This is an NBA award season unlike any other. On top of that, the league has loosened positional designations, allowing voters more flexibility in crafting ballots.
With MVP, Rookie of the Year and the other major awards covered last week, let’s look at the five-man teams.
• There are eight first-team candidates: the five on my team, plus Doncic, Jokic, and Lillard. The NBA has gone wild on positional flexibility, making LeBron eligible at guard and going so far as to make Jokic eligible at forward (what?).
Before this became clear, everyone assumed the first team would be Doncic and Harden at guard; LeBron and Antetokounmpo at forward; and a pick ’em between Davis and Jokic. Leonard would have been relegated to second team.
I had Leonard ahead of Doncic on my MVP ballot. Right now, he’s a better two-way player. The gap in games and minutes is not big enough in Doncic’s favor — three games, 150-ish minutes — to flip them. Designating LeBron a guard gives me my preferred first team. I can’t quibble with those who prefer Doncic to Leonard. He was sensational.
• Second team was pretty easy. Paul has a shockingly airtight case considering he averaged eight or 10 points fewer than most candidates. The advanced stats for Paul and Butler are overwhelming — way above Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Bradley Beal, Trae Young, Kyle Lowry, and, yes, Russell Westbrook.
Those numbers capture Paul’s value as an off-ball shooting threat and ace defender. He was the league’s best crunch-time player, and it was not close. He shot a preposterous 46-of-86 in the last five minutes of close games, and the Thunder were an uber-preposterous plus-109 in 160 such minutes with Paul on the floor.
The Thunder were elite with Paul and abysmal when he sat.
• Butler’s jumper fell apart, but every other part of his game sang: seven boards, six dimes, and nine free throws per game, plus stellar defense. He can blend into a broader offensive system as a shoulder-checking cutter, and supersede that system when the situation requires. He was more consistent from October to March than Tatum.
• Lowry, Westbrook, and Booker were my three toughest guard omissions. Lowry’s raw numbers don’t stand out, but he does winning things every second he is on the floor. The Raptors in the wake of Leonard’s departure took on Lowry’s on-court personality: fast, unselfish, hyper-alert.
• There are different kinds of losing seasons. The Hawks (20-47) and Wizards (24-40) were never playing for anything, and everyone involved understood that from Day 1. That knowledge can’t help but affect everyone’s play. Young is an incredible offensive talent — already one of the league’s best passers — but he won’t help his team win as much as his raw numbers suggest until he tries on defense.
Beal slipped on that end, too. He’d probably admit that. If given the choice between Beal/Young and two-way wings on good teams, I’m going with the latter for All-NBA every time.
• As for Lillard: There is a difference between Portland’s 29-37 season and what the Hawks and Wizards did. Portland was coming off six straight postseason appearances and a run to the conference finals. They had high expectations — way too high. Their games mattered. They had real stakes.
Also, 29-37 in the West is an entirely different animal than 24-40 in the junior varsity — especially given how injuries decimated Portland’s roster. Lillard almost single-handedly kept them afloat for parts of January and February. Portland somehow outscored opponents with Lillard on the floor. He’s not a plus defender, but he fights.
• Booker’s Suns reside somewhere between the Wiz/Hawks and Blazers, and they (barely) outscored opponents with Booker on the floor. (They could not score at all when he sat.) He put up 26 points and almost seven dimes per game on 49% shooting. If you think he’s a losing player, I will happily buy up all your Devin Booker stock. He’s a little ahead of Mitchell (24 and 4 on 45% shooting, stouter on defense — though not by as much as conventional wisdom suggests) on this ballot.
• Tatum finished at 23.5 points per game on 45% shooting, including 40% from deep. He beefed up those numbers with his wintertime superstar leap, but you don’t end up at 23.5 points with two months of work. I’d rather have a player’s season trend up than down. Tatum is one of the league’s best wing defenders, and a plus-minus god.
• Simmons needs a little more love. He’s gotten a lot for his defense, but a 16-8-8 line is pretty damned pleasing in traditional terms. Few players were more reliable.
• Westbrook’s 27-8-7 line is bonkers. He averaged 32 points per game on 54% shooting after Jan. 1. Unlike Simmons, Westbrook actually takes jumpers. He gets hot from midrange sometimes!
Westbrook made a case. Advanced numbers don’t further it. They put him neck-and-neck with the Booker/Lowry/Beal/Mitchell tier — a tick below Tatum and Simmons, and well behind Paul and Butler. Advanced numbers aren’t the be-all, end-all. Some have problems under the hood. But when they all scream the same thing, something is up.
For Westbrook, I suspect they are capturing the challenges of a perimeter player who cannot shoot 3s, like, at all, and isn’t helping on defense. That matches the eye test. (He also hit a blah 51.8% on 2s compared to 58.5% for Simmons, and that is not only because Westbrook dares jump shots. Simmons hit 72% at the rim, one of the best marks in the league. Westbrook hit a nice but not spectacular 64%.)
Houston’s frenetic pace and team design — everyone stand around while these two dudes do everything — inflate Westbrook’s numbers a little.
Let me say it loudly: Westbrook was good, and then spectacular for two months. He will make lots of ballots, and that’s fine. He barely misses here.
• Ditto for Brandon Ingram. Siakam and Middleton bring a little more all-court impact. Middleton matched Ingram in assists, and came within a whisker of a 50-40-90 shooting season.
I thought about axing Middleton, moving Tatum to forward, and opening a spot for Booker/Lowry/Westbrook. I couldn’t find enough reason to do so. Middleton is deserving.
• The last center spot came down to Gobert, Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid, and Domantas Sabonis. Gobert is becoming underrated. He’s not super-fun to watch, and the league is trending away from his player type.
But he stands as the apex of that player type. Gobert is a generational defender, and he had to prop up a roster that now tilts way toward offense. He averaged almost 16 points and ranks as one of the league’s best offensive rebounders.
Adebayo is coming for this spot. (I had him ahead of Sabonis.) He can do more on offense than Gobert — mostly as a distributor. But he’s still finding his way as a scorer. He can’t scoot past centers in the half court as easily as you’d expect; he often burrows into them, and lofts off-balance floaters. The gap between Gobert and Adebayo on defense