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

Graham Chapple: Peachtree Hoops, writer

Konata Edwards: Dime Uproxx, contributor

David Grubb: Crescent City Sports, writer

Paul Headley: The Wraparound NBA Podcast, host

Jaren Kerr: CanadaLand, reporter

 

The Washington Wizards continue to get embarrassed. Can you think of a more talented team to start this poorly?

Chapple: The one team that comes to my mind are the 2012-13 Los Angeles Lakers, who started the season 9-14. Now, that doesn’t sound awful on paper, but this was a team that had a younger Pau Gasol, Kobe Bryant pre-Achilles injury and had just traded for, at the time, near-prime Dwight Howard and Steve Nash. Now, Dwight obviously had some issues and Nash did not play a ton of games to begin, so that’s a fair counter-argument. But that’s still a very talented team before adding some complementary pieces such as Jodie Meeks, Metta World Peace and Robert Sacre (OK, maybe not that last one).

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

In addition, the Lakers also fired their head coach, Mike Brown, just five games into the season (after a 1-4 start). FIVE. Added on top of that, the pressures of starting slow in a stacked Western Conference were very real and the Lakers were trying to make up for this poor start all season long, only just creeping into the playoffs on the final night of the regular season. They eventually got there, and you’d have to imagine the Wizards (who, funnily enough, also have Dwight Howard) will figure it out in the Eastern Conference.

Edwards: Covering the Hornets, while they might not be talented. I’ve seen this team start slow in years past. But the Wizards are the most talented team I’ve ever seen start this slowly. That said, it’s not a shock considering that entire team is such a bad fit of personalities.

Jerry Wachter/NBAE via Getty Images

Grubb: You could argue that the Houston Rockets have been just as disappointing this season, but to look at previous seasons I’d have to go with the 1997-98 Washington Bullets. The season before—with Chris Webber, Juwan Howard, Rod Strickland and Gheorghe Muresan—they made the playoffs. Even though they lost to the Bulls in three games they played them close in each one and looked like a team on the rise. In 1997-98, the get off to a 4-10 start that included a six-game losing streak. That offseason Webber was traded to Sacramento and Washington didn’t get back to the postseason for eight years.

Headley: Talented teams start off poorly for a variety of reasons (veteran-pacing, injuries, championship-hangovers), but there are very few examples in league history of a team with as much talent and continuity as the 2018–19 Washington Wizards stumbling out the gates the way they have. Even with a pair of wins over the Heat and Magic softening the optics, they still have the fourth worst net-rating in the league (minus 7.6). Really, the last comparable horror show which springs to mind was the Wizards themselves in 2016–17 (a 2–8 start that was eventually salvaged into a 49-win season).

It’s appropriate that one of the later questions in this mailbag is about leadership; John Wall has been Scar to Steph Curry’s Mufasa in that regard. Seriously, he’s one step short of pushing Bradley Beal off a bridge. Approaching the NBA grind with the enthusiasm of a sullen teenager is rarely conducive to good team basketball, and that joylessness seems to have permeated the entire roster. Wall needs to realize that, like Hollywood, the annals of NBA history are littered with tales of the “could-have-beens.” He has all the markers of joining that club. Failure to adapt and expand his game. Worrying injury history. Questionable work ethic.

The Wizards can right the ship, for this season, but darker questions remain unanswered.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Kerr: A few come to mind. The 2013-14 Nets had Deron Williams, Joe Johnson, Brook Lopez, and an admittedly over-the-hill duo of Paul Pierce and KG. That squad started off abysmally. They lacked chemistry, they dealt with injuries and the Celtics transplants had trouble adjusting to smaller roles. Remember when Jason Kidd was so desperate to win that he spilled his drink to get a makeshift timeout? Yeah, they sucked. They started 10-20 in their first 30 games, but eventually made the playoffs and got knocked out in the second round. Then there’s the 2016-17 Heat, who started 11-30. They weren’t as talented as this Wizards squad, but it was a surprise seeing a team coached by Spo look so bad.

 

Last week Royce Young had a tweet praising the play of Paul George, suggesting he might be the League’s best, two-way, player. Which star in the NBA consistently shows up on both ends the most?

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Kerr: I’m going to say Al Horford, who is, in fact, a star. I won’t argue about this. Some players can make the highlight reel on both ends of the floor, but Big Al is always locked in. On offense, he makes the smart play when he has the ball and doesn’t fall asleep off-ball. On defense, he’s not going to get as many big blocks as Joel Embiid, but he’s always in the right place, making rotations and reading the floor.

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Chapple: I’m a big fan of Josh Richardson for the Miami Heat and he deserves a ton of credit in general, as a player, but I must go with Joel Embiid here. We know what Embiid brings to the table. Offensively, he’s currently fourth in points per game at 27.7 on 48 percent shooting from the field. He’s shooting 27 percent from three, a number you’d like to see a little higher but it’s a shot he can make and defenses have to respect that. Oh, and he’s getting to the free throw line over 10 times a game.

Defensively, his value shines through in a lot of different areas. Sixth in blocks per game with 2.3, opponents shoot over 5 percent worse when Embiid is guarding them on all shots and over 9 percent worse within 6 feet of the rim and amongst players with at least six games played Embiid ranks fourth in defensive win shares with 0.175 (all stats per NBA.com). But even just looking beyond the stats, players show hesitancy to drive into the paint that Embiid is guarding—he’s in their heads. And that is arguably more telling than the stats. Players fear him on both sides of the ball.

Edwards: It’s Kawhi, with the caveat being when he plays. There’s still not anyone in the League that affects the game on both sides with the impact he makes on both ends really.

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Grubb: No question in my mind at all. It’s Jrue Holiday. This season he’s averaging 19.5 points, 9.2 assists and 1.6 steals, all career highs, and then defensively he has embarrassed some of the best perimeter scorers in the League. Devin Booker, Zach Lavine, Paul George, Justin Holiday, Kawhi Leonard, Russell Westbrook and Kyle Lowry shot a combined 11-for-45 (24.4 percent) with Jrue guarding them. Last season he was First Team All-Defense, this season he should be the first guard to win Defensive Player of the Year since Gary Payton in 1996.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Headley: A lot of people get annoyed by the term two-way player. Impact is impact, no matter how it’s broken up end-to-end. However, let me make the argument. Which player is least likely to ever be in a situation, at the highest level, where they can be exploited on either end? That’s the best two-way player to me.

Paul George has a shout, for sure. George is a lockdown defender who can switch on to just about anyone shy of the real low-post behemoths. He has struggled shooting the ball so far this season (52.7 true-shooting), but you’d expect mark to come up when Russell Westbrook returns, and shots start coming easier. Jimmy Butler should also be in the conversation. Butler is sensational on both ends when he’s not terrorizing teammates or feeling sore. Klay Thompson is arguably a top-three shooter of all time, and his ability to take the tougher guard assignments away from Curry is essential to the Warriors’ defense. Though it bears wondering if he could fulfill his 3-and-D remit quite so thoroughly were he tasked with more creative responsibilities on offense.

Here’s my answer: the people’s two-way player, “Jumping” Joe Ingles.

 

Don’t think about it, first person that comes into your head: Who is the best leader in the League?

Headley: It’s Steph Curry. Curry is often mislabeled an egoless player, but that’s not really the case. Every great player has an ego. Curry has a huge one. The ability to suppress one’s ego for the good of your teammates and team culture is the epitome of sport’s leadership. While many sport’s analysts’ lust after stories of Michael Jordan browbeating’s and Kobe Bryant scowls, often citing such behavior as a driving force behind their success, the reality is those were both great players with great teams. An argument could be made both guys won in spite of their inner-bully.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Curry genuinely cares for his teammates, often seeming more invested in their success than his own. He followed up arguably the greatest offensive season in league history (2015–16) by taking a backseat to Kevin Durant. The entire fabric of the Warriors “We, not Me” culture is predicated on their franchise talisman. While he might have started off this season on a “Forgot About Dre” tear, scorching Earth to remind everyone he’s still the League’s most unstoppable shooter, historical sacrifice means his teammates don’t care. The Warriors have the most enviable team culture in the League, and it all stems from Curry’s leadership and personality.

Kerr: Draymond Green. He’s the heart and soul of the Warriors. He’s vocal, he’s intense, he hypes up his teammates, and for all the offensive firepower Golden State has, they owe a lot of their recent greatness to Draymond’s defensive efforts and leadership. A team as talented as Golden State can easily get complacent, but more often than not, Draymond keeps them awake.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Chapple: Weirdly, it wasn’t LeBron James but the first person—in the context of ‘Don’t think about it, just say the first name that comes to your head—was Draymond Green. This surprised even me, so I thought “Why did I think of Draymond first?” and things began to make a bit more sense. Green is the emotional leader of that team and one of those players you hate on an opposing team but if you’re with him there’s no one else you’d want with you. And I think that’s the mark of a good leader. Probably not always by design, but he’s taken the spotlight for this Warriors team when things don’t always go well (thinking back to the 2016 Finals, the famous halftime argument with Steve Kerr in that game against the OKC Thunder as some examples) and I think he’s totally fine taking the brunt of the criticism away from his teammates and putting it on himself, because he can take it.

The Warriors, I believe, rally around Green’s calls and intense emotions—he might not be the best player on the team but he’s arguably the most important for his worth on and off the court. And that’s the most praise I’ve ever given or probably will give Draymond Green, who is not one of my preferred players in the League.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Edwards: It’s Damian Lillard. The Blazers are a bunch of ingredients that really shouldn’t work and Dame, leading by example makes a 5-star meal. The fact that they’ve responded so well out of the gate despite being absolutely humbled by the Pelicans last year in the playoffs is amazing.

Grubb: Draymond Green. He is not the best player on the Warriors but he is absolutely their most important. He’s the heartbeat of the team in a way that Stephen Curry and Kevin Durant cannot be. He’s the voice of the Warriors for better or worse and gladly takes on the role of villain.

 

The Boston Celtics are floating along, trying desperately to find some balance. Terry Rozier is allegedly frustrated, and the trio of Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum and Gordon Hayward are struggling to some degree. Are you at all worried about them, given their expectations to reach the Finals?

Grubb: I’m not too worried. They’re only a game back of Philadelphia and they’re working on a lot of things. With the short training camp, the first 25-30 games for the Celtics is basically an extended preseason. What’s important for Boston is to stay healthy while they iron out people’s roles and decide on the 8-9 guys in the primary rotation. If they’re struggling come the end of January, then I’ll worry.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Headley: In the larger sense, not really. The Celtics defense is still rock solid (first in the league, a full 1.2 points-per-100-possessions better than the second-place Thunder, per NBA stats and info). They still have a stacked roster, with several players playing far beneath their expected value. There was always going to be an adjustment period as the team’s stars (Gordon Hayward, Kyrie Irving and playoff-Jayson Tatum) adjusted to tendencies and worked their way back to full health.

They’re generating the second-most catch-and-shoot attempts in the League, and at some point, those stars will find their rhythm and start making shots. Tatum’s regression into a Kobe-clone is worrying, though. Freewheeling possessions into long-twos isn’t going to get the offense clicking, nor is it likely to endear him to brethren. Kyrie has looked much better of late, but it hasn’t translated into much beyond .500 basketball. Hayward has looked bad, but the dude snapped his leg in half only a year ago, so I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt. For now.

I have faith in Stevens to pull things together. The five-out, switch-heavy lineups we all salivated over before the season are still there, waiting to be unlocked. However, whether they can put it together effectively enough to take care of the Greek Freak and the Raptors come playoff time…I’m less convinced than I once was.

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Chapple: No, I’m not worried about the Celtics figuring it out. Time. There’s so much of it remaining in the season. The Celtics have played 13 games, leaving 69 to go. They have a lot of time to steady the ship that, could you say is even floating off of course? Gordon Hayward cannot struggle as he has done so far for a whole season It isn’t possible. As for the rest, they’ll figure it out. You forget that Jaylen Brown is only in Year 3 and Tatum in Year 2. As much hype and expectation is put on them, they’re still trying to find their way in the League, only in their opening years in what will probably be, easily, decade-long careers.

We’ve seen this song and dance often in the NBA where a Finals contender struggles out of the gates. They’ll be fine, they’ll figure it out. They’re too talented and their coaching staff is too good not to. Now, are they a better team than the Toronto Raptors, the Philadelphia 76ers, now with Jimmy Butler, or the Milwaukee Bucks once they do figure things out and everything is clicking? Can they beat those team to make it the Finals? That’s a debate for a later time and another day…

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Kerr: I am really worried about the Celtics. Once a team has more than two ball-dominant starters, things get tough in terms of touches and shot distribution. Kyrie, Tatum and Hayward are all at their best with the ball in their hands, and they haven’t figured out how to play together yet. Brad Stevens is a great coach, but I’m not sure he can figure out how to make them all happy. As for Rozier, I think he rightly feels he deserves more minutes after last year’s playoffs, but Stevens has to keep him focused on team success.

All that to say, they have a stellar defense, and that may be enough for them to reach the Finals.

Edwards: It’s too soon to be worried about the Celtics, but a 7-6 record for them out of the gate is a surprise. While everyone’s Spidey senses are allowed to tingle just a bit, let’s wait until January and reassess then.

 

The Athletic’s Sam Amick asked members of the Warriors who they thought had the best chance of knocking them off. Who do you think the right answer is and has that answer changed since the start of the year?

Edwards: The Warriors have concerns with a (clicking) Boston Celtics team. I totally understand that, but I believe the biggest concern for the Warriors might just be themselves. Especially if the issues that they’ve alluded to all summer creep back up as they did a few nights ago with Draymond Green and Kevin Durant. David West might be a bigger loss than people imagined, his leadership and ability to moderate the personalities was huge. A functional and harmonious Warriors team is unstoppable.

Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

Grubb: Right now, it’s hard not to look at Toronto. The Raptors have the length to switch effectively and Kawhi Leonard can guard Kevin Durant without help. Offensively, they’ve been one of the best teams in the League and they are tough to beat at home. Prior to the season, I would have gone with Boston or possibly Utah.

Headley: Unless the Rockets can pull off a difference-making trade (which seems unlikely in the wake of Jimmy Butler’s arrival in Philadelphia), the answer lies in the East. The Celtics still have the switch-heavy chops to defend the Dubs, as do the juggernaut Toronto Raptors. Whether either team can score with the Warriors is the real question.

The Sixers are a wildcard in the conversation. Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid won’t be shaken to their cores by Butler’s boorish antics, but that doesn’t mean the team won’t have chemistry issues. Unlike the Rockets, Simmons lack of a jump shot makes that “only one ball” argument a lot more applicable here. Should it all fall into place, the Sixers could be a threat. Expecting such jagged pieces to coalesce into a championship puzzle in the space of 70 or so games seems a bit too optimistic, however.

Warriors fatalism is entertaining. A team so top-heavy is only ever a tweaked ankle away from disaster. Still, they’re obviously the team to beat. Gun to my head, I’d pick the Raptors to be the squad to pull it off. The Celtics might still be a year away.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Kerr: I always thought the Raptors would have a shot to dethrone the Warriors if the team gelled, and they’ve exceeded my expectations. The Raptors are so flexible and capable on defense, they’re way deeper than the Warriors, and Golden State won’t find it easy to defend Jonas Valanciunas inside. The Bucks also have a shot with Giannis and Middleton looking awesome. On the other hand, I thought Houston could compete with Golden State again this season. I was very wrong. It’s clear now that James Ennis and Carmelo Anthony can’t replicate what Trevor Ariza and Luc Richard Mbah a Moute gave them season. I also thought that Michael Carter-Williams would somehow be reinvigorated under D’Antoni, but his regression continues.

But I’d like to add a dark horse: Denver. Nobody has an answer to Nikola Jokic, and if Jamal Murray and Gary Harris get hot for a series, they could make things tough for the Warriors.

Chapple: Always a tough one this one… I think some people talked themselves into thinking the Houston Rockets would be able to “finish the job” this season and that answer has changed throughout the League now. Does anyone believe they can not only knock off the Warriors but even get back to the Conference Finals now, seeing what we’ve seen? I know it’s early, and there’s still a lot time to steady the ship (now, this is a ship you can say is veering off course), but early signs look ominous for Houston. I guess preseason I believed Houston could do it, given the circumstances that saw them fall just short last season, and so my answer has to change.

It’s obviously early, but these Milwaukee Bucks are intriguing me, having just beaten the Warriors and continuing to show their credentials during their Western Conference road trip. Obviously, there was no Draymond Green that night, but the Bucks’ really gave them a good thrashing on the Warriors’ home floor with Curry (before the injury, mind you), Klay Thompson and Kevin Durant, and the Bucks have some really intriguing pieces to match this Warriors team in a series. If I had re-consider from the start of the season, it’d have to be the Bucks.