Picking the 2017 NBA All Stars: Part I

The NBA season is roughly halfway over, which means the All-Star game is right around the corner. We all know that the fan vote is stupid and should be abolished, and while diluting it to 50 percent of the overall vote won’t totally prevent worthy players of getting snubbed, it’s a step in the right direction.

But as long as All Star appearances hold weight when it comes to players’ Hall of Fame résumés and contract incentives, the selection process should be taken at least somewhat seriously. Here are my picks for this year’s teams. (I do not have an official vote.)

First, some ground rules:

  1. I’m abiding by the positional designations on the actual ballot—two guards and three frontcourt players in the starting lineup, and the same for the bench—plus two wild cards. You could argue that this rule might be outdated, since versatility is king and positions are more fluid than ever, but for now, the structure stays. I also won’t differentiate between positions within each category; all guards are just guards and all frontcourt players are frontcourt players.
  2. This isn’t a prediction of the All-Star teams, it’s a case for the most deserving players. I’m going solely on merit; popularity and reputation won’t do much good here.
  3. Choices are based solely on this year’s performances. Breakout players poised to change the league in three years—Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, etc.—can wait until they’ve actually done it, and stars that fans love but who are past their primes—Carmelo Anthony and Dwyane Wade (and Kobe Bryant last year)—have had their turns.

EASTERN CONFERENCE

Starters

G Isaiah Thomas

G Kyle Lowry

FC Jimmy Butler

FC LeBron James

FC Giannis Antetokounmpo

Reserves

G John Wall

G DeMar DeRozan

FC Kevin Love

FC Paul Millsap

FC Paul George

WC Kyrie Irving

WC Kemba Walker

Final Cuts: Al Horford, Jabari Parker, Kristaps Porzingis, Dwight Howard, Joel Embiid

The lineup construction here is weird, but it adheres to the listed positional classifications. Lowry, Butler, James, and Antetokounmpo are no-brainers, and there wasn’t a true big man that deserved to start over any of them. Let’s break down the choices.

Five Point Guards?

Yes! The cluster of elite point guards in the East is large. Since we’re not differentiating between point guards and shooting guards, I just went with the four most deserving backcourt players in the guard spots and handed out the wild card spots to the other two.

Lowry is the best guard in the East. Period. Fans will vote for Irving, and Thomas has gained tons of steam over the past few weeks, but Lowry is better than both of them and should be a more popular player than he is.

Thomas gets the final starting spot, largely due to his play over the last month. He compensates for his lack of size with an assortment of floaters, drives, and generally crafty plays; he might be the most unique point guard in the league. He can change speeds and directions in the blink of an eye, which throws off defenders and opens up windows just big enough to squeeze through and spin home nifty finishes:

This shot is just ridiculous:

Thomas can do things at 5’9” that most people can’t do at 6’9”, and he holds the statistical edge over nearly every other guard in the Eastern Conference, including his 10.1 points per game in the fourth quarter. Boston is often touted as a balanced team that gets by on coaching and cohesion despite not having a true star. They are balanced and well-coached, but the Celtics have a bona fide star in Thomas; he’s much better than people realize. Little IT has always been left out of the conversation of the league’s top-five point guards, and he’s not there yet, but he’s becoming harder and harder to ignore.

DeRozan makes up for his lack of a three-point shot (or maybe just an unwillingness to shoot it) with killer footwork and MJ-style midrange bombs. He could probably become a decent three-point shooter if he made it a priority, but he’s so efficient from the midrange that it doesn’t matter. DeRozan is a master at getting to the basket, even when it looks impossible, and he has the athleticism to finish once he gets there. But DeRozan has predictably cooled off after his white-hot start while some of the conference’s other top guards have surged in the opposite direction.

Wall might be just as dynamic as Thomas and DeRozan. He’s one of only three players in the league (along with James Harden and Russell Westbrook) averaging at least 20 points and ten assists, and the Wizards are 21-19 because of him. He’s lightning quick with the ball, and nearly impossible to keep out of the lane with just one defender. Give him a runway to the basket in transition or off the pick and roll, and you’re toast; cut off those driving lanes, and he’ll zip passes to open shooters or cutters for easy buckets:

He’s still a Westbrook-level three-point shooter, but he shoots pretty well from the midrange, and area of the floor he can get to basically at will. It’s easy to forget how good Wall is because he’s so consistent and plays for a mostly blah team, but he’s having the best year of his career and keeping the Wizards afloat.

Walker has had a fantastic year; he’s posting the best scoring and shooting numbers of his career and keeping the Hornets afloat in the middle of the pack in the East. What sets Walker apart from other point guards is the efficiency with which he plays. He’s shooting a career-high 41.4 percent on nearly seven three-point attempts per game, and his effective field goal percentage is up to 53.7. Walker’s improvement as a shooter has turned him into a different player than what he was even two years ago, and it will give the Hornets another gear if and when the rest of the team starts to figure it out. Unfortunately, what sets Walker apart from guys like Lowry and Wall in the other direction is his defense. It’s not as bad as Thomas’, but it prevents him from being an elite two-way player.

Ordering the Wings

The NBA, and especially the East, is the most shallow on the wing right now. It’s really hard to find great two-way wings, so there’s a clear group of players that stands out above the rest. Antetokounmpo is an easy pick; the 22-year-old is having arguably the greatest season anyone his age or younger has ever had. If the Bucks make the playoffs (they should), it will be due mostly to him.

Butler is a tank with more responsibility on both ends of the floor than nearly anyone in the league. His 25 points per game and 48.9 effective field goal percentage are especially impressive considering the Bulls are the worst jump-shooting team in the league by a mile, and Butler has to create every window, driving lane, and opportunity for himself. Add in the fact that he gets to and converts at the free throw line at a high rate and is the only plus perimeter defender in Chicago’s rotation, and Butler is an obvious starter.

George is having a down year relative to what we’ve come to expect from him. The Pacers are barely above .500 and haven’t been consistent this season and the advanced metrics don’t paint an especially kind picture of George compared to other elite wings. But expectations for him have become extremely high, and it’s unfair to ignore the positive impact he’s had on his team. George has been efficient while posting scoring numbers similar to the ones of his first few years when he really became a star. His combination of athleticism, shooting, and defense is still elite, and he’s one of the rare players in the league that has to do everything on both ends of the floor for his team to have a chance. He clearly hasn’t been on the level of James, Butler, or Antetokounmpo, but George is still one of the best two-way players the game has.

The Defending Champs

The Cavs get three All Stars. That’s what happens when you defend your title with a 29-11 start. LeBron is still LeBron. Irving is a wizard with the ball in his hands and as deadly as anyone in the league when he has it going offensively. He’s one-dimensional, but that’s okay when you can score at will. The problems come on Irving’s off-nights, which can get ugly. When he’s not lighting up the scoreboard, he doesn’t offer much else when he’s out there. He’s is a minus defender and an average distributor for his position. The Cavs are better with Irving on the floor, but so are their opponents, and Cleveland’s net rating when Irving plays is just two points better than with him on the bench.

It’s dumb, though, to try and discredit elite scoring, and Irving can fill it up with the best of them. He’s extremely efficient—his shooting percentages are outstanding and he doesn’t turn the ball over that often for someone who handles the ball as much as he does—and reliable in clutch situations. Ask the Warriors. (Sorry, it was too easy.)

Love is playing the best basketball of his Cleveland stint, averaging 21 points and 11 rebounds with an effective field goal percentage of nearly 52. He’s clearly more comfortable and confident this year, and much more involved than ever before. Part of that is due to Cleveland’s gameplans. The Cavs like to get him going early, and he’s capitalizing, scoring nearly nine points per game in first quarters. But I think Love is playing with an edge to him that was missing before he won his first title last summer. He spends a lot of time working as a spot-up shooter around LeBron and Irving, and his effective field goal percentage is over 55 percent on catch-and-shoot attempts. When he has to create for himself, he’s an effective scorer because of the threat of his jumpshot and strong moves like this:

That may not look like much, but it’s as close to peak Love as we’ve seen since he was with Minnesota.

Narrowing Down the Bigs

The downside of filling up the wild card spots with guards is that it cuts down significantly on the number of spots for bigs. With three wings in the starting lineup and Love and George locked into the first frontcourt bench spot, picking just one big man is nigh on impossible.

I’ve always been Millsap guy; he’s the Hawks’ best player and I love his all-around game and the understated manner in which impact he impacts games. Millsap’s phenomenal instincts, intelligence, and positioning allow him to make spectacular plays look routine, and he’s remained the Hawks’ anchor on both ends of the floor, even amid serious trade rumors. His percentages are down, but his numbers have spiked over the past few weeks, and it’s propelled Atlanta out of the East’s tight and fickle middle of the pack. Atlanta is 14 points per 100 possessions better with Millsap on the floor than with him off, which is a huge difference, and more and more often, he has nights that remind you just how freaking good he is.

Millsap and Dwight Howard have combined to form one of the stingiest defensive frontcourts in the league—the Hawks have a sub-100 defensive rating when those two share the floor—another major reason for the Hawks’ recent climb in the standings. Howard has been a surprisingly effective interior force for Atlanta. He’s averaging 14 and 13 on 64 percent shooting, and after some early growing pains, the team is back up to a positive net rating with Howard on the floor. Expand the All Star roster three spots, and Howard probably makes it.

Horford missed ten games with a concussion earlier this season. That doesn’t sound like a huge number, but it’s nearly a quarter of the season to date, so he’s out. Still, he’s been a steady two-way presence in the middle for Boston, who has made a clear leap in the standings by virtue of adding him over the offseason. His shooting and rebounding numbers are down from what they were in Atlanta, but he’s been better at just about everything else, acting as a fulcrum for the Celtics offense and doing a little bit of everything on both ends of the floor, keeping opponents off-guard. It’s unclear whether Horford takes Boston to the next level, but having such a skilled and versatile big man certainly gives them a chance.

One Day, But Not Yet

Parker has made huge strides in the last year. He’s a remarkably efficient player, and a massive jump in his three-point percentage has come as a pleasant surprise for the Bucks. But he still needs seasoning on defense, although he has improved on that end, and being the second-best player on a .500 team isn’t good enough to get him in this year. But Parker is already really good, and should only get better. He and Giannis (and maybe Khris Middleton) should eventually become regulars in this game.

Porzingis is in a tough situation, and it’s fair to wonder if he’d be a lock if he didn’t have to yield so much to Carmelo Anthony and Derrick Rose. Porzingis’ 19.4 points and 7.4 rebounds are really solid, especially for a second-year guy being misused on a bad team, and his shooting percentages are way up from his rookie year. His potential is obviously through the roof, but his all-around game hasn’t yet developed to an All-Star level, specifically as a playmaker. It won’t be long until Porzingis becomes a staple of All-Star Weekend, but there are still several established stars he’ll have to jump to get there.

Fan votes and social media campaigns aside, Joel Embiid has a decent case for All-Stardom. The center is putting up 19.4, 7.7 rebounds, and 2.4 blocks in only 25 minutes per game and his talent is baffling for a guy coming off two years of surgeries and rehabs. Embiid really can score from anywhere on the floor—his post moves are quick and powerful, and he’s an above-average three-point shooter. Defensively, he’s played at a very high level. Opponents shoot just 43.5 percent within six feet of the rim when defended by Embiid and the Sixers are—wait for it—plus-14 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor. Plus 14! The Sixers!

But for as much talent as Embiid has, he’s tremendously unrefined, and players on a minutes restriction shouldn’t be in the All Star game. Embiid is as raw a big man as there is in the league, and he hasn’t yet learned how to really play basketball. He struggles to read defenses, making him prone to turnovers, and he hasn’t quite grasped advanced defensive concepts. That’s okay though. He’s 22 and might be the second-best prospect in the whole league. Embiid will probably be an All Star for a decade, and that stretch could start sooner rather than later. It just shouldn’t be this year.

That’s it for part one! Stay tuned for the Western Conference roster later this week.

 

Stats current through January 16, 2017.

Stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference and NBA.com.

 

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