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Five Takeaways From the NBA’s All-Star Starters

An abysmal record couldn’t keep Trae Young from being named to the lineup, while Jimmy Butler got snubbed. Plus: Who is ready to see conferences go out the window?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Never lose hope that the All-Star game will someday return to its former fun and competitive form. The NBA announced the starting lineups for each conference on Thursday, and this might be the year! (Luka Doncic has already accomplished many feats at just 20 years old, though making the All-Star game interesting will be his toughest challenge yet.) Whether they can resurrect the game’s entertainment or not, these All-Star rosters do say plenty about what is and isn’t valued in the league today. Here are the starters from each conference:

Eastern Conference:

Captain: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Trae Young
Kemba Walker
Joel Embiid
Pascal Siakam

Western Conference:

Captain: LeBron James
Luka Doncic
James Harden
Kawhi Leonard
Anthony Davis

And here are five takeaways from those lists of players:

Players are still being snubbed by positional categories

Jimmy Butler wasn’t snubbed by the fans, players, and media so much as he was snubbed by the NBA. The league designates which position group a player falls into—guards or frontcourt—before voting begins. Butler fell into the frontcourt grouping, but he should’ve been a guard. As a result, he got left out in favor of Giannis, Embiid, and Siakam. This isn’t the first time positional restrictions have egregiously hurt a player’s chances at making the starting lineup.

Butler’s versatility and defensive prowess—two of his most valuable qualities—diminished his All-Star chances because he is seen as a plug for many holes, as Erik Spoelstra depends on Butler to be flexible in different lineups. The should-be shooting guard averages 35 minutes for the Heat, tied for 16th-highest this season, and the amount of time he spends with the ball is more typical of guards. Butler ranks 23rd in average time of possession this season; of the 22 players ahead of him, 21 are guards, and one is LeBron. Positions are also often determined by whom the player is guarding, an idea that has become less reliable as positionless basketball pervades the NBA. Butler’s often tasked with the toughest opponent, regardless of position.

Impact matters more than total time on the court

One of the loudest annual All-Star voting debates is the cutoff for how many games a player can sit out before he should be excluded to make space for someone who has been healthier. But what counts as an exorbitant amount of games missed is different for everyone. This season’s starters suggest that elite production matters to voters more than games played. Three players who were included in this discussion and ultimately won spots anyway are Joel Embiid (15 missed games), Pascal Siakam (11 missed games), and Kawhi Leonard (11 missed games).

Coincidentally, Embiid is actually currently injured after having surgery on his hand on January 10. (He was cleared for noncontact drills last Thursday.) The Sixers big was voted a starter in all voting categories, as was Kawhi. And though Embiid missed the most games, Kawhi receiving more votes than Nikola Jokic is the best example of production overcoming a substantial absence in the eyes of All-Star voters. He has shouldered the load throughout Paul George’s injuries, and has provided a more visible on-court presence than Jokic—especially considering Jokic’s slow shooting start to the season. Recognizing Kawhi as the reigning Finals MVP also likely played into it—leaving one of the greatest players in the league out of the All-Star starters list would have just felt icky.

Don’t count out good stats, bad team players

Shout-out to Trae Young, the first Hawk voted an All-Star starter since Dikembe Mutombo in 1998. Young led all East guards in overall votes despite 11-34 Atlanta’s position dead last in the conference. Young’s been a thrill to watch this season, and despite the Hawks’ bad luck with injuries and suspensions, has managed to average 29.2 points, 8.6 assists, and 4.7 rebounds.

Then again, Kemba Walker earning a spot suggests the opposite. Boston is in the fourth spot with a world of upside, and Walker’s a major reason why. But Walker was voted a starter for the first time last season, when the Hornets weren’t exactly as successful as this year’s Celtics have been: Charlotte was 27-30, not even .500. After many years of mediocrity with the Hornets, it seemed like Walker’s reward.

Giannis and LeBron are repeat captains

The takeaway here is the same as last year, and just as gloriously symbolic: LeBron passing the torch to Giannis as the league’s most powerful, influential, and league-defining player. During the Finals, that player looked like Kawhi. During bits of this season (I will not apologize for this opinion, get back to me in three years), it has looked like Luka Doncic. But now, Giannis once again has the throne. Giannis was loose and adorably genuine during the last All-Star draft, teasing LeBron by asking, “Isn’t that tampering?” after the latter selected then-Pelican Anthony Davis. Here we are, nearly a year later, with LeBron and AD finally in Los Angeles together. This marks the first time two Lakers have been together in an All-Star starting lineup since Kobe Bryant and Dwight Howard in 2013. It’s all coming full circle.

The lineup would definitely change if the league got rid of conference designations

The Western Conference fostering more talent is almost a foregone conclusion at this point. LeBron exited the East two seasons ago, and now Giannis and the Bucks are 39-6, dominating a shallow conference. The East’s top-heavy status makes the cliché that the West is better appropriate once again. The last starting spot in the West was far more contentious than the Siakam-vs.-Butler debate in the East; even injured Embiid was a lock. Many fans want the freedom that would come from removing conferences altogether and voting for the best 10 players—similar to the view that the NBA should abolish conferences for postseason consideration as well. While that would likely guarantee more fairness from year to year (if Steph Curry had been healthy this year, one of he, Harden, or Doncic would have been booted while Walker made it), that’s not really the point of All-Star weekend. It’s a break for the players that the league can monetize disguised as a large and important event. All-Star will never be as serious an accomplishment as All-NBA, though the two lineups almost always overlap. The league wanting to give the Eastern Conference players a fair shot won’t necessarily produce the most entertaining game, but at least it’s consistent.