This is an NBA award season unlike any other. On top of that, the league has loosened positional designations, allowing voters more flexibility in crafting ballots.
With MVP, Rookie of the Year and the other major awards covered last week, let’s look at the five-man teams.
• There are eight first-team candidates: the five on my team, plus Doncic, Jokic, and Lillard. The NBA has gone wild on positional flexibility, making LeBron eligible at guard and going so far as to make Jokic eligible at forward (what?).
Before this became clear, everyone assumed the first team would be Doncic and Harden at guard; LeBron and Antetokounmpo at forward; and a pick ’em between Davis and Jokic. Leonard would have been relegated to second team.
I had Leonard ahead of Doncic on my MVP ballot. Right now, he’s a better two-way player. The gap in games and minutes is not big enough in Doncic’s favor — three games, 150-ish minutes — to flip them. Designating LeBron a guard gives me my preferred first team. I can’t quibble with those who prefer Doncic. He was sensational.
• Second team was pretty easy. Paul has a shockingly airtight case considering he averaged eight or 10 points fewer than most candidates. The advanced stats for Paul and Butler are overwhelming — way above Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, and, yes, Russell Westbrook.
Those numbers capture Paul’s value as an off-ball shooting threat and ace defender. He was the league’s best crunch-time player, and it was not close. He shot a preposterous 46-of-86 in the last five minutes of close games, and the Thunder were an uber-preposterous plus-109 in 160 such minutes with Paul on the floor.
The Thunder were elite with Paul and abysmal when he sat.
• Butler’s jumper fell apart, but every other part of his game sang: seven boards, six dimes, and nine free throws per game, plus stellar defense. He can blend into a broader offensive system as a shoulder-checking cutter, and supersede that system when the situation requires. He was more consistent from October to March than Tatum.
• Lowry, Westbrook, and Booker were my three toughest guard omissions. Lowry’s raw numbers don’t stand out, but he does winning things every second he is on the floor. The Raptors in the wake of Leonard’s departure took on Lowry’s on-court personality: fast, unselfish, hyper-alert.
• There are different kinds of losing seasons. The Hawks (20-47) and Wizards (24-40) were never playing for anything, and everyone involved understood that from day one. That knowledge can’t help but affect everyone’s play. Young is an incredible offensive talent — already one of the league’s best passers — but he won’t help his team win as much as his raw numbers suggest until he tries on defense.
Beal slipped on that end, too. He’d probably admit that. If given the choice between Beal/Young and two-way wings on good teams, I’m going with the latter for All-NBA every time.
• As for Lillard: There is a difference between Portland’s 29-37 season and what the Hawks and Wizards did. Portland was coming off six straight postseason appearances and a run to the conference finals. They had high expectations — way too high. Their games mattered. They had real stakes.
Also, 29-37 in the West is an entirely different animal than 24-40 in the junior varsity — especially given how injuries decimated Portland’s roster. Lillard almost single-handedly kept them afloat for parts of January and February. Portland somehow outscored opponents with Lillard on the floor. He’s not a plus defender, but he fights.
• Booker’s Suns reside somewhere between the Wiz/Hawks and Blazers, and they (barely) outscored opponents with Booker on the floor. (They could not score at all when he sat.) He put up 26 points and almost seven dimes per game on 49% shooting. If you think he’s a losing player, I will happily buy up all your Devin Booker stock. He’s a little ahead of Mitchell (24 and 4 on 45% shooting, stouter on defense, though not by as much as conventional wisdom suggests) on this ballot.
• Tatum finished at 23.5 points per game on 45% shooting, including 40% from deep. He beefed up those numbers with his wintertime superstar leap, but you don’t end up at 23.5 points with two months of work. I’d rather have a player’s season trend up than down. Tatum is one of the league’s best wing defenders, and a plus-minus god.
• Simmons needs a little more love. He’s gotten a lot for his defense, but a 16-8-8 line is pretty damned pleasing in traditional terms. Few players were more reliable.
• Westbrook’s 27-8-7 line is bonkers. He averaged 32 points per game on 54% shooting after Jan. 1. Unlike Simmons, Westbrook actually takes jumpers. He gets hot from midrange sometimes!
Westbrook made a case. Advanced numbers don’t further it. They put him neck-and-neck with the Booker/Lowry/Beal/Mitchell tier — a tick below Tatum and Simmons, and well behind Paul and Butler. Advanced numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all. Some have problems under the hood. But when they all scream the same thing, something is up.
For Westbrook, I suspect they are capturing the challenges of a perimeter player who cannot shoot 3s, like, at all, and isn’t helping on defense. That matches the eye test. Houston’s frenetic pace and team design — everyone stand around while these two dudes do everything — inflate Westbrook’s numbers a little.
Let me say it loudly: Westbrook was good, and then spectacular for two months. He will make lots of ballots, and that’s fine. He barely misses here.
• Ditto for Brandon Ingram. Siakam and Middleton bring a little more all-court impact. Middleton matched Ingram in assists, and came within a whisker of a 50-40-90 shooting season.
I thought about axing Middleton, moving Tatum to forward, and opening a spot for Booker/Lowry/Westbrook. I couldn’t find enough reason to do so. Middleton is deserving.
• The last center spot came down to Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid, and Domantas Sabonis. Gobert is becoming underrated. He’s not super-fun to watch, and the league is trending away from his player type.
But he stands as the apex of that player type. Gobert is a generational defender, and he had to prop up a roster that now tilts way toward offense. He averaged almost 16 points and ranks as one of the league’s best offensive rebounders.
Adebayo is coming for this spot. (I had him ahead of Sabonis.) He can do more on offense than Gobert — mostly as a distributor. But he’s still finding his way as a scorer. He can’t scoot past centers in the half court as easily as you’d expect; he often burrows into them, and lofts off-balance floaters. The gap between Gobert and Adebayo on defense still outweighs the gap between Adebayo and Gobert on offense.
Gobert is a better passer than he gets to show on a Jazz roster overflowing with ball handlers, though he’s not near Adebayo’s level. Miami needs Adebayo to pass. The Jazz need Gobert to screen.
• Embiid was the toughest player to evaluate. He is the best in this group. He has the talent to be the best player in the league. He also played in only 44 games, and kinda sulked through half of them. Even that version of Embiid changes the game on defense simply by being there.
Embiid hit 51% on 2s — not great. He still doesn’t make the basic read out of double-teams consistently enough. He’ll get there.
Given all that, the minutes gap between Gobert and Embiid — 800 minutes! — was too big to ignore.
G: Kawhi Leonard
G: Ben Simmons
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Anthony Davis
C: Rudy Gobert
• Listing Leonard at guard — which the NBA permitted — allows me to get perhaps the league’s five best overall defenders this season onto my first team.
Simmons was an ironman guarding every position but center, and can switch there in a pinch. He led the league in steals without gambling. He iced several games with clutch swipes, looking like freaking Deion Sanders closing on corner routes. (Simmons ranked second in deflections.)
• Leonard does not nominally play “guard.” He defends “guards” now and then, though he probably most often defends “small forwards.” The NBA leaning into positional flexibility will result in wings snaring more “guard” spots at the expense of traditional point guards. If you want to honor the best defenders, that is probably appropriate. Size and positional versatility make the best defenders; point guards are relatively lacking in both.
But elite point guard defenders are still important. In the right matchup, they can tilt a playoff series. I’ve long argued the NBA might consider including one point guard slot, two for “wings,” and two for bigs.
On the flip side, more and more lead ball handlers are not traditional point guards, at least in terms of size. And my ballot still has room for two players in Dunn and Smart who play a fair amount of point guard on both ends. Maybe this is all fine.
• Before realizing Leonard was eligible at guard, I had three no-brainers for four guard spots: Simmons, Dunn, and Smart. As I said on the Lowe Post podcast last month, the fourth guard was down to Butler and Jrue Holiday — with Butler ahead by a hair. Butler is eligible at forward. Holiday is not.
• Smart is a monster: impossible to screen, immovable in the post, strong across four positions.
• Dunn’s defense was one of the league’s great unseen pleasures. He defended every possession as if his paycheck depended on it, which in the bigger picture it might have.
He conceded nothing. Executing a dribble handoff with Dunn’s man was hazardous — like trying to poke your hand through a thicket of barbed wire. Dunn swiped 2.9 steals per 36 minutes, by far the league’s highest mark. He ranked seventh in total deflections, and first in deflections per minute. The Bulls often had Dunn defend small forwards because they had no one else capable.
Chicago allowed 103.6 points per 100 possessions with Dunn on the floor, and almost 111 when he sat. Jim Boylen’s hyper-aggressive scheme worked with Dunn, and failed otherwise. The only reason Dunn is not on my first team — and would not have been even with Leonard at forward — is because he started only 32 games and logged 1,269 minutes. (Reserves don’t spend as much time defending the best opposing lineups — a factor that works against Matisse Thybulle, too.)
• I contemplated rejiggering my ballot to fit Holiday. He was that good, though you wouldn’t know it given New Orleans’ overall stinkiness on defense. He led the league in deflections. Opponents shot about 6 percentage points worse than expected when Holiday was the closest defender, one of the league’s largest negative differentials, per Second Spectrum.
Lowry and Paul are aging, surrounded by enough defensive talent that their teams often stash them against the weakest opposing perimeter players. They are still massively valuable off to the side. They flash into driving and passing lanes at precisely the right moments.
Lowry tied for the league lead in charges drawn. His ability to hold his own against bigger guys on switches unlocks a lot of Nick Nurse’s mad science schemes. Going one-on-one against Paul still leaves some bruising. But some other candidates have less time to exhale.
• Bledsoe had another fine season as the first layer in Milwaukee’s rim-protection machine. He is an expert navigating screens, and can hit top speed fast when he needs to. But his advanced numbers and activity stats — steals and deflections — are down.
• Beverley is incredible — snarling at waist level with bigger scorers, hounding point guards up the floor, outrebounding almost everyone at his position. At 32, his athleticism in open space looks to have declined maybe 5% or 10% — nothing to cause the Clippers concern. But he’s not as impenetrable one-on-one.
• Frank Ntilikina is awesome on defense. I hope he improves enough at other stuff to showcase that over more minutes.
• Dejounte Murray took a step back on defense, but he’s going to be a candidate for the next decade.
• Honestly, the best defensive guard in the league this season on a per-minute basis might have been Gary Payton II. The Mitten played only 432 minutes over 29 games for Washington.
• Putting three forwards — and a fourth player in Simmons who defends them often — on the first team leaves imperfect choices for the second team. Jonathan Isaac was on track to snag one spot before another injury cost him half the season; he and Davis were the only players to average at least 1.5 steals and two blocks per game.
Excitement about Adebayo’s defense is a little ahead of reality, but he’s still really good — one of the league’s fastest and most versatile bigs. His ability to toggle between power forward and center, and to defend the pick-and-roll in any style, holds the Heat together. Bam-at-center lineups are sexier, but Miami’s starting lineup — with Adebayo chasing power forwards, and Meyers Leonard in the middle — blitzed opponents by almost 14 points per 100 possessions.
Adebayo defended the fifth-most isolations among all players — an indication of how often he switches onto guards — and held opponents to a measly 0.78 points play, per Second Spectrum. He’s a rebound-snatcher in traffic.
Adebayo probably grades out as a “B” rim protector, but he’s more of a consistent deterrent there than any of the other main forward candidates: LeBron, Robert Covington, Draymond Green, P.J. Tucker, Royce O’Neale, Siakam, OG Anunoby, Thybulle, Aaron Gordon, Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Dorian Finney-Smith, and a few others.
• Some of those guys were up and down. A couple are aging. Some who were really good — O’Neale, Finney-Smith, Anunoby — just aren’t as fearsome as Butler and Adebayo in a way that is hard to quantify or explain. Butler is rock-solid. He brought his A-game all season.
• It feels weird to have two players from Miami’s average-ish defense, and none from Toronto’s No. 2-ranked outfit. Every player in Toronto’s rotation is a plus defender. Every starter but Marc Gasol is a reasonable All-Defense candidate, and Gasol would be too if centers got more than two slots.
Siakam is the best of the bunch when he dials it up. Nurse will assign him to any player, including wackadoo size mismatches (in both directions) that are designed to throw off the other team. But Siakam didn’t quite bring the same manic possession-to-possession energy this season — understandable given his ascension to first-option status on offense. In the playoffs, watch out.
Anunoby might have been even better, but it feels a year early for him. Adebayo and Butler had to carry a huge load given the limitations of their teammates.
• LeBron has a real case. Some internal team metrics rate James — not Davis — as the Lakers’ best defender this season, per sources around the league. To me, he’s kind of the Chris Paul of forwards — often guarding the least threatening opposing player. He’s still a super-dangerous ball hawk, but the competition for these spots is too fierce.
• Lopez edges Embiid for all the reasons outlined in the All-NBA section.
• The first four are no-brainers. I left Williamson off my Rookie of the Year ballot because he played only 565 minutes in 19 games, but I care less about minutes in the “All-Whatever” awards genre — particularly here, where the field is always thin.
The final first-team spot came down to Washington, Paschall, Davis, and Herro. Davis was probably the best two-way player of the group. He took well to a bit role on offense, canning almost 40% from deep and sneaking for well-timed cuts. How do you weigh Davis fitting in on a good team against Washington and Paschall doing more heavy lifting on awful ones? There is no right answer. Herro is in the middle — an important off-ball threat on a good team. He’s also the worst defender of the four.
Washington canning 37% from deep bodes well for his future as a rotation player and potential fourth/fifth starter on a good team. Paschall bonked 3s, but hit 55% on 2s. He showed more ability than Washington to create for himself and others with a bruising off-the-bounce game. Paschall used that skill a little selfishly early, but found a better balance. He will grow into a stout defender with nimble feet.
• I didn’t particularly enjoy watching White’s hoggish chucking, but he averaged 20 points and 4.5 dimes over his last 15 games while shooting 37% from deep — on eight attempts per game. The pull-up 3 is a career-making shot, and White looks like he might have a decent one. He’s not a bad playmaker when he remembers passing is legal.
• I hear the rage from New York Knicks fans, at least those with the will left to rage about anything other than James Dolan. RJ Barrett finished fourth among rookies in scoring — 0.9 points ahead of Hachimura. I feel for Barrett. He’s a decent playmaker who can’t shoot, and the Knicks (of course) plopped him in the middle of a bunch of non-shooters — leaving Barrett to drive into forests of bodies.
But his case ends at points per game. He ranks among the half-dozen worst rookies in most advanced stats. He shot 43% on 2s, and 61% at the line. Hachimura was semi-reliable — 52% — from 2-point range. He brings more positional and role versatility on both ends.
• Michael Porter Jr. would have usurped Hachimura had he played more — to compile stats, and smooth the rough spots on defense. I liked what I saw from Kevin Porter Jr., but it wasn’t enough to crack second team.
• Thybulle might be the best rookie wing defender I’ve ever seen. He was a consistent rotation piece on a good team — a high bar for rookies. I’ve seen voters slot him onto the second team, and I’d be fine with that. But 4.7 points per game and minimal dribbling/moving dips just below my “doing stuff on offense” threshold. Cody Martin and Luguentz Dort fall into the same bucket. Both are workable 3-pointers away from being really interesting — Dort as 3-and-D cinder block, Martin as heady, catch-and-go sort.