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. This week I’m stoked to give you an entirely draft focused collaboration.
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 four dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Tim Cranjis: Laker Film Room, contributor
Jeff Garcia: News 4 SA, writer
Mark Perner: Philadelphia Daily News, sports layout editor
Jesse Spector: FanRag Sports, writer
Which player has impressed you most in Summer League?
Spector: Honestly, I’ve seen about five minutes of Summer League action, because I don’t find it to be particularly enlightening. It’s a place where you get looks at guys, sure, but you don’t necessarily know what everyone is working on, what their familiarity is with the sets they’re running, and so on. That said, Lonzo’s highlights have been impressive. The thing that’s really standing out to me, though, is that he seems well equipped to deal with all the craziness around him, and that’s going to be so important for him.
Cranjis: It’s perhaps more reaffirmation for me than being impressed, but Lonzo has balled out so far in Summer League. I was perhaps the most vocal proponent on Laker Twitter for Ball to be picked 1st throughout the season, and have watched every UCLA offensive and defensive possession he had and poured through his data relentlessly. I spend a lot of time going through data and scout, but have never before seen anyone like Lonzo at the college level. His performance thus far has been exactly what we should have expected and should continue to look for. This kid’s a stud.
Ball’s shooting is a little off (even in warm ups), but his transcendent ability to read the defense like a quarterback, identify, then exploit holes in the defense is incredible. Those holes are things like a defender one step in the wrong direction, his hips or feet being positioned the wrong way, or his head turned. It’s nuts he’s even seeing the openings, and the mid-air passes he’s throwing in traffic in all directions to get the ball on target are even crazier. He’s also been strong defensively, giving up only 14 makes on 41 shots faced along with forcing 8 turnovers.
Shoutout to my guy Bryn Forbes, who’s been tearing it up and making me look like less of a fool for stanning for him last season.
Garcia: Right off the bat, I want to make it clear… this isn’t a homer pick. San Antonio Spurs’ Bryn Forbes has been lighting up the Summer League play whether it be in Utah or Las Vegas. What he has been doing has gone grossly under-the-radar.
As of this Roundtable, he is currently the leading scorer, averaging 29.3 points in Las Vegas. He has led San Antonio in scoring in six of the team’s seven total summer league contests and is now averaging 25.9 points in seven appearances.
What makes this even more impressive is that he has expanded his game from a one-dimensional player (shooter) to someone who can drive to the paint, facilitate and create his own shot.
However, it should be noted he doesn’t have a fully-guaranteed deal with the Spurs and is fighting for a spot behind the likes of Patty Mills, Dejounte Murray, rookie Derrick White and Tony Parker if and when he returns to the court next season.
Needless to say, if he doesn’t make it to the Spurs’ roster next season, he’s definitely going to make another at the rate he’s been playing.
Perner: What impressed me the most was the rookie class as a whole. I’m not one to take Summer League seriously—I look at it as a glorified tryout and a showcase for draft picks—so I tend to not put too much stock in it. That being said, it took most of the kids a game to warm up and get the butterflies out, but once they did they started dominating the Summer League collection of free agents and NBA wannabes on a nightly basis. Dennis Smith Jr. was a pleasant surprise to me. Not so much his athleticism, but he was sharing the ball. I tried to like him when watching tape of him at N.C. State, but I just didn’t like him. Maybe he’s found the perfect home. Josh Jackson has shown off his elite athleticism and looks comfortable. Going to be interesting to see how he translates all that come Oct. 17. I’m a huge fan of Ball’s. He performed pretty much how I thought he’d perform. He continues to involve teammates, takes what the defense gives him and runs the offense on about 100 less dribbles a game. And I like what I saw of De’Aaron Fox. Of course, being a Philly guy, I wanted to see more of Markelle Fultz, but what I saw was impressive. I’m not sure he’s a future point guard, but he doesn’t have to be playing with Ben Simmons. The kid competes and he wants to be great, which is what you want with every player.
Masai Ujiri has reshaped the Raptors into a faster and better shooting unit with the addition of C.J. Miles and the commitment to Serge Ibaka. Where do you have them in the East next year?
Spector: Fifth feels right, because while the Raptors are getting a bit of a makeover and it’s going to take some time to make it click, they still are a team coming off a 51-win season in a weak conference and the teams that are improving largely aren’t getting so much better as to catch them. Toronto clearly isn’t there with the Cavaliers or Celtics, and I think they get passed by the Wizards and Bucks this year.
Cranjis: I have the Raptors third behind Boston and Cleveland. The Cavs may end up winning the East, but I believe the Celtics will end up winning the conference as they did this season. Miles is a nice add to an otherwise similar roster. CJ ranked 36th of 471 players in my Points Over Expectation metric, which looks at the points created per game above what an average player would score if they took the same shots and faced the same shots defensively. Miles’ utility on the team that was second most efficient in the League in isolation and was sixth in isolation frequency will be a valuable spot up shooter to help stretch the defense and convert when he gets opportunities from pass-outs. In those spot-up situations this season, he was better than 98 percent of the League at those spot-up opportunities in points per possession scored.
Garcia: I still have them around the four spot behind the Cavs, Celtics and likely the Wizards. I say this because they got a crop of promising players—Norman Powell, Miles, Delon Wright, Jakob Poeltl—but they still need time to develop.
Bringing back Kyle Lowry, and Ibaka was big for the stability of the franchise and not seeing them fall into the abyss next season. However, if Lowry can remain healthy, DeMar DeRozan continue his solid play from last season, and the youngsters contribute, they’ll be just fine.
Toronto will remain in the East playoff hunt as in recent seasons but taking down the likes of the Cavs, Celtics and probably the Wizards could be an issue. Fortunately for Toronto, the East has been watered down this offseason with stars heading out West and it might be time for the Raptors to claw back into the fight.
Perner: If the Raptor stays healthy, they should be in the Eastern Conference Finals this upcoming season. A full year with Ibaka will help and C.J. Miles gives them another option. But what bothers me about Toronto—and it could be its Achilles’ heel—is that DeRozan and Lowry seem to revert to hero ball late in games and start jacking up bad shots. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t. Nothing hurts a team more than bad shots, leading to bad possessions. What the Raptors need is offensive and defensive schemes. They need to establish consistency offensively, spread the ball around much more. The offense can be easily defended by the better teams and the defense breaks down too much. Casey needs to implement an offense and create an identity on defense. The pieces are there. From afar, I look at the Raptors and say, “They’re going to be really good, but they can only get so far.” Is that coaching or is it the players? From where I am, I’m not sure.
The superstar landscape has changed quite a bit this offseason, give me your way-too-early MVP ballot. Your MVP prediction on how it will go 1-5 next season.
Perner: To me, LeBron James (and I’m not a huge fan) should be the MVP every year. Without him, the Cavaliers are a lottery team. Golden State will have two candidates, but neither guy is chasing stats. They just want another ring. Westbrook and Harden love chasing stats. But if either one of them wants a ring, they have to put the triple-doubles behind them and just focus on winning games. So for me, I’m going with LeBron, whose talent and impact are always vastly underrated when it comes to MVP voting. A few dark horses could be Damian Lillard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Chris Paul.
1. Kevin Durant
2. LeBron James
3. Russell Westbrook
4. Kawhi Leonard
5. Karl-Anthony Towns
1. Kevin Durant
2. Kawhi Leonard3
3. LeBron James
4. Giannis Antetokounmpo
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Russell Westbrook
3. LeBron James
4. Kevin Durant
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo
Better team next season: Oklahoma City or Houston?
Garcia: OKC. Paul George coupled with Russell Westbrook will catapult OKC to another level next season.
If Westbrook’s one man-army was enough for OKC to make the playoffs last season with the cast he had, adding PG13 will only give the team another scoring option to rely on and with a nice defensive boost to an already solid defensive team.
No, George isn’t Kevin Durant but his solid two-way play will propel OKC next season, give them another threat opposing teams to have to plan for and the perfect player to run the pick-and-roll with. This will only open up more offensive opportunities for OKC.
The team won’t have to completely reboot their plans on the floor (we all know Russell will be the first option) and they will have a nice foundation to work with and build around throughout the season.
Perner: I’m not sure how Westbrook and George are going to gel. Westbrook loves the ball and wants to have a say in every play. Will he be willing to give George 20 shots a night? Has he fallen in love with the triple-double so much so that that’s all he cares about? Russ is a strange cat and for as great a talent he is I’m not sure he’s a winner. There’s a reason Kevin Durant is in Golden State. Plus, I’m not overly impressed with OKC’s bench. I don’t see that consistent three-point shooter every great team needs. In Houston, it’s a similar situation. You have two of the most ball-dominant players in the league on the same team. How that works out will be up to the players’ mindset and whatever offensive scheme D’Antoni implements. But I do believe adding Carmelo to this mix will be disastrous. And losing Patrick Beverley is huge. You can replace offense, but it’s hard to replace a guy who gets you defensive stops. Same thing with Boston losing Avery Bradley. Plus, with Houston, the Rockets at this moment have no bench. Can’t win without players. Both of these teams have a strong possibility of going backward instead of forward. Houston will have the better team of the two, but I’m not sure by how much.
Spector: I really want to say Oklahoma City here, because Paul George is such a good fit for the Thunder, but I just can’t see the calculus of making up eight games on a team that added Chris Paul and still might wind up with Carmelo Anthony. But, if by “better,” you mean to ask which team has a deeper playoff run, then I say OKC, because Russell Westbrook has that ability to crank into another gear, in a way that makes me question my general beliefs about that sort of thing. Depth and frontcourt give the edge to the Rockets over the course of 82, but in a best-of-seven, give me Westbrook, George, and whoever.
Cranjis: I have Houston ahead by a solid margin. The fit of Harden and CP3 isn’t a concern at all for me. In fact, I think that while the counting stats for either may not be MVP level, the efficiency of both players should increase. Both guys will put pressure on the defense off-ball and on-ball are dynamic and extraordinary passers. Harden, over the past three years, was better than 84, 87, and 96 percent of the NBA in catch-and-shoot points per possession. For CP3, 98, 96, and 93 percent. Both players will have more of these kinds of the shots compared to the naturally less efficient pull-ups they rely so heavily upon currently. I’m excited to see what Houston can do this year offensively.
I also like Houston’s supporting cast better, headlined by Sixth Man of the Year Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson. Tarik Black is also an underrated signing for the Rockets. All of my analytics love Tarik and he’s a guy that’ll add value to the rotation of bigs for Houston. I like Houston’s scheme better, like their stars better, and like their supporting cast better.
What early storyline are you looking forward to most this season?
Cranjis: I cover the Lakers, so this may be a biased answer, but I definitely think how their season goes is going to be a very interesting storyline that’ll receive a lot of attention. Ball will provide constant highlights, and should ascend to the “next great Laker” status D’Angelo Russell wasn’t able to reach. Brandon Ingram looks improved upon his already rising post-All Star Game form, where he was in the 54th percentile among NBA players scoring (same as Embiid on the season) compared to his 14th percentile offense pre-All Star Game.
Their offense has the chance to be wildly entertaining in transition and be there a ton. Just like 22 percent of UCLA’s offense was generated from transition last season compared to 13 percent the year before without Lonzo, the Lakers have seen a similar big bump. During Summer League so far, LA has gotten 27 percent of their offense from transition. The past three years LA has been playing at a sloth’s pace, generating 12, 13, and 15 percent of their offense from transition. Their past three Summer Leagues showed a similar trend: 15, 16, and 15 percent. Expect a huge jump this regular season in the frequency and efficiency of the transition looks LA generates due to Ball finding and passing successfully to guys that other players wouldn’t even see as open.
Garcia: Which star player will Zaza Pachulia hurt during the Warriors’ 2018 playoff run? Jokes aside, I still think the storyline will be whether this NBA “arms race” will pay off for any teams in the League looking to topple Golden State?
The Warriors will be the favorites once again to capture another title, leaving the biggest mystery being the 2017-18 runner-up. You see teams stockpile talent like Houston did with Chris Paul, Minnesota adding Jimmy Butler and Jamal Crawford or OKC adding Paul George, and Boston adding Gordon Hayward, in an attempt to be the other lone team standing at the end of the season.
But will it be all for nothing? Is it already a far gone conclusion the Warriors will reign supreme once again?
And as if they didn’t need more firepower, this offseason Golden State retains Kevin Durant at a discount, brings in Nick Young, steals Jordan Bell in the 2017 Draft, brings back Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston and adds Omri Casspi to a team already loaded. It makes one think: Is the 2017-18 season is already over before it has begun?
Perner: Coming from Philly, I’m super-hyped for what the 76ers can become. I’m hoping to watch a healthy Joel Embiid play at least 65 games, really excited to finally see Ben Simmons play against real players, and I’m looking forward to see how Markelle Fultz fits in. The Sixers have three players who can be future all-stars, but they have to get on the court. The anticipation of these three kids making it work and forming one of the better teams in the next few years has the city buzzing. Of course, one bad step by Embiid and it all goes down the drain. But with youngsters like Saric, Holmes, Okafor (maybe!), Korkmaz and Luwawu-Cabarrot, along with future picks on the way, the future looks bright in Philly. The players are talking playoffs, which is possible in the weak East, but I’d prefer to look at wins and let the chips fall where they may. I’m guessing 40-43 wins for the Sixers.
Spector: Who fills out the playoff bracket in the West? We know beyond a shadow of a doubt that we’ll see the Warriors, Spurs, Rockets, and Thunder. The Grizzlies will be there, too, because they’ll just Grizz their way through everything. But the Clippers and Jazz lost their most important players. The Trail Blazers don’t really inspire in any way and I don’t know if the Nuggets know what they’re doing. Meanwhile, you’ve got a full season of DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis together in New Orleans, the Timberwolves are fascinating with the addition of Jimmy Butler to put two top-15 players on an otherwise meh team, and the Kings have maybe the weirdest roster in the entire NBA. None of it will matter by the second week of May, but we’ve got to have fun for six months leading up to that, right?