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:
Ryan Cole: Bleacher Report, social media
Sam Esfandiari: Warriors World, contributor
Ashley Nevel: Sports reporter
Michael Sykes: Bullets Forever, contributor
Matthew Tynan: Basketball writer and podcaster
For the first time in eight years LeBron James won’t finish top three in the MVP vote, what’s your take on that? Does it change your viewing of James, the award or not at all?
Cole: I think it’s a bit surprising. LeBron James has been the best player in the NBA for years, and posted career marks in assists and rebounds. That alone made him a top-3 candidate in my eyes. Sure James Harden, Russell Westbrook, & Kawhi Leonard had career seasons, but that still doesn’t shift the narrative when it comes to who the most “valuable” player in the game is. The real issue is that the criteria for MVP has not been consistent for about a decade now. Does it go to the best player or the guy having the best season? Either way LeBron will get the short end of the stick due to voter fatigue.
Esfandiari: The award. LeBron James averaged 26/9/9 on near 55 percent from field in 74 games. Cleveland was 0-8 when he didn’t play. I could keep going. LeBron is being punished for not playing up to his standards as opposed to comparing his actual production to other players. For example, I have a hard time imagining Giannis Antetokounmpo in his situation putting up same numbers, having the same team win totals not being in final three. To me it’s paralysis by analysis.
Nevel: Since the MVP is a regular season award I understand why Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Kawhi Leonard are the top 3 candidates. Westbrook averaged a triple-double, Harden accounted for 4,554 points on a 55-win team and Kawhi Leonard was the most dominant player on a 61-win team. All of those guys had MVP-like years but LeBron did, too. He averaged 26, 8 and 8, which is merely the same average when you combine his four-time time MVP regular season stats.
This doesn’t change the way I view LeBron. He’s one of the best players to ever play the game of basketball. We saw the same thing with MJ and Shaq back in the day. If you look at the number of times they’ve won MVP and Kobe it makes you scratch your head. These guys are on another level though. They’re better than the MVP. It’s almost as if the MVP is a step below LeBron James. His competitive level is unmatched and he has set the bar so high for himself that we just expect his outstanding level of play all the time. Nothing surprises us anymore and besides, LeBron is a 3-time NBA champion, which to me, outweighs the number of MVPs.
Sykes: It means absolutely nothing to me. And if we’re being absolutely honest here, how many people can go down the rankings of MVP candidates from the last few years? It doesn’t matter at all, in the grand scheme of things. LeBron was great this season—he averaged career highs in both rebounding and assists, found his three ball again, scored efficiently and will lead his team to the Finals again.
But there were four good MVP candidates this year and James just happened to be a casualty. When Russell Westbrook wins the award, who came in second, third and fourth place won’t matter. And James will still be the same incredible player he is.
Tynan: It certainly doesn’t change my view on him in any capacity. He’s the best player on the planet. There’s a bit of voter fatigue in this equation, but I think it’s got more to do with the fact we’ve become so accustomed to him being an absolute monster on a regular basis that when his team sort of strolls through the regular season we basically pay it no mind. This award has a history of putting guys in positions like these when they’ve been in that particular spotlight for years and years, so it’s not exactly shocking the voting shifted toward the newer, younger, fresher options. Just kind of the way it goes, fair or not.
There’s been a lot of outcry over the playoffs this year. Blowouts keep coming and the Conference Finals have to this point been dreadfully one sided. Is the League in a bad spot with two teams this far ahead?
Esfandiari: The playoffs have been poor but I don’t believe the League is in a bad spot. Bad playoffs have happened in the past. If this continues for multiple years then maybe I’ll readdress my point, but for right now it just feels like two teams who are peaking at the right time and thus head and shoulders above their competition. I wouldn’t assume next year is the same. San Antonio or Boston may add talent, a young team like Milwaukee may take a leap. These things tend to change faster than we expect.
Nevel: I don’t think the League is in a bad spot. People are still watching the games and you never know what will happen just like Game 3 of Celtics-Cavs. Some playoffs are better than others. I think it just depends on the year. Just like the draft. Some drafts are stronger than others. The game is constantly evolving so I think this is just temporary. The Finals will be fun, though!
Sykes: I don’t think this is the best spot for the League, but it isn’t a bad one either. The intrigue is still there. The Warriors are still being talked about. LeBron James is still being compared to Michael Jordan. The League’s revenues continue to expand and coverage continues to grow. And with so many young stars in the League, the anticipation to see one of these two juggernauts fall will only continue to grow.
Tynan: There was a real chance the Spurs would’ve made things interesting. I can’t imagine there’s another team in the League that’s spent more time leading the Warriors by double-digits, or even 20-plus points, than San Antonio this season. They seemed to have something figured out against that team—as much as you can actually figure out about Golden State—but unfortunately we didn’t get to see it play out. I think, just as a whole, we tend to overreact to the super-team discussions. As things stand at this moment, these teams are clearly running the conferences—though I’d contend the Spurs are closer than most feel. But things can change so quickly during the summer, and there are young teams with developing players that will pose major problems in the near future. Remember, both the Cavs and Dubs will be facing cap issues very soon; in a capped league, you never know what kind of fluctuations will occur, but they can happen quickly.
Cole: No, the League is fine as is. What’s going on now is not new. In the ’80s the Lakers and Celtics dominated. In the ’90s, Jordan reigned supreme. In the 2000s, Kobe, Shaq and Duncan accounted for eight of the 10 championships. This League has never been built on parity, so why would that change now? As it stands, it looks as if we are headed on a collision course for Warriors-Cavaliers III. It would be the first time in Finals history that two teams face off three years in a row. I’d trade a “boring” postseason for an amazing Finals anytime. Let’s sit back and enjoy the show.
Narrative walks hand in hand with sports, what’s the most prevalent narrative this postseason and do you believe it to be true?
Sykes: The narrative of LeBron James rivaling Michael Jordan has been on the tip of everyone’s tongue this postseason. And how could it not be? James has been incredible throughout this Cavalier’s playoff run despite an awful outing on Sunday night against Boston.
At this point, James has to be in the discussion as one of the best five players to ever play the game. It’s hard for me to compare him to Jordan at this point in terms of sheer nobility, but there is no question that he is every bit as talented—maybe even more. And James hasn’t shown any signs of slowing down, so I fully expect to be revisiting this down the line.
Tynan: I’d say the most prevalent narrative is, “These playoffs are boring because everything is a blowout and we all already know what’s going to happen.” Honestly, I don’t really have an argument against this. I understand if that’s the way you feel. It’s one of the reasons it’s such a bummer Kawhi Leonard got hurt, because there was a chance at some fun. But personally, I’m not too fazed by this, because it’s pretty much been that way all season. The first half of Game 1 of Spurs-Dubs was like a remote desert island for someone lost at sea that just turned out to be a mirage. It was glorious while it existed, but in the end the status quo remained.
Cole: Teams out East need to look toward the future instead of trying to build a team to beat LeBron James right now. This take exists primarily with the Celtics, but it can be applicable to others as well (Raptors and Wizards). Lately we’ve seen a lot of chatter about whether or not the C’s should trade the No. 1 overall pick for a star (Jimmy Butler or Paul George). The answer to that question is they shouldn’t. As seen in these playoffs, they are a lot further away than we thought, and a Jimmy Butler or Paul George isn’t bridging the gap. LeBron looks to be headed to a seventh straight Finals, and has shown zero signs of slowing down. Play the long game. Stack assets. Develop your kids. Come 2020 you might have a chance to do something.
Esfandiari: The East is ‘shook’ by LeBron. It’s hard to watch these games and not see players outright afraid to compete. Boston’s performance Friday night was epitome of ‘no belief’. LeBron is the best player in the NBA, one of best of all time, but he is not ‘unbeatable’. His eastern opponents seem to feel so, however.
The Draft Lottery was revealed last week. Which lottery team has the toughest choice ahead of them and why?
Sykes: Is there any question that the answer to this is the Boston Celtics? They have everything to gain and so much to lose just by simply keeping this draft pick. They’ll get a potential star in whoever they choose at No. 1, but could ultimately lose the opportunity to trade for another star player.
And the implications of drafting a star point guard, if they do take Markelle Fultz, could be huge. Should they take him, do they pay Isaiah Thomas $200 mil next season or do they let him walk? Should they move him? Should they move the pick? These are all potentially great options, but they’re all franchise altering as well.
Tynan: Maybe this is a cop-out answer, but it’s the Celtics. The consensus top picks are point guards, and they already have a backcourt in place. The right decision is to take the best talent available, but then what do you do with the rest of the roster that took you to the Eastern Conference Finals? Maybe Isaiah Thomas’ looming contract situation makes things easier, but it’s going to be an interesting summer for Boston, nonetheless. It’s definitely a problem, but a problem you’d like to have.
Cole: I’d say the Philadelphia 76ers. Consensus among most mocks is that Markelle Fultz and Lonzo Ball will be the first two selections. That third slot has room for a lot of different options. Josh Jackson would be the best player available in most eyes, but there are concerns about his fit offensively with a Simmons-Saric-Embiid young core. Jackson doesn’t exactly space the floor and Ben Simmons will needs as much shooting around him as possible to operate as the primary ballhandler in Philly. As for me? I’d take Jackson, but I wouldn’t blame the Sixers if they went with Malik Monk or De’Aron Fox.
Esfandiari: Philadelphia. In an ideal world, Philly can draft a guard who can play off ball and shoot and create on ball. The players who fit that bill seem like a reach at No. 3. The players who are likely best prospect available at No. 3 don’t fit their roster. Beyond that, it appears after the top 2 there is no consensus on third best player. Jackson, Tatum, Fox, and Monk are all in play. It’ll be interesting to see what they do. This is the epitome of a good problem and I suspect talent over fit will win out. Wherever they go will shape remainder of lottery.
Nevel: I think the Celtics. They have the No. 1 pick but have a team that was first place in the Eastern Conference this season and made it to the Eastern Conference Finals. They have a loaded roster not just starters but off the bench as well. Guys like Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart have been huge for them. So what do the Celtics do? Isaiah Thomas has had A LOT to do with their success this season, leading them to the 1-seed in the east. He’s been huge in fourth quarters, however, he hasn’t been great in the playoffs consistently especially against the Cavs. I really like Isaiah Thomas, but can you trust a guy who is 5’9” to lead your team to a championship? LeBron and company have about 2-3 years left in the tank and I don’t know if the Celtics have what it takes to win with what they have. They can either trade the pick and get a couple solid players through the trade and through free agency OR they can start rebuilding now for when LeBron retires. Either way, drafting a rookie won’t solve your problem and I can’t think of too many guys who can team up to beat LeBron anytime soon. Gordon Hayward could be a great addition, and/or Paul George, but I think PG is going to the Lakers. Jimmy Butler, maybe? Still confused what the Bulls want to do with him but I think the Celtics have a lot on their plate right now in terms of that first pick AND Isaiah Thomas.
If you had to bet on a team not named Golden State or Cleveland to win a title in the next five years, who would you place your dollar on and why?
Tynan: San Antonio. I already mentioned it earlier: The Spurs are closer than people think, but their future hinges in a big way on this summer. They’re going to have to navigate a minefield of contract situations this offseason, and their depth depends on that front office avoiding said landmines. But Leonard is only 25 and just keeps getting better than anyone ever imagined. I’m done trying to guess what his ceiling is. And on top of it, Gregg Popovich is still as sharp as ever. You could make a case for a handful of teams, but the player-coach-system combination the Spurs are working with—not to mention their history—makes it tough to go a different direction. Until you actually see the Spurs die off, it feels silly to predict it will happen.
Cole: This is sort of an uninteresting answer, but I say San Antonio. They have the best coach in the NBA, a top-5 player in the NBA, and a top front office executive in R.C. Buford. Not to mention their track record is proven. Five championships and 20-straight postseason trips as a franchise. If MY money is on the line I go with them.
Esfandiari: San Antonio. They have the best player in NBA not on Golden State or Cleveland. They are maybe the best run team in NBA. The odds they find the right players to put around Kawhi Leonard and win another title are likely higher than any young team with multiple promising assets. And let’s be honest, we’ve written them off and been wrong 1 too many times.
Nevel: The Spurs. How could you not? As long as Gregg Popovich is a part of that organization the Spurs have a shot at a title EVERY YEAR. That organization knows how to draft players that fit so well into their system and most players are willing to go there just to play for Popovich even if that means taking a pay cut. Somehow the Spurs are always good and have made the playoffs 24 of the last 25 years. There’s really no rebuilding phase for them. They’ve figured out how to skip that stage. I will never count them out!
Sykes: This is going to read like a homer pick, but hear me out. The Wizards have a solid, young core of players. Bradley Beal is only 23 years old and just had a solid scoring season. John Wall is the second best player in the Eastern Conference and is still getting better. Otto Porter is one of the most efficient players in the league with an incredibly low usage rate.
The Wizards have some holes to plug on their bench and may have concerns with their frontcourt moving forward, but they’re a young team that is only getting better. The Wizards are a talented team and should attract free agents moving forward. It’s a long shot, but pretty much every team is at this point.