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 17. 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 five dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:

Daniel Greenberg: Barstool Sports, writer

Whitney Medworth: SB Nation NBA, assistant editor

Bobby Karalla: Dallas Mavericks, writer

Christopher Towers: CBS Sports, fantasy analyst

Phil Watson: FanSided, director NBA division

 

Who is your Rookie of the Year?

Greenberg: With Embiid out, the popular vote may be Dario Saric, but for me the ROY has to be Malcolm Brogdon. Not only does he start for a team that could wind up as the fifth seed in the East, but his numbers also support the claim. Head to head vs. Saric, Brogdon has a higher PER (14.95 vs 12.78) and better shooting percentage splits (45/40 vs 41/31) in virtually the same minutes per game despite a much lower usage rate. Brogdon has simply been the better player. So much of the Bucks success has to do with the breakout year from Giannis, but being able to get this sort of production from your rookie PG has helped cover for some of their injury issues.

Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Medworth: I mean, I feel like they should just cancel the award for this year but I understand that is not possible so we must pick. In that case, I’m giving it to Malcom Brodgon because A) I like his game and B) He asked the Bucks to donate his ROY campaign money to charity, rather than pushing for him to get the award. His stats don’t indicate he should win such an award but then again no one’s eligible this year does. So it’s Brogdon. He is a key rotation piece for a solid team in the East.

Karalla: While Buddy Hield has been impressively efficient since joining the Sacramento Kings, and while Dario Saric has put up big numbers for the 76ers the last two months, and while Yogi Ferrell had arguably the biggest two-week stretch of any rookie this season, the Rookie of the Year is Joel Embiid. He was head and shoulders above his first-year peers when healthy, and if his body doesn’t betray him moving forward, he appears to have a brighter career ahead of him than anyone else who debuted this season. Now, I don’t necessarily believe he should qualify for ROY given it’s his third year under contract, but that discussion is for another time. When we look back in 10 years, we may or may not remember Saric’s late-season box score-stuffing for tanking Philadelphia, the Hield-for-DeMarcus Cousins trade, or Malcolm Brogdon’s fast (and valuable) start for Milwaukee. But we’ll certainly remember Embiid’s two-month stampede through the League when, if only for a brief period of time, he made Philadelphia look like a playoff team. He captured the League’s attention and shined brighter than anyone else in this class, so the trophy ought to be his.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE/Getty Images

Towers: In any other season, he wouldn’t even be a candidate, but with nobody else really standing out, I’ll go with Joel Embiid. I think the idea that he shouldn’t be considered is silly, as is the idea that he’s an obvious choice. He’s going to go down, rightly, as one of the worst Rookie of the Year choices of all time, but he was also one of the most dynamic, impactful rookies I’ve ever seen. That dichotomy makes for one of the more interesting award choices in years. I’ll give him that over pretty boring, forgettable seasons by Malcolm Brogdon and Dario Saric. 

Watson: Malcolm Brogdon, Milwaukee Bucks: Brogdon hasn’t had the sexiest rookie season, but once Joel Embiid went down, it became apparent this year’s Rookie of the Year race was going to give initial winner Monk Meineke in 1952-53 a run for his money as the worst winner of all-time. 

Brogdon is one of three rookies averaging double figures, along with Dario Saric and Buddy Hield, and is the only one doing it in the crucible of playing in games that actually matter in a playoff context. The Bucks are hovering around .500, but 16-10 when Brogdon starts. That, along with averages of 10.3 points, 2.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on a slash line of .457/.404/.865 puts him at the head of a weak class.

Who has been the Sixth Man of the Year?

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Watson: Enes Kanter, Oklahoma City Thunder. Maybe we could call this the award no one wanted to win, as all of the top contenders have staggered to the finish. But as Houston’s duo of Lou Williams and Eric Gordon saw their numbers crater in March, Kanter returned from his broken arm early and at least maintained his production from before the injury.

Kanter has averaged 14.5 points and 6.6 boards since his return on Feb. 24 and 14.4 points and 6.7 rebounds per game on the season in his 21.4 minutes a night and should get the trophy he had stolen from him by Jamal Crawford last season.

Greenberg: Eric Gordon is which tied for fourth in three pointers made. I don’t think anyone saw this sort of success coming in Houston. This season he’s made 100 more threes than his previous career high (141 in 2014-15) and the pairing of him and Harden have earned the Rockets the third best record in the entire League. Gordon’s ability to both stay healthy and consistently knock down shots is a big part of why Harden has had such crazy assist production this season, and you could argue that this secondary outside shooting presence is what finally helped the Rockets offense click. While his teammate in Lou Williams has slightly better numbers, it’s hard for me to lean his way given a majority of his production came with the Lakers.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE/Getty Images

Medworth: Eric Gordon. He has made a huge comeback in the League in his first year with Houston. He’s currently fourth in the NBA in three-pointers made behind the Splash Brothers and James Harden. He’s averaging over 16 points a game off the bench. He’s a huge part of the Rockets’ success this year and they would not be where they are without him. This one belongs to Gordon.

Karalla: Who could have guessed moving from L.A. to Houston could actually weaken Lou Williams’ case for Sixth Man? His effective field goal percentage dipped more than four points after joining the run-and-gun Rockets, and his offensive box plus-minus dropped nearly five points. He went from a super-efficient sub on a young team to just another terrific shooter on a contender. My choice’s per-game numbers don’t hold a candle to Lou’s, but then again Andre Iguodala has always been the humble man’s kind of basketball player. Iguodala has enjoyed the second-best three-point shooting season of his career (36.6 percent), he’s hit a ridiculous 64.5 percent of his twos, he’s still sharing and stealing the ball at a high level and this will be his 12th consecutive season (!) as a positive BPM player on both sides of the ball. After clubs around the League have poached the middle of the Golden State roster since the 2015 Finals, Iguodala is now essentially the Warriors’ last remaining reserve who can dominate an opponent’s second unit and keep up with starters for an extended period of time.

Towers: James Johnson is a player I’ve long been interested in, but I never knew he was this good. It is, like, all Sixth Man votes, a somewhat silly choice, because he is clearly not the sixth-most important player on the Heat, and the fact that they’ve moved him to into the starting lineup of late proves that. He’s been the do-it-all bench piece on one of the League’s most interesting benches, and might stand as Eric Spoelstra’s crowning achievement. 

Who has been the League’s Most Improved Player?

Towers: James Johnson, interestingly, has a legitimate chance to win this one as well. Unlike most candidates, he isn’t just a young guy taking a natural step forward; he actually improved his game leaps and bounds. But it has to be Giannis Antetokounmpo, who continues to improve exponentially from year to year. I don’t know how much room he has left, but he emerged as a legitimate top-10 player, in a way I didn’t quite see coming this quickly. 

Gary Dineen/NBAE/Getty Images

Watson: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks. Antetokounmpo set the stage with the point forward experiment at the end of 2015-16, but followed it up with an explosion into superstardom this season. This award has often been given to players who didn’t so much improve as have a change in situation (i.e., more playing time), but Antetokounmpo’s growth in his per-36 minutes numbers this season has been monstrous.

The fourth-year player—who was a non-lottery pick, let us not forget—is averaging a full rebound and assist more per 36 minutes this season over last while scoring more than an six points. His slash line is up across the board, from .506/.257/.724 to .522/.272/.770 despite a large volume increase and he has been the living embodiment of a player who made the leap from occasionally great to consistently great this season.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Greenberg: Nikola Jokic. Here’s a player that finally got his opportunity to be the go to guy for the Nuggets, and has responded by becoming one of the best young big men in the entire League. His production is up across the board, from FG% percentage, to rebounding, assists, blocks and points. His 2017 PER of 26.42 put him ahead of other young bigs like DeMarcus Cousins, Karl Anthony Towns, Blake Griffin and Joel Embiid. In fact, just one other big has a higher total, and that’s Anthony Davis at 27.62. Jokic has established himself as one of if not the best passing big men in the League, and at just 22 years old has started to take that leap into an elite player.

Medworth: This one goes to Nikola Jokic. He’s a center who can get you a triple-double and my goodness are some of his passes incredible. He had back-to-back triple-doubles earlier this year, becoming only the fifth center ever to accomplish such a thing. I know Giannis Antetokounmpo could be an easy pick for this but the emergence of Jokic puts him just a bit ahead in the MIP race for me.

Karalla: Harrison Barnes has answered almost every question asked of him this season. Fans around the country—and even some of his peers within the NBA—laughed at the Mavs’ max contract offer last summer, but Barnes has rather gracefully grown from a corner three-point shooter to go-to shot creator for Dallas, and he did it at the beginning of the season without the benefit of the injured Dirk Nowitzki’s floor-spacing or any veteran point guards. While the Mavs trotted out Seth Curry, Jonathan Gibson, Pierre Jackson and Yogi Ferrell at the 1, Barnes was averaging 20 points per game, running the same plays Rick Carlisle once called for Nowitzki in the Finals. He continued to score 20 a night even after the Mavs got healthy, but his average has dipped slightly since Dallas began rolling back playing time for its heavy-minutes guys. Barnes has taken a leap not unlike 2016 winner C.J. McCollum, 2015 winner Jimmy Butler, and 2013 winner Paul George, all players who were contributors on playoff teams before taking over as one of the guys. (Butler’s usage rate climbed 5.8 points the year he won, McCollum’s leaped 6.6 points, and Barnes’ has skyrocked 9.5 points all the way up to 25.4 this season.) To take it one step further, Barnes made the same strides forward while also transitioning to a new franchise. All due respect to Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s been unbelievable this season and has taken the leap from hot prospect to bona fide star, but Barnes deserves the nod here. 

Who has been the Coach of the Year?

Karalla: Mike D’Antoni took over a Rockets team in slight disarray after a disappointing 2015-16 season and now has them on the verge of contending in the West. James Harden moved to point guard, Dwight Howard moved to another team, and D’Antoni took his hands off the reins and, in his first year on the job, unleashed one of the most insane offenses the NBA has ever seen, breaking every three-point record along the way. I’m not sure the term “revolutionary” is even appropriate for D’Antoni’s style anymore; more than 10 years after changing the League with the “Seven Seconds or Less” Suns, he continues to push modern basketball to its limits. Unless someone can find a way to slow down Harden & Co. in the playoffs, the Rockets will run and shoot their way well into May.

Glenn James/NBAE/Getty Images

Towers: How much credit does Eric Spoelstra get for the second half of the season? How much does he lose for the first? If Gregg Popovich wins, it’s because of work he did four years ago and before, as much as for this season. Did the Celtics really outperform their talent? How much of Washington’s improvement just stems from having more than a warm body on the sidelines? 

This is maybe the most inscrutable award of the bunch, so I’ll go with Mike D’Antoni, who managed to wring enough defense out of the Rockets to make their high-octane offense play. This was a vintage D’Antoni coaching job. 

Watson: Mike D’Antoni, Houston Rockets: The general consensus was that Daryl Morey had lost his mind when he made this hire and the offseason acquisitions in Houston generally consigned the Rockets to be designated as James Harden adrift on the island of misfit toys. All the Rockets did is finish third in the West, vastly exceeding expectations, and obliterate every team three-point shooting record along the way. 

D’Antoni was the perfect coach for the type of system the analytical Morey wants to run and Morey gave D’Antoni the shooters and role players to make it work.

Darren Carroll/NBAE/Getty Images

Greenberg: I’m going to go with Gregg Popovich. To me he’s still the best coach in the League, and has won 60-plus games with just one all star. Filled with a bunch of guys who are well past their prime, it never seems to matter. The Spurs ridiculous 30-9 road record goes to show how much of an impact Pop makes, and while other candidates like Mike D’Antoni in Houston have a case for turning that franchise around, there is something to be said about maintaining the level of success in SA despite not having the most talented roster.

Medworth: Mike D’Antoni in Houston. What he has done with the team is remarkable. He made James Harden the team’s point guard and they were off to the races. The Rockets were a team with such high expectations last year and they couldn’t make it happen. Bring in D’Antoni to a team that no one thought would be this good and he has them in the top of the Western Conference with an MVP and sixth man candidate on the team due to the positions he put them in.

Who is the Defensive Player of the Year?

Medworth: Rudy Gobert. There are so many great defensive players in the League but I have to give the nod to Gobert this year. He’s the 7-1 anchor of the top defense in the League this year. He also leads the League in blocks per game. There are plenty of choices but Gobert being the best defensive player on the best defense seals the deal.

David Sherman/NBAE/Getty Images

Karalla: It’s been a long time since guards have felt the need to look behind them en route to the rim to make sure their shot isn’t about to end up in the 10th row, but that’s what Rudy Gobert has done to opposing little guys all year long. He’s first or second in practically every significant defensive category—blocks, block percentage, defensive win shares, DBPM—and opponents shoot just 43.4 percent at the rim against Gobert on 10.2 attempts per game, according to SportVU. He’s become a terrifying force on the inside and is the unquestioned key to Utah’s third-ranked defense, which allows just 100.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the floor as opposed to 107.6 when he’s off. He is the best interior defender in the NBA and maybe the most valuable player on that side of the ball, regardless of position.

Towers: Wing defense is as important as it has ever been in the NBA, and Kawhi Leonard is one of the best ever. Versatility has never been more important on defense and nobody is as versatile as Draymond Green. But, some things never change, and an elite defensive big man who can protect the rim and clean up the boards is still hugely valuable, especially one who can play 34 minutes per game without breaking down. I’ll go with Rudy Gobert. 

Watson: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz: I’ve vacillated on this award more than any other this season, but Gobert has been the difference maker for a top-four team in the West this season. 

He’s got a ridiculous 6.03 defensive real plus/minus as of Sunday, according to ESPN.com, nearly a point higher than the rest of the field, he’s leading the NBA in blocks per game and allows opponents to shoot only 55.8 percent at the rim—an area where the League as a whole shoots 63 percent.

Gobert allows perimeter defenders for the Jazz the freedom to take chances because they know they have the mistake eraser behind them, a luxury that can’t be overstated.

Noah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images

Greenberg: Rudy Gobert. Unfortunately, as solid as Draymond Green has been since the Kevin Durant injury. Gobert has been that good all season. Leading the League in Defensive Plus/Minus, Defensive Rating, and Defensive Win Shares, it’s hard to go in a different direction. Even when looking at individual defensive categories, Gobert still comes out on top in more than either Draymond or Kawhi Leonard.

As a team the Jazz give up the fewest points in the League at 96.7. That’s nearly four points better than what Draymond’s team gives up. The Jazz won 49 games and snagged the four seed just a year after winning 40 games and missing the playoffs last year. While the development of Gordon Hayward has something to do with that, I put just as much stock into the breakout defensive year from Gobert.

Who has been the Most Valuable Player and why?

Greenberg: The impossible question. In my life there hasn’t been an MVP race this close, where four guys could legit win the award. Like every year this is more a conversation around who has had the best season as opposed to who the best player in the League is, because that’s clearly Lebron. For the sake of argument I’ll narrow things down to Harden vs Westbrook. On the surface it’s crazy to think that a player who averages a triple-double doesn’t win the MVP, but when you look closer at the two candidates, they are very close almost across the board. While the triple-double is nice, in reality Westbrook has 212 more rebounds, which comes out to around 2.7 a game. Given how OKC blatantly lets Westbrook grab a majority of the rebounds, is 2.7 rebounds really enough to say he’s had the better season than Harden? Harden has been much more efficient this year, with a True Shooting Percentage of 61.3 to Westbrook’s 55.3. Factoring that in addition to the success of Houston, my vote is leaning towards Harden.

Also considering he and I went to Arizona State together at the same time, I am using that as a potential tiebreaker as well. Sun Devils stick together.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE/Getty Images

Medworth: It’s Russell Westbrook for me. What he has done this season is unbelievable. If you’re voting for James Harden because of wins, I have to then argue to then why not vote Kawhi Leonard. Westbrook did something we thought we’d never see again in the League. He’s the MVP, hands down. 

Karalla: Russell Westbrook’s triple-double rampage has been amazing to watch, and based on his supporting cast he has certainly elevated Oklahoma City in the way elite players are expected to. However, Houston’s entire system is based almost solely upon James Harden’s individual brilliance, and the Rockets are about to launch what could be a two- or three-round playoff run after, not too long ago, that team looked ready to implode. Westbrook and Harden have both carried their respective teams this season in ways we haven’t seen superstars do perhaps in the history of the League. In that regard, they’re only comparable to each other. Both teams would be competing for lotto balls without them, not playoff spots. But one player has his team poised to make a legitimate postseason run, and to me that’s a reasonable tiebreaker. There’s no shame in finishing second in this year’s MVP race (or third, or fourth).

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE/Getty Images

Towers: I won’t have any problem with Russell Westbrook, LeBron James, or Kawhi Leonard winning. Any other year, and any of those three would be a fine choice, and I won’t complain if (and probably when) Westbrook takes home the trophy. I just think James Harden’s combination of playmaking, scoring efficiency and volume of both wins out. I don’t think he has a big lead, but someone has to win. 

Watson: The MVP race of 2016-17 will be the third rail of NBA coverage regardless as the top two contenders are also two of the most polarizing personalities in the game today. You either love Russell Westbrook or you hate him. You either love James Harden or you hate him. There is precious little middle ground with either guy.

In both cases, you have transcendent talents who are the lone stars in a league of superteams, swimming against a strong current to drag their clubs to the playoffs.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE/Getty Images

The argument for Harden is strong—the focal point of one of the most efficiently devastating offenses of all time, responsible for more than 2,000 points of his own and another two grand worth off his assists.

But Westbrook lost a legitimate top-five talent in Kevin Durant and still took the Thunder to the playoffs, a scenario that hasn’t been the norm in recent years. Remind us again how the 2010-11 Cavaliers and 2014-15 Heat responded to losing a top-five player again? By going home when the postseason began.

The sexy take is Westbrook’s gaudy triple-double averages, but when you compare his minutes per game and pace of play to that of Oscar Robertson in 1961-62, what Westbrook did this season is just incomprehensible. 

Per-36 minutes, Robertson averaged 25.0 points, 10.1 rebounds and 9.2 assists, while Westbrook’s per-36 numbers are 32.8 points, 11.1 rebounds and 10.8 assists. 

So it’s Westbrook over his former teammate, by an eyelash.

Who has been the most entertaining player to watch this season?

Watson: This is the toughest question of all, because with the added rest built into the schedule, we’ve seen some of the best single-game performances on a regular basis that I can remember in 40 some odd years of watching the NBA.

But Giannis Antetokounmpo’s ridiculous combination of size and athleticism is like nothing I’ve seen in that time. There’s hardly a night that goes by when the Bucks are on the schedule that he doesn’t do something that just makes me say, “You… can’t…do…THAT!” 

He pushes the limits of what we thought was physically and physiologically possible on a nightly basis. He’s got speed, leaping ability, court vision and a basketball IQ that seems to rise exponentially game-by-game.

If he ever adds a consistent jump shot to his arsenal? God, at that point he becomes flat-out illegal.

Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty Images

Greenberg: Considering I write about the Celtics for Barstool, my answer is 100 percent Isaiah Thomas. Following up his first All

Star season with a top 5 MVP season in my mind does the trick. Watching him break Celtics franchise records left and right has been an incredible ride. Seeing his name up there with guys like Bird and Havlicek almost doesn’t seem real. He’s been the best fourth quarter player in the NBA and has had some of the best performances in league history in those final 12 minutes.

So much is made about his height, but the things he is doing this season on the basketball court would be amazing no matter how tall he was. You could make the case that he’s made the biggest jump from one year to the next out of any player in the League, and he has singlehandedly carried this team to 50-plus wins and a top-two seed. That is incredible. The best part of watching Isaiah play is the wide variety in which he dominates his opponents. I am yet to see a player who can stay in front of him and prevent him from getting to the rim 1 on 1, but he’s also incorporated a floater into his game to keep his defenders off balance. Add in his ability to knock down 30 footers with ease, Isaiah has without a doubt been the most exciting player to watch this season for me.

Medworth: I feel like I can’t pick Russell Westbrook, so here it is: Lance Stephenson. He really returned to Indiana, led a comeback win against the Raptors and nearly started a fight in the same game, while saving the Pacers season. The Pacers are a missed free throw from being 4-0 with him on the team. He nearly fell out of the League. Okay, he actually fell out of the League. Then he got back to Indiana as if he never left, dancing, tongue waving, being the Lance we remember. I don’t care if it’s only been a few games, this has been a wild and exciting return.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Karalla: John Wall has been really good for his entire career—and maybe this is just the record making me look at him this way—but he seems to have taken his game to a new level this season. He takes games over and imposes his will on opponents in ways that only the best point guards can do. Wall has become an exceptionally polished player as his career has unfolded, even though his jump-shooting numbers don’t necessarily support that claim. He’s one of the first few names I’d mention if you asked me to list the players you must go see the next time they come to town. Wall is still one of the most electric players in the League. Watching him go coast-to-coast almost happens too fast to be mesmerizing. I’m a sucker for point guards who constantly remain in command but also always keep one or two tricks up their sleeve and Wall has entered that group. He’s experienced enough to think the game at an incredibly high level but still young enough to overwhelm defenders with his elite athleticism. It’s fun to watch young stars enter their prime and exert their superiority on a consistent basis, and it’s been awfully entertaining watching Wall and the Wizards lay waste to visitors for most of the season.

Towers: Nikola Jokic. There’s just nothing like watching a legitimate big man grab a board and take off on a fastbreak. No true big man is as in control as Jokic with the ball in his hands, and he has squarely put himself into the discussion with Anthony Davis and Karl-Anthony Towns for the best big man of the next decade discussion to boot.