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 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:

Chris Conner: The Bird Writes, contributor

Marvin Ezhan: CLNS Media Network, columnist

Alex Kramers: Kings.com, contributor

Jamie Lynch: 97.5 The Fanatic, host

T.J. McBride: Mile High Sports, editor

 

It feels like the MVP has split into two lanes, team Harden or team Antetokounmpo. As we approach the All-Star break, is there a viable third candidate in play? Is there any chance that individual could overtake the frontrunners down the stretch? 

Garrett Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

Conner: There’s an argument that we’re being generous even saying the MVP race is split at all with the way Harden has been playing. However, we must respect the work Antetokounmpo is doing in Milwaukee, turning his individual unicorn stats into consistent team success.

Nikola Jokic and Paul George would be the two guys I’d keep an eye on joining and possibly surpassing them. We often make excuses for stars when it comes to injured supporting casts, has anyone had to overcome more than Jokic?

He’s on pace to having his best season of his young career in several categories but more importantly the Nuggets are second in the Western Conference. If he can lead Denver to a No. 1 seed with the Golden State Power Rangers healthy, there may not be another deserving candidate.

Paul George has just been phenomenal and it’s hard not to mention him. Most thought he’d be Russell Westbrook’s sidekick, this season he’s been the main act. He’s played superb on both sides of the basketball and similar to Jokic is having the best season of his career just with more tread on those tires. If George were to continue this path and OKC locks up a high seed, I’m not sure an MVP is outside of the question—especially if he has an extra gear in him.

McBride: For a dark horse candidate, Nikola Jokic fits the bill perfectly.

Not only has Jokic led the Denver Nuggets to the second seed in the Western Conference, but he has done so despite the Nuggets having the most total games due to injury and with them being second-youngest roster in the NBA. Jokic has been the engine that has led to their defensive improvement and offensive domination. Individually, Jokic is currently averaging 20.1 points, 10.3 rebounds, and 7.6 assists per game which are numbers that have only been posted by a center over an entire season twice before and both times the feat was accomplished by none other than Wilt Chamberlain. He has seven triple-doubles on the year and Denver is 7-0 in those games. When Jokic has 10 or more assists in a game, the Nuggets are 9-1.

Simply stated, Jokic has led the Nuggets to a 34-15 record through 49 games. They are the only team in the Western Conference to be in the top-ten in offensive and defensive rating. Even with the Warriors winning 11-straight games, the Nuggets are only 1.5 games behind them. What Jokic has done for the Nuggets has been nothing short of incredible and that is why he is deserving of being in the discussion for Most Valuable Player despite the performances of both James Harden and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Ezhan: After Sunday night’s heroics against the No. 1 East seed Milwaukee Bucks, Paul George put himself in the eyes of many in the MVP conversation, but the truth of the matter is PG-13 has been in the conversation all season long and it’s about time he gets some respect. It took some time, but George has come a long way since giving himself the “Playoff P” moniker and then presumably getting washed by Joe Ingles!

As I write this OKC is 31-18, they are currently on a five-game winning streak and hold onto the No. 3 seed with George leading the way. Yes, Westbrook is still the Captain of this team and hasn’t changed his style of play, but his shooting has regressed from 45 to 41 percent and his three-point shooting—which was never been great to begin with—is now a mere 25 percent, but the Thunder are still winning due to George’s improvements. He is now currently averaging 27.1 points, 8.1 rebounds, 4.0 assists, and 2.3 steals, while shooting 45 percent from the field and 40 from downtown. Points, rebounds, and steals are all career highs for George as he has been relentless on both sides of the ball.

James Harden has separated himself in this race and has shown no signs of slowing down with 23 game streak of scoring 30-plus points, which is just ridiculous! As far as I’m concerned, the MVP race is about who’s coming second. With CP3 coming back and Capela returning in a couple weeks an argument can be made that Harden will come back to earth but that will only make the Rockets better and close to where they were last year making Harden a two-time MVP.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Kramers: In almost any other year, Stephen Curry would be considered a lock for MVP honors. His true-shooting percentage (66.9 percent) is tied for the best in the NBA—miles ahead of any guard; he’s less than a percentage point away from another 50/40/90 season; and he’s averaging nearly 30 points, five rebounds and five assists per game for the best team in the League.

But even while the Warriors have reeled off 11 straight wins and reasserted their dominance, at this stage of the season, I think Curry is a distant third in the MVP race, with little chance of catching Harden or Antetokounmpo.

Harden’s ridiculous scoring binge—42.7 points per game over his last 23 games!—will take a small hit now that Houston is almost back at full strength, but the way he’s singlehandedly carried the Rockets this season, while missing as many as three starters for extended stretches, is borderline unprecedented.

Antetokounmpo is boasting a stat line that has only been approached by four Hall of Famers, and ranks in the top-five ranks in scoring, rebounding and PER. Not only has he been a one-man wrecking crew while running the offense, but when he’s been on the court, the Bucks have a 99.5 defensive rating, per NBA.com.

The odds of Curry—along with the likes of Joel Embiid, Kawhi Leonard and LeBron James—catching either of the frontrunners are diminishing by the day.

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

Lynch: I’m going to come across as bias with this answer being from Philadelphia, but I think he’s incredibly deserving of the award this year & that’s Joel Embiid. I say this because of his effect on both sides of the ball that put him there. He’ll be a legit DPOY candidate (came in second last year), he’s averaging 27 and 13 with 2 blocks per game. Whenever he leaves the court, the other team seems to have a run right away like the entire lane opened up like the Red Sea and that’s an intangible that MVP’s have. Nikola Jokic should also get some consideration for what he’s doing out in Denver, bringing centers back to the MVP discussion. If either of those teams finish top two in their conference down the stretch, you’d have to sleep on that decision.

 

The Western Conference playoff picture, at least at the bottom, is in constant flux. Assuming Golden State, Denver, Oklahoma City, Portland, and Houston are all locks, who do you see occupying seeds six through eight come the playoffs?

McBride: There are going to be six to eight teams vying for three playoff spots. The first of the three spots have to be given to the Lakers. Yes, I know that they have fallen off without LeBron and Lonzo Ball is hurt. Yes, I understand that they are incredible unlikely to get Anthony Davis at the trade deadline. None of that matters to me. Until LeBron and the Lakers are eliminated from playoff contention, I cannot fathom a world in which LeBron does not make the playoffs.

For the last two spots, I have the Jazz and the Spurs sneaking in. The Jazz are finally surging, and they are doing so with one of the weakest schedules in the NBA ahead of them. If they can find a way to get a point guard at the trade deadline that can take pressure off of Donovan Mitchell is able to shoot at even a league average level from 3-point range (cough, Jrue Holiday, cough) then they are going to be a serious problem. San Antonio already has a three-loss lead on the ninth-seeded Lakers, and they will not make drastic mistakes the rest of the way so it is going to be hard for teams like the Clippers, Kings, and Timberwolves to catch them.

If they Spurs do falter, the one team that could make things interesting is the Kings. Teams still take them lightly and De’Aaron Fox makes them pay. They play hard, have a star in Fox, and play at a breakneck speed that can throw teams off. If the Spurs begin to slip up, the Kings could fight their way into contention for the eighth seed.

Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images

Kramers: I’d consider two teams—Utah and San Antonio—right on the cusp of lock status.

In their 29 wins, the Jazz are second in the NBA with a 99.4 defensive rating, and are behind only the Bucks, Pacers and Thunder overall (104.8). Rudy Gobert is having another Defensive Player of the Year-caliber season and has taken a step forward offensively, while Donovan Mitchell has been on a tear in January (28.1 points, 5.4 assists and 4.4 rebounds per game). To top it off, according to basketball-reference.com, Utah’s remaining strength of schedule is by far the easiest in the League.

The advanced stats aren’t quite as rosy for the Spurs, who’ve fallen to the middle of the pack in defense without Leonard. They take the most midrange shots and fewest threes in the League. They are only 10-15 on the road. But count out a team coached by arguably the greatest leader in the game, with two borderline All-Stars in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan at your own peril.

That would leave one of three teams—the Clippers, Lakers and Kings—with a realistic chance of grabbing the last playoff spot. The Lakers have, expectedly, struggled without James, but L.A. was a comfortable 20-14 before he went down on Christmas Day; the likelihood of a LeBron-led team not even making the postseason seems blasphemous.

Then again, the Clippers have one of the deepest rosters in the League, and the Kings have been the unexpected darlings of the NBA thanks to breakout years from De’Aaron Fox and Buddy Hield. Let’s revisit this race after the trade deadline—or better yet, in March—because it’s going to be a wild ride.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Conner: The Spurs and Jazz feel like safe choices. Not only do they have experience and talent, they both have exceptional coaches (we’ll get to that later).

The real battle for me falls in California for the final spot. Can Sacramento continue their run of youth and be the surprise of the West? Can the Clippers regain their early form? What will the Lakers look like once LeBron returns?

Much of this could be determined by the future of Anthony Davis as the trade deadline approaches which should easily lock them in. But even without Davis, the championship experience mixed with talented youth should be enough to drive them. At worst you have to give LeBron the benefit of the doubt.

Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Ezhan: There are only four teams that will be in contention for the bottom three seeds: Spurs, Jazz, Clippers and Lakers. I always believe talent wins out in the NBA and presuming Anthony Davis stays put for now and LeBron comes back before the All-Star break healthy with no setbacks I think the Lakers sneak in the eighth spot with the Clippers on the outside looking in. Clippers have been playing great team basketball and Rivers has been having one of his best years coaching but they are still a couple players away and that may hurt them coming down the stretch, just ask the Nuggets of last year.

Lynch: I think if you rule LeBron James out of the playoff picture, you’re certifiably insane at this point, especially if they’re able to pry AD away, it’s a lock they’re making the playoffs. I would look at Utah to sneak into one of the final spots as well and I’m also not going to pick against Pop. I’ll take Lakers, Jazz and Spurs with my final three slots.

 

Everyone saw the awkward interaction between Blake Griffin and Reggie Jackson last week. Is Griffin in the least desirable situation of any star right now? If not, looking around the League, which team has done the worst job of building around their star?

Lynch: Yes, I would say Blake is in the worst position of all the stars in the League. With Andre Drummond’s disappearance as a star (decent numbers, but not taking many games over and disappears too easily), they’re really left with not much else. Reggie Jackson and a couple of guys there can score, but they have no real hope of competing in a meaningful way. If the Pelicans sell off Anthony Davis, Nikola Mirotic, E’Twaun Moore and Julius Randle though, then it’ll change and Jrue Holiday will be in the worst situation!

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

McBride: The low-hanging fruit here is Anthony Davis and the Pelicans, but instead of jumping quickly into that realm, I am going to go another direction.

For a player who has given his heart and soul to the franchise and the city, Kemba Walker has been handed a very bad hand in Charlotte. The Hornets are paying a combined $81.6 million to Nicolas Batum, Marvin Williams, Bismack Biyombo, Cody Zeller and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist this season and even worse is that each and every one of those players has their contract extend into next season. None of them are valuable trade assets and all are overpaid which has left the Hornets stuck in salary cap purgatory.

In addition to their incredibly shaky spending habits, the Hornets have whiffed on the majority of their draft picks. Since 2014, the Hornets have only been able to snare the likes of Noah Vonleh, Frank Kaminsky and Malik Monk. The combination of overpaying middling free agents and missing on draft selections has left Kemba with a mediocre roster with no clear path to improvement for the coming years. Oh, and Walker, who has profusely proclaimed his love for the Hornets and the city of Charlotte, is a free agent after this year. Things are not going well for the Hornets or their star player.

Conner: The issue with Blake Griffin is that we knew his situation would be tough from the beginning due to his contract and Detroit’s cap situation. There’s New Orleans who have for sure botched their building around AD but they’ve at least had another superstar in their possessions at a time to go with Davis. You’ve seen Jrue Holiday flourish, and they were at least able to win a playoff series in Davis’ stay.

I’d look to Charlotte with Kemba Walker. From multiple draft failings, to questionable free agent signings they’ve overall failed to reel in and keep the right talent around Walker consistently. Walker has also made the playoffs twice throughout his eight seasons but does not have a playoff series win to his name.

Ezhan: The Reggie Jackson video bomb is hilarious and show’s exactly why the Pistons are currently 21-27. No man should be that happy by barely beating a “Brow-less” Pelicans team. It’s unfortunate for Griffin coming from an organization where he saw what success looks like to a team where not one player knows what it feels like winning or playing in big games.

Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images

With all that said however, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley of the Memphis Grizzlies have gotten it worse and it’s been for a couple of years now. Grizzlies have failed over the years now to roster a compatible roster to compete in the West as Conley and Gasol rise in age. One thing that they have not managed to do is bring in a solid wing that can get them at least 15 a night. No, I’m serious, ever since 2014 here are the wings that have come and gone in that locker room: an aging Tayshaun Prince, aging Mike Miller, James Johnson, aging Vince Carter, Jeff Green, Lance Stephenson, James Ennis…I can keep on going but for your sake and mine I think you get the point. There has been no stability in the organization as of late and they are on their third coach in four years. Fizdale was a coach that looked like he was bringing in change in the style of play for the Grizzlies, but he got fired and they haven’t recovered since. It’s as if they are stuck in time trying to make the “Grit ‘n Grind” magic work while everyone is out lapping them. Grizzlies have gotten older and the young talent that they have brought in outside of Jaren Jackson Jr. has not panned out yet. It’s time to let Conley and Gasol go and say R.I.P to the GnG era.

Brian Sevald/NBAE via Getty Images

Kramers: The interaction between Griffin and Jackson was certainly cringe-worthy, though it should be noted both players later brushed off the incident. Griffin even joked that his teammate had “great comedic timing.”

That said, with Anthony Davis likely on the move soon, I’d agree that Griffin finds himself in the toughest situation of any star (Kemba Walker might be in the mix, too).

Detroit is not only starting Jackson, who’s shooting under 40 percent on the season, but has relied on sizable contributions from Langston Galloway, Jose Calderon, Ish Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Bruce Brown. Not to mention, they’re still paying Josh Smith over $5 million this year and in 2019-20.

On the bright side, Luke Kennard has made some strides in his second season, averaging 16.3 points while making 11-of-17 from long range during a four-game stretch earlier this month. The Pistons’ 2015 lottery pick, Stanley Johnson, has struggled with his shot, but has been a more reliable defensive presence; Detroit has been 6.6 points better on the defensive end when he’s been on the court.

Whether they decide to deal a future asset or move one of their core rotation players, the Pistons—who have the League’s fourth-worst offense (103.2 points per 100 possessions) over the last 10 games—have a few pieces to make a deadline trade and hopefully provide Griffin some much-needed help.

 

There has been a lot of chatter about Steve Kerr this season. Much of it focusing on whether or not he’s maximized the Warriors and specifically Steph Curry. Assessing the job Kerr has done is tricky because by all accounts, he’s been wildly successful but it’s hard to separate his coaching from the talent around him. How would you rate the job Kerr has done this year and if you had to rank him, is he a top five coach? Top 10? Top 15?

Kramers: There’s no doubt in my mind that Kerr is a top-five coach, ranking right up there with Gregg Popovich, Brad Stevens, Rick Carlisle and Erik Spoelstra.

Yes, the Warriors boast the most talent in the NBA, but we saw the physical and mental toll of the regular season creep in last year when Kerr decided to let his players coach themselves in order to refocus. Keeping an immensely-successful team motivated throughout an 82-game grind, when they’re seeking their fourth title in five years, along with integrating a key rotation player into the lineup in DeMarcus Cousins, are no small feats. Kerr’s lack of ego and typically relaxed demeanor when dealing with so many different personalities also serve him well.

As much umbrage as Warriors fans may take with his rotations, Golden State played without Curry and Draymond Green for much of November, weathered an uncharacteristic shooting slump from Klay Thompson and has adjusted the offense even further with Cousins back in the lineup.

Even though Curry has been used slightly differently this season, his scoring numbers and efficiency nearly mirror his back-to-back MVP seasons, with essentially the same usage.

Kerr, like most coaches, has his faults, but after an up-and-down start, the Warriors appear to have righted the ship—their net rating during the current 11-game winning streak is a ridiculous 16.9—at just the right time.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Lynch: I would still have Steve Kerr second in the NBA, he’s still a top five coach. Not necessarily for the X’s & O’s type of coaching but for managing a locker room of so many ego’s and superstars! We all know that the NBA is soap opera league for basketball fans and to successfully balance that much success with that much talent and ego is something more impressive to me than any triangle offense. The team kind of speaks for itself once it’s on the court but I don’t think you can undervalue keeping a winning and happy environment alive and thriving. He’s done a better job than anyone in that department and that gets overlooked sometimes. Managing locker rooms is the most underrated aspect of being a successful head coach in my opinion.

McBride: I would put Kerr in the top five still, I personally have him behind Gregg Popovich, but in an unclear tier with Brad Stevens, Mike Budenholzer, Michael Malone, Mike D’antoni and Quin Snyder. I would fully understand arguments for him as the second-best head coach in the League and would fully understand him being proclaimed at the back end of the top 10. For me, he is without a doubt in the top-10 coaches in the League.

Adam Pantozzi/NBAE via Getty Images

Conner: The off the court drama and rumors is normally what can disrupt a machine like Golden State. There were questions as to if they would once Kevin Durant and Draymond Green had a very public and verbal issue earlier in the season. There have been rumors about both of their futures as well as Klay Thompson’s.

And all of this was before DeMarcus Cousins’ debut, with several questions about how he would fit chemistry-wise, to go with his return from a brutal injury. All dramas considered, Golden State is back to blowing teams out and look as scary as they’ve ever appeared while currently first in the Western Conference.

Kerr deserves some credit in that equation. We underrate how difficult managing talent and egos can be. And there’s arguably no one currently better at that in the NBA other than Gregg Popovich. Kerr’s witty and calm, smooth demeanor however is unrivaled.

He without question should be considered a top five coach. Even if he’s Phil Jackson part two that shouldn’t be held against him. The intangibles helped make Kerr a champion as a player and they’ve made him a champion as a coach.

Ezhan: I believe Steve Kerr has done a great job with this Warriors squad in the past five years. We’ve only seen Kerr with a talented team so it’s very hard to judge how great of a coach he is but with what he’s been giving Kerr has taken full advantage and has won three out of the last four championships. NBA coaching is no longer just knowing just the X’s and O’s and having your players execute. You need to be able to relate to your players now and be able to manage egos in a locker room. Players in the NBA have huge platforms now where their voices carry a lot of weight and I believe Steve Kerr has done a masterful job in keeping his guys focused and having them be able to sacrifice their individual stats for the ultimate goal.

Kerr is a top five coach right now, but if we’re being honest, it’s by default. How many great coaches are there right now in the NBA? How many have been with their franchises for over four years? There is so much turnover when it comes to coaching in this league that you have to put him in top five right now. Outside of Pop you can make the argument with Doc Rivers, Erik Spoelstra, Brad Stevens, Rick Carlisle—and if you are feeling extra spicy, maybe Mike D’Antoni—for coaches that are better or should be in the top five, but outside of those coaches can you really argue anyone else? I don’t think so.

 

If we did a fantasy draft for coaches, assuming Gregg Popovich went first, who would go No. 2?

Ezhan: I may be biased being a Celtics fan but the answer has to be Brad Stevens here. Stevens created a culture in Boston in just one year of being there. During the early years when the Celtics had lesser talent, you still knew that the Celtics were going to outwork their opponent and share the ball beautifully. Every year under Stevens so far, the Celtics have exceeded their expectations, and if it wasn’t for falling into the Cavs in the early rounds, it’s possible the team would have accomplished a little more. We saw underdogs/rotational players have their best years under Stevens in Jae Crowder, Avery Bradley, and of course Isaiah Thomas. I’ve seen Stevens draw up game-winners for Tyler freaking Zeller…and it worked!

Jesse D. Garrabrant/NBAE via Getty Images

His ATO’s (after timeout) plays have been something to marvel at. He’s a coach who understands the game but also his players—I mean even Rondo liked him some Stevens and that’s saying something. You know Stevens is going to get the best out of all his players and the 2017-2018 season is the best example when Celtics entered the playoffs without Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward and were minutes away of being Easter Conference Champs. I would take Stevens in a heartbeat and it would take a lot to convince me otherwise.

Kramers: Any of the four coaches mentioned above—along with Mike D’Antoni, Mike Budenholzer and Dave Joerger—would merit first-round consideration.

But I’d give the nod to Brad Stevens, who’s done a masterful job in Boston by squeezing the most out of injury-depleted and largely-inexperienced rosters.

Besides seamlessly integrating new players and finding ways to develop young talent on the fly—we don’t need to look any further than Jayson Tatum and Terry Rozier last year—there are the X’s and O’s of Stevens’ playcalling. He’s been, deservingly, called an “ATO Genius” by LeBron James, and despite being undermanned against the Sixers in last year’s playoffs, found ways to limit the effectiveness of Philadelphia’s stars en route to winning the series in five games.

While Boston struggled out of the gate to begin this season, and wasn’t living up the expectations through the first quarter of the year, those issues appear to be in the rearview mirror.

After ranking 28th in offensive rating in October, the Celtics have climbed up to 10th in January (113.2) while winning 10 of 14 games; their defensive rating (105.1) and net rating (8.1) are the third-best during that timeframe. Their field goal percentage and three-point shooting have steadily gone up each month, rising all the way to 47.4 and 38.9 percent, respectively, in January.

The Celtics are currently five games out of first place, but only a game back of catching the Sixers to gain homecourt in the first round of the playoffs, and one-and-a-half behind the reeling Pacers.

Considering how well they’ve matched up against the Warriors over the years, Boston may be the most equipped team to topple Golden State’s dynasty—in no small part due to its strategic head coach.

Lynch: The four to round out the top five that come to mind right away are Mike Budenholzer, Steve Kerr, Brad Stevens and Quin Snyder. I’ll take last year and this year into consideration and say Snyder right now because he’s getting the most out of the least. That roster is solid but for him to have so much success over the last two seasons is most impressive to me. Hard not to consider Mike Malone this year in the top five as well.

Melissa Majchrzak/NBAE via Getty Images

McBride: This is an extremely tough question because it depends so much on what kind of team the coach would be inheriting, In terms of setting a culture and developing winning players, I would say Michael Malone or Quin Snyder. For taking a team to the next level, I would say Budenholzer. In terms of the second-most well-rounded coach in the League, I think the answer still has to be Brad Stevens despite his struggles this season. He has a talent for developing young players and does a great job of not only getting his team to buy in physically, but mentally as well.

Conner: My pick would be Brad Stevens. In fantasy sports you like to pick well rounded investments. People that can thrive in a plethora of situations. Stevens has won with grinders, he’s struggled, seen top talents come and go, and juggled a ton of personalities.

While he isn’t a champion, yet he’s seen both sides of the spectrum in a town used to winning. Stevens may not be Pop, but he can be the remixed version. And sometimes the remix eventually becomes better than the original thing. I would hope so at least for the life of my fantasy team.