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

Mike Bossetti: Raptors Rapture, co-expert

Reid Forgrave: CBS Sports, contributor

Matt Hammond: Sports Radio 94WIP, host

Dan Villarreal: NBA freelance

 

There has been a lot of talk about Brad Stevens and the Boston Celtics the last few days and rightfully so. Rachel Nichols, during an episode of The Jump, made a case for the Celtics roster being underrated. Primarily, by citing how highly drafted many of the Celtics were selected. Is Nichols correct? Are the Boston Celtics roster underrated or is Brad Stevens been overrated?

Bossetti: I don’t believe that the Celtics roster is actually underrated. Draft position doesn’t necessarily correlate to talent level and the Celtics are relying heavily on players that were buried on the depth chart to start the season. Shane Larkin is a significant cog in the Celtics playoff rotation, and their leading scorer ranked just seventh in minutes per game this season. What Stevens is doing with this group is remarkable.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Forgrave: Brad Stevens has not been overrated. There’s been an enormous amount of hype about Stevens, and for good reason. Name one other coach in the NBA who would have his team three games from the Finals without his two best players (hint: There’s isn’t one). I don’t know if Stevens is “the best” coach in the NBA, but if I had the top pick in an NBA head coach fantasy draft, I know who I’d take. But Nichols’ point still holds true, despite Stevens not being at all overrated. We all want to analogize Stevens taking the Celtics this deep in the playoffs to when he twice took Butler to the national title game. But the truth in that analogy isn’t so much about Stevens taking an overwhelmed roster deeper than anyone expected, but in both of their rosters being vastly underrated. Sure, Butler was a Horizon League team—but that first NCAA runner-up had two NBA players ($128 million player Gordon Hayward and seven-year pro Shelvin Mack) as well as Matt Howard, who has played for some of the top teams in international basketball. Turns out that roster wasn’t just a bunch of scrubs that Stevens magically conjured great basketball from. The same is true for the Celtics. Even when we leave out the injured Hayward and Kyrie Irving, Stevens still has six former lottery picks in his rotation: Al Horford, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Marcus Smart, Marcus Morris and Greg Monroe (if we still count Monroe as a rotation player). Terry Rozier was drafted 16th. Stevens’ coaching accomplishment this season is remarkable. But this is far from a trash roster.

Hammond: The fact that we’re asking the question means he’s probably *underrated.*

Think about it. In the first two rounds, the Celtics beat, essentially, Giannis Antetokopunmpo, a bunch of guys and a replacement-level coach, and Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, a bunch of guys and a replacement-level coach. How many NBA *players* are capable of that? If you were to swap out Stevens for a player, how many of them are in the East Finals today? LeBron, KD, Steph, Harden… and that’s about it. Westbrook doesn’t. Kawhi doesn’t. Chris Paul, maybe. But that’s really it.

When you put it in those terms, not only isn’t Stevens overrated, he’s probably as valuable as a top five player. Really the only coaches you can say that about, in the entire history of the sport, are one-syllable name guys Phil, Red, Pat and Pop.

To put it another way: when Nichols asks that question, what she’s really saying is, “Stevens impact is literally unbelievable.”

We can also consult Vegas on this. In the second round, the Sixers were minus-440 favorites in the series, and were favored in every single game. Even after going down three games to none. Their talent advantage wasn’t insignificant. Yet the Celtics won, with a gentleman’s sweep. That’s incredible.

So, despite all the love he’s gotten for what’s he’s done, he’s probably not getting enough.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Victor: Brad Stevens is an incredible coach. He’s proven countless times that he can give an edge to his team from a coaching perspective that few organizations have the luxury of relying on. This has seemingly drawn ire from his colleagues which is impressive considering how close the NBA coaching family is. That being said, the Boston Celtics have a talented roster—end of discussion. Whether or not the team is filled with lottery picks or if they are overachieving doesn’t matter. Players like Jayson Tatum, Terry Rozier and Jaylen Brown are coveted by other teams because they are talented.

Brad Stevens does a great job maximizing their talents, but this idea that he’s elevating a team of kids to unforeseen heights only stems from the fact that Boston is missing star players due to injury. The team still being good despite that is only shocking because we have no idea how to evaluate talent correctly.

 

What’s been the best story of the playoffs to you thus far?

Forgrave: LeBron. LeBron? LeBron. Of course it is LeBron. He is the story of the NBA even when he loses—which he almost did, in the First Round to the Indiana Pacers, which would have marked the first time LeBron lost a first-round series. But LeBron’s superhuman effort (despite little to no help from his supporting cast) meant that the Cavaliers advanced to the second round, which, let’s be honest, should never have happened. Then in that series against the Toronto Raptors we saw an incredible Game One comeback and a ridiculous buzzer-beating shot that essentially ended the most successful era in the Raptors history. Do I think LeBron is going to win a title with this crew? No, I don’t. But I think it’s possible. And if he does, these playoffs will, when it’s all been said and done for LeBron’s career, be remembered as the moment when LBJ passed MJ.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Hammond: For what was supposed to be just another predictable, inconsequential, “Wake me up when the Finals start” type of playoffs, these first two rounds have been pretty significant. We’ve seen:

1. LeBron combine Magic-level thoughtfulness and MJ “killer instinct.”

2. Brad Stevens emerge as the next Pop.

3. Russell Westbrook hit rock bottom.

4. The Jazz go from “we did everything right, still lost our best player in free agency and now we’re toast” to “we made Westbrook hit rock bottom.”

All things considered (including its impact on the Summer of LeBron), it’s not a hot take to say that these playoffs have been one of the most impactful of the last, what, 20 years?

But for me, I’ve been most interested in Daryl Morey and the Rockets, and what it says about Sam Hinkie and the Sixers.

Bill Baptist; Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Strong ownership matters.

Morey has always been an “experiment” guy. He tested the predictive ability of analytics with the James Harden trade. Of the importance of chemistry with the Dwight Howard signing. Of the limits of “positionless basketball” by pairing Harden and CP3 together in the same backcourt. Of the notion that “some guys and styles win in the playoffs, and some don’t” by hiring Mike D’Antoni. Among countless others.

Some worked out, some didn’t. But in the end, Morey managed to build the best team in franchise history and one that, if not for the single greatest collection of talent in the history of North American team sports (the Warriors) wins the title easily.

That doesn’t happen without Les Alexander, the Rockets now-former owner who pretty much followed the playbook for being a pro sports owner: hire the right people and get the hell out of the way.

The Sixers? They more or less became a model of that *not* to do. Like Alexander, Sixers owner Josh Harris made a big bet with his GM hire. And like Alexander, Harris knew exactly what he was getting into. If the Sixers won, they’d be hailed as geniuses, the way that Jeff Bezos and Elon Musk are whenever they come out on top. If they didn’t, they’d be hammered for faking genius, the way that Bezos and Musk are whenever they come up short.

Only, when things got tough, Harris didn’t have the guts Alexander did. He caved, forcing Hinkie out in 2016, and hiring Bryan Colangelo. What…the…

You don’t have to be a Process Truther to understand the problem here. The Sixers spent four years trying to be terrible with the promise of eventually being great. The guy they replaced Hinkie with has throughout his career built teams that could be best described as “mediocre.” That’s the exact reality Hinkie was trying to free them from. So even if the tank got the Sixers two potentially transformative talents, without the right guy building around them, how much better will they ever be than the Jrue Holiday-Evan Turner-Thad Young Sixers?

Talk about running in place, I spent four years in Houston, and my career started in and has brought me back to Philly. So maybe I’m biased. But any NBA fan can see what this potentially robs us of. Instead of getting a just-a-step-below-the-Warriors-level dynasty, or at the very least one-half of a rivalry (with the Celtics) that could help carry the NBA for the next 10 years, we’re possibly looking at the KD-Westbrook-Harden Thunder or the Penny-Shaq Magic, two talented teams that peaked with just one Finals appearance and zero championships. That, to me, sucks.

Maybe LeBron comes this summer and cures all, but it shouldn’t have come to that.

Hinkie should’ve been able to see this through, from start to finish, the way Morey was. To be totally honest, I feel weird even calling it “The Process” anymore. That died the minute Hinkie died for our sins.

#NotMyProcess

Victor: The answer here just has to be the Boston Celtics. For a season that had an incredible amount of surprises from teams like Indiana and Philadelphia, somehow the Conference Finals are almost exactly what everyone expected. Houston is getting their swing at Golden State, and LeBron is gearing up to potentially take the East again. The only story that is worth getting excited about is this “undermanned” Boston team that managed to stifle LeBron and company in Game 1.

Bossetti: LeBron James and his greatness. During this playoffs we have seen LeBron hit two game winners, nearly average a 30-point triple double, and carry one of his weakest teams in years to the conference finals. LeBron is likely to make his eighth straight finals and will do so with 37 year-old Kyle Korver as his third best player.

 

Chris Paul is finally in his first Conference Finals. What would it mean for Chris Paul’s legacy if the Rockets were to somehow win this series and possibly the Finals? How high would the point god jump up the pyramid?

Hammond: You could argue that would put him in the top 20. Over point guards like Iverson, Jason Kidd and Stockton and maybe even Isiah. Over bigs like Kevin Garnett and Barkley. It would be an absolute gamechanger.

Chris Paul’s great. We’ve always known that. But it’s one thing for us to know it in the abstract, and another to see it validated with a championship. Especially if he gets it going through these Warriors AND LeBron.

Remember, not all championships are created equal. KD beating LeBron in 2017, for instance, isn’t LeBron beating the Warriors in 2016. Duncan beating LeBron in 2007 (with the Cavs) isn’t Duncan beating LeBron in 2014 (Heat). Neither are Dirk beating LeBron in 2011. And so on. We define NFL QBs and NBA stars by titles, but there’s absolutely different levels of titles.

Beating the Warriors AND THEN LeBron? Isn’t that the greatest title in NBA history?

To put it this way: if LeBron beat the Warriors to win the title, that probably ends the debate with MJ for good. Not that it should still be a debate. But even the lunatics on Twitter tweeting “goaltending!” before his first buzzer beater in the first round against the Pacers, and went full Skip Bayless after his second (“I don’t know what to say anymore, but I have to say SOMETHING”)—if LeBron somehow beat the KD-Steph-Klay-Dray Warriors, even they would have to tip their cap and call him their daddy.

If Chris Paul beat the Warriors AND THEN LeBron?! When has that ever happened before: A guy beating one of the most dominant dynasties in history and then following it up by doing the same against one of the most dominant singular players in history, en route to a championship?!

MJ never lost a Finals. LeBron only lost a Finals to dynasties (Warriors and Spurs) and the Mavs. Magic only lost Finals to dynasties (Celtics) and the Sixers and Pistons. Neither the 2011 Mavs nor the 1983 Sixers beat a dynasty en route to beating a dominant singular player. So, take those out of it.

The Pistons did beat MJ in the East Finals before beating Magic in the Finals in 1989. But that was “pre-Phil” MJ, who was at that point more “Russell Westbrook” than the MJ hive would care to admit. Is that the same as beating *this* LeBron? I don’t think so.

So, what we’re talking about here would be basically unprecedented.

The more I talk this out, the more I want this to happen. I initially wanted to see LeBron win the title, with the hope that NBA Twitter would “Crying Jordan” meme the Jordan hive, but CP3 winning the title—this almost needs to happen now.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Victor: Chris Paul making it to the Finals might actually be enough to shed the false narrative that he doesn’t perform in the playoffs, which is pretty sad. I personally don’t think he needs to do much else as I’ve considered him to be one of the greatest point guards of all time for a while, but I understand I may be in the minority. Beating any team to make it there would be impressive considering his history, but since he’s going up against perhaps the greatest team ever assembled, showing out in a series like this is a trump card to be played in barbershop arguments everywhere.

Juan Ocampo/NBAE via Getty Images

Bossetti: This answer depends ultimately on how highly you value championships when determining your all-time list. Personally, I believe the championship puts him definitively ahead of John Stockton and probably ahead of Isiah Thomas. That ranks him third all time (behind Magic Johnson and Oscar Robertson) currently and projects him to fourth shortly. Though I believe Steph Curry will eventually surpass him.

Forgrave: I’m going to start with the opposite assumption: What will it mean for Chris Paul’s career and this Rockets’ season if the Rockets get trounced by the Warriors in four or five games? A non-competitive series will render this incredible Rockets regular season meaningless. The Rockets have been intentionally constructed to beat the Warriors, with Paul as the central piece of that construction. If they fail at their central goal, that will mean overall failure. Yet Paul and the Rockets do not need to reach the Finals to justify this year’s experiment. They need only put up a competitive six- or seven-game series — to take the finest roster ever assembled, these Warriors, to the brink of elimination — to justify the Rockets’ greatness. Sometimes finishing runner-up to the greatest of all time is still pretty damn good.

 

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

The Toronto Raptors were embarrassed. Dwane Casey was dismissed sacrificed as their scapegoat. Put on your GM hat, where do the Raptors go from here?

Victor: Getting ownership behind a rebuild after winning 59 games is asking the impossible so I’ll start elsewhere.

It’s hard to see where the growth comes for a team like this. They are handicapped financially, lost another coach, and running it back while Boston and Philly continue to grow looks like a surefire way to stay middle of the pack for the foreseeable future. That being said, 59 games is 59 games—and if Masai can somehow find a coach better equipped to run the team than Dwane Casey, the Raptors aren’t in a terrible situation. I just don’t know where that kind of coach would come from.

Bossetti: I believe many people would be surprised to hear it was Josh Kroenke, and not Masai Ujiri who was responsible for the firing of George Karl. Ujiri left for Toronto prior to Karl’s firing. As he looks to fill Toronto’s current vacancy he will have two distinct options. The Raptors have many high-level assistants that seem ready to take the leap (Nick Nurse, Rex Kalamian, Jerry Stackhouse), but might want to have a new voice for the current roster. Coach Budenholzer seems like the favorite right now, but don’t rule out long time assistants like Ettore Mesina or Stephen Silas.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Forgrave: Just keep going. Because there’s not enough flexibility to blow things up. And think about it: In what other instance, not just in sport but in life, could someone justify blowing things up and starting things over after this type of season? The Raptors set a franchise record for wins. They got the one seed in the East. Yeah, they lost to LeBron. But LeBron may be the greatest player of all time. There’s no shame in that. If LeBron had been in the West the past several years, imagine how different the narrative of this same Raptors team would be? Odds are, they would have made at least one Finals. I suppose they could trade DeMar DeRozan in the offseason. But that seems to be an extreme reaction to being almost there but not getting over the hump. How many NBA franchises would have traded their season this year for the Raptors’? Twenty? More? Going any further than a coaching change would be an extreme reaction to what was essentially one missed layup. If Jonas Valanciunas had made that tip at the end of Game 1, would we even be having this conversation?

Hammond: If you want my honest take about what the Raptors should do moving forward, it’s this: Move the team and change the name. I’m serious.

We’re at the point with the Raptors that we are with the Browns. The city makes it uniquely tough to attract talent at every level of the organization. The brand has become synonymous with “No, it won’t be different this time, and probably never will be.”

So, why not relocate and rebrand?

We can have all the fun we want with the NBA trade machine, but outside of tanking (which, does Raptors ownership have the stomach for that any more than Sixers ownership did?) there’s really nothing the Raptors can do to meaningfully change their stars for the foreseeable future. It’s almost like the conversation Dr. Strange has with Tony Stark in Infinity War, after considering the future and seeing 14 million different futures. “It always had to be this way.” There’s just too much going against them, between their geography and history.

We can take moving out of the equation, since: It’s wildly improbable, if not impractical and  I’d hate to see Raptors fans lose their team the way other loyal sports fan bases have. That said, moving the Raptors to Seattle, resurrecting the Sonics and putting the Pelicans in the East where they geographically belong really does make all the sense.

But at the very least, the team needs to change the name. Doing so would singlehandedly boost morale, change the vibe of the building and, theoretically, increase the team’s appeal to free agent players, coaches, executives and even fans.

I get that in 2018, any honest or outside-the-box thinking gets labeled as “hot takery,” but yeah, that’s kind of where we’re at with the Raptors at this point. Sorry, Drake.

 

Finally, the NBA is a progressive and forward-thinking League. On Friday, Pau Gasol penned an article for the Players Tribune about his coach Becky Hammon, who is interviewing for the Milwaukee Bucks head coaching job and could potentially be the first female head coach. Gasol also  lists some of the other steps NBA members took to combat issues of race, mental health, and LGBTQ rights over the last few years. While it’s positive to see the League stepping forward in these areas, is there a specific area where you believe the NBA could be doing more?

Bossetti: First I think it is important to applaud the NBA and its players for all of its efforts in these areas and recognize their advancement compared to other leagues. However, I still believe the League has a long way to go in terms of LGBTQ acceptance. Let’s not forget that it was less than three years ago that Rajon Rondo was suspended just one game for a homophobic slur at a gay referee. Since that point, the NBA has taken steps to become more accepting. Moving the All-Star Game from Charlotte because of North Carolina’s bathroom ordinances was a nice message, but we as a collective basketball community can still always do more.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Forgrave: The NBA is the most progressive, forward-thinking league in sports. That’s why Adam Silver has become the most popular and successful commissioner in pro sports. His tenure started with an intense race-related situation—the Donald Sterling fiasco with the Los Angeles Clippers—and Silver handled it in a way that endeared him to players and fans alike. (It helped that Sterling’s impossibly perfect villain persona made it easy for Silver to be his foil.) But if there’s one social area the NBA needs to become more active in, it’s youth basketball, specifically the “amateur” system of AAU basketball and one-and-dones that leads to the culture of corruption that has brought college basketball to its knees. The NBA needs to work more closely with college basketball as well as with the shoe companies who control AAU basketball (not to mention wield an inordinate amount of power in college basketball) to produce a more fair, equitable system for players. I’m not sure what that looks like. But the NBA has largely turned its head to questions of corruption and inequities in the developmental ranks. USA Basketball has been an incredible model for how the NBA can wield its influence in the lower ranks. But it needs to go deeper than just USA Basketball. More NBA-sponsored youth basketball leagues in America’s largest cities would be a start.

Hammond: This is probably going to get me in trouble, but it’s an important conversation about an issue I care a lot about. So here goes.

For me, the problem with diversity initiatives, and the reason that they’re usually only minimally successful, is the way they’re framed: “It’s the right thing to do.”

It is, 100 percent of the time, the, “right thing,” to empower people and women of color, and of different genders and sexual identities. Especially since the only reason they need empowerment is generations of sociopolitical oppression, mostly at the hands of straight, white dudes.

But is that really what’s going to get people to respond? In 2018? In pro sports and business? Where the stakes have never been higher, or more scrutinized, and patience has never been thinner?

If we’re being honest, the answer is “No.”

So, if we want to see more people who historically don’t get certain jobs eventually get those jobs, it’s not productive to talk it in terms of about, “what’s right.” Instead, we should be talking about it in terms of, “What’s best for winning.”

Well, when you put it in those terms—having historically marginalized people in prominent roles throughout an organization is absolutely what’s best for winning.

For instance: Companies with women on their boards of directors have been proven to have better performance in the stock market (winning), more risk-aversion (doing less dumb stuff) and fewer lawsuits (doing less really dumb stuff) than companies that don’t. Not because women are any better or worse than men, but simply because women have a different worldview, having experienced life through a different lens. When you have different worldviews, you have less groupthink, smarter and deeper conversations and better results.

Personally, I feel like some of my best work has come alongside women and minorities. Sam Given, a producer at SportsRadio 610 in Houston, is a woman. Ryan Rockett, a former producer at 610, is black. Alex Del Barrio, who I used to host with at 610, is Hispanic. That, to me, isn’t coincidental. I’ve always believed that a radio show is supposed to be a collection of perspectives. I have the “straight, white guy” perspective. Talent being equal (and it often is), it helps to have other perspectives, in prep and on the air.

None of that is anything new or revolutionary—it’s been written about for like 10 years now. Yet whenever someone like Becky Hammon finds herself in position to get an NBA head coaching job, or someone like Jenn Welter gets hired as an NFL position coach, or someone like Jessica Mendoza gets hired to do ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball, there’s always this pervasive conversation about whether women can coach or broadcast as well as men can. To put it this way: it’s been proven that they can do it within Fortune 500 companies. If you think sports is harder, on any level, you’re being actually or willfully stupid.

So, for me, the lack of progress we’re having has less to do with anything leagues or companies are doing or not doing by way of initiatives. It’s more about the way we think about the issue, and talk about it.

Mark Sobhani/NBAE via Getty Images

Victor: While the NBA is arguably the most progressive League in the world, there is obviously a lot that can still be done. Players like Pau Gasol and Kevin Love are doing a good job of helping highlight that. The NBA isn’t a perfect league, but so long as the players are allowed to use their voice like this, the NBA will continue to grow.

I do have to something to say about the Hammon situation. One of the arguments I saw against Hammon getting an interview with the Bucks was that there are other candidates of color that are more than qualified to take that position. I simply think it’s ridiculous to criticize progress in the name of progress. While the lack of diversity among NBA head coaches is a real problem, arguing that Becky Hammon is “skipping a line” is not the way to advocate change.