First-time NBA All-Star candidates: Running down potential nominees
How many fresh faces will be heading to Toronto for the 2016 NBA All-Star Game?
Over the last decade, roughly five players per year are selected as first-time All-Stars. In recent years, thanks to back-to-back runs of poor injury luck, that number jumped to six (in 2014) and seven (in 2015). So far this season, though, the collective health of the league’s established stars has held strong: while Kyrie Irving has yet to return from a knee injury, the rest of the 2015 All-Star class is in great shape.
The 2016 All-Star voting process officially opened on Thursday, and this looks like a particularly difficult year for newcomers to get into the mix. In the East, 2014 All-Stars Paul George and Kevin Love look poised to return to the showcase after missing out last season. In the West, Kobe Bryant threatens to occupy a starting spot during his farewell tour, while aging stars Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki have played well enough to hang on for another year.
Still, there will be the opportunity for new blood. It’s hard to imagine Atlanta will land four All-Stars, as it did in 2015. LaMarcus Aldridge’s numbers have taken a significant step back in San Antonio, and he’ll need to compete with two of his new teammates to land a spot. Klay Thompson, Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol have all dipped statistically, while both John Wall and Damian Lillard are playing for teams that have slipped in the standings compared to last year.
Which rising stars are pushing to claim one of those spaces? How many stand a legitimate chance of hearing their name called during the first NBA All-Star Game to be played outside the USA?
Let’s take an early look. It’s worth noting that a lot can change between now and the end of the voting period in mid-January.
Note: All stats and rankings through Dec. 9.
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Leonard has been on SI.com’s preseason All-Star watch lists dating back to 2013–14, but early-season injury issues got in the way in each of the past two seasons. Earlier this week, SI.com tabbed Leonard as a top-three MVP candidate and the Defensive Player of the Year through the first quarter of the season, and his path to his first All-Star Game looks completely clear.
There are “hard” and “soft” reasons to consider Leonard a shoo-in. He’s the best player on the league’s second-best team, he’s one of the top statistical performers league-wide, he’s a complete player averaging more than 20 points a game, he’s “due,” and he has zero red flags that will stop the coaches from voting him in as a reserve.
That last point is important, as Leonard will have his hands full beating out the likes of Kevin Durant, Kobe Bryant, Blake Griffin and Anthony Davis for a starting spot in the fan voting contest. There is some intrigue about which of San Antonio’s three headliners—Leonard, Aldridge and Tim Duncan—will get voted in. If the Spurs maintain their standing as “the best team outside the Bay Area,” they should be able to land two spots. At this point, those two spots would go to Leonard and Duncan, who have outperformed Aldridge in the major advanced stats (Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, Real Plus Minus). If there’s only room for one Spurs player, it should be Leonard, who ranks in the top five in PER, Win Shares and RPM league-wide.
Green is arguably the biggest winner from the extra attention lavished on the Warriors during their perfect 23–0 start. He’s no longer stuck with the “best-kept secret” tag like last year, and it’s hard to remember the days—all the way back in July—when an $85 million contract extension made him a mildly polarizing figure.
Now? He’s a flat out, undisputed star. Both Win Shares and Real Plus Minus view Green as a top 10 player, and so does the eye test. His rim-protection, positional versatility, switching ability, high IQ, major motor, three-point shooting and fully unleashed play-making skills combine to make him one of the league’s most complete players and toughest matchups. Green has been such a central character to the 2015–16 season that it’s actually hard to imagine the 2016 All-Star taking place without his end-to-end fast-break forays and non-stop chatting.
If the Warriors only land two All-Stars spots, Green should join Stephen Curry, leaving Thompson out. Another likely scenario might see all three head to Toronto in recognition of Golden State’s stunning, complete dominance.
The East is clearly weeks away from sorting itself out into clean tiers. As of Thursday, the top 10 seeds are separated by just three games. That’s bad news for prognosticators trying to peg the East’s reserves, as those decisions often are influenced by team performance.
Drummond, however, should be able to emerge from the clutter and become Detroit’s first All-Star since Allen Iverson in 2009. The NBA’s leading rebounder is pulling down boards at a Dennis Rodman-like rate, he’s made significant progress in developing as a scorer, he grades out extremely well in all of the major advanced statistics, and he’s pulled the Pistons out of the gutter. What’s more, he has a strong case against the East’s other available centers: he boasts better numbers than Al Horford, Pau Gasol, Greg Monroe, or Nikola Vucevic, he plays for a better team than Brook Lopez, and he’s higher on his team’s pecking order than Hassan Whiteside.
Even though the coaches aren’t obligated to select centers, now that the ballot only designates “frontcourt” and “backcourt” selections, there should be room for Drummond on the East’s team.
In the mix…
Boston’s East-leading point differential suggests that the Celtics will be well-positioned, record-wise, to make the case that they deserve a “designated representative” when it comes time for the coaches to select the reserves. Although the calling card of Brad Stevens’ squad is its depth, Thomas is a fairly traditional All-Star candidate: he’s an exciting, ball-dominant and fan-friendly guard averaging 21 PPG while grading out well by the advanced numbers.
In previous years, Thomas hasn’t been on the All-Star map because he’s played for mediocre teams or he’s spent some or all of his time coming off the bench. Neither of those knocks really applies this year, forcing critics to turn to his defensive limitations to generate a case against him. Helping Thomas’s cause is a fairly weak East point guard crop: 2015 All-Stars Kyle Lowry and John Wall are both likely to return, but Thomas stacks up well against Jeff Teague, Reggie Jackson and Kemba Walker.
For once, Michael Jordan’s club is a surprise rather than a disappointment. The face of the Hornets’ turnaround to date has been Batum, who was acquired from Portland in an offseason trade. The French wing is enjoying a textbook bounce back season in a contract year (17 PG, 6.6 RPG, 4.7 APG), and his versatility and outside shooting have helped fuel a drastically-improved Charlotte offense.
Batum was never able to generate any real All-Star momentum in the West, but the East’s top-end talent pool just isn’t as deep. Like Paul Millsap in 2013 and Pau Gasol in 2014, Batum might find that a move from West to East helps him snag a spot. If the coaches find themselves able to choose only one Hornet, Batum deserves the nod over Kemba Walker, for now, due to the more complete nature of his game. Center Al Jefferson looks out of the mix thanks to injury issues and a five-game drug suspension.
It’s really, really hard to find room for Favors on the West’s roster. Let’s assume Bryant gets voted in. A 12-man team might look like this:
- Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul
- James Harden, Klay Thompson
- Kobe Bryant, Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard
- Blake Griffin, Draymond Green
- Tim Duncan, Anthony Davis
That roster, as good as it is, leaves out five 2015 All-Stars: Marc Gasol, Dirk Nowitzki, DeMarcus Cousins, LaMarcus Aldridge and Damian Lillard! Even if there are multiple injury replacements, as there usually are, the West’s snub talk is bound to be extra loud this season.
At the same time, Favors deserves serious consideration. SI.com dubbed Favors the league’s “most underrated player” during our annual Top 100 ranking, and he’s been better than ever this season. The 24-year-old Jazz big man is just so complete: he’s averaging career-highs across the board (17.3 PPG, 9 RPG, 1.7 APG), he aces all of the major advanced statistics and, in light of Rudy Gobert’s injury and Gordon Hayward’s so-so start, he’s been Utah’s best player this season.
Simply put, Favors will need some help—injuries to other players, a red-hot streak that sends Utah up the standings, or veterans deciding to “call in sick” rather than head to Toronto—if he’s going to squeeze in. That’s fine. He needs to be on the radar right now.
The wild card…
Porzingis represents the single juiciest storyline of the early All-Star balloting process. On merit alone, the No. 4 overall pick doesn’t deserve consideration. His numbers (14.6 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 1.9 BPG) are excellent for a rookie—with the emphasis on “for a rookie.” He’s not the Knicks’ No. 1 option, as that designation belongs to Carmelo Anthony, a perennial All-Star. New York, rejuvenated by his presence as it may be, remains outside the playoff picture and saddled with a losing record. Rookie of the Year candidate? Absolutely. Cult Hero? Most definitely. But All-Star?
Don’t dismiss the notion, at least not yet. Porzingis is a major, major wildcard when it comes to the fan voting process. Consider these factors …
- Porzingis plays in New York City. He can count on a major local voting bloc, global reach, and intense media coverage.
- Porzingis has already proven immensely popular. The New York Post reported this week that Porzingis recently ranked as high as sixth in online jersey sales. That puts him above at least 23 of last year’s 28 All-Stars.
- Porzingis is a national icon in Latvia (population: roughly 2 million). A Latvian rap song bearing his name has registered more than 800,00 views on YouTube. Remember, the NBA’s All-Star voting process allows diehard fans are allowed to vote repeatedly—day after day after day—via social media.
- Porzingis spent the last four years in Spain, home to USA Basketball’s biggest basketball rivals, the strong ACB league and a large contingent of hoop heads. Last year, Spaniards Pau Gasol and Marc Gasol were both voted in as All-Star starters. Pau received nearly 1 million votes and Marc received nearly 800,000.
- Porzingis will be listed in the East’s frontcourt section and that grouping just so happened to have the lowest barrier of entry in last year’s voting. As luck would have it, Porzingis’s teammate, Carmelo Anthony, claimed the final East frontcourt spot with 647,005 votes last year. (The East’s backcourt required more than 800,000 votes, the West’s frontcourt required more than 700,000 votes, and the West’s backcourt required 1.1 million votes).
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Now, in all likelihood, LeBron James and Paul George—two immensely-popular and well-established MVP-type talents—will fill two of the East’s frontcourt spots. That leaves Anthony, Porzingis, Pau Gasol, Chris Bosh, Kevin Love, and others to fight it out for the final spot.
There’s one obvious precedent looming over this: former Knicks guard Jeremy Lin, who took the basketball world by storm during the 2011–12 season. “Linsanity” was just a bit late that year: his big push didn’t come until February, when the voting process was already complete. Even though he left New York for Houston that summer and saw his production taper off a bit, Lin was very nearly voted as a starter for the West’s 2013 All-Star team. In fact, Chris Paul beat him out by roughly 45,000 votes, a small fraction of the 929,155 votes that the Clippers guard received that year.
Maybe Anthony, whose vote total was depressed last year due to New York’s miserable season and ongoing knee problems, will get back to his earlier tallies (he received nearly 1 million votes in 2014 and 1.46 million votes in 2013). But maybe, just maybe, Porzingis and his cult following find a way to make this interesting.
In case you're curious: Tim Duncan (1998), Yao Ming (2003) and Blake Griffin (2011) are the only rookies to make the All-Star Game since 1996. Yao was the only one of those three to be voted in as a starter. China's most famous basketball icon netted more than 1.28 million votes with Porzingis-esque rookie stats (13 PPG and 8.1 RPG before the break).
Reggie Jackson, Pistons: It’s hard to envision Detroit landing two All-Stars unless they make a big move up the standings. Jackson’s per-game numbers are gaudy but Drummond is better relative to his positional competition and is therefore more deserving.
Kemba Walker, Hornets: The exact same logic concerning Jackson applies to Walker as well. While Walker is having his best year from an efficiency standpoint, Batum makes a more compelling all-around case.
Bradley Beal, Wizards: Washington’s early-season struggles will make it hard for Beal to accompany Wall to Toronto. Given his age (22) and natural scoring ability (20 PPG), there’s plenty of time for Beal to join the party.
Hassan Whiteside, Heat: Miami’s shot-blocking wizard is no longer anonymous, but he’s behind both Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh on the Heat’s All-Star pecking order. It’s hard to see any team in the East landing three All-Stars this year given the conference’s parity. Whiteside’s reputation might be a tough sell to coaches too.
Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight, Suns: While both of Phoenix’s guards have put up really nice stat lines, numbers alone won’t be enough to crack the West’s backcourt group. Winning big is mandatory. Bledsoe, in particular, should be in the “snub” conversation, but both will likely need to wait until next year (or longer).
DeAndre Jordan, Clippers: L.A.’s third wheel had a better shot last year. Jordan’s offensive role hasn’t meaningfully increased, his team’s defense remains mediocre, and there’s no way an up-and-down squad like the Clippers lands three All-Stars given the West’s roster crunch.
Mike Conley, Grizzlies: A perennial inclusion on this list, Conley isn’t yet having the contract year he probably wanted. “Very good” won’t cut it when Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul are in the way.
Gordon Hayward, Jazz: One of SI.com’s preseason picks to make a strong run at an All-Star spot, Hayward has been slightly underwhelming for a Jazz team that hasn’t yet hit its stride. Utah’s tough early schedule made it difficult for Hayward to generate significant national momentum.
Andrew Wiggins, Timberwolves: It’s probably time to start mentioning Wiggins, the 2014 No. 1 overall pick, on the far outskirts of the “snub” talk. While the major advanced stats remain highly skeptical of Wiggins’s overall value, the often-tantalizing 20-year-old wing has cracked the 20 PPG threshold, and his Timberwolves team should continue to improve in the coming years. One big question: Will Karl-Anthony Towns, Wiggins’ 20-year-old teammate, beat him to the All-Star Game?