2019-20 NBA Awards: Narrowing Down the All-NBA Teams

In a league richer than ever with star talent, which 15 players distinguished themselves for All-NBA qualification?
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With the end of the NBA regular season comes the exercise of apportioning credit for its outcomes. Last week, we explored which of five qualified players belong on the MVP ballot (behind Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James, of course). Today, we’ll broaden our scope to include 15 of the league’s best players with three All-NBA teams.

First Team All-NBA

Guard: James Harden, Luka Dončić

Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James

Center: Nikola Jokić

Second Team All-NBA

Guard: Damian Lillard, Chris Paul

Forward: Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton

Center: Anthony Davis

Third Team All-NBA

Guard: Jimmy Butler, Trae Young

Forward: Pascal Siakam, Jayson Tatum

Center: Rudy Gobert

The first team plus Lillard and Leonard were the easiest picks on the board, and their MVP cases are covered here. Availability isn’t as important a criterion for All-NBA (to me) as it is for MVP, so I slotted Dončić on the first team at guard over Lillard despite using the opposite order for MVP. Kawhi may have been the third-best all-around player in the league this season, but Antetokounmpo and James were first and second, respectively, so he falls to the second team.

Davis may be the most pivotal player on the ballot because of his fluid positional classification (while this is not an official ballot, I’m still following the NBA’s positional designations). If he goes at center, it frees an additional forward slot on the third team; if he counts only as a forward, things get trickier. There’s no arguing he belongs somewhere on the ballot -- Davis posted another efficient, high-volume scoring season while playing expert defense for the league’s second-best team. He’s an ideal fit with James as arguably the best roll man in NBA history, but can contribute so much more to a team than ran nearly 30 percent of its offense through him.

According to Cleaning the Glass, Davis played 38 percent of his minutes at center this season -- right on the arbitrary borderline of qualification for the position in this exercise. I wound up including him as a center because he functionally played that role for the Lakers, even when sharing the floor with Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee, and the cost of excluding a deserving forward team outweighed that of slightly fudging Davis’ position.

Jimmy Butler, having split time between “shooting guard” and “small forward” this year, presented a similar problem, but the line between the two wing positions grows blurrier by the year, especially in this case. He was effectively a non-shooter this season, yet Butler still eclipsed 58 percent true shooting thanks to his relentless drives and near-constant presence the foul line. He was the primary shot creator for the NBA’s seventh-most efficient offense, posting the highest assist rate of his career. Bam Adebayo’s secondary playmaking and Duncan Robinson’s quick-trigger shooting don’t work to the same effect without Butler driving and steadying the offense.

Butler typically guards his opponent’s best wing player, regardless of their exact position. Ultimately, that landed him on the guard line in order to open up another forward spot, even if it didn’t feel entirely intellectually honest. The mission of this list is to recognize the 15 best players as closely as possible; that should be the tiebreaker for a blurry positional uncertainty.

That helped clarify the forward hierarchy, though Middleton would have been a second-teamer regardless of Butler’s position. The two-time All Star had easily the best season of his career, posting a career-high 26.2 usage rate on nearly 62 percent true shooting for a historically dominant team. Even without Antetokounmpo, the Bucks still outscored opponents by over eight points per 100 possessions with Middleton on the floor (compared to a minus-0.8 differential when both All Stars sat), and he served as Milwaukee’s primary defender on elite wings.

siakam tatum

Toronto moves the ball and creates easy buckets as well as nearly any team in the league, but Siakam was its failsafe. His efficiency and defensive motor dipped under the weight of a heavier offensive workload, but in assuming the mantle of a primary option, Siakam diversified his own game while offering the Raptors a high offensive baseline while on the floor. He hit career-highs in usage and assist percentages while cutting down on turnovers. His rangy, multipositional impact was an important part of Toronto’s second-ranked defense, even if Siakam isn’t quite the hell-raiser he used to be on that end. He maintained a respectable 3-point percentage on six attempts per game -- more of which came off the dribble than ever before.

Adebayo nearly landed on the third team over Tatum or Gobert. He’s clearly a better playmaker and more versatile defender than those two, and his tenacity on both ends of the floor is incredible to watch. Gobert and Tatum were just more valuable to their respective teams, and their impact was more undeniable. The Heat were only slightly better with Adebayo on the floor than with him off, while Boston and Utah both cratered without their respective catalysts.

Tatum’s lack of high-level playmaking and relatively inefficient scoring keep him a rung below the league’s best offensive wings, but Boston was more than five points per 100 possessions better on both ends of the floor with him on the court -- by far the largest disparity on a talented and balanced team. He’s a valuable offensive player with and without the ball, and Tatum used an improved handle and shot selection to more reliably create good looks this season. His physical tools and instincts make him a dynamic and malleable piece of the league’s fourth-best defense.

Though availability isn’t as great a concern here as it is in the MVP conversation, Paul George and Karl-Anthony Towns didn’t quite play enough minutes to merit consideration over their frontcourt peers. At his best, George is a better player than Tatum, Siakam, Butler, and Middleton. He maintained nearly his exact scoring rate from last year’s First-Team All-NBA campaign while improving his passing and playing his usual disruptive perimeter defense. Extrapolate that over a longer amount of time, and he’d have a case ahead of Tatum or Siakam.

Towns, meanwhile, posted one of the most unique offensive seasons in NBA history. His combination of usage, efficiency, and scoring versatility for a big man is almost comical, and his offensive impact metrics blow away those of other bigs. Towns shot 42 percent on nearly 11 3-pointers per 100 possessions this season while improving his playmaking and remaining one of the league’s last efficient post scorers. But he only played 35 games for a team that wasn’t good even with him on the floor, without making meaningful progress as a defender. That’s a tough sell over Gobert, Adebayo, Joel Embiid, and Domantas Sabonis -- all of whom have valid arguments for the final center spot.

embiid gobert

Gobert may have slipped a bit on defense this year, but even 85 percent of Gobert’s impact is still a Defensive Player of the Year candidate and he might have had the best offensive season of his career. The Jazz were plus-6.5 and posted a 114 offensive rating with their anchor on the floor; that margin slipped to minus-5.5 with him off. Some of that has to do with Utah’s inconsistent bench play, but more credit belongs to Gobert’s rim protection, roll gravity, and efficient low-usage scoring.

Sabonis surged into this conversation after being unleashed as the hub of the Pacers’ offense and developing into one of the league’s preeminent passing big men. He does everything but space the floor, and his quick decision-making and playmaking versatility helped Indiana pivot from one action to the next and capitalize on openings before defenses could recover. The Pacers posted a 111.4 offensive rating with Sabonis on the floor, and that number jumped to 116 when he played without Myles Turner. Indiana defended competently with the improved Sabonis lurking around the rim, and while he isn’t an ace on that end like Gobert, Embiid, or Adebayo, he proved serviceable in an important defensive role.

Embiid’s case is built on an entirely different premise. He remains a dominant scorer and a defense unto himself, but trails Sabonis and Adebayo by a great length as a passer. Embiid improved his 3-point shooting and trimmed his turnover numbers for the third year in a row, but he remains a limited playmaker and Philadelphia’s offense improved with him off the floor (its defense still fell off a cliff). Combine that with just 44 games played and three other supremely qualified centers, and Gobert gets the nod.

(Defensive stalwart Brook Lopez lost some of his floor-spacing luster this season while Marc Gasol didn’t play enough to really get into the conversation.)

That leaves seven guards -- Paul, Young, Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, Devin Booker, Ben Simmons, and Donovan Mitchell -- jostling for two vacancies. Paul’s numbers aren’t as gaudy as others’, but his stable, efficient two-way play separated him from the rest of the pack. While his methodical, ball-dominant halfcourt style didn’t mesh particularly well with James Harden in Houston, it sings in Oklahoma City.

Paul offers a certain assurance as a lead initiator that other guards in contention for this spot don’t. He posted the lowest assist percentage of his illustrious career and his lowest usage rate since 2011, but that shouldn’t obscure his value to a team that relied heavily on his presence. The Thunder scored 116.3 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor and just 102.6 without him -- one of the largest disparities in the league. Paul makes things easier on his teammates by seeing multiple steps ahead of defenses and assuming difficult responsibilities others aren’t equipped to take on. He can just as easily create a shot in isolation or set up a corner 3 for a teammate, depending on what a defense allows, all while taking care of the ball as well as any high-usage point guard in history.

Young had the strongest case after Paul. Others will understandably lament Atlanta’s record and Young’s appalling individual defense, and the idea that the 21-year-old’s numbers are inflated is fair to a certain degree. He also played most of the season with the NBA’s worst defensive center rotation behind him and, at times, zero other reliable shooters around him. The Hawks were outscored by nearly five points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor this season, but fell off by an additional 8.4 without him. How do you reconcile all of that?

young mitchell

Eventually, the sheer scale of his production became undeniable. Young finished third in the NBA in scoring and second in assists with a true shooting percentage just under 60. His deep pull-up shooting stretches defenses in ways only Lillard and Steph Curry can, and Young far outstrips even those two as a passer. Lowry, Walker, Booker, and Simmons were all integral pieces of more effective systems, but Young was his team’s system. Per Cleaning the Glass, he ranked in the 100th percentile in both usage and assist rates, but Atlanta finished last in the NBA in 3-point shooting this season; short of dialing up his own usage even further, there wasn’t much Young could do about that.

A theoretical swap of Walker and Young is a fascinating one to consider. Would Walker be able to shoulder the same kind of offensive load on a worse team? Would Young look better and give more effort in a more stable defensive system? Ultimately, Young’s superior playmaking and heavier workload gives him a slight edge, and Walker has a similarly detrimental effect on Boston’s defense as Young does on Atlanta’s -- even if he is objectively a better defender.

Lowry, Mitchell, and Booker were the hardest guards to cut. There’s a strong argument, even with equal surrounding talent, that Lowry’s connective passing, offensive malleability, and defensive versatility provide more value to a winning team than Young’s ball-dominant offensive approach. He fits with any kind of co-star, amplifying his teammates’ strengths while masking their weaknesses. But his scoring efficiency and beyond-the-boxscore impact both dipped this season, mitigating two crucial edges Lowry typically holds over other All-NBA candidates.

Mitchell has a different kind of case -- one built upon being the primary option for a top-10 offense. He doesn’t fill that role the way hyper-efficient, heliocentric stars like Harden, Dončić, or James do, nor is he elite in any particular area. But Mitchell’s ability to create and convert shots in a pinch at a reasonable rate (he posted a league-average true shooting percentage this year) allows his teammates to feast on easier looks and Utah’s offense to run smoothly where it might otherwise bog down. There’s value in that, but Mitchell, who carried a 32 percent usage rate and had the best playmaking season of his career, wasn’t quite efficient enough in that role to justify an All-NBA bid.

The opposite can be said of Booker and Beal, who had superlative individual offensive seasons for a bad teams. Booker 23-year-old posted a true shooting percentage of 61.7 on over 30 percent usage, and Phoenix’s offense fell off by nearly 13 points per 100 possessions without him. Beal finished second in the NBA in scoring on robust efficiency for a league-average offense. But a player must shoulder a truly exceptional workload to be as bad as they were defensively and still make an All-NBA team. Neither player quite met that threshold.

Simmons provides the most defensive value of this group, and his playmaking may have become slightly underrated amid ceaseless critiques of his jumper and fit with Embiid. He does, however, pose certain challenges, especially given the ill-fitting talent around him this year; the Sixers were worse with Simmons on the floor than with him off. That doesn’t preclude him from being a useful player -- or even a great one -- but it did keep him off this ballot.

Stats courtesy of Cleaning the Glass, Basketball-Reference, and NBA.com.