FORWARDS

FORWARDS

THE NBA MAY FINALLY RETURN SOON, but we forge on ahead with our 2019?20 NBA Awards. It looks like we?ll soon get around eight more ?regular season? games from the teams that matter, but that?s probably not enough to shift the key NBA awards in any meaningful way.

All-NBA teams are always interesting, and they get more complicated every year as positions get murkier. Many voters choose fuzzy math to shoehorn their favorite 15 choices onto an All-NBA team, but that?s not fair. LeBron James and Anthony Davis started next to JaVale McGee, Avery Bradley, and Danny Green. That?s two guards and a center, and that means LeBron and Davis are forwards, no matter how nice it?d be to slot them elsewhere to balance the All-NBA teams. We play positionless basketball in 2020, but All-NBA teams define positions, so we?re following the rules.

That means two elite Los Angeles forwards get left off First Team, and it also leaves a tricky choice at center and some difficult decisions as we fill out the Third Team with a slew of worthy options. All-NBA teams are about choosing the 15 best players to represent the season, and a lot can change in one year. This year?s First Team features three different starters from my 2019 team, and over half of the 15 spots go to new players.

So who makes this year?s perfect First, Second, and Third-Team All-NBA?

The Final 2020 NBA MVP Ladder

Was Giannis Antetokounmpo or LeBron James this year?s deserving MVP? And is there another name we?re overlooking?

Pool of forward considered:

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam

First Team ? Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James

Giannis is the deserving MVP and Defensive Player of the Year. He?s the best player on the best team in the league. He is obviously First Team.

Three guys have a legitimate case for the other First Team spot. This is where many ballots pull shenanigans. I?ve seen people list LeBron James as a point guard since he led the league in assists. I?ve seen Anthony Davis at center, since he?s a seven footer and usually best at that position. I?ve even seen Kawhi Leonard as a guard.

Unfortunately, they?re all forwards in a league with Giannis, so they?re all competing for one First Team spot. And next year we get Kevin Durant back too.

There?s really no good argument for Brow over LeBron if you watched the Lakers play. Los Angeles struggled in LeBron-less lineups. Davis had the higher offensive and defensive ratings and was the better defender, though LeBron played well on that end. Look, forget any statistical argument here. If you?re reading this, you watched the Lakers play, and if you watched the Lakers play, you know LeBron mattered more.

LeBron versus Kawhi Leonard is a much fairer argument. Kawhi Leonard just led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship, and there?s a plausible argument that there?s no player you?d rather have for this year?s playoffs ? including LeBron and Giannis. Kawhi was the better player this year, slightly, in advanced metrics like BPM and PIPM. His defense reaches another level, and he?s a slightly more efficient scorer.

If you look at the numbers, things are really quite even. But two big numbers stick out in LeBron?s favor. First, he led the league in assists and doubled Kawhi in that area, even in Leonard?s finest season as a playmaker. Even more importantly, LeBron played nine more games and 450 more minutes. In this shortened season, that?s almost 25% more LeBron than Kawhi.

So that?s the statistical argument. Or if you prefer to keep things simpler: when in doubt, until proven otherwise, tie goes to the LeBron.

Second Team ? Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis

Not much left to say on these two.

It?s a heck of a league when you can wipe out the entire Warriors dynasty to injury (or apathy, in Draymond Green?s case) and knock out four legitimate All-NBA contenders, and Kawhi and Brow still end up on the Second Team.

Third Team ? Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum

I listed nine other forwards above, but Gallinari, Ingram, LaVine, and Sabonis were cursory mentions. Really nice seasons, deserving All-Stars, but not in this conversation.

That left Butler, George, Middleton, Siakam, and Tatum for these final two spots. Jimmy Butler rises above the rest. To me, he?s the one guy left that absolutely has to be All-NBA. This might be Butler?s finest NBA season. His last season in Chicago was probably better, but Butler had career highs in rebounding, assist, and block rates, and he saw a huge rise in his free-throw rate with way more of the ball in his hands, becoming a more efficient scorer.

This is Butler at his finest, as big fish in a smaller pond, leading the 8th best team in the NBA to an inspiring second-round exit. Butler does a bit of everything, and he clearly set the tone for a rugged Miami team with his work ethic and style of leadership.

Butler has to be All-NBA… Which means we?ve got one spot left.

I don?t buy Siakam as a real candidate. I love the guy, but he somehow went from underrated to overrated in the span of eight games. At the start of the season, Siakam was averaging 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists a game? for two weeks. That included four 30-point games and concluded in a 44-point explosion, and we all decided he had made the leap.

Then the rest of the season happened, and that 28/9 faded back to 23/7, the sort of regression that?s bound to happen when you shoot 52/41/95 over the first eight games. Pascal Siakam is still really good, and he clearly took another step this year. He?s just also not All-NBA yet.

Paul George ain?t it either, not this year. PG never really got going this season after missing its start. He was nothing like last year?s MVP contender, falling off at both ends and receding to second banana status. He was similar to Tatum or Middleton, but slightly worse and on the court far less.

That leaves Tatum and Middleton, maybe the toughest decision on the ballot. And credit where it?s due, because I scoffed at the thought of either of these guys as All-NBA candidates as recently as one month before the ?end? of the season.

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Until the season resumes and regression hits, Middleton is set to join the 50/40/90 club. He?s at 50/42/91, red hot the entire year. Tatum was even hotter the final five weeks. Starting February 5, Tatum leapt to superstardom before our eyes, averaging 29.6ppg over the final 15 games, including a scorching 46% from deep on nine attempts per game. Those are MVP-ballot numbers over a season, and they showed no signs of slowing down before a worldwide pandemic interceded.

The numbers are close. Middleton is ahead in BPM; Tatum in PIPM and VORP. Middleton?s net rating is higher ? of course, he gets to play with the MVP. Middleton played 390 fewer minutes too. Turns out you don?t have to play many minutes when you?re crushing every opponent.

In the end, the numbers don?t declare a winner, so I had to go with two other criteria. Tatum has a harder role. More is asked of him because, well, he?s not playing with an alien. I?m also giving Tatum the benefit of the doubt that he would?ve passed Middleton had the final six weeks of the season existed.

I don?t hate rewarding the best team in the league with a second pick here, but Tatum was just too good in February and March to leave off All-NBA.

The Final 2020 NBA Rookie of the Year Ladder

Let?s count down the top 10 NBA rookies. Did Ja Morant hold off Zion Williamson for Rookie of the Year?

GUARDS

Pool of guards considered:

Bradley Beal, Devin Booker, Luka Doncic, James Harden, Jrue Holiday, Kyrie Irving, Damian Lillard, Kyle Lowry, Donovan Mitchell, Chris Paul, Ben Simmons, Kemba Walker, Russell Westbrook, Trae Young

First Team ? James Harden, Luka Doncic

As long as you don?t try to shoehorn LeBron or Kawhi into one of these guard spots, the two First Team spots become pretty obvious.

And it?s only right that these two should line up next to one another since their games are so similar. Like Harden, Doncic already has that step-back three, and he plays with a similar cadence with the same knack for drawing fouls. And he did almost all of it before being able to legally drink in America.

Harden was the better of the two. He scored six more PPG and had better shooting numbers, significantly. That?s one of the shocking things about Luka: he?s not even shooting well yet. Doncic made just 32% of his threes and shot 75% from the line. We have every reason to believe those numbers should go up. Give him even 35% behind the arc and 80% at the line instead and now Doncic is over 30ppg already, not far off from the second 30/10/10 season in NBA history. That might be coming, sooner than later.

Heck, Luka might show up for the playoffs in a couple months with a real shot. He?s the one guy that could totally blow up the assumed playoff order. He has more defensive potential than Harden too, and he should still get better at the mental side of the game, reading and picking apart defenses. And he did all that at age 20 and without much help around him.

Luka slowed down as the season wore on, missing 13 games, and he?s not an MVP yet. But he absolutely will be one day, and it may not be long. He was the engine of the NBA?s #1 offense ? not this year, but in all of league history.

He?s not coming. He?s already here.

Second Team ? Damian Lillard, Chris Paul

Poor Damian Lillard. Dame played First Team ball for years but had the misfortune of hitting his peak right as James Harden and Stephen Curry were playing MVP basketball. Now, in Dame?s best year, with Curry finally out of the way, this just happened to be Luka?s breakout season, and Lillard is a bridesmaid once again.

For two weeks in January, Dame was the hottest man in basketball, scoring an absurd 48.8ppg on 75% true shooting. That included nights of 47, 48, 50, 51, and a Blazers-record 61 along with his worst game of the stretch, a 36-point triple double. Lillard carried the team all season, leading the league in offensive win shares and OBPM. He had a First Team MVP-ballot worthy year? he just did it in a season where seven other guys did too.

Don?t tell Chris Paul about bad luck, though.

Man I hope we get a healthy CP3 playoff run. He?s another guy who could really upset the Western playoff apple cart if he still has another gear for the playoffs. Paul played all but one game somehow and changed his game to fit the team, lessening his usage to elevate guys like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and becoming more efficient in the process.

The crazy thing is this is Chris Paul?s second worst season ever, which makes it only his 14th best season, and yet he?s still a clear top-four guard at age 35. I went out on a limb this preseason, giving CP3 the last spot on my All-NBA Third Team. Turns out I underestimated him.

Third Team ? Trae Young, Ben Simmons

Those are the four names that absolutely have to be All-NBA, but now we?ve got 10 names left for only two spots.

Five names are out right away. Kyrie Irving played All-NBA ball but for only 20 games. Donovan Mitchell and Devin Booker are not there yet. Jrue Holiday didn?t do enough, and the Pelicans defense was awful all year. And no, Russell Westbrook does not have a real case.

Westbrook did get much better over his final 20 games, thriving in Houston?s small ball scheme, slicing to the basket in a wide open lane. He leapt to 32.3ppg on 58% true shooting with a 113 offensive rating. Those are All-NBA numbers! Unfortunately, the first 33 games count too, and in those games he scored eight fewer points with putrid 51% TS and 103 ortg. Add in his worst season as a playmaker in a long time and he just doesn?t have a case ? and people should stop overplaying the Russ card to discount Harden too.

So now we?re down to five guys for these last two spots, and I think all of them have a quality argument.

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Let?s look at Trae Young and Bradley Beal first, since I think they?re the obvious comparison. Both put up studly scoring numbers on terrible teams with atrocious defense, and many want to just ignore these two as ?good stats bad team? empty Calorie guys. But in the entire history of the NBA, we?ve only ever had 44 seasons with a player scoring at least 29ppg on at least 58% TS, and these are two of them. Maybe let?s not just throw them out?

When you score 30 points a game with elite efficiency, that matters, no matter how bad your team is. Is it Trae and Beal?s fault their teammates all stunk, outside of John Collins (who missed half the season)? Couldn?t you argue just the opposite ? that it?s all the more impressive to see these two drag their offenses to 113+ ortg as a one-man show? In the end, Trae was better than Beal. He shot better, scored more efficiently, and raised a worse offense higher than Beal ? and also had about 50% more assists than Beal too, which you might remember, also count as points.

As a sophomore, Trae Young is already about as good as Kyrie Irving ever was, outside of him learning to play some defense eventually. Imagine what peak Kyrie might?ve looked like if LeBron never showed up. Now add in elite passing too and you?ve got Trae Young.

Our other three candidates don?t measure up to those two statistically.

Kemba Walker and Kyle Lowry were the heartbeat of their teams, and some advanced metrics rank them best on their respective Eastern contenders, ahead of their younger, more ballyhooed teammates. They were the steady pulse of the team that showed up night in, night out, though each of them missed about 15 games. Both were about the same as their recent years. They were good, winning players. I?d rank Lowry slightly ahead and don?t mind either of them sneaking onto All-NBA, but either of them missing doesn?t count as a snub either.

I?m going with Ben Simmons instead, who is a different animal altogether. Simmons is one of the few players on the planet who benefits from the pandemic. A back injury looked certain to sideline Simmons the rest of the season and maybe even the playoffs, but as it is, he ends up with more games played than Lowry or Kemba.

Simmons finally made a couple threes but otherwise hasn?t improved much in four NBA years offensively, in part because Philadelphia refuses to build a team that maximizes Simmons in any way. It?s no surprise that he had his best stretch of the season in nine January games without Joel Embiid, leaping to 21.6ppg along with 9 boards and 8 assists, and his best performance this year came on defense. Simmons routinely guarded the opponent?s best player, switching onto all five positions as needed, a deserving All-Defense player.

Simmons is a love-him-or-hate-him guy, with very little in between. I had him as a clear Second Team guard at the All-Star Break before an injury sidelined his season, but I?m giving him my last spot here with the early pandemic end. Hopefully someday we?ll see what Simmons looks like with spacing around him, but it probably won?t be in Philly.

In the end, I?d rank them Trae, Simmons, Lowry, Kemba, Beal, in that order, but it?s close. Close enough that this proposed new season ending could reorder things, and certainly enough that Simmons could lose his spot if he?s unable to play or if Beal pushes Washington into the playoffs or something. My one gripe with those five would be including Beal and not Trae since Young was similar but better. Any combination other than that is fine by me.

Who Were the Best Defenders in the NBA This Season?

Offense gets all the glory, but defense wins championships. Let?s pick All-Defense teams and a Defensive Player of the Year?

CENTERS

Pool of centers considered:

Bam Adebayo, Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert, Nikola Jokic, Karl-Anthony Towns

First Team ? Nikola JokicSecond Team ? Rudy Gobert

Center feels like the position that will vary the most on these All-NBA lists. Many will try to push Anthony Davis here, if only to free up another forward spot, but that?s cheating.

For me, there are only two everyday centers that played every night and stood out far and above the rest of the competition. They?re the only two centers in the NBA that were clearly the best player on a playoff contender, and they are absolutely nothing alike one another:

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What do you want from your center?

With Nikola Jokic, you?re getting a guaranteed efficient offense that will zip the ball around and create open looks for all five guys. Denver?s offense looks much more like international ball than the rest of the NBA, and that?s quite alright with me. Jokic is the best passing big man in league history already, and he?s a good shooter and efficient spacer. And yeah, he showed up out of shape for a month, but he also played brilliantly ever since and he already answered all our questions last May with an amazing playoff run.

Gobert is something else entirely. Rudy Gobert is a walking top-five defense, carrying the team this year even without Ricky Rubio and Derrick Favors to help the cause. He is a relic to a bygone era where big men patrolled and dominated the paint.

Gobert is better than you think on offense. He adds real vertical spacing diving to the rim and sets mean screens, and offenses are almost always uber-efficient with him on the court. Jokic is better than you think on defense too, as long as he?s in the right scheme. Neither of these guys is bad on their worse end ? they?re just more average than good.

In the end, offense and defense are not equal. Good offense beats good defense in the NBA, so tie goes to the guy that creates the equal offense here, who also happens to be the better player.

And yeah, Jokic may have punted the first month of the season, but at least he wasn?t responsible for shutting down the entire NBA?

Third Team ? Bam Adebayo

I imagine most people will include Joel Embiid somewhere on their All-NBA teams. I don?t see it. Embiid played only 44 games and barely 30mpg even while on the court. His defense wasn?t as strong this year, and he struggled to figure things out with Philly?s wonky roster.

I honestly believe Karl-Anthony Towns was straight up better. Towns rated better in BPM and PIPM with an absolutely elite offensive season. Here?s a seven-footer suddenly making more than three treys a game at 41% ? I mean what do you even to do defend that? Towns was a top-five offensive player this season in many metrics. He was incredible on tha tend. But he played even less than Embiid, just 35 games.

Bam Adebayo is like if you averaged those two players together and then muted everything by about 25% but promised he would play 34 minutes a game all season.

Adebayo is a really good defender, more of a team D guy than an individual one. He?s a useful part of the offense, especially as a passing hub, though he?s not much of a scorer yet, certainly nothing like KAT or Embiid.

But Towns and Embiid played 1187 and 1329 minutes, versus 2235 for Bam Adebayo. That?s literally almost double the time on the court. Sometimes the best ability is availability, and KAT and Embiid are only so valuable if they?re sitting on the bench. Embiid barely played 40% of his team?s minutes this season. Towns was less than even that. Bam was on the court over 70% of the time. I?m rewarding him for that impact.

BUT, BUT, BUT doesn?t this mean two Heat players make All-NBA and no defending champion Toronto Raptors?!

It sure does, and that?s unfortunate. That?s also why Nick Nurse is the runaway Coach of the Year, and that?s really not how we do All-NBA anyway.

Take the 15 most deserving guys and put them on the team, done and done. Bam deserves this honor. Now let?s see him do it in the playoffs, too. ?

Who Was the Best Coach in the NBA This Season?

Even in a shortened season, seven coaches stood out among their peers. Who should win 2020 NBA Coach of the Year?

THE PERFECT 2020 ALL NBA TEAMS

1st Team

James Harden, HoustonLuka Doncic, DallasGiannis Antetokounmpo, MilwaukeeLeBron James, L.A. LakersNikola Jokic, Denver

2nd Team

Damian Lillard, PortlandChris Paul, Oklahoma CityKawhi Leonard, L.A. ClippersAnthony Davis, L.A. LakersRudy Gobert, Utah

3rd Team

Trae Young, AtlantaBen Simmons, PhiladelphiaJimmy Butler, MiamiJayson Tatum, BostonBam Adebayo, Miami

Stats courtesy of the wonderful Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

Follow Brandon on Medium or @wheatonbrando for more sports, television, humor, and culture. Visit the rest of Brandon?s writing archives here.

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