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Breaking Down the Toughest Calls on the 2021 NBA All-Star Ballot

Damian Lillard or Luka Doncic in the West? Kyrie Irving or Bradley Beal in the East? Dan Devine examines the biggest debates before casting his vote.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

For the second straight year, the NBA offered me a vote on which players will start in the All-Star Game. (A reminder: Fan balloting accounts for 50 percent of the final tally; player and media votes each make up 25 percent of the pie.) It’s a fun assignment, trying to use everything you’ve seen/watched/read/heard over the past two months to identify the dozen players in each conference most deserving of recognition.

I’ve always been—regrettably but inescapably—kind of a homework kid; I like the process of making the case and showing your work. And who can resist the inescapable allure of feeling immense guilt over the very deserving players who juuuust didn’t make the cut? Not me, that’s for damn sure!

I would’ve enjoyed it more this season, though, if I was voting on Who Should Start a Theoretical Game That Won’t Actually Take Place Because There’s a Pandemic, and not on Who Should Start a Real Game That Will Take Place, Because the Economics Demand It. The overarching lack of enthusiasm that so many players understandably have for this obligatory exhibition makes the kludged-together one-night event more fraught, less special, and less like the celebration of excellence it should be.

That said, we can, and should, still celebrate that excellence and highlight the best of the best of the 2020-21 season so far. Here’s one guy’s attempt to do it.

West

FC Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
FC LeBron James, Lakers
FC Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
G Stephen Curry, Warriors
G Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers

Jokic has been arguably the most productive player in the NBA this season. His traditional box score stats—27.1 points, 11.3 rebounds, and 8.6 assists per game on 57/39/87 shooting splits—are overwhelming. His advanced numbers are even more so: The Denver superstar leads the NBA in [Deep breath] value over replacement player, box plus-minus, total win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, and wins above replacement in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric. The Serbian superstar’s been historically dominant; the only players who have ever scored as often and efficiently as Jokic, while dishing assists even nearly as frequently, are Heat-era LeBron, 2018-19 MVP Giannis, and Steph, in his unanimous MVP season.

Fun fact: Steph’s also hitting those marks this season, which started out slowly but is now, as my Ringer colleague Kevin O’Connor recently noted, nearly statistically indistinguishable from the 2015-16 vintage. Curry’s on pace to become just the eighth player ever to average 30-5-5 in multiple seasons and is carrying a Golden State offense that scores at a top-nine level in his minutes, and like the infamous 2011-12 lockout season Charlotte Bobcats when he’s off of it. He’s not making the Warriors competitive alone; it’s impossible to ignore Golden State’s shift from revolting to respectable once Draymond Green entered the lineup on New Year’s Day. But Curry’s doing what his most strident critics have long wondered whether he could: elevating a damaged, depleted, and malformed roster with individual, jaw-dropping brilliance.

LeBron remains—to an unfathomable degree, given his age and nearly unprecedented career workload—inevitable. He’s averaging 25.7 points, 8.2 rebounds, and 7.9 assists per game, launching more 3s than ever and drilling them at a 38 percent clip, and shooting nearly 50 percent from the field and the 3-point line in “clutch” situations. The defending champs outscore opponents by 11.5 points per 100 possessions with James on the court and get outscored whenever he’s not on it, even if Anthony Davis is. He is, once again, the bellwether and best player on a team vying for the best record in the league. It’d seem unbelievable if it didn’t just keep on happening, right there in front of us, night after night after night.

Quiet as it’s kept—and the quiet is, of course, very on brand—Leonard’s been just as all-encompassing as those top three. He’s averaging 26.7 points, 5.9 rebounds, and a career-high five assists per game, continuing the evolution into a top-flight big-wing playmaker that he began in earnest last season. Kawhi’s flirting with 50/40/90 shooting splits and posting the highest true shooting percentage of his career while using 30 percent of the Clips’ offensive possessions. He’s tied for fifth in the NBA in steals per game, and remains one of the league’s most terrifying perimeter menaces; a Clippers defense that ranks in the middle of the pack in points allowed per possession clamps down at a top-five level in Kawhi’s minutes and a tick better than the league-best Lakers when Kawhi plays alongside Paul George. (George, by the way, has been stellar too, making good on all that talk from the preseason by playing lights out on both ends; had he been eligible as a guard, he might’ve been my second starter. Alas, the league has him listed as a forward … which, I guess, makes Nicolas Batum L.A.’s starting 2-guard?)


The final starting guard spot is a six-way race between Lillard, Luka Doncic, Donovan Mitchell, Mike Conley, Chris Paul, and Devin Booker—a choice, essentially, between players putting up remarkable numbers while carrying teams that have been ravaged by injury and illness, and players whose individual production doesn’t pop off the page quite as much but who lead teams at or near the top of the conference. After changing my mind about a dozen times, I went with Lillard, who marries video-game production (29.3 points, 7.4 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game, shooting 38 percent from deep on 10.6 attempts a night) that rivals Luka’s with team success that rests largely on his shoulders.

Losing Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum (who was on his way to an All-Star berth of his own) seemed like a major blow for a Blazers team that already had been scuffling thanks to a bottom-five defense. But Portland’s gone 9-5 without two of its three best players, including five straight wins to climb into a tie with Phoenix for the fourth seed, thanks in large part to its best player: During this stretch, the Blazers are 6-2 in games in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes, with Dame scoring 36 points on 11-for-19 shooting in 25 “clutch” minutes. That includes a number of late-game bombs that offered reminders of how “Dame Time” became a Thing:

If you find it more impressive that Doncic has averaged 29-9-9 while carrying a Mavericks squad that was missing Kristaps Porzingis for 11 games and doesn’t have quite as much depth as Portland, that’s certainly fair. If you’d prefer to reward either guard on the first-place Jazz—Mitchell, who’s playing the best ball of his non-bubble life, or Conley, who’s leading the league in plus-minus and has been a two-way advanced statistical darling—I hear you. Ditto for recognizing CP3, who’s shaken off a slow start to average 18.5 points and eight assists on .610 true shooting since New Year’s Day, or Booker, whose playmaking numbers have dipped from last year (to be expected after Paul’s arrival) but who remains one of the league’s premier offensive players, to laud Phoenix’s great start. They’ve all got more than defensible All-Star cases—most, if not all, of which likely will (or at least should) be rewarded with reserve spots.

To me, though, Lillard most effectively squares the “all-around individual stats vs. team success” circle. He gets my final starting nod.

East

FC Joel Embiid, 76ers
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
FC Kevin Durant, Nets
G Jaylen Brown, Celtics
G Bradley Beal, Wizards

Embiid is the reason I used the qualifier “arguably” when talking about Jokic. The Philadelphia center has been brilliant from the season’s opening tip, averaging 29.6 points (third most in the league) to go with 10.8 rebounds, 2.8 assists, and a combined 2.5 steals/blocks while leading the Sixers to the top of the Eastern Conference standings. In better shape and operating as the low-post linchpin of a revamped offense flanked by more shooters, Embiid is pummeling defenses into submission with historic force; the only player ever to generate more free throw attempts per 100 possessions than him was Prime Shaq, and the last player to post a usage rate this high and shoot this efficiently was … nobody.

He’s paired that offensive excellence with dominant defensive play, too; opponents are barely shooting 50 percent against him at the rim, an elite mark among high-volume basket protectors, and the Sixers defend at a top-three level with him in the middle. Philly is 17-5 with Embiid in the lineup and outscores opponents by nearly 11 points per 100 possessions with him on the court. He was, for my money, the single best player in the league through the first quarter of the season, demanding placement at or near the top of anybody’s MVP ballot, and a no-doubt-about-it selection to start his fourth straight All-Star Game.

Antetokounmpo pushes his own All-Star streak to five straight appearances behind a start that would be career-peak shit in the context of almost anyone else’s career. (Would that peak be “Apex Mount Olympus”? Nope: Dump it, trash it, this one’s garbage.)

Everything feels like a bit of a comedown after back-to-back MVP seasons capped by consecutive disappointing postseason defeats; everyone’s pretty much just waiting for the playoffs to see whether this year’s changes to Milwaukee’s rotation and schemes will produce the Bucks’ first NBA Finals berth since 1974. Antetokounmpo’s averaging about 10 fewer frontcourt touches per game than last season and his usage rate has dipped by 4.5 percent, as Mike Budenholzer has reconfigured his attack to integrate Jrue Holiday.

The approach has borne fruit—Milwaukee’s offense has been at or near the top of the league rankings all season and less dependent overall on Giannis’s individual heroics—but it’s also meant Giannis has felt slightly less central, constant, and overwhelming a force than during his consecutive MVP campaigns. That doesn’t mean, though, that we should scoff at this season’s production by comparison: The dude’s still averaging 28.2 points, 11.4 rebounds, 5.8 assists, and a combined 2.6 blocks/steals, while serving as the two-way focal point of a team with the East’s third-best record and the league’s third-best net rating.

I hemmed and hawed a bit on the third frontcourt spot, due primarily to a math problem: Is two-thirds of Kevin Durant, who has missed 11 of Brooklyn’s 30 games (and counting) worth more than all of Khris Middleton?

The Bucks’ other star forward has played in every one of his team’s games, logged nearly 250 more minutes more than KD, and been across-the-board excellent in the process, averaging 20-6-6 on sparkling 51/44/90 shooting splits while showcasing improved vision and touch as a playmaker. But while his overall oeuvre this season outstrips KD’s in volume, there’s just no denying how stunningly sensational Durant has been when he’s played this season.

If you look hard enough, you can find moments that remind you he’s still coming back at age 32 after missing a whole season with a ruptured Achilles tendon—a little bit of a struggle generating separation off the dribble here, a step-slow lateral movement on defense there, that type of thing. On balance, though, he’s been the familiar, as advertised, impossible-to-solve offensive riddle: 29 points, 7.3 rebounds, and 5.3 assists per game, shooting 73.4 percent at the rim, 52.3 percent from midrange, 43.4 percent from 3-point range, and 54.5 percent against “tight” or “very tight” coverage, according to NBA.com’s shot-tracking data.

Durant hasn’t carried the Nets in the same way some other superstars shoulder their team’s entire creative burden; that’s the whole point of building a superteam, after all. But he has reestablished himself as the prime mover in Brooklyn, first among theoretical equals. Middleton has been great, something like the model of what you’d want in a modern 3. But Durant is … well, he’s Kevin Durant. That difference is all the difference, and it’s what decided my final East frontcourt spot.

Brown had a strong argument for an All-Star spot last season—he was the last guy I cut from my theoretical Eastern reserves ballot—but this year, he’s inarguable. Already one of the league’s most versatile and valuable wings, Brown has kicked his offensive ascent into a new stratosphere this season, averaging a career-best 26 points per game on 51.4 percent shooting, making him the best two-way guard in the conference thus far this season.

The fifth-year swingman has become a vaunted three-level scorer, shooting a downright Durantian 73.4 percent at the rim, 53.6 percent from midrange, and 41.5 percent from beyond the arc while slashing his way to a career-high 11.1 drives and 4.7 free throw attempts per game. He’s also continued to sand off the last rough edges on his offensive game, improving his handle and becoming a more active and aggressive playmaker; Brown has nearly doubled his assist rate without an accompanying rise in turnovers. It’s been a disappointing start in Boston, but amid all the turmoil, Brown has helped keep the team in the middle of the Eastern playoff pack and cemented himself as a no. 1–caliber talent in his own right.

As in the West, I wound up weighing a bunch of different options for the final backcourt spot. One name I decided not to weigh: James Harden.

On the merits of his play, Harden deserves inclusion: He’s averaging 24.3 points, a league-leading 11.8 assists, and 8.4 rebounds per game as a Net, shooting less frequently (and more efficiently) than he has since his final season as a wildly overqualified sixth man in Oklahoma City. He’s been damn near perfect serving as the table-setting point guard for a Brooklyn offense that ranks second in the NBA in points scored per possession since he came to town. How he got to town matters, though, and the idea of rewarding it with a starting spot in the All-Star Game didn’t sit right with me. Harden will almost certainly be an All-Star this season, whether he makes it through the official fan/media/player vote or as a reserve selection by the coaches. I just decided to let other people cast the ballots that put him there and turned my attention to worthy candidates elsewhere.

After considering a bunch of dudes off to great starts—Jrue Holiday, Fred VanVleet, Zach LaVine, Trae Young, Ben Simmons—I got down to two names: Beal and Kyrie Irving. For a while, I’d penciled in Kyrie, who’s been an absolute killer as a play-finishing shooting guard next to Durant and Harden: 28.3 points in 35.4 minutes per game on dynamite 53/44/92 shooting splits, a career-low turnover rate, and dazzling finish after dazzling finish in Brooklyn’s world-breaking attack. In the end, though, I opted for Beal.

It’s not just the league-leading 33.1 points per game—though they certainly help—or the fact that a number of aspects of his advanced statistical profile are right there with Kyrie’s, despite the yawning gap in overall team quality. It’s that Beal has managed to be as productive and efficient as he has while playing on a team that’s drawing dead damn near every night, whether due to injury/COVID absences or the fact that there just aren’t many bankable offensive threats on the Wizards.

With relatively few exceptions—Russell Westbrook finally clicking into rhythm for 41 points against Brooklyn, a stray 10-of-12-from-the-field out-of-body experience from Rui Hachimura, etc.—there’s nobody that opposing defenses have to worry about besides Beal. And he’s still on pace to be just the fourth player ever to average 33 points per game and post a TS% higher than .590, alongside Harden, Michael Jordan, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

It feels notable—and commendable—that a Wizards team with the NBA’s third-worst record and sixth-worst point differential has an above-average offense, a puncher’s chance, when Beal’s on the floor. Being that kind of difference-maker doesn’t mean much in the grand scheme of the championship chase that Kyrie’s in and that continues to elude Beal. It means something, though, and it’s worth a tip of the cap—and, in this case, the final starting spot on my ballot.

All stats through Tuesday night’s games. Check back on Friday for Dan Devine’s reserves picks for the 2021 NBA All-Star Game.