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

Tyler Conway: Bleacher Report, writer

Joe Mullinax: Grizzly Bear Blues, site manager

Andrew Ungvari: BBall Breakdown, contributor

Natalie Weiner: Bleacher Report, writer

T.D. Williams: Sports Illustrated, contributor

Let’s take a moment to acknowledge those departed, which team already eliminated has the brightest future?

Conway: The obvious answer here is Milwaukee. It’s been fashionable all season to dig up old Giannis takes, but no one thought he would be this good—and especially not this fast. Giannis is nearly 7 feet tall with a point guard’s skill set, and he’s gotten exponentially better every season. His presence alone is going to make Milwaukee a playoff constant for the next decade.

The Bucks’ postseason ceiling is dependent on the health of Jabari Parker. Two ACL tears in three seasons is, uhh, not exactly ideal. Parker was in the midst of a star turn before his injury, and if this doesn’t set him back too much, Milwaukee has a strong one-two punch going forward.

Also Khris Middleton playing more than 29 games will probably help.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Mullinax: It probably has to be the Milwaukee Bucks, considering they have the best young player among the recently eliminated teams in Giannis Antetokounmpo. Russell Westbrook is the better player overall at this stage, but the pieces around him do not add up to Malcolm Brogdon, Khris Middleton and Thon Maker. Portland also has one of the best young offensive backcourts in the NBA in Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, so they deserve some consideration. The Memphis Grizzlies have Mike Conley and Marc Gasol, but with Chandler Parsons being such a question mark they aren’t in this conversation right now, as much as it pains me to say.

Ungvari: I think you have to say Milwaukee, based solely on the fact that Giannis is only 22 and the Bucks have him locked up. Every other team has so much uncertainty, except for maybe Portland, and who knows what they’re doing?

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Weiner: This is probably the easy answer, but the Bucks—Giannis such a force on the court and off: who could forget his perfect Derozan shade? He’s got the youth, energy and charisma to take this team to the next level, plus he’s just really fun to watch. Combined with other exciting young players like Thon Maker and Khris Middleton—plus the grit king Matthew Dellavedova and glove prince Gary Payton II, for the memes—you’ve got the makings of a team that’s not just talented enough to make a playoff run, but fun enough to convert the haters. Their brand is already too strong: “The Greek Freak”? It’s perfect.

Williams: Three-fourths of the teams eliminated in the first round face a dismal immediate future of uncertainty and/or serious restructuring. The two teams with reasons to feel enthusiastic are the Trail Blazers and the Bucks. The Blazers had a legitimate starting center seemingly fall into their lap, their guards are dynamic and dedicated to improving and they’re a playmaking wing away from being in the top half of the Western Conference. And the Bucks… well, they have Giannis, aka Airostotle, aka Gyro Step. When you have a player with his physical gifts, drive, and prodigious pace of learning and expanding his game, every new season in cause for anticipation.

Which player changed your opinion of him this postseason?

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Williams: Two players, one series: Houston-OKC. We were hoping for Olajuwon-Robinson, or Joshua-Klitschko—the fans’ and pundits’ top two basketball heavyweights going blow-for-blow, the title of “real” MVP hanging in the balance. Instead we got some of the most aesthetically unpleasant basketball of the first round. For all of his brilliance, Russell Westbrook also turned Thunder’s fourth quarters garbage. He was so incorrigible you almost didn’t notice James Harden flopped and flailed his way to 41 percent shooting, 24 percent from 3 on 10 attempts a game (!) and a 7 to 5.6 assist-turnover ratio. I walked away from the series wondering if they’d both bamboozled us all season with numbers generated by a sort of basketball sleight of hand. The jaw-dropping play of Kawhi, LeBron and John Wall made Westbrook and Harden seem all the more second rate when the lights were brightest.

Conway: The Thunder agreed to pay Victor Oladipo $21 million per season in October. They’re probably pending all of May looking for a fine-print loophole that could turn that into $12 million. It was a bit of an overpay at the time, and Oladipo has only made the deal look worse with his continued uninspiring averageness.

Oladipo has basically been the same player for the last three seasons. He’s a little better at shooting threes now—teams have even started respecting him a bit and not helping off—but the progress elsewhere isn’t there.

The Rockets, not exactly a sprawling defense, held him to 34.4 percent shooting. He made 6 of his 25 threes. He was, at times, the worst player on the floor in Game 5. When people criticized Russell Westbrook for going full hero down the stretch, they needed to also take a look at the box score and see his supposed co-star sitting at 4 of 17 from the field.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Mullinax: Mike Conley. I didn’t think he would be THAT good. He went toe to toe with Kawhi Leonard and was the biggest reason Memphis pushed San Antonio in a six-game series. 44.7 percent shooting from three, 24.7 points per game, and clutch shot after clutch shot continued the trend that had been starting since after the All-Star Break—the Grizzlies are Conley’s team now. If he can keep close to that level of production during the 2017-2018 season and stay healthy, he will make his first All-Star Game in 2018.

Ungvari: I think I have to say Patrick Beverley. I knew that he was a great defensive player but when he’s hitting shots like he was against OKC, that team is nearly impossible to beat.

Weiner: Earnest answer: Isaiah Thomas. I’ve always been pro-IT given the hometown hero factor (I’m from Seattle), but seeing how he’s coped with the tragic loss of his sister has been genuinely inspiring/heartbreaking. Then he goes and gets his tooth knocked out in the middle of a game and keeps playing…talk about overcoming adversity. And he was already the shortest dude on the court! In spite of all that, he lead his team to the semifinals over the tougher-than-expected Bulls. I knew he was special (everyone from the Pacific Northwest is, of course), but now I see just how tough and awesome he really is. Alternate answer: Russell Westbrook—already loved him, but his insane performance combined with its even more insane backlash just made me love him even more.

Which second-round matchup is the most exciting?

Weiner: Spurs-Rockets, not just because I’m rooting for Kawhi Leonard to make James Harden look definitively non-MVP-esque—the Spurs have been in a bit of a weird funk (yes, I realize they beat the Grizzlies, but that was in six; plus, there were some odd losses at the end of the regular season), and I know they’ve got the depth and the talent to flex on the Western conference. They went 3 of 4 against the Rockets during the season, so I see no reason why they can’t get the Rockets and their obnoxious ability to draw fouls at the three-point line out of the post-season entirely. It’s boring and I won’t stand for it! Also, who doesn’t love it when Manu and Tony get their groove back…

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Conway:  I’ll be disappointed if anyone doesn’t pick Rockets-Spurs here. This is a Finals-level matchup.  You wouldn’t offend me at all if you said these are the second- and third-best teams in basketball.

The Spurs and Rockets played four times in the regular season. None of the games were decided by more than six points. Three of them were one-possession games. Mike D’Antoni’s Phoenix days were defined by his inability to get over the hump against the Spurs.

This series has it all. Kawhi vs. Harden. D’Antoni vs. Pop. Two fun teams with appealing styles. The crowds are also going to be LIIIIIIT, especially if Houston does another $1 beer night.

Williams: Celtics-Wizards. Two teams who are evenly matched, justifiably feel under-appreciated, and genuinely dislike each other. I’m especially interested in this series because of the next question.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

 

Mullinax: It’s Celtics-Wizards, because I think that is the one that has the most potential to be a terrific series. Between Thomas vs. Wall, Beal vs. Bradley, two solid coaches in Brad Stevens and Scott Brooks, there are plenty of things to watch for. Also, I believe it will be the only second round series to go seven games—Warriors will win in five, Cavaliers and Rockets will win in 6. Drama leads to excitement and I believe that will exist in Boston-Washington because both teams are darn good.

Ungvari: Houston vs. San Antonio. I still don’t know how serious to take this Houston team because they’re the first time of its kind. I also don’t know how good this San Antonio team because sometimes they look like they can beat anyone and other times they look like they can’t beat anyone.

Cavaliers and Warriors III has been penciled in since last June. Which team do you think jeopardizes the potential trilogy? 

Ungvari: I still think it’s San Antonio, just because it could be Pop vs. Mike Brown in a game of chess vs. checkers. I don’t think any East team is beating Cleveland and I don’t think Utah is ready or Houston has the personnel.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Weiner: Barring a highly-unlikely Bron injury (knocks on every piece of wood within a five-mile radius), I think the Cavs are probably locked in atop the Eastern Conference again, though the Pacers series showed some weak points. That light switch defense might need to be rewired. Even though the Warriors are looking so dominant, the Western Conference is just so much more competitive that I think whoever wins the Rockets-Spurs matchup has a chance to take them out. Also, the Spurs are the only team in the League this season with a winning record against the Warriors. The question is whether the Jazz will put up a fight and tire them out a little, or if it’s going to be as easy for Steph, Klay and KD as it was against the Blazers. I believe in Boris and also the power of the Jazz in general.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Williams: The Wizards are the only team I can see spoiling what most regard as inevitable. When they played the Cavs in D.C. on Feb. 6, the Wiz Kids were not shy about declaring the game a litmus test. They believed they could match up with the Cavs and were eager to prove as much. They ended a miraculous three-quarters court Kevin Love pass and a fadeaway off-glass LeBron three-pointer away from a statement win. The next time the teams met, in Cleveland on March 25, you could see how bad the Wizards wanted the game. You could also see, at the end of the third and into the start of the fourth, LeBron take note of the same, and decide he wasn’t going to let them have it. When the best player on the planet imposes his will on a game, that’s usually all she wrote. Not this time. The Wizards didn’t look the least bit intimidated: Beal went right at LeBron, Wall went at and by anyone in front of him, and their role players took and made big shots with confidence. The Wizards are talented enough to give the Cavs a challenge; more importantly, they’re young and crazy enough to believe they can beat the Cavs. But they’ve got to get by the Celtics first.

Conway: The actual answer here? None of them. Unless LeBron James gets hit by a semi-truck between now and June, the Warriors and Cavs are going back to the Finals. We’ve spent all season trying to convince ourselves this isn’t inevitable, but it totally, 200 percent, is.

In the spirit of answering the question, whoever wins the San Antonio-Houston series has a chance to give Golden State a scare. The Warriors have been at full strength for four games since the end of February. Mike Brown is a fine coach and these Warriors could probably win a title with a sock puppet drawing up plays, but Kerr’s calming presence matters in critical moments.

If he’s not able to get back on the bench for the conference finals, San Antonio/Houston has a real shot at playing the spoiler.

Mullinax:  It’s the Wizards. John Wall is playing the best basketball of his career and he will want to crush Kyrie Irving in his quest to show he is the best point guard in the east. The Wizards also have the secondary and bench scoring potentially from so many places that they can cause issues for the Cavs. In the West, Houston likely cannot outscore/defend the Warriors- they just don’t have the horses. But Washington has the opportunity to make the Finals if they can find a way to survive LeBron.

Who had the best individual game of the playoffs so far?

Mullinax: Kawhi Leonard in a losing effort in Game 4 of the Grizzlies-Spurs series. It was the best game of the playoffs to this point and Kawhi was at his peak of his current role as the main catalyst of the Spurs: 43 points, 8 rebounds, 6 steals, 7 (!) made threes for 70 percent shooting from beyond the arc. He destroyed Memphis on both ends of the floor. Kawhi probably can’t be stopped. Unfortunately for him, against a team the quality of Houston, the rest of his teammates probably can.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Weiner: I really promise I am not this much of a Spurs homer all the time (only most), but I have to go with Kawhi. He’s quietly (per usual) putting up historic numbers—currently has the highest player efficiency of anyone in the post-season, and is averaging over 30 points a game. Plus, he’s playing his best ball in the fourth quarter. The Claw is clutch, and we’ll see if that’s enough to carry the Spurs through the (admittedly very tough) battles they have coming up.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Ungvari: There are a few contenders here, but given the circumstances, I’m going to go with Isaiah Thomas’ Game 4 against Chicago: 33 points, 7 assists and 4 rebounds. I can’t imagine what it’s like to have to play a game in front of the whole world after such a personal tragedy and perform the way he did in what was really a must-win game for his team.

Williams: You could probably pick a couple games from Kawhi and LeBron and feel justified doing so, especially in terms of strict statistics. But I’m going to the Wizards again for this one. John Wall closed out the Hawks on the road, scoring or assisting on 23 of his team’s 26 4th quarter points, backing up every promise he made to Julio Jones, Gucci,and Quavo along the way, and exorcising last season’s disappointing playoff exit in the process. Wall is poised to make the transition from great player to mainstream star, and that final game was the exclamation point on a series that screamed “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”

Conway: LeBron’s Game 3 performance against the Indiana Pacers probably won’t make his career highlight reel because it was the first round, but it was one of his most impressive individual displays. The man put up 43 points, 13 rebounds and 12 assists on 14-of-27 shooting, knocking down six threes to lead Cleveland back from 26 down.

He did it almost single-handedly. No other Cavaliers player scored more than 13 points. Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love shot a combined 8-of-29 from the field. Tristan Thompson was the only other Cleveland starter to make half of his shots, and most of those were gimme dunks set up by LeBron or off rebounds.

It’s pretty fun when LeBron decides to remind everyone he’s the best player on the planet.