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

Tony Adragna: Basketball Coaching Tools, founder

Carl Anka: The Athletic UK, contributor

Johnny Carver: Ranketology, author

Tony East: Forbes, Pacers writer

Jade Johnson: Sir Charles in Charge, contributor

 

As of Sunday night, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Doncic, LeBron James and Russell Westbrook were all averaging just shy of a triple-double. Do any of them pull it off this season?
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Adragna: Russ and Luka are the only ones that I think will flirt with for the duration of the season. Giannis’ assist numbers from a season ago would almost have to double for him to pull it off, and LeBron has never averaged more than 8.6 rpg in his career. Luka’s numbers would have to take a pretty drastic leap from last season, as well (+1.5 RPG & +4 APG), but a leap like that is more realistic for a second year guy. Truthfully, I think only Russ will actually pull it off. My justification? He’s already done it three years in a row. Once he’s more comfortable in Houston, I think we’ll see one of his patented 20 assist games and grabbing 20 boards isn’t out of the question for him, either.

Anka: In the new NBA Jam-esque era of dynamic duos, the triple-double season looks unlikely. Giannis was stung by his playoff experiences and realizes he needs to save himself for the big games, LeBron is *very* aware of the mileage him and will most likely either let AD take over games or settle in his 27-7-7 statline. Westbrook will not be as ball-dominant as he was at OKC and Luka… well I don’t really know for Luka. The season long triple-double is one of those things that shouldn’t have happened in the modern era, let alone more than once. Westbrook was preternatural force on the ball to get it, but I don’t think anyone has to be like that anymore.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Carver: I have a theory that in the modern NBA, you need a perfect storm to average a triple-double. To do so, the player: 1. needs to play a significant amount of minutes and games; 2. needs the offense to revolve around him; 3. has to want to average a triple-double; 4. needs to be on a team most likely has to be in the playoff hunt (no fourth quarter or full-game rest). The Thunder never won 50 or more games when Russell Westbrook averaged a triple-double between 2016 and last season. He and his team were always in the playoff hunt. Those Thunder teams needed his points, rebounds, and assists to compete. He’s not in that situation anymore. I would be shocked if him averaging a triple-double would be sustainable for the Rockets with Harden being so ball-dominant, and I have higher expectations for them than remaining in the playoff hunt. LeBron will probably have too many opportunities to rest. Giannis has the ability to do so, but I think the Bucks will be too good and he will sit during plenty of fourth quarters. The only player who theoretically fits all four prongs of my “perfect storm” theory is Luka Doncic. I don’t think he’s ready to do that through an entire season, but I’d love to be wrong.

East: Russ has the pedigree, but he won’t have the ball in his hands enough to get 10 assists per game. I think he has the best shot of any player in the lLeague since he is skilled in all of the areas required to get triple-doubles, but in a new role with slightly reduced usage, it’s hard to see him getting it. LeBron probably won’t be able to pull down enough rebounds since he is often playing alongside two frontcourt players. Giannis doesn’t pass enough to get 10 assists per game even though he is flinging it around more than last year. Luka has a shot; he’s killing it so far in all three categories. He had just 4 rebounds in his fourth game, and as a wing, more of those games could come and hold down his average. He may get close, but I don’t think he ends up averaging a triple-double.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: Of these guys the only one I’d be willing to put money on is LeBron James. I’ve, of course, heard the narrative that he’d started to fall off over the last couple of seasons but I never bought into that. I always think back to his 2015-16 season in Cleveland. Yes, he still averaged 25.3 PPG that season and the Cavs went on to win the NBA Finals. But while David Blatt was still there, James didn’t believe they had a chance at winning a championship. He wasn’t going to kill himself trying for something that he believed to be an impossibility. He was coasting by LeBron James standards. There was a level of intensity absent from his game that had been obvious in previous seasons. Last year in Los Angeles was much the same. He knew his team wasn’t good enough for even a deep playoff run so coasting mode was reengaged. This season, everything is different in Laker Land. James once again has a team worthy of his full effort, especially on the defensive end of the floor. It might seem like a resurgence, but re-engagement is more accurate. Plus, as good as he takes care of himself, you can’t tell me the extended offseason isn’t helping his game. This summer was the first time since 2005 that James didn’t play in the playoffs. All of the right factors are coming together for James to dust off the dominance that some thought was gone for good.

 

Which newly acquired player has had the most seamless transition onto their new team to start the season? 

Carver: I tried to be creative with my pick, but I think Anthony Davis is the obvious answer here. LeBron has never played with a player like him: a big man who can draw the defense away from the rim and protect the rim defensively at MVP-caliber level. It takes a tremendous weight off of LeBron’s shoulders on both ends of the floor. Their playing styles complement each other so beautifully.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Anka:  We enjoyed the hypothetical “Anthony Davis might be the best player LeBron James has ever played with” but… YO.

YO.

Adragna: With guys like Kawhi, Kyrie, Jimmy Butler, AD and Kemba all calling new places home, those are probably the top guys to analyze and talk about with a seamless transition. But I’m going to go a bit of a different route here and talk about Malcolm Brogdon’s play with the Pacers. When it comes to seamless transitions for players calling new places home, Brogdon might have had the largest uphill battle? Why’s that? Not just because he’s playing for a new team, but his primary position has even changed, as he’s gone from a guy that was off the ball more in Milwaukee to a play-making point guard for the Pacers. What has that resulted in? A 6+ apg and 7+ ppg jump in his first six games with the Pacers. It still remains to be seen what the backcourt of Brogdon-Oladipo will look like, but Pacers fans should be excited.

Kent Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

East: I cover the Indiana Pacers, so I’m more plugged in on this one, but Malcolm Brogdon has fit right into Indiana’s system. He mentioned before the season that he’s better as a point guard than a wing, like he was in Milwaukee, and he’s backed it up so far with 22.5 point and 9.7 assist averages. He’s exactly what the Pacers needed, an efficient creator who can also defend and he’s the biggest reason the team is on a winning streak.

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: Technically, my pick is not a newly acquired player from the offseason, but Kristaps Porzingis’ name popped into my head immediately and no matter how much I thought about this question, I couldn’t find a way to pick anyone else. For someone who hasn’t played since February 2018, he looks good with the Mavericks. And maybe it’s because he and Luka Doncic are such special players but the chemistry they’re already showing in the early season!? It’s hard to imagine two players starting quite that well under less than ideal circumstances.

 

Two weeks into the season, which of the teams that thought they had a chance at the title are you most worried about? 
Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Carver: I am not concerned about Mike Conley, Jr.’s early struggles yet. I feel like Utah will be the most common answer, but he looked solid when he came back from his injury last season. I will prolong my concern until at least after Christmas. The Jazz have a tremendous amount of talent and are extremely well coached. Their key players in theory fit well together. I have a unique pick. The 76ers are off to a hot start and are the most talented team in the East. However, as long as Ben Simmons is not attempting any shots outside of eight feet, particularly 3-pointers, I will remain worried. It hinders their spacing, particularly in the playoffs, in such a debilitating way. His defenders practically waited for him by the basket in last year’s playoffs, which made things so much more difficult for Joel Embiid to work down low. Simmons’ free-throw percentage is equally unacceptable. As a basket-attacker, he should not be shooting below 60 percent from the line. Additionally, until Embiid plays more than 65 games in a season and gets through the playoffs without injury issues, I will remain worried about his reliability. The Sixers’ goal should be to win a championship. Those three issues could keep them from even making it to the Finals. Maybe their talent will prevail, but I will remain worried regardless of how many regular season games they win until I see those glaring issues change.

East: The only three teams on this list that my opinion has changed on are Denver, Utah and Houston. Much of the trepidation I have regarding the Jazz and Nuggets are related to Mike Conley and Nikola Jokic, if either of them returns to their old form, then their respective team will be okay.

Houston, though, is worrying me a little bit. Eric Gordon and PJ Tucker aren’t playing as well as I thought they would. Harden looks sluggish compared to his MVP form. Capela hasn’t played well at all. This squad had a major makeover this summer that should take time to gel; they get an early pass. But there’s a chance all these pieces don’t fit and this team isn’t as good as we all thought they would be.

Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: This one is easy. Houston and it’s not close. Houston was never on my list of serious Finals contenders. It’s funny because I literally had this conversation with my Dad this evening. He texted me when the Miami Heat were up 62-28 against the Rockets. They’re too reliant on the three-ball which they’ve not been shooting consistently enough for it to be anything other than a liability in relation to the volume at which they’re shooting it. But that’s not even the worst of it. My personal motto for the Rockets so far this season is: “And no defense was played.” I mean, come on, we’re talking about a team that let the Washington Wizards score 158 points in regulation! Those are very simply not the numbers of a team in contention for an NBA championship. When I heard the Rockets had picked up Westbrook my reaction was, “What are they thinking!? It’s never going to work!” Pretty sure I did an actual facepalm as well. Without drastic changes to the focus and play styles of Harden and Westbrook (who would have changed by now if they were ever going to), Houston doesn’t belong on the short list of NBA Finals contenders this season. It’s as simple as that. And let’s just say, hypothetically, that both of the above issues could be magically resolved with a Thanos-like snap of the finger, Houston still isn’t deep enough to be taken seriously as a Finals contender. The Clippers alone are so deep that they’re going to be a handful for every team they play in the playoffs. Not to mention the Jazz, Mavs, Lakers… I could go on but I think you get the point.

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Adragna: Nothing about the Denver Nuggets has impressed me so far this season, and I think the same could be said for their head coach, Mike Malone. It’s still extremely early and so much can happen, as we all know, but Jokic’s numbers are down across the board. Most glaringly, he’s averaging less than 16 points per game on 48 percent shooting. The team is going to go as he goes, and while he hasn’t played terribly or anything like that, he also hasn’t been at an elite level the team needs him to be at. There are no major red flags for any of the teams mentioned, but I think Denver has the most cleaning up to do after the first two weeks.

Anka: Houston hasn’t quite caught fire in the way I’d like (they’re still title candidates, don’t get it twisted), but making Westbrook and Harden work together was always going to take time. The Lakers’ bounce after their Clippers loss showed us all what we should have known: They’ll be a great 82-game season team, a good playoff team, but there are question marks over their ability to get the big one. It’s two weeks in and I have no idea who’ll win the title. It *should* be the Clippers. And yet, you never know.

 

Much has been made early about Kyrie Irving and his transition with the Nets. Has Irving sneakily become the League’s most polarizing player? 
Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

East: No. Irving is a stud, plain and simple. He isn’t perfect, but he’s clearly very good. 

To me, the most polarizing player is Devin Booker. I think he’s a monster. He is frequently the best scorer on the court and can pass better than given credit for. Yet some people are convinced he isn’t good because A) the Suns aren’t any good, B) His advanced stats aren’t rosy, or C) A combination of the two. He’s in his third straight season of being an efficient 25 PPG guy who doesn’t turn it over often. I can’t believe there are such strong opinions going both ways on him, he’s a stud.

Johnson: Right at this moment, yeah, I have to give it to Kyrie. Ask me at the end of the season, and I might have another name on the tip of my tongue. But man, Kyrie! Only a few short weeks ago, I was reading rave reviews about how impressed his Brooklyn coaches have been with his intensity in practice and his bonding with his new teammates. And now in the last couple of days are the reports about his “mood swings” and the way he’s talking to his teammates while on the court. Yes, the Nets have denied the stories about their concerns over his moods but reports don’t have to be true for them to be polarizing. In fact, it’s often the least substantiated narrative that is the most interesting, focused on and debated.

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Adragna:I think a case could certainly be made for Kyrie being the most polarizing player in the League, but my vote would go to James Harden. There are a group of people that call him the most prolific scorer in the NBA, and there are a group of people that claim he travels every time he touches the ball and is ruining the game. I’ve seen people talk about how gifted he is offensively, and I’ve seen people talk about how unwatchable he is because he hunts for fouls. Personally, I fall in the category of “love watching him play.” But I’ve found myself defending that argument numerous times with those that feel quite the opposite. With that said, I think honorable mention of most polarizing could go to Harden’s teammate, Westbrook.

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Anka: Kyrie is polarizing but I don’t understand why? He’s one of the most talented ballhandlers the game as ever seen and he’s clutch as all hell. He also prefers to leads from the back and gets in his feelings a bit. What’s the problem? Players like this have existed for years. We should all be kinder to Kyrie.

Carver: It’s not sneaky. The rumors have not been quiet for a long time. The Nets offense requires off-ball movement, which is difficult for a ball-dominant isolation scorer to adjust to. But Kenny Atkinson’s quote when he said “[we’re] not really running anything” after losing by double-digits to the Pacers was alarming to me. In context, the quote adds that this is “natural with a new team and new guys.” But almost every team has continuity issues. As of late July, more than 230 players who were on rosters (with two-way contracts included) have either changed teams or remain unsigned according to NBA.com. So adding new players, including Kyrie, is not a great excuse for their offensive fluidity issues when almost every team is dealing with the same problem. As a team leader, it is on Kyrie to adjust to both the team culture and the offense. But he also scored 50 points in his debut and almost made a game-winner after rolling on the court. Opposing players commonly rave about how difficult it is to guard him one-on-one. He is very polarizing, and it is not a secret in my opinion.

 

Redemption is a tricky word but the careers of Derrick Rose and Dwight Howard seem to have been somewhat rejuvenated this season. Thinking back on your time watching the League, what was the craziest turnaround season you can remember from a player everybody thought was finished? 

East: When I was younger, a Bulls guard retired to go play baseball before returning and being a 5-time All-Star. Jokes aside, I remember seeing Shaun Livingston’s injury and thinking there was no chance he ever would play. He rehabbed hard, grew some new skills and was able to play 11 more seasons, much to my delight. What a career.

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Johnson: This was a tough question. A lot of names popped into my head right off the bat that made comebacks after injuries like Shaun Livingston and Kobe Bryant. Even more names of guys that were eyeing comebacks but has false restarts or didn’t make it back to the League at all: Chris Bosh, Carmelo Anthony and Amar’e Stoudemire for instance. Derrick Rose is 31 years old and playing in his 13th NBA season; Dwight Howard is 34 and in his 16th season. What Rose and Howard are doing to start the season puts them in kind of an exclusive club.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Adragna: I’m not sure I would define it as a crazy turnaround season, but the first guy that came to mind for me was Gerald Green. After bouncing around three teams within two seasons, he was completely out of the League by the time he was 24. For two years, not a single team showed interest in him, until the Nets came calling in 2011-12. That season, after being out of the League for two years, Green averaged 12.9 PPG, while shooting 48 percent from the floor and 39 percent from the 3-point line. Those numbers ended up allowing him to ink a three-year deal with the Pacers, although he was traded after just one of those. However since that 2011-12 season, Green has remained in the NBA, and had another bounce-back year with the Rockets in 2017-18, averaging 12 PPG after only averaging 5.6 the previous season in Boston.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Anka: Has Derrick Rose been rejuvenated? He’s an MVP winner that will most likely never be in the Hall of Fame and while he’s playing a little shade off his 2012 level, the new stories he garners baffles me. Anyway, Kyle Lowry is an NBA champion. A new season may be here, but we really need to talk about that. Killer Kyle Lowry, has a ring. And he earned it by putting his team on his back when they needed him most.

Bill Smith/NBAE via Getty Images

Carver: When players tear their Achilles, the first player I think of is Dominique Wilkins. It is an injury which has claimed the functioning careers of so many players, including legends like Kobe. But after tearing his Achilles in the 1991-92 season, Wilkins returned by averaging 29.9 points and 6.8 assists per game. Everyone must have thought he was finished, because at the time, there was no player of note who had returned from this injury to their previous form. It was particularly surprising because Wilkins was such an explosive athlete. Post-injury, he was deservingly selected as an All-Star in each of the next three seasons. I was not watching the league because I wasn’t born yet, but I wanted to share this as inspiration for any player who suffers from an Achilles tear.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

If it has to be a non-injury turnaround, Victor Oladipo’s resurgence in Indiana in 2017-18 was remarkable. He led the League in steals, was selected to the All-Defensive First Team, was selected to his first All-NBA team and All-Star appearance, and won the Most Improved Player Award that season. He set career highs in almost every statistical category. For a player traded twice in the two previous seasons, that was incredibly impressive and was a testament to his work ethic.