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:

Matt Ellentuck: SB Nation, contributor

Faizal Khamisa: Sportsnet, anchor

Jeff Lowe: Lights Camera Podcast, host

Karisa Maxwell: Sporting News, deputy editor

Dave Schilling: Bleacher Report, writer

 

The Cleveland Cavaliers were the big movers at this trade deadline, literally flipping half of their active roster. What did the moves they made say to you about both their long-term future and title chances this season?

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Ellentuck: The Cavaliers are here to push their payroll to the max and win with LeBron James, but not to the point where they were willing to trade the Brooklyn Nets lottery pick. At least, that’s what they showed at the trade deadline. They’re sort of halfway in and halfway out because that’s where James has led them by being non-committal about his future.

Cleveland did the best it could getting rid of struggling talent, and big contracts for younger players with a desire to actually play defense. We saw how key that was in their blowout win over the Celtics on Sunday, and this team should be marginally better by the playoffs. It’s tough to see them competing with the Warriors still.

Their future is LeBron James, though. If he doesn’t return, they’re stuck overpaying George Hill next year and Jordan Clarkson for two years. At least they’ll be able to start their rebuild whoever they take in the lottery this year, and that was their vision following the deadline.

We’ll always be left wondering what other talent they could’ve yielded by moving the Nets pick this trade deadline though, had James given the team his word.

Khamisa: It’s kind of wild that amidst all the chaos surrounding Cleveland this season, they kind of addressed both, no? They have some decent contracts for next year, whether LeBron leaves or not, and swapped out worse players for better ones at almost every necessary position for this year. In the East, you kind of only need LeBron James to validate your chances, but Cleveland’s game goes beyond just their division. It’s win or nothing while they have LBJ and the moves they made show they’re serious about winning it all, while they have a chance. Now chemistry will be an issue, yes, but again, when you have the best player in basketball, it makes things a lot easier to manager. I’m stunned at how well their deadline went, considering how poorly the previous two months had gone.

Lowe: I must note that I am a Cleveland Cavaliers fan, albeit a very pessimistic one. I am firmly in the corner of the “LeBron is staying” camp, though I may be singing a different tune had they not dealt Thomas and Crowder. To me, holding onto those guys would have been a sign that maybe Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman and company were fine with riding out the disastrous season, watching LeBron leave and starting over with the Nets pick. Obviously, that didn’t happen and both were traded.

So in terms of the future, I think it sets the Cavs up about as well as they could’ve hoped for at this point, considering everything that happened after the Kyrie Irving trade. LeBron seems happy, I don’t think he wants to leave, they are a younger squad and have a Nets pick that continues to look better and better (and I’m not sure many people realize that).

Turning to what it means for this season, I think they’re clearly a better team, but it is too early to tell if it will result in a title or even getting past five games in the Finals this year. The Boston win was impressive, but they have been struggling as of late themselves, and the Raptors, to me, look as good as ever, so I will even hesitate to say they’re the surefire East favorite right now. Regardless, I expect to see a totally different team in terms of speed, hustle, athleticism and, most importantly, defense, much like we saw against Boston. They won’t ever become an elite defensive team, but I think they’ll get to a point where contending for a title is somewhat realistic again.

A lot of the talk about the new players and their potential impact reminds me a lot of the J.R. Smith trade for the Cavs in 2015, especially with Clarkson, when he was viewed as the throwaway piece and “ugly” part of the trade. Then he obviously became a massive part of that season and the title season in 2015-16. So in short, I think playing with LeBron and for a title contender will bring those players to levels maybe not expected of them when the trade was announced.

I do think a rim protector from the buyout market is almost a must and they may be a piece behind the Rockets and Warriors, but they’re 100 percent more relevant today than they were before the deadline.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Maxwell: Up until the trade deadline, the hot topic surrounding the Cavs was obviously LeBron James’ impending free-agency, and with their pre-deadline roster being the oldest in the league—made up of injury-prone stars that are burning out—there wasn’t much of an appeal for LeBron to stay in Cleveland when he can get another title shot elsewhere. So, not only did the Cavs need to bring in new blood to rejuvenate their roster and keep their playoff hopes alive, but they needed to take steps to stay competitive if LeBron leaves—which could actually end up being reason enough to make him stay. The addition of energized 25-year-olds Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, and Akron’s other large adult son Larry Nance Jr. brings three players to the rotation who are about to enter the prime years of their career, and veteran George Hill who is used to playing alongside an All-Star in the backcourt (and can hopefully teach Clarkson how to share the ball). As far as title chances go, Cleveland’s black eye has been their atrocious defense, and while all four newcomers are capable of playing decent D, the athleticism of Larry Nance Jr. should play a crucial role in protecting the rim. If Sunday’s blowout win against the Celtics was any indication of the state of the Land, the Cavs will be just fine heading into the playoffs.

Schilling: It seems to me that punting on their assuredly late-first round pick and gobbling up young, athletic players bumping up against their ceilings already says, “we are desperate to get better now.” Their title chances are still slim, thanks to the heavy artillery in the Western Conference. Even a stumbling Warriors team with a lack of scoring punch off the bench is better than Cleveland. As for their long-term potential, that Boston pick still looks tasty in a strong draft and a bounce-back, post-rehab second half from Kevin Love could once again make him a valuable trade asset. A Finals run is feasible, but that is the bare minimum required to keep LeBron in Ohio. Either way, the Cavs’ rebuilding project is far from over.

 

Other than the Cavaliers many changes, what’s one move that felt incredibly crafty or wildly confusing to you this deadline?

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Lowe: I don’t really know how to classify the Blake Griffin trade for the Detroit Pistons, but I think it is easily the most interesting move of the deadline. You have the angle of Blake and the Clippers and him signing there thinking he would be the future. You have the angle of DeAndre Jordan being the one everyone expected to get dealt by the deadline. Lastly, you have the angle of how Blake Griffin will fit in with Andre Drummond in this current era of the NBA. It worked right out of the gate with a few wins, but then they go and lose games to the Clippers and a Hawks team that had just come off a loss to a Cavs team that played John Holland for 14 minutes. Even with those two losses, it seems as though the fit works following this pretty surprising trade.

Khamisa: Thanks to their direct involvement in the Cleveland roster overhaul, the Lakers came out spectacularly ahead in their future plans. For them it wasn’t necessarily about getting back players that can help, but more about getting numbers off their books and they managed to do that by moving Jordan Clarkson’s contract. The ambition is always high in LA, and the Lakers set themselves up to sign a couple max players next year, or have enough cap space left over to do so in a couple years where more attainable names hit the free agent market. I think they win as well by getting Isaiah Thomas. It’s no secret he wants to be star, and get a big pay day. While a lucrative, long-term contract may no longer be in the cards, finishing the year strong in LA and signing a short-term, high-money, prove-it deal could be the way he goes in rebranding his game, and most importantly his image. LA could be his home next season, if things end positively there.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Maxwell: You mean the Cavs weren’t the only team making moves this trade deadline? Honestly, everything else paled in comparison, but I guess I’m a little baffled by the Orlando Magic—who is not good—trading Elfrid Payton and his hair—who are both good—to the Phoenix Suns for just a second-round pick. But going back to the Cavs and completely disregarding the parameters of the question, as a Heat fan, I’m emotionally exhausted over Dwyane Wade returning to Miami. Welcome home, but please never do that to me again.

Schilling: Targeting Jordan Clarkson was smart on a number of levels. He’s been healthy most of his career, played under the microscope of Lakerland, and is hungry for playoff basketball. Also, as a sixth man the last couple of years in Los Angeles, he began to itch for the starting responsibilities. That was never going to happen after the Lakers drafted Lonzo Ball to be their franchise player of the future. Clarkson is the kind of fiery, aggressive player with a chip on his shoulder that Cleveland has been missing. He’s a subpar defender, but an instant offense point guard who can pass when necessary, but fine deferring to secondary bal handlers. Sound familiar? Sure, Clarkson is no Kyrie, but he’s an excellent facsimile.

Ellentuck: Distracted by all the moves Cleveland made, we haven’t talked much about the Knicks turning Doug McDermott, a talent who wasn’t going to be a long-term fit, into 2015 No. 7 pick Emmanuel Mudiay. (The three-team trade sent McDermott to the Mavericks and Devin Harris to the Nuggets.)

Mudiay may have been the outcast among a group of young, successful guard talents in Denver, but following Kristaps Porzingis season-ending injury, the Knicks have nothing left to play for. This is the perfect time to experiment with the young pieces they have and buy others on the low.

Even if Mudiay fails to ever reach a daily rotation status, he was worth the experiment.

 

The Golden State Warriors have had the 23rd ranked defense since Christmas. Chances are, it’s a correctable issue due to the long-winded nature of the season, but it’s notable. With rosters more or less set, save the buyout market, which team is best assembled to challenge the Warriors over the course of a seven-game series?

Lowe: Oh boy, this is the toughest question by far for a few reasons. As long as the Cavs have LeBron James, despite their showing in last year’s Finals, I will always give them a shot but I don’t think it is much of a realistic one. The Thunder have had the Warriors’ number this year, but they are one streaky and weird team. That really just leaves the Houston Rockets, who are probably best assembled to challenge the Warriors. From Chris Paul and what he has brought to Houston, to Clint Capella and his big season (23 points, 25 rebounds the other night is just stupid) to their elevated defense, I think they’re shot this year is light years ahead of where they were at last year. The Rockets just seem more equipped with their roster and play style to go toe-to-toe with the Warriors and, hell, even get to the Conference Finals this year.

The issue for me in figuring out if anyone can beat the Warriors is assessing their regular season effort. They don’t really have that fire and urgency it seemed as though they had all of last year. I am not saying they don’t care, but last year, especially as Durant became more comfortable, they seemed to have a goal to embarrass and ruin teams every single game. Now it just seems like a bore at times for them and when they really flip that switch, they dominate. I just expect to see a totally different team come playoff time. Their bench has maybe fallen off a bit from last year, but any team that can trot out the big four they have is always going to be the favorite. I know they’ve struggled with the Thunder and Rockets, and the West is more difficult, but the Cavs sort of got a pass the last few years in terms of “waiting to flip the switch” and I have no issue saying the same with the Warriors for the time being.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Schilling: The only team with the firepower to beat the Warriors is Houston. The Warriors’ defense is substandard, but in a seven-game series, Golden State can win a shootout four times. They were able to score 109 points against the vaunted Celtics defense in their last encounter on January 27. I’d give the Spurs more of a shot if they had a healthy Kawhi Leonard. Cleveland remains a question mark until we get a larger sample size. The Rockets have the third highest per-game scoring average in the league and are ranked first in margin of victory, per Basketball Reference. This is a team designed to go up against the Warriors and beat them at their own game of slash-and-kick. On top of that, they have the clear advantage in the front court, as they’re enjoying a career year from Clint Capela. (http://bleacherreport.com/articles/2749006-i-expect-to-beat-them-the-rockets-have-a-big-secret-to-dethroning-warriors) All that said, the Warriors are 40-10. Who are we kidding here?

Ellentuck: I’d be curious to hear any answer that isn’t the Houston Rockets, because to me, they seem to be the obvious threat. Mike D’Antoni’s offense is a masterpiece, and has allowed for (probably) the NBA’s best scoring talent to dominate the league. James Harden is otherworldly, and he’s surrounded by all the pieces he needs to be to succeed.

Chris Paul’s defense may be the team’s best acquisition of the offseason, and he’ll make Steph Curry’s life difficult. On the other end, with an infinite amount of shooting, Warriors players will be tasked to chase the perimeter harder than ever before, and when they do, Houston has the superior big man to clean up the misses. It’s tough to overstate how brilliant a fit Clint Capela has grown in to.

Do I think the Rockets will beat the Warriors? Well, no. I’m not that crazy. But there’s a chance, and this postseason can’t be written off yet.

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Maxwell: I would say out of the East, the Raptors are the safest bet. Not only does Toronto have a top-five offense and defense, but they have more depth than Cleveland or Boston. But again, the Cavs could be resurrected after their roster overhaul, so I wouldn’t count them out just yet (although I am less than thrilled at the prospect of Warriors-Cavs IV). From the West, I’d bet on the Rockets. They’re scrappy and versatile on defense and already beat Golden State two out of three times—not that that means anything in the playoffs.

Khamisa: The popular answer, I think, would be Houston, and that’s completely fair considering the Rockets have beaten the Warriors twice this season, and kind of laid out a blueprint to do so, but in the spirit of being different, I’m going to say the Toronto Raptors. Golden State, even if their offense is struggling against first units, or their defense is forced to work to shut down teams starting 5s, can take advantage of weaker, less offensively potent second units. Toronto has the best second unit in the League, and force you work even more on D than the starters at times. The rotation, the ball movement, they craftiness on offense leads to very little transition chances for opponents. Toronto’s lost both meetings against Golden State this season, by a combined 7 points, but the deficits were much larger until their bench brought them back. That second unit is for real, and the Raptors have no hesitation in trusting them over a longer stretch of a game.

 

If you had the power to ensure two teams met in the First Round from each conference, what two matchups would you want guaranteed?

Maxwell: The short and neutral answer is whichever team can beat the Cavs and Warriors in the playoffs. The better answer is a Western Conference matchup between Golden State and San Antonio, purely because the world needs more Gregg Popovich soundbites (Steve Kerr has some fire takes, too, to be fair), and since we’re talking dream matchups, it would be awesome to see Gordon Hayward make his return to the Celtics rotation in the playoffs against the new Cavs. It would also be the first and probably only time in my life that I would voluntarily cheer for a team from Boston.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Schilling: I want to see Golden State against this scrappy Clipper team. LA has been counted out and marked for rebuilding, but I badly want to see gunslinging Lou Williams go down swinging with a perpetual heat check performance against the best team in basketball. As bad as the Dubs’ defense has been, Lou would have no problem getting buckets. For similar reasons, I want to see Boston vs. Detroit. The Pistons are fun again and lord knows the first round could use an injection of fun.

 

Khamisa: While neither of these happen, the West is easy. Everyone wants to see Warriors-Rockets over the course of a playoff series. Two fun offenses, not a lot of defense, and two coaches that are smart enough to try to exploit the other’s weaknesses. Could be chaos. It helps Houston’s beat Golden state twice this season, and have a confidence that maybe no team has had over this four-year Warriors run.

In the East, I want Boston and Toronto to magically meet in the 1st round for the sole reason of quieting down a prideful fan-base. The online engagement when these two meet is a game in itself, and despite being in and around the top of the East over the last few seasons, they’ve been deprived a playoff series. They both think they’re the teams to beat in the conference, and it’s hard to argue with either, so let’s finally see who’s right.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Ellentuck: I’m a sucker for getting too excited about a franchise’s future, so sign me up for a Bucks-Sixers No. 4 vs. No. 5 matchup, and a Spurs-Nuggets No. 3 vs. No. 6.

Milwaukee-Philly will ensure one of our beautiful unicorns (Giannis Antetokounmpo or Joel Embiid) makes the second round of playoffs, thus gaining national recognition for their respective rebuilds. Antetokounmpo is already there as a superstar, and it’d be wonderful to see a healthy Jabari Parker succeed next to him. If they lost to the Sixers, I’m also extremely here for Embiid trash-talk along with the incentive for Philly to keep most of the same core going for the future. I’m really excited for the direction of both these teams.

In the West, I want to see San Antonio lose to Denver. The Nuggets are chugging along without their biggest free agent signing Paul Millsap, and it’s incredible. Jamal Murray is unreal, Nikola Jokic is a franchise piece, and in order for a smaller market team like that to gain steam in the public eye they need to knock off a Pop-coached team in the first round.

Let’s let our young unicorns be great!

Lowe: I’ll go with realistic matchups for this one. In the East, I would love to see the Sixers and the Celtics in the first round. I don’t really know what to make of the Sixers, I could see Simmons and Embiid having a statement series in the First Round. I am thinking along the lines of the Thunder challenging the Lakers as the eighth seed back in the early days of Durant, Westbrook and Harden. Plus a Boston and Philadelphia matchup in any sport is always entertaining.

Moving to the West, Pelicans and Warriors was the obvious choice before the DeMarcus Cousins injury, but now we move on from that one, unfortunately. I think the clear matchup now would be Minnesota and Oklahoma City. Talk about a slew of dynamic stars and upcoming stars in this league. I could see that series going seven games, with the winner maybe getting a game or two from the Warriors or Rockets. It’d be a hell of a series.

 

The NBA differs from many professional leagues when it comes to athletes on the roster having a say in franchise decisions. Recently, Damian Lillard sat down with team owner Paul Allen, the Bucks notified Giannis Antetokounmpo before firing Jason Kidd, and the Cavaliers ran trading Dwyane Wade away to LeBron James before committing. Players having a voice is part of what makes the NBA such a great League to be involved with. What sets the NBA apart from the MLB, NHL, and NFL for you?

Schilling: The players’ union in the NBA is far more powerful, which leads to a greater respect from ownership. But that power comes from the fact that the NBA, more than the other sports, are personality-driven. The images of the individual teams are often dictated by the superstar in each market. That’s why the loss of Blake and CP3 was so devastating to the Clippers, not just from a basketball standpoint, but from a marketing standpoint. Whose face do you put on the posters that cover up the Lakers’ championship banners that hang in Staples Center? Without stars, NBA franchises are just logos. In the NFL, no one player is bigger than the team (or the League). In the NBA, LeBron James IS the Cavs in the eyes of countless fans.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Ellentuck: The tweets. The drama. The Instagram shade. The Woj Bombs.

There’s nothing like the NBA, and I don’t think a sports league will ever compare. I’m not sure how many television shows on this planet have ever considered scripting a secret tunnel fight before, but on a random Monday night here we are refreshing our Twitter feeds for some Rockets-Clippers beef. NBA social media has gone off the rails this season, and through it, the fans have gotten a chance to meet all of the league’s personalities.

The NFL has Rob Gronkowski, but outside of him I’m not sure how many fans can identify the personalities around that league, and so on for the NHL and MLB.

In the NBA, it’s not just that we know how the superstars act. Bench players and non-superstars have seemingly just as big a voice on twitter dot com.

Swaggy P is like the eighth man off the Warriors bench… Lou Williams has never been an All-Star…. Enes Kanter wasn’t a regular starter until this season… Yet fans have strong feelings for and against each of these players because they’ve all shown us who they are beyond just athletes.

That’s what makes the NBA perfect.

Swipe through to recap Monday’s NBA action!

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Khamisa: When a market like Portland or Milwaukee land a player like Damian Lillard or Giannis Antetokounmpo, it’s important to show them your commitment. For as fun as the League is right now, there isn’t a wide amount of parity, so if you have a star, you do everything in your power to keep said star. The players know that and understand their power. They’re informed, educated and aware of what they do for the League, and have leveraged that knowledge in a smart way. Furthermore, they’re not afraid to voice their opinions publicly, whereas I find athletes from other sports are more hesitant to do so.

Lowe: I’m going outside the box for my answer. The NBA sets itself apart, far apart I might add, from the other leagues because of its social media presence. Sure, the NFL dominates social media on Sundays, but the NBA seems to be creeping into even the NFL’s territory more and more each season. A big reason for this is because the NBA isn’t a stickler with videos and highlights. Where the NFL, MLB or NHL may send takedown requests for posting a highlight on your Twitter feed, the NBA seems to encourage it. They want you, and everyone, to see as many highlights as possible. The world is growing so far beyond just TV and the NBA has embraced it better than any other league. I am sure the NFL, MLB and NHL might make more money with restrictions and putting advertisements on all content they allow, but the NBA has continued to build so much good faith with its fanbase and I think being so relaxed on video restrictions and allowing their content to boom and go viral on social from outlets not their own is a big reason why. Even just those 9-10 minute recap videos on YouTube from non-NBA affiliated accounts are enough for me to say the NBA is ahead of other leagues.

The 2018 Western Conference @nbaallstar Starters Pool!

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Maxwell: You’re spot on. Not only do players have a voice, but their voices are heard, and I think it’s refreshing as hell. Of the big four, the NBA is easily the most progressive league when it comes to encouraging its athletes and coaches to speak their mind—a practice that transcends franchise decisions, as we’ve seen surrounding social and political discourse. Personally, I think a major contributor to this culture gap is that the NBA is the only league where players have an identity and aren’t hidden behind a helmet or a face mask. The faces of stars are the faces of their perspective franchises, whether the team likes it or not. Unlike the “team over self” marketing strategy of the NHL, MLB, and NFL, the NBA markets itself off individual talent, knowing that household names are what sell tickets and make headlines—both on and off the court. So, if a player can openly make a statement about coaching and front office decisions without really risking their job, why should a team jeopardize its relationship with its star player if all it takes to avoid a PR nightmare is having a conversation? To be fair, it’s a lot easier to justify benching a player for challenging authority when there are 53 guys on the roster as opposed to only 14, but I’m all for grown ass adults considered experts in their industry being included in business strategy meetings.