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:

Aaron Dodson: The Undefeated, assistant editor

Adam Howes: Bulls on Parade, site manager

Dan Marang: Blazer’s Edge, writer

Mike Meltser: Sports Radio 610 Houston, host

Andrew Porter: CBS Philly, sports editor

 

The Boston-Washington series has been a war, a taxing battle each and every night. What’s the last series you remember being anywhere near this physical?

Dodson: As entertaining as it’s been to watch this brutal series—especially the battle of the Kellys (#FreeOubre, by the way)—the best part about the physicality has been the resulting pettiness. From Gerald Green prophesizing, “We’re gonna beat their ass in Game 4” (a big fat whiff on the part of him and Boston), to Washington’s “Death Row D.C.” T-shirts, the animosity in this series has been glorious. We haven’t seen this combination of on-court brute force and off-the-court pettiness in a long time. I think back to the first-round series between the Cavs and Wizards in the 2008 playoffs. Remember when DeShawn Stevenson and LeBron James kept getting into it during games, which turned into Stevenson calling The King “overrated”? Big mistake, because, make a long story story, James refused to fully respond to the comment, saying it’d be like if “Jay Z responding to Soulja Boy.” After Soulja Boy attended Game 3 in a Stevenson jersey, Jay Z stepped in and squashed the beef with a hilarious diss track at Stevenson over Too $hort’s “Blow The Whistle.” Definitely one of my favorite physical/petty/dramatic series of all time. The Wiz are repeat offenders.

Howes: The 1991 Eastern Conference Finals between the Bulls vs. Pistons. OK, that may be going back a little too far. So let’s go with game 4 of the Bulls vs. Heat in their 1997 Eastern Conference Finals matchup. The one where Zo put a ostrich sized egg on Pip’s head…

And then proceeded to hug it out with the Worm…

OK, so there’s been some testy moments since, but let’s get real, the NBA just doesn’t allow for full scale war to erupt like it once did. At the same time, the guys on the court know they stand to lose to much and don’t want their pockets hurt. That’s why you barely see any fists cocked. Which is a shame, because I don’t mind seeing a good old fashioned basketbrawl.

Marang: The fact that physicality stands out in the series kind of speaks to where the NBA has been and where it’s gone. While play has been chippy, heated, and there have been even a few #kerfuffles in this series, it just doesn’t resonate with play even a decade ago. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, it’s just a big time shift.

Message-sending fouls are now constantly reviewed under the threat of an ejection. Whereas in the past a “hostile act” was Raja Bell clotheslining Kobe Bryant. There’s levels to these things. While the Wizards may have “worn black” earlier this year, this series and this rivalry has a long way to go before it matches even Suns-Lakers let alone the physical play of yesteryear. As far as comparing it to another series, I’m nearly certain that every series of the previous 6 years involving Tony Allen and the Memphis Grizzlies has been more physical.

Meltser: I have to admit that I haven’t really tracked this dynamic in my mind, but the one that comes to mind would be the battles between the Knicks and Heat in the late ’90s. The hardest part about answering this question is that we often remember physical “moments” and ejections, like Zach Randolph punching Steven Adams a few years ago, as opposed to a consistent physicality throughout an entire series.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Porter: The first name that comes to mind when I read this question was Ron Artest…I mean, Metta World Peace. He was the last contact-seeking, I’ll-fight-you-if-I-have-to perimeter player that comes to mind, who could dominate games defensively.

As for the the last series that I remember being as physical as Boston/Washington, I’d say the Celtics-Lakers 2010 Finals. That was hard-nosed, physical ball. Guys like Derek Fisher, Glen “Big Baby” Davis, KG, Metta, Kobe, Rondo, Gasol, Allen, Pierce. Kendrick Perkins and Andrew Bynum suffered knee injuries late in the series, too. The rivalry and history of the franchises made it even better, from an entertainment perspective.

It was just clean, hard-fought basketball ball for seven straight games, with a ton of talent on the court.

James Harden is the master of the three-point foul, he’s not the only culprit but he’s the main one. Is this something the League should look into adjusting?

Porter: No, the League doesn’t have to adjust anything. A foul is a foul. They just need officials to be aware of what the offensive player is doing now a days to get a whistle. It should not automatically be a foul.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Dodson: The fact that James Harden gets fouled on three-pointers more than any other NBA team is pretty crazy. The fouls are excruciating to watch—and make you really feel for the defenders—but, for real, shoutout to Harden. He kept getting bumped and hand-checked around the arc and simply made an adjustment. You can’t really knock him for being strategic and taking advantage of his opponents. It reminds me of Dwyane Wade drawing fouls using pump fakes—a technique he’s been employing for years. Going forward, the solution is not for the NBA to crack down on Harden or any other player who does it. There should be no rule changes or potential fines. Players and referees need to adjust like Harden did. Don’t get me wrong, some of the fouls are ridiculous, but you do see a lot of refs not making the call if there’s not blatant contact. As for players, they know it’s coming, so don’t bite on it. I would also say they should beat Harden at his own game by doing it to him, but he doesn’t really play defense in the first place, so, yeah.

Howes: I say no. The powers that be have allowed it to go on for this long, why change it now and why should Harden and others be penalized for adapting to and exploiting the rules of the game? Besides, it’s kind of cool when a player gets fouled on a three and nails the shot. The aim of the game is to put the ball in the basket, fans pay to see high-scoring games and we want to see players with high scoring averages. Nuff said.

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Marang: I hate it. I’ll say it. I know that the League is predicated on offense now, but I really wish this would go away. When the offensive player initiates the contact, particularly with the intent to draw a foul above the three-point line it just rings hollow. Call me Scrooge, I don’t care. I hope the NBA takes a look at this in the offseason and does more than makes it a “focus point” next season with officials. In fact, I I hope the take a serious look at the rules and how they’re called, how games are officiated and weeding this nonsense out. Get off my lawn.

Meltser: It’s something I would certainly take a look at. I’ve had a number of my friends, both diehard sports fans and casual ones, who have raised this topic with me while watching games together. It seems unfair to award such a good chance at 3 points on a split-second, offensive player-created foul. Those plays remind me of the old Kevin Durant rip-through moves that the NBA got rid of back in 2011. I don’t know that there is an easy solution, but I think it’s the kind of play that I’d prefer players, and especially stars, not to be hunting for.

The Toronto Raptors are in a bind. After losing to Cleveland again, should they re-sign their core and try again or blow it up? 

Meltser: It’s such a challenging predicament to be in. One thing to keep in mind is that this isn’t some 47-win team that consistently gets knocked out of the first round of the playoffs. This is a team that has won 56 and 51 games over the last two years, with a GM who seems fairly highly thought of around the League. Another thing to keep in mind is that it’s hard to acquire players in the draft that are as good as some of the players they have on their roster. For instance, even in this upcoming draft, beyond three or four possible players, how many will end up having careers better than Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan?

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

At the same time, you don’t want to lock yourself into players if you have a high level of certainty that they have a certain ceiling, or their abilities, combined with their contracts, put a ceiling on the team itself. Maybe Toronto thinks about letting Lowry walk away, starting Cory Joseph and allocating those resources elsewhere?

Ultimately, I would not break this team up. Masai Ujuri will likely keep this team competitive, while trying to maintain flexibility. There are only so many teams in the NBA that should tank.

Porter: I wouldn’t want to be the GM of the Raptors. Well, I would—that’d be sick —but you know what I mean. It’s a tough situation to be in. They’re stuck in NBA purgatory and their All-Star PG is 31 and can opt out of his contract after the season. DeMar DeRozan, 27, is a non-three point shooting building block who I’d be willing to trade if the price was right (he’s under contract through 2020-21) and I do like 23-year-old Norman Powell, but other than that have at it.

Ultimately, it depends on your philosophy. Do you want to win championships or do you want to create the illusion you can win championships to keep your fan base engaged and tickets sold, and maybe, just maybe, if a key opponent gets hurt or you catch a lucky break you can sneak into the Finals? I’m a Sam Hinkie guy, so I’d want to win championships. Or at least try.

Dodson: Blow it up. Well, sort of. I think you definitely let Kyle Lowry go through free agency. It’s kind of weird to me though that he’s reportedly looking to sign with a team in the Western Conference, because he’s not an elite NBA point guard (I’m still salty he started over John Wall in back-to-back All-Star Games). The Raptors should definitely do all they can to re-sign Serge Ibaka. He’s a great piece that will be vital when, or if as it now seems, they run into the Cavs in the playoffs again. What Toronto is messing is a sharpshooting complement on the wing to DeMar DeRozan. That’s the role Terrance Ross filled before Toronto traded him to get Ibaka, because something’s always gotta give. Without Lowry and Ibaka, the Raptors can still be competitive in the Eastern Conference, because: 1) It’s the Eastern Conference and 2) DeRozan is a superstar. But if they lose those two big parts of their core, we might be seeing Toronto shift into rebuilding mode, which is unfortunate for a player like DeRozan in the prime of his career.

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Howes: I think it’s become the norm and all too easy for fans to want/demand their GM to hit the ‘blow it up’ button and no doubt there are frustrated Raptors fans out there right now feeling that way and rightfully so. However, I think such a move would be premature. The Raps in my opinion are still one big piece away from ever truly competing for a title *cough* once LeBron retires that is *cough*.

As the second round series sweep proved, the ballyhooed trade for Serge Ibaka and the move that brought the return of PJ Tucker back to the T.Dot, just weren’t enough get the Raps to the next level… because LeBron happened.

Now granted, Lowry was a non-factor and DeRozan was somewhat shackled, honestly though neither of those guys could have done very little to prevent LeBron from tearing through the north like the Night King. There’s just not enough Valyrian steel at that roster’s disposal to thwart such a menace. This is where that third big piece I mentioned earlier would be useful, because John Snow ain’t walking through that door.

Perhaps Maester Ujiri should send a raven to the Zen Master requesting an audience to discuss his plans for Lord Melo. Just an idea. However the same problem remains, there is no LeBron stopper in the NBA.

Marang: If you ain’t first, you’re last. That’s how this works right? If Lowry opts to join, oh I don’t know, the Spurs, you’re blowing this up anyway. While playoff Lowry is obviously an issue, he’s the straw that stirs the drink and without their heart they’re just a decent team. In my mind, move DeRozan, get younger and start the rebuild now. With any luck they’ll peak right around the time Kevin Durant is 36 and LeBron is the actual owner of the Cavs.

Who has been more impressive this postseason, Cleveland or Golden State?

Marang: Can I call it a push? The Warriors are this five-headed hydra of destruction that I saw firsthand in the opening round series against the Portland Trail Blazers. They weren’t even trying, at least that’s how easy they made it look. But that’s with a cast of players that take turns destroying an opponent. Toying. Teasing even.

Then you’ve got playoff LeBron. The guy who just moved to No. 2 on the all-time playoff career scoring list. He’s a one-man wrecking crew who has undoubtedly “flipped the switch.” You might as well call him King James the “Electrician” at this point. If I had to side one way or the other, I’d say Cleveland is more impressive simply because you know it’s all predicated on LeBron and yet he just keeps delivering.

Everyone worried about how things would play out for Cleveland. Welp. They, alongside the Warriors, are looking at a possible four-four-four before meeting in the Finals.

Meltser: Adjusting for how they came into the playoffs, Cleveland. I was filling in on a national radio show the day after their Game 1 performance against Indiana, and felt like they were in big trouble (not so much in the Eastern Conference, but really competing for the NBA title). The Cavs had one of the worst defenses in the League and points per possession in the second half of the season. I tend to think teams need to build defensive habits throughout the season, or at least late in the year.

This isn’t really anything against what the Warriors have done, because they swept a hot Blazers team (without being fully healthy) and were very good against the Jazz. It’s more of my grading on the curve, because beating the Warriors in any game is very, very hard to do, and they came into the playoffs playing at a high level.

I still believe Golden State wins the championship, but the way the Cavs have swept through two rounds has come as a real surprise to me.

Porter: The answer is Cleveland simply because we expected Golden State to manhandle Portland and Utah. Cleveland entered the postseason struggling and no matter how many consecutive years we watch playoff Bron do his thing, it’s still amazing. I mean, even a train stops. The guy isn’t human.

The Cavs have won 10 straight playoff games dating back to last season. They’re shooting lights out, the King is at the top of his game and they’re fueling the lazy narrative that the “East stinks.”

Entering the postseason, just like last year, most didn’t think the Cavs had a shot to beat the Warriors. But day-by-day as the playoffs continue, and the Cavs keep dominating, the thought creeps deeper and deeper into our minds. Just like last year.

Dodson: I’ll take LeBron James for $500, Alex. Really, though. I’d take the postseason he’s had over every collective performance any team in this year’s playoffs has pieced together.

Howes: I’m going to sit on the fence here and say both have been impressive. The Cavs zapped through rounds one and two with an unblemished record and GOlden State did the same thing.

In Game 3 we saw KD have his best game since returning from that knee injury. Steph and Klay didn’t really get it going and it looked dicey for the Dubs for a minute. Yet somehow they dug deep and silenced the Jazz. It wasn’t an easy win though, so with that said, I don’t think we’ve seen the best of the Warriors in these playoffs just yet, and that’s scary.

LeBron James over his last 10 playoff games… How would you go about describing the tear he’s on and is it ridiculous to think maybe we have yet to see his best basketball? 

Howes: How would I describe the tear he’s on? Hmm let’s see. A magnificent force of nature. A one-man army. A marvelous display of basketball dominance. A human wrecking ball. The perfect weapon. I dunno and I’m pretty much out of superlatives and idioms, so I’ll go with a transcendent talent in his prime.

As for it being ridiculous to think maybe we are yet to see his best basketball, I think it would be ridiculous not to. I mean, c’mon, the man doesn’t get hurt, he knows when to put his foot on the throttle and on a team’s combined throats and this will be what, his sixth straight Finals appearance? Seventh? I’ve honestly lost count.

AND YES, I SAID FINALS!

Because that’s where he’s headed, because nobody in the East can stop him and that’s where we will see his best basketball. Appreciate him while you can, folks.

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Marang: See above. But seriously has there been anyone more unstoppable than LeBron James when he has his jumper going? I’m not usually one to hyperbole but I just find myself in awe every time I tune in. He’s averaging 34 points, 9 rebounds, and 7 assists while shooting nearly 56 percent from the floor and 47 percent from three. Most of the free world would have trouble doing that on NBA 2K17 with the difficulty turned down to Rookie.

The thing that’s been staggering to me is that with age, a player like LeBron would move closer to the rim. Take a look at his shooing splits. He’s taken 92 shots inside of 10 feet in the playoffs and 74 shots from outside 10 feet, this isn’t someone who’s going the way of “old-man game.” No. He keeps evolving, applying lessons from the past to the present so that he’s seemingly ahead of his opponents on a nightly basis. Pack that kind of basketball IQ into a 6-9, 270-pound human with nearly supernatural athleticism and I guess this is what you get.

At this point I’m absolutely welcome to entertain the “LeBron is the greatest of all-time” arguments. What was once heresy just a few years ago is at least rounding into, “it’s not absurd.”

Meltser: I would describe it as the best player in the world basically doing what he does; being consistently outstanding, and without question the best player on the floor no matter what situation he’s in.

I don’t necessarily think we’re seeing his “best” basketball, because it’s hard to judge the lower pressure games against the Pacers and Raptors against the way he’s played in the Finals twice against Golden State, Games 6 and 7 against Boston in 2012, the Finals against the Thunder and Spurs, etc.

What surprises me currently is how well he’s shot the basketball from the outside. Shooting 45 percent against Indiana and 48 against Toronto on a reasonable amount of attempts is exceptional. We’ve seen times in the playoffs where LeBron’s shot has left him, but that’s far from the case right now.

Here’s the bottom line: LeBron has been so outstanding, especially over the last decade, that nothing he does should surprise anyone.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Porter: LeBron James and Tom Brady are the two most motivated athletes I’ve ever seen in my lifetime, even more so than Kobe (at least second-half of his career Kobe). As they age, they get hungrier. They’re obsessed with greatness. That’s the only way I can try to describe or comprehend what he’s doing.

LeBron is chasing the ghost of MJ, like he said, and he realizes he’s close. He’s a student of the game and it’s right there in front of him, in flashing red lights. He’s also motivated by the “Oh my God, look how good the Warriors are” narrative. And lastly, like Brady, he’s motivated by his age. He’s motivated by the people that assume this is the year he’s going to slow down.

It’s not ridiculous to think we haven’t seen the best LeBron yet, because his biggest ally right now is rest. And thanks to another likely sweep, there’s more of that coming. And a rested Bron is a dangerous Bron.

Dodson: LeBron James has been an absolute monster this postseason. The way he’s playing reminds me of two versions of King James that we’ve seen in the playoffs over the last several years. First is “2012 XVI Mouthguard” LeBron, who was on an absolute mission to win his first ring and knew he needed 16 wins to get it, so he put that number in Roman numerals on his mouthguard. Second is “2015 Finals” LeBron, who singlehandedly took the Warriors to six games, with both Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love sidelined with injuries, and should’ve been named the MVP of that series if we’re really keeping it 100. The scary thing is 2017 playoffs LeBron has a healthy (knock on wood) Kyrie and Love. Couple that with the rest the Cavs are getting after sweeping their first two opponents, and the Warriors (yes, I’m picking them to make it out of the Western Conference again) might be in trouble come the Finals (yes, I’m also picking the Cavs to make it out of the Eastern Conference again). This time next year, we might be referring to the 2017 playoffs version of James as “Back-to-Back” LeBron.