Judgment days are fast approaching for this year’s All-Star process: fan voting concludes on Monday, the starters will be announced on Jan. 22, and the reserves – always the subject of the most controversy – will be named before the end of the month.
Below, SI.com reveals its picks for the East and West starting lineups, with our full 12-man roster selections to come next week.
Making these picks involved balancing a number of factors, including: each player’s statistical output and advanced stats performance, his impact on his team, and his team’s record. A player’s health, games played and minutes logged were also taken into consideration due to the large number of star players that have missed time this season. Two “backcourt” and three “frontcourt” players were selected for each conference; players were only eligible for their designation on the official NBA.com ballot. Picks were made based on 2014-15 performance only.
For comparison’s sake, the latest results of the fan voting produced the following starting lineups:
Without further ado, here are SI.com’s picks. All stats through Jan 14.
Backcourt: Kyle Lowry (Raptors) and Jimmy Butler (Bulls)
This year’s toughest decisions, by far, come in the East’s backcourt, where the three leading candidates are separated by almost nothing.
Any combination of Kyle Lowry, John Wall and Jimmy Butler produces a deserving backcourt. All three players are the leading scorers for teams that are on track to hold home-court advantage in the first round of the playoffs, and the Raptors, Wizards and Bulls possess virtually identical records while ranking among the league's top 10 teams in net rating. All three players are true all-around talents with strong advanced numbers and a demonstrated positive impact. All three players have thrived despite injuries striking key teammates (DeMar DeRozan, Bradley Beal and Derrick Rose). There isn’t an obvious tie-breaker, as all three are minutes hogs who have enjoyed great health this season.
This race is so close that it’s worth a full side-by-side-by-side comparison.
- Lowry: 25-12 record, 34.6 MPG, 20.4 PPG, 7.7 APG, 4.8 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 43.9 FG%, 35.4 3P%, 23.4 PER, 5.6 Win Shares
- Wall: 26-12 record, 35.5 MPG, 17.3 PPG, 10.2 APG, 4.3 RPG, 2.1 SPG, 46.3 FG%, 30.8 3P%, 21.1 PER, 4.2 Win Shares
- Butler: 26-13 record, 39.9 MPG, 20.9 PPG, 3.4 APG, 6.2 RPG, 1.6 SPG, 46.4 FG%, 34.2 3P%, 21.3 PER, 6.4 Win Shares
Nevertheless, there are only two spots for the three candidates, so something has to give.
The preference here is to reward Lowry (one of the top 2014 All-Star snubs) over Wall (a first-timer last year) because he’s done slightly more with less help – and he’s done it slightly more efficiently. Although Toronto’s defensive numbers have fallen off a cliff during DeRozan’s absence, Lowry continues to be the engine behind the NBA’s second-best offense – an attack that is outperforming the Warriors, Clippers, Blazers, Hawks, Cavaliers and so forth even though Lowry’s top support currently comes from sixth man Lou Williams (an Atlanta offseason cast-off) and Jonas Valanciunas (a promising big man who is clearly still in development). Washington’s offense has shown some improvement, creeping up to No. 13 this season after finishing No. 18 in 2013-14. Switch the two players, and it seems likely that Lowry could reproduce (or improve upon) Wall’s team-wide offensive results in Washington, whereas Wall would be hard-pressed to match Lowry’s team performance.
Wall has the edge when it comes to his league-leading assist total, but Lowry has a strong counter thanks to a significantly better assist-to-turnover ratio, far superior range on his jumper and (perhaps most impressively) a better free throw rate than the hard-charging Wall. The two point guards are both relentless; so far this season, Lowry’s slightly more refined brand of relentlessness seems to be more devastating.
The Butler vs. Wall comparison isn’t any easier; in fact, it’s made even more difficult because it’s an apples vs. oranges positional comparison. Perhaps the best case for Butler is that only the elite of the elite – LeBron James and Anthony Davis – can claim to have done as much as Chicago’s breakout shooting guard this season. Butler leads the league in minutes, he ranks second among East guards in scoring, he ranks second in the league in free throw attempts, he plays with a unique ferocity on both ends, he’s taken on an enhanced offensive role late in games, and he’s one of the top rebounding guards in the NBA. Butler also happens to be an advanced stats stud: Player Efficiency Rating, Win Shares, and Value Over Replacement Player all view him as one of the best players in the league this season, thanks to his foul-drawing ability, glass work, respectable turnover rate, defensive contributions and passable three-point shooting.
To boil this down, Wall is left off here only because Lowry is a high-efficiency wrecking ball and because Butler is a shoo-in All-Defensive selection who also happens to get to the free throw line more often and shoot more efficiently from deep. Clearly there’s no shame in that.
Jeff Teague has had a phenomenal season in Atlanta and is a no-brainer All-Star selection; his case for a starting spot suffers because he’s played slightly fewer minutes than his top competition. The rest of his résumé – an excellent +10.7 net rating, strong showings in the major advanced stats, a superb .597 true shooting percentage, and Atlanta’s East-leading record – is unimpeachable. Dwyane Wade also merits honorable mention, but his strong individual play in the first year of the post-LeBron James era can’t overcome Miami's unimpressive record and the fact that he’s missed eight games so far this season. The margin for error (or injury) is just too thin in this group.
Frontcourt: LeBron James (Cavaliers), Paul Millsap (Hawks) and Pau Gasol (Bulls)
The East’s frontcourt field is significantly less appealing due to a shallow talent pool that was drained even further by injuries and disappointing play. Those two factors are enough to strike familiar candidates like Paul George, Kevin Love, Al Jefferson, Joakim Noah, Brook Lopez and Roy Hibbert.
Who is left after such a long list of cast-offs? Well, LeBron James, duh. James’ numbers (25.5 points, 7.5 assists, 5.3 rebounds, 49.2 FG%) are down slightly, and there’s no question that his persistent brilliance has been blunted by a rocky transition back to Cleveland. Even acknowledging that unexpected development, and noting that he just returned from the longest injury absence of his career due to injuries, James need not worry about giving up his long-held starter’s spot in the ASG. The four-time MVP leads the East in scoring and PER; Wall and Lowry are the only players in the conference to average more assists per game. James remains the East’s most valuable and irreplaceable player, as evidenced by Cleveland’s abominable play (a 1-7 record and a -12.7 net rating) during his recent absence.
The second frontcourt selection should be just as undisputed as James, but unfortunately Paul Millsap, a first-time All-Star last year, remains a well-kept secret. In the latest round of fan voting results, Millsap ranked No. 13 among East frontcourt players, even though he is the second-leading scorer and the leading rebounder on the conference’s top-ranked team. Pick your favorite descriptor – reliable, hard-working, no-nonsense, etc. – the 6-foot-8 power forward just gets it done without any fanfare or chalk-tossing. Like the Hawks in general, Millsap possesses the versatility to frustrate you and the raw skill to defeat you. He’s a top-20 performer in everything from free throw attempts, to steals, to defensive rebounds, and he grades out nicely by all the key catch-all metrics. His strong +9.5 net rating is similar to Teague’s and reflects the sheer power of Atlanta’s attack.
Pau Gasol completes the East’s starting frontcourt thanks to one of the most impressive late-career renaissances in recent memory. It’s impossible not to rub your eyes when reading that the 34-year-old Spaniard, left for dead from the Lakers these last two seasons, somehow puts up 46 points and 18 rebounds in 38 minutes against a Bucks team that looks destined for the playoffs. Gasol’s case goes much further than just one spectacular performance: he’s tops among all East power forwards and centers with a 22.6 PER, no other player in the conference can match his 19 points/11.4 rebounds nightly averages, and he stepped up as a go-to option for the Bulls when both Noah and Taj Gibson missed time. The prosperous West-to-East moves made by Jefferson and Millsap in previous years probably should have been fair warning that Gasol might return to life as a impact player, but no one could reasonably have expected that he put up his best scoring average since 2006-07 and career-high rebounding numbers. Can this continue with coach Tom Thibodeau’s lead foot pressed to the pedal? Who knows, but the fan vote has this one right: Gasol’s tireless contributions are worth sending him to his first All-Star Game since 2011.
The toughest omissions here are Carmelo Anthony, Chris Bosh and Al Horford. None of the three inspires true regret. Anthony has missed time due to injury and – more damagingly – he’s played in a grand total of one win (!) since Thanksgiving. Playing for a team that’s out of the playoff hunt isn’t an automatic disqualification in this conversation, but Anthony’s Knicks are so terrible they just might find a way to lose their invitation to the lottery. This level of irrelevance shouldn’t be rewarded when other qualified, albeit less famous, starting candidates exist.
Although Miami’s playoff-bound performance gives greater credence to Bosh than Anthony, the Heat’s unimpressive campaign and sub-.500 record doesn’t exactly trump the stronger starts enjoyed by the Hawks and Bulls. Bosh’s numbers are up without James (21.2 points, 7.8 rebounds, 2.2 assists FG percent), but not so far that they eclipse the more-balanced cases for Millsap and Gasol. It's not easy divvying up the credit among Atlanta's starters. That said, Millsap feels like the right default choice over Horford, who boasts more modest early-season numbers (14.8 points, 6.6 rebounds, 3 assists) after missing much of last season due to a pectoral injury.
Backcourt: Stephen Curry (Warriors) and James Harden (Rockets)
The list of West guards worth mentioning in the All-Star conversation is longer than the Nile: Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Damian Lillard, Russell Westbrook, Mike Conley, Goran Dragic and Eric Bledsoe, Tony Parker, Ty Lawson, Monta Ellis and Klay Thompson. Note that even that initial, sweeping first pass didn’t include Kobe Bryant, who of course will be voted in yet again as a starter by the fans despite unsightly shooting numbers, advancing age and another forgettable trudge towards the lottery.
Importantly, the process of sifting through that group to make the tough decisions can wait until it comes time to pick the reserves. The top candidates to start in NYC are the first two names that come to mind: Curry (a 2014 starter) and Harden.
Curry’s nomination should prompt zero pushback. The early favorite for the 2015 MVP award is the best player (by far) on the league’s best team (by far). He possesses the top PER at his position among players with at least 25 games played, he ranks in the top 10 in scoring, assists, three-pointers and steals. He’s not that far off of a 50/40/90 shooting season even though he is one of the league's highest-volume shooters with 16.5 attempts per game. He’s the head of the snake for an overwhelming Warriors starting lineup that has compiled a ridiculous +29 net rating this season. And, while it isn’t necessarily relevant to this discussion, he has also stepped up as this season’s most entertaining talent, providing more highlight plays per minute than anyone in the league, James included. Not even Paul, who has reigned supreme as the NBA’s top point guard for at least five years, can feel snubbed here, not when the Clippers trail the Warriors by 6.5 games in the standings.
While Harden is pushed a bit harder by the likes of Paul, Lillard and Westbrook, he’s still a clear choice to start alongside Curry. The NBA’s leading scorer and free-throw generator is tops at his position in PER and tops in the league in both Win Shares and Value Over Replacement Player. An underrated passer and a high-volume threat from distance, Harden destroys opposing defenses in every possible manner and from every desirable location. He’s also recommitted to defense this season, helping lift the Rockets to the West’s second-best defense and third-best record, even though franchise center Dwight Howard missed nearly a month due to injury.
It should be clear by now that the West’s reserve corps will be loaded. Don’t let the Clippers blasé start blind you: Paul is still an elite tactician capable of winning his matchup against anyone in the league. Yes, it’s a shame that Westbrook’s eye-popping individual numbers (he’s on track to join James and Wade as the only players of the post-Michael Jordan era to average 26 points, seven assists and five rebounds) have been overshadowed by a hand injury and Oklahoma City’s sub-.500 record. However, missing 14 games is more than enough to end your starting candidacy in this group.
All things considered, Lillard has the strongest case to be the first runner-up: his Blazers are three games up on the Rockets, he’s taken his numbers (22.2 points, 6.3 assists, 4.8 rebounds) to a new level, and he’s made major strides defensively. Much like Wall in the East, Lillard falls just a bit short when stacked up against the absolute best of the best. But only just.
Frontcourt: Anthony Davis (Pelicans), LaMarcus Aldridge (Blazers) and Marc Gasol (Grizzlies)
Some new blood deserves recognition this year in a West frontcourt category that is an annual bloodbath. Why? Because 2014 MVP Kevin Durant has missed a majority of the season due to a foot injury, perennial fan favorite Blake Griffin has slipped a bit this season relative to his career numbers in 2013-14, Howard missed an extended stretch due to injury, and and Love departed for the East.
There’s no getting around the fact that the crop of small forward candidates behind Durant is quite weak: Kawhi Leonard is out of the running due to a hand injury, Gordon Hayward is a nice player but he’s a stretch given Utah’s weak record, Nicolas Batum has fallen off a cliff into a slump, Chandler Parsons is best viewed as a complementary option, and everybody has been on to the actual value of Rudy Gay for years at this point.
With the door therefore wide open for power forwards and centers, allow Anthony Davis to charge through first. The season is nearly halfway over and Davis continues to boast a historic PER of 31.1; if maintained, he would join James, Jordan and Wilt Chamberlain as the only 31+ PER players in history. A merciless weapon in every facet of the game, the 21-year-old Davis is a top-five scorer, a top-10 rebounder, and the league-leader in both field goals and blocks. There’s really nothing he can’t do, except get the attention of his shoot-first guards during crunch time. True prodigies like Davis are the subject of vociferous praise, but he probably hasn’t gotten enough attention for how well he takes care of the ball. Rare is the moment that Davis finds himself in trouble, and he makes no mistake and he takes no detours when he finds himself with possession in the vicinity of the hoop. It’s almost worth trying to build a time machine just so that we can take a sneak peek at what his age-25 stats will look like.
Joining Davis is his fellow 20/10 producer, LaMarcus Aldridge. The fan vote is unlikely to reward Portland’s red-hot start with a player in the starting lineup; Aldridge’s selection here will have to serve as a consolation prize. In many ways, Aldridge’s campaign has so far been a carbon copy of a 2013-14 season that ended with All-NBA Third Team honors and the first playoff series victory of his career. His smooth-shooting, defense-reading, attention-drawing game has again made for the perfect one-two punch with Lillard. That star foundation has helped the Blazers weather multiple injuries, make major progress as a team defense, and dominate the competition at home (Portland is 18-3 record at the Moda Center). For years, Aldridge has been overlooked in favor of both Griffin and Love; there’s little doubt that he’s the most productive member of that trio this season, even if he doesn’t jump as high as Griffin or step out to shoot as far as Love. The three-time All-Star ranks seventh in scoring, eighth in rebounds, his 21.7 PER is among the best at his position, and he boasts a robust +9.1 net rating despite his heavy workload.
The third and final frontcourt spot goes to Marc Gasol, who stands as the biggest surprise of the fan voting process. Despite being ignored for years in small-market Memphis, Gasol is on track this season to earn a starting spot over the likes of Durant, Aldridge, Howard and Tim Duncan. SI.com’s theory is that he was given a boost by the layout of the official online ballot, which lists players by Player Impact Estimate (PIE). Gasol happens to perform quite well by that advanced stat and he enjoyed excellent visibility on the website, particularly earlier in the voting process when both Howard and DeMarcus Cousins were missing time due to injuries and illness respectively.
PIE aside, Gasol is a fully deserving candidate. There are plenty of reasons he will enter July’s free agency period as the No. 1 center on the market: he can score, he can pass, he can hit the boards, he can protect the paint, and he has proven that he can be the best player on a team that advances deep in the playoffs. This year, Gasol is powering Memphis’s bid for home-court advantage by averaging a career-high 19.5 points (on 50 percent shooting), 8.1 rebounds, 3.6 assists and 1.7 blocks.
This pick swings on the question of consistency and scope of impact. Crucially, Gasol has played 300+ minutes more than both Cousins and Howard, his top positional competition. Even other candidates that have enjoyed good health, like Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki, have played roughly 200 fewer minutes due to lighter per-game loads. He fares well against any of those names in head-to-head comparisons. Gasol’s Grizzlies have posted a significantly better record than the Spurs and Kings. Gasol is outperforming Nowitzki in the major offensive statistical categories and it goes without saying that he’s a far better defender. Howard got off to a false start due to a knee injury and has played a clear second fiddle on his own team to Harden, whereas Gasol has yet to miss a single game and stands as the Grizzlies' leading scorer.
Cousins and Duncan are the most worthy “snubs” in this conversation, and the coaches would do well to select both as reserves. The former has the type of huge individual numbers (24.2 points, 12.4 rebounds, 3.2 blocks, 1.7 blocks) that make him stand out despite another regrettable Kings season, while the latter has simply added yet another chapter to his first-ballot Hall of Fame legacy by serving as San Antonio’s most important player this year (even though he will turn 39 in April).