With the individual awards out of the way and ballots due today, let's run through the five-man teams.
• I was more aggressive than ever with positions to come as close as possible to getting the 15 best players -- and as many of the very best onto the first team. Those decisions centered (no pun intended!) around Davis, who split his minutes almost 50/50 between forward and center -- and obviously played more center after the DeMarcus Cousins injury.
Center is deeper than forward (hi, Kawhi). Slotting Davis at forward would have mitigated that problem, and shoved Simmons or Butler off the ballot -- or Draymond Green, Paul George, Al Horford, or whatever forward candidate you might prefer for those third-team spots. But it also would have shoved Antetokounmpo onto the second team. With this structure, I have my five-man MVP ballot on the first team -- and the four best individual players from this season in Harden, LeBron, Antetokounmpo and Davis.
• The only debate from there came between Lillard and Westbrook for the final first-team guard spot. Statistically, they are very close. Lillard has a tiny lead in scoring, Westbrook bigger edges in assists and rebounds. Both have been indispensable; their teams fall apart when they hit the bench. The advanced numbers flip both ways; their player efficiency ratings are dead even.
Portland edged Oklahoma City in the final standings, and Lillard's far, far, far superior outside shooting and willingness to give up the ball (and get it back sometimes!) makes him a more amenable teammate. If you prefer Westbrook, I wouldn't really argue. Lillard wins here.
• By sliding Paul and Curry onto the third team, I tried to strike a balance between rewarding both availability and outstanding play. I am sympathetic to the idea that the All-NBA teams, perhaps more than the "of the year" awards, should just include the flat-out best guys -- the superstars who define each season, regardless of games played.
But there are lines. They are different for different voters, and for different awards. No one knows quite where they are. I didn't put Andre Roberson on my All-Defensive teams, for instance. For me, 39 games played is not enough for any season-long honor. Other voters will disagree, and that's fine.
But 51 games (Curry) and 58 (Paul) is enough for something here, given how superlative they were for two of the league's best teams. In the era of rest and injury caution, 70 games basically constitutes a full season. Fifty-plus is enough for All-NBA consideration at Curry's and Paul's level, though not for a spot on an MVP ballot. Putting both on the third team is the best compromise I could find. Others will slot them higher; that's justifiable, too. Kyrie Irving got to 60 games, but he's just not as good as Curry or Paul.
* That left one guard spot, and Oladipo's two-way play for the league's most surprising team shines brightest. It feels yucky to leave off both Kyle Lowry and DeMar DeRozan among a bunch of very good guards (Bradley Beal, Kemba Walker, Klay Thompson, Lou Williams, C.J. McCollum, Devin Booker, Jrue Holiday, Simmons, and maybe a few others merited at least cursory looks).
Lowry has been quietly outstanding -- overshadowed by DeRozan's evolution, and Toronto's peppy, ruthless bench. Lowry hit 39 percent from deep, and smashed his career high in made 3-pointers. He spaces the floor for DeRozan, cuts and rebounds, and plays some of the league's stoutest point guard defense. Even with DeRozan broadening his game, Lowry may still be Toronto's best and most important player.
But it's hard to reserve one of six precious spots for a guy averaging 16 points and seven dimes per game. Some of the decline in Lowry's raw numbers is the result of playing fewer minutes -- not his choice. But his 2-point shooting and free throw rate are down, and at this level, you just have to split hairs.
DeRozan is a wonderful player, but I'm just not sure what the evidence is -- beyond Toronto's win total -- that he was better than Oladipo this season. Their scoring and assists numbers are almost identical. Oladipo shot better on 2-pointers and 3-pointers. He has a big edge in advanced numbers, mostly because there is no comparison on defense. As for Toronto's advantage in the standings: Indiana cannot win a game without Oladipo, but the deep and veteran Raptors hum along when DeRozan rests.
If Toronto fans have a gripe, it's not with Oladipo making it over Lowry and DeRozan. It's with Curry and Paul likely doing so despite a big gap in games played. That's a fair gripe. These are agonizing choices. On this ballot, they just miss out. (They could also yell at the league, who would not make DeRozan eligible at forward.)
• I feel a little funny slotting Aldridge in at forward, but he's on the ballot at both forward and center, and going this route strengthens the overall team. He has played more center, and San Antonio has been better with him there. He would have merited one of the three center slots, knocking off Jokic. He has been gritty on both ends, gobbling up possessions for a team without many good options, and turning the ball over basically never.
Aldridge can be a little hoggy. He prefers the offense run a certain way. He is a little like a post-up Russ in that regard. But this season more than ever, he has been a willing ball-mover and screen-setter -- and a very talkative defender.
• The last two forward spots were brutal. Some will quibble with classifying Simmons a forward, even though he is eligible at both guard and forward. He is functionally a point guard on offense. So is LeBron, and the league has never listed him as anything but a forward. Simmons is 6-10, and spent 50 percent of his possessions on defense guarding forwards.
Yes, LeBron has almost always played with nominal point guards. So what? LeBron is always the primary ball-handler, and spends most of his time defending forwards. Most of that applies to Simmons, too. The presence of Mario Chalmers or Mo Williams -- as opposed to J.J. Redick and Robert Covington -- did not make LeBron in those seasons "more" of a forward than Simmons.
Simmons is eligible, and he gets one of these last two spots. Paul George's shooting receded. Draymond Green's defense didn't reach the usual fevered pitch, and he shot barely 30 percent from deep. (He compensated to some degree by nailing 2-pointers at a career-best rate, and remains Golden State's best passer and defender.) Horford tapered off. That rounds out the main candidates.
They are all worthy, but Simmons, running roughshod over the league for much of 2018, gets the nod.
• Butler has been the best two-way player of this group, and gets the Curry/Paul third-team treatment due to games missed.
• That left two center spots for Embiid, Jokic, Gobert and Karl-Anthony Towns. (There is a bundle of other really good centers, but those were the last four.) Embiid was a lock. Among the rest, Towns is the best shooter and scorer, though Jokic isn't far behind; he finished with 49.9/39.6/85 shooting after a glorious, triple-double-infused last six weeks.
As I wrote here, he just wrapped what was probably the greatest passing season ever for a big man -- six-plus assists per game, almost triple Towns' average. Add in everything else -- all the handoffs, hockey assists, cuts only made because Jokic had the ball at the elbow -- and he probably has more overall offensive impact than Towns. Some assists connect dots everyone can see. A lot of Jokic's assists create shots that wouldn't exist otherwise.
Towns ranks fourth on his own team in shot attempts per 36 minutes. That's not his fault, but it is a thing. Both are minuses on defense, though as Ben Falk wrote here -- and I've argued before -- Jokic is a little better than his Keystone Kops reputation. You can't read the game that well on offense without carrying over some of the same anticipatory instincts to the other end. Jokic inhales rebounds, and some advanced stats paint him as a massive plus defender.
I don't buy that. Jokic isn't good. The Nuggets hide him, and remove him on key late-game defensive possessions. But I do buy that those numbers may be hinting Jokic is perhaps a normal below-average defender, not some laughable sieve.
Gobert, of course, is on a different planet -- my Defensive Player of the Year. But he logged about 700 fewer minutes than Jokic, and he needs a little help -- and some friendly environmental factors -- to thrive as a screen-and-dive guy on offense. Jokic needs a ball and four ambulatory humans. Gobert does not quite rise to the level of Paul or Curry -- superstars who make this ballot despite missing lots of games.
It's close, but Jokic edges him out.
G: Chris Paul
G: Victor Oladipo
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
F: Anthony Davis
C: Rudy Gobert
G: Josh Richardson
G: Jrue Holiday
F: Robert Covington
F: Draymond Green
C: Joel Embiid
• Horford is the victim of the worst kind of numbers game. Plan "A" was to slot Covington in as a first-team guard. Problem: The league has him listed only as a forward, and would not bend when a bunch of voters requested it. That Covington spent about 55 percent of his floor time defending guards did not matter to them. (He is also about to spend an entire playoff series mostly defending Goran Dragic -- a guard!)
This is, of course, dumb. It forced me to slide Covington onto the second team as a forward, and bump Horford off entirely. Well done, everyone.
• Covington has a case for a first-team spot, even at forward. He led the league in deflections (again), and spooks 3-point shooters out of launching. He can switch across four positions.
But I voted Davis third for Defensive Player of the Year, so he had to be on the first team. I've seen a lot of folks leave Antetokounmpo off. I get it. Milwaukee is awful on defense, and even though they are way stingier with Antetokounmpo on the floor, they are only something like a league-average outfit in those minutes.
Watch them play, and you realize that has zero to do with Antetokounmpo. Dude is a monster. He's everywhere. He averaged 10 rebounds per game, and challenged as many shots around the rim as a lot of starting centers. He is one of maybe six guys in the whole league who can legitimately guard every position.
Players recorded an effective field-goal percentage almost 6.5 percentage points worse than expected -- based on shot location and defender proximity -- when Antetokounmpo was the closest defender, one of the largest such figures in the league, per tracking data from Second Spectrum.
• Even in a (slightly) down season, Green is the smartest defender in the league. One of the best NBA things is Green defending a two-on-one, either in transition or as the last line of defense in the half court. Most players in that situation are victims -- prey for manipulation. Green is a predator. He baits ball-handlers into passing with feints and stunts, only he somehow beats the ball into the passing lane. He almost moves ahead of the offensive players, as if he's reading their minds. It's remarkable, and for all of Golden State's late-season nonchalance, they finished eighth in points allowed per possession.
• Without Covington, the guard spots were hardest. Oladipo was fantastic all season under one of the heaviest two-way burdens in the league. He led everyone in steals almost without ever gambling or reaching his way out of position. The level of alertness required for that -- the controlled, simmering aggression -- is stunning.
• As I wrote above, Roberson would have been a no-brainer with a dozen or so more games played.
• I love combo guards, but I always include at least one true point guard to reflect the game-to-game reality defenses face. Paul beats out Lowry, Ricky Rubio, Dejounte Murray, Kris Dunn, Lonzo Ball and few others for the "pure" point guard slot.
Paul is just about the perfect point guard defender, at least in terms of tenacity, strength and technique. Everything about Oladipo above applies to Paul, too: he disrupts without making mistakes.
• The other spots went to combo guys who slide across two and even three positions. Richardson spent most of the season as Miami's starting small forward, but he's eligible at two positions here. Imagine that! Among players listed at 6-foot-7 or shorter, only Draymond Green and Danny Green blocked more shots than Richardson.
Danny Green made my second-team last season, and he would be a deserving choice again. But he logged about 900 fewer minutes than Richardson and 1,100 fewer than Holiday. He also looked maybe a quarter-step slower or less springy to these eyes this season, despite being friskier off the dribble on offense.
• Holiday checked in right behind Richardson on that blocked shots list, and wormed his way inside jerseys at three positions for a thin team that needed every bit of his positional versatility. He was often the Pelicans' best option against George/Durant types.
• Murray (also switchable across three positions), Lowry, Danny Green and Boston's perimeter trio of Marcus Smart, Terry Rozier and Brown represented the toughest cuts. Boston is so deep in quality defenders, it almost mutes the impression of any one of them. Smart played fewer minutes and games than Paul. It feels a year early for Brown and Murray.
Butler looked a little off over Minnesota's first 15 or 20 games before dialing in -- and then hurting his knee. Klay Thompson was solid as always, but not quite as airtight as these other guys. Frank Ntilikina will be here one day. So will Caris LeVert.
• Reminder: no positions for All-Rookie.
• The last two first-team spots could go to any of a half-dozen guys. With 15 or 20 more games, Ball would have made it on my ballot. He might snag enough votes anyway. Adebayo is already a solid two-way player, and had a first-team spot on this ballot before falling to the fringes of Miami's rotation once the Heat got healthy.
I get that Kuzma isn't everyone's cup of tea. He shoots, like, a lot, and doesn't bring the same verve on defense. (He can move his feet pretty well on that end when he wants to, though.) The Lakers were a hair worse with Kuzma on the floor, and the Kuzma/Julius Randle/Brook Lopez trio that started after the trade deadline was a disaster.
But 16 points per game on 37 percent shooting from deep -- on a high volume -- for a team actually trying to win has to count for something.
Bogdanovic ekes into the last spot despite a late-season slump. He averaged three fewer points per game than Markkanen, but he's a more polished all-around player -- expected given his age (25) and international experience. The guy could play, right now, for a good NBA team.
• That's always the tough part with All-Rookie: How do you compare guys putting up numbers on terrible teams with others fitting nicely into small roles on good teams? Players have no choice in which team drafts them. It's not the fault of Smith and Josh Jackson that they are left to take, and mostly miss, a bunch of contested shots on horrid teams that spend part of the season trying to lose. (Poor De'Aaron Fox didn't even get to do that! He mostly stood around watching Zach Randolph post up.)
How would they look filling OG Anunoby's role in Toronto? How would Anunoby contribute in Dallas or Phoenix?
With some nod toward raw production, I gravitate toward guys you could at least envision playing the style they flashed as a rookie for a real team. Collins shot 58 percent -- and 37 percent on corner 3s -- taking the kinds of shots he would get on a better team. Adebayo's passing and switchable defense would fit anywhere. Markkanen could rain pick-and-pop 3s on some playoff teams. Anunoby, Josh Hart, Royce O'Neale, Daniel Theis, Milos Teodosic, Jordan Bell, Dillon Brooks and Zach Collins -- eight guys I considered for a second-team spot -- are already useful fourth- and fifth-option types. (Low minute totals hurt the cases for O'Neale, Bell, Collins and Theis.)
Meanwhile, Smith and Jackson piled up empty-ish numbers playing roles they are unfit to play. But they didn't choose that fate, even if they secretly enjoyed the green light. It feels unfair to snub that entire subset of players. I saved one spot for them, and Smith gets it (barely) over Jackson. Anunoby was probably the best candidate to seize it, but he faded a bit after a scorching start.
And that's it. On to the real games!