Our look at four topics — players, issues, numbers, trends — that are impacting and, in some cases, changing the game.
First Quarter: All-NBA team predictions
All-NBA First Team
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
F: Jimmy Butler, Miami
C: Nikola Jokic, Denver
G: Stephen Curry, Golden State
G: Damian Lillard, Portland
Reasoning: Jokic was certainly an obvious selection, along with Curry and even Antetokounmpo. Curry’s second half of the season is one of the best displays we’ve ever seen, and Jokic was first on this MVP ballot. Antetokounmpo certainly suffers from voter fatigue, but he’s a regular-season engine on both ends for the Bucks. Butler was a two-way monster after recovering from a nasty battle with COVID-19 and helped dig Miami out of an early-season hole, with the Heat going 33-19 when he played. The playoffs left a lot to be desired, but it clearly looked like the season got to them. Lillard and Luka Doncic battled for that last spot, with Lillard carrying a load for a Portland team riddled with injuries. His efficiency (45-39-93) and Portland playing even with Dallas gave him the nod.
All-NBA Second Team
C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
G: Luka Doncic, Dallas
G: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn
Reasoning: Embiid was an easy choice, and could’ve gone on the first team as a forward, but that would’ve been cheating. He’s a center and even though second-best performer in the league this year, someone who plays his position was better. Leonard was surprisingly left off a lot of MVP ballots but as has been confirmed in the postseason, is just as potent on offense and devastating defensively. Doncic was an easy choice, nearly making the first team over Lillard. I wouldn’t take Kyrie Irving historically over Chris Paul or even in tight situations that require leadership, and his paid time off gave some pause, but man, was he dynamic when he was present. He had a 50-40-90 and was remarkably consistent on the floor, and willingly adjusted upon James Harden’s arrival. James only played 45 games and clearly wasn’t right upon return but he belongs, at least on the second team.
All-NBA Third Team
F: Julius Randle, New York
F: Zion Williamson, New Orleans
C: Rudy Gobert, Utah
G: Chris Paul, Phoenix
G: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers
Reasoning: Randle led the Knicks' renaissance and as the playoffs showed, that’s not a supremely talented team. He maxed out in the regular season and the numbers look even more impressive in hindsight (24-10-6). Williamson got lost playing for an underachieving team, but his production was astronomical. He’s one of the best offensive players in the league in just his second year. Of all players to average 27 points and seven rebounds in a season, his effective FG (.616) is number one, higher than Barkley, Shaq and LeBron. We really ignored him this season. Gobert’s defense and effect on winning puts him above any other center near him. Paul wound up on some MVP ballots — and deserves plenty of credit — but Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton were good this season and good last year, too. Paul is historic, and elevated this team. I could get tricky with George, even though he feels more like a forward than guard. He initiated a lot of offense for the Clippers as a lead guard, averaging a career-high in assists (5.2) and again shooting 41% from three. The all-around play put him over a few other worthy contenders.
Second Quarter: All-Defense predictions
All-Defense First Team
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
F: Draymond Green, Golden State
C: Rudy Gobert, Utah
G: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia
G: Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee
Reasoning: The advanced stats are kind to Gobert, although it can be deceiving a bit. He’s first in defensive rating per 100 possessions, while also being first ALL TIME in offensive rating per 100 possessions, and no one in their right mind would peg him as an offensive juggernaut. But his effect on defense isn’t overstated. He rebounds, blocks shots and although he can struggle on the perimeter, he’s what Utah’s system is built around. You are always looking for where he is, even if he isn’t there. Green returned to his defensive menace days, the most versatile defender in basketball who helped Golden State to a top-five ranking. Simmons is physically gifted and can be a pest, while Antetokounmpo finds a way to be everywhere for the Bucks. Holiday has long been overlooked as one of the best handsy defenders who also doesn’t put himself in foul trouble, moving his feet and plays above his size.
All-Defense Second Team
F: Jimmy Butler, Miami
F: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
C: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
G: Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia
G: Marcus Smart, Boston
Reasoning: Embiid is every bit the defender Gobert is, except Gobert can singularly focus on that end of the floor. Embiid rations his energy, but most importantly, is a willing defender. When healthy, some of the quickest hands and feet around. Thybulle came into the league noted for defense and has only improved through experience and strength. He’s aggressive and fearless on the perimeter. Smart has been a mainstay on my ballot for years. He’s physical and annoying in the best possible way. He can switch on big men and hold his own. Off the ball, he’s rarely out of position. Butler and Leonard are two-fold, given their offensive responsibilities. When Leonard’s massive paws come out, ball handlers beware, he’s coming to snatch. He doesn’t do it for 48 minutes, but for the last five, he can be the best defender in basketball. Butler is still as willing as ever to defend as when he was a one-way player, using his strength to leverage any matchup. He went to the glass more than ever this year, and is still an opportunistic thief.
Third Quarter: The curious case of Kelly Oubre Jr.
In theory, Kelly Oubre Jr. fit as a perfect wing for Golden State’s switch-heavy system, anchored by the versatile and energetic Draymond Green. Oubre had his moments — a 40-point explosion against Dallas in February stands out — but his play was more spotty than consistent, and Golden State seemed to take off on its late-season run after Oubre went down with a torn ligament in his left wrist in April.
He also missed time after an inadvertent elbow to the head from Domantas Sabonis and a fractured bone in his palm.
He’s slated to enter free agency after a two-year deal he signed in 2019, presumably healthy and looking to have better years to come than this one, where he shot a career-low 32% from 3-point range.
Now, some of those numbers are skewed a bit, considering his super slow start to the season. The hope is Oubre can replicate his stellar February, where he averaged 20 points and six rebounds on 50/43/74 splits, finally looking like himself.
Oubre’s jumper isn’t broken by any stretch, and playing with the always-mobile Stephen Curry can be a tricky proposition. He’ll turn 26 in December, and the league has seen players like Jae Crowder and Trevor Ariza, two players who’ve shot exactly 36% from three for their careers after hitting their age-26 seasons, improve as shooters.
For what it’s worth, Oubre shot 35% from three in 2019-20 in Phoenix, including 38% on pull-ups. He’s clearly at his best getting to the basket, shooting 64% at the rim. The league is very three-and-D focused, but being a primary off-hand finisher at the rim should be valued, especially if there’s already shooting on a roster.
As a defender, long and active arms mean he’s apt to get plenty of defections, ranking in the top 10 among wings. He also ranks in the 90th percentile in block percentage and 68th in steal percentage, according to Cleaning The Glass.
Wing players get paid, especially in today’s NBA. Whether it’s Jerami Grant ($20 million per), Gary Harris ($21 million), OG Anunoby ($18 million) or Dillon Brooks ($12 million), disparate players who’ve signed big deals over the last few years; it wouldn’t be a shock to see Oubre command interest from teams who expect to see an uptick in a couple years by way of stability.
According to league sources, Miami, San Antonio and the New York Knicks are among the teams interested in Oubre in free agency, and it’s easy to see him at his best, fitting into those places.
Playing next to Jimmy Butler with Bam Adebayo underneath the rim, or in Tom Thibodeau’s aggressive defensive scheme on a Knicks team in need of athletic wings, it’s certainly feasible.
After the likes of Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, DeMar DeRozan, Kyle Lowry and Mike Conley, there’s another tier where Oubre fits — with Victor Oladipo, Spencer Dinwiddie, Richaun Holmes, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Norman Powell.
Oubre’s season in Golden State sticks out like a sore thumb, similar to Warriors rookie James Wiseman. There’s no doubt Wiseman should be an impact player in time, and the Warriors' season is a story in contrast — as was this NBA season in general with the COVID-19 protocols, lack of practice time and very little continuity.
Oubre will likely be on the hunt for his fourth team this summer, and he's still very young. No reason to think there isn’t plenty of room to grow in the meantime.
Fourth Quarter: Being a 'bust' is OK
In the past weeks, the topic of busts have entered the consciousness of the sports culture, presented as a harsh and unfair way to describe underachieving players with the counter of said players developing generational wealth in the face of athletic failure.
It’s OK for someone to be labeled a “bust.” It’s not an indictment on their life or their journey to the NBA. We all know it’s a minute shot for any young man to make it to the professional level, let alone becoming a top draft pick.
There’s an expectation for lottery picks to be productive and an even higher standard for players selected in the top three. Franchises expect a turnaround and invest resources and time into players, even if the decision-making isn’t the best.
There are slight differences, though.
Some players don’t live up to their draft standing, unable to show more than flashes of potential. Others were merely overdrafted, a total miss on player evaluation and ability.
Being a bust is only relative to the expectations, not a player’s worth or value to the game. Some carve out reasonable careers, many are serviceable for various teams. It’s a rare case a draft bust is completely useless.
But a player can be a productive bust, not turning out as the All-Star or Hall of Famer they were projected to be. More than one thing can be true at the same time.
The way athletes are described can often be harsh, clearly in the social media space where there are no handlebars and no brakes. Treating them as human would lead to better interactions across the board, especially as salaries rise and the player/fan relationship has been strained upon the opening of arenas.
But “bust” isn’t a painful word or one rooted in pathological pain. It’s rooted in the reality of sports, it happens.
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