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:

Beau Estes: NBA TV, analyst

Luke Knox: ESPN, art director

Dean Maniatt: Brew Hoop, contributor

Anna Melissa: NBA freelance

Ben Taylor: Thinking Basketball, author

The All-Star snubs list is long this year: Andre Drummond, Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, and Lou Williams to start. Who is the biggest snub and who would you punt to make room?

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Knox: Lou Williams. If I could make room for one guy, it’s got to be him because it’s such a great story. A 31-year-old on his sixth team putting together a great season under the radar. He was always an instant offensive threat off the bench whose numbers were a little better than you would expect (28.1 points per 100 possessions, 17.8 PER for his career entering this season), and now he’s got a 30 USG% while shooting 40 percent from three—both career highs. You could make a case for Paul George, too, but he’s made four ASG appearances and will be there again. As far as who gets the boot, Kyle Lowry would have to be that guy for me. Toronto and The Six, please do not @ me.

Estes: This is a tough one for me because I tend to believe there are more than 24 players in the NBA that I view as All Stars. The expansion of All-Star rosters is a discussion for another time though.

If I had to choose, I’d go with Paul George. Yes, he was named as a replacement, but he was still a snub for the top 24. He’s the highest scoring player on a top 5 team in either conference that’s *not* in the All-Star game. He’s averaging a team and career best 42 percent from three which places him in the top 20 in the entire League. Additionally, he’s No. 1 in the entire NBA in steals.

I realize I’m sticking my ample neck out there on this one: I’d remove Draymond Green. I understand all that he means to the Warriors on and off of the box score but in looking at his numbers, there are some downward trends. For the second year in a row his rebounding numbers are down over his career best effort, his steals are down significantly and his turnovers are up.

To me, Draymond Green is one of the most important players in the NBA to his team so don’t get me wrong, I think of Draymond as an All Star, but for the purposes of this discussion, he’d get dropped.

Maniatt: That’s a tough question, given the significant uptick of talent we’ve seen in the Association in recent years. You could viably substitute about half of the players in each roster and you’d be hard-pressed to make an argument that it was the wrong call.

DeMarcus Cousins’ unfortunate injury has opened the door for the inclusion of Paul George, who would be my first choice from the list of All-Star snubs and although someone like Lou Williams might certainly be deserving of a roster spot, the talent depth in the Western Conference backcourt makes it impossible for me to pick someone that I’d be okay with replacing him for.

I’d have to go with Kemba Walker, who has a tremendous impact on the Charlotte Hornets. Walker’s On/Off Net Rating is a league-leading +18.2, and with him on the court (in 1602 minutes), the Hornets perform like a 50-win team. With Walker off (in 712 minutes) the court, they plummet to a 31-win team.

As for the player I’d remove to make room for Kemba Walker, It’d have to be John Wall, who’s been obviously affected by injuries, but the majority of his metrics have regressed since the previous season. [Ed note: this was written before Wall’s recent announcement that he’ll be missing the All-Star Game for a knee procedure.]

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Melissa: Simple. Lou Williams was my biggest All-Star snub for the year. He’s carried the injury-ridden Clippers through the season and is allowing them to make that push for the playoffs. Tough to say who I’d swap him for. But if I really had to pick, I’d swap Klay for Lou. Fight me.

Taylor: Chris Paul. When we look back historically, it’s hard to explain why superstars miss All-Star games when they have great years in their prime and still play 65 games. Kareem played 20 seasons and made 19 All-Star games, and the single year he missed was smack in the heart of his prime during a perfectly excellent season (1978). Why was he overlooked? Because he missed the first 20 games of the season after breaking his hand fighting Kent Benson. So I tend to lean toward the philosophy of “if he’s healthy, and he’s better than the rest, put him on the team.” Especially when he’s played enough to demonstrate excellence, which Paul has done this year.

He’s in the top-three in ESPN’s RPM (a hybrid of box score and plus-minus data), fifth in the league in estimated creation, his scoring and efficiency are near his typical levels and Houston has been lights out with him. In 503 minutes this year without Harden but with Paul, Houston’s outscored opponents by 14.1 points per 100 possessions (per pbpstats.com). He’s not a fringe All-Star to me, he’s one of the best players in the league still. I’d boot someone from the East (Wall) in protest of picking 12 per conference.

 

The tank race is heating up. The Hawks, Kings, Magic, Mavericks, and Suns are all struggling to win games and make headlines, but of those five bottom feeders, which has the most promising future?

Knox: Oh man, so many tire-fire franchises to choose from there. Realistically, I think it’s hard for the Western Conference options (Kings, Mavs, Suns) to be very upwardly mobile in the next few seasons—their schedules will be loaded with the League’s best teams, and those aren’t franchises I would consider the best at drafting and developing the right prospects to capitalize on their many draft assets. So that leaves Atlanta and Orlando. Between the two, I’d give the slight edge to Atlanta. Yeah, they blew up their core and started over, but Mike Budenholzer is still a competent coach, John Collins is a promising talent and most of all they play in the East. Three years ago the Hawks were a 60-win squad; not saying they can be there again three seasons from now, but with a few solid draft picks I think they’ll be closer to 60 wins than 30. Can’t say the same about any of the other nightmare teams on this list.

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Maniatt: I could see the merits for picking each of these five teams as the one with the most promising future, but I think that it’s important to take into account all of the factors than can dictate a team’s future success: current talent level, prospective draft advantage, coaching strength and front office stability.While most of these teams have established NBA coaches, we can’t be certain that changes won’t be made one or two years down the road. If we evaluate front office health, a team like Dallas would have the edge, based on the strong presence of Mark Cuban, but again, things change quickly in the Association.

I’d prefer to focus more on the roster aspects of the equation, and under that light, the team that I’ll go with are the Phoenix Suns. The Suns have probably the deepest current talent pool with Booker, Bender, Chriss, Jackson and Warren among others, and they also have a bevy of first-round picks coming their way in the next four seasons (two from the Miami Heat and one from the Milwaukee Bucks), as well as a couple of second-round picks.If they can hire a young, up-and-coming coach who will develop along with their roster, and move away from the reported dysfunction of the management, the Suns are primed to become a team that can impact the NBA in the future.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Melissa: That’s tough to say. It’s Aaron Gordon’s contract year, so who knows where he or the Magic will end up. But I think the Mavs because of Dennis Smith Jr., the kid has a lot of potential. The Mavs are in a weird spot, as Dirk is nearing the end of his career and they are looking towards a future with a point guard that just barely turned 20. But being one of the few rookies this year to be able to get a triple-double under his belt in the first half of the season,  Smith Jr. is heading in the right direction. Granted, the success of an organization can’t lie solely on a rookie that’s still honing his craft. But if he sticks with it, develops his game, chills out on the turnover-happy games he has and keeps that confidence, the Mavs could have a pretty bright future with Smith on their squad.

Taylor: Man, that’s a complicated question. I’ll view “promising” as more than just making the playoffs, but actually becoming contenders. Historically, cellar-dwellers gentrify by finding multiple All-Stars in the draft or bagging them in free agency. The Hawks, Magic, Suns and Kings all have SRS’s below -4.5 right now. (SRS is a schedule-adjusted point differential that is more predictive than win percentage). Since the merger in 1977, there have been 183 teams with an SRS below -4.5, and only five of those teams crossed the 5-SRS mark (55-win pace) within two seasons: Bird’s Celtics, the Wade-Shaq Heat, the Duncan-Robinson Spurs, the Kevin Johnson-Jeff Hornacek-Tom Chambers Suns and Grant Hill’s Sprite-drinking Pistons. If we look at what happens four years out, six more teams crossed that 5-SRS threshold, including teams like OKC with Durant, Westbrook and Harden, “Webber’s” Kings, Paul’s Clippers, LeBron’s Cavs and Shaq’s Magic.

I hope you’re sensing a pattern here. Ninety-three percent of these struggling teams won’t be contenders by the next Winter Olympics in 2022, and the ones who will be need young megastars or to trade for an established behemoth for cents on the dollar. So do any of these “tanking” teams have at least one future MVP candidate? Dallas and Sacramento both drafted young, franchise-potential point guards and the book it still way out on them. Devin Booker is an outside candidate, but I’m not sure he has the passing or defense to elevate beyond All-Star. Phoenix has a stockpile of 20-year olds, strong draft capital (Miami and Milwaukee picks) and I imagine they’ll target Aaron Gordon in free agency, but I’m not sure that gets them there. I think my answer is the Mavs, who have the best team this year (and a positive point differential with Dirk), the best coach of the group and the most stable organizational climate. They also have a bunch of cap room in the next few years.

Estes: For me, this one is pretty straightforward. In a league where success depends in no small part upon having stars, the Phoenix Suns already have a budding superstar in Devin Booker. At 21 years old he is already a near 25PPG scorer putting him on the edge of Top 10 in the league and he’s paired with another 20 PPG scorer in TJ Warren, so the offense has a solid foundation. They just desperately need defense.

The Suns are also well positioned for the future with enough cap room to be fairly aggressive and as many as three first round draft picks in June. I don’t think their ascension will be instant, but it could be quick.

After a disappointing showing from the rookie class in 2016-17, which sophomore has impressed you most this year?

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Taylor: Probably Jaylen Brown. After a quiet first year, he’s become an above-average defensive wing with passable starting 2-guard offense. He’s capable of hitting open threes, has a midrange game and has added some isolation as well. He’s not a star, but there’s a reason he’s logging heavy minutes on one of the better teams in the League.

Maniatt: I’d have to go with Kris Dunn, who seemed like he was on his way for an early exit from the League last season, both before and after he was traded to the Chicago Bulls. The continuous inclusion and exclusion from rotations, his suspect perimeter game and his advanced age for a rookie were all working against him, but he somehow managed to turn a corner in the first half of the 2017-2018 season.

Dunn has established himself as an excellent on-ball defender, being third in steals-per-game, while being the primary creator for the Chicago Bulls. His strong driving ability, coupled with his developing outside shooting may mean that the Bulls have their point guard of the future.

Other than Dunn, Jaylen Brown, Jamal Murray and Malcolm Brogdon all seem to have taken a step forward, so the 2016-2017 draft class may still hold surprises for us down the road.

Melissa: As an LA native, and much as I’d hate to sound biased, I do have to say that the sophomore that has impressed me the most as of late is Brandon Ingram. The Lakers obviously aren’t having the best season, which was expected considering the rebuilding process. But Brandon Ingram has shown so much improvement, I think, simply because he is just visibly more confident in himself. He’s gotten more aggressive, he’s attacking the basket. He’s drawing the contact. Ingram has a lot of potential. And I can’t wait to see where that kid is going to be in the next couple of years.

Estes: This one was close to me and I gave a long look to Jamal Murray, but with the opening night injury to Gordon Hayward, Jaylen Brown has been relied upon by the East leading Boston Celtics to produce more across the board and he’s delivered. While his minutes haven’t quite doubled vs. his rookie year, his points and steals have more than doubled. He’s doubled his rebounding output and his assists are nearly twice as high.

Brown is expending all of this energy while meeting all of Boston’s demanding defensive requirements, yet he’s still shooting better both on 3’s and overall.

The Celtics were in trouble when Hayward went down and Brown helped rescue the ship quickly, asserting himself on an elite team as their second leading scorer and one of their most reliable contributors.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Knox: I’m going with Domantas Sabonis of Indiana. Among sophomores with 1,000 minutes, he’s first in Win Shares per 48 minutes (.134, same as Demarcus Cousins this season). Like his dad, Sabonis is also a good passer for a big. As pointed out by Tony East of Fansided, Sabonis has a 12.4 AST%, higher than teammate Joe Young (9.4), who’s a point guard. Here’s some fun with math to illustrate the leap Sabonis has made from last season: his minutes per game have increased 27 percent (20.1 to 25.5), while his points per game have gone up 112 percent (5.9 to 12.5) and his rebounds per game had a 133-percent spike (3.6 to 8.4). The kid is still just 21, by the way. And it’s important to note, I don’t think he’d be my guy if not for the trade. If Paul George goes to Boston in a different deal and Sabonis is still in OKC this season, hard to imagine him getting the amount of production he’s had with the Pacers.

Last year the season narrative was consumed by the MVP race and Russell Westbrook’s triple-double pace. What’s the most prevalent storyline this season?

Melissa: Personally, I’m looking at Kyrie. Kyrie came in for Isaiah Thomas, who was loved so much by Boston. So I think there was an expectation there from Boston fans. But I think that he’s found his place and he’s taken on a leadership role. And now Boston is thriving with the best record in the East. Hard to argue with that.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Taylor: For me, it’s Houston, and whether they can dethrone Golden State. I know we don’t like to talk about this ever since Kevin Durant broke antitrust laws, but the Warriors are kind of a big deal. During my GOAT series, I’ve used “full-strength” point differentials to compare teams on an even playing field. Last year’s Warriors team was the best ever by that measure. So for someone to catch them would be like finding a second Usain Bolt. This year’s team hasn’t been quite as good so far, but they still have an enormous margin of error against everyone…but not Houston.

The Rockets have benefited from adding Paul, but they rounded out the roster, too. Capela has improved. Gordon is playing extremely well. And in a master stroke, newcomers PJ Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have added defense while retaining their spacing. And the results have been head-turning; in 23 games with Harden and Paul this year, Houston is 20-3 with a 10.3 SRS and an unholy offensive rating of 118.8. For comparison, the Warriors have played 20 games with their top-five guys and are 16-4 with a 10.1 SRS and 118.3 offensive rating. This is serious folks. The Dubs likely have another gear—and their top-end lineups are a bit better—but what’s happening in Houston right now is borderline amazing. Golden State is still the favorite (and homecourt helps, too), but the Rockets have more than a puncher’s chance against them.

Estes: This feels like a prisoner of the moment choice, but I’m going with the demise of the Cleveland Cavaliers both from a performance and a team chemistry standpoint.

January arrived with them losing three straight games and in the new year they’ve started off at just 4-7. Defense is largely about effort and the Cavaliers give up more points per game than any currently qualifying Eastern Conference team. They are the worst field goal percentage defense team in the entire Eastern Conference, but more than any of this, they don’t seem to either fit or even be getting along particularly well.

There is this lingering “Cleveland Faucet Theory” that has existed for the last few years leading people to believe that LeBron and the Cavaliers could turn it on when the moment arrived and Cleveland would cruise through the East. This feels different though.

Isaiah Thomas is a great player, but I’m not sure he fits. Jae Crowder has surprised me because I thought he was a perfect addition, both offensively and defensively, and yet it hasn’t worked. Perhaps, we’re seeing a moderate blip and soon Isaiah’s legs will come back and all will be well, but I’m not confident of that outcome. I think the Cavs are at a crossroads. Do they make bold changes that point to another June run or do they start thinking about the future?

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Knox: For me, it’s this Cavaliers team sliding toward mediocrity in their last season in which they can convince LeBron James to stay put. You can say their winning percentage is hovering around .600, and that would certainly be enough to snag a top 3 seed in the East. But they are 11-13 on the road, and I consider that a decent metric for a team’s mental toughness and competence. By comparison, the ’95 Rockets were the lowest-seeded team to win a title and even they were a better road team than that (22-19). Not to mention, the Cavs are 4-7 in January thus far and LeBron has been voicing his displeasure all season in ways both big and small. If they don’t have a ton of things fall their way, you’ve got to wonder how badly James will want to return.

Maniatt: I’d love to steer the narrative to the Cleveland Cavaliers’ obvious dysfunction, but as that’s been the focus for the majority of media outlets, I think that it’s important to touch on something that’s been plaguing the NBA: the continuous emergence of injuries.

While freak injuries, such as the one suffered by Gordon Hayward in the season opener, cannot be attributed to controllable factors, we see an ever-increasing number of injuries that sideline players. The recent examples of DeMarcus Cousins and Andre Roberson are just the tip of the iceberg, with several of the league’s top players having missed games due to health-related issues (Stephen Curry, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Durant, James Harden, Chris Paul, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, etc.).

In an era where players average the fewest minutes in NBA history, but with an increasing pace and number of possessions, the Association and teams need to address this problem and try to construct a comprehensive plan for dealing with that disturbing trend.

Charles Barkley was a player who is painted beautifully by the numbers and yet fights to deny the merit of math in sports at every turn. Nikola Jokic of the Denver Nuggets recently said, “I hate stats.” He’s just the latest in a long line of players to detest statistics publicly. Why do you think players, especially players reflected in such a positive light by the numbers, seem to oppose the growth of analytics and statistics so aggressively?

 

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Taylor: Permit me to wear my behavioral hat here. I don’t think players like it when outsiders encroach on their turf. In their minds, they know the game better than a spreadsheeter because they’ve been inside the lines. They know subtleties we don’t. But there’s more to player analysis than inside knowledge or skill, or else Michael Jordan would be working on a dynasty in Washington with Kwame Brown.

I also imagine it’s an affront to their common sense to reduce their jobs to esoteric metrics. They’re focused on game plans and how they should defend certain pick-and-roll combinations, not determining “overall impact.” If we had people judging our work with opaque stats it would probably be…annoying. Now also seems like a good time to mention that players were resistant to film review when it was introduced — no one likes adding more to their job, especially when it could expose them.

Estes: For starters, I certainly know of some former players that don’t seem to enjoy and embrace the development of analytics, but to be fair, there are others that have dug in and have used the information to their advantage.

One that comes to mind is Brent Barry. His career numbers look even better when viewed through the lens of advanced stats and when he prepares for broadcasts, I know that detailed statistical information is a big part of what he is looking at.

For those that don’t embrace analytics, I suppose the reasons vary. I’m confident that they trust their eyes implicitly and feel that they have a certain expertise in the field of talent evaluation. Perhaps they believe, and I’m speculating a bit here, that their own expertise is what they bring to the table and that analytics are readily available in a variety of places if fans want to dig into that. I also think there is a generational aspect to this and that’s where the Jokic example gets interesting and is sort of an outlier to me. I tend to think younger people embrace and employ more of this information.

I’m going to date myself a bit here, but when I started with NBA and Turner Sports in 1994, these advanced stats just weren’t really a part of the general discussion as I recall. Now, every kid just out of college that we hire seems to have a firm grasp of analytics and these stats are as much a part of the discussion as points per game.

I guess the shorter way of summing up my long-winded answer is to say that I think there are a variety of reasons players don’t always embrace analytics, but I definitely think that some do and their numbers are growing.

Knox: Kevin Durant has been quoted as having a similar distaste for advanced stats when asked about his own stellar numbers a few years ago. I don’t have an answer for why players feel this way. In general, I believe statistics are powerful tools to uncover trends and explanations for things that wouldn’t otherwise be available—but, they only do that in the hands of someone who knows how to use those tools properly. Hard to argue against analytics when you look at the runaway success of the Rockets, an organization run by stathead Daryl Morey. But hey, that’s my opinion.

Maniatt: I think that there are two separate types of people who resist the recent influx of statistical analysis, but with a somewhat common basis in their thought process.

The first type is players from previous eras, such as Charles Barkley, who reigned in a time where results was the only thing that mattered. Shot efficiency and the maximization of possessions were concepts that were quite abstract, with players’ impact being measured with one simple variable: You either win or you don’t. From a macro view, basketball has not changed. You still can either win or lose a game, but analytics have provided a different path to reaching success, based more on reducing the probability of undesirable outcomes than letting the flow of the game be dictated by the skill set of an individual player. Nevertheless, as a person who loves analytics but who also grew up watching Michael Jordan dominate the game (albeit with what would now be considered an inefficient shot profile), I think that it’s true that micromanagement reduces the “romantic” aspects of the game.

The second type is those who—despite being analytics darlings—struggle with acknowledging their importance, due to the added pressure that advanced metrics can put on a player. The emergence of multi-year projection evaluation models can be taxing to the mindset of a person who is expected to perform at a certain level consistently. Especially with the increasing number of younger stars in the League, players are immediately labeled as being beneficial or detrimental to a team’s success based on their advanced metric values, drawing comparisons with contemporary and historical players.

It’s hard to maintain your level of play for 82 games throughout a season and even more so for consecutive seasons and analytics can be especially unforgiving for players who go through rough patches in their performance. Maintaining expectations without the ability to just let results (as we mentioned earlier) speak for themselves may be asking too much of people like  Jokic, where excellence is the standard set by metrics and anything other than that is considered a failure. Again, it all comes down to the “romantic” aspects of the game. If you get caught up in trying to meet expectations from an analytics standpoint, basketball becomes less fun.

Melissa: Well I think that when it comes to players that are reflected in a positive light by numbers and stats, and the opposition to the growth of analytics, it comes from a greater understanding the game. The best players have a deeper and more robust understanding of the game beyond stats. Because while a player can be putting up double digits or racking up triple doubles, there’s also the teammate that allows them to get those numbers. For every player that has averages in the double digits, there’s the teammate that doesn’t get those numbers that allows his teammate to get the open look or is great defensively, that forces his man to take a highly contested shot. Basketball is as much an ecosystem as it is a numbers game.