The All-Star Game has finally decided to update their voting system after the Kobe Bryant farce last season that saw the 37 year old legend selected for the game by the fans.
The NBA has now allocated 50% of the vote to media and players, which will mean that despite Zaza Pachulia currently sitting second in the Western Conference frontcourt voting, a guy like him will not be in New Orleans.
So, with this, let’s dive into which players deserve to make the game this year based on their production so far.
G Kyle Lowry
G Isaiah Thomas
F LeBron James
F Giannis Antetokounmpo
F Jimmy Butler
G Kyrie Irving
G Kemba Walker
F Paul George
F Paul Millsap
F Kevin Love
WC John Wall
WC DeMar DeRozan
Others: Carmelo Anthony, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwyane Wade, Andre Drummond, Joel Embiid, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Hassan Whiteside, Brook Lopez, Al Horford
The starters plus Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love basically pick themselves this year, leaving five spots up for grabs.
Let’s just quickly recap why these guys deserve to make it:
Kyle Lowry: Legitimate superstar that makes everyone around him better. Plays with starters and bench guys with equal success and is shooting an unbelievable 43.7% on threes whilst shooting 7.5 a game.
LeBron James: Did you watch the finals last year? He’s still doing that stuff.
Giannis Antetokounmpo: 24 points, 9 rebounds, 5.7 assists, 2.1 blocks, 1.9 steals, 53.3% FG. The Bucks stink when he sits – probably because he’s the initiator of most of their offense whilst also being one of the best help defenders in the league.
Jimmy Butler: Similarly to Giannis, he’s doing it all for the Bulls. He’s managing to score efficiently despite being surrounded by no shooting and he’s turned into their pseudo Point Guard now that Rondo has been benched. Phenomenal player.
Some may question Isaiah Thomas getting the starting nod over a guy like Kyrie, but the logic is robust. Thomas is the best player on what is pretty clearly the third best team in the Eastern Conference and he’s averaging over 27 points and 6 assists whilst shooting an impressive slash of 45/36/90.
To add to this, the Celtics currently have the seventh best offense in the league despite missing a combined 20 games from Al Horford and Jae Crowder – their second and third best guys on that end. The primary role of a Point Guard is to create a functioning offense, and that is exactly what Thomas has done, furthering his game with a newfound crafty mid-range game. According to Basketball Reference, Thomas is currently shooting 48.9% from 10-16ft (last year 38.2%) and 58.8% on long twos. Dare to go over the screen and Thomas can punish you in the mid-range and at the rim. Dare to go under and he might drill a wide-open three. Pick your poison.
Currently he sits third among all players in Offensive Box Plus/Minus (a catchall statistic that gives a players performance relative to league average) behind just Russell Westbrook and James Harden. That sort of rarefied air is usually reserved for the likes of Steph Curry, Kevin Durant and Chris Paul; that’s how good Thomas has been this year.
It must also be said that Thomas has improved his much maligned clutch game to the point where he trails only Russell Westbrook in fourth quarter points scored. This has led to the Celtics having the most productive fourth quarter offense in the league – boasting a whopping 120.6 offensive rating in this segment of the game.
Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love have a fairly simple case – they’re the second and third best players on the defending champions. Oh, and they’ve been even better so far this year. Love has thrived from LeBron’s new facilitation fascination, which has turned the former Minnesota big man into one of the most dangerous catch and shoot guys in the league. Love is second only to Klay Thompson in points from catch and shoot opportunities, scoring 8.3 of his 21.8 points per game in this manner. The key difference between Love and the other big men on the board, though, is rebounding, where Love is managing to haul in over 10 rebounds per game. Serge Ibaka (7.1 rebounds per game), Al Horford (6.7), Ryan Anderson (5.3) and Kristaps Porzingis (7.7) are all in the same league as Love when it comes to shooting, but none occupy the same versatile skillset.
Love allows space for Kyrie and LeBron to get into driving lanes nearly 10 times per game, which has led to two of the best finishers in the league getting ultra-efficient looks. Kyrie is having a career best season, his PER has risen to 23.1, he’s scoring over 24 points a game and he’s been efficient doing so (47.6/41.5/88.5). Add to this a myriad of big time shots – including a game winner against a certain superteam on Christmas Day – and you have a sure-fire All-Star.
Kemba Walker and Paul George may not be sure things, but they’re close enough. Walker is operating with excellent efficiency, shooting nearly 47% from the field and 42% from deep. The Hornets are probably the fourth best team in the East and have cemented themselves as a perennial playoff team on the back of Walker’s efforts. He missed out last season, but he’s been so much better already this year. His three-point shooting is forcing defenders to fight over screens, which has allowed enough space for the rest of the Hornets despite poor shooting seasons from Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams.
Paul George has been a little down on his usual production, but the uptick in his efficiency gets him over the line. An Effective Field Goal Percentage of 52.1% is easily the best of his career and his 38.9% shooting from deep creates just enough space for his teammates to operate. His impact on the defensive end has been solid and he remains one of the only genuine wing-stoppers in the league when he’s locked in.
John Wall and DeMar DeRozan present a fascinating juxtaposition as they lock up the two wildcard spots for reasons that couldn’t be more different.
After a shaky start, the Wizards now sit firmly in the playoff picture and look as likely as anyone to snare one of those last few spots. Much of that is to do with their leader, John Wall. Wall doesn’t have the flashy brand of a Kyrie Irving or Damian Lillard, but he is every bit the superstar that those guys are. He’s putting up 23.1 points, 10.1 assists, 4.4 rebounds and 2.3 steals on 46.6% shooting from the field. Those are superstar numbers, even if he still can’t shoot a lick from beyond the arc.
The Wizards would literally be lost without Wall. Bradley Beal is a secondary scorer that can’t create looks for himself or his teammates and Otto Porter thrives as an off-ball cutter and shooter that relies on Wall’s playmaking. Only James Harden and Russell Westbrook have a better assist to pass percentage than Wall, which just highlights how effective he is as a passer. Chris Paul and LeBron James sit fourth and fifth in that stat, by the way.
His defence has regressed a little – he is good one on one but lazy when switching – and he does get exploited, but it doesn’t matter; not in the East. Wall is basically carrying the Wizards to the playoffs and is making everyone around him more valuable and for that, he’s an All-Star.
Now, flip basically everything I’ve said about Wall’s offense and you have DeMar DeRozan. DeRozan doesn’t necessarily make anyone around him better – not directly anyway, DMDR taking and making tough shots does make the lives of his teammates easier, but not in the same way that Wall’s playmaking does.
DeRozan isn’t carrying a team of misfits to the fringes of the playoffs like Wall is, he’s instead surrounded by the perfect supporting cast to make his unusual talents sing. DeRozan currently sits behind just Russell Westbrook in points from pull ups this season, often getting to the mid-range and stopping on a dime before nailing the shot. He can do this on the Raptors because Kyle Lowry allows him to do so. Lowry is just as good without the ball in his hands as he is with it, which allows DMDR to make plays with the ball. Lowry also covers for DeRozan’s misgivings on the defensive end of the floor, which means that more energy can go into those bouncing drives to the rim. DeMar needs Kyle, and that’s fine, but the body of work that they have together is too incredible to pass up.
The Raptors still have an all-time great offense and DeRozan is their leading scorer (27.8 points per game). He’s still getting to the line nearly nine times a game despite shooting a ton more mid-range shots this season. He’s a throwback to a different era and at the very least, he’s fun to watch. Does the second best player on the second best team in the East on an all-time great offense deserve to be an All-Star? Yes.
Now it gets a little trickier. The final frontcourt spot comes down to Paul Millsap, Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis.
Andre Drummond, Hassan Whiteside and Brook Lopez all have slight cases, but concerns over how much they impact they provide on the defensive end mixed with their lack of team success means that these three miss out.
Joel Embiid would be awesome to watch and is putting up monster numbers, but his usage rate and role isn’t replicable on a winning team (as evidenced by Philly being terrible) and he’s sitting out back-to-backs.
So, who out of Millsap, Melo and Kristaps gets the final spot? I’m going to go with Millsap – the best player on the fourth best team in the East over the other two, who both play on the 11th best team in the Conference. Granted, there’s not a whole lot between teams in the middle of the East, but Atlanta’s point differential is 2.5 points better than the Knicks, who also sit 4.5 games behind the Hawks in the standings.
Plus, Millsap is just better than the other guys right now. Offensively, the three players are as different as it gets – Melo is a volume scorer who loves to operate in isolation, Porzingis lives beyond the arc and Millsap is a versatile Mr Fix-It who is equally as comfortable shooting from the mid-range as he is facilitating from the perimeter. Despite these differences, the production is fairly similar. The Knicks’ guys score more, sure, but Millsap is a better rebounder and passer than both of them. On the most basic of levels:
What Millsap lacks in scoring, he makes up for in the other facets of the offensive game. Even if you think that Melo and Porzingis are better offensively, the gap between them is close enough that Millsap’s defence gets him the nod.
Millsap is still an elite help defender – only Draymond Green influences the game more defensively from the Power Forward position. He hasn’t been as good on that end as he was last year, but a lot of that is because he hasn’t been asked to do as much due to the arrival of Dwight Howard. Millsap can protect the rim in smaller lineups, cover the pick and roll, get into passing lanes and switch out onto the perimeter with aplomb. Melo is mediocre defensively – better than he used to be, but nowhere near Millsap’s stratosphere.
Porzingis has a case here, his rim protection has been elite and opponents have been shooting 5.5% worse when he’s guarding them. But I have to go with the eye test here, Porzingis is still slow closing out on shooters when playing the four and this lack of foot speed also hinders his pick and roll coverage. In a playoff series, Porzingis can still be exploited on the defensive end – Millsap cannot be. Add this to the fact that Millsap’s team is better (with equal or lesser talent) and Paul Millsap scrapes into his fourth consecutive All-Star game.
G Russell Westbrook
G James Harden
F Kevin Durant
F Kawhi Leonard
F Marc Gasol
G Steph Curry
G Chris Paul
F Anthony Davis
F DeMarcus Cousins
F Draymond Green
WC Rudy Gobert
WC Gordon Hayward
Others: Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, Eric Bledsoe, Blake Griffin, DeAndre Jordan, Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge, Karl-Anthony Towns
It doesn’t get much easier than the three former Thunderbuddies and Kawhi Leonard. They’re locks. Westbrook and Harden are putting up history numbers; Harden 28, 12 and 8 and Westbrook a triple-fucking-double.
Durant and Kawhi are a little less secure, but are still locks. Durant is only the second guy in history to score 25 points a game while shooting 53% from the field and 38% from deep – LeBron did this in 2012-13. Add to this the best defence of his career –his rim protection and help defence have been playoff-level – and KD is a no-brainer. It’s a similar story with Kawhi, who has turned into an efficiency beast. He’s shooting over 40% from deep from the second straight year and is up to 90% from the charity stripe (on nearly seven attempts a game). If I were to bet, I’d say Kawhi is the next guy to join the 50/40/90 club. His team is currently on track to win 66 games and (spoiler alert) he’s the only All-Star. Oh, and he’s the two time defending defensive player of the year. Lock.
Then final forward spot is tough. There are two thoroughly deserving options in Anthony Davis and Marc Gasol. Here’s the arguments for both:
Davis: New Orleans are just 1.5 games behind Portland in the race for the eight-seed and nearly all of that has to do with Anthony Davis. The Pelicans are about five points worse per hundred possessions on both ends of the floor when Davis sits, which just highlights his two-way impact. Opponents shoot at least 4% worse than expected from everywhere on the floor when Davis is on, so for all the questions about his slow rotating and footwork under the basket, he’s doing something right on that end of the floor. With Eric Gordon and Ryan Anderson now plying their trade in Houston, the Pellies suddenly have the sixth best defence in the league and most of that is due to Davis’ presence on the inside. He’s killing it on the offensive end too, putting up nearly 29 points and 12 rebounds whilst shooting 49% from the field.
Gasol: Memphis currently sit fifth in the Western Conference with 24 wins and 16 losses despite missing Mike Conley, Chandler Parsons, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen for a combined 52 games. If that seems like a lot, it’s because it is. They’re the second through fifth best players on the roster and they’ve all missed significant time – but due to otherworldly performances from Gasol, it hasn’t mattered. Gasol has effectively won three or four games for the Grizz with huge shots down the stretch and as such, Memphis is easily outperforming its point differential. Add to this that they have the second best defensive rating in the league – a defence which Gasol anchors – despite playing various concoctions of rookies, journeymen and role players and Gasol’s case is pretty much sealed.
Davis is a better player than Gasol – if you were picking them off a wall you’d take Davis any day – but his team is nowhere near as good despite similar injury trouble and that matters. Davis hasn’t carried his team to the playoffs in the way Gasol is doing. His numbers are better, but do you take the good numbers on a bad team over the good teammate on a good team? I’ve taken Gasol, but I won’t begrudge anyone who thinks that the best big man in the league should take his spot.
Steph Curry and Chris Paul select themselves as the bench guards and would both be starting in the Eastern Conference. Curry is basically putting up the same numbers as he did in his first MVP year and remains the most dangerous player in the league when he gets going. There is no one – not even LeBron – that can off put opposing defences and change defensive schematics like Curry. Chris Paul is doing Chris Paul stuff, putting up points efficiently (40% from downtown this year), making everyone around him better and putting in work defensively. There was a bit of MVP buzz about him early in the year which has since died down, but CP3’s form hasn’t. He’s taking care of the ball better than any other Point Guard and the Clippers are just 2-5 in the seven games he’s missed.
So, with Westbrook, Harden, Durant, Leonard, Gasol, Davis, Curry and Paul pencilled in, there are just four spots left for some combination of DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard, Klay Thompson, DeAndre Jordan, Eric Bledsoe, Blake Griffin, Mike Conley, LaMarcus Aldridge and Karl-Anthony Towns.
Let’s sift through some of the mess.
Eric Bledsoe has been awesome once again and may well have been an All-Star last year but for injuries, but his 30% three point shooting and so-so vision combined with Phoenix being terrible is just too much to overlook.
Karl-Anthony Towns falls into a similar boat here, with incredible statistical production on the offensive end putting him into a conversation but poor defence on a bad team ultimately ruling him out. Towns – and his fellow pups – have looked all at sea at times trying to learn Thibs’ defensive ways, with KAT regularly getting caught out of position when helping from the weakside. He’ll improve, but All-Star teams are about the here and now, and right now, Towns is out.
Blake Griffin was close to a lock before the injury bug hit, but a 26 game sample is simply not enough to validate a sixth All-Star appearance. His teammate DeAndre Jordan was close once again, but the Clippers terrible stretch when Paul and Griffin were out injured ended any chance DJ had of making the team. Plus, he’s not even the best guy in the conference at protecting the rim, playing hyper-efficient offense and catching lobs anymore. There’s a certain Stifle Tower in Utah that has taken over that mantle.
Mike Conley: you just have to feel sorry for him, don’t you? He’s having another stellar year, in which he would most likely be an All-Star in the East, but he’s trapped behind Westbrook, Harden, Curry, Paul, Lillard and Thompson in the West. Not even career highs in points (18.7), rebounds (3.6) and three-point percentage (41.6%) can get him a berth among this sort of competition. Especially not when he’s missed 12 games through injury.
LaMarcus Aldridge gets a mention simply by being the second best player on a team primed to win 65-70 games. Last year, this was enough to see him pick up his fifth All-Star appearance, but his stagnant production level is not enough in a much better class this year. You simply cannot argue that Aldridge has been more influential to the Spurs than any of the guys I’m about to mention.
That leaves DeMarcus Cousins, Draymond Green, Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward, Damian Lillard and Klay Thompson to fight it out for the remaining four spots.
The final few spots raise some interesting questions. How much does being able to play a role on a good team matter? Is it more than putting up numbers on a bad team? What about being a two-way team guy verses an offensive superstar?
Draymond Green is the most obvious choice here. Whilst he hasn’t been at the same level as last year offensively, he hasn’t needed to be – he plays with Kevin Durant now. His three-point shooting has dropped off, but teams still have to respect his shot which creates enough space for the other guys to do their thing and he’s still an elite facilitator and rebounder. The Warriors offense goes from historic to regular-good-team when he sits and the team need his aggression more than they realise. He’s also the most versatile defender in the league – the only guy this side of Cleveland that can guard one through five – and could easily win Defensive Player of the Year.
Boogie suffers from Anthony Davis syndrome, he’s putting up ridiculous numbers on a team that simply doesn’t have the supporting cast to help him. The Kings are better than the Pels, but not by much considering their roster is stronger. Cousins has his flaws. He’s a ball hog who is second in the league in usage rate to only Russell Westbrook, he’s lazy on defence and he’s a historically bad teammate. The Kings locker room has been in disarray since he got there – a lot of that isn’t his fault, but you can’t excuse his antics as simply being the organisations fault. Boogie is a basket case of lazy transition defence, technical fouls and coasting through games.
But you know what? The Kings are right in the hunt for the eight-seed and 99% of that comes down to Boogie. For all his pitfalls, this is one of the most talented guys in the league and his production is enormous.
The fact that the Kings offense goes from top-10 standard with Boogie on the court to below Sixers-level bad when he sits just shows you how much he means to this team. Detractors will point to his efficiency – or lack thereof – but a True Shooting Percentage that is comparable to Marc Gasol and Karl-Anthony Towns is pretty good for a guy carrying a far greater load offensively. Boogie is having the best season of his career on the offensive end, which has seen the improvement of the three-point shot that he unveiled last season. Indeed 37.2% from behind the line is elite for a big man, but for a guy as skilled as Boogie, it has opened up a whole array of drives that were previously unavailable. Once that 270lb behemoth starts barrelling downhill towards the rim, you’re toast. Add to this that his Assist to Turnover ratio has crept above one for the first time in his career and it’s hard to argue against him. Just imagine what he could do if he didn’t play a significant portion of his minutes next to the floor-clogging Kosta Koufos.
Now it gets seriously difficult. I can’t argue with any of these four making the game, but seeing as there are only two spots, tough decisions must be made. Gordon Hayward is having a career-best season on one of the most solid teams in the league, Damian Lillard is putting up career best numbers on an under-performing team, Klay Thompson is putting up worse than usual numbers on the best team in the league and Rudy Gobert is the best rim protector in the league. Who do you cut?
Unfortunately for Lillard, I just can’t overlook the fact that the Blazers are 16-23. This is a team that many expected to push into the 45 win range and cement themselves as a perennial playoff contender after upgrading their roster in the offseason. Instead, they’re fighting for the eight-seed with flawed teams and perennial basketcases.
On the offensive end, Lillard is a legitimate difference maker. Similarly to Curry, he causes defensive adjustments due to his unlimited range and ability to pull up from anywhere on the court. He’s oft-maligned as a passer, but he generally does a good job in choosing the correct option from the Pick and Roll – even if he lacks the highlight reel of a Paul/Wall/Harden. When it comes to scoring, he’s the whole package. He’s now getting to the rack at an elite level, as evidenced by a career-high Free Throw Rate (39.7% up from 31.5% last year) and he’s getting more free points than ever (6.7 free throws made per game). He’s averaging career highs in points, Field Goal Percentage and Effective Field Goal Percentage; there’s no doubt that he’s having one hell of a season offensively. The primary role of a Point Guard is to captain the offense, making plays for themselves and teammates so that their team can score as efficiently as possible. The Blazers offense is currently top 10, so Lillard is doing a good job, but as the best player and leader of the team, it’s also imperative to lead the way on both ends of the floor.
Lillard is one of the worst defenders in the league and Portland currently have the second worst defence in the league. That’s no coincidence. Lillard almost never knows when a screen is coming and in turn the Blazers are forced into mismatches all over the court. Elite opposition have no issue getting into the lane, an issue which is exasperated by the Blazers lack of rim protection. Unfortunately for Dame, the calibre of player competing for the last two spots is so strong that these issues are too big to ignore.
The big difference between Lillard and Gobert is that Gobert’s limitations don’t hurt his team. In fact, they help the Jazz. Gobert is limited offensively, but he knows this and doesn’t stray from these limitations. The Frenchman sets solid screens, rolls to the rim hard and similarly to Tyson Chandler/Andre Drummond/DeAndre Jordan types, has his own gravity. The mere sight of Gobert rolling to the rim sucks in defenders who must attempt to stop the 7’2 monster from getting easy dunks. The Jazz go from scoring 107.8 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor to just 103.1 when he sits. That’s a significant difference for a guy who is supposed to be a liability on the offensive end. His true shooting percentage is 68.1%, good enough for league best. Detractors will say that the only reason for this is because he only dunks at the rim, but one of the most underappreciated traits in the league is the big man who is happy to just be a dunking, rim-rolling efficiency machine. You think Dwight Howard would be happy doing Gobert’s role with no post touches? No way. Gobert is the ultimate team player on the offensive end and that’s enough when you’re the best rim protector in the league.
It is there – on the defensive end – that the case for Gobert is much easier. He should be the frontrunner for Defensive Player of the Year at this stage, anchoring a Utah Jazz team which currently sits third in defensive rating. The most impressive thing about that stat is that Derrick Favors and George Hill have missed large chunks of the season, meaning that the Gobert is the only legitimate defensive difference maker that has played significant minutes this year. He currently sits second behind only Draymond Green in Defensive Box Plus/Minus and he leads the league in Defensive Win Shares.
Need more proof? Let’s see how the best Centers in the league have fared against him.
|Player||Points||FG%||PTS Diff||FG% Diff|
Pretty conclusive I’d say. Marc Gasol had a better night than usual in their first meeting, but Gobert improved and kept him to just 8 and 17 points in their next two match ups. Other than that, not one of the premier Centers has done well against the Stifle Tower.
On a quantitative level, he’s basically saving the Jazz four or five points a night just in his direct Center matchup (not counting all the points he’s saving from other positions). On a qualitative level, he’s a legitimate game changer. Limiting the production of focal points such as Cousins and Gasol completely throws the opposition’s regular offensive philosophies out the window, forcing them to give the ball to less talented players. His mere presence around the rim is enough for players to settle for mid-range jumpers or pass out to teammates for difficult looks. Not even DeAndre Jordan has that kind of fear factor. Gobert simply must be an All-Star this year, it doesn’t matter that he can’t create offense for himself or hit a mid-range jumper – he doesn’t need to. He plays his role better than anyone in the league and I’d take that guy any day.
That leaves one spot for Gordon Hayward or Klay Thompson.
Klay Thompson is the toughest guy to figure out here. Do the Warriors deserve four All-Stars? I’m going to say no. The context around Klay is just too difficult to sift through. It’s so tough to separate his success from that of the team and to identify how much he brings to the table when compared to Curry, Durant and Green. Sure, he’s a guy that can single-handedly win you a playoff series (see Golden State beating Oklahoma City in the Western Conference Finals), but he’s also a guy that can have no impact on a game. He’s become a better passer this year (some of his alley-oops to JaVale McGee are just divine) and his gravity alone is as big of an offensive weapon as there is. His defence is steady, but not game changing as some will have you believe. Unfortunately, it’s just too hard to separate what Thompson is doing from those around him – how would he fare in OKC trying to do what Russ does? Does that matter? It matters enough, he’s in the perfect situation to thrive, but he’s the fourth best player on his team and there’s one guy who simply deserves it more….
Gordon Hayward. Finally, he’s broken the Mike Conley-shackles and is having an All-Star year. The Jazz have gone long stretches without George Hill this year, which has seen Hayward flip the switch into Mr Versatile, single-handedly doing everything for the Jazz on the offensive end. He’s ticked up to a statline of 22 points, 5.8 rebounds and 3.5 assists on shooting slashed of 45/37/88 – easily the best of his career. The Jazz currently rank in the top-ten in both Offensive and Defensive efficiency, and a lot of the credit must go to Hayward. Not so much on the defensive end – although he doesn’t take anything off the table – but on the offensive end.
George Hill has played just 15 games, meaning that once again Hayward has been tasked with being the primary offensive initiator from the Small Forward position. He’s getting to the line, finishing through contact and connecting from mid-range better than ever and the Jazz are lost without his shot creation. It comes down to Thompson, Lillard and Hayward – do you want the fourth best player on an exceptional team or the best player on a mediocre team? I’ll take the equal best player on a very good team.
Congratulations Gordon, you’re finally an All-Star (well, at least to me you are).
- Written by Elliott Hoffmann
- All stats are from Basketball-Reference unless stated.