Mike Conley named Devin Booker All-Star replacement over Gilgeous-Alexander, others

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Mike Conley will no longer have the distinction as the best player to never make an All-Star game. The NBA announced Friday that the Utah Jazz guard will be the replacement for Suns guard Devin Booker, who suffered a knee sprain in Phoenix’s final game of the first half of the season.

It’s a deserving honor for Conley, who is looking more like the player he was with the Memphis Grizzlies than last year and helping lead the Utah Jazz the best record in the NBA at the All-Star break.

His selection is largely based on advanced stats — he has the best net rating in the league, and his RAPTOR numbers put him among the elite players in the NBA — third-best box score, tied-10th-best on-off, and tied-9th-best WAR. (It’s worth noting that players including Thaddeus Young, Garrett Temple and Jakob Poeltl are in the top-10 of on-off, though his company in the other two stats almost exclusively consists of All-NBA-caliber players).

Those who watch the Jazz rave about his play. Kevin Arnovitz, on a Feb. 11 “The Lowe Post” podcast episode, said Conley was the best player on the Jazz, at least through that point in the season.

He’s played like an All-Star. It’s also undoubtedly in part a lifetime achievement award — a guy who has been a very, very good point guard for a very, very long time, but never quite elite.

That’s what put him over players like Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, the blossoming Oklahoma City Thunder star.

Thunder fans were rightly upset Gilgeous-Alexander got left off as a replacement, first for Los Angeles Lakers forward Anthony Davis, who Booker replaced, and then for Booker himself when he was injured.

Gilgeous-Alexander has been playing incredible basketball, is posting statistics that stack up favorably with All-NBA candidates, is already among the guards who are best at finishing in the league, and has generally propelled Oklahoma City to competitive games.

He has played like an All-Star — those who disagree are not worth arguing with, because they haven’t watched a Thunder game.

His story is actually similar to that of the original replacement, Booker. The Suns guard has long has been one of the elite offensive players in the league but, until the bubble last season, was unfairly defined as an empty calories scorer. He couldn’t lead the Suns to victory with the lineups the front office was throwing out and the teenagers they were relying upon, so he didn’t get his deserved credit.

Gilgeous-Alexander got hit with being on a team that is, to those outside Oklahoma City, not notable. To those who don’t watch, it doesn’t look like he’s driving the offense to success, as OKC has the worst offensive rating in the league and are in the bottom-five of points per game. If you don’t care about the team’s progress, you don’t care about them losing competitive games. Congratulations to the Thunder on being better than everyone thought but not winning consistently, they say sarcastically.

His season is similar to Booker’s when the Suns were bad. It’s similar to Zach LaVine over the years, though Gilgeous-Alexander is a lot more efficient than LaVine was prior to this season. He’s been great, but he’s not yet a household name, and his team isn’t winning enough to force him into every All-Star conversation.

Gilgeous-Alexander was deserving of a spot. So were players like Conley, DeMar DeRozan, De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant. It’s a tough field, and having the best record in the NBA is (perhaps unfairly) more important than impressive numbers for a middling team.

His time will come. Soon. And in the meantime, snubs like this should drive him to continue to improve, even if he wouldn’t admit All-Star nods matter to him.

We’ll come back around to this conversation in 2022, and it would be unsurprising if it’s the other way around — one in which Gilgeous-Alexander is in the game, and other fan bases are trying to say their player deserves it more.