Our NBA All-Star TeamKevin C. Cox/Getty Images
It’s that time again — time to overthink 24 roster spots for a concert featuring a “basketball game” at intermission.
A brief reminder of the ground rules:
• I proceed as if the fan vote never happened. It’s more fun to build the full roster and convenient to ignore the One Big Star who wins an undeserved starting spot.
• I consider only this season. You get no legacy points here.
• I follow the same roster-formatting rules as the fans in picking the starters and the coaches in picking reserves.
• I use all available tools: stats of all types (including some nonpublic numbers), copious game and film watching, and conversations with league insiders. Even so, deciding the last two or three spots in each conference remains the equivalent of choosing among a few delicious slices of pizza.
G Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors
G John Wall, Washington Wizards
FC Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls
FC LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers
FC Paul Millsap, Atlanta Hawks
G Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers
G Dwyane Wade, Miami Heat
FC Al Horford, Atlanta Hawks
FC Chris Bosh, Miami Heat
FC Pau Gasol, Chicago Bulls
WILD CARD Kyle Korver, Atlanta Hawks
WC Jeff Teague, Atlanta Hawks
Let’s dive into some of the thornier choices:
Jimmy Butler — Chicago Bulls
Yeah, I’ve cheated and slotted Butler as a “frontcourt” player to shoehorn him into the starting lineup. The East brings a pile of big men putting up huge numbers that feel a hair misleading. Butler is a more deserving starter than all of them, and he defends enough “small forwards” — especially with Mike Dunleavy Jr. injured — to count as a frontcourt guy without much fudging. The NBA should just switch to a triple-category system of point guards, wings, and big men.
Some of Butler’s defensive numbers have dropped off, and it’s hard for stoppers to maintain hyperactive energy on defense when they have to carry a bigger scoring load. But his ability to guard the other team’s best wing player, regardless of size and skill set, is crucial for the integrity of Chicago’s defense. Butler is slumping on offense, but he’s been a foul-drawing machine who can do whatever Chicago asks. If Derrick Rose is rolling, Butler can slide into a secondary role, posting up, screening in the pick-and-roll, and flying off pin-downs for midrange jumpers.
If Rose is out or limited, Butler can pick up the slack as punishing off-the-bounce force; he’s drawn fouls on 24 percent of the pick-and-rolls he has finished, by far the league’s highest figure, per Synergy Sports. (He’s fourth in the same category for post-ups, an impressive feat for a wing player.)
Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Kyle Korver, Jeff Teague — Atlanta Hawks
FOUR HAWKS. Damn freaking right. If the Warriors swapped conferences with the Hawks, they, too, might place three or even four All-Stars. Horford got off to a slow start while recovering from a pectoral tear, but he’s been tearing up the league over the last two weeks, and at his peak, Horford might be the best all-around big man in the East.
Korver is bound to be the most polarizing choice, though momentum for his candidacy is building. He doesn’t play “like an All-Star.” He shoots only eight times per game. He doesn’t get to the line. He has used only 14.5 percent of Atlanta’s possessions, one of the lowest rates ever for a potential All-Star. Hell, just last season, I left both Lance Stephenson and Andre Drummond off my ballot in part because of their limited roles on offense.
But we need different parameters for a guy putting up perhaps the greatest shooting season ever. Korver is shooting 53 percent on nearly six 3s per game. If you think all of those are wide-open jobs, you’re not watching the Hawks. Korver barely needs any airspace to flick off his quick release, and he’s shooting 47 percent — a number that could lead the league in some seasons — on 3s in which a defender is within four feet of him, per SportVU. I mean, I can barely process these numbers.
When you can shoot like Korver, you don’t need the ball to be a defining figure on every offensive possession.
Take two examples from Atlanta’s most recent game, its win Sunday against Minnesota.
Horford gets an uncontested dunk at the end of this pick-and-roll because the help defender on the weak side, Andrew Wiggins, never arrives to challenge Horford in the paint. Startling fact: Wiggins is guarding Korver.
The Hawks botch this play, but watch what happens when Korver rubs off a DeMarre Carroll screen on the left side:
Both Wiggins and Thaddeus Young chase Korver, leaving Carroll free to cut into an open 2-on-1. Korver did not touch the ball on either of these possessions. They leave no trace on most statistical measures of his impact. But he’s a crucial figure in each one, and this kind of stuff happens all the time. He inspires panic in opposing defenses, and panic breeds both mistakes and paralysis.
Korver has the best plus/minus of all non-Warriors. He is the common denominator in damn near every productive Atlanta lineup.
Carmelo Anthony is a better basketball player than Korver, but we should reconsider how large that gap might be. Rule changes over the last decade have pushed coaches to evolve on both ends of the floor. Ball movement and spacing are more important than ever; holding the ball has never been a riskier proposition. Anthony is one of the rare players who can still stand around with the ball and center a viciously productive offense. The ability to score one-on-one and from the post will always have value, especially if the player doing it is a skilled passer.
But the difference in value between those glamour skills and what Korver does — shooting, running around, making smart cuts — is shrinking. Korver “can’t create his own shot,” the lazy catchall for what constitutes an All-Star, but there’s much more than that to being a good NBA player in 2015.
Carmelo Anthony — New York Knicks
Anthony is a perfectly fine All-Star candidate despite the Knicks’ horrid record. This season has provided a ton of evidence that anyone saying, “If so-and-so is really a star, his team should win 50 games” is talking about a sport that no longer exists — and one that likely never did. The roster around Anthony stinks, and so do the Knicks. The roster around Anthony Davis is so-so, and the Pelicans only just clawed above .500. The roster around Wade and Bosh is a disaster zone — thank the basketball gods for Hassan Whiteside! — and the Heat are neck-and-neck with the freaking Hornets despite very strong seasons from their two stars.
This is a team sport. Anthony has missed 11 games, his knee hurts, his shooting and free throws have dropped off, and he remains a defensive liability. He has sunk back into the Gasol/Bosh/Korver/Teague/Greg Monroe mix, and if we’re breaking ties amid that jumble, I’m leaving off the injured guy toiling for a historically bad team.
Greg Monroe — Detroit Pistons
Monroe is playing the best all-around ball of his career and deserves stronger All-Star consideration than he appears to have received. He has outplayed Drummond for the balance of the season, and he’s working harder than ever on defense — at both big-man positions. When Detroit took off without Josh Smith, we all (justifiably) focused on the power of positioning three shooters around a pick-and-roll — something Stan Van Gundy can do only when he sits one of the Drummond-Monroe combination.
Detroit A.S. (After Smoove) has actually been at its best with both Drummond and Monroe on the floor, per NBA.com. Monroe is beasting in the post, dishing snappy interior passes, and making smart reads on defense. He’ll never be a rim protector, but opposing ball handlers are shooting just 38.5 percent on pick-and-rolls in which Monroe’s man is the screener — a strong number, per Synergy.
The roster weirdness that undid the Smith-era Pistons hurts Monroe’s All-Star case just enough to open up a spot for someone else.
Pau Gasol — Chicago Bulls
Gasol has been fabulous, but count me among those who sense at least a slight dissonance between his killer numbers and actual level of play. Something just feels off. Gasol creates a ton of shots, but a lot of them return a middling bang for the buck. The Bulls have used him as a high-volume hub on the block, but Gasol is shooting just 40 percent on post-ups — including a ton of midrange jumpers, per Synergy.
That understates the value of Gasol’s inside game, since he draws help and tosses brilliant passes all over the court. Still, it’s unclear how much of a hit Chicago’s offense would really take if you gave all of Gasol’s minutes and touches to other players.
Even Gasol’s career-best rebounding numbers feel a bit inflated. Gasol is hoarding uncontested boards and snatching relatively fewer up-for-grabs rebounds, per NBA.com. The Bulls manage much better on the defensive glass when Gasol sits. He can’t jump, but Gasol has long arms, and he’s done a nice job protecting the basket. Gasol has struggled with the parts of defense that require more mobility, but he has owned the restricted area.
That’s in part because Chicago’s drop-back scheme1 plants him there. That used to be Joakim Noah’s territory. A lot of Gasol’s discrete skills, save for his passing, seem replaceable to at least some degree.
The sum total of Gasol’s skills — having one player capable of doing all this stuff — is not replaceable. That’s why Gasol is on this list. He might not be having the type of no-brainer All-Star season his surface numbers would suggest, but he’s been damn good for a Bulls team in need of an offensive stabilizer as Rose regains his feel.
Breaking Down the Rest of the East
• Lowry, Wall, Irving, Teague, and Wade merit consideration for the two starting guard spots. Teague has probably been the most consistent start to finish, with Lowry and Wall dipping a bit recently2 and Wade having missed 10 games. Lowry and Wall have reached the highest sustained peaks and stand as (by far) the most important players on very good teams; the Wiz especially just die when Wall hits the bench. Brandon Knight has had a nice season, but he’s a notch below these guys at creating shots for teammates. Opponents have blitzed the Bucks with Knight on the floor; Milwaukee’s strong bench has been perhaps the most important ingredient in the team’s .500 record.
Irving hasn’t been as obviously essential to the Cavs; teams are slaughtering Cleveland when Irving plays without LeBron,3 and though Cleveland’s thin pre-trade roster explains some of that, we don’t have much evidence that Irving is ready to be the no. 1 guy on a good team. Still, he’s trying on defense, and he’s finding the right times of late to snatch the reins of the offense.
Wade doesn’t get to the rim as much these days, and his effort on defense comes and goes, but his old-man game is delightful. He’s pump-faking fools into a bundle of free throws, working from the post more, and raining jumpers from the midrange. Miami’s offense has fallen apart without him, per NBA.com.
• Both Monroe and Nikola Vucevic have cases for a spot over Gasol, Bosh, and perhaps one or two other guys. The Vucevic-Bosh battle is nearly a wash. Vucevic has been more prolific on offense, and Bosh’s defense has slipped a bit from his days as a manic pick-and-roll destroyer. Miami is only marginally better with Bosh on the court, but opponents are shredding the Magic at the rim when Vucevic is anchoring the defense. Bosh’s ability to space the floor makes him an easier, more versatile offensive threat, so he gets the nod here.
G Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors
G James Harden, Houston Rockets
FC Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans
FC Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies
FC LaMarcus Aldridge, Portland Trail Blazers
G Chris Paul, Los Angeles Clippers
G Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers
FC Blake Griffin, Los Angeles Clippers
FC DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings
FC Tim Duncan, San Antonio Spurs
WC Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
WC Klay Thompson, Golden State Warriors
God, that was terrible. I need a drink.
Kevin Durant — Oklahoma City Thunder
No Durant. The coaches will vote him onto the real team, and he has probably been the league’s best player on balance when healthy. But on this ballot, missing more than half the season is a disqualifier — even for the reigning MVP.
Chris Paul, Blake Griffin — Los Angeles Clippers
I’ve seen a lot of ballots that leave off both Griffin and Paul. There’s some room for debate on Griffin, but Paul should be a lock. He’s shooting 47 percent overall and 40 percent from deep, bringing it on defense, and still holding down the title of the league’s best “will he pass or shoot???” dual threat on the pick-and-roll.
Doc Rivers’s awful turn as GM has made the Clips a punch line, but don’t sleep on these guys. They’re 31-15, they’re 4-0 in their last four games against the top-nine teams in the West, and they’ve slipped past Dallas into the no. 1 spot in points per possession. Paul is ninth in player efficiency rating, and he’s driving the Clippers’ quiet surge. Los Angeles has scored 116.3 points per 100 possessions with Paul on the floor, and just 97.3 when he sits — one of the largest gaps in the league. Their putrid bench factors into that, but Paul has to be in the All-Star Game.
The “What’s Wrong With Griffin?” talk has died down, huh? Nothing is wrong with him. He’s shooting 50 percent, getting to the line a bunch, and flashing an offensive game that gets more versatile every season. Griffin is tossing up one of the great passing seasons of all time for a big man. He has assisted on 25.5 percent of the Clippers’ baskets while on the floor; only four players 6-foot-10 or taller have posted better assist rates over a full season: Kevin Garnett, Toni Kukoc, Vlade Divac, and Joakim Noah.4
It’s easy to say Griffin has a damaging addiction to his midrange jumper, but he’s hitting it at a career-best rate, and there’s only so much room around the rim with DeAndre Jordan lurking. He can’t go to the basket every time he touches the ball.
Griffin is an average defender with limited reach, but he’s mobile, and he’s not killing you out there. He has also played in every game, and in a race this close against so many great players, every little edge matters.
Klay Thompson — Golden State Warriors
Kobe’s injury probably guaranteed a spot for Thompson, but he’s played himself onto the team regardless. He’s up to no. 11 in PER!
Draymond Green — Golden State Warriors
Green deserves a close look, along with Zach Randolph, Derrick Favors, and Gordon Hayward. If a low-usage guy like Korver can make it, why not defense-first fifth option like Green?
It’s a fair question, and it’s a cop-out to just answer, “It’s the West.” Green is a legit defensive player of the year candidate who can withstand Randolph in the post and envelop point guards with his long arms. He’s a great passer — not a good passer, a great one. Only one thing stands between Green and a run for the Western Conference All-Star team: He has to become a better 3-point shooter.
He has hit just 34 percent from deep, and on more than 90 percent of those attempts, no defender has been within four feet of him. That is the perk of being the fourth or fifth option on a great team. Hitting wide-open shots is a valuable skill in that role. But defenses don’t quake at the thought of Green shooting, or send him any extra attention. There is no “stop Draymond Green” game plan.
Teams game plan for his defense, but that’s not quite enough to crack this loaded field.
Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder
The fretting came in divvying up the last three spots among four deserving players: Duncan, Cousins, Westbrook, and Mike Conley. Westbrook and Cousins have been spectacularly productive, but they’ve each missed about one-third of the season — right around my arbitrary (and undefined) border for eliminating players. Conley has missed just two games, and he’s been steadier overall. He’s just not an every-night, holy-shit-he’s-coming-at-us, game-changing force on the level of Cousins and Westbrook. Teams don’t adjust entire portions of their defense for Conley.
The Conley-Westbrook discussion is especially interesting. Westbrook trumps Conley by almost every catchall statistic, he’s getting to the line nearly nine times per game (!), and he can defend wing players — key for the Thunder when they play Westbrook and Reggie Jackson together. Conley is a fine defender, but he can guard only one position, and the Grizz sometimes have to hide him elsewhere against freaks like Westbrook.
But Westbrook’s occasional ball-hoggery boosts some of his big-number stats — including his PER. He’s shooting just 42 percent overall and a dreadful 26 percent from deep. He’s 7-of-26 in the last three minutes of close games, and he has cost his team late with bad shots, dumb technicals, and even dumber fouls. Conley has been an assassin in the clutch, per NBA.com. He’s getting to the line and nailing 3s at a career-best rate; duck under screens on this guy and he’ll kill you.
Conley could probably boost his numbers if he went balls-out like Westbrook, but he just doesn’t have that in him. That cuts both ways: Conley has an admirable team-first streak but lacks the lunatic explosiveness to take over a game on his own.
I wanted to choose Conley. He deserves to make an All-Star team at some point in his prime. I just couldn’t find quite enough evidence to justify it. His best edge is in games played, but if you use that bullet to take down Westbrook, you’ve got to do the same with Cousins.
DeMarcus Cousins — Sacramento Kings
There is nothing in the NBA like peak Cousins. He is an unguardable monster on the block. The Kings are formidable when he plays and a D-League team when he sits. He was on track to be a no-brainer All-Star before coming down with viral meningitis and watching as the Kings decided they’d be better off with Tyrone Corbin coaching this season.
He’s been something of a crank since then. Cousins hasn’t been as diligent getting back on defense, he’s resorting more to lazy reaches, and he’s constantly sagging his shoulders and shooting dirty looks at teammates.
Cousins is also coughing up the rock at disturbing rates, especially on silly thread-the-needle passes from the elbow. He is averaging 4.5 turnovers per 36 minutes, putting him on pace for one of the highest-turnover seasons ever for a rotation player.
Folks who want him out of the game have some straws to grasp. He’s been too good when available. Even during the depressing Corbin era, the Kings have posted a strong positive margin with Cousins on the floor — and descended into hell when he rests, per NBA.com. Opponents are shooting a ghastly 33 percent on pick-and-rolls involving Cousins, according to Synergy. It might be miserable to be around him at times, but Cousins has arrived as an all-around superstar.
Tim Duncan — San Antonio Spurs
Duncan is another borderline choice, but he’s done just enough as the defending champs’ lone reliable fulcrum. Almost every key San Antonio player has battled serious injury, and Boris Diaw apparently drank too much red wine over the summer. Duncan isn’t a go-to scorer every night anymore, but he’s an all-around maestro and he’s been among the league’s half-dozen best defenders this season. This isn’t a token invite, but it’s not an ironclad case, either.
Dwight Howard, for one, would like a word. The Rockets have been a better-than-average defense without him, but they get super-stingy with Howard manning the middle, per NBA.com. He solves their otherwise dicey rebounding issues. He’s shooting 58 percent and remains a lethal pick-and-roll finisher.
But there’s not quite enough in the dossier. Howard has missed 13 games, he’s down to no. 63 in PER, and he’s been slumping since Christmas. His post game has temporarily deserted him again. Howard is shooting just 41 percent on post-ups, and he’s turned the ball over on 17 percent of those plays — the 11th-worst rate among 76 guys with at least 50 post-ups, per Synergy.
That’s the team — with additional apologies to DeAndre Jordan, Serge Ibaka, Kawhi Leonard (next year, when you’re healthy!), Markieff Morris (stop getting technicals!), and Eric Bledsoe. Those who don’t make the cut are still free to attend the concert!
Your Western Conference Almost All-Stars
A team of snubs from the Western Conference could push the East team in a seven-game series. The 30-15 Mavericks somehow have zero players on this list. Rick Carlisle is pushing Monta Ellis, who has been dynamite in crunch time, but Ellis just can’t compete with the guards above him. Dirk Nowitzki changes the game just by stepping on the floor, but he’s a liability on defense, and he’s just awaking from a long winter shooting slump. Nowitzki might start for the Eastern Conference, but he needs to be humming on offense to crack the West roster.
For all of Carlisle’s Monta praise and Dirk’s Dirkiness, Tyson Chandler might be the Mavs’ best player. He’s their rock on defense and a sort of inverse Korver on offense — a guy who makes a huge impact without touching the ball, only Chandler slices down the lane instead of scurrying about the perimeter. In the West, that’s not quite enough.
10 Things I Like and Don’t Like
1. Kyrie Irving, Finding Early Offense
Keeping everyone well fed on a starry team isn’t easy, especially when that team is leaning on LeBron James high pick-and-rolls like it’s 2010 and Mike Brown is coaching. But Irving is getting smarter about picking his spots, and a lot of them come as he brings the ball up in semi-transition against a backpedaling defense:
Irving is a good passer, but he can over-dribble in the half court and struggle to make the right read at the right time. He still leans more toward hunting his own shot. That predatory mentality works better against a scrambling defense on its heels, since the passing lanes are cleaner and the reads are easier. Chasing the first available shot is generally a high-percentage play.
2. The State of Reggie Jackson’s Shooting
Jackson is shooting just 29 percent from deep, and teams are getting braver stepping away from him off the ball to clog up driving lanes — as Iman Shumpert does in camping out at the nail in the clip below. That leaves Jackson open, but he’s becoming gun-shy from deep when teammates kick the ball to him.
That’s not necessarily a bad thing. Jackson has a fierce attacking game, including a nice floater, and if he goes quickly, he can create a shot for someone else. But Jackson often pauses for too long, allows the defense to reset, and puts his head down for a drive into traffic:
Scott Brooks yanked Jackson right after that shot on Sunday, and if you watch Jackson’s teammates both on the court and on the bench, you’ll see some pretty demonstrative reactions to plays like this. It feels like Jackson’s time is running thin in OKC.
3. The Tyranny of “AND-1”
Not every basket can result in an and-1, and screaming “And-1” does not increase your chances of earning an and-1. Shouting “And-1” after a miss is begging for math that just doesn’t work.
Carlos Boozer has long been the king of the false and-1, but Dion Waiters and Greg Monroe, chronic yelpers, are coming for the throne.
4. Kyle Lowry’s Tyson Tip-Outs
Lowry might be the foremost little-guy practitioner of the Tyson Tip-Out — the practice of leaping in traffic after a miss and smacking the ball out to an open teammate. That damn Lowry is always mixing it up in the paint.
One aside on this: Jason Kidd told me last month in Milwaukee that when his Knicks faced the Pacers in the 2013 playoffs, he noticed that the Indiana perimeter players would box out along the 3-point arc when a New York player launched a shot. They would not scramble inside for rebounds. Why? Because they had scouted the Knicks and knew that Chandler would tip balls back out toward the 3-point line — and over the heads of any Indy players sprinting into the paint.
5. Andrew Wiggins, Bully Mode
Wiggins has averaged nearly 20 points per game over the last month, silencing doubters who worried about his slow start. His jumper is shaky and he doesn’t dribble much, but there aren’t many 19-year-olds who enter the league ready to bully bona fide wing defenders:
I can’t wait until the Wolves pair Wiggins with a real point guard and some NBA-level shooting.
6. Avery Bradley, Pulling Up
Bradley isn’t a bad pull-up shooter. He’s hit 34 percent of his pull-up jumpers this season, below average for a high-volume guy, but not disastrously so. There are just games when it feels like the long pull-up 2-pointer is the only off-the-bounce weapon Bradley trusts. He has some clean driving lanes coming off a screen, but he rarely takes them, short-circuiting chances to knife into the teeth of the defense.
His shooting is trending upward after an icy month or so, and that’s good, because Boston needs just a bit more offense out of Bradley.
7. Jordan Hill’s Defense
There aren’t many big men who have been as uninterested on defense this season as Hill. Playing on a hopeless Lakers team could dull anyone’s motivation, and Hill has an incentive to jack up jumpers in what could be a contract year.
Hill has mastered the “rim protection” technique of leaping away from the basket and the opposing player, while at the same time reaching his arm out just in case he happens to get a fingertip on something. It’s classic phony rim protection.
8. Moving Logos
The team logos on the ESPN/ABC pre- and postgame show monitors move with various animations! The Thunder logo has a continuous downpour in the background. The Chicago moving logo is the best — the giant red bull head moves up and down and blows smoke out of its nostrils. I am a child; I realize this.
9. Cole Aldrich Hook Shots
You never know where an Aldrich hook shot might end up. It could hit any section of the backboard, regardless of its point of origin. It could hit nothing. It might hit a fan in the face. It could get sucked into a black hole, altering time and space forever.
And you know what? I don’t even mind. It’s not like the Knicks are trying to win. Keep hooking, Cole!
10. The Jerami Grant Experience
Are you a lonely, self-hating person prone to choosing activities that cause you misery? Did the K.J. McDaniels experience wear thin for you? Meet your next reason to tune in to the Philadelphia 76ers: Jerami Grant, a 6-foot-8 multi-positional something who is shooting 35 percent from deep and jumps around a lot.
Grant had eight blocks against the Knicks last week. He tries to dunk everything around the rim, a search-and-destroy mentality that produces highlights regardless of whether Grant crams it or misses. He went at Kosta Koufos so hard over the weekend that Koufos felt inspired to break out the Mutombo finger wag upon turning away Grant’s dunk attempt. If you can’t bear to watch, at least remember the name.
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