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 four dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in this week. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Dave DuFour: On the NBA with Dave Dufour, host
John Karalis: Locked on Celtics, host
Bobby Karalla: Dallas Mavericks, content
Krishna Narsu: Nylon Calculus, contributor
Who has more pressure on them to make the Finals, the Houston Rockets or the Toronto Raptors?
DuFour: This Houston Rockets are a team hell bent on conquering narratives. Mike D’Antoni’s system is seen as great for the regular season, but skeptics refuse to believe it works in the playoffs. James Harden and Chris Paul are both regarded, incorrectly, as players who underperform in the playoffs. Daryl Morey is the Father of Basketball Analytics. This team is built, and plays, in the perfect Moreyball form. Morey swung for the fences last Summer and so far, it looks like a home run. But narratives are built and destroyed in the playoffs. Certainly, there is a ton of pressure to perform for the Rockets.
Karalis: The Rockets have not only spent this season going all out in pursuit of the top seed, they’ve not been shy about saying this is their window of opportunity. They want this. Badly.
Houston was built specifically for this run. Daryl Morey wasn’t waiting for Golden State to age out the top spot in the NBA. His acquisition of Chris Paul was the NBA equivalent of Clubber Lang heckling Rocky at his statue unveiling. While everyone else was resigned to the Warriors deciding when their own run would end, the Rockets loudly announced they wanted a say in the matter. They have invited all this pressure and they seem, at least for now, to be reveling in it.
Meanwhile, Toronto is a sort of happy surprise. Few expected Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam, et.al. to Voltron into one of the most formidable benches in the league. Their youth is still untested in the playoffs, so there won’t be much surprise around the association if they struggle. I think the league, and Raptors fans, would be a bit more forgiving of the team if they max out at the Conference Finals because there is a feeling that the Raptors can come back and do this again next year with a full season of Dwane Casey’s new system under their belts.
In the end, neither team making the Finals is a perfectly acceptable possibility. I think we all expect the Warriors to still pull through and the Raptors are one of three teams in the East with a solid claim to that spot. But Houston wanted this attention, so they have more pressure.
Karalla: James Harden is on record saying he believes this is the year for the Rockets, so it would be natural to think Houston is under more pressure to make it all the way. But Lil B lifted his curse on Harden after last season’s playoffs. Why do you think the Rockets have had such a great season? This is no accident. If Harden and the Rockets really do go all the way this season, I hope he yells “#TYBG” as he hoists the Finals MVP trophy. Personally I’m rooting for Toronto to go all the way with this team. As someone who supported the Mavs through the 2000s, I can relate to 50 wins every season without ever sniffing the ultimate prize—and I know how sweet it feels to finally reach the mountaintop. Those fans deserve to feel it, too.
Narsu: The Houston Rockets have the MVP favorite, more top end talent and appear to be the better team (head to head matchups aside) so based on that, it would seem to be the Rockets. However, I’m going to go with the Raptors. This year has been a sort of perfect storm with good health for the Raps and a weak Eastern Conference. LeBron is playing on his weakest team in years while the Celtics are injured and young. The Raptors seem to have the perfect combination of experience and depth that might give them their one shot to reach the Finals. Chances are the Raptors window to reach the Finals won’t be as wide open as it is now. Both the Sixers and the Celtics are on the ascent and the Raptors need to take advantage of this small window they have now. Additionally, both Lowry and DeRozan have been two of the biggest playoff disappointments in NBA history (seriously, they are among 2 of the 3 worst players in terms of BPM decline from the regular season to the playoffs for qualifying players). The pressure is on both players to raise their game in the playoffs and perhaps the key to that will be the Raptors new play style, which has de-emphasized isolations in favor of more ball movement (the Raps were in the top six in isolation frequency last year as opposed to being in the 20s this year).
The Western Conference playoff race is insanely tight, with 10 teams vying for eight spots. Which two teams miss out?
Narsu: Based on Nathan Walker’s luck adjusted net ratings, the Clippers and Nuggets would be projected to miss the playoffs. Both teams have two of the four most difficult remaining schedules. While the Jazz are also battling with those two teams, they have one of the easiest remaining schedules so they should make it The Spurs also have one of the more difficult remaining schedules but as long as Kawhi Leonard comes back, they should be safe (if he’s doesn’t, all bets are off). One other team to monitor is Minnesota, who has one of the easier remaining schedules but is also missing its best player and just added Derrick Rose (if Rose cuts into Tyus Jones’ minutes, that will 100 percent hurt the Wolves playoff push). It’s unknown when Butler will come back and because of that, I’m going to go out on a limb and say Minnesota and the Clippers are the two teams who miss the playoffs.
DuFour: The Jimmy Butler injury has me extremely worried about the Timberwolves playoff hopes. The Wolves have a +9 Net rating with Butler on the court (per NBAwowy) and a -8.2 net rating when he’s off. That’s not great, Bob. The Wolves over-reliance on Butler, both in production and raw minutes, makes it seem likely they suffer a drop off. Oh, and they just signed Derrick Rose for the rest of the season.
Doc Rivers has had the best coaching performance of his career this season. Despite trading away Blake Griffin, injuries to key players all season, and the persistent chatter around DeAndre Jordan’s exit plans for this summer, the Clippers find themselves in the mix for a Western Conference playoff spot. Kudos to Doc. It’s been a great run. I just can’t envision this team having enough gas in the tank to pull it off. If they do, expect to hear Doc is a lot of Coach of the Year conversations.
Karalis: Two weeks ago, I thought the return of Paul Millsap would help fuel a Nuggets run. Then Boban Marjanovic used his giant hands to rip their souls from their bodies and thrust me into cold take hell. The Nuggets are terrible on the road and they’re about to head out on a seven-game trip. I want to believe in Denver but they might need a little offseason shakeup before they get their collective act together.
I’m giving the last spot to the Jazz. They’ve got a home-heavy schedule with games against the Pistons, Suns, Kings, and Hawks before going to Dallas. The Clippers have nine road games left in March, with trips to Houston, Minnesota, Oklahoma City, Milwaukee, Indiana, Toronto, and Portland on tap. They’ll get Avery Bradley and Danilo Gallinari back in the midst of it, but I don’t think that’ll be enough to hold on. Utah and the Clippers play in Utah on April 5, which could be the death blow for the Clippers.
Karalla: Minnesota’s odds took a big blow when Jimmy Butler unfortunately went down. I’m a huge believer in Karl-Anthony Towns, so maybe he and the rest of the young Wolves can pick it up and get over the finish line. I irrationally want to see Denver and Utah in the playoffs, which would leave the Clippers as the odd man out. Lou Will Forever, but the Clips only have two home games the rest of this month. They’re only one of five West teams to have a winning road record, and it’ll likely have to stay that way if they hope to fend off both the Nuggets and the Jazz.
Last year, Isaiah Thomas got a respectful nod from voters, finishing fifth on the MVP ballot. Assuming Harden, LeBron, Curry, and Davis are top four in some order, who is the obscure but reasonable choice to finish fifth this year?
Karalla: You can’t consider Kevin Durant an obscure choice, but have you seen his shooting splits? Say the Raptors win 60 games and earn the top spot in the East. Does DeMar DeRozan win some votes for modernizing his game and leading that team to homecourt advantage? If Indiana winds up in third place, does Victor Oladipo crash the scene? There are a lot of narratives this season, and the MVP is usually a narrative award, for better or worse. I’d like to see DeRozan work his way into that list. (I guess I’m a Raptors fan now?)
Narsu: DeRozan is my choice for the most obscure but still reasonable choice to finish fifth this year. His teams got the wins and he has a narrative that could work in his favor. Ultimately, his stats aren’t anywhere near good enough to warrant earnest consideration (and his advanced stats indicate he shouldn’t even finish top 10) but due to the Raptors’ team success and Lowry’s perceived decline, DeRozan could finish in the top 5. Does that mean he should? No but I suspect the voters will be willing to reward him with a high finish.
DuFour: Damian Lillard has been en fuego for the last month. In addition to propelling his team into the three seed, he’s also had the requisite late game heroics that define a player’s season. Typically, voters can be swayed by these sorts of late season explosions. I’m not a voter, but my theoretical vote would go to DeMar DeRozan. Yes, the guy I argued should accept a lesser role. DeRozan has been fantastic this year as a scorer and, most importantly, a playmaker. A lot has been written about the revamped Toronto offense, but you don’t get that without DeRozan making it work. He’s been spectacular and even has a few “signature” games under his belt this season. He’s in my top 5.
Karalis: This spot was made for Jimmy Butler before his injury, but he’ll miss too much time to get any votes so I’m going with Damian Lillard here. He’s currently the league’s fifth leading scorer and the Blazers are ripping (pun totally intended) through their schedule on their way to the third seed. His post All Star splits (31.8 ppg on .614 true shooting and a +10.5) are ridiculous. Beyond that, we’ve been hearing recently how invested he is with the team’s success and that he goes out of his way to mentor younger players. This has become Dame’s year. At this point I’d be shocked if he doesn’t get MVP love from the voters.
The Rookie of the Year race is a two-man race with Ben Simmons and Donovan Mitchell vying for the honor. Other than those two, who has impressed you most the second half of this season?
Karalis: Considering all the criticism he’s gotten and all the family drama surrounding him, I have to say Lonzo Ball’s recovery from his early shooting struggles is impressive. While I’m still no fan of that shooting form, he certainly could have let everything get to him. Instead, he’s come out of the break playing very well and the Lakers are winning games.
I want to shout out my own Boston rookie, Jayson Tatum, whose shooting also tailed off in January and February but has come roaring back in March. The Celtics will rely on him to do a lot in their playoff run and there were some fears about him hitting the rookie wall, but he’s started to pick things back up recently.
Karalla: It’s been pretty great to see Dennis Smith Jr. develop up close. He’s benefited from playing with Dirk Nowitzki (who hasn’t?) and the Mavericks have brought him along slowly while still giving him plenty of minutes. The jump shot will be a summer project, but he’s showing a much-improved awareness of when to hunt for shots and when to take his foot off the gas to get other guys involved. That can take some point guards years, but it’s only taken DSJ half a season. Other than Smith, Josh Jackson has been playing a ton of minutes the last couple months and is putting up some nice numbers. He’s got such a neat, unique skill set. I’m really curious to see what his game looks like in four or five years.
DuFour: The Suns are a dumpster fire. They are often unwatchable. One of the silver linings to this season, aside from another high lottery pick, has been the recent performance of Josh Jackson. Jackson had a rough start to his career, if we’re being generous, and he still hasn’t figured out how to shoot. But we are seeing more of his playmaking and energy on display as of late. Jackson is averaging about 15 points a game in his last 23 games which is a massive improvement on his early season numbers. This is a good sign for the Suns who need Jackson to be at least a starter quality player going forward.
Narsu: I guess I’ll go with Jayson Tatum, who would’ve been an easy choice earlier in the year but he’s slowed down a bit. Still, if you look at his production post all-star break, he has improved his usage (19.4 post all-star vs. 18.7 pre all-star break) and his efficiency (59.6 TS% post all-star vs. 58.9 pre all-star) while playing solid defense. Most importantly, he’s providing spacing with his excellent 3-point shooting and as a result, the Celtics have a 120.7 offensive rating with him on the court post all-star break (versus 108.8 with him off court post all-star break).
With March Madness starting this week, which NBA prospect are you most excited to watch in the tourney?
DuFour: Deandre Ayton is a monster. He’s 7-1, 250 pounds of chiseled granite. I’ve followed his progress all season. My opinion has vacillated between complete amazement at his shooting touch and offensive potential, to disgust with his lack of defensive effort and hustle. I want to see how he performs against the best competition when the lights are brightest. I want to see what he looks like when he cares.
Karalis: All of them?
Yeah, I’m an NBA snob and not ashamed to admit it. I’ve checked in on the big names—Bagley, Bamba, Ayton, etc.—but I’ve seen so many “sure things” flame out in the NBA that it’s hard to get excited about 18 and 19-year olds in college (remember when the whole world was dying to tank for Andrew Wiggins?) The level of play is radically different, and while the pressure of the tournament is a great indicator of who can handle the big time, I’m not one to overreact to it because most of these kids are in for a shock seven months from now.
Karalla: Mikal Bridges, Villanova. That guy is a beast at the D1 level and I’m not sure why he’s consistently ranked lower in mocks. Is it because of his age? Are 21-year-olds “old” or something? He’s been so good this season—he shot 60 percent on 2s and 40 percent from 3 in conference play. He’s in the 99th percentile in points per possession and 92nd in defensive points per possession. Maybe the upside isn’t as appealing as some other names, but you can never have enough wings. Hot sports take: I guess if Nova goes on a big tournament run he’ll trick scouts into doing the right thing and moving him up their draft boards.
Narsu: Mikal Bridges. He’s a great defender who’s shooting lights out for Villanova (43.3 percent from three) and more importantly, has a high FT percentage (a better indication of shooting at the next level). His team should also make a deep tourney run (can I really get excited about a prospect like Trae Young who might play in at most one game?). While he’s unlikely to be a superstar at the next level, he could be a highly valuable two-way wing which is exactly what every team in the NBA is looking for.