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 five dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Tim Faklis: Zone Coverage, senior editor
Damon Kecman: Cleveland Against the World, host
Dieter Kurtenbach: San Jose Mercury News, sports columnist
Trill Withers: Barstool Sports – Mickstape, host
Mike Zavagno: Fear the Sword, contributor
The Cleveland Cavaliers started the year 5-7, they looked lethargic and the defense was abysmal. Since that time, they’ve won 10 straight and looked a lot more like the routine powerhouse we’re accustomed to. Which team better represents the real Cleveland Cavaliers?
Faklis: Considering the insane shooting numbers LeBron James is putting up this year, the nice per-36 numbers from Dwyane Wade, and the fact that the rest of the team is still (mostly) intact, it’s hard to envision them as anything but a powerhouse. It’s hard to envision them as the type of powerhouse that can beat the Warriors—or even the Rockets—but they’re certainly a team that can and should compete for the title of best team in the East. The fun part? They have competition out east this year.
Kecman: The Cavaliers team that has won 10 straight. Listen, we see the same thing at the beginning of the season: “Will the Cavaliers get it together?”. It’s wild to think at this point we are still questioning the things LeBron James does on the court like getting the most out of role players. This team needs time to get it together after losing their point guard and easily their second-best player on the team. They’ll keep this momentum going as the season progresses.
Kurtenbach: It’s the latter. The Cavs’ early season struggles weren’t a fluke—they were a byproduct of a team trying to jell together amid significant roster turnover—but the success they’ve had as of late isn’t a fluke either. The question, I would argue, is if they can sustain it: LeBron is playing incredible basketball and he’s finally getting some help, but the soon-to-be 33-year-old is leading in the NBA in minutes played, again. That’s hardly ideal and needs to be a critical concern for the Cavs going forward. Beyond all of that, I don’t think this Cavs team is any better than last year’s team, and the East isn’t going to be as easy for them come April this time around.
Withers: I think this current version of the Cavaliers better represents the real Cleveland. Deciding to call the “score more points than the other team” play was a stroke of genius by Tyronn Lue. The energy has been up and the ball has been moving since Derrick Rose left the team, with Dwyane Wade and Kevin Love reaping the benefits. Even Jeff Green looks like a passable role player. They haven’t exactly played a murderers row of teams during the 10-game win streak, but it is encouraging to know that the Cavs can play defense when they have to. Or they can at least pretend to know how to play defense when they have to. Their offense has still been elite despite swapping out Kyrie Irving for what has amounted to an underwhelming Jae Crowder and 3 minutes per game of Ante Zizic so far. They will have to figure out some things defensively once Isaiah Thomas returns, but he can’t’T be worse defensively than the Derrick Rose/Jose Calderon duo. And even if he is, he can score 30 points a night and they can’t. All is well in Cleveland.
Zavagno: As always, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle. The Cavs’ DRtg peaked in Derrick Rose’s last game with the team (114.6) and has declined ever since (now 108.3). The driving force behind the win streak—aside from otherworldly play by LeBron James—has been the synergy Cleveland has found off the bench. The four-man group of Wade/Korver/Green/Frye has posted a 11.8 Net Rating in 160 minutes played, fueled largely by a 97.3 DRtg. This team will continue to grow with the addition of Isaiah Thomas and return of Tristan Thompson. Wade looks comfortable leading second units. Korver (68 TS%) continues to rain fire from three and his gravity bends defenses for Wade/Green/James to attack the rim. Kevin Love is quietly averaging 19/10 and LeBron is…well LeBron. The Cavs certainly aren’t going to play at the pace the rest of the season, but they are much better than their initial 5-7 stretch.
We talk a lot about the MVP award. We talk a lot about how subjective it is, who is leading the race every 18 seconds, etc. But what about the Most Improved Player? An award that has also been controversial and subjective in its criteria. Who do you have leading that race?
Zavagno: Victor Oladipo is my leader for Most Improved Player. He has improved in essentially every category across the board, even when adjusting for a PER 100 possession sample. His 58.6 TS% is the highest of his career and the efficiency comes despite a USG% over 30 percent. While his 43.3 percent from three may come down to earth, his impact on the glass and with his passing makes him my Most Improved Player.
Faklis: For me, it’s between Victor Oladipo and Andre Drummond. Oladipo has put up monster stats, especially relative to his career thus far. The Pacers are surprising people and Oladipo has done a good job as the lead man.
Still, Drummond has brought the Pistons back into the Eastern Conference limelight. Yes, the addition of Avery Bradley has been big, and Reggie Jackson is having an improved year, but Drummond’s improved playmaking, defense, and free throw shooting (yes, free throw shooting) have been the key factors in the resurgence of the Pistons.
Kecman: Is it absurd that I am going to say Kristaps Porzingis given how wildly popular he is? As it stands today, he’s top 15 in PER (didn’t crack the top 50 in 2017) and he’s improved his PPG from 18 points to 25 points. I don’t watch much of what’s going on, but I figured after Carmelo Anthony left, the Knicks would be wildly irrelevant. Right now, they are sitting with a .500 record and on the outside looking in as far as the playoff picture is concerned. I know it’s early, but I love what I see from the unicorn so far this season.
Kurtenbach: I want to say Andre Drummond. I want to say Jaylen Brown. But it’s neither—the MIP is Aaron Gordon. I was ready to write the power forward off after last season—before he turned 22—but the improvement he’s shown from beyond the arc (he’s now a respectable shooter) has opened up so much for him offensively, it’s comical. He’s now the franchise-cornerstone player he was always billed to be and a testament to not being fast to write off young talent.
Withers: The criteria for this award is always confusing. Is it for ANY kind of improvement? Because James Harden and LeBron James are following up MVP caliber years with even better seasons this year. Giannis won it last season…and now he’s decided to score 30 a game and grab 10 boards a night as well. Is it for guys we (read: I) forgot existed? If so, it may be Tyreke Evans. I’m not sure if he improved, or just watched a bunch of tape from his own rookie year and remembered that he is actually a good NBA player. I also considered Victor Oladipo, Domantas Sabonis and Enes Kanter, basically anyone that was freed from playing with Russell Westbrook from last season. I settled on Aaron Gordon, as I think he represents the spirit of the award best. Like Giannis last season, Gordon is in year four and has seen his numbers jump across the board without a major jump in minutes. He’s turned himself into a three point marksman, and it’s opened up other parts of his game. He’s handling the ball more, creating for others and getting to the free throw line at a career rate. It’s a nice development to see for a player who didn’t have a great start to his NBA career. It’s amazing what happens when you actually get to play the position you should be playing.
The Oklahoma City Thunder have been a major disappointment. The Thunder have outscored opponents by 75 in quarters 1-3 but have been outscored by 15 in the fourth on the season. On offense, Carmelo Anthony, Paul George and Russell Westbrook have really struggled to come together. Is this likely to change or are the 2017-18 Thunder the “This will be fun,” Lakers reborn?
Withers: The fact that the Thunder are playing so well in quarters one through three, and thus have the point differential of a team with a better record than the 9-12 mark they currently sport, gives me hope that they will turn things around. Before the season, I had my concerns on how well they would play defensively and they’ve been a top 5 unit there so I believe the offense will come around. After watching Steven Adams destroy my beloved KAT, I wonder if more looks for him could help solve some of their offensive woes. He’s shooting 64 percent from the field (fourth in the league), but getting less than half as many shots as Westbrook, George and Anthony. The pair of 2-for-1 trades for George/Anthony has unsurprisingly left their depth lacking so another piece there could go a long way in helping them close out games. I trust Sam Presti will acquire that piece by playoff time, the Thunder will right the ship and be a tough postseason out. If he does not, that last sentence will self destruct.
Zavagno: There are a number of signs that lead me to believe the Thunder can turn it around. First, their +4.2 point differential ranks 5th in the NBA but their -4.4 wins/expected ranks dead last. While I do not expect them to regain all the clutch magic from last season, the historic struggles are unlikely to continue. Second, the Thunder are 7-3 in games where Paul George has a USG% over 26. Finding the right balance between Westbrook, George, and Anthony is critical to Oklahoma City winning games. For me, this means giving George more opportunities to create offense and letting Westbrook run more with second units.
Faklis: The Thunder will never be a team that will compete with Golden State or Houston in a seven-game series, but they’ll be fine. Paul George is starting to find himself again, and has re-learned how to take over a game as the primary initiator on offense. While Melo hasn’t been the No. 1 option of old, he’s still shooting the best percentages he’s seen since the 2013-14 season. Westbrook is the X-factor here, of course. It’s hard to envision a world where he isn’t the main option on this team on every given night, but he’ll have to learn how to for the sake of wins. The good news is he’s done it before.
Kecman: I had my reservations about this team to start the season. Going out and getting Paul George and Carmelo Anthony looked great on paper, but it’s hard to play fluid basketball when you have three players that are so used to being number one on the team and very ball dominant players. There has to be a point where these three guys can all figure it out on the court, and I think that the reigning MVP needs to do something about it soon before it’s too later. There is hope.
Kurtenbach: So long as Russ is running the show in Oklahoma City, this won’t work. I don’t know how much more bluntly I can put this: he’s not interested in running an offense. This team will look better—they have the talent to contend in the Western Conference—but they will ultimately be limited by Russ’ id-driven brand of basketball. Billy Donovan once had Russ playing within a system and it was spectacular—the Thunder were one game from going to the 2016 Finals. Russ (and Klay Thompson) sabotaged that. Since then, the ball hasn’t done much work while Russ tries to will his teams to victory. Until someone convinces him to take his foot off the pedal, the Thunder will be a pretender, not a contender.
Who is this year’s unsung hero? Which player across the League is getting nowhere near the credit they deserve for their team’s success thus far?
Kurtenbach: Otto Porter. I wasn’t sure about the Wizards giving him the cash this past offseason, but he’s held up his end of the bargain, for sure. The Wizards have flown under the radar this season, for good reason, and Porter, by proxy, has as well, but you can’t ignore 16 points and 7 rebounds per game on hyper-efficient shooting.
Withers: Clint Capela. James Harden is getting the MVP buzz, as he should. Reigning CoTY Mike D’Antoni is getting credit for keeping the team humming without an injured Chris Paul, as he should. Chris Paul is getting hype for not dribbling the air out of the ball and messing up a good thing after returning from injury, as he should. Meanwhile, poor Clint Capela is leading the League in field goal percentage, is foutth in blocks and snatching 11 boards a game in 25 minutes of play a night. With their offensive firepower, the Rockets only need a league average defense to compete and Capela is anchoring a group that has been closer to the top 5. And for good measure, he’s raised his free-throw percentage nearly 20 points above his career mark which will hopefully end the Hack-A-Capela tactics we’ve seen in the past. If he can end those? He’s got my vote as unsung hero and I would welcome him as our Swiss overlord.
Zavagno: LaMarcus Aldridge deserves more credit for keeping the Spurs afloat in Kawhi Leonard’s absence. The Spurs are 15-7, have the sixth best point differential in the League and just keep chugging along. They are playing like a 60-win team with Aldridge on the floor and a 26-win team when he sits, per Cleaning the Glass. He’s averaging 23/8 on a career-high 58.6 TS% despite his highest USG% in San Antonio. The defense is 5.6 points/100 possessions better with him on the floor. He’s scoring 0.97 ppp on Post-Ups, good for 9th-best in the NBA. Aldridge is playing at a borderline All-NBA level and deserves praise for the Spurs’ success without Kawhi.
Faklis: The Spurs have looked as good as usual, even without Kawhi Leonard and (for most of the season) Tony Parker. Past success leads everyone to (justifiably) give Gregg Popovich all the credit, but LaMarcus Aldridge has been the star the Spurs have needed this year.
There was going to be scrutiny right when he signed for big money this past summer, and he’s proven he’s worth every penny. So far, he’s putting up career highs in player efficiency rating, true shooting percentage, and win shares.
Kecman: I know the New Orleans Pelicans have Anthony Davis, but I feel like Demarcus Cousins is probably the better player right now for the Pelicans. Cousins is leading his team in PPG, RPG, SPG, as well as being second in BPG and third in APG. I feel like everyone always talks about how Demarcus Cousins is hurting his team with the antics and distractions, but I think he’s been the best player for the Pelicans in 2018. Yes, better than Anthony Davis.
The Memphis Grizzlies fired David Fizdale in large part due to issues with Marc Gasol. Was that the right choice?`
Kecman: Wrong decision. I think it’s complicated to fire a head coach after his first 100 games. Despite Marc Gasol voicing frustration, I don’t feel like as an owner you should let the players dictate a decision like that in a league where players have a majority of the power already. Now I understand when someone with all the power in the world like LeBron James says something along those lines you make a change but to do it for Marc Gasol seems a bit strange. Given the League-wide blowback by multiple players, coaches and media, it makes the decision that much worse.
Kurtenbach: It was a fork in the road, and the Grizzlies made the easy choice, instead of the tough one. Marc Gasol is an excellent player, but the team’s core of him and Mike Conley might have reached their peak already. There’s no easy way to move on from either and start a worthwhile rebuild (or at least entertain that notion), so they fired the coach. It was easy — coaches get fired all the time. But getting rid of a talented young coach who did tremendous work bringing the Grizzlies into the modern era is a move indicative of the dysfunction and lack of plan in the Grizzlies organization. No long-term vision equals no future. That’s where the Grizzlies are right now.
Ownership is at the forefront right now. They are in the midst of an ownership coup. They signed Chandler Parsons to a huge deal without having him take a physical. It’s amateur hour under Robert Pera, and the team is operating as he would see fit.
Withers: I think firing David Fizdale was the wrong choice. I understand that the NBA is and always will be a players’ league, but it reminds me of Orlando in the Dwight/Stan Van Gundy days. Orlando fired SVG to appease Dwight, but Dwight still wasn’t happy and ended up being traded anyway. That was for 26-year-old, peak-of-his-powers Dwight Howard. With the Grizzlies it’s for Marc Gasol, who will turn 33 next month and hasn’t exactly been the pinnacle of good health. The Grizzlies were 0-3 after firing Fizdale (they won last night) so I imagine Gasol is still disgruntled and will want no part of the rebuilding process the Grizzlies will probably be forced into. He’s still an All-Star caliber player and could get a decent return in the trade market. I would just rather have Coach Fiz manning the rebuild instead of firing him first and still having to endure the inevitable.
Zavagno: Hard to say. As a Cleveland fan who witnessed the LeBron/David Blatt tension and the resulting team success, I understand the impetus to move on from a coach that doesn’t see eye-to-eye with a star player. Perhaps more so in Memphis where rebuilding is difficult and Gasol is a franchise cornerstone. But many smart people—from LeBron to Steve Kerr—call Fizdale one of the best coaches in the NBA. His reputation will certainly allow him to land on his feet. As for Memphis, the onus now falls on Gasol to demonstrate that this was the right move and rescue a reeling team that had lost 11 in a row. While I believe the issues run deeper than Fizdale, only time will tell if his firing was smart. Right now, the odds point towards no.
Faklis: They did not make the right choice, no. Issues with Gasol needed to be addressed, and while it’s clear they attempted to, letting one of them go seems like an incredibly rash decision for a coach that’s earned respect around the League. Fizdale and Gasol are both adults. It’s hard to envision a world where these two adults, who have been around pro basketball for decades, couldn’t find a way to make things work. On the other hand, I wasn’t there for what actually happened, so it’s hard for me to say anything with a truly educated opinion.