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 500 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:

Nick Angstadt: Locked on Mavs, host

Jackson Gatlin: Red Ninety Four, contributor

Dylan Gonsalves: Blue Man Hoop, contributor

Benyam Kidane: NBA Australia, senior editor

Justin Lee: Above the Rim NBA Podcast, host

Keith Feltner-Smith: The Trailcasters, host

 

With half of the League changing teams this year, which player will look the oddest in their new jersey?
Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Angstadt: It won’t really set in until he’s decked out in all red and catching a lob from James Harden that Russell Westbrook isn’t on the Thunder anymore. He was the longest-tenured player in the NBA on one team since Dirk Nowitzki retired (Also, If the question didn’t say “jersey” then Dirk wearing a sweatsuit instead of a Mavs jersey would be the weirdest). But after all the Durant/Harden/Ibaka drama, Westbrook had become the Thunder’s identity. The contrast of the blues and oranges of the OKC jerseys and the beds and black on the Houston jerseys will help draw attention to this change, too. Even the best photoshopped pictures of Westbrook in Rockets gear look odd.  

Feltner-Smith: My co-host has been saying “Nobody is prepared for Russell Westbrook in anything other than a Zombie Sonics jersey,” and I can’t disagree. But while the Westbrook/Harden reunion is going to be something to keep an eye on, I’m curious how Anthony Davis’ next chapter is going to be viewed. For several weeks last season, and then again this offseason, there had been so much controversy over his impending move out of New Orleans. We had the plight of the small markets, and owners trying to put their foot down. We had the overarching issue of balancing a quality product for fans, with the freedom of star players to control their environment. And of course, the “questionable practices” of agents and front offices… if nothing else, there has got to be some head scratching at how the Lakers, quite possibly the worst run organization for the last five years (You’re welcome, Knicks!) still end up with the generational star in Davis to pair with LeBron. If they somehow run over the West, will we hear more cries of agent/executive foul play going forward? Or imagine if the LeBron/AD led Lakers fall flat short of expectations, and Davis looks elsewhere for his next contract; what effect will that have on his legacy, or the Lakers hopes of a return to glory? I’ll go start the popcorn.

Gatlin: Getting the homerism out of the way early, it has to be Russell Westbrook. Most Rockets fans have had an issue with Brodie since he beat James Harden in the 2017 MVP race. Seeing him in Rockets red instead of the iconic OKC blue will take some getting used to.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonsalves: Kemba Walker, without a doubt. After seeing him for eight years in a Bobcats and Charlotte Hornets jersey making step-backs in the #15, it will be very different seeing him in the iconic Celtics jersey, especially with a new #8. He’s one of the more tenured guys with one team to switch uni’s this season, so that will be interesting to see. 

Kidane: Russell Westbrook in a Houston Rockets uniform will definitely take some getting used to, mainly because we’ve only ever seen him play in one NBA jersey. For his entire 11-year NBA career Westbrook has been the face of the Oklahoma City Thunder franchise and arguably the face of the entire city. Change is common in the NBA, but this one’s going to take a while

Lee: It’s been such a whirlwind of player movement this offseason this was tough to decide. I would have to say Russel Westbrook for a couple of reasons. Russ and Harden have always been in silent competition with one another since they split in OKC. Who has the better numbers, highest usage rate, who can elevate their supporting cast the best and so on. Now with these two joining forces, I believe they both must adapt more than they ever have in their careers in order to make this work. Russ and Harden fans have been at each other’s throat over who deserved MVP in both 2017 and 2018 and now they must join forces. It will be intriguing to watch but I must say the red jersey suits him well. 

 

Last week we talked about the team that was going to surprise by jumping up in the standings relative to their preseason projections. On the other side of that coin, last year the Boston Celtics were a major disappointment given many saw them as the favorite to come out of the East. Given 9-10 teams think they can win a title, someone is going to fall on their face. Who is that team this year? 
Cameron Browne/NBAE via Getty Images

Lee: I don’t think any of the projected contenders will fall completely off the grid unless there are injuries of course, but if I had to choose a team underachiever, I’m going with the Portland Trail Blazers. Even though I think they will have a good season, they will drop off from the third seed they claimed last year. Damian Lillard will take a leap forward in terms of production and maturation, but since the West has gotten better as a whole, I believe the Trail Blazers will fall to the middle of the pack of the playoff race. Even though he isn’t a household name, a guy like Mo Harkless was crucial for their perimeter defense last year and now he’s off to the Clippers. Bazemore is a solid replacement, but he doesn’t have the length that Mo possessed to take the pressure off of Dame and CJ to guard the opposition’s best perimeter player. 

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Angstadt: There’s a real chance this Lakers team doesn’t click right away and things start to go off the rails. There aren’t many “sure things” on the roster. Anthony Davis hasn’t missed significant time due to injury in any given season but over the course of his career he’s been banged up a lot. Lebron had the biggest injury of his career last season. DeMarcus Cousins is still a question mark. Danny Green’s play in Toronto’s playoff run was questionable. Kyle Kuzma’s shooting notably declined in his second season. Lakers fans mourned the returns of Rajon Rondo and Kentavious Caldwell-Pope for good reason, but overrated the addition of Avery Bradley. They should be a playoff team and go far, but there’s a lot of question marks that need to be addressed this season for them to be considered a Finals contender in the West. 

Feltner Smith: Honest answer: We don’t know. Given how strangely undefined the top of the NBA will be this year, it’s probably going to come down to injuries more than anything else—is that the “parity” that we’ve been searching for? If it’s playoff time and Kawhi isn’t at 100 percent, or LeBron pulls a hamstring, or Jokic breaks a foot, or Dame tweaks his hand, or Embiid’s knee gets shaky, or Giannis strains his calf…you get the picture. None of these teams can withstand even one major injury, let alone a major injury plus an injury to another key reserve, without expecting to slide in the conference standings. Managing health could very well be more important in 2020 than it has been in the history of the NBA. With how much we’ve had to hear about “load management” lately, that’s saying something.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Gatlin: It feels as if most people have the Utah Jazz pegged as some type of Western powerhouse after they acquired Mike Conley and signed the likes of Bojan Bogdanovic and Ed Davis, but I just don’t see it. There’s sure to be some growing pains as Conley is integrated. Do they take the ball out of Donovan Mitchell’s hands more now? Who takes the final shot with the game on the line? Even if the new faces work out, Rudy Gobert seems to still be honoring some kind of bet as to how long he can maintain a starting gig in the NBA without having any type of established post game. The Jazz will likely finish in the 5-7 seed range and experience another disappointing 4-1 first round exit.

Gonsalves: Really split on this one between the Nuggets and the Sixers because of their youth, but I think of all the top dogs that could have issues, it’s gotta be the Sixers. Joel Embiid could continue to miss time due to the knee issues, and the departures of Jimmy Butler and JJ Redick can’t be highlighted enough. Can they really depend on Tobias Harris and Josh Richardson to score from the outside? Do they really have the depth to be better than they were last season? I think they’ll stay competitive in an East where it’s the Bucks vs. Everybody, but they may have major issues down the stretch.

Kidane: I love what the Utah Jazz did with their offseason, adding Bojan Bogdanovic, Mike Conley Jr., Ed Davis, Jeff Green and co, giving them an elite playmaker, more shooters and extra defensive pieces.

While I expect them to win a bunch of regular season games, given their relative continuity and deep squad, but are we sure that in a loaded Western Conference, this isn’t a team that could well end up losing in the first or second round?

That’s less of a knock on the Jazz and speaking more to the dogfight it’s going to be to get out of the West. Expectations are sky high in Utah, but when you look at the star talent of the Los Angeles Lakers, Los Angeles Clippers, Houston Rockets and even the Golden State Warriors, Denver Nuggets and Portland Trail Blazers, playoff success is going to be a much harder road this season and without a ‘true superstar’ things could get tough for the Jazz.

 

Looking back at the 2017 NBA Draft, many of the top lottery picks are still in flux—among them Malik Monk, Luke Kennard, Markelle Fultz, Dennis Smith Jr., Zach Collins and Bam Adebayo. Do you see any of those names taking a substantial step forward this season? 
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Kidane: I love a comeback just as much as anybody, that’s why I’m rooting for Markelle Fultz to put it together somewhat this season for the Orlando Magic. If Fultz can get healthy and stay healthy, becoming a solid rotation piece for the Magic would be seen as a substantial step forward, considering he hasn’t played an NBA game since November 2018. I still believe in his talent and hopefully the time he’s spent out of the spotlight offers him a fresh start in a situation where he could prove to be an important piece for a playoff team.

Lee: I think Bam Adebayo is going to take a leap forward this season. With Whiteside out of the picture, the starting center slot is his to lose. He’s a durable big that played all 82 games last year averaging 8 points and 7 rebounds. With an increased role, I see him doing well securing the paint and becoming that interior presence the Heat need. I see Bam averaging a double-double next season. 

Angstadt: All of those players should get significant playing time this year based on the moves their teams made. But the one that sticks out to me is Bam Adebayo. Now that Jimmy Butler is a Heat (is part of the Heat? Is the Heat?), Miami should take a step forward and with Hassan Whiteside out of the way Adebayo should be their starting center. Last season Bam averaged 7.4 points, 6.4 rebounds, and 1.8 assists in just 20 minutes per game off the bench. But as a starter he averaged 11.8 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 3.1 assists, plus a steal and a block per game in just 28 minutes. 

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonsalves: Zach Collins is the name that stands out the most to me, as a guy that can shot block, rim run and finish inside for the talented Lillard-McCollum duo. Because he’s pushing for a starting spot and has the energy and makeup of a big that should beat out Pau Gasol for playing time, he could definitely see big improvement. With Hassan Whiteside still being a risk for Portland to depend on, and the promise he showed in the playoffs last season, he’ll have a major opportunity to grow and could make a big leap this season. 

Feltner-Smith: The Trail Blazers have basically rolled out the red carpet, flung open the front doors and are pushing Zach Collins through them. With Nurkic injured and Aminu, Harkless, and Layman all cleared from the forward rotation, replaced by Kent Bazemore and veterans Anthony Tolliver and Pau Gasol. Yeah, Collins has got some minutes for the taking. Whether he’s able to pack on some weight and curb his propensity for reactionary fouls, that remains to be seen. But his natural defensive instincts, shooting stroke, and the intangible “grit” will give him a chance to meaningfully contribute to a team that has high hopes after making the Western Conference Finals with an injury-riddled roster.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Gatlin: That 2017 draft is rough to look at. Of the players provided, the only one that looks like he could be poised to have a breakout season is DSJ. On a New York Knicks team that missed out on the Zion Williamson sweepstakes, whiffed on signing the duo of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, and then somehow decided it would be a good idea to sign every power forward in the known universe, DSJ will be given plenty of backcourt minutes and a great chance to shine in the “Big Apple”.

 

With the NBA schedule dropping, what is the No. 1 individual game you looking forward to this season?

Gonsalves: As much as I’m excited for Zion Williamson’s debut and the first Rockets-Lakers matchup all the way on January 18, I’m looking no further than opening night for the Golden State Warriors on October 24 at the new Chase Center as they host the Los Angeles Clippers. It’s going to be a telling game to set the tone for the season, and I think it will really show how big the divide is moving forward. I really can’t wait to see how D’Angelo Russell fits and what this new Clippers lineup looks like.

Kidane:  It’s all about opening night and I’m not talking Lakers-Clippers. Zion Williamson is the man everyone is tuning in to see in his first NBA game against the Toronto Raptors. Entering the NBA with the most hype since LeBron James in 2003, Williamson begins his NBA career in front of a nationally televised audience and while he’s no stranger to the spotlight, the opening game of this season ushers in a new generation of the NBA, with Williamson at the forefront. We still talk about LeBron’s 25 points and nine assists in his debut against the Sacramento Kings some 16 years later; will we be doing the same for Zion?

Lee: For personal reasons, I’m mostly looking forward to CP3 returning to Houston. He’s been my favorite player in the League for some time now and his name has been slandered through the mud this offseason after being traded away. I’m looking forward to seeing how he performs this season as a whole with more ball handling duties and controlling the offense, which he does best. The real question is, who will be the team CP3 will be returning to Houston with? 

Chris Elise/NBAE via Getty Images

Angstadt: That first Lakers vs Clippers game on opening night is going to be fascinating. There will be so many storylines from the preseason that probably won’t mean anything. Davis is coming out with a lot to prove. LeBron has been hearing the doubters throughout the playoffs and the summer. Plus, the entire Lakers team has been hearing about the Clippers takeover in LA. But the real Battle Los Angeles will be Christmas Day. Paul George should be back and healthy, both teams should be fairly familiar with each other by then, and there should be some semblance of a rivalry forming. Javale McGee or DeMarcus Cousins or Jared Dudley will do something to Patrick Beverley or Montrezl Harrell to get them riled up and create tensions between both teams. 

Feltner-Smith: On April 9, with two-three games left in the season and the top of the West potentially undecided, the Denver Nuggets will come to Portland and if healthy, we could see some long awaited fireworks. Last year’s seven-game West Semifinals series was excellent basketball; now we could have both teams with arguably better rotations, and potentially fighting for decisive playoff seeding. If that’s not enough, something else that fans were sadly deprived of in the last postseason is the rivalry between centers Jusuf Nurkic and Nikola Jokic; it was only as recent as 2017 that Denver let an unhappy Nurkic go as mere filler in a trade to Portland, where he seems to be fulfilling the potential that he felt was wasted behind Jokic as a backup for the Nuggets. Last year Kanter performed incredibly well for the Blazers down the stretch, considering his separated shoulder and well-documented defensive shortcomings, but a healthy Nurk makes the Trail Blazers simply a better team without accounting for other roster adjustments this offseason, which I think also strengthened Portland’s position. A high-stakes showdown between a healthy Nurkic and Jokic is a game I’ve already marked on my calendar and will be making a point to see in person.

Gatlin: I lied about the homerism thing earlier. The LA Clippers visiting the Houston Rockets on November 13 is going to have some fireworks. Patrick Beverly and Russell Westbrook’s long standing feud, meanwhile Kawhi Leonard and Paul George (hopefully healthy) taking turns to check James Harden. Who could forget the other ex-Rockets Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell? The guys who always play with a chip on their shoulder against their former team. Chances are neither team will be clicking on all cylinders so early in the season, but this game could very well be the first preview of the Western Conference Finals.

 

For next season only, who is the best player in the NBA?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Gatlin: “Unleashed” Steph Curry is an interesting possibility, but until he retires, LeBron James will be the best player in the NBA. I mean, the man is entering what, his third prime right now? To do what he has done, for as long as he’s done it, means that until there is concrete evidence that he is no longer the best player in the association, he deserves the benefit of the doubt. Kevin Durant has a strong argument for the No. 2 spot as a walking offensive cheat code, but he’s not even in the picture for next season. With other top players, unless Giannis Antetokounmpo miraculously develops a consistent 3-point shot or Kawhi Leonard isn’t required to “load manage” a quarter of the season away, neither will surpass James.

Kidane: While Kawhi Leonard has certainly done enough to earn that mantle after his heroics in Toronto, I’m still checking for Year 17 LeBron James. With an upgraded roster, a legit superstar teammate in Anthony Davis and an extended period of rest after missing the playoffs, LeBron has all the ingredients for a revenge tour to remind everyone that he’s still the man. Is this likely the last year he will lay claim to that title? Probably, but I’m not ready to write him off just yet. The Lakers can’t afford for James to not be at his best in a stacked Western Conference and if he can manage his minutes and body like we know he can, there’s no reason to suggest he’s still not the best player in the game.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Feltner-Smith: Unquestionably Antetokounmpo! He’s gotten better every year he’s been in the League, he just won MVP, and he doesn’t turn 25 until December. His field goal percentage has gone up every year too, including about 5 percent last year—no small margin—and with everything else he can do physically, he’s now taking almost three shots a game from deep. If he comes back next year with nothing more than a refined jumper plus the knowledge of another season under his belt, the League’s best player will have just gotten decisively better. Giannis will be downright scary, and the MVP is his to lose.

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Gonsalves: Kawhi Leonard, but I don’t think he has it by much. He’s proven he can win wherever he goes, and he’s joining an elite defensive unit that will complement his strengths at that end. He’s the best player on the best team in the NBA, and he’s coming off the high of his second NBA Championship. Now a full year removed from the quad injury, I think he’ll be even better than he was last season, and be able to focus a lot of his energy on the offensive end.

Lee: Until I see LeBron lose a playoff series in the West, I can’t take the crown away from him. Even in a down year he still produced 28 points 8 rebounds and 8 assists. He impacts the game on so many levels that it was a tragedy to see his effort defensively last year. This season, I think he will be so much more locked in because of all the chatter surrounding his “LeHollywood” endeavors. Statistically, the balance of his overall numbers will still be top notch even while giving the reins to Anthony Davis for him to become the focal point of the Laker offense. 

Angstadt: Going into the season it’s Kawhi Leonard. Kevin Durant is out for the year. James Harden hasn’t proven he can win in the playoffs. LeBron James is in his decline. Anthony Davis is still ascending. Giannis Antetokounmpo is still ascending. Steph Curry and his legs just finished a massive five-year run. Kawhi Leonard just proved to the world he can carry a team while being the best offensive and defensive player. Not many players have been able to claim that—Michael Jordan, LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Hakeem Olajuwon, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, etc.—there’s more, but the list isn’t long.