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

Khaled Abdallah: Just Blog Baby, contributor

Aaron Ernest: Lakers superfan

Zach Pearson: 8 points, 9 seconds, contributor

Edwin Powell: The Hawks Beat, owner

Luke Zimmermann: formerly, SB Nation

With so much focus on the ratings dropping this season, would a Pelicans-Lakers first-round series be exactly what the doctor ordered? If so, would the Pelicans have a chance?

Abdallah: As much as the vocal minority complained on Twitter about the Warriors and Cavaliers being in the Finals four straight years, we know that the casual fans care more about big names and narratives than parity and multiple contenders. If the Lakers and Pelicans do face off it would be the most anticipated and most watched 1-8 matchup in a very long time. Watching LeBron James and Anthony Davis eviscerate the Grizzlies for four games would still be entertaining thanks to Ja Morant but he doesn’t have the same star power or cache as Zion Williamson. Both guys have spectacular ability and Morant’s reckless abandon in the paint makes for incredible highlights but the casual fans would be much more excited to tune in to see Zion vs LeBron than LeBron vs Ja.

The Pelicans would put up a good fight like they have every time they’ve played the Lakers, even without Zion, but this would be an entertaining sweep more than a competitive series. Zion is the real deal and the Pelicans have been much more competitive since his return but they would be lucky to win a game against a focused Lakers team. There will be a ton of highlights and content aggregators would have a field day with all the Lebron, Zion, and AD moments but this series wouldn’t last more than four games.

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Ernest: I believe if the Pelicans and Lakers faced off in the playoffs it would be the most watched playoff series other than the NBA Finals and an all-LA Conference Finals. There are many drama filled storylines that would do wonders for the NBA’s TV ratings. First, the Anthony Davis sitcom that played out towards the end of last season with the Pelicans will place pressure on him to deliver against his former team. Also, the castaways from the Lakers(Josh Hart Brandon Ingram Lonzo Ball) will certainly be out to prove that the Lakers franchise made the wrong decision in trading them. Even though Kyle Kuzma will be in an interesting position being the lone survivor of the young core. He will need to step up his play in the playoffs. Last but certainly not least the main event, LeBron and Zion. Two of the most media demanding athletes in the world would send the media into a series-long frenzy. If this series came to fruition I fully expect the Lakers to put the series away in four to five games. LeBron has come up short in the Finals on numerous occasions but everyone knows he remains The King of the first round. The only way I see the Pelicans having a slight chance in this series is if Zion is playing at top 10 player in the League level while Ingram and Jrue Holiday are playing at All-Sar levels. That would give them an outside chance to steal the series, which is highly unlikely.

Pearson: There’s no doubt in my mind that a Lakers-Pelicans playoff series would bring in lots of viewers. Not only is LeBron James the best player in the world, but the rookie phenom Zion Williamson’s unmatched physicality and energy is a must-watch any time he’s available. I don’t think the Pelicans could oust the Lakers in the first round, due to their young and new team, but it would be pure entertainment nonetheless and that’s what many fans would love to see.

Jeff Haynes/NBAE via Getty Images

Powell: A Lakers and Pelicans series would be great for the League because the story lines are already built in. (LeBron vs Zion, Davis vs. the Pelicans) There are currently three teams around that eighth spot (Grizzlies, Blazers and Pelicans) and while I think the Zion-Pelicans ticket might be the best for marketing, either of this Grizzlies team fueled by Ja Morant or Dame Dolla, CJ and Melo trio out in Portland is one hell of a consolation prize. Lakers would beat the Pels 4-1.

Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images

Zimmermann: “So you’re telling me there’s a chance…” Anything’s possible, and certainly the subplots are more than tantalizing. A core of ex-Lakers players seemingly exiled on the whims of the King (okay, okay; not exactly, but.) And the passing-of-the-torch elements of one of the NBA’s generational talents holding court against one of his heir apparents in Zion Williamson.

One of the really interesting things that caught my attention during the two teams’ recent Sunday Night prime time nationally televised matchup was how many non-NBA partisans or hardcores were dialed in on social media hollering along with the rest of us after each possession. LeBron playing with an extra spark (be it from AD’s absence, him trying to show Zion how it’s done, or maybe even just subtly extend more mortar fire to his former teammates) and Zion putting up a career high 35 points certainly gave viewers what they tuned in to see.

But when push came to shove, the result went how we pretty much all expected it to go. Extrapolating things out into a potential seven-game set doesn’t lend to a ton of scenarios in my mind where the Pelicans make things too interesting. Assuming Zion and co. can gain enough ground to even push it into the realm of possibilities, and assuming both teams are as healthy as possible in a vacuum, it’s still a stretch to conceive of too terribly many series of events where that one isn’t settled in five or six games tops.

After a slow start to the season, Kristaps Porzingis is averaging 26.5 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 2.1 BPG, shooting 49 percent from the floor and 40 percent on over nine attempts a night. Is Porzingis still on the path to superstardom?
Glenn James/NBAE via Getty Images

Abdallah: Even with all the advancements in modern medicine, most experts say that a major ligament tear like an Achilles or ACL is still a two-year injury. Porzingis tore his ACL on February 6, 2018 and his recent renaissance started almost two years to the day when he set his scoring season-high on February 3, 2020 with 38 against the Pacers. Of his ten best scoring performances, seven have come since January 31st so there is a clear threshold that Porzingis crossed after he hit that two-year mark.

Much of that may be the mental aspect of feeling comfortable after a major injury but it could also be attributed to him taking on a larger role with Luka Doncic missing seven games in January and February but either way it is a great sign for the Mavericks. Porzingis is finally back to the player that Dallas traded for and it bodes well for their current and future prospects if they can keep the dynamic duo together. Of the lower seeds in the Western Conference, the Mavs may be the team no one wants to play given the re-emergence of Porzingis as a bonafide star on both ends of the floor.

Ernest: The nickname “the unicorn” is not given to someone that will just become another guy in the NBA. I believe Porzingis still has a chance to become a superstar in this league. His unique skills set  at that height and size is very much in style with today’s NBA. Starting the year he was coming off a long injury rehab so I expected that he’d be rusty and not up to speed. Adjusting to a new coaching staff, new system, and taking the role as the clear No. 2 option were also part of his early season struggles. With Luka Doncic already reaching NBA superstardom and being an early season MVP candidate Kristaps came into the year a little tentative and took a backseat role. The pivotal turn around for him this season was clearly the Luka injury. During that time he became the go to guy. His numbers started  to skyrocket and most importantly his confidence seemed to follow. Kristaps will need to carry this momentum into the playoffs with the Maverick basically locked into the seventh seed. Hopefully the Luka and Kristaps duo can do what Dirk and Nash never got the chance to do together and that’s compete for titles.

David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images

Pearson: Before tearing his ACL, Porzingis was averaging 18 points per game and was the Knicks’ franchise player after Carmelo Anthony was traded. His unique ability to shoot the ball well, as a seven-footer, makes him extremely useful and hard to defend. After being traded to the Mavericks, he’s put on about 16 pounds and is much stronger now. Porzingis playing with first-time All-Star, Luka Doncic, reduces his role offensively but is unquestionably a star already. However, if he can remain consistent with the shots he’s getting now and keep being the defensive anchor for the Mavs, his superstardom is inevitable.

Powell: I’m very cautious with the term “superstar,” I reserve that for a very select few. I think KP is in a great situation in Dallas and this is undoubtedly his time to flourish. He’s playing really well and I think he can be a star but to me personally the only guy on that team we will be calling superstar in two to three years is Luka Doncic.

Zimmermann: I guess the interesting thing (maybe not so interesting to Mavs fans) is that as Porzingis’ star turn has seemingly reignited, the Mavs’ recent fortunes have gone somewhat the other direction. It’s a multi-variable equation and pinning it all on more situational basketball going through KP is surely unfair, but. Getting to play with a talent of Doncic’s unbelievable ceiling maybe initially looked like it’d cap Porzingis’ (at least scoring) output a touch from time to time. But it’s also easy to lose sight that this is a player coming off a major injury who doesn’t even turn 25 until this August.

A lot of the trends are really positive, from a micro and macro standpoint alike. Short-order rebounding is way up. And Porzingis’ contributions to “winning basketball” seem higher than at any other point in his young career (getting away from the black hole that is the Knicks probably doesn’t hurt in that regard). Being really honest with ourselves, I’m not sure Porzingis is on-track-on-track to reach the perhaps unfairly high expectations many of us set for him just two years or so ago. But being an All-Star caliber player on a team with an extremely bright future is a pretty apt consolation prize.

After the Bucks, the Eastern Conference’s next five teams all have believers and cynics in near equal droves. Which of Boston, Indiana, Miami, Philadelphia and Toronto offers the greatest threat to Milwaukee in the playoffs?

Abdallah: If we based this solely on regular season results then the answer would be the Miami Heat as they’re the only teams that have beaten the Bucks twice but we know that what happens from October to April isn’t indicative of what will happen in the playoffs. If the Sixers were fully healthy then they would be the choice here as they have the length to bother Giannis Antetokounmpo and can throw a number of big bodies at him over seven games. The combination of Joel Embiid, Al Horford, Ben Simmons, and even Tobias Harris could frustrate Giannis and their overall defensive aptitude could make for a tough series for Milwaukee. However with Embiid’s shoulder injury and Simmon’s lingering back injury, we have no clue what the Sixers will look like in the postseason so the next candidates to take down the Bucks are the Toronto Raptors.

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

The Raptors don’t have the sheer size that the Sixers do but they have a number of rangy, athletic, and versatile defenders that can cause problems for Giannis and Khris Middleton. They have the outside shooting to match up with Milwaukee’s sharp shooters and their key players in Pascal Siakam and Fred VanVleet have taken the leap this season. The scariest part about the Raptors is that we have rarely seen them at full strength with Marc Gasol, Serge Ibaka, and Kyle Lowry missing a combined 52 games as of March 3. If the playoff seeding stays as is or even varies slightly then the Bucks will not have to worry about the Raptors until the Eastern Conference Finals and they will have to hope that things do differently this time around.

Powell: Most people will say Boston because the roster looks sexy on paper and Jayson Tatum is becoming a bonafide assassin. I’m going to pick Toronto because they play with a certain type of grit and maturity that I don’t see with any team outside of the Bucks. The bench isn’t afraid of the moment and they don’t flinch when it comes to knocking down big shots. Yes Kawhi is no longer there but they have one of the best coaches in the league and they are a blue collar team with a chip on their shoulder. And like Ric Flair says, “In order to be the man you have to beat the man.”

Issac Baldizon/NBAE via Getty Images

Ernest: This is a very tough question because there are so many question marks surrounding the other Eastern Conference teams. The Pacers were my sleeper contender with Victor Oladipo coming back from injury. I thought they had a chance to make some noise out East. The loss of Jeremy Lamb for the season put all my championship sleeper thoughts to bed. Toronto is having a wonderful regular season and deserves praise  playing this well after losing Kawhi Leonard. I just do not have faith in them knocking off the Bucks with Pascal Siakam as the best player on the roster. Philadelphia may be the most talented team but Ben Simmons back injury is concerning and Joel Embid injury history is less than ideal to put it nicely. This leaves Boston and Miami. I will give the slight edge to Miami here. To make things clear I do believe the Celtics would beat the Heat if they matched up against each other, however I think the Heat match better with the Bucks. To beat the Bucks you have to slow down Antetokounmpo. The Heat have multiple players that they can throw at Giannis to attempt to slow him down. For starters Bam Adebayo has already shown to be an effective defender on Giannis in the regular season. Also having guys like Jimmy Butler, Jay Crowder and Andre Iguodala to guard Giannis and Middleton will be a key factor to having a chance to knock off the Bucks. I don’t believe Boston has the bodies on defense to contend with the Bucks in a seven-game series.

David Dow/NBAE via Getty Images

Pearson: Milwaukee has very talented bigs in Giannis, Brook Lopez, and Ilyasova. The Philadelphia 76ers have struggled recently, but a lot can happen in a seven-game series. I believe the 76ers have the size to compete with the Bucks, and although their roster isn’t as deep as the Bucks, they do have two skilled All-Stars in Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid. These guys can both be a threat any night, and with proper adjustments defensively I think they could give Milwaukee the most trouble if they are fully healthy.

Zimmermann: Ask me a different night and get a different answer.

Boston might just be the best coached, and at their peak look as good as anyone (maybe even Milwaukee). The way they’re built seems to suggest a short series might be even more in their favor than the long arduous grind of the 82 game regular season.

I’m probably the least high out of this group on the Pacers—and they’re still really good. They can beat any of these teams on any given night. But it’s challenging for me to envision them taking four of seven against more than maybe one of them in the stretch of a month.

Miami at the peak of their powers is probably the one that’s most exciting to me personally. Hating-a** Jimmy Butler and the star Bam Adebayo is turning into plus his potential to frustrate if not lockdown Giannis make for what would be an extremely tasty seven game set between those two.

Brian Babineau/NBAE via Getty Images

Philadelphia was probably the team most of us would’ve felt best about betting on heading into the season, but their campaign long inconsistency coupled now with bad injury luck and it’s getting to be a harder and harder proposition. If they somehow put it together come late April, anything goes. But other than as a lottery ticket, it’s hard to be super confident in that group as things currently stand.

And then there’s the sitting champs. Would anyone really be that shocked if Toronto goes on a Cinderella-but-not-Cinderella run once again? There’s a certain mental hurdle Milwaukee would have to overcome to get past even a post-Kawhi Raptors group. But the silver lining is someone else might just do it for them first.

In the interest of scholarship’s sake, let’s go Miami, right now, since they very recently just took it to the Bucks on their chin, and if they do everything they’re capable of (as Butler I believe not-so-subtly hinted at his own personal frustrations about), they could be the one that blows the door wide open for everyone else in the Eastern Conference field.

If it was up to you, the Finals match we’d be watching this year would be…
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Abdallah: Putting all biases aside the most exciting and compelling NBA Finals matchup this year would be LA Lakers-Milwaukee Bucks. A Lakers-Bucks Finals would include the two MVP frontrunners in Giannis and LeBron and could add some extra spice to the debate before we find out who the winner is a few weeks later. The other narratives would be just as compelling as the MVP debate. Will Giannis dethrone LeBron as the new king of the NBA? Will LeBron win his fourth title and stake further claim to GOAT status? Will Anthony Davis’s controversial move from New Orleans be fully justified with a ring? Will Dwight Howard cap a strange but Hall of Fame worthy career as a contributor to a title-winning team?

The talking points and narratives would be enough to fill hours of coverage on ESPN and NBA TV and that’s before we even get to the actual game action. The Bucks beat the Lakers back in December but that was at the end of a five game road trip for LA and both teams were missing key players in Kyle Kuzma and Eric Bledsoe. The two teams meet again on March 6 in LA in one of the most anticipated games of the season largely because these teams could very well be duking it out for the title in just a few months.

Gary Dineen/NBAE via Getty Images

Ernest: I’m a Laker fan so I’ll eliminate them from the discussion because I want them to win every year. That leaves me wanting to see a Denver Nuggets vs Milwaukee Bucks NBA Finals. I’m sure the NBA and the fans would hate this. This matchup isn’t the sexy one that will sell but I think it would be a fantastic series. Two well-coached teams that both can go about 9 to 10 deep in their rotation with minimal drop off in play. It also will show how far the NBA has come with two teams that best players are foreign. Nikola Jokic vs Giannis Antetokounmpo for me would be fantastic to watch. They would rarely go head to head on the court but they are the clear best players on their respective teams. It would be a competitive series and could end up going six or seven games. Let’s be hones,t who wouldn’t want to see Jokic celebrating a NBA Championship. To answer a question that wasn’t asked, I would hate to see a Clippers-Celtics Final. Watching the Celtics win 18 or the Clippers win their first is a sight not worth seeing for me.

Pearson: The Finals matchup we will most likely be seeing this year is the Los Angeles Lakers and Milwaukee Bucks. They’re at the top for a reason, and with LeBron and Giannis having MVP caliber seasons it would be hard to see this Finals matchup not happening. LeBron is not showing any signs of slowing down in his 17th NBA season and is averaging 25.5 points per game while shooting nearly 50 percent from the field, which is incredible. With LeBron not being the leading scorer, under Anthony Davis with 26.4 PPG, with those numbers shows you how dominant the Lakers tandem really is. Milwaukee is on pace to win 70 games this season and teams like that aren’t just a fluke. Their roster is deep and is accustomed to short minutes and specific roles since all season they’ve only played a nine-man rotation. They will be well prepared for the playoffs and likely be the favorites coming out of the Eastern Conference.

Powell: Lakers vs Bucks. LeBron vs the Greek Freak! Giannis wants the throne, will he take it? Can LeBron immortalize himself in a third city? The storylines would be great.

Zimmermann: After the drama of the past couple weeks, I’m not sure how it could be anything other than Houston-Milwaukee. The narrative-off back-and-forth of Giannis and James Harden doing literally everything to one up the other would be tremendous theater. Russell Westbrook in the mix as well as an agent of pure chaos. And the juxtaposition of styles could make for some riveting basketball, regardless of how you feel about watching the latter-day-Morey small ball Rockets.

Milwaukee against the Lakers resurfacing the team that drafted Kareem Abdul-Jabbar against the ones that took him away from them in his prime could have some appeal to old heads. To say nothing of pitting the best team in each conference respectively largely over the course of the season. Giannis vs LeBron is must-see-TV to boot.

Mark Blinch/NBAE via Getty Images

And then there’s the Clippers against the Raptors. It was compelling when they went head-to-head earlier in the season. Kawhi was well received enough getting his ring, but how will the tone and tenor in Jurassic Park change if he’s hitting daggers against the Raptors? Kawhi trying to do it for a third-different team would be captivating to watch (maybe not so much for Raptors, Spurs, or Lakers fans), and the Raptors trying to blaze their own path without their former rent-a-star could be equal parts fun to root for.

Having seen it a couple times in February, I wouldn’t sleep on Rockets-Celtics either in a rematch of the 1986 NBA Finals. These teams are so much different than those were, but getting to watch another contrast of styles and an opportunity for guys like Jayson Tatum to put their fingerprints all over the highest echelon of the Association would be a welcome treat.

With the experts being heavily critical on the top end talent available in the 2020 NBA Draft, who is the best player you’d give up for the No. 1 pick?
Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images

Abdallah: Taking into account injuries and contract, there are a number of candidates here, but the No. 1 choice must be Kyrie Irving. If the No. 1 pick is even marginally as good as Kyrie from a pure talent perspective then it would be a good pick, but other factors need to be taken into consideration. After the Nets announced that Kyrie would miss the remainder of the season with a shoulder injury, the former Blue Devil will have played just 20 games this season. Even with this being somewhat of a gap year for the Nets as they wait for Kevin Durant’s return to full health, this is not a promising sign for their future hopes.

The injuries continue to pile up for Kyrie and at almost 28-years-old there is no reason to believe that he can be fully healthy ever again. The Nets may begin to take the Kawhi Leonard load management approach when Kyrie returns in 2021 but even that is no guarantee that he can last a full season plus a lengthy postseason. Kyrie’s contract is another factor that the Nets would have to consider before making this deal as he is owed a staggering $100 million over the next three years, assuming he exercises his player option in 2022-23. They would never admit it publicly, but if the Nets front office could cut bait on the massive contract and replace it with a young contributor on a rookie deal, chances are they would. The Nets took a huge gamble in signing both Kyrie and an injured KD but this would give them a reset button they might be wishing for if Kyrie’s career continues on this downward trend.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Ernest: So many players came to mind for this question. For starters, I’ll name a couple that I passed up on. D’Angelo Russell, John Collins, Brandon Ingram, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, De’Aaron Fox, Deandre Ayton, and more  all came to mind and I’d rather have all of them over the No. 1 pick. The player I ended up on may be surprising to some, but I would rather have Johnathan Issac than the No. 1 pick in the 2020 draft. In an offensive-driven league it may sound ridiculous, but I believe he has more potential than anyone in the upcoming draft. At 22 years old, listed at 6-11 with a 7-1 wingspan , and he has the tools to be a generational defender. This season, year three for him, he was averaging a career high in points, rebounds, assist, steals, blocks, and field goal percentage before an injury derailed his season. A career 33 percent 3-point shooter he is far from a marksman, but it’s a respectable outside shot early in his career. He was showing early signs of being a Defensive Player of the Year candidate averaging 2.4 blocks and 1.6 steals a game in under 30 minutes. If his offensive game continues to progress he will be one of the best two way players in the game. Worst case scenario for Issac is if his offensive game remains stagnant. If that happens you still would have a player who will be a first team all defensive consideration for the next 10 plus years and I’ll take that.

Zach Beeker/NBAE via Getty Images

Pearson: I would rather have Buddy Hield than this year’s No. 1 prospect. Although Sacramento isn’t the best team right now, they have some promising young players. Buddy Hield is an established shooter and recently won this year’s 3-Point Contest. This season he’s averaging 19.9 points per game while shooting nearly 40 percent from the field and from three. He would be a solid piece on many teams, and since he’s been consistently improving each season, he’d be my guy.

David Liam Kyle/NBAE via Getty Images

Zimmermann: It’s going to be really fascinating to watch someone like Golden State try to do just that. Can, say, an ex-Memphis big, in an era where that kind of player doesn’t yield the real estate it once does, plus a once albatross of a contract (even for a rapidly self-redeeming asset in his own right) in Andrew Wiggins get the Warriors that fourth star that really reignites the dynasty? Personally, I’m not so sure there’ll be sellers out there that agree.

As much as I enjoy the drama of the draft in its own right, I think there’s a tendency to over indulge ourselves on the unknown versus what we already have and hold. Would the Thunder gamble that Chris Paul—who’s honestly been the special sauce for the Thunder this year—even if they could move him as he gets further and further into his career, will become less that to their evolving young core? Is it better to get control of a younger, more affordable asset even if you have to give up more to entice someone to take on Paul’s ginormous contract? I just don’t know.

For the purpose of the exercise, let’s go Kevin Love? The Cavs aren’t going anywhere with him. It’s unrealistic to imagine a linear swap would be easy (or perhaps possible). But he could still have a lot of value to the right team. If you can figure out some kind of three way maneuver where Cleveland could get their hands on something that might or might not be a junk bond and another big contract that facilitates moving Love in the first place, that might be just the sort of circumstance that works out best for all parties involved.