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 200 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe! The roundtable runs every Tuesday, 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:
Sarah Cilea: BBallBreakdown, contributor
Zack Cunningham: Dallas Sports Fanatic, media manager
James Edwards III: The Athletic Detroit, beat writer
Bryan Kalbrosky: HoopsHype, writer
Bryan Toporek: Bleacher Report, quality editor
TI Windisch: Timeout with Ti, podcast
The people’s champ: Which role player or rotation player across the League is most beloved by his fans despite not being a top player or big name?
Cilea: I feel like Boban Marjanovic kind of breaks this question. Is there a player more universally beloved, not only in the cities he’s played in, but around the League? I think initially, when he arrived in San Antonio, people were fascinated by his size. The way he dwarfs other large humans is hilarious. The image of one of his mitts engulfing Andrew Monaco’s forearm as they shook hands after an interview is unforgettable. He’s probably the only guy in the NBA who can “hang” on the rim with his toes on the floor. But the adoration of Boban is a many-pronged phenomenon. For all his size he’s actually quite skilled. Here’s this imposing figure with a feather-light touch, like King Kong cradling Fay Wray tenderly in his palm. He’s gentle giant and plus-minus god all rolled into one. He legitimately turned a game against the Nuggets in the Clippers’ favor last month. He’s fully capable of that, yet there’s an underdog component to rooting for the largest guy on the floor in the modern NBA. You know he has almost no hope of containing the speedy, small guards zooming around him in the pick-and-roll, but you really hope he survives it. Because on top of everything else, he’s out there dancing to Drake, and riding go-karts he’s entirely too large for, and just generally seems like one of the most likable human beings on the planet. Outside of Boban, it might be a Celtic or a Sixer. Both those fan bases seem to be really high on all their guys. I’ll go with TJ McConnell. Earlier this season he spoke on JJ Redick’s podcast about how he was by no means a shoe-in to make the team out of that first training camp. Yet here he is, the quintessential flag-bearer for “The Process” almost from its inception, from 10-72 to 50 wins. He provided leadership and set the culture along with coach Brett Brown, then he held down the fort as they waited for Fultz. He’s fallen out of the rotation since the return of the number one pick but you can just about bank on him changing a playoff game at some point.
Cunningham: My first impression would have to be somebody like Joe Ingles for the Utah Jazz. Not only has he increased his level of play across nearly every major category this year, but his personality on and off the court is infectious to a fan base. The Jazz are lucky to have him. I personally appreciate his sense of humor and candor in interviews, but it’s undeniable the effect he’s had during the Jazz’s surprise playoff push this year.
Edwards: Boban Marjanovic. Easily. When he was in Detroit, the loudest cheers came when he entered the game or touched the ball. The same thing seems to be continuing in Los Angeles. I got to know him while he was with the Pistons, and it took 30 seconds to realize why he is beloved by his teammates. Plus, he’s the best dancer in the league. Who doesn’t root for that?
Kalbrosky: Fred VanVleet. I was trying to brainstorm other players but this one came to me right away and I think I’m going to have to trust my gut here. He was amazing for Toronto and I think their bench unit, while often discussed, was my favorite basketball-related story of the year. He seems so brilliant and is applauded for his basketball IQ. Lots of folks love rooting for little guys in the NBA; moms tend to gravitate towards this on high school teams or the YMCA. That’s sort of like how VanVleet, who has carved an amazing role for himself on a contender, has felt all season. It’s also amazing how much his teammates seem to love him. Many point to times where they go for him for life advice even though he’s only 24. Reporters tend to enjoy him, too, because he’s so honest and witty in his interviews.
Toporek: Does Dario Saric qualify? Because if so, it’s 100 percent him. Process supporters fell for him largely due to spicy hot takes about whether he’d ever come over from Turkey. He did exactly as he promised by joining the Sixers ahead of the 2016-17 season, and he wound up finishing second behind Milwaukee Bucks combo guard Malcolm Brogdon in Rookie of the Year voting. Concerns lingered about his fit alongside Ben Simmons, as both profile as natural power forwards, but Simmons’ shift to full-time ballhandler and Saric’s development as a three-point shooter have made the seemingly awkward marriage work. He also has to be among the league leaders in “turning garbage into gold,” as Sixers play-by-play announcer Marc Zumoff is fond of saying. Regardless of whether Saric is a long-term fixture next to Simmons and Joel Embiid, he’ll be a fan favorite so long as he remains in Philadelphia.
Windisch: I think it’s Fred VanVleet. From Zach Lowe to pretty much every Raptors fan, this dude has gotten nothing but love this season–and he deserves it! VanVleet might not score 10 points per game, but he’s come up in some huge clutch moments for Toronto in what is the Raptors’ best regular season ever, and he’s built himself into a real player after not getting drafted, meaning he’s a real underdog story. VanVleet is one of the best shooters on a team that doesn’t have a ton of them, meaning he’s probably more useful than his point per game total implies. Plus, Fred VanVleet is just a great name, and I think that helps. FVV forever!
Name one player you had to google this season after having never having heard of them prior?
Cunningham: Pascal Siakam. I highly doubt I’m alone in that regard, but I know he’s been absolutely essential to Toronto’s bench mob being so lethal this year. Personally, I’m really excited for him in the playoffs and I’d love to see him do well. The first time I noticed him was about Week 2 of the NBA season.
Toporek: This is somewhat of a cop out since he’s a rookie, but Maxi Kleber caught me like an RKO out of nowhere. When I saw Nerlens Noel getting buried on the Mavericks’ bench, I had to know who was soaking up those frontcourt minutes aside from Dirk Nowitzki, Dwight Powell and Salah Mejri. Dallas’ signing of Kleber somehow slipped under my radar this past offseason, but maybe it was my subconscious telling me the Mavericks weren’t worth paying attention to this year? I also wasn’t ready for MarShon Brooks to spend the last few weeks of the season dropping 20 points per game after being out of the league for three years, but here we are! Shout-out to the Grizzlies for that blast from the past.
Edwards: Alec Peters of the Phoenix Suns. We were in Phoenix in late March for a long trip out west and he checked into the game. I had no idea who he was. Covering an NBA team doesn’t allow me the freedom to watch as many teams daily as I used to—and the Suns aren’t a League Pass go-to, anyway—so I was completely out of the loop. Google quickly made me familiar. Next time the TNT crew plays “Who he play for?” I’m 100 percent confident that Peters will stump Sir Charles.
Kalbrosky: Lonzo Ball. I was on my sixth episode of “Ball in the Family” when I realized this LaVar Ball guy has a son in the NBA and I thought that maybe I should check him out. If sarcastic answers don’t count, however, I’d have to say CJ Williams. The 28-year-old started 18 games for the Clippers and was a bit of a figurehead for the inaugural two-way player season. While many of the ten-day contracts and two-way deals at least felt familiar because I recognized them from college, Williams was undrafted in 2012. Besides one year with the D-Fenders (RIP) in 2013, he hadn’t even played in the United States until last season. I first remember noticing him in the FIBA AmeriCup games this summer because he led Team USA in scoring twice.
Windisch: The Los Angeles Clippers have had a lot of random players make appearances for them, but the one time I remember going “who in the WORLD is that?” was when I was watching the Utah Jazz. I saw this big wing fitting in really well in the Jazz system, but had no idea who it was until the announcer said “O’Neale”. A little skillful Googling informed me that this was Royce O’Neale, and that he’s actually pretty dang good considering his role. O’Neale went undrafted way back in 2015, and played overseas for a few seasons until he made the cut in Utah this season. He may not be the best rookie on the Jazz, but O’Neale has been a really useful find for a banged-up Utah squad.
Cilea: Probably Maxi Kleber of the Mavericks. He had a really nice game in San Antonio back in December—21 points on 9-of-10 from the field and 3-of-4 from three with three blocks—that turned my head. I also remember looking up Semi Ojeleye back at the start of the season after a game against the Bucks, because anyone who can keep Giannis from getting to the rim for a couple possessions is worth another look. That guy is built like a tank but can move laterally a lot better than one. That’s damn impressive.
What’s going to be the “what if”—a scenario regarding player movement, a missed shot or an injury—of this season?
Edwards: For me, it’s how good could the Celtics have been with Gordon Hayward. It’s clear that his absence opened up time and opportunity for Jayson Tatum, but who’s to say Tatum wouldn’t have developed the same way with Hayward around. If he and Kyrie Irving were both healthy going into the postseason, I think Boston is the clear frontrunner in the East. Talk about a downer to kick off the season.
Kalbrosky: Even though the go-to moment can easily be pointed to the Gordon Hayward injury, I think the season would have progressed in a similar manner. While Jayson Tatum wouldn’t have had as much of a role for the Celtics, I’d still expect Boston to finish towards the top of the Eastern Conference as they did. Instead, I think we have to wonder what would have happened if Isaiah Thomas simply had not returned. It has huge implications on the Cleveland Cavaliers locker room and general dysfunction. Would D-Wade still be playing alongside LeBron James in the Eastern Conference playoffs? Would Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr. have been traded to a different contender instead? Would the Cavs have traded the Brooklyn pick to a team like the Orlando Magic for Aaron Gordon? Or maybe DeMarcus Cousins, in an even bigger plot twist, who would then avoid injury and got a championship ring while owning opponents in the paint alongside James.
Toporek: It must be injury-related, right? My first instinct is to go with “What if Kawhi Leonard’s quadriceps injury healed as anticipated?” Would the Spurs have been neck-and-neck with the Warriors and the Rockets atop the Western Conference? Would LaMarcus Aldridge have bounced back the way he did this season? The trickle-down effects are wild to consider, especially if the Spurs do begin listening to trade offers for Leonard this offseason. A close second is “What if Gordon Hayward hadn’t shattered his ankle on opening night?” Had he stayed healthy—and let’s pretend Kyrie Irving’s knee issues disappeared, too—the Boston Celtics would be front-runners in the East, wouldn’t they? Would Jayson Tatum have gotten his career off to the same type of running start? Would Brad Stevens be a lock for Coach of the Year? Due to injuries, both the Spurs and Celtics figure to meet earlier-than-expected demises in the playoffs. Had Leonard, Haward and/or Irving been healthy, though, one can only imagine they’d be right in the mix for the Larry O’Brien Trophy.
Windisch: It’s got to be what if Steph Curry didn’t get hurt. Everybody expected the Golden State Warriors to roll over everybody, even the new-look Houston Rockets and Oklahoma City Thunder, but now without Steph Curry the Warriors just aren’t the same team. They’re still damn good with Kevin Durant, Klay Thompdon, and Draymond Green, but without a healthy Steph the Dubs just don’t look quite right. If the Warriors do end up not winning another title this season, the what if Steph was healthy question is going to be unavoidable, even once he returns. We’ve seen the Warriors with Steph at less than 100 percent lose back in 2016, and wondering what happens if he was healthy was the question du jour after that series. It’ll come up again if the Dubs lose this year.
Cilea: Unfortunately, there is no shortage of injury-related what-ifs this year. Obviously, the Celtics are a big one. It’s difficult to put it all together in Year One of a roster with important new faces but it can be done, and we need look no further than the Celtics of ten years ago for proof. They would have had a compelling mix of youth and veteran talent had they not lost Hayward in game one and Irving just recently. It would’ve been nice to see them go to bat with that in these playoffs. Regardless, they’re set up really nicely for the future. Personally, I try not to think about how the Spurs won 60-plus games with a healthy Kawhi Leonard the last two seasons and they had to play virtually an entire season without him the first time the Warriors haven’t had a stranglehold on the one-seed since 2015. Of course, that’s due in large part to the Warriors’ own battle with injury. I’d love to see a healthy playoff series between San Antonio and Golden State at some point but apparently that’s asking too much of the basketball gods. Color me bitter. If the Warriors don’t end up repeating Steph Curry’s injury will probably end up the biggest what-if. Let’s just hope there are no more injury what-ifs waiting in the wings. As for missed shots we’ll just have to wait and see. That’s what’s great about the playoffs.
Cunningham: The most glaring “what if” this season, for me, is “what if” Golden State can’t put all the pieces back together. I feel like they are still the clear favorite for the first two rounds in the West, at least, without Curry, but he’s so essential to them being the free-flowing juggernaut that they’ve morphed into over the last four years. We’ve asked this question every year for the past four years about Cleveland and people are asking it about Golden State this year. It’s a good thing they have Kevin Durant (for times such as these).
We work in a field with tons of talented people, what was your favorite piece of basketball writing this season?
Toporek: It’s impossible for me to only pick one. That’s a testament to the quality of basketball writing across the internet these days. While I could build a Mount Rushmore of Zach Lowe articles alone—his weekly 10 Things column remains a delight—I’d like to take this opportunity to instead shine some light on other deserving candidates. Kyle Neubeck of PhillyVoice wrote the definitive article on Markelle Fultz’s mysterious shoulder injury. The depth of reporting involved here alone made it a must-read, but kudos to Neubeck for weaving it together in an engaging narrative, too. Howard Beck of Bleacher Report wrote a brilliant article on the rise of women in NBA front offices, which earned some much-deserved praise from Lowe. And while this wasn’t exactly hard-hitting analysis, the feature from Baxter Holmes of ESPN The Magazine on the “NBA’s Secret Wine Society” was fascinating. Getting the Banana Boat crew to discuss their budding oenophilia made it one of the best reads of the season, even though it had nothing to do with X’s and O’s.
Windisch: I think it’s hands-down “The LaMelo Show”, a feature Mirin Fader wrote about LaMelo Ball’s time in Lithuania. The piece just does such a fantastic job documenting what it’s actually like for LaMelo over there—despite the reality TV show and LaVar claiming otherwise, it’s kind of like LaMelo is on an island out there when he’s not playing basketball. I got a chance to speak to Mirin about the piece on my podcast and I was blown away with her additional perspective on both feature writing and traveling to Lithuania in general. I just remember starting the story at work and not being able to stop reading it until I got all the way through, it is an addictive read. If you somehow haven’t read it yet, I would definitely recommend it—it’s a lot different than the average Ball coverage, that’s for sure.
Cilea: Man, this is a great question. It’s really difficult to choose just one (so fair warning: I’m probably going to cheat). To keep it simple, I’ll say the most recent piece I read was “The Machine That Makes Legacies” by Colin McGowan for RealGM. There’s some brilliant writing about the upcoming playoffs, the nature of the postseason itself, and the way we analyze playoff performance in there. James Holas wrote a piece comparing three of this year’s top rookies to the 2003 rookie class that I really enjoyed. Jesse Blanchard wrote about the criminally underappreciated LaMarcus Aldridge and the year he’s having as an artist of the midrange in the era of Moreyball. And there are at least a dozen pieces right now waiting patiently in my bookmarks for me to set aside some time to read, shaming me. I’m sure there are some gems in there. Honestly, there are so many smart people writing about basketball that if you’re not learning something or inspired almost every day, you’re not trying. Or you somehow found a hole where no light shines and are looking in the absolute wrong places. Ben Falk does great work at Cleaning the Glass; Bryan Harvey has done some really interesting, creative stuff for The Step Back on Fansided; T.J. McBride and Adam Mares consistently knock it out of the park with Nuggets coverage; Nekias Duncan is a Heat guy who covers the rest of the league with ease and a light touch that I appreciate; Sharon Brown and Aimee Stiegemeyer hold it down for Memphis and do important work to shine a light on women and minorities. Of course Zach Lowe’s “10 Things” every Friday is a fun and informative read. Mirin Fader at Bleacher Report, Mike O’Conner breaking down the Sixers at The Athletic, Seerat Sohi, Joshua Howe, Bryan Toporek, Morten Jensen, Adam Spinella, Scott Rafferty, Rob Mahoney, Justin Jett, Jeff Siegel, Ian Levy, all the folks at The Step Back, Nylon Calculus, BBallbreakdown, The Charity Stripe do work that I enjoy. The best is when you find something that is not only great on its own but really catches the spark of ideas that have been knocking around your head and makes you want to get to work. I’m grateful to all the folks above, and more, for that.
Cunningham: I’m going full nerd here and saying Eric Pincus’ piece on the Lakers potentially extend-and-stretching Luol Deng if they couldn’t find a taker for him on the trade market. I’m really into the cap stuff this year and trying to educate myself as much as I can and his content has been absolutely essential in my understanding what is going on. A very close second would be “How Mo Bamba Took Control” by Brian Hamilton of The Athletic. I’m a huge Bamba fan and also a Dallas Mavericks diehard, so seeing his inner layers along has been extremely enlightening, especially when you consider he very well could be a Maverick next season. Edwards: Back in February, Jason Lloyd, my Athletic colleague in Cleveland, wrote a tremendous piece about the growing tension between LeBron James and the Cavaliers. This well-sourced story is kind of where I want to take my career next. Being this is my first year covering the Pistons, I knew this type of reporting would likely be the most difficult to achieve early on. That story by Jason is everything you would want from a seasoned, in-the-loop basketball writer.
What’s the hottest but still just barely believable take you can launch regarding the playoffs this season?
Toporek: I am not willing to reverse-reverse-jinx the Sixers by saying they can make the Finals, so I’ll instead go with this: The Warriors will not make the Western Conference Finals. We probably won’t know their first-round opponents until the final day of the regular season, but the teams below them have effectively been in playoff mode for a month already. With Stephen Curry likely out in the first round, I could see the Utah Jazz, Oklahoma City Thunder or Minnesota Timberwolves putting a legitimate scare into the Warriors, even though none of those squads would be favored. Even if they advance to the Conference Semifinals, there’s no guarantee Steph returns—or if he does, he may not be anywhere close to 100 percent—putting them on potential upset alert in the second round, too. While I still expect Golden State to meet the Houston Rockets in the Western Conference Finals, I wouldn’t be flabbergasted if the former goes down earlier than expected, in large part due to Curry’s absence.
Windisch: I think the Golden State Warriors could lose. I alluded to it earlier, but Steph’s injury changes their outlook in a huge way. Of course, having Kevin Durant around means things are vastly different than 2016, but these Houston Rockets are probably the best team in the West that Golden State has ever had to deal with, and the Rockets seem to be at the height of their powers. The Warriors will have tough series throughout the postseason, but especially Houston poses a threat that might be potent enough to topple the NBA’s eminent team. Hopefully Steph Curry is fully healthy for that series, because I think NBA fans deserve to see how it would shake out, even if the Warriors do end up winning another 16 games and a ring this postseason.
Cilea: This is a setup. We need the Tom-Hardy-This-Is-Bait-dot-gif, pronto. Having nothing in the chamber, I thought about it for a while and was all ready to fire off a take about the Pacers. Then I checked the standings and realized they’re pretty locked into playing the Cavs in round one. That’s unfortunate. Hell, with it. I’ll stick with it. Pacers knock off the Cavs in the first round. I don’t really believe it will happen. Much as I’ve enjoyed the Pacers this year, I’m not sure I want it to—Playoff LeBron is to be cherished every chance we get. It could happen because the Pacers are more set in their way. I wish they had a little more shooting (they are eighth in percentage but 26th in made threes per game) but they’ve got the makings of something special with Oladipo, Turner, Sabonis. The Cavs sport a bunch of new faces and haven’t done much to lay the groundwork for a solid defense this season. But LeBron is the ultimate trump card. How epic a story would it be though if, after all their conference final clashes with Paul George and Roy Hibbert, the Pacers finally toppled the King with a team that was expected to go nowhere, and the return of prodigal son “LeBron Stopper” Lance Stephenson? I’m also not sure we get the Warriors-Rockets WCF everyone has been counting on all year, but that’s probably more me being contrarian and rooting for the unknown that anything else. If we do get that series, it will probably break all kinds of records for threes attempted. The chaos of that could be fun.
Cunningham: The whole “Sixers can make the Finals” take. Yeah, I mean, they CAN, but so could Toronto (who I think has a better chance). I don’t really know how people think Simmons and Embiid can take down LeBron in the playoffs in THEIR FIRST YEAR, but they definitely look poised to be a top-three Eastern Conference seed for the next 5-10 years.
Edwards: Philadelphia wins the East. The 76ers have an exciting and hungry team that is clicking on all cylinder right now. I don’t trust Toronto in the postseason. Boston’s hopes died with Kyrie’s surgery. And the Cavaliers, while they have LeBron, will eventually get exploited defensively when the competition intensifies. I know we haven’t seen Philly in this type of light before, but this postseason has a feeling of uncertainty, especially in the East, as we finish out the regular season. So why not use the fire emojis on the league’s hottest team?
Kalbrosky: Oklahoma City does not win more than one game in the postseason. This team was not poorly composed and they have immense talent. But because they lost so many games that they should have won, they’ll have a tough time with seeding and may face either the Golden State Warriors or the Houston Rockets. They could also jump up in the standings, though this still means they’d face tough competition as the Western Conference is stacked with talent right now. All season, I’ve thought of the Thunder as a team that’s able to win any game they’re playing. After the injury to Andre Roberson, however, they lost a big part of their identity as a defensive powerhouse. Carmelo Anthony still plays too many minutes with too many touches and too high of a usage rate. Paul George has been cold on midrange shots and from downtown since the All-Star break. The second-unit could use some more scoring threats. I love Russell Westbrook and absolutely want the best for him but if we’re playing a game of hot takes, I’ll set the over/under on postseason games won at 1.5 and then take the under.