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 week, 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:
Brandon Goldner: ILiketheBlazers Podcast, host
Jesse Finver: WJTV, reporter
Lawrence Murray: ESPN, editor
Brendan Nunes: Kings Pulse, host
Rahmeaun Rahming: FanSided, contributor
In a preseason where the stars are playing hard and teams seem to be giving their starting units some real burn, what has been your biggest takeaway thus far?
Finver: That hope springs eternal when parity exists. These teams are playing their starters more in the preseason, and I think it has everything to do with the seismic shift the League underwent in free agency this past offseason. With all of the player movement that went on, there is more parity than ever in the NBA right now and that means teams feel like—for the first time since the beginning of the Warriors dynasty—they have hope. So what does that have to do with preseason? Well, for a number of teams, this is the first time their stars are getting a chance to play with each other, and the more time they play with each other, the more chemistry they can create. This will be the most competitive NBA regular season we’ve seen in ages, and teams want to be ready to roll when October 22 finally comes. Plus, that player movement unveiled an unfortunate new reality; these players ain’t loyal. And they shouldn’t be. We’ve truly entered the mercenary era of the NBA, with contracts meaning basically nothing and players moving wherever they want. Teams are realizing this, and are trying to cash in on titles now. They want a title now, before their star jumps ship for their preferred team. So the quicker the team comes together, the quicker they can win a title.
Murray: My biggest takeaway is that we (excuse me, “y’all”) need to let players prepare for the season however they see is the best way to do so. Three different players jump off the page to me: Zion Williamson, James Harden, and Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s the top pick of the draft, last season’s scoring champion, and last year’s MVP. They had three different kinds of offseasons: Williamson was shut down after one half of summer league, Harden declined participating in FIBA, Antetokounmpo spent the summer with Greece. Maybe you were disappointed by Williamson not being able to do more in Vegas, or Harden not saving the wretched national team, or Antetokounmpo mostly going through the motions in China. It clearly doesn’t matter now. Those three (and many more) have your attention with what they’ve shown in the preseason. Summer is over, and that’s a good thing.
Nunes: To put it simply, this season is going to be a blast to keep up with. With all the player movement that happened over the offseason whether it be free agency or trades, there are endless questions for teams throughout the League. There is a top tier of teams that include the likes of both Los Angeles teams, Milwaukee, Denver, Philadelphia, Utah and others, but the middle tier might just more intriguing to me. I think that every team in the League aside from the bottom feeders of Memphis, Phoenix, Washington and Charlotte, could come away victorious against any team on any given night. This is going to be one of the most fun and competitive NBA seasons in recent years.
Rahming: Tyler Herro is. A. Bucket. In what feels like an eternity, the Miami Heat have a first-round draft pick that can contribute right away. A lot of fans say their team has X player that’s going to contribute immediately, but so far this preseason, I haven’t seen it. No Ja Morant, no RJ Barrett, and certainly no Coby White highlights. The slick stroke of Herro and coupled with his shot hunting ability (something Miami desperately needs) will catapult him into top two consideration for this season’s rookie of the year award next to Zion Williamson, of course.
Goldner: That a good chunk of the League understands they can win a ring this year. With so much change at the upper echelons of the NBA, there’s both a feeling of hope and urgency, and a “We need to get our s*** together”-ness that has been dormant as the Warriors and Cavs (and to a lesser extent, teams like the Raptors this year and the Rockets in years past) have been the only ones to enjoy “true contender” status over the last few seasons. That’s not true anymore. Today, you have have a half-dozen or more teams who can reasonably say they can win a title and people don’t think they’re out of their minds.
The bottom of the Western Conference is so tough to sort through. Assuming there’s two playoff spots left for the taking between Dallas, New Orleans, Portland, Sacramento, and San Antonio, who is getting them?
Nunes: I’ve had this same question for a good while now, especially considering that I cover the Sacramento Kings. First, I think that Portland is the easiest choice of this group as one of the teams to see the postseason. They tend to overperform in the regular season and have the best player of all the listed rosters in Damian Lillard with a borderline All-Star level talent alongside him in C.J. McCollum. Losing Nurkic will hurt more than people think and I am not as high on Whiteside as some seem to be right now, but they will make the playoffs riding their stars.
As for the rest, I like Sacramento’s roster the best, particularly the depth, but they are just so reliant on young and somewhat unproven talent. Dallas, who only won 33 games last season, lacks creation outside of their stellar duo of Doncic and Porzingis, and the health of Kristaps is still a question mark. The Pelicans are exciting and Zion has been showing out in preseason, but they are extremely young and lack adequate spacing for their offense which I think good teams will be able to take advantage of (I’m staying on the lookout for a Brandon Ingram trade). The Spurs have made the playoffs for the last 22 seasons, and they still have Gregg Popovich running the show. Dejounte Murray has looked quick in his return from his ACL injury and the roster has two legitimate talents in DeRozan and Aldridge. Their rim protection is a worry, but their perimeter defense should help cover that up. The team is simply too talented when you consider that one of the greatest coaches of all time is running the show. I can’t bet against San Antonio, no matter how much I want to.
Rahming: This scenario is tough as it once again puts NBA fans everywhere in a position to perhaps sleep on the same two Western Conference teams we sleep on every season. We do it every year, and every year the Spurs and the Trail Blazers find their way into the playoffs. The Trail Blazers won 53 games last season en route to the third seed and a trip to the Western Conference Finals, so there’s no way I’m slating a team to take their spot. Now with the Mavs and the Pelicans both having the same record last season and having the same championship level coaches return for this season, those two factors are a wash. Let’s take a look at each team’s roster and assume that on any given night, Luka Doncic, Kristaps Porzingis, Zion Williamson, and Jrue Holiday will equal each other out. That still leaves the New Orleans supporting cast of Lonzo Ball, Brandon Ingram, JJ Redick, Jahlil Okafor and Derrick Favors. Compare that to the likes of 35-year-old J. J. Barea, streaky Tim Hardaway Jr., and 7-3 Boban Marjanovic (who may be run off the floor in most matchups). I’ll take my chances with New Orleans making it to the postseason ahead of the Mavericks.
Goldner: Portland and San Antonio. The Spurs’ unsustainably efficient offense may revert to the mean, and Portland has a ton of juggling to do after losing and gaining so many rotation players. But at this point, betting against either Gregg Popovich or Terry Stotts to have their teams ready to play on a night-by-night basis is folly, and that preparedness is super important for regular season success. Whether it means anything in the postseason remains to be seen.
Finver: I think this is fairly simple. Out of the five teams provided here, Portland and New Orleans have the two best rosters, with San Antonio a not so distant third. I love Luka being paired with He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named in Dallas, but outside of that duo, their next best scoring options are Tim Hardaway Jr. and Delon Wright. Pass. Next you’ve got Sacramento, last year’s nine seed in the West. I actually really like their roster and how they brought in Luke Walton this offseason to turn this franchise around. But they are still super young, and I think they finish just short of the eight seed this year because that young talent isn’t transcendent like it is in New Orleans. And lastly we have San Antonio. The Spurs are going to be good, as they are always well coached by Pop. But they just don’t have the 3-point shooting to keep up in today’s NBA. The League got a lot deeper this year, and since all the Spurs do is take mid-range jumpers led by Derozan and LA, I think they too fall short of the playoffs this year.
So why New Orleans and Portland? Portland, last year’s three seed in the West, still has the best superstar duo out of all five teams mentioned in Damian Lillard and CJ McCollum (although Dallas has a chance to surpass them this year if KP stays healthy and Luka keeps progressing). But outside of Dame and CJ, adding Hassan Whiteside’s defense will make up for not having Jusuf Nurkic who is recovering from a broken leg, and I’m a big fan of Zach Collins at the four for them. As for New Orleans…Zion Zion Zion. I really think he’s going to break the League like LeBron did back in 2003, and the roster Nola has surrounded him with is legitimately good. Jrue Holiday is a star, Lonzo and Brandon Ingram have star potential and no Lavar hovering over Lonzo will be fantastic for his development. JJ Reddick and E’Twaun Moore off the bench, and adding Derrick Favors in Free Agency…I think the Pelicans can make some noise in the West this year.
Murray: I trust Portland and San Antonio right now. I have no reason to believe that the Mavericks are going to be that much better this season; they’re thin, their on-court leadership is suspect and they lack plus-defenders. The Pelicans are a tough cut from this list—they’re exciting, but I’m not convinced that they’ll defend well enough. The Kings are already downplaying expectations under Luke Walton, and they may be closer to the post-All-Star break team that finished 9-16 than the group that was a surprising 30-27 at the break. The Trail Blazers have the best player of all of these teams in PG Damian Lillard, while the Spurs have the best head coach of all of these teams in Gregg Popovich. It’s October. I’ll take that for now
In the Eastern Conference, it definitely feels more clear cut with it being Milwaukee and Philadelphia, followed by everyone else. Who’s the third best team in the East?
Murray: Let’s go wild for a bit here. Why not Miami? Jimmy Butler effectively replaces Dwyane Wade, both in terms of leadership and Marquette vibes, but also on the roster. Miami will defend under Erik Spoelstra; the offense was rocky at times, with Wade somehow still getting looks as the go-to guy in the clutch. Seriously, Wade took 24 more shots in clutch time than the next Heat player, Josh Richardson. Butler and rookie Tyler Herro are in, Wade and Richardson are out, and the urgency to improve upon last season’s inconsistency is felt throughout the roster (see: James Johnson not being allowed to be with the team due to failing the notorious conditioning test). Even Butler should be motivated after getting traded to the East and failing to make the All-Star team.
Nunes: The third seed in the East comes down to two teams: Boston and Brooklyn. For Brooklyn, I’m curious to see how Kyrie develops with his teammates throughout the season after witnessing his effect on Boston last year. Caris LeVert could have a breakout year, as he was before going down last year, and Jarrett Allen, Joe Harris and Spencer Dinwiddie are no joke, but I can’t get past Boston’s offense. Aside from the Center position, which is a gargantuan hole, they have four players starting that could each score 20+ at any time. If their preseason rotations mean anything, it also seems as though they smartly will not be starting Enes Kanter in favor of some defense from the likes of Daniel Theis. Offense wins you games in the regular season, and Boston has capable defenders across the roster as well. Brooklyn could likely fare better come the postseason, where Kemba Walker and the Celtics’ big will be targeted heavily, but I think that Boston will end up finishing with the third seed in the East.
Finver: People like to hype the Nets because they added Kyrie or the Raptors because they’re the defending champs and kept most of their roster together. But It’s Indiana. They are the clear three seed in the East right now. Adding Malcolm Brogdon and getting Victor Oladipo back to a team that had neither during their playoff run last year is going to be a huge boost for the Pacers. And don’t forget TJ Warren, who has finally escaped the black hole that is Phoenix and is one of the more underrated small forwards in the League. I think Nate McMillan is a very good coach and their roster is better this year than it was last year. I’m expecting big things from Indiana this year.
Rahming: Sorry, Celtics fans. Your pick swap window is closing, and you won’t be making it through that glass ceiling this year. The team I’m going with for the third seed is the Indiana Pacers. Pacers team president Kevin Pritchard had a great offseason considering his team was star-less for the back half of the season and was able to hold their fifth seed ranking. It was clear All-Star Victor Oladipo would need some help and help they got. Backup point guard TJ McConnell will guide the bench unit much like he did in Philadelphia while keeping his assist to turnover ratio amongst the best in the League while only hunting the shots he knows he can make he’ll prove to be an excellent addition to the roster. Perhaps the biggest reason Indiana will take that next step is because they upgraded their roster while directly downgrading the roster of the Eastern Conference champion Milwaukee Bucks. Last season Malcolm Brogdon entered the 50/40/90 club. He’s a floor general that knows what it’s like to play with another All-Star talent, which will be perfect when Oladipo returns from injury. Last but not least, the most underrated pickup of the 2019 offseason is TJ Warren. This man is a scoring machine and was picked up for free essentially since they only gave the Suns the 18th pick in last year’s draft while getting the 31st in return. Thoughts and prayers, Suns fans.
Goldner: The Celtics. Without overvaluing things that can’t be measured—team chemistry, the weight of expectations, a team-first philosophy and head coach Brad Stevens—Boston is in perfect position. Kemba Walker may not be as talented as Kyrie Irving, but he’s in his prime, coming off a career year, has never played on a good team and is bound to make his teammates better than Irving did late in his tenure. And while losing Al Horford hurts, Gordon Hayward had an entire summer to work on his game and work his way back from injury. Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown are still super young. Enes Kanter gives them gravity in the post they haven’t had for a while (even if he’s a liability on defense). If the Celtics succeed, it will be another sign that, yes, sometimes the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
Looking at the list of team over/unders this season, give me two locks you’re confident will hit on their respective over or under?
Rahming: First off, let me say that according to my previous answers, the Pelicans (39.5) and the Pacers (46.5) are a lock to achieve their win total projections. Two more teams I see living up to these totals are the Utah Jazz (53.5) and the Los Angeles Clippers (53.5). What the people who made these projections are saying is that the addition of Mike Conley and Boban Bogdanovic are only worth 3.5 wins. Seeing this in writing makes my stomach curl. That can’t be true. There are two questions you need to ask yourself win trying to determine the teams with the highest win totals in the League. Do they have a superstar they’re trying to preserve for their playoff run like Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, LeBron James or Anthony Davis? If the answer is yes, it’s safe to shave a couple of wins off for rest. The second question relates to their bench? If they’re a top heavy team with average or below average bench players? If so, shave some wins off. The Jazz seem to be well put together team with a good mix of both players to start and to provide key minutes off the bench while also having something to prove in the cutthroat Western Conference. They don’t have the luxury of taking games off. The Clippers in this scenario should have an interesting outlook. The widely-accepted deepest team in the League lost no reserves while replacing Danilo Gallinari and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander with Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard and third place regular season MVP runner up Paul George. Nuff said. They may even exceed everyone’s expectations, including their own.
Finver: I really love the Nets this year (just like everyone else). But what I really like is their over. Their over/under is 43.5 which means Vegas is expecting them to be right around where they were last year. But adding a player like Kyrie to a playoff roster in Brooklyn spells trouble for the rest of the Eastern Conference. The East is super weak per usual, and Brooklyn will take advantage of that with guys like Spencer Dinwiddie and Caris LeVert really starting to come into their own, and Jarret Allen developing into a defensive force. 43.5 wins? I think they win 50 this year.
I also like Miami’s over, which is also 43.5 wins. After winning 39 games last year, the Heat added Jimmy Butler and rookie Tyler Herro (who can win ROTY if he stays healthy). But a full year of Dragic, Butler, Tyler Herro balling out and getting rid of the cancer that was Hassan Whiteside should equal at least five more wins for the Heat this year. Hammer that over.
Murray: I’m buying the Orlando Magic going over 41.5 wins. Everyone who was in the rotation for last season’s 42-40 team is back, and they added Al-Farouq Aminu to the bench; Aminu started for a Portland team that reached the Western Conference Finals last season. The Magic won the Southeast division after a 15-8 post-break record, and that was after getting zero contributions from likely 2019-20 rotation pieces Mo Bamba and Markelle Fultz. On the flipside, I have the Memphis Grizzlies falling short of 27.5 wins. They have solid young pieces, but the veterans are injury and transaction risks. Taylor Jenkins’ team is at least a year away from pretending again.
Nunes: This was a difficult one to key on with all the variability across rosters, but Oklahoma City caught my eye. Most people are reasonably expecting them to go full tank mode and send off players like Danilo Gallinari, CP3 and Steven Adams, but those are extremely talented players. Their over-under being placed at 31.5 is low to me, and I think their roster is talented enough to pull in 34 wins on the year at minimum. My other two considerations were the under for New Orleans at 39.5 or the over for Brooklyn at 43.5, as I leaned about three more games each way for both. I will go with Brooklyn between the two, their roster is talented, deep, and they have a true star now in Kyrie Irving. The Indiana Pacers had 48 wins last season, and I predict Brooklyn to be somewhere around that mark.
Goldner: The Jazz won’t hit 54, and the Thunder will win at least 32. The West is going to be a bloodbath, and without disrespecting Utah, there just won’t be as many wins in the West this season, even for the best teams. A lot of really good teams, and teams that would in most years hit 50 wins, will have to settle for 47 or 48 and not feel too bad about it. As for the Thunder… if they don’t trade Chris Paul, they’re not going to be terrible. For a small market team that’s used to success, they may want to play the year out with their current roster and be a feisty fringe playoff team. If that happens, you can chalk them up for closer to 40 wins than 30.
Kobe Bryant’s 81 in 2006 survived a barrage of big nights from James Harden last season as he averaged a downright stupid 36.1 PPG. Wilt’s 100 feels rather safe but if you had to bet on one player going for 82 or more this season, who would it be?
Goldner: Devin Booker. Another year older and with a slightly better team, he’ll have all the opportunity in the world to score at will. And we’ve already seen the entire Suns franchise is cool with helping him break meaningless scoring records, as his quasi-disgraceful 70-point performance in 2017 proved. With the support of his teammates, scoring talent, and desire to risk injury to pump up his numbers, he has every opportunity to go for 83…he just has to avoid those pesky double-teams.
Nunes: Devin Booker seems like a common answer here, considering he is clearly the number one option with a more than green light on Phoenix and having previously scored 70, but I’m going with Stephen Curry. Only so many players are talented enough offensively to even consider for this possibility, but Steph undoubtedly is one of those guys. The only other offense on the new-look Golden State Warriors is in the form of Draymond Green’s playmaking and D’Angelo Russell. I think that Steph Curry will get the chance to throw up 22+ FGA per game and we all know what it looks like when he catches fire. In a scenario where the Warriors are up battling a quality offensive team with no defense, such as Atlanta, Curry could have himself a night.
Finver: I mean you have to go with Harden here, right? I just can’t think of anyone who’s gonna shoot more than he will this year. Sure, there are great scorers in the NBA, but Harden stands above all of them. No one can score in as many ways as he does, plus he added a brand new “move” (LOL). If you want to score more than 60 points in a game, you have to have a certain mentality; you can’t care what your teammates think of you heaving up 30-plus shots in a game. Harden is probably the only guy in the League who fits that description and also has the skill set to score 82 points in a game, so Harden is the only logical choice.
Murray: Bradley Beal. I mean, what else does he have to do?
Rahming: If I absolutely had to bet, I’d put my money on Stephen Curry. With Draymond Green still unable to hit a 3-point shot (have you seen him in preseason? Yikes!) and Klay Thompson still sidelined with an injury, it’s going to be up to him and All-Star alternate D’Angelo Russell. No knock on the Nets prior starting point guard, but looking at the rest of the League of all these duos on contending teams, this roster gives Curry the highest odds to break the record. Last season Curry finished with 354 made 3-pointers which put him second to Harden who had 378. He’ll be doing most of the heavy lifting on this team for the foreseeable future. I think it’s still a long shot as he’d have to score 28 more points than his iconic career high in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks back in 2013 to surpass the Black Mamba. The only thing that could get in his way is head coach Steve Kerr opting to pull him out of the game for rest if the score is out of hand like he did to Klay Thompson when he scored 60 against the Kings in 2016.