Nobody tries in the All-Star Game, but as long as Hall of Fame gatekeepers use All-Star appearances as part of their criteria, we should put some care into our picks.
Let's go over the ground rules again, since we're posting in a new space:
• I ignore the fan vote. It's more fun to construct the roster from scratch, and there is always at least one voted-in starter -- perhaps two this season -- who has no place in the game.
• I consider only the current season. There's an All-Star Game every year; isn't the point to honor the best performers in that specific season? No legacy cases!
• I follow the same positional rules as fans and coaches: four guards, six "frontcourt" players and two wild cards. The league gives you wiggle room for guys who flip-flop between guard and forward, but you can't slot someone at a position he barely plays just to construct your optimal ballot.
There are eight no-brainers here: the five starters, plus Wall, DeRozan and Bosh. You could construct a case against Wall, but considering how barren Washington's roster has looked due to injury, it wouldn't be convincing. He started slowly, he's shooting just 44 percent, the Wiz are 19-21 in a make-or-break season and Wall has played a hand in their decline on defense.
He has been a bit casual on that end. The Wiz are switching more this season, and when Wall spots his man about to crisscross with someone else, he'll lazily stand up straight -- assuming his teammate will do all the work of switching, while Wall just sticks with whichever opponent is closest. Other teams have noticed, and they are exploiting those flat-footed moments with smart cuts and passes.
But the Wiz might be dead without Wall. A team redesigned for small ball has gotten 20 games total from Bradley Beal and Alan Anderson. Nene has been in and out with his usual case of Nene-ness, and just about every other key player -- Marcin Gortat, Kris Humphries, Otto Porter -- has missed time. On some nights, you look at the lineups Randy Wittman is tossing out, and you have no clue how the Wiz are even competitive.
Bosh has easily been Miami's best all-around player -- and the most underappreciated player in the sport. He is the common denominator in almost all of the Heat's best lineups, a tribute to his two-way versatility. Millsap gets the final starting spot by a nose after another splendid half-season of trick shots and rip steals, but you could swap him to the bench for Bosh without much of an argument.
Miami fans might wonder why DeRozan, a Wade-ish player, gets in over the actual Wade despite similar résumés. DeRozan has evolved into a new kind of offensive force by replacing a few midrange looks with drives to the basket. He is relentless. He averages 12 drives per game, the highest mark in the league. Only James Harden has attempted more free throws. Even when every avenue to the rim appears barricaded -- when just about everyone, including DeRozan before this season, would settle for a jumper -- DeRozan is charging ahead, banging dudes shoulder-to-chest, and rampaging wherever he wants.
Wade and DeRozan both top out as average defenders, but DeRozan has been better. He's more diligent night-to-night, possession-by-possession, and with DeMarre Carroll out for most of the season, DeRozan hasn't had the luxury of passing the toughest assignment on to someone else -- as Wade often does with Luol Deng and Justise Winslow. DeRozan has propped up Toronto's scoring margin even when Lowry, a deserving All-Star starter, hits the bench, per NBA.com.
Wade is soft-touch artist with an old man's bag of tricks, but it's unclear how much of his cagey midrange game is really helping Miami -- especially given his on-again, off-again commitment to defense. We constantly hear how Miami's defense is better with Hassan Whiteside on the bench; how come we never hear the same thing about Wade, or how Miami is miles better overall when Wade sits? All those numbers bring the noise of small sample size, but only one is parroted every game as if it reveals some fundamental truth.
Still, Wade is a worthy candidate who has played more, and better, than expected. Slotting DeRozan ahead of him leaves at least 15 candidates for four spots: Wade, Drummond, Anthony, Horford, Thomas, Pau Gasol, Reggie Jackson, Nikola Vucevic, Kevin Love, Kemba Walker, Nicolas Batum, Brook Lopez, Jae Crowder, Greg Monroe, Khris Middleton and maybe a couple more.
Oof. You could make a case for any of these guys. Monroe and Vucevic are rocks on offense for otherwise bricktastic teams, but there are still too many questions about their defense; opponents have scorched Orlando at the rim with Vucevic on the floor, and Monroe has been a big factor in Milwaukee's catastrophic decline. Vucevic's contact phobia has reached a new level; he's averaging just 1.7 free throws per 36 minutes, on pace for third-lowest such mark ever among players 6-foot-10 or taller.
Lopez deserves more credit for his sneaky-good work on a team with a sub-Sixers-level roster after its two best players. Lopez is an old-school post-up hub, he has improved his passing, and opponents are shooting 45 percent on shots around the rim when Lopez is nearby, per SportVU data -- a solid mark.
But it's hard to reward anyone from an 11-31 team, and Lopez doesn't have the adaptability of a guy like Horford. If you sign Lopez, you have to play a certain way on both ends to maximize his strengths and hide his slow feet. Ditto for Gasol, who has been a bit better carrying a huge burden for a Chicago team enduring near-constant turmoil.
A lot of executives argued for Gasol over both Drummond and Horford, and I get it. Horford hasn't looked as good at either end, but then you check his numbers, and the guy is like a freaking metronome. He hasn't rebounded well enough for perhaps the league's worst rebounding team, and his defense around the rim has been hit or miss.
Still, Horford is one of the league's great all-around talents, flexible enough to play almost any role in any system. He can man the paint next to a stretch big like Millsap as well as morph into a jump-shooting power forward alongside a traditional center like Tiago Splitter. Versatility is a skill, and even in a (slightly) down season, he brings more of it than any of these behemoth centers.
Drummond is neck-and-neck with DeAndre Jordan as the league's scariest lob threat, and he probably deserves at least a 60-40 share of the credit for the devastation of the Jackson-Drummond pick-and-roll. Anti-Drummond paranoia gets Jackson a half-dozen open floaters and layups every game; Jackson has played just 127 minutes total without Drummond, and the Pistons have been a disaster in those minutes. Drummond has logged about twice as much time sans Jackson, and Detroit has held up fine. We'd be hearing more about Jackson's so-so defense if Kentavious Caldwell-Pope weren't smothering elite point guards.
I'd take Jackson over Walker by a tiny margin, even with Walker's improved shooting and Monday's 52-point insanity against Utah. Batum is probably Charlotte's best all-around player anyway, but both fall just short here.
Drummond isn't as good on defense as he should be, and privately, the Pistons wish he would play harder; he reaches instead of sliding his feet, leaps late for shots he has no chance of blocking and takes off-kilter angles defending the pick-and-roll. Still, he's a fearsome leaper, a more frightening deterrent than Vucevic or Monroe and his hands are so quick that all that reaching nets nearly two steals per game -- a killer mark for a big man.
Anthony's all-around game has blossomed, while Love has sagged back into his role as Cleveland's third wheel. Love hasn't shot quite well enough considering the quality of looks LeBron provides, and he's a ground-bound minus on defense no matter how hard he tries -- as the Warriors almost cruelly exposed in punking Cleveland on Monday night. He has never been able to lift Cleveland with LeBron on the bench.
As for Anthony, it's almost pathetic how much squealing praise he gets for playing passable defense and passing the ball. How many breathless stories do we have to read about how this newly matured Melo trusts his teammates? Did anyone not realize that passing and defense were good things? Did anyone watch the 2012-13 Knicks? It has been obvious for years that Anthony is a gifted passer -- and that his teams find new harmony when he indulges in that gift.
Anthony playing, you know, basketball isn't a revelation, but it is helping the Knicks survive the toughest stretch of their schedule. He's rebounding and dropping dimes at a career-best rate, the numbers suggest his defense is at least competent and he has slowly recovered his bounce and touch after knee surgery.
And, hell, when Melo decides to go it alone on offense, he's still among the very best at getting buckets.
Melo and Thomas get the last two spots in what amounts to a shoulder shrug. Crowder might be Boston's best player, and he deserves consideration for a reserve spot. Thomas takes three or four ghastly shots every game, often with wide-open teammates in his line of sight, and he's so short, he'll always be a liability on defense. But it's unclear if Boston's army of third options could score enough to win -- and for Crowder's ferocious two-way play to draw notice -- without Thomas puncturing defenses. He is the only Celtics ball handler who can hurt you both driving and shooting.
Boston has scored 105 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor, and just 94.5 when he sits -- one of the largest such gaps in the league. He is Boston's only reliable source of free throws, and he has mastered an array of semi-legal contortions that help him finish over and around taller players: knees up, lean back, can't lose!
I feel queasy about the last four spots, but that's my best shot. On to the ...
The starting lineup is easy. If you're still quibbling about whether Draymond Green is a star, it's best to click back onto that column about the NFL playoffs and rejoin the NBA in May.
The rest of the roster raises thorny questions about roster context, the importance of team record and the hard-to-quantify value of leadership. Look at the sure-thing All-Stars with ugly blemishes:
Harden: Showed up to camp out of shape, struggled to crack 40 percent from the floor and loafed on defense. He's an offense unto himself, but that singular power can stifle the creativity of his teammates.
Cousins: Might be a locker-room cancer, and he's probably hogging the ball; Cousins has jacked over 21 shots per 36 minutes, the highest number in the league. He leads the league in usage rate, and he's shooting too many 3s. He's perhaps the league's laziest transition defender, and he moronically got himself suspended one game -- something the Kings can't afford considering they are just 1-7 with Cousins out.
Davis: Prematurely anointed (sorry!) MVP candidate whose game has plateaued for an injury-riddled team stocked with too many fringe players. Davis is shooting 48 percent, down from his typical mid-50s mark, and he hasn't tightened up his team defense in the ways many of us expected. He wasn't always playing at peak effort early in the season.
Blake Griffin: A different kind of case that also gets at the challenge of untangling individual from team. Griffin was playing perhaps the best all-around ball of his career before suffering a quad injury last month, but the Clips are 10-1 without him after going 9-6 last season when he sat with a nasty elbow issue. That record proves only that Griffin's team is awesome, but in splitting the finest of hairs, it's enough to cost him a ballot spot -- especially since he's approaching the threshold of games missed where it starts to crimp an All-Star case.
On the flip side: Klay Thompson and LaMarcus Aldridge, two stars who happily slid into back seats, amped up their defense and worked on all the little things that would help them fit on historically great teams. Should they be penalized for playing alongside prime super-duperstars? How would Thompson fare if he traded rosters with Harden? Top dog duty in Houston might get ugly for Thompson, but should that matter?
In the end, Davis, Harden and Cousins have done just enough on the team level to merit All-Star spots, though I thought hard about disqualifying all three in favor of Thompson, Damian Lillard, Gordon Hayward, or even the lava-hot J.J. Redick. It helps Beard, Brow and Boogie that the Western Conference field has thinned out: Memphis' usual candidates all took a step back; Griffin, Derrick Favors and Eric Bledsoe are injured; C.J. McCollum isn't quite there; and aging Dwight and Tony Parker check in below the All-Star tier even during tidy seasons.
The Kings are 16-16 with Cousins -- good enough to make the playoffs with a hodge-podge roster around him. He might be a nightmare, but his tantrums don't appear to be holding back a team primed to thrive without him. He has missed nearly as many games as Griffin, and unlike the Clips, Sacramento has rolled over without their star big. Should that count in Cousins's favor, and against Griffin? I don't know, but I feel some hesitation picking a guy amid this loaded field who has both missed games and seen his team soar without him -- even against a cupcake schedule.
When Cousins is engaged, he's a better defender than Griffin -- an immovable cinderblock who protects the rim, takes charges and snags a ton of steals.
Harden leads the league in free throws by a mile, and on most nights, he's the only thing keeping Houston's offense afloat. It's fair to wonder if Harden foists some of the burden onto himself -- if his teammates might play better (and shoot more accurately) if they felt the ball more. This just doesn't feel like the right season for that argument; Harden is averaging nearly seven dimes per game, and most of his teammates have shot dreadfully. He's a willing ball-mover, at least early in possessions. One of my favorite NBA moments: when Harden holds the ball up top, watches spooked helped defenders scrunch in toward him even though he hasn't dribbled and then zings a diagonal pass to some open shooter. He is a human magnet for double-teams; how do you think Houston generates those Harden-Terrence Jones-Howard lob sequences?
He's not helping on defense, but Houston's maddening issues on that end go way beyond one player. Harden is still helping his team win.
Davis is putting up monster numbers, and for all the hand-wringing over his inability to elevate the Pellies' defense, there is a lot of evidence that he's massively helpful on that end. Opponents have hit just 43.8 percent of shots at the rim with Davis around, one of the stingiest marks in the league; Davis would patrol the hoop more often had the Pellies not wasted so many roster spots on crappy centers.
This isn't to exonerate Davis. He needs to bring the fire every night. Teams that fling the ball around can put him on skates. But this roster started the season in ruins, and even at full health, it's a shallow mish-mash. Omer Asik is a sweaty shell of himself, and Alvin Gentry spent most of the season starting two non-shooting zeroes -- Asik and Alonzo Gee -- around Davis, a sure-fire way to clog the lane and neuter his pick-and-roll game.
Davis hasn't met expectations, but he has been one of the dozen best players in the West. Aldridge snared the last spot, by a teensy margin over Thompson, Lillard and Hayward. It's trite, and maybe dumb, but a 36-6 team on pace to smash the all-time record for point differential deserves two All-Stars -- even if their greatness is built more on having one transcendent player, lots of very good ones and no bad ones.
Aldridge has to be San Antonio's second All-Star. Tim Duncan is a damned genius who somehow leads the whole league in adjusted plus-minus on defense at age 39, but he barely logs 20 minutes per game. The decline in Aldridge's raw numbers has masked how lethal he has been in his new role. He has been steady on defense, toggling between both big man positions, and snuffing the pick-and-roll using whatever tactic each opponent requires. He's whipping the ball to the corners on offense and rolling hard to the rim when he shares the floor with Boris Diaw.
This doesn't feel fair to Thompson. He is the apex third option -- a guy who works his ass off to defend multiple positions and inflicts severe damage on offense without touching the rock. He's the opposite of 2015-16 Harden. He doesn't have to create as much with the ball, so he's turned himself into the ultimate off-ball creator. He might not work on Harden's team, but he has found the perfect version of himself for his own team.
Hayward has been the one constant in Utah, filling every role as the undermanned Jazz cling to a playoff spot. It was popular early in the season to suggest Favors had surpassed Hayward as Utah's best player, but Favors has never proved he can lead a productive two-way team without Hayward orchestrating the pick-and-roll. Rodney Hood has swiped some of that responsibility from Hayward, and Hayward slumped through the first month of the season. He has been on fire since, but that's enough to keep him out of Toronto -- barely.
Lillard is Point Guard Harden -- an offense-only player who controls that half of the game when he's rolling. Opposing defenses have to extend themselves to take away Lillard's off-the-bounce 3s, just as they do with Curry, and that structural manipulation gives Portland a head start every night. He's just not as physically imposing as Harden; when Lillard's triple isn't falling, he can't compensate with pulverizing drives and heaps of free throws. If you want him in, that's fine. He falls just short here.
Nowitzki is a headier defender than people think; he boxes out hard, jostles in the post and uses his length around the basket. He can't defend the pick-and-roll with those mummified legs, but the Mavs can scheme around that -- at least in the regular season. Nowitzki's jumper is the orbital center of the Mavs' offense. It pulls in opposing defenses and gives everyone else room to breathe. There is no way Dallas could succeed amid constant roster churn without Nowitzk canning moonball jumpers and setting a tone of selfless work ethic.
As for Jordan, it's time to celebrate what he does instead of lamenting his limitations. Announcers need to stop with the snide remarks about how Jordan shoots 70 percent because, duh, all his shots are dunks.
Yo, dunks are awesome. If you can dunk, you should dunk. You know who else shoots 70 percent? No one, ever. It would be nice if Jordan could hit a mid-range shot, loft a jump hook or make free throws at a higher rate than a coordinated kindergarten student, but the man is an offensive force. For every Jordan dunk, there are five or six rolls to the rim where the mere threat of Jordan dunking opens up a shot for someone else.
Doc Rivers did Jordan a disservice by invoking the name of Bill Russell and mocking anyone who dared pick someone other than Jordan as Defensive Player of the Year. In a rush to prove Rivers wrong, people delighted in pointing out Jordan's mistakes.
Rivers was wrong. Jordan isn't the league's best defender, and he might not be one of the 10 best. But he's really good. And this year, he should be an All-Star.
10 Things I Like and Don't Like
1. The Rockets screwing up basic things
The Rockets are 6-2 since the Spurs pasted them earlier this month, and their defense has been competent during that stretch. Hooray for adequacy! But the surge has not dulled the feeling that you cannot trust this team to execute basic things over 48 minutes against strong opposition.
Houston's players still make random decisions without talking to each other. Watch Terrence Jones, having a down season at the worst possible time, decide to switch back off Rodney Hood at almost the exact moment Trey Burke passes Hood the ball -- a Keystone Kops-level blip that leaves Hood open:
Every Houston game features at least a dozen moments of confused anarchy. You can get away with this against a Utah team missing four starter-level players. Elite offenses need no such help. They score well against sound defense. Give them airspace, and they will slice you apart. When Trevor Ariza left Redick on Monday night to lunge at Luc Richard Mbah a Moute in the corner, I almost tossed my remote at the television.
2. The Warriors' re-switchability
Golden State's defense has slipped into a malaise since its 27-0 start, but the Warriors' track record at full strength is unassailable. If Houston's inability to shift assignments without tripping over each other makes you puke, rinse the taste away by watching the Warriors hop around seamlessly.
We've all lauded the Warriors' super-switchability. What doesn't get enough attention, though, is their alertness to any chance for a re-switch and their ability to manage that dance without opening even the teensiest window.
Switching once snuffs the first action, but stop there, and the opponent has two size mismatches from which to choose. Switch back, and they're stumped.
The Warriors do this all the time, and they make it look easy. It's not. It requires a high collective hoops IQ, harmony you feel in your bones and perfect communication.
3. The LeBron James surprise duck-in
This has become one of David Blatt's favorite set pieces out of timeouts, and it is a devastating bit of misdirection:
Look at all that crisscrossing motion designed to trick the defense into thinking the play is for anyone but LeBron as the King ambles along the baseline. And then, bam! This bad boy should be in every opponent's scouting report by now, so Blatt may have to tweak it going forward.
4. Marcus Smart's contested 3s
So, when do we start talking about how Smart is shooting 34 percent overall and a disastrous 21 percent from deep? Smart is a multipositional terror on defense, and he has mastered some new tricks running the pick-and-roll. But it's hard to stay on the floor in the postseason when you're in sub-Tony Allen territory from the field.
Smart will can more jumpers at some point -- the revival may have kicked off in Dallas last night. He hit 33 percent from deep as a rookie, a mild surprise, and a knee injury derailed him this season. Dialing back his shot selection might help. For a bad shooter, Smart launches a surprising number of contested 3s early in the shot clock -- including some off-the-bounce jobs that have little chance.
That may be partly a function of how tough it is for Boston to create separation when Thomas is on the bench, but Smart has been brick-y even alongside Thomas.
5. Shabazz Muhammad's defense
Muhammad has developed an offensive game that goes beyond brutalizing fools in the post for lefty jump hooks. He gets downhill on the pick-and-roll now, and he has sizzled from the corners. The next step: become less permissive on defense. Muhammad gets lost trying to dodge picks on and off the ball, ducks under screens against good shooters, and ball-watches while his guy cuts backdoor.
The Wolves sometimes don't even trust Muhammad against top wing scorers when both Andrew Wiggins and Tayshaun Prince are on the bench. When the Wolves get good in a post-Prince world, Wiggins will need a partner who can share those exhausting assignments. Muhammad isn't that player yet -- he's not even close -- and it's time for him to care as much about defense as he does about scoring.
6. Trey Lyles, getting a chance
Injuries to Favors and Rudy Gobert forced Utah to give Lyles real minutes ahead of schedule, and crappy play from Houston, New Orleans and Phoenix has allowed Utah to hang on to a playoff spot through Lyles' growing pains.
This will create a happy problem for Quin Snyder once everyone gets healthy, because Lyles looks like yet another quality young player on a roster overcrowded with them. Lyles just turned 20, and there will still be plenty of possessions -- especially on defense -- when the NBA game is just too fast for him.
But he's 22-of-37 from the floor over his past four games, including 6-of-10 from deep, and he shows hints that he might emerge as the perfect sort of "playmaking 4" for the modern NBA. He can shoot 3s and make plays off the bounce when defenders close out, and he's already a clever passer. He has flashed some nimble footwork on defense, including in rushing out on shooters, staying balanced when they pump fake and walling off their drives.
Slot him next to a rim protector like Favors and Gobert, and Utah might be in business.
7. Kent Bazemore, running the damn floor like he means it
Most NBA players run much harder going from defense to offense than in the other direction. The lure of a fast-break dunk is a more powerful motivator than running back to bump a big man leaking out.
Not Bazemore. This dude sprints both ways like a player who had to fight for his NBA life until finding a home in Atlanta. He is always at full blast, to the point that you think he might keep on running into the locker room like Bo Jackson. Playing hard is a skill. Bazemore single-handedly shuts down fast breaks through sheer effort.
8. Marcus Morris, secondary playmaker
Morris has shot just 20-of-58 out of the pick-and-roll this season, but even so, he has filled a major void for a Pistons team desperate for someone who can keep the rock moving after Jackson kicks it out. Letting Morris stretch himself has been especially useful when he serves as the only holdover starter on bench units -- lineups that struggled to do much of anything before Brandon Jennings' return from an Achilles tear.
Morris has already been the ball handler on 118 pick-and-rolls this season after running just 146 of those suckers in Phoenix last season, per SportVU data provided to ESPN.com. It hasn't been pretty, or super-productive, but Morris will come out of this a more well-rounded player.
Now: Can we see him just a bit at power forward? Pretty please, Stan?
9. Extended close-ups on scorers
Another League Pass foible that needs go away: A guy scores, the broadcast switches to a close-up of that player as he jogs back on defense, the close-up lingers for several seconds, and then some basketball things happen off-camera. It's extra frustrating, because you realize right away something exciting is going on. A panicked look will wash over the guy in the close-up, and he'll dart out of the shot to address the transition attack we're not seeing.
Stop doing this. We know what these guys look like, and they don't look any different after they score.
10. Gary Harris, slicing along the baseline
Harris is having a bounce-back sophomore season, and he has honed a slithery little baseline game to pair with his smooth jumper. Turn your back on Harris, and he's gone. Once he catches the ball, he has a knack for quick-pivot spins and other change-of-direction moves that fool defenders scrambling to relocate him.