Predicting Final 2020-21 All-NBA Teams

Zach Buckley@@ZachBuckleyNBANational NBA Featured ColumnistApril 14, 2021

Predicting Final 2020-21 All-NBA Teams

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    On the Goldilocks scale of NBA honors, the All-NBA selections have just the right amount of intrigue.

    They're more selective and more substantive than All-Star nods while being more inclusive than the miniature races for individual end-of-season awards.

    These might be the hardest ballots to fill and the trickiest predictions to make because there are always more deserving candidates than there are roster spots. With only six guards, six forwards and three centers making the final cut, hair-splitting becomes necessary when using the stat sheet and the eye test to build these rosters.

    But we have crunched enough numbers to make an educated guess as to how each All-NBA team will measure up once the curtains close on the 2020-21 campaign.

Third Team

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    Adam Hunger/Associated Press

    Guard: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

    The backcourt position is overloaded with deserving candidates—Spoiler Alert: Scoring leader Bradley Beal was among our toughest omissions—but Mitchell has the best blend of individual and team success to snag the final spot.

    His personal stats are peaking almost across the board (including career-bests in points, assists, rebounds and triples), and his Jazz sit atop the Association in winning percentage and net efficiency. Should Utah slide out of the No. 1 spot, that might open the door for someone like Beal, Devin Booker or Zach LaVine to claim the honor, but our crystal ball likes Mitchell.

                  

    Guard: Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets

    Irving's execution makes it seem like he has stumbled into this secret formula for offensive precision. While has always enjoyed a quantity-plus-quality boost, this is getting ridiculous: 27.6 points on 51.4/39.8/90.7 shooting, plus 6.0 assists against just 2.2 turnovers.

    Brooklyn's superior star power might mute the MVP arguments of its three-headed monster, but this squad will be well-represented on the All-NBA rosters.

                  

    Forward: Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

    There's a case to be made that Durant has simply missed too much time to qualify—he has only played in 21 of the Nets' first 53 games—but he has time to add more appearances to his resume before ballots are due. And the more time award-voters have to see him in action, the harder it will become to exclude him from the rosters.

    The post-Achilles version of Durant looks almost identical to the pre-Achilles version. And remember, that player piled up nine All-NBA nods, including six first-team selections. If he showed any rust, maybe the absences would be the deciding factor. But even in this small sample, he's been too brilliant—28.1 points on 52.8/43.7/87.7 shooting—to deny.

                  

    Forward: Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

    Like a trendy cryptocurrency, Williamson is skyrocketing to the moon. Given the speed and strength of his recent heater—31.7 points, 7.7 rebounds and 4.4 assists over his last 10 outings—the conversation is shifting from whether he deserves an All-NBA spot to which of the three teams he'll land on.

    New Orleans' lack of success stunts his credentials a bit, but the numbers speak for themselves. He'll need to keep the gas pedal floored to hold off the competition, but with more point-Zion minutes awaiting him, his stats could explode over the stretch run.

                  

    Center: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

    Center is the easiest position on the ballot, and even now the selections seem like they'll be straightforward. We won't spoil the top two just yet, but we're guessing you know who those players are. Similarly, you probably aren't the least bit surprised to see Gobert here.

    Some voters (and casual fans) might struggle to assess his impact, since he's not a major scoring threat (14.5 points per game), but he's the most important player on this season's most successful squad. Beyond pacing the Jazz in boards (13.4) and blocks (2.8), he's also their high man in win shares, box plus/minus (BPM), real plus-minus (RPM) and net rating differential.

Second Team

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Guard: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

    Curry's offensive sorcery can't be denied—not by an underwhelming (and Klay Thompson-less) supporting cast and not by any rust that could have accumulated during his injury-riddled 2019-20 season. The Chef is back cooking up delicacies like he never left the kitchen. His 30.4 points per game and 65.5 true shooting percentage aren't unlike the marks he hit during his unanimous MVP campaign of 2015-16 (30.1 and 66.9, respectively).

    RPM says Curry has had the greatest impact of anyone not named LeBron James this season. BPM puts Curry fourth overall. The only thing working against him is the fact that two other guards are putting similar absurdities on the stat sheet but suiting up for much better teams.

                  

    Guard: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

    Lillard is a miracle-worker, in more ways than one. He plays like his takeover meter is permanently filled, a skill that has him on course to match himself and James Harden as the only players ever to average 28 points, seven assists and four three-pointers. Only MVP front-runner Nikola Jokic has earned more offensive win shares this season.

    As a team leader, though, Lillard shines even brighter. He has somehow held together a Portland team ripped apart by injuries and helped it tight-rope to almost 10 games above .500 despite having a negative scoring differential. How is that possible? Because the Blazers are 9-4 in games decided by three points or less and a ridiculous plus-82 across 100 clutch minutes with Lillard.

                  

    Forward: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

    Add "Mr. All-NBA" to the Chosen One's many monikers. This is his 18th season in the league. His rookie campaign was the only one not punctuated by an All-NBA honor. Last season's 16th selection—his 13th as a first-teamer—was already the most in league history. He'll add to that total this season and maybe for as long as he desires.

    He has a rock-solid argument for another first-team selection. He leads everyone in RPM and is one of only four players averaging 25 points, seven rebounds and seven assists. But he has already lost three weeks to a high ankle sprain and could be down another three weeks, which might put him too far behind the first-team forwards to catch up.

                  

    Forward: Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

    Fueled by 2020 postseason struggles and all the criticisms that came along with them, George told the world he was, "coming back with vengeance" in mid-January. He wasn't kidding. The seven-time All-Star has never had a higher true shooting percentage (or even come close), and he's up all the way to fourth in RPM as the only player graded at three or better on both ends of the floor.

    The Clippers need a strong finish to build their confidence ahead of the postseason, and George has them positioned to do exactly that. Over his last three outings—all three Clippers wins—he's averaging 33.7 points on 56.5/60.9/100 shooting with 5.7 assists against 2.0 turnovers.

                  

    Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

    Give Embiid a clean bill of health, and he might have an All-NBA first spot sewed up and the MVP award headed his way. But there are too many absences (18 through 54 games) for him to run down the first-team center (who might be speeding toward his own MVP win).

    If Embiid played any other position, he might still have a shot at first-team honors. He ranks first in player efficiency rating (PER), second in win shares per 48 minutes and third in BPM. But he just so happens to also rank second among centers—behind the same player—in the latter two categories.

First-Team Guard: James Harden, Brooklyn Nets

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    Frank Franklin II/Associated Press

    It feels funny to say this now with the buzzsaw Brooklyn has become, but it wasn't immediately clear if this iteration of the superteam Nets would work. James Harden should get a huge chunk of the credit for turning that conversation into a laugh riot.

    The three-time scoring champ put his game on the potter's wheel and molded it into a masterclass on basketball quarterbacking. He might be a walking bucket, but he recognized that two of his teammates are, too, and in order for all three to maximize their offensive impact, someone had to turn down the net-shredding and dial up the distributing.

    Now, he's in the driver's seat for his second assists title and steering one of the most ruthlessly efficient attacks this league has ever seen.

    "He's ... in a position where he's grateful for the opportunity and wants to win," Nets coach Steve Nash said, per USA Today's Mark Medina. "He's willing to sacrifice, so his leadership has been great."

    Harden might have turned off some voters with his messy divorce from the Houston Rockets, and he's fighting a hamstring strain that could torpedo his All-NBA candidacy if it lingers. That said, he has the narrative (bringing Brooklyn's roster together) and the numbers (25.2 points, 10.9 assists and 8.0 rebounds) to snag his fifth consecutive first-team honor.

First-Team Guard: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

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    Tony Gutierrez/Associated Press

    Last season, Luka Doncic piloted the Dallas Mavericks to the most efficient offensive season in NBA history. For his efforts, he was rewarded with an All-NBA First Team spot and a fourth-place finish in MVP voting.

    How does anyone follow that up? Well, if you're Doncic, you apparently find enough room in your bag of offensive tricks to summon even more efficiency.

    Despite taking more shots overall and from distance, he has added to his connection rates on both. His field-goal percentage is up from 46.3 to 48.6, while his three-point splash rate has spiked from 31.6 to 36.6.

    The Mavs aren't quite as efficient as a team, but they've never felt Doncic's impact more. His net differential is triple what it was last season, from plus-1.2 points per 100 possessions to plus-3.6.

    "He can do whatever," Portland Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts told reporters. "He can score. He can pass. He makes teammates better."

    If Doncic isn't the ideal player to lead an NBA attack, he's something very close to it. He is equal parts jumbo-playmaker and, when that step-back three is falling, unguardable scorer. As good as this league's guards are, this might be Doncic's spot to lose for the next decade.

First-Team Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

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    Aaron Gash/Associated Press

    After earning MVP honors in 2018-19 and then upping the ante by pairing that award with the Defensive Player of the Year last season, you had to wonder if anyone or anything could slow down Giannis Antetokounmpo.

    A nagging knee injury might be the answer.

    His All-NBA first-team argument is still intact, but the fact that there isn't a timetable for his return is troubling.

    Saying that, though, let's give the basketball gods the benefit of the doubt that they'll get him back on the floor sooner than later. If that happens, this could be a third consecutive first-team honor, despite the best efforts of James and George.

    Antetokounmpo has no greater competition than his own shadow. He was so absurdly dominant the past two seasons that anything less would inevitably feel like a letdown. With his PER at a three-year low, that tiny bit of backtracking might trick some into thinking he isn't quite as overpowering as in the past.

    Nonsense. At the very least, he still cracks the Association's current Mount Rushmore with top-five rankings in BPM (second), PER (third), win shares (fourth) and RPM (fifth).

First-Team Forward: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

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    Ringo H.W. Chiu/Associated Press

    Kawhi Leonard has the precision of a factory that has gone so many days without an accident that the boss no longer bothers to update it.

    Nightly efficiency is incredible to watch, but sometimes the mundane nature of its inevitability can mask all of the fun. He is so methodical in his approach that his stats tend to sneak up on you. He might seem like he's having a decent night, and then you look at the box score and realize he popped for 30-plus points on 50-plus percent shooting with a good amount of dimes and very few turnovers.

    "He's not flashy to people," Paul George told reporters. "He's effective. You talk about a guy that goes on the floor and is 100 percent committed to winning and winning at all costs."

    Leonard's skill set checks every box. He scores at every level. He defends like his paycheck solely depends on it. He cleans the glass. He buries long-range bombs. And he has never been better at creating shots for his teammates, pairing a personal-best 5.0 assists per night with only 2.0 giveaways.

    Add it all up, and he's one of the league's most complete contributors. The Clippers feel his impact every time he hits the hardwood, outscoring opponents by 11.0 points per 100 possessions with him and only 0.9 without. There is no denying his two-way greatness when he ranks third in win shares, fifth in PER and eighth in BPM.

    So long as this recent foot problem doesn't persist, he should be named an All-NBA first-teamer for the first time since 2016-17.

First-Team Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

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    David Zalubowski/Associated Press

    If the lead executives at DC Films are hoop heads, they might want to get the ball rolling on the next Batman flick, because Nikola Jokic has absolutely made this the year of the Joker.

    The MVP race is crowded like a pre-socially distanced theme park, and Jokic still stands out as the clear-cut favorite. His numbers are already enormous—third player ever to average 26 points, 10 rebounds and eight assists—but they could be trending toward a late eruption now that the Denver Nuggets have lost star guard Jamal Murray to a torn ACL. (Deep sigh. Get well soon, Jamal!)

    Jokic is 26 years old and already the best-passing big man in NBA history. He's also, as of this season, a 41.8 percent shooter from long range and the second-most prolific scorer on post-ups (6.0 points per game). He has created the sixth-most points off of assists (21.9) and snagged the eighth-most rebounds (10.9).

    If the campaign closed today, he'd be just the third player ever to average 20 points and one three-pointer while shooting at least 55 percent from the field and 40 percent from distance.

    "He just does anything he wants," Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr told reporters. "He has the skill, the brain, the feel, the timing that all the great ones have."

    Jokic has pole position in most advanced statistics, including win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, BPM and Value Over Replacement Player. RPM might be the lowest on Jokic, as he "only" ranks ninth overall.

    It might take a total collapse by the Nuggets combined with a sizzling stretch run by Embiid to force Jokic out of this spot. Even that may not be enough.

                    

    All stats current through April 12 and courtesy of NBA.com and Basketball Reference unless otherwise noted.

    Zach Buckley covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @ZachBuckleyNBA.