Rounding Out the NBA Awards
My initial awards post left off the three All-NBA teams, mostly because I hadn’t put enough thought into them by deadline time. These awards are based partly on player positions, and so they require (for me) a completely different thought process from the MVP-style awards that function more like positionless rankings.
Here’s my best go at them, starting with the least interesting:
Tim Hardaway Jr.
This is one of the worst rookie classes in history; that second team gets ugly fast, and if you’d like to slot Matthew Dellavedova, Pero Antic, or Ryan Kelly into one of the Zeller/Olynyk slots, that’s fine. Antic has logged just 905 minutes in 49 games, but he has played an important role for a playoff team since Al Horford’s season-ending injury. (Side note: I really miss Al Horford.) Zeller started off disastrously, but has shot better than 50 percent over the last two months and appeared in every game for a plus-.500 team.
Dellavedova was a full-time rotation guy for a team that played meaningful games into early April. He shot well from deep, played pesky defense, and unlocked some interesting three-guard lineups for Mike Brown. Olynyk didn’t play a minute of high-stakes basketball all season and can’t guard anyone up front, but he’s blazing toward the finish line with efficient shooting from all over the floor and some smart passing.
Calathes stabilized an important position for a very good team. Hardaway Jr. hit 36 percent from deep and injected the Knicks with some transition speed. (He can’t really guard anyone yet, either). Adams is a human foul who struggled at times near the rim and from the foul line, but he killed the offensive glass and played rugged defense for a contender. He also scores entertainment points for pissing off everyone he came across and never losing his cool. He was as stone-faced as Francisco Garcia during Clutch the Bear’s inflatable mascot stunt in Houston. (See the 1:15 mark of this video if you don’t know what I’m talking about.)
Giannis Antetokounmpo slammed into the rookie wall limbs-first.
The only controversial choice on the first team is Dieng. I weigh availability heavily, and Dieng has logged just 790 minutes over 59 games. But he has been a very good two-way player in those minutes — a player efficiency rating well above the league’s average, a soft touch, elite rebounding, deft passing, rim protection, and stronger post defense than some Dieng skeptics anticipated. In this class, 790 minutes of production at that level is enough for a first team spot.
F: Tim Duncan
F: Paul George
C: Joakim Noah
G: Jimmy Butler
G: Andre Iguodala
F: Serge Ibaka
F: Kevin Durant
C: Roy Hibbert
G: Kawhi Leonard
G: Ricky Rubio
• The All-Rookie teams do not use positional designations. You could pick five centers for the first team if you’d like. The All-Defense and All-NBA teams categorize by position, but they do not distinguish within general position types. There are no slots for “point guard,” “shooting guard,” “small forward,” etc. The league requests voters use the positions a player “usually” plays, and this allows for some monkeying around for optimal roster construction.
• To wit: I have Kawhi Leonard as a guard on the second team. It was more difficult than usual this season to find four worthy guards. Some of the candidates, and especially the best point guard candidates, missed huge chunks of the season — Eric Bledsoe, Rajon Rondo, Patrick Beverley, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Tony Allen, Avery Bradley, Thabo Sefolosha, et al. Mike Conley’s defense slipped a bit under a heavier offensive burden. Kyle Lowry has toned down the wildness and DeMar DeRozan has made huge strides, but neither is so good as to make me queasy about Leonard’s positioning here. Ditto for Klay Thompson, Wesley Matthews, and several other quality guards.
Leonard missed 16 games himself, nearly as many as Paul, but he has been sensational defensively when he has played — a rebounding and steals machine with gorgeous footwork. He’s nominally a small forward, but if the opponent’s best perimeter scorer is a shooting guard, Leonard will spend heavy minutes defending that guy while Danny Green (also a very good defender) slides up a position. The Spurs allow nearly five fewer points per 100 possessions with Leonard on the floor, per NBA.com. He’s in.
• Leonard benefits from playing with Tim Duncan, who remains a defensive genius even as his offensive game took a small but noticeable dip this season. He’s a monster rebounder, he never fouls (just ask him), and he moves almost in exact synchronization with the opposing offense. Some of his help rotations are just uncanny. I mean, he’s sliding across the lane to challenge this Vince Carter shot almost before Carter even starts his own move to the basket:
There is a good chance the Spurs won’t place a single player on any of the three All-NBA teams. Duncan might be their best candidate for that honor, but the big-man positions are ridiculously stacked, and Duncan got off to a slow start offensively. He also logged only 29 minutes per game, peanuts compared with other stars, though there are lots of broad issues swirling around the San Antonio playing-time numbers. They deserve representation somewhere, and the All-Defense team may have to do.
• Butler was really the only tough call on the first team. He’s missed 15 games, but it’s hard to find a guard candidate who hasn’t missed at least that many. He also plays nearly 39 minutes per game when healthy, a heavy enough load to compensate for some missed time. He’s a rock-solid defender capable of guarding anyone at either wing position.
• Rubio was a shoulder-shrug choice. He’s a plus defender, the non-Bledsoe point guard king of ESPN’s real plus/minus. He’s super-long for the position, which allows him to bother a lot of shots; opponents shot just 31 percent against him on isolations, per Synergy Sports. He’s a thief, and he draws a lot of charges. He can guard some wing players if necessary.
I’m not quite convinced he’s as good a defender as some of the advanced analytics indicate. He gambles a lot and can sometimes lose track of his guy away from the ball. Opposing point guards put up a PER north of 20 against the Wolves when Rubio was on the floor, the highest such mark among all starting point guards, per 82games.com. That’s not all on Rubio, obviously — not even close. The interior of the Wolves’ defense is squishy; opposing point guards can slice through the second layer of help on the pick-and-roll, and that’s not really Rubio’s fault.
It’s an interesting number, especially since Minnesota overall is an average defensive team — not a bad one.
It’s also just one number among many friendlier ones. Rubio is a good defender, perhaps a very good one, and he played the entire season — a rarity for good defensive guards in 2013-14.
• Durant has become a major plus defender by just about any measure, and in a year in which LeBron spent 50 or so games in neutral on defense, Durant has played his way into consideration for an All-Defense honor. A lot of the league’s top forwards, the guys who log heavy minutes, are also offense-first players who don’t merit inclusion here.
There are other solid candidates at the forward spot — Draymond Green, Taj Gibson, Luol Deng, Anthony Davis, Shawn Marion, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, P.J. Tucker, Amir Johnson, and more — but none have quite combined Durant’s combination of top-notch play and durability. Davis and Gibson are probably the best candidates of that bunch, though Green is making a late-season push as a jack-of-all-trades for the Warriors.
And now … the big daddy:
G Stephen Curry
G James Harden
F LeBron James
F Kevin Durant
F Joakim Noah
G Chris Paul
G Goran Dragic
F Kevin Love
F Blake Griffin
C Dwight Howard
G Kyle Lowry
G Paul George
F Dirk Nowitzki
F Anthony Davis
C Al Jefferson
• I’ve cheated a little and moved George into a guard spot, though he and Lance Stephenson switch assignments defensively just enough that I’m not sweating it. Regardless: The league should consider moving to a point guard/wing/big man set of positional designations. Point guard play on both ends is its own unique thing, while shooting guards and small forwards are interchangeable on most teams. The gap between power forward and center can be larger, but most teams still play two at least semitraditional big men, and there is much cross-matching between the two positions. Watch the Grizz, and you’ll often see opponents use their center to defend Zach Randolph while the power forward takes Marc Gasol.
• The George move is necessary for two reasons:
1. He deserves an All-NBA spot for a full season of elite defense and half a season of elite offense for a limited scoring team that overextends him. This is unhealthy for the Pacers’ luxury tax situation going forward, but George has earned it.
2. There are just too damn many great forwards. We need as many of them as possible on the All-NBA teams.
• Seriously, look who didn’t make the cut: Carmelo freaking Anthony, LaMarcus Aldridge, Duncan, and DeMarcus Cousins. The last two might technically be centers in at least some lineups, and you could make arguments for either over Professor Al. Heck, I thought hard about shifting Davis to center — he plays about a third of his minutes there — and ditching Jefferson to free up a forward spot for Anthony.
There is really no right way to do this. Anthony was fantastic this season — 45 percent from the floor, a career-best 40 percent from deep, center-level rebounding, some decent (if uneven) passing, and the ninth-best PER in the league. The Knicks’ offense went to crap when he hit the bench, per NBA.com. It’s crazy he may not make an All-NBA team in what might be his very best season. It’s bananas.
Who gets the ax? All five of LeBron, Durant, Love, Griffin, and Dirk have to be here someplace, and, boom, five of the six forward spots are gone. The league demands some fealty to the center position, and Noah, Howard, and Jefferson are all worthy candidates.
As a side note, I’ve seen a lot of All-NBA teams leave off Howard, almost as an afterthought. I don’t get that. Howard hasn’t been quite as dominant offensively as he was in Orlando, and he has missed a bunch of games in the stretch run. But this dude is still shooting 60 percent, drawing heaps of free throws and double teams on the block, working as a devastating pick-and-roll force, and holding together an otherwise crappy Houston defense.
Again: There are lots of other great big man candidates, and you can massage the positions a bit to get the players you want on the team. But it’s not as if Howard is clearly a level below those guys, at least once you factor in his defense.
• New York fans will protest the inclusion of Davis and Jefferson over Anthony, and they have a strong claim. It’s an impossible choice. Davis is on a losing team with a worse record than the Knicks, though he plays in a much tougher conference, and injuries obliterated almost the entirety of the Pellies’ roster. His numbers are better across the board, and he’s quite clearly a better defender than Anthony.
Jefferson’s numbers on offense aren’t quite as impressive as Melo’s, but the two were close to even after Jefferson recovered from an ankle issue that derailed him early. Neither is a good defender, and it isn’t Melo’s fault Steve Clifford was better at hiding his team’s defensive deficiencies than Mike Woodson is. But Clifford also coaxed improvement out of Kemba Walker and started two wing defenders — Gerald Henderson and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist — who are probably better on that end than any of New York’s wing guys. It’s very hard to untangle individual player achievement from coaching and roster context.
At the end, it’s really a coin flip. Jefferson’s team is in the playoffs, and Melo’s team was a massive disappointment that couldn’t function on Anthony’s weak half of the floor. Jefferson props up an otherwise blah offense the same way Melo does. Also, the Bobcats sent this paint can touting Jefferson’s accomplishments in the paint:
• Lowry has been a hair better as a two-way player than the other candidates for the final guard spot — John Wall, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Tony Parker, Conley, Isaiah Thomas, DeRozan, etc. It’s very close in some cases. Wall has been very good as the league’s master of generating corner 3s, and there’s something to be said for some Spur, any Spur, appearing on an All-NBA team. But I’m going with Lowry.
• Paul abdicates his customary first-team spot due to missed games, but he has been so good when healthy, there will be no protest from this end if he displaces either Curry or Harden. In that scenario, I’d likely keep Curry on the first team, but we’re splitting hairs.
• You could swap Dirk in for either Love or Griffiin on the second team. All three have probably been among the league’s 10 best players this season, and they’ve all been better than Aldridge. The power forward position … what a bloodbath.
• If we have to cheat a bit to include George, then we also have to demote him to the third team and honor Dragic’s breakout season with a second-team appearance.
And that’s it. This is a torturous exercise — fun, but also torturous. Until next year!