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NBA All-Star voting ends this week. Which players from the Eastern Conference deserve a spot in this year’s All-Star Game, and which ones just miss the cut?
NBA All-Star voting closes this Friday, and while I don’t have an official media vote for who gets into this year’s game, I still went through the exercise of selecting who I think have been the 12 best players in each conference so far. First, a few notes on my process and criteria:
The goal here is to identify the 12 players in each conference who have contributed most to winning on a per-game basis through the first three months of the season. Because All-Star selections are often the basis of historical comparisons, contractual incentives and Hall-of-Fame résumés, they should be an accurate reflection of player quality rather than simply who resonated most in the NBA zeitgeist. It’s likely that some players will move into or out of the “All-Star” range of players by the season’s end, but I didn’t try to project forward. All we have is what has happened so far.
With two exceptions, these rosters adhere to the league’s lineup format (two guards, three frontcourt players) and positional designations. Unless a player has missed the majority of the season, availability didn’t figure heavily into these choices. Games played may be used as a tiebreaker for particularly close calls, but so long as a player has established an All-Star level of play, this is more about player quality than total value. That said, players who are currently injured and/or slated to miss most of the season up to the break (i.e. Paul George and Damian Lillard) weren’t considered as strongly, while those who have missed time but are now healthy (Jimmy Butler and Joel Embiid) didn’t have those missed games held against them.
Rule changes and normalized playing conditions have brought league-average offensive efficiency down about 2.5 points per 100 possessions, and almost every star is less efficient than he was a year ago. Therefore scoring efficiency is discussed here relative to the rest of the league rather than a player’s own previous marks.
Lastly, this (fake) ballot is meant to recognize the best players in each conference, irrespective of how good or bad their teams are. Individual performance does help drive team success, but the two things aren’t always directly correlated, and treating them as such is an oversimplification of the various ways in which NBA teams can succeed. There is value in playing a key role for a good team, but it’s also possible — even common — for ensemble teams to succeed without elite players and top-heavy rosters to struggle in spite of a star player’s efforts. If a team “deserves” multiple All-Stars, it’s because that team has two or three of the 12 best players in their conference, not because they need recognition for their place in the standings.
All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference, NBA.com and Cleaning the Glass.
The Long Two picks for Eastern Conference NBA All-Stars
Guard: Trae Young, Jrue Holiday
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kevin Durant*, Joel Embiid
Guard: James Harden, Zach LaVine
Frontcourt: Jimmy Butler, DeMar DeRozan, Domantas Sabonis
Wild Card: Fred VanVleet, Darius Garland, Khris Middleton* (injury replacement)
Only one of the East’s current top four seeds gets a starter, which is a testament to Chicago, Miami and Cleveland’s balance and cohesion in the absence of a true superstar. A sprained MCL may keep Durant out of the game, but his play this season merits a starting nod, if only in name. A month ago, there might have been an argument for Butler — who should start if Durant can’t play — over Embiid, but the Sixers’ big man has squelched any possibility of that with MVP-level two-way play since the start of December.
DeRozan isn’t technically eligible at forward, but given that he rarely defends guards and Chicago starts two other conventional guards, I bent the rules and made him eligible at both positions. Despite a slight statistical dropoff in playmaking and scoring efficiency, DeRozan remains a highly dependable offensive hub who can capably score and pass. The Bulls rank second in offensive efficiency largely because of DeRozan’s meticulous, low-turnover style, and his ability to absorb possessions as an on-ball creator allows LaVine and Lonzo Ball to settle into more suitable complementary roles. Still, DeRozan’s reliance on tough shots, lack of a reliable 3-pointer and merely above-average passing vision keep him at least a level below Young (and maybe Harden) as an offensive player, and he doesn’t close that gap with his defense.
The Hawks have disappointed this year, but Young deserves more credit for elevating their offense than blame for bringing down their defense (where he’s one of many points of failure). The 23-year-old is among the best in the NBA at manipulating defenses with his passing, and no one in the league carries a heavier offensive workload or creates more open shots for teammates, according to Backpicks.com. Atlanta has scored nearly 118 points per 100 possessions with Young on the floor and just 104 with him off — roughly the difference between the best and 28th-best offenses in the NBA. There’s just no other guard in the East who approaches that level of offensive impact.
Harden has played a similar role for the Nets, though not as effectively. He remains an efficient passer and scorer who, like Young, he pressures defenses with efficient scoring and playmaking in ways Holiday, LaVine and DeRozan simply don’t. But his lack of an off-ball game has become more glaring this season, and his defense is back to peak levels of apathy. The Nets have scored at only a slightly higher rate with Harden on the floor than with him off, and have only a slightly positive scoring margin when he plays without Durant. Harden used to be a fast pass to a top-five offense — a system unto himself who created only the most efficient shot attempts — but as his effectiveness as a one-man offense wanes, it’s unclear whether that ball-dominant style is more valuable than Holiday’s two-way excellence in a secondary role or LaVine’s hyper-efficient scoring as an on- and off-ball weapon.
LaVine has been one of the most efficient high-volume scorers in the NBA for the second consecutive season, and his pull-up shooting and downhill burst provide important wrinkles for a dynamic offense. He just doesn’t provide enough value as a playmaker to surpass Young, Holiday and Harden in the East guard hierarchy.
Holiday, meanwhile, has eclipsed Middleton as Milwaukee’s second-most important player, taking on a bigger offensive role and continuing to play iron-clad defense — all while maintaining his efficiency relative to the league. There’s no lineup in which Holiday wouldn’t fit cleanly, no defensive scheme in which he can’t thrive, no teammate he doesn’t make better. He galvanizes the Bucks’ offense off the dribble, spearheads one of the league’s best defenses and finishes well from everywhere on the floor — including shooting 38 percent from deep and 52 percent (!) from mid-range. Most importantly, Milwaukee has crushed its opponents by 10 points per 100 possessions when Holiday plays without Antetokounmpo and looked like a title favorite when the two share the floor.
With no guard spots left, Garland and VanVleet go in as wild cards, though both are fairly clear choices. Garland has become an efficient three-level scorer and savvy pick-and-roll distributor while VanVleet is a borderline All-Defense candidate who shoots the lights out and reliably creates for others while leading the league in minutes per game. Both players control the game at the point of attack, and both the Cavs and Raptors’ offenses fall off a cliff without their respective stars. Kyle Lowry, Malcolm Brogdon and LaMelo Ball are all important parts of quality offenses (and two of those three are good defenders), but none have been as efficient or as central to their teams’ success as Garland or VanVleet.
That leaves a handful of candidates — Sabonis, Middleton, Jaylen Brown, Jayson Tatum, Pascal Siakam, Jarrett Allen and Miles Bridges — for the final frontcourt spot, plus an injury replacement for Durant. Bridges is a much-improved member of a fun ensemble cast, but just isn’t Charlotte’s driving force on either offense or defense. Allen is an elite role player who imposes himself at the rim on both ends of the floor, but he doesn’t create enough offense for himself or have the singular defensive impact to edge out the rest of the group. Siakam has recently emerged as a versatile small-ball center for one of the league’s most intriguing teams, but an inefficient scoring game and inconsistent interior defense keep him just a rung below Sabonis and Middleton, even if Siakam might end up the better player by February.
Middleton has dialed up his usage and playmaking to career-high levels, though with that has come a spike in turnovers and a slight dip in efficiency, and the Bucks have been fairly punchless in the minutes he plays without Giannis. Even so, he’s been a better shooter and playmaker than either of the Celtics’ wings, who have struggled as primary creators for a lackluster offense. I don’t take issue with those who prefer Tatum or Brown for their superior defense and greater offensive responsibility, but I lean toward Middleton’s more efficient, well-rounded game.
Sabonis was a questionable selection to the last two All-Star games, but he’s arguably having his best season to date as the fulcrum of Indiana’s 12th-ranked offense. The Pacers have defended reasonably well with him on the court, and while they’ve fallen off offensively in his minutes, that’s largely due to the team missing an inordinate number of shots from 3 and long mid-range — shots Sabonis helps create but usually doesn’t shoot. His shooting and defensive limitations make him a more difficult fit on the average team than versatile wings like Brown, Tatum and Middleton, but Sabonis more clearly drives his team’s success than the other candidates for this spot. For the sake of being thorough, I’ll name Sabonis the final frontcourt player and Middleton as the injury replacement; they both make the cut.
Check back in next week for the Western Conference selections!