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 four dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Alex Golden: The 5 By 5, contributor
Joe Hulbert: Def Pen Hoops, contributor
Dane Moore: Zone Coverage, staff writer
Chris Parker: King James Brings The Land a Crown: The Definitive Tale of the Cavaliers’ 2016 Title Run, author
There’s been an increased amount of criticism for NBA officials this year. Why do you think that’s been the case?
Golden: The NBA is one of the hardest sports to officiate. If you watch closely, you could make a case that there is a foul on every single possession this postseason. The biggest problem that fans have with this, is the timing of the officials call. For example, in Game 7 of the first round, Pacers guard Darren Collison was assessed a technical foul for waving in disagreement at the officials’ foul call. ESPN color commentator, Jeff Van Gundy, expressed that the technical foul would have been overlooked if LeBron James would have done that.
Which leads me to my second point, if you’re a “star” in the League, you are officiated differently. It’s hard to overlook this as we have seen the League’s best players get the benefit of the doubt, more times than less. It is something that won’t change, and you just have to accept. When former official Tim Donaghy opened up about how games are officiated, it put a horrible taste in the mouth of viewers. While this has quieted down over the years, this still lingers in the history of how NBA games are officiated, which makes it hard for fans to accept that games are called fairly.
Hulbert: In honesty, I think the officials get a really hard time, and that is due to the increased popularity of the game. If more people are watching, that means there are more subjects available to criticize the officials. I also think it is because the pace of the game has increased, and a lot of these officials have been used to a slower more halfcourt oriented style of play that characterized the mid 2000s in the NBA. Some of the officials aren’t great, but I think they are over-criticized, and in honestly like in many other sports, they need more help.
Moore: Earlier this season, I had a conversation with Zach Zarba about Tom Thibodeau’s sideline demeanor. Zach, who has officiated in the Finals and probably thousands of other basketball games, said he actually enjoys officiating Thibodeau because he knows what he’s going to get: consistency. He elaborated that it is the coaches or players who normally have calm demeanors but occasionally blow up that are the most difficult to officiate.
I think that is what we have seen this postseason. While, yes, the complaints have been consistent, it is the volatility of the antics that is affecting the perception of the officiating. Sure, the calls may not have been perfect this spring but that’s always the case with officiating. It is a definitively imperfect science.
The goal of the officials is to go unnoticed during the game and it is the volatile reactions of the players and coaches that are making their invisibility impossible. Throw in social media, James Harden’s craft, and broadcasters like Steve Javie breaking down officiating and we have a microscope. That microscope can be poisonous and thus is leading us to have discussions like this.
The officials can improve but so too can the surrounding variables—the players, the fans, and us, the media. We all have to put faith in the officials to help the perception of their work.
Parker: Part of it probably has to do with how free-flowing the game has become. The best teams are very good at this, forcing opponents to muck up that movement with physicality and force. While NBA has done well to change shooting foul rules this past year to clear up that particular issue, refs are struggling to demonstrate any consistency in how they address the game’s physicality. Clarifying the flagrant foul rule couldn’t hurt. It does seem this year the refs have done particularly bad, but that could easily be cognitive bias.
The Boston Celtics are in a very fortuitous spot moving forward with talent and picks aplenty. A large part of that has been the play of their amazing wings, Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum. Who is going to be the better NBA player?
Hulbert: I personally prefer Tatum, and it is for a reason that isn’t a popular one in the era of analytics. Tatum’s ability to make difficult shots is why I think he is going to be a future Hall of Famer. In the postseason, the game often slows down and reverts to iso ball, especially in late game situations. Tatum’s ability to make these shots is something he has over Brown, as proven by Brown’s no show in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference Finals. They are both going to be All-Stars, but I think Tatum is going to be the next player to rule the Eastern Conference.
Moore: Jayson Tatum has an elite ability, through a multitude of moves, to change direction in isolation. If we have learned anything in these playoffs, it has been the value of elite isolators—anti-KD stats aside. Tatum feels as though he would be a high-level player in any team’s system and it feels safe to say that the Brad Stevens will wring more out of him than just about any coach in the NBA would. I have a ton of faith in Tatum.
Jaylen Brown has also shown elite ability, notably as a two-way player. (Which, as always, means defense AND offense. We sometimes forget the latter in that description.) However, with him, there seems to be less that can be wrung out. Will Brown also be a great player? Sure. Seems likely. But Tatum’s comparative ability in isolation scenarios hints at a higher ceiling.
I actually feel that the answer is Tatum and that it’s not very close.
Parker: For the moment I will say Tatum because he is so advanced offensively and it remains to be seen how versatile Brown will become on that end (mostly seems like a slasher atm), though he does seem much further ahead defensively. Tatum can easily create for himself in the post, off the bounce and from three, but isn’t very strong or forceful defensively (unlike Brown). However Tatum’s high offensive ceiling would appear to trump Brown’s two-way potential.
Golden: Jayson Tatum is going to be the better player. In fact, I think Jayson Tatum will be the best player in this rookie class. His confidence in his shot has improved each and every playoff game. He is the go-to scorer for Brad Stevens, and it feels like every time the Celtics need a big basket, he delivers. Brown is the better defender of the two and has shown flashes of excellence in the playoffs. However, the growth I have seen in Tatum this year shows me that he is the future of this team. I understand that Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward were the one-two punch for the Celtics heading into the season, but with the elevation of Tatum’s play, I think the face of the Celtics franchise for years to come is Jayson Tatum.
Klay Thompson was the hero of Game 6 for Golden State. Out of curiosity, what do you think the ceiling would be for a team with Thompson as their undisputed best player?
Moore: Klay Thompson would need the second best player on that team to also be an elite creator for the team to be great, in my opinion. A James Harden type of situation for Thompson would not work.
The reason I feel that Klay as the best player could work is from the plethora of players out there who are great creators. The point guard position has never been deeper in the NBA, which is to suggest the odds are that Thompson wouldn’t need to dig too deep to find a fitting running mate.
Could that team win a championship even if, say, Kemba Walker, was the pairing? Probably not. But is that team comparable to the Toronto Raptors with Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan? It certainly could be.
Parker: It’s an interesting question because everyone on the Warriors narrowed their game to play better together. I would worry that it might be too late for Klay to widen his game. While he shows some facility off the dribble and is a very able defender, he still seems more like Ray Allen than Paul Pierce. Ray Allen is super useful, but needs others to facilitate for him, and I feel Klay does, too.
Golden: Klay Thompson is arguably one of the greatest shooters this league has ever seen. However, as the number one option on a team, I think he would struggle to get the looks he gets in Golden State. The Warriors run the perfect offense for his skillset, but they also have the players to make this system flourish at a high-level. Thompson struggles to score off the dribble, so he would need a playmaker next to him. If he didn’t have someone who could makes play for him, he could still find ways to get around the same points per game average, but his efficiency and shot percentage would decrease. So yes, Thompson could lead a team to the playoffs as the best player, but they would not have enough talent to make a deep playoff run.
Hulbert: It is hard to say, as I think a team with Klay Thompson as their only offensive outlet would struggle to create consistent points. But in honesty if you stuck Thompson on a lottery team, I think he alone could be enough to push them to a low playoff seed. He would need the right players around him, but I could easily see a Klay Thompson led team winning close to 50 games, and potentially getting a playoff series win under their belts.
LeBron James had a very special Game 6 (46 points, 11 rebounds, 9 assists, 3 steals) vs. Boston. Was that the best game of his career?
Parker: The fact that LeBron’s Game 7 play against Celtics quickly drew suggestions of it being his best game ever (from Coach Tyronn Lue, probably breathing a sigh of relief for his job) demonstrates how perilous this is. That game against the Pistons has been seared into my memory, but so will Game 7 at Oracle. Indeed, the way he’s played this postseason it’s reasonable to believe he might do something even more amazing in the next month or year. He’s certainly showing few signs of slowing down.
Golden: LeBron James best game was Game 6 against the Boston Celtics in 2012. LeBron has been criticized for not showing up in clutch moments, but this was the game that changed the writing on this narrative. LeBron had struggled with the Celtics his entirety in Cleveland and couldn’t get over the hump. He joined the Miami Heat in 2011 but was still scrutinized for his play after coming up short to Dirk and the Dallas Mavericks in 2011 Finals. The media continuously ripped LeBron James and referred to the Heat as Dwyane Wade’s team. However, after Ray Allen left the Celtics and joined LeBron in Miami, Boston was ready to play spoilers to King James in the Heat. LeBron walked into TD Garden in an elimination game to reach the Finals and dropped 45 points, 15 rebounds and 5 assists to win 98-79. LeBron proved to the entire NBA world that he was the best player in the world, the best player on the Miami Heat and that Boston was no longer going to keep him from reaching the ultimate prize.
Moore: A game that sticks out in my mind for LeBron is Game 2 of the 2015 Finals—the first Finals he lost to the Warriors.
It was the first game of the series without Kyrie—who broke his kneecap in Game 1—and the team was forced to up Matthew Dellavedova’s minutes from 9.5 in Game 1 to 42.5 in Game 2.
LeBron took the Kyrie blow in stride. He played 50.5 minutes, scored 39 points, tallied 16 boards, 11 assists, and willed his Cavs over the Warriors at Oracle. The amount of fight he showed in that performance—with the odds firmly stacked against him—was something I had never seen before. Though, it appears to be back in these playoffs. He’s phenomenal. Duh.
Hulbert: This is probably a response that other people have made, but LeBron’s best performance came in 2012, against the Boston Celtics in game six of the Eastern Conference Finals. I was a very new NBA fan at that point, and seeing him put up 30 points in the first half against a team with multiple hall of famers on it was something else. Like his performance in Game 7 of the East Finals, what impressed me in that game was the control he played with, everything was run at his pace and his level.
Kevin Love’s concussion, Chris Paul’s hamstring—playoff injuries are nothing short of tragic. If you could go back and prevent a single player from getting hurt during their team’s playoff run who would you save and how would that alter history?
Golden: If I could go back and change any injury throughout NBA history, it would be Kawhi Leonard’s injury in the 2017 playoffs. The San Antonio Spurs were dominating the Warriors by 21 points in the third quarter. Leonard went to take a shot in the corner, and as he came down, Warriors’ center, Zaza Pachulia landed under Leonard’s foot, and he was done for the series. The Warriors went on to win this game after the injury occurred and swept the Leonard-less Spurs to reach the Finals. It is hard to say whether or not the Warriors would have lost the series had Leonard not been sidelined, but it drastically changed the outcome.
Leonard was arguably the MVP of the 2016-17 season, and was considered the second-best player, above Kevin Durant by several NBA writers. Golden State looked to be on their heels and had no answers for what San Antonio was doing. I truly believe that the Spurs would have had the upper hand in this series because they would have completely dominated the mentality of the Warriors. Coach Pop is the best coach in the league and his schemes and system would’ve caused fits for Golden State. It would’ve been a fun, contested, seven-game series, but I would have trusted Coach Pop and Kawhi over Kerr, Curry and Durant.
Hulbert: I would personally change the injury to Chris Paul, as Game 6 of the Western Conference Finals was one of the least enjoyable watches of my life. In Game 5, Chris Paul silenced the “playoff choker” narrative with a performance that I will remember forever. It was a real shame that he was unable to follow this up with another equally amazing performance.
Moore: Because I was just looking Kyrie Irving’s injury in the 2015 Finals in my last answer, I’ll say Kyrie’s kneecap injury.
Again, Irving going down forced Matthew Dellavedova into a starting role where he averaged 36 minutes per game in Games 2 through 6. Irving in place of Delly could have certainly swung a series that went six without him.
There are many “what ifs” in the Warriors dynastic journey but Irving’s injury is the first. If Irving plays that entire series and assists in knocking off the Warriors before they’ve ever won a championship, how does that affect history?
Does Durant ever come?
Does Kyrie ever leave?
Does LeBron ever leave again? (Or am I getting ahead of myself?)
Parker: Actually, the easiest question. I want Kyrie back for the first series against Golden State. If he never has the troublesome knee I feel Cavaliers win the Championship and are defending a title, which makes LeBron much happier with Blatt, and keeps Lue in the assistant slot where he can be much loved and coach defense while staying far far away from rotations. As such the team is maybe better able tactically to address “the Durant issue”, though I doubt they find an answer, but then maybe Cavs have won two of three…