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. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Mohammad Dakhil: The Jump Ball, founder
Nekias Duncan: BBallBreakdown, contributor
C.J. Holmes: Dallas Morning News, writer
Peter Nygaard: The Step Back, contributor
Aimee Stiegemeyer: All Heart in Hoop City, founder
Christopher Walder: The Score, editor
What’s the best playoff debut you remember?
Nygaard: If we’re talking live as in a game where I was there to witness it in person, I’d have to go with a joint answer of Steph Curry and Klay Thompson against the Nuggets in 2013. Curry started the game ice cold, missing his first nine shots from the field before going on a 7-for-11 tear, culminating in a game-tying 3 with Ty Lawson draped all over him that would have sent the game to overtime if not for Andre Miller’s ensuing heroics. Thompson, for his part, finished with a team-high 22 points on 10-of-19 shooting. The game also saw David Lee go down to injury, forcing the Warriors to go small—and the rest, as they say, was history.
If you just mean live in the sense of being alive to witness it happening in real time, then the answer is LeBron James in 2006. LeBron put together an absolutely obscene playoff debut, putting up 32 points, 11 rebounds and 11 assists in a win over the Wizards. That 32-point performance would end up being below his scoring average for the series, as he racked up 35.7 points per contest, including a pair of game-winners in Cleveland’s 4-2 series win. He then pushed the defending Eastern Conference champion Detroit Pistons to the brink before bowing out in 7 games. A stellar season had earned him First Team All-NBA honors, but after that playoff introduction, there was no denying The King had arrived.
Dakhil: I have to go with Anthony Davis in 2015, even though they got swept by the eventual champions Golden State Warriors, he was amazing! In his first playoff game, he had 35 pts, 7 rebounds, and 4 blocks. He was so good in that series that he was one of the favorites for MVP the next season. I often forget that he is still incredibly young and was only 21 in those playoffs. It truly was an amazing performance.
Holmes: For me, it has to be Chris Paul in 2008 against the Mavericks—the man put on a clinic. Paul was the smallest guy on the court that entire series, but he played bigger than anyone else. He scored 35 points on 15-of-23 shooting in Game 1, and that performance set the tone for the entire series. Hornets ended up winning in five and CP3 established himself as the point god he continues to be today.
Stiegemeyer: Kawhi Leonard in Game 1 of the 2013 Western Conference Finals. I know it’s not technically his playoff debut, but it was the first time I’d seen him in a playoff game. Watching him play that night, I could tell there was something special there, that he was going to be someone to keep an eye on in the League. Baby Clutch.
Duncan: This is probably a case of recency bias, but Ben Simmons’ playoff debut was absolutely incredible. No other rookie has ever matched his 17-9-14-2 line in a playoff debut. Only Magic Johnson had more assists in his debut with 16. Simmons controlled Game 1 from the opening tip, battering his way into the paint and forcing Miami to crap itself into mistakes. He shined defensively as well, clamping up Goran Dragic and Josh Richardson when he drew those assignments. Simmons played like a man who had been there before, even though he hasn’t in any capacity.
Walder: I’m definitely living in the moment with this selection, but what I witnessed from Ben Simmons in Game 1 against the Miami Heat over the weekend was beyond impressive. His command of Philadelphia’s offense at this stage of his career is well beyond where it should be, and while his performance wasn’t without hiccups (wild shots early on, five turnovers etc.), he maintained his composure and consistently made the right plays. He didn’t have All-Star center Joel Embiid to work off of, but that didn’t matter. Simmons found his shooters, was effective on the glass (nine rebounds), and just missed out on a triple-double. What more can you really ask for?
The Golden State Warriors walloped the Spurs in Game 1 and won handily in Game 2. If Kawhi Leonard is healthy and with Stephen Curry out, how different is this series?
Duncan: Honestly, I don’t think Kawhi would’ve changed much in the grand scheme of things. He clearly would’ve helped. When healthy, he’s arguably a top five player in the League, and someone the Spurs could’ve credibly thrown on Kevin Durant. But even without Curry, the Warriors have too much firepower for the Spurs to beat them four times in a series. I could be talked into it going six games, though.
Holmes: Even with Kawhi Leonard, this Spurs team doesn’t stand a chance. If the Warriors had to play 73 games without Steph Curry, this is still a 50-plus win team easy. The Spurs played 73 games without Kawhi Leonard in 2017 and had once of its worst seasons in recent memory and nearly missed the playoffs. At the end of the day, Golden State’s depth beyond Curry makes it one of the best teams this league seen and it showed yet again in Game 1.
Nygaard: As we’ve seen time and time again, Curry is the straw that stirs the Warriors’ drink. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that the Warriors are an insanely talented group, with or without Curry. Upside of having a spare former MVP in his prime lying around. For all the energy spent on the Cavs and how of course they’ll be able to flip the switch because that’s what LeBron’s teams always do, there has been a surprising amount of doubt in the Warriors this year just because they had a string of losses down the stretch after three straight years of playing basketball into June. That’s a credit to the Rockets, who have legitimately looked like a team that could displace the Warriors. But this is still largely the same group that won 73 games two years ago, swapping out Curry for Kevin Durant for the time being. That’s a formidable squad, and as much as I like a whole bunch of the Spurs’ fun rotation guys like Kyle Anderson and Davis Bertans (I have a weird definition of fun), even Kawhi Leonard was only making this series more competitive on a game-to-game basis. The end result would still be the same.
Stiegemeyer: There’s no doubt in my mind that a healthy Kawhi Leonard changes this series completely. He’d be the difference maker for the Spurs. I do think if Leonard was healthy and playing in this series, the Spurs would absolutely have a chance against the Warriors. If there is one team in the NBA that I have learned never to underestimate, it is the San Antonio Spurs.
Walder: If we’re working under the premise that Kawhi Leonard returned just for this postseason run, and didn’t have ample opportunity to get into game shape and incorporate himself back into San Antonio’s schemes, then I don’t believe this series would end up much differently. Even without Stephen Curry, the reigning champions are deeper, vastly more talented, and have the pieces in place to combat Kawhi and keep him under control. I’m not even going to take last year’s sweep in the Western Conference Finals into account here, because we’re just assuming how that series would have gone based on just over two full quarters of basketball. Leonard is a top-five talent when healthy, but this year with this Spurs squad, they’re taking a game against the Curry-less Warriors at most.
Dakhil: You have to think a healthy Kawhi would make a difference, the series last year would have been closer if he didn’t get hurt (you can decide if it was dirty or not, I’m not interested in re-litigate that play). It is much harder for the Warriors to double LaMarcus Aldridge in the post if he’s going to kick it out to Kawhi. Defensively he could defend Durant which they struggled to do in game one, that would free up other defenders to take Klay Thompson. Also less of a reliance on doubling and rotating if he’s able to contain KD. All of that makes a difference, an elite defender like Leonard makes the world of difference. This series would be a whole lot tighter if Leonard was healthy, right now the Spurs only consistent scorer is Aldridge and that is a bit scary to say. With Kawhi and no Curry for the Warriors it could go 7 and then it’s up in the air.
After the first eight games in a jam-packed weekend of NBA playoffs, which series has caught your attention the most?
Holmes: Game 1 of Bucks-Celtics was fantastic, especially at the end of regulation with Terry Rozier and Kris Middleton trying to out-clutch each other. Best game of the weekend by far, just like we all predicted.
Nygaard: I had three series going the distance in my initial playoff picks—Bucks/Celtics, Blazers/Pelicans and Thunder/Jazz—with the former winning in each of the three. And all three series still look like they’re going to be very interesting, particularly Portland vs. New Orleans, which looks like it’s going to be a blast. But through the first eight games, it’s hard to say that any series has commanded my attention more than Cleveland and Indiana. We knew the Cavs weren’t the same as they have been in previous years, but through one game, this just feels surreal. They rallied back, as LeBron-led teams do, to put a scare in the Pacers in the second half. Then…the Pacers just pulled away. Victor Oladipo does not appear overwhelmed by the moment. The Pacers have stolen homecourt advantage, and the Cavs have a whole lot of questions to answer before Game 2. It will be hard to count Cleveland out at any point in this series, and it’s full well possible they could win the next four and render this whole wall of text moot. But I remember how it felt when Dallas rolled up the two-time defending champion Lakers in 2011. Sometimes, the cavalry just never arrives and the series is just suddenly over. So, it’s entirely possible this won’t end up being the most interesting or most exciting series of the bunch. But for now, it has my full attention.
Stiegemeyer: I was surprised to see how close game one of the Bucks/Celtics series got. And while I realize the chances are highly unlikely, I would absolutely love to see Minnesota upset Houston.
Walder: I love me some Pelicans and Trail Blazers, which I didn’t think would be the case entering this postseason. Only a pair of games separated them in the standings, so it’s not as though the No. 3-seeded Blazers were superior to the point where they should be viewed as a no-brainer favorite. Anthony Davis is the best player on either team, “Playoff Rondo” is a real thing, and Jrue Holiday is a machine on both ends. Put that against Lillard’s clutch gene, the unheralded Jusuf Nurkic, and C.J. McCollum’s knack for exploding on offense at a moment’s notice, and you have yourselves a series that can easily go the distance. Give me more, please.
Dakhil: I really want to say Philadelphia and Miami but I am all in on Pelicans-Blazers series. That was a fantastic game 1, AD and Jrue Holiday were amazing and I can’t imagine Dame and CJ will shoot that poorly again in this series. It is clear though the Blazers can’t stop AD, they almost came back to win this one despite the poor shooting from their entire squad.
Duncan: Outside of Heat-Sixers (for obvious reasons), I’m 100 percent in on thr Blazers-Pelicans series. As good as Portland has been this season, they still don’t feel like real threats in the West to me. The Pelicans, equipped with Jrue Holiday and #PlayoffRondo, have a pair of guards to test the dynamic duo of Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum. They also have Anthony Davis, a fire-breathing dragon that the Blazers can’t really match up with. I’m intrigued with the star power and the stylistic contrast of the two teams.
Is this definitively the worst team LeBron James has had going into the playoff since his first stint in Cleveland?
Nygaard: Yes. I have a world of respect for Kevin Love, who I firmly believe has been on the Hall of Fame track since he broke out in Minnesota. Larry Nance Jr. is a heck of a player who is finally getting his due. And in theory, there are a bunch of guys who have been capable in the past and should they turn back the clock for a night could help steal a game here and a game there. However, the loss of Kyrie Irving has just been a death blow for the Cavs in terms of having the kinds of guys who can singlehandedly swing a series. Irving was capable of going supernova and turning a 10-point deficit into an 8-point lead in the blink of an eye. That’s just gone now, with no one to realistically fill the void. On top of that, their mainstays aren’t the same players anymore. J.R. Smith has seen better days. Tristan Thompson logged more minutes on TMZ last week than he did in Game 1. Their newcomers are all past their prime, lacking playoff experience or Jeff Green. The Cavs are still capable of igniting, but if this is what they’re going to look like against the Pacers, it’s hard to see them coasting to the Finals as they have in years’ past, let alone putting a scare in the Western Conference representative. It’s been one game and who knows, maybe the lights are just taking longer to warm up this year after flipping the switch. But what a wakeup call that first game was.
Stiegemeyer: I was all prepared to say no, but as I write this it is currently halftime in Game 1, and the Pacers are up 55-38 on the Cavs. LeBron James has 14 of those 38 points, no one else has more than 6. Meanwhile the Pacers have three of five starters in double-digits. I don’t know if this is statistically the worst team LeBron has had going into the playoffs, but they are certainly playing like it today.
Walder: No question. Kevin Love is better than anyone LeBron James carried to the Finals in 2007 (shoutout to Donyell Marshall), but after that, there’s a noticeable dip on this current iteration. Who’s the No. 3 guy? I suppose it depends on the night, because J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver and Rodney Hood have it in them to go off for 20 or more points. It’s just Cleveland relies so heavily on its outside shooting, that when their shots aren’t dropping like in Game 1 against the Pacers, it gets really ugly. They can’t defend whatsoever, and will have to ride James into the ground to just remain competitive. The young players they acquired after purging the roster in February (Larry Nance Jr., Jordan Clarkson and Hood) don’t have much playoff experience, if any. There’s just too many question marks, little consistency, and not enough trust. Where’s Zydrunas Ilgauskas when you need him?
Dakhil: It really isn’t, this current team has another All-Star to pair with LeBron in Kevin Love, they have guys that can get it going on a different night. The year he went to the Finals in 2007 was terrible, his best teammate was Zydrunas Ilgauskas, from there it is all downhill. He took a team starting Sasha Pavlovic, Drew Gooden, Larry Hughes and Ilgauskas to the Finals. His performance in the Eastern Conference Finals to knock out the Detroit Pistons was out of this world. The East may have been weaker back than, but LeBron took an incredibly weak team and took his game to another level. Whether he gets that far with this current squad I don’t know but I can’t help but think the 2007 team was the weakest team he had going into playoffs.
Duncan: Oh, this is absolutely the worst team LeBron has had around him. The best shot-creator at his disposal is…Jordan Clarkson? Rodney Hood on every third Tuesday? Kevin Love is very good and remains criminally underrated, but he either can’t, or won’t ever be given the opportunity to shoulder more of the load by having the offense ran through him from the elbows.
Let’s not even dig too deeply into the god-awful defense. I can easily be wrong, but I’m pretry confiddnt that Cleveland gets knocked out before the Finals. LeBron is LeBron, but I just don’t think that’s enough this time around.
Holmes: I don’t think there’s any question. Don’t get me wrong, LeBron has had to play with far worst supporting class in the past (2006?), but this group just doesn’t have enough experience and synergy to be a real threat to anyone true contender.
The Toronto Raptors shook the curse, they did not make it 11 straight Game 1 losses. DeMar DeRozan and Kyle Lowry have had spotty playoff history but other than those two, which All-Star are you most worried about performing consistently this postseason?
Stiegemeyer: Damian Lillard. I’m basing this solely on the outcome of Game 1 in the Pelicans-Trail Blazers series. Small sample size, but he’s going to have to put up better numbers if the Blazers want to avoid a first round exit. These 18 points on 6-of-23 shooting business trips ain’t going to do it.
Walder: John Wall, and it wouldn’t break my heart if he didn’t get his act together. Don’t let his 23-point, 15-assist night in Game 1 fool you. He missed a ton of looks at the basket, shot a measly 6-of-20 from the field as a whole, turned the rock over five times, and was a ghost in the fourth quarter. Saturday marked Wall’s fifth appearance since Jan. 27 following his knee surgery, so he’s being tossed right into the lion’s den against a more formidable Raptors team than the one Washington ousted in 2015. The likes of Kyle Lowry and OG Anunoby are going to make him work, and if Wall is kept under control and forced into playing careless and reckless basketball, then the Wizards are royally (or magically) screwed.
Holmes: I have to cheat a little on this one. John Wall AND Bradley Beal. I mean, does anyone know what’s been going on with the Washington Wizards over the past few months? As a native Washingtonian I’ve looked into the matter and I still can’t figure it out. The “everybody eats” Wizards were looking great when Wall was initially sidelined following knee surgery. Ideas that should never be entertained were being entertained. But eventually, the team crashed back to earth and almost skidded its way right out of the playoffs. Right now, chemistry seems to be a major issue with the Wizards, which is crazy to think considering how long the core of that team has been playing together. John Wall and Bradely Beal have the potential to be the best backcourt in the NBA, but very rarely do we see both of them get hot on the same night and it hurts this team every year come playoff time.
Dakhil: A huge amount of pressure is on James Harden and Chris Paul, with their past playoff failures. I really can’t think of any other duo that has as much on the line than them. If they don’t at least get to the Conference Finals with the regular season they had, they will get eviscerated until next playoffs and even then they better get to the Finals. The thing is, they will constantly get reminded they couldn’t do it until they actually do it. Just imagine how much heat Paul would be getting if the Wolves tied the game after his turnover. Every mistake they make will be amplified until they prove they can get to the Conference Finals.
Duncan: Goran Dragic is my guy, though I must say, he shouldn’t even qualify for this. Ben Simmons deserved the All-Star berth over him, but I digress.
Dragic was mostly fine this season, but it was clear he lost a step. That lack of quickness showed itself in Game 1 on Saturday. He had no chance at shaking Robert Covington or Ben Simmons off the dribble—their length and lateral quickness effectively took Dragic out of the game.
To his credit, he responded with a strong showing in Game 2, battling through foul trouble to give the Sixers fits with his forays to the rim. The Heat are going to need more of that if they hope to pull off an upset. And it’s about time Dragic asserts himself as Miami’s best player by putting together a strong playoff showing.
Nygaard: Karl-Anthony Towns. It’s not entirely his fault, as the Wolves have had a tendency to play keep-away from him for stretches of play this season, but he absolutely has to be more assertive than he was in Game 1, and that’s on both ends of the floor. Nine shots in 40 minutes is not going to get the job done. He is a phenomenal scorer. Minnesota needs to feed him, and he needs to demand to be fed if they want to have a hope of upsetting Houston. Defensively, Towns’s reputation is what it is, but we saw him elevate his defense in the winter months this year. We’ve seen that he’s capable of getting to that level to bolster his offensive dynamism. Now, he has 3-6 games to show he can do it on demand.