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 400 unique contributors working at any and every outlet you can think of living all across the globe.
The roundtable runs every Wednesday, 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:
Igor Curkovic: FIBA, writer
Steve Dewald: Blazer’s Edge, contributor
Kevin Rice: Liberty Ballers, contributor
Tamberlyn Richardson: Raptors Republic, feature writer
Bryant West: Sactown Royalty, contributor
Jimmy Butler is making record time in his heel turn. He’s the latest star to seamlessly transition to the villain role through repeated drama behind the scenes. Thinking back on your time covering the NBA, which player’s fall from grace to the villain role most surprised you?
Curkovic: There have been plenty hero-to-villain transitions, but these of Jimmy Butler seem to be on a different level. Probably because of his background and everything he went through—minus the decision to take out his car’s rearview mirrors, which is just a dangerous thing to do—he felt like a superhero in his Chicago Bulls’ days. Up until the 2016-17 season, in which he was clearly unhappy with his per 36 minutes averages of 7.3 field goals on 16 attempts, which then made him a bad guy for wanting to be traded. Only for him to become a good guy again by teaming up with a couple of young and upcoming prospects in Minnesota.
Only for him to become a bad guy again, being clearly unhappy with his per 36 minutes averages of 7.4 shots on 15.7 attempts to start the 2018-19 season, which then made him a bad guy for wanting to be traded, again.
Only for him to become a good guy, again, by teaming up with a couple of young and upcoming prospects, in Philadelphia.
Oh, wait, he’s now got 7.3 field goals made on 15.8 field goals attempted per 36 minutes… We should’ve seen it coming, really. Especially when you compare the 23.2 usage rate with the Timberwolves this season, and the 23.1 usage rate with the Sixers this season. Don’t worry, he’s going to be a hero again soon.
Dewald: It appears that Butler’s last best-chance to prove he isn’t a cumbersome locker room presence has fizzled out faster than even I could have expected. Unsurprisingly, Butler’s competitive nature has created friction on a relatively young Philadelphia squad. Sudden as it may seem, the writing has been on the wall for the former Marquette standout for quite some time.
Like Butler, Dwight Howard’s steady decline from fun-loving All-Star weekend darling to aloof teammate garners comparison. After establishing himself as one of the premier defenders in the NBA, Howard quickly transitioned into a Lakers castoff who had little interest in sharing the spotlight with Kobe Bryant. Unfortunately for him, things didn’t get much better after a listless tenure with the Rockets.
West: If you look back at it now, it’s surprising that Dwight Howard, the once goofy titan of a dynamic Orlando contender/one of the best defensive players of the decade, managed to become one of the least-liked players in the League. Then again, it shouldn’t be that surprising since he torched every bridge he passed; he forced his way out of Orlando, fought with every possible Laker, started a civil war in Houston with James freaking Harden, and then managed to alienate himself out of two more teams (Atlanta and Charlotte) in the last two years. But when it comes to the speed of a hero-to-villain transformation, I’m not sure anyone beats Butler. Dwight took a few years to become a League-wide villain, while Butler was just a hyper-competitive star seven months ago. I think it may still work out in Philadelphia—Brett Brown seems to be handling Butler’s “aggressive challenge” as well as you could hope, and 21 games are hardly enough to really integrate any player, let alone a star. But Butler needs to go re-watch The Dark Knight and pay special attention to a certain Aaron Eckhart quote.
Rice: As a Philadelphia 76ers fan, I want to preface this by saying that I think this story was a bit overblown and is only a story because it’s Jimmy Butler. I’m not too worried about a power struggle between Butler and Brett Brown
Anyway, I’m flipping to Butler’s teammate for hastily taking on the villain role early in his career. It’s one of those “you love him if he’s on your team, but you hate him if he’s not” type of situations. In just his third year in his NBA career, the 7-2 center from Yaounde, Cameroon has vociferously placed a target on his back. Joel Embiid is so damn good at basketball and so eager to tell you he is, that he has quickly become hated amongst opposing players and fans.
There is a common denominator between infamous movie villains like Anton Chigurh, Keyser Soze, the Joker, Thanos, Hannibal Lecter, Voldemort, and others: they are all geniuses. Embiid is a genius, which is why he’s going to be such a good NBA villain for years to come. One of the most self-aware mega stars in the League, he will slam you on the court, then take to the interwebs to verbally terminate you with jokes and hashtags that make it seem like Joel himself is a part of deep NBA Twitter. It’s surprising that a player in his third year of professional basketball can be so hated, and it’s surprising that a player in his third year of professional basketball could be so dominant. You just have to remind yourself that Embiid is a genius.
Richardson: History offers a myriad of players to highlight as villains like coach choking Latrell Sprewell, “Ball don’t lie” Rasheed Wallace, ready to rumble (or collect unpaid bets) Charles Oakley, and the basketball artist formerly known as Ron Artest.
In the current NBA class, I think the most surprising player to step into the villain role is Jamal Murray. First of all, there is the traditional thinking all Canadian’s are polite to overcome. Perhaps Murray took umbrage with Marc J.Spears assessment Canadians aren’t tough. Regardless of what motivated Murray, he’s quickly accumulating a nemesis shortlist around the association. Lonzo Ball (part I and II), Kyrie Irving, and Russell Westbrook all have beefs with the Denver guard and Murray couldn’t care less.
LeBron James made waves when he talked about being the GOAT. what did you think about his assertion and did you have any issue with him saying that?
Dewald: I am weary of any player trying to frame their career while they are still playing. Exceptions exist for legends that are firmly in their twilight years, but LeBron James is only in the first year of his four-year deal with the Lakers.
Regarding the statements made by LeBron, it is tough to discount the adversity he overcame to outlast the Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals. That being said, his best argument for GOAT status revolves around his consistent streak of dominance. If he continues to play at a high level throughout his tenure in Los Angeles, it will be tough to deny how impactful he was over the course of two decades.
Rice: For some reason, people get irked when they hear “I’m the greatest player of all time” from the mouth of the greatest player of all time. There was that clip that recently emerged on twitter of Michael Jordan playing the humble card and stating that he wasn’t “better” than his foes in the League at the time. That’s pretty cool and all, but I desperately wish I were as talented and straight up good at ANYTHING as MJ and LeBron are at basketball. If I were that insanely gifted and put in that much work to be the greatest, I wouldn’t be silent about it; and if you honestly tell me that you would stay modest, you are either a liar or have a ridiculously strong moral compass.
I don’t care what I’d be the greatest at. I could be the greatest snowman builder of all time, the greatest EA Sports NHL 14 player of all time, the greatest table setter of all time, the greatest penguin therapist of all time. I don’t care, if I’m the greatest at anything ever, you’re going to hear about it.
Richardson: Depending on the era you fell in love with the NBA I think the tendency is to relate to its best player. Older relatives tell me Kareem Abdul-Jabbar and Wilt Chamberlain aren’t paid the respect they richly deserve. Comparing MJ’s era (which included hand checking) to LeBron’s era doesn’t offer a definitive answer in my opinion. Still, I’m inclined to align with the Michael Jordan camp and not just because each of his six trips to the finals resulted in six rings.
LeBron is the best player of his generation and his accomplishments both on and off the court can’t be ignored. Ultimately when I debate this topic with friends it comes down to one key factor: Who would I pick to take the final shot? While I would put the ball in LeBron’s hand to make the decision on who takes the shot, I’d still pick MJ to take the final shot.
As for the GOAT claim, it’s natural for a top competitor to believe they are best. That said, James is arguably the best ever to navigate and manipulate media. Everything LBJ says is with a broader vision in mind. The fact he said this on a TV series felt like a well-orchestrated sound bite to generate views and discussion.
West: LeBron has more right than anyone to weigh in on this conversation. Thanks to his early entry into the basketball world, the longevity of his career, and the serious way he approaches the game, he’s certainly watched, analyzed, and lived more basketball than nearly anyone else. And if he thinks he became the GOAT after the 3-1 comeback in the 2016 Finals, so be it. Sure, there will always be solid contextual arguments that can be made against him—Stephen Curry’s injury during those finals, the health/longevity benefits afforded modern day players, advantages from rule changes between 1992 and 2016—but contextual arguments can be made against every GOAT candidate. He’s got as good a case as any player for that title, and he’s not done yet.
Curkovic: I am giving him a pass here and can’t really hold it against him. Because of the “that’s what I felt” sentence which followed the one about being the GOAT. If he felt that way, who are we to judge him? I sometimes feel like I’m the best driver out there in the traffic jams at 4PM—way better than rearview mirror-less Jimmy Butler—but that doesn’t actually make me the best driver. It’s just how I feel. So, if LeBron feels like he’s the GOAT, good for him. But it kinda also disqualifies him from the actual GOAT debate, because any man who must say “I am the GOAT” is no true GOAT at all.
James Harden is on a tear for the ages, what’s the hottest 10-or-so game stretch you’ve ever witnessed from a player?
Rice: This one is pretty niche and barely even impressive, but it holds a special place in my heart. During his time on the Sixers, Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot went on a four-game explosion in late January of 2018. This stretch of games was especially gratifying for me because just two games before his tear, I wrote a piece on Cabarrot’s regression as a player and some theories on why he was underperforming, theories that his haircut and shoe color were to blame for his poor play. In the 37 games he played up until that point, TLC was playing 15 minutes per night posting 6/1/1 on 30 percent three point shooting. After the piece was published, Luwawu-Cabarrot got a bump to 30 MPG and accordingly doubled nearly all his stats, improving to 15/2/2 while shooting 53 percent from the field, and 58 percent from distance on 6.5 three-point attempts per game. From Jan. 20-26 in 2018, Luwawu-Cabarrot was on top of the world. From January 26th and on he fell out of the rotation and only played 11 games and averaged 2.5 points and shot 20 percent from three in 10 minutes per game. Basically, James Harden and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot are the same player and have the same ceiling.
Richardson: I didn’t immediately gravitate to Kobe Bryant as a player but I remember the 2006-7 season in particular (probably because I had to deal with my Mamba-loving friends rubbing in the 81-point assault he rendered on the Raptors). During a 20-game stretch, Bryant averaged 41.3 points, 5.7 rebounds and 4.2 assists Yet, his last 14 games were debatably more important (averaging 38.9 points, 5.4 rebounds, 3.4 assists and 2.2 steals) as the 11-3 run secured the Lakers into the postseason.
Since I cover the Thunder, the Westbrook triple-double season took on a life of its own and in particular the stretch run. Over 16 games (65-80) Westbrook tallied 12 triple-doubles to push OKC into the postseason and himself into history.
During that run opposing crowds chanted MVP as Westbrook repeatedly brought the Thunder back from deficits to steal victories. Fittingly game 80 in Denver culminated in a 50 point triple-double, punctuated by his 3-point game winning shot which sealed a playoff berth for the Thunder and broke Oscar Robertson’s 55-year record.
West: Stephen Curry’s atomic February 2016 stretch. Through 10 games that month (eight of which were road games), Curry averaged 36.7 points (!), 7.3 assists, and 5.6 rebounds while shooting 54.8 percent from the field (!!) and 53.6 percent from deep, with 6.7 made threes a game (!!!). He hit 51 points twice in that stretch (at Washington and at Orlando), and, most importantly, the Warriors went 9-1. He’s has a lot of these superhuman stretches in his career, but that one pretty much locked down the unanimous MVP award he won a month and half later.
Curkovic: Kevin Durant’s January of 2014. In 16 games, Durant averaged 35.9 points, 6.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.6 steals, all done while shooting 54.9 percent, including 43.6 from beyond the arc, and leading the Thunder to a 12-4 month. Similar to James Harden now, he also had a monster game against the Golden State Warriors, with his career-high of 54 points—that one still stands, too. The month included a 12-game run of 30-plus points, an absurd .685 mark in true shooting percentage, individual offensive rating of 131 and a 106 in the defensive rating column—crazy numbers!
Dewald: Harden’s current regular season run is unbelievable, and it is tough to compare it to many streaks from the current era. If you re-gauge your qualifiers for the difficulties of postseason play, Harden’s dominance on offense reminds me of the torrid run that Dirk Nowitzki pulled off in the 2011 playoffs.
On the march to the 2011 NBA Championship, Nowitzki produced 27.7 points per game with an effective field goal percentage of 51.4 percent. Led by Nowitzki, the Mavericks swept the Lakers in the second round. He quickly followed that up with a superb series against an up-and-coming Thunder squad. Against OKC, Nowitzki produced two 40-point outings.
Nowitzki’s postseason run culminated with an unlikely series of victories over the newly formed three-headed monster in Miami. The Mavericks beat the LeBron-led Heat in six games, and Nowitzki captured Finals MVP honors.
The first All-Star voting return had some stunners. Among them, Dwyane Wade is second in votes of all Eastern Conference guards. Are you for or against farewell All-Star games?
Richardson: It depends on the player and the situation. Wade is still very much affecting wins or losses for the Heat and (in my humble opinion) is arguably the third best shooting guard in NBA history. Dirk Nowitzki and Vince Carter are also likely headed for the Hall, but it doesn’t mean either should be included in the big game.
Diving into the East guards Kyrie Irving’s popularity and play will ensure his spot. With Charlotte as the host city, Kemba Walker should also be an automatic inclusion. But, should Wade get the nod ahead of Kyle Lowry (Raptors most wins in NBA) or Victor Oladipo (third in the East)?
I guess I’m vacillating a bit on this question, so let me offer an alternative. What if Adam Silver could add one player each year via special concession? It wouldn’t necessarily have to be a retiring player either. This way maybe Mike Conley could make his long overdue All-Star Game debut.
West: Of all the annoying fan-caused All-Star outcomes, farewell star games are the least concerning. Giving Wade (and Vince Carter and Dirk Nowitzki) a well-deserved sendoff is a fine when the All-Star game is more about catering to fans and the enjoyment of the sport than any grand historical significance of earning an roster spot. Of course, if the NBA wants earning an All-Star spot to actually have grant historical significance, they could give qualified media members/players a larger percentage of the vote, remove conference restrictions altogether, and make All-Star rosters (still 12!) the same size as a normal NBA roster. Maybe just make a new 13th roster spot reserved for retiring legends.
Curkovic: Completely, 100 percent for farewell All-Star games. Not just because guys like Dwyane Wade deserve that kind of recognition, but also because their All-Star selection will effectively lead to a snub or two. And snubs are perfect for motivation, just ask 2015 post-All-Star-break Damian Lillard. So, if Wade’s inclusion to the ASG means we’ll get ourselves an Eastern Conference version of a Dame, let the whole weekend be about Dwyane then, I don’t mind.
Dewald: The All-Star Game is for the fans and paying tribute to some of the NBA’s best in their final season has become one of my favorite parts of the festivities. More often than not, aging stars aren’t primed to impact the postseason, so the star-studded exhibition provides most veterans with one final chance to shine. Personally, I hope both Wade and Vince Carter are featured on rosters later this season.
Rice: I’m pretty indifferent on it. I was never a huge Kobe guy, I’m not a huge Wade guy, so I guess I won’t really care until a player who I’m really attached to announces their retirement before the season. But jeez the new All-Star voting format stinks. Bring back the Twitter vote so I don’t have to watch *adjusts glasses* Kyle Kuzma, Zach Lavine, and Al Horford play in the All-Star Game.
At this moment, the Brooklyn Nets are in the playoff picture! Where are you on D’Angelo Russell and can he still be a franchise building block?
West: Russell has certainly taken a leap this year as a distributor, which has been a huge boost for the Nets’ December/January hot streak. He’s dishing out career assist numbers (6.3 per game) while cutting down on turnovers. Of all players with a 35 percent assist rate or better and 200 or more assists on the season, only Kyrie Irving (11.5 percent) has a lower turnover rate than Russell (14.4). He’s proving he can be a primary playmaker, as long as he gets some help from another smart distributor like Spencer Dinwiddie. But while he’s averaging a career high in points (18.1 a game), his efficiency has remained stagnant with the higher volume, and his true shooting percentage of 51.2 is fifth-lowest among the 48 players averaging more than 18 PPG this season. He’s probably not a long-term franchise building block if asked to be the primary scorer, but he could certainly be a third-fourth guy on a good team.
Curkovic: Brooklyn Nets are a fun team to watch, but I never thought they would be this good once they lost Caris LaVert back in November. That injury is what makes them just a borderline playoff team, so they will need D’Angelo Russell to keep up the rhythm in his career-best season. He is currently sitting at career-highs in field goal percentage, three-point field goal percentage, assists per game and points per game. He isn’t that far away from being a franchise building block. Maybe an All-Star snub from the previous question gives him that little extra push to send him to elite level.
Dewald: Building block? Absolutely. First option? I’m not so sure. Now in his fourth season, Russell has blossomed into an effective threat on the offensive end. Through 41 games, he is averaging career-highs in both points and assists. Along with those increases, Russell has reduced his turnover numbers compared to last season. True NBA contenders must possess multiple threats on the perimeter. With Russell, the Nets are well on their way to building a talent pool capable of making noise in the playoffs.
Rice: Seems like every time I watch the Nets, Russell is effortlessly cooking defenses and creating shots for himself with ease. Looking back on that abysmal 2015 draft class, there’s only a handful of players that I would still take over D’Angelo Russell. After leaving LA, he seems to have matured a bit more as a player and has found a better fit with the Nets. Franchise player though? That might be pushing it, but I still believe he can be a fringe All-Star and solid NBA player. As for the Nets in general, I love the majority of their roster and thoroughly enjoy watching them play. Overall, I’m happy their franchise is out of Celtics Jail and finally has some control over their draft picks and future as a franchise.
Richardson: Certainly, Russell has grown both on and off the floor. The latter being the issue Magic Johnson had when he traded for Timofey Mozgov and what became Kyle Kuzma via the 27th draft pick.
In terms of Russell’s future in Brooklyn, he’s qualified for the CBA ‘starter criteria’ by virtue of starting in 41 games. This leaves the Nets with decisions in terms of salary this coming offseason. Although Russell’s growth is impressive, I would build around Caris LeVert (who was firmly in the Most Improved Player conversation prior to his injury), Jarrett Allen and Spencer Dinwiddie. That trio embodies the identity of this scrappy, offensively explosive Nets team.
The irony of the Nets situation is in the year they finally could utilize their own lottery pick they’ve elected to compete for a playoff berth instead. Kudos to Sean Marks for navigating the Danny Ainge black hole via smart draft picks, crafty signings and development of their assets. Credit also goes to Kenny Atkinson for defining the identity of this Nets team and building the culture.