Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome back 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. Last year, we had over 150 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe!
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:
Laieke Abebe: SB Nation, contributor
Bryan Crawford: HOOP, contributor
Kwani A. Lunis: NBC Sports Boston, PG
Kevin Parrish Jr.: USA Today, contributor
Keith Smith: RealGM, contributor
Which player has fit most seamlessly with their new team and why?
Abebe: Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is going to help the Lakers win a lot of games. While his numbers through the first 10 games of the season don’t indicate that right now, his defensive prowess will be important in close games. He is sure to get a good amount of quality shots with Lonzo Ball being the really good passer that he is. KCP just has to knock down the three-ball when given the opportunity. Overall, KCP brings a lot to a Lakers team that has been waiting to get back into the playoffs. In another contract year, look for KCP to be really important going forward for Luke Walton’s team.
Crawford: I would have to say Kyrie Irving in Boston. After Gordon Hayward got hurt, most people didn’t think Kyrie was good enough to help the Celtics maintain the level of expectation many had for them prior to the start of the season–largely because when he was a one-man show in Cleveland, the Cavs weren’t very good. But Kyrie has grown a whole lot as a player since then. He’s been in two Finals and won a title, so I think his resume garners him a lot of respect in the locker room with his new teammates and it’s showing on the court.
Lunis: Kyrie Irving has fit in with this new Celtics team very well. This team’s success so far is undoubtedly a collective effort but his presence on the court has created a noticeable impact. When Irving signed with Boston a lot of chatter was about what his game would look like in Coach Stevens’ system and if there’d be a lack of chemistry with him and others. Neither of these scenarios are the case. Irving has not only improved his offensive game but his significant improvement on the defensive has been noted as well. Irving has made his teammates better as well. The chemistry that he and Horford have are #relationshipgoals but that’s a whole other story.
Other than his skills on the floor, his championship experience is just as valuable. Irving has spent his last three seasons playing in the Finals alongside LeBron James who has been in the last seven Finals (eight in his career). It’s easy to forget how important the mental aspect is when it comes to the game but in an 82-game season a sharp mind is the key to endurance. A lot of people like to point out how ‘young’ this team is and it may take a few years to really be a good team. The reality is that Irving’s experiences can have a great impact on this team’s longevity. Physicality is synonymous with youth but the mental part comes with time. Irving’s experiences will be useful as this season continues to play out.
Smith: Might be a little under the radar, but the pick here is Rudy Gay. He’s come back from an injury that has ended a lot of careers for guys his age and you’d never know he was ever hurt. Gay has come off the bench all year, but with Kawhi Leonard out, Gay has been the Spurs primary closer at the small forward position. He’s also slid up to play plenty of power forward in small ball units.
And Gay has been remarkable efficient. He’s scoring 12.7 points per game on under 10 shots per night. He’s hitting a career-high 47.2 percent from the field and maintaining a very healthy free throw rate. And, because it is the Spurs, Gay is of course playing the best defense of his career with a Defensive Rating of 102. He’s been remarkable so far and when San Antonio is fully healthy, he’ll give them depth that many teams will struggle to match.
Parrish: Victor Oladipo. As of now, he’s reinventing himself in Indiana. He’s been playing with a charismatic speed and swagger that I’ve never seen before. He’s shooting more accurately from long distance and inside the paint, all while holding a more responsible load offensively. I’m just intrigued to see if he can sustain it now.
The Cleveland Cavaliers are drowning early, are they truly vulnerable or is it silly to worry about a LeBron James-led team in November?
Smith: The smart thing to do is to never, ever, bet against LeBron James. He’s just too good. Witness his 57-point explosion to give the Cavs a much needed win over the Wizards on Friday night. And that in and of itself is the issue. James had to be almost superhuman to get that win. Cleveland’s defense is a complete mess and that is putting it kindly. If the Cavs can’t find some answer on defense, they won’t be going to a fourth straight Finals. And you can’t just default to “They always figure it out”, because this is a different group. And they’re all a year older.
Being a year older is almost as big a concern as the defense. This group has a lot of miles on them. Going to three straight Finals is taxing. In addition, the new guys Cleveland added are, for the most part, older. They aren’t likely to stay healthy all year long. Maybe Isaiah Thomas provides a big jolt when he can return. But maybe, just maybe, it is time for someone other than LeBron James to represent the Eastern Conference in the Finals this decade.
Abebe: The Cavaliers continue to struggle to begin the season. A loss to the Hawks on Sunday puts them at 4-6 through 10 games. The things that have fans worried are not only who they are losing to, but how they are losing to these teams. The Knicks, Pacers, and Hawks have all traveled to Cleveland and won. If there is anything to be concerned about, it is the Cavs defense. In my opinion, their defense cost them the title last season.
Despite all of this, it still November and we’ve seen teams led by Lebron James struggle early in the season before. There are always two important questions with the three-time defending Eastern Conference champions: Is Lebron James on the Cavs and is Lebron James healthy? As long as the answer to both of these questions is yes, then there should be no reason to panic because it’s still too early to tell about the new-look Cavs. However, their defense will have to significantly improve as the season progresses.
Crawford: LeBron has been so good for so long that he’s developed a sort of mythology around him. Still, for as great as he’s been in his career, and for as good as his individual numbers have looked this season, that doesn’t change the fact that he’s in his 14th season, about to be 34-years-old and his team is old as hell. So yes, the Cavs are vulnerable now and likely to continue being so even once Isaiah Thomas returns. This team lacks depth on offense and is arguably one of the worst defensive squads in the League. We’ve seen LeBron do some amazing things, and yes, it’s still very early in the season. But the problems the Cavs have aren’t going to go away and could be exacerbated by the All-Star break.
Lunis: As exciting as it would be to see an extreme shake-up in the Eastern Conference (Google the Eastern Conference standings right now. It’s wild!), everyone needs to take a seat and breathe. It’s refreshing to see a lot more competition in the East but there’s no doubt that LeBron and company as soaking it all and waiting to pounce. Some teams click from the beginning despite changes in their personnel while others need times to get in a rhythm. The Cavs have too many weapons to not be a decent team, so let’s give Cleveland a few more months before freaking out.
Parrish: I think it’s silly to worry about a LeBron James led team in November because we’ve seen this movie before, and LeBron doesn’t care much about the regular season. Yeah, we all know Cleveland’s defense is awful right now, but remember: Last season, Cleveland was .500 after the all-star break but flipped the switch once the playoffs started.
Which team currently enjoying a hot start do you expect to cool down the most as the season goes on?
Parrish: Orlando Magic. There offense looks faster, they rank second in offensive efficiency, Evan Fournier looks revolutionized and so does Aaron Gordon who’s noticeably expanded his court awareness to match his athleticism. Now, I’m just wondering if they’ll sustain it. I honestly think it’s just a hot start, but we’ll see.
Smith: Given where I live, it pains me to say this, but the answer is the Orlando Magic. They are simply shooting too far above their heads for this to continue. They have enough talent now to hang around the playoff race, but they aren’t going to finish the year near the top of the East. Even after a stinker against the Chicago Bulls on Friday night, the Magic are hitting 42.1 percent from behind the arc, which paces the entire NBA. That will eventually level off a decent amount. When it does, can Orlando create enough offense to keep winning?
Abebe: The Orlando Magic got off to a 6-2 start including beating the Spurs by 27 (the Spurs didn’t have Kawhi Leonard but still impressive). However, they’ve now lost two straight to the lowly Bulls and resurgent Celtics to fall back to 6-4. Their November schedule is rough. 8 of their 12 remaining November games are on the road including trips to Boston, Golden State, Minnesota, and Portland. After this 12 game stretch we will know just how legit the Magic are. As of now, I’m not buying their hot start just yet. However, they are improving under a really good coach in Frank Vogel and will be competitive in every game they play this season.
Crawford: For me, it’s a three-way tie between Boston, Detroit and Orlando–the latter two being the biggest surprise so far in the young season. All three have been playing great basketball, but the regular season has a knack for bringing balance to the League, if you will. Of course it’s good to see these franchises playing well, especially Detroit and Orlando who have been bad for so long, but I don’t think their early success is sustainable, although I’ve been known to get things wrong and hopefully I am in this case.
Lunis: Last season the Sixers clocked out at No. 14 in the East only three spots removed from the lowest win-loss record in the entire league. Their jump to No. 7 is reflective of the swap of talent in the East so it’s too early to know if this is luck and adrenaline, but this hot streak has to stabilize itself eventually. The beginning of the season is the easiest time to start hot for most teams. Everyone is excited to be playing ball again and for new teams it’s still the honeymoon period. The true test in the NBA is when February sneaks around. If this young team can stay healthy and confident, two things that have been lacking significantly in the past, there shouldn’t be a cool down. Until they prove otherwise, they have a few more years to earn some respect in the League.
Best surprise this season is…
Parrish: Boston Celtics. Before the season, I didn’t buy the hype because I thought they were overrated. And when Gordon Hayward suffered that season ending injury, I pretty much wrote them off. But they’ve turned around and won 9 straight games. Their defense has been just as impressive as their offense. Shame on me for doubting the brilliant Brad Stevens.
Lunis: Initially it felt rude to call someone a “Greek Freak” but there is no other way to describe Giannis Antetokounmpo’s dominance this season. Last year we saw a glimpse of how well rounded a player he was. Right now we’re only ten games into the season and his numbers are speaking for themselves. The Bucks power forward currently leads the League in points per game at 31 and his 9.9 rebounds and five assists don’t even do justice to his actual presence on the court. Imagine someone who’s always in the right place at the right time and you have Antetokounmpo. It’ll be exciting to see how much more he continues to improve throughout this season.
Abebe: I’ve been surprised (in a bad way) with the Washington Wizards. Three of their four losses are due to blowing a double-digit lead (at Warriors, at Lakers, vs Suns). Their other loss was to the Cavaliers at home in a game that Lebron torched them for 57 points. John Wall and Bradley Beal have been doing a lot of talking. With a 5-4 start, the Wizards star backcourt hasn’t been doing the walking to start the season. Honestly, the two of them should just shut up and play and they could get better results in that manner.
Smith: I would have picked the Magic again, but covered them above. Instead, I’ll go with the Memphis Grizzlies. We’re all guilty of writing the obituary for the “Grit ‘n’ Grind” crew, but probably no more so than this year. Most of us wanted to stuff the Denver Nuggets and Minnesota Timberwolves in the West playoffs, so someone had to come out. Memphis was by far and away the consensus choice.
Instead, the Grizzlies just plug in new pieces around Mike Conley and Marc Gasol and keep plugging along. They win by playing great defense and sticking with their glacial pace on offense. Health concerns have cropped up a couple different times already and that remains a major concern. But if Memphis makes it to the spring relatively healthy, you can go ahead and buy those playoff tickets once again.
Crawford: This one is too easy: Ben Simmons. I was on the fence about him coming out of LSU, but he’s proven that some guys have a game that is a better fit for the NBA and not college. It’s still early, but Simmons is almost averaging a triple-double. No, he’s not a long-range shooter from three, but you don’t have to be to succeed in basketball. He’s proving that being skilled in multiple areas on the floor is just as good as being elite in one area, such as shooting the three-pointer. The decision to play him at the point is making the most of his ability and putting him in position to succeed individually and help the team.
Ben Simmons has been just stupid good to start his career. He is the best rookie you’ve seen since _______.
Crawford: I’ve seen a lot of guys in their rookie years, but Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade are really the only two guys in recent memory who came to a bad team and had a positive impact right out of the gate in terms of helping their squads exceed expectations and win so quickly. Obviously, Melo, Wade and Simmons aren’t the same kinds of players, but there’s no mistaking how much better each of them made their teams as rookies. Like Melo and the Nuggets and D. Wade and the Heat, the Sixers have a good chance at making the playoffs this season with Simmons as the main guy. There’s a long list of all-time greats, even Hall of Fame players, who didn’t help their teams get to the postseason as rookies, which adds a little bit of context and perspective to what will seem like a wild and outlandish comment to most people on the surface.
Lunis: Most of Derrick Rose’s career has been overshadowed by injury but his rookie year in Chicago was a fun season to follow. The way he seemed to defy gravity with his ankle-breaking ballhandling was something I personally looked forward to. (I was still holding on to my hoop dreams at that point in life). Rose came into the League a little more than a decade after Iverson graced us with his presence and watching what could have been the reincarnation of AI’s style of play was exciting. Despite the similarities in their game watching Rose without comparing him to anyone else was what made his game more enjoyable. Ben Simmons’ style has been compared to Blake Griffin, Magic Johnson and even LeBron James. As much as we love to compare in this game the best way for us to really appreciate Simmons right now is to just watch him.
Parrish: Ben Simmons is a future superstar. He might be the best rookie I’ve seen since LeBron James by terms of his dominance and ceiling. He’s a legitimate 6-foot-10 running the point. He brings the necessary goods to rack up stats in a multitude of ways. He has great vision, plays in control and at the right speed. It reminds of Magic Johnson honestly.
Smith: 31 games of Joel Embiid? Embiid was so ridiculously good last year, when he finally took the floor, that Philadelphia handed him a max deal based off just those 31 games. If you want a bigger sample size, then you go to Karl-Anthony Towns, who scored 18.3 points per game on 54/34/81 shooting as a rookie.
But an even better comp for Simmons might be a guy who won Rookie of the Year after missing his first season: Blake Griffin. Griffin’s 9.8 Win Shares are the highest in the last decade, as he scored 22.5 per game, pulled down 12.1 rebounds per game and dished out 3.8 assists.
Abebe: Ben Simmons has played as advertised to begin the season. His play has 76ers fans thinking that the process is finally coming to fruition. He is averaging 18 points 9.8 rebounds, and 8.2 assists per game on 51.6% shooting. If he keeps that up, he’d be the 4th player in NBA history to average those numbers (Oscar Robertson, Wilt Chamberlain, Magic Johnson). Overall, you can argue that Simmons is the best rookie the NBA has seen since Blake Griffin entered the league. He is even in the conversation for being compared to Lebron James and thats how great he’s been so far. Hopefully, he continues to play at a high level so that sixers fans everywhere can finally rejoice over completing the process.