tougher this year but no team in the East scares me enough to say the Cavs won’t at least get back there for a third consecutive season. Boston will be in real trouble if they face the Raptors or Wizards in the second round. Can anyone guarantee the Wizards will beat the Bucks in the first round? The East may not play out the way most think it will, but one constant is LeBron. Therefore, no need to push the panic button if you’re a Cavs fan.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Robinson: No. Not really. It’s trivial at this point.

Although the month of March was not the Cleveland Cavaliers’ friend, it’s now April and they got the win Sunday at home against the Indiana Pacers. LeBron James posted 41, 16 and 11 in the outing, secondly, they’re not perfect, BUT defensively the Cavs were awful in the month of March. Most LeBron James led championship teams have some sort of drama headed into the playoffs.

It’s assumed that it will be a Cavs-Warriors matchup in the Finals. That said, the irony in all of this is: At points where the Cavs struggled in March, folks were paying attention to the Golden State Warriors. Alternatively, when the Warriors were struggling and dealing with injury issues (i.e. Kevin Durant), the basketball world paid attention to the Cleveland Cavaliers. Moral of the story? Basketball is a game of runs, storylines and who is hot or not. The Cavaliers will be fine whether they are a first or a second seed. All will be right with the hoops world, I promise.

Treasure: I don’t think it’s smart to doubt LeBron James until LeBron James gives us a reason to doubt LeBron James. Look, the fact that the Nets had more wins in March than the Cavs is not great. Having the 26th ranked defense in as much time is also, to repeat myself, not great. But weren’t we having this discussion last year before the greatest Finals comeback of all time? Their route through the East is certainly not as cupcake-y as last, but color me skeptical that Boston is some powerhouse that LBJ won’t know how to handle come May. However (I know, I’ve contradicted myself several times here), I think if the Cavaliers go into the playoffs and haven’t won at least half of their last six, we can then worry.

What was your biggest takeaway from the NCAA Tournament this year? 

Treasure: I watch so little college basketball, it’s almost negligible for me to comment—and I work in an arena where some of the first games took place opening weekend. I will say, the one-and-out tournament is one of the best setups in sports. There are always Cinderella stories, surprise knockouts, buzzer beaters and poor, sad woodwind players in the pep band that get caught sobbing while trying to play a Jazzy version of “Light ‘Em Up.” It makes for great entertainment, even if I struggle to connect with the actual play. I think the NBA has yet to capture that same kind of “magic,” for lack of a less saccharine word. Drama is good. The Dance has it.

David E. Klutho /Sports Illustrated/Getty Images

Dahkil: Not a huge college basketball fan, but I am walking away super impressed by De’Aaron Fox’s game against UCLA in the Sweet Sixteen. He completely took Ball out of the game on the defensive end and goes on to put up career high a 39 points on the other. That’s what I call stepping up at the right time. He might have done more for his NBA stock than anyone else in the NBA.

Hamm: When Morgan Williams nailed that last-second shot to snap UConn’s 111-game winning streak… oh, you mean the other tournament. My biggest takeaway is how brilliantly De’Aaron Fox played against Lonzo Ball and the UCLA Bruins. He dropped 39 points on 13-20 shooting and made 15 trips to the free throw line. Ball managed only 10 points on 10 shot attempts (though he did add 8 assists). Most impressively? Fox committed only one turnover.

Priemski: Honestly, I didn’t watch any of this year’s tournament. Between school and work and adult stuff the time simply wasn’t there.

That said, I learned that Lonzo Ball is part of an incredible family and that a couple of white boys made some excellent plays. I’ll catch up on incoming talent in a month or so.

Pugh: The Kentucky v. North Carolina game had everything a basketball fan could ask for. Two great head coaches, two storied programs, tons of NBA talent on the floor and a remarkable finish. Just when you thought the Wildcats took control of the game with about 5 minutes to go, UNC scores 12 straight points that lead to an awesome ending. After a clutch three-pointer by Malik Monk of Kentucky, Luke Maye (who averaged 0. 5 points a game this year) made the biggest shot of his life. What was even more special (and heartbreaking) was the postgame reaction from Kentucky players following the loss. De’Aron Fox and Edrice Adebayo reminded all of us why we love college sports so much. The raw emotion they displayed after a loss like that proved to me that they’ll go on to have solid NBA careers because they truly care about winning.

Justin Tafoya/NCAA Photos via Getty Images

Robinson: Gotta show love to the ladies first! It was tragic to see UConn go down. Geno Auriemma and UConn are great all the time. But it was great to see someone else win it for a change.

But South Carolina winning it all was pretty cool. South Carolina is my grandma’s home state, so I know she’s grinning from ear to ear. On the Men’s side, overall I like that you got to see a David and Goliath matchup in Gonzaga and North Carolina. It’s nostalgic because you envision John Stockton’s short shorts and Ronny Turiaf cornrows meeting Michael Jordan’s Converse sneakers.

With the NBA regular season about to wrap, what was your favorite game this season?

Robinson: No brainer: Kevin Durant’s Return to Oklahoma City. Warriors got the 130-114 win and Durant scored 34 points. How sweet was that? Great for ratings, the fans got to see Westbrook and Durant talk smack and while all of that was going on, if you pay attention to hip hop, concurrently, you saw Cam’ron go on Instagram live for an hour and talk about Jim Jones. That was a great night!

Treasure: This is a weird answer: The Spurs-Warriors matchup on March 11 where both squads were resting all of their marquee players. Yeah, the one where Patrick McCaw played 41 minutes and Ian Clark scored 36 points. As weary as we get of “storylines,” it sparked some serious rest conversation that I find really interesting. Do I agree that Pop put years on Tim Duncan’s career because of how he managed him? Yes. Do I feel bad for the kids that traveled to San Antonio to watch Steph Curry and got denied tunnel shots and logo threes? Absolutely. Do I think it’s bad for basketball? ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Dahkil: I think this game might fly under the radar, but the Cleveland Cavaliers’ loss to the San Antonio Spurs in overtime in January might be my favorite game of the season. LeBron and Kyrie both put up 29 points while Kawhi dropped 41 points, shooting 50 percent from the field. It was an amazing game and you can tell both teams really wanted to win it. This is the game that kicked off Leonard’s MVP campaign in my mind.

Hamm: Houston at Oklahoma City on Nov. 16. Both teams led by double digits at different points in the game, but the game was tied at 100 with three minutes remaining. The game ended with a 3-pointer from Eric Gordon, but it was all for naught. On the previous play, Russell Westbrook put the Thunder up by five with a driving left-handed dunk over Clint Capela.

Close runner up: Golden State at Cleveland on Christmas Day.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Priemski: Durant’s first game back in Oklahoma City. The bad will not just from the fans but the Thunder players was something to behold. I hadn’t seen an atmosphere quite like that since LeBron’s first game back in Cleveland.

I’m sincerely hoping the Thunder and Warriors meet up in the playoffs. I could go for seven games of Russ trying to outshine not just KD, but Steph, too. Especially if he gets the MVP.

Pugh: Wizards vs Celtics (Jan. 24th). At first I wanted to go with Kevin Durant’s first return to Oklahoma City. But that wasn’t much of a game and not nearly as big as LeBron’s return to Cleveland for the first time. So I have to go with this Celtics vs Wizards game. It’s not often on a Tuesday night in January a regular season NBA game gets you excited. But these two teams have a history. How many teams truly don’t like each other in this league? Maybe the Cavs and Warriors, but LeBron has been downplaying that rivalry ever since it became a rivalry. Wizards players showed up to the game wearing all black because they were preparing for a funeral. Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas called the gesture “cute”. The meeting before John Wall got in to it with Jae Crowder following the game. The teams had to be separate and the NBA fined both players. These two teams ending up splitting the regular season series (the Wizards went on to win the so called “funeral game”), but you definitely can expect a hard fought playoff series from start to finish if they meet up.

Which individual player impressed you most with their growth this season? Not necessarily the most improved player but the player you most enjoyed watching as they elevated their play.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Pugh: John Wall. If not for the historic numbers being put up by Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Wall would definitely be in the conversation for League MVP. He’s averaging 23 points a game (career high), he’s second in the League in assists, second in steals and has the second most blocks amongst point guards this season. Not to mention he led the Wizards to their first division title in 38 years! And somehow he still doesn’t get any respect from officials (15 technicals this season). Maybe they just don’t like Kentucky guys. Either way, Wall deserves to be All NBA after the amazing season he’s had for the Wizards.

Robinson: Russell Westbrook. The dude has heart. The triple-doubles are great to see, view and write about, but there’s more to it than that. I always felt in my heart of hearts that he was a leader. I like the fact that he does it his way, he kept his nose to the grindstone and stuck to the script. In a world where folks pretend to be genuine (you know that fake humble is manufactured, right?) he just wants to win. The Thunder built the team around him and he’s risen to the occasion. How cool would it be to see a Thunder Finals appearance rather than the assumed Golden State Warriors appearance?

Treasure: At the risk of being referred to as everyone’s favorite, yellow-animated patriarch, I have to go with Rudy Gobert. Fully recognizing that’s because I’ve watched the Jazz more than any other team, his transformation not only into a serious contender for DPOY but a legitimate linchpin of Utah’s offense has been remarkable. Most people kind of wrote Rudy off last season because he was never quite right after his MCL sprain sidelined him for weeks. He was unsure in traffic, he had unarticulated Ken doll hands in the post, but he still blocked hella shots. This year, however, he’s had game-winners (on both ends of the floor), his teammates talk about how much more they trust his hands, and he’s proved capable at the free throw line so he doesn’t get pulled during Hack-A situations. In March, he averaged 17.3 points and 13.5 rebounds on 70.7% shooting and scored a new career high 35 points. If you watch a Rudy game, he’ll routinely do something that gives me what I refer to as #GobertGiggles. He’s a joy to watch.

Dahkil: I mean it sucks because he has only played 31 games but I enjoyed watching Joel Embiid. He was amazing and delivered on the expectations; if he can stay healthy he is a building block for the Philadelphia 76ers and an eventual franchise star. I was not expecting him to be this great, he was remarkable and it looked he was just having fun doing it. It was refreshing to see.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Hamm: I’ve been on the scene for Russell Westbrook’s historical season, but it’s not necessarily the triple-doubles that have impressed me the most. Westbrook used to be a borderline disaster in clutch time (the last five minutes of the game with the score within five points). He often had to defer to Kevin Durant, but Westbrook was also prone to very questionable decision-making in the clutch. He’s transformed into perhaps the league’s most clutch players this season and is practically single-handedly responsible for a number of the Thunder’s come-from-behind victories this season.

Priemski: Going to let my bias shine here: Cody Zeller.

When Cody entered the League, most people thought he’d be a bust—at least as far as being picked fourth in the draft is concerned. He was athletic, yes, but he had little skill and was extremely weak.

Fast forward to today and Zeller’s one of the most important players on the Hornets. He’s still unbelievably athletic, but he’s exceptionally strong now, too. That’s allowed him to bully players bigger than him inside, dunk on people and set monstrous screens. He’s also an excellent defender, both individually and as part of a team.

To get a feel for just how good he is, the Hornets were 3-17 in games he missed this season and well above .500 with him. He’s come a long, long way.

Finally, the 2017 Hall of Fame class has been revealed, headlined by Tracy McGrady. For fun, if prime Tracy McGrady was in the League today, where would he rank among players?

Priemski: Tracy would probably be in that 5-15 range. His game is reminiscent of Paul George’s, so that feels about right.

Pugh: Right behind LeBron James and Kevin Durant. Prime T-Mac would’ve been a problem in today’s League. No player besides Bron and Kawhi Leonard could come close to slowing down a 6-8 shooter with the ability to attack the basket the way McGrady could in his prime. Remember, prime McGrady was putting up LeBron type numbers in terms of points, assists and rebounds. There was never a doubt he’d be in the Hall of Fame, but it’s still great to see it happening.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Robinson: Third, behind LeBron James and Russell Westbrook/Steph Curry. Think about it: Everything that James Harden is doing this year is so reminiscent to McGrady’s game. Man, Tracy was a special player offensively!

What’s underrated about McGrady, quite honestly, was that he had great court vision. He was a more polished Ron Harper! Don’t scrunch your eyes at me! Ron Harper was a great offensive player during his time with the Los Angeles Clippers. Although not a Hall of Famer, Harper transitioned to a tall guard in the triangle with Phil and Michael Jordan. I was hoping to see McGrady do the same. Had McGrady not been hampered with so much injury concerns, he would have transitioned the same way. You saw that during his time in San Antonio, the Knicks etc. He had that zeal. But more than anything, I’m happy for him.

Treasure: So, in 2002-03, T-Mac averaged over 32 points (just more than league-leading Russ this season). He also had 6.5 rebounds and 5.5 assists a game, though that Magic team was 42-40 and lost in the first round of the playoffs. He’d probably be seen as an unbelievable scorer on a middling team, so I’d probably think he’d be considered a top 10 player, but somewhere around the eighth or ninth best rather than top 3.

Fernando Medina/NBAE/Getty Images

Dahkil: What a great question. If people don’t remember how good McGrady was, just look up the time he put up 13 points in 33 seconds against the San Antonio Spurs to come away with a one-point win. He is an amazing player. I think with how the game values shooting and him being a career 33.8 percent three-point shooter it would be interesting to see him in today’s game. I think I have him anywhere between 7-12.

Hamm: In no particular order, I have Kawhi, Harden, Curry, Durant, LeBron, and Westbrook firmly ahead of him. I’d probably slot him in the seven-through-nine range with the likes of Anthony Davis and Draymond Green. McGrady was obviously an incredible offensive player but his defense left a lot to be desired. Despite that, he was still named to seven All-NBA teams during his prime.