With the league set to announce All-Star reserves, it's time to release our picks for the full 12-man rosters. Reminders:
I ignore the fan/media/player vote and start from scratch. It's more fun!
I use the same positional restrictions as voters (in picking starters) and coaches (in selecting reserves): four guards, six "frontcourt" players, and two wild cards.
I prioritize play this season. Other writers place more value on past performance. I get that. Pedigree matters. Fans want to see stars, and a player's track record can hint that any current uptick in play might be a fluke.
I might use past performance as a tiebreaker, but as long as we hold this concert disguised as a game every year, I prefer rewarding guys playing the best in each particular season.
• The last three spots came down to Drummond, Porzingis, Love, John Wall, Ben Simmons, Tobias Harris, Khris Middleton, Kemba Walker, and Anyone From The Kick-Ass Miami Heat and, honestly it was pretty depressing. Pick any four, and I wouldn't really argue.
A bizarre thing: Wall is the best player of that group, but gets left off. We haven't seen peak John Wall much this season. The last spot came down to Wall and Love, and I have never been less excited about an All-Star roster decision.
Wall is shooting 42 percent, his lowest mark since he was a rookie, and he just hasn't played with enough vigor on either end of the floor. One measure of that: He has spent 76.57 percent of floor time either standing still or walking, the largest such share among all rotation players, according to tracking data from Second Spectrum. Dirk Nowitzki is right behind Wall, and he's almost 40.
It's unclear how much that metric means. Most of the guys near the top are slow behemoths -- as we'd expect. LeBron is No. 4, and James Harden, Carmelo Anthony, and Jeff Teague all populate the top 20. Ball-dominant stars need to conserve energy. Some guys shift from walking to turbo mode without spending much time in between.
But regardless: Wall should not be freaking last. He too often stands around when he doesn't have the ball, or when a shot is the air and he might be able to help on the glass. He switches constantly on defense to avoid chasing his guy around picks.
Again: most stars do this to varying degrees. Wall's habits this season have drifted too far in the wrong direction. Teams take their cues from their best players, and the Wizards have spent a lot of this season playing casual, entitled basketball. Toss in Wall's icy 2-point shooting, a small drop in assists and 11 missed games, and Love gets the tiebreaker.
• Motion-tracking data on Wall makes for a nice contrast with the perpetually underrated Lowry. (Bill Simmons reacted with surprise on the Lowe Post last week when I listed Lowry as a lock.) Lowry is hyperactive, always moving, and his dangerous 3-point shot -- approaching 40 percent now -- gives that motion value: Bodies and eyes stalk him everywhere.
Lowry is a grittier rebounder than Wall, and a more consistent, alert defender. When both hit peak intensity, Wall is better. Lowry is the more worthy All-Star.
• No one should have penciled in Irving and DeRozan as starters without considering Oladipo. He is their equal in most statistical categories, and the best defender among them. Replace him with a league-average 2-guard, and the Pacers are deep into the lottery.
But both Irving and DeRozan have a little more creative responsibility in the half court -- both dish more dimes than 'Dipo -- for teams that have lapped the East. Boston has struggled to score at all without Irving, while the Raps are destroying teams when DeRozan spells Lowry, per NBA.com. (Boston has also managed quite well when Irving plays without Horford.) With all things about equal, let's defer to winning.
• Beal has been Washington's most reliable player, and deserves the nod over Wall.
• Love is a big reason the Cavaliers have the second-worst defense in the league. He is miscast as a last-line-of-defense center. On offense, he was a distant second option before Isaiah Thomas' return, and with Thomas back, he looks like a distant third option again.
But he's performing that role well. Love is shooting 40 percent from deep on a high volume, and he can drain 3s against heavy pressure. He remains a plus passer, even if the Cavs rarely put him in position to record assists. He pings the ball around the perimeter, and has been frisky off the bounce when defenders rush to contest his 3-pointer. He is one of the league's most effective high-volume post-up players, unleashing old-school, ground-bound craft -- including subtle arm bars -- to draw bundles of shooting fouls.
Love mostly tries on defense. It's not his fault Ty Lue slotted him at center, and I'd bet the Cavs try starting Tristan Thompson there again soon. Love gets zero help from any of Cleveland's perimeter defenders. Last weekend's 148-point humiliation against Oklahoma City might have been the laziest, most flat-footed game I've ever seen LeBron play on defense.
• Porzingis has hit half of his shots in three of his past 16 games. He doesn't rebound or pass enough; his go-to move is catching the ball 15 feet from the rim, whipping around without taking a dribble or scanning the court, and launching. When he's going badly, Porzingis almost looks like a rich man's Harrison Barnes -- a guy who gets buckets one-on-one in the middle of the court, but doesn't really elevate his team in doing so.
But Porzingis is 7-3, and he's shooting 39 percent from deep on a team that was starved for perimeter talent before Tim Hardaway Jr.'s return. Porzingis's outside shooting unlocks valuable lineup flexibility for Jeff Hornacek and open looks for teammates.
Reuniting with Hardaway has already perked up Porzingis a bit. The Knicks average 1.13 points per possession when a Hardaway-Porzingis pick-and-roll leads directly to a shot (for one of those two, or a teammate one pass away), drawn foul, or turnover -- the fifth-best mark in the league among almost 300 high-volume combinations, per Second Spectrum.
Porzingis also draws a ton of fouls on those quick-hitting post-ups; he's so tall, defenders raising a hand to cloud his vision end up whacking him in the elbow.
Anecdotally, it seems like he has been passing better over the past two weeks. Toss in his defense -- Porzingis ranks among the league's best rim protectors by most public measures -- and he's deserving, despite his annual post-November slump.
• Detroit is 8-17 over its past 25 games, and it's fine if you want to vaporize the Pistons from All-Star Weekend. They certainly don't merit two, and Drummond edges Harris here. His free throw shooting is one of the season's happiest stories, and his willingness to revamp his game -- stepping out of the post, and into an inside-out passing role -- has changed the entire look and feel of Detroit's offense. That it has fallen apart of late isn't really his fault.
Drummond's defense still comes and goes, but he's generally played harder, and opposing coaches lose sleep over his rebounding.
• I badly wanted to take a Heat player, but it's hard to make a case for any of them. Goran Dragic comes closest, but the numbers and overall impact aren't quite there. Hassan Whiteside missed too many games. The Heat are winning because they have so many good, B-plus NBA players -- not because of any singular talent.
• I have no idea what to do with Simmons. He is the best defender among the group fighting for the last three spots, and maybe by a lot. He's also a very peculiar player figuring out the NBA, and it's obvious the rest of the Sixers are trying to figure him out, too.
Philly has scored just 99.6 points per 100 possessions when Simmons plays without Embiid -- below even Sacramento's league-worst offense. It's fair to ding him for that, considering how Brett Brown shuffles lineups so there are almost always two and even three starters on the floor. Simmons himself is shooting 59 percent when he plays with Embiid, and just 46 percent going solo -- a disastrous mark considering he never shoots from beyond the foul line.
But a certain No. 1 pick who may or may not exist was supposed to share ball-handling duties and space the floor for Simmons during some of those non-Embiid minutes. Whoops.
In the end, it just felt a year early. The numbers aren't that overwhelming.
• I flip-flopped and slotted Embiid as the last starting frontcourt player over Horford. His numbers are overwhelming. Philly disintegrates whenever Embiid sits, and they've outscored opponents by more than five points per 100 possessions -- a healthy margin -- when he plays without Simmons. Missing five more games than Horford is not enough to cost Embiid his spot.
• Oof. That was unpleasant.
• Curry is a backup here only because of 15 missed games. As some readers may remember, that is about the point at which I factor in availability; I have even disqualified some prior candidates (including Embiid last season, though he was also on a minutes restriction) for missing about that many. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul faded from this season's debate after missing 16 and 17 games, respectively. (I thought very hard about Paul anyway. He has been that good.)
Fans of those players might justifiably ask why Curry gets in. Why? Because he's Stephen Curry. He's a two-time MVP and two-time champion, an NBA revolutionary who has been ridiculous for the league's best team -- 27 points on almost 50/40/90 shooting -- when healthy. Even having missed those 15 games -- 15 potential stat-padding blowouts -- Curry is still second overall in raw plus-minus. (Eric Gordon tops the league.)
When you are all of those things -- when a generational team constructed its ethos and on-court identity around you -- different standards apply. That's life.
• Butler has been a two-way monster. If we're bringing Curry off the bench, he deserves to start over Westbrook. The MVP's advantage in counting stats doesn't outweigh Butler's edge in shooting efficiency and defense.
• Towns became my last lock after deciding on Dec. 1 that he wanted to try on defense again. Trying: What a concept! Towns has been among the league's very best players ever since.
Those lead-footed games before Dec. 1 still happened, and there is surely some recency bias in placing more weight on his work after that dividing point. Still: Even if all 82 games count the same, I'd much rather have a player -- especially a good player on a playoff team -- trend upward.
• Green should be a lock, too. He is the third-best player on (by far) the league's best team, their smartest passer, still the keystone to everything they do on defense. Durant has made a leap on that end, and those blocked shots are tasty. But the Defensive Player of the Year talk is more cute narrative than real thing. On a play-by-play basis, Green remains the Warriors' best defender -- a savant who sees everything before it happens, and appears to move almost ahead of the ball and the opposing offense.
• That left a gaggle of studs for the last three spots: Cousins, George, Thompson, Paul, Damian Lillard, Nikola Jokic, Lou Williams, and Devin Booker. (Gordon, DeAndre Jordan, Clint Capela, Tyreke Evans, CJ McCollum and maybe a few others comprise the next tier.) Booker has the numbers, and he's made huge and important strides as a playmaker. He may be in this game next season. But with this field, you can't reward a guy performing under zero pressure for an awful team that took a collective nap on the court until its coach got fired.
I was hesitant to classify Cousins a lock. The Pelicans are two measly games ahead of a Clippers team that has spent half the season with D-League guys around DeAndre Jordan and Williams. If they really have two of the 12 best players in the conference -- and according to most experts, two of the 12 best in the league -- why are they mediocre?
Cousins' own limitations line up almost perfectly with those of his team. He turns the ball over at an absurd rate and chronically fails to get back on defense; the Pelicans turn the ball over too much and hemorrhage transition points with Cousins on the floor. (Their turnover rate drops from bottom-five territory to best-in-the-league when Davis plays center, per NBA.com.)
There are just way, way, way too many opponent possessions when you see only nine players on the television screen for an alarming length of time. Like, sometimes the opponent will take a shot, grab an offensive rebound, and go up for another shot before Cousins -- pouting and wheezing -- crosses half court.
That is death on morale. Opponents have outscored the Pelicans by about three points per 100 possessions in 625 minutes when Cousins plays without Davis, and their defense has been a catastrophe, per NBA.com.
Davis has outplayed Cousins, and Aldridge has been steadier -- the stabilizing two-way force for an injury-riddled Spurs team that somehow keeps winning.
But Cousins is a big reason those guys are playing so well -- and even for some of Davis' career-best shooting numbers. On offense, he has transformed himself into what the Pelicans need him to be -- a monstrous, 3-point-shooting point-center logging huge minutes. The price of that transformation is Cousins occasionally falling down while dribbling, turning the ball over, and huffing at the referees while the other team scores.
Cousins happily cedes the lane -- and rim-running duties -- to Davis, allowing Davis to act in a more natural finisher role. Davis gets more shots in the restricted area with Cousins on the floor, and enjoys more assisted baskets, per NBA.com. A full half of Holiday's baskets have come via assist this season, up from just 29 percent a year ago, and that role recalibration has turned him into a different player.
Cousins is good enough with the ball to make you wonder if the Pelicans need a traditional point guard at all. They have outscored opponents by almost 19 points per 100 possessions -- insane -- when Holiday, Cousins, and Davis play without either of the Rajon Rondo/Jameer Nelson duo, per NBA.com. (The margin doesn't drop much when you slide Davis out, either.)
Rondo and Nelson are sieves, and lineup data at least raises the possibility that New Orleans' bad defense has less to do with Cousins than the eye test might suggest.
Because nobody fails the eye test on bad nights like Cousins. A lot of other stars -- including Davis -- lollygag back on defense, but no one does it with Boogie's gusto. You notice it more, and for Boogie skeptics (guilty!), the nausea of watching him loaf probably colors our perception of him more than it should. It's also easy to overlook the unusually high number (for a big man) of steals he swipes -- thefts that compensate at least a bit for his own oafish pratfalls.
The Pelicans spring leaks on the defensive glass when Cousins sits. The Boogie/non-Brow lineups have been net positives since December 1 after a hideous start. Opposing coaches fear Cousins, even if they would never want to coach him.
And overall that Pelicans supporting cast is, umm, not good. They are getting nothing from six of their 15 roster spots. Nothing! That number would be "only" five with Solomon Hill, but still. It's unclear if Miller, Nelson, Dante Cunningham, or Ian Clark would get real minutes on a normal playoff team; Rondo would certainly not receive so many. Moore would be a reserve.
It's fair to ask why one mediocrity deserves two All-Stars, while two and maybe three others receive none. All of those teams are deeper than New Orleans in NBA rotation guys. Cousins is deserving. I just wouldn't start him.
• Denver is one such deep mediocrity, and Jokic would probably be here if he asserted himself on offense more. Mike Malone hasn't made that easy by pairing Jokic so often with a paint-bound center (Mason Plumlee), but those halves when Jokic shoots just two or three times need to go, and everyone knows it. (It is not a coincidence Jokic erupted for a career-high 41 points the day after Malone ripped into him in practice.)
He tries harder than Cousins on defense, but the results aren't much different; Malone has gone to greater lengths -- and maybe unnecessary ones -- to hide Jokic in recent games.
Jokic is a magic passer. He empowers teammates in ways that are hard to quantify. He just doesn't crack the roster this season.
• That left Thompson, Lillard, Williams and George for two spots. Brutal. Williams went first, which doesn't seem fair, considering his numbers are on par with those of almost every other perimeter candidate after six-plus weeks carrying the ragtag Clippers. But he's the worst defender here, and he started the season as a bench guy playing 25 or fewer minutes per game. He's a tough cut, and no one will object if he makes it.
There is no right answer to the Thompson/Lillard/George question. Lillard is the worst defender by a mile, but also the only first option. George is shooting a career-worst (excluding his six-game campaign in 2014-15) 44 percent on 2s.
Thompson is one of the hardest All-Star candidates to evaluate in league history. What an existence this dude lives. He doesn't even have to worry about dribbling. That is how you free up enough brain space to become an expert on scaffolding.
But Thompson is such a great, snap-release shooter -- probably the second-greatest ever, draining a league-best 45 percent from deep -- that he almost functions as floating second option just by moving around and drawing attention. He's a solid defender who spares Curry the burden of guarding every elite point guard, and switches across three or even four positions. Thompson doesn't look overmatched guarding LeBron and Griffin.
He's also thriving under a much heavier load when both Curry and Durant sit -- shooting about 46 percent overall, and 42.5 percent from deep amid lineups that are big positives.
Could he do what Lillard does as the alpha dog (by a hair over CJ McCollum)? Probably not. But Lillard couldn't fill Thompson's role on a potential dynasty the same way, either. The Warriors are 37-10 with a scoring differential indicating they might be even better than that. They are the defining team of today's NBA. Giving them one-third of the West's All-Star spots is fine.
George squeaks in on this ballot, though the bet here is that Lillard makes the actual team over him. That would be fine. Lillard is deserving. I wish I could swap him over to the East. But I like rewarding two-way guys, and George has been perhaps the best wing defender in the league this season. He's also averaging 21 points per game -- about four fewer than Lillard -- and shooting a career-best 43 percent from deep. Playing with Russ has its benefits.
Oklahoma City has now jumped both San Antonio and Minnesota in scoring margin. The Thunder have separated themselves from rest of the West, and George's play as their No. 2 is a huge part of that push.
If talent were distributed normally -- i.e., if the Warriors didn't have both Curry and Durant -- George would stand as the league's apex second option. Is that more valuable than a mid-rung first option?
These choices at the back of the roster are mostly a matter of taste. With only straws to grasp and hairs to split, I'll use team performance and Lillard's seven missed games as tiebreakers. In a few hours, we'll find out who the coaches chose.