With individual awards done, it’s time for the rest — three All-NBA teams, and two apiece for All-Defensive and All-Rookie. These weren’t quite as tortuous as usual — and not as thorny as several individual awards. Here’s the rest of this year’s awards ballot.
G Chris Paul, Phoenix Suns
This became pretty easy once I decided against putting both Jokic and Embiid — each eligible at forward and center — on first team. I know, I know. A month ago, I argued for putting Jokic, Embiid, and Antetokounmpo on first team. They will go 1-2-3 in MVP. They have been the three most dominant players, by far.
But I heard counterarguments from across the league — media, coaches, executives. I listened. I was reminded that Embiid and Jokic splitting votes between forward and center could result in one sliding to second team anyway under the league’s arcane accounting system.
I opened my ballot and saw the instruction I had forgotten: Please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly. The queasy feeling from last season — when I slotted Embiid onto second team despite the same dual-eligibility — returned.
Even boasting ultramodern perimeter skills, Embiid and Jokic are centers. They are first and second in post-ups. On most nights, they guard opposing centers.
The choice wasn’t just between first and second team for one of the star centers. It was also a choice between Siakam and Gobert on third team. I (slightly) preferred Siakam’s all-around game, and importance — he led the league in minutes per game — to a Raptors team that went only seven deep for much of the season.
And I’m fully aware of Gobert’s centrality to the Jazz (see below!) He is their defense. Siakam is an ingredient in Toronto’s defense — a critical one, but not the keystone. Gobert’s rim-running on offense spurs defenses into rotation — revving up Utah’s vaunted blender — but he averages 15.5 points on 7.7 shots, and one assist. (In fairness, Utah’s offense is not built for Gobert to be a playmaker. Would it tilt maybe 10% more in that direction if the coaches had more faith in his playmaking ability?) It’s just hard to put that up against Siakam’s 23-8.5-5.3 line — on 49.5% shooting.
Gobert brings other things on offense, of course: free throws, offensive rebounds. Siakam does everything. He is a point guard, screen-setter, post-up scorer, isolation artist, spot-up opton (36.5% on catch-and-shoot 3s), and transition marauder — as both finisher and hit-ahead guy. It’s hard to imagine the Raptors scoring enough to avoid the play-in without Siakam. He’s not Gobert on defense, but Siakam approached All-Defensive levels in his own right after a slow first dozen games.
• That leaves no Jazz men — no Gobert, no Donovan Mitchell. With 15 spots, there are always going to be painful casualties. There is no shame in being Player 16 or 17. Who are you removing to fit them? Utah went 23-24 in its final 47 games. The slide began when Gobert and Mitchell were injured, but the two stars were not quite able to right the ship.
The Jazz blew lead after lead. Tensions swirled. As much as you want to say every game matters — that Utah’s 26-9 start counts the same in the standings as that 23-24 stumble — trend lines matter too. For players and teams, it’s nice to be coalescing when the highest-leverage games arrive.
Gobert is only eligible at center; I thought Towns had a better season. Mitchell is only eligible at guard. Morant and Curry are no-brainers; both spent time in the MVP conversation — foundational stars on the West’s No. 2 and 3 seeds.
Trae Young’s numbers are better across the board. His defense is (much) worse, but he has less offensive talent around him than Mitchell. Look at this Hawks roster and ask yourself how they ended up No. 2 in points per possession. Mitchell might be the more trustworthy postseason player — in part because he’s not a glaring defensive liability — but we just saw Young waltz Atlanta within two games of the Finals.
Mitchell laps Paul in scoring, but Paul led the league in assists and merits a look for All-Defensive second-team. He maximizes every possession as the playmaking engine and organizer of a 64-win juggernaut. He’s one of the best crunch-time players ever. Advanced stats say Paul might merit a second-team case. (I couldn’t quite get there given games missed and Paul’s career-low scoring numbers.) The Suns won eight more games than anyone else. They deserve two guys.
Booker is eligible at both forward and guard, raising the possibility of designating him at forward, bumping DeRozan or Siakam off, and adding Mitchell as an extra guard. But Both Booker and Tatum deserve first-team honors for their excellence on great teams — Booker on the league’s wire-to-wire wins leader. DeRozan tailed off, but he carried the Bulls all season. They were minus-4.8 points per 100 possessions when he sat!
• The Heat get no one despite winning the East. Bam Adebayo had a case for third-team center, but it’s hard for him to supplant Towns given the gap in games played — 56 for Adebayo, 74 for Towns.
Jimmy Butler had another under-the-radar all-around gem of a campaign: 21 points, 6 rebounds, 5.5 assists — plus all the usual bulldozing cuts, snazzy interior passes, and bruising defense. He makes winning plays, all the time. Even with 57 games, he merited consideration at forward or guard.
He fell just short. He wasn’t quite as good as last season. He dropped from 7 assists to 5.5, shot a bit worse, and wasn’t as impenetrable on defense. He was also a train wreck in the clutch for about half the season.
With everyone in and out of the lineup, Miami’s success was more about collective adaptability. (They went 15-10 without Butler, for instance.)
• I can hear Heat fans asking why 57 games isn’t enough for Butler, but LeBron (56) and Durant (55) make it. I mean … is it reductive to say they are LeBron and Durant? Durant is either the best or second-best player in the world. So, yeah. LeBron put up 30-8-6 on 52% shooting — including 62% on 2s. He almost won the scoring title. He is not the reason the Lakers stank — not on the court, anyway. (His shadow front-office work is another story.)
I have seen some voters shove LeBron to third team — with DeRozan leapfrogging him. That’s fair. DeRozan played 20 more games and almost 700 more minutes than LeBron. It just felt silly writing “DeMar DeRozan” above “LeBron James” in a year in which LeBron averaged 30 points.
• Name that should have come up more in All-NBA talk, but fell short: Jrue Holiday. Great, great season.
Scottie Barnes, Toronto Raptors
Alperen Sengun, Houston Rockets
Bones Hyland, Denver Nuggets
Ayo Dosunmu, Chicago Bulls
The only drama on first team was the final spot, which came down to Jones and Green. Had Giddey played more games, that spot was his.
Green had two different seasons. Over his first 35 games, he averaged 14 points on 37% shooting — including 28.7% on 3s. He had a (slightly) negative assist-to-turnover ratio. He was out of sorts on defense. He was one of the more damaging players in the league.
Even then, I didn’t care a whit. In a November Lowe Post podcast with Mike Schmitz, one of our draft gurus, I dismissed the long-term importance of Green’s early struggles. His play was exactly what you’d expect for a 19-year-old wing thrust into a high-usage role on a rebuilding team with an average age close to that of your freshman dorm.
It was clear Green had explosion; playmaking instincts; a nice midrange pull-up; and the appetite for the grittier parts of the game.
Then, it clicked. Over his last 32 games, Green averaged 21 points on 47% shooting — and a tidy 39% on 3s. He dished 3.1 dimes to just 1.7 turnovers. He improved at everything. He ended at 17.3 points, a hair behind Cunningham for No. 1 among rookies. Green will be a star — a 20-point, 5-assist, 5-rebound guy as soon as next season, and more than that soon enough. He is the most important player on a sneaky-interesting Rockets team.
Jones averaged “only” 9.5 points as a low-usage wing stopper. His solid shooting numbers — 53% on 2s, 34% on 3s — aren’t super impressive considering his limited role and how many of his 3s were wide-open. (On the flip side, Jones dishing 2.1 dimes per game — not far from Green’s 2.6 figure — is noteworthy. He’s a smart ball mover in transition, and in the half court.)
But my god, his defense. He averaged two steals and one block. He led all rookies with 130 steals; Barnes was second … with 80. It sometimes seems as if Jones has three or four arms. He swipes steals without gambling, and defends the best opposing perimeter player every game. Advanced metrics rate him as a top-shelf defender, rare for rookies. (Davion Mitchell, for instance, looks the part, but those metrics paint him as a huge minus — again, what you’d expect from any rookie.)
I’d be fine with Green on first team, but I’m a “stakes” guy. Jones started meaningful games for a team under enormous pressure to make the play-in. The outcome of Houston games was immaterial. If anything, the Rockets preferred to lose. Games with no stakes look and feel different. There is less structure, less intensity.
Green’s efficiency in those last 30 games was legit, and bodes very well. I’m giving the nod (barely) to the guy whose team played real, significant NBA basketball.
If you shout that Cunningham and Wagner hail from tanking basement dwellers too, I’m wagering you didn’t watch much of them. Cunningham’s playmaking and defense were on another level. Wagner is a jack-of-all trades who could fit now on a winning team; he averaged only two fewer points than Green, and outdid him in every other category — including defense, assists, and shooting efficiency.
• The last three spots came down to Sengun, Hyland, Dosunmu, Mitchell, and Chris Duarte. (Apologies to Jonathan Kuminga, Tre Mann, Jose Alvarado, Trendon Watford, Corey Kispert, Terry Taylor, Omer Yurtseven, Ziaire Williams, Cam Thomas, Austin Reaves, Josh Christopher, and others.)
I’m surprised how few voters seem to be considering Sengun. He logged about the same number of minutes as Duarte, and almost 200 more than Hyland. His advanced numbers shine. He shot 53% on 2s, and he’s one of the league’s most inventive big man passers already.
On a per-36-minute basis, Sengun averaged 16.7 points, 9.5 rebounds, 4.5 assists, and 3 combined steals and blocks.
Of course, there are reasons Sengun didn’t average close to 36 minutes. He fouls a ton. He coughs the ball up a lot. He’s rickety and awkward on defense. But he’s talented, and he has a strong case.
That left two spots for Dosunmu, Mitchell, Hyland, and Duarte. Hyland was an easy choice. He averaged 10 points and 3 assists — nailing 37% from deep — while playing critical non-Jokic minutes on a team chasing wins. He emerged as Point Bones, and Denver’s bench (kinda) stabilized once Michael Malone entrusted him. The Nuggets were plus-1.7 points per 100 possessions with Hyland on the floor — impressive considering how awful they were in general whenever Jokic so much as went to the restroom. (About two-thirds of Hyland’s minutes came without Jokic, and the Nuggets lost those minutes — but by only a little. They mauled opponents in the Hyland-Jokic time.)
With good health, Duarte likely claims the last spot. He’s a cagey secondary ball handler, and hit 37% on 3s. The Pacers asked more of him than Chicago did of Dosunmu.
But that wasn’t true for parts of the season, when injuries nudged Dosunmu into something close to a starting point guard role. He ranked fifth among rookies in assists, and dished six or more in 20 games. He’s a good defender, slithery dodging screens, and shot 52% overall — 60% on 2s, and 38% on 3s. He had a better season than Mitchell, even leaving aside the stakes factor.
G Marcus Smart, Boston Celtics
G Mikal Bridges, Phoenix Suns
F Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies
F Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
G Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia 76ers
G Fred VanVleet, Toronto Raptors
F Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
F Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors
C Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
The first team is my top 3 in Defensive Player of the Year (Adebayo-Gobert-Jackson, in that order), plus Smart and Bridges. I discussed all five at length here.
A month ago, I penciled Thybulle in as the second guard — alongside Smart. He’s so destructive — a hoarder of stocks (steals and blocks), the rare player of any size who regularly blocks 3-pointers. (And for every one Thybulle swats, he dissuades two or three others. You can see the astonishment on the faces of shooters who were open a half-second ago, but find themselves executing a trembling pump fake: Umm, where did this dude come from? Thybulle can fly by, land, pivot, and spin in time to disrupt the next triple too. It’s uncanny.)
Players shot 6.6% below their expected effective field goal percentage when Thybulle was the nearest defender — one of the dozen largest negative differentials among all players, per Second Spectrum.
But Bridges is the steadier all-around defender, and logged 1,200 more minutes than Thybulle. At that point, it’s open and shut. I’d have had Bridges fourth on my Defensive Player of the Year ballot, a tick ahead of Smart, and he’d be a deserving winner if it goes that way.
• As for why I listed Adebayo at forward instead of center: This award is for defense only. Coaches always say “you are what you guard,” and Adebayo guards everyone at every position. He might literally guard all five opposing players within the same possession. He switched more screens than any player, per Second Spectrum.
• Antetokounmpo was an easy selection; he won Defensive Player of the Year two seasons ago, and as I wrote this week, he’d be a fine choice now. (That race was wide open). But given I had two forwards and one center as my top 3 for that award, I couldn’t fit him on first team.
• I have zero qualms with Green here even though he played only 46 games. He’s the best and most important defender of the past decade. The Warriors have the best defense in the league — or at least aside from whatever the hell the Celtics have become since late January — when Green is on the court. Halfway into the season, he was cruising to a near-unanimous Defensive Player of the Year win.
He has earned “Duh, it’s Draymond Freaking Green” benefit of the doubt for second team — an important award, but not on the scale of Defensive Player of the Year, MVP, or even first team. (Apologies to Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, P.J. Tucker, Jimmy Butler, Dorian Finney-Smith, Al Horford, Robert Covington, Evan Mobley, Grant Williams, Jarred Vanderbilt, Pascal Siakam, Aaron Gordon, De’Andre Hunter, and a few others.)
• I initially had Robert Williams III as second-team center ahead of Embiid, Jakob Poeltl, Jarrett Allen, Mobley, and a couple others. Ime Udoka shifting Williams onto corner shooters — unleashing him as a hellish, turbo-charged help defender — flipped Boston’s season. Williams didn’t just lay in wait for victims to encroach upon the basket. He switched off-ball and on-ball actions, often ending possessions at the point of attack.
Opponents shot only 50.7% at the rim with Williams nearby — fifth-lowest among rotation players who challenged at least three such shots per game. He straight-up impaled basketballs onto the backboard. You half expected them to deflate from the impact. Opponents shot almost 8% below their expected effective field goal percentage with Williams as the closest defender — the largest negative gap among all candidates.
I wouldn’t argue against Time Lord winning Defensive Player of the Year — that’s how amorphous the race was.
But Embiid’s otherworldly scoring and improved passing overshadowed another strong defensive season for him. It spawned the narrative that he took his foot off the gas on defense because of the load he carried on offense.
That was true in spurts. Even so, Embiid is a stout defensive system unto himself. He imposes suboptimal shot selection. Like clockwork, the Sixers allow many fewer layups and 3s — and many more midrangers — with Embiid on the floor. Philly’s perimeter defenders stick to shooters, knowing Embiid can handle the paint solo. And when Embiid amps it up — when he sees a fire to put out, or senses a chance for a rampaging rejection — the combination of speed and size is almost frightening. Such a large person should not be able to go from 0-to-60 like that. It is one reason there is almost a sense of danger watching Embiid.
And unlike in Boston, most of the defenders around Embiid — and often all four of them — are below average on that end. His burden is enormous. Williams plays full-time on an All-Defensive team. Toss in Embiid’s huge edge in minutes — about 500 — and he gets the nod.
• I wanted to give the last guard spot to Herbert Jones, but he is only eligible at forward. That left VanVleet, Jrue Holiday, Chris Paul, Jimmy Butler, Gary Payton II, Alex Caruso, De’Anthony Melton, Derrick White, Patrick Beverley, Luguentz Dort, Dejounte Murray, Tatum, Brown, and more. Some of those guys got hurt. A few were backups. One (Payton) was out of the rotation some.
Holiday had a slightly down year by his standards, but he’s awesome. He may make it, and that would be fine. Paul is two steps ahead of everyone, but Phoenix spares him tougher matchups. Age has chipped away a little at Beverley.
VanVleet causes lots of turnovers, and he’s just doing the right thing every second — half-slides into help position, late switches, veer backs, tipped rebounds. The numbers love him. He’s in.