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

Parker Fleming: Grizzly Bear Blues, senior writer

Richard Ivanowski: Sactown Royalty, contributor

Thomas Johnson: Washington Post, sports audience editor

Aaron Larsuel: The Official Lakers Podcast, host

Leif Sylvander: Miami Heat Beat Podcast, host

 

Manu Ginobili’s retirement rightfully garnered the headlines, but a very good player also retired last week in David West. Looking back, of non-superstars who will never make the Hall of Fame, whose retirement stirred you up most historically?

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Fleming: I’m going to cheat here and go with the duo of Brandon Roy and Greg Oden. Roy was obviously an exceptional talent in the League, making three All-Star appearances in his short career. His knee injury certainly robbed him from becoming the League’s next great two guard. Then, I fell in love with the draft in 2007, as it was the first year I’ve witnessed the Grizzlies go to the lottery (they also had the highest draft odds). Prior to the draft, Oden and Durant were hyped up as two generational talents, and now it’s all infamy. The early retirement of these two players is overlooked, because they were supposed to turn Portland into a bonafide Western Conference contender. Between these two players and LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland had the potential to battle the Spurs and the Lakers to represent the Western Conference in the Finals—and possibly win a championship. Instead, Roy and Oden are two of the NBA’s biggest what-ifs of the century.

Johnson: Brandon Roy. After trying just about every type of knee treatment, his body just wouldn’t cooperate and he had to end his career entirely too soon. Roy retired in 2013, after five full seasons in the NBA. He was 28, a year younger than Russell Westbrook and James Harden are now. Just three years earlier, the 25-year-old Roy looked like the next great shooting guard, ready to replace Dwyane Wade and Kobe Bryant on All-NBA teams. He was the rare guard who could just as easily hit a contested three-pointer, cross over any defender and dunk over your standard Vine victim big man (miss you, Vine). Seriously, just watch his top 10 plays. I’ll wait. Had Roy not been dealt such awful injury luck, he’d be far away from this list, likely on his path to Springfield. Basketball can be cruel.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Ivanowski: Growing up in the Bay Area, I followed the Warriors as a kid. At the time they were truly awful. I’m talking 17-65 levels of awful. Watching that group slowly turn the corner into the “We Believe” era and knocking out the one-seed Mavericks in 2007 is what cemented my NBA fandom. My favorite player from that squad was Troy Murphy. And while he definitely has zero shot at the Hall of Fame, he was a valuable player with a modern game. Troy was bombing threes way before it was cool for big men to bomb threes. Only two other players in history have hit 150 threes and collected 800 boards in a single season: Kevin Love and Russell Westbrook. I just feel he never got the respect he deserved. Even worse, he was traded midseason in the year the Warriors would go on to find playoff success. He had a pretty successful journeyman career after leaving, but never played meaningful minutes in a playoff run. When he retired without achieving that success it really hit a soft spot in my heart.

Larsuel: My favorite player growing up was Manute Bol. Watching him block every shot within 15 feet of the rim and watching him launch above-the-break threes from his right shoulder will forever be logged in my mind. Meeting him as a 12-year-old was magical. Several years later the Warriors waived him, and I knew he was done. It was a sad day for me, but every so often I head over to YouTube to reminisce about the good old days and someone we’ll never see again.

Victor Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Sylvander: The easy answer for me is one that hasn’t happened yet but is imminent enough for me to look ahead for the sake of this question. Udonis Haslem. The human embodiment of Heat Culture, contributor to all three championship teams, hometown hero, I could go on and on. An absolute lock to have his uniform number retired immediately upon hanging it up. Right next to Dwayne’s.

Haslem’s commitment to the local community, combined with his gritty playing style and “everything is earned” mentality. That’s what a Miami Heat player looks like. The type of player and person the HEAT fan can be proud of. From a basketball perspective, his resume in big moments is near to every Heat fan heart. From his defense against Dirk in 2006, to returning from injury at Chicago in 2011 and punctuating his return with a monster transition dunk, to his timely jumpers at Indiana during the Big 3 era, UD tugs at all the heart strings of this Heat fan.

 

 

Last week on this roundtable, I asked participants which team had the smallest gap between their best and second-best player. This week, I’d like to know which team has the largest gap between their best and second-best player? Caveat: No Los Angeles Lakers—that’s too easy.

Sylvander: Charlotte Hornets. The gap between All-Star Kemba Walker and presumably Nic Batum or whoever you classify as the second best player on the Hornets is the largest gap on any roster league-wide. Malik Monk and Miles Bridges have a chance to close that gap, but it’s way too early to start touting their potential as gap fillers in this exercise. It feels inevitable that Charlotte will end up making the decision to send Walker to a winner and start the complete rebuild process.

Honorary shout out to the New York Knicks with Kristaps Porzingis dwarfing his teammates in talent and height. The presence of Kevin Knox, who I am high on among this draft class, plus Kristaps potentially missing significant time in 2018-19 convinced me to go Charlotte here.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images
Layne Murdoch/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: The New Orleans Pelicans. Let me get this out of the way: I like Jrue Holiday! His defensive tenacity in the playoffs was exceptional, and he should probably make one of the all-defensive teams this season. Anthony Davis is outrageously talented and makes all of his teammates better on both ends of the floor. I was also tempted to pick Milwaukee for similar reasons, but Davis is on a different level to the Greek Freak. For now.

Fleming: There are so many ways you could go here. You could look at situations like Cleveland and New York, especially since there’s a clear-cut number one and the lack of a co-star. Maybe, Collin Sexton and Kevin Knox turn heads and becomes those sidekicks, but we want to see how them in real NBA action. Jrue Holiday’s excellent playoffs slightly closed the wide gap between him and Anthony Davis. If you’re not an analytics warrior, you might look at Miami and think Dragic is their undisputed best player. The easy pick here though is the Hornets with Kemba Walker and Nicolas Batum. Kemba is by far their best player, as he’s probably snatched Conley’s title as the NBA’s most underrated point guard. Without Kemba’s scoring and playmaking abilities, the Hornets would be the worst team in basketball—and it may not be close. Years of bad roster management attribute to this, and it was so easy to dodge. They could’ve taken the Celtics’ gaudy offer that included six future first-round picks (yes, the Brooklyn picks were in there) for the Hornets’ No. 9 pick in 2015. In the same 2015 draft, they could’ve picked Devin Booker over Frank Kaminsky, who didn’t make sense at the time anyways. Marvin Williams, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist are a trio of unfavorable salaries. Sure, Malik Monk and Miles Bridges are promising, but Kemba and the Hornets won’t go anywhere with Batum as their second-best player in the 2018-19 season.  Now, the Hornets have only made the playoffs once in the Kemba era, and they may run into a situation where he walks and leaves Charlotte with nothing in return.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Larsuel: The obvious answer here is the Bucks. Giannis is a top 7-ish player in the NBA and the next best guy on the Bucks is? Middleton? Bledsoe? Brogdon? Brook Lopez? Shabazz? OK, maybe not Shabazz. Giannis is the answer and it’s not close. Hat tip to Porzingis if he ever gets healthy again.

Ivanowski: For me it comes down to the Knicks, Suns, and Hornets. New York has a sole superstar in Kristaps Porzingis, but with his health compromised it’s possible that Kevin Knox could close the gap with a strong start. Devin Booker is the obvious talent in Phoenix, but they also have a group of talented young players including Deandre Ayton, the first overall pick of the draft. All things considered I have to go with Charlotte. Kemba Walker has been an All-Star in consecutive years and I don’t see any other player on the Hornets even approaching his skill level. Frankly, I’m not even sure who their second-best player is at this point. Miles Bridges has a chance to get there eventually, but I don’t think he will come along as quickly as Knox or Ayton.

 

Question was posed via Twitter earlier this year: When people talk about the modern era, what are they talking about and when did it start in your eyes? 

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Larsuel: To me the modern era, at least as it is talked about on Twitter, started in 2015. The reason: Steph Curry. The NBA changed in 2015 because of Steph. That’s when we realized that he was different and that the game was different. The Warriors won the title because there was a little guy that looked like a casual pickup mainstay and no one had an answer for him. His pregame shooting routine became the stuff of legend and he won the MVP. We watch differently. We analyze differently. We play differently. We argue on Twitter differently. All that changed because of Steph in 2015.

Sylvander: I have been watching the NBA since 1990, so the modern NBA to me still feels like baggy shorts, headbands and Michael Jordan memories. But I get it, I am old.

Give me Summer 2010.

If we are discussing the modern era as it is perceived by #NBATwitter—I would say the “modern era NBA” conversation is driven by how the game has changed most recently. Changes most evident in watching Golden State, Houston and even Boston. Style of play, small ball lineup combinations and roster construction. Stars still rule the League. That hasn’t changed. Obtaining stars, preferably multiple ones, is part of the modern NBA era team model. In addition, every team is attempting to discern how an entire roster may complement those stars in very specific ways. Skills like outside shooting, passing and the ability to switch on defense are vital. Slow footed big men and players who cannot shoot consistently, despite talent and/or other strengths, have lost value. Wings are as valuable as ever, with the ability to play “position-less” basketball appearing as the goal of so many head coaches in today’s league. The modern era is closer to having no designated positions than the traditional starting five.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

The moment three prime superstars joined forces via free agency the League changed. The whole package of James, Wade and Bosh sacrificing contract money, setting aside individual accolades and receiving constant backlash was enough for the seeds to be planted. Then, in some ways by sheer necessity, Spoelstra’s Big 3 era rosters reintroduced the effectiveness of a shift towards position-less styles of basketball. LeBron found his best game at the 4 spot, surrounded by shooters. Bosh redefined his game as a small ball stretch big man who was an elite pick-and-roll defender. Battier, Haslem and others were switching everything on defense, hitting threes or knocking the crap out of people. The idea of simply demoralizing opponents with barrages of high level play became real. Creating turnovers, getting out on the break, shooting threes, alley oops—doing all of that at a truly elite level, simultaneously, was reintroduced in varying degrees by Miami’s Big 3 era teams. Then was taken to a superior level in Golden State in basically every aspect. I believe one day soon most NBA rotations will consist of 8-10 players between 6-6 and 6-10 that can all shoot, handle, pass and defend everyone. That is where the modern era is now. That shift began in 2010-11.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Fleming: It was easy to say 2007, since the “Superteam” era started then and hasn’t ended. However, modern basketball started when the Warriors went on their run in 2014-15 season. At this point, they made the 3-ball a major key to winning championships. It was the year the Warriors favored Draymond’s versatile skill set over David Lee’s post game and rebounding, a real sign that old-school big men were becoming a dying breed. In the process, they unleashed the “Death Lineup,” which has ultimately devalued the idea of positions. Ever since then, the league has tried to copy them, and it hasn’t worked at all.

Ivanowski: My initial impulse is to define this era by its greatest player, LeBron James. Choosing his entry into the League seems logical enough. But I’m going to fight that impulse, and instead choose the 2008 offseason as the starting point. To me this is the “Superteam” era, which began when Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen joined Paul Pierce on the Boston Celtics. LeBron continued and solidified that trend in the following year when he took his talents to Miami. While other factors are important in the game today, the modern era is defined by player empowerment above all else. Superstars control their own destinies now, and I don’t think you could really say that before 2008.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: I think the modern era means two things: Moving away from a big man league to guard-centric offenses and an increase in three-point shooting. While the latter is still evolving to the dismay of certain players-turned-analysts (Hi, Chuck!), there is one clear starting point: The “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns. If I had to pick a specific year, I’d say 2005, the year Nash won his first MVP, and not a coincidence, the year hand-checking defense was outlawed. Defenders could no longer forearm shiver dribblers (it does not stop me from doing so in pick-up games), allowing tricky guards to hop from spot to spot on the court without a care in the world. Those Suns teams would not look out of place stylistically in 2018. You can’t say that about a lot of pre-2005 teams.

 

Luol Deng, who was bought out and stretched by the Lakers last week will look to reignite his career in a new home next season. Jokes are obviously being made about him rejoining former his former Chicago co-workers in Minnesota, but it is sad that those talented Bulls teams were unable to reach the Finals. Injuries, luck and LeBron James are tough hurdles. Looking back at those Bulls and beyond, which team were you surprised never won a championship?

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Larsuel: I think we need to continue the Bulls reunion in Minnesota! Perhaps a certain little used center in New York might possibly be available, too. Life isn’t fair, though. We may never see this plan come to fruition. Life wasn’t fair to those Bulls either, and they join a list of almost including the current iteration of the Rockets (HOT TAKE: they’ll will never win one), the Stockton-Malone Jazz, the Kemp-Payton Sonics, the Russ-KD-Harden-Ibaka Thunder, the Nash-Marion-Amar’e Suns, and so many others that never quite got there. Out of that group I’m most surprised the Thunder never got there, but the one that sticks out most to me is the early 2000’s Kings. Sometimes being the second-best team in the League for a while isn’t enough.

Ivanowski: I have to give a nod to the team I currently cover and the city I currently live in, Sacramento. While the Warriors were struggling to win 20 games in the early 2000s, their neighbors to the north were the class of the League. The Kings made eight straight playoff appearances from 1999 to 2006, including a four-year run of 55 wins or more. It all culminated in the 2001-02 season, when they won a League-best 61 games and faced off against the Lakers in the Western Conference Finals. While other franchises may have had comparable windows of contention, I don’t think any of them fell short in such a heartbreaking fashion. After taking a 3-2 lead in the series, the Lakers tied it up in one of the most oddly officiated playoff games in League history—including a sequence where Mike Bibby appeared to be called for a foul simply for receiving an elbow to the face from Kobe Bryant. Needless to say, Kings fans everywhere still have nightmares about how it all turned out.

Johnson: I lived in Miami during the LeBron era and if any Heat fan tells you they weren’t seriously concerned about the Bulls in 2011, they are doing some serious selective editing. Those 62-win Bulls swept the Heat in the regular season, before losing in five games to Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals in a series that was a lot closer than it looks on paper. It’s been seven years, and I’m still not entirely sure how Miami pulled off that 19-4 run to win Game 5 in Chicago. Even Dwyane Wade was hitting three-pointers. That team was incredibly well-coached, tough and would have probably beaten the Dallas Mavericks in the Finals had it just gotten past the Heat.

Rocky Widner/NBAE/Getty Images

Sylvander: The first team that comes to mind for me is the 1999-00 Portland Trail Blazers that never broke through during the Shaq and Kobe Lakers dynasty. Yes, the Blazers team that melted down in epic fashion as Shaq was catching lobs from Kobe in dramatic fashion. That Portland team had everything and had LA on the ropes. That haunts Portland Trail Blazer fans to this day.

Speaking of haunting a fanbase, as I am deeply conditioned to do so, I will bring this back to the 305 and mention the 2005 Miami Heat. That team was one Dwyane Wade rib injury away from a probable NBA Finals matchup with San Antonio in 2005. That Heat team had MVP level Shaq, Wade discovering his greatness and a collection of talent that was good enough to win one. I won’t regret the past on this one too much as the 2005 Heat ECF loss to Detroit set up the largest trade in NBA history that ultimately delivered the 2006 NBA Championship to Miami. The universe is cool that way.

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Fleming: As a 22-year old NBA fan, it’s kind of hard to pick out this team. No team that didn’t win a title in my lifetime was better than the Spurs, the “Boston Three Party”, Kobe-Pau Lakers, the Heatles, the Warriors or Cavs. However, I’m still baffled at how the “7 Seconds or Less” Phoenix Suns didn’t win a title. Nash had two MVP-level seasons and was the league’s best point guard from 2005-2008. Amar’e Stoudemire was an awesome big man to pair with him, and Shawn Marion was a versatile two-way beast that was truly ahead of his time. They even surrounded their Big 3 with a really solid supporting cast—Joe Johnson, Quentin Richardson and Leonardo Barbosa. Even after that Big 3, they surrounded Nash and Stoudemire with Shaq, Grant Hill, Jason Richardson, Goran Dragic and Boris Diaw. Not to mention, they had the League’s resident offensive masterpiece at the helm in Mike D’Antoni. That Phoenix team had a great five-year stretch, and it’s a shame that they don’t have a title to show for it.

 

ESPN dropped their basketball power index last week. Did any of the placements surprise you? Which team do you have significantly higher or lower than the BPI formula?

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Ivanowski: Denver is far too high for my taste here. Seeing a team that missed the playoffs last season in the top-10 is jarring. The only other team that could say that is the Lakers, who just added LeBron James to their roster. The Nuggets, on the other hand, actually got worse this offseason from my perspective. Sure, they signed Isaiah Thomas, but he’s a complete question mark after last season. They traded away Wilson Chandler in a salary dump, who was actually pretty important to their team last year. He started 71 games, shot the ball well from deep, and defended both forward positions adequately, which is a rare skill set in this league. They also drafted Michael Porter Jr., who is likely to have a redshirt year as he continues to strengthen his back. Yet they’re ranked one spot higher than the Pacers, who took the Cavaliers to seven games just a few months ago, and two spots ahead of the Pelicans who dominated their first-round playoff series in a sweep. I’d put Denver about five spots lower, at best.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Sylvander: Toronto is entirely too high. I just am not seeing how that roster fits together with Kawhi’s pending free agency looming all season.

Indiana is too low. I think the Pacers bring back a great mix of talent and the addition of Tyreke Evans was one of the most underrated of the offseason. It would not shock me at all if the Pacers finished as the two seed in the East this year.

Swap the Raptors and Pacers in those rankings.

Johnson: San Antonio! Are you telling me that the Spurs will somehow be worse with a full season of DeMar DeRozan than they were with nine games of Kawhi Leonard and all the passive-aggressive tension that defined their season? The Spurs won 47 games last year and Vegas has their over/under at 44.5 last time I checked. That doesn’t make sense to me given their roster and a fired-up Popovich. Let’s not forget they added Lonnie Walker in the draft and brought Marco Belinelli back. While losing Ginobili and Parker hurts from a leadership standpoint, it provides an opportunity for Dejounte Murray and Walker to transform their backcourt into one of the more athletic tandems in the West. Also, not a hot take: DeRozan is talented. Remember this when the Spurs go back to casually winning 50 games.

Larsuel: I generally think BPI has teams about where they should be, but a few things stick out to me. First, rightly or wrongly, it is striking to think that the Warriors are about 50 percent better than the second tier of teams bunched in the ranking. I’d take the Warriors vs. The Field in predicting the champ, but it should be interesting to see what their motivation level is and if they are able to justify BPI’s prediction of total world domination.

Secondly, I agree with BPI’s prediction of the Lakers as a four or five seed in the West (a tenth of a point higher than Utah for the four seed). But, I completely disagree with how they get there. BPI has the Lakers offense as a + 0.8. No chance. The Cavs’ offensive ranking has been sixth, second, third, third the last four years since LeBron returned in 2014. It was 23rd the year before he went back home. LeBron will fall off at some point, but at least on offense, that day isn’t today. The Lakers offense is not going to be mediocre.

Oh yeah, Memphis at 21 is too low.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty ImagesFleming: Based off these rankings, it was easy to pick out who needed to be higher and who needed to go lower. New Orleans strikes me as a team that should be higher, probably right below Oklahoma City. Unleashing Anthony Davis at the 5 next to Holiday and Mirotic unlocked new dimensions to the Pelicans’ offense, and it shouldn’t get any worse next season, especially with Julius Randle coming on board. With how close the West is and a MVP year from AD on the horizon, it’s not hard to imagine them walking out of the season with homecourt in the first round. In addition, I’d have the Clippers lower than the Mavs and Grizzlies. All three of these teams have similar ceilings, but they also have the lowest floor among the three. It’s easy to see them pull the plug in February, sell the house for 2019 cap space (looking at Lou Will and Danilo Gallinari), develop their two lottery picks, and ensure they keep their pick in next year’s draft.