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Wednesday, June 16, 2021

The 2021 All-NBA Teams Give Full Honors for Part-Time Work

Most people do not receive honors for high performance after showing up to work 75% of the time or less, but this year an international panel of 100 media members decided to bestow All-NBA Team recognition upon several part-time NBA players. The historical standard for MVP winners is to play in at least 85% of the scheduled games, with Bill Walton (1978 NBA regular season MVP winner despite playing in only 58 out of 82 games) as the only exception. A similar standard should be applied to the All-NBA Team (which would equate to 61 games in 2020-21's 72 game season), but six of the 15 members of this season's three All-NBA Teams played 54 games or less: Kyrie Irving (54), Paul George (54), Jimmy Butler (52), Kawhi Leonard (52), Joel Embiid (51), and LeBron James (45). 

This is not about which players have had the best careers, or even which players have the best overall skill sets; the All-NBA Team voting should be about which players performed the best and had the most impact during a particular season--and when a player misses a significant portion of the season that player's impact is minimized, regardless of how impressive his statistics are.

Russell Westbrook received the most votes at guard among players who did not make the All-NBA Team. Westbrook averaged 22.2 ppg, 11.7 apg (first in the league), and 11.5 rpg (sixth in the league). It is very unusual for the assist champion to not make the All-NBA Team; the only other assist champions to not make the All-NBA Team since 1989 (when the All-NBA Team expanded from 10 players to 15) are Mark Jackson (1997), Andre Miller (2002), Steve Nash (2011), and Rajon Rondo (2013, 2016). During that time period, 13 assist champions made the All-NBA First Team and 11 assist champions made the All-NBA Second Team. None of the assist leaders since 1989 came close to averaging 11.5 rpg, and only Chris Paul (22.8 ppg in 2009), James Harden (29.1 ppg in 2017), Westbrook (25.4 ppg in 2018, 22.9 ppg in 2019), and LeBron James (25.3 ppg in 2020) averaged more than 22.2 ppg. Westbrook is the first assist leader in this era to average at least 22 ppg and not make the All-NBA Team; Harden and James received First Team honors during their high scoring/assist leading seasons.

Without Westbrook averaging a triple double for an unprecedented fourth time in five seasons, the Washington Wizards--decimated by injuries and COVID-19--would not have been able to go 17-6 down the stretch and qualify for the playoffs. Westbrook not only posted gaudy individual numbers, but he had a significant impact on team success.

If the voters were going to disregard historical precedent regarding games played, then they should have found a place for Donovan Mitchell, the best player on the team with the best record in the NBA. Mitchell only played in 53 games, but he averaged 26.4 ppg, 5.2 apg, and 4.4 rpg for the 52-20 Utah Jazz.

If you value productivity combined with durability, then there is no way you choose Irving over Westbrook for the All-NBA Team this season. If you value winning most of all, then there is no way you choose Irving over Mitchell. Irving is a great player and he is an All-NBA Team caliber player, but he should not have been selected this season. 

A close examination of the NBA's top forwards in 2020-21 reveals that many of them failed to play in at least 61 games, but there are at least three highly productive forwards who should have been selected ahead of the part-time players who the media honored.

Jayson Tatum received the most votes at forward among players who did not make the All-NBA Team. He averaged 26.4 ppg in 64 games while leading an injury-ravaged Boston team to the seventh seed in the Eastern Conference. The Celtics' season--concluding with a loss in the first round of the playoffs--is considered a disappointment after the team reached the Eastern Conference Finals in three of the previous four seasons, but Boston's failures are not Tatum's fault.

Zion Williamson averaged 27.0 ppg and 7.2 rpg while shooting .611 from the field. Considering his size and athleticism he should rebound and defend better than he does, but it is difficult to justify leaving him off of the All-NBA Team when he played 61 games and four of the forwards selected ahead of him played 54 games or less.

Khris Middleton received just one Third Team vote at forward, but he averaged 20.4 ppg, 6.0 rpg, and 5.4 apg with shooting splits of .476/.414/.898 while playing in 68 games for a Milwaukee team that finished third in the East.

Bam Adebayo received the most votes at center among players who did not make the All-NBA Team, followed by Clint Capela and Domantas Sabonis. Adebayo averaged 18.7 ppg, 9.0 rpg, and 5.4 apg while shooting .570 from the field in 64 games. Capela scored 15.2 ppg, led the league in rebounding (14.3 rpg), and shot .594 from the field in 63 games. Sabonis scored 20.3 ppg, averaged 12.0 rpg, passed for 6.7 apg, and shot .535 from the field in 62 games. The voters correctly did not select Embiid to the All-NBA Team last season after he played just 51 out of 72 games, and they should have left him off of the All-NBA Team this season after he played just 51 out of 72 games. 

I am not "blaming" players for being injured, but I do not think that they should be rewarded for missing games, particularly when there are other players who were highly productive while missing fewer games. 

An interesting sidebar note is that many NBA players have contractual clauses linking their compensation to being selected to the All-NBA Team and/or to receiving other honors. It is not an exaggeration to say that media members have significant influence over how millions of dollars will be distributed; I am not sure what the best solution is to change that situation, but there is something wrong with a player's compensation potentially being determined by whether or not a media member likes him (and if you don't think that personal bias affects awards voting then you do not understand human nature and you are willfully ignoring many overt examples of media bias for or against certain players).

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posted by David Friedman @ 5:40 PM



At Wednesday, June 16, 2021 9:59:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

excellent piece.


At Wednesday, June 16, 2021 10:14:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

Thank you!

At Thursday, June 17, 2021 1:53:00 AM, Anonymous Cyber said...

Booker was another snub as well, I'm glad you covered it in an earlier blog that he's probably the best player on the Suns and should have gone in over Chris Paul. I would consider Tatum the biggest snub just because it seemed so certain that he'd make one of the 3 teams, his bout with COVID did falter his play midway through but even with that slump I still think he did more than enough to make a team

I also read somewhere that only 11 players played all 72 games this season out of 540 total players. For fun I decided to check other periods, specifically the shortened seasons, and generally there were around 35-45 players that played all 82 games and interestingly enough the 1999 lockout season had 83 players (out of 440 players) play all 50 games despite having an even more condensed schedule than what today's players were dealing with. Not a good look for this generation's players

At Thursday, June 17, 2021 10:17:00 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

@Cyber : it should be noted though that in those lockout-shortened seasons, the players were coming off not even a normal length offseason, but an extended one. As many others have pointed out, it feels like the very short gap between seasons has taken its toll.

At Thursday, June 17, 2021 11:11:00 AM, Blogger David Friedman said...


Yes, Booker is another player who should have made the All-NBA Team.

Regarding the missed games, I agree that it is not a good look when healthy players do "load management" but it is also true that the NBA did not provide for much of a break between the "bubble" and the start of the 2020-21 season. This compressed timetable is likely at least partially responsible for the increase in injuries this season. Instead of "load management," the league should come up with a schedule that addresses the need for rest, and then the league should insist that healthy players play.

At Thursday, June 17, 2021 1:30:00 PM, Blogger Jordan said...

The NBA needs to figure out its schedule...as a growing consensus amongst fans is that the regular season doesn't matter. In some ways, this postseason both validates that and invalidates it. Homecourt advantage has not been much of an advantage thus far, however, historically, homecourt has been a huge boon. (Side question, I wonder if the sudden influx of fans at games has contributed to some shaky showings as players aren't quite used to the environment yet, having gone through 18 months of empty arenas?)

As a longtime fan of the game, it irritates me when players "load manage". It especially infuriates me when these players and their efficiency and accomplishments are then elevated over historically great players who never load managed.

These all team selections are atrocious and a symptom of the problem. This coming from a Lakers fan who doesn't think Lebron should've made one of the teams. As you pointed out, there are players who literally lost millions of dollars because they didn't make one of these teams.

Playing games matters. It should matter to players, who want to be paid $30 million for 82 games, but only want to play 65 (or are only physically capable of playing 65). I'm typically all about supporting the players, but with load management, I simply can't. If science says 82 games is detrimental to players health, then follow the science and lessen the number of games. But load management is not the solution. It only lessens the value of the product. And when the value goes down...everyone loses.

At Thursday, June 17, 2021 4:12:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...


I think that the overall nature of the conclusion of last season in the "bubble" and the fast start to this season--which has included COVID-19 protocols, no fans, some fans, and now a lot of fans, plus load management, an increased number of injuries, several star players on new (or reconstructed) teams, etc.--have combined to make the playoffs unpredictable and unusual.

I agree with you 100% about load management. The NBA needs to figure out a schedule that is healthy for the players, and then the league must insist that healthy players play.

LeBron has made some good points about the hasty restart contributing to injuries, but is he willing to take a 10% pay reduction if the number of games is reduced by 10% to promote health and safety? Otherwise, his words are just propaganda.

At Friday, June 18, 2021 8:09:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

thoughts re Lonzo's ROY award, despite missing so many games?


At Friday, June 18, 2021 10:17:00 PM, Blogger David Friedman said...

This was not a great rookie class--no rookie averaged 20 ppg or 7 rpg or 6.5 apg. Anthony Edwards averaged a rookie-best 19.3 ppg and he was the only rookie to play all 72 games. He also led all rookies with 2314 minutes played. His FG% was not great (.417) but he ranked in the top 10 among rookies in both rebounding (4.7 rpg) and assists (2.9 apg). I would have voted for Edwards.

In Ball's defense, he is probably a better all-around player than Edwards at this point, and there is not the same precedent for games played for RoY winners that there is for MVP winners. To cite just a few examples, Michael Carter-Williams (2014 RoY) played just 70 of 82 games, Kyrie Irving (2012 RoY) played just 51 of 66 games, Brandon Roy (2007 RoY) played just 57 games of 82 games, and Patrick Ewing (1986 RoY) played just 50 of 82 games.

Given the overall quality of this rookie class, and the lack of a clear precedent that RoYs must play a certain number of games, I am less upset about Ball winning RoY than I am about the All-NBA selections. An All-NBA player is supposed to have a major statistical impact and a major impact on winning; the RoY is just supposed to be the best rookie, but is not necessarily a player who is All-NBA or even All-Star caliber.


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