Tough calls, no-brainers and the tall task of selecting 2023 NBA All-Star starters
For the fourth straight year, the decision-makers in the league office offered me a chance to be one of the media members who votes on which players should start in the NBA All-Star Game. (Reminder: Fan voting makes up 50% of the final result, with player and media ballots accounting for 25% each.) I accepted, because this one time a T-shirt told me that if I didn’t vote, I would die, and I don’t know about you guys, but I listen to laundry.
I’m also a glutton for punishment who simply can’t resist the opportunity to feel guilty about being forced to leave multiple deserving players off a ballot that only has space for three “frontcourt” players and two guards in each conference. So, without further ado: Let’s work hard, feel bad and make Diddy proud. (All stats and records used entering Wednesday’s games.)
FC Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets
FC Domantas Sabonis, Sacramento Kings
FC LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
G Luka Doncic, Dallas Mavericks
G Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Oklahoma City Thunder
As a sentient being reading about basketball in 2023, you probably don’t need to be convinced that Jokic deserves a spot; I’ve also written a bunch about Jokic and Denver recently, so I won’t make too big a meal out of this. Suffice it to say that when you’re one-tenth of an assist away from averaging a 25-point triple-double with the NBA’s second-highest true shooting percentage, you’re leading the league in a frankly hilarious number of advanced metrics, you’ve arguably been even more efficient and effective than you were in winning the last two MVP trophies, and you’re the best player on the No. 1 seed in your conference, we’re writing your name on the ballot in Sharpie.
Ditto for Doncic, who roared out of the starting blocks looking like the best player in the world through the season’s first month and hasn’t really slowed down, despite a workload that even his head coach can’t believe. Luka leads the league in scoring and ranks fifth in assist points created, serving as the every-possession engine of a top-five offense that has kept Dallas steady through some rough patches. He’s not solely responsible for the Mavs sitting just a couple of games out of home-court advantage in the West; with all due respect to Christian Wood and Spencer Dinwiddie, though, he’s not far off. His was the second name I locked into place on my Western ballot, without even a second thought.
Who’d serve as Luka’s backcourt partner, though, I did think hard about. Combing through the stats and standings left me considering a handful of excellent options: De’Aaron Fox, having a career season for the third-place Kings; Anthony Edwards, surging over the last 20 games in a primary playmaking role for the just-a-game-out-of-sixth Timberwolves; Devin Booker, who was playing like a legitimate MVP candidate before the injury that’s kept him out for a month; Damian Lillard, just about all the way back to where he was before last season’s abdominal injury and doing his level best to lift the listing Trail Blazers.
The decision wound up coming down to Stephen Curry, still ostensibly a top-three offense unto himself in Golden State; Ja Morant, leader of the pack for a Grizzlies squad pushing for the No. 1 seed; and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. Either Steph or Ja would be a perfectly fine (and exceedingly fan-friendly!) choice for the second starting slot. In terms of pure merit, though, I stood on what I wrote last week: I think that Gilgeous-Alexander not only deserves to make his first All-Star Game, but that what he’s put on display deserves a starting spot.
SGA scores more — per game, per minute, per possession, whatever — than Curry, despite only taking about half as many 3s as Steph makes. He’s scored more, and more efficiently, than Morant, thanks in large part to hitting his free throws at a 91% clip compared to Ja’s 76%. He leads the NBA in drives to the basket per game, consistently putting pressure on the rim despite every defense in the league knowing that SGA getting downhill is OKC’s Plan A, B and C. (Sorry, just ate some alphabet soup.) The Thunder score like a top-10 offense in his minutes, despite Oklahoma City lacking complementary shooters and scorers like Klay Thompson or Desmond Bane. (That said, shoutout to Josh Giddey. We see you.)
Gilgeous-Alexander has been a disruptive defender, too, posting career-best steal and block rates to go with 3.4 deflections per game — tied for ninth in the league — for a Thunder defense that ranks a somewhat surprising ninth in defensive efficiency. He tops Steph and Ja in value over replacement player, win shares, player efficiency rating and a number of other all-in-one metrics. He’s also played several hundred more minutes than both of them, leading a team many expected to tank to within 1.5 games of fifth in the crowded West.
Yes, Steph and Ja make their teams contenders, but SGA has made his relevant — has made it matter again — in a way it hasn’t in years, just as Curry and Morant did in their respective domains when they broke through to All-Star status. He opened this season with a declaration that he had arrived, and he hasn’t gone anywhere; I think he’s been, both per possession and in terms of overall impact, the second-best guard in the West. So that’s where I put him.
Injuries (and, in some cases, load management) have cost several Western frontcourt stars a significant amount of playing time. Anthony Davis and Zion Williamson, Clipper bros Paul George and Kawhi Leonard, and Jaren Jackson Jr. have all made major contributions when they’re on the court; they just haven’t been on it nearly as much as the three guys I wound up considering for the spots next to Jokic: Domantas Sabonis, Lauri Markkanen and LeBron James.
Sabonis has been the driving force behind Sacramento’s surprising surge to third place in the West. Only Jokic and Joel Embiid average more frontcourt touches per game than Sabonis, who’s scoring 18.7 points per game on career-best 60.9% shooting and getting to the free-throw line at a career-high rate, while also leading the league in rebounding and sitting tied for eighth in assists. (The only other player ranking in the top 10 in both boards and dimes? You guessed it: Jokic.) He serves as the playmaking hub of the NBA’s highest-volume and most explosive dribble-handoff attack, constantly dropping the ball off to curling cutters and creating open space for Sacramento’s wings to flourish; his combination of brute strength and court vision have made him one of the league’s most dangerous threats out of the post.
A Kings team that wins on the strength of its devastating offense scores 10.6 more points per 100 possessions with Sabonis on the court than off it. And while the recipe works best when he shares the floor with Fox, Sacramento keeps cooking in Domas/no De’Aaron minutes much more effectively than when it’s the other way around. Combine that per-play impact with Sabonis’ constant presence in California’s capital, missing only two games despite playing for the past month with a broken thumb, and you’ve got quantity and quality meeting in a résumé worthy of the 26-year-old’s third All-Star berth.
I’ve written a couple of times recently that Markkanen deserves to represent the host Jazz during All-Star Weekend. I still think that! The 25-year-old is averaging nearly 25 points and nine rebounds per game while shooting better than 50% from the field, 40% from 3-point range and 85% from the line. Those are, ahem, Larry Bird and Dirk Nowitzki numbers. Even when you factor in the efficiency inflation in our modern era, that’s awfully impressive.
Markkanen’s production and, perhaps just as importantly, the variety of ways in which he arrives at it — as a high-volume catch-and-shoot marksman, as a matchup nightmare in isolation, by working either end of a pick-and-roll, dribble handoff or off-ball screen, etc. — go a long way toward explaining how the Jazz rank fourth in the NBA in offensive efficiency. He’s been the biggest bellwether for the league’s biggest surprise: a team expected by just about everybody to bottom out that instead sits eighth in the West, just a game out of fifth … and, for what it’s worth, two games ahead of LeBron’s Lakers.
They essentially split the advanced statistical categories. Lauri’s ahead in win shares, FiveThirtyEight’s wins above replacement and some of the other metrics that privilege a larger overall minute total; LeBron takes estimated plus-minus, value over replacement player, ESPN’s real plus-minus and some of the others that more closely track per-possession impact. Markkanen has played 165 more minutes than James; LeBron has generated 16 more points for his team per 36 minutes of floor time than Lauri, using the Points Created metric designed by The Ringer’s Zach Kram.
While Markkanen has been the Jazz’s No. 1 option, head coach Will Hardy’s free-flowing offense has weaponized a surprisingly deep and effective pool of contributors — high-scoring guards (Jordan Clarkson, Malik Beasley, Collin Sexton), floor-spacing playmakers (Mike Conley, Kelly Olynyk) and high-efficiency finishers (Jarred Vanderbilt, breakout rookie Walker Kessler), all of whom have stayed mostly healthy and available to make shouldering the offensive burden a group project. The Lakers, in contrast, have two main offensive weapons, and as incredible as AD was through mid-December, the foot injury that has sidelined him since has forced LeBron to effectively bear that burden alone.
It seemed fair to wonder whether he could still do that. Well, it turns out he can: James has averaged 34.3 points, 8.3 rebounds and 7.4 assists per game since AD’s injury, shooting 54.4% from the field and 81.1% from the foul line on 7.9 attempts a night. The Lakers have gone 11-10 in that span, outscoring opponents by a very strong 7.7 points-per-100 with LeBron on the floor on the back of an elite offense — an amplification of a trend that has persisted all season.
It’s reasonable to argue that LeBron balling out to keep a misshapen roster afloat for five weeks isn’t as impressive as Markkanen elevating a transitional group for three months, and that Markkanen’s edges in shooting efficiency and games played should give him a leg up. (Andy Larsen of the Salt Lake Tribune made it well.) But it’s also reasonable to highlight the yawning gap in how much additional value LeBron provides as a playmaker and the fact that, while L.A. has been underwhelming on both ends overall, the Lakers have had the equivalent of a top-five offense and a near-top-10 defense with James on the floor. (Utah, by comparison, has been about a league-average D in Markkanen’s minutes.)
It was a close call; in the end, I went with LeBron’s great power in greater responsibility over Markkanen’s edges in efficiency. But Lauri’s going to be the first name on my frontcourt reserve list. (We’ll come back to those later in the week.)
FC Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
FC Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
FC Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
G Donovan Mitchell, Cleveland Cavaliers
G Tyrese Haliburton, Indiana Pacers
Having only three spots for Embiid, Tatum, Durant and Giannis Antetokounmpo means there’s no good way not to leave a top-10 player out of the Eastern frontcourt. Alas.
Tatum’s been the most durable of the four, missing only three games this season and ranking fourth in the league in total minutes. Availability isn’t necessarily the end-all, be-all in these arguments, but when you pair it with a hell of a lot of plain ol’ ability — 31 points, 8.6 rebounds and 4.4 assists per game, career-high shooting efficiency with a single-digit turnover rate, top-flight defense across every perimeter position for the NBA’s fifth-stingiest unit — you’ve got a pretty compelling case. His status as the best player on the team with the NBA’s best record and best net rating only augments it. (Even if the Celtics can’t seem to beat the friggin’ Magic.)
Despite being sidelined for the last two weeks with a sprained MCL in his right knee, Durant has still played more games and minutes than either Embiid or Antetokounmpo … and holy hell, has he been an absolute monster in them.
It would probably be a stretch to suggest that KD was playing the best basketball of his career before the injury, considering that career already includes 12 All-Star nods, 10 All-NBA selections, four scoring titles, two NBA championships and an MVP. And yet, watching the total control that the 34-year-old was exercising during Brooklyn’s rise from early season chaos to within hailing distance of the East’s No. 1 seed — watching him shoot a mind-bending 62.2% on 2-point shots despite routinely taking some of the hardest shots imaginable, while also often alternating between serving as the Nets’ best rim protector or point-of-attack defender, depending on what was needed — it didn’t feel too far off.
(I’m not kidding about that shot diet, by the way. Second Spectrum tracks a stat called “quantified shot quality,” or qSQ, which measures how likely a given shot would be to go in if an average shooter took it. Out of 206 players to take at least 250 shots this season, Durant has the second-lowest qSQ, ahead of only fellow tough-shot impresario DeMar DeRozan. He also has the biggest gap between what you’d expect him to shoot on those shots and what he actually shoots — ahead of efficiency kings Jokic, Curry and every other high-volume shooter in the league. It’s some of the most incredible shot-making you’ll ever see, and to KD, it’s just … y’know … Tuesday.)
Embiid, too, has seemed somehow even more overwhelming this season: career highs in usage rate, points per shot attempt and scoring at 33.6 points per game, jousting with Doncic for his second straight scoring crown. He remains one of the most punishing interior players in the sport, averaging 1.17 points per post-up, according to Synergy — second only to Jokic among high-volume post finishers — while also continuing his fruitful migration to the midrange, making beautiful music with James Harden in the pick-and-roll as they polish the two-man game that already looked so smooth in the first moments of their partnership. Philadelphia has scored 121.6 points-per-100 with Embiid and Harden on the floor together, which would lead the league over the full season.
He’s ensured the Sixers stay dominant without their hirsute point guard, too. Philly has outscored opponents by 7.5 points-per-100 in Embiid-no Harden minutes, mitigating offensive slippage by clamping down at a league-best rate, thanks largely to the big fella’s ability to menace drivers and cover tons of ground. The early season agita about Embiid’s health seems like ancient history now: Since starting the season 4-6, Philly owns the East’s second-best record and net rating, has climbed all the way up to the No. 2 seed, and now profiles as — depending on your projection model of choice — a top-tier contender to win it all.
The unbelievable, and unbelievably consistent, level of play that Tatum, Durant and Embiid have maintained leaves Antetokounmpo on the outside looking in for me.
On its face, this feels ludicrous. The guy’s averaging nearly 31-12-5 with an above-average true shooting percentage despite shouldering the league’s highest usage rate. He’s kept an injury-decimated Milwaukee side in the chase for the top spot in the East, even with No. 2 option Khris Middleton missing 39 games. He’s also the best defender of the quartet — shoulder-to-shoulder with DPOY candidate Brook Lopez as the main reasons why, despite all those injuries, the Bucks still rank second in the NBA in points allowed per possession.
But having only three spots for four superstars means splitting some awfully fine hairs. Giannis lags behind the other three in scoring efficiency, due in large part to all those jumpers he can’t stop taking and clanging, and all those free throws that keep going awry. The Sixers, Nets and Celtics have all continued to thrive when Embiid, Durant and Tatum have played without their No. 2 offensive threats; the Bucks have been outscored this season when Giannis works without Jrue Holiday. Antetokounmpo doesn’t fare badly in most of the all-in-one advanced metrics … but, for the most part, he doesn’t fare as well as the other three. His recent bout with knee soreness wiped out any availability advantage he had over Embiid; they’ve now played virtually the same number of minutes, and Embiid has outpaced him in just about every efficiency- and impact-based stat.
As remarkable as his box-score numbers are, the underlying metrics suggest that Giannis’ overall output has dipped slightly from where it’s been for the last half-decade. That still results in production that 99% of the league would kill for. Given the quality of the competition he’s facing, though, it’s enough to drop him to the bench. Cold world.
Mitchell was a lock to start in the Eastern backcourt even before he rung in 2023 by hanging 71 on the Bulls. (Though it sure didn’t hurt.) He’s authored a sublime opening to his career in Cleveland, one marked by the sort of across-the-board improvements that can turn a very good scorer into one of the league’s very best.
The 26-year-old is finishing a career-best 67% at the rim and 50% from floater range, and has become one of the most lethal pull-up shooters in the sport. Only Steph has made more off-the-bounce triples per game than Mitchell; among players to attempt at least 75 live-dribble hoists, only Steph, Kevin Huerter and Desmond Bane have shot a higher percentage. The combination of that quick trigger, an even quicker first step when attacking off the bounce and an advanced mastery of how to score in the screen game — among players to finish at least 100 plays as the ball-handler in the pick-and-roll, only Steph and KD are scoring more points per possession — has made Mitchell damn near unguardable most nights. His metronome-steady excellence is a huge reason why the Cavs sit just outside the top 10 in offensive efficiency, and find themselves vying for home-court advantage in the East.
The second guard spot, though, proved a bit trickier. The overall advanced statistical résumé points to Harden — averaging 21.5 points, 11.2 assists and 6.5 rebounds per game, shooting better from 3-point range (38% on 7.2 attempts a night) than he has since he was a sixth man in Oklahoma City, holding down the fort when Embiid rests — as the second-best guard in the conference … but not by quite enough to make up for the 16 games he missed due to a sprained tendon in his foot.
Harden’s former teammate, Kyrie Irving, (hey, remember that?) has been nearly as impressive statistically, averaging 27-5-5 on 49/37/90 shooting. He’s posting the lowest turnover rate of his career while keeping Brooklyn afloat with Durant on the shelf, and has missed five fewer games than Harden … but then you remember why he missed those games, and the role that the whirlwind he kicked up played in digging the early season hole out of which Brooklyn had to spend the month of December climbing.
Holiday’s shooting has tailed off a bit, but he’s stepped up his scoring and playmaking with Middleton unavailable while playing his customary elite perimeter defense when available … which, due to various illnesses, has been less often than the likes of DeMar DeRozan, an iron man who has turned in an almost exact statistical carbon copy of his work from last season, when he started the All-Star Game. Is it fair to dock DeMar for the Bulls sliding from near the top of the East this time last season to 10th place now? It’s not like he put the curse on Lonzo Ball’s knee.
After thinking over the cases for those guards and a number of others, including Trae Young, Jalen Brunson and Darius Garland, I found myself picking between Haliburton and Jaylen Brown. I nearly went with Brown in recognition of both his continued refinement as a shot creator and scorer — 26.9 points per game, 58.1% on 2-pointers (including a scorching 52% on long midrange jumpers) and 78.7% at the foul line, all career highs — and his standing as one of the league’s most versatile wing defenders. He’s got the size to guard opponents all over the positional spectrum, the physicality to bang in the post, the agility to chase shooters through thickets of off-ball screens and the willingness to track back on the defensive glass to finish possessions. He’s more than just a perfect complement for Tatum on both ends of the floor; he’s a star in his own right — one who has played the ninth-most minutes in the NBA, which has huge value.
So, too, does a player who can essentially craft an excellent offense by himself — which, to the surprise of many, is precisely what Haliburton was doing in Indiana before the ugly fall that’s kept him out for the last couple of weeks.
After an impressive debut upon joining the Pacers at the 2022 trade deadline, Haliburton hit the ground running in his first full season with the keys to Rick Carlisle’s offense. He’s near the top of the league in assists and points created by assist this season, and he’s making sure his teammates eat clean; according to PBPstats, Haliburton ranks fifth in setting up baskets directly at the rim, and second only to Luka in creating 3s. The Iowa State product has become one of the NBA’s most effective playmakers without needing to dominate the ball. Haliburton ranks second in the NBA in touches per game, but 37th among players who’ve logged at least 250 minutes in seconds per touch; he’ll get off the ball in a heartbeat if he can create or seize an opportunity at a scoring chance.
Add that to the threat he poses from beyond the arc (39.9% on 10.5 attempts per 100 possessions) and as a one-on-one scorer (Haliburton ranks first in points per chance among 80 players with at least 100 isolations, according to Second Spectrum), and underscore the whole package with a near-4-to-1 assist-to-turnover ratio, and you’ve got a pretty powerful starting point for an offense. The Pacers, one of the league’s youngest teams, were 14th in offensive efficiency before Haliburton got hurt, and were scoring 116 points-per-100 with him on the floor — about what the Grizzlies’ No. 8 offense has mustered for the full season. (The bottom has completely fallen out in his absence; including the game he left early with the injury, Indy has gone 1-7 without Haliburton, fielding the NBA’s second-worst offense.)
Outside of Mitchell, only Harden’s advanced numbers outstrip Haliburton, who ranks in or near the top 10 in VORP, box plus-minus, FiveThirtyEight’s RAPTOR and RPM, among other metrics. He’s played more than 200 more minutes than Harden and, without a running buddy anywhere close to Embiid, he had an Indiana team widely expected to tank in sixth before his injury. Like Gilgeous-Alexander in the West, Haliburton has not only exceeded expectations, he’s put together a stronger and more consistent top-to-bottom résumé than the established names. This season, he deserves to supplant them. He’s earned the East’s final starting spot.
(Both Durant and Haliburton are expressing optimism about being able to return before the All-Star break and play in the game. If they can’t: Giannis for KD, and Brown for Haliburton.)