March Madness has arrived, signaling the heart of the NBA’s dog days. With less than a month left in the regular season and a third of the league already in tank mode, let’s pass the time by examining five key questions that will frame the upcoming debates over the 2018 All-NBA teams.
Note: A panel of media members selects three All-NBA teams compromised of two guards, two forwards and one center for each team. Voters are instructed to select players “at the position they play regularly,” allowing some wiggle room for tweeners. If a player receives votes at multiple positions, the NBA slots him at the position with the higher vote total.
1. How badly will injuries screw up this year’s ballots?
Pretty badly. Four of last year’s 15 All-NBA recipients—Kawhi Leonard, Isaiah Thomas, John Wall and Rudy Gobert—have missed 25+ games this season. Of those four, only Gobert has any shot at returning to the list in 2018.
But those serious cases are only the beginning. Stephen Curry, a strong First Team candidate, has missed 17 games and counting due to various ankle injuries. Chris Paul, a possible First Team candidate if fully healthy, has missed 18 games total, including 14 of Houston’s first 15 with a knee injury. Jimmy Butler, a First or Second Team candidate, could easily wind up missing 20+ games following a recent knee surgery. DeMarcus Cousins, a 2016 Second Team selection, is out of the running after rupturing his Achilles in January. Long-term injuries also sank the candidacies of fringe candidates like Kristaps Porzingis, Gordon Hayward, Kevin Love, Paul Millsap and Mike Conley.
All told, that’s at least a baker’s dozen worth of All-Stars whose 2018 All-NBA cases were weakened or ruined by injuries.
2. Will the All-NBA ballot’s positional designations create any messes?
There are a few minor complications this year, but nothing too crazy.
As context, the All-NBA’s two guards, two forwards, and one center structure differs from the All-Star ballot’s two guards and three frontcourt players setup. In some years, a relative lack of quality centers has led to a tilted playing field. Only on the 2016 All-NBA ballot, for example, could DeAndre Jordan be held up as one of the league’s top five players while the likes of Kevin Durant and Chris Paul, Jordan’s more deserving Clippers teammate at the time, be bumped to the Second Team.
This year’s biggest First Team glut is at the forward spot, where LeBron James, Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Durant are all worthy First Team selections. While a healthy Leonard would have made this an even more crowded mix, Cousins’s injury helps ease the log jam. Davis has played nearly half of his minutes this season as the Pelicans' center, per NBAwowy.com, and voters plugged him in as the All-NBA First Team center last year.
In 2018, voters will likely choose between two strong options for the First Team frontline:
• James and Durant at forward with Davis at center
•? James and Antetokounmpo at forward with Davis at center
All-NBA voters have selected James to the First Team every year since 2008, and his status as the consensus pick as the sport’s all-around best player makes him a virtual lock again this season. Davis’s positional flexibility simplifies the options for James’s forward partner to a binary decision between Durant (better team, more efficient shooter, and more established name) and Antetokoumpo (healthier, bigger box score stats).
In a position-less world, one might reasonably argue that this year’s five most deserving All-NBA First Team selections are James, Durant, Davis, Antetokounmpo and James Harden. From that standpoint, there will be at least one snub because Durant and Antetokounmpo can’t be listed as guards. This isn’t the end of the world, though, because there’s a deep crop of worthy guards, as always, to pick from.
There’s another bit of good news on the “center” front: Joel Embiid and Karl-Anthony Towns are both strong All-NBA candidates, combining strong individual numbers and team success for Philadelphia and Minnesota, respectively. Boston’s Al Horford is another All-NBA worthy player who could reasonably be listed as a forward or a center too. In other words, 2018 won’t be one of those years in which one or two centers slip onto the final All-NBA teams in place of more deserving forwards.
3. Which high-profile guard is getting snubbed?
The standard is so high to make the All-NBA backcourt that someone notable inevitably winds up getting snubbed, whether because of injuries or simply a lack of space. Last year, Damian Lillard, Chris Paul, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry and Klay Thompson missed the cut. In 2016, James Harden, DeMar DeRozan, John Wall, Isaiah Thomas and Irving were among the names left off.
This year, there are at least seven credible All-NBA candidates from the NBA’s top five teams alone: Harden, Paul, Curry, Thompson, DeRozan, Irving and Lillard. Throw in Westbrook, an All-NBA selection in six of the last seven years, and that’s eight strong candidates. Victor Oladipo and Lowry have both played well enough for winning teams to get on the radar, too.
It’s extremely difficult to forecast exactly how voters will narrow down that group to six selections. Paul and Thompson aren’t No. 1 options on their respective teams. Paul and Curry have both missed meaningful stretches of the season. Westbrook’s Thunder trail the Rockets, Warriors and Blazers in the standings, but their current No. 4 seed is higher than their No. 6 seed last year, when he earned MVP honors and an All-NBA First Team selection. Lillard, meanwhile, is hard to snub completely given that his current season is more impressive than the 2016 campaign that landed him a Second Team nod. Irving is in a similar situation: He’s led Boston to one of the East’s best records while playing an individual season that’s been more impressive than his 2015 Third Team year.
Harden is a sure-fire lock, and DeRozan will probably finish second with the second-best all-around case given his numbers, good health, and Toronto’s East-leading record. Past that it gets murky quickly, and it will be painful no matter who gets left off.
Snub Paul because he missed time? His counter is that he plays for the league’s best team and leads the league in Real Plus-Minus. Dock Curry for his injuries? He plays for the NBA’s second-best team (and best when it tries) and has posted better numbers than his 2015 MVP season. Penalize Westbrook for the Thunder’s uneven campaign? He’s nearly averaged a triple-double for a team that might win 50 games. Leave off Lillard or Irving and be prepared for their vocal fan bases to erupt in anger.
Right now, there’s no perfect solution and health factors down the stretch will likely play a crucial role in determining who goes where.
4. Which players are in line for their first All-NBA selections?
This year’s top newcomers are Towns and Embiid. Both have enjoyed good health. Both made their first All-Star teams this year. Both are on track to make their playoff debuts this year. Both are the most deserving All-NBA candidates on their teams (now that Butler has missed so much time in Minnesota). And both join Davis and Antetokounmpo as the league’s only 20 PPG/10 RPG players with at least 50 games played to date.
The other potential first-timers—guys like Oladipo and Nikola Jokic—are a cut below and unlikely to generate significant consideration.
5. How many Warriors make the cut?
The Steve Kerr Era has produced an embarrassment of riches for the Warriors when it comes to awards. Two titles. Curry has won two MVPs. Draymond Green has won Defensive Player of the Year. Durant has won Finals MVP, as has Andre Iguodala. Kerr himself has won Coach of the Year. And Curry, Durant, Green and Thompson were All-Stars this year and last.
But this year’s Warriors are slightly off their record-setting pace of seasons past. Houston sits atop the West standings, and all four of Golden State’s All-Stars have missed some time this year with minor injuries. In 2016, before Durant arrived, Curry made the First Team, Green made the Second Team, and Thompson made the Third team. In 2017, Durant and Curry were Second Team selections, Green was a Third Team selection, and Thompson was snubbed.
Three could be the magic number again this year. One reasonable scenario: Durant makes the First or Second Team, Curry gets dropped to the Third Team due to injuries, Green is re-elected to the Third Team given his similar stats to last year, and Thompson is snubbed again. But it’s also conceivable that voters opt to spread the love around and settle on only two Warriors. As mentioned above, Curry could be in trouble if Golden State opts to slow-play his return from his current ankle tweak over the next few weeks. Green should be sweating somewhat too: James, Durant, Antetokounmpo, Al Horford, LaMarcus Aldridge and Paul George are six worthy selections at forward.
If The Season Ended Today
If the season ended on Friday (so that future absences were not held against players with ongoing injuries), here’s a preliminary look at how this voter would cast his ballot:
2018 All-NBA First Team
• Guards: James Harden and Stephen Curry (likely to drop down)
•? Forwards: LeBron James and Kevin Durant
•? Center: Anthony Davis
2018 All-NBA Second Team
•? Guards: DeMar DeRozan and Russell Westbrook
•? Forwards: Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jimmy Butler (likely to drop off entirely)
•?Center: Joel Embiid
2018 All-NBA Third Team
•? Guards: Damian Lillard and Kyrie Irving
•? Forwards: Paul George and Al Horford
•? Center: Karl-Anthony Towns
Top current snubs: Chris Paul, Draymond Green, LaMarcus Aldridge, Klay Thompson and Kyle Lowry.