Media ballots for All-Star Game starters—which require two backcourt players and three frontcourt players from each conference—are due by Monday at noon ET. Media make up 25 percent of the vote for the 10 starting spots, as do the players, and the fans have the remaining 50 percent. The coaches then select seven reserves from each conference. The starters should be easy to determine, since there are currently 10 players that I’d consider placing in the top five of my ballot for Most Valuable Player. But seven of them are in the West, and five of those seven are frontcourt players:
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
Stephen Curry, Warriors
Anthony Davis, Pelicans
Kevin Durant, Warriors
Joel Embiid, 76ers
Paul George, Thunder
James Harden, Rockets
LeBron James, Lakers
Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
Two of the five frontcourt players (Davis, Durant, George, James, and Jokic) won’t be named starters, which will undoubtedly spark debate (and a Two Minutes Hate on Twitter) since the argument is so strong for each of them. Two less-deserving backcourt players, in my opinion, will get the nod in the Eastern Conference—just because they don’t play in the West.
Similar sacrifices will have to be made on the back end of each roster. I asked a sampling of people around the league—from execs to coaches to reporters—how many All-Stars they’d pick from the East if the rosters weren’t determined by conference, and nobody chose 12. All of them said between eight and 11 players; nine was the most common response. Interestingly, only nine players from the East were among the top 24 fan vote-getters in the third round of returns released last week. The most deserving and the most popular players won’t all make it this season, which doesn’t make any sense when the solution is so simple.
The NBA injected energy into the All-Star Game last year by having the leading vote-getters from each conference serve as captains and select their teams in a pick-up-style draft. But in a positionless league with a talent imbalance between the conferences, the voting process is in desperate need of an update—for the All-Star Game and All-NBA teams.
Getting it right is important since there’s far more at stake than just the accolades. There is money on the line—$100,000 going to each player on the winning team and $25,000 to the losers. Some players also have separate bonuses in their contracts that are tied to making the All-Star roster. For example, Kyle Lowry earned $200,000 last season because he made the All-Star Game and played in 65 regular-season games, according to ESPN’s Bobby Marks. One player’s loss is another player’s gain, but one player could get screwed out of a bonus just because they play in the West instead of the East, or can’t be fit onto the team because they are designated a certain position. The NBA tells coaches to be flexible with positions when voting for the reserves, and positions aren’t used for All-Rookie teams. That’s all great. But why are we still confined to set positions for a glorified exhibition game? Why do it for All-NBA?
Some players receive multiple position tags in All-NBA voting, but not all of them do, which can create an unfair advantage. Consider the 2016-17 voting results: Davis was named first-team center with 343 total points, edging out Rudy Gobert, who had 339 points. Davis had an advantage because he could be selected as either a forward or a center, which gave him nine potential spots on the roster. Gobert could be picked only at center, which gave him only three potential spots. Both players should’ve made it anyway—and they did—but that’s not the point. If Gobert were a top-nine frontcourt player but not a top-three center, he wouldn’t have made it.
Determining positions is a fruitless exercise anyway. At 6-foot-10 and yoked, Ben Simmons is literally big. Though his Peyton Manning–esque passing qualifies him as a playmaker, he often plays like a traditional center, screening, standing in the dunker’s spot on the baseline, and defending multiple positions. But Simmons is listed as only a guard on the All-Star ballot and was listed as a forward and guard for last year’s All-NBA voting. LeBron James was listed as only a forward, despite the fact that he logged more potential assists than anyone besides Russell Westbrook and John Wall. Jokic initiates the majority of offensive sets for the Nuggets and ranks seventh in the NBA in assists; in All-NBA voting last season, he was listed as only a center. The truth is none of these players have a traditional position. Positional labels can help us categorize players when debating with our friends or sorting through stats, but in a league where roles and responsibilities aren’t defined by a player’s size, they’re often pointless.
It’s too late for this season, but I’d love to see the NBA experiment with removing positions for next season’s All-Star Game, in order to collect data on how it may affect All-NBA teams—and the bonuses and supermax eligibility that comes from them. The NBA went positionless for its first nine All-NBA teams, before switching over to the current system in 1955-56. Now it’s time to consider going back to the original.
Having said that, let’s get to my picks. The media votes for only the starters, but for the sake of context and conversation, I’ve included my current choices for the seven reserve spots in each conference. Starters will be announced Thursday, and reserves, as chosen by the coaches, will be announced January 31. Things could change by then, so players who aren’t locks are marked in italics. Let’s start with the Western Conference.
Western Conference All-Stars
G: Stephen Curry, Warriors
G: James Harden, Rockets
F: Anthony Davis, Pelicans
F: Kevin Durant, Warriors
F: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
G: Damian Lillard, Blazers
G: Jrue Holiday, Pelicans
F: LeBron James, Lakers
F: Paul George, Thunder
F: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
WC: Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
WC: Russell Westbrook, Thunder
Jokic wasn’t that hard of a choice for a starting spot over James and George. Jokic does whatever the Nuggets need, whether it’s operate as a post scorer, space the floor, or run point. The only other player 6-foot-10 or taller to ever average more than 19 points and seven assists is Wilt Chamberlain. The case against LeBron is that he’s missed 13 games and counting, plus his effort on defense has been underwhelming. Jokic hasn’t missed a single game, and he’s become a criminally underrated defender as the anchor of Denver’s defense, which is tied for 10th in the league. George is having the best scoring season of his life (26.7 PPG) and should be a leading candidate for Defensive Player of the Year at the halfway point. But Jokic is far more important to the Nuggets offense than George is to the Thunder’s offense, which would also be the argument for choosing James over George. Jokic tallies 92.6 touches per game, second-most in the NBA, and makes 70.4 passes per game, which leads the league. All three should make it and are MVP candidates. As of January 21, Jokic is ahead.
Davis and Durant are having routine seasons; we’re getting used to another historical performance. Davis’s passing and ballhandling is better than ever. Adding Shammgods and crossovers to his already-lethal offensive repertoire is like watching Roger Clemens add a splitter. The Pelicans big man is on pace to be the first player ever to average more than 29 points, 13 rebounds, four assists, two blocks, and one steal in a full season; the only players to ever even come close are Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Bob McAdoo. It’s too bad that, as of last week, he had the 12th-most fan votes. No wonder why he might leave New Orleans.
Durant is at it again: 28.1 points per game, his most since leaving Oklahoma City. The wild thing is that he could be even better if he weren’t the player’s Gregg Popovich. Durant recently said he doesn’t see the league’s “volume of 3s, the pick-up style” lasting too much longer, and it shows in his play. He’s taking 53 percent of his shots from midrange (up from 40 percent his first season in Golden State, and 46 percent last season), according to Cleaning the Glass. If Durant took more pull-up 3s, which are worth 1.07 points per shot for him this season, instead of pull-up 2s, which are worth 0.98 points per shot, he could be averaging more than 30 points with even greater efficiency.
The starting backcourt is by far the easiest choice on the ballot. Curry and Harden are both averaging more than 29 points with true shooting percentages over 62, which puts them in a rare class of players. The only players ever to exceed 29 and 62 are Adrian Dantley, Karl Malone, Durant, and Curry during his historic 2015-16 season. The fact we’re getting two of these seasons at the same time is a blessing.
As for the other reserves:
• Lillard is scoring 1.1 points per possession in the pick-and-roll and extending his 3-point shot to Curry territory. If it weren’t for Curry’s existence, we’d laud Lillard’s talents far more than we already do. Dame is unreal.
• Gobert anchors the league’s fourth-ranked defense and is integral to Utah’s steadily improving offense, even when he’s not flushing lob dunks. Gobert averages 6.1 screen assists, which lead to 14.1 points per game; both lead the league. The Stifle Tower should be a lock.
• The second guard spot and the two wild cards aren’t easy. Towns has elevated his defense since the Jimmy Butler trade; he can still be overzealous at times, chasing down blocks like a dog chasing a laser pointer, but his effort, intensity, and ridiculous offensive numbers as of late have kept the Wolves in the playoff race. He’s close to a lock.
• Remember after the 2016-17 season, when Holiday was considered a league-average point guard, and the Pelicans overpaid him because they didn’t have any other options? Well, since then, Holiday has played like an All-Star: He’s averaging career-highs this season in points (20.8) and assists (8.2), and hasn’t sacrificed his typically hard-nosed defense. If it weren’t for Holiday, the Pelicans defense, tied for 26th in the league, would be even more anemic.
• Westbrook is having an all-time awful scoring season. In NBA history, 291 players have logged a season with over 20 shots per game, and Westbrook’s true shooting percentage (47.6) would rank 273rd. The only players to post a usage percentage over 30 with a worse true shooting percentage were a 37-year-old Kobe Bryant and 38-year-old Michael Jordan, as first noted by Shane Young. Westbrook’s defensive effort has also steadily declined. It’s tough to put him on the team just because he runs the show, but Westbrook’s usage matters a lot—he’s the only player on the Thunder roster other than Dennis Schröder who can generate shots for his teammates. Westbrook’s penetration creates dump-offs for Steven Adams, opens spot-up 3s for his subpar shooters, and assists on two of George’s nine made shots per game. Westbrook leads the NBA in assist percentage and potential assists, he rebounds well, and he tried on defense to start the season. He could lose this spot, but right now he has the edge.
• There are plenty of other players on the bubble, including two teammate combinations—Clippers forwards Danilo Gallinari and Tobias Harris, and Spurs forward LaMarcus Aldridge and guard DeMar DeRozan. There’s also Mike Conley (Grizzlies), Jamal Murray (Nuggets), De’Aaron Fox (Kings), Draymond Green (Warriors), Adams (Thunder), and Luka Doncic (Mavericks), among others.
• A quick note on Doncic: As silly as it is that fans have cast more votes for Luka than anybody but LeBron and Giannis, he should receive strong consideration as a reserve. Doncic is averaging 20 points, 6.7 rebounds, and 5.1 assists per game; only eight rookies have ever posted a line over 19-6-4, and all of them made the All-Star team. The fact Doncic might not make it shows just how rich the league is with top-end talent, and how much the league needs a conferenceless voting system.
Eastern Conference All-Stars
G: Kyrie Irving, Celtics
G: Ben Simmons, 76ers
F: Joel Embiid, 76ers
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
F: Kawhi Leonard, Raptors
G: Kemba Walker, Hornets
G: Bradley Beal, Wizards
F: Blake Griffin, Pistons
F: Nikola Vucevic, Magic
F: Pascal Siakam, Raptors
WC: Victor Oladipo, Pacers
WC: Eric Bledsoe, Bucks
The East starters are mostly simple: All three frontcourt options are stellar defensive players who enhance their team’s offense through their mere presence. Giannis would be my choice today to win Most Valuable Player by an atom over Harden. I made the case in December for Embiid as a serious MVP contender, and it’s only gotten stronger since. Meanwhile, Leonard is playing out of his mind for the Raptors, who are just beginning to tap into his true skills. Over Leonard’s past 20 games, he’s averaging 30.4 points on 20 shots and a 64.1 true shooting percentage. Games missed (12 so far) will be used against Leonard when the MVP debate heats up later this season, but he is building a stronger and stronger case.
Irving is averaging 23.4 points and a career-high 6.8 assists, neither of which is too different from last season, but this is the best season of his career because he’s also contributing on the boards and playing the best regular-season defense of his life. I would have no issues with Irving starting in the All-Star Game over James or George in a world where conferences don’t matter in the voting. It’s the other guard spot that’s problematic. I considered three players: Simmons, Walker, and Beal. Simmons gets the nod because he’s easily the best defender of the three, and he makes up for any scoring warts with his playmaking. Simmons touches and passes the ball more than almost any player in the NBA, and, when he’s not running the offense, the Sixers use him as a screener or in the dunker’s spot. Simmons shoots with the wrong hand, but he does everything else right.
Beal and Walker are easy locks as reserves, and by the time coaches cast their reserve votes, Beal might be the best choice. Beal has been good all season—he’s averaging 24.9 points, five assists, and five rebounds—but he’s been even better without the Wizards’ $169 million man alongside him. In the 13 games that John Wall has missed, Beal is averaging 31.1 points and 6.8 assists over 40.8 minutes. The pick-and-roll has fueled Beal’s offense sans Wall. Beal is finishing 16.6 possessions per game using the pick-and-roll in contests without Wall, compared with 8.1 possessions when Wall is healthy. Beal playing without Wall is starting to seem like when Josh Tillman left Fleet Foxes to start Father John Misty; Beal is better solo.
Walker has fallen off after his ferocious start to the season, but averages of 25 points, 5.6 assists, and 4.3 rebounds still make him an easy choice. I recently asked a number of sources whether the Hornets would deal Kemba before the February 7 trade deadline, and unless something stunning happens, executives expect the Hornets to hold on to Walker and pay him whatever he wants in unrestricted free agency this summer. Good news, Hornets fans—or bad news, if you don’t like the idea of your team giving a small, soon-to-be 29-year-old point guard who’s had multiple knee surgeries nearly $200 million dollars. Oh, well. Hopefully Walker can do some recruiting with the All-Star Game in Charlotte.
As for the other reserves:
• Oladipo is a lock for the first wild-card spot despite missing 11 games. His scoring efficiency is down—either because of increased defensive attention or just regression to his career averages—but he’s still a stellar defender and has improved at passing. Last postseason the Pacers looked hopeless when Oladipo was trapped and the ball was forced out of his hands. Now, Oladipo is making smarter, crisper passes that are putting his teammates in better position to make plays.
• My first article on The Ringer was about how the Clippers should unleash Griffin as a point forward. That never happened in Los Angeles. (Come on, Doc!) The Pistons are making it happen though. (Thank you, Dwane Casey!) It doesn’t show in Griffin’s raw averages of 26 points and 5.3 assists, but it does in tracking stats. He’s posting career highs in touches, passes, and potential assists per game. Also, we have eyes: Griffin brings the ball up the floor, sets the offense, and runs more pick-and-roll than he ever has before. The Pistons don’t have much support around Griffin, but they do have a star for as long as he stays healthy.
• Vucevic is everybody’s favorite Trade Machine player, but most executives I’ve talked to don’t expect the Magic to move him. It’s simply because, as I’ve said all season on The Ringer NBA Show, Orlando wants to make the playoffs. Vucevic helps them do that; coach Steve Clifford runs the offense through him, and Vucevic is averaging career-highs across the board with 20.1 points, 11.9 rebounds, and 3.8 assists. The Magic outscore teams by 5.3 points per 100 possessions when Vucevic shares the floor with Aaron Gordon, but when one or both of them are on the bench, they get outscored by 11.9 points per 100 possessions. Maybe things will change if a team makes a strong offer for Vucevic, but the expectation is that Orlando will keep him through the deadline and look to re-sign him.
• It gets ugly trying to find a third forward. I look forward to seeing whether coaches decide to make Jimmy Butler an All-Star reserve after he sabotaged his old team to force his way out and then caused rifts on his new team. My hunch is no: I’ve spoken with multiple executives and coaches who have expressed frustration over the media ignoring intangible qualities such as leadership when voting for awards. I’m choosing not to reward Butler’s shenanigans. Will the coaches?
• That primarily leaves Siakam and Pacers bigs Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner. I can’t pick Sabonis because he comes off the bench and spends far too much time playing against reserves, while Turner doesn’t do enough offensively. Siakam has been a steadying force all season long for the Raptors. Leonard and Kyle Lowry, among others, have missed time this season for Toronto, while Siakam keeps doing what he does: playing hard, spacing the floor, passing, and spinning.
• The final wild-card spot is a tight race between JJ Redick and Bucks teammates Khris Middleton and Bledsoe. The case for Redick is strong. He’s posting career-highs in points (18.5), shots (13.8), and 3-point attempts (7.9), and the offense runs much smoother when he’s on the floor. But he’s been picked on defensively and is the fourth-most important player on the Sixers. Bledsoe gets the edge over the rest of the pack, for now; he should be in the All-Defense conversation and carries a greater load offensively.
• Other players in consideration for the final two spots include Lowry (Raptors), John Collins (Hawks), Josh Richardson (Heat), and Thaddeus Young (Pacers).
Siakam and Bledsoe are very good players, but they have no business being in the game over anyone who just missed the cut in the West, such as Gallinari, Murray, Aldridge, and Doncic. Conferences help with the traveling challenges teams face over an 82-game schedule, but they’re not practical for an All-Star Game. The league may be in a better place than ever, as evidenced by how difficult it is to choose these rosters from such a deep pool of talent. It’s a good time to be a fan; just let the best, most popular players represent that on All-Star Sunday.