An All-Star guide, from the starters, to the snubs
By Marc Stein
If you enjoy spirited discourse about NBA All-Star matters, this is your year.
There is the ongoing debate about the wisdom of holding even a scaled-down version of the event in Atlanta amid the coronavirus pandemic, which continues to disrupt the regular-season schedule. There is also the traditional wrangling over who should claim the 12 All-Star spots in each conference — as spirited and layered as ever in a season marked by game postponements, mostly empty arenas and more parity than usual in the standings.
Fan balloting ended Tuesday at midnight, Eastern time. All-Star starters will be revealed tonight on TNT, with the reserves, as selected by the league’s coaches, to be announced next Tuesday.
Here is our annual projection of the rosters featuring my unofficial reserve sections:
Frontcourt: Kevin Durant (Brooklyn Nets); Giannis Antetokounmpo (Milwaukee Bucks); Joel Embiid (Philadelphia Sixers). Backcourt: Bradley Beal (Washington Wizards); Kyrie Irving (Nets).
Durant, Antetokounmpo and Embiid have such sizable leads in fan voting (and rightly so) that we can proclaim them starters. Beal (2,528,719) was the leading vote-getter among guards, over Irving (2,104,130) and James Harden (1,829,504), as of last week’s balloting update, which was pleasing to see.
Beal missed out last season on All-Star and All-NBA honors despite averaging 30.5 points per game. He is averaging 33.1 points per game this season while facing even more attention from defenses. A starting nod, if you can get past the Wizards’ 8-17 record, would be a nice makeup call for a player who has pledged his loyalty to a franchise that is floundering in its attempts to build around him.
Sure-Thing Reserves: Khris Middleton (Bucks); Jayson Tatum and Jaylen Brown (Boston Celtics); Bam Adebayo (Miami Heat); James Harden (Nets).
The Bucks packaged an array of trade assets to acquire Jrue Holiday from New Orleans in hopes of persuading Antetokounmpo to sign a five-year, $228 million contract extension.
Antetokounmpo did sign in the end — on the 31st of 37 days he was eligible to do so — but Holiday’s arrival appears to have sparked Middleton just as much. Lest anyone suggest Holiday had supplanted him as Milwaukee’s clear-cut second star, Middleton is shooting (and playmaking) better than ever.
Tatum and especially Brown have also ascended to new levels as two-way forces and, because of their promise, give the Celtics reason to avoid plunging into full-blown panic mode after a 5-10 skid dumped them to fourth in the East.
The Heat have two undeniable All-Stars, but their 11-16 record has me fearing Jimmy Butler could get passed over by voting coaches on a technicality: Butler missed 12 of Miami’s first 27 games. Adebayo, by complementing his defensive versatility with an improving jumper and a vastly improved free-throw stroke, should ensure that last season’s East champions have at least half the representation they should.
And, yes, Harden still counts as an All-Star automatic for me — disruptive as his behavior was in Houston during the season’s first six weeks in an ultimately successful bid to coerce the Rockets to trade him.
Wild Cards: Gordon Hayward (Charlotte Hornets); Julius Randle (New York Knicks).
The Hornets were mocked for giving Hayward a four-year, $120 million contract in free agency after his three injury-plagued seasons in Boston. Hayward has responded with some of the strongest across-the-board play in his career, alongside exciting rookie LaMelo Ball, to establish the Hornets as an unexpected playoff contender.
Perhaps I let romance sway me on both picks here, but it’s true: I also went with the Knick! The Knicks’ competitiveness is an even bigger surprise than Charlotte or anything else we’ve seen in the East, and Randle, along with first-year coach Tom Thibodeau, has been a cornerstone of that competence.
Even before Randle’s 44-point masterpiece Monday night in a victory over Atlanta, I couldn’t resist being swept up in his 23.1 points, 11.0 rebounds and 5.6 assists per game while shooting a career-best 40.6% from 3-point range. Those benchmarks have been sustained by only one player for an entire season: Larry Bird.
Frontcourt: Nikola Vucevic (Orlando Magic); Domantas Sabonis (Indiana Pacers); Jerami Grant (Detroit Pistons); Tobias Harris (Sixers); Jimmy Butler (Heat). Backcourt: Zach LaVine (Chicago Bulls); Trae Young (Atlanta Hawks); Malcolm Brogdon (Pacers); Fred VanVleet (Toronto Raptors); Ben Simmons (Sixers).
LaVine, Vucevic, Young and Sabonis were especially tough to omit. Like Randle, LaVine is surely wondering what more he has to do when he is averaging 28.2 points, 5.5 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game — and has Chicago in the playoff mix. Sports writers love to dramatize the agony involved in these unofficial choices, but I don’t envy the coaches. In either conference.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (Los Angeles Lakers); Nikola Jokic (Denver Nuggets); Kawhi Leonard (Los Angeles Clippers). Backcourt: Stephen Curry (Golden State Warriors); Luka Doncic (Dallas Mavericks).
James has played in each of the Lakers’ 28 games in an apparent bid to convince the Most Valuable Player Award voters who have bypassed him since 2012-13 that he is not coasting this season — even after the shortest offseason (72 days) in NBA history. A slimmed-down Jokic is likewise a top MVP candidate, with his gleaming stat line of 26.5 points, 11.5 rebounds and 8.7 assists per game. Leonard, who held a narrow lead over Anthony Davis entering the final week of balloting, has been a two-way menace as usual.
Damian Lillard has a slightly stronger claim to the West’s second backcourt slot than Doncic, given the Portland Trail Blazers’ superior record even after losing CJ McCollum, another All-Star contender, to injury. Both, though, are locks to get an All-Star invitation no matter what.
Reserves: Damian Lillard (Trail Blazers); Anthony Davis (Lakers); Paul George (Clippers); Rudy Gobert and Donovan Mitchell (Utah Jazz).
Lillard is here because we’re assuming that Doncic, who was voted in as a starter last season, will hold on to the West’s No. 2 backcourt post.
Davis appears likely to miss the All-Star Game, now that the Lakers intend to be conservative in treating the nagging discomfort in his right Achilles tendon and right calf, but he has anchored the league’s top-ranked defense ably despite the injuries. Even accounting for the dip in Davis’ scoring and rebounding from last season and the legitimately worrisome decline in his free-throw shooting we detailed last week, it wouldn’t surprise me if West coaches picked Davis as a reserve to foist a harder choice — selecting an injury replacement from the usual long list of the snubbed — upon the league office.
I’m keeping George among the locks because he is averaging 24.4 points, 6.2 rebounds and 5.5 assists per game while shooting a robust 50.8% from the field and 47.8% from 3-point range. Where some doubt creeps in: George has been sidelined for the Clippers’ past six games by a foot injury and has missed almost a third of their schedule.
Did you notice how deep we went into this discussion without mentioning the league’s hottest team? The Jazz are 8-0 in February, 19-1 in their past 20 games and 23-5 overall. They will probably have at least two All-Stars, and they have three strong candidates: Gobert, Mitchell and Mike Conley. Gobert is the strongest of the three because of his defensive excellence and how much he helps his teammates at both ends with his screening and rim-running.
Mitchell has found a new gear, while hamstring trouble has kept Conley out for the past five games.
Wild Cards: Mike Conley (Jazz); Chris Paul (Phoenix Suns).
This basically comes down to: Should the Jazz have three All-Stars, like the Nets, or do the Suns deserve two because of their surge to a top-four seed in the competitive West?
Conley, 33, has never made it to the All-Star Game, and this might be his last good shot. Did I let that Hallmark storyline (and Conley’s left-handedness) nudge me into a sappy call? Guilty.
In my defense: It’s also true that Conley is an advanced-statistics darling whose role in Utah’s success has been undeniably pivotal. And I do think the Jazz should have three All-Stars, in tribute to their standing as one of the few consistently dominant forces in a season marred by so much unpredictability and abnormality.
Going this route, though, leaves only one spot for two worthy Suns (Paul and Devin Booker) as well as New Orleans’ Zion Williamson, Sacramento’s De’Aaron Fox and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan. All five have a strong All-Star case. I went with Paul over Booker because he has made such a cultural difference in Phoenix in his ever-efficient quarterbacking at age 35.
Frontcourt: Williamson and Brandon Ingram (Pelicans); Christian Wood (Houston Rockets). Backcourt: Fox (Kings); DeRozan (Spurs); Shai Gilgeous-Alexander (Oklahoma City Thunder); Ja Morant (Memphis Grizzlies); Booker (Suns).
As the proud curator of an All-Lefty Team every August, it was painful to snub Williamson, who I’ve unfairly punished for his team’s struggles, and Fox, who hasn’t received enough shine for living up to a new megacontract. The same holds for DeRozan, who has quietly led the retooling Spurs to the top of the Southwest Division and, at 31, can’t count on future All-Star invites the way the other two can.