In Adam Silver’s latest attempt to throw a no-hitter for the decade, the NBA changed its voting process for the 2017 All-Star Game next month. Gone are the days of homer fans voting for undeserving starters, or the league occasionally fudging ballot numbers at the 11th hour to undo the damage — like in 2009, when Paul Pierce and Chris Bosh miraculously held off Yi Jianlian for the East’s backup forward spots in my favorite NBA scandal that wasn’t actually a scandal (because nobody gave a crap).
Starting this winter, fans control only 50 percent of the vote; players and media members split the other half. My media ballot arrived last week; the NBA wanted votes for two “backcourt” starters and three “frontcourt” starters in each conference. None of this matters — not when the All-Star Game will be hijacked by the relentless awkwardness of Russell Westbrook playing with Kevin Durant again. Will they interact? Will they look at each other? It’s like if Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt were to cohost the Oscars, only if Jolie were a constant threat to whip a line-drive pass at Durant’s head. We won’t even notice the other 22 players unless Giannis dunks from the 3-point line or something.
Wait, you want to hear about my ballot? I’m so glad you asked!
Western Conference Frontcourt
Now that we’ve left centers for dead, the NBA wants us to reward the three best “frontcourt” dudes without considering seemingly important questions like “Who would protect the rim in an actual game?” or “What would happen if any of the five starters had to defend Joel Embiid or Marc Gasol?” Apparently, it doesn’t matter who wins or loses the All-Star Game anymore; we’re 10 years away from not keeping score and handing out participation trophies. As an unconventional weirdo who likes watching basketball games that, you know, make sense, I couldn’t follow those instructions. I needed rim protection. So there.
I crossed off the following frontcourters: Karl Anthony-Towns (the West’s center for the Good Stats/Bad Team All-Stars — not a compliment) … LaMarcus Aldridge (the league’s best player that you’d never want to pay to see) … Blake Griffin (injured again, possibly in need of a basketball exorcism) … Gordon Hayward (just good enough to help you get to Round 2, not quite good enough to win Game 7 on the road) … DeAndre Jordan (officially underrated, probably makes it in the East) … and Marc Gasol (properly rated, beloved by basketball nerds, unquestionably makes it in the East).
My second-toughest cross-off: Boogie Cousins brings flashy numbers (28 and 10, 27.0 PER) and unexpected 3-point range (4.8 per game, 37 percent), only it hasn’t translated to victories during the *best* teammates/coaching/stadium/fans stretch of his career. (Note: I put asterisks around “best” the same way you would if you wrote that Ghost Rider was Nic Cage’s *best* movie of the past 10 years.) His fans love him unconditionally. His coach built Sacramento’s offense around him (again). His Boogie-centric organization rarely holds him accountable, not even when he melts down during games like a spoiled brat whose Xbox got accidentally disconnected. To his credit, Cousins stays in shape and works diligently on his offensive game. And he’s been saddled with obstacles ranging from the bumbling Maloofs to botched lottery picks to bad luck (like Rudy Gay possibly tearing his Achilles on Wednesday night). But since his rookie season, Boogie’s win-loss records look like this …
… so either Cousins is the unluckiest superstar in NBA history, or he’s a bigger reason for the constant losing than we want to admit. No young NBA star has ever lost this consistently for this long. He’s the only player to average 20 and 10 for his first seven seasons, make an All-Star team, and never appear in the playoffs. The Kings are one 2017 lottery appearance away from making Cousins the first player to appear on two or more All-NBA teams in his first seven years without making a postseason appearance.
Compare that to Rudy Gobert, my toughest frontcourt cross-off and the NBA’s best rim protector/paint intimidator. Right now, the Jazz are allowing 94.9 points per game (first in the NBA by far) and 43.1 percent shooting (first in the NBA). The no. 1 reason? The Stifle Tower. Give Gobert decent teammates and he’ll give you a top-five defense and probably 43 to 45 wins. Could you say the same about Cousins? If he inks that rumored $207 million extension without knowing whether Sacramento has ANY clue how to build a nucleus around him, that makes me wonder whether Boogie doesn’t mind … this. After all, he gets his numbers every year, and if/when they miss the playoffs, then it’s everyone else’s fault. If they turn it around, even better — he’s the loyal star who stayed. Well played, Boogie. I’d rather have Gobert.
Anyway, our three frontcourt picks are unassailable: Kawhi Leonard (the Sharktopus), Kevin Durant (hold that thought), and #FreeAnthonyDavis. Why did Boogie’s record (16–23) help invalidate him but Davis’s record (15–24) not matter? Well, Davis is a superior player on both ends (29 and 12, 2.5 blocks, 50% FG, 28.3 PER, unstoppable face-up game); he’s an easier teammate (it’s true); and he’s saddled with the worst two-through-15 supporting cast other than the Brooklyn Nyets. Not to be mean to the city that gave me my first Super Bowl and multiple monster nights at Harrah’s that I’ll be feeling on my deathbed — I love New Orleans — but that’s been the worst ownership/front-office situation for the entire 2010s. Has Davis already passed Orlando T-Mac on the We Need To Get That Guy Out Of There Scale? Absolutely. The good news — if there is good news — is that he’s two years away, minimum, from catching up to Philly Barkley and Minnesota KG.
Western Conference Backcourt
I crossed off the following guards in 0.14 seconds: Lou Williams (wait, what?) … C.J. McCollum (the modern-day Sam Jones, only if Sam occasionally wrote for The Players’ Tribune) … Damian Lillard (I like him 93.7 percent as much as I like McCollum, and they definitely need their own teams, so what about Dame to Minnesota for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and a top-four protected pick?) … Eric Gordon (he stole Klay Thompson’s stats) … Klay Thompson (Eric Gordon stole his stats) … and Mike Conley (until he got injured, having the best Conley season ever, hands down).
A scant 0.03 seconds later, I crossed off Chris Paul (out for six to eight weeks because the Clippers are cursed) and Steph Curry (healthy!) — not because they did anything wrong, but because Westbrook and Harden obliterated the field. If you’re wondering, Harden is my no-brainer MVP so far. He and his spirit animal, Mike D’Antoni, basically created a new style of basketball, only it’s not replicable because nobody else has the right mix of shooters and rollers. Oh, and NOBODY ELSE has James Harden. If Seven Seconds or Less was, “Give the ball to Steve Nash with pace,” then Seventeen Seconds or More is, “Spread the floor for James for 17 seconds, he’s a genius, he can get to any spot he wants, he’ll figure this out.” It’s unbelievable.
Here’s what shocked me about those choices. I never considered Steph Curry. You know, the guy who owned the NBA for two straight years? The most popular player since Jordan? The guy who drew thousands of fans just to watch him warm up an hour before games? The league’s best with-the-ball magician since Magic and Maravich? That guy?
Sure, you still flip Harrison Barnes and Andrew Bogut for Kevin Durant 100 times out of 100. And you handle the ensuing regular season exactly how Steve Kerr has handled it — keep experimenting with lineups, highlight different stars from game to game, focus on collective unselfishness over everything else. They’re on pace for 70 wins. Some of their signature numbers (plus-12.6 point differential, 31.3 assists per game, 49.9% FG) vault them in the conversation with the greatest teams already. And they haven’t even ripped off their inevitable 20-game winning streak yet.
And with all of that said …
I can’t remember anything like this happening before. The Warriors belonged to Curry, then Klay, then Draymond in that order. Durant showed up and Curry graciously shared the car keys with him, apparently forgetting that Kevin Durant IS AN AWESOME FUCKING DRIVER. You know what works really well? Anytime Kevin Durant drives the car! If he stays healthy, he’s retiring someday as the fourth-best forward ever. And he’s in his absolute prime. Right now. Any other time this has happened in NBA history, one of the two share-the-keys studs wasn’t in their prime: Moses (prime) and Doc (no); LeBron (prime) and Wade (no); Wade (getting there) and Shaq (no); Kareem (getting there) and Oscar (no); Magic (no) and Kareem (still); then Magic (yes) and Kareem (no).
This time around, it’s Curry (yes) and Durant (yes). Only the 7-foot Durant affects a basketball game in more consistently positive ways on both ends, whereas Curry’s undeniable brilliance hinges on touches and hot streaks more than anything else. That’s what made Golden State’s 73-win season so implausible; they built a Hall of Fame offense around two exceptional shooters who caught fire at inexplicably consistent rates. This year’s Warriors offense is actually better — it just doesn’t feature Curry quite as much. And suddenly, the reigning two-time MVP isn’t even one of the two most impactful guards in his own conference. If Nike sent Durant undercover to Golden State to crash Under Armour’s stock, then congratulations, it worked.
The good news: Curry remains phenomenal. I’d bet anything that Kerr keeps tweaking things until 2017 Curry looks 95 percent like 2016 Curry, with the other 5 percent being sacrificed for good because of KD’s night-to-night brilliance. Right now, we’re at about 75–80 percent. And it’s a little bit of a bummer. I can’t lie. I miss the old Steph C. Straight from the go Steph C. Chop up the soul Steph C. Set on his goals Steph C.
Eastern Conference Frontcourt
The following frontcourters were hurriedly crossed off: Dwight Howard (quietly averaging 13-plus rebounds in less than 30 minutes per game — something only Walter Dukes and Tom Boerwinkle have ever done, making it the latest seemingly impressive moment of Dwight’s seemingly impressive career!) … Post-Peak Carmelo Anthony (let’s all admit that the 2016–17 season would be three times more fun without Carmelo’s no-trade clause) … Hassan Whiteside (the East’s center on the Good Stats/Bad Team All-Stars — not a compliment) … Serge Ibaka (playing well, looming as the trade deadline’s expiring-contract X factor) … Jabari Parker (now winning the “Wiggins or Jabari?” debate) … Kevin Love (he’s back!) … Paul Millsap (18 and 8 with terrific defense, and even better, he hasn’t been infected by the Dwightbola virus yet) … and surprisingly, Paul George (22 and 6 every night, but with the same beaten-down expression that Dukie had during Season 4 of The Wire).
OK, let’s work backward. LeBron makes it because he’s doing all the typical LeBron Queen-of-the-Chessboard stuff while doubling as the most taken-for-granted superstar in NBA history. This is legitimately batshit insane …
LeBron, Year 14: 26–8–8, 7.1 FTA, 25.8 PER, 51–38–70%
LeBron’s Career: 27–7–7, 8.3 FTA, 27.6 PER, 50–34–74%
Or, maybe it’s not that insane. What if LeBron is the greatest natural athlete we’ve ever produced? Watch him wreak havoc in this jaw-dropping video of a 2011 touch football game during the NBA lockout — he’s like Apex Randy Moss crossed with Apex Rob Gronkowski crossed with I Don’t Know How to Fucking Describe This.
After watching that video between 20 and 50 times, I am now convinced that LeBron can reach 40,000 points, 10,000 rebounds, and 10,000 assists, because he’s obviously a genetic freak. (Which we knew already, but still.) Some short-term stuff in play: Can LeBron clinch a 10th straight first-team All-NBA spot? (Bet “yes.”) Can he finish in the top four of the MVP voting for the 10th straight time? (Bet “yes.”) Can he make the Finals for an astonishing seventh straight time? (Bet “yes.”) Should we bank his blood to see if we can heal diseases with it? (Bet “yes.”)
Frontcourt spot no. 2 came down to two stars who made The Leap this season: Giannis Antetokounmpo (a.k.a. the Greek Freak, the Freak, the Alphabet, and the King of the Unicorns) and Jimmy Butler (a.k.a. Jimmy). This could have gone either way. Sorry, Jimmy — I want to see the Freak start the All-Star Game.
Speaking of lovable unicorns, frontcourt spot no. 3 came down to Joel Embiid (a.k.a. the Process) and Kristaps Porzingis (a.k.a. the Lativian Gangbanger, the Zinger, Taps, Porzingod, and KP). The Zinger nearly prevailed when I became seduced by my own “He’s averaging 19 and 7 with way-above-average defense while getting frozen out in every crunch time as Rose and Melo battle for the gold medal in the Heroball Olympics” argument. He’s my favorite Knick since Bernard King.
But Embiid … I mean …
Last weekend, my father called me before the Patriots game. For 43 years and counting, he’s been paying for Celtics season tickets. He’s seen every basketball player who mattered, in person, since 1974. That stretches from the Kareem-Cowens-Walton-Havlicek era through this budding (and genuinely thrilling) Davis-Giannis-Porzingis-Kyrie-Embiid era. If you ever heard my father appear on my podcast, you know he’s not exactly a hot-take/hyperbole guy. Anyway, we talked about the Pats, then Dad mentioned attending the Sixers-Celtics game on Friday, January 6.
“Have you seen Embiid in person yet?” he said.
“Oh my God. He’s unbelievable. He’s huge. Really huge. He moves like Olajuwon. But he’s huge. And he shoots 3s. We couldn’t stop him. He almost won the game. He’s huge. He’s so huge. You gotta see him, he’s huge. He’s amazing. He’s so huge …”
Dad rambled on like that for another 10 seconds. Joel Embiid is huge. So yeah, Embiid has played only 28 games so far — eight fewer than Porzingis. And he’s averaging only 25 minutes a game. I get it. But he’s averaging 20 and 8, he’s blocking a shot every 10 minutes, he’s getting to the line eight times a game, and he single-handedly detonated Philly’s ability to tank a fourth straight season. You can’t tank when you have a dominant center; it’s impossible. I want to see a Freakathon Front Line of LeBron, Giannis and Embiid start the All-Star Game. That’s my vote.
Eastern Conference Guards
The cross-offs: Kemba Walker (enjoying a poorer man’s version of Isaiah Thomas’s season) … Avery Bradley (a delightful blend of tenacious defense and reliable outside shooting who can’t win my dad’s approval no matter what he does) … Bradley Beal (22.5 PPG, 41.2% 3FG, and he’s missed only four games KNOCKONWOODKNOCKONWOOD!) … Goran Dragic (very, very, very, very available right now, and by the way, Miami still owes Phoenix not one but TWO unprotected picks from that trade) … Derrick Rose (just kidding) … and Dwyane Wade (replaced Kobe as the NBA’s resident aging star who still carries himself like it’s six years ago — and yes, Pat Riley saw this coming).
Still standing: DeMar DeRozan, Kyrie Irving, Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas.
Only one of those picks was a lock for me: DeRozan, an unexpected relic from the 2-point era, back when we valued only shooting guards who attacked the rim, made midrange jumpers and punished smaller players. (You could easily imagine DeRozan playing for Isiah’s Pistons in the Dumars spot.) DeRozan didn’t change anything about his game; if anything, he doubled down on his strengths and emulated Two-Point Kobe instead of Three-Point Kobe. He’s also the runaway winner of 2016’s Guy Who Benefited The Most From Team USA’s Summer Experience (previous winner: James Harden, 2014). And even if Toronto’s high screen with DeRozan and Lowry isn’t the league’s most devastating play, it’s certainly in the top five as well as being a Kryptonite play for the Celtics (Toronto’s likely Round 2 opponent).
One semicrazy wrinkle about DeRozan’s season: His allergy to 3s means he’s averaging 28.2 points thanks to 10-plus made field goals and 7.6 made free throws. That’s been accomplished by only six other guards: Jerry West (five times), Allen Iverson (four times), Richie Guerin, Tiny Archibald, Westbrook this year and the immortal World B. Free (twice), who arrived 40 years too early and missed out on a legendary internet/social media/GIF/YouTube career. He’d be battling Embiid for Twitter supremacy right now.
As for Wall, I crossed him off because he’s been the guard equivalent of Paul George: high pedigree, good numbers, occasional crunch-time heroics, and yet there’s definitely something off with their teams and it’s hard to separate those guys from it. (George looks more miserable than Wall — like he’s a few more one-on-three Monta Ellis bricks away from walking off the court, getting into his car and just driving away.) If we threw the League Pass Awards and had a category for “Franchise Player Who Makes You The Saddest Every Time You’re Flipping Channels,” Anthony Davis would win — but Wall and George would definitely get nominated.
I crossed off Kyrie for a simple reason: Lowry and Thomas are having better half seasons. Doesn’t make them better players, doesn’t change the fact that LeBron deferred to Kyrie on the biggest shot of the 2016 Finals (or that Kyrie MADE the shot), doesn’t change the fact that Kyrie believes he’s the best point guard in any game with Steph Curry in it, doesn’t change his superstar ceiling (there’s a 30-point season lurking in there). On any list of players you’d want in a Game 7, he’s on it. That’s a more important list, anyway.
And I crossed off Lowry mostly to avoid having Toronto’s backcourt start in the All-Star Game. It’s completely unfair. He’s averaging 22–7–5 with 48–44–83 splits and a 24.0 PER on a 2-seed headed for 55 wins, and he’s actually better than that when you factor in his crunch-time chops and his synergy with DeRozan. It’s the definition of a monster Rod Tidwell Memorial Show Me The Mon-eyyyyyyyyyyy free-agent season. I don’t feel great about this. Send all complaints to The Ringer’s editor-in-chief, Sean Fennessey.
That leaves Isaiah Thomas, currently enjoying one of the greatest stretches of offensive basketball in Celtics history (through Wednesday night): 17 games, 34.8 MPG, 30.0 PPG, 50–43–94%, 9.4 3FGA, 8.1 FTA, and so many crunch-time heroics that you couldn’t condense them into one paragraph. If you told me that Thomas had gone to the 2016 Sloan Conference and asked a group of MIT scientists to merge Allen Iverson’s DNA with Tiny Archibald’s DNA, then inject it into his veins, I wouldn’t be shocked.
Remember when Nate Robinson would catch fire and swing into Irrational Confidence mode, then rip off like 17 points in seven minutes as you thought to yourself, “Wow, this is amazing. I love when Nate Robinson does this! He’s so tiny! This is so much fun!” Only it happened like twice a season? Thomas has been doing that two to three times per week. He’s turned Boston’s beloved announcers, Mike Gorman and Tommy Heinsohn, into stammering, grunting, yelping WWE announcers. They can’t believe what’s happening. And these guys announced EVERY LARRY BIRD GAME.
Professional basketball — as currently designed, with the right spacing — rewards any guard who can shoot 3s and attack the rim. Isaiah Thomas used to be very good at both skills; this season, he’s been extraordinary at them, and that’s before you throw in his deadly step-back jumper in the paint. This doesn’t feel like a hot streak anymore. He just happens to be 5-foot-9 and looks like he’s 14 years old, so there’s an invisible asterisk being added to everything.
Admittedly, he wouldn’t be thriving like this in the Bird-Magic-MJ era, with the paint clogged with four big guys or with the Oakleys and Laimbeers ready to clothesline him into the photographers. But that’s the thing: Basketball works differently now. Thomas makes way more sense than he once did. And the other Isiah Thomas (the Hall of Famer) has to be kicking himself. Like World B. Free, he showed up about 35 years late, too.
Last note: Celtics radio voice Sean Grande recently compared Thomas’s offensive leap to that of Roy Hobbs in The Natural. For me, it feels more like David Ortiz’s unexpected leap as a cleanup hitter, when Boston fans kept saying to each other, “I can’t tell if this is a fluke or something more legitimate … but it’s starting to feel legitimate … right???” And we just kept asking each other that for, like, four straight months. Not to say that this will end up like the 2004 Red Sox — it won’t — but you get the point. I never worry about my Celtics missing a crunch-time scorer anymore. We have one. We have the right guy on the right team in the right year of the league.
(But you know what we don’t have? Rebounding. Get to work, Danny.)
Western Conference Starters
FC Kawhi Leonard
FC Kevin Durant
FC Anthony Davis
BC James Harden
BC Russell Westbrook
Eastern Conference Starters
FC LeBron James
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo
FC Joel Embiid
BC DeMar DeRozan
BC Isaiah Thomas
Unless otherwise noted, statistics are current through Wednesday morning.