For the third straight season, eight players on my official NBA All-Star ballot have made the starting lineup. I went a respectable 4-for-5 in both the East (Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and DeMar DeRozan) and West (LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Stephen Curry, and Ja Morant).
As I expected, Hawks superstar Trae Young swept into the East’s second starting spot over my pick, Fred VanVleet of the Raptors, who finished sixth in voting. As hardly anybody but K-pop stans figured, Warriors swingman Andrew Wiggins slid into the third Western frontcourt spot, well ahead of my choice, the evidently stanless Rudy Gobert.
Young was an inarguably worthy selection—fifth in scoring, third in assists, the virtuosic playmaking engine of the Hawks offense, which sits second in the NBA in points scored per possession. He’d have been my first reserve pick in the East. Wiggins … well, your mileage may vary on that one. On one hand, he is averaging 18 points per game on career-best shooting efficiency while routinely dealing with the thorniest defensive assignment for the team with the league’s second-best record; on the other, he wasn’t even among the first dozen or so names I jotted down when considering Western reserves.
Not that my jotting amounts to a hill of beans in this particular process. Fans, players, and media members vote for the starting lineups, but NBA coaches alone decide on the composition of each conference’s reserve corps. That said: I did the jotting anyway, so we might as well publish it. (The mission statement of the internet.)
Here are seven players from each conference—three frontcourt players, two guards, and two “wild cards,” which can come from either positional group—that I’d pick to complete the 2022 All-Star rosters:
FC Rudy Gobert, Jazz
FC Draymond Green, Warriors*
FC Karl-Anthony Towns, Timberwolves
G Chris Paul, Suns
G Devin Booker, Suns
WC Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
WC Luka Doncic, Mavericks
(* = likely to miss the game due to injury)
I already broke down the cases for Gobert and Green in last week’s starters column before ultimately opting for Rudy due to his edge in both overall workload (eight more games and about 350 more minutes) and advanced statistical résumé (he’s in the top 10 or 15 in a slew of metrics, including value over replacement player, box plus-minus, player efficiency rating, win shares, estimated plus-minus, and regularized adjusted plus-minus). With Wiggins’s surprise elevation knocking both out of a starting spot, they land in my reserve group here.
They’re joined by Towns, who earns his first All-Star nod since 2019, and his third overall, in recognition of his efforts to lead the Wolves out of the doldrums of the past three seasons, back to .500, and back into the playoff (or, at least, play-in) picture.
The 26-year-old is one of just four players averaging more than 24 points, nine rebounds, and three assists per game, joining MVP favorites Jokic, Embiid, and Antetokounmpo; he’s also one of just three who’s using at least 25 percent of his team’s offensive possessions while posting a scorching true shooting percentage north of .625, joining Jokic and Durant. Perhaps most notable this season, though: Towns has paired his customary elite offensive efficiency with both increased defensive activity and a greater willingness to do the dirty work, manning the middle for a Minnesota defense that’s just outside the top 10 in points allowed per possession, which would tie for the team’s best defensive mark since Kevin Garnett’s heyday.
The two backcourt spots go to the starting guards on the best team in the NBA. As I wrote last week, I very nearly slotted Paul in over Morant for my final Western starting spot; he’s been the straw that stirs the drink for the league’s most balanced, most consistent, and most dominant team. The NBA’s assist leader has stepped up his scoring of late, too: After scoring 20 or more points just seven times in Phoenix’s first 43 games, CP3’s done it five times in the past six, capped by a 20-point, 19-assist, eight-rebound master class against the Spurs on Sunday to push the Suns’ winning streak to 10 and their first-place lead over the Warriors to three games.
As remarkable as Paul’s been in his 17th season, Booker deserves just as much credit for Phoenix’s revenge tour, averaging 25.1 points, 5.5 rebounds, and 4.4 assists per game to keep the Suns on track for another trip to the Finals.
Booker has mitigated declines in attempts and at-rim efficiency by hoisting a career-high 7.5 triples per 36 minutes of floor time and knocking down 38 percent of them. He’s also turning the ball over on just 10 percent of his plays—among high-usage stars, only DeRozan has coughed it up less frequently—and playing some of the best and most committed defense of his career (just ask Gobert). However you want to divvy up the credit for Phoenix’s blitz to 40-9, there’s no denying the brilliance of both members of its backcourt—or that both deserve All-Star spots.
Had I gone through this exercise a month ago, Doncic might not have made it; his individual numbers looked fine, but his sluggish start contributed to Dallas’s early struggles, and injury and illness had cost him nearly as many games (14) as he’d played (21). Since clearing COVID protocols on New Year’s Day, though, Doncic has been more or less his old dominant self, averaging 25.6 points, 10.1 rebounds, and 9.5 assists per game. His shooting percentages are still down, but Luka has balanced that out by creating more points per 36 minutes for his team than any Western player besides Jokic and by making a more concerted effort as part of a Mavericks defense that was the league’s stingiest in January, and now ranks fifth for the full season. A few stellar weeks can make a hell of a difference; in this case, in my view, they made Doncic—now back in the Best in the World conversation, according to his old coach—an All-Star for the third straight season.
On the flip side, if we’d done this a month ago, Mitchell may well have gotten a starting spot after turning in some of the best ball of his career to pace a Jazz team that owned the NBA’s best point differential. But a rocky January marked by four of Mitchell’s worst shooting performances of the season and a lengthy stretch in the NBA’s concussion protocol have dimmed some of the shine on the fifth-year guard’s case—especially in contrast to the blinding headlight of an onrushing bullet train out of San Antonio.
For all that remains unclear about where the Spurs go next after concluding their DeRozan-and-Aldridge interregnum following the end of the Kawhi Leonard era, what has become clear this season is that Dejounte Murray deserves consideration as one of the game’s best two-way guards. He leads the NBA in steals and deflections, and ranks fourth in assists; he’s just outside the top 10 in points created per 36 minutes, according to my Ringer colleague Zach Kram, and has seen a larger year-over-year leap in point creation than any other player in the league.
Yes, the Spurs are just 19-32, two games out of the West’s final play-in spot. But that includes a 1-5 record in the six games Murray has missed; they’ve had a net rating just south of the fifth-seeded Nuggets with him on the floor to serve as their top scoring threat, playmaker, and perimeter defender. He’s also been waxing as Mitchell has waned, averaging a shade under 23-9-10 on 47 percent shooting with four triple-doubles in January.
In the end, I stuck with Mitchell, preferring to recognize his body of work over the course of the full season rather than unduly dinging him for a down month in Utah. My olive branch to the good people of San Antonio (and also the bad people, like Shea): If the lower back/calf/disk issue that has kept Draymond on the shelf for all but seven seconds since January 5 knocks him out of contention for the All-Star Game, Murray’s the first person I’m calling in search of an injury replacement.
Toughest West Cuts
- Murray, my first injury replacement if Draymond or someone else can’t suit up.
- Anthony Davis, who was perhaps unfairly maligned for the Lakers’ early-season woes, who’s had a couple of monster efforts since coming back from his knee injury, and who in a “down year” is averaging 23 and 9.5 with three assists and three combined blocks/steals while shooting 57 percent inside the arc.
- Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges, who’ve been sensational two-way cogs underpinning the Suns’ star backcourt, and who’d both have arguments if you wanted to die on the hill of the best team in the league deserving more than two All-Star spots. (Ayton’s is stronger, I think, but far be it from me to besmirch Bridges, who might be the best perimeter defender in the league right now.)
- Mike Conley, who’s been nearly as good on a per-minute and per-possession basis as he was when he finally made his first All-Star team last season, but who still feels like a clear third pick on a Jazz team that probably shouldn’t get three spots.
- Desmond Bane and Jaren Jackson Jr., who have each in their way been perfect complements to the ascendant Morant and integral contributors to the Grizzlies’ stunning rise to third in the West.
- Brandon Ingram, averaging 22-6-5 with career-best work as a playmaker to push the seemingly left for dead and still-sadly-Zion-less Pelicans back to respectability and within shouting distance of a play-in berth.
- Paul George, who was absolutely carrying the Clippers before suffering the elbow injury that’s kept him out for most of the past two months.
FC Jarrett Allen, Cavaliers
FC Jimmy Butler, Heat
FC Jayson Tatum, Celtics
G Fred VanVleet, Raptors
G Zach LaVine, Bulls
WC James Harden, Nets
WC Jrue Holiday, Bucks
Just about everybody lauded Cleveland personnel chief Koby Altman for elbowing his way into last season’s Harden blockbuster and—for the low, low price of Dante Exum and a pair of future draft picks—coming away with Allen, who’d shined as an emerging rim protector and improving pick-and-roll finisher through his first three pro seasons. Even the most complimentary observers, though, had to wonder whether the $100 million that Altman would pony up to hold on to Allen in restricted free agency wasn’t too rich a price for a non-shooting center who’d never averaged more than 13 points per game.
So, about that:
Allen has made that nine-figure offseason outlay look like money well spent, averaging 16.1 points, 10.8 rebounds, and 1.9 assists in 32.8 minutes per game while shooting a sparkling 67.7 percent from the field—all career highs—to help propel the Cavs’ rocket-ship ride from the league’s basement post-LeBron all the way into the running for the top spot in the East.
The 6-foot-10 Allen has been the interior deterrent at the heart of a swarming and giant Cleveland defense that ranks third in the NBA in points allowed per possession. He’s tied for 10th in the league in blocks per game, and he’s impacting plenty of shots he doesn’t get a piece of, too; opponents have shot just 51.3 percent at the rim with Allen defending, according to Second Spectrum’s tracking, the 10th-lowest mark out of 139 players who’ve contested at least 100 up-close tries. He’s also been a vital part of the Cleveland offense, crashing the boards to extend possessions (11th in the league in offensive rebounding rate, eighth in second-chance points per game), stonewalling defenders to get his teammates open (tied for 15th in the NBA in screen assists), and barreling off those screens to the rim for furious finishes (producing nearly 1.2 points per possession as the dive man in the pick-and-roll, according to Synergy).
He’s been kind of like Lake Erie Gobert: a reliable, massive centerpiece whom head coach J.B. Bickerstaff could build his preferred schemes around on both ends of the court. Allen has risen to the challenge of becoming that sort of two-way linchpin, assuming more responsibility and more minutes and absolutely acing every test that’s come his way; not only has he earned his money, he’s earned his first All-Star appearance.
Butler gets his sixth, despite missing 19 games with a variety of injuries. The reason? When he’s been available, he’s been as good as it friggin’ gets.
The 32-year-old swingman just keeps sharpening his game, averaging 22 points, 6.2 rebounds, 6.3 assists, and 1.9 steals in 34.1 minutes per game for the Eastern contenders while continuing to earn his reputation as one of the most ferocious, versatile, and dependable defenders in the sport. According to the BBall Index, Jimmy’s one of just five players to rank in the top 25 in both matchup difficulty (measuring how tough your assignments are night to night) and defensive versatility (measuring how frequently you check players at different positions, from point guards to centers)—and with all due respect to Dorian Finney-Smith, Aaron Gordon, Royce O’Neale, and Javonte Green, none of them are also serving as their team’s primary scorer, playmaker, and crunch-time creator. Butler’s ability to be whatever Erik Spoelstra needs him to be in any given situation, on both ends of the floor, is one of the biggest reasons Miami is a legitimate threat to return to the Finals for the second time in three years.
I considered a handful of options for the final frontcourt spot. Miles Bridges’s 3-point shot has cooled off after a hot start, but he’s still averaging 20-7-3.5 as a legit Most Improved Player candidate for the playoff-bound Hornets. Khris Middleton hasn’t shot the ball quite as well as he did the past two seasons, but his per-minute production is just about neck-and-neck with Butler’s and he’s posting the highest assist rate of his career for the Bucks, who are in hot pursuit of the East’s top spot. Evan Mobley’s been incredible from the first game of his rookie season, an immediate difference-maker on both ends of the court who has helped transform the Cavaliers from cellar-dwellers into contenders. Domantas Sabonis’s scoring and assists are both down a tick, but he’s still been incredibly productive—19.1 points, 12.1 rebounds, 5.0 assists, shooting an absurd 64 percent on 2s—as one of the few bright spots in what’s been a fairly dismal season in Indianapolis.
If the Pacers weren’t six games out of the play-in spot, Sabonis might’ve been the pick. Instead, my choice came down to Tatum and Pascal Siakam.
Both had rocky starts to the season, with Tatum shooting 40 percent from the field through the first month and Siakam not catching his rhythm until late November after missing the first 10 games while recovering from shoulder surgery. Both have since picked up the pace, turning in a pair of torrid Januarys—27 points on .591 true shooting, 8.2 rebounds, and 4.6 assists in 36 minutes per game for Tatum; 22.6 points on 48/42/74 shooting, 8.6 rebounds, 6.4 assists, and 2.0 steals in 40.4 minutes per game for Siakam. Their uptick in play helped lead both of their teams to 10-6 records in the month; they’re separated in the play-in race by mere thousandths of a percentage point.
Siakam’s providing near-All-Defensive-Team-caliber coverage across multiple positions in Toronto’s swarming and amorphous front; Tatum’s not quite at that level, but he’s still a very versatile defender who leads the way in minutes for the NBA’s no. 4 defense. Tatum dwarfs Siakam’s usage, and the threat of his shooting (even when he’s bricking a ton) adds a dangerous dimension for the Celtics offense that Siakam lacks; the Cameroonian is a superior playmaker, assisting on a career-high share of his teammates’ baskets with an assist-to-turnover ratio just south of 2-to-1.
I kind of wanted to go with Siakam, as a means of docking Boston for its disappointing start to the season and Tatum for his sometimes maddening inconsistency. Factoring in the extra 13 games and 400-plus minutes that Tatum has logged, though—and how summarily Boston has cratered with him off the court—gave the Celtic the edge.
In the backcourt, we start with VanVleet, who I earnestly believe—in what I learned was a source of consternation for no small number of Georgians—had a pretty damn good case to start this exhibition for the East:
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 16th in offensive efficiency, well below the Hawks, they score at a near-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 seventh 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.
Virtually whichever advanced/impact metric you might favor—VORP, estimated plus-minus, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and wins above replacement, and win shares, among others—marks VanVleet as a top-15-to-20 player this season, and as one of the most valuable guards in the game, due to his ability to shoulder a ton of offensive responsibility without turning the ball over while also contributing on the defensive end. He gets in.
So does LaVine, who’s kind of gotten short shrift in the (understandable!) rush to praise DeRozan’s remarkable season, but who’s been pretty sensational in his own right:
LaVine’s raw numbers, usage, efficiency, touches, and time of possession are all down a bit this season—to be expected, considering the additions of not only DeRozan, but also guards Lonzo Ball and Alex Caruso—but he’s still wildly productive: 24.9 points, 4.8 rebounds, and 4.3 assists in 34.1 minutes per game on pristine .606 true shooting. DeRozan’s been the driver of Chicago’s offensive success, but he wouldn’t have the space to perform his patented midrange surgery without the threat of LaVine (39.5 percent from 3 on more than seven attempts per night) drawing attention on the perimeter. And while DeRozan’s status as the most efficient high-volume isolation scorer in the league merits plenty of praise, it’s worth noting that LaVine ain’t half bad attacking one-on-one himself; of the 30 players who’ve logged at least 100 isos this season, according to Synergy, he ranks ninth in points scored per possession, just behind Embiid.
I thought about plugging Siakam into one of the wild-card spots, but there are just too many excellent guards in the East not to reward two more. Though Siakam would be my first choice if the coaches need to fill a frontcourt spot in the East … which, with Durant expected to miss the festivities due to an MCL sprain, they probably will. (Tatum, who was next in line in frontcourt voting, bumps up to starter status in that scenario, and Siakam slides into a reserve spot. Easy-peasy.)
Like Tatum, it feels like Harden’s having a rough season because his early struggles are burned into our brains, and because his shooting numbers are down. Zoom out, though, and you’re reminded that not all drops in production are created equal.
When your starting point is Perennial MVP Candidate, as Harden’s has been for nearly a decade, a “down year” still puts you squarely in All-Star territory: 23 points on .584 true shooting to go with 10.1 assists (just off CP3’s league lead) and 8.1 rebounds in 37 minutes per game, while still ranking among the league’s five highest-efficiency isolation scorers and 10 highest-volume point creators. You can reasonably argue that this is Harden’s worst season in a decade … and it’s still one that only his peak self and Oscar Robertson have ever matched.
Durant’s injury and Kyrie Irving’s chosen unavailability have left the Nets rarely resembling the world-beating monster we envisioned when they swung the Harden blockbuster a little over a year ago. Harden’s persistent presence and production, even in its diminished form, has helped Brooklyn stay afloat in an awfully crowded Eastern playoff chase.
Two 2021 All-Stars, Bradley Beal and Jaylen Brown, fell short of the cut for me (more on that below). As did another decorated veteran, Kyle Lowry, who deserved consideration for his role in helping keep the Heat steady.
That left one spot, then, for three guards: the veteran Holiday, and rising young stars LaMelo Ball and Darius Garland.
Ball’s been wonderful as the prime mover of a Hornets team that’s winning on the strength of its fifth-ranked offense—an attack fueled largely by his ability to both see passing angles few other playmakers could and will others into existence:
According to Stathead, LaMelo’s on pace to become just the third player ever to average 19 points, seven rebounds, and seven assists per game by his age-20 season. The other two? LeBron and Luka. Pretty decent company, and the mark of a surefire All-Star in the years to come. This time around, though, his underwhelming finishing—just 47 percent on 2-pointers and 35.7 percent from deep, both well below Garland and Holiday—and predilection toward gambling (which contributes to Charlotte’s no. 26 defense) dropped him just below the others.
I wrote last week about just how phenomenal Garland’s been in his third season—how circumstance, opportunity, and the surrounding scaffolding of some bigs who can really play have allowed him to unleash his talents, emerging as a high-volume creator for himself and others who can cook off the dribble and work off the ball. To wit: Out of 46 players who’ve finished at least 75 isolation plays this season, Garland ranks third in points scored per possession; out of 38 players who’ve finished at least 50 plays working off of screens, he ranks 10th. The only player above him in both categories? Steph.
As great as Garland’s been, though, I gave a slight edge to Jrue, who’s been nearly as effective as Darius offensively—about a point and an assist behind per-36, with a lower turnover rate and an almost identical true shooting percentage—while also being an All-Defensive-Team-caliber disruptor on the perimeter.
His ability to handle thorny assignments—whippet-quick point guards, bigger wings, even power forwards and centers on switches—helps unlock the potential of a Bucks defense that ranks eighth in points allowed per possession. And his ability to handle a greater scoring and facilitating workload when called upon has helped Milwaukee hold fast when its biggest weapon is on the bench recharging: The Bucks are outscoring opponents by more than six points-per-100 when Jrue runs the show with Giannis on the pine.
That sort of stability in non-Giannis minutes helps underscore Holiday’s value to a franchise that moved heaven and earth (and every draft asset that wasn’t nailed down) to import him from New Orleans and paid him $160 million in hopes that he’d be the missing piece of Milwaukee’s championship puzzle. As it turns out, he was—and he may well be again, if he can keep playing the kind of ball that should earn him his first All-Star appearance in nine years.
Toughest East Cuts
- Garland, whom no less an authority than Draymond Green has said should be a lock for the roster.
- Siakam, who’s all the way back from his labrum tear, and has been every ounce as good as when he made the All-NBA Second Team two seasons ago.
- LaMelo, because a Hornets team just two games out of sixth place probably should get an All-Star, and because I’m not sure anybody in the world would be more at home in the highlight-factory environs of the All-Star Game than LaVar’s son.
- Beal, who’s averaging a career-high 6.6 assists per game, but his scoring totals and efficiency have plummeted.
- Brown, who’s drop-off hasn’t been as precipitous as Beal’s and has been significantly better on defense, but remains inconsistent.
- Lowry, keeping the Heat at or near the top of the East amid injuries to Butler and Bam Adebayo and Miami being replete with two-way players and hardship-signings.