Yesterday, we covered the individual awards. Here’s Part 2 of my awards ballot, meaning I can now reclaim my life … oh god, the playoffs are about to start, send help and/or the most potent cocaine you have immediately:
G Stephen Curry
G James Harden
F LeBron James
F Anthony Davis
C Marc Gasol
G Chris Paul
G Russell Westbrook
F LaMarcus Aldridge
F Blake Griffin
C Al Horford
G Jimmy Butler
G Kyrie Irving
F Kawhi Leonard
F Paul Millsap
C Tim Duncan
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• The toughest omissions: DeMarcus Cousins, DeAndre Jordan, Pau Gasol, Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, Klay Thompson, John Wall, and Damian Lillard.
Let’s start with Cousins, who is clearly an All-NBA-level player — and probably a first-teamer in a normal, healthy season. (Please read that sentence again, Sacto fans.) He is an unguardable monster in the post, a skilled passer and shooter, and when in the proper mental and physical states, one of the dozen best defensive players in the league.
But this felt less like a season of basketball for Cousins than like a collection of mini-seasons that don’t add up to enough. There were those glorious first 15 games under Mike Malone, before Cousins contracted meningitis, when he was neck and neck with Davis in the race to be the league’s best all-around big man.
When Cousins got back into the lineup, Malone was gone, leaving Tyrone Corbin to supervise a defense that morphed immediately from solid to incompetent. Cousins was (understandably) below peak game shape and dispirited that the Kings had bizarrely fired the first head coach to click with him. He slipped back into some of his worst habits — lollygagging in transition defense, complaining about basically everything, and loafing on some possessions when he didn’t get the ball.
The Kings mercifully fired Corbin in favor of George Karl, who installed Cousins as something like a co–point guard in an experimental up-tempo system. Cousins put up monster numbers and perked up a bit on defense, but he also coughed up turnovers at a laughable rate for a team that looked like it was throwing shit at the wall in meaningless games. The Kings after the All-Star break were equally bad on both ends regardless of whether Cousins was on the floor — a major reversal from the first half of the season, when Cousins was the only thing propping up a sad roster.
The end came early for Cousins because of ankle issues, leaving him with just 59 games played — right on the border of where availability starts to become a real issue in comparing star players.
How many games both meant something to the Kings and featured Cousins playing at his best? Twenty? Twenty-five? It just doesn’t feel like enough to unseat two of the league’s ultimate pros in Horford and Duncan. Cousins at his peak was better than both guys, sometimes by a big margin, but those peaks were short-lived in this particular season.
I thought about squeezing Horford in as a forward to make way for Jordan or Cousins, but I didn’t feel quite right about it. Horford is functionally a center in basically every Atlanta lineup that doesn’t pair him with Pero Antic, and there wasn’t a forward I felt comfortable knocking off the ballot.
Horford and Duncan are do-it-all types for two of the league’s very best teams, and Horford especially has the skill set — and the shooting range — to blend in with almost any kind of lineup.
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Jordan is just as deserving and is not getting enough attention as an All-NBA candidate. I’m not sure why that is, but my educated guess is that it’s a combination of two things:
1. The perception that he’s an unskilled roll-and-dunk guy who depends on Paul and Griffin to create shots for him. Also, he can’t shoot free throws.
2. Doc Rivers’s incessant and sometimes nonsensical campaigning for Jordan might have hurt him — though not in this space. Rivers has compared Jordan to Bill Russell, haughtily acted as if any human with a working brain could conclude that Jordan is the defensive player of the year, and lashed out at media critiques without having read them. It might have created a perception that Jordan is his little pet project.
And that’s not fair. Jordan has been outstanding this year. I feel awful not finding him a spot. He might be a scavenger on offense, but it takes real skill and explosiveness to be a scavenger in the Jordan/Tyson Chandler mold. He can reach any lob pass and finish damn near everything — even though Griffin isn’t a good enough shooter to drag that second big-man help defender far from the rim.
Even the most diligent boxout guys can’t keep Jordan from the offensive glass. He just leans on them until they’re under the rim, outleaps them, and grabs the ball for himself. He makes regular big men look helpless.
Jordan might not be the league’s best defender, but he’s a very good one — a real deterrent at the rim who cleans up a lot of mistakes. Jordan doesn’t have as many skills in his bag as Duncan and Horford, but he’s damn good at what he does.
Compare just the on-court work from this season, and Jordan might beat out Duncan. But Duncan’s on-court case is strong; this isn’t the 80-year-old actor winning an Oscar for some crappy movie. Duncan is 14th in Player Efficiency Rating, shooting 51 percent, dishing dimes and blocking shots at career-average rates despite his age, and playing some of the brainiest back-line defense in the league. Dude is always a step ahead. That’s how you remain a dangerous rim protector at almost 39, with one working leg.
And you have to account for Duncan’s incalculable off-court value. Ask anyone with the Spurs: He still sets the tone for the entire organization. He’s still in early, leaving late, putting in extra work on some small part of his game. His example ripples across the NBA’s gold-standard organization, influencing players young and old. That should matter. Horford has the same stature in Atlanta.
• Favors and Hayward are legitimate candidates for one of those third-team forward spots — and perhaps even for Griffin’s second-team spot behind Aldridge.1 They’ve been really good on both ends, and Hayward carried Utah’s offense without much help from any perimeter threat until Rodney Hood emerged over the last 25 games.
Hayward is nominally the shooting guard in some Utah lineups.
Jazz fans might gripe over Leonard’s inclusion on the third team, since he will only finish with 64 games played. But Leonard when healthy was one of the 15 best players in the league, and one of the 10 best over the last two months of the season. He transformed into a monster and single-handedly elevated the Spurs back into the championship conversation upon his return from injury. I can’t quite explain it, but durability matters a bit more to me in giving out individual awards — it was my reason for choosing Draymond Green over Leonard as defensive player of the year — than in selecting the All-NBA teams. Within reasonable playing-time boundaries, I want the All-NBA slots to reflect which players put their stamp on a particular season most decisively.
I wanted to reward a Utah guy, especially since the forward position will have at least one more lock next season when Kevin Durant (presumably) returns at full health, but there wasn’t anyone I felt comfortable removing. Certainly not Millsap, who is simply one of the finest all-around players in basketball.
• Pau Gasol has been Chicago’s one frontcourt rock, and he’s been scorching from midrange all season. But Chicago has performed just as well with Gasol on the bench, and it has rebounded better without him. Gasol and Joakim Noah have struggled to mesh, since they both operate from the elbows in, and Gasol doesn’t box out or bring much to the table defensively anymore.
He’s been wonderful, but I’d wager the Bulls wouldn’t slip much if they gave half his minutes to some combination of Taj Gibson and Nikola Mirotic.
• Paul has a case for a first-team spot, but my MVP ballot had him behind Curry and Harden, so it’s natural for him to fall in the same place here.
• Butler and Irving edged out Wall and Thompson for the last two guard spots, but you can’t really go wrong with any of those four. Butler has missed 17 games, but he plays so much when he’s healthy that he’s right there with the rest of those candidates in total minutes. He’s the best defender among them, though Wall and Thompson are close, and those two both cooled off after the All-Star break.
Irving has been outstanding all season — the rare guard who can smoke you both from long range and at the rim. He’s still a minus defender, but he’s gotten better; he’s not single-handedly dragging the Cavs down anymore. Lillard hasn’t made the same improvements, and his shot has been off for much of this season. Dwyane Wade has a case, but he’s missed 19 games, he can’t shoot 3s, and he’s mailed in too many games on defense.
• The next tier of candidates included Dirk Nowitzki, Zach Randolph, Nikola Vucevic, Tyson Chandler, Kevin Love, Mike Conley, and Jeff Teague.
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G Chris Paul
G Jimmy Butler
F Kawhi Leonard
F Draymond Green
C Andrew Bogut
G John Wall
G Danny Green
F Tony Allen
F Anthony Davis
C Rudy Gobert
I’ve covered most of these guys above and in Part I,2 so I’ll be brief here:
In the defensive player of the year section, and elsewhere.
• The first three forward spots are easy: Leonard, Green, and Davis, three of the eight best defenders in the league this season. Picking the fourth was tricky. Michael Kidd-Gilchrist logged only about 1,600 minutes over a measly 55 games. Serge Ibaka missed the last quarter of the season, and while he’s an expert rim protector, he’s not as airtight at the other parts of defense. A bunch of guys have been really good, but not quite dominant: LeBron (started the season in chill mode), Trevor Ariza, Nerlens Noel, DeMarre Carroll,3 Aldridge, Favors, P.J. Tucker, Andre Iguodala, Tristan Thompson, Luol Deng, Millsap, and others.
One of many “forwards” who are really wing players and could be classified as “shooting guards” depending on the specifics of any particular game.
My admittedly awkward solution: shift Allen to forward and reward one of an unusually large number of guards who excelled on defense this season. This isn’t even really cheating, anyway: Allen was the nominal small forward in Memphis before the Jeff Green deal, though he’ll defend whichever opposing wing player is most dangerous on a given night. This is where I insert my annual plea for the NBA to flip to a point guard/wing/big positional system that would more accurately reflect how basketball actually works today.
Allen is the league’s second-best perimeter defender, behind only Leonard, a ferocious on-ball irritant who can take risks while remaining well-balanced enough to recover with catlike quickness. Missing 16 games and logging about 800 fewer minutes than Butler costs Allen his customary first-team spot.
Wall is the defender Westbrook could be if the Thunder MVP turned the dial down from 11. Wall is always bouncing around, gambling his way toward the edges of Washington’s scheme — but stopping there. Just when it looks as if Wall’s going to run himself out of a play, he’s back in some poor shooter’s face, disrupting a shot that had looked open a split second before. His balance and recovery speed might be unmatched among all guards.
Paul and Danny Green hit every step, and they’re still able to generate a good number of game-changing plays — steals for Paul, blocks for Green. Green doesn’t have the natural speed of these other guys, but he’s long, and he uses that length well — playing angles, staying attached to guys at the hip as they drive, and making the waterbugs who blow by him hit tough floaters over help defenders.
Those five perimeter guys edge out a group that includes (in addition to the wings named above) Khris Middleton, Kyle Lowry, Eric Bledsoe, Wes Matthews, Avery Bradley, Marcus Smart, Mike Conley, Gerald Henderson, Klay Thompson, Stephen Curry, and others.
Jeff Haynes/NBAE/Getty Images
Reminder: The NBA does not use positional designations for the All-Rookie teams.
There are really only two points of inflection here: the last first-team spot, between Clarkson and Smart, and the final three second-team spots, which could go to anyone among a gaggle of guys who affected only parts of the season.
Smart had the last first-team spot on this ballot until the last three weeks or so, when Clarkson overtook him with some legitimately solid scoring and distributing for a wretched Lakers team. Smart brings a singular skill — on-ball defense — that shines brighter than any one thing Clarkson does, but Clarkson’s mature all-around play on offense is enough to win by a nose.4 This is not a case of a young talent gunning for numbers on a go-nowhere team bereft of any other perimeter options.
I am already kind of regretting this after watching Smart hound every Toronto guard last night, but I’m sticking by the choice.
Clarkson could have played that way. Lord knows some of his teammates have been chasing stats as they approach free agency. But he’s been thoughtful on the pick-and-roll, slowing down to manipulate the defense, seeking out pocket passes, and steadying himself for a reliable midrange pull-up. Clarkson has a nice pick-and-roll chemistry with Tarik Black, which is a sentence that somehow applies to a team that had Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, Dwight Howard, and Steve Nash two years ago.
Smart is a multipositional terror on defense, miles better than Clarkson, but he’s prone to the sorts of overeager errors common among gifted rookies trying to make things happen. Give him a little head fake toward a pick, and Smart might overcommit that way, leaving a clear lane on the other side. He’ll gamble for steals, fall victim to the occasional backdoor cut, and overwork himself right out of Boston’s scheme.
Again: He’s already a solid defender, and he’s going to be a great one soon. He’s also shooting 33 percent from deep, below the league average, but better than almost anyone expected of him as a rookie. That’s a great sign, and it might be enough to land him on the first team. But he’s struggling horribly from 2-point range, and he has looked tentative driving to the basket for most of the season. Smart’s deserving, but Clarkson edges him here.
Nurkic should be an automatic on the second team, and he looked to be on pace for the Clarkson/Smart first-team spot until he got hurt and then fell to the fringes of the rotation in Melvin Hunt’s turbo small-ball system. But Nurkic’s best stretches can compete with those of any rookie, and that’s enough to cinch a second-team spot.
Bogdanovic briefly lost his rotation spot to Sergey Karasev, but he reclaimed it and has emerged as a crucial late-season bench cog on a team fighting for its playoff life. He can blend with Brooklyn’s starters as a spot-up threat, sometimes closing games when he’s rolling, and shift into more of a scorer mode with backup units.
Galloway and Hood snag the last two spots over K.J. McDaniels, Zach LaVine, Jerami Grant, Black, and a couple of other candidates. Hood is barely going to crack the 50 games/1,000 minutes threshold, but he’s hit 36 percent from deep and done some nifty work as a secondary ball-handler — and even as a first option at times over the last 10 days, with both Hayward and Favors hurt. And he’s done that as part of a solid team still trying to win games. Galloway has pulled some nice two-way work for a miserable team over the last half of the season, and he’s hit some of New York’s only legit clutch shots.
There just aren’t a lot of rookies with 70-plus games of strong play on their résumés. In that context, I’m comfortable taking guys who logged only 45 or 50 games ahead of those who might have appeared in five or 10 more — provided they reached higher peaks.
Grant has been all over the place. McDaniels cooled off after a hot start in Philly and then vanished in Houston, but I wouldn’t quibble if you slid him above Hood or Galloway. LaVine has poured in some high-scoring games over the last month, but he spent 75 percent of the season looking completely out of his depth — not shocking, considering his age. T.J. Warren, a wily cutter, broke the rotation in Phoenix too late.
And that’s it. Now there’s just the matter of deciding the 2015 NBA champions.