The NBA is set to unveil the starting lineups for the 2018 All-Star Game on Thursday, as determined by a joint vote among fans, players and media members.
While this year’s All-Star festivities include a major new wrinkle—the appointment of the conference leading vote-getters as captains who will draft their teams from a pool of All-Star players—the procedure for selecting the starters remains unchanged from 2017. This year, fans will again account for half of the vote, players will account for 25%, and a panel composed of 100 media members will account for the final 25%.
Without further ado, here’s how I casted my official ballot. Note: Media members were asked to select two backcourt players and three frontcourt players from each conference. (All stats and rankings through Monday.)
East Backcourt: Victor Oladipo (Pacers) and Kyrie Irving (Celtics)
Right off the top, a classic voting dilemma: three very qualified candidates—Oladipo, Irving, and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan—for only two spots. Unfortunately, this predicament is well-known and particularly annoying to All-Star voters, who might be able to avoid such pickles if the NBA ever moved to a fully position-less ballot.
The East’s top tier of guards isn’t as deep as it’s been in recent years. Washington’s John Wall has struggled with his efficiency and consistency. Although Bradley Beal, Wall’s teammate, has helped pick up the slack and deserves strong All-Star reserve consideration, his career year hasn’t translated to the type of stability one expects from a veteran-dominated roster. In Charlotte, Kemba Walker’s Hornets have been one of the league’s biggest disappointments, already falling well off the playoff pace. Meanwhile, Toronto’s Kyle Lowry has smartly been cast into a narrower role, leaving him in a similar boat as Miami’s Goran Dragic. Neither point guard has the per-game numbers to keep up with the East’s most productive backcourt players.
The Crossover's first backcourt pick is Oladipo (24.3 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 4 APG), who easily qualifies as the biggest surprise among the 10 players selected here given his ho-hum 2016-17 campaign in Oklahoma City. Oladipo, Irving and DeRozan all have virtually identical per-game stats in terms of points, rebounds and assists, but Indiana’s new guard held slight edges in shooting efficiency and Player Efficiency Rating at the time ballots were due. More importantly, though, Oladipo’s impact numbers notably exceeded Irving and DeRozan.
• Indiana: +7.4 with Oladipo | -6.9 without Oladipo | Net: +13.8
• Boston: +7.4 with Irving | +1.3 without Irving | Net: +9.6
•Toronto: +6.9 with DeRozan | +8.1 without DeRozan | Net: -1.2
As the East’s top two seeds, Boston and Toronto can point to numerous driving forces behind their success, including proven co-stars, deep rosters and established systems. For the overhauled Pacers, Oladipo has easily been the central force. Without him this year, Indiana is 0-5, losing by an average of 12.8 PPG. Indeed, Oladipo’s Pacers recall Jimmy Butler’s Bulls from years past. Without Oladipo, Indiana would be utterly hopeless, likely ranking among the league’s worst teams. With him, they are comfortably in the East’s playoff picture, even if they can’t quite keep up with the East’s best. They also possess a top-six offense league-wide, which still seems impossible given the loss of Paul George and their mediocre assembled talent. Considering their respective team contexts, Oladipo rates as the least replaceable of the three East backcourt candidates.
It’s fair to wonder whether Oladipo can maintain his career-best level of play, especially because both Irving and DeRozan have performed at an All-Star level for multiple years. A second-half drop-off in Oladipo’s efficiency and the Pacers’ success wouldn’t be surprising at all, leaving Irving and DeRozan as stronger All-NBA selections. However, this All-Star starter ballot was cast solely looking at games played between the start of the 2017-18 season and the voting deadline.
For the second spot, Irving (24 PPG, 3.5 RPG, 5 APG) versus DeRozan (25.4 PPG, 4.2 RPG, 5 APG) is about as close as it gets, with their major statistics and advanced stats (PER, Win Shares) usually separated by mere decimals. Both have similar usage rates and similar impacts on their respective offenses. And relative to their all-around offensive games, both players are less accomplished and less integral to their team’s success on the defensive end.
DeRozan’s improvement as a reader of defenses coupled with his first serious dabbling outside the three-point arc have helped boost him from fringe All-Star selection to starter candidate, and they’ve moved him past Lowry on the list of Toronto’s most important players this season. Still, the pick here is Irving, due to his better on/off impact numbers, his superior outside shooting (proficiency and volume), and the Celtics’ East-leading record.
East Frontcourt: LeBron James (Cavaliers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), and Joel Embiid (Sixers)
Let’s not bother with unnecessary debates: Both James and Antetokounmpo are no-brainers.
At the midway point of his 15th season, James stands as the 2018 NBA MVP frontrunner. He has been the alpha and omega for the East’s most efficient offense while welcoming a host of new faces (Jae Crowder, Dwyane Wade, Jeff Green) and dealing with numerous injuries (Isaiah Thomas, Tristan Thompson, Derrick Rose). Even more remarkably, he’s shattered conventional expectations for age curves and post-30 decline. Throughout NBA history, only four players have matched James’ current stat line (27.3 PPG, 8 RPG, 8.8 APG): Oscar Robertson, Michael Jordan, Russell Westbrook and James Harden. All four did it at age 28 or younger, while James turned 33 last month.
Kudos to fan voters for recognizing Antetokounmpo’s brilliance: At just 23, he’s already challenging James for the title of the East’s leading vote-getter, pulling in nearly 1.5 million votes at last count. The NBA’s reigning Most Improved Player is now deep into his second season as one of the league’s top one-man shows. The Bucks boast a +4 net rating with Antetokounmpo on the court and a pitiful -11.3 net rating when he sits, a split that helps explain why he’s the NBA’s leader in minutes per game. A do-everything, play-anywhere force of nature, Antetokounmpo (28.3 PPG, 10.1 PPG, 4.5 APG) joins Larry Bird, David Robinson and Russell Westbrook as the only players to average 28/10/4 during the three-point era. While Milwaukee’s so-so record should leave observers wanting more, it would be so, so, so much worse without nightly heroics from their franchise player.
If he were eligible, DeRozan would have a strong case for the third frontcourt spot. Alas, Embiid and Boston’s Horford stand atop the remaining pool of frontcourt candidates, separating themselves from New York’s Kristaps Porzingis (fading slightly after a strong individual start), Detroit’s Andre Drummond (an afterthought following the Pistons’ recent cratering) and Cleveland’s Kevin Love (an undeniable part of the problem for Cleveland’s atrocious defense).
Horford’s portfolio is virtually identical to his previous All-Star seasons: His two-way game, unselfishness, inside/outside versatility, and intelligence have made him a more important driver of Boston’s winning than his raw stats (13.4 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 5.3 APG) would suggest. As the stabilizing force for the NBA’s stingiest defense, Horford will command Defensive Player of the Year and All-Defensive team attention. He’s also enjoyed significantly better health than Embiid, logging 300+ more minutes and missing just four games.
Ultimately, the quality of Embiid’s minutes won out on this ballot. Aside from long-established A-listers like LeBron James, Stephen Curry, and James Harden, Embiid helps his teammates find success better than anyone in the league. He draws tons of attention to free up role players. He works a nice two-man game with Ben Simmons. He blankets the paint on defense. He parades to the foul line. He cleans the glass. He leads with energy and fearlessness.
While Horford has a longer track record of winning and has enjoyed better health this season, Embiid has clearly established himself as one of the league’s most indispensable stars. Philadelphia’s net rating swings from -6.2 without him to +8.7 with him, and the Sixers are 2-7 without Embiid in the lineup. Boston, meanwhile, has gone 4-0 without Horford. Other than his lagging three-point efficiency and his DeMarcus Cousins-like propensity for turning the ball over by doing too much, Embiid (23.8 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 3.4 APG) is virtually impossible to nitpick. His per-game numbers suggest he’s elite. His advanced stats suggest he’s elite. His impact numbers suggest he’s elite. The eye test suggests he’s an elite monster who would thrash and thrive to an even greater degree if surrounded by Boston’s talent.
Postscript: Horford is an easy reserve selection.
West Backcourt: James Harden (Rockets) and Stephen Curry (Warriors)
Most years, good health weighs heavily on this voter’s ballot. That’s especially true in deep groupings like the West backcourt, which is always a gauntlet full of impossible choices. This season, though, toeing a hard line on health makes less sense due to a rash of injuries to star players and the increased proliferation of strategic resting.
Disqualifying or downgrading West guards for missing meaningful time would result in a bloodbath: Harden, Curry, and Portland’s Damian Lillard would all be impacted, along with Houston’s Chris Paul, Memphis’s Mike Conley and other perennial candidates who don’t belong in the conversation because they’ve missed huge chunks of the season. The top remaining, rarely-injured candidates would be Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Oklahoma City’s Russell Westbrook, Golden State’s Klay Thompson and LA’s Lou Williams. All are worthy All-Star reserve candidates, but none belongs on the same tier as Harden and Curry, who have both been top-five overall talents this season.
Although currently sidelined with a hamstring injury, Harden (32.3 PPG, 9.1 APG, 5 RPG) is a must All-Star starter. At the time of his injury, he stood as the MVP favorite, leading the league in points, PER, Win Shares and Real Plus Minus. His individual success directly translated to team–wide success: Houston was on track for its best season in franchise history, the West’s No. 2 record, a top-two offense, and the NBA’s second-best point differential when he went down.
Curry (27.6 PPG, 5.2 RPG, 6.5 APG) has already missed 14 games, a chunk that would usually see him dumped to the second team on this voter’s ballot. Much like Embiid, however, Curry’s play when healthy has simply been too dominant to snub. His stat line isn’t that far off his 2015 unanimous MVP campaign. He’s threatening another 50/40/90 shooting season. Golden State is playing at a 68-win pace when he suits up. The Warriors’ offensive rating is a preposterous 120.7 when he’s on the court. He ranks fourth in PER and first in Real Plus Minus. The sport continues to be molded by his influence.
That leaves Butler (21.5 PPG, 5.3 RPG, 5.1 APG) to fall to the West’s bench. As with DeRozan in the East, a position-less ballot could have potentially opened a starting spot for Butler, a punishing wing who capably defends four positions and easily oscillates between different roles in big and small lineups. Butler’s off-season arrival has delivered impressive and immediate results, transforming the Timberwolves from a decade-long also-ran to a top-four seed and a potential Northwest Division banner. Simply put, Butler is the top performer not included among this ballot’s 10 starters.
Despite his gaudy numbers, Westbrook (25 PPG, 9.8 RPG, 9.9 APG) should not be viewed as a serious All-Star starter candidate. Oklahoma City has just been too shaky, in part because he’s struggled to shoot efficiently and hasn’t displayed the delicate touch necessary to consistently pull quality contributions from his auxiliary options.
West Frontcourt: Kevin Durant (Warriors), Anthony Davis (Pelicans) and Draymond Green (Warriors)
The West’s frontcourt picture will get dicey when it comes to separating the reserves from the snubs, but the starters are a simpler task.
Durant (26.4 PPG, 6.9 RPG, 5.3 APG) is in, and his nomination doesn’t require an extended explanation. At this point of his career, the 2014 MVP has become a chameleon-like force, capable of matching his top peers in an increasingly long list of ways. Like Curry, he is a 50/40/90 candidate. Like Harden, he is a primary scorer and playmaker for an elite offense. Like James, he steps forward as a major stabilizing force when his teammates are in and out of the lineup. Like San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard, he has become a major plus on defense, one capable of defending elite wings while also carrying a significant offensive burden. Like Horford and Green, he has risen to the challenge of interior defense while logging major minutes in undersized spread lineups. Like Irving, he never hesitates to break off a defender with his handle. Like Antetokounmpo, he’s a terror in transition, and his length and athleticism present constant problems for opponents big and small.
In sum, Durant’s case to surpass James as the game’s top all-around talent is only gaining momentum.
Even with the injury issues in the West, it’s impossible to justify placing two Pelicans—who have hovered near .500 and the playoff bubble all season—in the All-Star starting lineup. While DeMarcus Cousins (25.5 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 5.1 APG) started with a bang and continues to boast insane numbers, his steak doesn’t quite match his sizzle. Hence, Davis (26.7 PPG, 10.5 RPG, 2.3 APG) makes more sense the New Orleans representative: His per-game stats are huge as always, he holds a team-best +5.3 net rating, and New Orleans is 3-6 when he plays fewer than 25 minutes. Simply put, he’s more reliable than Cousins, who leads the league in turnovers and fouls, while also ranking among the league leaders in technical fouls and ejections.
The West’s final frontcourt spot is a tangled ball of yarn due to Leonard’s numerous injury issues. One school of thought suggests transferring his spot to LaMarcus Aldridge (22.4 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 1.9 APG), who stepped forward as San Antonio’s leading scorer in Leonard’s absence. Others might argue for Cousins based on his Shaquille O’Neal-like numbers. Still others might nominate Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns (20.2 PPG, 12 RPG, 2.3 APG), a natural/smooth/efficient/forceful offensive weapon who has responded in recent weeks to severe criticism of his defense. All three have legitimate cases, as would Butler if he were eligible in the frontcourt.
On this ballot, the choice is Green (11.1 PPG, 7.9 RPG, 7.6 APG), who obviously trails his aforementioned competition as a scorer. What sets Green apart is everything else: His comfort guarding any player at any time and at any spot on the court; his motor; his ability to step forward as an initiator in Curry’s absence; his decision-making; his rim-protection; and his ability to push the ball end to end in transition. Green is key to helping Golden State play at the league’s No.4 pace, he is the leading assist man on the league’s No. 1 assist team, he is a key playmaker for the NBA’s No. 1 offense, he is the leading rebounder on a team that’s juggled centers all season long, and he’s the most proven and versatile cog in the NBA’s No. 4 defense.
While Green has become a familiar face during Golden State’s run of dominance—emerging as one of this year’s leading All-Star vote-getters—the breadth of his positive contributions can still get lost in Superteam envy or in complaints about his behavior. So, here’s a cool shorthand method for explaining his unique and wide-ranging impact: Green and James are the only two players to average seven rebounds, seven assists, one steal and one block during the three-point era. This season, James is doing it for the fourth time during a career in which he will likely go down as one of the top two players ever. Green, meanwhile, is doing it for the third straight time while playing in the shadow of two all-timers in Curry and Durant. The Warriors’ blossoming dynasty greatness is fueled in no small part by Green’s consistent greatness across so many different facets of the game.
Check back next week for The Crossover's All-Star reserve selections.