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 four dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Cornell Gunter: EA Sports, producer
Lazarus Jackson: Detroit Bad Boys, editor
Andrew Lopez: NOLA.com, Pelicans beat writer
Don Metcalfe: Fantasy Basketball 101, contributor
Last week we talked about the team that had the most pressure on them. This week I want to focus on one player. Which player has the tightest margin for error this season, given what’s expected of them?
Gunter: I believe Kawhi Leonard has the most pressure on him this season, with all the drama with the Spurs and his camp he must perform well. Especially, with free agency looming, he needs to make sure his character doesn’t come into question. He needs to be viewed as a good teammate and not a “diva,” especially with the talent Toronto has.
Jackson: Jamal Murray. Murray’s expected to take a leap, and his improvement is supposed to propel the Nuggets into the playoffs, and then he’s supposed to sign a big deal, so Denver locks up their core. A happy story.
However, Murray has never been a great passer. Last season, he had a lower assist rate than noted “creators” Dion Waiters and Dejounte Murray. As far as Murray’s scoring goes, 45/38/90 is already a pretty good shooting slash line. Unless you’re expecting him to shoot up to 50/40/90 (and if you are, I can’t convince you otherwise), his progression is going to have to be as a playmaker and defender. If he’s just Lou Williams 2.0—not a BAD thing, by the way—I’m not sure Denver fights its way into the Western playoffs, which opens up a can of worms for that coaching staff and front office.
Metcalfe: Isaiah Thomas has had nothing but bad luck since the trade that sent him to Cleveland. Thomas signed a one-year, show-and-prove $2 million-dollar contract with the Nuggets, which is a far cry from the max deal he had his eyes on before his hip issue. Thomas and Malik Beasley are a decent backcourt for Denver’s second unit and Beasley is a good defender, he can help hide Thomas on the defensive end. Denver has a lot of talent on their team and they just barely missed out on the playoffs last season. Denver is definitely a playoff team this year, they may even have home court for round 1. Everything is set up for Thomas to have a bounce back season and help a playoff team. If, on the other hand, he struggles to start the year or there are chemistry issues, the Nuggets will make a trade and IT will be on the move again.
Lopez: I’m going to cheat and pick two guys here: Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins. It was a weird year for KAT. Two seasons ago in the annual NBA GM survey, Towns was picked by 48 percent of general managers as the player they’d want to build a team around. Last season, Towns was still the top guy, but that number dipped to 29 percent. Now? Not one GM picked him.
Towns averaged 21.3 points and 12.3 rebounds in 2017-18 after putting up 25.1 points and the same 12.3 rebounds the year before. Meanwhile, Wiggins—also a former No. 1 pick like Towns—is coming off a down season. His PER was 13.0 and he averaged 17.7 points while shooting 43.8 percent from the floor. Wiggins shot 4.1 3-pointers per game last year but only hit those at a .331 clip.
Both players experienced down years because of a new face in town, Jimmy Butler. But now that new face wants out of town. The pressure now squarely falls on Towns and Wiggins to keep the Timberwolves in a crowded Western Conference playoff picture.
We got news Andre Roberson will be out longer than expected. With Carmelo Anthony gone, Roberson absent until December at a minimum and Russell Westbrook questionable to start the season, OKC looks like it’ll have a slow start to the season. Where do you have the Thunder finishing in the West?
Gunter: I think OKC will finish fourth this year, perhaps third depending on Utah’s stability. I think OKC will survive without Roberson. Paul George will lead the charge with new additions Dennis Schroder and Nerlens Noel not far behind—they’ll be fine.
Jackson: I still have them making the playoffs, which is really the only delimiter I can put on any Western Conference teams at this time. The Thunder made do with the Abrines/Huestis/Ferguson/Brewer amalgamation last season without Roberson, and I see no reason why this season should be different (well, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot will be playing the role of Josh Huestis and Hamidou Diallo will be playing the role of Corey Brewer—we got to get him to grow a beard or something—but you catch my drift). Anthony was, depending on who you believe, somewhere between “sub-par” and “actively deleterious” for the Thunder, so they won’t miss him.
The Thunder started last year slowly WITH Russ, if you remember. They’ll be comfortable even if he misses the first few weeks of the season.
Metcalfe: OKC will finish fifth in the West. It is impossible to replace Westbrook and Roberson is one of the best defensive players in the League, but the Thunder have enough talent to keep their head above water until they get healthy. Paul George is a shutdown defender who averaged 22 points a game last season and Steven Adams is an above average two-way player. If Russ is unable to start the season, Dennis Schroder is more than capable of running the offense until he returns. Schroder averaged 19.4 points and 6.2 assists in 31 minutes last season with the Hawks. Jerami Grant will be taking over the starting PF spot from Melo. Grant averaged 8.5 points and 4 rebounds a game, he is another good defensive player. If everyone was healthy to start the year, the Thunder would finish third in the West.
Lopez: Let’s just start with the fact that every team after the Warriors and the Rockets should be competing for no better than third in the West. After that, I realistically could see 5-6 teams at that No. 3 spot. However, I don’t think it’ll be the Thunder. Whether or not Russ can play the start of the season is an issue, the bigger issue to me is missing Roberson for longer than expected. The Thunder went without Roberson for much of last season as he only played 39 games but when he was on the floor, their defense was at its best—and the starting unit still was stellar without him and with Carmelo Anthony.
Still, the Thunder should be in the mix for the No. 5 or 6 seed but once Roberson is back and fully healthy, this will be a tough team to take on. Billy Donovan’s club will have defensive flexibility to challenge for home-court advantage.
Every year we go into the season knowing certain star players are stuck in bad situations where they have no chance at success. Last year, Eric Bledsoe freed himself with a hair salon jailbreak for the ages. Which player would you most like to see, “freed” this season and why?
Lopez: As a New Orleans native and someone who covers the Pelicans, I understand how a fanbase can be a little sensitive to this question. Even so, some players you just want to see shine in other places—and I’m sure a lot of people reading this will think of Anthony Davis first. But let’s go back to 2011 for this question. Particularly the 2011 Big East Tournament. And the 2011 NCAA Tournament. Remember how fun it was in that month watching Kemba Walker? Wouldn’t it be fun to watch that Kemba again?
Walker has played in the playoffs just twice in his NBA career and he lost in the first round each time—a sweep by Miami in 2014 and then a seven-game series against the Heat in 2016. Walker wasn’t that efficient in the second series but still, to see Walker play in some meaningful games would be a delight.
Metcalfe: Charlotte and Kemba will part ways before he leaves as a free agent. It won’t be like the Eric Bledsoe situation from last season, there won’t be a falling out, it will just be a trade deadline move to the Pacers. The Pacers is where I think he will end up, but wherever he ends up, it will only be a rental.
Kyrie planning on staying in Boston clears the way for Kemba to sign with the Knicks in the off season.
Walker has been good PG in the League for a while now, but has had no team success down in Charlotte. Walker going to the Knicks, who already had Porzingis, will make New York an even more enticing place for Kevin Durant to sign with. It will be nice to see an NBA where the Celtics, Knicks, Lakers and Sixers are all competitive.
Also, free Jimmy Butler will be an ongoing narrative until he is moved from Minnesota. The trade package with Miami fell through and it’s all quiet on the Butler/Wolves front for the time being.
Gunter: Jimmy Butler, it’s started messy and it has got even messier. He’s unhappy in Minnesota, that much is clear. He’s been open to Thibs about wanting out and Thibs needs to accept it. The young core there doesn’t get along with him, it’s not a good situation for anyone to prolong Butler’s stay.
Jackson: Is Eric Bledose a star now? Oh. I was unaware.
Jimmy Butler is too easy, and he’s also in a prison of his own making, so his (imminent?) jailbreak is less compelling.
Otto Porter. Free Otto Porter, man. He’s too nice (both as a person and a player) to be compelled to deal with the Wizards’ inevitable locker-room chemistry reaction. Why should Markieff Morris hog all Otto’s shots? Why should Otto have to deal with Dwight demanding the ball for the third possession in a row? Get Otto someplace where he can roam free off-ball, knock down open shots and accentuate a team’s defense.
Preseason is what it is, but that sure doesn’t stop people from ripping off hot takes all the same. If the preseason has taught or confirmed to you one thing about any player, coach or team, what is it?
Jackson: Harry Giles is going to be good when he’s freed from Sacramento’s realm (I feel that way about a lot of Sacramento’s kids). I was unsure about him due to the multiple knee injuries, but he’s looked spry, skilled and set to contribute. He can even shoot a little, which normally I would excuse by saying it’s preseason, but hey!
A pity that he’s forced to play next to Skal Labissiere. And Marvin Bagley. And Willie Cauley-Stein.
At the same time.
Lopez: Everyone in the League is working on their three-point shot. Seriously, everybody is working on expanding their game. Bigs want to shoot threes. Wings want to shoot more. Guards want to do the same. Robin Lopez shot 14 three-pointers last season. Ian Mahinmi is shooting threes in preseason games. Greg Monroe has talked about shooting three-pointers this season; he’s shot 12 in his career and missed every single one. Sometimes this is just all talk but some will incorporate the long ball into their games.
At a Pelicans practice a couple of weeks ago, I watched Elfird Payton—the owner of a 29.8 percent career three-point percentage—knock down 16 three-pointers in a row. He nailed five from the right wing, five from the top of the key, five from the left wing and one from the corner. Does it mean that Payton will raise his shooting percentage from deep above 35 percent? Not necessarily. It just means he can hit them in practice. A lot of NBA players can do that. But a lot of NBA players talk about adding three-pointers to their game as well. We’ll see if that carries over.
Metcalfe: I haven’t watched too much preseason, but my main take away is that Dallas is going to be a lot of fun to watch this season. Dennis Smith Jr. is a human highlight reel, DeAndre Jordan is going to look to have the same impact Clint Capela had with the Rockets last season and Luka Doncic is the front runner for Rookie of the Year heading into the regular season. Wesley Matthews and Harrison Barnes round out a pretty decent starting five. I’m not saying they will sneak into the eighth seed in the West, I’m saying they will be in heavy rotation on my League Pass.
Gunter: Preseason has showed me that the Lakers young core is ready for the big stage. Brandon Ingram has emerged as a reliable asset for LeBron James to have on the court next to him. Kuzma, Hart, McGee and Lance fill-out a core I believe in.
Another Anthony Davis rumor hit the internet this week about how he and Kyrie Irving had chatted about playing on the Celtics together. Davis is a superstar and teams and fans are rightfully hung up on the idea of him wearing their franchise colors. But Matt Moore of the Action Network had an interesting take: Is there an ethical line that teams can cross trying to acquire Davis or any star? Or, is all fair in love and basketball?
Gunter: I think it was more Kyrie Irving putting it out there than Davis himself. Davis likes being in New Orleans, we’ve heard nothing else substantial. But I do feel like he’s going to get to the point where he just wants to win and that’s all he’s going to care about. Which he’s 100 percent entitled to whether it’s in New Orleans or elsewhere.
Jackson: I mean, we’ve literally seen a team get smacked on the hand—recently even—for doing too much in their pursuit of players. So, the answer is a resounding yes.
Danny Ainge’s open lust after Anthony Davis has been particularly distasteful, sure—but any more distasteful than the Lakers’ alleged plans to add him? Of the Warriors’ alleged plan to bring in Davis and restart the clock on their dynasty? Not in my mind.
I can see how Pelicans fans would disagree with me (I think that’s the part that sticks in Moore’s stance: The perceived potential plunder of small-market superstar by [insert big-city NBA team here]), but this isn’t really anything new or different than happens across the League. AD’s a grown man, he can make his own choices and live with the consequences.
Lopez: I agree with Matt on the point that you’d like to see teams back off until a guy like Davis indicates somehow that he wants to get out of New Orleans but that’ll never happen. This is basketball, and this is a business. You always have to try and do what’s best for your team in all situations. Players can request trades at any time now and try to force their way out of situations. With Davis coming up on his final two years that he’s locked in to a Pelicans jersey, the vultures are starting to circle. Well, let’s be honest, the vultures have circled since his second season in the league.
Metcalfe: If what Magic did on Kimmel is unethical, then I say all is fair. Social media has made it easier than ever for players to communicate with other players. I don’t see any problem in two guys showing respect to one another on Twitter, then one of them tweets “can’t wait to play with whoever, I’ll make sure you sign with us” or “Smith would look good in our colors.” If a GM were to say that, it would be tampering. Teams and GMs should be given the same freedom as players are when it comes to recruiting star players.