Hello, everyone! The All-Star teams will be announced on Thursday, Jan 27, so it’s time to present my ballot. This piece will not focus on obvious choices: LeBron, Steph, etc. Instead, we’re diving into the borderline guys to figure out who’s most deserving of an All-Star spot in Cleveland this season.
Eastern Conference All-Stars
Locks (7): Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Joel Embiid, DeMar DeRozan, Zach LaVine, Trae Young, James Harden
Likely (3): Jayson Tatum, Darius Garland, Jimmy Butler
My Last Two: Jarrett Allen, Fred VanVleet
Injury Replacements / Honorable Mentions: Jrue Holiday, Pascal Siakam, Jaylen Brown, Khris Middleton, Domantas Sabonis, LaMelo Ball, Bradley Beal, Julius Randle, Miles Bridges
Let’s all agree that the locks will make it. I’m not wasting my time or yours explaining why Giannis Antetokounmpo deserves to be an All-Star.
Darius Garland and Jayson Tatum seem highly likely to make it. The Cavs have lost virtually every ballhandler to injury except Garland, and yet Cleveland is still 29-19 overall and 8-2 in their last ten games. Despite some horrendous shooting efforts, Tatum can be the brightest star in the sky during his bouts of incandescence.
Jimmy Butler would be a lock if not for missing 18 games this season, and his statistics blow away any of the remaining candidates. He remains an elite defensive force. The coaches (who pick the reserves) are highly likely to reward him.
So with those 10 in, things start to get interesting.
My last two All-Stars for the East are Jarrett Allen and Fred VanVleet. Allen has been a revelation this year, locking down the rim and swatting everything in sight. His defense, however, has never been in question; it’s his offensive development that’s raised eyebrows and dropped jaws.
Allen’s shooting more often and more accurately than he ever has before despite a more difficult shot diet. Hooks, drop-steps, step-throughs, midrange jumpers — Allen’s shown off a well-rounded offensive repertoire that’s developed leaps and bounds past his dunks-only Nets days:
Allen, Garland, and Evan Mobley (the likely Rookie of the Year) are an incredibly fun trio for the Cavs to build around as they return to relevancy for the first time since LeBron left.
Fred VanVleet, or “Freddy All-Star” as the Raptors broadcast calls him, has a heck of a statistical case. He leads the league in minutes, shoots 40% from three on ten attempts per game (second-most in the league behind Steph Curry), plays tough defense, and carried the Raptors’ entire offense until Siakam’s recent return from injury. There’s a reason he’s fifth league-wide in on/off point differential and sixth overall in Estimated Plus/Minus. Advanced stats love a guy with no real flaws, as I wrote about recently.
Jrue Holiday may have the least impressive traditional statistics of anyone in this group, but he’s easily the best defender. He’s shooting 39% from three, and he’s killing it from the midrange for the second year in a row. Although he’s my 13th pick on a 12-man team, Durant’s injury has opened up a replacement spot. I hope Jrue is the one to fill it.
Not many people are talking about Siakam’s candidacy, and that’s not fair. He has a very interesting case. Look at these two statlines below:
Player B is Pascal Siakam. Player A is Jayson Tatum. Siakam is scoring a bit less but much more efficiently, and he is a much better passer than Tatum. Both are solid defenders. And yet, I’ve placed Tatum higher on this list. Why?
Availability. Tatum has played in 44 games this year while Siakam has played in 31, and his resume, while impressive, isn’t as bulletproof as Jimmy Butler’s. Regardless, Siakam needs to be in this conversation, and there’s an outside chance that he could make it as another injury replacement if someone else is forced to miss the game. After his struggles last season, Pascal’s bounce-back has quietly been one of the league’s best stories.
Jaylen Brown has taken a bit of a step back this year, much to my dismay. His playmaking hasn’t evolved, and his shooting is near career-worst levels. He’s still an excellent defender and can pour it in when he’s hot, but those nights seem fewer and further in between than last year. That said, he has the kind of game that coaches like, and he could end up making it as an injury replacement or by coach’s pick.
Khris Middleton is forever on the fringes of the All-Star conversation as the Bucks’ third wheel. He goes out there and averages an efficient 20/5/5 every year like basketball deja vu. Some years, that’s good enough to get into the All-Star game. This ain’t one of those years.
Coach Rick Carlisle’s new usage of Domantas Sabonis has limited his abilities as a playmaking hub at the elbows. He’s compensated by shooting more efficiently than he has in previous years. He’s posting up a mere 4.5 times per game, down from 7.6 last year, and has been finishing plays as the roll man more frequently and better than previous years, per Synergy Sports. The change in shot selection has significantly improved his field goal percentage, but he hasn’t had the impact on winning that you like to see from All-Stars.
LaMelo Ball has a game tailor-made for high-flying theatrics, but it’s tough to justify putting him in over these other guys. His defense and decision-making haven’t grown much from his rookie season. Ball’s still an electrifying passer and strong rebounder, and he will likely be a mainstay on this team for years to come…in due time.
Beal has somewhat returned to form after a horrific start, but it’s strange: his best play has coincided with the Wizards’ worst stretch of the season. I’m not sure what to do with that information, but his inefficient shooting and lack of a defensive impact mean he’ll need to pay for a seat at the All-Star game.
I feel kind of bad for Julius Randle. His defense, while not as airtight as last year, hasn’t been terrible (despite what Twitter would lead you to believe). His rebounding and passing have remained strong, but his catch-and-shoot skill has abandoned him, and Knicks fans are ready to throw him off the team after lionizing him all last season.
After an insanely hot start, Bridges has steadied out at “very good” for Charlotte. He bet on himself to earn a hefty contract extension this summer, and that’s precisely what’s going to happen. He and his teammate Ball are the most highlight-perfect duo in the league, and they could both become mainstays at this event with a little more growth.
Western Conference All-Stars
Locks (10): Steph Curry, Ja Morant, LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Rudy Gobert, Draymond Green, Donovan Mitchell, Luka Doncic, Devin Booker, Chris Paul
Likely (0): None
My Last Two: Brandon Ingram, Karl Anthony-Towns
Injury Replacements / Honorable Mentions: Paul George, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Andrew Wiggins, Jonas Valanciunas, Kristaps Porzingis, Dejounte Murray, Anthony Edwards, Anthony Davis
The Western selections were more straightforward than the Eastern choices for the first time in years. Ten guys are in for sure. After that, though, it’s a toss-up.
My last two picks are Brandon Ingram and Karl Anthony-Towns.
After having a heart-to-heart with coach Willie Green, Ingram has been playing the best basketball of his career. He’s rebounding and passing at career-high rates and showing a renewed commitment on the defensive end. This Pelicans roster started the season 1-12 but has gone 17-16 since. They are miraculously fighting for the last play-in spot in the West despite imploding when Ingram doesn’t play.
Karl Anthony-Towns can make a case as one of the best all-around shooters in the league regardless of size. Watch KAT use a dribble combo to set up a silky stepback three:
Seven-footers shouldn’t be able to do that! He’s also trying harder on defense (most of the time). If anything, I’d love to see KAT shoot more often, even if it results in lower efficiency; his deference on offense hurts the team.
Draymond Green’s back injury has no projected timetable for return, so there will likely be at least one injury replacement. It probably won’t be Paul George. George had a ridiculous start to the season, and I even wrote about his MVP chances. Unfortunately, he cooled off a bit and then got injured (and might miss the rest of the season), so it’s hard to put him above any of my first 12.
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is putting up big numbers on an abysmal Thunder team. He’s solid on defense (and better than that when engaged), but his shooting splits literally hurt my eyeballs. I blame part of that on him only playing with maybe three other NBA-quality players. He almost certainly won’t be selected as Green’s injury replacement in real life, but he would be my choice.
Andrew Wiggins has been good on both sides of the ball! Let’s get that out of the way. He’s defending with energy and focus, and he’s shooting lights-out. But he can’t pass and doesn’t rebound, and I can’t fathom why he’s so high in the fan voting (third for Western frontcourt players as of now!) besides the Warriors’ halo effect. There seems to be a high likelihood of Wiggins making the game over Shai, which doesn’t sit right with me.
Kristaps Porzingis, the original unicorn, is having a nice bounce-back year. He’s moving a little better defensively (heck, Anthony Edwards said he was the best rim-protector in the league!), and offensively he’s been solid even without hitting his threes. But advanced metrics are mixed on just how much he’s contributing, and there’s room for him to improve on both sides.
Murray is putting up eye-popping stats on a bad San Antonio team, but his offensive game leaves me a little cold. His assist numbers are more system-driven than individually created. He’s not a good shooter and doesn’t get to the rim as much as you’d think (only a quarter of his shot attempts, low for an excellent athlete).
Valanciunas is a grizzly bear with post-up chops, and he hasn’t missed a three all season. But he’s defensively limited and hasn’t expanded his playmaking as much as I’d hoped he would.
Anthony Edwards has been on a tear for Minnesota, but in aggregate, he’s still a below-average shooter from midrange and at the rim (which seems impossible for a jacked bird-man who flies at will).
Anthony Davis has missed too many games and has been one of the least efficient jump-shooters of all time this season (he’s shooting a typo-lookin’ 18% from three! Westbrook isn’t the only bricklayer in Hollywood). I do want to point out that his defense is still incredible.
So that’s it! I don’t doubt that the final results will differ from my selections in meaningful ways, which is a bummer since this is the objectively correct list.
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