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:
Cray Allred: Daily Thunder, Editor-in-Chief
Christopher Bengel: CBS Sports, trending sports writer
Matt Brooks: Nets Daily, contributor
Sam Guertler: Mavs Moneyball, contributor
Mark Karantzoulis: Bulls HQ Podcast, host
Cade Walker: Nugg Love, co-expert
If I made you pick one player who all things considered (personality, play style, talent level, etc.) would make every single team better, who was the first name that comes to mind?
Bengel: They call it Luka Mania for a reason. It’s hard not to be impressed by the impact that Luka Doncic has had on the NBA in such a short term. Earlier this month, Doncic tied Michael Jordan when he scored 20 points, dished out five assists, and secured five rebounds in his 18th consecutive game. The Mavericks star affects the game in so many different areas with his ability to distribute and score the basketball. Doncic has gone toe-to-toe with LeBron James and several other superstars and hasn’t batted an eye.
If you put Doncic on some of the League’s less talented rosters like the Cleveland Cavaliers and New York Knicks, he’s still a huge difference maker. If you look at last season’s Mavericks roster, there was no Kristaps Porzingis as the Latvian star was still rehabbing his knee. Doncic was the primary scoring option by far and averaged 21.2 points per contest as a rookie. He’s so much more than just a scorer and that versatility would be a desirable quality for any NBA team to have.
Brooks: If the end-game goal was just advancing to the postseason, James Harden has usurped LeBron James’ title as the “guy you can put on any roster in the League and they’ll win between 42-55 games.” However, if we’re talking that Larry O’Brien trophy-hoisting, screaming-to-the-heavens type of success, look no further than that man they refer to as “King.” After a disappointing and injured-saddled 2019 season, the 34-year-old has guided the resurgent Los Angeles Lakers to the best record in the league, the fourth-best offense and the fifth-stingiest defense (as of Dec. 9). Teaming James with Anthony Davis is—to put this bluntly—grossly unfair; per PBP statistics, that duo has yielded the most at-rim assisted baskets with 47 (and counting!). You like regular ole’ counting statistics? Great, enjoy a cool 25.9-point, 10.8-assist (a career-high!), 6.8-rebound stat-line from a guy in year seventeen. As it stands, James’ Lakers are well on their way to eclipsing the 65-win mark, a feat James hasn’t achieved since 2013. Now just wait ‘til King James revs that engine even louder during the playoffs…
Allred: Anthony Davis. His unique combination of size and skill make him more of a ceiling raiser for any roster, without being anchored to one style of play. Giannis would be an improvement over Paul George, for example, but he wouldn’t unlock as much for the offense and defense as Davis would alongside Kawhi Leonard for the Clippers. He still isn’t even the best player on his own team, but just look at how high the Lakers have soared after adding Davis to the mix, after LeBron James’ solo year in LA was a disappointment.
Guertler: If injured players are still in the pool, Klay Thompson is the player that first comes to mind. A superstar player capable of taking games over without the demands and persona of some of the alpha-type players in the League is not common. And that player shows up consistently on both ends of the floor? That’s rare. We all remember Thompson combusting for 60 points in only 29 minutes, and what’s even more astonishing is that he can do it all within the flow of the offense and without even dribbling the ball. In this scenario, Thompson stands alone.
Karantzoulis: It has to be Giannis, doesn’t it? How could it not be? The reigning MVP has gone to another level, plays both sides of the ball at a level so few can, all while being a fantastic teammate that possesses a healthy, albeit somewhat maniacal, competitive drive. Now, all of a sudden, he’s added a 3-point jumper to his bag. Sure, it’s not lethally accurate thus far, but the Freak already has five games this season with three or more 3-pointers in a game. If that continues to happen, there’s no stopping him and the Bucks.
Walker: I write for NuggLove, so I’m more familiar with the Nuggets than anyone else. The first guy that came to mind was Paul Millsap. He’s been used like a Swiss Army knife over his whole career, eventually developing an outside shot to pair with his elite post scoring. Cleaning the Glass has consistently graded him as a far above average playmaker for his respective position. Add this to his defense that shows up year in and year out, Paul Millsap is a complete player on the court. Millsap’s signing with the Denver Nuggets showed a lot of foresight, fulfilling a mentor role to a young Nikola Jokic and becoming “Team Dad.” His veteran leadership was immeasurably valuable to the Nuggets team which was one of the youngest playoff teams in history. All things considered, Millsap is a valuable player & person that any organization would benefit from having. Among non-Nuggets, the first two guys that came to mind were Marcus Smart and Malcolm Brogdon.
The Milwaukee Bucks are 20-3 and don’t seem to be garnering anywhere near the attention the Clippers, Lakers, Mavericks or Rockets have on a night-to-night basis. Other than market size, why aren’t Giannis and the Bucks everybody’s favorite team?
Brooks: During this calendar year, all of the teams listed have made, at a minimum, one splashy star-grabbing move to boost their rosters. The Rockets dealt for Russell Westbrook, the Clippers snagged both Kawhi Leonard and Paul George, the Lakers poached Anthony Davis, and the Mavericks fleeced(?) their way into Kristaps Porzingis. It’s simple math. New = exciting in our attention-deficit-plagued league. The Bucks, on the other hand, have remained largely stagnant in terms of roster reconfiguration. Rather than swinging for the fences, Milwaukee bet big on constancy by re-signing Khris Middleton, George Hill and Brook Lopez. Many times, continuity can be the key ingredient in bringing home a championship. But from the average viewer’s standpoint, it’s also a fast-track pass to building attrition. The Bucks are in year two of beating down teams by a +9.9 point-differential and are currently riding a 15-game win streak. If the season ended today, Milwaukee would be the first team to average more than 120 points per game since the 1985 Alex English/Calvin Natt-led Denver Nuggets. Oh, did I mention they’re also leading the league in rebounds (51.9 per game), defensive rating (100.9) and true shooting (58.8%)? Giannis’ Bucks are starting to suffer from Golden State Warriors-syndrome; very few opponents are on their level, and that’s just boring to consume on a nightly basis. Ask yourself this: What’s the point in watching games if their outcomes feel almost pre-ordained?
Guertler: There’s certainly something to the shiny new toy theory. That is, people are attracted to the newest, hottest item, and that appears to be what’s happening with the Bucks. Milwaukee led the league with 60 wins last year, and are on a ho-hum pace to win 71 games this season, but there are new storylines at play with the other teams. The Clippers are integrating Kawhi Leonard and Paul George while bearing the burden of being widely crowned as the preseason favorites. The Lakers are only the NBA’s most popular team with the NBA’s most popular player who has a superstar counterpart. The Rockets feature James Harden who’s play is dazzling and captivating, if not frustrating. And the Mavericks are touting maybe the best 20 year old to ever play. The Bucks deserve attention, but the NBA isn’t short on great stories.
Karantzoulis: The only reasonable explanation for most ignoring the Bucks at this point of the season is their squad is largely unchanged, whereas so many of the teams in the league have overhauled their rosters, which naturally draws intrigue. Given the Lakers and the Clippers are two such teams which have changed their makeup, it’s easy to see why so few are paying attention to the Bucks. But this extends beyond the Bucks. Does anyone really care about the Eastern Conference? Sure, the Celtics, Raptors and Heat have made it more interesting, but it seems like a foregone conclusion that the Giannis and the Bucks will be back into the Eastern Conference Finals, at minimum. Compare that to the West, which has six teams with a reasonable chance of pushing towards a conference title, and it’s easy to see why the Bucks are overlooked.
Walker: The Clippers acquired Kawhi Leonard Paul George. The Lakers have a healthy LeBron and Anthony Davis. The Mavericks added Kristaps Porzingis to pair with a Luka Doncic who is playing at an MVP level. The Rockets added Russell Westbrook. There’s a reason that the NBA has the best off season. There’s so much movement and players don’t stay in the same place largely. People love the flashy new object. The Bucks have essentially decided to run it back, only acquiring Wes Matthews and Robin Lopez. Despite Giannis improving in every category this year, the phenomenon is no longer new. There’s nothing inherently wrong with this, because once the playoffs come, the results speak for themselves.
Allred: I hate to say it, but I think in the Usage Wars era we find ourselves in, the aesthetic of Giannis’s game doesn’t pop enough to make up for the general lack of interest in Milwaukee as a franchise. On the one hand, he’s a walking highlight reel, but on the other, there is less grace and electricity in his game when you compare it to other one-man-offenses like Luka or even Russell Westbrook when he was drawing attention as an untethered triple-double machine in the small market of Oklahoma City. Shaq-level domination from the perimeter is more of an acquired taste than a more traditional outside shooting game or backdown feats of strength in the post. A bit more pedigree for Antetokounmpo will go a long way, though, as he’s yet to crack the Finals. Some history would make up for a lack of bright lights, star teammates, and pizazz that so many of the other marquee contenders are harnessing.
Bengel: If you’re just taking a look at the roster, there just aren’t any polarizing players. Guys like Khris Middleton, Brook Lopez and Wesley Matthews may be talented, but certainly don’t have any star power around the League. Even in terms of Giannis Antetokounmpo, he’s not a guy that talks a ton of trash and basically just lets his play do the talking. In addition, the Bucks have put together a fairly similar roster to last year’s. In fact, the case could even be made that they may not be as talented as a season ago with losing players like Nikola Mirotic and Malcolm Brogdon. It’s certainly possible that Milwaukee will be the top team in the Eastern Conference in terms of the playoff race, but it’s just not a group that many are getting excited about.
Putting on your general manager hats: The Houston Rockets continue to be statistically better with Russell Westbrook off the floor. What would you be doing if you were Daryl Morey prior to the deadline?
Guertler: If I was Morey I would go big and try to deal Westbrook. Space will collapse in the postseason, and the incompatibility of Westbrook and Harden will only be magnified. If Morey wanted to seriously shake things up, he could try to deal Westbrook to Detroit for Blake Griffin. The Pistons have been searching for a point guard for years, and pairing Westbrook with Derrick Rose would give Detroit a dynamic one-two punch. In Houston, Griffin would be afforded the luxury of operating in his own space while working with Harden in the pick-and-pop. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Westbrook and Reggie Jackson in the same locker room again?
Karantzoulis: Westbrook is only a Rocket right now because his atrocious deal was moved for one which perhaps maybe slightly worse (even if Chris Paul has been better than Westbrook this season). I’m not sure if Morey has anything he can do to substantially change the Rockets’ fortunes, and certainly not if that includes moving on from Westbrook. Capela is seemingly the only real trade asset he has, but if you move him out without getting back a viable starting center, does that even make sense? A large-scale move doesn’t really exist for the Rockets. What they will need to concentrate on is something they’ve historically been good at: Finding reclamation projects on the waiver wire. Perhaps as the season draws on and teams buyout players who no longer figure in plans, the Rockets could swoop in on said player to add bench depth. Getting back a healthy Eric Gordon from injury would be a huge add, too.
Walker: I never thought the Russell Westbrook fit was beneficial for Houston. His efficiency numbers are atrocious at times. When their offense revolves around isolation with Harden, you turn Russ into a catch-and-shoot player at times. Judging by his lack of ability to hit corner 3s, (or any 3s), it’s just not an ideal system for him. However, on the flip side of that, is the few games that he has had which were efficient and well performed. From here, you take a look at his shot profile. Russell Westbrook hits 36 percent of his midrange shots (per Cleaning the Glass). This number ranks in the 37th percentile among all qualified at his position. Even noting this, Westbrook takes 45 percent of his shots in the midrange, good for the 67th percentile. Daryl Morey is not in an ideal position with how many draft picks he gave up. His options are limited. With that, the option at this time would be to approach the coaching staff and Westbrook himself about actively avoiding midrange shots. They take away possessions from the offense, from Harden and it results in less points overall.
Allred: The dream would be to convince Westbrook that he’s an old dog in need of new tricks. The same drawbacks to his play that have always been there are just more pronounced as he gradually declines in athleticism, but good luck persuading Russ to not Russ. As for improving the roster from without, I’d do whatever I could to move from Eric Gordon to a bigger guard with defensive chops. The lineup numbers are still pretty weird and volatile for the Rockets this season, but I hear alarm bells in the Harden/Westbrook lineups featuring a smaller third guard in Gordon and Austin Rivers that have given up just obscene amounts of points to the opposition. Houston already relies on PJ Tucker to play way above his height on the backline. A perimeter with Harden and Westbrook is always going to spring leaks and better length on the wing would help to at least stem the tide. Gordon is very good, and will likely return to form when he’s back from injury. But he’s not gonna grow, and at this point does James Harden even really need real shooters around him for spacing purposes?
Bengel: Despite trading for Russell Westbrook, the Rockets still sit in fifth place in the Western Conference through the first quarter of the season. The dynamic duo of Westbrook and James Harden has been unstoppable and certainly was worth it. However, outside of that, the scoring threats are few and far between on the roster. If I’m Daryl Morey, I’m attempting to beef up the bench at the trade deadline. It may not even be a situation where you have to part with assets to acquire some offensive firepower. If you look at the last two seasons, guys like Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova, and Wesley Matthews were bought out by underachieving teams and were free to sign with contenders. Belinelli and Ilyasova really helped bolster a young Philadelphia 76ers roster during the stretch run of the 2017-18 season and are honestly still missed on that team. It’s going to be hard for the Rockets to go out and acquire another star and quite frankly, they don’t need to. Morey needs to monitor the buyout market and look for situations where you don’t have to surrender a ton of assets.
Brooks: I said it the second it happened: Daryl Morey’s late-summer blockbuster that netted a nearly immovable Russell Westbrook was the most egregious “I won’t have this job in 9 months, so eff it, why not?” move by any general manager since Stan Van Gundy swung for the fences with Blake Griffin (which, funnily enough, has actually worked out pretty well for the Pistons). Punting on the Westbrook experiment as early as December would be the ultimate waiving-the-white-flag move from Mr. Morey. And, I mean, what are the Rockets really going to stumble upon in a hypothesized deal? Dion Waiters, Goran Dragic and Meyers Leonard? Is that even worth it? Does trading for a few okay-at-best rotational pieces really raise Houston’s floor without totally compromising their ceiling? Daryl Morey must stay the course and hope for the best. Like it or not, Houston’s future is held in the balance by Russell Westbrook’s volatility.
David Fizdale was relieved of his position last week and per the pro sports usual, many believe the coach is being scapegoated for the failures of ownership and management. Leaving the debate on whether or not Fizdale is a “good” coach for another day, let’s say this same Knicks roster had Gregg Popovich from day one this year, how many more wins does that buy them?
Karantzoulis: One, possibly two more. It wouldn’t be many. And that really is a reflection of how terrible this Knicks roster truly is, not on Popovich and his coaching. Pop remains a genius. Any franchise would be better for having him. But it’s hard to imagine even one of the greatest coaches of all time could overcome one of the most poorly constructed rosters in some time. The Knicks’ point guard rotation may be the worst in the League. It’s hard to win in this league without competent guard play. It’s even harder when the wing rotation is being filled by several players better suited to big men roles. Of course, the Knicks have too many of those and not enough minutes to go around. The roster is truly that bad, so it’s hard to envision a scenario where even a legend like Popovich could find a way to drag the Knicks from the bottom.
Walker: The Knicks are 4-19. The Spurs are 9-14. The Knicks are essentially meeting expectations, while the Spurs are falling below theirs. Gregg Popovich is undeniably an excellent coach, but with a team as talent depleted as the Knicks are, there’s not much he can do. Comparing rosters, it’s expected that the Spurs are worth more wins. The coaching wouldn’t change that. Now, the argument that makes sense to me would be around in-game adjustments. Popovich is better in that aspect than Fizdale. There’s been about ten games this year that the Knicks have lost by only single digits, & seven games decided by 5 points or less. Could Popovich have won in those games? It’s a good possibility. It’s just so difficult to quantify how much a coach can change the actual score of the game. I’d give a hard ceiling on this answer at a two-game boost.
Allred: This hypothetical sets up the hottest take in my arsenal. To answer the question, yes, the Popovich Knicks would win more games than the Fizdale Knicks and, in the process, hurt their draft odds. We know this because Pop has already overperformed with a roster overstuffed with midrange gunners who don’t defend: the post-Kawhi San Antonio Spurs! At least the Knicks turned their injured and alienated star (Kristaps Porzingis) into draft assets and cap space that they’ve maintained for next offseason; the Spurs turned their disgruntled, hurt star (Leonard) into a more bloated cap sheet with ordinary draft picks on the horizon. On paper, New York’s future should be much brighter than San Antonio’s and a lot of other teams in the League. If you’re a Knicks fan, all you should want more from your next coach is player development, not wins this season. Having confidence at the top to capitalize on your resources is of course, another question altogether.
Bengel: This is definitely an intriguing question. It’s been well-documented that Gregg Popovich will go down as one of the greatest coaches in NBA history. However, Popovich isn’t exactly faring too well with the San Antonio Spurs so far this season. The Spurs are just 9-14 thus far and currently are out of the playoff picture. The one area where Popovich could be an asset is the way he can develop young talent. In recent years, Popovich has elevated the games of Dejounte Murray, Bryn Forbes, and Davis Bertans just to name a few. While the majority of the New York Knicks roster is overpaid veterans, giving Popovich a chance to coach players like RJ Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, and Kevin Knox would certainly be a fun experiment. New York has just four wins so far, so I’d venture to say that Popovich could’ve gotten a few more out of this group. I’ll say add three more wins to the Knicks’ total this season, but you’d be hard-pressed to find a coach that could transform this roster into a contender.
Brooks: Assuming that Popovich was forbidden from meddling in managerial affairs… 5? Maybe 10? The Knicks suffer from a duplicative roster that fits – how do I put this lightly?—incongruently together. Looking through the Knicks two-man lineup data on NBA.com, not one of the Knicks 95-most-used pairings has yielded a positive net-rating—not one! If your team is getting outscored on the floor no matter the combination of players, how much can a coach—genius as he may be—really change things? And I mean, shoot, it’s not like Pop’s Spurs are knocking it out of the park this season.
Guertler: The Knicks roster was constructed without any logical thinking that it’s hard to imagine even Popovich could string together too many more wins, but I’d like to think Pop’s experience and coaching prowess could have pushed the Knicks over the hump on a few of the close losses. The Knicks have lost five games by five points or less, and it stands to reason Popovich could have coached them to at least three more wins. I’ll go out on a limb and say Pop could have coached the Knicks to three additional wins, giving New York seven on the season, which is only two less than what the Spurs have now.
There are 10 NBA teams who currently hold an offensive rating greater than 110, there wasn’t one higher than 107 in 2000. Is the explosion of offense we’re witnessing this season good or bad for the League?
Allred: I dig it, but since it’s dovetailing with a drop in ratings then it could be an issue for the League. Even then, the perception of the offensive explosion is more of a problem than the scoring itself. If you compare the Bulls’ afterglow season of 1996-97 to this one, pace accounts for more of the discrepancy in scoring totals than efficiency. The 1996-97 Pacers ranked 15th in offensive rating at 104.2, but teams only scored an average of 96.9 points per game. Teams are averaging 13.5 points per game this season (110.4), despite a more modest +4.3 disparity in offensive rating held by the 15th ranked Nets (108.7). But all the statistical context and argument won’t change the impulse of a lot of fans when they see a high score running across the ticker. 100 is just one of those really great round numbers that is easily associated with completion and finality in the mind. Sure it can be employed arbitrarily, but you don’t have to be a numskull to feel its importance in your gut. Games used to closely straddle the 100-point threshold, and they don’t know. Truisms like Lawler’s Law and fan reactions (“we scored 120 and still lost?!”) attest to this pull.
So many of our assumptions and biases color how we view any given game, and those will never go away. You have to live with some of it. Steph Curry was more fun as champion of the “chicks dig the long ball” sentiment favorable to this scoring boon, while James Harden being its technician is less than rapturing for many viewers. It might sound patronizing, but analysts and promoters of the sport should never stop banging the drum on the most straightforward of “advanced” stats—points per ONE HUNDRED possessions—to reorient this particular trend. And it’s far fetched, but a more elegant tweak than rule changes aiming to keep 3-pointers from rising the offensive tide even higher could be to simply shorten the regulation length of the game.
Bengel: An offensive explosion is definitely a good thing for the NBA. It’s ripple-down effect that will impact the game in several different ways. From a business standpoint, it will continue to improve ticket sales because fans love scoring and will be more inclined to go to games. If you look at the season that James Harden is having—this is a guy that is averaging nearly 40 points a game—every night is a show when you players like that on the floor and it’s hard to argue that this type of offensive success is anything but great for the league.
Brooks: I always struggle with questions that entail labeling specific basketball stigma as “good” or “bad” for the League. Why? Because what may seem initially “bad” for the association will—many times—benefit this league we love and cherish in the long haul. The Warriors’ jumpshooting went from a style that couldn’t “win four series in a row” to a renaissance that changed basketball altogether. You could say the same about the removal of hand-checking, the allowance of zone defense, the ever-changing role of the point guard, implementation of basket interference… the list goes on and on.
This season’s offensive eruption is the perfect recipe for grabbing new “casual” eyes and wandering sports-fanatic spirits. I’ll put it this way: If you were to sit my lovely mother in front of two television screens, with one showcasing a 2020 Dallas Mavericks-Houston Rockets game and the other replaying the Indiana Pacers-Detroit Pistons in the 2004 Eastern Conference Finals, I’d bet a romantic dinner for two at Catch NYC that her attention gravitates toward that southwest scoring showdown. That has to mean something, right? Many factors correlate to the decline in TV ratings. 2020’s near-excess of scoring isn’t one of them.
Guertler: The explosion of offense is unquestionably good for the League. The games are faster, which at its core means more action. Some of the greatest athletes in the world are flexing their chops in the open floor and in space, and that’s always fun to watch. We get to see players like Trae Young use his quickness and creativity, Giannis Antetokounmpo dominate with his length and athleticism, and Luka Doncic pick teams apart in the open floor in an up and down pace which leads to highlight-reel moments each and every game. And with more action comes more points, which lends itself to more storylines. Role players popping off to help steal games away from the favorites is a core components to making the NBA an entertaining product.
Karantzoulis: The state of the League and the level of offense within it will always be one of those subjective questions that will linger so long as the League continues to emphasize the importance of the 3-point shot, which is undeniably playing a significant uptick in offense across the League. While the League is at risk of its teams building homogenized pick-and-roll schemes which generate analytically-sound offenses, so long as the skill level continues to remain a driving force, the scoring output thus far only adds to the entertainment for me.
Walker: To answer this, we have to understand why there’s such a drastic increase in the respective ratings. To start, know that defensive and offensive ratings are simply estimation of points scored per 100 possessions, so in this respect, it’s pace-adjusted. If you go back and compare the defensive ratings as well, the worst team in the League in defensive rating in the 2000-01 season was the Washington Wizards at 108.65. They would be 13th in the League today. The worst team currently in defensive rating is also the Wizards at 117.67. The single biggest reason is a significant boost explosion in efficiency, and here’s why: In the 2000-01 season, the League average for effective field goal percentage was 47.3. The 2018-19 season witnessed an all-time high in league-wide eFG% at 52.4. This jump in efficiency correlates with two things: Higher team ratings (points scored per 100) and higher amount of 3-point attempts. For the latter, the League hovered in the low to mid teens for attempts per game for about a decade (13.7 in 2000-01). This number has skyrocketed in the last four years, growing to now sit at 32 last year and 33.6 this year. The rise of data analytics and understanding shot efficiency has resulted in the union of strategy and personnel which creates the most efficient shot possible. Whether it’s the Rockets iso-heavy style or the Bucks democratic offense, the game strategies have evolved to focus on shots from deep and shots around the rim. In terms of what this means for the League, it’s probably a good thing. Fans prefer to see offense largely. It’s also beneficial that teams understand the best way to consistently score. For both teams and the fanbases, the League has a lot to benefit from the use of data.