With the individual awards done, let's get to the team set. Compiling these was absolutely brutal.
What a weird thing: You couldn't build a candidate pool without first deciding whether to list Draymond Green at center or forward. There is no wrong answer. There are almost no wrong answers anywhere here. We all get yelled at for some choices -- how could you leave off Player X? -- but in the end, we're splitting hairs between amazing players. I mean, try to decide between LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul George for that last forward spot. You could go back-and-forth for weeks. Without deadlines, I might just rip up my ballots, weep, and start pounding beers.
Green has played about 25 percent of his minutes at center, a significant chunk, and those Death Lineups have been the best in the NBA. Their plus-minus numbers are straight comedy. He showed in the NBA Finals last season that he could jack those minutes up if need be.
But we don't know what kind of player Green would be -- whether he could hold up physically, or maintain the same all-around brilliance -- if you flipped that minutes split over a full season. It felt more appropriate to place him at forward, especially since you can scrounge three deserving centers.
Also: Can we please get with the times and use three positional designations: point guard, wing, and big man? Aldridge has sneakily been on fire for two-plus months, and I tried to find a spot for him; the last forward slot came down to Aldridge, George, Kevin Love and Dirk Nowitzki, who settled down into his normal level of play after a transcendent first third of the season.
George's All-NBA-level defense, and the fact that the Pacers are well into the lottery with an average wing in his place, swayed me in the end.
Next step: Maybe I could move Aldridge into the last center spot! He has played about 45 percent of his minutes there, a much larger share than Green, and logged almost exactly half his minutes without Tim Duncan -- the Spurs' only "true" center, aside from the Boban Monster. But even in those "center" minutes, David West or Boris Diaw might guard the opposing low-post brute, leaving Aldridge on the nominal power forward.
Aldridge and Diaw might flip-flop those assignments within a possession. Who is the center then?
The center position has a strong historic legacy, and despite paranoia about its disappearance, there are a ton of good centers -- including many young guys -- in the league today. But the positional categories for All-NBA don't jibe with the game's evolution.
Sliding Aldridge to center didn't feel right, especially after refusing Green the same benefit.
Readers will rightfully ask how I could slip Chris Paul below Russell Westbrook, onto the second team, after voting Paul above Westbrook in MVP balloting. The best players are the most valuable ones, and in a vacuum -- or even in most team contexts -- Westbrook is a more explosive, dangerous and productive player than Paul.
But sometimes a player's team environment changes in such a way as to make him more "valuable" than his numbers -- and perhaps more valuable than a superior player. Every Clipper stepped up during Blake Griffin's 47-game absence, but most of those players would have trouble creating functional shots without a jitterbug wizard like Paul attracting extra defenders on the pick-and-roll.
The Clippers faced unusual adversity that could have submarined their season. The Thunder cruised along mostly at full health, and in the end, that contrast was enough to nudge Paul into the final spot on my MVP ballot. Westbrook gets the nod here.
With apologies to a bunch of dudes -- Isaiah Thomas, DeMar DeRozan, Jimmy Butler, J.J. Redick, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, Reggie Jackson and others -- the final two guard spots came down to Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, John Wall and James Harden. Wall's work was probably underappreciated, even with the Wizards collapsing into the lottery. He hit 3-pointers at a league-average rate, and dragged an injury-riddled, overrated supporting cast as far as he could.
But his shooting from inside the arc dropped off, and he didn't bring the same intensity on defense as he did last season.
Harden was a tougher cut, especially with Houston eking out a playoff spot thanks mostly to Utah gagging a couple winnable late-season games. Harden does everything for a broken Rockets offense. He's derided as some sort of bearded clown, but clowns don't play 82 games and lead the league in minutes -- a ridiculous, unsustainable load that contributed to his drop-off on defense. He edged Lillard for a spot on my All-Star roster just two months ago.
But over those two months, Portland surged, while Houston continued spinning in mud, a miserable group loafing through entire halves of basketball. Even during their late-season playoff "push," they lost to the freaking Bulls and Suns at home, and let the pitiful Lakers hang around for 40 minutes.
Losing and melodrama sapped this team's spirit. Harden didn't poison Houston's culture, but he also did nothing to mend it. He showed up out of shape, in part due to a lingering injury, lazed through defense, and too often froze Houston's offense after one action. He's a great passer, but too many of his passes -- even his assists -- come late in the shot clock, after a double team locks him in jail.
Thompson blazed from January through March, and blows Harden away on defense. The Rockets would be worse if you flipped them, and shoe-horned Thompson into Harden's grueling No. 1 option role, but Houston is a mediocrity as is. In a coin flip, I have no problem defaulting to the team that just won 73 freaking games.
Thunder fans are mad that LeBron James seems earmarked for a first-team forward spot over Durant. You can't really go wrong here, but LeBron is still the better all-around player. They are neck-and-neck in most catch-all stats, so the choice is really between Durant's far superior 3-point shooting against LeBron's playmaking, defense and versatility with the ball.
LeBron wins out, barely, especially because he's the undisputed lead dog on his team.
The center spots were the thorniest, especially since they represent Anthony Davis' best shot at earning a $24 million bonus. If you think it might feel awkward to play a tiny role determining Brow's financial health, you're right. It's icky.
Jordan is the NBA's unappreciated ironman -- nit-picked for what he can't do, instead of being celebrated for what he does. The fear of a lob pass tethers Jordan's defenders to him, freeing Paul, Griffin, Jamal Crawford and other Clippers to drive unimpeded to the rim. His mere presence, and the threat of a demoralizing dunk, makes opposing centers wet their pants in indecision.
Griffin's injury reminded us again: surround a Paul-Jordan pick-and-roll with shooters, even some ho-hum ones beyond Redick, and you can build a killer offense.
He's not the Bill Russell-level defender Doc Rivers touts him as, but he's damn good, and he gets a little better every season.
The battle royale for the last two center spots featured Al Horford, Karl-Anthony Towns, Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins, Davis, Aldridge and Derrick Favors -- who played more center during Rudy Gobert's absence. Cousins and Davis are the best players among that group, warts and all. Boogie is the most unguardable post threat since Shaq, and when he's engaged on defense, he's the rare big man who can both protect the rim and generate heaps of turnovers with his pokey hands. The Kings are miles better -- playoff-level better -- when he's on the floor.
But he's not always engaged. He whines instead of getting back on defense, sabotaging too many possessions. When an offensive trip goes badly, his frustrations carry over to the other end. Coaches and scouts I polled about All-Defense teams recoiled in horror when I mentioned Cousins as a candidate.
He also missed 17 games, which isn't much, but costs you against more durable candidates who bring a steadier day-to-day disposition to the locker room. There is just too much evidence that Cousins is part of the cultural dysfunction infecting the entire Kings circus -- including the on-court product. Until that changes, it's hard to reward Cousins with one of these 15 prestigious spots. (And by the way, Sacto fans: Search around, and you'll find a lot of other voters have come to the same conclusion.)
I've seen some voters slide Cousins onto the third team, and leave off Davis, citing missed games. Davis played just four fewer games than Cousins, and a measly 80 fewer minutes. If missed games cost Davis, the same criteria should cost Cousins -- especially since Boogie's team is a train wreck, too.
Towns' team is even worse, but he played every game, set an example of work ethic that impressed everyone across the organization, and emerged immediately as one of the most versatile two-way big men in the game. Horford has done all that for years. They get the final spots over Drummond (not quite there on defense, still yanked regularly because of horrid foul shooting), Davis, Cousins, Tim Duncan, Brook Lopez, Hassan Whiteside and Pau Gasol.
G: Chris Paul
G: Jimmy Butler
F: Kawhi Leonard
F: Draymond Green
C: Rudy Gobert
This was neck-and-neck with Sixth Man as the hardest category. The coaches, scouts and front-offices execs I polled were all over the place, leaving me in a wilderness of imperfect candidates at the guard and center spots.
The forward spots are cake, provided you put Green there -- and if you list him at forward for All-NBA purposes, you should list him at forward here, too. Green, Leonard, and Millsap went 1-2-3 on my Defensive Player of the Year ballot, and George smothers opposing wings with long arms and nimble footwork.
Butler flaunting his stardom contributed to Chicago's dysfunction, but he's an easy choice as a first-team guard. Dude is just immovable, and quick enough to shadow anyone across both wing positions.
That kind of multi-positional versatility makes it so much easier to construct a team defense, which is why I went back-and-forth on booting the Paul/Rubio duo in favor of combo guards like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Victor Oladipo, Marcus Smart and a couple of others.
But the flip side is also true: Point guards drive so much of NBA offense, and they are impossible to guard in the no-hand-check era. Having guys like Paul and Rubio who can actually do that job is super-valuable. They stay attached to their opponent's hip around screens, help and recover with perfect timing, and rip steals without gambling their way out of position. Rubio is huge, and takes charges; if you want him on the first team, I wouldn't argue.
Bradley is a blurry case. Some advanced numbers, both public and housed in private team databases, paint him as wildly overrated, in part because -- as Kevin Pelton pointed out to me -- he's a poor rebounder. He also doesn't have the size to guard small forwards, something Smart and Jae Crowder, another candidate, bring to Boston's reaching, grabbing, slithering-around-every-screen perimeter defense.
But a lot of execs and coaches love Bradley, and the eye test is just so damn persuasive. Bradley can guard his guy chest-to-chest, and somehow stay with him off the dribble. He changes directions on a dime, and his ability to hound point guards allows Boston to hide Thomas on less threatening wing players.
Caldwell-Pope, aka "The Curry Stopper," affords Detroit the same luxury with Reggie Jackson, but he has a few more hiccups than Bradley -- ducking under the occasional pick he should slide over, or falling just a hair behind as some sharp-shooter darts around a maze of baseline screens.
Caldwell-Pope is coming for one of these spots, but it feels a year too early. Danny Green, one of my choices last season, wasn't quite as consistent this time around. He's still a borderline candidate, but he's on the outside here.
The Celtics, who finished tied for fourth overall in points allowed per possession, deserve a representative, and Bradley gets the nod over a backup (Smart) and a stud trapped behind too many forwards (Crowder).
Tony Allen at full Tony Allen-ness is still the second-best perimeter defender in the league, behind only Leonard. We just didn't see TA in all his glory enough this season; he was a step slow over the first 20 games as Memphis' grit-and-grind defense hibernated, missed 17 games with knee issues, and emerged only around midseason as his true havoc-wreaking self. It makes me fear for my safety, but I have to leave him off.
Choosing the centers was rough, especially with Green slotted in at forward; had I listed him at center, he'd have been the easy first-team choice. This was not a great season for the defensive specialists who normally populate this space. Marc Gasol and Joakim Noah suffered major injuries. Andrew Bogut, a goddamned angle-playing genius, won't even reach 1,500 minutes, and barely cracked 20 per game. That's about what Bismack Biyombo ran up as a leaping wall of muscle off Toronto's bench, but it's hard to give one precious spot to a backup. Ditto for Clint Capela.
Tim Duncan is still the gold standard by some advanced numbers, but he looked creakier than usual in a career-low 1,500-plus minutes. We've talked about Boogie.
Drummond isn't quite at ease enough in the pick-and-roll dance -- more reactive than disruptive. Ian Mahinmi, Steven Adams, Horford and others deserve a look, but it's hard to build a great case for them. I thought about bumping Favors or Serge Ibaka up to center -- Favors sported a terrifying combination of speed, strength and hops when healthy -- but neither did quite enough to force that kind of shakeup.
That left Rudy Gobert, DeAndre Jordan and Hassan Whiteside. Whiteside has been the most spectacular, and he has made huge progress over the last 40 games in staying down, tap-dancing between the ball-handler and the screener on the pick-and-roll -- effectively spooking the poor point guard from either shooting or passing. He is wrapping one of the greatest shot-blocking seasons ever.
But that addiction to swattage leaves Whiteside out of position when he comes up empty, clearing the lane for easy offensive boards and drop-off passes; the Heat rebound a higher percentage of opponent misses with Whiteside on the bench. His second jump, and second effort, are slower and less urgent than you'd expect.
And as I wrote Tuesday, dudes are beating him up a little bit in the post; opponents have hit 51 percent of post-up shots against him, per Synergy Sports, one of the worst marks in the league among big men who have faced a lot of such plays. Stepping out on the pick-and-roll remains an issue -- as it is for almost every 7-footer.
That includes Gobert. But he's a little faster gliding through tight spaces, and more careful deciding when to lunge for a block. Opponents have hit only 41 percent of shots around the rim with Gobert nearby, the stingiest mark in the league among rotation big men, and he's a hair tougher to score on in the post.
Basically, he's a better version of Whiteside. Coaches and scouts almost universally pick Gobert as the better defender, though lingering skepticism of Whiteside's staying power drives some of that.
Whiteside will nab one of these spots soon, and perhaps even this season. He's really good, and getting better.
Jordan is just solid at everything over huge minutes for a team that quietly finished tied for fourth in points allowed per possession. That kind of reliability is all it takes this season to nab the second center spot -- unless you give Green the first one. I didn't, so here we are.
I wrote a lot about these guys in my rookie of the year analysis, so I'll be brief here.
The contrast between Booker/Okafor and Winslow/Kaminsky is interesting: two gunners piling up numbers in meaningless games, and two gap-fillers doing less glamorous work for solid playoff teams. I split the difference, slotting one of each onto the two teams.
Booker gets the first team slot, because his production feels a little more organic and in-the-flow than Okafor's -- and because he didn't miss 29 games, throw some drunken hands, and drive a million miles per hour across a Philly-area bridge. Booker's shooting a lot, but he's not hijacking the Suns' offense to do it.
He takes 3s when they are there, and strikes a nice balance on the pick-and-roll between floaters, pull-ups and slick passes to his big men. The Suns, bereft of point guards, needed someone to create offense, and Booker did it in a way that looked authentic.
Okafor was a black hole in the post, which is strange, since scouts loved his passing at Duke. He was perhaps the worst rotation defender in the NBA. Even so, he deserves at least a second-team nod. Shooting 51 percent on tough shots, with defenders eagerly swarming off his D-League-level teammates, is not easy. What would Porzingis have looked like on the Sixers?
Winslow hasn't done much on offense, but he's finding his footing there, and you know every night you're getting in-your-grill defense from him across three different positions. To do that over 2,200 minutes for a playoff team at 19 years old -- that's a rare thing. Kaminsky can do a bunch of things, but you can't count on him doing any of them at an elite level in every game.
Lyles and Turner get the last two spots over Willie Cauley-Stein, T.J. McConnell and Josh Richardson. Lyles changes the geometry of the floor for Utah as a power forward who can shoot 3s and make plays off the dribble, all in high-stakes minutes for a playoff hopeful. I'm intrigued. Richardson has been a hurricane of ferocious defense and hot shooting, and might have displaced one of these guys had he nailed down a rotation spot earlier; he barely cracked 1,000 minutes for the season.
Emmanuel Mudiay deserves credit for slogging through perhaps the toughest challenge in the NBA: being a teenage point guard on a bad team. There is almost no way to do that without sucking at most things. He should develop well, but his shooting was just so bad, and the Nuggets often looked better without him.
And that's it. On to the real season.