With his first season as a member of the Los Angeles Lakers already over, LeBron James has some downtime coming for the first time in 14 years. His plans are already set—no to suiting up for Team USA in the 2019 FIBA World Cup, yes to filming Space Jam 2, and no to growing accustomed to the exceedingly unfamiliar feeling of failure.
“I like being uncomfortable in the offseason,” James recently told Joe Vardon of The Athletic. “I like being counted out. It motivates me.”
James might not have to wait too long for some extra motivation. After 14 consecutive selections to one of the three All-NBA teams—including 11 straight first-team berths—LeBron finds himself in danger of failing to make the year-end list for the first time since his rookie season, all the way back in 2003-04.
Each All-NBA team has five spots: one for a center, two for guards, and two for forwards. Three All-NBA teams with two forward spots apiece means six slots for forwards. For a decade and a half, James has been a no-brainer choice for one of those top six spots. But this wasn’t a normal year, and this time, James is no sure thing. Let’s take a spin through his chief competition, starting with …
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks: When you occupy one of the top two slots on everybody’s hypothetical MVP ballot, you’re probably a safe bet to land one of the six All-NBA forward spots. Antetokounmpo ranks in the top 10 in the NBA in [deep inhale] made field goals, made free throws, points (per game and total), rebounds (same deal), player efficiency rating, win shares, value over replacement player, player impact estimate, box plus-minus, player impact plus-minus, and real plus-minus. (Whew.)
The Greek Freak could become the first player to average 27 points, 12 rebounds, and six assists per game since Oscar Robertson did it 57 years ago, and the first to win both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year since Hakeem Olajuwon did it 25 years ago. He’s doing it all while leading Milwaukee to the NBA’s best record and home-court advantage throughout the 2019 playoffs. Locks don’t get much lockier than this.
Paul George, Thunder: Oklahoma City has had a really rough go of it over the past month, thanks in part to a pair of shoulder injuries that have affected George’s shooting accuracy and tanked the Thunder offense. (OKC is 28th in a 30-team league in points scored per possession since the All-Star break. Woof.) Still, George is averaging a career-high 28.2 points, 8.2 rebounds, 4.1 assists, and 2.1 steals per game, all while making more 3-pointers than anybody but James Harden and Stephen Curry, and guarding the opposition’s most dangerous scoring threat every night for the NBA’s no. 4 defense. Even if George hasn’t been able to quite keep it up for the full 82, maintaining a level he’d never reached until now for the first 70 percent of the season ought to be more than enough to earn the 28-year-old his fifth All-NBA nod.
Kevin Durant, Warriors: You look at the numbers and see that Durant is shooting 34.9 percent from 3-point range—his lowest mark since his rookie run in Seattle, shockingly below league average from deep—and you remember how Golden State struggled when Curry was hurt and Durant had to run the show early in the season, and it kind of feels like KD is having a down year. And then you look at the rest of his numbers—26.6 points, 6.6 rebounds, and a career-high 5.8 assists per game; the third-highest true shooting percentage of any player with a usage rate north of 25 percent, even with the long-range drop-off—and you remember that he’s logged the most minutes on a sometimes banged-up but elite roster and has been the team’s most consistent contributor. We’ve noticed George’s season because he’s never been this good; we run the risk of overlooking Durant’s season because he’s seemingly always this good. But we shouldn’t, and come All-NBA voting time, I suspect we won’t.
James won’t finish above those three players. After them, though? Well, your mileage may vary.
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors: Leonard is an interesting one in this discussion. His season-long “load management” plan has limited him to just one more game than James played before being shut down (though the gap should grow over the season’s final two weeks). Their per-minute and per-possession numbers are remarkably similar, with LeBron holding significant edges in the playmaking categories (assists, assists per game, assist percentage) while Kawhi boasts markedly better shooting efficiency numbers and, even in not-fully-unleashed-since-his-quad-injury form, remains the clearly superior defensive player. All else being (relatively) equal, though, you’d imagine that Leonard, who has provided elite play when available for an elite team that has won 68 percent of the games in which he has appeared, would get an edge over a player on a lottery-bound team. (Even if, in fairness, the crazy-deep Raptors have won 78 percent of their games when Leonard has sat.)
Blake Griffin, Pistons: The Detroit star ranks among the league’s top six forwards in scoring, assists, BPM, and VORP, and just outside the top six in win shares and RPM wins, two stats that aim to credit individual players for their contributions to team success. There’s no question about how much Griffin has mattered to the Pistons’ success; they’re 1-4 in the five games he’s missed, and their offense scores eight fewer points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench. Fully healthy for the first time in five seasons, Griffin has become one of the sport’s most balanced and dangerous offensive players, comfortable carving up defenses in the post, facing up on the wing, stretching the floor from beyond the 3-point arc, and working as either the screener or ball handler in pick-and-roll sets. He doesn’t dunk as much as he used to, but he’s better than he’s ever been, and he’s got the Pistons on the verge of only their second playoff trip in the last decade.
LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs: Like Anthony Davis—who merits consideration for a top-six spot based on a variety of statistical measures, but whose consideration ends promptly once you consult the broader context of the NBA world—Aldridge presents the nettlesome question of whether he’s actually still a power forward. According to Basketball-Reference.com’s play-by-play data, he’s played 95 percent of his minutes at center; according to the lineup numbers at Cleaning the Glass, it’s closer to 83 percent.
If he’s eligible at forward, though—as he was last year, when he made the second team—Aldridge will deserve a long look for helping keep the Spurs afloat during an often-tumultuous season. Along with DeMar DeRozan, he’s been the key figure in the NBA’s fifth-ranked offense, averaging 21.3 points, 9.1 rebounds, and 2.5 assists per game on career-best 51.5 percent shooting from the field. Aldridge remains the league’s reigning left-block landlord: His 666 post-up possessions are more than all but five other whole teams have used this season, and he’s still one of the most effective scorers in the game on such plays. As has been the case for 13 years, what Aldridge lacks in style he makes up for with substance; without him as a reliable source of buckets, San Antonio might not be headed for its 22nd consecutive playoff appearance.
Pascal Siakam, Raptors: We’ve written about Siakam a lot this season; when a player improves from “nice rotation piece” to “potential superstar in the making,” it tends to grab your attention. He’s the second-leading scorer on the team with the second-best record in the NBA—a team he leads in minutes by a considerable amount, and one on which he’s been a stabilizing presence with Leonard and Kyle Lowry both in and out of the lineup. He’s an ascendant offensive initiator and an advancing shooter (especially from the corners) who can credibly guard all five positions. Advanced stats like win shares, RPM, BPM, VORP, and PIPM all love him. I wouldn’t bet on Siakam here; this feels like The Year Before The Year that a breakout player gets recognized. Some voters will make the case, though. And it won’t be half bad.
Danilo Gallinari, Clippers: A lot of people—myself included—thought the Clippers had signaled an intent to forgo the playoff race when they sent Tobias Harris to the Sixers. We were extremely wrong, and while there’s plenty of credit to go around for that—from Doc Rivers, to Lou Williams, to Lawrence Frank’s front office—a lot of it belongs to the 30-year-old Italian, who is having one of the most overlooked great seasons in the league. Gallinari is averaging 19.8 points and 6.2 rebounds on 46.3 percent shooting, all career highs, while drilling 43.4 percent of his 3-pointers and 90.5 percent of his free throws. He’s been a Moreyball beast—the only two players with free throw and 3-point attempt rates north of 40 percent, and a true shooting percentage of .600 or better, are Harden and Gallinari—and Gallo turns the ball over on just 8.6 percent of his offensive plays, one of the lowest rates of any player with a comparable usage rate. His contributions might continue to fly under the radar among voters who see the Clips more as an egoless depth monster than one powered by All-NBA-caliber play, but if they finish with 50 wins and the West’s no. 5 seed, a closer look might reveal just how good Gallinari has been.
Jimmy Butler, 76ers: With the exception of a drop-off in 3-point shooting, Butler has continued to produce at an elite level in Philly. The Sixers are 35-18 with Butler in the lineup, and have had the point differential of a 58-win team with him on the floor and a 37-win team when he’s off it, according to Cleaning the Glass. He grades out well in multiple all-in-one advanced stats, and has had several signature moments as Philadelphia’s late-game closer. The 29-year-old swingman probably dug himself too deep a hole for year-end award consideration with how he set fire to the house in Minnesota, there have been some predictable rough patches in his integration with the Sixers, and he hasn’t been quite as good a defender as advertised. But he’s had a defined impact on Philly’s bottom line and place in the standings, which could convince some voters to let early-season bygones be bygones.
OK, so: Where does that leave us?
The Case for LeBron
Well, for starters, you’d be within your rights to argue that James is just flat-out better than nearly all of the players I just mentioned, and that—even in the context of the Lakers’ season-long struggles and all the time he missed due to injury—he had a better and more productive season than anyone besides Giannis, PG, and KD.
James averaged 27.4 points, 8.5 rebounds, and 8.3 assists per game, numbers only four other players in NBA history have reached over a full season. All those advanced numbers I ticked off above? LeBron is in the top five among forwards in nearly all of them. The Lakers went 28-27 in LeBron’s 55 games and are 7-15 without him; they outscored opponents by 2.1 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and have been outscored by 5.8 points-per-100 when he isn’t available. You might want to ding James for very evidently not giving 100 percent on defense, even before his injury, and for not being able to carry the team into the playoffs by himself. But you could still reasonably argue that LeBron, even at something less than full steam, produced like one of the half-dozen best forwards in the NBA when he was on the court.
On top of that: While missing a third of the season certainly won’t help his case, it’s not unprecedented for a player to make All-NBA with such a low total. Not including the lockout-shortened 1998-99 and 2011-12 seasons, a player has earned an All-NBA spot despite playing in 55 or fewer games 16 times. It hasn’t happened much lately—only five of those 55-and-under selections have come since 2000—but it has happened, which could embolden voters to go with their gut and give James the nod even in a disappointing season.
The Case Against LeBron
A lot of it comes down to the record. In those five instances since 2000 in which a player suited up 55 or fewer times and still made All-NBA, each time the player was on a team that finished over .500 and made the playoffs: Chris Webber with the 2001-02 Sacramento Kings, Yao Ming on the 2006-07 and 2007-08 Houston Rockets, Dwyane Wade on the 2006-07 Miami Heat, and Stephen Curry on the 2017-18 Golden State Warriors.
Which is to say: In a full 82-game NBA season, no player in this century has played this few games on a team this bad and still made All-NBA. The last players to pull it off: Bernard King in 1985, who led the league in scoring for a terrible Knicks team before suffering a torn ACL late in the season, and Pete Maravich in 1978, who averaged 27 points per game (which would’ve been third in the league if he’d played enough minutes to qualify) to get the then–New Orleans Jazz within two games of a postseason berth. The Lakers sit nine games behind eighth-seeded Oklahoma City.
So, it wouldn’t be unprecedented for James to secure a spot despite missing so many games and his team missing out on both the .500 mark and the postseason. But it would be historically rare, and perhaps an awfully tough pick to justify when there’s so much deserving competition among players who played significantly more games and minutes, whose teams were much better than L.A., or both.
My guess: LeBron lands on the third team alongside Griffin, just edging out Aldridge. The possibility that he won’t, though, is real, and that’s stunning. Or, at least, it would be, if this season hadn’t already brought LeBron and the rest of us so many things that we weren’t expecting.