As we head into February, it’s time once again to release my annual NBA All-Star selections. The rules that I use for my selections (roughly taken from last year’s post) are as follows:
1. The positions are the same as the fan/media/coaches votes: 5 starters comprised of 2 guards and 3 frontcourt players, plus 7 reserves comprised of 2 guards, 3 frontcourt players, and the final 2 spots regardless of position for each conference. To finalize the rosters, I pick the 12 best from each conference without focusing on positional designations, and then adjust as needed if there aren’t at least 4 guards or 6 frontcourt players in the final 12; then I select the 2 best guards and 3 best frontcourt players as starters.
2. Only the 2019-20 season is relevant. No legacy picks.
3. Injuries don’t matter… except the missing games part. Confused? Let me explain. If a player is currently injured, (whether he is actually able to play in the All-Star game or not), he is eligible for my selection based on his play prior to his injury; However, if a player has missed games, it inherently limits how much they can contribute to the success of a team, and therefore it will factor into my consideration for selecting him as an All-Star.
4. Off the court issues don’t matter. I’m solely judging the on-court basketball production from each player. I wrote a quick blurb in my ‘Things I like and don’t like’ section a while back about how Kyrie Irving seems like an absolute terrible teammate. Despite my distaste, he doesn’t get docked here for that.
You may have seen that the players who made the All-Star game were released last night. Spoiler Alert: They are wrong. Good thing I’m here to tell you who actually deserves to make the team. As my guy Marvin used to say: Let’s get it on!
Similarly to last season, I’m going to list everyone who should (realistically) be considered as an All-Star, and eliminate them until we get to 12. Then I’ll select starters from there. So, let’s start off with our field. These are the Eastern Conference players having the best seasons, and whom will be under consideration for my All-Star spots (in order of team standings): Giannis Antetokounmpo, Khris Middleton, Eric Bledsoe, Pascal Siakam, Kyle Lowry, Fred VanVleet, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Nikola Vučević, Evan Fournier, Spencer Dinwiddie, Kyrie Irving, Andre Drummond, Derrick Rose, Zach LaVine, Bradley Beal, and Trae Young.
That leaves us with 25 players from 12 teams, with the only Eastern Conference teams without a potential selection being the Hornets, Cavs, and Knicks. Devonte’ Graham has shown some playmaking chops, but he still makes young mistakes and doesn’t play any defense; that goes double for Collin Sexton. Kevin Love looks like he really doesn’t want to be there. Julius Randle and Marcus Morris are playing admirably in bigger roles than they belong in, and Mitchell Robinson isn’t starting (can someone get this guy off the Knicks?). Nobody else on those teams even deserves a mention.
To make my final roster, I’ll need to cut 13 from the initial list of 25.
Cut 1 – Kyrie Irving.
Kyrie is one of the best point guards in the league, and I thought his reputation alone might get him into the All-Star game. I wouldn’t be surprised if he ends up deserving a spot on an All-NBA team. But he’s missed 28 games and played only 18, and the Nets are 7-11 when Irving has played. He hasn’t done enough to deserve a spot this season.
Cut 2 – Andre Drummond, Derrick Rose.
With injuries to Blake Griffin, Luke Kennard, and Reggie Jackson, Drummond and Rose have been steadying hands to an undermanned Pistons squad. Drummond leads the league in rebounding (by a fairly wide margin) at 15.6 per game. Rose is scoring 18.3 points per game while shooting at a career high FG%, including 22.8 points per game over the past 16 games. They’ve both had good seasons, but neither has been great. Rose’s three point shooting has taken a big dip back to about his career average, and he still shows no interest in trying to stop opponents from scoring. Drummond just doesn’t move the needle enough. Good isn’t good enough for the All-Star team.
Cut 3 – Evan Fournier, Zach LaVine.
LaVine is scoring a career-high 25 points per game on solid shooting (.440/.380/.830 splits) and handling most of the offensive playmaking. Creating your own shot is a valuable skill, and LaVine provides that in droves. Unfortunately, he’s still a turnstile as the point of attack defender. Chicago has shown a significant defensive improvement (7th in defensive rating compared to 25th last season), but much of that has to do with the rest of the roster: the additions of Tomáš Satoranský and Thad Young, Kris Dunn returning to full strength, and another year of development from the young roster (specifically, Wendell Carter Jr. and Lauri Markkanen). LaVine is a great scorer, but it’s hard to call him an All-Star until he can play at both ends of the floor.
Fournier reminds me of LaVine if he played in a smaller (and easier) role. He scores less points, but his efficiency is also higher. Fournier is also a lackluster defender. He’s been less noticeably bad on the defensive end throughout his career because he’s typically paired with big rosters that tend to hide some of the shortcomings of perimeter defenders… but he’s not much (if at all) better than LaVine defensively. Neither adds significant enough value to vault them over their defensive shortcomings into an All-Star spot. Maybe next year.
Cut 4 – Malcolm Brogdon, Spencer Dinwiddie.
Brogdon and Dinwiddie have both been solid in bigger roles. Brogdon’s injuries have limited him and he hasn’t looked 100% this season. His efficiency has fallen way off, but I think that’s been more a product of a new system and lack of consistent heath. Dinwiddie has been incredible as the lead ball handler, but he’s had a tough time playing alongside Kyrie. Both of them had stretches worthy of making the All-Star team, but ultimately a lack of consistency did them in. That, and the fact that the Eastern Conference pool of potential All-Stars is just much, much better than we’ve seen in the past. Wouldn’t bet against them in the future, but Brogdon needs to stay healthy, and Dinwiddie needs a new role (what up Timberwolves?) with more opportunity as the primary ball handler.
Cut 5 – Nikola Vučević.
Vučević has been great, but he hasn’t been quite as good as last season, when he was a lock as an All-Star. He’s always been very well-rounded offensive player, but over the past 2 seasons, he become a stout defender as well. Despite his solid production when he plays, it hasn’t translated into winning basketball. (He missed also missed a chunk of time, and the Magic were 5-6 without him compared to 16-21 with him. This may seem bad, but the teams the Magic beat without him were the Cavs twice, the Wizards, Suns, and Warriors). Vučević has been great, but he hasn’t affected the game enough, and it goes to the increase in star power in the East that the rest of the candidates have been better.
Cut 6 – Fred VanVleet, Kyle Lowry, Eric Bledsoe, Khris Middleton.
Lowry has been as consistent as ever. The guy has one of the most unique career arcs I’ve ever seen. After being a solid role player at best for seven seasons of his career (he averaged 10.6 points and 5 assists per game), he’s become a mainstay as one of the top point guards in the league. (In the subsequent 7 seasons he’s averaged 18.4 points and 7.2 assists per game). He and VanVleet have played well enough to earn spots, but they have only played 36 and 37 games, respectively. And unfortunately their skill sets aligns so heavily that they make each other seem (relatively) replaceable. The Raptors have done well to take on larger roles with the absence of Kawhi Leonard, but this season feels like a bit of a crossroads: Lowry had his All-Star appearances, VanVleet will have his later. The missed time was just a bit too much for either to have it this year.
Last year, Middleton made the All-Star team over Bledsoe. Though both missed in my selections, if I’d had to have chosen one, I’d have taken Bledsoe. He received a lot of criticism (rightfully) for his performance in the playoffs last season, but that narrative undercut how great he was during the season. He’s a stellar defender (I had him on the 1st Team All-Defense team last season), stays within his role, and scores efficiently. This season, Middleton has been even better, and Bledsoe has been about the same. If I had to choose one of them for this year, it would be Middleton.
Unfortunately, both miss out again.
When my picks came out for last season, the Bucks were in 1st place and the Raptors were in 2nd (the season ended the same). This year, again, the Bucks are in 1st and the Raptors are in 2nd. Just as I did last year, I’ve cut the 2nd and 3rd potential All-Stars from each roster. It felt wrong then, and it feels wrong now, but I don’t know what else to do. This is what I wrote last year:
“It doesn’t seem fair that there’s only 1 player remaining on my list from each of the top 2 seeds in the East, while the next 3 seeds still have a combined 7 left, but part of that has to do with the deep rosters the Bucks and Raptors boast (It could be argued that the initial list should have included Serge Ibaka, Fred Van Vleet, and Brook Lopez as well). It also has to do with the fact that the best player on each of those top 2 teams is really fucking good.”
The details are slightly different now (the next 3 seeds have a combined 5 on my roster) but that idea still holds. I’m fine with the fact that Lowry and Middleton made the team, but I just don’t think they got it right here. Can anyone say with confidence the Bucks or Raptors would be worse replacing their cuts with anyone who is left? Not me.
Cut 6 – The Final Cut
The final cut came down to Tobias Harris, Bam Adebayo, Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, and Kemba Walker.
Let’s start with the Celtics. They have a very well-rounded team that plays heavily to it’s strengths. (Shoutout Brad Stevens, who was wrongly criticized much of last year). Across much of the national media, Tatum was (prematurely) anointed the next best thing in Boston, which left Jaylen Brown relatively overlooked. Strange to say about a 3rd overall draft pick, but that speaks to both the talent in Boston and size of Kyrie’s shadow.
Adding a superstar always forces the rest of the roster into smaller roles, but it seemed like Brown bore the brunt of the change. It also didn’t help that Kyrie isn’t exactly the best at smoothing egos – Brown has talked about how the locker room last season was “toxic.” Since Kyrie has been replaced, Brown is averaging career highs nearly across the board, increased his efficiency, and has become arguably the most important player on the team. He’s in.
Speaking of Kyrie being replaced, Kemba Walker is actually the most important player on the team. Offensively, he hasn’t dropped off at all transitioning into leading the Celtics attack. He’s undersized, so he’s still a minus defender, but it goes to show you what a big difference effort makes on that side of the ball. He’ll never be a positive on that end, but he’s pesky and quick enough to force turnovers. Plus, he plays alongside a perfect roster to hide him defensively and let his strengths shine. He doesn’t have to carry as large a load as he did last year, but he adapted to his new role and is still one of the premier point guards in the league. I don’t agree with Walker making the All-Star team as a starter, but he makes the team.
As Celtics fans love to remind you: don’t forget, Jayson Tatum is still just 19 years old! I say that tongue in cheek (he’s 21), but it’s true he’s still young. Tatum is in just his 3rd season, and learning to be a playmaker takes time for (almost) everyone – don’t let the Luka Dončić learning curve skew our perceptions of growth. I still think Tatum has the highest ceiling of any player on the Celtics. He increased his offensive output this season by nearly 6 points per game, and there’s plenty more room to grow. But Tatum is still just the 3rd most important player on this team right now. As he’s taken on a bigger role initiating the offense and scoring each year, his efficiency has fallen with it. He’s become prone to forcing ugly contested shots when there is a better pass available, and he hasn’t developed into a top-tier defender. He’s still a positive on both sides of the ball, but his leap hasn’t been as big as his increased points may suggest. I’ll come back to Tatum.
Bam Adebayo won’t show up the box score as much as many of the other players on this list, but that doesn’t change how good he’s been this season. He was a killer on defense last season, and he’s been even better this year. Watching Miami play, Adebayo’s impact can’t be missed. He moves well for how big and strong he is, and he plays with intensity. On offense he sets hard screens and can abuse mismatches down low, but he’s most valuable in the high post. He’s an underrated passer, and his herky-jerky movement when driving creates a timing problem for big men chasing and he gets clear looks more often than you’d expect. Adebayo has nearly doubled his points per game (from 8.9 to 16.0) on a career-high .590 eFG% and has more than doubled his assists per game (from 2.2 to 4.7) while posting career highs basically everywhere else as well. He’s been damn impressive, and he’s an All-Star.
It’s sometimes easy to forget that Tobias Harris is just 27 years old. He’s on his 5th team in just 9 seasons in the NBA, which is extremely rare for a player of his caliber, especially considering the fact that attitude issues have never played a role (that I’ve heard). Last season, if he’d have been traded just a few weeks earlier, he would have made the All-Star game in the East (he was traded a week after the lineups were announced). Harris has been in and out of chaotic situations, and I’d love to see him make his first All-Star game… unfortunately, he hasn’t been quite as good with the 76ers as he was with the Clippers, and is (like Tatum) only the 3rd most important player on his team. It’s tough to include them over the most important (Walker) or second most important (Brown and Adebayo) players, considering Miami, Boston, and Philadelphia are all within 2 games of each other.
Tatum and Harris have near equal numbers, with Harris scoring 2.1 points per game less on 3.5% better eFG%. Harris has a better net rating (+4 to +2), but I think it comes down to role. Harris is a worse fit with better supporting players. The 76ers are good when he plays, but still solid when he’s on the bench. The Celtics destroy opponents with Tatum on the court, and are a net negative when he sits. I don’t think this speaks to a big talent disparity between the two, but that doesn’t change the fact that Tatum has just been more effective this season. He sneaks past Harris for the final spot.
Cut 6 – Tobias Harris.
So our final 12 Eastern Conference All-Stars are Giannis Antetokounmpo, Pascal Siakam, Kemba Walker, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Jimmy Butler, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Bradley Beal, and Trae Young.
G: Ben Simmons
Simmons did not make the All-Star game as a starter, but he should have. He’s the most deserving guard in the entire conference. It’s strange to me how the perception of Simmons has changed over the past year. He’s better at nearly every aspect of the game, and yet if you read anything about the 76ers, you’ll rarely find praise for the 23 year old. I understand Simmons is not a great shooter, which has the potential to limit his production, but that undersells how effectively he actually plays. He’s averaging 16.3 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 8.4 assists per game, while shooting a ridiculous 58.0% from the field. To put that in perspective, Giannis shot 57.8% last season. His growth has been less pronounced than others, but expectations have been sky high. Such is the burden on a 1st overall pick who shined immediately when entering the league.
I wrote a few weeks ago about how Simmons is the best player from the 2016 draft class. He still has elite vision, he’s a top 5 player in transition, and he’s been the best point of attack defender in the entire league this season. Being able to do everything is valuable skill, but don’t underestimate having an elite skillset that isn’t completely well-rounded. Simmons has a legitimate argument as the best point guard in the league this season (depending on how you classify LeBron James and James Harden) and he deserves praise for how well he’s played. He’s an All-Star starter.
G: Trae Young
Young started out the season hot, scoring 25.6 points per game on .431/.348/.819 splits and 8.6 assists per game over his first 14. It was impressive. Then he said fuck it and went supernova: in his 29 games since, he’s averaged 31.0 points on .453/.380/.846 splits and 9.2 assists. It’s only been 29 games, but here is the complete list of players who have scored at least 30 points and dished 9 assists per game while shooting at least 38% from deep:
That’s not a mistake. Nobody has ever done it for a full season. Remove the 3-point requirement and it’s still just Oscar Robertson (6X), Tiny Archibald, and Russell Westbrook. Trae Young is in elite territory.
FC: Giannis Antetokounmpo
Will this man ever stop improving? Giannis is in his 7th season, and has increased his points per game and rebounds per game every. single. year. This year he’s not quite as good at passing… he’s down 0.3 assist per game. Oh yeah, and he’s playing the least minutes since his 2nd year in the league, mostly because the Bucks have been dominating everyone. Per 36 minutes, it’s all career-highs. Last year’s MVP has been even better; Of course Giannis gets a starting spot.
FC: Joel Embiid
Embiid is one of the best big men in the entire league, but he’s certainly the best center in the East. He’s a top-10 center league-wide in points, rebounds, assists, and 3-pointers. This is as close to a legacy pick as I’ll get, because other frontcourt players below have a legitimate argument of having played better overall than Embiid. He’s only played in 33 games, and is playing less minutes per game than last season as well. He’s not the same consistently dominant force we’ve seen, and it’s been a clunky fit alongside Al Horford and Tobias Harris. (For what it’s worth, I thought Horford would be a great addition, but those two just can’t seem to make it work). Still, the times when Embiid takes over, he’s an absolute force that just cannot be stopped.
In the 16 games where he’s played the most minutes, he’s averaging 28.1 points on 53.4% eFG% and 14.3 rebounds per game; In the other 17 games (where he’s played the least minutes), he’s averaging 18.9 points on 50.2% eFG% and 10.4 rebounds per game. Obviously counting stats will be higher while playing more minutes, but even on a per 36 minutes basis, the numbers remain staggering. It suggests that when Embiid is fully healthy and playing deep into a game that matters, he’s much more effective. The eye test agrees – he gets a starting spot.
FC: Jimmy Butler
It was between Butler and Pascal Siakam for the final starting spot in the East. Siakam has been crazy good on both ends of the floor, and is a top candidate for Most Improved Player, after taking home the award last season. He’s increased his stats across the board, and is developing into an elite two-way player. But his efficiency has slipped as he’s taken on a bigger role and I’m not sure he has what it takes to be the best player on a championship team; Butler does. Siakam is the main offensive option for Toronto, but while it might seem contradictory, he has actually been asked to do less than Butler. He’s been a better scorer, but Butler is the fulcrum of everything the Heat do. He starts the offense, distributes, and is tasked with taking the difficult shots at the end of the shot clock. Siakam has Lowry (and VanVleet) to initiate offense, and plays next to an excellent passing big in Marc Gasol: He gets easier looks.
Butler has Goran Dragic and Adebayo to help initiate, but (along with neither of them being as good a passer as Lowry or VanVleet) the way Miami plays puts a lot more weight on Butler’s shoulders. He’s a big reason why Kendrick Nunn and Tyler Herro have been so successful, consistently drawing an extra defender and kicking the ball out to start the offensive motion, freeing up open looks. Siakam is less of a threat to pass.
When Siakam is on the floor, the Raptors are a +9.1 per 100 possessions; when Butler is on the floor, the Heat are a +7.1. But when Siakam sits, the Raptors still sport a net rating of +3.2 per 100 possessions; when Butler sits, the Heat drop to a -2.6. He’s a bigger catalyst for the Heat than Siakam is for the Raptors, and the slight statistical advantage (and 1.5 game lead Toronto holds over Miami) isn’t quite enough to put Siakam over the top. Butler starts.
R: Pascal Siakam
Siakam was actually chosen as a starter, and I don’t have a huge gripe with that, but Butler got the nod from me.
R: Domantas Sabonis
I’ve written about Sabonis a few times (most recently here) as being a player whose impact doesn’t show up on a box score. He’s averaging 18.0 points, 12.8 rebounds, and 4.6 assists per game, and that still doesn’t show his full impact. He’s not there yet offensively, but he’s truly becoming the Nikola Jokić of the Pacers. He’s clearly their best player in the absence of Victor Oladipo, and he’s one of the most sneaky good defenders in the league. He’d be even more dangerous if could extend his range just a bit more, but he’s still only 23 years old. I fully expect Sabonis to be an All-Star for years to come.
R: Bradley Beal
How Beal was left off the All-Star roster this season is beyond me. He’s playing with the worst roster in the league and has dragged them to 16 wins. There isn’t a single other player on the team that would start on a playoff roster, and only 3 or 4 (at most) that would get any minutes at all! His 2nd best player is Dāvis Bertāns, a 27 year-old spot up shooter whose previous career-high was 8 points per game. His 3rd best player is Rui Hachimura, the 9th pick in the 2019 draft. It’s not Beal’s fault that John Wall and Ian Mahinmi make a combined $53 million this season, making it impossible for them to assemble an adequate roster. And they’re in 11th place, just 4.5 games out of the playoffs!
Beal is averaging 28.7 points per game. That’s the most points per game in the last 35 years for a player (prior to the All-Star game) that didn’t make an All-Star roster. (It’s the most by 1.6 points per game, and would be an even bigger gap if Devin Booker wasn’t snubbed this year as well). That alone should tell you this was a miss, but to drive the point home – picture this: swap Khris Middleton or Kyle Lowry with Bradley Beal. The Bucks or Raptors are immediately better, and the Wizards are immediately worse. Enough said. Beal deserves this spot.
R: Kemba Walker
R: Jaylen Brown
R: Bam Adebayo
R: Jayson Tatum
See above. They earned it.
So that closes out my selections for the All-Stars in the East. I’ll be back next week with my selections for the Western Conference. As always, thanks for reading, and reach out with any questions or topics for the mailbag section of next week’s Thursday’s Thoughts.