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:
Joe Garza: Yahoo Sports, NBA editor
Kirk Henderson: Mavs Moneyball, social media coordinator
George Kondoleon: BBallBreakdown, contributor
Kyle Maggio: The Knicks Wall Podcast, co-host
Kevin Rafuse: Drive and Dish Podcast, host
The Houston Rockets have won 12 in a row, they’re 13-0 with Chris Paul in the lineup and this team is looking insanely polished and it’s only December. Are they a legitimate threat to challenge the Warriors for the Larry O’Brien Trophy?
Garza: In order to believe the Rockets can win an NBA Championship, you have to believe:
- Chris Paul, who will be 33 in the playoffs, can stay healthy
- Trevor Ariza can continue to provide 35 invaluable minutes a night.
- A team whose third-best player is Clint Capela can knock off the Warriors in a seven-game series.
I can (sometimes) suspend disbelief for the massive plot holes in Christopher Nolan movies, but I cant’ bring myself to do it for the Rockets, who will still be depending on Ryan Anderson and Eric Gordon for threes in crucial possessions.
That said, I do like the fact that Chris Paul is playing career-low minutes. For now. Until his next injury.
Henderson: If the playoffs started today, I think they’d absolutely be a threat to the Warriors. But it’s a long season and I really believe there’s such a thing as peaking too early (shout out to the 2006-07 Dallas Mavericks). The Rockets are playing amazing and the Warriors are sort of bumbling along and the two teams essentially have the same record. The Warriors have a number of other levels to get to and I think if they decide to focus, they could run away with the number one seed. Instead, this will end up being the defining story the second half of the season until the two teams meet in the playoffs. And the Warriors will sweep the Rockets.
Kondoleon: Houston’s legitimacy in contending for a title will unsurprisingly fall on the shoulder’s on their triad of guards. Chris Paul, Eric Gordon, and early MVP frontrunner James Harden have been the driving force of the Rockets’ blazing start. The Paul trade has fell in Daryl Morey’s favor thus far, and his presence on the court seems to elevate the rest of the team’s play. Harden’s innate ability to score already puts Houston in a comfortable position nightly, but it’s the performance of the role players that are keeping Mike D’Antoni’s high-octane offense sustainable. Gordon, Harden and Trevor Ariza have been the most efficient three-man lineup in the NBA through 23 games, leading the League in net rating. Ryan Anderson’s importance in small-ball lineup remains evident. His 60 percent efficient field goal percentage has helped space the offense as usual for Harden and Paul. The additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have allowed the Rockets to inch closer to the chase of the Warriors, providing defensive versatility when Clint Capela is on the bench. The Rockets are a legitimate threat to any team in the league right now, and even if the Warriors are still a step ahead, their path to a repeat will be a lot rockier because of Houston.
Maggio: Anytime a team can shoot that many threes, that efficiently, it’s worth discussing whether they can dethrone the champs. Look; the game slows down in the playoffs, let’s make no mistake. A team as defensively versatile as the Warriors will be able to handle what D’Antoni & Co. can throw at them, but if they’re hot, it could happen. Let’s also not forget how much they’ve improved defensively, something last year’s team couldn’t boast, with the additions of Luc Mbah A Moute and PJ Tucker, and with Clint Cappela really coming into his own. It’s way too early to say they will dethrone the Warriors, but at this moment in time, do they have a chance? Absolutely.
Rafuse: They’re legit, and we as basketball fans need a Rockets/Warriors Western Conference Finals. All the worries about Chris Paul and James Harden both being too ball dominant have faded quickly, as you can’t exactly fake winning your first 14 games in the lineup together. James Harden continues to play at an MVP level. Eric Gordon, Ryan Anderson and Trevor Ariza continue to knock down three-pointers. Clint Capela has improved in quite literally, everything. The reason I have them able to compete with the Warriors though is their defense. Perimeter defense is so crucial against the Warriors, and Houston has brought in the guys to do that. You can throw a Luc Mbah a Moute or a PJ Tucker on a Kevin Durant all game, and have Chris Paul on Curry. With excellent rim protection led by Nene and Clint Capela, they have the makings to go deep into the playoffs. The Warriors are still the favorites, but the Rockets look like they can give them a run, which is exciting to see. If Houston gets past Golden State, it would be foolish to think they aren’t capable of beating Cleveland.
The Chicago Bulls have won five in a row, which is something they hadn’t done since December of 2015. It’s worth celebrating, especially since the Bulls started out awfully. However, with every win they risk climbing further up the draft board. What are your thoughts on learning how to win and nurturing a culture of winning vs. maintaining a low draft slot in the modern NBA?
Henderson: This really depends how many players on the team that the management feels are core players to build around. If Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine are that core, then winning is more important than lottery odds. There’s real value in establishing a culture, but considering Fred Hoiberg isn’t going to be the coach next year (the Bulls just dont fire coaches) it feels a little weird that the Bulls are actually winning games. Also color me skeptical that any of those aforementioned three players has super star potential.
Kondoleon: An NBA team’s goal is to provide the best product it can to appease its fanbase. It might sound a little hypocritical coming from a guy who caped for the Sixers’ rebuild plan for years, but this sport is an entertainment business. The Chicago Bulls have a massive following they must continuously appeal to. Sure, putting yourself as close to the top of the draft as possible gives you a higher probability to find the league’s next star, but even that isn’t a guarantee. Not only are you keeping fans happy, but you’re able to better assess the value of your players. Is Nikola Mirotic a key piece moving forward? Absolutely not. Is he going to improve his trade value? Maybe a little. Winning basketball does wonders for culture, and even if roster turnover is high the next few years in Chicago, maintaining a hopeful locker room will provide experience for the youth that will be a stable part of the team for seasons to come. Calculating risk to nab a high draft pick is smart, but winning brings in incalculable rewards.
Maggio: Honestly, the Bulls are fun in the sense that a lot of awful teams have been fun over the last few season. There’s no incentive to win any games, so the fans can just enjoy watching Kris Dunn develop into a legitimate NBA guard and Lauri Markkanen shut up folks who doubted him at draft (namely me, whose draft hopes for the Knicks we anyone but Lauri). As for whether it’s best to develop a winning culture or maintain the tank, it’s worth noting you can try for both. Yes, I’m talking about The Process. Philadelphia locked up a guy they felt could develop a winning culture in Brett Brown, and they tanked hard. While the Sixers are surely an extreme outlier, but it’s doable. With two young guys who appear to be legitimate in Markkanen and Dunn, the team should focus on trying to win some games. This team isn’t talented enough to continue to win, but trying to win could go a long way for the young guys in the future.
Rafuse: After four years of Process watching, I’ve spent way too much time thinking about this question. The condensed version: I’m OK with winning if it hurts draft standing, but only if it’s done the right way. As just a general NBA point, I don’t want to see overpaid journeymen winning irrelevant games that hurt your long-term stock, but if your young guys are leading you, it only builds good habits.
In the case of the Bulls, we’ve seen early positive returns on Markkanen, and Kris Dunn has begun to show some life. Zach Lavine is returning. There’s value in seeing how good these guys are, and who project to be long term pieces of the team. With draft lottery reform as well, it’s less of a guarantee that being the worst team will get the #1 pick. As long as you stay playing the younger talent, and don’t make a panic “win now” type move, winning a couple of games now will be OK.
Garza: I don’t think it’s so much developing a winning culture or learning how to win as it is talent development, which has to be the top priority. The draft is a guarantee of nothing, but the effort put into developing Lauri Markkanen, Kris Dunn (still only 23!), Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Denzel Valentine and David Nwaba, that’s where it’s at.
Look, this still isn’t going to be a good team. Chicago is still getting a nice draft pick. And adding a decent prospect to a mix that has some internally developed success is invaluable. And—oh my god, I have just argued for a winning culture. So much for analytics and advance stats. Next up is my dissertation on want, hustle, stick-to-it-tiveness and intangibles.
So yeah, winning and development still matter because high draft picks can sometimes get you an Anthony Bennett and there isn’t a Joel Embiid or Ben Simmons on this Chicago roster.
Put on your GM hat for a moment, the NBA trade deadline is creeping up: 3 p.m. on February 8, before All-Star weekend this year. If the Thunder are below or right near .500 and you’re Sam Presti, are you trading Paul George?
Kondoleon: Many variables come into play. On one hand, Oklahoma City would still be in the playoff race. Even with the apparent dysfunction between them, the Thunder have three experienced and prominent offensive players that could theoretically give them a miraculous push once the postseason starts, but the regular season has hardly hinted at any of that coming to life. On the other hand, viewing Paul George as a sunk cost would mean the Thunder have given up hope of him re-signing or are unconvinced the team could do any real damage in the playoffs. George really should be the dominant player in Oklahoma City’s offense this season, and his misuse will limit the franchise’s ability to go the distance. Last season, Westbrook was their only life; this year he’s becoming their roadblock. Trading George would not bring in maximum value, but possibly enough to build a complementary team around their cornerstone.
Maggio: Oh man, I’m getting PG out of there. Look, the point of trading for guys like Paul George and Carmelo Anthony was to convince Russell Westbrook that you could get him some help to attempt to contend. Mission accomplished, Russ re-signed. If the Thunder can put together a really strong stretch from now until the All-Star break, I think you roll the dice. But under or only at .500? I don’t think you can risk it. Move PG, get what you can, and try to find a young, shooting wing to fill in that gap this summer.
Rafuse: I’m not trading him, simply because I don’t think the haul would be there. We already saw Paul George go for much less than expected this past offseason, and one would think the value would be even lower for a half-season rental potentially. Plus at the end of the day, it feels like a knee jerk reaction to give up on someone as talented as Paul George after half a season. They need to do more to get him involved, as it feels like he’s currently just a catch and shoot guy. Things like this take time. The goal is to get into the playoffs. If they’re playing well towards the end of the season, we know they have the talent to win games. There’s no doubt a Paul George move could get the Thunder some much needed depth, but I don’t think it would be enough to justify the move.
Garza: I think Presti probably should move him if the Thunder continue to struggle, but because of those pesky, big-picture franchise issues, he simply can’t. OKC is already a tough enough destination. Factor in a freewheeling-and-dealing GM, a star in Russ who may not be able to make others better, and a team without a clear direction if they make another move and deal PG, and you kind of have a situation that appeals to nobody. Agents, players, other teams—they’d all take notice. So the Thunder really can’t trade him.
If it were simply about basketball, I would move him. I am not a fan of athletic 6-9 guys who are 43 percent career shooters. I think George is one of the most overrated players in basketball and we’re seeing his lack of impact again with another franchise.
Henderson: No. The Thunder are in for a penny and in for a pound with George. Presti will try something, just because he’s incapable of sitting pat with a roster that’s this combustible, but George should be off the table. They gave up far too much to get him (at least when considering how good Indiana looks right now) to give up. If anything, they should give Billy Donovan his walking papers. Whatever system they are running doesn’t look like much of anything. George and Carmelo Anthony being washed are their real problems.
Sticking with the GM theme, it’s become abundantly clear Marc Gasol is this year’s Paul George. He wants out and has made it rather clear with both his play and commentary he’s unhappy. In your opinion, where’s the ideal landing spot for Gasol and what’s the best-case haul in that scenario for Memphis?
Maggio: I’m not confident Memphis gets a good haul for Gasol. As for a landing spot, and I’m thinking of this on the fly as I type this and have done no research into why it would or wouldn’t work out, how about Toronto? You have Lowry for another three years, DeRozen has emerged to be a top-tier shooting guard in the League, and the bigs there have largely underperformed. Couple that with Bron & Co. are aging in Cleveland (as much as LeBron is winning the fight versus Father Time right now), a big three of Lowry, DeRozen and Gasol could do some damage in the East. For Memphis, they can take back some salary with Jonas Valanciunas and perhaps one of Norman Powell or OG Anunoby and a first?
Rafuse: Cleveland is going to get tossed around a lot, especially with the Brooklyn pick in play, but I really think Portland could be a great landing spot for Gasol. If you’re Memphis, is Jusuf Nurkic, Evan Turner and a second round pick enough? The money works, and it makes sense for Portland. Gasol is under control for a couple of years, and ideally alongside Lillard and McCollum, it takes the team to the next level. You also shed some bad money with Turner, and don’t gamble on an overpay with Nurkic. For Memphis, getting a pick would be more ideal, as their draft cupboard is bare, but a young player like Nurkic could do it. The Thunder could be interesting as well. Would they trade Steven Adams straight up for Gasol? Portland or Cleveland though would be my ideal destinations.
Garza: After thinking about this quite a bit, I can’t get past the idea of Gasol going to Cleveland in a deal that includes the Cavs’ first-round pick from Brooklyn. It just makes too much sense.
I know the Cavs likely want to keep the pick as insurance for a rebuild if LeBron leaves in free agency, but if LeBron does leave … it’s all over anyway. A first-rounder isn’t making the road that much easier. The Cavs have to go all-in now and Gasol is the exact kind of vet that makes sense for a team gunning for one more NBA title.
And of course, the first-rounder gives the Grizz a glimmer of hope, which is all you can ask for when you look at the contracts they’re saddled with.
Henderson: I really like the idea of Portland. Nurkic is better than he appeared to be in Denver, he’s not a franchise big man. Gasol brings defense, shooting, and a beard that would fit in really well in the Portland area. For Memphis, they really need to hope they can convince the Cavaliers to part with the pick they are owed by the Brooklyn Nets. That’s the best haul they can hope for, everything else being discussed is filler.
Kondoleon: Marc Gasol’s trade value will be interesting to see unfold. Gasol is one of the League’s elite centers, but at 32-years old and on a massive contract, he is going to be hard to move. The League is cash strapped and the teams within arm’s reach of a championship won’t have a need for the aging, unhappy veteran. The small-ball revolution has forced him to adapt, and he’s done so by developing his outside shot. Look at the rest of the League. Portland could be a potential trade partner, depending on whether Memphis is willing to undersell. I envision Washington and Milwaukee kicking the tires on a deal, just to put them among the Eastern elites. Grizzlies should be looking for a non-lottery first-round pick this season, with either a young player with a glimpse of promise or another lottery-protected future first as a sweetener.
What player currently averaging less than 20 minutes a game could be an impact starter but is just lacking the opportunity to do so?
Rafuse: I’m going to say Nemanja Bjelica. He gets lost in Thibs rotations, but we know shooting is at a premium, and I think he could be a solid stretch 4 for somebody. Shooting 51 percent from beyond the arc this year with an effective field goal percentage of 70. He’s a bit of a late bloomer, already being 29 years old, but with the way the game keeps evolving, I think he could get quality minutes in the right situation.
Garza: My first instinct was to say Jahlil Okafor, but honestly none of us knows if he has any value. We are all assuming. Just like when Radiohead puts out a new record, I’m assuming I’ll be asleep by the third song. But that’s not always the case. We just don’t know.
So my real answer is Toronto’s Jakob Poeltl. And I have to use him now for this exercise because he’s going to eclipse that 20-minute mark soon after getting a big minute bump in December. Poeltl’s blocked by Jonas Valanciunas, currently averages 16.8 MPG (21.4 in December) and has not started a game this season.
Poeltl plays within himself, doesn’t try to do too much and has been key for the Raps’ second unit. He could be a better rebounder, but he’s an old-school big who fits Toronto’s homage to ’90s-style ball perfectly. His Per-36 numbers are 15.3 and 9.4 and he spells his first name with a “K.” That adds up to a package I can’t resist. I could see him doing damage for Milwaukee or Brooklyn, perhaps.
Henderson: I’ve been sweet on the potential of Alec Burks since he played at the University of Colorado. We keep seeing flashes that fade and while he’s had some recent explosions for the Jazz, he’s now hidden behind Donovan Mitchell. He’s been given more of a chance recently, but there’s a clear minutes and usage cap in Utah. His salary and deal are really interesting, particularly considering the Jazz also have to commit to Rodney Hood soon.
Kondoleon: Sixers center Richaun Holmes has some glaring weaknesses, but he could absolutely be an impactful starter for a competitive team. He played a major part in Philadelphia’s offense next to Dario Saric last season. He fits the mold of a modern-center, and has been hidden this year behind injury and Amir Johnson. Holmes is a springy center that can be serviceable on defense at times. He’s a subpar rebounder as well, but a team running a fast-paced offense would benefit immensely from his presence in transition. Holmes is on an expiring deal, and he could even be trade bait this February depending on how Philadelphia’s roster shapes out in terms of health. The Sixers are likely to let Johnson walk, and the expected arrival of Jonah Bolden, who is impressing from Israel, could see the end of Holmes’ tenure in Philadelphia. He won’t be the hottest commodity, but if a team is looking for a cheap option, Holmes could land himself a big role.
Maggio: *LOUDLY CLEARS THROAT* Michael Paul Beasley Jr.
OK, no, but seriously, call me a homer and I know I’m fudging the line a bit here, but Doug McDermott. He’s averaging about 20.5 minutes per game, but he’s done a hell of a lot more than just stand outside and knock down threes this season. He’s been cutting like a mad man—though the paint, backdoor, wherever—and it’s been paying off heavily. On top of his improved offensive play, in the sense that’s he’s mixing up how he’s been scoring, he’s also been an improved defender this season as well, and you can check out our own Jeff Bellone’s @KnicksFilmSchool account to see what I mean. McBuckets can play, and I hope he’s given a starting opportunity to do so, whether it’s in New York or elsewhere. He’s shooting about 50 percent from the field on a whole, and about 42 percent from deep. Mix that with his ability to cut, get to the rim, dribble off screens and knock down shots—he could be a 13-15 point per game guy shooting at an efficient clip. Sign me up.