Around the Rim

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:

Akash Anavarathan: Fear the Sword, contributor

Josh Bowe: Mavs Moneyball, editor

Jared Mintz: FanRag Sports, contributor

Daniel Reynolds: Raptors HQ, manager

Antwan Staley: 790 The Ticket, host

Favorite All-Star weekend ever?

 

Bowe: I want to cheat and say 2006, if only because that’s the year Dirk Nowitzki won the three-point contest. To be honest, much of that weekend was unremarkable and the contest Dirk won wasn’t even a real scorcher. The game in 2003 is a real contender, if only for watching Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant go after it like a real-life version of Looper playing before our eyes.

In the end, I’m going off-beat a little and picking 2008. The dunk contest was seemingly on life support and Dwight Howard brought it back to life with one of the better performances in the last 20 years. Dwight’s dunks have aged very well over time (uhm, watch the tap-back one-hander again) and it’s kind of funny to think back on a time when everyone LOVED Dwight Howard.

Andy Hayt/NBAE via Getty Images

Mintz: I. Can’t. Pick. Just. One.

Looking at some of my favorite memories, it’s easy to say 2000 because of the GOAT Dunk Contest (although 2016 gives it more of a run for its money than anyone is comfortable admitting) and the Jason Williams elbow-pass.

1994 also has a special place in my heart, as it was the second ever All-Star Game I remember watching, and there were three Knicks in the game.

But really, nothing can top 2001, as my favorite player at the time, Allen Iverson, led the Eastern Conference to a 21-point fourth quarter comeback. AI and Stephon Marbury, with Dikembe Mutombo grabbing what felt like 149 rebounds, got past the behemoths of the Western Conference, which was almost spoiled by Kobe Bryant’s own heroics. Iverson dropped 15 points in the final quarter.

This game was so symbolic of Iverson as a basketball player: the underdog who thrived going against players who were bigger, stronger, and probably more talented. It’s rumored that when Iverson went to the scorer’s table to check back into the game in the fourth he asked if anyone wanted to bet whether or not the East could come back.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Anavarathan: Personally, the event I look forward to every year during All-Star weekend is the Slam Dunk contest. There’s nothing like seeing the world’s most gifted athletes do crazy, acrobatic moves and emphatically throw the ball down. (It’s also pretty funny to watch the bench reactions during these dunks)

With that said, I think my most favorite All-Star weekend would be 2016, with Zach LaVine and Aaron Gordon trying to one-up the other with out-of-this-world slam dunks.

The two 21-year-olds went back and forth trying to prove to the basketball world why the other was the better dunker, coming up with some ridiculous highlights in the process. It left the crowd stunned and the judges struggling to come up with a result.

Since I was only born in 1996 and missed Michael Jordan’s dunk contest and was too young to remember Vince Carter’s “it’s over” moment, I’ll pick the All-Star weekend in Toronto as my favorite.

Reynolds: My favorite All-Star weekend ever will always be the one I attended as a media member: 2016 in Toronto—which also just happens to be my home. It was amid the Raptors’ most successful season to date, it had one of the more memorable dunk contests of all time, we got to laugh about Sting (Sting!) playing the ASG half-time show, and it felt like everyone in the NBA world was having a great time in Canada’s greatest city. (Yes, despite the cold.)

Plus, Drake got to pretend to be a head coach. What a time, indeed.

Staley: Probably have to go with 2000. The slam dunk contest returned and Vince Carter was a big reason it is still around today. Outside of that, Tracy McGrady and Steve Francis also had great performances that weekend in the dunk contest.

Best part of All-Star 2018?

Bowe: The best part was undoubtedly the game, which was one of the more competitive from start to finish in recent memory. The new team changes added the right amount of spice the game desperately needed and it was neat to see a somewhat facsimile of a typical high-profile NBA game. I mean, the Three-Point Contest was alright, but nobody remembers those anymore because who really cares watching dudes do stuff teams do 35 times a night now? The novelty of the three has slowly eroded. Let’s also not mention the dunk contest, which might be one of the low-key worst in some time. Dennis Smith Jr. had the best dunk by a mile and the rest weren’t even that good. In a contest with 12 total dunks, two of them were copies of former dunks and one was a very normal dunk with a mask on. Do better!

Mintz: I thought this was as good of a weekend as we’ve had in a while.

Klay Thompson and Devin Booker both going off in the final round of the three-point contest was a lot of fun, and made me excited to think about them potentially being rivals. The dunk contest had some really creative dunks and ideas, and I think it gave Donovan Mitchell the spotlight he’s so deserving of to show us what a star he is/will be. His dunks were great, his charisma was better. We also had some legitimate star power in the Rising Stars game with Embiid, Simmons, and Mitchell.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

To top it all off, this was probably the best All-Star Game in a few years. I just don’t know what we could’ve imagined that would’ve topped LeBron, Kyrie, KD and Russ leading a comeback, with the game ending on Durant and LeBron preventing Steph from getting a shot up. You couldn’t have scripted it better, and even though it was a high-scoring affair, there was defensive intensity for a good portion of the contest. Sign me up for six more games of that and let’s make it a best-of-seven.

Reynolds: I’ll be honest, much like the majority of the NBA, I take All-Star weekend as a chance for a vacation from professional basketball. Now thanks to the ease at which we can get highlights, jokes, commentary and everything in between on the festivities, it’s fun to just gorge on social media sporadically (or after the fact) and catch all the best bits in one go.

Somewhere in all of that come my favorite moments: Joel Embiid tweeting about cheating in the Skills competition, Donovan Mitchell trying to pay tribute to Vince Carter in the dunk contest (sorry, can’t be done), and the highlights (and hilarious lowlights) from the interminably long All-Star Game itself. But really, perhaps the best part: I don’t have to see a single second of Kevin Hart!

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Anavarathan: LeBron James running back to his team’s bench, arms spread out with a big smile on his face after the buzzer sounded should tell fans what the best part of All-Star weekend was. I haven’t seen James have that kind of celebration since his game winner over the Orlando Magic in the 2009 Eastern Conference Finals.

While the three-point contest, slam dunk contest and skills challenge didn’t live up to expectations, the actual All-Star game was far better than years’ past. Allowing Steph Curry and James to draft their own rosters allowed for interesting matchups and storylines heading into the game, which normally wouldn’t be the case.

The intensity on both ends of the court in the fourth quarter is what fans expect from the game’s biggest stars. Having it come down to the last few possessions was one of the best finishes I’ve seen in an All-Star game recently. Once again, the focus is on the actual game—the way it’s supposed to be.

Staley: The game itself. The new format worked at least this year. Normally the game is boring in the middle but I enjoyed it throughout the night. Hopefully this excitement continues.

If we had a one-on-one tournament at All-Star weekend, what would your final four be and why?

Mintz: In a tournament setting I would think your final four would be LeBron, Durant, Anthony Davis and Giannis Antetokounmpo, with LeBron and Durant meeting in the finals (how are they not the top two one-seeds in a tournament?). I’m not sure if he’s the best player in the NBA, but I don’t see how Kevin Durant doesn’t have the ultimate edge in a one-on-one tournament. He’s a deadly accurate shooter, he’s incredibly long, he moves like a guard, he protects the rim. Where LeBron can impact the game in so many different ways, and you can’t give Curry an inch of air or he’ll make you pay, there’s nothing you can do to stop Durant offensively. I wouldn’t want to guard Kyrie on the perimeter, or have to stop Curry from bombing from 10-15 feet behind the three-point line, but Durant is a mercenary from anywhere on the court, and has the speed and size to stop the league’s best guards from scoring on him.

 Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Reynolds: My final four: LeBron James, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo. As far as I can tell, these are the four guys with the best one-on-one offensive skillset who could also guard almost any player thrown at them.

As for how it would go: LeBron overpowers Harden, Durant outsmarts Giannis, and we get the ultimate showdown: LeBron vs. KD. This is really a coin-flip match-up, but I’ll give the title to Durant: few can move and shoot like he can, and KD is one of the few humans on the planet who can stay with LeBron. For the record: this hypothetical tournament would be exhausting.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Staley: LeBron, Durant, Westbrook and Curry. Think these are four of the best five players in the League today. Also believe you would get some high spirited games as well:

Anavarathan: One half of the bracket would be Kyrie Irving matched up against Steph Curry. Ever since Irving stepped back to hit the go-ahead three over Curry in Game 7 of the NBA Finals, I’ve been dreaming of a one on one matchup between the two superstars. Both have arguably one of the best handles in the game, can finish at the rim with either hand and look to embarrass an opposing defender on a nightly basis. I’ll give the slight edge to Curry winning this matchup due to his greater threat of the outside shot, but it’s truly a coin flip game.

The other half would be Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kevin Durant going head to head. Personally, I love the athleticism, length and skill in this matchup. Physically, Antetokounmpo is a carbon copy of Durant, but his athletic ability is on an entirely different level. This one on one could set a record for the number of chase down blocks given the wingspan of both players. While the Curry-Irving matchup will have the crowd “ooooh-ing and aaah-ing,” this head to head should feature lock-down defense and rim-rocking dunks. Again, Durant’s more consistent jumper should give him the advantage over the younger Greek Freak.

In the Championship round, Durant vs. Curry doesn’t seem fair at first, but I think Curry’s quickness and ability to separate from bigger defenders is underrated. But Durant’s overwhelming size should be no match on the other end of the floor. I’ll take the newer Warrior in this head to head matchup, giving Durant the belt in this one on one tournament.

Bowe: This is easy. LeBron James vs. Kyrie Irving and Russell Westbrook vs. Kevin Durant. I don’t really care if they aren’t the perfect, dream matches from a competitive standpoint, I just want maximum pettiness. Everybody would watch those final two matchups. For how it goes, I’m still biased toward bigs and so give me LeBron and KD in the finals with LeBron winning and Kyrie and Rus throwing some mighty shade on Instagram later that night.

Biggest individual disappointment this season?

Reynolds: It makes sense that Andrew Wiggins would slide into the role as third most significant player on the Minnesota Timberwolves. With Jimmy Butler as the alpha dog, and Karl-Anthony Towns as the elite franchise big man of the future, there’s really only so much else for Wiggins to do. These are all true statements—but that doesn’t mean I have to like them.

There’s just something off about where Wiggins is in his career right now. Sure he’s only 22, but he’s also in his fourth year in the League, and about to start a truly massive $146.5 million deal. And again, while it makes sense for his numbers to go down given the pedigree of his new and newer teammates, it just doesn’t feel like Wiggins is making much of an impression on most games. He’ll have his moments, and the highlights will pop up every so often, but is this the most we can hope for with a former No. 1 overall pick?

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Staley: I thought when the Cavs got Jae Crowder, he would improve the team defensively and his numbers would improve. Not only did his play not improve but Crowder wasn’t the same player that he was defensively in Boston. That’s why the team shipped him to Utah at the deadline.

Anavarathan: While he’s only 22, I think Andrew Wiggins has been the largest disappointment in the NBA so far. After signing a five-year, nearly $150 million contract extension and “promising” to become a better player, I think Wiggins has regressed. The Timberwolves are having their best season since the early 2000s and their soon-to-be highest paid player has taken a step back.

Wiggins is averaging 17.5 points per game, six points less than his average last season. His shooting numbers have dipped from 2016-17, shooting two percentage points less total and four percentage points less from beyond the arc.

While it’s not time to hit the panic button yet on the 22-year old, his growth has definitely been curved with the arrival of Jimmy Butler. The former No. 1 overall pick was expected to be one of the best players on his team and has instead turned into a role player for the Timberwolves.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Bowe: The two easiest targets are Andrew Wiggins and Carmelo Anthony, but while they might seem like massive disappointments from the public eye, they are two players who have been ripped and torn apart by the basketball twitter wolves. You can find a lot of evidence that Wiggins has never really been all that good and many predicted Anthony, a player who has never really taken to being a role player, would be fit in perfectly as a role player. Olympic Melo was a mirage! So instead of those two, I’ll go with the other obvious candidate: Isaiah Thomas. This isn’t really an indictment on Thomas, who has been through hell the last 10 months from losing his sister, playing hurt and going through a long rehab. It’s not really Thomas’ fault that he’s been so bad this season before getting dumped to the Lakers. It was always going to take him some time to get back in shape after the hip injury. But he didn’t make things easier on himself by rubbing seemingly every one of his teammates the wrong way and carrying himself like he was still the player he was in Boston. Thomas could have been an entertaining and fun fit next to LeBron but instead the entire situation was ugly and sad.

Holy crap, who is going to pay Thomas this summer? What a huge downturn of a beloved and good player.

Mintz: This is a really difficult question with regards to expectations. Looking at the upper echelon of NBA talent, it feels like most players have maintained their level of greatness, if not topped it. Despite mailing in a month of the season, LeBron’s still a legit MVP candidate. Both Rockets guards are having career years, same for the Warriors dynamic duo of Durant and Curry. Guys like Giannis and DeMar DeRozan have taken leaps, even Boogie Cousins was having a ridiculous season before his achilles injury.

I think the obvious answer here is probably Isaiah Thomas, but I do believe part of his shortcomings came from being a bad fit and not having enough time to recover from hip surgery to get comfortable.

I don’t want to kick someone while they’re down, but I think I’m going to have to go with Dion Waiters here, who’s been out with a season-ending ankle injury since late December.

After posting a career-best 39.5-percent from three last season, Waiters regressed HARD down to 30.6-percent. Sticking in Miami, it seemed Waiters finally found the right system and fit, and that his best version had finally been activated. Well, bad Dion showed up for the 2017-18 season, and hopefully he’ll come back healthy and back to the 2016-17 version of himself next season.

 Which team heading into the final third of the season is most desperate to make the playoffs and why?

Staley: Detroit because they made a huge splash trading for Blake Griffin. If you’re going to make a move like that, you certainly better get into the playoffs. Currently they’re at the ninth spot, but with the Heat struggling, they have a chance to sneak in.

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Anavarathan: While they’re currently in the No. 7 seed, I think the Portland Trail Blazers are the most desperate to make the playoffs. Out of the teams on the cusp, I think the Blazers have the least excuses for why they aren’t in the top 16.

The Clippers were never expected to be in the playoff mix, shipping out Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and losing numerous players to injuries. The Pelicans lost DeMarcus Cousins and the Nuggets are still a young team looking to make their mark.

In the East, there’s never any expectation with the Pistons—even if they went splashy adding Blake Griffin – or the Hornets. The 76ers and Heat are still young and don’t have established superstars.

Portland still has two of the most dynamic guards in the NBA, Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum. There should be no reason for them to miss out on the playoffs, regardless of how strong the West is. They are only a half game up on the eight-seeded Pelicans, so expect them to come out of the All-Star break with some desperation.

Chris Schwegler/NBAE via Getty Images

Bowe: This is a toss-up between Detroit and New Orleans. Both are small markets that are tough sells for free agents and both are the type of teams that really value the accomplishment of making the playoffs. Not every team can win a ring and for some markets, just getting the fans excited about a playoff series is all you need for a successful season. Let’s go with New Orleans. While both traded away first-round picks to get help for the stretch run, the Pelicans surrendered theirs for a role player while the Pistons did it for an All-Star. That might make Detroit more desperate but if they fail to make the playoffs this season, they still have Blake Griffin in the fold and can enter the summer more prepared to build the team they want.

If New Orleans doesn’t make it, honestly, what’s next? DeMarcus Cousins is a free agent with a now bum Achilles and the team is otherwise capped out with a bunch of OK to below-average role players. Anthony Davis is stupid good and only making the playoffs once in the previous five seasons is insane. Maybe that says more about Davis, but his roster has never been nearly good enough. Watch Cousins go down, trade away a first-rounder and miss the playoffs during a down year for the lower half of the West with a team that is in cap hell still? That would be a disaster.

Mintz: The Western Conference is incredibly tricky, and while I don’t see missing the playoffs as an option for them, ummm, OKC is only 1.5 games up on the 9th-seed Clippers. Again, I fully expect them to make the playoffs so I want to say the Blazers are more desperate here, but we should be concerned about the Thunder, who have lost 6 of 10 and are tasked with convincing Paul George to spend the rest of his prime with the team.

Fortunately for Russ Westbrook and company, the team has the 6th best net rating in the league, backed by both a top-10 defense and top-10 offense. Unfortunately, they’re without Andre Roberson for the rest of the season, as their defensive rating has dropped to 108.7 in the 11 games he’s already missed. It was 103.1 before his injury.

It was surprising that they weren’t active at the trade deadline to replace Roberson, and it’ll be interesting to see how badly they continue to miss him. Also of note, Carmelo Anthony’s shooting 36.4-percent and has the second worst defensive rating on the team since Roberson went down.

Regardless of concern, it’s hard to imagine a team with Westbrook and George, who’s having the best shooting season of his career, missing the postseason.

Reynolds: If we’re talking true bubble teams (e.g. teams in eighth, or within shooting distance), the answer has to be the ninth place Detroit Pistons. They’ve been treading water for a few years now—with only one (competitive) playoff series in eight seasons—and the strain is starting to show.

When you consider also the added pressure of having the new Little Caesars Arena, which the Pistons desperately need to fill, and the expectations created from the recent all-in trade for Blake Griffin: this Detroit team needs results. Now in his fourth season, Stan Van Gundy has been given a lot of trust to run the Pistons franchise as he sees fit, but it feels like he is running out of time. At 28-29, and a game and a half out of eighth, all I can say is: good luck.