Thursday, January 27, 2022

Top NBA All-Star candidates: LeBron James, Stephen Curry among locks; Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard could be out

The first returns from NBA All-Star voting were released earlier this week, serving as yet another reminder of why the fan vote is no longer solely used to determine the starters. Klay Thompson, who has yet to appear in an NBA game this season, and Kyrie Irving, who just played for the first time on Wednesday, each received hundreds of thousands of votes — more than plenty of truly deserving candidates.

Because of consistent illogicality such as this, the fan vote only accounts for 50 percent of the formula that determines All-Star starters. The rest is made up of an equal share of current players and select media members. The reserves are then chosen by the league’s head coaches.

With fan voting ending on Jan. 22 and the starters being announced a week later, we thought now would be a good time to take stock of the top candidates in each conference, in advance of the Feb. 20 All-Star Game in Cleveland. Below you’ll find them broken down into categories based on the likeliness that they’ll be selected, and it’s important to keep in mind that there are only 12 All-Star spots for each conference, which means some tough decisions will have to be made, and the word “SNUB!” will be shouted from the highest rooftops shortly thereafter.

*Candidates in each category are listed in no particular order

Western Conference

Absolute locks

You know the saying, “Father Time is undefeated?” LeBron, who turned 37 in December, is certainly putting that to the test with a phenomenal campaign that has kept the Lakers afloat despite an Anthony Davis injury and a disappointing first half from Russell Westbrook. There may come a day when LeBron James is no longer an All-Star, but we’re certainly not there yet.

Curry’s having the worst shooting season of his career and the Warriors have still exceeded expectations by holding the NBA’s best record for most of the first half of the season. That tells you everything you need to know about his value, even when he’s not scoring. Everything the Warriors do offensively revolves around Curry, evidenced by the perilous drop in points per 100 possessions when he sits, and his defensive improvement this season has been acknowledged throughout the league. No question, he’s an All-Star.

You really can’t ask more of a superstar in today’s NBA than what Jokic has done for Denver so far this season. Whatever performance metric you want to use, Jokic is the NBA leader across the board, and his defense — which used to be considered a shortcoming — is now also a strength. Lock him in.

Highly likely

The driving force on the NBA’s best offense, Mitchell has put up a career-best field goal percentage while maintaining similar averages to his previous two All-Star seasons. There could be some weird numbers game that somehow prevents him from making it this year, but it’s not likely.

Morant has carried the breakout performance from his first playoff series into this season, as he’s become one of the league’s elite point guards in both scoring and playmaking — with supreme athleticism and bravado as added bonuses. The fact that he’s helped Memphis work its way into a top-four seed makes Morant a shoo-in for his first All-Star appearance.

The casual fan may not recognize what Green does on a nightly basis, but a number of players and coaches have said it: What Steph Curry is to the Warriors offense, Draymond Green is to their top-ranked defense. Add in his cosmic connection with Curry, passing ability and tenacity in pushing the pace, and the 31-year-old Green is almost certain to make his first All-Star appearance since 2018.

The Defensive Player of the Year in three out of the last four seasons, Gobert is likely headed to his third-straight All-Star Game while notching career-highs in field goal percentage and rebounds per game. The Jazz are one of the best teams in the NBA, and they’re significantly better on both ends with Gobert on the floor.

Booker’s scoring is down a bit this season, but he’s shooting a career-high from 3-point range while leading the Suns to the league’s best record. Phoenix will likely be rewarded with multiple All-Stars, and Booker is the first on the list.

Paul’s All-Star case isn’t quite as clear-cut as Booker’s due to uncharacteristically low efficiency and a career-low scoring average, but he leads the league in assists and has once again been one of the league’s top clutch performers. More than likely, the 36-year-old will be heading to his 12th All-Star Game.

Top candidates for three remaining spots

It’s hard to believe that Doncic isn’t a lock for the All-Star Game — and he very well might become one in the coming weeks — but as of now his substandard efficiency and the Mavericks’ up-and-down performance leaves him surrounded by question marks. He may get voted in to make this a moot point, but it’s worth noting that Doncic isn’t a guaranteed All-Star for the first time since his rookie season.

There’s no question about the tremendous load that George has carried for the Clippers on both sides with Kawhi Leonard out of the lineup, but decreased efficiency, increased turnovers and injuries have made it difficult to pencil George into the All-Star Game. If he’s unable to return from his elbow injury before selections are made, a case of “out of sight, out of mind” might keep him on the outside looking in.

Towns has been his normal, spectacular self on offense this season, but he’s also been a key cog in Minnesota’s improved defense — an area where he’s struggled in the past. If the Wolves can hover around .500 as the break approaches, Towns seems to have a pretty good chance of making his third All-Star appearance.

It’s hard to imagine an All-Star Game without Lillard, who has been selected in each of the last four seasons and six times overall, but a rough shooting start, an abdominal injury and the Blazers’ disappointing record may keep Dame at home this year. His numbers are down across the board and, as you can see, the field is incredibly crowded.

Davis only played 27 games before suffering an MCL injury that could keep him out until after the All-Star teams have been picked, but he is the only player in the league to average at least 20 points and two blocks per game. The Lakers weren’t exactly setting the league on fire when he played and a selection probably isn’t likely, but you can’t have an All-Star conversation without at least mentioning Anthony Davis.

Wiggins is averaging almost 20 points per game on career-best efficiency, particularly from 3-point range, while taking the assignment of guarding the opponent’s best perimeter player on a nightly basis for the league’s top defense. It all translates to a legitimate All-Star case, but we’ll see if he can beat out more familiar mainstays for his first appearance.

If the Suns get a third All-Star, it will be Ayton, who is averaging a double-double on ridiculous 63 percent shooting. He’s also made tremendous strides defensively, helping bolster one of the league’s best teams on both ends of the floor. After a breakout in the playoffs last year, an All-Star appearance seems like his next milestone. The only question is whether it happens this season.

Dark horses

Eastern Conference

Absolute locks

Hey, remember when we were wondering how Durant would look coming off a torn Achilles? Those questions have long been buried as Durant has performed at an MVP level for the Nets, who have been in or near first place in the East for the entirety of the season. There’s no keeping K.D. out of the All-Star Game.

The reigning NBA Finals MVP has done nothing to lower his status in the league’s pecking order, boasting his typical gaudy numbers while keeping the Bucks afloat amid injuries and COVID-related absences. Pencil the Greek Freak in for his sixth straight All-Star appearance.

The Sixers outscore opponents by nearly 10 points per 100 possessions with Embiid on the floor, which backs up the eye test that tells you he’s one of the most dominant players in the NBA. He’s also shooting a career-high 39 percent from 3-point range this season, which is just unfair.

Most probably assumed DeRozan’s All-Star days were behind him, and now the 32-year-old is one of the few players you simply cannot keep out of Cleveland’s festivities this year. He’s averaging close to a career-high in scoring and has come up clutch time and time again in his first season with the Eastern Conference-leading Bulls.

Highly likely

The only thing that could possibly prevent Butler from making his sixth All-Star appearance is a lack of games played, but he’s been phenomenal on both ends when he’s been on the court. He’s right behind his career-best scoring average while shooting 50 percent from the field and providing all the necessary intangibles on a nightly basis.

For all the hullabaloo about Harden being adversely affected by the new rule changes, here he is putting up 23/10/8 and shooting more free throws per game than he did last season. His shooting percentages are down, but he’s still among the league leaders in points per possession when you include assists.

The Hawks have resembled a dumpster fire so far this season, but Young has been absolutely elite on the offensive end, averaging 28 points and almost 10 assists per game while blowing away his career-highs in field goal and 3-point percentage. Some might use Atlanta’s record against Young, but you’ll likely see him in Cleveland.

If the Bulls stay in or near first place in the East, they will almost assuredly get at least two All-Stars, and LaVine is more than deserving. His highly efficient numbers are almost identical to last season’s, despite the addition of better teammates, which has led to Chicago’s first-half success.

Top candidates for four remaining spots

Beal’s All-Star case is pretty similar to Damian Lillard’s — both are multiple-time All-Stars who got off to horrid starts before beginning to turn things around. Beal’s 3-point accuracy is still hovering below 30 percent and his scoring average is down over seven points from last season, when he led the league. In a vacuum, the raw numbers might say “All-Star,” but our eyes tell us this hasn’t been the same Bradley Beal we’ve grown accustomed to watching.

VanVleet has made perhaps the biggest late push to get into the All-Star Game, averaging 28 points and nearly eight assists over his last 10 games while hitting over five 3-pointers per game at a 44 percent clip. Overall, he’s one of the most efficient offensive players in the league, to go along with his All-Defense level tenacity on the other end and winning intangibles. Toronto’s recent win streak could also do wonders for his All-Star case.

It’s hard to imagine a player averaging almost 26 points and nine rebounds being left out of the All-Star Game, but Tatum’s shooting percentages are well below his career averages and the Celtics have overall been underwhelming. While it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him in Cleveland, there is certainly a case to be made against his selection given the strong field.

The Celtics probably won’t get two players in, which means there could be a debate between whether Brown or Jayson Tatum is the more worthy candidate. Like Tatum, Brown’s efficiency is down from last season, but he’s been the better shooter of the two thus far while averaging over 24 points and six rebounds per game.

Khris Middleton has been the second All-Star in Milwaukee for the past couple of seasons, but Holiday has been outstanding this year on both ends of the floor with players in and out of the lineup. His on/off splits are slightly better than Giannis’ and his offensive efficiency is through the roof, so making his first All-Star Game since 2013 is a real possibility.

Allen has been nothing short of a revelation in his first full season with the Cavs, who have been one of the surprise success stories of the first half. His rim protection and rebounding are keys to Cleveland’s elite defense this season, and he’s also increased his scoring average over four points from last year while shooting 70 percent from the field.

Many predicted a big step forward for Garland this season, and he’s gotten himself into the All-Star conversation by taking the reins of Cleveland’s offense with Collin Sexton (and now Ricky Rubio) out for the remainder of the season. Garland is one of three players averaging at least 19 points and seven assists while shooting better than 38 percent from the 3-point line. The others are Trae Young — almost certainly an All-Star — and our next candidate for one of the remaining spots …

Ball has done absolutely everything for the Hornets in his second NBA season, leading the team in assists, rebounds, steals and, depending on which day you check the stats, points per game. His biggest improvement has come from the 3-point line, where he’s converting at a 38 percent clip on just over seven attempts per game. He might also get some extra votes from those anticipating how fun he would be to watch in an All-Star Game.

Sabonis was an All-Star in each of the last two seasons, and his numbers this year are incredibly similar to that precedent. However, the Pacers are nowhere near in contention in the East, which likely hurts his chances this time around. 

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