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:
Christopher Bengel: 247 Sports, writer
Lauren Gewirtz: All U Can Heat, contributor
Matthew Siroskey: 1400 AM WDTK, producer
Nash Soliman: 95.7 The Game, producer
Brady Trantham: Franchis OK, contributor
The Golden State Warriors are 9-1, unanimous MVP Steph Curry is back and Kevin Durant is as good as ever. How do you think DeMarcus Cousins fits when he gets back (credit to the Ringer’s Hayley O’Shaughnessy) and what do you think is the best- and worst-case scenario for him?
Bengel: The Golden State Warriors have never had a big like DeMarcus Cousins during their multiple championship runs over the past five years. No one saw this move coming over the summer and I believe the Warriors even surprised themselves when they landed a player of Cousins’ caliber. Steve Kerr has utilized the likes of Zaza Pachulia and JaVale McGee over the past few seasons and they’ve been adequate centers, considering how much talent the team had around them. They didn’t need to be scorers. To be honest, Cousins isn’t going to need to average 25 points and 10 rebounds with shooters like Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, and Klay Thompson around him. The best-case scenario would be the Golden State stars running the offense through Cousins out of the low post at times and Cousins returning to his pre-Achilles tear form. The former Kentucky star averaging 15-20 points and giving the Warriors another perimeter threat is definitely the best case. The worst-case would-be Cousins trying to come back too soon and having the injury bother him down the stretch. It’s going to be hard for Kerr to find enough touches for all of the talent on the roster, but the Warriors always seem to find a way to make things work.
Gewirtz: Best-case scenario is that Cousins can get quality minutes and prove that he is worthy of money come next year. He had a quality season with New Orleans last year when he was able to play, averaging 25.2 points and 12.9 rebounds per game. If everything goes as great as possible with him and the Warriors, this one year could be seen as a transition to a great step in the later part of his career.
Worst-case scenario, Cousins’ is unable to return to his highest potential. With an Achilles injury especially, it is hard to say how well he will be able to play upon his return, so a less-than-great return would only hurt his free agency potential next summer.
Siroskey: I think considering some of the Warriors recent struggles there is no question in my mind that DeMarcus Cousins would definitely fit into the Warriors game plan. His presence on the court will undoubtedly create more outside scoring in the Warriors starting lineup as Curry, Thompson, Durant, Green and Cousins can all hit from the perimeter. Most importantly for them he should help them defensively as they are currently giving up 110.6 points per game which is 11th best in the League but below Warriors standards. With this being said it could take time for them all to gel as it usually does when a new player comes to a new team. But in the end, I believe it would all work out as history would show it usually does in those types of situations. In my opinion that would be the best-case scenario for him when he joins the Warriors on the floor as in taking time for the team to gel with him on the floor but to be worth it as he improves their perimeter shooting and most importantly their interior defense. The worst-case scenario for them when he is returns is that he has trouble staying healthy on the floor, tearing his Achilles all over again to end another season of his.
Soliman: Before Demarcus Cousins was a Warrior, he was already considered one of the best passing big man in the League. Cousins hasn’t exactly played with the best of talent for the better portion of his career. Now he will be playing with arguably the best team in NBA history in terms of shooting and chemistry. Adding Cousins to that equation might put him on triple-double alert every night, and potentially close to averaging a triple-double. The worst-case scenario for Cousins would be joining a Dubs lineup that’s already been meshing to perfection without him for the last five years and he becomes an odd man out, but still gets a ring before he enters free agency in 2019. Doesn’t sound too bad of a worst-case scenario. He’s in the best situation in the League.
Trantham: I think Hayley is 100 percent here. The factor that I am most intrigued by is if/when Cousins returns is how his emotional play will influence the Warriors. Golden State will always get every team’s best shot whether it is a random Tuesday night game in Milwaukee or a Game 7 in the postseason. Cousins is a player who wears his emotions on his sleeve. Many times, it results in spectacular play. Other times it can negatively affect him and the team around him. The Warriors are typically stoic in the face of big games. However, last year they dealt with locker room issues all last season according to David West and Kevin Durant that showed that GS can in fact appear mortal at times. If Cousins routinely gets picked on by the opponent—in an attempted mental battle play—will that snowball around the team? Considering Cousins is an All-Star and well-liked player amongst teammates, it is easy to see a scenario where that can cost the Warriors.
Magic Johnson has poured the pressure on Luke Walton to start winning. On a scale of 1-10, 1 being the Lakers are about to go nuts and win 55-plus games, 10 being the Lakers miss the playoffs in humiliating fashion, where are you on the panic scale?
Trantham: I am at about a 5 right now. The problem question since LeBron signed with the Lakers has always been will the young players raise their level of play. I think offensively it hasn’t been a problem. They are third in the League at 121 points per game, but they are giving up roughly 120. In the Western Conference where teams like Sacramento can beat you on any given night, the Lakers’ lack of urgency on defense has been the most eye-opening. It is still much too early. LeBron in year one of Miami and the second go around in Cleveland started slow. Tyson Chandler’s addition will help with defense and vet leadership. Perhaps after 20 games, if the Lakers are hovering around or below .500, I may push the scale up to 7-8. West is tough.
Bengel: I would say a 5 as far as things currently stand. The Los Angeles Lakers were never going to be a team that developed chemistry overnight. After all, Magic Johnson added several aggressive personalities in the form of Lance Stephenson and Rajon Rondo. Not to mention, LeBron James had never played with any of these guys before, so there was going to be an adjustment period. Unless the Lakers go on a brutal stretch in which they lose 7-10 consecutive games and just look awful, I wouldn’t anticipate the Lakers pulling the plug on Luke Walton as the team’s head coach. When it’s all said and done this season, I still believe this will be a playoff team.
Gewirtz: I am at about a 5. I believed this before the season and I believe it now: The Lakers are hyped up because of LeBron James, which isn’t really a hot take. If he was not on the team, anyone would have laughed at the idea that they would ever be above No. 10 in the West. Since he is on the team, the expectations to start the season were a lot higher.
Johnson is putting the pressure on Walton because he believes that this team and all of their moves this offseason should have been enough to have a start over .500. While I understand where the expectations are, I think reality is hitting this team right now. They have a lot of work to do in a conference that is not going to give them much room for error come later in the season if they want to make the playoffs.
Siroskey: My panic level for the Lakers right now is an absolute 3 as there is some concern but not too much concern. The reason I say there is not that much concern because I have seen that it takes time for new teams of LeBron’s to adjust. For I have seen it with the 2010-11 Miami Heat having all sorts of chemistry issues to start the season yet still ending the season in the NBA Finals and they ended up winning a few years later too as we all saw. I had also seen it in his return to the 2014-15 Cavaliers where they even needed to make a deal to land J.R. Smith and Iman Shumpert from the Knicks and ship away Dion Waiters in January just to fix chemistry issues they were having. The rest was history as it turned out to be a move made just in time as they still made the Finals and of course ended up winning it all the next year. Granted, he did this with nothing but teams in the East rather than the West however considering how great of a player he is, I have no question that he and the Lakers will adjust. Although there is a chance that Luke Walton could be a sacrificial lamb on the way to this adjustment like David Blatt was for the adjustment with the 2015-16 Cleveland Cavaliers. With this being said I still do not see them as the second best team in the West as I still believe it is the Houston Rockets who very well may have been NBA champions last year had Chris Paul never had gotten hurt. But I definitely could see this Lakers team winning 50 games and getting a playoff spot as I have a hard time seeing a LeBron led team not making the postseason regardless of the conference.
Soliman: Before the season began, I was already skeptical to how many games this Lakers team can really win in a tough Western conference. I knew 50 wasn’t a possibility. Now, I’m not even sure if 45 wins is. I’d say I’m at a 7 on the panic scale because LeBron’s newly joined teams always take a while to get going. However, this one is lacking a solidified No. 2 next to The King, and the Lakers continue to find themselves playing in close games every night. Whether they’ve given up a huge lead or they’re rallying back. That’s going to catch up to them in bigger games down the stretch, and it’s going to be quite fatiguing. The modern “Showtime” Lakers have serious problems that need to resolved sooner than later or dysfunction will ride with them until the end of the season. Luckily, we’re only month in.
A few wings are enjoying a career season to start the year: Zach LaVine, Tim Hardaway Jr., Buddy Hield, and Caris LeVert are all averaging 20-plus PPG and thriving. How would you rank the group of Most Improved Player Candidates?
Soliman: I would have to give Zach LaVine the notch here above all the other wings listed. He’s playing the most significant role for his team compared to the other guys. LaVine has the keys in Chicago and his Bulls are better than any other team that has Tim Hardaway Jr., Buddy Hield, and Caris LeVert. After Lavine, I’d roll with LeVert, Hield, and Hardaway. Only reason I’m rolling with LeVert and Hield before Hardaway is because I feel like their teams are doing a better job competing and focusing on the youth movement. The Knicks are still the same mess they’ve been, and Hardaway has been somewhat of focal point for them since he got there. I will say this though: I have another candidate that’s not mentioned, Devin Booker. Even though he’s already played at a very high level I think he can still improve immensely and win an award like the Most improved Player of the Year. The Suns continue to struggle but Booker is close to crossing that All-Star threshold. I’d put him before all the wings mentioned above.
Trantham: If it’s just wings, I would put Buddy Hield at the top. Although Sacramento just got annihilated by Milwaukee, the Kings have been a big surprise this year with Hield being a big part of that. His shooting and ballhandling have steadily improved while his insertion into the starting lineup has helped the Kings. You could also make an argument that De’Aaron Fox is the most improved player. He has increased his eFG% nearly by 10 percent. He continues to understand his limitations by not shooting many threes (just over 2 a game) but is actually hitting them at an efficient rate. From the East, I have been impressed with Domantas Sabonis’ increased productivity. Not starting will hurt him in terms of postseason awards not named Sixth Man, but at nearly 70 eFG%, Sabonis has become a matchup problem for Pacer opponents.
Bengel: There have definitely been some great stories during the early portion of the season. My top two “Most Improved Player” candidates are by far Zach LaVine and Caris LeVert. Both play for teams that are in the middle of a rebuilding phase. However, LeVert gets the nod for me after he has continued to show tremendous improve during his first three NBA seasons. The former Michigan standout saw his scoring average jump form 8.2 to 12.1 points from year one to year two, but he’s playing on a whole different level this season. LeVert has been a stat sheet stuffer so far as he’s averaging 20.0 points, 4.6 rebounds, and 4.2 assists. After starting just 10 games all of last season, LeVert has already started all 10 of Brooklyn’s games so far and is clearly one of the key pieces in the team’s resurgence. The Nets haven’t put a phenomenal record together out of the gate, but LeVert has been one of the league’s great stories in the early going.
Gewirtz: I would rank them as follows for Most Improved Player so far this season: 1. Buddy Hield 2. Zach LaVine, 3. Tim Hardaway Jr. and 4. Caris Levert.
Hield is not the one who is scoring the most points per game out of this group, but his field goal percentage has increased 8.5 percent since last season to 53.1 percent, including shooting 48.9 percent from 3-point range. While each of these players are building a great case for MIP, Hield just seems to be on fire right now as the Kings sit at No. 6 in the Western Conference. LaVine is a close second, as he is taking charge averaging 26.6 points per game for a struggling Bulls team.
Siroskey: I would have to put Zach LaVine first since he is currently the ninth best scorer in the NBA, which is impressive considering he had torn his ACL almost two years ago. But ever since he was on the Timberwolves, big things had been expected him as he had drawn comparisons of the likes of Westbrook. So what he is doing currently in the League comes to me as no surprise and the scary thing is, he is only 23. Then I would have to put Hardaway second as he is making a statement for the Knicks during Kristaps Porzingis’s absence, averaging 23.3 points per game which is currently 13th best in the League. What is most impressive for me is how he is shutting all of us up for saying that the Knicks had overpaid for him by giving him that $71-million-dollar deal for four years. So far, he has been worth every penny. Especially once Porzingis returns and possibly with some big-name free agents added, New York could be seen as the Mecca of basketball once again. The third most impressive player to me is Buddy Hield considering his Kings have so far been a surprise team in the West as they currently hold a record of 6-4. Not to mention his numbers have been ridiculously efficient as he is currently averaging 19.7 points per game on 53 percent shooting including 48 percent from deep. Last would be my former Michigan Wolverine Caris LeVert who is keeping his Brooklyn Nets fighting in games despite the record as I should know since they have beaten my Detroit Pistons and recently out the Philadelphia 76ers as well. Averaging 20 points per game on 48 percent shooting he sure has given his team a much-needed boost.
Jimmy Butler continues to flop around with his contradicting quotes and attendance for Wolves games. Where do you stand on the Butler fiasco and would you want him on your favorite team?
Siroskey: I do think all the drama that is coming with this is unfortunate for the Minnesota Timberwolves organization, but I would understand about him wanting to get paid. Although this drama very well could all be a ploy for him and let’s say a Kyrie Irving to join Kristaps Porzingis in Manhattan with possibly another big-name free agent to create a new super team. I am not saying this will happen, but just using it as an example that it might not be about the money but rather the situation: wanting to create super team,—not necessarily in New York—but just to put him in a situation where he would have a better shot at winning a title. Then again, it could be because he is sick of coach Tom Thibodeau as other players of his have been in the past. But considering the drama, would I still be interested in Butler playing for my Detroit Pistons? Absolutely—that is assuming my Pistons wouldn’t have to give up Blake Griffin or Andre Drummond to get him. Adding Jimmy would improve my team, especially shooting-wise with Luke Kennard out for two weeks. Not to mention considering the recent struggles of who is supposed to be the Pistons third best player in Reggie Jackson, who has been averaging an abysmal 11.5 points per game on 28 percent shooting the past four games. Butler’s 22.3 points per game on 49 percent shooting would be a much-needed boost for the team, especially with currently the second best scorer in the NBA Blake Griffin. Even if Jimmy was only to be a rental it’d be well worth it.
Soliman: The Jimmy Butler fiasco has to end soon. Mostly because the situation is getting stranger and stranger. He claims he’s going to sit out and force a trade, but the next night he’s battling with his T-Wolves teammates as if he’s here to stay. It’s a cancerous situation. It’s time for Jimmy B and the T-Wolves to move on from each other. I do think Jimmy Butler still has plenty in the tank. He’s a a great player. However, I’m not sure if a team can win a championship where he’s the second option, which is what he’d be with the Lakers. The only place worth going for him is Houston. He’d be closer to being the third option than the second option there. Maybe we’ll call him and CP3 the “2A and 2B” options. The point is his window is closing and he’s heading towards the wrong side of 30. I think Butler and NBA fans deserve to see him In the best possible situation for a championship.
Trantham: I am all for player freedom. I am also all for franchises making moves they feel will help them remain successful if a great player decides they want to leave. As always there is blame on both sides. Butler wants his money, but also wants to compete for a title. Sometimes those two things cannot exist in the same reality. Minny gave KAT the max because he’s a young superstar with room to grow. Butler is in his prime but has shown injury problems, and if you talk to people around the League, some other issues. Obviously Minny doesn’t want that long term. Having said that, Minny holding Butler hostage has been regrettable. Butler is a great player and has deserved to have a lot to say in his player destiny. With Butler the Wolves can compete in a tough Western Conference, without him they just don’t have enough. But if you don’t want him, just deal him and get what you can and move on for both parties’ sake.
Bengel: Headaches aside, Jimmy Butler is a game-changer for whatever team acquires his services this season or during the offseason. Butler wasn’t a star-studded commodity during his time at Marquette and was taken with the final pick in the first round. He has worked extremely hard to become one of the League’s more dangerous shooting guards. Butler definitely hasn’t gone about this situation in the right manner, but it’s safe to say that he’s a terrific addition to any roster. Obviously, the Minnesota Timberwolves thought so as well since they parted with a pretty hefty package to acquire Butler on draft night in 2017.
Gewirtz: At this point, I think Butler should just play in Minnesota this year and figure it out after the season. After what happened with him going off at practice a few weeks ago and his ambiguous attendance at games, I would not want him on my favorite team at this point. While I think Butler is a great player and would certainly be an asset to most teams that have been in the trade conversation, I think moving him to almost any team in the League almost a month into the season would not be a great move. There is still a lot much drama right now with the whole process, so I say get something done as soon as possible (which doesn’t seem likely with Tom Thibodeau involved) or wait it out.
The Washington Wizards are 1-7. Put on your general manager hat. If you’re in charge, how do you save this season and this team?
Gewirtz: When I said that Butler would not be a great move for most teams in the previous question, the Wizards were one of the exceptions. This team is looking bad and seem to have little to no hope already, and it is way too early in the season for that. Will a Butler trade happen for the Wizards? I doubt it, but as general manager, if there was any opportunity to make a move or shake things up, I would say now is the time to do it. Starting the season at this low of a point gives them nothing to lose and I don’t see a way to save this season or team by just letting things continue on as they are.
Siroskey: If I am the Washington Wizards GM, I would not panic yet for it is still early in the season and I still have one of the best backcourts in the NBA in Beal and Wall. Remember they also added Dwight Howard this offseason, who just made his debut for us a couple of days ago. They’ve had a tough schedule dealing with the likes of the Toronto Raptors and the Oklahoma City Thunder, but now find themselves back at .500. It is still too early in the season to panic, especially since they had not long ago gotten off a brutal West Coast trip that had them run into the defending champion Golden State Warriors. Losing the season opener to the Miami Heat at home was rough. Things like that is what really set them back. although not too far back. The recent win against the Knicks help, and with very winnable games against the Mavs, Magic (twice), Heat and Brooklyn looming, the Wizards are set up to bounce back.
Soliman: If I’m Ernie Grunfeld I think I’d have to make a move that alter the entire state of the franchise. It essentially might destroy this season, but better the Wizards chances for a title in the long run. As great of a player he is, and how great he’s been for Washington, it’s time to move on from John Wall. He can’t shoot, so the floor spacing is a mess, and quite frankly, I feel like he’s lost a bit of a step. Maybe he needs a new start. Also, his contract is going to be pitiful for Washington. Between Wall, Beal, and Porter Jr., the Wizards are in salary cap suicide. So, they’re going to have to move on from at least one, if not two of those contracts. They just might have to try moving on Porter Jr. as well because they’re paying a role player max contract money. My focus would be to build around Beal, and to an extent Kelly Oubre as well. We deserve to see Beal as a franchise cornerstone in Washington.
Trantham: Blow it up. We’ve all seen this movie before. Whether or not the Wizards start winning games and improve in the standings, this team’s ceiling is not high. John Wall and Bradley Beal just need to be on different teams. The problem is John Wall’s trade value is not high. He is a poor-man’s Russell Westbrook. A team taking Wall in a potential trade is asking their team to transition to Wall’s strengths. Beal presents a more appealing trade asset. Beal can fit on any team’s roster in today’s NBA. But we all know in a player’s league, the blame will ultimately land on Scott Brooks’ door. I feel the problems with Washington are beyond Brooks, but the coach is always the first to go. After that, Dwight Howard’s return will be intriguing but that is also a movie we have all seen. How will he affect the bad chemistry in the locker room? Just blow it up.
Bengel: This is definitely a tough one. The Washington Wizards have been a solid team in the Eastern Conference for several seasons and keep bringing back the same core group. However, Washington did add Dwight Howard to try and beef up their frontcourt. Howard missed the team’s first seven games and the Wizards frontcourt was absolutely abysmal. If I’m the general manager in the Nation’s Capital, I take a similar course of action to what the Toronto Raptors did this past summer when they shipped DeMar DeRozan out of town in the Kawhi Leonard trade. The Raptors chose to split up Kyle Lowry and DeRozan after the team came up short in the postseason once again in 2018. This isn’t a slight towards Beal because I believe he is a fantastic shooter that can be a huge difference maker on just about any team in the NBA. However, I think it makes more sense to move Beal and try to either get younger or acquire star power like Toronto did. John Wall is a sensational point guard and should continue to be the face of the franchise.