NBA Awards Ballot, Part 1: In Praise of the IndividualNoah Graham/NBAE/Getty Images
In a normal season, there are usually one or two awards on the NBA’s ballot that are easy — a runaway rookie of the year (Blake Griffin), a borderline unanimous MVP, a bench guy who lapped the sixth-man field.
Not this season. In my brief time filling out ballots real and fake,1 this has been the toughest one, top to bottom, by a mile. There isn’t a single clear-cut winner, and a bunch of races — including the most congested MVP race in at least a decade — boast multiple candidates who could land almost anywhere on the ballot.
This was brutal. It was the best possible form of torture.
Most Valuable Player
So, here’s a number: The Warriors have throttled opponents by 7.4 points per 100 possessions in the minutes Draymond Green has played without Stephen Curry — a margin that would rank second among NBA teams. That number, right there, is supposed to be the case for choosing James Harden — proof that Golden State’s supporting cast is stronger than Houston’s, and that Harden dragging an injury-riddled, poor shooting Rockets team to 55 wins qualifies as more “valuable” than Curry’s raining fire.
That kind of number — and you can dig up a similar one for Andre Iguodala — is the antidote to the major statistic driving Curry’s candidacy: that the Warriors, a historic regular-season juggernaut, have somehow been outscored with Curry on the bench. After all, the same is true for Houston without Harden — though that’s less surprising, given that Houston’s overall point differential isn’t in the same universe as Golden State’s. The Green number suggests Golden State is a collective greatness that transcends Curry — that the Warriors will drill people as long as five of their top seven guys are on the floor. They have the league’s best defense, and though Curry has made strides on that end, he might be the fifth-best defender in the starting lineup.
That starting five, featuring two All-Stars and two defensive player of the year candidates, has eviscerated the league. Curry has barely had to play any crunch-time minutes, while Harden has been a crunch-time assassin over a huge number of high-leverage minutes. He has logged almost 350 more minutes than Curry, reflecting the heavier burden Houston’s inferior roster forces upon him. Harden maintained his killer play over those extra minutes, fighting off fatigue and the mental anguish of having to drive every clutch possession against defenses overloading against him. His extra counting stats — more points, more free throws, more rebounds — absolutely matter in that sense. Curry might have been able to sustain his almost unprecedented efficiency over longer minutes, but we don’t know, because he didn’t have to.2
But dig deeper, and the picture clouds. Green has played only 364 of his 2,470 minutes without Curry, and much of that small sample came against opposing second units — shaky groups the Warriors’ talented hybrid units should whip. Give those lineups extended run against opposing starters and it’s unclear how long they’d survive.
It has been fashionable to suggest the Warriors could chase 50 wins if you replaced Curry with a league-average point guard, and that Houston would die if you did the same with Harden. But there’s no way to really know, and shouting those counterfactuals tends to be a way for people with a preferred ending already in mind to drown out everything else that should factor into the race.
That the Warriors might still be good without Curry, whatever that means, shouldn’t matter any more or less than the fact that Houston might be below .500 with a league-average replacement for Harden. Both are adding a huge number of wins; Curry’s added wins just happen to leave Golden State 11 games ahead of Houston in the standings — a chasm in team quality. Adding win no. 60 isn’t less valuable than adding win no. 45. It might be more valuable. The leap from “good” to “contender” is one most teams never manage; it’s the final test that destroys them — the NBA’s version of picking the Holy Grail from a pile of chalices. Curry has vaulted the Warriors beyond contendership and into an exclusive group of all-time great regular-season teams.
And we don’t really know what the Warriors would be without him. His unprecedented shooting, and especially his ability to nail 3s off the dribble, is the foundation for their entire offense. Again: This powerhouse that outscored teams by more than 10 points per game was outscored with Curry on the bench. That’s still an enormously powerful number, even if garbage time skews it. Golden State flat struggles to score without him, even when it plays lineups that include starters (Klay Thompson) and starter-quality bench guys like Iguodala and Shaun Livingston.
Pointing to the Dubs’ dominant starting five as some kind of demerit against Curry’s value overlooks the fact that Golden State’s starters were the league’s best five-man group last season — when David Lee and Iguodala held spots that now belong to Green and Harrison Barnes. Curry is the most important common denominator, even with Thompson’s improvement. All the evidence suggests it is Curry that turns an interesting team into a colossus.
Curry is the reason teams scrap defensive game plans, trap him on pick-and-rolls, and live with the Warriors playing 4-on-3 below those traps:
And I keep coming back to this: Curry inspires terror even when he doesn’t have the ball. Teams exhale when Harden passes it, or even when he’s just standing on the wing while the offense unfolds elsewhere. That is part skill and part coaching. Harden’s a good shooter, but not a great one; defenses don’t hug him like they do Curry or Kyle Korver when he doesn’t have the rock.
Defenses can’t give Curry an inch of breathing room, not ever, and Steve Kerr leverages that paranoia in smart ways. Curry is a more active off-ball participant in Golden State’s more active offense. He is always cutting and screening, and not just for show. If Curry sets an off-ball pick for Thompson, Thompson’s man has to scramble around it knowing that the most obvious help defender — Curry’s guy — absolutely cannot abandon Curry to plug the gap. The help has to come from elsewhere, and it often comes too late:
The NBA’s slightest superstar is among its deadliest screen setters. That is the power of shooting. It makes Curry just as dangerous — just as impactful on the opposing game plan — on nights when his shot doesn’t fall. He is, now and forever, a glitch in the system. Kerr has crafted a devastating motion offense, but Curry’s skill set enabled that redesign. The system and the star are inseparable.
Harden is obviously capable of performing in a more motion-heavy offense. He’s a genius passer and perhaps the league’s most lethal off-the-bounce attacker. He could play in any system, but the Rockets don’t have the collective shooting, dribbling, or passing skill to ape the Spurs. They play their way, with Harden as a bowling ball, and it works. Still: It’s hard to shake the sense that Curry’s skill set is more portable than Harden’s across all NBA team constructs — and that he might be a bit easier to play alongside. He’s a more powerful weapon off the ball, and thus less prone to holding it while everyone else stands around.
Spare me the dreck about Harden’s free throws, by the way. He’s averaging 9.9 free throw attempts per 36 minutes — about the same as Kevin Durant averaged in multiple seasons, and fewer than Russell Westbrook averages now. There was no comparable outrage about the Thunder’s charity stripe parades, not even when Durant was duping fools with his rip move — a more transparent manipulation of the rules than anything Harden does.
Getting fouled is a skill. You can’t do it without a Hermione-style bag full of tricky moves for which defenders have no answer. It is thrilling in its own Rockety way to watch Harden dangle the ball further in front of his body than anyone else would dare, tempt his defender into a forward lurch, and then barrel past the poor sap for a bucket or some healthy contact. Sure, Harden flops. Guess what? Almost everyone in the NBA flops. Harden’s incomparable skill just gives him more chances to exaggerate contact that exists anyway. If Danny Green could do it, he would.
Harden’s MVP candidacy shouldn’t depend on whether Houston finishes second, third, sixth, or whatever in the Western Conference. There is virtually no separation between any of those teams; Houston’s finish within that jumble is more the product of randomness — injuries, buzzer-beaters, rest patterns, who went clubbing too late the night before a game — than anything Harden has or hasn’t done on the floor. Harden is the same MVP candidate with Houston at 56-26, at no. 2, as he is with Houston at 55-27, at no. 63 — or at least he should be.
Look: This is an impossible choice. I went back and forth dozens of times until the last minute. Both have been ridiculous, both committed to defense at a new level, and both would be deserving MVPs. They’ve been neck and neck all season in just about every catchall advanced statistic.
Curry gets the slightest of nods here for his work as the night-to-night engine of the league’s best team.
3. Chris Paul
4. LeBron James
5. Anthony Davis
• You could really order the final three spots, and maybe even the whole ballot, any way you’d like. The race is that close.
• LeBron remains the league’s best overall player. The Cavaliers collapsed during his break, though that was before David Griffin rebuilt the roster. But Harden and Curry put up comparable numbers and played damn near the whole season; LeBron loses points for his little LeBattical, a mini vacation to rest some aches, escape the media madness, and perhaps address the fact that he came to camp not quite in pristine condition.
• It seems insane to exclude Russell Westbrook, but it will seem just as insane when one of the LeBron/Westbrook/Davis/Paul quartet finishes outside the final top five. They have all been sensational, but Paul has to be on the ballot. He hasn’t missed a game, he’s played at nearly a career-best level on both sides of the ball, and he helped carry the Clippers through a brutal stretch when Griffin had elbow surgery.
Westbrook has missed 15 games, and the league spared him from missing another when it rescinded two of his technical fouls. Davis has missed about the same amount of time, and the Pelicans scrapped along much better than expected in his absence. But he’s been a better two-way player than Westbrook this season, and it hasn’t really been close. Davis may seize the title of “best player alive” as early as next season.
At times Westbrook was electrifying, but it felt as if he were pushing past the boundaries of what one player should try to do. He monopolized the Thunder offense, and though Oklahoma City has scored well without Durant, Westbrook jacks an ungodly number of bad 3-pointers for a career 30 percent shooter from deep. He can share the burden more than he perhaps understands; his teammates are capable and Westbrook is a smart passer who can slow down and involve everyone.
His drive to carry the Thunder brought out his worst habits on defense; he was a manic train wreck on that end, hopping around wherever he wanted, chasing blocks and steals way outside the Thunder’s scheme. It’s hard for a guard to stabilize a defense featuring Enes Kanter, D.J. Augustin, Mitch McGary, and Anthony Morrow, but Westbrook became part of the problem.
It won’t be some injustice if he makes the final top five. He’s been great! He just falls short here. That won’t change, by the way, if the Thunder sneak into the playoffs over the Pelicans — unless Davis does something unconscionable to get ejected from the final game. This award is about a full body of work. Davis and Westbrook are the same players regardless of which team finishes at no. 8 — a race that could be decided in part by a once-in-a-lifetime Davis buzzer-beater in Oklahoma City.
You don’t make decisions based on small-picture events like that. It’s crazy to think that the future of several New Orleans higher-ups, and maybe even Scott Brooks, could hinge on the Pelicans winning a tiebreaker over the Thunder. Keep Dell Demps and Monty Williams because you think they’re the right people, not because the team finished 45-37 instead of 44-38.
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Rookie of the Year
1. Andrew Wiggins
2. Nikola Mirotic
3. Nerlens Noel
All the knocks on Wiggins are true: He hasn’t shot well, he doesn’t pass or rebound much, his 3-point shot has vanished (thanks, Flip!), and he’s piling up numbers on a team with few other scoring options.
Wiggins right now is a little bit like Rudy Gay, a massively skilled scorer whose gifts don’t help teammates. He’s not a good enough shooter to suck defenders toward him and space the floor. He’s learning NBA-level passing, and he has taken only the first tentative steps toward developing an off-the-dribble game. He doesn’t make much north-south progress on the pick-and-roll, which means he’s not puncturing the defense, bending it, and opening up shots for teammates. Wiggins isn’t super useful without the ball, and when he has it, he’s not well versed yet in creating looks for others.
Everything is hard for him now, and he’s not good enough to make it easier. But you know what else makes basketball easier? Having good teammates, and not playing with dudes like Justin Hamilton, Zach LaVine, Adreian Payne, and Lorenzo Brown! Wiggins can already do the hard work of scoring in the post and in isolation, drawing double-teams, and earning foul shots. Imagine how much better he’ll get when he has teammates who can actually set him up — when he develops chemistry with Ricky Rubio, logs time with more NBA-level shooters who can unclutter the lane, and cuts off some Nikola Pekovic post-ups.
Individual development doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Team context matters, and it’s impressive what Wiggins has managed within this barren roster. It’s not a great rookie of the year dossier, but no other candidate has performed consistently enough on both ends over the full season to seize it from him. Mirotic comes close, and the threat of his shooting from the power forward spot makes him a valuable space-sucker even when he doesn’t touch the ball — something you can’t say about Wiggins.
But Mirotic got off to a slow start before breaking out in March behind a hail of 3s and free throws, and even after that scorching month, he’s still just barely over 30 percent from deep. It’s not as if Mirotic is a sniper. He’s playing out of position more now, at small forward, where his shooting has less value. That’s not his fault, and it’s the kind of complication that comes with being a rookie on a loaded roster — an obstacle Wiggins hasn’t faced. Getting numbers on a good team is tougher than doing so on a borderline D-League outfit, and accomplishing that closes the gap between Mirotic and Wiggins.
Mirotic has been unafraid of contested 3s and off-the-dribble bombs, hurting his accuracy, and has fared better than expected on defense — including in chasing quicker wing players. Wiggins projects as a strong defender. He has a strong base and good footwork; he just needs more practice navigating screens on and off the ball.
Had Mirotic shot just a bit better or forced his way into major minutes just a bit earlier, this award would be his.
Nerlens Noel emerged over the last 40 games as a feel-good candidate for a sad-sack team — an expert rim protector who piled up blocks and steals like Hakeem Olajuwon, pounded the glass, and found his footing as a scorer out of the pick-and-roll and the post. But he was borderline Biyombo-esque during the first part of the season and has shot just 46 percent overall — disastrous for a big man working near the rim — with a high turnover rate. He has finished the season at power forward next to Furkan Aldemir, and his defense away from the rim is way behind his work in the paint. Still: Noel’s late-season development is huge for the Sixers.
Elfrid Payton has a strong claim on the second or third spot, but he comes in just behind Noel here. He and Noel each have one elite skill — rim protection for Noel, passing for Payton — but Payton’s complete inability to shoot neutralizes his singular strength in a way that doesn’t apply to Noel. It’s hard to hunt for the most productive dishes when the other team can disregard your jumper, sag away from you, and clog passing lanes.
Sincerest apologies to Payton.
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Defensive Player of the Year
1. Draymond Green
2. Kawhi Leonard
3. Andrew Bogut
Leonard has been the league’s best defender, a pouncing terror who prevents the shots you want, disrupts the shots for which you settle, and steals the ball from anyone who tries one too many dribbles within his general vicinity. He is a goddamned menace to society. He can lock down at least three positions, and the Spurs defense has collapsed with Leonard on the bench. But durability matters, and Leonard has appeared in 15 fewer games and logged about 475 fewer minutes than Green.
That’s enough to swing it to Golden State’s position-less security guard — a cinder block with long arms, quick hands, an unbreakable grip, and an advanced understanding of the floor. Green’s ability to thwart bigger players in the post4 has allowed the Warriors to play smaller and spread the floor with shooting; Kerr has even dared to play heavy minutes with Green at center, and the Dubs defense is just as stingy when Green plays without Bogut, per NBA.com.
He’s also the key that unlocks Golden State’s ability to switch. Having like-size perimeter players is handy, but there is a limit to how many actions you can switch if you don’t have at least one big guy capable of leaping onto a smaller player during a standard pick-and-roll. Without Green, the whole scheme collapses.
There is a mechanical nature to defense for most teams. One guy rotates over there, the second guy sees that and, after a slight pause, he rotates to the next spot on the chain. It’s jagged, with small breaks — a video that’s buffering.
The Warriors defense is fluid. That second rotation starts almost in concert with the first, so that everyone moves in sync. No one is holding still, waiting to figure out the next step in the dance. Green is always early to the right spot, snuffing out drives, darting into passing lanes, and providing exactly the right level of help without losing track of his own guy. What Green and Bogut do in the paint is a freaking ballet — switching assignments on the fly in tight confines, smothering layups, waiting until just the right moment to commit to shooters, and anticipating when those shooters really want to pass.
Bogut has been Leonard-level brilliant, but in 429 fewer minutes — and about 900 fewer than Green, the equivalent of almost 19 full games. Opponents have shot just 40.9 percent on shots near the rim with Bogut nearby, the third-lowest mark in the league, trailing only Rudy Gobert — one of the final cuts (along with Davis) on this ballot — and Serge Ibaka.
Gobert is a destroyer at the rim, but he doesn’t have enough experience to match Bogut’s intellect as an all-around deterrent. Watch Bogut when he’s guarding a non-shooting big standing around the elbow. Bogut will ignore him and shift to something more productive: doubling a post-up threat to deny an entry pass, bumping a cutter, or sticking one of his giant mitts into a passing lane. Those little things wall off a team’s first and second options, drain the shot clock, and stack the odds bit by bit against an opponent getting off a good shot.
Other annual candidates took a half-step back because of injuries (Joakim Noah) or the need to expend more energy on offense (the always outstanding Marc Gasol).
Sincerest apologies to Gobert, Davis, Gasol, Jimmy Butler, Trevor Ariza, Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, Ibaka, Iguodala, Tony Allen, DeMarcus Cousins, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, Noah, DeAndre Jordan, Roy Hibbert, John Wall, Khris Middleton, Paul, P.J. Tucker, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, and others.
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Sixth Man of the Year
1. Lou Williams
2. Isaiah Thomas
3. Andre Iguodala
This season elevated a whole new batch of candidates. Markieff Morris is now a starter, Manu Ginobili and Taj Gibson weren’t quite the same, and Jamal Crawford is shooting 40 percent after missing nearly one-quarter of the schedule. Crawford remains a dangerous scorer, and he deserves credit for carrying an otherwise decrepit Clippers bench. But he’s a defensive liability, and his jumper hasn’t been as reliable.
Meanwhile, it says everything about the Drakes’ crazy season that Williams, a shameless chucker, has probably been Toronto’s most consistent offensive player. Williams traffics more than ever in 3s and free throws, which keeps him at least semi-efficient even when he has awful nights from the floor. He can play both guard positions and took over lead ballhandling duties when Kyle Lowry missed games.
The Raps have scored 111.7 points per 100 possessions with Williams on the floor and 104.6 when he sits, per NBA.com — a huge gap. Williams is a minus defender, but his wingspan mitigates the pain a bit, and it’s easy to find a hiding place for him among opposing backups. Ah, the perks of coming off the bench.
Thomas has probably outperformed Williams on balance, but it’s hard to give the top spot to a guy who contributed enough to chemistry issues that Phoenix traded him for a future first-round pick. Both the Suns and the Celtics have scored better with Thomas on the floor; he’s earning more free throws than ever, shooting well from deep, and slicing up defenses on pick-and-rolls with three Boston shooters around him.
Iguodala just edges out Tristan Thompson, Crawford, and Mirotic for the final spot. He’s been a hair more consistent than those last two guys, and though his offense flagged a bit midseason when he was afraid to get fouled, Iguodala brings more on that end than Thompson. Iggy can push it in transition, pass and drive in the half court, and hit just enough 3s to punish defenses that (correctly) treat him as the least-threatening Warrior on the floor.
He’s still one of the best wing defenders in the league — an expert at denying the ball, another one of those little things that vaporize the shot clock, and a key part of Golden State’s switch-everything bench crews. He has picked up his offense over the last 20 games and barely missed any time. Iguodala and Williams stand out in a field of candidates whose performances have waxed and waned.
Thompson would be a fine choice at any ballot spot. He’s been fast on defense and adept at switching onto smaller ball handlers late in the shot clock. He’s the perfect low-usage mooch to play among LeBron, Kyrie Irving, and Kevin Love on offense — a speed demon who rolls to the hoop for dunks, shoves people out of the way for offensive rebounds, and otherwise sets screens.
Sincerest apologies to Thompson, Crawford, Gibson, Mirotic, Marreese Speights, Rodney Stuckey, Patrick Patterson, Corey Brewer, Kosta Koufos, Josh Smith (Houston version), Dennis Schröder.
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Coach of the Year
1. Gregg Popovich
2. Mike Budenholzer
3. Steve Kerr
Pop has won two of the last three seasons, and he may not even make this season’s top three — even though he remains the league’s best coach for a team doing its usual thing. Voting for someone other than Pop at this point is voting for narrative over boredom — the rise of the Spursian Hawks amid controversy, or Kerr helping transform a good team into a great one.
But this isn’t some lifetime achievement vote. The Spurs have surged into the West’s no. 2 seed despite a brutal winter schedule and injuries to Tony Parker, Leonard, Tiago Splitter, Patty Mills, and others. Popovich lived through the growing pains of easing Leonard into a lead role on offense, and he’s reaping the dividends now as Leonard explodes at the right time. Popovich and R.C. Buford, the team’s GM, find the right bench players, and Popovich sticks with guys like Cory Joseph, Aron Baynes, and Danny Green until they are ready for major roles.
Pop is the best, period.5 Budenholzer has nurtured a culture of sharing, player development, and selflessness that has the Hawks flying on both ends. Budenholzer and Danny Ferry gathered a group of high-IQ shooters predisposed to playing a pass-and-cut system and freed them to improvise within it. The players take ownership of their collective craft, and Budenholzer has been flexible enough to let the guys with one-on-one skills break from the offense when matchups are favorable.
Kerr is probably going to win, and that would be fine. He had the guts to surround himself with the best assistants, guys worthy of his own job, and to finally bench David Lee when it became clear it was best for the franchise. Think about it: How many coaches have ever straight-up benched their highest-paid guy when that player was still in his prime and capable of putting up something like an 18-8 line if given minutes? It requires strong backing from ownership, but Kerr deserves credit for pulling the trigger and then keeping the team humming as playing time patterns changed for Lee, Marreese Speights, and others.
Kerr knew what to leave intact from the Mark Jackson regime and what needed a teardown. He maintained the foundation of an elite defense and transformed Golden State on the other end into a beautiful motion-based scoring machine. He experimented with just about every feasible lineup to gain the deepest possible understanding of his roster.
The Warriors were a nudge away from greatness last season, but the Hawks needed a bit more seasoning. Budenholzer slides ahead of Kerr here, but both did great work.
Sincerest apologies to Frank Vogel, Brad Stevens, Quin Snyder, David Blatt, Jason Kidd, Brett Brown, Kevin McHale, Dave Joerger, Terry Stotts, and Glenn “Doc” Rivers.
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Most Improved Player
1. Rudy Gobert
2. Jimmy Butler
3. Klay Thompson
Ah, the award 50 players could win depending on your preferred criteria. Some voters lean away from first-round picks in their second and third seasons, since those players should improve as they gain experience and move up in the rotation. But Gobert’s leap from afterthought to one-man defensive wrecking crew, with some ball skills thrown in just for kicks, is among the biggest one-season jumps we’ll ever see. The record of 7-footers who logged fewer than 500 minutes in their rookie seasons, as Gobert did, was not encouraging. It is mostly a list of stiffs who flamed out fast.
Gobert instead played five times as many minutes, tripled his assist rate with some nifty passing on the pick-and-roll, cut his turnovers, and improved his shooting from both the field and the foul line — all in addition to emerging as the league’s scariest rim protector. You know how teams in practice have assistant coaches hold up huge pads to simulate the presence of shot-blockers at the rim? Multiple teams have casually mentioned to me that they refer to those pads as “Gobert” — as in, “LOOK OUT FOR GOBERT!” The French Rejection got better at everything at an astonishing rate. What a story.
Butler snags the second spot for pulling the rare double of shouldering a much larger offensive load and emerging as a more efficient scorer. He played hurt last season, so his improvement looks more dramatic than it really was. Still: He smashed career highs almost across the board, revived his 3-point shot,6 and drew heaps of fouls on post-ups and wing pick-and-rolls. He has been Chicago’s best two-way player.
Thompson made a similar star-to-All-Star leap, only he has tailed off a bit since the All-Star break. Still: Anyone who watched Thompson struggle to dribble and make layups at the start of last season has to be blown away seeing him work as a key secondary ball handler today. Part of that, again, is coaching; Kerr doesn’t ask Thompson to attack one-on-one or in the pick-and-roll against a set defense. The constant motion in Golden State’s offense means Thompson catches the ball with the defense in mid-rotation — and a clean window to attack if he goes right away. He works from a head start, and that has done wonders for his dribbling and passing. He’s also a crafty cutter, moving off the ball in unpredictable ways, and remains a steady defender.
There are 20 other legitimate candidates for this award. I don’t even know what to do with guys like Hassan Whiteside and Robert Covington, who had barely played in the NBA before this season. Can you improve upon something that basically didn’t exist?
Sincerest apologies to Whiteside, Covington, Middleton, Kidd-Gilchrist, Donatas Motiejunas, Draymond Green, Barnes, Schröder, Tyler Zeller, Irving, Tony Snell, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Davis, Gasol, Greg Monroe, Meyers Leonard, C.J. McCollum, Ray McCallum, Jordan, Harden, Nikola Vucevic, and others.
That’s it for Part 1. We’ll have the “team” awards — All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie — later this week.
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