Friday, September 22 2023
Milwaukee Bucks' Giannis Antetokounmpo drives to the basket against Philadelphia 76ers' Joel Embiid during the second half of an NBA basketball game Saturday, March 4, 2023, in Milwaukee. (AP Photo/Aaron Gash)

Having already cast my votes for individual hardware, it’s time to turn my attention to the part of the ballot that focuses on team awards: All-NBA, All-Defensive and All-Rookie. Let’s light this candle:


First Team

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

G: Donovan Mitchell, Cavaliers

G: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder

Under the forthcoming new collective bargaining agreement between the NBA and its players union, players who made fewer than 65 appearances will be ineligible for All-NBA consideration, and the ballots will shift from the long-held positional standard — one center, two forwards, two guards — to a positionless approach intended to allow voters to just pick the 15 best players. Reasonable people can disagree over whether those changes are good, bad or somewhere in between … but they’re not in effect this year.

That means, once again, I only get one center on the First Team; this time, though, the slot goes to Embiid, my MVP winner. It also means I can put Antetokounmpo, who landed third on my MVP ballot but who finished two outings shy of the incoming 65-game line.

Tatum and Mitchell, my fourth- and fifth-place picks on the MVP ballot, take the remaining forward and first guard slot, respectively. The former averaged nearly 30-9-5 on .607 true shooting while playing plus perimeter defense on a 57-win Celtics team that led the NBA in net rating. The latter put up a career-best 28-4-4 on .614 TS%, elevating the offense of a 51-win Cavaliers team that finished second in net rating, while ranking in the top 15 in value over replacement player, win shares, box plus-minus, FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement, ESPN’s real plus-minus and The BBall Index’s LEBRON, among other advanced metrics.

I considered a number of players for the second guard spot … before landing in the same place I did when it was time to vote for All-Star starters back in January.

The case against Gilgeous-Alexander likely starts with Oklahoma City’s 40-42 record and No. 10 seed in the West — good enough for the postseason, yes, but only kind of. And it’s not like it’s because the Thunder went 0-14 in the games he missed; they were 33-35 in his 68 games and 7-7 with him out of the lineup.

It’s worth noting, though, that OKC outscored opponents by 2.2 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with SGA on the floor, according to Cleaning the Glass — a 46-win clip, which would’ve been good enough for fourth in the West. This, despite the absence of the sort of All-Star-level running buddies that, say, Mitchell, Stephen Curry, De’Aaron Fox, Ja Morant, James Harden, Jalen Brunson, Trae Young and others have alongside them. (All due respect to Josh Giddey and Jalen Williams; those guys aren’t there yet, though.)

Gilgeous-Alexander scored more than any other candidate except for Luka Dončić and Damian Lillard … whose teams dramatically, depressingly and eventually intentionally nose-dived their way out of the play-in picture in pursuit of greater lottery luck. He shot the ball more efficiently than any of them but Curry … who played 12 fewer games and 475 fewer minutes for a Warriors team that barely escaped the play-in itself.

He did it while shouldering a higher usage rate than any of them but Dončić and Morant … who played seven fewer games and 468 fewer minutes, thanks in large part to an eight-game suspension for conduct detrimental to the league, and to his team. He’s a better defender than just about any other realistic candidate other than Milwaukee’s Jrue Holiday, who’s in a different stratosphere on that end — but who’s also, when everything’s going according to plan, the third shot-creating option on a healthy Bucks team.

In a field full of candidates with their own strengths and weaknesses, I think Gilgeous-Alexander — fourth in the NBA in scoring, the only guard in the league to average a block and a steal per game, top-10 in a host of advanced stats, by far the biggest reason why Oklahoma City’s about to play some postseason basketball again — most deserves to be here. What an arrival; what a declaration of intent.

Second Team

C: Nikola Jokić, Nuggets

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

G: Stephen Curry, Warriors

G: De’Aaron Fox, Kings

Jokić, my MVP runner-up, gets the Second Team center spot. I’m guessing I don’t have to spend too much time defending his inclusion.

On a purely statistical basis, it feels like you almost have to put Luka and Dame — second and third in the league in points per game, top 10 in assists, top six in estimated plus-minus, etc. — into these spots. That idea just kind of scraped at the inside of my brain, though; whether or not you blame them specifically and individually for their teams’ collective disaster classes, Dallas and Portland did flame out spectacularly enough to miss a postseason for which two-thirds of the league qualifies. That feels like it should matter … and, evidently, it matters enough to me to elevate two guards who also played brilliantly on teams that will lock horns in the first round.

Curry — who averaged better than 29-6-6 on 49/43/92 shooting and who’s still the most defense-distorting offensive weapon in the NBA — takes one guard slot despite the missed games. The Warriors had the point differential of a 56-win team in his minutes; he’s the reason why, regular-season road record aside, nobody out West is particularly excited to line up across from full-strength Golden State in a seven-game series. Fox — the leading scorer for the No. 1 offense in the land, the premier crunch-time option in the league this season, one-half of the bookends that led Sacramento out of the fog and back into the playoffs after 16 long years — gets the other.

The forward spots … well, they’re kind of weird this year.

Kevin Durant was arguably better than anybody in the league when he was on the court this season. He became the first player in NBA history to shoot better than 55% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 90% from the foul line, and his teams went a blistering 34-13 (a 59-win pace) with him in the lineup. There is, however, the small matter of him missing 35 games and ending the season on a different team than he started it with, on account of requesting a trade for the second time in eight months away from the team he effectively put together.

Kawhi Leonard’s got a legit case as a top-five player in the league in the second half of the season, averaging 27-7-4 on .648 true shooting over the final three months while playing menacing defense to lead the Clippers to the fifth seed and a first-round date with Durant’s Suns. But 30 missed games — some due to an early-season flare-up in his surgically repaired knee, some due to load management and injury maintenance protocols — just feels to me like a few too many, especially considering how difficult Leonard’s unfortunate ongoing intermittent absences have helped make it for the Clips to find the kind of consistent excellence that so many projected for them when he and Paul George came aboard.

LeBron James might not have been quite as efficient or effective on a per-minute or per-possession basis as either of his former NBA Finals adversaries, but he played more games and minutes than both of them, averaging about 28-8-7 on above-league-average true shooting for a Lakers team that had the point differential of a 54-win team in his minutes. (Oh, and he also became the all-time leading scorer in NBA history. Seems like it’s worth mentioning.) Among the frontcourt options who missed a lot of time and didn’t crack 2,000 minutes, though, I didn’t think LeBron was the best one on his own team.

Davis was fantastic this season, fully embracing life as a center and turning in his best play since his first full campaign in L.A. When LeBron went down in late February, it seemed like the Lakers’ postseason hopes might be cooked. From that game on, though, AD averaged 26.3 points, 12.8 rebounds, 2.9 assists and three combined blocks-and-steals per game while shooting 56.3% from the floor and getting to the free-throw line nine times a night; the Lakers went 8-5 in the 13 games LeBron missed, and a West-leading 16-7 after the All-Star Game and 18-9 after their dramatic trade deadline overhaul, outscoring opponents by 8.2 points per 100 possessions with AD on the floor in that span. This is the Davis the Lakers traded for — the one they’re desperately hoping can lead them into the franchise’s future — and it’s good enough for a Second Team spot on my ballot.

The last Second Team spot goes to Butler, who always seems to just kind of lie in wait for the first couple of months of the season before turning in one hellacious closing kick — just under 26-6-6 after the All-Star break, shooting 61.6% from the field and taking more than 10 freebies a night. Jimmy had more steals (117) than turnovers (101 in 64 games) for the sixth time in his career; due in part to that penchant for creating more possessions while not giving them away, he again aces the advanced analytic tests, finishing top-six in VORP, win shares, BPM, PER, EPM and 538’s WAR. The Heat underwhelmed this season on the whole, but despite a pretty dramatic lack of top-end talent beyond him, Bam Adebayo and arguably Tyler Herro, Miami finished with 44 wins, a top-10 defense, and a shot to remind everybody just how dangerous they — and he — can be in the postseason.

Third Team

C: Domantas Sabonis, Kings

F: Julius Randle, Knicks

F: Luka Dončić, Mavericks

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Jrue Holiday, Bucks

Two Kings on All-NBA! Be still my heart.

Sabonis gets the Third Team center spot after a career year — 19.1 points, a league-leading 12.3 rebounds, a career-best 7.3 assists, 61.5% shooting — as the low-post-mauling, dribble-handoff-triggering hub of the white-hot elite offense that fueled Sacramento’s return to the playoffs. There’s plenty of credit to go around for that: to Fox, to head coach Mike Brown, to general manager Monte McNair for bringing in the shooters to surround Fox and Sabonis, to those shooters (Kevin Huerter, Keegan Murray, Malik Monk, Harrison Barnes, et al.) for playing their roles brilliantly. It’s the big fella, though, who’s the straw that stirs the drink; asked earlier this year by Jayson Buford of GQ why this version of the Kings has proved so much more potent and successful than the others, Fox indicated Sabonis and said, “Well, he just got here a year ago.” That kind of transformation’s worth a spot on my ballot.

So, too, is the work that Dončić and Lillard put in prior to their respective situations completely deteriorating. I didn’t think players on lottery teams merited spots on the First Team; I chose to elevate players who made similarly massive contributions on teams that finished much better on the Second Team. But I couldn’t reasonably claim that I thought Luka and Dame weren’t among the 15 best players in the NBA overall this season.

Maybe you find that logic inconsistent; I can’t totally blame you, but it’s the way it makes sense in my head. They slot into the Third Team … but not into the guard slots, because I’ve committed some light category fraud.

Yes, Dončić is a point guard; he also spent about two-thirds of his minutes this season sharing the floor with either Spencer Dinwiddie or Kyrie Irving, two other nominal ball-handlers, and he is eligible at forward. Given my misgivings about the aforementioned elite-short-timers, I chose to take advantage of that flexibility to see if there was another guard I’d prefer to put in an All-NBA slot. Turns out, there was.

I chose to acknowledge Holiday, perpetually underrated but overwhelmingly respected by peers and coaches alike, for turning in perhaps his finest offensive season — 19.3 points, 7.4 assists, 5.1 rebounds in 32.6 minutes per game, 48/38/86 shooting splits on his highest usage since New Orleans, playing a more central offensive role with Khris Middleton missing more than half the season — while continuing to make a very strong case as the best perimeter defender in the sport.

Holiday’s ability to do more on both ends of the floor helped the Bucks weather myriad injuries — to Middleton, to Giannis, to expected depth pieces in the wing corps, etc. — without losing touch with the Celtics and 76ers in the race for the top spot in the East. And once they got mostly healthy, he played his role to perfection as the Bucks hit the gas, locking up the No. 1 overall seed in the postseason. Jaylen Brown scores more at a premium position on the wing; James Harden led the league in assists; Pascal Siakam had to do pretty much everything to try to keep the train on the tracks in Toronto. But if I’m being honest, I think Holiday’s just been straight up better than them this season. So Luka kicks up to forward, and Holiday joins Dame in the backcourt.

That leaves one forward slot, and a ton of worthy candidates: Brown (also eligible at both guard and forward), Siakam, Jaren Jackson Jr. In the end, I found myself picking between Julius Randle, my pick for Most Improved Player two seasons ago, and Lauri Markkanen, my second-place finisher for that award this year.

Markkanen’s breakthrough was nothing short of remarkable — a combination of scoring volume and efficiency reached only by some of the greatest scorers the league’s ever seen — and it kept a Jazz team that damn near everyone expected to tank this season in the hunt for a playoff spot into the final weeks of the campaign. I suspect he’ll show up on a lot of ballots, and he may well land one of the six forward spots. I wound up choosing Randle, though, in recognition of his own remarkable about-face: from All-NBA two seasons ago to open thumbs-down warfare with fans last season, all the way back to averaging 25-10-4 in the fifth-most minutes in the league as the marauding finishing force at the heart of what was, stunningly, the NBA’s No. 2 offense.

Heading into the season, few pegged the Knicks as the East’s fifth seed after 82 games; fewer still would’ve pegged Randle returning to form, and arguably playing better than he did in his breakthrough season, as a major factor driving it. He deserves credit for that. He gets it here.

Apologies to, in no particular order: LeBron, KD, Kawhi, Markkanen, Brown, Siakam, JJJ, Harden, Morant, Jalen Brunson, Tyrese Haliburton, Devin Booker, Darius Garland, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Paul George, Trae Young.


First Team

C: Brook Lopez, Bucks

F: Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies

F: Evan Mobley, Cavaliers

G: Jrue Holiday, Bucks

G: Alex Caruso, Bulls

Jackson, Lopez and Mobley — my top three finishers in Defensive Player of the Year voting — make up my First Team frontcourt. According to The BBall Index’s defensive metrics, Holiday is one of only two players in the league to rank in the 90th percentile in average matchup difficulty, defensive positional versatility, on-ball defense and ball-screen navigation; he guards All-Stars of all shapes and sizes, clamps down on opposing ball-handlers on the regular and just plain refuses to get picked off his man. The tip of the spear on a Bucks defense that tied for third in points allowed per non-garbage-time possession was a lock at one of the guard spots.

The other one goes to the answer to the question, “Wait a second: How in the hell is a team starting DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine and Nikola Vucevic ranked fifth in defense?”

Caruso was a havoc-wreaking demon this season — a Molotov cocktail lobbed into the middle of opponents’ offensive schemes, mucking up countless possessions through elite anticipation, well-timed rotations, a willingness to guard up a position (or two) if it could throw sand in the gears of an offense, and the kind of maximum effort that would make Wade Wilson blush.

I don’t blame analytics skeptics for arching an eyebrow at Caruso finishing first in the entire stinking league in defensive estimated plus-minus, defensive luck-adjusted regularized plus-minus *and* FiveThirtyEight’s defensive RAPTOR. But those all-in-one numbers seem to be capturing something that the meat-and-potatoes stuff does, too.

Caruso averaged a league-high 5.2 deflections, 2.2 steals and 1.1 blocks per 36 minutes of floor time. Chicago was a slightly above-league-average defense through the first quarter of the season, when he was mostly coming off the bench, and No. 1 on D over the final two months, when he was mostly back in the starting lineup. And with Caruso off the court, the Bulls allowed 115.3 points-per-100, equivalent to the 19th-ranked defense in the league; with him in the mix, that dropped all the way to 108.4 points-per-100, head and shoulders above the Cavs, Grizzlies, Celtics and Bucks. When the numbers and the eye test match, you’ve got something, and the Bulls definitely have something in Caruso.

Second Team

C: Bam Adebayo, Heat

F: Draymond Green, Warriors

F: Jaden McDaniels, Timberwolves

G: Dillon Brooks, Grizzlies

G: Derrick White, Celtics

The frontcourt crunch proved pretty brutal here. Antetokounmpo, Butler, Davis and Embiid are all perfectly legitimate choices in their own right. They’re also recognized elsewhere on my ballot, though, and with so many dynamite defenders traipsing across the NBA landscape, why not adopt a big-tent approach and take advantage of the opportunity to highlight more of them?

That’s not to say that the frontcourt selections aren’t worthy on their own merits. Draymond, in particular, needs no introduction.

The 2016-17 Defensive Player of the Year makes it here by virtue of lifting a Golden State roster that skewed toward youth and inexperience early in the season, and remained undersized throughout the campaign, to just outside the top 10 in defensive efficiency. The Warriors were without Andrew Wiggins for more than half the season, only got Gary Payton II back in the mix about two weeks ago, have played a ton of three-guard lineups out of necessity and they still only gave up 110.3 points-per-100 — a best-in-the-league mark — with Draymond on the floor. He’s 6-foot-6 in an age of giants, and he still held opponents to 51.1% shooting at the rim — the third-lowest mark among players who defended at least 250 up-close tries, behind only JJJ and Lopez. He’s still a genius, still the flip-side of Steph’s coin when it comes to what has made Golden State generationally special, and he’s richly deserving of an eighth All-Defensive selection, which would tie him for 13th most all time.

Adebayo, my DPOY pick last season, might have ceded his title as the NBA’s preeminent switch big to Brooklyn’s Nic Claxton, but he showcased a rounded-out repertoire this season, suddenly playing drop coverage at an elite level — he allowed 0.917 points per chance in a drop, according to Second Spectrum, 11th out of 139 players to log at least 250 possessions in that coverage — while also clamping down whether Erik Spoelstra asked him to blitz ball-handlers, ice pick-and-rolls or man the middle of the zone that Miami played way more often than any other team.

Despite being undersized at virtually every position, the Heat allowed 112.3 points-per-100 in Adebayo’s minutes, a top-five mark, thanks largely to his ability to be whatever and wherever Spo’s scheme needs him to be, not only game to game but possession to possession. A Heat team that ranked 25th in offensive efficiency and was so desperate for offensive answers that it took Kevin Love off the buyout market and immediately plugged him into the starting lineup has had to win with its defense. Bam gives them at least a puncher’s chance.

My last forward spot came down to McDaniels and O.G. Anunoby, two of the very best perimeter stoppers in the business. Anunoby was an early favorite for DPOY before the wheels began to wobble in Toronto, leading to months of sound and fury that ultimately didn’t signify a trade. Instead, he stuck around, led the NBA in steals, guarded everybody from Trae Young to Nikola Jokic, held opponents to 0.843 points per chance in isolation (11th among 194 defenders to guard at least 100 isos), and helped the Raptors grind teams out effectively enough to get to .500 and the play-in.

In the end, though, I went with McDaniels, who emerged this season as the linchpin of a Minnesota defense that weathered all manner of injuries and chaos to finish eighth in points allowed per possession — and that defended at a top-five level with him on the floor. At 6-foot-10 with a 7-foot wingspan and quick feet, he proved to be adept at mirroring ball-handlers through every feint, chasing movement shooters through the nightly hedge-maze marathon that off-ball defenders must navigate and skittering around screens to stay connected at the point of attack. Those long arms also come in handy around the rim if somebody gets past whichever Wolves center is lying in wait on the back line; opponents shot just 52.9% at the rim when McDaniels was the closest defender, not far behind the likes of JJJ, Lopez and Green, and just ahead of Cleveland rim-protecting ace Jarrett Allen.

The Wolves toggled back and forth between schemes this year in search of a happy medium that would maximize Rudy Gobert’s value while also putting its holdover stars and starters in position to succeed. Whenever that search hit on something, McDaniels’ ability to shapeshift and stop whoever needed stopping was a big enough reason why that I felt pretty good about giving him the last nod … right up until he got so pissed off that he broke his hand on the last day of the season. Oh, well.

Apologies to, in no particular order: The aforementioned Antetokounmpo, Anunoby, Butler, Claxton, Davis and Embiid, plus centers Allen and Gobert, swingmen Herb Jones and Mikal Bridges, and Canadian destroyer Luguentz Dort.

OK, let’s finish strong:


First Team

Paolo Banchero, Magic

Jalen Williams, Thunder

Walker Kessler, Jazz

Keegan Murray, Kings

Bennedict Mathurin, Pacers

Banchero, Williams and Kessler — my three picks in Rookie of the Year balloting — get First Team spots. So does Murray, who shattered the rookie record for 3-point makes, drilled more catch-and-shoot triples than anybody but Klay Thompson and Buddy Hield, and cemented himself as a no-muss, no-fuss, plug-and-play starter on a 48-win No. 3 seed with the best offense in the damn league.

We round out the squad with Mathurin, an instant-impact scorer off the bench in Indianapolis who made his way into the starting five as the Pacers played out the string. He’s a lightning bolt directed straight at the cup — 44% of his shots came at the rim, an elite rate for a wing — who walked into the league able to get himself to the free-throw line. Only 12 players who logged at least 1,000 minutes posted a higher free-throw attempt rate than Mathurin; he actually edged out No. 1 pick Banchero in that category.

There’s plenty for Mathurin to iron out: the awareness and seasoning on defense, the jumper that only connected 37% of the time, the finishing touch that’ll enable him to cash out on all those rim attempts he creates, the playmaking feel that’d allow him to improve to a positive assist-to-turnover ratio. What he’s already got, though, is one hell of a start.

Second Team

Jaden Ivey, Pistons

Jalen Duren, Pistons

Jeremy Sochan, Spurs

AJ Griffin, Hawks

Tari Eason, Rockets

It wasn’t easy to find silver linings in Detroit once Cade Cunningham went down, but Ivey’s development as a shooter (48% from midrange and 36% from deep since Jan. 1) and a decision-maker qualify. Ditto for Duren averaging nine points and nine rebounds on 65% shooting in 25 minutes per game as the youngest player in the NBA, and arguing loudly that he deserves due consideration — and a larger role — in a crowded Pistons frontcourt.

San Antonio and Houston were pretty dire all season long. Sochan and Eason, at least, gave the fans their money’s worth with their relentlessness on the glass and defensive end — and all the reps that Sochan got operating as a de facto point guard may pay dividends one day when the Spurs have a bit more structure, talent and overall Stuff to Play For. Griffin gets the last spot because, what, am I gonna argue with a 6-foot-6 wing who shot 39% from deep on solid volume with as many steals as turnovers for a team that made the postseason? No. After this many words, no, I am not.

Apologies to, in no particular order: Jabari Smith Jr., for whom we’ll keep our fingers crossed as circumstances shift in Houston; Andrew Nembhard, who’ll always have Golden State; Shaedon Sharpe, whose levitation is cool as hell (and whose late-season production in games that couldn’t have mattered less would be fun to see in games that matter at least a little); Christian Braun and Ochai Agbaji, who made the most of the playing time they got in the second half of the season; Dyson Daniels, who should’ve played more.

Source: Yahoo Sports


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