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:

Josiah Brady: Nylon Calculus, contributor

Tim Cato: SB Nation, staff writer

Spencer Lund: NBA freelance

Steph McCarroll: Fangirl Sports Network, writer

Vincent Goodwill: NBC SportsChicago, insider

 

Sports Illustrated unearthed a heap of foul misconduct within the Dallas Mavericks workplace this week. In response, the League has said they will, “closely monitor the independent investigation.” They’re also setting up a hotline for all NBA-associated employees to report workplace issues. Given the seriousness of the predatory behavior reported, should the Mavericks be on the hook for some sort of formal punishment?

Brady: I do believe that the NBA should enforce some punitive measures against the Mavericks’ organization; it seems that it would be complicit to allow the owner & the franchise to subsist without reaping any consequences. At first, when seeing this story for the first time, it seemed impossible to soundly argue that Cuban undoubtedly knew about each of the instances that was corrupting the integrity of his office. But after reading a recent article from Bleacher Report that entails that he knew about Earl Sneed’s belligerence (and that it was a reoccurring issue) and willfully retained him, he enabled future misconduct against women under the pretext that he wanted to maintain “control of him.” I certainly wouldn’t argue against forcing him to sell the organization so that the NBA could set a precedent about how sexual assault is reprehensible.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Cato: It depends on what the independent investigation finds. I hope that Mark Cuban is telling the truth, and that he was truly in the dark about the disgusting, predatory atmosphere that was promoted. He still holds culpability as the owner of the team, and his decision to retain the team website employee who was twice accused of domestic violence, is inexcusable. Because this environment was confined to the business department of the Mavericks, though, I don’t except any punishment levied against basketball operations. That would be misguided and unprecedented. Look, I’m not ruling anything out until we hear for sure what happened, and Mavericks fans should care about the team getting this right for reasons totally beyond basketball. But they’re almost certainly not losing a draft pick, or something like that, not unless the breadth of the allegations increases.

Goodwill: There isn’t a precedent for this, but then again there wasn’t precedent for outright ownership misconduct until Donald Sterling’s escapades became more widely-known to the point the NBA could no longer ignore. So precedent hasn’t mattered to the NBA—and it shouldn’t. While Mark Cuban wasn’t party to any direct misconduct, it certainly appeared he allowed it. And for the atmosphere, for the culture, he should be punished. Whether it’s a heavy fine or even a suspension, the NBA has to show it’s serious about the allegations levied in the SI story. I wouldn’t say take away draft picks because that affects the team and the locker room was not a problem, but something should be done.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Lund: Yes—definitely. It should be the biggest fine ever handed out in Cuban’s Dallas tenure. Like with the players, perception matters in the NBA. There should be a severe punishment even if we weren’t in the midst of the #metoo movement. It’s top-down behavior, too. And it’s so far outside the pale of acceptability, it would severely tarnish the NBA’s progressive reputation if the Mavs didn’t pay a steep a price when it’s all said and done.

The NBA should do a separate, independent investigation of the team—not a team-hired contractor that’ll give Cuban the first gander at the findings. It’s impossible to be objective when your diligence might implicate the guy paying you. There’s enough in SI’s report to condemn Cuban on the Earl K. Sneed front, but if Ussery’s behavior was covered up or ignored, then that needs to be reflected in the punishment. The NBA has to be completely transparent with their findings, and they should skew severe to send a message to the other 29 teams about the consequences if they allow this type of environment to fester their front office. No punishment will be as awful as it was for the women working in Dallas’ front office, but that’s why the NBA can’t cut any corners or give Cuban any slack.

McCarroll: Mavericks should face some sort of formal punishment. The NBA has been a leader in a lot of areas (e.g., female team presidents, CEOs and majority owners), but all of that aside—it cannot assume sexual harassment and  sexually hostile work environments does not exist within its sport. The NBA must have repeated, ongoing diligence on this subject. Consider the correlation of New York Knicks coach, Isiah Thomas. A jury ruled him guilty of sexually harassment in 2007. The NBA did nothing. Nothing.

If the NBA is the progressive and enlightened league it claims to be, it would stop treating these incidents as an isolated toxic spill with maximum clean-up efforts. That will not correct the problem. With an established pattern of issues for women in sports, it is clear women have never been enfranchised or regarded as equals, on equal terms. But, it is possible to change its culture from the top. And, it starts with discipline.

 

In a separate incident, the NBA fined Mark Cuban $600,000 for his comments about the Mavericks tanking. The League made a change to combat tanking earlier this season when they voted to give the bottom three teams an equal chance at the No. 1 pick (beginning next year). Is it going to make a difference or is the NBA going to have to make more drastic changes to combat the growing number of teams bottoming out?

McCarroll: The League change will not matter. Under the new system, the three worst teams in the league will each have the same chance: 16 percent. Under the old system, the team with the worst record in the League had a 25 percent chance at the top spot. Teams ranked from 4 to 14 get slightly better odds at the top spot. The new rule will still allow tanking, but in a different way. You won’t see teams racing for the bottom. But you will see teams who won’t make the playoffs think about a 30-loss season if it gives them a chance at a top draft pick.

In the NBA, unlike other professional sports, drafting a superstar can make a team a championship contender for decade. A sport where one player can have so much influence on a team, the NBA will likely have to make more drastic changes to actually stop the intentional tanking.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Brady: With this change, there is still plenty of incentive to tank. I think tanking introduces an intriguing proposition, though: Are you willing to potentially sacrifice the admiration, chemistry and potentially, the notion that you control a reputable franchise in order to stockpile and invest in future assets. I also don’t mind its ramifications a ton since it’s likely that only a few contenders—maybe two or three, in a given year, exist. The talent distribution always seems to manifest such that the very best players distort the playing field.

But let’s assume that a utopia for fans would necessitate that there be as many relatively competitive squads as possible. Undoubtedly, there have been alternative ideas that have promoted consolation rounds that will decide lottery odds, but often these promote tanking, just in an unorthodox way. Most reasonable alternatives that I’ve seen include complex, but equitable, draft wheels (Zarren, Celtics assistant GM) and a modified lottery system which encourages teams that remain competitive, despite their playoff unlikelihood (Nathan Walker, Nylon Calculus).

Cato: We will likely see less tanking, but as long as teams can gain an advantage by losing games, then they’ll keep doing it. Mathematically, it’s the only option that makes sense. Without getting rid of the reverse chronological draft order that has been standard for every team in every major American sports league, I don’t see how it’s possible to eliminate some level of tanking. Now, the NBA might be able to reduce tanking to a small or infrequent enough phenomenon that they can stomach it, and that it will fade as a League issue. Maybe this new rule will do that, but it will still exist to some degree.

Goodwill: Blame the Process and everything that goes along with it. No, I’m joking. No, I’m serious. I used to believe everything would settle itself out but this year’s tank-a-thon has me thinking otherwise. Not a goofy lottery wheel or anything but perhaps change the timing of the draft lottery order. Not the lottery itself but something where the odds are better reflective of how bad a team truly is as opposed to the engineering that takes place. Maybe, sometime in January?

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Lund: It’s a tough year to argue that there isn’t a tanking problem, but even if the changes came a year early, it wouldn’t deter tanking this year. Almost a third of the League—including Cuban’s Mavs—will be in tank mode for the final 20-plus games. He merely made public the implicit conundrum facing every subpar team in today’s NBA.

After the salary cap dropped down to earth, fewer teams have space to rebuild in free agency; Only four teams right now—the Lakers, Bulls, Sixers and Hawks—have max contract space this summer. Even bad teams are locked up after the TV-rights created a salary cap mirage. Most bad teams can only get better in the draft. And the success, or implied success—because Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons could be all-timers—of Philly’s rebuild, lends credence to that belief. More robust anti-tanking moves are coming, like the play-in tourney.

 

We’ve learned Kawhi Leonard was medically cleared by the San Antonio Spurs, but is choosing to sit out longer as he seeks second opinions on his right quadriceps tendinopathy. If there’s more to this story as suggested earlier this year that Leonard is unhappy and he might be moved, how big of a shock if Leonard and the Spurs part ways?

Lund: At or near the top. He’s a top-5 player on both sides of the ball starring for perhaps the most stable and imitable franchise in all of the Association. He was the natural pick to lead the Spurs in the post-Duncan years, and now, after missing all but nine games with a weird injury that wasn’t supposed to be serious, people are actually wondering if he’s played his last game in silver and black. That’s a monumental twist. He’s firmly in his prime at 26, too. All that adds up to the biggest story of the year, and the biggest since KD signed with the Dubs or either LeBron Decision.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

McCarroll: The Kawhi Leonard rumors are certainly running, but athletes seek second opinions routinely. Even if they agree with the diagnosis, they may not agree with the course of treatment. Perhaps it is not a rift. Simply stated, Spurs are doing what’s best for the Spurs and Leonard is doing what’s best for his career. So, if Leonard is unhappy, I can speculate why. He signed a max five-year, $90 million contract to remain with the Spurs and has one more season left, with a player option in 2019-20. Besides LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs have not been able to secure All-NBA free agents to complement him. Who’s coming to help Kawhi? If Leonard did not agree to his option and moved on, it would rock the the Spurs and fans would lose their minds. I believe the story would be just below some of the most paramount free agency moves we’ve seen, but it would not be necessarily be surprising.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Brady: I’d say that though the fallout would’ve been all-time news, it’s exceedingly unlikely Leonard moves on with news he’s back with the Spurs. However, considering that the Kevin Durant move seemed to be premeditated, as we have evidence that players, like Andre Iguodala, were planting seeds for a union long before the 2016 offseason, I think a serious Kawhi would be even more astounding. It seemed as if the rumors that Kawhi was disgruntled with the San Antonio Spurs were completely spurious (which they could certainly still be), but I suppose the fact that he isn’t zealously returning to the lineup adds a bit (say, three percent) credence to those rumors.

Cato: Kawhi Leonard could singlehandedly break the mystique of the Spurs. This never happens to San Antonio! They’re the perfect model franchise, not just in basketball, but across all professional sports. If they lose their homegrown superstar, picked in the middle of the first round and groomed into a top-three League player, it would make them mortal. Sure, we knew deep down that there was nothing actually magical—this was just a very well-run team constantly making smart decisions. To answer the question: very high. But I doubt it happens since the Spurs always figure these things out.

Goodwill: It would be as surprising as Dwyane Wade leaving Miami when he bolted in 2016. Wade was synonymous with that franchise as any player in this transaction-era NBA, and even he had enough and left Pat Riley (before returning). It seems like if Leonard leaves, though, that the Spurs will be doing the pushing out as opposed to Leonard’s desires—and considering how stable the Spurs have been at the top, their methods with this superstar aren’t working. Perhaps they need to tailor more things to Leonard—who by saying nothing, is saying a lot.

 

The Charlotte Hornets fired general manager Rich Cho this week. The Hornets have the league’s fifth highest payroll and sit 10th in the Eastern Conference. If you were replacing Cho, how would you go about fixing that roster and how long of a rebuild are the Hornets in for?

Goodwill: Nic Batum is the contract that sticks out, and if it’s packaged with an asset, the rebuild could start sooner than later. Kemba Walker has a year left on a very cap-friendly deal, and with $120 million on the books for next year, they’re between a rock and a hard place for the future Problem is, marquee free agents aren’t flocking to Charlotte and there doesn’t seem to be the glut of stars who’ll want out that the Hornets could be bidding for. Which means what’s best could be for the Hornets to bottom out and start over in the draft—good luck convincing a competitor like Michael Jordan to do that. Unless a superstar in Texas becomes available soon, a player who’s a Jordan Brand endorser, maybe?

Brock Williams-Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Lund: At least half a decade. Whoever takes the reins needs a serious tête-à-tête with MJ before they sign, too. I’d cut the fat ASAP and try to get the highest return on Kemba before the draft. If no one is willing to part with a lottery pick or a future first-round pick that’s liable to be in the lottery (plus a solid rotation player on a decent deal), I’d keep everyone together this summer and have a fire sale next February regardless of how the team is doing.

Almost everyone but Batum has a player option or comes off their books in the summer of 2019. Expiring deals are valuable again because of the cap, and some contenders might take a flier on any number of their assets.

I prefaced the whole thing by mentioning MJ. He’s such a sociopath, it might be unrealistic to envision a Hinkie-esque rebuild with him signing the checks, but it’s the only path towards real title contention. They’ve already hit their ceiling with this squad, or close to it. No amount of skill development, chemistry or coaching fixes that paucity of talent. On top of that, Jordan doesn’t have the cultural cache among the league’s young guys to lure top free agents to North Carolina.

McCarroll: If you listen to most, they suggested trading star guard Kemba Walker and start rebuilding. But, it goes beyond the payroll. I am not sure they need a total rebuild. Hornets have lost a handful of winnable games. In some these games, they blew a decent amount of leads and lost 20% of those games by three points or less. The Hornets can’t fix the past, but it seems they have blown very winnable games because of weak defense.

Dwight Howard offers solid interior defense and is currently seventh in the League in blocks. He averages 9.3 defensive boards a game. Hornets show good hustle rebounding, but they struggle defending the perimeter. What is interesting is the Hornets have some length to them and they versatile enough to switch, but they are not executing. This must become a focus. Until you can bring in more offensive weapons, utilizing what they do have—like Treveon Graham, a scrappy defender—would help. When you don’t have a lot of offensive weapons, solid defense can compensate for that. They have nothing to lose by getting Graham involved more, especially at the end of contending games.

Kent Smith/NBAE/Getty Images

Brady: The Charlotte Hornets have been exceedingly unlucky over the past few years. Injuries, for one, but also late-game misfortune, have caused them to underperform their Pythagorean wins for the past few years. It seemed as if the Batum signing would give this offense extra sustainability, but in the past few seasons, only Kemba Walker has been overtly conducive to winning—eighth in Player Impact Plus-Minus and massively overplaying his current contract. Given the way everything has unfolded and how some current long-term contracts don’t seem to be in line to provide much value soon, I’d likely have traded away Kemba this past deadline (without attempting to attach a poor contract and diminishing his market value), perhaps to Denver, and tanked. Of course, if that is my course of action, it’d be paramount that I get luckier in the lottery  and draft better than those who did in the past. In the past three first rounds, Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk have been the selections. The jury is still out on Monk after 43 games, but his first year has been a disaster. Realistically, a rebuild would take a good while. It’d be in the best interest of the franchise, if contending is the ultimate goal. If, however, the supreme goal is satisfying the fanbase, then it could take even longer to approach a truly competitive team. Five years (as my weakly justified time-span estimate)?

Cato: They have to trade Kemba Walker.

I actually lean towards keeping fun teams together rather than constantly advocating towards blowing them up, but Charlotte isn’t a playoff team, has $117 million on the books for next season, and will still have about $70 million in the 2019 offseason with Walker and Malik Monk hitting free agency. Yikes. I don’t think any of their big contracts are imminently moveable and I don’t think their presumable late lottery pick will change the team’s fortunes. So yes, this is a tear-down-and-start-fresh situation. There’s one year left on Walker’s deal; I’d move him this summer if there’s the right move. It shouldn’t be an All-Star player like Michael Jordan claimed he’s looking for, but a draft package involving picks and young players. I can’t say I’m overly optimistic that this is where Charlotte is headed, but that’s the only way out a middling purgatory that will leave them in no man’s land for the coming five years.

 

As we run down the final quarter of the season, which major NBA award is furthest from consensus?

Cato: I’ll say Rookie of the Year since I really don’t have a decision between Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons right now. Mitchell has the more traditional case, while Simmons is just so good at exerting himself across the entire floor. I’m leaning Mitchell, but I’ll probably flip-flop between the two a half dozen times between now and April.

Melissa Majchrzak; David Dow/NBAE/Getty Images

McCarroll: The NBA Rookie of the Year hasn’t been too competitive in the past few years, and it looked like Ben Simmons was the obvious choice and would walk away with it. And then Donovan Mitchell came alive. Plenty of things can still change, but Mitchell has been a primary offensive creator. He’s averaging 23 points per game in December and January. And, while I thought Simmons would run away with it, Mitchell has made a good case.

Goodwill: I think we can all nail down reasonable candidates for the on-court awards but the Coach of the Year is tough. Isn’t it time for guys like Nate McMillan and Dwane Casey to get some love? Not just their teams’ records but “how” they’ve performed, with the Raptors embracing the three-point line and the Pacers unlocking Victor Oladipo. Gregg Popovich has done a masterful job with duct tape, krazy glue and LaMarcus Aldridge, a player we’d all written off as far as being a true impact guy on a meaningful team. Then again, Mike D’Antoni has found a way to make Chris Paul and James Harden work without any conflict but that job won’t be truly evaluated until late May. Either way, there’s at least five good candidates for the award and no clear winner.

Jesse D. Garrabrant; Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images

Lund: DPOY by a hair over COY.

MVP is James Harden’s to lose (but it should be noted LeBron is not starting alongside one of the best point guards of all time); ROY is a two-man race—Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell—that’ll be decided in the final quarter of the season; Same with COY between Brad Stevens and Dwane Casey. Yes, Popovich will get a look (as he should every year), and so will Mike D’Antoni, Erik Spoelstra and Quin Snyder. But all of those choices—D’Antoni is out because coaches don’t win back to back—are unlikely to beat out Casey or Stevens. That leaves Defensive Player of the Year.

Draymond Green, the defending DPOY, has been underwhelming as the Warriors coast towards a fourth-straight appearance in the Finals ( and his frontcourt teammate, Kevin Durant, has been more effective protecting the rim). Kawhi has been out. Rudy Gobert was injured early. Paul George’s defensive impact overlaps too much with Andre Roberson’s wing presence. Like Gobert, Durant missed some significant time. Al Horford’s intangible game is often and will continue to be overlooked. So, will Joel Embiid stay healthy and effective long enough to win? Will Gobert or KD be so good it overwhelms their lack of playing time? Remember, Kawhi won in 2015 after appearing in just 64 games. Also, there’s less empirical data on defense, and even hardcore analysts rarely watch basketball with an eye towards that end of the floor. So that built-in subjectivity, similar to COY, makes it harder to arrive on a clear-cut choice when it’s as wide open as it is this year.

Brady: I’m confident that Harden will be rewarded the MVP at last. ROY and COY aren’t exactly frictionless, but I’m most intrigued by how narratives and national exposure may greatly impact DPOY candidacy. At the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, Jalen Rose recently said that [paraphrased] blocks and steals do not always entail that a player is a reliable defender. This is truthful. There can exist scenarios in which a player, who isn’t extremely conducive to allowing lower points per possession, gets high value in the defensive counting stats portion of the traditional box score. At this point, you’ve probably surmised that I was talking about Kevin Durant this season.

The following statement “Kevin is an exciting defender when he’s running to the rim from the weak side” may even be objectively true, but is he consistently providing his team with strong defensive value? In a year in which the Warriors are 12th in luck-adjusted defensive rating (which, in short, adjusts defensive rating to capture shooting luck), is Durant even the best defender on his team? Using Jacob Goldstein’s Individual Net Impact, it becomes clear that nearly every Warriors player (sans Jordan Bell), actually defends opponents better without his presence on the court. He also reflects somewhat poorly in Defensive Real Plus-Minus. His block totals are fantastic, but an argument that he has profound defensive impact for Golden State seems insufficient. There are a few other strong candidates that may be overlooked this season as a result, such as Joel Embiid, Al Horford and Giannis Antetokounmpo. Even a few more longshots exist, such as Robert Covington, Danny Green or Rudy Gobert/Andre Roberson (whose injuries unfortunately decimated their likelihoods). It’ll be exceedingly interesting to see who wins and how the DPOY dialogue will continue to develop.