A member of the annual 100-person All-NBA voting panel recently said on a prominent podcast, "What LeBron [James] is doing warrants first team. It's not even close to me. He is going to get one of those two guard spots." To which another All-NBA panelist responded, "I have him, at worst, a second-team lock."
That was on March 21, when James' Los Angeles Lakers sat in ninth place in the Western Conference with a 31-41 record. They have since lost seven straight and been eliminated from the postseason with a week left in the season. We do not know if those locks still stand, but there is still widespread sentiment that James will secure one of the league's 15 All-NBA roster spots playing for a team that could lose 50 games.
This would not be unprecedented, but it would be a rarity, especially in the sport's most talent-rich era. Naming James to an All-NBA team this season would be an embrace of statistics and credentials in a way that betrays winning contributions and the very reasoning many have used to exclude players historically.
A tangled web of stats, wins and All-NBA votes
Take Washington Wizards guard Bradley Beal, for example. He averaged 30.5 points (46/35/84 shooting splits), 4.2 rebounds and 6.1 assists for a team that won 35% of its games and failed to qualify for the playoffs in 2020. He was left off the All-NBA third team in favor of guards Ben Simmons and Russell Westbrook, whose Philadelphia 76ers and Houston Rockets, respectively, made the playoffs that season.
A year later, Beal averaged a near-identical 31-5-4 on 49/35/89 splits and made the third team over a similar candidate field. The sub-.500 Wizards squeaking into the play-in tournament made a difference.
Another prominent All-NBA voter recently suggested his placement of Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant on this year's first or second team would depend on whether he reaches a 55-game benchmark — the lowest figure ever for a first-team selection. This ignores the impact Boston Celtics star Jayson Tatum has made in 22 more games. Durant has played 52 of 79 games to Tatum's 74 appearances in 79 chances. That difference might be the entirety of the nine wins separating their two teams. (James has played 56 games.)
You cannot help but wonder if members of the voting panel apply different sets of criteria depending on a player's past contributions. All awards can be subjective, and All-NBA especially depends on what you consider to be the spirit of the honor. But keep your rationale consistent if you start weaving in narrative. If losing matters less to the candidacies of a James or Durant than it does for a Beal or Tatum, who wins?
The modern sub-.400 All-NBA club
Only 37 players selected to an All-NBA team since the league's merger with the ABA in 1976 have made the roster for a team that finished with a record below .500 — an average of fewer than one per year. That list already includes James, who made the third team for the 37-win Lakers in 2019. Remarkably, he and Anthony Davis are the last two players to be named All-NBA for teams that finished in 10th place or worse.
Should the Lakers finish 32-50, as projected by FiveThirtyEight, their .390 win percentage would draw a finer demarcation line. Only 22 of the 283 players who have made an All-NBA roster in the league's 75-year history — and just nine since the merger — have done so for a team that won fewer than 40% of its games.
DeMarcus Cousins (2015 Second Team)
59 games for the 2014-15 Sacramento Kings (29-53): 24-13-4 on 47/25/78 splits
Kevin Love (2012 Second Team)
55 games for the 2011-12 Minnesota Timberwolves (26-40): 26-13-2 on 45/37/82 splits
Kevin Garnett (2007 Third Team)
76 games for the 2006-07 Minnesota Timberwolves (32-50): 22-13-4 on 48/21/84 splits
Tracy McGrady (2004 Second Team)
67 games for the 2003-04 Orlando Magic (21-61): 28-6-6 on 42/34/80 splits
Stephon Marbury (2000 Third Team)
74 games for the 1999-2000 New Jersey Nets (31-51): 22-3-8 on 43/28/81 splits
Antonio McDyess (1999 Third Team)
50 games for the 1998-99 Denver Nuggets (14-36): 21-11-2 on 47/11/68 splits
Mitch Richmond (1994 Second Team, 1998 Third Team)
78 games for the 1993-94 Sacramento Kings (28-54): 23-4-4 on 45/41/83 splits
70 games for the 1997-98 Sacramento Kings (27-55): 23-3-4 on 45/39/867 splits
Bernard King (1985 First Team, 1991 Third Team)
55 games for the 1984-85 New York Knicks (24-58): 33-6-4 on 53/10/77 splits
64 games for the 1990-91 Washington Wizards (30-52): 28-5-5 on 47/22/79 splits
Adrian Dantley (1981 Second Team)
80 games for the 1980-81 Utah Jazz (28-54): 31-6-4 on 56/29/81 splits
The scoring title ticket to All-NBA
McGrady, King and Dantley all won scoring titles in their sub-.400 All-NBA seasons. The scoring title has meant an automatic entry to the All-NBA roster (and often a first team invite) in all but two instances. Elvin Hayes failed to earn one of two All-NBA center spots when he averaged a league-leading 28.4 points per game as a rookie on the 37-win San Diego Clippers in 1969, and Bob McAdoo could not secure one of the two center spots when his 31.1 points per game led the NBA for the 46-win Buffalo Braves in 1976.
James, who has played 56 games this season and missed four of his last five with an ankle injury, needs two more appearances in the Lakers' final three games to qualify for the scoring title. His 30.3 points per game currently fall between MVP candidates Joel Embiid (30.4 ppg) and Giannis Antetokounmpo (29.9).
All-NBA legacy voting
James has enjoyed a better career than everyone on the nine-player list above, and his numbers this year (30-8-6 on 52/36/76 shooting splits) are also arguably better than any of their sub-.400 All-NBA seasons. James ranks among the top-five players in most all-encompassing advanced statistics, save for win shares and real plus-minus, where he falls into the lower half of the top 20. He has his numbers-based argument, and a near two-decades-long history of winning games can give voters permission to ignore all the losses.
The opposite was true for Devin Booker last season, when he averaged a 26-4-4 on 48/34/87 splits for the upstart Phoenix Suns. A career's worth of prior losing seasons almost certainly contributed to his 10th-place finish among guards in All-NBA voting. He is averaging a 27-5-5 on 46/38/87 splits this season for the more established Suns, and it would be surprising if he is not named to the All-NBA first or second team.
If it takes a legacy-establishing trip to the Finals to swing the narrative in a rising star's favor for All-NBA consideration, could the same lag be true for an all-time great on the other side of the spectrum? If a rising star waits an extra year for All-NBA consideration but gets an extra nod at the end, does it all even out in the end? Or does the entire system — one with tens of millions of dollars on the line — lose its meaning?
James is the highest-usage player for the NBA's 24th-ranked offense. The Lakers operate like the 19th-ranked offense when James is on the court and the 29th-ranked offense when he is on the bench. The Lakers also rank 22nd on defense this season, and they are 4.1 points per 100 possessions worse — the difference between the league's eighth- and 26th-rated defenses — with James on the floor. He has a negative net rating for the first time since his rookie season, when his Cleveland Cavaliers won 35 games.
James posted a pair of 50-point games over a six-day span in March that also included a DNP-rest. But for every dynamic offensive performance, there are long stretches during which he opts out of defense entirely. This should be expected of a 37-year-old sitting on 36,174 career minutes in a lost cause of a 19th season.
The oddity of all-timers on terrible teams
Of the 34 greatest players in NBA history, only four times has one played 50-plus games for a sub-.400 team in his prime: Elgin Baylor's 1959-60 Lakers (25-50), Wilt Chamberlain's 1962-63 San Francisco Warriors (31-49), Garnett's 2006-07 Wolves (32-50) and Dwyane Wade's 2007-08 Miami Heat (15-67).
Ricky Davis was the minutes leader and next-highest scorer for both the '07 Timberwolves and '08 Heat. Baylor and Chamberlain were playing for teams in financial disarray. The Lakers moved from Minneapolis to L.A. in 1960 with "no team, no coach and only one player, Elgin Baylor, under contract. The Warriors fled from Chamberlain's hometown of Philadelphia for San Francisco in 1962, losing half the roster in the move.
An all-time greats does not lose 50 games unless his franchise is moving, Ricky Davis is his co-star or he is no longer in his prime. Every other sub.-400 season from an NBA icon came outside of his prime (or, in Michael Jordan's case, when a broken foot limited him to seven starts in 1985-86). The lines are definitive.
Moses Malone's four 50-loss campaigns fell outside ages 23-35. John Havlicek, Isiah Thomas and Scottie Pippen only lost 50 games in their final seasons. Allen Iverson suffered 111 losses in his first two seasons and 55 in his last season. Dirk Nowitzki lost 40% of his games as a rookie and at age 39, never in between. Kobe Bryant lost 55-plus in each of his final three seasons. Garnett lost 56 games as a rookie and 53 at age 39. Durant and Curry lost more than 100 games over their first two seasons. Giannis Antetokounmpo lost 67 games as a rookie. None of those 22 50-loss campaigns resulted in an All-NBA selection for the player.
The evidence points to the dawn of a post-prime era for James. Only, none of those legends won a scoring title in his sub-.400 season, which raises some questions for All-NBA voters hoping to wedge James into a crowded field of candidates on superior teams. How much do you weigh individual production against team success? And does career achievement impact how you apply that weight toward a single-season honor?
'It's stupid to not have him on'
Sharpie in eight of the 12 All-NBA guards and forwards — Curry, Booker, Antetokounmpo, Durant, Luka Doncic, Ja Morant, Jayson Tatum and DeMar DeRozan — before considering the contributions of Trae Young, Chris Paul, Donovan Mitchell, Jimmy Butler, Pascal Siakam, Zach LaVine, Dejounte Murray and Jrue Holiday, among others, to above-.500 teams. To say nothing of the debate over including Nikola Jokic as a first team forward alongside Joel Embiid and creating a fourth center spot beyond Karl-Anthony Towns.
None of this is to say James is not deserving of consideration. That he belongs in the conversation at age 37, outside of any deference paid to his past, is another achievement worth celebrating. I just have trouble following the logic of voters who in the past have referenced losing as reason for exclusion from awards.
"It is LeBron, and I know I'm supposed to go with the veil of ignorance," one of the aforementioned voters said on the same podcast. "Do I factor in a guy's legacy? Do I factor in a guy's contributions to the game, his incumbency in the Hall of Halls? I do. In this case, I do, and there are few guys in the league for whom I do that. There is a subjective measure there. I understand. It's me as a voter making an editorial decision."
"I did the same thing last year, when I put LeBron on second team, and some people didn't have him on," his fellow panelist responded. "And my rationale was, 'He's LeBron James. It's stupid to not have him on.' "
That leaves us to wonder if All-NBA is truly a democratic endeavor when the King can lose and still win.
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