NBA 70th All-Star Game
The 2021 NBA All-Star Game is almost here, and trying to predict who will and won’t make the rosters is still proving to be a challenge. Will the injury to Anthony Davis allow for a first-time All-Star in the West? Will the Brooklyn Nets‘ acquisition of James Harden mean that either he or Kyrie Irving won’t make the team?
Our panel of experts debate which players are worthy starters and reserves, which conference will have the better All-Star roster and which players can claim the most underappreciated cases to play in Atlanta.
NBA All-Star debate: Starters, reserves and East vs. West
Tim Bontemps: Kevin Durant and James Harden entering the picture in the Eastern Conference has deepened the talent pool for potential East All-Star selections, with there being 20 or more players legitimately deserving consideration. There’s going to be a bunch of unhappy players — all of whom have a credible case for being selected.
Andrew Lopez: Who gets the starting nod in the Western Conference backcourt? Stephen Curry is up to his old shenanigans and is likely to lock down one spot. But who gets the other one? Is it Damian Lillard? Is it Luka Doncic? Do the 23-5 Utah Jazz get rewarded with Donovan Mitchell in the starting lineup?
Bobby Marks: The two wild-card spots in the East. If the coaches go the route of selecting two guards (Zach LaVine and Ben Simmons, for example), a player such as Julius Randle or Nikola Vucevic could get squeezed out of a selection. Don’t forget that only three frontcourt players would then be picked, and it could come down to Khris Middleton, Jayson Tatum, Bam Adebayo, Domantas Sabonis, Gordon Hayward, Randle and Vucevic for those three spots.
Kevin Pelton: Whether any players left out blame their team’s record. For the most part, the debates on the last few spots have a short shelf life. Fast starts fade and deserving players eventually find their way on the roster (with one notable exception in Mike Conley; more on that in a moment). If the lack of recognition causes a player to begin thinking about changing teams, that has lasting impact.
Marc Spears: Curious to see if Trae Young will make his second All-Star appearance in Atlanta. The Hawks’ injury woes have played a significant role in their struggles, but Young is still earning strong scoring numbers. I am also watching to see whether the New York Knicks can get an All-Star nod in deserving and well-rounded forward Randle. LaVine is very deserving, as well.
Which intrasquad All-Star selection debate do you find most compelling?
Spears: The Jazz definitely deserve two All-Stars, and I will be shocked if they do not get that. Brooklyn will certainly have three All-Stars. Philadelphia’s elite record should allow it to see three All-Stars, as well. While the Nets’ popular superstars will aid their no-brainer selections, records should play a role in determining the other available spots on teams deserving of more than one. I can’t see a struggling Washington team getting two All-Stars, and Bradley Beal appears to be a lock. So Russell Westbrook will likely be the odd man out.
Bontemps: Who the second All-Star for the Jazz should be. Rudy Gobert is the clear first choice, as he is the engine that drives that team at both ends of the floor. But Conley, who has yet to make an All-Star team in his career, has arguably been better than Mitchell so far. Conley’s recent hamstring injury will likely tip the scales in Mitchell’s favor, but it’s a far more compelling debate than the average fan might think.
Lopez: In Phoenix, it’s a matter of which guard ends up getting the nod: Chris Paul or Devin Booker. Booker’s scoring is down — as are his rebounding and assist numbers — but his efficiency is up this season playing alongside the Point God. Meanwhile, as he did with Oklahoma City last season, Paul has been a steadying force for the entire roster. With Paul, Phoenix is competing for home-court advantage.
Pelton: The Sixers. I don’t think Philadelphia’s East-leading record should automatically merit two All-Stars given what a large role Joel Embiid has played in the 76ers’ success. But if East coaches decide they must take a second Philadelphia player, I think Ben Simmons’ defense and track record make him a better choice than the higher-scoring Tobias Harris.
Marks: It would be too bad if in the year Phoenix is set to break its playoff drought, neither Chris Paul nor Devin Booker are selected to the All-Star Game. That could certainly be the case if the Western Conference coaches select Paul George as a guard and the Utah backcourt of Mike Conley and Donovan Mitchell are voted in.
Which Eastern Conference player has the most underappreciated All-Star case?
Pelton:Fred VanVleet, whose impact has been greater than his solid but unspectacular counting stats (19.9 points per game, 6.6 assists per game) imply. As I noted on Twitter last week, there’s broad consensus about value metrics that incorporate on/off data that VanVleet has been one of the league’s 10 most valuable players so far. It’s not VanVleet’s fault the Raptors have struggled.
Spears: Tobias Harris. What the Sixers forward does is often overshadowed by two expected All-Stars in early MVP candidate Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons with much louder games and bigger names. For Harris to be averaging about 20 points, seven rebounds and three assists alongside that duo is extremely impressive.
Bontemps: I know he plays for the Charlotte Hornets, but Gordon Hayward has received little attention for what has been a terrific season. He is averaging over 22 points and nearly four assists per game for a Hornets team that is both really fun to watch and exceeding expectations, and is pushing close to going 50-40-90 for the season.
Lopez: It seems like everyone keeps waiting for the slide from Julius Randle, but it doesn’t appear to be happening anytime soon. Randle has found a home in New York Knicks coach Tom Thibodeau’s offense, averaging career highs in points (23.1), rebounds (11.0), assists (5.6), three-point rate (40.6%) and free throw rate (80.2%).
Marks: The doubters will say that Zach LaVine is not worthy because he plays on a Chicago Bulls team that is below .500 and his on-court play does not impact winning, but those arguments should be tossed. Now in his seventh season and playing for his sixth head coach, LaVine has gone on to average 28.2 points on 51.5% from the field and 43.1% from 3. He has scored 30-plus points in 12 games this season.
Which Western Conference player has the most underappreciated All-Star case?
Marks:DeMar DeRozan has been the ultimate team-first player, sacrificing individual stats in a contract year for team success. DeRozan has been instrumental with the development of the Spurs’ young players — Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson and Lonnie Walker IV. Although his field goal attempts are the second lowest in his career, DeRozan has still managed to average 20 points per game for a San Antonio team that is in playoff contention.
Pelton: Mike Conley, the exception to the rule about deserving players I mentioned before. At 33, this is perhaps Conley’s last real chance to avoid becoming the best player never to make an All-Star team. Those same value metrics suggest Conley has been the most important force behind Utah’s league-leading start. Despite his recent hamstring injury, he is a deserving All-Star.
Spears: De’Aaron Fox has proved he is worthy of being an All-Star on a Sacramento Kings squad with an underwhelming roster. The Kings’ losing record would be the reason for him not making it, but that’s not on him.
Bontemps: DeRozan has been terrific this season for a Spurs team that has been exceedingly fun to watch. Playing as a point forward most of the time, DeRozan has a spectacular assist-to-turnover ratio of more than 4-to-1 (while averaging a career-high 6.9 assists), is taking a couple of 3s per game and has made a bunch of huge clutch baskets for an overachieving Spurs team in the middle of the West playoff chase. I don’t think he’ll make it, but he deserves a close look by the coaches for a reserve spot.
Lopez: While Sacramento’s defensive numbers could be held against him, Fox would be fun to watch in the All-Star Game. After a slow start to the year, Fox is averaging 27.7 points and 8.4 assists over his past 13 games. His speedy style of play is tailor-made for this midseason exhibition.
East vs. West: Which team will end up with the better squad?
Lopez: The East. With Anthony Davis likely to miss the All-Star Game and LeBron James being among those who seem less than enthused that the game is being played, it feels like the East will have the better overall squad this season.
Pelton: Although the East has made huge strides, I still think the West has slightly more talent at the top, when you consider that one player from the group of guards Stephen Curry, Luka Doncic and Damian Lillard will come off the West bench. Any of the three would be a clear starter in the East.
Spears: It’s impossible to say because of the uncertainty of who will be available, but if the East can field a healthy squad with the likes of Kevin Durant, Giannis Antetokounmpo, James Harden and Joel Embiid? Plus likely reserves Jimmy Butler, Bradley Beal and Jayson Tatum? With all due respect to LeBron, Curry and the West … good luck.
Bontemps: I think I’d give the nod to the Eastern Conference. Davis likely won’t make it for the West, which is a blow. And while it isn’t the first thing people think about in an All-Star Game, the East’s size across the board — with a likely starting frontcourt of Durant, Antetokounmpo and Embiid, backed up by the likes of Khris Middleton, Bam Adebayo and Tatum — gives it a bit of an edge. Personally, I’d take either side and be pretty happy with the outcome.
Marks: The Eastern Conference — better known as Team Brooklyn. The defections of Durant and Harden to the East along with a possible MVP in Embiid give it a slight edge for now. Plus, the East has the back-to-back MVP in Antetokounmpo and the leading scorer in Beal.