The NBA changed its All-Star voting rules earlier this season in the hopes of averting an electoral embarrassment. Based on the 10 starters announced Thursday night on TNT, the system worked.
With LeBron James and James Harden leading the way, the league has its most deserving collection of All-Star starters in years. The Western Conference will be represented by Harden, Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors forward Kevin Durant, San Antonio Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard, and New Orleans Pelicans big man Anthony Davis.
The Eastern Conference will be represented by James, his Cleveland Cavaliers teammate Kyrie Irving, Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan, Milwaukee Bucks sensation Giannis Antetokounmpo, and Chicago Bulls wing Jimmy Butler. Antetokounmpo, Butler and DeRozan are the game’s only first-time starters.
The league’s new rules stipulate that fan voting constitutes just half of the All-Star results instead of the full tally. Each NBA player was allowed one vote this year to make up 25 percent of the results, and a panel of media members decided on the other 25 percent.
Under the old rules, Chicago Bulls guard Dwyane Wade and Philadelphia 76ers center Joel Embiid would have replaced DeRozan and Butler in the East. (Cleveland’s Kevin Love finished ahead of Butler in fan voting for the East’s frontcourt, as well.) In the West, only Davis would not have made the starting squad.
Starters were decided upon via a weighted average of each players’ finish under each voting faction, with the fan vote breaking any ties. That rule had to be used in two cases — DeRozan made it in ahead of Boston Celtics guard Isaiah Thomas, and Curry beat out Oklahoma City Thunder superstar Russell Westbrook.
These results are certainly not perfect, although it’s not entirely fair to blame the changes in voting. Leading MVP candidate Westbrook stands out as a particularly egregious snub, but he finished third in fan voting and would not have made it under the old voting system, either. Nevertheless, Westbrook’s incredible stats have him in line to become the first player since Oscar Robertson to average a triple-double over a full season.
The good news is that Westbrook, a two-time All-Star Game MVP, is a lock to make the team as a reserve, which will still give him plenty of opportunities to glare at his ex-teammate Durant.
One of Durant’s Warriors teammates stands out as a notable absence, too, although not because he deserved a spot on the West squad. Center Zaza Pachulia became the biggest story of the fan voting period by easily finding his way into a top-three spot in the Western Conference frontcourt, a placement that would have given him a starting nod under the old rules. Pachulia finished second in fan voting (nearly a half-million votes ahead votes ahead of the third-place Leonard), but as predicted, the media and player portions of the vote ensured he would spend the All-Star break on vacation. At least Zaza will always be able to call himself a fan favorite. (Well, maybe not in Oklahoma City.)
The All-Star Game will take place on February 19 at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans. The game was originally scheduled to take place in Charlotte, but the controversy over North Carolina’s HB 2 “bathroom law” forced the NBA to change locations.
And now, a quick look at the starters for each conference:
LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers: This marks the 13th All-Star nod for James, tying him with Dirk Nowitzki for most among active players and 12th on the all-time list. While supernovas Westbrook and Harden have earned more headlines and MVP buzz with their monster statistical seasons, James has continued his steady brilliance.
He’s averaging 25.6 points, 8.1 assists — fourth-best in the NBA, and his highest mark since before he took his talents to South Beach — and 7.8 rebounds in 37 minutes per game for the defending champs. He continues to serve as the game’s most dominant individual force, the test every prospective champion must pass, and the dude fans most want to see.
Jimmy Butler, Chicago Bulls: Since coming out of Marquette with the final pick of the first round in the 2011 draft, Butler has gone from intriguing reserve to complementary defensive ace to one of the league’s few players with a legitimate claim to being the best all-around player on the court just about every night.
He has built on consecutive selections as an All-Star reserve by turning in a career year as the, um, alpha-est? of the Bulls’ “Three Alphas,” matching or surpassing his previous career highs in points, rebounds, assists and steals per game. He’s playing a much larger offensive role than he has in years past, yet producing more efficiently than ever, and continuing to match up against opponents’ top scoring threats on the other side of the ball. At varying points this season, the Bulls have struggled to generate offense, get stops or do much of anything consistently; Butler has been their lone constant, the one thing they could rely on, and the driving force behind their continued contention for a playoff berth.
Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks: It’s only fitting that the breakout national star of the 2016-17 NBA season will make his first All-Star appearance at Smoothie King Center, a building named for the drink with which he fell in love after his first season in the U.S. The “Greek Freak” has grown in borderline unbelievable leaps and bounds since then, becoming something akin to a point-center for Jason Kidd’s Bucks and handling anything the league can throw at him with gusto.
The 22-year-old leads Milwaukee in points, rebounds, assists, blocks and steals per game, continues to rank among the league’s five most productive players this season by the reckoning of most all-in-one advanced stats, and has emerged as perhaps the NBA’s most inarguably breathtaking player to watch, seeming to make at least one play a night that makes you wonder if you really saw Giannis do that. You did. He did. And now, he’ll get to do it in front of a massive international audience, standing shoulder-to-shoulder with the league’s giants, where he’s proven he belongs.
DeMar DeRozan, Toronto Raptors: New Orleans served as the site of the first All-Star appearance of DeRozan’s career, back in 2014. Now, it will be the site of his first start as a member of the Eastern Conference squad.
The 27-year-old Compton, Calif., native often gets singled out as something of an anachronism, a Kobe-styled slasher and midrange marksman out of step with a pace-and-space 3-point-happy league. But while DeRozan takes fewer than two 3-pointers a game and makes less than a quarter of his tries, he’s become one of the league’s premier drivers, using his size, quickness and excellent footwork to beat defenders off the bounce, gain entry to the paint and either finish at the bucket (he’s shooting nearly 70 percent at the rim) or get fouled (he’s taking nearly nine freebies a game, and hitting them at an 89 percent clip). He’s fifth in the league in scoring, at a career-high 28.2 points per game to go with 5.4 rebounds and 3.9 assists a night.
Many observers might have opted for his running buddy, point guard Kyle Lowry, in the East’s starting backcourt. But DeRozan’s smooth throwback scoring game and frequent offensive explosions received more support from fans, players and media members, giving DeMar the nod … and, you’d imagine, bragging rights over his comedy partner.
Kyrie Irving, Cleveland Cavaliers: The scoring savant with the snare-drum tight handle and peerless shot-making skills will make his fourth All-Star appearance, and second as a starter, after averaging a career-high 23.6 points, 5.6 rebounds and 3.5 assists per game for the East-leading Cavs. The first time Irving started the midseason exhibition, he finished as its MVP, scoring 31 points and dishing 14 dimes to lead the East to a win in 2014. The site of that game: Smoothie King Center, in New Orleans, which will host next month’s contest.
James Harden, Houston Rockets: Houston’s return to the ranks of the Western Conference elite under Coach of the Year favorite Mike D’Antoni has been one of the first half’s top stories, and it’s all been driven by the brilliance of the Rockets’ bearded ball-handler. Now Houston’s point guard by deed and by title, Harden has spent the last three months slicing opposing offenses to ribbons, averaging 28.9 points per game (second-best in the NBA) and 11.6 assists per game (No. 1 with a bullet).
He has scored or assisted on a full 50 percent of Houston’s points this season, and when you’re talking about a Rockets team that averages a blistering 114.5 points per game, brother, that’s a lot of points. After a dire season in which the Rockets fell to .500 and he failed to earn a spot on any of the three All-NBA teams, Harden is back in the MVP conversation, back in the good graces of the public — who can stay mad at a guy who looks this happy giving a game ball to a nice 100-year-old lady, anyway? — and back in the West’s starting lineup for the third time in his career.
Kevin Durant, Golden State Warriors: The 28-year-old earned his eighth straight All-Star nod, and his sixth start, on the strength of a monstrously productive and efficient start to his tenure by the Bay. Durant’s been as lethal as ever in the Warriors’ blue and gold, averaging 26.2 points in a career-low 34.4 minutes per game by shooting a career-best 54.4 percent from the floor and drilling 40.5 percent of his 3-pointers. He’s arguably been even more of a revelation on the other end of the court, though, leading the team in blocked shots and turning into Golden State’s most fearsome rim protector as he continues his evolution into one of the sport’s most complete and devastating players.
Anthony Davis, New Orleans Pelicans: Following a disappointing season in New Orleans, an injury that prevented him from playing with Team USA in the 2016 Summer Olympics, and the rise of several other young stud big men to occupy our collective attention, Davis entered this season as something of an afterthought, needing to stay healthy and productive to remind us just how special a talent he truly is. And then, on the first night of the season, he hung 50 points, 16 rebounds, seven steals, five assists and four blocks on the Denver Nuggets.
He hasn’t let up since, averaging a career-best 28.8 points per game (third in the NBA, behind only Westbrook and Harden) and 12.1 rebounds (sixth in the league) to go with 2.4 blocks, 2.2 assists and 1.5 steals in 36.6 minutes per game. He’s a devastating force off the bounce, off the catch and in the paint on both ends of the floor, the primary reason the perennially injury-plagued and outgunned Pelicans have remained within hailing distance of the eighth and final playoff spot in the West despite their dismal start. Fans, players and media members all remember just how good AD is now. He’ll reap the rewards in front of his hometown fans next month.
Kawhi Leonard, San Antonio Spurs: The two-time Defensive Player of the Year has taken over as the Spurs’ unquestioned leader after the retirement of the legendary Tim Duncan, and continued his ascent into the rarefied air of the sport’s most complete players.
The 25-year-old forward is averaging a career-high 24.8 points and 3.1 assists per game, flirting with entry into the historically efficient 50/40/90 Club (shooting 48.8 percent from the field, 41.7 percent from 3-point land and 90.7 percent from the foul line) and growing into one of the league’s toughest scorers to stop in the half-court, all while playing a bullying brand of on-ball defense that has opponents doing whatever they can to stay away from him. Few players impact the game as much on both ends of the floor as Leonard, who will make his second straight All-Star start, does for the Spurs, who have hit the halfway point at 32-9, just 3 1/2 games back of the Warriors in the race for the top spot out West.
Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors: The reigning two-time NBA Most Valuable Player hasn’t put up numbers commensurate with last year’s unanimous MVP campaign — which might have been too big an ask anyway, with or without the addition of fellow former MVP Durant. He’s still been awfully good, though, averaging 24.6 points, 6.1 assists and 4.2 rebounds per game, and leading the NBA in 3-pointers made and attempted while knocking down 40 percent of his triples for a Warriors squad that owns the league’s best record, No. 1 offense and No. 1 defense.
Curry hasn’t been more statistically productive or breathtakingly impressive this season as Harden or Westbrook, but he’s still perhaps the league’s most popular player. That rising tide of fan support helped propel him to his fourth straight All-Star start.
BDL’s Dan Devine contributed to this report.
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