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 in 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:
Paige Dimakos: FanRag Sports, host
Anthony Irwin: Locked on Lakers, host
Derek James: 1500 ESPN, NBA analyst
Duncan Smith: Piston Powered, site expert
Trey Zingis: The Knicks Wall, contributor
Kristaps Porzingis is making MVP ladders, Ben Simmons is looking like a lock for ROY, Giannis Antetokounmpo is pushing LeBron James for league supremacy and Joel Embiid owned this week. Just how talented is this next wave of stars and what are you most excited for with this new class?
Dimakos: I love the international influence of the next wave of NBA stars. The NBA continues to grow all over the world and I recently saw this firsthand in Greece over the summer. It was so cool to see all of the Giannis gear all over Greece and how excited they were when they talked about it. Having superstars like Giannis and Kristaps is helping grow the game and that is a very cool thing to watch.
Irwin: The NBA is in an unbelievable place. Few leagues would be able to go seamlessly from the likes of Shaquille O’Neal, Kobe Bryant and Tim Duncan to LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Kevin Durant and still have a future to look forward to, but here comes those guys listed in the question.
It’s rare to be able to watch evolution as it happens, but that’s really what we’re witnessing. All three guys listed above are above 6-10- yet can handle the ball like guards and shoot from distance. Could you imagine the looks on faces across the league in the 60s if Giannis wandered into a gym? Go ahead and picture that without chuckling.
The future is insanely bright, and it seems the heights to which the game can be lifted is only limited by our imaginations.
James: This will be the first generation of superstars that are the most versatile. When I started watching basketball over 20 years ago, it wasn’t even critical that wings knew how to shoot and handle the ball and now it is. But not only that, players like Antetokounmpo and Simmons are blending all of these things into their large frames. In the past, those were skills primarily reserved for point guards. That’s not to say there have never been wings or bigs that could shoot and handle the ball but the game has changed so much that these players were developed with a broader skill set than ever. Can you imagine the cross-era comparisons that will be made with the superstars of this generation to previous ones? It’s going to be very difficult to do.
I’m just excited to see how far we can push this and what teams do in response to it. Teams are still trying to figure out how to slow the Warriors and find that next great innovation. With today’s young players being so multi-faceted, it should be something else incredible.
Smith: This next wave is already incredible to watch. Giannis is tearing through the East, Ben Simmons is posting Magic and Bird-like rookie numbers and Joel Embiid is both #Process and GOAT. I’m excited for the rivalries that are sure to develop over the coming years as the Bucks, Sixers and Celtics are likely to become great in the same window of time. We’re watching the birth of tomorrow’s NBA right in front of our eyes.
Zingis: The talent level in the NBA is far deeper than at any point in history. Thinking about this a bit further we have so many one of one players at the top end of the league. There’s no duplicate for guys like James, Curry, Durant, Antetkounmpo, Embiid, Porzingis, etc. The league is in a great place and moving forward the depth of talent will only get deeper. By comparison, a lot of fans talk about the 80s being the golden era of basketball (wrong), and most cite the talent on top end teams. The Showtime Lakers and Celtics had a ton of HOF talent, however that era of the NBA had far less teams. In 1986, the NBA had 23 teams compared to 30 in today’s League. If you were to contract the League and add the players from those seven teams to the remaining teams, imagine the talent on each roster. The top end teams would further themselves from the previous eras. In terms of what’s next for NBA talent, the 2017 draft already looks like the best of recent memory. Ben Simmons looks to be a legitimately great player. Jayson Tatum looks like the real deal. Even non lottery picks John Collins and OG Anunoby are contributing to their teams. Compound this class with the rising stars in the League and it’s easy to believe basketball continues to evolve.
Two-part question: A lot has been made of Ben Simmons’ success and Lonzo Ball’s struggles. How unfair are we as an NBA community at gauging rookies early on, both positively and negatively? Even LeBron James made a comment about the Knicks missing their chance to draft Dennis Smith Jr. At what point is it safe to make concrete assertions in regard to NBA rookies?
Zingis: The 24/7 news cycle has played a huge role in what we consider success and struggle. Manufacturing content in that cycle is almost impossible without regurgitating the same arguments while slightly adjusting the conversation. The early season struggles of Lonzo Ball has become extremely evident of this. Ball was a—by most accounts—no-doubt top three prospect coming into the draft. It’s not even Thanksgiving yet and people are discussing whether or not Ball was even a top five prospect coming into the draft. Ball clearly has a long way to go in developing his talent and becoming a viable option at the best and deepest position in the NBA. The Knicks passed on Dennis Smith Jr. in favor of Frank Ntilikina, and thus creating a career-long rivalry as far as fan bases are concerned. Regarding that debate it is fine to acknowledge that both bring completely different skill sets to the League and are rather close in terms of on-court production factoring in both sides of the ball. Nevertheless, they will be pitted against each other until the end of time. Thanks a lot LeBron! Concrete assertions should be made around year three of a player’s career. Of course exceptions exist. Obviously Ben Simmons is “next” and Anthony Bennett was in fact bad from the jump.
Dimakos: We are incredibly unfair, but… as my dad would say life isn’t fair. A lot of what has happened to Lonzo was brought on him from his father and his need to be in the spotlight nonstop. I do think it’s unfair that Lonzo has been the scapegoat for a lot of it, but that’s not going to change. It’s hard because a lot of what happens in these rookie’s success is based off the environment they get drafted into, which they have zero control over. That being said, I think two full seasons is a good sample size.
Irwin: Coverage of rookies has gotten to such a ridiculous place that in all too many cases, it seems people are more concerned with their predictions of players than these guys’ actual success, which is about as backwards as it gets. I’d even argue guys like Simmons and Embiid actually benefited from not playing in their actual rookie seasons to a certain extent.
Sure, we’ll always miss the year that could have been, but other than the initial “oh this might be a disaster” coverage of their injuries, they were able to watch from afar and develop both physically and mentally while surrounded by NBA coaches and training staffs. When they finally made their debuts, it was inarguable how much more ready they were compared to their actual rookie counterparts.
To answer the second part of the question, I’d almost argue it isn’t worth making concrete statements about rookies at all in their first season. It sounds extreme, but given how ridiculous the conversation about these guys has become, everyone involved (players and fans alike) might be better off without it.
James: Incredibly unfair in both directions. I remember seeing a post from a major media outlet that was declaring rookies busts and among them was Kevin Love. The time of its writing? Late November. Conversely, this swings the other way. Brandon Jennings never lived up to his 55-point game. Alexey Shved played a great first month in his rookie year but was out of the League two years later.
I don’t know if I know the exact answer for when it’s safe but it sure isn’t November of their rookie year. There are many factors that include the quality of the roster around him, the coach, front office, quality of the organization,..etc. The problem is, it can take years. Sure, Damian Lillard was an incredible rookie but the point guard position is the hardest to learn and it often takes a player a few years. For big men, it takes time for these 19 and 20-year olds to grow into their bodies. As a result, many don’t hit their primes until their late-20s. You can get a sense of which direction a player is headed by the time their rookie contract ends. That is, unless you’re an Anthony Bennett or Jonny Flynn type of player.
Smith: First impressions matter to a point of excess in the NBA community. If Lonzo was succeeding in spite of some broken mechanics he’d be hailed as overcoming his weaknesses and being more than the sum of his parts rather than being viewed widely as a bust No. 2 pick after less than 20 games. It’s good to be aware of concerning shortcomings, but part of the fun with rookies is to watch how they develop over the weeks and months. Whatever we perceive Lonzo to be right now will most likely not be exactly how we perceive him at the end of this season, nor will that likely be how he is perceived by next year’s All Star break. It takes time for these guys to develop, and nobody grows or evolves at the same rate. It didn’t take long to judge Embiid as a potential all-timer if he stays healthy, but rookies like Lonzo Ball will take longer for the book to be fully written on.
Keeping in mind the limited sample we have, can you declare The Process a success? Is the accrual of Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz, and the development of Robert Covington enough to draw a verdict one way or another at this point?
Smith: The Process is a success. It’s a mistake to think championships alone will justify it when a barren war chest has been replaced with innumerable draft picks and high value assets, to say nothing of Embiid and Simmons bursting forth. There have been missteps along the way—the selection of Jahlil Okafor over Kristaps Porzingis, for example—and areas where the jury is still out—the trade for Markelle Fultz’s drafting rights—but The Process has absolutely been a success. The Sixers are replete with young talent and stars in the making with future assets left and right, a far cry from the desolate roster that caused The Process to begin.
Zingis: No. Listen, the Process has created perhaps the best foundation of any team in the League currently. However, the sample size is a bit worrisome at this point. Given the injury history of Joel Embiid, there’s no way to, in good conscious, be certain that this is a sustainable base for the team moving forward. Embiid is perhaps the best center in the League already when healthy. The groundwork is certainly there and Simmons will be the Rookie of the Year. Mind you, Simmons is one of the best rookies in recent history and perhaps only rivaled by Blake Griffin’s monster rookie season. Any determination of how good or bad Markelle Fultz will be is premature given his injury. It is also fair to acknowledge that Fultz was the consensus first pick in a loaded draft. He should end up very good, and at the very worst an NBA starter. Covington is one of the better role players in the NBA and is now locked into an extremely team-friendly contract for the next couple seasons. Sam Hinkie’s legacy as the creator of The Process is going to live on forever, and he really will live in a space where he cannot lose.
Dimakos: Have they made the playoffs and had success? No—it’s WAY too early to call “The Process” a success.
Irwin: The genius of “The Process” was the limitless bounds of its timeline. Eventually, someone was going to come along given how many attempts at the top of the draft Philadelphia accrued. And yet even while Embiid and Simmons look to be monsters ready to take the League by storm, we can’t overlook the unmitigated disaster Jahlil Okafor has been, the unimpressive returns on Nerlens Noel and whatever might be going on with Markelle Fultz’s shoulder.
It’s still too early to tell, but that’s kind of the thing: We may never get full context by which to judge The Process, both because of the genius I mentioned to start and also because of Sam Hinkie’s dismissal—and that’s not even counting the incredibly wide spectrum of success it’s produced thus far.
James: Probably? It’s not even December but the Sixers look very nice right now. So far, Embiid has answered questions about his durability but there’s still a lot of ball left to be played. We do have a pretty good idea that they’re going to be in the mix, so most likely, we’ll be able to stand atop the Liberty Bell and make the proclamation, “In Hinkie we trust.”
Boston won a big one last week vs. Golden State and has still yet to lose in a month. How unbelievable is this given the Gordon Hayward injury and how do you make sense of a 16-game win streak?
James: Well, this is a team that won 50 games last year and has also managed to integrate lottery picks. Kyrie Irving is fitting in well and Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown should be his sidekicks for awhile. Of course, I’d be remiss without mentioning Terry Rozier. What it says is that the Celtics are still good. It’s not meaningless, as I’ve seen some say, because then more teams would win 14 straight games more often. Fourteen games is 17 percent of an NBA season; that’s nearly one-fifth of it.
Smith: Boston’s win streak is virtually unfathomable. After Gordon Hayward’s injury, most expected them to be a fringe playoff team. Jayson Tatum has been a revelation, Jaylen Brown has delivered on high expectations, Al Horford has been great and Kyrie Irving has not been a turnstile on defense. It stands to reason that regression to the mean will kick in eventually, but Brad Stevens’ Celtics have always overachieved from a talent perspective and have outperformed their net rating and win expectation. The Celtics could end up with one of the two or three best records in the NBA this season.
Zingis: It’s unbelievable. Brad Stevens is the frontrunner for Coach of the Year. Not sure it’s even close at this point. Gregg Popovich is still the best coach in the League but it’s possible by season’s end that Brad Stevens is a legitimate competitor for that crown. Stevens has Kyrie Irving and Al Horford playing at MVP levels. And the hidden beauty of it all? He’s taken on a Belichickian approach. No one on the Celtics roster is in the top-50 of minutes played.
That may not be impressive to some but come playoff time fresh legs are the highest form of currency. Kyrie has been able to play at an MVP-level without overtaxing himself like Russell Westbrook did last year or LeBron has had to do this year. Masking Irving’s defense is also one of the more impressive things Stevens has done. Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum have been able to fill in for Hayward to the point that losing the All-Star now looks like a minor inconvenience. Think about how absurd that sounds then think about how absurd it is that it’s not that hot of a take. Stevens and Danny Ainge have built an autonomous system in Boston and that—more so than the streak—should scare everyone in the conference.
Dimakos: I think people forgot this team was the No. 1 seed last year and then added Kyrie and Hayward. Kyrie is obviously leading the way but it’s been a team effort and I have to give some praise to Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens. One of the best Coach-GM tandems in the NBA and I’m really looking forward to watching this team going forward.
Irwin: Holding Golden State to under 100 points should win a team a trophy in and of itself. There’s nothing much else to be said about that. Boston’s incredible and sustained effort despite the adversity presented on opening night has been extremely fun to watch, even for this Laker fan.
There are a couple things to point to that might lead to some regression to the mean (Boston plays with insane energy that might be tough to continue for 82 games and Tatum’s crazy shooting, to start), but nothing can take away from this start, no matter where it might end.
Steve Kerr recently said: “It sure looks like Boston is the team of the future in the East, with the assets that they still have and their young talent and their coaching, and Kyrie is amazing.” If you could choose between Boston, Philadelphia and Milwaukee, which team would you consider “the future of the East?”
Irwin: It kind of depends on how far into the future we’re talking, right? Of the three, I’d say only Boston is ready to challenge LeBron in a Conference Finals setting over the next couple years.
We need to see more than a month of Embiid and Simmons before we put them in the conversation of title contention. For as exciting as Embiid’s performance against the Lakers was, they barely beat a team that won’t come close to sniffing the playoffs.
Both Philadelphia and Milwaukee need to surround their superstars with the right role players for me to put them in legitimate contention to dominate the east, but that time is most assuredly coming.
James: It wasn’t long ago we were asking ourselves how the Bucks can get Antetokounmpo more help? I’m taking them out of this.
It’s got to be Boston or Philadelphia but I’ll lean green for the reasons Kerr mentioned. Oh, and they’re going to get Gordon Hayward back next season. That’s not too bad for a team that is a contender to win its conference. The Sixers are certainly close, but how they manage Embiid’s health, Fultz’s development, and more is going to determine how far they can go. Both teams have apparently bright future, but the Celtics are closest to actualizing theirs.
Smith: Philly and Milwaukee are coming, but the Boston Celtics are the team of the future in the East. They’re young, they’re well-coached, they’re already among the most talented teams in the NBA, and there are more youngsters coming. If there is one team to see as the next potential dynasty once the Warriors fade, the Celtics are the single most likely team to fill that role.
Zingis: Trust the Process. As impressive as the Celtics have been so far this season, the Sixers have two players with higher ceilings than any Celtic. Barring any more serious injuries Joel Embiid’s ceiling is truly limitless. If he continues to progress at the rate he is currently at (remember he has only played 44 career games) there’s a realistic chance that he becomes the best player in the League. That in itself is something only the Bucks and Knicks can say.
And then there is Ben Simmons. Simmons also possess a skill set that can vault him to the elite of the League. People forget this kid is 6-10 with the grace and passing precision of your favorite point guard. If he can develop a serviceable jumper I feel confident in saying he reaches top five in the League. That’s two potential top five guys plus Markelle Fultz, who contrary to Twitter belief, is not a bust. What Fultz truly is we do not know yet but you give me two guys with top five potential and I’ll figure out the rest.
Mind you Giannis Antetokounmpo is perhaps the best prospect in the NBA at the moment but the Bucks do not have much in terms of another high level impact player. The Celtics have two players in MVP talks right now. But we know those player’s ceiling. Kyrie Irving is about at his ceiling right now. Al Horford is 31 years old, his ceiling was probably reached already. Tatum and Brown look like future All-Stars for certain but may not end up being franchise cornerstone players like what the Sixers have.
Dimakos: Boston, because of coaching and pedigree (and because I think LeBron leaves the East next season and Boston is the best ready-made team). Having a solid mix of young talent with guys like Kyrie and Hayward I think this team is built for the long stretch in Boston.