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 300 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 five dedicated and knowledgeable contributors pitching in. Make sure to give them a follow and check out their great contributions to the basketball community:
Sahal Abdi: Raptors Republic, writer
Ben Collins: NBC, reporter
Anthony Doyle: Raptors Republic, contributor
Maddy Harris: The Score, social
Drew Hernandez: Lakers Outsider, contributor
Kawhi Leonard and the Toronto Raptors are a beautiful fit on paper. Assuming his health holds, are the Raptors the best team in the East?
Abdi: It’s an interesting question. Trading for Leonard was easily the boldest and riskiest move of Raptors’ president Masai Ujiri’s career. This isn’t the first time Ujiri’s been involved in a trade that included a megastar. Carmelo Anthony—who was easily a top-10 NBA talent way back in 2011—was shipped out of Denver with Chauncey Billups for Wilson Chandler, Raymond Felton, Danilo Gallinari, Timofey Mozgov, a 2014 first-round pick and the Nuggets’ swap rights in 2016. Ironically enough, seven years later, Ujiri found himself on the other side of the coin—this time trading for his own superstar in Leonard. Toronto will certainly challenge for the top seed in the Eastern Conference assuming Leonard remains healthy, as Toronto virtually swapped DeRozan and Leonard one-for-one. That isn’t a shot at local fan-favorite and promising big, Jakob Poeltl, who will soon be loved by the San Antonio faithful. Both Ujiri and general manager Bobby Webster were well aware of Toronto’s uncommon roster depth paired with the affinity of new head coach Nick Nurse small ball tactics. As of now, it looks like a two-way race between Toronto and Boston for the Eastern crown, with Philadelphia not far behind. Both teams possess 55-win rosters, but if I were to choose, it’s the Celtics position to lose.
Collins: Unfortunately, I was alive three months ago and I have profound and real memories of the Boston Celtics refusing to step on the throat of the Cleveland Cavaliers when they had a double-digit lead in the second quarter of Game 7 of the Eastern Conference.
Breaking news here: LeBron James is no longer on that team. The Celtics, who were already two quarters away from an NBA Finals appearance, are adding their two best players, Gordon Hayward and Kyrie Irving. With most other teams, this would hypothetically complicate things. It would make everyone sad and snippy, like that episode of Golden Girls where the ladies are engulfed in a love triangle. But just like the show, the two returning people are simply too near death and close to the golden light to care about ball distribution.
Kawhi is a big help if he is both healthy and not brain broken. As a person who has been brain broken by bad bosses, I don’t blame him, but I also took months to get over it. There are just too many ifs, and the Celtics are too good and too well coached. Give me the Cs, whose problem, again, is having too many good players.
Doyle: It’s tough to automatically crown the Raptors the best in the East, as tempting as it is to do so, because if you assume they’re healthy you also should make the same assumption for Boston, and that means they’ll be an awfully tough team as well. As it stands, I’d have them as answers 1a and 1b to the question, in whichever order you’d prefer, and both are reasonable. The Raptors return most of their bench, which was the best in the League, and they upgraded an already potent starting lineup while making their team more fit for the modern game, with better defense on the wings and more shooting across the board. I really hope we get both teams fully healthy this season because this would be a fantastic matchup in the Eastern Conference Finals.
Harris: As much as it pains me to say this, I do believe the Raptors have what it takes to be the best team in the east. You’re taking a 59-win team, adding a bigger star and you only had to give up Jakob Poetl, DeMar DeRozan and a first round protected pick? Please. There might be some turbulence following Dwane Casey’s departure, but Nick Nurse had been under his wing for a long time and he’s smart enough to not entirely gas the systems COY winner Casey put into place. The Celtics and Sixers will undoubtedly challenge them, but the Raptors have more experience and with the addition of a bonafide superstar, they should be able to hold both squads off. With that little spiel out of the way, allow me to make it clear that it entirely depends on if Kawhi is all in. Sure, he’ll play, but in order for the Raptors to achieve their potential, he needs to buy in and maybe even see Toronto as more than just a pit stop. I have faith that this could happen.
Hernandez: Last year’s Raptors went 59-23 and were undoubtedly the best regular season team in the East. Good teams should beat bad teams consistently and they went an NBA-best 35-2 against teams with a record under .500, and haven’t lost a regular season game against an opponent under .500 since December 26. Not to mention they were third in offensive rating and fifth in defensive rating. Now they’re replacing DeRozan with Leonard, a significantly better player? So with all that said, are they the best team in the East? Surprisingly I have to say no, they aren’t. Boston went 55-27 and are adding Gordon Hayward, an All-Star, hopefully a healthy year from Kyrie Irving, and improved contributions from two first-class young talents in Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown. Not to mention they have the better head coach in Brad Stevens (Raptors have a rookie head coach) and made it to Game 7 of the ECF. The Raptors will be really good this upcoming year if Kawhi plays and is healthy, but they’re competing against a team that I would argue is the second best team in the League.
The San Antonio Spurs have their own pair of NBA stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan, do the Spurs thrive or fall-off this season? If I set the over/under at 47.5 wins, would you want the over or the under?
Hernandez: Playoff troubles aside, DeRozan and Aldridge had their best seasons to date last season with career-high efficiency from both and improved playmaking from DeRozan. Not to mention they did win 47 last season and that was without Kawhi, so yes, I do believe I’d take the over. Popovich is one of the best coaches in the NBA and there is hope that he can work his Spurs magic on DeRozan while making the team mesh as well as any coach can hope. I don’t think it is a stretch to say the midrange masters of DeRozan and Aldridge can falter a bit, especially at first, but the combination of the two should make for an intriguing and decently good team. The West is going to be a bloodbath the likes of which we have not seen in a long time and the Spurs will be involved throughout.
Abdi: Some may disagree, but the Spurs success this upcoming season depends on Aldridge more so than it does DeRozan. Yes, when the trade became official, DeRozan instantly and unquestionably became the most talented San Antonio Spur on the roster. However, since the 2015 acquisition of the five-time All-NBA power forward, Popovich has relied on Aldridge as the anchor offensively while also challenging the big man on the defensive end as well. Aldridge just recently turned 33 years old on July 15 and is approaching the twilight of his prime seasons. In defiance of that, the awesome thing about San Antonio is the organization’s ability to challenge father time, prolonging the careers of their former stars. This gives me little concern about the maintenance and health of Aldridge while DeRozan is known for his ability to stay on the court. Despite Leonard only playing a total of just nine games last season, the Spurs still hung on for 47 wins. The difference is the Lakers’ acquisition of the greatest talent in basketball now bumps one team from the playoff race. Without any doubt, San Antonio will be a playoff contender, assuming health holds. I will put my everlasting trust in Popovich and take the slight over on 47.5 wins.
Collins: The over, but barely, and I feel bad about it. I think the Spurs will be considerably better everywhere but the win column.
Derozan’s main problem over the last few years was weird roster construction and an inability for his team to adapt come playoff time. It is heresy to blame Masai Ujiri for anything, so let’s blame…his assistant. Or somebody around him. But the roster, which always seemed to have two traditional bigs on the floor, did not suit its best player, whose primary skill was slashing. Pop will figure this out, if he hasn’t already.
This team won 47 games without Kawhi, leaning heavily on Aldridge’s draconian midrange game. They got much better. So did every other team in the West. I bet they win 48 or 49, but I don’t bet very much. I’m a journalist, not a weird Bitcoin ghoul. Quit trying to make me bet money on hard things.
Doyle: The Spurs have some serious questions to answer with this roster, because on paper, the pieces just don’t completely fit. Both DeRozan and Aldridge really prefer to have the ball in their hands to work, and neither one of them is a massive off-ball threat. They’ll need to find some shooting from their supporting cast, or get really creative offensively, in order to remain competitive, and they’ll have to get DeRozan engaged defensively on a consistent basis, which is hard to project. Still, DeMar is a hard worker who may be coming in with a chip on his shoulder, given the way his departure from Toronto went down, and that might help facilitate the fit. Also, it’s just hard to bet against Popovich when doing so has never really paid off. The safe bet has to be that he will find a way to figure things out at least enough to have this team in the playoffs, and I think that requires winning at least 48-50 games in this Western Conference.
Harris: It’s so challenging to predict where they could end up, just due to how deep the West is going to be this year. Every game in the West will be a battle, unless you’re the Warriors. I think DeRozan got a lot of unfair slander due to his playoff performance, but people often forget he really altered his game during last year’s regular season, expanding his range out to the three-point line and posting significantly better passing numbers. I think him and Aldridge could be fairly lethal and Popovich is the perfect coach to help DeRozan get out of his own head in regards to the playoffs. I’ll say over, as I believe DeRozan is a legitimate talent and the Spurs were already a 47-win team last year even when playing mostly without Kawhi.
Michael Beasley might be a tad underrated at this point, but seriously, are the Los Angeles Lakers punting on a year of LeBron James’ prime? Help me make sense of this all.
Harris: Man, it’s hard to really put into logical terms. Is there a strategy? I think the best way to make sense of it is to utilize a quote Magic Johnson recently dropped in an interview. He explained that the focus was beating the Warriors and that in building a team, “you can’t “out-Warrior” the Warriors”. Fair enough, because there is nothing resembling the Warriors on this Lakers team. They are pure chaos. There are definitely solid young pieces there but I think after Paul George announced he was staying with OKC, Magic went out on a limb and started taking chances on guys who perform, but not consistently. There’s infinite risk but some genuine talent, and LeBron’s put weaker teams on his back. Next year will be their big year in terms of legitimate signings. This year, It’s concentrated chaos and it’ll be up to Luke Walton and LeBron to channel that chaos into something effective, as opposed to having it blow up in their faces. Frankly, I can’t wait to watch.
Hernandez: I think the Lakers bench is a bit underrated with Rajon Rondo running point, KCP as a 3&D wing, Sviatoslav Mykhailiuk (try saying that five times fast) as a knockdown shooter, and Kyle Kuzma and Zubac/Wagner as the bigs. With all that said, I understand the hesitation. Lance Stephenson, Rajon Rondo, JaVale McGee, and Michael Beasley are a very weird FA crop to sign right after getting LeBron’s signature considering the nature of his eventual decline (He’ll decline eventually, right?). Typically you sign as many shooters to pair up with LeBron for him to kick out to after he drags as many defenders as he can into the paint, and the Lakers, well, did not do that. Rondo and Beasley have been average shooters for some time now, but on low attempts, and Lance and McGee are not good shooters at all. So, what are they doing? It seems like the plan is to develop the young core (Lonzo, Ingram, Kuzma, Hart, Svi, Wagner, Zubac) while being a decently good team. The hope is that the young core makes some jumps that will improve the team and the one-year deals will shift over the cap space for the impressive free-agent crop of 2019. So yes, while they most likely will make the playoffs and will have decent success, they are punting a year of LeBron. Time will tell whether or not their gamble will work.
Abdi: It sure is looking that way. What we’re currently seeing from LeBron is nothing that has ever been seen in the history of basketball. In his 15th season, he dominated the League from start to finish, in what was arguably his most impressive basketball campaign to date. After deciding on a historic move to Los Angeles, the prevailing thought amongst the basketball world was the imminent acquisition of either Paul George or Kawhi Leonard. Fast forward a few weeks since “The Decision 3.0” and neither of the supposed superstars have paired with LeBron. Instead, James is stuck with the inherent Lakers of old, plus some handpicked role players such as Stephenson, Rondo and Beasley. Oh, did I forget to mention DeMarcus Cousins joined what was already the NBA version of the “Monstars” in Golden State? I mean, facts are facts—the Warriors were favorites before the Cousins deal and whether LeBron landed PG13 or the Klaw. Now, the 2018-19 championship looks even more bleak for James and the Lakers. I’ve already witnessed fans essentially waving the white flag this season while looking forward to next year’s offseason. As crazy as that may sound, I don’t blame them. This was and still is the Warriors title to lose. Forgive me LeBron, but that’s just not changing.
Collins: As Robert J. Hanlon once said, “Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by stupidity, but don’t rule out malice.” Who knows who Robert J. Hanlon is, but Wikipedia tells me he was very important and very right about the Lakers.
I like one of these moves—signing Rondo, McGee, Stephenson or Beasley—but not all of them. I think these are just bad moves, compounded on top of one another, and they will play out that way. Thankfully, these bad moves have done nothing to ruin their genuinely good young core of Brandon Ingram, Josh Hart, Kyle Kuzma and Lonzo Ball, who may learn some things from these guys.
Will they learn good things? Probably not! But they will learn things.
If all goes well, Rondo with Ingram, Hart, Kuzma and Lebron could scare the hell out of Golden State and serve as a nice appetizer—like one of those salads with fruit in it—until Kawhi moves to LA next summer.
Doyle: I have to assume the Lakers are punting the season because nothing else makes sense and that really doesn’t either. Magic Johnson keeps putting out quotes that make it sound like he thinks this team is one that can compete for a title, but I just can’t see it and I have to believe he’s trying to save face instead of actually believing that. Maybe the Lakers really believe superstars are showing up next summer, but it no longer feels like every guy in the League wants to play with LeBron enough to sacrifice other opportunities and potentially bigger paydays in order to do so. Kyrie Irving is a popular guy around the League and it’s possible that his unceremonious divorce with James changed future relationships and could impact the Lakers’ ability to lure in other stars. If they don’t hit a home run next summer it’s going to be hard to justify what they did this summer. If they do struggle to open the season, there’ll also be the temptation to make midseason panic trades which would likely only serve to make the entire situation worse. Is it possible to sign LeBron and lose the summer? We might find out this season.
Looking around the League, who is your early frontrunner for Most Improved Player?
Collins: Conventional wisdom here says it’s Markelle Fultz, who the 76ers hid away like the lady in the attic in Jane Eyre. If this dude comes down from the attic and drops 16 a game, he gets Most Improved Player AND a Disney movie, which is a pretty good get.
I’m not sure this is as certain to happen as others believe. I’m not sure you can cure the yips by putting a shawl over a guy like an old car for 11 months. It doesn’t really work like that. I hope it does, and maybe he turns into one of those spectacularly weird point guards who can’t shoot but has advanced stats that send Nate Silver into a psych ward.
I like Julius Randle. He was bulldozing people in LA for the last two months of the season. No regard for human life. Randle is really good fit next to Anthony Davis, who will be forced to play the 5 for long stretches, where he belongs, but team rebounding won’t suffer. He’s a maniac on a team that needs one.
Doyle: It’s always hard to know with this award, because guys come out of nowhere at times, but I’m going to go with Julius Randle here. He had a really solid season last year for the Lakers with a team that was really young and still learning how to fit together, and now he gets to go and play next to one of the best players in the League in Anthony Davis, who has shown enough versatility in his game that there should be plenty of room for Randle to have a great season. The Pelicans will also likely surprise if they can stay healthy, and team success goes a long way in the voting for Most Improved Player. Randle is a dominant interior presence who also brings some playmaking to his game and should have plenty of opportunities to show all of that off this season. Another strong candidate for me would be Tobias Harris now that he’s opted not to sign the extension offered by the Clippers. He’s going to be featured plenty there this season as they try to make a run back to the playoffs, and he’s clearly indicating that he wants to have a big year.
Abdi: The Most Improved Player award is one of the most remarkable achievements that can be given to an NBA player. It’s an amalgamation of the hard work, embraced opportunity and ultimately the mutual trust from coaches and fellow players through a rigorous NBA season that is given to the award winner. The most recent winner being Pacers guard, Victor Oladipo who was the poster-child of what the MIP award requires. This season, there are a bunch of promising players—many handed more opportunity, some oozing with tons of potential and others who are under-the-radar. My early pick for this award would have to be Brooklyn Nets guard DeAngelo Russell. In his first 12 games before injury, Russell enjoyed a fantastic start to his Nets career averaging 20.9 ppg, 5.7 apg, 4.7 rpg on a .464/.301/.682 split. Granted, the shooting percentages weren’t great, however Russell finally displayed the burst of talent scouts and NBA front offices saw prior to his 2015 NBA Draft selection. The Brooklyn Nets are on a slow road to recovery, but Russell is undeniably a player that should remain in GM Sean Marks’ future plans.
Harris: I’d have to go with Clint Capela. He’s radically transformed his game in the last two years and has become a linchpin in the Houston Rockets defense. He started in the G League and has begun to garner his own attention, even among guys like James Harden and Chris Paul. I would argue he deserves it even more because he works so well with them, perfectly complementing the Houston brand of small ball. He’s quietly improved, not in a flashy way, but by gradually adding elements to his game and playing off of already existing strengths. He opens up opportunities for his teammates to score, yet is absolutely deadly on the pick and roll. This could really be his year to break out and become a star in his own right, granted that he comes to an agreement with the Rockets. With Houston taking the Warriors to 7 last year, I think they’re the favourites to upset the reigning NBA champs and he would be a key element of that if they were to re-sign him. He’s only 24, too, so I believe the best is yet to come.
Hernandez: I’m going to go with my old pal Julius Randle for this one. Despite not getting the long-term deal he most likely wanted, he still got a two-year deal with the Pelicans. It is my belief that team play has a significant impact on whether a player receives an award, so Randle playing for a good team helps him here and playing next to a superstar in Davis should give him an easier time to improve. I don’t expect huge star numbers from him. but playing next to AD and Jrue Holiday should make and 18-8-4 season a reasonable goal. This will be a make or break year for him and will decide if he gets that huge contract that he wants.
It has been a constant topic all week on Twitter. The five best players in the East, ordered 1-5, are…
Doyle: There are so many health concerns in the East that this list probably looks silly by the All-Star break, but I’m going to assume everyone is healthy during the year and in that case, I’d have Kawhi Leonard as my No. 1 guy. He simply does everything when his game is going, one of the best perimeter defensive players in the history of basketball, he can also score in a large variety of ways, from being a great creator with the ball in his hands to the off-ball threat that he presents with his shooting. You can absolutely build a team around him because he brings a little bit of everything to the table, without taking anything away. Giannis Antetokounmpo is in second but has a strong case for that top spot as well. While he doesn’t quite do as many different things as Kawhi does, his length and athleticism allow him to do things that I’m not sure anyone has ever done before, and the unique threat he presents offensively is nearly impossible to game plan for. I would have Joel Embiid third, his frame combined with his skill level is so hard to account for and he should continue to improve his decision making and if he can limit his mistakes he can bring his game to an entirely new level. It gets a little tougher though after that top three, because I’m not sure there’s a clear-cut fourth guy in the East. I would round it out with Victor Oladipo after his breakout year last year, and then probably place Kyle Lowry in the fifth spot, but the case can be made for Kyrie Irving, Gordon Hayward, Ben Simmons or Kemba Walker to each be included instead.
Hernandez: Kawhi. When healthy he’s a top-three player in the League and dominates on both ends of the floor. You aren’t going to have a better player on the court unless you have Steph Curry or LeBron James.
Giannis Antetokounmpo. Giannis has been an up and comer for a while now but he’s seemingly improving every year and cementing himself in the top 5 superstar conversations. It would be a shame to have him and lower than second.
Kyrie Irving. Kyrie had a great first year in Boston despite missing 22 games due to injury and he looks to continue that success with a healthy Gordon Hayward. He might’ve been LeBron’s sidekick and Horford may have been more important this past year, but 2019 is the year he makes himself a top East player.
Joel Embiid. Embiid’s injury concerns push him down the list some, but when he’s healthy he can be the best player on the court. His domination on both ends should continue in 2019 and hopefully, he can shake off those injury concerns for another great year.
Victor Oladipo. Oladipo looked to be just a small part of a steal by OKC in the Paul George trade, but as it turns out he went off to win MIP and cement himself as a star. It was between Oladipo and Ben Simmons for the fifth spot (speaks to how good Philly will be), but Oladipo bringing the Pacers to the playoffs as the lone star ranks him higher for me. I’m not sure if Simmons can do that yet while Oladipo already has.
Abdi: With the Kawhi Leonard deal recently becoming official, this subject has been discussed anywhere and everywhere. From one to five respectively, I currently have it as Kawhi Leonard, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, Kyrie Irving and John Wall. In no particular order, that leaves the likes of Ben Simmons, Victor Oladipo, Kyle Lowry, Bradley Beal, Al Horford and others on the outside looking in. Weirdly enough, four of those top five players have suffered their fair share of injurie(s) over the seasons, but again this would obviously be assuming all players are healthy. Leonard is a top-five NBA talent, while Giannis will soon enter that discussion (and stay there for awhile). Embiid is a do-it-all big with utterly freakish ability around the basket both offensively and defensively. Irving and Wall are some of the game’s most talented backcourt players, both possessing an uncanny ability to takeover games singlehandedly. As much as the East has gone through a talent purge, the conference is still brimming with young talent.
1 – Giannis Antetokounmpo
2 – Kyrie Irving
3 – Kawhi Leonard
4 – Joel Embiid
5 – Ben Simmons
Do not sleep on Victor Oladipo. Please sleep on Kristaps Porzingis, who is top four if he miraculously plays more than half of this season. The gap between No. 1 and No. 2 is substantial. Giannis is in a league of his own in the East now. I will get roasted for having Kyrie so high, but is it really crazy to put the best player on the team headed to the Finals as the second best player in the East?
1. Kawhi Leonard
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo
3. Kyrie Irving
4. Joel Embiid
5. Healthy Gordon Hayward. Don’t @ me