It happens every year: Very good NBA players with legitimate cases for making the annual All-Star Game wind up on the outside looking in, because you get only 12 spots in each conference and, as it turns out, there are more than 24 very good players. It’s oddly reassuring, in a way; at a time when so much else in our world is in flux, there’s a certain comfort in knowing that everyone can find the time and energy to yell at each other for 96 straight hours about the relative merits of Player X vs. Player Y. We should thank heaven for small mercies and take pockets of normalcy where we find them … even if it’s, like, getting way too upset about A Perceived Lack of Respect for Malcolm Brogdon.
This year, though, the task of picking the five starters and the seven reserves in each conference felt even more challenging than usual, because there have been so many more than 24 very good players in this compressed, fun-house mirror of a half-season. You could fill a literal separate third All-Star team with purported “snubs” … and still have snubs. That is wild—illustrative of how much the pace-and-3-point boom has irrevocably altered the fabric of the sport, and indicative of just how deep and vast the modern NBA’s pool of elite talent really is.
The sheer number of players with valid cases, and the fact that there wasn’t a single glaring misstep among the 24 players selected, makes it tough to consider anyone a true “snub,” honestly. There were, however, a handful of players whose arguments were strong enough that seeing them miss the final cut represented a pretty significant shock. To wit:
Devin Booker, Suns
Like the coaches, I left Booker off my reserves list, instead choosing Chris Paul as the lone representative from Phoenix, which has won nine of 10 to pull within 1.5 games of second place in the West. I didn’t feel great about it, though … and I felt decidedly less great about it in the four days after I made my picks, during which Booker averaged nearly 27 points per game on 58 percent shooting to lead the Suns to three straight blowout wins.
Booker’s been remarkable as Phoenix’s lead scoring threat, averaging a team-high 24.7 points per game on .607 true shooting while affording new teammate Paul the space and freedom to serve as the elite floor-raiser he was brought to the desert to be. My Ringer colleague Jonathan Tjarks convincingly argued Tuesday that Booker—whose per-game numbers and advanced statistics have all dipped from last season, when he made his first All-Star appearance, in large part because he has ceded to CP3—is essentially being penalized for the kind of “for the greater good” sacrifice that media members and coaches typically lionize. There may be something to that: LeBron James dubbed Booker “the most disrespected player in our league” on Tuesday night, and he seems like a pretty solid judge of both talent and on-court impact. Players with Booker’s combination of point production, craft, and team success tend to find their way to All-Star Weekend one way or another; if Anthony Davis’s right Achilles tendinosis does indeed knock him out of the game, I’d expect Booker to be the first name on commissioner Adam Silver’s injury replacement list.
Mike Conley, Jazz
It’s not hard to grasp why Conley’s case suffered in the eyes of the electorate. His stats don’t pop off the page; he’s averaging fewer than 17 points and six assists per game, and only 18 guards in the past 40 years have earned an All-Star nod in a season when they didn’t surpass those marks. He has two teammates with clearer and easier to articulate All-Star cases: Rudy Gobert, the linchpin of Utah’s elite defense, and Donovan Mitchell, the leading scorer on its top-flight offense. Conley also recently missed six games, and the Jazz didn’t falter; in fact, they won all six, with an average margin of victory of nearly 14 points.
It’s worth noting, though, that the Jazz have played lights out whenever Conley’s on the floor, no matter who he’s on the floor with: Gobert or no Gobert, Mitchell or no Mitchell, with or without Jordan Clarkson, whomever. A slew of plus-minus-based advanced stats aimed at capturing how much a player contributes to winning—estimated plus-minus, regularized adjusted plus-minus, ESPN’s real plus-minus, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, etc.—all peg the 33-year-old Conley as one of the most consistently valuable performers in the league. If this isn’t the best he’s ever played, it’s damn close to it, and he’s using his considerable suite of skills—the pick-and-roll table-setting, the off-ball activity, the knockdown shooting, the defensive acumen, all of it—to unlock the best version of the NBA’s best team. It feels like that should matter; in an incredibly crowded field, though, it just didn’t matter enough.
Conley compared his career-long inability to make it into the All-Star Game to going to the DMV, waiting his turn, getting to the front of the line, and being told he didn’t have the appropriate paperwork, over and over. “This is the year,” he told Tony Jones of The Athletic. “This is the year that I have two forms of identification.” Understandable though it may be, it’s kind of heartbreaking that, once again, that wound up not being true; barring injury or illness elsewhere in the Western field, Conley’s going to remain stuck with the ignominious ID that’s followed him throughout his career.
Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler, Heat
Scuffling to a 7-14 start with a bottom-five point differential essentially erased any chance that the Heat’s two stars would get All-Star recognition. That’s a shame for Adebayo, who was the only reliable bright spot in an early season full of COVID-19-caused turmoil for the Heat. He’s been brilliant, averaging 19.6 points, 9.5 rebounds, 5.5 assists, and just under a combined two steals/blocks per game. He continues to expand his repertoire in his fourth season, marrying increasingly dominant scoring (81.3 percent in the restricted area and 84 percent from the foul line on nearly six attempts per game) with advancing savvy as the playmaking hub of Erik Spoelstra’s offense (a higher assist rate than any big man besides Nikola Jokic) while guarding threats at every position.
Bam carried the Heat while Butler missed 12 of their first 18 games. Since the latter’s return to the lineup at the end of January, though, he’s been every ounce the difference-maker he was last season, averaging nearly 21 points, nine rebounds, and nine assists per game while posting four triple-doubles. When I made my picks last week, Butler didn’t make the cut on account of all the time he missed. Now, though, he’s played the same number of games and nearly as many minutes as All-Star starter/team captain Kevin Durant, and a Heat team with a negative point differential overall is now outscoring opponents by about four points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions in his minutes. If he keeps this up, by the time the game actually takes place on March 7, it’ll probably seem pretty silly that Jimmy’s not out there.
Khris Middleton, Bucks
For the first seven weeks of the season, Middleton’s case looked damn near bulletproof: 21-6-6 on deadeye 52/45/94 shooting splits for a Bucks team with the East’s second-best record, the league’s second-best net rating, and the NBA’s no. 1 offense. But an unfortunately timed six-game drought during which he shot just 42 percent from the field and 32 percent from deep—a stretch that saw Milwaukee go 1-5, lowlighted by Middleton struggling against double-teams and pressure in a pair of losses to the Raptors—made the Bucks look awfully shaky, and Middleton look like perhaps the third-most-important Buck, behind the sidelined Jrue Holiday.
Middleton’s swing from looking like a sure-thing lock to off the radar entirely is probably too drastic based on a brief slump. All of the things that made him look great for most of the first two months—the elite shooting off the catch and pulling up, the career-best playmaking, the customarily sound perimeter defense, the advancing off-the-bounce game—are still there. He’s probably a more valuable player than, say, Julius Randle or Nikola Vucevic. But while those dudes have both produced despite having to carry their teams’ offenses due to injuries, a lack of surrounding talent, or both, Middleton plays a clear second fiddle to two-time MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo. He can step into the spotlight when called upon—Middleton’s averaging just under 30-7-7 per 36 minutes when he plays without Giannis—but with so many deserving candidates, hairs get split. This one put Middleton on the chopping block.
(A similar fate befell Sixers forward Tobias Harris, whose numbers—with the exception of assists—look damn near identical to Middleton’s, but whose standing as a secondary, or tertiary, offensive initiator behind All-Stars Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons left him on the outside looking in.)
Domantas Sabonis, Pacers
The last spot in the East reserve frontcourt came down to Randle vs. Sabonis for me: a pair of bruising lefty workhorses (second and fourth in minutes per game, respectively) with remarkably similar statistical profiles who serve as the focal points of their teams’ offenses. I went with Randle, in part because there’s nobody on the Knicks who regularly chips in at levels anywhere close to what Brogdon and Myles Turner contribute in Indiana.
In fairness, though, it’s not like the presence of those star-caliber teammates lightens Sabonis’s workload. Only Jokic averages more touches per game. Nobody throws more passes per game. Nobody springs ball handlers with screens more often. Only three players cover more ground per game; nobody travels around the floor more on defense. All told, I’m not sure how many players in the league are as central to their team’s every movement as Sabonis has become under first-year head coach Nate Bjorkgren.
Despite how much he has to do—as an offensive hub for all the off-ball actions Indiana likes to run, as a connector making sure the ball switches sides to keep defenses chasing, as an interior defender who also has to step out to the perimeter to check quicker 4s and guards on switches—Sabonis has remained a top-tier scoring and facilitating option, averaging 21.5 points, 11.6 rebounds, and 5.7 assists per game on .595 true shooting. If it sounds unreal that someone putting up those sorts of numbers on a team with a winning record—Indy sits fourth in the East—would miss the cut, that’s probably because it’s never happened before:
I’m guessing this is not the kind of history that Sabonis envisioned making when he showed up for training camp this season.
DeMar DeRozan, Spurs
Far away from the eyes of a basketball-watching world focused on the league’s shiny objects, the Spurs are in fifth place in the West, within hailing distance of a top-four seed, and DeRozan’s a big reason. After spending a half-dozen years as one of the league’s premier traditional shooting guards, the league’s light-speed evolution has essentially transformed DeRozan into a point small-ball 4 over the past couple of seasons … and he’s thriving in that role.
The 31-year-old is averaging just under 20 points, seven assists, and five rebounds per game, shooting the ball more efficiently than ever (thanks in part to the free throws he’s cashing at nearly a 90 percent clip) while dishing assists at a career-high rate and hardly ever turning the ball over. He’s a net negative on the season, but a lot of that’s due to the floor time he shares with fellow vet and former All-Star LaMarcus Aldridge; the Spurs are plus-54 in 454 minutes when DeMar’s on the court and LaMarcus is on the bench, outscoring opponents by a very healthy 4.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. He’s been helpful in aiding the development of young talents, like Dejounte Murray and Keldon Johnson, and in the more pressing immediate matter of winning basketball games now.
Zion Williamson got in despite being a glaring liability on defense on the strength of his sheer offensive numbers: 25.1 points on 61.6 percent shooting, with New Orleans averaging 122.3 points-per-100 since Stan Van Gundy handed him the keys. DeRozan can’t match that. By some advanced metrics, though—win shares per 48 minutes, box plus-minus, value over replacement player, etc.—he hasn’t been that far off from Zion in terms of overall on-court impact … and his team is 4.5 games ahead of the Pelicans in the standings. The All-Star Game is an exhibition built to generate money, highlights, and buzz; it’s a showcase made for players like Zion, and everyone gets that. But 12 years into his career, DeRozan’s still expanding and honing his game, doing everything he can to propel San Antonio back into the postseason, and doing it really well.
Additional apologies to: Raptors guard Fred VanVleet, whose case I made in my reserves column, and Hawks maestro Trae Young, who’s now the first player in 30 years to average at least 25 points and nine dimes and not make the All-Star team.