For the third year in a row, the powers that be at the NBA offered me a chance to be one of the media members who votes on which players should start in the All-Star Game. (Reminder: Fan voting accounts for 50 percent of the final result; player and media ballots each comprise 25 percent.) I accepted, because I’m the sort of glutton for punishment who loves the exercise of trying to identify the 10 players—five in each conference, composed of three “frontcourt” players and two guards—that I think are most deserving of the starting nod.
A few things to keep in mind:
- I’ve given a bit less weight than usual to how many games a player has missed, since more than 350 players have spent time in the NBA’s COVID-19 health-and-safety protocols this season. Everything’s absurd; let’s just get good dudes in.
- A lot of this is based on statistical résumés, but I have decided to afford myself some emotional latitude in the decision-making calculus. Let’s call this the Vibes Provision.
- I’m willing to be transparent about the reasoning behind my picks, and to remain open to feedback and constructive criticism of my choices. If you’d like to reach out to me with any gripes or groans, you can find me on Twitter. I’m @KevinOConnorNBA.
With that behind us, let’s celebrate some excellence and highlight the best of the best of the 2021-22 season so far. (All stats and records used entering Tuesday’s games.)
FC Nikola Jokic, Nuggets
FC LeBron James, Lakers
FC Rudy Gobert, Jazz
G Stephen Curry, Warriors
G Ja Morant, Grizzlies
We start with two no-brainers. Jokic is authoring one of the greatest MVP encores in league history, averaging 26.1 points, 13.8 rebounds, and 7.6 assists in 33.2 minutes per game to carry Denver, playing without Jamal Murray and Michael Porter Jr., to sixth place in the West. That the Nuggets are even above .500 owes almost entirely to their Serbian savior: They’ve outscored opponents by about 10 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor, and been outscored by more than 15 points-per-100 with him on the bench, far and away the largest on-off disparity in the league.
The reigning MVP has arguably been even better this season. He’s playing the best defense of his career, dominating the glass (he’s currently posting one of the 10 highest defensive rebound rates ever), and assisting on an even greater share of his teammates’ baskets than last season, all while maintaining his ludicrous shooting efficiency despite a notable uptick in usage. To wit: The only players ever to finish a season with a true shooting percentage and usage rate this high are Steph, Giannis, and KD.
If you’re into advanced stats, Jokic leads the NBA in a frankly hilarious number of those, including player efficiency rating; his is on pace to be the highest in NBA/ABA history. And if you’re not convinced, well, feast your eye test on this:
The pass— Denver Nuggets (@nuggets) January 20, 2022
FOR. THE. WIN. pic.twitter.com/UPyoBfPqbK
I’m not sure how many other people on the planet could make the pass that Jokic did out of that double-team: on a rope to the far corner to hit Aaron Gordon perfectly in his shooting pocket for a game-winning 3. One might be LeBron, who, like Jokic, sits near the top of the leaderboard in a slew of impact/plus-minus-based metrics—and who, like Jokic, has been virtually all that stands between his middling team and abject disaster.
Plenty has broken bad in L.A. this season: swapping a third of their rotation for Russell Westbrook, the decision to let Alex Caruso walk, the inconsistency and raft of injuries that first cranked up the temperature on Frank Vogel’s seat, the knee injury that’s had Anthony Davis on the shelf since mid-December, and the roster reconfiguration that has left the Lakers maddeningly unable to Just Be a LeBron Team. Yet amid all the Sturm und Drang that necessarily attends a blockbuster going bust in Hollywood, there’s been LeBron—not only staving off the regression that surely must come at some point, but actually unveiling new layers to his game in Year 19, born out of sheer necessity.
With Davis going down, and DeAndre Jordan and Dwight Howard proving incapable in the middle, LeBron has been forced to slide to the 5. The move has helped decongest and boost a Lakers offense that’s often looked stagnant and stilted, opening up more space for LeBron to drive and create. For the season, L.A. ranks 24th in points scored per possession, according to Cleaning the Glass; with LeBron at center, they’re scoring at a rate that would rank second, with James averaging about 32-10-6 per 36 minutes of floor time, taking 45 percent of his shots at the rim and making nearly 80 percent of them.
The move to center hasn’t proved to be a cure for everything that’s ailing the Lakers; they’ve still outscored opponents by only about a point-per-100 in those lineups. It’s helped, though, and it’s only possible because James—second in the league in scoring at 29 points per game, his highest scoring average in more than a decade—remains one of the most adaptable and productive solutions to just about any problem in the league.
I considered a few other options for the third frontcourt spot: Karl-Anthony Towns, Deandre Ayton, Brandon Ingram, and rising defensive ace Jaren Jackson Jr., among others. In the end, though, it came down to a decision between Gobert and Draymond Green, the Defensive Player of the Year–winning interior linchpins of two of the top four teams in the West.
Utah’s recent skid started with Gobert’s absence due to COVID protocols, and though the Jazz still have some kinks to work out, he remains the centerpiece of Quin Snyder’s system on both ends of the court. Gobert once again leads the league in the much-derided but awfully useful screen assists, ranks fifth in points scored per possession as the dive man in the pick-and-roll among players who’ve logged at least 100 such plays, and is shooting a league-leading 70.7 percent from the field. The room he gives shooters with his screens, the attention he demands from help defenders on his rolls, and the league-high number of second-chance points he creates by crashing the offensive glass all make him an integral part of what remains far and away the no. 1 offense in the NBA.
His greatest impact, though, continues to come on the other end. Only Jakob Poeltl has contested more shots per game than the 7-foot-1 Frenchman, who’s holding opponents to 49.4 percent shooting at the rim; that’s the fourth-stingiest mark out of 124 players who’ve defended at least 100 up-close attempts, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking data. Much has been made of Utah’s slide to 12th in defensive efficiency this season after a first-place finish in 2020-21, but Gobert himself hasn’t fallen off: The Jazz have allowed nearly 10 fewer points-per-100 with him in the middle, continuing to defend like a top-three unit in his minutes.
Green’s ability to diagnose and deconstruct an opposing offense is a major reason Golden State’s defense has ranked no. 1 all season long. He’s brilliant at keeping the Warriors organized and balanced defensively—they always give up fewer transition opportunities with him on the floor—and at sussing out and shutting down an opponent’s preferred path to the hoop. To wit: Just 24.3 percent of Warriors opponents’ shot attempts have come at the basket with Draymond on the court this season, nearly 8 percent lower than the league average.
He’s brought that IQ to bear on the other end, too. Green has determinedly reoriented his approach to scoring; he’s still not making 3s, so he’s attempting them at a career-low rate, and focusing instead on getting to the rim and drawing fouls more often than he has since 2015-16. He also remains one of the NBA’s visionary passers, averaging 7.4 assists per game, second best of any big man and 11th in the league; his playmaking savvy and the read-and-react mind meld he’s developed with Steph are major reasons that, even with Curry going through a prolonged shooting slump, the Warriors had a near-top-10 offense before Green suffered a lower back issue that also created tightness in his calf. (Given its interconnected nature and the Warriors emphasizing “re-evaluation” rather than “return” in their announcement of it, that injury could keep Green on the shelf through All-Star Weekend.)
Either would be a perfectly fine choice. I went with Gobert, due in part to his heavier workload (eight more games and about 350 more minutes) and in part to his sizable lead over Draymond in just about every advanced metric: value over replacement player, box plus-minus, PER, win shares, estimated plus-minus, regularized adjusted plus-minus, and a ton of others.
The Warriors won’t go unrepresented in the starting lineup, though; Green’s longtime running buddy gets the first starting spot in the Western backcourt. On one hand, Steph’s scorching start to the season has long since gone cold:
|Season Segment||Minutes Per Game||Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Assists Per Game||FG%||3P%||FT%||Net Rating|
|Season Segment||Minutes Per Game||Points Per Game||Rebounds Per Game||Assists Per Game||FG%||3P%||FT%||Net Rating|
|First 21 Games||34.2||27.6||5.6||6.5||0.449||0.418||0.933||18.4|
|Last 22 Games||35.2||24.4||5.0||5.9||0.383||0.336||0.898||8.4|
(You wonder whether his rhythm and touch might have gotten thrown off by all that shot-jacking while attempting to get the all-time 3-point record—sort of like a batter whose swing gets messed up after participating in the Home Run Derby. Anthony Slater of The Athletic reports that Curry also might be nursing a hand injury, though the two-time MVP would neither confirm nor deny; when Slater asked Steph how his hands were feeling, he replied, “They’re attached to my body.”)
On the other hand, though, even the version of Steph that’s been scuffling since early December has dominated defensive attention so dramatically that the Warriors score at a near-top-five rate with him on the floor and like far and away the league’s worst offense when he’s off it. Also, y’know, there were those first 21 games when he looked like the best player on the planet, which count toward his case here. Only Jokic has a bigger on-off swing than Steph, who still ranks first in RAPM and second in EPM, and sits fourth in VORP and FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement. He’s had a down couple of months, but Curry’s still been, on balance, the best guard in the West. He gets one starting spot.
Maybe the other spot should have gone to Chris Paul. He’s been sensational in Phoenix, leading the league in assists to orchestrate a top-three offense, and nearing the league lead in steals as a havoc-wreaking constant in the Suns’ top-two defense. If he lands atop the leaderboard by season’s end, it’ll be Paul’s fifth assist title and seventh steals crown, and the fourth season in which he’s led the league in both categories.
Paul has played in every game this season and is second in minutes for the team with the best record, and while it’s true that he shares offensive responsibility in Phoenix with fellow All-Star Devin Booker, it’s worth noting that the Suns have outscored opponents by 11.1 points-per-100 when CP3 runs the show without Booker, compared to 2.4 points-per-100 when Book takes the reins while Paul rests. And even though Paul’s shooting stroke has waned, he’s still been one of the most vital players in the league, ranking fourth in win shares, eighth in EPM, and tied for eighth in VORP. It’s a remarkable résumé for any player, let alone a 36-year-old in his 17th season—one that will certainly earn him his 12th All-Star berth.
And yet: the Vibes Provision.
Morant’s got a strong statistical case in his own right. He’s 11th in the NBA in scoring and 17th in assists, and one of only seven players in the league averaging 25-5-5. He outpaces Paul in BPM and PER. His true shooting percentage is a tick higher, despite a huge disparity in volume; Morant takes about nine more shots per 36 minutes than CP3, and ranks ninth in the league in usage rate, compared to 106th for Paul. He’s a true offensive engine, producing about four more points per game via his own scores and his assists than Paul. He’s nowhere near CP3 on the defensive end, but while he remains a minus there, he’s been a less glaring one; the Grizzlies have defended at a top-five level with him on the court since he returned from an ankle injury and COVID protocols just before Christmas.
Really, though, I went with Morant because as incredible as it is that Paul has spearheaded the Suns’ rebound from a Finals loss to the top of the standings, Morant’s ascent into the ranks of the league’s elite players and the Grizzlies’ rise to legitimate contention has felt like a bigger and more invigorating first-half story. Both players deserve to make the team. What Morant has been through these first few months, though—and what he’s introduced the world to, in the form of these snarling young Grizzlies—merits special recognition. He gets it in the West’s first five.
FC Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
FC Joel Embiid, 76ers
FC Kevin Durant, Nets
G DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
G Fred VanVleet, Raptors
I’m guessing I don’t need to explain myself too much on the East frontcourt, which features three of the five or six best players in the league this season, each of whom has turned in sublime play in a supersized role for one of the teams vying for position atop the conference.
Antetokounmpo hasn’t rested on the laurels of his first championship and Finals MVP trophy one bit, averaging 28.6 points, 11.3 rebounds, 6.0 assists, and 2.5 combined blocks and steals in less than 33 minutes per night. He’s mitigated slight dips in his shooting percentage in the paint by averaging a career high in free throw attempts and making more than 70 percent of his freebies for the first time in three years.
His versatility has enabled Milwaukee to stay the course despite being without significant contributors for significant stretches. Brook Lopez hasn’t played since opening night? Giannis shifts to playing more than 40 percent of his minutes at center, and the Bucks blitz opponents by more than seven points-per-100 in that alignment. Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton miss extended periods? Giannis cranks up his usage rate and playmaking even further. Coach Mike Budenholzer has to juggle his lineups and rotations with guards and wings in and out? No matter. Giannis makes it all work no matter who’s available, and keeps Milwaukee afloat and within striking distance of the no. 1 seed. (A friendly reminder: The defending champs are 18-3 when Antetokounmpo, Holiday, and Middleton play this season.)
Embiid has shaken off a slow start (by his standards), the ongoing absence of Ben Simmons, and a November scuttled by COVID protocols to mount a legitimate argument as the best player in the world over the past two months. He leads the NBA in scoring since Thanksgiving; he has scored fewer than 30 points in a game just once since Christmas.
The big fella’s taken a massive step forward as a passer, making both the simple feeds that keep the offense moving when he draws the inevitable double-team and the kind of “create something out of whole cloth” passes that just weren’t in his bag—which was held up as one of the primary differentiators between him and Jokic—as recently as a year ago.
Joel Embiid threw my favorite pass I've seen from him ever last night pic.twitter.com/sOTbFHG7SF— Mark Schindler (@MSchindlerNBA) January 24, 2022
Had Embiid not missed 21 games last season, he may well have topped a lot of MVP ballots. He has been almost exactly as remarkable this season, and in the process has carried a 76ers team lacking in playmaking, perimeter athleticism, scoring acumen, and bankable depth by the scruff of its neck to within a couple of games of first place. He’s an easy call.
So, too, is no. 7 in black and white—the biggest reason Giannis’s Bucks and Embiid’s Sixers both trail Brooklyn in the standings.
The Nets have survived the absence of Kyrie Irving from the lineup and the attendant psychodrama that went along with it, James Harden struggling mightily to find his footing early in the season, and losing vital floor-spacing swingman Joe Harris to an ankle injury that’s kept him out since mid-November. They’ve managed this in large part because Durant has become almost literally indefensible—a high-volume, pristine-efficiency hub of offense who can create his own high-percentage shot against virtually any individual defender or team defensive scheme, who can leverage that attention to create for others, and who rarely ever coughs up the ball.
The league’s leading scorer was among its top MVP candidates when he sustained a sprained left MCL on January 17—an injury that is expected to keep Durant from playing in the All-Star Game, according to Yahoo’s Chris Haynes. That won’t prevent him from being named a starter, though; he was outstanding enough before going down to more than merit the nod, and we, like commissioner Adam Silver, will worry about naming an injury replacement once KD’s name is officially announced.
While the Eastern frontcourt choices were pretty straightforward, I found the backcourt picks to be anything but. At different points in the process, I had at least a handful of different names penciled into the two spots … before settling on a player who primarily plays in the frontcourt?
I’ve seen and heard a lot of people tying themselves in knots about DeRozan being designated as a guard. I get it. He typically starts alongside Zach LaVine and Lonzo Ball, both of whom most onlookers would categorize as guards. He’s spent about two-thirds of his time on the court defending 3s, 4s, and 5s this season, compared to only one-third on guards, according to The BBall Index’s defensive versatility data. For more than three-quarters of his minutes, according to play-by-play estimates from both Cleaning the Glass and Basketball-Reference.com, DeRozan has functioned as Chicago’s power forward—a position he spent the last couple of seasons playing in San Antonio.
But while it would make sense for the league to consider DeRozan a frontcourt player, they didn’t, allowing me to reward his fantastic first half-season as a Bull—26.3 points, 5.0 rebounds, and 4.8 assists per game, shooting just under 50 percent from the floor—with a starting slot.
DeRozan’s had help in propelling the Bulls to within a half-game of the top spot in the East—chiefly from LaVine, an All-Star last season who’s been just as fantastic in a (slightly) smaller offensive role this year, and whose production has nearly mirrored DeMar’s (except for the part where Zach has made about 40 more 3-pointers than DeRozan has attempted). LaVine’s shooting and willingness to defer has helped create the space for DeRozan to find a comfort level in his new surroundings. DeRozan has quickly acclimated, finding a playmaking rhythm alongside another top perimeter scoring threat and helping elevate mix-and-match lineups without LaVine; Chicago has outscored opponents by 5.2 points-per-100 when DeRozan plays without LaVine, and has been outscored by 5.6 points-per-100 in Zach/no DeMar minutes.
He has also, as you might have heard, stepped into the role of Chicago’s closer:
Only Embiid has scored more points in “clutch” minutes than DeRozan, who’s 23-for-45 from the field and 34-for-38 from the foul line with an 11-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio—a big reason Chicago has the NBA’s sixth-best record and fifth-best net rating in those close-and-late contests. The Bulls can feel confident handing DeRozan the ball when it counts because it’s a virtual certainty that they’ll at least get a look at the basket: He’s got by far the lowest turnover rate of any player this season using at least 30 percent of their team’s offensive possessions, coughing it up on a microscopic 8.8 percent of his plays.
It remains to be seen whether DeRozan and the Bulls can weather the storm without Ball and Alex Caruso to stay in the hunt for the East’s no. 1 seed. Thus far, though, Chicago has answered every question pundits had about its big offseason swings, thanks in large part to DeRozan putting all the finely honed pieces of his craft together and, at age 32, turning in what might be the best season of his career.
I considered a bunch of players for that final spot: LaVine, Harden, Jrue, Jaylen Brown, LaMelo Ball, Darius Garland from the host-city Cavs, Kyle Lowry from the East-leading Heat. In the end, though, it came down to Trae Young vs. Fred VanVleet.
I was very close to going with Young, who’s been a superstar-level bright spot for a Hawks team that has largely disappointed coming off its trip to the Eastern Conference finals. The 23-year-old is fifth in the league in scoring and third in assists, on pace to join Oscar Robertson and Tiny Archibald as the only players in NBA history to average 28-and-9 for a full season more than once.
Young’s sort of like the East’s answer to Ja, or like a healthy Damian Lillard: a top-flight offensive engine who can repeatedly create high-value, high-efficiency scoring chances for himself and others, even with a mammoth workload … who’s also a defensive liability that requires some awfully sturdy scaffolding around him to avoid giving back all those buckets he just generated. The splits aren’t anything new, but they’re still awfully stark:
A Tale of Two Traes
|Advanced Metric||Young's Offensive Ranking||Young's Defensive Ranking|
|Advanced Metric||Young's Offensive Ranking||Young's Defensive Ranking|
|Regularized Adjusted Plus-Minus||1||589|
|DARKO Daily Plus-Minus||2||500|
Young’s offensive highs are so stratospheric that they outweigh his defensive lows in the aggregate. Trae plays an extremely highlight-friendly and photogenic game, and he’s a showman to boot; he’s not only a perfectly deserving pick, but one that—firmly ensconced in second place among Eastern guards in the fan vote—I fully expected to be in Cleveland, no matter what I did on my ballot.
So I decided to do something different with my last pick, invoke the Vibes Provision one more time, and create the conditions for a little Raptor reunion.
This isn’t a stunt or a gimmick: I fully believe that VanVleet deserves to be an All-Star, as I did last year, and as I recently wrote. He’s averaging 21.7 points, 7.0 assists, and 4.7 rebounds per game, all career highs, while leading the league in minutes for a Raptors team that’s battled through injury, illness, and yet another virus-prompted blunting of its home-court advantage to get into play-in contention at .500.
VanVleet’s game is less bombastic than Young’s—though he has continued stretching his range into the deep end of the pool, taking 86 3-pointers from at least 28 feet away this season, a career high and the fifth-highest total in the league. It’s also infinitely more balanced.
He’s just outside the top 20 in scoring and the top 10 in assists, making more 3-pointers than anybody but Steph and Buddy Hield and shooting nearly 40 percent on all that volume. While the Raptors rank 15th in offensive efficiency, well below the Hawks, they score at a top-five clip with VanVleet in the game and a bottom-four rate when he’s on the bench. (It’s not quite as dramatic as Young’s own offensive on/off split, but not far off.) He’s also sixth in steals and second in deflections, serving as a disruptive and stout first line of point-of-attack defense for a Raptors unit that’s tied for the league lead in opponent turnover frequency, and that—in contrast to Young—clamps down like a top-10 unit with VanVleet on the floor.
The sixth-year grinder covers for teammates’ weaknesses and augments their strengths, on both sides of the ball, while playing a ton of minutes and not needing to wholly dominate the rock to make a positive contribution. That’s probably why the advanced and impact metrics love Fred now more than ever: He’s eighth in VORP, sixth in EPM, tied for third in FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and second in RAPTOR wins above replacement, and valued as a top-15 or -20 player by a number of others.
I’m pretty confident most basketball fans don’t think of Fred VanVleet as that caliber of player, to the extent they think of him at all. But based on that statistical profile, how influential he is on the Raptors’ chances of winning, and the fact that he just keeps getting better, year after year, on both ends of the floor, maybe it’s time they started. And maybe a starting spot in the All-Star Game would help.