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.

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:

Adam Best: FanSided, former founder/CEO

KL Chouinard: Atlanta Hawks, writer

Lucas Hann: Clips Nation, editor-in-chief

Andre Snellings: RotoWire, contributor

Kevin Yeung: The Step Back, writer

Mike Zavagno: Fear the Sword, writer

Which player has the most pressure individually to turn in a great playoff performance and why?

Best: DeMar DeRozan seems to shrink in the postseason. Perhaps his game is a better fit for the regular season, given his penchant for both getting to the rim and taking athletic midrange jumpers? Those kinds of shots are harder to come by in the playoffs. Dominique Wilkins had similar issues when the defense ratcheted up. In last year’s playoffs, the Raptors at times seemed to advance almost in spite of Derozan—not because of him. To be viewed as a true superstar—and for the Raptors to become real championship contenders—he has to perform much better this go-around. Perhaps he’s more best supporting actor than leading man?

Chouinard: LeBron James. Very few teams in NBA history have won championships with substandard defenses. On the other hand, the ones that have accomplished the feat have been defending champions.

Cleveland’s defense has been dreadful since the All-Star break. It’s not bananas to think that some teams are capable of flipping a metaphorical switch, but it is a bit of a stretch to see a team that features Kevin Love, Kyrie Irving and J.R. Smith doing it, even if Love and Smith had fine defensive postseasons a year ago.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Hann:  I think that, oddly enough, Kevin Durant might have the most pressure of any player to be the best player in the postseason. After some poor performances by Durant in the late games of last year’s Western Conference Finals cost the Oklahoma City Thunder their 3-1 lead, he left them for the Golden State Warriors. Now, his Warriors are the top-seeded team in the NBA, will all the pressure in the world to win a title. On top of the pressure of that group expectation, Durant is going to face criticism no matter what happens. Even if the Warriors are champions and Durant wins Finals MVP, detractors will say that he didn’t do it by himself. If the Warriors fall short, the entire group will face criticism, but if part of their downfall is a poor performance by Durant, he will get ripped apart. Worst of all might be if Durant plays poorly, but the Warriors win anyway—it will be the ultimate sign that he just joined a frontrunner instead of carving his own path, and any future Warrior championships, regardless of how well Durant plays, will be followed by a narrative that they could have still won without him.

The potential downside for Durant’s legacy in the next couple of months is enormous, and because he has put himself in such a good position with such high expectations, it’ll be hard for him to get too much credit, even if everything goes perfectly.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Snellings: I’d say that Chris Paul has the most need for postseason success. He was a legitimate MVP-caliber player in his prime, but he’s never gotten to even the Conference Finals and (partially due to injuries to him or key teammates) it seems that he hasn’t produced as much in the postseason as you’d think he could. And it’s not that he never had a team…he’s actually had quite a bit of talent for several years, and now he’s reaching the age where he may not have that many opportunities left to get there. Paul’s career postseason plus/minus numbers are very good, and most years his lack of advancement has been chalked up to luck and/or injury. But time is running out. When healthy at the start of the season, the Clippers were playing as well as anyone. They need to play at that level, with Paul leading the way, to quiet the critics who ask why he was never able to get his team there. Honorable mention to Kyle Lowry, whose playoff rep was already starting to be a thing before his putrid Game 1 this season.

Yeung: I think it’s James Harden. At the end of the day, Harden and Russell Westbrook have the only MVP cases that are really worth taking as serious—LeBron, Kawhi, and those other guys come veeeeery close, but I think we’ve established a consensus that they’re not the contenders here. Harden and Westbrook are inches apart (my head says Harden, my heart says Westbrook, either one would be great), but unlike Westbrook, Harden has a real chance to get somewhere in the playoffs. And if he wins MVP, in the face of Russ’ triple-double season? He’s going to need that playoff success to get over the noise that’ll come. If Russ or, god forbid, somebody else wins the MVP, then a title still reaffirms Harden’s case in a way that maybe shouldn’t matter all that much, but inevitably will. If you’re in it for the drama, you’d have to love it. And we’re all in it for the drama.

Zavagno: My mind goes in a few different directions here, but I keep coming back to Isaiah Thomas. He just turned in the best season of his career, averaging 28.9 points per game on 62.5 True Shooting Percentage (TS%). But there remain significant questions about his ability to take a team over the top. He averages 21.5 points per game on 51.7 TS% in 10 career playoff games. His defense remains a question mark—he posted a -4.17 DRPM this season. And, with the Celtics potentially having the first overall pick this year, another subpar performance might lead to questions about whether he’s worth a max contract when he his free agency. While Thomas doesn’t need to win the Eastern Conference, the burden of the 1 seed means the Celtics need to win a series (or two).

Give me a role player that you think greatly exceeds expectations in the playoffs?

Zavagno: Otto Porter Jr. is my guy to watch here. He opened the year on fire, but only shot 34.1 percent from three after the All-Star break as the Wizards struggled to fit Bojan Bogdanovic into the fold. But I think the playoffs set up well for Porter on both sides of the floor. His ability to guard multiple positions is an advantage for the Wizards. If the Wizards and Celtics matchup, Porter has to exploit Boston if they try to hide Isaiah Thomas on him (despite only 8 total post-ups all season).

Best: Myles Turner has the tools and matchup to have a breakout first-round series against the Cavs. In recent weeks, the 21-year-old center has started to take it to the hoop with more authority, seeking contact instead of shying away from it. This newfound aggression has allowed teammates, most notably Paul George, to show greater trust in the young seven-footer. Additionally, he’s beginning to display some nifty, and previously nonexistent, low-post moves. The Cavs are weak on defense—particularly when it comes to defending the rim. Turner needs to win his duel with Tristan Thompson. Given Turner’s size advantage and Thompson’s injured hand, the setup is there.

Chouinard: P.J. Tucker. I suspect he gets forgotten about because he was toiling away in anonymity in Phoenix for much of the past couple of seasons. But he can be a strong, physical defender with an attitude who isn’t a liability on offense. The biggest question on Tucker is: Can Toronto stick around in the playoffs long enough for people to notice him?

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Hann: One guy who I have my eyes on is Patty Mills. He’s the rare scoring guard that has routinely stepped up his efficiency in the postseason (career 43.6 field-goal percent, 39.5 three-point percent regular season; 45.6/42.7 postseason), and he’s made a name for himself in a few hot-shooting series. In 2015, he shot 57 percent from deep (16-28) in seven games against the Clippers, and he’s coming off of his best season since shoulder surgery two years ago. Here’s where he really has a chance to shine, though. Tony Parker has been shaky this season and seen his minutes cut down in favor of increased opportunities for Mills. It’s possible that we’ll see some vintage Tony Parker in the playoffs, but there’s also a good chance that certain matchups will force the poor-shooting Parker off of the floor as Greg Popovich seeks to space the floor around Kawhi Leonard. If that materializes, Mills could be seeing big minutes—and taking a lot of big shots—for a team that has a really strong shot at reaching the Western Conference Finals.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Snellings: I absolutely LOVE Pat Beverley as a player. He’s got that dog in him, and he doesn’t back down from anyone. His heart and willingness to go at Russell Westbrook were directly responsible for much of the Rockets’ success in Game 1 of that series, and Beverley isn’t going anywhere. Every time Russell steps on the court, Beverley’s going to be right there waiting for him. Westbrook is the angry monster of the NBA, but Beverley is the one point guard (besides Damian Lillard, but he’s a superstar) that I know isn’t going to budge an inch against Russ. He’s like a mini Draymond Green, who isn’t eligible for his question by dint of being very possibly the most important Warrior of the past three seasons despite his forte being dirty work.

Yeung: There’s kind of a limit on how much he can exceed expectations without a jumpshot, but I really hope these can be the Marcus Smart playoffs. There are very few things in the NBA right now that I enjoy more than Smart, half-playing basketball and half-here for the glory of inflicting physical pain. He’s basketball’s Marshawn Lynch, or Drax the Destroyer. He loves seeing the help defender slide into the paint for the opportunity to smash into another body as much as for the kick-out pass. The Celtics have to go through Jimmy Butler in the first round and then most likely John Wall after that, both among the top-10 of single-player performers this season, and like, I’m rooting for Smart to actually physically go through them.

In your opinion, which coach is sitting on the hottest seat in the playoffs?

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Yeung: Nobody is touching Fred Hoiberg in this. That’s partly a casualty of so many teams hiring coaches within the last year or so—it’s still early for most of these coaches to be feeling any pressure yet, which played a huge role in our first ever season without any coach firings—but the Bulls have been on the verge of something truly exceptional in the trainwreck department. That goes far beyond Hoiberg’s influence, of course, but it’s just not close. The Bulls need a cleansing.

Hann: It would be easy to stick with some West Coast Bias here and take a sexy pick like Doc Rivers, whose Clippers teams have failed to meet expectations and grown stale, or even to reach and pick Steve Kerr, who would draw harsh criticism for failing to win the title for the second year in a row despite being heavy favorites.  The obvious answer, though, is Fred Hoiberg in Chicago. The Bulls organization is a mess from top to bottom, and after going all-out to build a strong team they barely lucked into a playoff spot with a .500 record on the last day of the season. Chicago has been plagued by problems in the front office and locker room, and while not all of that can be attributed to Hoiberg, he has spent the last two years competing for the title of worst coach in the NBA. It would be hard to dump him if the Bulls pull off the rare eighth-seed upset against No. 1 Boston, but moving on is probably the right move either way.

Zavagno: Doc Rivers is probably the most likely playoff coach to appear somewhere other than his team’s bench next season. Rivers has accomplished a great deal in this league and it’s hard to imagine he would run it back next year if the Clippers falter early (again). With all the uncertainty in Clipper-land, Rivers may look for greener pastures this offseason. The potentially now-vacant Magic GM job is a possibility. He makes his summer home in Orlando and has talked before about missing the golf course.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Best: Out of the coaches whose teams made the second season, Doc Rivers should be the one sweating the most. In fact, it’s his work as GM and not as coach that likely has him in so much trouble. Is it a lack of patience? Rivers seems to have a pattern of panicking and selling off semi-valuable assets for less valuable ones. Remember when he rolled the dice on Lance Stephenson, then basically paid a first-round pick to get rid of him halfway through the season? Or when he gave away a smorgasbord of assets to acquire his son—subsequently overpaying to keep him—a player nobody else seems to value as much as he does. Both trades involving Jared Dudley were bad. Rivers is like a compulsive gambler who can’t walk away from the casino, refusing to wait and return when the time is right. He’s been pawning off assets for downgrades looking for quick fixes. The only likely quick fix would be to remove Rivers as GM and possibly as coach. There was a time when a nucleus of CP3, DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin looked like it could win a title. That trio no longer looks as imposing as it once did, but Rivers is to blame for failing to build the right supporting cast.

Chouinard: I don’t think you can fault anyone at all in the West. There hasn’t been a shaky coaching performance from any of the coaches seeded one through eight.

That leaves the East, where a lot of teams sputtered into the postseason. I’m going to cop out and call it a four-way tie between Nate McMillan, Fred Hoiberg, Dwane Casey, and in a bit of a surprise, Tyronn Lue—because there’s a lot of pressure on Lue and Cleveland to get to the Finals and win. Even David Blatt got to a Finals and lost and didn’t survive the subsequent season.

Snellings: I did a show the other day, and my co-host said that he felt like the Bulls were a dumpster fire. I countered that, to me, the Hawks seem like the mess. They don’t seem to be going anywhere, don’t really have an identity, and I just don’t like their vibe. There is some reasonable talent on that team, and I can’t say that I feel like their coach got the most out of them. Mike Budenholzer had that one amazing season and has been to the playoffs every year of late, so he’s probably not in the hottest seat in reality, but I don’t like the direction of the team at the moment and when there’s actually talent present (and there is, on the Hawks) the blame often goes to the coach.

Which possible second-round series would excite you most?

Snellings: The three contenders for me are Cavs/Raptors, Warriors/Clippers and Spurs/Rockets. I’d say Dubs against Clips has the most potential for excitement, because the Clips are the longest shot with a legitimate chance to compete. As flawed as the Cavs have been of late, barring a LeBron injury I just don’t believe there is a team in the East that can beat them. The Spurs and Rockets have extreme styles of play, and it would be exciting to see if the Rockets could upset them, but I’m not sure that the product on the court will be the most exciting. But the Clippers actually have the top-end talent to compete with the Warriors, and both teams play an exciting brand of ball. There’s also a bit of edge/contempt to many of the relationships, as the Draymond Green vs Blake Griffin matchup would epitomize. And ultimately, Chris Paul was in the driver’s seat as the best point guard of his generation until Steph Curry knocked him off the pedestal. If Paul were to lead his team to the next round, against the Goliaths of the West, it would be a massive story.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Zavagno: Jazz-Warriors and it isn’t even close for me. This is the series I have been hoping to see for basically the entire season. The contrast in styles between the two teams is especially intriguing and I’m interested to see how the Warriors would deal with the physicality of Rudy Gobert (if he returns). The Jazz have two high-level creators in Gordon Hayward and George Hill and (when healthy) Derrick Favors can do a decent job switching on the perimeter. This would be by far the most physical series the Warriors have played since matching up with the Grizzlies in the playoffs two years ago. Sign me up for seven of these, please.

Best: This one is a toss-up. First, you have a potential Isaiah Thomas-John Wall showdown, featuring so much speed the sound barrier should feel threatened. Second, you have Houston’s system du jour matching up against San Antonio’s system of the millennium. Lastly, and this is less likely, would be a Bucks-Cavs series. Giannis Antetokounmpo versus LeBron James. The Greek Freak vs. the original genetic freak. That series, should it happen, should be donated to science. Too many decisions. Let’s just conclude that we will be spoiled during this year’s playoffs.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Yeung: Probably Cleveland/Toronto. I’m really drawn in by this year’s Raptors team and the identity that seems to have manifested with Serge Ibaka and P.J. Tucker and hey, also DeMar DeRozan’s career year. They’re not fun in the conventional sense, maybe not fun at all for most people, but it feels like there’s a chance that LeBron could be knocked off this year and the Raptors have the best chance of anyone to make it happen. Heck, P.J. Tucker will try to make it happen all by himself, which is probably going to be the most engaging narrative of the second round on its own. The Raptors would have to do something very Raptorsy to ruin it for us.

 

Hann: I cover the Clippers, so it’s safe to say that Clippers-Warriors in the second round isn’t something that I’m necessarily looking forward to. The probable matchup between San Antonio vs Houston will be unpredictable, but I’m not sure it excites me the most, and I think the 1-8-4-5 possibilities in the East are the least compelling of the bunch.  For me, the most exciting second-round matchup is going to be the Toronto Raptors vs the Cleveland Cavaliers. Boston may have snuck into the one-seed (and all the credit in the world to them, because we rarely see surprises like that over the course of an 82-game season), but in my mind, Cleveland and Toronto are still the two Eastern teams with the highest ceilings. Give both of these lineups some health, and let them get some momentum going in the first round, and I think that this is a Conference Finals series hidden in the second round.

Chouinard: Cavaliers-Bucks. For six years, LeBron has rolled through the East without even a hint of a rival. If there’s one still lurking in the conference, it’s Giannis.

Assuming the player you suggest takes his team to a championship and wins the Finals MVP, who would gain the most legacy-wise? 

Hann: There are plenty of candidates for this (think about how it would alter history’s view of Dwight Howard), because a title and Finals MVP honors mean so much for a player’s legacy, but I think the obvious choice here is Chris Paul. He’s widely recognized as a unique talent historically, and as one of the greatest point guards to ever play. The reason why this accomplishment would lift his legacy more than any other star is because the main argument that critics will present against Paul has nothing to do with the height or duration of his peak performance, but rather his postseason success. Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant have played in a Finals. Steph Curry has a championship. Kawhi Leonard has a Finals MVP trophy. Paul George has played in the Eastern Conference Finals twice.

But no Chris Paul team has ever made it out of the second round. In fact, the only two Western Conference teams to not play in a Western Conference Finals since the year 2000 are New Orleans, where Paul played for the first six seasons of his career, and the L.A. Clippers, where Paul has played for each of the last six seasons. He’s a sure-fire Hall of Fame player no matter what happens, but even breaking out of the second round would be a huge step for his postseason legacy. A championship and a Finals MVP award would further cement his place among the greats—but he’ll turn 32 years old during the second round of this year’s playoffs, and he’s running out of time.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Snellings: Paul would vault up the all-time rankings with a championship. Not only would that close the only hole on his resume and answer all of the critics, but look at the path that Paul would have to get to the title: The Clippers would have to go through the Warriors, Spurs/Rockets AND likely the defending champion Cavs, and potentially face the last five Finals MVPs. It would give him a legendary run, in addition to the career achievement closure.

Yeung: For whatever reason, it seems like James Harden hasn’t captured the imagination the same way as any of the other top-five guys in the League right now. By way of style or accomplishments or both, all of those other guys have cemented their place relative to history’s greats, more or less. But we don’t seem to talk about Harden in that context a whole lot, which seems kind of absurd considering how legitimately great his season is. Somehow, he’s very understated. In that sense, I think the embrace of D’Antoni ball has really helped to flesh out his identity. We’re beginning to understand him not as the guy who shoots 10 free throws every game or the guy who sinks his team on defense, but as the guy who makes his team possible and who really transcends the idea of a system player. For Houston, Harden is the system, and every other player an extension of what he specifically can do. It’s been fun to watch. A championship launches him into the historic conversation.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Zavagno:  LeBron James. The narrative sets up much too perfectly for it to be anyone else. Win the first title for Cleveland. Watch as one of the three best players in the world joins a team that won an NBA-record 73 games the year prior. That team also happens to be your biggest rival. Struggle in the regular season as you deal with injuries and roster turnover (22 total players suited up for the Cavs this season!) Come into the playoffs as a disappointing second-seed with people once again talking about teams that can prevent you from making your seventh straight Finals. Blow through the East and defeat the most talented roster ever assembled in Golden State. For me, it would be hard to argue against LeBron as the best player to ever live if the Cavs take home their second consecutive title this June.

Best: The easy answer would be Kevin Durant, but I think that would be the wrong answer. Most people already view KD as a winner. Also, given that he joined the Warriors and made them even more of a super team, he’s unlikely to get full credit for them winning the championship. Both of our MVP frontrunners, James Harden and Russell Westbrook, have more to gain by winning it all. We know both players can dominate, not to mention entertain, but are they winners? Right now, both seem destined to sort of end up like Sir Charles. Hall of Fame players, Hall of Fame personalities, but couldn’t win a ring. Interesting that the last time any of these three guys (Harden, KD, Russ) went to the Finals, it was as a trio. For any of the three of them to end up with the legacy they’d like, it will take winning a championship. Given the current rosters of the three players, both Harden and Westbrook would get more credit for pulling off that feat.

Chouinard: Chris Paul has the résumé of an all-time great: he has been a part of nine All-Star games, eight All-NBA teams and eight All-Defensive teams. For an entire generation, Paul has been the point guard’s point guard. But Paul has never made it to a Western Conference Finals—let alone a Finals. If only David West had stayed healthy in 2011…

Speaking of 2011, Chris Paul could elevate his career in a manner similar to what Dirk Nowitzki achieved in the season when the Mavericks won their title.