Shortly after the NBA suspended its season in March, I named the players I’d pick for the league’s year-end individual trophies. “I don’t have a ballot for the NBA’s year-end awards,” I wrote. “If I did, though—and if we had to vote based on the roughly 80 percent of the season that we actually got to see—here’s how I’d have filled it out.”
Well, a couple of funny things happened during the past four months. (“Funny,” of course, being relative these days.) For one, the NBA did instruct its voting body to cast ballots based solely on performance prior to the March 11 shutdown, without considering the “seeding games” that tip off this week. For another: The league office actually did give me a ballot for the first time in my career, which is kind of awesome, and kind of terrifying.
You can read my picks for Most Valuable Player, Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year, and Coach of the Year, and the rationales behind them all, here. In addition to the individual awards, though, getting a real ballot means dishing out team hardware, too—All-NBA, All-Defensive, and All-Rookie. So, without further ado ...
C: Anthony Davis, Lakers
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G: LeBron James, Lakers
G: James Harden, Rockets
Right off the bat, I’m confronted by an issue. When making your selections, the league presents this mandate: “Please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly.” But in the post-positional revolution NBA, how exactly are you supposed to determine that?
Take the King, for example. According to Basketball-Reference, LeBron spent 57 percent of his floor time this season playing point guard; as a result, the site lists that as his position. By Cleaning the Glass’s reckoning, though, James (classified there more amorphously as a wing) played 85 percent of his possessions as a small forward, flanked by a nominal point like Avery Bradley, Rajon Rondo, or Alex Caruso. And if, as the old coaching adage goes, you are what you guard, well, according to defensive versatility metrics compiled by Krishna Narsu and Andrew Patton of The BBall Index, LeBron defended small forwards more frequently than any other position; the analysis pegs James’s average defensive matchup at 2.9—just this side of the traditional backcourt/frontcourt divide.
After spending some time driving myself nuts about the relative ethics of taking someone I might believe in my heart of hearts is a forward and labeling them a guard on my ballot, or vice versa, I eventually decided to try something new for me: chilling the hell out for, like, a second.
As many basketball pundits (including the one who runs this website) have said before, the All-NBA teams are fundamentally intended to identify the best five, 10, and 15 players in any given season. And if the NBA’s going to allow us to embrace the fluidity of the modern game by making multiple players eligible at multiple spots, and I can use that freedom to try to make my ballot look as close as possible to who I actually thought were the best players in the league this season ... well, I might as well take advantage. So I’m putting LeBron in the backcourt, despite all that small-forward-related evidence, and putting Anthony Davis at center, despite Davis spending most of this season alongside either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard. That allows me to get my full five-man MVP ballot onto the first team.
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
F: Jimmy Butler, Heat
F: Luka Doncic, Mavericks
G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
G: Chris Paul, Thunder
My second team started with my final two cuts from the MVP ballot: Doncic and Jokic. Doncic took a gigantic leap in his second season as the preternaturally gifted pick-and-roll pilot of the NBA’s most devastating offense. Jokic powered through a sluggish start to deliver a lights-out final 50 games—21.3 points on scorching .624 true shooting to go with 10.3 rebounds, 7.1 assists, and 1.2 steals in 32.7 minutes per game—to pace a 43-22 Denver team that will resume play just 1.5 games behind the Clippers for the no. 2 seed out West.
I quickly tabbed Lillard for one second team guard spot. While the Blazers stumbled to a 29-37 mark due to a raft of frontcourt injuries, Dame remained a metronomic monster of production, posting career highs in scoring (28.9 points per game, fifth in the league) and assists (7.8 per game, sixth) while shooting 39.4 percent from 3-point range on just under 10 tries a night. He almost single-handedly carried Portland to the NBA’s no. 8 offense and within hailing distance of a playoff berth; the Blazers scored 10.2 fewer points per 100 possessions when he was on the bench, among the largest offensive on-court/off-court swings of any big-minutes player.
One of the few players with an even larger swing? Paul, who got the ball back in his hands after a two-season timeshare in Houston, and who responded with a brilliant bounceback campaign in which he consistently served as the league’s most dominant crunch-time performer—no mean feat for a 6-foot-1 35-year-old.
Even those who thought the post–Russell Westbrook and Paul George Thunder had a chance to be a playoff contender likely didn’t see them fighting for a top seed in the brutal West. There’s plenty of credit to go around—to rising star Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, to ace reserve Dennis Schröder, to coach Billy Donovan—but the lion’s share rests with Paul. His counting stats don’t necessarily scream off the page (17.7 points, 6.8 assists, 4.9 rebounds, and 1.6 steals in 31.8 minutes per game) but his advanced impact numbers do: sixth in player-impact plus-minus and ESPN’s real plus-minus, tied for ninth in win shares and 10th in value over replacement player, and 12th in box plus-minus. Oklahoma City outscored opponents by 6.7 points-per-100 with CP3 on the floor and got outscored by 6.7 points-per-100 with him off of it—essentially the difference between the competency levels of the Celtics and the Knicks. Which is, y’know, one hell of a difference, and worthy of a second-team slot.
Butler, too, fares well in the advanced metrics discussion—top 10 in win shares, BPM, and VORP; 12th in player efficiency rating; 16th in both PIPM and NBA.com’s player impact estimate—and has been a made-to-order fit for a Miami team that needed a snarling star to unlock a talented young roster. Despite his jumper all but abandoning him—he shot just 34.3 percent outside the restricted area this season—Jimmy has remained an effective source of offense, thanks to his ability to bull rush his way to the foul line (an absurd .679 free throw rate, fourth highest in the league and tops by a mile among non-big men) and a career-best 6.1 assists per game. He impacted the Heat from the moment he arrived, helping Erik Spoelstra turn Miami into a legit force for the first time since LeBron left town. (And since he and Doncic are both eligible at forward, I again erred on the side of “get the 10 best dudes in the league this season in the first two teams,” and slotted four just-on-the-outskirts-of-the-MVP-ballot-level playmakers alongside Jokic.)
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors
F: Khris Middleton, Bucks
G: Ben Simmons, 76ers
G: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
Third-team center came down to Gobert, Joel Embiid, and Bam Adebayo. In a vacuum, and when fully healthy, I’d take Embiid over the other two—and, honestly, over just about anybody else in the league. But injuries once again limited the big fella’s availability; Adebayo played in 21 more games than Embiid and logged 906 more minutes, while Gobert played 18 more games and 813 more minutes than the Sixer. When Embiid did play, Philly’s season-long struggles to space the floor—and Embiid’s own midseason struggle to figure out how to be “a good asshole” on the court—seemed to sap his effectiveness. That Embiid could seem only sort of halfway there for two-thirds of the season and still put up 23 and 12 every night is indicative of just how talented he is; in a characteristically dysfunctional and sort of disappointing Sixers season, though, he falls just out of the top three at his position.
Adebayo was a revelation in Miami this season—an athletic marvel who can guard in space and muscle up in the post, run the break in transition and sky for lobs in the pick-and-roll, and serve as a half-court offensive hub slinging passes from the high post. (Among big men, only Jokic assisted on a higher share of his teammates’ buckets than 23-year-old Bam.) His leap to a well-deserved first All-Star selection has nearly as much to do with Miami’s rise as Butler’s arrival; how he fares on both ends in his first taste of major postseason minutes could go a long way toward determining how the Heat fare at Disney. In the end, though, I opted for Gobert, who—even in something of a down year, by his two-time Defensive Player of the Year standards—remains arguably the league’s most fearsome interior deterrent, and its leader in defensive real plus-minus for the fourth consecutive season.
Long built around a stifling defense and just enough offense to get by, Utah intentionally shifted its equilibrium this season, bringing in Mike Conley and Bojan Bogdanovic to ramp up the firepower, and asking Gobert to put out any additional fires on the other end. The Jazz ranked 10th in defensive efficiency when the season was suspended, their lowest mark since 2014-15—the season before Gobert became a full-time starter—but clamped down at a rate that would’ve fallen just outside the top five in the Frenchman’s minutes. Combine that with his underrated if somewhat unfashionable offense—15.1 points per game on 70 percent shooting, a top-20 offensive rebounding rate, and yes, more of those much-derided “screen assists” than anybody not named Domantas Sabonis—and Gobert gets the edge here.
Simmons might be a power forward now, but he takes one of the third-team guard spots after turning in Defensive Player of the Year–caliber work across four (and sometimes five) positions while also averaging a shade under 17-8-8 on 58.5 percent shooting. Middleton deserves a spot, shadow of Giannis be damned: He put up 21-6-4 in just 30 minutes per game, ably defends four positions in the league’s no. 1 defense, literally came within one missed shot of a 50-40-90 season—he finished 424-for-850 from the field, and 425 would’ve gotten him to an even .500 field goal percentage—and was a focal point when Antetokounmpo rested, averaging 31.4 points per 36 minutes on 60.2 percent true shooting.
Tatum rocketed into stardom in the final 20 or so games, but he was arguably the Celtics’ best player even before that. He was the through line in Boston’s best lineups, whether anchoring reserve-heavy groups without Kemba Walker or Gordon Hayward early in the season or stepping into the spotlight later as the clear no. 1 option. His ongoing improvement on the defensive end—perceived by many as his weak point coming out of Duke—has made him a linchpin of a Boston unit that ranks fourth in points allowed per possession, and he is one of the league’s most versatile perimeter stoppers. And since the NBA’s allowing us to put him at guard, that leaves the final forward spot for Siakam, who used his max extension as a springboard into life as a max player, the top scoring threat on the defending NBA champions, and the sort of offensive fulcrum that could help the Raptors not only survive the loss of Finals MVP Leonard, but thrive in his absence. Three years ago, this dude averaged 4.2 points per game and had twice as many turnovers as assists. Now, he’s putting up 23.6 points and 3.6 dimes a game as the central finisher on the no. 2 seed in the East.
Apologies to: Sabonis, who was sensational in propelling the mostly Victor Oladipo–less Pacers; Brandon Ingram, who was dynamite as a no. 1 option before the arrival of Zion Williamson and started to fit in well as a complementary scorer after the rookie’s emergence; Kyle Lowry, who’s had one hell of a victory-lap season and almost certainly would’ve slid into a guard spot if the league were more rigid about positionality in voting; Russell Westbrook, who was good for most of the year and great toward the end of it, but whose defensive failings and lagging advanced statistical profile does him in; Bradley Beal and Trae Young, whose phenomenal individual offensive output couldn’t overcome how bad they were defensively, how bad their teams were overall, and how good their competition was; and Devin Booker, who remained a flamethrower while continuing to grow his game in a more stable context.
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Anthony Davis, Lakers
G: Ben Simmons, 76ers
G: Kris Dunn, Bulls
My top three vote-getters for Defensive Player of the Year—Antetokounmpo, Davis, and Simmons—all get first-team spots. In the lawlessness of the nearly positionless voting process, I get to move Davis back to his more appropriate forward spot to make room in the middle for Gobert, who defended more shots than anybody else this season and held opponents to just 40.2 percent shooting when he was within 6 feet, third best in the league behind Giannis and AD.
For the final guard spot, I went with Dunn, a player I would not blame you for not having watched too much this season. The fifth pick in the 2016 draft, Dunn responded to essentially being passed on by two flagging franchises—the Wolves, who moved on from him in the Jimmy Butler deal, and his current one, the Bulls, who were unimpressed enough by his work that they signed Tomas Satoransky and drafted Coby White last summer—by deciding he was going to double down on the skills that made him a two-time Big East Defensive Player of the Year at Providence, and make his bones in the league as a stopper. And man, did he ever:
Before being sidelined by a sprained MCL in early February, Dunn cemented himself as a havoc-wreaker at the point of attack. He ranked fourth in the league in deflections per game, second in steals per game, and led the league in steal percentage, notching a theft on 3.8 percent of opponents’ offensive possessions; that’s the highest mark any player has managed since Tony Allen ripped 4.1 percent of opponents’ plays back in 2014-15. (Remind me again what the Grindfather liked to yell after he made a play?)
C: Brook Lopez, Bucks
F: Bam Adebayo, Heat
F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G: Marcus Smart, Celtics
G: Jimmy Butler, Heat
Leonard lands on the second team because, even though I could put him in at guard, it seems more appropriate to slot him into the frontcourt, where he spent the bulk of his time. It seemed like once Leonard got his legs under him this season—and after Paul George got healthy, putting less of an onus on Kawhi to be a high-volume passer and playmaker—the intensity and overall menace of his defense picked up. His steal and block percentages still trail well behind their peak levels from his pre-injury, near-MVP turn in San Antonio, but most offenses still want absolutely nothing to do with a healthy Kawhi. The Clippers allowed 4.7 fewer points-per-100 in Leonard’s minutes, preventing points at a rate that only the league-leading Bucks surpassed over the full season.
Milwaukee did so in large part due to its historically excellent rim protection, with Brook Lopez at the center of Mike Budenholzer’s suffocating scheme. Brook defended the fifth-most shots at the basket in the league this season, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data, and held opponents to just 46.9 percent shooting, the fourth-stingiest mark among players to defend at least 100 such attempts. (Two of the top three: Fellow Bucks Giannis and Brook’s twin brother, Robin Lopez. Again: This is kind of Milwaukee’s thing.)
Leonard and Lopez are joined up front by Adebayo, who’s slotted here as a forward. Opponents don’t often try to outmuscle Bam down low, and when they do, they don’t fare too well; they shot just 10-for-32 against him in the post this season, according to Synergy Sports. He was equally stingy when drawn out into deep water, facing the fourth-most isolation attempts in the league and holding opponents to just 31 percent shooting. There aren’t many players in the league who can credibly be called great options for snuffing out elite talents at any position anywhere on the half court, but Bam might be one of them.
Adebayo’s teammate Butler gets a nod in the backcourt for his constant tenacity and steady effectiveness. The Heat played a lot of ball this season with questionable defenders on the court—Kelly Olynyk, Kendrick Nunn, Tyler Herro, Goran Dragic, Duncan Robinson—and were able to pull it off in large part because of Adebayo’s all-around talents and Butler’s ability to slide across four positions in a pinch, disrupting an offense with length, strength, and smarts. Rounding out the second five: Smart, everybody’s favorite “stretch 6.” Checking out Smart’s most frequent defensive assignments this season is a true delight: elite big wings (Kawhi, Giannis), huge stretch 4s (Kevin Love), slinky pick-and-roll maestros (Spencer Dinwiddie, D’Angelo Russell), hard-charging scoring 2s (Booker, Zach LaVine), bruising drivers (Simmons, RJ Barrett), and an off-ball marathoner (Buddy Hield). Smart is the beating heart of Boston’s no. 4 defense—the wild card Brad Stevens can confidently play against just about any kind of threat.
Apologies to: Virtually every Raptor, because Toronto has been sensational as a team on defense this season, but I couldn’t find a spot for any individual piece that I liked (although OG Anunoby is awfully close); Boston’s Tatum and Jaylen Brown, one of the sturdiest wing tandems in the league this season; Houston’s P.J. Tucker and Robert Covington, who might just make Houston’s decision to go Lilliputian at the trade deadline stand up in the playoffs; Eric Bledsoe, a vital cog as the point-of-attack defender and rearview-contesting source of pressure in the Bucks’ scheme; CP3, who’s still a panic-inducing ball hawk and perpetual pest on the weak side of the Thunder defense; Jonathan Isaac and Matisse Thybulle, two natural-born possession-ruiners who will be lifers on these teams if they can stay healthy and shoot well enough to log the minutes.
Ja Morant, Grizzlies
Zion Williamson, Pelicans
Brandon Clarke, Grizzlies
Terence Davis, Raptors
Kendrick Nunn, Heat
Our long strange trip through the form and function of positionality reaches its peak on the All-Rookie ballot, where you can just pick any five dudes. (My sympathies to the centers sure to be marginalized by this movement; you deserved better, Daniel Gafford.)
I briefly considered sticking to the deep-seated principles that led me to not include Zion on my Rookie of the Year ballot—the whole “he only played 19 games and 565 minutes” thing—but then I reconsidered. If the framing here is less “who was the most productive rookie over the totality of the season” and more “who were the five best dudes,” then leaving Zion off this list would feel incredibly stupid, and possibly criminal. So he joined the top three vote-getters from my Rookie of the Year ballot—no-doubt-about-it winner Morant and ace two-way rotation pieces Clarke and Davis—on the first team.
Since I’d already picked four productive contributors to playoff/potential play-in teams, I rounded out the first five with another. Nunn spent last season in the G League, but earned a spot in Miami’s starting lineup in training camp last fall and never looked back. He made 62 starts and averaged just under 30 minutes per game for a top-four seed in the East, chipping in 15.6 points and 3.4 assists per game as a secondary shot creator and playmaker; he has earned Spoelstra’s trust, and a significant role on a team hoping to make some noise in the playoffs.
Tyler Herro, Heat
Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
PJ Washington, Hornets
Eric Paschall, Warriors
Coby White, Bulls
Herro, Nunn’s fellow first-year guard in Miami, got off to a strong start, but saw his production and efficiency decline month by month before a right foot injury put him on the shelf in early February. But while consistency remains an issue—and he’s very, very much a work in progress on the defensive end—Herro walked into the NBA as a legit spot-up marksman. He drilled 45.5 percent of his catch-and-shoot 3-pointers, 13th best in the league among players with at least 50 such attempts, which has made him a valuable piece for a Heat team in need of off-ball threats to space the floor.
Thybulle cuts the other way—a nascent offensive player scarcely asked to do anything but stand at the arc and shoot 3s when the ball swings his way. He was one of just nine players this season to play more than 1,000 minutes and use less than 12 percent of his team’s possessions. The other names on that list include P.J. Tucker, Trevor Ariza, Royce O’Neale, Tony Snell, and Moe Harkless—which is to say, 3-and-D guys who earn their keep by defending. Thybulle carved out a rotation role on a playoff team because he already does the same at an elite level; he stole the ball on more than 3 percent of opponents’ possessions, and also blocked a shot on more than 3 percent of them, which makes him only the sixth player ever to do both in the same season, according to Basketball-Reference. (Three of the other five are Hall of Famers.)
With nearly everyone who could create or make a shot in Golden State hurt for most of the season, Paschall got a ton of looks; Zion was the only rookie to average more frontcourt touches per game than the former Villanova standout. He made the most of them, averaging 14 points per game on 49.7 percent shooting, with a combination of low-block savvy (he finished in the 85th percentile among all NBA players in points produced per post-up, according to Synergy) and the ability to create for himself off the dribble; he scored on just under 49 percent of his isolation plays, eighth best among players to log at least 50 such possessions. How large a role Paschall can reasonably expect to play on a reloaded Warriors team (featuring healthy versions of Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, and Draymond Green alongside new addition Andrew Wiggins and whichever prospect they take at the top of the 2020 draft) remains to be seen, but with his silver-lining play this season, Paschall put himself in position for a rotation spot on what promises to be a much better Warriors team next season.
Like Paschall, Washington did yeoman’s work as an undersized big man on a bad team in Charlotte. He defended frontcourt players of every stripe with his strength and length, and helped give an overmatched Hornets team a fighting chance to stay in games; Charlotte conceded 6.2 fewer points per 100 with Washington on the floor. He also showed touch from distance, making 37.4 percent of his 3-point shots on four attempts per night.
For much of another dismal season in Chicago, White underwhelmed, struggling to straighten his shot and make positive contributions without the ball in his hands. He ended the season strong though, averaging a shade under 21 points and five assists per game after the start of February, while shooting 37.4 percent from deep on heavy volume—8.2 attempts a night, about a quarter of which were pull-up 3s. Gunners who can get their own shots off the bounce can play roles in the league; dudes who figure out how to balance the gunning with a craftier floor game and the ability to defend a couple of positions, though, are the ones who tend to make a bigger impact. It remains to be seen which type of player White is, but with performances like the ones he authored late in the season, he’ll get a chance to figure it out.
Apologies to: Rui Hachimura, who seems likely to get as many shots as he can handle in Orlando on a destitute Wizards team; Michael Porter Jr., who didn’t get enough burn and opportunities on a very good Nuggets team to break through, but who’s as electric an offensive player as any rookie save Zion and Ja; Cody Martin, whom nobody watched, but is pretty slick with the ball, and feels like someone who might stick in the league; RJ Barrett, but not because his numbers really deserved it, but because I just really, really wish we’d gotten more opportunities to see him play with the ball in his hands on a spaced floor, and that wasn’t in the cards in New York this year. Alas.