NBA awards 2024: Predicting the positionless All-NBA and All-Defensive teams

The new 65-game threshold to be eligible for the league’s top end-of-season awards has received significant attention, and deservedly so. But there’s another substantial change in effect for some coveted awards: positionless voting for the league’s All-NBA and All-Defensive teams.

In prior years, voters selected two guards, two forwards and one center for each of the three All-NBA teams and each of the two All-Defensive teams. But not anymore. The 100 writers and broadcasters who will vote for those teams will be directed to select the most deserving players, regardless of their positions. As with the 65-game threshold (which, by the way, includes some caveats that we won’t delve into here), the move to positionless voting was agreed to by the NBA and National Basketball Players Association in their new collective bargaining agreement. 

To break down how positionless voting will impact the process from voters’ points of view, The Athletic has brought together three of its writers who cover the league and cast awards votes last season: William Guillory, Kelly Iko and Josh Robbins

What do you think of the positionless system for determining the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams? Is removing positional requirements fair or unfair to the players compared to the prior system of choosing two guards, two forwards and one center for each of those teams? 

Josh Robbins: Let’s forget for a moment whether the new positionless system will make voters’ jobs more challenging or more simple. The only thing that should matter is whether the new system will ensure the most deserving players receive the recognition they’ve earned.

Through that lens, I think positionless voting is a step forward, especially for the All-NBA teams.

For the All-NBA teams, I welcome the change because it will prevent any scenario in which the league’s second-best player in a particular season could be excluded from the All-NBA First Team. 

An example: Last year, the All-NBA First Team was Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Luka Dončić at guard, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jayson Tatum at forward and Joel Embiid at center. I think those were the correct choices; indeed, I named those same five guys on my first-team ballot. 

But, at the same time, the first team left off the person who finished second in the MVP voting: Nikola Jokić. Because Embiid and Jokić are both centers, I had to omit one of them on my All-NBA First Team ballot, and I omitted Jokić. But Jokić had played more than well enough to be on the first team; if the voting had been positionless, he would’ve made the first team, no problem. 

Something similar applies to the All-NBA Third Team. In some years, the performance of the sixth-best guard or sixth-best forward or third-best center pales in comparison to the sixth-best players at positions with deeper talent pools. So, there have been cases when the seventh-best guard, for instance, is more deserving of making the All-NBA Third Team than the sixth-best forward. Positionless voting should prevent that from happening.

I’m not as bullish on positionless voting’s impact on the All-Defensive teams, but I still deem it a net positive. 

As many people, including Adam Silver, have said in the past, the game is more positionless than ever. That’s accurate. But even in an age when teams switch one through four more than ever, I would add that the delineation between “a big” and “a small” is more well-defined on defense than it is on offense. 

For instance, the responsibility Rudy Gobert has for the Minnesota Timberwolves isn’t the role that Jrue Holiday has for the Boston Celtics. Gobert and Holiday are great defenders, but comparing them to each other is like comparing apples to oranges. Granted, that apples-to-oranges comparison already existed with the NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting, but I hope that neither of the broad defensive roles — small or big — will wholly overshadow the other role on the All-Defensive teams. To put it another way: In most years, no All-Defensive First Team should consist entirely of five bigs or entirely of five smalls.

William Guillory: I agree that going positionless on the All-NBA and All-Defensive ballots is a step in the right direction.

I like to look back at past All-NBA teams and use them to quickly summarize the league’s most impactful players for that specific season. It’s not as simple as saying, “These were the 15 best players in the league in 1991-92,” because injuries and other factors come into play. But I think it’s about as close as we can get to conveying that message in an easily digestible way.

As mentioned earlier, the constant Jokić vs. Embiid debates often distracted everyone from the fact that those two were head and shoulders above everyone in the league each of the past four seasons, and the All-NBA team should be able to reflect that without silly debates like, “Who was the better center this season?”

There should never be a scenario that prevents the person who finished second in MVP voting from being a first-team All-NBA selection. That it happened three years in a row is a bad look for the league. 

I agree some discretion should be used to prevent handing in a ballot with 15 guards for All-NBA. Saying there aren’t elite players at every position would also be an inaccurate portrayal of today’s NBA. 

The goal with all these ballots should be to reward the best players for having an outstanding season. Eliminating any factors that may take away from keeping that process as straightforward as possible should be the goal.

Kelly Iko: I think the positionless voting movement is a step in the right direction, although you could make the argument that this is a few seasons late to the party. 

For something as fuzzy as awards voting that involves a myriad of factors and can have a direct financial impact on players, it’s important to make the most well-informed, intelligent decisions. It’s even more important that we modify our approaches as new information is presented to us. 

With that being said, I’m all for it. I support anything that will remove the unnecessary and ludicrous 2023 decision of keeping either Jokić or Embiid off my first-team All-NBA ballot. Both future Hall of Famers had incredible seasons, but as far as the history books go, only one of them made first team All-NBA. 

There is always going to be a strong correlation between the MVP vote (which is positionless by nature) and All-NBA. Removing the buffer should only make voting a smoother process. It certainly makes crafting an All-Defensive team an easier task as well, because defense should be seen as an equal opportunity system anyway, regardless of position. 

Maybe Silver really took some of the complaints from star players over the years about the system to heart. Maybe the league is really tapped into NBA Twitter and is well-aware of the plight of the antiquated system. Whatever the reason was for the light bulb moment, it was a smart one. 

Nikola Jokić finished second in the 2022-23 NBA MVP voting but didn’t make the 2022-23 All-NBA First Team because Joel Embiid earned the first-team spot at center. (Ron Chenoy / USA Today)

The three of you have voted for the All-NBA and All-Defensive teams in previous seasons. How will the elimination of positional considerations impact your thought processes as you make your choices?  

Robbins: Among the writers who vote, I don’t know of anyone who takes this responsibility lightly. There are always gut-wrenching choices, and I don’t see the positionless voting as making the process any less challenging.

Here’s what I’ll be most interested in: To what degree, if any, will voters’ All-NBA First Team choices differ from their MVP choices? Remember, in the MVP vote, we don’t just select someone for first place; we also name our second-, third-, fourth- and fifth-place choices regardless of players’ positions.

So, now that the All-NBA voting is positionless, will most voters’ five All-NBA First Team choices be exactly the same as their top-five MVP choices? I would love to know how Kelly and Will will approach this exact question, and I’d love to know what our readers think in the comments. 

As for the All-Defensive teams, I’ll continue to seek out and consider the opinions of players, coaches and front-office officials.

Guillory: I haven’t decided what my final ballot looks like yet, but I must admit it’ll feel somewhat weird if my top-five MVP candidates aren’t also the five players I put on first-team All-NBA.

As I said, the goal with my ballot is to give an accurate portrayal of who the most impactful players were this season. I understand some voters may go back and forth between what matters more between who was more valuable this year vs. who are the best players in the game.

For example, some voters may say, “I can’t turn in a ballot that’s supposed to portray the 15 best players in 2023-24 and not include Stephen Curry or LeBron James, even if that means removing someone like Jalen Brunson or Tyrese Haliburton.”

I would say that’s an argument that should be left up to each voter and what they prioritize most when putting together their ballots. For myself, I’ll prioritize a player’s performance in this particular season over what he’s done for an entire career, but I don’t think it’s insane for anyone to use past performance as a tiebreaker between two deserving candidates.

In the end, these decisions shouldn’t be easy. All voters should put serious thought into their ballots and how these decisions will impact how the game will be viewed by future generations.

Making sure the right people get the recognition they deserve should be the ultimate goal.

Iko: Every year that I’ve been given the opportunity to cast a vote, I’ve tried my best to leave no stone unturned. 

It’s a combination of multiple streams of research for my process — watching games live and rewatching others, keeping notes on players throughout the season, comparing advanced statistics and watching trends and my personal favorite: conversations with front-office executives, fellow media members and, of course, the players themselves. You’ll be amazed at some of the perspectives you get from those who are actually out there competing on a nightly basis. 

In recent years, the NBA has modified some positional eligibility to allow for more flexibility (Tatum as a “guard”, Dončić as a “forward”), so, in a sense, my brain has been conditioned for the positionless shift for some time now. Last season, I found myself struggling for a long time keeping Derrick White off the first All-Defensive group, even though Holiday and Alex Caruso were essentially locks, in my opinion. White was worthy of getting the nod from me, and it shouldn’t have come down to two slots. 

At the other end of the spectrum, however, we are fortunate that the league is in a place where there are enough elite centers to where they shouldn’t be too much of an issue down the line. When you hear the word “positionless,” there are some who will attribute it as biased towards guards and forwards. This shouldn’t be the case. Your job as a voter should now be to find the most worthy players, period, regardless of position. 

At this moment, how would you vote for the three All-NBA teams? 

Robbins: My ballot will almost certainly change over the regular season’s final two weeks, especially when the final standings are determined. But here’s how I’m leaning at this moment: 

All-NBA First Team: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Nikola Jokić, Luka Dončić, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Anthony Edwards.

All-NBA Second Team: Jayson Tatum, Jalen Brunson, Kawhi Leonard, Domantas Sabonis and Tyrese Maxey.

All-NBA Third Team: Tyrese Haliburton, Kevin Durant, Steph Curry, Anthony Davis and Jaylen Brown. 

The 65-game threshold for consideration prevented me from having to make a difficult choice: Where should Donovan Mitchell, an otherwise deserving player, be placed on these teams? Injuries have limited Mitchell to 51 games. 

I don’t take leaving Tatum off my first-team ballot lightly. His case is an example of the kind of gut-wrenching choices I mentioned earlier. He’s not only a great player, but also the best player on the league’s best regular-season team. That’s one of the many choices I’ll re-evaluate constantly over the next two weeks. 

Guillory: Like I said, I haven’t decided what my final ballot will be just yet. I like to wait until the season is done before locking in who I’ll vote for. But this is what it would look like today:

All-NBA First Team: Nikola Jokić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Luka Dončić and Jayson Tatum.

All-NBA Second Team: Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis and Kevin Durant.

All-NBA Third Team: Tyrese Haliburton, Stephen Curry, Tyrese Maxey, Jaylen Brown and Zion Williamson.

I feel pretty good about everyone on the first and second teams. 

From there, I’ve still got a lot of thinking to do before solidifying my third team. Paolo Banchero and Rudy Gobert are two guys I really felt bad about leaving off. Williamson’s inclusion may surprise some, but I think he has an argument for being a top-10 player in the league since All-Star. LeBron James is another name worth mentioning here, but I don’t think there’s any way I’ll include two Lakers on my All-NBA ballot. 

Iko: We still have some time left between now and the end of the season, but if you’re forcing me to make my picks now, here’s what it probably looks like:

All-NBA First Team: Nikola Jokić, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Jayson Tatum, Luka Dončić and Giannis Antetokounmpo.

All-NBA Second Team: Anthony Edwards, Jalen Brunson, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, Domantas Sabonis.

All-NBA Third Team: Steph Curry, LeBron James, Zion Williamson, Jaylen Brown, Kevin Durant.

Again, this might not be what my final ballot will look like in two weeks. I think four out of the five names on the first team will be on every voter’s ballot, but the fifth name (I ultimately went with Tatum) might differ. I was going to originally give Edwards the nod over Tatum because of his commitment to consistent defensive improvement, coupled with a Wolves roster much less explosive than the Celtics’ and a team that will finish the regular season on the cusp of 60 wins. Edwards has taken the league by storm this season and has been one of its five best players, in my opinion. Simply remarkable. But the Celtics, led by Tatum, are in the midst of a historical season. 

Elsewhere, there’s still plenty of time for shuffling the pack. I’m still going back and forth on Williamson’s scorching streak since the All-Star break and seeing where that stacks up against the rest. That’s not even to mention names like Tyrese Maxey, who has been tasked with holding up the 76ers without Embiid, or Paolo Banchero’s push with the surprise Orlando Magic. This also means leaving off Dame Lillard and Devin Booker. These things are tough, man. 

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Our roundtable panelists agree: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander should be a lock for All-NBA First Team honors. (John Jones / USA Today)

As things stand right now, how would you vote for the All-Defensive first and second teams? 

Robbins: Right now, for my All-Defensive First Team, I have Rudy Gobert, Lu Dort, Bam Adebayo, Victor Wembanyama and Jalen Suggs. 

My All-Defensive Second Team is: Jrue Holiday, Jaden McDaniels, Jarrett Allen, Herb Jones and Anthony Davis.

This is an agonizing exercise, and I must acknowledge that I’m a bit hesitant to place Wembanyama so highly, considering how the Spurs ranked 22nd overall in defensive rating through Sunday. (You’ll notice that all of my other choices, except for Davis, play for top-seven defenses, as measured through Sunday’s games.) But I chose Wembanyama because of his sky-high block rate and for his sky-high defensive-rebounding rate. 

Almost all of my choices remain in flux. Among the laundry list of players I need to review over these next two weeks is Derrick White — not just relative to the rest of the league but even against his teammate Holiday. This is one of those many instances where the opinions of coaches, players and front-office personnel are critically important. Evaluating the Celtics’ players is a fascinating exercise. Boston ranked third in defensive rating through Sunday and should be reflected in All-Defensive voting. But it also should be noted that every person in Boston’s preferred starting five is a plus defender, and those individual guys’ smarts, size and toughness compound the team’s effectiveness as a whole. 

These choices really are tough, as Kelly said. 

Guillory: My All-Defensive First Team: Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama, Bam Adebayo, Herb Jones and Anthony Davis.

My All-Defensive Second Team: Jalen Suggs, Lu Dort, Derrick White, Alex Caruso and Jaden McDaniels.

There’s no doubt in my mind that Gobert, Wembanyama, Adebayo and Davis will be on my first team. I believe those are the four best defensive players in the league (in no order). It’s pretty much a coin flip between Jones, White and Suggs. I just think Jones has a slight advantage over those guys this season. 

Iko: All-Defensive First Team: Rudy Gobert, Victor Wembanyama, Herb Jones, Jaden McDaniels and Bam Adebayo.

All-Defensive Second Team: Derrick White, Kawhi Leonard, Jalen Suggs, Alex Caruso and Anthony Davis.

This honestly might be a more head-scratching exercise than selecting All-NBA! I didn’t even mention Brook Lopez or Jarrett Allen (shoutout to the centers this year) for their individual defensive excellence. Jrue Holiday, Fred VanVleet and Lu Dort have been amazing, and Jonathan Isaac, who won’t meet the 65-game requirement, is a one-man wrecking machine. 

Personally, I put a considerable amount of stock into the Wolves leading the league in defensive rating and the two pillars that made that feat possible — Gobert on the interior and McDaniels on the perimeter. This was also another season that I fell in love with Adebayo’s versatility and tenacity, regardless of where he’s stationed on the floor. The Heat, another top-ten unit, are nearly seven points better defensively with Adebayo on the floor. You don’t even need advanced stats to understand that — just watch Miami play. 

There are as many excellent defensive players as there are excellent all-around players, and the notion that we should only reward 10 of them is backwards to me. 

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Led by Rudy Gobert, shown here contesting yet another shot, the Minnesota Timberwolves have the league’s top-ranked defense as measured by points allowed per possession. (Jesse Johnson / USA Today)

What was your most difficult decision for either the All-NBA or All-Defensive teams? 

Robbins: I mentioned how agonizing it would be to leave Tatum off the All-NBA First Team. Also, the final spot on the All-NBA Second Team is where things got even more difficult than usual. It’s fortunate that Kelly, Will and I participated in this exercise, because it got me thinking about the difficult choices that must be finalized at the end of the regular season. 

Guillory: Tatum vs. Edwards for first-team All-NBA will probably come down to the wire for me. Those Brown/Williamson spots at the end of Third Team All-NBA will have like 10 names in contention for me once the season is done

Iko: For me — and it’s something I’ll likely wrestle with until the buzzer — is whether to reward both James and Davis, potential All-NBAers who might not even make it to the first round, over someone like a Gobert or Maxey. Another tough decision is the Brown question, which somehow creeps back into our lives every season. How do you separate his greatness from Tatum’s and the rest of the roster, compared to the field? Not to mention the mind games of flipping back and forth between those considered locks. Separating Caruso/White/Suggs/Jones isn’t for the faint of heart — tough, tough work. 

(Top photo of Anthony Edwards and Jayson Tatum: Winslow Townson / USA Today)

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