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

Gary Collard: Lakers superfan

Katie Davidson: Minnesota Timberwolves, digital content

Phillip Dean: Fox Sports South, social media

Andrew Morris: NBA Freelance 

 

Which player having a slow start would drastically change the ceiling of his team if he turned it around in a meaningful way? 
Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Collard: Mike Conley. His drop-off has been as stark as it has been shocking: from .569 true shooting percentage to a career-low .502 (matching his 20-year-old rookie season). And it’s broad-based: his raw field goal percent is a career low, his 2-point percent is a career-low by far, his 3-point percentage is his worst (ignoring his 12-game 2017-18) since his rookie season, and his free-throw percentage is below 80 for the first time since 2010-11. His defense (never his strong point anyway) has, by the numbers and the eyes, been solid, and with their ranking in its usual perch near the top of the League they have to be happy on that end. But the offseason plan to trade a little bit of defense for a significant offensive upgrade has not come to fruition, as their 21st ranked offensive rating is actually down from last year’s 17th ranked offense. Given their issues scoring against locked-in defenses in the playoffs, that is not an encouraging development.

We can anticipate that Conley’s 3-point and free-throw shooting will rebound to something approaching career norms—shooting ages well and he is certainly surrounded by better talent. But I do think his inability to get to (his percentage of shots from 0-3 feet has been cratering since his age 29 season, from the mid-20s to now 12.3) and finish at  the rim (his last two seasons are his worst since his first two) may be here to stay. Small point guards tend to find it much tougher in their 30s, and often go from star or solid starter out of the League relatively quickly. You have to be concerned.

If he can turn it around, and join Mitchell and Bogdanovic to lift the Jazz to a top 10-ish offense to go with their elite defense, they have the potential to be a true West contender (let’s not think too hard about how they might guard swing forwards who play in L.A.).  If he doesn’t, they are headed for another season of a tough first round series, and a quick second-round exit if they get through that.

Morris: The first name that comes to mind is Mike Conley. When the trade for Conley was first announced, we all envisioned a version of the Utah Jazz where Mike Conley would relieve a lot of the ball handling duties from Donovan Mitchell and would result in super efficient basketball from the back court. Although Mitchell is playing well, Conley so far has struggled. Mike Conley is shooting a career low 37% from the field, and is tied for the lowest TS% since his rookie season (50%).The Utah Jazz are currently 11-6, sitting at the 6th spot in the Western Conference. Because it looks like Donovan Mitchell won’t be handing over the offensive keys anytime soon, Conley could help the team a lot by being more effective and comfortable playing off ball, specifically in catch in shoot situations. He’s currently shooting 35.7% on catch and shoot 3’s through 17 games (sandwiched between Jrue Holiday and Ben McLemore). If Conley can hit shots and a higher rate, and be an elite secondary creator it will raise the championship ceiling of the team. At this point we know what Mitchell, Gobert and Bogdanovic will provide. Conley will have to pick it up for Utah to truly be a contender out west.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Davidson: The Sixers were predicted to be one of the most dominant teams in the League prior to the start of the 2019-20 season. While that could still turn out to be the case, they’ve fallen short of said dominance in their first 17 games of the regular season. That’s partly because of their Eastern Conference opponents’ better-than-expected starts to the seasons, but I think it also has something to do with Joel Embiid’s forgettable start.

Disclaimers: There may be some recency bias involved due to Embiid’s Monday night goose egg, and Embiid probably doesn’t care about being the best regular-season player or having his team lead the Eastern Conference standings in the first 82 games of the season. But the Sixers would be on the road to start their first playoff series if the postseason began today, and the Sixers are going to need to get more out of Embiid if they plan on earning a top-four seed.

Embiid is averaging 21 points per game in his first 13 games of the season, which is a 5.5 PPG drop from his 2018-19 average. His effective field goal percentage is at a career-low right now, and the Sixers’ offensive rating has dropped from eighth (where it was at the end of the 2018-19 season) to 15th. Embiid isn’t solely responsible for the Sixers’ 11-6 start (which isn’t bad by any means), but after last season’s dramatic playoff loss to the Raptors, I thought we’d see Embiid 2.0 right from the get-go.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Dean: CJ McCollum. It’s very surprising and disappointing to see where the Trail Blazers are at 5-12 and to see McCollum ranked 117th in player efficiency. If McCollum can pick his game back up then I can expect Portland to get back in the playoff race. 

 

Luka Doncic won’t turn 21 until February, Derrick Rose was 22 when voters made him the youngest MVP of all-time. Is it crazy to think that Doncic might break that record, winning the MVP as early as this season?
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Morris: Thirty points per game; 10 rebounds per game; 9 assists per game—there have been just three (!) players ever to post those numbers for an entire NBA season. Oscar Robinson did it twice, Russel Westbrook did it in the 2016/2017 NBA season and the third is Luka Doncic so far this season. So to answer the question: No, it’s not crazy to think that Doncic could win an MVP this season. I understand that it’s only been 16 games, and that his numbers could potentially dip, but I don’t see any reason to think that he couldn’t sustain this level of play for an entire season. My top five MVP candidates for far this season, in order, are Giannis, LeBron, Luka, Harden and Kawhi. Giannis and LeBron are leading the best two teams (record wise) in the NBA and that’s why I believe they have the edge as far as the race is concerned, but if you just saw the numbers on paper, Luka’s would stack up next to any of those guys. I believe that Giannis will be the one going home with the trophy after this season, but Luka is 100 percent next up. If you set the over under on Luka winning 2.5 MVPs over the course of his career, I’d take the over and not even think twice about it.

Collard: He very well could.  The MVP tends to be about two things: driving team success significantly above expectations and narrative. The Mavericks came into the season expected to be in the scrum for the last two West playoff spots, but they have already established themselves as a top six seed and a team that is likely to reach the 50-win mark, with mid-50’s upside.  And he is unquestionably the driving force behind that, as the impact of new addition Porzingis has mostly been on the defensive end (where they are in the middle of the pack), with Luka being the tour de force leading their to-ranked offense.

He is also building the narrative, with the whole league going crazy over him and Maverick games sometimes leading SportsCenter.  The only concern on that end is that his narrative might have been built too early, to be baked into the cake and supplanted by something new later in the season.

A wild card is the possibility he becomes the third player to put up a 30-10-10 season. Westbrook won an MVP with a pedestrian team purely on the basis of those numbers, although that threshold having been broken in the modern era might work against Luka. But with him having a season that is far superior to Wetsbrook’s 30-10-10, and leading a better (and dramatically improved) team, he should be able to separate himself.

My guess is that he ends up falling just short, to a 60-win LeBron or a 65-win Giannis (or a 40-PPG Harden, which would win but which won’t end up happening).  But he is definitely in the inner circle, and should have saying power.

Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Davidson: I remember watching Luka’s 41-point, 10-assist and 6-rebound game on Sunday and realizing how unfazed I was at the conclusion of his mastery. It’d be one thing if he was averaging a near 30-point triple-double on a losing team, or, you know, after having played in the league for five-plus seasons, but this is more spectacular than that. And yet, he’s somehow made it become the norm. Right now, Giannis is my way-too-early MVP pick just because I want to see a larger sample size of Luka’s greatness. But if his season averages don’t dip too much as the season progresses and Dallas stays relevant, I wouldn’t be shocked to see a 21-year-old named the league’s MVP. It’d just be another time Luka turns the extraordinary into the ordinary. 

The Dec. 16 Bucks vs. Mavs matchup could be telling.

Dean: No it’s not crazy to see him winning the MVP at this point. He will have to continue to have these type of numbers throughout the season considering he will be in a tight race with Giannis, Harden and LeBron for MVP. If Dallas continues to pick up more wins then he will be the frontrunner for MVP no doubt. 

 

Zach Harper of the Athletic submitted his own All-Decade team this week, did he get it right? Would you change anything?

Dean: The only person I would change in the All-Decade list would put Klay Thompson in instead of Paul George. As great as PG is offensively and defensively Klay made a major impact in the Warriors franchise and was a major factor in helping them winning NBA Championships. 

Noah Graham/NBAE via Getty Images

Morris: It’s hard to argue with Zach Harper’s All-Decade Team BUT if I want to be picky there’s like one name that kinda sorta seems of seems like it doesn’t fit with the others on the list… Blake Griffin. Before I make the case against Blake, let me just start with, I believe Blake Griffin will one day be a Hall of Fame player. This decade he put up 22/9/4, so I totally understand why he made the list, but I believe Draymond Green has a legitimate argument for that big man spot. Although his numbers don’t reach what Blake did this decade, his impact is undeniable. At his peak, Draymond was a defensive juggernaut and one of the main cogs to the best offensive team of all time. What he did on a night-to-night basis, and especially in the playoffs, is more important and more valuable to me than what Blake Griffin did. Not to mention those Warriors Clippers matchups Draymond consistently outplayed Blake. In this era of basketball with how we know how to quantify impact, Draymond Green has a legitimate case for the All Decade team. 

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Collard: It depends on whether you allow him to get away with a small ball lineup as the All-Decade team, although that seems oddly appropriate this decade. Listing LeBron and Durant as bigs to get to a “best five players” is a defensible position, and one I would probably make myself if given the assignment, but I think it’s also fair to object to swing forwards who have played close to 0 minutes at center occupying both big slots. But here’s the thing: If you do require one of the bigs to be a guy who can legitimately play rotation minutes at center (Davis would be my choice), you are left in the terrible position of having to exclude Kawhi from the All-Decade team—tough to exclude a guy who was the best player on two champions in the decade.

Davidson: I think I’d probably take Blake Griffin off of the second team and replace him with Giannis despite Harper’s point that Giannis has only been dominant for four years of the decade. My biggest takeaway from the entire article was how incredibly lucky I’ve been to have grown up watching these players change the game of basketball over the past 10 years. That first team is sound, and it’s hard to imagine it ever being topped in the future.

 

Five weeks into the season, which player has changed how you think about them—be it good or bad? 

Davidson: Anyone who knows me or who’s familiar with my work and Twitter presence knows I’ve had a soft spot for Andrew Wiggins since he was traded to the Timberwolves in 2014. I have probably granted him more leniency than the average Wolves fan. I’ve been deemed the mayor of Wiggins Island a time or two, and it’s been a lot easier to hold that title this season.

StatMuse reminded us of Wiggins’ improvement after he recorded 25 points in the Wolves’ Monday night win over the Hawks.

After his first 14 games of the season, Wiggins is averaging a career-high 25.2 points per game, but that’s not the most impressive part of his 2019-20 season. Wiggins is now finding ways other than scoring to impact his team’s success. Wiggins is also averaging career-highs in rebounds (5.2 per game), assists (3.4) and blocks (1.1). His effective field goal percentage is at a career-best of 52.4, and he’s also shooting a career-best 46.9 from the field.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Wiggins’ offseason dedication to his ballhandling has shone through in his improved handle and field goal percentage in the restricted area, and he’s definitely taken to heart Ryan Saunders’ and Gersson Rosas’ pleas that he follow their system—that means ditching his midrange shot. We’ve seen more of it since Wiggins returned from missing two games after the death of his grandmother and another due to illness, but after Monday’s game, Wiggins has only shot 47 midrange shots (per NBA.com) this season and has logged 100 field goal attempts in the restricted area. After his first 14 games of the 2018-19 season, he had attempted 62 midrange shots and just 53 restricted area attempts. I’d like to see Wiggins’ midrange attempts continue to dwindle, but I’m liking what I’ve seen from him so far this year.

Dean: Jamal Murray in Denver. I’m very impressed with his game and I feel he is doing more for Denver right now than Jokic and helping them win games. He plays so aggressive attacking the rim and is playing very well at the 3-point line. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Morris: Pascal Siakam. I can fully admit that I was wrong about Sikhism and what he can do on the court. I thought that with the absence of Kawhi he would struggle being the number one option. I didn’t trust his ability to consistently create his own shot or hit above the break 3-pointers. So far this season he’s putting up a healthy 25.7 PPG, 8.4 RPG and 4 APG and the Raptors are 12-4 (tied for second in the East). Looking back and considering his work ethic, it probably wasn’t smart to bet against him. Every summer Siakam has added something to his offensive bag. He gets like 10 easy points a game from the line, in transition or just showing the extra hustle of offensive boards while also being able to cook most bigs in isolation or overpowering smaller wing players. When you add the fact that he consistently hits outside 3s now (37 percent on 6 attempts per game) , there’s no reason so think that his production will fall off. How good Siakam has become was something that I’m happy that I was wrong about; it’s always nice to see guys develop and figure things out. 

Barry Gossage/NBAE via Getty Images

Collard: I’m tempted to say Wiggins, but not buying in fully just yet, so I’ll go with Aron Baynes.  I was among those who said the Ayton suspension might make the Suns better, because Baynes’ screen setting and good defense was a better fit for them than Ayton’s all-offense game, but his level of play has been far beyond what I or anybody else could have expected nearing age 33.  He still sets bone-jarring screens to free Booker to shoot or Rubio to make plays, and he’s still a force in the paint and on defense, but his development into an offensive threat has come out of nowhere. He began to show a 3 game last year, taking 3.6 per 100 possessions and making them at a decent 34 percent clip, but nobody was going to worry too much about that. Now? Leave him open to blitz Booker and he’ll burn you with a tiptoe 3-point shot to the tune of 44 percent, and on more than double the volume at 8.4 per 100. Switch with Rubio and he’ll bully some poor point guard. He can even run a little high post action, shooting 62 percent from 3-10 feet and 66 percent from 10-16, and handing out 3.1 assists in 24 minutes. He’s just a completely transformed offensive player, and at this point looks good enough to be a 20-25 minute starter on a contender if given the chance at the trade deadline.

Don’t read any of this to suggest that the Suns should keep starting him when Ayton returns.  Despite the good start and playoff possibility, this season (and next!) must be about developing the Booker-Ayton core, and not seeking quick fixes to try to chase playoff spots.  And Baynes is a terrific trade chip. But with Sarver in charge, they could be a buyer in February and a signer of mediocre vets in July and mess it up again.

 

Last week Zach Lowe and Adrian Wojnarowski reported a number of changes the League is considering. In the mix are a pair of in-season tournaments, one of which would decide the back two playoff seeds in each conference, and re-seeding of playoff teams come the semifinals. What are your thoughts on the potential league shift? 

Collard: I have been a sharp critic of the midseason tournament, which I see as a pointless series of exhibition games interrupting the season. I’m not a soccer fan, but I’m told that the better European teams keep their key players out of their tournaments until the semifinal stage, when they start taking them seriously. I see no reason why any NBA team that has aspirations of a deep playoff run would be any different. As a Laker fan, I would certainly not want LeBron or AD playing in those games, and truth be told, I would rather them dress the South Bay Lakers in Laker uniforms (perhaps with a player or two who is out of the real Lakers rotation and needs game action) as our entrant into the tournament, not wanting to risk injury to anyone of consequence in meaningless games.  I would watch the Laker tournament games, because I’m a completist, but as for the rest of the games I’d see it as a great time to catch up on my Tivo and Netflix.

I’m not sure I fully understand the format of the tournament to fill the last playoff spots, but in general I do not like one-game results being able to trump 82-game results, absent a tie.  I suppose the best 2 of 3 between 8 and 9 teams, or a round robin between 7-8-9 teams, that kind of thing, would be harmless enough, since those teams aren’t making deep runs anyway. Unlike in baseball, where the unjust possibility of a wild card team beating another wild card team in a single game playoff that wipes out the 162 game season and then advancing to (and maybe winning) the World Series is somewhat significant. That won’t happen in the NBA, barring a perfect storm. So minor thumbs down, but I won’t get too worked up over it.

I am fine with re-seeding for the Conference Semis, in fact it might be preferable.  The incentive in the current system to tank your way into one side of the bracket in the final games is unseemly, removing that would be a good thing.  But if we are talking about reseeding the League, I would not want that at all. The idea of a Lakers-Celtics series being anything other than an NBA Finals would diminish the historic rivalry and be a betrayal of the fans, and most rivalries are built via the kind of repeated playoff matchups that becomes much less likely if you lose conference integrity.  Yes to conference re-seeding, no to interconference re-seeding.

Davidson: I am all for re-seeding the playoff teams in the Semifinals, along with creating play-in-like atmospheres that we witnessed in Minnesota at the end of the 2017-18 season when the Wolves defeated the Nuggets to end their brutal playoff drought. However, I just don’t see how the League will adequately incentivize a midseason tournament. Players are already showing that they’re willing to risk regular-season success if it means performing at their best come playoffs. As for the teams who’d be playing in the proposed play-in games, how much more valuable is a first-round playoff exit than a lottery pick? Throw in some added draft picks for the midseason tournaments’ winners, and you may have my attention.

Dean: I’m in on the midseason tournament. Make it a one and done tournament. It will give fans something different to be excited for instead of thinking about which teams are tanking or which teams are resting their star players that night. The NBA needs as many eyes as possible once football season is over and something like this could help.

Morris: I may be in the minority here but I don’t really like any of the changes that the NBA are talking about, except seeding teams 1-16 by record regardless of conference. I think that will help decide a “true” winner and not have the best two teams knock each other out before the NBA Finals actually start. The midseason tournament seems pointless. Will I watch? Probably. But if the goal of the League is to get casual fans to convert to more hardcore fans, I don’t think a random soccer style tournament is the answer. At the end of the day, people want to see high quality basketball. How big would it be if the League had the Clippers and the Lakers play seven games in the Finals this season (if they happened to be seeded on different sides of the bracket). Or if the Rockets played the Warriors in the Finals instead of watching them curb stomp LeBron in the Finals two years ago. If the goal is to get more viewers and higher ratings than they should look at possibly shorting the season and having more marquee matchups during the regular season. Players more well rested and playing more games against better opponents should result in higher quality games.