Against any sense of rational thought, the NBA is going to plow ahead with its All-Star Game, in Atlanta, in the middle of a pandemic. As much as I may not agree with the game taking place, and from the sound of it either do the players, now is the time for NBA writers around the country get to put on their judging caps and vote for their All-Stars. As I haven’t really chimed in on the season so far, I thought this would be a good time as any to share my thoughts on some of the league’s best players as we head into the break. For time’s sake I’m going to keep this to just who I think should be the All-Star starters, next week I may write a Part 2 where I talk about the benches.
Just for reference here is where the fan vote stands after the second round of ballots has been tallied.
Eastern Conference All-Star Starters
G — Kyrie Irving
There’s an argument to be made that Irving does not deserve to be an All-Star starter due to his midseason sabbatical, but Kyrie has played in as many games (18) as Kevin Durant, and there is no denying his numbers. This has been far the most efficient year of Irving’s career, his true shooting number is .635, by far the best of his career. Of course having Kevin Durant and James Harden playing alongside you will make for some easier shots, but Irving is averaging 27.9 PPG, a career best in year 10 and looks just as dangerous as ever. Harden may be the more dynamic player, and in a vacuum would probably be deserving of this spot, but the way he started the season by basically going on a reverse hunger strike while trying to get out of Houston disqualified him for a starter spot in my eyes.
G — Bradley Beal
Free Bradley Beal!
When Beal signed a two year contract extension with the Wiz during the offseason I’m sure he did not expect the team to go nuclear by trading for Russell Westbrook, only to see the team chemistry explode. Washington is tied with the Minnesota Timberwolves for the least amount of wins in the league and have the worst defense by a large margin. Westbrook has completely fallen off a cliff when it comes to his shooting (42%). It’s a shame because offensively Beal is having the best year of his career. He’s currently leading the league in scoring at 32.8 PPG. His win shares per 48 minutes is also at a career high, and yet… One can only hope that the Wizards finally decide to blow this team up and get what they can for Beal in the trade market. He deserves to play for a contender.
F — Kevin Durant
Looking back it was silly to be nervous about Durant returning after 18 months from an Achilles injury. The Slim Reaper has been dominant to start the year. His jump shot still looks as inevitable as it ever has. He’s averaging 29.5 PPG in 35 minutes. His shooting splits are insane He’s shooting .52% from the field, 45% from three and 87% from the free throw line. As Tom Haberstroh pointed out in an excellent column recently, KD has been playing at a faster pace than he ever has, scoring 6.5 PPG in transition on an offense that takes just 8.7 seconds to get a shot up after a defensive rebound. Durant is also the only player holding the Nets defense even somewhat together, his ability to guard multiple positions will be the key factor in deciding how far Brooklyn goes in the playoffs.
F — Giannis Antetokounmpo
Giannis is starting to hit the point in his Hall of Fame career in which it starts to become easy to overlook his dominance. There comes a point when the stats get so good it just makes one’s eyes want to glaze over. No player should be able to average 28 PPG, 11.2 RPG, 5.6 APG, along with a block and a steal every night. It gets to a point where the numbers just become noise, and even though they are a bit lower than they were in his back-to-back MVP seasons, his play still has the Bucks at the top of league in points per game. He’s in the top 10 in defensive win shares, and while the Bucks haven’t been as dominant as they have been in the past defensively, they are still the second best team in point differential, just behind the Jazz. It’s scary to think that in this season, for as dominant as he has been, Giannis seems to be learning to coast when he can. He knows that his legacy will be judged by how the Bucks perform in the playoffs over the next four years. Even ifthe Greek Freak is playing in fourth gear right now, it still puts him ahead of all but a handful of players in this league.
F — Joel Embiid
Speaking of players who have been accused of coasting during the regular season, here we have Joel Embiid, who in his 5th year has seemingly put it all together. Embiid is third in the league in total win shares, trailing just Nikola Jokic. He’s averaging 29 a night on 54.5% shooting, leads the league in PER (31.1) by a wide margin, and is anchoring one of the league’s best defenses. There was a lot of talk about the 76ers moving Ben Simmons in the offseason, but now it seems crazy in retrospect. There may not be a better defensive one-two punch in the league. As dominant as the Nets can look offensively, and as dangerous the Bucks are with their two time MVP, there is not a team more complete in the Eastern Conference than the 76ers. It looks like the road to the finals will be going through Philly, and Joel Embiid.
Western Conference All-Star Starters
G — Steph Curry
I’m not sure there has been a storyline that has made me happier this season than the return of Steph Curry SuperNova. When Klay Thompson suffered that devastating Achilles tear in the offseason it felt like the end of the Warriors dynasty. Well it seems like Curry didn’t get that memo. After a rough start the two time MVP has been setting the league on fire. He’s averaging 30 PPG on a .490/.435/.930 shooting line. In the six games the Warriors have played in February he’s averaging 37.8 PPG while shooting the three at over 50%. It’s not just that Curry has been making every shot in sight, it’s how he’s been even getting the shots off that’s so mind blowing. Other teams are treating him like an inverse version of prime Shaquile O’neal. It’s crazy the way he warps an opposing defense just by being around the basketball. The Warriors are currently sitting in the eighth seed in the Western Conference, and will have to scrap for every win they get. This should make all of us NBA fanatics happy, because we are going to get to see Steph at the full extent of his considerable powers for the rest of the year. Curry is absolutely in the conversation for MVP.
G — Damian Lillard
To call Damian Lillard the poor man’s Steph Curry would probably be apt, and yet somehow too dismissive of one of the best shotmakers we’ve ever seen. Lillard is ahead of Curry in stats like PER and win shares/48 minutes. Much like Curry, Lillard has had to carry his squad in the face of injuries. Both CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic have been out for the Blazers since mid-January, and yet they are 8–6 over that span and are still in fifth place in the Western Conference meat grinder. I had a hard time choosing between Lillard and Luka Doncic for this spot, but I had to give Dame extra credit for keeping his team in the hunt in the Western Conference while the Mavericks are on the outside looking in. Plus the idea of seeing Steph and Dame anchoring a backcourt in an All-Star Game just fills me with joy. Just think of how many logo threes we could see attempted.
F — LeBron James
There really is no end in sight for the best player in the league. You could forgive James for taking a month or two off after leading the Lakers to a title in last year’s bubble, but if anything you could argue The King has been better in 2021 than he has been in years. James currently leads the legue in defensive win shares, which does not seem like a thing a 36 year old coming off the shortest offseason in NBA history should be capable of. The Lakers currently have the second best defense in the league, only allowing their opponents to score 105.2 points a night. Even with Anthony Davis missing games the Lakers still have the second best record in the league at 21–6, and have won eight of their last ten games. James is still as prolific as ever on offense putting up 25.6 PPG/7.4 APG/ 8 RPG, but it’s his play on defense that has me shaking my head. This shouldn’t be possible.
F — Kawhi Leonard
You could make a very good argument that Paul George deserves this spot among the All-Star starters. George and Kawhi Leonard have fairly similar numbers. George is scoring 24.4 PPG on a .508/.478/.905 shooting line. It doesn’t get much better than that. Compare that to Leonard averaging 26.7 PPG on .513/.389/.879 splits and it seems like a toss-up. George also has slight advantages in rebounding and assists averages, but the on/off court numbers make a compelling case for Kawhi. Leonard is eighth in the league in box plus/minus (an estimated average points per game a player contributes to a team over an average player) while George is 12th. The Klaw is also way ahead of George in numbers like defensive win shares and defensive plus/minus. Kawhi is one of the most effecitent players in the leauge on offense, and at his best can be the the game’s best defender. That’s why he gets my vote here.
F — Nikola Jokic
Last but certainly not least we have the most unique player in the NBA. We’ve never had a seven foot (official height 6’11”), 284lb player who could completely control the flow of a game like Jokic. The Joker is currently leading the league in the following categories per basketball-reference.com: offensive win shares, win shares, win shares per 48 minutes, box plus/minus, offensive box plus/minus and value over replacement player. His stat line is, well, it’s terrifying. This year the big man is averaging 26.7 PPG, 11.3 RPG, and 8.6 APG while shooting 56% from the floor and 39% from three! It doesn’t matter where he is on the floor on offense — the post, at the elbow, or beyond the arch — he’s in complete control. In a time in which players are starting to bend the rules of what we thought were possible in the game of basketball, Jokic seems to understand that there is no spoon. He’s the embodiment of everything this league can be, and my favorite player to watch.