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 for an awards themed edition. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Gordon Gross: Denver Stiffs, writer
Matt Harab: SB Nation Radio, host
Ryan O’Connell: The Roar Sports, writer
Matt Peck: NBC Sports Chicago, contributor
Zach LaVine has been one of the best stories to start the year, possibly this season’s Victor Oladipo. LaVine aside, who do you think is on pace to be a first-time All-Star?
Gross: I don’t think you can ask any Denver Nuggets writer or blogger this question and not get Nikola Jokic as an answer. He is the beating heart of everything the Nuggets do (or in the case of paint defense, sometimes don’t do), but Denver’s schedule sets up for early momentum and they have far more national games than last year, which brings more attention to him. With Jokic putting up historic numbers as a passing center and several other centers either injured or off to slower starts, faltering in the wins column might be the only thing that would keep him out of the All Star game. If Denver can survive the loss of Will Barton early in the season, that shouldn’t be an issue.
Hodge: Other contributors may say this too, but it has to be Nikola Jokic for me. He’s turned into a triple-double threat every night with his consistent shooting from all over the court and the creative artistry he displays in his passing. To become only the second person after Wilt to record a triple-double whilst finishing with perfect shooting from the field, 11 for 11, as he did against Phoenix, shows just how good he’s becoming.
His game is also perfectly suited to All-Star Weekend, he has such great handles and even though he has girth and uses his big man qualities to box defenders in, there is so much more to what he can do than just that and stretching the floor. He will be a great addition to the festivities.
O’Connell: Nikola Jokic, no question. The Denver big man was somewhat unlucky to not earn an All-Star berth last season, however the talent pool in the West was—and is—so deep, that talented players unfortunately miss out. However, given his blistering start this year, Jokic should earn his first All-Star jersey.
The Nuggets center’s deft and creative passing have always made highlight reels, but in the limited sample size of this season’s games, Jokic has upped his scoring by five points, and looks more aggressive and assertive. His monster triple double against Phoenix, when he burnt the Suns (pun alert!) to the tune of 35 points, 12 rebounds and 11 assists, while also being perfect from the floor (11 from 11), might be the performance of the year to date.
Harab: You have to start with Donovan Mitchell. This guy took the League by storm last year after falling to No. 13 in the draft. He is averaging 22.8 ppg, his biggest game coming against the Rockets where he had 38 points. He leads the Jazz in scoring and is clearly the go to threat that they need at the end of games, Mitchell will be an all star this year.
Other guys of note to look out for, Jayson Tatum, Nikola Jokic, and Khris Middleton. The term “Big 3” is over-used in basketball, but I think Boston will have that this year with Tatum, Irving and Hayward by the end of the year. He is a fantastic two-way player who gives a ton of effort. Jokic is a double-double machine in Denver and Middleton is a nice supporting actor to the “Greek Freak” movie in Milwaukee.
Peck: Those of us in Chicago would love to see LaVine make his first All Star appearance not related to the Dunk Contest, and he could make that happen if he keeps up his efficient scoring and crazy-high usage with all the injuries on the Bulls roster. Simmons and Tatum certainly have decent odds with the fan vote on two of the weak East’s better teams, but I also like Nikola Jokic’s chances to get his first All Star nod. It won’t be easy to get a starting spot with all the other dominant bigs across the league, but Jokic’s stat line in Denver’s great start is truly impressive: 23.4/10.6/6.2. That 35-11-11 triple double he had against Phoenix without missing a shot was ridiculous. He’s also flirting with a 50-40-90 season, shooting 59.1 percent from the field, 40 on threes and 84.6 from the free throw line. If the Nuggets can keep this unexpected hot start going with Jokic leading the way, I like his chances to earn a reserve spot.
Which slow starter has been most disappointing?
Hodge: Hmmm, I would’ve said Klay Thompson, but then he exploded for 14 threes against the Bulls, so that would disingenuous. Although there may be other players who perhaps merit this as well, I think in relation to expectations, Kyrie Irving has started the season really poorly.
His return to the Celtics lineup was supposed to be a triumphant one for a Boston side who almost made the NBA Finals without the combined powers of Uncle Drew and Gordon Hayward last season. But it’s not panned out that way. Although he shot well against Toronto and Orlando, in the other matches Irving’s been poor for the most part.
He went 2 for 14 on the opening night against Philly, the new headband seemingly sapping all of his abilities as a jump shooter. Overall for the season, he’s shooting less than 25 percent from beyond the arc, and perhaps even more worryingly his free throw percentage has dipped to below 70 from over 87. Early season sample size yes, but that’s quite a disparity and shows that his eye isn’t completely in yet.
His role may change in a Boston unit charged with scorers to becoming more of a facilitator, but he still has to maintain his efficiency and having an effective field goal percentage that drops by eight points is not doing that. It’s too early to be a major concern yet, even with a plus-minus of -2.2, and the handles are still exquisite, but he needs to play himself back into form for Boston to have any chance of beating the Raptors and competing for the title.
O’Connell: The drama, tension and upheaval in Minnesota has been well documented, so I won’t go into all that once again, but it’s difficult to completely avoid the topic, given this question. Karl-Anthony Towns has definitely started slow, and has definitely been disappointing.
Town’s numbers are down across the board, highlighted by a woeful shooting percentage in the low 40s; way down on his career average of .541. His body language has been equally poor, and it doesn’t take a genius to figure out that the Jimmy Butler situation is taking its toll on Towns.
A resolution of some sort needs to be found, and found quickly, because the T-Wolves can’t have their chosen franchise player performing this badly for too long.
Gross: Karl-Anthony Towns. The Minnesota Timberwolves just invested 190 million dollars into Towns as the future of the franchise, and his numbers are down almost across the board. Worse, his desire has been questioned by his own announcers just a handful of games into the season. The drama with current teammate Jimmy Butler has been well-documented, but the Timberwolves are going to need to find a way to reach Towns quickly. The Western Conference is too deep for him to sit in this funk for much longer.
Peck: I was really looking forward to watching Kevin Love return to No. 1 Option status in Cleveland this season. Even though signing him to that huge contract after LeBron bolted made little sense to me, I still wanted to see Love go back to his Minnesota thing after playing second or third fiddle to James for four years. I thought he and rookie point guard Collin Sexton could develop a really nice two-man game of pick-and-rolls and pick-and-pops. But Love started slow, shooting just 32 percent from the field and 29 percent on threes. Now we’re hearing he might be out more than a month with an injured toe. The toe likely was a factor in his slow start, and the 0-6 Cavs and their interim coach (whoever that will be) will likely “play it safe” before sending Love back on the court. A top-three lottery drawing is theirs to lose now. Which is too bad, considering I need my injury-plagued Bulls to out-tank them and I really did want to watch Love play this season.
Harab: Otto Porter Junior. This is a no-brainer. A four-year $106 million dollar contract, and Porter is giving the Wizards 9.8 ppg, shooting three pointers at 27 percent, and only grabbing 5 boards a game. There is no question in my mind his contract is turning out to be a total disaster and will handcuff this organization moving forward. The Wizards should be better than they are, but really poor decision making by Ernie Grunfeld (giving long term deals to Ian Mahinmi and Porter) are ruining the prime of Bradley Beal and John Wall.
The Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs and Oklahoma City Thunder are in the League’s bottom 10 for net rating to start the season. Which of those three teams are you most worried about?
O’Connell: Despite their respective roster changes, I’m not overly worried about the Rockets or Spurs. Houston still have a lot of talent and are yet to have it all available to them. Not to mention that a potential trade is still on the cards, which may provide some help on the defensive end. Meanwhile the Spurs are still brilliantly coached and have two legitimate—if not old-school—stars, in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. Fear not for the Texan teams.
The Thunder, on the other hand, instill far less confidence. They’re struggling to defend and struggling to shoot. Excuse the Captain Obvious statement, but that’s not exactly two qualities that will produce results in the modern-day NBA.
There’s still plenty of time for OKC to get back on track, but out of the three teams nominated, given the Thunder’s slow start, roster, coach, and best player—Russell Westbrook remains polarizing—I’d easily choose Oklahoma City as the team I’d be most worried about.
Peck: The Rockets, and it’s not close. Their -8.83 net rating is the worst of the trio, and by a nontrivial margin. The Spurs losing Murray to the torn ACL hurts, but if there’s one person in this league who can coach his way out of a tricky situation, it’s Pop. The Thunder lost their first two games without Russ, and his presence should certainly help their net rating despite the cynics who foolishly think he hurts that team. The Rockets, meanwhile, can’t stop a nosebleed on defense. Anyone watching the NBA who still thinks the importance of 3-and-D wings is overstated, look at this team without the services of Trevor Ariza. They miss Luc Mbah a Moute on the defensive end, too. Melo is getting a look in the starting lineup while Harden and Ennis nurse hamstrings, but that’s only going to add to their defensive ineptitude. This 1-4 team is in real trouble in a stacked Western Conference. Will Jimmy Butler arrive via trade to save the day on defense and throw another enormous ego into an already crowded locker room? As a fan of NBA theater, god I hope so.
Gross: The Thunder. The Rockets have too much firepower to float that low for too long, and the Spurs are too well-coached. OKC has personnel issues with conflicting agendas, though, and when you combine an abysmal-shooting team with a tendency toward chucking shots it can lead to disaster. The Thunder generate looks but are not hitting them on offense, and Andre Roberson was the linchpin on defense that allowed them to survive their inefficient ways at the other end. Maybe their shooting woes are a blip, but it’s not like Roberson will lift up their shooting percentages even if he gets back and can return to his accustomed level of defense. The Thunder have several things to figure out—quickly.
Harab: I may be biased because I live in Houston, but I’m going with the Rockets. I think the popular pick here is OKC, but Houston has higher expectations. If you listen to Daryl Morey speak, he is obsessed with beating the Warriors. This team was so close last year with the addition of Chris Paul, and the defensive improvement. However, I have watched every game this year and the losses of Trevor Ariza, Luc Mbah a Moute along with the “addition”of Carmelo Anthony have made this team really bad in perimeter defense. If they don’t acquire Jimmy Butler or get help defending good guards and small forwards, they have no shot to win a title.
Hodge: OKC’s record will right itself soon enough, they’ve far too much quality on the roster and will figure out. If they don’t Billy Donovan’s head will roll. Without Houston, they have the reigning MVP and will figure it out tactically. And if they don’t then expect Daryl Morey to force the issue by making some big moves to keep them competitive.
But the Spurs I really worry about, for a whole host of reasons. More than just the pieces of Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the organization seems to have lost its essence somewhat. These players were such a makeup of what the team was, particularly the two veterans. The Spurs, even with Pop still there and having brought in DeMar DeRozan, are grasping for their identity a bit – and the loss of Dejounte Murray for the season strikes me as one too many blows to handle. I think their list impressive of consecutive postseason appearances could come to an end this season.
The Cavaliers have been abysmal. Their best player, Kevin Love, will be out for an extended period, the roster is filled with disgruntled vets, they fired head coach Tyronn Lue and there is drama involving interim coach/voice of team Larry Drew. The team is 1-6 and own the League’s second-worst net rating (their lone win came against the only team that is worse, the Hawks). The -11.97, if it stuck, would be the worst mark by a team in seven years. Is this an early trend or are the Cavaliers going to be historically bad?
Harab: Historically bad. Once Kevin Love gets traded it becomes all about the ping pong balls baby. Teams never want to “admit” to tanking, which is why they gave Love the big contract in the first place, but he will not be a Cav for long. Whenever LeBron James leaves your franchise, management begins to think “What do we tell our poor employees who have to cold call selling season ticket packages?” Move over 76ers sales team, that team in Cleveland now has the worst job in the NBA.
Hodge: It depends what you mean by historically bad. I would tend to judge it by season record to be honest. 15-67 is the franchise’s worst-ever record (in both 1970-71 and 1981-82). I don’t think they will be that bad. They have enough scorers there and Kevin Love is still capable of carrying the team some nights, especially if being the main man for a team once again can help him rediscover his Minnesota form.
They also have a few young players, such as Sexton and maybe Osman, who could develop as well as the season progresses so I don’t think they’ll be that bad, but they’re going to be around the 22-win mark, 27-ish at absolute best. If they decide to trade Love though, and change tack as an organization to go for a full-scale rebuild, the answer to that question could change.
O’Connell: LeBron James is the best basketball player on the planet, and led not just the Cavs, but the League, in minutes played last year. At 31.5 percent, he also had the sixth-highest usage rate across the league. Remove all that from a basketball team—without replacing it—and there is undoubtedly going to be a negative impact.
So, it’s not shocking that the Cavs have been terrible.
The real issue is that this Cleveland roster was specifically constructed to play with LeBron James. Most of the pieces are complementary ones, yet with The King gone, they cease to be complementing anything other than themselves. That’s a sub-optimal situation. The talent, style, identity and leadership of this team has all been stripped out, so what you’re left with is simply a bad, bad team. Historically bad? Yes, I think so.
Peck: Speak of the devil. If the Cavs do indeed miss Love for over a month with his bad toe, there’s no reason not to steer into the tank. This roster suddenly looks like it will rival Atlanta’s for the most lacking in talent. All the motivational Tristan Thompson quotes about teamwork and identity won’t fix that. Their defensive rating is dead last, and their offensive rating (which currently sits at 21st) will probably slide down a few spots over the next month without their best player. As for being historically bad, what are we using as a reference point? Other NBA teams, the Cavs franchise, or the city they play in? This is Cleveland, after all. It’s not easy to earn the tag of “historically bad” in that city. But if the Cavs land the No. 1 pick in 2019, just like they did the first time LeBron ditched them, being historically bad would be worth it.
Gross: Oh, I think they’ll be bad. I’m not sure they’ll be historically bad though unless they smash the complete-tank button exceedingly early. The Eastern Conference doesn’t have the massive depth of the West and the Cavs can recover their net rating against other bottom-tier teams. That said, the transition away from LeBron was a crushingly painful one to watch the last time it happened, and Cleveland was no better prepared this time. They’re planning on being bad to snag a top talent in the lottery, and so far everything is going according to plan.
During last week’s Around the Rim, contributors were asked to come up with an award that might be missing from the NBA’s current model. “Comeback Player of the Year” was proposed. Pretend the award had always existed, who is the first guy that comes to mind immediately as a definite winner in years past?
Peck: This is partly due to my Baby Bulls nostalgia, but I immediately think of 2010-11 Tyson Chandler. The guy battled multiple injuries, including a stress fracture in his foot, in a rough ’09-10 season with the irrelevant Bobcats. He played just 51 games, and only started 27. The following year with Dallas, he had significant jumps in his scoring, field goal percentage and rebounding in 74 starts on the season. He earned an All-Defensive Second Team selection and was lights out in the Mavericks’ run to the title. He deserves even more credit for anchoring the Mavs defense against the Heatles in the Finals, averaging 37:16 minutes per game in the absence of injured Brendan Haywood. I know NBA end-of-season awards don’t take playoffs into account, but this is a fictional award so I’m making my own rules. Playoff performances count. And Tyson was clutch in a huge bounce-back season.
Harab: Let’s go ahead and give Khris Middleton“comeback player of the year” for last season. After playing just 29 games in 2016 due to injury, Middleton proved he was very reliable not only in terms of durability last year (he played in all 82 games) but also effectiveness. He increased his PPG total from 14.7 to 20.1, his minutes increased by 6 per game, and he averaged more assists and rebounds. Milwaukee is a scary, dark horse team this year to come out of the east. They have all the pieces this year and Middleton is a big reason for that. As for this year’s “comeback player” look out for Josh Hart in Los Angeles.
Gross: This basically has to be Kawhi Leonard this year if his season continues in this vein (as Zach LaVine hadn’t quite arrived before his injury and so didn’t have enough of a level to come back to). In previous years I immediately think of Kevin Durant and the Jones fracture in his foot. Foot injuries are tough for NBA athletes and getting back to his superstar level definitely qualifies him for a comeback. I’m sure the award would be popular, as most years you have some kind of star fighting back from injury, and that feels like the nomination process for this award.
Hodge: Zach LaVine could be a candidate if he keeps his production up this year, and there are lots of names you could throw in over the years for this. It really would be a cool award to add. But I think what Trey Burke did with the Knicks last year probably stands out for me in some ways.
Mudiay and Ntilikina are both young guards that the organization wants to develop and is keen on so, for Burke, to come back from relegated to the G League in the summer to managing to take minutes off both of those two is brilliant. Not just that, he even had a career-high 42-point game last year against the Hornets, in which he bagged 12 assists as well. That made him the first Knick to have a 40 point-plus and 10 assist-plus game since Stephon Marbury 13 years earlier.
When you consider all of that, it’s a heck of a turnaround in a short space of time. That takes some beating for me.
O’Connell: Paul George’s gruesome leg injury while training with Team USA in 2014 could have completely derailed his career. Suffering compound fractures to both bones in his lower right leg, George essentially missed the entire 2014/15 NBA season; though he did make it back for six games late in the year. He, naturally, looked a shadow of himself in those six games, and whilst it was inspiring just to see him make it back to the court, there remained doubts he would return to level of player he was pre-injury.
Yet in the 2015/16 season, he didn’t just bounce back; he got better. He set a career-high for points per game, made the Eastern Conference All-Star team, led the Indiana Pacers to the playoffs, and returned to the Team USA squad for the 2016 Rio Olympics.
That’s quite the comeback, and he would have been a worthy and deserving recipient of this defunct award.