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:
Dylan Jackson: The Queen’s Guard, contributor
Spencer Percy: Queen City Hoops, owner
Alexis Robinson: Diamond MPR, manager and publicist
Travis Schlepp: KEYT News Channel 3, content director
Jessica Slate: Freelance basketball media
The Dion Waiters saga in Miami is reaching an ugly plateau. Cementing a bad trip home last week, Waiters has been suspended 10 games and has yet to play a minute for the Heat this season. Waiters had a solid season with Miami and was rewarded with a $52-million deal in 2017 following the season. It has me wondering, of all the players to disappear after getting a big extension in NBA history, which deal stands out most to you?
Jackson: During the 2013-14 season, Lance Stephenson led the NBA in triple-doubles. He started 78 games for an Indiana Pacers team that led the Eastern Conference in wins with 56. I distinctly remember just how weird of a player Lance was (and still is, honestly). Even Bleacher Report had Stephenson as the 38th best player of the 2013-14 season at just 24 years old. After the season, he signed a three-year contract with the Charlotte Hornets worth up to $27 million. He just wasn’t good and was traded after starting just 25 games for Charlotte. The Hornets (or Micheal Jordan, rather) tried to market Stephenson, Kemba Walker and Al Jefferson as a big three, but Stephenson was traded after just a single year for a Charlotte team that would finish 33-49.
Percy: Nic Batum, and because I’ve had to live through it in Charlotte. The Hornets signed Batum to a five-year, $120-million deal in 2016 during the famous cap spike summer. To be fair, it was incredibly unlucky timing for the Hornets. They were coming off a 48-win year and a third place finish in the Eastern Conference. Naturally, Michael Jordan wanted to bring the band back together, so he had to overpay free agents Batum and Marvin Williams to make that happen. Batum hit rock bottom last season when he notched career lows in PER (11.9), usage rate (13.2), and only attempted 1.2 free throws per game. Not to mention many other advanced stats that suggested 2018-19 was one of the worst seasons of his career. I’m sorry, but when you’re making $24 million a season, you can’t be that willing to fade into the background. It’s been a very disappointing tenure for Batum in a Hornets jersey.
Robinson: I would say that this one stands out the most lately. The circumstances are so bizarre, and frankly it’s as if he doesn’t really care. NBA players get reckless, but to take an edible gummy on a flight (a one hour flight at that) is truly just irresponsible. Hopefully there’s not a clause in his contract that further impacts his career.
Schlepp: When I think of an NBA player getting the bag and then getting out of dodge, the first player that comes to mind is Larry Sanders. As a Bucks fan, the whole ordeal has stuck with me. Once looking like the next great defensive-minded diving center, a la Steven Adams or Clint Capela, Sanders walked away from the game after signing a four-year, $44 million extension with Milwaukee in 2013. Barely a year after the ink dried, he was out of the League (mostly) for good. I remember his dismissal as one of the earliest examples of mental health in an athlete’s life being thrust onto the national stage. At the time, Sanders was roasted by many media outlets and a lot of Bucks fans. Now I wonder what the response would be like if the same situation were to play out in 2019. Maybe he would still be in the League as team’s put more of an emphasis on mental health. Maybe it would’ve played out exactly the same. The fact of the matter though is that Sanders just appears to be wired differently than some of his peers, with a genuine love for creating art and music (I actually kind of dig some of his rap tracks). Regardless, the Bucks are continuing to pay Sanders just shy of $2 million annually through 2022. That cap space could’ve been extremely useful for a franchise who says they are intent on competing for a title, while simultaneously ducking the luxury tax. In a league where championships are won on the margins, you have to wonder how Milwaukee’s summer would’ve looked with a few extra bucks to spend.
Slate: There have definitely been bad contracts every season but one that always stands out to me is Chandler Parsons’. His agent honestly deserves a raise, because his ability to keep getting paid so well, without contributing is unmatched. After two season ending injuries with Dallas he was able to secure a $94-million contract with Memphis in 2016. Unfortunately he was hurt again shortly after. Since then, he hasn’t played more than have a season, his longest streak being 22 games. Atlanta went ahead and traded Solomon Hill and Miles Plumlee for Parsons this year, and took over the remaining $25.1-million on his contract. He has yet to play a game for Atlanta after being listed as injured with hurt knee. When he contributes, it all makes sense, unfortunately though, he has been plagued with injuries and inconsistent in doing so.
Then there was Darius Miles. He was predicted as being an impactful prep-to-pro player, even being the first of that niche group to make 1st Team NBA All-Rookie. Eventually Miles was traded from Cleveland to Portland midseason with his $18-million contract. He suffered a season-ending microfracture in his knee immediately after and then received a 10-game suspension to be enforced upon his return for violating the drug policy. Portland really tried everything to waive him, even threatening to sue teams that picked him up after they argued his injury was career-ending. Miles went through a few teams and 10-day contracts, taking home his $18 million. Another agent with wings.
After three weeks, early season trends are fading and we have an idea of who exactly is who this season. Heading into the season, I think most people would have assumed the Hornets might’ve been the toughest team to actively follow but rookie P.J. Washington has been great and Devonte’ Graham has been a pleasant surprise. Which NBA team would be 30th on your League Pass ranking right now?
Jackson: The Magic are painful to watch. I just… I can’t sit and watch a Steve Clifford-led defensive-grind-em-out team for more than 20 minutes at a time. It is nice to see Markelle Fultz have a mini-bounce back season but he has not been overly impressive either. Orlando doesn’t have a player in the Rookie of the Year race either since draft pick Chuma Okeke tore his ACL in March. Defensive-minded basketball teams as bad as the Magic seem to be this year are just not fun. I’m not against defense; I would just rather watch high-pace basketball.
Schlepp: It’s crazy how quickly things change in this league. Before the season began, the easy answer was Charlotte. A week ago, the answer would’ve probably been Golden State. With the Hornets looking semi-competent and D’Angelo Russell going semi-nuclear in his last three (37.3 ppg), it’s hard to pick a team that just jumps out at you. So I’m going to go with the team that has been the hardest to watch, based off of preseason expectations: the Orlando Magic. The Magic continue to wreak havoc on the defensive end (6th in defensive rating in this young season), but their offense has been anemic, even for the Magic. They are 29th in offensive rating, edging out only the lowly Knicks, and have an overall negative net rating, according to NBA.com. While their offense was uninspired for the better part of last season, this year’s team has taken putrid to a new level. Their offensive rating has dropped 10 points from the previous season, Terrence Ross’s effectiveness has dropped off a cliff and the team is now starting Markelle Fultz in place of a player who probably make more cohesive sense in the starting lineup (stop me if you’ve heard this before). Was last year’s shooting performance by Nikola Vučević a flash in the pan? I don’t think so, but he’ll really need to reach 2017-18 efficiency to get back to the bailout option he was for the Magic last year. With Mo Bamba set to miss some time, I’m very interested to see how this team performs with more meaningful playing time by Khem Birch, who was a big part of their overall success and last season’s late surge into the playoffs. Their defense is good enough, but can they get enough buckets to even make it matter?
Robinson: I am friends with PJ Washington so it was always in my plans to watch him, I’m happy the season is starting out good for the Hornets. I would say it’s a tie between the Knicks and The Timberwolves for games I probably won’t watch this season, especially right now—too soon for that disappointment.
Slate: When injured Kevin Durant left the Warriors, Klay Thompson was diagnosed with a serious injury himself, I still didn’t count out Golden State’s ability to be championship caliber. Then Draymond Green, Omari Spellman, Eric Paschall, Kevon Looney, Alen Smailagic, Steph Curry, Jacob Evans and D’Angelo Russell all found themselves on the injured list. Some long term, some short term, but all unfortunate for the Warriors. Team leader, Green, even returned, and they still came up short against Utah. At 2-9 this season, there is no hope in sight for them to turn this around overnight. I find myself watching them on League Pass, but with the hope that the once great giant hasn’t fallen as far as reality deems, and to watch their opponent. I would have never predicted that the Warriors would be one of, if not the, worst team in the NBA right now.
Percy: I don’t know how it’s not the Knicks. It doesn’t help that they’re exceptionally easy to pull against due to incompetent ownership. RJ Barrett and Mitchell Robinson are tiny slivers of hope, but there’s nothing else here. New York is last in offensive rating (99.6) and 14.8 percent of their field goal attempts are long midrange jump shots, per Cleaning The Glass—sixth highest rate in the League on what is undeniably the worst shot in basketball. Maybe it’s just me, but watching the trio of Marcus Morris, Julius Randle and Bobby Portis chuck 37.5 combined field goal attempts per game isn’t at the top of my NBA viewing wish list.
Last week, Kevin O’Connor of the Ringer said that Luka Doncic is already a top 10 player. Is he crazy or has Doncic really climbed the mountain this quickly?
Robinson: He’s not crazy but Luka isn’t top 10. I’d give him top 20, the Mavs are playing better than expected and being led by Luka so I get where he’s coming from, but we have a long way to go. NBA fans/media can be so in the moment sometimes.
Schlepp: Luka Doncic is absolutely knocking on the door of top 10 player this season. The Mavericks are currently fourth in the superior conference, despite a lack of real chemistry between their two stars. Doncic has elevated his game to a new level this season, and if his conditioning holds up for the entire season, he looks like he has the goods to carry his team to the playoffs. His fit with Kristaps Porzingis has not been as seamless as many people would’ve assumed before the season began, and in spite of that, Luka’s been doing it all night-in and night-out. And things are breaking right for the Mavericks right now with Golden State in the toilet and the Kings looking more like the 2006-18 Kings rather than the 2018-19 Kings. Great players show up when it matters and Luka hasn’t shied away from any challenge in his young career. He’s sixth in points per game, second in assists and 12th in rebounds to start the season. If that holds, there would be less argument that he’s a top 10 player and more discussion on whether or not he’s in the top five, this time next year.
Slate: Luka Doncic is the “ghost of drafts past” that haunts the Sacramento Kings and Phoenix Suns. He is averaging 28.3 PPG, up 7 points from last year. I would agree that he is the best sophomore in the NBA (sorry Trae Young). However, with the dominance of point guards in the NBA like James Harden and healthy Steph Curry and Kyrie Irving, Doncic isn’t quite top 10. Harden is averaging 37.7 PPG at the moment and Kyrie with 30. Scoring isn’t the only factor and Doncic definitely deserves credit for his role in Dallas and his ability to lead them in three stat categories. After last season, we also know that he is able to maintain this level of contribution. It will be interesting to revisit him as a top-10 player at the end of the season, and see how the Mavericks do heading into the playoffs. I would love to be wrong and see him continue to dominate this season, and elevate his teammates with his ability to assist. I will be as bold to say that he is definitely an All-Star.
Jackson: I haven’t really thought about Luka Doncic as a top-10 player, but since Kevin O’Connor pointed it out on Twitter, I actually agree with him. I get that he isn’t quite on the same level as Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden, or Kawhi Leonard yet, but the argument could be made that he is on the same level as players such as Paul George, Kyrie Irving, Karl-Anthony Towns. His combination of shooting, facilitation, and overall court presence is special. Even though we might not have known just how special a player like Luka was on draft night, I was still shocked to see the Suns take a big man (a position that has become largely less-valuable) than a wing that could do anything offensively like Doncic. The DeAndre Ayton pick was bad at the time, but it looks even more terrible now.
Percy: He’s not crazy. Doncic is the hub of the League’s most efficient offense through three weeks, he’s sixth in Usage Rate (32.6) and only second to Lebron James in assist rate (56.5). There’s simply no weakness to Doncic’ offensive arsenal: About 39 percent of his offense is in the role of pick-and-roll ballhandler, per Synergy and Doncic is generating 1.102 points per possession in those plays—a monster number. It gets scarier when you dig a little deeper. When defenders go over the ball screen (50.5 percent of the time, per Synergy)—which must be the scouting report against an offensive weapon as lethal as Doncic—he’s putting the opposition in the torture chamber to the tune of 1.191 points per possession. Again, no weaknesses. Here’s the question I keep asking myself: Is Luka Doncic the most polished 20-year old the NBA has ever seen?
Which player have you enjoyed watching most to start this season?
Schlepp: Karl-Anthony Towns has been absurd to start this season. At one point in the conversation as the third best center in the league, Towns is making a real push to take the top spot from either Nikola Jokic or his on- and off-court adversary Joel Embiid. Always an incredibly gifted scorer, Towns is continuing to do the things that make him an otherworldly scorer but is now maximizing his best shots and cutting out some of the less-than-ideal shots he may have settled for in the past. He’s cut down his 2-point attempts by nearly five per game and replaced them all almost exclusively with 3-point shots. Towns is arguably the best 3-point shooting big in the game so upping his attempts is an obvious way to add to his scoring output and open things up for his more range-challenged teammates. He still should be getting to the line more for a player of his caliber, but it appears Towns has bought into the philosophy Ryan Saunders has tried to install in the post-Thibodeau environment. I hope he keeps the same edge he has while battling Embiid throughout the season. There’s room for the Wolves to sneak into the playoff picture if Towns continues to be great. I also want to give a shout out to Tristan Thompson and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander who have been a ton of fun to watch for different reasons.
Slate: I think a huge draw for watching players is their ability to score and be flashy on offense. The James Harden’s stepbacks, Devin Booker cutting through traffic like butter, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s soul-crushing dunks. However, it is Patrick Beverley’s defense that I look forward to watching at every opportunity. It started this summer, with his beach agility workouts in the notoriously heavy shoes, Timberlands. My attention was peaked. Then he came out from the start of this season as a noticeable pest to anyone. He does not take off a single second on the court on either end and in his seventh season—I highly respect that. As any athlete would know, it’s hard to stay that focused and driven every single possession from the second you enter the game. He has been doing that and challenged every opponent he’s faced so far. It makes for very entertaining basketball and worth going out of your way to watch.
Jackson: Jimmy Butler is just so fun, man. The fact that he found a team that perfectly fits his philosophy when it comes to practice, intensity and work ethic is amazing. I think the could honestly take the Heat to the Finals, if not at least the Eastern Conference Finals. That team has so many high-level role players to surround their star player. Butler is a fun player to watch on both sides of the ball. Now that he has found his home, his play level is going to jump this season.
Percy: Ja Morant. The Grizzlies nailed this pick and it couldn’t have come at a better time as they watched their long-time franchise point guard Mike Conley leave for Utah. Morant has a combination of speed and athleticism that you only see once every generation. He’s already attempting 53 percent of his shots at the rim, per Cleaning The Glass. That’s a huge number for a point guard and an even bigger one for a rookie. He’s constantly putting pressure on the rim in transition and in the half court. Morant is similar to De’Aaron Fox in playing style, but he’s more explosive. This is exactly the franchise cornerstone Memphis needed following the Grit-and-Grind era and my goodness is he fun to watch.
Robinson: Ja Morant. I manage another member of the Grizzlies so I watch a lot of their games and he’s special. It’s cool to see him find ways to get to the rim, he’s super athletic, a lot of fun to watch.
Alternatively, which player has you shaking your head, perhaps subconsciously, with displeasure most so far this season?
Slate: After receiving a max contract for $117-million over four years, I expected more from D’Angelo Russell. I don’t even remotely think he’s bad, because that’s not the nature of my answer. However, with a max contract and 2019 All-Star nomination, the Warriors should be able to rely on him when he’s healthy. I think he is capable of lifting the team out of this rut, leading the team with points per game and assists, but that’s not it. His ability to step up as a leader amidst losing Curry and Klay for most, if not all of the season, will make all the difference. Especially since one of two of the team’s wins was without Russell. The Warriors are capable of coming together without him, so they should definitely flourish with him as he hopefully stays healthy and lifts the team up.
Jackson: Derrick Favors was one of the main signings for the New Orleans Pelicans this past offseason. The Pelicans actually gave two second-round picks to sign him. Favors is stalling the offense for the Pelicans and not really affecting enough defensively to warrant playing him over other players such as rookie Jaxson Hayes or Jahlil Okafor—and Favors is only playing about 27 percent of minutes as of right now. I had high hopes for what he could accomplish next to Zion Williamson (and yes, he has been out so far this year), but Favors hasn’t shown any promise whatsoever.
Percy: Russell Westbrook. His assist rate (36.2) is down, turnover rate (16.6) is at a career high and he’s shooting 21 percent from behind-the-arc on 4.6 attempts per game. Houston is +10.8 when Westbrook sits. The Rockets are -8.5 worse offensively when he plays and +2.3 better defensively when he sits. The effort has been poor and the shot selection remains choppy, at best, for Westbrook. I’m not really sure what Houston expected when they paired Harden and Westbrook, but it stunk of desperation when the trade happened, and has predictably been a clunky fit so far. I’m not sure Westbrook is going to be the player that is willing to make the necessary sacrifices to get Houston over the hump in the West.
Robinson: Probably Mike Conley. I get it’s a huge change in Utah, but he is supposed to be a top 20 player, finally with some reasonable help, he should be playing better.
Schlepp: The season is so young and these opinions are going to change as often as they appear in my brain. A week ago I was genuinely concerned about Nikola Jokic. His conditioning, his desire to take the leap and shut an opponent up. And then he unleashed back-to-back game winners that make me feel like an idiot for ever doubting that pale teddy bear. Today I’m really concerned about Julius Randle. I know the Knicks are a minefield of drama and pitfalls, but he’s been really good on bad teams in the past. To start the season, he’s averaging a career-high in minutes and taking essentially the same amount of shots, but his effectiveness has taken a serious turn for the worse. His 34 percent from deep the previous season appears to be a mirage and he’s struggling mightily from the free throw line. His 62 percent from the stripe is a career-low—I know, small sample size, but it’s something to watch. He’s still hitting from a good clip from the midrange, but he’s cut those attempts down slightly to shoot a few more threes. Usually a smart decision, but it hasn’t worked out in this case. That’s probably a Fizdale thing, right? He’s still a gifted passer for his position, averaging nearly four assists per game and he’s been noticeably aggressive on the boards. That’s nice and all, but the Knicks have hemorrhaged points when he’s on the floor in more than half of their games (per Basketball-Reference) and his offensive output isn’t enough to cover that discrepancy. He’s definitely not being helped out by the lack of competence in the backcourt, but, again, he’s dealt with similar issues in the past. Coming into the season I thought the Knicks were smart to get Randle on a short-ish contract (only $4 million of his third year is guaranteed) with the pretense that he would be a high-priority trade target for a contender at the deadline. Now I’m starting to wonder if the Knicks are going to have to eat a lot more of that money than they had originally planned. With the Knicks looking like a contender for the No. 1 overall pick again, and Fizdale’s ouster looking like an inevitability, maybe this is what the Knicks had in mind all along? But who am I kidding? It’s the Knicks.