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 five dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Grant Afseth: Indiana Sports Coverage, editor
Robert Flom: Clips Nation, editor
Tom Lorenzo: Nets Daily, editor
Kelly Scaletta: FanRag Sports, editor
Sean Woodley: Raptors HQ, editor
Who has been the most disappointing player in the playoffs thus far?
Flom: JJ Redick. Redick is the key to the Los Angeles Clippers’ offense, and is one of the best sharpshooters in NBA history. Through three games against the Jazz, he’s averaging a mere 6.3 points per game on 39 percent shooting from the field and 25 percent from three. In the 2016-17 season, those averages were 15, 44.5, and 43 respectively. Joe Ingles, George Hill, and the rest of the Jazz defenders have done a phenomenal job in being physical with Redick and preventing him from getting to his favorite spots, true. That still doesn’t excuse how poor his numbers are, particularly since the Jazz changed their coverage in Game 3 to deal with Chris Paul, and Redick still didn’t get going. With Rudy Gobert’s return it’s not going to get any easier, but Redick absolutely must play better if the Clippers are to advance to the second round.
Lorenzo: There have been a few players who have had underwhelming moments through these playoffs—DeMar DeRozan’s Game 3, Damian Lillard’s Game 2, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s Game 4, the Grizzlies’ Game 1, Derrick Favors’ Game 3, etc.—but I think I’m most disappointed in Victor Oladipo and his inability to really provide much support for Russell Westbrook against the Houston Rockets. He’s just been awful, shooting under 30 percent in the first three games of the series, and just 5-of-26 from the floor in the first two games of the series (both losses). You can’t expect to beat a team like the Rockets, or even really give them much of a run, without opening up the floor and providing some stretch in the offense—credit to Andre Roberson for doing what he can to help the offense, but the Thunder really needed Oladipo to step up. Oladipo was “better” in Games 3 and 4, but much of that was a result of him being much more passive on offense. Maybe it’s a matter of expectations, but really thought Oladipo would have stepped up in what’s not pretty much become a lost series for the Thunder.
Afseth: I would go with Kyle Lowry because he was an All-Star and right now he’s averaging 14.3 points, 3.8 rebounds, 4.3 assists, 1.5 steals, 0.8 blocks, and two turnovers in 37.3 minutes. The playoffs are when you need your All-Stars to raise their game and take you to where you want to go and Lowry certainly hasn’t done it.
Scaletta: Kyrie Irving for me. He has been largely inefficient, (50 percent true shooting). And his defense has been typically atrocious, disengaged and just generally nonexistent for large parts of the game. My biggest frustration with Irving isn’t that he can’t play defense, but that he just doesn’t. And during the biggest quarter Cleveland played, he sat on the bench. For someone who is supposed to make the step into superstardom, he’s very disappointing.
Woodley: It almost feel like this space should be reserved for Kyle Lowry on an annual basis, doesn’t it? It’s a bummer that Lowry hasn’t been able transfer his joyous regular season play into the playoffs, but at this point we’re running out of caveats and explanations for why he’s struggled in the postseason. It probably boils down mostly to his size and substandard athleticism. Opposing defenses can swallow him up if they send enough resources his way, and there’s little he can do at 6 feet to stop it. A 14, 4 and 4 line on 40/25/79 shooting is not what the Raptors need from their best player. You still see flashes—even full games—of Lowry’s three-bombing and Nash-like probing of the paint in search of shooters. For the Raptors to make good on their pre-playoff promise, they’ll need more than flashes.
Who has been the most impressive player in the playoffs to this point?
Afseth: To me, the most impressive player has probably been Lance Stephenson. I know there are plenty of other probably more worthy candidates, but I think it’s quite impressive that he was signed off the street with his ankle being 75 percent and out of shape while still performing at a high level.
He put up 23 points, 6 rebounds, and 3 assists off the bench in their final game of the season. He averaged 16 points, 5.3 rebounds, 0.5 steals, and just one turnover in 26.8 minutes. Not to mention, he ended being their third leading scorer and was a huge component of keeping them alive in each game.
The nod for best player goes to LeBron James, hands down. I’ve never seen a player create absolutely no margin for error quite like LeBron did this series. I could go on all day about King James in this series, he was extremely impressive.
Woodley: My bias is obvious considering Raptors-Bucks is the series I’ve spent the most time around, but Thon Maker has blown me away with his play so far. Jason Kidd said before Game 2 that Maker had only been starting for developmental purposes. With no D-League affiliate to assign him to, Kidd figured he should float some minutes Maker’s way to ensure his rookie season didn’t go to waste. His minutes have been anything but ceremonial against the Raptors. The speed and IQ with which he has helped trap the Raptors guards before flashing back to tag the big in the pick-and-roll has been a joy to watch. For evidence of Maker’s effect, look no further than the second half of Game 1. He almost singlehandedly broke the Raptors’ offense for the rest of the game with a seven-minute stretch of terrorizing defense to start the third. It’s not fair that Maker is only the second-most intriguing athletic draft project on Milwaukee’s roster.
Flom: This came down to two players for me: Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard. Paul is impressive because he’s carrying a team at 6 feet tall at almost 32 years old. His efficiency from the floor is off the charts, and he’s played ferocious defense on his Jazz counterparts. Leonard, however, is my final answer. Drafted just six years ago in the middle of the first round as a defensive specialist, Leonard has been a dominant force on both ends in his series against the Grizzlies. He’s been the most efficient high-volume scorer in the playoffs by far, and is doing everything for a Spurs team that is far less talented than its record would indicate. Nobody could have foreseen that Leonard would average 32-plus points per game on 52.6 percent (!) three-point shooting in a playoff series when he was drafted. Nobody. Even though he won the Finals MVP a couple years ago, his ability to make a leap every year in the NBA is the most impressive thing about these playoffs so far.
Lorenzo: It’s hard not to say LeBron James, in this case, especially as he led the charge in Game 3 with a near-impossible comeback victory overcoming a 20-plus point deficit in the second half. But I’ll try to dig a little deeper here and not go with any of the more “obvious” choices and say that Mike Conley has been the most impressive player thus far. His ability to lead this Grizzlies team back to a 2-2 tie, after falling behind 0-2 against the Spurs with two just really bad losses in games 1 and 2. Also, without the team’s defensive anchor in Tony Allen being able to play in any of the first 4 games, Conley has stepped up on the defensive side of the ball for the Grizzlies, bringing back the grit-n-grind mentality. I’m still not sure the Grizzlies will have enough to topple the Spurs, but credit to Conley (and Marc Gasol, as well) for making this one heck of a series.
Scaletta: Kawhi Leonard. His playoff PER is 39.4. That’s just crazy talk. And if you look at his fourth quarter splits, they’re even crazier. Beyond insanity. His fourth quarter PIE is 66 percent. His True Shooting Percentage (TS%) is over 90! I mean, those aren’t videogame numbers. That’s broken videogame numbers.
The five best players in order to this point in the playoffs are…
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. LeBron James
3. Chris Paul
4. James Harden
5. Whoever is going to make you mad if he’s not on my top 5.
1. Kawhi Leonard. It’s insane that the endless MVP conversation this year didn’t paint Leonard’s supporting cast with San Antonio in the same light as Russell Westbrook’s in Oklahoma City or James Harden’s in Houston. The Spurs-Grizzlies series has exposed the age and overall ho-humness of the Spurs’ roster. Kawhi will be the reason the Spurs win this series — and he certainly won’t be at fault if they lose.
2. LeBron James. Questioning LeBron is dumb. Maybe Cleveland’s defense will continue to stink for the rest of the playoffs. Their depth might be old and suspect. But if LeBron is going to average 33, 10 an 9 on 45 percent shooting from deep while playing any and every position—center included—he’s going to make anyone who questioned the Cavs’ chances of making the Finals feel pretty dumb.
3. Chris Paul. Blake Griffin’s injury might spell the end of this era of Clippers basketball. If that’s the case, it’s a bummer as it relates to Paul. That his prime years unfolded side-by-side with LeBron and the Warriors’ peaks is an unfortunate bit of timing that unfairly reflects poorly on Paul’s career résumé. But as he’s proven so far against the Jazz, Chris Paul is the freaking best. Here’s hoping this isn’t the last time he’s surrounded by a bounty of talent.
4. Mike Conley. The Grizz are still capable of the flourishes that endeared NBA fans to them more than half a decade ago, and Conley remains the biggest reason why. That Conley-Leonard showdown in Game 4 Saturday might already be the best star duel we’ll see in these playoffs.
5. Gordon Hayward. Without Rudy Gobert available, the Jazz are outgunned on paper against the Clippers. Even if Hayward’s efforts—26 points, 8 boards and 3 assists on a blistering 46.7 percent on five threes a game—leave the Jazz short in the first round, he’s eased any apprehension there might have been about the lofty contract he’s about to receive.
1. LeBron James
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. James Harden
4. Russell Westbrook
5. John Wall
1. LeBron James. He’s singlehandedly pushed his team past a feisty playoff foe, and remains the most dangerous basketball player alive. It’s honestly not even close.
2. Kawhi Leonard. See above.
3. Chris Paul. He still runs a team better than anyone in basketball. Paul can dominate through scoring or playmaking almost at will, and his defense more impactful than any other point guard.
4. John Wall. Wall has been spectacular for the Wizards. The only player scarier in transition is LeBron James, and nobody in the NBA is quicker with the ball in their hands. Wall can get to the hoop against any defender, especially now that his jumpshot must be respected. When he’s locked in on defense, he’s a terror, though his tendency to reach-around for steals instead of staying in front of his man is why he’s not higher on this list.
5. Draymond Green. The likely Defensive Player of the Year has dominated one half the court every time he’s stepped on the floor so far. Green is the most versatile defensive player in the NBA—he can transition from stuffing consecutive dunk attempts at the rim to covering Portland’s lighting-quick guards on the perimeter within seconds—and also the most communicative. For all the discussion surrounding Russell Westbrook’s triple-doubles, Green is nearly averaging one himself: 11.3 points, 10.7 rebounds, and 8.7 assists per game. Those are simply absurd numbers.
1. LeBron James. Because, well, duh. He’s just been unreal, I guess as expected. Not much you can say here other than “wow.”
2. Kawhi Leonard. He’s been great, as well, even though his team now finds themselves at 2-2 in their first round series. But when he’s on the court, he’s been super efficient on both ends of the floor.
3. Chris Paul. It’s almost become a one-man show for the Clippers, with Blake Griffin hurt and Paul doing what he can to carry the load.
4. Paul George. I know they’ve been swept by the Cavaliers, but have to credit the job that George did in keeping this series as ‘close’ as he did. You can’t anyone to go toe-to-toe with the King in the playoffs, but George was for the most part right there with him.
5. Russell Westbrook/James Harden This is more of a nod to the show that they’ve put on in this series. It’s been more of a one-sided affair, and the talent on the both sides of the floor really speaks to why, but these guys are giving their all and competing on each possession. It’s expected that they’d both be great, but want to tip my cap to them for the show they’ve given us.
Which coach has impressed you most in the playoffs?
Lorenzo: Dave Fizdale has been good-to-great, albeit after having been thrashed in the first two games of the series. It could have been easy for this team to tip their cap, take their ball and go home after what they felt to be a poorly-reffed Game 2. Fizdale though got his guys to believe, again, in their ability to run and slug it out with the Spurs. He hasn’t been perfect, by any means, this series, but I do think that for a rookie coach, going up against one of the all-time greats in Coach Pop, we’re seeing some nice moments—or, shall I say “impressive” moments—from Fizdale in Memphis.
Scaletta: Brad Stevens. Coaching a team through the Isaiah Thomas trauma is hard enough. Then they were down two games. Then insertion of Gerald Green seems like a genius move (because it worked). So the totality of it; from shepherding the team through a difficult situation to making the right basketball decisions.
Woodley: Lineup choices and in-game tactics are the easiest things for onlookers to critique in an NBA game, so coaches receive disproportionate praise and/or blame when things go well or poorly for their teams. For that reason, I’m copping out and picking Dave Fizdale. Not only has Memphis made it a series with the Spurs, but Fizz has also given us catchphrases that are going to live in our collective memories far longer than any one coach’s in-game adjustment. For the record: “They ain’t gon’ rook us” is infinitely more quotable than “Take that for data.”
Afseth: David Fizdale would be my answer. He has coached his seventh-seeded Memphis Grizzlies squad without Tony Allen to a 2-2 tied series with the second-seeded San Antonio Spurs despite Kawhi Leonard being a hands down top 3 player in the playoffs. He has done probably the best job he has done and that “Take that for data” press conference ignited the fan base and his team to grind out a Game 4 win in OT.
Flom: David Fizdale of the Memphis Grizzlies. While his rant after Game 2 was one of the most memorable coach explosions in recent memory, Fizdale has also done yeoman’s work in getting the Grizzlies to tie up a superior Spurs team 2-2. He recognized that his lineups weren’t working, and switched accordingly. Most importantly, he has empowered Mike Conley to be what he has been in these playoffs—a ball-dominant monster who has torched the Spurs time and again. It has been a weird playoffs thus far, and the few dominant teams (Cavs, Warriors) have coaches who haven’t really impressed for one reason or another.
What is your favorite playoff moment of all time?
Flom: Perhaps the greatest moment in the Chris Paul Clippers’ era was in their very first playoff series in 2012, in their very first game in fact. On the road against the still nascent Grit-and-Grind Memphis Grizzlies, the Clippers came from 27 points down in the third quarter to steal Game 1 and win homecourt advantage. Nick Young scored 19 points for the Clips, hitting several huge three-pointers, and was aided off the bench by the wild play of Eric Bledsoe. The Clippers went on to win that series, making the victory all the sweeter. The future seemed impossibly bright back then. Blake Griffin was young and mostly injury-free. Paul was just entering his prime. There was no mega-team Warriors blocking the path to the Finals like a dragon guarding a keep. Lob City was new, and fun, and a magical run seemed like it was about to start. It hasn’t worked out that way, but the afterglow of Game 1 was still the sweetest Clipper moment in this iteration of the team.
Lorenzo: In an attempt to not make this a top-5 list of my favorite Michael Jordan moments, I’ll call back to Game 6 of the 2003 Finals watching Tim Duncan just torch the then-New Jersey Nets. At the time I was a Nets partial-season ticket holder, so had the rights to purchase playoff tickets throughout what really felt like the most improbable run to the Finals for the Nets. While Game 6 was a road game, it was incredible to see a young Tim Duncan go for 21 points, 20 rebounds, 10 assists and 8 blocks in the sixth and deciding game of the series. He just completely took the wind out of the Nets’ sail, especially in the fourth quarter of what felt like a winnable game for the Nets. It may not have been the “prettiest” playoff moment, and certainly it doesn’t typically fall into most people’s top 10 of playoff moments, but it was the start of a newly dominant era (the post-David Robinson era) for one of the greatest bigs in the history of the game.
Woodley: This answer certainly speaks to how dark Raptors franchise history has been, but here it goes. Raptors vs. Nets, Round 1, 2014. Brooklyn leads 104-103 with 8.8 seconds left in Game 7—a game in which the Raptors have mounted a massive second-half comeback. Shaun Livingston attempts a tricky inbound pass to Paul Pierce in the corner that gets deflected by the outstretched hand of Terrence Ross, who throws the ball off Pierce as he falls out of bounds. Madness in the Air Canada Centre. On the following play, Kyle Lowry had his shot blocked by Pierce on a broken play—a play in which Ross was standing on the opposite side of court based on the design of the play.
It’s stupid, but this moment encapsulated so much of what being a supporter of Raptors had entailed to that point—and sort of has been ever since. The stakes were low; Toronto was supposed to tank that season. That they were even in such a scenario in a Game 7 was gravy for Raptors fans. In that series, like in last year’s Conference Finals, Toronto was so close, but unable to get over the hump. For four years now, this team has been carrying the burden of expectation while failing to reach them more often than not. That Ross steal is a good reminder of what Raptors’ fans used to get excited about, and of how far the organization has since come.
Scaletta: No question—Scottie holding up Jordan after the “Flu game” (1997 Finals Game 5, a game where Jordan played with severe food poisoning and/or stomach flu). It was the perfect picture of that entire dynasty. Jordan doing everything humanly possible to carry the Bulls, and then Pippen doing that little bit extra to carry Jordan. I think it also is a great lesson on life. Even if you’re the GOAT, sometimes you need someone to lean on. I literally can’t look at that picture without crying.
Afseth: I’m only 18 so I haven’t been able to create an extensive list of favorite playoff moments, but I would probably go with the Eastern Conference Finals a few years back when Paul George broke out. Those were such entertaining series for basketball and non-basketball (Lance) reasons.
A non-Pacers answer would probably be the Cleveland Cavaliers coming back from a 3-1 series deficit last year in the Finals. I didn’t really think they had a chance at that point but they came roaring back and ended up winning it all behind legendary performances by LeBron James and Kyrie Irving.