All-NBA Teams: Toughest Calls, Biggest Regrets

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Thursday May 11th, 2017

Even the truest of the true believers—those fans who anticipate the arrival of the NBA playoffs with absolute optimism—can no longer deny that a rash of blowout games and one-sided series has slowed this postseason’s momentum.

In the first round, the only series that went seven games was marred by injuries to Blake Griffin and Rudy Gobert before it ended with a whimper. The four second-round match-ups, meanwhile, have produced just two competitive, memorable games combined: Isaiah Thomas’s 53-point effort in Game 2 and Manu Ginobili’s pickpocket block in Game 5. Golden State and Cleveland have yet to be tested, and both are enjoying what amounts to another week off as they await opponents that will almost certainly be exhausted and overmatched when the conference finals start next week. There have been fights, suspensions, fines and healthy amounts of trash talking, but even the hijinks feel a bit empty without the payoff provided by late-game drama.

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Let’s take advantage of this lull, then, to look back at this year’s All-NBA decisions. The following All-NBA ballot was cast officially, along with the other major awards, on April 11. Selections were made based on individual statistics, advanced statistics, impact/role, team success and heath. Postseason performance, obviously, was not a consideration given the timing of the voting deadline. Per league guidelines, each team is comprised of two guards, two forwards and a center.

Explanations for each selection and assorted thoughts that have accumulated over the first month of postseason basketball are included below.

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All-NBA First Team

Guards: James Harden (Rockets) and Russell Westbrook (Thunder)

My top two MVP picks—1. Harden, 2. Westbrook—were both easy All-NBA First Team selections. The next best guard candidate, Stephen Curry, played for a better team and led the league in plus-minus, but he wasn’t the Warriors’ most important player on either offense or defense until Kevin Durant went down with a knee injury. When presented with two candidates who posted historic stat lines, enjoyed excellent health and played monster roles for overachieving teams that reached the postseason, advocating for Curry felt like a case of “Doing too much” overthinking.  

In his Triple-Double Quest, Westbrook perfected Martyr Ball, an offshoot of Hero Ball that mixed perpetually high usage, crunch time omnipresence and Zero Bleeps Given attitude. Predictably, the approach met a quick postseason demise. Equally predictably, Westbrook remained true to his martyr form in defeat, posting never-before-seen stat lines, trading podium jabs at Patrick Beverley and looking like a man who desperately needs more help (and needs to trust it once it arrives).

With a month of hindsight from Westbrook’s sensational end-of-season push, the biggest question facing Oklahoma City is not whether Westbrook will remain in town but rather how long this “formula” can hold up. Will the rest of the roster be cool with All-Westbrook, all the time again next season? The year after? Will Westbrook himself conclude that his approach needs significant altering if the 2017-18 season ends as abruptly as this one did?

As for Harden, he’s endured a surprising amount of criticism for someone averaging 30/5/8 in the postseason, numbers matched over multiple series by only LeBron James, Michael Jordan and Oscar Robertson. This can be attributed to the fact that his warts (turnovers, defensive awareness, settling when fatigued) and his polarizing foul-drawing tricks are easy to spot, and dwell on, with the help of the postseason microscope. If the Rockets fall to the Spurs it will go down as a missed opportunity, but the primary causes of death would be San Antonio’s savvy and Houston’s stretched depth and inconsistent complementary scorers, not Harden’s individual shortcomings.

Forwards: LeBron James (Cavaliers) and Kawhi Leonard (Spurs)

Once Kevin Durant lost a quarter of the season due to injury, this became the easiest section on the ballot; James and Leonard both guided their respective teams to strong records while acing the most-referenced advanced statistics and posting strong impact numbers. Note: a healthy Durant would have supplanted Kawhi Leonard due to Golden State’s superior record and historic point differential, his leading role on the league’s best offense, and his improvement commitment on defense.

For James, this will be his 10th consecutive All-NBA First Team selection, a remarkable run that probably deserves more attention. His professional handling of the Pacers and his rude dismissal of the Raptors has removed any doubt as to whether he remains the game’s best all-around player. He’s feeling his jumper, demonstrating excellent decision-making in the half-court offense, and cranking up his defensive energy. Every switch is flipped on. There’s a very real chance that, in a repeat of 2015, James will emerge as a leading Finals MVP candidate even if Cleveland doesn’t win the title.

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Leonard delivered a mesmerizing and, at times, emasculating performance in the first round, leading to multiple rounds of breathless compliments from Grizzlies coach David Fizdale. However, an even greater show of respect came this week when Leonard somehow escaped hot-take criticism for being sidelined late in Game 5 against Houston. It’s comforting to know that it’s still possible for at least one superstar to be afforded near-universal respect when a poorly-timed ankle roll turns him into a spectator. While not quite as sexy as a Warriors/Rockets shootout, a Spurs victory would set up a delicious Durant vs. Leonard showdown in the West finals.

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Center: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

The center spot is always the ballot’s most frustrating decision and the events of the last month have only exacerbated the frustration.

But first, out of respect, here’s the case for Rudy Gobert: He was a leading Defensive Player of the Year candidate; he showed major improvement offensively; he carried his team to a strong record, playoff seeding and elite defensive efficiency despite heaps of injuries around him; and he enjoyed near perfect health during the regular season. There were other traditional centers who posted better individual stats or who played on better teams, but there weren’t any other candidates who could match the breadth of his portfolio.

Five years ago, the NBA removed the “center” designation from its All-Star voting ballots, lumping all forwards and centers together into a “frontcourt” category. It’s past time to do the same for the All-NBA ballots as well. In the past, my biggest grievance about keeping forwards and centers separate was that a lack of depth at one spot could unnecessarily penalize deserving candidates. Who cares if a center is First Team if there are, say, seven forwards who are more deserving and more coveted? Calling a player like Clippers center DeAndre Jordan a First Team All-NBA player feels incredibly misleading given that he wasn’t nearly a top-five player when he was selected to that squad last year.

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But the last month of the playoffs has raised an even bigger issue: The “Center” position is even murkier than ever thanks to the ongoing prevalence of spread lineups and the rise of five-out basketball. There just isn’t a plausible center archetype any longer, not when LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Draymond Green, Tristan Thompson, Serge Ibaka and Ryan Anderson are all filling the role at times in small and super-small lineups during the postseason. The modern game prioritizes versatility, shooting and mobility more than ever. The current All-NBA ballot feels outdated because it runs counter to those trends and leads to weird grey areas (Should Green be a center candidate? Should Anthony Davis?).

This isn’t just an esoteric basketball nerd discussion anymore either. Given that All-NBA selections are now capable of triggering increased max contracts for players like Paul George, the “center” designation becomes a real killer. Was George one of this year’s top nine frontcourt players? Yes. Was he one of the top six forwards? No, barely, at least on this ballot. It seems unconscionable that the league’s arcane ballot format could cost a star player tens of millions of dollars, especially when the lack of competitive balance is arguably the leading storyline of this year’s playoffs and when snubbing a player like George could effectively encourage him to leave a small-market franchise.

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All-NBA Second Team

Guards: Stephen Curry (Warriors) and John Wall (Wizards)

One more annoyance from Kevin Durant’s fluky late-season injury: It prevented the league’s best team, and one of the five most dominant teams ever by point differential, from having an All-NBA First Team representative. I compensated by placing both Stephen Curry and Draymond Green on the Second Team, and gave strong consideration to Durant as well before dropping him to the Third team due to the length of his missed time.

Curry was rightfully mystified by those who suggested he took a step back this season. Sure, he “only” averaged 25.3 PPG (down from 30.1 in 2015-16) and he “only” hit 41.1% of his three-pointers (down from 45.4% in 2015-16). Well, guess what: He’s still the “only” player to ever hit 40+% of his threes on 10 attempts per game. One can reasonably argue that Durant’s arrival muffled Curry’s flair and reduced Golden State’s reliance upon its star point guard, but saying that the nature of his game changed or that his impact was meaningfully altered would be entirely incorrect. 

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The second guard spot was a much tougher call; My tie-breaker in such circumstances goes to the candidate whose case has the fewest weaknesses. Here, John Wall enjoyed substantially better health than Chris Paul and Kyle Lowry. He was also the lead dog on a winning team, something that couldn’t be said for Damian Lillard (due to Portland’s middling record) or Kyrie Irving and Klay Thompson (given their complementary roles). That left Wall versus Boston’s Isaiah Thomas, a head-to-head match-up that has played out in entertaining fashion in the second round.

Thomas’s edges as an all-around scorer, deep shooter and fourth-quarter performer were clear, as was Wall’s ability to mix alpha scoring with elite play-making while also playing far more effective defense. Boston had a superior record and a slightly better point differential, but Thomas’s supporting cast was also significantly deeper. Ultimately, the deciding factor was Thomas’s poor defensive impact numbers.

Forwards: Draymond Green (Warriors) and Jimmy Butler (Bulls)

Among the biggest takeaways from the playoffs so far: Draymond Green has rocketed up the “Players you pick to start a franchise” list. If you’re trying to win as many games as possible in 2017-18, he can’t be any lower than the seventh or eighth pick at this point. Admittedly, some of this is retroactive credit, as he’s clearly raised his game in the playoffs. But Green has a very strong case as the league’s most valuable defensive player because he’s better defending the rim than Kawhi Leonard and better defending in space than Rudy Gobert. At the same time, he’s a major, major offensive plus—regardless of the talent surrounding him—due to his exceptional playmaking and comfort on the perimeter. Throw in his high energy level and high basketball IQ, and he’s about as valuable overall as a non-alpha-scorer can get.

Much like with the Second Team guards, selecting the second forward for the squad was a trickier proposition that came down to process of elimination and tie-breakers. Durant was the best remaining candidate, but he missed 20 games and there were other qualified candidates who had missed as few as two. Gordon Hayward had played for a better team than Jimmy Butler, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo, but he missed time to open the season, his teammate Rudy Gobert was already on my First Team, and his team’s record was merely good and not great.

That left Butler, George and Antetokounmpo, three quality all-around forwards and one-man armies leading so-so East teams that were eventually bounced in the first round. George was the first to go on the basis of his early-season inconsistency and his weak showing in the advanced numbers; Butler easily outperformed him in Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares and Real Plus-Minus. Butler versus Antetokounmpo was an exceedingly difficult call, and the latter turned in a more impressive postseason performance. Indeed, if this vote was conducted in June it’s possible that Hayward, George and Antetokounmpo would all leapfrog Butler based on their postseason performances. 

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The final tiebreaker in April, though, was Chicago’s totally helpless play when Butler was off the court. Without Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee mustered a -2.1 net rating, which is roughly equal to the Pistons. Without Butler, Chicago had a -7.1 net rating, which is roughly equal to the Lakers. That was a big enough gap to earn Butler the nod.

Center: Anthony Davis (Pelicans)

Remember when the Pelicans were the talk of the league for grabbing DeMarcus Cousins in February? Man, that already feels like years ago. Anthony Davis was the only one of my 15 All-NBA selections not to make the playoffs this season; His career year numbers (28 PPG, 11.8 RPG), strong health and monster advanced stats were too hard to ignore.

One wonders, though, how long Davis will continue to be gift-wrapped an All-NBA spot if the Pelicans remain in the lottery. The forward crop has been insanely deep for years, the young wave of centers led by Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis and Nikola Jokic will soon be nipping at his heels, and the offensive explosion in recent years has lessened the excitement generated by his jaw-dropping lines. A 35/15 stat line just isn’t what it used to be, even as recently as three years ago, if it isn’t accompanied by team success. Look no further than Cousins, a questionable All-NBA candidate this year considering his struggles to contribute to wins before and after his midseason trade from Sacramento, for further evidence.

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All-NBA Third Team

Guards: Isaiah Thomas (Celtics) and Chris Paul (Clippers)

After narrowly missing out on the Second Team, Thomas was a no-brainer on the Third Team. His postseason run has been simply stunning. He’s provided firm answers to all sorts of questions. Can he can carry an effective offense in the playoffs? Yes. Can he adjust effectively to different defensive schemes and extra attention? Yes. Can he get by OK defensively? So far, yes. Can he translate his regular-season clutch play to the postseason? Yes. Can he make a strong enough case to become the first 5’9” max player? Yes. Can he confound the entire world by doing all of this despite the tragic loss of his sister and 10+ hours of dental surgery? Yes, he sure can.

The final guard spot is intriguing, with Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson making up a wide range of remaining candidates. This one didn’t require that much parsing though. There were only two teams with 50+ wins that didn’t have an All-NBA representative yet: The Clippers and Raptors. Their top candidates, Paul and Lowry, were both held back by the fact that they missed 20+ games due to injuries, but Paul’s case was otherwise pristine. He outperformed Lowry in Player Efficiency Rating and Win Shares, and he led the entire league in Real Plus-Minus.

Forwards: Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks) and Kevin Durant (Warriors)

Like Thomas, Giannis Antetokounmpo was a quick selection after being a tough cut for the Second Team. His Most Improved Player worthy campaign and his gripping play throughout a first-round loss to Toronto made him one of the most important stories of the 2016-17 season. For more on that, click here.

Kevin Durant, as mentioned above, would have been a First Team selection if healthy. His Game 3 breakthrough against Utah was a badly-needed reminder of the full force of his offensive powers. If there’s a silver lining to the dull basketball we’ve seen in recent weeks, it’s this: Durant’s best shot yet at winning a title may coincide with the best stretch of LeBron James’s career.

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The second-guessing of his decision to team up with the Warriors will continue forever, but Durant can ensure that his first championship has gravitas if he plays a central role in conquering James. And while this isn’t quite Michael versus Magic in 1991—James is too dominant for that comparison—a Golden State victory would provide career validation for Durant and immediately spark “repeat” and “three-peat” talk. From a historical standpoint, there will be an awful lot to chew on as long as Golden State and Cleveland both take care of business in the conference finals.

Center: Marc Gasol (Grizzlies)

Here, again, the trickle-down effect of being forced to choose centers rather than “frontcourt players” creates an injustice. George and Hayward are both right to feel like they’re being snubbed here. Instead, Gasol gets the last spot by process of elimination. He played a much larger and more complicated offensive role than LA’s DeAndre Jordan and his Grizzlies won more games than Karl-Anthony Towns’s Timberwolves, Nikola Jokic’s Nuggets, and DeMarcus Cousins’s Kings/Pelicans.

This decision wasn’t that difficult once one factored in Gasol’s new-found mastery of the three-point shot, his quality play when Mike Conley missed time due to injury, and his large role in the Grizzlies’ top-eight defense. While Memphis’s postseason run didn’t last too long, Gasol’s Game 4 game-winner at the buzzer stood as a cherry on the top of another quality season for the 32-year-old Spanish center.

Toughest omissions (in alphabetical order): Paul George (Pacers), Gordon Hayward (Jazz), Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers), DeAndre Jordan (Clippers), Damian Lillard (Blazers), Kyle Lowry (Raptors), Klay Thompson (Warriors), Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves).

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