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 a town hall, a safe forum for all voices in the basketball universe to be heard. A stable roundtable, fluctuating in both voices and trendy issues. We’ve had over 200 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe!
The roundtable runs 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 four our 50th edition. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Michael Lee: Yahoo Sports, senior writer
Tim MacMahon: ESPN, staff writer
Sekou Smith: NBA, multi-media contributor
Seerat Sohi: SB Nation, contributor
Nick Wright: First Things First, host
For most of this season, James Harden has felt like a relative lock to win the MVP award, but Anthony Davis’ February is giving people pause. How safe is the MVP award and is there a scenario in which Davis or someone else pulls off the MVP heist?
Lee: James Harden will be the MVP. This has been the least suspenseful race in years and it just feels like it’s Harden’s time. He’s paid his dues. Dealt with disappointment and keeps coming back better than before. It’s funny that it took the addition of a future Hall of Famer for him to be recognized for an individual award, but it happens. I seem to recall Kobe Bryant needing Pau Gasol for some voters to finally give him his props. What Anthony Davis has done, especially in the absence of DeMarcus Cousins, has been incredible. He’s reminding everyone that he’s truly a transcendent talent. He’s probably moved into a solid spot in second with the inconsistency of Milwaukee and Cleveland making it harder to argue for Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, respectively. But Harden has been out front from opening night and already lapped the field around the team he pushed the Rockets to a better record than Golden State.
MacMahon: It would require Harden and the Rockets seriously fading in the final month and change of the season. With all due respect to Davis and others, the MVP vote ought to be a no-brainer. Harden had a legitimate case last season and improved significantly over the summer. He was the lone All-Star on the team that has the League’s best record. After two runner-up finishes, Harden has made sure it’s his turn.
Smith: There will be no heist this year. As impressive as this late season push from Anthony Davis has been, there really isn’t an avenue for someone to sneak in and snatch this Kia MVP trophy away from James Harden. It’s really a perfect storm for Harden this season. He’s having a wicked season, for arguably the best team in basketball and he’s got the two near misses in the past three seasons weighing on the brains on many of the voters. Sometimes things just line up for you and that’s what they’ve done for Harden. LeBron James, Kevin Durant and even Stephen Curry have all had stretches this season that made it looked like they might be able to push the process, but the Rockets’ run to the top of the Western Conference standings is doing as much for Harden as anything else.
Sohi: I don’t know if there are too many people out there who are clamoring for Davis to overtake Harden’s spot on the top of the MVP ladder, but the man has certainly cemented his case as the second-place guy. If Davis keeps playing at this pace—this pace, being 35 points and 13 rebounds in the month of February—then it becomes a more serious conversation, but for him to really gain a foothold, Harden would have to see some regression in his game. Houston, for what it’s worth, is in the midst of a 15-game winning streak in which Harden has averaged 31.6 points per game, 8.4 assists, and 6 rebounds. And while Russell Westbrook set the precedent for being able to win an MVP award without leading a team to one of the best records in the league, expected regression will surely hurt Davis some. In February, the Pelicans went 9-3 despite beating opponents by just 1.8 points per 100 possessions. Some course correction is in order.
Wright: Barring an injury knocking James Harden out for 15-plus games, anyone other than James winning the MVP would be one of the all-time award-related travesties in NBA history. Simply put, Harden checks every single box we ask of a potential MVP.
Is his team winning? The Rockets have the best record in the NBA, are on pace to win 65-plus games, and will, at worst, finish with the second best record in the NBA.
Is he having a monster statistical season? He’s averaging 31.2 PPG, more than three full points higher than his closest competitor, and he’s also top three in APG. As far as “total points created”, Harden is having an all time great season.
Has his team needed him? Well, the Rockets are an insane 32-1 when he, CP3 and Clint Capela play this year.
And, as an added bonus, he has a legitimate argument that he should’ve been the MVP two of the past three seasons leading into this one.
Anthony Davis is having an amazing year, and you can make the case that he, not LeBron, should be second on most people’s ballots. But that’s as high as he can go. The MVP is James Harden, and the only question left, to me, is how close he will come to becoming the NBA’s second ever unanimous MVP.
Last week, Bill Simmons suggested Steven Adams’ rebounding numbers supplied the, “Weirdest NBA Stat of the Season.” What stat has struck you as the “weirdest” this season?
Smith: My “weirdest” player stat of this season is Andre Drummond’s dramatic improvement at the free throw line. No, seriously. This guy has improved from a .386 clip last season at the line to .615 with six weeks left in the season. That’s a staggering improvement from a guy who has struggled mightily from the line throughout his career. Drummond has never shot better than .418 from the line in his career. He’s going to shatter that mark this season, barring a jaw-dropping collapse to finish the season. How does a guy make that sort of improvement without hypnosis or some sort of artificial performance enhancing component? And that speaks to a serious offseason effort to improve his stroke or some sort of crack in the free throw shooting universe that has allowed him to make this quantum leap. It’s a great “weirdest” stat of the season for Drummond and the Pistons. And heaven forbid he continue to improve from the line.
Wright: Player A: 18.8 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.8 APG on 40.1 percent and 27.4 percent from three.
Player B: 19.0 PPG, 6.8 RPG, 3.1 APG on 48.3 percent and 41.0 percent from three.
Player A: Blake Griffin on the Pistons.
Player B: Tobias Harris on the Clippers.
Now listen… I understood the risks the Pistons were taking with Blake’s enormous contract and his injury history, and I understood why the Clippers would want to go full rebuild and get out from underneath that potential albatross of a deal. However, I never thought it would be possible, barring another major injury, that Tobias Harris would just simply be the more productive player of the two, contracts notwithstanding. The sample size is incredibly small, but right now this looks absolutely disastrous for Detroit and the future of the Pistons and it looks like an absolute coup for the Clippers new front office.
Sohi: Going to go local with this one. Bruno Caboclo, Toronto’s 20th pick in the 2014 NBA Draft, who draft analyst Fran Frachilla famously dubbed “two years away from being two years away” was traded to the Sacramento Kings hours before the trade deadline. After four years in the NBA, he has yet to attempt a single free throw. Considering that Caboclo hasn’t exactly found his footing, it’s not exactly weird that he hasn’t performed well in the statistical department. Still, for someone as lanky and athletic as him, you’d figure he would have found his way to the line at least once. Truth be told, the only reason I consider this a somewhat notable stat is that, if Bruno would have ever taken a free throw at the Air Canada Center, the crowd might have blown the roof off the building with “Bruno!” chants. The moment he was traded to the Kings, we were all robbed of that opportunity.
MacMahon: The Dallas Mavericks, who became the poster team for tanking thanks to Mark Cuban’s big mouth, feature one of the NBA’s most potent lineups. At the ripe old age of 39, Dirk Nowitzki and a group of reserves (J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Dwight Powell and Devin Harris/Doug McDermott) have consistently dominated opposing benches. That group had a net rating of plus-19.4 with Harris and is plus-36.7 through six games and 61 minutes with McDermott.
Lee: The weirdest stat of the season is that the Rockets are 32-1 when James Harden, Chris Paul and Clint Capela play together. Usually, when a team’s three best players are that dominant, they are the prohibitive favorite to win it all. But Harden, Paul and Capela have been almost perfect—and defeated Golden State twice!—and hardly anybody is picking them to come out of the West. The Warriors are that good. But it’s hilarious.
This past weekend, we learned J.R. Smith was suspended one game for throwing a bowl of soup at assistant coach Damon Jones. What is the weirdest NBA story you’ve ever heard?
Sohi: This might be recency bias talking here but—actually, no, I’m not hedging this. The weirdest NBA story I’ve ever heard was the time that Chris Paul, James Harden, Trevor Ariza and Oscar from The Office drove a State Farm-insured KIA through a secret tunnel that connects the road locker room and the home locker room in the Staples Center, so they could beat up Austin Rivers. Clint Capela, in the meantime, guarded the front door of the Clippers locker room so that nobody could escape. I’m never one to let the facts get in the way of a good story, and this was without a question the weirdest NBA story I’ve ever heard.
Lee: That’s a tough one. Since I had the chance to cover the eccentric Gilbert Arenas. I almost feel obligated to mention one of his bizarre stories. Everyone know about the guns. But to me, nothing Gilbert did will top the rather harmless—and not felonious—pranks he used to pull on his teammates. As a rookie in Golden State, he once licked the glaze off the donuts he had to buy. He would have guy’s cars put on cinder blocks when they got back from road trips. He’d fill guy’s bathtubs with coffee. But nothing tops the time Andray Blatche showed up and found a pile of poop in his sneakers. Gilbert was next level. I’ve heard weirder stories but most are so hard to confirm, I’ll keep them to myself for now.
Wright: Well, I’m not sure if you guys have heard this, but the 73 win Golden State Warriors, with the unanimous MVP, blew a 3-1 lead in the Finals because the greatest basketball player had the greatest three game stretch in the history of the sport. However, that’s not the weird part of the story. The weird, and to this day seemingly surreal part of the story, is that evidently immediately after Game 7 of that series, the heart and soul and emotional leader of that Warriors team, Draymond Green, was so shaken about what had just happened, that he went to his car, and before he even left the Oracle Arena parking lot, he called up the most recent NBA MVP who wasn’t already on his team, and pleaded with him to to sign with them in free agency. And it worked! He actually did go and sign with them! And then we found out that the Warriors, as defending champions and en route to the greatest regular season ever, were recruiting this MVP all season! This really happened. You can look it up and everything.
MacMahon: My favorite stories are NSFW, so I won’t share them here.
Smith: This is a set-up question. And if answered honestly, I’ll probably be in trouble by the time I finish typing. That said, it’s hard to pick the “weirdest (there’s that word again) ever” from all these years of observing and covering the League. Having chronicled some of Ron Artest’s most combustible moments in Indiana, prior to his transformation into Metta World Peace, I witnessed some of the weirdest things I’d ever seen or heard. I remember one night against Tracy McGrady and Houston where I saw Artest freak T-Mac out to the point that the Hall of Famer got so frustrated with Artest’s physical antics during the game that he left the floor early, before the game had actually ended and exited the arena without speaking to the media. One of the Rockets beat writers informed me had never happened during T-Mac’s tenure as the face of the franchise. Artest was at his scary best then and blanketed T-Mac defensively from the opening tip and was so physically intimidating and imposing that I was nervous about how far he was going to go that night. He hit T-Mac upside the head a few times, used every dirty trick (some you had to see to believe) he could get away with to annoy him and literally scared one of the League’s best players out of the building without saying so much as two words the entire game. It was crazy to witness it and even crazier, in hindsight, that there wasn’t a bigger deal made of it by those of us in the media. This, of course, was before the social media age. I can only imagine how that night would have played out in today’s NBA. I wasn’t sure what to make of it then and to this day it’s one of the weirdest things I’ve seen happen during a game—and I was behind the Pacers’ bench at the brawl at the Palace in Auburn Hills.
James Harden might’ve had the play of the year when he ankled Wesley Johnson on Wednesday night, what’s the greatest ankle breaker of all-time in your opinion?
Smith: Allen Iverson’s introduction crossover on Michael Jordan remains one of the greatest ankle breakers, mostly because of the two guys involved. Going at Jordan like that was a sign of things to come from AI and proof that he was every bit the fearless competitor we all thought he was coming into the League. I love hearing him talk about it now when he’s asked what was going through his mind then, as if he’d have done anything other than go right at MJ. There’s a reason AI’s game and image connected with the culture the way it did. His refusal to do anything other than play the game the way that came naturally to him is what I’ve always appreciated about his Hall of Fame career, even when it didn’t jive with my own team-first sensibilities. But crossing up Jordan like that and breaking his ankles for all the world to see…AI at his nasty best.
Sohi: I’m a bit of an unsophisticated barbarian when it comes to this type of stuff. My favorite moves have so much more to do with how embarrassing and demoralizing the experience was for the defender than how pretty they are. This isn’t the most aesthetically pleasing crossover of all time, and Eric Bledsoe doesn’t even make the shot, but he made Dante Cunningham run like Forrest Gump, and that’s what I’ll always carry with me.
Wright: I’m not sure, this is the greatest, but it’s my favorite: Allen Iverson making Antonio Daniels fall twice on one play, with the added bonus that this play gave Iverson 40 on the night, and we have the incomparable Bill Walton and Brent Musberger on call AND it’s immediately followed up by Gilbert Arenas dunking on the other end. This entire clip makes me very nostalgic.
Lee: I don’t want to sound like a fuddy-duddy, because I loved that play. I watched it several times and laughed like everybody else. But as a crossover, that play was mad overrated. Harden pushed off. Clearly. Wesley Johnson fell because he was shoved, not because he got shook. Licking his chops, staring at him and sticking the J made it a moment but I think what Harden did to Ricky Rubio in 2015 was much more cruel. To me, the meanest ankle-breaker of all-time was pulled off by Allen Iverson against Antonio Daniels. Iverson dropped Daniels twice. Made him fall on his right hand, watched him get up, then made him fall on his left hand and blew by him for a layup. That was borderline criminal. And if we can expand this conversation beyond the NBA, nothing tops Randolph Childress crossing up Jeff McInnis, dropping him and then gesturing for him to get up and get some before drilling the three during the 1995 ACC tournament. That is the GOAT.
MacMahon: Whose ankles are broken matters almost as much as the actual move, so I’ll go with another one that happened on the same court: Steph Curry causing Chris Paul to stumble to the Staples Center hardwood before hitting a stepback jumper. That’s a perennial All-Defensive team dude going down. Wesley Johnson is a lottery bust who will now forever be known as the dude in Harden’s highlight.
Nikola Jokic was one assist per game off from averaging a triple-double in February. Jokic doesn’t get the same MVP buzz Anthony Davis, James Harden or LeBron James does for understandable reasons, but is he the least talked about star in the game today? If not Jokic, then who?
Sohi: It’s hard to think of another playoff team whose best player gets as little recognition, other than Goran Dragic of the Miami Heat, where they’ve mostly won by committee. In the end, even he ended up making the All-Star Game. As much as it has to do with the market, and Jokic’s own unassuming style—there aren’t a lot of stars who would be happy inbounding the ball on the final play of a game, for example, but Jokic’s unique skillset allows Denver to use him that way—the lack of publicity might have to do more with the lack of extenuating circumstances surrounding him. The Nuggets, despite missing Paul Millsap for most of the season, are right where you’d expect them to be. Jokic has not been recently traded nor has he been the subject of any trade talks. What Jokic is doing is staggering. It’s also to be expected.
Lee: I’m a huge Jokic fan and I think he has tremendous upside but I’m not ready to proclaim him a star until he actually makes a star turn in the playoffs or makes an All-Star team. I firmly believe he will get there but he’s not there yet. That being said, I don’t know if anybody gets ignored more than DeMar DeRozan. He plays in Toronto, doesn’t have a charming, magnetic personality and doesn’t throw down those acrobatic dunks like he did when he was younger, but he’s been bringing it for years with little recognition. The Raptors have the best record in the Eastern Conference but he’s getting little to no MVP buzz. DeRozan has to basically beg to have his games on national TV.
MacMahon: Maybe it’s because I follow a lot of basketball nerds on Twitter, but I see a lot of love for Jokic. In this day and age, with League Pass and social media, I don’t buy the notion that NBA stars get overlooked. If anything, I think there are stars whose games get nitpicked too much due to a people using analytics as an end-all, be-all tool for evaluating players. DeMar DeRozan comes to mind.
Wright: Jokic doesn’t get the same buzz as Harden, Davis or LeBron because he shouldn’t get the buzz that those guys get. Jokic was underrated for so long that he’s now become a tad bit overrated by some of the most statistically savvy NBA fans. There’s 15 guys just objectively better than Jokic (LeBron, KD, Steph, Harden, Brow, Russ, Giannis, Kawhi, CP3, Boogie, PG13, Kyrie, Embiid, Butler, Lillard and DeRozan). He’s in a group along with Klay, Draymond, Wall, KAT, Oladipo, Kemba and Aldridge that is very difficult to sort through exactly, but that’s where he is right now. He’s not one of the 15 best guys in the League, and if you wanted to make a case that he’s not top 20, you could.
In my opinion, the most underrated star in the NBA is Chris Paul. He’s been the second best player on the best team in the League this year and when he’s played with Harden the Rockets are an insane 34-3. He didn’t make the All-Star game and he probably will get snubbed from the All-NBA teams. He’s been the biggest difference between Houston being a good team with a ceiling like they were last year, and Houston being able to win the title like they can this year
Smith: Star is a strong word for a guy who has yet to be an All-Star, but I get your point. Jokic is a splendid talent and a fantastic fit in Mike Malone’s system in Denver. His skill set certainly puts him in that special category of players in the League today. But I think the distinction of being the least talked about star in the game today belongs to Portland’s Damian Lillard. An impact player from the moment he hit the stage, Lillard often toils in relative obscurity in basketball-mad Portland. I know how fervent that fan base is and how rich the hoops culture is and has always been in the Pacific Northwest. But there are people, like my 70-something year old father, who has only recently become aware of Dame and how good he’s become as the face of the franchise for the Trail Blazers. It’s not his fault there’s such a wealth of talent in the League right now, particularly at his position and among elite perimeter players. He’s a superstar whose reach off the court from Portland to his native Oakland is undeniable. And he can match up with the best of the best on the court on any given night, even if some longtime but somewhat casual NBA fans couldn’t pick him out an All-Star lineup.