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:
Christian Arcand: Celtics broadcast, anchor and studio host.
Griffin Connolly: Rollcall, reporter
Grant Dowling: Statistical analyst
Matt Kolsky: 95.7 The Game, host
Jordan Maly: 670TheScore, producer
Brendan Smart: Grizzly Bear Blues, staff writer
Looking around the League, which star do you feel will be appreciated way more when we look at their career 10 years after their retirement?
Arcand: Interesting question…I think a guy like Russel Westbrook will probably be one of those guys. He’s certainly appreciated now, but when we look back on those three straight triple-double seasons I would imagine a lot of NBA fans will have realized what they took for granted during this era.
Connolly: Let’s play a little game of “Guess Who/Would You Rather.” Here are the four-year statistical peaks for three shooting guards, one current player and the other two no longer in the league. As you parse the stats, think about: A) who you’d rather build your team around; B) who each player is.
Player A: 39.9 MPG, 34.5 PPG, 6.4 RPG, 6.2 APG, 2.9 SPG, 1.1 BPG on 52-30-85 shooting splits (FG, 3FG, FT), 59.5 true shooting, and 10.2 FTA per game
Player B: 40.3 MPG, 30.8 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 5.3 APG, 1.6 SPG, 0.5 BPG on 45-35-85 shooting splits (FG, 3FG, FT), 56.9 true shooting, and 9.8 FTA per game
Player C: 36.4 MPG, 32.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 8.9 APG, 1.7 SPG, 0.7 BPG on 44-36-86 shooting splits (FG, 3FG, FT), 61.6 true shooting, and 10.9 FTA per game
Let it stew.
Player A is Michael Jordan from 1986-87 to 1989-90; Player B is Kobe Bryant from 2004-05 to 2007-08; Player C is James Harden from 2016-17 through this season.
Here’s what this means: Over the last four years, Harden has: 1) accounted for more points; 2) in fewer minutes; 3) on higher shooting efficiency than both the GOAT and the Mamba during their peak statistical seasons. I know, I know, hand-check rules are more strictly enforced now, coaches have figured out how to maximize offensive efficiency since Jordan and Kobe played, blah, blah, blah blah blah. But those are exactly the kinds of contextual distinctions that dissipate as time passes, and as they do, what we’ll be left with is that Harden has a more impressive statistical offensive peak than anyone at his position. Ever. And as for the #rangz argument, I’ll point out that neither Jordan nor Kobe won a championship as the best player on their team until the year after their respective four-year statistical peaks. Perhaps Harden’s team circumstances will change such that he won’t face as much night-to-night pressure to produce (literally) half his team’s offense. We’ve seen how a player can rewrite his entire career narrative by winning even just one championship past his prime—*cough* “DIRK!” *cough*. Harden’s on the wrong side of 30, but he’s been remarkably durable. That window’s still open.
Dowling: The star I feel will be appreciated way more 10 years after their retirement will be James Harden. And I say that begrudgingly, because like a lot of NBA fans, I am not a fan of the way he’s evolved his game. But I still believe he will be far more appreciated in 10 years after his retirement because by then, which should at least another 15 years down the line, the game will have evolved as a whole with more and more players taking after Harden’s play style. I think we will see more of his newer tactics of drawing fouls and manipulating both the defender and officials into earning foul calls. And at its core, Harden is still playing fundamentally by doing his best to draw fouls and get easy looks at the foul line. It’s kind of like Steph Curry. Two totally different evolutions of the game, but stark evolutions nonetheless. Curry’s insane 3-point shooting has ushered in an era of spacing and shooting like we’ve never seen before. I believe Harden’s game will have a similar influence on the next generation of players and the game will evolve much in the same way.
Kolsky: I approached this from the standpoint of what kind of player gets more appreciation in retrospect? and my conclusion is that it’s often the great player that plays in the shadow of other great players, so I’m going with Paul George. Some of what George did as he was blossoming in Indiana was truly impressive, and utterly overshadowed by the greatness of LeBron James (who beat him in the playoffs, despite Paul’s best efforts). Since fully recovering from his horrifying leg injury, PG has willingly deferred to Russell Westbrook and Kawhi Leonard, but even now (when active) is a thriving two-way stud capable of carrying a team. He’s a good jump shooter and can get his own in the halfcourt; he’s long and athletic and about as good a wing defender as the League has. He’ll likely never be the best player on a team again, but he could surely win a title or two and I think we’ll look back at what could have been with different circumstances or without that broken leg.
Maly: Damian Lillard. There is something about Pacific Northwest basketball that doesn’t seem to attract the same buzz as top markets. Lillard’s greatness will always be overshadowed by some of the greatest basketball players in history, but it doesn’t mean we should forget how great Lillard has been. The late-for-East Coasters 10:30 p.m. tipoffs won’t have too much tuning in during the regular season. Combine that with the smaller market, we find ourselves in an unfortunate situation of leaving Dame out of conversations. It’s happened early on in his career and now even at the top of his game. Let’s not forget all the personality traits that make him even more underrated. Choice No. 2: Jimmy Butler. Lots of haters don’t realize how good he is/was, his ego unfortunately has taken over storylines more than his play in recent years. Remember how Butler made his name and understand his journey will be one that should be talked about for generations.
Smart: Easy answer would be LeBron James. How he has stretched out his time in the NBA, kept production at a high level, while playing the amount of games/minutes will be recognized. Not to mention what he has started off the court with “Uninterrupted” and paving the way for the next generation to get their opportunities at their dreams no matter their situation, or ethnicity. James is a guy that will be talked about forever, and is in a similar situation to Kobe Bryant. Not a lot of people admired Kobe’s game until his final season, but started to appreciate it too late.
Two years into the All-Star draft exercise, where are you on the idea? Is this the right fit for the future model of the game?
Connolly: I’m in. Anything that stirs up drama among the NBA elite, sign me up. The draft also provides rare insight into blue-chip players (well, just LeBron and Giannis, I guess) view each other. Or it provides jackasses like my friends and me fodder for hyperbolic speculation. Both Giannis and LeBron ice-grilled Harden and Westbrook until later in their respective draft pools (Translation: No one likes playing with ball hogs). Ben Simmons went two rounds before Jayson Tatum (Translation: Philly’s still winning the Atlantic Division battle of public opinion).
Dowling: As I type this, I feel very satisfied with the All-Star draft. I think its obvious pros include getting to see a mix of players from different conferences on the same team that we otherwise would never get to see save for international competitions. I’ve also enjoyed the presentation of the draft on TNT. This has provided LeBron and Giannis a platform to make their picks and better yet, explain their thinking in terms of the personnel they would like to play with. And that’s always a plus as a viewer. You’d always like to peek into the tactical sections of the minds of the best in the game and this does that. Beyond the draft, however, I feel like the game itself could use some extra incentive for players to be a bit more competitive like it was back in the early 2000’s. Maybe this year’s quarter format and finish similar to the Elam Ending in honor of the late legend Kobe Bryant might help that. After all, who doesn’t want to see essentially a pickup game to 24 between the top 24 players so far this season?
Kolsky: In short: yes, this draft is a good idea. I imagine it could be better—perhaps a live, pickup hoop-style draft right before the game actually starts?—but I know it’s a good idea because I watched the draft, and I was excited. I’m not sure what it says about me that I cackled when Russell Westbrook fell down the “draft board,” but it was an enjoyable experience if a brief one. I am NOT a big fan of the restructuring of the game format itself, because the whole notion of trying to force guys to compete harder throughout an exhibition game is a fools errand to me. The NBA All-Star Game has always been simple in my eyes. If you want to watch highly competitive stars play each other in highly competitive games, I present to you literally hundreds of opportunities over the course of the season. If you want to watch the absolute best guys goof around and throw some alley-oops in an exhibition game, we have one Sunday in February where you can do that, too (and if it’s close late, maybe they lock in a bit). I don’t think it needs the fixing everyone else seems to.
Maly: I’m neither here nor there on the idea. I think it’s a good idea but won’t last long term. The NBA should look into a 3 on 3 tournament if they truly want to make changes to the All-Star Weekend landscape. The only thing holding viewers attention to the All-Star Game is Saturday night, not Sunday.
Smart:I like what the NBA is doing with the All-Star Game. I look around at other professional sports All-Star festivities, and the NBA continues to stand out. The thing with the NBA is that it can relate to its fans along with its athletes better than most. I look at the NFL, and the Pro Bowl, and it took them losing tons of viewership for the league to make changes to their format. For the NBA, it has been successful so far because of LeBron James and Giannis Antetokounmpo being the two best players in the Association, and being the captains. Tuning in to see who James and Antetokounmpo will be drafting, seeing which guys they favor in the Association. If you remember last season, James and Ernie Johnson shared a hilarious moment surrounding Anthony Davis being drafted by James. As bad as I miss the old East vs. West this was an excellent power move by the NBA to make the game more exciting, and let guys play with each other that normally wouldn’t if the original format was still in place.
Arcand: I like it, it adds a little flavor to the proceedings that was not there before, but I think they’ve painted themselves into a corner a little bit with LeBron and Giannis. I know it’s based on votes but those two are such megastars that I wonder if some year when it’s Harden and Kyrie as the captains, for example, if it will have the same kind of impact.
Heading into the All-Star break, how many true contenders are there?
Dowling: I believe there are five—Lakers, Clippers, Bucks, Raptors, Heat and Sixers—as many as I thought before the season began. I believe the Lakers and Clippers are just an echelon above every other team in the West. I don’t trust Denver to overcome better teams. Houston could make a run but I don’t think they have a play style that will hold up in the playoffs, especially now that they’ve gone all in on extra small ball. Utah gives me pause for a second because they are pretty deep and full of veterans but still, the Lakers and Clippers are above. As for the East, the Bucks are clearly setting the pace at a whopping 46-7 right now. The Raptors are a respectable second for me out of the East and have compiled a surprising 40-14 record. Kawhi left, but he also left behind a roster full of players that now know what it takes to win. Overlook that quality at your own peril. And though I would take Milwaukee as my team to make it out of the East, I tweeted two weeks into the season that Miami is probably the most underrated team in the League. And they certainly improved at the trade deadline adding experienced veterans Andre Igoudala and Jae Crowder. They’ve so far compiled a 22-3 record at home which means they should have a chance against anybody come playoff time, and that record is second-best only behind the Sixers’ 24-2. And now, Philadelphia has hit a rough patch the last month or so with Embiid playing up and down battling back from injury. Al Horford admitted to the media that they have issues in the locker room. But the playoffs don’t start tomorrow. This team is still constructed to put up a legitimate fight in the playoffs. They still have time to mature as a team and figure out how to win on the road. Because of this, I just can’t leave them out.
Kolsky: Five or six—and I’m a little surprised at my own answer, because I kind of thought there would be more. I just closed my eyes and thought, “Who can I imagine standing with the Larry O’Brien Trophy?” Certainly the Lakers, Clippers and Bucks qualify (maybe I should have said three ¯\_(ツ)_/¯) and I can still kind of picture it with the Sixers, though they have to find something they haven’t so far. I added “1 or 2” to that four, because I feel like Toronto, Boston and Miami deserve some respect for their better-than-we-expected performances to this point. If I’m honest, though, I just can’t imagine Pascal Siakam, Kemba Walker or even Jimmy Butler being the best player on an NBA Champion, so I probably should have said four. How’s THAT for equivocating?!
Maly: Three. Milwaukee, Lakers and Clippers. These three teams are equipped with top-10 talent and can switch game plans for playoff basketball. I love Miami this year but do they have enough to contain the Bucks for an entire series? Denver is a great story, but they haven’t proven to be able to win consistently in the playoffs. Any other team doesn’t have a prayer, the most we can hope for (especially in an awful Eastern Conference) for competitive series even though we know the outcomes of most.
Smart: Honestly, that is tough to say, because it has been five or six years since the NBA has been this wide open. Right now the NBA is wide open. Out East, you’ll see a more open conference, but that isn’t because the East is soft, but because the competition level is so high, and spread out. The same can be said about the Western Conference. You’ve got Toronto, Milwaukee, Both Los Angeles teams, Boston, and Denver. Each one of the teams I named can play multiple styles and can defend when needed. You get teams that are built like that, in a seven game series? Contenders for an upset.
Arcand: With the Warriors struggling I thought the field would be a little more wide open but the Bucks’ dominance in the East makes it difficult to envision any other serious contenders there. The Heat got better at the deadline but I wouldn’t call them title contenders. The Celtics have been playing very well but I’d hesitate to put them in that category either. In the West the Lakers and Clippers are the obvious choices, and as much as I like what Denver, Utah, and OKC are doing I think the Rockets are the only other team I would call a real contender.
Connolly: Seven. Let’s start in the East, where everyone’s chasing down Milwaukee. The Bucks are on pace for 71 wins and have the largest net rating differential ever. They’ve dropped one game—ONE GAME!—to an Eastern Conference team; it was during the the first week of the season, a 121-109 loss in Philadelphia on Christmas Day. That’s historic stuff. And yet… I still can’t shake this feeling that they’re vulnerable in certain matchups. It’s entirely conceivable Giannis goes cold from 3 in the first two games of a Conference Finals, loses confidence from deep for the rest of the series, and the Bucks relive the same nightmare as last season. The Raptors may have lost Kawhi, but they still have the defensive playbook that worked against Milwaukee last year up on the shelf. And we all talked all offseason about how the Bucks rolled the dice by not adding any major pieces to their roster to address lingering concerns. Eric Bledsoe hasn’t shown us anything dispositive to the notion his balls shrivel to half their size in April and May. I’m not saying they do… but I’m also not saying they don’t. We don’t know. If the 76ers can get their act together in time for the playoffs, they, along with Toronto, have the bodies (Ben Simmons, Matisse Thybulle, hell, even Joel Embiid) to throw at Giannis. With apologies to Boston and Miami, I don’t see anyone else with a workable game plan to topple Milwaukee.
Out West, I’ll spare you the lecture on the Lakers and Clippers, who are obvious contenders if they’re fully healthy. The Jazz have continuity, altitude and a $100 futures bet from yours truly on their 30-1 title odds at the beginning of the season playing in their favor. I famously (among my 12 friends in D.C.) won half a G off the Nationals winning the 2019 World Series on a 25-1 futures bet in mid-September and made everyone sweat with my 70-1 Titans Super Bowl pick in Week 15. Sensing a pattern? I’m throwing the Pocket Rockets in as contenders just for funsies.
Damian Lillard has been beyond hot, averaging over 34 PPG and nearly 9 APG over his last 20. Is there any chance he could make a legitimate MVP push?
Kolsky: It depends what you mean by “legitimate.” If you mean realistic, then no—his team simply isn’t winning enough games, and even if he finishes with something crazy like 30/10 for the year, I can’t see the MVP award going to a guy on a non-playoff team (or even an eighth seed). If by “legitimate,” you mean that he could actually be the player who brings more value to his team than any other, I think he should legitimately be in the top three or four. It’s hard to argue with Giannis, but right now Dame is probably bringing as much real value to his organization as any other single player in the League. Ten games ago, the Trail Blazers were 18-26. In those ten games, Lillard averaged 41.5 points, 9.4 assists and 5.7 rebounds while leading that team to a 7-3 record. Nobody is being asked to do more with less right now, and Dame is as fearless as he is fantastic.
Maly: Unfortunately, no. Maybe hold out a slim chance that Luka Doncic underperforms when he returns there could be a small chance. Plain and simple, I don’t think anyone passes Giannis for MVP.
Smart: It is a very impressive stretch, but if Portland cannot make the playoffs, Lillard won’t get much love from the national media, even if he keeps these numbers up. Currently sitting two and a half games back of the eighth seed, Lillard will have to be magical in the final 29 games to get Portland into the playoffs and get the attention of the national media.
Arcand: As great as Lillard has been the Blazers have underperformed this year which will make it tough to overtake names like Giannis and LeBron. If Portland sneaks into the eight seed that could change but he still has to deal with Harden, Davis, Doncic, even someone like Jimmy Butler who’s had such a huge impact in Miami (a no-doubt playoff team). I think Lillard will get votes but the field is probably a little too stacked this year.
Connolly: Call that man Logo Lillard. He’s made the absence of Stephen Curry from the League this year more bearable than it would be otherwise. But it’s not happening. Giannis is averaging 30-14-6 on 55 percent from the field for a team that could break the all-time regular season wins record.
Dowling: Lillard should be considered for an MVP provided that he accomplishes one condition: Portland makes the playoffs. At this moment, they are only now 2.5 games out of the eighth seed currently held by Memphis. The Trail Blazers have been plagued by injury all season. Jusuf Nurkic is still rehabbing a broken leg without a timetable for his return. Zach Collins had shoulder surgery in November and is expected to be out until at least March. Rodney Hood tore his achilles in December. This team has been through so much adversity and it’s not even the All-Star break yet. They had to go out and sign Carmelo Anthony and though he has proven he should have been in the League all this time, he hadn’t played for a year and a half. If Dame can pop off like this and sustain such numbers through the rest of the season and lead his team to the playoffs, then man, I don’t know how he wouldn’t be considered for the label of “Most Valuable.”
Put a percentage on the chances Andrew Wiggins plays winning basketball at both ends for the Golden State Warriors.
Maly: This question is interesting, is it for one season or for his entire tenure with the Warriors? In any case, this will be a case study on if the Warriors have the ability to transform broken young players into winning players. I give it 60 percent chance because of Steph, Klay, Draymond and Steve Kerr. Plenty of players have turned it around after being in an environment of bad culture or consistent losing. Pressure is off for Wiggins, will he use this as a second chance at NBA life? Sometimes though, culture change doesn’t do anything. Jabari Parker has all the talent in the world but bounced from 4 teams over the last two seasons, with issues in both Milwaukee and Chicago. Only time will tell if 24-year old Wiggins has it in him to prove every hater wrong. We’ll find out.
Smart: Fifty percent because of how he has played the game so far throughout his career. Now being on a roster where he won’t have to produce 20-plus point games a night will be key. He could fit the role Harrison Barnes once had in Golden State when the Warriors started their success. The difference between Wiggins and Barnes would be if Barnes was having a bad night he would find his way through a game. Making an impact defensively, and making cuts to the basket. For Wiggins, the question has always been his motor, so, I’m 50 percent because we don’t know if his motor can stay up on a bad night offensively.
Arcand: I’d put that percentage on the low side, around like 20—the Warriors shouldn’t really even be in the business of winning basketball at this point. I think Wiggins could be a real factor for the Warriors at full strength, but for the rest of this year I think there’s a better chance he gets into a fistfight with Draymond Green at practice or something.
Connolly: The operative words in this question being “both ends.” Ummm, like 1 percent? Look, Wiggins clearly has the talent to contribute on offense for a winning team. He’s as vertically explosive as anyone in the League, and he can hit open 3-pointers. He’s extraordinarily talented, even if that talent exists in a vacuum without any recognizable basketball IQ with which to put it to use. He still doesn’t know where to go on defense, he hasn’t ever shown he cares about that end of the floor for any meaningful stretch in his career, and he was traded from a bad team to an even worse one. Why should he care to start now? He’s the anti-Marcus Smart.
Dowling: I’m 90 percent sure Andrew Wiggins plays winning basketball on both ends for the Warriors. Now, I must say, I am part of the contingent that believes Wiggins has so far underachieved in his career thus far. But then again, it clearly wasn’t working with him and KAT in Minnesota, and Jimmy Butler obviously made things worse. I’m this confident Wiggins will play winning basketball in The Bay because he doesn’t have to worry about earning a new contract and he doesn’t have to worry about leading a team to the playoffs. This team is too ravaged with injuries to come back from a 12-42 record right now. So essentially, I believe Wiggins is playing this season with as little pressure as an NBA player of his caliber possibly can. His job for Golden State right now is to do his best to perform, get better, and soak in the experience Klay, Steph, and Draymond can lend to him so that he is as ready as possible to hopefully aid those three return to the top tier of teams next season, and maybe even with someone like James Wiseman holding down the paint (scary to think about). The only reason why I reserve some assurance and am 10 percent unsure so to speak is because nobody likes to play for a losing team, much less the worst team in the League. I think Wiggins in playing with no pressure but playing on a losing team can also wear down the morale of even the best players in the game (see Kevin Love). He might get to a point where he just can’t give 100 percent effort every game, but that’s okay. They’re not playing for anything this year. He just needs to be ready for next year, and the ability to play with 100 percent effort would be a lot easier for anybody with Curry, Thompson and Draymond on the court with you.
Kolsky: Exactly 71.2 percent. I used an elaborate formula to calculate this very precise value, but the gist of my thinking is simple: Andrew Wiggins is a phenomenal talent, not yet 25, and landing in a situation that is infinitely better than the one he spent his first five years in. If Wiggins was a 50/50 proposition in a vacuum, that equates to something like 29 percent in Minnesota and 63 percent in a championship culture. The Warriors not only bring that culture, but also want to play a style (running, ball movement and cutting) that should fit his skills. Furthermore, he’ll be asked to quietly settle into the role of third or fourth option, a far cry from the ball-dominant superstar the Timberwolves mistakenly hoped he would be. He still has to want it more than he has appeared to, and develop more than he has, but there’s no doubt in my mind that his odds of being a useful and effective player have gone up an awful lot with his arrival in the Bay.