This is a fact: The NBA’s midseason All-Star Game continues to mean less and less thanks to decreased defensive effort, increased emphasis on bombing three’s and making highlight reel plays at the rim, and truly baffling Halftime Show choices (our last four half-time acts, including this year, have been Earth, Wind and Fire, Ariana Grande, Sting and John Legend). I mean, if Sting doesn’t get you amped up to play some basketball, I don’t really know who will. I listen to “Roxanne” every time I’m getting ready to ball.
This is also a fact: In the social media/over-analyze everything/talking heads age of sports coverage, the roster choices for the increasingly unimportant NBA All-Star Game are more debated and dissected now than ever before, to the point where the “Who should make the team,” discussion is more crucial than “How did the game go?”
Want some evidence of this? My three most vivid All-Star Game related memories of the last five years have been wondering if Jeremy Lin, at the height of Linsanity, would be given a spot on the 2012 Eastern Conference All-Star Team … watching Charles Barkley blow a gasket on national TV when he found out Stephen Curry didn’t make the Western Conference All-Star Team in 2013 (and I must say, it’s refreshing to watch Barkley rant on something like this instead of short-sighted beliefs like “I’ve never seen the NBA as bad as it is”) … and finally, this year, trying to figure out how the F Russell Westbrook isn’t starting starting in the All-Star Game. Like, I understand how the voting procedure works, but fundamentally I don’t understand how a dude averaging 30 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per game isn’t starting in the All-Star Game. It makes no sense to me.
(The Big Question: Does it make more or less sense than Sylvester Stallone not winning the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor last year? My friend and fellow Hardwood and Hollywood writer Dalton Baggett asked me this question on the latest edition of my podcast, Sonny Talks Sports. Y’all should definitely check it out for plenty of jovial NBA banter.)
So anyway, my objective today is to select my 12-man rosters for the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, and just so we’re on the same page, when I’m picking my All-Star rosters I’m using a three-part criteria to make my choices: Individual Performance, Team Record and Importance to the Season (i.e. how crucial were they to the story of that particular season). Let’s get to it!
Starting Five: Isaiah Thomas, Kyle Lowry, LeBron James, Jimmy Butler, Giannis Antetokounmpo
The only two picks that came without any struggle or debate are LeBron James (still the best basketball player alive) and the Greek LeBron James (aka, Giannis). Giannis is doing all the sort of stuff LeBron did ten years ago — lead his team in all statistical categories, bring a tangible and infectious night to night energy, and make three or four “What the F was that?” plays per game. He’s like 90 percent of the way there, and for a dude who was playing in high school gyms in Greece five years ago, that’s not bad at all.
Isaiah Thomas felt like a no-brainer selection to me, along the lines that LeBron and Giannis were. He hits all three points of my criteria: statistically, he’s on pace to have the best season ever by a player under 6-feet tall (no small feat, no pun intended). He’s the best player and go-to scoring option on a team that could very well end up making the Eastern Conference Finals. And the frequency of which he goes on 4th quarter scoring barrages has been one of the stories of the season. I haven’t seen anything like it. I was young for peak Iverson, but I don’t recall him being able to consistently get buckets like this down the stretch of games when he was in his prime.
Lowry gets the nod over fellow Raptor DeRozan by the slimmest of margins. Not unlike DeRozan, Lowry is in the midst of a career year, only he’s the more dangerous late-game scorer and he’s a pitbull defensively when he’s locked in. He’s scalding hot from downtown (44 percent on 7.5 attempts per game … Jesus) and Toronto manages to stay afloat when he’s on the floor without DeRozan, while line-ups featuring only DeRozan have fluttered all season long.
Butler deserves the final spot, and special consideration in general for busting his ass this season and taking his game to a new level despite nearly constant trade rumors, a coach who would probably be better off back coaching in college and a wacky supporting cast that doesn’t make Butler any better as a player. Why did anyone think that Rajon Rondo could bring anything but subpar defense, a broken jumper and moodiness to the table? How did the Bulls front office talk themselves into bringing Dwyane Wade in and allowing him to play co-alpha dog alongside the clearly more effective Butler? It’s a shit show, and Butler’s brilliance will earn the Bulls a Playoff berth. I need to figure out a way to reunite Jimmy Butler and Tom Thibodeau in Minnesota.
Bench Guards: Kyrie Irving, John Wall
Kyrie got the nod to start in the 2017 All-Star Game and that’s fine with me. He’s remained insanely clutch (and hit the game-winning shot in the Warriors/Cavs Finals rematch on Christmas Day which doubles as the leading candidate for regular season Game of the Year), he’s still a magician with the ball in his hands and he’s the second leading scorer on the second best team in the NBA. It’s difficult to argue against his credentials. John Wall would have been an equally O.K. choice for that second starting guard spot, only few people know this. Wall, like nearly every other lead guard in the Eastern Conference, is having a career year on both ends of the floor and he was awarded with Eastern Conference Player of the Month in December. The Wizards currently boast a 13 game home win streak (the longest in the NBA), and in those games Wall is averaging 23 points, 5 rebounds and 11 assists and almost as many “What the F was that” plays as Giannis. These were two easy choices.
Bench Frontcourt: DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love, Joel Embiid
DeRozan plays 27% of his minutes at Small Forward, and that’s good enough for me to give him the first Frontcourt bench spot. His scoring has jumped by 4.5 points per game from last year to this year and he’s having his best shooting season since his rookie year when he took just 6.6 shots per game (compared to 21.3 field goal attempts per game this year). Over half of DeRozan’s shots are mid-rangers or long two’s, the areas where most defenses want their opponents taking shots, but the Raps boast the third best offense in the league at the half-way point of the season and DeRozan leads them in scoring.
Kevin Love is the third scoring option in Cleveland, but now that he’s finally settled into his role as a Cavalier he’s beginning to resemble peak Kevin Love once again. Love is finally showing some level of comfort, and he’s scoring and rebounding at a similar rate as he did when he was putting up crazy numbers on crappy Timberwolves teams. Love is one of only five players in the league averaging at least 20 points and ten rebounds per game and he’s the only player in the Eastern Conference doing so.
Damn straight Joel Embiid should be in the NBA All-Star Game! Not only has his emergence been one of the bigger stories of the season, all of this hype is actually warranted. Embiid is putting up All-Star caliber numbers in only 25 minutes per game, and when you stretch those numbers across 36 minutes he’s at a pace few rookies have ever reached. Embiid has missed double digit games and the Sixers are well under .500, but then there’s this nugget … Philadelphia actually has a positive point differential in Embiid’s minutes on the floor this season. That warrants an All-Star spot in my opinion.
Bench Wild Cards: Paul Millsap, Kemba Walker
In the interest of saving some words and sticking with the status quo, I’ll just go ahead and abstain from talking about how steady and impressive Paul Millsap has been this year despite the trade rumors, the roster turnover and Dwight Howard.
There are a bunch of different directions one could choose to go with that last Eastern Conference roster spot. Jabari Parker has emerged into a perfectly suitable Robin to Giannis’ Batman, and Bradley Beal is doing something similar in Washington next to John Wall. Carmelo Anthony and Kristaps Porzingis are still locked in that “Who is Batman, who is Robin” power struggle (with Derrick Rose making ill-fated attempts to get into that conversation too) and Paul George wishes he had a teammate worthy of being his Robin (sorry, but I’m not sold on Jeff Teague, and Myles Turner isn’t there yet).
My choice was Kemba Walker, having the best offensive season of any player in contention for that last spot. Kemba’s basically Isaiah Thomas-lite; he’s consistently making big shots late in games when it seems inconceivable that a guy his size should be doing it. And truthfully, I’m partial to rewarding guys who have busted their asses to get to another level. Three years ago Kemba Walker didn’t show signs of being a guy who was capable of being the best player on a Playoff team … he looked more like he was better suited being a spark-off-the-bench lead ball-handler who could give you 20 minutes per game, and about a third of the time he’d be able to carry your offense. That’s not the case anymore.
Starters: Russell Westbrook, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis
I’ll be honest, I didn’t think there was going to be any contention to my group of five, but then all of you “fans” out there had to go ahead and ruin it and take Russ out of the starting line-up. The new method of voting for All-Star Game Starters should be the Fan Vote counts for 25%, NBA League Pass Subscriber Vote counts for 25%, Players Vote counts for 25%, and Media Vote counts for 25%. I’m certain that Steph Curry wouldn’t have bumped Russ from the starting five if things were operating that way.
Westbrook, Harden, Durant and Leonard are four of the five or six top MVP candidates this year (along with “a little French fella” named LeBron and a little fella named Isaiah Thomas), so they were no-brainers to get starting nods. As I mentioned last week in my Martin Luther King Day NBA Preview, I’d give Harden the slight edge over the field for the hardware at this moment. His numbers are otherworldly (97 percent as impressive as Westbrook’s) and he’s on a better team with a truly elite offense that works because Harden is the absolute perfect lead ball-handler to run that show. Westbrook is going to put up Oscar Robertson numbers against better competition than Oscar and playing at a slower pace than The Big O did … enough said. Kevin Durant is having his most efficient offensive season ever, and yes, he’s the Warriors best player this year. Kawhi Leonard continues to evolve offensively while making the lives of countless opponents miserable with his defensive efforts.
And then there is Anthony Davis, playing alongside one of the three worst supporting casts in the NBA, who is averaging 28 points, 12 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game. That’s the fifth most deserving starter in the Western Conference this year. Fucking ridiculous.
Bench Guards: Stephen Curry, Damian Lillard
Here we have the two-time defending League MVP and one of my favorite MVP sleepers heading into the season. Curry is a lock considering the casual fans already voted him into the game. Even in a “down” season compared to last years tour de force, Curry is putting up numbers that are really close to those from his first MVP season two years ago. Check it out:
This Year: 24.6 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.1 assists, 1.8 steals, 47-40-92 shooting splits
2014-15: 23.8 points, 4.3 rebounds, 7.7 assists, 2.0 steals, 49-44-91 shooting splits
I give Curry a lot of credit because he’s the Warrior that has sacrificed the most since Durant’s arrival … the shots, the late-game touches, the alpha dog status, the shoe sales, the notoriety. Klay is getting as many shots this year as he was last year, and while Draymond is taking one shot fewer per game, he’s still able to do all of that Draymond Green stuff that made him so damn good last year (you know, like grab boards and push the tempo, play lockdown defense, set teammates up for open looks, berate officials and opponents and teammates, hit dudes in the junk, etc.). Nobody else on the Dubs took a back seat quite like Steph.
Meanwhile, the Blazers organically found Damian Lillard a suitable running mate in C.J. McCollum, and each of those two have put together All-Star caliber seasons so far, but the Blazers are under .500 and there just aren’t a whole lot of open spots out there on the West roster. Still, Lillard is scoring 26 points per game and there have been very few prolific scorers like Dame who have been left off the All-Star team. He narrowly makes my cut.
Bench Frontcourt: Draymond Green, DeMarcus Cousins, Marc Gasol
We already covered Draymond. It’s the same Draymond we saw last year … the heartbeat of the Warriors and one of the hardest working dudes in the NBA. Aside from the nut-punching and “rivalry” with my favorite athlete ever, Draymond is my guy and my basketball spirit animal. He easily makes the roster.
The second two frontcourt spots go to two bigs that bring drastically different games to the table. Cousins’ numbers (28 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists, 45-38-78 shooting splits) can blow you away the same way Anthony Davis’ do, and similar to AD’s Pelicans, Boogie’s Kings are in the hunt for the 8th seed in the Western Conference. Gasol’s resume doesn’t knock you out of your seat like Boogie’s does, but as always, Gasol is pacing those pesky Grit and Grind Grizzlies, and once again, if they can enter the postseason healthy the Grizzlies are going to be a bitch to have to play in a seven-game series.
Cousins is obviously the more dominant of the two in the traditional sense, but Gasol is far more stable, and I imagine that this is part of the reason why there hasn’t been any major buzz regarding a potential Cousins trade over the last few years. Some teams have probably been cautious to give up too much for a volatile, moody and exceptional young Center, not knowing what exactly they are going to get. Remember, Cousins has been putting up big numbers since he came into the NBA out of Kentucky, but he and the Kings have never sniffed the Playoffs until this year.
Bench Wild Cards: Rudy Gobert, Gordon Hayward
The Utah Jazz have been one of the pleasant, under-the-radar stories of the season and I want to reward their success with not one, but two NBA All-Star selections. With apologies to Klay Thompson, C.J. McCollum, Karl-Anthony Towns, DeAndre Jordan, Mike Conley and a handful of others, Rudy Gobert (the Defensive Player of the Year) and Gordon Hayward (inching towards that leap we’ve been waiting for him to make since he almost banked in the game-winner in the 2010 National Championship Game) get my Wild Card roster spots.
Hayward will never be the prototypical alpha dog Jazz fans have ached for him to become, but with a uniquely constructed roster around him that can score in a variety of ways and play elite defense, that’s not what the Jazz need at the moment. Hayward is posting career best scoring and shooting numbers and he competes defensively every night.
Gobert is the true alpha dog in Utah. He is a destroyer around the rim that deserves the lion’s share of the credit for the Jazz being the best defensive team in the NBA. There are capable defenders elsewhere in any five-man unit Quin Snyder will throw out there, but when you have a gigantic shot-blocking Frenchman (one whose presence at the rim isn’t the only intimidating part of his game … Gobert’s nicknames include “The Stifle Tower,” “Gobzilla,” and “The French Rejection”) playing behind you, it takes some of the burden off of your shoulders. Gobert’s style of play isn’t cut out for an All-Star Game, but he’s been one of the twelve best Western Conference players this year, and that’s really all that matters.