Picking All-Star reserves isn’t easy. There’s usually not much of a difference statistically between the last player who gets in and the first to miss the cut. It often comes down to track record, reputation, and team success. The reserves are selected by votes from the head coaches (read: their assistants) in each conference, and coaches tend to reward winning above all else. Teams win All-Star berths as much as individuals do. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest questions in each conference that coaches will ponder as they fill out their ballots, which will be revealed on Tuesday.
1. Should Kevin Love take the fall for the Cavs’ defensive woes?
Moving Love to center has made him tougher to guard, and has allowed him to put up his best individual numbers in four years in Cleveland. The problem is what it has done to the defense. On-court/off-court numbers can be misleading, but Love’s position change has made the cause and effect pretty clear in this case. They have a significantly better net rating when he’s off (plus-4.9) than when he’s on (minus-2.6) because he’s being asked to protect the rim for a team full of guys who can’t keep their men in front of them. The Cavs have the third-worst defense in the NBA this season, and their defensive rating is 7.8 points lower with Love on the bench compared to when he’s on the floor. It’s not his fault that he’s playing out of position, but he’s still killing his team when he’s in the game.
2. Will John Wall and Bradley Beal both make the team?
Beal has averaged 19.2 points a game over the past five seasons, but he has never made an All-Star team. John Wall has appeared in the past four games, but the Wizards have never been good enough to get two All-Stars in the same season. They have not not won more than 50 games once in the Wall-and-Beal era, and they are on pace for 45 this season. Beal should finally make the team after setting career highs in points (23.7), rebounds (4.3), and free throw attempts (5.0). The question is whether it will come at the expense of Wall, who missed 10 games with a knee injury and hasn’t looked quite like himself at times. If Kyle Lowry, Victor Oladipo, and Beal all make it ahead of Wall, he will have to beat out a frontcourt player such as Love, Al Horford, Andre Drummond, or Kristaps Porzingis for the final wild-card spot.
3. Is Porzingis an automatic selection?
He was in the MVP race after the first 10 games of the season, when he averaged 30 points, 7.5 rebounds, and 2.3 blocks a game on 51.2 percent shooting. His numbers have cooled off considerably since then, which has become a trend over his first three seasons. Porzingis is still learning how to handle the responsibility of being the face of an NBA franchise on and off the court, now that Carmelo Anthony is gone. He will become a perennial All-Star in time. Will the coaches feel like they have no choice but to elevate him now, or will they wait until he can get New York into the playoffs, or at least over .500?
4. Should the Heat get an All-Star?
Miami has shot up to the no. 4 seed in the East with an 11–4 surge over the past month, but they don’t have an obvious All-Star. Goran Dragic leads them in points and assists, but competition in the backcourt is fierce. Five point guards made the Eastern All-Star team last season, and only two (Kyrie Irving and Lowry) seem to be locks this season. Isaiah Thomas is out, but Dragic would still have to jump Wall and Kemba Walker to get in. Kemba is playing just as well as he did last season, and his candidacy could come down to how much weight coaches put in on-court/off-court numbers. Will he be punished for the Hornets’ disappointing season when they have a net rating of plus-5.2 when he’s in and minus-12.2 when he’s out?
5. Which Pistons player makes the cut?
Drummond and Tobias Harris are both borderline All-Stars, but a team with a 22–21 record will be lucky to get even one. Drummond is the bigger name, and he has made strides as a passer, defender, and free throw shooter this season. Harris has carried the Detroit offense with Reggie Jackson in and out of the lineup, averaging a career-high 18.1 points per game. The coaches will probably reward Drummond for the work he put in this offseason, but Harris could make it interesting with some big scoring games over the next few weeks. He has been more consistent than explosive: His season high is 34, and he’s scored 30 or more only four times. Ask Lou Williams how much an offensive explosion against a high-profile opponent can do for you.
1. Will the Warriors get four All-Stars again?
This question is really about whether Draymond Green will make the team, which might be why he went public with the argument for all four players a week ago. Kevin Durant and Steph Curry are locks to make it every year, and Klay Thompson is nearing that category. Green averages only 11.1 points per game, and Durant’s emergence as a dominant interior defender makes Green’s contributions easier to overlook. Draymond would have been an All-Star starter based solely on the fan vote, but he lost the spot to DeMarcus Cousins after the votes of the players and media were counted. He will have to beat out multiple bigs from the group of Karl-Anthony Towns, Nikola Jokic, and LaMarcus Aldridge — all of whom have much bigger offensive roles for their respective teams.
2. Will Towns or Jokic be the last unicorn chosen?
The competition for the frontcourt reserve spots in the West is brutal. The only player who appears to be a lock is Aldridge: The Spurs will get an All-Star, and they have no one else who fits the bill with Kawhi Leonard missing most of the season. Jokic and Towns are both looking for their first All-Star appearance, and only one is likely to make it. Towns is scoring more for the better team, but he also gets to play off Jimmy Butler. Jokic is the better passer, and he’s carried Denver in Paul Millsap’s absence, but the Nuggets are currently ninth in the West. There’s more than one way to build a unicorn, and which one of the two you prefer comes down largely to what skills you most value.
3. Is two-way play enough to get Paul George in?
If we don’t count the season when he played only six games following his gruesome leg injury, George is averaging the fewest points since his third season, the fewest assists since his second season, and the fewest rebounds since his rookie season. That’s what happens when a four-time All-Star touches the ball fewer times per game than Kent Bazemore. He has channeled his energy into becoming a complete stopper, making himself one of the backbones of the no. 3 defense in the NBA. George is averaging a career-high 2.2 steals per game (which leads the league), and he’s in the 87th percentile of players leaguewide in defending isolations and in the 75th percentile in defending the ball handler in the pick-and-roll. Will the coaches reward his sacrifice, or punish him for the Thunder’s up-and-down season?
4. Has Chris Paul missed too much time?
Paul has been an automatic All-Star most of his career, making nine straight appearances before missing last season’s game with a thumb injury. His numbers are as good as ever in his first season in Houston (18.7 points, 9.1 assists, and 5.7 rebounds on 45.7 percent shooting), and he has kept the team afloat with James Harden out. CP3 missed 17 games because of injury, but he will have had two stellar months of play logged by the time ballots are due. The coaches may want to give a team with a 31–12 record more than one All-Star.
5. Will Damian Lillard be snubbed again?
Lillard has been on the wrong end of the cut the past two seasons despite eye-popping numbers. He’s averaging 25 points and 6.5 assists per game on 42.8 percent shooting this season, and he’s playing some of the best defense of his career. The Blazers have the no. 7 defense in the NBA, and their defensive rating is only 0.2 points higher with Lillard in the game, a huge improvement for a player long considered a sieve. Lillard is a 27-year-old at the peak of his game: He might be running out of chances to make an All-Star Game if he misses it this season. Portland is hanging on to the no. 8 seed with a 24–21 record, so one or two games could tip the scales for Lillard either way.