At first blush, the statistical profile of Tim Duncan doesn’t appear worthy of All-NBA inclusion. The future Hall of Fame power forward is averaging 14.5 points and 9.9 rebounds per game, and while those are solid numbers, they aren’t what separate Duncan from the crowd. His defense has been incredibly impactful this season, as evidenced by top-5 marks in both defensive rating and defensive win shares, and Duncan is blocking 1.9 shots per game in only 30.0 minutes per contest. Tim Duncan is the epitome of a player who cannot be fully measured by raw statistics, and at 38 years old, he has having an elite season.
(Photo by David Sherman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Third Team: Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
The Hawks are the toast of the Eastern Conference, and it shouldn’t be considered a coincidence that their latest rise in play coincided with Al Horford shaking off the rust of an injury-plagued 2013-2014 season. Horford averaged just 13.6 points and 6.0 rebounds per game in November, and the Hawks began the season with a solid but unspectacular 9-6 record. Since that point, Horford has been a menace for the opposition, upping his season-long averages to 15.5 points and 7.3 rebounds per game, but more than that, his defense has come along to lead Atlanta on both ends in what has amounted to a 34-4 stretch as a team.
Horford’s two-way play has always been underrated, but his efficiency is off the charts offensively (54.4% FG, 21.86 PER) and his ability to deter opposing pick-and-rolls greatly aids the Hawks in operating at a top-five level defensively. Many have opined that Horford is “not a traditional center”, but all he does is play the position at an elite level on a nightly basis.
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
Third Team: Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
Despite turmoil, the Chicago Bulls are in great shape with a 33-20 record to lead the Central Division, and they have gotten a huge return from their prime offseason acquisition. Many doubted the potential impact of Pau Gasol as a 34-year-old after a couple of lean years in Los Angeles, but all Gasol has done is set a new career benchmark in rebounding (12.2 per game) while putting up four-years highs in scoring (18.4 points), true shooting (55.2%) and PER (22.92).
It would be a mistake to say that Gasol is fully “back” to his standing as an unquestioned top-10 player, but he has put together a renaissance season in Chicago.
(Photo by Danny Bollinger/NBAE via Getty Images)
Third Team: John Wall, Washington Wizards
John Wall has been good for quite some time, but in 2014-2015, he has made the leap to elite status. The former number one overall pick is leading the NBA in assists (10.1 per game) while also averaging 17.4 points and 1.9 steals per contest, and his efficiency has progressed to the point where he is now putting together a career-best 53.9% true shooting over the body of the campaign.
Beyond statistics, Wall’s athleticism and defense are terrifying for the opposition, and he has begun to fully take advantage of his length (6-foot-4) and overall physical gifts at a position where he is almost always the most athletic player on the floor. The Wizards are a legitimate threat in the East, and their most outstanding player is one of the best six guards in the league.
(Photo by Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Third Team: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
It took far too long for Damian Lillard to receive the All-Star nod that he richly deserves, and now that he has been correctly anointed, we can give him further due in this space. For my money, Lillard has been every bit as important as more respected teammate, LaMarcus Aldridge, and the former Weber State point guard is averaging 21.5 points and 6.3 assists per game while captaining the offense with the ball in his hands.
Lillard’s improvement defensively has been noticeable, which allows him to make this jump in overall play, and it certainly helps that the Blazers remain a big-time contender in the West. Lillard isn’t a traditional point guard in the sense of a pure passer or distributor, but he is more than capable of getting his teammates involved, and when you have the added dimension of elite shot creation at your disposal, it is hard to fault Damian Lillard for pulling the trigger.
(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Second Team: DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
In the midst of the overall turmoil that surrounds the Sacramento Kings franchise, DeMarcus Cousins is having his best season as a professional. The now 24-year-old big man is averaging a robust 23.8 points and 12.5 rebounds per game, and with that, he joins Anthony Davis as the only duo of players in the NBA to average 20-10 for the season.
The off-court antics of Cousins, most recently his bizarre postgame interview following a winning shot, will seemingly always follow the former Kentucky center, but his impact on the court overrides those secondary problems. Defensively, the 6-foot-11, 270-pound big man has taken great strides this season, including a career-best 1.7 blocks per game, and his activity has picked up noticeably on both ends, leading to founded statements referencing Cousins as a player who has “turned the corner.”
There is no need to pretend that DeMarcus Cousins is a finished product, and at 24 years-old, that shouldn’t be a surprise. Still, he is a player with undeniable talent and upside, and his present contributions are deserving of a spot as the second-best center in the NBA this season.
(Richard Lautens/Toronto Star via Getty Images)
Second Team: Kevin Durant, Oklahoma City Thunder
Kevin Durant has participated in less than half of Oklahoma City’s 53 games this season. On balance, that would not be enough to force inclusion among the game’s elite, but there is one small problem with that logic.
Durant is that good.
The Thunder are 17-9 with Durant in the lineup this season (versus 11-16 without him), and his numbers are comically prolific. The reigning MVP is averaging 25.9 points, 6.6 rebounds and 4.0 assists per game, and while that stat line is a dip from a year ago, his 28.67 PER and 63.9% true shooting remind us of the elite level for Kevin Durant.
To be fair, it is an absolute must to knock Durant down a peg or two given his injury woes this season, but that simply removes him from the discussion for first team honors (based on two highly worthy candidates) and he is still an unquestioned top-5 player in the NBA. The Thunder may not make a playoff run, but if Durant remains healthy, it would be unwise to count his team as “dead in the water” toward making a run in the late Spring.
(Photo by Layne Murdoch Jr./NBAE via Getty Images)
Second Team: LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
If I’m honest, there are three forwards that separate themselves above the rest. Aldridge is not a member of that illustrious class, but he is the “best of the rest”, and when you’re talking about elite company that includes the likes of Tim Duncan, Pau Gasol and others, that isn’t so bad.
The 29-year-old Aldridge is fighting through a severe injury to his non-shooting thumb, and the evidence of that hang-up is clear in that his team actually announced a long-term absence before Aldridge simply decided to gut through the pain. Somehow, his play hasn’t appeared to dip at all as a result, and for the season, Portland’s leading man is averaging a robust 23.6 points and 10.3 rebounds per game.
There has been (fair) criticism of LaMarcus Aldridge at times for his tendency to settle for the game’s least efficient shot, but Aldridge’s mid-range game is virtually unparalleled. He has upped his true shooting by more than two points from 2013-2014, and while it will always be a knock when a power forward shoots 46.3% from the floor, he is unguardable when asked to perform in the post.
The raw numbers are there, the team success (Portland is 36-17) is there, and LaMarcus Aldridge earns bonus points for his latest act in battling through visible injury. The best of the rest emerges.
(Photo by Scott Halleran/Getty Images)
Second Team: Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
There is an argument to be made that Russell Westbrook has been the best player on the Oklahoma City Thunder this season. On the surface, that isn’t an insane statement, but when Westbrook is paired with the league’s reigning MVP, it is terrifying to think that he could be performing at a higher level.
Hilariously, Westbrook and Durant are ranked side-by-side in the league’s PER rankings (trailing only Anthony Davis), and Westbrook’s numbers are scary good. The 6-foot-3 super-athlete is averaging 25.8 points, 7.6 assists and 6.3 rebounds per game for the season, and despite injury woes that cost him 14 contests earlier in the year, his resume is certainly long enough for consideration here.
At age 26, Russell Westbrook is having a career season in virtually every aspect. His scoring and rebounding totals are both career-highs, illustrating a traditional breakout, and with the highest rate of win shares per 48 minutes in his career, the advanced metrics also agree.
It is no longer an argument to exclude Westbrook from the uber-elite based on a relic of positional displacement, and he earns a reputation as one of the game’s best on a nightly basis.
(Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images)
Second Team: Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
I don’t get it.
There seems to be a movement against Chris Paul in the mainstream, to the point where the de facto answer to the question of “who is the best point guard in the NBA?” has shifted away from “the point god”. While the emergence of players like Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry has made that a legitimate argument (as you can see with Paul’s inclusion on the second team), there has been little to no dip in Paul’s individual play.
For reference, Paul trails only Westbrook and Curry among point guards in PER (24.59) while averaging 17.7 points, 9.7 assists and 4.9 rebounds per game. Beyond that, the 29-year-old floor general is putting together 47/38/88 shooting splits for a true shooting percentage of 57.9%, and he plays high-level defense on a nightly basis while carrying a flawed Clippers roster to contender status in the West.
The movement toward “scoring point guards” has seen a virtual downgrading of Paul, and that doesn’t make a great deal of sense. We haven’t seen anyone operate the position at an elite level for this long in quite some time, and Chris Paul remains a no-doubt inclusion in the midst of any discussion of the elite players in the NBA.
(Photo credit should read FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP/Getty Images)
First Team: Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
With a quick glance at his numbers, Marc Gasol’s profile doesn’t exactly scream “All-NBA center”. The 30-year-old big man is averaging 18.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and 1.7 blocks per game this season, and while that scoring production does represent a career-high by a considerable margin, there are other players in the league with superior raw numbers.
What separates Gasol from the rest is his all-court impact. At 7-foot-1 and 265 pounds, Gasol patrols the paint like few players in the league, and despite a relative lack of explosive athleticism when compared to some other high-end centers, his positioning and overall acumen led to a deserving nod as the 2012-2013 NBA Defensive Player of the Year.
Offensively, he is a highly underrated asset. Gasol has flashed the ability to score at a high level this season when called upon, but he is one of the best passing big men in the league (3.7 assists per game), and his ability to work out of both the low and high-post areas enables the Grizzlies to run effective sets to put players like Mike Conley and Zach Randolph in optimal positions.
It isn’t a coincidence that NBA pundits and diehard fans rave endlessly about his play, and Gasol is the most important player on the team with the third-best record (39-14) in the NBA this season. Other players may have better highlights or more impressive traditional stats, but no center in the league is playing at a higher level than Marc Gasol.
(Photo by Sam Greenwood/Getty Images)
First Team: Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
Regardless of an MVP discussion that has many pitfalls, Anthony Davis has been the best player in the NBA this season by any statistical measure.
At just 21 years old, Davis is already the standard answer to the question of “next big thing” in the NBA, but even if we simply ignore the future in favor of the present, “the Brow” is worthy of first-team inclusion. Davis is averaging 24.5 points, 10.3 rebounds and a league-leading 2.7 blocks per game this season, but beyond that, his current PER of 31.82 would place Davis in a tie for the best mark in NBA history (!) over a full season of work.
The enormity of that statement (admittedly in only one category) stands alone, but Anthony Davis also leads the NBA in win shares per 48 minutes, and it isn’t as if his raw numbers are anything to sneeze at for a player of any age. Defensively, it is possible that Davis is a touch overrated at this stage, but his all-court impact is undeniable based on length and athleticism, and he blocks shots in a way that simply isn’t replicated by anyone else in the league today.
A lot has been made of the Pelicans and their somewhat mediocre mark in the standings (27-26), but when evaluating Davis, it helps to simply examine the roster and imagine what life would be like without him. That is a discussion more suited for MVP talk, but in this space, the best of the best should be awarded with All-NBA inclusion, and Anthony Davis is here for the long haul.
(Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
First Team: LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
The 2014-2015 season has been the worst statistical campaign for LeBron James in nearly a decade.
Hilariously, he is still clearly a first-team All-NBA selection.
James is averaging “just” 25.8 points, 7.4 assists and 5.6 rebounds per game this season, but when you adjust for the fact that he’s the best player on the planet, those numbers are comically impressive. Since returning from an injury sabbatical, LeBron has also turned things up a notch, averaging 29.9 points per game in January, and with little to no coincidence, the Cavaliers are suddenly playing the best basketball in the NBA from a team perspective.
Given his age (30) and miles (886 career regular season games), it would be fair to say that LeBron James isn’t the same player at this stage of his career. Still, reports of his downfall have been widely exaggerated, and that can be backed up by a top-10 PER in the league as one of only a small handful of players to exceed 20-5-5 for the season.
We probably won’t know if “peak” LeBron James still exists until the playoffs kick off in April, but even if the new normal exists in 2014-2015, he is still incredibly good at basketball.
(Photo by Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
First Team: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Remember when James Harden was a borderline laughingstock based on YouTube clips of defensive disaster? We’ve come a long way.
In fairness, Harden was already a very good player prior to this season, even if his defensive lapses were well-chronicled. The left-hander exceeded 25 points per game with true shooting numbers above 60% in each of his first two seasons in Houston, and offensively, Harden was already considered elite.
However, this season has been the full-fledged breakout for the now 25-year-old, as James Harden is now competitive defensively while putting together arguably the most impressive offensive season in the NBA to this point. Harden is comfortably leading the NBA in scoring at 27.4 points per game, and he is doing so with elite efficiency (61.1% TS, 27.39 PER) for a team that has been without Dwight Howard for long stretches of time.
It is aggressive to state that Harden is now “good” defensively, but he is far from dreadful, and coming from where he was just 12 months ago, that is a vast improvement. Altogether, James Harden has effectively ended the argument as to who the best shooting guard on the planet is at the moment, and that is good enough for me.
(Photo by Bill Baptist/NBAE via Getty Images)
First Team: Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
If the season ended today (as we are effectively describing in this space), Stephen Curry would be my MVP choice.
The Warriors have the best record (42-9) and best net rating (+12.3 points per 100 possessions) in the NBA, and Curry is easily the best player on Golden State’s roster. That is, of course, a positive formula for both MVP and All-NBA inclusion, but beyond the team success, Curry’s performance stands alone.
Curry is best known for his shooting acumen, and that has to be the headline. The 26-year-old is actually having a “down” year (by his standards) from three, shooting 39.9% from beyond the arc, but with 48.1% from the floor and 90% from the line, his 62.0% true shooting is uber-elite from a guard position.
Beyond that, Stephen Curry is an all-court player. Curry is leading the NBA in steals (2.16 per game) while landing in the top-5 in assists (7.9 per game), and he is also proficient at getting to the rim and finishing in traffic. Defensively, he has made enormous strides to become average (at worst) and given his workload offensively, that is highly impressive.
In short, Stephen Curry holds the point guard championship “belt” at this particular moment, and with the Warriors playing the best basketball we have seen since the 72-win Bulls, a first-team nod for All-NBA is certainly fitting of his performance.
(Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images)
Discover More Like This
BACK TO SLIDE
Perhaps the most encouraging sign for the future of the association is an ever-growing population of outstanding players. On what seems to be a nightly basis, there are healthy debates raging about the best players at each and every position, and as usual, that emphasis was driven home by the annual talk of "snubs" in the All-Star world.
Above and beyond All-Star selections, however, are the league's choices for All-NBA honors. These choices come after the season as the league anoints three full teams of outstanding players, but in that vein, we will examine the current state of the All-NBA races in this particular space.
It should be noted that the NBA uses an interesting format for these selections, as each of the three teams must feature two guards, two forwards and one center. The guard and forward spots do not distinguish between traditional positions, leaving some room for interpretation, but with that, the best players usually rise to the top in the midst of positional swoons.