It's that time!
• I start from scratch. It's more fun to try to identify the dozen best players of this particular season in each conference. Some colleagues, including pocket square enthusiast Kevin Pelton, place more weight on a player's track record.
I might use that as a tiebreaker, but I prioritize these 40-plus games.
• I use the same roster restrictions as fans and coaches: a starting five featuring two guards and three frontcourt players, and seven reserves without regard to position. (I am among the media members who vote for starters.)
• The only debate among starters is the guard slot behind Irving. You can make strong cases for Beal, Walker, Oladipo and Simmons. Advanced stats favor Simmons. He is the best passer and most versatile defender, and it's not close.
But his complete lack of a jumper makes Simmons a tricky piece. He can't thrive in any ecosystem, or against every opponent.
Beal plays for the worst team here -- a morass of melodrama and sloth. Almost none of that is his fault. Washington's offense disintegrates without him. Before John Wall's surgery, the Wiz outscored opponents by almost six points per 100 possessions when Beal played without his backcourt partner.
Beal has outshot Walker and Oladipo. He's up to 36 percent from 3-point territory and 54 percent on 2-pointers -- a career high -- while posting a tasty 24-5-5 line. He has never attacked the rim with such head-down determination. Walker hasn't been the same since turning his ankle in mid-November. Oladipo's shooting splits have sunk below league average.
Oladipo is a better defender than Beal or Walker. He has sacrificed scoring to involve everyone on a deep Indiana team that is way ahead of Charlotte and Washington.
But Beal isn't a sieve, and he edges the other three. They are all locks.
• Vucevic as a lock might surprise people, but, holy crap, have you looked at this dude's numbers? He's shooting like a freaking Splash Brother: 39 percent from deep, 56 percent on 2s. He's rebounding and dishing dimes at career-best levels; his ability to draw opposing centers outside is the only thing propping up Orlando's offense.
His defense has improved, though it remains scattershot.
Can we somehow get Vucevic on the Lakers? They could use more shooting and another upgrade at center. Vucevic checks both boxes! (The Lakers know they had Brook Lopez last season, right?)
The only realistic deal would be Kentavious Caldwell-Pope and a first-round pick for Vucevic. The Magic may want more; Vucevic just turned 28, and going all-in on a Mo Bamba-Jonathan Isaac frontcourt means full-on tanking. That sounds palatable until you remember Orlando hasn't been relevant since 2012. Also: Caldwell-Pope and LeBron share an agent, and the Lakers might be saving their assets for bigger things.
• That leaves two spots for: Khris Middleton, Pascal Siakam, Eric Bledsoe, Kyle Lowry, John Collins, Jimmy Butler, Myles Turner, Bojan Bogdanovic, Domantas Sabonis, JJ Redick, D'Angelo Russell, Spencer Dinwiddie, Josh Richardson, Al Horford, Marcus Morris, Andre Drummond, and maybe a few others.
• I'm disqualifying Butler. I prioritize the current season, and Butler spent one third of it participating in the sabotage of the Timberwolves. That is not a value judgment, really. Butler wanted the same thing as Kyrie Irving a year earlier -- a new home -- and, like Irving, started agitating for one in the offseason. Tom Thibodeau's intransigence is probably the main reason the Butler saga dragged into the All-Star period under consideration.
But it dragged, and so Butler gets a one-year hiatus. He hasn't lit the world on fire in Philly, and ruffled feathers almost as he walked in the door.
• Horford's numbers are the same as ever, but his defense hasn't been.
• I wanted a second Pacer. By the numbers, it should be Sabonis. But including a reserve is hard. Sabonis logs only 25 minutes per game, and spends a lot of them feasting on backups.
He also plays more alongside Indiana's lesser lights. Some advanced numbers account for those variables. Those numbers love Sabonis. I'm not sure what it should take to slot a backup into the All-Star Game, but Sabonis is close.
Bogdanovic is rock solid, but Turner may be growing into the most important non-Oladipo Pacer. He is knocking on the door of the Defensive Player of the Year conversation. It's just tough to craft an All-Star argument for 12.8 points per game without plus playmaking or rebounding.
• I damn near shrugged and went with Collins. He's putting up huge numbers, and the Hawks are playing opponents almost to a standstill with him on the floor.
But he has missed 15 games, about the point where I start crossing off everyone but the superstars. The Hawks are only 10-20 with Collins in the lineup. Big numbers on bad teams don't mean quite as much. There are no stakes. Opponents don't get up to play the Hawks.
• That leaves a final five: Bledsoe, Middleton, Lowry, Siakam and Russell.
We admire players who carry thin teams. That is how the Pelicans might get two All-Stars even though they are three games below .500, and how the Sixers might get three.
But the flipside is punishing players on deep teams. Is it fair to penalize Middleton and Bledsoe because every Buck is killing it? If we do, the Bucks could have the best record and point differential, but just one All-Star. Is that the price of depth?
Toronto might get three to Milwaukee's one in part because the Raptors' depth from last season has not carried over.
Lowry and Leonard have missed 23 games combined, and their absences rarely overlapped. That created a vacuum for a third Dino -- Siakam, though Serge Ibaka has been outstanding as well -- to build a case.
In the end, I went this way:
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• Lowry has had the strangest season of any candidate. He came out on fire, and then scored in single digits in four consecutive games before missing almost a month with back issues. He has been weirdly passive since, and really all season with Leonard on the floor. His 3-pointer has deserted him. He is averaging just 14 points per game.
Russell, meanwhile, is up to 19 per game and has reached a new level during Brooklyn's surge. Poke fun at his inability to get to the line and addiction to skyscraping floaters, but it doesn't really matter if all those midrangers -- plus heaps of off-the-bounce 3s -- go in. Russell has looked the part of offensive fulcrum.
Lowry is going out of his way to defer to Leonard, to the point that you wonder if he is following some organizational fiat or throwing a mini-tantrum -- or both. But he's second overall in assists, and has resolved to propel his teammates -- particularly Ibaka, thriving as a center thanks to Lowry's pinpoint pocket passes.
When Leonard rests, Lowry becomes Lowry again. He is averaging 19.5 points and 15 shots per 36 minutes with Leonard on the bench, compared to 11.6 and 9.9, respectively, when they share the floor, per NBA.com. The Raptors have obliterated opponents by 16 points per 100 possessions in solo-Lowry minutes.
Lowry pops up near the top of most advanced stats leaderboards. Those numbers capture Lowry's peculiar floating value. He's a pest on defense, taking charges, switching at the right moment, and getting his hands on the ball.
He is constantly moving in productive ways on offense. Teams fear his shooting, and follow him everywhere -- uncluttering the lane. He cuts at the right time, and has a knack for finding offensive rebounds. He makes the proper pass, instantly. Some come three or four steps before a shot. Those passes -- the ones that set off a cascade of ball movement -- can be more important than assists or hockey assists.
Lowry does good things every second he's on the floor, even when you're not looking. That's rare. No one else in this group can match his two-way value.
• It felt right giving Milwaukee multiple All-Stars. Sorry, Pascal. Next time. (Advanced numbers favor Siakam over almost all of these guys. I couldn't get there. There is something wild about his playmaking that I don't 100 percent trust yet. He's a clear third wheel when Toronto is healthy. The track record tiebreaker works against him.)
I leaned for most of the season toward Middleton, even during his hellish December slump. His skill set -- high-volume 3-point shooting, some positional versatility -- feels more foundational to Milwaukee's identity. Bledsoe has hit just 31 percent from deep.
But Bledsoe is shooting a preposterous 61 percent on 2s, knifing through the open space in Milwaukee's Giannis-and-shooters offense. He is roasting dudes one-on-one. Milwaukee is outscoring opponents by a healthy margin with Antetokounmpo on the bench, and both Middleton and Bledsoe have thrived under heavier scoring burdens in those minutes.
If Bledsoe has one calling card, it's defense. Middleton's is shooting. We have seen more of Bledsoe's calling card at peak level than Middleton's. Bledsoe gets the nod.
• How cruel -- having to pick two of LeBron, Jokic, George, Durant and Davis to come off the bench. Those are five of the league's nine best players this season.
LeBron is the best player. We know this. He knows this. My daughter, who can name three players, knows this. (She calls him "LeBrunch" for some reason. She can also name Kemba Walker and Joel Embiid, and she says the "Jo-EL" perfectly.) He's averaging 28-8-7, and we barely nod.
But he has missed 30 percent of the season (and counting), and that's enough to slot him to the bench, as ridiculous as that sounds.
• I'm not sure why Durant's 28-7-6 campaign (that's a career high in assists) on almost 50/40/90 shooting is getting zero buzz. Maybe it's Warriors malaise, or Golden State lazing through the season before going scorched earth over the last two-plus weeks. Maybe it's the nagging feeling that the Warriors have compromised something about their soul to accommodate Durant, and that he might leave, anyway.
I don't know. But Durant has been incredible, The Warriors are outscoring opponents with Curry on the bench, and Durant is pouring in 33 points per 36 minutes in those minutes. He doesn't dial it up on defense all the time but he's still very good.
• George has been Oklahoma City's best player, and it hasn't been close. Jokic is Denver's best player and the orchestrator for a team that spent much of the season atop the West despite a hail of injuries. Russell Westbrook is Oklahoma City's orchestrator, though George has done incredible work on his pick-and-roll chances considering defenses ignore everyone else on the Thunder -- including and especially Westbrook -- to clog the lane when he has the ball.
Almost every GM would pick Davis over both, but New Orleans is 12th in the West.
If LeBron is out, George has to be in. He's averaging 27 points on 44 percent shooting, including 39 percent from deep. He might be the favorite for Defensive Player of the Year.
• That leaves Davis and Jokic. Davis averages almost 10 more points per game. He's more athletic and versatile on defense, a real deterrent at the rim.
Jokic is dishing an insane 7.7 dimes per game. A center ranks seventh in assists -- ahead of LeBron! I don't think we are fully grasping how crazy this is. Jokic is already the best passing big man ever, and the evidence is growing that his passing has some powerful compounding effect beyond the "he makes everyone better" cliches. Meanwhile, Davis is averaging a career-best 4.4 assists per game.
The Nuggets rank way ahead of New Orleans on defense. Even with Davis on the floor, teams score on New Orleans at a league-average rate. If Davis is so good, why aren't they better?
It's a fair question. Davis coasts through too many possessions. But New Orleans' roster is absurdly top-heavy, and they have suffered injuries at the top. You can play lots of different schemes with Davis. Denver had to build one scheme to minimize Jokic's vulnerabilities. To Jokic's credit, he is skittering around and rebounding everything in sight.
It's still Davis by a hair.
• Utah fans seem worried Gobert won't get in. That would be nuts. He's averaging 15 and 13, and shooting 66 percent -- best in the league. His assists are up, and his turnovers are down. He's a one-man defense, but not a one-way player.
Scary thing: He's improving on defense. He looks more comfortable venturing further from the hoop to deter good shooters.
Utah constructed an entire system around their faith in Gobert shutting down pick-and-rolls by himself. Everyone else stays home on shooters. Having Gobert amounts to foisting the worst possible mathematical shot selection upon every opponent. It is like starting every game up 6-0. Utah has allowed only 100.3 points per 100 possessions with Gobert on the floor, almost four points stingier than the best overall team defense, per NBA.com.
• Towns has awoken on defense since the Wolves exorcised Butler. He is perhaps the most versatile scoring big man in the league. He just needs to stop fouling everyone.
• That leaves two spots for (deep breaths): Westbrook, Mike Conley, Jrue Holiday, Luka Doncic, Danilo Gallinari, Tobias Harris, LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan, Donovan Mitchell, Jamal Murray, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green, Clint Capela (injured), Steven Adams, Jusuf Nurkic, Devin Booker, De'Aaron Fox, Buddy Hield (seriously -- compare his numbers to Thompson's, though Thompson laps Hield on defense), and maybe a couple of others.
It sucks to be in the West.
Westbrook is not a lock. His shot is broken -- from the beyond the arc, at the line, around the rim. On layups, he sometimes looks as if he's blindly flinging the ball in the general direction of the backboard, hoping for a friendly bounce. It's legitimately alarming. He has yet to regain all of his explosiveness and lift after another knee surgery. He's also gagging away 4.5 turnovers per game, second most in the league.
You can't shoot 41 percent overall, and 24 percent from deep (not a typo), and be a no-brainer All-Star. I don't care who you are. His improvement on defense has been a little overblown. Bad habits persist.
But Westbrook squeaks in here. Almost no one puts more pressure on the rim, and that pressure -- the help it sucks in -- creates easy looks for a cast of teammates who (other than George) need someone else to do the heavy lifting. Even George needs that in stretches; it is not a coincidence he's putting up career numbers playing next to a drive-and-kick fiend.
Leading the league in assists still counts for something. Most advanced stats like Westbrook more than all of these guys save Gallinari.
You just feel Westbrook, on every possession, in a way you don't feel Conley, Holiday, others. He is relentless. He is exhausting. He's big and physical enough that the Thunder can switch across four positions on defense in a lot of matchups.
• That leaves one spot. Murray is up to 36 percent from 3. He has made a mini-leap as a playmaker. Denver is about even when Murray plays without Jokic -- solid work considering their injuries.
I get the push for Denver to get a second All-Star. Murray has a stronger case than the advanced stats show (they say he has none). He falls short here. Murray's jumper hasn't been consistent enough, and can still be a liability on the other end.
• Too much of Thompson's production was isolated to four or five games. Green wasn't himself until the last three weeks. Mitchell took too long to get going.
• I love Fox; the Kings' offense dies without him. Hield is averaging 20.5 points per game and has nailed 46 percent of his 3s. He belongs in the deep end of this conversation. It's just hard to craft an argument -- based on stats, the eye test, whatever -- that either has been as good as the remaining candidates. Hield is a minus on defense, and doesn't do much playmaking. Fox is coming for one of these spots soon.
• We are down to Conley, Holiday, Doncic, and the two Clippers and Spurs. There is little difference between their individual numbers. That made me want to pick Conley for sentimental reasons. It's just hard to reward someone from the Grizz as they free fall to 14th in the West.
• The Pelicans' scoring margin improves by 20 points per 100 possessions with Holiday on the floor. That looks fake. It is the second-fattest net rating in the league, behind only Danny Green's. The Pelicans are really good with both Holiday and Davis on the floor. They are awful when one plays without the other, but considerably worse in Davis-only minutes, per NBA.com.
Those stats have to be worth something, even if they say as much about the Pelicans' sorry supporting cast as they do Holiday. Holiday is putting up 21 points and eight assists per game while defending his ass off wherever the Pelicans need him. His case is a perfect contrast with the San Antonio and LA candidates. The Spurs are only plus-8 for the season with DeRozan and Aldridge on the floor. They are minus-21 when one plays without the other, and plus-120 (!) when both rest. Their depth is winning games.
The Clippers have a teensy positive margin with Harris and Gallinari together; they blitz teams when Lou Williams and Montrezl Harrell play. But it's not the fault of Harris and Gallo that the Clippers built a deep team. Holiday shouldn't get that much extra credit because the Pelicans failed to do so.
The Spurs and Clippers design rotations to keep firepower in reserve. The Mavericks have struggled to find a workable starting five; their scoring margin is almost identical with and without Doncic.
For these teams, playing opposing starters to a draw is its own sort of victory. It sets the bench up for success.
By the eye test, Harris seems like the best Clipper. Advanced numbers point to Gallo.
Aldridge has surpassed DeRozan on this ballot. He is miles better than DeRozan on defense and he's up to 21 per game on 51 percent shooting after a slow start. DeRozan dishes more dimes, and has been one of the league's best clutch shooters. Aldridge is playmaker of a different sort; his kickout passes trigger chain reactions that lead to open shots.
Doncic is the lone undisputed alpha dog among this group. Perhaps that makes him the best candidate. He is real. He is already one of the dozen best passers in the league. Doncic is 13-of-23 in the last three minutes of games within three points. He has the deadliest step-back outside Houston. He would make the game more fun; I hope he gets in!
You could pick any of them. The easiest solution is to fall back on team record. San Antonio has been the best team among this group by both record and point differential. New Orleans is 22-25, but they have the scoring margin of a team almost on San Antonio's level; their disastrous performance in close games is killing them.
You could justify taking two Pelicans by arguing their team is roughly as good as the Spurs and Clippers -- and that they are only that good because of Davis and Holiday. But they are 22-25, and Holiday is an ugly 10-of-34 in the last five minutes of games when the score is within five points. Sure, the sample size is small. A half season -- the period in question here -- is a small sample by definition.
The old-school part of my soul likes the idea of going with wins when there is almost nothing else to separate borderline candidates. Aldridge is one of the league's great "raise your floor" players. You can't sniff championship contention if he's your best player. You might not even be able to crack 50 wins anymore, regardless of what players 2-15 look like. Doncic's core, built-out skill set is much more valuable than Aldridge's. But Aldridge is a two-way stabilizer who guarantees a certain level of competence.
If Holiday were to carry the Pelicans to a good record in this stretch without Davis, I would probably flip him for Aldridge. But deadlines are deadlines.
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Until next year!