Four Corners: BDL's picks for 2017 NBA All-Star reserves

Ball Don't Lie

After announcing the 10 players who will start in the 2017 NBA All-Star Game, the NBA is set to reveal which players coaches tapped as the reserves to fill out the East and West rosters. But why wait until Thursday to debate these things?

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In this week’s Four Corners roundtable, the BDL staff picks the seven non-starters in each conference — three frontcourt players, two guards, two “wild cards” — whom we think most deserve a trip to the Big Easy. Let’s hear yours in the comments.

***

Without further ado, our reserve ballots in the West:

 

Dan Devine

Kelly Dwyer

Eric Freeman

Ben Rohrbach

FC

DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins

DeMarcus Cousins

FC

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

Draymond Green

FC

Rudy Gobert

Marc Gasol

Rudy Gobert

Marc Gasol

G

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

Russell Westbrook

G

Marc Gasol*

Klay Thompson

Marc Gasol*

Damian Lillard*

WC

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward

Gordon Hayward

WC

Mike Conley

Rudy Gobert

Klay Thompson

Karl-Anthony Towns

* Injury replacements for Chris Paul (out 6 to 8 weeks, torn thumb ligament)

… and the East:

 

Dan Devine

Kelly Dwyer

Eric Freeman

Ben Rohrbach

FC

Paul George

Paul George

Paul George

Paul George

FC

Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid

Joel Embiid

FC

Kevin Love

Paul Millsap

Kevin Love

Kevin Love

G

Kyle Lowry

Kyle Lowry

Isaiah Thomas

Isaiah Thomas

G

John Wall

John Wall

John Wall

Kyle Lowry

WC

Isaiah Thomas

Kemba Walker

Kyle Lowry

Kemba Walker

WC

Kemba Walker

Isaiah Thomas

Kemba Walker

John Wall

NOTE: You might be arching your eyebrows at Dan and Eric picking Marc Gasol, a frontcourt player, as an injury replacement for Chris Paul, a guard. But replacements don’t have to be like-for-like; just two years ago, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver tapped power forward Anthony Davis to replace the injured Kobe Bryant, whom fans voted in as a starting guard.

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Positioning on our ballots varied a bit, but out of 14 spots, we had 11 unanimous selections. They were:

Ball Don’t Lie’s five unanimous picks for Western Conference All-Star reserves: DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward, Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Draymond Green. (Yahoo Sports Illustration)
Ball Don’t Lie’s five unanimous picks for Western Conference All-Star reserves: DeMarcus Cousins, Gordon Hayward, Russell Westbrook, Marc Gasol and Draymond Green. (Yahoo Sports Illustration)

WESTERN CONFERENCE

Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City Thunder: I mean … duh.

Everything we imagined was coming after Kevin Durant pulled up stakes for Oakland has come to pass. But predicting something doesn’t necessarily mean you’re ready for it, and man, has the league not been ready for No. 0. Westbrook has been a man on fire since the season’s opening tip, leading the league in scoring at 30.8 points per game. He’s carrying a historically remarkable offensive load for a Thunder team that dies when he sits, that relies on him to create absolutely everything in close-and-late situations, and that has remained in hailing distance of home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs despite losing one of the best players in the world for nothing.

Leading the league in scoring is one thing; actually averaging a triple-double through half the season is another. But that’s precisely what Westbrook’s done, putting himself in line to become the first player since Oscar Robertson all the way back in the 1961-62 season to average more than 10 points, 10 rebounds and 10 assists per contest. He has done it in spectacular, unforgettable, unapologetic and quintessentially Westbrookian fashion, kicking up dust and pulverizing rims everywhere he’s gone. The next stop on that trail of terror should be New Orleans, where he may well become the first player ever to win All-Star MVP honors three years in a row. — Dan Devine

DeMarcus Cousins, Sacramento Kings: It’s been a pretty standard season for Cousins — full of trade rumors, jaw-dropping plays followed immediately by needless fouls, incredible lines, improbable inefficiencies, feuds with the press, and numbers that would demand far more attention if he played for a more functional organization. At the end of the day, it’s hard to argue with 28.0 points, 10.2 rebounds, and 4.3 assists per game for a Kings team with very little else to get excited about.

Plus, Cousins probably deserves an All-Star bid just for scoring 55 points and getting unejected (for the first time ever in the NBA, as far as we know) in the same game. It takes a special talent to contain so many contradictions. — Eric Freeman

Draymond Green, Golden State Warriors: If you were hoping for a quieter year from the guy who set 2015-16 aflame, you’re out of luck. If you’re a Warriors fan, though, you’re quite giddy: Draymond is so cerebral and talented, and Golden State is so damn good, that it has hardly mattered that Green barely walked back some of the kickier instincts that marred last year’s championship just-miss for the Warriors.

Yes, Green received a flagrant-one for his kick of James Harden earlier in the year, but it isn’t as if his misfire directly cost Golden State the loss – just the seventh in 45 Warriors games this season, entering Wednesday night. Even on a team with two All-Star starters in Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry, and a possible reserve in Klay Thompson, it doesn’t take a deep look (like this one) to walk away from Warriors wins wondering if Green was the key to the conquest.

Averaging 10.6 points alongside a team-leading 8.6 rebounds and 7.6 assists, Green somehow contributes 3.3 combined blocks and steals a game, and stays remarkably foul-averse despite his more notable missteps. He’s contributed three triple-doubles so far this season, and figures to be the first power forward in NBA history to lead his team in assists in consecutive years. Larry Bird couldn’t even manage that feat as a small forward. — Kelly Dwyer

Marc Gasol, Memphis Grizzlies: Gasol and his Grizzlies have fallen off of late, losing 11 of 19 entering Wednesday. But that can’t take away from Gasol’s ongoing brilliance as one of the game’s great two-way players, one working at a position that, even in an age days of center-free All-Star ballots, still merits obsession when performed properly.

Not yet 32 years old, Gasol is averaging a career-high 20.1 points per game alongside six rebounds and 1.4 blocks per game for the NBA’s fourth-rated defense. His 4.2 assists also rank as a career-high, all part of the package that makes Marc and Memphis one of the league’s more fearsome late-contest outfits. — KD

Gordon Hayward, Utah Jazz: If you’d thought Hayward had already made an All-Star team, you’d be forgiven. The 26-year-old has been offering reliable two-way production as a versatile starter for four seasons now, but missed the cut in years past due to the breadth of brilliant forwards in his conference.

He’ll make his first squad this year not just because the Jazz — on pace for a 52-win season and home-court contention in the first round the playoffs — are one of the league’s better up and coming teams. No, it’ll be because his game merits as much.

Hayward is averaging career-highs in points (22.1) and rebounds (5.7) while limiting his turnovers and upping his 3-point shooting to nearly 40 percent. He overcame a training-camp finger fracture to miss just six games and steady the Jazz’s approach late in games as a pick and roll man. His all-around numbers compete with MVP candidates — Kevin Durant in terms of free throw attempts, Kawhi Leonard on the glass — and he appears to be a bit of a game-changer behind the scenes:


So here we are, talking about it. — KD

***

Ball Don’t Lie’s six unanimous selections for Eastern Conference All-Star reserves: Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/4725/" data-ylk="slk:Paul George">Paul George</a>, <a class="link rapid-noclick-resp" href="/nba/players/5294/" data-ylk="slk:Joel Embiid">Joel Embiid</a>, John Wall and Kemba Walker. (Yahoo Sports Illustration)
Ball Don’t Lie’s six unanimous selections for Eastern Conference All-Star reserves: Kyle Lowry, Isaiah Thomas, Paul George, Joel Embiid, John Wall and Kemba Walker. (Yahoo Sports Illustration)

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Kyle Lowry, Toronto Raptors: DeMar DeRozan finished higher on the ballots of NBA fans, media members and players, but there’s a strong case to be made that the 30-year-old Lowry not only should’ve been the Raptor tapped to start. And, in fact, that he’s has been even more deserving of a starting nod this year than he was last year, when he opened the game for the East at Madison Square Garden.

Lowry’s averaging a career-best 22.3 points, 6.9 assists and 4.8 rebounds in 37.3 minutes per game, acting as the conductor of the NBA’s No. 2-ranked offense and the two-way leader of a Raptors squad that sits three games behind the Cleveland Cavaliers in the race for the top spot in the East. Toronto has outscored opponents by 9.5 points per 100 possessions in nearly 1,650 minutes with Lowry on the court this season, and been outscored by 3.1 points-per-100 in the nearly 530 minutes he’s sat — the difference, essentially, between blowing teams out like the San Antonio Spurs and getting regularly shellacked like the Miami Heat (on nights where Dion Waiters isn’t playing like a superstar, at least).

He leads the East in 3-pointers made and attempted, shooting a career-best 42.2 percent from long distance on 7.5 attempts per night. Advanced stats love him — he’s second only to CP3 in Real Plus-Minus and sixth in Value Over Replacement Player — and any adherent to the eye test need only watch Lowry fight for every inch on every possession to fall in love with the furnace at his core.

With all due respect to DeRozan’s tremendous scoring touch, Lowry is the straw that stirs the drink in Toronto, and should’ve been in the East’s starting five. The least we can do is give him a spot on the bench. — DD

Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers: The story of Embiid’s season is all the more remarkable for how easily he could have disappointed. After spending his first two seasons in street clothes due to foot injuries, Embiid entered 2016-17 on a strict minutes limit and with no guarantee that he could withstand the rigors of an 82-game season. Instead, he has announced himself as a franchise-changing talent.

The stats speak for themselves — his 19.8 points, 7.8 rebounds, and 2.5 blocks per game make him one of the most productive big men in the league, and not just on a per-minute basis. But his impact goes so much further. The Sixers had lacked any kind of tangible momentum beyond accumulating draft picks for several years. Embiid ensures that every game will feature at least a bit of fun, if not always wins. If he keeps at it, though, a playoff berth is not a pipe dream. — EF

Isaiah Thomas, Boston Celtics: The 5-foot-9 point guard is having arguably the greatest season by anyone under 6 feet. After making his first All-Star appearance last year, Thomas has elevated his play, emerging as a fringe MVP candidate and one of the NBA’s most clutch performers.

His 10 points per game in the fourth quarter lead the league — a half-point better than Westbrook, and well ahead of anybody else. While the gap between his offense and defense is “nearly unprecedented,” according to data studied by the Harvard Sports Analysis Collective, Thomas has been so good on the scoring end that he earned a starting vote from players and media, making his All-Star reserve case the slam dunk he’s still searching for in an NBA game. — Ben Rohrbach

John Wall, Washington Wizards: After starting 6-12, the Wizards have since climbed to 25-20 and are threatening for a home playoff series, thanks to Wall, whose 27-7-7 with three steals in the infamous “funeral” win over Thomas’ Celtics is becoming the norm. Even as Bradley Beal submits a career year in the same backcourt, Wall represents D.C.’s best All-Star bid by a large margin.

Wall’s combination of explosive drives and electrifying passes is unmatched in the East, where he ranks fifth among guards in scoring and leads the conference in assists. Add some stingy defense and clutch play in the best shooting stretch of his seven seasons, and Wall’s fourth straight All-Star selection is an easy one. — BR

Paul George, Indiana Pacers: Now more than two years removed from his gruesome leg injury, George is firmly entrenched as one of the East’s best players. His numbers don’t jump out at you — 22.2 points, 6.0 rebounds, and 3.2 assists per game with a 19.0 Player Efficiency Rating — and they frankly fall below many others on his list. But all his shooting percentages are up (as his usage rate has dipped) and there is no reason to reassess his abilities. At a certain point, body of work matters. — EF

Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets: The Hornets have slipped of late, losing eight of 12 since Christmas. But they’re still in sixth place in the East, just a couple of games away from vying for home-court advantage in the opening round of the playoffs, thanks in large part to Walker’s work as Charlotte’s offensive engine.

Walker’s averaging 23 points per game on 45.8 percent shooting from the field and a 41.4 percent mark on 6.9 3-point tries per game — all career highs. He’s second in the East in 3-pointers made, a previously unthinkable outcome for a player who just two years ago was one of the NBA’s least accurate high-volume long-range launchers. He’s producing more efficiently than ever while taking on the largest offensive role of his career; the Hornets’ attack goes from top-seven caliber (108.7 points per 100 possessions) with Kemba at the controls to second-worst in the NBA (99.8 points-per-100) when Walker sits down.

Reasonable people could argue for other wild-card candidates here. (The Knicks’ Kristaps Porzingis, in particular, might be a popular choice for those who want to see the sport’s most unique attractions on the All-Star stage.) But as one of the five or so best guards in the conference through the first half and the biggest reason the Hornets are in playoff position, it feels right to reward Walker (and those Chuck Norris videos) with his first All-Star appearance rather than tacking one more onto the tallies of moving-past-their-prime cases like Dwyane Wade or Carmelo Anthony. — DD

***

For those final three spots, though, our opinions differed a bit. Let’s make our cases:

Paul Millsap seeks, and receives, some Love. (Getty Images)
Paul Millsap seeks, and receives, some Love. (Getty Images)

The case for Paul Millsap

Do you know that part of the game when a smaller player gets switched onto a big forward in the post, and the seas seemingly separate to let the mismatch go one-on-one? No? Well, that’s because legal zone defense and diminishing low-post returns have scared many coaches and players away from these sorts of plays. Usually, eight other NBA players stand around and watch the point guard locks up the big forward, who’s working out of his comfort zone.

There is no such thing as “out of Paul Millsap’s comfort zone.”

Despite some age and nagging injury-related dips, Millsap remains an all-around poison dart of a forward who can absolutely destroy an opponent in myriad ways, too often during a short clutch of game that’s typically forgotten by the time the final buzzer sounds.

Also, he’s a little better at posting up little guys than Kevin Love is. — KD

The case for Kevin Love

Yes, Love is the Cavs’ clear No. 3 option behind All-Star starters LeBron James and Kyrie Irving. But he’s been a more potent and frequently utilized one this year, commanding a much larger share of the Cavs’ offensive possessions during his time on the floor and averaging more than 20 points and 10 rebounds per game for the first time since coming to Cleveland.

He’s cleaning the defensive glass, bombing away from 3 and, in continuation of his defining Game 7 moment, holding up well enough defensively that Cavs coach Tyronn Lue feels confident rolling the dice with damn-the-torpedoes shooting-heavy lineups featuring Love up front when the Cavs need to put away an opponent. Quiet as it’s kept, Love is producing on a per-minute and per-possession basis at a level more reminiscent of his peak pre-trade days in Minnesota than his first two figuring-things-out seasons in Ohio.

Having cast my lot with Embiid and George in the interest of pursuing that which is most fun, I found myself wrestling with the Love-or-Millsap question, and decided to go with the more productive offensive player from the conference’s top seed. Millsap seems like a good dude; I hope he will forgive me. — DD

Klay Thompson might be No. 4 in the Warriors’ pecking order, but he’s still really, really good. (Getty Images)
Klay Thompson might be No. 4 in the Warriors’ pecking order, but he’s still really, really good. (Getty Images)

The case for Klay Thompson

It’s difficult to argue that Thompson is anything but the fourth-most important player on the loaded Warriors. For that matter, his PER sits at just 15.5 (barely above the league average) and his 3-point percentage has dipped thanks to a rough start to the season.

Circumstances matter, though, and it remains easy to marvel as Thompson finds and exploits space while defenses attempt to solve the most fearsome attack in the sport. While his offensive value to the Warriors is certainly lower than it was a year ago, the second Splash Brother’s threat is still heavily responsible for the structure and logic of what Golden State does. It’s also important not to forget that he guards the opponent’s best perimeter scorer for the most efficient defense in the league.

Far less impressive teams have had four All-Stars in the past, and Thompson continues to excel at both ends in a way few others can match. — EF

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The case for Rudy Gobert

As the backbone of the NBA’s No. 2 defense and the single most fearsome rim-protecting shot deterrent in the game, I think Gobert’s the Defensive Player of the Year. He’s made demonstrable strides on offense, averaging a career-best 12.8 points per game and leading the league with a .682 True Shooting percentage (which takes into account 2-point, 3-point and free-throw accuracy) because he’s improved his hands to the point where he can catch and finish damn near everything, and has improved his free-throw stroke to the point where hacking him no longer saves defenses.

As Utah has dealt with injury after injury to members of its expected core, Gobert and Hayward have kept them not only afloat, but on pace for the Jazz’s first 50-win season since 2010. He might not quite be the best center in the NBA, but he’s been an absolute monster, and worthy of his first All-Star nod. — DD

Karl-Anthony Towns made this face immediately after hearing you didn’t pick him as an All-Star reserve. (Getty Images)
Karl-Anthony Towns made this face immediately after hearing you didn’t pick him as an All-Star reserve. (Getty Images)

The case for Karl-Anthony Towns

Towns is averaging 22 and 12 with three assists and 1.5 blocks per night — numbers matched only by perennial All-Stars with one-name recognition like Kareem, KG, Shaq and Hakeem. To remember that KAT just turned 21, and has only a year and a half of NBA experience under his belt, is to have your mind blown.

Granted, the defensive work of Gobert and, to a lesser degree, DeAndre Jordan (who, I might point out, is submitting a comparable statistical season to the Jazz center) make this a tough case. But the Wolves rely far more as a team on Towns, and he’s delivered enough to pull Minnesota back into the West’s muddled race for eighth. Besides, this is the All-Star Game, where I’d much rather watch a floor-spacing big with skills than a rim protector. — BR

The case for Damian Lillard

My decision to replace an injured Paul in the West backcourt came down to Lillard and Thompson, with respect to Grizzlies guard Mike Conley, whose back injury sidelined him for a quarter of the season. If I’m telling the truth, I had a hard time stomaching one team employing a third of an All-Star roster. No doubt the Warriors feature four All-Star-caliber talents in their starting lineup, but at some point the fourth man is diminished to such a role that he can’t match the impact of other players on lesser teams.

Thompson is a far better defender, and he’s shooting 40 percent on nearly eight 3-point tries a night (aided by the spacing provided by Golden State’s wealth of talent). But Lillard is the primary focus of every opposing defense, and two years removed from successive All-Star campaigns, he’s once again scoring at a career-high rate on a roster whose only other real offensive threat is another undersized guard. After considering that Lillard’s 26.2 points and 5.9 assists per game produce almost 40 percent of Portland’s offense — a share nearly twice as large as Thompson’s — I felt inclined to leave a fourth Warrior out of the West mix. — BR

Mike Conley’s been in attack mode all season long. (Getty Images)
Mike Conley’s been in attack mode all season long. (Getty Images)

The case for Mike Conley

This summer, Conley got paid more money than any NBA player had ever received. Most of the basketball-watching world, casual fans or otherwise, responded with peals of laughter at the absurdity of the NBA economy, or pearl-clutching outrage at the idea that a sub-star could make nearly as much in salary in three seasons as Michael Jordan did for his entire career.

Conley has responded to that by playing the best basketball of his career, cementing himself as a No. 1 or 1A option, accepting with relish new head coach David Fizdale’s challenge to take the reins of Memphis’ offense more aggressively than he ever has before, and making a damn convincing argument that the most applicable prefix here is “All-,” not “sub.”

Conley’s averaging a career-best 18.9 points per game. He’s not quite Steph or Klay, but he’s bombing from deep much more frequently — about two more 3-point attempts per 36 minutes of floor time than his prior highs — and drilling his quick-trigger triples at a career-best 40.4 percent clip. He’s also managed to balance the need to generate more of his own offense with persistent patience and a continued commitment to setting the table, dishing assists on a higher share of his team’s possessions than he ever has before while keeping his turnover percentage low.

Conley’s ramped-up offensive focus hasn’t taken away from his work on the other end of the floor, where he remains one of the NBA’s best perimeter defenders, a gifted on-ball stopper adept at navigating screens, stalling dribble penetration and working with his big men to fluster opposing offenses at the point of attack. He won’t randomly pop for 40, but Conley’s disciplined, decisive and destructive — the playmaking heart of a Memphis team that many expected to take a step back this year, but that has weathered injuries to remain very much in the thick of the race for home-court advantage in the West.

For years now, Conley has been member of the “Apologies to …” list of players who merit All-Star consideration, but can never quite make the cut. This year, I’ll make my apologies elsewhere. He deserves the spot. — DD

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