In golden age of guard play, earning All-NBA honors carries prestige

Twelve guards -- led by Westbrook, Harden, Curry -- show fierce competition for legacy honor

Shaun Powell

Shaun Powell

The All-NBA team is the quietest major award in the league and it isn’t close. There is no announcement in front of a sellout crowd before the next game, no news conferences with grinning teammates and coaches and tearful family members gathered around. There’s not even a trophy to the winners.

And yet, with the exception of the regular season and Finals MVPs, making an All-NBA team is more prestigious than any other award. It is, by far, a bigger deal than making the All-Star Game (because that’s based on a half season, and/or popularity, and/or reputation). Plus, sometimes a player gets named an All-Star as an injury replacement.

All-NBA is a legacy-type honor. If you rack up enough appointments to the first, second or third team, you can make a strong case for the Hall of Fame or being the best at your position for your decade.

Any of the six guards who make the cut this season should feel extra privileged. The competition will be fierce if not historic. This is the golden age of guards, particularly point guards. With the game going small and guard-heavy, and emphasis placed on shooting instead of post play, the number of top-shelf guards has multiplied lately. As well, the 2016-17 regular season MVP award appears to be an exclusive two-guard race. Eight of the candidates for All-NBA teams this season made All-NBA teams in the past. Everyone’s bringing steep credentials and that means somebody deserving will be left off.

For example: Chris Paul, who made an All-NBA team eight of the last nine seasons (missing in 2010 mainly due to injury) and is still in his prime, might not make the cut. Yes, he’s missed one-fourth of the season. But he’s still averaging 17.5 points, 9.3 rebounds and two steals per game and his LA Clippers are winning.

With the season now in the home stretch and the ballots being printed and prepared for distribution, here’s a look at the contenders:

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder

One way to guarantee a spot on the first team is to average a triple-double for an entire season. Actually, Westbrook could fall short of that and still make first team, but point made. With a strong group of peers pushing for spots, it takes a special player to leave no doubt. Westbrook is that player. Strangely, he could make first team All-NBA after failing to get voted as an All-Star starter, which explains why being an All-Star is overrated.

James Harden, Houston Rockets

When you make a serious push for MVP, and even be the front-runner in the opinion of some observers, that comes with an automatic lock for first team. So pencil in Harden with Westbrook. Harden’s season might be more impressive because he’s leading the league in assists in his first official year as a point guard, and has more 40-point triple-doubles than Westbrook. And his team will win 50-plus games.

Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors

The last MVP to fail to make an All-NBA team the season after winning the award, for reasons other than injury (Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Bill Walton, Derrick Rose, Kevin Durant) or retirement (Michael Jordan) is Wes Unseld in 1969-70 — and that was when only two All-NBA teams were named. Chances are good that Curry will land on one of the three teams, but again, it’s a stacked field and nothing will surprise.

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics

All-NBA teams are loaded with former lottery picks and first-round draft picks with splashy resumes, so it will be especially sweet for Thomas, the last player taken in his Draft, if he makes the cut. Also remember that Thomas was traded not once, but twice before he landed with the Celtics. In all, that means not only was he a lowly second-round pick, a pair of teams gave up on him. And did you notice he’s a little guy? Averaging almost 30 a night (29.1 ppg) and getting MVP chants in Boston puts him in the mix for second team.

Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers

It’s not often when you can drop 46 points in a game and average 25 for the season and still be required to fight for a spot on an All-NBA team. Irving arrived as a superstar the moment his championship-winning jumper sailed over Curry last summer, so he raises a strong argument in his favor on reputation alone. Only nit-pick: LeBron James leads the Cavs in assists and plays the “point” just as much as Irving does.

John Wall, Washington Wizards

This is the best year of his career, when everything about Wall is elevated: scoring, assists, steals, shooting, leadership. And winning; the Wizards are among the best teams record-wise since January and rolling toward 50 wins and possibly the second spot in the East. Wall has never made an All-NBA team, but this could change in a few months.

Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

The co-star of what might be the league’s premier backcourt, Beal is finally healthy and, like Wall, is enjoying a signature season. He’s shooting 48.1 percent overall and 40.5 percent on 3-pointers and, overall, is deadly when left open. He does lack the overall game of some All-NBA candidates and that could punish him when the votes come in.

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors

Almost everyone would agree Lowry would be a near-lock if he’s healthy. Still a strong rebounder for a six-footer, and the set-up man for the Raptors, Lowry was shooting 41 percent from deep when he broke his wrist last month. He cracked the All-NBA lineup last season with the third team, and if his injury isn’t held against him, could make it again.

DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors

Owner of the best mid-range game in basketball and dropping 26.8 points a night, DeRozan is the league’s highest-scoring two-guard and normally that would be enough to make an All-NBA team. The last player to average 26 and fail was Allen Iverson in 2007-08 and he was an aging guard playing for the Denver Nuggets then.

Chris Paul, LA Clippers

He’s arguably the most consistent premier point guard of this generation and definitely the most decorated once you combine All-Star and All-NBA appearances. Once again, Paul ranks among the league leaders in assists and steals and constantly takes the big shot for the Clippers, but with so much competition for a spot, this could be the year when missing games will be held against him.

Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers

So, let’s get this straight: Just a few days after scoring 49 points and also leading a March resurgence for the Blazers, Lillard’s place on an All-NBA squad remains a debate today? His scoring and overall shooting percentage are at career-best levels, even better than last season when he made second team. The Blazers are fighting for a playoff spot and may not post a winning record, so his All-NBA fate may rest with where the Blazers finish, fair or not.

Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors

His production is only marginally down from the last two years when he made third team. Again, this wouldn’t be a big issue or held against him; Thompson remains a danger shooter and the Warriors are leading the West. This just happens to be the wrong year to have a slip, even a small one.

Veteran NBA writer Shaun Powell has worked for newspapers and other publications for more than 25 years. You can e-mail him here, find his archive here and follow him on Twitter.

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