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The Most Deserving All-NBA Teams
The best of the best
How you feel about All-NBA this year entirely hinges upon how you treat Embiid and Jokic. All-NBA requires voters to pick two guards, two forwards, and one center for three different teams. It’s supposed to represent the NBA’s best players that year at each position. But the NBA itself plays fast and loose with the positional tags: many players (including Embiid and Jokic) have split eligibility.
Traditionalists will say that these guys are both centers who haven’t played a smidge of forward this year (true). They’ll say that history has always forced the NBA to make tough choices, like Bill Russell vs. Wilt Chamberlain (true). They’ll say that putting both guys on All-NBA First Team will mean a deserving guard or forward will be left off the third team (true-ish).
But I don’t care. Embiid and Jokic have been two of the three best basketball players this year by a wide margin and deserve to be recognized as such. The NBA has implicitly approved such arrangements by listing Jokic and Embiid as centers and forwards last year, allowing them to be chosen at either spot.
The idea of two centers on the first team makes people Big Mad. I think it’s strange that people choose this hill to die on when they’re very willing to put DeMar DeRozan or Jayson Tatum as a guard when neither player plays that position, either. You can’t have it both ways.
These awards are not meaningless. They have real ramifications not just for historical legacies but for actual dollars. Just last year, Jayson Tatum received more votes than Kyrie Irving, but because Tatum’s votes were split between forward and guard, Kyrie made the team. Missing All-NBA precluded Tatum from qualifying for a supermax extension, costing him $32 million. That’s a problem (although it was a blessing for the Celtics, who have more money to play with now!).
Positions, in general, are becoming more fluid every day. Jokic and Luka Doncic should both be frontcourt players, by size and by who they guard (Doncic usually guards the other team’s worst forward). Yet they are the best and most prolific passers on their teams, usually the purview of small point guards. Jokic leads the Nuggets in backcourt touches and often brings the ball up the court. If Doncic is listed as a point guard, why isn’t Jokic?
Some teams, like the Warriors, play with three guards regularly. Some teams, like the Lakers, often play with no traditional center. Some teams, like the Raptors, consistently play with four forwards on the floor. The traditional two-guard, two-forward, one-center lineup is slowly dying, and even players who physically fit the traditional positional profiles do different things than ever before. There aren’t many power forwards left in the league who aren’t at least nominal three-point threats; just twenty years ago, non-Dirk power forwards rarely stepped behind the arc.
Some have proposed going to a completely positionless ballot, where voters pick the top 15 players in a given year. That would be a drastic change for the NBA. I wonder if the league shouldn’t do more of an All-Star style ballot: require at least one guard, one forward, and one center, and allow for two wild cards on each team. Maybe that’s a bastardized compromise, but the league wants to protect its historical positions for…reasons?
Regardless, the league needs to either be much stricter or much looser with its positional designations, because right now, we have a system that makes nobody happy.
With that out of the way, let’s get to my All-NBA selections, the roughly 15 best players in the NBA, except where positional constraints come into play!
G: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Joel Embiid, 76ers
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
There’s a very real chance Embiid comes in second in MVP voting but drops to second-team center in the final voting for All-NBA for the second year in a row, but on this ballot, I’m rewarding both. Giannis is the third man in the MVP-caliber trio, and he should be a unanimous choice at forward.
Doncic was easy. After a slow start, he’s posting outrageous, LeBron-ian numbers for a surging Dallas team that seems likely to finish third in the West. His individual brilliance lifts up a supporting cast that is, frankly, rather lackluster. Only Luka, LeBron, and Jokic are capable of making this no-look, cross-court pass over the head of a screener (because Doncic knows that’s the only place the defenders’ arms can’t reach):
The final spot came down to Tatum vs. Devin Booker. On the court, this is roughly a tie to me. Tatum is a stronger rebounder and defender, while Booker shoots more efficiently, passes better, and plays on a superior team. Tatum has played eight more games than Booker this season, though, and that gives him the edge. Games played isn’t the be-all and end-all metric, but it is a useful tiebreaker. I don’t love this, but Tatum has surged in a massive way and gets the nod here.
G: Steph Curry, Warriors
G: Devin Booker, Suns
F: Kevin Durant, Nets
F: DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
Durant and DeRozan are easy choices at forward. DeRozan is leading the league in total points scored this season, a testament to his incredible skill (and availability), and he’s had scores of clutch plays for the Bulls.
Durant might’ve been the MVP frontrunner early in the year. He’s missed time but has been an undeniable top-five player in the league when healthy, and he still might be the guy opponents fear more than any other.
Karl-Anthony Towns is doing better than ever on defense (not saying much, but still) and averaging 25 points per game while shooting 53% from the field and 41% from three. His claim of being the best big-man shooter of all-time sounds crazy… but is probably valid (and he wasn’t shy about saying it after he won the three-point contest this season). KAT regularly performs high-difficulty stepback threes that no defender could even hope to bother:
Booker was a lock at guard. The second guard spot came down to Curry or Ja Morant, and I feel terrible about having to choose. This season, Morant has been the most exciting player in the league on a Memphis team that has wildly overachieved. He’s averaging 27.6 points per game on 49% shooting and leads the league in points in the paint at 16.8 per game. For context, Giannis Antetokounmpo, who’s like if a skyscraper could dunk, is in second with 15.9 PITP.
But he’s not Steph Curry. Defenses routinely double Steph to get the ball out of his hands as soon as possible. Curry is shooting 38% from three on the most challenging diet of shot attempts in the league, even in a down year. Curry is a significantly better defender than Morant right now, and he’s played eight more games than Ja. Estimated Plus/Minus, likely the best publicly-available all-in-one stat, has Curry as the fourth-best player in the league this year.
My heart wants Morant there (heck, my heart wants him on First-Team!). But my head says it has to be Curry. I’m sorry, Ja.
All-NBA Third Team
G: Trae Young, Hawks
G: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors
F: LeBron James, Lakers
C: Bam Adebayo, Heat
All-NBA Third Team is always the hardest to pick. Historically, people don’t care much about the distinction between the All-NBA teams, but they absolutely care if a player misses entirely. As mentioned at the beginning of this post, it can also have tangible salary implications for young players.
Ja Morant is a lock for me here (I suspect he will be second-team in the actual voting). After that, all the remaining positions are up in the air.
The final guard spot came down to Trae Young vs. Chris Paul (with apologies to Donovan Mitchell).
Paul is still the premier offensive table-setter. He’s leading the league in assists per game, and he turns any center into an All-Star caliber player with his pick-and-roll mastery (*Bismack Biyombo nods*). He has the best crunchtime plus/minus in the league by a mile, and he’s still a smart, strong defender.
But he’s lost a step on that end, and he’s shooting the worst three-point percentage since his rookie year - 32%. Smart teams are starting to sag off Paul a bit, who’s been a little more gun-shy than usual.
Trae is, unfortunately, a dreadful defender. But his offensive game this season has been on another level.
He’s fifth in scoring (averaging nearly twice as many points as Paul: 28.3 to 14.9) and second in assists. Last week, I showed a clip of Trae playing poorly, so it’s only fair I balance it out this week with a view of what makes him so awesome:
Young has an insane handle that he can combo into a stepback three whenever he wants. He counters that with a beautiful floater game that can turn into pinpoint-accurate lobs even after leaving the ground.
Trae has become prime James Harden on offense. When the league cracked down on “unnatural” shooting motions in the offseason, Young gave up some of his most annoying habits and focused on internal improvement, and he’s shooting a career-best from the field and from deep.
He’s now a proven playoff performer, and even though the Hawks are currently an eight-seed, they’re riding a five-game winning streak that was capped by beating Durant, Kyrie, and the Nets in a crucial seeding battle. He’s deserving of All-NBA.
LeBron is leading the league in scoring but falls to the third team in acknowledgment that the Lakers’ season has been a train wreck. He’s missed a lot of games and has had uneven defensive efforts, particularly at the end of the season when it became clear the Lakers weren’t going anywhere.
But he’s still as good offensively as he’s ever been, which is a wild thing to say about a 37-year old who’s been the best player in the league for most of his career. LeBron has put forth more effort this season than people acknowledge, and I think accusations of stat-padding are overblown in a league where 25-point 4th quarter comebacks have become practically commonplace.
It also really, really cannot be overstated how bad the rest of the Lakers have been outside of Anthony Davis. LeBron has shifted his focus from the playoffs to the scoring title in the last two weeks, which is both understandable and frustrating.
The stats say LeBron should be first-team, but I can’t get there. Third-team feels right.
Siakam hasn’t gotten a lot of love, but he’s playing better than his All-NBA season two years ago. He’s finishing well around the rim, passing like a point guard, and playing terrific defense during an insane 38 minutes per game - tied with teammate Fred VanVleet for the league lead (LeBron, somehow, is third).
Candidly, Siakam is probably a beneficiary of the fact that so many great forwards have been injured this year (Zion Williamson, Paul George, Kawhi Leonard, even Michael Porter Jr., if you’re feeling spicy). Still, he’s the best player on a dangerous Raptors team.
Jimmy Butler is a better player than Siakam, but he has not had as good a regular season. He will end up playing fewer than 60 games this year. His defense has, to these eyes, been a little less airtight than usual. His lack of a jumper continues to hamper the Heat’s halfcourt offense.
Bam has played fewer games even than Butler, but he’s been a demonic defender (I’ll have plenty more to say about Bam in Friday’s awards column). His timidity in last year’s playoff loss to the Bucks clearly stuck with him, and he’s been noticeably more aggressive this season, particularly since the All-Star break. He leads the team in 4th-quarter scoring with 5.3 points on 66% shooting during that stretch, a great sign for the Heat’s playoff chances.
Gobert is the best interior defender in the league, but the gap between him and other guys has shrunk. He’s capable of defending out on the perimeter, but not like Bam, and Gobert’s offensive game is far more limited (although he is never even given a chance to post up; at least let him try!). I think Gobert is capable of more, and I’d love to see what he can do with a playmaker like Luka after he’s traded to Dallas.
G: Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell (a tough cut), Jrue Holiday, Fred VanVleet, Zach LaVine, Darius Garland
F: Jimmy Butler, Khris Middleton, Jaylen Brown, Brandon Ingram, Draymond Green
C: Rudy Gobert, Jarrett Allen, Domantas Sabonis