Pressing questions, hot topics, and collaboration amongst your favorite basketball minds—welcome back to Around the Rim.
Think of Around the Rim as your local politicians would like for you to think of a town hall, a safe forum for all voices in the basketball universe to be heard. A stable roundtable, fluctuating in both voices and trendy issues. We’ve had over 500 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe.
The roundtable runs every week, with new questions and new voices each week. If you have a question you’d like answered by the panel, tweet @JoshEberley or @HOOPmag and check back each week to see who hopped in for the current edition. Last week’s edition can be found here.
This week, we are fortunate to have five dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Ali Behpoornia: Lakers Film Room, video editor
Chris Crawford: ESPN 580, producer
Brandon Duenas: AZ Sports Zone, owner
Christopher Kline: Sixers Sense, site expert
Brody Logan: KSEE24, morning anchor
Following a terrific Celtics-Lakers matinee, what’s the best possible Finals matchup?
Behpoornia: As much as I’d love to see a Lakers-Celtics matchup in the Finals, I think the best possible matchup would be Lakers-Bucks. The NBA can have a Lakers-Celtics matchup for years to come, but the opportunity for a LeBron-Giannis Finals matchup won’t always be there. This season, you hear three names being thrown around as the best player in the NBA: LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Kawhi Leonard. Being able to see two of those superstars going up against each other in the Finals would be incredibly fun to watch. Both teams matchup incredibly well with each other.
Crawford: This question will have two different answers depending on who you ask. I think for the casual NBA fan (or your parents) they will say Lakers vs. Celtics without hesitation. There is history in the matchup that is too juicy to pass up on. For what it’s worth, I think this is what ABC/ESPN is rooting for as well—dolla, dolla bills y’all. From the basketball junkie perspective, I have to go with Bucks vs. Lakers. The chance to get LeBron vs Giannis while LeBron is still LeBron is too good to pass up. Having never gotten the dream finals matchup of Kobe vs LeBron I need to get the Giannis Vs LeBron series before it’s too late. Good news for everyone else out there, I don’t think there’s a chance in hell the Magic will be able to play spoilers this time around.
Duenas: Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for a Lakers-Bucks Finals series. Giannis vs. LeBron in that type of environment makes for must-watch TV. That answer is boring though, so I’m going another route with something I deem (somewhat) unlikely, yet it would offer some incredible basketball along with juicy storylines: the Los Angeles Clippers versus The Toronto Raptors. Kawhi going against his old squad would be epic. How awesome would it be to watch a scrappy, underdog Toronto team make it out of the East again? Siakam vs. Leonard. Pat Bev vs. Lowry in a battle of the pit bulls. The Nurse vs. The Doc. Both teams are aesthetically pleasing to watch when they are firing on all cylinders, so it would just be beautiful basketball. Sign me up for 6 or 7 games of that. It’s also worth noting that at complete full strength the Clippers are 5-0 this season. I believe they will peak at just the right time and I still have them as my favorite to come out of the West and win a championship.
Kline: On one hand, I’d enjoy something strange and unexpected. Denver-Toronto, for example, would be a joy to watch and really rattle our collective expectations. On the other hand, it’s difficult to not wish for another LeBron James run. The Lakers have the personnel to accentuate LeBron’s greatness in the playoffs, which wasn’t the case his last go-around in Cleveland. It’s also nice, I suppose, to see Anthony Davis in a spot where he can contend, too. At that point, it seems logical to pine for the two best teams. The Lakers and Bucks would pit LeBron and AD against a genuine juggernaut—perhaps one of the greatest single-season teams in NBA history. The last time LeBron faced a team of that magnitude in the Finals, the result was a seven-game slice of nirvana. Truly magnificent stuff. The underdog story arc, the 3-1 lead, the comeback. It was poetic. It should probably be Lakers-Bucks.
Logan: Lakers-Bucks. They’re the two best teams and the chance to see LeBron/AD and Giannis/Middleton go at each other for seven games would be worth the price of admission. They were already ridiculously competitive with each other in the damn All-Star Game, imagine if a ring was on the line!
Jayson Tatum is averaging 28.7 PPG over his last 10 games and is scoring from absolutely everywhere. Has he become the best forward in the Eastern Conference?
Crawford: That’s a very nice 10-game stretch, but last time I checked there is still a guy averaging more points over his last 59 games. As long as Giannis is in the East, it’s his conference to run. Don’t get me wrong, Tatum is putting together a great bounce back campaign after a lackluster sophomore season, but he’s still MILES away from Giannis. It’s crazy to me how much this season by Giannis and the Bucks is flying under the radar. Outside of blocks and steals (where he is second respectively) the Greek Freak leads the Bucks in just about every statistical category, and has the team on pace for 70 wins. I’m a big Tatum guy, but he’s no Giannis and he’s got a ways to go before he can even be mentioned in the same breath.
Duenas: I’m not quite ready to declaratively say he’s the best forward in the Eastern Conference (excluding Giannis), but he’s right in that same tier as Pascal Siakam, Jimmy Butler and Khris Middleton and on track to surpass those guys if his ascendance doesn’t slow down any time soon. However, I will say the way Tatum scores is more valuable over any of those guys in a playoff series in my opinion. His ability to hit pull-ups and contested stepbacks from tough angles off the dribble has been unstoppable at times. That is the type of value you need most in crunch time to close out games and force defenses to adjust. How Boston fares in the playoffs should directly correlate with Tatum’s play, so I’m looking forward to seeing if his leap to stardom continues in the postseason.
Kline: If we classify Giannis Antetokounmpo as big, and Ben Simmons and Jimmy Butler as guards, then the answer is probably yes. That’s not to say he doesn’t have some competition—Pascal Siakam, mainly—but Tatum is on the brink of two-way superstardom. Tatum could very well transform Boston into an immediate title contender. He’s not only a leading All-Defense candidate, but he has reached new heights as an efficient, prolific three-level scorer. Tatum edges out Siakam on defense, and he’s a more well-rounded scorer on offense. What advantages Siakam may hold in transition and with his unique downhill physicality, Tatum transcends with a smooth pull-up game, much improved finishing at the rim, and steady growth as a passer. He is, in every sense of the word, legit.
Logan: Are we counting Giannis as a forward still? I’d say so, and I still think he’s the most unstoppable and thus best all around player. Is Tatum the most complete? He might be, it’s a weird concern but I almost worry he’s bulking up too much and will lose some of his quickness and shooting stroke. It clearly hasn’t hurt him yet so what the hell do I know?
Behpoornia: As long as Giannis Antetokounmpo is in the Eastern Conference, I don’t think any other forward will have that title. Tatum has been absolutely dominating this month and is showing the skills that a lot of Celtics fans have seen in him, but I think it’s very important to see him average those stats for a couple seasons before even considering that. I have Tatum as a top-three forward in the Eastern Conference, alongside Giannis and Pascal Siakam. I still have Siakam barely ahead of Tatum. That being said, both players are incredibly young and that can change every season. In that Lakers-Celtics game, the Lakers couldn’t stop Tatum so they had to double team him, only the best players in the NBA ever have that happen to them. His game is growing before our eyes, and I’m excited to see how he looks in two to three years.
In the All-Star Game, we saw perhaps the most exciting finish in the game’s history. The Elam Ending deserves credit for the success of the event. How would you feel about seeing the Elam Ending installed on a permanent basis during the regular season?
Duenas: That was a terrific All-Star Game to watch and hands down the most competitive I’ve seen it in a long time, possibly ever. I would love to see it continue for years to come in the All-Star Game itself, but when it comes to implementing it into the regular season…I’m not on board with that. It is an interesting idea, but it would just overcomplicate things. I get that the ratings need a boost (from the League’s point of view), but overall I think this season has been very enjoyable. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I say keep running All-Star Games with the Elam Ending, but keep that out of the regular season games please and thank you!
Kline: No. The Elam Ending makes perfect sense for the All-Star Game, where it’s a once-a-year spectacle, competitiveness is an issue and quarterly results determine charity donations. In the regular season, the NBA has a steady product that already produces memorable moments on a nightly basis. When players have something to compete for—standings, contracts, rivalries—there’s no reason to upend the system, risk longer games and attempt to manufacture higher stakes. The stakes are, in most games, high enough.
Logan: Never for the regular season, but for a possible midseason tournament. I love that it also gave us 45 minutes of commercial-free basketball. The TV partners regionally would never let that happen in the regular season with so many regional truck ads to sell.
Behpoornia: Even though I loved those changes for the All-Star Game, I don’t think that’s a rule that should be implemented for the regular season. I think that rule is something that’s incredibly fun and perfect for the All-Star Game to make it competitive and different. Also, adding that could possibly risk more injuries, as we saw it got pretty wild in that fourth quarter. However, if the NBA ever decides to add an in-season tournament, it might be entertaining to add that fourth quarter rule in there. A lot of people, including myself, aren’t too thrilled about the idea of adding an in-season tournament, but with this rule change I can see fans starting to be more open to the idea.
Crawford: Give. Me. More. Elam. Ending. I was all in on implementing this into the All-Star Game and it did not disappoint. Now I don’t want it to be the way every game’s outcome is decided, but let’s pepper it into a few. Having each team play 3-4 games every year with an Elam Ending would be great. I think if we ever get to the point where there are in-season tournaments those should absolutely be Elam Ending. The problem today is that there’s a large conglomerate of people out there who believe they don’t have to tune into an NBA game until the final five minutes. That same group is the first to complain about how long those final five minutes take, too. With the Elam Ending it somewhat eliminates both those complaints as you would be more tempted to tune in for the entirety of an un-timed fourth quarter. It wouldn’t feel as long of a finish either because of the continuous play. Two birds, one stone. The one downside of the Elam Ending is exactly what we saw in the All-Star Game, and that’s the game ending on free throws. Maybe if a foul is committed and the results would be free throws, the player fouled gets to pick one of the 5 players on the court for the opponent and gets to go one-on-one for the win. I dunno. I’m sure there’s something you can come up with, but that’s just my thought.
Trae Young is averaging 30 PPG and 9 APG for the lowly Atlanta Hawks. He’s creeping up towards must-watch status despite playing on a loser and he’s only 21. If you had to put a number on it, he’s already the ___ best player in the League.
Kline: It’s difficult to gauge since Trae is on such a bad roster. The Hawks have core pieces in place, but the supporting cast lacks the depth and experience to translate Young’s nightly production into wins. He is not, however, an empty calorie scorer, and he’s on the verge of a top-30 standing in basketball, if not already there. He is a special talent—one good enough to soothe the regret of trading away Luka Doncic. Young earned and deserved his All-Star start, which speaks to his progression since last season. He is one of the best passers on the planet, he’s immensely crafty as a ballhandler, and his shooting can throw a Steph Curry-shaped wrench into opposing defenses (that is not, of course, meant to compare him to Curry as a talent). Young needs to ascend to a less egregious level on defense, but right now, his offense is sublime. He gets a top-30 nod, and will probably move up in the foreseeable future.
Behpoornia: That’s such a tough question. I honestly would have to say eighth. The players that I have in front of him in no particular order are Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Joel Embiid, Luka Doncic and James Harden. That of course changes a bit if you were to include injured players like Kevin Durant and Steph Curry. I get that he’s doing it on the Hawks, but they’re still insane numbers. What’s crazy is he’s only 21 and averaging those numbers. He makes the game look so easy. He’s got such a bright future ahead of him and I have no doubt he enters the top five players conversation by the age of 25.
Crawford: I’ll sit him right at his age: 21. He’s up there with the likes of Kemba Walker and Bradley Beal, but not quite in the tier of Donovan Mitchell or CP3. I don’t think that’s a 21 trending upwards either. The one thing that causes me hesitation when it comes to ranking Trae is that he hasn’t shown the ability to win. I don’t want to hear about how John Collins was out for 25 games, and how the rest of the team is very young. Save it. This Atlanta Hawks team is EASILY one of the most disappointing teams this year. The fact that they only have one more win than the Cavs and are tied in the standings with the Knicks is embarrassing for the amount of young talent this team has. As it stands right now, this Hawks team has had 7 of their 16 wins come against teams in the playoffs.That’s 43 percent. If 43 percent of your wins are against playoff teams, you should be in better standings than bottom four in the League. I’m rooting for the kid because regardless of team record, he is a must-watch player in my book. I just find myself disappointed every time I do watch because I look at the surrounding pieces and can’t help but think: No way this team should be battling a depleted Knicks team in double OT. I’m excited for the future of the Hawks, but unless Trae can get some killer instinct he is going to need some more help.
Duenas: Trae Young is so much fun to watch, and a player with his skillset emerging has been sorely needed this season with Steph and Klay both missing most of this year. Him and Dame are probably my favorite NBA League Pass watches just because you never know when they’re going to catch fire or pull up from the logo. Due to lack of team success thus far and being (statistically) one of the worst defenders in the League again, I can’t put him in the top 10 just yet, but he’s quickly trending in that direction. His offense alone puts him somewhere in my top 20, as he’s currently tied for second in points per game at 30.0, and 2nd in the league in assists per game at 9.2 and doing so on an efficient clip relative to his volume. If I had to put an exact number on it, I’d say he’s probably around the 15th best player in the League all things considered.
The Rockets are 4-2 with Robert Covington playing and have gone all-in on small ball. Have they helped or hindered their chances of a title this season by doubling down on the strategy?
Logan: They helped it 100 percent. Half-stepping was pointless, if you’re gonna be a bear…be a grizzly. Go full bore. This is like trying the air raid or triple in football (I guess this would be the run and shoot). Give your opponents something different to prepare for and do that different thing better than anyone ever has. They have Russell Westbrook effectively playing center, which is great. You don’t want him shooting anyway, and teams are now defending Russ with their 5. Picture someone like Rudy Gobert standing in the paint daring Russ to drive and dunk over him. It’s fascinating to watch how they continue to use this offense, and how teams adapt to defend it. I can’t wait to see how this works in a playoff series.
Behpoornia: I think the Rockets have helped their chances of a title a bit. Making this trade didn’t just add a good 3&D player like Covington on their team, but it opened up James Harden and Russell Westbrook’s game. The paint isn’t as clogged anymore and it allows those two to do damage with their isolations. I think they’re going to make a lot of teams have to change to a small lineup. I was shocked that they didn’t add a center just for the playoffs. They have Tyson Chandler and Isaiah Hartenstein, but both players barely get any minutes and aren’t a difference maker. That being said, I still do believe they have helped their chances. However, the Lakers and Clippers are still better teams in my opinion and I don’t see the Rockets beating those two in a seven game series.
Crawford: First off, let’s call this what it is and that’s short ball. Secondly, while it’s fun and working right now, I think it is going to fail spectacularly when it matters. Am I being biased because I don’t like and have never liked Harden and the Rockets? Absolutely not. Maybe. Probably a little. Fine, yes it is, but I stand by it! This feels eerily similar to when the Dolphins broke out the Wildcat offense in the 2008 season. During the regular season nobody could really figure it out and they were able to finish the year at 11-5 and make the playoffs. The problem is, everyone likes to forget what happened after that. Sure they dethroned the Tom Bradyless Pats and were able to win the division, but I’d like to remind everybody what happened in the first round of the playoffs. The Phins turned the ball over five times and were molly-whopped (at home) by the Baltimore Ravens 27-9. As it stands right now, the Rockets are slated for a first round matchup vs the Utah Jazz, which would be the worst case scenario for them. All the gimmicks are fun in the regular season, but the playoffs are a different beast, especially on the defensive side of the ball. If the Rockets enter the first round series versus a defense-first team with the Stifle Tower anchoring the middle, they are going to have problems. Those up close, around the rim buckets that Russ has been getting won’t be as easy and that’s when everything will start to unravel. The Rockets’ best first round matchup will be against the likes of the Mavericks. If they get matched up with the Clippers, Jazz or Thunder, it will be a first round exit. Mark my words.
Duenas: This is sort of a cop out answer, but I don’t think Houston helped or hindered their chances of winning a title in a significant direction either way with the trade for Covington. I’m a big fan of RoCo and the strategy Houston has in place has my undivided attention, as they are doubling down on small ball and positional versatility. I will say that this year I think their chances are as high as they’ve ever been (with this core) to come out of the Western Conference but that has nothing to do with the trade they made. With the Warriors out of the picture, I truly would not be shocked if this team got hot and made a run at winning the West. Matchups will play an instrumental part in their playoff run and their ultimate success or demise. For instance, they better pray they somehow avoid facing the Clippers at any point, because that team is designed to destroy them. I do respect their decision to double down on the small ball and I look forward to seeing how that experiment translates in the postseason.
Kline: The Rockets are a more dynamic offense in lieu of Clint Capela. One of Houston’s biggest issues in recent postseason runs has been the lack of diversity on offense, which relied heavily on Harden’s iso game and a barrage of standstill threes, seemed to combust in high-leverage moments. Houston will still lean on Harden (and Russell Westbrook), and the Rockets will still prioritize shots at the rim and behind the 3-point line. But there is more movement, more explosiveness, and more spacing in this new iteration, and frankly, it might bode well in a postseason setting. This is Houston and Mike D’Antoni going all-in on style and fit. This is Houston playing to its strengths with reckless abandon, and if nothing else, it has certainly improved the watchability of an already existing offense (I deeply enjoy James Harden, sue me). Houston will have questionable matchups on defense, but P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington are not to be underrated. Houston has created the opportunity to unlock a higher gear, if one were to exist. We shall see.