PORTLAND, OREGON – DECEMBER 06: Damian Lillard #0 of the Portland Trail Blazers passes the ball as … [+]
Mid-April doesn’t feel the same in the NBA sphere. Every year, this is supposed to be the period where we all cross our fingers for specific playoff matchups, pay close attention to the “race” for the No. 1 draft lottery odds, and argue about award voting.
Well, even during the COVID-19 quarantine, one of those can still happen.
The NBA season could effectively be over, but the assumption is that awards would still be given out. After all, most of the regular season was complete. The league had played 971 of 1,230 games, which is roughly 79% of the schedule.
Could things have changed for a few awards? Maybe. There’s always a chance for someone to have a miraculous run to overtake the leader. However, most of the 2019-20 awards appeared to be nearing the finish line.
Let’s kick off the yearly tradition of analyzing each choice, starting with the All-NBA Teams.
I’ll keep the rules short and sweet here:
For some reason, the NBA still mandates a two-guard, two-forward, one-center selection process. The only adjusting you can do is with certain players that might fit into more than one category (Anthony Davis, Ben Simmons, etc.).
Since the season was suspended before we got official confirmation on what those unique players would be counted as, there is some wiggle room involved here.
In all, 15 total players have to be chosen to fit on three teams.
How should the 2020 All-NBA Teams look?
All-NBA First Team
G – Luka Dončić, Mavericks
G – James Harden, Rockets
F – LeBron James, Lakers
F – Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
C – Anthony Davis, Lakers
Similar to previous years, the All-NBA First Team is almost irrefutable. Once every few seasons, there will be a tough decision between two guards or two centers depending on certain factors – availability and how much value you place on defense.
Based on the nature of this era – spearheaded by multifaceted wings such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Paul George and Giannis Antetokounmpo – there is always a deep pool of forwards to sort through. Imagine the headache of choosing the two-best forwards right now if Durant hadn’t injured his Achilles, and went to Brooklyn as the same terrorizing scorer that we saw in the 2019 playoffs.
With Antetokounmpo standing atop the MVP leaderboard by a significant margin, he’s the first lock on this year’s team. It leaves one spot open for two worthy forwards, James and Leonard.
You can see my MVP top-five right here.
This is where subjective components of award voting enter the conversation. Throughout a regular season, different things matter to different people. Naturally, one viewer can assign greater importance to a piece of a player’s résumé, such as total games and minutes played, than another viewer. Think back to the 2017-18 season, when one of the First Team guard slots came down to either Stephen Curry or Damian Lillard. There was no question who had the better per-minute performances that year, as Curry finished with the most efficient season of his career. However, his availability (51 games to Lillard’s 73) came into effect. Lillard played over 1,000 more minutes than Curry, despite having a worse record when on the floor and not being the better point guard. Curry was knocked down to the Third Team because of his nagging ankle injuries.
That’s an extreme example, though. The gap between James and Leonard this year is razor thin. But, with the expectation of no more regular season games ahead, the edge in on-court service has to be acknowledged.
On a per-36 minute scale, Leonard has proven to be one of the top-five scorers over the last two seasons. Just in his debut year with the Clippers, he’s averaging 30 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 5.6 assists per 36 minutes – the improved passing element of his game sticks out the most.
Leonard and James take roughly the same number of threes per minute, yet Leonard converts a higher percentage of them. Leonard also draws more contact and earns more free throws at this stage of their respective careers, combined with a huge advantage in free throw accuracy (19 percentage points above James).
Also mixed into the equation is Leonard one-upping James in majority of the advanced, catch-all metrics. Measures such as Win Shares Per 48 Minutes, Box Plus-Minus (BPM), Player Impact Plus-Minus (PIPM), and on-court net rating all favor Kawhi. In fact, among superstars, he’s no lower than fourth overall in every single one. The one edge for LeBron is Real Plus-Minus (RPM), where the 35-year-old is still second in the league behind only the MVP.
In the current state of the NBA, The Klaw has overtaken The King in the “best player” hierarchy. And it’s true, usually the All-NBA debates feature a splitting of hairs that eventually go to the better player.
For this particular situation, however, the greater individual talent has to slide down to the Second Team. The reason LeBron gets the nod is simple: It would be wrong to gloss over nine extra games, 450 more minutes, and a slightly better win percentage.
Leading your team to the top Western Conference seed has to carry weight. Missing only three games and winning at a rate of 64.2 regular season victories has to make a difference. Compare it to Leonard, who has missed 13 games and was on pace for 61.1 wins before the season was postponed. Even if their contributions in those three head-to-head meetings greatly favor Leonard, the passing excellence of James and his leadership with a brand new roster have been nothing short of amazing. After being voted onto the Third Team last year, LeBron’s resurgence and durability remain astounding.
Both guards, James Harden and Luka Dončić are absolute no-brainers.
When is the last time you can remember saying, “Well, [Player X] is only averaging 34 points a game, why did his scoring production decrease?” Harden defines effortless in today’s game. It takes virtually no energy for him to have 20 at halftime on well spread-out opportunities – inside, outside, and at the charity stripe. Harden’s vicious stepback hasn’t decentivized him from attacking the paint, as he’s still generating 11.8 free throw attempts per game.
Meanwhile, Dončić had already launched the Mavericks into one of the most surprising stories of the year. Aside from OKC being one game out of a homecourt seed, the most unexpected West playoff participant is Dallas. Even Rick Carlisle probably didn’t see this coming from, Dončić, the sophomore phenom nearly averaging a triple-double per 36 minutes.
Despite not having a collection of offensive creators on his team and still struggling with his three-point consistency, Dončić is far more dangerous than anyone should be in year two. In 54 games, he shot 57.4% on his two-point attempts. Not just on average volume, either. On 11.5 attempts per game. Only four guards in history have managed to do it: Dončić, Magic Johnson, Penny Hardaway, and (spoiler) Ben Simmons. Among those four, Dončić and Hardaway are the only ones with listed heights of 6’7” or shorter.
It shouldn’t be possible for a player that couldn’t legally drink alcohol to lead a team toward the No. 1 offense in history. In a shortened season, the Mavs scored 115.8 points per 100 possessions – almost a full point above the 2019-20 Warriors, who thought the record wouldn’t be touched any time soon.
With Dončić on the floor, that figure ballooned to a 117.0 offensive rating. It was the highest in the league among all players with at least 20 minutes per game. For perspective on how ludicrous that is, only Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and Chris Paul have eclipsed that mark as leaders with their respective teams. Neither Harden or LeBron have finished seasons with that high of an offensive rating. In Curry’s case, the Warriors (with him on the floor) have surpassed 117 four different times with, two of which were above 120.
For Dončić to have this type of impact so early, along with a highly respectable winning percentage, he deserves the honor.
Moving to the center spot, this may be considered cheating. If it is, oh well.
Anthony Davis has played 62% of his minutes next to another traditional big (Dwight Howard or JaVale McGee) this season. Therefore, only 38% of his action is technically counted as “center” minutes.
Davis’s unwillingness to start games by guarding opposing centers is the only reason he’s viewed as a power forward. In most fourth quarters, Frank Vogel liked experimenting with Davis, James, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Danny Green, and one other guard. Davis played center during the stretches he needed to, and that’s why I’ll still classify him as one.
If The Brow is being grouped in the forwards, then he’s automatically a Second Team selection alongside Leonard. The consequence of that wouldn’t be felt until the Third Team choices are made, and you’ll see why that becomes a problem.
If he’s a center, then it hurts one of: Nikola Jokic, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert. Since this is the route I’m going with, prepare to see one of those names left off.
As for Davis’s candidacy here, it’s inarguable. His defensive tenacity never wavers, even if he’s behind both Antetokounmpo and Gobert in any Defensive Player of the Year conversations. This year, we’ve seen him switch onto perimeter players in emergency situations and give them trouble. No player on the Lakers has been more critical to their impressive defense than AD, and that includes lighting a fire under LeBron to keep him motivated defensively.
Additionally, his free throw rate is the highest of his eight-year career. When opposing bigs can’t handle him, they send him to the line. He doesn’t botch those opportunities, either. Davis has even started cashing more corner threes than ever before – he’s 17-of-39 (43.6%) in only 55 games this season. He had never come close to that volume and accuracy in New Orleans.
Now, the next five.
All-NBA Second Team
G – Damian Lillard, Blazers
G – Chris Paul, Thunder
F – Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
F – Khris Middleton, Bucks
C – Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Leonard, currently third on my MVP ballot, is the first name you write down in permanent ink. If the Clippers didn’t have their back-to-backs frontloaded in the schedule, he wouldn’t have missed as many games. Then, it would be easier to see LeBron landing here.
Nikola Jokic is the most logical Second Team center. After being named to the First Team last season and propelling the Nuggets to No. 2 in the West behind Golden State, he’s returned with a near-identical performance. Jokic didn’t miss a single game this year, was second in Offensive PIPM among all centers (behind Karl Towns), and Denver was on pace to finish with the exact record they did in 2018-19.
Zooming out, the biggest reason for Denver’s perception being lower this year is the emergence of the Clippers. Nothing has really changed from last season in terms of the Nuggets’ title aspirations. They are still on the outside looking in, but Jokic is the glue holding their offense together.
The most important service he provides is being the hub for all passing angles. Whether he’s claiming territory on the block, stationary at the elbow waiting for cutters, or gliding up the court in transition, he’s always showing his unselfish character. At times, it’s too unselfish. Passing 83.9 times per 36 minutes, no other center is sniffing his ball movement traits. The most-frequent passers behind him are Ben Simmons (72.7) and Domantas Sabonis (70.0).
Not every pass leads to an assist for Jokic. That’s because he doesn’t intend for them to. What’s neat about his style is that he passes to get teammates open in advantageous spots, which can lead to two or three more passes before a shot attempt. If you were to form a team of “All-NBA Court Vision,” nobody reads the entire floor better than LeBron, Jokic, Dončić, Trae Young, and CP3. Draymond Green might have a bone to pick, as well.
Jokic might be frustrating to fans when he doesn’t look assertive, but he’s largely consistent. Outside of Davis, he’s just the most rock solid big-man contributor on a nightly basis.
Joining Leonard and Jokic in the frontcourt is the toughest Second Team selection: Khris Middleton of the Bucks, a team winning 81.5% of their games before the shutdown.
I nearly pulled my hair out trying to decide between Middleton and Pascal Siakam. To me, those were the only two in strong consideration for this spot. Although Jayson Tatum’s fun winter explosion did leave us speechless for a while, All-NBA is a complete season recognition. For a longer stretch of the season, Siakam was a bit more outstanding as a first option and defensive monster than Tatum. The race between those two became extremely tight from early February to mid-March.
So, why Middleton?
Other than scoring 25.2 points per 36 minutes on elite accuracy (61.9% true shooting) and being Milwaukee’s primary creator when Antetokounmpo was off the floor, what else did he need to prove?
Forget the fact that his shooting splits are something Klay Thompson has never achieved – 54.7% from two, 41.8% on threes, and 90.8% at the line. The craziest part about Middleton’s age-28 season is how close his usage is to what we consider a superstar’s level. With a 26.2% usage rating this year, it’s very close to Siakam and Tatum’s individual usage … on teams that demand a lot from them.
Public perception of Middleton hasn’t fully matched what his value reads. He needs to start being included in the same breath as universally accepted top-20 players. Right now, in his prime, he is one.
For the crowd believing Middleton’s success is directly tied to the Greek Freak, consider this breakdown of minutes for Milwaukee:
- Middleton with Giannis: 987 minutes, 111.9 offensive rating, 94.8 defensive rating, plus-17.1 net
- Middleton without Giannis: 666 minutes, 112.4 offensive rating, 103.6 defensive rating, plus-8.8 net
Without the reigning MVP on the floor, Middleton’s usage climbs to 32.8% and his efficiency doesn’t tail off (60.2% true shooting). The Bucks still outscore teams by a league-leading margin when Middleton plays without Giannis. That’s just unbelievable considering how little attention he’s been given all season.
Does this mean Middleton would undeniably lead a 60-win team elsewhere? Those type of claims can’t be extracted from this year’s sample. Basketball will always be a team sport. This All-NBA recognition shouldn’t ignore that Mike Budenholzer and Brook Lopez also deserve tons of credit for what’s happening in Milwaukee. It’s hard to say whether or not Middleton would be producing the same staggering results with a different team makeup. But if you ask me to choose a side, I’d be quite optimistic because he can create separation and score better than 90% of NBA players in the mid-range.
Deciding on the backcourt honors for this Second Team shouldn’t cause agony. They are fairly easy.
Damian Lillard missed six straight games with a groin injury in late February and the Blazers won’t be a part of the 2020 playoffs if the season is over. He is the only lottery player involved in these All-NBA teams. But, good grief, it would be a criminal offense to punish him for anything that’s happened in Portland over the last two years.
Lillard and CP3 are both artists with different mediums.
Chris Paul will crush a team’s soul with his unrivaled anticipation in the halfcourt, pinpointing the weakside opponent’s next move before anyone else on Earth:
Paul will also be relentless in pick-and-roll, using countless dribbles to manipulate defenders towering over him. In the fourth quarter, he’ll force any switch he wants before delivering three consecutive pull-up jumpers from 18 feet. Each one will feel like a punch to the gut, until the opposing coach finally calls timeout and snaps his clipboard in half.
In “super clutch” time, or the last three minutes of a game when the score is within five, OKC has thrashed opponents by 33 points per 100 possessions. During those 97 total minutes, Paul has absorbed a 34% usage rating and paired it 53.3% shooting from inside the arc. Oh, and he’ll ensure a few trips to the foul line. Paul is 40-of-43 on free throws in that span.
Lillard’s artform shines through his supreme confidence. His off-the-dribble touch is too pure to be a human quality. If someone tells him he’s unable to hit a 32-footer with a defender breathing in his face, he’s trying it from 35 feet just because they doubted him.
In 80 games last season, Lillard attempted 50 three-pointers from 3o-feet extended. He made 16 of them (32%).
This year, in only 58 games? Lillard hoisted 114 shots from 30-plus feet … nailing 49 of them (43%). It includes heaves, too.
When the Warriors get back to their healthy lineup, the guard pool will feel impossible to narrow down for All-NBA teams.
This could be Paul’s final selection, though, so I guess this is perfect timing for him.
All-NBA Third Team
G – Kyle Lowry, Raptors
G – Ben Simmons, Sixers
F – Jayson Tatum, Celtics
F – Pascal Siakam, Raptors
C – Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Figuring out the final five spots is always the trickiest, but not so much this year.
By virtue of being considered for the Second Team, both Siakam and Tatum earn these forward honors.
The other wings who deserved a long examination were Jimmy Butler and Paul George.
Butler blew away his previous career-highs in assist percentage this year, as you could start to see Erik Spoelstra putting his imprint on Butler’s halfcourt reads and decision-making. Miami’s new long-term superstar also embraced more contact, increasing his free throw attempt rate to a monstrous level (9.5 per 36 minutes). At the same, his shooting has quietly abandoned him and, to me, the Heat’s post All-Star offensive success is more associated with Duncan Robinson and Bam Adebayo than Butler.
In any normal season, George would be penciled in for one of the six forward slots. Just one year ago, he was gifted a First Team selection even though I thought Durant surpassed him in March and April. Leaving him out of All-NBA goes back to the same explanation for his All-Star absence: He’s certainly worthy and still a top-10 player in the world, but he’s missed 22 games. By waiting until the 12th game of the season to make his debut, he already had ground to make up. The hamstring aggravations in January cost him the opportunity for these major awards. Next year, I have no doubt he’ll be rejoining the premier class.
After 2018-19, when Siakam was the obvious choice for Most Improved Player, I left him off my All-NBA Third Team. It was just causing too much damage to my brain trying to justify his placement over Blake Griffin or LeBron James, even with LeBron’s injury playing a huge factor.
Entering this year, I expected Siakam to be here. Not only was it easy to look at Griffin’s season and consider it fool’s gold because of his knee concerns. It also made a ton of sense to project Siakam’s second leap. What most viewers forget is how difficult it can be for a player to sustain – or exceed – their level of ascension after they get named Most Improved.
In no way should the initial surge from “bench mob contributor” to “second-best player on a title contender” be understated. What Siakam did last year in the regular season was the most surprising development I can recall. But one could argue the steps from summer 2019 to spring 2020 were a tougher task to complete and should be considered more impressive.
With the Raptors losing 26.7 shot attempts on a nightly basis when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green departed, they had to muster enough quality looks to replace them. For the second straight year, Siakam was required to step into a new role if the team wanted to succeed.
And Toronto did.
Only one team in the league can feel on cloud nine right now during this quarantine period. It’s not even the 53-12 Bucks. It’s the group of players and coaches who tried to warn the media from writing them off last July when their best player went to Hollywood. If we would have listened to them, we would have understood what the Siakam-led Raptors were capable of.
There is a funny note about how close Tatum and Siakam were offensively this season:
- Tatum: 23.6 points per game, 18.9 shots per game, 56.2% true shooting, 2.56 O-PIPM
- Siakam: 23.6 points per game, 18.9 shots per game, 55.9% true shooting, 1.83 O-PIPM
In the backcourt, Kyle Lowry and Ben Simmons stood out as having the most complete individual seasons.
Russell Westbrook was very close to taking this spot from Simmons due to his mind-blowing stretch from the start of January through the end of February. Among the six guards in the mix for All-NBA (including Kemba Walker), Westbrook was last in total win shares accrued, win shares per minute, BPM, and PIPM. For the entire season sample, he’s still the least efficient of the six. The postponement likely hurt him the most because he still had a chunk of games to leave an impression.
Lowry’s numbers won’t knock your socks off this year. Or any year, for that matter. Still, what he proves to be every time he throws on his jersey is a selfless leader. He doesn’t mind taking a backseat to anyone, as long as the process is conducive to winning.
His accuracy while shooting off the catch has dipped this year, but he’s making up for it by showing more aggression in transition. Lowry took 2.6 pull-up threes (off-the-dribble) during the 2018-19 season and only hit 29.2%, one of his lowest career marks. This year, with less spacing, he’s taking 4.3 pull-up treys per game. He’s back to 34.5% – still not his greatest, but defenders treat him with proper respect.
It feels wrong to snub Walker, who was having a fantastic offensive year before his knee soreness started to creep in. Because of the subjectivity that’s inevitable with these exercises, it’s not hard to tell how much I value a player’s defensive contributions.
By that token, it’s not close between the Walker-Westbrook and Lowry-Simmons combinations. Each player has their own worthy case, but I picked the ones that I’m comfortable would make the fewest mistakes.
One center spot is open.
It’s down to either Joel Embiid or Rudy Gobert.
I don’t feel great about it. Actually, it has part of me feeling ashamed for some weird reason. I’m still on the verge of being sick after forcing myself to choose.
Ultimately, Gobert gets the very, very slight nod.
It’s definitely worth pointing out and laying this on the table: Embiid is the superior player in a vacuum. In fact, he’s the most gifted and versatile two-way center the league has featured since Shaquille O’Neal or Hakeem Olajuwon. Embiid is an offensive machine that only Karl Towns can match in today’s game, but he also couples it with phenomenal defensive instincts and effort.
Gobert is in a different category as a player. His presence isn’t felt as a low-post bruiser or an off-the-dribble threat with a solid pick-and-pop touch. Instead, he’s a superstar in his own role – one that requires him to be the most effective screen-setter in the league, a hyper-efficient lob catcher that creates open space for his teammates by absorbing weakside bodies, and the most dependable rim-protector in basketball.
Building a team from scratch, you would rather have Embiid seven days a week. But with the right environment, Gobert does just as much damage in his own way.
In regards to this year’s All-NBA Third Team, choosing Embiid over Gobert would be a full contradiction of how I separated Leonard and James in the first two teams. Availability has to factor in at some point. With a gap of over 800 minutes and 18 games being the reality, there is no way Gobert can be left off.
Again, as you can see below, Embiid’s usage doubles Gobert’s because he’s the more capable offensive big. Still, it needs to be understood that Gobert was the best player on a team in West homecourt position:
Also being forgotten during this layoff is just how magnificent Gobert continued to be as a paint enforcer. Out of all 41 players to contest at least 250 rim attempts this season, Gobert’s 50.4% allowed ranked fourth overall. Oh, and he defended at least 130 more shots than the players above him.
Utah’s defensive issues this season could be attributed to multiple players, including Gobert in a few games when his motivated wavered. However, he is still (overwhelmingly) the main reason they would be hosting a first-round series is the 2020 playoffs happen.
Embiid’s hand injury cost him and the Sixers some regular season success, but they will gladly accept it if they’re able to return 100% healthy for a potential summer playoff run.