The NBA announced which 10 players were selected as starters for the 2021 NBA All-Star Game on Thursday night, and for the second straight season, eight players on my official ballot made the final cut. I went 4-for-5 in both the East (team captain Kevin Durant, Joel Embiid, Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Bradley Beal) and the West (team captain LeBron James, Nikola Jokic, Kawhi Leonard, and Stephen Curry).
While I went with Jaylen Brown, who finished second in media balloting, the fan and player vote pushed Kyrie Irving into the starting lineup. Something similar happened in the West: I chose Damian Lillard, who landed in second in both the player and media polls, but the strength of the fan vote pushed Luka Doncic into the starting five for the second straight season.
Irving and Doncic are both exceedingly worthy choices—and, in fact, as the last cuts from my starter picks, they were the first names I wrote on the list of reserves I’d choose to fill out the benches for the exhibition that will be held next month in defiance of, y’know, [gestures broadly at everything].
Not that my list matters in this selection process; while fans, players, and media members (like me!) vote on the starting lineups, the reserve corps are up to the coaches. The fact that I won’t impact anything doesn’t mean I can’t spout off about the way things should be, though. I mean, this is the internet, after all.
Having established all that, here are the seven players from each conference—three frontcourt players, two guards, and two “wild cards” irrespective of positional designation—whom I’d pick to round out this year’s All-Star rosters:
FC Anthony Davis, Lakers*
FC Paul George, Clippers
FC Rudy Gobert, Jazz
G Damian Lillard, Trail Blazers
G Mike Conley, Jazz
WC Donovan Mitchell, Jazz
WC Chris Paul, Suns
(*Likely to miss the All-Star Game due to injury)
Davis’s start to 2020-21 bears some resemblance to what fellow futuristic big man Giannis Antetokounmpo has been muddling through back East; neither has been quite as impressive as they were during their remarkable 2019-20 campaigns. Like Giannis, though, AD—averaging 22.5 points, 8.4 rebounds, 3.0 assists, and 3.1 combined blocks/steals per game while shooting 53 percent from the field and anchoring the league’s best defense—has done more than enough to earn an All-Star nod.
HOWEVER! As Davis’s recent bout with right Achilles tendinosis will reportedly make it “extremely unlikely” that he returns to the court before the All-Star break, I am compelled to name an injury replacement for him. (Hence that tell-tale asterisk up top.) I’m choosing Zion Williamson, who has already logged more games and minutes than he did during his rookie season, and who has been an even more devastating offensive force in Year 2: 25 points, 6.8 rebounds, and 3.1 assists in 32.6 minutes per game, shooting a scorching 61.8 percent from the field. Reminder: He’s 20 years old. No player this young has ever scored this much and this efficiently; the last player to even come close was Adrian Dantley, nearly 45 years ago.
Already a juggernaut attacking the basket, Williamson might technically qualify as a weapon of mass destruction now that head coach Stan Van Gundy has put the ball in his hands. Operating as a point power forward over the Pelicans’ past 12 games, Zion’s time of possession, average number of dribbles per touch, drives to the basket per game, and assists are all way up over their early-season levels; in a related story, a New Orleans offense that ranked 19th in offensive efficiency through 16 games has been rubbing shoulders with the league-leading Nets since. I’m going to go out on an awfully sturdy limb here and say that I suspect Zion’s first All-Star appearance won’t be his last.
Before suffering a toe injury that’s sidelined him for the past two weeks, Paul George was off to perhaps the best start of his career. PG took all manner of shit for the role he played in the Clippers’ collapse against Denver last postseason. After a healthy offseason, and armed with a massive four-year contract extension, he promised to come back locked in with a vengeance. So far, so good. The star swingman has paired high-efficiency scoring (24.4 points on 51/48/91 shooting splits and a career-best .662 true shooting percentage) with higher-level playmaking (a career-high 5.5 assists per game) and his customary excellent perimeter defense for a Clipper team that’s been lights out offensively and has played top-of-the-league-caliber defense whenever George has shared the floor with All-Star starter Kawhi Leonard. Whether the revamped Clips will fare better this postseason than last remains to be seen; this version of George, though, sure would help.
Rounding out the reserve frontcourt: the two-way centerpiece of the best damn team in the NBA.
There aren’t any surprises in Gobert’s game, really; the Jazz center just does what he does. The trick, though, is that he does those things as well as, if not better than, anybody else in the league. Hardly anybody contests more shots, and few have a greater impact on them; opponents shoot 7.4 percent below their season averages with Gobert contesting, one of the league’s largest differentials. And that’s when they even get them off: Jazz opponents take a significantly lower share of their shots at the rim and from 3-point land when Gobert’s patrolling the middle, a combination of their reluctance to challenge him at the rim and teammates’ confidence to press up and play aggressive at the arc, knowing he’s lying in wait to clean up any messes. He’s the single biggest reason the Jazz once again rank near the top of the league in points allowed per possession—and, with his constant screen-setting to spring Utah’s creators, the threat he poses as a vertical spacer with his elite pick-and-roll finishing, and his impact as an offensive rebounder and producer of second-chance points, he’s a significant reason Quin Snyder’s club sits near the top of the offensive charts, too.
He’s far from the only one, though, and two others get two of my final four spots. The Jazz wouldn’t be the beautiful, brutalizing offensive machine they’ve become without the work of their stellar backcourt.
Mitchell hasn’t blitzed the league with the same fury he unleashed on Denver back in the bubble, but he’s continued his steady growth as a no. 1 scoring option and playmaker. He’s become both a more patient passer and a high-volume long-range marksman—one of just six players in the league attempting at least eight triples a night and knocking down more than 39 percent of them—which have further opened up his game as a slasher and drive-and-kick facilitator. The result: a career-best 24.2 points and 5.1 assists per game, fueling Utah’s evolution into one of the league’s most menacing attacks.
As good as Gobert and Mitchell have been, though, I’m not sure the Jazz reach this level of dominance—they enter Friday a league-best 24-5, with nearly the same point differential as the Year 1 KD Warriors—without Conley bouncing back from a shaky first season in Utah. (Or, more accurately, continuing the bounce-back that began once he got healthy last February.)
Like damn near everyone else in a Jazz uniform these days, Conley’s bombing away, shooting 41 percent from deep on 6.8 attempts per game, both career highs. He’s slotted in perfectly as a complementary ball handler, on- and off-ball threat, and reliable backcourt defender, and has been a common thread in killer Jazz lineups of all stripes: alongside Mitchell, alongside Sixth Man of the Year front-runner Jordan Clarkson, and even, in small doses, as the lone nominal guard flanked by three wings and Gobert, with whom he’s developed fantastic chemistry.
The advanced stats love Conley nearly as much as teammates and basketbloggers do: He’s near the top of the league in regularized adjusted plus minus, ESPN’s real plus-minus, and FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR metric, and in the top 20 in box plus-minus and win shares per 48 minutes. That’s all influenced to some degree by the presence of Gobert; more than 85 percent of Conley’s minutes this season have come with the All-Star center on the floor. It’s worth noting, though, that the Jazz are plus-54 in 99 minutes when Conley plays without Gobert this season, posting an even gaudier net rating than when they play together. One theory, humbly submitted: All those fancy numbers are also picking up on the fact that Mike Conley kicks ass, and deserves—at long last—the first All-Star appearance of his 14-year career.
As I mentioned up top, I cast a ballot for Lillard to be in the starting lineup. Since that didn’t happen, I’ll slot him in here as a reserve in recognition of the way he marries mammoth production—29.8 points, 7.7 assists, and 4.4 rebounds per game, shooting 38.4 percent from deep on 10.8 attempts a night—with team success that oftentimes seems to rest squarely on his shoulders.
Losing Jusuf Nurkic and CJ McCollum (who was on his way to an All-Star berth of his own) seemed like a major blow for a Blazers team that had already been scuffling thanks to a bottom-five defense. But Portland’s gone 10-5 without two of its three best players, including six straight wins to move into fourth place in the West, thanks in large part to its best player. During this monthlong stretch, the Blazers are 7-2 in games in which the score was within five points in the final five minutes, with Dame scoring 44 points on 14-for-22 shooting in 30 “clutch” minutes. That includes a number of late-game bombs that offered reminders of how “Dame Time” became A Thing:
I don’t know if “clutch” (as an actual character trait that some players have and others don’t) exists. If it did, though, it’d probably look an awful lot like Lillard just continuing, year in and year out, to drag the Blazers through whatever they’re dealing with—a rash of injuries, misfiring role players, defensive inconsistency—to wins in games a lot of other teams would lose. That’s also a pretty handy definition for “All-Star,” now that you mention it.
That left me with one remaining slot, and three main contenders: two Suns guards and DeMar DeRozan, who has been tremendous for a San Antonio team that’s just a game and a half out of fourth place.
Yes, a lot of the credit for the Spurs’ success belongs to a killer second unit led by Patty Mills. To the extent that the starters drag San Antonio down, though, it’s become clear that that’s about the precipitous decline of LaMarcus Aldridge: The Spurs are minus-73 in 381 minutes with DeRozan and Aldridge sharing the floor, but plus-54 in 454 minutes when DeMar’s on the court and LaMarcus is on the bench, outscoring opponents by a very healthy 4.5 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions. The arc of NBA history has somehow turned DeRozan into a point small-ball 4, and he’s rolled with it and thrived; he’s dropping dimes and getting to the free throw line at career-best rates (or close to it), hardly ever turning the ball over while posting the most efficient shooting numbers of his career, and serving as a stabilizing agent (especially late in games) as the Spurs’ youngsters continue to grow into their talents.
In the end, though, my decision came down to Paul and Booker—a tough choice made tougher by these wild stats from the Suns’ successful-but-sort-of-odd start: Phoenix has nearly identical (and excellent) net ratings in Booker-but-no-CP3 minutes and CP3-but-no-Booker minutes, and has been outscored when they share the court.
Booker’s been the lead scoring threat, averaging a team-high 24.4 points per game while continuing to cement himself as one of the sport’s most pristine midrange craftsmen; half of his shots have come in the in-between areas, and he’s drilling a career-high 50 percent of them. He’s ceded some playmaking responsibility and late-game control to Paul—to be expected—and his assist and crunch-time numbers have dipped as a result. I don’t love the idea of dinging Booker for that; if anything, his case should be boosted by the willingness he’s shown to make space for an all-league new arrival, curtailing some aspects of his individual game for the greater good of the sort of team success that the Suns have only enjoyed once in the past decade.
It’s just tough to elevate that over the affirmative case that Paul has made. He’s helped boost a Phoenix defense that, after years of failing to even approach league-average, ranks seventh in points allowed per possession. He’s been even more lights-out on all those floaters and pull-ups than Booker—52.1 percent from midrange, down a tick from last season but still an elite mark—and has run the team with his characteristic brand of exacting efficiency. Nearly every advanced stat you can find—with the exception of RAPM, where Booker has an edge—suggests that CP3’s making a more significant possession-by-possession contribution to winning. He’s also continued his work as one of the game’s most deadly clutch scorers; only three players have scored more in crunch time this season than Paul.
Add it all up, and I go with Paul over Booker and DeRozan by a hair. They’re the first calls if we need alternates because one or two members of the Western selection suddenly come down with balky hamstrings or nagging foot woes as they get closer to having to report for lockdown in Atlanta.
Toughest West Cuts
- Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, who has continued his ascent as a bona fide centerpiece in Oklahoma City: He’s one of just 11 players averaging at least 20-5-5 on .600 true shooting, with a crunch-time profile shockingly similar to Joel Embiid’s as he carries a should-be-tanking Thunder roster to within striking distance of the play-in chase.
- De’Aaron Fox, who has been even better than SGA in the clutch, who’s posting a career-low turnover percentage, and who has become an absolutely nightmarish cover as his 3-point shot has ticked up, averaging a shade under 26 and 8 over his past 16 games.
- Brandon Ingram, whose overall offensive leap last season has stuck even as Zion has moved to the forefront, and who’s hovering around a 2-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio as a huge playmaking wing in New Orleans.
- A couple of “gone, but not forgotten” injured standouts: CJ McCollum, who was well on his way to earning one of these spots before a foot fracture paused his career season in Portland, and Christian Wood, who was making good on all that offseason hype to the tune of 22 points and 10.2 rebounds per game in Houston before suffering a nasty ankle sprain.
FC Khris Middleton, Bucks
FC Julius Randle, Knicks
FC Jayson Tatum, Celtics
G Jaylen Brown, Celtics
G James Harden, Nets
WC Zach LaVine, Bulls
WC Fred VanVleet, Raptors
I’ve got to be honest: I had an even tougher time with the East than the West. One complicating factor: While I chose not to vote Harden in as a starter, it’s just impossible to ignore the mammoth statistical record he’s run up since getting to Brooklyn when picking reserves.
Harden’s averaging 24.2 points on 50/40/90 shooting, a league-leading 11.7 assists, and 8.2 rebounds per game as a Net. He’s alternating between orchestrating the offense when he shares the floor with Irving and Kevin Durant (a 4.4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio and just an 18.5 percent usage rate in Big Three minutes) and going full one-man army when he doesn’t (29.4 points on scorching .693 true shooting and 11.6 assists per 36 minutes without them, using 31 percent of Brooklyn’s possessions). Before this season, the most potent offense in Basketball-Reference.com’s database, which stretches back to 1973, belonged to last year’s Dallas Mavericks, who averaged 116.7 points per 100 possessions. With Harden on the floor, the Nets are averaging 123.5 points per 100. A great many people might hate how Harden landed in Brooklyn, but he’s been exactly as advertised since his arrival, and the Nets’ championship chances look all the stronger for it.
I had Irving joining him in an all-Brooklyn backup backcourt, which is a fun tongue-twister to try out if you need something to do while you, like me, continue to lose your mind in Month 12 of a pandemic. Since Kyrie landed in the starting five, though, I’ll slot Brown—for my money the best two-way guard in the East so far this season—in his place.
Already one of the league’s most versatile and valuable wings, Brown has kicked his offensive ascent into a new stratosphere this season, averaging a career-best 25.9 points per game on 50.6 percent shooting. The fifth-year swingman has become a legit three-level scorer, shooting 72 percent inside the restricted area, 54 percent from midrange, 41 percent from beyond the arc, and 77 percent at the foul line. He’s slashing his way to a career-high 11.3 drives and 4.8 free throw attempts per game, and has continued to sand off the last rough edges on his offensive game, improving his handle and becoming a more active and aggressive playmaker; Brown has doubled his assist rate without an accompanying rise in turnovers. It’s been a disappointing start in Boston, but amid all the turmoil, Brown has helped keep Boston in the middle of the Eastern playoff pack, and cemented himself as a no. 1-caliber talent in his own right.
Middleton takes a reserve frontcourt spot here in recognition of his across-the-board excellence—20-6-6 on 51/43/91 shooting splits, career-best work as a passer in a revamped Bucks offense that’s been one of the league’s most explosive, and perpetually sound defense for a Milwaukee team vying for the top spot in the conference. As was the case last season, Robin seems to turn into Batman whenever Giannis Antetokounmpo takes off the cape and cowl: Middleton’s averaging 30-7-7 per 36 minutes when he plays without the two-time MVP, with a usage rate and true shooting percentage that resembles the NBA’s biggest superstars.
Middleton, who is already lethal off the catch and pulling up, presents a whole host of new problems for defenses now that he’s more dangerous off the bounce (shooting 57.5 percent on 7.4 drives per game, both career highs) and suddenly showcasing sharper court vision. As he nears age 30, Middleton’s playing the best all-around ball of his career, and that’s enough to earn him his third straight All-Star berth.
Tatum started to soar into the stratosphere this time last season. He hasn’t quite maintained the same trajectory this year: His 3-point percentage is down a bit, he’s turned back toward some of the meandering midrangers he’d largely excised from his diet, and he sometimes seems like a man in need of an intervention to wean him off the fadeaway jumpers he misses 62 percent of the time. But progress isn’t always linear—particularly, you’d figure, in the context of contracting COVID-19 last month and continuing to suffer from its pulmonary aftereffects. The arc of Tatum’s development still traces the shape of a superstar: He’s averaging 25.8 points, 7.0 rebounds, and 4.7 assists as a 22-year-old—numbers that put him in the decent company of Kareem, Oscar, LeBron, T-Mac, and Luka.
He’s continued to assume a larger role as a playmaker—a must given the exit of Gordon Hayward, the absence of Marcus Smart, and the ineffectiveness of Kemba Walker—and remains one of the league’s most versatile frontcourt defenders, using his strength, quickness, and 6-foot-11 wingspan to hound opponents up and down the positional spectrum. For all that’s gone wrong in Boston this season, the Celtics still have Tatum and Jaylen Brown, which gives them a hell of a foundation on which to build.
Heading into the season, hardly anybody would’ve considered Randle that sort of foundational piece. The bruising lefty put up big scoring and rebounding numbers during his first season in New York, but struggled mightily in his first attempt to establish himself as a legitimate no. 1 option and cornerstone; just a few short months ago, your average Knicks fan would’ve been perfectly content shipping out Randle for a couple of middling prospects and some future draft picks. But on the strength of a rigorous offseason program and with the unflinching faith of new head coach Tom Thibodeau, the 26-year-old has completely rewritten the story of his career.
The addition of a reliable shot—48.3 percent from midrange, 40.7 percent from beyond the arc, 80.2 percent from the free throw line, all career highs—has totally unlocked Randle’s game. Play off of him, and he can stick the J; play up on him, and he can bull-rush to the cup; play him for the shot, and he can use his always underrated handle and advancing court vision to spray the ball out to shooters. The result has been a stunning evolution, and even more stunning production: 23.2 points, 10.9 rebounds, and 5.5 assists per game on .589 true shooting, all while leading the league in minutes and playing physical defense for a team that, in one of the biggest surprises in the league, has leapt from 22nd in points allowed per possession last season to third this season.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that Randle’s been the difference between New York being a playoff-caliber team and being one of the league’s worst; as promising as R.J. Barrett and Immanuel Quickley have looked, he doesn’t have another legit difference-maker to help shoulder the burden. In spite of all that, Randle has given the Knicks a real shot at the franchise’s first playoff berth in eight years. That’s more than shocking; it’s really damn impressive, and it earns him his first All-Star appearance.
With my wild-card spots, I added two more first-timers—and, honestly, kind of surprised myself in the process.
You know how many players have ever averaged 28-5-5 for a full season? Twenty. Twelve are already in the Hall of Fame; six more (LeBron James, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Kevin Durant, Dwyane Wade, Russell Westbrook) will walk in the nanosecond they’re eligible. The other two—Giannis and Luka—are (hopefully) still closer to the start of their careers than the end, but they seem to be well on their way to that sort of rarefied air. Well, that list might just hit blackjack this season, because Zach friggin’ LaVine is storming the castle.
No, LaVine isn’t as good a defender as someone with his size and physical tools probably should be. (Though, as Stephen Noh recently argued, he might not be as bad these days as the solidified public perception of him suggests.) And no, he’s not an elite playmaking guard on the order of some of the high-volume ball-dominating creators—Harden, Doncic, Trae Young—who have risen to prominence in recent years. What he is, though, is one of the most efficient scorers in the whole damn league. Here’s the list of dudes with usage rates north of 30 percent who are making at least 55 percent of their 2-pointers, 40 percent of their 3-pointers, and 80 percent of their free throws: Durant, Curry … and LaVine.
Only Dame, Steph, and Bradley Beal have more 30-point games. No one averages as many points per fourth quarter. Only Dame has more total points in crunch time. Among high-usage players, only Steph and Joel Embiid have a higher true shooting percentage. At a certain point, maybe it’s time to stop beating a player up for all the things he can’t do and celebrate what he can. Right now, there’s maybe a handful of players on Earth capable of putting the ball in the basket as well as Zach LaVine can. They’re all going to be at the All-Star Game. He should join them.
Wth so many phenomenal candidates still on the board—of all different styles, stripes, sizes, and skill sets—I just kind of went with my gut with the final wild-card spot. I think Fred VanVleet deserves to be an All-Star.
He doesn’t score, facilitate, or generate highlights like Trae Young, the alpha and omega of a Hawks offense. He’s not the same sort of all-court force as Bam Adebayo or Ben Simmons: guys who can run a high-powered offense, defend all five positions, and bulldoze defenders from the block or in transition. If any or all of those guys get in over VanVleet, I’ll understand. But right now, though—in this year, this moment—I think VanVleet’s played better than all of them.
He has provided both fireworks and functionality for a Raptors team stuck on a permanent road trip, struggling to recast itself after losing several key pieces to stay afloat in the Eastern playoff chase. He’s one of only nine players averaging 20 points, six assists, and four rebounds per game. He’s eighth in 3-point makes, 10th in assists, and he leads the league in both steals and deflections, putting him on track for serious All-Defensive Team consideration.
In a season where so much about the Raptors has either changed or occasionally been unreliable, VanVleet’s been a constant, playing in all 29 games and averaging the third-most minutes in the league. Like Conley, the advanced stats love him, especially the impact metrics: RAPTOR (natch), RPM, RAPM, LEBRON, and EPM all value VanVleet as a top-25 player this season.
Maybe that’s a bit rich. Maybe, though, they’re all picking up on the same signal: that the undersized, undervalued, overlooked, and underestimated 26-year-old is the single biggest reason that, amid injuries, inconsistency, and spending the entire season in friggin’ Tampa, the Raptors are keeping their heads above water, back within arm’s reach of a top-four spot in the East. VanVleet has built a career out of betting on himself and disproving doubters; next up, perhaps, are those who never in a million years thought the undrafted kid out of Rockford, Illinois, would turn into an All-Star.
Toughest East Cuts
- Trae Young, who ranks 10th in the league in scoring and third in assists, flirting with .600 true shooting on a superstar usage rate.
- Bam Adebayo, essentially the lone constant in a season full of COVID-19-caused turmoil for the Heat, providing increasingly dominant scoring (80 percent in the restricted area, 44 percent on jumpers, 85 percent from the foul line on six attempts per game) while running the offense (a higher assist rate than any big man save Nikola Jokic) and guarding all five positions on any given night.
- Ben Simmons, who’s been on an absolute tear for the last month and might be mounting a serious bid for Defensive Player of the Year.
- Domantas Sabonis, who’s been every ounce the workhorse Randle has, and every bit as productive—seriously, the similarities are eerie—for a Pacers team that sits a game and a half above the Knicks in the standings.
- Jerami Grant, arguably the league’s most improved player in Detroit, cashing in on his big offseason bet on himself and proving that he does have what it takes to be a no. 1 option.
- Jrue Holiday, who has been excellent on both ends in Milwaukee, posting the best shooting numbers of his career while sitting near the top of the league in steals and deflections as the tip of the spear for a Bucks defense that has clamped down at a top-five rate in his minutes.
- Tobias Harris, looking extremely comfortable back under Doc Rivers’s wing and reminding us what all that money was for.
- Nikola Vucevic, toiling thanklessly and incredibly productively as he carries the guard-stripmined Magic to something approaching respectability as often as possible.