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#pounditSaturday, August 8, 2020

From LeBron James to Kawhi Leonard: the front court players most deserving of All-NBA

LeBron James

The selections for All-NBA forwards and centers present an interesting dilemma, as they strictly adhere to a two forward, one center format. In today’s position-less pace-and-space era of the NBA, it seems antiquated to require one center per All-NBA team. With the game speeding up and a premium being placed on spacing, there is a significant decrease in demand for traditional centers. Teams like the Houston Rockets don’t even believe in playing a center.

The NBA recognized this shift in basketball ideology by removing positions from the frontcourt of the All-Star ballot and allowing for three frontcourt players of any position to be named a starter. While this was a step in the right direction, no changes have been made to the format of the All-NBA teams, resulting in less deserving players on the All-NBA teams simply due to their position.

With that caveat in mind, here are my selections for the All-NBA forwards and centers. (You can see my 2020 All-NBA guards here)

Third Team Forward: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat

During his time with the Chicago Bulls, Jimmy Butler went from being the 30th overall pick in the 2011 NBA Draft to one of the elite two-way wings in the NBA. After a short pit stop in Minnesota and an even shorter stay in Philadelphia, it seemed Butler was destined to become a lost talent in the NBA. He was a player capable of decimating his own teammates in practice with unknown bench players but unable to find a long-term fit with a franchise. While Butler’s innate desire to win-at-all-costs has made him a problem in years past, the Miami Heat organization has embraced his intensity.

Lacking a true distributing guard on their roster, the Heat’s seventh-rated offense this season has resulted from entrusting the ball in Butler’s hands. In his role as point-forward, Butler has posted a career (and team) high 6.1 assists per game. Butler has taken advantage of the spacing that Miami’s versatile lineups create by continually attacking the basket and drawing fouls. Only four players have attempted more free throws than Butler this season, and as an 83.3 percent free-throw shooter, Butler is scoring 7.6 points per game at the line alone. Defensively, Butler remains as consistent as ever, set to finish in the top ten in the NBA for steals for a fourth consecutive season. Jimmy Butler has paid dividends on the $141 million investment the Heat made this summer by leading Miami to fourth-place in the Eastern Conference and reestablishing himself as a franchise focal point.

Jayson Tatum

Third Team Forward: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Jayson Tatum’s dunk over LeBron James during the 2018 Eastern Conference Finals of his rookie season appeared to be an omen of things to come for the 19-year-old forward. Although Tatum struggled at times throughout his sophomore campaign, during his third professional season he began to realize the lofty potential he showed as a rookie. Tatum increased his scoring output from year two to year three by a monumental 7.9 points per game, averaging a career-high 23.6 points per game this season. Tatum’s effectiveness as a scorer stemmed from his expanded role within the Celtics’ offense. With Kemba Walker replacing Kyrie Irving this season, the Celtics have played with more ball movement and freedom, benefiting Tatum more than anyone.

Operating as the primary scorer for the first time in his career, Tatum made incremental improvements during the first few months of the season. During February, Tatum took off. He only failed to reach the 25-point plateau once in February and finished the month averaging 30.7 points per game on 49.4 percent field goal shooting and 48.1 percent from three. Even more impressive than his individual numbers in February was the Celtics 9-3 record. Discussions of Tatum’s development as a player rightfully center around his offense. Still, it’s combining those offensive abilities with his work on the defensive end of the floor that project Tatum as a perennial All-NBA selection for years to come.

Rudy Gobert

Third Team Center: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz

Over the past four seasons, only one player in the NBA has averaged at least 13.5 points, 10.5 rebounds, and 2.0 blocks per game. That player is Rudy Gobert. The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has represented the pillar of consistency at the center position. Gobert’s impact on the Jazz extends past his box score numbers. He’s great at the little things paramount for building a successful team but often overlooked. A prime example is his uncanny ability to free up teammates for open shots through screening. Standing 7-foot-1, Gobert can leverage his immense frame and athleticism into bone-crushing screens. His 435 screen assists rank second in the NBA this season.

No discussion of Gobert’s impact would be complete without examining his defensive résumé. Gobert has a chance to join Dwight Howard as the only other player to win Defensive Player of the Year for three consecutive seasons. He not only ranks sixth in the NBA in blocks per game but also has contested the second-most shots of any player. High volume shot-blockers sometimes compromise their team’s defense by chasing blocks or contesting shots they have no conceivable chance of blocking. However, Gobert’s expertise when selecting shots to challenge or block is the prime reason he sits atop ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus. Gobert’s relationship with the Jazz seemingly remains tumultuous, and it is unclear what his status with the team will be when the NBA season resumes. What does remain abundantly clear is the Stifle Tower’s claim as one of the top defensive threats in the association.

Kawhi Leonard

Second Team Forward: Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

Coming off a summer in which he played like the best basketball player alive, Leonard may have arguably gotten better this year. While Leonard’s career-high 26.9 points per game average is certainly noteworthy, it’s his newfound passing ability that separates this season from any other in his distinguished career. Averaging 5.0 assists per game, Leonard has looked more comfortable creating for his teammates this year.

The Clippers have maintained a championship-or-bust mentality throughout the season and understand that championships are not won in January. The only blemish on Leonard’s otherwise spotless résumé this season has been the thirteen games he’s missed on account of load management. Although load management remains one of the most divisive topics in the NBA today, you can’t argue with Leonard’s results. Leonard has been great for the Clippers all season long and will undoubtedly add another All-NBA selection to his already long list of career accolades. With players like Kawhi, you can’t help but feel he’s saving his best for June.

Anthony Davis Lakers

Second Team Forward: Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers

Of all the players left off First Team All-NBA, Anthony Davis will have the most legitimate grievance. Davis has spent 62 percent of his time on the floor this season as a power forward, disqualifying him for a center spot on All-NBA ballots. While this effectively spoils Davis’ chances at making First Team All-NBA, it doesn’t take away from how dominant he has been. Unlike other superstar combos that have teamed up in the past, Davis and LeBron James generated instant chemistry from their first game together. The Lakers forwards were able to form the NBA’s most daunting duo, due in large part to Davis’ understanding of his role.

Davis’ versatility has allowed him to shift his playstyle based on what the Lakers demand from him. The Lakers can rely on him to manufacture baskets, evidenced by the fact that Davis is set to become the first teammate in James’ seventeen-year career to average more points per game than him for a season. Davis’ preferred weapon of choice has been his post-up game. This season Davis ranks third in both total post-ups and points scored from post-ups. A high-usage post scorer can sometimes stagnate their team’s offense, but Davis is able to counteract this with his vision, recording 45 assists when posting up this season. Thanks to his impeccable timing on cuts to the basket, Davis and James have formed one of the most fruitful pick and roll combinations. Davis is the perfect player to complement James, with almost 34 percent of his made field goals coming off an assist from James. While Anthony Davis misses the cut for First Team All-NBA on account of his listed position, he has undoubtedly been one of the top three frontcourt players this year.

Joel Embiid 76ers

Second Team Center: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers

While some centers have been forced to adjust their games to accommodate the playstyle of the modern NBA, Joel Embiid forces the NBA to adjust to him. When Embiid is locked-in, he becomes a destructive force on the defensive side of the court. A seven-footer who moves with the agility and coordination of a guard, Embiid closes out on opposing player’s shots at speeds unparalleled by the league’s other centers. Embiid can be prone to taking some possessions off defensively but is frequently able to recover as a result of his physical gifts. Offensively, Embiid stays ready. The unquestioned number one option in the 76ers offense, Embiid excels at punishing opposing players down low and drawing contact. Embiid is a rare breed of center, capable of not only dominating through physical play in the paint, but also skilled enough to face-up and attack his defender from further out.

Throughout his career, durability has been the one area restricting Embiid. This season is no different, as he’s appeared in just 44 out of a potential 65 games. Even with a limited number of games played, Embiid’s contributions to the 76ers this year have been more substantial than all but one other center in the league. When Embiid is healthy and engaged, there truly is no one else like him in all of the NBA.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

First Team Forward: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

For the past two regular seasons, Giannis Antetokounmpo has been the best player in basketball. And this season it isn’t that close. When examining Antetokounmpo’s MVP numbers from a season ago and his statistics this season, it can be hard to detect the vast improvements he’s made. While Antetokounmpo is averaging career-highs in both points and rebounds per game, it’s his numbers per 36 minutes of play that reveal how dominant the reigning MVP has been.

The Bucks have been thrashing teams all season long on their way to achieving the best record in the NBA. As a result of their dominance, Antetokounmpo’s minutes have dipped to 30.9 per game, as he’s been afforded the opportunity to spectate the fourth quarter of many blowout victories. Per 36 minutes, Antetokounmpo is averaging: 34.5 points, 16.0 rebounds, and 6.7 assists per game. Although per 36 numbers are not flawless estimations of the statistics that a player would record given 36 minutes on the court, they do provide a method for comparing players that play different volumes of minutes. NBA scoring leader, James Harden, provides a perfect example. Harden is averaging 34.4 points per game, almost five more than the 29.6 Antetokounmpo is averaging. However, Harden is also playing nearly six more minutes a game. Antetokounmpo’s per 36 minutes scoring average of 34.5 actually bests Harden’s 33.7. Applying per 36 numbers can be misleading if presented in the wrong context. Still, in cases like Antetokounmpo’s, they can reflect a player’s value in a more meaningful context than basic statistics. The numbers don’t lie, and First Team All-NBA won’t be the only honor Antetokounmpo will walk away with this season.

LeBron James

First Team Forward: LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

What can be said about LeBron James that hasn’t already been said? Now in his seventeenth season in the NBA, James is showing no signs of slowing down. James has already cemented his place in basketball history, with a skillset so well-rounded he lacks any real weaknesses. Arguably James’ quintessential strength is his passing ability, and this season will mark the first time in his storied career that he’s led the NBA in assists per game. James’ assist numbers begin to tell the story of how the Lakers have captured the first seed in the Western Conference, but his leadership has been equally as important.

This season James has earned his crown as one of the best leaders in the NBA. Great leaders in the NBA must not only set an example through their play on the court by elevating the play of their teammates, but more importantly lead their teams to wins. This season James has accomplished all three feats. A natural leader in any environment, James turned in one of his finest leadership performances this season. Unlike last season, the Lakers are not plagued with chemistry issues due to the constant fear of an impending trade. James has maximized the contributions of role players like Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and Avery Bradley. The team plays with jovial energy reminiscent of James’ Cavaliers teams from the start of his career. An All-NBA selection for James this season will give him an NBA record 16 for his career. With no end to King James’ reign insight, 20 doesn’t seem out-of-reach.

Nikola Jokic

First Team Center: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets

Don’t let the fact that Nikola Jokic came into the Nuggets’ training camp heavier than his target playing weight cause you to overlook the season he’s having. Taking a page out of Shaquille O’Neal’s playbook, Jokic used the early parts of the season to condition himself into playing shape. After a slow beginning to the season, Jokic’s Shaq-diet began to take effect. For December, January, and February, Jokic averaged at least 20 points, 9 rebounds, and 6.5 assists per game on greater than 50 percent field goal shooting. Averaging over 6 assists per game for the third consecutive year, the Joker’s playmaking prowess is what sets him apart from the NBA’s other centers.

As the only Nuggets player selected for the All-Star team, Jokic has done more than his fair share of heavy lifting to keep his squad in the third seed of the Western Conference playoff picture. There is a common misconception around the league that at the end of close games, a ball-handling guard or wing is required to generate baskets. Jokic is doing everything he can to debunk that theory. Ranking in the top six in clutch scoring, rebounding and assists, the Nuggets have repeatedly gone to Jokic in close games all season long. While Jokic’s position elevates him from a Second Team spot to First Team in my rankings, there is little doubt that he has been the best center in the NBA this season.

Jack Reining covers the NBA for Larry Brown Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @JackReining3

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