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 300 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:
Kevin Broom: Bullets Forever, contributor
Erick Fernandez: NBA Freelance
Kevin Ferrigan: NBA Freelance
Ryne Jones: Good Takes NBA Podcast, host
Christian Rivas: Silver Screen & Roll, senior writer
Jared Zwerling: NBA Insider
Athletes now have their own platforms to define themselves outside of basketball; many of them use it to combat serious issues and to push for positive change. How amazing is that and who is one NBA player that’s inspired you with their work off the court?
Broom: The reality is that we know only very little about the off-court work NBA players do. LeBron James giving $40 million to establish a free school is one of the most impressive acts I can think of, and I’ve been watching or covering the League for a long time. When I started entering NBA locker rooms and getting to know players, I was initially surprised at how many guys were doing things—often small—without fanfare or attention. What I came to find out was that NBA players are oddly human. There’s a range of personalities and attitudes. Some guys are extremely generous, others are tightwads—just like the rest of us.
Over the past few years, a number of athletes have been moving beyond safe platitudes to express views on the important topics of the day from inequality and police brutality, to substance abuse and mental health. Their voices carry weight—LeBron got in Trump’s head, and that’s an amazing thing for an athlete to accomplish. I’ve been moved by guys like DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre talking about their mental and emotional struggles. If these guys, who work in a “tough guy” industry, can discuss these issues in public, it invites others to do the same. I’ve wondered what might have been if this era had come in time for someone like Gilbert Arenas, whose career was derailed by physical injuries and out of control behaviors that were likely symptoms of mental illness.
This phenomenon, obviously, isn’t unique to the NBA. I’ve been a big supporter of Colin Kaepernick’s protests against police brutality and racial injustice, and the willingness of his NFL colleagues to join him. He’s paid a huge price. Washington Nationals pitched Sean Doolittle has been an outspoken advocate for gay rights, and he’s spoken out against white supremacy and racial injustice.
The player I’ve found most inspirational was Etan Thomas. He was outspoken at a time when few players were, and he had broad interests in politics, poetry, and the arts. I talked with him a lot, but rarely about basketball. Not every player needs to be outspoken, but it’s a good thing that many are sharing their experiences and expressing their views.
Fernandez: There are so many great players doing a lot of great work to serve the under-privileged and it is amazing to see. LeBron is high on that list for obvious reasons, spending $40 million to send kids to college, and opening up his public school with a really in-depth plan on how he plans to help children. Almost all players give back in a myriad of ways both domestically and internationally and a lot of times we just don’t hear about it. As society, including the U.S. president who spews racist garbage constantly, continues to look down on black and brown men and women, it is really awesome to see these players take their role seriously and shape the next generation.
Ferrigan: I think the obvious off-the-court answer is LeBron. No one is doing quite what he’s doing in terms of trying to make the world better for young people. Granted, part of that is that LeBron has more resources and simply can get more done by virtue of being who he is, but not everyone in that position does the same, so he’s my guy.
Jones: We are living in an era where we are able to be closer to athletes than ever before because of social media. I find it truly incredible and inspiring that NBA players are becoming so vocal about their political, cultural and socioeconomic opinions and ideas and not simply “sticking to sports.”
Within the past year, several NBA athletes have opened up about their battles with mental health, notably depression and anxiety. The first of which to do so was DeMar DeRozan, who opened up in a late-night tweet during All Star Weekend saying “This depression got the best of me…” DeMar was met with waves of support from fans and players alike in response to his tweet. Since then, other players like Kevin Love and Kelly Oubre have stepped forward sharing their battles with mental health as well. NBA players are often seen in a near super-human light from many fans and by sharing their stories, they are helping to further de-stigmatize mental illness and help people realize that there are a lot more people out there suffering in the way that they are.
Rivas: I think the NBA is an especially great league to cover because of the way the League embraced social media in its early days. Now players not only have a voice, but they’re almost expected to. But the player that inspired me most with his action off the court did his work long before the social media age.
Kareem Abdul-Jabbar was one of the most high-profile names in the fight for racial equality in the late-1960s. His social activism paved the way for athletes like Colin Kaepernick to use their voice to promote equality and bring social injustices into light.
It’s an ongoing fight and we’ve still got a long way to go, but Kareem’s role in it will always be special to me.
Zwerling: The world of pro basketball players beyond the game has become a league of its own. NBA players have never been more active and diverse outside of basketball globally—from personal branding to grassroots efforts to social activism and much more. They are also among the world’s most well-known celebrities, most talked-about young stars and most marketable athletes. The NBA’s popularity only continues to grow globally and players and their business representatives are taking full advantage to create more change off the court.
I’ve worked with so many players on their off-the-court initiatives. I would say one who stands out as a leader in the field is Chris Paul. To name a few, he runs a longtime AAU program and hosts point guard camps, works with the Brotherhood Crusade to assist Los Angeles’ underserved communities, updates classrooms with new tech tabs for students, opened a new house for orphaned children in South Africa, serves as an ambassador for the Laureus Sports for Good and the President’s Council on Fitness, Sports and Nutrition, works with Shoes That Fit to supply new footwear to children who live in underprivileged communities, provides grants and tickets to sporting events for Leaps n Boundz, assists Vision To Learn with providing free eyeglasses and vision screenings to students in need, and collaborates with ONEHOPE Wine to make his own signature bottle with proceeds from each sale going to his different community programs.
Looking towards the upcoming season, if you had to bet on one first-time All-Star from each conference, who would you choose from the East and West?
Zwerling: I’m going to go with Ben Simmons in the East and C.J. McCollum in the West. Simmons is the next king of triple-doubles, and the Sixers will only get better (under his leadership) and be in contention for the Finals next season. And C.J., I believe, is about to break out even more. With the West increasingly competitive with LeBron James and DeMarcus Cousins coming over, for example, the Trail Blazers are going to need everything and more from McCollum. And he has the talent to do so.
Broom: From the West, Rudy Gobert. He’s already won Defensive Player of the Year, first team All-Defense (twice), and second team All-NBA. With DeMarcus Cousins coming back from injury and LaMarcus Aldridge now 33, there will be at least one more spot for a big man. My bonus pick from the West is Nikola Jokic. The Nuggets aren’t likely to be as good as the Jazz, however, and coaches tend to reward players from good teams.
From the East, I want to pick Otto Porter, who should have been an All-Star last season. Fans love to catalog the perceived limitations of his game, but despite those limitations he makes shots, avoids turnovers, plays good defense, rebounds the ball and causes precisely zero problems in the locker room. Turns out, guys like this are pretty valuable. If the Wizards have any sense, they’ll figure out why Porter’s usage climbs to a little above average (on well-above average efficiency) when John Wall is off the floor, and then they’ll figure out how to get one of the game’s best passers working productively with one of the game’s best shooters. But, this is the Wizards so my pick from the East is Philadelphia’s Ben Simmons (who also should have been an All-Star last season).
Fernandez: I think Jaylen Brown plays a crucial role for a Celtics team that does have a lot of talent. He had an impressive playoff performance and I think he can come into his own this season.
Donovan Mitchell had a stellar rookie campaign and he’s only going to get better. Mitchell obviously won the slam dunk competition last year, but we should be on the lookout for him to get the all-star nod this season.
Ferrigan: From the Western Conference, I would probably bet on Donovan Mitchell to make the leap. He won the dunk contest last year and even with as stacked as the West is, it’ll be hard to deny him. In the Eastern Conference, I would say Otto Porter has a pretty decent shot to finally make it, given the lack of quality wings in the East now, outside of Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard.
Jones: Looking at players who just missed the cut for the All-Star game last year I think there are some pretty clear choices for this season’s game. Ben Simmons was nearly chosen as a reserve last season after Kevin Love broke his hand, but ultimately was left off in favor of Goran Dragic. Given the weaker crop of players in the Eastern Conference and another year of growth from Simmons, I think it’s more likely than not he is selected.
The West is much more challenging because in addition to being the stronger conference already, adding LeBron surely takes another spot away from a potential suitor. I think that two names stick out in the Western Conference as the most likely: Donovan Mitchell and Nikola Jokic. Given the extremely strong crop of Western Conference guard talent with Steph, Harden, Russ, Dame among others, Jokic is the most likely to emerge as a first time All Star.
Rivas: The Eastern Conference lost two All-Stars in LeBron James and DeMar DeRozan and gained one in Kawhi Leonard. If I had to bet on who will fill the empty spot in the east, it would bet on Ben Simmons.
Simmons was one of the leading scorers on the No. 3 seed Philadelphia 76ers last season. With his first full NBA offseason under his belt, he will almost surely make another leap next season.
As for the west, it’s hard to a imagine a new face breaking into this year’s lineup. However, with Cousins expected to miss most of the regular season, he could miss out on the big game this year. If that’s the case, Nikola Jokic should be his replacement.
Jokic was knocking on the All-Star door last season. If the Nuggets can exceed expectations this season, he should be suiting up in Charlotte.
Kevin Pelton of ESPN predicted the standings for next year, his model didn’t have the Los Angeles Lakers or San Antonio Spurs making the playoffs. In your opinion, which team has more wins next season?
Rivas: Whichever team has LeBron James.
In all seriousness, it has to be Lakers. The Spurs have shown year after year they have a formula for winning games that works. There’s no reason to believe this year will be any different even after they lost Kawhi Leonard.
But if I had to choose between a team that has LeBron and a team that doesn’t have a player better than LeBron, I’m choosing the first team.
Zwerling: The Lakers because LeBron James, and they’re more talented across the board. What it comes down to is the Lakers’ young talent is better overall than the Spurs’ young talent. The Lakers are coming off a season where their young players got a lot of experience. But that wasn’t the case in San Antonio. Now, with Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard gone—and Manu Ginobili 41 years old—the Spurs are going to have to rely much more on their young core with more questions than answers. This will be their first real rodeo.
Broom: I haven’t run my model yet (which uses Pelton’s playing time projections), but I really dislike the offseason both teams had. The Lakers signed LeBron James which was great, but they followed it up with a series of bizarre moves that leave them with a roster I just don’t like. I don’t think they’ll improve as much as would be expected by adding James, and I wouldn’t be shocked if they missed the playoffs.
In swapping Kawhi Leonard for DeMar DeRozan, the Spurs are perfectly constructed for 1985. They have a point guard who can’t shoot at all, three mid-range guys (Aldridge, DeRozon and Gay), and then some old men. I’m half expecting a pre-training camp press conference to announce the signing of David West. And I think they’ll miss Kyle Anderson and Danny Green more than expected.
Despite all that, I’d pick the Spurs to have a better record than the Lakers because Gregg Popovich will get them to defend, and he’ll figure how to construct an offense around DeRozan and Aldridge. Last season, they were missing one of the game’s top five players for all but nine games, and they still managed 47 wins. My guess is they’ll be in the hunt to make the playoffs. Again.
Fernandez: The Los Angeles Lakers because of LeBron James, period. We have seen a 60-win Cleveland team become a 19-win Cleveland team after LeBron left. Although he will become 34 at the end of the year and entering his 16th season, until he shows significant signs of aging and it impacting his game, I’m going to bet on LeBron making the team he’s on significantly better.
Also, looking at the Spurs roster they don’t appear to have the depth there that we’ve become accustomed to for the past two decades.
Jones: This is a very tough one for me because it is pitting the model of consistency versus the greatest player of all time, both of which are extremely tough to bet against. I think ultimately, despite my distaste for the Lakers’ offseason moves apart from adding LeBron they will be my choice. In my opinion, the Spurs will be quite handicapped offensively. Their disinterest in shooting the three-pointers (3PAr of 29.4%, 27th in the league per NBA.com) is very worrisome. Adding DeRozan who is another reluctant shooter from deep will cause them problems with teams who fire away and can score in bunches.
A year later, if we re-drafted the 2017 class, where do you take Markelle Fultz headed into this season?
Jones: This question is very near and dear to my heart as a Sixers fan. I think at this juncture, even the biggest Fultz optimists would be hard pressed to say he belongs in the top 2 given the stellar play of both Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell. I would take him third if we were re-drafting because his upside is still quite high, however, if someone were to take Lauri Markkanen or John Collins over him I would not be upset over it. All of the other remaining players in the top 10 had severe enough warts in their game which would still make me favor the upside of Fultz.
Rivas: Even with the knowledge that Markelle Fultz’s nightmare rookie season was all his own doing, there are only two players I’m comfortable taking over Fultz in a re-draft: Jayson Tatum and Donovan Mitchell, in that order.
Dennis Smith Jr. and Lonzo Ball both made cases for “best point guard in the draft” last year, but Fultz still has less long-term question marks surrounding his game than Smith and Ball, assuming he resembles he player he was in college.
Zwerling: This is a bit unclear to analyze because he was injured basically the entire season, and when he came back he showed some flashes of why he was the top pick. Talking to J.J. Redick one day earlier this year, he said he was very impressed with the recovery work Fultz put in and that people were riding him too hard, not realizing what has happening behind the scenes. I trust Redick’s word for it. He’s candid, thoughtful and has one of the best basketball IQs. I think Fultz will be exactly the sixth man the Sixers need to make a strong push next season.
Broom: My stat-based draft analysis had Fultz rated as a mid-lottery pick, not at the very top. It’s probably correct to give a huge discount to his rookie year because he got hurt and he struggled to make the social and cultural adjustment to the NBA. That kind of thing happens with a 19-year old. Still, in a redraft, I’d have him no higher than fifth behind Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, Lauri Markkanen and Lonzo Ball. It gets iffier when talking about productive rookies who don’t seem to have as high a ceiling as Fultz—John Collins, OG Anunoby, Jarrett Allen, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart. Fultz is so young and talented that my approach would be to have some patience. Growing up in the NBA is challenging.
Fernandez: Obviously comparing Fultz’ struggles, many of which were seen in the public, to other players who showed great promise—De’Aaron Fox, Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell, etc.—you might take him later in the first round. It’s also important to maintain perspective that Fultz is still only 20 years old. We have a tendency to look at lottery pick and expect them to thrive immediately, if not, they are immediately viewed as busts. It’s important to give him some time and let him develop and then evaluate where he’s at next season and beyond.
Ferrigan: I would say you for sure take him behind Jayson Tatum, Donovan Mitchell and even Lonzo Ball, Lonzo’s warts and all. You could make an argument for slotting him behind Lauri Markkanen and Dennis Smith Jr. Other than that, I don’t think there’s anyone I would consider as having more upside than him, even today. So at highest I would take him fourth and at lowest I’d take him sixth.
Which current player needs a change of scenery the most?
Ferrigan: I would really like to see Anthony Davis play for a better organization. I don’t want to see him on the Warriors, because, honestly, enough already. But it would be nice to see Davis play in games that matter beyond the first or second round of the playoffs and with teammates that really bring out the best in him. Last year’s Pelicans team was fun, but there’s an obvious ceiling on that squad and I just want to see AD for longer come playoff time.
Jones: This was easily the most difficult question for me. I thought of easily 12-15 different players who could have been valid answers. Ultimately, I settled on Jimmy Butler. He would thrive in a situation where he is the top dog with pieces around him that actually fit. Andrew Wiggins has not gotten meaningfully better since his first season in the League, is a dreadful fit around him, and was given a five-year maximum contract in October 2017, but only after he promised to improve (yes, really). Tom Thibodeau probably thinks that rotations and selective minute allocations are nonsense, and that sports science is some form of black magic. In addition to his poor coaching, he is also the president of basketball operations, which we have seen fail time and time again. Please Jimmy, spread your wings and be free.
Rivas: Andrew Wiggins was bad least season. You can argue he’s been bad every season since he entered the League. That being said, it’s too early to definitely say Wiggins is bad at basketball.
The problem with Wiggins is that his biggest, and arguably only, strength is scoring and he’s not an elite scorer by any stretch of the imagination. Still, it might be worth exploring to see if his deficiencies are a product of the system he’s playing in.
Zwerling: Damian Lillard. In my opinion, the Blazers have reached their max and there’s no way they’re getting out of the West with the group around him. (But I still hope CJ McCollum can even be more helpful.) There are many teams out there, especially in the East, where he could go to and make a splash at starting point guard. Lillard is one of the few players ranked in the top 10 to 15 every season who hasn’t darted to a new team in the past few years. I think he’s next.
Broom: The guy who springs immediately to mind is Washington’s Tomas Satoransky. Last season, he was productive as a starter filling in when Wall was injured, although he plays the game very differently. His ability to move the ball, hit open shots, and defend made him a significant reason the team stayed afloat while Wall was sidelined. Naturally, the Wizards gave every indication they don’t want him or trust him – tepid praise when he was in the lineup, and then signing Ty Lawson from China on the eve of the playoffs, and burying Satoransky deep on the bench so Lawson could be the backup PG. He’s not going to be an All-Star, but Satoransky could be a quality third guard for a good team.
Fernandez: As much as you want to see Anthony Davis taking the Pelicans to another level (sweeping the third-seeded Portland Trail Blazers in the first round is nothing to disregard) he won’t have a serious opportunity to compete for a championship. You want to see him competing in tough Conference Finals games and Finals games and that’s just not going to happen or doesn’t appear as if it will happen in New Orleans.