Coach voting for All-Star reserve selections for the 66th NBA All-Star Game in New Orleans must be completed by Tuesday afternoon.
At Stein Line HQ, meanwhile, tradition dictates that we fill out our own ballot using the exact same league guidelines the coaches themselves must adhere to.
Those conditions are as follows:
1. Coaches must vote for two guards, three frontcourt players and two wild cards in their respective conferences.
2. Players must be ranked on the coach's ballot in specific order of preference in all three categories.
3. Coaches are explicitly told as part of the voting process that the position at which a player "is listed on the All-Star ballot should have no bearing on your vote." Each coach is encouraged, per ballot instructions, to vote for players "at the position he thinks is most advantageous for the All-Star team" and "not necessarily the one he plays most often during the season."
4. Coaches are obviously not allowed to vote for their own players.
The starters in the East, as announced Thursday night, are LeBron James, Jimmy Butler and Giannis Antetokounmpo in the frontcourt, with Kyrie Irving and DeMar DeRozan in the backcourt. The starters in the West are Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard and hometown favorite Anthony Davis in the frontcourt, with Stephen Curry and James Harden in the backcourt.
The respective benches, which will be revealed Thursday night on TNT, would look like this if it were up to us:
2. Kyle Lowry
Thomas was one of my choices last week to start in the East, so he's naturally the proverbial first name on the team sheet here. Dwell on his defensive deficiencies if you wish. I prefer to focus on Thomas' ongoing emergence as one of the league's foremost fourth-quarter forces.
Lowry is likewise unlucky to start ... especially when the unstoppable Kevin Pelton trots out numbers that illustrate just how valuable he is to the Raptors when he's on the floor compared to when he sits. But I'm stubbornly sticking to my contention that teammate DeRozan, from start to finish so far this season, has the better overall 2016-17 résumé through 43 games and thus deserved his first starting berth in the All-Star Game.
That doesn't mean DeRozan has supplanted Lowry as Toronto's most important player. And I don't think the flip-flopped roles bother Lowry too much after he started for the East in each of the past two All-Star Games. Based on everything I heard while in suburban Toronto for this week's D-League Showcase, Lowry was rooting for his backcourt mate as hard as anyone.
1. Kevin Love
2. Paul George
3. Joel Embiid
Hard to believe that Love got a championship ring in Cleveland before he managed an All-Star berth with the Cavs. But it's true: This will be Love's first appearance on the East squad after conference coaches bypassed him the past two winters. Don't see any way that happens now given Cleveland's sizable lordship over the East and the way Love has expanded his game to shoot the 3 ball more than he ever has before. Despite his chilly January and recent back woes, Love is converting those long-range attempts at nearly 38 percent.
Over in Indiana, George hasn't come close to mounting the MVP challenge he was vowing to submit in the wake of his successful return to international basketball with Team USA at the Rio Olympics. Yet he remains one of the league's most celebrated two-way players -- even if Professor Pelton's numbers show there has been a drop-off defensively -- and also benefits here from the fact that there's a serious shortage of frontcourt candidates in the East playing All-Star ball. Just to erase any remaining doubt: PG-13 is one of four players averaging at least 20 points, 6 rebounds, 3 assists and 1.5 steals; Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler and Russell Westbrook are the other three.
And now for the choice/explanation you've all been waiting for:
Don't even try to feed me that old-school hooey about how rookies have to wait their turn to be chosen for All-Star Games. Spare me the #wellactually lecture about the heavy minutes restrictions Embiid has faced.
It's undeniably true that Embiid has been forced to sit out 12 games as an offshoot of the foot troubles that cost him his first two NBA seasons. It's also true that he’s been on the court for only 37 percent of the Sixers' collective minutes played this season.
None of that matters to us. Nor should it matter to the coaches doing the voting.
Just answer these three questions:
Has Embiid been one of the East's 12 most impactful players this season? Do the Sixers function like a completely different (and competent) team when he's out there? And is there anyone in the conference who wasn't already voted in as a starter that the basketball public wants to see more in the Big Boy Game on Feb. 19?
The Sixers sport the average nightly scoring margin of a 55-win team when Embiid is on the floor ... compared to the scoring margin of an 11-win team when he sits. He deserves an All-Star berth, in other words, no matter how many red lights are flashing when you click to his minutes-per-game average of 25.3.
1. John Wall
2. Kemba Walker
For all the obvious struggles to find worthy frontcourt candidates in the East, here's the happy counter: Good guards are everywhere you look on the right side of the conference divide.
Based on these selections, Wall is merely the No. 4 point guard in the East, when the reality is that his case for a starting spot appeals to some folks more than the arguments for Thomas or Lowry.
That would naturally mean Walker has to settle for the No. 5 spot in the East's latest QB ratings. But I'm convinced he’s done enough -- with a PER of 22.8 in his breakout season as the driving force for a team with a winning record -- to earn his first All-Star berth. The selection would bring his city just a hint of solace after the city lost next month's All-Star Game to New Orleans; Gerald Wallace was Charlotte's most recent All-Star in 2010.
2. Mike Conley
Think we'll spare you the long-winded justification for Westbrook's presence in the top spot. He was averaging 30.6 points, 10.6 rebounds and 10.4 assists per game as of Sunday morning to put the Kevin Durant-less Thunder on pace for 47 wins. I think you get it.
(But for the record: I didn't find it controversial that Stephen Curry edged out Westbrook for a starting spot in the West backcourt alongside James Harden. For those of us less than completely sold on the media's place in new All-Star voting procedures, it was reassuring to see the fan totals still carrying the most meaningful weight to break such a high-profile tie.)
The other spot, meanwhile, has to go to the game's highest-paid (for now) player and a bring a halt to Conley's l-o-n-g wait to become an All-Star for the first time.
Conley was off to the best start of his career when he suffered a serious back injury in late November, then showed the whole world how tough he is by making it back onto the floor after missing only nine games, then resumed playing as well as he ever has.
Chris Paul was the obvious first choice behind Westbrook if he hadn't ripped up his left thumb. Have to say I like Pelton's suggestion to the West coaches that they should select Paul anyway and make NBA commissioner Adam Silver name an injury replacement for CP3.
Either way, though, it's Conley's time to slip on a West jersey.
3. Rudy Gobert
It's perhaps the lone positive you can draw from the otherwise demoralizing "race" for the No. 8 spot in the West that has uncharacteristically kept alive a slew of sub-.500 teams.
We're referring, obviously, to how the underwhelming records sported by Cousins' Sacramento Kings and Anthony Davis' Pelicans haven't hurt their respective All-Star cases.
It'll be a nice little moment to see Davis lined up for the opening tip in an All-Star Game played in the shadow of Bourbon Street. But Cousins' across-the-board production, no matter what his detractors might say, is in the same zip code as The Brow's, which should make him a lock for selection by West coaches.
Ditto for Golden State's Green. He has such an impact on the Warriors' fortunes, at both ends, that you rarely hear anyone bring up his seemingly mortal scoring average (10.8 PPG). The talk, more appropriately, is how Green is bidding to become the first player in league history to average better than seven assists, seven rebounds, two steals and one block over the course of an entire season.
Then there's Gobert, who has emerged as the co-biggest threat to Green’s dream of winning NBA Defensive Player of the Year alongside Kawhi Leonard
Gordon Hayward is the free agent-to-be who'll soon be in great demand, but Gobert just might be Utah's most influential player thanks to his offensive improvement. He's averaging 12.8 points, 12.8 rebounds and 2.5 blocks per game, which represent three benchmarks no Jazzman in team history has ever hit in the same season.
The only player in the league at present who can match (or exceed) Gobert in all three categories? Anthony Davis.
2. Gordon Hayward
Popular question: Do the Warriors deserve four All-Stars?
My response: Did you watch them play this week?
Thompson arguably has the toughest job in Golden State's star quartet, waiting to see from night to night how much the Dubs will ask of him, but his consistency as a two-way impact player earns him bonus points with us.
Let's also not forget that Thompson can be an irresistible showman in his own right. With apologies to Harden's 53-point, 16-rebound, 17-assist masterpiece against the Knicks, it was Klay who delivered the most stirring individual display of the season so far with his 60-point eruption against Indiana in early December.
So, yeah, he’s an All-Star.
The same has to be said for Hayward, who appears poised for his maiden All-Star nod from West coaches as a reward for his offensive consistency in the face of Utah's numerous injuries – including Hayward’s fast recovery from his own broken finger during training camp. This is the sixth straight season that Hayward has increased his scoring average, nudging him to a level (22.2 PPG) that makes him the most prolific scorer seen in Salt Lake City since