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:
Kyle Irving: Perform Media, intern
Charles Mockler: Locked on Clippers, host
Matt Shantz: Raptors Republic, writer
Nate Wolf: NBA Math, contributor
Nicole Yang: Boston.com, writer
With preseason underway, the season is finally at hand. What’s the storyline you’ll be following closest this season?
Irving: I’m most excited to see what the Lakers are going to bring. They’re loaded with young talent, which is why most people do not consider them a championship contender right away, but why not? Who’s to say that playing with LeBron doesn’t take Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma and Josh Hart’s games to the next level. They all showed flashes last season that they’re ready to break through and make some noise in the league. I’m not counting it out to happen this year.
And the Meme Team, the “MUD,” or whatever you choose to call their bench seems to be a great fit to me, too. Playing with LeBron brings the brightest spotlight in the League, especially in Los Angeles. But Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, Lance Stephenson and Michael Beasley have heard it all from the media and fans at this point in their career anyway, so what do they care? The Lakers are an intriguing storyline this year that I will not be able to look away from.
Mockler: As a Clippers fan it pains me to write this, but the most interesting storyline this year is the LeBron-led Lakers (how long before they’re called the LeBron-kers? Oh never? That’s fair.). The spotlight is firmly on LeBron to succeed with a team full of blossoming talent and meme-able supporting cast members in the second largest market in the United States. LeBron comes to the Lakers with a dual role of “best player alive who also has to teach young guys how to succeed”. There is a ton of pressure on him alone to help usher in Brandon Ingram and Lonzo Ball’s early-primes while still catering to the absurd expectations of Lakers fans.
Shantz: As much as it pains me to say, the obvious answer is how far LeBron James and the Lakers’ developing youth can carry their team’s Bad News Bears free agency signings. LeBron is entering year 15, will be turning 34 in December, and has over 54,000 career minutes under his belt (plus international tournaments and pre-season), and yet it certainly feels like the Lakers are punting this season in hopes of landing another big fish in 2019. Will LeBron go all out and try to carry this group through a full 82 games plus playoffs? Or will he at least partly save himself for 2019-20 and beyond while he builds his production empire?
Wolf: LeBron James has been the center of the basketball universe for nearly a decade now, and the move to Los Angeles—while understandable from a personal perspective—is a wild on-court change. He’s left the veteran shooting of Northeast Ohio to join a bunch of raw youngsters in Hollywood. Ball and Ingram are tentative outside shooters, and the team is full of ball-pounders like Rondo and Stephenson. There’s no longer a big man like Tristan Thompson to set merciless screens and box out. In fact, there’s no starting-caliber big man at all. LeBron is peerless, and he’s fully capable of carrying this band of youngsters and misfits to a mid-tier playoff seed. For me, the most interesting question isn’t whether he’ll get there—it’s how.
Yang: Kawhi Leonard’s acclimation in Toronto. If he is healthy and eager to integrate himself fully with the Raptors, I think his contributions could make Toronto a legitimate threat in the East. The Raptors’ piss-poor performance in the playoffs last year seems to have wiped out the significance of their very successful, 59-win, first-place record, but with Kawhi, another strong regular season is not out of the question. Four-time All-Star Kyle Lowry as well as a handful of promising youngsters—OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, Fred VanVleet—are all returning, and a healthy and motivated Kawhi brings the highest caliber defense and upwards of 17 points per game. His addition also introduces a much-needed shakeup to Toronto’s core, whether Lowry likes it or not. After back-to-back second-round sweeps by the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Raptors could reach new postseason heights with a healthy and committed Kawhi leading their revamped team.
Heading into this season, which team has the most pressure on them to succeed?
Yang: It’s got to be the Celtics, right? With Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving back—and LeBron James out of the East—Boston seems to have a nicely paved path to the Finals. Forward Jaylen Brown said it himself: “We’re getting to the Finals. No questions about it.” Other players have also been vocal about their auspicious chances, but the Celtics’ success will ultimately boil down to health because the talent, the coaching, and the drive are all there. Their tremendous depth could lighten the regular-season workload for the starting five, which should keep stars like Irving well-rested for the playoffs. I don’t know if the season is necessarily at “championship or bust” status, but it sure feels like things are, at the very least, “Finals or bust.”
Irving: I think it’s the Houston Rockets. It took a 65-win season for people to seriously consider them a threat to the Warriors and even then, people were still counting them out. You could say they were a healthy Chris Paul away from knocking off their rivals and winning the championship, but they didn’t.
So, they went back to the drawing board and chose not to resign two of their most versatile wing defenders in Trevor Ariza and Luc Mbah a Moute, replacing them with an aging Carmelo Anthony. If anything, they added more pressure in doing so. If they don’t make another run in the West or don’t threaten the Warriors this year, I think you might start to see NBA media and fans give them the 2013-2018 Raptors treatment of writing them off before the playoffs even start. At least until this Warriors run ends.
Mockler: I think we all assume it’s the defending champions, but I’m going to toss out Golden State since they’ve probably had the most pressure on them the last few years thanks to their dominance. Boston is just getting their starting 5 back healthy so there is pressure for them, but more so in the “can they figure this out again” vein. The team who has the most pressure to succeed this year is the Houston Rockets. After the heartbreaking loss of Chris Paul against the Warriors the team has shipped out key contributors and brought in a bevy of new players highlighted by Carmelo Anthony. It seems like they understand their window to beat the Warriors is closing, mostly due to Chris Paul’s age and their inflated salary sheet, and so they’re throwing the whole kitchen sink at them this year. With so many “what ifs” from last season the Houston Rockets have the most to prove during the 2018-2019 NBA season.
Shantz: Toronto. Masai Ujiri claimed this position of pressure the moment he (and Bobby Webster, who always gets forgotten) shipped DeMar DeRozan to San Antonio in exchange for Kawhi Leonard. By doing so the Raptors raised their ceiling of contention this season, while betting on their ability to sell Kawhi on a long term contract next summer.
If Kawhi re-signs the Raptors remain a top team with championship aspirations, but if he leaves Toronto will likely look to move Kyle Lowry and begin to rebuild around the youth movement (Fred VanVleet, OG Anunoby, Pascal Siakam, etc.). This season is all or nothing for Toronto, and you can’t get much more pressure than that.
Wolf: I suspect the Toronto Raptors getting one year to woo Kawhi Leonard will be a popular answer. I’ll go with the Houston Rockets, though. Daryl Morey veered slightly from his blueprint this summer, replacing Trevor Ariza with Carmelo Anthony. Ariza, though a limited player at times, was a key Rocket. He shot many threes, played many minutes, and defended his butt off. Houston needs Melo’s second-unit bully-ball to offset the loss of Ariza’s undervalued skillset. But more importantly, the team needs to win now. James Harden may never have a season better than last year’s campaign. Chris Paul, at 33, is a lower-body injury waiting to happen. Ancillary pieces like PJ Tucker and Eric Gordon aren’t getting younger. This team was minutes away from dethroning the Warriors last season. It will be as disappointing for fans as it will be for the Rockets should they be unable to challenge Golden State this year.
Kevin Durant turned 30 this past weekend. He is one of only five players to score 20,000 points before his 30th birthday and one of only five to lead the League in scoring four separate times. Is Durant the best scorer of all-time?
Wolf: I want to say yes, but then I think about Michael Jordan, who averaged 33.4 points per game in the playoffs on 57 percent true shooting. I also think about Wilt Chamberlain whose early years were just bonkers. It’s tough to compare between eras.
But I’ll give KD this: He is the most complete scorer the League has ever seen. He is a menacing mid-post player against smaller dudes, a tremendous lane-filler in transition, a three-point assassin off the dribble or spotting up, and a silky pick-and-roll guy. No player has ever combined shooting, slashing and finishing quite like Durant. No ball-dominant scorer is easier to fit into a team. Just ask the Warriors.
Yang: I’d say Durant’s steepest competition is Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Michael Jordan, and Kobe Bryant. (Sorry, LeBron.) Who’s the best all-time is hard to say—all three players had their peaks in different decades and the game has evolved—but Durant’s accolades at his age definitely make a compelling case.
Irving: I’m ready to say that yes, he is. I know Kareem, Karl Malone, Wilt and Shaq were all absurdly dominant scorers. I know MJ, LeBron and Kobe can give anybody on the planet a bucket. But none of these guys score as effortlessly as KD does. The guy has limitless range and an endless pallet of moves. He can score off the dribble, attacking the rim, in pick-and-rolls, in the post, pull-ups, step backs, it doesn’t matter. It’s smooth and effortless.
This isn’t to say that all the bigs mentioned didn’t get dunks and layups whenever they pleased. LeBron scores in wide variety too, but it requires a lot more force and energy. Kobe and MJ absolutely tortured their defenders, but it was through a high volume of shots.
MJ’s 10 scoring titles makes this argument tough, but Durant has never played a season in the League where he didn’t have another dominant scorer on his team. His number of scoring titles may be on hold as long as he’s on the Warriors, but if he were to take his talents elsewhere I’d be willing to bet he’d still rack them up even though he’s in his thirties. He’d make it look easy too.
Mockler: As someone who isn’t the biggest Durant fan (WHAT MILLIONAIRE USES BURNER ACCOUNTS?!) it is impossible to deny his scoring abilities. Even before his noble move to Golden State he proved he could be the best scorer in the League while in OKC and when Steph Curry missed time for the Warriors he shouldered the offensive load and kept them at the top of the League in Offensive Rating. However, I’m not ready to crown him “best ever” just yet due to the “comfortable offensive lifestyle” he enjoys at Golden State. If he can continue to produce such mind-blowingly efficient seasons of 25-plus PPG, especially if he leaves Golden State for a non-super team, he will cement himself as the best scorer of all time.
Shantz: I always get hung up on the word best, especially when it comes to generational comparisons within the NBA. Players evolve over time, forcing them to add additional weapons to their arsenal in order to thrive. Just as the linked article states, the game of basketball just didn’t value the three-point shot in the same way in the past, and this was particularly true from frontcourt players. With all that said, Durant is certainly among a handful of the best scorers in history, but where I currently land I’m most comfortable saying he is the most versatile scorer we’ve seen to date.
This will be the first year the bottom three teams have equal opportunity at winning the No. 1 overall pick in the draft lottery. Which three teams win the tank race?
Shantz: The two easiest decisions are the New York Knicks and the Sacramento Kings. The Kings are a disaster of a franchise, have limited vets that can contribute positively, and are still bereft of top-level young players. I like Buddy Hield and Harry Giles, but don’t love either of them, and am still hopeful for Skal Labissiere, but that’s not a lot to get excited about over 82 games. For the Knicks I’m simply assuming that Kristaps Porzingis will be out the full season as a precaution, an easy recipe for awfulness.
The third team is harder to pick, but I have to give the honor to the Atlanta Hawks. Giving the keys to the team to a rookie point guard is almost always going to lead to plenty of losses. I like their direction, but this year will be a struggle.
Wolf: The New York Knicks will likely be at the bottom of the East once the winter rolls around, giving the franchise a shiny incentive to ease Kristaps Porzingis back slowly from his torn ACL. Frank Ntilikina and Kevin Knox will get plenty of chances to develop; just don’t expect them to develop into start-able NBA players this season.
The Sacramento Kings won 27 games last season, but had the point differential of a 23-win team. Assuming they regress to the mean and get bludgeoned even more due to the ever-improving Western Conference, it’s difficult to see how they can improve enough internally to get back to 27 wins.
I think the Phoenix Suns will noticeably improve from their tankfest last year, and they may be “better” head-to-head than teams like the Hawks or Bulls. But they play in the West, and they’re too inexperienced and reliant on Devin Booker to create shots to pull off many upsets against the conference’s better teams.
Yang: Finishing dead last in the East last season, the Atlanta Hawks tanked last year so they could acquire… Trae Young? Young alone isn’t nearly enough to fuel the rebuild that Atlanta needs, and there’s just no way they can compete for the eighth seed, so I expect the Hawks to finish in the bottom three again.
I wouldn’t be surprised if all three tankers were in the East. Although the Phoenix Suns finished with the worst record last season, I think they intend—and could—win games, given their acquisition of Trevor Ariza and propitious draft picks in DeAndre Ayton and Mikal Bridges. The Sacramento Kings are going to be bad, but their pick goes to the Celtics, so there’s no real advantage for the organization to openly tank. My guess is the other teams in the bottom three will be some combo of the Chicago Bulls, the Brooklyn Nets, and the Orlando Magic.
Irving: The Atlanta Hawks, New York Knicks and Sacramento Kings.
The Hawks’ young team will get a lot of good experience, but they’ll get bullied by over half the teams in the league. Trae Young will get his shots up, that’s for sure. The Knicks are going to struggle mightily without Kristaps Porzingis, but it could be the best thing for their future. They’ll be in full tank mode before you know it. The Kings young talent will make advances, but they’ll get chewed up in the gauntlet that is the Western Conference. It’ll help them in the long run throwing their young guys into the fire trial by error style, though.
Mockler: It might not be the most original pick but I’m going to say the Atlanta Hawks. Trading for Trae Young was a bold move and so far, they’ve shown a commitment to making him the centerpiece of the newest era of Hawks basketball, which means he most likely has a green light to let shots rain down whenever he sees fit. The Hawks are seemingly trying to take the new NBA game of “3s or bust” and crank the intensity up, you don’t take a player like Young if you don’t plan on shooting A TON. Some nights it will probably work great and the team will put up 130, but when those shots don’t fall, it will be a long night for the 2,300 fans in attendance. Letting Young get used to the speed and style of the NBA will be fantastic in the long run for the Hawks, he absolutely has the tools to succeed at this level, but creating a new, modern-NBA style offense will take time and growing pains. But hey, what’s a better cure for growing pains than the No. 1 pick in the next draft?
Anthony Davis signing with Klutch sports launched a number of conversations, one of them being that he should be more famous than he is. With many people predicting this to be LeBron James’ last year as the League’s best player, is Davis the next de facto No. 1 star?
Mockler: The biggest thing working against Anthony Davis’ quest for success is his ability to win over “casual basketball fans” and his team’s market; the New Orleans Pelicans are starved for attention. This is a team that employs a part-time press corps and has a hard time getting people to games despite the mercurial Davis’ abilities. Singing with Klutch Sports was Davis’ planting his flag and telling the sports world “you should want me.” With such an entertainment-centric agency behind him there is no doubt in my mind that Anthony Davis will get opportunities a la Shaq in the 90s, IF he can make his mark on the League through winning MVP (or a championship run, but MVP feels more realistic). Casual basketball fans can recognize Davis thanks to his famed unibrow, but might not necessarily be drawn to him since he “hasn’t done anything” in their eyes. Once he makes his full mark on the League he will be given every opportunity to permeate pop culture.
Shantz: The questions about Davis have never been about his talent, but about his ability to stay healthy and the roster construction around him. His claim to being LeBron’s successor as the best player in the NBA depends on those two elements, and we will have to wait to see where he signs next (back in New Orleans or elsewhere) to have a more complete answer.
I expect that there will be at least one or two transition years with Durant being considered the League’s best before Davis takes the throne, although I wouldn’t rule out Giannis (similar roster/coaching issues to date) or Ben Simmons (assuming he learns to shoot) jumping the line.
Wolf: No, and here’s why.
Stephen Curry is the second-best player on the planet. He is 30, yes, but the Warriors’ talisman should keep chugging along over the next few years. He doesn’t rely on his athleticism, he has decent point guard size and he’s one of the most skilled players the NBA has ever seen. Steve Nash won an MVP in his age 31 season. Curry can, too. His gravity on the perimeter has long been the chief driver of Golden State’s historically great offense. Anthony Davis is awesome, and his two-way talent is special, but Curry’s impact will be tough to top for the next few years, even if it comes mostly on one end of the floor.
Yang: I think Davis’s talent makes him the NBA’s best player, and wherever he ends up in 2019 will definitely have an impact on the League. Basketball-wise, I think he’s recognized appropriately. In terms of off-court appeal, New Orleans isn’t one of the country’s larger sports markets, so a move to Los Angeles or Boston could boost his stardom potential. The unibrow prank was pretty good, but as of now, Davis is not as marketable as some of the League’s lesser talented players, which could contribute to the perception he’s not as famous as he should be. Teaming up with LeBron in LA or signing with Boston could certainly change that.
Irving: I don’t think I’m ready to believe this is LeBron’s last year as the League’s best player, but I guess only Father Time will tell. Davis is amazing, but Durant is the heir to the throne. I don’t think it has anything to do with AD being less famous, because his game is still widely appreciated. I don’t think you could get a single basketball mind to tell you they don’t appreciate his game. But with that being said, KD is up next.
I’d like to see him move on from Golden State just like LeBron did from Miami. His greatness is definitely still appreciated with the Warriors, but I think you’d start to see his name in that conversation more frequently if he won somewhere else. For as long as he’s on Golden State, I don’t think people would be willing to give him the respect he deserves, especially since most don’t even consider him the most important player on his team. He’s the League’s next best player, but Davis could definitely sneak up on (or past) him pending their free agency decisions. Don’t sleep on Giannis either.