On this, surely everyone can agree: The last thing the world needs right now is an NBA All-Star voting controversy.
The league radically altered its process for selecting All-Star starters Monday, adding player and media votes to the existing fan voting process. In previous years, a fan vote via social media determined the five starters for each conference. This season, fans will only represent half of the vote, with a player vote and a panel of media members each accounting for 25 percent.
While the fan voting process has long been derided as a “popularity contest,” there was a bigger threat than diehards sending aging uber-famous legends like Kobe Bryant to the All-Star Game even if their play wasn’t worthy of the honor. That threat? A viral campaign for a wholly undeserving candidate—like then- Mavericks center Zaza Pachulia last year—snubbing an A-list star and undermining the entire process. God only knows what might happen if the Macedonian teenage computer geniuses set their minds to screwing with the All-Star voting process.
Would it have been funny if Pachulia was voted in as a starter over MVP runner-up Kawhi Leonard last season? Sure, for about 10 minutes, until Leonard was booted down to the All-Star bench forcing another deserving player—like DeMarcus Cousins or LaMarcus Aldridge—to stay at home and miss out on the festivities. This new system should provide a check on such viral campaigns, diluting their impact and, in turn, ensuring a more “conventional” All-Star cast. Although players and media members might not necessarily agree on all 10 starter selections, they should focus their energies on true debates, like which two of Stephen Curry, Russell Westbrook, James Harden and Chris Paul deserve to be the West’s starting guards.
With fears over undeserving selections (hopefully) put to bed, let’s turn to a more pressing subject: Which players should make their All-Star Game debuts in New Orleans?
In recent years, roughly five of the 24 All-Star spots (plus injury replacements) have gone to newcomers. Kawhi Leonard, Draymond Green, Andre Drummond and Isaiah Thomas were the four first-timers in Toronto last February.
The following is The Crossover's early list of the five most deserving first-time All-Stars, based on their performances to date this season. Selections were made with an eye towards individual stats (per game and advanced), impact, role, team success and health. (All numbers through Dec. 19.)
1. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Bucks
The Crossover's pick as the Most Improved Player through the first quarter of the season has vaulted into the ranks of the East’s most productive all-around players during his fourth season. At 22, Antetokounmpo (22.6 PPG, 9.1 RPG, 6 APG, 2.1 SPG, 2 BPG) ranks No. 14 in Real Plus-Minus and No. 6 in Player Efficiency Rating league-wide, while leading the Bucks in all five major statistical categories. The Greek Freak’s numbers are, well, freakish: he’s averaging career highs in every major category, he has a shot at becoming the first player since 2006 Gerald Wallace to average 2+ steals and 2+ blocks, and he’s upped his usage rate to superstar levels while carrying an above-average Bucks offense.
Even if Milwaukee slips below .500, Antetokounmpo’s breakout campaign is worthy of a trip to New Orleans. He will surely have trouble displacing established superstars like LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony and Paul George in the East’s starting frontcourt, but he’s right there with Jimmy Butler and Paul Millsap when it comes to the conference’s top reserve options.
2. Kemba Walker, Hornets
Don’t look now, but there’s an epic five-man Battle Royale shaping up among the East’s point guards when it comes to All-Star spots. Of the five candidates, Walker (22.4 PPG, 5.3 APG, 3.8 RPG) was the only one to be snubbed last season, as he was passed over for Kyle Lowry, Kyrie Irving, John Wall and Isaiah Thomas. If voting were held today, it would be impossible to keep Walker out again: he ranks second in RPM and third in PER among this quintet, and he’s easily the most influential player on a Charlotte team ranked fourth in the conference standings. The 2011 lottery pick has steadily developed throughout his six years in Charlotte, and this season he is shooting and scoring at career-best levels despite a career-high usage.
Walker might not be as physical as Lowry, as popular as Irving, as electric as Wall, or as crafty as Thomas, but his overall résumé currently puts him no worse than third in this group given the Wizards’ incredibly slow start and Thomas’s weak individual defensive numbers.
3. Rudy Gobert, Jazz
Low-usage, defensive specialists often have trouble finding an All-Star spot, especially after the NBA’s ballot folded centers into a broader “frontcourt” designation, forcing them to compete with scoring-minded forwards for selection. The squeeze is especially tight in the West, which has been overflowing with high-profile frontcourt stars for as long as anyone can remember.
Gobert, Utah’s dependable defensive anchor, faces challenges on all sides, starting with teammate Gordon Hayward, who leads the Jazz in scoring. The French center must also contend with established All-Stars on winning teams, like Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge and Marc Gasol, while also fending off apples-to-orange comparisons with high-volume stat producers like New Orleans’ Anthony Davis and Sacramento’s DeMarcus Cousins. And then there’s Clippers center DeAndre Jordan who, like Gobert, captains an elite defense, finishes plays around the basket efficiently and has been waiting for his All-Star shot for a few years now.
Despite those serious challenges, and the fact that Utah hasn’t landed an All-Star selection since 2011, Gobert deserves a look for one of the final spots on the West’s roster this season, given Utah’s solid positioning in the standings and his major role in carrying the Jazz (18-10) through multiple early-season injuries. The 24-year-old Gobert (12.3 PPG, 11.6 RPG, 2.7 BPG) is the backbone of Utah’s second-ranked defense and ranks second to Gasol among all centers in RPM. He also improves Utah’s defensive rating by more than four points when he’s on the court. He’s averaging career highs in scoring, rebounding, and blocks while leading the league in shooting percentage.
Gobert has been healthier than Hayward, made a greater positive impact on both sides than Jordan, and guided the Jazz to a far better record than the Kings and Pelicans. That array of arguments might not be enough to get Gobert over the hump, but he should be viewed as the Jazz’s current leader in the clubhouse given that he’s logged 166 more minutes than Hayward this season.
4. DeAndre Jordan, Clippers
As the Clippers’ third wheel, Jordan always needs help generating All-Star momentum, even now that he’s an All-NBA and All-Defensive First Team member. Unfortunately for L.A., Jordan’s All-Star chances got a big boost this week, when the Clippers announced that Blake Griffin will undergo knee surgery that will sideline him for 3-to-6 weeks. In previous years, Jordan’s touches rebounding numbers and general visibility have enjoyed a healthy uptick when he’s not playing in Griffin’s shadow. If the Clippers are able to keep up the positive momentum from their fast start without Griffin, the high-flying and shot-blocking Jordan will be well-positioned to receive the credit.
Nevertheless, Jordan (11.7 PPG, 13 RPG, 1.8 BPG) has his work cut out for him given his narrow offensive skillset. Gasol is a better all-around talent who is playing exceptionally well and has carried the Grizzlies through plenty of early adversity. Cousins and Davis are putting up monster numbers again this season after both beating out Jordan for reserve spots last year. And Gobert has been more indispensable for the Jazz, who aren’t that far behind the Clippers in the standings. If push comes to shove, does L.A. deserve two All-Stars in Paul and Jordan if that requires snubbing Utah entirely? Probably not.
5. Kristaps Porzingis, Knicks
While Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns likely would have held the No. 1 spot on this list if it were written back in mid-October, 2015’s top overall pick is narrowly edged out here by Porzingis, the player taken three spots behind him. Both deserve consideration, but Towns plays in the tougher conference, the Timberwolves have been one of the league’s bigger disappointments, and he grades out poorly on the defensive impact numbers. Porzingis, on the other hand, is competing for selection against the East’s weaker frontcourt crop, he’s playing for a Knicks team that has managed to significantly exceed its low preseason expectations (to date), and he’s proven to be a fairly quick study on the defensive end.
At 21, Porzingis (20.1 PPG, 7.6 RPG, 1.8 BPG) is already outperforming Anthony in RPM and PER, while also making New York’s defensive rating four points better when he’s on the court. The 7’3” Latvian has settled nicely into an expanded offensive role, upping his three-point proficiency and showing off a full bag of one-on-one tricks.
Although Porzingis might need to wait one more year for his first All-Star selection, given how tightly packed the middle of the East is and Anthony’s likely selection as a starter, he’s got strong cases against many of the East’s other frontcourt options. He’s more complete than Andre Drummond, he’s been healthier than Al Horford and Joel Embiid, and his Knicks have outperformed Hassan Whiteside’s Heat, Brook Lopez’s Nets and Dwight Howard’s Hawks to date. Given how quickly Porzingis’s game and popularity have grown in Year Two, it’s getting harder and harder to envision future All-Star Games without him. His selection is now a question of when, not if.