This is not a column about Kobe Bryant. Which is to say: This is a piece of basketball writing that feels superfluous to publish right now, when all anyone who loves and cares about basketball is thinking about is the hole that’s been sitting in the pit of their stomach since Sunday afternoon. Countless words about life, loss, and legacy have been written and spoken by those who knew and covered Kobe, and his daughter Gianna, and the other seven people who died in Sunday’s helicopter crash—John, Keri, and Alyssa Altobelli, Sarah and Payton Chester, Christina Mauser, and Ara Zobayan. Maybe poring over those helps you process what happened.
Maybe, though, you’d prefer something else, a distraction from the thing you can’t stop thinking about. NBA All-Star starters were announced last Thursday, and All-Star reserves will be revealed this Thursday, so let’s talk about All-Star rosters. It’s as good a diversion as any.
Kobe will loom large over next month’s midseason celebration of the NBA’s best and brightest players; this is only fitting, since only Kareem Abdul-Jabbar made more All-Star appearances (19) than Bryant (18), and only Bob Pettit was named the game’s Most Valuable Player as often as Kobe was (four times). First, though, we have to find a way to get there from where we are. Consider this an unsteady first step.
Somehow, I wound up getting tabbed as one of the members of the media who got to vote for the starters in the 2020 NBA All-Star Game. (My guess? Someone in the league office was trying to reach Dan Wetzel, and copy/pasted the wrong email address.) I’m not sure who screwed up or how they did it, exactly, but I exercised my franchise all the same. Here was my ballot:
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
FC Jimmy Butler, Heat
FC Joel Embiid, 76ers
G Kemba Walker, Celtics
G Ben Simmons, 76ers
FC LeBron James, Lakers
FC Anthony Davis, Lakers
FC Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G James Harden, Rockets
G Luka Doncic, Mavericks
The final average of the fan, player, and media votes—fans account for 50 percent, with players and media each making up 25 percent of the pie—resulted in eight of my 10 picks making the cut. I nailed the West, but went only 3-for-5 out East, with Atlanta’s Trae Young edging out Simmons for the second guard spot alongside Walker, and Toronto’s Pascal Siakam making it over Butler in the frontcourt. (Here’s where we note that Butler has spent more time at shooting guard than at any other position this season, per Cleaning the Glass.)
I’m not sure there’s a glaring need to litigate the cases for and against the players named starters. If you require explanations for Giannis, LeBron, Luka, Harden, AD, or Kemba, stop reading this, go to the emergency room immediately, and please have a doctor check out that head wound. Heat Check listeners know that I was on the fence about the differential in games and minutes played between Embiid and stalwarts Bam Adebayo and Domantas Sabonis, and torn between Kawhi and Nikola Jokic (and Rudy Gobert, who I didn’t specifically discuss on the podcast, but should’ve); in the end, I let the fact that they’re Joel F’n Embiid and Kawhi F’n Leonard carry the day. It is the All-Star Game, after all.
Siakam was one of the 10 best players in the league during the first two months of the season, before a groin strain sidelined him for 11 games and derailed his rhythm. (He sure seemed to relocate it on Sunday in San Antonio.) Had Butler been eligible at guard, I’d have put him next to Kemba, with Siakam joining Giannis and Embiid in an all-international front line. I think Simmons is so good on defense, and has been a player of such consequence for a significantly better team, that he merited the nod over Young. But the Hawks star is a truly breathtaking offensive playmaker—a virtuosic passer, geometry-wrecking deep shooter, highlight-hunting dribbler, and pint-sized paint presence who gets himself to the line at a near-Iversonian rate—and is tailor-made for the All-Star Game. I’m not about to fight anyone over their inclusions. (Or, really, over much of anything. I’m a 37-year-old father of two. No violence on the dance floor.)
Rather than gnash teeth and rend garments over getting only an 80 on this particular test, let’s look forward, and funnel our energy into picking some All-Star reserves. Here are the seven players from each conference—three frontcourt players, two guards, and two “wild cards” irrespective of positional designation—that I’d tap to round out the pool of players from whom captains LeBron and Giannis will pick their teams in this year’s All-Star draft:
FC Jimmy Butler, Heat
FC Bam Adebayo, Heat
FC Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
G Ben Simmons, 76ers
G Kyle Lowry, Raptors
WC Khris Middleton, Bucks
WC Jayson Tatum, Celtics
I’ve written this before: For all the hemming and hawing about what Simmons can’t, won’t, or doesn’t do, I’m still extremely on board with everything he does. Like, rank in the top five in the league in assists, steals, deflections, and loose balls recovered per game; defend all five positions at an All-Defensive level, despite playing the fourth-most minutes in the league; create more points via direct dime than anybody not named LeBron James; and shoulder the heaviest load for keeping the Sixers afloat when Embiid’s not available.
Philly has outscored opponents by 2.4 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions with Simmons on the floor and Embiid off of it—not an elite number, but a hell of a lot better than you might expect given just how valuable Embiid is on both ends of the court. Questions of fit and shooting form may always hang over the 76ers’ heads, but none of that means Ben Simmons as he exists right now—which is to say, as someone you do not want to see coming at you with a head of steam in transition, and who can Summarily Wreck Your Shit—is not an All-Star lock.
A fractured left thumb scuttled a sensational start by Lowry, but he has—as always—been absolutely vital to the Raptors’ success this season, leading a team reorienting itself after the loss of Kawhi Leonard and reeling amid a dramatic spate of injuries. The veteran point guard has long made his living on the margins, doing all the little things to help his team win the possession battle and play the game on its preferred terms, and he stepped up in a big way when the Raptors needed him most this season. Over an 11-game stretch during which Siakam, Marc Gasol, and Norman Powell all were shelved by injury (with Fred VanVleet also missing a pair in that span), Lowry averaged 23.3 points on a .580 true shooting percentage, eight assists, and four rebounds in 40 minutes per game. Toronto went 6-5 without nearly half of its rotation, holding firm in the race for home-court advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, largely because Lowry willed it.
Butler has been precisely what the Heat needed: a full-time alpha dog to help amplify the snarl of a roster teeming with toughness, and a two-way playmaker credible enough to allow everyone else to slide into their most comfortable spots. He has balanced out some of the shakiest shooting of his career—this would be his lowest effective field goal percentage since his first season as a full-time starter in Chicago—by dishing a career-best 6.5 assists per game, relentlessly bulldozing his way to the line, and sliding between roles and responsibilities for one of the league’s premier practitioners of positionless basketball.
The Heat play that way, in part, because Adebayo’s versatility allows it. He’s a 6-foot-9, 255-pound, 22-year-old Doberman, as comfortable switching on to waterbug guards in space as he is muscling up against behemoths in the post. Miami’s defense has slipped after a hot start, but still locks down at a top-10 level with Bam patrolling the paint. Adebayo has also emerged as an excellent passer all over the floor—from the elbows, out of the high post, on the short roll, and in transition—which has helped weaponize a roster full of savvy cutters and floor-running athletes. Trading Hassan Whiteside opened the door for Adebayo, but I’m not sure how many people expected him to step into the spotlight as quickly and completely as he has.
The same was true of Sabonis last season, when he broke through as one of the league’s most effective sixth men. The 23-year-old has made another leap this season, cementing himself as a cornerstone of one of the league’s best big-minutes lineups—Indiana’s starters outscore opponents by 9.3 points-per-100, an elite mark—and a player capable of maintaining his efficiency and effectiveness in a significantly larger share of minutes. Like Adebayo, Sabonis has shown rare playmaking vision and touch—only Jokic and Bam have averaged more assists per game among big men—and he just mauls dudes, whether he’s setting picks to free up his guards (only Gobert averages more screen assists) or rumbling through the paint for a layup or vicious dunk. There’s plenty of praise to go around for a Pacers team that has outperformed expectations while waiting for Victor Oladipo’s (now imminent!) return. Sabonis gets the lion’s share here, and his first All-Star selection.
There’s a tendency, at times, to forget about Middleton: to accept that he’s something like the perfect second banana next to Giannis, and to wonder aloud whether, despite that, he’s good enough to be the no. 2 option on a championship team. Reasonable people can argue that. What you can’t argue is Middleton’s productivity. He’s averaging 19.4 points, 5.8 rebounds, and 3.9 assists in just 28.6 minutes per game on a scorching .615 true shooting percentage, and sitting only a few thousandths of a percentage point away from a 50/40/90 season. It’s worth noting, too, that Milwaukee’s been plenty effective when Middleton operates as the top dog while Giannis sits, blitzing opponents by 11.5 points-per-100; in those minutes, Middleton’s usage rate spikes, and so does his productivity, averaging 30.1 points per 36 minutes of no-Giannis floor time. He’s perpetually overlooked, obscured from view by the all-encompassing excellence of his teammate. He’s also an All-Star in his own right.
I went back and forth on whether Tatum or Jaylen Brown would be my final choice. They’ve been one of the best wing tandems in the league this season. Their statistical cases are remarkably similar, with Brown boasting better shooting numbers, especially inside the arc, and Tatum shouldering a larger offensive load, especially in reserve-heavy lineups without Walker on the floor—which have hammered opponents by 10 points-per-100. Even with his shaky interior finishing and average 3-point shooting, I think Tatum’s still been a better scorer and secondary facilitator than Brown, and that his ongoing defensive improvement on the wing has turned him into one of the NBA’s more balanced and dynamic perimeter players. Tatum ranks fifth in the league in real-plus minus, 11th in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR player rating metric, and 16th in player-impact plus-minus; I don’t think he’s a top-five or top-10 player in the league. I do think those numbers are capturing stuff that matters to winning, though. I gave him the edge here, but Brown’s got a great case, too.
The toughest cuts:
- Jaylen Brown: His advancement as a two-way terror runs neck-and-neck with Tatum and gives Boston a dynamic young core to build around for the next few seasons.
- Bradley Beal: Averages of 28.1 points (sixth in the league) and 6.3 assists per game are nothing to sneeze at, especially given some of the eye-popping lineups he’s been carrying in D.C. But his shooting numbers are down—just 31.4 percent from 3 for the reputed sniper—and Washington’s offense has come back to earth since its shocking start. The Wizards defense is one of the league’s worst, and Beal’s been part of that problem; their point differential is worse with Beal on the floor than when he’s off it, which, combined with that 15-30 record, was enough to bump him behind deserving players on better teams.
- Malcolm Brogdon: The other half of Indiana’s bread-and-butter pick-and-roll tandem, and a key part of the Pacers’ top-10 defense. He would’ve made the cut after the first quarter of the season, but has tailed off since his excellent start, shooting a tick under 40 percent from the field since the start of December.
- Eric Bledsoe: An All-Defensive candidate averaging an efficient 15-4.5-5.1 deserves a close look. But he’s behind Middleton in the race for a second Buck, and I didn’t find his case more compelling than either Celtic.
- Zach LaVine: On a monster scoring run right now—a shade under 29 points per game since mid-December. LaVine’s case is the same as Beal’s case, essentially, but with slightly better defense and shooting numbers, less playmaking impact, and fewer overall points created. It’s just not persuasive enough to bump one of the other seven.
FC Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
FC Rudy Gobert, Jazz
FC Brandon Ingram, Pelicans
G Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
G Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
WC Devin Booker, Suns|
WC Chris Paul, Thunder
After a sputtering start in which he seemed to be moving at half-speed following a 94-game 2018-19 season and a summer with the Serbian national team at the FIBA World Cup, Jokic has returned to MVP-caliber form over the past couple of months. He’s back to firing away and spraying the ball all over the court to waiting cutters and catch-and-shoot options, averaging 22-10-7 on 53/37/80 shooting splits since the start of December. The Nuggets offense has risen with him, from 19th in points scored per possession at the end of November to seventh since; on the whole, Denver has scored like a top-three offense with Jokic at the controls, and like a bottom-10 outfit with him off the floor. For that matter, the Nuggets defense—in perpetual defiance of the eye test—has been notably stingier in Jokic’s minutes. That’s five years running, now. He’s the franchise centerpiece of a team that’s won 70 percent of its games and sits a half-game out of the no. 2 spot in the West. He’s in.
So is the big dude whose team is also a half-game behind the second-place Clippers. Everything about the Jazz—who, we remind you, have won 19 of their past 22 games, with two of the three losses coming on the road and by one or two possessions—revolves around Gobert’s ability to either create or erase space. The 7-foot-1 Frenchman leads the league in screen assists, finishes nearly 30 percent of his offensive possessions as the dive man in the pick-and-roll, and ends even more with two or three bodies around him in the paint, opening up opportunities for Utah’s ball handlers to kick the ball out to open shooters; the Jazz are shooting much more accurately from 3-point land with Gobert on the court, thanks in part to how much cleaner the looks get when everybody’s got to worry about a giant getting a shot at the basket that he hits nearly 70 percent of the time. Gobert was my pick for top defensive player of the season’s second quarter, and barring some drastic change by mid-April, he’ll be in the mix for his third consecutive actual defensive year-end hardware; Utah clamps down at an elite level with him in the game and hemorrhages points when he sits (miss you, Derrick Favors).
Gobert has deserved an All-Star spot for at least two years. He should get his due this time around … and so should his backcourt running mate. Mitchell has scored more, and more efficiently, this season while sliding comfortably into life as Utah’s full-time primary facilitator since Mike Conley was sidelined. He’s the playmaking engine of what has become a top-10 offense, ranking among the league’s highest-volume pick-and-roll players and serving as a constant threat to either get all the way to the rim (11th in the NBA in drives per game) or fire off the bounce (44.1 percent on pull-up jumpers, 11th best among players with at least 100 attempts). The overall production isn’t drastically different from last season, but Mitchell’s growing and getting better in an increasing role, and doing it all for a team winning 70 percent of its games. Membership in the class of contenders has its privileges; a longer look come All-Star time ranks among them.
Save for a bout of back spasms that cost him two games back in November, Lillard has been the lone constant for Portland in a season derailed by injuries. The Blazers are as close to the playoffs as they are—within just 2.5 games of eighth-place Memphis, only a half-game behind San Antonio for ninth—almost exclusively because Lillard has followed up consecutive top-six MVP finishes with his best season to date. He’s averaging 28.8 points and 7.7 assists per game, both career highs. He’s firing 3s and getting to the foul line more often than ever, and finishing inside the arc more accurately than ever, leading to the highest true shooting percentage of his career. Last week, he became only the eighth player ever to score at least 150 points in a three-game span, ripping off 61-10-7 against the Warriors, 47-6-8 against the Mavericks, and 50-6-13 against the Pacers:
Portland has needed everything Lillard has to offer just to stay in the fight this season. He keeps giving it.
All things considered, you’d rather have Paul George or Karl-Anthony Towns on your roster than Brandon Ingram. George did just finish third in both MVP and Defensive Player of the Year voting, while Towns is sort of like Big Man Trae Young (he’s flirting with becoming just the fourth player ever to average 27-10-4 with a true shooting percentage north of .600, thanks to all of the 3-pointers he’s bombing this season). But those more decorated and established guys have missed a ton of time. Ingram has played about 450 more minutes than Towns, and about 650 more than George. He’s also served as the no. 1 option for a Pelicans team beset by injuries (not least of which to its no. 1 draft pick) and desperate for a stabilizing force.
Ingram has made leaps all over the place: as a ball handler, as a passer, as a driver, as a spot-up and pull-up shooter, and as a possession-by-possession creator. He has run point, initiated off the wing, played power forward, and defended up and down the positional spectrum. He did a lot of the heavy lifting in keeping the Pelicans offense from collapsing, and helping New Orleans claw back into the playoff picture, while everyone was waiting for Zion Williamson. Now that Zion’s back, it’s no sure thing that Ingram will get the same diet of opportunities he enjoyed in the first half, or that he’ll make as much out of them. (For what it’s worth: Before Zion’s return, Ingram averaged 25.6 points on 18.5 field goal attempts and 69.3 touches per game; since, he’s averaged 17 points on 15.3 field goal attempts and 59 touches per game.) What he did before, though, should earn him his first All-Star selection.
Booker should get his, too. Throughout the first four years of his career, Suns fans had to hear about how all that cool shit Booker was doing—the silky pull-ups, the advancing craft in the pick-and-roll and on the block, the in-and-out and hesitation moves, the avalanches of points—didn’t really matter, because Phoenix was terrible. Well, Phoenix isn’t terrible anymore; with the addition of stabilizing vets like Ricky Rubio and Aron Baynes, and continued growth from young pieces like Kelly Oubre and Mikal Bridges, it’s now merely run-of-the-mill bad, three games out of a playoff spot with a just-below-average net rating. And Booker’s still doing all that cool shit.
Booker’s been on an absolute tear since Christmas, averaging 31.9 points and 6.3 assists per game while shooting 52.3 percent from the field and 93.5 percent from the free throw line on nearly 10 attempts per game. The 6-foot-5 wing has become a dynamite finisher in traffic, hitting a career-best 70.5 percent of his shots inside the restricted area. He’s also been rediscovering his two-man-game chemistry with Deandre Ayton since the former no. 1 pick came back from his 25-game suspension; Phoenix is outscoring opponents by a very strong 9.2 points-per-100 with them both on the floor. Only five players have scored more points than Booker in “clutch” minutes this season. He’s a midrange assassin who can torch you from deep, and he’s becoming a better passer, a more active defender, a better manipulator of coverages—just plain better, really. Every season, he seems to add something to his bag. This time around, it’ll be All-Star honors.
It’s been 12 years since CP3 made his first All-Star appearance; more notably, though, it’s been four years since he made his most recent one. Early-season injuries largely took him out of the running during his last go-around in L.A. and in both of his runs in Houston, but Paul’s been healthy in Oklahoma City, and man, has he looked sensational.
With a fresh start in OKC, Paul has sloughed off a disappointing 2018-19 campaign, during which it often looked like he’d lost a step, and reasserted himself as the most prolific clutch scorer and playmaker in the league for a Thunder team that has been one of the season’s best stories. The 34-year-old’s assist numbers are down, due in part to all the time he’s spent sharing the floor and the ball with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Dennis Schröder in three-guard backcourts, but he’s still the straw that stirs the drink for Billy Donovan’s offense; Oklahoma City averages 12.7 fewer points-per-100 when CP3 takes a seat than when he’s at the controls.
To some degree, this summer’s Paul-for-Russell Westbrook blockbuster was a challenge trade—two franchises feeling like their respective cores had run their course (or, in Oklahoma City’s case, being forced to feel that way when Paul George requested a trade) and making a bet that they’d be better off with the other team’s supermaxed post-prime point guard. I’m not saying anyone in Oklahoma City is glad Russ is gone. I’m just saying that I think they’re awful glad Sam Presti accepted that particular challenge, and that CP3’s not quite through being the Point God yet.
The toughest cuts: Um … none? Honestly, I feel pretty solid about those West picks!
George has just missed too much time. Towns has missed a lot, too, and the Wolves have struggled even with him back in the fold. Montrezl Harrell has been awesome for the Clippers, but it’s really tough to make the All-Star Game coming off the bench, especially when two All-NBA centers are already locked in and there are so many excellent guards up for consideration. Ditto for Lou Williams.
LaMarcus Aldridge changed the entire dynamic of the Spurs by starting to shoot 3s just before Christmas, and DeMar DeRozan suddenly turned into Mini-Giannis as a result of all that space—26-6-6 on 58.9 percent from the field since December 23, including 71.3 percent at the rim. But that doesn’t erase the first two months of the season, during which San Antonio got starched whenever the two veteran scorers shared the floor. Similarly, while Westbrook has cranked up his play over the past 15 or so games, he hasn’t been better over the full season than Lillard, Paul, Mitchell, or Booker. Neither have Gilgeous-Alexander or Ja Morant, two of the most exciting young players of the season.
A couple of more established types might ride their reputations to a spot on most coaches’ ballots. (Westbrook and George would be the most likely suspects.) With all due respect to what they’ve achieved, though, I kind of hope they don’t. Ever since the Warriors fell, this whole season has felt like an opportunity to explore and experience new things. It’d be cool if that extended to the All-Star Game, with a whole new crop of emerging talent showing up and showing out in Chicago.