THE DEBATE OVER NBA ALL-STAR ROSTERS is invariably a silly one. An inordinate amount of time, energy, and resources is spent trying to whittle down the list to just twelve deserving candidates in each conference, and people get all in their feelings when one of “their guys” is snubbed. Analytics vs. eye test arguments kick into overdrive within the media, even as fans are busy giddily casting votes for joke candidates. [This will be the only mention of Messrs. Caruso and Fall in this column, in case you’re wondering.] And when it’s all said and done, the 24 selections go about the business of playing a defense-optional exhibition even hardcore fans don’t particularly care about. It is a laughably dumb exercise.
With that said, the selections do matter, even if only for the sake of posterity. There are both tangible and intangible financial incentives for making the team. Perhaps more importantly, when we begin to look at star players in a historical sense, All-Star nods are a big part of their legacies. It’s literally one of the first things we point to when retrospectively examining a player’s career and where he stood within the hierarchy of the league. So we should take the process seriously, even if it is all fundamentally unserious in the grand scheme of things.
First, some housekeeping. The final rosters will end up being selected, pick-up style, by the two “Captains” (the leading vote-getter from each conference, currently slated to be Giannis Antetokounmpo and LeBron James for the second straight year). The pool of players, however, is determined by a blended fan/media/player vote for the starters, and a coaches’ vote for the reserves. Twelve players are selected from each conference, with the starters being made up of three frontcourt and two backcourt players (no “center” designation anymore), and the reserves consisting of two backcourt, three frontcourt, and two “wild cards.” The fan vote — which accounts for 50% of the blended vote for starters — ended on Monday, and the ten starters will be officially announced on Thursday night, but here is where the voting stands as of now:
Even if the final fan vote doesn’t change much, the media and players will still have their say, so beyond the guys who basically can’t — and shouldn’t — be caught (LeBron, Davis, Kawhi, Luka, Harden, and Giannis), there is still some potential fluidity. Let’s take a quick spin through the starters before getting to the more nebulous process of picking reserves.
- FC: LeBron James, LA Lakers
- FC: Anthony Davis, LA Lakers
- FC: Kawhi Leonard, LA Clippers
- BC: Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
- BC: James Harden, Houston Rockets
Not much intrigue here, especially given the state of the fan voting. A case could be made for Nikola Jokic over Kawhi — Jokic has played an additional nine games and 262 minutes relative to the Finals MVP — but it’s not an overwhelming one, and the hay already appears to be in the barn anyway. The other four spots are unimpeachable in every respect. Let’s move on.
- FC: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
- FC: Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
- FC: Jimmy Butler, Miami Heat
- BC: Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
- BC: Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
There we go — conflict! Pascal Siakam currently leads Butler by about 400,000 votes, and he has now returned from injury. If we’re looking at it on the merits, however, Butler should be the choice. Siakam has the narrative on his side (reigning Most Improved Player becomes “the man” for the defending champs after Kawhi’s departure), and both guys are certain to make the roster anyway, but just for the sake of argument:
Butler has the six extra games and roughly 200 more minutes. Siakam has most of the counting stats and percentages on his side, but the advanced metrics favor Jimmy and it isn’t close. Their respective teams have nearly identical records, and both squads are significantly better with their leading man on the floor as opposed to on the bench. [This delta is larger for Butler than Siakam, though it’s tough to definitively glean much from such a figure.] There’s no “wrong” answer here, but when it’s this much of a toss-up, I give the nod to the guy with the larger body of work.
The East guards are, frankly, a mess. Let’s get Kyrie Irving out of the way right off the bat. He’s still second in the fan voting, but he clearly should not be an All-Star. He’s played in only fifteen games, during which the Nets are 5-10. [They are 13-14 without him in the lineup.] I get it, fans love watching the dude cook, but GTFOH. It would be borderline criminal for him to get a spot — especially a starting one — over any number of the more deserving candidates we’re about to discuss.
Hopefully, the media and players will do the right thing and vault Kemba over Kyrie (no symbolism there) and into the starting lineup. Walker’s counting stats are naturally down a tick from last season after joining a team featuring other competent NBA players, but he’s still a natural choice. He’s playing more efficiently by nearly any metric, his teammates adore him to the point it’s almost unsettling, and get this — they’re winning games! The other spot certainly looks as though it will go to Trae Young, but I’m going to buck the numbers and go with my gut. All the media hand-wringing over Young being a stat chaser on a bad team is a bit much, to the point some folks don’t want him on the team at all. That’s just silly. Regardless of context, 29/5/9 on on 45/37/84 shooting are All-Star numbers, even if his defense is laughably bad. I could see not wanting to reward him with a starting spot, though the fans obviously disagree. But he’s a lock to make the team in some fashion.
I am a little uneasy about putting two Sixers in the starting five, given how periodically shaky they’ve been all season. But whether or not he ever attempts another 3-pointer, Ben Simmons is playing great basketball. He’s been absolutely dominant since Joel Embiid went down with that nasty-looking finger injury. Simmons is averaging 21/10/8 on 62% shooting since the calendar flipped to 2020, and his defense and motor have been incredible as well. [He leads the league in steals per game, and has taken over for Paul George as this season’s “dude who is in the top-10 of almost every one of those funky ‘Hustle’ stats on NBA.com.] We all spend so much time kvetching about this one thing he can’t (or won’t) do, we forget he is top-of-the-league elite at virtually every other skill on a basketball court. He’s a lock to make the team at least as a reserve, but the way he’s shown his chops as an alpha dog point-center during the last two weeks puts him over the top for me. [With Ben thriving in the “Diet Giannis” role, the debate about the Embiid/Simmons fit will crescendo dramatically once JoJo returns to the court, but let’s focus on one thing at a time.]
- FC: Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
- FC: Rudy Gobert, Utah Jazz
- FC: Paul George, LA Clippers
- BC: Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
- BC: Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
- WC: Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans
- WC: Chris Paul, Oklahoma City Thunder
Notable Omissions: Karl-Anthony Towns, Devin Booker, Ja Morant, Russell Westbrook, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, DeMar DeRozan
The lead-pipe locks are Jokic, Gobert, Mitchell, and Lillard. It takes some serious mental gymnastics to not include those four, so there’s no need to spend much time dissecting their respective cases. Those last three spots could go a number of ways. I initially wrote down George as a no-brainer, but man, he’s missed a lot of games (18 and counting). If someone wanted to substitute Booker in that spot, I wouldn’t take umbrage with it. The Phoenix star has the superior case in terms of volume, but he also plays for a team with thirteen less wins than the Clippers, so it just depends how the coaches want to weigh the factors. [Thinking a professional basketball coach’s internal calculus will put a premium on wins doesn’t seem far-fetched.]
Towns has put up scrumtrulescent numbers when he’s been on the court (26/11/4 on 50/41/81 shooting). Like George, he’s also only played 26 games. Unlike George, his team stinks. If this exercise is fundamentally about triangulating stats, team success, and availability, it’s tough to make a compelling case for a guy when only one of those three factors is a net-positive. Westbrook will get consideration because of his name and his counting stats, but there is no way he deserves a spot. He’s been a borderline train wreck for much of the season. The numbers look shiny at first glance, but when you dig into them — and, you know, watch the games — it gets gruesome, and quick. His defensive effort has waned, he still takes the same four or five atrocious shots per game, and his outside shooting would make Josh Smith blush (23.5% from three on 4.6 attempts per game).
This is probably the last time for quite a while we’ll be able to keep Ja Morant and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander off the roster, but neither guy is quiiiite there yet. Don’t worry, youngbloods — your time is coming. DeRozan has had a nice stretch of play recently, but overall, meh. This leaves us with Ingram and Paul. Ingram has been a revelation in his first season with the Pelicans, vaulting into the thick of the Most Improved Player race and cementing his case as a first-time All-Star. I’ve been holding off in my mind on anointing him as such for as long as possible, particularly because the Pels started off the year so poorly. The slender Duke product has allayed even this concern, however, leading New Orleans to a 10-5 record since December 23rd.
The stats scream All-Star: 25.5/ 6.6/ 4.3 on 47/39/85 shooting splits. [The improved free throw shooting is particularly impressive; he was a career 66.2% shooter from the stripe coming into the year.] The defensive end has been a bit of a struggle for him, as it has for the entire New Orleans roster (they rank 27th in the league), but this stems in part from Ingram playing mainly as an undersized PF. He gives up significant poundage to many of the guys he marks on a nightly basis, and the return of Zion Williamson to the lineup (17 straight points in the fourth quarter on Wednesday night!!) should allow Ingram to play more minutes at his preferred wing spot, assuming an Ingram/Zion/Favors frontcourt turns out to be tenable offensively.
Paul is perhaps the most interesting case. The stats definitely favor Booker or Towns for the final spot, but it seems wrong not to reward someone for Oklahoma City’s surprising first half, and in terms of both his performance this season and his historical track record, CP3 is the natural candidate. All-Star nods aren’t intended to be Lifetime Achievement Awards (except in the case of Dirk and D-Wade last year), but with Paul’s uncertain future in OKC beyond this season — safe to say the rumors of him getting moved before the deadline can be put to rest now — and a Western Conference which will likely be even more loaded with talent next season (with Steph Curry and Klay Thompson presumably returning to health and Zion, SGA, and Ja all continuing their respective ascensions), this season could be the last chance for CP3 to nab his 10th All-Star berth. His scoring and assists are down a bit from peak Point God levels due to the bevy of guard talent OKC is deploying, but his ability to orchestrate the offense and play bigger than his size on defense — along with his newfound durability and otherworldly crunch-time numbers — make him a worthy selection.
- FC: Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors
- FC: Bam Adebayo, Miami Heat
- FC: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers
- BC: Trae Young, Atlanta Hawks
- BC: Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards
- WC: Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks
- WC: Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
Notable Omissions: Kyle Lowry, Jaylen Brown, Malcolm Brogdon, Kyrie Irving, Spencer Dinwiddie, Devonte’ Graham, Nikola Vucevic, Andre Drummond, Zach LaVine
This group could go a lot of different directions, so don’t drag me if this turns out to be way off-base. Siakam is the only true lock (or Butler/Embiid, depending which two of those three end up starting), and I suspect Young will end up on the roster in one form or another. Middleton seems likely as well because the coaches will feel they have to reward Milwaukee’s dominance with at least two spots. [He’s also deserving, but so is everyone else on the list.]
After that, it becomes very eye-of-the-beholder. The other frontcourt picks are fairly straightforward. Adebayo and Sabonis have both stepped into larger roles this season and flourished for semi-surprising contenders. Bam is basically a bigger, more athletic, higher-scoring version of Draymond Green, with an advanced floor game many did not see coming after his stint as a glorified rim-runner at Kentucky. Adebayo is averaging 15.8/ 10.5/ 4.6 on 59% shooting, and is legitimately in the mix as a Defensive Player of the Year candidate for a team on a 58-win pace. Sabonis has been just as good, if not better. He’s throwing up a 17.9/ 12.9/ 4.3 on 54% shooting, and he’s an even bigger +/- monster for an Indiana team about to get its best player (Victor Oladipo) back next week. [Some might prefer Malcolm Brogdon to be the Pacers’ representative, and it’s understandable. He’s been awesome as the engine of an offense which has overachieved in the absence of Oladipo. The debits for him are that he’s played nine less games than Sabonis, and his production has tailed off a bit after his blazing start. I’ll stick with Domas.]
Since we already have Young on the roster, some might quibble with the inclusion of Beal as another “good stats/bad team” guy. He’s making the best of the dumpster fire of a roster in Washington, and they become a G League outfit whenever he hits the bench (-15.2 points per 100 possessions when Beal sits). Despite being among the worst defensive teams in NBA history (seriously), Beal has helped mold the Wiz into an entertaining disaster, currently sitting at 11th in Offensive Rating amid the dearth of talent surrounding him. Perhaps he already regrets the lucrative extension he signed with the Wizards this past offseason, but there’s only so much we can ding a guy for the incompetence of his colleagues.
I gave the final spot to Jayson Tatum, but I wouldn’t say I feel great about it. Coaches will probably want to give a nod to a second Boston player (in addition to Kemba), and Tatum seems the obvious choice, until you actually start breaking it down. Both Tatum and Jaylen Brown have played like All-Stars, and if we’re only picking one, the answer is not exactly clear-cut:
It’s dealer’s choice here, but I’ll go with Tatum because he’s played more games/minutes and bears a heavier Usage burden, even if his efficiency suffers a bit as a result. Apologies to Brown and Kyle Lowry, who are the toughest cuts on my East roster. [I won’t be shocked if either Lowry or Brogdon ends up getting the spot I have assigned to Beal. Remember: coaches love winning.]
So those are my teams. Tune in Thursday night on TNT for the announcement of the captains and starters, and next Thursday (January 30th) for the reserves. Feel free to share your thoughts in the comments, on Facebook, or Twitter. Happy All-Star Season!