There are no right answers when it comes to picking the final few spots in the All-Star Game, which NBA coaching staffs will do over the next few weeks. The difference between the players who make it and those who don’t is razor thin. The game itself is a showcase of individuals, but its reserves are often chosen based on how well their teams are doing. Coaches tend to reward winning. The burden of proof is higher for a player on a losing team than for one in the playoff picture, though the giant mass of teams in the middle of the standings in both conferences has made things harder to differentiate than in the past. With that in mind, here’s a look at the five biggest questions facing the coaches in the East and West as they fill out their ballots:
1. Who are the locks?
The West is so deep that it will have multiple MVP candidates coming off the bench. Nikola Jokic is a one-man offense who’s behind only Wilt Chamberlain for most assists in a season (7.7 per game) by a center. He has carried the Nuggets to the no. 2 seed despite three of their starters missing significant chunks of the season. Anthony Davis is putting up another mind-bending statistical season for the Pelicans, although a lingering broken finger may open up a spot for someone else. Damian Lillard and Rudy Gobert aren’t quite on that level, but each is the clear engine of a playoff team. Gobert is the perfect example of a player benefiting from team success: His candidacy would have been tougher if the Jazz hadn’t surged back into the top eight in the past month.
2. What is going on with Russell Westbrook?
This might be the most divisive Westbrook season yet. He is still averaging a triple-double and is more engaged than ever on defense, but he’s also putting together a historically inefficient season. There have been 208 seasons in NBA history in which a player has had a usage rate higher than 30. Westbrook is no. 205 in true shooting percentage (48.0). The biggest point in his favor is that someone has to take those shots, and their supporting starters around Westbrook and Paul George (Steven Adams, Jerami Grant, and Terrance Ferguson) are all relatively limited offensive players who couldn’t handle a bigger role. His inefficiency almost doesn’t matter in this context. He scores just enough to allow everyone else to focus on what they do best.
3. Who is the most valuable Spur? And Clipper? And will we even care in a few weeks?
The Spurs and Clippers have been going in opposite directions. The former started slow and picked up steam, while the latter has tailed off after a hot start. Only half a game separate them in the standings, and streaking in either direction could make all the difference in the All-Star race. There could be ballot-splitting on both teams. LaMarcus Aldridge is the more efficient scorer and better two-way player in San Antonio, but DeMar DeRozan has carried the offense by turning himself into a point forward with Dejounte Murray out. And while Tobias Harris has been shooting lights-out all season in Los Angeles, Danilo Gallinari is the better playmaker and (surprisingly) more versatile defender. There may be room for only one of the four.
4. Does Karl-Anthony Towns have too much baggage to get in?
Not much has gone right for Towns since he beat out Jokic to make his first All-Star Game last season. The Wolves flamed out in the playoffs, Jimmy Butler forced his way out of town, and Tom Thibodeau was fired. Towns, now the face of the franchise in Minnesota, is still rebuilding his reputation around the league. He has been better on both ends of the floor since Butler’s departure, but he hasn’t done enough to elevate the play of his teammates. Wolves interim coach Ryan Saunders needs to give Towns the chance to do even more. His usage rate without Butler (27.1) still isn’t as high as it could be. He’s talented enough to put together a second-half run similar to what Anthony Davis did in New Orleans last season. He just needs the ball to do it.
5. Does Luka Doncic need to pay his dues?
The Mavs rookie sensation was no. 2 in the fan voting in the West, behind only LeBron James, but he dropped out of the starting five once media and player votes were calculated. His numbers (19.9 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 5.3 assists) are good enough to at least get consideration as a reserve, but Dallas has slipped over the past few weeks, ever since J.J. Barea tore his Achilles and Dennis Smith Jr. decided to take his frustrations about his role in the offense to some casual dining spots in the Dallas area. The coaches may decide to make Doncic wait his turn since there are plenty of other deserving Western candidates, from Jrue Holiday to De’Aaron Fox to Klay Thompson.
1. Who are the locks?
The bar in the East isn’t quite as high, especially after Victor Oladipo went down with a devastating season-ending knee injury on Wednesday. Without as many strong candidates as there are in the West, there isn’t as much of a link between team performance and All-Star status. Blake Griffin, Bradley Beal, and Nikola Vucevic are all having the most well-rounded offensive seasons of their careers on sub-.500 teams, which should be enough to get them in. Ben Simmons hasn’t taken the step forward that many expected in Year 2, but he’s a franchise talent on a top-four team in the East—it’d be almost impossible to keep him off the team.
2. What do we do about Jimmy Butler?
The case for Simmons could just as easily be made for Butler, an elite two-way player at the most important position on the floor. The question is whether the coaches will punish him for everything that happened in Minnesota. It was an ugly situation for all parties involved, and Butler hasn’t exactly hit the ground running in Philadelphia, either. He has reportedly complained about his offensive role and contributed to an already uneasy chemistry situation. The coaches might not want to give him a spot on the All-Star team if it means taking it away from players in Milwaukee and Toronto who have accepted smaller roles on elite teams.
3. How do we portion out credit in Milwaukee?
Giannis and new head coach Mike Budenholzer have gotten most of the press, but the Bucks have one of the best supporting casts in the NBA too. Khris Middleton is the perfect second option, Eric Bledsoe resurrected his career after a disastrous 2018 playoff performance, and Brook Lopez is taking more 3s (6.6 per game) than any center in NBA history. All three have been key pieces on a team with the best record (34-12) and net rating (plus-9.7) in the league. Budenholzer probably won’t get four players into the All-Star Game like he did during his 60-win season in Atlanta, but this group is just as talented, if not more so.
4. How do we do it in Toronto?
Kawhi Leonard is a legitimate superstar for the Raptors, but he still isn’t playing in back-to-backs and they’ve managed fine without him. Kyle Lowry, despite taking a back seat on offense, has actually been the more irreplaceable part. He is averaging a career-high 9.4 assists per game, and they go from a net rating of plus-11.2 with him to minus-3.6 without him. Pascal Siakam, meanwhile, has been one of the breakout stars in the entire league this season. Inserting a combo forward with his perimeter skills into the starting lineup at the 4 in place of a more traditional big man has been a hidden key in their transformation.
5. Will D’Angelo Russell sneak in?
The Nets have been one of the hottest teams in the NBA over the past month, with a 10-4 record since Christmas Day that has pushed them up to the no. 6 seed. Without Caris LeVert, who looked to be on his way to making his first All-Star Game before an extreme ankle injury, Russell has been the primary option by default. He has the numbers (19.3 points on 43.8 percent shooting and 6.5 assists per game) and the pedigree. Russell may have just needed some time away from the bright lights of the Lakers to figure it out. He’s still only 22, and point guard is the toughest position to learn in the NBA. He will get the chance to earn a spot over the next few weeks now that Spencer Dinwiddie, their sixth man, who has often closed games in Russell’s place, is out with a thumb injury.