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

Stevie Cozens: Bullish Hoops Podcast, host

Andray Domise: Maclean’s, contributing editor

Harrison Hamm: The Comeback, contributor

Victoria Jacobi: SLAM’s Kaz & Vic Show, host

Rami Michail: Mavericks superfan

Brett David Roberts: Sports Picks, contributor 

 

As we head into the 2019-20 season with a focus on parity and what exactly that will look like this season, do you think there will be an overwhelming “villain” or “hero” narrative this season for any team? In the past, the Warriors, Heat, and the Lakers were defending titles with stacked teams and easily slid into the role of Goliath but is that possible this year? 

Cozens: This season is different without any super teams but will still have teams showing up that weren’t expected to be great. The Chicago Bulls are the “David” of this year. Young and exciting they are looking to breakout. The Bulls will win 42 games this year, with Zach LaVine a resurgent hero in the Windy City.

Domise: For old-school heads like me, Midway’s NBA Jam was the definitive gaming experience of our youth. That the NBA’s 2019-2020 shakeup has left the League as balanced as it’s been since the two-superstar matchups that left the words “HE’S ON FIRE!” echoing across arcade halls is wildly nostalgic for me. On the Raptors you’ve got Lowry and Siakam for the Raptors, for the Lakers Bron and AD, For the Bucks Giannis and Middleton, and for the Nets Kyrie and K…oh, damn. Never mind.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

If there’s a David this season though, it’s most certainly Giannis Antetokounmpo, looking for redemption after last year’s heartbreaking back door sweep in the Semifinals. And if there’s a Goliath, it’s perennial heel LeBron James, ready to become a nightmare for the west with a stacked-up Lakers squad.

Hamm: I think it’s possible that the Lakers and/or Clippers emerge as a Goliath, though not nearly to the KD Warriors’ extent. There seems to be frustration among some fans with the advantages big-market cities have in team building and free agency, so if there is any “villain” narrative, it will be based in small-market frustration. 

The general likability of the superstar duos should prevent widespread hatred. Kawhi Leonard’s decision to team with Paul George rather than form a Lakers big three has been supported almost completely by the NBA populace. Fans will bask in the relief of a post-Warriors world.

If there’s any David that emerges, it might be a feel-good Celtics team, now that whatever Kyrie Irving curse existed is gone. People like Kemba Walker, and they have some young pieces. It’s a bit hard to imagine Boston gaining that sort of sympathy, though. If a team like the young Kings or even Hawks makes a jump, they would take the cake. The Trail Blazers seem respected among fans for their continuity and playoff achievements. Everyone wants to see the Pelicans do something.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Jacobi: Lakers will always be the most beloved and most hated in this league, especially now with AD on the roster. The manner with which he left New Orleans, “That’s all, folks” will definitely put pressure on him to perform at his best. In Houston, the Rockets will have ALL the heat to prove they actually deserve a WCF spot. In the East, the Nets will get some heat as well. With KD out and Kyrie leaving Boston with how his last season ended, all the ups but mainly downs, the organization experienced with him. 

Michail: When it comes down to the villains and heroes, I think the villains discussion is interesting. Three teams come to mind out West: I think the Lakers, Rockets and Warriors will have their turns. The Lakers will be due to how the Anthony Davis stuff went down. They’re a terribly run franchise, but because they’re in Los Angeles, they nab two of the League’s top players over the last two offseasons. I’m still not sure if there are more LeBron haters or LeBron fans in the League, so the LeBron demise will be fun for many.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

When it comes to Houston, this is may be a personal thing, but I really enjoy Harden flopping when the lights are brightest. Russ is someone who can drag this team down IF he and Harden can’t make it work, which many may love to see.

For the Warriors, there’s a “underdog” view building up with Klay out and KD gone, but let’s be real. If this team finds a way to be great again, we’re all going to scream “Again!?”

Roberts: This may become (far) more defined as this season presses on. There will be a team atop each conference, and those two teams will both be superb, actual contenders—and with luck, future dynasties of their own. Sure, there has been a changing of the guard with the Warriors losing Kevin Durant to free agency and Klay Thompson to injury, but every dynasty does meet its end. The Warriors were no exception to that rule.

That said, and somewhat disregarding it: It would be easy to see NBA fans in general turning against the Los Angeles Lakers if it were a top-tier team and in the discussion of “true contenders.”

 

What about at an individual level? Kevin Durant was the League’s resident punching bag most of the last few seasons, but with no dynasty intact and Durant on a new team—and likely out for the season—who is the guy fans are going to love to root against this year?
Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Roberts: We just might see a return to a lot of LeBron hating. James had a renaissance of sorts by bringing his home town area of Akron, Ohio a title, but he was still hated before doing so by many, mostly for his Nationally televised “Decision” to spurn his Cavs and, “take his talents to South Beach.” Now that he is in Hollywood, hate goes with the territory, almost anyway. 

Cozens: People love to hate Russell Westbrook. even if you don’t like the guy he is one of the most polarizing players of our generation. He is also out for redemption after early playoff exits and a wave goodbye from Damian Lillard. People already love to root against the Rockets, Russ will embrace this hate alongside his old mate Harden.

Garrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Domise: This year, with Damian Lillard’s 37-foot pull-up having banished Russell Westbrook from Oklahoma altogether, fans are most likely going to savor every moment of Russ’ reunion with former Thunder teammate James Harden going sour. Their reputation for ball-hoggishness leading to inflated individual stats, while their teams perish in flames, left me wondering how the two will gel throughout the season. Which is all well and good, but we’re not here for camaraderie and a long-overdue finals appearance for the Rockets, we’re here for drama.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Hamm: This is a really interesting question, because I’m not sure I have a good answer. Public opinion has turned against Kyrie, so if things get choppy in Brooklyn, he could take a good bit of criticism. People would be convinced that you can’t build a team around him.

Houston seem like a wild card here. James Harden and Russell Westbrook haven’t always been the most widely-revered players. A successful Rockets season, with more accusations of Harden traveling all over the place and Russ stat-hunting, would breed further Houston haters. I don’t think the Rockets will be good or threatening enough for that to happen, though the usual Harden hand-wringing will continue.

Jacobi: NBA fans will come for James Harden and Russell Westbrook. Those guys are spectacular individual players, but haven’t made a serious playoff impact since they last played together in OKC. So hyped to see how that plays out. 

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Michail: I think two guys come to mind and both happened to switch teams this summer: Anthony Davis and Kyrie Irving. We all know that Davis is probably the most talented player in the League, and yes, that included Giannis. He’s been stuck in the West throughout his whole career, which explains the lack of postseason success, but he still hasn’t carried a team the way you expect a Franchise player to do so. Davis forced his way out of N.O. to achieve team success and lead the way, but I’m curious to see how soon the narrative becomes “Davis is more of a Robin than a Batman.” We still hear KD needed Steph and the Warriors. Same might be said of Davis.

As for Kyrie, like Davis, he killed his team’s season last year. Kyrie, went from being in the shadow of Bron, to the face of Boston, to burning Boston down, spurning the Knicks, and now the face of Brooklyn (at least until KD is back). The Nets were last year’s darling. They were a young team that played hard and surprised us all—kind of like how the Celtics were before Kyrie got there. If the Nets go from young and promising to “Kyrie and DeAndre Jordan are dragging this team down,” Kyrie will go from promising star player to cancer very quickly.

Honorable Mention: James Harden. I really wonder if he’ll continue to deflect last postseason’s disappointment and focus on not getting MVP.

 

There are a lot of fans out there right now believing their team can compete for a title. If you had to guess, out of the two Los Angeles franchises, Philadelphia, Milwaukee, Utah, Denver and Houston, who do you think is most likely to fall way short of their title aspirations this season? 

Michail: Of the teams listed, I’d go with Utah and Denver as the most likely to fall short of those type of expectations. I truly expect both of these teams to do great during the regular season, but there’s still some flaws to these teams. Both of these teams have questionable lockdown length at end of games—who is going to stop a Harden, LeBron, AD, and so on when the game is on the line? Conley and even Gary Harris could hold their own against some of the better small guards, but it’s these big wings and forwards that worry me. 

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Jokic is going to put up numbers and impact a game, but when team’s are focused on him, do we trust Murray to make the right play on a consistent basis? Same goes for Utah. Is Mitchell ready to be an efficient and dependable scorer? He and Conley will have the spacing most likely, but will they knock the shots down when it matters most? 

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Roberts: Of the aforementioned teams, the one that seems to have the most potential issues is actually the Houston Rockets. James Harden and Russell Westbrook may be all smiles now, but they easily could hate one another by Christmas Day. There is only one basketball, and both of them need it in their hands to create and be effective. The time the duo were teammates in Oklahoma City is nearly irrelevant for data: Harden was young, well-adapted to a Sixth Man role and content to be a sparkplug behind Westbrook and Kevin Durant. 

Well, you can’t go home again: Harden thinks of himself as the No. 1 option among No. 1 options, and Westbrook either takes a backseat to that, or there is going to be some conflict. Let us not pretend Westbrook and Durant were a match made in heaven, and there is no reason to expect this pairing with Harden to work, either. It just screams “chemistry disaster” before it even happens.

Hamm: In the regular season, Houston is the most likely to fall flat relative to expectations. It will take time for Harden and Westbrook to gel, and it’s not hard to see Westbrook alternating between doing literally nothing in the half-court and sabotaging possessions with crappy long twos. Things might not go swimmingly early in the season as they figure themselves out. I think they will eventually talent their way through the playoffs and make things really difficult for good teams.

The Jazz could flame out in April and May. They’ll be solid in the regular season, and contend with Philly for the league’s best defensive rating, but Rudy Gobert isn’t quite the same defensive menace in the condensed postseason. Without a clear dominant top option, barring a huge Donovan Mitchell leap, they could bail out earlier than some expect.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

Cozens: The Utah Jazz upgraded their roster over the summer but still don’t have that one guy who can get you buckets at the end of a playoff game. Donovan Mitchell may be that guy, but I haven’t seen it yet. Their roster will be do well in the regular season but will likely be bundled out in the first round of the playoffs. 

Jacobi:  I’ll go with Utah on this one. They got better this offseason, acquiring Conley and Bogdanovic, but the West is tough. Don’t see them making it too far.  

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Domise: I’ve seen a few outlets predict a Clipper championship, and I really dunno about that one, chief. That outcome depends on Kawhi remaining healthy throughout the season (which was a delicate tightrope walk for Toronto, even with a deep enough roster that the Raptors managed a .772 win percentage even when the Fun Guy was benched), on Paul George returning early from shoulder surgery and managing the recovery on the court and on a starting squad that whose offense was absolutely muffled by Golden State in last season’s playoffs.

 

Bodog has the 10 names to most likely win MVP this season: Antetokounmpo, Curry, Leonard, Harden, James, Davis, Embiid, Westbrook, George and Jokic, in that order. If you had to pick a name not listed there with the best chance to crack the ballot (top 5) who would you choose?
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Michail: Luka Doncic! It may be my homerism, but I think Luka is going to show that his ceiling is higher than many projected. Everyone knew he had a high floor, but I think this year we’ll get a true glimpse of how great he can be. He’ll have a full year of being “The Guy” for the Mavericks. Last season he had to share the court with Dennis Smith Jr, Wes Matthews, and Harrison Barnes to start the year. It obviously wasn’t a great mesh, as all three were guys who wanted the ball in their hands. This year, neither of those four are wearing a Dallas jersey and the Mavs brought in the Unicorn Kristaps Porzingis is going to make basketball much easier and more fun for Luka. If the Mavericks can sneak into the playoffs, both guys will have a massive part in that, with Luka leading the way. There’s no reason to not believe that Luka can put up at least 24-8-8 this season for this Mavericks team. This preseason Luka has already shown that his shot is better, he’s playing at his own pace and tempo, and he’s in better shape. Some will look at the end of last season to knock Luka down, but the Mavericks were not a good team at all, he hit a rookie wall, and the team was in “tank” mode in the case for Zion.

Domise: I’m tempted to say Kyle Lowry, but that’s my hometown bias speaking, so let me just say Bodog got this one.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Roberts: This will be a surprise to those who know my views on the player, and some do. The preferred option not of those 10 to me, is actually Ben Simmons. Simmons is the “ying” to Joel Embiid’s “yang,” and due to that he is just as likely to be recognized for the team’s contention— but only if he improves. 

Analysts and bloggers, fans and grandmothers—everyone—wants. Simmons to be bolder and really test himself. You know, shoot some open jumpers and even 3s? If he is going to become the legend he was billed to be, it is going to require more than just reliance on his athletic gifts. If—and only if—Simmons can expand his game this season, will he will absolutely be in MVP conversations. Embiid may be the true one cornerstone or keystone to the Sixers, but the house of cards still crumbles without the dynamic playmaking of the League’s tallest point guard. Simmons is in MVP talks either this year or next year. Also, due to the fact he will not have his “load managed” as much as Embiid it could make for a better argument that he is the ultimate cause of Philly’s successes (or failures). 

Jacobi: Dame$. Dame has lead that team admirably and his game has become more complete, especially offensively. 

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Cozens: Damian Lillard always seems to fly under the radar when it comes to MVP discussion. After dragging them all the way to the Western Conference Finals last year, Lillard will likely have another top ten or higher finish in MVP voting. A consistent 25 points per night scorer, Lillard will put this team on his back and take them to 50 wins plus again. Lillard does this year in and year out, don’t expect anything less this year. 

Hamm: Damian Lillard, for sure. He has been in contention before, and if Portland outperform expectations and finish with, say, a fifth-seed in the West, he will enter the discussion as the duos cannibalize each other’s chances. He consistently averages 25 and 6, with durability and clear alpha dog status. 

I’ll throw in three other names: Blake Griffin, Jimmy Butler, and Karl-Anthony Towns. Griffin, especially, strikes me as an intriguing MVP candidate. If the East is even worse than we expect — a perfectly plausible scenario — Griffin could carry the Pistons to an impressively high seed. A win-now trade to help him from a Pistons front office that wants to win could help Griffin lift up a comically weak wing unit. KAT does a lot for the Timberwolves, who probably won’t sniff the West playoff race. If they do, he’s in the MVP race. Jimmy is by himself in Miami and has a way of willing his team to clutch wins.

 

Last week in passing, a friend mentioned to me that Eddie Jones was his all-time favorite player who was really good, but not elite. Do you have a favorite player like that: Someone who you loved watching hoop but never reached that All-Star level on a consistent basis?  
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Hamm: For me, it’s Shaun Livingston. I always enjoyed Livingston’s presence on the court; he was such a cerebral player, a perfect fit for those buzzing star-studded Warriors teams. You knew he would make the right play every time he touched the ball. Every midranger he spouted seemed to go in, somehow. The man had a perfect shooting percentage. Livingston always gave off the sense that he’s been there before, and seen everything before. When he touched the ball, you know he’s probably been in that same spot plenty of times in his career, and knows exactly what to do. He understood his role better than any other player. Watching the Warriors will be weird without him.

Jacobi: My guy Lamar Odom. Huge talent, NBA champ, Sixth man. Just wish he could’ve let his personal demons go and reached farther with consistency.

Sam Forencich/NBAE via Getty Images

Michail: Jerry Stackhouse has always been my guy. I remember the hype I had when Stackhouse got to play with Michael Jordan in Washington. I still own a Bullets Stack jersey! The excitement I had when Stackhouse got sent to my fave team, the Mavs, had me hyped. Stackhouse would outscore opposing benches on his own. It’s still a bummer that Stackhouse couldn’t get a ring with the Mavs. Him getting suspended for that flagrant foul on Shaq was deflating. But ya, Stackhouse was always someone I rooted for, even when he wore that disgusting Miami jersey for a bit.

Brad Mangin/NBAE via Getty Images

Roberts: Yes, Anthony Mason (RIP) is my choice for that. Mason’s skill set, strength, effort, and overall determination made him a valuable asset in New York, New Orleans, and in Milwaukee. But none of those teams really contended, nor was he the best player even on any of those clubs. He made just one All-Star team in 2001, but I’ll never forget “Mase.”

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Cozens: JJ Redick is at the top of this list for me. Though he was never an All-Star or All-NBA player, he is elite at his craft and has been one of the best shooters in the game for 10 years now. Redick is also a great guy and has made a career out of knowing exactly what his game is and playing to his strengths. I would recommend anyone to just watch Redick one game without paying attention to no one else on the court, his ability to come off screens, use bigs in dribble hand-offs or go backdoor for layups is elite. 

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Domise: Now, even though Tayshaun Prince won a ring with the Pistons in ’04, and made a name on the All-Defensive second team several years in a row, there’s something about dude that felt underrated. Whether it was the Detroit courtside announcers constantly commenting on the length of his arms (“The guy could stand up straight and scratch his kneecaps.”) or stealing Reggie Miller’s hopes and dreams with a block accompanied by the chorus of angels, I could never find myself cheering against him. Maybe it’s because he seemed like the type to change out of his gear at the arena, drive across town in an Altima, and clock in for a shift at Foot Locker. I dunno. I just like the guy.