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:

Lance Hartzler: Arizona Daily Sun, sports reporter

Mike Long: SB Nation, contributor 

Shawn Matian: Fox Sports, contributor

Brandon Rahbar: Daily Thunder, beat writer

 

As of Sunday afternoon, The Los Angeles Lakers had the League’s second best net rating but haven’t had a win over a team still holding a record of .500 or better since November 8 vs. the Miami Heat. What’s your take on the Lakers thus far: legitimate title contender or benefactors of an easy schedule to date?

Long: The Lakers, Anthony Davis, and Rich Paul staged quite the coup last season. But can Davis and James transform L.A. back into title town? A DPOY candidate, Davis pairs seamlessly with LeBron James who looks to be at his mental apex and not as far from his physical one as we thought. When I heard the trade was final to join Davis and James, I thought to myself if you give a healthy LeBron AD even in year 17, nobody and I mean nobody is stopping them. That is unless Michael Jordan and the ’96 Bulls are coming out of the Delorean. The question for this team was always whether both LeBron and Davis could stay healthy long enough to capitalize on having each other. Many have expressed doubt as to whether that is possible, myself being one. Davis has already seen a myriad of tacky-tack injuries this first quarter of the season and LeBron James is coming off the worst injury of his career at age 34. We’ve seen Father Time defied before but only to a certain extent. How much longer can LBJ escape his reach? At some point, the clock taps all greats on the shoulder, and in year 17, with the amount of mileage on his legs, I don’t know if LeBron can maintain this pace into June. But in my opinion, the health of Los Angeles’ star duo is the biggest question in basketball.

Logan Riely/NBAE via Getty Images

Matian: Both, absolutely both. In fact, they are a contender in part because they steamrolled through their favorable schedule just as a contender should and would. The Lakers did their job, they’re number #1 in the West, they shouldn’t be looked down upon for that, they should be celebrated. They are clearly a contender and not just because Vegas tells you they are but because they (arguably) have the two best players in the NBA playing on the same team. Add Danny Green, and a guys like Avery Bradley and Dwight Howard who are overachieving greatly, you have a contender. The most underrated part about the Lakers is their defense. It has been absolutely stellar and is the reason why they’re so lethal. Also, add the fact the Lakers can beat you in so many ways: defensively, on the boards, alter/bock shots, long on defense (clog passing lanes), they can beat you in the paint, in half-court sets and in transition. Pick your poison with the, but they do have warts. They’re missing a perimeter playmaker and perimeter defender. Their holes may slightly be exploited during the regular season, but come playoff time they better be healthy if this is their final team. The question is will they last? Will an aging Lebron James continue to play at this pace, will Bradley, Howard, Green continue playing at a high level, will Kyle Kuzma be the player he promotes himself to be or will he just be the NBA’s Don King? 

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

Rahbar: Is it cheating to say both? To the chagrin of every self-respecting NBA fan outside of Southern California, the Lakers are absolutely a legit contender. As soon as Rob Pelinka cashed out on their oft-hyped young core and Anthony Davis donned the purple and gold, the Lakers were immediately on the short list of teams with true championship aspirations. LeBron and The Brow are just that good. And I’m in the minority who believe their supporting cast is actually a solid group. And by supporting cast, I mean of course Bleacher Report’s favorite son Alex Caruso.

That said, their record has been inflated due to an easy schedule. They will not win 85 percent of their games once they start playing more teams with a pulse. Their three losses have come to the Clippers, Raptors and Mavericks. As great as they’ve been, LeBron and Davis have struggled against solid competition, which leaves room for questioning the validity of their record. The Lakers may be the best team in the League. Then again, they may not be the best team in their own arena.

Hartzler: The Lakers are a contender. No way around that. But the issue is that there are four other contenders at their level in the Western Conference alone. You can make a case for the Clippers—who look like they are ready to break away from the “younger brother of L.A. moniker”—the Rockets, Nuggets and even the Jazz. Not to mention that Dallas just beat the Lakers with another superb night from Luka Doncic. The Lakers will get a chance to show if they are contenders or not with the Nuggets, Jazz, Blazers and Wolves all coming up. 

 

At the moment, the Nets have statistically been better with Spencer Dinwiddie as their starting point guard than they have with Kyrie Irving. At the same time, the Sacramento Kings have been playing better basketball without De’Aaron Fox than they were with him to start the year. Small sample anomalies or a greater statement on the impact of guards and winning in today’s NBA?

Matian: Kyrie Irving is an NBA Champion and one of the most dynamic players in the NBA, and I would not want him on my team (unless it’s the perfect situation). I write that not because I don’t like Kyrie; he’s insanely talented. I write that because I don’t believe an offense will flourish unless there is a team element to it. A point guard is typically the first person who touches the ball on most offensive possessions, and if your PG’s style is every play runs through him “aka ball-pounding” then your teammates get lost. I’ve watched play after play where a ball-dominant PG handles the ball and doesn’t really start a proper action to initiate an offense until the shot clock dwindles down 10 seconds. When your PG is Mr. Yo-Yo all four quarters, you’re going to have a lot of guys just standing around. Add the element that a PG is usually the worst defender on the floor, then imagine the demoralizing setting you’ve created: Have one guy control the ball for 70 percent of the shot clock all the while he gets smoked on defense, too. Not my cup of tea. The overall style is not conducive to winning at high levels. 

Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE via Getty Images

Rahbar: Small sample anomalies. Dinwiddie is an underrated player (and a great Twitter follow), but he’s no Kyrie Irving. The Kings have a nice roster with envious depth, but their best player is still De’Aaron Fox. Funny things happen when star players miss games. Whether it’s due to schedule strength, the Ewing Theory, or team chemistry, we’ve often seen teams do well when their best players miss time. Typically, though, once the sample size of missed time starts to increase, to paraphrase the great Dennis Green, those teams become who we thought they were. I believe the Nets are a worse team with Kyrie in the lineup as much as Kyrie believes that the Earth is round.

Bart Young/NBAE via Getty Images

Hartzler: When it comes to Dinwiddie vs. Irving, it’s about system and familiarity. Dinwiddie has been with the Nets for four seasons and has upped his production in each one. Irving has struggled to stay healthy and is with his third team in four years. Both are more small-sample anomalies than they are a testament to the impact of guards and winning—at least for now. If both of the trends stay as they are going, then there is a larger conversation to be had on the impact of guards and winning.

Long: Kyrie is entertaining, dazzling, and jaw-dropping even. With his impossible shot-making and wizardry over the basketball, he leaves fans captivated. These things are all true, but we can’t ignore what now looks to be a trend. And it may be by no direct fault of Irving himself. In the context of team basketball, it is now fair to question how much the former champion impact wins and loses. Historically these players are incredible to watch, but championship runs don’t hinge on their dominance. There have only been a handful of small guards to disprove this theory. Two-way wings are more valuable in today’s NBA than small scoring guards who are interchangeable. Boston went on an improbable run to the Conference Finals with him sidelined 2017. Upon his return the next season, Boston was considerably worse and essentially bowed out of the playoffs. They might’ve lost in the first round had Victor Oladipo not gotten hurt in Indiana. In part this season, the Nets are thriving in his leave. Kyrie’s raw numbers are sensational, but he’s not now nor has he ever been the ice cream or meat and potatoes. He’s more Lamborghini doors than mud tires. At some point, it is not a coincidence. I mostly try to find analytical reasoning and hard statistics to back up my argument, but in this case, it’s tough to argue beyond what we’re seeing. He’s such a gravitational player; everything must revolve around his offense. I don’t think Kyrie can be the best player on even a good team. He is an incredible sidekick or Robin—perhaps the ideal complementary piece. Kyrie’s lack of leadership was a driving force behind why the Celtics team melted down, and in the playoffs, there was no reboot. As was the case in Boston, all Brooklyn’s offensive numbers are better with Kyrie than without him. The only difference comes in the win-loss column. The Kyrie situation is a lesson in leadership and how much it factors into a player’s overall value above replacement. He’s one of the most talented players I’ve ever seen, but he is clearly not a leader. The Nets are 6-3 without Kyrie. The Celtics last season were 12-3 without him. For all his highlights, Kyrie is not an elite two-way player and doesn’t make the players around him better—an exciting, but dangerous recipe. 

 

Trae Young feels like a forgotten name in the greater NBA landscape at the moment. His development has been incredible and he’s already playing at an All-Star level. Assuming Luka Doncic is ahead of him, is there any other perimeter player in the NBA you’d take over him for the next 10 years? 

Hartzler: For the sake of this argument I’m going to not consider Giannis Antetokounmpo as a perimeter player—Basketball Reference has him as a power forward so do with that as you will. As good as Young has been this season—and he has been dynamite—I would take Devin Booker over him. Booker finally has the Suns at a respectable level, no longer losing games and going through head coaches like tissue paper. Booker has upped his playmaking and, at only 23, is one of the top guards in the League right now. 

Andrew D. Bernstein/NBAE via Getty Images

Rahbar: As a fellow born and bred Oklahoman, I am morally obligated to sing the praises of one of our state’s all time greatest hoops exports. I’ve followed Trae since he was turning heads at Norman North High School, just 30 minutes from where I’m typing this answer. I believe he will be an All-Star Boomer Sooner than later, as his offensive numbers will only grow more ridiculous as he continues to develop. Now the bad news: Offense is only half the game. While Trae is an offensive magician, he is a defensive matador. Because I would want my guy to be a two-way player, Trae is out. So is Devin Booker. I need him to shoot, so sorry to the 76ers’ Ben Simmons. My filtered brain search of “young solid defenders who can shoot, handle and create with All Star upside” yielded two results I’m comfortable with taking: Donovan Mitchell and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. I realize the latter risks labeling me as a homer, but I’m choosing SGA over a player who lives two towns over from me, so how biased can I really be?

Cato Cataldo/NBAE via Getty Images

Long: Ladies and gentlemen, Trae Young, is it. This is not a test and does NOT have to adjust your television sets. The future of the point guard position has arrived. No need to overthink this one, given Steph Curry is out with a broken hand—the Oklahoma product is the most dynamic player under 6-3 in the NBA. He gets to the rim at will and his range is virtually unlimited. The fact defenses have to pick him up at halfcourt opens up so much space for his teammates and once he beats the first line of defense his playmaking ability is absurd. He is an incredibly creative passer with a masterful court vision. Many of his turnovers come with him making the correct basketball play, he sees the play before most on the court. There were at least four or five plays where he made a pass and his teammates simply were not ready even although they were in a perfect position to score. I watched him play live a week ago, and the only flaw I could detect in his game was the fact he can’t yet carry a team for the entire four quarters. He was nearly perfect through three-and-a-half quarters of play. I trust his stamina will come with time and as his body continues to develop. I’m on record as saying Trae is just as good as Luka Doncic, and despite a ton of knee-jerk reactions to growing the legend of Luka, I am content playing the long game with this one. Most of all he makes the game look effortless. Barring an injury, Trae Young will be a perennial all-star for the next decade, and there’s not another player I’d take over him.

Matian: Trae Young has come on and just exploded offensively this year. A remarkable player to watch and he deserves all the praise he’s getting. If we’re narrowing our scope to other young players, there isn’t much out there that could compare to what Trae is doing at that age. Maybe Bradley Beal, Donavan Mitchell and even Ja Morant (way too early, but immense upside) come to mind. But if we’re keeping it all the way real then we should also talk about Trae’s defense. As dynamic as Trae is on offense he struggles mightily on defense. You could easily find stats that will show you that the overall positive impact of guys like Mitchell, Morant and even De’Aaron Fox are all higher than Trae’s. Getting back to the question at hand, if I’m going to pick a perimeter player I’d rather have over the next 10 years other than Trae, it’s going to be James Harden (or Steph Curry). Yes, I realize Harden is 30 years old, but Harden is far superior offensively (and has been doing it for much longer) and Harden is also better defensively. Even when you factor in Harden’s natural decline with age he will still grade out as an overall better perimeter player than Trae is today. 

 

In my first MVP check-in of the year, it appears LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Luka Doncic would all be on the ballot today but who would your fifth name be?

Hartzler: Alex Caru…sorry, the joke was there.

Pascal Siakam has quietly led the defending champs up north to a 15-4 record. He’s done so with some crazy numbers, averaging 25.6, 8.4 boards and 4.0 assists—all while impacting the game outside the box score. He’s been one of the best players in the East on one of the best teams early on. If the Raptors keep this up Siakam can’t be left off—not to mention he is in prime consideration for back-to-back Most Improved Player of the Year.

Ron Turenne/NBAE via Getty Images

Long: In the Wild Wild West, LeBron James has lassoed just about any opponent who dares visit Los Angeles. Luka Doncic and his Mavericks have been a surprise stallion in the conference race. James Harden has shot up the scoreboard night after night. But, it is in the East where we should look for our MVP. The dust has settled and Milwaukee is on a 12-game win streak. Their 18-3 record leads the NBA and is tied for the best start in franchise history. And if you’re looking for a way to discredit their success, don’t look at the schedule which has seen the NBA’s highest opponent win percentage to go along with the League’s highest point differential. In other words, Giannis is easily your MVP so far. As if the Greek Freak didn’t already keep opponents up at night, the 24-year old phenom is getting better. It seems by the game. I’m flabbergasted even to write that. The Bucks are on pace for 69 wins and Giannis is on pace to become the first player in NBA history to average over 30 points, 13 rebounds, and 6 assists in a season. Giannis is a combination we rarely see from the game’s most physically explosive player, also being the most efficient. His 32.4 PER is a league-best. It has been widely recognized that if Giannis develops a consistent three-pointer he may flirt with an NBA Mt. Rushmore trajectory. He posted 29 points and 15 rebounds in just 22 minutes against the Knicks on Monday. But the most important stats from the box score was his 3-for-4 shooting from 3-point range. He also isn’t just doing it on offense. Of players who have appeared in at least 16 games, Giannis has the second best defensive win share in basketball—higher than Kawhi, LeBron, Siakam all of whom are ranked in the top 30 and Luka, who is ranked 174th. As a solo star in Milwaukee, Giannis is running away with the award.

Gary Bassing/NBAE via Getty Images

Matian: First of all, Anthony Davis’s name should be ahead of Luka’s—way ahead, like Mt. Everest ahead With that being said, the player I’m going to pick is Pascal Siakam. His numbers are 25.6PPG, 8.4RPG, 4APG, while shooting .467/.384/.813. He can handle, he spreads the floor, he isn’t scared to shoot 3s, he has a great IQ and he’s an elite defender. Siakam, who lost Kawhi in the offseason, is also playing without Lowry and Ibaka (both have missed extensive time) and is truly carrying his team to a top 5 offensive and defensive rating while being the No. 2 seed in the East. Raptors are also ranked second in 3-point shooting, fifth in defending 3-point shooting, first in opponent’s eFG percentage and second in point differential. The Raptors are so impressive in so many aspects of the game and the glue to it all is Siakam. 

Rahbar: Pascal Siakam, hands down. Once Kawhi Leonard hopped the first moose out of town, everyone thought the Toronto Raptors would go the way of the post-LeBron Cavaliers. Siakam had other plans. The 25-year-old is averaging 25.6 points, 8.4 rebounds and 4 assists per game. He’s shooting 39 percent from 3 on 6.5 attempts and hitting 81 percent from the free-throw line—all of those numbers are career bests. Oh, and the Raptors are second in the East with a 15-4 record and have won seven straight games. Siakam’s play this season is retroactively changing the way we view Kawhi’s title run in Toronto last season. Yes, Leonard was the Raptors’ best player, but maybe we gave him just a tad bit too much credit and gave Siakam more than a tad bit too little. 

 

As the NBA continues to consider changes as national conversations on the growth of the League remain in the news cycle, what do you think is something the League could do to expand their audience engagement? 

Hartzler: The NBA has so many stars and, despite knowing that, the League doesn’t seem to prioritize them at all. Alex Caruso is cool and all, but how is the Lakers backup point guard getting more attention than dark horse MVP candidate Pascal Siakam? Getting stars the attention they deserve is a simple answer, and fixing the often-questionable LeaguePass could be a means of getting to that answer and get the fair-weather fans back into the game.

Long: Despite there being more parity than in recent years, fans aren’t watching the NBA as much this season. At least that’s what the traditional metrics to measure an audience tell us. However, with the emergence of digital media, streaming and over the top devices, that picture is not as clear as it may seem. One thing is clear: The League must adapt and adapt quickly with much of the entertainment landscape. Not helping matters is the culture of sports coverage. I summarize we that journalize the game are partially to blame.  The “championship or bust” narrative discourages fans away from consuming the regular season and appreciating all the greatness in the association. The League has done a great job of marketing its stars and marketing the pantheon players whose legacies the organization it build upon—most namely Michael Jordan. The League and its media companions have put a premium on the postseason success that the many incredible feats accomplished during the regular season are meaningless. The proposed changes are to increase engagement among the League’s peripheral audience. I don’t mind the shakeup. NBA viewership has been a hot-button topic in recent months with early numbers falling below projections. This has left many to pontificate whether the League needs to implement changes in hopes to redirect the decline. The obvious answers are to modernize their approach on digital platforms and pour more resources into their flagship streaming product, League Pass. A counterpoint to the uproar about ratings is that this isn’t an NBA issue, it’s an industry issue. Numbers for television viewership are down across the board and the NBA faces a similar problem to other media entities pitching an entertainment product.  

Matian: Personally, I would like the NBA to make a point of showcasing and promoting the teams outside the franchise darlings. The average consumer is getting a heavy dose of the same medication: Lakers, Clippers, 76ers and Luka. The beauty of the game isn’t the storylines, it’s in the game. Teams like Denver, Indiana, Miami Toronto, Sacramento (of late) even Milwaukee are playing good basketball and that doesn’t feel like its pushed enough. Some of the teams mentioned are top tier teams, but the NBA shouldn’t shy away from teams that aren’t elite but are playing good basketball (some more often than others). After all, those teams have loyal fans who’d love to see their team get some shine. I think it would help the League overall if it reminded people that good basketball doesn’t just exist in big cities. 

Rahbar: I know the answer is not an in-season tournament. What an awful, bizarre idea. And rewarding the winner of the tournament an extra draft pick is doubling down on the absurdity. One of the biggest issues most NBA fans have stated on why TV ratings are down is the thought that only a handful of teams might win the title each year, and if their team isn’t one of them, what’s the point of watching? So let’s reward the best team in the middle of the season and let the rich get richer. Brilliant. 

If the NBA really wants to have a tournament that would get fans and social media buzzing, then I propose a 1-on-1 tourney. Can you imagine a field of the best 64 players battling it out? Forget March Madness, I’ll fill out a bracket right now if get to choose the winner between Steph and Russ, LeBron and Kawhi, Giannis and Embiid, or Dame and Harden. As for incentive for the players to risk their reputations? The winner gets 10 free “load management” certificates to be used any time of their choosing.