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. 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:

Sreekar Jasthi: NBA, freelance

David Nash: The Four Point Play, writer

Joe Spencer: NBA super fan

Josh Wilson: FanSided, operations assistant director

Throwing out salary caps and preferred teams, where do you think Kyrie Irving’s best fit is moving forward? 

Jasthi: His “best fit?” That’d be on the Cleveland Cavaliers playing alongside a guy named LeBron Raymone James. LeBron allows Kyrie to do what he’s best at by perfectly complementing his incredible scoring skills while masking his playmaking deficiencies. But since Kyrie apparently wants a change of scenery, I think he’d be fun as hell lighting up Madison Square Garden next to Porzingis.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Nash: I definitely didn’t see this one coming. Assuming the Cavs take their time and send him to the highest bidder, I don’t expect his “list” of four teams to have much of an impact on the eventual landing spot. Looking around the league for holes/upgrades at the 1 spot, there are quite a few possibilities; Chicago, Denver, Indiana, Miami, Milwaukee, New York, Orlando and San Antonio all look like potential homes for a new starting PG. If we are talking purely about fit and not how it gets done etc., I am intrigued by the Milwaukee Bucks. Kyrie might not like the parallels between LBJ and Giannis but there was no doubting that he and James worked, plus Giannis is unlikely to be as demanding as both a leader and primary ballhandler. Point Guard still appears to be one of the bigger weaknesses for the young Milwaukee core and the Bucks could do with another offensive threat. Their pace (26th last season) and PPG (20th) need a lift in 2017-18 and I can’t help but think Kyrie would be a good catalyst for that.

Spencer: Like the entire basketball universe, Kyrie’s probably wondering if LeBron leaves next summer. Or maybe he already knows the answer. One thing’s clear: This offseason has been a disaster for Cavs—from their botched GM situation to whatever’s currently going on with Kyrie. But it feels like everything revolves around LeBron’s future plans. And this is true for every would-be challenger to Golden State, not just Cavs.

Personally, I think you’d have to be an idiot to actively try and NOT play with LeBron but this feels like it’s more about Kyrie wanting to get out before the roof caves in, not trying to “escape his shadow” or whatever. I’m sure Wade could offer him some advice on the matter.

In terms of Kyrie’s best fit, if we’re assuming he wants to be the leading scorer on a contender, then San Antonio makes the most sense. If he wants to lead the League in scoring, there are plenty of places he could try and do that (hi, Knicks).

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Wilson: I’d definitely call this one the shock of the offseason, and that’s because I really don’t see anywhere that Kyrie would be a great fit around the League outside of the Cavs. Of course, Kyrie is going to believe that he could fit with any team and make them an immediate contender, and he probably could, but I don’t see anywhere that he’s going to have as much success as he would in Cleveland, at least not in the short term. Long term, though, this might be the best move for his career and making his own legacy. If LeBron is really at risk for leaving, (which, to be honest, I am not yet convinced that he is) Irving is going to want to cement himself somewhere else and get going on a competitive run.

Not everyone will agree with this one, but I actually think that the Kings could be a fit for him if he’s willing to be foresightful. Say what you want about the dysfunction that the Kings front office has, but they seem to have a decent chance at being competitive in the future. Aside from the first-round pick they owe Philadelphia in 2019, they should own all of their own first round picks through 2020, (barring the Lakers first round pick conveying to the Celtics in 2018, which isn’t that far out) and also have a few second round picks to utilize from other teams.

The immediate impact isn’t bad, either, as you would add Irving to a roster that already has Vince Carter, Zach Randolph, George Hill, De’Aron Fox, and more. They’ve already got a decent mix of veterans and young guys, making Irving the star that could take things to a whole new level. Of course, some of those players and picks mentioned would likely be shuffled around in this purely hypothetical trade.

If you add Kyrie to this team, they could probably make the playoffs. Would they be super competitive? No, probably not in the West, but I’m thinking long-term here, and I think Kyrie might be as well. It’s almost positively not his first choice, but I like the idea of what could come out of it in a few years for both Kyrie and the organization.

Is there anyway LeBron James stays in Cleveland past this year?

Wilson: I’m really not buying all of this “LeBron is leaving” talk that’s been running around this summer. If we follow these rumors back to their cores, I don’t know that we find anything truly solid. I feel like a lot of this is fueled by speculation. Does LeBron have his options open? I’m sure, but that doesn’t mean his heart is set on exiting Cleveland again as soon as he can.

At this point in LeBron’s career, I’m don’t believe moving to a team and partnering with any of the Banana Boat crew actually helps him further his legacy, career, or ability to win a title. If anything, it might be a year or two before a new team could gel together and be ready to compete.

If he does leave, I think he’s at risk for putting himself in a situation to be quickly forgotten, much like Michael Jordan when he ended up on the Washington Wizards. Of course, those two situations are not exact parallels, but there’s some similarities. I think the Cavaliers offer him just as much of a competitive opportunity for years to come, and he will be able to play there with more longevity.

All this said, can we stop acting like loyalty to one specific team in the NBA is such a big deal? There’s a reason players have the ability to sell their services to the highest bidder or best fit. They should use it when it’s necessary, and if LeBron chooses to do so again, so be it. I hope he does what’s right for his career, family, and brand. Regardless of where he lands, I’m excited to see what will come of the next (and possibly final) portion of his career.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Jasthi: If you asked me a few months ago, I’d have said LeBron staying in Cleveland beyond 2017-18 was a 90 percent certainty. Immediately after the Finals, I’d have said 75 percent. After Dan Gilbert started going full Dan Gilbert? Fifty percent. Now, after this whole Kyrie mess, I think it’s more likely than not that LeBron leaves Cleveland next summer. But it’s not a foregone conclusion he’s LeGone because let’s be honest, who the hell knows anymore?

Nash: Count me on “Team LeBron Leaving”. I’ve suspected it for a while now, purely due to the Cavs running out of ways to continue to evolve the roster. The events since losing in the Finals just further solidify that line of thinking. Griffin being let go and the botched Billups replacement, was not a good look at all. Then there’s the poor offseason while everyone else gets better around you, which is part the previously mentioned lack of assets and part not having a GM. The Kyrie news is just him delivering the dagger, this time against Cleveland instead of for them. However, even though I think he’s certain to leave I’m not quite “Team LeBron to the Lakers” just yet. I don’t think it’s that simple. LBJ will go to whichever team gives him the best chance of winning and if the last 30 days has taught us anything, it’s that we have no idea how things will look in 12 months’ time. Side note: the Kyrie blindside does hurt LBJ’s efforts of leaving Cleveland on good terms.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Spencer: He’ll stay if the team can trade Love for an All-NBA player who matches up better with Golden State.

He’ll leave if he has the chance to Banana Boat elsewhere next summer with two other superstars (like Chris Paul, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook).

Bottom line: he wants to win the championship. But if I had to guess, I’d say he’s leaving. Worth pointing out that I was wrong about him leaving Cavs the first time. I also never thought he’d play for Dan Gilbert again after The Letter. So I’m probably wrong about this, too.

With Gordon Hayward gone, are the Utah Jazz still a playoff team next year?

Spencer: The Jazz are interesting. Good coach, good front office. Rubio should fit in nicely. If Favors is relatively healthy, they’ll make playoffs. If Exum and Hood take advantage of the extra minutes, they could win 50 games. Also entirely possible their offense is horrendous and they barely miss the eight spot. Gordon Hayward was terrific at getting a good shot with the clock running down. Who’s that player for them now? I’ll say yes, they make playoffs, mainly because of Gobert’s dominant defense.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Wilson: My instinct is to say yes, because it seems like Joe Johnson, Rudy Gobert, Ricky Rubio, and Dante Exum should be more than enough firepower to propel them to the postseason, but the West got so competitive this offseason. I’m on the edge here, but I think they make it in, just barely. They’ve got the pieces, but they need to stay healthy to make it work.

I think their real big opportunity was last season, and that didn’t end up playing out as hoped. Their window for being super competitive was incredibly small.

In the West, it doesn’t really matter. Even if they make the playoffs they will be a first-round exit.

Jasthi: I don’t think so, no. The Jazz still have one of the deeper rosters in the League and they’ll be back with a killer defense but the West is brutal (what else is new) and Utah took a step back with Gordon Hayward’s departure. I see them as a team that will be in playoff contention all season long but will ultimately end up just below the eighth seed in the West.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Nash: Can I cheat and say they are on the bubble? In the bloodbath that is the West, I have four locks to make it (Golden State, San Antonio, Houston and Oklahoma City) and four locks to not make it (Dallas, Phoenix, Sacramento and Los Angeles Lakers) if all teams go in as currently constructed. With four spots left, the rest is up in the air. After losing Hayward, I liked what the Jazz did to create a roster that will still compete next season. Not flashy signings but ones that will make them deeper and give them greater lineup flexibility. If everything goes right and others step up to fill the void, I can still see them as a sixth, seventh or eighth seed. Although deeper, the key is still going to be what starting five they roll with. In my opinion, if they have Gobert and Rubio at the 1/5 then the other three spots HAVE to be capable shooters. The best non-Hayward lineup last season (there wasn’t many) was Gobert-Diaw-Johnson-Hood-Hill. I’d start with Gobert-Johnson-Ingles-Hood-Rubio in order to maximize the offense, while relying on your proven defensive systems and deeper bench to pick up the slack. I’ll back them in for a low playoff seed, thanks to improved years from Hood, Favors, Exum plus the addition of Mitchell, Jerebko and Sefolosha.

What’s the Washington Wizards ceiling with their core (Wall, Bradley Beal, Otto Porter) now all locked up for the next few years?

Nash: The Wizards may as well keep wearing black to games because the future is bleak. In isolation I love Otto, Beal and Wall as players. Paying them a combined $92 million in 2019-20 when Wall’s extension kicks in, is basically roster suicide. Longer term, I assume their plan will be to hopefully trade at least one of them away if they need to but they better hope they all play up to their contracts. Shorter term, with Wall still on old money and Morris/Gortat on reasonable deals, things wouldn’t be quite as bad if they didn’t have the Mahinmi albatross contract to deal with. One option could be to gamble on Mahinmi (because you ain’t moving that deal easily) and trade the often outspoken Gortat instead. Gortat himself hinted at it after the season “I know how the business works. I’m the oldest guy on the team. They signed Ian Mahinmi also. He’s younger than me and he got a longer contract. I just know how the business works, so I’m prepared for everything just in case.” It might be the only option for Washington short term but it’s risky and the center market is as cold as it’s been. My guess is they avoid that big call and hope getting over the hump comes down to others getting worse instead.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Spencer: I love Wall and think he could absolutely lead a team to a title. Beal is overrated in my opinion. And Otto had a really good season after several disappointing ones. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see this core broken up in two or three years. Nothing kills a team’s chances more quickly than overspending for guys who aren’t superstars.

Wilson: Signing Otto Porter to a deal like the Wizards did this summer is not pragmatic. It makes sense on paper, but the reward may not be worth the cost paid.

Do you really have an option other than to match what other teams offer him? No, not after what he’s done for your organization thus far. But is he going to live up to the hype? I don’t think so.

I see Porter having a season similar to Allen Crabbe this past season. Crabbe didn’t have a bad year, but he was paid a lot of money over the summer, and didn’t make any significant jumps forward in his game to reflect that investment made in him. Some could argue that he took a step back in a lot of ways.

Washington is paying nearly $25 million next season (and rising every single year) for Porter. Most would look at him as the team’s third best player. While his game doesn’t clash with that of John Wall and Bradley Beal, I’m not sure paying $27.25 million to your third best player in 2020 is a good idea. Beal will make the same amount as Porter in 2020, and Wall’s enormous contract extension that he just signed puts the team in a tough spot.

Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

I see the Wizards plateauing here shortly. I think they’ll be a playoff team for years to come, but I would be shocked to see them in the Conference Finals in this era.

Essentially, there’s nothing they can do outside of trading someone to shake things up, (which doesn’t seem likely right now) or waiting this out until they can free up cash. There’s a lot of teams worse off than Washington right now as far as the amount of talent on the roster is concerned, but almost all of them have much more financial flexibility moving forward.

Expect to see the general five to seven seed and a second-round exit from the Wizards for the next several years.

Jasthi: Extending John Wall with that massive contract was a great and necessary move for the Wizards. I view their ceiling as a more exciting version of the Atlanta Hawks of the last 10 years, a perennial playoff team who sometimes reached great heights (i.e. the 2014-15 team with four “All-Stars”) but were never really seen as a bonafide title contender. The biggest difference between those Hawks teams and these Wizards is that Wall is a legitimate star that could make things interesting if he takes another leap to become a true MVP candidate.

If you had to pick a dark horse team to make the Conference Finals next year, who would you pick?

Jasthi: Houston’s the easy answer here (what an incredible offseason for them) but I think that’s cheating, so I’ll go with the Wizards here. I know that may seem a little contradictory to my answer to the previous question but I can envision this team taking another small jump next season. Stability and continuity can often be great for an NBA team and the Wizards could reap some of those benefits next year. Could they beat the Cavs to make the Finals? Most likely not, but don’t be surprised to see them in the Eastern Conference Finals.

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

Nash: The Toronto Raptors. Hear me out. I can’t pick any of the top teams as a dark horse, picking the Rockets feels just as much like cheating and I’m not going anywhere near the West for a potential upset anyway. So if I have to pick a team to make the Conference Finals, it’s coming from the East. The broader NBA community is down on them and probably rightly so, after another failed playoff run and losing Patterson, Joseph and Tucker from last season. But they retained the bigger pieces, Kyle Lowry and Serge Ibaka, and this gamble pick is purely based on continuity playing a large role next season with a lot of other team’s taking time to adjust or not being able to adjust at all. The Raptors have won 48-plus games the last four seasons and will likely be thereabouts again, at least in the regular season. It will need either Boston or Cleveland to self-implode but if either does, who’s to say the Raptors aren’t as good a chance as any to be the unlikely dark horse beneficiary?

Spencer: Rockets definitely aren’t a dark horse with CP3 on board—I’d put them neck-and-neck with Spurs. OKC wouldn’t be that big of a surprise to sneak into WCF now that they have PG. In the East, Raps wouldn’t be too shocking, either. Do they count?

In terms of actual long shots, it’d be really cool to see Giannis lead Bucks to Conference Finals. Or for a healthy Marc Gasol and Mike Conley to help Grizz upset a few teams in playoffs.

Barring injuries or trades, the Conference Finals will be the teams you expect (Golden State, San Antonio, Cleveland and Boston). And maybe the Rockets.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Wilson: I want to so badly say the Timberwolves or 76ers here. While both teams could make the playoffs this year, they don’t have the pieces to get that deep. I can’t wait for these young teams to start coming up, but that’s another topic.

I don’t see anyone in the Eastern Conference coming close to the Conference Finals other than the Cavs and Celtics. I know it’s early, but barring big injuries, that’s probably what we will see as a matchup.

I’d feel safe betting on either the Rockets or Thunder, but I think those are obvious choices, not dark horse choices. While they may not be the teams in the lead to make the Conference Finals, I think everyone is expecting them to make a splash this year.

One team no one is thinking will make that far is the Pelicans. While I wouldn’t boldly say that’s my team and that I expect them to make it that far, that’s a what a dark horse should be: Someone I think might have a shot that I don’t mind throwing a few bucks on because I believe they could get me a huge payout with the odds stacked against them.

The backcourt looks solid, Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday should both produce. DeMarcus Cousins and Anthony Davis are two of the best frontcourt players in the NBA. While I had reservations about the pair at first, I think they’ll end up doing well together in their first full season as teammates.

There’s work to be done filling out the rest of the roster, but even if the Pelicans can make a mid-season trade to fill in some of the holes, they could get lucky and make it pretty far in the playoffs. It won’t be easy in the Western Conference, but hey, anything can happen.