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 six dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Chris Arnold: 105.3 The Fan, host
Brad Botkin: CBS Sports, writer
Christopher Gabriel: ESPN 940, host
Joe Mullinax: Grizzly Bear Blues, site manager
Duane Rankin: AZ Central, journalist
Peter Yannopoulos: TSN 690, NBA insider
Steph Curry and Kevin Durant have co-existed rather seamlessly. As speculation grows about the free agency plans of Durant, Kawhi Leonard and others, is there a better possible star duo than Curry and Durant? Assuming you could pair any two current players, could you make a better superstar tandem?
Arnold: Anthony Davis and Kawhi Leonard. If Davis could play off-ball with Boogie Cousins, he could easily do major damage with Leonard. These two guys could dominate both ends of the floor in all categories. Neither needs a full-time distributor, they can both handle the rock with ease. Both command a double team, yet no team has the resources to do this during crunch time. A real pick your poison scenario. Curry and Durant are great. But imagine this unstoppable duo together, one team’s dream, a nightmare for everyone else.
Botkin: This is a great question. The staple is Curry, who opens up the game for everyone he plays with, star or otherwise, in a way no other player in today’s game, or probably in history, comes close to matching. So the question becomes: Is there an even deadlier partner for Curry than Durant? LeBron, obviously, is enticing. We know how dominant he is with floor spacers, and obviously he’s never seen space like the kind Curry creates. But he’s a bit too ball dominant at heart. I’m thinking about an Anthony Davis-Curry pick and roll and laughing at the impossibility of guarding that, and the one thing we’ve never seen Curry have next to him is an elite big man who can utterly destroy switches, catch lobs, stretch to the 3-point line to keep the lane open, and protect the rim on the other end. Davis-Curry, I think, is the closest thing to Curry-Durant.
But I still give the edge to Curry-Durant. On any given night they are the two best players in the world, and they complement one another perfectly with their ball-sharing instincts. Durant’s improvement as a playmaker has freed Curry to get even more back to his off-ball roots running through a maze of screens, and in those rare instances that Curry is having trouble shaking loose, Durant gives him the best bail-out option in the league the flat-out best one-on-one scorer perhaps in league history. It’s just too good. If Durant stays long term, I think Curry-Durant will go down as the greatest duo in NBA history.
Gabriel: Interesting how tandems, superstar or otherwise, have evolved over the years. I grew up with the Bulls great backcourt tandem of Norm Van Lier and Jerry Sloan. Their frontcourt was also great, with Chet Walker and Bob Love. There was Monroe and Frazier with the Knicks and the Lakers had West and Goodrich. What was noteworthy was duos that played the 1 and 2, or 3 and 4. Now the great combo-platters are like fusing foods you never imagined would make an appealing pairing, one you’d come back and buy again and again. To that end, and really, I don’t know that this would be better, but I’d like to see Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kyrie Irving. They both can take over a game with creativity and power but they both understand they have four other guys in the same uniform they’re wearing. They know how to get the ball to their teammates in spots they want it. Plus, being Greek, I’m all about throwing some love to fellow men of the Order of OPA!
Mullinax: Offensively, no. That’s the best. They are the two best creators, scorers, etc. on that side of the ball possibly in the history of the League. All-around? I believe if you replaced Durant with LeBron James or maybe even Kawhi Leonard for defensive purposes you would have a more complete twosome. Especially LeBron, since he is arguably a better creator for others than any of the mentioned names here, would make Golden State even more horrifying. But that isn’t to disrespect KD and Steph—they’ve got a good shot at being the best duo ever if they stick together beyond this summer, which looks unlikely at the moment. That could certainly change, of course.
Rankin: Cleveland had the best one with LeBron James and Kyrie Irving before Uncle Drew split for Beantown, but any two players? James Harden and Joel Embiid would be a devastating pair because of how well Harden runs pick and roll and can still knock down jumpers and Embiid could play off him, get open dives to the rim as well as post up and open the floor up for Harden from an inside-out view.
Now if I had to just pick a tandem just for sheer excitement alone, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Russell Westbrook. That’s like Russ-KD with Giannis being the younger version without the three ball, yet.
Yannopoulos: I want to say Durant and Westbrook 2.0, but no, I won’t got there. Great question, with countless possibilities, but I am going with Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Today’s game is about position-less basketball, long athletic wings who can attack and defend. The Greek Freak is currently transcending and dominating the league while still being raw offensively. When he gets the consistent jump shot, it’s over, like Vince once said. Kawhi has the three-point range, the complete two-way game and the championship pedigree to go with it. This duo will leverage each other strengths and will immediately become a nightmare for opposing coaches. The rings, subsequently, will follow. A substantial amount of them.
There are more stats than ever available publicly, often, as we comb through the data available to us, notions we previously held are challenged. What was the hardest formed opinion you’ve ever held about an NBA player that you later surrendered due to the numbers refuting your belief? (The eye test evaluation you had the hardest time letting go of when the stats didn’t back it up.)
Yannopoulos: Practice? Practice? We talking about practice man! Let me set the record straight. I vehemently love Allen Iverson. Always have, always will. He played for my favorite college program at Georgetown and for my beloved John Thompson. He won the MVP, he crossed over Jordan and he was unequivocally pound for pound the toughest player the game has ever witnessed. He immortalized and galvanized this sport and our youth. However, when analyzing the numbers, they talk to us differently today. The volume scoring was there, but the efficiency and usage were not. He led the League in steals, but did he really stop opponents? No. He gambled defensively on the court and not being voted on one single NBA All-Defense team justifies this. I will always advocate for The Answer but maybe just maybe a little more practice would have helped.
Arnold: This is a rare one for me. I’m an eye-test first guy. Numbers and analytics never tell the whole story in my book, simply because players aren’t robots. Players get injured, sick, dissatisfied, wrong team, etc. Therefore, projecting potential based solely on numbers is insane. Maintaining a body of work is harder than crunching numbers and projecting growth based on set variables. It’s just as risky as measuring through the eye test, yet so many experts and fans want to be absolute with their analytics and wind up disappointed. Not me. I try to combine both. I’m also not the guy that doubles down because I refuse to believe I might have been wrong. Only a fool sticks with a conclusion despite receiving better information. It’s ok to say you were wrong. That’s what makes sports fun, the unpredictable.
That said, someone who defied my initial eye-test test is James Harden. I thought his NBA Finals performance with Oklahoma City during his Sixth Man of the Year campaign was a choke job. I’ve never liked him since. That said, I fully expect him to choke in big playoff games every time. I never thought you could build a team around him. I was wrong. Regular season Harden is an MVP candidate every year. He got it last season and deservedly so. I still don’t trust him in the playoffs. I’m shocked every time he does win a series for the Rockets. But there, I said it. I was wrong about the Beard.
Botkin: I was dying a slow death on the “Marcus Smart is not good” hill. People who listen to me rant every day will tell you, I just can’t get on board with perimeter players, particularly point guards—to the extent that positions still exist—who can’t shoot. It’s a death sentence in my book. I do not think it’s a coincidence that Ben Simmons was ultimately exposed in the playoffs, or that John Wall or Russell Westbrook has never proven capable of being the best player on an elite team.
Want you mind blown? Look at all these non-shooting perimeter players who have gone in the lottery since 2009 who have been an unequivocal disappointment relative to their draft position: Emmanuel Mudiay, Elfrid Payton, Michael Carter-Williams, Shabazz Muhammad, Kris Dunn, Justise Winslow, Stanley Johnson, Dante Exum, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, even Ricky Rubio and Tyreke Evans haven’t been anything close to what they were supposed to be. Not a single All-Star appearance by anyone on that list. Not one.
To me, Marcus Smart belonged on this list of disappointments. I was firm. I didn’t care what the numbers said. And, alas, I was an idiot. Smart is so good, an indisputable contributor to winning at a high levels and I was wrong to ever doubt that. The numbers forced me to open my mind as I watched him, and obviously it wasn’t long before the eye test started to back up the numbers. Marcus Smart is really good. There, I said it.
Gabriel: This is a tough one but the winner here for me is Tristan Thompson. In a landslide. When LeBron was in Cleveland and I’d tune into one of their games, it seemed Thompson was having a great night and I’d hear LeBron going on and on about him. So I allowed myself to be swayed by KJH: King James Hype. Looking a little closer at what Thompson was actually doing game to game, he was far less effective as a scorer than I ever imagined, on the boards I was sure he was a double-figures guy… nope. He’s close but he should be grabbing much more than he does. And as a protector of the rim, or someone who should be a rim-protector, he seems non-existent. Less than one block per game… come on. I genuinely thought Thompson was capable of a lot more.
Mullinax: Along with many national NBA types, I long had a love affair with what I thought Jeff Green was. When my Memphis Grizzlies acquired him years ago, I truly believed he was the answer to the prayers of Grizzlies fans longing for an athletic wing who could score are maximize the “Core Four” window of Tony Allen/Zach Randolph/Mike Conley/Marc Gasol. The numbers, of course, said this was unlikely all along, and I chose to ride with the “eye test”. Which was dumb, but at least NBA GMs kept doing it even after the failed experiment in Memphis, which made me feel a little less silly.
Rankin: I never really had something that I stuck with to the core. I look at players and see how they play in clutch moments to determine if they’re just someone who averages 20 and 10 or are they someone who changes the game with that 20 and 10. If there is one thing, and I’m stretching here, it’s fourth quarter points. That’s supposed to be the money quarter, but when you dig into that stat, you’ll see so much factors into that. Score of game. Free throws. So the better stat is probably fourth quarter points in the last five minutes in a one possession game or less.
That stat may exist. I just haven’t seen it.
Most Improved Player is a coveted award and a great conversation piece, but what about the other way around? This season, who do you believe has regressed the most?
Yannopoulos: This is an unprecedented award. I love it! A few young players come to mind, but I will go with Jaylen Brown of the Celtics. The scoring, rebounding, steals, assists and efficiency are all down this season. What is cause for concern is the shooting, especially the 28 percent from three-point range. Brown lacks the enthusiasm and energy that made him a tantalizing playoff performer last year. Granted, Boston is a deeper team, he must overcome this internal adversity and become a tangible and consistent player for Brad Stevens whether he starts or comes off the bench. Get in the lab and keep working JB, you have time to figure this out.
Botkin: Couple candidates here. Chris Paul hasn’t been near the same player as he was last year, but he deserves the benefit of the doubt with a lot of season still to go. Josh Jackson, at least statistically, had a promising close to his rookie year but has been downright awful this season (side note: add him to the list of non-shooting lottery picks who haven’t been good).
But I’ll go with Jaylen Brown. It’s no secret he has struggled to find his place Boston’s offense with all those mouths to feed. Last season, Brown looked like a budding All-Star as he got to play on his terms, as something of a go-to player, and he just hasn’t responded to his return to something of a role player, even if that description sells him short. His shooting percentages are down significantly. His PER has been in the tank. Forget the numbers, he just flat out hasn’t looked good. Very hesitant. He’s played better of late, though, and I still believe he is a really good player. We’ll see how the rest of the season goes.
Gabriel: It’s easy to fall back on the “it’s too early” excuse but the fact is, it’s not too early. One-third of the season is behind us and looking around the League, the player who’s regressed the most is usually going to be a guy who is on a team that also has regressed. So while it may not be fair to single out one guy vs an entire team, you asked! For me it’s Jaylen Brown. While the Celtics have finally started giving hints that they’re the team we thought they’d be this season, Jaylen Brown is still standing on the platform at North Station. The guy is a slasher and can knife through defenses with ease when he’s on his game. And when he’s rolling, he’s a great finisher. As a shooter he reminds me of Klay Thompson in one regard, and that’s catching and releasing. But across the board, none of it is working like it did last year. He’s down in virtually every offensive category. If the Celtics are going to be “that” team, he needs to pick up his game in a major way and he needs to do it yesterday.
Rankin: Andrew Wiggins. I get him and Jimmy Buckets didn’t mesh, but he’s nowhere close to where I thought he’d be right now. When Karl-Anthony Towns said the T-Wolves are “too cool for school,” recently, Wiggins is who I immediately thought of. Just seems to cruise all the time. I’m talking about going crazy and in overdrive, but when you’re as casual as he can be, it impacts how you play.
Arnold: The enigma that is Dwight Howard. His style of play doesn’t project in this era. No one would build around him, yet just eight years ago he was the premiere building block.
Mullinax: It has to be Carmelo Anthony, right? To be viewed as an important scorer potentially off the bench for a good team to not even in the NBA anymore feels like a pretty large tumble from grace. Chris Paul’s regression and Gordon Hayward’s slowed play post-injury both deserve pretty heavy consideration here as well, and long-term will likely have a larger impact on the NBA Playoffs than Melo’s demise. But again, Carmelo Anthony is currently not in the NBA…that’s crazy to think about.
If we projected a five-year power ranking, who would be your last ranked team? Which team do you have the least faith in moving forward?
Mullinax: If it weren’t for Jaren Jackson Jr. my Grizzlies may have been in this mix. Because he has been so solid, I would lean towards saying the Charlotte Hornets are the squad with the most obstacles in front of them moving forward. Kemba Walker’s free agency looms large, they have long-term money tied up in multiple below-to-above average players, and between being capped out and a couple picks in Malik Monk and Miles Bridges whose development will probably be slow, the road to full competition seems long and arduous for the Hornets.
Rankin: Chicago. Lost by 56 to the Celtics? Then all the practice drama after that? Wow. Phoenix has won three in a row, seems to have found some continuity and have some good young talent that should get better. Atlanta is where it, led by a rookie in Trae Young. Shooting way too many 3. So I’m already thinking next couple of years with them.
Cleveland is going to be on the LeBron hangover for more than a minute, but Chicago’s vibe is not good. The Bulls fired their coach, Fred Hoiberg, already and I don’t like the team makeup.
Yannopoulos: The Atlanta Hawks. This is a franchise that has never been able to take the next step for decades, then, when they final won 60 games they got swept by that guy that use to be in Cleveland. Trading away a future superstar in Luka Doncic for a diminutive volume scorer in Trae Young was straight up blasphemy. The current roster is built to tank, which is positive, but their acquired future first round picks from Cleveland and Dallas are all top 5 or top 10 protected. Unfortunately, that is not the recipe for a proper rebuild. Although Tony Ressler’s ownership group includes the well-respected Grant Hill, the fan base is frustrated, disinterested and flat out nonexistent. The story suggests a long and continuous painful journey for the good folks in the ATL.
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty ImagesBotkin: The Wizards. And it’s not close. I’ll qualify this by saying that if the Pelicans lose Anthony Davis, they’re in real trouble, too. But with the information I have available to me right now, here’s what I know for sure: John Wall has the worst contract in sports about to kick in. The Wizards are apparently thinking that Trevor Ariza is going to fix a broken team, but he won’t. Eventually Washington will have to come to grips with trading Bradley Beal, for whom they probably won’t get equal value.
So now you’re looking at a cap-choked team with a player in Wall who will make them too good to get a good draft pick but not nearly good enough to be any kind of threat. On top of it, they have a front office with absolutely zero track record of making the kinds of creative, smart moves that could perhaps mitigate such an on-paper disaster. The Wizards are in bad shape, man. Welcome to a half-decade of 37-40 wins—the worst possible place to be in the NBA.
Gabriel: This feels like a trick question. Or at a minimum, a question I know I’d answer differently next July than now. But for now, I’m going with the Knicks. It’s unfathomable to me that this organization cannot get it figured out. From James “make me an offer and I might sell” Dolan to the last guy on the roster, how can a team that plays in New York City, in the world’s most famous arena and with the kind of money they have at their disposal be so bad? Every year. Well, like any company, any restaurant, a grocery store, you name it, the organization sinks or swims by the way it’s led, and the New York Knicks have been a model of mismanagement. The people in charge aren’t stupid. Not by a long shot. But as far as basketball goes, they’ve demonstrated little to no acumen. Look at how they’ve drafted, their recent history in free agency, the head coaches they’ve brought in… none of it has any sense of a master plan. Teams in much smaller markets without nearly the financial latitude or media exposure to lure big-name free agents get it right over and over, and far more often than the Knicks, because of the people calling the shots. The Knicks are the classic oversized organization with too many voices, too many agendas and too little cohesion. They’re on a highway but have no idea where their final destination is going to be. Until Dolan sells this franchise to someone, or a group, that has legit basketball IQ they’re going nowhere now or in five years. And the NBA needs a great franchise in New York City. The League is better when New York City is a player.
Arnold: It’s the Knicks. I would say the Cavaliers who’ve never won without LeBron James but their front office will make moves. The Knicks track record speaks for itself.
The Trevor Ariza sweepstakes are over and the Washington Wizards are the winners. Does the Ariza addition this change your projection for the Wizards this season? What would make their year a success?
Gabriel: First things first. Here in California, the amount of Lakers haters I’ve heard from is surprising. You’d think some were sharing news of the birth of a child. That Trevor Ariza didn’t go to Staples Center has been an early Christmas gift for them. Moving on from the Lakers, that a deal actually got done to send Ariza to Washington might as well be a major motion picture in the depth and complexity of how it first didn’t even happen, with overflowing intrigue, seemingly sinister double-crossing and mistaken identity that rivaled a Shakespearean comedy. But now that it’s done, I think an Ariza-Wall-Beal combo could be—and should be—a lot to handle for most any team if the three can learn how to flow together. Wall and Beal aren’t new to the League but Ariza may well be that dominant, veteran voice who can kick the whole franchise into gear. I emphasize the word “may.” Toss in Porter and this team makes the playoffs again. But it definitely changes my view from initially seeing them as a team just making it in to one that could rise to a number six seed. I think any higher would be pushing it but I expect this team to get a lot better, sooner than later.
Mullinax: Not really. It doesn’t solve their fundamental issues of rebounding or having a big who can defend on multiple levels from the perimeter to the rim. There are too many specialized bigs on that Wizards roster that lack versatility and that won’t be addressed with Ariza’s return. He will be a steadying presence in a locker room that desperately needs it, and it will assist them on and around the three-point line defensively. But Washington is still a move or two away from hanging with Toronto, Philadelphia, or Boston among the elite of the East. To move on from a young talent like Kelly Oubre Jr., and the trade chip that his potential is, you’d hope to get back a bit more than that in return.
Rankin: It does because Ariza can help stretch the floor. Playing with John Wall and Beal will give him more open looks and he’ll play better because he’s no longer in Phoenix. What would make their year a success? They’re just 2 ½ games out of the eighth spot held by Orlando. They should make the playoffs. If they do, that would be a success considering where they once were.
Yannopoulos: I like Trevor Ariza, a versatile player who has always understood and accepted his role. He is exactly what the dysfunctional Wizards truly need. A selfless leader, who consistently leads by example and will hold teammates accountable. Can he unify, mobilize and resurrect this colossal mess in Washington? No, the problems run too deep in Washington, especially with the polarizing relationship between John Wall and the coaching staff. The #DCFamily have tasted some success in the playoffs with this core, anything short of a second-round appearance will be a failure in my eyes. Good luck making the playoffs, let alone, getting out of the first round versus the East’s Big Four (Toronto, Milwaukee, Boston Philadelphia).
Arnold: I don’t follow the Wizards close enough to project success or failure this season. However, everyone in the NBA is aware of the John Wall toxic contract and the rising fear around the astronomical figures assigned to him. That said, any success this season is unsustainable in the bigger picture. From afar the Wizards appear to be a collection of individuals not a team with a clear and realistic playoff goal.
Botkin: Haha. See my answer above. No, Trevor Ariza isn’t going to change a damn thing for the Wizards. Success—unless you consider sneaking into the No. 8 seed and getting subsequently pounded by the Raptors a success—would be trading Bradley Beal for a solid return. Unbelievable success would be finding someone dumb enough to take the Wall contract. The latter almost certainly isn’t going to happen, so a deal for Beal is the best they can hope for, which is sad, because Beal is a stud on a team-friendly contract. The Wizards, man. This is bad.