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Questions & Answers: In or Out on NBA Story Lines

Is Jayson Tatum the league’s top rookie? Will Jason Kidd last past the All-Star break? Our NBA staff makes the calls on the most pressing league-wide debates.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

A dozen or so games into the season, The Ringer’s own NBA team is throwing its chips in or pulling out on the biggest trends we’ve seen thus far.

In or Out: Jayson Tatum is the NBA’s Best Rookie.

Danny Chau: Out. I will admit I was dead wrong about Tatum’s ability to translate his skills to the NBA, but give me Ben Simmons. The Sixers capture lightning in a bottle every single time Joel Embiid steps on the floor, yet it’s Simmons who has established the foundation for their success this season. He is a legitimate 6-foot-10 point guard, not just one in spirit or usage. He has actualized Robert Covington, a longtime Sixers fan favorite who I tend to lump in with Chandler Parsons and Jae Crowder as players who grossly outperformed their first contract. Covington had shot just below league average from 3 despite appearing as an ideal 3-and-D player. With Simmons’s wrecking ball leading the charge, he’s hitting 50 percent of his seven attempts per game. All of this seems to read like curlicues around Simmons, but that’s the point: He’s made players in his orbit better. It’s amazing what a good point guard can do for a young team.

John Gonzalez: So in. Extra in. All the way in. (For our purposes here, I’m limiting my “best rookie” argument to members of the most-recent draft class.) And I say that despite the fact that my affection for him is causing me real trouble back home. This probably won’t help either: If I possessed the power to undo the Markelle Fultz trade on behalf of the Sixers, thereby allowing them to stay put and select Tatum third overall, I would make that move. And just to make it happen, I’d even let Danny Ainge keep the pick he acquired in the process of that deal. That’s how much I like Tatum’s game. He has a giant NBA body at 19, can play inside and out, and makes smart decisions at both ends of the floor. What’s not to like?

To the extent that I ever had any Philly cred, I acknowledge that it’s now in serious jeopardy. I apologize for nothing.

Kevin O’Connor: Out. It’s Ben Simmons. But if we’re talking about only the 2017 class, then it’s Tatum, who is everything we expected and more. Tatum is defending at a level far above what he did at Duke while still rebounding well. He has extended his range even farther. He’s making smart plays as a passer. Tatum looks like a six-year veteran out here for Boston. Gordon Hayward is out until late this season at the earliest, and Tatum has taken full advantage of the opportunity. It’s been a blast to watch him shine.

Jonathan Tjarks: Out. Tatum has been great, but Simmons has lived up to all of the hype while playing a much bigger role for the 76ers. He is averaging a near-triple-double (17.8 points, 10.1 rebounds, eight assists) as a rookie, and he has made everyone forget about whatever is happening with Fultz. Simmons has dominated the ball, put up huge stats and lead Philly to a 6-5 record.

Paolo Uggetti: Out. Have you seen Ben Simmons play? Sure, he may have had a year off to refine his game, but right now, he’s the only player—not just rookie—in history to average at least 15 points, 10 rebounds, eight assists, and 1.7 steals per game. On defense, he’s causing trouble for opponents based on sheer length:

For so much talk about Lonzo Ball being the next Magic Johnson, Simmons has been the all-around, über-efficient wunderkind thus far.

In or Out: Detroit Pistons are a Top-Four Team in the East.

Chau: In. Sure, why not? What was supposed to be the fate of the Pistons last season appears to have arrived a bit late. The team is a Motor City factory line of seemingly three different builds: the lanky combo guard, the brick-solid combo forward, and the tall floor-spacer at center. … And Andre Drummond. It’s a bit formulaic, but it also means that pieces can be interchanged at will. The plug-and-play nature of the lineups trotted out explains why the metrics suggest that the Pistons’ highest-performing players are all coming off the bench. The Pistons lack elite talent on the high end, but they have attained a strange consistency in their surprising start to the season. It’s been a wild season; maybe consistency is all a team needs to appear elite nowadays.

Gonzalez: Out. The Celtics [ducks objects being thrown at me from Philly] and Kyrie Irving are really good. John Wall and Bradley Beal are better than anything the Pistons have. The Raptors have experience and muscle memory. The Cavs still employ the best player on the planet. That’s four teams right there. Throw in the Bucks (love Giannis pairing with newly acquired Eric Bledsoe) and the ascendant Sixers (who just had their longest winning streak since Doug Collins was coach). That makes six. The Pistons are … fine. I guess. Not top-four fine, though.

O’Connor: Out. The Cavaliers, Celtics, Raptors, and Wizards are still all better. Detroit could certainly become fifth-best, which is an accomplishment considering the low-to-moderate preseason expectations. Andre Drummond has been at his best. Reggie Jackson is playing better team basketball. They’re deeper. Stan Van Gundy should feel good about his squad. But there are too many “ifs” to consider this a top-four team, even in the East.

Uggetti: In. The East is weak and in desperate need of what I like to call “filler seeds.” And while Stan Van Gundy may not be the best GM, he’s still a good coach at the helm of an improved roster. Andre Drummond sinking free throws at an acceptable rate keeps him on the floor, the improvement of Tobias Harris provides consistent scoring, and Avery Bradley is still a force to be reckoned with. More importantly, Reggie Jackson is thriving. When Jackson is on the floor, the Pistons are seven points better per 100 possessions than when he’s off—a stark contrast from last season when the team was better with Ish Smith at the point.

In or Out: Cleveland Is Tanking the Regular Season So It Can Catch Boston in the First Round.

Chau: Out. I’m terrified of Boston in the East and I hate how much I actually believe this statement.

Gonzalez: I’m extremely in on this, if only because I really want to see Kevin O’Connor and Bill Simmons hold each other if it happens.

O’Connor: Out. I’m all for conspiracy theories (for instance, that Ben Simmons shoots with the wrong hand and Lonzo Ball can only shoot with Wilson balls). But this seems like quite a stretch. What exactly is the point of tanking the regular season? LeBron James’s historic run to seven straight NBA Finals amounts to two extra regular seasons. He has a right to coast, and the rest of the team seems to be following the leader. LeBron should be concerned about the team’s flawed personnel, but that’s a problem that will be there regardless (barring a trade) come playoff time.

Uggetti: In in theory; out in practice. Cleveland has very real problems, especially on defense. But I don’t think the Cavaliers would be prioritizing a top seed even if things were going well. This is LeBron’s MO; he knows he’s being measured only by MVPs and Finals appearances. Why care about anything else? Having said that, I do think LeBron believes he could beat Boston as the 8-seed. See, now I’m kind of all in.

In or Out: Aaron Gordon Is the NBA’s Most Improved Player.

Chau: In. OK, in his first three seasons, Gordon shot the 3 at a worse clip than Derrick Coleman did over the course of his career. So far this season, Gordon would be the third call I’d make for the 3-point contest behind Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. I’ve been waiting for his 3-ball to fall off since after his first game of the season—and he only went 1-for-2 that night. It hasn’t happened. Gordon is sitting on a 57.5 percent on 4.4 attempts per game. The percentage-point differential between this season and last (28.7) is almost the same as his career percentage from 2014-15 to 2016-17 (28.9). If this hot streak holds—or even if his percentage free falls 20 percentage points—it will be one of the most astonishing transformations in recent memory. It caulks almost every crack in Gordon’s game. I’m in. I’m extremely in.

Gonzalez: In. The Aaron Gordon we saw over the last month or so of last season is the Aaron Gordon we’ve seen in the first few weeks this season. The guy is making nearly 58 percent of his 3s. Plus, he’s rebounding and scoring and moving the ball, and he’s averaging almost a block and a steal per game. I have no idea what the Magic did with the old Aaron Gordon, but they should keep this new version.

Also, he’s responsible for one of the best moments of the year so far:

O’Connor: Out. It’s Kristaps Porzingis. Gordon went from average to good. Porzingis has made the leap from good to amazing. Much of what KP is doing so far this season—post scoring and facilitating, 38 percent from 3, dominance on the break—is sustainable, as long as he stays healthy. Gordon has improved, but he won't continue shooting 57.5 percent from 3.

Tjarks: In. Aaron Gordon won't shoot 57.5 percent from 3 all season, but he doesn't need to. As long as he can make 3s at a league-average rate, he has an almost indefensible combination of size, speed, and ball-handling at the power forward position. The Magic have been waiting years for Gordon to learn how to shoot, and all of the pieces start to make a lot more sense in Orlando if Gordon is spacing the floor and averaging 20 points a game.

Uggetti: In. In terms of value added, Aaron Gordon has been like mixing in marshmallow into a sweet potato casserole. In other words, the addition of a 3-pointer has taken his game to a whole other level. Athleticism, which Gordon exudes, can only take you so far. Tack on consistent shooting, however, and it will lead you to the promised land.

In or Out: Jason Kidd Will be the Bucks’ Coach at the All-Star Break.

Chau: I had to give my old “Giannis and Kidd are the Duncan and Pop millennials want” take a fond farewell. This is hard for me. I’m in, if only because the addition of Eric Bledsoe means management will probably allow for more leeway as the team gets acclimated. I won’t be shocked if he gets canned a day after the end of their season, though.

Gonzalez: In. But it’s an uneasy in. I don’t feel great about it. They just went out and got Bledsoe, and Jabari Parker should be back at some point. I feel like they need to give Kidd some time to work all those pieces into a collective whole that makes sense. If they struggle, though, it definitely wouldn’t surprise me if Kidd takes the fall.

O’Connor: In. Milwaukee’s half-court defense is atrocious. The Bucks rank 29th in defensive rating. Their pick-and-roll defense is ranked 28th, per Synergy. They’ve allowed the most at-rim shots and the fifth-fewest midrange shots, per Cleaning the Glass. They have problems, and part of that is on Kidd. But will it be enough to fire him by mid-February? Nah. The Bucks should give Kidd—and their young team—more time to jell than that.

Tjarks: In. Kidd is sitting on one of the hottest seats in the league, but the trade for Bledsoe should buy him enough time to get to the playoffs. For all of the questionable strategic decisions he has made this season, the biggest problem in Milwaukee has been horrible play from the bench, and adding another 30-minutes-a-night player to the rotation will make his life a lot easier. Wait until the playoffs, when Kidd will likely need to win at least one series to keep his job.

Uggetti: Out. With Cleveland struggling and Boston without Gordon Hayward, there’s a chance Milwaukee, emboldened by Giannis skyrocketing to MVP frontrunner, feels this is the time to capitalize on the weakened state of the East. I feel like the situation is ripe for an overreaction by the Bucks’ front office. I can see it now: “We have Giannis and a deep roster that just added Eric Bledsoe. How are we only a few games above .500?” Enter Jason Kidd, scapegoat.

In or Out: Houston is the NBA’s Second-Best team.

Chau: In. It’ll take another 10-15 games for defenses to level out, but the Rockets are operating at a level comparable to a top-five defense from 2016-17. The additions of P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute have been legitimate game-changers and offer a two-way small-ball versatility D’Antoni hadn’t been able to activate since Boris Diaw in his Phoenix years. They’ll have to give James Harden some time to breathe if they want to escape the loop that the season seems fated to repeat, but the Rockets have looked exactly like the team that was promised: 3-and-D incarnate.

Gonzalez: In. James Harden is a having a killer (and largely overlooked) season. That was expected. Clint Capela is also having a killer (and largely overlooked) season. That was not expected. Both guys have PERs pushing 30. Meanwhile, the Rockets have a ton of shooting and they added some good role players like P.J. Tucker to eat up minutes. They’re legit. (By the way, are we sure that eventually welcoming back Chris Paul is a good idea?)

O’Connor: In. I felt they were before the regular season and feel even more strongly about that now. The fact the Rockets have played incredibly well without Chris Paul is super encouraging. Once CP3’s back, they’ll have 48 minutes of Hall of Fame–caliber point guard play. Their offense will be even more lethal, and their defense is better than it was last season. Get excited.

Uggetti: In. When people are writing about your coach’s coffee habits and not about your terrible defense or lack of a ball-handler, things are going pretty well. Save for a ridiculous James Harden performance or our own Zach Kram’s deep dive into the team’s shot distribution, the 9-3 Rockets are thriving in the shadows of general NBA discourse. I’m going to guess that’s just all right for Mike D’Antoni and Co.