More than a dozen players from a handful of teams have tested positive for COVID-19, and the league will wait at least two weeks to resume after assurance that everyone is clear of the virus. NBA commissioner Adam Silver has said even that would require approval of public health officials. That is a massive undertaking, one complicated by criticism of the league’s access to testing.
Estimates of a drop-dead date for the NBA Finals have ranged from July to August and Labor Day. There is still plenty of time to squeeze the playoffs in before then, even assuming players would need a window of time to recondition themselves for top-flight competition after a hiatus. But each passing week and the rising curve of the coronavirus bring us steps closer to a canceled regular season.
Obviously, there are greater concerns at play, but if you are looking for a welcome distraction, here is one ballot for who deserves All-NBA and All-Defense honors if the regular season ended today.
It may be cheating to slot LeBron James as a guard, since he was listed as a forward for All-Star purposes, but he is his team’s starting point guard and this is an exercise in practice only anyway. It allows us to fill the First team All-NBA with the top five MVP candidates, and that just feels right.
Otherwise, Leonard is pushed to the Second team, and that feels wrong. Giannis Antetokounmpo and James Harden, the league’s last two MVPs, are locks for the other guard and forward spots.
We can debate whether Anthony Davis warrants First team All-NBA center (and top-five MVP) consideration over Jokic, even if the Nuggets star played 97 percent of his minutes at the position to Davis’ 38 percent, according to Cleaning the Glass. But Jokic carried a heavier load this season.
Davis has averaged 26.7 points (on 51/34/85 shooting splits), 9.4 rebounds, 3.1 assists and 3.9 combined blocks and steals in 34.3 minutes over 55 games to Jokic’s 20.2 points (53/31/81 splits), 10.2 rebounds, 6.9 assists and 1.9 combined blocks and steals in 32.3 minutes over 65 games. The games played margin is not inconsequential, especially since the Lakers are 6-2 in Davis’ absence.
The Lakers have outscored opponents by 6.7 points per 100 possessions with Davis on the floor and by 7.3 points per 100 when he is on the bench. By contrast, the Nuggets are 6.3 points per 100 possessions better when Jokic is on the court but get outscored when he rests. Given Jokic’s responsibilities as Denver’s statistical leader in scoring, playmaking and rebounding, combined with his added games played and impact in those games, he gets the slightest of nods over Davis here.
Doncic would have been the second First team guard had LeBron been considered a forward, so he is a lock for this squad, as is Lillard as his backcourt mate. Siakam and Butler are easy picks as the two forwards, so long as we can safely call Davis a center. That is the only possible issue here.
Davis played almost two-thirds of his minutes at power forward alongside either JaVale McGee or Dwight Howard, if only to avoid the pounding that comes with battling more bruising bigs in the paint, but there is no doubt Davis at center unlocks the Lakers’ best and most versatile options. It is the option they fall back on most in clutch situations and will continue to be if the playoffs happen.
Slotting Davis as a center also lets us keep both Siakam and Butler on the Second team. Splitting hairs between them is almost impossible, considering how invaluable each is to his team’s success — Butler transforming a lottery team into a viable East contender and Siakam not allowing Toronto to skip a beat without Leonard. There is a clear drop-off between this group and the next quintet.
Everyone here is both deserving and controversial in a way. Middleton and Tatum are fairly safe selections for the final two forward spots, so long as we can get away with LeBron as a guard and Davis as a center. Other scenarios make the first two teams marginally worse and open the door for another center to take up the 15th and final opening in a league that has devalued the position.
There are plenty of worthy candidates at the guard position. Kemba Walker, Kyle Lowry, Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons could all lay claim to a backcourt bid. I could be swayed toward any of them. Devin Booker, Bradley Beal and Trae Young are on a separate tier as ridiculously productive guards on bad teams — without Lillard’s track record of success on teams not riddled by injuries.
As ever, Westbrook picked up steam as the season wore on, and he has arguably played his best basketball in the space provided by Houston’s center-less experiment — quite a statement for the 2017 MVP. None of those other guards can match Westbrook at his peak, and I am convinced none of them could do what Paul has done for the Thunder, either. The Point God stabilized an OKC organization that lost both Westbrook and Paul George, and made them better. Look no further than the closing minutes of the All-Star Game to be reminded of where Paul ranks in the guard hierarchy.
The final center spot is also up for debate. Joel Embiid, Rudy Gobert and Domantas Sabonis are all excellent choices. Embiid is the best of the bunch, but he has missed a third of the season and disappeared at times for an underachieving Philadelphia 76ers team. Gobert is a defensive monster, but his impact on that end was less dominant than years past, and he is limited offensively. That leaves Sabonis, but Adebayo’s defensive versatility and intensity pushed him over the top here.
It is hard to argue against these two guards. As a 6-foot-10 point guard with plus agility, awareness, aggressiveness and strength, Simmons can not only guard all five positions, but defend them well. He has also had a remarkable knack for making game-changing defensive plays when the situation requires it. Every word of that description also applies to Smart, only he does the same at 6-foot-3.
The two forwards here are probably the favorites for Defensive Player of the Year. Davis led the way early in the season, as he helped a middling defense improve to a top-three outfit upon his arrival. His 5.5 contested 3-pointers and four combined blocks and steals per game are statistical evidence of the breadth of his impact from the rim to the perimeter. Antetokounmpo is even harder to ignore, the NBA’s most terrifying defensive weapon and backbone of the league’s best defense.
Either Gobert or Adebayo would be a fine choice for First team All-Defensive center. Adebayo is more versatile, but Gobert — the two-time returning DPOY — remains the most imposing paint presence in the game. His Jazz slipped out of the top 10 defensively, but they are still operating at a top-five level with him on the floor. Opponents are shooting 11.2 percent below their averages on the whole opposite Gobert and even worse at the rim, where he contests nearly 10 shots per game.
The Bucks are by far the league’s best defensive outfit, and the advanced analytics make almost everyone on the roster look like a brick wall. Much of that is due to Antetokounmpo’s ability to mask mistakes better than anyone, and some of it is because Bledsoe is a brutish ball-stopper at the point of attack, ranking among the best at blowing up pick-and-rolls. His steals and contested shots do not reflect his overpowering force, if only because opponents do their best to work around him.
Toronto owns the league’s second-best defense. Raptors wings Siakam and OG Anunoby are both worthy of consideration, but with more competition for the forward spots, Lowry will represent them instead — and for good reason. The 34-year-old is the league’s hustle king, drawing more charges than anyone, clawing for loose balls and disrupting passing lanes. Call this a lifetime achievement award for the number of times he hits the deck. Chris Paul is also a worthwhile option here, as are Kris Dunn and Patrick Beverley (who would be the pick had he not missed a quarter of the season).
If your life depended on picking one player to defend a single possession, it is Leonard. He eased into this season on that end, understandably, since he gave everything to last year’s title run, he carries a significant offensive load for the Clippers, and he has done both on a leg that requires regular rest. He engaged “I can take the ball away from you whenever I want” mode in big moments and with more regularity as the season marched to the playoffs. Leaving him off is not an option.
The fourth All-Defensive forward spot comes down to Tatum, Siakam and P.J. Tucker. All three can defend any position. Tatum was the league’s most underrated defender for much of the season, until he became undeniable. The Celtics are getting outscored by a point per 100 possessions when Tatum sits and outscoring opponents by 10.3 points per 100 with him on the floor, going from a good defensive team to a great one in the meantime. He never fouls. He is as fundamentally sound as they come, elite in every aspect of defense, and the advanced stats support the eye test.
Adebayo got the nod for the second center spot over Brook Lopez, whose defense has come as far as his 3-point shooting in the latter half of his career. He has been unbelievable as a rim protector, but Milwaukee’s wealth of great defenders allows Lopez to concentrate on that aspect. Adebayo’s ability to switch onto anybody makes him a far greater defensive weapon for the Heat.