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 in for the current edition. Last week’s edition can be found here!

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:

Tony Biasotti: Freelance, journalist

Chris Duerr: KHQA, sports director

Anthony Puccio: SB Nation, contributor

Bart Winkler: 105.7 The FAN, host

There was a lot made about All-Star talent going West and the growing disparity between the two conferences this offseason. However, the eighth seed in the East is currently two games above .500 and the eighth seed in the West is two games under. Are the conferences wildly disproportionate or was it just hyperbole?

Biasotti: Some, but not all, of the fear about conference imbalance was hyperbolic. The West is still better than the East, and I’d expect the team records to eventually reflect that. The gap between star players is huge: Going by either ESPN’s or Sports Illustrated’s preseason NBA rankings, eight of the 10 top players in the League play in the West.

Bruce Yeung/NBAE via Getty Images

The gap between teams isn’t as big. Set the Warriors aside—because, come on, let’s be realistic here—and I see two teams from each conference with a legitimate shot at being the second-best team in basketball by the time the season ends. The Celtics and Cavaliers in the East, and the Rockets and Spurs (if and when Kawhi Leonard is healthy) in the West. I’d be surprised if any other team is a serious contender in the West. The East, though, has Toronto and Washington, who will probably trip over themselves in the playoffs but at least deserve to be mentioned as second-tier contenders. That doesn’t make the East stronger; it just makes it easier to sort-of contend in that conference.

Duerr: I haven’t wrung my hands even once over the perceived disparity between the Conferences. Professional Basketball right now is puppy dog snuggles and sunlight, relative to every other professional sports league. It isn’t broke (unless you are one of those god awful parity seekers, in which case direct your attentions back to the grand experiment in macro over-reach that is the post-decline NFL) and doesn’t required tinkering. It’s an absolutely glorious product at this moment in time, regardless of how the scales tip in favor of East or West. So what if the Western Conference Playoffs is a death race and the East is a coronation. Eventually, “the free market” of basketball competition will correct it far better than some crafted attempt to insert “fairness” or “good of the league” measures to level everything out. It’s a living, breathing dynamic. And I love what it has born out to this point without complaint. And will love it when the natural corrective actions start swinging the other direction (The Kyrie Domino Theory)

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Puccio: It’s November ,so it almost feels premature, but what we’re seeing isn’t something new. Both conferences finished with the same win total to qualify for the playoffs last season. They’re headed in similar directions. The East has become more interesting over the past couple of seasons because more teams are building for the future and playing “modernized” ball, which has been established by teams in the West. After the Cavs and Celtics, it’s hard to take any teams serious in a seven-game series against either of the two. This makes for a free-for-all leading to records that may look skewed. The same goes for the West, whose top-heavy effect continues to have a similar impact.

Winkler: The better teams are in the Western Conference, I don’t think that has changed after the first month of the season. While some have started slow, I would expect teams like the Thunder to eventually figure out how to best work together. And the teams at the time, namely Golden State, haven’t played as dominant as they could be (and now you’re beginning to see them rest guys a bit more, even this early in the season). The Western Conference Playoffs will be every bit the dogfight that people expect. But while I do believe the Western Conference to be superior, I never thought the gap was as big as it was perceived to be and I think we’re seeing some of that play out. As some of the Western Conference teams try to figure out their identity, some of the teams in the East (such as Detroit) are winning by playing exactly into theirs. It’s good to see the two conferences be relatively balanced at this time however if only to quell the panic and hyperbole that surrounds the disparity of the two conferences. I don’t welcome the conversation that the conferences should be abolished and the league standings should be one 30-team table like in European soccer which some analysts were suggesting after an especially wild offseason. The talent gap between the two conferences will never be as bad as feared, and the edge will swing back to the East eventually. And then back to the West. And then the East, etc., etc. But for now, the road to the Finals is still tougher out West.

Which non-playoff team in either conference are you most sure will turn it around and get in?

Duerr: As of this writing, Milwaukee. Jabari Parker’s looming return will hasten the Bucks ascent and every report that has crossed my radar has pegged Parker as being impressively rehabbed to this point. Plus, I don’t have a lot of faith in the sustainability of Indiana, New York and Miami. I think its Milwaukee by clear default and sheer talent value of that roster relative to every other non-playoff team currently on the map.

Puccio: In the East, I think it’s easiest to assume the Bucks will get in as they’re currently jumbled for the nine seed. I also expect the Charlotte Hornets to play better than they did in November. Their schedule lightens up in December, as they’ll play at home 10 times where they’re 7-2. A healthy Nicolas Batum will certainly help that.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Winkler: As someone who covers the Bucks, I am going to say the Bucks. Their 9-9 start is disappointing and would likely be a lot worse if they hadn’t been gifted Eric Bledsoe. But this current Bucks team is talented enough to be no lower than the fifth seed at worst come the end of the season. They have a top five player, a solid starting unit, and a couple decent options off the bench. The back of the bench could use some strengthening as could the center position, and they may need to move on from Jason Kidd before they realize their true potential (the Bucks could be looking at a situation similar to Golden State of a few years ago where Mark Jackson could only get them so far). But a team with this version of Giannis Antetokounmpo is not missing the playoffs. Add Jabari Parker to the mix come February (or perhaps sooner with the way he has looked in practice) and the Bucks should have little problem making the postseason in the Eastern Conference. Whether they can get over the hump and win their first playoff series since 2001 is another story however.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Biasotti: In the East, the Bucks. I don’t love the way Jason Kidd is coaching this team, and they need more shooting to really scare anyone in a playoff series, but they’re too talented to stay below the Knicks, Heat and Pacers all year.

In the West, I’ll take the Thunder. They’re a lot like the Bucks: I don’t have much faith in them and I don’t particularly like the way they play, but their best players are just too good to finish below 8th in the West. That’s especially true with the Jazz, the current 8th seed, missing Rudy Gobert for a while longer.

The Golden State Warriors are 21-4, including the playoffs, in games without Kevin Durant. This year they are 3-0 with wins vs. Minnesota, Brooklyn, and Chicago. In those three games Steph Curry is averaging: 31.3 PPG, 8.7 RPG, 6.3 APG, while shooting 53 percent from the floor and 42 percent from deep. Is Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors more fun without Durant?

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Puccio: That would almost be disrespectful to say any team is more fun without Kevin Durant. That being said, it was so much fun watching Steph Curry as the No. 1 option for the Warriors. He did it in dramatic fashion at Barclays Center with a season-high 39 points, as Warrior fans invaded Brooklyn and made it look like a home game. When he fouled out, Klay Thompson picked up the slack. Classic Warriors ball.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Winkler: It depends how you enjoy watching the Golden State Warriors. Most common NBA fans want to see the Warriors lose, so whatever version of the team that is going to lose more is going to be the most fun to watch. Golden State—with or without Durant—will be more fun to watch when they actually have something to play for. This team is so talented that they’ve come out to a 15-5 record while still in first gear. Steph might be more fun to watch without Durant simply because he is shooting more, but the most fun version of this team is the best version of this team, and that is with the services of Kevin Durant. The common fans referenced earlier may even agree simply because Kevin Durant has embraced the role of the villain that they have bestowed upon him. For me, Durant leaning into that persona has been one of the more fun things to watch over the last two NBA seasons.

Biasotti: Yes. Steph Curry and the Golden State Warriors are more fun without Durant, because the Golden State Warriors, when they’re completely in Steph Curry’s control, are the most fun thing in the NBA, and perhaps in life. If you don’t enjoy watching Curry reimagine what’s possible on an NBA court, I feel bad for you. Your life sounds like a dreary place.

Of course, the Warriors are better with Durant. Of course, sane Warriors fans will be happy to have Durant around come playoff time. But I don’t think I’m alone in looking forward to the games where Steph takes over, either because Durant has the night off or the two superstars just decides it’s that time.

Duerr: Steph Curry? Yes. The Dubs as collective entity? Meh. I like having KD around just to see if someone finally calls him on this faux “tough guy” persona he’s somehow crafted in the wake of not being able to bench press 185 pounds and forces him to actually trade hands. (Note to said aggressor: run like hell when David West gets off the bench, though. He’s the closest thing the NBA has right now to a Bob Probert/Tie Domi enforcer)

 

Let’s assume James Harden would be No. 1 on every MVP ballot today, who would be the runner-up?

Winkler: It should be LeBron James because I’m in the camp that it should always be LeBron James. He is the best basketball player in the world and I think over time we’ve begun to take him for granted. Once LeBron won his first MVP in his sixth year, he went on to win three of the next four but has not won one since. Kevin Durant, Steph Curry (2x), and Russell Westbrook have been your winners since LeBron’s last, the 2012-2013 season. LeBron James has been an automatic ticket to the  Finals the last seven seasons. What’s more valuable than that? But since it won’t be LeBron, and it also won’t be Giannis (unfortunately for Bucks fans, MVP voting did not close after the first week of play), it has to be Kyrie Irving. Losing Gordon Hayward five minutes into the season could have been a blow that would have ruined some teams, but for Boston it’s forced Kyrie to play how he was playing in Cleveland pre-LeBron. Granted, that’s a good roster around him even without Hayward, but it’s also a roster that did not have a lot of minutes together before the season. Kyrie has stepped into the Boston situation, with all the pressure to perform out of LeBron’s shadow, and lead the Celtics to an 18-3 start. As long as Boston keeps winning, Kyrie’s name will be atop the MVP voting list.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Duerr: The answer is and should be LeBron. But that statement is the hot take equivalent of picking all four NCAA Number Seeds to the Final Four in your bracket. (Don’t ever be that dude, by the way. Duerr Life Advice 101. “Safe Guy” is the worst. An intellectual coward and a bore.) So give me the Unicorn and I won’t apologize a lick for it. Kristaps is playing out of his mind and the Knicks are not only pseudo-relative because of his nightly 27 points, 7 rebounds, and insane shooting metrics, they are actually a compelling watch to see what meta-human skill Porzingis accidently unleashes next. Remember all those old rumors about Daiuka Matsuzaka having a mythical, unhittable pitch (the vaunted gyroball) when he arrived in The States? I won’t miss Knicks Games now because I am reasonably assured that Kristaps possesses some secret Five Point Palm Exploding Heart Technique of a jump shot the world has never before seen and I don’t want to miss its life-changing reveal.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Puccio: Kyrie Irving. The guy is showing the NBA who he is and why moved on. It would’ve been easy to limp through the season following the Gordon Hayward injury, but Kyrie picked up the slack, hit the big shots and led the Celtics on a 16-game win streak instead. It speaks volume for him and the Celtics organization as a whole, and I would imagine he sticks in the MVP conversation throughout the season.

Biasotti: After my answer to the last question, I guess it’s no surprise that I’m going with Curry. He may or may not be the best player on his own team (just kidding, he is). He’s definitely the most important and most valuable. Curry’s three-point shooting has been a little off: He’s at 37 percent, well below last year’s 41.1 percent, which was his career low (!). In every other aspect of the game, he’s better than ever. He’s shooting 58 percent on 2s and getting to the line more than ever (6.6 attempts per game). His rebounds per 36 minutes are a career high and is turnover rate is a career low. As he’s done the past four years, he’s posting stupidly good plus-minus numbers: the team is plus-11.7 points in his 32.2 minutes per game. Somehow, with all the Warriors’ talent, they still depend on Curry. With him on the floor, they outscore their opponents by 15.8 points per 100 possessions. With Curry on the bench, the Warriors are outscored by 2.3 points per 100 possessions.

The Boston Celtics winning streak ended at 16, which team not named the Warriors has the best chance to go on a longer streak this year?

Biasotti: The Rockets. They have the second best point differential in the League, at 10.1 per game, just a point or so behind the Warriors, and they can get better as James Harden and Chris Paul learn to play together. The odds are against any team winning more than 16 in a row—well, any team outside of Oakland—but if I had to bet on someone, I’d take Houston.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Duerr: Double-digit win streaks in the NBA are advanced stuff. It’s hard to win seven or eight in a row, let alone double of that given the grind of it all and the relative ennui of the regular season for the really good teams. If you were to put a gun to my head and force me to answer, I’d say Houston under optimal circumstances just because the Rockets have the ability to burn phosphorous white hot and score through the everything else…a la the Dubs. But I’d bet the farm the C’s streak is the benchmark for this season.

Puccio: Houston. This team is playing lights out and we’ve only seen Chris Paul play in four games thus far. They’re 14-4 and with no signs of letting up.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Winkler: If we’re talking about a winning streak of at least 15 or more games, I’m going to eliminate all but three teams and narrow it down to the Cavs, the Spurs, and the Rockets. All three teams that have been winning without a major piece to their puzzle. The Rockets recently got Chris Paul back, the Spurs are still waiting on Kawhi, and the Cavs of course are anticipating the debut of Isaiah Thomas. Add those kind of talents to teams that are already winning, and as long as they don’t rest too many guys during a stretch, any one of those teams could have a highly productive couple of weeks.