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

Derek Bodner: The Athletic Philadelphia, senior writer

Thomas Duffy: Cycle, sports editor

Kevin Fippin: Sactown Royalty, social media

Adam Joseph: 16WinsARing, founder

Jason Patt: FanRag NBA, content manager


Jahlil Okafor and the Philadelphia 76ers finally broke up after a very long trial separation, initial thoughts on the trade and, what kind of player can Okafor be?

Bodner: My first thought is how Okafor will fit into the Nets’ offense. They play so fast, barley run post-ups, and thrive off quick and constant ball movement. Brooklyn makes sense as a landing spot because they have roster spots and playing time to buy extremely low on guys, but I’m not sure they make much sense in terms of style of play.

As for what kind of player he can become? I think, if things develop right (some semblance of a jumper, quicker decision making, a little more awareness defensively), his upside is probably a scoring big off the bench when you can pick and choose his matchups a little more carefully. I don’t see his defense and team offense improving enough to be a starter at a position that is now highly competitive since so many small-ball power forwards are getting minutes there.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Duffy: We’ve all seen the viral “bad defense” clips and have heard all about how his back-to-the-basket game is more geared toward the ‘80s. But I’m still intrigued. Okafor was a top-three pick three years ago, and Brooklyn is the perfect landing spot (other than Chicago) where he’ll see a ton of development minutes. Okafor’s been asking for this move for a long time, and I’m curious to see what he makes of it.

For the Nets, you can’t ask for more than landing the No. 2 and No. 3 picks of 2015. Given what Sean Marks started out with, that’s almost unthinkable.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Fippin: I think the deal is certainly a win for Philly. They’re much further along than I’d expected them to be at this point in their rebuild and Okafor wasn’t in their future plans at all. Completely giving up on him and declining his option, seemed to really kill his value on the open market but the 76ers managed to come out okay. On the flip side, the deal doesn’t look great for the Nets, who are total rebuild mode and need as many assets as they can get. Okafor would fit that bill perfectly were it not for the fact that the Nets can’t offer him much at all in free agency, due to the fact that the 76ers declined his option. Basically, if Okafor pans out, the Nets can’t afford to keep him and if he’s bad they won’t want to. As for Jahlil… he sure looked like a beast in 2015 but he’s been super underwhelming since. Does anyone know which Jah is the real Jah at this point?

Joseph: I love the trade for both teams. However, the Sixers lost a lot of value waiting so long to do a deal, and that is not debatable. Trevor Booker is a perfect fit for most rosters with his hustle and skill set, but the Sixers in particular will have use for the veterans’ talents. Brooklyn yet again under Sean Marks do a great deal buying low on two lottery talents. If Okafor can develop his jumpshot (which he will get reps in under Kenny Atkinson) and become a reasonable defender, he has a solid future in the league. Don’t forget how highly coveted he was – there’s talent there and the league has never been better at developing it. Let’s see what the Nets can do.

Patt: The Okafor trade makes sense for both sides. He obviously wasn’t a part of the Sixers’ future and they probably waited too long to trade him, but getting a capable rotation player in Trevor Booker out of the deal is a plus as they try to make the playoffs. Nik Stauskas is a non-factor and it’s not like the Sixers needed that second-round pick.

For the Nets, they take a chance on a talented young player who badly needed a fresh start. They are limited with what they can offer him in free agency in the summer due to the Sixers declining his fourth-year option, but at this point he’d have to be really, really good to garner an offer over the $6-ish million Brooklyn can give for next season. Brooklyn has been hamstrung by the disastrous Celtics trade for years, and Sean Marks is doing whatever he can do to upgrade the talent base. Even if Okafor doesn’t stick, the Nets get that second-round pick out of it.

This being said, I’m not a big believer in Okafor. His defensive problems are known, but even when he was putting up 17 points per game as a rookie he wasn’t making the Sixers’ offense better. There’s a reason he was completely out of the rotation in Philly. Brooklyn plays at one of the fastest paces in the League, so will Okafor’s old-school game mesh well with that fast-paced philosophy? I think he can still be a contributor in the NBA, but not in a big role.

Last week we talked about the front-runner for the most improved player but what about the opposite, the least improved player? Which guy did you have pegged for huge improvement that just hasn’t shown positive development to their game?

Patt: I’m going to name two Timberwolves here: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. Towns is still really good, but I’m disappointed with the lack of development on the defensive end under Tom Thibodeau (and there are rumblings of a rift there). There have been flashes, but too often KAT looks lost defensively. While I won’t call him a lost cause, he still has a long way to go to be the impact defender people thought he could be when he entered the league.

As for Wiggins, he again has shown tantalizing flashes of his potential. When he’s aggressively attacking the rim, he can be unstoppable. There has been some modest improvement defensively.

But the overall package is still nothing special. He’s shooting poorly from three. His true shooting percentage is below average and down from last season despite a decrease in usage and defensive attention. He still doesn’t rebound or create for others particularly well. His PER remains right around average. His base numbers were always going to take a hit with the additions of Jimmy Butler and Jeff Teague, but I was hoping for better efficiency and a bigger impact.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Bodner: Oooh. This is a great question. My head doesn’t go to the “bad player I kinda hoped would improve, but didn’t”, but instead the “incredibly talented player who isn’t having the impact you’d hope for.” I kind of want to say Karl-Anthony Towns, because he just hasn’t improved into the defender I think many thought he is capable of. Minnesota’s winning right now, and Towns’ insanely efficient offense is a big reason why, but in order to improve into a team I can see making real noise in the playoffs, they’re going to have to improve upon their 26th-ranked defense. Towns is a critically important part of that equation.

Duffy: Kyrie Irving. Now, that sounds crazy, given Boston’s early success. But I’m strictly talking numbers. I had Uncle Drew pegged for upgraded stats across the board, but his points and assists are down. I wouldn’t actually give him a “least improved” award, because 1) he looks as good as ever and 2) is the focal point of the NBA’s best team. But I’m still surprised his numbers haven’t taken a jump.

Fippin: As a Sacramento Kings homer, I think I’m contractually required to say, Skal Labissière.

The Haitian Sensation, Ex-Skaliber, Skalifornia Love, Port-au-Prince Royalty, the Kentucky WildGOAT! Sure, these are mostly just nicknames that I made up right now on the spot, BUT they accurately convey the levels of local hype surrounding this kid going into the offseason. He looked primed to take a big leap this season and just hasn’t. Some would argue it’s due to a lack of genuine opportunity and Joerger’s propensity to value vets over youth, to the detriment of Skals development, but the fact remains that he just hasn’t produced when he’s been on the floor. Either way, it’s depressing and I’m sad just thinking about it. Thanks for asking!

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Joseph: The backside of 2016-17 told us Andrew Wiggins was on the brink of superstardom. 30 percent of the way through this season, I’m still not convinced. 18.2 points per game is fine, but 4 rebounds, less than 2 assists, a career worst Player Efficiency Rating that is below the League average at 13.5. He’s shooting just 30.7 percent from three, and a career low 51.4 True Shooting Percentage. Jimmy Butler’s arrival always meant touches would be shared between the perimeter pair and Karl-Anthony Towns, but Wiggins is playing too many minutes under Tom Thibodeau and not making even steady improvements.

Defensive Player of the Year hasn’t been talked about too much this season. Who are your leading candidates for DPOY at this moment?

Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

Joseph: Al Horford anchors the NBA’s best defense through the first third of the season, and has had key displays on the likes of Kristaps Porzingis and Joel Embiid already in his back pocket. Horford’s counting stats aren’t memorable, but he embodies Brad Stevens’ philosophy, and does all the trivial things right. He doesn’t take plays off, and that’s why the Celtics have won so proficiently without the injured Gordon Hayward. Green is the perennial choice, and remains as good as ever. But why not Kevin Durant? He has been absolute monster defensively. His size and skill set means he simply can-do things other players cannot do. Durant’s wingspan and athleticism is frightening, and he has built himself into the best two-way player in the League (yes, ahead of Kawhi Leonard) this season. Durant has gobbled up shots like the Cookie Monster, but how can he win the award next to Green? Time will tell. Steven Adams might actually be the more deserving player as the Oklahoma City Thunder’s defensive anchor, but Paul George has been this season’s premier perimeter defender. He leads the League in deflections and steals, and the two-headed monster of George and Andre Roberson has been stifling for the Thunder’s defensive unit. Unfortunately, due to the Thunder’s inability to score, it hasn’t translated into wins and has gone vastly unnoticed by the majority of the league.

Patt: I picked Rudy Gobert to win Defensive Player of the Year this season, but obviously his injury has derailed that so far. Gobert should get himself back in the race if he stays healthy the rest of the year, but he’s behind the 8-ball at the moment.

Reigning Defensive Player of the Year Draymond Green will be in the running again. You could argue he’s in line to win. The Warriors are third in defensive rating, per, and he’s third in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. The Warriors kick it into a different gear defensively when he’s it, and their defensive rating is at its worst when he’s on the bench.

Right now, I’d lean toward Al Horford as the leader, though it’s not the slam dunk it looked like when the Celtics were in the midst of their streak. Boston’s defense is still ranked first in the league, but it has dipped a bit since a historic start. The Celtics’ defense has also statistically been better with Horford on the bench. Still, he is versatile anchor of the top-ranked defense, and he should get love for that.

Bodner: This is a weird year for the award. Rudy Gobert is out and has missed considerable time, Kawhi Leonard is just making his return, and the Golden State Warriors are having a down year defensively (by their standards). I still probably go Draymond Green. I’m not sure a whole lot has to be written about why. His sheer versatility and how he allows the Warriors to scheme around that is still a joy to watch. I will say, I think Joel Embiid, if he sneaks into the 70 games played range (unlikely as it may be) will, and should, get some serious consideration by years end.

Duffy: Andre Drummond. He’s No. 1 in:

  • Total rebounds
  • Rebounds per game
  • Defensive rebound percentage
  • Defensive win shares
  • Defensive BPM

Detroit started hot and cooled off. They’ve been slacking lately. We’re still learning what the Pistons are, but if they can stay in the playoff mix, I like Drummond over the usual suspects.

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Fippin: I think Westbrook and Draymond can probably start freeing up shelf-space for the trophy and feel pretty good about their chances. That said, somehow a team with James Harden and Ryan Anderson in the starting five is one of the best defensive teams in the league? How is this even happening? What a time to be alive! Can we just give the award to Clint Capela now, please? Dude is a BEAST.

I also like Myles Turner a lot. He’s not an advanced stats darling and guys like him don’t normally win this award anymore, but he’s blocking a ridiculous number of shots this season and the Pacers are looking more and more legit by the day.

With Steph Curry out, we’ve got our first real look at the Warriors with Kevin Durant at the helm. If for some terrible reason Curry missed the whole year, would the Warriors still be your title favorite?

Fippin: Honestly, no. Last year maybe but while Golden State has managed to win 3-4 without Steph this season, they haven’t looked like the same intimidating juggernauts we’ve grown to expect. First of all, they lost to the Kings (without Klay, but still). Secondly, they just haven’t been running away with these games. They aren’t nearly as scary from three without Curry on the floor and their ORtg dips by about 5 points per game in his absence. In a seven-game series against Houston, San Antonio, Boston, or even Cleveland, I think they have their hands full.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Joseph: Yes. They are the Golden State Warriors and they are still the best team in the NBA without Steph Curry. That being said, Curry, is that true layer of invincibility who provides an offensive gravity unlike any other. Combine that with becoming a legitimately good defender over time, and he is a player of which we’ve never seen. That is irreplaceable. Regardless at full throttle with the deepest team they’ve ever had the Warriors are still the League’s best team. They’ll likely survive Curry’s absence with a record few teams could match healthy. The Houston Rockets shape as a true contender to the throne, but let’s see the tandem of James Harden and Chris Paul (notorious struggles in key Playoff moments) overcome doubts before we label them favorites ahead of Golden State. With or without Steph, I’ll take Golden State over the field.

Patt: As good as KD, Dray, Klay and Co. are, I’m leaning toward the Warriors NOT being the title favorite if Steph wasn’t healthy. He’s just so important to their entire operation, and there are a handful of teams that could take them out. The Houston Rockets look like a juggernaut. The Spurs have been great without Kawhi Leonard and are a machine with him. I still see the Cleveland Cavaliers as the favorite in the East and would likely pick them in a Steph-less NBA Finals if the Warriors got through the West. The Celtics could give them trouble.

I’m not saying the Warriors couldn’t win it all without Steph, but I wouldn’t pick them to do it.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Bodner: My heart says no, that maybe Houston would challenge them. And I could hear that argument. But my head says yes, I’d still go Warriors. Dealing with KD, Klay, Draymond, along with a top-5 defense and one of the more reliable bench units in the league is still a lot to contend with.

Duffy: No. I’d take Cleveland. Steph’s become criminally underrated these past two years. He’s legitimately one of the NBA’s best players, but KD’s overtaken that “best player on the best team” role Curry occupied with back-to-back MVPs. Without him, Golden State is elite and would still be my bet to come out of the West. But I don’t think Durant can beat LeBron as the lone superstar. Give me the King over the Dubs sans Steph.

Finally, an exercise in creativity and flexibility. If you had to swap any two starters in the NBA, with the goal of not altering either team’s play style or talent level, which two players would you swap? (Bonus points if you don’t choose specialists)

Layne Murdoch; Sam Forencich/NBAE/Getty Images

Joseph: Kemba Walker and Damian Lillard. Walker is Lillard in a smaller market, with less attention and maybe just less swag overall. The crazy handles, the shooting, the finishing around the rim, the efficiency, these two are so similar it’s scary. Walker has replaced Mike Conley as the League’s most under-appreciated point guard. Lillard’s advantage over Walker (and it might be the only one) is how comfortable and ruthless he can be under pressure in the clutch. There might be no better player to pick when the game is on the line and there’s one possession left. Both guards here lack the wide recognition, but make the most sense in a straight swap. Take a closer look though, and these two players are a lot closer than you think.

Fippin: Man, there’s a lot of fun answers here. In the darkest (most fun) timeline, I’d crack open a beer, put on some sexy jazz music, swap Kevin Durant and Paul George, then laugh maniacally at the anarchy in my Twitter TL.

Aside from that dream scenario, you could probably swap George Hill with any mediocre point guard in the League right now and be even-stevens. Let’s just say Jose Calderon and call it a day. Hill would probably magically revert back to his 2016-2017 self but assuming he doesn’t wake up from his Sacramento slumber, we’ve got ourselves a match.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Patt: There are a ton of ways to go with this. At first, as a Bulls homer, I wanted to swap Stephen Curry and Kris Dunn just to see how far Curry could drag this bad Bulls team. But that obviously would change the talent level too much. I’m going to stick with Curry, and I’m going to swap him with James Harden. Why not put the best three-point shooter of all time on the team that shoots the most threes ever? Why not put the current MVP front-runner on the Warriors next to Klay, KD and Dray? Both teams are elite already, but it’d be interesting to see how much different things would be if they swapped.

Bodner: Gary Harris and Avery Bradley. I think Bradley’s going to end up costing a bit more than Harris’ current contract, and Detroit’s cap situation is pretty horrendous. Getting a slightly cheaper version might be intriguing. For the Nuggets, they get the version that’s probably slightly more ready to help them take the next step in securing a playoff spot out West, and perhaps doing something with that spot.

Duffy: Hmm. Tough one. Clint Capela and DeAndre Jordan is the best I got.