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 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 six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in four our 53rd edition. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:

Christopher Cason: GQ Magazine, contributor

Ben Heisler: Fantasy Sports Markets, director of media

DeMario Jackson: NBA super fan

Shameek Mohile: Piston Powered, editor

Jonathan Peterlin: 92.3 The Fan, host

Sandro Rubin: Raptors Rapture, columnist

 

If I offered you the field (any two other teams) or a fourth straight year of Cavaliers vs. Warriors come the Finals, which would you choose and which do you think is more likely?

Cason: I’m all for the best two teams in each conference facing off, so I wouldn’t be mad at a fourth straight year of Warriors and Cavs. However, this season, I would pick a Rockets-Raptors Finals. The last game the two faced off was one of the better games of the regular season (a 108-105 Raptors victory on Mar. 9 to end Houston’s 17-game winning streak). Toronto’s crowd during the postseason is amazing and I feel like each game would come down to the final possessions.

However, I do believe that we will be seeing the last year of Warriors vs. Cavaliers. I believe the Warriors will be finally fully locked in once the postseason starts. Having Kevin Durant will allow Steph to ease back into form once he comes back from the sprained left MCL and I think there still is no team that can beat the Warriors four games when they’re all healthy and locked in.

Heisler: Living in Big 12 basketball country, this feels eerily similar to the conundrum I faced earlier this year. Take Kansas as they look for 14 consecutive Big 12 Titles with a team universally characterized as the worst they’ve had in years? Or take the Big 12 field that was praised as the best conference top-to-bottom in the country. I took the field, and consequently KU is in the Final Four fresh off their 14th straight Big 12 Championship. The math says to take the rest of the pack, especially with Cleveland’s up-and-down nature and Golden State’s inconsistency and injury concerns, but until I see Houston/Toronto/anyone else actually deliver come postseason time, I’ll still lean towards Cavs/Warriors yet again.

Jackson: I’m going with CLE vs. GSW IV. I’m rooting for this because it’s the best thing to happen to Basketball since James Naismith. We all know that playoff LeBron James vs. regular season LeBron is different and if I’m being real, I just don’t trust the Raptors. Every year, November–February we hear about how strong the East is and how some team will dethrone LeBron and company and then come playoff time, those teams fall apart (remember those Pacer and Hawks teams). Then, those same people who counted out LeBron and company out will say, “the East is weak, watered down and that LeBron has an easy path to the Finals. . .” So, until DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and the crew prove to me that they can win when it counts, give me the Cavs out East. As for GSW, yes, they have been hit with a major injury bug, recently but they should be close to healthy before the first round and they still have the second and third best players in the world. I do, however, believe that GSW road to the finals will be a lot harder than previous years but until they lose, I’m not betting against them.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Mohile: I’ll reluctantly go with the finale of Cavaliers vs. Warriors. No matter how much I would love to see at least one new team in the Finals, I can’t bet against LeBron in the East and don’t feel comfortable enough taking the Houston Rockets in the West. I see two main obstacles coming in the way of a fourth Cavaliers – Warriors Finals: the health of the Golden State Warriors and the cast around Lebron James. The Warriors have been plagued by the injury bug this season, but especially of late with the Grade 2 MCL sprain to star point guard Stephen Curry. The Warriors are 14 points per 100 possessions worse with Stephen Curry off the court, so the window is left open just a crack for a Rockets squad that can get hot in the playoffs. The Cavaliers, and more importantly LeBron James, have won six of their last seven games and are one of the best offensive teams since Kevin Love’s return. However, this will be LeBron and the Cavaliers’ first Finals appearance without Kyrie Irving – who was one of the best postseason performers in the playoffs last season and is undoubtedly hard to replace.

Peterlin: Cavs vs. Warriors is still the call for me. At this point, with the recent injuries to Golden State, and how strong the Rockets offense is, I’d say it’s more a guarantee the Cavs come out of the East than it is the Warriors get out of the West. Still, those two teams should be set for the 4th straight time.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Rubin: The NBA has seen it’s fair share of LeBron James and Stephen Curry matchups throughout the years, it’s time to give the spotlight to the Toronto Raptors and the Houston Rockets.

While many have the notion that the Raptors will “choke” and that Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan won’t show up in the crunch, people fail to realize that over the last two years, the Raptors have the third most playoff wins after the Warriors and Cavaliers.

What has impressed me the most and has fueled my beliefs of the Raptors reaching the NBA Finals, is that they have finally stepped away from iso basketball. Gone are the days of running the offense solely through DeMar DeRozan, it was predictable and everyone knew that he was getting the last shot. Dwane Casey and his staff have done a phenomenal job of incorporating the Raptors bench, the pace of the game has changed and he is running a system where guys are getting better looks. It’s going to be a luxury to have the “Bench Mob” relieve stress from the starters once the playoffs roll around.

The Houston Rockets are my pick to make it to the Finals out of the West. Had the Raptors not defeated them 108-105 on March 9th, the Rockets would be riding a 27-game win streak right now.

They are arguably the best team in the NBA and show no signs of slowing down. While I have never been a fan of isolation basketball, James Harden seems to have perfected it. He is perhaps one of the best iso players since Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant. Harden has the ability to take you one-on-one, either resulting in a step back three or an and-one under the net. He has exceptional handles, footwork and an explosive first step, which allow him to draw in defenders, easily spotting the open shooter for an uncontested shot. James Harden is the Batman of the NBA and his utility belt is stacked.

If the Rockets can stay consistent from beyond the arc and guys continue to get good looks from Chris Paul and James Harden, we may very well see the Houston Rockets hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy this year.

 

The Cavaliers and Raptors are understandably getting all the headlines in the East, but who is the dark horse to come out of the East this year?

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Rubin: The dark horse out of the East has to be the Milwaukee Bucks. While they currently sit in seventh place, up only one-half game over the Heat, the Bucks are one of those teams that people sleep on. We all know that Giannis  Antetokounmpo is a different bread of animal once the playoffs roll around. His size advantage and explosiveness make it virtually impossible for anyone to guard him.

Guys like Eric Bledsoe, Malcolm Brogdon, Sterling Brown and Matthew Dellavedova all have the ability to pick you apart from the three-point line. If Bucks head coach Joe Prunty can make some adjustments on the defensive end and increase ball movement, this Bucks team will be a real threat in the postseason.

Cason: I would have loved to pick Boston as a dark horse here. But with Kyrie Irving not scheduled to come back until sometime in the first round after undergoing a procedure on his left knee, I don’t think he will be in game shape and Boston’s best years are ahead of them.

Heisler: From a pure talent perspective, I’d have to say Philadelphia or Milwaukee. I’d lean with Philly because they appear to be playing their best basketball down the stretch and have a fairly easy schedule down the stretch. I looked up their remaining teams’ combined record and it sits at 300-432, with only three out of 10  games against teams with winning records  They’re only a game and a half out behind the Cavs for the No 3 spot in the East and their one final matchup with Cleveland is in Philly where they’re 13 games over .500 for the season.

Jackson: Is there one? Not one team! Maybe the Celtics with a healthy Kyrie Irving and those young boys but unfortunate circumstance hit Irving and that knee of his. To be honest, if I’m Boston, I would shut him down and restart next season with a healthy Irving and Gordon Hayward back right.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Mohile: Although I truly believe one of the Cavaliers or Raptors will be representing the East in the Finals this year, make sure to keep a close eye on the Philadelphia 76ers. The 76ers are a team that defend at a high level at multiple positions (guard, wing, and big), sport a top 10 offensive rating, just got their first round pick healthy again, and are the 3rd hottest team in the East since the All-Star break. If the 76ers manage to capture the 3rd seed heading into the playoffs, they’ll likely face off against a tough Washington Wizards team. If they can outlast the Wizards, they’ll have a good chance at beating a broken Boston Celtics team in the East Semifinals. If the 76ers can get hot in the playoffs, don’t count them out as serious contenders in the Eastern Conference race.

Peterlin: I don’t think there is one. Boston hasn’t done enough for me to put them up there. Toronto has looked like the best version of themselves, and deserve the conversation as being the team to give the Cavs the most run for their money this postseason.

 

If Warriors-Rockets is the entrée everyone is salivating over out West, what’s the appetizer? 

Peterlin: Golden State vs. Portland in the second round should be as good as it gets. If you love guard play, this is your Super bowl. If the seeding held right now, coming off a win over LaMarcus Aldridge in the first round would be satisfying enough for the fan base, taking this Warriors team 6 games in a series before bowing out would be icing on the cake.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Rubin: Portland Trail Blazers vs. Oklahoma City Thunder

Russel Westbrook vs. Damian Lillard, tell me you’re not entertained? I think it’s safe to say that everyone in the basketballverse, knows that these two guys don’t like each other. Every time we’ve watched these teams face off, Bill Spooner had to either call a flagrant or technical foul on both sides.

While you appreciate the rivalry and competitiveness that these two teams carry, the fans of OKC and Portland deserve some credit also. Try to find one person sitting in the crowd during the postseason. You cant. Mix that in with Billy Donovan and Terry Stotts uptempo basketball and this matchup will make you feel like you’re watching an NCAA Final.

Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Mohile: Given the fact that the third through eighth spot in the West may change daily, it’s extremely hard to answer this question. However, I’m intrigued in the projected Houston Rockets-Utah Jazz matchup in the first round featuring the League’s best offense against the League’s best defense (since the All-Star Break). Rudy Gobert’s return has not only spurred Defensive Player of the Year conversation and consideration, but also fueled the Jazz to the second-best record in the league. It’ll also be a matchup of firsts: the Houston Rockets’ revamped offense with Chris Paul will see its first taste of postseason action, and star rookie Donovan Mitchell will see postseason play for the first (likely not the last) time in his career.

Cason: With it appearing that Kawhi isn’t returning this season, the appetizer would have to be a 3-6 matchup between the Utah Jazz and the Portland Trail Blazers. Utah would have to move up in the standings, but seeing Donovan Mitchell going up against C.J. McCollum and Damian Lillard would be a treat. Quin Snyder and the Jazz haven’t been talked about nearly enough this season but I don’t think any team in the first round wants to play them.

Heisler: It might be the appetizer before the main appetizer, but if the standings were to hold as is, I think a Portland/San Antonio series would be fascinating to kick off the playoffs. Both games the two teams played this season in Portland have been decided by three points total; a 93-91 win for San Antonio back on December 20, followed by a 111-10 win for Portland on January 7. They’ll face each other one more time in the regular season in San Antonio on April 7th with seeding likely on the line. It’s a fun revenge narrative for Aldridge to go along with Portland’s remarkable second half against the best defensive team in the West. Zach Lowe pointed out in his recent ESPN piece that Portland, like Toronto has embraced the higher percentage 3’s and traded in five-six mid-range shots for ones beyond the arc.

I considered a Portland-OKC semifinal out West but after Portland wrapped up the season sweep Sunday night, I’d sense a lack of juice heading into that round. Give me Portland-San Antonio in some capacity before making way for arguably the real Finals out West.

Jackson: I’m dying for Dubs vs. Blazers. The last two seasons the Warriors outmatched Portland and won their playoff series with ease but this year could be different, right? The Blazers are deeper, Jusuf Nurkic is looking like a consistent third option, and the Dubs are hurt. Not to mention, every single game that they play is an instant classic. Is it just me or does Dame morph into an immortal vs. GSW and go at their neck like Eminem did vs. Benzino on that Nail in the Coffin diss?

 

Coach of the Year is a conundrum with five guys who could justifiably win the award. Who would you give it to?

Jackson: Dwane Casey, 100 percent. No one thought that Toronto would be the best team in the East (record wise) and the third best overall team in the League. No one thought that Toronto would have one of the best offensive and defensive teams in the League. (No. 3 in PPG and No. 8 in OPPG). No one thought that Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet, Jakob Poeltl, Delon Wright, and Norman Powell would be on of the best young benches in the League. And no one thought that DeMar DeRozan would be a candidate for MVP. Because of all of this, Dwane Casey is my 2017-18 Coach of the Year.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Mohile: I agree that there are five guys who stand above the rest as those worthy of the award: Dwane Casey, Brad Stevens, Mike D’Antoni, Terry Stotts, Quin Snyder. However, there seems to be one coach that stands above the rest: Toronto Raptors’ Dwane Casey. Casey has not only exceeded expectations in the standings, with the Raptors ascending above both the retooled Boston Celtics and LeBron-led Cavaliers, he’s managed to make the most out of a crew that many thought had reached its ceiling. DeMar Derozan has added a three-point shot to his already lethal arsenal of offensive moves and been in the midst of MVP consideration, all under the tutelage of Casey. Casey’s Raptors have also managed to be one of the best defending teams in the League, currently fifth in defensive rating. Casey’s most prized accomplishment this season has been making the most out of the bench unit. The bench mob of Fred Van Vleet, CJ Miles, Jakob Poeltl, Pascal Siakam and Delon Wright have been the best bench unit in the league and Casey deserves a lot of credit for assembling and making the most out of those guys.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Peterlin: Larry Drew. Kidding. Dwane Casey gets my nod. I wish we could see the postseason results before this, because another second round exit wouldn’t help his cause, but if you set a franchise record in wins you need to be on the short list. The team has taken a step forward and is challenging the Cavs, which is more than enough for me to feel strong about giving him the award.

Rubin: If someone would have told me last season that the Toronto Raptors would be sitting first in the East, on pace for 60 wins, I would have never believed them. Dwane Casey and Masai Ujiri managed to turn nothing into something and they embraced the culture reset wholeheartedly.

Dwane Casey essentially kept the exact same roster that saw them exit the second round of the 2016-17 playoffs against the Cavaliers, in a disappointing 4-0 sweep.

What did he change? Well for starters, Casey transitioned away from iso basketball. I think it’s fair to say that every team in the league knew that DeRozan was getting the ball in crunch time. Casey made it a priority to keep the ball moving in order to get guys better looks. He stressed the importance of unselfish basketball and was able to transition Lowry and DeRozan to this new type of offense.

What impressed me the most with Casey is the productivity he brought from the bench. He managed to take guys like Fred VanVleet (undrafted), Pascal Siakam (27th pick) Jakob Poeltl (ninth pick) and Delon Wright (20th pick) and turn them into the best bench in the NBA.

Casey without a doubt deserves to earn the coach of the year accolade, no other coach in the NBA had so little to work with. He managed to turn the Raptors into the League’s third-best point differential, improved the three-point shooting all while keeping the same roster except for CJ Miles.

Cason: My vote would go to Dwane Casey and what he’s done with the Raptors this season. The changes they’ve made to their style of play, utilizing more ball movement and less dependency on iso’s for Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan should help take a lot of pressure off of both of them, which I think is going to be critical to any success they’ll have in the postseason. Getting those guys to buy into that change, along with utilizing one of the best benches in the league to help earn home court throughout the East has been remarkable.

Heisler: Dwayne Casey will likely win it and justifiably so. But let’s make an argument for Alvin Gentry of the Pelicans for just a second. At the time of Boogie Cousins’ season-ending injury in late January, New Orleans was finally starting to click and was playing their most efficient offensive basketball of the season. Once he goes down after losing two in a row, the Pelicans pick themselves up and Anthony Davis in the month of February becomes the most dominant player in the NBA, leading the NBA in points and blocks per game while still being a Top-5 player in steals/rebounds per game as well. Besides A.D, Jrue Holiday ranks 15th in Real Plus/Minus, ahead of Chris Paul, Kemba Walker, Steph Curry & Joel Embiid, and Rajon Rondo has gone from a -5.5 player pre All-Star Break to a +5.3 player post ASB. They’ve really been terrific and Gentry deserves a tremendous amount of credit for not just his coaching, but his motivation when the season could have easily been lost.

 

The Kawhi Leonard saga continues. Knowing that we essentially have no idea what’s happening behind closed doors, let’s speculate the Spurs and Leonard meet an impasse. In that hypothetical, the Spurs look to move Leonard this summer before his deal expires at the end of 2019. What’s a realistic deal? (Give me your best Kawhi Leonard trade idea)

Heisler: I spent far too much time today on ESPN’s Trade Machine going through countless scenarios on this one. (Damn you, Eberley!) There’s a wormhole of trade ideas that has my mind spinning like a dreidel in a sandstorm, none of which I really love.

I think two potential partners that could make sense are the Lakers and the Pacers. L.A could build a package around Ingram & Kuzma (assuming Randle stays long term) to bring in Kawhi. That puts together a starting five of Lonzo, KCP, Kawhi, Randle and some warm body at the center spot either via draft or free agency. Ingram or their first-rounder would be the entire selling point of the deal. It’s one or the other, but I can’t imagine the Lakers are willing to move both.

With the Pacers, Leonard becomes the new 3 in a package centered around Myles Turner and Indiana’s first round pick. Bogdanovic would be a nice complimentary piece in Pop’s system and maybe those three get the deal done. Pacers could theoretically play small and move Sabonis back to the 5, where San Antonio has a young, supremely athletic Center in Turner that could compliment LMA well and give him space to shoot.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Jackson: If I’m SAS I’m looking at Philly 100 percent. Kawhi Leonard for Dario Saric, Robert Covington, a first and second-round pick. Let’s get this done, right now. Philly will then sign LeBron James in the offseason and win titles until LeBron Jr. comes into the League and takes over like his father. But seriously, Dario is a Pop guy 100 percent and Robert is a great defender who can shoot the threeball. It’s a win-win for both teams and Leonard will flourish with Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and the rest of that squad.

Mohile: Here’s the deal: The San Antonio Spurs send Kawhi Leonard to the Philadelphia 76ers for Dario Saric, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot, 2018 Los Angeles Lakers 1st round pick (or 2019 Sacramento Kings 1st round pick, depending on which conveys to Philadelphia), 2018 Philadelphia 76ers 1st round pick, 2018 Cavaliers/Nets 2nd round pick, and cash considerations. Philadelphia is able to swing this deal and instantly become the favorites to win the East with the best defense in the entire league, and a deadly offensive weapon to run alongside Ben Simmons. The projected lineup would be Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz (or another shooter), Robert Covington, Kawhi Leonard, and Joel Embiid. In a year where LeBron James may leave the Cavaliers and head West, the door to the Finals opens a little bit wider. Meanwhile, the Spurs get a good, young player in Dario Saric and a project in Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot both under rookie contracts and team control through the 2019/20 season. They also receive a bevy of picks in this season’s draft as well as some cap relief to possibly sign a free agent or two to help them remain competitive.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Peterlin: As much as I would love the Cavs to be involved with the Brooklyn pick, I think a deal with the Celtics could be in play if the Spurs go this route. Danny Ainge knows how to get these deals done, but parting with Tatum or Brown (maybe both) wouldn’t be easy.

Rubin: With one year remaining on his contract and the possibility of Kawhi Leonard not re-signing next summer, I see the Spurs going after a point guard. Celtics’ Jaylen Brown and a first-round pick from either the Lakers or Kings in 2019 could be a possibility.

While I would like to see Kawhi Leonard take a page out of Kobe Bryant’s book and retire with his original team one day, I simply don’t see that happening. There has been a lot of bad blood between Spurs management, Leonard and the media, that I think it would be best for all parties to move on.

If Leonard can manage to stay healthy, every team in the NBA should be looking for ways to sign him,

Chris Covatta/NBAE via Getty Images

Cason: Unless you’re trading for another All-Star, there is no way you’re getting anywhere near equal value for Kawhi. With Kawhi being on the final year of his deal, it makes matters even more complicated for the Spurs and puts them in a situation that is almost foreign to them as an organization. Given Kawhi’s credentials, it’s tough to find a similar deal to use as a basis. Last summer’s Paul George for Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis trade might be the closest, though.

The Spurs are too smart an organization to trade in-conference, but let’s just say Popovich has had one too many glasses of wine during the summer and Portland Trail Blazers GM Neil Olshey. Neil offers C.J. McCollum and Evan Turner. In McCollum, the Spurs would get a go-to scorer to pair with LaMarcus Aldridge, who they would have under contract for three more years and a player in Turner, who would fit perfectly in the Spurs system. In Kawhi, the Blazers have a player that helps put them in serious title contention going forward.

I’m still of the mindset that Kawhi doesn’t turn down over $200 million if it’s its offered this summer, and because stars don’t leave San Antonio. But nothing about this situation is usual for the Spurs, so a breakup wouldn’t be surprising.