About two weeks ago, the NBA released 2018’s First, Second, and Third All-NBA teams. Among the 15 players named and the 18 others that received votes, there were some slam dunks, but also some shocking picks. We will be going through the various teams and nominations and critiquing the selections made by the media members.
All-NBA First Team
James Harden and LeBron James were the only unanimous selections which makes sense, the likely MVP and the best player in the world deserve to be unanimous. Anthony Davis is the third MVP finalist and put up 28/11/2 with 1.5 steals and 2.6 blocks per game. Again, an unquestionable choice for First Team center.
The next two, Kevin Durant and Dame Lillard, is where the selections start to get interesting. We know that Durant is a top 5 NBA player, but playing in Golden State with 3 other All Stars limits his individual production. And I was a tad surprised when I saw that Durant was given the First Team nod over Giannis Antetokounmpo. Durant posted a 26.4/6.8/5.4 line on efficient shooting and 1.8 blocks per game. Giannis averaged 26.9/10/4.8 per game shooting a career high 54.5%, but backed that up with superb defense, 1.5 steals and 1.4 blocks per game. Given that Giannis is a relative newcomer to the scene and carried the Milwaukee Bucks on his back to the 7th seed, I expected Giannis to get recognized. He didn’t though, but that’s not a crazy snub; it’s just the media voters deferring to the more veteran player.
Damian Lillard has been very outspoken in past years when he has not been recognized as an All-Star or has been relegated to second or third team All-NBA and has now been recognized for a fantastic season. He helped lead the Trailblazers to the #3 seed in the West (and then to a swift sweep at the hands of Anthony Davis). He averaged 26.9/4.5/6.6 and played 73 games; with Lillard the Blazers were 44–29, without him they went 5–4. All of this is a testament to the impact that Lillard made on his team, which is why he is being rewarded.
Except that leads into a dangerous argument about All-NBA teams. A selection to the First Team All-NBA team implies that a player in a top 2 guard or forward, or the best center, in the NBA that season. And while Lillard had his best season, he just wasn’t a top two NBA guard in 2017–2018. Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, and Klay Thompson are all guards that either made a lower All-NBA team (Steph, 3rd team) or didn’t make it at all (Paul, Kyrie, Klay). Steph played 51 games, Paul played 58, Kyrie played 60, and Klay’s overall stats, much like Steph’s and KD’s, are suppressed by playing in Golden State with 3 other All-Stars. So there are very good reasons as to why Lillard made the First Team over these guys. However, to me, it’s undeniable that there were 3, maybe 4, guards who played at a higher level than Dame in 2018. But I also believe that the media voters made the correct decision by going with Lillard on the First Team. By playing almost every game, succeeding individually, and leading his team to a high seed, Lillard deserves the First Team nod.
All-NBA Second Team
Russell Westbrook’s selection is hard to argue with statistically. A second straight season averaging a triple double, 25.3/10.1/10.3, and the league leader in assists while playing 80 of 82 games. Questions about how valuable Westbrook’s style of play is have been raised in the wake of his MVP season in 2017 and the Oklahoma City Thunder’s one win increase from 2017 despite the additions of Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Regardless of how much value or harm Westbrook adds, his last two season have been statistical monsters and warrant this Second Team selection.
This Second Team selection feels like the media’s way of rewarding DeMar DeRozan and the Toronto Raptors for what was a phenomenal season (postseason results notwithstanding). DeRozan evolved into a partial threat from three-point range and became more of a playmaker as the Raptors stressed depth and ball movement. Toronto won 59 games and clinched the #1 seed in the East before bowing out to LeBron in Semis (again). DeRozan’s All-NBA selection feels like a reward for a great overall team and individual season.
We already talked about the Giannis vs Durant argument and there’s no way that Giannis would be any lower than Second Team. The selection of LaMarcus Aldridge to Second Team is a job well done by the media voters. Without Kawhi Leonard (except for 9 games), Aldridge carried the Spurs into the West’s #7, no easy feat given the difficulty of the Western Conference. Aldridge averaged 23.1 points per game and added 3.3 offensive boards per game for a Spurs’ team that was in a really weird situation with their aging vets, young guys, and of course, no Kawhi Leonard. I like the selection of Aldridge and think he is definitely worthy and the surrounding narratives definitely helped his case.
The argument for the center position is really easy given Anthony Davis’ classification as a center. Joel Embiid on the Second Team over Karl Anthony-Towns is an easy distinction. KAT’s sole advantage is on the glass, but Embiid dominates him everywhere else. Joel is better offensively, blocks more shots, and had better team success in five fewer minutes per game.
All-NBA Third Team
Karl Anthony Towns
Steph’s selection to the third team is a matter of games played, much like it is with Jimmy Butler (who’s also just not as good as the First/Second Team guys). As previously mentioned, Steph played 51 games and Jimmy Butler played 59. It’s really hard for a player to get higher than Third Team All-NBA on that few games.
Victor Oladipo blew everyone away in 2017–2018 and is almost a shoe in for the Most Improved Player of the Year Award. His career highs in points per game (23.1), rebounds (5.2), assists (4.3), and a league lead in steals per game (2.4). Oladipo was also selected to the All-Defensive First Team. In his first season as a primary option, Oladipo isn’t quite as offensively dynamic as some of the guards ahead of him, but that doesn’t take away from his phenomenal all-around 2017–2018 season.
Beyond these fifteen, there are eighteen other NBA players who received at least one All-NBA vote. I am not going to go through every single one, but will jump around, grouping together similar vote totals and positions.
Rudy Gobert received 51 votes for All-NBA. Andre Drummond received 7. Clint Capela received 6. Dwight Howard received 1. Let’s play a little game with all of these centers. Here are stat lines for all four, but mixed up and without names attached; see if you can see who’s who. All stats, except for games played, are in per game format.
Rudy Gobert is C. Andre Drummond is A. Clint Capela is D. Dwight Howard is B. Gobert received more All-NBA votes than the other three did combined. However, I’m not sure he was even the second best of these four. Or third best. In fact, I think that Gobert is the least deserving of all of these four to be an All-NBA selection in 2018.
Gobert’s main selling point is his defense. He had, by far, the most blocks per game of these four. But you’re going to try to tell me that 0.7 more blocks are worth more than 0.7 more steals? I think it’s probably the opposite. Blocks are just stopping a shot; a blocked shot can be offensively rebounded and shot again. A steal is a straight turnover and the direct end of and start of a new possession.
Gobert is the lowest scorer on this list. And it’s not because he’s on a team full of offensive superstars like Clint Capela. The Jazz are actually very similar to Dwight Howard and Kemba Walker on the Charlotte Hornets. Donovan Mitchell and Kemba averaged 20.5 and 22.1 points per game respectively in 2018. We have to admit that Gobert is severely limited as an offensive player. Andre Drummond and Clint Capela are rim runners and Dwight Howard is still a force in the post like few in the NBA.
Rudy Gobert has been propped up as a defensive stalwart for the defensive minded Jazz and that narrative is a big reason why he was just left off of the All-NBA Teams. That narrative allows the media voters to look solely at his defensive stats, primarily his blocks. For Defensive Player of the Year, sure that’s a good starting point. But for deciding the best centers in the game? You can’t just ignore one half of the floor, especially since said player isn’t that much better overall defensively that his peers.
Andre Drummond should have gotten all the votes Gobert received. He’s the second best of this quartet offensively, dominates the other 3 on the glass, and more than doubles them in assists. That’s without factoring in his steal and block numbers.
The Detroit Pistons were not a good team in 2018, about tied with the Hornets for last among the teams that this quartet plays for. That should be held against Drummond. The best players in the NBA make their teams better. But the Pistons were in a really weird position.
Their primary point guard, Reggie Jackson, missed 37 games. The Pistons added former LA Clipper, Blake Griffin, at the trade deadline to spark interest and try to go on a late season run. In Detroit, Jackson has average 16 points and 6 assists per game. Those are decent numbers for a leading playmaker. Without Jackson however, Drummond shouldered the play making role for the Pistons; his 3.0 assists/game are almost triple his previous career high: 1.1 assists/game. Drummond changed his style of play to help the Pistons adapt to the loss of a playmaker and turned into one of the best play making big men in the NBA. Despite languishing on a 39–43 team, Drummond deserves recognition for his evolution and willingness to adapt.
Narratives are a big part of the awards process in the NBA, but with Rudy Gobert, the narrative surrounding his style of play was a convenient way for media voters to ignore his subpar (relative to his peers) offensive skills. The All-NBA teams are about giving the best players at their position their due and no where in the NBA rulebook does it say that centers only play defense.
A pair of big men that, based on per game stats, were potentially snubbed are Kristaps Porzingis and DeMarcus Cousins, both of whom received 1 vote apiece for All-NBA selection. Before tearing his left ACL, Porzingis was averaging 22.7 points per game on 39.5% shooting from downtown. But that’s about all he was doing as his rebounding numbers and playmaking numbers are significantly lagging. Porzingis never stood a real chance at selection because of the injury that limited him to playing just 48 games.
DeMarcus Cousins also tore his Achilles after 48 games, but was putting up near-MVP type numbers pre-injury. The Pelicans’ center was averaging 25.2/12.9/5.4 on 35.4% shooting from 3, as well as 1.6 steals and 1.6 blocks per game. Had Cousins remained healthy, he would have challenged teammate Anthony Davis for a MVP nomination and All-NBA First Team.
Donovan Mitchell and Kyle Lowry stood no real chance at making any All-NBA teams. Not to say that they aren’t worthy, it’s just that, in the NBA, there are so many excellent guards it is extremely difficult to grab one of the top 6 spots. Mitchell feels like he’s a lock to be in the discussion for the next 8–10 years, but this may have been Lowry’s last season hanging around the top. At 31 years old, Lowry had his worst season since his first one in Toronto and sometimes struggled being a creator for himself.
The most shocking thing about the “Others receiving votes” category was seeing the Trevor Ariza got a vote. Now, as a Rocket’s fan, I love Trevor Ariza and think he’s very underrated as Houston’s fourth best starter, but he’s nowhere near the top 6 forwards in the NBA. Absolutely nothing about his stat line, 11.7/4.4/1.6, screams All-NBA or even anything remotely approaching All-Star levels. Part of this is by Houston’s design. By letting Ariza be a lockdown perimeter defender and 3-point shooter, he has a defined role and can excel at that role, which is what Houston needs around Chris Paul and James Harden. Even a young player like Brandon Ingram (16.1/5.3/3.9) is better and more worthy, statistically of an All-NBA spot. Alas, it was probably a Houston-based media member that voted for Ariza and there’s not much you can do about local media voting for local guys.