Pool of forward considered:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Danilo Gallinari, Paul George, LeBron James, Brandon Ingram, Zach LaVine, Kawhi Leonard, Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Domantas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam
First Team — Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James
Three guys have a legitimate case for the other First Team spot. This is where many ballots pull shenanigans. I’ve seen people list LeBron James as a point guard since he led the league in assists. I’ve seen Anthony Davis at center, since he’s a seven footer and usually best at that position. I’ve even seen Kawhi Leonard as a guard.
Unfortunately, they’re all forwards in a league with Giannis, so they’re all competing for one First Team spot. And next year we get Kevin Durant back too.
There’s really no good argument for Brow over LeBron if you watched the Lakers play. Los Angeles struggled in LeBron-less lineups. Davis had the higher offensive and defensive ratings and was the better defender, though LeBron played well on that end. Look, forget any statistical argument here. If you’re reading this, you watched the Lakers play, and if you watched the Lakers play, you know LeBron mattered more.
LeBron versus Kawhi Leonard is a much fairer argument. Kawhi Leonard just led the Toronto Raptors to an NBA championship, and there’s a plausible argument that there’s no player you’d rather have for this year’s playoffs — including LeBron and Giannis. Kawhi was the better player this year, slightly, in advanced metrics like BPM and PIPM. His defense reaches another level, and he’s a slightly more efficient scorer.
If you look at the numbers, things are really quite even. But two big numbers stick out in LeBron’s favor. First, he led the league in assists and doubled Kawhi in that area, even in Leonard’s finest season as a playmaker. Even more importantly, LeBron played nine more games and 450 more minutes. In this shortened season, that’s almost 25% more LeBron than Kawhi.
So that’s the statistical argument. Or if you prefer to keep things simpler: when in doubt, until proven otherwise, tie goes to the LeBron.
Second Team — Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis
Not much left to say on these two.
It’s a heck of a league when you can wipe out the entire Warriors dynasty to injury (or apathy, in Draymond Green’s case) and knock out four legitimate All-NBA contenders, and Kawhi and Brow still end up on the Second Team.
Third Team — Jimmy Butler, Jayson Tatum
I listed nine other forwards above, but Gallinari, Ingram, LaVine, and Sabonis were cursory mentions. Really nice seasons, deserving All-Stars, but not in this conversation.
That left Butler, George, Middleton, Siakam, and Tatum for these final two spots. Jimmy Butler rises above the rest. To me, he’s the one guy left that absolutely has to be All-NBA. This might be Butler’s finest NBA season. His last season in Chicago was probably better, but Butler had career highs in rebounding, assist, and block rates, and he saw a huge rise in his free-throw rate with way more of the ball in his hands, becoming a more efficient scorer.
This is Butler at his finest, as big fish in a smaller pond, leading the 8th best team in the NBA to an inspiring second-round exit. Butler does a bit of everything, and he clearly set the tone for a rugged Miami team with his work ethic and style of leadership.
Butler has to be All-NBA… Which means we’ve got one spot left.
I don’t buy Siakam as a real candidate. I love the guy, but he somehow went from underrated to overrated in the span of eight games. At the start of the season, Siakam was averaging 27.9 points, 9.3 rebounds, and 3.6 assists a game… for two weeks. That included four 30-point games and concluded in a 44-point explosion, and we all decided he had made the leap.
Then the rest of the season happened, and that 28/9 faded back to 23/7, the sort of regression that’s bound to happen when you shoot 52/41/95 over the first eight games. Pascal Siakam is still really good, and he clearly took another step this year. He’s just also not All-NBA yet.
Paul George ain’t it either, not this year. PG never really got going this season after missing its start. He was nothing like last year’s MVP contender, falling off at both ends and receding to second banana status. He was similar to Tatum or Middleton, but slightly worse and on the court far less.
That leaves Tatum and Middleton, maybe the toughest decision on the ballot. And credit where it’s due, because I scoffed at the thought of either of these guys as All-NBA candidates as recently as one month before the “end” of the season.