After casting my votes for this season’s individual year-end awards, it’s time to make some picks for the 2020-21 All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams. Let’s get to it:
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Jimmy Butler, Heat
G: Stephen Curry, Warriors
G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
I tied myself in knots last year over the practical, ethical, and moral considerations of how to reconcile the NBA making a boatload of players eligible to be selected at more than one position while also instructing us to “please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly.” This is because I am both a chronic overthinker and a true-blue idiot—a real double threat!
The same conundrum confronts me this spring, most specifically in the league’s confounding decision to make both Nikola Jokic and Joel Embiid eligible at forward, despite both playing nearly 100 percent of their minutes this season at center, according to Basketball-Reference’s play-by-play parsing. The NBA’s system—which is kind of aimed at allowing voters the flexibility to reward the best five, 10, and 15 players in a given season, but kind of not, since it still requires you to pick a center, two forwards, and two guards—gives me the opportunity to get the top two finishers on my MVP ballot on the first team.
But just because I can do something does not mean I should. Jokic and Embiid are not combo bigs like Anthony Davis, Bam Adebayo, or Draymond Green; they are centers, full stop, and there’s room for only one of them on the first team. Jokic, the best player in basketball this season, takes the spot; Giannis and Steph, two of my other top-five MVP finishers, join him.
So does Butler, whom the broader basketball discourse kind of lost track of as he and Miami struggled with COVID-19 infections and the resultant disruption, but who has been phenomenal on both ends ever since he got healthy and back into the fray. Amid all the absences and reshufflings that have rocked the Heat this season, Jimmy has remained a constant—a primary creator capable of generating a good look for himself or someone else, an elite defender equally adept at locking down on an opponent’s top scorer and switching off to guard any position as needed, the rising tide that lifts all boats in Biscayne Bay.
Miami’s gone 34-20 since Butler came back from illness at the end of January, just one game behind the Bucks for the East’s third-best record in that span. During that stretch, the Heat have outscored opponents by 5.6 points per 100 possessions with Jimmy on the court, and have been outscored by 4.7 points-per-100 when he sits—the difference, roughly, between a top-five contender and a bottom-five cellar dweller.
You’re within your rights to arch an eyebrow at Jimmy’s 24.5 percent mark from 3-point range, and to wonder what happened over the past five years to turn him from a league-average long-distance shooter into one who now rarely even looks at the rim from out there. What Butler lacks in range, though, he makes up with the sort of hard-charging attacking and finely honed off-the-dribble craft that has him taking nearly half of his shots at the rim (and converting nearly 70 percent of them), by getting to the foul line eight times a night, and by sliding passes to open teammates. Jimmy’s become a queen-on-the-chessboard big wing playmaker, averaging a career-best 7.1 assists per game and chopping down his turnover rate while ratcheting up his usage. Butler’s play in the bubble suggested he’d leveled up to the point that he deserved to be considered one of the best players in the world. His play this season stamped that status.
I put Chris Paul in the top five on my MVP ballot as a tip of the cap to what he’s meant to the Suns and how he’s propelled what was already an improving Phoenix team to the league’s second-best record. For All-NBA, though, I feel less required to consider the context of team success and story, and more comfortable rewarding pure production and overall excellence; that led me to Lillard and Doncic, two of the highest-usage, highest-scoring, highest-volume, and highest-impact offensive players the league has to offer.
They’re the ever-revving engines of teams with nearly identical records and point differentials, fighting tooth and nail for the fifth and sixth seeds in the Western Conference. Their individual numbers are remarkably similar, with Luka dropping more dimes and providing greater value as a rebounder, and Dame holding big edges in shooting accuracy from the 3-point and foul lines. There’s not a ton of separation in their advanced statistical profiles, either; Doncic outstrips Lillard in value over replacement player, box plus-minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR, while Dame gets the nod in player efficiency rating, win shares, real plus-minus, and estimated plus-minus. It’s about as close as you can get to a coin flip.
As I did in All-Star voting, I went with Lillard, in recognition of his crunch-time brilliance—a league-high 162 points in 126 “clutch” minutes on 51/39/95 shooting with 25 assists against nine turnovers—and a sense that he’s just a smidge more indispensable in Portland (where the Blazers have been outscored by 1.3 points-per-100 with him off the floor) than Luka is in Dallas (where the Mavs have a slightly positive net rating while he sits). It’s an awfully fine hair to split, I’ll grant, but when you’ve got one spot for two players this brilliant, sometimes that has to do.
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers
F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
F: Julius Randle, Knicks
G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks
G: Chris Paul, Suns
Doncic, the other side of my first-team coin flip, lands softly in the second team backcourt next to Paul. With Embiid firmly ensconced at center, that leaves only the forward spots, which—to me—included one no-brainer and one ... um ... some-brainer? (There should be a better word for that.)
Like Embiid, Leonard has spent some time on the shelf, missing 20 games due to a wide variety of injuries and a stint in the COVID-19 health and safety protocols. Like Embiid, Kawhi’s been so friggin’ good when he’s been on the court as to render the game and minutes gap all but irrelevant to these proceedings, averaging 24.8 points, 6.5 rebounds, a career-high 5.2 assists, and 1.6 steals per game on pristine 51/40/89 shooting splits.
He’s continued the significant growth as a playmaker that he began to show last season, and also become one of the league’s most lethal attackers in the two-man game. Kawhi has produced 1.11 points per possession finished as the ball handler in the pick-and-roll this season, according to Synergy’s game charting; that ranks third out of 97 players to log at least 150 such plays, behind only Steph and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Pair the 29-year-old’s polished all-around offensive game with the size, length, strength, and instincts to still shut down damn near whoever he needs to when the situation calls for it, and Kawhi remains one of the most devastating two-way forces in the sport.
After considering about a half-dozen options for the final forward spot, I found myself choosing between Zion and Julius Randle. The former no. 1 overall pick was a force of nature this season About three weeks into the season, head coach Stan Van Gundy saw the light, tossed Zion the keys to the New Orleans offense, gave the kid the freedom to run point; the Pelicans have had a top-10 offense since, with Zion averaging 4.1 assists per game, just to give defenses even more to worry about.
But as remarkable as Zion was—and as much of an edge as he held in overall production—I just couldn’t ignore how consistently special Randle’s been as the centerpiece of the biggest turnaround in the sport.
I’ve written about this a couple of times before, but the fact that Randle has put himself in conversations like this after a complete reboot of his game in his seventh pro campaign remains one of this season’s improbable, delightful surprises. He has combined incredible production—the only players ever to average 20-10-5 while shooting 40 percent from deep are Larry Bird and, naturally, Julius F’n Randle—with stunning team success while leading the league in minutes and completely transforming the entire story of his career in a season that can only be described as a thermodynamic miracle. Zion’s a one-in-a-billion talent, inarguable and luminous, Halley’s Comet. But over the course of the full season, in the ways that count for determining wins and losses, Julius Randle was just better. He gets the last second team nod.
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Zion Williamson, Pelicans
F: LeBron James, Lakers
G: Paul George, Clippers
G: Kyrie Irving, Nets
Gobert, my vote for Defensive Player of the Year and two-way linchpin of the West-leading Jazz, slots in easily behind Jokic and Embiid as the third team’s center. Zion gets one forward spot after becoming the first player to average more than 25 points per game and shoot better than 60 percent from the field since Kevin McHale did it 34 years ago. He’s also the first player to average more than 20 points per game in the paint since Shaquille O’Neal did it in five straight seasons between 1997 and 2001.
The only players who have ever scored as much and shot as efficiently as Zion did this season are five MVPs (LeBron, Durant, Steph, Giannis, Barkley) and a Hall of Famer (Adrian Dantley). Reminder: He’s 20. This is his first All-NBA selection; it damn sure won’t be his last.
Deciding the final two backcourt spots was just brutal. James Harden was a legitimate MVP candidate with the Nets, but his rough start to the season with the Rockets, rougher exit from Houston, and extended injury absence in Brooklyn conspired to knock him out of the running. Ben Simmons is one of the most important and destructive defensive players in the world and the starting point guard of the East’s best team, but his sometimes maddening inconsistency, lack of north-south aggression, and comparatively lagging offensive production—even factoring in his top-10 mark in creating corner 3-pointers for teammates—drop him down a tick. Jrue Holiday and Mike Conley have been no-muss, no-fuss aces helping to elevate teams with legitimate title aspirations; they’re also lower-usage complementary options in the hierarchies of those teams, though, which dings them a bit in comparison to some of the heavy hitters still up for debate.
George profiled as the most complete of the bunch: an All-Defensive Team–caliber multi-positional stopper who also averages 25-7-5.5 per-36 while drilling 41 percent of his triples on mammoth volume. He’s a hand-in-glove fit next to Leonard who’s able to handle a larger load in Kawhi’s absence and still keep the Clippers afloat. He carried the weight of all that “Pandemic P”/“Wayoff P”/“PG 2-for-13” slander out of the bubble and into the regular season, calmly went about destroying dudes, and has shown a bit more of an aggressive rim-pressuring streak as the season’s gone on. The only test that really matters for George at this stage is the one to come, but that’s beyond our purview here; he’s done enough on both ends to earn a third-team spot.
That left one guard spot for [deep breath] Kyrie Irving, Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Trae Young, and Zach LaVine. Yeesh. All absolute destroyers.
Beal damn near led the league in scoring, putting up a matter-of-fact and metronomic 31-5-4 on a team that desperately needed every morsel of offensive nutrition he could provide to stay afloat. Young continued to put up big numbers while helping drive a turnaround that landed the Hawks back in the playoffs. LaVine’s career-best (and, frankly, historic) shooting season couldn’t lead the Bulls back to the promised land, but it did make him one of the league’s most overwhelming scoring threats, and a first-time All-Star. And all Mitchell and Booker did was play some of the best, most efficient ball of their careers on teams that will finish with the two best records in the NBA.
In the end, though, I went with Kyrie, who I think has just flat-out been better in that “hyper-efficient gunner/complementary playmaker” role than the other candidates, no matter who’s been on the court with him.
Irving might be the third-best Net overall, but he’s had the most complete season, averaging 26.9 points, six assists, and 4.8 rebounds a night on sparkling 51/40/92 shooting while appearing in the most games and playing the most minutes of Brooklyn’s Big Three. He’s played more minutes without Harden or Durant than he has with them, and has continued to ball regardless; he’s also averaging 28.7 points, 8.8 assists, and 5.4 rebounds per 36 minutes without either marquee running buddy, a sample of nearly 600 minutes in which Brooklyn has outscored its opposition by 2.0 points-per-100 while still scoring at a top-10 clip.
Beal deserves a ton of credit for his work in essentially keeping Washington alive until Russell Westbrook could get right after an early-season quad injury and Scott Brooks could settle on a rotation. But the same can be said of Kyrie for his role in helping Steve Nash and Co. not just weather all the uncertainty that’s come with Durant’s and Harden’s injuries, but stay within shouting distance of the no. 1 seed into the final weekend of the season.
With the backcourt settled, I’ve got room for one more forward. I thought about Jayson Tatum, who is averaging just under 28 points, 7.7 rebounds, and 4.2 assists per game on .604 true shooting since the All-Star break, while continuing to play strong perimeter defense. I also considered Domantas Sabonis, who, for all the internal strife in Indiana, has continued to produce despite shouldering one of the most daunting two-way workloads in the league.
And then I considered that picking either of them would mean leaving LeBron James off the ballot.
Perhaps that would make sense; after all, Harden has played nearly as many games and minutes as James and I just got done explaining why he didn’t make the cut. But LeBron didn’t spend his first few weeks of the season actively trying to get himself traded by making things look and seem miserable on and off the court; he came out of the gate on fire, carrying the Lakers while Anthony Davis puttered and yawned his way through early-season malaise, and looking for all the world like he was still the best player in the world. Other forward options have played well and played more, but I don’t think any of them have played better; there are worse ways to resolve issues than by holding to the precept that, when in doubt, and if he’s an option, you should just go ahead and pick LeBron James.
Apologies to: Tatum, Beal, Harden, Durant (just too many missed games, but holy hell would I not want to see him coming my way in a playoff series), Simmons, Jrue, Mitchell, Booker, LaVine, Trae, Bam Adebayo, Clint Capela, Sabonis, Jaylen Brown, Tobias Harris, Conley, Russell Westbrook … there are a lot of really, really good players in this league, man.
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Draymond Green, Warriors
F: Jimmy Butler, Heat
G: Ben Simmons, 76ers
G: Jrue Holiday, Bucks
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: OG Anunoby, Raptors
G: Mikal Bridges, Suns
G: Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
Gobert and Simmons, my top two DPOY finishers, anchor the first team. Holiday joins the latter in the backcourt after continuing to be one of the league’s most disruptive (fifth in steals per game, tied for eighth in deflections per game, tied for tops in loose balls recovered) and versatile point-of-attack defenders in the league. The list of his most frequent defensive matchups looks an awful lot like my working list for figuring out the All-NBA guard spots; he’s got the size, length, hands, and smarts to bump up a spot and hold his own against all but the burliest forwards, too. We’re about to find out whether he’ll prove worth the hefty price tag Milwaukee paid in hopes he could solve their postseason problems, but through the regular season, at least, he’s been precisely the upgrade over Eric Bledsoe they sought on offense and on defense.
Draymond takes one forward spot in celebration of how often he’s shown the fire of old. Night after night, he’s barking out orders, loading up to take away driving lanes, shutting down actions three steps before they reach their intended target, marauding around the half court and still getting back into position to protect the rim, guarding 1 through 5 when the situation calls for it, and forever lurking as maybe the best help defender in the league:
Look at Draymond on the weakside here. Guarding Milton, Embiid catches. Draymond shows help, bounces back out and then comes back to double once Embiid starts his move middle. Forces a turnover. pic.twitter.com/4KRfabmT4E— Steve Jones Jr. (@stevejones20) April 20, 2021
That the Warriors rank fifth in defensive efficiency is one of the more stunning statistical developments of this weird-ass season. Draymond’s ability to plug every leak is the single biggest reason behind it.
Butler joins Draymond up front after turning in what might be the best work of a career that already includes four All-Defensive Team selections. He’s leading the league in steals per game and tied for third in deflections. He’s held his assignments to 43.6 percent shooting despite spending more time on opponents’ no. 1 offensive threats than all but 10 players who’ve logged at least 1,000 minutes, according to the BBall Index’s matchup difficulty metric. Like Simmons, he guards four positions comfortably, and is both strong and savvy enough to hold his own against centers on switches—a critical skill in a Miami scheme that often deploys Bam Adebayo as a switch-everything eraser. The Heat allow 6.7 fewer points-per-100 with Jimmy on the floor, clamping down at a rate that would slot in just behind fourth place in full-season defensive rating.
It pains me a bit to omit Clint Capela, the third-place finisher on my DPOY ballot in recognition of his work in elevating the Hawks’ defense from dreadful to playoff-quality when he’s on the floor. As with the MVP/All-NBA split, though, I’m comfortable moving from “celebrating total impact on team success” as a deciding criterion for that ballot to “who is the most ass-kicking ultimate warrior” as the overarching principle on this one. It pained me even more not to go with Adebayo under that framework, given his remarkable schematic versatility and capacity to bully offenses of all shapes and sizes, whether he’s on or off the ball. In my heart of hearts, though, I think Embiid—who has, when healthy, been like goddamn Professor Hulk along the back line of Philly’s no. 2 defense—is just better, and a higher-impact defender overall, so he gets the nod.
The Bucks’ defense has dipped a bit from its league-leading 2019 and 2020 form—some of which, admittedly, is the residue of a more experimental design—and Giannis’s primacy as the league’s most menacing help defender and weak-side annihilator has waned a bit with it. He’s still an absolute monster, though, the keystone of a top-10 defense that locks down at a top-five clip when he’s in the game. He’s capable of shutting down a whole side of the floor by himself and protecting the rim like an elite big man; he’ll need to when Milwaukee puts him at the 5 to get its best lineups on the floor at winning time. (Provided, of course, that Mike Budenholzer is more willing to downsize when it matters than he’s been in postseasons past.)
The NBA does allow you the flexibility to vote for Adebayo as a forward, despite the fact that he’s spent most of his minutes at the 5. This is technically more defensible than pretending that Jokic or Embiid have moonlighted at power forward because, thanks to all the switching he does, Bam has spent nearly 60 percent of his floor time guarding non-centers, according to the BBall Index’s defensive charting. I decided against it, though, in large part because I wanted to reward three incredible young wing defenders who have developed into some of the league’s most complete perimeter terrors.
Anunoby is a true five-position defender—a small forward in Toronto’s preferred starting lineups who most frequently defends 4s and spends almost exactly the same amount of his floor time checking centers and point guards—with the footwork to mirror the moves of the league’s best isolation artists, the bulk to wrestle giants under the glass, and the unnervingly placid demeanor of a Terminator as he goes about his appointed snuffings. Bridges is Monty Williams’s first choice on the best wing scorers the league has to offer, able to slither around screens to stay connected, stick with them stride-for-stride, and disrupt their dribble or contest their shot with his impossibly long arms. And Thybulle … I mean:
The 24-year-old swingman ranks tied for third in the league in total steals and 19th in total blocks; he’s blocked more shots than Embiid, for God’s sake. Thybulle has snared a steal on 3.9 percent of Sixers opponents’ offensive possessions, and has blocked a shot on 4.9 percent; the only other players to post rates that high for a full season are freaking David Robinson and Hakeem Olajuwon. He’s only played just under 1,300 minutes this season, and his minuscule offensive responsibilities means he’s able to empty the tanks defending on every possession; it’s likely that, in starter’s minutes and a higher-usage role, he’d look a bit more human and a bit less like a wraith cursed to drain the life force out of every scoring opportunity he comes across. Right now, though, Thybulle’s job is similar to Alvin Mack’s. He’s awfully good at it.
Apologies to: Bam, Capela, Luguentz Dort, Myles Turner, Dillon Brooks, De’Anthony Melton, Jakob Poeltl, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Kawhi, PG, Marcus Smart, Nerlens Noel, Royce O’Neale, Fred VanVleet, Chris Paul, and the invincible T.J. McConnell.
LaMelo Ball, Hornets
Anthony Edwards, Timberwolves
Tyrese Haliburton, Kings
Immanuel Quickley, Knicks
Jae’Sean Tate, Rockets
Saddiq Bey, Pistons
Desmond Bane, Grizzlies
Xavier Tillman, Grizzlies
Isaiah Stewart, Pistons
Facundo Campazzo, Nuggets
Ball, Edwards, and Haliburton—my top three finishers in Rookie of the Year voting—walk into first team spots. So do Tate, a phenomenal defender with finishing and playmaking chops and a relentless work ethic, and Quickley, who ranks eight among freshmen in points per game despite ranking 28th in minutes per game, and has helped propel the Knicks to the playoffs.
Quickley’s averaging just under 22 points, four rebounds, and four assists per 36 minutes of floor time for Tom Thibodeau; in the past 30 years, the only other rookie guards to generate that sort of productivity right off the rip are Drazen Petrovic (already a legend in Europe when he came to the States), Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, and Trae Young. The Kentucky product’s boundless confidence, lightning-quick release from deep, and veteran’s ability to draw fouls have made him an instant-impact offensive player in New York—the Knicks score over four more points-per-100 with IQ on the floor—and helped him establish one of the most impressive résumés in the rookie class, ranking third in win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, and VORP, and fourth in PER. Not bad for the 25th pick in the draft.
The ancestral homelands of soul and Motown dominate the second team. Bey (12.2 points and 4.5 rebounds in 27 minutes per game, shooting 38.0 percent from deep on 6.6 attempts a night) and Bane (9.2 points and 3.1 boards in 22.3 minutes per game, a blistering 43.2 percent from distance on four tries a contest) have been central casting 3-and-D building blocks, ready to play rotation roles right off the jump. Pegged as an energy-and-rebounding type coming out of Washington, Stewart has already shown some very promising signs of expanding his game, stepping out in the pick-and-pop and knocking down 34.5 percent of his 3-point tries since the All-Star break while not taking his foot off the gas on the defensive end or on the boards. Tillman, the Big Ten Defensive Player of the Year as a junior at Michigan State, has held his own as a backup big man off the bench for a Grizzlies team that, in spite of all its youth, ranks seventh in defensive efficiency. Rounding out the roster is Campazzo, the elder statesman of the rookie class after spending years starring in the EuroLeague, who has proved absolutely vital in the backcourt for a Nuggets team beset by injuries and in need of both stability and a little bit of playmaking magic as they continue to make their playoff push.
Apologies to: Tyrese Maxey, Patrick Williams, Jaden McDaniels, Devin Vassell, Chuma Okeke, Isaac Okoro, Cole Anthony, and Payton Pritchard. And, screw it: James Wiseman, who wasn’t as good as everybody hoped for a Golden State team that 100 percent should’ve had a veteran center in front of the teenager to maximize this Steph season, but who’s probably going to be just fine in the long run.