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#pounditSaturday, October 31, 2020

From Luka Doncic to Chris Paul: Which guards deserve to make All-NBA

Luka Doncic

Little is known about when the NBA will make its highly-anticipated return. With close to three-fourths of the regular season in the books, the leaders for end-of-season awards have distinguished themselves from the pack. All-NBA selections are meant to represent the best players at their respective positions. Quantifying what it means to be the best at one’s position is as divisive of a debate as the Michael Jordan/LeBron James G.O.A.T. argument. Selection as an All-NBA player is about not only putting up impressive statistics, but also embodying winning with play on the court.

Without further ado, here are my selections for the All-NBA guards based on this shortened season’s body of work.

Honorable Mention: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks

If All-NBA teams were decided based on offensive accomplishments alone, Trae Young would be a shoo-in. However, Young finds himself as an honorable mention because of his résumé on the other side of the floor. Out of the 503 players that qualify for ESPN’s defensive real plus-minus, Young ranks 503rd. Young’s historically bad defensive season should not fall solely on his shoulders. The Hawks as a whole have struggled defensively with the third-worst defensive net rating in the NBA. As is often the case with inexperienced teams possessing no defensive identity, the Hawks find themselves close to the bottom of the standings. Their 20-47 record represents the fatal blow to a higher ranking for Young.

Young’s honorable mention is not meant to disparage the incredible individual season he’s put together. His averages of 29.6 points and 9.3 assists per game are indicative of the immense offensive burden the Hawks have placed on their second-year point guard. If the Hawks’ core surrounding Young can progress in the coming seasons, All-NBA awards may not be the only hardware in Young’s future.

Russell Westbrook

Third Team: Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets

Russell Westbrook’s Rockets tenure did not begin with the flair that the NBA has become accustomed to from the 2017 MVP. After a disappointing first few weeks with his new team, Westbrook’s turnaround began in December. His numbers have only flourished since then, averaging over 30 points, 7 rebounds, and 6 assists per game on over 50 percent field goal shooting from January to February. By embracing “Moreyball” to the fullest extent, and swapping Clint Capela for Robert Covington, the Rockets have unlocked arguably the best version of Westbrook.

The Rockets have cleared the runway for Westbrook’s assaults on the rim by flanking him with shooters and playing no traditional bigs who clog up driving lanes. In an ironic twist of fate, it was the Rockets, (a team notorious for the historic volume of threes they take), that finally convinced Westbrook to limit his long-range attempts. Westbrook’s 3.8 three-point attempts per game are his lowest since the 2012-13 season, a welcome trend for the career 30.4 percent long-range shooter. The Rockets’ championship-or-bust mentality resulted in them scoffing at convention and tailoring a lineup specifically to Westbrook’s strengths. No matter how the Rockets fare in the postseason, Westbrook’s play this season warrants an All-NBA selection.

Third Team: Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Kyle Lowry and the Toronto Raptors are the defending NBA champions, and this season they have taken every opportunity to remind the league of that. When the Raptors lost the reigning Finals MVP, Kawhi Leonard, in free agency, many expected them to sell high on their veteran championship assets and begin a rebuild around Pascal Siakam. Lowry refused to let that happen.

After spending much of last season deferring to Leonard, Lowry’s scoring average has skyrocketed from 14.2 points per game to 19.7 points per game this year. Arguably more impressive than his scoring numbers is Lowry’s ability to soak up large amounts of minutes. At 33 years old, Lowry has played the third-most minutes per game in the NBA. Everything Lowry does on the floor embodies the winning sentiment that All-NBA selections require. The 30 charges Lowry has drawn is tied for first in the NBA this season. Lowry is the heart, soul, and voice of the Raptors. His leadership and play on the court this season are why the Raptors were able to lose arguably the best basketball player in the world yet still occupy the second seed in the Eastern Conference.

Damian Lillard

Second Team: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

The fact that Damian Lillard is the only guard on my All-NBA rankings whose team isn’t in a playoff position speaks to how truly magnificent Lillard has been this season. Over the past five seasons the Trail Blazers have relied on Lillard for at least 25 points and 6 assists a night. This season Lillard has upped the ante. Lillard’s 28.9 points and 7.8 assists per game aren’t the only career highs he’s posted this season as he’s also shooting a career-best from the field. A gifted scorer from anywhere on the court, Lillard has scored the second-most points in the NBA as a pick and roll ball handler, while ranking in the 96th percentile for efficiency.

The Trail Blazers have been ravaged by injuries this season but remain playoff hopefuls thanks in large part to Lillard’s contributions. Three and a half games out of the final playoff spot in the Western Conference, the Trail Blazers would have needed to set their clocks permanently to Dame Time to make a postseason push. Regardless of the Trail Blazers’ position in the Western Conference, Lillard has made winning plays all season long. And for anyone that doubts Lillard’s status as a winner, ask Paul George.

Second Team: Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder

Time and time again, the NBA has proven that the narrative surrounding a particular player or team can have a profound impact on award races. After the shocking trade that sent Chris Paul from the Houston Rockets to the Oklahoma City Thunder this past summer, the narrative created was that the veteran Paul would not be happy and ultimately be shipped out of the city where his illustrious career began. However, as soon as the trade went through, Paul started rewriting that narrative.

Paul’s averages of 17.7 points and 6.8 assists per game aren’t as eye-popping as some of the other guards across the NBA. But throughout his career, Paul’s impact on winning has extended far past his statistics. Paul has served as both a guiding hand to the Thunder’s young players and the team’s alpha dog, seizing control of the offense when the stakes are the highest. With Paul at the helm, the Thunder have dominated teams in close games all season long as Paul ranks first in the NBA in clutch points.

Already an eight-time All-NBA selection, Paul would likely have more if not for some untimely injuries earlier in his career. Switching to a plant-based diet over the summer has done wonders for Paul’s durability, as he’s missed no games due to injuries this season. Paul’s most significant accomplishment this season is undoubtedly the Thunder’s 40-24 record. The Thunder have made a mockery of the preseason projections that saw them struggling to compete for a playoff spot. Currently, at fifth in the Western Conference, they remain just two and a half games out of the third seed. They also sit one place ahead of the Houston Rockets. The same team that supposedly traded Paul and a bevy of draft picks to give themselves a better shot at competing for a championship.

James Harden

First Team: James Harden, Houston Rockets

For the first few weeks of the NBA season, it appeared as if James Harden had a legitimate chance at becoming the first player since Wilt Chamberlain to average 40 points per game for a season. While Harden’s scoring numbers have inevitably regressed since his scorching start, his impact on the Rockets has not. Averaging over 34 points per game, Harden is poised to lead the NBA in scoring for a third consecutive year.

Harden’s ability to score in isolation situations is as dumbfounding as it is polarizing. Conventional basketball fans will argue that Harden’s style of play leaves his teammates disengaged, as they often find themselves in stationary positions around the perimeter, merely watching Harden work his isolation magic. Harden’s supporters will counter with the fact that he’s on pace to finish in the top ten in assists per game in the NBA for the sixth straight season. Harden’s effectiveness in isolation is historic. His league-leading 991 points scored in isolation situations this season are almost triple his teammate, Russell Westbrook’s 348 second-place total. While the jury is still out on Harden’s postseason effectiveness, there is no denying the regular-season offensive force that is James Harden.

First Team: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks

In just his second season, Luka Doncic took the leap from up-and-coming star to bonafide superstar. Building off his impressive Rookie of the Year campaign, Doncic has become one of the premier playmakers in the NBA this season. The second-year guard has been the driving engine behind the Mavericks’ top-rated offense this season, as he holds the third-highest usage percentage in the league.

Doncic has been lethal in the pick and roll all season, using his size and vision to dissect defenses. When defenses overplay Doncic’s pick and roll action he’s shown LeBron James’ level mastery of hitting the open shooter in the far corner. Doncic’s passing ingenuity paired with his finishing ability, make him a nightmare to defend in the half-court. As a rookie, Doncic converted around a league-average pace of 62 percent of his looks at the rim. This season, Doncic ranks in the 94th percentile shooting 73 percent at the rim. Doncic has been able to counteract his subpar athleticism with a craftiness not usually found in second-year players.

While Doncic’s 31.8 percent from long range can appear daunting, that number is not a true reflection of his marksmanship from deep. Doncic is frequently forced to fire up attempts late in shot clocks and with defenders bearing down on him. While Harden remains the sultan of the stepback three, Doncic has shown a similar ability to extend defenses with one of the most challenging shots in basketball. At just 21 years of age, this season represents what will likely be the first of many All-NBA selections for Luka Doncic.

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

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