Other than driving too fast on Lake Shore Drive, I’m a rules follower. Always have been, always will be.
And so when I arrived at the oh-so-difficult All-NBA teams ballot, this line stood out: “Please vote for the player at the position he plays regularly.”
Nikola Jokić and Joel Embiid both are eligible per the pull-down menus to be voted on to the All-NBA first team as either a forward or center. And they probably will end up on that team after authoring dominant seasons.
But this particular voter couldn’t do it. Jokić is a center. So is Embiid. And until the league office either dispenses with positions outright or drops that qualifier, only one of the two landed on my first-team ballot.
Voting for postseason awards is an honor. Like most voters, I take the responsibility extremely seriously. I set aside the majority of a full day to research and make my selections. Up until almost the very moment I submitted my ballot to the league office, I agonized — and bothered colleague Rob Schaefer — over second- or third-team All-NBA designations for four players.
I’ve heard the argument that journalists shouldn’t be voting on awards that, in the case of All-NBA, can carry such large financial ramifications. And I understand that argument.
But we are trained as reporters and journalists to be objective. And that added potential ramification places an even greater layer of responsibility onto a process that deserves it anyway.
So here’s my ballot for the nine awards, which the league rightfully will also make public when the awards are announced.
Most Valuable Player
1) Nikola Jokić, Denver
2) Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee
3) Joel Embiid, Philadelphia
4) Luka Dončić, Dallas
5) Devin Booker, Phoenix
Jokić posted the first season ever of 2,000 points, 1,000 rebounds and 500 assists while finishing as the only player in the top-10 of points, rebounds and assists per game. He posted a true shooting percentage of .660 with high usage and defenses loading up on him because of the absences of Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr.
Most Improved Player
1) Dejounte Murray, San Antonio
2) Desmond Bane, Memphis
3) Jordan Poole, Golden State
Toughest omissions: Robert Williams III, Boston; Wendell Carter Jr., Orlando
What I take most seriously about the voting process is establishing your own criteria. So at least for me, high lottery picks who improve are typically discounted. (sorry, Ja Morant and Darius Garland). In Year Six, Murray raised his scoring average from 15.7 to 21.1 and his assists average from 5.4 to 9.2.
Defensive Player of the Year
1) Rudy Gobert, Utah
2) Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis
3) Mikal Bridges, Phoenix
Toughest omissions: Marcus Smart, Boston; Bam Adebayo, Miami
Smart is the best defender on the league’s best defensive team — and will be rewarded for that on another ballot. But his individual impact, as well as those for Jackson Jr. and Bridges, still doesn’t reach Gobert’s level. Just check Utah’s on-off splits. Gobert remains the league’s most impactful individual defender.
Sixth Man of the Year
1) Tyler Herro, Miami
2) Kevin Love, Cleveland
3) Cameron Johnson, Phoenix
Toughest omissions: Luke Kennard, LA Clippers, Tyus Jones, Minnesota
This one wasn’t that hard from this perspective. Herro averaged 20.7 points while playing starters’ minutes for the Eastern Conference’s top-seeded team.
Rookie of the Year
1) Evan Mobley, Cleveland
2) Scottie Barnes, Toronto
3) Cade Cunningham, Detroit
Toughest omission: N/A
There’s probably no wrong order to these three top rookies from what ultimately proved to be a deep class. Mobley’s elite defensive ability and impact on a younger team gave him the slight nod over Barnes, who is no defensive slouch himself.
Coach of the Year
1) Monty Williams, Phoenix
2) Erik Spoelstra, Miami
3) Taylor Jenkins, Memphis
Toughest omissions: Chris Finch, Minnesota, Ime Udoka, Boston, J.B. Bickerstaff, Cleveland
This always is a deep pool. But call this the “Phil Jackson syndrome.” Early in my beat writing career, I watched Jackson pile up 60-win season after 60-win season — and one time crack 70 — and only win one Coach of the Year award. Williams guided Phoenix to the league’s best record by creating an atmosphere of respect and accountability.
First team: Mobley, Cleveland; Barnes, Toronto; Cunningham, Detroit; Franz Wagner, Orlando; Herb Jones, New Orleans
Second team: Ayo Dosunmu, Bulls; Josh Giddey, Oklahoma City; Jalen Green, Houston; Chris Duarte, Indiana; Bones Hyland, Denver
Toughest omissions: Davion Mitchell, Sacramento; Jonathan Kuminga, Golden State
Unlike the All-NBA teams, these are positionless. Wagner and Jones joined the Rookie of the Year vote-getters because Wagner combined skill and shooting with durability, playing in 79 games, and because Jones showcased elite defensive potential while also logging 78 appearances.
First team: Smart, Boston; Jrue Holiday, Milwaukee; Bridges, Phoenix; Jackson Jr., Memphis; Gobert, Utah
Second team: Fred VanVleet, Toronto; Matisse Thybulle, Philadelphia; Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee; Williams III, Boston; Adebayo, Miami
Toughest omission: Draymond Green, Golden State
With 46 games, Green simply didn’t play enough. Holiday and Smart joined the Defensive Player of the Year vote-getters because of their physicality and elite, one-on-one stoppage. These teams also are suggested to be based on position.
First team: Dončić, Dallas; Booker, Phoenix; Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee; Tatum, Boston; Jokić, Denver
Second team: Trae Young, Atlanta; Steph Curry, Golden State; DeRozan, Bulls; Kevin Durant, Brooklyn; Embiid, Philadelphia
Third team: Ja Morant, Memphis; Chris Paul, Phoenix; LeBron James, LA Lakers; Pascal Siakam, Toronto; Karl-Anthony Towns, Minnesota
Toughest omissions: Jimmy Butler, Miami; Gobert, Utah
As previously stated, Embiid obviously produced a season worthy of first-team selection. But he plays the same position as Jokić.
These teams always produce the toughest decisions, and I toggled between second- and third-team status for these four players — Young and Morant at guard, Durant and James at forward. Ultimately, games played mattered to me, which gave the edge to Young over Morant and DeRozan over James and Durant.
Morant created such buzz this season — and rightfully so. But Memphis went 20-3 without him and Young’s offensive production gave him slight edge in select advanced metrics.
Do I believe DeRozan is better than Durant or James? No. Do I believe DeRozan had a more impactful season this season? Yes. Durant played one less game than James, but his true shooting percentage of .634 gave him slight nod in a mostly statistical draw.