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Casting a Ballot for NBA All-Star Starters and Reserves

The game is still on, apparently. KOC makes his picks for the 12 roster spots in the East and the West.

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It never gets old seeing an NBA email address pop up in my inbox asking if I want to vote for the All-Star starters. Heck yeah, I do. It’s an absolute honor.

Media members only vote for the five All-Star starters in each conference, which includes two guards and three frontcourt players. Collectively, the media vote counts for 25 percent of the final selections. Player votes also count for 25 percent, and fans make up the remaining 50 percent.

The starters weren’t all that difficult to choose, which should come as no surprise considering this season is filled with so many MVP candidates. But there are a ton of players deserving of an All-Star reserve spot who will get snubbed. I’m not sorry about it; I view it as a positive that the NBA has so many players even worthy of being in the All-Star discussion. I considered 25 players in the East and 21 in the West, more than any of the other four seasons I have been a voter. That’s 46 players for only 24 spots. This is rough.

After the starters are announced on Thursday, NBA head coaches get to select the reserves; the only restriction is they can’t vote for their own players. Just for fun, I’ll follow the same process they do by choosing two guards, three frontcourt players, and two wild cards.

For what it’s worth, team record is only lightly factored into my choices. It’s still early in the season, especially for All-Star voting. Only 38 percent of the season will have passed by the time ballots are due on Tuesday. By comparison, an average of 54 percent of the schedule had been completed at the time votes were due over the last three seasons. The standings are so crowded that the league landscape could shift dramatically by the time of the All-Star Game on March 7. That’s why individual production matters most.

Anyway, let’s get into my official picks for starters and unofficial picks for reserves. Bolded names note my 24 selections and the 22 other players considered for an All-Star spot.

Eastern Conference

East Starters

F: Joel Embiid, Sixers
F: Kevin Durant, Nets
F: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
G: Bradley Beal, Wizards
G: James Harden, Nets

East Reserves

F: Jayson Tatum, Celtics
F: Khris Middleton, Bucks
F: Bam Adebayo, Heat
G: Jaylen Brown, Celtics
G: Kyrie Irving, Nets
WC: Ben Simmons, Sixers
WC: Zach LaVine, Bulls

The Easy Choices in the East

Things start off simple with Joel Embiid, Kevin Durant, and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt. Embiid is having an outrageous season; as I wrote last week, I’m buying his improvement as a shooter off the dribble. If he’s able to maintain his numbers (30 points, 11 rebounds, and career-high efficiency), it’ll help mitigate some of the past concerns about Philadelphia’s ability to close out playoff games. Giannis is still Giannis. And KD is still KD, even post-injury. In fact, Durant is posting nearly identical numbers to his final season in Oklahoma City.

Khris Middleton and Jayson Tatum are also locks as reserves. Middleton is averaging only 20.7 points, but he checks all the boxes as a distributor, rebounder, and high-end defender. He’s now improved in three consecutive seasons; hopefully come playoff time, Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer realizes Middleton can handle at least 20 shots per game. Feed him, Bud!

All the same things can be said for Tatum. Averaging 26-7-5 at age 22 is no joke. Tatum’s defense has slipped a little from last season, but that could merely be a choice to save his energy for a deep playoff run. He’s more than made up for it with his progress as a playmaker anyway, which has been critical this season with Kemba Walker missing times and struggling upon his return. We’re witnessing Tatum weaponize his pull-up shooting as a threat to generate passing lanes, and he’s delivering accurate looks for his teammates. If only he and the other Celtic on this list had more help.

Bradley Beal gets a starting guard spot because he’s averaging a league-leading 32.9 points and he’s a much better playmaker than his 4.5 assists gives him credit for. Beal’s teammates have not done a good job of converting his passes into points: Only 48 percent of his potential assists have resulted in made shots, which ranked 55th of the 60 players to log at least 90 assists this season, per NBA Advanced Stats. I don’t care about Beal’s sulking. You’d also be sulking if you were averaging 32.9 points and your team was still in last place.

James Harden gets the other starting guard spot. It’s been a lot of fun to watch him adapt to the stars around him by taking on a more significant playmaking role. Harden runs the show in Brooklyn. He’s averaging 23 points with 11.6 assists and 8.1 rebounds with only 4.3 turnovers in 14 games with the Nets. Harden is logging 20 more touches per game and three more minutes of time possessing the ball than any of his teammates, per NBA Advanced Stats. The Nets are coasting defensively, but they’ve been able to lock in when they need to. Harden has had some stout defensive possessions, most notably his stonewall post defense against Kawhi Leonard.

It was a tough call giving Harden the starting spot over Jaylen Brown, who has been terrific on both ends of the floor for the Celtics and should at least be a lock for a reserve spot. Brown is averaging 26 points with a 60.1 true shooting percentage, making him one of 11 players in the league to do that so far this season. He’s now handling the ball so fluidly to create his own shot that it’s jarring compared to the clunkiness of his handle as a freshman at California and a youngster in Boston. The level he’s reached is a testament to his mantra, FCHWPO (Faith, Consistency, Hard Work Pays Off).

But I struggle to understand why Brown is listed as a guard anyway. What is the criteria here? Brown possesses the ball and has a similar usage as other candidates for a reserve spot like Tobias Harris and Gordon Hayward, both of whom are listed as frontcourt players. They’re also similar in height or weight, so it can’t be about that. Meanwhile, Jimmy Butler, who leads the Heat in assists, is also listed in the frontcourt. It makes no sense. I don’t get why the NBA continues to use positions when the league has truly become a positionless game.

The Tough Choices in the East

One frontcourt spot, one guard spot, and the two wild cards remain. This is probably the point that you’ll get angry with me for not selecting your team’s player.

The final frontcourt spot came from a large number of candidates. Clint Capela has been one of the best individual defenders in the NBA this season and a constant target on offense. But other players produced more. Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Nikola Vucevic, and Julius Randle all fit into the same bucket as offensive hubs for their teams. You’ll frequently see them handling the ball around the elbow as their teammates cut around them. Sabonis and Vucevic are so fun offensively, but they are often defensive liabilities. Randle’s development on offense is a joy to watch, but he still makes too many mistakes on defense. Jerami Grant has been better defensively than Sabonis, Vucevic, and Randle while also making an offensive leap. But Adebayo gets the edge. The Heat big man is blossoming offensively as a scorer in addition to his playmaking, and he’s still a stout individual defender; it’s not his fault Miami’s perimeter defenders are turnstiles.

Trae Young was heavily considered for the final reserve guard spot and both wild-card spots. The Hawks have been decimated by injuries. Some of their role players can pass a little bit but can’t orchestrate (like Kevin Huerter); others theoretically could pass but can’t yet (like Cam Reddish); and others look like they’re nearing retirement (sorry, Rajon Rondo). The Hawks might have a middling offense, but they’d be in the dumpster without Trae.

With all that said, others have been better overall, including Kyrie Irving, who gets a wild-card spot from me but is having an outrageous enough of an offensive season that I’m sure some media voters will have him as a starter. Irving’s missed games and poor defense drop him down a few spots for me, but he also deserves some credit for letting Harden take control of the offense by playing more off-ball and still producing at an elite level.

Ben Simmons is eligible as a guard, and he’s making the team as a wild card. Simmons has been one of the game’s best defenders this season, often tasked with defending the opponent’s best perimeter scorer. And offensively, he’s still producing despite taking on a reduced role. In addition to making dynamic passes in the open floor, you’ll often find him screening off-ball, which has helped free shooters to get open. Simmons still can’t shoot, but he’s fitting in.

My most controversial selection will likely be Zach LaVine. I’d have a tough time rationalizing having Beal as a starter but not having LaVine when they’re having such similar seasons. LaVine is dropping 28.1 points and 5.3 assists with ludicrous efficiency. I’ve criticized LaVine a bunch in the past for his lackadaisical defense and underwhelming playmaking, but he’s come a long way in both categories. He’s not a masterful passer, but he’s serviceable. And though he still makes some frustrating mistakes on defense, at least he tries hard. I see the troubling on-off numbers for LaVine, but I view that as a symptom of Chicago’s odd roster construct. The Bulls dominate when LaVine is on the court without Coby White; the question for that franchise is whether they’ll choose to build with LaVine or go younger.

I also considered Malcolm Brogdon, Jrue Holiday, Kyle Lowry, and Fred VanVleet. Brogdon has been terrific for the Pacers, but his efficiency has dipped since the Victor Oladipo deal. Lowry and VanVleet have been good, just not producing at the same volume as others. Same goes for Holiday.

I look forward to seeing how the coaches handle the reserves once it’s their turn to vote. It won’t be easy. I will probably regret some of my choices by the end of the week. The Western Conference was much easier overall.

Western Conference

West Starters

F: LeBron James, Lakers
F: Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
F: Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G: Steph Curry, Warriors
G: Luka Doncic, Mavericks

West Reserves

G: Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
G: Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
F: Rudy Gobert, Jazz
F: Anthony Davis, Lakers
F: Paul George, Clippers
WC: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder
WC: Chris Paul, Suns

The Easy Choices in the West

Not much needs to be said about LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, or Kawhi Leonard as frontcourt starters. All three are top-tier MVP candidates, head and shoulders better than the other choices. Kawhi’s name has been weirdly absent in the MVP debate, but he’s doing the same old Kawhi things as a scorer and defender while having the best playmaking season of his career. Steph Curry is a no-brainer, too. Curry is averaging 29.9 points on a 66.2 true shooting percentage. The only other player to meet those thresholds in a season is Steph himself during his unanimous MVP season in 2015-16.

The only tough choice is the second starting guard spot. It’s a coin flip between Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard. I actually had Lillard penciled in as my starter when recording an episode of The Mismatch with Chris Vernon and Zach Lowe last Friday. But after diving deep this weekend, I’m giving Luka the edge. Doncic’s and Lillard’s scoring output is essentially a wash, but Luka has been a more magnificent playmaker and a more impactful defender and rebounder. Both of them have been tremendous, and their teams would be hopeless without them. Lillard is a lock as a reserve.

All three reserve frontcourt players are also locks. Rudy Gobert is the Defensive Player of the Year front-runner and his offensive contributions go far beyond his basic box score numbers of 14 points and 1.3 assists. As detailed in the latest episode of The Void, Gobert is a primary reason why the Jazz are even able to force defenses into rotation to get open shots. He is such a nasty screener and devastating rim runner that defenses are forced to collapse to the paint. Shaq couldn’t be more wrong about Gobert.

Anthony Davis hasn’t been quite as potent offensively as he was last season, and he certainly hasn’t matched his bubble production. But he still makes a significant impact and is a linchpin of their elite defense. The Lakers have seen their offense sputter as of late, but AD’s defensive performance is one of the main reasons they keep on winning and have the top-ranked defense.

Paul George has missed multiple games recently with a bone edema in his toe. But he’s played enough games to warrant the final frontcourt spot. Much like Leonard, he’s the same ole two-way presence, but he’s also having the best playmaking season of his career.

The Tough Choices in the West

There isn’t a whole lot left to determine: one guard spot and the two wild cards. The problem is there are many deserving candidates. Truly, it’s a matter of preference.

My initial cuts were Christian Wood and CJ McCollum, both of whom have just missed too many games and will remain out in the coming weeks.

Ja Morant came out firing, but his performance has slipped after returning from an injury. If he improves as a perimeter shooter, All-Star appearances are undoubtedly in his future. But the West is loaded. We could see Morant run into the same issue that Mike Conley did for many years with the Grizzlies. Conley still hasn’t made an All-Star team in his career, but he hasn’t done quite enough this season, either, averaging 16.5 points and 5.8 assists in 29.3 minutes per game. I’m a nice guy, but I’m not sentimental.

Conley’s teammate, Donovan Mitchell, ends up landing the second guard spot. Mitchell has played a pivotal role this season in helping Utah win the minutes when Gobert isn’t on the floor. Nearly 40 percent of Mitchell’s time has come without Gobert, and the Jazz still outscore teams by 3.4 points per 100 possessions. He is a more efficient player when sharing minutes with Gobert, but he’s doing what the Jazz need him to do to hold the best record in the NBA. That’s important for Utah’s playoff hopes. If the Jazz keep the 1-seed in the West, they likely wouldn’t need to face the Lakers or Clippers until the West finals.

Two wild-card spots remain. The next round of cuts was even tougher. Let’s start with De’Aaron Fox, who is on an absolute tear averaging 28.4 points and 8.4 assists through his past 12 games. Although a knee injury has kept him out of one game, if he keeps this up, it wouldn’t shock me at all if coaches give him a reserve spot. But for the full season, his numbers are at 23.4 and 6.8, respectively, and unfortunately he hasn’t been a consistent tone-setter on the defensive end. The Kings have the worst defensive rating in the NBA. Until Fox plays hard-nosed defense more often, I have a tough time rewarding him over others.

The same can be said for both Zion Williamson and Brandon Ingram. They are both dynamite players offensively. But the Pelicans are an eyesore defensively and a big reason for that is Williamson’s and Ingram’s performances. Ingram’s effort and focus are inconsistent: Will he ever defend at the same level as he did during his final season with the Lakers when LeBron was there to hold him accountable? Zion is blocking more shots as of late, but he still too often finds himself out of position by misreading rotations. Will he make the massive defensive impact we saw him have at Duke? Maybe. These guys are still incredibly young. They deserve time to figure it out.

DeMar DeRozan is a tough cut. I love how he’s performed this season for the Spurs, turning in a career-best season as a playmaker, averaging 6.9assists with only 1.6turnovers to go along with 19.8 points per game. If I had to publish my reserves in one week, DeRozan might get the nod for one of the two wild-card spots.

For now, I’m going with Shai Gilgeous-Alexander from the Thunder for one of those spots. The Thunder haven’t played a single national television game this season, and they’re not a popular League Pass option since they’re in a rebuild. So no one has really seen SGA develop into one of the best two-way guards in the NBA. He’s been better defensively than the last handful of players mentioned. Turn on a Thunder game and you’re bound to see him get his hands on a ball defensively, or at least make a proper rotation to run a shooter off the line. Offensively, he keeps getting better. SGA is averaging 22.6 points with a 61.1 true shooting percentage while averaging 6.5 assists. Fun stat: Gilgeous-Alexander is first in the NBA in drives per game (24.5), just ahead of Luka (23.8). They’re the only two players to log more than 20 drives per game. Gilgeous-Alexander is dissecting defenses, drawing fouls, and creating open shots. Someday, he’ll be surrounded by teammates who make them.

One spot remains for Devin Booker or Chris Paul, the starters in the Suns backcourt. Booker scores more, and maybe this choice will look silly by the end of the season. But Paul has been the best player for Phoenix so far. CP3 sets a more consistent defensive tone, even at age 35, and still runs the show on offense. Paul is averaging 16.7 points and 8.2 assists to only 2.4 turnovers, and possesses the ball for 7.4 minutes per game. The raw numbers probably mean Paul won’t make the game over some of the other candidates, but scoring is bountiful this season.

An all-time high of 40 players are currently averaging more than 20 points per game, which is up from 35 last season. You can find high-scoring individuals on almost any team in the league today. It’s harder to find complete basketball players who also impact the game as playmakers, defenders, rebounders, or all of the above. There’s an increasing number of those players, though, and that’s what makes voting for All-Stars so challenging. It’s also what makes the NBA so special.