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

Ashley Douglas: Denver Stiffs, writer

Alex Gres: Raptors Republic, contributor

Anthony Nash: Overwatch Wire, contributor

Tavan Parker: SLC Dunk, contributor

Alex Regla: Lakers SB Nation, contributor

Paul Steeno: SB Nation, Bulls writer

 

Jimmy Butler requesting a trade caught a lot of the hoops community off guard. Is there any situation you can envision where the Wolves get a package back that improves their team headed into this season?

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Douglas: What Minnesota needs right now is someone who is going to come in and take charge of the team. I’m a fan of Karl-Anthony Towns, but I’ve been fairly disappointed in how he really hasn’t stepped up to become the leader the team needs. He’s a monster on the court, but he’s not that Draymond Green type of player that elevates everyone’s game around him. I know the Lakers aren’t really in the running for the Butler trade, but if Minnesota could work out a deal to get Kyle Kuzma somehow I think they’d be in great shape. The city is a clean slate in a way, and Kuzma could go in and really make the organization his own brand. I like the idea of LeBron James in LA, but I think Kuzma needs a place where he can really shine. He’s that special.

Gres: It’s conceivable they get a couple pieces from the Clippers or someone else that round out their team nicely in theory and keep them in the playoff picture in the West. But I can’t envision any trade where it looks like they won it the day it happened. Butler and Thibs were brought in to help their youth take the next step, but the ingredients just didn’t mix. The Wolves need a leader that pushes their young stars to get better, but their mismanagement of the situation likely only served to lower the value of the incoming trade package.

Nash: As impressive as the Oladipo/Sabonis trade was in hindsight, I don’t think the Wolves can really hope for that type of compensation. For one, Butler has given a very short list of teams that he’s interested in going to, and none of them seem willing to move the type of assets that have the chance to blossom into a star player like Oladipo did. Butler’s situation, while pretty similar, is also a bit different. Not only does Butler desperately want out, but it seems like he’s ready to burn any bridge in Minnesota that he can. Feuding with Andrew Wiggins’ brother on social media and being excused from the team’s media day all point to the fact that Butler is 100 percent done with the team. If that’s true, teams inquiring about a potential trade shouldn’t have to do too much in order to grab him, and with only three teams (that we know of) in the running, there aren’t too many people to outbid.

Parker: If the Timberwolves get their supposed wish in shedding Gorgui Dieng’s contract then I don’t see how that’s possible. With Karl Anthony Towns’ extension, Minnesota now owes $337 million to KAT and Andrew Wiggins alone. I’m guessing they’re more motivated than ever to move Dieng’s $49 million over the next three years. Add that to them potentially being limited to just the reported Clippers, Brooklyn Nets and Knicks, and I just don’t see it happening. I think their best option would be to add young talent that fits the Wiggins and Towns timeline, like Nets’ DeAngelo Russell. If they are looking to remain in win-now mode, then the Clippers are probably their best partner. Coming away with Tobias Harris and a defensive player like Patrick Beverly could keep them in playoff contention for next season but not better than last year’s team.

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Regla: Star players are difficult to replace in the NBA. Like in any business, or sport, pure top shelf talent and those who possess it, are typically in a monumentally bigger competitive advantage compared to those still aggressively seeking it out. Yet, this is not to say a team can not become holistically better by trading a star away. Indiana was chief proof of this last summer, and I have an initial hunch the same will happen with Minnesota and Jimmy Butler—that is, if they get the right return.

One possible hypothetical deal that could suffice this would be a deal with the Miami Heat. Butler and Gorgui Dieng for Josh Richardson, Tyler Johnson, and a future first swap makes realistic sense for both sides.

Although the Wolves would not get a singular asset as good as Butler back in this example nor in the eventual real trade—and this is just a helpful reminder that Butler is really good—the team could be primed to benefit from this ordeal if they tread wisely.

Steeno: The word is getting out about Butler. From his corny attempt to forcefully grab the leadership reins his last few seasons in Chicago to his teammate-berating antics in Minnesota, it seems like all Butler cares about is Jimmy Butler. Additionally, in the four seasons of his career when he’s made the All-Star team, his squad has made the playoffs three seasons and advanced past the first round just once (2014-15 on a well-rounded Bulls squad that featured Pau Gasol, Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah before his game completely fell off a cliff). Can a team win a championship with Butler as their best or even their second-best player?

Couple these factors and sprinkle in the fact that Butler has a player option next season, and Minnesota may be way better off without Butler than with him. All the mileage from playing under Thibodeau for so long and the fact that he doesn’t have a track record of making his teammates better makes Butler even less appealing as a superstar trade target.

Because I just devalued the heck out of Butler, I think the Timberwolves will get equal value for him because ultimately, it’s an addition by subtraction type of thing. Adding young talent and/or draft picks (which they should be able to get in some form) to a core of Towns and Wiggins is probably better value than the headaches they’ll have if they keep him for one more season and then watch him walk for nothing next summer.

 

The Los Angeles Lakers are apparently not be in the mix for Jimmy Butler because of LeBron JamesAt this point, do you think most stars see playing with LeBron as a pro or a con?

Steeno: If stars see playing with LeBron James as a con that is really stupid. Winning championships should precede any individual ambitions for star players and there’s very few better ways in the NBA right now (outside of joining the Golden State Warriors) to put yourself in the best position to win a championship than teaming up with LeBron James.

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Douglas: If they have any good basketball business sense they see it as a good thing. Playing with James is a tremendous résumé builder, and an incredible opportunity to grow. His championship level experience along with his sheer will to win is a gold mine of learning opportunities that players can take with them for the rest of their careers. Never mind the fact that he will likely get you to at least the Finals, if not win you a title. The only way a player could see it as a bad thing is if their ego is too big to fit through the door, and in that case, they probably won’t be very successful anyway.

Gres: Stars (and non-stars) know that LeBron is the center of attention and the vocal leader wherever he plays. And so, in order to play alongside him successfully they need to accept playing second fiddle both on and off the court. Few are prepared for that, especially when it comes to bonafide stars. Still, those who are willing to put winning it all above their personal accolades and have traveled the Buddhist Middle Way will keep an open mind about playing with the King. The rest may be tougher to convince.

Nash: As much as people seem to joke about it online, it’s still genuinely surprising to see so many players seemingly unwilling to go and play with LeBron. Not only has he taken some pretty bad teams to the NBA Finals, he’s also arguably the best player basketball has ever seen since Michael Jordan. Due to his track record, you’d think there would be tons of stars lining up to play with him, so it’s really baffling why some players would rather just make a go of it elsewhere.

However, in a way I kind of understand it. LeBron is so big of a star that the narrative often focuses solely on him. If you join him on a team, you risk becoming the target of tons of diehard LeBron fans that will undoubtedly point the blame for a loss or miscue on anyone but him. If you win, fans and certain media will also credit no one else but LeBron, leaving you in a weird scenario of always being the bad guy, but never being the good guy.

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Parker: I think it just depends on what a star wants out of his career at that point in time. If you have LeBron James on your team you are by default in contention to make the NBA Finals. For some, however, that can come at a sacrifice greater than might be worth it. Kyrie was clearly ready to be the man and get out from under LeBron’s shadow. Kevin Love’s reputation is no where near what it was when he was in Minnesota. It sounds like Jimmy Butler isn’t willing to play second fiddle right now. Younger stars or older stars are the best fit for the King at this point. Someone that’s still on the rise and is OK with taking a backseat for another two or three seasons knowing their time will soon come, or someone who’s nearing the end and wants one more shot at a title. Next offseason will be very telling when the Lakers will have or be very close to having a max salary slot and likely pursue top free agents such as Kawhi Leonard, Klay Thompson, Kevin Durant, etc.

Regla: It is difficult to predict how players around the League view James, and how desirable the possibility of playing alongside him truly is. This is due in most part to the simple fact that every individual has their own set of career goals, accolades, and agendas when deciding where they want to play, and who they share the floor with could strongly benefit or hamper those aspirations.

James is not solely a star, he is the star of the NBA. With that, comes the obvious benefit of being a part of a team that almost always has a genuine chance of competing for a title, but also understanding he will be focal point. For some players, winning is all that matters and any individual accolades that are relinquished in the process be damned. For others, being the alpha or pairing up with a star who does not carry the clout of James is the preferable career route.

Either way, with James presumingly entering his twilight years, it will be interesting to follow how his next career arc influences or dissuades potential stars around the League in joining him on the Lakers—which in fact is the goal next summer for the Purple and Gold.

 

Kyrie Irving believes the Boston Celtics can usurp the Golden State Warriors. Are the Celtics the best team on paper the Warriors might have to face since they acquired Kevin Durant?

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Regla: Kyrie Irving has famously made his fair share of bold statements since joining the NBA, but this one may be his least outlandish.

The Houston Rockets gave the Warriors a hell of a fight in the Western Conference Finals with their switch-heavy defense and scorching offense, and were possibly a healthy Chris Paul (and not going 7-44 from three in Game 7) away from toppling the Goliath of the League. Although they were unsuccessful in their attempt, the Rockets’ displayed a systematic formula that at the very least, showed the Warriors could bleed.

Irving’s Celtics though, have the makings of presenting the toughest challenge for the Warriors yet to date. The team is loaded with the prerequisite interior and perimeter defenders needed to check the ridiculous arsenal of weapons the Warriors have at their disposal. In Irving, they have a star primary initiator who can score and make a play, which is essential in the postseason. They have arguably the best schematically inclined head coach in the NBA in Brad Stevens. Yet the team’s biggest strength, and what makes them a realistic threat now and in the future, is the fact that they are versatile, deep, young, and have a surplus of assets to swing for another star player if needed.

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Steeno: This is a difficult question because we haven’t seen the Celtics at full strength yet. Juggling the needs of multiple superstars is always difficult, and although the Celtics project unselfishness there’s always a learning curve when you need to keep stars like Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Al Horford and young guns Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown happy simultaneously.

Which is why I’m inclined to pick a team that has proven that they can go toe-to-toe with the Warriors, instead of hopping on the Celtics hype train.

Last season, the Rockets were up 3-2 on the Warriors in the Western Conference Finals before Chris Paul went down with a hamstring injury and the Rockets lost in seven. That team was second in the NBA in offensive rating, sixth in defensive rating, and first in net rating during the regular season. They had MVP James Harden playing out of his mind, a top five point guard that made everything go in Chris Paul, and a slew of star role players who complemented each other perfectly.

The 2018-2019 iteration of the Celtics hasn’t done anything yet, so saying that they can beat the Warriors is all speculation at this point. The Rockets were within one game of pulling the trick last season and perhaps better luck on the injury front would have allowed them to do it.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Douglas: The Celtics are 100 percent the best team the Warriors will face this season simply because of their lockdown defense. It’s one thing to be able to shoot the lights out of the ball, and there are plenty of teams in the league who do just that. But, just like your grandpa said, defense wins championships. The Warriors aren’t the Warriors because of their star-studded offensive prowess (although they are an incredibly fierce offensive team), they are where they’re at because they play tough D, and that brings in the wins. The Celtics have the same philosophy. When Danny Ainge and Brad Stevens set out to draft players, their goal was to select two way players—that is, players who can play both offense and defense. What kept them alive through so many devastating injuries last season was their defense, and it’s what’s going to take them to the Finals this year. This might just be the year they win it all.

Gres: I don’t believe so. Last season’s Rockets squad will likely keep that distinction, with their host of switchable wing defenders and two-headed playmaking monster. I may be in the minority, but I don’t know that Gordon Hayward improves the Celtics all the much over their starting five for much of last season. With Kyrie, they get a little weaker defensively while upgrading the offense, but even with both back, I don’t see them taking the further-improved Warriors to seven games.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Nash: If they aren’t the best team on paper to beat Golden State, I’m not sure one even exists. If I had to point to one team in the League that likely had the best chance of knocking Golden State off of their throne this season, it would be Boston. Not only does the team matchup well with them in terms of roster, but their slower, more defensive style of play seems to be a good enough counter-balance to Golden State as well.

Throw in the fact that Irving has seemingly always played well against Golden State, and I don’t think it’s crazy to list them as the biggest threat to the Warriors. We don’t have to look too far back to find evidence of this, either. Take a look at the game the two teams played last November. That game, a 92-88 Celtics victory, saw the Celtics undershoot Golden State from three, but still win the game, thanks in part to Boston turning the game into a slower, much more hard-fought contest. Boston’s defense was very much felt, and that was with Boston playing without Hayward and their younger players still coming into their own. With a fully healthy team coming back, the Celtics probably should be the favorites in the East and probably seen as the team to dethrone the Warriors.

Parker: This Celtics team is absolutely the best team on paper that the Warriors superteam may face. Stevens has overachieved nearly every season since becoming the head coach in Boston. Now he has three legitimate All-Stars in Irving, Horford and Hayward and two young studs in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. It might take some time to get everyone healthy and maximize their talent, but barring any major injuries they should be the second best team in the NBA next season. Does that mean they can take down the giants in Golden State? Probably not. But I hope they could at least make it interesting.

 

Last week we asked which sophomore might see the biggest leap in their game and the answer was widespread. Same question but with the 2016 draft. Of the players headed into their third season, which player is going to improve by the widest margin?

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Parker: The most popular answer this offseason, at least in the media, has been Brandon Ingram. While he certainly appears primed to make significant progress, I don’t think he’ll make the leap people are expecting. My answer here is going to be Dejounte Murray in San Antonio. He’s well-known for his defense, but I think he’s got another level or 2 offensively that will come out this year. With Kawhi’s departure his role will increase and he’s got a fantastic coaching staff working with him, including the famous shot doctor Chip Engelland. His reputation as a hard worker also makes me feel good about selecting him. Another one I’d keep my eye on is the Atlanta Hawk’s Taurean Prince.

Regla: This may sound like a homer pick, and it may be, but I genuinely feel Brandon Ingram is in store for a breakout season.

As a sophomore, Ingram took substantial steps forward from what was a rough rookie campaign. Initially in the year, Ingram was forcing the issue, almost in an concerted attempt to show he deserved going second overall in the 2016 draft. Though the early struggles were indeed discouraging for the team’s fans, as the season went on and once he settled in, Ingram emphatically improved. His finishing around the rim dramatically got better, he was stellar in getting to the line and simply showed a new composure and confidence every time he stepped on the hardwood.

Ingram is one of the most intriguing Lakers’ prospects in recent history due to his combination of physical make-up and multifaceted skills—and at still only 21—has a scary amount of time left to improve.

Steeno: In his “rookie” season, Ben Simmons averaged 15/8/8 with a broken jumpshot in a space-obsessed league.

He told NBA TV in a recent interview, that this summer was the first time during his career he’s had to practice shooting away from the basket. Adding another dimension to his game will make him nearly impossible to cover for opposing defenses. It could lead to him becoming a 20-plus point per game scorer next season and if he continues to straddle double-digit figures in the rebounding and assist categories, we’re talking about Simmons flirting with a triple-double average next season.

If he does that, he’ll be a serious contender in MVP discussions. Last season he wasn’t even an All-Star, so going from that to MVP discussions is a heck of a jump, even if other players in his class see more significant jumps in their counting stats.

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I ran this take past one of my buddies at work this weekend and although I’m sticking with my Simmons pick. My friend Colin offered Dejounte Murray as the answer to this question. I like it. With the old guard now completely gone, the Spurs want to give Murray the keys to the offense. Popovich’s players tend to overachieve in that system, plus Murray will have vets like DeMar DeRozan, Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge to guide him along. With Patty Mills the only other true point guard of quality on the roster, getting playing time for Murray shouldn’t be an issue either. Per 36 minutes, he almost averaged a double-double last season (13.5 points, 9.5 rebounds) and the aesthetic of the counting stats should naturally improve with more playing opportunities.

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Douglas: I think we will probably see the biggest growth from Ben Simmons. Although he was technically a rookie last season, he’s officially had two years to be trained and mentored by the NBA so I consider him a third-year player. He really sprouted last season, and with all the momentum happening with Philadelphia at the moment this coming season could be his best year to shine. I like Simmons’ game, and I expect him to be a common household name in short order.

Gres: The limelight is coming for Brandon Ingram. With LeBron in town, every Lakers game will be a spectacle, watched by a much wider audience than any in Ingram’s first two seasons. The pressure will increase and will give him a chance to reach the next level as a player. If he truly has it in him, this season will see him soar to new heights.

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Nash: The two most obvious choices here (Ben Simmons and Jaylen Brown) are likely going to improve a lot, but that doesn’t really feel like a fair answer, so I’m going to say Taurean Prince. After being selected 12th by the Jazz (and traded to Atlanta), Prince’s first season in the League wasn’t the best. He only appeared in 59 games, and while he did put up some respectable averages (12/5/2), he was a pretty poor shooter by pretty much any metric, and was often sent down to the G League to work on his game. Coming into his sophomore season, however, Prince was a much different player. Not only did he start and play in all 82 games, but his averaged were up (17/5/3), and his efficiency on the court from beyond the arc was notable, as he went from being a 32 percent shooter on three attempts per game to 38 percent on nearly seven attempts.

He ended the season on a hot streak, scoring at least 20 points in 14 of his final 22 games, and while the Hawks were pretty bad all around, Prince was a nice bright spot for an otherwise disappointing team. Heading into his third season, Prince has all the tools necessary to make a huge leap, and with the Hawks now sporting a point guard who defenses have to respect from nearly anywhere on the court, Prince should be in line for a huge boost in numbers as well as play.

 

 

The No. 1 and No. 2 picks from the 2015 NBA draft have struggled to be the players many projected them to be. Who do you have more faith in going forward: Andrew Wiggins or Jabari Parker?

Nash: Wow, this is a tough one. Both guys have seriously underperformed from their expectations, but I feel like this has to be Andrew Wiggins by default. I’m not sure if Wiggins will ever reach the potential that many put on him in 2014, but I also can’t pick Parker simply based on his history of injuries. Even though he’s only 22 years old, Parker has already suffered two ACL tears in the same knee and has also had a litany of injuries in his foot and ankle across his career.  He might be the better player right now, but I just don’t know how much faith I can put into a guy who has such a bad history in a part of the body that’s crucial for basketball.

As for Wiggins, my faith in him isn’t exactly high, but he might be in a generally better position. With Jimmy Butler potentially gone (thanks in part to him), Wiggins will once again become one of the foundations of the Timberwolves. While Wiggins is clearly a very talented individual and likely one of the more athletic young players in the League, the main gripe against him has been his work ethic. As of now, it doesn’t seem like he cares much about getting significantly better, and maybe he never will, but I’d still put my faith in his raw skills, especially when the other option is an oft-injured big man.

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Parker: Would you rather get shot in the right foot or the left? Joking aside, I honestly have no idea. Based off talent I’d rather have Wiggins. I don’t think he’s been in a system that maximizes his athletic gifts, nor do I think he’s been as engaged as he should be. In my opinion, the right situation and coaching staff could get a lot more out of him. Considering contracts, however, I’d rather have Jabari. Timberwolves will be paying Wiggins an average of $37 million for the next five years. Jabari at $20 million for two years with the second year being a team option is a lot less risky. In the end I think it’s too early to pass final judgement on either one of these players quite yet. Considering their hype heading into the 2015 NBA Draft, however, it is safe to say they haven’t even approached their original expectations.

Regla: This is a difficult question to answer in most part due to my concerns over Wiggins’ NBA aspirations. I typically always tend to gravitate to perimeter-oriented players over those in frontcourt in these types of toss-ups, simply because of their overall two-way value in the modern game and I think I still would choose Wiggins over Jabari Parker—but I do not feel great about it, which is more a slight to Wiggins than it is to Parker.

In a vacuum, I am weary of Parker’s trajectory—considering his injury history and him finding the proper team or system that will optimize his talents—and the fact that he may not fit in the modern game.

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Steeno: I’d love to say Parker because he plays for the team that I root for. But this is such a difficult question, because the answer largely hinges on which player will find himself in a better situation moving forward.

Parker doesn’t fit cleanly at the small forward position (where the Bulls will likely play him next season), and it may be a struggle for him to mesh offensively with the slew of other ball-dominant guys the Bulls have on this team. Wiggins could go back to averaging 20-plus points per game as a second best player on a team if the Timberwolves trade away Butler. But if Butler stays, Wiggins numbers will again most likely be down and I’d put my faith back in Parker.

We could play back-and-forth games like this all day making answering a question like this with so many moving parts difficult.

For the sake of picking though, I’ll go with Wiggins because I think Butler will get traded and that will open things back up for Wiggins offensively. Ultimately, whichever one of the two commits more firmly to defense is the one I’ll have more faith in. You’d think the answer to that question would be Wiggins too because he’d eventually get sick of getting cussed out by Thibodeau, right?

Douglas: I’ve been a big fan of Andrew Wiggins since he was first drafted. I had the pleasure of getting to sit courtside in Denver when Minnesota came to play, and seeing him in action is absolutely incredible. As I mentioned previously, the Timberwolves are open ground for any player to go in and make the team their own. Wiggins has the skills he needs to make that jump, he just needs a little gumption to make it happen. I like his attitude and I think it fits a leader.

Gres: As much as it saddens me, I think I’ve just about given up on the Canadian formerly destined for greatness. I remember his pouting and inability to lead Canada against Venezuela in a crucial Olympic qualifying game, as though he was doing everyone a favor just by being on the floor. Canada lost that game, and Wiggins never seemed to shake off that mentality. Parker was behind Giannis, Bledsoe and Middleton in the Bucks usage chart, and is stepping into a situation where he’ll be given many more chances to shine, albeit probably with fewer wins. If he can stay healthy he should be able to have a bounce-back season that puts his career back on track.