Predicting the All-Decade teams for the 2020s

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Predicting the All-Decade teams for the 2020s

End of Decade: Poole's favorite Warriors memories | Ham on Kings' defining decade | Blakely breaks down top Celtics trades | Johnson names Bulls all-decade team | Hudrick reveals Sixers all-decade team | Hughes sets Wizards all-decade team

The end of the 2010s is here, which means you’ve probably spent more quality time with All-Decade teams than with your family this holiday season. But here at NBC Sports, we’re also about figuring out what’s next.

In the basketball world in particular, it’s never too early to look into the future. High schoolers Bronny James and Zaire Wade are playing on national TV and hoops prodigy Emoni Bates made the cover of Sports Illustrated at the age of 15. 

In that spirit, here’s my shot at the All-Decade team of the 2020s. I’m following the format of the All-NBA selections, which picks the five best players to its three teams regardless of position. 

Remember, 10 years is a long time, so age and a clean bill of health will matter a great deal for this list. Chronic and degenerative injuries will keep some household names off this list (sorry, Clippers fans). Ten years from now, we can all laugh at this list, just like Nostradamus was giggling at everyone in 2009 for leaving Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Davis off their future All-2010 teams.

Let’s grab the crystal ball, shake it and see what comes up.

All-2020 First Team

Luka Doncic

To me, Doncic has the best shot to be the MVP of the next decade. He still can’t legally buy an alcoholic beverage in America and he’s a nightly threat for 40 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists. He’s already hit that mark twice this season. As a 6-foot-7 point guard, Doncic has the size and the skill to dominate the game regardless of how it changes over the next decade.

Doncic doesn’t seem close to his ceiling either -- what 20-year-old basketball player is? If he gets in better shape and tightens his on-ball defense, there will be no holes in his game. By some advanced measures, he’s already playing at a level that would make this season the best age-20, age-21 or age-22 season ever. Did I mention that he’s only 20? 

Trae Young

The Atlanta Hawks are barely putting an NBA roster on the floor every night and the just-turned-21 point guard is still averaging an efficient 28.3 points per game and ranks third in assists. Young’s shot-making and playmaking abilities are insane for a player this, well, young. Don’t put the Hawks’ record on him. Put some All-Star caliber players around Young and he’ll be a mainstay in the MVP conversation. 

Young is a modern-day blend between Stephen Curry and Steve Nash. While it took both of those all-timers some time to break their respective molds, Young is custom-built for this era of basketball. His deadly combination of nasty handles, LeBron-esque court vision and parking-lot range warps the court and mitigates his diminutive size. The Logo 3 flamethrower has made 38 percent of his 3-pointers this season from 28 feet and beyond. If the NBA adds a 4-point line, game over.

Anthony Davis

Davis didn’t need to go to Los Angeles to find his name on this list, but the Lakers’ hot start certainly doesn’t hurt his case. The 26-year-old already has six All-Star appearances, three All-NBA selections and could be on his way to his first MVP. Just entering his prime, the Brow holds the best chance to be on the All-Decade squads for both the 2010s and 2020s. 

Like all great players, Davis’ ability to play on the brightest stage will determine where he lands on these lists. I have no concerns in that department. He won a championship in his lone season at Kentucky and has put up monster numbers (try 30.5 points and 12.7 rebounds) in his 13 career playoff games.

Giannis Antetokounmpo

What happens if Antetokounmpo adds a reliable 3-point shot? Do we just pack the ball and go home? He just helped the Milwaukee Bucks rattle off an 18-game win streak with his co-star, Khris Middleton, mostly sidelined by an injury. I’d put the Greek Freak ahead of Doncic on this list, but the Slovenian phenom is five birthday cakes away from Antetokounmpo’s age of 25. 

Helping Antetokounmpo’s case is his durability. Antetokounmpo has never missed more than 10 games in any of his six full seasons, a feat which Davis has only done twice and Joel Embiid has yet to complete. It’s also worth noting that Antetokounmpo has made 16 3-pointers this month on 41-percent shooting, which feels like something we’ll look back on 10 years from now and point to as the moment where it all began.

Joel Embiid

You might not think that Embiid deserves a spot on the first team, but I’d counter with this: He started playing basketball literally a decade ago. Now, the 25-year-old is averaging 24.1 points and 11.6 rebounds for his NBA career and is positioned to be a perennial MVP candidate for years to come.

No one has a larger “if healthy” disclaimer than Embiid on this list. If he can keep his conditioning issues and injuries to a minimum, there’s no ceiling on Embiid’s career. Like Davis and Antetokounmpo, Embiid has the size and talent to dominate both ends of the floor on any given night -- or decade.

All-2020 Second Team

Stephen Curry

Curry’s the best shooter ever in my book and that skill alone will keep him in the league a very, very long time. Reggie Miller played until he was 39 years old. Ray Allen was a month away from his 39th birthday when he started in the 2014 Finals. Nash, Vince Carter and Jason Terry -- all great shooters, all played into their 40s. 

I’m not worried about Curry’s ability to age gracefully. Curry will miss most of the season with an injury to his non-shooting hand, but that time off will give his well-worn wheels a break and save those extra miles for the long haul. As the 3-point shot becomes more and more essential to the game of basketball, Curry has the goods to play at a high-level deep into his 30s like the great shooters of previous generations.

Bradley Beal

Front offices around the league collectively sighed when the Wizards signed Beal to a two-year extension this summer, thereby removing his trade eligibility for the season. What they see is what the Wizards see: a franchise pillar who’s just coming into his own. 

Beal turned 26 years old over the summer and is one of three players averaging at least 27 points, 7.0 assists and 4.5 rebounds this season (minimum 500 minutes played). The Wizards’ turbocharged pace has inflated his per-game stats a tad, but there’s no denying that Beal is one of the best young guards in the game. He has the talent and work ethic to become the next James Harden.

Jayson Tatum

Tatum’s 2018 playoff run as a 20-year-old is already the stuff of Celtics legend. After a disappointing follow-up campaign in 2018-19, Tatum roared back to re-establish himself as a force to be reckoned with, averaging over 20 points per game as a 21-year-old for one of the league’s best teams.

If you doubted Tatum’s on-court impact, consider that the Celtics are plus-221 this season with him on the court and a dreadful minus-53 with him on the bench. That jarring scoreboard swing has Tatum’s name near the top of ESPN’s value leaderboard this season. Drawing more whistles is the only thing keeping Tatum from being among the league’s top scorers. It’ll come in time.

Ben Simmons

See where Antetokounmpo is now? Simmons can reach those heights if he rounds out his game. A nightly triple-double threat, Simmons can also defend the opposing team’s best scorer, which is not something you can say about a lot of young stars.

As I wrote this summer when he signed a max contract, Simmons’ defensive versatility is what sets him apart from most triple-double threats. Because of his knack for that side of the ball, my concern about his lack of a 3-point shot is more muted than some of my peers. That he’s already this good without a go-to jumper is even more reason to put him on this list. He’s not even close to his ceiling. At 23 years old, that’s more than fine.

Karl-Anthony Towns

Two years ago, Towns was recognized by NBA general managers as the player to build around. While guys like Antetokounmpo and Doncic have stolen that seat from him, Towns is still a ridiculous talent. He has more 3-pointers than Beal, more rebounds than Davis and more assists than Donovan Mitchell. 

Though he’s younger than Embiid and Antetokounmpo, I can’t put KAT above them until the big fella shows more fight on the defensive side of the ball. After turning 24 years old in December, the Kentucky product still has plenty of room to grow on that end of the floor. If he becomes an all-world defender, he could be the best player of the 2020s, period.

All-2020 Third Team

LeBron James

I nearly left him off this list entirely for the simple fact that he’s turning 35 years old later this month. I kept comparing him to Jordan, who retired -- for the second time -- at the age of 35. I thought about the similarly-skilled Larry Bird, who also hung it up at 35 because his body broke down.

And then I came to my senses. LeBron has shown little to no signs of aging. He leads the league in assists. He sits atop ESPN’s value metric that estimates on-court impact. Any player, no matter what age, that is averaging 26.1 points, 10.7 assists, 7.3 rebounds and shoots over 50 percent from the floor, has to be on the All-Decade list. Come to think of it, he has a good chance to be on the All-Decade list for three separate decades. Do that and the greatest of all-time throne will be his, if it isn’t already.

James Harden

Even if Harden isn’t able to sustain a near-40-point-per-game scoring pace, he’s still going down as one of the greatest scorers ever. He is on target to finish with his third scoring title in a row. That’s after he led the league in assists in 2016-17. 

Even though his scoring average has increased in each of the last six seasons, there is real concern here that he’ll wear down at some point. At 30 years old, he’s once again leading the league in minutes, which, if it continues, will be the third time he’s done that. Then again, he came off the bench for the first three seasons of his career. Maybe he has more left in the tank than we think.

Paul George

You could make an argument for Kawhi Leonard here, but his mysterious knee issues have me worried about his long-term prospects. George has come all the way back from his gruesome broken leg suffered in 2014 and owns one of the silkiest and deadliest 3-point shots in the game. That should keep him playing at a high level for several years, as long as his body holds up.

A two-way star, George has such a versatile game that I don’t have issues about his aging process compared to other players with his bill of health. Worries about how his shoulders still exist, but his performance this season without preseason or training camp has quelled those concerns a great deal. George is 29 years old but it feels like he’s just entering his prime years.

Zion Williamson

If it weren’t for the torn meniscus in October, I might have had him on the first team. He was that spectacular in preseason for the New Orleans Pelicans. Alas, a second knee issue on that enormous frame in the past year has to put a dent in his sky-high potential.

For me, there’s no question about his abilities. He averaged 30.8 points, 8.0 rebounds and 3.0 assists per 36 minutes in the preseason as a teenager. It all comes down to his health and what his body can handle on a nightly basis. There’s a short list of players who could reasonably be the best player of the 2020s and he’s on it.

Nikola Jokic

This is why you scout overseas. The Serbian big man has quickly established himself as one of the best players in the league after falling to the 41st overall pick in the 2014 draft. The 7-foot magician is leading the Denver Nuggets in assists for the third straight season and may be the closest thing we’ve seen to Arvydas Sabonis.

I’d be more concerned about his doughy physique if he wasn’t so remarkably effective with his grounded game. The 24-year-old is a triple-double threat every time he takes the floor despite having the vertical leap of a wet sandbag. He’ll be an MVP one day as long as he adds rim protection to his near-complete portfolio of NBA skills.

Follow me on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Michael Jordan-LeBron James debate remains unsettled after 'The Last Dance'

Why now? It’s one of the great underlying questions around the Michael Jordan-centric “The Last Dance” documentary.

The behind-the-scenes footage that provided the bedrock of the amazing 10-hour ESPN series had been locked away in Secaucus, N.J., for about two decades. For any of that film to see the light of day, as agreed upon by then-head of NBA entertainment and current NBA commissioner Adam Silver, Jordan himself would need to sign off on any sort of project using it.

For years, it sat there locked away without Jordan’s key to unlock it. We waited and waited and waited, until the morning of the Cleveland Cavaliers’ championship parade in 2016, according to ESPN’s Ramona Shelburne. That day, after an in-person meeting with Mandalay Sports Media executive Mike Tollin, Jordan finally decided to greenlight the documentary.

The timing is undeniably fascinating. LeBron James had just beat a Golden State Warriors team that not only featured NBA history’s first unanimous MVP in Stephen Curry, but one that broke the 1995-96 Chicago Bulls’ record for most wins in a regular season. James also delivered a championship to Cleveland, ending the city’s 52-year professional sports title drought.

The triumph was enough for James to declare himself the GOAT in 2018 during ESPN’s “More Than An Athlete:” “That one right there made me the greatest player of all time. That’s what I felt. Everybody was just talking about how [the Warriors] were the greatest team of all-time, like it was the greatest team ever assembled. For us to come back the way we came back in that fashion, I was, like, ‘You did something special.’”

Did that backdrop make Jordan nervous about his place in the history of the game? Did Jordan feel that a generation of young fans needed a reminder of his greatness?

We may never know the answer to that, but we do know that the documentary has, in some circles, become something of a Jordan haymaker in the GOAT debate. In many eyes, this wasn’t just a documentary; it was a verdict.

In a conversation with NBC Sports Chicago’s Bulls Insider K.C. Johnson on Monday, Bulls chairman Jerry Reinsdorf, unsolicited, made his stance in the debate extremely clear.

“‘The Last Dance’ obviously should establish in the mind of any person with normal eyesight that Michael was beyond a doubt the greatest of all-time,” Reinsdorf said. “In my mind, anytime anybody wants to talk to me about comparing Michael to LeBron (James), I’m going to tell them to please don’t waste my time.”

He continued.

“I’m truly tired of people trying to compare LeBron to Michael when it’s not even close. They should try to compare LeBron with Oscar Robertson or Magic Johnson. Michael was so head and shoulders over everybody, and that really came out in this documentary.”

It’s interesting that Reinsdorf didn’t mention Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Wilt Chamberlain or Larry Bird in those quotes to NBC Sports Chicago. He mentioned LeBron James, perpetuating the notion that the Jordan documentary was, at some level, a James counterstrike. 

But is Jordan actually head and shoulders over everybody? Not even close with James?

At the risk of wasting Reinsdorf’s time, it’s definitely a topic worth exploring, especially since the overall numbers don’t agree with Reinsdorf’s assessment.

* * * 

“The Last Dance” might as well be named “Six” for the lasting image of Jordan flashing his digits after the 1998 Finals, symbolizing his championship total. Yes, the documentary used the 1997-98 season as a storytelling anchor, but it felt more like a celebration of Jordan’s glorious career than a blow-by-blow examination of the 1997-98 season. Jordan last faced the Bad Boy Pistons on the playoff stage in 1991, but they received far more play in the docuseries than the Bulls’ actual 1998 Finals opponent, the Utah Jazz.

Jordan’s 6-0 record is spotless and beautiful and irretrievable for James, who has instead gone 3-6 in the Finals. For Jordan's strongest supporters, this is the nail in the coffin. However, reducing the GOAT debate purely to one’s Finals record would mean that John Havlicek (8-0), K.C. Jones (8-0, Tom Sanders (8-0) and Robert Horry (7-0) all have better cases than Jordan. And that’s before mentioning Bill Russell’s baffling 11-1 Finals record.

The James-vs.-Jordan debate needs a little bit more nuance than that. Jordan may have 6-0, but James has longevity in his corner. James has simply lasted longer than Jordan, both in career seasons and in deep postseason runs. 

James is in the midst of his 17th season and still playing at an MVP level. Jordan played 15 seasons, electing to retire twice during his prime years. Part of that gap in career length can be explained by James skipping college and entering league as an 18-year-old, which Jordan did not. 

What gets lost in the discussion is the fact that both Jordan and James have made 13 postseason appearances, but Jordan fell short of the Finals seven times. Whereas Jordan failed to reach the Finals more often than he made them, James has only fallen short four out of his 13 appearances. So not only has James been in the league longer, but he has had much longer playoff runs than Jordan, even if they didn’t always end in a Larry O’Brien trophy.

That has to matter in the larger conversation. Playing at a high level for that long begins to tip the scales in James’ favor, and that’s before we get into the individual barometers. 

The advanced metrics agree that this is a much closer affair than Reinsdorf would assume. Using win shares, which is an established all-in-one value metric that estimates a player’s contributions to overall team success, James has Jordan beat in cumulative value, according to Basketball Reference data. 

In fact, James eclipsed Jordan in that department years ago. At the moment the NBA halted play on March 12, James had 287.1 career win shares compared to Jordan's 253.8 figure.

Case closed, James is the GOAT, right? 

Not so fast. It turns out neither James nor Jordan possess the most win shares in NBA history. That distinction belongs to eternally-great Abdul-Jabbar, who played 20 seasons, with all but one of those being All-Star campaigns. 

If James plays two more full seasons at a high level, he will undoubtedly unseat Abdul-Jabbar in career win shares. Trailing Abdul-Jabbar by just 21.9 win shares at the career level, James averages 16.9 win shares per season in his career (this suspended season included) and appears to have several years left in the tank. If win shares aren’t your thing, James has already surpassed Jordan in other cumulative measuring sticks like career VORP and the championships added metric from ESPN’s Kevin Pelton. 

Individual all-in-one metrics aren’t meant to be judge, jury and executioner in these debates, but it’s certainly worth mentioning that James has distanced himself from Jordan in measures outside of title count. And it’s here where the GOAT discussion becomes more art than science. Do you prefer Finals records or overall playoff records? Do you prefer longevity or peak seasons? 

If you prefer looking at peak seasons, Jordan has the upper-hand on James. If you rank Jordan’s best seasons by win shares and compare it to James’ best, it’s clear that Jordan’s peak years are superior to those of James.

The chart above is my favorite way to distill the Jordan and James debate. As you can see, Jordan’s best seasons are superior to James’ best, with Jordan’s red line resting comfortably above James’ purple line until their respective 10th-best season of their careers. After that, James far outpaces Jordan’s best. If we include his MVP-caliber ‘19-20 campaign, James has 15 high-level seasons while Jordan only had 11, due to his foot injury and his two retirements. (Jordan’s final two seasons with the Washington Wizards at the ages of 38 and 39, after three years away from the game, don’t move the needle in the GOAT discussion, but appear here near the back end of his red line.)

The fact that Jordan’s heights are taller than James was hammered home in Pelton’s recent ranking of the best individual seasons in NBA history. In that study, Jordan made five appearances in the top 25 at Nos. 1, 5, 12, 17 and 31, while James sat slightly lower at Nos. 3, 8, 9 and 23.

Jordan has higher ceilings and James has higher floors. That’s the crux of the debate.

The former will always resonate far more with the masses on an emotional level than the latter. And with good reason. Though James has already registered considerably more career value than Jordan by advanced metrics, Jordan’s six championship seasons continue to stand out -- not just in the minds of basketball fans, but also in the numbers.

Looking at the conventional GOAT standards, James’ biggest flaw may be that he took his teams too far. Take the 2006-07 season. James was just 22 years old, with Larry Hughes serving as the Robin to his Batman, when James led the Cavs to the Finals only to be swept by the San Antonio Spurs. 

If James had just lost to the Detroit Pistons in the Eastern Conference finals like most expected, James’ NBA Finals record would be shinier. Instead, by getting to the Finals and losing, it’s a strike against him. Same goes for the 2014-15 Finals run when James’ Cavs swept the 60-win Atlanta Hawks while Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving were sidelined (Irving played two games of that Eastern Conference finals). If James simply lost earlier, again, his Finals record would be cleaner.

Because of his lopsided 3-6 record in the Finals, most fans may view James as an underachiever but, according to Vegas, the opposite is true. James’ teams were favored in just two of his nine Finals appearances (2011 and 2013) and overall, he actually surpassed expectations, ending up with three titles. Meanwhile, Jordan’s Bulls were favored in all six Finals and won all six. Jordan took care of business.

But, for the sake of argument, what if the Bulls didn’t lose to the Orlando Magic in the 1995 Eastern Conference semifinals? The Bulls entered the series as minus-165 favorites, according to Vegas, but the Magic went on to face (and get swept by) the Houston Rockets in the Finals. What if the Bulls didn’t blow that series and instead, like the Magic did, beat the Indiana Pacers and faced Hakeem Olajuwon and the Rockets for the title?

I recently caught up with former Rockets coach Rudy Tomjanovich about that hypothetical (full podcast next week!) and he pointed to a conversation he remembers having with Michael Jordan at Charles Barkley’s house in Phoenix in 1996. Barkley had invited his new coach, Tomjanovich, and the team’s trainer to hang out at his abode, along with Jordan and Tiger Woods (!). That night, Tomjanovich and Jordan discussed the Finals match that never happened. 

“[Jordan] said we were the team they feared the most because they didn’t have an answer for Hakeem,” Tomjanovich said. “It would have been a great series.”

We will never know how the Bulls would have fared against a Rockets team that won back-to-back titles, but Jordan ensured his clean Finals record by retiring in 1993 and losing in the 1994-95 East semifinals. In a strange way, James reaching eight straight Finals doesn’t resonate nearly as much as the “five” in “three-and-five.” 

Fair or not, there’s only so much James can do to erase his Finals losses in the basketball world’s collective psyche.

* * * 

The hook to all of this is the fact that James is still playing -- at an MVP level, no less. Declaring Jordan the GOAT before James retires is like awarding an Oscar to a film after refusing to watch the last 30 minutes of its top competitor. 

James has a legitimate shot to change the conversation, but the pandemic shutdown hurts those chances. With regular-season games threatened, the league’s hiatus has all but ruined James’ chance to overtake Giannis Antetokounmpo and win his fifth MVP award. James was also on track to surpass 2,000 points for his 11th season as he chases down Abdul-Jabbar’s all-time scoring record. In the past 14 months, James has passed Kobe Bryant and Jordan on the all-time scoring list and trails Abdul-Jabbar by 4,300 points. 

Depending on what route the NBA goes with a potential season restart, James could lose all or most of the Lakers’ remaining 19 regular-season games. Based on James’ 2019-20 scoring average of 25.7 points, that could cost James as much as 500 points. At current levels and without those 500 points, James would probably need three more seasons to catch Abdul-Jabbar. 

If he did pull it off and pass Abdul-Jabbar, there’s a world in which James’ supporters could use the trump card of James being the top scorer of all-time despite that not being his best basketball skill (that would be passing). Outside of that, James could also win a title or two alongside Anthony Davis to nudge closer to Jordan. But given the six losses on James’ ledger and Jordan’s “perfect” tally, it might be best to leave Jordan with that and change the conversation all together. 

James has a strong track record of doing that. Following “The Decision” fallout in 2010 and his 2011 Finals meltdown, even James’ strongest supporters would’ve had a hard time imagining a world in which James was largely beloved in northeast Ohio. Yet, after winning a title with the Cleveland Cavaliers and opening the “I, Promise” elementary school in Akron for at-risk children, his reputation with local fans is fully restored. After James left Cleveland and joined a barren Lakers franchise, he helped lure Anthony Davis and returned the Lakers to title favorites. Equipped with his own production company, James is chasing Jordan on the silver-screen, starring in a Space Jam sequel with an on-the-nose title, “A New Legacy.” James has created an empire by patiently waiting to get the final word.

Ultimately, the verdict remains out on the greatest argument in basketball circles, although it is a lot closer than many, including Reinsdorf, would like to believe. “The Last Dance” may have ended with the enduring image of Jordan cackling at his vanquished foes, but James still has a chance to have the last laugh.

Follow Tom Haberstroh on Twitter (@TomHaberstroh), and bookmark for my latest stories and videos and subscribe to the Habershow podcast.

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan vs. Charles Barkley was a one-sided affair

Michael Jordan dominated every Hall of Famer he faced, including the 20 fellow members he eliminated from the playoffs throughout his career. However, some superstars fared worse in their career matchups than others.

Charles Barkley finds himself at the bottom of the list as Jordan averaged 35.8 points against him in their 55 career matchups. Jordan logged his points per game record versus Hall of Famers against Chuck with 41 points in the 1993 NBA Finals.

While Sir Charles struggled against Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal held Jordan to an average of 28.7 points per game in their 21 career matchups, the lowest of those 20 Hall of Famers Jordan eliminated.

This ought to stir up some competition on the next episode of "Inside the NBA."

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