The NBA All-Star starters are set. LeBron James and Stephen Curry, as captains of this convoluted All-Star draft experiment, will get to choose from a pool of eight: Kyrie Irving, DeMar DeRozan, Joel Embiid, and Giannis Antetokounmpo from the East; and James Harden, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, and DeMarcus Cousins from the West. Before we dig into the reserves on Friday, our staff chews on the players we know will be playing in Los Angeles in mid-February.
Who Should Be No. 1?
Paolo Uggetti: Because LeBron James was the top overall vote-getter among fans, he gets the honor (nuisance?) of making the first selection in the non-televised, top-secret draft. Whether we do or don’t find out who LeBron selects as his first overall pick — I’m hoping that he’ll either tweet it out or open his next presser with a rundown of his thinking — the possibilities and reactions are bound to be fascinating.
Should he pick the best player on the board, Kevin Durant, even though Durant plays for the rival Warriors? Should he be more strategic and pick a shooting guard like James Harden, thus giving him an early look at how he and Harden would compete against Steph Curry (the other captain) and KD? Should he troll his former teammate and pick Kyrie? Should he troll us all and spark more trade rumors by picking DeMarcus Cousins? Does he even care? (Probably not.)
I find myself rooting for a far more compelling and interesting pick, especially as to how it relates to his future. Do it, LeBron. Trust the process. Pick Joel Embiid.
The Trouble With Starting Boogie
Justin Verrier: The All-Star starter selections have become both a banner moment for New Orleans basketball and the perfect encapsulation of the sheer anguish of being a Pelicans fan. The franchise formerly known as the Hornets has sent Anthony Davis, a superstar on a path to history, to the game every year since it rebranded as a dead-eyed water bird. But it has just one playoff appearance, and zero playoff wins, in that same span.
This year doubled down on the disconnect: Davis and DeMarcus Cousins, the All-Star picked up for pennies the day of last year’s exhibition in New Orleans, were both named as starters in the West. So, just to underline: The Pelicans not only have two of the best five players (according to fans, media, and fellow players) in a conference teeming with talent, but two of the best 10 players in the whole damn league. Meanwhile, the Pels are just two games over .500, and recently followed up an impressive overtime win in Boston with a loss at the buzzer to the dismal Hawks.
The Pelicans own beachfront property in basketball purgatory at this point. And while, yes, “Anthony Davis Needs More Help” is probably the logline for the team for a fourth straight season, the same player that raises the team’s profile and ceiling is the same one holding it back from reaching it. Boogie’s raw numbers are astounding; in some cases, they’re even better than Davis’s. But ask any Pelicans fan, media member, or employee about Cousins and the response is a literal or digital head shake and a sigh. For as brilliantly brutish as Cousins is with the ball in his hands, he’s almost as detrimental without it. If effort is a skill, Cousins is well below replacement level.
Sending two players to the league’s marquee event is a game-changer for a franchise still very much trying to find a footing in its football-obsessed market. But, because of all the bad he brings along with those gaudy numbers, you could argue that Cousins doesn’t deserve a spot in the All-Star Game altogether, let alone a starting role.
The Reigning MVP Doesn’t Make the Cut
Jonathan Tjarks: The All-Star vote is more evidence of something we already know: Westbrook’s mind-numbing counting stats are no longer enough to put him in the same category as Curry and Harden, not when he’s been unable to lead the Thunder out of the middle of the pack in the Western Conference. Curry and Harden are much more efficient than Westbrook, but the stats don’t matter. The best guards in the NBA are judged on their team’s wins and losses, and Westbrook is no longer getting a pass for his team’s mediocrity after Oklahoma City traded for Paul George and Carmelo Anthony last offseason.
There are terabytes worth of commentary on Westbrook’s attitude scattered across the internet, but his underlying problem is that it’s hard for him to affect the game as much as Curry or Harden when he can’t shoot 3s very well. He doesn’t threaten defenses off the ball, so he needs the ball in his hands more often than those two. According to NBA.com/Stats, Harden is touching the ball eight times a game less often than last season, while Westbrook’s number of touches have somehow stayed exactly the same. There is an opportunity cost to letting him take up all the oxygen in the room, and the NBA has noticed.
The Butler Didn’t [Make] It
Danny Chau: There appears to be something lost in translation when considering Butler’s primacy in the constellation of NBA stars. He is one of the most interesting and expressive faces in the league, a cantankerous soul with rapier wit housed in a Greco-Roman sculpture. He is the undisputed leader of an ascendant Wolves team within striking distance of a 3-seed out West. He is an MVP candidate, with a real plus-minus that trails only Curry and Harden. He is indefatigable: Butler has logged more minutes on the season than any presumptive All-Star outside of his own team, and he’s missed only two of Minnesota’s 46 games, compared to Western backcourt starters Harden (seven) and Curry (15). But he was only ninth among Western backcourt players in fan polls — and only sixth in player votes, notably trailing Damian Lillard, whose lack of All-Star appearances as he approaches his prime has become the most significant aspect of his narrative.
It’s befitting of Butler’s unlikely rise to stardom that his best season as a pro is still largely overlooked. He still plays the game with a yeoman’s disposition, and his most stunning plays usually don’t fit the conventional standards of beauty in the league today. But he gets to where he wants to be on the court, always. And there isn’t much any defender can do once he’s there. Butler is the best player in the NBA not named a starter, and he deserves more recognition than what he’s been given.
DeMar Isn’t Doing It for Us
John Gonzalez: In theory, I like the new format, where captains pick their teams (though they’re obviously making a big mistake by not televising it; Juliet is right — hurt feelings make great television). Here’s the part I don’t dig as much: The first four picks for both captains must come from the remaining pool of eight starters. That kinda bummed me out, because I envisioned a world where one of the guys who was voted a starter got picked after some reserves and then didn’t actually get to start the game. In that scenario, I imagined DeMar DeRozan being the guy who got school-yard snubbed.
To be clear, DeRozan deserves to be an All-Star. He’s having an excellent season. He’s even finally taking and making 3-pointers in … [looks at calendar] … 2018. He is very good — but he is not necessarily very fun. There’s a reason DeRozan (and the Raptors) didn’t appear near the top of the NBA’s recently released merchandise sales lists. DeRozan is talented and efficient, but that doesn’t quite translate to exciting. I want to be wowed by my All-Star starters. Did you see LeBron’s chase-down block? Did you see Kyrie’s crossover? Did you see DeMar use superior footwork and spacing to draw a foul and then make two free throws? It’s the NBA’s version of a Sesame Street lesson.