Around the Rim

By Josh Eberley #41

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 four dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:

Nick Gelso: CLNS Media, founder

Adam Howes: Bulls on Parade, EIC

Mike Piellucci: VICE, SI, and others, writer

Pierce Simpson: Complex, news anchor

The 2017 NBA draft was incredibly hyped up but a month into the season, it’s 2016 No. 1 pick Ben Simmons who is head and shoulders above every other rookie. Other than Simmons, which rookie has you most excited and which has you most worried about their future?

Gelso: Okay, I’ll take the “green goggles” off after I answer this question. How can you not be impressed by Jayson Tatum? Take away the nice box score, the dude is so poised. He’s already playing key minutes on the best team in the east. Tatum has lived up to his billing and has offered justification for Danny Ainge trading away the No. 1 pick.

The disappointment/concern has to be Markelle Fultz. He’s clearly out of shape and played on an injury for too long (not like the Sixers to play an injured player). His work ethic already being questioned and his shot looks broke. Not good.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Howes: Because of my (un)dying love for the Chicago Bulls, I can look no further than Lauri “The Finn Reaper” Markkanen as the rookie I’m most geeked about. After a tumultuous offseason that saw the departure of fan favorite Jimmy Butler on draft night, the Bulls brass practically giftng the already loaded Golden State Warriors the potential steal of the draft (Jordan Bell), one year rental Dwyane Wade seeking a buy out to join the Cavs and Bobby Portis rearranging Nikola Mirotic’s face, the play of Markkanen has been a breath of fresh air after months of stink.

With all that said, the “Nordic Mamba” is also the rookie who’s future I’m worried about the most. Why? Because it’s the Bulls, duh. Hopefully Zach LaVine’s comeback is a successful one and they form a 1-2 punch that brings more positive headlines than what Portis’ did.

Piellucci: DISCLAIMER: I’m from Dallas and shamelessly caped for the Mavericks to draft Dennis Smith Jr. Having said that, I don’t think anyone can deny that what he’s done in the early going has been special. It began with Smith being the youngest player ever to notch a points-assists double-double in his NBA debut. (Previous record-holder: Jason Kidd). Then he became the youngest in franchise history with a 20-point game. (Previous record holder: Dirk Nowitzki). Most recently, he became just the fourth teenager ever to go 20-5-5-2-2. (The other three: Kevin Garnett, LeBron James and Kyrie Irving). Bottom long, as long as his surgically repaired knee stays healthy, Smith Jr. will be special.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Conversely, deal me out on everything going on with Markelle Fultz. To be clear, I put little to none of that on Fultz himself. He’s clearly hurt – enough so to alter his entire jumper – yet, somehow, the organization and Fultz’s agent couldn’t get on the same page about what to do or even what was wrong until he possibly damaged his shoulder further. So now we’re left with a ton of questions. How bad is the damage? Is it permanent? What happens to his mechanics, and can he be successful if he doesn’t get his Washington form back? Will Philly, who wisely prioritized the long game when they shut down Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, do that with Fultz if thinks don’t improve? What’s his ceiling if this doesn’t go away? I was firmly in the camp that believed Fultz’s talent made him a very worthy number one overall pick. I hope his body doesn’t get in the way of him showcasing it, both now and in the bigger picture.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Simpson: Aside from Ben Simmons, something tells me that De’Aaron Fox will be special in this league for a really long time. His basketball IQ radiates on a nightly basis and you can tell that coach Dave Joerger already trusts him considering his presence in the “late-game” rotations. In addition to his intelligence, De’Aaron has that “dog” when it comes to competing and his sheer athleticism sets him apart. On the flip side, the rookie that has me the most nervous is Lonzo Ball. While he may be an easy target because of his early season woes, the lone statistic that frightens me the most is his lack of free throw attempts. All of the top-tier players in this league get to the line. Zo had a stretch of four games with zero attempts at the line. That’s alarming.

As of Friday, the Oklahoma City Thunder were last place in what may be the NBA’s most gruesome division. Minnesota, Denver, Portland and Utah are all legitimate teams and there are no cupcakes to speak of. How worried about the Thunder are you?

Simpson: Maybe this is the casualty of playing with such a dynamic and authoritative player like Russell Westbrook? Last season, Russ did something we may never see again, but his usage rate during his MVP campaign was absurd; maybe that created bad habits? This season, throw two perennial All-Stars into the fold and it’s going to take time to adjust for everyone involved. I’m not worried as we stand now, because I’m willing to bet this team, as currently constructed, won’t be around much longer. Enjoy the ride. (Aka getting bounced in round two…)

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Gelso: Not very concerned. New teams with star power take time to mesh. The Heat struggled during their first season with Wade, Bosh and LeBron. It’s not uncommon. OKC have a lot of egos in their locker room but they’ll come together. They’ll compete.

Howes: Not. Worried. At. All. You have three All-Stars on the same squad. One ball. It’s always going to take time to work things out, so there will be losses and some ‘I go’ ‘You go’ kind of tentative play which I think we’ve seen thus far. The Thunder are fortunate to have an experienced coach who is going to make matters easier as we get further into the season and I also think they have that right balance of vets and youth as well as depth.

Will they have what it takes to topple the Warriors? I doubt it, but who does? They’re obviously playoff-bound and eventually I think we’ll see both teams face off in an epic WCF which will make our collective heads explode.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Piellucci: Not especially. I’m not breaking much news by pointing out that the first Miami super team was a pedestrian 10-8 going into December, with some of these same questions about how three primary scorers will mesh together. Granted, Russ and Melo are more ball dependent than any of LeBron, Wade or Bosh ever were, but I’ll bet on talent to rise to the top and the Thunder have more of it – and, most crucially, more battle-tested talent than – anyone else in the Northwest. I was never of the mind that Oklahoma City is a serious contender to take down Golden State, but give them time to mesh and expect the Thunder to comfortably be in the playoffs come season’s end.

The Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls and Dallas Mavericks are all battling to land on the bottom. Which team finishes with the worst record this season and why?

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Piellucci: I’m tempted to say Dallas between playing in the West, Rick Carlisle’s refusal to give Nerlens Noel some run and Dirk finally—and depressingly—starting to show his age. But Carlisle is still a top-five coach and the Mavs have too much firepower in Smith Jr., Harrison Barnes, Seth Curry and others to be the single worst team in the NBA. So let’s bestow this dubious honor upon the Bulls, who are absolutely brutal. As of Sunday, Fred Hoiberg’s bunch are last in offensive efficiency and 21st in defensive efficiency. Chicago plays at the league’s slowest pace, too, so this isn’t even a compelling disaster. Lauri Markkanen has exceeded expectations in the early going and Bobby Portis has been on a tear since returning from his season-opening eight game suspension for clocking Nikola Mirotic. But there’s just not enough on the roster to keep this team out of the cellar.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Simpson: As a Mavericks fan, this day has been coming since the woeful 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014 free agency disaster(s)… The Mavs are destined to be the worst team in the Association this season and that’s okay; rebuild through the draft, which will be extremely top heavy. With the likes of Michael Porter and Marvin Bagley potentially available, one would hope that the pairing of one of those two with Dennis Smith Jr. and maybe Nerlens Noel could expedite the rebuild in Big D. But right now, the Mavs roster hasn’t been this devoid of talent since the mid-to-late ’90s.

Gelso: As a Celtics guy, I’d like to see the Lakers finish last. The C’s can use that pick—plus, that pick belongs to the Lakers! Most likely though, it’ll likely be the Hawks to finish in the cellar. They are really bad.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Howes: Firstly, can I say (WARNING: This may offend some readers) let’s just pack the Hawks up, move them to Seattle and call them the Sonics. I mean, besides 2Chainz as their most valuable commodity, what does that organization truly have to offer? The Hawks are last in attendance (avg. 14,384), their four most recent All-Stars are all wearing other uniforms now and they currently have the worst record in the East. The people of Seattle are starving for a team, in my best Jalen Rose voice: “GIVE THE PEOPLE WHAT THEY WANT!”

Thank you for allowing me to get that I got that off my chest. Moving on, because the Bulls actually play too hard for their own tanking good, the race to last will be a two-horse race between the Mavs and Hawks. It was bad enough seeing LeBron do this to Dirk a couple of days back, the career Maverick deserves better in what should be his final season, so I hope for ze German’s sake the Hawks continue to stink it up and take home the poo poo platter sweepstakes at season’s end.

The Milwaukee Bucks made a big trade this week, dumping Greg Monroe’s contract and a protected pick for Eric Bledsoe. How does this change the Bucks and what’s their ceiling with Bledsoe in town?

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Howes: Well it certainly gives them more firepower offensively and another athletic guard to throw out on the floor with Giannis. What will be interesting to see is what becomes of Matthew Dellavedova, it would appear to be he becomes the odd man out, as surely Bledsoe and second-year phenom Malcolm Brogdon will chew up majority of the available minutes. As for their ceiling, I think it’s too early to assume they’ll make the Conference Finals, but who knows what the Greek Freak has in store for us? *Cue Stranger Things theme*

Piellucci: Bledsoe gives the Bucks someone who can create his own shot and get to the rim, two things no one besides Giannis can deliver on the same level. The question is, at what cost? The spacing is going to take a hit and maybe the ball movement, too. Defense? Bledsoe shown the capacity to dominate on that end, but much of his best work came before a bevy of knee problems in recent years. I almost would like to see him come off the bench and the lead the second unit, but Milwaukee isn’t giving up what it did to play him there and I’m not sure Bledsoe would stand for it, anyhow. So what does this team look like in crunch time? Does Malcolm Brogdon stay on the bench? Or does Jason Kidd get weird and go Brogdon-Bledsoe-Snell-Middleton-Giannis? I’m excited to see how it develops.

Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

Simpson: I’m truly on the fence when it comes to this trade… I know that answer isn’t sexy but if Giannis continues to be the primary ballhandler in transition and often times in the halfcourt, does that regulate Eric Bledsoe to be a spot-up player? I’m unsure if he’d succeed in that role. However, potentially sliding Malcolm Brogdon to the two-spot will be interesting because he can use his long range shooting ability to his advantage and carry less of the burden offensively setting things up. Ultimately, this trade will be deemed a success if Bledsoe can recapture that elite defensive prowess he had before his knee injuries and if so, the Bucks are going to be a nightmare in the East.

Gelso: Bledsoe definitely helps an already talented team. The Milwaukee Bucks combine length and freakish athleticism. They are probably a few pieces away from contending to reach the  Finals, even in a weak Eastern Conference.

At this moment, the Detroit Pistons are the second ranked team in the East. Many expected them to make a jump last season and that simply didn’t happen. Are the Pistons for real?

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Gelso: They’re a well-coached team. Stan Van Gundy is finally meshing with his players, at least in style of play. Drummond has been a beast. Reggie Jackson playing well and Avery Bradley adds top-tier perimeter defense and a calming demeanor. The Pistons may not finish in the top 3 in the weak Eastern conference but they’ll definitely give opponents fits.

Howes: Hmmm despite the fact they’ve gone 8-2 in their last 10, I’m a little skeptical. That’s only because it’s still early days in terms of the season playing out. With that said, they’ve toppled the Wolves and Warriors, however six of their wins have come against teams .500 or below. We aren’t exactly talking giant killers. Can they stay the course as defenses tighten and teams knuckle down? Can they make it out of the first round without a true go to superstar?

The jury is out on this one.

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Piellucci: Not “second place in the East”-levels of real. But a playoff team? Absolutely. As the esteemed Zach Lowe noted last week, Andre Drummond’s improved play—fewer post-ups, more more action near the rim and not entirely horrible free throw shooting—is elevating him to superstar status, while Tobias Harris has been the sneakiest great scorer in the League so far this year. Plus, Stan Van. Who doesn’t love Stan Van? I buy those developments far more than Reggie Jackson running a 3.0 assists-to-turnover ratio all year, for instance, and I’m not sure I trust anybody on that bench. So I think they’re more of a 6-to-8 seed in the long haul, which represents a solid step forward.

Simpson: There are obvious tiers in the Eastern Conference and I believe the Pistons reside in the third tier, behind the likes of Toronto and Milwaukee who occupy the second for me. The addition of Avery Bradley has fortified their perimeter defense and sort of alleviated the issues of inconsistency that Stanley Johnson has been giving them on the offensive end. Add in the fact that Tobias Harris has been playing relatively well and you could make the case that the Pistons are a scary team in the first round of the playoffs. However, I think we’re judging the Pistons off of low expectations and a below average Eastern Conference… They’re kind of like Splenda, they get the job done, but you’re not really trying to know too much about it for your own sanity and well being.