Editor's note: To read Ben's starters picks for the 2017 All-Star Game, click here.
With the 2017 NBA All-Star Game just one month away, and the official starters set to be announced on Thursday, here is part two of The Crossover's deep dive into the most deserving candidates for the East and West rosters.
Making these picks involved balancing a number of factors, including: each player’s per-game output and advanced statistical performance, impact on his team, and his team’s record. A player’s health, games played, and minutes logged were also taken into consideration. Picks were made based on 2016–17 performance only.
The Crossover's picks for the starters, which can be read here, were submitted Friday as part of the league’s official voting process and included as part of the new media panel vote, which made up 25% of the overall vote this season (25% went to the players and the remaining 50% belonged to the fan vote on social media).
Note: these selections were made using the NBA’s established roster format, which includes two starting backcourt players, three starting frontcourt players, two reserve backcourt players, three reserve frontcourt players and two wildcard (any position) players for each roster.
Without further ado, here are SI.com’s picks for the reserves who have earned trips to New Orleans next month.
(All stats and rankings are through Jan. 18.)
The Crossover's Starters: Kyle Lowry (Raptors), John Wall (Wizards), LeBron James (Cavaliers), Giannis Antetokounmpo (Bucks), Jimmy Butler (Bulls)
Reserve Backcourt: Isaiah Thomas (Celtics) and Kyrie Irving (Cavaliers)
Thomas (28.4 PPG, 6.1 APG, 2.7 RPG) was the toughest player to leave out of the East’s starting lineup and, in turn, the easiest reserve selection. This season, the 5’9” point guard has made significant progress over his 2016 All-Star season, emerging as James Harden Light for a successful Boston team that heavily relies on his scoring ability. Offensively, Thomas gets buckets in all the most important ways—threes, layups and free throws—and his slippery and efficient game raises Boston’s offensive rating by 10.9 points when he’s on the court. Without Thomas to initiate things and take over late, the Celtics would not be headed comfortably for home-court advantage.
However, Thomas’s defense, long a liability, has been somewhat lost in the growing hype around his career year and impressive fourth-quarter heroics. While he has the strongest case offensively among the reserve candidates, he ranks dead last in the league in Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM), and the Celtics’ defensive rating is 11.4 points worse when he’s on the court. Just as match-up problems have held Boston back in games against the league’s best teams, Thomas’s weak defensive numbers drop him out of the elite level in some of the major advanced stats. He is far from Boston’s only problem defensively, and with the right mix of supporting talent around him it’s possible to envision the Celtics working around his lack of size and developing into a contender with him as the face of the franchise. For now, his offense/defense impact disparity requires dropping him to the All-Star second unit.
The East’s second backcourt spot comes down to two scoring-minded point guards, Irving and Kemba Walker, and Toronto’s DeMar DeRozan. Ultimately, it’s a debate that doesn’t matter too much, as there’s room to fit all three players on the roster with the help of the wild card spots (assuming fan vote favorite Dwyane Wade doesn’t clog up a spot). The choice here is Irving (23.6 PPG, 5.6 APG, 3.5 RPG), whose per-game statistics are virtually identical to Walker’s, even though he plays second fiddle to LeBron James in Cleveland. If given his own show, like Walker, there’s little doubt Irving’s individual numbers would balloon even more, especially because he wouldn’t be able to cruise along in fourth or fifth gear like the Cavaliers are currently.
Selecting between Irving and DeRozan is a matter of taste: both are shot-happy scorers who play critical roles on ultra-efficient offenses but who have defensive impact numbers that leave much to be desired. The pick here was Irving: the Cavaliers have a better record than the Raptors, they’ve swept the head-to-head matchups, they have a better overall defense, and a better defensive rating with Irving on the court than the Raptors’ with DeRozan on the court. Those who prefer DeRozan due to his superior Player Efficiency Rating (PER), heavier minutes load and better health (Irving missed five games) aren’t crazy.
Reserve Frontcourt: Paul Millsap (Hawks), Kevin Love (Cavaliers) and Paul George (Pacers)
The fall-off from the East’s strong starting frontcourt to the reserve candidates is substantial this season, in part because the conference’s most promising under-25 bigs—Joel Embiid and Kristaps Porzingis —still appear one year away from being locks. For Embiid, a minutes limit and rest schedule that has limited him to just over 700 minutes on the season should be disqualifying, even though he’s been sensational when he has played. For Porzingis, a recent Achilles injury and New York’s freefall has combined to stall his early-season momentum.
Millsap (17.8 PPG, 8.1 RPG, 3.9 APG), a popular name in trade rumors, deserves to be Atlanta’s representative in New Orleans. Although his outside shooting has waned this year and his per-game stats don’t pop all that much, the three-time All-Star continues to be a darling of advanced stats. Millsap ranks second to Draymond Green among power forwards and centers when it comes to RPM, and he improves Atlanta’s net rating by 11.6 points when he’s on the court. His mastery of all phases—scoring, moving the ball, hitting the glass, defending multiple positions—has been crucial in keeping the Hawks competitive despite a series of core-busting trades and defections.
While Love (20.7 PPG, 10.8 RPG) hasn’t earned an All-Star nod since 2013-14, his final year in Minnesota, there’s no doubt that Cleveland’s third wheel should be headed to New Orleans. Love is the East’s only 20/10 performer, he ranks in the conference’s top 10 in PER, RPM and Win Shares, and he’s been a crucial and dependable weapon as Cleveland has increased its emphasis on the three-point shot. There should be no hesitation in awarding the Cavaliers three All-Stars, by the way, given their utter dominance over the conference’s second-tier teams.
The final frontcourt spot goes to George (22 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 3.3 APG), albeit reluctantly and by an uninspiring process of elimination. Indiana’s franchise player missed seven games earlier this season, he lags in all of the major advanced stats (60th in RPM, 57th in PER, 80th in Win Shares), and he hasn’t been able to pull his team out of its maddening inconsistency. Nevertheless, he’s scored more (and shot more efficiently) than Carmelo Anthony and Porzingis and he has the Pacers above .500 despite a new coach and multiple off-season moves. Selecting George over the likes of Jabari Parker, Andre Drummond and Dwight Howard also ensures that all eight teams currently in the East’s playoff picture are represented on the roster. Although there’s a nagging sense that George hasn’t lived up to expectations this season, Indiana’s net rating improves by 10.8 points when he’s on the court, a much, much bigger swing than any of the other major candidates mentioned above.
Wild Cards: DeMar DeRozan (Raptors) and Kemba Walker (Hornets)
Both of the East’s wild card spots should belong to guards, given the deeper pool of backcourt talent relative to the frontcourt. Generally speaking, DeRozan (28.2 PPG, 5.5 RPG, 3.8 APG) looks far better in the box score than he does by the impact numbers, but his career year is still deserving of his third All-Star nod. While the Raptors guard is hardly the first volume scorer to require huge doses of shots to get his numbers, his ability to draw fouls and extra defensive attention help make up for his lack of range. Considering their positional holes and frontcourt fit issues, it’s remarkable that the Raptors have league’s best offense, and both Kyle Lowry and DeRozan should be rewarded for that accomplishment and their steady hold on the No. 2 seed. Bradley Beal, the next most deserving candidate at this position, has less impressive individual numbers across the board than DeRozan while playing for a Washington team with a worse record and a less efficient offense than Toronto.
The final spot belongs to Walker (23 PPG, 5.4 APG, 4.2 RPG), one of 2016’s biggest All-Star snubs. The sixth-year guard is averaging career highs in scoring and PER for a Charlotte team that has remained in the playoff mix despite some recent struggles. Walker improves the Hornets’ offensive efficiency by 8.9 points when he takes the court, and he’s managed to improve his shooting percentages while posting a career-high usage rate. As with many of the guards discussed here, Walker’s offensive impact exceeds his defensive impact by a considerable margin, but that hasn’t held the Hornets back from a top 10 defensive ranking. With any luck, the fan vote, player vote or coaches’ vote won’t promote a less deserving, higher-profile veteran like Dwyane Wade or Anthony over Walker.
Snubs (alphabetical order): Carmelo Anthony (Knicks), Bradley Beal (Wizards), Joel Embiid (Sixers), Kristaps Porzingis (Knicks), Dwyane Wade (Bulls)
The Crossover's Starters: James Harden (Rockets), Russell Westbrook (Thunder), Kevin Durant (Warriors), Kawhi Leonard (Spurs), Draymond Green (Warriors)