The NBA announced starters for the All-Star Game late last week and will release the coaches’ picks for reserves on Thursday. I went through this exercise with our Josh Robbins three weeks ago, but the landscape has shifted since then. Additionally, the selection of the starters now pins all the attention on the seven reserve picks from each conference.
The biggest debate will be how much we weigh how “good” somebody is versus how much they’ve been available to play. There is no correct answer here, but the underlying question I always ask myself is, “How will this look in July after a full season has been played?” If a guy ends up playing 65 games at an All-NBA level, let’s not freak out because he missed three weeks in December. If it’s 45 games, then we’re having a different conversation.
Too often, it seems like early injuries end up overvalued in the selection process; we’ll see if that happens this year. Particularly in the West, this is a crucial debate. Players such as Devin Booker, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard and Zion Williamson have only played a bit more than half their team’s games; however, each will still likely end the season having played in the 50 to 60 range. Is that enough to put them ahead of players who are tracking closer to 80-game campaigns such as Domantas Sabonis, Anthony Edwards and Lauri Markkanen?
With Williamson somewhat unexpectedly being voted a starter ahead of Davis — he’d only played 92 more minutes when the voting was announced, is still out of the lineup and, while great, has not had the statistical season Davis has had — that debate shifts to the reserve choices, particularly the two frontcourt reserves in the West.
To wit, do we take Markkanen over Leonard when we know Leonard is a better player? On the other hand, Leonard has played barely half as many minutes, and we can reasonably expect him to miss more time (the Clippers predictably sat him in the back-to-back in Cleveland on Sunday, for instance, and still have four more left.) A similar debate involves Davis, who has only played 52 minutes more than Leonard as of Monday afternoon.
At the very least, three backcourt reserve spots in the West are obvious: Ja Morant, Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Damian Lillard. After that, we get into a gray area. For me, the combination of durability and production from Sabonis and Markkanen is too impressive to ignore, so they’re my next two picks.
That leaves two spots open. From the durability club, the next-best candidates are De’Aaron Fox and Edwards; I don’t think a reasonable person would choose either over the best of the half-season club (Leonard, Davis or Booker) to start a playoff series. Unlike Sabonis and Markkanen, Fox’s and Edwards’ 2022-23 half-season performances haven’t been quite so overwhelming for me to overlook that. Paul George is somewhere between the two poles; he’s missed games and hasn’t quite been his elite self when he’s played.
You can make a case I should have taken Booker here over Markkanen too, but he ends up as my last cut.
My West Reserves: Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Thunder; Ja Morant, Grizzlies; Damian Lillard, Blazers; Domantas Sabonis, Kings; Lauri Markkanen, Jazz; Anthony Davis, Lakers; Kawhi Leonard, Clippers
The East is easier because there are fewer “minutes versus availability” debates but harder because there are so many All-Star-caliber players to choose from.
Let’s start with the low-hanging fruit: Joel Embiid, Jimmy Butler and Tyrese Haliburton. Everything after that in the East is hard, but this is not.
I don’t think Jaylen Brown’s case is nearly as ironclad as everyone seems to think; history says two Celtics will probably be selected given their record, but I’m not sure his resume of him is much better than that of, say, Pascal Siakam, James Harden or Julius Randle.
Ultimately, the best thing going for Brown is being listed as a guard on the ballot. We have to take another to join Haliburton, and Brown has played 13 games and 442 more minutes than Harden. (DeMar DeRozan, still listed as a guard despite not having played there since the Garfield administration, would be another possibility.)
That leaves three spots to divvy up among Siakam, Randle, Harden, DeRozan, Bam Adebayo and Jrue Holiday.
Really? The give-ups. Uncles. I have no great way of distinguishing among these players. If you want to flame me in the comments for not picking your guy, I mean, there’s 15 All-Stars for a 12-man team. Let me try anyway.
First, I can’t leave Randle out when he’s third in the league in minutes and 19th in BPM. This isn’t the fluke 3-point year of two seasons ago either. Sure, he and Siakam might be birds of a feather as high-volume innings-eaters who don’t necessarily scale up to leading-man roles on elite teams, but that latter clause also describes 98 percent of the league. Randle is in.
Adebayo has to make it too. People are going to whine about two Heat players when they’re in sixth in the East, but have you seen the rest of this roster? I have slight misgivings: Adebayo plays the least valuable position, his defense has not quite been at the fearsome level of the last two seasons, and his steady diet of isos into midrange pull-ups is perhaps not the most elegant offense. But this feels like the floor for him, and it’s still arguably better than anyone else available.
DeRozan or Siakam? DeRozan has played five more games, his team has been slightly less depressing (levels, folks) and, even while hardly ever shooting 3s, he’s been a notch higher efficiency-wise (60.3 percent true shooting versus 56.5 for Siakam). Apologies to Harden, who hasn’t been healthy enough (32 games) and hasn’t defended enough (when not seated)Siakam and Holiday, who somehow has only made one All-Star team in the league’s longest-running travesty.
My East Reserves: Joel Embiid, Sixers; Jimmy Butler, Heat; Tyrese Haliburton, Pacers; Jaylen Brown, Celtics; Julius Randle, Knicks; Bam Adebayo, Heat; DeMar DeRozan, Bulls
(Top photo of Domantas Sabonis and Bam Adebayo: Darren Yamashita / USA Today)