After making my picks for the 2021-22 NBA season’s individual year-end awards, it’s time to cast my ballot for the annual All-NBA, All-Defense, and All-Rookie teams. Let’s light this candle:
C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
G: Devin Booker, Suns
G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks
“Please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly.”
That’s one of the three guidelines greeting you when you open your All-NBA ballot. The NBA has blurred its own lines in recent years, making a whole bunch of players eligible at multiple positions in an effort to afford voters more flexibility in filling out their ballot; it has also refused to do away with the notion of positionality in general, insisting that voters pick a center, two forwards, and two guards.
Once again, Jokic and Joel Embiid are eligible at both center and forward. Once again, they stand as inarguably two of the three best players in the NBA this season. Once again, they have played 100 percent of their minutes at center. And, once again, I’ve got room for only one center on my first team.
I understand the argument that both big men, Jokic in particular, subvert the traditional concept of what a center is by being such a holistic source of offense—bringing the ball up the court, initiating sets, acting as primary playmaker, attacking defenders not only with their backs to the basket but also facing up out of the triple-threat, stretching beyond the 3-point line, etc.—that you don’t have to put all of the things they do under the heading of “center.” It’s just that … like … they’re centers.
Shooting a lot of midrange jumpers didn’t make Patrick Ewing a small forward. Leading the league in assists didn’t make Wilt Chamberlain a point guard. Launching 3-pointers didn’t make Jack Sikma a shooting guard. They were centers, and so are Jokic and Embiid; you can define a center in a lot of different ways if you’re so inclined, but as Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once famously said of obscenity and pornography, you know it when you see it.
Maybe you think it’s stupid that Embiid’s been one of the five best players in the league this season and won’t be on my first team. To which I say: I agree! If “get the five best players on the first team” is the outcome the NBA’s looking for, and if the league really wants to solve for positionality, then it needs to chuck the traditional construct and instruct you to vote for the five, 10, or 15 best players irrespective of position. No more half-stepping; no more passing the buck.
As it stands, I get one center, and as incredible as Embiid has been this season, I think Jokic—who has produced more points more efficiently while playing more games and more minutes for a team that’s won only two fewer games than Philly, despite missing its second- and third-best players for almost the entire season—has been just a teensy bit better. He gets the spot. Antetokounmpo, Booker, and Doncic, the other top-five finishers on my MVP ballot, get three of the remaining four.
The last first team forward spot came down to Tatum vs. Kevin Durant. The Nets on the whole have been an absurdity necklace made of chaos emeralds and cubic zirconia, and one of the season’s larger disappointments. (Though, obviously, not its largest.) But you can’t really pin that on KD: Brooklyn has won at a 52-win clip in the games he’s played, thanks largely to him averaging a silky smooth 30-7-6 on .635 true shooting with a career-best assist rate, and generally looking like arguably the best basketball player in the world when he’s been healthy.
If all else was equal, the spot would be KD’s. All isn’t equal, though: The MCL sprain that sidelined Durant for more than six weeks means that Tatum has played 22 more games and almost 750 more minutes than Durant. And while Tatum doesn’t operate at as high a level as KD at his peak, what amounts to an extra quarter-season of the level he does play at—27-8-4.5 on above-average efficiency while also playing near-elite defense across multiple positions for the league’s best defense—was enough to tip the scales in his favor for me.
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers
F: Kevin Durant, Nets
F: DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
G: Ja Morant, Grizzlies
G: Stephen Curry, Warriors
Embiid and Durant slot right in. They’re joined in the frontcourt by DeRozan, whose injury-plagued Bulls have sputtered down the stretch, but who has been absolutely everything Chicago could have asked for in the first season of his new deal, averaging a career-high 28 points, 5.2 rebounds, and five assists per game while making some of the season’s most incredible and indelible shots:
The second team backcourt consists of two players who, like DeRozan, found themselves at the forefront of the MVP debate before the big boys totally ran away with it. Morant burst into full view this season as the league’s preeminent showstopper and the downhill terror at the heart of the Grizzlies’ rise to the West’s no. 2 seed.
Hmm? What’s that? You haven’t watched any Ja highlights today? No worries, I got you:
Had we cast our ballots at midseason, Curry might’ve been the MVP and first team with a bullet; instead, a pair of slumps (one surrounding his pursuit of the all-time 3-point record, the other while Draymond Green was sidelined) and a sprained foot ligament effectively scuttled his candidacy. But even though Curry posted the lowest field goal and 3-point percentages of any (mostly) healthy season in his career, he still averaged 25.5 points, 6.3 assists, and 5.2 rebounds per game on .601 true shooting with a usage rate north of 30 percent. He still has the third-largest on-off split among players to log at least 1,000 minutes, behind only Jokic and Tatum; he still ranks in or near the top 10 in a whole slew of advanced statistical metrics, and is the difference-maker on a Warriors team that won 50 games and will finish in the top half of the West. Let this be a reminder to us all: A “down” Steph season is still as good as damn near any guard in the league.
C: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
F: LeBron James, Lakers
F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors
G: Chris Paul, Suns
G: Trae Young, Hawks
Four years after his first All-NBA appearance—a period that saw him miss extended time due to injury and illness, and saw the Wolves return to the ranks of the league’s worst teams—Towns roared back to remind everybody just how dominant an offensive force he can be. He’s also cranked up his defensive effort in a more aggressive Minnesota scheme, serving as the back-line anchor of a Wolves defense within striking distance of its first top-10 finish in defensive efficiency since Kevin Garnett’s heyday. Towns has not only become a better player, but also proved at long last that you can build a pretty damn good team around him, and on the strength of the best all-around season of his career—24.6 points, 9.8 rebounds, and 3.6 assists per game, 58 percent from 2-point range, 41 percent beyond the arc—for a resurgent Wolves team bound for the play-in in the West, he gets the third center spot.
The disastrous Lakers season that will go down as the worst of James’s illustrious career, combined with strong candidates from better teams, pushes him out of the first two teams for just the second time since his sophomore season. At a certain point, though, LeBron’s sheer production merits recognition: 30.3 points per game, more than any player besides Embiid this season and more than he has averaged since George W. Bush’s second term, on sparkling .619 true shooting. He might not necessarily strike fear into the hearts of the youngbloods anymore, and he might not be able to carry a team to the playoffs all by himself anymore, but he’s still one of the league’s most dangerous scorers and brilliant playmakers. I didn’t see two forwards with airtight-enough cases to knock him off the third team.
The last spot came down to Siakam and Jimmy Butler, two of the best two-way players in the league, both of whom have played integral roles in their teams navigating numerous injuries.
Butler scores more points and dishes more dimes per minute, scores more efficiently, and turns the ball over less often than Siakam. He fares better in nearly all of the advanced stats, and his Heat are in line for the East’s no. 1 seed, a handful of games ahead of Toronto; he’s been a huge driver of that, performing like a top-10ish player when healthy.
Again, though, there’s the rub: Tailbone and ankle issues, among other maladies, have limited Butler to just 56 games. That’s 11 fewer than Siakam, despite the Cameroonian missing the first two weeks of the season rehabbing his surgically repaired shoulder. Siakam has logged 600-plus more minutes than Butler—equivalent to nearly a third of Jimmy’s full-season workload—and, after knocking the rust off following his lengthy shoulder layoff, has been one of the hardest-charging and most dependably productive players in the league.
Siakam is averaging just over 24 points, 8.5 rebounds, and five assists in 38 minutes per game since the start of February, shooting 51 percent from the floor and 37 percent from 3—all better than the marks he put up when he earned All-NBA honors in 2019-20. He’s doing that while frequently both playing center next to Scottie Barnes and OG Anunoby in the small-ball/long-ball lineups of Nick Nurse and Masai Ujiri’s dreams, and running point in Toronto’s myriad “Oops! All 6-foot-8 Wings” alignments whenever Fred VanVleet needs a breather. Like Tatum over KD, Siakam’s larger workload helped sway me in his direction, but this isn’t strictly a matter of quantity over quality; Siakam’s contributions to the team with the East’s third-best record and fourth-best net rating in 2022 more than merit a slot on the third team in their own right.
Paul is a strong candidate for a third team spot on his individual merits: He came thisclose to leading the league in both assists and steals, topping the NBA in plus-minus in the clutch, and bolstered his bona fides as one of the greatest crunch-time assassins in history by shooting 25-for-43 (58 percent) from the floor with a 30-to-5 assist-to-turnover ratio in close-and-late contests. Add in the fact that he’s also the point guard of a Suns team that will finish with the NBA’s best record by about eight games or so, though, and you can mark his name in pen; as the saying goes, to the regular-season victors go the benefit-of-the-ballot-doubt spoils. (Or something like that.)
The final guard spot came down to Young and Donovan Mitchell. While Mitchell has had the best statistical season of his career, I think Trae has been flat-out better on an individual level—scoring more while shooting more efficiently, assisting significantly more with a slightly higher turnover rate on greater usage, getting to the line more often, and essentially carrying Atlanta to the NBA’s no. 3 offense despite a bunch of important players missing significant time.
Arguing that Young’s defense should be disqualifying feels silly when it would come in the service of arguing for Mitchell, who’s not exactly Gary Payton on that end himself. That case is tantamount to “Mitchell over Young because Gobert over Capela,” and I don’t find it nearly as persuasive as watching Young dismantle defenses, night in and night out, at a higher level.
Just missed the cut: Mitchell and Rudy Gobert (I am not going to be very popular in Salt Lake City for a while); Butler; Bam Adebayo and Jarrett Allen, two fantastic centers who had excellent (albeit injury-interrupted) seasons, but just didn’t quite make the cut with so many great centers on the ballot.
C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Bam Adebayo, Heat
F: Jaren Jackson Jr., Grizzlies
G: Marcus Smart, Celtics
G: Mikal Bridges, Suns
C: Joel Embiid, 76ers
F: Robert Williams III, Celtics
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
G: Matisse Thybulle, 76ers
G: Fred VanVleet, Raptors
You probably noticed that the name “Draymond Green” isn’t on this ballot.
As of this writing, Green has played in 43 games and logged fewer than 1,300 minutes. As incredible as he’s been in the lion’s share of those games and those minutes—we all agree he’s one of the five best defenders in the world, and he was probably the front-runner for Defensive Player of the Year at the halfway mark—that just didn’t feel like enough floor time to put him in a center or forward spot on the All-Defensive Team over other candidates who’ve also played excellent ball in a significantly larger sample. I look forward to Draymond spending the postseason doing his damnedest to make that look like a very dumb decision.
Adebayo, Smart, and Bridges, my top three DPOY finishers, lock into the first team. Despite being firmly entrenched as Miami’s 5, I shifted Adebayo from center to forward on this ballot; this, you may say, is dirty pool and rank hypocrisy, after refusing to give Embiid the same latitude on my All-NBA ballot. To that, I say: This is a defense-specific award, and you are who you guard. As the NBA’s most frequent switch defender (and one of its very best), Bam guards everyone; in fact, he’s spent more than 55 percent of his floor time on non-centers this season, according to The BBall Index’s defensive versatility data, including more than a third on 3s and 4s. Erik Spoelstra clearly feels comfortable moving Adebayo all over the chessboard; why shouldn’t I?
Sliding Bam to a forward spot opens up center for Gobert. He didn’t crack my DPOY top three this time around, but all the stuff we’ve always praised him for remains true. He’s still one of the most menacing interior deterrents in the NBA, ranking fifth in the NBA in blocks per game, second in contested shots, and tied for first in defensive rebounding rate. He’s holding opponents to 49.9 percent shooting at the rim—third out of 152 players to face at least 150 up-close shots, according to Second Spectrum. And while the Jazz have slipped to 11th in points allowed per possession, Utah has a 107.5 defensive rating with Gobert on the court, same as the Suns’ no. 2 defense. He belongs on the first team.
Out of several worthy choices for the other first team forward, I went with Jackson, who I expect will land atop at least a few DPOY ballots. Pegged as a defensive difference-maker coming out of Michigan State, Jackson needed a couple of years to find his footing and blossom into a full-fledged, all-court game-plan wrecker.
The 22-year-old has the speed, quickness, and fluidity to handle any kind of pick-and-roll coverage, from conservative drop-back schemes to more aggressive shows and high-hedges. He’s more than capable of holding his own when smaller guards try to work what they think is a mismatch, giving up just 0.81 points per play after a switch and 0.79 points per isolation defended—both elite marks among high-volume defenders. He’s also a massive impediment in the paint, leading the league in total blocks and block percentage while holding opponents to 49.6 percent shooting at the rim, just ahead of Gobert for second place among defenders who’ve contested at least 150 tries at the basket.
Jackson is on a very short list of players you’d feel confident asking to deal with elite scorers of all shapes and sizes—as he did in clamping down on both Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving during the fourth quarter of Memphis’s recent win over the Nets—and has been one of the (if not the) driving forces behind both the Grizzlies’ rise to fifth in defensive efficiency and their remarkable 20-4 record without Morant.
Embiid and Thybulle make my second team for the second consecutive year, in recognition of their work to boost Philadelphia to ninth in the NBA in points allowed per possession despite missing 2020-21 Defensive Player of the Year runner-up Ben Simmons for the first 55 games before trading him for Extremely Not Defensive Player of the Year runner-up James Harden. Embiid’s overall defensive numbers aren’t quite as impressive as Gobert’s, but he works the same side of the street—Sixers opponents get fewer at-rim shots and shoot worse from nearly every area on the floor with Embiid in the game—and, like Rudy, Joel’s team locks down at a top-five rate when he’s guarding the yard.
Doc Rivers slid Thybulle into the starting lineup to ensure that Philly’s first five still had an elite stopper even if Simmons never decided to suit up. In longer minutes and a larger role, the third-year guard responded with play every ounce as disruptive and demonic as he’d offered off the bench. Thybulle ranks eighth in the league in total steals and fourth in total deflections; every player above him on those lists has played between 475 and 1,000 more minutes than he has. He’s holding his marks to just 40.6 percent shooting—5.1 percent below their average field goal percentage. It’s even more impressive when you consider that no player in the league guards an opponent’s no. 1 option more frequently than Thybulle, and only Oklahoma City bulldog Luguentz Dort matches Thybulle’s average matchup difficulty, according to The BBall Index. (That’s why it’s a pretty big friggin’ deal that he’s “ineligible to play” in Toronto because he’s not vaccinated—which could be where the Sixers wind up playing games 3 and 4 of their opening-round series in a couple of weeks.)
As I did with Bam on first team, I felt fine moving Timelord from center to power forward because of how frequently he slides all over the floor and up and down the positional spectrum—he’s spent more of his defensive possessions guarding 3s and 4s (42.2 percent) than 5s (36.3 percent), according to The BBall Index—and to acknowledge just how devastating a force he’d grown into for the Celtics before his injury. Antetokounmpo joins him on the second team because, while Milwaukee has dropped out of the top 10 in defensive efficiency for the first time in four years, it’s Giannis who shifted from weak-side havoc-wreaker to organizing central defender to keep the bottom from completely falling out of Mike Budenholzer’s defense. Whether you need him to play free safety, man the middle, or guard on the ball, he’s still one of the most fearsome options in the league.
I considered a few options for the final guard spot—Patrick Beverley, erstwhile backcourt partners Dejounte Murray and Derrick White, Jrue Holiday—before landing on VanVleet, who sticks out like a sore thumb in a Raptors rotation where damn near everybody else is a 6-foot-8 wing with a 7-foot-2 wingspan, but who’s also the perfect counterpoint to all those wacky inflatable tube men as a top-end point-of-attack defender and help-side menace for the NBA’s no. 10 defense:
fred vanvleet forcing 11 turnovers in a game. pic.twitter.com/IketCrIiLa— William Lou (@william_lou) March 31, 2022
VanVleet’s ability to stay connected to opposing ball handlers, to shift himself into just the right position to close off a driving lane, to get his hands in the passing lane at precisely the right time to nick a pass, and to do all of it for nearly 38 minutes a game, helps pace a Raptors defense that makes its bones by creating chaos. No team forces turnovers more often than Toronto, and only the Wolves score more points off those miscues. As much as that defensive strategy stems from Nurse and Ujiri’s commitment to unleashing swarms of long-limbed nightmares, it all starts up top, with VanVleet, arms always stretched out wide, daring you to try him.
Apologies to: The aforementioned Green; Beverley and Jarred Vanderbilt, the two main drivers of the total defensive overhaul in Minnesota; Allen and Evan Mobley, the towering tag team in the middle of Cleveland’s top-six defense; White, Tatum, and Jaylen Brown, all of whom have been fantastic in Ime Udoka’s switch-everything scheme that has Boston at the top of the defensive rankings; Murray, still leading the league in steals and deflections despite now also being a no. 1 offensive option, and Jakob Poeltl, whose occasional posterizations happen only because he’s also one of the NBA’s best and most fearless rim protectors; Herb Jones, one of the best rookie perimeter defenders the league’s seen in years; Dorian Finney-Smith, the unsung (though now well-paid) stopper at the heart of Dallas’s defensive turnaround; Alex Caruso and Gary Payton II, who are pretty much just a starting job and good health away from cracking this list next year.
Scottie Barnes, Raptors
Evan Mobley, Cavaliers
Cade Cunningham, Pistons
Franz Wagner, Magic
Herb Jones, Pelicans
Josh Giddey, Thunder
Ayo Dosunmu, Bulls
Jalen Green, Rockets
Bones Hyland, Nuggets
Jonathan Kuminga, Warriors
Barnes, Mobley, and Cunningham, my top three for Rookie of the Year, are First Team locks. So is Jones, the steal of the draft (no pun intended) as a no. 35 pick who became a starter and near-All-Defensive-level stopper for a Pelicans team that made the postseason. The fifth slot goes to Wagner, who’s been everything the Magic could have asked for coming out of Michigan, ranking fourth in scoring, ninth in assists, and 10th in rebounds among rookies to play at least 15 games:
Players with the size to guard multiple positions, playmaking savvy, and a respectable 3-point touch can fit beautifully into just about any lineup, and Wagner—6-foot-10 and 220 pounds, with a nearly 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and shooting 35.4 percent from deep on four attempts per 36 minutes—already looks like he can be that. The question now is just how much more he might be: For what it’s worth, the only other players to exceed Wagner’s per-minute scoring, rebounding, and playmaking production in their age-20 seasons while shooting as efficiently as he has are LeBron, Magic, Luka, Zion, Chris Webber, LaMelo, and Anthony Edwards. I wouldn’t bet on him becoming a star anywhere near their wattage; even if he settles in an order of magnitude or so below them, though, that’s still a hell of a player.
Wagner’s overall body of work and Herb’s contributions to a play-in team elevated them over Giddey in my mind. The Aussie lands a spot on the Second Team, though, after leading all freshmen in assists, trailing only Mobley in rebounding, and notching four triple-doubles—tied with Jason Kidd for the seventh most of any rookie in league history. He’d been on an absolute heater before going down with a hip injury, averaging nearly 16-9-7 over the previous month and really exploring the studio space when it came to slinging the ball around:
Kuminga, who went one pick after Giddey, has provided a thrilling injection of athleticism and downhill rambunctiousness to a Golden State team that’s long been predicated more on finesse than ferocity. Steve Kerr turned to the 19-year-old for frontcourt minutes when Draymond went down, and he’s produced enough to not only keep his foot in the door—just under 12 points and 4.5 rebounds on 51 percent shooting in 21 minutes per game since January 5—but make a case for a potential rotation role once the Warriors enter the postseason.
The story’s similar in Chicago, where hometown kid Dosunmu—a First-Team All-American at Illinois who lasted until the 38th pick thanks in part to questions about his jumper—got a shot at a larger role due to a spate of injuries in the Bulls backcourt, and made the most of his opportunity. Dosunmu plays with relentless energy on the defensive end, slithering around screens and getting in ball handlers’ faces; critically, though, he’s supplemented that pestering with polish on the other end, shooting 53 percent from the field and 36 percent from 3-point range with a near 3-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio since the start of December. Losing Caruso and Lonzo Ball hurt the Bulls badly, but Ayo’s emergence helped ease the sting and keep Chicago in position to return to postseason play.
Hyland shook off a slow start to his rookie campaign to become an integral part of a Nuggets second unit that has improved dramatically in the second half of the season. He’s an accurate and extremely willing shooter—40.8 percent from distance on 5.5 attempts in less than 21 minutes per game since mid-January—who also brings playmaking chops and the kind of swaggering panache befitting the name “Bones.” I wouldn’t be quick to bet against Bones going on a run that swings a game for the Nuggets in the postseason.
Speaking of strong bounce-backs after slow starts: Hello there, Mr. Green.
Accuse me of recency bias if you’d like. Or of prizing post-All-Star play at the expense of a larger sample that saw the no. 2 pick stumble his way to 37 percent shooting through his first 35 games, with more turnovers than assists and one of the worst defensive on/off splits on one of the NBA’s worst defenses. To me, though, the fact that Green weathered those early struggles, processed his mistakes, and came back strong matters, and bodes well for his future: He’s averaging right around 22 points, four rebounds, and three assists in 34 minutes per game since the break on .590 true shooting.
That feels an awful lot like the way Ant Edwards finished his rookie season, before taking another step in year two. It remains to be seen whether Green will follow that same trajectory; that he might, though, represents an awfully exciting possibility for a Rockets team with its sights set on rebuilding their way out of the Western basement sooner rather than later.
Apologies to: Alperen Sengun, a creative, daring, and productive big man who looks like he could join Green in an exciting young core in Houston; Ziaire Williams, who earned his way into Taylor Jenkins’s starting lineup just after New Year’s, and who hasn’t looked back; Jose Alvarado, one of the best stories of the season, who went from undrafted out of Georgia Tech to a two-way deal for training camp to legit rotation minutes for the play-in-bound Pelicans on the strength of his constant defensive pressure and estimable sneakiness.