All-NBA, All-Defense and All-Rookie: Zach Lowe names his 2021 award winners

EPA/John G. Mabanglo

This wild 2020-21 regular season is over -- and the play-in games are finally set. It's Russell Westbrook vs. Jayson Tatum on Tuesday, and Stephen Curry vs. LeBron James on Wednesday. Here's Part 2 of my official NBA awards ballot. (Part 1 is here.)


First team

G: Stephen Curry

G: Damian Lillard

F: Luka Doncic

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo

C: Nikola Jokic

Second team

G: Chris Paul

G: Jimmy Butler

F: LeBron James

F: Kawhi Leonard

C: Joel Embiid

Third team

G: Kyrie Irving

G: Bradley Beal

F: Julius Randle

F: Paul George

C: Rudy Gobert

* There were three first-team locks: Curry, Antetokounmpo, and Jokic. One of Lillard and Doncic was a lock for the second guard spot.

That left one pesky forward spot. For most of the past two months, I had Leonard there: 25 points, 6.5 rebounds, and 5 assists on almost 50/40/90 shooting -- with borderline All-Defense work on the other end. I'd be fine with him on first-team.

But Leonard finished with a bit of a whimper: 20-plus points in only two of the Clippers' last 18 games. He ended up about 500 minutes short of Doncic.

I toyed with Butler, who had the league's most underappreciated great season. I have seen Butler left off a few All-NBA ballots, and I understand how hard these choices are. But every evaluation type -- traditional stats, advanced stats, eye test, importance to team -- suggest Butler has to be here. His advanced numbers are a hair ahead of Leonard's.

But Butler and Leonard logged almost the same amount of minutes.

The league made Doncic eligible at forward and guard. He was No. 5 on my MVP ballot, over Lillard. With that huge minutes edge, I decided to shift him to forward and get him on the first team -- so four of my MVP top five were here.

The one missing, of course, is Embiid, and it is fair to ask why I (and many voters) won't take advantage of the same positional leeway and slot Embiid into that forward spot.

I have always tried to remain at least semi-realistic with positions as long as the league is using positional designations. Embiid is a pure center. Doncic is more amorphous. He acts as the Mavs' point guard, which is why most voters start by considering him at guard; but by that logic, James -- listed at forward most of his career -- has been a "guard" all along. (The league made James eligible at guard last season, and again this time.)

Seven of the Mavs' eight most-used lineups featuring Doncic match him with two of Tim Hardaway Jr., Josh Richardson, and Jalen Brunson. What position is Doncic in those groups? On offense, Doncic is at least as much "point forward" as "point guard." He defends both guards and forwards -- whatever is convenient night-to-night.

It felt more honest slotting Doncic at forward than Embiid. Other voters might feel differently -- I have seen Embiid on several first-team ballots -- and that's fine. I had him No. 2 in MVP, so he's obviously worthy.

* Having Embiid as first-team forward would have vaulted Gobert to second team, and opened the third-team center spot for someone: Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Clint Capela, Nikola Vucevic. That person would have replaced one of the last guards or forwards, and I thought all those guards/forwards were more deserving.

The league could have solved that issue in any number of ways, including by making Randle eligible at center. That is no more ridiculous -- and maybe less so -- than having Embiid eligible at forward. Randle played 39 minutes alongside Obi Tobbin; who was the "center" there? A lot of opponents have centers defend Randle to neuter his post game. Does that count for anything?