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:

David Dearing: 1070 The Fan, host

Banksy Gonzalez: Uproxx, contributor

Rahul Lal: NBA Live, writer

Lawrence Murray: ESPN, associate editor

Who is going to get snubbed for All-Star this year?

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Dearing: I could definitely see Jimmy Butler being snubbed off this year’s All-Star Team and that would be a damn shame. His production and presence has made a difference Minnesota, but he barely cracked the top 10 in fan voting and is in a Western Conference loaded with talented guards. It feels like almost every year a player or two are unfairly left off the team (Dame). Hopefully, it’s not the case for Butler, because I love his game and think he definitely deserves it this year.

Lal: Surprisingly, Jimmy Butler slotted in at No. 10 on the voting list for guards in the Western Conference. While Damian Lillard seems to get snubbed every year, I’m very concerned that we could see the new Minnesota star failing to make the All-Star game for the first time in the last three years. Without a major market like Chicago backing him up, who knows how the fan-voting goes for him. In fact, Karl Anthony-Towns is only eighth in the West for frontcourt votes. Minnesota would currently have homecourt advantage in the playoffs and that’s, in part, due to Butler’s contributions. On the season, he’s averaged 21.5 points, 5 assists, and 5 rebounds on nearly 47 percent shooting, the best shooting efficiency of his career.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzalez: It took me a good while to think about this, and I had to run through the list quite a few times before I finally settled on an answer that stunned me: Dwight Howard.

Yes, Dwight is having a bit of a resurrection in Charlotte, putting up 16 points and 12 rebounds a game, and even looks like his old self. Those numbers aren’t exactly pushing the Hornets to more wins, but Dwight has played like one of the best bigs in the East. Unfortunately for him, the East is where the Unicorns roam, and Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis are shoo-ins for either the fan vote or the coaches vote after the starters are all figured out. That leaves a few scant frontcourt spots for the likes of Andre Drummond, Al Horford and Kevin Love. Dwight is probably the odd man out, but he deserves a spot this year. If things break his way, the former Dunk Contest winner might be back at All-Star at what has to be his least-favorite NBA arena.

Murray: Chris Paul missed the All-Star game last season for the first time in 10 years, in part due to a sprained thumb suffered in January. A couple of injuries this season has cost Paul some time in his first year in Houston Rockets red, and despite playing phenomenal ball when available, I worry that the injuries will leave him out of the game in Los Angeles. CP3 hasn’t been great as a scorer this season, but he is still contributing 17.3 points per game. And the rest of his game is still elite. He’s averaging 5.5 rebounds per game, the most in nine seasons. He’s at 9.3 assists per game and just under 1.9 steals per game, both of which would place Paul among the league leaders if he played enough games. And being in Houston means shooting more threes than ever, with Paul making a career-high 2.6 per game, more than double his career average. Paul isn’t going to win the guard popularity contest in the West as a starter, and there’s a major logjam for the 4-5 spots that the coaches will pick. Paul has been outstanding, but I can see him not getting an All-Star selection for the second season in a row.

DeMar DeRozan is having a career year—he’s added the long-missing three-point shot and playmaking to his game (career-best 37 percent from three and 5 APG). The Raptors also have the third best net rating in the NBA. Are the Raptors the biggest threat to the Cavaliers in the East?

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzalez: DeMar has been great this year, adding new layers to his game and becoming one of the most unguardable players in the League. The Raptors continuity and ability to develop young players like Norman Powell and Delon Wright into true contributors gives them more depth that almost anybody in the East. I hate to give such a simple answer to what is really a complex question, but they cannot beat the Cleveland Cavaliers in the playoffs because they simply have no answer for LeBron James.

Nobody does, but LeBron exploded against the Raptors last year in the playoffs, averaging 36 points a game, more than he did in any other series in the playoffs last year, and on 57/48/83 shooting splits. And all that was after they added PJ Tucker to hopefully slow him down. The Raptors get their first crack at the Cavs of the season this week, at home, while the Cavs are in a rut, but don’t be surprised if Toronto is just what LeBron and his buddies need to snap out of their lull and get rolling again.

Lal: When push comes to shove, no. The Raptors have looked legit and with the development in DeMar’s shooting, they’re a really tough team to slot against but I’m not buying them as the top contender. The month of January will reveal a lot for these Raptors as they play 15 games in 30 days. Many of those games come against the Eastern Conference’s elite including the Cavaliers themselves. While I don’t see any team outside of the Cavs significantly better than the Raptors, I don’t see any teams worse. The improvement on defense has Raptors fans happy but Boston’s coaching and leadership mixed with the young talent should keep them fresh come playoff time. As an analyst, it’s hard to not have a strong playoff memory—can we really trust the Toronto supporting cast to not only show up but also be efficient in the playoffs?

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Murray: No. Simply put, the Cavaliers have enjoyed seeing the Toronto Raptors the last two postseasons. I cape for the Raptors on a regular basis, but even I’m not putting Toronto in the same room as Cleveland. The number one threat to the Cavaliers in the East might not even be the Boston Celtics, who looked good in taking out a relatively weary Cavaliers team last week. Cleveland’s biggest threat is themselves – the fact that age, injury, chemistry, and motivation will cap their achievement level in the regular season and be an unanswered question in the postseason. The Raptors can win 60 games, and even they know that it all starts over once Game 1 of the quarterfinals commences. As you may know, the Toronto Raptors are 0-9 in franchise history in Game 1s of Round 1. But it doesn’t hurt the Raptors that they are building great habits on both ends of the floor.

Dearing: Sorry, but until DeRozan and Lowry stop routinely defecating all over themselves in the playoffs, I don’t buy it. They’d more than likely get swept by Cleveland again, or it’d go 5 or 6 games with the Cavs just destroying them each game in Cleveland, and then getting bored for a game or two up north. I’ve seen that movie before. So yeah, I’ll believe it when I see it. But, until then, I’d say the Celtics are Cleveland’s biggest threat, and even then, Cavs probably still win in 5 or 6.

Paul Pierce has come out and stated he’d prefer not to share the spotlight with Isaiah Thomas on the night of his jersey retirement. Fair or foul?

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Lal: Fair. Look, I get it. Putting my Lakers bias aside for a second, Paul Pierce enjoyed a great wheelchair-sitting career in Boston. Just the fact that he devoted so much of his career to the city alone deserves it to be his night. That being said, I don’t see why this is a huge deal. An IT tribute video takes about 30 seconds and can be played pregame, during a timeout or at just about any other time. Personally, I don’t see why it’s an issue, but Pierce deserves final say on everything that goes on Sunday, February 11.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Murray: Fair. Pardon the comparison, but it would have been weird as hell if Nick Young got a tribute video during 8/24 night last month. I don’t believe the Dallas Mavericks had anything else going on to take away from Derek Harper’s jersey retirement Sunday against the New York Knicks. The Celtics didn’t plan to have Thomas and Pierce honored on the same night, and when do you hear of a player who plays for another team dictating terms of a tribute video?! Patrick Beverley, now with the LA Clippers and out for the season due to knee surgery, got a dope tribute video when the Clippers were in Houston last month. It’s not like the Rockets waited until he’s healthy and killing them to run the treatment. Whatever winds up happening is up to the Celtics, but I don’t think folks should be coming at Paul Pierce for requesting his jersey retirement be the sole special event that night. We wouldn’t ask many other players to share the spotlight on their night, so why should Pierce acquiesce?

Dearing: Absolutely foul. It may be “your” night, but it’s the team that is choosing to honor you. Besides, would he really be “sharing” the night with Isaiah? He’s getting a full ceremony at halftime where his number will be sent up to the ceiling right next to some of the all-time legends of the game, while Thomas would be getting probably a quick 30 second video during pregame introductions. It’s not like they’re bringing Isaiah out at halftime for a 15-minute Q&A. Come on, Truth. Do better.

Gonzalez: As much as I loathe Paul Pierce, I think it’s fair. The jersey retirement night is one of those nights a player dreams of, and with a team as historic as the Boston Celtics, it’s an honor that is close to being enshrined in the Hall of Fame. In fact, all but three of the Celtics players to have their number retired by the organization are in the Hall of Fame, so yeah, this is major. If Pierce wants that moment to himself, that entire night to himself, that’s understandable, he’s literally worked his entire life for this.

Why he changed his opinion on the situation in a matter of hours is anybody’s guess. Why the Celtics decided to have Paul Pierce night on a night when they play LeBron James and the Cavaliers is anybody’s guess as well. But if Paul Pierce wants the night to be about him and No. 34 then so be it. Still, I think he’ll lighten his stance as the night comes around.

When asked about his pitch to Paul George this offseason, Russell Westbrook said, “Sales pitch is going to be when we win a championship—beat that pitch.” After a slow start, the Thunder have won 14 of their last 19, do you think this team has the talent to seriously make that “pitch?”

Murray: Ha. Why not? Sure, the Thunder have enough talent to test the Warriors. Not seriously, though. I still feel like the Thunder bench doesn’t have a difference maker to mix things up against the postseason Warriors. Golden State has Andre Iguodala, who is taking it easy this regular season. Oklahoma City has…questions. But we’ll see how much Paul George and Carmelo Anthony continue to adjust their games to fit in with Westbrook as the season goes along. George has been incredible lately with his shooting, shot selection and general effectiveness off the ball in the last few weeks while Westbrook has been in a prime rhythm. We all know what happened in the first Warriors-Thunder meeting. But we saw what the Warriors did last postseason. They know what kind of team they are. Oklahoma City, even with the recent success, is still searching.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Dearing: Ha, no. No team with Carmelo Anthony will ever go to the Finals, and will have a hell of a time just reaching the Conference Finals. The Thunder Trio are all still shooting under 44 percent from the field, and you just can’t have that kind of shooting percentage from three high-volume shooters if you want to even think about beating Golden State in a seven-game series. Besides, Paul George is going to the Lakers. He’s wanted to be Kobe his entire career. He wore Kobe’s number in college and in the NBA, and would even shout “Kobe!” in practice during his first few years with the Pacers. He’s never wanted to be himself, but rather be just like others. So, the only logical step is for him to go to the Lakers.

Gonzalez: The Thunder blitzed the Warriors back in November, in what was their best game of the season. Russell Westbrook looked spectacular, and it seemed everybody else fell in line. They were only 8-9 at the time, and immediately dropped their next three games, but that was kind of the precursor of what the Thunder have become a few months later: a souped up version of the 2016-17 Thunder, where all things begin and end with Russell Westbrook.

Do they have the talent to beat the Warriors four times in seven games, with four games in Oakland? Probably not. The matchups don’t favor them. Their best defensive team, with the likes of Roberson, Grant and Adams, will struggle to keep up with the Warriors scoring. The X-factor will be Steven Adams, who nearly swung the 2016 Western Conference Finals by forcing the Warriors to stay big more often than they wanted to and crashing the boards on offense, manufacturing extra opportunities for the Thunder. If he cane be a disruptive force and make the Warriors play a true center more than they want, the Thunder can be frisky, push the series into the 6-7 game range and then anything is possible.

Will they do it? Probably not, because the Warriors showed an enhanced focus and even broke a few new wrinkles out when they needed them in the playoffs last year. But is it possible? Sure. But the Thunder have five months to fine-tune their entire machine and became the absolute best version of themselves as possible: A defensive menace with tons of length, bodies to throw at Kevin Durant, legs to chase Klay Thompson and Steph Curry, poise to not let things slip away when the Warriors inevitably get hot and herculean efforts from Adams in the middle on a nightly basis. We’ll find out in May.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Lal: No. The Thunder have been on fire as of late and that’s largely attributed to efficiency from their big three. During a recent 10-game stretch, Russell Westbrook averaged 30.7 points on 54.5 percent shooting, Melo put up 17.6 points on 48.9 percent shooting (and a red-hot 44.1 from three), and Paul George shot above 50 percent from both the field and from three putting up 22.4 points per game. While that’s all fun and makes for great games on TNT, what happens when they inevitably regress to the mean? When it comes time to play in ego-driven playoff games, can we really trust personalities and playing styles to crash? How about outside of the big three, do the struggles from early season continue? Don’t forget this team lacks depth and one injury to the frontcourt could permanently stop any momentum they’ve been building.

Chris Paul has been tested in different ways this season. Physically, with injuries to both himself and James Harden and then mentally with a new team and co-star dynamic. He’s met the challenges head on and is having a really strong year with numbers on par for CP3. Is Paul still a top seven player? If so, where do you have him at this moment?

Dearing: I don’t know about top 7, but he’s definitely still a top 10 player in my mind. I have him right behind Kyrie Irving, and ahead of Klay Thompson and Draymond Green. I never thought him and Harden would be able to co-exist, but they have proven me wrong, and it’s been a joy to watch.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonzalez: Now that LeBron has his rings, D-Wade has his and the ceiling has been lowered on Carmelo’s career, Chris Paul is the last player of that era and of the banana boat crew to fully suffer the brunt of the the Ringz era scrutiny. But Paul’s failure to win a title or reach the Conference Finals does not make him less of a player, or make his regular season exploits any less legendary. While plenty of people worried about his fit in Houston, the team has clearly been better when he’s been on the court. Even at 32, he’s still one of the best players in the League. Whether he’s top 7 or top 10 probably depends on just how much you value DeMarcus Cousins, despite all his flows, and Anthony Davis and his fragility.

The top five players in the League are LeBron, Durant, Curry, Harden and Kawhi in some order, but Paul is undoubtedly in the next tier of players with Giannis, Westbrook, Davis, Cousins, Draymond Green, Jimmy Butler and the like. Paul is probably just outside the top 7, fighting for a spot in the Top 10, And, yes, behind his foe DeMarcus Cousins.

Lal: I’m going with no but it has nothing to do with Paul as he’s been incredible this season playing second-fiddle. The easy list of players to list ahead of him are LeBron, Kevin Durant, Steph, his teammate Harden, and Kawhi Leonard—that’s already five players. Next, I’m inclined to put Russell Westbrook, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo on the list. That brings us to eight. If I take it a bit further and add in Jimmy Butler and Paul George, we’ve now rounded out a top 10 that’s still missing all-world talents like DeMarcus Cousins, John Wall, Kyrie Irving, and DeMar DeRozan. While he may not be the unquestioned top point guard in the game anymore, he can still hold his own against nearly anybody and playing in a Mike D’Antoni offense has been a breath of fresh air for NBA fans. Let’s use this season as a chance to really just enjoy Chris Paul’s game as he’s putting on a clinic contributing in ways both on-the-ball and off-the-ball that we’ve never seen before.

Murray: I shared most of my Chris Paul thoughts earlier. I feel like he’s an All-Star caliber talent. But top seven seems too rich for my blood. In no particular order, you still have LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, the theory of Kawhi Leonard (who is having the 1996-97 version of David Robinson’s season in San Antonio, unfortunately), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Anthony Davis, Kyrie Irving for sure. CP3 might be top-10. Top 15 for sure.