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 Wednesday, 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:

Justin Faudree: NBA freelance

Eric Fawcett: Gator County, writer

Charles LaRocca: The Bird Writes, contributor

Brice Paterik: Mavs Moneyball, reporter

 

This weekend on Hot Takes and Shot Fakes, we discussed which team would be the No. 1 choice for a brand-new basketball fan with no geographical or family allegiances. What’s your take there, if you had no ties to any team and could just pick a team to root for who would it be?

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Faudree: When I was a kid, I gravitated towards teams with cool logos, nice color schemes and players with captivating personalities. The entire League is so much fun now that it’s hard to pick just one. But, if I had to choose, it would be the Bucks. Giannis is unlike any athlete we’ve ever seen—not to mention he’s incredibly easy to cheer for. Milwaukee plays an uptempo brand of basketball under a new coach. Their logo is nice and arena beautiful. So as fan fresh to the game, who ostensibly wouldn’t know anything, it’s Milwaukee.

Paterik: If I could pick a new team with no worries about allegiances, I’d have to say Milwaukee. Giannis is one of the most fascinating and entertaining players in the league right now and he’s still so young. Milwaukee isn’t some giant market, so I wouldn’t feel like I’m just bandwagon-ing onto a team that’s always dominant. Watching Budenholzer’s system fall into place as they fight for control of the East makes the Bucks a perfect team to hop on right now. My answer might completely change if Giannis leaves in free agency, but for now I’m sticking with Milwaukee.

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Fawcett: If a brand-new basketball fan is looking for a team to cheer for, I think they want exciting young players, dope jerseys, and an everyman they can put their heart behind. All those boxes are checked by the Denver Nuggets. The shot-making ability of Jamal Murray and the thoughtful hustle of Gary Harris are certain to grab the attention of a fresh NBA fan and the unforgettable images of dad-bod Nikola Jokic throwing behind the back passes is going to keep them coming back for more. Plus, if you want a team to commit to you can’t be cheering for an East Coast game that starts too early or a West Coast game that goes too late, give me the Mountain Standard Time Zone baby! Denver also sports some of the cleanest jerseys in the League and a court that looks awesome on TV, and I also think there is some hipster allure in cheering for a team that isn’t in a big market like L.A. or Chicago.

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LaRocca: When choosing a favorite sports team, it’s important to factor in a few things. Are they good? Are they stylish and most importantly, can you establish a genuine connection? Nobody likes getting labeled a bandwagon fan so I would steer away from the Lakers and Warriors. You don’t want that team to be good already because then it looks like you’re just there for the good times and for me one of the best things about being a fan is watching your team start from nothing and grow into a good team. Matching my criteria that would leave two possible teams: The Mavericks and the Kings. The Mavericks are obvious—buy all the Luka Doncic stock you can get. He’s a certified stud, the Mavs have an owner that cares about winning. They aren’t great yet but with Luka the future is bright. Now, the Kings. I’ve always had a soft spot for them and I think most NBA fans do as well. Yes, they have been the model of incompetence for a decade but things are finally starting to look fun. Buddy Hield and De’Aaron Fox are going to be a great backcourt for a long time and it looks like the culture is finally starting to turn around. When the Kings are good there may not be a more fun atmosphere in the league. Be a part of the culture shift early and watch the youth continue to grow.

 

 

The top of the Eastern Conference is going to be a battle. Toronto leads the pack but the Milwaukee Bucks dropped them for the second time this season and both Boston and Philadelphia remain formidable. Which team is getting out of the East?

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Paterik: Right now, my gut says Toronto will be the ones to come out on top in the Eastern Conference. Through 28 games they’ve got a 2.5 game lead even though Kyle Lowry has underperformed and Kawhi Leonard has missed nearly a quarter of their games. The depth of this team is why I’m so confident in their ability to make a deep playoff run. Toronto can throw so many quality wing defenders at teams like Boston and Philadelphia at a level no other team can. Now that LeBron is out of the Eastern Conference the Raptors kryptonite is gone and at the moment, only the Bucks look like a team that will have their stuff together come playoff time. Boston could figure itself out and make me look stupid around April but for now I have to go with what I see now, and that’s Toronto.

Fawcett: I’m a believer that the Raptors are going to finish first in the Eastern Conference regular season standings, but I think it would be naïve to look at their two losses to the Bucks and suggest right now that they’d have the upper hand in the playoffs. Mike Budenholzer has breathed new life into Milwaukee and they are a team built to win close games and therefore are built to win in the playoffs. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Khris Middleton can always get their shot off in a do-or-die offensive possession and if they’re up one and need a stop with 10 seconds on the clock I’m trusting their length and foot speed to force a miss. The fact that Kyle Lowry who notoriously flames out late in the season is already looking fatigued 20-odd games in is super concerning to me and though Kawhi Leonard could be back to 100 percent and going nuclear on opponents, I still think he’ll need Lowry hitting shots. Toronto could make the conversation interesting by the end of the season but since you’re asking me in December with Milwaukee up two to love in the series, I have to go with the Bucks.

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Faudree: I’ve long felt Milwaukee was a sleeping giant. Obviously, head coach Budenholzer’s finally given them the chance to realize their potential. Eric Bledsoe is playing at his highest level in years. Brook Lopez is raining 3s at a historic rate for a center. And Giannis is Giannis. However, I have two concerns. First, will Bledsoe’s shooting continue at its current rate (60 True Shooting Percentage)? Over his career, he’s averaged 56. He’s improved their offense by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions over 771 minutes played. As any Bucks’ fan knows, Bledsoe has been their second-best player. Second, they don’t run a legit 10-deep like Toronto and Boston. The old adage is that shouldn’t matter in the postseason. And it shouldn’t… unless injuries pop up. Hopefully, they stay healthy through the duration of 2018-19. The addition of George Hill helps immensely.

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LaRocca: The Eastern Conference playoffs are going to be lit. I think Toronto is the most equipped to survive the 82-game grind of the regular season but in a seven-game series I still want to believe in the talent of the 76ers. Adding a legitimate veteran closer like Jimmy Butler I think will put them over the edge, especially when you have a dominant big man like Embiid anchoring the middle and wearing down opposing teams in the paint. The Bucks are going to be a threat as long as they have Giannis, but I don’t see this being their year quite yet. My way to early Eastern Conference Finals prediction would be Sixers/Raptors with Philly edging them out in seven.

 

While the Houston Rockets, San Antonio Spurs, and Utah Jazz have all deeply disappointed, the Oklahoma City Thunder have endured despite the elongated absence of Andre Roberson and temporary departures of Russell Westbrook. Is it possible that Paul George might be their MVP going forward?

LaRocca: Paul George is the MVP of the Thunder and him signing that long-term extension has allowed Russell Westbrook to loosen up the vice grip he’s had on the offense and let Paul George thrive. It has made a more comfortable environment as a whole for the team and just allowed both of them to focus on winning games. This has been the first time in about 4 years where there hasn’t been free agency speculation in OKC. They’ve been able to fly under the radar and I think that suits Paul George style more than anything. He’s never came across as a guy who wanted the huge spotlight and pairing him next to Russ gives him another elite option in a market that doesn’t really demand much attention. We’re seeing the best version of Paul George right now and its anchoring the Thunder.

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Paterik: Paul George has definitely been their MVP so far this season. He’s on pace to set career-highs in points, rebounds, assists, blocks, and steals through 24 games. He’s been their rock while Westbrook was out and now that he’s back Paul George fits perfectly beside Westbrook. This might just be George’s best defensive season of his career and the Thunder are absolutely a defense-first team. Even though he’s not shooting it well on the season, his numbers got better when Westbrook got healthy and I think he will continue to get better looks throughout the season. If Paul George can be the Thunder’s MVP, the rest of the season this team will be a force in the playoffs.

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Faudree: In a statistical sense, the case can be made that Paul George is Oklahoma City’s MVP. He’s best on the team in Real Plus-Minus (top-5 in the NBA, as of this writing) and VORP. They went 5-1 during Russell’s absence against a fairly easy schedule, playing Phoenix twice, Cleveland, the Knicks, Houston, and Dallas—their only loss. But that will always be Russell Westbrook’s team, in my opinion.

Fawcett: Absolutely. Voters have watched the Thunder the last few seasons, right? Something has definitely changed, and I think it can be chalked up to the incredible play of Paul George on both sides of the floor. Getting it done scoring the ball, on the glass and distributing to his teammates, while  getting the most out of guys like Dennis Schroder and Jerami Grant, George has revitalized this team. I think voters have to be very aware of what he’s doing with a group that’s mostly unchanged from the last few years. He’s never afraid of the spotlight,  he seems to always relish the big matchups and he’s one of the best one-possession defenders in the League when he needs to put the clamps on. I think that will make for some memorable moment’s voters are going to remember when they fill out their ballots. Add in a bit of voter fatigue, injuries, and team struggles with some familiar names like LeBron, Steph Curry, James Harden and Kevin Durant, and I think George could be set up for an interesting finish.

 

This Phoenix Suns team is truly miserable. Tough to sugarcoat the horrid mess they are at both ends. Devin Booker being dinged up hasn’t helped but they were supposed to take a step forward this season and it has not played out that way. Where’s your panic meter on their young core at the moment?

Fawcett: Constant swings and misses on draft night has left this Suns team young but without as much elite talent as you’d think they’d have for all their high picks outside of lottery ticket Deandre Ayton and draft steal Devin Booker. Mikal Bridges is a nice player to me but doesn’t have a high ceiling, Josh Jackson is looking nowhere near the fourth pick in what was a good draft, and the Dragan Bender experiment has been fruitless up until this point. Let’s also remember the two first round picks, a second-round pick, and Bogdan Bogdanovic the team shipped out for Marquese Chriss, another move the emptied their cupboards for a pick that ended up to be nothing. Booker and Ayton are nice ,and I think Bridges and Elie Okobo are going to be good rotation pieces (I’m not sold on De’Anthony Melton though he has many believers), but this team has just squandered so many of the high draft picks they’ve mortgaged their veteran players for and it has left them with a fairly uninspired young roster. I am definitely not bought in to this group on a whole.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

LaRocca: Panic levels are mild at the moment. Now, don’t get me wrong, the Suns are an abomination on both ends and a lot of their young guys have not taken a step forward. Josh Jackson has been a disappointment, Devin Booker’s progression has stagnated and not taken the leap, DeAndre Ayton is putting up solid numbers offensively, but the defense has been worse than advertised and the greatness of Luka Doncic has made the Suns organization frankly look foolish. Now, with all the being said the Suns look in line to have another high lottery pick and with Zion Williamson and RJ Barrett at the top of draft boards this year is as good as any to be bad. Now, the rest of the Suns roster is a disappointment and the only guys who should be untouchable are Booker, because they extended him and he’s a proven commodity, and Ayton because of the investment you put into him. Other than that, anyone and everyone should be available and the first priority should be filling that gargantuan-sized hole at the point guard position.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Paterik: On the panic scale for the Suns I’m moving from mildly panicked to moderately panicked. Stagnation on Devin Booker’s development is a bit of a worry, but he’s actually looked like more of a facilitator like I wanted him to become this season. The dip in his shooting numbers is concerning because I doubt his shot quality is much better this year than it was in years past. DeAndre Ayton has been solid this year and better defensively than I thought he’d be, but it’s hard not to look at Dallas and see Luka Doncic carve up Houston and wonder what might have been. T.J. Warren is 25, and since I’m almost 25, I’ve decided to count him as a young core member. The shooting numbers he’s putting up this season are fantastic and have been one of the bright spots for Phoenix this season. My main concern with any Suns piece is Josh Jackson. Last year he was an exciting player with excellent two-way potential and now he’s getting buried on the bench of a team that’s laughably bad. This might be the reason why Phoenix traded for Mikal Bridges. With Booker plateauing a bit this regression from Josh Jackson gives me serious cause for panic.

Faudree: Phoenix makes me uncomfortable. The panic meter is relatively high. But—and this is a big but—they’ve played the League’s toughest schedule. They have one of the five youngest rosters in the NBA. And their expected Pythagorean record is 5-22. I know that doesn’t tell the whole story, but, they’re barely under-performing those expectations. Hopefully, Devin Booker’s return to form will bring about a sense of normalcy to their lineup. But I’m not holding my breath.

 

In an era of numbers dominating narrative, which NBA player has the emptiest stat line—pretty numbers on paper but contributing very little to team success—this season? 

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Faudree: Jabari Parker is playing 31 minutes per night, averaging 18 points and 10 rebounds per game (20 and 11 per 36 minutes), with a negative-3.95 Real Plus Minus. That’s real hard to do. The Bulls are bad and he’s a major reason why. Honorable mention: LaMarcus Aldridge.

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Fawcett: Props to Zach LaVine for battling through some tough injuries early in his career to become a 20-plus point per game scorer this year but the man is a chucker who couldn’t care less about transition defense after his shot goes up and he isn’t going to start paying much more attention later in the defensive possession either, regularly dying on screens and getting face cut by more ambitious offensive players. This effort level has contributed to the Bulls being basement dwellers in the East and contributed to a team culture with a lot of other guys who are just looking to get theirs and it has already cost them a coach. This might remind you of the NBA’s current scoring leader James Harden who could also be put on this list due to the Rocket’s struggles this season, but he has proven he can play winning basketball, LaVine has not.

LaRocca: To me the answer is easily Zach LaVine. He can score but I don’t think he does anything else conductive to winning. LaVine plays zero defense, his buckets don’t come in the rhythm of the offense and he doesn’t look to setup his teammates. He still can end up be a good player but right now he is a one-dimensional player volume scorer who shoots a lot and turns the ball over a ton. The Bulls have to be feeling some buyer’s remorse after matching Sacramento’s five-year $80 million dollar offer.

Paterik: This feels like an obvious choice but I’m still going to say Zach LaVine is putting up the emptiest numbers in the NBA. Chicago isn’t just bad, they’re about to be bad enough to fire two coaches in a month. It makes sense why LaVine had to chuck up shot after shot with Lauri Markkanen out and Jabari Parker on the bench the offense had to run through someone. Wendell Carter Jr. is great but he’s not going to create his own shot but at least try to get him involved, LaVine is averaging 4 turnovers per game, tied for fifth most in the NBA. Every player ahead of him is averaging at least 6 assists per game while he is sitting at 4.9 per game. This year LaVine is shooting well under his career mark from deep and it’s largely because he’s just trying to play hero ball on a bad team. Maybe his numbers will be less empty when Markkanen gets fully healthy, but for now it’s a slam dunk that Zach LaVine is putting up the emptiest stat line in the NBA. Sorry Zach.