As NBA All-Star voting begins, which players are most deserving of a starting nod? Who makes the cut, and who will have to wait for the reserves to be selected?
Christmas Day brought a number of gifts to NBA fans, from five games on national television to another game for the ages between the league’s two juggernauts.
Those tuning in were treated to a Knicks-Celtics nailbiter, Russell Westbrook at his best and the Los Angeles Lakers overcoming the Clippers for the first time in four years.
The other gift fans received on Christmas Day was the opportunity to vote for the league’s All-Star starters. Voting began on Dec. 25 and is available through a plethora of platforms, from Google to Twitter to the classic NBA.com.
With only 10 spots available to voters — a starting five for each conference — the mass of deserving players has to be narrowed down. Which players deserve to start in the NBA All-Star Game? Who is going to be left to the coaches to add as bench players?
The most difficult decision comes out East, but perhaps the most shocking decision is on the West Coast, where the reigning MVP may be shocked and left out in the cold.
Western Conference Guards
The class of the league plays in the backcourts of the Western Conference, as four of the top eight players in the league run the offense for their respective teams.
Chris Paul is somehow underrated each season despite his standing as the league’s best point guard of the past decade. Always among the league leaders in assists and steals, Paul led the Clippers to an historic start as the leader on offense and defense.
But scoring just 17.6 points per game drops him below his peers in this discussion, and his absence over the past few games gives him a knock the others do not have — Curry, Westbrook, and Harden have played in every game this season.
On the other side, Russell Westbrook is a lock to start in the All-Star Game, a feat he has achieved only once despite five total selections to the team. Stripped of his running mates this offseason, Westbrook has come out swinging and not let up since day one.
Westbrook is averaging a triple-double on the season, with STATS. He has 15 triple-doubles on the season, more than twice as many as second-place James Harden. The Thunder are firmly in the playoffs because of Westbrook more than any other team relies on one player.
The combination of his indescribable statistics, relentless on-court persona and personal narrative will propel Westbrook into the starting lineup.
Therefore the decision comes down to James Harden vs. Stephen Curry. Curry has started the last three All-Star games for the Western Conference, while Harden has been named to the reserves for the last four.
On previous recognition, Curry’s starts and two MVPs would carry him into the spot and his popularity among fans may lift him there again.
It would not be completely without merit either. Curry leads the league in three-pointers made yet again, despite sharing the court with two other elite shooters. His offensive real plus-minus is fourth in the league, the best on a team with one of the best offenses in NBA history.
His team has 27 wins, two more than anyone else and four more than Harden’s Rockets.
But Curry would be the wrong choice, as Harden has been simply fantastic to this point in the season. He is averaging 27.5 points, 11.9 assists, and 7.8 rebounds per game, mind-blowing numbers that have ignited Houston’s offense.
The most three-point happy team in the league has risen to third in the Western Conference, and they defeated the Warriors in their only head-to-head meeting thus far this season.
Russell Westbrook and James Harden have been the sole engine for two successful teams, and are putting up insane numbers for the season. In any other year Harden may be a clear MVP favorite, and at the very least he deserves to start alongside Westbrook.
Starters: Russell Westbrook, James Harden
Western Conference Frontcourt
Last season the starting frontcourt for the West was almost a complete laughingstock due to the vagaries of the fan-voting system. Kobe Bryant was selected to the team, despite having a dismal year, on the back of his popularity both domestically and abroad.
Zaza Pachulia rode support from his native country of Georgia and some unexpected social media campaigns to finish fourth in voting, a few thousand votes shy of crashing the party.
While the rules for selecting the All-Star starters has changed to give less weight to the fans, they will still hold a lot of weight in selecting this year’s team. Thankfully for voters. the All-Star frontcourt is fairly straightforward in the Western Conference.
Kevin Durant has been selected to seven straight All-Star games, starting five of them, and this season should again be a starter. He is the most efficient player on the West’s best offense, leading the league in true shooting percentage despite taking shots from all over the court.
He has unveiled a secret strength in protecting the rim, is rebounding as well as any season in his career, and overall is one of the very best two-way players in the league — if not the best.
Starting alongside Durant will be Kawhi Leonard, perhaps the other candidate for best two-way player. Leonard has kept the San Antonio defense glued together despite the presence of two terrible defenders in the starting lineup.
He is close to automatic from the free-throw line, gobbling up two steals per game and providing consistent production for the league’s second-best team.
The third spot is more open to interpretation, with a handful of players possessing reasonable claims to the position.
Marc Gasol is having a career year as an inside-out center leading a battered Memphis team towards the playoffs, Rudy Gobert is the best defensive center in the league right now, and DeMarcus Cousins is putting up spectacular numbers despite his behavioral outbursts.
In the end this is a two-man race between Draymond Green and Anthony Davis. Green leads the league in defensive RPM, leading the Golden State defense through grit and pride into the top-five despite the lack of a true rim-protecting center.
His box score stats boggle the mind: 10.6 points, 8.7 rebounds, 7.3 assists, 1.3 steals, and 2.2 blocks.
The difference between Green and Davis is the help, and that difference could not be more stark. The Warriors slot in three of the league’s 12 best players around Draymond, while the Pelicans have no other top-40 guy to put alongside Davis.
But Davis deserves this spot in a pinch over Green, and it’s precisely because of that lack of help.
Anthony Davis receives the defense’s full attention when he is on the court, and help defenders not afraid of Solomon Hill or Terrence Jones jacking a triple can aggressively help in shutting down The Brow.
And yet they cannot, as Davis averages 29.6 points and 11.7 rebounds per game. His 2.7 blocks lead the league, and despite the personnel around him is keeping the Pelicans afloat in a suddenly winnable playoff race.
Draymond Green deserves the spot, but Davis deserves it just a little bit more.
Starters: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis
Eastern Conference Forwards
The easiest choices for the All-Star starters will be the three frontcourt players in the East.
While a number of talented, productive players deserve consideration for the reserves — Kevin Love, Paul Millsap, Paul George, even newcomers such as Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis — there are three clear choices for the starting lineup.
LeBron James has started for the Eastern Conference 12 years in a row and he will surely extend that streak to 13. The King is dropping 25.5 points per game with around eight each of rebounds and assists, not to mention a career high 1.9 three-pointers per game.
To accentuate his value, the Cavaliers are 0-3 in games that he has sat out, a number that extends to 4-18 since he returned to Cleveland.
Those are the individual numbers, but the team’s success buoys James’ case as well. Cleveland is yet again first in the Eastern Conference, despite Toronto’s historic offense.
The Cavaliers came back to beat the Warriors on Christmas Day, during which LeBron had a thunderous dunk to give his team the lead late in the fourth. On every level LeBron is an All-Star starter.
Joining him will be Jimmy Butler, a nominal shooting guard starting at small forward for the Chicago Bulls. Although the Bulls have cooled off as of late, their early-season jump start saw them rise as high as third in the East before floating back to earth.
Butler drove that hot start and will continue to fuel whatever run the Bulls have in them.
Butler is scoring 24 points per game while guarding the opposing team’s best player, and adding more playmaking opportunities for a team with a gaping hole at point guard. The Chicago wing is also drawing a career-high foul calls, a reflection of his increased drive to score at the rim.
The final spot goes to another player that one time was referred to as a guard and fills that role on offense. Giannis Antetokounmpo, the “Greek Freak.” is having an All-NBA level season as he announces to the world that he is a superstar.
Giannis is running the offense for the Milwaukee Bucks, and improving seemingly every week in his court vision and passing ability. He is averaging a career high in free throws attempted, points, and field goal percentages.
He fills up the box score as well, tossing in 23.4 points with five assists and nine rebounds.
On defense Giannis is a force to be reckoned with, able to switch 1-5 and completely envelop opposing players with his length. He is tallying two steals and two blocks per game, a feat accomplished by only six other players in NBA history.
Antetokounmpo ranks sixth in the league in RPM, just ahead of LeBron James.
The popular vote will have the greatest opportunity to upset things here, as Carmelo Anthony is a very popular player who has not played up to an All-Star level this season. But based on merit the choices are clear.
Starters: LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo
Eastern Conference Guards
If the Eastern Conference forwards were the easiest to fill, the guards may be the most difficult. Six players can all make a claim to deserving one of the two available spots, and there is no clear cut option that rises above the rest.
The Toronto Raptors boast the second-best record in the conference, a record built on the best offense in the NBA — an offense on pace to be one of the ten best in league history.
DeRozan is currently fifth in the league in scoring, carving up opposing defenses from midrange and the free-throw line. He is averaging career-highs in rebounds, assists, and steals. The drawback to DeRozan is his poor three-point shooting (26.5 percent).
Kyle Lowry has been every bit as dynamic beside DeRozan, scoring 21.9 points per game to go along with 7.2 assists. In the mirror image of his backcourt partner Lowry is shooting a scorching 45 percent from deep, and overall ranks third in the entire league in RPM.
Based on record and clutch shooting, Kyrie Irving deserves consideration for a starting position as well. Irving is one of three 20-point scorers on the Cavaliers, currently on pace to be the first teammate of LeBron to outscore The King over the course of a season.
On Christmas Day he yet again hit a huge shot to beat the Warriors. However Irving is a one-trick pony, providing little else other than his scoring.
John Wall is the epitome of a multiple-trick pony, scoring 23.3 points per game alongside 9.9 assists, best in the Eastern Conference. Wall also ranks among the league leaders in steals per game, which he thrives on flipping into transition offense.
Wall ranks 15th in the league in offensive RPM, just behind the next two players on this list.
Isaiah Thomas is the engine for the Boston Celtics’ offense, and his recent absence for a few games highlighted how much they depend on him. He has been dynamic since returning from injury, winning player-of-the-week honors for the days leading into Christmas. 26.8 points, 6.2 assists, and a couple of mind-boggling layups every night boost his candidacy, as does the Celtics’ third-place standing.
Just behind Boston in the standings are the Charlotte Hornets, and their floor general is having the best season of his career. His averages of 22.3 points, 5.5 assists, and 2.6 three-pointers are all career highs, and he ranks 12th in the league in offensive RPM.
His growth from behind the arc has opened up the offense for Charlotte and allowed them to stay in contention in the Eastern Conference despite their offseason losses.
In the end, the field has to be trimmed to two. Wall loses out because of his team’s record, currently below .500 and outside of the playoff picture.
Irving has the highlight reel, but not the complete package, and Isaiah Thomas’ contributions on offense are nearly eclipsed by his terrible defense.
Kyle Lowry is the first starter for the East, on the back of his complete game and presence in the league’s best five-man lineup — Lowry plus four bench players.
The other spot is a toss-up, but Kemba Walker wins on the strength of his three-point shooting and solo efforts without an All-Star backcourt partner.
Starters: Kyle Lowry, Kemba Walker
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