LeBron James and James Harden
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2020 PBT Awards: All-NBA

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The NBA regular season might be finished. Heck, the entire NBA season might be finished. Even if play resumes with regular-season games, there’d likely be an abridged finish before the playoffs (which will also likely be shortened).

So, we’re making our 2019-20 award picks now. If the regular season somehow lasts long enough to reconsider our choices, we’ll do that. But here are our selections on the assumption the regular season is over.

Kurt Helin

First team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

G: Kemba Walker, Celtics

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

All-NBA — particularly third-team — decisions are always the toughest of the award process. In this case, I felt very comfortable with the first two teams (I don’t think Anthony Davis played enough center to slide into that position, so he gets bumped to the second team). However, with third-team guard, leaving off Bradley Beal, Trae Young, and Ben Simmons was difficult (team success and leaning on Mitchell and Walker factored into my choices). Same at the forward spot, where Khris Middleton and Brandon Ingram deserved serious consideration.

Dan Feldman

First team

G: LeBron James, Lakers

G: James Harden, Rockets

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

C: Anthony Davis, Lakers

Second team

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

F: Khris Middleton, Bucks

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Chris Paul, Thunder

G: Trae Young, Hawks

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jimmy Butler, Heat

C: Rudy Gobert, Jazz

My biggest questions weren’t rating performance. They were determining position. Can I legitimately place Anthony Davis at center? What about LeBron James at guard? Ultimately, I decided yes on both – allowing me to place my entire MVP ballot on the first team, though causing significant disruption on the second and third teams.

Davis made a big deal about not playing center, and the Lakers built their team accordingly. But Davis still played 38% of his minutes at power forward. In the fourth quarter and overtime, it was 55%. That qualified him as bi-positional to me.

LeBron has always dominated the ball while being considered a forward. But the Lakers considered him their point guard, gave him particularly large passing responsibilities and started four other players who couldn’t credibly run point. Though Avery Bradley or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope often defended the opposing point guards, point guard is primarily defined offensively. Plus, LeBron – a versatile defender – often covered guards.

Centers Nikola Jokic (first team to second team), Rudy Gobert (second team to third team) and Joel Embiid (third team to unlisted) all got bumped with Davis at the position. Embiid was better than Gobert when healthy and motivated. But that didn’t happen nearly often to outpace Gobert, and excellent defender and underrated offensive player.

Guards also got pressed, including Luka Doncic (first team to second team) and Chris Paul (second team to third team). That final spot was an especially difficult squeeze with Trae Young narrowly outpacing Devin Booker, Kyle Lowry, Ben Simmons and Bradley Beal. Young just did so much offensively as a scorer and passer.

On the other hand, removing LeBron and Davis from forward meant other-wise marginal forwards – Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam and Jimmy Butler – safely made it. Bam Adebayo wasn’t far behind.

Keith Smith

First team

G: James Harden, Rockets

G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

F: LeBron James, Lakers

C: Joel Embiid, 76ers

Second team

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

G: Ben Simmons, 76ers

F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers

F: Anthony Davis, Lakers

C: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets

Third team

G: Russell Westbrook, Rockets

G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz

F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics

C: Bam Adebayo, Heat

The forward slots on the first and second teams were easy. Giannis Antetokounmpo, LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis were 1-4 on my MVP ballot. They all just overlap in position, which pushed Leonard and Davis to the second team. There were still several very good candidates for the third team, but Pascal Siakam and Jayson Tatum were just enough better than the rest that they get those two slots. Jimmy Butler was closest to making that third- team.

The guard line was pretty easy for the first team. James Harden was fifth on my MVP ballot and Luka Doncic would have been sixth. After them it gets tricky. Damian Lillard was a monster this year and really kept an otherwise pretty bad Portland team in the playoff race. Ben Simmons was very good on both ends of the floor, so he gets the other guard spot on the second team. That left a bunch of great candidates for third. Once he stopped taking so many jumpers, Russell Westbrook really took off this season. He gets one slot. Donovan Mitchell gets the other spot because he was also good and so were the Jazz. Chris Paul was easily the toughest omission here.

The center group was a little harder. I think Joel Embiid had the best overall season. He was first on my All-Defense team and in the mix for Defensive Player of the Year. He also turned in another good offensive season. Nikola Jokic rebounded from a slow start to have another dominant offensive year. For the third-team, Bam Adebayo edged out Rudy Gobert. It was Adebayo’s all-around brilliance that got him the nod. Take a look at his numbers. He’s really stuffing the stat-sheet every night for a good Heat team.

Damian Lillard misses clutch FTs, Trail Blazers blow key game against Clippers backups

Damian Lillard vs. Clippers
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The Clippers – maybe wanting to give the Lakers a tougher first-round matchup – showed their lack of interest in beating the Trail Blazers today by sitting Kawhi Leonard. Down five with two minutes left, the Clippers really waved the white flag by closing with a lineup of:

But that group ended the game on a 12-2 run to hand Portland a devastating 122-117 loss.

The Trail Blazers are now just half a game up for ninth in the Western Conference. This further opens the door for the Spurs, Pelicans, Suns and even Kings to make a play-in (and gives the Grizzlies more breathing room for advancing to that stage).

After McGruder hit the go-ahead 3-pointer with 26 seconds left, Damian Lillard drew a pair of free throws with Portland down one. Lillard is arguably the NBA’s most clutch player, and he had made 89% of his free throws this season. But he missed both – to the particular delight of injured Clippers guard Patrick Beverley:

Beverley and Lillard have a longstanding personal rivalry. The Clippers also have Paul George.

After the game, Lillard – who hit a series-winning shot against Beverley’s Rockets in 2014 and another series-winning shot over George, who was with the Thunder, last year – didn’t mince words.

Chris Haynes of Yahoo Sports:

Lillard:

Asking me about Patrick Beverley, who – I sent him before at the end of a game. Paul George just got sent home by me last year in the playoffs. So, they know. The reason they’re reacting like that is because of what they expect from me, which is a sign of respect, and it just shows what I’ve done at a high clip more times than not. So, I’m not offended by it. If anything, it should just tell you how much it hurt them to go through what I put them through in those situations previously.

I love Lillard’s ability to remain calm and in control. Kudos for him for finding a way to boast after missing a pair of free throws that effectively cost his team a big game. Really. Lillard’s emotional maturity is an asset.

Expect the Trail Blazers to follow his lead and not further unravel. They can and probably should still be favored to reach the play-in.

But their margin for error definitely just shrunk.

76ers star Ben Simmons leaving bubble for surgery

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Ben Simmons injured his knee, and the 76ers didn’t hide their concerns.

This is serious.

Serena Winters of NBC Sports Philadelphia:

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Obviously, the surgery itself is a setback. If Simmons becomes healthy enough to return before Philadelphia gets eliminated, he could be required to quarantine in his hotel room – which would limit rehab and training.

And of course it will be difficult for Philadelphia to advance deep into the playoffs without Simmons.

There are even graver concerns beyond this season. Will Simmons now be more susceptible to future injuries? This could derail a budding championship contender with Joel Embiid and Simmons.

Embiid already has long-term health concerns. It was always uncertain how long Philadelphia’s window would remain open despite Embiid and Simmons being so young.

Even next season could be perilous. How long will Simmons take to recover? Next season could be right around the corner (or not). If the 76ers’ outlook looks worse – especially amid the economic downturn caused by coronavirus – they could no longer follow through on their plan to pay the luxury tax. Slashing payroll could further reduce the roster’s effectiveness.

Already, expectations shrink this season without Simmons. Philadelphia appears increasingly likely to land the No. 6 seed and a tough first-round series against the Celtics (rather than a spot in the 4-5 series against the Heat or Pacers).

Will these difficult circumstances give 76ers coach Brett Brown more leeway to keep his job? Or do they just make it more likely the 76ers lose early in the playoffs and fire him?

He has plenty of options for proceeding without Simmons. Simmons was a multi-positional star who spent most of the season at point guard but had been playing power forward in the bubble.

Without Simmons, Al Horford moved back into the starting lineup, and Mike Scott – who had been out with a knee injury – joined the rotation. Glenn Robinson III could also get an expanded role once he’s healthy.

Many sans-Simmons lineups could give Philadelphia more spacing around Embiid, which makes the star center even more dangerous.

But this loss of talent can’t be offset and significantly lowers the 76ers’ ceiling this season and maybe reduces their odds of reaching their ceiling in future seasons.

NBA announces finalists for awards, including MVP and Rookie of the Year

Bucks star Giannis Antetokounmpo and Pelicans rookie Zion Williamson
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We made our award picks months ago.

Now, the NBA is finally getting around to the official versions.

The league announced finalists for Most Valuable Player, Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year, Most Improved Player, Sixth Man of the Year and Coach of the Year (based on regular-season, not seeding, games):

Most Valuable Player

Antetokounmpo is heavy favorite to repeat as MVP and should win the award. But LeBron certainly has his supporters. Really, I had a tougher time choosing between LeBron and Harden for second place than between Antetokounmpo and LeBron for first place.

Defensive Player of the Year

Antetokounmpo could and should join Michael Jordan and Hakeem Olajuwon as the only players to win MVP and DPOY in the same season. Gobert and Davis would be worthy runners up. But I wouldn’t be surprised if Davis – playing for the Los Angeles Lakers – wins this award.

Rookie of the Year

Morant will and should run away with this award. Williamson was awesome when on the floor, but that was too rare. A breakout player in his second professional season (but first playing in the NBA), Nunn could finish ahead of the better but less-available Williamson.

Most Improved Player

This was an incredibly deep field. Ingram is the most likely winner with his major strides just ahead of restricted free agency. My choice, Doncic improved enough to become a finalist despite a bias against second-year players, especially highly drafted ones. Though Adebayo didn’t make Rising Stars his first two seasons then became an All-Star his third season – an incredible jump – his candidacy is wrongly boosted by him being underrated previously. That Hornets guard Devonte' Graham‘s out-of-nowhere season didn’t land him in the top three is somewhat surprising. But again, it was a deep field. Hawks guard Trae Young didn’t get enough consideration, either.

Sixth Man of the Year

Harrell had the strongest overall season and has drawn plenty of acclaim for it. But Schroder led reserves in points per game, and scoring tends to have an outsized role in award voting. See Williams being a finalist (though it’s not as if there an absolutely clearly better choice).

Coach of the Year

  • Mike Budenholzer (Bucks)
  • Billy Donovan (Thunder)
  • Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Budenholzer and Nurse split the award from their peers. Here’s betting Nurse gets this official NBA recognition. He deserves it for keeping the Raptors humming without Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green and amid numerous injuries. Nurse’s defensive creativity is particularly impressive.

Report: Teams in playoff race bothered by Jazz resting starters vs. Spurs

Spurs forward Rudy Gay vs. Jazz
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The Jazz sat four starters – Mike Conley (right knee soreness), Donovan Mitchell (left peroneal strain), Royce O’Neale (right calf soreness) and Rudy Gobert (rest) – against the Spurs yesterday. Five if you count Bojan Bogdanovic, who underwent season-ending surgery before the bubble.

That cleared the way for San Antonio to get a 119-111 win and boost its chances in the Western Conference playoff race.

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

Were those teams chasing the Western Conference’s play-in tournament thrilled with the Utah Jazz’s decision to sit four starters with injuries and rest center Rudy Gobert in a loss to the San Antonio Spurs?

Among teams trying to catch the Memphis Grizzlies for the eighth seed, they were somewhere between displeased and livid, sources said.

Winning seeding games doesn’t matter much to the Jazz, who are in the tightly packed 4-6 range in the Western Conference. There’s no home-court advantage in the 4-5 series. In fact, Utah might prefer to drop to sixth. That’d likely mean facing the Nuggets – rather than the Rockets or Thunder – in the first round and avoiding the Lakers in the second round. Though Denver could move up and leave the Clippers in the No. 3 seed, and the Clippers are no easy second-round opponent either, it’s at least a viable strategy for Utah.

The Jazz also play the Nuggets today in the second leg of a back-to-back. Whatever its ideal standings, Utah definitely prioritizes having its players healthy and ready for the playoffs.

It also can’t be lost: Jazz lead executive Dennis Lindsey came up in the Spurs organization. That connection surely fueled the strongest paranoia.

Utah isn’t alone in appearing to put its finger on the playoff-race scale.

The Clippers will sit Kawhi Leonard against the Trail Blazers today and play him against the Nets tomorrow.

Andrew Greif of the Los Angeles Times:

Maybe this is just about timing. Obviously, it’s normal sit Leonard in one leg of a back-to-back.

But the Trail Blazers look like the strongest team among those chasing the No. 8 seed. Think the Clippers might want to give the Lakers the toughest-possible first-round matchup? The possibility is impossible to ignore when considering which weekend game Leonard is playing.

These are all variations of a common problem: Too few NBA regular-season (or seeding) games matter.

To be fair, the situation differs in the bubble. Home-court advantage would solve some of these problems. The play-in offers a new wrinkle. The long layoff before seeding games increases injury risk.

But it also feels especially absurd to go to all the trouble of playing basketball amid the coronavirus pandemic – separating players, coaches and other staff from their loved ones for at least several weeks – just to a play a game a team prefers, or at least doesn’t mind, losing.