With less than six weeks left in the NBA regular season, much is still to be decided. Playoff spots and seeds. The 2-4 seeds in the Western Conference are going to be a photo finish. The MVP race is down to two -- Giannis Antetokounmpo (the clear favorite) and LeBron James. Defensive Player of the Year is tight between Giannis, Anthony Davis and Rudy Gobert.
Yet to this point, nothing is harder to call than the All-NBA teams. Sure, there are a small handful of locks, but more than a few players having truly incredible seasons are going to get snubbed. With the understanding that there is still a relatively long way to go, below is a breakdown of the tightest All-NBA battles as well as my admittedly too-early predictions for each team.
- Locks: Giannis Antetokounmpo (F), LeBron James (F)
- Probable: James Harden (G)
Luka Doncic vs. Damian Lillard: The second guard on the first team is almost impossible to call. Doncic is having a historic second season, and Lillard is having arguably the best season of his career. Lillard's 29.5 points per game edge Doncic's 28.6, but Doncic has Lillard in assists and rebounds. ESPN Real Plus-Minus, which is probably the most trusted encapsulating valuation of players, ranks Doncic as the fourth-most valuable player in the league, while Lillard comes in at No. 17. Throw in the fact that Dallas would be in the playoffs if they were to start today, while the Blazers would be out, and I'd give the edge to Doncic.
Nikola Jokic vs. Joel Embiid: First-team center is likely down to these two because Anthony Davis is considered a forward for these awards. Embiid leads Jokic in points, rebounds and blocks. On the flipside, Jokic has the edge in assists and steals and he's shooting a far better percentage from the field (53 to 47 percent). But here's where the divide starts to happen: ESPN's Real Plus-Minus has Jokic at No. 6 and Embiid at No. 29, Jokic's team has 14 more victories through Monday, and Jokic has played in 60 games to Embiid's 43.
All-NBA First-Team Predictions
- G: James Harden
- G: Luka Doncic
- F: LeBron James
- F: Giannis Antetokounmpo
- C: Nikola Jokic
- Locks: Damian Lillard (G), Anthony Davis (F)
- Probable: Kawhi Leonard (F), Joel Embiid (C)
Russell Westbrook vs. Trae Young: With Lillard (or Doncic if Lillard winds up on the first team) a lock for the second team's first guard spot, the second guard spot is interesting. Ultimately, if the season were to end today, I think it would be down to Westbrook and Young, who is already a borderline MVP-level offensive player -- fourth in the league in scoring and second in assists. Young, though a defensive sieve, trumps Westbrook in both those categories, but Westbrook's Rockets could very well end up as high as the No. 2 seed and Russ has been one of the five best players in the league since January. To me, this wave of momentum that Westbrook -- No. 7 in ESPN's RPM -- is riding is going to be too strong for any guard other than Lillard to overcome.
All-NBA Second-Team Predictions
- G: Damian Lillard
- G: Russell Westbrook
- F: Kawhi Leonard
- F: Anthony Davis
- C: Joel Embiid
- Locks: None
- Probable: Trae Young (G), Jimmy Butler (F)
Chris Paul vs. Kyle Lowry: Paul. Lowry. Kemba Walker. Ben Simmons. Bradley Beal. Devin Booker. Donovan Mitchell. Try picking one name from that list, or even two if you don't think Young gets the nod. Simmons has a legit first-team All-Defense case, but I think his 16-8-7 offensive numbers fall short, and besides that we don't even know when he'll be back from injury. Walker is also injured, and in a lot of people's eyes he's been surpassed by Jayson Tatum as the best player on his own team.
Bradley Beal didn't even make the All-Star team, which tells you how easily some voters dismiss what he's doing offensively on the stat-friendly Wizards; the media voted him sixth among Eastern Conference guards. Devin Booker is similar to Trae Young but not quite as great. Donovan Mitchell could be a sleeper if he and the Jazz were to go on a huge run to end the season, but I wouldn't bet on it.
That leaves Lowry, No. 10 in ESPN's RPM, and Paul, who is No. 11. Lowry bests Paul in points and assists; Paul has Lowry in steals, has had a far better shooting season and has been one of the best clutch players in the league. Both the Raptors and Thunder have surprised a lot of critics. For me, at this moment, this is a virtual tie. The last six weeks will determine this race whether it comes down to these two or not, but I'll go with Paul by a nose at the moment.
Jayson Tatum/Khris Middleton/Pascal Siakam: Two of these three could easily make the third team and leave Butler off, but that would surprise me even though Butler is having a really bad shooting season and has struggled in the clutch. However, it's not just numbers with Butler; he's changed the whole equation for the Heat. I think that gets rewarded.
Picking one of Tatum, Middleton and Siakam is a torturous task. Not many people realize how great a season Middleton is having; if the season were to end today, he would be just the fifth player in history to shoot 50-40-90 while averaging over 20 points a game. The other four to do that are Kevin Durant, Stephen Curry, Dirk Nowitzki and Larry Bird.
But Middleton gets to do his business in the shadow of Giannis. I'm not sure it's fair, but I think the voters punish him a little bit for that. Which leaves Tatum and Siakam, and I just have to go Tatum. He's just been too spectacular of late. He's Boston's go-to player and might already be one of the five best players in the East. And it's not just his offense. He might make an All-Defense team, too.
Rudy Gobert vs. Bam Adebayo: These two play the center position completely differently. In fact, it's a stretch to call Bam a center. He regularly brings the ball up the court for Miami and is constantly initiating offense from the perimeter. He's a terrific passer and an evolving scorer. He can guard any position on the floor, and Miami would be sunk without him.
As always, Gobert's case as an elite NBA player rests almost solely on his defense, and he has again been spectacular on that end this season. But Utah hasn't been nearly as dominant as a collective defense, and without the offensive numbers to fall back on, I really think Bam is going to end up stealing this third-team spot.
All-NBA Third-Team Predictions
- G: Trae Young
- G: Chris Paul
- F: Jimmy Butler
- F: Jayson Tatum
- C: Bam Adebayo