My Somewhat Positionless All-Star Ballot
Eastern Conference Starters
Backcourt: Kyrie Irving, Kemba Walker
Frontcourt: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Kawhi Leonard, Joel Embiid
I love Bradley Beal, who’s averaging 28.5 points, 6.0 assists, 5.4 rebounds, and 2.3 steals in the 11 games since John Wall’s season ended. Choosing Kemba over him wasn’t easy. But we’re splitting hairs, and a quick statistical comparison ever-so-slightly tilts the edge to Walker, who’s also scored more points in the clutch than anyone else.
Otherwise, everything here is pretty obvious. Kyrie has been lightning in a bottle, Giannis was actually born on Krypton, Kawhi is “picking his spots” to the tune of career-high numbers in several major categories, and the Philadelphia 76ers are still atrocious whenever Embiid sits.
Eastern Conference Reserves (these are entirely position-less and include two wild-cards)
Bradley Beal, Blake Griffin, Nikola Vucevic, D’Angelo Russell, Khris Middleton, Ben Simmons, Kyle Lowry
Apologies to Victor Oladipo, Domas Sabonis, Pascal Siakam, Marcus Morris Sr., JJ Redick, Jimmy Butler, and John Collins.
It’s so hard to ignore Lowry’s on/off numbers (the Raptors look like the best team in the NBA when he’s on the floor and are the Wizards when he’s not); Griffin is having the best year of his career and might quietly be the most underrated player in the league; Russell is Brooklyn’s token representative (they’re too good to snub and his usage + high-wire shot making is too impressive to deny); Middleton has molded his game into a system that needs players like him to buy in; and Nikola Vucevic is the second coming.
Also, for the sake of transparency, this is what I wrote 24 hours before Victor Oladipo injured his knee, when Ben Simmons was my last cut: “Simmons is a rough omission and will probably make double-digit All-Star games before he retires. The internal debate I had between him, Lowry, Russell, and Middleton was never ending; I’m not positive I made the right choice. Simmons has done some incredible things this year and several teams have zero answer when he’s zipping coast to coast. But the Sixers still have a negative point differential whenever he’s on the court without Embiid, something that can’t be said about Lowry’s partnership with Kawhi or even Middleton’s with Giannis. And if Simmons and Russell swapped teams tomorrow, is it obvious which one would improve, or be more potent in the playoffs? I won’t get into the broken jumper, but of all the players on this list Simmons remains the easiest to gameplan off the floor. His defensive versatility is real, but his positive impact on that end is still more theoretical than consistently realized, and his turnover rate is nearly higher than his usage percentage.”
With Oladipo out, Simmons slides right in and allows me to sleep easier at night.
Western Conference Starters
Backcourt: Steph Curry, James Harden
Frontcourt: LeBron James, Paul George, Kevin Durant
Apologies to Nikola Jokic and Anthony Davis (the latter of whom might get in over Paul George if not for this weird finger injury), but I do not care how much time LeBron James has missed. Sue me.
I know All-Star slots don't necessarily align with any one player's team-specific value, but the Los Angeles Lakers were 9th in net rating before James pulled his groin. Since, they're 22nd with the NBA's fifth-worst offense. And it's not like he's missed half the season, either. As of this writing he's only missed 14 games and is still the best player alive (sorry Harden), so whatever. He's averaging 27, eight, and seven with an extremely questionable supporting cast. LeBron's scoring and rebound averages per 36 minutes are also the highest of his damn career. There's slightly more emotion than logic involved in this choice, but, again, I do not care. It's LeBron. He's a starter.
Western Conference Reserves
Nikola Jokic, Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Karl-Anthony Towns, LaMarcus Aldridge, Rudy Gobert, Tobias Harris
I really wanted to find a spot for Jrue Holiday and/or Donovan Mitchell, but each has been too inconsistent/on a struggling team. Harris gets the slightest nod over those two, Russell Westbrook, Klay Thompson, DeMar DeRozan, Buddy Hield, Luka Doncic, and *quietly weeps* Mike Conley.
The Beauty of Dame, CJ, and Curry
Terry Stotts’s offense is never more gorgeous than when Dame Lillard, C.J. McCollum, and Seth Curry share the floor. Even though C.J. is having a down year behind the arc, all are severely feared deep threats that can shoot on the move and hold an entire defense’s attention off the ball. The way they move in Stotts’s system, when everything is timed just right, can be basketball ballet.
They rarely play together, but Portland has outscored opponents by 18 points per 100 possessions with a scintillating attack that hasn’t even shot it very well, per Cleaning the Glass, when they do. That’s weird—outside of Golden State, there probably isn’t a more reputable trio of shooters on any roster in the league—but a small sample does them no favors, and nothing crystallizes their aesthetic and functional appeal more than this play from Tuesday night’s loss against the Oklahoma City Thunder, when Portland’s signature flare screens synced perfectly with action on the weak-side that could not be ignored.
The result isn’t exactly what the Blazers want, but redo that play ten times and Lillard either makes that dunk, draws a foul, or hits a wide-open Meyers Leonard on a dump off. Dame, C.J., and Curry just cycle off screens around the perimeter; it’s read-and-react basketball five or six times in a 20-second span, with OKC’s defenders ultimately dictating what type of shot the Blazers are going to get. The action climaxes when McCollum races past Meyers Leonard’s baseline screen at the exact same moment Lillard loops around Russell Westbrook and Steven Adams into the clear.
It’s well defended by a great defense, but Portland really makes them earn this stop. Watch Jerami Grant’s head throughout the possession. It’s extremely The Exorcist.
Is Towns Starting to Shake his Defensive Reputation?
Don’t let Minnesota’s fluttering playoff odds distract you from the fact that Karl-Anthony Towns is phenomenal. But the path for him to become the undisputed best player at his position is still on defense, where he’s still viewed as an undisciplined anchor that unmoors itself at random. There are games where foul trouble glues him to the bench, and those issues tend to force Towns into thinking his way through defensive possessions that the Timberwolves need him to instinctually glide through. He toggles between stretches where he’s either too aggressive and fouls a bunch or too sheepish and afraid of foul trouble.
His on/off numbers still aren’t great on that end, and even though last year’s were positive for the first time in his career, Minnesota sucked on defense when he played without Jimmy Butler.
But all is not hopeless and not everything is Towns’s fault. Before he was let go, Tom Thibodeau would sometimes have his best player hedge pick-and-rolls, a strategy that belongs in a different decade. And with Robert Covington injured, Ryan Saunders has resorted to lineups that have Anthony Tolliver defending wings (he matched up against Bryn Forbes for a stretch earlier this week!) in weird jumbo lineups that switch a bunch but remain discombobulated.
There are situations where Towns, like any other rim protector, is at the mercy of defensive miscues made by young teammates. When everyone else does their job, he tends to do his. When they don’t, he looks bad. A good example came in a recent win over the New Orleans Pelicans, where Holiday and AD spent crunch time running Spanish pick-and-roll after Spanish pick-and-roll.
Towns’s head is on a swivel and he does a fine enough job anticipating the back screen, but Tyus Jones comes up on the wrong side, which lets Holiday smash through for an easy two-handed dunk. Here’s what happened a few plays later, when Jones corrects his mistake and switches on Holiday.
Here’s another example from Tuesday night’s win over the Phoenix Suns, where Towns meets Devin Booker at the point of attack to force a pass back to Dragan Bender. So far, so good. But things quickly fall apart when Andrew Wiggins makes two questionable decisions in a row. First, he stunts too far off Mikal Bridges in the corner. Then, Bender—who’s 3-for-25 from deep this season—lifts him in the air with a pump fake. When Towns initially sees how far Wiggins has rotated off Bridges, he takes off for the opposite corner, but when Bender puts the ball on the floor to drive past Wiggins, he’s forced to cut him off. Wiggins is then two steps late contesting Bridges in the corner.
Saunders has Towns doing a bit more stuff than Thibodeau did. He’ll trap and recover against threatening ball-handlers and freely switch onto wings (something they’ve done more and more since Covington went down), while also dropping into a more conservative coverage that forces him to defend his man and the ball-handler. It’s a guessing game even the most astute defenders struggle with, and sometimes Towns will take himself out of the play by contesting a pull-up jumper that then allows his man to grab the offensive rebound. But he looks more and more comfortable making those decisions without major hesitation.
Towns is only 23 years old. He still has a lot to learn, and all signs of defensive growth deserve a tsunami siren. In their last 15 games, the Timberwolves’s defensive rating ranks top-3 with Towns on the court. That includes an absolute shellacking against Butler’s Philadelphia 76ers while opposing three-point shooters are generally nailing a crap ton of their wide-open looks.
Opponents are shooting the same percentage at the rim vs. Towns as they have against Rudy Gobert this season, and even though his feet don’t quite glide on the perimeter as most projected they would after his rookie season, Towns’s incremental baby steps are in the right direction. He works his ass off and knows where he’s supposed to be more often than not.
Not all his deficiencies can be explained by his surroundings, but it’d be interesting to see how he’d look in a less-rickety system, complemented by more obedient defenders. For now, he’s making the most of a situation that can’t look easy. And his trajectory on that side of the ball looks as optimistic as it has in a very long time.
Stop Burying Andre Iguodala
Bad news, everyone associated with the NBA except those employed by the Golden State Warriors: Andre Iguodala is still good! This might be an anecdotal straw-man argument, but people usually say his name with respectful restrain: Iguodala is *dramatically lowers voice* saving it for the playoffs. This is unnecessary.
Yes, his usage and minutes are at a career low, but that feels more like a smart organizational mandate than a signal of physical deterioration. Lets semi-ignore numbers for a moment, because on a team that now starts five All-Stars and has been to four straight NBA Finals, what’s more meaningful than regular-season production is how Iguodala looks.
It’s officially normal to think he's 25 instead of 35 (his birthday is in a few days). That springy, levitating samurai athleticism has Iguodala still doing chin-ups on the rim and cramming lobs in transition. Every night, he shoves Father Time into a locker. (A higher percentage of his shots are dunks right now than in all but three previous seasons—including when he was 21 and 22 years old—and he’s shooting a career-best 83.6 percent within three feet of the rim.)
Iguodala packs a punch when he’s on the floor. He makes the most of his playing time, unloading enough energy to pressure ball-handlers who weren’t alive when he was a teenager and denying ball reversals that force the offense to abort their first option. That stuff matters. He boxes out, recovers loose balls at a higher rate than any of his teammates, and still excels in his role as a critical cog in Golden State's OG Death Lineup, which is no longer getting steamrolled on defense.
Stats are relevant, and nobody is saying someone who averages 5.6 points per game should win Sixth Man of the Year, but whenever you see Iguodala ferociously murder a basketball in a situation where he can softly lay it up, it feels particularly significant.
A decent chunk of his offensive worth comes down to the ability to make open threes, but in spots where he could settle for the shot defenses hope he’ll take, Iguodala often decides to put his foot on the gas instead. Look at this drive and kick against Nikola Jokic’s soft closeout:
This guy is still very good, numbers and age be damned. And for anyone still worried about Golden State’s depth, interest, or general odds to win a third title in four years, please stop. If the Warriors are a Great White shark, those long sequences when Iguodala steps out of a time machine are the exact moment its jaw opens wide.
What if Patrick Patterson Were Patrick Patterson again?
Every time I watch the Oklahoma City Thunder I’m almost immediately bummed out by their need for outside shooting. The trade deadline may lessen this problem but it’s unlikely even Sam Presti can solve it. The Thunder are here to win right now, but don’t have any attractive assets to offer that won’t fundamentally alter their “get stops and push” identity. But in an alternate universe, one where Patrick Patterson isn’t one of the league’s blandest rotation players, what does this team look like?
It’s a depressing “what if” that allows us to wonder if these Thunder could hang with the Golden State Warriors in a playoff series. The answer is still probably not, but even with tempered expectations heading into this season, nobody could’ve expected Patterson (who’s only 29) to average 4.1 points per game with a field goal percentage that’s below 38 percent. Despite making eight of his last 11 threes, he isn’t anything close to the Sixth Man of the Year candidate that helped propel the Toronto Raptors.
The Thunder are outscored by 4.7 points per 100 possessions with Patterson on the court and a team-high plus-8.5 points per 100 possessions when he sits. The preseason debate over whether him or Grant should start feels like ancient history. But what if Patterson could stretch the floor and tweak opposing ball-handlers in OKC’s aggressive defensive system? What if he could post-up on switches and draw fouls and function at the four among the other four starters without OKC falling apart?
It feels highly unlikely Patterson ever moves as well as he once did, but how likely is it for his shot to come around at some point this season? Can he get hot in the playoffs? Injuries are the worst, and it’d be an awesome story if Patterson were able to resurrect his former self at some point over the next couple months. The Thunder could seriously use that player.
All Eyes On Okafor
A couple bullet points about Jahlil Okafor, who went from ghost to New Orleans’s extremely relevant starting center as Anthony Davis works his way back from a finger injury that may or may not keep him off the court for a while.
• Since they lost to the Milwaukee Bucks on December 19 (more or less his entrance into the regular rotation), the Pelicans have scored 113.9 points per 100 possessions in Okafor’s 236 minutes. That’s almost 20 points higher than his previous career-high in offensive rating. The eye test backs these numbers up. He’s playing hard and looks like an increasingly explosive offensive force—someone who can create his own shot with ease against single coverage. Only 36.9 percent of Okafor’s baskets have been assisted, which is by far the lowest among all centers in the league. (It’s also lower than Kyrie Irving and Zach LaVine.) Again, frequent put-back opportunities help, but he’s so smooth attacking from the mid-post, rip-and-going his defender baseline with a first step he didn’t have when he first entered the NBA.
• After AD, Okafor is easily New Orleans’s best rim protector. According to NBA.com, opponents are only shooting 42.6 percent at the basket when he’s guarding it. That’s obviously unsustainable and stripped from a small sample size, but this version of Okafor is completely different from the one who took up space in Philadelphia. He’s more lean, moves well laterally, and the Pelicans’s defensive rating is never better than when he’s on the court.
Opposing shot percentages at the rim are generally way down when he’s on the floor, per Cleaning the Glass. This is all something to keep an eye on. If Okafor can be a league-average defender who beasts on post-ups and putbacks, that’s definitely someone who deserves minutes. And for the next few weeks/months, the Pelicans may need everything he has to offer.