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Picking the 2018 All-Star Game Starters

The Ringer’s Kevin O’Connor hands in his official ballot for the 10 available spots in the main event at All-Star Weekend in Los Angeles

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The NBA has scrapped the classic East vs. West format in favor of a system that lets the leading vote-getters from each conference (currently LeBron James and Steph Curry) choose their teams from a pool of starters and backups. Commissioner Adam Silver said last week in London that he worked with players’ union president Chris Paul on this change to create more excitement for the All-Star Game, which has been a boring product for the past decade. No defense is played. There’s no intensity. The crowd is dead silent, except for the pregame and halftime festivities.

The NBA is trying to make it interesting with the draft. But the biggest “controversy” in the NBA centers on the fact the All-Star draft will not be televised, and the selection order will be kept secret. There’s been a movement on social media for the NBA to broadcast the selections, which would be fun. But Silver said it’s not happening until maybe in the future. We’ll live. And you know what? This wrinkle could make it more interesting. I’m willing to give it a chance before I fake-rage about a fantasy draft.

Anyway, the deadline for All-Star Game ballot submissions was Monday, January 15, at 12 p.m. ET. Fans count for 50 percent of the vote, while players and media each count for 25 percent. The NBA gave me a vote, and here are the 10 players—two backcourt players and three frontcourt players per team—I selected to start in Los Angeles on February 18.

East Backcourt Starters

DeMar DeRozan, Raptors

DeRozan mastered his footwork from watching Kobe Bryant, who modeled his game after Michael Jordan, so you could say DeRozan is a basketball descendant of Jordan’s. At the least, the Raptors guard is wearing the isolation-scoring championship belt. Since December 13, DeRozan is on a tear, averaging 28.5 points on a 53.2 effective field goal percentage, thrusting him into the MVP conversation and the Raptors toward the top of the East standings.

DeRozan has always been able to get buckets, so high-volume binges are nothing new. The difference now is his efficiency, which is a result of his diligent work this summer, during which he extended his range to the 3. “He’s mastered the midrange craft,” DeRozan’s longtime trainer Chris Farr told me over the phone in August. “Now it’s time to put a cherry on top of the sundae, by stepping out and increasing his range.” Forget the cherry. DeRozan made a whole new sundae.

He’s shooting 42.1 percent from 3 over this hot stretch, and a career-high 35.0 percent on 3.3 attempts per game over the full season. It’s a remarkable development for a player who previously shot 28.1 percent on 1.4 triples per game over his career. The memory of DeRozan jacking endless midrange jumpers lurks in Toronto. No one wants to think about the possibility of his 3-ball tailing off (which is always a possibility). But it doesn’t appear that DeRozan, who has flashed the ability to shoot 3s both off the dribble and off the catch, will become a complete nonthreat from deep, like in past years. There has been real progress, and it’s leading to results.

The fact DeRozan has become an even more dynamic scorer is complemented by the fact he’s also honed his playmaking. Raptors coach Dwane Casey overhauled the team’s system, increasing ball and body movement, and DeRozan has adapted by not only looking to score off the dribble but to pass, as well. With better passing vision and accuracy, DeRozan is posting career-best assist and advanced passing numbers.

The Raptors are rolling. They’re the only team other than the Warriors with a top-five offensive and defensive rating. They’re deep. DeRozan looks like an MVP candidate. And there’s room to improve, as Kyle Lowry is still finding his place in their new-look offense. The Raptors were right to bring the band back and give it another chance to overcome its recent playoff falters. If things went sour, Toronto could have always blown it up. But DeRozan has blown up that idea. The Raptors are here to stay.

Kyrie Irving, Celtics

There have been a lot of tweets passing through my timeline this season that compare Irving’s stats in Boston to last season’s in Cleveland as a way of saying he’s the same player. I get it—he’s averaging 24.0 points and 5.0 assists, compared to 25.2 and 5.8 last season, with very similar shooting numbers. But since when are we looking at box score stats to determine whether a player has changed? Process matters over results, and Irving’s tendencies and usage have changed considerably with the Celtics.

Changes in Kyrie Irving’s Game

Play Type Kyrie 2017-18 Kyrie 2016-17
Play Type Kyrie 2017-18 Kyrie 2016-17
P&R Ball Handler 35% 40%
Isolation 18% 25%
Hand-off 14% 6%
Off Screen 10% 5%
Spot-up 10% 9%

Irving’s isolations have been replaced with dribble handoffs and screens, which has increased his half-court scoring efficiency by 5.7 points per 100 possessions more than last season. He’s still adapting to the new role, in a brand-new system; the Celtics are utilizing him in actions he’s never or rarely done before. He has become a more prudent passer with subtle improvements to his accuracy and velocity on kickouts, and an increased willingness to defer. Irving is making a leap, even if the stats don’t show it.

East Frontcourt Starters

LeBron James, Cavaliers

As Steve Kerr drove to Oracle Arena before the Warriors faced the Cavaliers on Christmas, the head coach told reporters that he began thinking about how LeBron is playing as well as he ever has. “How many players are better in Year 15 than Year 10?” Kerr asked.

I gathered a list of 40 stars and Hall of Famers, and grabbed their player efficiency rating (PER) from Basketball-Reference, since PER works for historical statistics. The results aren’t all that surprising. The average star sees his PER drop, on average, by four from Year 10 to Year 15. Carmelo Anthony currently has the largest drop, from 24.8 to 13.8. Only Karl Malone, Robert Parish, Steve Nash, and Charles Barkley saw an increase. LeBron’s PER has dropped by almost two points, from 31.6 to 29.7. But few in the 40-player sample even come close to 30 that late in their careers. Advanced statistics don’t capture everything, but the fact remains: LeBron is on a higher level than any player ever in Year 15.

If we’re having a “Year 15 vs. Year 20” conversation in five years, will there still be any doubt that LeBron James is the greatest ever?

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks

As The Ringer’s Danny Chau wrote recently, Antetokounmpo’s MVP hype has died down, but his position as one of the leading All-Star vote-getters proves he’s reached star status. We’ll find out soon where he’ll end up in the final tally, but after last Thursday’s update, Giannis was second in the entire league among fan votes, trailing only LeBron, by 150,000 votes. That’s more than former MVPs Curry and Kevin Durant. More than Kyrie, who has a top-selling sneaker line. More than DeMar DeRozan, Kristaps Porzingis, and Damian Lillard combined.

With a freakish stat line of 28.3 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 4.5 assists, along with some elite mean mugs and goosebump-inducing highlights, Giannis has indeed leveled up.

Al Horford, Celtics

Victor Oladipo transformed his game this offseason and would’ve gotten the nod had we been able to select three “guards” rather than three “frontcourt” players. But even without Oladipo in the mix, this spot is still a tough choice.

Andre Drummond is having the best season of his career, but he doesn’t space the floor and still gambles quite a bit on defense. Kristaps Porzingis got off to a blistering start, but since then he hasn’t been nearly as good. Kevin Love has been better offensively than Horford, but isn’t in the same ballpark defensively. Joel Embiid is a tough cut, mostly because of availability: He has played nine fewer games than Horford.

Meanwhile, the Celtics have the best record in the East, thanks in large part to Horford’s two-way impact. He’s one of the league’s best big-man passers and averages 5.3 assists. He spaces the floor (42 percent from 3), which unlocks the paint for his teammates to drive. He’s an excellent defender who has mastered the art of positioning and altering shots. There will always be bigs who put up more striking stats, but Horford’s impact is the special sauce for Boston’s immense success.

West Backcourt Starters

James Harden, Rockets

The last time we saw Harden playing in a professional basketball game was on New Year’s Eve, when he dropped 40 on the Lakers in a 148-142 double-overtime win for the Rockets. A hamstring strain has kept him sidelined ever since, but he’s expected to make his return later this week.

The 35 games he has played this season amount to one of the greatest offensive seasons ever. Harden is averaging 32.3 points, 9.1 assists, and five rebounds for the 30-12 Rockets. Only Oscar Robertson and Russell Westbrook have averaged 30, nine, and five, but neither matched Harden’s bonkers scoring efficiency.

Stephen Curry, Warriors

The second guard spot in the West comes down to Westbrook, Jimmy Butler, and Steph Curry. Westbrook has surged from a statistical standpoint, and could finish with another triple-double season. But there’s more Russ can do to help his team, while Steph already does it all.

Butler’s stellar two-way impact has turned him into an MVP contender and given the Timberwolves exactly what they need. He’d get the spot if the NBA allowed for three backcourt players to be selected. But the ballot lineups haven’t followed suit with the game and gone positionless, so I have a hard time picking Curry over Butler when Curry’s been absent for 15 games, but he’s posting numbers (27.6 points per game on 60.9 eFG%) comparable to his historic 2015–16 MVP campaign, with a near 50-40-90 season. Curry’s dominance is simply overwhelming.

West Frontcourt Starters

Anthony Davis, Pelicans

The NBA’s best big man is having another monster season for the Pelicans. Anthony Davis is currently posting career highs in all shooting metrics, and with 48 points in a 123-118 overtime victory on Sunday against the Knicks, the Brow proved he can’t be stopped when he’s healthy and clicking. DeMarcus Cousins’s mere presence and playmaking prowess has led to easier baskets and thus a jolt to Davis’s scoring efficiency. Davis has done the same for Cousins; it’s amazing what happens when great players join forces. Per NBA.com/stats, here’s the difference in Davis’s numbers with and without Cousins:

Davis, With and Without Cousins

AD Stats per 36 PTS REB AST BLK eFG% TS%
AD Stats per 36 PTS REB AST BLK eFG% TS%
With Boogie 25.6 9.1 1.6 1.9 61.8 66.9
Without Boogie 30.2 14.3 4.1 2.6 52.6 59.6

Davis’s scoring efficiency drops and his raw numbers rise to his wonderful pre-Boogie levels when Cousins is off the floor. So while Davis’s box score numbers are down from last season, overall he’s been better with Cousins by his side.

The problem is the team isn’t. The Pelicans are on the playoff bubble, at 22-20, and they have little flexibility to make changes that move the needle before Cousins becomes an unrestricted free agent this summer. It’s unclear what Cousins will do. But Boogie and Brow have a good thing going together. It’s on the Pelicans to surround them with the right pieces. They’re running out of time.

If Cousins leaves, Davis will be alone in New Orleans once again. What might happen after that? Find out by reading between the lines.

Kevin Durant, Warriors

Durant is the same stellar scorer he’s been his entire career, and now his defense has taken a leap after resembling a five-time Defensive Player of the Year in last year’s NBA Finals. Durant has never actually been named to an all-defensive team, but this season could be the first. He wants it to be. Durant said in October that he hopes to be “considered one of the best defenders in the league.”

Durant’s will to defend has turned his long, fast-twitch limbs into basketball-seeking tentacles. When Draymond Green is on the bench, he’s quarterbacking the defense. As a result, Durant, not Kawhi Leonard, has become the NBA’s best two-way player.

LaMarcus Aldridge, Spurs

Once again, this pick would’ve been much easier had a “guard” been available. Butler would be the clear choice. Or Westbrook. Or even Klay Thompson. I’d take all three of them ahead of DeMarcus Cousins, who is putting up monstrous numbers but is also the cause of countless defensive lapses, and Karl-Anthony Towns, who got off to such a terrible start defensively.

So the choice, for me, came down to Draymond Green and LaMarcus Aldridge. Much like Horford, Green’s greatest contributions as a defender go beyond the box score. He’s effectively Golden State’s point guard, too. But I’m giving a slight edge to Aldridge. With Leonard appearing in only nine games so far this season, Aldridge has been forced into San Antonio’s superstar role on offense. He’s been awesome scoring and passing from the post, popping and rolling in the screen game, crashing the boards, and spacing the floor. There aren’t many more well-rounded bigs. Aldridge’s defensive impact has improved, too. After an initial reluctance to play center, Aldridge has slid to the five for large chunks of his time on the court, which has enhanced San Antonio’s defense while improving its offensive spacing. Aldridge isn’t great defensively, but he’s been reliable. The Spurs are asking him to do a lot, and he’s delivering.