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)
Reserve Backcourt: Chris Paul (Clippers) and Stephen Curry (Warriors)
With the basketball world abuzz over Russell Westbrook and James Harden, Paul (17.5 PPG, 9.7 APG, 5.3 RPG) has done what he does best: dominate games on both ends and carry the Clippers through adversity without getting nearly enough attention for it. Unfortunately, the injury bug that first struck Blake Griffin caught Paul this week, as he underwent surgery on his thumb that will sideline him for at least six weeks. An unlikely starter selection given the popularity of Westbrook, Harden and Curry, Paul deserves an honorary selection by the coaches given his body of work before the injury. (If Paul is selected, NBA commissioner Adam Silver can nominate an injury replacement.)
Why give a spot to Paul? Because he kept L.A. on track for home-court advantage with a 10-7 record without Griffin. Because he is still the best defensive performer among the group of elite point guards. Because he ranks first in RPM, sixth in PER and seventh in Win Shares. And because he captained a top-five offense and played a major role on the league’s No. 6 defense. It would be a shame if another dose of bad injury luck shouldn’t cost Paul his 10th consecutive All-Star nod.
Like Paul, Curry (24.6 PPG, 6 APG, 4.2 RPG) should earn a spot without a second thought. Although his scoring and usage rate have returned to Earth to accommodate Kevin Durant’s arrival, the 2016 unanimous MVP still ranks 11th in RPM, 10th in Win Shares and 18th in PER, placing him well above the next tier of backcourt candidates (Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard, etc.). As with each of his two MVP seasons, Curry continues to have a transformative effect on Golden State’s West-leading offense, improving its efficiency by 11.5 points when he’s on the court.
There’s a reasonable debate to be had over whether the league-leading Warriors deserve to have four All-Stars. But their three most deserving candidates—Durant, Draymond Green and Curry—are all slam dunks.
Frontcourt: Anthony Davis (Pelicans), Rudy Gobert (Jazz) and Marc Gasol (Grizzlies)
Like Chris Paul and Kawhi Leonard, Davis (29 PPG, 12.1 RPG, 2.5 BPG) is motoring through another magnificent campaign while receiving a small fraction of the attention that he deserves. His basic stats mirror Shaquille O’Neal’s 2001 MVP campaign and he’s led a Pelicans team that would probably be the league’s worst team without him into the race for the No. 8 seed.
The 23-year-old Davis fares well across the major advanced metrics—topping out at No. 2 in PER—but parsing through the fine print isn’t really necessary this year given the layout of the West’s playoff picture. With just seven teams strongly in the postseason mix, and both Griffin and Paul unable to represent the Clippers, there’s no need to bother with the West’s annual “Does a player with great stats on a losing team deserve to make it?” conversation. There’s room for a couple of one-man bands, and Davis’s once-in-a-decade production puts him at the front of that line.
If any player in the West deserves to make his All-Star debut, it’s Gobert (12.4 PPG, 12.5 RPG, 2.6 BPG), Utah’s fantastic center. The 2013 first-round pick has already delivered great value on the nine-figure extension he received in October, leading the Jazz to the league’s top defense despite an endless list of injuries around him. While Gobert butters his bread as a rim-protector and glass-cleaner, leading the NBA in Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM) and blocks, he has also shown progress as a pick-and-roll target and finisher.
Unlike similar defensive-minded centers who have been All-Star snubs in the past—say, DeAndre Jordan—Gobert shouldn’t be bothered with the “He’s not really a star he’s just a star in his role” argument. Yes, he’s only a complementary option on offense, but his presence in the paint and ability to contribute offensively while dominating defensively has served as Utah’s stabilizing force. Indeed, the Jazz are on track to win the Northwest Division for the first time since 2008 despite missing Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors, George Hill and Alec Burks at various times this season. By contrast, Utah’s 2015-16 season went off the rails when Gobert missed time with a knee injury. He might not fit the stereotype of a traditional star, but Gobert has easily been his team’s most important piece this season and he should finish no worse than third in the 2017 Defensive Player of the Year race. The coaches need to send the Frenchman to the French Quarter.
The third frontcourt spot goes to Gasol (19.4 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 4.2 APG) in an unexpectedly easy decision. Last year, Kobe Bryant’s presence cluttered the West’s always crowded frontcourt field. This year, Bryant’s retirement, Tim Duncan’s retirement and Dirk Nowitzki’s injury issues have thinned the crop considerably. Throw in LaMarcus Aldridge’s regression and Favors’s struggles to stay on the court and the choices get a heck of a lot easier.
Like Gobert, Gasol carried the Grizzlies to firm ground in the playoff picture and an elite defense despite injuries to key teammates Mike Conley and Chandler Parsons. After a down year in 2015-16, Gasol’s bounceback under new coach David Fizdale has been fueled by a new embrace of the three-pointer (he’s already attempted more threes this season than in his eight previous seasons combined) and stellar late-game execution. Gasol might not be the NBA’s most prolific true center, but he’s certainly the most trustworthy.
Wild Cards: DeMarcus Cousins (Kings) and Klay Thompson (Warriors)
Virtually everything that was said about Davis above applies to Cousins (28.1 PPG, 10 RPG, 1.4 BPG). His per-game numbers haven’t been matched since prime O’Neal. He ranks eighth in PER, 10th in RPM and 18th in Win Shares. His production is the difference between his Kings team being in the playoff chase with him and being perhaps the West’s worst team without him. When Cousins steps on the court Sacramento’s offensive efficiency improves by 11.5 points, an extraordinary swing for any player but especially for a big man who is theoretically reliant upon subpar perimeter players to set him up.
The key difference between Davis and Cousins, or Gasol and Cousins, or Gobert and Cousins, is of course Cousins’s regular outbursts. In years past, his spats with teammates and confrontations with officials have been enough to put him on the brink of being snubbed. This season, thanks to a (relatively) respectable season from Sacramento and a thinner-than-usual crop of frontcourt players, Cousins’s third straight selection is all but assured. Making this decision even easier? The fact that the West’s seven winning teams all claimed at least one representative from SI.com’s first 10 selections, squelching any possibility of the “We have a better record than Sacramento and our best player got passed over for Cousins” argument.
Things get a little bit more interesting with the 12th and final roster spot. Does San Antonio deserve a second representative to reflect its incredible record? Should Gordon Hayward get in on the strength of his career year? Is Damian Lillard’s volume scoring enough to keep him out of the dreaded snub pile? Should Jordan get in as the Clippers’ de facto replacement for Paul? Is it too early to crown Minnesota’s Karl-Anthony Towns?
Let’s answer those questions, all valid ones, with another question: “What has Thompson done to deserve losing his All-Star spot after being selected in 2015 and 2016?” While rewarding incumbents out of misguided loyalty or tradition would be a mistake, Thompson (21.4 PPG, 3.7 RPG, 2 APG) has maintained his statistics at almost exactly the same level this year as during the past two years. Durant’s arrival hasn’t carved into shots a bit, and he’s been the same lethal catch-and-shoot floor-spacer as he was during Golden State’s two trips to the Finals.
The Warriors, meanwhile, haven’t disappointed as a team in any major way to justify snubbing Thompson. On the contrary, they have the West’s top record, point differential, offensive rating and defensive rating. They’re far more deserving of having four All-Star selections than, say, the 2015 Hawks.
Injury Replacement: Gordon Hayward (Jazz)
Paul’s injury does make adding Thompson with the 12th spot a much easier call because it opens up one more spot to address the biggest snub. Although Blazermaniacs may be upset that Lillard wasn’t selected for the third straight year and Clippers fans will feel a bit empty without a healthy representative in the game, Hayward (22 PPG, 5.8 RPG, 3.6 APG) has the strongest overall case for filling Paul’s spot.
The biggest knock again Hayward is that he missed a total of seven games early on due to injury. Even so, Lillard’s own injury issues and Jordan’s smaller role mean that the three players have all logged nearly the same amount of total minutes. From there, Hayward is the only one of the three who can claim he plays a leading offensive role on a winning team; Jordan gets in where he fits in for L.A. while Lillard’s Blazers have been one of the league’s disappointments.
The advanced numbers also smile on Hayward slightly more than his competition: he ranks 15th in Win Shares, 20th in PER and 25th in RPM, a combination that reflects his two-way impact and his strong shooting numbers. By contrast, Jordan’s limited offensive game and Lillard’s cringe-inducing defense drag down their RPM ratings and overall impact for their respective teams. Ditto for Towns, whose offensive game has blossomed in year two but whose defensive struggles have played a central role in Minnesota’s disappointing season.
While it is a bit strange to give the Jazz two representatives when the Spurs and Rockets each only have one, Hayward’s portfolio holds up better than Aldridge’s or Eric Gordon’s, and it seems fitting to recognize Utah’s breakthrough season with a pair of first-time All-Star selections.
Snubs: LaMarcus Aldridge (Spurs), Nikola Jokic (Nuggets), DeAndre Jordan (Clippers), Damian Lillard (Blazers), Karl-Anthony Towns (Timberwolves)